14th June 2019, I wrote in my journal: Yesterday was a day of single-handing hell so today I’ve been pretty downhearted. I’ve been feeling that this is my last sailing adventure with Anne Bonny and I can’t wait to put her up for sale in September, now my Antigua mission is complete. Yesterday made me just heartily sick of doing all this alone, which is a shame after the triumph of making it to Antigua. But now is the hard slog home after the goal has been achieved.
But let’s backtrack, because June 14th wasn’t on my immediate horizon as I prepared to leave Antigua. First of all, as you imagine me gather up my anchor chain and dash back to the helm before I collide with the other anchored boats, then try to get my mainsail up halfway across the narrow channel as another boat is doing the same (what a dance!), let’s return to Joyce and her own departure from Antigua:
This kind of life came to an end. 4 days before the war broke out Tony was called up, he was a Lieut. in the RNVR. He moved out of our Factory bungalow and became Naval Liaison Officer at the Governor’s beach house, and took Edward home to mother. Seven months later Tony came back to England to mine-sweep. My father had died my mother went to Bermuda to be near my youngest brother who was at school there. I left Antigua with Edward & Tim now 6 weeks old to keep house for my brother Oliver in St Kitts. 18 months later Oliver joined the RAF and I went back to Antigua. All our young men had gone to England. The Americans had taken over. In return for 50 old warships. They had a large area on which to build their base. The negros flocked there & were paid more than double. I still had Priscilla though I was about to receive my 2nd letter from her. Dear Madam, I am very sorry I did fall again I send you my niece Rosie etc.
November 1942 Tony managed to come back to Antigua for 1 months leave, before starting a new job, as British Naval ‘Working up’ Officer in Charleston South Carolina. This was the first time he had seen Tim who was now 2 1/2. Tony’s leave was very soon over. I was once again on my own.
I had often tried to book a passage to England, but no ships captain would take children on board. But America was different, I got permission from the Governor to go there but the Commander of the American base had the final say, and he said, all planes were booked for American VIPs. I lived opposite the Pan American Airways office. Mr Henzell who ran the office had been best man at our wedding. I was packed & ready, all my papers in order. It just so happened, there were 2 cancellations, so Frank nipped over the road with 2 tickets. He told the American Commander there had not been time to inform anyone else.
So we took off on a flying boat, like a speed boat we charged through the surf, then bump bump & suddenly we were sailing through the air and over all the islands, Barbuda, Nevis, St Kitts, Anguilla.
Joyce Robertson (née Nugent), Some of My Travels
Antigua is a world away from Devil’s End. On the one hand, you had this palm tree-strewn sweaty ‘paradise’ where hurricanes threatened to take most of your house away, and you had to be concerned about whether or not you ran out of water before the next rainfall. On the other, there was rural Wiltshire where my mum’s side of the family had ended up. For that I have images of the old-school countryside traditions of Mum’s youth, like Beating the Bounds, the Maypole, campanology, the village brass band waking everyone up at 3am on Christmas Day, and the fact that locals are called ‘Dabchicks’ if they were born in the village and have at some point fallen in the duckpond. Hanging out on my tropical island, Aldbourne seemed like another planet, but of course Aldbourne was where this idea had all started for me. It was that Doctor Who episode where I got a peek through a window into a family’s past as she peered out of the window for those few seconds on the TV show. Joyce was the last of my family to live the Antiguan colonial life, and here she was, caught on film all those years later looking out on the heart of rural England. Like I say, worlds apart. It makes you wonder (or at least it makes me wonder) how her world might have changed, whether people really replicated little England in the tropics, what her existence then looked like compared to the life of people there now, and what impact the presence of people like her had on that place (Jamaica Kincaid gives us a bit of an idea).
She never returned to the Caribbean as far as I’m aware. They spent a few years posted in the US, before making it back to the UK; first to Glasgow and then finally down to Aldbourne to be near a deaf school for their 3rd son, my uncle Christopher. Life in England must have been drastically different, but Mum says she still gave away snippets of her West Indian upbringing from time to time: she liked to cook with bananas, and went mad for avocados if they were ever available. If she had been alive when I was, would she have ever talked about all that? Or was she quite busy enough raising six kids born over a span of 26 years, and tending to her kitchen garden?
