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.
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.
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) . . . . .