Janet of Cambridge began reading Sailing to Purgatory on the way home from the book shop, she tells me, and immersed herself in the story right away.

Image of part of  a Sailing to Purgatory webpage to illustrate the article.
Brave sadly missed yacht ... Sophie took this shot in the Atlantic of my superb little yacht. The prosecution snatched the yacht and sold her.

Last night she reached the chapter where I encountered a recently drowned sailor, a crewman from a fish factory ship. It was, as Janet suspects, a really disturbing moment on the voyage.

She emailed, 'That part about that dead young sailor floating face up. That is really intense.

'You said that if you hadn't looked that way at that moment when he floated by, you would have missed him.

'It makes one think how insignificant one life is in this vast world.'

Yes, Janet, an experience like that can certainly leave you feeling that way. An extraordinary part of it was that the yacht was racing really hard.

The wind was just the right strength and in the right direction for that amazing little yacht to reach almost her top speed.

The body rose with the wave

The yacht was racing towards the Azores archipelago in the hurricane season. I was steering, to help her race her fastest.

The sea was rushing past, great mounds of it in a rather traditional way, and a swell was whooshing along higher than the gunwale.

In that exact moment of looking to port, the body rose with the wave, and dashed past me at my eye level. In Sailing to Purgatory, I write,

'I'm scanning the horizon from time to time, as ever. A high wave rises at the bow and washes along the length of the boat. It's followed quickly by another. A body surfaces. It's beside me in an instant. The water turns him slightly. I'm staring into a young face, no more than a metre away. He is dead, Chinese, Singaporean perhaps. He floats on his back, eyes open. He wears a survival suit. He returns my open-mouth stare.'

And then he was gone.

Janet wrote, 'At his home his family was waiting for him when his voyage was over. Only he will never go home. How terribly sad it is.'

Did it haunt you?

Yes, it is sad. In all my years at sea, and all those thousands upon thousands of miles of ocean, this was the only time I ever saw a human who had drowned.

'How did you deal with staring death in the face literally,' Janet asks, 'all alone out there, when it could have easily been you? Did it haunt you that night all in solitude?'

How do we deal with death, Janet? Yes, it was a tremendous shock to stare into that youth's face for the brief moment. I felt desperately sad for him, and the shock of it was to haunt me for a long time.

When the horrorshow began a few months later, the prosecution tried to make something of this worrying encounter. They didn't persist for very long, I'm glad to say. Probably even hardened lawyers know when they might be going too far.

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