In the meantime, I yanked my head back into passage-making mode, giving myself a week to arrive in Martinique to prepare for my departure for Europe. The crossing to Deshaies was fairly straightforward: I wasn’t leaving from the same part of the island, but it was pretty much the same trip as on the way here. It felt like an age since I’d been out sailing properly, and frankly I was looking forward to a nice gentle crossing with nothing for company but the sea, the beating sun, and something cool to listen to on my mp3 player. And haha! Surprise surprise it was a lovely sail to Deshaies, and drama-free anchoring. You thought it was going to be another disaster story, didn’t you? Well that comes later. But for now I was back in Deshaies, and decided I was going to formally clear in this time, and wander about on land, because… check this… they were actually filming Death in Paradise.
That morning it was pissing down, and it wasn’t due to stop pissing for several days. I eyed the deflated kayak, and decided against it. Time to revert to my old friend the proper dinghy. I wanted to buy fuel and didn’t fancy risking losing the jerry can to the seabed when my shitty inflatable decided to sink again. Unfortunately, the time my dinghy had spent folded up and stored on deck didn’t seem to have done it any good. The boards were rotten and splintered around my feet when I stepped in, and it didn’t take long for the pontoons to start to lose pressure and water seep in from who knows where, when before it had been surprisingly watertight. I rowed to shore, feeling very damp, but excited to get my chores done and find a baguette. I never realised how much I’d miss French bread until I didn’t have daily access to it.
I pulled up to the dock and was tying off when a grinning hippy guy in his 50s approached. He was thin and a bit wild-eyed, and seemed to be looking at me as though he knew me and wanted to engage me in conversation. I gave him a polite bonjour and ducked past to the street. I was already drenched and didn’t want to get caught in the rain trying to understand whatever he wanted. After checking in (which is always hilarious in French territories because they just need you to type some details into a computer and don’t even check your passport. Nothing like the palaver in the English-speaking islands), I began looking for a petrol station. What I found were a couple of dodgy looking French guys on a bench, and I was over the moon because I actually knew them: they (and their scrappy dog) belonged to a little boat called El Gringo, and I’d tangled with these clowns a couple of times before.
The first time, I’d been preparing some classes in my cabin in the marina when a voice had shouted down to me through my open hatch. Old Gringo was there, waving and trying to get my attention. ‘Hey!’ He shouted (all this is in French), ‘is your boyfriend there?’ Me: what? Him: Your boyfriend, you know, the one who lives on the boat with you. Me: What boyfriend? What are you talking about? Him: I need to speak to your boyfriend. I need some help. Me: I live here alone, what do you want? Him: I need to borrow a tool, can you ask your boyfriend? Me (hiding my tool box in irritation): sorry, I don’t have a boyfriend, you’ll have to ask someone else.
At the time I’d assumed he’d just mistaken me for someone he actually knew, but about a year later I was hitchhiking back to Anse Mitan after doing my laundry when I was picked up by a kind passer-by. Him: do you live on a boat then? Me: yes, how did you guess? (then realising I had a very conspicuous yellow dry-bag). Him: Maybe your boyfriend could help me out, I’m having some engine problems. Me: ah yes, now I know why I recognise this guy. So apparently this guy assumed that any woman on a boat was there grace à son copain and had no real relevance in her own right. Feminist frustration made me promise to come and have a look at his engine. I didn’t know much myself, but I was damned well going to prove myself.
