Atlantic Challenge 2011

N 43° 39' W 08° 59'

Part 3: La Corunna to Cascais

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 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 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… 


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


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misternick November 27, 2011 at 07:09 PM

Hi tom! Great journal, wish we were there. Remember being in funchal a couple of years ago, had first professional hair cut for 30 years in amazing traditional barbers near the farmers market, recommended. Also remember a good stopping place in the canaries called Arguinegin on gran canaria. We left from the westerly island La Palma, anchored in a volcano crater on the east coast, less touristy as no beaches/hotels but great for stocking up. Fair winds !

Tom Williams December 05, 2011 at 12:05 AM

Cheers misternick, I wish I had spotted this earlier so I too could have enjoyed such a haircut! Thanks also for advice re departure point- it’s probably a concrete marina by now tho…

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