I had been meandering around the Canaries for a couple of months, relishing deserted volcanic anchorages and welcoming harbours in equal measure, but now it was time to embark on my first serious solo ocean passage. Sensible as always, my girlfriend had jumped ship in desperation, and left on a catamaran with a toilet and a fridge and all sorts of other unfathomable modern luxuries.
I had made the usual preparations of the nervous sailor, and filled my boat with all manner of provisions and spares. The sight of Lorema’s waterline was a distant memory. Among tonnes of food and water, I was also carrying all the other necessary junk of a cruising boat: a pair of speakers; a circular saw; a library of novels; a good few boxes of wine; several unreasonably large pieces of timber; and – of course – an old French racing bicycle. I had hauled myself aloft more times than I could count, emptied the local hardware store, phoned my parents and, finally, I was ready to depart.
I sculled out of my berth in Las Palmas, waving goodbye to friendly neighbours. My sails went up quickly, and I did a little lap of the anchorage before heading out of the harbour. As I weaved my way through the anchored container ships outside the port, the flukey inshore winds strengthened and the sheltered waters gave way to a moderate swell.
With two reefs in, I was propelled haphazardly through the wind acceleration zone that lies south-east of Gran Canaria, like a cork from a champagne bottle. And truly, I felt as insignificant as a cork, as the island disappeared and the unimaginable expanse of the Atlantic grew before me.
I didn’t get a great deal of sleep that first night, what with the shipping and the excitement of departure, but I managed a few minutes here and there. When sailing near shipping lanes or in coastal waters, I allow myself 20 minutes at a time if I have an empty horizon. In theory, this should be less time than it would take a fast ship on a collision course to rise over the horizon and run me over. The snooze button is a temptation that has to be fought religiously.
We managed to avoid any scuffles, and the sun rose to find Lorema still merrily floating along, so I set about dealing with a cup of tea and some breakfast. A good brew and some muesli will do wonders for a bleary head, and I realised I had been heading due south for long enough. I had been trying not to get caught in the large wind shadow of Gran Canaria, but it was about time to head west and avoid the large swell that builds up far off the coast of Morocco.
A wet passage to Cape Verdes
The wind and the swell were consistently strong, and I realised that I had a wet trip ahead. Folkboats are not known for being dry at the best of times, and my helming position is even more exposed owing to Lorema’s decked-over cockpit. Thankfully, my homemade wooden self-steering gear was looking after the helm admirably, and so I could stay sheltered inside the cabin. However, every time I went out to adjust something, I would get soaked.
To make matters worse, I had leaks around the mast and companionway. The main hatch, although pretty, is about as useful as a colander for keeping waves out. The small area under the hatch is not only the galley, but is also the only place where you can perch over a bucket in the morning. It’s particularly hard to do any serious toilet reading while rolling 45° each way under a small waterfall, and even harder to retain any sense of dignity.
I sailed on, trailing my faithful log, counting down the miles to the Cape Verde Islands. The sky was a little overcast, but I still managed to get enough sunsights to keep a good track of my position. My sextant is a plastic EBCO, equipped with old 35mm film to dim the sunlight. It was bought long ago for less than the price of a good meal and was given to me by friend and inspirational cruising sailor Nick Skeates. It has never let me down, and I plotted my course daily, taking great care to keep my charts and sight reduction tables dry. I watched my pencil marks edge south, parallel to the sparse and dangerous African coast.
The weather was relentless and tiring for eight wet days, and I didn’t once hoist a full main, but the breeze was almost always behind me, and it was hugely satisfying to cover so much distance. Finally, after 900 miles, I approached the Cape Verdes at the ideal time of day, just before sunrise.
The main navigation lights were nowhere to be found, but I was confident of my position, and followed the loom of Mindelo into the channel between São Vincente and Santo Antão. As I sailed closer to the islands, the sun rose behind volcanic peaks and lit up a prehistoric scene, silhouetting the giant stone claws that reach into the sky all around.
I was happy and relieved to have arrived and anchored, but though I was tired, I couldn’t sleep for the prospect of going ashore. When I had rowed ashore and navigated the necessary bureaucracy, I wandered around Mindelo, soaking up its culture and its colour, feeling as light as air.
Making friends in Mindelo
I spent a little time there, and did some work on the steering gear, the sails and the standing rigging. I gooped up some of the sources of leaks and, most importantly, made a cover for the main hatch. I made friends, notably with the lovely crew of the Sea Shepherd conservation boat stationed there, who I shocked by talking of my plans to decimate acres of ancient rainforest to build a boat in South America.
There was also a young Spanish cruising couple whom I showered with carrots (I bought enough in Las Palmas for an army), and a very kind boatful of Turks who fed me repeatedly and thought I was completely bonkers.
Jobs done, I got ready to skidaddle, but not before a night of music in a local bar. Inspired by the atmosphere in the town, I took my guitar and started playing sheepishly in a corner – and soon remembered what fun this is. The drinks come free, other musicians turn up, we all sing terrible songs, proclaim each other best friends for ever, and believe we have made something magical. Which we have, in a way.
