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Transatlantic: Part 1


Merry Xmas! This is part one of of the bumper Christmas special posts; one letter I wrote on the ocean and one now that my feet are on solid ground. So get a glass of port, some blue cheese and crackers, or a can of Kronenberg, Doritos and salsa dip (depending on preference/class background) and settle in for a decent-sized update.

The journey so far

The short version:

I'm still alive, still far from land. No murder on board, no accidents either. We should make landfall around Christmas day. But the winds have just become variable, and we're at their mercy. The days slip by punctuated by squalls, sail changes and the ever present ticking clock of the watch rota. Since we turned west, we've seen two boats. In 10 days. There's a lot of space out here. Time zones slip by. There are moments of exhilaration, fear, and boredom. And not home and dry yet.

The long version:

20°20' North, 47° 39' West

Well, I'm on the high seas. I am writing this, live, while still over 900 miles from land. None of that recollection stuff, this is coming at you while the adventure is actually happening. How does that feel, huh? Pretty raw, fresh? Or undermined by the fact I can only send it out when I actually arrive? Stale, then. Don't be downheartened. It will fade for me, too. One day the words I've written here will be all I have to remember this by, more real than brown fractured memories.

All goes well. It is day 11 out from Las Palmas; 11 days since I last saw land. We have passed the halfway point; it is now quicker to go on than to turn back. Winds have on the whole been favourable. We headed southwest from Gran Canaria toward the Cape Verdes, then headed due west once we were confident we'd picked up the trade winds. For a glorious week they drove us forward at well over 7 knots. I coined a new term, 'Christmas Speed', which we give to any speed that gets us to St Marten, where we plan to make landfall, before Christmas day. For the last week 'Christmas Speed' has been steadily falling, so just yesterday we only needed to average 6.1 knots to arrive before the 25th. However, in the last 24 hours things have changed. The wind has veered round to come right out of the west. We're motoring into a headwind, and only a little over 3 knots. At this rate, 900 miles seems a very long way. It ain't Christmas speed, that's for sure.

There are positives though. The skies have broken up into a myriad of patterns, types, and colours. No longer the blanket blue of our first week, or the grey screen of the last few days; suddenly the sky is a living canvas. And there is so much sky out here. Norfolk would be jealous. Gaps in the moody low blanket stratus astern allow glimpses of fluffy sun-drenched cumulus above, and thin, razorblade slices of pale blue punctuate it too. Ahead, wispy cirrus and fluffy popcorn altocumulus scrape the stratosphere but below them, where the blue sky fades in a haze to white, an ominous rolling line of nimbostratus cuts across from the north. Now in the late afternoon the colours are fantastic. A squally dark grey bleeds into the softest most implausible baby blue. The grey is bordered on its other side by a yellow it doesn't seem could have come from the same palette, Turner meets Cezanne; an implausible amalgam of styles. I have never studied the sky this much or taken such pleasure in it, and incidentally I do have a 'cloud guide' by me as I write this.

Yes, I am learning all about weather.

The swell has dropped with the wind so we're not being thrown about quite so much. However, now we're heading into the waves, not moving with them. It's a choppier motion as the bow crashes down after being lifted up sharp. My cabin is all the way forward so I'm raised 6ft in the air, then a moment of weightlessness before plunging downward where the boat hits the wave with a thunderous shudder. I've got used to this remarkably quickly and it amazes me I can fall asleep quite so easily.

Before we left Las Palmas, we had to provision, fuel, water, get weather updates, clean, prepare the boat for sea. I found out that Chris the skipper takes a somewhat haphazard approach to the necessary tasks; not in a dangerous way, just, well... not very organised. Provisioning was probably the most fun. We made a vague list, over breakfast, of things we might want. I started to try and map out how much food we might need for the expected time we're at sea, then build in a safety margin. When Chris saw me doing this, he sort of shook his head. 'I don't really do it like that'. So, we left the list we had made on the table in the boat and all trooped off to the Saturday market. Chris sent us in to 'make a start' while he rushed off to buy a winch handle from a chandlery. We'd just realised almost everything shut by lunchtime on Saturday and we were due to leave early Monday morning.

