Look-back Time

“I discovered the ocean in my imagination. I discovered the ocean in books.”

Sailing to the Edge of Time: The promise, the challenges, and the freedom of ocean voyaging – John Kretschmer

I have had an albeit, quite private, bookish love affair with boats and sailing since my early teens when I discovered the writing of Robin Lee-Graham, Slocum and Chichester and would vicariously go on their sailing adventures and ocean crossings as an armchair stowaway…They fuelled my romance and longing for big adventure, an expanse of ocean and exploring new horizons. How I wished for the freedom and romantic adventures of Robin aboard Dove!

I got my chance in 2005, when an opportunity presented itself to go and live aboard a 32 foot ferro-cement sloop called Crystal in the Bay of Islands, the North Island of New Zealand for six months.

The relationship with the boat’s owner was disastrous, but my relationship with Crystal was instant. She opened my eyes to the sheer joy and freedom of waking up each day at anchor in a secluded bay, lying tucked up in my berth listening to the wind clatter the shrouds and the tide pull at the anchor chain. All those stunning sun rises and sun sets viewed on deck in delicious solitude!

I never knew the phrase ‘live-aboard’ until I met a vibrant, eclectic mix of live-aboards from around the the world, all sheltering at Russell in the Bay of Islands, hatching up plans for their next ocean crossing once the weather improved. I was fascinated (and a little envious if truth be told) of those children who had grown up at sea and never knew the constraints of life ashore. Self-contained kids who were confident to make friends and entertain themselves wherever they were, communicating in an excited, confusing babble of languages and hand gestures; What a life! What freedom! I was also impressed by the adults who seemed self-assured, so eternally positive and ready for anything. I was inspired by this cruiser community, but in my heart knew it remained out of reach at the time.

Although living aboard Crystal opened my eyes to a whole new way of being upon this earth, I would hardly credit it as a sail training opportunity. The boat very much belonged to the ‘other half’ at the time and he took full control and was not patient enough to teach me about sailing or the boat. But in many ways it didn’t matter, because sharing life aboard his boat for six months was enough for me to vow to myself that if I could, I’d find a way to learn to sail and go to sea on my own terms.

Crystal at anchor somewhere in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. 2006.
Living a dream: Fishing off Bird Rock at sun rise in the Bay of Islands (New Zealand). February 2006.

That was 13 years ago now. After an all too brief spell living at anchor in New Zealand I found myself back in Thailand trying to survive on meager wages from publishing restaurant reviews and articles in a Thai luxury lifestyle magazine and teaching for the British Council, but it wasn’t long before I found myself back in Durham doing a PhD (more on that in another post as the subject matter has played a central role in why I applied to the Clipper Race!). After completing my PhD at Durham University in 2010, I packed up my postgraduate life in Durham – forever my spiritual home – to take another life gamble. This time I was moving down south, to Bristol, to join my now husband and seek work. I have often lived and worked abroad since originally leaving home at 19 years of age to go to Malaysia and seek my fortune (it didn’t happen, obviously, but I credit my time in Malaysia for the woman I am today). However, until Bristol, I had never lived south of the Peak District when in the UK; the north of Scotland, yes, but the West Country was new territory for me.

2011, following the completion of my apprenticeship into academia by becoming Dr Rumble, was a tough year for me, as I was once again starting over, but this time ‘austerity’ had taken a firm grip on squeezing the hopes, dreams and opportunities of those living in the UK. After much effort, I secured some very short-term academic research work and some zero-hours work for a year crewing for the Bristol Ferry Boat Company, which all helped pay the rent whilst writing my first academic book and settling into Bristol city life.

Aboard Emily, one of the ferries I regularly crewed upon in 2011, whilst working for the Bristol Ferry Boat Company. Not quite an ocean crossing, but much better than nothing!

Working as crew with the ‘ferry family’ was great fun and a lovely way to get to know a city and some of it’s ‘characters’ and sights, but it provided a lousy and unpredictable income at the time, which didn’t help me to feel settled in my new home. Nevertheless, it did present me with my first opportunity to sail aboard a very special boat, The Matthew of Bristol, from Fowey in Cornwall to Ramsgate in Kent. This was to be my first taste of coastal sailing in the UK and only served to galvanise my dream to get a few RYA sailing tickets during my life so I could enjoy more time at sea. At the time, The Matthew was hired out to be transformed into the Dawn Treader for the Narnia film, hence why we were sailing her to Ramsgate; it provided much needed funds to cover her maintenance and expenses.

The Matthew is a replica of the Tudor merchant ship that John Cabot sailed from Bristol in 1497 taking 54 days to make the crossing to Newfoundland across the Atlantic. Cabot was searching for a sailing route to Asia but ended up ‘discovering’ Newfoundland instead. The modern replica that you see in Bristol harbour today and that I had the pleasure of sailing aboard, was built to celebrate and recreate the 500th Anniversary of the voyage in 1997. The ship completed the task and returned triumphantly in 1998 (the same year I left home to venture to Malaysia). She remains a working ship and is available for private and corporate hire and can be visited when moored up in Bristol’s historic floating harbour.

When I sailed her to be delivered to Ramsgate for her transformation into the Dawn Treader, it was March 2011. It took us 4.5 days to sail there, including 24 hours in Gosport’s Haslar marina due to poor weather. The trip was roughly 300 nautical miles with an average of 5-6 knots; we were not sailing fast! I joined a motley crew as a deck-hand with absolutely no experience of traditional boats and barely any sailing knowledge, but a whole lot of enthusiasm to muck in and make the most of the journey. Our Skipper was Rob Salvidge, himself a former Clipper circumnavigator, the larger-than-life Sasha Hall as First Mate and a very taciturn ‘galley slave’ called Dave, who was a force to be reckoned with! Conditions were cold, damp and smelly, but we had a lot of laughs and I got to fire a cannon in the Channel, which gets a mention in the ship’s log.

An unconventional log book entry.
An unconventional crew.
But a very, very traditional sailing ship! This photo captures me feeling very, very cold, but relishing my precious time offshore aboard The Matthew; one of my treasured memories.
Somewhere in the Channel at sun rise. I loved how the sun’s rays made the deck work glow orange; a sight to behold!
Damp, smelly conditions down below, but still a LOT more comfortable, drier and roomier than what I’ll experience aboard Punta del Este in the Clipper RTW yacht race!
The Matthew arriving into Gosport/Portsmouth in 2011. She felt very out of place moored up alongside power boats and super yachts, but I love The Matthew and smile whenever I see her back home in Bristol Harbour.

Once back ashore and between writing job applications in Bristol, I wondered into a ‘charity shop’ on Gloucester Road and found an unused, but old edition, of an RYA logbook. I promptly bought it and took it as a sign that I must make it back to sea in my lifetime. Seven years later, to the very month (!) that very same log book received its first official entry from my Level 1 training Skipper, Emily Caruso, for 110 nautical miles sailed over seven days aboard CV2, a former Clipper 68 racing yacht, on the Solent. I was beaming. I was FINALLY realising a long held dream. My return to Gosport’s marina wasn’t only about sail/race training for the Clipper RTW yacht race, it was also very nostalgic and emotional, as I recalled how my life had changed course since I first sailed into Gosport seven year’s previously aboard The Matthew. Life moves in unseen loosely-drawn circles at times and I am full of gratitude for that.

The Clipper 68 training fleet moored at Gosport marina.