"The sun rose beautifully but we had only sailed a mere 3-5 km towards land all night! We were a little closer and I thought to myself, “Ahhh it’s going to be a good day”. It’s hard not to think that way when you have such beautiful scenery. I made Franco and I our usual stronger-than-crack type coffee and some breakfast, feeling elated. Then I walked up on deck, all smiles. But Franco had an air of sorrow and melancholy about him. The wind was dying again…"
It was my first double-handed boat delivery with my not-yet boyfriend. It all started off in a bit of a rush, as most things do with boats. I was working - teaching sailing students all day - and Franco was doing some boat repair work and maintenance. We finished at 6 and rushed to my office after being called in.
“You need to fly to Barbate, Spain now, and pick up Carrot (a Dufour 450 sailing boat). You must leave Barbate first thing in the morning. There are some troubles with the Russian and the cops,” my boss told us.
My initial thought was, “Woohoo! Road trip!”
At midnight, we were in Barbate. There was no one around the marina, and the Russian was nowhere in sight to let us into the boat. Thinking that he was most likely sleeping, we broke into the boat and quickly fell asleep, knowing we had to get as much rest as we could since we had to leave first thing in the morning. On most boat deliveries you grab both sleep and food whenever, and if ever, you can.
Morning dawned and we checked our supplies. It seemed the Russian had already bought all the food for the trip. Great! Less for us to do. The cabin to the Russian’s room was still firmly closed. We knocked and knocked to wake him up and eventually we just opened the door… and quickly came to the realisation that he wasn’t there. S***!
It was almost time to leave. After a few phone calls, we were told not to worry about the Russian. He was a grown man and he would look after himself.
We later learned that he had been deported the previous night, just a few hours before our arrival. The thought of just the two of us on a 45ft boat for over 1,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean was a bit daunting, but we were both more than capable of the challenge. We trusted each other and we had sailed together before - albeit only a few times.
I remember the first day being awesome! We were excited about it just being the two of us, and the weather was brilliant. We had 25-30 knots of wind on a broad reach just outside the Gibraltar Straits, and we were surfing the 3-4 metre swell. These are my favourite sailing conditions. We soon got used to our new boat, and our watch system of 2 hours on, 2 hours off in the night, and 3-3 during the day.
After a few days at sea, the weather began to change… The wind was dropping and the temperature was rising. We had enough fuel to last us a few hundred miles, but not all the way. Eventually the wind completely died. The sea was a calm lake. We were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 150 nautical miles away from the nearest land, crazily hot, and we had the engine on, chugging along. For two days it was like this.
Now there are two things that really grind sailors the wrong way. One, being on a SAIL boat and not being able to sail. Two, having no whiskey when not being able to sail, with snail-like progress to the next whiskey.
Then, spluttering, choking and hissing noises came from the engine, and it was gone. Dead! Franco and I aren’t too bad with engines, we’d fixed enough general engine problems in our time, so we didn’t panic. We tried and tried to fix this. It wasn’t happening.
I won’t go into too much detail what was wrong with the engine, because it is tantamount to talking Amibien - complicated stuff that would only interest a mechanic or other yachties. But it was broken and there was no wind. We were literally drifting further and further away from land with the tide.
It was getting dark, and we knew from the last few days that when it got darker and cooler, the wind would pick up about 10-15 knots. We decided we would wait until nightfall, hoist all the sails, head towards land and pray that in the morning, life would be better and the wind would pick us so we could sail into a port of refuge and fix the engine.
The sun rose beautifully but we had only sailed a mere 3-5 km towards land all night! We were a little closer and I thought to myself, “Ahhh it’s going to be a good day”. It’s hard not to think that way when you have such beautiful scenery. I made Franco and I our usual stronger-than-crack type coffee and some breakfast, feeling elated. Then I walked up on deck, all smiles. But Franco had an air of sorrow and melancholy about him. The wind was dying again…
I made more than 24 Pan-Pans in less than 24 hours. Absolutely no one responded. This really disgusts me. Sailing is a small world, and we always, always look after our own if we can. Absolutely no one responded or even bothered about our Pan-Pans. With our frustration growing and our willpower dying, I was trying to persuade Franco to let me make a Mayday - the next step up from a Pan-Pan. You are legally obliged to respond to Maydays, but not to Pan-Pans. Franco was putting this off and off. Then, as if by magic - just before our first argument was about to occur - the wind picked up out of nowhere. It was as if the God of wind had been testing us…
“QUICK! SAIL!” I screamed.
I think that was the fasted sail hoist we had ever done. Swimming with nerves that the wind would die at any moment, I was still doing pan-pans just in case someone would respond and tow us to the nearest port. A short while later we saw a big fisherman.
“Franco, quick! Call them on the VHF!”
Franco, calling on the VHF, trying all languages he knows. Me, sailing around them, tacking and gybing to stay close enough so that if they do help us, it wouldn’t be difficult.
The fisherman finally responded to us, and he and Franco were having a nice little conversation, when I noticed something fishy about this fisherman. He had 7 people on deck, which is more than normal, and all of a sudden I noticed lots of little hands, arms and legs all popping out of the port holes on the hull.
