The grand odyssey – Across the Atlantic Ocean in 3 weeks

by Jakob Horvat, February 28th 2017, Bas du Fort/Guadeloupe
„Why the hell am I doing that?“ A question that everybody here on board was concerned with at least once during the past three weeks of our transatlantic voyage. Why should one cover a distance of 2.700 nautical miles on a 38 feet sailing catamaran? What’s the point in swinging over a million waves when one can so easily fly over them? Why taking a boat, that is – as it turned out – not even fit for such a voyage? We all have found our answers.


I just finished my morning watch

It’s nine o’clock board time and if it wasn’t for the rising moon high up in the sky it would still be completely dark. We haven’t shifted the time since we left Tenerife three time zones or 2.200 nautical miles ago. This is one of two significant signs that we are getting closer to America. The second: I don’t need shoes anymore since a couple of days, not even at night. We are slowly arriving in the tropical climate zone of the Caribbean. I am sitting on the upper deck of a Lagoon 380 Catamaran, my home since seventeen days. The calm sea constantly pushes long waves under the keel making us swing in its never ending rhythm. And for the first time since many days I see a ship far away on the horizon. The trade winds that used to carry them across the Atlantic Ocean for centuries have left us almost one week ago. Air fills our sails not faster than ten knots allowing us to make an average speed over ground of five knots. That’s nine kilometers per hour. Between us and our destination Guadeloupe is still some well respected open water of five hundred nautical miles, which is around seven hundred kilometers.

We have some issues here

First and foremost: we are running out of fuel. Wolfgang, the owner of the boat, has underestimated the possibility of weak winds and didn’t store enough Diesel before leaving the port of Las Galletas, Tenerife. This is not to blame anybody. We have done that enough and – guess what – it didn’t help. I’m just reporting on some facts as they have become an essential part of the whole adventure. Secondly: the boat itself has some defects that occurred time after time within the first week and have become more serious recently. The solar panels as well as the engines don’t charge the batteries properly. Electricity has become a rare good, which wouldn’t be that much of a problem if the navigation instruments would run without. The fresh water tanks lost two third of their filling within the first days, god knows how. We shower and brush our teeth with saltwater, yet luckily we do have enough water for drinking. Food supplies are rather secured too as we pulled two massive sword fishes out of the deep blue water. Christian, who just took over my shift comments from the steering wheel behind me: „It could be worse. No wind and permanent rain, for instance. Or heavy storms. Or running out of beer. There are still many reasons to stay positive.“ Word!

It seems that nature is playing its best roles just for us. Nobody else sees this amazing sunrise. We are alone.

„Without the bitter the sweet isn’t half as sweet.“

That is one of the most essential lessons I have learned on my world trip so far. And here is sweetness aplenty, indeed. Let’s have a closer look at the magic that happens each time the sun rises above or sets beyond the horizon. Truly an art piece of such a diversity in colors that only nature itself can draw. Or check out this sperm whale, an animal larger than our boat, appearing in its full size each time the wave it’s swimming in mounts up. Or about twenty dolphins playing with the bow wave of the boat. Or their cousins, a family of grind whales, which are slowly – yet faster than us – and persistently breathing through the ocean. Or insights of an extraordinary kind: Christoph Columbus sailed the same way more than 500 years ago, his job was a bit harder than ours though. He must have been afraid of falling down from the edge and neither knew at all how long his journey will take nor where the winds would take him. But he navigated with the same stars. They were shining in exactly the same constellations such as Orion or Scorpius or the Southern Cross that we spot in the night sky. The same moon was illuminating his ship „Santa Maria“ and the same sun warmed his face. That might sound trivial – I can assure you, the real experience was not! Nature and I have deepened our relationship with each other here. And one night I fell asleep in my ever moving bunk bed wondering what might be bigger in numbers, the stars above or the animals below us. Weird considerations and utopian environments match each other quite well, was my last thought before the waves lulled me to sleep.

I woke up!

A heavy wave crashed into the hull of the catamaran one night so that for a moment I thought this was my last one. But when the sea was calm and the winds were weak again, I felt as I have read another wake up call. This weather is not what it used to be, these winds are not normal. In this season there are supposed to be rather strong and reliable trade winds blowing constantly from north-east. We had them only for the first ten days before they decreased not only in speed but even in direction significantly. Many people I have discussed this topic with agree on climate change as the main reason. Such as our Captain Lothar, who has decades of sailing experience and crossed the Atlantic years ago: „The standard situation is not given anymore, there is a huge high pressure area above us that causes this and that shouldn’t be here. That’s definitely not normal.“ We are not even aware of the whole devastation we are doing to our world. Nor are we doing enough to stop it. That’s a fact. Our beautiful planet gets worse and we watch it front row. This would go beyond the scope of this article, but I feel that this will not be my last one on this topic. There are too many question marks. Especially that one: What, if we disagree?

