From crossing the Solent to tackling the Atlantic – how a hobby turned into a life changing voyage for 50+ couple Simon and Carla Fowler.
As I sit here in the marina in Portimao in Portugal, enjoying the late autumn sun, my mind drifts back over the last three years and the 24,000 nautical miles which my wife Carla and I have sailed. So how did I go from making short hops across the Solent to crossing the Atlantic?
When we got married in January 2017 Carla had never sailed before and I hadn’t owned a boat for 22 years. I learnt to sail with my father and I bought my first boat when I was 27. During the first summer I made it from Southampton to Poole, but it was four years before I made the 80 mile trip across the Channel to Cherbourg in northern France. I had been as far as Brittany before the demands of work and family life meant that I had to sell the boat. It was going to be a long time before I would have salt spray in my hair again.
In January 2017, two days after our wedding, Carla and I were lying on our sunbeds in Barbados when she turned to me and said: “Shall we sell the house, buy a boat, and sail the oceans?” I thought about it for two seconds and said “Yes”. The decision was made. I had only ever been a weekend sailor and Carla had no experience but, in our 50s, we decided to take on a new challenge.
Over the next 15 months I read up on trade winds and global passage routes and that summer we went to Spain for a week of sail training where I learnt to handle a boat again and Carla got to grips with the vital skills of anchoring and rope work. The following year we travelled to Croatia and stepped onboard Ocean Fox, a powerful 40’ catamaran, and decided that this would be the boat for our Atlantic adventure.
To build our confidence and hone our practical skills, we sailed through the Mediterranean via Greece and Sardinia to Gibraltar. This journey was 3,000 miles, far more than I had ever recorded in my logbook. By mid September we were moored safely in Gibraltar, having only had three overnight sails. We began the serious task of getting the boat ready for the ardours of the Atlantic – repairing, upgrading and adding essentials such as a satellite phone.
We sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and on to Vilamoura. A week later we set off for Lanzarote, nearly 600 nautical miles and four days to the south west. We were on our way, but nothing had prepared us for the weather conditions we were about to encounter. The first night out we were hit by the tail of a hurricane with over 60 knots of wind and seas the size of skyscrapers. Carla was horrendously seasick and thought we were going to die. I was up for three nights while, delirious with fatigue, I tried to steer us safely through. We had no choice but to head south and hope that the storm would blow itself out.
94 hours after leaving Portugal, we moored in the marina in Lanzarote. The sun was shining and the sea was as flat as a billiard table. We had been tested with a vengeance and, although battered, we were not going to give up. After our first meal in four days we discussed making improvements to the boat and decided that we were ready to tackle the rest of the journey.
We had chosen our route carefully. It was not the shortest of crossings – via the Canaries and Cape Verde – and, just as I had done many years before in the English Channel, we would take each leg at a time and hope for better weather. We arrived in Barbados on the 25th January and were soon swimming in the crystal clear waters as we had hoped. It had been a stunning sail, the trade winds carrying us safely to our destination. All our preparations and positive attitude had paid off and we spent the next 20 months island hopping before tackling the journey home. We had come a long way from an idle conversation on a sun lounger to undertaking a life changing voyage.