A long hard week of wind and rain....

Mon 10 Dec 2007 19:14
15:03N 57:20W

Michael Fish. Michael bleedin’ Fish ….


A bit about tactics … 

Well, we’re coming to the end of our journey. The chocolate rations are running low and the finishing line is just a few hundred miles away. It’s therefore about time to reveal a little bit about our tactics.


Most boats taking part in the ARC will go one of two traditional routes. The northern route heads roughly west from Gran Canaria most of the way across the Atlantic then gently arcs south towards St Lucia. The southern route heads roughly south from Gran Canaria to the Cape Verde Islands then turns roughly north west to pick up the Trade Winds straight to St Lucia.


Syd carefully studied the weather charts and forecasts from ARC and from the weather/navigation software that he’s bought, MaxSea. He spotted that the northern route would be faster for the first part of the race, but that there was a low pressure (ie low wind) system roughly in the middle of the Atlantic that was heading north which would kill the wind on the northern route but would favour boats on the southern route.


The solution? Take both routes! We would take the northern route to begin with, then start heading south fairly early to join the southern route about half way across. That would allow us to get to the half way point before the other boats going the southern route and allow us to skate around the southern end of the low pressure system as it headed north. We could then pick up the trade winds to St Lucia. Brilliant!


Of course, this all depended on the weather forecasts being right …


A bit about sails … 

A boat will normally sail using a main sail (a triangular sail attached to the mast) and a genoa sail (a triangular sail attached to a forestay (basically a strong wire) running between the top of the mast and the front of the boat). The main sail and the genoa can be set to one side of the boat or the other depending on the direction of the wind.


If the wind is directly behind, the boat can instead be sailed using a spinnaker (basically a big baggy sail attached to the front of the boat that acts a bit like a parachute – when it fills with wind it literally drags the boat along behind it).


Seeing as the wind would be behind the boat most of the way across, the obvious plan would be to use the spinnaker. There are, however, two fundamental problems with that.


Firstly, the spinnaker works well with the wind behind you, but not so well when it is not. That means either going where the wind takes you or taking it down. Taking it down can be a real pain, especially if you have to do it a night, and the chances are that the wind will change back again soon, so you will only have to put it up again.


Secondly, boats in the ARC are given a handicap according to, for example, whether or not they intend to use a spinnaker. If you decide not to use one, you get a better handicap (on the basis that you will have to work harder to get there).


The solution? Well, we have rigged up two genoas – one on each side of the boat! If we only need one genoa, we simply flip the unused one over to the side that we want (so both are on the same side as if we have a double thickness genoa). If the wind is behind, we simply spread-eagle them – one on each side of the boat – so that the act a bit like a spinnaker. Although not as efficient as a spinnaker, it works pretty well and, importantly, is easy to control. Brilliant!


Tuesday 4th December 2007 (afternoon/evening)

How a day can change. We headed south to skirt around the edge of the low pressure zone. By tea time, however, the wind dropped. Completely. We were bobbing around in circles going absolutely nowhere. Oh well, at least we would have dinner whilst we figured out what to do. Had we accidentally sailed straight into the low pressure zone? Had the weather unexpectedly changed? What would we have for desert?


According to MaxSea, we were not in the low pressure zone, but the wind had shifted direction. Only one thing to do – change sails to head the other direction and try and pick up the wind. Our belly’s full, we changed sails as night fell and prayed for wind. Someone must have been listening, because the wind changed direction again, but this time heading straight for St Lucia! Unfortunately, our prayers for jelly and ice cream went unanswered.


As we slipped into the nightwatch, we sailed straight through a series of wind and rain storms. Syd took the worst of it, getting soaked. Mind you, it had been a few days since he’d had a proper shower. Other than a broken rope holding a pulley at the end of the spinnaker pole (which Syd and Nishi managed to repair at 2 o’clock in the morning … in the rain) Gaviota held firm. No signs of the gremlins or mutinous equipment today.


Wednesday 5th December 2007

They’re back. Knowing that we were tired from the night before, the equipment decided to play their trump card. The generator is on strike. Syd tried persuading it to get back to work by bribing it with fresh oil and when that didn’t work he tried brute force with a hammer, but it’s not budging. That means we have to rely on the engine to recharge the batteries and will have to start rationing power.


