November 01, 2011
Saturday 15th October 2011, departure day…
Having put back the date many times during the week already, it had finally arrived. I was feeling the pressure as I made the final packing selection, -then a definitely final one just in case. I was sure I had everything I needed now. Up to Caernarfon where we met Mark the dockmaster who still didn’t believe I’d ever get away (on my last visit of many, he was asking me if I wanted winter berthing). Final rush to get all the gear on and stowed with dad, while my mum and sister Anna were dispatched to Tesco to buy 80 litres of drinking water. And the replacement fresh food which I’d left in their fridge…
I sailed from Victoria Dock at 14.30, en route to Porth Dinllaen just a few miles away. The plan was to anchor there for a few hours and get some rest; I hadn’t been able to eat or sleep properly for days now, and we reckoned that it would give me some breathing space to be alone with the boat. Looking at the tides which would give me maximum flow I would have to start out again by 23.00 for Southern Ireland. At 22.00 I watched the all weather lifeboat crew tow someone back into the harbour- hats off to those guys, they’re amazing. It was blowing hard outside in the pitch dark, and I was still tired. Surely it would be pointless to venture out into this? I stayed where I was and decided to read up on how some of my sexy new instruments operated instead. Now where was that file marked “All Instruction Manuals”…?
I called dad at 8 in the morning just to check. Sure enough they were there. There were too many to talk me through over the phone so they drove them out to me- I couldn’t believe I’d been so organised to file them in the first place, but then so stupid to leave them behind! At least I got to see my folks one last time.
Passage over to Wexford was relatively uneventful, even if it took a little longer than expected. The wind was forecast to be from the South, which meant that if I kept hard on it I should in theory be able to lay it in one tack. Sailing boats cannot sail directly into the oncoming wind, so if they need to go in that direction they must point at about 50 odd degrees towards it, before changing course and zig zaggging onwards. It is called “beating” and is neither quick nor comfortable; in fact there is a saying “gentleman do not sail to windward”! The wind however doesn’t play by the rules and veered round to the SW instead- directly my path. My ETA that I’d filed in my passage plan with the coastguard was now some 6 hours out… I wasn’t going to be sleeping for a while. 23 hours after leaving I was negotiating the challenging approach (google maps it), and 24 hours later I was snug in a free berth. I had the famous Irish welcome- I’d only asked a couple of the locals where I should tie up when they showed me to suitable spot, and insisted I come and visit their yacht club for a pint and a shower. “Get your stuff and I’ll take you there” said Hirch before returning five minutes later in his boat. Even the lifeboat crew on a training exercise came alongside to say hello and that they’d have escorted me down the difficult channel if they’d have known. Arriving at the club the reception was every bit as warm, the commodore generously granting me full use of the facilities and “honesty box” coffee making during the day. With a gale raging outside, I holed up there for two nights making the most of their showers, bar, and checking weather reports in preparation for Biscay.
I’d been unable (and still am) to think of the trip as a whole- it’s just too big and scary. I’ve tried to overcome this by breaking it down into much smaller parts, the first one being the three hour sail to Porth Dinllaen. Biscay was simply another stage in that respect, but with a big difference. I’d heard horror stories of people requesting airlifts from their (uninsured) yachts because they felt so horribly seasick in the savage conditions. It’s by no means a “bay” in the calm, picturesque context that the word suggests, more a spiteful, unforgiving environment, and definitely not one to be undertaking this late in the season. My feelings of dread haven’t been eased by people sucking their breath in through their teeth like a dodgy builder- “bit late for Biscay, isn’t it?” Well I know it’s late, but thinking about it, other than to call the whole thing off, isn’t going to help matters!
Weather forecasts (five different sources, I’m a careful chap) all agreed that the coming day was possibly the most suitable window I could expect. The drawback was that it was still going to be blowing a force seven. I’ll usually go out in up to a six (aka “yachtsman’s gale”) if I have to get somewhere, but choosing to start a passage of between a week and ten days in worse?? I came to the conclusion that frightened or not, I would have to try. I remembered an entry in the log of John Hoare and David Johnstone before they set out to row the Atlantic in 1966. “If we don’t have a go, we will live the rest of our lives wondering if we might have made it, and that only fear persuaded us from the attempt.” My biggest fear in life is that I will look back on my time with regrets. My mind was made. I was going to get out there and take a look.
Tuesday 18th- Biscay here we come!
The tides around the area needed careful examination if I was even going to exit the harbour. Access was HW +- 2, which meant I had to leave between 09.00 and 13.00. I planned for 11.00 but of course ended up leaving at 12.00 which sluiced me out of the channel faster than I could blink. The wind and tide conditions were too much for the autopilot, so I had to steer by hand if I was to stand any chance of staying on the transits between the marker buoys. I knew full well that straying by even a few metres would involve a dangerous six hours drying out at an angle, and probably the return of my friendly lifeboat crew…
Going out on this falling tide also meant that there was no return to Wexford at this time; my back up plan was Rosslare across the water. I also had the option of continuing around the tip of Carnsore Point to Kilmore. Of course, if I felt that a seven on the beam (side of the boat- a more manageable point of sailing) was safe I could carry on. It took me twenty odd minutes of panting and hauling on lines to get the sails set up as they needed to be. I felt more like a fish out of water as I struggled with the job than the heroic sailor I’d fondly imagined- feeling like that is- I don’t fondly imagine sailors.
I reckoned it was manageable, if a bit lively. “So this is it” I thought, “I’m on my way…” I made a few phone calls back home before I left range. I knew that once I left mobile phone coverage, I would only have short range communication via my vhf radios (one main, one backup, and a spare handheld- like I said I’m cautious). My sister Anna texted to say that she assumed I had decided not to go as my satellite tracking beacon was switched off. This was a big concern for me; it most definitely was switched on, and should have been relaying my position every 10 minutes! This was the only means I had of letting people know I was still alive and well. Luckily, a phone call to the ever sensible Eve provided the answer. “Have you tried changing the batteries?” It worked, and just in the nick of time. Shortly after that I lost signal, and was to be completely on my own for the next week or so. It was what I did or didn’t do from now on that would determine following events, a scary feeling I’d never experienced to this degree before.
I knew things were going to turn out ok for this trip, as before too long I had a great omen- an escort from a school of dolphins! They are such wonderful creatures, and just watching them play alongside takes my breath away. I know sailors are a superstitious bunch, but I always consider them to be good luck.
As the sun went down I prepared for the night ahead, but one thing was troubling me. Despite numerous attempts to alter our heading using the self steering settings, I couldn’t get Makatea to go quite where I wanted her to. She insisted on steering a few degrees above her course, no matter how many changes I made. Why was she being so obstinate and not doing as she was told? All of a sudden the answer came to me. A bolt on the windvane had worked loose, effectively disconnecting the servo arm. She wasn’t actually being told to do anything, and yet was still merrily sailing along on a near perfect heading. What an amazing boat.
It was a cold night, and I wearing my full thermal gear. I was certainly looking forward to getting a few degrees further south, and needing to use the sun shade mum had made me, and the windscoop generously bought by Nick & Jane Lane.
Sleeping while sailing alone took some getting used to. I had some really crazy dreams; I was being driven around a racing track in a fast car, all accelerating braking and cornering. I guess that’s what happens when you try to sleep on a roller coaster, blind at more than seven knots… I did think about shortening sail and going slower, but would that lessen my chances of being hit? It may give others longer to react, but what about the ships which don’t keep proper lookouts? I reckoned that I would come off pretty badly whether I was doing four or seven knots anyway, and at least it would reduce the overall time I spent out there. Sleeping is quite an issue for the singlehander. You have to do it, but you are also required to keep a proper lookout. I take the view that this is an inherently risky business anyway, and that a degree of luck (call it what you may) is needed. I tend to take catnaps of as little as 10 mins at a time if there’s anything visible; if the sky and screen is empty I will allow myself longer. Shane Acton, a chap who sailed a 19 foot boat around the world, used to take all his sails down and sleep for 8 hours! (Note- I’m still not sure about this one, and have since taken the opposite approach at times and deliberately kept my boat speed low.)
Wednesday 19th Day 2
Generally spent generally settling into life at sea. Tummy hadn’t quite settled enough for my liking by this point, and so didn’t risk doing too much reading down below. I used to be fine with motion sickness when I was an operational paramedic as I used to work in a moving vehicle every day. I now find that I do get out of tune and that it takes a while to get my sea legs.
I enjoyed listening to music as I was sailing, and was really glad that I’d chosen to install a CD player. I smiled as I remembered a conversation with my sister Anna and brother in law Colin.
Anna- “So what’re you doing for music?”
Me- “Well I have some CD’s and an MP3 player- that has about 100 songs you know…”
Colin- (laughs) “Well that’s the first week sorted, but what about the rest? I’ll lend you my ipod.”
Being a bit of a technophobe I wasn’t keen at first, The rest of my family all have them, (including my big sister Sarah who’d kindly offered to lend me her only one), but I’m a bit behind the times like that. Anyway, I was glad I had accepted their offer now- and it also provided insight into their taste in music. Personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Johnny Cash, and certainly nothing whatsoever to be embarrassed about! ;-)
Thursday 20th, Day 3
I woke to find my inner cordon had been breached. Not as worrying a thought as it might sound, it was the alarm from my Automatic Identification System (AIS) radar alerting me that a vessel was within my preset range. A brilliant device from one of my sponsors, NASA Marine, it intercepts the pings which all vessels over 300 tonnes and all passenger carriers are required by international law to transmit. This in turn is interfaced with the GPS system, so it knows to plot all positions relative to mine which is at the centre of the display. The other great benefit to the system is that it gives the vessel’s name, their digital selective calling number (effectively a telephone number for marine radios) which can then be used to call them up if needed, course over ground (COG) and speed over ground (SOG). From this information, a closest point of approach (CPA) can be calculated. Or you can just keep things simple and call to request it. The main limitation is that it is not an active radar as such. Many fishing vessels (FVs) do not use it, and they can be a real hazard at night as they zig zag at will across the sea. My ability to scan the horizon in such low light levels and make out what was going on was reallly helped by the loan of a night vision scope from my good friend Dave Savage.
