In January 2016 my travel mate, Suzy and I left on our biggest journey so far. We hitchhiked a boat and sailed across the Atlantic ocean accompanied by 3 Russian/Ukrainian men.
I left Hungary on 10th December 2015 and flew to Madrid for a few days. As part of my usual routine, I stuffed myself with great Spanish food to last me until my next visit. Then I hitchhiked to Nice, France where I met Suzy and we recorded our campaign video as part of the preparation for the trip. After hitchhiking back together to Madrid and sleeping at the airport, we caught a flight to Gran Canaria.
At this point my statistics were: 2700km hitchhiked.
We didn’t want our trip to only be about rushing from one checkpoint to another, so we spent the first few days exploring the island and relaxing.
Welcome to Puerto de Las Palmas
On our first day at the port, we started talking to people, just to get our heads around the rules of the marina, familiarising ourselves with boat-hitchhiking best practices, spreading the word about our arrival. I mastered the art of opening port gates without a key after a local explained the trick.
On the second day in the marina, things started to speed up, the gentleman who taught us the handy trick with the gates informed us about another hitchhiker, who found a boat going overseas, but it wasn’t the right direction for him, so he declined. As all boat-seekers, he also had his ad put up everywhere, so I took his phone number and contacted him. He pointed us towards a tiny, hidden part of the port behind the main marina, where a few catamarans were stationing. All of them so fancy, we thought to ourselves this is it! We want to go with one of these.
On the third boat there were three Russian/Ukrainian men having dinner and when we popped THE question the answer was a simple sure, we can take you. I could not believe it took us 2 days to find our ride! Everybody told us it might take a week or two to find a boat. This must have been some kind of record especially because it was low season 🙂
Let me introduce the crew before the crossing begins. Andrej, our captain in charge is a character and a half. He said I love my life more often than good morning. Something truly admirable. We also had 2 Alex-es on-board. One Alex is a proud dad of 2 living in Canada and a talented and experienced race skipper. The other Alex is also a dad to 2 girls in the US and feels free when at sea. All three men sharing the passion for water and business. Now let’s begin…
We moved in the day after and left to Tenerife as soon as the shopping and preparations were done. Shortly after departure, we both started to feel the threatening signs of motion sickness. Despite my greatest efforts to prevent it, after it peaked, I had to cut the night short and left to bed.
Later that evening, the crew woke us up and instructed us to go upstairs. Oh, what a wonderful surprise waited for us! Dolphins were following the boat, swimming in phytoplankton. This type of plankton illuminates like ocean fireflies when disturbed if water conditions are just right. The dolphins looked like underwater shooting stars leaving a sparkling tail behind them. From meters away we could see them coming closer to the boat, we could almost touch them. These magical silhouettes accompanied us for 10-15 minutes. We could not say anything else, but oh my god, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.
Unfortunately, it was too dark for video or photo, but at least we could completely get lost in the full experience.
The next morning we went whale watching by the shore of Tenerife. Every time we got close to marine animals I felt like a kid in the candy store; extremely excited, wide open eyes, smile from one ear to the other.
The first few days of adjusting to the constant motion were very hard on my body. The seasickness was hard to battle most days. As soon as darkness descended nausea crept into my stomach. Most probably because I had no visual of the horizon that kept me well during the day. By staring at the only point at sea that does not move helped me to keep motion sickness in check. So it became a routine to take a pill at sunset.
The best way to describe the feeling is to compare it with being very drunk while maintaining full awareness. To me, it seemed like everything slowed down and when I looked from one direction to another I saw the motion of the objects following my eyesight. It was a Matrix-like experience every evening accompanied by an upset stomach. On the fifth night, I finally got used to it but I still experienced actions in slower motion than on dry land.
Each day was very similar when the sun rose, so did we. After breakfast we usually read books or relax under the sun, then the daily chores had to be done. Going through the vegetables to throw out the rotten, polish the boat and clean up. One thing that always made me smile was the conversation with the captain, alias master chef on-board;
– What time do you girls want lunch?
– What time is it?
– Then 1 o’clock.
– Ok, 12 it is.
It is like we were eating all through the day. At the beginning sometimes breakfast twice, captain followed the Hungarian grandmother’s’ philosophy and did not accept skipping a meal so hunger was a feeling I did not experience for 2,5 weeks. 🙂 Saying this, he cooked mostly very light and healthy dishes and we were obliged to eat fruits in between meals. I swear I never had so much fructose in my system before, so much so, I didn’t fancy having my morning muesli…too much sweet, but at least the good kind.
Just to give you an idea, fresh orange and grapefruit juice in the morning, melon, papaya and apple between meals, almond and hazelnut in between meals between meals.
Dining in Captain Andrej’s ’restaurant’ every day 4-5 times was definitely something to remember. He is specialized in Asian cousin, but only a few days into the trip Suzy and I begged him to cook a simple Italian, max 3 ingredients, no chili, pasta, please! Aaaaand he nailed it! We were looked after very well.
After 3-4 days I cut back on my meals as I wasn’t burning enough calories, so only two meals a day were more than enough.
