It is just over a year since Jamie and I faced the most frightening sailing conditions of our lives. The damage caused to the yacht resulted in a total refit which we have been undertaking for the past six months in Thailand. This is my version of those few days.
My forehead smashes against the wooden door frame as another wave kicks the boat sideways. Ack-ack shells burst across my darkening vision. And the world turns silent. There is no pain, no fear, just an overwhelming urge to sleep.
At the helm, Jamie battles with the gale. After thirty-six hours, the weather is still waging war on the Indian Ocean. Below decks, we are suffering from collateral damage: seawater has crashed through a broken hatch to join forces with oil from the bilge, making the floor boards treacherous to walk on.
Steering in this brawling sea is exhausting; we can only manage one hour at a time before our muscles seize. With no opportunity to cook, or even make a cup of tea, we are running on bottled water and canned tuna. We have not slept for forty-eight hours.
But I am out of it now, wedged between the narrow walls of the foreward corridor.
Two days ago we were anchored in a coral-rimmed lagoon, snorkelling with turtles. White terns skimmed the wavelets, the turquoise sea reflecting in the shadows of their gauzy wings. A fishing boat passed close by, curious to see who we were. The crew were amused by our fat cat, and took photos of her with their phones. The skipper gave us a red snapper the size of a small dog.
After a fishy lunch we made ready for the crossing to Gan, the southernmost port of entry in the Maldives. From there we planned a three week sail to Madagascar, via Chagos. It would be the first time across the equator for me.
“Does the water really go down the plughole the other way?” I said.
“Nah, it’s a myth. But let’s run the tap as we cross and see for ourselves,” said Jamie.
We weighed anchor. There was enough of a breeze to fill the sails and give a favourable angle to our destination. An hour later, the seascape was lit by a gibbous moon.
“Should we reduce the sails now it’s dark?” I said.
“No need, the forecast was good. We’ll be all right,” said my captain.
After seven years of living together on our small yacht, we have knocked the corners off each other and bashed out a workable sailing method: Jamie is the skipper, I follow orders.
S/y Esper is the first yacht either of us has owned. When we bought her the only qualification we had was the RYA’s entry-level sailing certificate. Together, we learned from each new challenge: manoeuvring in harbour, setting the anchor, night sailing, navigating through coral, dodging lightning storms, avoiding pirates in the Red Sea. After 15,000 miles we were confident we could deal with any situation.
I was steering when we passed the last island in the atoll. As we headed into the ocean, white water glimmered to starboard.
“Turn to wind!” shouted Jamie.
I flung the wheel round, wrenching the tendons in my arm. But the squall was too fast and hit us side-on. The yacht heeled to an impossible angle leaving Jamie vulnerable and clinging to the mizzen mast behind me.
Esper’s bow disappeared under water, shooting the sea into the cockpit. I was astonished to find myself in warm water up to my knees. Jamie released the sails, then furled them, to give the wind a smaller target. His hands bled from rope burns, and the din of whipping lines and snapping canvas made me flinch. But we were upright.
In the corridor, adrenaline kick-starts my synapses. My head doesn’t hurt, despite the lump I feel with my fingertips. I heave myself up and fasten my oilies. I open the hatch to see a fountain of seawater lashing at Jamie. He smiles and I burst into tears.
“I hit my head!”
“Oh shit, are you OK?”
“No. Yes. I’ll be all right,” I said between sobs, “I know I have to carry on. I’m just so tired.”
Yesterday we were being propelled backwards by the storm, so we turned the boat round. When we continued to be pushed out to sea, Jamie started to lose hope. I cheered him up by saying how proud I was to be his crew, and that we would survive; we had enough food and fuel to get us to Australia.
“You’re doing really well,” he says now. “You are fearless, the best sailing partner I could want. We will get through this.”
Then he tells me to rest, he has strength for the two of us. We hug, a moment of peace in the middle of the maelstrom.
Half an hour later I am ready to relieve Jamie on the helm and face the fight again.
The night bowls more gales at us, but the next day, we make it to safety. In the haven of Male we set the anchor, both buoyed by the knowledge that having been pushed to the limit, we have found in each other a partner we trust with our lives.
For a detailed account of what happened, read Jamie’s description on our website, followtheboat.
This is an edited version of a piece which was ‘commended’ in the Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel writing competition.