Making our own luck


Sam Llewellyn recalls a passage from the Azores. 

We sailed from the Azores on Friday the 13th. It was not an auspicious day, but the skipper did not believe in luck. The plan, he said, was to ride the gentle and unfailing southwesterlies to his home port of Baltimore, at the southwesternmost corner of Ireland.  

We drifted past the Punta Delgada pierhead at nightfall, and instantly found ourselves plugging into a cold and brutal northerly. Day after day it blew into the faces of the four of us on that fifty-foot boat, four hours on, four hours off, night after night, tacking and tacking.  

The fridge was on the starboard side, opening athwartships. On the port tack, excavating supplies from the frozen deeps was like coal mining on Svalbard. On the starboard tack it was like standing under an avalanche of brash ice. The good news was that the problem did not last long, because we had provisioned for five days, and the fridges emptied out fast. The bad news was that when we had been tacking for a week the only food left on the boat was couscous.  

The helming formula was straightforward. The bow would lift on a wave and blow off to leeward. Ease the helm up to get her back on course. The next wave rolled under. Repeat the operation a hundred times an hour. Pray for a dolphin, or the sight of a star, or anything, really, if it wasn't more couscous or another head sea. 

Very, very early one morning several hundred miles west of the top right-hand corner of Spain, the dawn was a grey stripe between the black overcast and the blacker sea. There were yellow lights flashing out there. Tired eyes hallucinated them into nightmare JCBs, digging water for terrible reasons of their own. As the light grew it became apparent that they were boats: a fleet of little fishing boats, far, far out to sea, consumed with rust and bristling with long poles. Among the poles scuttled the silhouetted figures of men. Suddenly the poles started to bend, and the men to run, and with judo-like leverage bring aboard enormous tuna. 

A squall came in. We slacked off the main halyard, pulled down the reefing pennants and plugged on. By the time we had finished it was light again, and the tuna fleet had disappeared astern, and the sea ahead was empty except for the wind, which was blowing straight from our destination. Still, something had changed. The energy of the tuna fleet had caused a sort of moral awakening. We would make our own luck. 

We took stock. On the starboard tack we could probably have made Newfoundland, had we wished to go there, which we did not. On port we could make Brittany. In the Breton village of Cancale is an excellent restaurant. I mentioned this to the skipper. He frowned. 'We are going,' he said, 'to Baltimore.' 

I pulled a bit of paper out of the chart table and wrote IT'S ALL ABOUT LUCK. He showed evidence of a brief internal struggle. Then his eyes settled on a half-eaten pan of couscous wedged in the sink. The bow slammed down with a noise like a kettledrum. He caved in. 'Cancale,' he said, extra loud. 'Excellent. I'll book a table. Here's the new course.' 

I put the helm down, and the compass card swung. Half an hour later the sails began to clatter. We were being headed. The wind had veered, with the obvious intention of keeping us away from Brittany. We sped full and by down the rhumb line for Baltimore, talking greedily about what we were going to eat in Cancale.  

Two days later, when the Fastnet rose from the glossy black swells ahead, we still had our fingers crossed, the skipper's more firmly than anyone else's.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly