Soon after the storm of the other day had abated Peter (Snr/Rutter) asked me when the last time was that I had been scared at sea.  Not to imply that any of us had been scared and just for the record we hadn’t, it wasn’t that bad out there really!  As we head for Ibiza to collect Kylie for the last 650 mile leg to Malta I have had time to reflect on that question and the subsequent few months of my life.

There have been two occasions this year, one of which I wont talk about here, but I will consider the one that has to a certain extent shaped my life and how I intend to live it.  Before that it was many years that I have been vaguely scared on the water and that previous time was probably the only time.  This does not diminish my healthy respect for the oceans and the ultimate power of mother nature that we can only embrace and the laws imposed that we have abide by.

Earlier this year I was sailing Quokka from Antigua to the British Virgin Islands (BVI’s) some 200 miles away.  It was a hard journey anyway, given that there was no functioning auto pilot, meaning endless hours of hand steering after a fun, exciting, successful but tiring Antigua Week.  As I approached the BVI’s I learned the tragic news of the loss of one of Britain’s greatest Olympic sailors, Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson.  It was during a training session aboard Artemis in San Francisco Bay for their Americas Cup challenge.

I had only met Bart once so cannot say I knew him, however I knew of his impressive personality.  Bart was a man of integrity and immense talent, a man that encouraged anyone who showed an interest in sailing and his passion for the sailing was unparalleled so that if he couldn’t succeed himself he would be the first to ensure others did.  In a sport that is dominated by ‘alpha’ personalities Bart was devoid of any ego, a quality that impressed me the most in this remarkable man.  I would certainly like to have know him better.

The BVI’s are made up of many small volcanic islands and as I was navigating Quokka through the final phase of the journey the night sky was darkening considerably and rapidly ahead.  The high level cloud was flickering as the impeding electrical storm was rapidly engulfing the sky.  I thought it looked like it was going to be intense but I hoped it would be over quickly.  How wrong could I have been.

The speed it came at us (Quokka and I) took me slightly by surprise but the intensity of it was something I was not remotely prepared for.  As the heavens opened the visibility closed to less than a boat length and then the electricity just kept coming.  First was the sheet lightening that was lighting the entire surrounding cloud followed by the dramatic and awe inspiring bolts that were striking the water all around us and were  magnified and dispersed by the driving rain.  The sea fizzed with every shot and I could feel the energy being discharged as an angry storm began to create fear for my safety and that of Quokka.

It was like we were under attack, in a war zone with mortars exploding all around.  Each one kept missing, but by only by metres and still they kept coming.  Starting to get scared I put quokka into neutral, the sails were already down as I suspected the winds would be violent. I retreated to the cabin and let Quokka gallantly wallow taking the brunt of the lethal storm and heroically protecting me.  We were just 500 metres from the closest land, the wind was gusting to 50 knots but the sea completely flattened by the weight of the precipitation in the waters sheltered by the islands from the Atlantic swell.

The electronics on Quokka have never liked electrical storms and after 10 minutes we lost our AIS, GPS and wind speed.  The electricity in the sky plays havoc with the sensitive systems. So with no way of seeing where we were and on a yacht that was not transmitting a position to other boats I had no choice other to to venture back onto deck to keep watch for both of us. Not that I was the most effective watch keeper as the rain lashed into my eyes, piercing the skin like high pressure needles and more or less blinding me.  After 10 minutes I donned my diving mask which helped but the visibility was so poor I had to rely on instinct, the compass and common sense.

I was completely petrified and for the first time ever at sea actually feared for my life.  I was alone and teary eyed, the loneliness was overwhelming which increased the feeling of fear off the Richter scale.  As the final bolt struck the water, almost within touching distance and the last fizzing dissipated I took complete comfort in a thought that came to me in an instant.  ‘There is no way that two British yachtsmen could be taken in the same day.’  A totally irrational thought process I know, but the sudden sense of relief was inspiring.  I did not at that moment know that the last mortar had been unleashed and only wish the thought had come an hour earlier!

The storm departed with the same suddenness it had arrived.  The cliffs of Tortola were still 500 metres away and the sky was crystal clear having been cleansed by all that mother nature could throw at us.  The stars were winking at us and the moon was smiling again, a knowing smile saying ‘not tonight Philippe, not tonight’  The final words of John Masefield’s poem, Sea Fever, was left resonating in my mind ‘And all I ask is a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over’ I just sat shell-shocked, speechless and numb in the cockpit for 30 minutes before I could muster the motivation to continue with our journey.

I don’t often think of this episode but Peter’s question three days ago bought it flooding back and the time at sea in this relaxing environment has allowed me to reflect on it and my life since, which fills me with an enriched existence in many ways.  The perfect balance is still to come but I made promises to myself that night which have made me a happier and more content person.

How far away that now seems as we approach Ibiza in glorious sunshine with the kite up and a Cafe Del Mar album fittingly playing on Quokka’s sound system.  As I finish this blog the ‘Redemtion Song’ is making me quietly smile as it is about ‘songs of freedom’ and ‘freeing the mind of mental slavery.’  If a place could ever do that then it is out here embracing what mother nature is today providing us with, which ironically is on a stretch of water that the trade routes used to deport slaves to a life of misery and abuse in the lands of Bob Marley and his predecessors.