I’m currently living on a sailing boat, journeying round the coast of Britain. The trip is run by South West Marine Training, and is called the Round Britain Experience (as is the boat) — aside from a previous two day excursion, which involved motoring round a harbour, I’ve never sailed before. This is one hell of a learning experience.
This is almost the hardest trip I’ve ever done. Harder than riding a bicycle on my own 4000 miles round Britain’s coast. Harder than cycling the 120 miles to Brighton and back in the rain. Harder than climbing the highest road pass in Scotland with 15kg of luggage. It’s a leap of faith to live on a boat for three months with three people you have never met before. But each day I learn a little more about the boat, discover a little more about the ocean, and feel a little less sick.
There have been days that have begun before dawn, the tides and the wind needing us to rise early. We have stood on deck watching the sun rise in the wake of the boat as the wind catches the sails, powering us forward towards the next unknown land. There have been days that have ended in the early hours, where we’ve used the stars and the moon, the beams of lighthouses and the blinking of navigation buoys to guide us safely into the harbour. There have been days where we’ve relaxed on the sunny deck, toes wiggling in the breeze, the sunlight dancing on the waves. There have been days where we’ve huddled shivering under the spray hood, the deep swells of the sea tossing the boat like a twig, mocking this piece of plastic that has dared to brave the waves. We’ve endured gale-force gusts, stinging rain, biting wind and rough seas. We’ve seen guillemots and gannets dart over the waves, and had dolphins swim alongside the boat, playing in the bow waves. I’ve seen puffins and solar halos for the first time in my life. The ocean is an endless adventure.
It has taken a bit of getting used to: sailing is very different to riding a bike. It’s an almost detached way to travel. You don’t get a feel for the landscape, even though we are close enough to the coast to be able to see land most of the time. You don’t get a sense of geography in the same way as you do tracing the coast on land, following each outcrop and headland in and out: on a boat, you sail in a straight line. You don’t get a chance to experience the culture in the way that you do if you’re on the road, passing through towns and settlements, seeing signs and shops: you’re always outside looking in. Apart from a few boats we might pass, you don’t meet people on the way, and you certainly don’t talk to them: if we pass another boat we might wave, but more often than not we look suspiciously at the skipper and think “I wouldn’t set my mainsail like that…”
But then, with sailing, the possibilities are endless. You are not confined by the land mass you are on. Distant horizons needn’t remain a mystery. You can get absolutely anywhere on this planet. Just stepping on board has a sense of adventure, of the unknown. There is freedom. Once the wind is in your sails, there’s no stopping you. Learning to read the waves, manipulate the wind, turn the elements to your advantage, is thrilling. Once you can sail, the world is your oyster.
Anna Hughes works as a cycle trainer and mechanic in London. In 2011 she cycled the 4000 mile coastline of the UK, and is currently on a sailing adventure also round Britain. She is soon to publish her first book about her bicycle adventure.
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