Hitchhike across the ocean
It was on my bucket list to sail across an ocean. I heard it was the good time. I felt a call for South America and I found an opportunity to join a crew on a unique boat.
So it is sooner than I may have thought that I lived this experience.
I had no idea of what was to come but I had a feeling that it would be another incredible dimension.
And this is what I found. A whole different relation to time and space. A profound challenge of patience. Many beautiful encounters on the way and lessons of life.
It took me 3 months to reach the other side of the ocean, 3 different parts:
From France to Lanzarote
I had just returned from what I believe is and will remain the most profound experience of my life, the challenge of travelling from Beijing to Paris without money. I spent 3 months living in a van in France giving conferences and exhibitions about this crazy journey. It was winter, I was in Paris, I missed the simplicity of living in warm places. I first thought of returning to India to visit the people who are very dear to my heart that I met around the documentary I did around the victims of Endosulfan. I went to the Indian embassy and it gave me a good reminder of I much I love this country and its people. I wasted a whole day trying to understand the situation around the visa, and that is when a friend from Brazil put her country in my head.
Aside from the curiosity of discovering a new country, a culture, a history, a whole lot of beautiful people and nature, there were 3 main reasons why I wished to go in that direction.
Firstly I knew that the political situation was most critical with the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro at the head of the government which provoked many historical changes in the country and therefore it would be an opportunity for me to do documentary photography.
Secondly I had read the book “Fluent in 3 months” so I put in my head that I would challenge myself to speak Portuguese fluently in 3 months.
And lastly I knew that the period to hitchhike across the Atlantic from east to west was from September until March. It seems crazy but it is an actual tradition that has existed since we sail the oceans, the boat owners look for crew members for all the elements of the life on boat that need to be shared and to take watches at night for everyone to get some rest.
There are different ways to find boats. One of them is to look online, so out of curiosity this is what I did. I searched on the french website Bourse aux équipiers and I found someone looking for 2 crew members. I will never forget this moment. It was a Saturday morning just before Christmas, I called:
“Hello captain. Are you going to sail the Atlantic?”
He said: “Yes, we’re leaving in 2 days, are you ready?
There, in the blink of an instant my mind flipped upside down, since I wasn’t ready at all, but I answered: “Yes!”
I had 2 days to get ready, I was far from my home of the moment. In the afternoon I hitchhiked from Paris to Niort where I had left my van, some 400km. I love to hitchhike for many reasons. The main one is the human aspect, I provoke connections with strangers. Moments of encounter and opening of human being who will in a short time learn to know about each other. Provoking our instinct to trust in others. To enrich each other with our stories, our passions, our thoughts, our cultures and visions of what is to live. Secondly there is the ecological and economical aspect.
In France I have a little trick to hitch long distances. I practice what is called the “Active hitchhiking” going directly to meet the drivers on service stations, look at them humanly in the eyes and simply say “hello”. I ask them to drop me in the service station before they leave the highway. Of all the experiences I have had, I have only be very rarely disappointed. Only once, crossing Spain.
So there again, it had been exceptional, I found my van, started thinking what I would have to prepare to sail the ocean and leave for a long time. The next day, the store Decathlon was open, on a Sunday! And I took the basic equipment I needed for sailing. And the next day I hit the road to find my future partners. I took a carpool with Blablacar until Quimper and then, at night, I hitchhiked. Britany is one of the special regions of France where anything can happen and I trusted deeply that I would be happily surprised by the Breton. Magic happened and little after I reached the old harbor of Douarnenez.
I discover the boat and the team. The boat is a 13m prestige all wooden sailboat with 2 masts, from 1968 and her name is “Queequeg”. A very traditional boat with a lot of history entirely made in France that has no auto pilot. The team, 3 men from Britany including the captain Mike who is a co-owner of the boat. I receive a warm welcome inside the boat and we go to the nearby bar to celebrate the event. On my way, a woman appeared out of nowhere and without saying a word gave me an orange and a smile. A beautiful symbolic gesture that deeply touched me and made me feel that I was in the right place at the right moment and that everything in this sailing journey would be fine.
