On Passage from St Helena to Antigua
26 December 2008 | South Atlantic Ocean
We have now sailed almost 1000 miles from St Helena, with 800 miles to go to the equator in the SE trade winds and then another 2000 to go to Antigua above the equator in the NE trade winds. We are aiming to cross the doldrums at 31W but will look more closely at the weather pattern when we get a bit closer to try to fine tune that routing.
It's a bit ironic that I recently wrote a FAQ on how slow we go before turning the motor on, because we spent much of the first couple days doing about 3 kts and sometimes only 2kts. There is usually a quite steady SE trade wind flow in this area driven by the normally very stable and stationary high pressure system. But the high pressure system has been positioned abnormally far south this year and a small bubble of low pressure developed between us and the high pressure center, blocking the air flow. So, for the first three days we had 5-7kts of true wind, which averaged directly behind our intended course but swung 50 degrees to either side on about a 4 oscillation. To deal with this we had to jibe downwind (jibing on the shifts) and we used our code zero rather than our spinnaker because it's quicker and easier to jibe. Even with all that work we still only averaged about 3kts made good. This is the first passage we have duplicated from our Silk circumnavigation and it was a little discouraging to be making fewer miles/day on Hawk than we had on Silk, but it was pleasant sailing in flat water and we are in no hurry.
We saw this area of light air on the grib files before we left, and normally would have waited for the wind to fill back in, but we had gotten ourselves into a small bind on St Helena. A French single hander had come in who needed to make major repairs to his boat (his home built windvane had cracked his transom) and no-one on the island seemed to speak French (there is normally a Frenchman looking after Napoleons' house but he was in CapeTown getting married). This fellow was clearly in what used to be a quite large group (but is now much more rare) of what I called 'the crazy French sailors'. They are typically excellent seamen and can fix anything with some bubblegum and a toothpick but get into endless trouble. Our crazy Frenchman had been put in jail in the Red Sea, had a crewman die (at sea) on him, and now needed to rebuild his transom at St. Helena. In any case, Beth help him organize things and translating. After a week of that he was mostly organized and we thought we were done, but he seemed to still want to spend every waking moment with us and became a bit petulant when we tried to be on our own. We decided the only pleasant solution was to sail away despite the light winds. As a side note, we discovered to our surprise that it was easy to haul a boat out at St Helena using the cranes that they use to lift containers onto the wharf, and it only cost $50 (which was apparently the normal container $/ton lifting charge applied to a 10 ton boat) which makes the typical sailboat haul out fee, of 10 times this, look a bit excessive.
On Christmas day the low pressure bubble dissolved and the more normal trade-winds filled in, 15 to 20kts again from directly behind our course and again still more shifty than usual, but a wonderful Christmas present and we are back up to speed and have finally passed Silk's mileage. Our preference with this sort of long downwind running is to drop the mainsail and run with two jibs (the windward one poled out). For the poled out jib we use our normal furling jib and for the 'downwind' jib we set a spectra rope luff sail on our code zero furling equipment. When we launched Hawk we picked up a used maxi-ketch wire luff mizzen staysail and that worked well for a half dozen years as the downwind sail, but it self-destructed during our long 9000 mile passage from Chile to Western Australia. In Auckland we had North build us a new sail custom fit to the task but it has proven a complete failure with an obviously poor head design. The head ripped out in the Pacific (after 3 days of use) and we had it repaired and it just ripped out again yesterday (after 2 days of use - 5 days in total). The head of the sail is quite strong but then there is a sharp transition right across the sail to lighter sail cloth and it rips right across there. So, we are back to the more normal downwind 'wing and wing' rig, with a prevented out mainsail and a poled out jib. This set up does work but creates more mainsail chafe and less balanced steering than the two jib approach.
We still consider this passage from St Helena to the Equator by far the best cruising passage in the world. It has been a little more work this time than on Silk but it's still lovely sailing in relatively flat water with good weather and no real squalls. The water temperature is up to 80F, which is a really dramatic change from the 35F down in South Georgia only a month ago. It may even be a little too warm - I think 70F water is just about perfect