Sailing from Azores to Amsterdam and dealing with anxiety – Miguel’s version

If you follow us on social media, you know we struggled to leave the Azores. We prepared the boat, stock up, and double-checked the weather. All looked very promising. But on the morning of the departure, as we were ready to get the engine on for departure, my anxiety kicked in and reached new heights. I felt very nervous, was sweating, and only the thought of leaving gave me chills. We always feel nervous before departure but this time it was different. Instead of leaving straight away, we decided to go out for coffee and pastel-de-nata, to try to calm down and understand what was happening. But even at the coffee place, I broke down in tears with the thought of leaving. What to do? We felt very conflicted. On one hand, we know I always need a push to get out there. I usually get nervous before departure, but it all calms down by the time we’re exiting the marina/harbor’s entrance. On the other hand, if this would get worse, I would be next to incapacitated in the middle of the Atlantic, which would put us both at risk. “Why don’t we just go get fuel, and if you still feel bad, we go back to our spot”, Saskia proposed. But even that made me freak out… We decided that until I understood what was going on, it would be a mistake to continue. “Let’s chill and check how things are tomorrow”, we agreed.

So what was the problem?
It took a while for me to really understand what and why I was feeling. The mental fatigue from sailing from the Caribbean weighed a lot more than I realized. Starting by losing our buddy boat on the second day. It was with tears in our eyes we saw Flyer’s stern light disappear in the distance. Then we faced a week of squalls. On its own, not terrible. But squalls with lighting presented a significant risk. Our autopilot and positioning system, and so many other things aboard, are electric and cannot be moved into a protective position (more specifically a Faraday cage such as the oven). That means, if we were ever hit by lightning, we would have to hand steer the entire trip with very limited positioning. It would be possible for sure, but excruciatingly exhausting. We can just about do our shifts. So the possibility of two people hand steering by compass the whole Atlantic put me in a very stressed position. Later on the trip, the incident with the man-o-war sting and related anaphylactic symptoms made me really worried about Saskia’s safety. As in, what would happen to Saskia if I got “out of commission” or worse. So those three incidents, and more importantly its impact on my mental health and stamina, are still rummaging around in my brain.

Looking forward, we estimated 1700nm from Ponta Delgada to Amsterdam. This means about 15 days at sea. While in the English channel we can request to take refuge, if necessary, at marinas along the shore, it takes 1200nm (or about 11 days of sailing) for us to get to the closest shore (i.e. France). Let’s remember this area is the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel. The number of horror stories about these areas are legendary. The Bay is famous for the storms that form there and sea state created when the seabed goes from over 3000m to less 200m in just a few miles. And the Channel has a reputation for its winds and sea state created when the winds get funneled through it.

Regarding the weather, August is a pretty good month to cross. However, the weather in the Caribbean West coast of the North Atlantic is changing fast, and it crosses the Atlantic just as fast. The weather forecasts are only valid for the following 4 days, max. Yes, there are forecasts for 14 days, but the amount of error is huge. 4 days is just about acceptable. After that, it’s everyone’s guess.

All these topics on their own, are fairly easily tackled. But put them together and you get a crying Miguel in the fetal position (a bit exaggerated, but you get the point). The amount of uncertainty on the weather, in an area that has the potential to be quite difficult, without the possibility to seek refuge, was too much for me to deal with at this stage.

Back to the departure
Going back to the coffee place, we decided to give it at least another day to see if this would help. While we wanted to wait and see, we both recognized that the anxiety wouldn’t go away overnight. Especially when the reason for it would not and could not be addressed. So we agreed it would be wise to think about backup plans. After talking to a few people at the marina and sending some messages, a friend replied that he would be happy to help. Phone calls were made, partners and sons were conferred with, flights were checked, money discussed, and within days Roel flew into Ponta Delgada. We met Roel, his family, and their boat “Neptune” early on our journey in Lanzarote. Since then we sailed together for months in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Roel is a very experienced sailor, and with him aboard Miguel felt confident to start the last part of our trip.

On the morning of our departure, we had a nice brunch on land, stocked up on pasteis de nata, and we were ready to go. We fueled up and left. Great easy sailing conditions. We even had to use the engine from time to time, to escape the wind shadow created by the island.

At the end of the day, we came out of the shadows and got exposed to the Atlantic conditions. We started to slam on waves very soon after we turned the corner. I was not pleased at all, and even thought about turning around. But it wasn’t good enough of a reason to do it. In fact, it would have been a mistake. These are the times I need to fight the impulse to do something out of anxiety rather than facts.

