One man's battle to keep on sailing, when nothing would be easier than to head for port. Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from the book The Last Man Across the Atlantic by Paul Heiney.
Paul Heiney is a cruising sailor to the core who has succeeded in some notable ocean quests. The first of these to appear in book form was his successful entry in the 2005 ‘Original’ Single-handed Transatlantic Race organised by the Royal Western Yacht Club of England. The event was to reclaim this historic contest for Corinthian sailors from the highly sponsored, professional event the old race had become. Paul must have been the perfect entrant for the organisers. Quiet, modest and totally without commercial assistance, he states in the early pages of his book, Last Man Across the Atlantic, that he doesn’t mind taking the wooden spoon. For him, completing the course will be victory enough.
His boat is a heavy, long-keeled, largely unchanged family cruising ketch of 36ft and his racing aspirations are minimal, yet he comes through with a creditable elapsed time to Newport of 35 days. Not bad in the light of Chichester’s 40 days to New York in the first race.
The hidden delight about Last Man is Heiney’s style of writing. In this extract, his comments on the morality of single-handed racing when he’s just a week out shine with the clear voice of reason, but lest we imagine he is taking himself too seriously, he cracks a secret grin over his socks and some hilarious arrangements for easing his perilous passage to the heads.
This is a book – still in print – that all of us who fancy ourselves proper sailors would do well to study. With each succeeding page, one feels that Paul is an old friend we’d love to have as a shipmate.
The Last Man Across the Atlantic, by Paul Heiney
I hated throwing fresh fruit and vegetables over the side this early in the race. After less than a week, some were already turning to mush, so I embarked on a high-fibre diet to consume them. Meals now consisted of anything green, doused with a little oil, lots of salt and pepper, and a can of fish – sardines my first choice. This became my idea of proper sailing food, providing it was not repeated too often.
I was hugely grateful when a heavily feathered bird landed in the cockpit. I think we took each other by surprise, and we exchanged blank stares for a while, possibly sharing the same thought – who the bloody hell are you? I know nothing about birds: I can tell a robin from an eagle and that’s it, although this tiny thing I recognised as no albatross. However, its arrival was a rite of ocean passage. In many of the accounts of long voyages, an exhausted bird collapses on board to keep the lone sailor company, becoming a major influence in his life and a focus for all manner of complex self-examination. Once a firm relationship has been formed, the faithless bird then flies away, leaving the skipper an emotional cripple, weeping at the wheel of his ship, while thoughts of isolation bear down on him. The bird had become his only companion, a metaphor for the whole of humanity, and now it has turned its back on him. Well, I can only assume my visitor took one look at where he’d landed, decided there was never going to be any kind of relationship here and legged it back to land. In the time it took to make a mug of tea, he’d crapped on the Walker log and gone.
The tea inevitably brought about the need for the piss-pot. Forgive me if you find this offensive but it was always the intention that this race should be for the development of single-handed sailing techniques, and isn’t this one of the most fundamental? I sliced the lid off my last fresh-milk bottle and elevated it to its vital new role. I noticed that it had contained organic milk from a company called Rachel’s Dairy and so my new bottle became known as Rachel. I apologise to Rachels everywhere, and to Rachel the milkmaid in particular.
I was taking a reef in the mainsail in a rising wind and looked over my shoulder to find an approaching tanker moving fast towards me, chucking up a bow wave as turbulent as the Niagara Falls. I had no clue he was there. Either he had appeared by magic or I’d been keeping a lookout with my eyes shut. There were no excuses. The visibility was good, he was not travelling at great speed — I simply hadn’t seen him. We were not on a collision course, so the incident shouldn’t have worried me, but I took it as a warning. Being run down at sea is the single-hander’s worst fear: a big ship would certainly not feel the bump, while you would find your world splintering around you. It would probably be the last sound you would hear. There are some who say solo sailing is a danger to both the sailor and shipping, but in a small boat it is always going to be the single-hander who comes off worse. Providing we are sailing in open water, if we want to take the risk, I think we should be allowed to. I cannot think of a maritime accident which could be blamed on the selfish behaviour of a single-hander; which, of course, is no reason for us to be careless. I dare say Francis Joyon regretted the loss of his trimaran off the Brittany coast after his record-breaking dash west-to-east across the Atlantic. After six days of restricted rest, relaxed at having the world record, he fell into a deep sleep. His self-steering took him onto the rocks, where he lost his boat. It might have crossed his mind, as I’m sure it did those of many single-handers, that it was fortunate the only loss was his own yacht and not the lives aboard the innocent cruiser that happened to be in his way.