Jake and I walked round the market, feeling a little unsure just what we should buy. Finally we got into the swing of it, made some judicious choices, and filled three big boxes with vegetables. Then Chris turned up, saw what we'd got, shook his head and said 'that's enough for about a week. Five more at least. Just get a lot of stuff. Different stuff.' And so we did - more and more boxes of fruit and veg; avocados, mangos, sweet potatoes, five types of tomato, different stalls, different varieties, and each time I came back to our stash it had grown by another box. Finally we've 8 boxes stacked by a stall, and the nice man lets us use his trolley to get it down to street level and into a taxi (things on our knees) back towards the marina.

Jake is panicking about reading matter. There is lots of time on the boat with not that much to do. These guys have been onboard for over a month already and books are a lifeline. In pidgin Spanish Chris manages to divert us via a bookshop with an English section. It's just closed, but Chris knocks on the door until the reluctant sales woman reopens. We buy 9 books, hastily chosen. It's an odd assortment to pick from: 50% English Lit course reading list (Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Chinua Achebe, Doris Lessing) and 50% holiday pulp fiction.

The supermarket visit is even more fun. It reminds me of supermarket sweep; we turn up not long before closing, grab two trolleys and rush round pulling a crazy assortment of items from the shelves. Trying to come up with any strategy is entirely frowned upon. 'Just get stuff you like' says Chris. 'If you like it, get a lot of it'. I swear we have enough cheese to last 6 months. But only 3 loaves of bread. The bill comes to 486 euros. I can now say, with only a week or so left to go, we have got far far too much food. Were we ever going to eat 5 kilos of pasta as well as all those potatoes? And 60 eggs? Oddly, a lot of the vegetables are still left over, slowly wrinkling up and rotting, while the 10 packets of biscuits and 1.5kg of crisps have run out.

One of the more interesting jobs in Las Palmas was diving on the propellers. While moored in the harbour we snorkelled down to scrub barnacles and weed from them and the boat's waterline. I was surprised how encrusted it all was given boat's short life so far. The particles of shell drifted down through the water as we worked, and I got a shock when I looked down and round my feet was a shoal of fish feeding on all the debris.

Waiting for us in Las Palmas was another catamaran, Leopard, being delivered for the same company with a hearty dutch skipper, Peter, in command. Peter and Chris's agent had arranged that we were to make the crossing in convoy, only without informing Chris of this in advance. He is not best pleased.

Chris is a funny character, who fundamentally I really like. But! He's not easy to work for at all and full of contradictions. He gripes over and over again to us about having to travel in convoy but makes no effort to talk to Peter to resolve the issues he sees with it. In fact, they get drunk together and exchange sailing stories all afternoon, while we miss opportunities to complete jobs on the boat Chris has talked, frequently but vaguely, about wanting to do.

He doesn't want to be the 'boss' so refuses to give us clear jobs or a work schedule of any sort. He also doesn't like to give detailed initial instructions, but once you are working on a task he comes and watches, then starts to man manage every detail. He is constantly taking things out of your hands, giving 'advice' in a slightly pissy voice that feels like criticism even when he hasn't explained how he wanted it done in the first place. It's completely disempowering, and pretty patronising. Jake, who knows him from the Virgin Islands, will snap every so often and tell him off, and for a while he is less overbearing. I really want to stay on the boat so don't dare say anything before we're safely at sea in case he has a mind to trade me for a less objectionable crew member. A risky strategy?

When we're sat having a beer he's a completely different character. There's lots in common between us and he doesn't shy away from debating ideas and politics. He's got an intelligent inquisitive mind and had a varied life full of boats and building projects, DIY style. Anyway, I'm in prime 'getting along with everyone' mode but it could be an interesting relationship!

