Atlantic: How a Young Man with a Dream Hitchhiked Across an Ocean

In 2020, amidst the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, twenty-year-old Matt Whitley from Manchester, UK, dreamt of sailing an ocean. The big question was, how could he turn that dream into a reality with no money, no ocean sailing experience, no yachting qualifications and just RYA Dinghy sailing levels 1 and 2? Read his report to find out what happened.

Published 2 years ago

Man standing on a yacht in the ocean
Matt Whitely – turning a sailing dream into reality

It must be said that 2020 has provided more uncertainty and restraint than I think the world has ever seen. I remember seeing the first person wearing a mask in March last year. I actually laughed, naïve and unaware of where coronavirus would take us. It doesn’t do it justice saying that 2020 was a year like no other.

For me, a 20-year-old looking to travel and see as much of the world as I could, 2020 had surely shattered my dreams. Various volunteering and outdoor opportunities came to end and left me to figure what next?   It was always on my bucket list to one day cross an ocean, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of being completely off grid and self-sufficient in such an unforgiving environment.

Being into a multitude of other sports I knew basic knots and ropework from climbing, I really got on well with people from many walks of life and really relate to kids, I could string a few meals together and most importantly I had always been enthusiastic to learn new skills and have new experiences.

Advertising Online

With a passion to learn to be a sailor and a dream of sailing an ocean I started advertising myself online. I had spoken to a few friends clued up on sailing and they thought the chances of finding a boat were slim. I had nothing to lose. I posted an advert of myself on every single Facebook sailing forum I could find, applied to any sailing website, sent queries and emails this way and that, and subscribed to Oceancrewlink, Crewbay etc.

Meanwhile I had received a few messages from my advert on Facebook. A few strangers wished me luck, but one message stood out. A message popped up and asked if I would I be interested helping them and their family on their boat. They had a YouTube channel #Mothershipadrift. They gave me a few videos to watch and I couldn’t believe my luck; this was one of the coolest families I had ever come across in the sailing world!

Young man carrying a backpack
Matt in full backpacker mode

What’s the catch?

After a Facetime with the family and speaking over plans with them I started getting excited. Maybe this dream was actually starting to become a plan. 48hrs after the call I booked a one-way ticket out to Malaga to meet them in Almerimar. Irenka and Woody (the skippers and full-time parents) were planning on sailing from Almerimar across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. How had I managed to be this lucky?

The few days before the flight were spent buying sailing gear (sailing jackets, salopettes, a lifejacket), getting travel injections, trying to find an insurance company which would actually insure me during a pandemic, having a job interview with Tesco (I still thought this incredible opportunity could fall through any moment), buying a few travel guides for the other side and most importantly researching what its like- this ‘ocean sailing thing’ I was soon to be immersed in. I rang up and spoke to any sailing friends we had, read up on articles and recommendations. I even watched several videos to get a true grasp of whether this was really something I wanted to do. All the while I was in the process of applying for a University place for the coming year.

Thursday the 12th of November 2020 I flew out to Malaga, negotiated three buses along the Costa de sol to end up in El Ejido. A friend of Woody’s gave me a lift to the marina from there. 4:30am that morning I had been shuttled to the airport and 9:15pm the same day I walked onto my new home – SV Mothership.

Learning the ropes

The sailing finally begins – and reality strikes

Fast forward a week and after some final Atlantic preparations and endless trips to the supermarket we were on our way, sailing to Gibraltar, the sailing had really begun… Ah this sailing malarky is awful, what have I got myself into? I feel horrible, I just want to crawl up in a ball and cry. The passage to Gibraltar from Almerimar certainly wasn’t the great introduction to sailing I had envisioned. It was quite a grim first encounter to ocean sailing.

The sea was confused, there were regular 30knot gusts. The night seemed to drag on forever, I felt horrendously sea sick for the whole journey, just as the sun went down. During the 24 horu passage I threw up seven times. Now we did have some dolphins join us for a little while, but unfortunately, I was in too much of a state to really pay them much attention. I felt like such a liability to Irenka, Woody and the kids. They had taken a risk on me and I had turned out to be an absolute wreck, just sat motionless and pale-faced, only moving to jerk my head over the side of the boat and feed the fish.

The magic of travel sickness pills

On that passage I learnt quickly and the first spare moment I had in Gibraltar I went on a desperate search for travel pills. I bought a stash of travel sickness pills that even Pablo Escobar would have been proud of. Since that day, for every passage I have taken them at least for the first few days and I have been completely fine (seasoned sailors tell me that it’s what they do too). These little white pills have worked wonders. They have allowed me to gain a totally new experience of sailing, one that I am completely in love with.

