Atlantic Crossing – The sailing so far

If you read the sailing magazines or search for the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) on the internet, you will find many articles and adverts from the yacht charter companies etc. talking about escaping the European winter to sail downwind in the tradewinds in shorts and tee shirts for days on end under blue skies and bright sunshine. And last time I did this trip that was pretty much what we got. However it depends on two things: Firstly that the tradewinds are blowing (and they don’t blow all year round, they normally kick in around the end of November) and secondly that the skipper has opted to follow the tried and tested route (head south until the butter melts then turn right).

On this trip neither has occurred so things have been a little different, so here is a summary of the sailing for the first half on the trip – yes we passed the midway mark in the early hours of this morning. Before we describe the sailing lets first take a look at the sails we are carrying for those less familiar with yachts. We have a choice of five sails at any one time and normally use up to three at any one time. We are using a very old mainsail, one we got with the boat and that has been sitting in the garage specifically for this trip. Before we left Las Palmas Lesley and I, with a welcome bit of help from our neighbouring boats swapped our newer mainsail for the old one (not an easy task as it weighs over 85 kg!). Being a downwind trip the mainsail shape is not so critical and it can suffer a fair amount of wear and tear which is why we hung onto the old one. We also have our large genoa at the front of the boat and a small, little used staysail in between. Those three sails are available all the time, set and stowed with ropes from the cockpit.

In addition we have two specific downwind sails: We have a cruising chute, which can be hoisted furled and then set and stowed with some more lines led back to the cockpit and we have our favourite the parasailor. The parasailor is like a huge spinnaker but with a hole in the middle and a clever sailcloth wing which the force of the wind extends to stabilise it. To hoist and drop this requires people working on the foredeck so its not so easy to deploy. Both downwind sails are huge – in fact both of them are larger than a standard full size tennis court!

Our weapons of choice for the start were the mainsail and the cruising chute. The mainsail had never been hoisted since we put it on in harbour, and the cruising chute hadn’t been used since the UK, so we nervously hoisted the main on the way out to the starthoping we had got all the ropes in the right places. They weren’t quite right but they were thankfully good enough to start the rally and we were able to correct the rest later. The cruising chute was hoisted in preparation and looked like it would unfurl when needed. The start was at 13:00 and we made it to the like in time, choosing the committee boat end (which was actually a large spanish warship!). Just before the start gun went we bore away for the line and tried to unfurl the cruising chute but it resolutely refused to unfurl! A little deft work on the foredeck from Pete with Lesley pulling the strings and it finally set and we were over the line and away. We weren’t the only ones to get a tangle and were up on the line unlike most boats so actually had quite a good start.

Now this is a rally not a race, but when two boats meet at sea there is always a race, so imagine what happens when 240+ boats meet! Lesley and I soon fell into race mode calling gusts and playing the cruising chute, looking to gain every centimeter on the boats around us, much to Pete’s amusement as he wondered if we could keep up these competitive traits for the next 2700 miles! Needless to say as the fleet spread out and time went on the autohelm finally came on, the cruising chute got cleated and we started out on our 3 hour watch system.

As we headed down the eastern side of the island there had still been no definitive call of which route we were going to take. Actually I had made up my mind but certainly wasn’t going to share it with Lesley before we were too far away from all those other boats we had made friends with that might have taken the decision to go the nice comfy warm southern route, in case she decided to jump ship and hitch a ride! So as we approached the corner of the island I called the gybe and we headed West. There are some large wind shadows to the south of the Canary Islands (sometimes extending 50 miles) so you either have to cross your fingers and take the pain of light winds, or go a long way South then head back up. We chose the former and for much of the night ghosted along about 5 miles offshore catching every zephyr in the cruising chute. In the early hours we cleared the Island the wind came in, so we stowed the cruising chute, set the three white sails and blasted west at 8 knots + for a few hours feeling mighty relieved we had got away with cutting through the wind shadow. Then we stopped!

Most of Monday was spent searching for wind. We travelled in many different directions, not very fast and at some points ended up pointing back where we came from, just trying to keep moving. We did spot a school of whales which was fun but it certainly became a bit trying. Now being a rally not a race, and being in the cruising division (we have far too much junk onboard to contemplate going in the racing division, Ocean Blue tipped the scales at 24 tonnes in Portugal), we do have the option of using our engine, but there were several other boats around us all also looking for wind and for us it would have been a real cop out to turn the engine on. At about 8 pm the wind finally arrived and it built over night. As it built and came from further back we settled on broad reaching with a full genoa and a single reef in the main to keep the boat in balance.

The swell built over the next few days as did the sea state and wind and it became a full time job to keep your balance on the boat. The rain came too at times to ensure being on watch was something you had to do rather than wanted to do, and as soon as your watch ended you were down in the cabin heading for your berth to catch a bit of rest before you were needed again.

To describe it Lesley writes ‘The swell and sea state mean there is a constant movement not the long Atlantic swell I had been told about. The sea is also noisyas there is the crash of the breaking waves and a thundering roar as it gathers momentum and rises to push us forward surfng down the wave. I feel pretty small out here bobbing about on the ocean – quite humbling.’ and she adds ‘It seems that whenever it is my watch in the night the wind increases and the rain starts. The nights have been very dark with no moon making a distinction between the sea and sky impossible’

As the wind swung, we changed the sail plan and poled out the genoa sailing with the mainsail out on one side and the genoa on the other side. Its an often used sailplan for ocean sailing and proved remarkably effective and stable. The positive side to it all was we were starting to cover some serious distance. After an awful day of covering just 60 miles on the Monday, the distances rose to 185 and then 205 miles in a day – not huge by car, but a fair distance on a boat.

We get forecasts by email over the long range radio and we also have a nice piece of routing software which helps us decide which direction to go and what weather we can expect. This showed conditions improving (from a comfort point of view) and that exactly what happened.

By Sunday as Lesley says ‘What a difference a day makes. The world has colour. The sun is out and the air temperature is up. The sea is calmer and it looks blue in the sun, with white and turquoise as the crests break. There are rainbows in the distance and the sky is blue with small puffs of white cumulus.’

Now we want to be outside in the cockpit – its warm and pleasant and everything s beginning to dry out. The seas abated and out came the parasailor! We enjoyed a stunning day’s sailing under blue sunny skies in shorts and tee shirt with the mainsail and Parasailor powering us along. As evening approached the wind went forward and we reverted to white sails. Then it died completely again. When the wind died south of the Canaries everything was calm and it was all very quiet and sedate. This time was very different. The remainder of the swell and waves meant with no wind in the sails to steady the boat it rocks and rolls. As it does so the sails back and then fill with a deafening crack like a gunshot. The vibration echoes throughout the boat as everything jars. The rig shakes, the ropes and fittings inside the boom rattle and then it repeats. It repeats until there is enough wind for a few seconds to prevent it rocking and rolling. It was actually quite pretty whilst this was going on (terrifying as Lesley prefers to call it) because many of the surrounding clouds had lightening emerging from them! You don’t want to be in an electrical storm in a boat but luckily all the lightening was a fair distance away. We put up with the noise and banging and crashing for a few hours but ultimately its wearing on both us and the boat. Every time the genoa snaps full we worry about the laminate construction and kevlar reinforcement and how much its shortening its life. So eventually with heavy hearts we rolled away the genoa, admitted defeat and started the engine. It instantly transforms life onboard. We now have the drone of a diesel engine but the motion is pleasant and we are moving again. We cannot say we sailed all the way but hey its actually about enjoying the trip.

By early morning, on Lesley’s watch the wind is back, the engine is off and we are sailing again. And the wind stays for another glorious day of sailing in the sunshine. Distance covered is down a bit as the wind is lower but its hot and sunny and dry. We are spending our time on deck, the washing is done, the fishing line out, repairs are done and my hair has even been cut! In the evening the wind went light again and Lesley experienced her first proper Atlantic squall. One moment she is fast asleep on the bunk and the next she is woken by torrential rain, 35 knot winds from a completely different direction and a lot of noise from a drenched Derek and Pete as they struggle to trim the sails for the new wind, knowing full well it will all be over in five to ten minutes! And it was, the skies cleared the wind dropped and unfortunately the engine came back on again for the night. This takes us to today, where unfortunately we have had to motor for most of the day (the engine went off sometime after 3 pm) but again it was hot and sunny, the seas were flat and its been a glorious day.

So in short we have had a real mix, fast and furious, slow and dull then a lot of champagne sailing in stunning conditions. Our routing means it should just keep getting better now too as we start to work our way South. We have had it far better than those who took the Southerly route. We believe that the trades are beginning to develop now, but we can see from the position reports and fleet updates from rally control, and also from the radio nets that the south goers have had very little wind and many boats have had to divert to the Cape Verde Islands to pick up more fuel. Oh and as footnote we swam in the sea today! Its 4 km deep, we are a thousand miles from land and its crystal clear. No better way to cool off in the heat.

Time to get the latest weather then go on watch.

Bye from a happy warm crew, Derek, Lesley and Pete.

