The Crossing

We were anchored in the Bay of Chaguaramas, just on the other side of St-Peters Bay, in Trinidad. Around us, the surface of the water was oily and with a metallic shimmer. The wind wandered around slowly and in all directions, and every time it came our way, it brought with it a diesel smell whose origin I couldn’t pinpoint. Maybe it was the exposed shipyard on the shore, where they were grinding metal all day, letting the iron dust fly and land on decks all around, turning into rust in just a few hours. Maybe it was from one of those beat-up boats that decided to empty its bilge in the water to avoid paying the legal fee and doing it the professional way. Who knows? Looking around the bay, I didn’t have enough fingers to count the possibilities where the leak could come from. Garbage kept floating by, pushed by the strong current, heading somewhere around the bay and out of sight. Trinidad was really not what I expected! During the taxi ride the day before, from the airport of Port of Spain, the island had looked like many other Caribbean places that struggle with too much growth and not enough structure. Everybody was driving a car, alone, and there were shops everywhere where one could buy any piece of plastic imaginable. Sadly, the whole place was looking rickety and dirty. Staring through the back seat window, I had wondered if this was really the promised land of economic growth?

I had flown there to join John, a friend of my girlfriend Jas, who owns a sailboat and with whom we were sailing across the Atlantic, to the Azores. Although we were to pick her up in St-Maarten, along with another guest, I had offered the captain to fly in a little earlier and help him sail from Trinidad. As I sat in the wheel-house and looked around at this dump, I was not sure anymore it had been such a good idea! The reason why we were down there, since the boat had been already in St-Maarten last week, was because of fuel. The captain had a connection, someone at a commercial station who would let him fill up his boat at the discounted price for locals, saving him more than half of the regular price. If you were ready to spend the day going back and forth in a little dinghy, carrying loads of heavy canisters of fuel and becoming all soiled with diesel, then you would be rewarded with savings in the thousands. Fortunately, this chore had been done before I arrived and to be honest, I don’t think I would have participated in something that in Trinidad & Tobago could result in jail time. John had told me that the plan was to spend another day or two here before heading back north to the Dutch Antilles. Looking over to the series of grungy marinas, I couldn’t say that I was thrilled of spending a night there, even less at the prospect of spending a couple of days, so I went down below into my cabin, put my headphones on and started dreaming of the Atlantic.

The first time I crossed the Atlantic was back in 2001 onboard M/Y Talithat-G, the Getty family’s private yacht. We had left London and were heading to St-Maarten when a gale forced us to take refuge in the protective bay of Corunna, in Spain. We sheltered there for a few days, waiting for the storm to pass, and once the forecast showed promising days ahead, we carried on and the rest of our 14-day crossing was smooth and flawless. My second crossing was again on a motor yacht, M/Y Leander, belonging to a friend of the Queen, Sir Donald Gosling. That time though, I headed east from St-Barth’s to Antibes in the Mediterranean. This third crossing was to be my first sailing trip across the Atlantic and it was something I was really looking forward to. The owner of the boat was an old friend of Jas’ with whom she had sailed through Magellan Strait and the Beagle Channel, around the island of Tierra Del Fuego, Patagonia, many years ago. His boat was a 54ft full keel sloop, custom made in Asia. Even though she showed signs of age, her new teak deck managed to shave years off her appearance, and gave her a much needed rejuvenated look. Overall she appeared to be in good shape.

