Transatlanticism, Day 5

Day 5 – 28°26.3S  003°15.5E
13 September 2013 – Total Distance Covered: 941nm

Headwinds at 30 knots, lots of banging as the bow rides up the swell, lifts off and then slams down hard into the trough below. If you’re sleeping near the front of the boat you experience moments of weightlessness in your bunk before being slammed down again. It is truly amazing what sort of conditions your body can get used to sleeping in. It helps to be exhausted.

While we have headwinds we have to motor. The yacht carries a fair amount of diesel in her tanks but we really don’t want to be using it unless we absolutely have to. We try steering off the wind so that we can throttle down the engine and save fuel, but our VMG drops dismally. VMG, or Velocity Made Good, is the speed at which you are travelling towards the place you want to go. If you’re doing 10 knots and heading straight for your waypoint your VMG will be 10 knots. But, if you’re travelling at 12 knots and heading 30 degrees to the left or right of your waypoint, then your VMG might only be 7 knots. So we constantly play this game trying to find the optimal balance of VMG and trying not to burn diesel. (We have to get the boat the Stanley in time for an expedition of climber going to South Georgia near Antarctica).

We are still fishing but have caught nothing. On our previous trip we caught massive tuna within a few hours of putting our line out. This line has been our for days and nothing… As is the way of the fisherman, we fiddle and faff with lures and tracers and different distance trawls, all to no avail. It does give us something to do though.

Thomas made a risotto for dinner. Thomas does not come across as the kind of person who could make a risotto, but he nailed it. I think he was lucky. Not complaining.

Chris showed his face briefly but now Paula is starting to look a bit grim. So far the only people that have not got sick are myself and Thomas. I keep wiping down all the surfaces with disinfectant in a probably futile attempt at trying to pretend like I’m not living in a caravan with plague victims. Thomas reckons it’s his diet of black coffee and tobacco that is keeping him healthy. Not sure what’s keeping me immune.

console

We have some new kit on the boat this year. In fact everything in this photo, except the radio (top left), is brand new and was installed in the days before we left. That might sound a little risky but surprisingly nothing in the photo is essential and we have backups for anything important.

I’ll run you through the photo: Top left we have the radio. The funny hole directly below it is where the fancy new radio was meant to go but that died shortly after installation so we reverted to the old one. Most modern equipment is networked, so the radio is getting our GPS coordinates from a black box under that desk. Just to the left of that red button is a small plastic cover with a smaller red “distress” button underneath it. If someone where to lift that cover and press that button, the radio would start to transmit a digitally encoded distress signal with our boat’s unique registration number and our coordinates. Any vessel in range with a DSC (Digital Selective Calling) system on board (which is most of them) would start to have alarms go off and see our details on their screen. That said, we haven’t heard the radio peep for days. There have been no vessels in VHF range for days, so that distress button would be useless. In another post I’ll explain EPIRB, which uses satellites and is how we would let the world know if we were really in trouble.

Next we have all the displays . It’s important to note that most modern displays are “multifunction” which basically means it’s just a screen and you can select what you want it to show. What we’ve got up on the screens in the photo is just how it was at that point in time. We’re constantly changing things depending on the conditions.

The first screen, top left, is showing our latitude and longitude, our SOG (Speed Over Ground, which uses GPS) and our COG (Course Over Ground) which is the resultant direction we are travelling in. When you’re sailing there are lots of forces pushing the boat in different directions and the result of them, the direction you’re actually travelling in, is hardly ever the direction your bow is pointing in.

The screen below that is for wind. It shows the wind angle and speed relative to the direction we’re heading in.

The big screen is a multi-purpose. It’s currently showing a chartplotter which displays our historic track and current heading. If there were any ships within VHF range we’d probably see them on the plotter as AIS blips (I’ll explain that in another post). This screen gets changed to the radar output at night and can even be used to show the output of our FLIR passive infra-red thermal camera.

To the right of the big screen (showing “305°“) is the autopilot control. There are various ways to use an autopilot (compass angle, angle to the wind, waypoint etc). Currently it’s set to a compass angle and is trying to maintain a course of 305°.

To the right of that is another multifunction display which is showing the local time (GMT is on a different clock not in this picture), another COG and SOG, the average wind speed and the times for sunset and sunrise.

To the right of that is the FLIR camera control which is turned off. I’ll post a video showing off the FLIR camera in a future post.

