Lost at Sea


In March this year, our little red boat departed from El Hierro in the Canary Islands, to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. It was a voyage we had been planning for nine hectic months.

As we sailed away, all the stress seemed to diminish along with the rocky, volcanic coastline of El Hierro. This poignant departure marked the start of the longest period either of us would have ever been at sea.

The prospect of the journey ahead seemed more surreal the closer it got. Are we really going to do this? With this question hovering unspoken in the air, both of us felt our lack of experience strongly, as we contemplated the reality of our impending departure. We expected to spend around 25 days at sea.

As well as ensuring our 32ft Centurion was fully seaworthy, we packed every available storage space with consumables to keep us going for a month. Vaccinations, naval charts, weather reports and numerous other necessities were ticked off the checklist. We stared at naval charts, willing the reality of 2000 miles to sink in. But somehow, it just didn't. The mind refused to process anything other than a large blue piece of paper.

Which is why the most poignant moment of this voyage happened on what had become a normal day in the ocean, six days into the voyage. Sitting huddled on deck in a raincoat and bobble hat, I stared out at the endless swell, its colours changing from petroleum to deep royal blue to silver as the sun fell lower in the sky. I was lost in another day of Atlantic sea-gazing.

The sounds of the sailboat and the sea were becoming a comfort; from the trickle of water down the sides of the hull to the gentle hum of the wind generator, they formed a gentle, lilting soundtrack to our adventure. As I watched, something drifted past, slowly, impassively, bobbing in and out of view between the now dark purple waves. It was too large to be a jellyfish, and it was strangely shaped, pinkish-brown and glistening. Was it the entrails of an enormous, recently disembowelled sea creature? Was it an undiscovered species of toxic seaweed? The sight of it, innocuous though it was, brought home the reality of where I was, suddenly and strongly.

I was in the middle of the ocean. On a tiny boat. With only one other person. And it would be days...weeks...before we'd even get close to getting out of here. I found myself suddenly breathless. I started to panic. What was I doing here? My fight or flight mechanism kicked in. Get off this boat, I screamed silently to myself. But I couldn't.

So I sat on deck, huddled in my waterproofs, and cried. As the mystery entrails disappeared beyond the horizon, I thought of everyone I missed and how afraid I felt. Gradually, I began to feel strong, because I had no other option. At that moment, I was hugely proud of myself for being so foolish as to put myself in this absurd situation in the first place.

After that, things got better. I slept better, found my sea legs, and was able to appreciate the beauty of the unquestionably hostile environment we were inhabiting. Not that there weren't further tough times. Three weeks in, we ran out of Doritos. I was devastated.

We arrived safely in Carriacou, Grenada, on 28th March, twenty-six days after leaving El Hierro. The crossing was calm and problem-free; both the day-to-day realities and the details which made it so special remain difficult to express. But that moment I spent with those mystery floating entrails remains with me. It was the moment during which I truly realised that I was capable of surmounting my fears, and achieving things I had no idea I could.

Emma Ashton

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