We reluctantly slipped our mooring from Saint Helena … but new adventures were only a week’s sail away.
UK flagged Ascension Island – even more remote; devoid of tourism and impossible to reach without a boat, or military flight.
Two skuas accompanied us our entire 700 mile passage. They rode the waves next to Baggy and effortlessly swooped up and down the 2.5 metre waves. Their grey topsides and white bellies blended into the seascape as they circled the boat with acrobatic grace.
Aside from flashes of flying fish, one small, lonely petrel and a cargo ship en-route to America, they were our only companions on this vast, powerful ocean. We were a comfort and reference point for each other.
But it wasn’t a comfortable passage. The sea state was confused and the wind behind caused Baggy to death roll, groan and creak.
Rogue waves slapped us out of the blue, like cannons. Cupboards of bottles and boxes rattled and complained. Starboard side cupboards chucked up and an entire (precious) bottle of organic sesame seed oil (darling) poured itself down the sink.
We took no photos. We were sleep deprived. A herd of goats moved into the food locker.
Human and boat weaknesses aside, the wildness and beauty of the passage was extraordinary.
In the morning a deep amber sun rose behind an eternal ridge of grey clouds. If it didn’t rain, king size sheets of blue sky spread out so the sun could stretch out its great fan of warming rays.
Other days we’d be surrounded by squalls.Then it was all hands on deck to shut windows, put in the hatches and mop up the floor. The reward for our efforts were perfect double rainbows, plunging their vivid colours deep into the ocean. It also grew deliciously warmer day by day as we slowly approached tropical climes again; a warmth accompanied by cooling breezes.
Then land ho! We saw lights on the horizon just before day break. We smelt BBQ coals and charcoal sausages. Volcanic land.
We averaged 4.6 knots overall. Mowgli (the wind vane) steered the entire passage and we arrived into Clarence Bay, the islands anchorage on the leeward side of Ascension Island at 08:00, Monday 30 May.
Our sandy anchorage held the anchor well; but we tied on a tripping line in case it stuck. No-one’s allowed into the sea here. A shark warning’s in place. Diving to release the anchor was a no-no.
There was one other yacht in the harbour. A broken down catamaran with a 76-year old Namibian solo sailor. Stuck, his visa had expired and he could only go ashore with a police escort. Thankfully we helped him fix his sail problem and, absolutely delighted, he sailed off to Salvador in Brazil.
Most yachts leaving Saint Helena head for Brazil or the Caribbean because the entry criteria here is strict.
We were already Covid cleared coming from Saint Helena, but needed to pre-apply for week long e-visas, and special medical insurance, to include communicable disease cover, repatriation or medi-vac. But Ascension Island is so unique and remote, we thought it was worth it. We weren’t wrong.
We pumped up Baloo II (the dinghy). This was his first outing since Knysna in South Africa, nearly four months ago, and he had an important role.
We sidled up to a small rock and stone quay, built by the Royal Marines in 1820, with a flight of crab covered stone steps, rhythmically flooded with seawater.
The swell was constant, so dinghy exit was carefully timed.
Rise up with the swell, grab a hanging rope, and confidentially step ashore before your other leg starts going down. DO NOT FALL INTO THE WATER.
It was staggering to think that everything used to build the forts, barracks, church, clubs, hospital and stores, was all landed here back in the day.
All we had to contend with was laundry, dry bags and water canisters.
Mercifully, we made it ashore relatively dry, most days. We received a very pleasant welcome from Port Control and Immigration in Georgetown and explored.
About these sharks …
It’s a sad story of human intervention all gone horribly wrong.
Fishermen put their fish waste back into the sea. One, large, female, Galapagos shark, has associated one particular fishing bay with a constant supply of free floating buffet food.
Five years ago a paddle boarder had several lumps bitten out of him, but survived. A shore-side paddler had their ankle bitten. With two nasty bites too many, all swimming is banned and diving is at your own risk.
‘Death by shark’ does have a certain adventurous ring to it. Then we saw them circling the dinghy dock. And they were huge.
Five Days on Ascension Island
It’s a wild and rugged 88 square km British military outpost of volcanic origin. The saying goes that the British took possession of it before it had even cooled off! Though it was actually discovered by the Portuguese.
Time wasn’t on our side. We needed to prepare for our imminent month long passage up the Atlantic to the Azores, so we made the most of our fleeting week long visit.
Car hire: an experience
We trailed around asking for people who might have a car i.e. ‘Ask Sue. Ask Owen. Find Jam at Two Boats’?!
We contacted the wife of the brother of the lady who runs the bar. We could have a Cherokee Jeep for £25 a day. Fantastic! They’d leave it in an agreed place, unlocked, keys in the ignition and we should leave the money in the car. No checks, no forms.
