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Reflection on Sailing Across the Atlantic

Source: Grace C. Young - January 21, 2016 in Adventure

Reflection on Sailing Across the Atlantic
Photo: SailFuture

I’m sitting in the St. Thomas airport waiting for my flight to Heathrow. Toting a hiking bag stuffed with salt-encrusted clothes, I search for an outlet to charge my laptop; it’s been dead nearly three weeks. My hair is still wet from this morning’s dip in the ocean.

“You get off a boat?” asked the man ahead of me at check-in. I wondered what gave it away. Was it my freckled skin and I-don’t-care ponytail? My callouses? My travel partner joking about peeing in a bucket?

As I sit down to write this blog entry, I find reflecting upon the last 22 days somewhat overwhelming. In that time we, eight friends, sailed a 65’ boat across the Atlantic. Every aspect of my daily routine changed dramatically and abruptly during those days at sea. I was pleasantly surprised that, apart from friends and family, I didn’t miss land much. It feels as if a year, or several, passed in those days. It was an adventure of a lifetime.

For me the journey started about three weeks before we left port. While out in London at a celebration, I received the following text from a friend:

Hey, crazy idea and no doubt you already have plans… but want to cross the Atlantic Ocean? Dec 18 – Jan 5?

The friend is the founder of a non-profit called SailFuture. The reason behind the last minute request is a somewhat of long-story, see my previous blog post. We chatted details, but all I could say initially was “still trying to work out logistics; haven’t forgotten.” Finally it worked out, in large part to the encouragement of my friend Elizabeth (“Bizzy”) Walton, and the support of other friends and family.

Before I explain the sail further, let’s get some “FAQs” that usually come up in conversation out of the way.

Q: When did you leave?
A: We departed the afternoon of December 19th, 2015 from Las Palmas, Canary Islands. We originally planned to leave December 18th, but a faulty pulley on our jib took us back to the marina for the night.Q: How long did it take?
A: It took us 22 days to cross the Atlantic. We originally anticipated a 14-day journey, but some mechanical hiccups took us slightly off course and slowed our progress. More on this later.

Q: What’s the boat like?
A: It’s a 65’ McGregor: You can also see photos from when I sailed on the boat last July.

Q: Were there showers and toilets?
A: Showers no; toilets yes. We rinsed with ocean water. This is common among racing sailors and isn’t that bad really. Even if the boat’s proper showers had been functional, we wouldn’t have used them because we needed to conserve fresh water.

Q: Who was on the boat? 
A: We had eight crew, five guys and three girls. All of us were somehow acquainted with our Captain, Mike. On each shift, our roles sorted roughly into skipper, first mate, deckhand, and steward.

Q: Were you scared? 
A: No; see previous post: Anything scare me underwater?. I’d like to write a longer post on this question, which I get often and that I’ve noticed females get far more often than males regarding adventure. It’s like asking someone if they’re scared to take their driver’s exam… No, I’ve trained for the situation and know the range of things to expect.

Q: Did you see other boats?
A: Yes; but not many. We saw about a dozen other vessels total during our 22-day crossing. Most were container ships. On Boxing Day we made contact with another sailboat over the radio. Nothing but clear blue ocean surrounded us during the vast majority of our journey.

Q: What did you eat? How’d you cook?
A: Lots of pasta and sandwiches. Fresh veggies for the first week, or until things went bad. We had a gas stove aboard. Lesson learned:  Even when rationing fresh water, don’t cook pasta in ocean water; it’s too salty. We also bought a leg of Parma ham that lasted two weeks. It got super creepy at night accidentally running into that hoof though, or watching the hoof sway with the boat.

Q: What marine life did you encounter? 
A: We had several dozen dolphins at a time follow our boat for about 10min on three different occasions. One of our helmsmen is certain he saw a whale on his shift as well. We spotted two sea turtles. Sometimes, even in the middle of the ocean, we’d see a lone bird flying around. A pigeon landed on our deck our second day at sea. We saw flying fish dance out of the water, and even onto our deck, many days.

