It felt like it was never going to happen. But, here we are, sailing up the vast South Atlantic Ocean. And completing our first circumnavigation milestone!
As I write this paragraph it’s day three of our estimated 1700 nautical mile sail to Saint Helena; and we’ve just crossed over a dotted red line on the chart plotter into Namibian waters.
We’re often asked: What’s been the worst part of your circumnavigation so far? Big storms? Close calls with tankers? Sharks? Man overboard? Nope. It will forever be dismasting by the Cape Town bascule lifting bridge.
Since the last blog …
We’d had a new mast, boom and rigging installed.
But then. The day before we were due to leave South Africa, another disaster revealed itself. We found seawater in the bilges.
We were shocked and very worried. We had no other option than to sign back into the country and haul out. But, thankfully, we had another two months on our visas and luck was on our side. South African boat workers are fast and skilled.
Within days Baggy was hauled out of the water, whilst enjoying views of Table Mountain.
So, why have we got a crack? Well, when the bridge came down and bent the mast, it caused so much downward pressure it fractured the hull. But not enough to cause a leak.
Then, when the rigging on the new mast was tightened it had caused more downward pressure and cracked the fracture open.
But, in just two days, ‘Shortie’, our boat fixer, had ground out the area, applied 11 layers of mat webbing and epoxy and a big patch of black anti-fouling; not Baggy’s preferred copper coat, which can’t be bought in South Africa.
All we could do was count our blessings we’d found it. It could have got a lot worse. Under windy conditions, the pressure on the mast is extreme. If we’d been at sea when this happened it could have been catastrophic.
While the dusty boatyard work was in progress we moved off the boat. And, thanks to Paul’s fabulous friends, Cal and Anna, we enjoyed the use of a car and a stay in a proper big house, with a proper bed, proper kitchen and proper dog!
Our only remaining frustration was that the public liability agency for V&A Marina said they wouldn’t pay our repair bill. But, we couldn’t allow this to upset us. We had to leave and we’ve contacted a maritime lawyer to see what can be done.
Practically on first name terms with immigration and port control, we checked out of South Africa for the third time and tried to leave the dock. But we couldn’t get off the pontoon.
The sou’easter katabatic winds, roaring down Table Mountain at thirty-five knots, were so strong we couldn’t get off the pontoon with just the two of us. It creepily felt like Cape Town had us in its grip.
Eventually, crew from another boat helped us off and we managed to motor out of the harbour, do a few test sail manoeuvres and check the bilges for leaks.
At which point our hearts went cold. We saw water in the bilges again. We tasted it, it was freshwater. And then we remembered that our water tank has a slow dribble. We can live with that.
And we headed out to sea. Apprehensive, but free.
Destination: a dot in the South Atlantic
On our sailing route between South Africa and the Azores are the islands of Saint Helena and Ascension – two tiny dots in an almost deserted, immense South Atlantic Ocean. We were heading first for Saint Helena, 1,700 miles north.
The first few days we felt anxious and grotty. We’d been in South Africa for four months, with only short sails between ports and our sea legs were rusty.
I was dosed up on Kwells and Paul was wired, continually checking the bilges for more leaks and learning to trust the new mast and rigging.
The sea was swelly and uncomfortable and the wind veered from light to gusting 25 knots.
We sailed past fishing boats laying floats and giant tankers and cargo ships, way too close for comfort. Night watches were highly vigilant; snatching four hours of sleep each, every 24 hours, was our best effort for several days.
And it was so cold. Four layers, puffer jackets, two pairs of trousers, hats, scarves and gloves kind of cold. We huddled under sleeping bags and blankets in the saloon and slept fully clothed.
BUT, we had left South Africa. We’d repaired Baggy and were headed for home. For that, all three of us felt deeply thankful and relieved.
The passage to Saint Helena
It took about a week to trust the repairs, re-adapt to life at sea, and come down from all the drama and chaos of recent weeks.
But we had help. Mother Nature swept in like an efficient matron and swiftly took matters into her own loving hands.
The delicate dawns and melting sunsets gave us renewed hope.
The delicious fresh air cleaned our lungs of boatyard dust and traffic pollution.
The breezes blew away our mild depression and lifted our morale.
The eternal sky gently covered us in an assortment of cuddly blankets, from baby blue to fiery orange.
And vitamin sea supported us and reminded us of the endless ebb and flow and changeable nature of experiences. Nothing lasts forever.
After three days the tanker and fishing traffic had disappeared and we were completely alone. We didn’t see another sailing vessel the entire passage.
By day five we were pitching and rolling in 5000 metre deep ocean with a 10-20 knot south easterly abaft the beam and up to 2.5 metre swell. Our standard configuration was two reefs in the main and a small poled out genoa.
