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Captured on the Atlantic

John Verschuijten
May 9, 2017
Two brothers rocks in Fernando de Noronha
Love in paradise
June 2, 2017

“Once in bed I can't sleep and read a story in 'chickensoup for the soul'. Story 8, two wolves. It hits the nail on it's head. The morale of the story is that inside every human being are two wolves. They fight with each other, the good one and the bad one. Which one is going to win? The one you feed! The characteristics that you feed, will win. Inside I feel a battle between a wolf with irritation, sometimes anger at Dieter and Margrit, and the other wolf with peace, patience and kindness. The first one I ignore, the second one I feed. That's why it wins."


This is a long story, one with emotional content, because it was not just a walk in the park. I want to take you, and later myself, in all the emotions that dragged me from left to right over the waves. It was a journey with grief, loneliness, a smile, irritation, wonder, nausea and finally...

We take in the anchor. We are already two days in Banjul and today Olivier will get off the boat and continue his trip in Senegal. His last ride on the sailing boat is to the water and fuel station, where we fill up the boat until the last drop. Olivier turns the anchor handle together with Dieter. A task that I was never allowed to do, just like many other tasks that need ‘men’ power. ‘Will he accept my help, when Olivier isn’t here anymore’ I think. We moor the boat at a small concrete wall where the reinforcement materials stick far out off the wall. The water is filled from the fire faucet and gushes with a huge amount through the enormous fire hose in the self-made funnel, into the smallest hole of the boat. With might and main we try everything to keep the boat away from the steel wires and concrete corners, while the rest tries to bridle the fire hose. The boat is filled with 600 litre of water and 400 litre of gasoline. The work is done and Olivier is allowed to go.

Hand in hand we walk to the ferry. Olivier with his backpack. It is a strange feeling to split up. We have been thinking about it for a long time and the decision is well deliberated. Although I know that my choice doesn’t feel that certain as before, my emotions and those from others and ourselves busted up my decision. Instinctively I obstruct my mind and try to prepare for the big crossing. From now on it will be a difficult journey, but we will experience it on the moment itself. I am proud of Olivier and the interesting project he is going to do in Senegal will make it unforgettable. At the ferry Olivier still needs to buy a tickets, when the fence opens and people start to push and pull a way through the gate. Just in time he gets his tickets and hurries to follow the herd, when the closing gate pushes him inside. Through the closed gate we give a last kiss and Olivier disappears into the mass. Goodbye buddy, I will miss you. I will be strong, turn around and start my own adventure.

Captured on the Atlantic
Captured on the Atlantic

Now it is Margrit, Dieter and I. M&D is my name for this unity. We are different people, have different ideas, a age difference and another life motto. Actually there are no matches between us. There never was a natural connection and some choices are completely improbable for us. There always was a strained feeling, as if they took us to hearten someone. However we always found a way to deal with the situation and talk about the irritations. We were not good companions, but more colleagues who want to cap this trip in a respectful way. It is good that Olivier got off the boat and that we can follow our own dreams and ideals for a while. 'Why do I want this so badly?’ I keep asking myself. I cycled 4.000 kilometres with the idea to cross the ocean, and now I am here and I want to finish it. But for whom? I am the one who wants this, I do this for myself, I think. My personality is characterized by precision, perseverance and victory. This expedition isn’t in the ‘right bark’, but it is the right challenge. I am going to finish this, and it will be a training for me. As Olivier wrote in his last letter, this is the best training in personal development you can have. It is a life experience, where I will have to adapt myself to the situation with no escape. At the end of the training day I can’t go home. When I come back to the boat I feel lonely. They don’t ask about the goodbye, Olivier isn’t mentioned anymore. Life continues, just like there hasn’t been a change in the crew. No questions, no smile, no hug. Nur Deutsche Sprache.