The highlight of the day was the return of the dolphins. They came round to say hello again and this visit I spent more time with them. I lay on the foredeck with my arms dangling over the side watching them as they jostled for position and played. It really felt like the greatest show on earth, they were there playing because they wanted to be, not because they’d been trained to whilst caged in some zoo. They’re also wonderfully perceptive creatures; they would only come over when I was watching! A few times I would see one out of the side windows and go on deck. Within minutes there would be at least six alongside, all chattering in dolphin speak. (I’d never heard this before, but it sounds very like a long wave radio being fine tuned.) Absolutely breathtaking.
Friday 21st, Day 4
A bad start to the day. In the early hours of the morning Makatea had tacked herself through the wind. Not a problem in itself, until I found the cause of this unscheduled manoeuvre- one of the ball and socket joints on a part of the self steering gear had failed and was now hanging limply out of place. Loss of this vital piece of gear would potentially be a major problem for me.
The system works by means of a vane projecting upwards, which always points into the wind. When the boat moves off course relative to this vane, a push rod moves a servo blade which points downwards into the water. (Just imagine holding the top end of an oar straight down off the back of the boat, and twisting it when moving forwards.) This results in a powerful swing of the servo arm to one side. Steering lines are connected from here to the tiller, to pull the boat back on course.
I couldn’t do anything about it there and then, I’d only end up falling overboard as I nearly did while retrieving the broken remnants. I set the autopilot to take charge while I returned to my bunk to ponder. The autopilot is great for close quarters stuff where a high degree of linear accuracy is needed, but has real drawbacks on the open sea. For a start it is quite power hungry, but crucially it will only hold a course relative to an electronic compass, not the wind which is constantly changing! This means that when it comes to steering as close to the wind as possible it can never compete. I could either set too low a heading (a greater angle to the wind) and accept the inefficiency, or right on the limit and know that as soon as the wind moved forward of the bow the boat would tack herself and turf me out of my (now uphill) bed…
As soon as it became light outside I stopped the boat and set to work. I knew that these ball joints had been made in a workshop with more tools and equipment than I had on board. I also knew that the actual loads on the joints were very light at this point in the system. To start with I tried to reproduce the original which proved to be impossible in this environment. Despite spending an hour cutting out the components as accurately as possible with what I had, I only succeeded in dropping them into the water while attempting to fit them. Twice. Thinking laterally, all it needed was some means of holding a ball onto a socket to prevent it popping off, and it must to be able to withstand constant movement. Luckily I had packed quite a few bits into my “come in handy box” which included the solution; two shackles, two stainless hose clips, and some bungee cord to lace the lot together and provide the flexibility I needed in the coupling. I was on my way again, one nil to me.
I’ve always enjoyed problem solving puzzles in this way, much like the programme “scrapheap challenge”. I think that’s one of the reasons I love being a paramedic; ambulance crews constantly have to think on their feet, adapt to the situation they find themselves in, and make what they have into what they need.
My joy was short lived however, as later in the afternoon I encountered another big problem. Looking up at the mainsail I could see a split across one of the panels, about 30 cm long. It was on the back edge (the leech). Ironically it is the very part that provides the driving power, and is therefore subjected to the highest forces. The wind was rising; yet another force seven with big waves.
There was no argument. It had to come down straight away before the split ran unchecked across the whole sail and left it in half. But what then? While I had been ordering kit from a catalogue I had noticed something called a “stitch awl”. Thinking it would make me look more like a proper offshore sailor I added it to the list and my box, never appreciating just how handy it was about to become…
I dug it out and read over the instructions for a few minutes, smiling wryly at the bit which mentioned clamping the work in a vice! Thrashing around on a dancing deck more like- but still, hard luck. I had a quick practise on a piece of canvas first, before setting about the job for real. I knew that there was no chance of sewing up the whole tear, but if I could just get some stitches into the end of the split I reckoned that it may stop it developing; half an hour later I knew that despite the fact I teach suturing to medical students, my stitching was never going to be pretty. But they were in, and they were holding for now at least.
I spent a very uneasy night as the wind continued to rise, sleeping fully kitted ready to jump to. The sail was fully reefed down (as small as possible) but how was I to know how long my repair would hold out?
November 02, 2011
Saturday 22nd Day 5
I was starting to feel a bit uneasy, that something wasn’t right. The wind and swell were rising, and the pressure was falling. I realised that I hadn’t given the after (back) edge of the sail any protection stitches, so prepared for another battle and an early morning cold bath. At the very least it would give me peace of mind if we were in for a lumpy ride. While the tear was in my hands again, I popped another few into the front edge for good measure, and that was all I could do for the time being. Conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the day, with me steadily reducing sail area to keep in line with them.
I was lamenting the visit of the sock monster when I was packing my clothes. I wished I had taken more as a fresh pair was such a comfort in these conditions, but knew I had to ration the few I had.
My transponder was also giving me headaches. I’d taken loads of spare batteries (or so I thought), but hadn’t banked on just how quickly they were being used up. It was great idea for everyone’s peace of mind back home, but transmitting my position to some distant satellite every 10 minutes was a power luxury I could no longer afford. I sent a final “check in / ok” message, then turned it off. From now on I would just have to update it manually at hourly or greater intervals. When it came to rationing, my head torches had to take priority.
I carried on sailing until conditions became too bad, then hove to (where the boat is in a stable position but not moving) under one sail alone. I didn’t really plan to stop with the main, it just sort of happened like that. I’d rolled the genoa in completely, and had all three reefs in before I realised we’d stopped- due to the continuous passage of the waves I was still seeing a speed over ground on the GPS even if we were stationary relative to them. By now, conditions were so bad outside I couldn’t do anything about it. Rigging the inner forestay to fly the storm jib (a small, heavily stitched foresail rigged on its own detachable wire stay) was no longer an option due to the necessary trip on deck. I kept in mind what my brother had said to me before I set off “I’ve no doubt you can do this, but the one thing that would stop you for sure is parting company with the boat”. I knew that going out on deck for anything other than an immediately life threatening situation was asking for trouble, and could be fatal in itself. I stayed put in the cabin, contemplating the situation, very very scared. So there I was, in a proper grown up gale, with a sail aloft which was only being held together with a few stitches I’d put in myself… and I am no sailmaker.
There is a saying, “the sea will always find the weak point”. On a boat it’s amazing how quickly one failure will lead to the next weakest link in the chain breaking, and so on and so forth. If the stitches failed, there was no doubt that the seam would immediately open, and right the way across. The flogging would be so bad, it may well tear the sail in two, leaving the top portion irretrievable, halfway up the mast. In such high winds, this would increase the loading on all the wire stays and their attachment points, until one of those broke. And then the next one. And then the mast would come crashing down potentially holing the hull. Even looking back now two days after the event, I still don’t believe that that chain of events was an unrealistic possibility by any means.
It suddenly occurred to me that despite having bought three brand spanking new dry sacks to use as emergency grab bags, not one contained anything more useful to me than my laptop computer and a load of toilet rolls! As valuable as they may be in other ways, neither would improve my chances if I had to leave in a hurry so I packed one up properly. As much as anything, it gave me something to focus on. I glanced at the liferaft and physically shuddered. The prospect of abandoning all five tonnes of my lovely safe Makatea in favour of something I could sling over my shoulder was not tempting, and certainly nothing I’d be doing before she actually sank from beneath me.
The motion was actually quite steady considering what was going on outside, but the noise was horrendous. Every now and then a wave would break over us, and throw us back a few metres. I kept checking that up was actually up. Despite not showing signs of a knock down at this point, if anything changed this was a good possibility. I grab-handed around the cabin lashing down anything that would injure me if thrown. I locked the cooker in position, and brought the transponder in from its usual home beneath the sprayhoood in case the whole lot was washed away. And then I sat and waited. And waited.
That was the most awful part, the not being able to have any more influence over what was coming. I was absolutely terrified, and I don’t mind admitting it. I spent the rest of the night and all the following day in and out of a fitful sleep of very strange dreams. They were all about people- Eve and my family, but also those who I have known in the past on any level such as people I went to school with. Although not in coherent sentances, I heard people I knew speaking, and the familiar sounds of home… the mind does funny thins under stress. [Reading accounts of other singlehanded sailors since, it appears that hallucinations like this are actually quite common in such situations.] I managed to find a tanker also riding out the gale six miles from me who confirmed it was a force nine. I had no way of accurately measuring windspeed as when I had poked my anemometer out from behind the sprayhood, it promptly gave up the ghost and died. (I could only estimate the force from the conditions I was seeing which put it at 9- subsequent weather reports confirmed this.)
The last time I had been in really bad weather was with my longest friend Ben Lane, his brother Charlie and another great friend Mike Simms in 2006 when we’d set out to deliver a 46ft yacht from the Caribbean to the UK. The conditions were almost as bad, but even though the boat was nowhere near as solid as Makatea (and falling apart around us) I didn’t feel half as frightened back then. Safety in numbers maybe?
At one point in the morning I was contemplating my meteorology and the fact that I haven’t yet been able to print off synoptic charts using the SSB radio. I came to the conclusion that being on starboard tack must mean that the depression was to my right (west). Therefore, if I could gently sidle away eastwards I may be at least be able to do something to help myself so I decided I’d burn some diesel to help me along. I clipped on before creeping out into the cockpit; I needed to have a really good check to make sure that there were no stray lines overboard as a rope wrapped around the prop shaft was the last thing I needed right then. That done I fired up the engine and started trying to slide sideways across the wave fronts, taking great care with my angle of approach. Selecting the correct throttle and rudder was absolutely vital- I knew that altering our position relative to these waves significantly could be catastrophic if I wasn’t very careful. I carried on like this for an hour, feeling comfort from the reassuring thudding sound. Although the barometric pressure had risen ever so slightly, my approach didn’t appear to be making any real change. I shut it down from inside (still in gear), took some anti sickness medication and went back to bed- telling myself that “all storms pass”.
By 18.00, I was sure that things were moderating. I was still contemplating setting up the storm jib, and still I decided against it. All I needed, I reasoned, was a small sail area set forward to hold the bows off the wind, and we could be moving again. (Remember, the mainsail had been keeping the boat hove-to by pushing from behind, the front into the wind.) I reckoned that although not ideal, a small triangle of the genoa (front sail) would do the trick, and crucially I could set that from the cockpit. I did. It worked. We were on our way.
