Commodore sails the Atlantic


Much of what follows was written during the solo three-hour night watches – that probably explains a lot.

Back in summer last year, I was contacted by a couple – Alan and Avryl Broadbridge - who I had sailed with from Sicily to Ibiza in 2015. They had contacted me then after meeting Brian Hawkesworth in Corfu and he'd said if they were ever looking for crew he might be able to help via GSA. Then they had a Jeaneau 425 and were making their way to join the Atlantic Rally Crossing plus (ARC+) to sail to the Caribbean. Now they were back in the UK and had bought another boat – an Island Packet 485 – and were planning to make their way from Southampton to once again join the ARC+. Was I interested in joining them for a leg of the trip?

For one reason and another, I couldn't commit myself but kept in contact with them. As things became clearer, I got back in touch with Alan with the idea that I might join the two of them on a delivery trip to Portugal. Unfortunately, they already had crew lined up. If everything worked out with this crew, they would be returning to sail from Gran Canaria to St Lucia via Cap Verde Islands.

For various reasons, the couple were to withdraw and Alan got back in touch asking if I would like to do the ARC+. To be honest, this wasn’t what I had in mind as I had always thought exploring a coastline immeasurably preferable to long distance sailing. All the same, when would I ever get a similar opportunity again? Here I was, knocking on 70 years of age and for how long could I even contemplate such an experience? After some serious discussion with Andrea, I said yes.

Shortly afterwards, Alan and Avryl invited us to dinner. During the evening, Andrea asked what they intended to do after the ARC+? “Oh, we’re doing the World ARC.”

Andrea looked at me and very directly said “No” so, even if the thought occurred to me, I knew just where the limits were.

That evening, Alan said he’d been in conversation with a Swedish guy called Gordon Ishammar. Gordon was to join Alan and Avryl to move the boat from Portugal to Gran Canaria and, if it worked out, he would be the fourth member of the crew. Fortunately, this try-out did work.

Gordon and I arrived in Gran Canaria within minutes of each other and Alan picked us up in a hire car and , twenty minutes later, we boarded Island Wanderer and were presented with a jobs list.

****

After a cup of coffee, Gordon and I started with our jobs. Alan and Avryl also had jobs and these often took them away from the boat. Just as often, Gordon and I hit snags with our jobs and would have to retire to the Sailors Bar to consider how to overcome these issues. Thus progress was maintained (sort of).

Within this programme we had to attend seminars:

  • Weather - “there is a wind acceleration zone off the airport.... enter it at you peril.”

  • First aid - “ hurt yourself or get sick there’s no hope of help getting to you so you just hope the rest of the crew can make you comfortable.”

  • Sextant - “ you’ve tried on land and failed miserably, if your GPS fails you have no hope of finding Cap Verde.. you sail on until you hit America.”

I was wondering why I came?

There was also the social scene:

  • Sundowners - couple of glasses of beer and some snacks sponsored by a boat provisioning business (any room for an Iberian ham aboard?)

  • Fancy dress - officially themed as “Once upon a time...” but actually whatever you fancy and I opted for “what I was wearing when told it was fancy dress night”.

  • Last night party (actually last but one night but it was free beer so who is going to argue?)

The last night itself was spent quietly, enjoying a restaurant meal kindly provided to Gordon and me by Alan and Avryl .

The Main Event (Part 1)

There was still jobs to do, and the list was no shorter after a sail around the bay to try out downwind sailing, etc. but, inevitably 1300 hours drew nearer an, with it, the start of the 2019 ARC+.

We were waved off by an enthusiastic crowd of, literally, dozens (made up mainly of those doing the ARC which was due to sail to the Caribbean in a single leg a couple of weeks later).

Lots of silly grins and “See you in Cap Verde” amongst “rival” boats, some pretence of timing a run to the start line (only six minutes late so no minimum three-hour penalty for jumping the gun) and we were off. 862 nautical miles to go!

*****

I should tell you about kitting out a boat for ocean sailing (and from what I saw around the marina this is not by any means unique to Island Wanderer)...

  • If it beeps, have it.

  • If you can have a device that can show you the same information in the yacht saloon as in the cockpit then have it.

  • Always, but always, carry a spare (and another in case you use the first).

  • If it involves excessive lengths of string, have it. And you need two so each side of the boat is kitted with a primary and spare. Double up again if it involves turning blocks and again if shackles are required, and again if they are soft shackles. And spare blocks and shackles.

