Category Archives: 2010 – 2015 South American Circumnavigation

Transatlantic Crossing

With 5 months of sea trials, 3096 “Shakedown” nautical miles and endless sail combinations tried and tested, provisions pouring out of our ears, prising up our bunks, and cascading out of lockers we set off into the evening sun from Las Palmas canaries. Forecast after forecast had been downloaded before we left to gather an idea of the pending weather at least for a week’s horizon and the consensus appeared to be decent South Easterly winds backing Easterly becoming variable but still in the northern sector in three days time, a little better off the coast of Mauritania but all areas would experience light winds at some stage. The old adage that you must “head south till the butter melts” seemed to fit with the best winds too, and we were eager to at least clear the Canaries and get a few hundred miles on the clock SSW (on a beam reach, our favoured point of sailing) before a couple of days of light wind, maybe even get lucky and pick up the hallowed Trade Winds early before the 20 degree North line where the ancient mariners, and most since, record these steady following breeze.

We were excited, and with a few nerves. If we could make the first few days without illness then that would be a great help, and would keep spirits high.

Preparations . . .

We do not have the most recent inventions of sat phones and SSB Radios able to communicate the world over so we would be alone, but that was what appealed most. This would be the most remote any of us had been in our lives and we were eager to immerse ourselves in that detail. With all of our modern safety equipment, radar, GPS and a fully serviced liferaft (actually it did look very cosy in there!) we had certainly compromised from the famous adventurers of days gone by, the Slocums, the Roberstons, the discoverers too, but ultimately all that happens at sea cannot be controlled by the captain and crew (even on a relatively straight forward ocean – as people who haven’t sailed the Atlantic are quick to point out!) and so this seemed a fair balance. Our passage was to be an ecological odyssey rather that a historical re-enactment but for some reason it was still with a sense of apology that mod-cons were brought on board! We had set out some boundaries on the use of the engine too, and friends will know how frustratingly and pig headedly determined we can be but only time would tell whether the temptation would break us! So with the forecast in mind and past experience to extrapolate I had pencilled 30 days as reasonable guesstimate of our crossing. We provisioned for double that. I have to be honest and say I secretly hoped for 25 but didn’t dare say it for fear of setting expectations.

The off . . . .

We had the usual panic to leave, Kath and I determined to say some goodbyes and post a log on the website, and a whole raft of other minor details which in themselves are not significant but collated to form a misty apprehension about readiness. I rationalised this after some time to be the sensation we always feel leaving port, cutting the umbilical cord from our comfortable safe existence in favour of the unknown – it’s just inertia. Our final “warboard” task list had been obliterated with jobs struck through as completed which is our usual barometer of preparedness! Christmas was 5 days away, Holly’s birthday 4 days, and there was no way we wanted to be in the Canaries for either of these highly auspicious occasions so we slipped lines into a fresh breeze and swell to match and watched the lights of Las Palmas sharpen.

plasters behind the ears - best sea-sickness!!!

What I hadn’t realised was I had just made what would be my first and probably only navigational error on the crossing (not that crossing aided by GPS is really that taxing). We headed around the North side to spend the first 24 hours in protected waters and give people some time to get used to the sea. I had planned to stand around 5 miles offshore to ensure protection but also make use of the Easterlies to get some miles on the clock. Unfortunately whilst we were listening to radio forecasts from Tenerife experiencing Easterly force 4-5, we had ended up with nothing. But I could see Tenerife with all her wind! The 3000m mountains of Las Palmas had created a wind shadow up to 20miles offshore and we were stuck! We drifted aimlessly at ½ knots, then went backwards. Optimism was up but this was not the start we had hoped for. With knowledge of the forecast softening in 2 days time I shoved on the engine for a maximum of 4 hours, determined this would give us sufficient distance to find wind which I was 90% sure was out there.

The lolling around was bad but to ensure my truly grey mood I realised from looking aloft that the main gaff had bent. Wood doesn’t bend permanently without much steam, glue and intention so we brought it down and suspicions were confirmed that it had cracked right through and looked like a broken wing. Ug. Tired after little sleep the previous night, narked by a few lines not tied up the way i liked, and having just read through some stats that world population was likely to peak at 9bn by 2050 and concluding our new project would not be a success given the pressure on the worlds resources and was pointless I was a bloody misery, and regarded Lista Light as the devil incarnate!

Just to complete the day shortly afterwards Kath returned to the cabin from a shift and was sweating profusely through every pore – and white as a sheet. Sweating profusely was to be expected – Kath and her on-deck exercise routine was legendary, amusing and exhausting but kept the old girl sane on her restrictive island. But that typically was accompanied by a red face, not a white one. Having a nurse on board was a relief as he seemed particularly nonplussed so we allowed Katharine to rest to see how her symptoms developed, and within an hour she was back to rights – very odd.

Not a day into the trip and we had gear failure, succumbed to mystery illness and compromised our ethics on use of the engine with the slightest temptation!!

As would happen on future occasions right at that moment, with perspective waning, we would see dolphins playing at the bow, surging past us, leaping and look into their eyes and our mood was lifted immediately – sounds hippyish but I defy anyone who has seen this to disagree.

22nd – 23rd December

We were sailing the best we could without our main – flying along at 5-6kts with an ensemble of other rigging options including a topsail sheeted to the mizzen mast head, and mizzen staysail. Daily runs of 126miles and 118miles put us close to Chichester’s average in Gypsy Moth IV and we had an injured rig so old capitan was feeling much better. With few decent options downwind of us to get a new gaff, and a nights sleep under the belt it certainly didn’t seem worth stopping in either the last of the Canaries, Hierro, or the Cape Verde Islands with her barren hillsides. So in the morning I started mending. The new workbench I’d acquired in Las Palmas decorated the foredeck, and with an array of tools, the odd bit of measuring and 7 through bolts, 4 aluminium plates and a dash of epoxy glue I cut away the broken section and scarfed together the old bits as straight as possible. Once the glue truly cured in 3-4 days time this would be as strong as originally was, but we would have to reef up a little more and allow wind to spill from the sail to appease my nerves!

Kath started her nature records keeping a full and accurate log of all wildlife down to the most oft visiting petrels every interaction was logged, assessed, scrutinised for behaviour patterns in what was to become a feature of the trip – Lista Light had her very own Darwin.

Every early milestone had its significance – 12hours in, 24hours, the 6pm daily total, 100 miles on the clock, 250miles on, 48hours – no one sick yet, don’t dare to extrapolate but you do anyway – at this pace we will hit the trades by day 10 and two weeks later we’ll arrive – into St Maartens we think. It’ll be magical! Stop guessing – too much sailing to do yet!!!

Shift patterns were 2hours on, 8 hours off so sleep was starting to pay off – few crews get this much rest!! As the wind shifted into the north we were forced into a more southerly course to maintain a broad reach and avoid rolling around. Eventually, eager in the morning of the third day I awaited the next watchman to arrive and together Kath, Nick and I hoisted the legendary Bruno (our garish spinnaker)! Immediately the course issue was addressed (we got some West in there), our speed improved, and the pressure on the rig was eased. The Quick Release clip on the bowsprit end we fitted in Las Palmas meant less time out there sorting out the rigging to fly the spinnaker, less time being whipped around.

With 300 miles on the Clock we were a happy ship – the weather got warmer with every mile south, the rig was happier, the tow generator was doing its thing maintaining voltage up at 25.0volts, and we had an unusual phenomenon to assure us we were well on our way. During the night and the last wind it had come unnoticed but in the morning it was clear that every Easterly aspect of the boat had been coated in a very fine orange dust. Alongside Western Sahara and Mauritania, in our little cocoon of English food, conversation and music we had lost perspective but this was the dust of the Sahara that the Harmattan wind had stuck to everything in its path, except the leeward side of each rope, winch, stanchion, everything, was left untouched. It made us feel “abroad”….

24th – 31st December

During the next 7 days we travelled around 200 miles in total. Given that we had a following current giving us up to 20 miles a day that is a spectacularly poor showing! But these were the happiest days of the trip – and it gave us a chance to experience being becalmed. Without real time pressure or the ability to change the weather we took the sails down to avoid flogging, put the odd bit of canvas up to stop the rolling, and accepted our fate. We listened to music, swam around the boat, cooked, whistled (folklore has it that this is only allowed on a becalmed ship, to summon the wind), watched the fauna the ocean threw up and celebrated significant milestones

Day one of the becalming was Holly’s Birthday. Katharine made a huge effort in preparing decorations, menus, cards and presents for Holly on what was an amazing day.

I have the emotional intelligence of a gnat and Katharine understands human emotions much better than I do and that reaps rewards on days like this. She is sensitive too, and my lack of affection was the only blip of the day as I got immersed in looking for, listening for and smelling for every sign Lista could give me that all was well or otherwise – at the cost of all else. But we had been at sea for 4 days and this was a problem that could be remedied.

