Our Atlantic passage. Are you ready for this? It’s a long one… But then it has been a long sail… so here goes!
It took us 18 days of Open Ocean sailing from Cape Verde islands to Trinidad. Initially the sail plan was estimated at 13-14 days but the mix of a plague of repairs and breakages combined with periods of low wind delayed our passage. The bearing combined with the wind angle meant we had to jybe regularly as we made way (Our bearing switched between NW by W to SW by W depending on the jybe angle). Changes in wind led us to chart at least 500 sea miles more than the direct course line between Cape Verdes and Trinidad indicated. By the end of this passage we had covered 2521 nautical miles.
This means I’ve travelled over 5000 nautical miles to date, which equals at least one swallow tattoo! At the end I will surely have both.
For the most part we had blistering sunshine and smooth seas. Early on we had a small amount of drizzle and some overcast conditions but on the whole it has been bright and breezy. As the weeks progressed the ship got hotter and much stuffier down below. By the end sleeping at night had become a sweaty affair and the decks felt like walking across hot coals in the mid day sun.
Merde! Our soles are burning!
At the end of the first week the wind had dropped significantly and I feared we were becalmed in the ‘horse latitudes’, an area of little wind just above the line of the trade winds. Here the Sargasso weed swirls and mariners can be stranded for weeks at a time.
The term ‘Horse latitudes’ was coined by the explorers and conquistadors on route to the new world, with their full complement of beasts required for making war and conquering new territory. If their ships wandered from the trade routes into the airless centre stranded in swirling Sargasso weed with their ships rations and water running out, they would throw the horses over the side to conserve their precious supplies.
For a moment while gazing out at the glassy water I thought I heard the ghostly neighs of long lost white horses…
However the Captain soon snapped me back to reality assuring me we were in no such place and that the trade winds were just having an off day. Sure enough the following day, the weather broke, we experienced some rain and the steady winds returned.
Most nights the sky has been clear full of starlight with many shooting stars. One evening on watch with Antje, just before the full moon, we spotted an incredibly large meteor flash through the sky burning with green fire.
On another watch with Martina I asked her if she had seen any shooting stars this evening. She replied she had and pointed to where she had seen one. Just at that moment a bright star blazed across the sky. Our spines tingled.
We have been doing all our washing in seawater including ourselves. There are not even enough fresh water supplies to rinse in. Over the course of the 3 weeks we gradually became more and more encrusted in salt. It’s been difficult to stop even my short hair from turning into dread locks. All our plates, cups and bowls all taste of salt.
We swam several times along way. The water is much saltier here, very warm and in the mid Atlantic it is a beautiful deep Bristol blue hue. But by the end we were all desperate for sweetwater showers. Near the end of the passage we sailed through a squall complete with torrential rain. Not a moment was lost stripping of to delight in the sweet rain.
I’m showering in the rain. Showering in the rain. What a beautiful feeling, while sailing through the rain.
Once again as we departed from the Cape Verde islands we were flanked by a pod of playful dolphins. This has happened every time we have left port so far.
The most abundant organisms we have seen are schools of flying fish. These weird fish have long wings in place of the fins on their sides. These wings enable them to leap out of the water and glide up to 10 meters across the surface. We have had more flying fish commit suicide by landing on our decks than we can remember. Every time it happens they get put in a bucket and saved for breakfast. Gaddafi has eaten flying fish nearly every day.
At one point Jamie and Damon saw a school of flying fish leap out of the water being chased by a huge Mahi Mahi fish that could just be seen through the tip of the waves.
At the end of the passage we gained another crewmember; a little bird that sat on our stern all night.
Haven’t spotted any whales though… Maybe on the way home…
Our penultimate day at sea was hot, humid and incredibly sweaty. We had a long list of cleaning tasks to get through before we arrived in Trinidad plus 2 of the heads (toilets) had broken. It was a long day for all as pipes were dismantled and pumped out, the bilges swabbed clean. At the end we savored a stash of beer Jamie had secretly stowed in Cape Verde and as the sun was setting, a beautiful rainbow appeared over our stern.
We have had an eventful but on the whole tranquil crossing. It’s no bad thing to spend over 2 weeks in a bikini and bare feet, sharing stories and feasting together, while cruising on a vintage trade ship.
With the departure of Kat in the Cape Verdes, It was back to Jamie and I to be on Galley and rationing duties. Upon realizing that some of our key ships rations were going down much faster than we anticipated and that we were likely to be at sea longer than planned, Jamie and I had to issue some rules for the provisions. Our cheese and egg supplies were being eaten far faster than planned as people had been helping themselves for breakfasts and snack throughout the day. By day 7 the galley was completely off limits save getting bowls of cereals, toast or tea in the morning. This didn’t go down well with the other crewmembers and led to much grumblings.
