Sigyn wrote me four letters, to be opened one each week on the crossing, and I promised to write one long letter to post to her the moment we landed in Barbados. I then packed a few things, including Björn’s rubber duck from the bathroom, kissed my two darlings, and headed for England, partly to see my parents and also to buy a sextant – vital equipment for plotting our position each day at sea.
There was a certain romance in buying a brass sextant, even second hand, and I had the jaunty swagger of a real seaman as I stepped out of the shop, but my swagger was soon dented by a storm of criticism from my mother. How could I leave Sigyn and our new son to risk my life so pointlessly? Only years later did I learn that that her anger had stemmed partly from the risks that Henry and I had taken with Claire in the Baltic. She had been so relieved that we had survived that ordeal and was now terrified that we would not be as lucky a second time. I could find nothing to say that would calm her and we passed a very unhappy evening together. My father tried to pour oil on these troubled waters, but I could see that he too was deeply worried. To him, sailing the Atlantic in small boat would have been a nightmare.
Writing my letter to Sigyn
Leaving the Canaries, I started the following letter to Sigyn:
23rd April, 1969
My darling Sigyn and Björn! WE ARE OFF. Left Las Palmas last night at 8 pm and sailed down the east coast of Grand Canary at good speed. Had to be very alert since there was a good deal of shipping. By 6 am we were off the southern tip of the island, but then the wind fell away and we have been lying here all day in a calm. Very frustrating after the good start.
It’s strange to be back on Amitié. Everything is pretty much the same as before – a complete jumble simply because there isn’t enough room. I would describe more – I will describe more – but I have not got my sea stomach yet and though there is little wind there is a constant swell which throws us about, is tiring and makes us feel a bit sick. But I am never too sick to say how I love you and miss you both and thank you for your letter (No. 1 opened today and read out to A + N) and for your love. I cannot describe my feelings right now – excitement, fear, pleasure – a little bit like setting off up Kilimanjaro, remember? But most of all I feel loneliness not to be with you, and pleasure and pride that you are my wife. YES we will be very careful, all the time. Min älskade Sigyn – I will NEVER EVER leave you like this again. NEVER NEVER NEVER – G.
Second day out. We are making very slow progress. Beautiful sunny weather and warm but weak northerly winds. We tried various self-steering systems with masses of ropes going through different (pulley) blocks up to the tiller, and now Amie steers herself due west – which is a bit off the ideal course, but at least it saves the trouble and fatigue of needing to steer. Nicole + I both began to feel better today and managed to eat some chicken soup, cheese and apples and drink some water mixed with wine to take away the plastic taste. Arthur seems in good form but was a bit queasy this afternoon. We have plenty of provisions and water on board and have put a little bleach in the water to kill any amoeba which might otherwise reproduce and make it undrinkable. Björn’s knitted bootee swings happily over my head and I have your picture close.
HEJ! Third night. I’m on watch and it’s 3.45 am. Since AMI is steering herself west in a gentle breeze this means I can sit below and write to you – just take a look round the horizon every 10 minutes or so. Have listened to the BBC world news: tomorrow France has another referendum and de Gaulle has threatened to resign if he doesn’t get his OUI – and now I’m sitting warm and snug in the lamp light (we’re saving the batteries) feeling the boat rock about. Some blocks are rattling just above my head and I can hear water splashing round the bow and the boom jerking up and down as the swell empties the sail of the little wind that’s about. Arthur and Nicole are resting. We all ate large amounts of chicken and mushroom soup last night, so we must be settling down to the motion and sailing routine if our appetites have returned thus. I will just go out and take a look round. Time: 3.56. 26th April, ’69. Everything fine. Warm, gentle breeze. Steering 250°. Distant clouds on the horizon, but stars up above. Deck wet with dew. Water gurgling in the cockpit’s self-draining pipes. No ships in sight.
Unfortunately we are still going very slowly. Averaged little more than one knot so far, with 2,750 miles to cover! At periods we pick up to 2.5-3 knots, and when we find the Trades – if we find them (they have been very weak this year) – we should move much better for long stretches of time. But just now we have done only 100 miles in 2 and a half days.
