Captain Hugh and the Reluctant Navigator
The Voyage of Vega

Prologue

This story starts in December 2000 when I first met Hugh. He was about to go on a fortnight’s holiday with his sons in the Maldives, sailing and scuba diving. This beat the other men I’d met so far who liked spectator sports and visiting stately homes. I had visions of sunbathing on deck and sipping pink gins somewhere near the equator….

Sadly the reality of this new activity soon palled. Sailing in the UK could be cold, uncomfortable, boring and at times scary. Our first boat, Dawn Star, at 21 foot hadn’t the headroom to stand upright in the saloon, and the heads were a bucket in the cabin. Hugh was in love though and not just with me. He had a blissful week sailing Dawn Star single handed on the south coast whilst I took my kids on holiday to Zante. Hotel, beach and pool were more my thing.

We soon upgraded to a boat share on 34 foot Mystic Legend with Mike and Wayne. More space and a proper loo. Meanwhile I learned how painful it was to hang upside down by the leg from the guardrail whilst trying to avoid getting crushed between boat and jetty. A few trips to the Southampton Boat Show playing the game “which boat shall we buy?” and I realised that for Hugh this was no longer a game. I tried to persuade him that it would be cheaper to have an annual two weeks yacht charter in the British Virgin Islands but he was not to be dissuaded. Little did I appreciate that he was choosing a boat for the Grand Voyage in the footsteps (wake?) of Darwin.

And so we remortgaged the house and in 2011 flew to Gothenburg to sail Vega, a 37 foot Swedish sloop, back to the UK. A boat built to sail the seven seas and handle the worse that the weather could throw at it. Sadly the same could not be said of the crew. After a particularly terrifying trip out of Cuxhaven up the river Elbe and into the North Sea, we eventually took refuge on the duty-free island of Helgoland where I swore never to set foot on a boat again. But by the next morning the weather eased, the mutiny was avoided, and we spent three days and nights motor-sailing home across the North Sea, calm and mirror-like in the sunshine.

That is not to say that the trip back from Sweden had not had some magical moments. We collected Vega from the island of Orust where there are 3 shipbuilding yards. We then spent a week sailing around the pretty archipelago of islands north of Gothenburg, before crossing the Kattergatt to arrive one dark, wild, rainy night on the island of Arnholt. We headed for the one bright light visible from the windswept and deserted harbour. This sanctuary turned out to be a restaurant where we discovered we had just missed a visit by the Queen (of Denmark) by a few hours, but were consoled by being able to share a bottle of the wine bought specially for her visit ( Chateau la Canorgue 2009 Luberon). We met up with Danish friends Helle and David on their holiday island of Fejø on our way from Copenhagen to the Keil canal, which we spent two days motoring through. I discovered that I enjoyed the navigation side of things but realised that boat handling, particularly in high winds and strong tides, was not as straightforward as driving a car. We embarrassed ourselves by making a terrible mess of trying to berth at the Royal Kiel Yacht Club under the noses of the British naval officers sipping their G and Ts on the verandah. Nor will I ever forget the look of alarm on the face of a Dutch yacht owner as we ploughed into him, whilst berthing in high winds. He was very kind and didn’t make a fuss at all about his bent stanchion.

I tried to understand what it was about sailing that Hugh loved so much. He and so many other passionate sailors seemed endlessly fascinated with trimming the sails to get an extra fraction of a knot of speed from the boat, particularly if threatened to be overtaken by another boat (any two yachts in reasonably close proximity are inevitably in their own race). It was a whole new language that I didn’t understand. Perhaps if I tried hard enough I too would come to love it. The thrill of feeling the sails fill with wind and knowing that you are progressing through the water by harnessing the natural elements seemed to be part of it. At 6 miles an hour? I still didn’t get it. If you want to get from Dartmouth to Salcombe it takes three or four hours under sail power. Why not do it in half an hour and have all that extra time to shop? An experienced sailor on my Day Skipper course told me she loved the escape from the daily stresses and routine. Others have described adventure, freedom, time to be on your own, being in tune with the sea, weather and stars. I also heard a lifelong sailor say how he hated the sea: ‘She’s a devil’.

And now somehow here I am. Preparing for a 6 year voyage around the world and uncertain whether I’ll make it past Portishead, let alone across the Bay of Biscay. I am very nervous about how I will handle storms and big seas. And how I’ll cope with days if not weeks at sea. The boredom, restriction and discomfort. But this is Hugh’s dream, and I want to be with him and not left behind whilst he goes off on the adventure of a lifetime.