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 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!”
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.
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.