Casting off

Words and photographs by Lou Luddington

A tangle of emotions surged in me on the day when we set sail as live-aboard nomads.

The plan that was loosely formed in autumn 2018, to sell our home of 17 years in Pembrokeshire, buy an old sailing boat, renovate it, move aboard and sail away, was reaching its zenith. We had never owned a sailboat before; in fact, the most time I’d spent on a yacht was an overnight trip to Skomer island with some friends the previous summer. My husband Tom trained as a dinghy sailing instructor and attended an RYA day skipper course 20 years ago but had not sailed since. Yet with a wealth of seamanship from sea kayak guiding, and years of surfing, freediving and scientific diving between us, we knew we could rise to the challenge. Our intention is glorious but simple, to set off on an ocean voyage in search of wild and beautiful stories to tell. We aim to be a light at sea, illuminating the wonders of our oceans aboard sailing boat Noctiluca. We believe that by doing what we love, we can give back to the natural world, and everything else will fall into place.

Taking the helm of Noctiluca I focused on what was ahead; Tom unfurled and trimmed the sails while I steered us past the oil refineries and tankers, out of Milford Haven and familiar home waters. To cover some sea miles quickly we had planned a non-stop passage to Brittany, an estimated three days and nights of sailing the length of Devon and Cornwall to Lands’ End then across the English Channel to the west coast of Brittany. Though there are no roads to follow like on land, the route we had chosen would have been travelled for thousands of years. We had a tense few hours navigating the shipping lanes of the Channel in the dark, weaving a route through fast moving tankers and container ships with the aid of our AIS tracking system.

Our journey began strong with favourable winds blowing us south. The sea formed choppy humps that made us roll and surge along. Simple tasks like making tea or cooking became strenuous activities; bracing with various body parts coupled with lightning fast reactions as hands fired out to grab at rogue mugs, cutlery and vegetables being chopped. We quickly learned to stow everything in its place, using anything soft to fill the gaps.

Lou Luddington sailing underwater photographer
Lou Luddington sailing ocean photo
Lou Luddington sailing diving

Sailing through the night we rotated sleep and watches between us. My first attempt at sleep induced anxiety. Alone in the darkness, the sensation was that of being on a fairground ride. Waves slapped and pummelled the hull so that although the boat moved in a fluid way I bobbed and swayed. Despite the rolling waters, the boat stood strong. Made of sturdy fiberglass in 1986 with traditional lines and a full, heavy keel for cruising the world’s open oceans, she was built for this. I focused on my breath; relaxing all my muscles in turn I convinced my brain I was safe and slept a little.

Sailing friends said I might get seasick, that the night sky would blow my mind and that the sea would glow green at night with bioluminescent plankton, but they forgot to mention that dolphins would bring joy to every passage. The sight of them always set my heart racing and each time I would drop whatever I was doing and rush to the bow. Here we could marvel at their grace and energy and get a measure of their mood. I logged each sighting by dropping a pin on the map of our navigation software to mark their GPS location. Then a little later I would note the position in the ship’s log, along with the time, species and number in the group. These would be added to the Sea Watch Foundation cetacean sightings database. Between Pembrokeshire and Brittany I recorded 16 separate dolphin sightings. Most were common dolphins, and many veered over for some bow-riding. They would often roll on to their sides and gaze up at us through the clear water; it’s quite a feeling to witness the consciousness of a wild creature. Scientists have shown dolphins to be highly intelligent, demonstrating self-awareness, empathy, grief and joy. I wondered if our dolphin visitors knew how they made me feel, if they could sense my awe and elation.

Besides the dolphins, seabirds cruised the ocean’s empty expanse. Adult and juvenile gannets flapped by on a mission to feed elsewhere, while great and Manx shearwaters skimmed over the surface at wave level, gliding on stiff wings with efficient precision. When we heated up our supper two fulmar petrels circled our boat twice then left in the direction of a fishing boat. Recent research suggests that smell plays a fundamental role in their foraging and that they may be navigating through an olfactory seascape of airborne odour plumes to locate prey. The smell of our vegan curry wafting out of the galley was enough to create a novel diversion for these fulmar petrels before a more familiar fishy aroma set them straight.

Lou Luddington sailing seaweed
Lou Luddington sailing seabirds

By midday of our third day at sea we rounded Pointe de Pen Hir and dropped anchor in clear, Breton waters. After enjoying a short time of quiet and stillness, I was itching to get in the water. Swimming over to the nearby cliffs a familiar sight materialised from the haze. Furbelows kelp formed thick glades like at home in Pembrokeshire, with shoals of sandeels swimming above the canopy. The water was noticeably warmer though and I was able to linger as long as I wished without getting cold. After dinner, we consulted charts, weather forecasts, tide tables and almanacs to plan the next few days of sailing to ensure we travelled with conditions in our favour; the outcome was a departure time of 0200 the next day. Another dolphin day unfolded before us with sightings almost every hour. Approaching the headland of Penmarche in Brittany we came across a feeding frenzy, with human fishers in boats, birds and dozens of common dolphins all joining the feast.

Another two days and nights of travel brought us to the bustling water way surrounding La Rochelle and a marina of giant proportions. We planned a day trip on the boat together the next day to Ile d’Oleron. On the crossing to the island we spotted many huge barrel jellyfish, Rhizostoma pulmo, their pale familiar shapes glowing in the soupy green water. With no hurry to get there, we stopped the boat and jumped overboard whenever we spotted a big one and marvelled at their alien form, lit up by the bright sunlight. Perfectly suited to feeding on plankton from these rich waters, their chunky tentacles bear hundreds of tiny mouth openings, each surrounded by miniature stinging tentacles.

