Unfinished business………….

Posted January 25th, 2012 by Nick and filed in Uncategorized

Crossing the Atlantic was unfinished business for me. Ten years ago I sailed to the Canary Islands and didn’t get any further. I had promised myself that I would one day return and finish what I started.
Sailing a yacht across the Atlantic Ocean is not such a big deal. Ask anyone, read any books or articles on the subject, I did and as a result was looking forward to 25-30 days of perfect force 4 winds from behind with the long Atlantic swell gently rocking the boat as we fly along at hull speed. Long days relaxing in the cockpit under the fantastic sun shade that Mel created, watching the Dolphins dance around the bow and waiting for dinner to snap at our hook.
We had sorted Borne out accordingly. In La Gomera, Mel used our sewing machine and material that we brought from the UK to make a sun cover that uses fibreglass rods to create a curved cover over the entire cockpit and hatch area allowing us to lounge on the cockpit cushions out of the burning sun. I rigged a perfectly balanced downwind rig comprising two matched genoas, one roller furling and the other hanked onto an inner forestay, both supported by poles hinged together and hung from a halyard allowing the whole rig to move from side to side without transferring the forces to the mast and causing the yacht to roll. I knew I would have a lot of time on my hands so I left a few small jobs inside the boat to do on the way.

Unfortunately, 2011/12 was not destined to be an average year………………..

We left a little later than we were planning as we had decided to stay and celebrate Christmas in the Marina in La Gomera.
Borne was already well stocked and ready to go so late in the afternoon on Boxing day we slipped our lines and left the Canary islands. The wind was nonexistent and we motored for ten and a half hours through the first night. The next day the wind rose with the sun and the swell started to build.
Mel and I were sick.
For the first few days the wind blew from the East, the sky was cloudy and the rain showers frequent. At this stage the worst thing was the swell which was very confused. There had been some big storms out in the Atlantic over the preceding days and the resultant swell from these was hitting the swell coming from the East North East with the wind and creating very large messy seas.
On the 30th of December the wind picked up to force 6 to 7 and stayed that way for the next 6 days without moderating. The messy seas were making Borne roll terribly and we sailed very conservatively, putting up just enough canvas to keep us going at 4-5 knots. I have an entry scribbled roughly in the log book (which Mel originally thought must be a record of bodily functions) at 00.04 hrs on Jan 1st that says “My new year resolution….Fly more!”.
By the 3rd Jan the Waves had become a bit more ordered but every hour or so we would be hit by a large rogue wave from the side which would sweep over the boat and meant that we had to keep the hatches closed most of the time.
On the 5th we had our first electrical storm. There was lightning all around and I switched off all the electrics and put out EPIRB emergency satellite beacon and our handheld GPS/VHF in the oven to protect it in case of a strike. A full lightning strike on a wooden boat like Borne would probably sink us, hopefully giving us just enough time to retrieve our electrics from the oven and grab our emergency bags before taking to the life raft.
During the whole crossing it was really only the threat of lightning that scared me. I knew Borne was strong enough to handle any sea conditions we would encounter but if Thor decided to use us for target practice then there was nothing we could do about it.
Mel got over her sea sickness after a couple of days but I was sick as a dog for the first 8 days and often felt queasy whenever the conditions were bad after. The problem was the motion created by the huge waves.
To try to give you a sense of what it was like for us to sail across the ocean I could use the analogy of being inside a washing machine but that’s not really what the motion is like.
Imagine taking your bathroom (or the smallest room in your house) which is probably the same size as the inside of Borne. Now imagine that this room is balanced on a seesaw and then constantly rocked all the way from side to side. Now imagine being inside and trying to cook or read or stand up or, God forbid, go for a dump while your whole world is violently rocking through 70-90 degrees (except its actually worse as you are also pitching forwards and backwards). Now imagine all of that is happening constantly for 27 days. Imagine if you will the wind howling…..and I do mean howling…outside and the noise of the boat and the waves sometimes almost deafening. Imagine trying to sleep, except that you can’t really because when you are on watch you are awakened by an alarm every 20 minutes and you have to open the hatch and look around (ducking every now and then as a wave comes over). Eventually you get into a sort of rhythm with the waves and learn to swing around the inside of the cabin from handhold to handhold like a monkey in a zoo except every now and then you hear a sound like a train approaching and the boat lurches very violently as a rogue wave breaks over the top.
On the 6th we caught our first fish, a big eye tuna. This is considered one of the very best fish to eat raw as sashimi and we ate most of him raw, marinated in Kikkoman soy sauce and wasabi. We ate until we could eat no more. Mel also marinated some in teriyaki sauce and fried it lightly and served it with a cold rice salad with pineapple, sweet corn and cashew nuts…..delicious. Mel reckoned it to be the best fish we have caught on passage.
The 7th was a sad day. We lost Sid the Squid, my favourite lure. Sid and I go back a long way as fishing partners and he has always been fearless, taking tuna, barracuda, bass, Dorado…in fact I believed nothing was too tough for Sid but on this sad day I went in to the cockpit to find the line slack and Sid was gone. I bet he put up a good fight or maybe it was just time for him to break free.
On the 9th we had real trade winds. Perfect. We rigged up our two head sails for the first and last time and experienced for almost 24 hrs what most people claim to experience for the whole crossing.

