Account of the passage from Gran Canaria to Antigua

Good Company
Richard and Janet
Sat 21 Feb 2015 18:20
Well, we made it…. job done, as Richard says! Here is the long awaited account of the journey. You may want to read it in installments…

Where to begin? We had a really difficult passage due to the weather as well as failure of some equipment. At times in the first week we really wondered, what next! When we left Pasito Blanco the wind was gusting over twenty knots but the forecast for the week was NE 15 – 20 and we expected good sailing in settled trade winds. However, the sea was all over the place and the wind kept shifting from the north around to the east and back again and at times was over 30 knots. We tried to go south but were being forced west by the sea state. 
Then, on our second night disaster struck at 11.45 just before the end of Janet’s shift when the auto helm packed up. There was no warning alarm… it just stopped working. Richard tried his best to get it going but to no avail. We had a crew consultation and George and Derek agreed to helm with us all the way to Tobago instead of trying to go south for 600 miles to Cape Verde. This meant each of us being on watch for three hours steering the boat with a break of nine hours. Another problem was that we didn’t have a seat so it meant standing for three hours, a difficult job for anyone. Richard pulled out all the stops to think of a way to overcome this and by Wednesday had devised a stool which saved the day. He used a piece of oak which normally serves as an extension of the starboard saloon seat, the little stool we bought for his mom to get onto the boat when she visited in Brighton, another plank for support and the steel leg for our cockpit table. He held all these together with rope and hose clips. It was not pretty, but served the purpose!

We were then battered for the first ten days with lots of squalls which soaked us but didn’t give us any water as they hit us sideways. We were also constantly changing tack and reefing the mainsail, and then taking out the reefs. One afternoon I distracted Derek at the helm and he missed seeing a big wave from the side. It soaked Richard sitting on the port side seat. Fortunately he took it in his stride and we all had a good laugh. Later Derek discovered that the carpet in his cabin was soaked and we realized it had also gone into the porthole behind Richard. Out with another big thick towel to soak it all up over the next few days.

On the third afternoon when Richard was finally having a good sleep George came to me saying he had water coming into his cabin! Fortunately it wasn’t a lot, but then you don’t want ANY water dripping down onto your mattress, especially salt water. We found that water was coming in from where the rudder arm exits the boat. Luckily it was high up and only caused by the splashing from the LARGE waves behind us and we were able to keep it out effectively with a rolled up towel.

On the fifth day the Tack Tick wireless wind instrument stopped working in the evening. Remember my blog post about getting new batteries in Madeira? Batteries were not the only problem. We have discovered since we arrived here that unbeknown to us wireless wind and depth instruments should only be used for local sailing. Interestingly when we bought these, we wanted to get the instruments we had on our previous yacht but were persuaded that Tack Tick were much better… and they knew we intended going cruising! Not having an instrument to give you wind direction when you are sailing in constantly shifting wind which also keeps changing speed makes sailing dangerous and very stressful. The strange thing was that it would usually work when the sun was up (it is solar powered but should easily last all night and should last for ten days from full charge) and would die at night when we most needed it. Somehow we managed and are probably better sailors for it. At night we would leave the heads light on so that we could see how the genoa was shaped! Thank goodness for LED light bulbs which use so little power. Since we arrived in the Caribbean the wind instrument has stopped working altogether and the depth instrument only works when inside right next to the electronic device, not in the cockpit where it should be. It is difficult enough anchoring without one of us having to be inside reading out the depth changes. Needless to say we shall be paying a visit to the Raymarine agent in St Maarten about both the Tack Tick and the auto helm, both their products.

The final BIG issue was the engine. During the first week it began making a strange noise which sounded like the fan belt and Richard tightened it at the top. However, the noise continued and he then feared the worst… that because of the salt water which had gone into the engine compartment on the previous trip, we had what the manual calls ‘catastrophic damage’. He drained the oil but this didn’t seem to help. We had to stop using it for charging the batteries and this lead to power problems. We have four solar panels and two wind generators but for the first 10 days we had so little sun the solar panels were not very effective and we depleted the battery bank and it became difficult to catch up. We started switching the fridge and separate freezer off and on alternatively and had worries about losing our frozen food in the freezer and cold meats in the fridge. 

On the second Sunday we moved the remaining frozen meat to the fridge freezer and switched the freezer off all together. I used all the remaining green beans to make bean salad and had to throw out half a packet of mixed vegetables which had thawed too much. In the end we threw nothing else away and I was very pleased with our food management. We conserved the engine to be able to use it for a short while to get into the anchorage when we reached Antigua and at that stage believed we would have a haul out and major engine repair when we got there. It was at this point that we decided not to head for Tobago, but to Antigua instead where we anticipated getting better service for the engine, and to be able to sail in there if the engine failed altogether.

As a result of the above three major problems, we were constantly worrying about what would go wrong next. Our bed really started creaking after the first week and on the Saturday afternoon Richard decided to put some resin in the one corner to secure it better. Boats flex a lot and parts inside tend to shift if not fitted VERY securely. Together we did the job with me holding the mattress out of the way and all went well until we were done and Richard lifted his head and connected it squarely on the corner of the book case. Oh my, did it bleed! We called Dr George and he applied pressure to the wound and luckily this was all that was needed. We put a bag of almost finished frozen peas on it and this also helped.

