Sunday, 2 September 2012

Crossing the Atlantic - Part 3: Final Stretch

48 hours after we had retrieved the drogue from the water, the weather was starting to show signs of abating. The waves were still huge and epic, and would still have been the biggest we'd ever seen if we had seen them three days before. But now we had 2 days experience of steering in them, and it was time to get some rest. Two hours is not nearly enough time to remove foul weather gear, clamber into a bunk at a strange angle and get any worthwhile amount of sleep, so we reverted to the normal watch schedule, to win us some much-needed sleep time.

The mood on board gradually shifted from the tense uncertainty of survival mode to the growing relief that we were nearing the final days of the voyage. No passage is over, however, until the boat is safely tied up in a harbour.

Perhaps the most amazing thing I saw on the crossing is dolphins darting around at night time. Due to the phosphorescence inherent in the ocean waters, a night time dolphin appears as a luminous water-spirit, the light of the jostled plankton dancing around the boat in long trails, looking like sea-dragons. On several occasions, we saw groups of 5 or 6 dolphins swimming together in the dark, their trails weaving together alongside the boat, one peeling off every now and then, swimming away, and curving back to join the others again. This is almost made even more special as it cannot be filmed, due to the low light level of the phosphorescent glow.

Another amazing and unphotographable night time phenomenon was experienced by Matt and I on the first night that the wind seemed to be settling down. There was a bright moon off our starboard quarter to the south, and many of the larger clouds brought fast intense squalls of rain, some of which drenched us briefly, and some of which passed us by. One of the larger squalls that did not hit us directly passed us on the port side, and in conjunction with the moon caused an unbelievably beautiful effect that I have come to call a "moonbow". This was the nocturnal equivalent of a rainbow, caused by the moon, rather than the sun, shining on falling rain. It was quite magical. Instead of seven bright colours, the moonbow had seven shimmering shades of silvery grey.

As the high pressure weather system moved over us, the wind lightened, the horizon became horizontal (and flat!), and we gradually changed the sails back up the gears to larger and larger sail plans. The sky contained more settled cloud patterns, such as "cloud streets", with which I am familiar from my paragliding experience. I correctly predicted that as we passed under each cloud street, we would get a little bit more wind strength and pressure in the sails. Although there was reportedly a warm front on the way, this never caught up with us, and even the cloud streets eventually petered out. For the second time on the passage, we became becalmed. Nick decided to run the engine. Although the relatively flat sea was a nice contrast to the maelstrom of days previous, the engine was noisy, and it was slightly uncertain as to whether we had enough fuel to get us to the British Isles.

The next few days were a fine test of patience. The large high pressure system that we found ourselves in was sitting just off the Celtic coasts (Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany). While this was far preferable to the low pressure systems that had been sitting here in the weeks before we left St. John's, it made for a frustrating time. The light winds came and went - mostly went - and we tried to balance the ability to make what speed we could with the necessity of saving fuel. A happy medium was found by sailing with the motor on just slightly, which  kept us around 5-6 knots: not a bad speed in theory, but frustratingly slow as we had got used to a steady 8 knots while running before the big winds. Fortunately, we were still heading East.

From my diary:
"The current scenario is that we are all aware that we are fast approaching the British Isles: in fact, we passed south of Ireland at some point today. But it is so frustrating because, a) None of us can see it, and b) It's still over a day's sail to the Isles of Scilly, and especially now that we are down to 5 knots, it all seems frustratingly out of reach.
On the other hand, I am having such a wonderful time that I can't believe it's all nearly over - we will almost certainly arrive in Falmouth at some point within the next 48 hours, which would make our crossing time less than 2 weeks, which would be amazing. "

The relative boredom of the last few days was pleasantly relieved by the ability to cook again, and time for some serious music-making.

Further excitement came from being once again in the company of dolphins.

There were a number of huge pods which seemed to enjoy splashing along around our bows and chattering away.

We had dolphins following us for hundreds of miles, and I took the opportunity to get some underwater images by attaching my waterproof camera to a boat hook.

At one point, we saw a different pod of a much larger species of dolphin. The ones who had been following us surreptitiously disappeared while the larger dolphins came and investigated the boat. The larger species did not stay with us, but after a while, we noticed that the smaller ones were back. It seems that dolphin species are as territorial as any other animal.