At night everything is dimmed and set to night colours so that we don’t lose our night vision. Even with all the technology in the world you still need someone awake at all times scanning the horizon for lights and looking after the sails.

Underneath the two laptops are the paper charts for the area we’re currently in, and the big red book is our logbook which gets an entry every hour on the hour.

Transatlanticism, Day 4

Day 4 – 29°38.3S  007°04.3E
12 September 2013 – Total Distance Covered: 755nm

 

I had been up since the start of my shift at 9pm the previous day, was on watch until 2am, but then decided to stay awake to watch the sun rise. It was glorious and the gravity of where I was finally begun to sink in. Hundreds of miles away from land and civilisation. The wind is gone. It is hot. The sea is calm but small swells roll by. There is nothing for miles. We are alone.

It feels like we’re all finally acclimatised to being on the ocean. The speed at which I run up and down stairs and pull myself through hatchways is increasing. My body has stopped trying to make sense of the random motion of the sea beneath us.

I go to bed around 8am. The sound of the sea sloshing past my head is incredible. The squeaky block is still squeaking but in the moments between squeaks I can close my eyes and hear the ocean, hundreds of meters deep beneath me. I imagine what it must be like to do these kinds of voyages by yourself, does this gentle ocean lullaby become a deafening reminder of your isolation or is it just as calming?

I sleep. Even though the engine is running, the noise of water and engine blend into one. I get up at around lunch time and the wind returned. We are being followed by a pod of dolphins. I think they’re interested in our echo sounder.

dolphin

I make spaghetti bolognaise for dinner. Everyone loved it except Chris…. he had been looking a bit delicate for a couple of hours. He took one mouthful and then rushed outside to start puking. It was not the food… this was the bug that was making its way around our crew. Laura had only recently started showing her face again, and now it was Chris’ turn. Paula is nursing Chris dutifully, taking him water and occasionally coming on deck to empty buckets of vom :/

At sea there are no nurses, no janitors. It’s the crew and you’re a family, whether you like it or not. I have been deathly ill at sea, stuck on deck, freezing, throwing up, while another crew member, a Kiwi girl named Kali, who was equally ill and equally throwing up, helped me put on some warmer pants between our bouts of mutual hurling. Nothing quite bonds two people like vomit and warm socks.

You will see the best and the worst of people at sea. We are trapped. There are times when you have to bite your tongue to keep the peace. Times when you have to drop a friendly argument because you realise that someone is starting to take it a little too seriously. A great skipper, which Magnus certainly is, has to be commander, best friend, mediator and psychologist with each member of the crew. The unavailability of Wikipedia to settle disputes is a sore point with everyone. We make promises to, when we have internet again in a few weeks, forward URLs to each other to prove ourselves right.

This is life at sea.

Transatlanticism, Day 3

Day 3 – 31°22.6S  010°39.1E
11 September 2013 – Total Distance Covered: 557nm

Started the engine for the first time at 8am after a few glorious days of sailing.

One of the things that have been giving us hassles is the water speed transducer (log). It hasn’t been working since we left Cape Town. It’s not essential, but it’s useful to work out what the water currents are doing. A lot of the electronics on board is brand new, so niggles are bound to happen. We needed to figure out if this was dodgy wiring, an incorrect setting or a blown transducer. Not easy when the transducer is 60 feet away from the displays. After many hours of debugging we figured out that the problem was a blown transducer, probably due to someone spinning it at a gazillion miles an hour with a high pressure hose when they were cleaning the hull.

Luckily we had a spare and after a few hours of unpacking bilges, rerunning wiring and carefully repacking, we had our water speed back. One of the amazing and unexpected results of this was that the autopilot, that we had been thinking was a little jumpy, suddenly settled down. Obviously it uses water speed in its equations but wasn’t complaining about the water speed being non-existent. Live and learn! It was now making small, neat and precise adjustments, like a champ.

We spotted Minke whales a few meters away from the boat, nonplussed by our presence as we slide by at 10 knots.

P1040119

While on watch at around 3am we had to change course to avoid a collision. As dramatic as that sounds, it really wasn’t. AIS data indicated a likely collision with another vessel in 20 minutes. We adjusted our course and the vessel passed within 2nm of us. Technology is awesome.  The wind has dropped almost entirely. We put 3rd reef in the main to stop it from thrashing about.

Transatlanticism, Day 2

Day 2 – 32°30.06S  014°18.24E
10 September 2013 – Total Distance Covered: 349nm

 

Another great day of sailing, we had some challenges with the rudder angle sensor coming off its mounting, but otherwise uneventful.