We were sailing purposefully in the south-east trade wind; now our constant companion all the way up to the Equator, 2,600 miles ahead. And Mowgli (the wind vane) steered the entire passage, averaging 140 miles a day.
When the wind increased to 25 knots, gusting 30 knots, we’d clip on our safety harnesses and put a third reef in to keep Baggy under control. And occasional wind shifts saw us gybing and switching the pole to the other side.
This is when Baggy’s new mast and boom reefing system came into its own. New, smooth and efficient, it made all those hairy deck jobs much quicker and a lot safer.
For the entirety of this passage we settled into a three hour watch system; and sleep marginally improved in quantity. Though not in quality.
Our days worked like this. Paul would have a power nap straight after dinner, till I went to ‘bed’ (aka: rolling aft cabin) from 9pm-12am. I’d then be on watch till 3am, then we’d swop, till I was up again for the 6am sunrise shift. We both stayed awake for most of the afternoon and adapted to the new routine … though the dark skin under our hang-dog eyes told a different story.
There wasn’t much to do on watch.
We’d look out for shipping without AIS – which unnervingly happened once and made us a bit twitchy.
We then ensured ships with AIS didn’t hit us; tweaked the wind vane and genoa; kept an eye on the wind speed; and filled in the log book.
Sea birds were scarce, we found one flying fish and saw no dolphins or whales.
But, on clear nights we’d marvel at the Milky Way, bright planets and crescent moon. As each night passed the Southern Cross rose less high in the sky, while the Plough climbed higher.
Baggy was in her element, tramping along what’s known as ‘one of the kindest oceans in the world’ – so called because of the absence of tropical storms.
Her bow wave fanned out to meet a cascade of overtaking whitecaps. Occasional rogue waves would slap her off course and heel her over, or surf her down waves at nine knots like an out of control speeding train.
Meanwhile, we skidded about below deck attempting to read, play games attend to small maintenance jobs, cook and bake.
Till the gas cooker packed in.
Our little ‘Nelson Spinflo’ cooker comprises two rings, a grill and oven. It’s old and rusty. The grill only stays on when you jam a fork in the dial and the oven only has one temperature. We guiltily realised how much we’d taken it for granted, relying on it for all our daily meals and hot drinks.
Of-course, it packed in on a particularly turbulent day, right in the middle of cooking dinner. Trying to fix it wasn’t an option in the violently rolling conditions, so we lashed our back-up, one-ring, meths burner to the top of the cooker. It would have to do until we got to Saint Helena. We’ve survived worse!
As the days wore on the sea grew bluer, the air became noticeably warmer and by day eight we were back to wearing shorts, barefoot and talking about the joys of bracing salt water bucket ‘showers’ on deck. Well … we talked about it.
Passage highlights were, first, crossing the Greenwich meridian (00.00E/W) at 18.00 on Friday 6 May.
But, more significantly, crossing the longitude of Gosport, UK (01.07W) at 03:44 on Saturday 7 May.
With 28,014 miles astern of us, this point marked the first of three circumnavigation milestones 1) longitude to longitude 2) crossing our outbound track 3) returning to our point of departure.
Crossing our outbound track is some 3,000 miles ahead. Then, we must make it back to Gosport Marina, where it all began on 9 August 2018. Only then will we feel satisfied that we’ve completed our mission. So, celebrations are on hold for the time being.
Land ho! Saint Helena
At 7.30pm Monday 9 May, 40 miles off shore, the hazy southern cliffs of Saint Helena loomed up from under the clouds. We’d spent all afternoon straining our eyes into the distance, buzzing with excitement and anticipation. But 40 miles is, at least, another eight hours of sailing away.
Our final destination was Jamestown on the north west leeward side, so we sailed around the island close to the east and north coasts in pitch black, arriving at James Bay at 05.30am ships time (03.30am local).
Anchoring is prohibited, so we slowly motored into the bay with Paul at the bow sweeping a high powered night searcher torch over the sleeping yachts already there. Eventually we spotted a free mooring buoy and tied up for the night.
It might have been silly o’clock, but Paul had his traditional arrival beer, while I passed out. All that mattered was that we’d arrived safely. Everything else could wait till the morning.
It had taken us 13 days and 16 hours, averaging 5.5 knots over the 1,795 miles. The rigging had held up and Baggy wasn’t leaking salt water.
The next day Paul tested positive for Covid. Well, his lateral flow test showed a very feint line – apparently!
With zero symptoms, two weeks at sea and three vaccinations under our belt this scenario had never even entered our heads.
It meant two more frustrating days bobbing around on a mooring, with no fresh food … two nurse visits … two official visits from Port Control …. four lateral flow tests each.
Till AT LAST … hello Saint Helena! A unique and fascinating 6 X 10 mile British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean.