Chapter 9: Crossing the Atlantic
It’s six o’clock in the morning on Nov. 13, 2019. The TV monitors in the hotel lobby in Hampton, Virginia are showing weather warnings on repeat. Giant storm patterns are raging along the entire North American east coast, from Florida to Nova Scotia.
We step inside the car with the tiny luggage we’ve got left. It’s pitch black outside and the car is still freezing. Rob Liddell, a documentarian with the BBC, and sailor Nikki Henderson are sitting in the back. Nikki scrolls through the latest weather updates on her phone. Rob has got the camera on his shoulder and is looking at us through the lens.
It’s dead silent inside the car. The only thing you hear is Nikki sighing and moaning over and over again. After what feels like an eternity she shakes her head, puts the phone down and goes “wow guys, we’re in for a rough ride”.
“But we’re still going, right?” my dad asks, a bit worried.
“Of course,” she says.
Rob tries to ask me questions to get some kind of interview going, but I’m not really in the right mood.
One hour later we cast off from the dock. We clear the harbor entrance heading for Chesapeake Bay and wave goodbye to all the people and TV crews who have gathered on the surrounding docks. There’s a strong wind coming from Northwest. On deck the freezing temperatures of last night have turned all puddles into thick layers of ice. It’s snowing. We set sail and head for the open sea. Towards the lighthouse. Towards the ocean. Towards Europe. Towards Portugal. Towards Stockholm Central Station.
You do not sail across the North Atlantic ocean in November. At the end of September the storms come, and then the season closes until spring. Of course I had not planned for it to be like this. But the UN COP25 summit, where I was headed, was suddenly moved from Santiago to Madrid, meaning I had traveled halfway across the globe in the wrong direction. I had to find a solution.
I consider every possible option. Zeppelin airships, solar powered airplane and even sailing across the Pacific Ocean and then taking the Trans Siberian railway home. The most likely outcome however is to stay somewhere in North America for the winter.
Hundreds of people get in touch and want to help, but very few actually have something concrete to offer. The French and Spanish governments reach out and assure that they are going to help me find a way. However it is very unclear how they will do that.
Two Nordic airlines email and offer to arrange a flight using /“50% sustainable fuel and then use the remaining 50% on another flight so that in total it becomes 100% fossil free”/. As if biofuels were sustainable.
If I wouldn’t have been who I am I would probably have hitched a ride on a cargo ship, since they –unlike airplanes and cruise ships– don’t depend on paying passengers.
But everything I do and say gets altered and turned upside down which leads to mockery, conspiracy theories and organized hate campaigns. Which in turn leads to death threats toward me and my family. And that build up of hate and threat is much riskier than all the storms in the world.
Then suddenly one night in a hotel room in Savannah, Georgia, the phone beeps. It is Riley and Eleyna, a couple of young Australian YouTubers who are reaching out. They’re living on their catamaran with their one year-old son Lenny and are sailing around in the world, with no planned route. They offer to take us to Europe.
On the boat, we steer south so that in a certain amount of time we will have put ourselves in a strategically safe position away from a storm, so that we later can safely get to another position to avoid the next big storm. And then the next one, and the next one, and the next one. The low pressure systems sweeping over the North Atlantic right now are enormous. During the days we have gusts reaching up to 60 knots, and some nights the electric storms are so immense that you can see sparks in the water. We store all electronic devices in the oven to avoid them getting destroyed by lightning.
We are completely in the hands of the meteorologists helping us, sending weather updates and recommendations a few times a day. We’re very lucky to also have Nikki, a professional sailor, onboard. One hundred nautical miles in the wrong position can be the difference between life and death this time of year with this boat. You simply have to blindly trust data and the experts.
Me, my dad, Nikki, Elayna, Riley and Lenny are alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. We are at the mercy of nature and have to act accordingly. We need to be able to take care of ourselves if something goes wrong.
If you are one week away from the nearest harbor you do not take any unnecessary risks. You don’t for instance start a fire on deck if you feel cold, you don’t throw away limited provisions of food or necessary equipment out in the ocean. You keep a constant watchful eye on the horizon and you don’t allow yourself to get struck by hubris. Onboard we are guided by common sense, the same common sense that should exist everywhere.
We are a civilization isolated in the middle of the universe. Space is our ocean and the planet is our boat. Our one and only boat.
This is the transcript of Chapter 9 of the Sverige Radio program aired on June 20, 2020 with the title Greta Thunberg: Humanity has not yet failed.
The full transcript was published by Time magazine on July 10, 2020. Here it is offered in chapters to make it easier to read.