Kath and I set to in the kitchen and under the continuing guidance of the ever present Delia, smuggling glowing from the front of her “complete works” we made mayonnaise from scratch, pizzas, shortbread and shed loads of everything…. And Nics Lemon Surprise, again under the firm hand of delia, putting the icing on the cake (so to speak)…

We laughed and swam, and plucked organisms from the sea to ID with inverted binoculars, we were joined by fish and a whale sighting to go into the nature diary. 209nativity

Christmas day followed which was the best day of the trip. Again, Katharine led festivities with decorations, presents and a Christmas brunch to die for. Our decorations involved stringing oranges up in netting and painted cereal pack, reminiscent of a Christmas we had had some time ago in Devon – we basically looked like a bunch of nutters fresh from the asylum! I had my new shiny boiler suit on, my present from Kath, Dan and Nick in their Jalabas, Katharine in her playboy style golden bikini and Holl whipping up canapés in her tracksuit in the kitchen and Curtis Mayfield on the stereo it was all rather euphoric! Not wanting to keep the merriment to ourselves I radio’d all ships, all ships, but sadly no response. But our Island was a fine one, if not a little odd!

We ate crepes for breakfast with yoghurt and fruit, followed by tea and cake, followed by lamb, caramelised carrots, roasted potatoes, onions and garlic and ginger ale – fantastic! This was followed by freshly cooked meringue and Dan’s mince pies and absurd amounts of rude squirty cream!

Whilst it was “dry”, we ate so much rich food we achieved a sort of drunken softness of vision and imbalance. The evening was spent dancing to Dan’s violin in the moonless night lit only by the paraffin light, singing carols and recitals of nostalgic poetry. Proximity to Mauritania meant proximity to modern day pirates but honestly – I think they would have given us a wide birth given our appearance and strange behaviour!

The magic of the day was rounded off by murmours from the deep in the night. Kath and I had settled down to watch some photos on the laptop, to drift away in memories and warm thoughts when suddenly there was a surge and splash at the stern, and then disturbance all around on the glassy sea. More and more splashing and sloshing around 50metres from our side – Dolphins were hunting! Wanting to see more we quickly raised the search lamp and shone close to the boat so as not to interfere and the sea was alive with eyes! Microorganisms and leaping fish were thick into the deep, some just reflected, some beamed back orange eyes, most squirmed out the way. The phosphorescence was alive – and the moonless night provided the best pyrotechnics from the sea I had ever seen!

At the beginning of the trip i still held some secret pride in getting there quite quickly – or at least quicker that other people would imagine that we could. We had selected the wrong craft they would say but I secretly felt that Lista’s trade wind performance would keep us up with a lot of more modern “faster” boats. Now though, I am loving our becalmed fate. We take down the flogging gaffs to ease the nerves, replace that with a hotch potch of free flying sails, or none at all depending on whether a breath can be felt. I love the stress-free progress of 1.0kts, and we are in no race. We are justified in setting off into an inevitable light wind forecast by surveying the other option at the time, Christmas in Las Palmas? No, no thank you – not for the crew of this dream ship!

As the days progressed we saw many more dolphins, whales and fish. The warm days were punctuated by our daily “guess the mileage” competition, and we reviled in our sluggish tallies, 27miles, 32miles, 22miles, 38miles . . . . .

Flotsam every day or so kept our interest and a bright orange bloom filled the ocean

This dynoflagellate bloom is toxic to humans and we took a little care when using seawater for cooking for a day or so. IT was spectacular as the night fell and we aimed straight through a belt of it stretching out as far as we could see to the East – and it glowed azure when our bow disturbed the surface – truly spectacular. Dan and I crafted some feathers with shiny new hooks, rubbish from the bins, and feathers from the doomed livestock we collected in Morocco. But it was disco squid that was to take the spoils on his first outing – we caught a 14lb dolphin fish. Mahi Mahi or Dorado, depending on where you come from. A beautiful boy –-sulphurous yellow and azure blue, a real blue water fish at last!! He ate very well . . .

We had more time than ever before to sit and think. I thought about the voyage we were undertaking as a relatively inexperienced crew, on paper, and our peers in other boats we had met in the Canaries…

The Atlantic, a few facts: The Atlantic, a few facts to remind ourselves about. The North TransAtlantic crossing was mastered by pioneers (or where they pirates?!) in the 1400’s, by great navigators discovering and generally plundering the “new world”. Their experience and mistakes provides the wisdom and tactics we use today on the best routes to take across the great pond. And its big, not the biggest ocean but colossal all the same. At times we would be 1500 miles from the nearest possible landfall, which is a very long swim, and its deep – up to 8km, which is a long way to go to retrieve the soup spoon you will inevitably throw overboard with the dishwater at some time on the crossing. The “trades”, oft used as a byword for a risk free crossing – are widely misunderstood, they are simply winds which have historically been mostly reliable breezes allowing the worlds wind-powered fleet to traverse these ocean corridors, they are not guarantees of Easterly force 3-4’s, just a higher percentage of incidences with some fair logic about why that would be. Same with the currents too. Its all about increased odds but its gambling all the same – Gale force wind speeds less likely but not impossible. This was in our minds not to frighten us or add a sense of drama, although it accomplished both, but more to ensure we all had some sense of perspective and undertook the passage with eyes wide open.

Our Transatlantic Peers

Today, many not so great sailors can make the trip with the advent of GPS and modern hull and rigging materials allowing very fast and dependable passages. Ports in the canaries are bursting with confident and excited sailors and prospecting crew, for some of which the crossing seems to have lost significance as a journey, and was more of an experience to, well…. Experience . . . Done that, move on.. Flotillas of yachts set off into the big blue fully loaded to make sure no contact is lost with the outside world. To call eachother up daily and see what their relative positions are, weather forecasts, had they caught any fish? No, oh well, neither had they, but they were trying still – perhaps John West caught the last one, ho ho. Sunny, yes, us too, same as yesterday. And yesterdays yesterday. Making bread today- oh that’s lovely, can we have some? Hoho, just float it in a bag, we are only 326nm behind, should be there in 56hrs 34mins (GPS says so). Oh well – See ya, have a nice day-hay…! But was that not part of the point?

That is the ones that leave port. Others sit uncomfortably, frustrated, irritated awaiting part number 10-546763-A for the Jabsco Toilet to be sent from one shipping agent in France, using a Spanish van employed by the American Fedex shipping company and cleared through customs by a Canarian chap. “A seal is it? No? Oh right, one of those”. Nod Nod, tut tut. “we have the same. Ridiculous? Yes. No – I cant believe the Canaries supposed ‘chandleries’ don’t have it either…… Arses and elbows, uh-huh, no they wouldnt”. Such a critical part too. Wouldn’t want to go to sea without one of those.

These yachts are either looking for excuses, looking for a good grumble, or have lost sufficient perspective that they end up micro managing their crafts – perhaps in place of a former career. It happens easily. Too much time in a marina or chandlery results in just this type of insecurity. I nearly fell into such despair when informed reliably that my Anodes must be replaced in the engine and generator. Oh that sounded very serious. I grew gradually paler. Engine loss equals big bills and probably death – so it seems. An hour or two in the manual….. No mention of anodes, and hour more prodding the engine unable to persuade it to present its hallowed “anode”. More time in the manual. Grim grim grim. Despair. Then miserably I am persuaded by Kath to spend an hour or two away, running a few miles or just witnessing nature getting on getting – its the perfect tonic. And sure enough – clarity. Do we really need the generator? Not really, we could live without as so many have before and the mission was to use renewable anyway. And the engine – it doesn’t even have one it turns out!!

And finally the single handers. Civilisation tells us to shun and be suspicious of these odd characters but to me I have a great respect for them, if not always their means. Its not possible to generalise why they are the way they are, was it ambition, adventure, marital breakdown or a myriad of reasons which took them into to their little cocoons on their own? Are they brave or foolish? Are they seeking companionship or actively avoiding it? Female crew line up and exchange stories of how these evil men have un-gentlemanly expectations of them – what do they expect?! Better are the guys that make their intentions clear and assure their crew that if the urge befalls them they would indeed be accepted in the captains quarters, and who take rejection with an honest but ambivalent shrug – more dangerous are the ones who do not discuss openly and make their intentions clear offshore. But really – if one has little to no crewing experience, is making minimal contribution to expenses, will likely be sick for the first week and need looking after, doesn’t know a port light from a cardinal bouy, can’t pull in the mainsheet and will use up 3 gallons of water washing their hair then they should ask themselves honestly what contribution they are making. The Canary Islands seems to be a magnet for these crew types – and that’s fine but all relationships and agreements are based on a mutual exchange of services and perhaps people should be more realistic about their own contributions and the nature of nature. It was a fairly sorry scene watching such folk bartering their way onto boats, harassing yachts and mis-setting expectations. Some would be fine crew, others i felt were arrogant in the extreme. None of which we had to take as we were fully organised with 5 twinkling stars which was certainly the best arrangement.

The daily routine of slopping around, swimming, poo-ing off the back of lista ( a simplicity enjoyed by all crew, don’t let them deny it!) and cooking continued for the week. 7 days have helped us know each other well, find silly ways to amuse, eat well, sleep really well, read, laugh, laugh a lot. Nature has punctuated the chapters with cetaceans, petrels and invertebrates aplenty, but as quickly as calm arrived it departed….

