Atlantic Challenge 2011

N 43° 39' W 08° 59'

"Crossing the pond..."

February 17, 2012

Sea sickness, 40kt line squalls every other day, had to go up the mast and was attacked by a shark at least as big as Jaws. OK, that wasn’t quite how it was (with the exception of the mast climb- I did do that- when I arrived) but if you’re after tales of hardship to rival the Biscay experience, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed! One evening aboard Maisey Rose, Sinbad asked me what I was looking forward to about the crossing. “Oh I don’t know- relaxing a bit, chilling out even more than now I suppose…” He paused for a moment and leaned slightly forwards, giving me that look over his glasses that meant he was really serious. “No. You’re going to be seriously chilled out. In fact, you’re going to learn the meaning of ‘chilled out’, as you’ll have nothing else whatsoever to do all day.” Hmmm. Sounds good to me- bring it on!

I picked up a bit of a cold after the second week in Mindelo. Nothing serious, but it was enough to put me off sailing starting a 2000 mile passage alone. My intended departure date of Tuesday 24th Jan came and went with me feeling no better, but by the Friday I was good to go. Fortunately I had completed nearly all of the small but time consuming tasks over the last few days, so it was really a case of a shopping trip for fresh produce, and topping up with water. Although CV water is supposed to be potable, I didn’t want to risk contaminating the main tank with it; I still had more than half (75 litres) left from the Canaries which I reckoned would see me right for the next three weeks (and besides I have another 80 litres of drinking water squirreled away in case it all goes wrong).

Although most of my friends had left, Sinbad and Michele (Mikayley) were still there and due to depart the Monday coming. Sinbad has become one of my single best friends on the trip so far. He is one of those people who are just annoyingly good at everything they apply themselves to, and is a massively experienced sailor to boot. With more Atlantic crossings under his keel than he can remember, he was able to give me loads of valuable advice for my first. Fortunately, they too have decided to head for the Caribbean rather than Brazil, so it will be good to catch up with them over there. I had aimed to leave before 12 as usual. Alas, true to form I was late, and didn’t end up chugging out of Mindelo until 13.30. Still, with 2100 miles to go, a couple of hours would hardly make a lot of difference!

Everything started well enough (and I’d even remembered to take sea sickness pills) but shortly afterwards the wind fell to virtually nothing. I’d downloaded all the GRIB files beforehand, but unfortunately I had been concentrating more on the upper than the lower windspeeds… This wasn’t the best of starts. I have always said that I wasn’t going to be in too much of a hurry, and that if there was no wind to sail I would stay where I was that day rather than motor. However, I was well within sight of land with a foul tide dragging me back there… so I fired up the engine. This was no bad thing as it turned out, because after only a few minutes of motoring, I had another dolphin escort! They were just like before, and a couple of the more playful ones were performing belly flop leaps, slapping the surface as they landed.

By midnight, I had decided that the sails were flapping around uselessly so they came down for the evening. I thought it would be a shame to waste this opportunity to have ‘free’ electricity, so I settled in for the night with a DVD and a cold beer.

Day 2- 28/1/12 (90 miles run) Not a good night’s sleep. Without the stabilising action of the sails, the boat’s been rolling all night. When combined with the engine noise and heat, it didn’t make for a good kip; I finally rolled out of bed at 09.00 to find a glass like sea, not what I had hoped for. By 13.30 (24 hours out) I calculated the day’s mileage to be 90 miles. Was this a justifiable use of the diesel I carried? I needed to use it at first to escape the incoming tide, but now I was well away from the islands I was beginning to wonder. I couldn’t motor across an entire ocean so I came to the conclusion that it would have to go. I spent a while experimenting with sail combinations before settling on the no 1 ‘chute flown from the boom end to port, and genoa poled out to starboard. Speed was a paltry 2.5 kts, but at least that meant every hour we were 2.5 miles closer. So much for the famous trades which according to the pilot book will “almost guarantee you hull speed and a fast passage to the Caribbean”. No problem, as I have lots of water, food, beer & books. I didn’t particularly enjoy being in Mindelo, and after all… this is what I’m here for!

 I spent some time working on my splicing, having had a lesson from Sinbad. I’m getting there but still need the practice- good job I have lots of time. After a couple of hours my fingers were getting a bit sore so dug out one of the many books I’d been given, and put my feet up… and there I stayed for the rest of the day! Reading is a great way to pass time, and perfect now I seem to have beaten the dreaded sea sickness.

