The Islands of the Caribbean are usually only a place that one can dream about, or perhaps make plans to go to sometime far in the future. Or by chance, you can get there almost by mistake, when, for example, someone calls you on Saturday evening and wants you to decide immediately to join his journey there in several days time in order to bring a yacht across the ocean to Europe. The second case was our own experience.
“Would you be interested in flying with me to the eastern Caribbean and sailing back on a yacht?” said a man on the telephone. “There would be three of us on board an unknown boat as well as a captain. Unfortunately I don’t know more, but it would be great, wouldn’t it? We’d fly in nine days, so you have only until 11 P.M. to decide…” I received a similar phone call later from a girl who I met just five times in my life – the first time being only two months ago. By ten o’clock I called him back to tell him that I agree to join.
The forty-foot yacht named “Baccarat” belongs to a French man, Mr. Roulet, whose wife hates sea faring and flying. I don’t understand then why they own a yacht, but I presume that Jacques thinks that after moving the boat to Europe Michelle will be satisfied. Millionaires sometimes have strange ideas and strange ways of going about things. They could not find anybody for the moving the yacht via the unfavorable eastern route, so they tried to contact some Polish captains- owners of charter companies- who promised to find somebody to sail the boat. As a result there are three members of the crew: Wojtek, a captain who already spent a few years working aboard ships; Marika, a girl working as a minister with only a week of experience in the Baltic, and me, who has never been on the sea. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a joke or a dream, but why wake up when life can often be so boring J. There is no need to change it right now.
Prague – Paris – Fort de France
At ten A.M. a car with a Polish sign on the window came to pick me up at McDonald’s in a suburb of Prague. Wojtek is probably an experienced man, but as a seeming gesture of his national character he switched the rear tires to the front to be more sure about our ability to get to Paris. At the Orly Airport he noticed that his luggage weighed much more than was allowed: a half an hour later an officer finds a three-pound rusty pipe wrench in Marika’s vanity bag. Wojtek’s notebook computer, where he has all the maps and navigating programs, has just been installed.
At last we took our seat inside the aircraft and I tried to imagine weeks ahead. We flew somewhere over the Ocean, across which we’d be sailing back to Europe for two months. The airport hall in the metropolis of Martinique was quite cool where we arrived in the evening. We tried to imagine the moment when we would breath the air outside first time. But none of us expected a green house with temperatures of 40°C at nine in the evening.
We had to get to the marina to find a boat that we didn’t know, nor even had a photo of. But it was not as difficult as we expected. There was perhaps one man here before us, but he gave up his attempts to repair the boat and moved away in shortly after. I think sometimes about his possible reasons. We step now onto a white, non-skid board that will be our home for the next three months.
For the following few days we learn various things about the yacht. The Baccarat is a fiberglass regatta, which looks quite quick and well maintained. But by and by we come to understand why such boats are used mainly close to the shore and only rarely out in the wide ocean. A boat which sells for about $300.000 looks reliable only from the outside. Wojtek remarks that really good yachts cost three times more. As we learn more and more, we understand more as to why they didn’t manage to get other people for the journey. Especially as it’s just a few weeks before the start of the hurricane season…
First time on the sea
Martinique is wonderful. Marika and I often go to the beaches and cliffs at sunrise before making repairs on the yacht, and fortunately there is also some time left for swimming in the lagoons in the evenings. We expected rather a part of the world where people live more simply, but the reality is a bit different. The French territories are advanced, touristy, and for us (of course) expensive. But it does not take anything away from their beauty.
Now at last comes the first day of our trial sailings. Wojtek explains to us the basic principles of adjusting the sails and of controlling the yacht. It’s quite a funny matter, evoking remembrances from my past studies at the Technical University in Prague. We have to find out how the boat is working on the waves and what we shall expect later: from the boat, and from ourselves as well. We decide to sail for some weeks around the Lesser Antilles, to learn and to test the boat. There will be no space for that on the wide open seaJ.
