From the mailman’s bag to Jean-du-Sud

Article published in La Revue maritime l'Escale (in French) and in Blue Water Sailing (in English)


Translated from French by Marie-Christine Lussier

Céline Lacerte sails across the North Atlantic Ocean
from Isles de la Madeleine to Ireland
with husband Yves Gélinas.


Dreams. I’ve always had so many in my life, but crossing an ocean on a small sailboat was never one of
them. It’s through my love story that this path slowly materialized. Before venturing out on the vast ocean, my sea-bag consisted of ten summers of coastal navigation. These succinct studies allowed me to tame the dense and fascinating nautical universe and to strengthen our sea-going couple. Well hidden in my luggage, I brought along an adventurous spirit, an insatiable love of the sea and a nomadic curiosity inspired by the mailman’s bag into which, at the age of three, I dreamt of hopping.Before I left, my plan had been to send frequent electronic ‘messages in a bottle’ to my loved ones, but I soon found out that the sea has no schedule... and this is how my testimony took another turn, espousing the sea and its moods.


FIRST BOTTLE         On Wednesday, July 5, after six days of preparation and escorted by a lively breeze, we finally leave Les Isles de la Madeleine. The islands slowly fade away.

Adieu green! Adieu ground!

Twenty days are lined up in the heart of a new reality. Here I am, surrounded by this vastness, this eternity. The challenge is daunting: to gently tame time and space... time, especially. To dive into the moment, go with the flow, let the movement rock me, savour the adventure, abandon myself!...

My stomach struggles to settle with the dancing sea. I try acupuncture bracelets and homeopathy. It works so-so...

Yves and I set the watches. I get the 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. watch. I love the sea at night, but around midnight I get drowsy and I’m not as alert as I should be. Besides, when I get really, really tired, I can have disconcerting visions, as if the night was revealing to me a few of its mysteries. After two days, we switch: I’m on the lookout from 2 to 6 a.m. This routine suits me better: I watch the sunset, then after a nap, I witness the rise of Venus, soon followed by the sun.

Venus is so bright that I sometimes mistake it for a navigation light, far away. Soon after Venus has risen, the sky slowly lightens, the darkness gradually fades away. Everything becomes colored and the sun, like a big powerful spotlight, emerges from the night. I love witnessing all of this; I feel as if I’m heading more and more toward the light. I enjoy the night with its scenery of starlit sky and the sight of the waxing moon.

Strangely, it’s rather pleasant to be awakened in the middle of the night. It evokes magic memories of childhood Christmas nights. And how comforting to wake up to the smell of coffee! These sweet rituals help anchor me to life on the boat.

At night, we can see the light of Cape North on Cape Breton. The next land in sight is Isle Saint-Pierre of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. We’re in France for a few hours. Everything is smooth. Beyond the horizon, the land seems to be waiting. We keep on going.



Every day at 1100 UTC comes my favorite moment: communication by ham radio with the captain’s network. We get the latest news and weather forecast. We exchange information. We feel close to all of you. Yves wants to know more about E-Mailing by radio; he has tried to send messages without success. Tomorrow, then.

We discern the coast of Newfoundland. Our next land is Cape Race. We are now 20 miles away from the coast. Yves makes out land below the clouds, but I don’t see anything. I feel illiterate. I realize it’s important to know how to read horizons. I have to work at it.

After Cape Race, we head for the high seas. We’ve been sailing for four days. Our next destination is Ireland, 1,662 miles distant. What a challenge! I feel a little edgy. It seems I’m always working on planning a routine. I don’t sleep much. The problem is, I lack reference points. Time and space, everything is so vast! To face infinity is like facing eternity. I feel lost in the immensity... I want to cling to something but I don’t know where or how. I feel I’m going around in circles. Meditation should come to my rescue.

But the pace is good. It’s a good feeling to see Jean-du-Sud advance so bravely along the chart. Plotting our position is an exciting moment. We’re definitely moving. The longitude is encouraging.

So far the wind has been good even if it hasn’t always been strong. Crossing the banks of Newfoundland seems to take forever. The sea is nervous, wicked. My body is taut, on the lookout. I keep bumping into things. It’s cold, the water is icy and, to top it all, here comes the fog!

This morning the transmitter broke down as Yves was speaking. Pierre Décarie, our shore contact, was worried. He feared that we might have hit some ice or a whale... Yves has done everything he can, but the problem seems impossible to fix. We can’t communicate anymore. We feel even more alone.

