Introduction – Why Alone?
When I first entered the single-handed Transatlantic Race and made the return passage on my own I remember a comment that was often made:
‘To cross the broad stormy Atlantic alone – you must be mad.’
Yes indeed, ‘Why alone?’
How often have I been asked that question, together with, ‘Weren’t you lonely?’ ‘Were you ever frightened? ‘What did you do with yourself all the time?’ And so on. The answer to most of these queries is easy and logical; but to answer the question ‘Why alone?’ is harder. At least I know why – but it is difficult to put into words.
To start at the beginning. I suppose one must be basically of a certain type; a sort of ‘dark horse’, if you like; a thinker; a dreamer; an idealist; an individualist. A man prepared to stand or fall by his own decisions. All these descriptions would fit in some degree the single-handed sailor – as it would the lone explorer or the lone trapper of the frozen North. Let me say at once that they are not odd people who are anti-social. Indeed, they are usually jolly good company at a party. But they have a sense of values in life and although money is essential to achieve their ambitions, it is not money in itself that is important. They do not expect to make money.
In my own case, from an early age I was considered to be not very strong and was unable to go in for sports with my school-fellows as I wished. By my ‘teens I had recovered, though l was dreadfully shy and often afraid to do things in front of my elders that in my mind I knew I could do – which made me rather a lone soul. I loved to go on long country walks well off the beaten track and creep along a hedgerow to watch Nature at work. To lie quite still on a sunny bank and listen to the fantastic noises going on around is wonderful. Apart from the variety of birds not only singing, but talking to each other, there are thousands of winged insects humming from plant to plant, or the crawling varieties each busily going about the business of living and surviving. All this, added to the rustle of the leaves or the gurgle of a stream, creates real din. How can one feel lonely in such company? It is there for us to look at, to listen to and to enjoy. We are all part of it. This applies equally to the sea, as I will try to explain later. I dreamed of far-off places I had read about. I would lie on the cliff-top and watch the smoke of the distant steamers passing down channel and wonder where they were bound.
It is small wonder then that I have always been one to venture out on my own. I am not at my best in a crowd. This applied equally in my business life and I scorned a safe job and regular hours for the long and irregular hours of being self-employed. This has its compensations when one wants to undertake a venture such as my first lone trip across the Atlantic. For years I had saved and prepared myself for it, sacrificing other pleasures or luxuries and keeping my ambitions to myself. Not that I am secretive by nature. I just felt that it was my personal affair and really interested no-one else. For years – literally years – I prepared the yacht for the job. I served during the War on the North Atlantic convoys, and having a very vivid imagination I could visualize the worst that could happen to the yacht, such as being rolled over by huge seas, and I had the fittings, rigging and gear to withstand it – that is, material two or three times as strong as normally required in a cruising yacht such as mine. You see, I wanted to survive the ultimate, the knock-down; when the sea had taken its toll of the less prepared I hoped to be one of those still left in a seaworthy condition. All this I had gone over and over in my dreams – before starting to fit out the yacht – and so when the time came I was mentally ready.
When the first single-handed Transatlantic Race was organized in 1960 I was unprepared. The second race came along in 1964 and I threw everything into it. Apart from anything else I realized I was getting older. It was a strain financially, but if I had waited until my accountant said I could afford I knew I should never get away.
I became more and more excited as the great day drew nearer and my dreams became fact. My friends would come along and ask if it were true and express real concern. Quite a few believed they would never see me again. They all thought I was completely mad. For myself I was excited, but in a quietly confident way. I was also so proud, and yet very humble, to be numbered among those whom I admired so much, men like Chichester, Howells and Hasler. How could one expect to beat them? I didn’t. But I did expect to finish the course. In fact I hardly gave a second thought to that. The months before the race was the time to think and worry – going over all the details again and again.
The cocktail parties and dinners we attended in Plymouth were designed, I think, to test our stamina before the start. I for one was not feeling too bright as we left our moorings on the morning of the 23rd of May and was relieved that it was not blowing too hard as the gun went. The race was now on, though no-one might have known it on Sunday afternoon as some of us lay becalmed off Land’s End. By Monday morning, however, I was clear of the Scillies and heading west in a fresh breeze. I now felt fine. But ‘Why alone?’ you ask again.