Laura is still sick, it’s definitely not seasickness. I’ve started sanitising all the grab handles in the common areas.

Onward

There is a squeaky block (pulley) directly above my head in my bunk. It’s running the prang (preventer/vang) and is loaded with a few tons on slightly stretchy line, which is why it’s squeaking. Incredibly how something so simple can make such a huge, and disturbing, sound. It’s like metal scraping on metal, literally 40cm away from my face while I try and sleep.

We put out a fishing line, nothing yet. It’s a lure wired up on a bungy cord so that it will not snap the line if we get a strike.

Being Forced to Think

A journey like this is as much about the time away as it is about sailing. For me this is a form of meditation without the forced constraints of sitting in a darkened room, legs crossed trying to achieve a state of zen.

Boat meditation is more about menial tasks like mending a line or checking sail trim. Obviously there is a fair amount of time spent gazing at the horizon, but it is the time away from everything, away from the hum drum, the bathroom remodelling back at home, the dinner plans, the accounts that need paying, the week’s groceries, away from everything. Out here it is simple. The routine is almost deadening.

Wake up, breakfast (probably muesli), faff about for a few hours, do some sailing, make something for lunch, an afternoon nap, maybe read something, get up, sail, help with dinner, bed for a few hours before night shift, up at 10pm, sail until 2am, sleep.

The repetition along with the lack of external stimuli and the inherent repetitive tasks involved in running a boat, writing the hourly log etc, really gives you nothing else to do but think.

Suddenly the bathroom remodelling becomes something that is important. The loved ones you left behind become achingly far away. It becomes easier to make grand resolutions in this place.

It’s said that to turn a good practice into a habit takes 30 days (I’ve also heard 21). I wonder if living a completely different life for a month makes it easier to reset your life when you return?

Resolutions are of course notorious. Once you’ve whittled through the obvious ones, get fit, be more organised, be a better friend etc, you’re left asking the big questions: Who am I? What do I want?

I am blessed. I live a charmed life. People pay me money to do work that I find challenging and rewarding. I’m happily married to a woman who is happy with her life and it makes me happy to see her prosper. I am able to do these amazing things like sail 5000 miles across the oceans.

I enjoy being forced to think.

Sailing across the South Atlantic, Day 1

Day 1 – V&A Waterfront, Cape Town – South Africa
9 September 2013, Monday – Distance Covered: 130nm

We departed 4 days late because Magnus (the skipper) got food poisoning. The extra days bought us time to do more last minute preparations, which is never a bad thing.

At roughly 10am we did one last check/top-up of the water tanks, disconnected the shore power and cast off. We had been to immigration a few days before.

The lines came off and we eased out of our berth. The weather was glorious with a brisk breeze to set us on our way.

It takes a long time to sail away from land until the point where you can no longer see land. It was probably 4pm before the last traces of shadows that were once land disappeared.

I was feeling good. On the previous crossing we left late in the afternoon, I ended up exhausted and feeling quite ill. This time I was chipper, doing menial tasks and keeping busy.

While I write this I am reminded of how excited my parents were, especially my father, who pestered me to the point of annoyance wanting to see the boat and asking endless questions about every last detail. That said, I owe this passion to him and I love him dearly. I’m sure I would be the same if I were in his shoes. Watching them on the dock waving goodbye was a lovely experience. Lynnae had to work, we had said our goodbyes earlier in the day, I love her so much for being supportive of my crazy adventures. We exchanged text messages as I sailed away.

Leaving Cape Town

Dolphins waved us off, tracking the boat for a few miles and then getting bored.

As the sun set I started preparing omelettes for the crew for dinner, but I must admit to having to stop half way through when I began to feel a bit queezy. For people who have not spent much time at sea, one oddity is that going below and doing any sort of hand/eye coordination task amplifies any wooziness that one might feel before getting your sea legs. It takes a few days to completely acclimatize.

Laura started to feel ill shortly before sunset. This doesn’t look like seasickness… this looks like what Magnus had. Getting a communicable sickness at sea is a very not-fun experience. The close quarters mean that it’s almost inevitable that everyone will get sick. We’re all a little bit shifty at the thought.

We spent most of the day doing between 8 and 10 knots with good winds.

