Voyage of (self) discovery: Writer Emma Bamford reveals how she found happiness on the high seas in new book Casting Off

Bamford was a journalist at The Independent when she decided to walk away from it all and sail off into the wide blue yonder. She crewed on various boats and travelled the world, from Borneo to the billionaires' playground of the Amalfi Coast. As the book of her adventures is published, she shares what she learnt at sea

Emma Bamford
Wednesday 02 July 2014 22:20
Hope floats: Emma left London in a bid to find out more about sailing - and herself
Hope floats: Emma left London in a bid to find out more about sailing - and herself

1. Not all captains seeking crew are axe-wielding murderers

When I told my family and friends that I had answered an advert on the internet for "crew wanted" and was off to live on a boat with a stranger, they were pretty surprised. When, after questioning me further, they discovered that the stranger was a man – a single man – and that he lived – alone – on a boat anchored in the Borneo jungle, they were horrified. "Have you seen Dead Calm?" they asked, shrieking.

As it turned out, Steve wasn't an axe murderer. Neither was Tyrone, my next skipper, nor Carlo nor Guy... nor any of the captains of the other boats I have lived on since.

Most people, it turns out, are non-murderers. And anyway, Billy Zane's weapon of choice in Dead Calm was his bare hands, not an axe.

Of course, it definitely pays for anyone thinking of doing something similar to do their research. After I answered that "crew wanted" ad, I emailed, Googled, Facebooked and Skyped my new shipmate and also spoke to him on the phone. He understood the fears that a single woman might have, he said, and offered me a two-week trial on his yacht. I even went so far as to ask him outright if he was an axe murderer. "Not lately," he replied. I thought that I'd covered all the bases, but I did forget one vital question – do you want a crewmate or a bunkmate? I lived and learnt...

2. Going back to basics is important

I left the UK with 30kg of luggage, thinking that I had hardly any belongings with me.

Of course, I'd taken far too much. iPads weren't really in the public consciousness when I left (only four years ago) but, if I went off sailing round the world today, I'd need to take even less with me – no separate netbook, phone or paperbacks. Just one mini tablet and I'd be set.

Living on a boat can be like going back in time. If you're lucky – and I was on my first boat, Kingdom – there's running hot water, air-con and a TV. But other boats had only a bucket for a cold shower, rainwater to drink and no fridge – so limited fresh food.

My fellow crew-members and I dragged 20l jerry cans of diesel from land to the boat via the little rubber dinghy, dashed out at the first sign of rain to catch as much water as we could and hand-laundered our bed sheets in tubs.

There was no electricity, either, beyond what we could generate with a few solar panels and our engine, if it was running. So watching films on the laptop became an occasional treat while the battery lasted, checking Facebook was out of the question and even dinner became a strictly daylight affair, to save using up battery power running the lights. Living that way attuned me to my circadian rhythm and, interestingly, science is now tuning into the role that that plays in good health.

I increasingly realised that a lack of creature comforts really doesn't matter – it adds to the sense of adventure when travelling. Also, not having my thumb glued to my iPhone or my attention focused on a computer freed up my time to do more worthwhile things, such as taking a good look at the world around me, for example, watching the sun go down or spending hours talking to my crewmates after dinner by starlight. We told each other the stories of our lives. Undistracted by the ding of a last-orders bell in the pub or the beep of a What'sApp message, we bonded as communities would have done thousands of years ago. In the same vein, albeit with less profundity, I also discovered that the optimal number of pairs of shoes a person who's travelling needs is two – flip flops and trainers.

Sail away with me: Emma on board the catamaran Gillaroo

3. Fish-head curry is actually not that bad

OK, so I didn't actually try it – I wielded my "I am a vegetarian" badge – so I can't vouch for the taste, but surely it can't be too horrid, or people wouldn't actually eat it, would they?

By this point, what I mean is that it is all too easy to carry your expectations, perceptions and prejudices with you when you visit somewhere new. Sometimes it can bring a sense of fun to travels – we've all giggled at those lost-in-translation signs – but it can also be small-minded and, frankly, embarrassing.

When I was new to Borneo, we visited a small kampong (village) not far from Kota Kinabalu. The houses were wooden shacks built on stilts over the water, there was no glass in the windows and, from what I could see through the open doors, precious little furniture inside. The road was just a strip of sand and there were hardly any cars about. I assumed it was a slum village. But on second viewing my eyes adjusted – here's an expensive 4x4, there's a satellite dish, here are children fresh out of school, dressed in football shirts, munching on crisps and more than happy to pose for photos. The brick terraces of Coronation Street it wasn't – but it was a working-class suburb of the city, just with the architecture and infrastructure that fit the conditions and traditions of that land.

