Max Aylmer (PS 11-16) recounts his one-in-a-lifetime sailing expedition across the Atlantic
|19 Dec 2019|
How it began…
30 minutes. 10 minutes. 5 minutes. 1 minute to go… Sweating, stressed and strained I put down my pen, my statistics exam was over. I left the exam, grabbed my bag and hopped in the waiting taxi. The adventure had begun. 30 hours later I arrived in Fajardo, Puerto Rico where I was about to board Por Que No, my home for the next 7 weeks, and meet my 3 crewmates, my social life for the next 7 weeks.
I started sailing with my parents aged 4 on the Isle of Wight. Since then, I’ve participated in and instructed on numerous sailing courses, raced dinghies, keelboats and yachts at club, national and international events; including representing Tonbridge at the 2013 RS FEVA World Championships in Italy. Regardless, the Atlantic was always the box to be ticked, the itch to be scratched and the Ocean to be crossed.
Barry, the skipper and owner, from Holland, had initially planned to sail around the world with his then-girlfriend but had instead got engaged. This trip was intended to be his last hoorah before settling down and building a family with his fiancée in Europe. Bob, a school friend of Barry’s, from Holland had left his job as a psychologist to join us across the Atlantic. Unfortunately for Bob, it turned out that he suffered from quite bad seasickness. Regardless, he never let it lower his cheerful outlook. Romain was a roofer turned ocean sailor, who was in the final stages of obtaining his Ocean Yacht master qualification. Being French meant that he was an excellent cook and was never seen without a cigarette in his hand.
Island Hopping – Puerto Rico to Culebra
A mile out from port Barry calmly announced that the engine compartment was flooded with seawater. This was not the news one wanted to hear before embarking on a 4000NM Ocean Crossing. After 40 minutes of assessing the problem, we found the perfect solution. We pumped out the seawater and then hit the leaky seal with a hammer aiming to reset its positioning. Stunningly this worked and the seal held for the remainder of the trip.
Culebra to the Azores: Be calm and carry on
The first three days of sailing were characterised by healthy winds and cracking progress where we began to bond as a team and learn how to handle Por Que No. Unfortunately, on day 4 the wind died and remained dead for the next 14 days turning our yacht into a sweltering fibre-glass oven making the cockpit insufferable during the day and worse still at night. The only respite was to go swimming, a lot. To swim around the boat safely we deployed safety lines from the stern of the yacht. Designed to provide you with the ability to drag yourself back aboard the yacht should anything go wrong, they also provided a great ‘net’ for some water polo. However, water polo quickly turned into a game of chicken with each team hitting the ball further from the yacht forcing the other team to swim away from the boat in order to retrieve the ball. One of the most disconcerting sites is seeing your ride back to Europe already uncomfortably far away, sailing away from you at a seemingly increased rate. Another favourite activity was rope swinging, using a rope attached to the top of the mast to jump off the yacht into the water below while trying to avoid belly-flopping. Eventually, the winds returned, and we made excellent progress towards the Azores averaging 130NM a day.
To ensure a constant lookout we had a watch rota where each crew member completed a 2-3-hour shift on a rolling basis. This ensured each day everyone occupied a different watch time meaning the ‘graveyard’ shifts were shouldered equally amongst us all.
Land ahoy! Arrival in the Azores
After 24 days at sea, we sighted the Island of Faial of our port bow. Only those that have crossed an ocean can truly understand the excitement of seeing land; the safety, the food, the drinks and, of course, the internet were now all within our reach. Upon arriving we went straight to Peter’s Bar to have the first beer and steak in almost four weeks. Over the next few days, we explored all that the islands had to offer from parties in a 16th century fort to socialising with fellow Atlantic sailors to camping on and then ascending Portugal’s highest mountain, Mount Pico. Hungover and totally un-prepared bringing only our standard shore clothes we certainly claimed the title of ‘worst mountaineers ever’.
To Blighty! Departing the Azores
The night before departing we took on enough provisions to feed a large army which we somehow then crammed into the cockpit. The next morning, I awoke to find that the left side of my mouth had swelled to twice its normal size – my tooth infection had got substantially worse and ibuprofen appeared to do little to help numb the pain. After a trip to A&E, I was informed that through a translation error I had been taking ibuprofen designed for 1-year olds not 21 years old. Nonetheless, the infection had become substantial and the doctor advised me to at least delay my departure from Faial. However, instead of delaying our departure I threw caution to the wind, stocked up on an inordinate number of painkillers, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory and we set sail. Fortunately for the crew and I, the drugs worked (painkillers really are the modern miracle) and I was able to face the coming storm in near full health.
The wind howled, the waves rolled, the yacht creaked, and the hatches leaked, this was the storm I’d come searching for. During watches, we had to take manual control of the helm as the autopilot lacked the strength required and it was just too goddamn fun surfing down waves in a yacht. Arrangements within the cabin became far more entertaining with the interior resembling that of a bucking bronco while it became necessary to tie yourself in at night to prevent you from falling off your bunk. The most amusing element was performing one’s business in the heads where you had to perform an intricate balancing act using your head, hands and feet to remain attached to the loo to prevent any unintended… slippage. There was much discussion on the most appropriate method with each crew member having his preferred technique.
We crossed the Bay of Biscay and traversed the English Channel without issue arriving in Brighton on the 3rd July. After a final meal and customary night out, we parted as we met with a pint, a hug and handshake.