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

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.


Greta Thunberg carries a serious message for world leaders

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.


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.


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.


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:

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.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Conflicting aims
  3. 3. Greta at sea
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