Q: What was it like celebrating (insert: Christmas, birthday, New Year’s) in the middle of the ocean?
A: Fantastic. I missed family and friends, but we used our satellite phone to each make a short call home. We were blessed Christmas day with calm weather, so we could go for a swim. We had a great dinner too. On my birthday, the crew surprised me with a chocolate cake they managed to make in the oven. On New Year’s Eve you could say we all enjoyed a sunset cruise with some of our closest friends. It was great!

Q: What was harder, living underwater for 15 days or sailing across the Atlantic for 22 days?
A: I know it’s the boring answer, but the answer is simply that they’re different. Both had unique challenges. Living in Aquarius prepared me to live in close quarters for an extended period of time. For Aquarius though, by the end of our intense training I felt comfortable dealing with almost any imaginable emergency situation. We had two full-time habitat technicians living with us plus a full topside support crew, many of whom had run similar missions dozens of times in the past. This meant I could just focus on science work with other researchers.  On this sailing trip, however, we were all doing this for the first time. We had to figure things out as they came up, and, moreover, figure them out without the aid of Internet or anything that wasn’t already on the boat.

Q: Did you have any bad weather?
A: Not really. We were very fortunate with weather. We didn’t encounter any storms or rough patches that we couldn’t handle. We had some spouts of rain, but nothing major. The strongest winds we encountered were about 30 knots.

Q: What surprised you?
A: The songs stuck in your head when you leave land stay stuck in your head. I couldn’t shake Adele’s “Hello.”

I really trusted our Captain, Mike. One of the first things you see below deck is a handwritten sign reading “No Bullshit” taped in the galley. When I agreed to join the crossing, I trusted him not only to lead us safely across the Atlantic, but also to pull together a competent crew with good group dynamic. Here’s a story from our fourth day at sea that confirmed our faith in the Captain; it’s taken from an excerpt of my journal entry three days before Christmas.

Sometime close to midnight, Maddie and I were below deck chopping greens when we heard a jibe. A jibe is when the boom swinging violently across the boat due to a change in the wind direction along the sail. Jeremy, one of our most competent helmsmen, was at the wheel, so it can’t have been caused by ineptitude or carelessness. Something was wrong. 

Mike bolted out of bed at the noise. Yep, something is very wrong. He knows the boat, all the noises it can make. He’s not taking for granted that the boat will sustain that kind of force. 

Both our captains and a 1st mate are on deck, plus one of our crew who is violently seasick. Maddie and I remain below, waiting to be asked to do something if help is needed. Space is so small up deck that especially in borderline-chaotic moments like this excessive crew can be in the way. 

Staying calmly below, just waiting, gives me a particular feeling I’m not use to dealing with. Part of me feels that I, as a sailor and mechanical engineer by training, should be handier on deck. I want to be up there, rain hitting me sidewise, climbing the mast, pulling in lines, shouting orders, whatever it takes. Another part of me realizes that while I may have more basic sailing knowledge than some of our crew with different experiences initially, I’m not as physically strong (able to winch in heavy winds or yank the oft-stuck halyard cleat in heavy winds) as our male crewmembers. I’m not the first person to come into mind when the Captain needs someone to furl in the Gennyfor example. Is part of this because the high-adrenaline “survival mode” situations are bringing out some of the guys’ instincts to protect women? There’s room for a psychology experiment here (hello PhD prospect!). It’s just our first few days at sea, however. Roles will pan out. Everyone on this boat is a team player, which means we will do whatever is best for the group to reach our objective. I’ve been cooking or taking care of the ill the last few days because it’s been best for the group and I want us to reach our goal.  

As Maddie and I sit, braced between the navigation station desk and galley cabinets listening to orders cast above, Biz emerges from the main sleeping cabin, extremely seasick. She stumbles awkwardly to the floor and crouches in front of the stove, clinging to a bucket. She can’t keep even water (or Dramamine) down. I’m concerned she’ll soon be severely dehydrated. We try getting water with hydration salts to her. 