  • The bigger the boat, the more nooks and crannies to put stuff in, so buy more spares.

This rather unfairly belittles the effort required to prepare a yacht for a voyage of 860 miles before even thinking of the main crossing which is in excess of 2000 miles. Technology makes you feel less alone even if your neighbour is 10 miles away and out of sight.

The combined plotter, AIS and radar display.

Even if it’s operation doesn’t always go smoothly, it is reassuring that technology gets you weather forecast updates when you are hundreds of miles from nearest land (and the casual availability of internet that we enjoy on land).

And as for the spares, when you are a thousand miles from land, it's down to you to sort out any eventuality.

But I get ahead of myself... we have only just crossed the start line. For some reason, the organiser of the event had introduced a waypoint (a position point which, by some of that clever technology, they could tell whether we had looped around or not). The problem was they had not mentioned this waypoint at the skippers briefing the day before and it was only by chance that Alan checked his phone to see if still in range of normal usage and then his seeing an email from the organisers.

That clever technology on board showed we were by no means unique in missing the change. We were fortunate that we did not have to deviate too much to make the mark. Others appeared to miss it completely.

At least one boat had gear failure shortly after the start and had to return to the marina. In the light of the safety inspections and the work we that knew had taken place on this specific boat, it was a surprise, and also a reminder how easily things could go wrong This yacht was to rejoin the rally a couple of days later.

The fleet soon spread out as some stood on towards Africa (sounds good doesn't it … “stood on towards Africa” where better winds were expected, some tried to sail to the shortest distance and others couldn’t make their minds up. We opted for not making our minds up.

Having the rally at this time of year is because it is the time when the traditional trade winds establish themselves. The trades mean downwind sailing - somewhat easier than extended beating to windward! Tradition has it that you “sail south until the butter melts and then turn right”.

Downwind sailing brings its own issues. For those who are not sailors I should explain that this is primarily to do with unexpected wind gusts getting the wrong side of a sail. The foresail is directly fixed to the boat at its top and one point of its triangular shape. The third loose corner is controlled by a “sheet” - a rope from the sail back to the boat. If wind gets behind this non-fixed edge it will “collapse” and flog. We try to control this non-fixed point of the sail by means of a pole with its inboard end attached to the mast. The outer end is fixed by means of lines led to the bow and stern and they are brought to the cockpit so we can adjust them. Then there are other lines to support the weight of the pole, to extend its length (to cope with larger or smaller fore sails) and to raise or lower its inboard height. I have simplified this a bit and left out the “normal” lines and how they are used - a dark art, maybe, but we haven’t reached the end of our problems.

When we come to the mainsail and the boom we are concerned about a powered swing across the boat - the dreaded gybe! Gybes can severely damage the yachts rig, not to mention any people who get in the way. To stop the mainsail gybing we add a “preventer”. This is a line from the outer end of the boom, taken to a point near the bow then brought back to the cockpit area so it can be adjusted to best effect.

Wind is not constant in strength or direction. This a can be amplified by the rocking and rolling of the boat as swell and waves pass under it. Downwind sailing tends to experience more swell effects. On the first night out all these things came together and we, or, more accurately, I, broke a mainsail preventer.

“Preventer” is something of a misnomer. “Limiter” might be better as it infers that prevention is not guaranteed and the arrangement might be pushed beyond that limit. We were sailing with an auto-helm setting that, in theory, follows the wind and so should not allow wind to get on the wrong side of the mainsail but there is an inevitable delay between a wind gust arriving and the auto-helm responding. In a split second we went from my wondering if, in fact, we should be increasing the sail area to me taking manual control of the helm to prevent a second reverse gybe and calling crew from their berths to re-rig the preventer. Apart from the broken rope (1 cm or so thick!) there was no damage. The skipper slept through the lot.

We settled into a rhythm. Avryl provided us with evening meals, I did lunches and we all scavenged for breakfast when we got up. Night watches were three hours on and the rest of a 12 hour night off. There was a notional watch pattern during the day but really it was committee sailing. Foredeck work was almost exclusively Gordon and me, with him leading as he is somewhat more committed to racing and therefore to constant tweaking than me.

The boats that had gone further east lost out and at one point we found ourselves 29th out of 98 in the daily position reports. We subsequently slipped down the order a bit, regained a couple of places and then the wind died. For a long time, we had been working on a Friday evening arrival but suddenly it looked more like Saturday. No amount of sail tweaking, including resorting to the cruising chute, helped. Island Wanderer is a heavy cruiser and light winds are not her friend. We are currently doing about 4-5 knots - our best daily run averaged a little over 6.5 knots.

