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.

Baleeira and leaving Europe

Rather than travelling 20 miles east to Lagos after rounding Cabo Sao Vincente (the most South Western point of Europe), we stopped in a small bay at a place called Baleeira overnight. We had planned to move on the next day so continuing to Lagos was going to gain us nothing and Morocco was calling! The 210 miles from  Baleeira to Mohammedia in Morocco was rather uneventful. The sea was more akin to an inland waterway, there was no wind and apart from a couple of hours as we passed across the main routes in and out of the Med, we saw very few ships.

Lesley at Dawn leaving Europe
Lesley at Dawn leaving Europe

Our destination was set to be the small fishing village and oil terminal Mohammedia, some 210 miles and 32 or so hours away. Once again there was no wind so we were set for another diesel burning session on flat glassy seas.

Sunrise as we left Europe
Sunrise as we left Europe


Coming onto springs the moon was full and the sky mainly clear so the night was not even particularly dark. Being so far South it was even warm overnight no longer requiring much in the way of clothing to keep us warm. It was so still that we brought the TV up to the cockpit and treated ourselves to a dose of Die Hard from our film store as it went dark.

After 31 hours we dropped anchor outside the port of Mohammedia and took the dinghy into the harbour to check in. Being our first check in, in Africa we were not sure what to expect, but we struck lucky and found some English speaking French people who lived in Morocco and knew the staff at the port. A quick phone call brought the very helpful port staff to the pontoon and they suggested that we could moor Mediterranean style on the end of one pontoon which would have sufficient depth for us and they would arrange for the authorities to come to the boat to check us in.

The Notorious Bay of Biscay

The Bay of Biscay got its notoriety in the days of square riggers. The prevailing wind would push them into the bay and onto the lee shore as they were unable to sail upwind. The sea bed also drops rapidly to several thousand metres so waves often heap up and very steep confused seas can occur.

Modern boats with reliable engines and rigs that allow boats to sail upwind efficiently have certainly reduced the risk of Biscay, however after a couple of crossings I can without hesitation say it’s still a stretch of water that commands a huge amount of respect and is likely to throw a curved ball at any time. Having stopped at L’Aberwrach to wait for a change in the weather, we moved the boat to the beautiful Camaret bay to give ourselves the best kicking off place for ‘the bay’.

The winds were still from the South West when we left Camaret but our routing software was predicting a change to the North West by the time we got South of the Brest peninsular.

It wasn’t wrong. As we neared the lighthouse that marks the southernmost point of the Raz De Seine the wind shifted 90 degrees and we set the sails for a pleasant broad reach overnight.

Because the air temperature was so low we decided to change the watch system for this leg. We opted for two hour watches rather than three. The disadvantage of this was that the off watch crew only got a maximum break of four hours but we decided that was preferable to getting very cold for three hours at a time.

Throughout the night the wind veered as forecast and dropped so by morning we were looking for ways to get some more speed. We tried the Parasailor, a favourite of ours but there wasn’t even enough breeze to keep that filling sensibly in the slightly rolly conditions so that came down and the engine went on.

By early evening the wind had increased a little so the Parasailor went back up for a few hours and we had a pleasant few hours before we took it down for dinner as the wind was by now going forward on the port side and increasing.

The forecast was for the wind to increase during the evening and build to 20 to 23 knots overnight from the East.

We were over half way across the bay by this stage and we settled down for our second night expecting it to b slightly less comfortable but fast and not unpleasant.

One might think that winds from the East would be ideal for a Biscay crossing and actually it was certainly better than the SW winds I had on my last crossing but what we didn’t expect was quite how steep the waves built. With the swell coming in from the west and the wind from the east, the wave faces were unexpectedly steep. The direction we were travelling meant we were travelling perpendicular to the wave direction so effectively sailing along the waves and depending on whether we were on the face or back of the wave the effect on the heel of the boat was quite surprising. There was no moon and a lot of cloud too so in the dark it wasn’t possible to see the waves coming – often you would hear the breaking of a wave seconds before it arrived, heeling the boat to starboard before the wave passed underneath and the boat picked itself up and rolled back upright to port down the back of the wave. For those off watch, sleep wasn’t as easy as the previous night!

By 1 am the wind had built to closer to 30 knots at times so we had reduced sail quite a bit to quieten things down but we were still travelling quite fast, often travelling at eight to nine knots in the pitch black. It was quite wet in the cockpit due to the waves hitting the hull and being blown up and across the boat. Since the auto helm was doing the steering, the preferred watch position was well forward in the cockpit sheltered by the screen and spray hood.

