Across the Pond

It is possible to describe our journey across the Atlantic as “We left Mindelo, Sao Vicente on 1st December, sailed 1,986 miles [according to the log], took 357 hours and arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados on 16th December”. There would be nothing wrong in that except that it would in no way capture all the highs and lows of the experience and, as you will have come to realise, nothing that we do is ever “plain sailing”!

Something that I would do differently is to ensure that we got an early morning start. We had planned to leave mid morning, which probably would have been OK, but unfortunately we timed our arrival at the fuel dock very badly, getting there just after a catamaran. Maybe that wouldn’t have been too bad if the owner of the Cat hadn’t been so selfish. As well as fuel he took on board water – which in itself is not a problem but these catamarans don’t half take a long time to fill – but then he proceeded to wash his boat [which took about 25 minutes], have a shower and call his partner on deck to shower and wash her hair. The guy at the fuel dock went to him several times to tell him we were waiting but he didn’t care at all and it was over one and a half hours before he moved aside. Then, after we had tied alongside, just as Mike was opening the fuel cap another boat decided it wanted to dock rather than wait as we had done. However, had it been safe to dock we would have done so instead of going round and round in circles. We had decided there wasn’t enough space, especially given the wind and, we were right. The other boat came at us head on and if it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of the fuel guy he would have rammed us. As it was his bow was diverted between our bow and the quay so he hit the quay rather than us and our anchor went through his guard rails. Amazingly there was only a little damage to his boat and none to ours.

So, we finally left at 3pm. The reason I say I wouldn’t chose to do this again is purely a psychological one. It meant that “Day 1” and all consecutive “Days” started at 3 o’clock in the afternoon so having done a night shift you weren’t actually starting a new day and I think it would have been better to wake up [albeit for the second time in the morning] and think that another day of the journey had been done.

What we did do, that I think was right, was to stick with GMT throughout the voyage. The time difference between Cape Verde and the Caribbean is 3 hours with sunrise and sunset shifting accordingly as we moved west. By not changing our time and keeping our shifts at 4 hours meant that the “Dog watch” moved from one of us to the other and we both ended up with as many watch hours in darkness. Whilst on the subject – does anyone know why it is called the Dog Watch? We are thinking it maybe because the Dog constellation [which is only 2 stars so we aren’t quite sure which bit of the dog it is!] appears in the night sky just before dawn. Someone may know differently?

The first six days passed fairly uneventfully. We sailed most of that time, only reverting to the engine [approx 8 hours] for a battery boost following a couple of cloudyish days with little wind. We then had our first little bit of drama when, during a gybe manoeuvre involving swapping the spinnaker pole to the other genoa sheet, the sheet slapped against the starboard bow navigation light and sent the cover flying into the sea. Fortunately the new LED wasn’t harmed and, because LEDs have to be the colour of the required light, we did have a green light. However, we were fairly clear that we would need to protect it and so, in true Blue Peter style, we utilised a lemonade bottle. OK, so the duct tape didn’t stop the light from shining upwards – which we think was spotted by a plane much later as we approached Barbados as we overheard a radio transmission – but obviously we were therefore visible which, as far as we were concerned was the important thing.

About 2 hours later, I noticed a small tear in the mainsail. This was as a result of it rubbing against a rough bit at the end of one of the spreaders. NB for other yachties [and now on our jobs list] – fit spreader end covers. You may recall that in the posting about jobs completed in La Gomera I noted particularly the ascent Mike made up the mast. Well, up he went again in the middle of the Atlantic and, a small rectangle of sticky sail patch on each side of the half reefed main [to facilitate access] solved the problem. So, quite a busy afternoon for which Mike was awarded the CDM [Cadbury’s Dairy Milk] for being a real Milk Tray man – and he duly received a rosette which I made during my night shift. Ahhh how sweet.