While I lay in my bunk reading the first pages of a book I had chosen for the voyage, called “Seventh Journey” by Earl de Blonville on his expedition to Greenland, a nice aromatic smell of jasmine rice told me that dinner was being prepared. I took the cue and headed to the aft deck to set the table when a small dinghy appeared from the shadows and drove right up to us. Tying his little inflatable to our port side, the driver, without asking permission, hoisted himself onboard, then lit the cigarette that was hanging half wet, off his lips. After a long and almost endless drag, he finally exhaled a huge cloud of smoke that literally made his entire face disappear. The man wore only shorts, which were dirty of engine grease and scattered with holes made from, I could only assume, the burning ash of falling cigarettes. His belly, inappropriately disproportionate to the rest of his body, was the result of many decades of heavy beer drinking. His head was shaven and the light from the salon sparkled on his seemingly polished skull. His nose was not big, but edgy and pointy. Without a beard or mustache, his smoke-colored teeth blended with his dark,tanned skin. Slapping his abdomen with strength and pride, like a keg full of beer, he let out a blaring burp that resonated all the way down to the galley and announced his arrival. The captain peeked his head outside of the entrance and looked at the man who was now again lighting up his wet cigarette. “Hooyyyt!” the man said in a strong coarse Australian accent. John nodded slightly and disappeared to attend more important matters – like making sure that the rice didn’t burn! Taking another long cigarette drag, he looked at me and, his words chasing the smoke away said: “Hoyt! Did’ ya tell him?” “Tell him what?” the captain answered from inside the boat. “ ‘Bout thy Gold!”

Billy was an old sailing pal of the captain, the kind of friend you keep bumping into around the Caribbean anchorages. He and his family had been living on a 50ft boat for years. His last child, a boy, had been born on his boat, his wife giving birth on the kitchen table. “Me son’s strong wit broad shoulders lik’ mine, and you know why? Cause am th’ one who, sticking me fingers under his teeny arms, pull’d him out!” Although I gave him credit for his achievement, I had difficulties chasing this troubling image out of my head. While he constantly cursed, smoked like a chimney and had the manner of a pirate, his children were “home schooled” because, as he said: “thy system’s shite mate!” Not only didn’t he trust the system but he also disapproved of the values inculcated in school. Their sailboat was fitted with several flatscreen tv’s on which the children keep watching movies and playing video games. The several generators onboard kept breaking and were a constant source of endless stories on how the new repairs would boost superpowers which would make them so “cool”! Like a child who had just finished his first lego project and was full of pride, he told us that the freezer he had been working on lately would be able to go as low as minus 17 degree Celsius! I was not too sure why such freezing cold temperature was that important, but for Billy, it sure seemed to be. Deep down though, Billy has a big heart and will do anything for any stranded soul in need of assistance.

As he sat at the table, puffing one cigarette after another, flicking the butts overboard, Billy went on to tell me that I needed to convince the captain of going gold hunting off the coast of Guiana. Apparently he knew of a secret spot, that he had learned of from a drunk man in a bar, and kept the treasure location and coordinates locked in his boat. It sits at 60 meters, and is where a Spanish ship sunk hundreds of years ago, taking along with it several dozen bars of gold. When I told him that the story sounded a bit too much like an old fairy tale told amongst pirates, he rose up to his feet, slapped his big round belly and pointed the finger at me. While staring me straight in the eyes, he told me: “I knew tha’ old man. When he took hy knif’ out in thy bar and point it in me face telling me ain’t nothing more sacred than thy sailor’s word, I knew in me heart he was no shit’in me!” Realizing this conversation was going nowhere, I told Billy that unfortunately, we had guests waiting for us in St-Maarten and a work assignment in the Azores, and sadly, although we would have loved to buy a $10,000 sonar and comb through miles and miles of ocean for weeks, we would have to take a rain check and perhaps partake in the next gold rush. Since I was not going to help him in his sacred quest, he got up and took his pack of cigarettes out. When he found none, and realized it was empty, he scratched his head then said: “Argh! Bunch of wussies! Don’t come crawling to meself when I have all me gold!” And with those last words, he jumped into his dinghy and disappeared in the dark.

Sunset over the Caribbean

The next day we were ready to leave. The forecast showed good weather all the way to the Dutch Antilles and after motoring past Scotland Bay, we left behind Billy and the Bay of Chaguaramas (the two went really well together!) – hoisted the main sail and got our bearing north. Our next stop was St-Maarten!