We have a chart plotter at the front of the cockpit and auto helm controls there so it’s quite a sheltered comfortable position to monitor other traffic (of which there was very little) and keep an eye on the boat.

Shortly after 1 am there was an unusual bang, unlike all the other bangs and crashes that are typical of a yacht fast reaching through confused seas and after a few seconds it was obvious that the autohelm had disconnected and the boat was running off course.

Having grabbed the wheel and tried to re engage the autopilot it was obvious that the peace and relative warmth of the cockpit front was not going to be an option for the near future and I set about hand steering while I tried to figure out what could be wrong and how we could fix it. The most unfortunate aspect was that without the autohelm it was clear we would need more than one person on watch so the 4 hour off watch periods were history!

Trying to maintain course for long periods of time in the pitch black with waves pushing the boat around was tiring and even after reducing sail still further it was clearly going to be a long night, so I did what all good skippers should do – I went to bed!

Well actually it’s not quite true. I left Pete at the helm and went to wake Lesley for two reasons; firstly to join Pete on watch and secondly because all the electronics for the autohelm were beneath the bunk she was sleeping on and I wanted to check all the connections and fuses to ensure the problem wasn’t a quick and easy fix.

It is fair to say that lesley was not best pleased to be woken! When I asked if she had slept well her response was ‘I didn’t get off to sleep for a long time since there was something banging and crashing just behind my head for ages. Suddenly it all went quiet thankfully so I could get some sleep, but now you are waking me up two hours before I start my shift.’

Needless to say, we put two and two together quite rapidly and concluded that shortly before failing, the autohelm was making more noise than normal, since it was no more than a metre from her head, albeit the other side of a bulkhead!

After explaining the failure to Lesley, she was a little happier to be woken so joined Pete and I dismantled the bunk to get to the electronics, only to confirm what we now suspected, which was that the failure wasn’t just a loose wire and was more likely a mechanical issue in the bottom of the lazarette.

Having put the bunk back together, recycled all electronics and checked everything we could think of that was accessible in the middle of the night I did leave them to it to grab a couple of hours sleep.

Sleep didn’t come fast as my mind raced thinking through the systems and it wasn’t long before based on the knowledge of the system and Lesley’s description of the noises I had a pretty strong feeling about the cause. I suspected the hydraulic ram had come off the pin on the steering quadrant – the split pin that prevents it from coming off had always seemed a bit flimsy but theoretically there should be very little force on it. In the morning light, if conditions allowed we could empty the lazarette, lift the floor and take a look. Until then we had to hand steer.

When I emerged on deck to take over steering it was obvious that it had been a tough, wet job in the pitch black of the night. Sail had been reduced yet further but still the helm loads and seas meant it was a welcome relief for Pete who didn’t take long to doze off having relinquished the wheel.

As it was beginning to get light, we discussed the plans for emptying the lazarette but the theory and execution ended up being rather different due to a series of unplanned events which ended up with Lesley being smacked across the face with the main sheet and receiving two black eyes and a bruised forehead, an accident that was bad enough but could have been far worse. We were reminded very clearly that no matter how well things are planned, they can go very badly wrong in an instant at sea. In this case we hadn’t factored in the rising sun, which temporarily but critically reflected off the instruments blinding the helmsman and completely obscuring all indication of course and wind direction.

The good news was that the diagnosis of the autohelm problem was correct, so we were able to replace the split pin and take a much needed rest from hand steering, until the new pin sheared two hours later!

The remainder of the journey was uneventful. As we closed the shore, the wind died and the seas flattened out enabling us to shake out the reefs and enjoy the sunshine as we sailed into La Coruna – total journey time just over 48 hours from Camaret.

Safely moored in La Coruna marina we walked into town for a much earned beer and tapas with Lesley sporting the biggest sunglasses she could find to avoid Pete and I potentially getting arrested for gbh!

Port Solent to L’Aberwrach

Before we left Port Solent we had subscribed to the PredictWind weather routing software and that was telling us that we had a weather window that would give us a pleasant trip to North West France, but if we went further we would have a pretty tough time. We opted to sail to L’Aberwrach, wait a day or so for the weather system to go through, then carry on across Biscay.

The software was spot on, and we dropped anchor in the mouth of the estuary after an uneventful but very cold crossing in the early hours and went to bed.