How much experience do you need to cross the Atlantic Ocean?
That is honestly one of the questions that flitted through my mind as we pushed away from the dock in the morning heat, May 28, 2016. That and “Happy birthday to you.” That was playing in my mind as well. (Are you singing it now? You’re welcome.) I turned 34 that day and I couldn’t think of one (much less 34!) reasons why I should NOT be going on this trip. We were about to sail to France. Sail. I could not get my mind wrapped around it. Every time I mentioned the trip to friends or family I would say “When we land in France … ” and I would have to stop myself, back up, and say “When we dock in France” and instantly I would envision Kate Winslet walking up to the gallant, towering Titanic.
Because those are the kinds of boats that “dock” in France, right?
Well, not this time. We were going on a 46-foot boat with a virgin crew to an ocean-crossing. While everyone has to have a first time, it’s probably a little uncommon for four sailors to embark on their first crossing together but we were. While Johnny had about thirty years sailing experience under his belt, many passages in the Gulf, around the Bahamas as well as one solo voyage to Jamaica, he had never crossed an ocean. Phillip and I had crossed the Gulf several times before (well, to be honest, I’ve been told hugging the shore doesn’t even count as crossing) but a six-week trip to the Florida Keys and back on our Niagara was the longest voyage we could boast. While Yannick had sailed Andanza with a hired captain from Martinique up to Pensacola when he purchased the boat in 2015, that was his only blue water passage on the boat and it was still not across an ocean. Would stepping on this boat for this voyage frighten some of you?
To be honest, that collective limitation did not worry me. No matter how much experience you have, if you get stuck in a storm or the boat is compromised beyond repair, a hundred ocean crossings under your belt may not save you. Truthfully, what worried me the most, was my own personal lack of knowledge of the boat, i.e., how best to handle her, how her systems operated and how they should be maintained, repaired and rigged, and most importantly, how to sail her because I didn’t feel like I really knew how to do that all that well. Yet. That was the thought that made my heart race. An emergency occurring. The crew needing me to do something, the right thing, to help save the boat or lives, and I would not know the right thing, or perhaps anything, to do to help get the boat and the crew through the situation. I feared paralysis brought on by ignorance. I still feel to this day the answer to that question—How much experience do you need to cross an ocean?—is none. Obviously because we all did it without any, so while it may be helpful, it is not a necessity. What you really need, in my humble opinion, after good mental and physical health is (in this order): luck, a level head, patience and an eagerness to learn: the boat, the seas, the stars and from your mistakes. Oh, and a sense of humor. You need a sense of humor.
After that, you shove off. That’s what we did. And somehow we made it.
We woke to a fiery sunrise on Andanza the morning of May 28th.
It was crazy to think we would be leaving the dock that day actually headed for France.
Crew morale was incredibly high, thankfully, as I forced them all to gear up (in the middle of May heat) in our foul weather gear for a “Thank You West Marine!” crew photo.
See? Totally worth it.
It was hot, though. After five minutes of sweating, the crew was about ready to kill me.
We all were sporting next to nothing under those heat lockers.
Farmer John style:
To be honest, I can’t quite remember what brought on this strange pose. I think I called him Ronald McDonald in his red-and-yellow ensemble and there was some mention of a hamburger craving. That’s all I remember. That Yannick. He’s a funny one. And, I’ll know exactly what he’s thinking as he reads this:
That bit was re-enacted (too) many times during the passage.
It was a quick doffing and donning of our foul weather gear, though. We stripped and stowed those away as they would likely not be needed anytime soon in the hot, muggy Gulf and prepared to shove off, although we would not be heading out into the Gulf that day. Why no Gulf, you ask? Brandon and his wife, Christine, that’s why and an alcohol-induced cajoling the night before at our little farewell party at the dock.
I mentioned there was alcohol …
While Brandon and Christine had the best of intentions talking us into spending one night on anchor at everyone’s favorite anchorage—Ft. McRee—for the stated purpose of “a good night’s rest” before the passage and one last “check of the systems,” mine and Phillip’s lawyer sides saw right through them. We all knew what they really wanted was to have one last hoorah on the hook before we sailed across the Atlantic.
We did too! So, it was settled. One night at McRee, then we would be off. While we knew we would not be headed out into the Pensacola Pass that day, it was strange to think it might be our last sighting of Andanza next to a U.S. dock.
