One Dubai Woman’s Story About Sailing Across the Atlantic

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Victoria Gandit Lelandais Atlantic Ocean crossing selfie
Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Gandit Lelandais

Savoir Flair. Savoir Flair, this is Sailing Vessel Victoria. Victoria OVER.

When your life coach tells you that it’s okay to be a bit more adventurous, you take her word for it. Last year, I became a boxer to fight in a ring just three months later. In 2017, I decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a sailboat. Some would call me crazy, some would be scared – but I feel privileged. Upon hearing about my upcoming trip, a friend quoted psychiatrist Carl Jung, who once said that water is the most common symbol for the unconscious.

As fate would have it – on the day of my birthday – Captain Raccoon, my friend who happens to live on a sailboat named Andorra, called me to say that he was taking her from the Canary Islands to “the other side”. Andorra is a Bavaria 2003, a 49-foot sailing beauty. We had sailed together across the Mediterranean Sea the previous year, so we knew that we were compatible in confinement. I had just landed in Paris and, at the beginning of my 31st year on this planet, it took me half a second to say yes. It took me, however, a lot longer to pack.

A shopping spree at the sailing shop, a very long discussion with my mum (and work), and a crucial subscription to world-traveler insurance later, I was ready for the leap of faith. Being a woman, I had packed clothes for each day and beauty products for a month, but little did I know that I would not be wearing most of them – I’d become utterly low-maintenance in the beauty department.

So off we went for three weeks of sailing. We left on a Thursday in January from Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off the Northwestern coast of Africa, full of energy and excitement for the adventure we were embarking on. We naturally agreed to a few ground rules for mutual well-being in a confined space: let’s enjoy ourselves, always see the good side to everything, be aware of risks without letting them cloud our heads and become real, and take things as they come – calmly and wisely.

Victoria Gandit Lelandais Atlantic Ocean crossing sunset sky
Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Gandit Lelandais

The first day of the trip was tough; our bodies were trying to adjust to the movement while winds of up to 25 knots made it impossible to cook anything inside the boat because of the swell. Over the course of the next three weeks, this happened a few times and we tried to cheerfully make the best of the situation with canned or dried food.

Sailing is a true lesson in humility, no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you own.

The first week was easy on us – we had fresh fruits and vegetables, we still had chocolate and, on day six, we saw a shipping boat that allowed us to check through radio communication that our Automatic Identification System (AIS) was working. I learned how to speak Radio Voice Procedure on the boat, which is a simplified and standardized way of communicating through two-way radios used in the armed forces and any navigation.

In the middle of an ocean spanning 106 million square kilometers – and as opposed to the more touristic Mediterranean Sea – the chances of bumping into another boat are so slim that we didn’t have to do long night shifts thanks to a working AIS and good steering system. We could sleep, only waking up to check the sail and radar every hour or so. From day one to day eight, we sailed to a specific coordinate south-west that allowed us to catch the famous trade wind discovered by Christopher Columbus, after which we headed fully west towards Antigua and Barbuda, where we arrived 15 days later.

Victoria Gandit Lelandais Atlantic Ocean crossing on bow
Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Gandit Lelandais

Throughout the trip, the weather was unpredictable – some days were sunny and hot, while others humid and stormy. We learned to enjoy the sun as well as the rain. Fresh water is weirdly enjoyable when everything around you is so salty and, on day nine, it rained for the first time. Simple pleasures.

The longer we sailed, the stronger the waves grew. As the trade wind starts on the coast of West Africa and ends in the Caribbean, we could feel it building up during the last week. Every night, I would wake up with noises stronger than the night before. These were caused by parts of the boat rubbing against each other because of a strong movement, and they scared us to our bones every single time.

Sometimes, at night, I could hear the voices of men – I would’ve thought I had gone crazy had Captain Raccoon not heard them, too. Perhaps they were the souls of lost sailors trying to find their way home or trying to reassure us that we were not alone? Whatever it was, it was oddly comforting. Waking up several times a night might seem like a nightmare for some, but in the middle of the ocean and over an extended period of time, the body magically adapts.

With zero light pollution, the night was so dark that we couldn’t even see the white sail in front of us. On nights when the sky was clear, I saw the most beautiful skies of my life. I could see all the stars as if I could touch them, and the Milky Way was so clear that my mind drifted towards this mysterious, breathtaking, spectacle of a galaxy that we live in – “Just for me,” I thought. I felt so privileged once again.

Victoria Gandit Lelandais Atlantic Ocean crossing storm
Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Gandit Lelandais

On one of the most turbulent nights, the waves were playing their sadistic game again, so I sat outside in calming meditation mode. The waves were strong and we were speeding. The turmoil in the water was making the planktons shine along the sides of the boat. I stared like a kid fascinated by the beauty of what was happening. I had stars shining above my head and was being carried through the water with these sparkling creatures. It was just so beautiful.

“Learn your lessons from nature. This is where our future is.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Many lessons are learnt while sailing – one of them is that you have to let go. The elements are bigger than you; the ocean is larger than your reach and goes beyond your field of vision. Sailing is a true lesson in humility, no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you own. It teaches you respect and reminds you of just how small you really are in the face of the world, facing nature that you cannot predict. It teaches you to accept what you simply cannot fight or change and learn how to make the best of it without complaining – and with humility.

You cannot love sailing without having a passion for animals. We didn’t see many during the crossing, but got very excited about the few that we did encounter. On several occasions, we saw koaes, which are solitary and highly graceful birds of tropical oceans with long tail feathers. These phoenix-looking creatures are able to glide for long enough to be very far away from land and rest on the surface of the sea. On day 15, we had the most beautiful time playing with dolphins for an hour. I sat on the bow of the boat with my feet in the water, clapping and singing as they responded and jumped around us. This memory will never leave me.

Victoria Gandit Lelandais Atlantic Ocean crossing dolphins
Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Gandit Lelandais

Without much to really do on the boat, I read a lot of books. One of them was Free Your Brain by Idriss Aberkane. Barely 30 years old and with numerous PhDs, he is a neuroscientist who has a very interesting vision of how we should use our brain in a more ergonomic way. One of the concepts he develops is transhumanism, or the idea of making humans better with science.

Opposed to the idea of “augmented humans” who, thanks to science, can live longer, calculate quicker, or run faster, Aberkane believes that the change for the better should come from the inside, rather than the outside. What differentiates us from plants is that we have mental cognition. This neuro-cognition is the capacity of integrating history and experiences in our future behaviors.

He believes that the change into better versions of ourselves should then come from within us, from all the experiences we can register and our own mistakes. This creates an urgency to do things that society’s rules would tell us not to do, to push the borders that our education system has taught us, and to think outside the box and adopt a “can do” attitude. Short of that, we will still be doing and thinking the same in 100 years.

What I did last month is exactly all of the above. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a friend on a sailboat was not an attempt to escape from daily life or work, it was not a holiday. It was not the result of an addiction to adrenaline, nor was it stubborn or reckless behavior. It was an attempt to find a way to be better from within, register new things in my instinct, print experiences in my brain, and learn how to be happier as a human being so that I could share my story with others and perhaps influence them to do the same. If we all go through life carrying baggage, why not make that baggage beautiful and useful?

On day 23, the arrival was simply epic. We were both so excited to see land that we slept outside and, at 4 a.m. after a stormy night, it appeared under a ray of sunlight worthy of a biblical scene. As we reached lush-green Antigua after so many days of blue sea, we naively realized how lucky we were to live on such a beautiful planet. The smell of wet earth, the colors of the elements, the feeling of having a place to belong to – everything came together in that moment.