Our next fun and games was with the asymmetric. We have been using this intermittently and on each occasion Mike has tried a slightly different way of fixing it as he has never been really happy with the instructions for fitting it at the tack [bottom front corner for all non yachtie mates]. He decided that the two pieces of flimsy rope were inadequate and therefore rigged a steel wire to a long line back to the winch. This looked and worked great. Well it did for about two hours and then it snapped having been worn away by rubbing on the bow roller side flanges. How on earth we have got away with just the flimsy rope previously goodness only knows. Mike has now decided that a mini bow sprit might be the answer.

All then went well for the next 18 hours until just after midday on 10th December [end of day 9] when we started getting gusts of 30 knots plus. These continued for about 4 hours, with intermittent rain, but weren’t too much of a bother as we had a reef in each sail. Then, at around 4.45pm, when Mike was in the cabin preparing a meal, I leant in and said to him “I know it sounds stupid but I think you need to look at this because those dark clouds that have just passed over us seem to be coming back”. No sooner had he popped his head up when there was a complete change in wind direction, it started to pour down and the wind rose to 32 with gusts 36+ [the highest I saw recorded being 42 knots]. I wouldn’t like to say for definite what order things went in but I remember us both pulling hard on various sheets and trying to use the winch to bring in the genoa, the engine being turned on, Mike yelling at me to go down and check that he had turned off the gas cooker, the sails making cracking sounds far greater than any thunderclap, neither of us being able to see beyond our noses but both of us looking and feeling around wildly for anything else we could discern might have gone wrong or be about to. The genoa was the worst because at some stage – possibly when the wind changed or maybe when we were blatted by one of the gusts – it took out the clew cringle [the ring at the back of the sail] and the corner of the sail leaving us with no sheets attached. These themselves were flying wildly, snapped open the gap in the guardrail and got caught up in the port flag halyard [which actually meant that the spaghetti tangle they made stopped the sheets from going overboard and possibly wrapping round the keel – so small mercies are good and we are appropriately thankful].

We managed to get the genoa half furled but all the strain the wind was putting onto it coupled with the constant flailing and flapping resulting in the sail opening itself as fast as we were pulling it in meant that we ran out of genoa furling line. We knew we were at risk of losing the forestay [and the possible result of that being to lose the mast] so something had to be done. I came up with the idea of using the spinnaker halyard to try to wrap the remaining sail from the top. Of course this wasn’t ideal as it meant Mike going out to the bow but we couldn’t come up with an alternative and all the time the sail was still banging crazily. So, off he went. Suffice to say that there was a lot of holding of breath, grasping hard of spray hood and straining of all senses on my part as I tried to work out how he was getting on whilst being unable to hear or really see him but, after about 20 minutes, he re-emerged having done the best job he could.

So, two dripping and shaking people descended into the cabin. The shaking was nothing at all to do with the effect of wind or rain on the person as both of these were, thankfully, warm – but I think you will be able to work it out for yourselves. The cabin was also fairly wet by this stage as the companionway was open but that was the least of our worries. I know now that at some stage we were both thinking life raft but neither of us actually voiced it, I sat at the chart table under which is stored the grab bag and mentally considered what else we might need and Mike told me the following morning that he managed to convince himself we were taking on water even though looking in the bilges showed we weren’t.

I think then that this was the scariest experience we have had so far. For the rest of the night we tried to take turns sleeping but didn’t manage very well. We ventured on deck about once every half hour. We couldn’t really see anything anyway but we did our best. There were also small changes of course to be made to keep us on track. When I went on deck I just stripped off. We already had two sets of wet clothing filling the two heads so there was no point in further wet stuff and skin dries easily with a towel. The wind started to drop around 5am, 12 hours after the mayhem really started and by midday it was fine and sunny and we were able to re string the furler, untie and then re-tie the genoa with the spinnaker halyard so that it looked almost neatly stowed and also repair the main outhaul. Oh – I hadn’t mentioned the main had I! Whilst we were tugging and pulling for all our worth Mike saw something dark fly across his head. He thought it was the wind vane but that was working properly so was obviously still attached. It was actually a metal part of the outhaul mechanism which pulls the sail down as it is being pulled out. Probably has a name but even Mike not sure of this one! It isn’t vital, but since we were in fixing things mode we thought we would try to rig a temporary solution and, at the same time, replace the outhaul with a longer/newer/better one – and of course every good yachtie has a few spare ropes to hand.

