Crossing the Atlantic - A Recap
19 December 2007 | Jolly Harbour, Antigua
After crossing 3200 miles of open ocean, there is a lot to report, so I organized sections below covering the passage, the highlights, the low points/problems we had, and Nicky, if you want to skip around.
In Lanzarote, I was a bit apprehensive about what the Atlantic would have in store for us but after months of build up, it was very much a "let's get this done finally" feeling. So we were off once we had our friend Peter on board - an essential third hand for the long passage. Still, it was tempting to stay a bit longer on land, especially since our sorely missed friends from Arearea had only just arrived. They will cross to the Caribbean after Christmas, however, so we have high hopes of a rendez-vous with them soon!
When we left Lanzarote, the weather report prepared us for low to no winds for the first section of our passage but we were prepared to motor through this until we reached the trade winds further south. That is exactly what happened, and we did eventually get a fresh wind to push us west. Hooray, we thought, up go the sails and we won't have to touch them until Antigua! Wrong! We had pictured sunny skies with lots of cumulus, a steady wind from behind with the occasional squall and a regular Atlantic swell. Reality consisted mainly of very rolly seas with quite a bit of cross swell, broken up by the effects of cold fronts passing to the north (lots of rain and wind shifts that even had us close reaching for a day) and/or troughs/easterly waves moving through which typically meant being becalmed after a period of unsettled weather . Except for the becalmed periods you could never put anything (e.g. food) down because it would just fly off with the next wave and you constantly had to wedge yourself in down below whenever you needed your hands free e.g. to brush your teeth. We did have about five to six (out of 26) of those perfect downwind sailing days and the rest certainly was not all bad but we had imagined it to be the other way around. Consequently, sail changes were more frequent than expected and -even while the windvane was still up - there was more hand steering required to cope with relatively large and irregular seas.
Just when we were working our way up to 135+ nm days and getting close to a 6 kn average speed after the initial motoring toward the Cape Verdes, the wind deserted us and we made depressingly poor progress. Where were the trade winds? The wind did return after two days, but on the beam! We weren't picky, and it was a relief to be heeled over at a constant angle rather than rocking constantly from left to right as we had downwind in cross seas. We were on our way!
Wrong again! One night a huge, black trough swallowed us up in its deluge of rain, and swept our wind away once again. This time, we were absolutely becalmed for 14 hours, and Peter's chance of catching his hoped-for flight back to the UK was gone with the wind (literally). He had hoped to make the Sunday flight originally, or Monday; this hope disintegrated during our first calms, and he was shooting for at least Tuesday, or Wednesday at worst. Now, even Wednesday was looking unlikely. We were only 300 miles from Antigua but going nowhere. It was day 23 and we had hoped to have already completed the passage by then!
The winds did return, slowly at first and then with conviction, and we decided on some guerrilla tactics to try to get in on Wednesday at all costs. First, we took in our tow generator, a fantastic power source (when your boat is moving, that is) with the catch that it takes half a knot off your speed. More importantly, we decided on much more aggressive night sailing. Usually we would reef the sails as night fell to avoid having to make any changes in the dark and to avoid waking the off-watch (at this point our self steering was broken - see below - and we were hand steering) if a squall were to hit. Instead, we kept up the daytime sail setting and the off-watch slept in the cockpit next to the helmsman so that changes could be made quickly. We could clearly see squall lines approaching even in the dark so we felt this tactic was safe enough - just energy draining. Still, we accomplished our purpose when we did raise Antigua on Wednesday morning and Namani was checking through customs by 14:00. After a shower and a dinner out, Peter caught his evening flight - 6 hours on Antigua after 26 days getting there!
In retrospect, it was not exactly the sunny "milk run" we thought the crossing would be and we probably left too early in the season for the trade winds to be established. I also think it would have been sensible to stop at the Cape Verde islands to break up the passage into shorter distances. Ah, the benefit of hindsight! Our decision to join the Rally for the crossing was a good one as we liked the safety net of daily radio checks and enjoyed a little chat. We only saw two other sailboats briefly during points of our crossing, but we usually had about 5 boats within 100 miles of our position which was reassuring should a serious problem arise. Luckily, it didn't.
I had expected highlights of the passage to be clear stars, beautiful sunsets, good runs under sail, or the feeling of being thousands of miles from other people. We did experience each of these things but for me, the highlights of our Atlantic crossing were our whale sightings. Not distant glimpses, but huge whales, right next to Namani! I had hoped to see a whale but expected to see only a bit of dorsal fin or tail at most, but on two occasions we saw the entire body of the whale, tinted a turquoise color through the water. It was incredible to see them this way - 7 meters of sleek Minke Whale gliding along nearby, obviously as interested in us as we were in them. They swam around Namani to study her hull from different angles, disappeared, and reappeared again. It was absolutely magical to see them from the deck of our own boat.
