Sailing Across the Atlantic



We have been getting to know Hilmar for a couple of years now. He always seemed to be a person who lives life to the fullest; his Instagram is full of pictures of him sailing, fishing, diving, surfing, doing ski jumps, horseback riding and bungee jumping. You name it, he seems to be doing it. He even dreams about someday walking on the surface of the moon! Curious as we are, we wondered what drove Hilmar to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a small sailing boat called the ‘Anne Marie’.

 11 min read

Where did your passion for sailing begin? How did this trip come about? 

It all started with my long-time friend Max, who owns his own sailing boat. The boat was built by his grandfather who named it after his mother, 'Anne Marie’. It took him 5 years to build it. On the boat's maiden voyage, Max's grandfather got so seasick that he sold the boat. After 30 years, Max and his uncle saw the boat up for sale again and brought it back into the family. Max sailed the boat from Amsterdam to Athens and shared his journey on his Facebook page. I followed his expedition and became his biggest fan. Upon his return to Amsterdam, he called me and told me that he was preparing for another trip. He was planning a round trip from Europe to America and needed a sailing partner. 

How did you learn to sail?

As a kid, I loved going on sailing summer camps. The feeling you get when sailing is like nothing else. The wind rushing past your ears, the washes splashing up the hull; it is truly hypnotic and addictive. I have always felt most relaxed when sailing. Prior to the trip, my experience with sailing had been with a 'Valk', a small boat of just 6.5 meters. I have only sailed boats like these on lakes in the Netherlands, so as you can imagine, the expedition across an ocean was daunting. 

Did you have any moments of doubt?

As soon as I agreed to accompany Max, I must admit that I was overwhelmed by fear. However, I kept telling myself that it was a trip of a lifetime and certainly not an opportunity to be missed. 

What was the goal of the trip?

To get to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, preferably alive. 

I have found that personal growth comes from challenging your fears. Actively seek what scares you the most and conquer it head on. 

I guess another goal of the trip was to escape society (and wifi) for a while. I had been coming to terms with how dependent I was on my phone and laptop, so the trip was the perfect opportunity to break free!

What technology did you use on the boat to communicate with the outside world?

We had a satellite telephone on board. We could send messages and download weather forecasts with it. The transmission goes directly via satellite, so downloading any data took a really long time. This meant we really had to think ahead so we wouldn't get caught short.

Did you have contact with people on land?

Towards the beginning, when I felt lonely, I tried to send as many messages as possible. But after a while I just didn’t really bother anymore. The whole idea of the trip was to get away from society and to disconnect. The whole process of turning the device on, waiting for it to make a connection, spending half an hour writing a message and then waiting another 10 minutes for it to finally upload, would take up a big chunk of the day. So we decided halfway during the trip to use it as little as possible. I think it’s better to enjoy the trip than to be constantly connected with your friends and family back home. But still, I’m really thankful that I had the opportunity to send and receive messages. I was glad that I could contact my family and friends in tough times. It did get quite lonely, but the support I got from those at home was enormous, which gave me a positive mindset and carried me through the trip.

Sometimes you forget you're actually moving, your surroundings will stay exactly the same, it’s like you are in a time capsule.

How long did the trip take?

I first flew to Gran Canaria in Spain, where I joined Max and the boat. He had already been sailing a long way from Athens to get there. On Gran Canaria we bought all our food and water for the trip and double-checked the boat for any maintenance issues. Once everything was done we set sail. It took us 8 days to sail to Mindelo, Cape Verde. This was my first time on the open ocean and I was quite afraid on the first day. Imagine yourself alone in the middle of the ocean, there is simply no one around and the only thing you can see is water, water and more water, there is nothing else. The only goal is to sail as many miles as you can. Sometimes you forget you're actually moving, your surroundings will stay exactly the same, it’s like you are in a time capsule. But finally you do see land, Cape Verde! We did our last preparations in Cape Verde and waited for the right wind to leave. From there we crossed the Atlantic Ocean and after 18 days we finally set foot on the island of Barbados. Once we arrived in the Caribbean I had two weeks to enjoy the beautiful Grenadines, the islands where they shot the Pirates of the Caribbean, what a stunning place. In total I spent 2 months on board the 'Anne Marie'. I eventually flew back from St Lucia, while Max continued his journey to America. 