Now, this is the most exciting part to write about. It took 5 days to finally see dolphins again, but what a funny story it is. Suzy and I were recording some life-on-the-boat scenes and we talked about how awesome it was to sail with the dolphins. I swear at exactly the same moment I spotted them! Hundreds all around us. To make the story even better, the sun was just setting, the waves were huge and hanging outside the front of the boat I managed to put the sports camera underwater – for less than a second…haha, but this is how close we got to them.
Flying fishes were only an amusement for less than a day as they were all around us everyday. They even started committing suicide by jumping on board, leaving us with a constant supply of fish meat and some laughter when one flew right at the captain’s head.
The first three attempts of catching a bigger fish failed. Suzy and I secretly hoped for them to be able to free themselves and until the fourth catch, they all did. Of course, the rest of crew may find this out from reading this very article, – sorry guys – but even if fish is not the smartest of animals, it is heartbreaking to watch life drain away from its eyes. Although it wasn’t the first time I witnessed such an event, with a sad fascination I filmed the fish getting processed. We caught in total 4 bigger fishes.
Dolphins came and went during the whole passage several times, but we had to be alert to catch those five minutes when they were passing by.
Halfway through the journey
It was exactly at halfway when the ocean got very bumpy. I was already used to walking like a toddler, always holding onto something, losing balance at every step, but on the 8th night the wind picked up and the waves grew even larger. The motion of the ocean changed completely. The boat felt and sounded like it was shot into the sky and then suddenly dropped back on the ocean surface. The loud sounds on impact were accompanied by violent shakes. It was the first night when I wasn’t able to sleep. The thought of being in trouble never crossed my mind, IWA – our boat – was built to handle apocalypse-like conditions.
Unfortunately, seasickness started all over again, so the days became much harder and the evenings demanded medication all over again.
One night a dangerous, yet the funniest thing happened. We lost a sail and we had to fish it out of the ocean. It happened during the 8th night when the currents changed and the boat’s reactions became more violent. Recovering the sail was a bit of a challenge as darkness is redefined when you are at sea, but it was put back into operation the next morning.
Often we killed the time by playing a Russian card game, called Fool. Another entertainment was provided by Suzy and I. When you only see water all around you and you are locked up in a small space with 4 other people, you might go through brief mental breakdowns. That is when we were the highlight of the ‘IWA night show.’
When everything is pitch black and you can’t differentiate between the ocean and the sky, the Moonlight offers a glace of hope. My personal favorite of the Moon moments happened on the 14th night when it was cut in half, but not the usual European vertical way, this was horizontal and it became a very memorable first experience.
15 days and 2810 nautical miles later we touched land on St. Maarten bypassing St. Barts, the hot spot for celebrities. I was looking for Clooney with the binoculars, but no luck…
I can’t imagine the feeling when in the old days’ sailors finally spotted land after 2-3 month at sea. On a smaller scale, I could totally relate. Even when a cargo ship crossed path with us during the passage, it was great to encounter other humans 🙂 Arriving to shore was an indescribable feeling, but what put the cherry on top was having a juicy, fresh burger with crispy fries at the first bar we found on the beach. Thankfully land sickness wasn’t an issue, as, after 2 weeks adapting to the constant motion, people tend to get nausea on land.
As we had no plans after St. Maarten, we had to make a quick decision about our next move as IWA was leaving to the British Virgin Islands the same night and shortly after to the Dominican Republic.
BVI – British Virgin Islands
Simply unforgettable. When we got closer to the islands, it was the first time I actually felt I’m in a new place. St. Maarten looked much like European islands, but BVI took my breath away.
On the first night, we were invited for dinner on another, bigger boat. At this point, I was already full from the pizza we had with Suzy in a parking lot fast-food hut, but I still had a taste of the entire menu. Working on a charter boat means long working hours and very difficult tasks, but for those who love the sea, it is paradise. They were describing their lifestyle with sparkling eyes.
On our last night we all went out and danced to live music with people we only just met, but what an amazing time we had.
There were not more than 30 people in the bar and I managed to talk to at least half of them, a girl even asked us if she could join our travels later this year. The highlight of the night was our captain performing in Russian on stage using the microphone, while the older man was climbing over the fence and falling hard on the sand behind them due to lack of balance.
I can’t even describe the beauty of this tropical island. People here are the happiest I have ever seen, they are all welcoming and friendly, smiling for no apparent reason. No wonder why many from all around the world who visited fell in love with BVI and decided to stay here for long years.
Not long into our journey from BVI to the Dominican Republic, our autopilot decided to call it quits and we finally got the ultimate experience of steering the boat for hours. As the wind came sideways navigating was more challenging.
I really have to end this article before going for whale watch as there always be more and more to add, but it needed to go live at some point;)
In a nutshell, boat hitchhiking was so far the best decision I have ever made. I got to see places I never even heard of, tasted the food I never tasted before, talked to people I would never have met otherwise and got this incredible experience of crossing the Atlantic ocean on a catamaran.
As crazy as it sounds, despite the difficulties, I would do it again. I can’t be thankful enough for my crew who took very good care of us. The 3 Russian/Ukrainian men made another dream come true and I will always remember the time with them as a milestone in my life.