Crossing the Atlantic

James & Amelia Gould
Wed 12 Dec 2007 14:31

22 November – 8 December 2007: Crossing the Atlantic Ocean


We left Mindelo, Cape Verde, in the late afternoon of a blustery overcast day.  We’d spent the morning doing final preparations for the long passage – buying fresh food, securing the boat for sea, topping up with water, and spending the last of our currency on a slap up lunch.  The forecast was for good NE trade winds, which we figured would give us a flying start, and prepare us for anything the Atlantic had to throw at us.  We were ready, so we left.


Leaving Sao Vicente


We sailed straight into the acceleration zone between Sao Vicente and Santo Antao islands, which had strengthened the mild predicted Force 5 into a strong Force 7.  We turned downwind into the channel between the islands, and watched the big steep waves rise and fall as they overtook Rahula, wincing as the water slammed underneath.  We gradually reefed down until we ended up under just a staysail running downwind and found that although the wind was howling across the deck, down below it was actually quite quiet and comfortable while Rahula was doing about 6 knots.  As we neared the western edge of the islands the wind slackened off, and we found ourselves in a wind “hole”, barely making any progress.  We hoisted full sail (keeping a wary eye on the horizon astern in case more strong winds came) and wallowed along in the swell left over from the strong winds.


We couldn’t bare the horrible rocking motion and slow progress, so we reached for the engine to motor away from the lee of the islands and into open water, where we hoped we would find the wind again.  A turn of the key to the engine gave nothing.  Another turn, silence.  We gave the engine a stern look, checked the battery was on, and tried the key again.  Dead.  It was still too rough to take the engine cover off and see what was wrong, so we sat there and continued to drift with the swell.  We figured some of the big following seas we had just been in must have made its way into the engine housing and flooded the electrics.


After an hour the wind returned, though it changed direction through almost every single compass point for a while, necessitating endless sail changes to maintain our course.  We saw another yacht to starboard and they called us up on the VHF.  It was Cleone, the boat belonging to the ex-Army Colonel we had befriended in Mindelo.  This is when we discovered that our VHF radio was broken as well!  We could hear Cleone, but could not transmit.  We had a brief conversation with them using our hand held radio then wished them safe passage.  There was no way we were going back to Sao Vicente against the wind to fix the engine and VHF, so we decided to continue without them, hoping for some calmer days to try to fix things.  (After all, we are a sailing boat and it wasn’t likely there would be anyone to fix things in Cape Verde anyway. J)


We settled into night watches, but within 30 minutes I woke James up as the wind had started to freshen considerably.  We furled the Genoa away as the gusts hit 30 knots, leaving just the main up with 3 reefs to maintain way through the water.  In the time it took us to rig and hoist the forth reef in the Mainsail (put in by us for emergencies!) the gusts started hitting 40 knots.  A couple of big waves pass under making Rahula surf like a Hobie Cat at 9 knots.  We looked at each other, wandering, ‘now what?’.  We didn’t have any smaller sails to set, and we were too close to land to set the parachute anchor.  So we took down the mainsail, and decided to see how the boat would cope running downwind under bare poles.  Our biggest fear was losing steerageway and the boat turning beam on to the big seas.  We need not have worried – Rahula continued to bowl along at 6 knots, taking it all in her stride, bobbing around in the swell like a cork.  The autopilot coped magnificently and kept us running downwind as waves threw the boat from side to side.  After an hour the wind disappeared as quickly as it came, and when our speed had reduced to less than 3 knots we decided it was time to start sailing again.  We hoisted minimum sail (still cautious!) and started the long slog westwards constantly monitoring the wind on our backs.


By the end of our first full day at sea we were in the NE Trade winds, and sailing along happily, only needing to furl or unfurl the headsail as the wind strengthened and waned.  We started establishing a routine, and got out the 3000 piece jigsaw my dad had given us on his visit to Madeira to help while away the hours.  As we pieced together the border of the jigsaw we quickly realised that it was too big for our saloon table!  We tried to do it in two parts, but found that it took up so much space we had nowhere to eat.  James also calculated that we would need to place 8 pieces an hour over a 16 day passage in order to finish it before we arrived in Barbados.  This was clearly impractical, as we had plenty of other things to do and it was too complicated!  The jigsaw is a picture of a world atlas from 1665, so we decided to do one half of the world at the time.  We chose to do the globe with the Americas and the Pacific, as that is where we were going.  After 12 days at sea, we finally completed half the jigsaw.  The rest of the jigsaw will have to wait for the long Pacific Ocean crossings…


