Good timing, just finished the Atlantic text. Reading it just makes me want to go out and sail across the damn ocean again.
It was the weirdest feeling, I first noticed when I left the Azores but also when I left Gib and the Canaries. When we were heading out of port into the open ocean, it felt like I was returning home after a weekend away. Never expected to feel that way about sailing out into the middle of the ocean.
Atlantic crossing II
This segment picks up with Art, TJ Marshall and I in Gibraltar, ready to take off for our second Atlantic cross.
By the time we got everything ready to go Monday morning, the 17th of November, it as about 11:00 am. The tide was changing, and we were running a little late. Optimally we would have left about 7 or 8, but we needed to pick up a couple things, like charts. Always good to have, those charts.
Gibraltar has strong (2-3 knot) tidal current. High water was at noon, and I had hoped to be through most of the straights before the current shifted. I knew we were cutting it close, but I didn’t calculate how long it would take to get into the Straights (9 miles wide), and how long the straights were, and the weather hadn’t forecast a brisk west wind, right on our nose, as seemed to be too common lately.
So we got caught in the current. With a 2-3 knot current and 15 knot wind against us, we only made about 3 knots over ground. It took us several hours to get thru the straights, and didn't really make it around the bend of North Africa until that evening, when the changing tide finally swept us out. The Rock of Gibraltar disappearing over the horizon made me a little sad; a symbol that our European jaunt was over. The sun setting over the hills of Africa was a spectacular sight, seeming to set the land on fire.
The Canary Islands, our destination, lay SW of the Straights of Gibraltar. The prevailing winds (according to the pilot charts) blow from the N or NW, meaning normally we would have the wind on our side or back. But t’was not our fate. Almost as soon as we shifted around the corner of Africa the wind started blowing out of the SW, right in our face. So that first night, we motor sailed on a W course, beating against the growing seas.
The next day was worse. The barometer fell 8 millibars in just a few hours, a sign that we were entering a strong depression. Not good. I had not been able to get a detailed long range weather forecast before leaving. In retrospect I should have taken the time to find an internet place before we left, but then I thought we would miss the tides. Which we missed anyway. But the weather charts I did see gave no indication of a low (or high) in our area, and it looked calm and the local Gibraltar forecast called for calm winds for the next two days. But in our second day out, the winds grew stronger.
On a sailboat, when the winds grow, you reduce the amount of sail you have by lowering them a bit and tying them off, called reefing. When I got up Tuesday morning, we had one reef in and the (apparent) winds was blowing over 30 knots, gusting to over 35. We needed a second reef. TJ went up to handle the lines, and Art brought her up into the wind to luff the mainsail so it could be lowered. But the mainsail hadn’t been eased and was sheeted in tight, and it spun the bow over when the jib luffed. The boat tacked (crossed over the wind) to a starboard tack with the jib backed. Not very seamanlike, but normally it's not a disaster.
Good day for swimming
We had been motor sailing with just the starboard engine. Just then TJ yelled, "hey, the main halyard (the line you use to hoist the main sail) is under the boat and jammed tight!" What had happened was the main halyard, which was coiled under the mast, had somehow, in the rough seas bounced onto the trampoline, come loose, and got swept under the boat. This was my fault; I had read that you should keep the main halyard loosely coiled so it would be ready to run out if you needed to drop the mainsail quickly. Chalk one up for experience. When the boat tacked and the jib backed and the boat swung around, the line pulled across the starboard engine and got wrapped in the propeller.
Now this was a problem. In a 30+ knot winds and 6' + steep choppy waves, we could now not use our starboard engine nor lower or reef our mainsail.
I hove the boat to. We tried to pull the halyard loose by putting the engine in forward and reverse, but it didn't work. Never does. There was only one other thing to do -- go for a swim. I pulled my wetsuit on and (on TJ's advice) harnessed myself to the boat. The water was cold (62*) but I was most worried about the waves slamming me against the boat. Hove to, the boat will kind of surge forward a bit and then stop intermittently, but the waves were rocking us pretty hard.