The Crew
Skipper, Magnus – An all round awesome guy and adventurer. This is the guy you want to be stuck on a desert island with. Originally from the UK.
First Mate, Laura – Magnus’ better half. She used to work for the BBC but traded in her desk for adventure.
Engineer, Chris – Born in the Falklands and intimately familiar with every corner of the boat.
Thomas – A German living in Norway with arctic survival skills and a very manly beard.
Paula – An Argentinian biologist specialising in variety of Antarctic fauna and flora.
Myself – Freeloader and nerd.

Stanley on my mind.

They say it is the journey and not the destination, and when you spend a month sailing across the South Atlantic you’d expect that saying to be particularly true… but while the month at sea was something quite incredible and I will write at length about it, I can not help but be amazed by my destination, a small town called Stanley.

Stanley is the capital of the Falklands Islands, a small group of islands off the east coast of Argentina. It’s British and there was a war in the 80s when Argentina invaded. That tension is not over. Argentina continues to rumble about new invasions and has sanctions on flights and goods leaving or entering Argentina.

When I said Stanley is the “capital” I had to use that term very very loosely. You can forget whatever image you had built up in your head of this place. It is almost certainly not what you think, but let me first mess with your head.

Stanley has an army, a cathedral, its own tv and radio stations, postage stamps, its own currency (complete with coins) and two airports. But, and this is where things get interesting, Stanley is tiny, insanely tiny. You could walk from the one side of the “city” to the other in less than an hour and during that walk you’ll meet enough locals that when you’re in the pub later someone who you’ve never met will invariably approach you and say “Hi, you must be Jonathan”. They don’t get a lot of new faces around here.

Stanley also doesn’t have any ATMs, elevators, escalators or optician. If you run out of cash after 3pm and you want to buy something from a place that doesn’t accept credit cards, well, you can’t. There are only two places that accept credit cards and they’re both “supermarkets” of the sort that also sell fishing equipment and 1 liter plastic bottles of vodka.

Being small definitely has its benefits. The idea of stealing someone’s car is hilarious to the locals. Where would you go? Muggings never happen because the chances of the victim not knowing the attacker are almost nil.

Stanley does however have a crime problem. Their prison is full. All 8 inmates and they recently had to build a new female wing to house their first female prisoner. Never fear though, the convicts are sent to the shops to buy groceries, ever so occasionally bumping into their victims along the way. This would almost be funny if it wasn’t for the issue that most of Stanley’s prisoners are pedophiles.

They take crime seriously here… the local youngsters telling us that getting caught with weed will “get you done” for 6 years and similarly driving under the influence, which is a hilarious concept as your house is almost certainly less that a 15 minute stumble away from the pub, is taken very seriously by the police force. By police force I mean the 3 cops, but only before 3am when it becomes “the cop”, and that cop has to man the phone, so really it’s more of an honor system.

Criminals are treated with such disdain that the monthly newsletter details an incident by incident run down of the previous months arrestees. The latest edition chronicles another pedophile who got caught, complete with a photograph, his full name and address. He hasn’t actually been found guilty yet.

Taking name-and-shame to a whole new level, the local paper also provides names and criminal history for all four of the previous month’s DUI and speeding arrestees. Please don’t forget, this is in a town with a population that is dwarfed by some big high schools.

Stanlians have their own accent. You wouldn’t notice it in the UK as they definitely sound British, but once you’ve met a few you realize that they all intonate in a very peculiar way that once you’re aware of becomes unmistakable. Another interesting quirk is that everyone seems very well educated and quite attractive, but you can’t help but shake the feeling that a lot of them look very very similar.

The Falkland Islands do not have any tertiary education institutions and as a result there is a very odd demographic. Most of the university age people are simply not here and it seems that most of the young professionals leave as soon as they can. I am yet to meet a 30 year old that isn’t disabled, an alcoholic or both.

What that does leave you with is old people, young people and immigrants. The young people are probably the most interesting. Most of them are either not yet in university or have just got back from university and have found that it’s easier to find employment on a remote island with a tiny population than back in the UK. Sadly that says a lot about the state of the economy in the UK.

A 25 year old in Stanley is unlike anything you’ve ever met in the UK or probably the rest of the world. Full of self confidence and lacking the routine hang ups associated with that quarter life crisis. This is a population of educated Hendrix and Led Zep fans talking about politics in a way that would make your average Che t-shirt wearing hipster stammer. They are fun to hang out with and are quick to invite your rag tag crew of dirty sailors back to theirs when the pubs close. Pub’s close at 11pm with a regiment that would make Hitler smile, but not before a 5 minute free-for-all where the locals boozily buy cases of beer over the counter at bartered prices that still seem too high. Then you’re off to theirs (usually in a taxi driven by a motherly australian woman who doesn’t even need to ask where you’re going) for some more drinks while you listen to an 18 year old tell you how they recently got into Oasis but really they grew up on Springsteen.