El Gringo was a dirty bachelor pad inhabited by Young Gringo (the owner, about my age or maybe 40, hard to tell because of his missing teeth and skin shrivelled by chainsmoking and the sun) and his pal Old Gringo (50s, pot-bellied, and very lucky never to have been on the receiving end of my fist). Oh yes, and the aquatic stray dog Choupette. They had a couple of sinking dinghies tied up at the back, and an outboard engine leaking fuel in the cockpit. This was the broken engine in question, and so I confidently set about examining it once I’d accepted their proffered rum. Have you checked the carburettor? I asked. It might need cleaning, or need a new dip valve (forgotten what it’s called in English, but at any rate I surprised myself by actually knowing what I was talking about). Old Gringo had already been bragging about being the skipper for one of the big daytripper catamarans in Marin so I was shocked when he hadn’t even tried this basic first move. If I knew how to troubleshoot a petrol outboard, how come a professional skipper didn’t? He’d already patronised me about the years of study it took to get to his level, before telling me I should try and get to St. Martin – there were tonnes of people looking for a waitress. I’ll offer no comment to that, except that I’m currently writing this from St Martin where I’m working as a the skipper of a large day charter boat.
Despite Old Gringo so obliviously grinding my gears, and Young Gringo keen on trying his chances with me, I actually had a good time with them and since this was the era when I was missing a mainsail, they even searched the boat to see if they had a spare to give me. So in Deshaies I stopped in the rain and gave them an enthusiastic bonjour. After my loneliness in English Harbour, it was amazing to see people I knew. They’d been here for a few months, it turned out. They were on their way to St Martin or St Barths, but were trying to earn some cash as extras in this strange little TV show that seemed to be filming at the moment. Whaaaaaat? They were extras in Death in Paradise? I was so jealous. Their shoot for the day had just been cancelled because of the rain, and they were waiting for news of when they’d next be needed. If I wanted, they could get me in on the action, they told me. I was sorely tempted, but when they said the next filming date was over a week away, I knew I had to say no. I needed to get back home.
We were catching up when Grinning Hippy joined us. In the end the Gringos and Grinning Hippy followed me to the petrol station and waited around while I filled up my can. Grinning Hippy and I were invited back to El Gringo for an afternoon party. I suggested they go on ahead since I had no desire to have this new creepy man hanging around me, and assumed maybe he’d go with them. The Gringos disappeared but to my chagrin he hung around, asking about my plans and if I needed crew. I said no thanks, I didn’t take male passengers I didn’t know (hah! any more…). He was undeterred (annoyingly), but as I struggled down the road with my enormous heavy jerry can, he at least flagged down a truck to give me a lift to the end of the road (very kind of the guys in the truck). At the dock I said ‘bye then’, and made excuses that I couldn’t row two people and fuel back to the boat (which was true – especially because the dinghy was already half-full of rain and seawater), and got out of there sharpish. There was no way I was going to let him in a dinghy with me or find out where my boat was. Something about him made me very wary indeed. He just sort of stood around, grinning hopefully, and seemed to be imposing his presence on me in a way that reminded me too much of the unpleasant marina guys in St Francois. Anyway, the Gringos were confused I hadn’t brought him, I was confused they hadn’t brought him, but in general we had a fine old drunken afternoon without him. Young Gringo rifled through his boat and offered me a spare battery and a hand-cranked blender. I was actually very touched, and felt guilty for all the times I’d secretly thought of these boys as dodgy weirdos.
Next day was leaving day, but as I showered in my cockpit, I could see filming going down in ‘Catherine’s Bar’ (and wondered if I was going to be there, showering in the background of the shot). I decided on a last trip ashore for baguette and snooping. Grinning Hippy was there again, and trying to chat me up, cornering me to join him for coffee. I smiled and thanked him but told him how busy I was. I know the difference between ‘predatory guy’ and ‘friendly but harmless guy’, and something about him was definitely off. I didn’t like the way he’d followed me about from the moment I’d set foot on the dock. I scurried away, and hung around at the set, being a geeky fangirl and annoying the crew. Eventually I needed to get going, though. It was a long day’s sail and I was hoping to get to my anchorage in Les Saintes before sunset.