Day 3- 29/1/12 (60 miles run) Much better night’s sleep after I removed the bunk board side from my coffin. I woke up at 09.30, and it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t updated my tracker since midnight. (I usually try and send at least one during the night, to reassure people that I’m still on board if they look first thing.) Now that I’m out here tho, I think I’m going to keep these night time check-ins to a minimum (there seems little point in waking up while everyone else is fast asleep just to press a button). I finished Bowler Bennett’s book less than 20 hours after starting- and I’d been asleep for more than 9 of those! Consulted the GRIBs, it looks like we should have 15 kts from the east by Tuesday which should push us along nicely. I was aware of the occasional alarm beep from the cockpit- the indication that mine was not a happy autopilot as it was struggling to keep the boat on line. Having balanced the sails better I dug out one of the spare, lighter “tillerpilots” which would be capable of holding our course in these conditions. At more than £900 just for the electric ram of the autopilot, I can’t afford to wear it out!

Later on the wind started to fill in nicely from the north. Under main and big chute, we started moving along at a very credible 4.8kts. Occasionally the kite would fold itself inside out, and would need a quick tug on the sheet [control line]. The sail would fill with a crack, and Makatea would leap forward in response (well, as much as a 5 tonne boat can do). The rig feels great now, thanks to a thorough tuning by Ben from Callisto- a boat builder. Although the stainless wires had been replaced before I started out, after 3000 odd miles they had started to stretch. The rig felt sloppy, and would shake alarmingly every time the sails filled between gusts.

This extra wind was great news because it also meant I could switch control back to the main self steering; a more durable system that wasn’t going to eat into what precious battery capacity I have. I realised in Mindelo that the auxillary batteries were both shot- and that I should’ve replaced them before I left the UK. Even if I could have replaced them in the Cape Verdes, the price would’ve been horrific. I reckoned they’d get me another couple of thousand miles to the Caribbean, as long as I could start the engine to charge if necessary (I can).

Day 4- 30/1/12 (97 miles run) Wind has increased, and we’re now averaging above 5kts. I’m going to try a new tactic and sail low during the day (more downwind therefore more rolly and uncomfortable), then harden up during the night hours to stabilise the boat and help my sleeping…

Day 5- 31/1/12 04.30 Oh dear oh dear Williams, what have you done? The wind had been freshening steadily, and by 04.00 the self steering was struggling to retain control, fighting a losing battle against the huge sail [No 1 chute] which was trying to drag the bow round into the wind. I knew it had to come down, so I grabbed my harness and the sailbag, and worked my way forwards. My plan was to lower the halyard gently while simultaneously gathering the sail into the bag. Who was I trying to kid? I’d grossly underestimated the power in 190 odd square feet of billowing material, and as soon as I took the first turn off the loaded winch my mistake was clear. The rope burned my hands for a second as it raced through my grip, before I let go. From the corner of my eye I could just make out the tail end of the line rocketing skywards, as the sail plummeted into the sea. I retrieved it undamaged and stuffed it back into the bag, complete with the halyard still attached to the head. What a complete cock up. I know I’m not at my best at 4am, but surely I should have known better than that? The tail end should always be secured to the mast foot, to prevent exactly this situation, and I had no one to blame for this sloppy seamanship but myself… The worst part is that I’m not going to be able to raise either kite, or second jib now until I have climbed the mast to re-reeve the damn thing.

09.00 I still can’t believe how stupid I’ve been. I had a recurring nightmare that I was stuck and couldn’t continue without going aloft to sort it. Of course I know that this is not the case, as we’re managing just fine with main and genoa wing and wing at the moment. If the wind drops and I’d really benefit from changing headsails, I will go up then; almost by definition this should be the easiest time.

12.00 Day’s run 126 miles despite the above. Very happy now, and hoping this breeze stays with us to the other side, and just to lift my spirits even more, the dolphins came back to say hello. (20.00) feeling very chilled, have been sitting on the leeward rail with my legs dipping in the striking blue water, watching the sun go down. To top it off, I enjoyed some excellent rum that Sinbad gave me, with Bob Marley in the background… just perfect.

Day 6, 1/2/12 (123 miles run) Water in main tank starting to get a bit pongy, so have started using some of my bottles. Maybe that’s why I have a sore throat?

