7am, Friday 30 November 2018. Somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. One of several bizarre conversations heard on the VHF Radio.
Texan Keith (on board a catamaran with his wife Rene and FOUR kids): “We gotta big problem out here. We’ve run out of white processed sugar.”
American mate (on another vessel): “Aint you got no candy on board man?”
Texan Keith: “Nope – the kids have eaten the lot. I’m dying out here man.”
American mate: “I could put some sugar in a dry bag, put it on a line and drag it off the end of my boat. You want to try and pick it up with a boat hook?”
Texan Keith: “Dunno. You got any cocoa as well? We’ve run out of that too.”
American mate: “Sure. Where are you heading anyway?”
Texan Keith: “Not sure, maybe Guadeloupe, maybe not, but we seem to be going in that direction.”
In late November, just 16 weeks after leaving the UK, we found ourselves setting sail from the Cape Verde Islands on a 2000 nautical mile journey across the North Atlantic Ocean. This was to be our longest ocean passage so far in our sailing around the world adventure.
We’d been joined by able Bagheteer Mark Padfield (AKA Paddy) and with the wind and current in our favour we slipped our lines and headed out to the bay off Mindelo Marina on the island of Sao Vincente at 2pm on Friday 23 November.
We took our time safely tying fenders to the back stanchion, setting up our sailing rig of two headsails and doing final checks before heading out to sea. And as we busied ourselves with the final preps Harry Muter, the Captain of Netherlands Tall Ship Morgenster gave us a ‘Flying Dutchman’ farewell – dinghy doughnuts around Baggy, waving and shouting ‘Fair Winds’.
We were spat out of Cape Verde in the same way we were spat in. Our SOG (speed over the ground) averaged eight knots, the wind gusted 30 knots and we had over two metres of swell. Baggy, over excited by the whole event, bounded out to sea, speeding past dramatic cliffs.
There was nothing head of us now except two weeks of deep open ocean.
However, the dramatic exit meant that it wasn’t long before Paddy and I were suffering from mal de mer and soon incapacitated …
A few passage stats:
- The exact voyage distance was 2073 nautical miles.
- Our average speed was 5.7 knots.
- Our average 24-hour mileage was 136 nautical miles, with a best 24-hour run of 153 nautical miles.
- The total journey took 15 days and six hours (our longest passage before this was only six days and ten hours). Believe me – every hour counts.
- The North Atlantic Ocean reaches 6000 metres deep!
Six BRILLIANT and six TERRIBLE things that happened at sea:
1 Awesome ocean: The North Atlantic is an intense azure blue – hence the expression ‘Blue Water Sailing’. We were sailing with the North East trade winds and north equatorial current and once we’d set up the sails and Mowgli (the self-steering wind vane) we didn’t need to touch the wheel for 15 DAYS! It was just us, the big ocean and the big sky … as far as the eye could see.
The occasional wave would splash over the side, big swell would dip us up and down, the sun and moon came and went, the wind blew strong or soft and the clouds changed patterns and colours. To be a part of this natural pattern and rhythm of life was a thought provoking, exhilarating and humbling experience.
2 Rhythm of Life: With Baggy and Mowgli doing all the work we operated a two hours on, four hours off watch system between the three of us. This meant we all got the much needed sleep we needed during the night and had a chance to cat nap during the day.
There is a four hour time difference between Cape Verde and Barbados. So – on two days we put ships time back an hour so that when we arrived in Barbados we were in the same time zone.
3 Meals on Sea: Breakfast was either soaked oats, cereal or porridge.
‘Smorgasbord’ was our favourite lunch choice – pate, cheese, crackers, pickles, home-made hummus and anything fresh (while it lasted).
Paul and I took it in turns to cook the evening meals. And as we became more adept at galley cooking the creations became ever more adventurous (competitive?!) … and messy.
My personal triumphs included satay sweet potato curry, home-made pizzas (dough lumps were still being found four days later) and cheese and onion quiche … including hand-made pastry cases (and legs covered in egg mix).
