As I write this log entry, Lista Light is crashing through the North Atlantic majestically, talismanically– huge swathes of white water peel away from her leeward flank, tumbling into a hissing mass of white spume. Its hard not to get carried away! Her bows, pressed on hard by a full suit of red canvas seem to relish the job of calving open the remaining few miles of seas ahead which separate us from our eagerly awaited landfall. She heaves and pulses as her 35 tonnes powerfully broad reach at 8kts. It is a moment of sheer delight for us all – our private moment shared only by gannets, shearwaters, petrels and fulmars. We revel in that special feeling that surviving a long ocean passage delivers. But it wasn’t always this way on this leg, which started nearly two months ago in the tropical heat and human clamour of Brazil . . . .
We were keen to depart Cabedelo, Brazil, as soon as possible to pass the hurricane belt before it really started to hot up, and arrive in the UK before the arrival of the September gales. Our departure, inevitably, was delayed. First there was the matter of a friend offering us use of his workshop and therefore an unmisable opportunity to rebuild the open doghouse to protect us from the sun, wind and rain. Then we became meshed in a special community of sailors who had trickled in from far off exotic places – an incredibly merry band of Lithuanians, Canadians, Israelis and every nation in between who helped lift our spirits and helped us through the work, then finally, with papers signed and boat overloaded with fresh fruit and veg I contracted an itch my foot that seemed to be slowly making its way north too. It turned out to be a parasitic worm i’d contracted from a dirty beach needing medical treatment. Me, not it. Untreated the doctor confirmed it could have caused severe problems chewing its meandering journey up through my body and we would be in deep trouble, deeply offshore.
The charming port captain and immigration office had given us 72hours to leave; we managed to get out by the end of the week.
The broad plan had been to sail to the archipelago of Fernando de Noronja, grab a night there, then head as close to the wind as possible in order to lay a line for the Azores, if the wind angle allowed it. In the event it didn’t allow either stop off.
The first 5 days were more brisk than forecast and with more East than South in it, we chose speed over heading– plenty of sea spray, canvas pressing and life aboard was noisy and uncomfortable. Kath succommed to seasickness early on but Theo remained mainly well. Our fruit mountain was barely nibbled between long shifts feeling queezy. We passed 60nm inside of Fernando de Noronja, and closed on the equator on the afternoon of my birthday, 15th July, NNE of the corner Brazil. The wind died a day or two later, and we used the engine to maintain progress through the doldrums. Tbe boat felt sluggish though. Once we had become properly becalmed it was clear why, the prop was utterly covered in a coarse grit of barnacles on both sides from our time in port – and despite new antifoul the hull was bearded in gooseneck barnacles. The strong tidal flow in Cabedelo combined with plentiful nutrients had created quite a garden.
Curious counter currents and wide patches of orange Sargasso weed floating in the water created a mysterious atmosphere for diving into the vast ocean so early on. We had no choice and soon we were in, scraping free a cascade of barnacles which descended to the abyss along with bolts of blue light. The uneasiness of being in such deep ocean was replaced by wonder at the strange perspective on the world, the vast hulk of Lista marooned above at the surface, in the doldrums, and little fish living off the weed communities all around.
The wind was light or non-existent for a good 500 miles. The line squalls which had plagued us so badly in the South Atlantic were not troubling us, thankfully, aside from one evening where all canvas had been lowered and a 50mph squall rattled us from our sleep, lifting heavy canvas from the booms and whipping lines painfully across naked skin as we scrambled on deck to secure anything loose. It was a timely reminder to keep alert and reef early, something which kept our attention throughout the remaining voyage.
The notion of being in this part of the ocean during July and now August became worrying. Cyclones develop here which become hurricanes, and whilst we knew the likelihood of a full blown hurricane was unlikely, anything close could be horrendously dangerous too. This is a quiet part of the sea without shipping lanes or land for many hundreds of miles in any direction. Passing the supposed safety of the 20°N line was a huge relief.
