Monday, 29 November 2010

Voyage Interrupted

Unfortunately my Atlantic adventure has been cut short, due to various issues including some urgent commitments back home.  After spending some time exploring Lanzarote, I said my goodbyes to Dave, Rob and Russel, and headed back to cold old England.  Although a little disappointed, I have some amazing stories to tell and incredible experiences to draw upon.  But most of all I've made some great friends.

I will definitely complete my odyssey sometime in the future - in the meantime I'll be closely following the progress of Rob and Dave.  I wish them and the new crew of Vegas A well and safe journey.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Planet of Life

Dolphins became such a common sight throughout all the legs to the Canary Islands, that we really missed them on the days that they didn't arrive.  We identified them as being the Common Dolphin (Delphinus Delphis), and they were truly magical to watch.  Visit the Sea Watch Foundation website for more information on dolphins and their distribution.

Another fascinating yet mysterious animal that we came across was the sea turtle.  We first came across turtles in the crossing between Lagos (Portugal) and Lanzarote (Canary Islands), during the first 3 days when the sea was dead calm and the wind non-existent.  We initially thought that they were pieces of floating debris, as they were mostly submerged, and all we could see was a small dark mass with irregular "lumps" or ridges on the dorsal surface.  We must have passed about 10 of these before we realised that they were, in fact, alive!  We passed close by to one of them; it raised it's head out of the water, must have been just as surprised to see us as we were to see it, and promptly dived, only to resurface a moment later with a fluke in the air, as if to say "I give up"!  We weren't able to positively identify the species, but due to the presence of ridges on the back I assume that they were Leatherback Turtles.  See the Sea Turtle Foundation website for a fascinating insight into the world of turtles and their distribution.

Other life that we saw included small land birds that had flown over 100 miles offshore to find food -  especially off the west coast of Africa, where warm winds off the Sahara blow insects far out to sea.  It's amazing to see a small, fragile bird flitting between the waves, taking the occasional rest on the guard rails of the boat, and then disappearing again into the distance.

It is awe-inspiring to think of the magnificence of the planet on which we live.  When sailing on brilliant blue water with a depth of 4000m+, the brief encounters of life that we had were a mere hint of what lay below us.  And yet, as a species we have somehow managed to threaten so many others with extinction.  I truly hope that by thinking of our place on this planet as being integral, rather than separate, to the system that gave us life, that we can preserve what's left for our children.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Running the Trade Winds

The time had come to leave Portugal, and make the longest crossing yet, to the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Island archipelago.  At around 550 nautical miles, we estimated it would take us around 5 days to get to our destination.  We departed at about midday of the 20th October, after doing some last minute grocery shopping and refuelling, and motored out into flat seas, heading in a south westerly direction across the stretch of ocean that forms the Straits of Gibraltar in the east.  The forecast was for very little wind for the first 2 or 3 days, so we weren't expecting to do any fast sailing.

The night of the 20th merged into the morning of the 21st as we crossed the shipping lanes, where as always, we kept a sharp lookout for tankers and cargo ships to ensure that these behemoths didn't come up on us too quickly.  As day broke we decided to try and get the spinnaker up to take advantage of some very light winds behind us, but besides this the day continued on, uneventful and warm.  Another gorgeous setting sun behind some clouds, and our watch cycle began again.  The night brought with it unsettled weather with thunderstorms brewing in the distance, and still no wind.  We had to steer clear of some very active lightning clouds, and got drenched a few times by warm rain - welcome to tropical downpours at sea!

Daybreak of the 22nd arrived with continued intermittent downpours, but the air remained still. Based on our GRIB files, we were expecting some wind coming from the north east within the next 24 hours - the beginning of the trade winds that sweep down towards the Canary Islands, and then west across the open Atlantic.  Another day of calm and we should start to see some activity.

As the night of the 22nd progressed the wind indeed began to pick up, and by the morning of the 23rd we had a brisk 15 knots of wind coming up behind us from a north-easterly direction.  At last the trades!  With blue skies and a full mainsail, we were making a good 5 to 5.5 knots.  As the day wore on, the wind began to increase so that we were experiencing around 20 knots of wind, and the sea state began to pick up.  Through the night the wave height continued to build, and by daybreak of the 24th we were surfing down big rollers in 25 to 30 knot gusts.  At least we were making good speed!