Dear MARVELLOUS Sigyn! I have just read your next letter and it has made me so happy. I feel just the same as you describe – that each happening will strengthen our love for each other and WE SHALL ALWAYS STICK TOGETHER. Just this, my Mother could not believe or understand, and it was an unhappy evening I spent in Manchester last week when I went back to explain to them. I tried to demonstrate that most marriages are wrecked on the 8.50 train to Waterloo, not on the shores of Jamaica – but my Mother couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. I do hope you are not very afraid for me while I am away – You know I feel that I mature by putting myself in a challenging situation and trying to win through. Maybe moral – as with the Swedish Foreign Aid Programme; maybe physical – as with crossing the Atlantic. You know this is different from the “average” husband, and because of the strains involved this means having an exceptional wife. Well, that wife is you. ABSOLUTELY. You were marvellous for me all the time with the SIDA business; in fact you often served as a conscience for me at times when I might have compromised. For that, thank you. You were marvellous all those rushed and uncomfortable months in England when we looked for, found, bought, equipped and sailed Amitié. I know you were often scared and upset, but only once (Cadogan Pier! remember? – I loved you more dearly than ever then!) did you show it. And that’s why I loved you, because you did it, because you knew it made me happy.
Now, with Björn – everything is different, and yet nothing is different. Although after this trip we will do different things, sometimes (usually) together, sometimes (inevitably) apart – (but not like THIS again) we will use the same dynamic. I will find as much pleasure in making a house (which you will make a home) as I did in making the cradle. We will always do things that ordinary people consider strange. Sometimes I will do them alone (but more often we will be “strange” together, the whole family!) and you will have the more difficult task of being the wife of the man who does strange things. But in future these strange things will always be on a different plane – a moral or political or artistic struggle. WE WILL HAVE A HOME – as you draw it! CERTAINLY with a Karin bear. And it will be the kind of home, and we will have the kind of relationship in the family that others may think odd, but secretly would like to have themselves – just as, secretly, many people already envy us what we are and have done.
4th day If the above sounds too sure, it’s NOT that I take you or your love for granted. Many husbands seem to take their wives for granted, but not me. Au contraire, I get scared at the very thought that some days you might stop loving me. That is the most important thing in the world for me – besides Björn’s health and happiness. But I know you want me to be me – and not some person who just goes round being scared his wife will stop loving him. That’s why I push ahead and do what I do.
Today has gone magnificently so far. The first three days went very slowly – we averaged only 40 miles each day in the weak winds – but now we are getting well out from the Canaries. Lat 26°42’N Long 16°35’W and today we have had fresh, steady NE winds non-stop. We have zoomed along – right on course – with both jibs out on either side and the mainsail slightly reefed, all linked up to the tiller, which – by an ingenious system of ropes – steers us automatically. Today we hope to do more like 80 miles. Further, it is Arthur’s birthday and he produced a high-powered new radio to celebrate the event, and we have been getting Moscow, USA, Sweden and BBC quite easily at 2 in the afternoon. A good concert from the BBC – much appreciated. So morale is high on board Amitié right now. Long may it last – and I hope you and Björn at this instant are laughing at each other and feeling happy. DON’T WORRY FOR ME! I’LL SOON BE BACK TO LOOK AFTER YOU.
We have a housefly on board – the only reminder of land. He buzzes around as if it were a warm summer afternoon on the farm. Strict instructions given not to harm him – he may be like the albatross to the Ancient Mariner – and things are going too well to risk spoiling them now. How superstitious one becomes at sea!
Sixth day out – or is it the seventh – anyway things are going well, if a bit slowly. In Göteborg I said thought we would average 100 miles a day, but we do less. Just over 3 knots, plus about 12 miles current help gives us something over 90 miles each 24 hours. But so far the winds, though in the right direction, have been rather weak. If we can get some fresh Force 4s or 5s we could do 120 miles per day – and the sooner I would be home with you and Björn! We have plenty of sun, and the sea and air are both warm; bright, sparkling waves all over – a few crests breaking – plus a waxing moon most of the night and bright stars when the moon finally goes down. So the weather is treating us very kindly. Disappointing not to see more animal life. Saw the fountains from whales on the second day and Nicole saw a petrel and a White Tailed Tropic Bird (??? That’s what Bombard calls it) and that’s about all. Not a single dolphin yet.