31st December – 8th January

Wind arrived. In bucket loads! We were flying Bruno on New Years Eve and we had just passed the point where our longitude exceeded our latitude when suddenly the wind rose sharply from the North East. Hurriedly we blanketed the spinnaker with the mizzen and manhandled a bursting spinnaker down under the cover. With our Latitude at 21’01.6 N could this be the trades? We put up sail expecting at most a Force 5-6 in the dwindling light with only a few clouds about. As a crew we were slightly desensitized to big wind and the squall, throwing 35-40kts at us certainly reminded us we were on no picnic, mid-Atlantic at the whim of the weather. The sail plan was pretty unchangeable as we careered off, in the pitch black with a sea building rapidly. The change was stark. I took the helm until midnight averaging 7.5kts, peaking at 8.7 extremely nervous about the change in our fortunes! With no light and no knowledge of where the escalation would end i was nervous but had no time to dwell on it as the waves foamed and spat spray, and I had to hand steer as the autohelm couldn’t cope. Unable to control the environment it was as if we had wished the wind into existence, but had no control over the monster we had summoned. The barometer was telling us nothing with consistent pressure at 1015mb, and the cloud had provided few clues. In retrospect we have seen bigger sea, and more wind but the contrast was so stark.

And then the wind stopped, didn’t tapper, just total cessation. It was truly eerie. Then bang, it hit again, we surged forward and then it powered us around the clock, powering us gradually through 180degrees over the course of about 2 minutes before dropping to zero again leaving Lista, and the sea, not knowing quite what to do next with still air and vicious slop. We stowed the sails rapidly and succumbed to temptation a second time to start the engine in order to restore some steerage and the illusion of progressing out of trouble.

Two more false starts as we reached the 20 degree line and finally trade winds arrived within a mile of the old prediction, steady and consistent from the North East. We were ready this time and expecting to reef and raise sail quickly but didn’t need to. It was like landing on a conveyor belt and we started to amass miles in a big way. 2400miles to go didn’t seem that many now!

Time to reflect on our first third. We had some great times. The tendency of human nature is to dwell on the misery stories, peel back and look under the plaster but ours was a voyage that was exciting for all of us, calm for 90% of the time and our strength above other boats was a group of 5 people filled with positivity, creativity and vague intellect to keep us entertained. Of course there were daily gripes and my own apprehension about the role in the Caribbean I had traded a good hand for but underlying was a ship making the most of a good situation, and I would have traded that for any manner of quicker passage.

The next week went by in a flourish, everything at a greater pace. We sailed fast but steady logging 1000miles in a week, averaging 6kts for a few days, high fives others. The nature log got some surprise entrants too. I was editing some video footage in another moonless night (it was on an off cycle appearing only in the day) when Kath appeared at the hatch rather startled. She claimed to have been hit by something and had some scales attached to her cheek, and a puffy eye where the missiles had connected with her – It was a flying fish!!

By the time the night was through we had 9 more on the deck!! Over the next 4 days we “caught” over 30 fish in this way and they tasted very good! They were aiming for our head torches so night time reading was lethal….

Also, with 2000 miles to go Kath spotted a Tropic bird – one of our target species on our Caribbean Bird Survey project – high up in the sky. They are a remarkable sight with long trailing feathers and a bandit style headband.

With the boat sailing well I turned my attention to some jobs that had been bothering me. We had snapped the end off the mizzen topsail yard when using it as a spinnaker pole incorrectly. I set to fixing it mindlessly and without the right tools with inevitable consequence. As I drove the kitchen knife into the wood it slipped and I ran it thought the gap between index finger and middlefinger, it hardly bled at all but gave a thoroughly good view of the inner workings of my hand at this point as it opened up. I became queasy quickly, and then cross at myself for being so pathetic, then queasy again! Dan did a grand job despite my infantile protestations as I grew angry with myself at the consequences.

Basically I could hardly do anything aboard Lista apart from stand a passive watch. She is a physical vessel and I was rendered pretty useless. On the plus side it gave everybody else a chance to do even more of the little things that had previously filled my day but it frustrated the hell out of me. Single handed yachtsmen must find these sorts of petty injuries totally terrifying as they impair ability to do any heavy rope work.

Our luck changed for the better with regards trolling for fish. Nick awoke me on his dawn watch saying the line felt taught, and it did. As we hauled it in it wasn’t fighting but it was definitely loaded. We had had a good run that night and whatever was on must have taken the lure at night and then taken some beating as the line was dragged unnoticed for hours at 6-8kts.

As the monstrosity was brought on board he clearly hadn’t fared well. He had lost his eyeballs, parts of his facial anatomy and the surge had driven his innards out of his arse! He had not been blessed with good looks in the first place but was no oil painting now! Later ID proved he was a barracouta (no relation to his like-named barracuda, this one is Thrysites Atun) an ugly beast which can be eaten, and tastes ok, but not if it has been predating reef fish where the risk of poisoning from cigtuera is a real risk. He outshone the flying fish we are now all getting bored of anyway!

Later that day was a real highlight of the trip. Kath and I were discussing going onto a 3-day rice diet which would have to be deferred on account of a gargantuan fridge cake she had knocked up and we didn’t want to miss – when fate would play the deciding factor.

We were just about to remove the fishing line as we didn’t want more fresh food that would spoil when all hell broke loose on the surface 50metres to our starboard quarter. Unmistakable – a big fish!! Nick slammed the helm down to reduce our pace to 2 kts and Dan and Ihurriedly heaved in the line, opening up my finger again, and hauled a mighty wahoo up over the bulwarks.

It was stunning but mildly bemused by the proceedings and needed to be dealt with before he could cause to much damage – it was a bloody carnage by the time his last surge of adrenaline had writhed through him but we had food – lots of fresh protein! Emotion at these times ranges from awe, pride, regret to pure carnal satisfaction as blood swamped the decks. I had been passed a cleaver to do the job and this created quite a mess. We filled the fridge and the rice-diet was postponed. Wahoo is better than tuna in my eyes and tasted superb for 4 days!!

8th – 9th January

Our great progress for the last week or so had provided us with miles on the clock, a good feel for the legendary Atlantic cross swell and life had really entered a pattern of simple and normal existence of shift, sleep, eat, mumday (see previous log), read, drop a topsail before bed, return in the morning, eat, sleep.

Great progress continued until the evening of the 7th of January when our steady trade wind blew itself out and was replaced with growing clouds and squally weather. The pressure maintained its regular daily pattern of peaking daily at noon and midnight around 1019, and dipping to around 1017 at 6pm and 6am but the aerial scene was changing slowly. Our course was altered to avoid obvious squalls where possible, but at other times the track could not be avoided and we got our first real hosing of the trip – time to wash off! The pattern continued for the next 24 hours and with the dips in boat speed, and the lack of solar energy possibility the voltage in the Domestic system (used for lights, navigation equipment and fridge), and the engine and anchor batteries having not received charge in a week we took the call to turn on the engine for a couple of hours to help us around some of the heavier squalls. In the distant sky we had the occasional glimpse of blue sky and high level cirrus moving fast from the East.

Constant course changing and sail trimming took us through the night –trying to goosewing main and mizzen, but finding the Atlantic cross-swell unhelpful in helping the sails set comfortably without constant attention and an experienced helm to keep her off the jibe point. With the right sea state and enough wind we have found this sail plan really suiting Lista Light, not really suffering the oft cited problem of having centres of effort well outside the centre of the boat and creating roll. But we had a swell building. During the night Dan, Nick and I jibed to concede a few degrees on the course but benefit from a more stable arrangement for the sloppy sea and then retired to bed.

At around 0530 the complexion of the voyage would change for good, as would the following months. Since Day 1 gear failure had not been a major feature – no blown out sails people often talk about, no real wear and tear, the dreaded chafe had not visited in a big way (of the rope variety – chafe on our bottoms was a different thing, constantly being moved around on the helm!), we had a couple stitches in Bruno but not major surgery, and generally our 20 days had been pleasant for craft and crew. The gaff breakage repair was, as hoped for, proving as strong as new but i still nursed it as an old war wound and didn’t want to push our luck! But all good things come to an end they say.

I was awoken by Holly asking me to attend to Nick at the helm and did so as quick as i could – there was urgency in her tone. By the time I made it to the gangway to look up at the mast was whipping violently, much more than i though a thick wood chunk could. Clearly the running backstay had gone and she was flipping in the waves which seemed to have to no pattern to them, just big and unusually short. The whole boat whipped from side to side and I yelled to throw the helm over to take remaining power out of the main before i could get a harness on and get to the main mast to either cut the halyard or to jury rig the offending backstay – Lista was pitching around and all hands on deck need to be wired on in these conditions – a damaged rig is bad but in our control, a man in the water on a short sea and a dark night is not something to contemplate. In the nano-second it took to reach down for the harness the almighty crack told everyone aboard exactly what had happened.

I looked up as the main mast snapped clean off 20ft above deck level and crashed over the port bow.

Apparently i screamed as in an instant days and days of effort sanding and varnishing, protecting the rigging with Stockholm tar, and protecting of main mast was wasted. I also had thought through this scenario as all skippers do in advance of long offshore trips and my most immediate fear was that we were now being thrown about on the sea with a third of the power and velocity we had enjoyed in canvas, and were still attached by numerous halyards, sheets, wires, and stays to a 30ft upturned section of sheared log, thrashing about at the waterline. The possibility of a double whammy of being dismasted AND then being holed was significant. Having all our hard work thrust up into the forward heads would have ensured a very bad day. We were 1200nm from the nearest land.

