‘A strangely singular freedom’: losing and finding myself at sea

<span>Sailing by… Susan Smillie on board her trusty Nicholson 26.</span><span>Photograph: Cat Vinton</span>
Sailing by… Susan Smillie on board her trusty Nicholson 26.Photograph: Cat Vinton

What happened? How did I get here, to this wild place? I found myself completely alone and all at sea. It was kind of an accident, somewhat spontaneous. And entirely unavoidable. I jumped off the edge of Britain. Off to follow the birds south. And here I am. Thousands of miles from home. It was an unexpected departure but it had been coming for a while. I’d been caught up in the city for too long. A decade of living and working in London. I’d loved it, my place there, my job – a features editor for the Guardian – friends nearby. It was a life that really suited me… until it no longer did. It wasn’t London that changed, it was me: like trying to squeeze into the wrong-sized shoes – you love them so much, but they don’t fit.

It wasn’t just the city that didn’t fit. My boyfriend and I broke up. After decades of being one half of a couple, at 40, I was suddenly single. Still, I thought, it would be good for me to stand on my own two feet. So I was surprised to find I was lonely. I tried dating apps and quickly despaired of the tick lists and bios, the swiping and empty message exchanges. At best it was a time-consuming chore. Worse than work. Next came a dysfunctional fling that was exciting for about two minutes then miserable for aeons, eroding my self-esteem in the process. That was the loneliest time of all. I tried to fill evenings and weekends, couldn’t bear to be alone without plans. But I went too far, partied too hard, failed to look after myself and unravelled emotionally. I’d wake up feeling anxious or tearful without explanation, there was a prolonged period of sorrow, overwhelming feelings of emptiness. There were many factors at play but I was old enough to recognise my part in this spiral. What do they say about being lonely? Find a hobby. I turned my eyes to the sea; to where my little boat, Isean, was waiting.

What do they say about being lonely? Find a hobby. I turned my eyes to the sea

Susan Smillie

We had found her a few years before, my ex and I: a Nicholson 26. A classic sailing yacht, all elegant lines, teased out by boat builders in the 60s. She’s what you’re likely picturing – one mast, two sails. She, like me, was approaching 40. An abandoned shell, her sails stolen, paint flaking. She, too, was empty inside. No matter. Her beauty shone through. She cost a few thousand pounds, and it took thousands more to fit her out. But you don’t grudge spending on family, do you? And now she is kin. After all the work, she was ready to sail. One problem. I wasn’t. It’s not that I couldn’t sail. I was an amateur with a basic qualification, comfortable being crew. But good God, I wasn’t ready to be in charge.

There was a seemingly endless and varied list of things I didn’t know, all crucial for safety. The sails and rigging, lines and knots. Batteries, electrics, gas, solar, plumbing. Tides! The Beaufort scale! I was often apologising to Isean as she got us out of trouble. When a strong gust powered up the sails I was caught between elation and terror. “Oh God, the boat is really tipping!” I imagined her reply. Yes I am meant to heel! How white horses at sea unnerved me. I’d need to get better at gauging how much wind I could handle. Not much, she would observe. How much could Isean handle? Whatever you throw at me. OK, then I’ll catch up.

This seaworthy boat wanted real sailing and so did I. “If you can sail in the Solent,” people said, “you can sail anywhere.” By the summer of 2014, with help, we were there. One of the busiest sailing grounds in the world; good for learning. I grew reasonably competent – avoided crashing into ships or grounding on sandbanks. What gave me confidence was Isean. People would wander over smiling as they took in her lines. “A Nicholson!” they’d exclaim. “She’ll look after you.” I saw it too, in how she cut effortlessly through heavy waves. How this little boat loved big seas. She was so forgiving of all my mistakes. I learned how to handle the helm and trim the sails. The better I got, the better she responded, doing what I expected, going where I hoped. And the better she liked me, the more I liked myself.

Together, we sailed the summer away, meandering and dreaming, heading ever further into the beautiful west. Dorset’s Jurassic skies; the rugged Cornish coast, big blue Atlantic seas crashing white beaches. Off the coast of Devon, friends joined for a sunset sail, and so did a superpod of dolphins. Perhaps thousands, clicking and whistling, breaching and bow riding, beneath the boat, in the air, near and far. I watched, heart swelling, tears falling, as they raced to deep waters in the sinking sun. I was still making my living in the city but the real living – the kind that makes you want to jump out of bed and breathe it all in – was time off with Isean. When I returned to London, the happy part of me was still with her. Just at this point, my employers made a company-wide offer of voluntary redundancy. The realisation hit me at once. This city, this career, this life, no longer held me. I wanted to be with Isean. To be at sea. It was an easy decision to leave my job. Scary, but easy. By late August 2017, Isean and I were perched in Penzance. We’d made it to the very edge of the country. I was planning to round Land’s End, coast hop the UK. But Isean had other ideas. She pointed her bow towards France. Over a couple of stormy weeks, the idea of a bigger journey – a different destiny – formed, quietly at first, then became so irresistible I had no choice but to act. One night at summer’s close, and quite to my own surprise, we sailed away from British shores. We followed the kindly sea, a path lit silver by a waxing crescent moon. Flew south like the migrating swifts. She got her way, and it became my way.