But fortunately it was not overpowering. I was able to pull myself against the surge to the engine propeller, and tried to untangle the rope. I got a lot off but the last part was jammed in too tight and wouldn’t come loose no matter how hard I pulled. I came up told Art (tough to talk when waves are crashing over your head every few seconds) to start the engine and pop it in forward for a second). That got the line free. I got out (having steps built into the transoms was a big bonus for this job) and started stripping off to take a shower (that whipping wind was colder than the water) when the line got stuck again! Back in the drink. This time it was minor, just a wrap around the out drive because the prop was free spinning in the surge. I cleared it and pulled it under the boat so it wouldn't get caught again. TJ hauled the line in and he and Art put the second reef in and got under way while I took a thankfully hot shower.
The outer braid completely tore apart, but the inner braid was in decent shape. I later whipped the torn ends of the outer braid so it wouldn’t get caught in the mast sheaves.
The Wicked wind of the SW
The winds blew out of the SW (right from the direction we wanted to go) all day Tuesday, and the seas built. The waves were not particularly huge, maybe 6-8', but they were confused and steep and we were driving the boat into the wind and waves and it was not comfortable at all. We were motor sailing alternatively to west and then south, the wind and waves being too strong to motor directly into.
It was not a very restful evening. The waves were smashing against the boat, making a racket, and the boat was bouncing around. It was like trying to sleep on a roller coaster. Catamarans are not great boats for sailing against the wind, in part because of the broad section the present to the wind and waves makes for a lot of bashing.
When I got up the next morning, Art reported that the fiberglass walkway between the trampoline sections in between the forward hulls had blown away. The left trampoline section had almost broken away, and was flopping in the wind and water, attached only by the forward section of line. We turned the boat around and head downwind to retrieve the tramp before we lost it. It is amazing what a difference direction makes. Going against the wind, the wind felt like 25-30, and the waves were smashing against the boat. Going with the wind, it felt like a gentle 15, and the boat smoothly rolled with the waves. Art and I crawled forward on the hull and the other trampoline, being careful not to fall into the empty ocean where the trampoline used to be (we are always clipped in with safety harnesses whenever we go on deck in rough weather). We got the trampoline off, which was good because we could restring, but getting a replacement would have been difficult and expensive.
The wind was so frustrating; Poseidon was toying with us. According to the pilot guides, 90% of the time we would be having a down wind run. But now it was blowing about 25 knots, consistently out of the SW, but would shift about 40* every know and then. So we would be on one tack, heading west, and the wind would shift more and more, blowing us more in a northern direction, until we would finally be heading northwest. Then we would tack the boat, heading south, hoping the wind would continue to shift and we could head directly for our destination. Then the wind would start shifting in other direction, pushing us more and more to the east toward Africa. Then it would slack off, and I'd take out the second reef. Then it would pick up speed and I'd have to put the second reef in again. This happened over and over.
I figured we were getting some kind of low pressure zone NW of us, and kept expecting the wind to shift direction, as it passed, but the wind never shifted.
Tuesday night at 5 pm, the starboard engine wouldn't hold RPMs, an indication that the fuel line was probably clogged, which can happen when the boat gets bounced around, shaking up debris in the tank. But the wind finally eased a bit, to about 17 knots and shifted to the NW. "Finally" I thought; and we were able to make good time on a beam reach heading SW straight toward the Canaries. The boat was still bouncing and heading mostly into the confused waves, but at least we were making progress.
Wednesday morning when I got up, the wind had maddingly again backed to the SW, straight on our path. It didn't blow quite as strongly, about 20-25 apparent, but we were still pounding against the now larger waves and not making very good progress. The right side tramp tore loose also, but Art and TJ got it in and we saved it as well. Our boat looked bare with nothing but ocean between the hulls. I kept telling TJ, who was on his first passage, that these conditions were not the norm and the whole trip wouldn’t be like this. I was wondering if the poor guy was going to hop a flight from Las Palmas, wouldn't have blamed him.
In the afternoon the wind died to 15-20 apparent, and we gave the starboard engine another try. Fortunately it worked, whatever was clogging the line may have shook free. With a weaker wind we gave up trying to sail and motored with both motors straight into the wind but also straight for the Canaries.. Using both motors uses a lot of fuel, and we didn't have enough to motor the whole way, but at that point I thought to hell with it, let's make some progress and maybe the winds will finally help us out later on.