I had sort of checked the weather beforehand, and noted it seemed a bit gusty where I was. But I presumed this must be an effect of the bay. The fact that I couldn’t even get the mainsail up as I motored out should have been a sign. I tried a couple of times, but couldn’t stay head to wind long enough to get the whole main up, and it would end up whipping away and then filling, becoming too heavy to control. Then I’d find myself too near the other anchored boats again. (An autopilot would have come in really handy at this point.) I gave up and pressed on regardless, deciding that maybe I’d just use the genoa like on the way there. With the genoa I could control the heading whilst furling in or out, and it should be much simpler. I thought the island would block most of the wind but instead, because of the shape of the hills, it went from 10kts to shrieking gusts of 30-40kts. Nonstop. It was exhausting. Even with just the genoa out I was heeled right over, and very badly balanced. The sail had been repaired, but the sailmaker had been very doubtful about the remaining life it had. I had visions of this wind ripping it to shreds. After an hour of misery, I decided to battle to get the genoa in and motor until the wind got a bit more consistent and I could balance my sails properly. The wind never did get more consistent and it felt really rough out there. I really, really wished I could have got the mainsail up while I was still in the bay, but now out off the coast I was too scared.
Then to my horror the engine started losing power occasionally, like on the trip with Rachel and Mme Ching (if you’ve got this far and forgotten some of the characters, I named all my friends after female pirates). But I still had so far to go. I didn’t understand what was going on. I had refuelled the day before so I couldn’t be out already. Clearly my assumption about the fault last time had been wrong. So what the hell was going on with my engine? I’d checked my impeller back in Jolly Harbour and it was in good shape, so it wasn’t that. The strange power loss was only happening now and again, and the wind was still a fickle demon from hell. Once I got into the channel it would be consistent and I could sail, I told myself. I actually spotted bays I could shelter in as I passed along the coast. I should have stopped. Why didn’t I stop? Genuinely no sane reason.
The channel was close, and I was optimistic that it would represent a change in fortunes. A consistent and predictable wind that would allow me to use my sails. On the other side of the channel, the anchorage. And I was right. When I reached the channel there was a consistent strength of wind, but it was 40kts (I must note here that I have no idea how accurate my anemometer was, but it felt pretty damned breezy). I thought – I’m nearly there, I might as well press on. I’m a tough cookie.
I should have stopped. I should have turned round and headed back to that welcoming sheltering bay. Within minutes, the seas got really big and drenched me. The sun disappeared and it rained on and off, giving me no way to dry off and warm up. I was freezing and exhausted and did not trust my engine one bit. I chickened out of trying to get my sails up. What had I been thinking? I didn’t have the skills for this. I gritted my teeth and ploughed on with the motor, my progress agonisingly slow as the sea tossed me about from side to side. I kept my eyes fixed on the pass at the other side of the channel. I just had to hold on. I could make it.
I might have been OK if the engine didn’t keep mysteriously keep losing power. Two thirds of the way it lost power dramatically, and I turned and thought I saw smoke coming out of the back. This freaked me out big time. I quickly jolted the lever into neutral and hastily unfurled a tiny bit of genoa. Putting the mainsail up was still way more than I could handle at this point. This turned out to be a bigger hell (even writing about this in retrospect, I can’t believe I did this crossing. I would never do something like that now, not in the state I was in). The seas continued to be rough and relentless, and now I was going by sail I could no longer make a course towards the pass. I was now being blown towards rocks and boat traps. Shit. (Shit is too mild. I’ve never come closer to fearing for my life than this point.) I took some breaths and tried to hold my calm. As I had a habit of doing back in those days, I could keep this sense of calm by embracing the idea ‘today could be the day I die so no point worrying about that any more. Time to actually solve the problems at hand’. I tacked to get myself away from the rocky shore, but by fuck I was exhausted. I didn’t know if I had the stamina to keep tacking back and forth through this channel with my unbalanced handkerchief genoa. I made a decision, and powered up the engine again and refurled my sail. I didn’t care if I killed the motor by over-heating it to death (or whatever its problem was), I just wanted to get out of this hell and to an anchorage. Maybe once I arrived I wouldn’t have a functioning engine any more, but that would be a problem for later. Better no engine and alive, than on the rocks.
