When two London nurses, Charlotte Ashburner and Jane O’Connor, set forth from England last year aboard a modest 28-foot cruiser for their one-year sabbatical at sea, they had no idea what lay ahead of them: a voyage north past the Arctic circle, an efficient 18-day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, a memorable series of Caribbean adventures, and perhaps most amazingly of all, winning a prestigious award at an international sailing extravaganza.
“We were just taking it a step at a time, trying to get some mileage under our belts,” said Ashburner.
“We both,” said O’Connor, “really needed a change.”
It’s safe to say that steps have been taken. Changes have been made.
I met the two sailors earlier this month, in Antigua, while on the island for the annual spring rite known as Antigua Sailing Week. Figuratively speaking, they were both walking on air. For one week earlier, on a whim, the women had entered Ashburner’s Twister 28 Pouncer, a full-keel Holman & Pye design built in 1971, in a different event, the Antigua Classic Regatta. And when all was said and done, Pouncer was awarded the esteemed Spirit of the Regatta prize presented to the boat and crew that best represent the heart and soul of the occasion.
“Collecting that cup was absolutely amazing,” said Ashburner. “Just fantastic.”
So, too, were all the events that preceded it.
When the two friends hoisted sail at the outset of their journey, in the spring of 2007, it was Ashburner’s first command as the skipper of her own vessel. A dinghy sailor in her youth, she’d purchased Pouncer with the notion of taking off for a year, perhaps to wander through the Mediterranean. She took and passed the Royal Yachting Association’s Yacht Master course, asked her novice-sailor colleague, O’Connor, if she was game for an escapade, took time off from work, and headed north.
“The arrangement was that we’d go up to Norway, then down to Portugal and review then,” said Ashburner. “We’d see how it was all going and decide whether we wanted to winter in the Med or maybe along the coasts of Portugal and Spain.”
And off they went. First it was Scotland, then Norway to gaze at the Midnight Sun, and back down through the Shetland Islands, to O’Connor’s hometown of Ballycastle, Ireland. The sights, the people, and everything else about the journey was amazing. The learning curve, admittedly, was steep, but the pair met every challenge, and as they did, their collective confidence grew. The travels continued, culminating in a magical cruise down the Bay of Biscay, a piece of water they’d entered with trepidation.
“That clinched it,” said Ashburner. Pouncer would tackle the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
They made their way to the Canaries, added a third friend for the passage ahead, and pointed Pouncer toward Barbados. With three on board, they established a rotating routine: one day each for cooking, cleaning, and resting. At night they shared a glass of port and read plays aloud.
“Good psychological things,” said O’Connor.
“You have ups and downs all the time,” she continued. “But I think women are better at this anyway. The secret is to keep the arguments short and realize you’re both on a journey and you have the same interest and motivation to keep that journey going. After awhile, you develop a bond, like sisters. After all, you’re with each other 24 hours a day.”
Through it all, they had dependable little Pouncer to rely on, and the rugged little boat delivered in every important way. “She’s so forgiving and helpful,” said Ashburner. “She’s looked after us, I think, in a very romantic way. She’s very sea-kindly. She’s not particularly fast but for crews that aren’t hugely strong, she’s very manageable and handles very well. She’s been really, really, really good.”
From Barbados, the women cruised the Grenadines before fetching up in Antigua and their unexpected reward: silverware from the Classic Regatta. “What a grand finale,” said O’Connor.
Of course, it wasn’t quite over. To close the circle, there’s still that return trip back to England. “Still a helluva long way to go,” said Ashburner. “But I think it’s important that we make the circuit. Shipping the boat home isn’t an option. I want to finish what we started. That’s important to me.”
And what, one had to ask, about the prospects of returning to work? Ashburner laughed. “Well, that’s hopefully two months away,” she said, “so I’m trying not to think about that at all. That might be the ultimate challenge of the whole trip, to go back to regular life. And who knows what that outcome will be?”
Whatever it is, O’Connor says she wouldn’t trade her year at sea for anything. In fact, she’s looking forward to future voyages, perhaps as a skipper, rather than the crew. “People say we make it sound easy but the truth is, it’s been very achievable,” she said. “And it’s changed my perspective on things. I mean, how many people are in jobs where you have a chance to be on watch and just look at the sea and think, twice a day for three hours at a time. It’s funny, you do a fair amount of reflection. It’s been a great opportunity and experience.”
And what would be her counsel to other landlubbers considering taking the leap? “I’d say you have to do it,” she said, emphatically.
“It has to be done.”