The 58-year-old lawyer recently completed a 16 1/2-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. He sailed on a 56-foot Swan sailboat from Las Palmas, Spain, to St. Lucia in the Caribbean – the same route taken by Christopher Columbus when he discovered the New World.
“In my mind, it’s the ultimate in being close to nature,” Cole said. “You are on a small boat in this huge ocean.”
Cole was part of an 11-man crew that set sail from Las Palmas on Nov. 22 on a boat named Why Not. The voyage was part of the Atlantic Rally of Cruisers, which allows sailors the experience of crossing the Atlantic while transporting boats from Europe to the Caribbean.
Sea of uncertainty
Cole’s first obstacle came before he ever set foot on Why Not.
His direct flight from Houston to Paris landed four days after a series of terrorist attacks killed 130 people and left 368 injured in the French capital.
The trip, originally planed as a relaxing escape from the world, soon left him confined to a Parisian airport full of angst and uncertainty.
Cole restlessly waited after missing his initial flight to Madrid. In the middle of heartbreak and horror, the white, sandy beaches of the Canary Islands now seemed worlds away.
Five days later, a much-welcomed distraction lay waiting for him on the docks of Las Palmas.
That’s where he met up with his crewmates who consisted of an American, an Argentine, a Canadian, a Dane, a German and five Italians, including ship owner and Capt. Fabio Scalzi.
“Everybody spoke some English,” Cole said. “Some of the Italians’ English was not too good, but we were able to communicate well enough.
“A 56-foot boat with 11 people on it is pretty close quarters,” he said. “We are all close friends now. It happens pretty quickly when you are in that close of proximity.”
Cole, who described Scalzi as easygoing, said his personality is accurately depicted in the boat’s name.
Despite being Italian, Scalzi chose the English name Why Not for his boat, painting a ghost resembling Casper the Friendly Ghost with its hands to its side shrugging to the gennaker and spinnaker sails.
“That’s his main approach to sailing,” Cole said. “His answer to the trips that he does and why he does it is ‘Why not?'”
The crew took the same lighthearted approach for the journey, swapping stories between six-hour watch shifts. Cole, who kept lookout from 2 to 8 a.m. and again from 2 to 8 p.m., said the trip left plenty of time for bonding.
Cole, and fellow American crewmate Randy Brand were even able to round up some sliced turkey to prepare a makeshift Thanksgiving feast for the rest of the crew.
Just as fast as chaos had started, it came to a halt.
“When you get on the ocean, everything is unplugged,” Cole said. “It almost seems like the rest of the world comes to a stop.”
Troubles at sea
Admittedly, Cole experienced smooth sailing on his trip. However, no trek across the Atlantic is complete without a few waves of adversity.
The crew experienced high winds and up to 20-foot waves during its first few days at sea.
Why Not even lost its signature Casper-clad gennaker sail when it blew off during a storm, limiting how fast the boat could travel for the remainder of the voyage.
“It’s something that you have to deal with quickly,” Cole said. “It’s all hands on deck. These sails are very expensive, so it’s a loss. It was a sail that we were using quite a lot. It helped our speed.”
On its way down the western coast of Africa, Why Not experienced another slight scare when a mysterious ship followed it for several miles.
Cole said the ship, which could not be reached by radio, was most likely a fishing boat or some sort of coastal official.
Although with no way to make contact, he and the rest of the crew were left with their imaginations.
“They sort of shadowed us for a while,” Cole said. “As we drove farther off the coast, they stopped.”
One with nature
Cole, who was born in Victoria into a sailing family, said he grew up on the water. Before the trip across the Atlantic, he took several trips transporting sailboats from the East Coast to the Caribbean.
There isn’t a lot that surprises him at sea. However, it never ceases to amaze him.
“There are beautiful nights, stars and planets and satellites going over your head. I saw hundreds of dolphins and whales. I’d wake up and find flying fish on deck. Sometimes you get hit by a flying fish.”
Cole carries his iPad with him on trips, using a stargazing app to study the night sky. On his recent trip, he said the view of Jupiter and Venus really stood out.
“Out there, it is completely dark,” Cole said. “You can see stars from horizon to horizon. You feel small. That 56-foot sail boat is a pretty good size sailboat, but it’s a speck on that ocean.”
The time on the water has taught Cole many things, none more important than independence. When problems arise, sailors must be resourceful and come up with the best possible way to overcome.
“You learn a lot of self-reliance,” Cole said. “You are out in the ocean. If something happens, you have a way to call for help, but you can expect it may be days before help arrives.
“For people to come is very expensive,” he added. “You don’t call for someone on something you can handle yourself.”
Not every boat was able to successfully make the trip. Cole said at least one boat had to be abandoned and others turned back because of complications at sea.
Why Not finished sixth in the racing and cruising class, sailing into St. Lucia at 1 a.m. Dec. 9 to complete the voyage in an even 161/2 days.
Paradise at last
After two weeks without a full-sized bed or dry land, the shores of the Caribbean were nothing short of heaven.
The warm comfort of a full meal and a real bed served as a shot in the arm for Cole. His legs, however, still needed some work.
“It takes a little time to adjust to walking,” Cole said. “It’s the same thing with sleeping. Still, sometimes I wake up and think that the bed is moving.”
Cole’s longest prior trip was nine days, when he transported a boat from Norfolk, Va., to St. Martin in 2012.
He said he remembers reading that fewer people have completed a wind-powered sailing trip across the Atlantic Ocean than have scaled Mt. Everest.
So why now? Why sail 2,700 nautical miles with a crew of strangers across the toughest sea known to man?
“It was one of those bucket-list things,” Cole said.