It feels strange how life goes on, as if I don’t exist. Plans are not discussed, but are already established before they are put on the table. All the things pass in a rushed and nervous way. I try to remember myself that those days in Banjul, when we prepare for the journey, will be the toughest. A couple of days I have to follow their rhythm, but once we sail I can put the focus on myself. We buy ten kilograms of potatoes, ten kilograms of onions and ninety eggs. With our backpacks, like real backpackers, we stroll over the dark, but colourful markets in Banjul. It is bloody hot, but a luxurious delivery service like we had in Las Palmas is no option here. Three times we empty a full backpack on the boat. It is a long route along the same dusty streets, the same familiar shops, the same venders who rip us off every time, along the same children who don't recognize us and ask again for a candy, in the same dinghy where we need to empty the water and blow the air again and again, and finally to the same boat, Jatinga which will bring us over the ocean. I saunter behind them, or sometimes in front of them. Tears roll over my cheeks now and then, without restraints. It's time to go!

The GPS tells us it will be 2.000 nautical miles to the other side, or 3.700 kilometres which equals the distance between the North Cape and the South of Italy in bird's eye view. To prepare myself for a long journey and to not get disappointed in my head I count twenty days for the crossing. With an average speed of four knots, this is 7,4 kilometres an hour it will be the same as a quick walking person crossing the ocean. This speed is way slower than Jatinga's normal average speeds, so the captain counts 16 to 18 days. This would be a bonanza, but the more and more I start to worry. When I look at the weather forecast, I see no wind. Meanwhile I know that Dieter doesn't care about the weather maps. I never understood this and it irritates me unstintingly. Especially now, days before the big crossing. I ask some sailing friends for help, but I get very varied responses. One says the sea will be quiet and I have to enjoy, others say that we shouldn't go. Those last advices stay in my mind and make me feel bad, very bad. I know it is the captain’s choice, but I can't help it and want to ask him tactically. On our departure day I tell him that the weather doesn't look good. 'Hm' is the only response.

Up till now we didn't met another sailing boat in Gambia, but suddenly a German boat comes out of River Gambia and anchors next to us. Dieter and Margrit are all the time talking about their 'unknown' sailing companion, but will never go to have a chat. I do, so I jump into the water and swim to their boat. Claus and Ingrid don't speak a word of English, but I am surprised how my German has developed in the past months. They also set sail this afternoon! And they go to Brazil! It reassures me! We are not alone and not the only one who are so crazy to cross this late in the year. 'The weather doesn't look good he' Claus says. I'm happy to talk about the weather with another sailor, one who also crazy to cross the ocean right now. The only difference is his gasoline, he has 1.200 litre, we only have 400, which frightens me again. At the end of the afternoon both of us will leave, when the tide is high and the water pushes us out of the river. I notice that Dieter and Margrit find some peace in their company. For me Claus and Ingrid are a gift, because I am the only one who understands the weather and am surprised a lot of times by the sailing qualities of Dieter and Margrit. At 3 o'clock Dieter is still working on his blog and he still has to climb into the mast to check the electronic equipment. Everything feels unprepared, but maybe that's the way to make this crossing like business as usual. At 4 o'clock Claus and Margrit lift the anchor and sail past us. 'Guten Farht' they shout. 'Noo, not without us' I think.

Captured on the Atlantic
Captured on the Atlantic


I am overloaded with emotions, but none of them express happiness. Soon we will set sail and a little stressed I try to attempt Olivier one more time. No answer, damn Olivier, I need to have some last words. It is 18.00 o’clock and I just start to think we will probably leave tomorrow, if the unexpected words occur ‘Okey, dann tun wir die Anker ab!’. Intentionally I install myself next to the anchor and for the first time in two months I take it out. He is not sending me away and my help is accepted. I feel a glory coming. I stand up, with my face in the wind and the boat makes a powerful turn in direction of the Atlantic Ocean. I feel so much excitement. We are leaving, the big trip, I left, we are gone, no way back, I did it! I am sailing the Atlantic!

While we sail out, I try to ring Olivier a thousand times. I know he is busy in his project, but couldn’t he just keep an eye on his phone? At that moment my phone vibrates and rushed talk before I take it. Thank you! I don’t remember what we have been talking about, I just remember the love. I am extremely thankful for his respect, understanding and encouragement. Even when I, myself forgot why I wanted to cross the Atlantic. Than the dots on my IPhone are empty, and only the words ‘no connection’ remain. This is the clear answer of my phone for the coming twenty days. On earth it is almost impossible to be without signal. You cannot disappear ‘just like that’. We are used to be surrounded by humans or human build objects, what is making it hard to not be distracted or to not be connected to whatever around us. I realize that maybe this is why this expedition is so bizarre, so special, so unique! What person these days, gets the opportunity to be secluded from everything and anything? Even healthcare.

