19 January 2011 | St Lucia
At last after three weeks we finally left Santa Cruz. We were delayed for a week due to a storm which was on its way from the south west. This finally blew itself out on Monday evening. We waited until Wednesday for the sea to go down before venturing out.
So at 1030 on Wednesday 1st December we slipped from Marina Atlantico and headed north for about four miles to top up our fuel tank and jerry cans in Darsena Pesquera - the small fishing harbour. The fuel was a lot cheaper than expected - 92 euros for 110 litres of diesel.
While refuelling I found that the head pump was leaking again. I have spent hours and hours trying to get it to work properly and have changed all the valves and diaphragms to no avail. So we had to sail with it broken again. We decided to use buckets of seawater to flush it through until I can arrange for a new pump to be brought out to the Windies.
Because of the heads problem I forgot to ship the Hydrovane rudder before slipping. The Hydrovane is a self steering system which works by sensing the wind direction. I realised just after we had cleared the harbour and had no intention of turning round. Therefore I tried to fit it whilst hove to. The blade has to slide on a stainless spindle which is a close fit and it was quite a struggle with Kate holding onto a rope attached to the rudder while I hung off the stern ladder. I had to go down to the bottom rung and of course a wave came and set off the automatic lifejacket I was wearing. I wanted to do it without the lifejacket but Mary was insistent that this was a no no. So we went into the entrance of the main harbour and in the smooth water I went over the stern unencumbered by the lifejacket or safety line. After a bit of struggle the blade was fitted and we could proceed.
So at 1400 we were actually on our way. We motored for a couple of hours and then set the main and genoa and shut down the engine. In order to stay away from the wind acceleration zone, where the wind rushes down the high mountains of the island to bring gale force winds in sudden squalls, we headed offshore into the south going separation zone. The best course we could make was south instead of south west but hoped that the wind would veer allowing us to set a better course late.
During this time I once again stripped the heads pump but could find no fault. However it did seem that the fault lay on the vacuum side of the pump so we could pump out the waste and then use a bucket to put "fresh" water in the bowl for a second flush and then put more water in afterwards. This meant having a bucket of seawater sitting in the heads sink and using a jug for the flushing operation. Not ideal but it worked. Of course had I been singlehanded or only had male crew there would be no problem - bucket and chuck it!
I decided that Mary and Kate would keep watches together and I would keep them on my own. I would try to do most of the night watch and the two girls would not have to be on watch during the dark hours for so long. For the first few nights this was quite difficult as there were quite a few ships about and so I was called fairly often during my off watch time to assess how close they would pass. I had difficulty in sleeping as I was listening to the rhythm of the boat and could hear the conversations between Mary and Kate, especially when they saw another vessel or there was a change in wind direction and they were discussing whether to call me or not.
The good thing though was that the SeaMe was working and so we had an audible alarm when we were pinged by a radar and knew that the ship could see us on their screen. This was confirmed by a couple of vessels we spoke to on VHF later. We painted on their radars at about 12 miles so they had plenty of warning of our presence. The audible alarm would go off long before we saw the vessel transmitting the radar. This would give us ample warning of a ship in our vicinity and we would generally see the ship as soon as it popped up over the horizon. Sometimes, however, we did not see the ship at all as it passed us without coming into visual contact.
For the first few days on our way down to the vicinity of the Cape Verdes Islands the wind was light and right on the nose. We trundled along at about three and a half knots and often a lot less than that. We still couldn't make the course south westerly so most of the time we were on the starboard tack heading south and then we would tack to go more westerly. The weather was fine for this period which meant that we could settle down into a sea going routine with no discomfort. Mary was finding watches in the dark difficult but I hoped that this would gradually lessen as we progressed.
One night when I was on watch at about 0300 there was a sudden scream from Mary. I asked her what was wrong and she said that something had flown onto her face. I replied that it must have been a fly and at that moment Kate shouted that there was a bat in the cabin before she dashed into the heads and closed the door. I went below and switching on a light saw on Kate's bunk a very frightened storm petrel. I picked it up in a tea towel and launched it into the night from the cockpit. The poor petrified thing had left its calling card in several places so we had to clean up that. Mary had quite a scratch on her face from the bird which took a few days to heal over. I'm not sure who was the more scared, Mary, Kate or the poor bird.
Lo and behold a couple of nights later when Mary and Kate were on watch a flying fish decided to whizz over the cockpit dodger and hit Mary on the leg causing another mild panic. Again I had to be the brave hunter and return the fish to its natural element.
On the fourth day out the weather became a bit unfriendly and the sea got a bit lumpy. This was the edge of the storm which was approaching Tenerife which we had hoped to be south of before it struck. However, our slow progress meant that we didn't quite get out of its way. Both the mainsail and genoa were reefed down during this time.
