The English Channel - Part 2
A 20-degree angle may not seem like much at first glance. If you look at it on an axis it’s barely even an incline. However, if you are on a sailboat flying through the water at a 20-degree tilt for, let’s say, four or five straight days and nights, and you are trying to perform daily living activities . . . well, then it may as well be a 90-degree angle.
You are just sideways. All the time.
If you’ve never been on a sailboat, try to imagine walking on a steep hill—but you are not walking forward. You are walking sideways. Now imagine that the hill is moving. It’s rocking back and forth at times. Sometimes, the slant increases and sometimes it decreases. The speed changes constantly. And oh, by the way . . . there are also 10-to-15-knot winds blowing at you from another direction. Now, try to think about walking along sideways on this slanting, moving hill and also trying to cook dinner, or eat dinner, or brush your teeth, or pee in the potty without missing. Everything you do—even just standing or sleeping—requires balancing your entire body and holding on with at least one hand.
I should have good balance. In my youth I competed in gymnastics. I did flips and twists and leaps on a balance beam—a four-inch piece of wood positioned four feet off the ground. That was hard. It’s possible this is harder. At least the balance beam wasn’t moving, and each routine lasted only 90 seconds.
When you live on a moving sailboat, even when you are sleeping you are holding on. You must position yourself on the bunk so that you don’t slide right off into the floor. Or worse, you hold on to avoid getting thrown against the other side of the cabin. And just as you get to a point where you feel some sense of balance, the wind shifts, and you must tack. This means changing direction by shifting the sails to the other side. Then the boat tilts the other way, and you have to re-balance yourself on the opposite side.
You train yourself to find balance. You learn to hold on. You learn to perform regular, daily tasks one-handed. You bend your knees and perform a slow-motion, hula-hoop action with the lower part of your body to cushion and balance the movement.
This is pretty much what it was like for 92 straight hours as we sailed 348 nautical miles in five days, nonstop, through The English Channel from St.-Valéry-en-Caux, France to Camaret-sur-Mer, France. We crossed into the open North Atlantic Ocean and now wait on weather good enough to face our greatest challenge yet—The Bay of Biscay.
But more about that later. I don’t want to overshadow the accomplishment and challenge of the past week’s voyage through The English Channel. Here is a recap . . .
Tuesday-Friday, 6-9 September 2018
After our first leg through the English Channel that began in Dunkirk, France, we had arrived in the beautiful port of St.-Valéry-en-Caux and did a little exploring. We knew we needed a few days to wait out some bad weather that was pushing its way through The English Channel.
We mostly spent these few days catching up on real work. Sometimes I really envy the sailors who are able to quit their jobs and just sail and enjoy the experience without the interruption of real life and real work. But this is the time in our lives that we chose to take this adventure. And at this time, we must work.
Maik and I caught up on emails and phone calls with clients, trouble shot some projects, and I worked on several articles that needed to be completed. It was good that we had a little time for this. It’s not really something we can do much when we are at sea. But still, it would also have been nice to just relax and replenish our bodies and minds.
We also spent some time working on our video recaps for our YouTube channel. These videos are super fun to create, but they require a lot of time. It takes about half a day to download and organize all the video footage. I generally write the script and then it takes a full day to piece the video clips together and another full day to upload them to YouTube with our spotty, not-too-powerful Internet. But it’s ok. We enjoy creating them. It’s a great way to flex some creative muscles.
Maik stays busy working on strategically planning each leg of our voyage. He generally spends two to three hours creating each of our passage plans. He carefully studies several different weather sources, and pours through the Reed’s Nautical Almanac and all the paper charts required for each voyage. Then he tries to determine just the right time for departure to best take advantage of the weather, wind, currents, and conditions. Then he determines the best route for us.
During these days in port, we were also able to spend a lot of time exploring the city and taking Cap’n Jack and Scout on several adventures. There were lots of places here where we could unleash the hounds and let them run and play.
Saturday-Monday, 8-10 September 2018
On Saturday, I spent several hours doing laundry and working a little more. We had been at port for several days and were itching to get back to sea and continue our voyage through The English Channel.
Maik decided we would depart on Saturday evening at 22:00. So we readied the boat. We got a few groceries, and I did a little cleaning and straightening. I fed the pups and took them on a long walk and let them play on the beach for about an hour. We like to get them well-exercised before each long voyage. When I returned to Seefalke around 20:30, Maik told me that he had changed his mind.
Due to the tides and the wind, we would spend the first part of the voyage with barely any wind and having to motor sail slowly through The Channel for about a day and a half. Then the wind and currents would be against us, and we would have to fight some uncomfortable battles. He decided it was best to just wait a few more days on more favorable conditions.
