The period leading up to our departure was a whirlwind of manic preparation, and so it came as a shock to suddenly find ourselves cut off from ringing phones and hurried schedules and instead faced with a blue-gray seascape and the monotonous rhythm of deck watches. We sailed up to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and headed east to Ireland, our first landfall.
For two weeks we lived surrounded by nothing but sea and sky, afloat in a tiny husk of life amid the endless ranks of waves, with just the circling gulls and porpoises for company. It’s a way of life that takes some getting used to. The boat is constantly rocking and pitching, and simple actions like eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom become art forms as your arms and legs turn into natural gimbals.
Even in July, the waters between Canada and Ireland are frigid. The weather was chilly and wet, with a clammy humidity in the air that seeped into every nook of the boat, including those storing our socks and sleeping bags. But in the North Atlantic the weather can always get worse, as we soon found out. A passing Italian-registered freighter, the Lady Gloria, informed us of both the World Cup results (“Italia!”) and an upcoming storm.
Sure enough, by noon the following day, a 50-knot westerly wind was whipping up raging waves, some nearly 30 feet from trough to crest. We took down sail after sail, leaving only a tiny reefed staysail for steerage, and still Medley made nearly 7 knots before the wind. Throughout the day we battled the gale, fastening ourselves to the boat with tethers and taking frequent turns at the wheel. Now and then a wave would break over the deck, flooding the cockpit with icy seawater and battering us. The wind howled in the rigging, loud as a jet engine.
As the sun set, the darkness seemed to swell up monstrously around us, dwarfing us with its noise and violence as we struggled blindly with invisible waves in the fury of the night. And when at last morning came, a beautiful sight was revealed to us: miles of majestic, rolling hills, streaked with long lines of ivory foam, glinting beneath the roseate sun.
We weathered the gale and, a few days later, hove into sight of the Irish coast, where my father’s ancestors had set out on a very different journey. The shoreline of County Kerry is a quintessentially Irish landscape, a patchwork quilt of sheep-spangled pastures and ancient, crumbling stone fences draped over rolling verdant hills, trimmed by stunning cliffs—and is also one of the loveliest and most dramatic landscapes we’d see our entire trip, rivaled later only by the mountainous splendor and vegetative cacophony of the volcanic islands of Madeira and Dominica.
We spent the next seven months making our way down the European coastline, visiting Ireland, England, the Channel Islands, Spain, and Portugal. What a delight it was to awake to a new harbor, a new culture, to a day ripe with promise of discovery, in the constant knowledge of our freedom to come and go as we pleased. And it was thrilling to pass through some of the great seaports of Europe—La Rochelle, Lisbon, Cdiz—those gateways to North American destiny. Because we were sailing, we were able to access more-remote areas, particularly small islands like rugged Skellig Michael, once home to an ancient community of Irish monks, or the tiny island of Sark, where, since automobiles are forbidden, the firemen ride about on tractors.