The Doldrums were wider than expected, but finally the North East trade wind did arrive and hold for a 1500nm stretch. It is normal for the wind to come in with North to start with, but this year we received a strong Northerly component for the whole time, and later on we would see a very disorganised azores high failing to form, something the other very few sailors and rowers out there so late in the season would attest to. For now though we headed NNW toward Canada day-on-day.
The regime fell into place, and bright warm days were spent teasing the rig to find the optimum sailplan for sailing to windward, not our favourite point of sail, but comfortable at least spreading Listas waterline across a few waves. Kath washed and dried endless nappies, Theo played on deck or atop the gangway, working out how to crawl on a pitching deck. It was necessary to constantly supervise, but it was a happy time reading him books and spotting the scarce wildlife we found. Even with 1200 litres of water aboard we did become nervous about our usage, given our preference for washing him in fresh water over salt. We all bathed on deck daily, and aimed for squalls when they appeared to collect rainwater (our new cockpit roof covering 4sqm of clean collecting surface. We received nothing for 3 weeks and started ration!
Sleep proved challenging throughout the voyage – probably a combination of being short-handed and having our vulnerable baby in our care. The deck is safe day or night and we rarely don a harness, but even so we began wearing the AIS personal alarm for some peace of mind. A sailing couples recent tragedy off cape horn was hard to shake. I worried about her, Theo, all of us, the boat, tankers, everything. Kath was breast feeding and mostly caring for Theo and I took the majority of night shifts. I was keen to protect Kaths sleep after her staphylococcal attack in the Pacific, and the extra demands on her body now. With worry and fatigue I just couldn’t get into the pattern of sleep like we have before. In stark contract contrast there was Theodore. Whilst I grabbed a hour here or there – I watched the miracle of our baby taking a siesta with me, clambering all over me in our bed until he finally flopped to sleep in the most contorted positions seemingly unaware. He slept a perfectly average babies sleeping routine throughout regardless of whether we were sweating in the doldrums or crashing along hard on the wind!
The wind died once more – this time the infamous horse latitudes This would be the penultimate challenge as we began preparing for the westerlies which should carry us home. We had reached the latitude of the Azores but were some 400nm to the West, equidistant to Newfoundland. After some nervous weather routing calls from my brother via the satellite phone on a dwindling reserve of minutes we finally gave up hope of tacking towards the Azores for a break and accepted our fate further North. We hadn’t seen ships for weeks then all of a sudden a flurry passed as we crossed the Europe to Caribbean route. We hailed a small canadian sailing boat on radio, obviously carrying AIS because of the high chance of fog in his home sailing ground. We chatted as we did to the container ships, amiable chat delivered in bullet points punctuated by the obligatory “over”.
The Westerlies really didn’t form til the 45 degree line, and then the grey skies and grey seas heralded the final phase of our voyage, the westerlies had arrived. As they had in the South Pacific, they came with a succession of depressions bringing brief gales with wind on the quarter – and Lista light flew on the new wind. After months of sailing hard on the wind we could finally throw out the sheets and breathe a sigh of relief – for this is our sailing weather! Life aboard was back on a more serious footing and nappies became impossible to dry. The daily totals jumped up to 150nm a day and the noise levels increased with the crashing waves. The wildlife arrived in buckets – first curious long finned pilot whales approaching us in a lull between winds, then dolphins screeching by wrapped in a phosphorescing cocoon as we cracked on over a new fresh wind in a moonless night, and tiny storm petrels gurgling and giggling in our wake, pursuing us relentlessly for nights on end. Familiar species arrived, those which we hadn’t seen from the deck of Lista Light for seven years – the Northern Gannet, Fulmar, and our shearwaters.
We’ve just crossed imaginary depth contours onto the great sole bank, and brushed past trawlers from Spain and Ireland. We are close in on the Scillies but won’t stop, we have nearly made it back to England. We have sailed across the North Atlantic the long way, 50 days and 5000nm in her company, and our baby boy Theo surely must be this years youngest transatlantic voyager, not quite aware of it at a ripe old 9 months of age!