It was easier than I imagined, leaving everything and everyone I knew. It was also a massive leap. Until my 40s I had barely travelled alone. I’d been scared of being lonely, of being unable to communicate or navigate a foreign country. Now I was about to navigate – really navigate – my own way to France, maybe Spain, perhaps even Portugal. I had so recently been frightened to take charge of this little boat. But how adaptable we humans are. It’s about taking the first step, then you find your way. Once I started, my ability – and my trust in it – grew. I found a resourcefulness and resilience I didn’t know I had. If I stopped telling myself I couldn’t do something, I realised, then I could. The decision to go to sea, to choose this life alone, was a measure of how much I’d learned, how much happier I was with my own company. It was a massive vote of confidence in myself.

Just over a day after setting off from Land’s End, there I was, sitting under the sun in the port of Aber Wrac’h, revelling in the matchless pleasure of having travelled to another country under my own steam. I hadn’t gone to an airport, booked a train or exchanged money. I’d simply untied Isean’s lines and set off into the sunset. What a strangely singular freedom. After that, I felt unstoppable. We flew through Brittany’s rites of passage, down the fast-flowing Chenal du Four to Brest, past the rock-encumbered tidal gate that is the Raz de Sein. We crossed the vast Bay of Biscay and made careful progress down Spain’s Costa del Morte – the coast of death – into Portugal. An unexpected winter in the Algarve. In spring, hardly believing it myself, we entered the Mediterranean, sailed along the coast of Africa. Africa!

Friends joined along the way. Some were easier to accommodate than others. One challenge was in collecting them. Most people need certainty before they book a flight and it was hard to predict where I’d be, drifting from country to country. Suzie and Karin visited in Spain, Suzie folding herself origami-style into the damp aft quarter berth (with a lubricating whisky). Karin, meanwhile, turned up with a hairdryer! I had just enough solar power to charge my phone (for communication, navigation and weather), anchor light (for safety) and the luxury of a small speaker (music and podcasts). “What’s all this?” I demanded as she emptied her bag of stuff. “Life!” she replied. Life like I used to know, perhaps, but on an 8m boat there was barely room for the three of us. I had roughly the space of a classic VW campervan. It was camping, really. I didn’t have much comfort. No shower, no fridge. A two-burner stove, sink and toilet. A laptop for watching stuff online, but, instead, I’d fall asleep, book discarded. My attention was held by dreamy panoramas shifting and drifting past my window – ivory beaches, cliffs and castles. A whale spouting in the distance. Insanely clear aquamarine around me.

But even in the most idyllic settings, there were bouts of boredom, periods of loneliness. It sometimes happened if I stopped. I might stare at families splashing in holiday mode and question my purpose. We don’t really want to be on holiday all the time – we’re happier being productive. A day cleaning my engine (with a toothbrush!) or freelance writing restored the balance. I also found balance between company and time alone in quiet bays with the shy creatures that avoid humans in noisy numbers. Mostly, it was just Isean and me, the two of us weathering the extreme conditions that come with life in the wilderness. I liked it that way. Just myself to keep safe from numerous storms and occasional hurricanes.

I’m not usually one of life’s planners. At sea, I changed fast. You’re at the mercy of weather conditions and must be organised. I’d always be thinking ahead, checking forecasts, harbour approaches, predicting tides, observing the waxing and waning of the moon. Extreme storms are an ever-present danger nowadays and they do focus the mind. In 2019, about halfway down Portugal’s coast, we sought shelter from the first category-three hurricane to barrel this side of the Atlantic. Ophelia’s strength reduced over the Azores, but it was wild enough, a sleepless night swerving around in high winds. Soon after, in the Algarve, we clung anxiously to a pier as two tornadoes spun perilously close (thankfully they didn’t veer in our direction). In 2020, in Greece, we rushed from the Ionian islands ahead of cyclone Ianos’s arrival, found safety in Preveza, just outside its orbit. Scores of sunken sailing boats around those islands were less fortunate.

Stressful things, storms. It’s horrible awaiting their arrival: the electricity in the air, the tension, the worry. But humans are adapted for these threats – the fight-or-flight response kicks in. You know what to do in a storm. Seek shelter, batten the hatches, set the anchor… and hope! The stress is alleviated by action. Less harmful, surely, than the pervading anxiety brought by the pressures of modern life – workplace worries that linger in the night. Adrenaline rushing in a meeting where someone belittles you isn’t helpful, is it? But if you must haul 50m of chain to avoid dragging offshore in a gale, it’s quite useful. As scary as they were, I was really living during these storms. Then the weather passes: the calm after the storm. I loved days drifting in a meditative state, practising my own form of mindfulness, staring at the ocean. I made mistakes – so many. It’s great knowing theory but nothing reinforces a lesson like your own error creating a terrifying experience.