Doing the Jigsaw


The weather stayed mostly fine during our crossing.  Every day was different, with lots of different clouds forming across the sky (I spotted Peter Rabbit in one!) and the sea constantly changing shape and colour.  We had a full moon for the first few nights, which lit up the sky almost enough to read by. There were some spectacular sunsets, the sky sometimes bathed in a golden red glow, while other times it was like a Turner painting, all pinks, purples and yellows.  It was fairly warm, and the wind stayed consistently in the East, blowing Force 3-5.  The steady wind from astern allowed us to set a foresail on each side of the boat (Genoa and Drifter), giving us a massive sail area to catch the wind and push us on our way.  Occasionally a big black cloud would form over the horizon behind us and we would watch its progress.  If it looked like it was heading for us, we would shorten sail in preparation for the strong gusts of wind it was sure to bring.  Most of these black harbingers of doom brought rain squalls and more wind.  Sometimes the cloud would float over the top of us, dropping a light drizzle and taking all the wind, making us feel silly for sitting there wallowing with little sail up.  But it was worth being cautious for the clouds with a sting in their tail!


Golden Sunset over the Atlantic


On the forth day at sea, we had another equipment failure.  In the early morning the boat started turning into the wind and accelerating rapidly.  I was on watch and I called James to come and help me tame the Drifter while I grabbed the helm and turned the boat back downwind.  Once the boat had slowed to a less heart throbbing speed, we had a look at “George”, our autopilot, to see what was wrong.  There was a strong burnt smell coming from his motor, and we feared the worst, that our trusty third crew member was no more.  James had revived him once before in The Gambia, but we feared the big seas of the Atlantic were just too much for him to bear.  We put Georgina, our spare tiller pilot, in charge, and lay George down to rest until daylight.  We were distraught at losing George, as we knew that he could cope with anything the sea could throw at us, and keep the boat steering in the right direction.  Georgina is a different make of pilot, and not as strong.  We feared that we might have to hand steer the remaining 1500 miles if the weather became rough, as Georgina might not be able to cope (Although in her brief stint in the limelight she performed marvellously and gave us a great deal of confidence in ‘the understudy’.  J).


Figuring he had nothing to lose at George was dead anyway, James stripped the drive ram apart again to see if he could fix it.  The motor was covered in carbon, and the commutator contacts had burnt out.  He turned the contacts around (quite fiddly, they are only about 5mm square and loaded onto tiny springs.  With a 2m following sea it involved various pliers, tweezers and safety pins and a lot of swearing.  Luckily A was off watch so missed the worst fits of temper!  J), gave the ram a good clean and oil, and put it all back together again.  Crossing all out fingers and toes we plugged George back in again, and pressed the Auto button.  We yelled joyfully as we heard the familiar sound of the push rod moving and saw George extend his little head to steer the boat.  We put George back on the helm, thanking Georgina for steering while he was off sick, and had a beer to celebrate.  We have realised though that George will not take much more open-heart surgery, and it is time to buy a new ram…


In true traditions of the Royal Navy, James grew his hair and beard during this passage.  He challenged me to a beard growing competition, but I refused as he had an unfair advantage! (I’m not saying anything…J)  Instead I had to put up with the growing fuzz of hair around my husband’s head and watch him turn into a salty man of the sea.  By the fifth day the heat became too much for James, and he finally cut his hair.  Setting up the clippers on the foredeck, he sat there and shaved his head, scattering his blond locks into the Atlantic.  All my protestations could not get rid of the beard though.  Even when it started collecting food and itched James incessantly, he insisted on keeping it growing.  By day 11 the itching finally became too much for James, and the beard came off!  I was so pleased to have my handsome husband back again! (who’s he? J)