We are eating good sensible food – lots of green beans, salads, grapefruit, oranges, etc. (and cheese – Nicole remembered that I like it and missed it on the Med.) but I still eat the vitamin B tablets you included in Björn’s knitted boot. I’ve forgotten whet vitamin B is good for, but I’m sure it’s good for something or you wouldn’t have sent it. It was Arthur’s birthday yesterday and Nicole cooked a sort of Birthday cake-bread pudding with fruit in it and candles on top – which made a nice change. Today we ate up the remainder with some tinned strawberries, but that will be the end of party food for a while. I’m already beginning to miss your meat balls though the ones we ate in Sweden weren’t “yours”. You made very good köttbullar in Addis – and you will again in England.
We have guessed the day/date we will arrive in Barbados. Nicole, optimist, guesses June 1st – and I hope she’s right. I think it will probably take longer – a few days calm or even light winds will cut down our daily average considerably – so I have guessed June 6th. And Arthur, for some reason best known to himself, has said June 7th (not very original, since I said June 6th first). Well, we shall see.
One week out. Things are going very slowly; you know AMI doesn’t sail at all well under Force 3 and that’s what we’ve had so far. We reckon we’ve done one seventh so far, so that means six more weeks! No problem with food or water, we have plenty of both, but 7 weeks is a long time to be messing about in the Atlantic, and I am afraid you will get very worried those last 2-3 weeks. COME ON WIND! BLOW!
Now I am going to open you next letter. LOOK Björn’s footprint! Really so little? How I would like to kiss that little foot now. Still, I can rub his knitted sock-boot across my cheek, and that’s almost like having him here. And I can look at your photos, but then I start to miss you terribly much, and if there is still 6 weeks sailing to do, plus waiting for a boat once we get over there, plus two weeks on the ship home – I don’t see how I can stand being away so long. It’s 3 weeks tomorrow since I left you and it seems like months
I find I’m spending hours just sitting and thinking of the different jobs I could do and places where we could live. It’s the most important thing for me and I hope to have some clear idea by the time we step ashore in Barbados. We can’t have everything, it will mean some compromise, but there are some priorities – and the first one is that you, Björn and I live in a place we really like, preferably owning and improving it, with some close contact with nature, but not too impossibly isolated. Once we have such a base, where friends know they can find us, we can sink some roots. This does not mean that we will be stuck there for ever and ever Amen. Au contraire, having somewhere that we consider Home will give us the confidence to spend some periods in Africa again – but that’s some time off. What I want is to be like in your picture of the four bears – in front of the fire, with Björn learning to read (and play some music) at your side, Karin in the cradle, and me with my Times (and New Statesman!). VAD JAG ÄLSKAR DEJ!!
Hej Kära Sigyn! I hope you can read this. I am sitting in the moonlight on the 1 am–3 am watch, Sat. 3rd May. A+N are down below asleep and Amitié is gently sailing S.W. in a light breeze. We crossed the Tropic yesterday and have done 615 miles since Las Palmas. There are a few clouds, milky white with dark centres, and the moon is full, which means the stars are rather faint. The sea is mostly dark and fairly still, except in the direction of the moon where it is heaving about, glinting, giving off reflections like black silk. The wind is N.E. and quite warm and the water is very warm. I am always surprised when I put my hand in or pull out a bucketful of sea water. Now darker clouds are moving down from the north and covering the moon completely – so I can’t see at all to write. So I’ll end by saying I wish you were sitting by my side, with Björn on your knee, so we could be experiencing this night watch together.
4th May Hej. Amazed I can read the above as it was written more by feel than by sight. Now it’s the next day. Is it the 3rd or the 4th? I don’t know. Could check up but too lazy to make the effort. It has been a good day, fresh winds and AMI doing over 4 knots for hours on end. Bright sunshine, sea blue choppy sparkling, many white horses, spray – all combine to boost our morale and make us feel we are WHIZZING across the Atlantic. Such a satisfying sense of speed. (A bit depressing to think that this time next week, however fast we sail, we will still be closer to Africa than to America! What a lot of water.) Still, we really feel we’re on our way. I wonder how Björn is these days. Getting bigger and more solid every week. Today, I think, is his birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY BJORN AXEL LILLEMAN! DU ÄR TRE MÅNADER GAMMAL. GRATTIS! A kiss and a hug from your sea-faring Dad – whose beard is thicker and more tickly than ever. I will celebrate by opening the NÄR DU VILL [When you want] envelope. WHOOPEE – liquorice and redcurrant sweets. TACK Kära Du.