Some of you may be asking why we hadn’t anticipated this weather and wonder whether we had stupidly ignored forecasting having promised, after the crossing from Portugal to the Canaries, that we would use the grib faithfully. What we would like to know is why the grib was so clearly awry and why every grib we were able to download on the whole journey did not show anything like the winds we were getting. Throughout the period of the crossing the grib was showing NE or E and our predominant wind was actually SE. This surprised us doubly because everything we have read says that the journey is usually done completely on a starboard tack and we spent three quarters of it on a port tack. Even taking account of our previous experience with grib forecasting and converting e.g. a Force 2 to a more likely Force 3 it was still out by some considerable margin. So, with both wind direction and speed being different in reality to that forecast I don’t think we could have done anything. Maybe what we need to do is find a secondary source of weather forecasting to use alongside the grib. We don’t want to discount it and, to be fair, it has been accurate since we arrived here so maybe it was just a blip – but, for us, one heck of a blip.

Still, we understand that the Forces Rowing team who were crossing the Atlantic to raise money for “Help for Heroes” were shipwrecked, we hear that there were problems for several of those on the ARC and a couple we met in Mindelo who told us they would see us in Barbados have, we now know, lost their rudder and were last reported to be heading for St Lucia as that is where the wind was taking them – so we weren’t the only ones. I think that we can say that “Siga Siga” was tested and came through and likewise so were, and did, we.

But there was some good/interesting stuff happening as well. I posted a photograph of a flying fish last time and on this voyage we saw hundreds and hundreds of them and many of them, unfortunately, flew onto the boat at night – mainly unbeknown to us until the next morning. On one occasion Mike had made himself a coffee and was struggling to get it up the companionway without spilling it [not an easy thing at all]. He placed it on the deck just as a wave hit the side which set us rolling and the coffee slopped over. Then, there was a bang and a sloshing sound and a flying fish slid over the spray hood and landed in his spilt coffee. That one survived, we think, as Mike put it back in the sea. Now I am not sure why – but the idea of picking up a slippery, flapping live fish doesn’t exactly appeal to me – so, when I was on watch and I heard one land on the deck I panicked for a moment as I didn’t want it to die but I didn’t want to pick it up. So I dashed down into the cabin and took a plastic spatula from the cutlery drawer – henceforth called the “flying fish flipper” – try saying that quickly after a few drinks. I had it handy every night after that but those fish which landed outside of the reach of the cockpit were left where they landed because we have the rule that neither of us leave the cockpit at night without the other being there and, much as I don’t like the fish dying, it is not sufficient an “emergency” to wake Mike up every time.

We saw a small pod of dolphins just after we left Mindelo and then, on the morning we arrived here we were greeted by a few larger dolphins. Perhaps these are porpoise – I am not sure what the difference is – I think it is something to do with the shape of their noses. Anyway, the sea is so clear that I watched one dolphin turning upside down in the bow waves and could see two smaller fish “attached” to it probably eating the small parasites or something. Symbiosis in action.

But, the best fishy tale is “the one that got away and the one that didn’t”. At the halfway stage in the crossing, Mike had decided that he really wanted to catch a fish to supplement our diet. In the past this hasn’t gone at all according to plan as we have never had the slightest nibble. However, on this occasion, Mike hadn’t even let the line out fully when he got a bite. In his excitement and haste he pulled the line back in too quickly and lost the fish on the end of it. He thinks it was a Wahoo. So, out went the line again and the time came for a little patience but about one hour later this was rewarded by another bite. Having learnt his lesson he started to reel in more slowly. I then heard Mike shout “Plastic Bag” so dashed downstairs to get a bag as I thought that Mike wanted one to land the fish in. He then said “No, I think I have caught a plastic bag” – and sure enough coming towards the back of the boat on the end of the line was something big and bright blue which looked remarkably like a plastic bag until it started to jump. It was, in fact a lovely skipjack tuna and the proud fisherman was able to produce fantastic meals for the next three nights [as well as a lunch time snack].

