How I made friends for life on a transatlantic crossing to the Azores

Transatlantic crossing lowdown

20th Jun 2018

Alexis Eyre quit her marketing job in the sailing industry to make a transatlantic crossing and experience life on the big seas just like her mother did decades before. We talked to Alexis about the highs and lows of life on board one of the Tall Ship’s Challenger 72s with 14 other crew mates who were all strangers before they began their adventure of a lifetime.


“I was living on the south coast and commuting into London when I started thinking seriously about making a transatlantic crossing. My mother had done it before I was born and has always considered it one of the most influential things she has done in her life, which is a lot! The tales from her adventure have always made a big impact on me and I knew it was something that I needed to get out of my system as well.

How to find a transatlantic crossing

 

“In September 2017, I handed in my notice with a sailing holiday company I was working for at the time with a view to returning to working on the south coast. With a new job offer confirmed, some agreed time off between jobs plus notice period, my search for my transatlantic commenced. After tapping up all my sailing and racing contacts, along with posting on Facebook, it looked like that my wish of crossing in December when I finished my job was not going to happen. Most boats tend to head to the Caribbean in October, November and early December to spend Christmas and New Year out there.

 

“At the beginning of December, as my hope waned, I was contacted by a local charter company who mentioned a Tall Ship had a last-minute place, setting off the first week of January. The one hitch was it was coming back from the Caribbean to the Azores, which wasn’t my original intention. This would mean we would be sailing into prevailing winds the whole way and I liked the idea of the trip gradually getting warmer not colder. But time wasn’t on my side as I was soon to start a new job, so I signed up.

Discovering the Caribbean for the first time

“I decided to lengthen my trip and set off to Guadeloupe on Boxing Day, leaving the cold rainy grey of the UK for tropical palms, turquoise seas and temperatures in the mid 30sºC/80sºF. Having never been to the Caribbean prior to this trip, I spent 10 days exploring Guadeloupe and Antigua. I fell in love with both islands, despite being so different. Island life – what’s not to like? It was the perfect start to the whole experience and if anyone was going to follow in my footsteps, I would say take at least a week out prior to jumping on the boat to enjoy the Caribbean, as there is so much to see and do.

 

“Within three weeks of confirming my trip, I was in Jolly Harbour, Antigua, climbing aboard a Challenger 72 to join my new crew of 13 men and one girl for 14 days at sea. The crew included a professional skipper and first mate, both of whom had ocean sailing experience, which I found comforting. I’ve done about 10,000nm racing inshore and offshore over the last five years, spending weekends racing to France, the Channel Islands and lots of good old racing around the cans in the Solent, but ocean sailing was completely different. Having professionals on board who really knew their stuff was highly reassuring.

The first few days

“We spent the first three days prepping the boat, stocking up on supplies and getting to know each other at drinks parties in the evening. It was at this stage that our skipper announced our two watch groups, appropriately named Swallows and Amazons. I was a Swallow.

 

“It was with mixed feelings as we said goodbye to land and, while you can’t wait for the adventure to begin, it dawns on you about the voyage you are about to embark on. We set off in the middle of a couple of torrential downpours wearing shorts and t-shirts but we dried off quickly, so I couldn’t complain.

 

“As with any voyage, there was a bout of sea sickness among a few of the crew, myself included, which took me by surprise as I hadn’t had it before. My crew reckoned it was the heat of cooking down below but before long, we were all in full swing.

Life on board

“I thought I would get bored being on a boat for two weeks with nothing but sea around you, but I didn’t, not for one moment. You can just spend hours looking out at sea as it’s mesmerizing. Plus, I had one of the best watch groups ever and I have never laughed so much in my life.

“The crossing makes you appreciate just how remote it is out there. There were many occasions when I hadn’t seen a single thing for 24 hours and any sighting, whether a bird, a tanker or a piece of driftwood, can be highly exciting. We were lucky enough to be joined by schools of Atlantic white sided dolphins and common dolphins, as well as a pod of five female sperm whales.