Mid Atlantic Haircut
Bearded James


I had bought 5 days worth of frozen meat, figuring that was how long it would last in our fridge before defrosting and going bad.  Once we had run out of fresh meat James started fishing for supper.  He was initially unsuccessful, getting a bite on his lure a couple of times then the fish escaping as James tried to reel it in.  The third time James struck it lucky and landed a medium sized Mahi Mahi.  The fish was still playing hard to get, and took several attempts to gaff, leaving blood splattered all over the boat’s side.  We tried to sedate it by pouring whisky down the gills, but that seemed to have no effect, so James opted for the tried and tested sharp knife through the brain.  I can never watch James kill a fish, and he still hates it (despite being a trained killer in the Royal Navy!) but it is worth it for the resulting tasty meat.   The next time the lure went out, it whizzed frantically as something big bit the lure.  There followed a man versus fish battle as James strained to reel in the monster that was fighting hard.  As it neared, we realised James had caught a Barracuda.  This one was harder to kill, and carried on twitching after the whisky, clubbing with a bilge pump handle and sharp knife to the brain.  So James cut his head off.  That did it. (Subtle but effective…J)  Neither of us had eaten Barracuda before, and we had been told it was very tasty.  We had also been warned not to eat any caught near reefs as they could cause Ciguatera poisoning which is prominent in fish at the top of the food chain.  We had 4000m of ocean beneath us, so we figured we were pretty safe.  However, while we were eating the fish I had cooked I asked James about the symptoms of Ciguatera poisoning.  “Tingling of mouth and limbs, nausea, abdominal pain…”, he replied.  As I felt my mouth tingle at each bite of fish I realised the error of making Cajun spiced fish with the first batch of Barracuda!


We caught a couple more Mahi-Mahis and lost a few more lures to monsters of the deep, but never managed to catch the elusive tuna we were after.  One time a small wooden crate floated past us. James looked at it and said knowingly, “that is a FAD (Fish aggregation device. James-Hemmingway-Gould), you watch, we’ll catch a fish in a minute”.  No sooner had he finished than the reel whizzed into action – we got a bite! (This is not an exaggeration; you couldn’t have scripted it better! J).  Unfortunately the (very big…J)  fish fell off the hook 10m from the boat, so we never got to taste it…  Not that it mattered, we still had four more fish meals in the fridge when we arrived in Barbados!


Bloodied Mahi Mahi #2
Big (ish) Barracuda


We planned to have a half way party when we reached 1000 miles to go (Day 8 at sea), but our hopes were dashed as an overcast, dank morning broke with lots of wind and a big swell.  The day continued to be wet and miserable, and we were both still tired from dealing with endless squalls overnight, so we postponed the party until the following day.  The only thing of note to happen on that day was that we saw a ship – the first since leaving Cape Verde.  We had just finished eating dinner below, when I popped my head out and was surprised to see a ship about 1 mile astern of us.  We called them up on the hand held VHF and asked to do a radio check to see if my tinkering with aerials and connectors had fixed the main radio.  They still could not hear us when we used the main VHF, and I discovered that one of the new connectors I had put in was useless (cheap coax connectors are a false economy!).  So we were no closer to finding the fault, and decided to leave things until we reach land.


The first of December saw another George tantrum.  In the early morning he decided that we had gone far enough West, and he wanted to head back East.  His built in compass was suddenly 180 deg out!  We hooked the ram back up to see what would happen, and set it to steer 090 instead of the 270 we had been pointing to.  George seemed to be still steering a straight line in the right direction (according to our other 2 compasses, the GPS, and the fact that the sun rose behind us that morning!) so we let him be.  It was a complete mystery what could cause the shift; we checked all around the compass for metal objects, checked the variations settings, and could find nothing wrong.  The annoying outcome of this fault was that the Autopilot provides a heading reference to all the other instruments, so suddenly the boat was pointing the wrong way on the GPS, the tide calculation was way out, and the wind direction on the GPS was wrong…  We just hoped (I never doubted it! J) we were still going the right way, and had to have sundowners on the foredeck every evening to make sure that the sun was setting ahead of us as we drained the last of a beer.


That same day we started to lose the wind, and by nightfall we were becoming frustrated at our lack of progress.  We got drenched changing sails during several rain squalls, though the boat got a much needed clean (this was the first rain we had seen since our visit to Madeira in August!).  I finally managed to back a half-way-there cake in the calms, and James gave the engine a good clean and degrease in the hope of seeing the wire colours when he tackled the electrics. 