“FRANCO! THEY’RE NOT REAL FISHERMEN! GET OFF THE RADIO!” I quickly tacked and started sailing away.
For those who don’t understand, Pirates aren’t just in movies, and they also aren’t just looking for treasure chests in desert islands.
“Where are you going? Come back,” we heard on the VHF continuously. We used every racing technique we knew to sail as efficiently and as quickly as possible. They were following.
After a short while of jaw clenching, they soon got bored and probably a bit worried as we were coming in to land, and they turned away from us.
The following day we were able to go into Agadir, Morocco, after being towed for 15 miles. We fixed the engine and set off again for the last leg to the Canary Islands. What came next was a phantasmagoria of horror and excitement…
Once we were back on track everything was going great. Beautiful, romantic sailing for us. We were doing a nice 7-8 knot average and were as happy as we could be. Until we saw some huge Cumulonimbus clouds coming very rapidly towards us, from behind, with huge and frequent bolts of lightning striking down.
Franco hates thunderstorms with a passion, but I never really mind them… until you get struck! We raced away as fast as we could for over 4 hours straight. We were both still on deck at two in the morning. I could see Franco was getting more and more tired, but I felt pretty much awake and thought the worst was over. I suggested Franco go to bed and not to worry anymore.
He went down to the cabin for some shut eye, I made myself a coffee and got back on the helm, ready for a peaceful few hours of sailing. There was no rain and no more wind than usual. However, literally 40 minutes later, literally out of nowhere, a bolt of lightening struck next to us turning the entire sky a sea of fantastic violet purple. The storm was close… less than two miles away.
I let out a little ‘HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!’ and looked up. The storm was right over us. A large drip of water tapped me on my head and then another tap, tap, tap… I knocked on the deck which was above Franco’s sleeping head. He popped his little head up like a meerkat.
“Um, babe, the thunderstorm is back… and well… look up.”
BANG, as if on cue the thunder crashed mercilessly with ear splitting depth. At this point, I realised it had been cruel to wake him up. There was nothing he or I could do about it now. I could’ve saved him four hours of torture and dealt with it on my own… but where’s the fun in that?!
The rain was bolting down now, with 30+ knots of wind hitting our faces. It felt like thousands of little stones being thrown at you with force. (If you want to know what this feels like, next time it’s raining hard when you’re driving, stick your head out the window at 40MPH… keep it there, hold, try to breathe. Nice, isn’t it?).
Not really knowing what to do next, we decided to sit it out down below. The auto pilot was good and would keep us going for awhile. The storm was getting worse, I remember so clearly sitting in the companionway, watching everything - where the lightning was hitting, counting the seconds until the next strike. Franco was sitting on the sofa, knackered and worried.
I find there are two types of people in the world. The first, when faced with danger, put their head under the blanket and don’t want to watch the bullet coming. They’d prefer it be a shock and hopefully less painful. The second looks at the bullet that may kill you, analyses everything about the bullet - the smell, the size, the shape. Well, Franco’s number 1, and I’m number 2.
We sat in silence. That’s when Franco began frantically searching the boat for something.
“What are you looking for?”
“There has got to be something to drink here!! If we’re going to die, at least we’ll die whilst a little tipsy.”
I nodded and quickly joined the search with him… And there it was, in a little secret locker, hidden under the Saloon table. As we opened the box, it was as if the angel’s had sun and there was the light surrounding the bottle of whiskey. The warm comforting liquid eased and numbed the worry a little.
Once the rain stopped, although the lightning was still striking around us, we both went on deck to have a smoke. We realised we hadn’t eaten in over 16 hours and we were ravenous, so I made us a quick anchovy sandwich. That went well with the whiskey.
It went well until I started to get a scratchy throat and my stomach started making strange sounds.
“Um, babe, I don’t want to alarm you, but I’m about to have an allergic reaction.”
“YOU DON’T WANT TO ALARM ME?! WHAT DO I DO?” he screamed.
“Go find me some anti-histamine in the first aid kit!”
I sat back and drank a lot of water to try drown whatever it was out! I’m allergic to shellfish, mainly mussels and cockles, but for some reason unknown to us, every so often I react randomly to some fish. I also didn’t have an Epi pen on me. (Note to self: always ensure there’s one on board!).
“EVERY SINGLE PILL IS IN RUSSIAN! I CAN’T READ IT!”
“Well I suppose that makes sense being a Russian boat.”
I started the vomiting. When these reactions happen, this tends to last for a good few hours, leaving me depleted… As the light of dawn chased away the darkness, everything seemed less fearsome and the thunderstorm gradually retreated, leaving peace on board once more.
Franco slept for hours. I was still feeling dodgy from the allergic reaction and stayed up. Once the storm had passed, I experienced some of the best sailing of my life, despite the terrors of the night. It was hot with the sun out, and I surfed every wave, gleefully doing a great 12 knots with a big wave racing towards Tenerife.
Two and a half years on, we are still racing through thunderstorms on the oceans for a living. Life is good.
Originally from Wales, Annie Beynon made an extreme decision to run away to sea and become a sailor. She’s now a qualified, experienced yachtswoman living her dream life, slowly making her way around the world. You can follow her adventures on her blog, The Sailor’s Life, or on Instagram.