It wasn’t all bad and we also had some good times. We caught four mahi mahi. The first was small and we grilled it whole. The second two were caught at the same time on two bungee lines and were large enough to fillet. The fourth one was a lovely 3.5 kilogram specimen and Richard could cut off the fillets for two good meals. We caught that one just in time as soon after that we had to stop fishing as there was so much Sargasso weed that it became impossible as no sooner had we put the bungee lines in the water when the lures were full of weed.

Another ‘bad happenng’ was when one of the crew dropped a wet wipe into the toilet and flushed it down by mistake. As some of you will know, this is a disaster for a boat toilet. Three hours were spent sorting this out and fortunately we had our old toilet pump as a spare and were able to fit this until we got to Antigua and could get the spare part to fix the new one.

Yet another issue was the water maker which didn’t work in the end and is another fight we still have to face. We were however prepared for this with bottles of drinking water stashed everywhere but it did make life pretty difficult. We washed dishes in salt water after the first five days, using one litre of fresh rinsing water. Derek was my stalwart dryer when we washed dishes once a day at about 12.00 midday. Occasionally we would have two washing sessions, especially when I had baked chocolate squares or Australian chews… I told you it wasn’t all bad! Actually we ate pretty well, lots of rice and pasta, chicken, mince, bratwurst, ham and salami but we managed to vary the menu and we didn’t go hungry. Unfortunately I bought a type of guancho Gran Canarian cereal instead of whole wheat flour and we could only bake white bread (we usually mix the two) and we were four kilograms short of flour. Fortunately we could make it last and we baked our last loaf two days before we arrived, but the quality was not the same and more freshly baked bread would have been good. However, as Stephen said, if we were really hungry, we would have made a plan to eat the cereal! The four bean salads worked a treat as did the cabbage and carrots for coleslaw. We had lots of tinned fruit and boxed custard, nuts and tinned peas and corn. I was pleased to only use the last of the fresh vegetables, four carrots, on day 24 and make a carrot salad with raisins and tinned pineapple juice. On our last night I made an amazing pasta sauce and will post the recipe another time. We did eat less than usual (and had no beer or wine) and lost weight, but all look better for it!

You also don’t realise how much energy you use just keeping upright when moving around on a constantly moving boat for four weeks and helming for six hours every day. George worked out that by doing this we had all done a month’s work of about 162 hours. He and Derek stuck to their three hour watches, George from 12 – 3 and Derek from 3 – 6. Richard and I mixed ours around between 6 –12. In the evenings we would do one and a half hour shifts as we found watching the compass too tiring for three hours. In the mornings we fitted our helming in around chores such as bread baking, sail trimming, putting out fishing lines, general boat checks (Richard) and breakfast preparation or journal updating (Janet). I enjoyed helming when the weather was good. Interestingly I was reading the log from our crossing on Thrill Seeker (we also self- steered across the southern Atlantic, but that was planned) and I noted there that it was good to get away from galley chores and relax at the helm!

Richard also had to be a stern captain when he rationed us to personal washing water of one and half litres per day, giving us each a bottle and banning the use of the water pump. We all managed fine with this and the use of wet wipes. It is amazing how little water you can use to stay clean. I was very glad I had cut my hair short again in Gran Canaria as it only had four washes in as many weeks, once using sea water, with a fresh water rinse.

I had many hours to pray and ponder while at the helm and one thing I realised was that so much of our happiness and general emotional state is dependent on our expectations. We were all disappointed that so much had gone wrong and that the trip was so uncomfortable. We had expected it to be so much better. However, we were never in mortal danger (although there were times in the beginning when I was very afraid), we were never really cold and were not thirsty or hungry. We were constantly in touch with the outside world with the satellite phones so we knew we could be rescued if need be. So… it became a matter of managing our expectations and being thankful for all that we had, and not resentful about all that had gone wrong. It was also a matter of dealing with the expectation of the wind and weather improving and when it didn’t always do that, dealing with the disappointment and not losing faith that we would get there fine in the end. Strangely enough, I never doubted this, but just wished I knew when it would be!

Then there was the wind, or the lack of it. After two weeks of strong wind from all directions it then petered out virtually altogether. From doing 120 mile days we went down to 60 – 70 mile days. This would have been fine if the auto helm was working but the only thing worse than helming in strong wind is keeping a yacht on course with very little wind! The two slowest days logged were Sunday 31 January (64 miles) and Friday 6 February (63 miles). The latter was two days away from our arrival and the frustration was almost unbearable. We couldn’t use the engine… and George had his flight booked for the Tuesday! Our weatherman, Stephen then assured us that wind was coming (but he had done this many times before, so would those forecasters be right this time?) They were, and we were able to put up the spinnaker and have a good final day’s sail. We took it down at sunset and after putting up the main and genoa for one last time were able to sail all the way to the entrance of English Harbour, Antigua and motor safely into the anchorage at 02.15 local time. What exhilaration to finally put down the anchor and enjoy a few beers together before a few hours of sleep before checking in the next morning!

On that last day we finally saw four whales, our first on the whole journey. They didn’t stay long, but at least we saw them. We had seen a lot of flying fish but didn’t see a single dolphin and saw very few birds. We saw one other yacht, a fishing boat near Antigua and about six ships… we often felt very alone out there.

I will end with all that went right and all that we were thankful for! We didn’t hit a container or a whale (George’s biggest concerns), no one became ill or hurt themselves badly (Richard did hurt his back, but has fortunately recovered and all the bruises we got from bashing ourselves have also healed), the rigging and sails were great, the rudders and steerage worked wonderfully, the cooker (stove) and gas gave no problems and we got here safely in the end!