Wednesday night the winds eased to about 12, still from the SW, but at least the boat wasn't bouncing so hard, and I finally got some decent sleep for the first time since we had left.
By Thursday morning, the winds had died down to about 8, the barometer had risen 8 millibars, and there was blue sky, all good signs! And it was much warmer, another welcome change. We had been chilled with cold damp winds and all our foul weather gear and warm clothing were wet and damp. Not much fun putting on damp gear at 4 am. So it was great to feel the warm sun. I made breakfast (chicken burritos) for the crew (Art and I ate 3, TJ, still feeling a little queasy, only took 1) the first decent meal we had had for a few days. I sat outside in the afternoon in a bathing suit and t-shirt, just enjoying the warm weather.
Thursday night the winds died down to basically nothing, and variable, which is what I had expected as the Low pressure zone passed through. I expected the prevailing N to
NW winds from the Azores high returned. But I expected wrong. The wind over the next couple days would tease us on occasion by blowing from the NW for an hour or two, and then shift back to the SW, on our nose. We motored most of the rest of the way, basically burning almost our entire 100 gallons of fuel of this 6 day trip (it was supposed to be 5 days) of about 600 miles.
Thursday and Friday the chop died down, to just a ripple. But there were these huge, gentle waves rolling into us just aft our beam. It was weird -- sea calm but for these big rolling hills. They were probably 12’ high, one after another, but so flat and gentle the boat just rode up and down them without impact. It was pretty cool, looked like you could launch a surfboard and ride your way in. Weird sunset, too, very yellow, almost no red.
We arrived in the first Canary island, Lazarote, on Saturday afternoon. It was good to see land. The Canaries are brown volcanic islands, and when the sun hits them a particular way they are a strong yellow color, which gave them there name, I suppose. We pulled into the marina. Unfortunately, all the stores were closed till Monday, so to save a day, we decided to sail on to the city of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria island, about another 120 miles more to the SW. We loaded up with 200 liters of badly needed fuel and shoved off.
We arrived in Las Palmas on Sunday, the 24th, about 11:30 am. Las Palmas is the starting site of the ARC, an annual event of 250+ sailboats sailing across the ocean. We weren’t sure when the ARC was leaving; if it hadn’t left we weren’t very optimistic about getting a berth in a marina. But when we got there, we could see hundreds of sailboats milling around the bay, and more pouring out of the marina. There were three tall square rigger ships under sail, and fire boats shooting water cannons. We timed it just perfectly; the ARC left at 1:00pm that afternoon, leaving lots of space in the marina. We pulled into a spot and enjoyed a few cold ones and some chow and the local restaurant.
I finally found out what was causing all that SW wind: a huge low pressure depression sitting off the coast of Ireland. Did some damage in England, I heard. It was spinning winds counterclockwise for hundreds of miles - all the way down to the Canaries.
I had hoped to be able to spend 3-4 days relaxing and visiting some of the islands in the Canaries. But we were a day late out of Gibraltar, and lost a day on the passage, and needed to do some repairs. Art needed to be in Barbados by December 15th to catch a flight, so we had to pass on the touring, unfortunately.
We spent the next day searching for marine stores. When the tramps ripped, we lost about 40 of the plastic mainsail luff slides that hold it in, either to breakage or falling in the ocean. We needed 150’ of halyard line, and some SOB had stolen my foul weather coat that I left on the jib sheet overnight to dry. Finding the luff slides was the tough part. We must have walked to every marine store in Las Palmas. One store had 20; finally we found a loft that had another 30 so we were in business. We picked up a new halyard line, and I found a new jacket. The only one I could find that fit me was red; TJ thought it was hilarious to call me “little red riding hood” all afternoon.
Turned out to be some side benefits of the halyard needed replacement. I went up the mast to tie on the new halyard (we have a double purchase system), and while aloft notice that the spinnaker halyard had chafed almost to the point of parting, as had one of the lazy jack lines. Both would probably have parted while under way, and if the line falls into the mast, it would have been a real PITA. So we picked up some extra line and replaced the bad stuff. Art and TJ spent the whole after restringing the tramps.