Time slows down
The next morning, the sea was up, swept on by a Force 5 – the sort of stiff breeze Ayesha enjoys. Leaning until her rail almost touches the water, she romps along, flinging the waves aside yet keeping her decks remarkably dry. From below, you would hardly know anything was happening outside, until one wave too many catches her unawares and dumps on her; that is when she gives a shudder and falters in her stride. But, like a dog that has fallen into a puddle, she soon shakes it off and is up and running once again. She really is a good old soldier of a boat.
Deck work was now a wet business requiring full oilskins to keep off the spray, and always the safety harness. I tried not to go outdoors too much when it was wet, even if the sun was out, and spent hours below, possibly too many hours, reading or cooking, tuning in to the World Service, anxious for news from home which never came. Much of its programming is aimed at an African audience, which is fine, but you do not need much of a dose of Zambian politics before you start to stare at the cabin roof, to count the screws holding the trim, to look at the clock and note the time, and engage in some thought (often about food) which seems to occupy you for hours, only to find that when you next look at the clock, time has moved on by just a minute and a half.
On one of the SSB chats, I asked [fellow competitor] Mervyn Wheatley how he spent his time. He said that he’d been doing a little maintenance and listening to some Maria Callas. I envied him the comfort of his yacht Tamarind: it is even equipped with a small bath and is fitted out in a style resembling the first-class saloon of the Orient Express. He is a real sailing gent.
I did not yet have complete mastery of my balance, or sea legs, as they are called. It is best to avoid being thrown about too much, for you never know where you might land. I had already twice endured a nasty collision between coccyx and the sharp corner of the chart table, and one trip to the heads with a fully loaded Rachel nearly ended in catastrophe when a lurch of the boat forced me to decide between dropping the cargo and falling heavily against a bulkhead. I chose to take my punishment: I couldn’t face the mopping up. To prevent further choices like these, I rigged a strong line down the centre of the boat and clung to that as I moved around. In the last race, Phil Rubright, an American who was plucked from his boat with broken ribs and a dislocated knee, blamed a fall across the full width of his boat as it rose to a rogue wave. This wasn’t how I wanted to finish this race.
Day 6: Following a brutal fall which threw Anne Caseneuve to the bottom of the cockpit, her knee is broken. The conditions were then particularly difficult on the bridge of her multihull: winds of 30–40 knots, with breakers. A wave stronger than the others will have caused the accident. Its violence was such as Anne believed that she would capsize. Since the accident, she suffers terribly, can hardly move and has decided to retire. She writes: ‘My knee is out by 90 degrees. The leg cannot support me and the knee seems to weigh tons. I have to shuffle in a sitting position to do anything, even taking a lot of care I howl with pain. Dealing with the boat is impracticable.’
I found I was spending so much time below that wholly insignificant aspects of life started to weigh more heavily than they deserved. Take socks. During a troublesome back episode in the days running up to the start, it was beyond me to bend sufficiently to put on a sock, so I wore my trainer-like sailing shoes without them. Any teenage boy, or, more likely, his mother, will tell you the stinking price that must be paid for that. Once suppleness was restored and I could bend again, the temptation to don socks was irresistible. But what a waste of clean clothes, for wouldn’t they instantly absorb whatever noxious element it was that made my shoes smell like a rugby changing room at half time? I could keep washing them but how would they ever dry when everything was clothed in salty dampness? I decided on a no-socks policy.
Cry for help
Towards the end of the first week came the first of the really strong winds, the first hint of a moan in the rigging which is the siren call of the rising gale. The needle on the wind instrument shuddered around 27 knots, always from directly ahead. Putting the kettle on now expended twice as much energy; washing up was a job for an acrobat. I would leap and grab, gambling on how the boat would next lurch, but there was never a guarantee of where I would land. It made me more tired than I realised. These were the moments when I wearily looked at the chart and saw how near and inviting were the little harbours of southern Ireland I knew so well. One turn of the wheel, a trim of the sails, a destination punched into the GPS and I would soon be in calm waters, rowing ashore, swallowing a pint of stout. It was time to send for the Red Cross.
Libby had stowed a bag full of parcels on board, to help lift the spirits when all else failed. They were, in the true sense of the words, disaster relief. They were labelled variously ‘For when you’re halfway there’, or ‘For when you realise you don’t want to get to America that much after all’. There was one from our son, Nick, which said ‘To give you strength’. It contained one of the famed yellow rubber wristbands, the emblem of the courage and determination of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who overcame multiple cancers to ride to seven Tour de France victories, one of Nick’s heroes. It was stamped with his slogan ‘Live Strong’.
That put my rather insignificant moans into perspective. I put it on my wrist and decided it would remain there for the rest of the race.