Company & Apprehension / by duncan mckenzie


Two things were different about this particular voyage. One was that I was now skipper of my own vessel. The second was that I had one crew, my fellow sailor, Alan, a 20-years friend who had sailed with his family many years ago but was rusty, he said. These things added a new layer of meaning and responsibility to this voyage.

Whilst single-handing the boat to Gibraltar I had gradually eliminated inefficiencies in the running rigging, the rope systems. By improving leads and the use of clutches I had effectively given myself an extra pair of hands and eliminated nearly all chafe on lines. In Gibraltar I now renewed some sheets and blocks and kept the old ones for spares, in order to be lessen the likelihood of failures of any kind, and to know I had backups, and ideally backups of backups. The sails were all new or serviced very recently and in top repair. 

But everything had to be questioned, in the quest for self-sufficiency. What would happen if the water pump failed? How would we get at the 600 litres of drinking water in the tanks? We had spare electric pumps, hand pumps, spare hand pumps. In terms electrical power if the alternator or the engine failed we had wind and solar energy, and if the entire 12v battery system failed ( almost impossible within 6 days), then we had a fold out solar panel for charging the ipads for navigation, the sat phone, and the handheld VHF. We only had the one auto helm but it was hugely strong and if that failed we had our own bare hands.

We had enough diesel for a range encompassing the entire trip by motor, though we expected to sail at least half of it. We had fresh fruit and veg for ten days but expected the trip to last six. We had many jars, tins, dried pulses, rices, pastas, sauces, onions, potatoes and, since Alan ate vegan, we had a very large amount of soya protein, in the form of sausages and tofu. We had enough food for three weeks, I estimated. That could get us to the Caribbean if necessary! We had trolling lines with lures that we preferred not to use, for emergency fish protein.

We had grab bags with everything you might need for a week in a liferaft, satellite beacons for the search and rescue to find us. We had every conceivable safety equipment and we briefly discussed all of it, which must have been a lot for Alan to take in. We discussed Man Over Board strategies (start the engine and full steam ahead, we laughed), the importance of always hanging on with one hand, dealing with rigging failures, fire control, use of the life raft, safety harnesses, sending a Mayday, storm techniques, use of the engine, the toilet and cooker. I felt sure Alan cannot have taken it all in, which worried me, but he seemed to have it under control. 

Having a crew member feels a big responsibility. You are in charge of his life more than he may know. He might save your life, but he may also be a liability to you, and to the vessel. As it turned out Alan was helming well immediately and clearly had plenty of sailing experience, and apart from two days of getting his sea legs he turned out to be the perfect crew. He took a keen interest in every aspect of the boat and and understood things immediately. Being a photographer he was highly observant which was useful.

It was interesting to see how Alan, coming directly from inner-city London, would find the experience of six days ‘in the desert’ on the open ocean. More of a contrast cannot be imagined. From ultra modernity and ‘connectedness’ in the modern sense, to the very fabric of timelessness; a very different kind of connection. It would be an awakening, for sure. 

I was very much in the groove of sailing after the last month’s experiences, so it was interesting to follow the reactions of someone in a different mental state. Then again it was sometimes work to manage the psychological space of someone else on a small vessel and that could sometimes feel like an interruption in the sailing groove, the direct communing with nature, the vessel, the elements. It made me reflect on what had been so rewarding about single-handing.

The sat phone’s internet connection was still problematic when we left port, despite four days of dealing with the specialists, but I knew we had SMS and telephone capability so the basics were covered. In the event my dear father sent daily weather updates by SMS for our sea area as we progressed southwest towards the Canaries. 

We left at a particular time of the tide, around midday, which worked in our favour against the east-going current resulting from the higher Atlantic sea level pouring into the lower Mediterranean within the Gibraltar Straits. This tide window had to be combined with favourable winds to blow you out of the gap. After many days it all came together and that was our time to leave. A handful of other yachts were evidently doing the same. It was a grey day with some drizzle, but we set off excited, myself apprehensive about crossing the fast ferries and the shipping lanes that run east west through the straits, before we could turn south west into open ocean and the freedom of the seas. 

About apprehension. Some might think it a sign of inexperience in a skipper. However, in reading Joseph Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea, an account of his maritime experiences, I found some very interesting words about apprehension. Conrad was a professional seaman for many years before starting his writing career on land. He sailed on Cutty Sark-type clippers in the late 1800s, and it gave him a fountain of stories for this later novels. 

Conrad makes the observation that before he became a captain himself, as crew he learned to only really trust the captains who showed significant signs of apprehension at every stage of the voyaging process, especially at departure and arrival. This state of worry or preoccupation produced the finest seamanship, and avoided complacency, a danger in such a changeable and potentially hostile environment.

My apprehension meant that I hardly gave a thought to the passing of the narrowest gap between two great continents, the misty proximity of Morocco, a country so contrasting with my last two years of Mediterranean liveaboard life. In the event the shipping lanes were easily demystified by observing the AIS signals coming from the ships on our chart plotter, and timing our crossing to a gap in the traffic, which for us occurred around dusk.

Soon we were entering the realms of offshore, the ship traffic died out, and we could relax somewhat and prepare for our first night at sea. The light of a solitary sailing yacht twinkled a few miles ahead, and occasional star patches appeared though the dispersing clouds.