We also had a little cheese making experiment. Once while making yoghurt Jamie underestimated the heat in the engine room. This led the yoghurt to curdle with the coagulated proteins separating from the liquid whey. Not wanting to throw it away, we decided to strain it and see if we could make cheese. Fortunately I had a stock of muslin cloths with me so put one to good use hanging the wobbly gelatinous ball of sour curds in the galley.
But the big foodie news of the passage was Antoine’s fishing success. Finally after weeks of effort with a whole array of different hooks, lines and varying techniques Antoine finally mastered the art catching several Mahi mahi, AKA Dolphin fish, for supper. A welcome addition to the ships vitals!
At the end of the 1st week at sea it was Easter. I made a batch of fresh hot cross buns. We also had some little chocolate bunnies and chicks stowed for each crewmember for Easter Sunday. By the end of the 2nd week we had run out of both white and brown flour, which sadly put an end to bread and cake baking.
Our fresh vegetables ran out in the 2nd week. However our fruit supplies last well especially after we learnt to cover all the citrus fruits and melons in Vaseline to prevent surface moulds. For the first week we feasted on deliciously sweet pineapples from the Cape Verde islands. We have been getting really creative with canned provisions using lots of fresh lemons, limes, herbs and spices to bring fresh flavours to dishes. Everyone apart from our Frenchmen likes lots of fresh chillies and curry spices.
The biggest challenge in the galley has been coping with the constant movement. At times Irene can be pitching through the swell corkscrewing 20 degrees either way. I’ve adapted a song to hum (occasionally wailed) in those slippery moments.
Oh lord won’t you buy me a gimballed oven… All other ships have them, why doesn’t this one? Work hard through the day preparing Crew sup’r. Oh lord won’t you buy me a gimballed oven…
Finally, as with any long passage, we had to be super vigilant about our water supplies. Irene doesn’t have a large water tank so we were carrying bottled drinking water for crew. However despite our best efforts and orders not to wash excessively or run the taps we still drained the tank in a week. This prompted a rush to recount all the bottles on board and to start tracking our daily consumption.
We continued the daily lectures and structured conversations throughout the weeks at sea covering topics such as meteorology, navigation, maintenance, rope work and all the various bits of knowledge required for the Ocean Yacht masters qualification. We had a good session learning the most important knots for the ship including Reef knot, Bowlin, Hitch, Double hitch, round turn and 2 half hitches, timber hitch amongst others. We were then immediately tested on them by a rapid-fire knot exam. Jamie emerged victorious with me in second place. I think a rematch soon is in order.
We are now well familiarized with the names of the various parts of Irene with Leslie quizzing us sporadically.
Gaddafi took each of us through the methodology for astronavigation at sea using his sextant. A sextant is a telescope attached to a series of filters, a mirror and arm measuring degrees of angle. We each took multiple sightings of the sun at time intervals in order to chart our position. By measuring the angle of the sun, or other celestial bodies, from the horizon we established our position with the aid of a current Almanac. An Almanac is a book published yearly with details the orientation of the planets and major visible stars to the earth along with having useful information like tides times.
On the penultimate day Leslie delivered his final lecture to the crew, which turned out to be an exam on all that we had studied over the last 2 months.
Repairs and Maintenance
There wasn’t a day that went by when we didn’t need to fix or repair something on Irene. She certainly demands a lot of attention! But she is a hundred year old lady so it is to be expected I suppose. On the first day the rope for the main hardener on the main sail frayed and needed replacing. The following day, the flying jib halyard frayed which required a new section of rope to be spliced in.
Next the main throat halyard chaffed and almost snapped twice. The first time a new piece of rope was pulled through to replace it. But after the second incident it was decided that it was likely to happen again unless someone went up to see what was in the way. We sailed for 3 days without the main sail and made way with a ‘blooper’ instead which was hoisted from the mizzenmast. Once the swell settled first Damon, then the captain went up the mast.
There was a bit of metal that was discovered to be the culprit. While fixing the main halyard Damon discovered that the starboard spreader was cracked. There was no way of repairing the spreader at sea which meant that we couldn’t hoist the flying jib or the top sail, as this would put too much pressure on the top mast which, incidentally, also appears to be in danger of snapping.
While on dawn watch in the second week while helming a large solid wood block fell from the top of the mizzenmast onto deck with a very loud thud. The pin of the shackle attaching it to the mast had worked loose.
Also on this day the iron fittings on the end of the main boom almost fell off. This led to a long messy operation whereby the sail was dropped, the fittings removed and then reattached with tar, black butter and longer screws.