Sunday 23rd, Day 6
…was spent going through the events. I was aware of how much the gale had knocked me both physically and psychologically. I felt weak in body and mind, partly due to the fact that I hadn’t been able to eat anything at all for more than 30 odd hours but was still working just as hard to sail the boat. Or was I? I was drained, but although I found myself being quick to take in sail when the wind was rising, I was slow to get it back up again when it fell. Reacting to the wind is important if we were to avoid languishing with not enough sail set. Wallowing around not getting anywhere wasn’t doing anything for my frame of mind either. I started making the odd mistake such as when I came on deck to find the cockpit winch handle missing; either the gypsies had had it away for scrap while I was sleeping, or I had left it in the drum. (As my friend Matthew “Bowler” Bennett would have said, “a schoolboy error…”)
I couldn’t afford not to be thinking straight and knew I needed to make some changes, so started by clearing up the cabin and forcing myself to eat something. Two slices of my dad’s homemade bread and butter was what I’d been keeping until it was really needed, and now was the time. I also managed half a banana, a spoonful of custard and a cup of water. Well it was a start at least.
Monday 24th, Day 7
I was determined I was going to be more on the ball with keeping the boatspeed up and spent all day chasing it. I had definitely improved in my ability to find the optimum sail settings, but was still wishing that my brother JonB or friend David Chasney Evans were there to give me some pointers!
With all of this fine tuning came a lot of dressing. For any operation which may mean having to go forward I couldn’t afford not to be able to quickly. This meant that for even something as simple as tacking (where the boat’s head is turned through the wind) I would have to be in full sea kit; boots, foul weather jacket and trousers, harness, hat, gloves, knife and +- head torch. Quite often this takes longer than the job itself, but what if I am caught out? If a sheet (rope to control a sail) gets snagged on the way across and starts flogging wildly, do I say “I’ll risk it just this once”, or leave it to destroy itself while I get my harness on? Definitely not a chance worth taking…
Tuesday 25th, Day 8
Quite a big swell today, but also great WNW F6 wind. Although this means the motion is lively, we are currently making fantastic speed towards Spain- 5.8 knots at last glance to the GPS! I have finally been able to type this up from all the scraps of paper I had kept over the week. All’s well on board, and I’m aiming to finally close the land tomorrow morning and enjoy the champagne that my friend Pauline Warner had given me to mark the occasion.
Camarinas is looking like the favourite, but I need to find a sailmaker and also an agent for the company which supplied the brand new wind generator. Ever since screaming along in the gale it has been progressively deteriorating, and now sounds very like the bearings from my knackered old boat trailer- with added grit. I also need to repair the wobbly saloon table which hasn’t been quite right since I body slammed it a few days ago. Still, if that’s the worst that has come from this passage, I will be very happy!
I can’t get over how well Makatea has looked after me so far. It really is very difficult to see something which has kept you alive in that way as an inanimate object, as nothing more than wood and fiberglass. My friend Jenna Lane sent me a quote by Vito Dumas from “Alone Through the Roaring Forties” which sums up how I felt beautifully ‘From the bottom of my heart I thanked the boat, I talked to her with endearments that fled down the howling wind.’
Wednesday 26th Day 9
How things can change in a few short hours. We’d been eating up the miles while tearing down the 9 degrees West line. Makatea was firmly in charge of the sailing, with me strictly hands off and feeling like we were actually flying! We made it right down to the decision point between Camarinas and La Coruna, when the wind backed, and against the tide. Neither option was going to be easy pickings now especially as both wind and swell were building, but as we were 30 miles or so from either, things couldn’t go against us at this point surely? It was time for the weather forecast. Whatever they threw our way we were as good as there now so it didn’t really apply. I listened to it anyway, if only to feel smug that we were only a few short hours from finishing our Biscay crossing.
“Southerly storm warning imminent… Finisterre” The word ten was in there too which filled me with horror. The Beaufort wind scale is often misinterpreted where people think that the steps are equal; i.e. a five is 25% of a force four again. Not so. As the wind force is proportional to the square of the windspeed, each extra marker gives an exponential rise in the pain it causes.
If my optimism was taking a knock, it was about to receive a hammer blow. Less than a minute later I heard and felt the unmistakable sound of flogging sailcloth and dived outside. My sail repair which had borne out a force 9 had just decided it could take no more and failed. As I’d feared it had split right through the sail, tearing it in half. The top section was completely independent of the bottom, and the violent action was sending shockwaves right through the rigging and hull. 30 odd miles from finishing a 600 mile passage, in a force seven with yet another gale around the corner..! I could have lain down and cried except that I didn’t have the time.
Clipping on, I dived on deck to tame it before serious rig damage resulted. Having bought myself some breathing space I paused to ponder my options- continue to make for either port, or stay at sea? Contrary to natural instincts and however uncomfortable, it is often safer to be out at sea in really bad weather if making port safely cannot be guaranteed. One thing for certain was that I was not going to sit back and accept it like a passenger this time, I was determined to either get going again and escape the worst, or at least occupy myself better. First job was to ready the cabin again, re-securing everything I’d lashed down previously. I made a flask of hot soup, and another with water as I didn’t want to attempt to use the stove in those conditions. I even found the two audio books I had brought along in case I was too sick to read.
Next on the list was to set the storm jib on its removable forestay. This took about an hour with four trips around the deck moving inch by inch, having to double harness while moving around obstacles to stay secured. This felt more like the Southern Ocean than a few miles from a country many take their summer holidays in! Having managed to get this small foresail up and driving, I paused to look at the chart. If I headed west for Camarinas I ran a much greater risk of being hit by a ship in the “pinch point” around Finisterre. Could I make east for La Corunna instead? With no mainsail I just wasn’t going to be able to aim high enough in the Southerly wind, and would simply drift with the tide.
What I really needed was the spare mainsail; the downside was that this would involve removing the old one (plus the self stowing system) from the boom, a job which usually takes two people on a sunny calm day in the harbour. There was no question however- there weren’t two people available, and doing something had to be better than nothing. I then spent the next two hours on deck painstakingly stripping down the boom. This was made all the more difficult when I lost some lines up the mast. A wave caught us broadside on, and I let go for an instant to stay aboard- then saw the cat’s cradle of lazyjack lines wrapping themselves around whatever they could 15 feet up. If I was to stand any chance of setting another sail now, these would also have to be removed. Armed with a boathook and harness, I climbed the lower part to retrieve the offending bits of string, before hacking them away with my safety knife.
After what seemed like hours, I eventually had the spare mainsail on. The downside was that the reefing method for this sail was outdated, and didn’t allow me to set it efficiently on my own. Although I was making a few more degrees to the wind, it was still not going to be sufficient. It looked like another bad night was in store, made all the worse by being so close to the shipping lanes this time…
An hour or so later, I was alarmed to see a ship on the AIS on a collision course. Speaking with them on the radio, they were concerned about my predicament and asked if there was anything I needed. I explained my situation via the shore link, saying that I’d really like a tow but was concerned about the cost. (For all I knew, the Spanish system could allow a vessel to claim salvage for rendering assistance.) The nice lady on the radio assured me that it “won’t be much for your little boat, don’t worry…” Ever so grateful, I accepted and soon after was snug on a berth in La Coruna. Then came the small matter of payment. The “not much” fee turned out to be the princely sum of 632 euro! My initial thought was that the skipper had got his decimal place muddled up, sadly a look at the figures confirmed that there were no problems with his maths.
It’s taken me some time to get over this. My only comforts are that 1) I didn’t have to ride out yet another really bad blow, and 2) if I had stayed out and the mast had come down, it would have cost more than £9000- and possibly my life.
So there you have it, you’re up to date. I am currently holed up in La Coruna sorting out the damage, before getting underway once more. I’m safe and well, and fortunate to never have had to use the special “life preserver” my colleagues at work gave me.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I want to do now over the last few days, i.e. whether or not to carry on with the trip. The truth is that even when things were looking really bleak and I was terrified, I never actually thought “I wish I hadn’t come” (even if I did wish I wasn’t there at the time). I always said I wanted to have an adventure, and this is definitely fitting the bill. I’m going to push on for now with an open mind; if I change my plans for whatever reason and I do decide to come back, I hope people will understand that I’ll have given it my best shot. And it can be tough out there you know!
p.s. if anybody can spare a few quid for my charity Nightingale House Hospice Wrexham, please feel free on http://www.justgiving.com/Tom-Williams7 thanks.
November 24, 2011
“The problem with the Spanish workforce” mused my new found sailing buddy, “is that nobody wants to do any actual work…”
“Oh dear, another disgruntled Brit abroad” was my first thought as I made sympathetic noises and shrugged. I had met the aptly named Sinbad and his crew on the pontoon 10 minutes beforehand and been invited to join them onboard for a drink aboard his beautiful 67 foot ketch in true sailing brotherhood form. Surely this couldn’t be representative? (Of the Spanish, not sailors- this attitude was definitely representative of them.) After ten days of being fleeced by anyone and everyone who wanted to have a go, I’m sorry to report that my new friend had a point. I’m going to try not to dwell on this one, but as an example; when I examined the bill from the tow crew I saw that the skipper had attempted to round up the bill by 55 euro because he’d “…had to miss the football”!
My stay was made bearable by making friends with three French guys who were all in the same position as me. Pierre, Pascal and Nicolas were all tearing their hair out at the lack of action on the repairs front, and offered me great moral support during this really difficult time- I would’ve struggled on my own for sure…
Ten days after arrival, my repairs were just about finished. The diesel tank had been emptied of water (in a leisurely 5 days- 600 euro), the mainsails had been overstitched and adapted (500 euro), and I had repaired the pumps, lazyjacks, cabin table and charging relay. I’d also located the source of the water ingress- the fuel tank breather vent was located on the outside of the cockpit coaming- on the side which had taken the hammering during the gale- a great find to avoid repeating the experience! My main starting battery needed replacing and I could have done with some stitching work on my genoa but both would have involved staying two more days which I really couldn’t face…
My parents, aunty and uncle were due to arrive in the Canary Islands in just over a week, and I had a good few miles to cover in not much time. Luckily the ever helpful Pascal donated a battery which would get me going, and so off I went.
Sunday 6th November
I hadn’t really felt like celebrating my arrival in La Corunna and I still had Pauline’s champagne, so I decided instead to toast my exit as the approach lights slipped over the horizon.“Just switch from the autopilot to the [mechanical] self steering first then I’ll crack it open” I promised myself, which was when I found problem number one. The gear was no longer able to hold a course, and had become completely unstable (it was actually pulling the wrong way when the course error exceeded a certain level). This was bad news- but I had said I liked a challenge! I tried to find the reason for the sudden change.
