Seeing out 2020 from the middle of the Atlantic
Bird ambassador Max Campbell and his friends are on a sustainable journey across the world, on board their 30 year old wooden sailing boat, Elixir. They are on a mission to discover secret surf spots, explore paths less travelled, and circumnavigate the globe, all with as little ecological impact as possible.
We caught up with Max to see where they are now, how lockdown affected the journey and what their plans are for the future…
How does it feel to be back on the water?
It feels great to be back on Elixir again! Luckily, we managed to escape to the Canary Islands a week before the second lockdown in the UK. We spent four weeks exploring the smaller islands in the Canaries. We almost couldn’t believe our luck, surfing empty waves and hiking around striking landscapes; we timed our return perfectly.
Now we’re taking a bit of time to prepare ourselves and the boat for the transatlantic voyage. We have loaded Elixir with food, books and all the other bits we’ll need during three weeks at sea.
The crew is essentially the same, me, Harry and Lily. The thought of spending three weeks at sea is very exciting for all of us, and spending new years on the water is going to make it even more special.
What happened for you and the crew during COVID-19?
The outbreak of Coronavirus caught us at a really strange time. The day we planned to leave to sail across the Atlantic was the first day of the Spanish lockdown. Instead of spending weeks at sea, we were forced into a surreal quarantine inside the harbour. We couldn’t leave the boat for two weeks, as much as we wanted to turn our back on it all and sail off into the Atlantic. Almost every country had closed borders, so there was nowhere for us to sail to.
Instead we left Elixir in a marina in Tenerife for seven months, and came back to the UK. Although it’s easy to romanticise being on a boat, it was a really tough time to be sailing around. There was a lot of uncertainty, and crossing borders instantly became a nightmare. Additionally, we thought it was a little irresponsible imposing ourselves on fragile island nations in a time of crisis. It was hard to put something we had worked so hard for on pause, but we knew could come back to continue the journey when the time was right.
The Spanish lockdown was very militant, we were literally not allowed off the boat. We managed to exercise a little bit by going for sneaky swims off the boat, underneath the pontoons where nobody could see us. We also made friends with a duck and a barracuda, and I think that helped to keep us sane.
I’m an advocate of the mental and physical benefits that come with swimming in cold sea-water. For me, swimming in the sea also carries a lot of personal importance. During my first transatlantic, a brutal sailing accident almost cost me my life (link to this https://www.wildswimmingcornwall.co.uk/blog/why-i-swim-max-campbell).
After barely making it to the Caribbean, I spent five days in hospital before flying back to the UK to recover. For months I struggled with PTSD, and I’m certain that regularly getting in the water helped massively with my recovery. A year later, I returned to the Caribbean, and sailed my boat back to the UK.
Max's choice of frame is the Wren.
Was there any doubt in your mind that the trip wouldn’t go ahead? Or were you just itching to get back on the boat the whole time you were on land?
I never thought that COVID would permanently put a stop to the trip. Although, it was frustrating for us to have something we worked so hard on, postponed indefinitely. The uncertainty of it all taught us a very valuable lesson about sailing; to be flexible and fluid to changes outside of your control.
It feels so good to be back on Elixir after seven months in the UK. I almost forgot how happy sailing makes me, and now I’m even more appreciative of the opportunity to travel on a sailing boat. For a period of time, sailing became a lesser part of life, and it feels so good to have it back again.
How do you feel about being away from home for the Christmas period?
We planned to spend Christmas in the Atlantic, however the forecast didn’t let us. A period of south west winds pushed our departure back a few days. Now, we are going to spend Christmas in the Canary Islands, and then set off on the transatlantic before new years.
I feel like this year is the perfect year to spend Christmas/New Year on a boat somewhere sunny. We’re all excited to begin 2021 with a few weeks at sea, and only hope that things don’t change too much, and we still are allowed into the Caribbean when we get there.
Harry and Lily also brought over a six pack of mince pies and a few Terry‘s Chocolate Oranges, so there is some resemblance of a Christmas at home.
Have your perspectives or dreams been changed at all by the unpredictable events of this year?
If it wasn’t for COVID, then I would have never had the chance to write a book with two of my friends. I would also never have had the chance to explore the Canary Islands, and it’s helped me slow down with the journey and enjoy and appreciate the locations that we visit.
Now we’re back, almost at the same place we were a year ago, preparing to set off across the Atlantic. The goal is still the same, but I think only the timescale has changed. I also think that COVID has made sailing more of an attractive option for travel. Suddenly airports have become more stressful, and sailing allows a way to avoid the cramped aeroplanes and mask wearing. The crossing is also three weeks, so there’s no need to quarantine on arrival.
What's your reflection on 2020?
2020 taught me a lot, and I think the main thing is to not get affected or upset by situations outside of our control. We’re very grateful to be sharing this experience. The main lesson is to ‘loosen our grip’ on the things we can't change, and stop trying to control everything, and focus on enjoying the present moment.