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."

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Crossing the Atlantic - Part 1.1: Fog and Sea Monsters

A year or two ago, a friend told me an anecdote of a chap who had got high on ecstasy or some other recreational mind-bending substance. In a drug-induced stupour, the guy in question had found his way into a building site and climbed a crane, to watch the sunrise from a vantage point high above the city. By the time of said sunrise, the drugs were wearing off, and the lad came to his senses, to find himself up on top of a crane in the early morning, with no safety harness, and no real clue of how he had climbed up there.

 As we set out into the Atlantic, there was a similar sort of feeling, amongst some if not all of Taniwha's crewmembers. How had we got to this point? What series of decisions, events, and mindstates had led us to put ourselves into this situation? As far as I know, none of us had been consuming mind-bending drugs in the past little while, but somehow, it seemed, we had come to the decision to put ourselves through something that may be deemed a little risky.

Days before we left, we had seen a ketch with a broken mast limp its way back into harbour. This was Simon the Welshman, who we had met the day we arrived in St. John's. Simon had left and set out into the ocean, only to turn back when he found conditions unfavourable, and had lost part of his mast on his way back to the harbour. So we knew from second-hand experience that there was heavy weather out there. But all 5 of us had made the commitment to pursue this crossing and our individual decisions to make this commitment had brought us together to see the plan come to fruition. By golly, we were at least going to give it a go.

Setting out between the cliffs of the harbour entrance, we waved to Nathan's family who had gone up onto the headland to see us off. From then on, we were immediately into seas that would accurately be described as lumpy. It was not a bad or particularly large seastate, but it jolted us out of our harbour sensibilities, and reminded us that for the next 2-3 weeks (estimated) we would be at the mercy of the fluids, and constantly in motion. A mile or two offshore there was a bank of fog, into which we passed under sail. As the land behind us faded from view, we realized that not only would we be constantly in motion, but we would not even see anything that was fixed, for as long as it took to get across to the other side of "The Pond". On reflection, that's a funny name for a body of water containing several weather systems and being 1800 miles wide at the point we were starting to cross.

The fog (or "Faahg", as it is pronounced by many of Newfoundland's inhabitants) lasted for the first two days of the voyage, and was interspersed by bouts of that other great Newfoundland weather: FDR, or Fog-drizzle-rain, which is, as the name suggests, somewhere in between all three. During the foggy bit, we ran the radar at regular intervals, and successfully navigated our way around a variety of Oil Rig supply ships, fishing boats, and car transporters.

An excerpt from my diary:
"We have now been 30 hours at sea, and we are somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean. It's foggy. Lots of dolphins today. Lots in the morning, lots now."

That day, we saw 3 different species of cetacean, the most extraordinary of which did not look quite like dolphins, but had a much more bulbous, stocky form.

Photo courtesy Michelle
They were in a huge pod of over 50, or perhaps hundreds, and were having a whale of a time jumping in formation through the waves alongside and behind us. Down below deck, we could clearly hear their excited chattering. Looking through a book of cetaceans in the north-western Atlantic, I deduced that they were probably of the species known as Grampus. I never before had any inkling that such creatures existed, so for me, they qualify as sea monsters.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Aboard Taniwha - Part 8: Slipping the Lines

In St. John's, we have been waiting.

Waiting for the miracles to come.

Now the time has come, and so have the miracles: the miracle of the right weather to start out in, and the miracle of the right rope - a specialist very strong dyneema rope which will help the mast stay up (an essential thing for any sailing boat to have).

The rope got delayed due to a ferry breakdown between the mainland and Port-Aux-Basques. But now the weather is all good (except for a little bit of Newfoundland fog), and the rope arrived, so all we need to do is attach the rope, slip the lines, and set out between the cliffs and head for Falmouth!

Our location can probably be tracked by clicking on this link and entering the password Taniwha5C . Good luck with that, it's worth a try! This service is provided by our newest crewmember, Nathan. He is a local lad who came to see us at the dock and expressed an interest in crossing the pond, and he has tall ship experience and a good quick-learning attitude, so Nick our skipper snapped him up as the latest recruit!

The route we will be taking will approximately follow the reverse of the path of Marconi's first successful radio communication:

Our course is likely to wobble somewhat more: Electromagnetic waves might travel in straight lines (and bounce off the stratosphere), but sailing boats almost never do.

Crossing the North Atlantic should take between two and three weeks, so here's hoping for some good winds in the right direction!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Preparations and Incidents: A Newfoundland Folk Tale in the Making

The pontoon where the first incident occurred

A couple of days after we arrived in St.John's, a fellow Englishman joined the Taniwha crew. Matt Whitney, like me, has been travelling without flying: he left England by bus for Gibraltar 8 months ago, and having crossed the Atlantic on a catamaran has been travelling in the Caribbean and the Americas. 

