My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Do you believe in random coincidence or that certain events are “meant to be”? We’ve all had experiences of being in the right place at the right time (or avoiding the wrong places at the wrong time) but the story John Beattie tells in his book, “The Breath of Angels” is one of the most amazing examples of this coincidence/fate dilemma.
In 1992, John Beattie bought and outfitted a 35-foot sailboat “Warrior Queen” with the dream of sailing around Britain and eventually around the world. Nothing so surprising about that. Years earlier, he’d been inspired to go sailing by one of Adrian Hayter’s books, “Sheila in the Wind”:
“The idea of sailing off in a boat took hold of me. From the day I finished the book I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up,” writes Beattie.
Fast forward and Beattie has outfitted his boat, given up his career and chosen to pursue his sailing dream rather than stay with the woman he loved. “Most men would have given their eye-teeth for her, but here was I, selfishly indulging my whims, leaving her and taking off in a beat-up boat going nowhere slowly – all because of a book I had read as a child.
“But there was more to it than that. I had seen my father’s life being snatched away from him prematurely, and watched other men fall into a mind-numbing routine that leads inexorably to the grave. If we don’t die young, we usually end up leading a life of subdued frustration and get stuck in groove, but the only difference between being in a groove and being in a grave is one of depth. Along the way to that grave in the comfortable groove, you might get a new car or a greenhouse or, if you really hit the big time, a holiday home – but these things are palliatives, the opiate of a materialistic lifestyle that is impoverished through lack of meaning…Whatever happened, I didn’t want to end up slumped in an armchair in an old people’s home looking back on a life of comfortable but frustrated existence.”
Beattie soon has as much ocean as he wants to handle. Caught in a storm in the notorious Bay of Biscay, he’s sure he’s going to die. But after laying hove-to, sleeping for a few hours, he re-emerges with renewed confidence and a determination to survive.
It’s at this point in the story that one can begin to wonder on the course of events that followed. Boat and Beattie are so badly battered that Beattie gives up on his dream of a circumnavigation and settles instead for a cruise to the Caribbean. He gets delayed for months – yet he exotraordinary event that is at the heart of this book, in the end, comes down to a matter of hours.
Beattie crosses the Atlantic Ocean alone and is soon swept up in the boating life of the islands where superyachts, charter and cruising sailboats and local boatboys jostle along together in the marinas and anchorages. Beattie tells a good story of nearly losing his boat (yet again) and some of the people he meets.
After weeks of the sea, sun and sand of the islands, he heads south to Venezuela and more adventures; mostly with sandbanks in the shallow rivers. And after that Beattie and his crew of one near out into the Atlantic once more. “Don’t worry. There’s nothing out here, we are all alone,’ he says, insisting there’s no need to keep a watch and encouraging his crew to get a good night’s sleep. This is what makes the statistical chances of what occured the next morning all the more astonishing.
“The boat sailed on its own through the night – no helmsman was at the wheel, no navigator plotted a course, no lookout scanned the horizon. guided by the wind, it weaved its way across the dark, empty sea.”
At dawn the next morning, Beattie is awkoen by his crew beating on the cabin hatch.
“When I looked out over the port side, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was a small, open boat less than 20 yards away. It was rolling and pitching. There was a man in the boat. He was trying to stand up, holding on to the side with one hand and waving with the other. His eyes were white and wide open. They looked straight into mine. I had never seen eyes like his before. I was transfixed. They were the eyes of a man haunted by a spectre and they spoke a thousand words – words of pain and suffering and fear and hope. They held on to me, imploring me to help him.”
The man who was saved was Martin Simon, a 29-year old fisherman from Granada. After their outboard engine broke down within a mile of the shore, he and a companion were carried out into the ocean. Simon had been adrift in the open boat for 11 days without food or water. His companion had died and Simon had had to bury him at sea.
Simon’s rescue becomes all the more amazing when Beattie recounts that both he and his crew were sleeping as the sailboat closed with Simon’s open boat. Beattie writes of his crew, “In his sleep he heard a man’s voice. He thought he was dreaming and went back to sleep. He heard another noise in his sleep – this time he thought it was a seabird. then he heard a noise for the third time, and he decided to come on deck to have a look.”
The magniture of the miracle or the coincidence is enormous.
“Had it been night, we would not even have seen him, though we might have heard him. Had he been downwind, his voice would not have carried. Had we been 10 or 20 yards farther from him, he would have been out of hailing range. Had the engine been running, it would have drowned out his voice. had I been on my own, I would have slept through the whole thing and sailed straight past him. Had he been asleep or unconscious, the two boats would have passed within 50 feet of each other, and nobody would have known anything about it. had any of these things happened, the man’s heart and spirit and body would have broken and he would have certainly died that day.”
Beattie is a good story teller and doesn’t try to dictate how readers should think about this long chronicle of adventures that culminated in the utterly remarkable rescue of a lone man adrift on the ocean. “I don’t know what any of it means, but I can’t stop crying,” he writes after revisiting Simon eight months after the rescue.