 

“I often used to teach my watch how to call to the whales and dolphins – think Dory from Finding Nemo and Flipper and you’ll get the picture. I was prepping breakfast one morning, having just had a two-minute shower – one of the two we were allowed on board in the whole two weeks – when the other watch hurriedly called me to join them on deck and enjoy the dolphins in our bow wave. One second I was up on the bow in my clean, new clothes and smelling wonderfully fresh, the next I was soaked from head to toe in salt water as a wave took me out. It was worth it, as the experience of seeing the dolphins playing was memorable. On arriving back down below, the skipper said, “Rule 99. Do not tell the chef there are dolphins or breakfast will be late.”

 

“Our watch system was made up of five sections in a 24hr day: 2am – 6am, 6am – midday, midday – 6pm, 6pm – 10pm, 10pm – 2am. Due to the uneven number, it meant that we alternated between two and three watches every other day. Between 2am and 6am you’d get breakfast ready for the next watch and from 6am to noon, lunch was prepped. Dinner was prepped and bread made ready for baking between noon and 6pm, and so it went on. It’s amazing how quickly your life starts to flow into the pattern – eat, sleep, sail, repeat.

Dining while at sea

“My favorite combination was doing the 2 – 6am, watching it go from pitch black to bright daylight with some magnificent sunrises, and then napping all morning. I developed a huge love for cooking cakes at 3.30am, fondly known as my ‘caking hour’. It was something about the stillness of the boat below deck, cooking under red lights and the exotic smell of chocolate cake at the most unusual hour of the day.

 

“There was a huge amount of food on board. We had a set menu to follow to ensure that we weren’t cooking only one thing all the time. However, the problem with a set menu is when the previous skipper miscalculates how many vegetables you have. He thought we had plenty of canned veg to last us the trip. After five days we ran out of fresh veg, except for butternut squash and then all that was left was tinned sweetcorn. We had that for lunch and dinner for the following nine days. It still haunts me and I still haven’t eaten any of the yellow stuff four months on. For meat we were very lucky, as we had two freezers giving us fresh meat every day of the whole trip.

 

Sighting land after 14 days

I remember the first sighting of land so clearly, just a few lights way off in the distance in the black starry night around 3am. We watched them gradually grow over the coming few hours with dolphins joining us at dawn appearing as black shapes splashing in and out of the phosphorescence in our stern wave. We arrived at around 6am, just under 14 days after we set off. That first leap onto solid land and then the need to get straight back on the boat because of land sickness is such a bizarre concept. One of my crew tried to clip his safety line onto the pontoon as he was worried he might fall off! That, with a couple of beers to celebrate our arrival, really had everyone laughing a lot.

”When I hear of other people’s tales, I realized just how lucky we were with the weather. We had 13.5 days of sunshine, wind ranging from 10 to 35 knots and amazing starry nights. Even when we were just one day away from the Azores, we were still in shorts as it was so warm. My skipper had never seen anything like it. The shooting stars were so bright, we thought they were flares on one occasion, which was pretty unnerving when you are 800nm from the closest land.

Planning the next adventure

 

”Although the boat was heading the whole way back to the UK, I jumped ship in Horta, Faial in the Azores, after three days exploring the wonderful islands with my crew. We partied at Peter Cafe Sport, one of the most well-known sailing meccas in the world. The place dates back 110 years and has been continually run by a guy called Peter, from the great grandfather to his sons and grandsons. Their homemade brown gin is the best and don’t be surprised to hear multiple languages being spoken by customers, as this is one of the most popular stops for anyone doing a transatlantic.

 

”It was then time to sadly leave the crew to continue their voyage back to Portsmouth while I set off for Lisbon and the Alps for my final leg of my trip, armed with a signed tin of sweetcorn from the crew. When you’ve been through something like this voyage, you and your crew become really close. There is no external communication and your life goes back to basics. You feel so small and grow to love and respect your boat. You find it really hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t done it, as the concept is so difficult to comprehend.

”When I think back to that trip, I consider myself so very lucky. I was a 32yr old female with a watch full of men 50yrs plus, yet we were inseparable. We reunited in April and we’ve already booked in our next get together for August. I’ve been also racing with two of them and I’m off on a kitesurfing holiday with another. I have made buddies for life and it has inspired me to do so much more. My transatlantic crossing will always be one of the most influential moments in my life. Next stop – a Transpac!”

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