We broke one of the cross-trees yesterday, which could have been quite serious as the whole upper half of the mast began to sway about and we feared it might snap off. Still, with two oars lashed together we managed to get the cross-tree back into position and, by tightening a shroud, we hope we have locked it there. Saw another beautiful White Tailed Tropic Bird today. Rather like a dove, but with an impossibly long tail. It stayed with us for about 15 minutes. We have also picked up a couple of small flying fish from the decks. Nicole has Sellotaped one into the log. God only knows what it will smell like next week.
Lat 21°46N, Long 26°18W. Potatoes for lunch – the first for 12 days, a luxury. With bacon and rhubarb. i.e. bacon – and then rhubarb.
We have done some tape recording, but it hasn’t gone so well this time. The trip, so far, is much less eventful than sailing from Brightlingsea to Gravesend. Really. Just day after day. No ships, no land, little change in the weather, no expectation of seeing land for a month, no lighthouses, only trivial events. It was more dramatic between Windsor and Marlow! So I’ll concentrate on writing this to you instead. Then I can say every day I LOVE YOU, JE T’AIME. JAG ÄLSKAR DEJ SIBJÖRN – and I want to come back soon.
It’s the 12th day out – 5th May – and I’ve just been watching a fine sunrise. Big banks of grey-blue cloud and a vast yellow light building up behind them. A warm damp wind, and Venus very bright. Reminded me of Africa and of you. Now we’re getting into a routine and the days are clicking by with the regularity of the log. We’ve had good winds, which is a great help to morale, and our position must now be about 21°15N and 28°30W – reasonable if not brilliant progress. We have decided on a party to celebrate the crossing of the 40°W meridian, which is actually over half way across and which we shall reach in a week if these winds continue. Diverse entertainments are proposed.
Now it’s quite light and looks like being another superb day of wind and sunshine. But now I’ll sleep for a bit.
18.30 Whizzing along, right on course – rather like that day we ran down the English Channel, remember? Following seas, some crests breaking, surging along with the waves as they pick us up. For a moment low down, with high waves all around us, close in – then lifted high up as the horizon appears, miles away. AMITIE very dry. Hasn’t taken a drop into the cockpit yet.
6th May, 18.15 GMT It’s been quite a windy day today and we’ve been steering AMI by hand – though now A+N are trying to get her to steer herself again – without much success from what I can judge from down here. Position at noon was 19°57N 30°48West. We discovered a large chunk of seaweed entwined in the log, so we’ve been sailing at 4.25 knots when the thing only registered 2.5 knots. Nice to know we’ve been doing better than we thought. Bright hot sun all day, blue sea with many white crests, quite a swell too, the odd bird, a few flying fish on the deck during the night, bits of yellow seaweed go speeding by as we charge along S.S.W.. Now we are doing 100 miles a day; with the help of the current, even more. We’ve done over a third of the way. Keep going like this AMI, you’re doing fine! The new sextant is a pleasure to handle. Same model as Erik Hiscock’s.
Just though you might like to know that my wedding ring is safe and not fallen overboard. I was going to keep it in Björn’s boot, but thought it might fall out, so I keep it together with the photos of you, Björn, Mum, Dad and Nan – which I look at often, though it makes me lonely.
Had whale meat köttbullar again, or was it pork? Bread finished. Seem to have masses of water left and have scarcely started eating the tinned food yet, so we shall be quite O.K.
Hej! 15 days out. Haven’t seen land for two weeks, and the last boat – a distant light, just after midnight – was about a week ago. Strangely, we don’t feel lonely. To me, at least, all this feels extremely natural and the sea and the wind + sun very friendly and helpful. Maybe this is on account of the marvellous weather, the fact that we have lots of food and water left and we are 2-3 days away from being half-way across. More and more flying fish – one flew into my neck last night. Wind weakening again. Dammit.
8th May 17°37N, 32°38W. We’ve been having some trouble with the self-steering on account of very light winds + quite a swell which empties the sails of air and shakes them, and us, like mad.
Ma très chère SIBJÖRN. What are you doing at this instant? 18.38, May 10th. Maybe Björn is feeding lustily – is he still just on milk and carrot juice, or have you experimented with a little purée by now? Or maybe he has fed, och rapat duktigt [and done a good burp] and is now hanging on your shoulder clinging to the material of your dress and taking a new look round the room. But which room? At Birgitta’s? At the Berggrens’, with Mårten jumping around trying to be helpful; at Ballarp where we slept in that little outhouse and peed in the snow! Or maybe at Bidarhem, with the smell of wood and baking coming in from the kitchen. I don’t know
All is wind, water, sky, sunshine. We have picked up speed again. Very close to HALF WAY. Wheeee! We baked bread last night, in a tin can wrapped in aluminium foil on the Primus stove – and it is good, really good. Light and consistent inside (but not doughy), and a perfect crisp crust (but not too hard). This time Nicole had some baker’s yeast which made all the difference.