For the crossing, besides the captain, Jas and myself, our fourth crew member was Liz – a girl from the UK in her early thirties, who several years ago worked as a stewardess with the captain while chartering the boat. She now owned a little vintage boutique in the Portobello district of London. All of us were seaworthy, at different levels. John had over thirty years of sailing experience around the world, from Antarctica to the South China seas. Along with my two crossings, I was what you can call an amateur sailor – someone who knows his way around without knowing much! I tremendously enjoyed sailing and didn’t have trouble with sea sickness. Jas had sailed the Raging Forties and Furious Fifties around infamous Cape Horn and LeMaire Strait, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet and the conditions are some of the worst in the world. But that was over a decade ago and she hadn’t set foot on a sailboat since. Liz’s experience was more with holiday sailing in the Caribbean, but having worked with the captain, she knew her way around the boat.

The morning before our grand departure, we all went grocery shopping. The captain was to buy the basics and most of the food, and we would only have to buy particular things we would want to snack on during the trip. Simple enough you would think! Crossing the Atlantic in a sailing boat takes anywhere between 14 and 30 days, depending on the wind and if you chose to motor or not. As a basic rule, you always want to have more than enough food, fuel, and water. So if you are planing for 17 days, you need to have adequate supplies for at least 21 days. Without asking the others if anyone had any dietary requirements or preferences, John took off and came back much later with his own interpretation of “adequate supplies”: enough rice, pasta and flour for at least 2 months, 6 liters of water (!!!), just enough veggies for a week (no frozen vegetables), a couple of loaves of bread and a pretty big bunch of things we were not allowed to touch. The “Caribes” beer was to be given away in the Azores, not really a problem since the crossing was dry. The cheese was for himself, as was the chocolate, the couple of french baguettes, the cereals, and the yogurts. The sausages were not for us but for a friend. We did have a freezer full of fresh fish: tuna, wahoo, and dorado, caught the week before, but to imagine that we would only eat white bread and fish with rice or pasta for two weeks was not really our idea of a pleasant trip. As we soon found out, this was only the beginning of a long and disagreeable voyage.

As captain and host, there were two things we were expecting from John: to keep us safe and make our trip enjoyable. Everybody onboard believed that these requests were far from being too demanding. Of course this was no luxurious cruise, like the previous two I had been on, but neither was it a boot camp! We were only four people on a 54ft boat and there was no reason why we should not be like a small family, sharing everything – chores included, dining together, laughing, and playing games. God were we wrong!

By mid-afternoon, it was obvious there were two sides, theirs and ours. I was not sure if it was because the captain had had a crush on Jas 15 years ago or something else, but he was really getting annoying and plainly rude. He was in his mid 60’s and from the United Kingdom. Both Liz and Jas remembered him being a gentlemen, a wonderful person to travel with, a man of class and a great host. But over the limited amount of conversation he and I had had between Trinidad and St Maarten, I had come to understand that life had not really turned out the way he had wished. The chartering business hadn’t been too good these past couple of years. As boats constantly demand maintenance and are very expensive to keep, his savings had over time disappeared. Now he was caught in a vicious circle of having to scrape together what he could from chartering just to keep himself afloat. His idea of retiring and enjoying sailing had unfortunately disappeared along with his good humor and manners. This season, he had originally wanted to dry dock the boat in Trinidad and make some repairs, but didn’t have the funds to do so. So he was left with no choice but to cross to the Azores and stay in Horta where rates were much cheaper, saving himself a return airfare and the cost of hauling the boat out during hurricane season.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Liz, Jas and I had all made special arrangements to accompany the captain on his trip to the Portuguese islands. Of course this was something we all wanted to do, but it was rather the idea of spending time amongst friends and doing something exceptional together, that convinced us of taking part in this adventure. We knew John could do the crossing on his own, but were sure that he would appreciate having a little company! Now in hindsight, I think we would have been better off staying home watching Chevy Chase’s “National Lampoon Vacation”. At least we would have laughed!