On our fifth day the weather was fine but the wind was still from the SW and light. We were making only about three knots, much to my disappointment. I had hoped for a fast crossing so that we could have Christmas in Barbados but it looks like New Year instead.
To add to our difficulties the Autohelm electronic self steering decided to give up the ghost at this point. The drive unit is almost new and has only had about ten days use in total and the control box, which packed in crossing the Bay of Biscay, had been rebuilt by the manufacturer at a cost of over £350 just before I left Portugal. Given the fact that the wind was light the Hydrovane couldn't steer either so we had to hand steer until the wind was less fickle.
The next day the wind allowed us to sail close hauled where the boat would steer herself without need to put a hand anywhere near the wheel. It was quite uncanny to know that the boat was very happy to do this. The wind was light so even this beat into the wind was not uncomfortable and not having to steer was a luxury. The payment was of course that we were still heading south.
At about 1100 we were visited by a large pod of pilot whales which was a very welcome diversion. Unfortunately we didn't manage to capture any on camera. Digital photography has made this instantaneous type of taking pictures very difficult because of the slight delay in capturing the image. Its difficult to anticipate when they would break surface and when I've tried this in the past I have managed to end up with some cracking
pictures of the sea completely empty of wild life. Later in the voyage we saw other whales but couldn't identify them. They were much larger with speckled backs and the pod consisted of about ten whales. Dolphins often visited us and were always a welcome sight. Bird life was fairly scarce but we did see storm petrels, not in the cabin, tropic birds and several lone gannets. As we got to the end of the trip frigate birds made an appearance too.
Later in the afternoon we spoke to a large and very beautiful motor yacht Utopia who eventually passed us about half a mile astern. She had picked us up on radar at about ten miles and we were giving a good return - thanks to the SeaMe. They gave us a weather forecast for the wind to go to the north within the next few days which was encouraging.
The north wind did eventually arrive but it was very light and although we managed to fly our beautiful cruising chute (a large spinnaker type sail for light wind sailing) it was only for a short period, when it gave us a satisfactory 4 knots, as the wind got lighter and the chute kept collapsing.
After this the wind got light still and it was difficult to make any decent progress. New Year in Barbados was now a joke. The swell was now quite high and made the boat roll heavily. This caused the sails to slat very badly as they alternately filled and then spilled the wind and made for a very uncomfortable time.
After two weeks we were well behind our projected position and there was no sign of the Trade winds. I had anticipated getting into them within about a week of leaving Tenerife but this was not happening. During my last crossing I was well ahead of our present position and that was singlehanding in a 24ft boat. Mary and Kate became very skeptical of any projections I made - with good reason on their parts.
We kept edging south in an attempt to get into the Trades but to no avail. Progress was very slow and I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong. To prove that it was not just a curse on me we saw astern one day a beautiful fully rigged tall ship with all sails flying. She was Tenacious who was taking disabled passengers and their "buddies" to Antigua. They too were well behind schedule and would spend Christmas at sea instead of English Harbour. She was behind us all day and I was pleased that she didn't go roaring past. In fact she was only on our beam by dawn the next day and I suspect that she had to put her engine on and motored as she quickly disappeared after that.
We had been trying to pick up weather forecasts from a ham net run by a Canadian called Herb. We listened each night but could not hear him at all. Later, when we were further west we found out that others had similar problems as propagation was very poor. When we did hear him he was giving forecasts to boats who had just left the Cape Verdes and so were a long was behind us. Therefore these reports were not much use to us.
A few days before Christmas we were becalmed for a couple of days. The bonus to this was that I managed to catch up on some sleep. By this time I was completely exhausted and was finding it very difficult to keep my eyes open during the long nights. We decide to change the watches slightly so that I kept watch from 1900 to midnight, then the girls would keep the middle watch from midnight to 0400 when I would resume. Mary would usually wake at about 8ish and make very welcome tea. Meanwhile Kate slept on - one night she had 14 hours in her bunk and slept the whole time. Neither Mary nor I slept well but Kate had the ability to just crash. We were both very envious of this ability.
One morning I saw a complete eclipse of the moon. At first I couldn't fathom out why the full moon was gradually becoming a half moon until my feeble brain worked it out. By the time of the total eclipse it looked like a dark coloured orange.
Suddenly we began to make progress. We weren't in the Trades, as I had initially hoped but at least we were moving towards the west. We were making about 4 knots but it was very rolly, as I knew it would be on almost a dead run. The weather was mostly fine and the nights clear with a fine panoply of stars to look at.
Christmas was a none event although we all had some little presents to open. We all would have loved a very large Christmas dinner but made do with Mary's frying pan pizza. Considering it was her first try in a very rolly galley it was good but I don't think that Pizza Express has too much to worry about if she sets up a business.