When a slight rise in wind speed eventually allowed us to switch the engine off altogether, the dolphins immediately went away. There was I thinking they were peace-loving, anti-pollution type eco-creatures, and they disappeared as soon as we made the switch to a renewable form of energy! Theories on why this might be ranged from "they probably enjoy scratching their backs on the spinning propeller" to "they must have been trying to tell us to please switch our engine off, and now they've got their message across!"

On the evening of Saturday 1st of September, I was on watch with Nathan, and baking a cake at the same time. At around 6:05 pm (Taniwha time), I came up from checking on my cake, and Nathan said, "is that a lighthouse?" And it was! About 20 miles to the North, we could see Bishop Rock Lighthouse, off the Isles of Scilly: the first fixed point that any of us had seen for 12 days! In the excitement, I forgot all about the cake until a burning smell crept up from the galley... Only the top was singed, however, and the cake was enjoyed by all.

As afternoon slid into evening, Bishop Rock was joined on the horizon by the low-lying islands of St, Mary and St. Agnes, and we realized we had done it! Taniwha had crossed The Atlantic! And here we were entering the English channel, perhaps the busiest shipping lane in the world...

As Nick correctly predicted, it was to be a busy night. Everything on a boat happens in slow motion, and at night especially, it is easy to feel very detached from small lights in the distance. But small lights in the distance can suddenly turn into things like big ships very close by.  It can all get very real very quickly, so now that we were in busy waters, we had to keep our wits about us and fight the inherently somnolent nature of the night watch. While I was on watch with Matt, somewhere just south of Mounts Bay, we discerned from a minimal collection of lights behind us that a cargo ship that had just rounded Land's End was headed straight for us. The other ship hailed us on the radio, and Matt replied, while I kept us on course. The ship was far enough away that they could alter course to steer round us. Further to our stern, two Irish ferries crossed paths, but were far enough behind us that no evasive action was needed.

After we had rounded the Lizard, which has the brightest most intense lighhouse I have ever seen, Nick and Nathan, who had  taken over from Matt and I, roused the rest of us to go up and help them with our final change of course: we tacked and set our final course for the mouth of Falmouth harbour, around where there were several huge ships moored.

And all of a sudden, there we were, in the early hours of the morning, sailing into Falmouth. Just outside the harbour entrance, we started the engine and dropped the sails. As with our arrival into St. John's, the smells of land wafted down to us off the hills. Here it was the smells of morning dew on grassy fields, woodlands, earth and acorns: those quintessentially English smells I had not smelled for over two years.
Tying up at the pontoon, we found ourselves surrounded by unmoving objects: hills in the middle distance, harbour walls, and many quaint-looking buildings, most of which were the size of mid-Atlantic waves...

And then I leapt ashore...

And tied us up!

And the voyage was over!

After a day of coming down-to-earth, during which Nathan left on the train for Heathrow, Matt suggested that the four of us go out for a celebratory drink. On the way to the pub, I completed my no-fly circumnavigation - by walking through a space I had been to on my last visit to Falmouth, since when I had not boarded an aircraft of any description. To celebrate, I allowed Matt to buy me a gingerale/grapefruit juice (I only had Canadian Dollars on me) and sat down with the others and wondered what to do next.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Crossing The Atlantic - Part 2: MONSTROUS!

For a day or two after being becalmed, we happily sailed downwind making good speed in the direction we wanted to go. The sunrises and sunsets were consistently beautiful, and the good weather and numerous visits by dolphins kept us all in good spirits and feeling somewhat invincible.

Nick had been downloading weather charts from the SSB radio to a fax reader app on the iPad. He had been warning us since the becalmment that according to the weather forecasts, the benign conditions we had been experiencing would change into a rather rougher environment at some point in the not too distant future. The wind, however, at no point seemed like it would pick up wildly or get crazy.

At 9am on August 26th Matt and I went up on deck to take over the watch from Nick and Nathan. Nick had sent Nathan off-duty first, and as he came down below, he told us it was still plain sailing with light winds and the conditions hadn't changed. In the few minutes it took Matt and I to finalize our preparations (warm clothing and wellies on, life jackets on) and get up on deck, all hell was breaking loose.

The wind did a sudden leap up to 20 knots with gusts to 25, and we helped Nick change the sails down to a more manageable configuration.

Throughout the morning, the wind speed gradually increased, and bit by bit we reefed the mainsail, making the sail area smaller and smaller. With the increased wind, the waves increased in height, and regularly splashed over the deck.

