To sail climate activist Greta Thunberg across the Atlantic – eastbound – aboard La Vagabonde was the voyage of a lifetime for skipper Nikki Henderson. She shares the inside story

The sky flashed a blinding white light and a spark came down just a few hundred metres to port. We were going fast, and getting faster: that kind of fast where the helm becomes light, as if La Vagabonde had taken off at the top of the wave and was still flying.

The sea was ominously flat. Not that I could see it – except during those electric illuminations – and I wasn’t sure how windy it was. We had isolated the batteries and switched off power to the boat in case of an electrical strike, so the anemometer screen was blank, along with the rest of our instruments, but I judged it was blowing 40 or 45 knots.

Then the rain started. It was torrential; driving horizontally but also sliding off the sail above me, and blinding me. The light of my head torch was the only visual thing keeping the boat going in the right direction as I intermittently shone it down at my feet to where the compass was located. “Riley, let’s furl – now.” I paused for what felt like a few minutes, but was more likely a few seconds, “Like NOW, now!”

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The crew had to contend with serious North Atlantic seas… but did enjoy some fast boatspeeds

It was that feeling where the wind increases, and you know it’s stronger than you have felt all night. I could feel nature’s pressure on the back of my legs, and the wind must have been in the high 40 knots, maybe even 50. The boat was flying. Another flash came, lighting up the sky just long enough for me to see the towers of water surging up either side of us as we carved through the water.

“This is ****ing amazing! This boat flies. We must have hit 20 knots,” I screamed at Riley, as shouting was the only way he could possibly hear me. He ran forward and furled the headsail. The furling line had broken earlier that day, and we had tied it together temporarily meaning Riley could only furl by pulling the line right at the drum and tying it to the bow cleat. We both regretted not fixing that line earlier in the day.

When he came back to the cockpit the wind was already subsiding and the rain had stopped. I was on a total high, ready to increase canvas again. “Make that call earlier next time, Nik,” he said. I felt put out, and must have showed it. “Nik, my kid is down there.” I thought of baby Lenny, and Greta. It was one of the most grounding moments of my life. When I had first discussed this trip with Riley I had described it as “bigger than any of us.” Those words suddenly felt very, very real.

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How did we get here?

In the autumn of 2019, Greta Thunberg, 16, and currently the most famous teenager in the world, was in the United States, having sailed across the Atlantic on the IMOCA 60 Malizia for the UN Climate Action Summit. She planned to travel on to Chile for the 2019 meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP25.

But civil unrest in the country meant the event moved at short notice: back to Europe. Thunberg was looking for a solution that didn’t involve an aeroplane. On 1 November 2019 Thunberg sent out a tweet from Los Angeles: “As COP25 has officially been moved from Santiago to Madrid I’ll need some help… to find a way to cross the Atlantic in November.”

Thirteen days later she left Virginia, USA, on La Vagabonde. This 48ft Outremer performance cruising catamaran is a liveaboard yacht owned by Riley Whitelum and Elayna Carausu, creators of the La Vagabonde YouTube channel. Along with their 11-month-old son Lenny, they came to the rescue. “I hear a certain young girl needs a ride across the Atlantic,” was Whitelum’s typically laid-back offer.

Appreciating the risks associated with the North Atlantic, and their precious cargo of baby Lenny, and 2019 Time’s Person of the Year Greta Thunberg, the couple contacted professional sailors in search of someone to bolster the crew.

“Nikki, meet Greta” read the message on the group chat that was started late in the evening on Thursday 7 November. We talked and talked, and two days after that first text I met Greta for real. We arranged to meet outside Norfolk, VA airport, next to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s electric car. The Governator had lent Greta and her father, Svante, his car as a green method of transportation while on their US tour.

In my bag were three sets of foul weather gear to share around, a drysuit, a medical kit, a paper chart portfolio, a handheld GPS and minimal personal belongings. Six strangers came together, prepared a yacht for a 3,000-mile ocean passage, informed the world’s media of our plan and swiftly set sail. It felt like we were trying to prove the impossible possible.