We head SW from Las Palmas toward the Cape Verde Islands to pick up the trade winds that should take us west. It's a fairly busy shipping route, and at 4am I'm on watch when I see the steaming lights of a freighter off our bow. I keep tabs on them for twenty minutes as they approach and their bearing doesn't change, only the lights get clearer. And they're dead ahead. Chris has oft repeated the mantra 'same bearing, decreasing range is a collision course' and although it's hard to be certain, I think this is a collision course. We're only small, with our green and blue nav lights just 5 feet above the water and hard to pick out from the bridge of one of those big motor vessels that chug along at 18 knots. I don't want to unnecessarily wake the skipper but I haven't used the VHF radio to communicate with other shipping yet and I'm not entirely confident starting now.

Technically we have right of way as a sailing vessel and other shipping is meant to give us a mile of sea room. Practically, a collision wouldn't even dent their ship, while ours would be absolutely decimated, which means it ends up as a bit of a compromise. I wake Chris and as it becomes apparent they're not altering course we make contact. “Motor vessel motor vessel, this is sailing vessel Casanova off your bow. What is your intention? Do you see us, over?” They hadn't seen us, but pretend they had as they slew round 45 degrees to pass port side to port side. As they approach through the dark the tall mass of their boat is apparent, ominous just 500 yards away and the lights of Leopard ahead are hidden by their baulk. I know this situation was always under control but nonetheless the tension created just by the potential for a mistake raised my heartrate. The stakes are high when help is so far away. Were anything to go wrong we are so completely surrounded by water, such deep water, and it really isn't our natural element.

We're 400 miles off shore sailing west when I notice the boat is taking on a pink brown hue. To begin with its almost imperceptible, just an off-white that could be a trick of the light, but after three days we're definitely pink. The prevailing winds are coming from the east, blowing from Africa. This warm wind carries a fine dust hundreds of miles that coats the deck, rigging, sails, everything. For a week we sail in our new pink boat until we hit a squall and are washed deliciously clean. Little pockets of dark red earth collect, deposited by rivulets of rain water which eventually bear them away into the sea.

The moon, that had been such a fine sliver coming from Gibraltar, is now rising later and putting on weight. From a night full of stars we now move to nights drenched in moon light. It rises in the east, directly astern. Huge and yellow, it catches the clouds and waves almost bright enough to read by. Full, it's the ghost of the sun, following its footsteps east to west. It lights up the boat with silver blue shadowy low definition and brings no warmth, a hollow mimicry.

Life on board has settled into a rhythm. I've cooked a communal vegetarian meal every day barring today, when Jake took over proceedings. The rest of the time it's fend for yourself, so snacks rein supreme. Chris is yet to offer me anything but popcorn (his speciality, spiced with cumin) and biscuits from the latest tube he has excavated from one of the dry goods lockers. “Try these. They're really quite good”. Being the vegetarian onboard is much less of a trial than I'd thought. Chris and Jake like my food and aren't always fussing about having meat. Jake cooks himself hotdogs a couple of times a day (the pink ones, in cheap white baps, pretty grim) and I see Chris eating sliced turkey straight from the packet, but there's no great division.

They both smoke, too, and with so little to do a cigarette is always on the go. I worried this might be a bit of a challenge, but I've not been tempted at all which has surprised me. I think the strict drinking regime on board has helped of just two small beers a day.

Almost every day we still see birds even when we're over 1000 miles from land in any direction. It's the same species most of the time. Black, with a flash of white on the rump and a pale V running from the tail across their wings. Not so large, about the size of a common gull but with long, narrow wings that almost clip the waves it darts in between. They're not simply soaring over the waves but often fast wing flaps punctuate their flight as they scan the ever shifting ocean from just a few feet. I can't believe their energy when I'm sure they never alight, just pick food from the sea when they see it.

