Left mentally and physically scarred but with unfinished business, Max Campbell returns to his 22ft wooden sloop to bring her back across the Atlantic single-handed
There has not been a time when I felt more alive. Two weeks out of Cape Verde – and single-handed at the age of 21 – I was closing the gap between myself and the Caribbean. Flying Cloud made the experience special. My 22ft wooden sloop wasn’t ideal for the job, yet perfect for my tiny budget and minimal needs.
I had somehow made it happen on a shoestring with mismatched sails and spars. My windvane was homemade – whipped together in a couple of days in a Portuguese boatyard. It was a prolonged, exhilarating ride. A kind of euphoric high that gave me a sense of indestructibility.
An exploding bottle of methylated spirits had almost ended it all. All it took was a squeaky pop to turn my dreamlike adventure into a nightmare. A nightmare, more horrific and torturous than I could have ever imagined. I struggled through the last 200 miles of the passage, completing it narrowly by the skin of my teeth. After five days of angst in a West Indian hospital, I realised that the epic trip had come to an unexpected end.
The fire had left me scarred and frightened. For a whole year I hid in Falmouth, Cornwall, from both sunshine and adventure – the two things that had defined the previous chapter of my life. Meanwhile, in Grenada, Flying Cloud swung around lazily at anchor, curtained by a long spit of mangroves, which curled into itself like the crooked finger of a witch.
In March, I saw her again. The batteries had run flat and she needed a pump every couple of weeks to keep her afloat. The engine was seized, and a fine, brown silt had accumulated in the bilges. The wretched paraffin stove that almost cost me my life lay gathering dust in the smoke-stained galley. Lucid memories of fire and flesh clouded my mind as I tore the evil thing from its mounts, making sure it would never find its way onto another boat.
A life of freedom
But I still loved Flying Cloud. I saw beauty in her simplicity and the ease at which she could be maintained. Within a month, I was sailing north through the Grenadines, trying to squeeze what I could from the fading dry season. Life was as it was before the fire. I skittered up through the islands, completely intoxicated with freedom, constantly chasing the next version of paradise, which was always just around the corner.
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The Grenadines are small, colourful and overflowing with natural beauty. Each island is unique, in its own subtle way. The beaches are golden, caressed by tentacles of coral slipping gently into the turquoise water. From the hills sprout green tufts of vegetation, giving the islands themselves a messy head of dreadlocks.
From Bequia, I sailed to Dominica, and as I passed along the leeward side of St Vincent, the sun melted into the horizon soaking everything in a brilliant red – the sky, the sails, the nearby mountains. It was as if a glowing red fruit juice had permeated the planet, completely drenching everything.
In Dominica, I discovered the grim aftermath of the 2017 hurricane season. Hidden between its majestic green hills, were power-starved towns and villages, still scarred by the relentless attack of hurricane Maria. Most buildings had been completely destroyed, and while I was there I did what I could to help but still left with a pang of guilt at not being able to scratch the surface of what was, clearly, an overwhelming task.
I arrived in English Harbour during Antigua Race Week and immediately felt out of place. Clean-cut race crews ambled around Nelson’s Dockyard, and I tried my hardest to not appear too much of a scoundrel in front of them. From Antigua, I sailed to St Maarten and again found myself walking through ravaged streets. Here, Irma had left a trail of destruction far crueller than anywhere else I had seen.
My plan was to return home, but this time, I’d be taking Flying Cloud with me. This meant sailing across the Atlantic again, single-handed, on a boat that was not designed for serious bluewater miles. Breaking such news to my parents is never easy, especially to my mum. She has always been a believer in adventure, but I know the thought of losing her son to the sea is a demon that haunts her at night.
On the 18th of June, I left St Maarten on a close reach heading north-northwest. The tradewinds had really weakened and for the first few days I sailed with a single reef in my main. It’s easy to freak out at the start of such a long passage, and at the beginning I really found it difficult to comprehend the sheer distance to home.