Just in case we meet a steamer or some fast boat that will take this letter and post it to you sooner than I could if I kept it till Barbados, here’s a request: would you write three post cards or short letters to a) Mr and Mrs Gillette b) M. et Madame Silly c) Mum and Dad. Message; You have had this letter via a steamship and our position was … (I’ll write it on the back of the envelope if and when we meet the ship).
Oh! Hej! I knew there was one more letter for me to open, but somehow I got the idea that it was for May 15th. Then I just looked to make sure, and it was for TODAY May 10th! So now I know what you are doing – you’re having a little party for Björn’s namnsdag.(= Saint’s day) Hej, Björn! Maybe the seagull we saw has come from Göteborg – with greetings. Strange, anyway, that I wondered especially just what you were doing. Telepathy? Well, I’ll try it in reverse. I have just thought very hard and tried to transmit to you this message: ALL IS GOING VERY WELL. HAVE CONFIDENCE IN ME AND FEEL HAPPY. KNOW THAT I AM ALL RIGHT. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE O.K. Hope you feel a surge of confidence that all is going well for us, because it is.
11th May, 13.45 We just passed a lonely barrel floating along. Investigated. One or two small fish swimming under it. Then suddenly 6-8 big beautiful fish, between 75cm and 150cm, joined AMITIE. They are swimming alongside. Yellow tails, blue-green backs. Beautiful. Dammit! A+N want to kill and eat one.
13th May. Last night, at 11.30 pm we logged mile 1,375, so we are HALF WAY ACROSS. I wish I could send you this message by telepathy. The winds have freshened and we have a very big swell. There has been a little rain during the night but now it is sunny again. As I wrote those words a wave broke against the side of AMI and a lot of spray and water came into the cockpit and even down onto my bunk where I am sitting. The paper is wet and difficult to write on.
Two problems during the night: the cross-tree fell down again, so A and I spent an hour on the heaving foredeck fitting it back into the shroud, shoving it up again and tightening the rigging screw. Not easy in the dark. YES, we both had life-jackets and safety-lines on… An hour later, the forestay broke, so we had to take in the second jib. When we’ve slept I’ll try to mend it.
Our fish are still with us. They jump out of the water hunting the many flying fish which fly out of the water in great numbers like autumn leaves caught in a gust of wind – but silver – they skim over the waves for many metres. We are now past the 38°W meridian. Nicole now steering.
AMITIE eating up the miles. Tomorrow we should cross the 40°W meridian at about 17°N. Then only 1,200 miles to go. 1,575 done. Now I feel every mile brings me closer to you. I’m on my way home already. AMI is steering herself, so I’m sitting here re-reading your letters and see how well you have understood me. Thank god you exist. I don’t know where I’d find anyone to match you. Had first row with N. today. She’s annoyed with me, partly perhaps with reason. I irritate her, and I must admit I haven’t done everything in my power to avoid doing so. Poor of me. Must try harder, but it’s hard since the irritation is mutual. Still, not bad to go 20 days of intensive cohabitation before a flare-up.
Black night outside, with rain and wind. Warm. V. big swell. Dark waves racing down out of the north. But I can still see both the Great Bear and the Southern Cross in the gaps between the clouds.
15th May. Just had a night of squalls, rain and rough sea. The watches were interminable. AMI not only wouldn’t steer herself, but wouldn’t be steered by anyone else. Kept trying to gybe, then shooting up into the wind, almost unmanageable. Rain slowly found itself through my oilskins into the warm dry parts of my clothes. Compass difficult to see – little yellow revolving card speckled over with salt and water. Log whirring behind me knocking off the miles. We did 110 miles yesterday. At the cost of getting wet, cold and very tired.
During the watches I listen to the radio. Find I listen to all sorts of stuff I normally wouldn’t – such as Voice of America “Breakfast Show” – just because it comes over and is less effort to hear than the better programmes (BBC). I hear Pete Miles (“Good Morning, Africa!”) about 5 am. Same old forced cheeriness and imbecilities – but it helps pass the hours.
