Setting sail from the Caribbean to Ireland: Our journey home

Diary from the sea: ‘The ocean has the power to challenge everything you think you know’

Like many a story of adventure, this one began in the pub. A few years ago I fell in with a chap from Co Cork and one particularly dreary evening (in the pub) we found ourselves in the grip of negotiation. I had been explaining my intention to pursue a temporary job opportunity overseas, and it was putting a real dower on the evening. So in an attempt to rescue our recently developed companionship, I suggested he could “choose the next adventure”.

He took me at my word, and decided he’d like to give sailing a go.

I am not a natural water-based creature. I was brought up to be very firmly land-oriented, in Co Monaghan, where water activities occur mostly in puddles. But despite my lack of experience on the water, I do have a marvellous habit of getting carried away, which is how I found myself, three years later, clinging to the front of a sailboat off the coast of Gran Canaria, facing out into the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

By that time, I had with great effort, learned how to sail. That Cork chap had found a 56-foot wooden-hulled boat, which, given our very meagre budget, was an impressive feat in itself. The boat needed quite a lot of work, but thankfully it was mostly cosmetic and she cleaned up beautifully. Though basic, she is big and sturdy; perfectly suited to ocean sailing. Rogue Trader is the name that she came with, and last summer she became our home.

After three years of cleaning, painting, refitting and fixing, we had managed to leave Ireland, get to Spain and find a small crew as crazy as ourselves to help us embark on an Atlantic crossing towards the Caribbean. I was bloody terrified.

Departure

We have been joined by many people on various legs of our trip so far. The boat is too awkward to sail by just the two of us on longer passages, so we have been glad of all the help we can find, often just picking up people we meet along the way. This has made for fascinating company – as spontaneous travellers so often are.

Four people joined us for our first Atlantic crossing; two English men, a young German lad and an Italian lady.

We left Gran Canaria on November 21st last, with 1,305 other sailors on 75 vessels as part of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, and spent 26 days at sea. Light winds made for a slow start, but we made it in the end, reaching the island of St Lucia as the sun dawned on December 16th.

The journey was long, sometimes tedious, and occasionally tense. Six people living in a tiny space for a month is a feat of co-operation. But overall, the passage was enjoyable, and the relief and excitement we felt when we reached land again was immense.

Facing in to any long journey, oceanic or otherwise, you need to set yourself up for longevity; stamina is essential. You will only go as far as your attitude will permit.

My fears before setting off were painfully dramatic, focusing on what awful disasters we might encounter, what bad weather and injury might befall us. Having shared stories with other sailors, it is clear that one of the more potent sea-monsters to be watchful for is to be found in the head. The slow, insidious passage of time at sea leads the mind to wander and doubt to fester. Being at sea can be as much a trial of psychological reflexivity as it is of seamanship.

Once out of sight of land, you are on your own. If something breaks, there are no professionals to call on, and you obviously can’t pop out to buy a new whatever-it-is; all you have is what you have with you and, crucially, what wits you have about you. If you convince yourself you are incapable of solving a problem, then that is certainly what you shall be. Being at sea has the potential to challenge everything you think you know about yourself, which is terribly strange and awfully terrifying.

Self-reliance

On the plus side, terror can develop quite conveniently into self-reliance. In one such event at sea, I learned how to bleed and revive an air-locked diesel engine, simply because I had to, being the only person on board resistant enough to sea-sickness to climb into the engine bay. I had no choice but to ignore the fact that I knew nothing about the task. It did not matter in that moment that I was not a mechanic. We had an engine that needed fixing.

The vastness of the ocean is often a scary thing, but waking up in the morning and seeing nothing else anywhere but sea and sky - the feeling is incomparable. The colours go beyond all imaginable hues of blue, purples, orange, red, grey, green. At night the phosphorescence (something I didn’t even know was a real thing) trails after the boat like we’re flying along on magic. A pod of dolphins dropped by once at night, and the phosphorescence lit up their entire bodies as they torpedoed playfully back and forth underneath the boat.

I haven’t even begun to mention the adventures we have had since reaching the Caribbean, but I’ll save that for another day.

We are turning Rogue Trader towards home, and have just set out to sea again. This time we have a smaller crew on board, including a German adventurer we found online, and an Irishman who was hanging out nearby in Dominica, looking for something to do. We will be posting daily updates about life on board, which you can follow on our Facebook page The Adventures of Rogue Trader.

Our chosen route will take us north from Antigua before heading East to the Azores, giving us the fall-back option of Bermuda if we need it. We reckon it should take about two and a half weeks. This leg has the potential to be trickier than our previous passages, as the weather systems in these seas are less predictable than the tradewinds that we caught going east to west.

Once again, I’m terrified. But at least I know this time that even if all else fails, I have the ability to surprise myself.

Claire McCluskey will be writing a weekly diary from the sea for The Irish Times for the duration of their journey. Follow their progress at facebook.com/sailingroguetrader

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