HARD TRAVELIN': Isbjorn Crew 'Mac's' Trans-Atlantic Blog #1

The following is an excerpt of our crewmember Kevin 'Mac' McMahan's travel blog, hardtravelin.net. Mac joined Isbjorn in Bermuda to sail across the Atlantic with us, all the way to Scotland. But the sailing passage was just a tiny portion of his larger plan - to travel around the world by land and by sea. Mac is a Texan, through and through, a gentle, kind-mannered and mellow soul with a smooth southern drawl that seems to match his smooth, mellow pace.

"I walked out of my ranch on May 1 with my pack on my back, hitch-hiked to the train station, rode the Amtrak to New York City, hopped a cruise ship to Bermuda and here I am on Isbjorn, ready to sail across the Atlantic with y'all." 

So said Mac when we first met him in St. Georges what seems like months ago now. He's just recently re-joined Isbjorn in Sao Miguel after 10 days by his lonesome while Mia I and I took some time off to cruise the Azores between trips. Fittingly, Mac took the ferry over from Faial, of course. 

He describes his trip on the front page of his blog as such:

"Greetings family members, friends & friendly strangers who’ve stumbled onto this site.  My name is Kevin “Mac” McMahan, and this is my travel blog documenting my attempt to circumnavigate the planet by land and sea - without getting on an airplane.  As I start writing this blog, its May 14, and I am in Bermuda sitting in the kitchen of a cheap Airbnb rental.  I’ve been laying over in Bermuda for several days now, having sailed from New Jersey on a big-ass cruise ship. 

The blog is named Hard Travelin’ after the Woody Guthrie song:

           I’ve been doin’ some hard travelin’, I thought you knowed
           I’ve been doin’ some hard travelin’, way down this road  
           I’ve been doin’ some hard travelin’, hard gamblin’, hard ramblin’
           Been doing some hard travelin, Lord

Tomorrow I join the 48’ sailboat Isbjorn to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.  

So far, this trip has lived up to its title (cruise ship not withstanding), as I’m already sore as hell from carrying a 50-pound backpack for miles of hiking.  I’ve fallen twice, badly bruised my elbow, knocked a hole in my head at the train station in Chicago, and had a bottle of really good scotch confiscated from me by the New Jersey Port Authority, and I’m just getting started.  In the song, Woody gets locked up for vagrancy.

If all goes according to my plan, this adventure should last about 8 or 9 months.  I left the ranch back in Texas on May 1, 2017, and I hope to arrive back home sometime in January of 2018.

This adventure, a creation of my imagination which became an obsession, has been in the works for a couple of years, but the decision to make the trip in 2017 was reached much more recently.

I have imagined some rules of the road:

  • No airplanes  (this circumnavigation is void if I get on an airplane
  • Must cross at least one ocean on a sailboat
  • Must include crossing Australia
  • Must leave the Gap Creek Ranch on foot (walking)
  • Must return to the Gap Creek Ranch on foot (walking)
  • The Woody Guthrie Rule: this is a blue-collar adventure, no luxury accommodations, no 1st-class train travel, no cruise ships except where no other means of travel is available."

Without further ado, here's the first of two parts about Mac's trans-Atlantic aboard Isbjorn.

Atlantic Crossing 1

by Kevin 'Mac' McMahan

Isbjorn made landfall in the Azores to the island of Faial on Monday evening, May 29, shortly after dark. We traveled 1,950 nautical miles (2,250 statute miles) in 12 days, 10 hours. It’s Wednesday afternoon as I post this, and it’s taken me till now to process in my mind what I’ve just been thru, and to try to figure out how to write about it.

An ocean is a damned awesome thing, the biggest thing on the planet, and the first and foremost emotion that you experience out there is awe. I think this must be so even for true mariners like Andy & Mia, who spend a great portion of their lives at sea, and who have multiple ocean crossings between them. For myself, taking to “blue water” for the first time with almost no sailing experience (even in shallow water), this sense of awe is at times almost overwhelming, persistently re-emerging at the forefront of my consciousness, and causing me to realize several times each day just how grand and splendid this journey has become.

Crossing an ocean on a sailboat is both physically and mentally demanding. An ocean is never motionless; even when there are no winds and the sea is “calm” the boat will still be rocking from side to side. But when there are winds and waves the boat is in constant motion, sometimes great motion, and when there is a storm and a big sea - HOLD ON! The boat will not just be moving forward, but moving up and down, twisting left and then right, rocking, plunging, spinning, jolting, and throwing everything and everyone in every direction. All these movements will seem to be happening simultaneously, and when you experience this for the first time you can’t estimate which direction you will be tossed next, causing you to fall and slide and lunge and tumble about the boat, a lot. It took me several days to acquire some slight skills at anticipating the direction of the next movement and thereby maintain my balance. Until you do find your “sea legs”, you are repeatedly surprised at your clumsiness, and you take some bruising in the process.

Crossing an ocean is demanding work, it’s a 24 hour-a-day process that requires persistent alertness even when you’re exhausted. With our 6-person crew, we divided up into three 2-person watch-teams, each taking 4-hour watches. So, we would be on-watch for 4 hours, and then off for 8 hours. As you might guess, what you would do mostly during your 8 hour break was sleep, at least for part of the time. I don’t think there was one span between watches that I didn’t try to get at least a couple of hours of sleep, day or night, and I quickly developed a skill for falling asleep at-will. But you never get a full 8-hours sleep, and usually not quite even 6, so as the passage progresses there is never a time when you feel really rested. By the middle to later part of the passage I was feeling the accumulated exhaustion more and more, especially in the last hour or two of my middle-of-the-night watches.

I’ll finish this post with some observations about the crew member with the hardest job on a sailboat making a long passage- the Captain. A cruising sailboat is a very complicated machine (at least to my simple mind), and sailing one of them across an ocean is an exceptionally complicated endeavor. Yet, as a crew member, I could go off-watch after my 4 hours and for the next 8 hours be usually free from the stresses of steering the boat, and adjusting the course, and trimming the sails, and reefing the sails, and changing the sails. The Captain is never really allowed such leisure. Andy pulls watch duty just like the rest of the crew, but when he is off-watch, even when he is asleep, he retains the burden of responsibility. And so, the Captain will come up on deck several times while he is “off-watch”, day and night, to assess the weather and the condition of the sea, to give an order for a course adjustment, or to direct a sail change due to increasing winds and a worsening storm, or to simply assess our situation, focusing his mind in silence on any of the myriad of analytical decision making tasks for which he is responsible. Because in the end, he is the one crew member burdened with bottom-line responsibility for getting this boat and these people safely to a port that is still several days and several hundred miles away. On one occasion late in the passage, during a particularly calm day, Andy woke up thinking that it was 8 or 9 a.m. Realizing that it was almost noon, he was genuinely amazed at having slept for almost 6 hours straight. It was surely the longest nap he got on the entire 12 day passage.

Read more of Mac's adventures at hardtravelin.net.