As lovely as this port was, and as delicious as the fresh croissants tasted, we were both a bit disappointed because we were ready to set sail. We were physically and mentally prepared. But I am learning that it’s more important to hit the best windows of opportunity. So we waited in port a little longer.
We had finished our Kiel Canal video and started working on the video recap of our four-day, nonstop voyage across The North Sea. We decided we needed to film some interviews to truly tell the story of this difficult passage. I got extremely emotional reliving it.
I had made two critical mistakes during this passage. They were critical enough that I considered just giving up on this whole journey (read my blog “Taming the Bully”). Reliving it was brutal. I could barely talk about it without bursting into tears. Maik kept telling me to quit crying and try it again. This was frustrating me even more. He perhaps just can’t understand some of the emotions that I’m going through.
This is a grand experience, and I’m grateful every single day for the opportunity to challenge myself. But I can’t pretend that it’s all just sailing and sunshine all the time. Most of the time I love it! I love the challenge and the adventure. But sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it rips me to shreds from the inside out—probably because I’m still a novice and it just requires more effort for me. For Maik, it’s innate. It’s so much a part of his soul and his being that it just comes naturally. But I also try to remember that it’s the hard parts that make it special. If it was easy, anyone could do it.
That night, Maik said he didn’t like the video and didn’t think we had an interesting story to tell. This really pissed me off. This may seem like no big deal to him or anyone else, but I can assure you it’s a big deal to me. And I plan to document it. Not for YouTube or for Facebook, or even for my family and friends . . . but, for me. I don’t want to forget or discount a single emotion or experience. Everyone has an interesting story to tell.
Tuesday, 11 September 2018 - English Channel Leg 2 – Day 1 at Sea
The next morning I was feeling a bit less emotional. It’s amazing what a good night of sleep can do for you mentally. We took a long walk with the pups and went to the grocery store for fresh fruit and vegetables. When we returned to the boat I slipped on the concrete stairs walking down to the floating pier. They were slippery and slimy from the earlier high tide. When the tide goes down every six hours, there is a slimy film left on some of the lower stairs. I had been thinking all week that I might slip on them. And I finally did. I fell mostly on my bum, which is the most padded part of my body, but I also twisted my right foot forward trying to catch my fall and stubbed my big toe badly.
It’s just a toe, but damn that hurt! How can something so small hurt so much? My shoe filled with blood, and I could see that part of my nail was ripped away from the skin. It was throbbing, but of course, I tried not to cry because Maik hates it when I cry. So instead I washed it off and bandaged it and said a few four-letter words that would embarrass my mother. And then I just moved on.
Maik spent the morning studying the weather and around 13:30 that afternoon he decided we needed to set sail at high tide, which would be around 15:00. We learned that the bridge would open at 15:30, so we frantically began preparations.
I was already not feeling well. My toe was throbbing, I was worried about Pops because he was having cataract surgery that morning. And now I felt rushed. We generally have more time to prepare for departure. Of course, even though it was chaotic, we got it done. But emotions and tensions were already high.
We departed at 15:30 as planned. The high water was producing huge waves as we left the marina and ventured back into The English Channel. I was still marveling at the gorgeous green color of the water—a color I still can’t quite describe, but I know I will never forget it.
We were fighting the groundswells and the currents, but it was time to put up the sails. I hoisted the main, but not without some struggles. Then Maik said we needed to hoist the jib and asked me if I wanted to go to the bow to do it or hold the wheel and keep us in the wind. The currents were forceful and so was the wind, so I decided it was best if Maik kept Seefalke steady.
I crawled onto the bow.
The wind was howling and the boat was rocking in what seemed like all directions. We were already on at least a 20-degree tilt, so I had to position my body in just the right way to be able to stabilize myself with my legs while working with both hands to untie the jib ties. I got the first two loose, but there was a huge knot in the tie that was securing the jib boom. It took me several minutes to untangle the knot, although it seemed like forever. I finally got it loose and hoisted the jib as the boom swiftly flew over to the starboard side to join the main boom. I had to hang on with both arms and legs to keep from flying across the boat along with the sails.
I crawled back to the cockpit, feeling relatively proud of my accomplishment. I’ve hoisted the main and the jib a million times, but these were extremely rough conditions, so I was pleased with myself. Even Maik told me I did a good job, which made me so happy. I felt a bit queasy and uneasy from the extreme motion. Then Maik told me to hoist the mizzen. This is the sail located on the stern. This wasn’t as difficult because the two other sails were cushioning the effects of the waves by this time.