What happened next was a little heart breaking. No real panic was displayed by anybody, which under the circumstances was a lot to ask. And everybody had a role to ensure we could firstly detach the offending item, and then, possibly, retrieve as much of the rig as possible. The following was a list of the key actions we took which occupied the brief moments following the crack:

> Cut all halyards and stays
> Start the generator
> Get spotlight on deck and shine at the sheared section to trace its path and proximity to bow
> Remove forestay with Angle grinder
> Remove fuses from masthead lighting cables before cutting
> Issue PAN PAN PAN on Ch16 to at least get our position out and ready flares
> Ready “big bertha” 240V pump, click bilge pumps to AUTO
> Machete/boathook the gaff free of the mast
> Try to man handle mainsail back on board
> Detach forestay turning block from the end of the bowsprit
> Start engine (out of gear)
> Ready the Liferaft and pump up the dinghy

As each stay was cut the angle of the debris changed and constant attention was paid to trying to avoid a connection with any of the planks below the water. With all our might for some reason Dan, Nick and I could not bring the mainsail inboard without bringing the debris closer to us and eventually, I opted to lose the lot at the boom level rather than take an unnecessary risk.

As the last stay was cut and I made a relatively hairy trip to the end of the unstayed bowsprit to free the topmast forestay from heaving off the bowsprit, we made 3 full sweeps of the full boat perimeter to check all lines were clear and miraculously the whole section disappeared from view under the boat, briefly visible on the starboard side again and then I lost track of it. Dan took a torch but none of us could see it at all. The rest was just a matter of getting the boat away from the area, on course and sailing until the damage could be surveyed in the daylight. So we went to bed.

It seemed unusual in retrospect that we could all recall the events so clearly. We were stressed and I had imagined to look back through an emotional haze but it just didn’t pan out that way. Kath potentially had the worst role as I had asked her quite quietly to ready the abandon ship gear to try and avoid panic but that is the last option anyone at sea wants to consider. For the rest there was sufficient distraction from that possibility it just felt like a series of tasks that needed to happen very quickly but calmly to avoid making matters worse. Perhaps I am being slightly kind on myself, as I am normally reasonably self-deprecating, but I feel we all did the best we possibly could to minimise damage and deal with the risks.

Lessons learned? It was great to have the tools to cutaway the mast so available. It was good to have discussed and nominated roles to prepare for abandonment before we left so people could focus on their job. No matter of strength could manhandle the rig aboard in this instance but it was still reassuring to have the muscle on board to give it a go. And one startling lesson: about 90minutes after the event we saw a ship probably 4 miles away to the starboard bow. To provide some context this was only the 3rd or 4th of the crossing. I hailed him twice on the VHF but no response. I have issued PAN PAN call at the time of the dismasting. No response. It was in his interests to know some significant flotsam was drifting in the area but no response at all. Clearly there was no monitoring of Ch 16 on this ship. OK – but I hope that they would have received the mayday had we hit the “red button”, we’ll never know thankfully.

The Aftermath!

Over the course of the next few days 3 things dominate: Firstly – Jury Rig. Each time i popped up the gangway I looked at the sight of the deck and the sheared mast caused me personal affront. We had some grand ambitions for crossing the Atlantic (to become beautiful and Intelligent may have been a little ambitious but that was the goal!!) but really arriving with craft and crew in tact is the only meaningful one. And we had rated a pretty meagre 50% on that one! So we set to returning Lista so sort of sailing performance. With 1200 miles to go that was important, and it would restore some pride too. Several ideas were mooted, the favoured squaresail being veto’ed on the basis of the heavy yard required up a weakened masthead mount. Together we planned and created a fully functional 3-reefed gaff sail with twin headsails. We restored some pride. We use the windlass to hoist the boom up close to the mast with a 4-way purchase attached to it. Then I took three groin wrenching days in a bosuns chair up the mast, a whole lot of materials, some head scratching and a big effort by all. It is not aesthetically pleasing by any means but we had restored Lista Light to a vessel capable of making 5-6kts on the trades, and scratching upwards of 130miles per day.

Secondly, Rice. Rice everywhere! Kath and I embarked on three days of rice only, nothing else. This is something i have done from time to time to inject a bit of reality and empathy into our lives, and to learn to value food. Its not such a tough diet as you don’t really feel the hunger but it still provides some contrast to the usual food fest on board! Three days later Dan cooked up an Atkins special of roast potatoes, onions, hotdogs, custard, and pie to bring us off the wagon. I couldn’t move – I felt drunk, sick with drink yet “dry” I think my liver imploded in a mighty crash! I slept for 3 hours straight – the most since the mast incident!

Third, and most importantly, Nature! Up in the chair fixing the masthead, all a person wants is to know that all attention is being paid to the task by the chaps below on the rope holding you up so it was somewhat alarming that a great big Minke whale chose this moment to begin a 4 day stalking episode!!! Focus was maintained by all and the job got done whilst enjoying some of the best whale sightings I have ever had. The Minke would not leave us alone!! He rode the growing breakers around us and surged past, again and again and again! We became almost blasé about his appearance. Did he think we were a friend? Had he confused us as a parent? Or worse, a mate?? No-no, him trying to mate with us would not do at all…. we were not his type, he was lovely and all but Lista being a ship, and he a whale, things would not work out. No. . . . .

The Home Straits…

Over the remaining 800 miles we managed decent daily runs and with the prospect of arriving soon we became giddy. The weather was a mix of heavy showers and fresh winds until the last couple of days. The swell was decent but a much bigger period between the waves meant only the odd “wet” one graced the helm position. Lots and Lots of naked showers were had by all – something very refreshing and liberating – though we did our best to protect modesty. We , that is, excluding Dan who seemed to have a habit of showering next to the mizzen mast – unfortunately eye level to the galley porthole – the ladies seemed to be slightly more keen to undertake cooking activities during these times, seems odd…..

The closer we got to the Antilles, the more abundant the wildlife. Firstly Tropic Birds, then Magnificent Frigates, then, in combination with flying fish and Mahi Mahi we got a stunning proximity to a feeding frenzy! The Dolphin Fish, azure and sulphur yellow surged around our bow acting, well, very Dolphin like. Then he burst off after flying fish in repeated surges, returning to the bow wave each time. As he panicked the flying fish they filled their evolutionary niche and leapt clear of the water to escape the bruiser below. The Frigate birds, used to mobbing for food and using guile, dived down on this easy snack leaping clear of the oceans grip. We spent hours watching the scene, seeing the Dolphin fish leaping clear of the water harassing the little fellas. Dan chucked in a line to do a little Victorian style zoology but we had a growing attachment to the beast and decided to leave him down there for another day – we had plenty of tins to get through anyway.

As we settled down on the evening of the 20th January, 30 days in the North Atlantic, we tucked into a Bread and Butter pudding laced with chocolate and each sat prepared for our final night watches and thought about the journey we had completed. Given the dismasting it may seem like this was the defining factor of the trip but for me it was merely one event on a wider voyage – nature and the days becalmed seemed as significant but perhaps time and admin and reconstructive works would ensure they didn’t sustain such a lasting memory…

I enjoyed to prospect of steering by the stars to helm our big old fishing boat but the sight of land at night was incredible too – we awaited to see what lay in wait in the Caribbean as we nosed past Barbuda, St Barts and into Groot Baai, Philipsburg, the capital of St Maartens (and as we were soon to discover the cruiseship circus of the Caribbean) . . . . .

The Canaries and beyond

After days of frenzied stowing we left Morocco and ploughed into a gurgling, pitching sea. As we looked back to El Jadida, one man sat in a rubber ring fishing. An apt farewell to a marvellous country full of bizarre odours and sights.

In familiar Lista style, a good, green, percentage of us attempted to live the following days in a completely lateral state.

The team (minus Nick behind camera)

The winds blew and we surged away from Africa to the Canaries, with a good measure of infuriating, sail flapping nothing. Then, finally, the volcanoes of Graciosa in the early morning.

Graciosa was a world apart from the familiar Canary experience, I’m afriad. The white stilletos and see-through chiffon slip had to be packed away for another day.

It did have volcanoes, birds, tiny sheltered coves where a metropolitan group of spotty, stripey fish hanged out,grazing sea weed like a herd of Wielderbeast.

So a bit of bird watching began. Hoopoes, great grey black shrikes, huge flocks of linnets and loads of pippits. My book had exhausted it’s Eruopean range, so many a warbler evaded an official naming ceremony.

'jalabed' bird watching

The sanderlings had been a familiar site during our travels.

As had maintaining the old gal. More nips and tucks were in order…

A few more sunsets.

A run on top of the world.

December arrived and a wee snatchet of festivities was required. Starting with an Advent calendar. This developed into the windows of delights, with each of us promising all kinds of treats and small eats behind them.

Next came the stock take. Calclutaling the mammoth ammounts of supplies needed for sustaining five firsty ferrets. (Sorry couldn’t resist bringing the wee , hairy nippers, Humperdink and Pimpernickle, into the preceedings. When it comes to consuming, rather killing, they reigned supreme).