As the wind was a consistent north-easterly, we were running on a south-westerly course, which, if we continued on, would take us west of Lanzarote instead of along the eastern side.  We needed to make a decision as to whether or not we would be able to gybe, and take a south easterly course to round the northern tip of the island, or to continue on to Gran Canaria or Tenerife.  The problem was the height of the waves and the wind gusts which were now approaching 35 knots - by gybing we could potentially put ourselves in a dangerous position by sailing beam-on to the waves, and risk a knockdown in big seas.  We needed to make a decision, as within a few hours we would be at the maximum angle where we could turn south-east and follow a line to the northern tip of Lanzarote.  We waited for around 2 hours to see if the sea state improved, which it did slightly, and so on skipper's orders we gybed and set our new course.

Surfing down a following sea
A challenging night in big seas and high winds (35 knots) meant a tired crew by the time day broke on the 25th, mainly due to the intense concentration required when helming in such conditions, but with Lanzarote in sight we were nearing our destination.  As we rounded the northern point, the headland sheltered the sea and suddenly we were in the calm, and able to make a cup of tea without being rolled from one side of the boat to the other!  We headed for Aricefe, but apon arrival found the harbour to be unsuitable for mooring, so we headed further down the coast to Puerto Calero.  As we entered the marina, we were greeted by my gorgeous wife who'd flown out to meet us - a brilliant welcome after weeks at sea.

As in life, in sailing we need to be prepared to change our plans, as sometimes the winds can be stronger than predicted, or blowing in the wrong direction.  And sometimes we need to make decisions that are a calculated risk.  Once made though, we need commitment and determination to see them through, and when our goal is reached, the taste of success is all the sweeter.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Opposite Extreme

The morning of the 14th arrived with sunny skies and virtually no wind - the forecast predicted quiet conditions right through to the weekend, so we knew that we'd need to rely on the engine to get us at least part of the way to Lagos, our next destination  We decided that we'd depart sometime that afternoon.

After a walk into the town of Porto from the marina, and visting the local market (a genuine market selling fish straight off the fishing boats, fresh vegetables and even live chickens and rabbits!) and supermarket, we were stocked up for the estimated 2 day trip to Lagos.  Upon returning to the marina we stowed the groceries and cast off at around 15h00, glad to leave the very polluted waters of the working port behind.

An almost total lack of wind meant motoring for hours, which led into days, on end - making an average speed of around 4 knots.  In good sailing conditions we would normally make around 5-6 knots, so we were losing approximately 24 miles a day, which meant that our 2 day trip turned out to be a 3 day one.  Although the days were beautifully bright and warm, and the sea state calm, the endless drone of the engine seemed to slow time down, so we were looking for things to do to keep us occupied.  Dave our skipper taught us how to "whip" the end of frayed ropes (using waxed nylon twine to bind the end), and we got on with a few small maintenance jobs.  The night watches also seemed to last longer than usual, and if it weren't for cups of tea being regularly made, we'd nod off at the helm!  We also had the occasional visit from dolphins - something which is always welcome, although they seemed to mock our lack of speed by jumping out of the water.

You don't need a reason to play!
On we motored, and by the time we reached Cape St. Vincent, the south-western most point of Europe with it's impressive lighthouse, we were running very low on fuel, having already used up 2 reserve containers.  We were hoping that as we turned the corner and headed east, we'd pick up some much-needed wind.  As we rounded the cape, a welcome 15 knots of wind, blowing off the land in a southerly direction greeted us.  We unfurled  the genoa, killed the engine and cruised towards Lagos at around 6 knots, with broad smiles on our faces showing relief that we didn't have to resort to oars, to get us the remaining 20 odd miles into port!

Cape St. Vincent, Portugal
We entered the pretty (although touristy) port of Lagos at around 17h00 of the 17th, and after mooring up we found a local restaurant - the extended time that it had taken for us to get to Lagos had also meant low food reserves and a hungry (and thirsty) crew!

Arrived at last!
So far on this adventure we've had both extremes of weather thrown at us - the lesson being learning to accept and adapt to whatever we encounter - to "go with the flow"....

Next stop - the Canaries!
Until then....

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

A Strong Spirit

We departed A Coruna on October 11th under sunny skies, with a good 20 knots of wind off the starboard beam, followed by a single-handed yachtsman on his way to the Canaries to take part in the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers).  We made an excellent 7.5-8 knots of speed to round the first headland, by which time we had to change course further south to put us on a run/broad reach.  We set the preventer and continued uneventfully until dusk.