On the day, no jeep. We found a jeep and nearly got in, then noticed a ladies handbag in the back.
The hamburger lady made some calls. They’d left a car not a jeep. We found it (well, we think we did). It was filthy, falling apart, full of personal stuff and the window didn’t shut. We took it anyway. It JUST got us up the mountain.
We were passed a message and told they’d deliver the jeep the next day. It didn’t happen.
Days later the car was where we left it, unlocked with the money still in it. Was it even the hire car? 😳
Eight Ascension highlights
1 Ascension has the second largest nesting population of green turtles in the entire Atlantic Ocean.
2 Green Mountain is the highest peak at 859 metres. A lush tropical cloud forest that pierces the trade wind clouds.
It enjoys lots of rain and is completely covered in vegetation; a stark contrast to the volcanic rock at its base.
This is thanks to planting to increase rainfall, back in the late 1800s. Over 220 exotic plant species from around the world were introduced.
The only walkers on the mountain, we enjoyed 360 views from a path that went entirely around it; cut into the rock in 1840 by the marines.
3 Epic beaches, including Comfortless Cove. A secluded pristine cove, with the graves of HMS Bonetta sailors, who died from Yellow Fever.
4 Land crabs! Green Mountain is home to Ascensions only native animal – the land crab. Every year they migrate several kilometres down the mountain to spawn, each femail laying as many as 100,000 eggs!
We also met donkeys, sheep, rats, rabbits and even a camel crossing sign. We ‘re still confused about that.
5 We received the hottest invites in town. Ascension’s Platinum Jubilee Garden Party!
Scrubbed up in creased clothes (dug out of lockers, hung and aired for three days) we rubbed shoulders with the islands military and met the Administrator and his wife.
We felt special. Like a blast from the old days of sail.
Back then circumnavigators were welcomed and hosted and given food parcels before being waved off to their next destination. It felt like that, with no food parcel.
6 Epic carnival floats!
7 BBC Atlantic Relay Earth Station – the broadcast relay station for South African and South America.
8 Postbox walks around the island
Twenty-one walks, with postboxes containing a log book and ink stamp!
What’s it like to live there?
It’s basically a UK and American military base, linked to the UK by RAF flights.
During the war the island was a fuelling point for aircraft flying between America and Africa. Now the Americans operate the airfield.
A lot of accommodation is army barrack style, or single storey.
You’re tripping over historical walls and discarded military paraphernalia. Deserted buildings rub alongside state of the art satellite dishes, enormous aerials, giant moon like dome structures and vast, complicated pylon structures surrounded by radiation warning signs.
There’s a NAAFI and a couple of other shops; virtually no fresh fruit and veg and no fresh bread.
Everything is flown in, apart from what is grown in a few polytunnels and allotments.
Like Saint Helena, locals aren’t glued to mobile phones. There are pay phones and the community is small, tight knit and talk to each other.
Sailing: from Ascension Island to the Azores
As we stood at a the top of Green Mountain, watching Baggy trying to rest, but rolling madly, we felt sympathy for her unrest.
What lay ahead for all of us is a vast ocean crossing of 3,500 miles, across the equator and up the North Atlantic Ocean to the Portuguese islands of the Azores. Our final super long, homeward passage back to Europe.
Our longest passage to-date was 37 days, covering 4,700 across the Indian Ocean. Based on our average boat speed and what lies ahead we’ve estimated it to be a 35-day passage – but could be over 40 days!
We’re due to experience more variety of weather than any of other longer passages.
Starting in the downwind south-east trade wind we will pass through the doldrums, with potential squalls, and then beat into the full width of the north-east trade wind belt and across the greater part of the area of sub-tropical calms, with no wind again. Then we should hit the westerly tailwinds.
Focusing on the positives. Our gas cooker is working, with a nearly full tank and two spare 4kg gas cylinders in the locker. We are sloshing with 280 litres of bottled water and 240 litres of tank water. We’ve calculated a loss of 120 litres from the tank, so it leaves us 10 litres a day over 40 days. We are mentally prepared for extreme rationing and using sea water as much as possible.
Fresh food supplies are dismal. We’re carrying a quarter of pwhat we would have liked as it’s just not been available. Though we had anticipated this worse case scenario and compensated with extra tins of fruit and vegetables.
We up anchor and start our long passage on Sunday 5 June and will be celebrating two milestones on passage. Crossing our outbound track and crossing the equator.
Yellow Brick is raring to go with six hourly pings and we’ll have two milestones to celebrate on passage. Crossing our outbound track and crossing the equator. To mark these moments, and other incidents on passage, we plan to post blogs up on Yellow Brick tracker as we go along.
Next stop Horta, Faial Island, Azores!