We are a crew of six people

There is Wolli, the owner of the boat. He is 65, has not had an easy life and is just realizing his dream of escaping the world he used to know in Germany. He has bought the seventeen year old Catamaran last summer without having the money to maintain it properly. Although his laissez faire attitude („Dat machen wa schon!“) and his naive approach to a rather serious thing of crossing the Atlantic started to annoy us, there is a positivity in his thinking and an enjoyment of life that I admire: „You need to reach out for the world“, he says, „the real life is here, not back home on the sofa.“

Let me also introduce you to Peter. He celebrates his 70th birthday this year and has sailed six regattas with a thousand nautical miles each. „Every single time I asked myself why the hell I am doing that“, he tells, „but there was something that caught me.“ It was his passion for living adventures and challenging his boundaries: „I want to know how I’d deal with getting up in the middle of the night after four hours of sleep to take my night shift. For three weeks in a row.“ This is the first time I heard a seventy-year-old talking like that. „You can force yourself to grow old. You can do that. Just follow the standard program that our society offers people over 65 and wait until life is over. I’m just not interested in that.“

German Schlager and disappointed expectations

Furthermore, I am sharing this adventure with Christian (47) and Anna (22) from Salzburg, both equipped with great sailing experience. And Lothar, the skipper and mastermind, who remains calm in stormy weathers, loves to share his knowledge and cooks like a god. Six people who haven’t known each other before spend three weeks in confined space – that can be explosive. By times I suffered from not having much privacy and space to be by myself – and so did everybody else, I suppose. We worked together as a team in an exemplary way, yet the moral on board has gone through some ups and downs. Our team counts four Austrians and two Germans – no, that’s not the reason. Neither the fact, that Wolli not just owns the boat but also a hard disk full of German Schlagermusic since the year of 1934 that he proudly shares with us. Incredible, to which conditions one can get used to. The reason for bad mood was rather that we had sporty expectations of making it to America in two weeks and were disappointed when the winds didn’t allow us to reach that goal. The issues with the boat have caused us worries but actually did not harm anybody. So, each time the mood dropped under sea level, we reminded ourselves which extraordinary gift we gave to ourselves by going on this adventure. A once in a lifetime experience that only very few people on this planet ever make. Nobody said it was easy. And when we started to see these challenges as part of the game we were able to embrace the bigger picture rather than complaining about its frame. That way we soon managed to pull ourselves and each other out of the mud. Well, the water, indeed.

Always able to cheer each other up. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew: Wolli, Christian, Anna, Peter, Lothar and me.

It’s all a matter of perspective

There had been dinners when hardly anybody was talking. And it was not due to Captain Lothar’s amazing cooking skills. „We are losing time“, was a popular opinion for some days when there were no winds. I tried to see this time rather as won than lost and started building up a routine to use that time in a more valuable way. I started meditating in the morning sun, put more attention on learning Spanish and listening to inspirational audiobooks and spent some hours each day on writing and, of course, sunbathing. That way I got plenty of great stuff done and was not bored a single hour. This approach seemed to work for the others too, we were able to support each other and next time we had dinner together boredom and negativity gave way to loud laughters and joy.

Those who read about my first sea voyage from Portugal to Tenerife, „Seven days at sea or „How to have sex with life““, know that embarking on this odyssey took me quite some willpower. My biggest fear, among others, was to become seasick again. This was pointless, as it turned out. My body seemed to handle the movement much better this time.

There are feelings that can’t be described in words

With literally the last drops of Diesel we arrived in the Caribbean. I just set foot on Guadeloupe a few hours ago. The land is still moving. Now I know why Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean walks so strangely on land. His natural habitat, the sea, is certainly not mine. I’ve sailed 2.700 nautical miles out of my comfort zone and hence pushed its limits far out into the Atlantic Ocean. I’m not exaggerating when I state, that confronting my fears with reality has brought me some steps closer to a profound understanding of what I’m made of. Or as Anna puts it in one of our many deep conversations during our mutual nightwatches: „I think I can’t even measure yet how much I’ve learned about myself on this trip. But I suppose I’ll start realizing soon.“

Pulsing nightlife in El Poblado – where the "paisas" mix up with tourists

After three weeks of open water: land in sight!

This arrival in the Caribbean means a lot to me. It’s the accomplishment of a mission I was fascinated about: traveling from one continent to another without flying but with the help of strangers. A big dream has become a reality. Mission hitchhiking from Vienna to America completed. I’m happy as fuck!

Let me end this article with the words of Merlin from „Sword in the Stone“:

“It’s up to you how far you go. If you don’t try, you’ll never know!”

Distance covered: 2.714,30 nautical miles / 4883,166 kilometer
Under sails: 1.236,29 nm
Under engine: 1.478,01 nm
Diesel needed: 500 litres
Nightwatches had: 32
Sunsets watched: 17

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