Thursday 1st December - Barrelling Downwind and 1,000 NM to go

Jon & Carol Dutton
Thu 1 Dec 2011 12:57

16:54.15N 45:16.10W


Thursday 1st December


It’s di-ah twelve an’ tha skippa is in tha dyrie ruum. 


The position read-out we get by e-mail at 0400 GMT (0300 current ship’s time) was late yesterday morning and we were pretty interested to find out what it might reveal about Cochise’s intentions.  Not surprisingly, when the e-mail eventually arrived, we discovered that she had eased down south towards us following the well known maxim that says that, whenever you can, you should get yourself between the key opposition and the next mark of the course (in our case the north shore of St Lucia, now less than 1,000 NM away) and then manoeuvre to stay there.   So, after around 2,000 NM of betting this way and that, there we were with 25NM between us and Cochise and Cochise between us and the finish.  For the time being there are no big strategic decisions to make - it’s a straight line to St Lucia from now on.  So, all we have to do is sail quite a lot faster than them.  Not that we’re racing or in any way bothered about when we get to St Lucia, of course.


We had no idea whether this was going to be possible or not.  Cochise will be more lightly laden for sure.  She’ll also be using different sails to get down this sleigh ride.  A standard spinnaker teamed with a mainsail probably gives you better speed in many conditions than our Parasailor and no mainsail.  But, in tough gusty, swelly conditions that combination is quite a handful, particularly dead downwind, particularly, particularly at night  – even for 7 young guys (accepting that from the perspective of the ancient mariners aboard Arnamentia the term ‘young’ means anyone more than about a fortnight under 60).


There was something of a glitch in the satellite position reporting system later on yesterday which meant that some boats did not have their positions updated fully in time for the 0400 GMT automated position report this morning.  One of those was Cochise.  The result was a certain amount of premature – if somewhat bemused -celebration aboard Arnamentia well before dawn this morning as the e-mail detailing the 0400 positions showed that we had overtaken Cochise by about 10NM.  That meant we’d caught up about 35NM in 24 hours with a competitor who knows what he’s about and what we’re likely to be up to.  Impressive stuff indeed but just a bit too good to be true.  Sally Dumas was able to let us know this morning what the Fleet Tracker showed in the way of distance to run and it now seems as though we’ve reduced Cochise’s lead from 25NM to about 18NM in 24 hours.  That’s more like it.  Cochise will also know that because the 0400 report will have told her where we were at that time.  So, we’re expecting redoubled efforts from them in this relaxed Trans-Atlantic cruise.  Incidentally, there is a third Swan 46 MkII (Milanto) in this game but she’s in the racing division.  She’s differently handicapped and will be set up for racing with all the smart racing sails and no unnecessary clobber aboard.  Plus, I guess, a full-on racing crew.  Wouldn’t be surprised if the crew are dreaming of a meal that isn’t a pot noodle.  As for tonic . . . Anyway, NQOCD (not quite our class, dear - for those to whom that, I suppose rather passé, acronym is a bit of a mystery).  Even so, she’s not far ahead of the two of us but this time we really aren’t bovvered.   


I guess we’ve probably got something like 5 days to run now.  It is quite possible that the last 400-500 NM will throw up a much less consistent and predictable potage of weather.  So, first, the 5 day estimate may well prove optimistic and, second, it may not be merely a matter of sheer boat speed in a given set of conditions.  There may yet be an opportunity for old age and treachery to overcome youth and skill.


Chafe remains quite an obsession for us all.  The chaos caused in the middle of the night by an important rope parting under serious tension is something to be avoided at all costs.  Er, hang on.  Not at all costs.  Just don’t let it happen if you can possibly help it, whilst continuing to keep the pedal to the metal.  Before we left, Jon had had a number of discussions with people about this – in particular about chafe on the spinnaker guy as it passes through the spinnaker pole end fitting.  Sorry; this is going to get a bit technical for a few sentences then we’ll be back to you non-sailors.  One suggestion was that the pole end fitting should not be used and a block (pulley) lashed or shackled to the pole end in its place.  This would permit the guy to avoid the inevitable wear in the pole end fitting as it saws to and fro, pulled by the spinnaker, and pass, instead, around a rope-friendly pulley wheel.  Well, two destroyed snatch blocks and one broken guy later we’ve reverted to the bog standard system.  The guy passes through the pole end fitting as designed.  It will chafe (although it must be said that Swan yacht pole end fittings are extremely well crafted from that point of view).  But, any treatment we’ve tried has created more suffering to the patient than the ailment.  So, it’s not palliative and seems to kill him more quickly.  Don’t think we’ll get NICE approval somehow.  We’ve just got to take Percy down every couple of days, cut off the chafed end, retie the bowline and rehoist.  It’s a sort of pit stop routine.  This game is tough on equipment – that’s for sure. 