Our Volvo engine starts well and its sound chills me out. Maybe it’s just a psychological certainty, but I’m thankful for it. I catch myself napping fitfully because I have no idea what will happen in the coming days. An unimpeded view comes at the moment when we pull up the sails for the first time. It’s a really strange feeling when the engine quiets and the wind leans into the large, arched white curves. In the sudden silence we head somewhere towards a line connecting the sky with the sea.
In the Eastern Caribbean
After several shorter test cruises within sight of Martinique we start longer trips to the neighboring islands: first to Dominica to the north that we already heard about before. It is said that the island is a real tropical paradise. Now I know it’s true.
We learn about continual driving in shifts of four hours at the stern. It is important that everybody is able to control the boat completely alone. I am a little bit afraid whether Marika and I can manage it, but it goes well. On the second day we see on the horizon a green island that looks like it’s from a postcard. Unfortunately we don’t have enough time for a longer visit, but we can’t miss this chance to go there. However, to go there means to swim there because our sculler is broken, so we end up having to pull a bucket in a rescue wheel with our money, cameras and dry clothes.
The stories we had heard were real, the island is really wonderful. There were tropical flowers with hummingbirds, lianas, nice people, and above all, in contrast with the noise of Martinique, quiet. And the people speak English, which for us is a big help. Mainly, the inhabitants of Dominica gave us an impression that there are still some places where you can live well without hurry and conflict. They are simply marvelous. We can imagine very easily staying here and not continuing on to anywhere else. But the tornado season is coming soon and time is pushing us: we have to learn everything and finish the preparations for our long journey. Wojtek decides to sail more northward and to also visit another French island, Guadeloupe. We don’t have anything against this idea, and in fact look forward to it.
I say to myself that to leave the Czech Republic at the end of winter is really not bad, but I find one thing unpleasant: I am sea-sick. Two months of rocking and swaying on the waves are waiting for us and I really don’t know what to think about it. Maybe rather nothing.
Our visit to Guadeloupe and return over two days have shown the shortcomings of both us and the boat. Confirmation comes with a trip to another of the islands, Santa Lucia. Our sails have twice the surface size that Wojtek usually works with, and a fifty year-old guy learns these things anew only with difficulty. We “pay” for this with two broken genoas, for which I try to guess whether we can manage to milk some money from the owner for the repairs, or pay for it ourselves and hope that he will reimburse us later. Our money is already running lower than we expected and it starts to be unpleasant. It seems that the Frenchman is not going to pay us anything more than he has to.
Our bilingual communication proves quite good. Wojtek understands Czech well and the at the same time we start to use our Polish. We leave English behind and from this moment we astonish the locals who cannot understand how people can talk to each other in two- from first sight- different languages. But this is minor: Our languages don’t make us different, we are both, after all, imagining driving the yacht. His authority as captain, however, doesn’t sit well with me, as I learned at University before that ‘aircrafts are made reliable and are repaired equally.’ On a boat, where one trouble comes per every half a day, I don’t really feel confident for a cruise across a quarter of the globe.
Czechs before putting out
The date that the captain said is the latest possible for the start of our journey across the ocean is coming soon. We cannot wait any longer. But Tomasz does not send the money he promised and this is really disquieting. There is no money to buy dumps, or even to continue with the necessary repairs. I don’t understand what he’s doing. We decide for an ultimatum. Wojtek will call him to say that we are leaving the yacht un-repaired in the marina and flying home. Then a miracle happened: more than a thousand Euros was deposited into our account.
We fixed the fundamental things, but the ship is far from perfect condition. Unfortunately, we can’t make it any better, so we pray that no unexpected complications will come. If it looks like a symbolic expression, it’s not. Marika is a minister.
Next we do the biggest shopping of our lives. We knew that we would need a lot of food, but that it is more than 200 pounds without water is hardly imaginable. Even buying drinking water becomes a big problem. One of the two tanks doesn’t look reliable, so we don’t rely on it and buy instead many five-liter plastic bottles. We chose right, as we see later. Our draught increases rapidly, when as a last preparation we clean the hull of weeds and mollusks to get the highest speed.