The Passage to the Canary Islands from Gibraltar was slightly delayed due to a large high-pressure system on top of Madeira causing the wind to blow in completely the wrong direction. Eventually it shifted back to the regular northerly we were used to. By this time, we decided to sail up the coast of Spain from Gibraltar to Cadiz where we were able to get a better angle of approach to the Canary Islands, this took two days of motoring. From there the sail from Cadiz was a 500-mile passage running parallel to the Moroccan coast, it was my first proper introduction to non-stop sailing. There were a few squalls and a few times the wind completely dropped off.

Camping out while exploring Gran Canaria

I was a new person with the travel sickness pills in me. I loved every minute, I spent hours just looking out to sea taking in the vastness of it all. The sunsets each night were incredible and the stars on night watches were the brightest and clearest I had ever seen. I completely understand why and how people get the sailing bug now, I could feel myself starting to get it.

This four day passage gave me a good taste of offshore sailing and I was beyond words by how special it was.

We arrived in Lanzarote, Arrecife. But as soon as we turned into the marina, I was itching to get out there again, to have the salty air fill my lungs and be alone in the ocean. A warm shower was welcomed when I set foot on land, but I wanted to get sailing again.

Exploring the Canary Islands

We spent the next month in the Canary Islands, a week anchoring at the south of Lanzarote, and on a uninhabited island off the northern tip of Fuerteventura.

We spent most of the time in the marina in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. None of us had envisioned staying so long in the Canary Islands, but we would spend Christmas and New Year there.  I was definitely missing the thrill of being out in the waves, but the beauty of the Canary Islands managed to distract me.

I had an awesome time exploring Gran Canaria. I met so many amazing people and had some ace little adventures where: I  camped with my hammock in the mountains; hitch hiked along the coast; got lost in the Sand Dune Deser;, went on a road trip with some locals down dusty 4×4 roads; did a lot of walking up in the hills and of course plenty of time mucking about on the sandy beaches.

New Year’s Eve camping out.

New Year 2021

There was a good community of similar aged young people in the marina so for New Year a group of us decided to sleep under the stars on a remote beach along the West coast of the island. It involved a day of buses and hitchhiking and a 3hr trek up and down the other side of a mountain. The beach was situated behind a wall of cliffs, crags and mountains and in front lay a crashing blue sea. A swim in the sea the following morning before the journey back, proved to be a pretty amazing start to 2021.

Preparations for Suriname

Before Woody and Irenka mentioned Suriname, I had never heard of the
place. It sounded like such an interesting country sandwiched between
Venezuela and Brazil in South America, it recognises itself as a
Caribbean nation and a large part of it is part of the Amazon

Two boys making bread.
Bread making on board

The first real issues with Coronavirus I experienced was during the preparations for travelling to Suriname. The online process, although painstakingly slow is doable. We soon found ourselves sending off our E-Visas to the Ministry of foreign affairs. We waited for a response, their guaranteed reply time came and went. So, we tried to call them and get through. We found from another related company that the ministry was shut until further notice. This posed a slight hiccup for us as we were now unable to have our E-Visa application processed. The Marina in Suriname said this wasn’t a problem as we could collect our E-Visas in person from the capital upon arrival. Taking the marinas word for it, the following day we got our PCR test.

With departure set to be the next day, Woody carried out the regular engine and generator tests. Disaster – the starter battery was flat which meant the generator or engine couldn’t start. With the OCC port officer on the case, he organised an electrician to visit. Two days of work from Woody and the electrician and they were able to fix the problem. The next day after all the tests and last-minute jobs were complete, we departed, just within the valid period of our PCR tests. It was a miracle. I couldn’t sleep much the night prior to departure I was just too excited to take it all in and couldn’t wait for what the morning would bring.

Sunset picture taken on board a yacht under sail.
Sunset somewhere in the Atlantic

The crossing aboard Mothership was probably very different to most sailors’ experiences. With three young people, Yewan 8, Darry 11 and Rowan 14, it wasn’t an option for schooling to just go on hold for three weeks. However Atlantic schooling didn’t involve the regular school textbooks, instead we had an audio Spanish tutorial in the morning, followed by maths times tables races and then a history podcast of some sort.