Whilst on the subject of chafe, it should be noted that it is not only items of yacht equipment that are subject to this problem.  A second pair of the skipper’s shorts have now gone critical.  Trendy, it may be.  Attractive, we think not.  Having had the brand new OCC burgee up for a day we decided to lower it lest it suffer a similar fate to the skipper’s shorts.





What does, I think, strike us all is how different this is from the cross-channel hops or even the slightly longer voyages of a few hundred miles.  There is no expectation whatsoever of watching St Catherine’s Point light fade into the distance (and wishing it would just get on with it) nor any of acquiring Pointe de Barfleur or wherever and being impatient for that to happen.  It’s just empty oggin everywhere.  You and the boat slip into a comfortable routine which you rarely achieve on shorter passages.  We are lucky on Arnamentia to have a fair number of comforts of home at hand.  There is reasonable personal stowage space, hot running water, two very good heads (loos) with showers, a decent watermaker (so, you can wash, shave and shower at will), an auxiliary generator that recharges the batteries without the need to fire up Mr Perkins (for those who have not been paying attention, he’s the engine), a decent fridge, a substantial freezer and a really pretty capable communications set up.  Not only does that allow us to keep in contact with those at home but it connects us to the rest of the ARC fleet and various sources of weather information – and, of course, the rescue services.



                                    And, of course, you get moments like this.


The crew is divided into two watches (Penny and Chris in one, Tim and Carol in the other) and effectively work in shifts of broadly four hours on and four hours off.  It’s a bit more complicated than that to ensure that we don’t all just pass like ships in the night, but eat properly and together and the watches rotate so that, for instance, if you do the midnight to 0400 watch tonight, you won’t tomorrow.  As well as steering the boat there is, of course, a variety of jobs that have to be done to ensure that decent meals are produced, maintenance tasks are identified and done and that the yacht is kept reasonably clean and tidy.  There is a daily radio call with some other ARC yachts and either Tim or Penny answer up for us.  In addition, each morning we need to get hold of a fair amount of weather information in the form of charts and text files (generally we do this via the satellite links and e-mail) to work out whether or not the plan for getting to St Lucia needs to be adjusted.   


Whilst on watch the key jobs are steering, sailing trim and maintenance of the ship’s log.  For the vast majority of this trip we have hand steered.  Orville is a good guy but he relies on making corrections to the steered course once it’s gone wrong.  He then rather overdoes it.  Then he over-undoes it.  Hector is great but setting him up and adjusting him in big cross-swells has defeated us.  Half the problem is that the apparent wind speed and direction (the wind experienced by the sails – a combination of the speed and direction of the actual wind and the wind generated by the movement of the boat through the air) changes so rapidly as we surf down one wave and then climb back up the next.  Added to this, we deal day and night with frequent squalls coming from a materially different direction than the general wind.  Percy also takes some determined handling as the wind speed and direction he experiences changes just as rapidly.  All of this really benefits from a human helm who can look ahead, anticipate and apply a small correction early rather than a bigger one late.  In fact, without human intervention the boat spends too much time on her ear and the strain on the gear is immense.  When the conditions get particularly lively, the burden of steering falls on the watch leaders (Chris and Tim) with Jon standing in for either as a relief helm as necessary.  Both girls have become very competent helms in their own right but inevitably lack the experience and confidence to deal with the more scary stuff.  And, it’s experience and confidence that matters rather than strength. 




Oh, look.  It’s an alien steering              Told you so!


So, on we go, barrelling downwind.  We’ll be in touch shortly.  Apologies for any typos but I can tell you that typing in these conditions presents its own challenges!