My friends, I was happy and content. I had all I needed. I had a good ship under me and I felt as free as the birds that circled above. I was king of my little world. I walked round the decks and admired everything. Then I looked at the sea. It was boisterous and playful. I admired it, but respected it, acknowledging ‘King Neptune’ as king of the sea. Would he allow me to remain king of my sturdy yacht? Time would tell; but he would test me for sure, so I went about my duties in a slightly more sober mood. The sea is a great leveller and quickly humbles a big-headed sailor. I became acutely aware of being on my own, alone making all decisions, choosing the course to steer, deciding what sails to carry, fixing the position by sun-sights, writing up the log, preparing food and whenever possible washing and shaving, resting and sleeping. I think that answers the question ‘What did you do with yourself all the time?’ One day I wrote in my log: ‘Feel tired. Haven’t sat down all day – rather as we hear the housewife say in the evening.’ Was I lonely? To that I will answer ‘alone’ but never ‘lonely’. One can be lonely in a big city – though not alone. The sea is alive in its different moods.
On the Atlantic Race there were always birds of some sort and I watched their effortless glide with hardly a wing movement. Then there were the small stormy petrels with their sharp dives, after the style of a swallow, as they picked out their food from the frothy foam of a breaking crest when it creamed down the face of the wave. One of the happiest moments too was the dawn. After a cold dark night I would doff my hat and bid the sun ‘Good morning!’ One realizes what a warm life-giver he is, what a great morale-raiser. And there was nothing to be lonely about when I heard a great deep throated sound and I watched the graceful movements of a whale right alongside. But I was fearful of his great strength.
Not lonely either when a great company of dolphins splashed me as they leaped and dived all around me keeping station on the yacht as we sailed along. They were often with me and were great company.
Was I frightened? Yes, often, though perhaps worried would be the better word. As time passed and I weathered gales that were at times severe I became more and more confident that the yacht was capable of riding them so long as I didn’t fail her. This was what I was concerned about mostly – that I was doing the yacht justice. To leave the comparative safety of the cockpit and crawl forward to a heaving and wave swept foredeck is at times rather frightening. But on completion of the task and safely back again, one gets a terrific boost at having proved oneself capable of wrestling with the elements. I would then acknowledge the might and power of the sea and ask him to calm down and let us be friends. Again, when on the homeward journey and approaching the Scilly Isles I rode out a Force 10 gale. I wrote in my log at the time: ‘What a terrible black stormy night it is – God help us – I suppose I shouldn’t worry but I’m a little anxious.’ I suppose one could call that being a little frightened. But I was always able to tackle the next job that came along and nothing got out of hand.
My most fearful moments, though, were when we were sailing along in thick fog across the Banks of Newfoundland. These banks are thick with trawlers of all nations as well as icebergs and the smaller growlers as they are called, each quite big enough to cut a hole in a yacht along the waterline.
I felt fine, ate well, and never even worried about being seasick. My diet was varied; I enjoyed preparing a meal, and often my mouth would moisten in anticipation while it was cooking.
On arrival I was morally and physically fit. My yacht was in a good seaworthy condition and I felt quite justified and confident about sailing back home again alone. I felt a great sense of humble achievement in having brought the yacht back home again alone without trouble of any kind – achievement in having properly fitted out the yacht for the job as well as actually sailing her.
My round-the-world voyage was an even greater test of whether I could stand doing it on my own. There were even more remonstrances than at the start of the Atlantic crossing, and after the setbacks on the first attempt there was more headshaking.
Of course, it was a bigger undertaking. The distance was about ten times as great; the periods alone on the ocean were incomparably longer and there were fewer sea birds or dolphins for companionship. It was a venture on a larger scale but I think everything that I have written applies equally to a singlehanded circumnavigation of the world. I was alone but not lonely and I had confidence, so that if I worried it was only when I could not get radio contact to let those at home know that I was all right.
Then again, was I frightened? In a sense I was at times. I had to face more storms and more bad weather than in the Atlantic. In parts of the voyage I was out of reach of any outside help – particularly in the Southern Ocean, which was bleak and cold and frequented by few ships or aircraft. There indeed I was alone where major damage, such as dismasting (which on two occasions nearly occurred), could mean literally months of delay, possibly even failure to survive. So in heavy storms and gales I was at times frightened, but it was never extreme or paralysing fear. Whatever the weather, I was always ready and never to frightened to go on deck if the need arose. A better word than ‘fear’ would be ‘anxiety’ or ‘apprehension’ or perhaps ‘tenseness’. It made me cautious so that I took the seamanlike action of not carrying too much sail. I felt it would be better to arrive home late than not to arrive home at all.
So you repeat ‘Why alone?’ I hope you know now, and that these words of mine, inadequate as they are, have conveyed a picture of the single-hander and his mental make-up. One of the great things I have got out of my ventures is the meeting of such a wide circle of real people – people who are somebody just because they are sincere, friendly, and helpful. It has been a heart-warming experience and I have made many good friends.
Extract from “My Lively Lady” – Sir Alec Rose (1968).
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