During the time we have been spending in the harbour at St. John's, we have been spending time on various projects to ready the ship for the big crossing.

These projects included creating "The Snack Shack", a restraining area to store all the spare packets of crisps, nuts, biscuits and nibbly bits so that they don't fly around when we are on the lumpy ocean:

We also safely stowing the anchor and spare sails (a good chance to practice our knots), rigged the storm sails and series drogue to be ready for heavy weather, and cobbled together an autopilot system which will hopefully help us with the 1800-odd nautical miles of steering ahead of us. 

This involved wiring together the various electronic instruments of a tiller pilot as well as linking the electric ram of the tiller pilot to a windvane steering mechanism that was already in place. (More interesting knots to tie.)

This project in particular had a backdrop of events that could in time become a Newfoundland folk tale to rival the ones I mentioned in my previous post. The project necessitated the drilling of holes in the deck astern of the cockpit area, to hold an aluminium stanchion to support the motor arm of the tiller pilot. Drilling these holes and screwing bolts into them meant that at least one of us had to crawl into the dark narrow space behind the greasy steering mechanism in the back of the boat. Different stages of the project needed different activities in the cavity, so we took it in turns to crawl in there, using foam pads to cushion ourselves from the spars that form the shape of the hull against which the crawler is forced to lie. 

The dark hole into which we took turns to crawl
During my turn in the stern, Nick was drilling holes in the deck, and I was in voice contact with him to ensure that the holes went accurately either side of a beam that was supporting the deck. Being in voice contact made being in a narrow space relatively bearable. Nick had drilled the holes, and I was getting ready for a couple of bolts to be pushed through the holes, when suddenly all went eerily quiet. I heard a scream and a splash, and then nothing. I called out to Nick, but all voice contact was lost.

Lying there in the gloom, the hull struts pressing into my back through the cushion, I pondered my situation.
I could stay there and wait, or I could extricate myself and find out what was going on. 

The first option was problematic inasmuch as I was now, without the reassuring contact with Nick's voice, beginning to feel rather claustrophobic in that small space, from which a fast escape would not be easy.

The extrication option was no more favourable, however, as it would require no small effort to get out of the space, and in all likelihood, whatever disaster had occurred would, I guessed, be over by the time I emerged on deck, with very little that I could do to assist matters, and I would simply have to crawl back into the space to finish the job. So I stayed where I was, avoiding claustrophobia all the while by sheer force of willpower.

I called out from time to time, consistently getting no answer from either Nick or Matt, both of whom had been around and in earshot until just before the silence began. I began to think that perhaps a strangely calm apocalypse had occurred, and I would emerge from my aluminium cave to find the world in a state of disarray, or even perhaps no living being remaining. 

When I was on just on the verge of making the decision to get out of the space, Nick's voice reappeared, apologized for his sudden absence, and told me that a boat that had arrived opposite had had an incident that required both his and Matt's immediate attention.

After we finished attaching the aluminium stanchion to the deck, I crawled backwards out of the narrow space, and everything was explained to me. As I was not a primary witness, I will leave it to Matt's blog to provide a more accurate explanation of the story as seen from the outside. Suffice to say that it involved a boat and a falling dentist, and a lot of fending.

<== The boat that had arrived on the pontoon opposite was one we had first met at the harbour in Port-Aux-Basques

Very shortly after the incident, and while I was still under the deck wondering what was going on, there was another incident nearby which could not possibly have been linked, but elevates the whole scenario to the local gossip circuit, and possibly even to folkloric status. According to Nick, there were suddenly a lot of people running around the Harbourside Park area, (not 20 yards from our mooring) shouting such things as "Ya! Call tha Cops!"

By the time I had resurfaced, the cops had arrived and started an investigation, cordoning off the area with "POLICE - Do Not Cross" tape. They came to both boats asking for witnesses to interview. I did not offer my services as a witness, since I had only been able to hear the inside of the boat when the events took place.

Apparently there had been a stabbing, after which the stabbee, bleeding, had chased his assailant (apparently unknown to him) through the park and down the street, leaving a trail of blood drips that is still visible after several rain showers:

And there were we thinking we were in the more refined and calm end of St. John's harbour.

What with stabbings, wartime relics and repercussions, and enough ghost stories to fill volumes (being discussed by the staff of the laundromat I am in as I write this), don't ever tell anyone Newfoundland is a place where nothing ever happens.