People are often surprised when they hear about the hallucinations that can accompany single- handed sailors. I expect it sounds frightening to hear about a sane mind playing such tricks. When it happens, though, it seems the most normal, natural thing in the world...
Before I met Nicky, most of my long-distance trips were single-handed. Sailing alone for twenty-four hours or so necessarily means sleep deprivation. I soon learned that sleep deprivation often means hallucinations.
In his magnificent book 'Sailing alone around the world', Captain Joshua Slocum describes waking up after eating some dubious cheese and plums one stormy night in mid-Atlantic in 1895. He saw a tall man at the wheel, steering his boat skillfully through the plunging sea.
"Señor," said he, doffing his cap, "I have come to do you no harm." And a smile, the faintest in the world, but still a smile, played on his face, which seemed not unkind when he spoke... "I am one of Columbus's crew, I am the pilot of the Pinta come to aid you. Lie quiet, señor captain," he added, "and I will guide your ship tonight." *
Now I have never been that lucky, but then I can rely on modern automatic self-steering!
I heard another story of two blokes sailing the North Sea together from England to Holland. During those dark hours after midnight one of them was watching every other wave lap and curl its way over the weather bow. To his astonishment, along with one wave, he clearly saw a man in full oilskins pitch up and grab the stanchions. The man laid himself out along the side-deck and lay, exhausted against the cabin side, safely out of the spray.
The watch-keeper thought how incredibly lucky the man had been to find their boat: perhaps he had seen their lights in the distance an hour ago and had dragged himself into their path and waited to haul himself to safety with his last strength.
Whatever his story, it could wait until after he had rested. He was safe where he was and there was no need to disturb his well earned sleep.
An hour later, his watch over, our friend went to rouse his mate below. Upon speaking it out loud, the story of the sleeping mariner on the side-deck seemed less and less likely to be true. Of course it was not.
As we carefully negotiated the narrow Needles channel at 02:00 that very dark May night, I was not surprised to see an old lady wearing Victorian dress with a large bustle puffing out the top of her skirt behind. She was on our side-deck at the shrouds, hanging on, swaying around and, like us, keeping an anxious lookout ahead. To me she was obviously an hallucination. Interesting, substantial and real, but really an hallucination.
Nicky was not so sanguine when I mentioned the lady to her. She knew we were at a tricky moment. She knew that various things could go wrong. What she did not expect was that the skipper would suddenly lose his mind and begin ranting and barking! It did not seem like that to me. I knew exactly what was happening, and continued to pilot Nicky, myself and the hallucination safely through the buoys.
Almost as soon as we were through the Needles Channel, the wind died to a whisper. At 03:00 Nicky went below for some sleep and I goose-winged the main and genoa for the a very gentle run up the Western Solent towards Cowes and the River Medina. The sky began to grey, then turned blue as dawn approached.
By 04:30 we were near Cowes, I started the engine and furled the sails. The noise of the diesel woke Nicky and she came on deck as the sun rose ahead. We turned to starboard and motored past the quiet, chaotic junk-yard that Cowes appeared to be in the early Spring sunshine. We continued up the river into the heart of the Isle of Wight. The water was so still that the ripples of our wake left an intricate, symmetrical pattern like fine lace as far behind us as we could see.
At Island Harbour Marina, a few miles up the river, the tide was high, but the lock was un-manned. We circled outside and called on the VHF radio. It was 06:00 and this was the time that the lock was meant to open. We were both tired. Maybe they would open soon, maybe they wouldn't, but we wanted to stop. We went back to the deeper water in the centre of the stream and tied up to a rickety pontoon between piles with 3.0 m beneath the keel. The tidal range here was only 1.7 m so we were safe. We went to sleep, perchance to dream... We had travelled 146 nautical miles in 24 hours.
At 16:00 we woke up to a raging storm outside. The wind was back up to 20 knots and it was pouring with rain. We called the lock-keeper who answered immediately. Within half an hour we were through the lock and into a quiet and very friendly little marina where we were happy to stay for a few days and explore the island.