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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

The first blue

Loïck -the first sailboat Paluch hitched through the Atlantic
'Set the main!' Hughes shouted against the wind and Caroline started to pull the halyard.
'Unfurl the jib!' the next order was given and at that moment I uncleated the furling line and began to haul the sheet. Hughes switched off the engine and all we savoured our ears with was a sound of wind filling the sails and splashes of water at the bow. The marina of Agadir was getting smaller and smaller behind our backs. I was on board the sailing yacht Loïck, on board the first hitched boat, on board the first open sea adventure. It took me more than three months to get to this point. My stubbornness was paying back. I was filled with happiness and the strange feeling of power that man can feel when achieves something that sounds unachievable, when reaches something most people say is impossible to reach.

Hughes, the captain of Loïck, was a man in late forties looking a bit like the film version of Tin Tin and Caroline, fifteen years younger than her husband, was a girl with chestnut hair tied usually in a pony tail. They decided to leave stressful Paris life, where he was a photographer and a journalist and she worked as a filmmaker. It took them two years to prepare the boat they bought for circumnavigation. Loïck herself was a steel sloop twelve meters long, equipped, among other things, with a windvane self steering so there was no need to steer it by hand all the time.

The weather forecast was saying about low winds, but they decided to begin the passage anyway, feeling that they stayed in Agadir for too long. The fact they were travelling around the world didn’t mean they left their previous life completely. Hughes was running a blog and Caroline was making documentaries, both published on Voiles et Voiliers*, the French sailing magazine. That was consuming a lot of time, but giving them steady income so they could realise their dreams. And now they both had a perfect subject for the next episode – a boat hitchhiker.

I thought there would be at least a bit of fear in me once we left the marina, but I couldn’t find any feeling like that. The only negative thought was connected to the seasickness I was awaiting to be grabbed by for the first time. I was sailing before in Ireland with my friends, on the boat of Mike, lively Claddagh man in his eighties. That’s where I learned a lot, but it was always only a few hours spin around the Galway Bay. So I had no experience with night watches, sleeping, cooking and basically living on a boat, where everything is in a constant move, where level doesn’t exist. And after the first few hours on Loïck I started to feel slightly dizzy. Is this the beginning, I was asking myself. I wasn’t sure.

The first night watch was amazing. I was standing in a cockpit for hours. Standing, not sitting, I was so hypnotised by the moon bouncing like crazy reflected on the surface of the sea. It looked like thousands of electric eels in a chaotic mating dance. During the night wind started to drop and in the morning I was awaken by the throb of the engine. It was hard to sleep when there was no steady wind. The boat was moving from one side to another, so I was rolling on my bed like a bottle, luckily it wasn’t too wide.

Winch on a sailboat
Winch on a sailboat
The wind, if we had one was mostly western, so we were unexpectedly on a beam reach or even close reach. And we thought we would be heading downwind all the time. For the whole second day I felt a bit dizzy and my appetite went slightly down, but I could deal with it. Hughes and Caroline in the same time started to feel really affected by the seasickness. I wasn’t sure if I had to wait longer, or, maybe I was born with sea legs?

There was one little book that was always around us: RYA Competent Crew, which covered all the essential information about sailing beginners should know. Hughes’ English was very good, but he didn’t know all the nautical terms. I knew the most important ones, but wanted to become fluent in the language of the sea. Some of the terms were really surprising, sometimes even funny and we found a joy in learning all that. So the book became like a little bible for us.

My captain was a very talkative person, experienced with sailing, so I wanted to get as much information about life at sea as possible. Caroline meanwhile seemed more quiet, more hidden in herself and my first impression was that she was following her husband in his dream. It took her a few more days to open up more and I realised it was actually her idea to sail around the world. My impression was absolutely wrong that time, but it could be affected by the sickness that grabbed most of Loïck. Most, as my dizziness was gone on the third day. It looked like I was born to live at sea. I was thankful to my body.

By day five all the crew was fully recovered. In the morning wind dropped completely and we decided to pull the sails down and go for a swim. We were forty miles away from the coast, there was more than one kilometre of water below us and we jumped into it. Madness! When I opened my eyes I couldn’t believe how blue the deep ocean could be. It was the quality of the sea I wasn’t aware of, suddenly the name blue water started to make sense. In the evening there was a Polish accent, as we prepared racuchy, a kind of thick pancakes with bananas and apples, something my grandma fried for us when we were kids. Yum.

Around the sixth day I had a little crisis. I was browsing through the cloud atlas and when I saw mountains on one of the pictures I felt like going for a walk. But there was nowhere to go on such a small boat, besides going for a piss at the stern, very long walk, maybe three metres long. That happened around the day six, I wasn’t really sure when exactly. As long as there was something unusual happening, like a pigeon staying overnight on board, or a fishing net caught in the rudder, it was easier to distinguish and remember such days. But days lacking any highlights were melting into one massive day, night watches turning into one huge watch. No wonder all the real captains write a log.