Our soloist friend
As dusk drew in, we took in the headsail and put another reef in the mainsail, after which we had a delicious chilli con-carne made by Rob.  We started our watches at 21h00 with a new system of 3 hour shifts, which have worked out well in giving us a better sleep cycle.  It was a beautiful clear night, with some heavy gusts from a north-easterly direction that took us up to around 8 knots in speed.  The clear conditions continued through the night, and as Rob and I were on watch again for the 06h00 to 09h00 shift, we saw a beautiful sunrise over the sea and the western Spanish coastline.

Watching the sun rise
As the morning of the 12th continued with very light winds (3 knots), we set the cruising chute to try and make the best speed possible.  Our following companion, the soloist, radioed to say that he was changing course towards Vigo, as he was tired and couldn't continue on to Porto without rest.  We wished him the best of luck - it takes great strength of spirit and deep reserves to do something like this on your own.  Soon afterwards, a pod of dolphins suddenly made their typically uplifting appearance, rolling and cutting through the water, challenging the boat to more speed.  I never tire of watching these beautiful, intelligent creatures in their wild environment.

More playful companions
Late in the afternoon, with the wind having died down to almost nothing, we decided to head further inshore to try and pick up a sea breeze, but after a few hours we realised that we'd need to continue through the night under motor.  So onwards we went, under an impossibly starry sky and sliver of moon towards Porto.  Sometime in the night, we crossed from Spanish into Portuguese waters.

About 4 hours outside Porto, as Rob and I started a second shift on this, our second night, we noticed that an acrid, sulphurous smell had started to fill the saloon of the boat, and I started to hunt down the source of the odour.  It turned out that the main engine battery was overcharging and overheating, giving off potentially dangerous hydrogen and sulphurous gas - a possible problem related to the new alternator repair.  So we cut the engine and tried to make the most of the faintest breath of air to get us further in towards Porto.

Eventually, as dawn arrived, we were able to restart the engine with the now cooled battery and motor into the very industrial Porto harbour, surrounded by incoming fishing boats with their catches and attendant flocks of seagulls.  Polluted waters and the stench of rotting fish filled our nostrils, but the yacht marina proved to have good facilities.

Fishing boats and their entourage
Apart from the battery problem, we'd had a relatively uneventful, though windless trip, and after mooring up and the official customs visit, we were able to walk up to the town and have a typically Portuguese meal of chicken, rice and potatoes, overlooking a sandy beach.  As we ate our meal I thought of our soloist friend, and wondered what challenges he might face further down the line.

Good luck to him and his vessel - may he have fair winds and sunny skies.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Local Knowledge

At around midday of the day we arrived in Gijon, battered and bruised, we said goodbye to our crewmate Magda, who departed for the UK from Gijon airport.  We then made some enquiries into getting our alternator repaired, hung out all of our very soaked wet weather gear and then got a few hours sleep. Later that day a diesel electrician arrived and took the alternator away, promising to get it repaired as soon as possible.

Drying out

Sail repair required
On Thursday morning, we started with the necessary work to repair the various breakages of Biscay.  We did our best to repair torn sails, a failed winch and broken jammers, as well as lots more drying out.  I was sent up the mast to replace a failed navigation light, and by that evening we'd earned a few ice cold beers at the local terrace pub, where we watched a fascinating display of a local tradition - pouring locally produced cider into a glass from above one's head (apparently it brings out the flavour!).

Beer at sunset
Our trusty marine electrician arrived in the early afternoon of the following day, with good news, and soon we had a fully charging battery.  We decided we should probably make the best of the spell of good weather, and so departed for A Coruna on Friday evening at around 17h30.  We had checked the weather information for the trip, and expected variable southerly winds, with an expected maximum of around 15 knots.  Our friendly electrician did offer up the advice of imminent bad weather, but we were confident of the forecast.  With a full night of uninterrupted sleep the previous night, we were in good spirits.

The weather held into the late evening, and Russell set up a hand-line and within 20 minutes, he'd hooked us the first of 3 fish!  Soon after eating a delicious dinner, the watches began as night fell, and we settled into our nightly routine.  Biscay was, however, not done with us, and after a few hours of rain and changeable wind, we were hit by a squall at  03h00 on Saturday morning.  We were driven further inshore by a northerly blast of 30 knots, and in our attempts to get further out, our depth gauge started showing dangerously shallow water.  We managed to get out however, and held out through to Saturday lunchtime, when the weather started to improve.  By Saturday evening we were approaching the north-west corner of Spain where we could start turning south towards A Coruna.