And now – from fish to bird…..

Our approach to Barbados needed to be timed so that we arrived early morning as it is very clear in the pilot that a yacht must not anchor until clearance has been obtained. So, our last day at sea was undertaken in real Siga Siga fashion – i.e. very slowly. There was no wind so we just turned the engine off and basically stopped. Then we were visited by a little swallow who flew round us a few times, tried to land on the wind generator blade [they weren’t going round at the time] and finally perched on the guard rail. You will have seen him before on your Christmas e.card but here he is again and, as we discovered the following morning at the north end of Barbados, he found himself a safe hiding place underneath the bike covers and hitched a ride to land.

Whilst swallow watching we decided that we had to indulge in another clichéd exercise, i.e. a swim from the boat. It is just one of those things that you have to do and so, safely tied on, we separately ventured overboard. It was really warm and we were both surprised by the amount of pull there is on a yacht which is seemingly standing still. It is a strange feeling swimming in a huge ocean with nothing in sight except your own boat for miles and miles. In fact, this was something we remarked on throughout the journey as, after losing sight of the two other yachts that left Mindelo at the same time as us we only saw one other yacht and one trawler throughout the whole journey.

Well, that is until we reached Barbados when suddenly there were four cruise ships arriving from the north-west all of whom wanted to get into the harbour at first light. We decided not to get in their way which was probably a good decision. They really are massive – as we fully appreciated when we were directed to sail down between them to berth in Bridgetown harbour.  It was the strangest berthing experience yet. Quite how we were supposed to attach lines to wall fenders which were about twelve foot in height and seven foot in width, with a narrow top and standing out from the harbour wall by three feet I am not sure. Fortunately we saw some steps in the corner and I was able to leap off onto these and tie us to some large bollards.

And so, there ends our journey across the Atlantic, though the story doesn’t quite finish yet….

We found the three agencies we had to visit in the port – health clearance first and then customs and, finally immigration. We had a little time to wait whilst the cruise ship papers were dealt with but then proceeded to visit the different offices. When we had done all the paperwork with the customs guy he asked Mike if he would do him a favour – which was to go and buy him two bottles of duty free Vodka! I was at first a bit dubious about this – was it some form of trick? However, it was just a customs man twisting the rules a bit and buying his Xmas tipple. So, good health to him and to all of you as well.


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    • Steve Chambers on January 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm
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    Claire and Mike. Happy New Year and thanks for another hair-raising episode of the SigaSiga story! It must make you miss the excitement of a Thursday SMT Claire! Fantastic stuff though. Just steer clear of pirate infested seas, as you are bound to be kidnapped. We all raised a glass to you both when we were on a work post-Xmas night out on Friday. Take care both of you. Steve

    • Steve & Gill on January 17, 2012 at 6:56 am
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    Happy New Year. Congratulations on reaching Barbados. Yet again a great blog entry. Really thrilling read. Have a fantastic time in the Caribbean. Can’t wait for the next installment. Steve.

    • Russ on February 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm
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    Hi Claire & Mike – I have started to follow your blog having recently bought a M44. I am of course morbidly interested in anything that breaks as well as the sailing rig tips and experiences …
    I am busy refitting my boat to follow in your wake in 2013….
    all the best
    Russ & Jaz
    SV Enterprise

    • Lesley on May 11, 2012 at 5:18 pm
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    Well I know I’m many months behind now with your story but I’m slowly catching up!!
    The crossing sounds amazing (and a touch hair-raising in places!)
    And the idea of your nav lights being spotted by planes made me chuckle somewhat!
    Now, just another 5 months to catch up on!

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