The Broadcast / The Crossing Pt. 2

The Crossing Pt. 2

After selling most of their belongings to become permanent liveaboards, novice sailors Lou and Tom Luddington are attempting their first Atlantic crossing. Having already made emergency repairs, we pick up the story in rough seas, far from land.

Missed the first leg of the crossing? Catch up here.


5 min read

Words & Images by Dr Lou Luddington

Our twelfth night at sea is harrowing. It's midnight and I'm on watch.

Sergio and captain are both sleeping and all is quiet and dark belowdecks but for the creaks and rattles of the moving boat and waves hissing outside. I'm standing at the galley stove waiting for the kettle to boil when a rogue wave impacts the hull with a crack-hiss followed by a cascade of water pouring through the top hatch. The ocean enters. Sergio jumps up in shock, hosed awake as his bed takes a direct hit. Tom, asleep in the bow, bursts out of bed charged with adrenaline, to see water washing through the saloon. He thinks we are sinking and clicks into survival mode firing off instructions to Sergio to get the bilge pumps working and check essential electrics.

Meanwhile I'm sobbing into my hands having hit the breaking-point. At that moment I can't handle the breach of our tiny, safe, dry space and the fact that our living area is now soaked. Once the hatch is shut and we realise it was just a big wave we compose ourselves and assess the damage. Standing around not sure what to do next the humour comes, as relief floods through us. Tom dressed only in life jacket and boxer shorts remarks we should be grateful his shorts were to hands as he was naked on waking, “I didn't want to abandon ship naked”, and Sergio says he needed a shower anyway.

My reaction to the midnight deluge makes me realise the ceaseless strain we’re all under. As the boat swoops along through night and day, so do our emotions. The constant, unpredictable motion and stress about the integrity of the boat means we are always bracing, correcting, reacting. Everything is a challenge, even sitting requires a firm grip so as not to slide off the seat or get thrown across the boat. Cooking is a combat sport, hands firing out to grab cutlery, plates, vegetables, like a praying mantis hunting flies. Mealtimes always involve some sort of spillage and retrieval from the floor.

Captain Tom attempting to get some sleep below deck
Black and white image of Dr Lou Luddington smiling aboard Noctiluca

Sleep is hard-won and comes as a deep unconsciousness via exhaustion from which we are often rudely disturbed. On many occasions I wake with a start, as a wave slams the hull, heart racing, convinced we are in mortal danger and calling out to Tom, “Is everything ok?”

The moon casts an amber glow across our wake, illuminating the path we have travelled to the horizon, a vast seaway, a turbulent river of gold, perilous and beguiling. Minutes later voluminous clouds shroud the moon, squalls gathering, threatening. We are in the path of a huge cumulonimbus that is gaining on us, the classic anvil-of-a-cloud, cauliflower above, dark and menacing below and connected to the horizon by sheets of rain. It looms and I prepare myself. I pull on my trusty Finisterre Rainbird jacket, shut the cabin doors and hatches and stand at the helm and wait; I'm a little nervous but primed, ready for the assault. Tom and Sergio are asleep below, it's just me, the boat and the squall.

The rain arrives first; a few heavy spots set the beat, a slow walking pace to begin with, then a gust of wind rising, whistling, energy increasing, more spots join the percussion gathering pace, this is my signal to take the wheel. The autopilot struggles in the strongest winds, so I take control, feeling the weighty push of wind surging against the sails. In seconds the rain becomes a torrent and the wind grows to a howl, as though coaxing one another into a frenzy. Rain pummelling, bouncing, wind whooshing, roaring they rise and fall together, harmonised. The boat begins to surf, and the wind pushes it to starboard; I lean heavily on the wheel to correct its course, trying to keep the wind behind us to temper our speed.

An Shearwater in flight over the mid-Atlantic
Captain Tom and Sergio take a breather on deck

The wind instrument peaks at 40 knots and I steer with all my might as the boat heels and tries to veer off course. Defiant of the wind I correct with small adjustments, lean and steer right then release, lean then release. I feel my way with instinct, little by little. It’s intense and my legs begin to shake. Aloud I tell myself “I’m ok, I’m ok, IT'S OK!” and I’m convinced any second either Tom or Sergio will be woken by the noise and pop a head through the hatch to see if I’m ok. But nothing, neither stir, they are unconscious with fatigue. I face the squall alone.

The boat rides high, cresting, rolling, surfing and the hull begins to sing, humming and vibrating as we reach a new top speed of 14.7 knots. We charge along, carried by the squall as the clouds unleash their bridled energy. Its pace soon outmatches ours and we are left in its wake, soaked, exhilarated and wallowing in light winds. Adrenaline-fueled, I’m not sure whether to whoop or sob. I open the hatches and congratulate myself on a boat well steered. I did it.

We each experienced many squalls like this on the crossing, some more ferocious than others and Sergio seemed to be a magnet for the burliest ones. Sometimes they would come thick and fast one after the other, relentless, unyielding. On other days we might watch them pass all around us unleashing their strife elsewhere.

There were moments when I had the presence of mind to be awed by my surroundings, to marvel at the night sky, to be overjoyed by the masterful flight of a Shearwater angling through the waves, to grasp the epic scale of the wild ocean and it’s unrelenting ways, to know how it feels to cross an ocean at a speed dictated by nature. When you decide to sail your home across an ocean you have to be prepared to lose it all. Sinking or having to abandon ship due to catastrophic damage is a possibility, and one that I had to come to terms with when the bobstay chainplate broke on our third day at sea.

An Egret searches for its balance in turbulent seas
Captain Tom diving in crystal clear 5000 meter deep water

On day 17 our spirits are lifted by a visit from a cattle egret that circles a few times then lands on the bow. It stands and wobbles for a while trying to find a rhythm with the boat, swaying, leaning, sometimes flapping its wings for balance. It looks so unlikely out here, and yet here it is bright, splendid, resilient and quiet, 900 nautical miles from the nearest land. It stays with us through sunset then settles down for the night on a pile of rope next to the mast. Taking a rest from a long migration to who-knows where, we were glad to be of service. The next morning it flies over to the cockpit as though to bid us farewell, poops on a cushion then lifts off into the wind and is gone.  

On our 24th day at sea the wind drops for the first time since we set off. The sails flap, our speed slows and the boat wallows. Sergio, a little distressed, asks Tom what to do. “Well let's drop the sails and go for a swim!” We grin at each other and seize the moment. Plunging into electric blue water 5000 metres deep is wild swimming at its finest.

The next day we spot land, our first glimpse of the Caribbean island chain. Everything changes in that moment. In a wave of utter relief and euphoria we hug and whoop and high five, dance to Calvin Harris and blast the wide open ocean with our air horn. We made it, we sailed across the Atlantic in a blaze of courage, endurance and team work. Arriving to Dominica in the dark, exotic sounds and smells waft from the land to our ocean-wearied senses as we drop anchor and are finally still for the first time in 25 days.

You can continue to follow Lou & Tom's adventures through their Instagram account, @alightatsea.




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