Atlantic Squall

Half Way Cake


We needn’t have worried too much about losing the wind, as the following day we got it back with gusto, only now it was unexpectedly from the South.  It veered round throughout the morning until we could no longer carry our downwind rig and had to actually hoist the mainsail for the first time in 10 days!  Once the main was up we had a frustrating day of reefing and hoisting it as the gusts and squalls overtook us, leaving lulls behind.  By the afternoon the wind had freshened considerably and a nasty short swell had built up on the beam.  These are the worst sort of conditions for Rahula, and the waves slammed hard into her side with a big splash, making everything inside jolt.  We decided that we were happy to lose some ground for the sake of comfort, so we turned towards the north to put the swell on the quarter, and ran downwind for a while.  Within a couple of hours the nasty weather passed over us, and yet again we lost the wind and were left wallowing in a big swell with no means of propulsion.


This time the calm was here to stay, and we had a whole day on the 3rd December of calm seas and little wind.  It felt nice to be making slow gentle progress for a change (speak for yourself, you can prise the drifter halyard from my cold dead hands! J), without being thrown around by each passing wave and not having to speak above the roar of the boat’s wake.  We made use of the flat seas to do some maintenance around the boat – check all the lines for chafe, replace worn ropes, patch up the Drifter (a 10 year old laminate sail which was only designed to last a season and is still going strong!  Though we don’t think it will last another ocean, so have ordered a new one) and finally look at the engine.  After much head scratching and oily swearing James figured out there was something wrong in the engine’s starting circuit.  He tried to trace the fault but could not find it.  Reasoning that the stop circuit worked OK, James decided to swap the two over.  Once everything was back together again after this attempt of last resort, we pressed the key in as if to stop the engine, and the engine roared into life!  So now we had to stop the engine to start it, and shut the engine down by pulling a lever.  It confused the hell out of me, but James seemed to know what he was doing.  He was rightly very proud of his mid-Atlantic engine repair job!


Fixing the Engine


With the engine back in action and still 600 miles to go we decided to motor for a while until the wind came back.  The end was in sight and we just wanted to make some progress.  We ended up motoring for 25 hours, until the following lunchtime the incessant noise became too much and we shut the engine down to have some peace and quiet while we ate.  We decided that now was finally time to try out our spinnaker, which had been sat neglected pretty much since we bought the boat as we figured it was too much to handle two handed.  It went up no problem, and gave us marginally more drive than the Drifter / Genoa combination in the light winds.  It also required little attention once up so we went back inside to finish the jigsaw – 5 pieces left to place, and all we needed to do was sift through the 1500 pieces of the other half to find them…


Flying the Spinnaker on an unusually calm day


Jigsaw complete, and the light fading fast, we decided to drop the spinnaker, as we didn’t have enough confidence to keep it flying through the night and the inevitable squalls.  Against both our better judgement and experience we tried to drop the spinnaker straight into one of the bow lockers rather than bring it back into the cockpit as is normal.  Part of the sail inevitably ended up in the water, and as we tried to pull a sail full of water back on deck, it tore.  So that was the end of our short spinnaker flying days…  Until I finished repairing it, that is.


Fixing the Spinnaker


On our last full day at sea more bad weather came our way, and we had another frustrating day full of wet and windy squalls followed by calms.  As the sun set we could see the dim glow of the lights of Barbados, and almost smell the rum emanating from all the bars.  So instead of struggling with the sails through the night we decided to motor sail through the calms, and sail in the squalls.  An hour after flashing up the engine it spluttered and died again.  James came up on deck and investigated what was wrong, while I got the boat sailing again. It turned out that the engine had had enough of the horrible fuel we bought in Gambia and all the filters had clogged up.  James spent most of his watch cleaning out the fuel tank and getting rid of the dirty diesel.  Luckily we still had some moderately clean diesel we had bought in Cape Verde, just enough to get us into Barbados.  When dawn broke James changed all the filters, bled the fuel system, and the engine purred back into life again. 


We sailed around the north of Barbados, still not quite believing we had made it to the Caribbean.  Once we were in the lee of the island the wind eased and we could enjoy the view and have a celebratory orange juice (too early in the morning for alcohol!).  All in all we had covered 2270 nautical miles in 16 days.  The only way I can describe the crossing is long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of frantic activity (or panic on my part).  At the beginning the sheer distance we had to cover was very daunting, but as Rahula ate up the miles and we settled into a routine things became more relaxed.  We are both very proud to have crossed our first ocean, and pleased to have risen to all the challenges it presented.  We were certainly ready for some R&R in Barbados!