I knew that it must be pretty simple- the only setting that was different now was the orientation of the servo blade in the water. During the tow into port, a couple of times I’d had to radio the boat to lower the speed. I later found that the water pressure had forced the blade into a trailing position and had pushed it back into an approximate setting- without realising how critical even minor adjustments would be to the course holding. As we were only a couple of miles out, I did contemplate returning to the security of the stable pontoon- but couldn’t face going back that God forsaken hole of a place. (Yes mum, I am leaving it in.) I reinstated the autopilot, tied lines to me and my tools, and set to work. After half an hour of dangling over the stern, I’d managed to regain the original settings; things were a lot better, but not perfect. When we were “off the wind” i.e. it was coming from behind the boat, she was still wandering quite a bit either side of her heading which wasn’t promising…
This was concerning me, as although we had only known headwinds so far, the further south we sailed, the more the wind would be from behind, and we still had thousands of miles to go. At least it wouldn’t be a problem for the next few days I thought; as soon as we rounded the headland the wind would once more be against us. By this time I was starting to feel a bit nauseous, so reluctantly returned the champagne to the locker for another time.
Two hours later came the next problem- the “kicking strap” (vang) fitting sheared its mounting point. In order to prevent the boom lifting and the mainsail twisting into a dangerously unstable shape during a gybe, a block and tackle arrangement is rigged between the mast foot and a short distance along the boom. This is vital when sailing at this angle, and needing addressing immediately.
I felt like the wheels were starting to come off my wagon- how many more “interesting challenges” could I cope with on the trip? It was not as though Makatea was some old shed of a boat, and yet I was still getting my share of problems. I quickly made a temporary strop using the two reefing cleats, but this was far from ideal- to start with they were too close to the gooseneck (mast / boom junction) so wouldn’t be able to provide the required purchase, and secondly they simply weren’t strong enough for the job. I’d have to do something better in the daylight pretty quickly, or I’d have major difficulties in reducing sail size when they snapped off. I reefed down well to relieve the pressure, and went to bed.
Monday 7th November
When the sun rose I set about a more substantial repair. The air was warm as I sat on the deck and was feeling better about the situation after a sleep.
Having pondered the problem well, I had two ideas to provide an attachment point capable of taking the necessary downforce. The first was to slide the lazy jack sail storage system forward (this is the blue cover sponsored by Mat Arnold which has www.centralstationvenue.com in the photos) then back again with a loop of sail tie webbing underneath. The second was to fabricate a claw to fit around the boom from a length of galvanised bar I had on board. I favoured the softer option, as it would be far less likely to damage the sail and / or cover- which I definitely could do without! It wasn’t the easiest job to manage singlehandedly, but after a couple of hours or so it was done, complete with a retaining line to the back of the boom to stop it sliding forwards.
I had the very welcome interruption halfway through of some more inquisitive dolphins who’d popped over to say hello and it was great to see them again. I watched them for a few minutes before dashing into the cabin to grab my waterproof action camera, determined not to miss them this time.
A few days beforehand I’d been speaking to my friend Dave Bennett, and he’d suggested clamping it to the boathook handle to get some underwater footage- what a brilliant idea! Sadly by the time I’d done this (less than 5 minutes) they’d tired of putting on a show for nobody to see and left me to it. I left it fixed and ready, just in case they did return…
Tuesday 8th November
Boatspeed was low, and we still had 840 miles to go to Gran Canaria. My original plan had been to meet up with Pauline and her family in Madeira on the 13th, but with 5 days to sail 600 miles this was now going to be impossible. I knew I would have to motorsail to see my folks for even a couple of days, so fired up the “iron topsail” top keep up the average. My batteries were showing almost complete discharge at less than 12volts, and now I barely had any output from the gale-damaged wind generator, the engine was the only means I had of charging them.
Morale was also low, and it was about to get even worse. The exhaust note changed suddenly (never a promising sign in a smooth running marine diesel engine) and a quick look over the stern confirmed my fears. Where the cooling water should have been gushing out was nothing. Nada. Zilch.
I shut the engine down immediately before it overheated and seized, and contemplated my position. 810 miles to go with pressure to arrive (mum & dad, Sandra & Dave had booked a holiday with the specific purpose of seeing me off). No real wind, and what little I had was from the wrong direction. No power, and no means of generating any. Dog tired. P*ssed off. And for good measure, seasick. I’m sorry to be so graphic here, but at one stage I had a toilet at one end, a bucket at the other, and was feeling as weak as a kitten. I also had a boat to run, which fantastic as she is, wasn’t about to start changing her own sails… This was definitely not my finest hour. I switched off all non-essential circuits which included cabin lights and my main comfort the CD player (the coolbox had long been disconnected). The situation was becoming serious. Before long I would lose the essential services as well, which would mean no navigation lights, no instruments, no comms, so no GPS, no AIS, no VHF, or SSB. I couldn’t face tackling it right then… and once again took to my bunk..
Wednesday 9th November
I woke up to find the wind was rising, and true to form was on the nose from the south west. On the positive side though I was moving, but I did have to get the engine going so fished out my tools and set to work. In short bursts broken only to vomit [actually a welcome relief from the nausea], I dismantled the cooling system right from the start; the seacock (through hull fitting) and primary strainer was clear. The raw water impeller was intact and turning freely. Water was arriving at the heat exchanger, leaving it, and being injected into the exhaust system. I put it back together to see if water would then be ejected as it logically should, and hey presto… it was! I really don’t like that kind of answer to a problem, as I didn’t find anything to cause it, and so couldn’t be sure when it was going to happen again. That said I was grateful to be back up and running, and couldn’t do anything more than keep a close eye on it for the time being.
I wanted to give the batteries a really good charge (as well as make progress) so kept on motorsailing. I was finally getting some good mileage in too, even if I was plundering my diesel reserves at an alarming rate! At about 17.00 it occurred to me that by holding my current course, I would end up right in the Traffic Separation Scheme off Roca, Portugal. I would then have to make a choice between tacking off to the west, or carrying on towards land. It’s forbidden to cross these “pinch points” unless necessary, even then only at right angles (and who’d want to get any closer than they needed to big ships that can hurt you anyway?) Hmmm. Looking at the chart I came up with a great idea. The port of Cascais near Lisbon was barely off my route, I could drop in there for a decent weather forecast, suck up some badly needed diesel, and pick up a phone signal to call home. I could be back out there within a couple of hours with a much greater motoring range, and it would definitely pay off long term if I was becalmed later.
I’d been putting off sleeping with the engine running for as long as possible. Although I never properly switch off and stay tuned into what the boat is doing, I didn’t want to miss the return of that dry exhaust. (I also couldn’t afford not to hear the AIS warning alarm of any shipping.) Eventually I was just too tired not to, and as it had been running without problems for several hours by this point, I thought I would take my chance in short stints of 15 minutes. I cleared the pilot berth on the starboard side so that my head could be right next to the buzzer, climbed in and was out within seconds.
I carried on like this all the way in, even if the 15 minute alarm call did feel like torture each time it wrenched me back from sleep. The timing of closing the land was perfect, in that it was light when we were within two miles of the shore. The amount of lobster pots was amazing, and I often had to alter course to avoid them; I wasn’t bothered about damaging the pots themselves, of far greater concern to me was getting my propeller tangled in the lines…
On the way in, I had been doing some thinking about the situation. I was no longer interested in getting to the Canaries in time to join the ARC race, and in fact I actively didn’t want the pressure of feeling like I had to keep up with the big boys, in their larger, faster, crewed yachts. What I was interested in was seeing my family. There was just no way I could get there in time to see them for anything more than two days- and that was if I exceeded my current daily average by a long way. I could either leave the boat in Cascais and fly to Gran Canaria, or press onto Madeira and fly from there instead. I called mum & dad to tell them my plans. I assumed my extreme tiredness came across in the conversation, when I was given the firm advice “go to bed, and get some rest”. My decision was finalised when Ben texted me to say he took it that I was calling there to “hole up while the force 9/10 passed through”! That was it, I wasn’t going anywhere in the near future, other than a cosy, still, quiet berth… [I later found that this was the time a freak, record breaking wave hit the area which was 90feet high! See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2059755/Garrett-McNamara-video-Surfer-sets-world-record-riding-90ft-wave-Portugal.html for photos of one brave extreme-surfer dude making the most of it.]
The Portugese marina staff were lovely. They took one look at me (or was that one sniff of me?) and said that they normally insisted on paperwork being completed first, but they thought that my sleep was more important. They allocated me a berth (would you like north or south facing?) and even had two guys standing by on the pontoon to help me in. After my experience in Spain with their robbing, unhelpful attitudes I actually felt quite emotional! I hadn’t realised just how exhausted I’d become, no doubt worsened by having been unable to eat for days… After a quick shower I turned off my phones, fell into bed, and “let Morpheus take me.”
Several hours later, I woke to find 5 missed calls from mum, who said that they were changing their plans, and would be flying out there instead, on Sunday. I did feel bad at first that I wasn’t able to make the original landfall, however, the facts were that even if I had left 24 hours earlier which was the very earliest, (and unseamanlike) possibility, I just still wouldn’t have done it. Whatever, I was really looking forward to seeing them again.
I’d had a great week, it really was lovely to see them all. They’d brought the replacement wind generator hub which dad & Dave helped me to fit- a great weight off my shoulders not to have to be so dependent on the main engine. They also brought a caseload of presents from different people, which included a camera, DVDs, books, socks, and Christmas treats. Eating well was also a novelty- I’d lost so much weight that I could get my clenched fist between my waist and my previously fitting trousers. (Need to slim fast? Then take up singlehanded offshore sailing- simple!!)
Dad was also able to help with another problem I’d found. A few nights beforehand I’d woken up with a truly horrible smell- a bit like diesel but not. I just couldn’t understand it. I scrubbed the floor where it was at its worst, before eventually toddling off to sleep in the pilot berth, high up on the starboard side. A few days later I was leaning over the cooker while lighting it and realised with horror just what that “like diesel but not” smell actually was- gas! (I’m currently running on a new, cheaper brand, which is unlike anything I’ve known before.) It was all making sense now. I recalled finding one morning that I’d accidentally left the isolator safety valve on overnight- and looking back that was the night I’d nearly poisoned, or blown myself up. Luckily he was able to show me how to dismantle all the gas control valves on the cooker and free off the stuck one…
Another job I managed to do with Dave was free the seized adjustment stop on the self steering gear, which would make tweaking on the move a lot less risky.