Above us, the three men shout across the length of the boat. From below, it’s unclear what the problem is, but things seem tense. My body wants to worry, but my brain remains even-keel, the only way it knows, “Grace Under Pressure.” Whatever, I still feel useless.  

Mike starts singing “It’s a great day to be alive // I know the sun’s still shining’ when I close my eyes // There’s some hard times in the neighborhood // But why can’t everyday be just this good.” He’s either a lunatic or a thoughtful leader who has just goofily but purposefully quelled the unspoken anxieties of all his crew. It takes a few more days at sea to confirm the latter. 

As he darts below deck he takes a moment to tell Bizzy something sweet, like he’s never seen someone look so gorgeous while puking. It’s stupid but it makes her smile and she needed that. I know that not only is she dealing with crushing seasickness, but she’s also wondering if it was really a good idea for her to be here. She’s been the bravest of any of us, signing up for this adventure knowing only me and not having spent more than half a day on a sailboat. This is one of the times when I appreciate how aware Mike is of everything on the boat, mechanically and emotionally. 

Everyone is awake at this point; although I get the feeling that at best only the three on deck know what’s going on. Maddie and I are docile below, but we still need our brains turned on. For example, one of the guys passes down the fishing rod for us to secure. The quickest thing would be to wedge the rod between the table and bunk in the middle cabin, but we think one step ahead and find some less convenient place where no one in a hurry will accidentally step on it. This is one of those instances where you can’t be lazy and always have to be thinking ahead, of what might go wrong. 

As you learn in all aspects of life, but maybe more so in engineering, when there’s one problem, it’s easier than ever for things to snowball into a multi-layer problem. 

Maddie, taking a meta perspective, identifies issues on deck that we will remedy tomorrow. For example, those on deck might not realize it but they are wasting time rummaging around for headlamps only to find one of the headlamps has a dead battery. Tomorrow we’ll organise the lamps and batteries in a reliable place. We also keep life vests and safety lines in a reliable location. We make a list, but must leave it for tomorrow. 

Even though our adrenaline is spiked, Maddie and I sleep. Plenty of crew is available. Someone will need to be rested tomorrow when the others aren’t. This is one of those times when my ability to completely ignore my surroundings and fall asleep, no matter the noise or chaos, is more useful than annoying to my companions. Perhaps counter intuitively, by being able to sleep I feel useful finally. 

[The full journal entry is below…]

People make the boat.

We had no Internet or contact with the “outside” world during our crossing, apart from a satellite connection reserved for emergencies. This meant that all of us onboard couldn’t hide behind our phones or laptops; we had to hang out old-school style. It took perhaps two or three days to shake the habit of wanting to check my phone for updates. It took us no time to get to know each other. I guess hours and hours of uninterrupted conversation does that to people. If there was ever a lull during a night shift we’d play “would you rather” or go around telling stories. When our phones were all dead and unchangeable, we sang songs totally out of key.

We got on like a house on fire. Thank goodness, because this would be a very different crossing if not. Maybe the circumstances forced us to get along, but I don’t think so. We actually did all get along. Mike, the one who brought us all together, must’ve had a feeling we all would.

People dynamics have the potential to make all things sour when you’re living confined in close quarters 24/7, everyone out of their comfort zone in some way or another. If one person is in a funk it quickly infects the group.

There was only one day that I felt we got anywhere close to the “Mutiny” scene in Life Aquatic. I won’t go into the details, as they are mundane and have lost context; but we got over it by listening to each other and saying nice things before the evening meal.

There’s an unspoken rule for me when living in any form of inescapable tight quarters:  If a person has headphones on or has retreated to a spot on the boat away from others, leave them alone. On land if you saw your friend sitting at an edge of a café you’d of course approach them even if only for a quick hello. On the boat there is zero private space. There are times when you feel superfluous, question your usefulness, and become insecure.  Other times when you, rather vainly, think what would this boat do without me?