After several years away, I now know what the saying "travel broadens the mind" means – and I've learnt that it's OK if you can't speak the language. Pick up "Hello", "Thank you" and "Goodbye", and practise the international language of smiling and pointing, and you'll be fine. But first remember to check if it's rude to point with a finger (Malaysians point with their thumb).

Welcome party: Local children in a village near Kota Kinabalu

4. Nature is awesome

Living right on London's busy South Circular Road, the closest I got to wildlife for many years was pigeons, squirrels and stocky Staffies. I grew up in the suburbs of another large urban sprawl, Nottingham, and always thought that I was a city girl, through and through.

And then I ended up in the rainforest, slap bang in the middle of nature. There were birds, crocodiles, elephants, frogs, monkeys, snakes and flies. In clearer waters there were corals in a thousand colours, turtles, starfish, shells and wobbly chameleon cuttlefish. When we sailed at night, dolphins kept us company. On anchor up the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, there were trees and plants in more shades of green than I thought imaginable.

There was the sunrise and sunset everyday; moonrise and moonset, too. There were more stars than I had ever seen – there was the Milky Way!

There were tides, currents, waves, wind and rain to watch out for. The movement and behaviour of all of these informed our daily lives – and I'm not talking about whether I needed to sling an umbrella in my handbag. Rain meant we could wash and drink; tides and waves brought either difficulties or ease; wind meant variously relief ("Great – we can sail") or danger.

We lived among nature, with nature and in nature. We became part of the natural world.

Back in the UK, I was back in the city. Then, one evening last July, I saw the red sun drop over the New Forest in Hampshire and I realised, sadly, that this was the first sunset I had seen in nearly six months. Something clicked and I realised that I couldn't bear to be trapped in the middle of a city any longer. So I upped sticks to the sticks. Now I live in a tiny village in the Derbyshire Dales. Bumblebees tap against my windows, pheasants croak their way across my front garden and lambs play together in the field I can see from my study window.

I am a 30-minute round trip from the nearest shop if I run out of milk but I don't feel isolated at all. There's so much activity going on around me all the time – it just might not be of the human variety.

Life's a beach: Emma with the rest of the crew strolling in the Andaman Islands

5. Peace, love and prosperity are the most important things

By that, I don't mean that I am going to make a Miss World-style appeal for a global armistice or that I want to have my $12m Disneyland-style nuptials featured in a high-gloss magazine (I'm looking at you, Mrs Kardashian-West).

In my old life, in London, I was angry that I was single; that I worked harder than anyone I knew yet earned less; and that I was always stressed. I tried to fix the second problem by working even harder, which led to even more stress and even less time to find a partner. Wising up/going totally bonkers (delete as appropriate) and running off to sea forced me to break out of the rut that I had dug for myself.

Granted, it's not very stressful in paradise and you don't need much money, but I also found that, away from perceived societal pressures, and mixing with different kinds of people, I no longer minded about being single or poorer than the Joneses. We are, I realised, responsible for putting pressure on ourselves and only we can remove it by readjusting our focus.

On a trip to Malacca, on the west coast of Malaysia, I stopped at a knick-knack shop in Chinatown. A rotating wire-rack stand holding a series of cards containing different words written in calligraphic Chinese caught my eye.

On the back of each was a sticker giving the English translation. I was drawn to "peace", to "love" and to "prosperity" (at least I hope I was. I could have easily bought "gullible", "gullible" and "gullible").

Peace, love and prosperity are, for me, spelled with a lower case p and l.

peace = calmness and a sense of security. For me that means not living in a noisy city or enduring a commute on the Tube, and knowing I can go off and have mad adventures and come back if I want to, and I'll be OK.

love = for myself, my friends and family, the world around me. A big part of self-love (don't snigger!) is accepting that it's fine not to fit into a conventional, 2.4 life.

prosperity = having enough. As long as I have a roof over my head and a warm, dry bed (and often on a boat it's neither of those), then nothing else matters. I don't need a new watch, a flash car, yet another gadget. And having the freedom to do what I love is much more valuable than pounds in the bank.

So I'd urge anyone who feels the itch to put on their flip flops and head off on an adventure. Just remember that, if you're thinking of crewing on a boat, make sure you ask the bunkmate question first.

'Casting Off – How a City Girl Found Happiness on the High Seas' by Emma Bamford is out today (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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