But I’m not afraid of solitude. I’m even more alone when I do my sunset watch while savoring a warm cup of tea in the cockpit. Alone and content, I admit, as if my solitude was tucked away somewhere.


THIRD BOTTLE      So delightful is the change of watch at 0600: I let go of my responsibilities and slide into the soft, warm and welcoming arms of my man. He calms me, warms me. When he takes over the watch, I feel secure. I know everything will be for the best... except for the fear I sometimes have that he may fall overboard. I often wake up wondering where he is, what he is doing and I keep repeating: "Yvetaud, fasten yourself!" The thought of seeing him swallowed by the sea haunts me. It’s unbearable. What would I do without my man? What would I do alone on the boat? I find no answer to this… "Yves, does not fall into the sea, doesn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t..." is my mantra, my buoy.

It’s the sunset watch. As I slowly sip my tea, I see a shadow rising in the fog. Yves gets up and we both agree: about four miles away, the shadow is motionless. Moments later, the shadow lights up brightly, like a city. We think it is Platform Hibernia which is not shown on our old chart. Soon, the shadow returns into the fog and the night is pitch black once again.

Yves tries in vain to fix the radio. There is really no solution to the enigma. We have to forget the idea.

The radar signals a ship. By the VHF, we contact the captain who kindly agrees to transmit a message to the Canadian Coastguard in order to reassure the ham operators and explain our predicament. We learn that the boat is from Finland, heading for the United States.

One morning, at dawn, the air feels somehow different, much softer. The fog has vanished, and so has the wind. The water is warmer. We have reached the Gulf Stream.

I welcome the calm sea because after the Grand Banks, I’ve had my share of swinging and tossing!...

Today, we didn’t move much: 50 miles. I wonder if we’ll need to ration our water… The Atlantic is smooth as a mirror. I didn’t know it was possible, but now I know, I know that the sea can stop, it can be still when it wants to. A lesson to remember: if the Atlantic can turn the switch off, why, we mortals, we should be able to do the same!

Flip! Flap! The sails are flogging. Time slows to a crawl. After two days of this never-ending stillness, we become a little edgy, secretly calling the wind, hoping for a change. My mood is dark. I should focus my meditation on cleaning up the ashes.

On the second day, in the afternoon, the sea awakens, and waves appear, smooth and far apart. The barometer goes down and the wind rises at last!

During the night, I wonder what is happening. In my bunk, I keep rolling in every direction. I have no grip. The wind is strong. On deck, Yves reefs the sails, then completely drops the main. The only sail left is a pocket hanky: the storm jib. But Jean-du-Sud is still moving at six knots, its top speed.

In my bunk, I can feel the water close to my body. It bumps! It bounces! The boat rolls. The waves hit so hard, it’s like we’re hitting something solid. I’m experiencing my first gale. My spirit is wild; my mind creates a thousand scenarios. I see myself sinking. To die alone in the middle of this gigantic icy nothingness... without being able to call for help is beyond my imagination. I panic. This can’t happen! My sons are not ready, my poor Dad neither... I still have so much to do. I don’t want to die at sea. I say NO, a strong NO, a primal NO. I call my guardian angels: my mother, Gratien, they’re all here. Besides, Jean-du-Sud is sturdy, Yves is an accomplished sailor. Let’s calm down!

The wind blows all right! Boy! Are we ever moving! This crazy dance will last four days. At night, we listen to the beautiful songs of Félix Leclerc: "Heureux qui comme Félix." How good it feels to be cuddled up in the tiny bunk. We are in total harmony. It’s a good moment.

The sea is nervous and definitely nerve wracking. In the afternoon, in spite of the crummy weather, Yves urges me to get out of the hole and join him topside. The energy I need to put on my sea clothes and drag myself out of my cocoon is unbelievable. As soon as my lifeline is clipped, I sit down on one side of the quarterdeck, opposite Yves. We’re both looking in the same direction. What an odd couple we are, all alone, in the middle of the ocean, admiring the gale, the subtle tones - grays, whites, blues, lavenders - the 20-foot waves, roll, break and tirelessly renew themselves. Yves finds these waves remind him of the Roaring Forties. I’m not surprised. They’re so overwhelming. Sometimes, the sea... has a smell of death. We watch a huge wave come toward us, black and slender, like a giant animated rock. It seizes the boat, hoists us and drops us down after its crest. There is a definite beauty to it, but right now, the sea is for professionals and I’m not one of them. I’m a romantic of the sea. I am a dripping romantic slipping back into my cocoon. So long!