Day 7, 2/2/12 (125 miles run) When I loaded all my gear onto Makatea in Caernarfon, much to the amusement of my family I had taken a holdall full of old sailing magazines. It was so heavy I could only just lift it, and definitely wouldn’t want it to have been burying any emergency gear! I always found it difficult to throw them away as they contained so many useful articles, so my plan was to go through them when I had lots of time and cut out the interesting ones. Well I certainly have lots of time out here, so I reckoned it was time to start pruning. Grabbing my trusty scalpel blade, I set to it. One piece in particular caught my eye, “Lessons learned from the ARC…” (This was the trans-Atlantic race I had originally planned to join before I ditched the idea.) The author berated one crew whose folly was “…leaving the sails up for days on end without checking for chafe, which resulted in the inevitable failure.” Basically, the section of halyard which passes over the masthead pulley is prone to damage if left in the same position for extended periods. The solution is to regularly shorten the rope a little, a process apparently known as “freshening the nip”. As I have not changed the mainsail position once in the last few days, my thoughts quickly turned to my own nip; what condition would it be in I wondered? As we were making well over 6kts at the time in a good force 5, I decided the examination would have to wait. Later on when the wind eased a little I pulled it down and checked carefully, wondering what I might find. Luckily all was well, and I am pleased to report that my nip was indeed in first class order- with no freshening required…


Day 8, 3/2/12 (113 miles run) Starting to appreciate the wisdom of Sinbad’s words re chilling out- I am feeling seriously relaxed now. Great rum.

Day 9, 4/2/12 (96 miles run) Not the best mileage of the passage, but not the worst either. The wind is low, and quite close to the point of “get up the mast, re-reeve that halyard, get a kite up and let’s go”. At the moment however, it’s still on the “sod it, what’s a few miles, stay in the cockpit and relax with a beer” side of said threshold, so that’s what I’m doing.

Day 10, 5/2/12 (118 miles run) Wind starting to fill in now, so getting a bit of pace on at last. Batteries looking decidedly worse for wear @11.8v, despite having been charging with wind gen through the night- will be good to replace them in Tobago or Trinidad- my possibly revised landfall. Had a bit of a mishap with some boiling hot tea earlier; it was brewing on the galley top in my nice conical shaped insulated, non-slip dooferette, when the boat took quite a spectacular roll. The mug didn’t slide towards me, it just tripped up and lost its top, before flying over to join me where I was sitting on the downhill starboard berth. The resulting scald was quite painful, but considering that I wasn’t wearing any clothes at the time it could’ve been an awful lot worse.

22.15 The AIS alarm sounded for the first time in 10 days! I called the bridge of “Knock Sheen” for a chat more than anything- was nice to speak to someone. The officer on watch promised not to run me down with his 275 metre supertanker, gave me a weather forecast, and even offered to call home with a message. This was great as although I press my little update button on the tracker every three hours or so, I have no means of confirming that any have actually gone through. As it was late by this time, I asked if he could make the call in the morning instead so’s not to worry anyone.

This got me onto thinking of my family, and how supportive they have been of my wanderings over the years. From an early age I enjoyed a lot of freedom to adventure, which nurtured my independence. When I was no more than 10 [we moved house then] I can remember cycling to the Flash during the summer holidays. During the week the place was deserted which suited me fine- I was probably fantasising about long distance singlehanded sailing even then! I’d rig the Mirror dinghy and sail around for a couple of hours before hauling it out again (quite a challenge really as I could only just lift the mast on my own). On reaching the ripe old age of 15, I decided I was going to travel to a remote Scottish island to find the love of my life who I’d met on a school trip two years earlier. I had a lift to Liverpool docks with my trusty old bike, then with a combination of ferries, pedal power, and trains, headed north. Later the same summer I hitch hiked south to Cornwall, where I lived in a tent with my friend Ben for a month or so. “Bending the truth” about my age saw us working as sailing instructors in the watersports school there- can you think of a better holiday job?  So anyway, as you can see, I have a lot to be thankful to my mum & dad for- and I’m still here to tell the tale! I was talking to couple of friends before I left Mindelo, who explained that their parents are so terrified of what might happen (in life generally it seems) that they haven’t felt able to share with them what they are doing, and are having to drip feed each passage to them on successful completion- how sad.

Day 11, 6/2/12 (121 miles run) Rained all night, so had to sleep with all hatches shut- very hot & stuffy. It suddenly occurred to me that I don’t know the time difference between UTC and local (which could be important when arriving) and none of my books seem to mention it. I came to the conclusion that if the world spins through 360 degrees in 24 hours, and Tobago is about 60 degrees west of Greenwich which is zero (God bless the British for being at the centre of time) then it must rotate through 60 degrees in 4 hours. And if the sun comes up in the east, that must be 4 hours behind UTC. While thinking this out, I was smiling about a friend’s comment on the blog- “…just don’t go trying to solve the God equation with maths like Crowhurst* and you’ll be fine.” There’ll be no danger of that as my maths didn’t even allow me to solve the “how many teabags do I need at 2 a day for 10 months?” equation… [ *Donald Crowhurst was a singlehanded sailor who entered the 1969 “Golden Globe” race. Sadly he lost his mind, and tried to answer the world’s mysteries with mathematical logic before finally stepping over the side to his death.]