Our fish are still with us. (None have been caught. I told Nicole that I hoped they wouldn’t catch one; maybe that partly led to the row the other day.) Blue-green presences a metre long, surging past or alongside the boat, suddenly skimming off to hunt a shower of flying fish. These latter all shoot out of the waves – maybe 200-300 – and glide, zig-zagging –“pestilence-stricken multitudes” (Thank you, Mr. Keats).
17th May. We are moving along at a good speed, about 47°W and 17°N. I am at work on a poem for you. VAD JAG LÄNGTAR EFTER ER [How I long for you both].
Rough weather in mid-Atlantic
19th May. I’ve been writing a poem about you and me and this trip and it was only when I used the line “now, a thousand miles from land” and checked up in the Atlas to see if it were more than poetically true, that I noticed the huge distance we have been from land. At 18°N 41°W we were in fact a thousand miles from the nearest bit of dry earth. That’s the same as being in Gbg and the nearest land being Sicily. Gulp.
Today at noon (unless the wind drops) we will have done 2,175 miles of our journey according to the log and adding 10 miles a day for current. That fits exactly with our sun shots position of this morning, so we’re pretty confident we know where we are. 600 miles N.E. of Barbados.
Just woke up to find A. has been “pooped” and was struggling to take off his sodden trousers in the cabin. N. is now steering – in her bathing costume. The water is incredibly warm. Have you shown Björn the sea yet? I’m aching to see him. I bet he’s looking about at things now. Maybe fingering them. Give him a recorder (sterilised) to play with. It can’t hurt him. He can chew on it and perhaps produce a note or two. I hope he’s still getting his ration of Mozart and Das V.T. Klavier. These are his most vital months, so they say.
I hope your nights have not been as strenuous as mine. The wind has been fresh these last 4-5 nights and we haven’t dared leave her to steer herself. Also, it’s been a following wind, so there’s always the danger of a gybe – which happens about once a night – and it’s a tricky and tiring business to get her back on course. Maybe Björn has started sleeping over those midnight breakfasts? I bet he’s round as a little barrel by now. And solid. Hope he’s not too heavy for you. Does he weigh 7 kilos yet? (19th May) Oh, I can’t wait to get back. I’ve been thinking of stories I can tell him and some simple songs, and how, when he’s bigger, we’ll take him out in all kinds of weather to see nature in all her moods.
20th May. Frustrating. After doing v. well for several days, so now we’re only about 400 miles N.E. of Barbados, the wind seems to be giving out. We are drifting, roughly southwards, to counter the N.W. current. Now it really feels tropical. Gusts of warm air all night. Like a lion breathing down your neck. The sea very warm. Big lazy fish. It’s now 6 pm and I’m sitting on my bunk with sweat dripping down my face. A. has been rather sour these last days. At first I thought it was because of the tension between N and me, but he seemed to be just as short with her: the 27th day’s fatigue and tension. Actually, the time has gone in a remarkably relaxed way.
Looks as if we shall arrive on a weekend. Hope the telegraph office is open 24 hours a day. Will cable you FIRST THING – but it’s a pity I won’t have read the letters you have written, since the P.O. will be closed until Monday. Now to get some sleep before my 10 to midnight watch.
I hope you’re not disappointed that this letter doesn’t say more of significance. I usually write when tired and a bit lonely and would like you next to me. Maybe I should describe things in more detail, but the days and nights are very similar. Last night, though, on my watch, we sailed along a starry corridor between big banks of cloud. Like sailing down a starry main street or the Bhramaputra.
22nd May. How slowly these last days are going! We had very weak winds yesterday, then suddenly force 6 from the E. Now we think we’re about 330 miles from B. Can’t help looking round the horizon now and then to see if there is land or at least ships. Nothing. Tomorrow I will open your last letter to me. I wonder what you say. Your other letters have been wonderfully encouraging. Especially the one I got at the bank in Las Palmas, half an hour before we set off. It made all the difference. THANK YOU! Hej, Björn! I finger your knitted sock and can almost feel the soft foot inside.
After 3-4 days’ tensions on board, we seem to be getting on better again. At least I am. A and N still seem to be having some sort of trouble.
