The not-so-high life on the high seas

While this voyage has been fantastic, and everything I had hoped it would be, it may help you to understand our lives on Sophie B if I related the events and activities of today…

Midnight to 12:40 a.m.: Fitful rest, having stood down from a watch at 11 pm.
12:40: Alarm goes off – up time! Off one’s bunk again. Pillow and fleece blanket stowed away – there is not enough place for everyone’s clobber to be left lying around. Waterproof trousers and jacket on. PFD on. Torch and gloves found. Just enough time to make and drink a cup of instant coffee before heading into a half-moon lit seascape.

Someone is helming. I can’t remember who was supposed to be on duty, and it’s too dark to recognize him. “Top o’ the morning to you,” I grumble. The response confirms the other’s identity. I crawl across the bridge deck, flop onto the cushions in the cockpit and instinctively reach for a clipping-on point. “What’s up?”. “Same as two hours ago. Getting a little calmer. Wind 12, gusting 18. Try to hold 305“.

And that’s all one actually needs to know. For the next two hours, he and I alternate 30 minutes at the helm in the red loom of the compass light and the softer yellow lights of the speed and wind dials.


When not actually helming, one looks out for traffic, makes minor adjustments to the sail settings, stares at the stars – many are familiar if unnamed, having been used as navigation markers on previous nights. One might go and sit at the navigation table and complete the ship’s log, stare at the GPS plotter, make more coffee. I must make sure my fellow watchkeeper’s replacement is awake and ready by 3.

0240: The versicle-and-response above is repeated as my fellow keeper is replaced. Nothing changes.

0340: My replacement is now getting ready. In 20 minutes time, I’ll be able to go below, unpack pillow and fleece, get out of my deck wear, and crash. With any luck, I’ll get 3 and a bit hours undisturbed rest.

0530: No. Not tonight. A squall is approaching – we’re in the tropics after all. Sails must be brought down, the boat made secure. Taking spinnakers down (and raising them again) requires all four crew. We know that the boat’s safety is more important than our sleep and everyone accepts that these interruptions are part of the package.

Being the most asleep, I’m the last one on deck. Preparations to drop the lightweight spinnaker are far advanced. I haven’t managed to pull my shoes or gloves on, but go forward on the dew-wet deck in a pre-dawn greyness, wearing socks, shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Sartorial concerns are not high on our priority list: a running thread of commentary is on who has changed a shirt recently…

0600: The sail comes down. The genoa is unfurled. We wait for the squall to hit. Finally it does, sluicing down for 15 minutes. Other than the helm, the other two hunker below. I grab a towel and shampoo and head for the foredeck for a first proper wash in 12 days.

Soaked but warm, and now down to shorts, I wait out the rest of the squall in the cockpit. Somewhere in this I grab breakfast of a bowl of plain yoghurt with honey, and an orange. I can’t remember when I ate them.

We raise the spinnaker. I go below to file our daily position report, and to record the few items of data that we send with that to help forecasters with their weather predictions. I just about finish washing up breakfast bowls (it’s my day for that, says the roster. Later tonight I’m on dinner duty) …

0830, and things go awry. The next squall is coming in. We suffer a loss of faith and decide to bring the heavy weather spinnaker back down. No one can remember who is supposed to be on watch, and who not. We tie the spinnaker to the foredeck, hoping to raise it immediately after the squall passes – this is a race after all.

The genoa is partially unfurled to help us maintain speed through the squall. Until, with a loud swoosh, it collapses from the masthead into the sea and a mangled, broken, piece of shackle lands on the foredeck next to me. Thankfully the sail is still attached at the other two corners, but the weight of the sail brings the boat to an immediate stop.

Three of us wrestle 100m2-plus of sail onto the other side of the foredeck from the spinnaker and tie that down just as the squall breaks. We are all soaked, again.

The squall passes and we now have to consider what to do. We have to fix the genoa, but that will require pulling someone to the masthead, 20m above the deck. And it will take time.

But the necessity of having a backup sail other than the spinnakers is clear. Petri, the lightest and most agile of us, is the only candidate considered for the trip. With two halyards (one for safety) attached to his climbing harness, Petri is pulled to the top of the mast.

On a line, he sends down the genoa halyard, fixes the wind direction indicator – which being not vertical has given some decidedly odd readings the last few days – and inspects the top of the mast. Back down on deck, the genoa halyard is refixed and the sail hoisted. And then furled so we can fly a spinnaker and get moving again.

It’s 1130 in the morning and we resume with the watch almanac. Everyone has been up for six hours. Six hours when sleep should have been had by some.

1130: My next watch, it turns out, was from 8-12. I offer to take the helm, not least because conditions are excellent for surfing our 12 tonne boat down the long lazy swells of the trades. This part of sailing is so much fun that it will get its own post in the next few days.

1200: I’m off for the next four hours. Except that one of the crew is so exhausted from being interrupted that the rest of us cover for him for an hour. More surfing. Then down below to download weather files to plan our sailing strategy for the next day or so.

Three of us have lunch together – the fourth is helming. We will eat and then one will go to relieve the helm, so one is free to join the other two for ten minutes. Out of such things is conviviality nurtured. Lunch is leftover tuna and potato salad from yesterday. A brie. Cheddar. Salticrax. I fall asleep for two hours.

1540: Awake again, and going back on watch at 4. My co-watchkeeper offers to do the first half hour, during which time I write this post. I’m on duty till 8, and again from midnight to 3 am…

1700: Happy hour! Our daily beer. And biltong. We sit and talk for the duration of an album chosen by a member of crew. After, some repair to sleep, to continue the cycle of watches…

1800: But this is a race, and a slight windshift means that we are sailing in the wrong direction. So all four are gathered to gybe the spinnaker, and put us in a better, faster, track to Rio.

1900: Supper – we have our quota of wine with it. And everyone goes back to their place in the cycle.

So, yes, pretty much as I expected it to be. Routine. Mayhem. Routine mayhem. Periods of idleness. Periods of busyness. Sleep gathered when one can. Would I change any of it? Not at all. We have all become so adept at grabbing fragments of sleep – at four pm, two of us are fast asleep on their bunks.

Conversation is fragmentary; for the most part there is a concern for the boat, with the immediacy of our surroundings. As we become ever less informed of events outside of this bubble, those conversations become more stilted – for me, they are just too remote for proper engagement.


Actually, that is not too far from an honest depiction and yes we are mostly semi-permanently exhausted, but it does not begin to capture the wonderment at being here, on the Atlantic Ocean, with its unbelievable blueness and silence.

I think a lot about home. I miss my family. My friends. I so want you to experience this. To comprehend this vast emptiness.

I think about Jennifer starting big school next week. Of Sophie turning 13 in a few days time. And I am also finding what I don’t miss. The echo chamber of much of social media. The minutiae of university politics. And why does one sail? For days like today – with all its mini dramas, excitement, ennui, moments for reflection. Living life, really.


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