I wanted to make a post on Facebook and Patreon that we had departed, but by this time, we already had no Internet, and I knew that we now would be off the grid for several days.
I was feeling queasy, but was fighting the good fight. Maik handed me Yvi’s potato. This made me laugh and relieved some of my tension and uneasiness. My friend Yvi was previously a sailing instructor and she told me she would tell her students to just hold a potato in their left hand to prevent seasickness. Sometimes mind over matter is the best cure. I held Yvi’s potato in my left hand. It was working. Maik asked me if I wanted to take the first shift since it was still daylight. I definitely liked this idea since I still don’t love the night shift. So I took the helm from 16:00 until 20:00, just before sunset.
It was a beautiful afternoon, but the wind was strong and we were already on that 20-degree tilt. I was battling the queasiness and the ever-challenging balancing act had already begun. But I tried to focus on the beauty that surrounded me. As the sun was setting, it was reflecting on the gorgeous green water. It looked like the sea was filled with sparkling diamonds. Maik relieved me for the night shift, and I wondered if I would ever see that green color again.
Wednesday, 12 September 2018 - The English Channel Leg 2 - Day 2 at Sea
I awakened at 02:00 for my night shift to discover that we were fighting against the currents. The wind was coming from one direction, but the currents were moving in a different direction—against us. This was causing the waves to be confused and rocky, and the currents were pushing us backward. I didn’t sleep well, but got myself mentally ready for my watch. It was a frustrating watch because we had to tack off course a little to wait on the wind the shift. So I was basically backtracking right back over the course that Maik had taken earlier in the night. It was kind of a north-to-south reverse move. It was frustrating to feel like we weren’t getting anywhere.
The night was black and foggy. There was not much traffic, which helped my nerves, but it was difficult to see anything. I got through the shift and Maik relieved me in four hours.
I needed to relax, but for some reason I just couldn’t. I woke up a few hours later and was queasy and uneasy and just couldn’t make myself get out of bed. Maik said he was ok, so I just lay there cuddling with Cap’n Jack and Scout for a couple hours. I finally came up to the cockpit around noon, but I just felt wretched. I tried to get my body and mind balanced, but it just wasn’t working.
Around 12:30, I could feel the contents of my belly rising to my throat. I reached for the potato, but it was too late. I surrendered and made a sacrifice to the seasickness gods. I puked over the starboard side of Seefalke. This time, there was not much in my belly. We had not eaten a proper meal since the night before our departure, so it was mostly stomach acid—which is just about the most horrible thing you could ever taste.
This was the first time I had been seasick since our first two days at sea on The Baltic almost three weeks ago. I think we were at port for so long, perhaps I just lost my sea legs again. I was pissed at myself, even though I know it’s not my fault. And I could see Maik’s look of disappointment, as if he was wondering if I would be any help from this point on. In hindsight, I think it was actually a look of empathy. But I couldn’t help but feel once again that I wasn’t going to be able to make any contribution.
I decided that this time I was not going to let seasickness control me for the next however many days we would be at sea in these rocky conditions.
I was still a bit unsteady and asked Maik to hand me a banana. I wanted to put something on my tummy that didn’t taste like acid. I told myself . . . “If I’m going to be puking all day, I’m at least going to have something besides vile stomach lining coming back out.” Then I drank some water and ate a few saltines. I tried to get my shit together . . . mentally and physically.
Mind over matter was working, and I began to feel ok. I told Maik to go down and rest and I would take this shift. I had convinced my mind and my body that I was fine. And unbelievably, I was. At least, for now. But my potato was close by . . . just in case. I took the next four-hour shift from 14:00 to 18:00. Maik took over from 18:00 to midnight. And this time, I willed myself to sleep and rest.
Thursday, 13 September 2018 - The English Channel Leg 2 - Day 3 at Sea
At midnight, I was rested and ready for my night watch. Maik was exhausted. I could see it. He briefed me and went down to crash.
Meanwhile, we are still trying to get the pups potty trained onboard. Sometimes they go to the bow and do their thing on the fake grass mat, but sometimes it’s just too rough for them to be out there. And sometimes it’s too rough for us to take them out there. I decided to move the grass mat into the cockpit and see if they might get the hint that it’s ok to go in the cockpit. We just didn’t want them going in the main cabin where we sleep.
