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Inspiring Individuals: Malvena Stuart-Taylor, who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean

I’ve long been amazed and inspired by the bravery and sense of adventure of the people around me. Over the years I’ve interviewed plenty of Inspiring Individuals and published guest blog posts written by others about their extraordinary travels, in the hope that by sharing their stories and amplifying their achievements, I can help inspire others to embrace adventure too and fully discover what the world has in store for those who are brave enough to escape their comfort zone.

One such Inspiring Individual is a regular feature on this blog, my very own mother: Malvena Stuart-Taylor. We’ve travelled together all over the place, we even tried to summit Mont Blanc together last summer. She’s always been an important role model for me and she never ceases to challenge herself or dare to do the unusual. Her latest adventure was to sail across the Atlantic Ocean for 20 days in a 3-person yacht in January! She’s kindly written this account of their journey below, which had me gripped as I read it. Sailing across the Atlantic is also one of my travel goals before I turn 30, so reading this has really brought it to life for me!

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

         18 innocent months ago I agreed to join a couple of friends of mine to sail across the Atlantic from Gran Canaria in a lovely Grand Soleil 39′ sloop. It is not the kind of journey one needs to be particularly fit for (see the blog on my attempt to summit Mont Blanc with my daughter in 2017). However mental preparation was all-important.

         To put the trip into perspective, let me provide a few background figures. The journey covers around 2,700 miles and one would expect to cross it in 21 – 28 days. There is little known about how many sailors undertake this journey outside commercial setups but a rough estimate puts this at around 1,000 yachts per year. There is an annual event called the ARC whereby each entrant sails over under the World Cruising Club with backup support. When undertaking this journey as a solo vessel there is a small concern around health, accidents, vessel damage and as we were approaching half-way I did feel exposed since any emergency help would need to come from other vessels in the vicinity (and we only saw 3 tankers throughout the entire trip!)

         One strong reason I opted for this trip is that John Hollidge, the skipper, is an ex-naval Captain. His professional training was as an engineer, and he had been sailing around the Med for the past 10 years. What I didn’t anticipate was how it was going to change my perspective on the world, on life in general and where I stood in that world.

         So… on 7th January 2018 we left Gran Canaria for an adventure. Before long, out at sea we encountered swirling waves and unstable winds as we cleared the North African coastline. Pretty soon I became almost incapacitated with nausea, having attempted to see if I could manage without anti-sickness medication. We had a 3-day rotating watch with two 6-hour stints between 8am – 8pm, followed by three 4-hour watches throughout the night. My most feared dread of this trip was about to act out as I struggled through a 2 – 8pm watch, followed by one at midnight – 4am. Getting into my wet-weather gear was challenging enough, particularly since I hadn’t taken advantage of daylight to prepare my night gear (we used vision-saving red lights at night). Also the boat was pitching badly and my nausea was getting worse. I quickly applied a Scopoderm® (anti-nausea) patch. By 3am I was seriously questioning myself as to why I had decided to do this trip at all.

         On Day 3 I was on watch to see the sunrise behind me. It gave a new meaning to my yoga classes back home when ‘saluting to the sun’. By now I was feeling much better and for the first time since we cast off, I began to let my mind wander and relax into the rhythm of the sea.

         Being surrounded by a circle of sea wasn’t as frightening as I had imagined. It almost created a mini-world with the 3 of us in the boat, the sky, the waves and the odd sealife that paid us a visit. It felt very unique to witness the rising and setting of the sun (and the moon) with no other distractions nearby. I was able to cook by now (it was each of our duty every 3 days to cook and provide a spare hand, but otherwise were free to recharge our internal batteries).

         Throughout the trip I learned (from 2 guys!) how to be resourceful and creative with food, given the fact that there was no “local supermarket” for another 2,000 odd miles. Christoph was the third crew member. From Switzerland, he was a great cook and held us entertained for hours with his antics as an antiques restorer. We held fresh food in hammocks over our bunks and when that started to run out we used an amazing spread of canned and dried foods and spices. One evening I was attempting to cook chilli con carne. It had great potential until half of it spilled to the floor as the boat lurched violently to one side. One morning I slept in after my sunrise watch to the smell of freshly baked bread. Christoph had succeeded in ‘baking’ some bread using the pressure cooker as a form of oven. It was delicious.

