For many, buying a boat and sailing off into the sunset can sound pretty idyllic. It conjures visions of an endless watery highway to explore under a sunlit sky with blue hues as far as the eye can see. The reality, however, is often not as glamorous as you might think.
In our second instalment from liveaboard adventurers Dr Lou Luddington and her freediving husband Tom, Lou talks us through both the good and the bad of a life in motion - from sleepless nights and a never ending repairs list, to some of the incredible wildlife with which they now share their lives.
Lying in the darkness I brace as the next wind squall reaches a crescendo, a little more violent than the last. It rages for a few seconds and I wonder if this time a piece of the boat will get torn off and whisked away. It feels like we’re under attack. The rigging howls and the boat heels over and twangs heavily on the anchor. How much stronger will it get? In seconds the commotion is over and the wind drops to a breath. I feel all tension drain from me and think of drifting back to sleep just as the next blast hits us. This gale-force, stop-start assault continues to the early hours stirring up a lively sea. By breakfast the wind has hushed to a breeze but Noctiluca rocks fore and aft, as the ocean heaves from a night of uproar. Like wooden horses we nod in our seats in tune with the boat’s motion; another wakeful night as liveaboard sailors is added to the tally.
"Although most days we feel like we are living the dream there is a side to life aboard that is tough and relentless. Yet this only amplifies the need to focus on gratitude and living in the present moment."
Having uprooted ourselves in favour of a sailing lifestyle we stepped beyond our comfort zone towards adventure and far flung shores. This wasn’t our first night of strong wind on anchor in the Canary Islands, we knew the routine; clear the deck of items that could blow away, secure all lines and halyards, remove the oars and outboard from the tender, check the anchor, add our position to the chart and monitor regularly for anchor drag. Other challenges besides strong wind prevent a quality night sleep; bright moonlight beaming through various hatches, raucous nocturnal birds and rolling swell that you might think would rock you to sleep. Instead it sets off a symphony of creaks, rattles, gurgles and bangs of varying amplitudes in tune with the sway of the boat. At times a set wave pulses beneath us, increasing the momentum of the roll that cues the slide and crash of unsecured items as they skitter across the galley work surface or saloon table and hit the floor. For me swell is the hardest to live with, disturbing my sleep and demanding zen-like focus to perform daily tasks without a tantrum. Photo editing or writing often results in the head-swimming nausea of motion sickness. How things have changed! In our previous life on land, the prospect of swell would bring a tingle of excitement; we were surfers at heart and waves were a daily wish. Yet as sailors and freedivers living on anchor we now long for calm seas and not a whiff of swell to set our home in motion. Before setting sail we adjusted our focus towards freediving and wildlife as we knew surfing and sailing to be a tricky combination to achieve. But for those occasions when we do find the perfect set-up we have a board each stashed on deck.
Weather conditions and living in a small space are not the only challenges. The boat often reminds us that she is mature in years and requires maintenance. We have a perennial list of non-urgent jobs that we cherry pick when the mood takes us. Then there are the surprises that tend to arrive in clusters for no rational reason and demand immediate attention. During May our drinking water pump stopped working, the toilet pipes blocked, our fresh water tank sprang a leak, the engine drive shaft wobbled itself loose and the boat electronics stopped working all within the space of two weeks. Each required troubleshooting and lengthy repairs but thankfully we could fix them ourselves; on this occasion we were spared the hefty bills we have come to expect from sailing boat repairs.
Although most days we feel like we are living the dream there is a side to life aboard that is tough and relentless. Yet this only amplifies the need to focus on gratitude and living in the present moment. We have countless moments that blow our minds; waking up with a naked dip over the side, freediving with eagle rays, drifting among resting pilot whales offshore, evenings surrounded by the calls of Cory’s shearwaters returning to their night time burrows, and disembodied breathhold dives down the anchor chain at midnight with just the sparkle of bioluminescence to light the way. This is the magic that carries us through the hard times, our guiding lights when we lose our way.
On the rare occasions we do get overwhelmed, we head to the marina for a couple of nights or mutiny for a few hours, either heading to land in our tender or stepping overboard to immerse ourselves and find solace in the underwater world. On one particular day I assembled my camera housing and dived in to get away from the howling, gusty wind. It was calm down there and I was soon being taken on a journey by a perfectly formed cuttlefish. She allowed me to trail her for 10 minutes, fluttering along at times, settling to rest at others, then sweeping off again. When our time was up, she disappeared among some boulders, using her camouflage and cunning to out-wit me. I swam on with a blissful feeling of having entered the consciousness of another being and I wondered what this cephalopod made of me. Was there fear, curiosity, mischief? Research has shown both octopus and cuttlefish to be highly intelligent, self-aware and sentient; in my heart I hoped this cuttlefish could sense how uplifted I felt in her presence.
Swimming back to the boat I decided to check on the anchor before climbing aboard. It was well dug into the sand from the 30 knot gusts. As I turned to follow the chain back to the ladder a large black shape flapped into view, a roughtail stingray cruising passed at a speed I could trail for a short dive. The size of a car bonnet, this is the largest whiptail stingray in the Atlantic and like many other rays they are threatened and considered Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Floating back to the surface I watched the dark outline grow smaller and vanish into the gloom of deeper water. The perfect end to my underwater foray and a reminder that the golden moments would not be possible without embracing the discomfort and difficulties inherent to a life at sea. Instead of earthly roots we now have wings in the form of sails that have set us free and pull us towards our higher purpose. Living a life in motion means we connect with the ocean and all its wild creatures from a hard-won perspective of deep gratitude. “The sailing life is all about high highs and low lows”. We get that now …
Words and Images by Lou Luddington