All too soon it was time for them to go. They had originally wanted to see me off, but as there was no wind, just lots of swell I stayed put and had one last night out with them instead. After they’d left I missed them terribly. Looking up to the spot just outside the gate where they used come to call for me, but knowing that they weren’t going to be there anymore…
It was time for me to go as well.
To be continued, in the meantime a gentle reminder to those who haven’t yet sponsored… http://www.justgiving.com/Tom-Williams7
p.s. I have just re-read the text, and it occured to me how bl*ody solemn it all sounds! Apologies for that, I am having a great time actually… It was just that I’ve had a bit of a rough ride between La Corunna and Cascais and it was simply an honest reflection of the challenges that come with offshore sailing. Don’t worry, I am cured now… mostly. x
November 29, 2011
Saturday, 19th November
I saw Pascal and his crew on the pontoon, and they appeared to be in a hurry. On asking “where’s the fire” (and then explaining the expression) he replied that unless they checked out by 14.00hrs marina policy was to charge for another night. Now it would be a shocking waste to pay another night’s fee for the couple of hours myself, so I followed suit. Steaming round to the arrival’s berth on full power, Pascal & co caught my lines and told me to run. I made it dead on time. Well it’d pay for a meal out when I arrived…
I finished final preparations on the arrivals’ berth afterwards, which included popping some more stitches in the genoa to buy me some time- I’d get it done properly when I arrived I promised Makatea. Making last use of the wi-fi connection I put through some skype calls before untying my lines and heading south again.
For someone who loves sailing, I always feel nervous before starting a passage. (I do believe that the man who heads out to sea without a healthy respect for the ocean will come unstuck- and probably sooner than later.) Needing some music, I’d listened to half a CD before concluding that James Blunt wasn’t the best choice if you’re feeling a bit down! The Rolling Stones helped lift my spirits, I was away.
While in port, I had made yet another adjustment to the self steering. By chance I had noticed that there was a lot of play in the system, and the wind-sensing vane was having to move a long way before actually doing anything. This would have the effect of making the steering far less responsive than it could be, and I hoped was the cause of my downwind difficulties… Well it was the time of reckoning as the wind was directly from astern. To my sheer delight the course handling had improved dramatically, a huge weight off my mind.
By 22.00hrs we were bowling along under main and poled out genoa. (At this angle the front sail is “shadowed” by the larger main, and when on the same side is almost impossible to fill without a special pole to hold the clew outboard.) The downside is that once this has been set up, ability to manoeuvre quickly is reduced.
We were passing south of the separation zone and in relatively heavy traffic; although nothing excessive I wouldn’t be getting my head down anytime soon. Many ships passed without concern, and two rightly altered course by a few degrees, following the rule “steam gives way to sail” when in open unrestricted water. I was keeping a careful eye on a ship which apeared to be on a collision course. Despite flashing the bridge two or three times (with a powerful torch- not by exposing myself) there was no change. It was decision time. As the metres counted down I saw that a collision was inevitable without immediate action. I’d altered my course as far as possible without getting the whole set up in a mess, but it wasn’t enough. It was either going to be a mess of sails, or a mess of smashed boat and a scratch on his paintwork- I was already hand steering by this point and shoved the tiller hard over. The coaster, which must have been a good 100ft, passed by less than three boat lengths away- of ours that is. (Certainly close enough for the crew to hear the choice phrases I shouted to describe their lookout skills…) It was a sober reminder of the dangers of singlehanded sailing, although I comforted myself with the fact that we were not far from a pinch point at the time. I sorted out the tangle and got us moving again- under main only now. I stayed on deck until we were well away from the shipping lane before turning in and leaving Makatea to it.
Sunday 20th November
Feeling the curse of the dreaded “mal de mer” once more. I’ve come to the conclusion that for now it’s going to be just one of those things I have to go through for the first few days at sea, but it really is horrible and saps my energy at the time I really need it.
The good news is that the wind is from the right direction, and knowing that we’re making such amazing progress lifts my spirits no end. We’re sailing at a good 5.5kts under single reefed mainsail alone! I know that with a bit of effort we could be going faster still but I just haven’t the energy right now. I spent most of the afternoon sleeping, rising only each hour to draw a cross on the chart and take a cursory glance around… and vomit.
Monday 21st November
I finally gave in and took some anti emetics (they have a tendency to make me drowsy which is a problem in itself) and I was now starting to feel better. Wanting maximum speed gain for minimum overall effort, I reckoned that it would be worth shaking out the reef and going back to full main. I thought I’d blown it at first when our SOG actually fell to 2.2kts, but I finally coaxed her to get back up to speed- and beyond…
I had an unfortunate moment when one of my radio mics fell into the bucket part of my “bucket and chuckit” toilet I use at sea. True to my friend Martin Wills’ positive outlook on life, I tried to look on the bright side. I know what you’re thinking, “what bright side could there possibly be here?” There were two actually. Firstly, it was the waterproof one so I could give it a damn good scrub afterwards. Secondly, well it just could’ve been worse you know…
Tuesday 22nd November
Feeling much better today, sea sickness at bay for a change and fingers crossed it stays that way. Spent the morning chasing every extra tenth of a knot in boatspeed. I tried every combination of mainsail and genoa size possible, as well as every fractionally different attitude to the swell. I’d never realised it before but the angle of approach seems to matter hugely in terms of both speed and ride comfort. Eventually settled right back where I started hours before but I’d learned quite a bit in the meantime.
I also managed to watch a DVD; “The Notebook”. It was a lovely film but quite sad about an old couple- the wife having dementia. It reminded me of how wonderfully patient my [grand father] had been when he looked after my granny in her last years.
Wednesday 23rd November
Getting close now, Porto Santo 34 NM off, 235 degrees @ 11.00. I decided we were sailing a little higher than ideal, and really need to bear off a little. This meant a “dead run” (where the wind comes directly from behind the boat) and is not the best point of sailing. The boat rolls more than ever (terrible for sleeping!) and unless prepared to put up with the constant flapping of the shadowed genoa, means either rolling it away or poling it out on the opposite side. This tricky little tactic is called “goose winging”. Every sailor knows that to achieve this balance requires concentration; a course change either way will cause one sail or the other to collapse, and if the wind is allowed to get behind the edge of the mainsail, a potentially damaging “slam gybe” results. (This is not good for morale…) I decided to try anyway, as I knew that we’d have a lot more downwind sailing before the trip was out.
It took a while to set up the heavy spinnaker pole without being catapulted over the side, but finally the Goose had been Wung. I had more reason than ever to thank that extra bolt I’d added to remove the play, the course was now being held sufficiently accurately to sail in this delicate manner. The GPS confirmed a speed increase of over a knot which was fantastic news; 24 extra miles a day will prove to be quite significant over a 3000 mile passage!
When I popped my head out after the 14.00hr fix I looked forward and could see land. Woo hoo! It’s always more interesting to navigate by eye than instruments, and to see the detail on the land alter as the distance off decreases.
By 18.00 I was snug in a berth on the pontoon. As I’d turned round in a tight space a couple of guys on nearby boats jumped up to help (it’s amazing how quickly people arrive on deck when they’re not sure how close a yacht is getting in harbour!) Fortunately the manoeuvre went to plan and I casually stepped from the stationary boat holding both lines- naturally feeling suitably pleased with myself. John was the first chap I spoke to, who was quick to lend a hand and his shower key… well I had been at sea for four days. The other (Norweigan) gent left when I was secure, but returned five minutes later to invite me to dinner with him and his family! I spent a lovely evening with them on their equally lovely yacht before leaving to make some calls. This sort of hospitality never ceases to amaze me, and yet is typical among the sailing community far and wide.
I spent the following day exploring the town, a good walk from the harbour itself. I also moved the boat to a mooring which at the same price as anchoring saved a good 10 euros from the final bill. Now mooring or anchoring is seen by many (including me traditionally) as the poor man’s option compared to an alongside berth, however in many ways it is actually far better. Apart from the cost saving there are no noisy fenders rubbing alongside the hull as the boat moves, no creaking, snatching mooring lines, (which may well need to be adjusted according to tide height in the middle of the night) and the boat always points into the wind. Less important here right now perhaps, but if there is any sign of rain it means that the hatch can be left open and nothing will be blown down below. Lastly, the boat is far more secure. From now on that will be my choice whenever feasible.
I also finally managed to clear in with the customs officers. I had been to their office a few times to find they were out, and was a bit concerned when they finally caught up with me and summoned me over. Having heard all sorts of horror stories about “officialdom” by armchair sailors I was a bit concerned but as it turned out this was completely without cause. The paperwork was efficiently dealt with inside 10 minutes, with the officer asking about my journey and if there was anything I needed help with!
The following day the wind was blowing in the perfect direction for a fast trip over to Madeira. After a leisurely start which included a 500 metre swim before shower and breakfast, I checked out again and headed for the mainland.
November 30, 2011
Even having studied the chart I was surprised at what a short hop this turned out to be. I finally slipped my mooring at 11.30, fully expecting to be arriving in the dark. I only had a couple of minor problems, the first occurring when I was setting the spinnaker pole once more. The genoa rolls around the forestay to make it bigger or smaller, and stows away completely there when not in use. I had managed to let the sail wrap itself around in a classic “hourglass twist”. Sorting this out was proving difficult, as I was simply unable to haul the massive bag of air against the wind on my own. I briefly used the sheet winch which was helping, but the high forces I was inflicting on the poor sail really weren’t doing it much good. “If only I could stop the wind for two minutes!” And then it occurred to me that I could quite easily stop the apparent wind, with a squeeze of the throttle lever. The engine was already idling so a brief blast up to full speed was all it took to stop the airflow over the boat, and for me to sort the problem with minimal fuss in the now still air…
The second problem came when we were only a very short distance off the NE tip. We were running dead downwind and I had to gybe, which is when the boat is turned so that the wind hits the other side of the mainsail. The boom will then come flying over if left unchecked, and can easily damage anything in its path (heads, legs, and arms have all been smashed to pieces in this way). I was careful to rig a preventer line to control the manoeuvre, but somehow the boom still whipped over with suprising velocity. I was well clear, but the sudden snatch load on the mainsheet traveller (attachment for the mainsheet at deck level) proved too much; I looked out to see the arrangement hanging ten feet away. Unfortunately one of the control stops was lost overboard- I’ve made a temporary fix until I can find a replacement, but this is proving difficult in Madeira.