Paul made some great burritos, dahl, shepherd’s pie and banana cake and custard. We certainly didn’t starve!
4 Digital (and alcohol) Detox: It was refreshing to be off line for so long. I can’t remember a time I never had access to the internet!
We had a few film nights – luxuriously choosing the film and discussing all the ones we’d already seen. But – it was unnerving to watch a film in the saloon leaving Baggy to storm along unsupervised into the ocean darkness.
Books were devoured over a couple of days, then swopped and discussed.
Night watch podcasts about the universe were inspiring to listen to under the infinite starry sky and we started research for the next stage of our journey across the Grenadines and Dutch Antilles – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.
From 6pm-8pm every day we’d re-group on deck for sunset, drinks and snacks and then there were the everyday jobs of chafe patrol (checking all the rigging and evicting flying fish), filling up salt water containers for washing up, cleaning, checking food stocks, exercising, enjoying hot solar heated showers on deck and hand washing.
5 Sightings: Remember Pete the Storm Petrol from our trip to Cape Verde? HE CAME BACK. We saw him darting around the boat every day. Well – we assume it was Pete, it looked just like him!! There were calls of “Pete, Pete … “every day from whoever was on watch!
On day six, over 1000 of miles from land, we started line fishing. Within minutes of the line and lures being cast a beautiful Bosun bird came to visit – distinguished by handsome black and white markings and long single out tail feather. It repeatedly swooped back and forth over the line assessing the edibility of the vibrant orange squid lures. Over subsequent days, every time we cast our line it appeared out of nowhere.
Then the Masked Booby arrived, with its 1.5 metre wing span. At precisely 7am over several mornings it visited us and spent half an hour around the boat diving for the flying fish which would launch themselves out of the water out of Baggy’s way.
We saw the masts of a few boats, ear wigged a few radio conversations (top entertainment) and spotted some activity on the chart plotter. But our closest encounter was at around 3am one morning when we spotted what first looked like a very bright star, which then became what we thought was a white stern light ahead. It wasn’t initially showing up on the chart plotter. We were getting closer and closer and when it did finally appear on the chart plotter, we were VERY close. The vessel had put their very bright anchor light on, hove to and it looked like the whole crew had just gone to bed for the night …!
6 New Day Dawns: Sitting alone on very early morning night watch and watching for the first hint of dawn was my favourite time. Slowly the sky and clouds changed from deep purple, to either a skyscape of yellow sand dunes or 80’s neon pink sweatbands … and then you felt the first hint of warmth. Many a morning I’d be found sitting on deck staring at the sky decked out in woolly hat, head torch and sunglasses!
1 Mal de mer: A few hours into the voyage and Paddy and I were struck down.
We stayed on watch together till the worst was over and our routine was to make it on deck just in time to throw up. We’d then sit in silence hanging on to the sides of the cockpit like our lives depended on it. We’d just stare out to sea and sip water till we threw up again. Three hours later we’d crawl down below and collapse in our bunks to sleep before repeating the whole process. This routine lasted for 48 hours.
Paul (feeling better but still not the full ticket) stoically scrubbed the decks in between tucking into fried eggs, coffee and chocolate biscuits and trying to help us eat by making mash, pasta and porridge.
2 Fruit prison escape: We lost ten fruit souls in total to the Atlantic. RIP.
We needed to carry a lot of fresh fruit and veg, so Paddy and Paul constructed an impressive double-tiered fruit net to hang off the gantry at the back of the boat. This supplemented the two nets we now had swinging in the saloon, full of peppers, aubergines and cucumbers.
Oranges and lemons hung from the top net, all carefully hand-picked from the market. The bottom net had clusters of rock-hard green bananas and avocados, to ripen as the voyage progressed.
Disaster struck on the second night when the banana net got caught in the wind vane and the banana bunches made an escape bid. Thankfully we captured them all and incarcerated them in a net in the saloon. As a protest they all refused to ripen. All the avocados were lost at sea.
