IT IS one thing to dream about sailing across an ocean in your own yacht.
But it’s quite another to be soaked to the skin and sea-sick while your new prized possession bucks and pitches on hostile seas, just a day’s journey from shore. When Edinburgh couple Lynn Michell and Stefan Gregory and their 23-year-old son, Louis, set out to sail across the Atlantic on their 48ft Cardinal yacht, they knew not to expect plain sailing all the way. But they didn’t expect a week-long ordeal off the coast of New England which would test them all to their limits before their journey was well begun. And things became worse still as the punishing conditions threatened to cause a relapse of the chronic ME from which Louis and Lynn had both suffered.
The story of their 3,000-mile journey, its trials and triumphs, is told with honesty and humour in Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night, written by Lynn and Stefan. The book interweaves their separate accounts of the voyage, which at times differ radically. “It has been in the making for a number of years,” says Lynn, a writer who runs Edinburgh-based publisher Linen Press. “When we put our two accounts together they didn’t quite match up, but we did finally agree a version we are both happy with.”
The family set sail from Newport, Rhode Island, in June 2005 after seemingly interminable delays in the boatyards of the east coast of America where their yacht, Scarlet, was repaired and equipped for the voyage. Their first night at sea was bumpy and miserable, after which they entered the rough waters where the Gulf Stream goes up against the wind. Soon, all three – despite being experienced sailors – were violently sea-sick, and a small leak in the boat meant their possessions, supplies and bedlinen were quickly soaked. As the days went on, their sense of the passing of time eroded, but piecing accounts together afterwards, they believed they sailed in circles for about a week.
“At the time, none of us knew how long it had been,” says Lynn. “We were so sea-sick, so ill and so cold that the memory plays tricks. We were all of us clinging on hour by hour to surviving. We didn’t know if we were going to end up back where we started and abandon the whole project.”
They believe the boatyard delays caused them to miss a crucial window in the weather which would have carried them through the Gulf Stream into the Roaring Forties, and given them a tail-wind for their journey. But Lynn says even the extreme conditions did not cause family discord. “We didn’t have a cross word really, apart from a very heated discussion about what we should do when things were bad, and it wasn’t an argument, it was just a very earnest talk about what we should do. We were thinking at a very practical level, pulling together to get Scarlet across the ocean. It was something we’d planned for such a long time and put so much hope and excitement into it, we didn’t ask whether we should have done it, that question didn’t arise.”
The whole family grew up with a love of sailing. Stefan, a philosophy lecturer, has sailed since childhood. Lynn was introduced to the oceans in a baptism-of-fire sailing trip on their honeymoon and never looked back, and their two sons, Adam and Louis, were introduced to life on board ship as toddlers. But an unexpected battle with chronic illness kept them off the high seas for many years.
Lynn and both boys developed chronic ME after catching a virus in 1987, and it took 15 years before all were well again. Louis, the worst affected, was bedbound for four years as a teenager. As conditions on board Scarlet worsened, both parents watched their son grow increasingly pale and tired. Both recriminated themselves for bringing him – though he was both a willing participant and a vital crew member. Lynn says: “He’s a good sailor, he had always wanted to do this, and we thought that by crossing an ocean that might perhaps cancel out some of the years of lying in bed ill when he’d had to watch his peers run up and down the road and play football. He could say: ‘I crossed an ocean, I helped, I played a big part’ – which he did.”
Stefan remembers vividly the moment when the storm abated and they sailed abruptly into calm water. “After doing 500 miles of circles, we got spat out of the wind into flat calm, so calm we had to use the motor. And then very gradually, the wind picked up and we got to the point where the boat would actually sail itself. It happened on my watch, in the middle of the night, I was able to turn the engine off, and we sailed continuously from there on. There were dolphins that night which was very magical, that was the turning point.”
Lynn remembers the thrill of swimming in the calm ocean, after days of being chilled and sick. “That’s one of my most vivid memories, jumping off the boat knowing that I was 200 miles from land, swimming in what I thought was going to be a very, very cold ocean, but was warm. I jumped into this warm, beautiful water, and after all the aches and pains and bruises and being battered around, there was something very magical about all of us swimming round the boat, completely alone.”
Lynn says she loves sailing, despite the discomforts, though her “tolerance of squalor” is still less than her husband’s. “You don’t see many women sailing, especially offshore. They’ll do short trips where they can go back and wash their hair and blow-dry it and sort themselves out. But you have to be prepared to be sticky and untidy and uncomfortable and wash in a cupful of water, and I don’t mind any of that very much. I love the sea, the changing light, the raw element part of sailing.”
“Lynn has an element of addiction to adrenaline,” puts in Stefan. “She likes being a bit frightened, as I do.” “It’s true,” laughs Lynn. “There’s nothing I like more than taking the helm in a roaring gale and having the boat almost on its side, I love that.”
Calm weather and a good wind meant the voyage was back on course, but there was a new problem. An alternator failure meant they were running on reduced electricity, meaning the loss of the boat’s fridge and freezer, and with them, a good deal of supplies. Lynn – in charge of the galley – became increasingly worried about their dwindling resources.
“I became obsessed with food!” she says. “I was worried because one of the ways my son’s illness manifests itself is very low blood sugar, so he needs to be fed and he needs to be fed a lot. I was obsessed with what was left in the store cupboard, and with menus. It got pretty bad towards the end because there wasn’t really very much left – I was forever cooking and worrying about cooking.”
After three weeks, as they came within sight of the Azores – with “three rather nasty sheets between us and a single orange in the fruit crate” – their feelings were bitter-sweet. They had crossed the Atlantic, and there had been many wonderful moments: flawless sunsets with a 360-degree ocean horizon, an encounter with a 40ft sperm whale. But Louis was now very ill. After a heroic effort, climbing round the bows in a harness to wind in the genoa sail in high winds, the ME relapse had become full-blown. Instead of sailing on with his parents to the Canaries, he had to board a plane for home.
“Watching him deteriorate was terrible, especially after that heroic task,” says Lynn. “For me as a mother that was painful, and I was guilt-ridden about it. I wept over that.” But Stefan adds: “I think you make it sound too negative. It was extremely worrying at the time, much more worrying than anything else. He did have a lapse, but it wasn’t all that long before he got back to where he was before we set off. I don’t think he has any regrets about it. He’s very, very pleased to have done it, and it certainly didn’t put him off sailing.”
Eight years on, the family are at last confident that their battle with illness is a thing of the past. “I don’t think about ME at all any more,” says Lynn. “I’ve left that ghetto, thank heavens, and even Louis doesn’t talk about it.” The boat has been sold, and Lynn and Stefan have a new land-based adventure, building a house in the South of France. Louis is married with two-year-old twin daughters (“They’re like the Atlantic, a force of nature.” smiles Stefan), and runs a photography business.
Lynn pauses and smiles. “I can see him getting a boat one day, it’s definitely in his blood.”
• Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night, by Lynn Michell & Stefan Gregory, is published by Linen Press, price £9.99, www.linenpressbooks.co.uk