FOURTH BOTTLE         The gale has subsided. I can almost walk freely but my legs are shaking. Life is back to normal. We tidy up the boat, which is a mess. Everything is damp and will stay that way for a while, I’m afraid.

For the first time in my life, I bake bread. It sure smells good on the Atlantic! Mmmm... It tastes delicious!

Every day, since we reached the open sea, we are visited by dolphins, even in bad weather. I want to communicate, to tell them the joy they give me. I try my best to speak their language, but even though we all enjoy dancing, there is a gulf between us and them. Their elegant somersaults are like a salute. We love our neighbors. What good company!

One morning, there is a new colony alongside the boat, at least a hundred of them. They swim in ranks, in a straight line, at the same rhythm, contemplative. They’re big, round, darker than the previous dolphins. They’re more like whales. We never cease to be amazed by their incredible choreography.

This morning is memorable: we collect rain in a jerrycan. The next day, as soon as the sun comes out, I wash my hair for the first time in sixteen days. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was ready to shave my head!

At first I slept in the forward cabin, but I kept rolling, and found it impossible to stay still. Now, I sleep in the main cabin. Yves and I each have our bunk. We fall asleep under spinnaker, lulled by the singing of the whales. They are everywhere, I can hear them breathing. From the cabin we hear echoes, a sound somewhere between the mewing of a cat and the squeal of a mouse. It lulls me to sleep.

Because of the ever-present fog, we don’t stand watches on deck anymore. We keep watch from our bunks, with the radar, compass, GPS and, of course, the indispensable self-steering. This precious tool faithfully guides us and has freed me, since I have been sailing, from steering, a chore often relegated to women. I feel good, almost secure. The oil lamp generates soft warmth. Wonderful moments.

Today, I feel rested. I am myself again. I think I have found the secret for strengthening my soul. Abandon. Time slips by. I don’t have the desire to kill it anymore. I don’t fear it as I used to. I feel more like surfing the waves of the minutes, the hours.


FIFTH BOTTLE         For this last week, the wind rises again. The horse smells the stable. The last three nights, we slept no more than five hours. Sometimes, three. I drag my body. At dawn, we make our landfall in a terrible fog. The radar is the first to detect land. I stand on the bow, and as much as I want to see the coast, there is no way to see through the dense wall. We hear waves breaking on nearby rocks. The moment we get closer to them, the wind dies.

It’s Yves’ turn to be scared. After a while, we see shadows and reefs. We try in vain to go back to the open sea, but without wind or engine, it’s impossible. The current pushes us toward the entrance. We have no choice, we must get in, putting our faith in the radar. Finally we set foot on land.

Castletown, Ireland.

Let’s have a jolly good Guinness!




Thanks to its highway-towing rig, our Alberg 30 Jean-du-Sud had allowed us to discover, in the past summers, the most interesting cruising grounds the East coast had to offer, but now we felt the need for different waters. My first choice was hauling the boat across the continent to the West coast but Céline preferred cruising in Europe. What Céline wants, I want, too. After all, Europe is not bad at all; as an added bonus, I would experience the pleasure of spending twenty days alone with Céline, who would never be more than thirty feet away from me…

Used for the last time before many years, the trailer and Suburban allow ed us to reach, in a day and a half, Bas-Caraquet, in New Brunswick, on the Baie des Chaleurs, the port furthest east equipped with a travel-lift. The boat was launched, mast stepped, rig tensioned, gear checked and stowed; shake-down cruise by crossing 125 miles to the Isles de la Madeleine, in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

I was proud to count six boats put into port in Hâvre-Aubert, fitted with a Cape Horn Self-Steering: one local boat, four others from Québec and one American from Michigan.

We needed no less than a week to put Jean-du-Sud in passage mode; the stowage was completed, rigging re-adjusted, the inflatable dinghy carefully folded, tucked it into its bag and solidly lashed on the foredeck and finally, the outboard motor was stowed under the cockpit sole.

To save time for Europe, we did not stop before Ireland. Once out of the Gulf of St-Lawrence, we headed east until past Virgin Rocks, at the edge of the Grand Bank, then followed the Great Circle route to Ireland. Contrary to their reputation, the Grand Banks were bright and sunny but as soon as we left them, fog and grey skies took over and for the rest of the passage, we did not see much sunshine. Sailing between two shipping routes, one going east, the other west, I expected to see many ships, but we (or the radar) sighted only a few. The wind was almost always aft of the beam; we met a little calm, three force 8 gales, received under storm jib, with or without the triple-reefed mainsail.

