On night watch as the small yacht he was crewing on crossed the Atlantic, Jess Firth half-joked that he was almost decapitated by a flying fish.
“It whizzed by like a bullet, missing me by a matter of centimetres,” the 40-year-old from Auckland’s Waiheke Island said. “This wasn’t an isolated event – it happened several times to me and other crew members. It would give you a heck of a fright as they flew out of the darkness and made a mighty crash.”
The frequent spectacle of thousands of fish torpedoing across the waves for what seemed like hundreds of metres at a time was one of the many surprises Firth encountered on the 23-day, 2700-nautical-mile crossing from Spain’s Canary Islands to the Caribbean island of Barbados in a mate’s 13-metre sailboat.
Another, given his pre-trip anxiety, was the exhilaration he experienced when navigating the yacht as it surfed down giant waves in strong winds, indie rock anthems blasting through his earbuds as he watched the moon rise.
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Growing up in Wellington, Firth, the founder and CEO of tech startup Esse Vault, sailed small dinghies at the Eastbourne Yacht Club and, as an adult, “did a bit of sailing in the Med” while living in the UK and Europe. Returning to New Zealand, he bought himself a boat and now frequently sails around the Hauraki Gulf and beyond, sometimes racing with the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and Waiheke sailing clubs.
It had been a lifelong dream to cross the Atlantic by sailboat, so when his London-based friend Ben Steele asked him to help him transport his yacht, an Elam Impression 434 known as the Saga, from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, he quickly agreed.
The plan was to complete the crossing in 23 to 25 days with two other Kiwi crew members, Peter Chrisp and Tama Pugsley, and, in the six months before they set out, Firth did so much research he began to envisage all kinds of nightmare scenarios. He pictured the mast of the yacht being hit by lightning, a whale breeching and fatally damaging the boat, being badly injured on board, and the rigging failing and preventing them from carrying on.
“The list of worries I had goes on. But by the time I was a couple of months away from flying to Spain to join Saga and crew, I had processed any fears I had and accepted them as risks I would accept to experience an adventure of a lifetime.”
Ironically, he felt a deep sense of calm as soon as they set sail, and as mentioned, got quite a kick out of challenging conditions.
On the third night, Firth was on night watch when waves that dwarfed the yacht began crashing into the cockpit, drenching him from head to toe as his crewmates slept. Thinking the conditions were the norm and that he would have to get used to them, Fifth soldiered on, doing his best to focus on keeping the boat in control.
“My mind wandered in that moment to how extreme the weather was going to get during our 23 days at sea. I hoped Mother Nature would go easy on us, and it wouldn’t get much more full on than what we were already dealing with.”
As luck would have it, they never experienced such strong winds and big swell again, enabling them to fall into a relatively easy rhythm of life at sea, planning routes based on weather forecasts, taking turns at watch duty when they were required to sail, navigate and look out for other vessels, chatting, and taking time “to absorb the scale of the vastness of the ocean all around us and what we’ve collectively embarked on”.
Travelling across such a vast ocean at an average speed of about 10 to 11kmh, with watch duty preventing them from sleeping for more than three to four hours at a time, Firth said his sense of time changed completely.
He described the journey, which saw them raise funds for Kiwi marine conservation charity Our Seas Our Future via their Givealittle page, as one of the most profound sensory experiences he’s had within a three-week period, with sunrises and sunsets that made the hairs on the back of his neck tingle, and shooting stars putting on a show each night. The stars felt so close they were “able to see fragments break off them as they smashed through the atmosphere”.
There were also “many moments of reflection and thoughts inspired by feeling rather tiny and insignificant out there surrounded by a vast ocean, with the horizon of the water being your reference point of the world”.
Approaching Barbados, Firth said that, while his body was ready to make landfall, part of him didn’t want the adventure to end.
“As a crew we got on really well, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my friends onboard better and sharing the experience with them.”
Arriving in Barbados on December 28 New Zealand time, Firth said he felt a profound sense of accomplishment in achieving a long-term goal.
“I also felt incredibly humbled by the experience overall. Placing ourselves in an environment that we had very little control over, other than how we set the sails up etcetera, was a good reality check and a bit of a metaphor for life in some ways. It definitely confirmed to me that sometimes, trusting in your planning is as far as it goes, and ultimately, sometimes you just have to go with the flow, as you really aren’t in control as much as you might think or want to be.”
The adventure has also given him a renewed appreciation for the life he leads in New Zealand with friends and family and “the slice of paradise I get to call home on Waiheke Island.
“Completing the journey across the Atlantic has also opened the door for seeking out the next big adventure and focusing on achieving the other life goals I have before me.”
You can read more about the trip, including a crew blog, on the Our Seas Our Future website.