What is the most beautiful thing you have experienced during the journey?

I woke up one morning on deck to the chattering of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. The ocean was completely flat and the sun hadn't risen over the horizon. The whole sky was a deep purple and the sea was dark with a silvery shimmer. It was utterly breathtaking and definitely the best wake-up call I've ever had. 

Where there any precarious moments? 

Halfway across the Atlantic, the wind got very strong and tore our mainsail in half. Luckily, the tear was horizontal so we could still reef it (reduce the area of the sail by folding or rolling one edge of the canvas). We fixed the sail as soon as we had a chance and the rest of the trip passed without similar incident. On the whole, though, we were extremely lucky and were blessed with good weather conditions.

The bitter truth is, on trips like these people actually get lost at sea

Did you hear any stories from other sailors on the same journey that had difficulty?

Every year approximately 200 boats make the crossing. One of these was a polish ship manned by two sailors. At about 300 nm (3 days of sailing) east of the Barbados coast, one of the men fell overboard. He was busy striking the spinnaker and was standing on deck without a safety harness. While pulling the sail on board, a sudden gust of wind threw him overboard. The other guy tried to do a man overboard manoeuvre, but unfortunately the sail was laying in the water and one of the lines got stuck in the rotor. The engine stopped and the ship was rudderless. He couldn’t manage to get closer and save his friend. The only thing he could do was to watch and see his buddy drifting away. A couple of days later, he himself got rescued by a container ship. He had to abandon the ship, because it couldn’t be saved. His friend was never found again. The bitter truth is on trips like these people actually get lost at sea.

What was the procedure for risky scenarios?

We had an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) on board, which is a device that can transmit an emergency call via satellite. The closest ground station would get a notice and they can send out a search and rescue mission. However, if you are in the middle of the ocean you might still have to wait days before they reach you. If you are lucky, you have a ship close by that can help. If not, you are all on your own. If something goes wrong, nobody’s there to help.

How did you pass time on board? 

I found it very important to keep a daily routine, otherwise I knew I would get bored quite easily. I would start the day by making a fresh cup of coffee and some delicious pancakes. By the time I was finished, Max was awake and we both had breakfast together. After that, I always did exercises on the front deck. Due to the small size of the boat, we couldn’t move a lot, but it was important to keep active and try to stay in shape, so that’s what I did. Every morning I would workout and when I was done I filled my day with reading books. I brought a waterproof e-reader on board- the best gadget I've ever had! I finished 4 books while on board. Ikigai - Hector Garcia, The 4-Hour workweek - Timothy Ferriss, We the living - Ayn Rand and The Idiot Brain - Dean Burnett. 

How was your social life on board?

Max was the captain of the ship and the roles on board were clear. It was just the two of us, we had to count on each other and there was literally no place for a fight. Thankfully, we got along really well. I think you can divide people into two groups; troublemakers or peacemakers, we were definitely the latter. We talked about everything;  our hobbies, our studies, our girlfriends, money, but mainly about our future plans. We had some moments that we ran out of things to say, but then we could comfortably sit next to each other  without saying anything. Mostly we were making a lot of jokes and just having a lot of fun. 

Were they pirates or was this a ghost ship? We didn’t dare to find out

 What was the most exciting thing you encountered?

When we were sailing from Gran Canaria to Cape Verde we came across a big oil tanker in the middle of the ocean. It came out of the blue and it looked like it was coming towards us. We were only able to see the stern, which is the back part of the ship. This meant the tanker was not coming towards us, yet still we were coming closer. That just seemed impossible. Our ship was only 9 meters long so we could never be faster than a 200 meter long tanker. Even spookier, when checking our radar, we didn’t see anything! The ship was drifting, off radar, in the middle of the ocean and we were coming closer and closer. Looking through our binoculars, we couldn’t see a living soul on board. Were they pirates or was this a ghost ship? We didn’t dare to find out.  It all seemed out of this world, and quite scary honestly. Later, while in the Caribbean, we heard from another sailor that these oil tankers like to go off radar on purpose. They get sold a couple of times during their trip to their buyer. In this way rivals don’t get to know where the best price is paid for oil. Apparently it’s just a sneaky trick!