That afternoon, at least a dozen ARC boats came limping back into port. Apparently they ran into a pretty strong headwind that first day out. One of the boats was “Snowcat”, a boat (43’ Catana cat) we had met while in Barcelona. They had the whole family on board, two 10 year old boys and mom and dad making their first passage. Not good to start out bashing your very first day.
Next exit: 3000 miles.
We cleaned the boat and pulled out of Las Palmas on Tuesday around 2p. Next Stop: Barbados, the Caribbean. I imagined one of those signs you sometimes see on remote roadways: “No fuel next 2800 miles.”
It was calm, wind maybe 5-10 but out of the NE, for a change behind us. We motor sailed around Gran Canaria, watching the hundreds of wind generators (these things are prevalent in Europe) slowly spinning in the distance as the island slid into the dusk.
To catch the Trade Winds, the belt of consistently westward blowing winds that have carried sailboats across the Atlantic for centuries, we had to make some southward distance. So we steered a course to the Southwest, even though Barbados, our destination in the southern part of the Caribbean chain, was more to the west.
What a difference from the passage from Gibraltar! From the moment we left Gibraltar, we had a wind, sometimes strong, blowing straight at us. The motion was bouncing and rocky, it was humid and cold and damp. But after leaving the Canaries, we had a 10-12 knot breeze coming from behind us (so it felt like 4-6), with small waves coming from behind giving an easy, slowly rolling feeling that wants to lull you to sleep. With the wind behind us we were making better time under one engine than we were with two bashing down from Gibraltar. It was a lot warmer, and we were able to cook nice meals (Mexican food seems popular on this voyage, nachos, burritos and chimichangas being popular fare) instead of eating crackers. This was more like it!
A pod of dolphin came to visit us. I leaned over the stabilizer bar connecting the fronts of the hulls, my feet dangling just inches from the water, looking at them. They swam right underneath me, inches away leaning to the side and looking at me. I whistled and waved. Then I leaned way out on my stomach so I could just touch reach the water with my hand. When dolphin surfaced underneath me to take a breath, I patted their dorsal fin. They didn't seem to mind; they would swim away for a second, then come back to take another look. Pretty cool.
The next few days the winds picked up. We had two straight days of 25-30 knot (true) winds, but it was blowing from behind us. The waves built up to a pretty good size, I’d guess 6-8 with the occasion 12+, but they were coming from behind us so it wasn’t the bashing we were experiencing from Gibraltar. We ran double reefed wing on wing (sails spread on either side of the both) and tore up the miles. We had back to back 200 mile days, and started catching up to some of the slower ARC boats.
On the way over to Europe, we saw one sailboat a couple days out of Bermuda, and that was it. Now we were in the midst of three hundred ARC boats. I say in the midst, because I can hear them on the radio and they gave a roll call so you could tell where the other boats were. We saw a couple boats, but didn’t see any others. The ocean is so immense that even 2 or 300 hundred boats get so scattered within a few days they are lost from sight and you can go for weeks without seeing one.
While the beat down from Gibraltar exposed our catamaran’s weakness, now she was in her element. Our boat would pitch and fishtail a bit down the waves, but it wasn’t bad. We saw a couple monohulls and they were rolling horribly. Without a wind on a beam to stabilize them, we saw their mast swinging wildly from side to side. Even after the winds had died down a bit. We started a conversation with a couple of the boats, and I was amazed to hear them complaining about the awful conditions after a night that I thought was pretty damn nice. I mentioned to on British lady on a 43’ ketch that we had a fine brown Sahara dust all over our boat. She said she wouldn’t know because their boat was getting drenched so often by the spray. Also, we were going a lot faster than a lot of boats that were a lot longer than our 37’.