A few days before putting out we hear people speaking Czech in one of harbor pubs. At first I think it’s a mistake, but at a nearby table four men drinking beer are really talking about Prague. We all are pleasantly surprised. We talk briefly about our plans; they can’t understand how just the three of us almost without experience are going to sail across the ocean. I, on the other hand, wonder why one of them speaks about his two runs on a lake back in the Czech Republic. I think I should get into everything and be not surprised by anything.
I start to be afraid by my tangles with Wojtek. I tell myself not to go against what he’s doing, because he’s much more experienced and he’s our captain, so he must be right. But somehow this leaves me slowly in the final hours before putting out. We fix the date at the 28th of April in the evening. I have to say that when my slip sole took off the mole and I knew that wouldn’t touch land for a month, I was afraid. If anything went wrong, rescue boats were perhaps there, but it is hardly certifiable. The batteries were old and their capacity was at about a tenth of the original level. Wojtek was also not really sure about everything, but he tried to hide it. Marika continued singing. I don’t know if she is untroubled, or if she fights off the fear. Somehow I can’t find the courage to ask her. I unfasten the rope from the mole, and we put off.
On the sea
A strong wind blows slightly against us. The waves reach seven meters and are not very long, so the yacht strikes with its nose into nothing. This is the worst way for the boat to sail, and for me too. After a short time I feed the fish behind us. I try to imagine the next month. According to Wojtek and the forecast the wind should calm down, but at the moment it does not look as if it will be soon. We have to change the setting of the sails. When we do that, suddenly there sounds a noise that we already know: genoa has broken again. We are still within eyeshot of the coast, so there is nothing to solve. We head back, our yacht turns and it’s immediately quite. The Baccarat now glides on big waves, no longer against them, and everything looks quite different. We arrive back in the harbor after several hours and Marika and I decide that we won’t go back out to sea with Wojtek again. My patience had gone, even though I tried to persuade myself that a broken sail is not always the fault of the one who had earlier raised it. But then this is the third one.
The repair of the sail takes two days and within that time we consider all the pros and cons of this expedition. I am a little bit afraid that we imagined something that was out of the range of our possibilities. But whoever our stand-by should be, it simply is not him. I wonder whether it is my fault or Wojtek’s. We get a good forecast for the following days and what is more, we managed to establish a good radio connection with an American who promises to send us the forecast for the whole time of our journey. He does not know us at all and is doing that just from his own willingness. For some reason we somehow cool down and move slowly towards agreeing to try it once again. The evening before I had talked with Wojtek frankly and I told him about our doubts. He seemed to me not to be so surprised, but he tried to hide it. In the moments when I talk about my fear, I find it slowly disappearing. It is decided then: The following day in the morning we head out a second time towards the Azores, 2200 nautical miles away.
The captain says in this season with this type of boat it’s possible that the journey will take just three weeks. It’s not really definite, but it means rather not less than three weeks. We slowly get used to the fact that for at least the first third of the cruise to the Azores we’ll be heading against the wind and tack. For me this is a prediction of a week of sea-sickness, which troubles me to imagine. But how could we expect our imagination would take on a real face already on the first day? I hope for a wind from anywhere except the head. The GPS is showing a number slightly over two thousand miles to the nearest edge of the Azores, but we have to go by a northern arc because of the winds and ocean currents…allowing that no tornado comes J.
The radio works well and gives a certain feeling of confidence. However, when we call for the first time to America, we feel like we’re in a ghastly castle because our weak batteries cannot supply such a huge charge, even when the engine is on and all the lights and compass are going down. Wojtek is enthusiastic about how everything works “perfectly,” while Marika and I look on as if at a comic-book. But we get a kick out of it and neither of us really minds it. In the evening I start my shift heading into nowhere, four thousand kilometers by a speed of about four to five knots. The fear has mostly gone, there is no other choice anyway. The water is fizzing monotonously along the sides of the Baccarat and we commit ourselves to the ocean ahead.