As well as this we also gave each day of the crossing a country. I researched some basic vocabulary and local phrases from each country, an authentic dish, an artist as well as a couple of facts about that country – 20 days around the world. It worked well, and we all learnt a few interesting phrases and facts. More importantly it helped structure each day, and proved a useful tool to divert Yewan’s (the youngest at 8) attention away from the regular question; ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ It was a lot of fun and held together remarkably well throughout. Tacos on Mexican day, Tapas on Spanish day and it had to be homemade sushi on Japanese day, the food was good and authentic. Well, that is until we caught a tuna on Czech day, and gorged on fresh tuna steaks. I’m not sure tuna is a national dish of the Czech Republic, but we weren’t complaining!

The beauty of ocean sailing

The Atlantic crossing allowed me to view a completely new aspect of the natural world. I am used to green rolling hills and the English countryside, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of ocean sailing and the true, raw beauty of the ocean. The stars, the endless stretch of uninterrupted water for days on end, the constant darting of flying fish within the waves, the friendly dolphin encounters and the magical sunsets. It felt like I was completely at one with nature.

Dolphins were great companions on our journey. We would all sit on the bow watching these amazing animals whenever they chose to join us and play in the wake. From inside the boat, we could hear their sonar as they communicated with each other, I feel very lucky to had had such a close encounter with these beautiful animals.

Dolphins swimming in the ocean.
Enjoying the company of dolphins

Flying fish are another ocean treasure. I had no idea how many of them there are once you are a few hundred miles away from land. We had the norm of lots landing on the boat, we never got round to cooking them even though Yewan was very keen on the idea.  I spent hours watching these little fish fly out of the water and glide through the air, hovering just above the surface. It fascinates me how they can be in the air for so long, I was more than a few times mistaken, thinking they were small birds.

For a long period of the trip, we found ourselves in seaweed clusters, which went on for hundreds of miles. It constantly ended up getting stuck in the lure. It caused a few laughs. The line would start whizzing, with a new wave of excitement I would rush out to the line and reel it in as fast as I could hoping it was a fish. No, every time it was just a big clump of seaweed holding it back. Not really much of a surprise since we passed through patches the size of swimming pools.

With the passage to Suriname taking 21 days, the kids got more and more into the journey as the days passed. Yewan took the role of scouring the decks for flying fish each morning, and collecting them up until the smell was too bad and someone else threw them overboard.

A man and a boy dangling their feet in the water.
Matt and Yewan dangling their feet in the ocean.

Darry, Woody and myself chatted endlessly about some of the world’s most pressing topics. It is only with the opportunity to stop and think about life that such brilliant questions are able to be pondered over for hours on end. “When will robots take over the world?” was one which led to much debate. Rowan took the time to do lots of reading and became so well versed on the Tudors and Henry VIII and his wives, she gave us the most passionate history lessons I have ever witnessed.

We were very fortunate to have had mostly good weather whilst on passage. When we left the Canary Islands, nights were cold and the wind was only pushing 10 knots for the first few days. As we headed South, down the African coast in the direction of Cape Verde the temperature and wind slowly crept up. The wind remained pretty consistent at about 15-20 knots, but the temperature kept going up and up.

Ten days in, huge ocean rollers joined us from the North. These were the biggest waves I have ever seen. Luckily they weren’t breaking, they had come all the way down from Newfoundland. The final week, motion onboard was pretty bad. We found ourselves in a confused sea, which left the boat constantly being thrown side to side. A few squalls passed by in this week, one stormed up from behind us, engulfing us in the slate grey sky before torrential rain pounded down upon us, white horses grew and the wind howled in the fully reefed Genoa. I loved it and wished it had stayed for longer than it did. It was truly exhilarating; at the same time, we managed a brief 11 knots, breaking the speed record for Mothership.

Fish for dinner!

There’s always a few issues

We had a few issues with the boat during crossing. The auto pilot started making a horrendous creaking and groaning, we thought that it was getting overworked so we took the helm while Woody gave it a look over. It took about 24 hrs to find the problem and with a good soaking of WD40 the painful sound slowly subsided. One other occasion we were all chilling out in the cockpit when everyone started noticing a burning smell. The generator was on below us recharging the batteries. Instantly we opened up the engine bay only to be met by whispers of smoke. The generator had started smoking up. This kept Woody occupied for a while, but like everything he got it done. Again, on the smoke theme, one afternoon all our attention was diverted by Woody’s laptop when it started smoking. Not a good place for an electrical fire! The laptop seemed to sort itself out after being shutdown for 24hrs (the good old turn it on and off again tactic!).