23rd. Only 205 miles to go. Have just come off watch. 2 am. Fine moonlit night. Water lit dramatically with patches of moonlight. Rather theatrical. Very warm. Even when a wave splashes over it’s not uncomfortable. Heard on the BBC that the Chelsea Flower Show finished today. Hundreds of people streaming out of the tents carrying away cheap flowers. Maybe Björn is exactly one year old tonight? I’ve been wondering a lot about jobs and our future as I’ve sat and steered. I think I now have a good plan: A. Summer in England B. Two years teaching U-lands subjects in Sweden C. Two years (or one) teaching the same subjects at a British university D. Two-four years in same subjects at an African university. Then continue to alternate between England, Sweden and Africa. My torch is fading. Can scarcely see to write. 25th. Stuck in a flat calm, 160 miles from Barbados, for the last 12 hours. Infuriating.
26th. We had a party yesterday. Nothing else to do. Then, just as we staggered down below, a bit befuddled, for a good night’s sleep, the wind picked up. Only doing two and a half knots, but in the right direction + better than nothing. Have just taken the noon sight. 13°7’54”N x 58°12’30”W. About 78 miles to go; so the current has been helping us. Many birds chasing the fish brought to the surface by bigger fish hunting them. The big fish must be staying with the boat since the birds have been with us for 8 hours. Radio Barbados loud and clear and commercialized. Right on course.
27th May. LAND AHEAD! 10.45 am. Nicole sighted Ragged Point light. 14.00 Now sailing round southern end of Barbados in roughish seas. Squalls. Hot wind. Coral reefs 6 miles to starboard. 15 miles to go.
16.00 hrs. SAFELY ARRIVED. DROPPED ANCHOR INTO TRANSPARENT WATER OF CARLISLE BAY, BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS.
28th. Have bought ticket to Europe. Leave by inter-island sailing schooner on the 30th for St. Lucia. Take an Italian ship from there on 4th June. Hope you got the telegram I sent you last night “ALL SAFELY ARRIVED BARBADOS. RETURNING SWEDEN SOONEST. PLEASE RING NORTHWOOD. YIPPEE. LOVE MORE LOVE. GLYN”
Those last twenty-four hours before sighting Barbados had been strange. Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier, but before setting off from Las Palmas, none of us had ever used a sextant, and a day or two passed at sea before we opened the box to examine its wheels, tubes, mirrors and fine calibrations etched into the brass frame. We could work out our latitude fairly easily – how far north we were from the equator – but we needed an accurate watch and some skill in mathematics to calculate longitude – how far west we had come. Our trusty seaman’s manual, Reed’s Nautical Almanac, provided a brief introduction to the sextant, plus a formula for establishing longitude and several pages of mathematical tables. The rest was up to us.
A page showing our daily calculations
Each day, we tried to measure the angle formed between the horizon, our sextant and the sun – exactly at noon. This was easier said than done, and in rough or cloudy weather we obtained very uncertain readings. Add to that our struggles with the mathematical tables and remembering which of our figures to subtract, add or divide. Nevertheless, a wobbly line of pencilled crosses did form across our chart, each one supposedly giving a noontime position and – apart from one in the Sahara Desert that was clearly impossible – each new cross was closer to the Americas than the last. But, but, but – this was all based on mathematical theory. What if we were reading the sextant wrong or bungling our calculations?
Crunch day came when Theory placed us some 80 miles east of Barbados and, logically, we would sight land at ten next morning, but if nothing showed up, we were in trouble. Perhaps we had bungled the science and could now be many hundreds of miles off course.
Besides the sheer joy of seeing Barbados appear on the horizon when it did, we also experienced a peculiar pleasure in witnessing the scientific principle validated in such a personal way.
WE HAD DONE IT, and it felt wonderful to be arriving and have nearly three thousand miles of empty rolling Atlantic behind us, but in those last few hours edging towards Bridgetown a little sadness fell over the boat. The adventure was ending and the three of us would never relive it.
Stepping ashore on a sandy beach – right in front of the Bridgetown Hilton hotel – and stumbling up onto the road and into town was unforgettable. We staggered as if drunk. After a month at sea, we had to find our land legs and this took more than a couple of days. And the smells! The aromas! Flowers, tar, baking, coffee, bananas and other fruit in the markets. Our noses had been cleansed, starved of all the rich odours of the land which now enveloped us and none of which, strangely, seemed unpleasant. And all the colours – the warm reds, yellows, pinks and browns – after the cool blues, blacks and whites of the ocean.