I make a schedule to give myself some structure in these unstructured days. It is a table to keep tack of stats and give myself some tasks to do. Every day at six O’clock in the afternoon, after 24 hours, I will record our position in coordinates, distance in miles, the average speed, the amount of water used, the engine hours made and the amount of diesel. I also checklist my activities, not that I have so many options, but I just give myself all the possibilities to keep myself moving. I forced myself to do things like, reading, blog writing, preparing for brazil, a bit of cleaning here and there, finishing my present for M&D, delete al the useless pictures on my phone and everyday one hour of gym. It is funny how all the bullets, except from the gym, I usually would leave for another day and now become my daily life. I am not a type of a reader, I can’t remember when and if I finished my last book. Now, during the previous sailing, I already finished three books. Other important activities are the night watches and the cooking. Especially the night watch is a very tiring job that do some captains decide to bring hitchhikers and share the hours. It is important to stay awake and look out for unexpected traffic or changing winds. Dieter never had the trust and preferred to do the heavy work all by himself. Sad because we badly wanted to give them some rest too. For the longer trip I find it safer to have a ‘fresh’ captain and a fit crew, so I suggested again. I knew they would never let me alone and suggested that they could sleep in the cockpit while I was doing my job. In this way they are always close and sometimes shortly open their eyes. My suggestion is accepted and from now on I will keep watch form four to eight in the morning.

Captured on the Atlantic
Captured on the Atlantic

The first 24 hours are like hell. There is now wind and we even don’t move. We start our so called sailing trip with twelve hours of motoring and an average of 2,8 knots an hour. I feel disgusting. I was prepared for a slow trip, but with this average it will take us a month.
I only can be happy if we don’t need the motor the next day. I am too scared of loos diesel while we hardly need later on. We go slowly but we are moving. The coming days I am satisfied with anything above the three knots. The sea is extremely calm, it is moving like a slow living ‘funny-mirror’. We cradle softly over the long waves and we can do everything that usually is not possibly. Sitting inside without getting nauseous, walk around without loosing balance, going to the toilet without clumsy movements to wipe of, cooking without the possibility of spilling boiling water and sleeping without rolling from the one to the other side I have to admit, quite comfortable.

The first week is like the second day. The sea is extremely quiet, but the wind is fortunately coming from the front. We need to zig-zag our way down along the course. That means we need to change the sails by minimum six times a day and in contrast with the ‘trade winds’, which are famous about the easy sailing. They say you just need to set your sail once or twice and you will arrive automatically in Brazil. Carefully I try to tell them we need to keep as long west as possible, to avoid a windless zone. Together with my weather chart pictures I think they silently listened to my tips. We shouldn’t complain, although the low 6 to 8 knots wind, thanks to the light weather sails we are moving with an average of 3,9 knots and that’s almost the seem as my calculated 20 days.

I work on my relationship with Margrit. It is for me the way to build on a positive atmosphere and make myself part of the crew. It doesn’t make sense to feel irritated and argue about everything. I would be only my own problem and I will make it myself a very heavy, endless trip. No, I am triggered to try to make all of it and at least give myself to feeling enjoyment. In no time I learn to accept, stay positive and adjust myself in a situations where I usually would feel angry or even unfear treated. I totally go against my own personality and feel myself very submissive. I often wonder if it is smart to go against myself, as if I am my own enemy, but it has his positive effect. The atmosphere is getting better with the day. Dieter is a dreamer, he is living in his own world. I always have the idea that I do more disturb him, than I do well, so I let our relationship for what it be. It is a man of little words and the language barrier gives him little ears too. We have never been talking really. Both are very introvert and not the types for a good conversation. They never asked what I have been studying, to the name of my mam or about our cycling trip. Margrit is a real mommie-dauthy woman. It is the opposite of my mom, who raised us very independent and free. It is an education that I support and look happily back to. She made me who I am and especially why I am here. The connection with Margrit is the opposite, but I adept to make our band closer. I let her do my hair and I ask her about her daughter. I tell her everything that is coming up in my head. The stories of my book, but also about my cow dung in the toilet. It doesn’t feel natural, but the Margrit and I are getting closer. The atmosphere feels good.

