Per aspera ad astra, the crossing of the Indian Ocean

There is a passage in Jack London’s, The Call of the Wild that has always struck me: ‘There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter…’. And it also comes to the sailor – I could go on – fighting at the rudder over waves that look like mountains and raise the bow to the top, only then to surf down the other side again, gaining speed and plunging into the next wave, while white foam breaks at the edges and the rain and the wind lash at the nape of the neck. Here, in this case, you also feel that ecstasy. This is one of the reasons why we continue to navigate oceans so long that they never seem to end, passing days in constant motion, like inside a pendulum. It is a return to our primordial origins, when man had the instinct to observe the elements that surrounded him, vigilant and alert. It takes very little time spent at sea before we abandon our usual comforts of everyday life and bring to the surface this atavistic instinct: adapting to a hostile and always moving environment; the rotation of night shifts and consuming the minimum quantity needed of fresh water; getting used to steering for hours in all weather conditions; working constantly to adjust the sails to maintain a good, fast and safe pace; keeping the equipment on which our survival depends in good condition; learning to read the perturbations of the sky and prepare to withstand the impact of unexpected weather phenomena; learning from your own mistakes and those of others; knowing how to face difficulties and dangers without losing concentration. And then rejoicing in the little things, enjoying the food that everyone in turn is called to cook, having a shot of Ti’ Punch at sunset, being amazed by an acrobatic flip of a dolphin, reading a poem under the moon, singing a song that comes to mind, sharing a reflection on life and the world, indulging in a liberating laugh. And finally, learning tolerance in relating to other crew members, often made up of different people, forced to live in confined spaces and in stressful conditions after weeks at sea.

Ti’ Punch at sunset
Ti’ Punch at sunset

I won’t even elaborate on the advantages of a total digital detox that you live with while on the ocean, where the only connection is a satellite one that allows us to download marine weather: finally free from social networks, Whatsapp chats and media bombardment. Every morning the only ‘likes’ we count are the flying fish deposited during the night in Milanto’s cockpit!

Clouds over the Indian Ocean
Clouds over the Indian Ocean

All this is expressed in a concept not too far removed from some Buddhist meditation practices: returning to ourselves to become more aware of ourselves and the environment around us. And in fact, this passage was a bit like a meditation or, if you like, an introspective journey.

Fishermen in the Bali Sea
Fishermen in the Bali Sea

We left Lombok, Indonesia on Friday, 25th September (in contravention of the rule that Venus and Mars do not marry or leave on that date), with a nice fresh wind that made us beat upwind to get out of the Bali Sea in order to enter the open ocean. The Indian Ocean opened up in front of us to be crossed in a single long stretch of about 3,700 nautical miles. We had supplies of food for three people to last over a month and we knew we had a challenging sail ahead of us. The first few days we had to transverse waves that whipped up to a peak of 4 meters. Really annoying, because of the short period of time between each wave. Life became one extreme and constant roll with any activity being carried out holding firmly with one hand to avoid falling or dropping objects. For example, cooking became a dance in which you had to be very careful in order not to harm yourself with boiling water or red-hot pots.

Having decided to go south as far as possible, in order to bear away when conditions became harder, we went further; but it served us well, because when the sea was up, pushed by over 30 knots of wind, we were able to take it from the stern with sails goose-winged, that is, poling out the genoa to windward. Despite our strategies, it was an exhausting passage, especially from a psychological point of view. The genoa tore in half, a gash too large to be repaired. We had to wait for the wind to drop a bit to be able to replace it with a new one, smaller but more robust. We also struggled from the start with a new failure in the auto helm that forced us to spend several days working in the narrow spaces of the stern lazarette in an attempt to repair it. Until it definitively broke down, forcing the three of us to helm in rotation for two-hour shifts for more than a week. Then there were several thunderstorms that for days dumped tons of water on Milanto and on the unfortunate man who was at the helm. In short, many problems that were in addition to a sea that in the first two weeks was really tiring, and with a temperature drop every day as we approached the southern springtime in these latitudes.

Milanto under spinnaker
Milanto under spinnaker

There was always a reason to be discouraged at any point, when we still had more than a thousand miles to go at the helm and the rain was soaking your soul. But in the difficulties we found beauty. On starry nights it was wonderful to steer following the constellation of Scorpio on the bow and to see Mars on the stern rise low in the evening as if to protect our slow progress. We were tired, but focused on what was happening in the present moment, aware that difficulty and beauty are not antithetical, rather that, ‘beautiful things are difficult’, as an ancient proverb goes.

After days at the helm, the wheel became like a natural extension of one’s body. Especially at night, orienting with the stars, spinnaker sailing became like a dance in the sky, as if the hull detached itself from the surface of the sea and soared among the constellations. At least until a collapse of the spinnaker brought you back to reality! But what beauty, how much poetry in those moments when you feel like a solitary traveller among the planets and constellations.

Sunset at the helm
Sunset at the helm

The wind dropped for the last two days, discontinuous in its intensity and direction. A real torment that forced us to proceed slowly, continually making the spinnaker fly, then lowering it shortly after to start the engine. As we sailed in the morning off the islands of Rodrigues and Port Louis (Mauritius), sailing on the northern side of Réunion, we saw three whales on the left side. We saw them progress placidly on the surface of the sea, breathing out a spray of air from their backs. We couldn’t have expected a better welcome than this.

Our arrival in Réunion at dawn on Saturday, 17th October
Our arrival in Réunion at dawn on Saturday, 17th October

We entered the port dead tired on the morning of Saturday, 17th October. Valerio says: ‘Everything we want is on the other side of the fear’. And indeed this journey has made us even more aware that if you can hold out through difficulties and overcome your fears, you can reach for the stars.