I was contemplating the waves during this time. Most of the time they would be in the 6-8' range, but about every 20 minutes there would be a series of much bigger ones. I would feel the boat rise up in the air, and I'd turn around and look behind the boat and see a valley, and behind that a huge wall of water completely covering the horizon. These waves were 12, maybe up to 15' high, just a huge steep wall the size of a two story apartment building. I thought, “jeez that's a LOT of water coming at me,” quickly followed by, “we're gonna get creamed!” But the wave would just disappear under the stern as the boat rose up. Then you’d hear a rumbling under the hulls from the turbulence as she picked up speed and surfed down the front of the wave. The knotmeter would climb from 7-8 to 10, 11, 12, 13 as she'd tear off down the wave. We hit 16.9 once, a new record for our boat. Then the wave would pass, and there would be one more big one and it too would pass under us, and then it would be the normal chop until the next series came about 20 minutes later. It was fun to watch them, mesmerizing by their dynamic power. They would curl and crash right on the transom steps built into the stern of our boat. It was like having your house built right into the surf. Pretty good analogy, actually.
After a couple days the winds tapered down a bit, to 15-20 from the ENE. They stayed that way the entire rest of the trip. We ran the entire way wing on wing or flying the chute. They don’t call them the trades for nothing.
The boat held up well, put we had one major problem. A day out of the Canaries I changed the oil in both engines. We have a plastic vacuum oil pump to remove the oil from the engines, and I had had it sitting out to let the oil drain from the extraction tube. But a cross wave hit our side and the drum fell down, cracking, and spilling oil over the cockpit sole. We cleaned it up, but now we had no way to change the oil. I didn’t think we would need to until we made it to the Caribbean.
Then, after the two days of strong winds, we couldn’t start our port engine. Wouldn’t turn over. I opened the compression levers and it cranked but was smoking badly. I checked the oil and it was way too high and a grey milkshake consistency. Sea water in the engine. Apparently, the big waves crashing against the back of the boat forced water up the exhaust hose and into the cylinders.
See, there is a cosmic force that makes bad things come in twos, as my pal Gary Murphree had explained to me. Now we needed the busted oil pump. We couldn’t do too much when the seas were big, but the next day I started trying to repair the pump. We cleaned out the old oil, and then tried to glue the section that had broke off when it fell. We tried epoxy and contact cement, neither would hold the rubbery plastic. The third time I tried 5 minute quick cure Marine Tex, and it did the trick -- for a while.
I went back down to the engine, opened the compression levers and turned it over by hand. I could hear water sloshing around. After turning the engine several times it didn’t seem to be getting clearer. I tried to remove the exhaust hose to drain water, but it was on tight and was going to be a major job to get off. Then I removed the air filter. Water poured out of the air intake. Jeez! I turned the engine again by hand, a bunch more water poured out the air intake, and then it was turning much easier. I had Art turn over the engine with the starter for a few revolutions to pump out the rest of the water.
It took two days to pump the bad oil out, in part because the various glues weren’t holding as I mentioned. Finally we got it out, I put in new oil and a filter, and ran it for 5 minutes, then changed the oil and filter again. It has been running fine since then. These Yanmars are damn tough engines.
As we got farther south, it started warming up. Yahoo! We switched from long pants to shorts, the foul weather gear got put away, the sweatshirt got less and less use till it too got put away. Bathing suits started being the attire of the day. My laundry was accumulating much more slowly. The night watch started being magical instead of miserable.
At night on watch all the lights are off. Only the faint pale green glow of the wind instruments and the illuminated red dial of the compass illuminates. Above, the tricolor illuminates the wind indicator arrow, but other than that, there is no unnatural source of light.
During the first half of our voyage, there was a new moon (meaning no moon). When the moon is shining on the ocean at night you can’t believe how bright it is. But even in a new moon, even in the darkest part of night, you develop a night vision and can make out a surprising amount of detail. Every thing is in a vague shade of grey. I could just see the whites of the breaking crests and feel the boat rise and fall and surf as the waves passed underneath us. Above, the sky was littered with thousands of twinkling diamonds, and below the phosphorescent critters sparkled and twinkled in our wake. The midnight shift (when it's not cold) is one of my favorite times of the day --- flying along on my intraplanetary spaceship, magic sparkles emitting from the hulls.
At night, we don’t fly the spinnaker. That is the big colorful sail you see on the posters; actually ours is a “cruising chute.” It is a big, powerful sail, made for downwind sailing in light winds. Unlike the mainsail and the jib in the front, the chute flies free, not connected on one side. It is a triangle, connected by one line on top and one on each side on the bottom. At night, you can’t see squalls approaching, so when we fly the chute in the day, we douse it in the evening and put the mainsail and jib back up.
