The solitary life of sailing alone in the Pacific

When I started to make it known that I was leaving to sail by myself across the Pacific, I was partly taken aback at the general positivity that I encountered. I had expected more opposition, but mostly got raised eyebrows at worst.

There were harbingers of doom of course, and I divided them into two broad camps.

Those who said the trip was too risky. I discounted this group entirely. I had already decided to do the trip. There is enough literature out there to estimate the general risks, and I had already accepted these risks. When your number is up, your number is up, as Biggles used to say.

The other camp was more helpful. These were the kind souls who were specific, and said it was too risky for me to do the trip. A subtle but important distinction. These criticisms were useful as I had to answer them, in my own mind at least, to a satisfactory degree.

Experience was at the forefront of these objections, which was fair enough.

There was a moment in my life where I stood by a patient’s neck with a needle, a length of wire, a scalpel, and a dialysis catheter nearly as thick as the patients pinky finger. I knew the theory, I had done it once under supervision, and I just had to get on with it and place the thing in the internal jugular.

I think the medical fraternity, myself included, flatter themselves that they are well equipped to bridge that gap between theoretical knowledge and application. See one, do one, teach one, as the saying goes.

I think it was useful that all my initial sailing was either solo or with a crew less experienced than me. In all of my sailing history, the only time I haven’t been the most experienced sailor on board was when I first looked at a boat and the owner took me out for an hour sail on a calm Moreton Bay day. Trial and error is a fast teacher and sometimes the only way to get real experience is to have a ‘give it a go’ attitude.

Hence, I felt justified in having the confidence that the trip was not outside my capabilities. I knew the known knowns and I could prepare for the known unknowns. Of course it was the unknown unknowns that would get me and I did a lot of research over many months to minimise these.

Perhaps the most baffling of reactions was the most common reaction. All the things I worried and agonised over for a long time – Equipment, route, stores, etc – didn’t feature in this reaction. Rather, it was “Three months by yourself, I couldn’t do that”.

I’m not sure how they know this. I perhaps have a greater inclination to solitude than the average man, but the longest I had been alone for was 4 days. So I had no idea what an extended length of time in solitude would be like.

There is a disclaimer of course. If you look at some of the pioneer solo sailors prior to the prevalence of radio communication like Slocum, or someone like Knox-Johnston whose radio malfunctioned and was given up as lost after no contact for over 100 days, my experience is quite different.

I get daily emails from family members, and since I’ve left Wellington, I’ve had two five-minute phone calls to Mum and one to each of my seven siblings (Apart from John and William who never answer their phones, even if you’re calling from the middle of the ocean via satellite).

So I’m not entirely isolated like these sailors.

Fundamental to human nature is the, at times unexpected, at times astonishing, ability to adapt to circumstances.

One reads stories of men and women in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and the Gulags, not only maintaining their humanity but even demonstrating acts of heroism. Maximillian Kolbe comes to mind. A Polish priest who volunteered to take the place of a man who was selected at random to starve to death in a bunker as deterrence for the escape of a fellow prisoner. The Nazis could rob their victims of everything. Status, clothes, hair, even life itself. But they could not take away the strength and goodness of this man.

I brought along a biography of Anne Frank with excerpts from her letters, and it was fascinating to read how, sequestered in a small hidden compartment and hiding from death for years, the universal dynamics and struggles of a human family were lived out.

I have all the nourishment that I require, as many books as I wished for, a large music collection, and the joys of ocean life to help me in my solitude, so it never concerned me that I would struggle to adapt to solitude. Any inconvenience of mine seems paltry to the sufferings mentioned above.

The most obvious effect of solitude is a ritualisation of common tasks. Every act has meaning and is to be attended to with full attention and enjoyed. The making a cup of tea is to be savoured and enjoyed almost as much as the drinking that follows. Breakfast, properly attended to, can approach ecstasy.

In the rush of my previous life, so many things were seen as a necessary means to an end, and consequently were treated as irrelevant tasks that were to be rushed and not experienced.

A line from an essay defending the pursuit of learning during wartime by C.S Lewis seems applicable – “Never, in peace or in war, commit your happiness or virtue to the future”.

The solitary life makes an extreme of this maxim.