The stars, by the way, were often obscured by clouds, and in fact the most brilliant night sky we have seen along our entire trip was off Sardinia in July! We had several dolphin sightings and caught one fish before needing our tow generator forced us to stop for fear of tangling the lines.
LOW POINTS & PROBLEMS
We had two serious technical problems during our crossing, but first, I would say that the unexpected calms and the long passage these caused were our main source of frustration. I never expected the passage to take so long! Still, everyone was very good about it, especially Peter, despite being under great pressure with his deadline to get back to work (I guess deadlines are made to be broken, particularly at sea).
The constant side to side roll during downwind sailing was miserable. It was caused by a cross swell plus the twin headsail rig. Roll roll roll, then enough steadiness to give you hope, then roll roll roll again! The worst was cooking or washing the dishes as they would slide around unpredictably and occasionally launching into the air. We weren't seasick but we were sick of it! We have a number of colorful bruises due to the roll.
Squalls worried me beforehand but they weren't a problem really. You could always see the dark line of cloud approaching from a good distance, even at night. The wind bursts weren't tremendously overpowering and usually the rain was short lived. More of an inconvenience were the two extended periods of rain we did have which soaked and chilled us thoroughly (our next boat will have an inside steering station). I did enjoy collecting water in these downpours, though, with a small canopy draining into a bucket. This supplemented our limited fresh water supplies by letting us wash some clothes and bathe luxuriously - in one liter of water each, and a whole liter just for my hair, at intervals of about 4 days. Yes, hygiene took on a whole new meaning!
The first of two serious problems was power. We intended to use our tow generator as much as possible along the passage and to supplement it with short runs of our engine as needed. Namani is a very low power intensity boat, running only the nav lights, rarely used cabin lights, and electronics. After a week of sailing in following seas we discovered that the engine oil was contaminated with seawater. We had enough oil for two changes but the question was, would this be enough to flush the system and let it run smoothly? Attempts to top up our batteries with our generator also failed. Markus saved the day by coaxing our engine back to life and the problem seemed to be solved. Lessons learned: carry more than 2 changed of oil and install a siphon in the raw water cooling exit!
The second problem was our self steering wind vane. Early in the trip, it had trouble coping with the large Atlantic swell plus the wind, and we had to hand steer intermittently. Disappointing, but no big problem. But with 1000 miles to go, Markus saw the vane shifting and discovered that the bracket holding it to our stern was flexing under load. We had to dismantle the entire auxiliary rudder (no small task, with Markus hanging off the swim ladder in mid Atlantic) before it broke off and potentially damaged the hull. Then we had to hand steer the last thousand miles to Antigua. With three adults, this was not a huge problem, but it was very energy draining, especially when seas built and keeping course demanded complete focus throughout a watch. Had we been only two, it would have been a much bigger problem.
Still, the worst of my worries - huge storm conditions - never happened, and we had a safe passage that was never a threat to our safety (subtropical storm Olga luckily passed to the northwest of us shortly before our arrival in Antigua). Comfort, on the other hand, was somewhat limited, but we didn't exactly expect luxury!
Originally we thought about sending Nicky to my mother while we crossed the Atlantic, partly with thoughts of his safety and partly out of worry that he would be bored. We changed our minds after earlier passages gave us more confidence. During the passage he was an absolute star. He was never bored or worried or needy. He kept himself busy with Lego, cars, coloring, and cutting out for days on end. Nicky liked coming up on deck to see dolphins and whales, but he was also happy to spend most of the day in the cabin with his projects. I had a good supply of materials to pull out when we had to sleep or couldn't spend time with him - stickers, dinosaur figures, bits of lego, new pencils, etc. He also learned the alphabet.
Nicky had already made fast friends with Beth from Sea Bright and during our passage, the kids chatted on the radio whenever power wasn't a problem. Their radio chat was hilarious to follow, monosyllabic exchanges followed by "over". "Hello Nicky, over." "Hello Beth, over." "We saw a dolphin, over. " "Wow, over." "What did you eat for breakfast, over?" "Yoghurt, over." And so on! Nicky was eager to see Beth again but he never wanted to get to land quickly and he didn't count down the mileage the way the adults did! With two adults it would have been extremely draining to stand watches and still give him any attention, but with three adults, it was no problem and I am glad we had him along. Nicky, at age four, is now an ocean sailor! And here on Antigua he gets his reward, with lots of beach and play time with us and with Beth.
So we have made a dream reality by crossing an ocean on our own sailboat. It is strange to think back on all our preparations, from pure dreaming to finding a boat and fitting it out and then setting out. The past two years have been dominated by thoughts of crossing the Atlantic, getting ourselves and the boat ready to go, and now it is behind us. It's hard to believe in a way! I am so glad that we took the step of leaving "real life" for a year to live this dream. That's easy to say under tropical skies with the day to organize as we wish but even in more difficult moments I am so happy with our decision.