The whole rest of the journey was tense and uncomfortable (understatement). The engine still lost power from time to time, and I had to whack it into neutral on and off to let it cool, but I was inching closer to my destination. There was a calmish-looking anchorage off a small island not far from my intended stop, but I worried for what would happen if I did end up stuck there due to a broken boat. At least anchored off the mainland I could get ashore to some semblance of civilisation. I could see that where I was heading for was rolly as fuck, but I stuck with it. My heart filled with joy as I finally got out of that channel and into the relative shelter of the islands. The sun had nearly set, and I really needed that daylight to finish this voyage. I dropped the anchor, but to my continued misery, found myself having to haul it up and try again as the seabed around me was mostly rocks. Then I crawled into my bed battered and defeated. I was cold and seasick, and spent the night huddled in the saloon berth paranoid my anchor wouldn’t hold, periodically poking my head outside to check I hadn’t dragged.
The next morning was when I’d written the journal entry about wanting to give up. The weather hadn’t improved over night and it was still rolly and I was still seasick. I’d poked around my engine with the help of Nigel Calder, but couldn’t work out what had been wrong with it. There wasn’t anything obviously burnt out, and when I started it, it chugged along as smoothly as it ever did (ie not smoothly at all, but its noises were normal). Since I continued to feel low about everything, I called Boat Guy for an update on the weather and some encouragement. That helped. It was good to know there was someone in my timezone I could talk to who understood boats. I felt a lot less alone. After a while I made myself something to eat and decided to move. The anchorage was hellish and I wanted to get new fuel. I couldn’t see myself hauling my jerry can the long walk from my town back to my beach, so I checked the pilot book and saw that round the corner was a bay with a fuel dock. I picked up anchor and gingerly headed round. The water still buffeted the boat around and the trauma from yesterday made me feel very exposed going on just engine, but it wasn’t far. I told myself I’d be fine. My inner self did not feel reassured.
The new anchorage was deserted, which is never a good sign, but I supposed this was low season so maybe to be expected. At least I had all the space in the world to choose from, although it was even rollier here than in the other place. Eventually I launched the dinghy and rowed to the fuel dock which had looked suspiciously abandoned when I’d passed. A closer inspection revealed it had been closed for 2 years since the hurricane. Bugger. Disgruntled, I eventually rowed ashore to give myself a break from the bateau and go for a wifi beer. I tucked myself away in a bar in the main town (after a charming little hike to get there – Terre de Haut is a lovely place) and pretended for a while that I didn’t have a boat and I didn’t have to do anything but enjoy the scenery. I chatted to my sailor buddy from back home online, who gave me more words of encouragement, and read some inspiring literature. Then I took a breath and had a look at the weather for the forthcoming days. I probably wasn’t going to be able to get more fuel (but I wouldn’t need it if I was actually sailing), and hadn’t solved the mystery of the depowering engine, but I needed to get moving. Bad news: forecasts predicted no change to the status quo for the next week. In general, I was looking at 20-30kts (which meant higher in reality). My comfort zone was 15kts.
I dithered. What could I do? I had to get back to Martinique. I didn’t have the time to wait for more comfortable weather. In the calm atmosphere of land and a cheerful wifi beer, I understood very clearly that my biggest mistake yesterday (aside from perhaps choosing to go out in the first place) was not using my sails. A boat like mine is not built to spend significant time motoring (also, I had unresolved engine problems which had haunted me since I bought her). I was freaked out by the idea of strong winds overpowering my rig, but using sails also gave the craft balance (also, my rig could take it). She would be in closer harmony with the sea and cut through the waves better than if she was just relying on a tiny weak propeller to thrust her along. I pulled myself together. I was going to leave tomorrow, but I was going to do it differently this time.