And so, against all my previous resolutions, I set sail with a hangover once again. Ashamed at having visited only one island in the archipelago, I sailed round into the lee of Santo Antão. The strong wind gave way suddenly to wind shadow, and I went from three reefs to almost completely becalmed in a matter of feet. Eventually, though, I reached a tiny village called Tarrafal, nestled in a little valley underneath huge mountainous cliffs.
I spent two nights anchored off that sleepy village, wandering the rocky hills and relishing the feel of the hard earth beneath my feet. I spent the evenings eating and drinking with a generous couple who had arrived by yacht 15 years ago and had started a remote guest house. I was sorely tempted to stay longer, but the Caribbean beckoned, and I knew that the longer I put off my departure, the harder it would be.
Across the Atlantic
So, one morning, I lifted my anchor, hoisted sail and was away again. I looked back at the land disappearing, and knew I wouldn’t see any more for several weeks. I felt elated and terrified, full of excitement and dread.
However, the weather was fair, the breeze strong, but comfortable and the barometer stable. I saw no boats during the first couple of days, so my sleeping schedule relaxed and I turned my alarm off. My body grew accustomed to the movement and sounds of the boat, and even small changes in condition woke me.
I ate plenty, cooking flatbreads on my trusty pump-up paraffin stove, and devouring packs of biscuits I had unsuccessfully tried to hide from myself. I tried to get through the mountain of fresh fruit and vegetables before they rotted. It led to some interesting meals.
After three days, the amount of Sargasso grass in the water started increasing. It stopped me fishing and got caught on the servo-pendulum for my windvane self-steering, causing Lorema to veer off course. I spent a day leaning perilously over the transom with a boathook to clear it, but as the grass increased, it became a real problem. Eventually, I took the whole steering system off, and tied the jib sheet to the tiller. After some experimentation with bungees, snatch blocks and different-sized jibs, I managed to get Lorema to steer herself downwind very well.
Navigation was the cornerstone of each day, and provided focus and structure. Three sunsights gave me a noon position, and after a while I worked out how to shoot stars and planets. With a couple of meals to cook, a beer at sunset, and a little music or reading, my days were pretty full.
But one of my big worries was an infection that started in my knee shortly after I left Cape Verde. As it swelled and became painful, thoughts of DIY amputation ran through my head. Thankfully, with medication it eventually went away.
There were other minor issues: a jammed halyard, some heavy squalls, some large seas, but nothing unmanageable. I spent hours dreaming up plans, wallowing in memories and possibilities. At times the movement of the boat would drive me almost to madness.
Life on board
When you try to do something as simple as making a cup of tea, and the waves insist on violently throwing you to the other side of the cabin, spilling your boiling tea, throwing your food around, and propelling knees and elbows and heads into sharp corners, it seems sometimes like a personal insult. But in time you learn to move in a different way, and to make do with less tea.
Sleeping also gets harder in big seas. Every unusual wave wakes you and provokes you to check outside for anything strange, and look for an approaching squall. These Atlantic squalls sometimes come through many times in a day, sometimes not at all. Sometimes they bring howling wind, sometimes just a short, but torrential shower. You can’t tell and so it’s necessary to reef the sails before they arrive each time. The fierce ones can be very fierce and would have no pity on the fool in a tiny boat flying a full main.
Generally, though, the winds were ideal, if a little on the strong side, and I spent my days and nights inspired and thoughtful, watching the sea go by, marvelling at the scale of the universe and the size of this ocean, and thinking about my tiny boat in the middle of it. The feeling was something between vulnerability, freedom, power and fear.
After 20 days, I found Martinique in the dark, and the sun rose as I rounded the island. The land looked fake, like a theatre backdrop, with flat boards layered behind each other to give the illusion of perspective. The colours were ridiculously vivid and the smell of the land was muddy, woody and wholesome. I found my way to a port, feeling thoroughly bizarre, dropped the anchor and rowed ashore.
Bearded and sunburnt and salty and tired, I ended up wobbling into a fast-food restaurant of all places, eager to find wi-fi and let my parents and friends know I had made it.
It was cold with the air conditioning and I nearly laughed out loud with the irony: I had sailed thousands of miles to be somewhere hot and beautiful and here I was in the Caribbean, freezing in McDonalds!
I finished my emails and escaped, then I filled my lungs with warm Caribbean air, feasted my eyes on the vivid colours and strolled off in search of a cold beer.
I bought Lorema in poor condition about three years ago. She had more than her fair share of rot, but she stood out in the harbour as something special. An engine-less Nordic Folkboat, she was built in Sweden in 1947, I think, although it has been hard to get information. One of the first times I sailed her, a chainplate pulled out of the planks and the mast came down.
By chance, I ended up at Gweek in Cornwall where, thanks to amazing generosity and good advice, I was able to rebuild the boat on an absolute shoestring and get sailing again ten months later. I gave her new planks, frames, transom, a new deck and mast, and an unusual decked over cockpit, which I did both for stowage and for seaworthiness in the ocean.
I renamed her Lorema after my grandmother, an amazing and inspirational woman.
After the relaunch I spent a summer sailing in Ireland and another winter working on various boatbuilding projects in Cornwall, before setting out south in May 2014. Lorema and I are now in Antigua, West Indies. http://sampsonboat.co.uk/