Shortly afterwards I arrived in Machico. My plan was to anchor in the bay, which I thought would have been protected from the easterly swell… sadly this proved not to be the case. Makatea was rolling badly and I really wasn’t looking forward to spending a night in these conditions. As usual though, the Williams luck came up trumps. I could see a guy on the quay wall waving me over, so I tentatively motored into the small harbour to hear what he had to say. “Just come alongside this motor boat, you’ll be fine” said Richard in perfect English. He and another chap took my lines and helped me tie up, before telling me all I needed to know about the place. (This even extended to returning the following day to make sure I was ok, and to drive me to the best supermarket to reprovision!)
Sometimes owners can be a bit funny about people berthing alongside their boats, but this was definitely not the case here. Jon turned out to be a great bloke when he arrived for his fishing trip, had no problem with me walking over his decks and was quick to share his stash of cold beer with me! He was a local entrepreneur, having a number of businesses in Funchal- the capital of Madeira which is a few k’s west.
When he returned to the quay later on I casually enquired how successful the fishing expedition had been; he proudly showed me a bucketful of very fresh (and thankfully dead) fish. Naturally I showed a congratulatory interest, but really wasn’t prepared for his kind offer of half a dozen of them…
Now call me a hypocrite, as of course that’s what I am, but I really don’t do the “hunter gatherer” thing (or for that matter the “hook them by the mouth then chuck them back in for fun” thing either). I will occasionally eat one in a restaurant but have never actually gutted a fish in my life, and anyway I feel a bit too vulnerable out there on the ocean to be actually killing anything! My friends Dave Savage and Julian Hunter persuaded me to buy a fishing rod, but it has so far remained firmly in the cockpit locker- at the bottom. So now I had quite a tricky situation if I was to avoid causing offence…
I managed to get him down to three (“I’ve no fridge and it will be a waste”) but it was still three more than I actually wanted. However, now I had them I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away as their fishy lives would’ve been completely in vain. I owed it to them to at least have a go I reckoned.
Pouring myself a hefty G&T then tooling up with a good sharp knife, I lined them up in the galley and grimly set about the task. I tried my best to remember the advice my mate Mikey Simms (who had spent time as a fishmonger) had given me, but the operation really wasn’t going the way I’d hoped. “You poor little bugger.” I thought, eyeing up number one. “Two hours ago you were happily swimming around minding your own business, and now you’ve got some tosser who thinks he’s Bear Grylls about to chop your head off.” Fishies one and two were duly sliced ‘n’ diced, and what flesh I had managed to salvage from the massacre was on a plate. Number three however wasn’t going quietly. As I started to sever its little fishy head he had one last suprise for me- a groan.
Now I’ve handled more dead bodies (in varying states of… “completeness”) than I care to remember, many of them making odd noises- but I just wasn’t prepared for this. I squealed like a girl and jumped backwards, hardly the mark of a hardboiled adventurer. By this point I had conceded that a fish supper was simply not going to be on tonight’s menu; squeamish or not though, I was determined that I still owed it to my three fishy friends to at least try them. I ate the lot (raw- I just couldn’t face any more preparation) and then called it a day.
I have been told before that I’ll never make the SAS, and I am definitely more of a lover than a fighter. I will still keep the rod at the bottom of the cockpit locker, as if I ever found myself starving in a liferaft, I’d kill & eat Nemo. Until that day however, I’m afraid that fishing and I are through.
December 04, 2011
I have had a couple of messages about the “ship incident” I mentioned in my last update. It seems that the general feeling is that I was determined to hold my ground no matter what, and wasn’t happy that the ship didn’t alter course. This wasn’t the case, and here is some background information to the situation.
1) The first rule in the collision regulations is that all vessels must keep a proper lookout. As previously mentioned, this is not always easy when sailing singlehandedly, but that ship would certainly have had someone [supposedly] doing exactly that. The fact that they completely failed to spot a yacht displaying the correct lights, and carrying a radar reflector to increase the radar signature, surely amounts to gross incompetence.
2)I wasn’t being “belligerent” or “stubborn”. The collision regulations are also quite clear in that the stand on vessel, i.e. the one with right of way, must not alter her course- this leads to uncertainty (as with two men in a doorway) and can be a danger in itself. Only when a collision is deemed inevitable will the stand on vessel take avoiding action. I had already, I felt, pushed this by bearing off, but crucially the lights I was displaying to the coaster remained the same.
3) In the dark, on your own, in a moving yacht in rough weather it is not always easy to identify exactly what is what. Is the white light you see the mass of decklights of a distant ship? Or is it the steaming light of a much closer one about to run you down? As I said, I had been keeping an eye on it for some time, and had taken the precaution of handsteering, enabling a quick response.
I may be a little crazy to be making the whole trip in the first place, but I am not stupid enough to play chicken with something as deadly as a big ship. (And frankly, if anybody thinks I am, I feel vaugely insulted.) I hope this offers some insight, and that I have set any worried minds at rest. Thanks.
December 11, 2011
I’d enjoyed a lovely week in Madeira, made all the better by the great people there. I wasn’t asked to pay for any berthing charges (always a bonus) and made use of the public showers off the swimming beach. It was great to finally be in a climate warm enough to swim in the sea in comfort! Jon had been a great friend while I was there, and I valued his company. One evening he came down on his very new, very expensive looking sports [motor] bike. I was admiring it when he promptly offered to let me take it for a spin. I hesitated and was tempted for a few long seconds, but decided that I’d only stall it or unintentionally pull a wheelie. Or crash it. “Oh no, I haven’t got a license, but it’s a great machine!” I replied reluctantly. Brilliant. I did what I could to help him out in return; I’d stayed around to help him let the inside boat out from the raft one morning, which while wasn’t too challenging a manouvre, but could easily be a bit worrying short handed. When safely resecured, he disappeared down into the cabin and reappeared with two cold beers. “But Jon, it’s only half 8- isn’t it a bit early for beer?” I laughed. He shrugged with his reply- “It’s never too early for beer Tom…”
One evening I returned to the harbour to find Sara Jane at anchor a hundred yards away. This was the family who I’d met in Porto Santo earlier, and it was John who’d initially come to help me berth (not the worried Norweigan chap I had dinner with.) It would’ve been nice to see any British yacht, but it was particularly nice to see them again! I launched the dinghy and rowed over to say hello. As we were chatting Sara told me that she’d made their sprayhood, and also mentioned that she carries her industrial sewing machine aboard. My thoughts quickly turned to the sail I’d promised Makatea I’d have repaired, and never one to let an opportunity pass me by I casually enquired as to whether she did any work for other sailors? Fortune smiled again when she agreed to take a look if I could get it over to Funchal where they were heading. On Thursday Jon drove me there, in between calling in on his numerous friends (who were a great bunch). Sara made a lovely job of the sail, chuckling at my emergency stitches, or “homeward bounders” as she called them. She is a master mariner by trade, John a consultant paediatric surgeon and yachtmaster examiner (of course I attempted to recruit him as a faculty member when I discovered he was also a senior APLS instructor!)
On Friday it was time to go. I spent the day preparing the boat for sea again, and restocking on various bits and pieces, an exercise made much cheaper by Ricardo showing me the best places. I treated Makatea to some new Jib and Spinnaker sheets (control ropes for the forward sails), and a new head torch for me. I had spent the week looking for the one I use for all night operations without success, and the last time I could recall seeing it was in the cockpit 5 days beforehand.
As people who know me will verify, I am always the last to declare something as stolen unless it is proven overwhelmingly beyond doubt- and with my organisation that’s sometimes difficult! I just cannot stand the thought of being robbed, and would much sooner think of something as being lost. (Perhaps this is why I hated being in La Corunna so much, where I was robbed on an almost daily basis…) Anyway, this time after hours of searching even I was just beginning to think this might have been a possibility; I had been berthed against a public quay, and it’s the sort of thing that might just have appealed to one of the children playing nearby. It was my own fault for being so relaxed of course.
After scrubbing my footprints from the decks of the neighbouring boats I’d spent a week walking over (then a last minute swim to cool off) I was finally ready to go. I slipped out of the harbour by 15.30 for the next leg of the journey, the 250 miles to Tenerife.
The passage started peacefully enough, the sea was what the met office would describe as “slight”, only small waves. Far from being seasick, I was feeling great for a change and even managed a glass of red wine with my pasta supper! How very civilised. We were making great progress at 5 knots, only spoiled temporarily when being greedy I tried altering our heading by a few degrees in pursuit of that little extra… Of course I only succeeded in knocking Makatea off her perch, and spent the next 45 mins paying for it while I coaxed her back up to speed. Eventually we were there, but it did put me in mind of the saying “if it aint broke… don’t fix it!”
Saturday 3rd December
I finally levered myself out of bed for the last time at 09.00, aware that both wind and swell were rising. My old enemy was threatening, and I quickly responded by swilling down some anti emetics- I could always go back to bed for a snooze if they made me tired I reasoned. I made a couple of trips on deck to keep the sailplan in tune with the conditions, and was now sailing along with reduced genoa and double reefed main. I was still going out “suited and booted” as a good amount of water was being thrown around, but only wearing shorts under it all now- a world away from Biscay conditions.
By 19.00 hours the sun was low, and I was preparing for darkness. Now as many of you know, when I was on the road I was never a great fan of working the night shift… I would liken sailing a boat alone at night to working in a single crewed ambulance station; you know that there’s nobody out before you, and that the next call is always going to be yours! As such, I’ve no desire to do anything more than I really have to during the dark hours, and certainly no rufty tufty sailoring duties when I should be snug in my bunk. Of course, if “an emergency” comes in, there’s no choice but to respond promptly- things like reefing always get harder the longer you leave them. (I’ve learned this the hard way.) As such, I always try to plan properly before dark, and besides it’s a much safer option than stumbling around on deck at 4am. I chose the sail settings I reckoned would see me through to the morning.