We’ve plenty of sea stories. I kept a detailed daily journal. Nearly all of it I wouldn’t publish. It’s personal, but also needs a good deal of context. Maybe I’m just a bad storyteller, but chatting with friends I quickly realize only a few of the stories really click, even if they weren’t the most telling for me. Here’s one of them:  On Boxing Day, I woke up in the middle of the night from what I thought was me falling asleep at the helm. I tried adjusting the wheel to the heel of the boat that I felt, but it was pitch black. We’re use to sailing in just moonlight, a small light illuminating our heading on the compass. I woke up the crewmember sleeping next to me. “Turn on the compass and windex lights! I can’t see anything! The boat isn’t responding!” They were confused. I was dreaming, of course, a very vivid dream. I laughed, relieved, once I realised I was in my bunk. Two days later another helmsman had the same dream. It became a recurring phenomenon.

Family and friends were the only things I genuinely missed about land. I especially missed my sister on her 18th birthday. She was playing squash for Team USA at the British Junior Open for squash (yes, she’s impressive) in England and I was supposed to be there. I wondered if she was going out for a drink since she’d be legal in the UK. I wondered how she was feeling about her game. I wondered if she was mad at me for missing her. Thinking more about it made me sad.

I also reflected on the high seas from a geopolitics perspective, something related to my PhD work. Appropriately, the week before departing I attended a workshop on the high seas sponsored by the Global Ocean Commission at my college in Oxford. All the proposed suggestions had a very tangible meaning now that we were out here on the high seas.

Many have likened the high seas to the Wild West. It’s true that you can get away with anything out here. There’s no one around. It is lawless. Check out the New York Times’ fantastic expose on “Lawlessness on the High Seas”. On one side of the debate, there is the beautiful dream that the high seas could be a place, indeed an opportunity, for international peace and cooperation. But humans largely need a sense of ownership to act responsibility. I’m no exception. I remember sharing a bedroom with my sister when we were younger. She’s messy and I’m neat. There was a line in the room, dividing messy from neat. I never cleaned her side although she wouldn’t mind it. I’m also thinking of the high seas in terms of the game we often played on nightshifts. Would you rather have to respond to a radio call from a government every time you entered a country’s territorial waters, and perhaps even pay a toll for sailing across their waters? Or, would you rather have total freedom, but allow the ocean decline from overexploitation? What’s the balance? This issue begs for a longer discussion in a separate piece.

The thing I most wondered about before the trip was, how would it feel to be completely surrounded by nothing but ocean? For 22 days we saw nothing but ocean to all edges of the horizon. There was no reference for size or location. You could easily go crazy. If you didn’t trust the compass or maps you’d wonder, have we moved at all? Never have I seen so many consecutive sunsets and sunrises. Every day the sky put on a different show, between sunset, moonrise, and sunrise. Bizzy, a keen eye, saw nearly three-dozen shooting stars during the voyage.

My six-hour flight back to England over the same ocean was surreal. I’ll never look out the window during one of those crossings and view that ocean the same way.

Here’s a “FAQ” to end with:
Q: Would you do it again? 
A: Absolutely.

Grace Young

Photo: Allegra Boverman/MIT

Grace Calvert Young is an MIT graduate in Mechanical & Ocean Engineering. She’s dedicated to developing technology to explore and manage sustainably our oceans’ resources while conserving their fragile ecosystems. The recipient of numerous academic awards, including the Wallace Prize as MIT’s top ocean engineering undergraduate and Keil Award for excellence in ocean engineering research, she began doctoral studies at Oxford University as a 2014 Marshall Scholar. In addition to developing software for CERN and MIT, her work experience includes helping design, build, and test submersible and aerial robots for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA. Robots she helped develop have deployed in the Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, creating 3D maps of ice shelves to better measure climate change, monitor marine protected areas, and survey endangered species. An avid sailor and scuba diver, Grace is a four-year letterman on MIT’s sailing team. She’s also active in the arts community, most recently helping to construct the “Ocean Pavillion” sculpture commissioned by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna and receiving the 2014 Wiesner MIT Institute Award for outstanding contribution to the arts at MIT.

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