Crossing West to East: the skipper reflects

Wed 12 Jul 2006 12:42
Because we always planned to take the trip stage by stage, we'd not given coming back an enormous amount of thought. I had vaguely imagined that if we'd had a difficult crossing east to west, we would have the boat shipped home and fly. Shipping for Tamarisk would cost about £5,000 and, of course, there'd be the flights on top but it would be cheaper than selling the boat in the Caribbean.
I had talked to Brad about the pros and cons of going to the Azores via Bermuda or direct and had decided that stopping at Bermuda would be best so as to keep the legs as short as possible. One old friend had expressed some interest in the Bermuda to Azores leg but, otherwise, we'd not done anything to sort crew. We were told - at one of the pre-ARC talks - that, statistically, we should expect one near gale on both the leg to and the leg from the Azores. We would be making the crossing at the optimum time of year.  
The one bit of kit we did feel we were missing on the trip to St Lucia - a full SSB rig - we started sorting as soon as we got to the Caribbean. Giles, very kindly, found us an old set in the back of a storeroom at work and Angus brought it out when he and Joseph came to stay in January. Giles had hired his own satellite phone for the crossing so we had two means of long range communications. The SSB would be our back-up for the trip home. We had it fitted by Regis in Rodney Bay on our way back north along with a groundplate and it has proved to work really well. Regina's Leon rates ours better than any other he's heard save Koshlong and they have a very helpful steel hull. 
Having the SSB meant we could sign on with Herb for weather routing and this we did. We worked hard to do things as he prefers and this paid off. It often seemed he'd prepared the advice for us quite carefully and he would persevere with us even when the 'pwopagation' was bad. Passing on information to other boats took a bit of time but gave us a good reason to chat and swap positions, which must be a healthy thing to do. 
Planning the trip back began to loom over us quite early on our Caribbean tour. Parts for the Volvo engine proved hard to get outside the French islands so we stocked up in Martinique. We also started talking to people about joining us as crew. We were repeatedly offered discounts to join ARC Europe. We decided to save our £600. There are only about 40 boats on the rally and they're all much bigger than Tamarisk. And I don't think there were any children. We did try to find friends to, at least, set off with. We were close to Aromatic and Harvey for much of the trip to the Azores and to Regina for the leg from Terceira.  
Having sorted crew well in advanced, we were committed to going to Bermuda. We motored most of the way. Tamarisk's ability to go a long way for a little diesel (in a flat sea) once again proved very handy. The trip was not without its' tension, however, as low pressure system after low pressure system rolled out of the US each threatening strong winds around Bermuda. The trip is 800 miles and if the wind is up towards the end, you don't have much option but to press on and get into Bermuda. It was not a prospect I relished. As it was, we got in just before a storm. Our friends on Blase and Temula B, who went straight from the Caribbean to Horta, both had fairly straightforward trips. I think, if you can sort the crew, that is probably the better option. We found Bermuda pleasant and we were well looked after in Captain Smoke's Marina but it's not that special. It is very, very expensive, which is significant when you're provisioning for a possible three weeks.  
Heading east from Bermuda, the old passage planning books suggest going north east to start with to get into the depressions coming out of the US. However, we'd been advised by Peter, the 11-times transatlantic veteran we met in Lanzarote, to take the rumb line. This we did to start with but Herb then advised us to go south to avoid strong winds associated with one low. Then we had to go north to get round a high. We were going along pretty well at this stage. We generally had moderate winds on the beam and were doing decent daily averages over the ground. Our changes of course, however, meant we were not doing so well towards Horta. We then had Herb warning us of a storm system developing near the Azores and, as documented elsewhere, we finished up hoving-to or even going backwards for 4 days. This was quite a sap on morale made worse by the fact that once we did get moving, Herb led us into some counter current that cost us most of a day. I think it's the only time his advice has not worked out. But John and Penny stayed cheerful and the sun continued to shine.      
We were certainly grateful to avoid the storm. At least three yachts were dismasted and, according to the talk in Horta, one was lost - crew picked up by a cargo ship. The most we saw was gusts of 40 while running back SW under three reefs and heavily rolled jib. It was the first time we'd hoved to in anger and, pleasingly, it worked well. Even when the seas got quite big, she felt comfortable. I'd prepared 80m of warps but could not imagine conditions in which we might want to deploy the parachute anchor. On one occasion, I chose the wrong tack for heaving-to and we drifted further from the Azores than need have been the case but I've learned my lesson.
After the autopilot failed, we feared we'd have to handsteer when motoring but, luckily, there was always enough wind to work the Hydrovane and, although we had to pay more attention to steering than normal, it wasn't too onerous. The primary GPS is on a separate circuit and kept working. And we had two back-ups. The wind for the last couple of days was almost perfect - on the beam and pushing us along at 6 knots or so. The Azores are quite a big group of islands. And Horta is very easy to get into - even, I'd imagine, in some heavy weather.
The first hurricane of the year (in June) got going in the US while we were still at sea but was soon downgraded and did not come our way.      
It is easy and cheap to provision in the Azores. We got our electrics fixed by Mid Atlantic Yacht Services, who seemed very good and willing to tackle pretty well anything. Services on Terceira were a lot less well developed. The trip from Horta to Terceira was a good way to get Caroline familiar with the boat. 
We again followed Herb's advice on the last leg - heading first north, then east then north east. We never saw wind over 25 knots and really could have done with a bit more. People say he is a bit conservative and, for an experienced all adult crew, I think that may be true. But, for us, I think the balance was right. There were a lot of ships around for the last three days or so and the last night was particularly busy. Falmouth, again, is a great place to get into. I would not have worried about coming in in the dark. 
It was great to get back. We have to be careful going round those sandbanks etc on our way east but it is a relief to know we won't be a thousand miles from land again for a while. We have, however, spent all but two weeks of the last two months at sea and that is fairly hard work. We wanted to get back to get the children back to school and with their friends before term ends but it would have been easier to have spent three weeks or so in the Azores and a few more weeks in the West Country, including, maybe, the Isles of Scilly. Next time, perhaps.