The trade winds are blowing consistently, hour after hour, at over 20 knots. The swell picks up and soon the waves are about 15 feet tall. This is higher than the cockpit and it seems miraculous when they sweep under the boat rather than swamping us. The boat surfs down them, picking up speed, sometimes as high as 14 knots. At the bottom there's the fear it will slew round, out of control, and we'll be side on to the next swell which can feel pretty precarious. When this happens it feels like losing the back end of a car on a roundabout your taking a bit too fast. If the boat were to jibe it could be a real issue. As the wind rises further we drop the main sail and continue under the jib to stop this happening. The wind picks up to 30 knots, and the waves get bigger. It gusts higher than this and we put two reefs in the jib. The boat careers with the waves, and during my night watch it is genuinely scary looking out into the blackness. I am so glad of my harness clipping me in at the helm.

Contemplating what would happen if you went overboard is like standing on a clifftop, peeking down. We throw a paper bag out filled with organic waste, made into a shape the size of a head. In twenty seconds it's out of sight, hidden by the waves. At this speed and with this sail, it'd take at least 5 minutes to turn. At least. And that's over half a mile. In these seas without a life jacket I've no idea how long I could stay afloat. Not long. And even once the boat had turned I've no idea how anyone could ever find you, GPS or no GPS. At night? Forget it. And of course that's if someone else even knew you'd slipped. Normally, with the autopilot, the boat could continue until the wind changed or someone came up for their watch, potentially hours later. Four feet from where I sit alone for four hours every night is certain death. It makes my insides contract looking down there and thinking about it. The boat is so small, and this ocean is so, so vast. There's no-one else out here; there's no radio chatter anymore, no boats on the horizon. Our size relative to the ocean is dizzying. It feels like being balanced on a pinhead, teetering. I'm thankful for the absolute. A solid 46 feet of floating boat, creak, shudder and jolt as it does.

Dolphins appear again on a couple of occasions. They love the waves, jumping right out of the front of them which looks absolutely spectacular and accompanying us for twenty minutes at a time. And, after 10 days, I finally see a whale. And not just away in the distance, about 20 metres from the boat. First it curved out in front of us and for a panicked moment I worried there was a school and we might hit one as we rocketed along, but then it circled round and came alongside, checking us out, visible under the water as a huge shadow then it's back arcing out of the water, a shiny black expanse with a surprising small dorsal fin on top. It was breathtaking, and I yelled for the others to come and see but by the time they were on deck it was gone.

And so things continue, and if all is well a landfall before Christmas. I feel happy, content. My days are full of reading and writing aside from the sail changes that need us all on deck, and the cooking, cleaning and minor repairs. The boats motion has become normal. When I'm on watch during the day by myself, there are moments when I feel elated, and can't believe how perfect this is.

Jake and I have learnt to be in companionable silence, although Chris is talker. Jake is a really laid back guy, very considerate and kind. We swap music and talk about books, and I do everything I can to avoid those inevitable conversations about differences between the U.K and U.S. Our only disagreements are when I want to tweak the sails, make a tack for a better course or shake out a reef and he's reluctant to unless sanctioned by Chris.

Sail trimming is one of my pleasures. Whenever I first get on watch I always tinker about trying to get an extra half knot of speed out of the boat. My small amount of experience racing baby sailing boats is actually really valuable as seeing the changes and reading the telltales that flutter from the sails is a constant and necessary task when racing them. Out here it's not nearly so important so often I come up and the sails are the same as when I finished my last watch, even if the wind has veered or backed (moved clockwise or counter-clockwise). Where on a small boat these changes are constant and quick as you respond to the wind moment by moment, here it involves winches and cleats and each sail takes minutes to adjust.

One time when altering the position of the boom I accidentally open a jam before I've made fast the sheet round a winch. Immediately the rope tears through my hands and the whole boom crashes over. I let go just in time but I still have the burns on my palm and wrist to show for it. The power of the wind in these huge sails is incredible, and can be really dangerous even in gentle conditions. If I'd wrapped that rope round my hand to get a better grip (something I've been cautioned against but sometimes absentmindedly do) my hand would have been torn apart as it crashed into the block and was crushed by rope and steel. I won't ever do that now!

So, all is well here. There's not so far to go and before long I'll be sending this out on the information superhighway. Love to everyone. Matt xxx

Posted by matthinc 13:44 Archived in British Virgin Islands Tagged sailing

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