After doing our own proper groceries and buying toilet paper, since there was certainly not enough for both women onboard, (it is really incredible the amount of toilet paper women use compared to men!) we expected the captain to convene the group and go over the safety protocol, to refresh our memory on seamanship and lay out the ground rules. It was in the end his boat, and it would have been normal procedure for him to tell us where everything was, what we could and couldn’t do, and how we should handle an emergency at sea. Instead, as he made himself a sandwich, he simply said: “Watches will be 2 hours. You guys eat whenever you want. I eat whenever I want! If you are not happy, then get off my boat!” We all stood there in shock as he went up to the wheel-house. We hadn’t even left the port and already we were threatened to leave! Zen my man! I don’t care what personal issues you have and to be honest, I am not interested in finding out the bugs you have twitching up your rear, but you can’t simply treat people who have flown in from three continents and travelled over a day to be with you like this! Even more so when you are the captain and host!

Without a safety brief, without being shown where the life vests were, without being told what bearing to take, without being told what to do if someone fell overboard – his answer to this question was: “You only have five percent survival anyway, so what’s the point?” – without pretty much anything other than his bad manners and ill temper, we set sail for the Azores. We could have indeed left the boat on the spot, but it would have meant a lot of trouble and to be honest, we all wanted to believe that his bad mood was only temporary. Most likely, this was the case of a really bad night’s sleep and, in a couple of days, this would all be over and turn into a happy and pleasurable cruise.

Alas, our hopes and wishes were never to be granted. Not long after leaving the island behind, the wind started to increase. Within an hour or two, the ride became really bumpy and the girls were soon lying down by the wheel-house and seasick. Being sick on board is always to be expected when you spend most of your life on land. For the majority of people, after a couple of days, their bodies become accustomed and the nausea goes away. Aware that both Liz and Jas had known worse conditions than this, their state was not really of concern, but I was mindful that perhaps John and I would have to split the watches until the girls got better. When I suggested to John that, for the first night or two, and for the safety of everyone, we should let the girls recover and share their watch, he waved his hand at me and bawled that my “princess” had to work like everybody else! Looking at Liz who was throwing up over the rail, I felt bad for her knowing that her night watch was coming up soon. As to my “princess”, I told her to take a pill and go to sleep, I would cover her sailing duties.

As expected, by the next day the women were back in shape and everyone had their routine down. But the captain hadn’t mellowed at all and the atmosphere onboard was now officially toxic. Everything was calculated, every word was measured and it was clear that our every move was being watched and judged. Jas and I ate together, while Liz – who hadn’t bought her own food – was forced to eat what John was willing to share. Everyone kept to themselves and secretive conversations amongst the divided group became focused on the drama at play.

Dead Calm

I have always found the ocean vast yet teeming with life. There is always something happening. Terns, gulls and shearwaters keep you company, dolphins ride the bow-wake, whales spout and then disappear, startled flying fish glide unbelievable distances away from you. Civilization is never far away with tankers the size of football fields rushing to their delivery and plastic “works of art” floating past endlessly on their destination to nowhere. This time though, the ocean felt like a giant desert and was irritably silent. Days into our crossing, we had yet to see a dolphin, or a turtle. We hadn’t seen a bird for days and our fishing lines had been idle from the beginning. Was this silence a reflection of what was happening onboard, a mirror to our own tiny, egotistical and secluded world? Everything was so surreal that I couldn’t stop imagining we were acting in a scene of Kevin Costner’s apocalyptic fiasco “Waterworld”. Much effort was being made in trying to change the mood, but we all had to come to terms with the unwanted truth, that this crossing was going to be long and painful. Loneliness was going to be the theme of the voyage! Come to think of it, getting off the boat in St-Maarten would not have been such a bad idea after all!

For many, to think of sailing is to think of adventure, with the wind in your hair, the sun high above, or in the company of friends racing in the Hampton’s or at Cowes. Perhaps for you it is pure relaxation, to be anchored in the crystal clear waters of a secluded bay with white sandy beaches and palm trees sipping a Mai-Thai. Or the exhilarating thrills of exploring the unknown. But in reality, and above all else, sailing is about mastering the passing of time. Whether with wind or without, whether in the most beautiful place on earth, or the worst, one must learn how to be comfortable with – well – doing nothing! Unless you are ready to motor whenever there is no wind, you will spend a great deal of time waiting. Waiting for the wind to come or waiting for the gale to go. Sometimes you will wait for days, even weeks until the right forecast finally comes. Sometimes the ocean will rage with fury, and with no end in sight, you will pray to the gods for calmer days. Sometimes the ocean will be still like a mummy. Days will pass, blending into another seamlessly and the total calm will drive you to such insanity that you would kill for a little breeze. Just think of what the mariner’s of yesteryear must have suffered in the “doldrums”! These long moments might be easier to handle when you hop from one island to another, but while crossing from one continent to another, they become tremendous exercises of meditation. And if, for some unfortunate reason, you are caught on a boat where the crew doesn’t get along, then be prepared to delve into your most powerful mantras.