The heady aromas of land! Bridgetown, Barbados
We sent telegrams home and collected our post from the Post Office, devouring it as greedily as we did our first meal on shore. I bought my passage back to Europe and then went looking for a printer who could print the poem I’d written for Sigyn. It went like this:
18°N – 41°W
I shall write of you and me – Time was never more at hand
than now, a thousand miles from land – when twenty days’ continuous sea
and wind and sun have cleansed me.
My thoughts run constant, they prevail – like steady Trades now we’re apart
and millimetrewise I sail – across the North Atlantic chart.
A month ago I kissed you last – saw your tears, although you smiled
and in your arms our little child – who knows not yet a world more vast
than those warm arms. Amitié’s mast
describes soft circles in the west – yet somehow will not bring a White
Tailed Tropic Bird to curb his flight – to perch, to take a moment’s rest.
How could I leave you for the sake – of distant challenge that must bring
us forty nights of worrying – risking what I least would stake
for no winning but a wake
three thousand sea miles long?- ‘Such earnings,’ nag the careful, ‘can
not feed them. How dare you, a man – chance all for nought? It’s wrong.’
True, now I give you awful hours – You lie alone, alert and mark
our son’s uneven breathing in the dark – and your too-rich imagination sees the powers
of a wrathful ocean. Squalls, showers
and lightning strike – Breathe deep my son –
The craft is crushed by monstrous waves – It fills, it sinks, the tempest raves.
They swim, they swim … They’re gone!
Yet – I sit by this steady compass rose – yellowed by a weak electric light.
My watch is one to four tonight – Far from the drama you suppose,
the hours pass uneventful. Venus glows.
Then rain from a dim, drifting cloudbank starts – Pale decks glint back the cabin lamp
Out here, despite my oilskin, damp – seeps to my last warm dry remaining parts.
Drizzle passes, stars surge forth – leap, shine, sparkle into view,
Stars both familiar and new – Though southern skies flash much of worth
two pendant crystals yet the North
with ageless beauty wears – Great and small they rise, impel me,
watch me worried wonder, tell me – of my two proud gentle Bears.
Despite our fears, I know you know – we win from this a richer part,
each melted in the other’s heart – By trial we teach our love to grow.
For we are closer now than those
who daily face each other’s faces- but whose hearts are foreign places.
Ocean in between us flows – but ours is loneliness that blows
away the second that we meet – They fear to chance and use the wind
And in each other’s presence find – their solitude is most complete.
Bored partnerships can also sink – and wreck both mate and master where
she turns to Bingo, he to drink – Yet few brave golden rings the pink
Barbados coral fingers wear.
I come soon, thin, glad, tropic-hued – to make us ever three, my Bears;
our hearts our home throughout the years. By living fully, love’s renewed.
Arthur and Nicole stayed on in the West Indies for another year, living on board Amitié and sailing from island to island. In Dominique, they went ashore for Nicole to have her baby (Marina Elise) in a local hospital.
The Gillettes cruising in the West Indies, 1970
For my part, I bought a passage on a wooden coastal schooner, a real old sailing ship, and left Bridgetown late one afternoon with a dozen other passengers and cargo. All through the starry night we sat around the deck, listened to the creaks and groans of the mast and rigging, the flap and tug of huge sails and the swirl of the sea alongside. Every now and then they started up their bilge pumps, for the vessel leaked badly, but once the motor ceased a wonderful feeling of peace returned with the natural sounds, while the deck rose and fell like the chest of a sleeping person. Around daybreak we entered the harbour of Castries, St. Lucia.
Soufrière, and one of its prefect volcanoes
There, I stayed at Mrs Williams’s Guest House – where Grandma (Ruth Roberts) was to stay twenty years later – and then took a local bus down to Soufrière on the south west coast with its twin volcanic peaks rising steeply from the bay. The setting is idyllic, pure Hollywood, but I had soon to return to Castries to go on board my ship bound for Barcelona.
We sailed, yes, but then I found the ship had still to visit Venezuela before turning and heading back to Spain. So, although I saw something of the favelas, slums, encircling the obscenely wealthy central districts of Caracas, my journey was prolonged by three more days – when I was desperate to get home to Sigyn and baby Björn. How boring to cross the Atlantic by liner! The ocean lay all around, vast and lifeless; I had nothing to do and knew nobody. Despite the bright sun and tropical warmth, each day dragged, in contrast to the previous month packed with responsibility, interest and the satisfaction of handling our little ship across the same waters.