On the 10th we were hit by a white squall…..!
Let me explain. A normal squall is a black squall and you get these all the time, mostly at night it seems. You see them coming towards you from the horizon (except at night of course) and they look mean, a very black cloud bank reaching from high up right down to the sea. You normally have some time to prepare and reduce sail and when it hits you get a rain shower and the wind picks up a notch of two normally up to 35 knots. They are actually scary looking but not that bad, a bit like a big mean Rottweiler with no teeth.
A white squall on the other hand has fangs. We were sailing happily along but there were some storms on the horizon around us. The air was suddenly oppressive and then the wind stopped, just stopped dead. I called to Mel and we dropped all the sails immediately and I started the engine. 30 seconds later it hit us. A wall of solid wall of rain and 45 knts of wind (that’s a force 9 severe gale). We could see it coming across the water like a white curtain, very menacing. The visibility dropped to 50 meters or less and the sea was first battered flat by the onslaught and then crazy pyramid waves built up all around. I held us head on into the wind on the motor as the waves built so quickly and I didn’t know how bad it was going to be and I wanted to be ready for any nasty rogue waves. I wore my snowboarding goggles (brought along for such an eventuality) as without them you could not look at the rain. There was so much water in the air at the height of the storm that I had to bow my head and put my hand in front of my nose to be able to breath, it was almost like being under the sea. In the end I became comfortable that the worst was behind us and I set the auto pilot to drive while I went below to dry and warm up.
The storm stayed with us all of the day but by midnight the wind dropped enough to allow us to put up a little sail and continue on our way.
The next few days we had very light winds with the odd squall.
On the 13th the wind picked up again and we had force 5 to force 7 for the rest of the crossing except for the odd squall taking it a bit higher.
Also on the 13th we were visited by what we think was Orcas (killer whales). They were the same size as the boat and for an hour or so they would sit 100 meters behind us then race towards us on one side and cross just under the boat and then race away on the other side only to repeat this again and again. It felt like they were checking us out with a well practiced routine. It made us nervous as there are instances of these huge creatures sinking boats but luckily they decided we were not worth the effort.