Unless the comfortable weather and the speed, the first week was very heavy. Because of the low wind the windmill is dead, also the sails shadow the solar panels. The result is that we don’t have any electricity. We sail without plotter, without autopilot and without other electronic devices that make the trip more safe and comfortable. 24 hours we need to keep course by compass only and steer the steering wheel manually. The first days I really enjoyed it, but it bored me very soon. We have shifts of two hours and next to the short nights it is extremely heavy. It is asking a lot of attention.

Captured on the Atlantic
Captured on the Atlantic


In the second week I let it go. I don't think about anything and I accept everything that happens. My realisation of time, the speed and the atmosphere don't influence my feelings. I don't look back anymore and the days pass by without noticing. I try to make myself useful by preparing some delicious breakfast and lunch, or clean the boat. Off course, everything is still the same, but all the things that irritated me before enter one ear and exit the other without any effect. I don't listen to those uncertain sailing decisions anymore, but I smile gently and return to my own world. When we go north, but actually need to go south, I think 'we will get there'. Or when the captain says again 'Ist die Wind wieder gedreht?' I laugh in myself and continue reading my book.

In the numerous moments that I hide myself in the shadow of the sails, I enjoy the little wonders of the ocean. The rays of the sun disappear to an endless depth in the blue surface. They let you watch further than you could imagine and make me realise that I have 3.000 kilometer of water under my body, while I start to think about all the life that happens under me. At the water surfaces floats regularly a strange purple and pink sea creature with the name ‘Portuguese man o’war’. They look like little sailing boats that have deadly gunpowder in their tentacles. Sea birds are living in the middle of the ocean and swarm often around the boat. We continue like a whale through the water, while the flying fishes try to escape and are a prey for the birds. At the beginning of the evening the magic box opens. Sunrise and sunset are plentiful, rustic and full of colours. The starry sky grows day by day as we approach the equator where light pollution is unknown and the stars sparkle the world. Next to the boat the sea algaes save their best firework for the night. Little scintillating lights appear in the water and enlighten the dark black water. You wonder what makes this so strong and clear. I can imagin that the old sailors where thinking they were surrounded by beautiful mermaids. It is so unreal and something I never knew before. It are just algae, which are transferred into a light bulb when the water is stirred. Sometimes the light is so clear that it looks like an underwater torch pointed at you. Magic, and what a delight.

It is day 14, at the end of the second week, when we sail straight to the treasury of a beautiful rainbow. As a finishing arch it marks the route to the equator. Because exactly there, it will be the moment when the numbers of the gps will say 00.0000 degrees. We sail from the north to the south of our globe. There is no road sign, no border post to celebrate the crossing. In fact everything looks tge same, the ocean is still the same blue gigant mass. For us it is time for a small party and Margrit bakes a cake to celebrate. The sea is so quiet that we can enjoy our piece of sugar with a glass of juice as if we sit at home in the garden.

The end of the day is showering time. It is a completely different experience then showering at home where the fresh water runs out of the tap. This is my moment of privacy where I look forward to every night. Thanks to the foresail and the words 'I am going for a shower', I am alone in front of the sails. Stark naked I am standing in front of the boat with my hair released from the braid. I feel like Jatinga, the mermaid, the arch image in front of the ship. My hair wave free in the wind and I throw bucket with salt water over my body while the heat of the sun dries my body. There I sit, naked on the prow. A notable place of the boat, but invisible by the sails. I look at the water, the immense distance and listen to the phenomenal silence surrounded by me. This is really special, I enjoy it intensively.