The other concern I had was the Salvage Islands- a group of islands about 150 miles south of Madeira, now a nature reserve. They are supposed to be a fantastic place to visit (as well as breaking the passage) but before landing it is essential to first obtain a permit from either Madeira or Porto Santo. Unfortunately I hadn’t managed to get one in time as I’d been having such a lovely afternoon on Sara Jane. They aren’t called the Salvage Islands for nothing and their jagged reefs and outcrops have claimed hundreds of ships and lives over the years; I carefully checked and rechecked the charts and GPS to make sure I wasn’t about to make an unscheduled landfall!
Sunday 4th December
I’ve mentioned in the past that when I’m sleeping I never completely switched off between my hourly checks. I woke up at 03.30 aware that something had changed… After a few moments it dawned on me that the wind turbine was no longer making the humming sound it usually does when generating. I knew that it was turning well fast enough, and I also knew that to leave it spinning without an electrical load for whatever reason could cause irreparable damage. There was no option but to get up there and “muzzle it”, but just how to go about tying up the whirling blades without chopping my hands off was the question! Makatea was pitching quite enthusiastically by this point as the wind was blowing a good force six (yachtsman’s gale), and for safety reasons the turbine is mounted 9ft above deck level; in all, not the easiest set of circumstances to work with. I quickly threw on my harness and strops then went to suss the job out from the cockpit. I clambered up onto the pushpit rail to reach it, and tied myself to the support on a very short loop to minimise my swinging circle. Balanced precariously, between waves I managed to grab the tailfin and turn it into wind to slow it down. Then came the small matter of restraining it. I had planned well enough to take some rope up there with me (complete with a loop in one end) but it took a few hair raising moments before I had it under control. I climbed back into the cockpit and hoped that it hadn’t been freewheeling long enough to damage itself. Whatever, there was no way I was going to start taking it to pieces at sea when I would be safely in harbour within 24 hours, so I dried off and went back to bed.
Later on, all was well and we were making great progress. Boatspeed was high at 6kts and we were trucking on nicely along our chosen heading- unfortunately I’d made a slight error when laying off the course. Due to the constant threat of sea sickness, I had simply been recording my hourly positions in the log, rather than actually plotting them on the chart as per standard practise. (It’s important to always have a recent fix in case of instrument failure, that way a “dead reckoning” position can be estimated using course and speed.) By the time I actually made the noon cross on paper, I could see that I was too far west from the point I needed to round in order to make Santa Cruz, Tenerife. Had I only known sooner I could have altered course by 5 degrees a hundred miles away and would have been on target. As it was I had to finish the remainder close hauled in order to make it in on one tack- not my favourite point of sailing!
By 20.00 hrs we were safely berthed and I was ready for a shower and a pint, the highlight of any sailing passage. Before I left Makatea however, I found something which meant even more to me; while I was digging out my shower kit I discovered the missing head torch… and that was the best suprise of all.
January 13, 2012
The steak was tasty, if a little more done than I’d usually opt for. The fried tomatoes were nice too, as was the salad and side bread. In all a pretty good meal I reflected as I washed it down with some Spanish plonk. This was no ordinary dinner however, as the ingredients (with the exception of the wine and the peppercorn sauce) had been in a supermarket bin only an hour or so earlier…
I’d spent a couple of days in Santa Cruz, Tenerife and had been pretty unimpressed. The city itself was a bit big and city like, and although I walked for an hour I still didn’t make it out into the countryside- I gave up in the end and caught a bus back. Most importantly for me on my own, there was no central gathering point for sailors other than the marina pontoon. Other than meeting one like minded chap who was sailing around the world alone, it all seemed a bit desolate… I left very early on the third day to sail across to Gran Canaria. (I’d told the night security guard that I was planning to moor alongside a ship in the main harbour for a few hours, and he generously told me to stay where I was gratis providing I was out before he was relieved at 8 in the morning.)
I found a lovely harbour called Porto de las Nieves on the west coast of GC which was very picturesque. The village was cosy with a few nice bars and restaurants, and the anchorage set in wonderful scenery and was perfectly sheltered but something was missing; for the first time in the trip so far, I actually felt a bit lonely. Although I have come away on my own to get away from life as we know it for a while, it did make me think about the singlehanded aspect for a bit… Beautiful it may be, Porto de las Nieves was not for me at this time- I wanted to find somewhere with a bit more life. There was only one place for it, where I’d tried so hard to get to beforehand, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria!
As I knew it would be against the prevailing easterly wind I sailed early from Nieves to get there, and then remembered just why I dislike beating so much. Sailing close to the wind is not so bad in itself if you can “lay” your destination on one tack, but beating is a completely different ball game. It’s the speed that I can’t stand, or more accurately the lack of it. At one point I calculated my VMG (velocity made good) to see just how quickly I was actually going. Despite a boat speed of 4.2kts over ground when I took the zig zag into account I was only making 1.8kts towards my destination! Realising I could probably doggy paddle more quickly, I fired up the engine. I somehow managed to lose my spinnaker halyard up the mast [one of the ropes that goes to the top, over a pulley and back down which is used to pull sails up] so it looks like some climbing action is in store at some point! By 19.00 I was nosing into the harbour, and thanking the GPS for taking me right through into the anchorage in the dark. The harbour itself is absolutely massive- the biggest in all of the Canary Islands, but fortunately the sailors’ bit is sufficiently tucked away. So it was here I found myself anchoring among all the other Blue Water Wannabes- every boat had a self steering gear mounted on her stern, a wind generator or other tell tale signs…
I was quickly directed to the “Sailors’ Bar” by the adjacent marina, and as I had hoped was quickly meeting new friends. Such a contrast to Santa Cruz- every sailor hangs out there plus a few more besides. I was in for a bit of a challenge getting back to the beach where I’d left the dinghy however. I’d read the sign about access being closed after midnight and sure enough the chest high gate was locked. I swiftly vaulted it but it was only when I arrived at the top of the ramp that I realised that “access closed” meant just that! Not only the poxy gate I’d jumped, the “drawbridge” is pulled up too, leaving rather a large gap… The leap was about six feet, the drop onto concrete about fifteen. And I could see two police officers in their patrol car looking up at me. Hmmm. I’ve seen many people who have mistakenly believed they were Superman after a few beers, and just as many who have taken the wrong approach with the police. I did the only thing I could- walk back down, climb back over the security gate (cringe), and approach them with an apologetic smile and a shrug… What a great pair. After speaking for a couple of minutes, they said to jump in and they’d take me there. As it turned out it was a three mile round trip by road so I was most grateful when they finally tipped me out a hundred metres from where I’d met them!
In the morning I was in the cabin when I heard someone calling my name. I stuck my head out to see Sara Jane circling! A lovely suprise made even better when they invited me around to dinner later. This turned out to be the first evening of many I spent with them, and Sara and John have since become firm friends.
Although a promising start to my time in Gran Canaria, not everything was looking rosy; very shortly after I arrived I received the unwelcome news that my tenant had upped sticks and left. This was a real blow as she owe(s) me hundreds of pounds, and I’d been absolutely depending on the income to keep sailing. With the future of the trip in jeopardy I tried hard to look for the positives in the situation. It was a struggle for sure, but it came in the form of some great people who I would otherwise probably not have met…
The area around Las Palmas beach and marina consists of skippers and sailors, “ocean hitch hikers”, and the homeless. It was the last two groups that I felt I had most in common with, as like with them every cent now counted. What really struck me was how quick everyone was to share. What I love about sailing is the camaraderie amongst fellow yachtsmen. If anyone has a problem and wanders into a sailing club bar or the pontoon someone will help them sort it. The ethos amongst the homeless was even more profound; these guys would insist I share their only food (when they clearly didn’t have lockers full of it). Every one of them was a diamond, and really looked out for each other- something which you definitely don’t see on a day to day basis sadly.
A couple of years ago I’d read in the Leader about a sponsored “sleep out” that had taken place on the Racecourse football ground, where participants had spent the night under the stars. The point was to try to raise awareness of what it’s like to be homeless and I had been sorry that I had missed the opportunity. So when I was chatting to my friends one day about what life was like for them and they suggested that I give it a go, I really didn’t have to think for long.
It wasn’t the most comfortable night I have ever spent for sure, despite my sleeping bag and the cardboard I’d been given to lie on. It definitely made me think; I had left my wallet on the boat and was with the others so I had no security worries. I was a grown man able to look after myself. Even if it was cool, the temperature was nothing like as cold as back in Wrexham where so many people live year round without shelter… A sanitised experience perhaps, but a very valuable one which opened my eyes.
The day after I arrived I had asked a couple in the boat anchored just ahead of me what I should do regarding checking in. They said I could either go to the office and pay 3 euros a day for dropping my hook into the sand, or I could wait for someone to come and ask me for it (strangely I chose the latter option). I decided very early on that I would split the savings I made with my buddies and cook for them- easy when you have a stove and utensils…
My quest for new experiences of course is what led to the meal I mentioned at the start of this update. The sheer volume of food which is binned is unbelievable (in the UK for example supermarkets throw out a staggering 2 million tonnes of perfectly edible food per year). Las Palmas was no exception to this horrific waste, but at least the concept of “recycling” as it’s known locally is much more widely accepted- albeit on an unofficial level. Recycling as we know it has always been a subject of interest, so when I was offered the chance to go along I thought I’d better see first-hand what happens with this type!
We agreed to meet at 8pm- the optimum time for the end of day food- and made our way to the town. It felt uncomfortable at first to be rooting around in the waste skips, and I was a bit uneasy & embarrassed doing it with people passing by us. On the plus side, most of the stuff was wrapped carefully (as I said the staff are aware so try to do their bit) and a lot was still in the packaging so perfectly clean. One girl Bouwien told me “the next time you see someone with a sign saying ‘hungry & homeless’ send them over here!” Although this method of feeding myself is not for me (yet!) it certainly has a place for the genuinely hungry. I really believe that the whole situation of starving people on one hand, and “Best Before” throwouts on the other is a criminal waste & hope something can be done about this ludicrous global situation. Soon.
