On the fourth and final day on the crossing from Lisbon to Madeira, something smelled burnt in the cockpit. A fire in a boat is a crisis as bad as it can get, and in my head I ran through the procedures of evacuating: get the liferaft out, grab the sat phone and emergency beacon, bring as much water as we can and wait for the cavalry to appear.

Sunrise on the third day

I jumped down to have a look in the engine room: all as expected – the engine was cold enough to touch, too hot to keep my hand there for more than a few seconds. All things electric seemed okay as well: no hot cables, fuse panel looked fine. The autopilot had been working hard for many hours in waves a few metres high, but nothing brutal enough to warrant approaching a point of ignition.

Then it hits me: we were approaching Porto Santo, and these isles are volcanic. In seafaring tales, I’ve always read about the smell of land appearing well before the sight of land, but only through the complete sensory deprivation of a few days at sea could an entire island smell like a burning piece of charcoal, still many miles away.

Sunset on arrival to Porto Santo

Life at sea is devoid of all external input: through an entire nightwatch, I saw two aircraft in the distance, was accompanied only by noctilucales, with our own navigation lights the only disturbance to the stars above. Bereft of outside inputs, we’re forced to observe more closely the few things that are near: the sound of the sea sloshing around the hull, the sensation of the warm tropical winds hitting my skin, the thoughts mulling around in my mind. Moving most things to a distance leaves the remainder closer to heart.