Another effect of this type of solitude is the slowing down of one’s thought. There are two types of actions on a sailboat. Those that are done in extreme haste, and those that are considered and pondered on before being acted on. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks.

With the reduction in the ‘static noise’ of modern life, thoughts seem to be more intrinsic to self and have a greater reality. This is probably horrible philosophy, but I struggle to express what I experience in a better way. A side effect is that if I think about a topic for any length of period, I dream about it, and it seems that my dreams are much more connected to what I live out during the day.

Loneliness is a curious thing. Les Powells, a thrice solo circumnavigator, claims that loneliness and being alone are two very different things with no relationship to each other. I think he’s mostly right.

I attended a most lovely lady in an emergency department bed late in the evening last Christmas. I forget why she was in hospital or why I was called to see her. Despite being an octogenarian, she gave off an aura of unfamiliarity with her surroundings, and I don’t think her health had given her occasion to spend much time in hospital previously.

A tear trickled down her cheeks as she mentioned that she’d told her children and grandchildren to go home and enjoy Christmas. I took her pulse and it seemed the most natural thing to hold her hand as she told me about her experiences in World War 2. It wasn’t the most busiest of evenings, but nonetheless, I think the most useful thing I did that day was to sit and listen for a while.

In a busy emergency department bustling with 40 patients and perhaps 20 staff, this lady couldn’t have been less alone if she’d tried. But she was acutely lonely.

I don’t think I could honestly say that I’ve experienced anything more than very brief and transient episodes of what could be called loneliness during my time at sea.

I think a very necessary attribute for this trip is hope. In of itself the life I’m living could be seen as quite horrendous. Trapped in a floating container that I can’t even stand up straight in. Deprived of the comforts of modern hygiene. Eating the most basic of food rations. Deprived of sleep, Solitary confinement. The list goes on.

If they made a prison with these attributes, it would be condemned as cruel and inhumane.

In addition to all of this, the experience of a big storm in a small boat has such an entirety that it is difficult to maintains one’s sanity. The universe pounds, every single pore is exposed, there is nothing that can distract one’s entire consciousness from the roar of the next wave. Fear itself becomes a weary blunted ache. This new world has only been with you for hours, but it seems bizarre that there could have been a different existence before the storm.

The only thing that keeps you sane is the knowledge that the storm will end. If you didn’t have this hope, then you wouldn’t be able to withstand even a few hours.

So notwithstanding the many consolations and joys that are intrinsic to the trip, which in of themselves outweigh the so-called negatives, the sense of purpose and the hope of port are easily sufficient to keep one going.

The swell was reasonable today at 3 metres. With the speed of the boat, this meant that I had to keep my cabin closed for fear of water ingress.

The cabin was thus unbearably hot and I spent all day out in the cockpit. There was too much spray for reading materials, so I sat and watched, and thought. I’ve tried to faithfully and logically arrange these thoughts, hopefully they make sense and have a meaning.

Man is insatiable in his desires, and I regretfully admit that there were times today when I thought that just a temporary easing of this wind would be nice. I’ve been headed between 45 and 65 degrees into 15 knots of wind at maximal hull speed for 96 hours now, and it is a little fatiguing to the peace of the soul. However, another day’s run of 140 miles quickly banishes these thoughts.

I discovered my understanding of flying fish has been completely wrong. I always thought that they just launched out of waves and glided for a short period and then returned to the water. There were great flocks surrounding my boat at times today, and their capabilities astonished me. I watched a fish launch from a wave and stay aloft for some 7 seconds, while changing course several times in a navigationally sensible fashion. I had no idea! They make the Wright brothers look pathetic!

I just left my keyboard to deal with a squall and have now returned. It’s pitch black as moon rise is quite a few hours after sunset now. The trouble with this period is that you can’t see how big the squall is, so you have to fully reef just in case. The absence of stars gives you some idea, but it is still hit and miss. This one felt like a big one and all the northern stars had disappeared, but now it’s died right away, so I might have been a bit excessive with my reefing. My mum used to say quite frequently “Andrew it’s not a race”, and sometimes I find myself repeating this.

Latitude: -4.775, Longitude: -129.560, Time: 05:41:28 05-06-2018 UTC