Whale of a time….
Our passage from Bermuda to Bayonne in France took 24 days in total, the longest time I have ever spent at sea. The original planned stop at the Azores was cancelled in Bermuda due to the delays we had experienced necessitating a non-stop passage to Europe.
Conditions at sea changed rapidly and it wasn’t long before we were donning full oilskins and thermals. It felt like we had been plunged back into the depths of darkest winter.
At these times the weather was foul and we fully reefed the sails. Waves frequently crashed over the bulwarks and it felt like living in a washing machine on spin cycle. Helming in those conditions was physically and spiritually exhilarating. Storming through the sea at 10 kts steering a 200-ton ship…. AWESOME! On day 9 we covered 100 nautical miles in 12 hours (OK OK I know its nothing compared to the speeds reached on some of those tea clippers or grain ships like Moshulu)
Our course was mapped out as a great circle route and our initial bearing was set for 60°. We embarked on our passage at a longitude of N32° 20′ W64° 45′. Our final destination of Bayonne is N43° 50′ W01° 28′. The route took us on an arc from a bearing of 60° to 100, heading more northerly than the rhumb line would indicate. Just drawing a straight line on a Mercator projection chart would mean you actually end up sailing further due to the curvature of the earth skewing distances on the charts. Ocean navigation is a complex business even with modern technology, I’ve been learning.
Our passage was not without problems. On day 2 the staysail boom snapped, along with the boom jib lashing and the main preventer (line that keeps the mainsail from crash-gybing – at least 5 of these have broken on the voyage). Then the main sail foot lacing broke leading the main sail to detach from the boom. Then the end of the main boom where the main sheet and the topping lifts attach fell off. This led to an afternoon where the deck resembled an intricate game of jump rope to secure the boom while the officers set to work with an array of power tools to fix it.
Then finally the gooseneck sheared off the main boom!
The main sail is now ‘jury-rigged’ without a boom but with the addition of 2 ‘vangs’ to keep the gaff under control.
Mid ships became a little more dangerous and unpredictable with the mainsheet block more mobile then when attached to the boom, the addition of lines to negotiate as well as the topmast, main boom and staysail boom to all clamber over as they are all now stowed on deck (perfect for tripping over while on night watch).
I’ve been thoroughly impressed at the skill and the cool of the officers dealing with the steady stream of breakages on board throughout this voyage. Catastrophic moments are creative moments. It’s been a veritable gumball rally on water.
Jamie, Emma and I each took turns in the galley cooking up a range of delectable meals. We made it to the end of week 2 still with fresh vegetables and some salad. The last week we were back to being ultra creative with cans. The highlight of the cooking for me was when I learnt how to make pan bake garlic naan breads to complement 3 different styles of veggie curry and dhal one evening. The lowlight was when being tossed in the swell I dropped a baking tray as I was removing it from the oven and it shattered the glass in the oven door.
Other culinary delights included delicious boat made pizzas (Jamie’s pizzeria opened 3 times on the return voyage – lucky us!) and a sweet treat of sticky toffee pudding with custard from Emma (sticky school dinner style goodness for cold wet sailors).
Finally I understand the point of tinned condensed milk. I never had as it tastes like robot breast milk and is in my opinion completely disgusting… Apart from when used in sticky toffee pudding. Obviously!
By double digits at sea we had devised a menu and started rationing our supplies again just to make sure the last weeks weren’t a repetitive menu of plain pasta because we had run out of anything that could go with it. However despite our efforts at stock control we ran out of flour by the end of week 2 unexpectedly putting an end to our bread making sadly. It was partly because the bread got munched so quickly! Within moments of a fluffy loaf emerging from the oven, the smell would waft up through the hatches and a hungry sailor would immediately take a chunk off it. I was as much to blame as anyone. I can’t resist bread fresh out of the oven.
On the 6th of June we prepared a special Mexican meal in honour of the passage of Venus across the sun and pay tribute to the Quetzalcoatl bird (The Quetzalcoatl bird is a myth originating from the Mayans and the reputed Lord of the Dawn – we like myths and stories of old). Events like transit of Venus are significant in history as they were times when astronomers were able to make accurate measurements of celestial bodies and their relationships to each other. Captain James Cook, for instance, helmed a ship that traveled halfway across the planet to Tahiti to observe the transit. A few days later we celebrated World Oceans Day, an international day to inspire action and create awareness of the plight of our oceans (acidification, loss of species, changes in currents, pollution).