We restocked supplies and struck out across the Bay of Biscay. We were headed for an anchorage in Cedeira on the north coast of Galicia, three days and three nights of non-stop sailing away. This meant sailing off the edge of the continental shelf over an abyss 4,500 metres deep. Here the water was the clearest, most intense blue I had ever seen. Clear of any coastal sediment or organic matter to change the colour spectrum, light passed through pure and unfettered producing a clarity and colour typical of the open ocean. Calm conditions allowed us to stop the boat and jump in for a swim, a rare opportunity to plunge into water so unfathomably deep it sent ripples of fear and excitement through me. Suspended in the water were tiny, perfectly crafted diatoms and strings of salps. Drift seaweed floated at the surface, hundreds of miles from their coastal origins, thongweed in tangled swirls, fragments of egg wrack, bladderwrack and sargassum.

Lou Luddington sailing dolphin
Lou Luddington sailing trawlers

Open ocean is often compared to a vast, watery desert and for hours at a time we saw nothing but rippling water all around us. No boats or creatures crossed our field of vision and the VHF radio was silenced by our distance from land. Yet the open ocean is roamed by all sorts of peculiar creatures. Whales live here hunting the depths for squid, fish and zooplankton that undergo daily vertical migrations through the water column. During a calm period, we caught a brief glimpse of a minke whale surfacing for breath before vanishing into the depths.

Communicating and navigating by sound, they use echolocation to conjure auditory pictures for themselves of where prey might be, proximity of their fellow whales and how to find the way. Whales have their own version of the digital chart we were using to navigate, complete with land masses, depth contours, ridges, troughs and sea mounts but created using sound echoes. The minke whale we spotted may have sent out a call and several minutes later known which way to head on its migration south. Although it showed us no interest, it would have got the measure of our craft through sound waves; a solid, peculiar structure rumbling and swishing along at the surface.

Conditions deteriorated towards the end of our crossing. The wind and swell rose and the rain closed in robbing us of sleep and providing a stressful approach to Cedeira in the early hours of our fourth day at sea. We hunkered down in a marina for a few days as Storm Helen unleashed 50 knot winds and torrential rain. Post-storm we explored Islas Atlanticas National Park, a collection of islands in the west, freediving among fields of green fingers seaweeds and curious ballan wrasse. Most nights we were kept awake by fishing boats dropping shellfish pots or plying the waters with billowing trawl nets. Mussel farms cover great swathes of near shore waters too; Galicia is famous for its bateas, floating structures used to cultivate mussels. It was sobering to witness first-hand the intensity of fishing going on in just a small area of sea.

Lou Luddington sailing seagull
Lou Luddington sailing
Lou Luddington sailing jellyfish

As summer ticked along, we needed to keep trucking south. We travelled from Vigo to Cascais near Lisbon where the Tagus estuary supports large gatherings of Catostylus tagi jellyfish. Whilst drifting in the bay one evening watching a raft of Cory’s shearwaters resting on the water, we came across a huge bloom of them. Torn between photographing the birds or jumping in with the jellyfish, the Catostylus won me over. For the next two hours I revelled in conditions that wildlife photographers dream of – underwater at sunset with a group of large, unfamiliar, slow-moving creatures with no other agenda. Four times I swam to the boat ladder, stiff with cold and meaning to get out and four times I drifted away again, distracted by another group of jellyfish lit up and choreographed to perfection.

From Cascais we continued our quest south, lingering a while to freedive in the glorious seaweed gardens of Sesimbra and stealing a quick surf with good friends in Vale de Figueras. The need to find shelter from the ever-present swell of the west coast pushed us on towards the south coast and another feeding frenzy along the way; diners included common dolphins, gannets, Cory’s shearwaters, yellow-legged gulls and terns. The dolphins had clearly had their fill when we arrived on the scene, as they cruised over for a look at our stationary boat, exhaling fishy breath in our direction and leaving a trail of fish scales like confetti in their wake. It was a poignant moment at the end of a dreamy six weeks of cruising and a deep sense of gratitude settled in me; I felt privileged to have experienced such wildness of spirit so many times over. As the sun set on one of the most memorable days of the trip, we rounded Cabo de Sao Vicente, the south-westerly tip of Portugal and dropped anchor in a familiar sheltered bay. Having previously spent several months in this south west region of Portugal, travelling by campervan, our arrival by boat felt like a home coming. Noctiluca had carried us to a place dear to our hearts in a way that was thrilling and new and challenging.

As I write this, we have just completed the first leg of the Atlantic crossing, from south Portugal to the Canary Islands; a challenging undertaking and a mighty achievement for two recently fledged sailors. Sailing for 4.5 days straight in the open ocean is hard – sleep deprivation, fear, isolation, monotony, constant noise and motion test both the mind and body. We have learned that hardship can be a good thing when it has meaning; the rewards so far have out shone the difficult times and given them context on our rich journey of storytelling. Memories of bow-riding dolphins, jellyfish at sunset and glowing kelp gardens remind me of my call to action for the greater good of our oceans. I am committed to an unspoken agreement to shout out on their behalf, to tell their stories and illuminate their lives in the same way they illuminate me.

To order a copy of Lou Luddington’s book, “Wondrous British Marine Life: A handbook for coastal explorers”, click here.