After several months of Covid-19 confinement, the prospect of an ocean passage from the Canaries to Plymouth might seem like a rather extreme choice of escape. And to be honest, back on 3 August 2020, as I set off to meet up with two fellow sailors at Gatwick, it felt that way to me as well! But this was no ordinary vacation – this was a rescue mission.
Our action plan involved joining three others in the Canaries, then sailing back to the UK, a journey of nearly 2,000 nautical miles. We set out to bring home Brighton Belle, a 55-foot Oyster yacht, from five months of being ‘locked down’ in the Canaries.
As members of Brighton Belle Sailing Club, we share ownership of this beautiful blue water cruising yacht and sail her to wonderful destinations near and far, including the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly, Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, the Azores and the Canary Islands.
When Europe went into lockdown in March, Brighton Belle was moored in Tenerife, and the planned springtime return passage had to be postponed. As spring turned into summer, we became increasingly anxious: unless we completed the journey by mid-September, she would be stuck in Tenerife until 2021 because our insurance company would not allow us to cross the Bay of Biscay with the risk of autumn storms. This would be a further blow to our not-for-profit club, whose finances had already been severely dented by the lack of sailing income in 2020.
One of our experienced skippers, Stewart Henton, was ready and willing to lead a return passage in August. Slowly but surely we assembled another five crew members, myself included. Navigating the logistics of the return amid Covid-19 developments and shifting regulations was a frenzied tightrope walk: ordering parts, organising work, booking flights, getting insurance, hiring a satellite phone for weather reports and last – but by no means least – passage planning.
On 25 July the UK government put mainland Spain on the quarantine list, and a couple of days later they added the Canaries, despite there being almost no cases on the islands. For one frantic day, just 24 hours before the first three crew members were due to depart, we thought all our hard work had been in vain. Luckily, after many stressful phone calls and emails, we found a Brighton-based insurance company willing to provide cover, albeit with a coronavirus exclusion.
That risk we were prepared to take. We had all been pretty much self-isolating for weeks; we had F95 masks for the plane; and we had drawn up a Covid-19 safety protocol for the passage. For the first week of our journey we would be within reach of Lanzarote, then Madeira, so if anyone fell ill, we could seek help.
After a short hop from Tenerife to Gran Canaria, where we provisioned the boat, we set off on 5 August. Skipper Stewart’s message to club members back home read: “Please make offerings to Neptune to give us fair winds and gentle seas.” Brighton Belle is a wonderful boat for long-distance sailing: although we had wind mostly ‘on the nose’, we made good progress and, just three days later, approached Madeira. As the rest (and bulk) of the journey would take us hundreds of miles offshore, we needed to fill up with fuel and water. This was a ‘fingers crossed’ moment, as Madeira was not allowing visiting yachts. Luckily we succeeded – without even setting foot on the fuel pontoon – and were back on our way.
On board, we quickly settled into a routine, keeping watch in pairs: four hours on, eight hours off, for all but the early afternoons, when we cooked and shared the day’s main meal. We ate exceedingly well, despite the challenge of catering for one vegetarian and one no-carbs eater. Living up to a Brighton Belle motto – ‘never knowingly underprovisioned’ – and with a slightly excessive 160 (!) eggs to get through, we became increasingly creative with our cooking. At one point, in the middle of a complicated spinnaker hoist, we even had crème caramel baking in the oven down below!
We enjoyed flat seas, lots of sunshine, amazing starry nights and meeting pods of dolphins as we travelled. Throughout the trip we sent daily reports back to ‘base’, with one of the stay-at-home members distributing our accounts to family and friends and posting to our Return from Lockdown blog.
While we would have liked more wind for crossing the Bay of Biscay − we ended up doing a lot of motoring − we were grateful to arrive in Plymouth at 00:19 on 19 August 2020, just under two weeks after leaving Gran Canaria and just a few hours ahead of Storm Ellen!
Back on land, we were required to quarantine, despite having self-isolated in a bubble of six for two weeks. After those wonderful weeks on the water, with little access to news or social media, readjusting to life on dry land and back into the pandemic has been challenging. We all look forward to setting sail again as soon as we can.