Grayhound is run by a young family. As Grandpa in that family, I used my Christmas holiday this year to sail with them across the Atlantic from Cape Verde to Barbados. A chance to share the benefits of all Marcus and Freya’s hard work over the last three years. What a trip it turned out to be!
Uncharacteristically light weather – a strong bond in the group – the unique three-masted lugger Grayhound – plus the unexpected. It was a safe, well managed passage but fair weather does not mean without incident. I will try to convey the experience of an ocean passage on Grayhound – and how problems get dealt with.
27th December. Day 4 out of Praia, I’m on 8-11 pm watch with Tobi – Grayhound rolling along at six and a half knots in the long swell. Standing bare-foot, left hand on the tiller, right holding tiller line. Warm NE wind, force 4, wind on the quarter. Exhilarating sense of channelling balanced forces in a powerful forward surge. Dark timeless outline of a traditional vessel, rakish rig, blocks and heavy tackle. Steady rumble of the bow wave, the creak of blocks and thrum of sails. Another sound too, a child is crying. It’s coming from Malachi. In the subdued light of the pilot house I can see the forms of my grandson and Marcus snuggled together on the leeward seat. Both running high temperatures – My daughter kneeling beside them squirting water into Malachi’s mouth to keep him hydrated. Everyone else is sleeping.
Marcus needed nerves and leadership skills akin to a 18th century privateer captain to build Grayhound to Cat Zero so they could trade worldwide. All these qualities were apparent at the briefing when guests arrived, he let everyone know how his ship would be run. But on the second day out he had taken to his bunk with a high fever, unable to stand. It’s a one way trip for the 2000 miles from Cape Verde to Barbados, no turning back. Sickness at sea is a serious matter.
Grayhound is a small ship, an informal but tight command structure. Freya being responsible for the ship, as well as cook and caring for Malachi, who had become ill on Day 3, with a temperature of 39.6. Spontaneously crew and guests collaborated to support her and the watch leaders. Watches were adjusted – Adam, a director of Classic Sailing, had the experience to offer to lead a watch and set about researching the medical books with Freya. Careful logs were kept for both patients. The only outside medical aid could be by satellite phone – a detailed medical history was also prepared. Meanwhile we would have to wait and see.
Ocean sailing suits self-reliant characters but also requires everyone pulls together. Fear is not out of place, so long as it doesn’t become immobilising, it ensures survival. The Atlantic swell was often large and uneven, the motion of the boat relentless, sounds below can make it difficult to sleep, while coming on deck in the dark can be challenging and disorientating. Self-confidence helps to master fear and a symbol of this for me is standing your watch. The dramas and emotional currents on board are regulated by the rhythm of the watch. Standing steady, keeping the boat going steadily, you do your spell and hand over to the next watch, in doing so you resource yourself against immobilising fear.
At night, 3 hours on, 6 hours off, longer intervals during the day so no one gets stuck with the ‘graveyard watches’. We settle into a rhythm. Night vision, no moon, Tobi steering, I’m lying on the bean-bag gazing up in awe at the depth of the Universe, when a flying fish slaps Tobi in the face, a thoughtful pause, then “I think tomorrow I start fishing again!” (he never caught anything, final score 1-0 to the fish!)
The ‘girls’ follow us. Ruth, on board since August, knows her way around Grayhound and her playful personality makes her a connector in the group as a whole. Liz, experienced in larger traditional boats on the eastern US seaboard, is impressive with her deck skills. Watches create their own bonds. Two and half weeks of the highs and lows of night watches shared with a partner make for special connections.
No one is sure when to celebrate New Year, (or how, as we are a ‘dry ship’ at sea). Freya makes dinner (moussaka and mixed berry flan) just as it is about to be served a loud distress signal on the SSB radio requires her full attention as Radio Operator. It was an error, appears to have emanated from Istanbul, but it has taken an hour. The moment has passed – watches want to get their heads down – so prematurely we toast the New Year with champagne, sing Olde Lang Sine and I read ‘Christmas At Sea’ by Masefield, sent by Liz’ father.
Adam and Grisha make up the third watch, they wake us gently with cups of tea and reports of conditions on deck. 2nd January and it’s Grisha’s birthday. Started with dolphins and a rainbow, scrambled eggs and ham and went on to card and cake (let’s hear it for the cook), ended with a call to “All hands on deck” in the middle of the night in rain and lightening to attend to the fore lug yard which had snapped. Gear damage is a theme in ocean sailing on a traditional boat. The skipper says this is a ‘proving passage’ – no one knows the last time a three-masted lugger crossed an ocean.
The lugger rig demonstrated its flexibility, at sea stuff happens and you deal with it. In the morning under Marcus’ instruction the mizzen, which is not used running down wind, was hoisted on the fore mast. In combination with the jib it provided enough power in the rising wind to drive the boat at 7 knots a bit north of our westward track. Satisfying after frustratingly light winds, much of it going in the wrong direction in order to stop the sails and spars from flogging. Some days later we gybed to work south again. Following damage to the mizzen yard (again impact damage from flogging, not enough wind and too much swell),Marcus and the crew set to setting the main topsail in its place as a square sail (with the main staysail), for the last week and the run in to Barbados as the wind finally did what the Trades are supposed to do, and blew force 4-6 from the NE through to E.
And what of Marcus and the cabin boy’s health? Malachi’s fever dropped quite quickly but he was not his normal self for another week until suddenly his exuberance and energy returned, and we knew it! Marcus took longer to recover, his energy was depleted for ten days, he had to conserve it and had to rest after attending on deck – it didn’t stop him going up the mast to recover a loose block! Likely cause of the illness? Maybe a virus picked up from kids in a playground in Praia, where the two of them hung out while Freya was shopping?
9th January. Final night, Southern Cross to port, Plough and Pole star to starboard. Started seeing fishing boats in the morning (1 ship and 2 planes is the tally for two weeks). Barbados showed up about 9am local time, bluer sea, and planes flying in and out all the time. Tied-up under the bows of a gigantic cruise ship in commercial dock in order to clear immigration, later to anchor off the beach in Carlisle Bay. Meanwhile everyone disappeared to get currency or clear with officialdom, leaving me to guard the boat before going to investigate wifi in a grotesque cruise terminal full of ‘lost’ tourists. It was a brutal re-entry from wilderness to civilisation and the dissipation of our group’s energy. Later that energy came to a satisfying conclusion as we swam and then celebrated with rum punch (plural) at the Boatyard beach bar, young Malachi running and running on the sand to the sound of a steel drum, while our good ship lay to anchor silhouetted against the tropical night sky. Two and a half years since Grayhound’s keel was laid and Malachi was born. Take a bow Marcus and Freya! Written by Chris Hart