Yesterday we saw dolphins and today the others saw the turtle while I slaved over sandwich making - it had gone before I got to the cockpit. We also found our first flying fish on the deck this morning.

Although the rally has 98 boats in it we have only seen three others since Monday evening (it’s now Thursday) and each of those were just vague shapes in the distance.

****

Today is a special day - my 70th birthday - but I haven’t been excused any duties. I was, however, given a card, gift, a cake and a three person “harmony” of Happy Birthday To You. I emailed Andrea to thank her for the birthday card I’d brought with me.

Gentle winds meant that we could all eat in the cockpit - nibbles, small beer, chilli. Lovely birthday rounded off by starlit night, calm seas but the prospect of arriving in Mindello on Cap Verde on Saturday rather than Friday is a little frustrating. Hey, ho!

****

I’ve just come off watch. First time I’ve had the “sociable” time of 2000 - 2300 but it’s been quite frustrating . Firstly the wind backed meaning I had to steer below our desired course to stop the gybe. Then wind speed dropped to as low as 4 knots meaning that the swell was emptying the sail of any wind every now and again and when the sail refills it kind of “slaps” (which doesn’t do the sail any good) and progress is hesitant. Towards the end of watch the wind started to improve so that, occasionally, I actually made the course. Hope it continues to improve for Alan B.

I hope to have a better night's sleep tonight. I am sharing the forepeak double berth with the spare sails. Last night, I (rather bad-temperedly and half-asleep) told Andrea off for fidgeting in bed and then fully woke to realise I had left her at home and was being disturbed by the spare genoa as the boat rolled on the swell. Tonight, I have rearranged the storage so that the sails are the downhill side of the berth and I can lean against them.

174 miles to go.

I was woken up a few hours later by periods of banging. “Slaps” had become more violent - often like gunshots when it was the genoa and general crashes when it was the mainsail - and more often. Alan had completed his watch and Gordon was now on deck. I went up top.

Gordon said, “ Good morning, you're up early”.

“I wondered if you needed any help?”

“No, it’s just the wind has gone down to 10 knots and it’s not always filling the sail. In Sweden we call it ‘catching the wind’.”

“OK, call me if you need me.”

As I went back to bed I thought, “Those gunshot cracks sound more like ‘shooting the breeze’ to me.”

The trouble with this “downwind sailing” is its rigidity. We’ve got the main and genoa goose winged – and it is not easy to alter anything. All my UK water and Mediterranean island-hopping experience calls out for a flexible rig so that I can sail a broad reach, undertake a controlled gybe and broad reach on the other tack. Repeating this tactic with shorter legs is like sailing down a funnel to our destination.

But, hey, I’m a newcomer to ocean sailing so what do I know?

****

Some crew reported rain this morning but I was washing up and it had stopped before I got on deck. Hardly qualifies as rain but there’s some hope of wind under the clouds. There’s no hope for the two flying fish I threw off the side deck.

We’re only doing around 5 knots so it’s going to be tomorrow before we get to Mindello. Hope I haven’t tempted fate as I have just looked at the local chart and pilot to study the way in to the marina.

****

It’s now 2000 and I am starting my last night watch of this leg. Everyone else is turning in for now – you sleep when you can when underway. We’ve all been talking about these last few miles but I can’t help thinking that from here to Mindello is 60 miles. If I was crossing the Channel, I’d be thinking I was starting out, not nearly there.

Wind is better but we are running under genoa and staysail. This is much more comfortable (and controllable) than with the main. Every now and again we get a bit of swell under us and we have rock and roll, then it settles to a nice rhythm again.

We can see several boats converging on Mindello. Actually we have seen little of them but the navigational box of tricks is showing four off to the starboard side, a couple in front and others coming up behind. Some of these, we think will get there before us as they are theoretically faster designs and we aren’t sure why they aren’t well in front of us.

I’ve been reading a book from the 1950’s called “Small Boats Big Seas”. It’s a collection of extracts from the works of pioneering small boat sailors - not all doom and gloom by any means but I was reflecting on the number of them who seem to have said to their wives, “I’m just going to sail around the world in an ill-prepared boat. See you in three years or so. Bye.” When I got the chance of doing this trip I know Andrea would have preferred me not to have come but she’s been supportive throughout and I think I am a lot more appreciative of that support than many of those pionee