We met a fine pair of Italians, Pucci and Anna. Together they had voyaged from the Meditteranean in what looked like two shoes. Yup, each slept and lived in their respective ‘kayak’ bound together in the shape of a catamaran. The point of the reference, was that they sought us out for bird identification. Last year they had seen this mighty bird on rounding the bend to Graciosa. A white-tailed tropic bird., which is just the bird we shall be surveying in the Caribbean.

We set sail for Grand Canaria, our final staging and stocking post before the Atlanic crosing. Furious repairs, painting and buying proceeded. As well as some rather dodgy gas manoeuvres and a Chinese laundry.

Dave had a new lover. His wind turbine box, lovingly fashioned by his own gnarled hands.

Anne and Dirk our Canadian- Dutch compadres who we had met in Morocco ended up on the next pontoon from us in Las Palmas, made for the Atlantic after a flurry of ‘canning’. Canning is a respected and long established art whereby just about anything can be preserved……..

oh, forgot to mention the chickens!! As seen in precious log we departed Morocco with a bit of livestock – the intention had been to mange’ on the way, old school preservation, but sadly the combination of rough sea and land-legs meant they made it to see Graciosa before they, well, departed this life. Some lessons from the experience:

Livestock update:
We bought chickens for the crossing from Morocco to canaries – Chickens were a great success only in the sense that we maintain some semblance of life in them for 4 straight days at sea in some heavy sea. And they ate well (i mean they tasted nice, see point two below). It the following areas they were not a success at all:

1. poop. Incredible quantities of slurry. I had forewarning of poo in our former landloving days when our bantems took our caravan to be their own. But it was piled up in concise and petit stacks, crusty and easily flicked over the threshold. Not so with our new friends. Nor would they keep it to themselves, jets of watery mute were sliced across the deck on their occasional promenades….
2. consumption. They would not. They rejected most meals out right, and others were flicked at with disdain before sitting upon the food bowl then eachother. They took slightly to some cous cous but not in our gaze, they were only found to have eaten in retrospect.
3. Smell. In accordance with the points above it should be easily deduced that there was a certain funky air to our livestock. I fear this may have been partially exaggerated by our own tender stomachs on a nauseously productive crossing, but the last thing a delicate nose needs is to be horizontal in the “sick bay” nigh on 9 inches from the anus of a decidedly diarrhoeal fowl.
4. sexy chicks. These were not. Should we get a fox or a moose. I was conflicted between religion and Darwinism – should one love all creatures all the same, even if some are downright leparitic, or should we discourage the production of ugly chickens by selecting only the most handsome? Or would that in itself extend the life and therefore the ability to procreate and spread genes of the ugly chicken left behind . . . hmm. anyway, it was that I selected one reasonably handsome fellow, and failed miserably with the next who, it turned out, had a pulsating and bulging bottom – it appeared to have had an anal prolapse. We got rid of him rapidly. We needed another, poultry are flock animals after all. The next chick was carefully selected amongst trillions in the Maroc market only to have his head whipped off and to be trussed up before we could find the French for “alive. Please”. So he was replaced with another ill looking chicken not of our choosing in order that a rapid exit could be beaten.
5. Q-Flag, Quarantine/Regulations. Although it doesn’t say anywhere on the paperwork for entering the Canaries Islands that our two chickens from Africa are not permitted I would believe nor is it encourage. As it happens ours made no bid for freedom, to rape and plunder their infections into the local population of rare birds, but i suppose they could have. Dinner before docking seems to be the most appropriate course of action.
Lessons have been learned but we are not sufficiently dissuaded from trying to maintain a fresh Christmas lunch!

Permaculture Update:
Bought two planters to start the onboard garden – and the spouting beans are positively rearing to go. The potatoes have even started!

….FINALLY, leading on nicely from poultry – it’s 20 December 2008 and we are squeezed into the boat madly stashing onions, oranges and the new herb green house… Today we leave Las Palmas and head for the open seas in Christoper Columbus’ wake. So HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!

A Caruna (Spain) to Oporto (Portugal)

We say goodbye to Carole, Lucy, the Land Traills and the various animals and board the ferry bound for Santander. Dan joins us with his violin and we finally reach Lista and Clare in A Coruna on September 30.

Lands, Lowries &Traills

After a couple of days of repair and jobbing, with Clare and Dan madly flying around the city with a trailer behind their bikes on a quest for gas, we leave. We have grown to know La Coruna fairly well, Dave and I have run to the famous lighthouse, Torres de Hercules a couple of times, woven our way through the miniature Stonehenge and passed the sea horn. Clare and Dan have meandered the streets and plazas. Dan is chatting in Spanish and Clare has met Germans, American Spaniards and finally a Danish trio whom she sailed to Portugal with.

Clare & Dave, La Coruna

We leave Coruna on Northerly winds, keen to sail passed Cabo Finisterre before the winds move to the south. After more than a month on land my stomach does its familiar lurch as we crash into the waves and I quickly view lunch again, mashed up in a bucket. Dan is hardier than me, but does manage to bring up super, which he describes as not too bad a sensation with soft pasta puke, followed by a rather tasty caramel gold bar mush.

Back on the ocean

I writhe incompetent in bed. It’s a different world below deck. Luckily, once I am flat on my back nausea generally passes, but the creaks and groans are amplified in surround sound. As we swing from side to side, glasses and bottle smash, food frees itself from lockers and books hurtle to the ground. Canvas and wood shriek in unison and I try and work out where each noise is coming from. The sink gurgles its background symphony and light flickers through the windows. At one point I think I can crawl up on deck and then notice that sea and sky are swishing in a helter-skelter passed the port holes and change my mind. I eat a nectarine but later throw that up, sleep descends.

The galley

Clare has a stomach of lead. Even on the roughest of seas she has not experienced a pang of sea sickness. Un-phased she plunges into the galley to cook supper while the oven and sink rock by her head. Steadying the pans with her elbow and the chopping board with stomach she concocts omelettes to die for.

Clare with her stomach of lead

By the morning I feel fine and sit up on deck with Dan. He plays haunting tunes on his violin or plucks melodies on the guitar. I chant Spanish verbs and gaze out to sea. Suddenly a dolphin jumps from the waves. I scream and before we know it, lines of dolphins are surfing through the waves and weaving in our wake. A huge school of what appears to be up to one hundred common dolphins follow us. I watch seven sail on a wave by our side and then dart under Lista. They keep coming and swim with us for some time, before disappearing into the waves. I can’t imagine how you count dolphins? There must be a method, I shall look into it and report back.

Common dolphins

An uncharacteristic dark bird glides above us. On investigation it appears to be a pomarine skua Stercorarius pomarinus , with a spoon shaped tail (a feature of the adult summer plumage). It breeds on Arctic tundra passing Western Europe on migration to wintering areas in West Africa. I Just about the entire sail from La Coruna has been favourable with decent Northerly winds allowing Lista to bowl along at an average of 5 knots, but as we see the outline of land, Ria de Vigo, the wind drops and for a couple of hours we hardly move at 1-2 knots.

More dolphins

I read, ‘Colour’ by Victoria Finlay. It belongs to a very special friend of mine, who similarly adores and coverts good literature. I was due to return it to her some months ago as I have been reading it probably since May, disgraceful. Things have got between me and the pages, however: a wedding, leaving work, preparing for the trip, a new life, new language and learning how exactly to sail and exist in our new swimming snail shell. But every time I dive back into the pages, I am transported into an exotic journey on the quest for sacred colours that have shaped and dashed empires. It is intriguing in content, fact, history, landscape and place. I am hooked and want to read it all over again already. I will of course now have to contrive a plan to return it to its rightful owner. There are several options; post it, send a replacement copy or lure the said, enigmatic individual to the book…. Meanwhile I shall cherish the pages of the paintbox until its return.

The fiddler

The Islas Ci’es rise up before us. They are grey craggy topped islands swathed in forests with white sandy beaches and a green lagoon. We anchor between Islas del Norte and Islas del Faro. We contemplate paddling to shore, but fatigue takes over and we all slink to bed.

Islas Cies

Saturday 4 October

Dan dives into the sea and swims after Clare rowing to the islands. The whole area is a Nature Park, with the three main islands also designated as bird sanctuaries. They are exceptionally unspoilt with only one white concrete bar block on the bay. Ferries glide over from the metropolis of Vego on the mainland to the East and dump day trippers off to walk the islands and sit sipping ‘los cafe’ cortado’ (jet black thimbles of coffee that you could prop your spoon up in).

Fishing boat with Vego in the distance

By early evening (6.30ish) it’s getting cold but we’re determined to swim to the island and jump in to the icy water. The water is dark green and cloudy. It feels fantastic to be sluicing (um, crawling) through the water. I love swimming in the open, it makes me want to do triathlons. I think of our mate Leano and his mad swimming dashes in Cornwall at New Year or the multi races he’s been competing in, I could get hooked. I imagine I’m in ‘the Beech’ as we swim to our desert island. Interestingly, this is the one environment that our fearless skipper does not feel so comfortable in. Images of sharks streaking up from the deep or fins swishing passed unsettle the old kipper.

The beach

We pull ourselves on to the beach and then run through the golden sand. A thousand gull’s feet splatter the sand, an appropriate image for our mission. Four fluffy waders streak passed. The island is designated for its colonies of lesser black backed gulls, herring gulls and shags. We decide to return early tomorrow and check out the inhabitants properly.