         By Day 5 we were able to change course. The directions for travel can be summed up as “sail south ‘til the butter melts, then turn west”. This is because, at that point, one picks up the easterly trade winds. We now had a stern wind so we goose-winged the sails. It is a very effective way to sail but the price you pay is the swaying motion from side to side. On Day 8 I woke to do the 8am-8pm watch and felt decidedly out of sorts. It was the only time I just wanted to get off the boat – I had simply had enough of holding myself into my bunk (with a lee-cloth). I realised that I had to get a grip of myself pretty quickly since there was no option to leave! Digging deep into my emotional resources, of course, I pulled through and in a funny way I think I grew more self-confident after that. It is a strange thing to write, since no one would normally say that I appeared to lack confidence. However, as one reaches retirement age (like me) I wonder whether self-confidence starts to slip. One isn’t as agile or energetic as when one was 40. Subconsciously, perhaps, that was why I wanted to do this trip – to be outside my comfort zone and feel okay.

         We recognised from the beginning that ‘personal space’ needs to be respected. I treasured my Kindle, which my family had given to me for Christmas, and I enjoyed reading The Count of Monte Cristo and This Thing of Darkness. The latter had, as its theme, the story of the Beagle, Captain Fitzroy and Charles Darwin. Both books involved sailing and were most fitting for the trip.

         The other concern I had was the shortage of fresh water. Confining ourselves to only using fresh water to drink and brush teeth, we used an average of 2.5 litres/day, obviating the need for a desalination plant. What it did mean was that we couldn’t wash the salt off our skin and hair. Mid-Atlantic we took advantage of our slow progress and took a sea-wash, but still really enjoyed the first fresh water shower once we reached land.

         Most days we averaged 140-170 miles, sometimes surging down swells at 11 knots (that was scary). However, I soon appreciated the fantastic sailing performance of the boat. She sped down waves, rolled over and then calmly corrected herself. We had nights of heavy squalls, which were inevitably accompanied by strong winds. On my first few night watches I felt alone, almost bored and wishing to be in my bunk. However, by the half-way point, partly because the night temperatures were becoming more tolerable, I was able to ‘melt’ into that loneliness with a calm and almost spiritual manner. Gazing at the night sky above, littered with millions of stars, looking at the wash of the boat from the stern I was entertained by the phosphorescent jellyfish that light up when they sense the boat passing by.

         From the point of motoring out of the Canarian harbour to finally dropping anchor in Antigua 20 days later, we sailed the entire route. This was despite 4 days of frustratingly weak wind, where we would sometimes loll at 0.5 knots.

         7 miles off our waypoint at the southern end of Antigua, we were just able to identify land camouflaged somewhat by haze. It felt ironic to experience a mere ghost of land as our first sighting for 20 days and 2,728 miles! We battled upwind, close-hauled, as we navigated our way round to the eastern shore of the island. The wind rose to over 20 knots and rain clouds hung overhead. Finally, after sunset, and by the light of the moon we sailed to our anchor point, dropping anchor in Five Harbours bay just before 9pm. We had made it and the phrase ‘on top of the world’ felt so apt, even though we were literally at sea level.

         The full impact of the trip didn’t really sink in until returning to the UK two weeks later. Apart from the rocking sensation that remained as my balance mechanism readjusted to terra firma, I gained so much strength in character, appreciation for nature and gratitude to the wonderful crew who supported me during this trip. I do feel that if we constantly remain in our comfort zone, that zone will narrow. As we progress through life, by stretching ourselves we continue to grow irrespective of our increasing age. This was one such experience.

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For more travel writing by Malvena Stuart-Taylor, see ‘Guest Post: An Overland Ambulance Trip to Ghana‘, ‘Postcard of the Week: Greetings from Ghana‘ and ‘A Long Summer Weekend in Paris‘ .

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