Day 12, 7/2/12 (126 miles run) Looking at the daily crosses on the chart, they do seem to be in a fairly straight line- it will be interesting to see how the three hourly positions on the tracker’s web page compare. Cleared the bilge earlier, good to know the pumps are still working. The one inside has no anti-siphon loop fitted, so it’s essential I have a set order of doing things to prevent me from forgetting to close the valves and sinking the boat. I worked this one out during the gale in Biscay. I had pumped it dry, then checked half an hour later to find water just below the floorboards!! (Not good for morale…)

Day 13, 8/2/12 (124 miles run) Still going well, now storming along on port. I gybed over earlier as were way too high, so now back on the rhumb line. This usually takes about 15 minutes, but today I found both genoa sheets were worn almost through where they attach to the sail so was out in the sun for over an hour (I very rarely do it at night for ease and safety reasons). Both nips duly freshened [day 7 if you’ve just joined], I treated myself to a freshwater shower- whoever designed those ‘camping solar showers’ is a legend!

Day 14, 9/2/12 (125 miles run) A wild night. And not in the crazy party sense either. The wind has been rising steadily up to a good force 6, which is throwing us around a fair amount and making life on board quite difficult. For a start there’s the “downwind roll”. This is a given with running before the wind, and all boats suffer to a varying degree. It’s not too bad in itself, but combined with the yaw (left to right movement) of the self steering variance and a 4m swell, it results in some pretty impressive G forces. Flying a second jib instead of the mainsail may help, but that’s not going to happen with the halyard in the cockpit locker rather than up the mast. Trying to do anything which requires coordination like cooking is really tough. I have to plan three steps ahead where to put something down without it ending up on the floor- and staying upright myself at the same time! (It can be like a game where I have to make an instant decision what to save, and in what order.) On a brighter note, my tea burn has almost healed now- good job I’d doused it with buckets and buckets of water…

Day 15, 10/2/12 (131 miles run) Wind a bit easier today, and I was even able to film a short video clip for the blog- I thought it might make more sense if you could actually see some of the things I’m going on about. It was a bit tricky, but managed to stay attached to the boat- always a bonus. Still struggling with the ride, although it’s less bouncy than yesterday my supper ended up on the cabin floor… before I’d eaten it L I feel eternally grateful not to be suffering with sea sickness anymore, would’ve been “talking to God on the big white telephone” by now for sure. I’m looking forward to arriving. Not because I’m not enjoying it, I’m having a great time, but it will be lovely to sleep in a clean fresh stationary bed… mmmm.

Day 16, 11/2/12 (124 miles run) Bloody awful night. Squall after squall, some with sheeting rain, some without. By far the worse aspect is the motion. Way back in October when I left Wexford for Biscay, I likened it to sleeping on a rollercoaster; how little did I know! That was on a reach, where the wind comes at right angles to the boat. Although the motion was lively, it still allowed me to sleep without being tied into my bed as all the forces squashed me into the angle. This is a completely different game where my whole body slides across the bunk, sometimes rolling over. I hit the hull on the inside, then the lee cloth on the outside. To minimise the travel I can wedge myself in with pillows, but then it gets stifling hot so I wake up soaking with sweat… I know this is just a blip because it’s been OK until the last couple of nights. Anyway, I should quit moaning. When S’Robin Knox Johnston sailed non-stop around the world singlehandedly in 1969, things were very different. His boat was only 2 feet longer than Makatea (with even less space due to her hull shape) and into this he had to squeeze a year’s worth of food and supplies. He had no posh instruments, DVD player or Musto’s finest foul weather gear, not even a cockpit sprayhood! Instead of an ipod with 2000 tracks, that poor sod had to make do with a handful of Gilbert & Sullivan cassettes…

18.00 I’ve been looking at the chart planning approach tactics. Nick Lane reckons I should go to Trinidad as it’s such a wonderful place so I’m reckoning on that at the moment. (I didn’t have a pilot book for this area until my friend David rowed over in Mindelo; he’d photographed all 300 odd pages of his and saved it on my computer.) If we arrive in good time I will enter in Tobago, otherwise just press on through the night for Trinidad (Trinidad & Tobago are one country). The other factor is that Trinidad’s carnival starts in a week, which should be an unforgettable experience. I have a couple of contacts there thanks to Francis and Jenna, so will be great to meet them.