We return to the boat to sleep as we were to leave the next morning. I take a moment outside alone to breath, think about the moment that I was living, take a picture and send a message to my family and friends.
The next morning, 25th of December 2018, we left to cross the bay of Biscay until Corunha in Spain. I had very little experience of sailing but I was very determined to learn and follow the orders of our captain. Quite a few essential maneuvers to understand and know what has to be done. Some vocabulary, few knots and some navigation knowledge. Luckily in the boat there was some classical books on sailing to understand all the theory. The practice would happen on board. There I discover the wonderful feeling of freedom and classical exploration that brings sailing. As well as a profound connection with the ocean, the basic elements of air and water. Being in movement pushed by the strength of the wind, without the noise of an engine. Feeling empowered, able to reach any place in the world. But also feeling humble because you are in the middle of an element that can get very wild, that you have to respect.
The first night was quite turbulent, all the crew had vomited except me and the captain. I was at the helm, holding on and breathing deeply. When I left my watch to be replaced by the captain, as I went inside the boat I felt bad and immediately went outside… to puke and remain outside.
It took us 5 days to cross the bay. The time to discover the life on the boat. The irregularity of the relation to time, since everyone wakes up at different times. The companionship, of making food for everyone and cleaning after. Preparing a warm tea or coffee for the one staying in the cold outside at night. The marvel of waking up with the sound of the dolphins through the the boat’s hull. Go out to see them play at the front of the boat.
See them roll to the side and have a direct look in their eyes.
This was really amazing. Every time I’d go crazy! So happy to witness this marvelous scene. Beautiful animals, in their environment, free. I was talking to them, I called them my “Kikis” since they sound a bit like that when they speak. On the other side I was sad because I knew that in the same time, hundreds of them were being killed in the exact same area. An average of 10,000 dolphins are killed each year on France’s west coast by large industrial trawlers and fishing vessels.
Sea Sheapherd has a campaign to fight against this disaster
Dolphins are crucial to the balance of the oceans, they are protected but the governments do nothing to avoid these killings to happen due to the lobbies of the fishing industry. On the contrary, the EU gives subsidies to this industry.
Another very special thing about this life on the boat are the night watches. Long moments of loneliness at the helm, in the dark and cold. Focusing on steering the boat to the right course, feeling the rhythm of the waves and observing all around on the horizon if a light may appear. Then on the nights when the sky is clear, I get lost observing the stars.
I saw so many shooting stars that I ran out of wishes for myself. So I started making wishes for others.
I was taking notes of the details of the shooting stars and to whom I was sending my wishes. I was also listening some music that fit to the environment or listen to audio books. On that crossing I listened to a book from the Dalai-Lama which brought many interesting thoughts.
We finally reached Corunha, were we would rest a couple of days and celebrate the new years Eve. Rediscover the feeling of being on land. Run to the confort of a warm shower!
We welcome onboard a new crew member, Almu, an incredible girl from the south of Spain. A social activist with a strong character who brought some good change to the dynamic in our group.
Life with this crazy crew
There was no moment to get bored because all of them were unique characters. I laughed so much. Sometimes I would take notes of the jokes and funny situations.
One day in Corunha, as we were going to town with Fred and Sergio, we crossed a very kind lady. I explained that we were doing a sailing trip. She told me that she had never sailed and would dream to do it once.
I took her contact and later told our captain about the idea. So we took her and some friends of Almu for a little afternoon trip. Little very valuable shared pleasure.