On the 16th we heard a radio message from one of the rowing teams crossing the ocean as part of the Atlantic Challenge. The rowers had left from La Gomera and we had seen the boats off on the 5th December and before that had partied with them at a fancy dress. One of the boats, Row to recovery, was manned by six ex service personnel with various disabilities as a result of injuries sustained in action. I had jokingly promised them that we would try to bump into them on the high seas and sort them out with some ice cold beers. These were the lads we now heard on the radio. We put the fridge on and started to chill the six pack that Mel had bought in Gomera for exactly this eventuality. We checked the AIS (automatic identity system) on our plotter and they showed up about 8 miles away so we changed direction and went visiting. The guys are awesome, the boat they were on was tiny even by our standards and there were six of them on board (not small lads). We were almost on top of them before we actually saw them as they were so low in the water and the waves were quite large. They have had a hard time of it as their water maker had broken down and when we saw them they were sitting at a para anchor trying to repair their rudder. Even in these circumstances they were cheerful and made us feel like they were glad to see us. The beers were cold and ready to go but being gentlemen they refused to take them as it would have been a breach of rules and would be considered outside assistance.
Great guys and an awesome coincidence to bump into them like that. As I write this I am checking the web site and see that they are safe and sound in Barbados. Well done lads!

The wind always rose 5 knots or so as the sun went down and dropped a little with the sunrise so the nights were the hardest. We tended to reduce sail at night down to a 3rd reef in the main and a small genoa so that we could handle pretty much anything and I wouldn’t have to go on deck at nights to reef.
With the clouds and no moon, some of the nights were so dark that the only warning we would get of an approaching squall is when the rain started and we would put in the washboard (door) and close the hatch. Hiding down below for the duration and trusting Borne to sail on alone and get us through. This would normally happen at least a couple of times a night.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of being locked in a small boat that is steering itself and blindly racing through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at night, pushed by a fierce wind and every now and then being picked up and surfing down the face of a huge breaking wave. Inside, you first hear the wave approaching, a cross between a roar and a rumble and then the boat tilts as the wave rises behind it and you experience an almost weightless sensation like skating along on a carpet of bubbles. Then you roll over and go back to sleep. Try it some time….its fun 
To cut a long story short (only joking, I like long stories) here are the facts and figures are:
We made it in 27 days which was exactly what I predicted.
Average daily mileage was 100 nautical miles.
Average speed of about 4 knots. We could have pushed it up to around 5 knots but this would have involved a lot more effort that I was willing and a lot more risk of boat damage etc.
We used 120 litres of water from our tanks for washing and cooking and 60 litres of bottled water for drinking.
We drank 40 litres of orange, apple and mixed juice.
We splashed 20 litres of milk on our cornflakes and Alpen.
We ate instant packet meals on 19 days and Mel cooked fish or omelette or pasta on the other days.
We caught a Big eye tuna, Dorado and a Wahoo. We did not put a line out unless we wanted to eat fish and we caught something whenever we put a line out. We would have fished much more but the motion made it almost impossible to clean and filet the fish properly.
Wind speed was almost always more than force 5 and very often gale force.
We ran the engine for 40 hrs using about 40 litres of diesel, mostly to charge the batteries.
We read about 30 books between us.
We washed once a week….and we still like each other!
Borne behaved impeccably.
We had no breakages but we heard of many people coming across who had blown sails, broken forestay, lost rudders etc so Borne did really well and proved how tough she is.
We were pooped twice by following waves but they were BIG and the cockpit drained quick enough.
We rolled heavily but Borne is 7 tons and draws 190 cm, with a full keel so it could have been so much worse in a modern round bilge boat.
We did not broach even in the worst conditions. As soon as a wave pushed us off line the steering would quickly correct it.
The Windpilot self steering that I bought as a seized up mess and bodged to fit worked faultlessly. Huge respect to the designer.
The engine was reluctant to start a couple of times, not surprising given the motion, but always ran faultlessly once started.
We hand steered for no more than 2 hours on the whole crossing.
At 29 feet we are the second smallest yacht of about 100 in Prickly Bay.
We still love sailing and cruising on a boat but will think very carefully before the next long ocean voyage.
So on the 22nd of January we arrived at Prickly Bay in Grenada……….in the Caribbean.

To be continued……..