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.


steve b said...

nice phosphorescnet dolphins!
i've seen phosphorescent fish darting away from my canoe at night - it startled me the first time i saw it as i was really close to the water

double-J said...

Hi! Sounds amazing. Do you have any outline of the non aerial route you took around the world? Or any tips on sites outlining potential routes?