So what is it like to do a trans Atlantic crossing on a 113-year-old sailboat? In a word, multidimensional. Like skipper Richard Oswald said, “ We are sailing pretty much like it was 2 centuries ago”. Sure, we had a diesel engine, a satellite phone, batteries and some poly lines. But for the most part, how we sailed was much how it was like for sailors 200 years ago. For me, that was rarified air. I felt a real connection to those that had done this voyage before me.
Raising and lowering sails took a crew of four plus a helmsman. Many times two would handle one line with one person ‘sweating’ the line (pushing then pulling it toward him and down), while the other would take in the slack and eventually tie it off with a figure eight around a pin. No modern winches for these halyards. Also, we had no autopilot, that clever device that controls the steering to a direction that you dial in to a specific course. Rather, Coral of Cowes required one of us to manually steer the boat at all times, day or night, regardless of weather. We had shifts of two crewmembers for two hours in the daytime and three hours in the night. Each crewmember would man the helm a half hour at a time during a shift. The other would do everything else in the meantime—monitor the horizon for boats (we had close encounters with ocean-going freighters every day), make coffee or tea, check lines for chafing and sails for rips, monitor the radar—you name it. The skipper banned gambling and declared this a ‘dry’ cruise—no alcohol until we reached Horta 16 days later. Both were good ideas although I had never considered gambling much of a problem.
There was always two of the crew assigned daily to the galley to prepare food and drinks for the other six on watch duty. Before we left Sint Maarten I had joined the boat three days before departure.
My main job was to assist Claire, the assigned quarter-mistress responsible for provisioning the boat with food and other consumable necessities. Charlie Couture also joined the trio since he had made an earlier Atlantic crossing and had a good idea of the quantities needed to fuel a Coral crew. We had to feed 8 people, three times a day for a maximum of three weeks. That’s 500 meals. In one day we spent $1700 on food. We rented a car and scoured the French and Dutch sides of Saint Martin for the best foods for a hungry crew. When all was done, we probably spent $2400 for everything. A couple of times I was paired with Dexter, our bosun from Grenada, on galley duty. Man, did we make some mean West Indies curries with liberal amounts of the hot peppa’ sauce. The island boys did well.
Once under way, I was surprised how busy I was with helming, crewing, cooking and cleaning. I gave up trying to shave the first day. We bathed every 4-5 days, as water was a premium even though we had a tremendously efficient water maker. There was still plenty of time for contemplation. I spent hours staring out to sea, memorized by the vast undulating, cobalt blue surface upon which we sailed. It was a one-time-only configuration of wave, wind and sky that changed by the second. I felt privileged to witness the impermanence of this waterscape that would never be repeated again. It was the power of being there at that precise moment, at that slice of time in our planet’s methodical journey around the sun. If you want to see a bit of what I did from the deck, check out this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJzPdODGiUc or type in ‘coral trans atlantic’ on You Tube for other clips.
At night I would often scan the heavens for stars. No light pollution this far away from land. Down below, I slept deep and had enormous amounts of dreams in super saturated Technicolor. I had not dreamed this much ever in my life. None of the dreams were about the sea. Most were about my past and included family, friends and old acquaintances, many who I had not thought about in ages. Most dreams were pleasant, a few disturbing and a few brought up old regrets. The experience was one of exhilaration while being exhausting at the same time. But once awake, the immediate environment took over. I moved on with the demands of the boat and my fascination with the sea.
I remember we were about three days out of Sint Maarten thinking, “OK, I’ve seen enough.” But there is no drop off point and I was quite wrong to think that I had seen all that I was about to. It was only beginning. One surprising event was that my old body changed. I got physically tough. My fingers thickened with muscle. My hands become a leathery surface of dried skin and salt. Weeks afterwards while taking a hot shower, the skin from my palms flaked off like white snowflakes. I learned how to steer the 75-ton ship in demanding seas without putting additional stress on my right shoulder’s rotator cuff that started giving me pain from Day One, the result of too many years carrying 30-pound video cameras. All of us had the requisite bruises and bumps that everyone gets being on board, especially during the three storms we experienced. No one was immune. One day while sitting on a fixed stool by the salon’s dinner table a wave hit Coral broadside. Its force sent me flying across the room to the opposite side of the boat. Fortunately I landed in the soft comfort of a beanbag chair. By the time I staggered down the dock in Horta with a serious case of sea legs 16 days later, I had become one tough hombre. I found that enlightening.
Lastly, I was enchanted by the sounds that Coral made while underway. “This old lady, she speaks to you,” said the captain. And it was true. There was the creaking of rope on wood, whistling sounds that at night brought images of sirens wooing me into the black water, the crack of a sail by the wind, the strain of a preventer holding back a boom, the sounds of waves breaking all around us or against the hull. Paul Briggs asked to me one morning if I had heard Jimmy Hendrix playing among the rigging the night before. I said I did. It must have been The Wind Cries Mary. This sonic world dominated my time aboard. Those sounds still enter my dreams now and deliver me back to the sea in a heartbeat.