Las Palmas was a great place for those looking for an adventure to come together. Boats leaving every other day for The Gambia, Brazil or the Caribbean and no shortage of willing crew. Amongst the hitchhikers was one unlikely group; a whole family! Bruno (aka ‘The Mad Frenchman’) his wife Maude and their two small children had left France in May last year in their battered old VW camper, had driven hundreds of miles before taking a ferry to the island where they hoped to find a boat “onwards”. A real salt of the earth, I had commented how smart Bruno’s top was one day when he promptly removed it & quite literally gave me the shirt off his back. It’s a tall order to ask a skipper to take on a whole family but I hope that someone will give them a chance- and you can’t fault their adventurous spirit.
If I was ever worried that Christmas travelling alone would be a lonely event I needn’t have. On the 23rd December I joined Sara John & Harry for a fantastic “pre Christmas” roast dinner aboard Sara Jane. On Christmas Eve I secured Makatea alongside Uylesse (my German friends’ boat- also anchored) and we had a party. Between us all we made some pretty spectacular dishes and ate them sitting on each of the facing decks- just like a regular dinner but without the table! There were 16 of us in total, and luckily that included a violinist, a guitarist, a percussionist, and a digeridoo player for good measure… A great time was had by all, even if I did need the kill or cure treatment of a swim and two laps of the beach before I felt better the following morning. Later on Christmas day I enjoyed yet another spectacular dinner aboard “Twisting Shadow”, David & Chloes’ 28 footer they are sailing across to the Caribbean as I type.
In my opinion there is nothing inherently remarkable about Las Palmas (the anchorage is sandwiched between the city to the west, and a large container port to the east). It is the people there who made it so special for me. Although new faces were arriving every day, many of my friends were moving on by this point and so once again it was time for me to make tracks too. I enjoyed one last party on New Year’s Eve, and left the following day.
January 14, 2012
Sunday 1st January, 2012
My initial plan was to leave mid morning; as the day’s run is traditionally plotted from noon – noon I wanted to be out sailing before 12 so that the whole 24 hours would count. Of course deadlines and sailing really don’t mix as I should’ve learned by now. Fortunately I had prepared for sea the day before so I was mostly ready but there are always the last minute jobs which take the time. One job I wanted to tick off was to fit the new engine starting battery I had bought in Cascais to replace the one Pierre had donated. When it came down to it however, the engine was still starting with the old one so this is still on the ‘stuff to do’ list…
Sailing the 856 miles to the Cape Verdes wasn’t such a daunting prospect in itself, it was more the fact that the first three days of any passage are so bloody miserable for me. After day one when the sea sickness takes hold, it gets quite wearing having to spend time looking after the boat between vomiting. This in turn makes it boring, as I’m unable to read when feeling ill. This time I’d come across some Stugeron tablets as I was stowing kit. Loads of people swear by them but I find they’re one of the few medications that make me feel drowsy… hardly what you need when sailing alone! However, when weighing up the pros and cons this time I decided to give them a go. According to the GRIddedBinary (GRIB) weather charts I’d downloaded for the week, the wind should remain pretty settled from the north east. As I’d soon be out of the shipping lanes so wouldn’t have that to contend with, my mind was made; if I got tired, I’d go to bed- simple as. I popped the pills.
Although not quite out for 12 as I’d hoped, I had quite amazingly cast off my lines by 5 past. With Sara & John both taking photos as I motored past the harbour entrance I hoisted my sails and set a course to clear Gran Canaria, and take us to Mindelo, Cape Verdes. Although a change from my original plan to sail for the Caribbean directly it had advantages. In order to intercept the stable ENE trades that are ideal for a fast passage, it is necessary to sail quite close to the Cape Verdes anyway. Only adding another 300 miles to the total distance seemed a small price to pay for breaking the main crossing up to roughly 1/3 & 2/3. And besides, many of my friends from LP were en route with similar ideas too so I was looking forward to catching up with them…
Day one started well enough with a steady 4-5 from about 25 degrees. The speed was quite spectacular. “Trucking along at a steady 7.6 knots! Even with a possible current of up to a knot, that’s still 6.6kts through the water. With hull speed [theoretical maximum speed for a displacement boat] being 1.2 x square root of the boat’s waterline length, either my calculations are off or we’re well beyond the max… She seems happy enough at the moment, so I’m just going to enjoy the ride.” Take her to warp speed captain… Not wanting to risk having to shorten sail during the wee small hours I reduced canvas just before bedtime. Shortly after hitting the sack I became aware of an ominous creaking sound. I soon located the source of the mast foot, which carries a terrific downforce. Fearing the worst I was extremely relieved to discover it was nothing worse than a bar tight spinnaker pole uphaul!
Tuesday 3rd January
“12.00- 138 miles run! Even better than yesterday’s 132. Still making great progress under s/r main & goosewinged genoa, although we’re a bit low (tracking 240 odd, and Mindelo bears 225 degrees). Still, probably better to just sort out the course error later and just accept the high boatspeed while we can…”
Wednesday 4th Jan
And still no sign of sea sickness! (By the way I’m adding this later- I didn’t dare risk making such a comment at the time, a bit like mentioning the “Q” word in a hospital or ambulance station.) I’m not sure whether it was the Stugeron I’d taken, or the ginger I’d religiously been grating into my tea and every meal but I wasn’t complaining. Either way I was well enough to start on the only book I’ve not read by my favourite author, which was generously donated by a fellow skipper. This felt like a real milestone for me as I could actually enjoy the first few days’ sailing rather than dread it. Day’s mileage still fine at 123, and we passed the halfway mark of 428 at exactly 19.05. Enjoying my new found freedom I celebrated with a Cerveza from the stash…
Thursday 5th January
“01.00. Wind has dropped as predicted, and I’ve just been on deck to get all sail up. On port gybe, and way high at 162 degrees, but doing over 5kts. When I back off to 227 [new bearing] boatspeed plummets to 2.2kts. Sleeping is proving difficult. The new bunk board I’d added in Madeira is doing a great job of keeping me in bed when the boat rolls; the downside is that the coffin like space I sleep in quickly becomes stuffy and airless. I end up waking up every hour whether I set the timer or not, as that’s all I can take.”
“04.00. Have spent the last three hours working the boat for every fraction of a knot. I’ve tried just about every sail combination possible and I’m pretty tired now.” I did take comfort in the temperature; in Biscay where I could see my breath it would’ve been inconceivable to sit in the cabin without clothes, let alone nipping into the cockpit to make minor [course!] adjustments…
“08.00. 25 miles since midnight. 75 miles a day will send me bonkers- it’s time for the kite.” The kite I was going to use was the big gennaker , a huge sail which even in light airs is more than enough to get me into big trouble. It’s not a piece of kit which I’ve ever been really comfortable with, and especially not on my own! However, needs must and there is a first time for everything- I’d never flown this daddy before. I had packed it earlier like a parachutist to make sure it deployed properly, as it’s not something you want problems with mid-hoist. I attached the lines and secured everything, set the approximate sheeting position to retain control, then pulled like crazy on the halyard to get it up quickly. Looking up to admire my creation I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a dirty great “hourglass twist”- a classic problem from dodgy packing (good job it wasn’t a parachute then!). I dumped the halyard and hauled in on the sail to keep it out of the water before repacking and repeating. Fortunately there was no damage and the second attempt was a lot more successful; it was now up and pulling and casting a lovely coloured glow into the cabin. When I calculated the day’s run to be 96 miles, I left it up and drawing all day. The only downside is that in the light airs the mechanical self steering wasn’t able to hold the course, and so I had to use the autopilot instead. Of course this takes power, and without wind to run the wind generator… At 20.00 hours I decided to give the sail and autopilot a rest- I really couldn’t afford to lose either of these bits of kit so didn’t want to risk damage.
Friday 6th January
A very calm night. I wouldn’t say “quiet” as the sound of the sails flapping around uselessly was driving me insane. “05.00. P*ssed off now. I’ve been up for hours trying to make some progress but it’s proving impossible. I’ve reset everything for port gybe so that’s the pole, pole downhaul, gybe preventer and self steering bias, and now the wind is filling in from the north west! This wasn’t part of the plan. I’m tired. And grumpy too.”
Later on when I found the day’s run to be 98 miles I suddenly had an awakening. What was I doing? I was yet again pressuring myself because I wouldn’t be able to make landfall on Sunday as I’d banked on. True to form I had based all my calculations on the early high mileages, and had got Sunday fixed in my head as the time I had to get there. “13.30. ‘Cool your jets, man’ I thought to myself a few minutes ago. What’s so special about Sunday anyway? I’ll arrive when I arrive and it’s not as if I’m not enjoying myself out here. Now I’m going to celebrate with a bottle of bubbly.”
The bottle was going down very nicely, especially as it was spiced up with a few drops of raspberry liqueur- a trick I’d learned from Sara & John. On my third tho, I had a bit of a mishap. I’d put the glass with the sticky raspberry ‘juice’ down on the chart table while I turned momentarily, only to look back to see it sliding across it as the boat rolled. Before I could grab it, the glass had tripped up and splashed its contents everywhere. It was all around the nav station, on the walls, the GPS, the switch panels, the radios you name it… it looked like a massacre had taken place .
Saturday 7th January
“Feeling much happier and more relaxed. Progress is actually improving after I decided it didn’t matter! Day’s run 116 miles.”
At 22.00, I had a bit of a strange encounter with a ship. I could see it in the distance abeam of me, making a slightly erratic course. As I was monitoring channel 16 (the calling & distress frequency) I could hear a conversation with another vessel which was out of my sight. The drunken tone didn’t sound good, with lots of swearing & threats so I didn’t feel altogether happy. I kept quiet, turned off my nav lights and cracked on just in case…
Sunday 8th January
“12.00. 114 miles run, 39 to go. Progress is good & steady and well above 5kts. It looks like we may even be arriving in the daylight!” By 17.00 I could just about make out the shape of land on the horizon. We arrived in the harbour just after dark which was unlucky really; as I hadn’t planned on sailing to the Cape Verdes I didn’t have any charts. I was relying on the 2004 pilot guide I carried which covered the area and a lot has changed in Mindelo in the last 8 years! By 20.30 I had located the anchorage through a bit of trial & error, and after the third attempt managed to dig the anchor in fast. It was literally blowing a gale in the harbour as the wind funnels through, but because there’s no distance for a swell to build up, it’s still very flat. With another 856 miles under my belt, I enjoyed my first on board shower for a week and put my feet up for the night with a book & a beer. This sailing lark isn’t so bad after all…