50-knot squalls, lightning and wind holes meant crossing the Atlantic with climate activist Greta Thunberg was far from plain sailing for Nikki Henderson
Atlantic challenges with Greta Thunberg
‘There is a feeling on board that we are ab out to achieve something special. We have made the impossible possible,’ I blogged, when we were two days out of Lisbon.
Sailing across the Atlantic is a significant milestone for any sailor.
Delivering Greta Thunberg across the North Atlantic in November 2019 was inevitably going to be tough, especially considering the time of year.
Then consider the complex crew make up, the unfamiliar boat, the time constraints and the celebrity passenger – and you start to understand why I had described it as something of an ‘impossible’ mission.
On 7 November 2019 Riley Whitelum, who with his partner Elayna Carausu created the La Vagabond YouTube channel, texted me with the message:
‘Nikki meet Greta. We need a skipper to help us get from the USA to Europe, pronto!’
‘Wow! What an opportunity; what an adventure,’ I thought. And then the enormity of what was being asked set in.
Just three weeks later we tied up in Lisbon.
Somehow, we had managed to overcome every obstacle in our way.
Up against a deadline, we had prepared La Vagabonde for sea in five days and completed the passage in just 19.
From a group of disparate strangers, we became a team. We safely navigated a tropical storm, lightning, wind holes, cold fronts, 50-knot squalls and 8m seas.
A broken furling line, a rogue liferaft, hampered steering cables and malfunctioning instruments were also resolved on route.
For any crew, these challenges would have been testing.
We achieved it with two sailors, a competent crew and mum, two passengers – one of whom was Greta Thunberg, Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year– and of course, 11-month-old baby Lenny.
This was an exceptional experience on many levels.
Generally, before embarking on an ocean crossing, you spend months minimising risks with careful timing, planning and preparing the boat and crew.
We didn’t have months; we had days. Three days, to be exact.
The list of tasks – as it always does – seemed never ending; for every line we crossed off, two more jobs were added.
Getting shipshape in record time
We victualled for four weeks at sea – purely vegan – shopped, unloaded and stowed.
Thankfully Outremer designed their 4X catamaran with two fridges.
On board we transformed La Vagabonde from her ‘liveaboard cruising mode’ to an ‘ocean ready passenger’ mode.
Four ‘slam-proof’ strong points were added on the hull of the bow compartment to strap down the outboard.
A rig check, two engine services, and an oil change in the watermaker high-pressure pump were completed.
We tested the sat comms, tuned the hydrogenerator, and the major cherry-on-top morale booster was fixing the heater, as by then it was snowing.
The shopping list kept growing. It started with key items like emergency Dyneema in case of rig failure, lifejacket CO2 cartridges and medical supplies.
‘Crucial’ items loosened over time so the list came to include English breakfast tea, superglue, five bags of Kettle chips and vegan cookie mix.
With about 20 trips to the chandlery and other stores, the electric car arranged for Greta Thunberg by Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly saved the day.
We also squeezed in sideline agendas like joining a two-hour conference call to discuss media plans and preparing press releases.
Interviews, photographs and documentary filming slotted in when they could. Lenny was treated to his first babysitter.
When we asked for help, people generously came to the rescue.
Perhaps it was the irresistible spirit of adventure, passion for Greta Thunberg’s message, or a yearning to help others – whatever it was – it was remarkable.
Together with our extensive extended team – the kind couple who lent us their home and private dock, local tradespeople, riggers, engineers, the ‘Gourmet Gang’ who cooked us vegan dinners, and so many others – we got everything done.
The consequential effect of ‘so much to do with so little time’ was that ‘team bonding’ just happened automatically.
We broke the ice by simply not having a minute spare to overthink any social encounters.
We avoided awkward small talk by always having a job on the list to do or discuss.
We levelled our differences by committing to our mission.
After two days, two YouTubers, a climate activist, her father, a professional sailor and a baby became a team ready to sail 3,000 miles alongside Mother Nature.
Check and balances
Crossing the North Atlantic from west to east is not a decision to take lightly.
Low-pressure formations constantly form and move from the eastern seaboard towards northern Europe.
In November they can be very severe, packing quite a punch, as we experienced.
Aware of this from the outset, Riley and I poured over GRIB files, routing advice, and our Predict Wind software.
There were three main considerations, firstly how to position ourselves south of the low-pressure systems to ensure fair conditions.
Secondly, could we use the Gulf Stream to our advantage or would it risk a wind against current situation?
And thirdly, how south was too far south, if we were aiming to avoid the Bermuda/Azores High and wind holes.
The first task was when to leave.
Far from a one-dimensional decision, the departure date had to coincide with a prepared crew, boat – and unusually – media team.
Classically, our perfect departure window was three days before we were ready.
The curse of hindsight taunted us as we watched what would have been a guaranteed four days of downwind sailing under a perfectly positioned north/south low pressure system pass us by.
Instead we left a few days later in the snow and sailed slowly – upwind – in the wrong direction.
The first half of the trip was the most testing.
Paying for our imperfect departure timing, we barely covered a third of our rhumb line distance in a week.
Ending up as far south as Bermuda to avoid the unmanageable strong winds and waves at the centre of the low-pressure system north of us was a hard cookie to swallow.
Then we turned left and sailed east slowly – 5 knots – for two days to avoid the worst of a cold front and the path of Tropical Storm Sebastian.
The latter part of the trip was simpler.