We don’t think the engine is too happy about being a scab. Firstly, it is working to rule and only giving us enough power to keep running for a few hours at a time. Secondly, it is playing up (presumably because it knows that we’re not in a position to argue). Whenever we turn it off, it mysteriously engages the prop shaft – in reverse! It’s trying to make us go backwards!!


I blame the water maker. Traitor.


Key facts:

Position (at 1200 GMT/UTC) – 17.24n 42.53w

Distance travelled (in 24 hrs to 1200 GMT/UTC) – 151 nautical miles

Total distance travelled - 1690 nautical miles

Dinner – Annabel’s shepherd’s pie

Nishi’s beard growth – Geography teacher


Thursday 6th December 2007

Weather forecasting is an odd science. Essentially, forecasts are just guesses. They should, however, be educated guesses based on centuries of research, up to the minute data, satellite imagery etc. You would therefore hope that they are accurate to within a certain degree of tolerance.


So it’s understandable that people get a bit peeved when the reports are completely wrong. Remember Michael Fish when he said that there were NO hurricanes heading for Britain? By “NO” hurricanes, what he meant was “LOTS OF” hurricanes. Fool.


Well, it looks like we’ve been getting our weather reports from Fish himself.


We had forgiven MaxSea for the unexpected wind shifts yesterday that left us bobbing around like a rubber duck in a bath tub and even for the squalls. So we were a bit annoyed when the wind unexpectedly shifted during the early hours of the morning and was pushing us further south – away from where we wanted to go! We had no choice, we had to gybe (ie change the sails to change direction). So at 2 o’clock in the morning (yet again) Syd and Nishi got out on deck and changed sails. At least it wasn’t raining … yet.


Key facts: 

Position (at 1200 GMT/UTC) – 16.38n 45.38w

Distance travelled (in 24 hrs to 1200 GMT/UTC) – 167 nautical miles

Total distance travelled - 1857 nautical miles

Dinner – Nishi’s turkey biriani

Nishi’s beard growth – Open University professor


Friday 7th December 2007

After a fairly steady Thursday night, we hoped that the bizarre weather of the last few days was behind us.


By Friday evening, the pace had slowed down a bit, and there were clouds creeping towards us from every direction. Some of them showed the unmistakable characteristics of squalls. MaxSea hadn’t predicted that. We battened down the hatches and waited.


By early evening we were being swept along by a full on rain storm with winds of up to 25 knots and the boat screaming along at speeds of up to 13 knots! 13 knots might not sound like much, but our average so far had been about 7 knots. Add to that the darkness, the cold, the wet and the poor visibility and we had a long and difficult night keeping the boat safely under control. At least we were heading in the right direction and knew that we could retreat to the safety of our warm, dry beds at the end of our shifts.


Except for Syd. As 2 o’clock in the morning, a wet, cold and tired Syd trudged towards his bunk to find it … soaked. The hatch above his bed had leaked. He’s taken to curling up on the sofa around the dining table. Coincidentally, the dining table is where we keep the snacks. Annabel and Nishi think something fishy is going on.


Speaking of which, we still haven’t caught any fish.


We passed a major milestone today – we passed the 2000 nautical miles barrier! Nishi suggested we celebrate with a wee drinkee. What we had was another cup of tea, only this time we had cake!


Key facts:

Position (at 1200 GMT/UTC) – 16.29n 48.34w

Distance travelled (in 24 hrs to 1200 GMT/UTC) – 169 nautical miles

Total distance travelled - 2026 nautical miles

Dinner – Annabel’s chicken stir fry

Nishi’s beard growth – Folk music festival


Saturday 8th December 2007

MaxSea predicted that we would have reasonable winds in roughly the right direction to blow us straight to St Lucia.


We should have known better by now.


Friday night’s storms had continued into Saturday. Visibility was poor, but we were aware of other boats in the area, so both Syd and Nishi spent the morning on deck in the rain keeping an eye on the weather (having finally decided to ignore MaxSea) and for other boats. Annabel sensibly decided to stay dry (there’s no point all of is getting wet and cold). We decided that we just had to go with it (better to keep moving in the wrong direction than stop altogether). After a quick sail change, we had her under control and were cruising along, albeit the wrong way and in a storm.