Two days later the oranges and two lemons escaped. One lemon remained, sadly rolling up and down looking for its lost mates. We called it Lucky Lemon, till it was eventually squeezed over lentil dhal.
3 Rot and mould: A full tupperware box of brown rice released a swarm of newly hatched moths and on closer inspection we found the whole box was alive.
Five loaves of ‘long life’ bread turned mouldy by day four, the tomatoes started exploding by day ten and we had run out of most fresh food by day 11. The bananas eventually all ripened together in protest. I dreamt I was a rabbit in a giant field of lettuce.
4 Tropical lurgy: Red lumps erupted on the back of my hand shortly after leaving Cape Verde. Not itchy, but very red and very lumpy. I would stare at them for hours looking for signs of life and breathing holes. It was either insect created or some strange weed that had stung me when diving.
I steered clear of the bananas living in the saloon with unknown exotic critters living in their dark recesses.
5 Living on a surf board: Trade wind sailing means you roll – ALL THE TIME. We were also hit by rogue waves which would dramatically throw Baggy off course by 90 degrees. This always happened at EXACTLY the moment you sipped your drink, put your bowl of food down or walked across the boat. Bruises, flying food and swearing at nothing and no-one became part of normal life. Arnica, cleaning cloths, dust pan and brush were at hand at all time.
Bunks were soaked by incoming waves during night watch when a window wasn’t shut, and violent squalls drenched the crew on deck in the pitch dark.
We accepted that a clean t-shirt and pair of shorts would only last one meal time. Full bowls and cups would hurl themselves at you the very second you took your eye of them. The cooker would either go out as soon as you lit it or incinerate your dinner by chucking it to the back every five seconds. Pans of hot liquid would spill on you if they were too full and small onions would fire themselves through the fruit net the moment you sat under them.
There was no mercy. But this was the game and we just had to play it. Baggy of-course took all of this in her stride. She shook the waves off and got on with the job.
6 Sea Monsters: There are some BIG creatures out there! We lost two fishing lures – both completely bitten off through the line. We then started catching clumps of Sargassum seaweed, which surrounded us in HUGE yellow rafts (we called it Dougal Weed after the Magic Roundabout dog). We then decided to call it a day on any further fishing efforts. Whatever was out there was way out of our league anyway.
“Once clear of the stronger winds around Cape Verde the expected trade wind conditions set in, with 15 -20 knots of breeze from the north east and a moderate sea state most of the time. We had planned a conservative approach to the sail plan to make life on board as relaxed as possible and hoped for a passage of around 16 days. For the first 13 days we sailed on the starboard gybe with twin headsails – part furled genoa poled out to windward and working jib hanked on the inner forestay. With this easily handled rig and with Mowgli faultlessly steering, the watchkeeper had an easy time!
“As we closed Barbados the breeze fell light and we hoisted the mainsail on the port gybe to improve our line into the northern tip of Barbados. One further gybe had us around North Point and we finally anchored just off Port St Charles after 15 days and six hours at sea. In the absence of scurvy, mutiny, plague and shipwreck it was a truly memorable voyage of discovery for all of us.”
“Wooa … we made it to Barbados!”
It’s hard to believe we’ve made it. But – we’re in Barbados – the most exposed island on the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean and 80 nautical miles from its nearest neighbour St. Lucia.
On arrival we hoisted the international code flag ‘Q’ which means ‘My vessel is healthy, and I request free pratique’ and the Barbados courtesy country flag. We checked in to customs and immigration at Port St Charles and then headed down to Carlisle Bay in Bridgetown and settled into our anchorage for a well-earned rest and restocking of supplies.
So – what’s next?
Our pilot book reliably informs us that cruising the Caribbean and drinking rum go hand in hand.
And I quote … “most of the islands have a rum distillery somewhere on their shores … one could make a whole day of it, others of us could make a whole week of it, while a few of us choose to make it a lifestyle.”
With that in mind, if we do ever move from here you can follow us on Yellow Brick … !!!