So I put the mat in the cockpit and Cap’n Jack immediately flooded the mat with pee. So he was rewarded with the opportunity to go down below and cuddle with Maik. But poor little Scout had not peed since we left the port, at least we had not seen her do it. And I just knew her little bladder was about to burst. I made her stay in the cockpit with me, and I think she went the whole six hours without going. There is a chance she went at some point, and I just didn’t see her. I think that’s what happened, but I’m not sure. Anyway, she joined me for the entire shift.
It was an extremely black night, but there were tons of stars sparkling in the sky lighting the way. Again, there was not a lot of traffic. I was able to relax enough to listen to an audible book, “The Fall of Giants” by Ken Follett.
By 06:00 I was ready for sleep. It was a long shift, but I wanted to let Maik sleep a little. I’m not sure if Scout ever pottied in the cockpit, but I let her crawl into bed with me anyway. She was so cuddly and sweet.
I woke up about four hours later and was feeling a bit icky, but I fought it. Maik told me that we were now on English waters, and that he had raised the British ensign flag around sunrise. I asked him if this meant we could now speak English. It’s important to keep your sense of humor.
I was starving. I had been on a steady diet of gummy bears and saltines for the past couple days, and I wanted us both to have a warm meal. We were still rocking a little and tilting, but I attempted to make some scrambled eggs. It’s always a challenge to cook and balance, but I guess I’m getting better at it. I was motivated to put some real food in our bellies.
As I joined Maik in the cockpit, we realized that this was the farthest offshore we have been without seeing land and for the longest time. We could sort of see England to our starboard side, but only through the binoculars and only faintly. This was completely wide-open ocean. It’s odd when you think about it. If you look on a map, The English Channel looks very narrow compared with other bodies of water. But it’s 100 nautical miles at its widest point. When you are in the middle of it, all you can see is water and the horizon in your 360-degree view.
The English Channel is amazing. It is part of the Atlantic Ocean and separates the island of Britain from northern France, joining the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is approximately 350 miles long and is one of the busiest shipping lanes on the planet.
On this day, everything was grey—the sky, the water, everything. The only color we could see that wasn’t a shade of grey was Seefalke’s bright orange body sailing along at a steady 20-degree tilt. I had no idea the date on the calendar or even the day of the week. No idea. Day turned into night and night turned into day and we just kept sailing along through the magnificent and sometimes eerie English Channel.
We still had no connection to the outside world except for family and friends who were communicating with us via text through our satellite GPS tracker. Our friends Dean and Tom were sending us weather and wind reports hourly, which was really cool and helpful! It was like they were right there with us!
Other than the colorless landscape, it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining directly into our faces and sparkling off the water. I already had a little headache. Squinting at the sun was making it worse. Also, my toe was still throbbing. My head began to throb in sync with my toe and soon the head throbbing turned into a pounding.
Maik decided to make one of my favorite German dishes, Milch Reis. It was nice to once again have some warm hearty food on my belly, but now I felt feverish and congested. I felt achy all over . . . like I was getting the flu. Maik thought perhaps I was having a little sun stroke, which is also possible. I was afraid to take Ibuprofen or Sudafed because I didn’t want to upset my tummy. But I decided to take the chance and fight the oncoming illness with meds and continue to mentally fight any possible seasickness.
I asked Maik if I could take another two-hour nap. I did, but we were on such a heavy tilt that I felt like I was battling to hold on the entire time. It was not restful at all. I reluctantly returned to the cockpit for my 14:00 shift. Usually I don’t mind the tilt. It means that the winds are right and that we are making good speed. But at this point, I was having a really bad day, and I was just pissed at the tilt.
I was also wrestling a bit with my some of my feelings about being at sea for however many days and nights we had been out there at this point. I truly do love it most of the time, but I would be lying if I said I loved it all of the time. I started to feel guilty for feeling this way. I know I just wasn’t feeling well. But mentally and physically, this particular voyage was just taking a toll on me.
My head was throbbing. I was frustrated with trying to stay balanced. By sore toe was pressing against the end of my boot causing pain that couldn’t even compete with the headache and feverish aching. My ankles started to hurt, also from the balancing act. I was wrapped up in a full-on pity party and found myself wondering what the hell I was doing out there.
Maik never feels like this. He loves it all the time. He ignores the discomfort and the pain and just enjoys the challenge and the experience. I guess I’m just not there yet, and I have to be honest with myself that sometimes this is just not comfortable and fun. It is most of the time. But sometimes, it’s just not.
I was also missing Maik. I know this sounds crazy since we are together 24/7. But when we are sailing in shifts I’m sleeping when he’s awake, and he’s sleeping when I’m awake. We are like two ships that pass in the night.