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Skipper Nikki and Greta, Time Person of the Year 2019

Social experiment

Preparing for an ocean voyage is always stressful. Going to sea is always a challenge. Sailing with strangers is always a bit of a voyage into the unknown. This trip was like some epic social experiment: two Swedes, two Australians, one baby, and a Brit. Two fathers, one daughter, a mother and baby, a captain: and a skipper. A climate activist, an ex-rigger, a semi-retired actor, a team boss, social media influencers, introverts and extroverts, leaders and followers.

We were united by one steadfast purpose; to cross 3,000 miles of North Atlantic ocean, and one deadline; Greta was due to speak at the COP25, so we had four weeks to compete the voyage. We were motivated by more fluid incentives. Greta to continue raising awareness about the climate emergency, Svante to support and protect his daughter, Riley and Elayna to support the climate movement, experience an adventure and capture it on videos. Lenny had no choice.

As for myself? I wrote down my thoughts at the time: “It was one of those moments in life that takes you by surprise. Where you have to look inside your heart to think what is right.

“To get to know the person behind the shell, the voice that the world is listening to, is such an opportunity. To have the chance to help her on her journey is remarkable. The greatest opportunity is spiritual: I will get to know someone who will inspire me.”

Heading west to east across the North Atlantic in November on a sailboat is not a recommended place to be. Even the pharmacist in Virginia commented on it while he was helping me find ear ointment that was suitable for a baby. “Conditions this year aren’t great, you know. You make sure you check the weather now…”

He had the right idea. In the winter, statistically there is a high risk of severe depressions or tropical storms. These strong fronts can pack quite a punch in wind speeds and sea state.

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La Vagabonde is an Outremer 45 catamaran. Photo: Robin Christol

Conflicting aims

Naturally we should have left three days before we were ready. Why does that always seem to happen? We decided to wait for a cold front to pass over and left at dawn to clear fresh skies.

Apparently ‘cold front’ is a more literal term on the eastern seaboard; it was snowing on departure, and ice was still cracking off the sail cover and falling onto the deck by nightfall. There were a few looks between us that day along the lines of: “What have we let ourselves in for?” But by the next day we were sailing in the 25° warm water of the Gulf Stream and all breathed quiet sighs of relief.

The voyage could be divided into three phases. The first was all about strategic positioning. It was important for us to position ourselves south of the depressive nastiness, keeping far from the centre of the lows. Remaining in the westerly wind flow rather than headwinds was crucial. Basically, this meant sailing south, quickly, and then east, slowly, to avoid the worst of one of those long frontal tails ahead, and later tropical storm Sebastian.

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From left: Greta, Lenny, Nikki, Svante, Elayna and Riley

The first week was a tough navigational challenge, not just for weather routing, but for the people on board. With 3,000 gruelling miles ahead of us, and sub-zero temperatures on day one, the 170° COG beat to windward with a waypoint bearing of 090° was miserable. A few days later we turned left and pointed east, but were limited to 4 knots.

It was potentially worse. For a few days our calculated ETA based on boat speed and course was some time after Christmas. Morale was directly relative to progress. We had to accelerate the acclimatisation process.

There were contrasting priorities for different people and I was either the piggy in the middle punch-bag, or the glue holding everyone together. The low point of the whole journey was probably day three, where the conversation turned to: “Let’s take a guess at when we are going to arrive.”

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Greta and her father Svante learning about navigation

Someone suggested it would take 29 days, and the mood plummeted. It opened the door to everyone’s fears and anxieties. By the following day we had done a food inventory, filled the water tanks, and had some heavy conversations about the level of responsibility we all had to ensure this was a safe trip.

But weeks two and three saw us warm into our groove. Navigating the Azores High and various wind holes was our main challenge. It became a game of weather forecast interpretation. After a week sailing mainly the great circle rhumbline – sometimes with a best VMG east, sometimes best VMG to Lisbon, and sometimes randomly north or south – we concluded that basically there would be a few wind holes and a few windy bits but the best thing to do was to keep moving in the right direction.

