Day 17 of passage. We did it! After almost three weeks at sea, Vela has completed a trans-Atlantic passage from the BVIs to the Azores. With 2600 nautical miles checked off, some serious blue water sailing was done.
The first few days were spent getting used to the rythme of classes and watch times. My seasickness was light and I therefore had the chance to dive directly into the joys of passage. The slight rolling of the boat, the whooshing of the wind in the sails and their subsequent crinkling, the melody of the waves hitting the hull, all bring life to a rather tranquil existence on the water.
The watch schedule was hard to adapt at first seeing as nights are divided in three with three watch teams: 8-12 pm, 12-4, 4-8. But sunset watch brings forth colours in the sky and the calmness of the night, starlight watch allows our urban eyes to see the Milky Way and the sparkling brightness of the stars. During our first week of passage, every night was accompanied with bioluminescence in the water imitating the spectacle in the sky. On the best nights, the tops of the waves illuminated like floating ribbons of lights spraying across the bow and from the end of the stern. Sunrise watch brings dreams into the day with the light colours of the sun finally piercing the darkness of the night.
A huge part of our journey was sailing: raising sails, trimming, figuring out correct sail placements according to wind. Sailing is a pleasure from the simple joy of movement from renewable energy. I’ll always remember the midnight raising of the flying jib out on our bow sprit, sitting on the net and marvelling at the sight below my feet and above my head. Nor will I forget bringing down the forward stay sail by sunrise, a brilliant cascade of orange light weaving through, or climbing the forward mast to free the fisherman sail.
By the time we reached Bermuda’s latitude, around day 5, the wind had died and brought the Atlantic ocean to a strange calm. We were now motoring on and decided to stop the engine for a middle of the ocean swim. Jumping off the deck was amazing and the ocean was perfectly cool. Below us was 5000 meters of stark blue depth. We bobbed along in the water collectively marvelling at what could be found under our feet.
By day 10, nature had caught up to us and wind was beating down on us. Waves were up to 4 meters and wind speed was over 40 knots. Basically rough seas and strong wind speed. Most were seasick and a few got small injuries from slipping on deck. We were rocking hard in our beds, sleep escaping us. The boat was heeled at a 40 degree angle. After dropping all the sails with half my watch team, we motored on into the afternoon as the wind progressively died. Most of us shared that this is what we thought our crossing would look like and most agreed that we were happy it wasn’t the case. The ocean can be scary at times, but it is exhilarating to be a part of it when your team and boat are prepared to handle it.
During watch time, we did boat checks, watched the horizon for debris in the water and other boats and chatted away with our team members about life. Oftentimes, we could spot ocean birds, flying fish or Portuguese Man o’ wars. When we were lucky, we would get a pod of dolphins jumping away on near-by waves. We saw a few different species of dolphins and most sightings would only happen a day or two apart. Our most amazing encounter was on day 16 of passage when we saw a pod of sperm whales off our starboard side. We had had a few different sightings of whales in the previous days but none the size of this one. At least ten whales were bobbing into one another half a nautical mile away. Perplexed and enchanted by them, our captain Tom flew his drone off into the distance to see what was happening. To our incredulity, we watched the tiny screen in his hands show the images of a sperm whale rolling in the water with a tiny tail coming out of her belly. A whale was being born so close from us and we had the incredible opportunity to witness it live. The baby whale was named Gilbert Francis Oswald the Third and July 12th will forever be its birthday. Wonder collectively filled our hearts and eyes.
The rest of our days were filled with leadership, nautical science and oceanography classes as well as the odd sighting of buoys, container ships and random trash. And as we sailed the last few nautical miles towards the Azores, squinting at the horizon, we finally saw land. We screamed, we whooped, we embraced and some cried. The Azores’ towering volcanic heights loomed before us and we were more than happy to appreciate its green sight. Calmly through the afternoon, we prepped for docking and stowed the sails until next time. Horta displayed its beauty for us in full sunlight with its charming orange roofs becoming us for a walk among the city’s streets.
Reflecting on this passage, I find myself believing it was a dream. Leaving the BVIs, the horizon is eternal and we find ourselves in a snow globe setting. The waves spread and then dip down where the sky and sea meet. We are graced by various clouds but the view never wavers from day to day. The regularity of it all, the rolling of the boat and of our watch schedule lulls you on from the fleeting days and short nights. The only interruption is from events on the boat. Luckily, the whole crew gets along decently well and our laughs managed to fill every day and every hour.
Cheers to crossing an ocean, slack jaw dancing, midnight mooners, blue water sailing and the whole crew on Vela. Here’s to a week in the Azores and for the many nautical miles to come.