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
The first 1,000 miles of the crossing was very much upwind. The wind gets sparser and the seas calmer as you approach the centre of the Azores high. The tradewinds begin to dwindle at around 25° North, the air pressure rises, and the sea becomes flat.
My daily runs were probably half that of my tradewind east-west crossing, and it began to dawn on me that finding my way home was going to take a lot longer than I first thought. I worried about my diminishing supply of fresh water, my shrinking pile of food, and the trickling stem leak that seemed to be growing stronger by the day.
There’s no doubt that the summer of 2018 was an oddity. I’ve heard that it was a scorcher in Northern Europe. The Azores high settled in a bizarre spot right next to the UK, and therefore the westerlies that I planned to use to bring me home were nowhere to be found. Day after day, I would gaze out upon the seascape, smooth and silky, like the skin of some delicate blue snake.
While changing headsails one morning, a flicker of movement beneath the bow wave caught my eye. I saw blue and black stripes and a kicking tail but thought nothing of it. At night-time, the same silhouette was distinctly visible. Its beating tail would excite the vivid phosphorescence of the sleepy midnight water and leave behind a long stream of sparkles. The same pilot fish travelled with me for 1,500 miles, only ever leaving his lookout at the stem to investigate floating plastic and snap up mosquito-sized flying fish.
I rejoiced in being back in my wild place and finding satisfaction through catching fish and collecting rainwater. It’s a blessing to be granted the privilege of such a simple existence – to have the rhythm of the sun and the moon dictating the pace of life, and the sea and animals that pass by speaking louder than anything else. To lose all the clutter and artificial concerns that are smothered on us by society is such a privilege. I instead found myself being guided by repressed desires and a more authentic human nature.
One evening, I heard a whale breathing in the distance. I altered course to bring it as close to the boat as I dared. It was unbelievably large. Probably twice the length of Flying Cloud and floating with its broad, box-like head a few feet above the surface. I watched it take a final, prolonged breath and plunge into the abyss, stretching its tail towards the sky and vanishing like some fleeting illusion.
The marine life nearby to the Azores is teeming. Whale sightings became more and more frequent, dolphins would visit many times a day, and the seabirds became so bold that eventually a petrel summoned the courage to set foot in the cockpit.
Within 300 miles of the Azores, the wind freshened and shifted to the north-west. With three reefs in the main, and my smallest jib I could just about point for the islands. The temperature dropped, and the bow pierced through the crest of every wave. By this point I had become a sea creature. I spent my time spooning bland rice from a pan in the relative comfort of my damp, mouldy cabin and scrutinizing the horizon from behind the washboards.
Flores, the westernmost island in the archipelago, came into sight on the 31st day. It first became visible as a subtle dash of shadow on the horizon. I spent the entire day gazing upon the distant, obscure trace of land. During the night I passed to the south of it, and from five miles downwind I could even smell the faint, organic waft of sub-tropical fauna. The moonlight cast a soft glow over the calm ripples of the hillsides, and an array of artificial light reminded me that civilisation really did exist.
I decided to skip Flores and make landfall in Faial. On the morning of the 33rd day, I first saw the impressive silhouette of neighbouring Pico. By lunchtime I could identify the textures in the landscape, the deep greens of the forested hillsides and the cold grey of the cliffs. Dinnertime brought tiny little specs of civilisation – villages, lighthouses and roads.
At dusk, the headlights of cars moved across the island like distant fragments of life. I started the engine and motored through the wind shadow, beneath the glowing lights of the airport and into the sleeping harbour of Horta.
Horta is a special place for sailors, as your presence there can only be earned through a lot of bluewater miles. Because of its location, it attracts some of the most passionate and adventurous people I have met. A sense of mutual respect floats around the colourful, illustrated dock, and an air of lightheartedness is passed around through paintings, music and wine.
Rest and relaxation
I played pool one night with a French girl. Her unkempt brunette hair hung in front of her mahogany eyes as she lined up each shot. One of her friends chuckled along with the game in French. He was beyond bohemian, wearing a kaleidoscopic headband, rings in his ears and some hippy trousers. In the face of the language barrier, we managed to determine that we had both arrived single-handed on very small boats.