Ten days of amazing downwind sailing in a flat sea.
We then faced the final hurdle. Between us and Lisbon was 250 miles, 60 knots and 7-10m swell.
Either we slowed down to avoid it but risk a wind hole – or we sailed through it.
The allure of arriving and a hot shower made this decision difficult.
Ultimately, we compromised and stalled just enough to tackle the worst of the weather during daylight.
La Vagabonde is an Outremer 4X – a performance distance cruiser designed to be a liveaboard.
She absolutely flew in some conditions, clocking more than 250 miles in 24 hours on several occasions.
Riley and Elayna had owned her for two years and knew their home well.
Combining their invaluable familiarity of the boat and a couple of classic guidelines such as ‘first a cup of tea, then shake out the reef’, we kept all our canvas intact.
However, even in the most meticulously built and cautiously sailed boats issues arise.
There are a few nights I look back on with wide eyes.
Those ‘Nikki you should have known better’ moments such as procrastinating on the fix, skipping the daily deck walk, or pushing the gear too hard.
A lightning storm blew in on the fifth night.
That day the furling line had chafed through and was tied to the bow cleat.
Riley, having gone forward to furl, noticed that the liferaft had come loose.
It was smashing against its weakened straps with each wave, dangerously close to falling out completely.
Mid-gale, at 0200, we hung upside down under the boat – thankful for our drysuits – wrapped a halyard around the canister, lifted the liferaft exactly square up through its narrow made-to-fit hole, and carried it back to the cockpit.
This was without accidentally inflating it, or dropping it or ourselves over the side.
The furling line was then top of the list.
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The existing rope was salvageable. To ensure the drum could still spin, we had to make the world’s smallest stopper knot.
We solved it with an inventive solution involving our gas hob, the back of a frying pan and persistent melting and squashing!
That was a ‘keep-finer-details-to-ourselves’ event.
Then in true ‘catastrophes come in threes’ fashion the steering seized.
Specifically, the rudder wouldn’t turn to starboard.
Fearing a bent rudder, we first stripped the system looking for a more satisfying solution.
The relief on Riley’s face was palpable as he pulled me out of the lazarette where I was playing with the steering cable tension.
The culprit was a tube of plastic directly behind the helm station inhibiting the pulleys from turning.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an ocean crossing without instrument failure.
Following lightning storm number two, the anemometer went into early retirement.
Being devious sparkies we managed to fix it in 24 hours, rescued by the good old fashioned off-and-on trick!
The power of purpose
Our crew make-up was problematic. Greta Thunberg and her father were passengers. Elayna was in full-time-mum mode. Riley and I sailed two handed.
Thankfully the autopilot behaved, as we relied on it heavily.
Running a two hours on, two hours off watch system in adverse conditions – and longer watches in easier weather – we just about managed our sleep deprivation.
Crew management in relation to the varied sailing experience onboard was a particular human challenge for me and Riley.
We recognised the fine line between informing people enough that they feel empowered and safe, versus over informing them so they feel scared.
An anxious crew is an unsafe crew.
We ended up keeping more colourful or uncertain details to ourselves, such as the tropical storm and hurricane force winds that might become an issue.
Demographically, we were diverse. Our ages spanned three generations. We had very different careers and aspirations.
This resulted in many heated discussions about climate change; confusion regarding routing decisions; the tense subject of rationing.
There were particularly irritable moods when we hit slow speed over the ground.
So how did we find harmony? Boredom made quiet days the most difficult.
Bad weather, or equipment failure weirdly cured the tension, as did gorgeous champagne sailing days, blue skies or star-filled night skies.
These magical moments were reminders of how lucky we were.
Mother Nature puts life in perspective; at sea we are so small and she is so powerful; at sea effective teamwork could be the only difference between life and death.
On reflection of the trip I wrote, ‘what has brought us together is a deeper common interest, a shared purpose’.
Ultimately, what united our differences was our bigger mission: to help Greta Thunberg reach Europe on time and send a message about climate change.
I would urge anyone to take this lesson forward: how powerful a common, meaningful goal is for uniting a team.
Yachtsman of the Year 2018, Nikki Henderson is fast developing into Britain’s leading female offshore sailor of her generation.
She started sailed at the age of 13 and skippered her first transatlantic race aged 20, twice winning the ARC Youngest Skipper Award.
Three years later Nikki became a Clipper Round the World Race skipper – the youngest the event has ever had.
Her Visit Seattle team, united under her leadership, and just two days after her 25th birthday, took a victorious second place in the 2017-18 race.
Nikki spent 2019 promoting the empowerment of young women.
Kick-starting The Maiden Factor’s world tour, she skippered Tracy Edwards’ world-renowned Bruce Farr-designed yacht Maiden from the UK to Sri Lanka, to inspire the next generation of girls through education.
She led the Jarhead Youth Sailing Team in the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race and finished 1st in the J109 One Design fleet.
She skippered the first all-female crew ever to complete the iconic Rolex Middle Sea race.
Nikki partners sailing with her other passion: storytelling – both through the written word and as a motivational speaker.
Having been profoundly affected by the lessons she has learnt during her sailing career, she enjoys sharing her refreshingly honest and unique insights into the human side of this extreme sport.
Shortlisted for the Women of the Future Sport Award and named one of Management Today’s 35 under 35 – it’s not just the sailing world, but also the business world that now recognises Nikki as a young, female leader to watch.
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