Just before Nathan and I went on our mid-afternoon watch, Nick decided to take the mainsail down totally, after which we were jogging along with just a smallish foresail, and as the wind continued to increase, we found ourselves still making 6-7 knots: a very respectable speed for a sailing yacht. The waves were generally manageable, but Nick had pointed out to me some bigger waves of 2-3 metres which rolled through from time to time. As these waves appeared more and more often, it became clear that unless we steered a course downwind - to the south - these waves would hit us side on, and risk tipping the boat over on its side. Even steering downwind was tricky. The waves came in sets, and caused strange illusions: the boat would surfed down the steeper waves, and as the wave overtook the boat, the deceleration caused the illusion of travelling backwards up the wave behind us.

In light of the challenging conditions, Nick announced, "Right. It's drogue time." The drogue he referred to was a Jordan Series Drogue - essentially a long line to which are attached hundreds of fabric cones. When dragged behind the boat, this piece of equipment will slow the boat right down, and align it perpendicular to the waves, supposedly preventing it being tipped over by the waves.

With the drogue out, there was no need for anyone to steer the helm or even be out on deck, so for the night, we set up a 1-person watch system to look out for ships, which allowed us all to get some rest. Once more the Taniwha's progress was stalled: this time not by too little wind, but in struggle against the effects of too much wind. We were now almost exactly half way across the Atlantic, with the handbrake on. The nearest land mass was the Azores, which was in the region of 1000 miles away - the same distance away as either St. John's or Falmouth.

Before we could sleep, though, there was the bilge to worry about: this was discovered to be rather full of water, so a lot of pumping had to be done. What made matters worse was that since we were now essentially stopped in the water, the larger waves (which were still increasing in frequency and size) were coming right over the back of the boat and flooding the cockpit.

The deck areas all have drains, so this would not have been a problem, were it not for the fact that there was an unstoppable hole in the deck where a piece of equipment had been installed. I noticed the stream of water coming into the stern of the boat, and Nick did his best with a twisted rag to convert the flow to a trickle, which allowed the bilge to be pumped almost (but not quite totally) dry.

It was difficult to relax in the evening, and I frequently got up to have a look out at the waves. On one occasion Matt and I both went up the companionway for a quick glance.

As we looked out, we both saw the biggest wave either of us had ever seen bearing down upon us - it was fully 5 or 6 metres tall, and we had no time to react before it broke violently over the stern of the boat, and caught us both full in the face.

In the morning, there were still some mighty waves around, but Nick decided that since we were all well-rested after our overnight, drogue-induced pit-stop, we should be able to cope, and so the new plan was to continue sailing as long as we could. The first challenge was to pull the drogue in. It took all 5 of us to perform this feat, and we had to use the "coffee grinder" - a pair of handles that attach to the winch to give us more leverage for tricky manoeuvres like this. Pulling on handles for the 20 minutes or so that it took to retrieve the drogue, I was taken straight back to the rowing training I did at school, and the necessity of pushing oneself through the pain of exhaustion.

 By and by, we got the drogue back on board, cleared it out of the way, and rigged up a conservative sail plan under which to sail on. The day was surprisingly sunny, but we continued on a heavy-weather watch system of 2 hours on, 2 hours off, with 4 of us manning the watches and Michelle detailed as backup to provide us with food and moral support as required. We made a steady 7-8 knots all day. With challenging but consistent conditions, we built up enough confidence to feel that we could sail through the night. In the middle of the following night, a long dark cloud approached us from behind. As it came over, the wind suddenly switched 90 degrees to a cool flow out of the North, causing us to change the boat's direction from heading South-East to heading South-West. Nick was woken by the change in the boat's motion, and he came up to help Matt and I change the sails so that we could continue Eastward. As I went to bed, I thought perhaps that this new weather pattern would bring a lull in the wind and the return to more benign conditions.

When I woke, however, I realized that this was not the case. Nick had popped down briefly, and I asked him how conditions were, expecting to hear that they had mellowed nicely. On the contrary, his one-word answer was "MONSTROUS". He went on to say that it frequently felt like we were steering our way through a washing machine. Looking above deck, I realized that he really wasn't kidding.

There before my eyes was the very definition of Monstrous. All around us, independently rising and falling, were peaks and valleys of water, all constantly changing and undulating.