Routines bound us together. It’s amazing how predictable the lives of six strangers can become. A distinct difference between this trip and racing crossings I’ve done was that the sailing fitted in with the routine, rather than the routine fitting in with the sailing.

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Greta with Riley and Elayna’s 11-month-old son, Lenny

For 21 days, Lenny woke every morning an hour after dawn to a bottle. Greta and Svante had breakfast, which would always include crackers, hummus or peanut butter at 1030 boat time. Greta would brush her hair after breakfast. Svante would have two coffees before lunch. Either Riley or myself would have an afternoon nap.

Dinner would be at 1800 sharp and we would eat together. It was generally a two-hour affair, from cooking and socialising to washing up, then switching to red lights and bed by 2000 every night. At around 0200 Riley and I would discuss the weather and live our most productive hour of the day, perhaps down to the comforting knowledge that Lenny was sleeping soundly, and Greta and Svante were safely in their bunks.

The third phase was the final week. We were just half way as the crow flies, but the Atlantic gifted us dreamy fast downwind sailing; everything you could hope for from an ocean crossing. We attached ourselves onto the bottom of a depression and rode it all the way into Lisbon.

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La Vagabonde makes it safely to Lisbon with its world famous passenger. Photo: Carlos Costa / Getty Images

This was testing in an altogether different way – we needed to go fast to stay with the system, but what is fast enough? How much sail can we safely hold? What sea state is too big? There was more emotion wrapped up in these decisions. Our eagerness to arrive and our sadness that the adventure was coming to an end blurred our vision. Riley and I alternated in being the sensible voice, checking each other and reminding ourselves to play the long game.

We encountered our most fractious moment when disagreeing about when to put in our last gybe to head south to Lisbon. Anxiety about the forecasted 40-60 knots of wind and 6-8m seas for our last 24 hours, combined with the looming pressure of arrival, were excellent ingredients for an argument!

After an hour disagreeing and going around in circles we laughed at ourselves, napped, then excitedly made our last gybe south. It may have been pre-empted with a ‘gybe dance’. By day 16 we had started to get weirder.

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Greta Thunberg carries a serious message for world leaders

Greta at sea

I’ve committed my life to sailing because I’ve seen how the sea changes people. No one steps ashore the same person they were when they left the dock. People reach this almost meditative state at sea; they discover life’s sparkle, its lightness and freedom.

Watching Greta change was moving. She was quiet – close to timid – when I met her. She had the watchful eye of international press and social media on her every minute of the day. And then she stepped on board, and out of the limelight. She escaped the burden of responsibility she now carries on her shoulders.

As we sailed away from shore, Greta quickly became shaky, pale, and needed to lie down. It could easily have been interpreted as seasickness. But I think it was more likely an overwhelming adrenaline-fuelled rush of emotion: anxiety, excitement, and relief that she was finally going home.

After the first 12 hours of sailing, Greta didn’t show even the slightest hint of discomfort. In fact she and her father warmed to life on board very easily. They seemed at home at sea, that it was a happy place for them both, breathing clean air. They both slept at least 12-hours a day and spent many more hours watching the sea go by.

As the days went by the weight on Greta’s shoulders started to melt away, and it was only as it did that I appreciated how heavy it must be to be a role model, a figurehead and a performer for so many millions of people around the world. It was a privilege to create a space for her where she could be her 16-year-old self.

We chatted, we shared tears and laughter, we danced, exercised, debated, read the news and played games, and through all that she relaxed and gained more colour in her cheeks. She began to glow with this aura of hope and positivity.

Although she is brave in her cause, Greta was physically cautious of getting hands-on with the sailing. But she was keen to learn so I spent time explaining the terminology, and recreating some good old RYA diagrams. She and her father held watches during the day and had a good understanding of the wind strengths and when to reef or put up more canvas. Unsurprisingly they were keenly aware of our speed. As new and perceptive crew members often are, they were hyper-aware of not getting in the way.

