Offshore to the Madeira Archipelago

James & Amelia Gould
Sat 28 Jul 2007 15:25

21 - 25 July 2007: Offshore to the Madeira Archipelago


Once we had collected our new engine, filled up with water, topped up with food, checked the weather a dozen times, it was time to wave goodbye to mainland Europe and head into the Atlantic ocean.  Our destination was 600 miles west of Cadiz, the Madeira island group, and we expected the passage to take 4 days.


We set off out of the Bay of Cadiz and were immediately confronted with a westerly wind and an uncomfortable short choppy sea.  Rahula is a great boat, and unusually for a catamaran she sails well to windward, but the swell and strong head wind made for a very uncomfortable start to the journey.  As the waves passed under the bridge deck between the hulls they slammed against the boat, making everything in the saloon jump in the air with a horrible sound that made us both wince.  The noise of water rushing past the outside of the hulls was so loud inside that sleep was virtually impossible.  While on watch we wore full foul weather gear for the first time in months as protection from the spray flying over the bows.  Occasionally Rahula would plough nose first into a big wave that would break over her with a big splash sending a river of water down the side decks and into the cockpit.  Thankfully the hard “bubble” fitted to the bridge deck shielded us from the worst of the waves, though I did get caught unawares a few times and ended up with a shower of salty seawater.


We carried on trying to make as much progress to the West as we could.  We did discuss stopping the boat by heaving to or using our sea anchor and waiting for a more favourable wind, but as the forecast did not predict the wind direction we were experiencing we had no idea how long it would take for the wind to shift.  We figured that the predicted Northerly trade winds were being “bent” by the coast of Portugal, and once we were south of Cape St Vincent (Western corner of the Algarve) we would finally be able to sail more freely.  So we gritted our teeth and persevered, hoping that the constant water slamming against the hulls wouldn’t break anything.


After 15 hours of hard graft to windward the wind finally shifted to the North and we were able to bear away onto a more comfortable sailing course.  A Broad Reach, with the wind just aft of the centre of the boat is one of the fastest points of sail, and Rahula accelerated effortlessly into the swell gliding over the waves at 7-8 knots.  Normally we reduce sail at 8 knots, but we found that the boat was much more comfortable sailing faster, so that the waves broke behind the boat rather then underneath.  We settled into a routine, keeping three hour watches each during the night and four hour watches during the day.  While on watch by day we both mostly read, as it was too rough to move around the boat.  While off watch we slept, washed, cooked and read some more.  The monotony was broken by changes in the wind strength, which meant we had to reduce or increase sail to maintain speed and comfort.  I finally managed to reef the boat on my own, in the dark, though I did wake James up from his slumber for the added safety of having him on deck while I went to the mast.  I wasn’t worried about falling over the side - we wore lifejackets and harnesses from the moment we left Cadiz, and had a strict rule that we always clipped on to the boat when outside, even in benign weather.  I just liked having him there.


We both found that we lost our appetite at sea, so that we barely ate the mountains of food I had bought for the journey.  I made the mistake of catering for 3 proper meals a day, but in reality neither of us felt like preparing or eating much food.  Instead we snacked during the day and overnight, and had a hot big main meal in the early evening.  After the first night I realised that I had forgotten to buy ginger biscuits, which are the staple diet for long overnight watches.  So I decided to bake a cake.  I couldn’t use any eggs, as they were required for a main meal, so I improvised with what we had in the pantry and made a tea-bread thing, with dried cranberries, cinnamon and brown sugar.  It was delicious (even if I do say so myself!) and did a good job of keeping us going through the night.


The journey was made duller by the fact that we encountered very few signs of life along the way.  On the first day we passed many ships headed for the Gibraltar Straits, but after that we only encountered a ship after a couple of isolated days.  We saw no sign of sea life (no dolphins!), though the occasional bird flew past gliding gracefully above the waves (Ed the Duck came on deck to say hello, but the birds didn’t respond.  Must’ve been foreign). 


Apart from the temperamental wind the weather generally held.  We had sunshine for the first two days, then the sky became overcast for the rest of the journey.  Occasionally the fluffy clouds grouped into large dark clumps and a slight drizzle fell, giving Rahula a much needed fresh water rinse.  The clouds were more noticeable at night.  The night would start with a clear sky filled with a half moon shining and the Milky Way glowing brightly overhead, then dark shadows would creep up from behind, blanking out all the light.  It would become incredibly dark with only the glow of our masthead light breaking the gloom, lighting the white crests of the waves.  Then there was nothing to do but sit in the cockpit and listen to music to try to blank out the darkness.  (My main job before handing over a night watch was to do ‘anti monster rounds’ and confirm that all squeaks and noises were emanating from the boat and not a snargle-toothed sea monster that was going to eat Amelia while she was alone on watch…J)


By day it was fascinating to just sit in the cockpit and watch the sea.  Everyday it was different.  One day the sea would be covered in steep high-sided waves with menacing curly white tops looming above the boat that would then bang against the hull with incredible force.  The next day the swell would become long and rolling, caressing the boat gently as it passes underneath.  The water was a deep cobalt blue and so clear we could see the rudders though the wake.  It was daunting to think that there was 4000m of water between us and the seabed.  When we threw something over the side (banana skin, apple core) we tried to guess how long it would take to reach the bottom – it hurt my brain just to think about it!


Rolling Atlantic Seas


The final day was by far the best, with the wind blowing steadily from the North East Force 5-6 which meant we barely had to fiddle with the sails.  The boat was in her element and we were both getting used to sailing relatively fast without worrying about breaking something.  We did start to go a little stir crazy laughing at the silliest thing and looking a little ragged…


James going stir crazy

 (Amelia should see herself after the long-morning…cheeky cow!…J)

(Ah, but I had the wisdom to avoid the camera!  A)


On the morning of our forth day at sea the light of Porto Santo lighthouse finally came into view, and as morning broke the jagged outline of the island appeared on the horizon.  We sailed almost up to the harbour breakwater, using the Drifter properly for the first time this passage.  Then it was time to stow the sails, start the engine and make our way in.  It was still very windy inside the harbour and in one look at the available space in the small marina we both realised we weren’t going to make it alongside easily.  So instead of breaking something having reached our destination safely we decided to anchor in the harbour and move to the marina later when the wind died down a little.  Once at anchor we tidied the boat, opened the hatches to get some much needed air through and fell into a deep sleep for the rest of the afternoon.  The only thing that woke us was a rumbling tummy – our appetite had returned!


First View of Porto Santo


All in all it was a mixed passage.  Hard work at first, but once the wind settled we managed to get into a routine and feel almost comfortable at sea.  This was the longest passage either of us ever done, and we logged 639 nautical miles.  This took us almost exactly 4 days, averaging 160 miles a day.  In the fastest 24-hour period we covered 173 miles, which is pretty good for a heavily loaded cruising boat.  The one thing we realised on our second offshore passage of this trip is that the Bay of Biscay was just a bay.  The ocean can be much, much more challenging…

(To put things into perspective:  although we are both quite chuffed at completing these passages safely, the distances pale into insignificance when we consider what we will have to cover in the future.  The Pacific and Indian Oceans will make the Atlantic look like a coastal passage by comparison. Hopefully we will be a little more used to it by then, but if anyone knows of a cheap source of Valium could they please let me know (just in case!)…J).