Solo skipper Billy Brannan lost his home when his 34ft yacht Helena was knocked down, rolled and dismasted during an Atlantic storm - and the rescue itself proved to be a challenge
I’ve sailed Northern Europe for about 25 years up to Shetland, Ireland, Holland, Germany and places in-between. But I had never done any long trips and I wondered how I would cope with an ocean passage.
I’d researched the boat and journey for many years but the actual logistics took about a year.
My Fisher 25 wasn’t really suitable due to lack of storage space and windward sailing ability, despite our many thousands of miles together.
I wanted a long keel with encapsulated ballast and a well-protected rudder hung on the back. I wasn’t keen on the Rustler type with the sloping rudder and I liked the Vancouver range from the same yard as my Fisher.
A quite rare Vancouver 34 Pilot came up in fantastic condition in Germany and I jumped on the first plane out. When I saw her I thought, ‘This is a boat that will take me places.’
I set off from Tollesbury, Essex in May 2019 down the Channel and over to Ireland for a couple of months. This gave me and Helena the chance to become acquainted, sailing from Dublin to Dingle.
From Bantry Bay we set off for the first big leg into the Atlantic and south for the Rias of northern Spain, ending up in Vigo and clocking 700 miles.
We then skirted Portugal’s west coast and relaxed in the pleasant Algarve with New Year 2020 celebrated in Seville, Spain.
Mid-January had us on the 550-mile leg to the Canaries, stopping at Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria. With a suitable weather window we set off south and west for the 31-day, 3,000-mile crossing to Marigot Bay in St. Martin.
I felt pretty pleased to accomplish the Atlantic crossing.
When I left Las Palmas, COVID-19 had been mainly confined to China, but I arrived in the Caribbean to find a closed port and an island in lockdown.
It was a shock. I had no news on the trip as I only had short-range radio. It felt like I was in a sci-fi film as the last survivor.
My girlfriend Jo decided not to fly out. The airport was still open but she felt she would hamper my ability to respond to the ever-changing drama. I was only permitted ashore for essential supplies and I spent a month on Helena at anchor.
If you had to be locked down, Marigot Bay was certainly a nice place to be but hurricane season was approaching and I struggled to find reliable updates on the situation in hurricane-safe locations.