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Nikki got a unique view of the media circus that greeted Greta into Lisbon

A daunting landfall

The arrival to Lisbon was hard work. We had a tacking battle with the tide and the dying wind up the river; which in a catamaran is difficult, and slow. After desperately trying to squeeze every bit of boat speed and heading out of the collapsing conditions, we finally made it to the marina at lunchtime on 3 December. Elayna parked us up, and just like that our privacy and our adventure came to an end.

After immigration, we headed to the press conference. Looking around at the audience was remarkable. People were crying and praying and throwing their hands in the air rejoicing. This was significant: and not just for us, or for Greta, but for the world. Greta herself is a very interesting person to talk to. She listens more than she speaks; thus when she does speak everyone pays attention. She is driven by science, but she is also empathetic to the more emotional needs of others.

A favourite conversation I had with her was about hope and fear, and which can have more impact. I suggested sailing as a case study, how at least 50% of the crew tends to freeze and becomes useless in a high stress situation. Calling an ‘emergency’ or ‘panic’ are not necessarily constructive. Seeing her now, I think she took it on board.

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Girl power on La Vagabonde: skipper Nikki, Greta and La Vagabonde owner Elayna

All throughout 2019, the climate emergency and the Friday strikes, Greta’s message had been in my peripheral vision, but I hadn’t really acknowledged it. I knew I would have to eventually, but I wasn’t ready. For me doing this trip was a way to surrender to the reality, but also to properly learn what the climate emergency was all about, to give it context and the knowledge I needed to make my own decisions.

A fellow crewmate once said to me: “There is too much time to think at sea.” Going to sea changes us because it is like spending three weeks in front of the mirror. Living in such a close community and intense environment means that who you are, how you behave, how your behaviour affects people, what you feel, and what you make other people feel is amplified. Loudly.

What if we all had the opportunity to go to sea for two weeks each year? What if we all took the time for this type of reflection? Maybe it would help us come to terms with reality – as I did on this trip. We would realise that we can survive minimally. We would appreciate the beauty of our world, and work harder to protect it. We would feel empowered, confident that our future, and our freedom, is in our hands.

Sailing on La Vagabonde

Riley Whitelum and Elayna Carausu are an Australian couple who have become sailing’s most popular vloggers. Their YouTube channel attracts nearly 4 million views per month, and has 1.2 million subscribers.

“Riley and Elayna have one of the most unique lifestyles I have ever come across,” explains Nikki Henderson. “Their lifestyle bridges many communities: liveaboard cruisers, YouTube vloggers, social media influencers, sailors, adventurers, freedivers – and now parents. They are so relatable, which I think is why they are so successful.

“But don’t be fooled by their modesty – they are solid sailors. Riley was making some very professional and complex decisions on the trip, and they were both absolutely capable of every job on the boat from bow to stern.

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Nikki Henderson and Riley Whitelum shared the serious sailing responsibilities

“Elayna was in many ways the unsung hero of the trip: victualler, home-maker, sailor and 24/7 mother. The phrase ‘one hand for you, one hand for the boat’ didn’t quite cut it – it was more like one for her, one for the dinner she’s cooking, one for the winch handle, and eyes in the back of her head for Lenny. Lenny spent a 10th of his life on that trip – it was amazing to be a part of.”

“I spend a lot of my year offshore, so had never watched any of their videos – which is unusual for them to experience these days. But while you might think a couple who make videos of their life and live on crowd-funding would be showy or shallow, they were two of the most down to earth, generous and hilarious people I’ve ever met. And now two, I hope and suspect, lifelong friends.”

More videos from the Atlantic crossing with Greta and Nikki will be appearing soon on La Vagabonde’s YouTube channel, see: sailing-lavagabonde.com

greta-thunberg-atlantic-sailing-la-vagabonde-nikki-henderson-bw-headshot-600px-squareAbout the author

At 25 Nikki Henderson became the youngest ever Clipper Round the World Race skipper, bringing Visit Seattle home in second place in the 2017/18 edition. She has sailed the RORC Caribbean 600, two Fastnet Races and was a guest skipper on Maiden.

First published in the February 2020 edition of Yachting World.