So now it is definite.
It is early morning of October 31, 2019 as I motor down the muddy waters of Suriname River from Domburg, through the heavy jungle heat. I follow the tide past plantations and mansions towards Paramaribo, Suriname’s lively capital, and I know:
It is definite.
Earth and water, just like air and fire, are elements that do not mix well. The relationship broke, the crew is halved. One down, one standing. The math is easy, either way: Two minus one equals one. Two divided by two also equals one.
Bottom line is I am a solo sailor now. Single-handed. I can like it or not, it is what it is.
I am approaching the visually impressive 50 m (164 ft) high and 1504 m (4,934 ft) long Jules Wijdenbosh Bridge, or “Bosje Bridge” as the locals call it. It reminds me of the new Rügendamm Bridge that connects Rügen, Germany’s largest island, with the mainland. I had a clear view on it from my slip in my homeport. I remember the Baltic Sea where I did a lot of solo sailing. I remember how every single weekend it was a welcome escape from my office life. The boat was my hideaway. Sometimes my kids or my wife would join me but the vast majority of the time, it was just me. I remember how I loved it. The solitude. The tranquility. How I gained strength from it for my life back in society.
My homeport is the picturesque and historic hanseatic city of Stralsund. From here I ventured out to eastern German islands like Rügen or Hiddensee. I also loved to sail to Poland and Denmark. The Danish island Bornholm, 80 nautical miles from Stralsund was always a challenge because it mostly involved an over-night passage. Sometimes I made it up to Karlskrona in Sweden and through the archipelago off the Swedish coast all the way to Kalmar or even Stockholm. Back in the day, that was my backyard, my home turf.
Now, since I crossed the Atlantic and sailed waters way more challenging than the Baltic Sea, that in the big scheme is nothing else than a glacier puddle, something in my head pictures the Baltic Sea as a children’s playground which of course, is a huge misconception. Make no mistake, the Baltic Sea is as dangerous as any sea with an uncounted number of wrecks on its bottom proving the point.
But 80 nautical miles to Bornholm, a challenge?? The passage I am just starting will be around 700 nautical miles and I wouldn’t even consider that long. A trip as short as 700 nautical miles wouldn’t even make it to my personal top five anymore, barely to my top ten. But it will lead me through waters I have never sailed before. Increasing the stakes, I will do it all by myself.
Nobody Stands by You, Nobody Stands above You
No helping hand will be there and no company, nobody to share the sunsets with, nobody to blame if things go wrong, nobody to lean on to if things turn tough. But on the bright side, there won’t be talking when I need quietude, no presence when I need solitude, no complaining when I need fortitude.
I feel light, maybe even a bit light-headed, relieved of the burden of responsibility. And as I am wedging in between the mighty pillars of Bosje Bridge and trying to decide if I take the starboard or port channel around the half-sunken wreck of the Goslar, I get distracted by bits and pieces of her history:
The German motor vessel Goslar got surprised by the outbreak of WWII and was seeking neutral territory in Dutch Guyana (today Suriname). Camouflaged, flying pretended US flag, she dropped anchor in Suriname River in September 1939. When the German Wehrmacht invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940 an order was given to detain every German citizen of the age of 15 and older. Before they got arrested, the dutiful crew sank their ship in the Suriname River where she still lies today, dividing the shipping lane as a silent witness of those peaceless days.
I take the channel to my port side because it will bring me closer to the city. I crave to feel the vibes one last time and catch one last glance at the city that was my home for the last four months. As I pass the HQ of the Maritime Authority of Suriname (MAS) I check out on VHF as formally required. The bored voice of the MAS radio operator tells me, he cannot figure why it is actually required, either. It will take another four hours to reach the open ocean, but I already feel free. Free of responsibilities and free of obligations.
I head out of the mighty river mouth; dolphins are welcoming me to the ocean. Dolphins, aren’t they the ultimate symbols of freedom and independence? But then I think, they live in pods, they have company, protection and hierarchy. Not quite my definition of independence.
This makes me want to hear that great song of the German bard Reinhard Mey ‘Einhandsegler‘ (Solo Sailor). Damn it! I didn’t download it and cell service is already gone. So, I start singing it to myself: ‘Nobody stands by you, nobody stands above you… hmm hmmm hm (I don’t remember all the lyrics.) You are nobody’s subject, and nobody is subject to you.’ Yep, this is how it is, and how I love it!
Free of obligations is actually not quite true. I had promised friends and family of the crew of the Bourbon Rhode to take a little detour and watch out for any signs of life for the seven crew still missing. The 50 m (164 ft) offshore tug Bourbon Rhode sank in hurricane Lorenzo four weeks ago, on September 26, 2019 after failure of her azimuth thrusters on her way from the Canaries to Guyana. Azimuth thrusters are great for precise manoeuvring but if they fail during a storm, the ship is doomed, losing propulsion and steering at the same time.
