I braced my back against the icy wind that was battering my face. I was meant to be surveying for cirl buntings, but I could not tear my eye away from something else....
Far on the horizon, a boat was lurching in and out of view.
For the past two years I had been surveying for wildlife and plants on these ancient, ruby-red, south Devon cliffs. Boats, just like this one, would have passed by, but I had not noticed them. They were of another world, far removed from my world of mossy woods and grasshopper filled pastures.
Now, this boat, crashing through snarling waves, was a reality.
In two months, my new husband David and I were to leave the safety of land and head for the vast, watery, reaches of our planet.
I was afraid.
And I was right to be afraid.
We were a crew of five, David, three friends and me. None of us had much experience, except David, and his lifetime of sailing with his family had been aboard modern yachts. Lista Light, a 35 tonne, seventy-five year old, gaff ketch, was to David's parents' last boat (a Hallberg Rassy), as a Welsh Cob is to a fine Arabian stallion in my world.
Yet five months after leaving Devon we had reached the Atlantic, via north-west Scotland, the west coast of Island and Morocco. We were gaining our sailing stripes.
However, halfway between Mauritania and the Caribbean, our amiable floating life dramatically changed.
During the night the waves became confused and the wind increased. David and I were below deck trying to snatch some sleep, when one of our crewmates came down and hissed, ‘Dave, you need to come!'
Dave sprang out of bed while I groggily reached for a coat. Suddenly, I heard a blood curdling scream, ‘Nooooooo!'
I scrambled up on deck to see the main mast noodling like a length of spaghetti, before shearing half-way down and tumbling into the sea.
Dave barked orders through the darkness, like a man possessed, and, in the pitching sea with waves crashing over the deck, we fought to save Lista. Half the mast hung at Lista's bows pinioned by rigging, threatening to punch a hole into her hull. With adrenalin pumping through our veins, we pulled in the waterlogged foresail and jib. Amber sparks lit Dave's torso as he worked an angle grinder slowly through the tangled rigging. I readied the dinghy in case we should have to abandon Lista forever, whispering prayers as tears streamed down my face.
Then, suddenly, the mast was free, and we were left with a jagged stump and an empty deck. It was 3 o'clock in the morning. We sat in shock.
The following morning illuminated the nightmare in full, the hideous vision of a desolate deck, void of the main mast and rigging. The beauty of Lista Light, however, is that she is a ketch. This meant that we could continue sailing and soon David was atop our new stubby main mast creating a jury rig. This allowed us to continue our voyage to the Caribbean and our seabird project (if a little odd looking) until we had time to make a new mast.
Three years on and fear still lingers
Three years on and fear still lingers, like an old friend who hasn't visited for a while, but will never forget me:
She hovers at the start of voyages, when we pound into sea, and the waves funnel like express trains at our side. Will the next concrete blow finally blast through and allow those icy, blue, fingers to intertwine around us forever?
She crouches by my side as we smash through a storm, my fingers clutching the wheel, and I pray the wind direction will not change.
She snarls deep in my stomach, as I watch angry, black, waves build behind us, towering high, until I think our entire boat will be engulfed.
Three years on and we are still alive!
All the experiences are meshing together like an encrusted tapestry. It weaves through our life aboard, and, although there are barnacled knots of Fear enmeshed within, they grow fewer and smaller as Lista Light conquers a rogue wave or as I slowly grow to feel the play of the wind.
Cradled in her creaking womb, I have learnt to trust our old warrior. But just how much can she take?
One thought plagued me for months at the start of our voyage, the ogre of the ‘knock-down'.
The very term sent shivers down my spine. In the first year, I would ask all sailors that we met whether they had ever experienced my bête noire. Many had. I explored the concept of one's world at 90 degrees. I began to realize that most boats in fact desire to right themselves, and that our wooden, long-keeled lass is perhaps one of the least likely candidates to go over.
Now, ensconced (in an anchorage) at the foot hills of the southern Andes, it seems that knock-downs are merely an ‘annoyance' for many mariners we meet!
Living aboard Lista Light is so much more than sailing for us.
She is the means by which we can stray into some of our planet's last wildernesses and immerse ourselves in the natural world, far away from man's grip.
To observe one of the most private of animals, a blue whale, blowing by our side or to view a trio of red-footed boobies bickering on the bowsprit is a privilege. As the detritus of mankind fingers into all corners of our world, such wild sights and places are becoming hard to find.
So we must push her even further and harder into higher seas and rougher weather, and, as we do so, we grow to know her limitations and our own... and that is the interesting part for me.
It seems the more we do, the more I want to do. To return to the waves of the wandering albatross and Antarctic shearwater will be sheer bliss, even if every day I will pray that we might last the day out!
I have found that enjoyment in living on the sea, like many things in life, blooms as one starts to comprehend and become familiar with it.
The more I understand how Lista Light works and how the elements affect her, the more Fear slips away.
Yet I will not relinquish Fear.
Fear fuels my passion, anticipation and exhilaration in exploration as we sail.
I believe to not know Fear would be mocking of this fickle world that we haunt. To feel the power of the natural world and to live in an environment where man is not king humbles us and reinforces our commitment to leave only wake........