Before leaving, I had hesitated to bring aboard the old hydro-alternator I had used during the circumnavigation, twenty years ago. I figured that the solar panel coupled with the newly installed Air-Marine wind generator would provide the needed amperage. I was very glad I had taken it along: without the sun, the solar panel was next to useless and with the fair wind, the output of the windmill was reduced by half. Powered by a turbine towed at the end of a line, it generated between 3 and 4 amperes of continuous current. In addition to feeding the running lights, the GPS and meeting our other electrical needs, it allowed us to keep the radar in watchman mode (turning itself on for 30 seconds every 10 minutes, and sounding an alarm when it picked up an echo in the guard zone). With the persistent fog, the watches were greatly simplified, as there was little to be seen from the deck anyway.

Communication-wise, I was not very lucky. In order to transmit E-Mail by HF radio, I had purchased a used PACTOR KAM + modem. In spite of the generous assistance of two ham radio enthusiasts who connected it to my transmitter and helped configure my computer, I could not get it to work. I figure it had something to do with the age of my (Yaesu FT-707) transceiver, the one I had used around the world; apparently the relays between transmit and receive were too slow on this more than 20 year old model, to work with PACTOR. Céline was forced to send her ‘messages in a bottle’ after our arrival, in a bundle. To top it off, the transmitter failed a few days only after we left and despite all my efforts, I could not fix it. In Ireland, I learned that the output amplifier was fried, most probably because the cooling fan had been disconnected.

The landfall on Bearhaven was the hairiest of my career. Céline felt reassured by the proximity of land, but I was in a blue funk for a good reason: the gale that had been pushing us toward the coast those past two days dropped to next to nothing at the same moment we could hear surf breaking and the radar detected two echoes that seemed to indicate the harbor entrance. Would the wind hold till we were past the dangers? I refuse the risk and try to turn back towards open sea. But the sails that kept steerage way downwind are, upwind, hopelessly shaken in this choppy sea made worse by their reflection on the cliff. No choice, we have to make the entrance, praying that the wind holds... and that the two echoes we see on the radar are really the harbour entrance, which fortunately corroborates by GPS. I’m morally kicking my backside for not having brought the big oar, which was so useful when I was sailing without an engine. These past two days, the wind was too strong and I didn’t dare unbolt the bottom of the cockpit in order to get the outboard motor and mount it on its bracket…

The wind held: we made out two white ribbons of foam, one to port, the other to starboard. Then the sea became calm. Still enveloped by fog, we were soon gliding on completely still water…

Entering the harbor, I disconnected the (Cape Horn) Self-Steering and took the tiller (we had never steered manually): only then did I notice that there was some play and the bronze fitting at the top of the rudderpost (to link it to the tiller) had cracked open. It had survived a 28 000 mile circumnavigation around Cape Horn, but not this North-Atlantic passage. No wonder the seas we met reminded me of the Roaring Forties!

For ten days, we cruised along the Irish coast as far as Cork. We crossed the Irish Sea to the Isles of Scilly, and then the Channel between Plymouth and Isle de Bréhat. A highlight of the cruise was coming back to Saint-Malo, the port from where I had sailed around the world, twenty years earlier, almost to the day, then sailing up the Rance River to Plouër, where I had prepared my boat during three years. Progress had made its mark: the large tidal mill where I used to work was converted into condominiums and the tidal pond where Jean-du-Sud was one of the few boats beached up on sheer-legs, had become a 400 boat marina. I also noticed that time affects humans much more than it does plastic boats: people I had known 20 years earlier didn’t at first recognize me… and admitted in the next breath that Jean-du-Sud hadn’t aged a bit!

Jean-du-Sud is waiting for us ashore at the port de l’Ilon, on the Seine, 50 km downstream from Paris. Our plan for next summer: Celebrate Bastille Day, July 14 moored at the Paris yacht harbor (which happens to be located Place de la Bastille) then slowly continue our trip through the European canals. Will we go south, to the Canal de Bourgogne and eventually to the Mediterranean? ...or north, towards Holland (still through the canals), then across the North Sea, to Scotland, the Hebrides, the Faeroes, Norway..? It’s all in Céline’s hands. Me, I’m ready for anything.