Atlantic Crossing – Improvisation at sea

Like cars and trucks, most boats run off 12 or 24v electricity. Ocean Blue runs mainly off 24v so we have several large heavy batteries which require regular charging. We have 4 methods of charging them:

1. The main engine. If there is no wind and we are motoring, or just going in and out of harbour the batteries are automatically charged since the engine is on, but otherwise we don’t really want to run the engine just to charge batteries – it burns too much fuel and is a bit noisy.

2. The generator. Effectively a smaller engine dedicated to producing 240v mains power electricity which has big battery chargers connected. This has the added advantage of also directly powering the few normal mains sockets we have around the boat. We like our generator for different reasons: Lesley because it can run the aircon and heating, so if the generator is on she can always be at just the right temperature, Derek because he can use his angle grinder and welder, and our crew for this trip, brother in law Pete, can dry his hair with the hairdryer after a shower (! jest)! However the generator is a bit noisy and burns diesel.

3. Solar panels. we have many and they are fantastic… When the sun shines. Luckily on this trip, when strategically placed they can double as very effective umbrellas! However I should add that yesterday was very hot and sunny for once.

4. The Duogen. This is a great bit of kit, that hangs on the back of the boat and either stick up with windmill like blades which catch the air and drive an alternator, when at anchor, or hinges down with more like a small propellor shaped impellor blade that is dragged through the water when sailing. Its brilliant, especially in water mode, when it works… The problem with making equipment for the leisure marine market is that the market is small. Unlike manufacturing bits for cars or houses, the volumes are so small many marine businesses are small cottage industries and hence equipment tends to be a bit more ‘home built’. Our Duogen stopped charging a few days ago so the two engineers on board woke up and started dismantling it, hanging over the back of the boat avoiding the approaching waves! It transpires that it has a very high tech (carbon fibre) drive shaft connected to the alternator with a very low tech plastic spigot. The spigot had broken. Maybe its meant to be sacrificial to save damage to the shaft? If so one would expect to find a replacement in the spares pack, but alas no. Anyway a small amount of butchering (or re-manufacturing as us engineers prefer to refer to it as) and the Duogen was back working. The next day it stopped again. Engineers returned and the re-manufactured spigot was now two pieces of shattered plastic and too short to work with. Conditions were right for thinking about a solution but not really doing anything about one and anyway we needed something to fabricate a new spigot from. All the spares boxes were raided and there was nothing appropriate so we had to think laterally. Now the two most well stocked areas of the boat are Lesley’s wardrobe and the galley, so they had to be the first two places to look. Would there be something that could be ‘borrowed’ to affect a repair? Alas the day came to the end with both sources intact as nothing was the right material and right diameter. But then on turning in after a late evening watch the solution was literally staring me in the face as I had a pee! The toilet brush had a metal handle that looked about the right size. Pee aborted the calipers were found and it was confirmed – this might work, it was the right diameter. One small issue remained – would Lesley notice if the toilet brush was a couple of inches shorter?

So yesterday the hacksaws, drills and other tools emerged and we now have a fully functioning Duogen, albeit connected via a toilet brush handle! Lets hope it lasts this time.

All is going well, the sun is shining and the batteries are charged. Derek, Lesley and Pete.

Atlantic Crossing – Night watches in the pitch black

Tonight we are taking things a little easier after a couple of full-on days of fast reaching. Being rather short handed we have decided to throttle back and give the crew some much needed rest tonight. We have set a more conservative sail plan with poled out genoa and reefed main and hopefully the wind and sea state will remain a little calmer than it has been for the last few nights.

For the non-sailors amongst you, I will try and paint a picture of what a night watch was like last night – the sailors amongst you can probably skip this one and read someone else’s far more interesting blog!

So a watch is our term for being ‘on duty’. We have three people onboard so we are running 3 hour watches, meaning unless conditions or boat handling demands 2 people are on watch we get six hours rest between watches. Our boat is like a flat, albeit a small flat where nothing stays where you put it. In your normal flat, if you get a bit lazy and don’t clear up before you go to bed, unless you are super rich and have a cleaner that comes in tidies up after you before you wake, you can be reasonably certain that whatever you left out the night before will still be there. Our flat is different – its almost certain that you will find your belongings somewhere completely different the next day! And that is because our flat is constantly moving in every possible direction, which takes us to the start of a watch:

A watch typically starts with being rudely awakened by a bright light and a call of ‘wake up you’re on’. Now in most environments that could be construed in many different ways but in our flat it means just one thing – time to go on watch. So now you are awake from your deep peaceful sleep (if you happen to be the type of person who could sleep deeply whilst balanced on the back of a bucking bronco), and you initial problem is simply getting up, because the designers at the marine equivalent of Ikea have clearly been to many sailing club parties and are aware that us sailors fall out of bed a lot and so have kindly supplied us with sides to our beds – i.e. we effectively have cots! So stepping over the edge of our cots we expect to find the floor – however its rarely we expect it to be: It will either come up to meet us jarring our knees as our heel hits the floor far earlier than expected, or if we are falling off a wave it will be descending fast – and we all know the feeling when we miss a step – well this is very similar.