Finally while on a dawn watch a week later Martina and witnessed the combing and main sail detach from the boom. Fortunately this isn’t a key piece of kit and Damon was able to lash the sail directly to the boom quickly.
Throughout this leg of the Voyage Damon, with Martina’s assistance, has been making a new awning for Irene out of sailcloth. It will be hung over the boom while in port to provide shelter from the sun and a place to sleep under at night while we sail through the Caribbean.
And after all the hassle and waiting for the broken Sat Phone, it still isn’t working properly! Don’t ever buy an InMarSat phone. Incredibly frustrating the amount of time we hasted on this piece of kit.
But there were moments in the middle of the Atlantic as far from as we could be, when we were thinking. Cripes. What next? Fortunately nothing was terminal.
And on the brightside, many lessons are being learned for future voyages. Anyway there is a long list of repairs we will have to make in the lay over days in Trinidad.
During the first week at sea, Antje and I switched bunks with Jamie and moved into the fo’c's’le. Jamie, after 3 months in a narrow short bunk constantly banging his head, was desperate to move to one of the cabins with the larger double beds. The fo’c's’le is much more airy and light and I was pleased to have my own bunk. After the move the captain promptly renamed it the ‘foxhole’. As the fo’c's’le is at the front of the ship it experiences more the pitching which is fun and irritating in equal measure.
At no point do I ever stop moving on this ship, even when I’m asleep. This can be exhausting and I’m sure is the reason why everyone is having very vivid dreams
States of mind
Time takes on a new dimension while at sea. The hours can stretch and warp leading watches to fly by or feel like pulling teeth. Over the weeks I’ve had more ups and downs then a yo-yo.
I’ve now been with Irene and her New Dawn Traders for 3 months. I joked as I was leaving London in January that I was taking part in an extreme version of Big Brother. Mostly it’s been serene, relaxed and profoundly peaceful. The perpetual routine of watch interspersed with hours lying on deck reading or playing our instruments. But there are moments when you realise you have never been so bored, so frustrated or wanted more than anything to step off the back of the boat. Or send someone else over the side!
The biggest difficulty to deal with is irritability, my own and others. It can be difficult at times to muster the strength to fend off other people’s harsh words and micro dramas in such a small space.
Then someone brings you a cup of tea and a biscuit. All is forgiven.
Mostly these feelings emerge after a fitful night of disturbed sleep. Irene is noisy at the best of times and everyone must do one of the night watch meaning you are either late to bed or early depending on which time slot you are on. With so much time to think, to sit, to stare I’m finding that things bubble to the surface that I thought had been long forgotten. Often I can’t even remember exactly what it is, just a physical feeling that has lain dormant trapped in memory, freed by the perpetual rocking. Consciously I take stock, remembering it not to be real and certainly not present.
With the same view of the sea day in day out and little in the way of wildlife to observe on this leg it has, at times, been difficult to fill the hours. Eventually you stop trying.
Patience with myself, others and time is the most valuable lesson I think I’m getting from this experience. Finding freedom from my own mind.
I’ve read a great deal on this passage. And there has been much sharing of books between the crew as we share our favorite stories. The most read so far is The Last Grain Race with 5 of the crew now familiar with Newby’s adventures aboard the Good Ship Moshulu.
Two books stand out for me on this leg.
Firstly I read Quantum, the story of the discovery of the Quantum world following the journey of Einstein, Planck, Bell and Bohr plus others as they discovered new properties of light, the atomic structure and mapped out the periodic tables right up to the discovery of teleporting particles. It also details the impact or the first and second world wars on Scientists and Universities. There are also some enchanting details about Einstein’s (and others) life including how he used red or white roses to symbolise his decision to accept Planck’s offer to join his faculty in Berlin.
Secondly, and is undoubtedly my favourite book thus far, is ‘The Voyage’ by Charles Morgan, a rich poignant story about a vine grower in France just after the Revolution in the late 19th century. I instantly adored the main characters Barbet and Therese, a pair of voyaging dreamers, and was unable to put the book down until I had completely devoured it 2 days later. The story is about their separate voyages beyond expectation and unfolds between Cognac region of rural France and Paris. The vivid accounts of the French vineyards, reeds and rivers and woodland landscapes where some of the story unfolds leaves me dreaming of solid ground and the countryside once again.
Heureaux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage. Joachim Du Bellay.
Our next port of call
We’ll be in Trinidad for up to a week while we unload cargo, load our bounty for Bristol and re-provision the ship. We have some adventures planned with the Trinidad Slow Food Cooperative while we’re there. We are in search of spices, coffee, angostura bitters. And apparently there is award-winning chocolate to be found!
We are also losing some crew members here as they disembark to continue their journey into South America.
I’ll keep you posted. In between drinking Rum and Coca that is!
If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time