I can’t say anything bad about Stanley other than the food. There is one place that supposedly has good food but it looks like an old age home and has food prices that should include a night’s accommodation. Everywhere else has food that seems designed for the squaddies (soldiers who live on the base over the hill) or oil workers; deep-fried everything and almost no flavor so you end up coating your entire meal in tomato sauce and/or mayonnaise depending on how British you feel like being.

Sadly I’m flying out of here tomorrow, but rest assured that tonight will be spent in the bars, all 3 of which where everybody knows my name.

Photos to follow when I’m in a place that doesn’t charge for internet by the minute.

Why we do what we do.

Weather permitting I’ll be leaving next Wednesday. I’m going to sail about three and a half thousand miles, across the South Atlantic, from Cape Town to a tiny group of islands called the Falklands off the coast of Argentina. I like to think that the reason I am doing this is obvious and for most of my friends the reason seems obvious too.

Though, every now and then I get asked “Why?”. As if it would be simpler to just fly there. Which is true. It takes 44 hours to fly from Cape Town to Stanley on the east Falklands. 44 hours and 5 separate flights. Sailing there takes 25 days and you sail through some of the roughest seas on the planet. The Falklands are about as close as you can get to Antarctica without actually being on Antarctica.

Is it dangerous? Of course. There are more dangerous things one could do, but when you’re 2000 miles away from the nearest hospital and in a very unpredictable environment, anything can happen.

Will I miss home? Of course! I’ll miss my wife, my cats, my comfortable bed, being able to take a warm shower whenever I want, deciding what I want to eat, being able to be alone, going out to get a coffee etc etc. I’ll be stuck on a 75 foot yacht with 7 people I barely know.

So why am I doing it? I don’t really have an answer. I have answers. But the sum of all those answers is not the answer.

I want to stretch my mind. I want to sail away, leave land behind, wake up in the morning and have to check a map to know where I am. I want to be surrounded by nothing but sea.

I want to learn to be a better sailor. We live in a world full of experts who know nothing. Rockstars who learnt everything they know in the previous 3 weeks. We’re all bullshit and truth bending. Teach yourself brain surgery in 24 hours. When your life is in your own hands you’re forced to be honest about your abilities.

I want to push myself and see where the cracks appear. I want to be bored and be forced to write. I want to spend an idyllic evening on deck eating freshly caught fish. I want time to think. I want to be scared. I want to ride out a storm and watch the sun rise on a perfect morning. I want to see land and long to touch it. I want to have a story to tell and to write those stories that are banging around in my head. I want to miss my wife, my friends, my family and my country.

I want to fly home and know why I sailed away in the first place, but I’m sure I won’t, and that is why I am doing it.

You can, satellite gods willing, follow my adventures here http://arbitrarysailor.tumblr.com/.

Single handed sailing is not for the faint hearted.

knox_johnston_golden_globe
Robin Knox-Johnston on board Suhali

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by single handed (solo) sailing and specifically single handed circumnavigations. The first person to sail around the world single handed was Joshua Slocum in 1898. His journey took 3 years and he made many stops along the way.

Sixty eight years later Francis Chichester, who Later became Sir Francis Chichester for obvious reasons, decided to try his hand at the journey. He left Plymouth on August 1966 and returned 226 days later after stopping once in Australia. He was 67 at the time and was the first person to circumnavigate with only one stop.

This meant there was only one thing left to do… Circumnavigate, single handed, without stopping. Two years later, in 1968, Robin Knox-Johnston left Falmouth and 313 days later arrived back in Falmouth to much fanfare.

It’s far too easy to romanticise these journeys but reading the books written by these men is both inspiring and scary. It’s often in the minutia that the true risks involved in these kinds of endeavours are exposed.

I found this in the “Pilot’s Notes” section at the back of Knox-Johnston’s book “A World of My Own”:

“There was a small diver’s lifejacket on board, but again I did not use it. It got in the way for one thing, and if I had fallen overside, although I would have swum in the direction of the nearest land, one has to be realistic, and it would probably have been best to get it over quickly.”

I think those two sentences sum it up better than any book every could.