I was reaching my statute of limitations on days at sea, and fighting the 20-degree (sometimes 25-degree) tilt was making me stiff and tense, worsening the already pounding headache.
I felt weak—both physically and mentally. I was letting physical discomfort creep into my brain and affect me mentally.
While I was focusing on all the pain and icky-ness, I started to think about Cheryl Strayed. I read her book “Wild” about four years ago and also saw the movie. She was dealing with the death of her mother, a divorce, and fighting drug addiction when she decided to punt her life and just start walking, all by herself. She hiked 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail on a quest to re-start her life and find peace and contentment. It was her book that inspired me to abandon the life I was living at the time in Birmingham, Alabama. I decided to sell the house I had lived in for 23 years and moved to Gulf Shores. I wanted to be near the water that gives me so much peace and happiness.
The things I remember the most about her book were her struggles—not her accomplishments. She fought the demons inside herself and came out cleaner and happier on the other side. She didn’t love every day of her journey. But she didn’t stop. She didn’t give up. She kept going.
And so will I.
When Maik relieved me, I was really struggling. I wanted to tell him what I was feeling, but I didn’t have to. He could see I didn’t feel well. He touched my face and told me to go to bed. He said he would take the full night shift. “Get some rest,” he told me. “I’ve got this.”
Friday, 14 September 2018 - The English Channel Leg 2 - Day 4 at Sea
At midnight I woke up and decided to take my shift. Maik had been out there for six hours. He reluctantly went to bed and told me to wake him in two hours. I told myself I could make it at least four.
The night was black. There were no stars. Just black . . . kind of like my mood. I wondered if Maik ever felt this way—burned out just a little on the passion that usually makes him so happy. Even too much of a good thing can sometimes be too much. Right?
I was still feverish. My face was hot, but the rest of my body had chills. I had a scratchy throat and was achy all over.
But soon the stars came out and filled the clearing sky. Some were as bright as the ships on the horizon. I relaxed and breathed in the fresh salt air as the cold wind cooled my hot face. I was completely soothed by the sound of the waves. I had taken my shift even though I didn’t feel like it, and I was glad I did. Just like that, I felt free and happy again.
And I remembered why we do this.
After my two-hour shift that I stretched to four hours, Maik took over at 04:00 and I finally got a few hours of sound sleep. I had stopped moping and whining about the bad stuff, and began to embrace the good things.
We began to reach the end of the English Channel where the opening of The North Atlantic begins. All of a sudden, the grey water turned a deep navy blue. It was amazing as brilliant shades of color began to burst onto the horizon—like in the Wizard of Oz movie when everything transforms from black-and-white to color. There were birds flying everywhere and we could see the gorgeous French coastline to our left.
The heavy waves were no longer choppy and uncomfortable. They were still about three-meters high but they were longer and smoother and softer. They looked like a warm blanket rolling toward us. We were cruising along relatively even at this point . . . without much tilt. The waves were no longer lifting us out of the air and slamming us back down onto the water. They were now raising us ever-so-calmly and then gently setting us down as if we were made of glass.
All four of us sat on the deck and rode the waves for a long time.
A school of dolphins greeted us just as we crossed the line where The English Channel ends and the open Northern Atlantic begins. They intentionally swam right toward us and then played in the wake of Seefalke’s bow for about five minutes.
As often as we see dolphins at home in Bon Secour Bay, we never get tired of seeing them. They are like old friends, but each time is like the first time. We are always excited to see them. This was kind of like that, but a bit different. We didn’t know these dolphins and they were huge—at least twice the size of our hometown dolphins—and so playful. The water was deep—more than 90 meters—but you could see clearly as the dolphins swam and played underneath Seefalke and all around us.
Then they just swam away. As quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared into the deep blue sea. It’s moments like this that stay with you forever.
And again, I remembered why we do this.
Saturday, 15 September 2018
We anchored outside the marina at Camaret-sur-Mer around 01:00 and crashed until about 09:30. We awoke to gorgeous scenery and another exciting new place to explore while we await positive weather for the Bay of Biscay crossing—our greatest challenge to date.
The Bay of Biscay is an extension of The Atlantic Ocean, positioned off the western coast of Europe and is bordered by France and Spain. The bay is known for rough seas, particularly in the winter months. During World War II it was called the “Valley of Death” among German U-boat sailors as the Royal Air Force sank more than 70 German submarines in its waters.
My friend Tom reminded me that Auburn plays LSU today. I honestly didn’t even realize that today was Saturday and college football game day—something I normally would obsess about.
And once again, I remembered why we do this.