Plankton bloom from the boat

It was two in the morning one night when I climbed the stairs to the wheel-house to relieve Jas from her watch. Usually, she was ready to go to sleep by the time I arrived. But that night, she was still, sitting on deck looking out over the water, seemingly mesmerized. When she saw me she smiled and gestured that I come quickly. The plankton was in full bloom, and the wake of the boat was creating a wonderful luminous spectacle over the black ocean surface. The incredible light display reminded me of the day when during my youth in Quebec I first saw the Northern Lights dancing in the sky during a silent winter night. As the hull cut through the dark liquid, the water displaced and ruffled, activating these bioluminescent wonders that wove together light blue trails that slowly rippled away – ephemeral manifestations of the invisible world. Like a comet that travels the infinite space, burning itself to its ultimate death while leaving behind a fleeting trail of its existence, so were we.

As if trying to avoid our platitude, the group found a common interest and focused on coming up with theories that would explain the lack of ocean activity. We all knew the seas were overfished and that many species were disappearing rapidly, but there was something else to the mystery. It is only when looking at the log and entries from previous crossings did the explanation come to reveal itself. Seven days into our voyage and a thousands of miles away from the Caribbean, right in the middle of the Gulf Stream, the ocean was still warmer than a city swimming-pool. Three degrees more than the average of years before (according to the captain’s log), meant that the tuna, dolphins and others had most likely traveled north in search of more productive, colder waters, bringing along with them the birds. By the tenth day, we started to see a gently but significant dip in the water temperature. As if to confirm our global warming explanation, late in the afternoon, a small pod of spotted dolphins came and greeted us as the sun went down over a colder Atlantic.

Small pod of spotted solphins

Now that the mystery had been solved, the team spirit rapidly dissolved again and the crew fell right back into its divided and individualistic mode. Our only source of joy now were these little daily visits from the dolphins, sometime in the morning but always around sunset.

One day, shortly after lunch, about five hundred miles from our final destination, the tell-tale spout of a sperm whale appeared on our starboard side. This was something we had all been waiting for. These magnificent toothed whales are year-round residents of the Azores and known to hunt for giant squid along the volcanic ridges that surround these islands. As we were slowly closing the distance to the islands, we were anxiously calculating the days when we would have our first whale sighting. The whale was floating immobile not far away, and judging from its size it appeared to be a single, lonely calf, which was quite unusual. Calves and juveniles are cared for by the females for more than a decade, and when the adults go hunting into the deep abyss the nursery pod is left behind as a group. An abandoned calf would be the perfect meal for a passing pod of Orcas, Pilot Whales or False Killer Whales. So either the rest of the group was nearby, or something bad had happened.

Swimming in the middle of the ocean

The ocean was flat calm, with barely a ripple. The sun was high and the wind almost non-existent. The conditions were perfect to go for a swim and investigate. The problem was that I had never been a big fan of swimming in the middle of nowhere. I grew up watching “Jaws” on the big screen, and am part of that generation that suffered from the “Jaws Syndrome”. I could be swimming in a lake and still would feel afraid of what lurks beneath the surface. Scuba-diving is different, because seeing below the surface automatically eliminates my fears. But for now, the idea of snorkeling my way towards an animal of several tons, that I had never encountered before, with thousands of miles of ocean in all directions demanded a giant leap of faith. Grabbing my snorkel and GoPro, I looked at Jas and told her to keep an eye on me. She had absolutely no idea how frantic panic was spreading through my body! Nevertheless, I summoned all my courage, sat on the diving platform, took a deep breath and jumped!