His name was Jérôme, and he had sailed from Brittany in the earliest mini-Transat design, called a Muscadet. It was painted bright yellow and he flew two large flags from his rig, a Jolly Roger and gay pride rainbow. He was 51 and I was 22. He was Breton, and I was Cornish. He was an avant-garde entertainer and I was as reserved as anyone would be after 33 days of solitude. None of that mattered anyway, as we both shared the same rare hobby.
At some point that night we both agreed that we would sail back to England in convoy. I hadn’t really drunk for five or six weeks, and the cervezas hit me hard that night – so when he mentioned it again the next day, it took me a while to register what he was talking about.
I was sceptical. Did I really want this exuberant man, who I barely knew, to be my only human contact for two whole weeks? As days passed he became more and more set on the idea, until a weather window emerged and we both realised that this would be it.
He sculled out of the harbour in true Breton style. The delicate southerly pushed us through the channel between Horta and Pico, and we both poled out our headsails into a goosewing. Almost instantly, we sailed into the massive wind shadow in the lee of Pico and spent the first half of the night wallowing around in the calm. At 1am I decided I’d had enough, so I threw him a line and motored the next five miles with him in tow.
For the following four days, Jérôme and his little yellow boat were a permanent fixture in the ever changing seascape. In the mornings we would always exchange something, mostly coffee, sometimes fruit and the occasional loaf of warm French bread. We would chat Franglais over the VHF and warn each other of ships, dolphins and scary black clouds.
On the fifth day, while tearing downwind in 17 knots of breeze, Jérôme took his position for the daily coffee transfer. The process was a delicate act, but by then we had plenty of practise. I flew both my genoas while Jérôme goose swung his main, with his boom held out in my direction. Jérôme’s face strained with concentration as he attempted to stay within safe throwing distance but avoid slamming the two hulls together.
He threw the coffee-filled Thermos flask to me with ease, and I decanted it quickly into my own. As I went to throw the flask back to him, a rogue wave caused him to surge towards me, shoving his boom into my shoulder. This messed up my throw, and the flask bounced around in his cockpit before somehow finding its way over the gunnel and into the narrow stream of water between the two boats.
It scraped down my waterline within arm’s reach, and after spotting my chance for redemption I made a lunge with my arm. The shiny aluminium caressed my fingertips, but I couldn’t get a grasp and the flask eddied off into the wake behind us. “Putain!” Jérôme screamed. “Nooooo”.
He ran to the front of his boat and pulled down his headsail. I felt the strong urge to spin round and tack back upwind, but with two poled out genoas, there wasn’t much I could do. To make matters worse, a rain squall caught up with us, bringing 25 knots of wind and heavy rain. Jérôme quickly faded into the haze leaving me alone and overwhelmed with guilt.
The next day I constantly kept my eyes on the horizon, hoping to see that little yellow speck emerge from somewhere, but it never did.
Relieved to be home
Nine days later I sailed into St Agnes, six hours behind Jérôme. I could see the reassurance in his face – he had clearly been worrying for me the entire time. My whole family were waiting eagerly on their big blue fishing boat. I stepped straight from my boat to theirs, salty and windswept, to embrace my emotional mother as we both wept tears of joy.
As I look back on the incredible journey, I realise how important the hard times were. There’s nothing like suffering to make you appreciate something, and a long and difficult journey home just makes the first landfall that much more rewarding.
Somewhere along the line, at age 21, I had visited death’s doorway. I had no choice but to take full responsibility to ensure which side of it I would fall. The pain and fear the accident left me with almost convinced me to turn my back on sailing and pick up a hobby that wasn’t so dangerous.
But climbing back into the cockpit was the best decision I ever made. If it wasn’t for the struggle of overcoming the hurdles that followed, then I would have never found the same love for life and desire to explore that only a sailing boat can satisfy.