Gulls' feet

At night Vego glows, a galaxy of yellow twinkling lights above the rias in the distance. I chuck water overboard and weak phosphorescence scatters over the surface of the sea.

The weasle appears from his engine house hole

It’s just before 8am, it’s still dark and we’re rowing to the island. A melba sun is rising over the horizon. We set the telescope by the lagoon and watch four common sandpipers it> Actitis hypoleucos darting by the lake, preening and bobbing their tales. There are several vegetation communities on the island including: the sand and marram grass, saline lagoon, conifer and eucalyptus scrub, thickets of pseudo-acacia and gorse-bramble- grass scrub higher up the slopes.

Sign to prohibit disturbance of the nature reserve

As we walk along the path a pair of blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla click, accompanied by wrens, robins and blackbirds. In the lagoon shoals of flat fish swim passed, some are huge. They have the look of an angle fish to me, but then I am useless at fish i.d. A cloud of dark fry swim passed. The lagoon provides the perfect sheltered nursery for these juvenile fish, away from the mighty predators in the ocean.

A female black redstart flickers close to our feet. This bird is redolent to my work as a consultant ecologist. At least five dawns spring to mind one Summer in London. I was on a mission on a derelict, post industrial site near the banks of a culverted river to seek out this timid bird. Phoenicurus phoenicurus is generally found on scrubby, boulder strewn slopes or cliffs on the continent. In Britain, however, it has developed an association with abandoned sites in cities, replacing buildings for cliffs to nest in and garden escapees for scrub in which to find its prey. After the 11WW, bombing created a surplus of such sites and the black redstarts moved in, giving rise to its vernacular name, ‘the bomb site bird’.

Sandpipers by the lagoon

My mission was to establish whether the wee black and red bird (similar in shape and size to a robin) was present on the site as they are a ‘Schedule 1’ protected species in England. I did not find hide nor hair of the bird, but I did find a surprisingly intricate and eclectic ecosystem reminiscent in diversity of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Indeed, charities such as Plantlife and Buglife have been eulogising about the merits of such unruly urban outcasts. The general public are generally, however, uneasy about such informal sites, bound up with their associations of urban decay, rubbish, dereliction and social deprivation. People when surveyed will usually prefer the tidiness of well-kempt lawns and neat flower beds to the sprawl of an ‘urban common’.

Old thinka, Park HQ

What they are missing, however, is the profusion of evening night shade, Michaelmas daisy, weld and woad and then amidst the exotic the real rarities, the orchids and the gentians. Rare beetles scuttle amongst the rubble, hover flies and bumble bees sip nectar from the buddleia and trap door spiders ensnare victims amongst discarded crisp packets. Under a sheet of corrugated iron a slow worm slumbers, while on top a common lizard darts after a fly. Grass snakes warm in a heap of rubble and compost. A weasel raises his whiskered head like a submarine snorkel above the precipice before finally darting under a bramble bush and off on a hunting escapade.

Pine & Eucalyptus cover

Amongst the rubbish and the poppies children hide and dart in a playground of their own making. This territory is far superior to the restrictions of the adult playgrounds, dreamt up on a drawing board in an office and parked into place, gleaming. Landscape architects such as the late Oliver Gilbert recognised the importance of these spontaneous areas for wildlife and people alike. He noticed associations between assemblages of vegetation and urban areas in the UK based on cultural history. Whether it was the fig trees growing along the River Don in Sheffield in response to the warmer water pumped out of cooling industrial plants or the fields of giant hog weed carried to the port of Hull.

Lista from the sand

These areas also boost targets, allowing bureaucrats to tick boxes based on the percentage of brown field land converted to housing, which we are told the UK is in desperate shortage of. The general public applaud when another untidy scrubby area is tarmacked, concreted over and smartened up, perhaps their house prises will rise? What they fail to see is that another plot of irreplaceable habitat has been lost in a country that is becoming increasingly bereft and sterile, where even the ‘countryside’ is missing members of the dawn chorus and where we increasingly need to travel to a nature reserve to catch a glimpse of a butterfly or flower that was once common place in the fields of our grandparent’s childhood . This is why charities such as Plant Life and Bug Life scream at politicians when they threaten to smother the Thames floodplain in concrete or want to build another airport for us to speed up our lives even further, as if that makes us any happier?


Back to the black redstart! On the scrubby cliffs she is joined by a pair of stonechats. These click and flick their tails and scurry into the air catching insects before alighting back onto their favourite perches. This behaviour makes these birds readily visible and always surprises the viewer in the exotic appearance of the male, with his black head and orange breast when viewed on a bracken frond on a Welsh mountain or Dartmoor tor. A flock of fat wood pigeons perch on the pine trees and then a charm of fifteen ‘finch’ like birds settle on the ground. On closer inspection we find serins! These yellow, streaky, bulbous little finches peck the seeds of canary grasses and other seeds within the turf.


Finally, walking along the beach to the dingy we spot four scurrying waders. After painful deliberation we identify them as three Kentish plovers and one slightly larger juvenile ringed plover. The precision of their features are immaculate through the scope.


(Log Change – Dave takes the helm . . . . )

As we had anchored in the bay for a couple of days we had seen a smattering of yachts come and more go leaving us alone in the bay, and the end of season close down in the one cafe on the islands. This all had the mark of an end of year migration for which we had missed the starting gun. This part of the trip, and in fact the journey all the way from Isle of Eigg, Scotland, has involved some light pressure to head south as far as the Canaries before inclement weather blows through. Today marked some stiffer wind from the south and we needed to do something about our position in the harbour despite the holding being good. We headed into the wind for a mile or so to find shelter on a lee shore. And then it gusted hard, and our dingy performed a beautiful flip depositing pump, oars and water bottles into the windy channel – AAAARGH, manover drill was immediately actioned. Mass panic followed by an hour of endless circling, Dan thrashing wildly with the sharp end of the boat hook and Clare hanging monkey like to retrieve our lost “men”. Had they been real homo sapiens I fear the injuries they would have sustained from their rescue would have far outweighed the effects of a slow and cold submersion death…. Back to the drawing board on MOB.

For me the evening was to mark both the high point and low point of the trip to date. Three days of drilling, wiring and cable laying using a complex array of the “Molly Hogan” hand splices and snap shackles left the Wind Generator installation complete – and the gusts of up to 35mph made perfect conditions to test the beast! The “energy centre” as it has been branded is an important part of the trip and its completion proved by some basic electrical tests was a triumph! We hoisted the critter up high above the forepeak, allowed him to hit the wind, spin furiously and rushed eagerly to check out the ammeters gauging his performance – 2amps, 2.5, 1.5 . . . .3.0 . . .. 3.5!!!! Wooohoooo! Elation followed by booze, lots of booze, some domestic upset over boozing arrangements followed by a wee drink, and then, at 3am, bang. No more whiz, no more amptastic power, just a very loud clatter and the discovery that the “Molly Hogan” splice doesn’t work very well for a straight splice holding the generator aloft. Smashed blades, replacements didn’t fit. No more wind power until spares could be sent from the UK. Dark days indeed.

abroken blade and a broken heart!!

We needed a change of scenery and headed for nearby Vigo (Bigo in Spanish, odd) and made for the marina.

The marina staff saw us coming and anxiously headed us off towards the town quay where ships of our nature may feel more at home, damn it, I was looking forward to another tight pirouette to lance a few plastic boats before settling in to a nice tight spot with the grubbiest fenders we can find (its amazing how brown those tidy white Spanish chinos become as local sports boats see us idling in astern!). Non-the-less, our new home as it become for three days was welcoming, within an inch of Wifi access, abundant with interesting purple starfish and public. Extremely public.

little Lista Light

We became the new boy on the bloc, 24 hour surveillance from every passerby, every cruise ship passenger around! Kat and I provided the daytime entertainment with a 3-hour washing extravaganza on deck, and meals and sail folding inspected inscrutably by the older passersby, and with Dan and Clare providing the nocturnal slot with their exhaustive sampling of local ciders, ports, and rums, and the matinee with their tramp like crumpled bodies littering the decks as they have given up sleeping in the cabins for a more al fresco arrangement.

For the obvious pleasure his passengers in particular were drawing from our show I decided that the cruise ship captain of the P&O Cruise “Ventura” should have us aboard. He had been passing us by repeatedly in Galicia and I felt a walk of his bridge – to see Lista Light from his viewpoint, would be fair. I made contact on Ch.16 and was greeted by a very plucky brit, sadly security would prevent us from sharing high tea, but he wished us fair sailing and crackled out. Oh well.

Vigo was a pretty town, gave us the possibility to buy more obscure items like seeds for the “garden” we are planning to grow, some oddities for the boat and our new chart which we will be using for navigation from here on in . . .

our new chartplotter!!

It also afforded Kath and me the chance to eat out – something I have foregone recently in our new budget world! Given I spent the last 3 years working away on business eating out 4 times a week navigating ones own kitchen three times a day was a bit of a novelty, and it was wearing thinner than our compressed foam mattress. Whereas eating out can so often be a letdown if you are at all creative and playful in your own kitchen (god, this sounds like a lesson from some poxy guide book, ug) here it was stunning. We managed to get into a wee restaurant off a side street with what turned out to be a gastronomic menu, mature senioritas serving exquisite local seafood (clams, razorfish, white fish…) and elderly gents exchanging hearty handshakes to each new table which arrived. We looked conspicuously Germanic blondly and toweringly squidged into our little table but it was incredible to watch the show unfold and we could leave stuffed and enlightened.

dont be silly, we didnt eat that!