Russell with dinner
The night continued into the early hours of Sunday morning, with clear skies and a magnificent array of stars, and we held our plotted course under engine, as the wind had died down.  By 05h00 we were on the approach to A Coruna harbour, and were moored up by 08h30.

A hot shower, hearty breakfast, and a bright warm day marks the start of our brief visit to A Coruna.  Lets hope the weather window holds for our trip to Porto in a few days.  This time, however, local weather knowledge will hold more weight than flashy forecasts...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Battle of Biscay

We left Falmouth on the morning of Saturday, October 2nd at 08h00, after an emotional goodbye, with the adventure of a lifetime lying ahead of us.  And what a start it was - crossing the Bay of Biscay proved to be beyond our wildest expectations in terms of challenges to our endurance and spirit.

In the late afternoon we were heading from the Cornish coast, south west towards the shipping lanes, when suddenly a pod of dolphins appeared.  They swam with the boat for about an hour - watching them was a mesmerising experience.  They have the most incredible sense of the motion of the boat, and effortlessly jumped and twisted in the wake as we sped along. A "good omen" I thought at the time - little did I know that perhaps they were offering us a warning of things to come!

Playful company
We started our first series of watches at around 21h00, with Russell and I doing the first stint of 2 hours. Rob and Magda took the second watch with Dave our skipper, and so it went through the night, steering a close reach course through some unsettled weather.  At around 04h00 the following morning, we were due to change watch again, and Rob and Magda were just waking from their slumber when we were unexpectedly hit by 35 knots of wind.  The bow of the boat rounded up and Russell, who was helming at the time, was unable to hold course - we were hopelessly overpowered - we needed to reduce sail, and fast!  I shouted for some help below, and once we had a few more hands on deck, was able to put another reef in the mainsail and reduce the genoa.  We were being battered by our first dose of Biscay weather, and it lasted for around 6 hours.

By Sunday afternoon, the wind calmed and we were able to get our exhausted selves together.  Magda volunteered to cook an interesting egg and potato dish for dinner, which was welcome as we hadn't eaten the whole day.  Little did we know that this was going to provide us with the energy needed to deal with our next dose of severe weather.  We'd taken a look at the Navtex weather information we'd received, and it indicated gale force winds, so we were a little more prepared for this than before.  When it did hit us on Sunday night, we had to endure around 12 hours of constant battering; we also had a series of mishaps, such as a few violent gybes that threatened to break our mainsheet traveller, which could have had catastrophic consequences.  The alternator on our engine had also packed in, and as our batteries weren't charging, we weren't able to start the engine.  This proved to be an issue through the following days, as we were reduced to barely enough power to light the compass at night, let alone other navigation instruments.

By Monday afternoon the sea state had calmed, and we even had a few hours of intermittent sunshine.  But again, because this is Biscay, nothing is impossible, and by late on Monday night, we entered the worst of the weather systems that we were to encounter on this leg.  A severe gale, with winds of between 35 and 40 knots and beating rain, hammered us for hour after hour, with the sea state building bigger and bigger.  Massive waves were breaking over the boat, and helming in the dark proved to be a roller coaster ride.  Nature was flexing her infinite muscles, and we were witnessing her immense power.  The terrifying beauty of mountainous waves breaking in the dark, lit up by phosphorescence, was awe-inspiring.  By this time we had decided to change course towards where we thought calmer weather would be, towards Gijon in Spain, instead of A Coruna.

Skipper at the helm
The storm lasted into late on Tuesday morning, and eventually the waves started to lose their height and power, although the rain persisted.  We were exhausted and wet, and with the last of the remaining laptop power, Dave plotted a final course to Gijon.  Through persistent rain, we continued on, heading 190 degrees, and finally in the early hours of Wednesday morning, we sighted the lighthouses of the Spanish coast.  Eventually the navigation beacons marking the approach to Gijon became visible, and we entered the harbour at about 06h00.  A cup of tea was  followed by a much needed shower and a long sleep.  

Below decks after a watch
Its amazing what we can endure when placed in a situation that we can't escape.  The biggest battle though, is not with the outside world, but with yourself.

Next, on to A Coruna!  Until then...