As I swam in the direction where I thought the whale was, I tried with all my might to stay calm and breathe. The combination of seeing endless blue everywhere, with the borrowed snorkel that was leaking badly and made me sniff salt water, certainly didn’t help me relax. I tried to stay focused, but it was really hard. I didn’t know where to look. Below, to check again that no pre-historical sea creature might suddenly appear from the depths and engulf me. Above and ahead, to see where I was going, but while doing so, I would abandoned my watch of the “under”. Or towards the boat, which seemed to get smaller and smaller. What an ordeal! Alas, the whale finally came into sight. But every time my head was under, salt water went up my nostrils. This was pathetic, I was pathetic! How many people have the chance to swim with whales in the wild, and here I was hardly able to keep my senses together! So much for an explorer! What a lamentable performance!

the dot on the right is me!

In the end, I did manage to control my breathing, and filmed a little, before the calf twisted sideways to look me over and finally swam away. But when I found myself alone again, my delusional feeling of being powerless “live bait” returned, and I swam for life, turning my fins into a small engine! As I returned, I saw Jas on the deck making big signs, like one of those airport ground controllers who direct the planes. What was I to make of her primitive attempts of communication? Was I being followed by a shark? Was there something else coming? Did the captain suddenly decide to leave me behind? All this was not making me feel any better! Grabbing the ladder, I quickly pulled myself up, only to have the exhaust bluster into my face! How pleasant! Jas came to greet me and decoded what she had been waving about. The rest of the whale-nursery was right off the bow! I was not really ready for another round of torture, but those were four more calves. So I exchanged snorkels and quickly jumped back in. This time however, as if on purpose, the captain drove the bow of the boat right into the middle of the pod of calves. Great! Of course, by the time I had swum within sight of the whales the boat had scared them off.

On the two orcas passing by

Later that afternoon, a couple of orcas, in their black and white “tuxedos” dove right underneath the boat. They passed so close, and the ocean was so clear that we felt like looking through the glass of a big aquarium. These were the predators the calves we left behind would have to fear and I was glad they were not alone. Sadly, the orcas had no further interest in us, and quickly dove away.

There are advantages to having days with no wind; albeit not for sailing. For one, you can perfectly see whatever is swimming or floating at the surface. For sailing though, it is horrible. No wind equals no speed and no speed equals motoring. But today with a flat ocean, it wast the perfect day for reconnaissance. The water seemed to be filled with jellyfish and standing at the bow, looking down, I could see in all directions and to great depths, countless of brown jelly fish of medium size, with yellowish, fluffy tentacles gently puffing their way around. Turtles feed on them and so it was no surprise of seeing them in large numbers. I looked up to see if there would be any turtle big enough to justify going back into the open ocean. Since the sperm whale episode, I had had several swims in the ocean and was now way more relaxed. In fact, I was desperately waiting for any opportunity that would request my presence off board! Suddenly, I noticed a strange big fin flapping about just ahead, one that resembled way too much to the fin of a shark. Our bearing was directly towards whatever it was, and unless one of us was to move, we were going to hit it. So I shouted: “Sharks, sharks, stop the boat!”

As we drifted towards the fin, the mystery was revealed – it was a Mola! Molas are pelagic fish that can reach up to 13ft in length and weigh as much as 3,300lbs. The English call it Sunfish while the French have named it the “Poisson Lune” (moonfish). They drift sideways close to the surface, pecked at by a regiment of small cleaning fish, and feed on jellyfish, explaining its appearance here today. A Mola was precisely what I had waited for. This time I was ready; and quickly and inconspicuously slipped into the water. The bizarre looking fish first dove to about 30ft before coming back up and allowing me to stay with him for a while. Looking at the bulgy eyes and roundness of the body, I could definitely see why the French had opted for the moon. Which left wandering, how on earth the English could find any resemblance to the sun in this weird looking flat oval shaped sea creature? My bet was that they had named it this way just to annoy their European neighbors in the usual anglo-french competition!