We continued. Within the first 12h, we had about 2 liters of diesel in the bilge due to a leak at the top of the tank. Not brilliant but we could have dealt with it ok. The problem was the saltwater. One of us forgot to lock the toilet, and by the time we noticed, 20 liters of water syphoned into the boat through the toilet. On the plus side, it was “clean” saltwater. But saltwater and diesel sloshing around in the bilge, make for a stinky oily mess! Roel and I tried to clean things as well as they could, but with the heel of the boat being well over 25 degrees, much was left undone. After this incident, things got in a nice rhythm and were kind of amazing. Plenty of wind to sail, plenty of sun to enjoy and at such a good speed! And since we were with 3 persons on board, we could get a good rest between shifts. I still felt nervous, and could not enjoy the sail as much as Saskia and Roel, but it was manageable.

A few days into the trip, I started getting concerned about a low-pressure system that was developing at the entrance of the English Channel. Exactly what was worrying me so much on land. I wanted to slow down the boat, to make sure the low-pressure would pass in front of us, but it was hard to say goodbye to the 6 knots on the speedometer (we usually average 5 knots).

We made no changes as the weather looked manageable. Again another time I had to try to reason with my anxiety. The weather was getting worse with every forecast. It started with Beaufort 5 strength winds. This would be doable. But 2 days before reaching the English channel, we got the forecast around 21:30, and the winds were forecasted at force 7 with associated sea state. And we would be in the middle of it. Roel still felt comfortable continuing. I did not! I gave myself an hour to try to get used to the idea. But that didn’t work. I woke Roel to discuss options. I wanted to head East and take refuge in Brest, which we would reach in 1 to 2 days. Roel disagreed with the idea, as it would put us at more risk and without options for escape. If we were going to do anything, we would slow down or turn around but never get closer to shore. Roel contacted a friend who had done the weather routing for their Atlantic crosses. He confirmed the bad weather and advised us to avoid it. We sent messages to the family back home letting them know we were doing a U-turn but that everything was fine. I can imagine them thinking that someone fell overboard when seeing the track. We turned back south and got as much distance from the low-pressure as possible.

During the night the weather started to build as the low approached. The forecast in the morning was even worse. The low system had now developed into Storm Evert and was going through the Channel. This was exactly what was worrying me so much while on land. Turning south was definitely the right decision. We still got bad weather, but it would have been so much worse if we would have been caught by that weather in the English channel. Almost 18 hours after turning around, the low pressure center passed and we turned back towards our original track. We kept a close eye on the atmospheric pressure and registered it every hour in the log book. When we saw the pressure coming back up, we knew the eye of the storm passed and we could now go behind it. We still had winds up to 35 knots (gusts) and +4 meter waves, but it felt comfortable enough, with the winds and the waves coming from the quarter. Only the autopilot was struggling, but that’s a topic for another day.

Being in a storm was my biggest concern before departure. During the 48h the weather was rough but comfortable. Anxiety wise I had it under control, but the emotional and physical toll was starting to show. I still remember losing my cool while answering Saskia’s questions.
Anxiety can be a tricky thing. In my head I make up the worst possible situations, which makes me nervous or stops me from going forward. But then, when “bad” things happen, they are never all that bad. Unfortunately the next time I am in a similar situation and start coming up with these worst-case-scenarios, I am not able to say “remember that time? you were in the middle of a bad situation and it wasn’t that bad”. Instead my brain just comes up with different and worse situation, and the battle to get reality vs emotion starts again…

It is clear that I need to learn how to deal with anxiety better! I have a few things to say about this, and I think I will write a blog about it later. But in the mean time, it is important to me to share a lesson learn by myself regarding anxiety: it’s ok to listen to my instinct, even though the anxiety might be forcing some bias. The first time I discussed with Roel about turning or slowing down, he dismissed it with good reasons to do so. On the second time I was more decisive, and although proposed a bad option (to go to shore), I insisted in talking about a solution that would not involve maintaining course and speed. That decision is the one I mentioned above. A few days later, when we were in range of 4G signal, we learnt that in the surrounding area we would have been, the coast guard received over 20 MAYDAYs, and the rescue helicopter was dispatched 4 times. So my instinct might not be right all the time, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “sickness talking”.

Back to the trip, according to the weather forecast, the waves would slowly come down, and so would the wind. By the time we entered the English channel, we only had 0.5 meter waves and just about enough wind to sail. One day after that the wind died down, so at the moment we are running our engine. We haven’t seen a lot of traffic on our crossing, but in the channel, there are boats all around. No more sleeping on shift, we need to pay attention! Then, for the next 3 days, we motored all the way home. Nothing much happen then but the chance to take some hot showers, and not think about power!

We are very grateful for Roel, who came to our rescue, and for Sanne and Obbe, who had to miss him again! For Robert, who took the time to guide us around the weather. A massive thanks for Jorn and Lisa from Levante for giving me some of their seasickness patches! Thanks to you Saskia got through the rough days on this trip without much trouble. And well done on your own crossing, you were flying!! Hugs and kisses for Helena and Chris, we’ve had a blast in Ponta Delgada and your support is amazing! And also a massive thank you for all the supportive messages we got after posting about our struggles before we left Ponta Delgada. It is heart warming!