CANARIES TO THE CARIBBEAN
This is probably the most difficult section I've had to write because I don't think it is
possible to accurately describe what a long ocean passage is really like. Mike likened it to
skydiving, unless you've done it it's impossible to truly understand what it's like. Yes we
had read the book, seen the film and looked at the chart - we knew the Atlantic was a big
place and the crossing would take us a long time, but nothing prepares you for the sheer
scale of it.
To put that into context, we left Las Palmas with nearly two hundred other boats. By dawn
of the following day no other yacht was in sight and we didn't see another yacht, ARC or
otherwise, until twenty five days later, as we approached St Lucia. Even then it wasn't
another ARC boat as she crossed our stern heading north west. In the meantime, allowing for
our visible horizon, we had looked out on some thirty thousand square miles of ocean, most
of it empty of wildlife or ships. The scale of the ocean is, quite simply, awesome.
What I will do then is break the passage down into topics which hopefully give an idea of
what we did, why, and how we felt.
We wanted to sail three up across the Atlantiic and we were very lucky that Adrian Kelly (the boat's previous owner) agreed to join us. Adrian flew down the Wednesday before departure, bearing loads of goodies (latest sailing magazines, chocolates, mince pies, Christmas pudding - to list just some - thanks Barbara!) and he had hardly unpacked his bag before he started fixing things! On his first night we dressed up for the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' ARC fancy dress party, and very disreputable we looked with blacked out teeth - courtesy of a bottle of tooth blackener that Adrian also brought with him. We hoped to learn a lot from Adrian both about the boat and how to sail her more efficiently and we certainly weren't disappointed. Adrian was also great company, Mike even complained once that his jaw was aching from laughing so much. Hearing some of the horror shows that happened on other boats, with crews not getting on together, our thanks go to Adrian. The start
The last few days in Las Palmas were incredibly busy, with ARC briefings and check out, a haircut for me, the large fruit and veg order arrived and last purchases of fresh bread and vacuum packed meat were bought. Everything had to be stowed somewhere and it took time! It was with a certain amount of relief that we left the dock and started at 13.00 on Sunday 21st November. Adrian drove the boat and did a grand job, we crossed the line in the middle of the pack and the sight of so many boats was spectacular. Unfortunately there was very little wind and we motorsailed slowly to clear the other boats and get some sea room before turning south to clear the island. The route across
This was dictated by the weather (next section), where we were looking for wind but obviously not too much of it. When we left there was a ridge of high pressure to the south and west of the Canaries. To sail into that would mean no wind so the obvious route was to sail south and try to sail round it. Once we were under way we took weather routeing advice from Herb Hildenberg. Herb is a Canadian famous in sailing circles for routeing boats around the Atlantic and the amazing thing is his services are free. Basically we headed south towards the Cape Verde islands, then we headed west and south west down to 15 degrees 45 minutes north (our longitude at that point being 39 degrees west). Then we received advice to edge north and we went back up about one degree of latitude. Obviously that was somewhat depressing and as it turned out it was something of a mistake, although funnily enough it took us into strong winds that we welcomed. Overall we probably sailed further than we needed to but since weather and routeing are not a precise science we have no complaints, albeit if we did it again we might take more notice of other weather and routeing sources. The weather
The weather was the single most important factor in the crossing - it didn't just affect our sail settings and speed, it affected the whole mood on the boat. Sail fast, everybody happy, sail slowly and an unspoken feeling of depression descended. Add heavy rain and you can guess how we felt. For the first few days heading south we sailed fast covering up to 130/140 miles per day. However, once we got round the high pressure ridge mentioned earlier we had to contend with two low pressure troughs that had broken out from the Inter Tropical Convergance Zone (doldrums). These troughs ran north/south thus we had to go through them and they brought just about every conceivable variation in wind speed, plus squalls and heavy rain. At times we had winds of six or seven knots and we struggled to maintain a boat speed of three knots. On other occasions we had squalls come through packing forty knots and heavy rain. The squalls were quite fearsome at night because we couldn't see them coming and, since we were trying to use the squalls to keep our speed up, it became a test of nerve as to how much sail we could keep up withhout damaging the boat or sails. The strongest continuous winds we encountered came as we moved out from under the second trough. The wind slowly