On the seventh day, during my night watch we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, that invisible line I could recognise only by the reading of the GPS. It brought me some kind of thrill. As a boy I saw this line so many times in the atlas my mother used for crosswords. And there I was in the zone where the sun reaches zenith. The sun, that was burning even by night under my T-shirt. The next day we celebrated the hundredth birthday of Hughes’ grandma. For that occasion Caroline opened a tin of Pâté Hénaff - famous Breton ham. It was a warm, nice evening with just a few little cumulus fractus floating above the horizon. We were sipping Martiniquean rum, talking about philosophy and staring at the full moon crawling over the ocean. It felt like sitting on the spine of a giant laying her first egg. Unforgettable moment!

Since day nine we were on the dead run with a spinnaker on. The wind wasn’t too strong but at least it was blowing all the time from the same direction. We finally managed to bake aromatic bread with a nice crust, but still couldn’t catch even one little fish. There weren’t any dolphins around us, the ocean seemed abandoned. Our diet was made mostly of tins with potatoes, pasta or rice and cabbage, something we could keep for long without a fridge. The wind turbine and solar panel were making just enough energy to run all the electronic navigation devices, quite useful in the waters of eastern Atlantic, where one of the main cargo route was.

I think it was day eleven, when in the evening a storm started to develop far away to the east, near the African coast. Hughes switched the radar on to observe if the main cloud system was not to close to us. The colour of the sky was so dismal, not to say frightening when I imagined how meaningless we were, three little creatures on the little boat and miles and miles of sea that can turn into hell in just a minute. The lightnings were so beautiful by night, but they were so far away that we could hardly hear any thunders. The storm lasted for two days and we were just beside the edge of it, having light winds and heading steadily towards Mindelo.

In the morning of the thirteenth day, just a second after opening my eyes I jumped out of my berth and ran to the cockpit to see it, The Land. Santo Antão, the first island of the archipelago I spotted was around thirty degrees to our starboard. Its peaks were soaring nearly two thousand metres above the ocean. Pure Beauty! That moment brought me feelings that explorers of the past could probably feel - mixture of happiness and curiosity. The wind was freshening more and more with every mile closer to the Canal de São Vicente. 'Grab the tiller!' Hughes looked at me while taking off the auto-pilot we used mostly to block the main rudder while on the windvane selfsteering. 'When I tell you, go to the wind. We have to pull the main down. There will be a funnel between the islands.'
'Ah, right, squeezing the air.'
'Yep. We’ll roll the jib in a bit as well.'
I could feel the pressure of the currents on the helm. Feather white crests started to build up around us. Blood was filled with adrenaline.

Black woman on the streets of Mindelo, Cape Verde
Woman on the streets of Mindelo
We reached the marina of Mindelo, hidden in a natural harbour around midday local time. No problems, no damage, all safe and sound. After all the paper work, we went for a walk and actually the first few steps on the solid ground were weirdly smooth. The city was much more developed than I expected. It looked so clean, so organised, with public buses having numbers and directions displayed, with brand new cars parked along the paved streets. It had completely different atmosphere comparing to Morocco. Less African, even though the skin of people was much darker, skin they were not afraid to show. Guys wore shorts, girls miniskirts and tube tops. And the sound of Portuguese Creole, like music. I liked the place straight away.

On our first Saturday night there was a free gig organised by the city council. Big crowd gathered on the main street. I was standing on the side and observing all the happy faces around us, sipping local beer and swinging to the rhythms of African, Caribbean and Latino music. They looked so beautiful, and I don’t mean only women, they all had some kind of charm. Tall, with shining eyes and slender features. At some point two young lads invited us for a glass of grog, and we spent the rest of the night dancing and jumping with them, sharing smiles. Friendliness was in the air.

Hughes and Caroline decided to stay in the marina for a week before heading to anchorage. So I had time to organise myself, which meant getting a visa, finding some place to sleep in that expensive country and starting to look for another boat. And my next boat was maybe already on the way. Hughes and Caroline were awaiting their friend Alex who was sailing alone on his ketch from the Canaries.
'He can deal alone with his boat, so he doesn’t need a crew' Caroline mentioned Alex one evening, 'but he said he felt bored sailing alone, maybe he will need a company for his passage to the Caribbean. And you’re not a complete stranger anymore.'
Caribbean… I looked at the map thoughtfully. I was looking forward to meet Alex.

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* The documentary made by Caroline called 'Agadir-Mindelo: Coque en stop' and the text written by Hughes: 'Baptême hauturier' both covering our passage are available on their blog Carnets de grande croisière published on Voiles et Voiliers website (in French).