Reflections on the Crossing

Mon 2 Jan 2006 21:19
What was it like sailing across an ocean?
Well, my memory of most of the three weeks has faded pretty fast. Some moments stand out. There was the start with all those dozens of boats milling about. I can still hear the 'clonk' of the chain-plate breaking and remember the subsequent night listening to every creak and groan while rehearsing again and again what to do if the mast came down. Then there was the early morning glimpse of the Cape Verdes disappearing behind us - the last land for two thousand miles - no turning back now. There was our mid-Atlantic swim. And then the first sight of one of the sharp-pointed peaks of St Lucia just before nightfall.
But a lot of the rest was routine. Penny did the 0000 to 0300 watch and Giles did 0300 to 0600. Now and again I'd get up if I felt the wind was getting up or soemthing else felt wrong but not often. There was almost no shipping to worry us. I would then do from about 0600 to 1000. Giles made us cups of tea and bowls of muesli around 0900. Penny would get the children breakfast and read to them or play with them. At 1200, our ARC group radio net took place. Penny was generally the one to write down the weather forecast and check the progress of the boats nearest us. This was usually a fairly cheerful event. Some of the net controllers had a better sense of humour than others. The day they relayed news of one boat being abandoned close to the Cape Verdes was a bit sobering. I would then send the email containing our position that moved us on the ARC map and downloaded anything that had been sent to us. Whenever we got an email or SMS everyone would crowd round to read it. It was very encouraging to know that people were watching our progress. 
Then we'd have lunch. Once or twice we had fish that Giles caught. We couldn't fish a lot because we were towing a propellor to generate electricity and the two lines would snag. What we did land was delicious - dorada and yellow-fin tuna, we think. In the afternoon, we'd do things like run the little petrol generator or take salt-water showers. In between we'd put sails up and bring them down. But the main change once we were settled in NE trades was to take in or take out reefs. We developed a very slick procedure with Giles going forward, Penny working some of the ropes and me at the wheel. A reef always involved turning side on to the seas but only once or twice were they big enough to make it uncomfortable. The twin jib option worked well above 20 knots but with only one pole it was hard to keep both full with any less wind. 
Mid-afternoon we'd start preparing supper. We sort of took it in turns but Penny did most of it. Much of the fresh fruit and veg we bought in Las Palmas lasted well. We were not so successful with the eggs. We didn't open a lot of tins. Then we might have another go at fishing - dusk and dawn are meant to be the best times. Then, at around 6, we'd have happy hour and all get together with a can of beer and some nuts or olives or crisps. There was lemonade for Anna and orange juice for Eddie. For about a week in the middle of the trip when we were worried about progress and fuel consumption etc, we turned off the fridge which made the beer a lot less attractive but meant there were a few extras left by the time we were nearing land. Giles or I generally washed up using the salt water tap in the galley while Penny got the children ready for bed. The children decided they wanted to sleep in the double bunk in the saloon so that had to be got out every night. Giles decided he preferred the forward cabin to the navigator's bunk so moved up there. Penny and I remained in the stern.
Giles generally went to bed pretty soon after supper. Penny and the rest of us listened to Herb on the SW. We'd wait for one of the boats near us to be called and then listen closely for his advice. Dan on Kosh Long was often the best. Towards the end we were all doing Herb impressions - winds would 'moderwate', Anna would wish me a 'good watch' and I would tell her it was 'good to have you onboard, Anna'. Penny was usually in bed by 10. I would try to get the sails and windpilot as well settled as possible. After 2200, I'd add up the miles we'd done and write a bit of a review of the day in the log.
There was no moon for the first week of the trip, which meant it was pretty dark at night. But we had Venus and Mars to keep us company early - Venus almost dead ahead and Mars almost dead astern. Between my first and second night watch, the sky would rotate, the Big Dipper moving through something like 180 degrees but still pointing at Polaris. Eddie and Anna got good at spotting some of the main constellations. There were always shooting stars - some flaring brightly as they fell. Sometimes, we'd be visited by dolphins. First you'd hear them making a funny wheezing sound through their blow holes. Then you'd see the tubes of phospherescence whizzing in and out of the boat's bow wave. You'd watch and wonder for a while and then they'd be off to find more entertainment elsewhere. I think a fish may have hit us when I was on watch off the Cape Verdes because the engine suddenly slipped out of gear but most nights were pretty uneventful.           
Looking at the log now, the impression is of a crew weaving gently from determination to arrive to a more relaxed enjoyment of the trip and back again. For the most part, it's a mass of figures - positions, wind speeds, barometer readings, miles covered. Early on there are references to the lights of other boats around us. Later, seeing one boat a day is a big deal. Notes of sail changes and engine use become more uniform as the miles go by. Then the emphasis shifts from miles covered to miles to go. And finally, there's the excitement of arriving and relief of knowing it's going to be alright. 
Giles' greatest contribution (among many) was to keep reminding us what a great experience it was. When Penny or I said 'just another week to go', he would say 'yes, what a pity and then I go back to work'. He was the one to notice how every day the sea and sky were different. He always got excited when we were joined by dolphins or flying fish and was always keen to help change the sails or top up the fuel tank. He would put up with my endless ruminations re what to do about the sails, the electricity, the course or whatever the latest niggle was. He was the ideal crew. We all worked well together. Everybody was willing. The children put up with it remarkably well - going into a sort of semi-hibernation. Anna when asked for three words to describe the trip said: 'boring, dull and boring' but neither ever seriously moaned. Our success as a team was perhaps the most satisfying thing of all.   
Was it worth doing it as part of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers? I think it was for us. The ARC is not as I'd like it to be. There are too many sailing professionals in the 'in-crowd'. But it is one of the world's great sporting events. It did help us meet other family boats. And even at the fairly shambolic prize-giving, it felt like we were part of something special. But if we did the trip again, I think we'd save the money.
Other things we'd do differently? - I wish we'd had a full Short Wave radio kit instead of just a receiver. With Giles' help, we should have one before the return trip. I wish I'd checked the chain plates and the cockpit drains a bit better. Lots of other little things but, thankfully, not many big ones.  
We were lucky with the weather and that nothing serious broke and nobody got hurt. Others fared less well. A catamaran had to turn back after one of it's chain-plates broke completely. Someone broke their arm and someone else developed an enormous abscess on their leg. And one yacht was abandoned and towed back to the Cape Verdes half-full of water. One of the biggest boats lost its mast. About ten boats gave up for one reason or another. We finished 124th.    
Crossing the Atlantic as we have has not made us expert sailors. We couldn't have done it without the help we've had from many people over many years. And we're still very concious of the fact that we've got to get back. But I think we can all take some satisfaction in coming so far so happily.