picked up from sub ten knots to fifteen, then twenty, then twenty five. Eventually we had a solid force seven for nearly twenty four hours, peaking at force eight for about an hour in the afternoon. The sailing was magnificent with wave crests being blown off and the surface of the sea covered in streaks of foam. We were back up to high mileage, sailing fast with reefed sails and the boat totally under control - some of the best sailing we've ever had! The squalls also brought the most depressing and scary occasions of the trip. The most depressing happened on December 8th. Dusk was falling and we could see a big squall approaching, when it hit it brought strong gusts and heavy rain, then the wind began to die but the rain continued. The wind then went so flukey Mike hand steered for just under two hours in pouring rain. At times we were heading north, then east, then west. We turned on the radar to see what was happening and the squall was some twenty four miles across, but the amazing thing was it wasn't moving. It had stopped directly over us and we were trapped. Since we weren't going anywhere and it was pointless getting soaked on deck, we turned on the white strobe light and all went to bed until dawn. The most scary night was when we had lightning all around us. Mike missed it because he was off watch but Adrian and I had lightning crashing into the sea across the eight hour period of our respective watches. It led to a discussion about the effects of a lightning strike on a steel boat, we still don't know the answer and certainly don't want to find out. Adrian, who has huge ocean experience, described it as the worst night watch he has ever done. We never did find the proper trade winds, it was too early in the season. Adrian summed it up when he said "and people call this the milk run". It isn't. To give an idea of how variable the winds were, below are our noon to noon mileages:
Before we left, World Cruising (the organisers of the ARC) asked if we would be a radio net controller. Basically the fleet was split into four groups of fifty boats and each group was supposed to have three net controllers and a reserve. The radio work involved handling any safety or emergency traffic and then reading the weather forecast and taking position information from the boats without email facilities. We then fed the positions back to World Cruising in the UK. After the 'formal' side of the radio net it was opened up for general chat, often about fishing, local weather conditions or what had broken in the last twenty four hours. Our group ended up with just two net controllers (us and Ciao), due to the third one suffering email problems which meant they couldn't send the positions in, plus there was no reserve controller. Adrian did much of the work, along with me who Adrian and Mike described as 'Jane, our lovely weather girl' when I read the forecast. Normally we would deal with about a dozen yachts for positions, with (we suspect) many more listening in. We were lucky that there were no major emergencies in our group - things other groups had to deal with included a compound fracture of the elbow, loose keel bolts letting in water, a serious crush injury to a hand and a damaged rig (mast/rigging). The worst incident was a man overboard that we only heard about later - it took the crew three hours to get the person back. The only incident in our group was one of the boats was 'followed' by an unlit coaster or fishing boat for two days. They were understandably worried about it because the distance off varied from four hundred meters to just over the horizon (out of sight but visible on radar). However we didn't need to get involved because the yacht was in direct touch, every three hours, with the maritime rescue centre in Falmouth. Eventually the mysterious boat disappeared. The radio net was the highlight of the day because it can be really lonely out there and a friendly voice every morning means a lot. This was certainly apparent in the latter stages when the crews of the smaller yachts were getting tired and frustrated at the slow progress. As yachts in our group began to finish we, and Ciao, were thanked profusely for our help but quite how much the radio net meant to people wasn't to become apparent until we finished ourselves. Fishing
Early on we fished most of the time. We caught five Dorado, lost three lures, lost three other fish and put two back because they were small. In the end we stopped fishing, partly due to the bad weather but mainly because we were Dorado'd out. Other boats were catching Tuna but we reached the point of 'how many ways can you cook Dorado?'. Generally though we were surprised how easy it was to catch fish. They mainly took the lure within two hours of dawn and two hours of dusk. The only time we fished at night a monster fish took the lure and bit through a wire trace, so we stopped. Life aboard
With three people on board we changed our watch system, as follows:
I can certainly understand how people go mad on long ocean passages, the feeling of vast emptiness is quite powerful. We didn't quite get that bad but we did have some silly moments. On one occasion Mike called up (on VHF radio) one of the rare ships we saw. The watchkeeper sounded surprised to be contacted and said 'what do you want'. Mike said 'we're 22 or 23 days out of the Canaries, I just wanted to talk to somebody'. Much mirth on the boat and I suspect the watchkeeper did think he was mad. We also discovered the world's shortest game on an ocean passage when we played 'I Spy'. There's not much beyond sun, sea, clouds and waves, unless you start itemising all the equipment on the boat! Speaking of waves, we also began 'acting out' waves. So big waves coming up astern got big waves back. Small waves got small waves and we began to think of other waves. Thus rogue waves are shake your arms about like a maniac and doubtless you can imagine what to do for a Mexican wave and a Sine wave. The possibilities are endless but, of course, somebody always cheats and makes up a wave - ask Mike to demonstrate his Mohican Moosehead wave. Unbeknown to us at the time, Andy and Lucy on Nimrod were doing the same thing and they came up with some we missed, one of which was - microwave, wiggle little finger. We also had other crew members aboard. These included Major Pumping (it's a long story which began in Las Palmas when we had to pressurise the water pump...) and Frank Lee, but the most worrying was John. John seemed to live in Adrian's cabin so it's probably best we don't go there. The funny thing is that since we arrived in St Lucia we keep seeing men in white coats, is there something wrong, doctor? Sightings
Early on, when were near the Cape Verde islands, we saw some dolphins, a pod of whales and Mike saw a shark fin. Also, we had a big male Dorado swim alongside us most of one day on the shady side of the boat. Other than that, apart from the odd seabird, we saw no wildlife, although the sight of a red buoy mid ocean and the odd piece of flotsam caused major excitement! It was dead out there and not what we expected at all. The night sky however was beautiful apart from when we had lots of cloud and rain. There were often wall to wall stars giving out lots of light, and on one watch I counted 45 shooting stars across a four hour period, some with long green tails. Mike saw one that exploded into multiple trails like a rocket and another that appeared to come up over the horizon. In terms of shipping we saw a few trawlers (again near the Cape Verdes) and no more than half a dozen ships. The most amazing sighting was when we were fifty miles off St Lucia, Mike spotted an open fishing boat (a big dinghy really) with an outboard engine and four men on board. We were well out of sight of land and it's no surprise that some of these fishermen get killed occasionally. In some ways the disappointing sighting is land. In the books about sailing ships the cry goes up 'Land Ho!' and there is much joy. We didn't feel like that at all, perhaps because modern technology allows us to know precisely where land is and we expect to see it. The boat, breakages and injuries
Our primary objective was to get to St Lucia with the boat intact (and no crew injuries). It is said that an Atlantic crossing is equivalent to the amount of use a typical UK based boat gets in five to ten years and we can believe it. The sailing is relentless, hour after hour, day and night, week after week everything is moving under tension. We knew we had a tough boat and we spent a lot of time preparing (and checking) her, including new sails and rigging, so we were hopeful we would come through OK. In the event we had a series of small breakages/problems. These were:
- the electronic compass stopped working as we approached the start line (loose wire, fixed immediately)
- the water maker stopped working (air in the system, fixed with a stop and restart)
- the main halyard chafed badly in the first week (this was probably caused by a new topping lift turning block fitted in Burnham, not helped by the fact we changed the attachment of the halyard to the sail in Las Palmas. We fixed it with some leather sewn over the chafed area plus we moved the attachment point back. Moral of that story is never change anything before a long passage)
- the engine instruments stopped working (fixed, the fuse box had fallen off the engine and the wires had come out)
- a turning block on the main boom vang broke (fixed with a spare shackle)
- the generator cut out (the problem was we were losing coolant, so we kept topping it up, but we still don't know the cause of the problem although we suspect there is a hole in the heat exchanger)
- a jammer for the main halyard broke (we just used the winch and a cleat on the mast and are now waiting for the spare part we need)
- a small tear in the assymetric spinnaker (fixed with sail repair tape)
- the wind generator started making serious graunching sounds (not really a problem because it still works but we may need to replace a bearing)
- some of the stitching on the fairly elderly spray hood started breaking, so we took it in turns to handstitch seams on passage
- just as we were about to cross the finishing line (in the dark) most of our navigation lights failed. The causes were a fractured wire and a through deck fitting that came loose thus displacing wires. Both were easily fixed the next day, although I will always have a memory of Mike on the foredeck trying to fix the port light as we approached Pigeon Point as the sun went down!