Reminder of the reality of fear
On my night shift the day before we were to arrive in Lanzarote, I was alone, it was dark and the weather was little rough but nothing uncontrollable. I had my mind in my thought like often on these contexts. I was thinking about the relation with fear. A friend of mine, Benoit Richer who has a travel blog , had asked me to write an article on the subject. So I was thinking of all the moments where I have pushed myself out of my confort zone and how things evolved through time. The beauty of this process and how we can achieve things beyond what we think we could ever be capable just by starting small challenges. To then after some life experiences we feel more relaxed in the idea of facing fearful situation, because the experience has taught us and made us feel comfortable. To trust more in ourselves.
And this is when a big wave came to the side of the boat with a blow of wind!! The boat leaned so much that I felt that it would turn over! I dont know the words to express what I felt. But I really thought that I would end up in the water and live the most terrific death…
Luckily the boat didn’t turn over. I shouted for help. All the crew was awake. The captain came but told me there was not much to be done, we had already put the sail at a low level. There’s no brake on a sailboat and there’s no way to tell the weather to calm down. So I spent the rest of my shift with the rough weather. I put a life jacket and attached myself to the life line. That was a big mistake I’ll never do again. Always be attached on the boat at night.
That was a lesson that we are never safe and fear is part of life. So we should not stop ourselves from following our dreams because of the things that could go wrong, but always relax, trust and have the right amount of carefulness.
Lanzarote – The active wait for a boat
After 7 days at sea, we were very happy to see land. And there, started a new challenge for me. I had to find another boat for the rest of my journey because they had changed plan. We shared a last night together with the crew to celebrate the good times shared and the exceptional aspect that is to sail together.
Then I started looking for a place to stay. I went to an acroyoga lesson to have a good time and I knew that I would meet wonderful people that might be likely to be happy to welcome a traveller for a couple days. And this is how I met Blas, a music teacher from the island. With him I found a friend, someone to share moments with and who would show me the authentic life in Lanzarote.
But the main mission was to find a boat, and it’s not such an easy task. Specially since we were at the beginning of February and most boats had already left. I spent most of my time at the harbor, every single day, talking to boat owners, putting adverts and looking online for opportunities. This was the reality of the life of a boat hitchhiker. A lot of patience, a lot of energy put every day to find a boat. And as the day past, the despair grew. And I met the others who were also looking for boats. We became friends and were a little community, where all the informations were circulating very fast. There was a mix of real fellowship and competition. We were happy when we knew someone had found but somehow little jealous.
While I was waiting from returns of various opportunities I had, I enjoyed a bit of what this marvelous island had to offer. It has a unique landscape due to that fact that it has the oldest volcano of the Canary islands. It’s all black stone with very little vegetation. But the few plants found there are very special and they contrast a lot with this environment.
I also got the pleasure to work photographing the workshops of some of the best international acroyoga teachers. Sharon and Oliver from Acromoves and Carú González, David Worrow and David Sanjuan from Acrology. They organize a variety of events around the connection to our surrounding. Other people and nature. With acroyoga, massage, hiking, surfing, climbing, playing, dancing, singing and good food. To develop in ourselves the capacity to trust in others and build an attitude of benevolence.
And the best is that they bring this to where it is most needed by getting involved in social projects. Like penitentiaries, orphanages, youth detention centres, people with reduced mobility, and other social minorities
Lucky to live for a moment the life on an island, I got reminded the omnipresence of the plastic. As I was walking on the beach, I picked up as much plastic waste as I could and I discovered for the first time, the micro plastics washed up by the beach. All over the entire length of the beach. Heartbreaking.
Plastics never disintegrate, it turns into very tiny toxic particles that spread all over and asphyxiate everything.
We have to do all we can. The main solution is to take on a zero waste attitude, by reducing as much as possible our consumption of plastics, it’s a marvelous challenge with a lot to learn.
Then picking up plastics everywhere we go is an activity that becomes a well being routine, of feeling that we do what is right. And as we do it, we are seen by others who might question themselves and then may also start changing their attitude towards pollution.
