|As Mrs Chippy leaves the great glacier carved bay of Stavanger and moves out into the North Sea, it’s startling how quickly the conditions change. The pleasant breeze which played round our sheltered fjord now becomes a powerful wind and the surface of the sea rises up in a relentless procession of choppy waves, big and unpredictable.
I haven’t even had a chance to change into my sailing gear so I duck down below to pull it on. Almost immediately the nausea hits me as the boat, pitching and rolling wildly, throws me around the cramped cabin while I wrestle with the waterproofs.
I make it back on deck feeling very green, but in fact it’s our skipper, Stuart, who is first to succumb. He is sitting at the chart table, attempting to plot our course, but has to break off to wretch into a bucket. He emerges on deck looking grim, his face the pallor of a corpse.
Before long Alan also reaches for the bucket.
As dusk approaches, we begin our watches, each taking two hours at the helm, followed by two hours on standby, huddled under the spray hood, and then two hours down below, trying to sleep. The two hours down below are the worst – the motion of the boat is absolutely unbearable, and the sea-sickness becomes all encompassing. It engenders in me a strange desperation. It’s more than wishing that I was not on the boat, more even than wishing myself dead – I simply wish that I didn’t exist at all. I am uncertain that I can bear another moment of this. Looking at their faces, I guess that Alan and Stuart feel the same way.
At 2 am I rise from my tortured slumber, brave the heads for a pee, wretch into the bucket, struggle back into my cold, wet waterproofs, and stagger up on deck. Stuart passes me wordlessly as he descends to his bed while Alan makes way for me at the helm and without further ado curls up foetus-like in the cockpit.
Suddenly, in the pitch black of night, I feel very out of my depth. Despite being missing a hand and a foot respectively, Stuart and Alan are great sailors and I rely heavily on their experience. But now I am in charge of the boat and the conditions are quite frightening. The forecast force 5 and 6 winds have materialised as force 6 and 7, gusting 8, and the sea is very rough. The wind is blowing from the south-east – ideal for our westerly course, but it does mean that the waves are approaching from behind us. As each wave arrives, invisible in the dark, it lifts our little boat right up to its crest, at which point we either slump back down the other side, or, if we time it just right, we surf down the front of the wave, gathering speed and shooting off down the trough.
The trouble is that without being able to see the waves, it is very difficult to do this and I have to rely on the feel of the boat and the feel of the wheel as I heave it from side to side. It’s a real physical job and balancing is difficult, bracing my prosthetic legs across the cockpit and clinging to the wheel with my already bruised stumps.
The huge waves often catch me by surprise and break over the back of the boat, drenching us and sending the boat crashing down into the gutter below. Then, without warning, a monster. I can sense the boat rising way up high, then before I know it we are falling, rushing down the steep face of the wave at a startling velocity.
The boat smashes into the bottom of the wave and tips over alarmingly. The starboard side plunges into the rushing water and it seems certain that we must be knocked down flat.
Alan, curled up on the port side of the boat, is hurled bodily across the cockpit and before his safety line can come tight he smashes into the portside winch and the guard rails.
In that moment, time seems to stand still. I see Alan, pinned by gravity against the rails, which are ploughing through the water as the boat heaves over into the sea, but I’m not thinking about him, or myself, or Stuart. I’m thinking about Jim. Jim, who was such an experienced sailor, so competent, so self-assured, yet who had been caught off-guard by just such a wave, somewhere in the sea north of Iceland, less than two years ago. Knocked overboard, swallowed up by the inky black sea, Jim was never seen again. Such a good friend. Such a tragic loss.
And now I’m thinking about myself. Already brutally scarred by tragedy, I survived, went on to rebuild, to marry, to have children. And now here I am again on the brink of disaster. I don’t want it to be this way. I don’t want to die like this. I don’t want the sea to have me.
And then the moment is past. Mrs Chippy doesn’t topple over but rights herself. Alan falls back into the cockpit, clutching at his badly bruised arm. Stuart rushes up from below to see what on earth has happened. We sail on into the night.
By dawn the wind has dropped slightly and the sea eased. We are making great progress and as the boat skims across the surface of the water, it is already becoming hard to imagine the fear and turmoil of the previous night. Life is good again, the sailing a sheer joy and the spirit of adventure courses through my veins.
The sea-sickness has lessened and we manage a revitalizing brew. A school of dolphins joins us, leaping playfully alongside and across our bow wave. We sail on towards the horizon, to Scotland and home.