Captured on the Atlantic
Captured on the Atlantic


In the north, the west and the east the boat is surrounded by dark clouds. We sail towards the blue sky in the South. It looks beautifully, these angry dark volume. The sea is more fierce than usual, although we still sail with two beaufort, she trying to tell us something. Last night the evil gods where giving bolts of lightning to show us they where getting closer. A sort of a warning in the form of emergency light. While I am cleaning the boat, I watch the spectacle. I can sea it changing, and all I can do is hope we keep it dry. When I look up again, I see black swirls in the clouds finding there way down to the sea. NO, Tornados?! I wonder out load. When they hit the sea you can see it pushing the water up and sling around. I feel fear coming up. I am in the middle of the ocean, with one to two beaufort, an almost empty diesel tank and two tornados in front of me. That’s impossible! I cannot estimate how far away they are, a wild guess would say 10 kilometre, but these raging, pulling, dragging things can move them self in no time. Soon we might be in the middle of one? What will happen? We will need to get all the sails down and go inside, close everything as soon as possible. We will be dragged around and maybe turned around. What if we lose a mast, than we are lost. The most terrible thoughts run trough my head while I warn Dieter. When he comes up, he only says a clear ‘OH nein!’ and doesn’t turn his head of the tornadoes anymore. The swirls eddy around. They become smaller and thicker, more water is pushed up and then less water. While the tornadoes keep form, we seem to escape all of this. We are still in the hull surrounded by dark sky, but moving our way out. It’s not us who are moving, but the wind is blowing the evils away. After a few hours we are sun beading again. I have never seen this before and have never felt the fear coming so close. I only feel goose bumbs.

On deck the atmosphere changes and is more easy going. All the things that irritated me and I later ignored, are now becoming joyful. I laugh more, even loud. I am not annoyed anymore and I start to enjoy more and more. Sometimes we laugh together and they surprise me by asking questions that they should have asked three months ago. 'What is the name of your mother?' or 'what does your sister study?'. I think that I managed to get a connection with them. And to find a way to live together with two people who are not able to confess their mistakes, despite the limited space and the stressful atmosphere with no options to escape. I was feeling more alone, sad and ignored than being happy. I accepted some unfair accusations without a rebuttal, for example 'egoist' or 'what a baby'. I have been forced to work in a way that is not acceptable for me. The last weeks I have been acting extremely submissively, but being in that role I have seen my limits. I learned acceptance, patience, dedication, dealing with the situation and thinking positive in an atmosphere with too many incentives. I needed to ignore some of my own characteristics. I learned that talking and expressing your emotions isn't always the way to solve the problem. Sometimes you need to wait, accept the situation and let the time pass by. I know that I always will keep on talking, express my emotions and admit a mistake, but I learned that other people do it their own way. In the end, it was the best training I could ever have, where my patience was tested to the tips of my toes.

I almost thought I would finish this trip without any dolphins or whales. In the last week we are surrounded several times by large groups of dolphins, jumping and playing around the boat. I am laying on the deck, trying to touch the water with my hands. It feels so close, as if we are swimming together. Far away I see a blow of water. A ponderous mass arises at the surface. I squeeze my eyes together. A whale! Nothing can break my journey anymore.

Short of diesel forced us to make a stop at the archipel of Fernando the Noronha. After three months without connection, I may fell in Olivier his arms again. The islands are a paradise and the reunion is to never forget. Unfortunately the (almost) good end of the trip is messed up because of an arguments between us and the captain and his wife. Hidden emotions, irritations and tiredness all come together. I am seriously affected by this incident and better forget. After the stop we sail our last miles to Brazils mainland. In Cabedelo we finish our 26 days expedition and the weeks after are an emotional process for me. I locked feelings and blames away that need to find there way out again. After two weeks of cycling I could put everything in perspective and I look back with a smile and proud. I am thankful to Margrit and Dieter and have respect for the fact that they took us. I would like to ask my reader to also appreciate and remember that this story is only written form my perspective. We wouldn’t stay friends, but all of us learned a life lesson. One that couldn’t be called ‘boring’. It was an adventure, and that’s what I am always looking for.

If I would make another crossing? Yes, but I would know with who.

Captured on the Atlantic
Captured on the Atlantic

1 Comment

  1. […] didn't see each other for three weeks and communication was almost impossible. Zoë battled the waves of the Atlantic while Olivier discovered Senegal and visited some charity projects. An empty fuel tank makes […]

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