Much of what we’ve talked about in this thread concerns what we might call the “technical” side of ocean sailing. As the ARC moves west the weather should stabilize and they will begin to experience the more benign conditions commonly found in the tradewinds – steady rollers 8-10 feet high from the east or ENE, 15-20 knot steady breezes, puffy white “trade wind clouds” intermixed with blue skys and warm sunshine. As that happens I would expect to see less drama in the log posts and more of what you might call contemplative musings. We’ve seen some already in a few posts, so I thought I might use my privileges as thread originator to change the subject somewhat and open a discussion of some of the more psychological aspects of sailing.
What do you get when you put a lawyer, two architects, an artist, yacht broker, businessman and yacht captain in a 48 foot boat for seven days? Surprisingly enough, a very cohesive crew. Hailing from Switzerland, Scotland and the United States, our 7 member crew has an average age of 54 years with 23 years spanning the largest gap. Three of our crew have crossed the Atlantic multiple times while two of our crew have never been to sea before. When not at sea each crew member is a captain of their own sort when at their respective jobs. We constrain these 7 unique individuals in a 48' x 13' vessel and set them loose on a 2700+ mile journey across the ocean. While there is one "Captain" of the vessel, all crew share duties and do their part to make the trip safe, fast and enjoyable without ego. We cook. We clean. We sail. We talk. We debate. We learn. We have lost family (one a mother another a father). We read about Columbus, Caravans, History, 50 Shades of Grey and House of Holes (don't ask). We have seen ships, competitors, dolphin, flying fish, squid and a whale. We deal with leaks above bunks, stuffed toilets, sail changes, food management and house keeping with out complaint. We do not argue. We are a team. We are a good team. We are a happy team. We are half way there.
Wow! Sounds like a good ship with a good crew of intelligent people who’ve adapted well to their new surroundings, are attuned to each other and who are handling their egos well. That’s what all skippers shoot for – or should be shooting for in the management of life at sea.
You’re not always that lucky. My last and only trip over this route was psychologically one of the toughest periods of my life. We had just bought BR and the PO was aboard as skipper for my first ocean crossing. There were four in the crew – the PO and his wife, me and mine. About 2 days out of the Canaries the PO/skipper began to act strangely with very strong reactions to seemingly little things – a 12” movement of the jib car while he wasn’t on watch, a movement of the squelch knob on his HAM radio. Reacting strongly is too mild – he was freaking out.
A day or so later we were in a gale – 40-50 kts, monster seas, Herb Hilgenberg said it was one of the largest systems he’d seen in the North Atlantic at that time of year – 1000 nm across top to bottom. In the gale, the PO/skipper decides that he doesn’t want to be skipper anymore and says that if I’m so smart about where the jib cars go, I should be smart enough to get us across 2400 miles of ocean. He and I stopped speaking and probably didn’t say 100 words to each other for the next 2 1/2 weeks. My wife tried to moderate the situation, but our PO would have none of it. His moods became darker and darker and I wondered several times if our lives might be at risk. I was very careful when I stood my watches with him. The PO’s wife initially seemed to be trying to keep things under control, but as he got worse I guess she figured she couldn’t be seen as anything but squarely in his camp. She stopped being nice and neutral with regard to the conflict between the two of us. This psychological war went on for 24/7 for two weeks – four people in a 47 x 15 foot steel box. After 21 days at sea we arrived in Sint Maarten and a day or so later my wife and I left the boat for home.
The lesson here is that you REALLY need to know the people you go to sea with. I had known the PO for over four years. I had sailed with him and his wife on coastal passages in the So. Pacific and SE Asia. In what was probably 30 days together on the boat over a two-three year period, we had never seen the really dark side of his soul. (With hind sight, however, we now see the signs were there). Being at sea with psychologically unstable people is at the least emotionally draining, at worst, dangerous.
How do you test them before you go – meetings are good, references are good, spending time together on short sails is good. Although it might sound a little odd, one of the things I noticed businessmen in Korea do that helped them decide who they would trust and who they wouldn’t was to go out together and get roaring drunk. Lots of booze lowers psychological defenses and very often the true character beneath is revealed. In the end though it is impossible to simulate the environment you’ll face offshore and so you never really know. Unless you sail solo, it is one of the risks one takes in ocean voyaging. The selection of a crew and then the management of psychological environment aboard the boat while at sea is one of the skills a skipper needs to acquire. Sounds to me that the ARC skipper in the quote above is pretty good at both.
While an ocean crossing can be both physically and emotionally draining, it also is a time when you have time to reflect on things – large and small – as these two ARC log entries suggest.
Last night in the middle of my watch I started thinking about the first time
(and only other time) I sailed the ARC (at that time I had an Oyster 47 and
we completed the passage in 20 days elapsed time). I began thinking of the
wonderfull people we met on that trip and I realised that the ARC is not
really about the sailing, it is all about the people who sail the boats.
The last few days have really been pretty rough (the sea that is, not the
mood on board). We are in an Oyster 56 which really takes it all pretty
much without drama - perhaps using the electric showers is a bit more
uncomfortable, but hey, life can be a bitch sometimes. But what about all
the people in the smaller boats where the seas must have been and felt
pretty dramatic? - especially at such an early stage in the voyage with such
a long, long way still to go. And what about the boats with young children
aboard? How difficult and challanging must that be? It's those people who
truly represent the spirit of the ARC. I in my plush Oyster with its
electric showers and heads, freezer, drinks chiller, air con, entertainment
systems, electric cooker, microwave, generator, and interior lights to rival
Blackpool illuminations, etc. etc really have it very easy. I feel a bit of
an interloper but very priviledged to be here among such company. Among the
many great people we met last time were Julian and his crew. Julian was
sailing a Westerley 33 - forgive me Julian if you read this and I have got
that bit wrong - I just remember it was bloody small!) After a very boozy
evening aboard Julian's boat - so boozy I have no recollection at all of the
following day nor how I managed to get back to my boat parked right the
other side of Las Palmas marina)- it ocurred to me Julian and his crew fit
the ARC ideal perfectly - small boat crammed to the gunwhales with stores
and food and sails and everything else that is required for a non-stop 3-4
weeks at sea. Jullian and his like at the true heroes of the ARC. Julian
is not too well at the moment, so if you read this Julian, you (and Geoff
and Jen and Bex) are very much in my thoughts - my trip is the emptier for
your absence - and I hope you are as well as you possibly can be.
The Ocean is huge, limitless; all moving, deep blue – shot through with sun-lightened sapphire and then going steel grey with the sun in the clouds - with white icing on the ever changing wave tops, dancing, marching, clashing together – alive, dynamic and very, very beautiful.
Several other ARC log entries have spoken about the stars visible at sea on a dark night. There really is nothing like it ashore. The dome spans 180 degrees of arc and stars are visible in 175 or more of those degrees. In the southern hemisphere the Milky Way is so bright you can read by starlight alone. Crossing an ocean not only provides panoramas that are not seen ashore, it provides the time to slow your psyche down and take it in. I can all but guarantee that the ARC crew members who left work a few days before departure and will have to rush back a day or so after they arrive in St. Lucia will have real difficulty readjusting to “the world”. A long ocean voyage changes you in ways you cannot imagine before you set off.
Sometimes the changes are no so good, as was the case with BR’s PO on our trade wind passage many years ago. Most often, however, the changes are positive, beneficial, and add a new dimension to your life. For those who have not yet had the priviledge, an ocean crossing is definitely something for the “bucket list”.