We didn't discover what could have been a serious problem until the day after the finish. The previous day I thought I smelt burning but we couldn't locate the source. It was only when Mike changed the boat's AC circuit over to shore power that he discovered that the generator plug and the socket it goes into had half melted, probably caused by arcing. It was straightforward to replace the plug and socket but we were lucky we didn't have a fire to deal with at sea. On the injuries front there were the normal cuts and bruises but nothing that needed treatment. Perversely we only managed to hurt ourselves on and after arrival. I managed to fall over a winch and injured my ankle just after we crossed the finish line (while chasing a plastic bag, believe it or not). The following day Mike damaged a toe when he caught it in a flag halyard. We were both limping for a few days. In summary then, the boat list may look extensive but we only had minor problems most of which were dealt with on the way. Other boats were less fortunate and many had sails blow out and our friends on Ciao even tore the spinnaker pole track off the mast. The finish
We crossed the finish line at 18.32 on the 16th December. We thought we knew what was going to happen - the World Cruising folks would welcome us and give us rum punch and a basket of fruit - we most certainly were not prepared for what actuallly happened. It all started just after we crossed the finish line when Brian and Sandy from Moonshadow Star arrived in their dinghy and gave us three cold beers and a bottle opener! They were accompanied by the dinghies and crews from Cat Taloo and Sing in the Wind, neither of whom we had met at that point but we had talked to them on the radio. Bearing in mind it was dark the arrival of three dinghies was something of a shock, but not as big a shock as we were about to get. The marina entrance is a narrow cut and on the starboard side is a restaurant and bar. As we passed close by everybody in the restaurant stood up and started cheering, waving, applauding and calling out our boat's name - we couldn't believe our eyes, and then the noise started. To get to our berth we had to pass down a long pontoon with dozens of boats moored each side. Again everybody on the boats was cheering and waving and most seemed to be sounding their fog horns, the noise was absolutely phenomenal and what with the lights everywhere, and the fact we were trying to talk to ARC berthing about where our berth was, and which way we were going in, and which side our warps had to be - it was mayhem! When we finally made it to our berth the pontoon was packed with people, some of whom we knew and many we didn't - again they were all cheering, waving and applauding and the fog horns were still going. We are still not entirely sure why we received such a welcome although World Cruising said it was in thanks for the net controller work we did. What I can say is that it was one of the most emotional events of our lives and even now if Mike and I talk about it it brings a tear to our eyes. Our sincere thanks go to all those who welcomed us in, after the loneliness of the ocean the warmth of feeling displayed will never be forgotten. It only remains to say that once we had drunk the rum punches and beer we went off to a restaurant with Duncan and Inge from Anam Cara, Andy and Lucy from Nimrod and Chris and Petra from Splendor Solis - we got very seriously hammered. Final results
We sailed some 2,935 miles and took 25 days, 9 hours, 32 minutes and 57 seconds. As one of the smallest and heaviest boats we expected to arrive at the back of the fleet. We had one further surprise in store though that we've been chuckling about ever since the final results were published. Handicaps, based on size and weight, were applied to finishing times and we came 5th in our class (out of c.20 boats) and 50th overall (out of c.200 boats). We now call the boat 'Kelly's Eye, the famous racing ketch'. On reflection
I am writing this two weeks after the finish and we still haven't really come to terms with the crossing. We certainly have a sense of achievement and, although there were personal ups and downs, we enjoyed the crossing. What is still difficult to comprehend is the sheer scale of the ocean and its emptiness, even the word awesome, that I used earlier, doesn't describe it. Since we left home we have sailed south thirty seven degrees of latitude and west sixty two degree of longitude - a total of around five thousand miles. It has changed our perspective about many things not least because being over one thousand miles from land tends to concentrate the mind. Where we go from here we don't really know beyond cruising the Caribbean for a while. We are only one sixth of the way round the world, it's a big place in a small cruising boat. It's odd to suddenly have no immediate deadline to meet beyond going south for hurricane season. The first move will be to Martinique in a few days where we hope to get someone to look at the generator and then we'll work our way up the islands. Christmas and New Year here have been fun and relaxing. We've seen to a number of jobs; done the washing that had mounted up; enjoyed the duty free prices at the chandler; spent a day on Moonshadow Star down the coast in a beautiful bay; explored Castries market after a ride on the 'dollar' bus from here; and commiserated with Duncan and Inge from Anam Cara who are now ashore while their boat is repaired after another boat, while racing, ran into them at anchor...don't ask. Adrian and Sue on Lalize, who we last saw in Lanzarote have now arrived in Martinique after a slow crossing and having had to call into the Cape Verdes for fuel, so we hope to meet up with them in a few days. That's all for this update, the next will be from further up the island chain - it's only twenty two miles to Martinique!