Growing up three miles from the Atlantic gave me plenty of opportunities as a kid to try out a variety of water activities – kayaking, surfing, fishing, snorkeling, and much more. However, sailing wasn’t one of them. Up until this past weekend, I had never been on a standard sailboat before. I would often see them in the distance and dream about how relaxing and tranquil the ride must be. So when six of my island friends and I decided to head out to Les Saintes, a small group of islands off nearby Guadeloupe, I was quite excited to find out if my sailing dreams were anything close to reality.
Even though we were simply going to another island, I was definitely amped to get off my rock for a night. Days before the trip, the thought of real French food had me salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I packed my bag the night before, congratulating myself for resisting the urge to overpack (for once). My fiancé Ben and I arrived at the meeting point at 8am IT (Island Time – so around 8:20…) and spotted the others off in the distance, already on our sailboat Sophia K. The captain picked us up via dingy and we boarded what would be our sailboat home for the night.
I was both surprised and impressed by the amount of space down below for all of our belongings (I could have even packed more!) and up top to lay out. My friend Kev put the sails out under Captain’s direction, and I excitedly prepared myself to soak up some rays as we set off.
Almost immediately, the boat heeled drastically due to a strong gust, tossing us as it tipped then righted itself. Seeing our concerned faces, Captain assured us that it wouldn’t be like that for the rest of the trip. I relaxed my grip, taking comfort in his words, as riding across the Atlantic channel perpendicular to the water was not an appealing thought to me. And yet, one hour in, we were doing just that.
Both Sarah and Shaleen spent the next couple hours spewing off the back of the boat while trying to hold themselves upright; the Dramamine they had taken earlier was proving to be no match for this trip. On the edge of vomiting myself, I stared intently at the horizon, not wanting to join them in the next stage of nausea.
Halfway there (only two hours left) and the sea showed no signs of letting up. We were still heeling hardcore, and my right arm was growing sore from holding onto a pole so tightly. Captain, nonchalant, said the seas were “only” two meters that day. Perhaps nothing to a seasoned sailor, but in my newbie book, it was all a bit frightening. I resisted the urge to whine, Are we there yet?
As we finally approached calmer waters, my stomach grumbling in anticipation of the long-awaited French food, we searched for a mooring just off Terre de Haut to tie up to. Only problem was, there were no open mooring balls to be had. We circled around a few times looking, but were then forced to try to anchor instead back out in the rougher water. On our first attempt, the anchor didn’t hold, so we circled around again. At just the wrong moment, the engine died and cursing ensued as Kev rushed to crank out the sails seconds before we ran into a million dollar sailboat. Yikes moment!
We turned around, sailing in the open again so as not to crash into anything while Captain worked to get the engine started. Finally, about an hour later, we managed to anchor about 200 yards from shore. Captain dove down to check that the anchor was secure, giving us the great news that it was now time to get off the boat and head in.
The eight of us stood staring down at the small dinghy with its single engine on back, waiting instruction. Captain told us to all get in, that we’d go together, and that we’d be able to make it “no problem”. I had my concerns, thinking it would probably be wise to take two trips, but we all just began piling in with our belongings.
With each new person that climbed in, the inflatable sank lower and lower into the water. When we were all in and took off, the dinghy strained under our weight, barely moving. At the start, there was a little water is in the bottom already, but only up to our ankles. And then it started to rise…
By the time the water level had reached our shins, we started to look at one another, silently confirming, This is odd – right? Sarah offered to start scooping the water out with a cup, but Captain brushed off the idea, saying there was no need, maintaining his relaxed tone. But she couldn’t help herself – she just started scooping anyway.
Since we were so low to the water, the waves were not just a light splashing – all of our bottoms were drenched. The water creeped up even faster, and I felt myself starting to panic, mostly because I had my Nikon with me and wasn’t prepared to lose it to water damage. The panic was rising in my friends’ eyes as well. Ben joined in Sarah’s scooping efforts using a water bottle. The water then came gushing in through the holes in the back siding of the dinghy rapidly, far too fast for those scooping to keep up.
“If we need to evacuate, I’m staying aboard because I have my camera!” I shouted. Captain just shrugged, saying we’d be fine.
We were barely moving, the water was now up to our knees, and we were still about 100 yards from shore. Suddenly, Captain’s tone changed: “I’m bailing now, more people need to jump out NOW!” He yelled his command while body-rolling himself out of the boat. All I could think was, You have got to be kidding me – is this really happening?!
The others followed suit, leaving me in with the bags and Kev at the engine. Dragging the others in tow the rest of the way, we made it to shore. I couldn’t stop laughing as the swimmers exited the sea – they looked like they had literally swum from one island to another in their sopping wet clothes.
Only a couple hours late, we then took some time to explore the 3 square mile island via scooters, enjoying the views and food. Ben managed to wind up in the police station for a helmet violation and driving down a street labeled “Do Not Enter”, though he escaped with only a 90 Euro fine. C’est la vie!
After an amazing Les Saintes dinner, we headed back to the boat – this time, wisely splitting up and making two dinghy trips. As we settled in for the night, the boat rocked some of us to sleep while poor Sarah, who didn’t even eat dinner, spent the night alternating between spewing and dry heaving. Besides the sounds of my poor sick friend and a cabinet door breaking off and falling on me in bed in the middle of the night, my first night sleeping on a sailboat was relatively uneventful.
The following morning, we had a few more hours ashore to play and stock up on specialty groceries that we couldn’t get back on Dominica. Then we set sail, this time loading Sarah up with three Dramamines, which thankfully seemed to do the trick. The 4 hour ride back home across the Atlantic channel was much of the same drastic heeling. Side effect: my obliques got an excellent workout as I gripped tight onto a pole to keep myself from being flung out of the boat. Score.
With just a bit of light left in the sky, we made it back to our home rock, slightly delayed by a bit more engine trouble and some rough water, ending our adventure with a little well-timed dinghy surfing into shore.
Though sailing across the Atlantic channel is not necessarily for everyone – and not at all as “tranquil” as I had once thought – I can certainly understand the appeal of the fresh wind in the sails and the salt in the air that sailors seek out. Would I do it again? I wonder…
Sure. Why not?