The crossing of the ocean
Finally after one month on the island I got confirmed for departure with a wonderful British couple, Hannah and Nick. On the Waterbird, a 44 feet ketch made in Southampton in 1972. We set sails from Lanzarote on 4th of March 2019. The start of a real long life experience, of complete disconnection and complete reconnection at the same time. Far from everything, with no distractions, no internet. But a return to the most basic elements, ocean and sky, water and air. A real pause in life, change rhythm and reflect on the sense of being. Take the time to review the things we had left behind and thought didn’t matter enough.
I mostly dreamed of Brazil, my destination. I read the book “Fluent in 3 months” again and I made up a whole plan to manage speaking Portuguese fluently in 3 months. I had with me2 comics from Asterix and Obelix, a tiny dictionary, a phrasebook and a book written in Portuguese and English. I projected myself arriving in Brasil. What would I say?
“I gave myself the challenge of speaking Portuguese fluently in 3 months”, “Can you help me?”, “What’s your favorite word?”, “Tell. me your story”, “What makes you happy in life?”, “What’s your biggest dream?”, “Can you recommend me some music or film?”.
I imagined What I would say when people would ask about me. And I looked for all these words in the tiny dictionary to then put them in my notebook, in Portuguese only. I would then read these notes again and again until I would familiarize with the words.
Then I set myself a target, a real crazy ambitious target. I would have to find a way to be on TV after 3 months in Brazil!
To realize this final challenge, I would divide in smaller challenges, every week and every months, to make sure I would enough progress so that I would feel confortable speaking in front of the camera.
When I read this first sentence in Asterix and Obelix in Portuguese “Um novo e ensolarado dia acaba de nascer na mais prodigiosa cidade do universo: ROMA” I was really happy to see that I could understand, it was enough to do a little effort.
This is away from the story of the transatlantic, but one day, 2 months after being in Brazil, I was in a restaurant with a Brazilian friend. I could have fluid conversations with her but couldn’t understand what the others around us would be speaking about, but she could and said we should say hello to the couple next to us. They were indeed some of the most amazing people I’ve had the chance to meet. We had a great conversation, they were curious about my experiences and the man said “I am the president of a TV channel, we would love to invite you for an interview”!!
5 days after we left Lanzarote, we woke up with a pigeon on the boat. We guessed that he lost track while he was transiting between the Canary islands and Cape Verde. He became our mascot. A feathered friend on a journey with us. We fed him seeds and gave him water everyday. And also cleaned after him.
During most of the crossing we have had very little wind and one day when we were in the very middle of the ocean we had no wind at all, I decided to jump! With nothing at more than 4000km around and 6000m deep, I swam to experiment this feeling of my body only in the immensity.
I opened my eyes, to see how deep was the ocean, and I saw a shadow!! In a rush, I very quickly swam back to the boat. I took some goggles because I was curious to see what was in the water, it was a medium sized fish, nothing very dangerous.
Spending so long away from everything is also a good test to see if you have addictions. And I do! I’m addicted to music. I struggle to spend days without this pleasure to my ears and my soul. Luckily we had solar panels to charge the navigation equipments and our little devices. Maybe on my path, there will be challenges that won’t allow this and I’ll have to deal with this addiction (I’m thinking about the Vipassana. 10 days with 10 hours per day of meditation with zero contact to others).
So it took us 36 days to cross, with an average speed of 4 knots, which is very slow. Our pigeon left us little before we arrived. This experience has definitely changed me and done so much good to me. I now have a very different relation to time and space. I am even more convinced that humans should slow things down to live happy and more connected to who we are. Taking 3 months to reach a distant destination has nothing to do with what we live when we take a plane. In my thirst to travel far from home, with the deep will to do everything possible to reduce the climate change I have now found that it was possible to join the two, thanks to the strength of the wind and patience.
If you have questions on how to sail an ocean, I am happy to share more tips. And know that there are many opportunities, every year there are many boat owners and transporters looking for crew members. You don’t need so much skills, you only need to be resourceful, know how to live with others and not be sea sick.
One thing for sure, is that we live on a blue planet, so when possible we should make our way to these vast oceans.