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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.