Take one sudden squall near Malaga. I sailed on instead of seeking shelter. It overpowered us. In no time Isean was swerving wildly out of control and I was merely clinging on – and screaming. I still shudder at the memory of closely cutting behind a chain ferry, steel cables inches from tearing open our hull. It’s easy to get complacent when you spend every waking and sleeping moment at sea, and that’s when things get dangerous. Sometimes I wonder that I made it all the way to Greece – to Odysseus’s sailing ground, no less – without disaster. But no. Of course I made it. Isean got me here, kept me safe. My trusty little boat. My sanctuary in every storm, my companion in adventure.

I still see our journey, like a film in my mind’s eye, Isean always in the frame. Fairytale pretty, here she is, anchored by snowcapped mountains and castles in Spain. Cruising with big wave surfers in Portugal. Sailing over a lost city in Italy, Roman ruins under the waves. Stromboli! Saffron flames licking an inky sky. Isean and I, infinitesimally small at the foot of the mighty volcano. A silent agreement, made together, to avoid sailing into lava. And here we are. In the land of the gods, on electric-blue seas. Beautiful Greece. I’ve never felt so lucky. I have to keep reminding myself that this is my life now. There will be no phone call to drag me back to an office, no emails or work meetings to take me away from this, the happiest “place” I’ve ever found. I’m no longer thousands of miles from home. My idea of home has changed. Home is not a place, it is a feeling. Wherever Isean is; that is home. My home is with her.

The Half Bird (Penguin Michael Joseph, £16.99) by Susan Smillie is out on 21 March. Preorder it for £14.95 at guardianbookshop.com

An extract from The Half Bird

Ahead, dark cumulonimbus clouds were piling up over the Montes de Málaga, Andalucía’s stunning mountain range. I stared in awe, appreciating the unreal light as tall black clouds bowled dramatically towards us. The first thing I thought to do was take a picture. The second thought, following closely behind – reef! I should reduce my sails. Too late. The storm hit us, a squall as sudden as it was furious.

The noise! Gusts screeched like the getaway car on a bank heist. Thunder rumbled and lightning cracked. The sea was black, reflecting an incandescent sky, and torrential rain swept sideways across the surface of the water. I could no longer see the coast; the whole scene looked and sounded disconcertingly like mid-ocean. You don’t have a lot of time to think in this situation, but you have plenty of time to feel. One feeling dominated. Terror.

Wind powered up the sails and we sped off. The dinghy, trailing behind, flipped and its floor flew into the distance. I was in complete panic and Isean seemed equally frightened, like a wild thing, out of control and swerving crazily. We were tipped on our side, the left gunwale underwater, waves washing over the side. In no time, without a life jacket or safety harness, I was merely clinging on.

When things go badly wrong on a boat, you want to hide but you have to act. No one else can help you. You overcome fear because the alternative is worse, and you find a physical strength fuelled by adrenaline and desperation. Isean powered up to the wind as I fought to steer off and furl in her foresail, inch by inch, desperate to take the power out. But the line jammed. I was aghast. Now I had to get to the bow. Our world was upside down, the starboard deck high in the air. I crawled along it, whipped painfully by a merciless wind that lashed me with stinging wet ropes. It was chaos, sails flapping, ropes flying. Inside, I would discover, was worse: a formless pile of food and oil, equipment and clothes, solids and liquids intermingled, all atoms fighting for space. Eventually, arms aching, hands throbbing in pain, I wrestled both sails away, felt the boat even out and we turned downwind. The gusts screeched from behind, still heart-poundingly strong, but I was back in control. I got the engine on and motored out to sea for space. There was plenty. We were totally alone. No one else was stupid enough to be out there. Heading away from the comfort of land in a storm is without a doubt the loneliest feeling in the world. All you want is a safe harbour, other boats, other people, but what you need is sea space. As quickly as it had come, the squall passed. I apologised to Isean and started to cry.

I felt extremely stupid and utterly alone. I had no right to be out here, putting myself and my boat in such danger. It was completely irresponsible. I’d been lucky. Isean’s substantial weight and stability had kept us safe. But, even in those moments of shock and remorse, I knew I would recover myself. My mistake had been so obvious, the consequences so terrifying, I wouldn’t repeat it. It was another learning experience. I’d be off again first thing in the morning, but now it was time to stop. I sniffed pathetically all the way back to Fuengirola.

An hour later, feeling very sorry for myself, we limped into the little port and dropped anchor in a flat-calm sea. People strolled the promenade with ice-creams and sunbathed on loungers. The sun shone as if nothing had happened, mocking me. Still trembling an hour later, I went to bed with a cup of tea and a massive bar of chocolate. My second day in the Med and a perfect introduction to conditions there.

Extracted from The Half Bird by Susan Smillie