The mystery is revealed – a Mola!

For 15 minutes, the “Sun/Moonfish” and I eyed each other with mutual curiosity, and then it probably decided it was time to carry on with the task that had brought him here: to gorge itself on stingy, juicy jellyfish. Reluctantly I paddled back to yet another rice and fish meal aboard the “loveboat”.

On the seventeenth day, the Azores appeared. Our ordeal was about to end. Pico island’s black volcanic peak rose into the sky, piercing the clouds like a giant beacon, guiding the desperate seafarers seeking land. Although we could have tacked our way in, slowly and gently, no one onboard was in the mood of stretching our lamentable and suffocating team assignment even by an hour or two. All Jas, Liz, and myself wanted to do, was to get there and head straight to Pete’s bar for a cold and refreshing pint so that we could finally, and in unison, let the steam out. But this was not the end of it: The captain had yet another surprise in store for us.

Back in St-Maarten we had agreed to share the expenses such as the cost of fuel. John had done the crossing many times before and had a good idea of how much it would cost. Obviously, he had been quick to remind us that depending on how much we would motor, the price would go up or down, which made sense to all of us. But at no time during the trip did he let us know how much we were racking up. Instead, he watched the hours on the engine accumulate, without saying a word. Docked at the fuel station in Horta, the pump finally clicked, indicating that the tank was full, and John came to us, gloating, with the arrogant look of a taxman who had finally cornered his quarry. With a big smile on his face and no apologies, as if this was the most normal thing to ask, he told us that the bill was now twice his pre-departure estimate.

Paying our dues, the three of us got off the boat and walked away wondering in silence what had happened to this man to become so bitter. As if on cue, and as if life didn’t want us to ponder on the insignificant, just then, out from his kiosk came the legendary Norberto Serpa. This little man with his iconic red bandana, long auburn hair and beard bleached by the sun and salt is the famous whale watching guide “ocean guru” who takes out National Geographic, the BBC and all of the world’s most famous underwater photographers. And, lucky for as he was also an old friend of Jas! With a huge grin he hugged Jas and greeted us like his own family. “Jasssssssmiiine! It has been so long! Come quick, all of you, come for lunch at my house on Pico, right now, you will adore!” What he had forgotten was to tell us that we were going whale-watching first with a group of tourists, then to his home and that lunch would be more like dinner. So within 10 minutes off the boat after 17 days we were on a boat again. But without our cameras and dressed for land – not for the sea! Liz had put on her best “going out dress” a vintage crochet thing that barely covered the necessary above her skimpy little bikini and she soon found herself shivering like crazy. But that afternoon, and to the privilege of our eyes only, we saw sperm-whales breaching again and again, while dolphins kept us company, riding on each side of our boat, all the way up to Norberto’s “Adega” a little stone house made of volcanic rock on the flank of the Pico volcano overlooking the ocean. That evening, we left behind all our bad memories and feasted on local delicacies and fresh tuna grilled to perfection by the most warm-hearted, smiling, and generous host.

On the way to Noberto’s house on Pico
Common Dolphins coming along!

Pages and pages could be written on the things that were done and said during the crossing, how appalling John’s behavior evolved and how his neglect of safety would be worthy of a lawsuit. But, in the end, thankfully, the crossing passed without any major incidents. I prefer not to think what could have or would have happened, had a major storm hit the boat, or any other predictable event that can happen during such a long voyage at sea. In retrospect, this trip was a great occasion for my partner Jas and I to test our capacity, as a couple and as a team to deal with situations like being stuck on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, with a madman as a captain. Although we would certainly not repeat this trip, we are glad that we did it. Life can be lived resenting these mishaps and misfortunes, and wishing we had the power to foresee and avoid them. But I prefer to focus on the positive and the opportunities for growth that such unwanted events bring along. As Shakespeare wrote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

Our itinerary

Atlantic Crossing 2012 from Daniel Fox on Vimeo.

1 Comment

  1. So wonderful! I’ll be out there in just a month doing the same route. Should be fantastic. I hope to see a Mola to! There are so pretty.

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