I never really expected to find myself on a 43-foot sailboat in the middle of the North Atlantic, but sometimes these things just happen. I was living in a tiny condo in Waterloo when I met Chris and decided to quit my job, sell everything I owned, and sail away with him.
The first time Chris took me out, I’d never been on a sailboat before, was baffled by all the ropes, as I called them, not knowing a sheet from a halyard. Chris had me take the wheel as we motored out of the harbour and went forward to remove the sail cover. I watched him working on the foredeck.
“Ready to raise sail?” he asked.
“What do I do?”
“Just keep the boat pointing into the wind.”
I could do that. In no time, he had the mainsail up. It fluttered weakly in the gentle breeze. So this is sailing? He came back and took the helm, and as we rounded the lighthouse and left the shelter of the harbour, the sail suddenly filled with wind and we picked up speed. He handed me a rope—“Make sure that feeds out and doesn’t get caught on anything, especially your foot” — and reached over and unfurled what I now know is the genoa, sheeting it in with one hand as he steered.
Then he switched the engine off and the only sound you could hear was water rushing along the hull and the occasional cry of a gull. We were galloping through the sparkling blue water, wind in our hair. Free, I thought. I’m free.
“You like it?” he asked.
“I love it.”
Two years later I found myself at anchor in a sandy bay on the southeastern tip of Antigua, making lunch while Chris gave the bottom a final scrub before setting out to sail to the Azores, a passage of roughly 2,300 miles.
Sure I was apprehensive—who wouldn’t be? Okay, maybe slightly terrified is more like it. But after the first few days of easy sailing, I began to relax, to savour the feeling of being stretched out in the cockpit, water chuckling along the side of the hull, a gentle breeze wafting over me. The morning sun was shining right through the broad yellow and green stripes of the spinnaker, bathing the cockpit in soft, warm light.
Of course the easy sailing didn’t last. We’d been out about a week when the weather began to deteriorate—and so did my courage. Then it got worse. Just two days before making landfall in the Azores we were clobbered by not one but two big gales. On the morning of the third day, the wind died, and as it started to get light, the island of Flores emerged from the gloom. I felt a surge of pride. I did it! I sailed all the way across the North Atlantic. Not too bad for an accidental sailor.
I’ve just written a book about my first ocean crossing. Sea Over Bow, it’s called, and it’s for anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to sail across an ocean. It’s an adventure story, but it’s also about finding the courage to begin again.