Three crew members were rescued, four were recovered dead, but till now, two life rafts and seven crew members have not been accounted for and hope dies last. The official rescue operation was ceased after which friends and family of the missing crew members started unparalleled efforts to reach out to sailors in the area to help find their loved ones.
Well aware that the chances are marginal in the vast endlessness of the Atlantic Ocean, assisting the search effort is a natural thing to do. Those men are family to me as much as they are to their own relatives. There is this invisible band that ties all sailors together. I know they would have done the same for me. So even we solo sailors are never alone, really.
So, when I leave Suriname waters, I tack out a good bit to the north before I go on my charted course to Martinique. It is a half-wind course and the wind is fierce, a steady force 6. I sail under my boomed jib and second reef in the main. The seas are building up, Seefalke is rocking and rolling, but steadily I am bringing more and more distance between the land memories and my current state of mind.
Grey in grey during the day, black in black during the night, I don’t see a single soul. Neither dead nor alive, neither human nor animal. Almost impossible to spot a life raft, drifting in the boiling seas. Those poor guys! When I leave the forecasted drifting area of the Bourbon Rhode life rafts behind me, my heart and my thoughts are with those brave men who went to sea and will never see home again.*
If they could go down, experienced seamen on a huge ship, why wouldn’t I on my tiny tin can?
The Living, the Dead and those at Sea
I remember that famous quote. I think it was Aristoteles who first said it, but I could be wrong: ‘There are three kinds of men: the living, the dead and those at sea.’ I start to understand what he meant. While you are at sea, especially when you are just by yourself, you are as far from the dead as you are from the living. An act of the gods of the seas may easily push you to the one or the other edge. It sounds frightening at first, but when I start to deeply, really understand the full meaning, it makes me unbelievably relaxed.
When I met solo sailors in the past, I always thought they were a bit weird to say the least. Marcel, for instance, the retired lawyer from the south of France, who could never convince his wife to join him sailing but was never short of female company at anchorages or in marinas. I barely ever saw him wearing clothes.
Or Paul from Belgium, the most peaceful person I ever met, who would take even the worst news with a smile. I thought he constantly was high as a kite. Now I understand that they already arrived where I am still heading: the complete inner peace. They have reached their comfort zone right in-between the living and the dead. What would ever worry them there?
Not quite there yet, I still get a little worried when an evil squall wouldn’t let me out of its claws, and I spend almost an entire day going in circles. Frustrating. Tiring. Exhausting. Still 200 nautical miles to Barbados. When the weather clears, I finally fall asleep dead tired. In sheer disbelief I realize I must have passed out for hours when I make my new logbook entry.
All of a sudden, it’s good I am still far out. Otherwise it could have brought me closer to the dead than I am ready for yet. As I am approaching Barbados, I come so close to the island that I can smell the barbecues on the beach of Bridgetown. It takes all my strength of will to overcome my desire to seek shelter and comfort there but keep on sailing.
The Strong Man Is Mightiest Alone
Once the lights of Barbados are sinking behind the horizon, I feel stronger and more powerful than ever. I have won over myself. I am conqueror of the seven seas, king of the world! At the heights of my superiority inebriety I feel like Wilhelm Tell in Friedrich Schiller’s epic drama. “The strong man is mightiest alone,” is what he said. If I would have known back in high school, when they made us read all these ancient doorstoppers, that one day the literary prose would give me encouragement and strength in lonely and fearful night watches while out in the middle of the ocean, I’d sure have remembered more of it than just this single line.
As the night seems to drag on to eternity and the inebriety yields to a fully-grown emotional hangover, my thoughts drift on to the old Prussian virtues: courage and discipline of course, those are the easy ones. Fortitude without self-pity, conscientiousness and toughness, which translates to ‘Be hard on yourself and learn to suffer without complaining!’
I feel how I instinctively tension my chin muscles just thinking about them, the little Prussian share of blood in my veins flows a little faster. Finally, the moon rises and breaks the impervious blackness of the night and my mind. Hell, I think, the old Prussians would be proud of me! I smile. And with a smile everything is easier. Paul from Belgium knew that already.
The remaining 100 nautical miles to Martinique are kindergarten. As I drop the anchor in Sainte-Anne, I am almost disappointed this challenging passage is already over.
While I have reached the destination of this 700 nm passage, I realize I am still just at the beginning of the epic voyage to know myself.
And this is what solo sailing is all about.
*At the time one body was found but was not identified yet. The Bourbon Rhode rescue team decided to still publish all eight names as missing.
**Usually I only use original images on this website. For this story, however, I decided to use these two images of the Bourbon Rhode and her missing crew to try to visualize the personal dimension of this tragedy. It is not just an anonymous news item, but real people who have families and friends grieving for them.