We occasionally now were getting some vicious line squalls come through. We were vigilant though and kept looking astern looking for a mass of dark cloud overtaking us. Even at night we could see them coming. When this happened I had to go to the mast to reef the mainsail, which at night is no mean feat. Whenever I had to do this I could see the worried look on Mary's face and the relief when I got back safely to the cockpit. I wondered if this was because it was my round at the bar and if I disappeared over the side she would have to buy her own first drink! Of course I always wore a safety harness which was attached to a jackstay by carabineer but even so I had to hang on because of the constant rolling.
New Year came and went and we didn't even think about it really because of the time difference and the fact that we had only altered our clock by one hour and really judging by celestial time it should have been three by then. Progress was relatively good by then but no where near the average 5 knots that I was hoping for.
One night three days from Barbados I was on watch and saw the blackest lump of cloud I've ever seen fast approaching from astern. I called Mary and asked her to close the hatch above her bunk as I knew that the squall would bring very heavy rain. The squally struck and it is without a doubt the most vicious I've ever encountered. Fortunately I'd reefed the main earlier when the girls were on watch for a previous squall so I was confident that the boat would be fine. The wind began to literally scream through the rigging and the rain struck me from horizontally from behind. Whenever I looked back to see if there was a sign of the end of it I was blinded by the rain and couldn't see. Mary had stayed up and looked anxiously from the saloon as I fought with the wheel to keep the boat straight and level. Although it seemed like hours and my arm muscles were aching this last for about 20 minutes before it passed through. Just when I began to heave a sigh of relief there was a crack and the gooseneck fitting broke. The gooseneck attaches the mainsail boom to the mast so the boom was not longer attached to the mast at its forward end. Fortunately we had a preventer and a downhaul attached to the outboard end of the boom so it didn't begin to swing about wildly and bring an added danger to the process of taming it. Mary came up immediately, being already up in the saloon and we called Kate to take over the wheel. I went forward to the mast and dropped the mainsail and the boom came down to the deck. Mary grabbed hold of the end of the boom to stop it from possibly thrashing about and I gathered in the main as best as I could and we lashed it with sail ties. Then with Mary's help we lashed it to the hand rails on the coach roof. All this time the boat was rolling heavily in the left over sea from the squall. We were safe but exhausted. I decide that we would heave to for the rest of the night and see what the situation was at daylight.
The following morning we rolled the mainsail around the boom and did a better job lashing it down. We set the genoa and continued on our way.
At 0800 on Friday 7th January we suddenly pick up a true Trade wind and began to fly along. At about 1100 Kate saw a smudge on the horizon and said that she thought she could see land. I went to look and confirmed that this was Barbados. There was no great elation as I had thought there would be when we set off but I think that we were just so bored with the slow progress that we didn't have the energy to be ecstatic.
So we sailed at over 5 knots all day as Barbados reeled us in. We had decided to go to Port St Charles in the north of the island to check in and stay in the marina for two or three nights so that we could luxuriate in long showers, shore electricity and no watches to keep.
The marina is tiny which we were surprised about because reading the blurb on the back of the chart it gave the impression of being much larger. However we were directed to a berth alongside a concrete jetty and had help to tie up. We had made it!
The first steps ashore were very wobbly and I staggered down the jetty to check in with port health, immigration and customs. The formalities over I went to see the dock master to book ourselves in for a couple of nights. He said that he would first tell me the price before he checked me in. When he told me that it was US $80 a night I nearly fell through the floor. It was too late to sail the 10 miles down to Carlisle Bay so I agreed to stay for one night only.
Port St Charles is a very upmarket housing complex with houses having their own yacht berths outside their front doors. We looked pretty scruffy in our berth which is marked on the chart for super yachts. Next door is a "yacht club" and soon we were having ice cold bottles of Banks beer which slid down very nicely. We had a look at the menu and gulped at the prices but decided that we had earned a little bit of luxury and decided to have a meal. Our total tab for the drinks and meal was £200 so it was an expensive stay.
It had been a very long voyage, 38 days, which was at least 10 days longer than I had thought it would be. At times this was very frustrating as we wanted to get it over and done with. Mary did not like keeping night watches and found it difficult steering a compass course. The compass light is quite dim and about 6 feet ahead of the wheel and as the compass swings on its gimbals the numbers begin to blur into one after staring at it for a long time. I rigged up a second compass next to the wheel to make life a little easier. Kate found steering no problem and did not seem bothered at keeping night watches. She has the ability to come off watch and crash immediately and get proper sleep which both Mary and I find hard to do and in my case almost impossible.
Mary did the vast majority of cooking and was a hero in the galley department. She managed to produce tasty meals with our limited selection of provisions even when the boat was bouncing about all over the place. Kate too did some cooking but her forte was in watchkeeping. All in all we were a good team but it will be a long time before Mary is ready for another ocean crossing. We have decided not to rush through the West Indies and head for Panama this year but to have a year here in the Caribbean. We will spend some time in Trinidad during the hurricane season and do all the maintenance jobs there before heading west again possibly in December.