So we get kitted up into appropriate clothing (which by this stage in the journey should be shorts, tee shirt and lifejacket), but did anyone tell you the skipper has decided to take a far more northerly route this year so the number of items of clothing is significantly higher?

Arriving on deck you are met by the person who is coming off watch and going to go to bed. A quick look around shows tonight is dark – not just the type of dark you get in suburban Hampshire, but they type of dark that means you cannot distinguish the horizon where the sea meets the sky! You have a quick handover chat – you discuss what the wind is doing, any other floating flats in the vicinity, and then having done 3 hours on their own the off watch crew is very keen to go to bed so you are alone.

In front of you we have a few instruments – just like a car dashboard really but with different numbers and dials. Most are pretty boring but for this watch, the interesting one is the one with a wildly swinging needle that looks as if it is on steroids. This tells us where the wind is coming from, and the game is to tame the needle and keep it pointing in roughly the same direction. Now when you go for a walk in the park in winter in suburban Hampshire, you know the wind is coming from one direction because that’s the cheek that gets cold first and that is accurate enough. However because our sails (massive expensive bed sheets hoisted up a pole to catch the wind) rely on the wind coming from exactly the right direction we have to be more precise. So either we keep adjusting the angle of the sails, or we adjust the angle of the boat (we steer it, like a car, except most of the time we don’t, we have a very nice hydraulic crew member (autohelm) who steers it for us – we just tell him what direction to point it in). On a long trip like this you tend to follow the wind (and if you ask Lesley, adjusting the sails does far more damage to your nails than adjusting the angle of the boat). So as the needle on steroids flies around the dial we have a little controller which tells our autohelm to go left or right, so you effectively play a very basic 80’s style console game – ‘chase the needle’. Its not helped by the waves and swell that come up behind us at random intervals and launch us downwards and forwards at precarious angles and slew the flat around. Depending on your point of view the effect of slingshotting the flat downhill at speeds up to 12 knots + can either be terrifying (Lesley), exhausting (Pete) or just plain fun (Derek).

Your other responsibility it to look out for and avoid those neighbours who have moved their floating flats into ‘your’ village. Out here we get very few (I think its far too far to Tesco from here for most people), but there are a few so you need to scan the horizon (which of course you can’t find because its so dark) for any lights.

To help with this we do have a radar screen (like an old black and white tv I’m told by those old enough to remember them) which has a spattering of dots indicating the neighbour’s flats and has better visibility than I do so thats a help.

So that is how we amuse ourself for a three hour night watch. On days like last night, you can end up clock watching until its time to get the next person up, but to be fair, when its warm and clear (I am still waiting for that night on this trip) its a magical experience alone in the middle of nowhere with no light pollution, enjoying a huge screen with millions of stars, planets, shooting stars and satellites. Maybe tomorrow…

Anyway off for a few hours sleep. We are trying to skirt north around what looks on the gribs like a massive wind hole at the moment so no chance of heading south just yet. The last two days we have covered just short of 190 nautical miles per day so we are cracking on.

Derek, Lesley and Pete.

Atlantic Crossing – the first few days

What a difference a few hours can make. After listening to the weather briefing and also the software predictions it was clear we had to choose between the traditional ‘go south until the butter melts’ route or head west through the wind shadow of the islands to pick up the brisk northerlys to the north of the low pressure.

We opted for the latter, happy to take the pain of the wind shadow from Gran Canaria during the first night. We popped out of it in the early hours and settled onto a fast reach at 8 knots+ west bound – until it died, just a few hours later. The smug feeling of ‘that wasn’t too bad’ was replaced for the next 18 hours with frustraton at bobbing around like a cork. We weren’t the only ones though – the daily position reports and radio chat suggested whichever way you had gone most people had very light winds. You can handle this in two ways – enjoy being at sea, catching fish, sunbathing and just chilling, or concentrate with everything you have, looking for every zephyr to get the boat moving – ‘any direction will do, just give us some steerage way’. Being the ex racers we are, we chose the latter and got frustrated!

However, just a Pete served the dinner the wind arrived (as is often the case, so maybe we should have planned dinner for earlier!), and we spent a thoroughly pleasant night blasting along, initially on a beat but then on a fine reach at speeds between 7 and 8 knots. I think at times Lesley was now appreciating the previous day’s bobbing, but she got into rapidly!

So that’s it for now – happy crew, charging along in the sunshine!

Derek, Lesley and Pete.