I prepped the boat for a 6am start, checking I had my mainsail deeply reefed and all of my crap sea-stowed so I wouldn’t risk bleeding to death on broken glass. I filled my cockpit pouch with snacks and drinks, and ate a good hearty breakfast. I double-checked the weather and my route, prepped the log book, did my engine checks, and secured the dinghy on deck. As dawn arrived, local fishing boats started to make their way past me and out of the bay, knocking me about in their wakes. I had my lifejacket, my harness, and my foul weather jacket. I had pasted myself in Factor 50 and had my hat and sunglasses to hand. It was time to get going. I dropped the nav tablet into the cockpit pouch along with my mp3 player, and fired up the engine. It clunked away at its usual merry pace. Then I hoisted the mainsail, unconcerned at its erratic swinging as I donned gloves and moved forwards to haul anchor. There weren’t any boats to crash into here, I could take my time. I was nervous. I didn’t know if I was ready for this challenge alone. I didn’t feel like a brave sailor at all. I felt like I hardly knew what I was doing, but I was ashamed of my performance on the last passage. I had to take my seamanship to the next level.
I motored out of the bay into the big seas and gusty winds, and stayed calm. Eventually I felt it was time to get the genoa out and cut the motor, and as soon as I did I felt much more comfortable. This boat was made to sail. I breathed deeply. I was just going to relax and take my time. I didn’t need to let the strong winds panic me. I navigated out past the island and into the channel. I felt alright. It was windy, but it was fine. With the two sails out it was like I’d fallen into an alternate reality. This was nothing like the previous passage, although the weather conditions were the same. I could see the mountains of Dominica up ahead as I bounced along, their peaks shrouded in weather. Across the horizon stretched clumps of black clouds, marching steadily towards me. When the island disappeared from sight I knew big rain was coming for me, and possibly a lot more wind as well. OK. I could handle this.
I took my time: reducing the genoa is tough with one hand so I eased a little out on the sheet, secured it, tugged at the furler, and repeat until there was only a small triangle left. Then I made sure I had my life jacket and harness on, and snuggled in my foul weather jacket. Eventually the weather arrived and whenever I felt it was too strong, I depowered the main (which was already deeply reefed, I might add) by letting out the sheet as far as it would go. I was completely calm and happy, and thinking back to the contrast of the previous sail I was elated at my ability to tackle the challenge. The forces I was working with were powerful, but I managed to stay in control. I could feel myself becoming a better sailor.
I had to motor quite a lot to pass Dominica, but the engine held out and I eventually picked up a mooring in Roseau. I was to meet my friend there, she who had previously been a fellow singlehanded lassie and was now running a permaculture farm up in the hills in Dominica. (On the Nugent topic, the first Oliver Nugent had moved to Dominica after building Clare Hall, where he had eventually gone bankrupt.) With a German singlehander guy who was moored near me and got a spontaneous invitation, we jumped in her car and drove back into the mountains for dinner. Up at the smallholding, it was pissing down rainforest style and the property was up in the middle of nowhere. It was all lush and green with a secret waterfall and spectacular views. Their water comes from a spring and electricity from solar panels. Water is everywhere in Dominica. Most of the ground on the property is difficult to plant or even install a septic tank in, because you dig and water springs up. She showed us round the gardens she’d been creating and introduced us to the chickens. I knew I was going to go back and spend more time there.
We chatted all evening and ate fresh bread and pizza. Her partner said after the hurricane all the crickets came inside (there were no leaves left), and the noise was incredible. The German guy told us he’d crossed the Atlantic in a 27ft boat with 1 other person and no autopilot. Instead they’d used sheet-to-tiller steering, twin headsails and a little sail at the back like a windvane. I felt so unhardcore. Those were skills I could only dream of. I remembered my motoring fiasco with embarrassment.
Next day I left bright and early, for more of the same wind and rain. But I was on it. I decided to race the German guy, but although I set off long before he did, I’d once again chosen a stupid course that had me close-hauled and going slowly (and I was shooting way higher than I’d intended to). He overtook me and disappeared into the distance. But I didn’t really care. Even though the wind was still strong and it wasn’t the most glorious of days, I was actively enjoying myself now. I found a sweet spot when I was close-hauled where the bateau was balanced enough that I didn’t need to touch the helm for a whole 20 minutes. That afternoon I arrived in Saint Pierre in the north of Martinique and found an anchor spot further away from the main town than last time. This was far less of a headache to find space in, and once my hook was dropped and set, I noticed I was right next to some good friends from the floating bar in Bequia. They were having a party in the water with some of their neighbours, so once I had recovered from the journey, I jumped in and swam over to surprise them.