A condition of departure was that the gas must be refilled – Dan and Clare had merrily exhausted options in Coruna cycling for miles smoking cigarettes towing the partially empty gas cylinder in the trailer as locals recoiled in horror, but to no avail (for more see

Greening the Ship

). Somehow though they persuaded a local Vigo garage to top up our cylinders and so our final criteria for leaving was met. At 6am we posted our marina fees through the letter box and thrust Lista into full steam ahead, and then a nasty sound and no movement – flaming stern line had wrapped the prop! 30 minutes of machete to the prop shaft freed us up and confirmed we were much happier at anchor!!!

The voyage to Portugal was eventful in the sheer volume of cetaceans – Rissos Dolphin, Common Dolphins, and a possible fin whale sighting! The majesty of these beasts is hard to explain so I won’t. Common Dolphins throughout the night was a great experience as they shook the phosphorescence into streaks of luminescent glow like torpedoes. It was incredible to see the presence of so many dolphins so close to a very busy and cooperative Spanish fishing fleet trawling the ocean by their side. The consequences seem inevitable….

net fulls

and more net fulls

The day gentle and sunny so at last we got up a full wardrobe of sails, main, main topsail, mizzen, mizzen topsail (eventually!), staysail, jib and flying jib topsail. She looked so stunning we had to post Kath out on surfboard to take photos as we eased our way down the Iberian coast making the most of light winds. The tow generator was also doing its bit as we converted all the air we could into lateral power and electrical power.

Kath drew the short straw!!

a view the skipper never wants to see...!

Portugal loomed at sunrise – and so our Spanish siesta draws to a close… And time only for one last photo of some weird people overcome by emotion . . . .

Exeter (Devon, England) to Fishguard (Wales)

The start of Lista Light’s journey from Exeter Canal to……the Isle of Eigg to…..the West Indies and beyond…..

Monday 21 July 2008

6am Mist over Exeter Canal

To start at the beginning, 6am, the dawn of our voyage, a blanket of mist wafts through the Exeter canal. Haldon ridge hangs above the glinting vapour in the golden first light. Swallows and house martins are gathering in a huge flickering flock. They wheel and dive and spin through the mist, plucking morsels from the air.

Swallows and house martins swoop through the mist

The Exe marshes are a fantastic fattening ground for hirundines with the clouds of flies that frequent its watery environs. As the days shorten and they start to think about heading south on their 5000 mile journey, these rich foraging grounds will be key to their survival. Small gangs gather on Lista Light and on the neighbouring boats, an appropriate leaving party for our avian-centric travels.

Andy and Dave emerge from Lista

We zigzag through the estuary, a minefield of underwater bars, spits and banks ready to ground Lista. At low tide they’re revealed to the crowds of birds queuing in the mud who stab for invertebrates in one of the finest bird banqueting halls in the country. The Exe Estuary is a Special Protection Area of international important for wintering waders and wildfowl, with: avocets, black-tailed godwits, grey plovers, curlews and brent geese.

View to the sky

With sails up and a blue sky mirrored in the sea, we surge forwards. Devon’s sandstone cliffs melt past us on our red-brick way. Gazing at the mosaic of cliff tops I recognize the fields and valleys I stomped over as Cirl Bunting Project Officer for the RSPB. The cirl bunting is the UK’s rarest resident farmland bird. In the 1980s the population had declined to under 120 pairs, mainly found in Devon (they had previously occurred through much of southern England and into north Wales). Unlike generalist species which adapt to different habitats and food sources (e.g. Crows and foxes) specialist species such as the cirl bunting require specific conditions to survive.

Over the past forty years, changes in agriculture have reduced the amount of food and shelter in the countryside. The switch from spring to autumn corn has removed the seed-rich stubble ladders that were left over-winter. ‘Improvements’ in grass swards and the advent of silage has created grass ‘deserts’ void of life and diversity. Hedgerows were removed and rough areas of scrub tidied. All these moves were disastrous for the cirl bunting and other farmland birds, depriving them of winter and summer food and nesting habitat.

Katharine leading a group through farmland

Thanks to the efforts of the RSPB and farmers, cirl bunting fortunes have turned, with c.700 pairs recorded in 2003. My job as the RSPB’s Cirl Bunting Officer was to continue the upwards trend, by increasing understanding in the species and to work with farmers to produce suitable habitat for it to recover whilst farming economically. At the same time, I surveyed other flora and fauna under the cirl bunting ‘umbrella’, ensuring that suitable habitat was present for a gamut of declining species such as horseshoe bats and rare arable flowers.


We anchor near Salcombe in a small bay by Bolt Head. Andy casts a lazy line into the water and the sun drops golden light over Lista. We dine on mackerel, dogfish and sea-water tatties under a star-pocked sky and drift into fat sleep on the first night of many at sea.

Sunrise, Salcombe

On our way, Hart, David and Tristan strum on the guitar and surprisingly dulcet tunes waft through the air. Next, the mouth organ and soft wailing… Ner’ a finer trio of Shakespearian minstrels have I clapped eyes on. Only to be completed with pleated skirts, ruffled collars and mulberry tights and I’m sure the very mer-maidens would rise from the deep and pluck their harps!

Savis and Slaw at helm

‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’ bellows out from the helm as Tristan and David begin their term as the pirate entertainment. Meanwhile Andy climbs the ladder thinking himself a seasoned seadog. Indeed, who knows what may be lurking beneath us?

Gway at watch

It’s 1817, Gloucester Bay, Massachusetts, a huge sea serpent is reported, ‘We counted twenty bunches (humps)..his head was of a dark brown colour, formed like a seal’s and shined with a glossy appearance..his head was large as a barrel for we could see it when he was about four miles from us.’

16th century Norwegian sailors told tales of a monstrous ‘Kraken’ emerging from the deep. It was capable of creating a whirlpool big enough to pull the largest ships to certain peril.

Tennyson, a poem from a collection in Juvenilia

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth; faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There he hath lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.


We arrive into Falmouth in time for Andy and Hart to catch their trains back to Exeter. Manoeuvring Lista around the harbour is not so easy. Conversely, spearing a few ‘yachties’ for a gentle donna kebab looks like child’s play. Hart and Andy balance on Lista’s sides, with rucksacks and fishing rod (reminiscent of Huckleberry Fin) ready to spring to land. With one leap they fling themselves over, leaving the ark far behind……. (Andy has since reported land sickness of the tenth degree, most unfortunate!)

Lotty, David and Katharine at Roundwood Quay.

We slide towards Old Kea and Lista’s former home with our new crew mate Clare Lea. Lista lodged at Old Kea under the hawk eyes of our mates Jake Burnyeat and Martha Lea on her journey from Bristol to Exeter. They have pretty much done as much sailing on Lista as us, being our companions around much of the Devon and Cornwall coastline.

Jake and Martha aboard Lista

Jake spent a year after University sailing the mighty ‘Moonbeam’, a sleek 100ft gaff rig, through distant ocean passages. He has been our abiding almanac, with a steely belief in the term ‘ship shape’. Consequently, a new acronym has been sealed, WWJD, not the religious ditty “What would Jesus do” but rather ‘What would Jake do’ to guide us on all matters of nautical decision making on board! Should we just stuff it and leave the boat a tip in favour of a mad dash to dry land, cappuccinos, fine ale and a steady hand? WWJD? That’s right, untangle that jib halyard and topmast backstay and leave Lista Light looking venerable rather than an old knacker!

Not too bad

On to food- very important to a ‘Land’. The ‘fresh’ meat we have squirreled away has long been consumed, just before the point where it walked off of its own accord and our fishing prowess has also suffered since Andy’s departure. Additionally, Lowrie and my rather peculiar culinary manifestations are not to everyone’s sensibilities, particularly as Clare might have been born in Texas with her lust for steak, extra provisioning is the order of the day. To which ends, we have reliably been informed that M&S do the finest meat cans (80% meat).

Preparations for the voyage

I need to add here (I’m sure it is mentioned elsewhere, but it’s vital to the proceedings) that Lowrie and I are consummate local food glutens. We avoid supermarkets wherever possible, clearly the meat tin thing is one such a slip, but M&S appear to stand as the superior players amongst a bad lot. Instead, we pound up and down streets to support local green grocers, butchers and health food shops.

Home, the oak tree, sheep and Elstone

At home in fair ‘Debn’ we were lucky enough to live on Gray’s Cider Farm, across the fields from ‘Oak Farm Organics’ who sold us fine beef, lamb and pork cuts and up the hill from ‘Rod and Ben’s’ organic veg boxes. Kenn or Ide village shops are stacked with a rainbow of provisions and crucially open till late. We stacked our cycle panniers with provisions and ground up the hills to the ‘tin can’ – home.