We have been gifted by an incredible number of whale, dolphin and turtle sightings. In the first few days sailing while on watch with Emma and Sam we made a collective wish to see lots of sea creatures. Later that afternoon we were overjoyed to see a couple of pilot whales, a pair of leaping dolphins and a turtle! Over the course of the voyage we have seen whales or dolphins nearly every day along with the occasional turtle (4 spotted in total).
On a dawn watch Jamie, Emma and Damon spotted 2 large whales, which Damon thought might be similar to humpback whales. I spotted one about 3 m off the port bow and saw it’s face before it submerged once more – my closest wild whale encounter yet.
The piece de resistance came in the final few days when we were joined by a huge pod of dolphins who danced along our bows for what seemed like hours. We later witnessed them hunting for fish as a pod leaping and coralling the fish as a team.
We have all spotted numerous Portuguese man ‘o’ war which Damon calls ‘blue bottles’ and I have nicknamed ‘jelly punks’ after spotting one with a particularly pink crest over it’s sail which to me looked a bit like a mohawk.
Sadly we also spotted a lot of rubbish in the water including orange fencing, white sticks, discarded fishing net, jerry cans, crates and various unidentifiable pieces of plastic debris. Bizarrely we also spotted a number of plastic mooring buoys in the middle of nowhere (900 miles off shore).
By the end of the first week I was feeling like being on board was good training in case I ever find myself in prison. I haven’t ever had such a time where I’ve been able to take so much time for my thoughts. Hemmed in by the horizon but in the widest wilderness. Every day a groundhog day of routine with the occasional sparkle from a passing whale or dolphin. I’m surprised at myself that the monotony of the days hasn’t driven me insane.
Reading has been the main past time and I’ve read a series of fantastic books which surprisingly complemented each other despite the fact it was neither planned for nor were they brought by the same person. My favourite was ‘Skinny Legs and All’ a surrealist romp in New York featuring an artist, talking animated supposedly inanimate objects (a spoon, a can ‘o’ beans, a dirty sock to name but a few) and a Jewish Arabic restaurant in the heart of New York opened as a political statement for peace opposite the UN. I also evaporated time revising for the ocean yachtmasters exams copying out and sketching the entire handbook (at one point I was that bored).
Despite the boredom and even in bad weather I’m still enchanted by the sea. At moments I’ve wandered out in my mind to float alone on the ocean to experience the vastness in solitude. Floating above deep ocean trenches and high mountain ranges thousands of miles from the shores of the Atlantic. In moments I can understand why people want to sail solo around the world.
Fortunately we have a great range of spirits onboard to lift us at sundown and assemble all crew around the skylight for a gossip, update and wind down.
Onboard I’ve felt more alone than I’ve ever felt while suffocated by the closeness of strangers. Of course they are not strangers. They are my journeymen of up to 5 months. But we only know each other in the narrow experience of this ship, which is a sliver of a fraction of who we may really be. They’ll go back to their respective lives and I to mine and I’ll ponder if I know anything of them at all. I’m aware I’m burnt out so this is probably a case of glasses encrusted by 5 months worth of sea salt and grime distorting my vision.
So this is the end of the voyage. The end of the New Dawn Traders adventures on Irene. For now.
Jamie, Emma, Antoine and I have disembarked in France, not quite our final destination. The ship requires a number of repairs before travelling to Ireland for a previous commitment (we were due back in UK 4 weeks ago originally). She will then return to Bristol (with our delightful cargo in time for the Bristol Festival). I’m travelling back to the UK by train and ferry in the meantime.
I’m not ready to write my reflections on the viability of trading by sail (I need sleep and time out). We’ve learnt some harsh lessons but hopefully these will propel us forward to a more successful future voyages. Nothing has been as planned. The reality has been that the good ship Irene and her foibles have directed this voyage from start to finish. And we were thwarted by bureaucracy on a number of occasions. Whatever visions and ideas the New Dawn Traders have had for this mission have been mostly kyboshed by this tempestuous and cranky old lady. A clear winner in a ‘Miss Adventure’ contest I’ll say that for her!
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world though. Indeed she has carried me to a fat juicy slice of it! When all is said and done I’ve had an incredible sailing adventure!
Experiments rarely succeed first time. If they did then they wouldn’t be experiments. This is not the end of New Dawn Traders!