Article published in La Revue
maritime l'Escale (in French)
and in Blue Water
Sailing (in English)
FROM THE MAILMAN’S BAG
Translated from French by
Céline Lacerte sails across the North
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.
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.
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!...
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
Let’s have a
jolly good Guinness!
NOTES by YVES GÉLINAS
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 allowed
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
Suite: Yves Gélinas in Good Old