The me at the start of this chapter was naïve about the environment boats operated in. I still had so much to learn about the forces of wind, sea state, and even how my sails and rig worked. Many old salts I know prioritise getting their mainsail up, and don’t take it down until the last possible moment. It’s an insurance policy against exactly what threatened to happen to me – engine failure in the worst possible spot. I’d got used to cheating and using my engine when I should have really been honing my skills, and I know I’m not the only one who does that. When any old person can just buy a boat and throw themselves out there, it’s terrifying to think how many mad/silly people come close to killing themselves, or endangering their rescuers. But the fright I got during these couple of days worked as a force of inspiration. I had to push myself. I had to do better than this. And I learned way more in these few days of misery than I had in the last months combined. This is why I’d chosen the single-handing path while I was still new to this. I had to make the mistakes in order to learn. Having a guide and sailing other people’s boats and watching how they do it in a safe environment was great to start with, especially if you have a good mentor, but eventually you have to spread your wings. When I didn’t have a good mentor (not everyone can be like Captain Shiraz, Zen Master or Moustache), sailing as crew on other boats often resulted in a battle with egos, being ignored or patronised, or being relegated to making the tea. My adventure with Anne Bonny drawing to a close, I knew I was ready to join a crew again and learn from some experts. I was excited for this next stage.
Among the gang of cheerful drunk Americans (who welcomed me from my big passage as any fellow cruiser would – with a beer) was the token female singlehander. People I happened across always acted like I was a rare creature and mad to boot (a woman? Alone on a boat? She is such a unicorn. No-one has ever been like her, ever before, nor ever will be again). But sometimes I think I meet more female singlehanders than male. I’ve just been procrastinating on Youtube and found videos from a lass who must have been in Antigua literally days before I arrived. I think we can fall into the trap of tooting our own horns of outstandingness as solo female adventurers, so that we perpetuate the message of ‘look at me, this is weird and strange’ rather than ‘this is so normal of course women are doing challenging boat things on their own, why wouldn’t they?’ My new acquaintance put forth the hypothesis that we’re becoming more widespread because women have stopped waiting for a man to come along to make the dream possible. In this day and age, we have the economic and social power to be able to do it ourselves (and we’re less afraid of being single). I also think each subsequent younger generation is raised with a greater sense of empowerment.
I’m not going to lie: there are many things which do make it harder for a woman to get out there and go sailing, especially on her own and with her own boat. None of it has anything to do with your actual capabilities or physical strength (Zen Master always used to say that if you had to force something on a boat and use more strength than a child would need, something was about to break). But the way you’re treated in this environment still makes it challenging to progress. I’ve met older cruising couples where the frustration is so clear in the woman’s eyes. Could she just… maybe… would she be allowed… just for one day… to be in charge for a change? Could he trust her? Could he let go of the ‘I’m the Captain’ ego-trip and give her a chance to prove herself? (At the same time, I’ve met younger cruising couples where the guy proudly wears the t-shirt (real or metaphorical) emblazoned ‘She’s the Skipper’, and I’ve seen couples cruising in co-captain harmony.) I’ve been laughed at, I’ve been ignored, I’ve been treated as though I’m not capable just because of how I look. I haven’t had many role models to look up to, either, aside from women who are so intimidatingly spectacular that I can’t see myself reflected in them. (Am I even allowed to be mediocre when I’m just starting out, especially over the age of 30?)
At the end of the day, it wasn’t the idea that I’m some kind of unique magical super-powered woman that made me feel like I wanted to tell this story. I was scared, I was seasick, I was a hot mess. None of this came naturally to me, and I certainly didn’t do it without a considerable amount of help from the people who cropped up in my life. It’s actually really hard, this sailing lark. It would have been an achievement, whoever was at the helm. Anyone who does the same thing, coming to this with no sailing background, has the right to feel just as proud of him-or-her-or-themself. Hurrah!