View from the window

We tuck into a roast and prepare to leave Falmouth. On a high tide, a giant chunk of golden moon appears over the hills, simultaneously receding and growing before our eyes. We slip out of the Fal, following the buoys and the stars and heading for the Atlantic. Three hours on, three hours off, we coast through the night, with Lowrie overseeing us all and grabbing kips on the engine house whenever possible. I am useless as I peer into the gloom on my soulless watch with poor Savis. The sloshing, rocking motion and a stint below seals my fate, the roast meal appears for the second time in front of me……

Roast chicken

The weather continues to shine blue and golden. Hours peel by with a routine of watch, helming, cooking and washing up, spattered with entertainment from the Slaw-Savis double act.

Slaw and Savis 'over board'

Then, ‘DOLPHINS’!! A pod of common dolphins streak between the bows and stern, weaving a foaming course by Lista’s side. We are far from land and they are our companions in the never-ending sea.

Sailing the open sea

Common dolphins, as their name suggests are one of the commonest cetaceans with a global population estimated at several million. This does not, however, protect them from the threats of over-fishing and expanding fishing grounds.

Common dolphins have extremely variable white streaks and patterning on their bellies, prompting some scientists to hypothesise that they are different species. They range far out to sea where they feed on squid and small fish. They are highly active and amongst the fastest swimmers of all cetaceans, reaching up to 25 mph.

Me hearties

They keep returning to us during the day… we aren’t sure if they are the same group or new groups coming to check out the vast floating plank. It is bizarre how much pleasure we gain from them. Is it because Delphinus delphis is a mammal like the Homo sapien viewing it, producing an primeval affinity? Rattus rattus, however, is also a mammal, but I can’t recall people rushing to view it with excitement. Perhaps it is because we sight them so infrequently and when they do come it’s with friends to wheel and leap in an apparent playful exuberance.

A Kittiwake catches a ride

The bird life is growing thick like custard…. On our passage from the Exe we have been shadowed by ‘sea turkeys’, gannets; the sea bird colossus, fulmars; noses down, stiff winged, gliding through the sky and guillemots; rafting in cheerful bevies.

Pink waters

The northern gannet Morus bassanus is a truly incredible bird. Its cranium is reinforced allowing it to hit the water, from heights of up to 30m, at force as it dives for fish. Like pelicans, it has air sacs under its skin cushioning impact as it hits the water, while helping it bob back up to the surface with its prey. Its profile is streamlined, with narrow wings allowing it to glide over continental shelves as far south as the tropics.

Since rounding the Lizard Peninsular and Land’s End during the early hours of the night birdlife has really ratcheted up a notch…

A feeding frenzy churns in the sea in front of us. Gannets spear the water from dizzy heights, greater, lesser black-backed and herring gulls crash about in the surf lurching for fish, guillemots and manx shearwater plunge for the shoal. Gradually, the gurgling and frothing subsides and the predators dissipate.

Slaw on the lookout

We head up towards the Irish Sea at a painfully slow 2.6 knots with the sails flapping in the pathetic breath of night. Tanker and ferries appear like menacing sentinels in the night. We desperately train the binoculars at them and try to decipher which way they are heading.

2am. Clare and I take our turn at night watch. Savis, Slaw and Lowrie are playing, ‘dump, marry or screw’, which is surprisingly helpful at staving off the night blues. They crawl into their bunks and we are left in the middle of nowhere. The wind buzzes through the tan sails, the boom creaks against the mast and the ropes tighten as we sway. It feels as if we are explorers from the pages of a musty history book, heading off to find new lands, spices and jewels.

We hear splashes. Dark forms grow closer, spectres rising from the seas. Dolphins. They’re back! A pod of at least eight common dolphins swim by our sides, gliding effortlessly through the wake of our bow. They remain with us for what feels like hours into the night, our friends in the deep black of nowhere. You can see how sailors could have mistaken them for mermaids, appearing from the abyss, with their dark, steam-lined figures, gusts of breath and high pitched sonar song.

We are rapidly working our way around our ‘Sea Areas’ tea towel which hangs above the galley table. We began at Portland, forged through Plymouth and have settled in Lundy.


Gannets flap irregularly past us, frequently in lines of four. I can understand that flying in synchronized lines allows maximum efficiency with each bird benefitting from one anothers back draft, like teams in the Tour de France. I don’t, however, understand why quadruple gannets? (Any ideas, on this or other matters, please email).

Puffins have nosed into the proceedings, in ones or twos, with their youngsters. The fledglings’ diminutive beaks and sooty feathering is most disarming when identifying.

Like puffins, manx shearwaters also nest underground in borrows or rock crevices. Lundy is a particular stronghold for the species. Predation by rats, particularly black rats over the years has, however, started to impact upon the population. After much consultation and with permission from Natural England, the RSPB began a removal programme. This year, surveys have indicated a dramatic recovery in the population.

Menacing clouds

New Zealand is one of the forerunners in pest control for ecological grounds, as many of its native birds (there are no land mammals except bats) are threatened by introduced mammals which prey upon ground nesting birds. The birds (brown kiwi, kakakapo etc.) evolved without the predators that were introduced by man, so have no mechanism for survival against the new threats. Accordingly, many of the islands ringing New Zealand have become bird refuges, similar to Lundy.

As well as the predator control work carried out by the RSPB, Lundy has also benefited from becoming one of the first marine conservation areas in the UK. Fishing is banded within the marine zone which extends around the island to allow stocks to recover. A fish nursery has formed where fish fry (fish young) and young crustaceans such as lobsters are allowed to grow and mature. The RSPB and other environmental organisations are demanding a marine bill to provide more of these protected areas to allow fish stocks to recover. (More about this in the ecology section, when it arrives!)

'Work it girl!'

Then, all together unexpectedly, the dolphins are back. Ai, this is the third time I’ve mentioned the dolphins, a bit repetitive I know…. but this is something new, not just adults, but calves as well!!!!! Even old, jaded sea dog, cap’n’ Lowrie has never seen the like; a trio of adults with their wee young. They are the exact miniature replicas of their mothers (or fathers) glued to their sides, swimming at Lista’s bows. I glue the video camera to my eye and dart about the decks like a mad woman.

Then they are gone, with a flicker of their fins, they recede into the glinting distance. We grab the camera, not a sniff of a dolphin to be seen. I had pressed PAUSE……

A rough sea meal

Milford Haven, late morning. We are expecting tankers, power stations, all the paraphernalia of the UK’s biggest port. We round the corner and find Dale Bay, quite a different vision. A quant fishing village nestles in the bay and we nose up against a pontoon. I fling myself onto the deck in peril of a scolding from cap’n’ for not hurling myself from at least 20ft to attach lines (he has infinite legs and believes all others have similar). I jar my already beaten up back (I had managed to get under a horse’s legs) and hop-along Cassidy style, crab step about securing ropes.

It is quickly appearing to me that the life of a mariner is tough. You can recognize one of the species by their rugged, weather-beaten hide, mottling of bruisers, stern brow, twitching chin measuring the bent of the sky, lack of teeth and bristled barnet. A fine look to evolve into.

The whiskers are growing

Searing heat swathes the bay and other boats join our pontoon. We bask in the sun and dive off the boat.

A school of sailing pupils motor towards us. The instructor tows her brood in a long line behind her in their bath tubs. Not all of them are, however, so keen on striking off on their sailing careers. ‘I don’t want to Miss…, I’m scared.. I don’t like it…’ ensues. Reluctantly and pouting, a pair hover in their dingy and prod away from the pontoon, with ‘Miss’ bellowing instructions at them. ‘Tiller to the right, duck your heads, swap sides Lucy…..’ As they tack and the sails swing, gasps and wails scatter the bay. Eric takes his turn and gleefully strikes out into the distance, with sails blazing. Effortlessly, he manoeuvres turns and glides around the bay, with Miss cooing praise to the wind. The girls glower, crossed-legged on the pontoon.

Sailing School

Sailing again, Savis and Slaw stand proud at the bowsprit and do their sultry, Titanic impersonation as we plunge through the waves….’Oh dear Savis you mean the world to me….oh Slaw..our love will go on and on and on and on!…..’

Leonardo and

A beautiful Pembrokeshire coast passes us, pocked with islands and heaving with wildlife. More dolphins join us as do guillemots and a motley crew of flying companions.

Coastlinbe swooshes past

Finally, in the early evening we coast into Fishguard bay and drop anchor. We grab a bevvy to celebrate….. but it all unravels rather rapidly as the gin is replaced by the pirate’s rum, swiftly followed by a short lived appearance of the whisky and ……deterioration….. ‘What shall we do with the drunkard sailors?’

Daffid and Slaw

I am determined to serve the potato-canned meat (odour of Pedigree Chum) concoction that has been brewing for some hours with occasional hiccupping attention. Incredibly, we do manage a mouthful before the evening merges into dusk. Clare disappears below and is found later passed out on her bunk. I suddenly feel the world is rounding on me and dive for the heads to deposit an offering to the dunny.
Tristan out for the count

Signs of departure are rattling around the boat. Savis and Slaw look set on going. They eye each ferry docking at Fishguard and their disembarking quarry with intent. They have prepared their paper signs for unsuspecting motorists to deploy them home. We all clamber into the dingy and finally reach the pier to see streams of cars disappearing out of range. The guys recede into the distance, two over laden rucksacks and ripples of laughter…….