Brandon was planning on bringing his boat out for the night as well, a Gulf Star 45, s/v 5 O’Clock. With all of the work he had put into Yannick’s boat at the yard, all of the time he had spent helping us all prepare for the passage, an evening on the water with he and his family truly seemed like the perfect send-off. Plus, I (selfishly) could also not imagine a better way to spend my birthday! Yes, remember it was still my birthday! There were so many cool things about that day. One being a sail-by farewell from two of our other local fellow cruisers: our broker, Kevin, aboard his Pearson 36 Cutter and Andrew, aboard his Sabre 34.
The crew had a very fun sail from the Navy Base to Ft. McRee with a few of Yannick’s French friends aboard (who were very cute I might add). It was the first time all four of us were on the boat, sailing away from Pensacola and we were all prickling with energy. I think Phillip put it best when he said:
Okay, so maybe we were going to have to drop it just for the night while on anchor, but that was all. Just one night. And, it was very fun being the celebrities at the anchorage. Phillip and I spend so many weekends there that we had two, three, four dinghies, if not more, pull up, filled to the brim with our cruising buddies, wanting to say “Bon Voyage!” It was humbling to see how excited and invested our friends were in the trip. They were all planning to follow us on the Delorme and it really was cool to know they would be here, doing what we would normally be doing every weekend during that month, while Phillip and I were moving each day across the ocean toward France. And, getting to say goodbye on the water was really where Phillip and I feel truly at home, so there was something special about that.
I was also really touched by the things Yannick’s wife, Clothilde, had left aboard the boat specifically for my birthday celebration: a super scrumptious hazelnut coffee cake that she made, as well as birthday candles and party favors. It was funny to watch Yannick scrambling around looking for them when it came time to blow out the candles. He did find one rather large candle, which he sunk down into the frosting and that I noted was quite _______. (If you have a word you think is fitting here, leave in a comment below and check out this week’s Patron’s video extra: “Birthday Trivia”)
To be honest, though, I hated to say it, but I told Christine toward the evening, that Phillip and I were so itching to go, to get out there on blue water, that the hours honestly kind of started to slow down for us. All of the crew kept looking out past the beach toward the Gulf, craving that offshore, nothing-but-blue-horizon feeling of being on an offshore passage. We were ready to take the plunge!
It was tough to sleep that night we were all so excited. Rum helped, though. The stories told that evening on Brandon’s boat I can hardly recall. I doubt he does either. But it was a fantastic night with friends, warm hugs and good cheer.
When I started to stir in bed the next morning and realized this (yes, finally THIS) was the day we would be truly headed out the pass and offshore, I didn’t care what time it was. I ripped my eyes open and nudged Phillip. “This is it,” I said. He was awake in seconds, nodding and smiling. “I know,” he said, tickling with the same excitement. We were leaving today!
And, early too. The entire crew was awake before 6:00 a.m., brewing coffee and talking about the weather. The seas looked calm in the Gulf so Yannick plugged in a placeholder coordinate outside of Key West and that was that. We had our first leg of the trip plugged in. It was actually really cool to think this time Phillip and I headed offshore we would just be going, non-stop. While we love to coastal cruise and check out all of the neat inlets, ports and harbors along the coastline, we love to be underway too, so the thought that we were about to leave Pensacola Bay and not set our sights on Port St. Joe, or Clearwater, or Tarpon Springs or anything north of the Keys was truly exciting. Phillip and I had no clue whether we were going to like this—long offshore travel—we had an instinct, and it turned out to be right, but at the time, we had no idea. But that was the whole point of going.
The crew of s/v Andanza weighed anchor that morning and made our way through the North Cut on our way to Pensacola Pass around 6:45 a.m. We had one last surprise visit from another local cruising group (thank you Bridgette, Tom and Karen!) via dinghy on our way out the channel.
They circled around us shouting “Bon Voyage!” and snapping photos. It was such a cool moment, such a proud moment, to know we had worked so hard to get here and we were doing something many wished they could, wished they had, wish they still will, and I was right there, not one day into 34 and I was doing it, with my best friend beside me.
Hearts were beating and sighs were heaved as the rookie ocean crew motored our way out the Pensacola Pass. We had a great time spotting the last bits of land. Johnny watched Portofino disappear on the horizon. Phillip threw out the fishing line. And then … (notice anything suspect here?)
The starboard engine shut down.
I think Video Annie summed it up best. This was literally two hours into our trip:
“The adventure begins!”