After the first days of our journey the sun shines unceasingly. We arrange everything in a way that we can hide from it during our four-hour shifts at the helm. To go inside is impossible, it is too hot and we are soon sick. So instead we all lay on board and bake into cocoa colour. After a short quiet time a stronger wind kicks up causing the waves to reach ten meters. They are long, like mountains everywhere around and we slide up and down them like on a toboggan. We then encounter our first problems with the roller of the genoa and again we lose a sail. Broke it – Wojtek! We have three more, so we’re not too disturbed, but the roller is really important …
We decide then that I have to climb up the mast: Wojtek will pull me on a rope by the capstan. My stomach changes into something that does not help, especially to climb up fourteen meters. The sway at the top end of the mast can be four meters at times, so I really don’t want to go there. But the captain is much heavier and stronger than me, so we cannot change places. So I end up climbing the mast with a knife between my teeth with which to cut the old rope holding the rest of the sail. The whole time I ask myself, “why I am doing such things?” In any case, it turned out well, the roller is twisting again.
More cool waters are ahead. The sun is still shining, but the sea has already changed its color, and perhaps also its mind. The wind blows more from the side now and this is much better for us. After almost three days without any food I eat my first bowl of soup. Another two days goes by and for the first time since our training in the marina we set a spinnaker. We hope that the ship will shoot ahead towards our destination, but instead the newly flown sail broke a fixture of the main sail, undoing in an instant two hours of hard work. We begin to get used to the fact that every day brings another accident or something unexpected, but it’s a grudging acceptance. Then, unexpectedly, a day came that in the diary the only thing written was…’Nothing happened!’ It was really the only day during the entire journey. But we take it as a trifle, withal Wojtek says that this is usual. We just laugh.
On the 14th of May in the evening, just as we pass the half-point of the trip, we receive bad news: A storm is coming which we cannot avoid. The best we can do is to pass on its periphery. As we get together and prepare for the storm’s onset, the sky starts to change color. And so I go to sleep unsure what to expectation when I wake up. My sleep is very short and I’m awoken by the captain’s grumbling and changing of the sails. All of us have to go above board, take rescue belts and tie ourselves to the boat. In the rain- though still a mild wind- we try to roll the sail to a third. It doesn’t go well. Training in a marina is very different from the reality in the dark, the rain, and with wind and waves washing over the board. Fortunately, the sail finally does look as we had wanted. We (Marika and I) go to sleep wet with rescue belts on.
Later on, the waves still wash over the board, and now us as well. This is not so uncommon, but also not permanent. Now, however, one thing is different: We have several millimeters of salty mush on our eyebrows as the water dries on our faces. I think about how our condition could easily change with a good rain, because it could help to wash us. But as I soon see, there will really be no time later for such pettiness.
Marika always has her shifts in the mornings, so she is taking over right when the storm the most strength. I commiserate with her and wonder whether I should change with her or do something else, but there is probably no way to help. I try to fall asleep, but I still wonder whether she is strapped well. I admire her.
It is important now for me to sleep and build up my energy for my own struggle at the helm. When Wojtek wakes me up, the rain is already dying down, but the wind is still very strong. Marika looks like a salty penguin in plastic and sits stiffly behind the wheel. We cuddle and together fix the snap hooks to the ties of the autopilot.
It appears that the storm leaves overhead, but this change is not to be seen in the waves, or at least not in their height. There are some other waves coming from different directions causing a real complication for driving. Fortunately, it mostly happens with the end of a storm. In such waves you cannot avoid the falls of the nose of the boat into an emptiness. This worries me, because every such a stroke may mean a serious danger. Suddenly my worries are confirmed: The front water tank breaks, and below deck fills up with “sweet” water, which is the last thing we need right now. This means that a third of our drinking water has gone. A half an hour later a radar reflector from the top of the mast falls down and a second wave washes its scraps away to the ocean. We are now invisible. We cannot shine lights because of weak batteries and other radars cannot see us as well. But the ocean is now exceedingly beautiful and the wild waves are higher than our fifteen meter-high mast. The sun is coming back. Despite my apprehension, I take the movie camera and try to catch these fleeting moments. In the end the yacht endured, and we did too.
Horizon with the Azores
Every morning our GPS brings us better and better numbers. The number of miles left to the first point of the Azores decreases every day by almost a hundred, and so we talk about the land. I also talk about food, which I understand differently than the others. The wind is blowing now from favorable directions, mainly from the sides, which means the fastest way of sailing. Evening comes, and we hope to wake up with a view of Flores, the most western cape of Europe and also the Azores.