Day 17, 12/2/12 (118 miles run) Everyone has something they just won’t compromise on, and mine is my morning tea. For a start, it has to be PG (if it’s good enough for the chimps, it’s good enough for me). Secondly, and equally important is that it has to be drunk from my special cup. I brought my favourite one with me, despite the fact that it’s completely unsuitable for sailing. It has a wider top than base so it will tip over easily. Or slide. It’s made of china, so would be bad news if it smashed into a zillion pieces on the cabin floor. But it’s mine and I like it. I have tried to give it up, to get used to the plastic dooferette or the melamine mugs but they’re just not the same. This leads to some interesting moves in the cabin as I contort to cradle it in time with the boat’s motion…

Only 322 miles off Scarborough, Tobago @ 12.00. The wind has left us to it so it’s now light and rolly. Actually, it doesn’t really matter whether we make 4 or 6kts at this point; if we arrive in the dark I won’t be able to risk entering anyway so will need to heave to and wait outside, or possibly carry on to Trinidad if I have that much time to kill. The numbers are all adding up to an arrival date of the 15th February, which will make a total time of 19 complete days at sea (right in the middle of my 17-21 days estimate). Spoke to a ship earlier who confirmed that Tobago local time is UTC minus 4. Maybe I’ll have a look at that God equation after all.

(18.00) Wind fallen even further, now not even enough to operate the self steering. Really cursing the loss of the halyard! At this rate we’re not even going to make it on Wednesday as I’d hoped, very disappointing as I’m feeling tired now. If I believed it I’d say that Mother Nature was showing me who’s in charge- but I don’t. The sea and the wind will just carry on obeying the laws of physics and do what they do, regardless of whether an insignificant human being happens to be out sailing at the time…

Day 18, 13/2/12 (96 miles run) Poor overall mileage, but considering we were sat in a lull of virtually zero wind for much of yesterday evening it’s actually not too bad. Had to start the main engine to boost charge the auxillary batteries for an hour (no wind means the autopilot has to steer, and also that there‘s no output from the wind generator to run it). Engine struggled to start & needed decompressors – it’s because I never got round to swapping to the new one I bought in Cascais so will be easily solved. Was doing some plotting at the chart table earlier when I accidentally rested my foot on one of the fire extinguishers. I had a bit of a suprise at the mighty ‘whoosh’, and before I knew it the cabin was covered with a fine coating of dry powder! Good to know it works then.

Day 19, 14/2/12 (117 miles run) Quite frustrating day, going from flat calm one minute where the sails just clatter about uselessly, to howling squall the next. I’ve lost count of the number of sail adjustments I’ve made. Genoa in a bit, reef 1 in main, reef 2 in main, genoa out, reef 2 out, reef one out. Biq squall, roll genoa right back in as quickly as poss, dive onto deck to pull three reefs in one after the next… 10 minutes later, all sail back up. It’s going to be a long night.

Day 20, 15/2/12 (101 miles run) 02.00 Still at it, but only 47 miles to go! I’m keeping a close watch on the course now, wheras in the past I’ve just got back online in the morning. As long as we can keep a reasonable average up, we should hit Tobago around 13.00 UTC- not literally I hope. If we arrive any earlier than 11.00 I’ll be heaving to outside anyway to wait for the light. 08.00 Land sighted! My first thought was “Woo hoo! I’ve finally done it after all these years dreaming!”As it was actually only 4am, my second was “I wonder if I can catch another hour’s sleep?” (As I found 5 minutes later, I could.) 11.30 Something very strange going on. Both GPS units are telling me to head on a bearing for 5 miles, which is out to sea! Time to recheck everything, there must be a logical reason somewhere. 12.00 Sure enough, there was, When I looked at the waypoint for Scarborough I’d entered mid-Atlantic, I’d rounded it down by a few minutes of latitude. The actual course was 100 degrees to my right! Luckily I could still make it by rounding up onto a closehauled course- lucky. Very nearly there now, less than 5 miles to go.

13.30 Anchored after exactly 19 full days at sea, and enjoying the long awaited bubbly from Pauline. This wasn’t the first time Makatea has had champagne over her decks- when she was launched in May she had a taste. I had a few quiet thoughts, and my dad made a simple toast; “Look after him…” Well she’s doing well so far.

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Jenna February 19, 2012 at 04:58 PM

Awesome achievement and great account!

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