The most memorable time on the Atlantic crossing was probably a night watch during the time we were pretty much in the centre of the ocean. The stars were incredible, I have never seen stars like it, anywhere, it was possible to make out all of the famous constellations. I remember just being in awe as I stood in the cockpit at the dead of night, only accompanied by the sound of the water passing underneath the bow, my gaze completely transfixed on the sky above. There was something about that moment which just put everything in perspective, it demonstrated to me the sheer size and complexity of the Universe, the ocean and our home; Planet Earth.

Arriving into Suriname

We sailed into Suriname on the 6th of February 2021. It’s an incredible country with an abundance of wildlife and stunning scenery. I managed to pick up some work in the marina of Suriname and negotiated working some hours maintaining the marina and the gardens, in return for free accommodation and a little cash. Every week, I would have a few days to explore and take myself off into the jungle.

Exploring the jungle of Suriname.

Being the greenest country in the world with 90.2% of the country still forested, the jungle is vast, impressive and saturated with wildlife. Boats are more practical than cars and provide much of the transport connections for lots of remote villages. I spent a few days down river deep in the jungle, Piranha fishing, Camen spotting, walking through the bush and canoeing up creeks. It really is a breath-taking country, one that won’t disappoint if you’re willing to put the time into exploring it.

I visited villages only accessible by boat, camped next to a piranha infested river, slept in a bothy type thing on top of a hill in the Amazon rainforest and visited a coffee plantation. Not to even mention the interactions with the wildlife. I got within a foot of a wild Alligator, saw Jaguar footprints in the jungle, rescued a sloth off the road and got lost looking at the display of near illuminous birds in every direction.

Moving On

When it was time to leave Suriname it proved to be a bit of a challenge. With its national airport owning one and a half aircrafts, (one airplane broken down in America and one they are renting, but its grounded over in Belgium), it made flights out of the country a real scarcity. A sudden peak of Covid-19 and the Suriname government grounded all flights in and out of the country. Plan A went out of the window, meaning once again, I was left to try and scramble out of the country.

Once again Iturned to the world of sailing. A lovely Dutch couple aboard SV White Pearl heard of my story and offered to take me over to St. Vincent. I jumped at the offer and sailed with them 900km up to the Caribbean. I contacted some friends I knew who I had met in the Canaries and were exploring the Grenadines. I asked if I could join them as crew and they said yes!

We finally met up in Tobago Cays after over 3000nm of sailing and two months apart. It felt good to be reconnected with like-minded young travellers aboard SV Elixir. We are a crew of five, all in our twenties, on a 37ft Swan. It has made for some chart-topping nights out! The plan is to sail with Elixir through Grenada and on to the Dutch Caribbean from where I will fly back to the UK ready for university in September.

Man with birthday cake
Birthday cake on board.

Lasting memories

Looking back at where I started from being back home in rainy, cold Northern England, not only have I managed to tick off something from my bucket list but I also have made memories which will last me for life. Sailing the Atlantic to living in the Amazon jungle were beyond my wildest dreams six months ago. I have been so very lucky.

If I am to say one thing it’s follow your dreams. I know it’s a clique and you have probably rolled your eyes at this. But honestly and truly never give up on what you want from life, even during a global pandemic.

The Atlantic crossing has been the best experience of my life so far, it has truly instilled a love for sailing deep within me. Call me crazy, but I now completely understand the joy of living in a confined space, rationing food and water and waking up in the middle of the night to go on watch. I loved every moment of it and I can’t wait to get back onto the water.

I already have plans to buy a little sailing boat and one day sail the world.

I can’t thank the crew of SV Mothership enough for the incredible crossing experience and everyone else who supported me. The OCC helped make all this possible through their Youth Scholarship program. A special thanks to Fiona Jones for believing that travel was possible throughout a pandemic, and Sue Richards at Noonsite, without whom I would never have been exposed to the world of sailing.

I am now seriously considering buying a little boat to live on for university accommodation!

Matt Whitley
To see where I am in the world and what I have been up to you can find me on Instagram @matttravelsofficial


Related Reports:

How to Crew in the ARC

My First Atlantic Crossing

Related Links:

Crewing Links on Noonsite


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of or World Cruising Club.

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  1. May 22, 2021 at 8:49 PM
    mightywalrus says:

    Great write up Matt ! I follow Mothership a little so I’ve seen you on there too. Really take my hat off to you. The world is out there and I wish I’d done what you’re doing when I was younger. Good on you and I hope you inspire others… ps, I’m also a fellow Manc, it’s great sea faring city 😉