Then surprise surprise the wind stopped. Completely. Again. We were now bobbing around in the water going nowhere (again) only this time it was pouring with rain and we couldn’t see. After (another) quick sail change we got moving (again), but in completely the wrong direction! We were headed south east when we needed to go west, and there was not much we could do about it in the conditions.


And that’s when we met two other boats in exactly the same predicament. We had been questioning our tactics, and whether we’d read the weather forecasts wrong, but these guys had done exactly the same thing and ended up in the same messy situation. That made us feel a bit better about being wet and cold and facing the wrong way. What made us feel even better, though, was when we found out that these boats were bigger and faster than us, and were in a higher racing division. Either these guys weren’t very good, or we had done bleedin’ brilliantly to stay up with them. Having talked to them on the radio, we realised that these guys weren’t fools – our tactics had been spot on and it was just pure bad luck that we had been caught by dodgy weather forecasts.


After (yet another) quick sail change we were under way and heading out of the storm and in the direction of St Lucia. The sail change had worked perfectly (we’re starting to work like a well oiled machine, unlike the engine) and we were away and out of trouble before the other boats.


Had our luck changed?


Well … no. As soon as we got out of the storm … the wind stopped. Completely. Yet Again! AAAAGH!!!


Tired and a bit fed up, we now had a difficult decision to make. MaxSea was predicting that we would eventually get wind in the right direction, but could we trust the forecasts and could we afford to wait around and give other boats an unknown number of hours to catch up/pull away? We’d worked so hard for 2 weeks not to use the engines and make the best use of whatever wind we had, and we were all so determined to sail all the way (in our minds, motoring would be cheating). But we had to decide whether to turn on the engines and get moving or just sit and wait for the wind. We knew that we would get a time penalty for using the engines, but we had little choice – we turned on the engines.


Key facts: 

Position (at 1200 GMT/UTC) – 16.23n 51.27w

Distance travelled (in 24 hrs to 1200 GMT/UTC) – 172 nautical miles

Total distance travelled - 2198 nautical miles

Dinner – McAnnabel’s home/boat made beef burgers

Nishi’s beard growth – “Hello! I’m Brian Blessed!”


Sunday 9th December 2007

Although the day started sunny and bright, we all felt a bit deflated at having to have used the engines. We picked up messages from other boats in the area, and they had had to do the same thing. We’ll have to see whether it was the right thing to do once the results are in – as it stands we will incur a time penalty so any boats finishing after us could still be ranked higher than us.


MaxSea predicted that the worst was behind us, and we would have decent winds blowing us to St Lucia. I’ve heard that before!


As it happened, the wind stayed reassuringly consistent all day. The only incident of note was that one of the snatch blocks (basically a pulley that opens at the side so that you can attach it anywhere on a rope without having to thread it through) broke. That’s 2 snatch blocks gone now. The gremlins are back! We managed to bodge together a repair that should last until we arrive in St Lucia.


The wind changed direction slightly during the night, requiring a slight sail change. We had been sailing all day under a conventional set up (main sail and genoa on one side). We decided to swap to our spread-eagled twin genoa set up and take the main sail down. We set up the genoas and were about to take the main sail down when we noticed that the boat was moving beautifully as it was – with the spread-eagled genoas and mainsail. Theoretically, it simply shouldn’t work (because one of the genoas should stall), but it did! Not only are we breaking personal records, we’re breaking the laws of physics!


Key facts:

Position (at 1200 GMT/UTC) – 15.51n 53.36w

Distance travelled (in 24 hrs to 1200 GMT/UTC) – 137 nautical miles

Total distance travelled - 2335 nautical miles

Dinner – Annabel’s Thai chicken curry

Nishi’s beard growth – Papa Smurf

Monday 10th December 2007 (mid afternoon)

Nearly there! We cruised along nicely all morning under our unconventional sail set up. Thanks to the St Lucia tourist board for the welcome – we’ve had dolphins dancing around the boat all afternoon!


Key facts:

Position (at 1200 GMT/UTC) – 15.15n 56.24w

Distance travelled (in 24 hrs to 1200 GMT/UTC) – 172 nautical miles

Total distance travelled – 2507 nautical miles

Dinner – (planned) Nishi’s lamb and spinach curry

Nishi’s beard growth – “Santa Claus is coming to town ….”