Oil tanker, floating off radar.
Oil tanker, floating off radar.

What did you eat and drink on board, and how did you prepare it?

We bought most of our groceries in a big supermarket in Gran Canaria. None of our fresh vegetables and fruit lasted long, it was covered in mold within a week. The only things that stayed good were pasta, rice, beans and potatoes, so for a while these were our main ingredients. Of course you always hope to catch some lovely fish on the way. And we did! We managed to catch a small tuna fish, a ‘bonito’, along the way. Once filleted, it provided us with great fresh tuna the next day, it was really delicious.

What did you think about during the day, and what were the nights like?

I’m personally more of a thinker then a doer, but I always overthink. That’s also probably why I did this trip, but this time I didn’t think too much and I just jumped right into an adventure. I knew for example, that if we accidentally hit a container, floating in the ocean, the boat would probably sink. I tried my best not to think too much about all the things that could go wrong because when you're alone, at sea, you have to accept the risks. They are a part of everyday life. But still, I always had the "what if?" sort of questions in the back of my mind. What would happen if the boat were to sink? What would happen if we got into a storm? What would happen if one of us fell overboard? What would happen if...? These questions were constantly in my head, while I knew all the answers to them; I would probably not survive. But that is the risk you have to take if you want to accomplish something like we did.

What did your parents say about the trip?

My mother didn't like it. My father was more relaxed about it and knew I had to do it. I do feel a sorry for my parents, especially for my mother who worried a lot. I would have to think twice before putting them through another ordeal like that. 

What was the most rewarding part of the trip?

The most rewarding part of the trip was definitely our arrival. When we arrived in Barbados everyone knew that we just crossed the Atlantic Ocean, there were people on other boats standing on the decks cheering and clapping as we arrived.  It was amazing! On top of that another faster Dutch boat had waited 2 days for us to arrive, so they could give us a warm welcome. We were then supplied with cold beers and ‘frikadellen’, a typical Dutch snack - safe to say it was brilliant.

Having crossed an ocean by sail, I know I can handle any obstacles in life.

After this trip, what other adventures or challenges would you like to do?

My biggest dream is to walk on the moon. I am realistic and aware that it's probably not going to happen. At the moment, I’m finishing my medicine degree, so no more crazy trips for me (for a while). As soon as I have the time and the money, I would love to go wild camping in Africa. I think that would be pretty amazing.

Would you do it again?

Honestly, if I had known the risks beforehand I probably would not have gone through with it. Still, when I am a little older I definitely want to do the crossing again, but this time on a bigger and more luxurious ship. That way it will be more like a relaxed vacation instead of a survival trek.

How long did it take for you to get used to normal life on land?

When we arrived in Barbados we immediately went to a tattoo shop. We put a trident on our arm, the trident of the god of the sea, Poseidon. The arrow in the middle symbolises the process of rising above one’s self. We managed to overcome our challenges, we managed to cross the ocean on a 30 foot wooden sailing boat. It is easy to forget what we did, but now and then when I look in the mirror and notice the tattoo, I remember that it was not just a dream. Having crossed an ocean by sail, I know I can handle any obstacles in life. 

Wouter is Dedico's Business Developer manager. Being responsible for knitting together our global network of teachers, he specialises in adventure, sports, kitesurfing and crafts.

Why should you consider sailing holidays?

  • Exploring our planet by sailing boat is the opportunity of a lifetime
  • Sailing offers an alternative mode of travel; a slower experience allowing you to adjust and connect with the places and people you encounter
  • Immerse yourself in the elements of nature
  • Learn to enjoy some introspective time to yourself
  • You will reach places not accessible by other forms of transport

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