 Throughout the day, the wind trended stronger and stronger, and the waves even seemed to get larger. We all agreed that the waves were frequently at least the size of our parents' houses. These were multilayered waves: veritable mountains of water. To hike up one of these, if they were static and solid, you would have to hike for a while, stop for a rest, then hike some more before you got to the top.

At the crest of the wave, given a gust of wind and the right boat direction, we would surf, careening down into the vast valley below. We hardly went below 8 knots all day, and surfing down the waves we frequently made speeds of 10-11 knots, with a maximum speed of 12.92 knots!

 Little by little, we improved our boat-steering technique, but all too often an unexpected wave caught us from a different angle to the majority.

The boat would heel and roll violently over onto its side, causing much discomfort to those in the cabin, frustration to whoever was on the helm, and causing the other person on deck to cling on for dear life until the boat had righted itself. Not infrequently, the boom and part of the main sail would go right down into the water, and even the side of the deck went below water level more than a few times.

On one occasion, in the middle of the night, after I had almost been tossed from my bed a few times, the boat was thrown over so violently to the starboard side that it seemed impossible that those on deck could have hung on. Inside the boat, the wall became the floor onto which we fell, and what had been the floor did a remarkable impression of a new wall, with a table fixed calmly in the middle of it. As I emerged from sleep, the boat righted itself, so I got out of bed and poked my head up through the companionway to make sure Nick and Nathan were both still aboard.

"The spreaders go underwater, did they?" I asked, referring to the horizontal parts near the top of the mast.

"Nah, we just got blindsided by a freak wave," replied Nathan, who sounded surprisingly calm.

It must have been that sort of calm that comes from being in a state of shock, because he and Nick later told us that when the boat went over on its side, a third of the deck went underwater, as did a large proportion of the mainsail. Nick was wedged in between the hand hold wheel frames, and Nathan, who had little control, due presumably to the rudder being out of the water, simply had to hang onto the wheel for dear life as the wave subsided and the boat came around.

Although this moment did not seem as scary as some that we experienced, it was probably the single point on the whole voyage where our lives were most at risk. Had another wave come from such an angle as to tip the boat even further over, there is no knowing what state we and the boat might have ended up in.

The ocean, it seems, is a dynamic environment.

We were able to keep going, so we did.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Crossing The Atlantic - Part 1.2: Becalmed!

The watch system on Taniwha consisted of 3 hour watches with 2 people to a watch. With 5 of us on board, this meant that we had a repeating schedule of 3 hours on deck/steering, 3 hours off duty, 3 hours on deck/steering, followed by 6 hours off duty, repeated.

In the early hours of Friday August 24th, Nathan and I were on watch. The foresail, was poled out to catch as much wind as possible in the downwind direction we were sailing, and as the wind was fairly light, this sail frequently flapped about as the boat rolled with the ocean swell.

This repeated flapping eventually caused the sheet (rope) holding the sail out to wear through, and the sail fell down and flapped about uselessly. Nathan called Nick up from below, and the two of them furled the sail while I steered the boat to course.

Later in the morning, while I was on my 6-hour sleep break, the wind dropped off entirely. There we were in the middle of the ocean, idly rocking about, with not enough wind to sail, and not nearly enough diesel to get us on our way to England.

Fortunately, it was a nice sunny day, and we all took advantage of it, hanging clothes to dry, and making various attempts at washing. My attempt at a shower was as follows: I stripped, and installed myself under the front hatch, which was open. I attached a small towel to a length of string, and climbing partly out of the open hatch, I tossed the towel over the side of the boat, while holding onto the other end of the string. Retrieving the saltwater saturated towel, I then scrubbed myself all over, before repeating the process a couple of times.

A bit of castille soap smeared on one corner of the towel made for a further sense of cleanliness, and the whole process was most refreshing.

first breath of wind after the calm

The calm did not last too long - we had changed the foresail to a reaching sail, and by the time I was showered, there was enough wind to speed us along nicely.

An entry in my diary includes the following mantra for being out at sea:
(For each of the 4 repetitions of the phrase, a different point of the compass is pointed to)

Thar be nowt b'there,
Thar be nowt b'there,
Thar be nowt b'there,
Thar be nowt b'there!

"... Such is life on the ocean. Thar be nowt nowhere, and all that's to be done is to keep on going!
On setting out from St. John's, I had but an inkling of the enormity of the task ahead of us. Now we are out in the middle of it, and everything is simple. There really is nothing to be done but point the boat in the right direction, maintain whatever propellance we can, and wait."