I had not had any experience with chutes before getting this boat. And we have probably flown it only half a dozen times before starting this passage. The ocean has a way a pointing out those areas where you most lack experience.
We have a “sock” for our cruising chute. The sock is a big log nylon tube, that pulls down over the sail like a big condom. You pull a rope to pull the sock up and the sail comes out, and pull the sock back down to collapse the sail when you are done.
We were launching the chute one morning, and had set the lines and everything was ready to go. I was pulling the chute (still in the sock) up with the halyard, the line that connects the top of the sail to the top of the mast. I was almost done, the top of the tube was almost to the top of the mast. Suddenly, I couldn’t pull the rope anymore, and then it started slowly sliding backwards in my hand. I tried to hold on, then the rope started sliding through my hand very fast. As I watched the line running thru my hands, something in my brain said, “you know, if you try to hold onto a line while it is running through you hands, you are gonna get a serious ROPE BURN!”
I finally let go of the line, and looked at the angry white circles where I had had fingerprints just moments before. “Damn” I thought, “that was not smart.” I had never had a rope burn before. One of the first things you learn about sailing is to let go of a running line, but for some of us, nothing teaches like experience. Fortunately, I had been wearing sailing gloves so my palms and inner fingers weren’t burned up, just the tips of 9 of my 10 digits.
TJ yelled at me to stop the halyard from running out, bringing me out of a momentary stupor, so I braked the line.
What had happened was that the a gust of wind had worked into the exposed corners of the sail, and had popped out without pulling the sock up. With a gust of wind and that huge sail open, there was no way I could have held the halyard. Next time I will secure the sock, wrap the halyard around a winch once or twice, and not hang on! Like I said, nothing teaches like experience.
I assessed the situation. The boat was not in any immediate danger, so I figured Art and TJ could fish the sail out of the water. My fingers were starting to burn and immediate medical attention seemed the prudent course.
I spent the next 5 hours with my fingers and thumb dunked in glasses of ice water. TJ called me “Madge” after the Palmolive dishwashing detergent lady. But every time I pulled them out, the burning pain was intense. After 5 hours I bit the bullet and washed them and put Silvadene antibacterial cream and TJ put bandages on them for me. Hurt like hell for a few hours, but by the next day they felt a lot better, almost no pain at all, thankfully. I expected a lot worse. 4 of the burns blistered badly; on the other 5 the skin grafted back. I kept the antibacterial cream on them to prevent infection, which is what you worry about most when you are a week away from being able to see a doctor. There was one beneficial consequence: I couldn’t do dishes for a week, heh heh.
The weather was perfect the last couple weeks. Constant 15-20 knot wind from the east (right on our back). We did not have the wind in our face once after we leaving the Canaries; it is so much nicer when the winds and waves are with you. The temperature got warmer and warmer, I was pretty much just wearing just a bathing suit the last week and a half. The water temp was 55* in Gibraltar, and we watched it climb in to the 60s, then about 70 in the Canaries, then 75, and finally 80 just before we got to Barbados. Oh Caribbean Sea, bathe me! I was dying to go swimming. In fact, I was dying to get any kind of exercise. It had been a little too rolly to work out (hard to do push ups when that wave lifts the boat against you), but the real problem is my fingers were still pretty badly blistered from the rope burn.
As we got closer to Barbados, we started getting antsy for land. 3 weeks of nothing but blue ocean and blue sky is enough for me. If you don’t like blue and constant motion, I advise you not to sail across the ocean. It is a great experience, but after 3 weeks (4, excluding the couple days we were in the Canaries) I was looking forward to standing on a stable surface, seeing green, other people, and having a couple cold brewskis! (We have a “no drinking” rule while under way). Plus, I missed my wife and kids, whom I hadn’t seen in a month.
That evening, Friday the 13th, we saw the island of Barbados about dusk. How great it was to see land! We pulled around the island that evening and dropped the hook in the Carlyle Bay on the west side of the island. A bass beat wafted across the bay from some nightclub, and we had a couple drinks to celebrate our successful voyage. Our Atlantic adventure was over, our Caribbean adventure had just begun.
Till next time, UB Irie mon.