I wake up at half past seven, a half an hour earlier than I should, and I go up on deck. Marika doesn’t say anything, just with a smile on her face shows me somewhere ahead a hardly distinguishable line connecting the sky and sea level. We are all unbelievably happy and check to see if we can somehow increase the speed at least a bit. Late in the afternoon we pull the sails down, start the engine, and with the roaring of the surf head with the prow of the boat towards the small fishing harbour of Lajes das Flores.
The waves finally cease, the yacht rests on a giant tyre on the mole and our feet after three weeks touch the firm land. Nothing can stop us from lurching to the nearest pub, where there are common chairs, table, food and rest. We lived to see it, we crossed the Atlantic, and now we have to pass all the archipelago islands. The last phase will be a week to Portugal, that should be extremely easy, as everybody says.
The Azores were until recently a relatively less known part of the world, or at least for a majority of us. But without doubt everybody would like it there; there are magnificent sea cliffs with stormy surfs below, white stone houses with blue windows, old whale factories, and here and there old wooden boats on the shore. There are beautiful green hills, forests and waterfalls, meandering roads on steeps over the sea and above all, very friendly people. Every one from the nine islands is a little bit different, but every one beautiful in its own way. If I had my own yacht, I would go there again for sure, regardless of the troubles with my stomach that didn’t stop the whole time.
We then arrange a plan about how long we’ll spend here and when we have to be back in Europe. We have a lot of time thanks to our quick run across the Atlantic, so we exaggerate what we’ll do here – whales live in the waters here, so there is also something interesting to see on the sea. But there is another side of the coin: we almost can’t use the lights and we don’t have radar. If we meet a ship or a whale … All through my night shift I try to listen very carefully, trying to catch a snuffle of some big inhabitant of the deep, but fortunately no one came.
Days follow days and we move from one island to another. The Lesser Azores are followed by the Greater Azores and become more eventful. We almost feel like we’re in Europe, but surely here it is much more quiet. We liked most the small islands of Flores and Santa Maria, which as it happens were the first and the last we met. I occasionally wonder whether I could live here and even now I don’t really know. But it is all the same anyway, because our minds are full of new plans on what to do and see after our arrival. I have to say that it is a really strange experience when one comes back to our civilization after a long stay just at sea.
We want to leave the Azores. Back to the sea, however, we begin to look forward to Europe. The way to the Portuguese harbor of Villamoura should just take a week, so we wait for a day with a good weather forecast. Finally, we take leave of the local hospitable people and this beautiful archipelago and the boat is prepared for the last phase of the cruise. The water tank is no longer inside – both broke during the storms – and also the stream in the batteries cannot be used normally. It is said that this part of the journey is for children, so I think there is little reason to worry. At last a good omen came – a mild side wind – and in the evening of May 30th we head on engine right to the east: towards continental Europe.
The Azores look very different from the first lap. The wind blows only gently and never against us, which mainly I appreciate. I can eat normally now, after three weeks of yearning for just this. Sometimes we use just the engine. It is relatively cold so we usually use a feather anorak in the nights. We expect a dark line on the horizon. Every day the satellite transmits the same number of miles left on the display. I begin thinking that I’m going to fail in university if I don’t try to catch up on all the missed exams. I haven’t been there for more than two and half months and the summer is coming. I imagine the smell of blooming trees, but I realize that they already faded. I also realized that I am simply a landlubber and I should not be on the open sea. Maybe other people are different, but I found this out with an unswerving sureness.
One morning Wojtek points towards the horizon and I see land. It is the Portuguese coast and our journey is coming to an end. Actually, only mine and Marika’s; the captain will continue with another crew to Croatia. I am trying to consider what the experience of the cruise gave to me, what were its mistakes and faults, and what went well. I think that at times I had low tolerance, and at other times also an ability to admire. For example, the captain’s character. He is perhaps a fair man. Or sometimes I forgot the beauty of sailing due to systematic technical troubles on the yacht. But in any case, it was a nice phase of my life, and when I step on the mole in Villamoura, I will be glad and thankful for everything we could see.