Johnnie's Blog - The First Few Days at Sea

Forget Me Knot Atlantic Row
Johnnie, Stef and Dirk
Fri 11 Feb 2022 08:38

Our first few days

Our first day began with a royal send off from Portimao, smooth seas and a visit from a pod of dolphins. We made some headway during the afternoon and started on the planned 3hr on/3hr off rowing schedule. A beautiful all white gull hovered above our stern as the cliffs of the Algarve got further away.

Temperatures dropped a little as the afternoon sun set, some queasiness set in - more Sturgeron was popped for good measure. One of the little screens showing our compass bearing started bleeping enthusiastically, ”No Drive”, we are told. Although none of us knew what this meant it had the whiff of a mechanical issue - Stef’s department. He was duly sent into the tiny aft cabin to crack on with whatever gaffa taping and cable tying might persuade the autohelm to give us some of this drive back.

The wind and waves got a little feistier - Dirk and I stayed with the oars as best we could without steering. Not much of a wait - Stef erupted from the aft to paint the deck with that morning’s pastel de nata. A wave crashed overboard to flush away Stef’s chunky, custard premonition and our chances of an easy start went with it.

It transpired a pin had broken on the autohelm, not fatal but more than we could handle under the conditions. 8 hours in and we took out the spare autohelm that we’d neatly vacuum packed for the long haul - one of those expensive spares we took “just in case”. Between pukes into a sea that puked back in your face with equal vigour, we got ourselves up and running with some steering.

The sea calmed a little and we rowed into the night. The sickness did not calm and successfully prevented us from eating or drinking anything. I took a four hour shift in the early hours - our white gull hovered within a few metres for most of the shift and I watched the yellow lights of Portugal fade away.

By shift changeover the wind had picked back up. I collapsed without ceremony into the bow cabin - fully clothed, exhausted, soaked through in sea water, hungry and sick. Despite this, my spirits were high. I liked the little white birdie, fading lights meant we were moving and I was about to have a wonderful, soggy nap.

It was never meant to be. Soon after my head hit the nearest dry bag Stef and Dirk called out. On deck, the autohelm was squeaking away again and the weather had turned up a few notches - it really does happen that quickly. The two sodden and defeated faces told me it was impossible to make progress against the wind and increasing chop. A dark green and white wave slapped over them as if to make the point. I was incredibly reluctant to call a halt to progress on only day two but there was nothing for it - we had to deploy the sea-anchor.

The “sea-anchor” is a big underwater parachute that is attached to a long rope and fastened to the bow. When it’s impossible to row or there is a storm, the sea-anchor is deployed. The parachute fills with water, the rope pulls taught and the boat is stabilised. That’s the theory, anyway.

We skidded, scrambled, crashed and swore our way to the bow where the sea anchor lives. Stef took a pretty severe smash to the hip on one fall. As he grimaced to his feet a big hairy wave with tattoos rose up and gave him an open palmed smack in the chops. Back over faster than a skittle doing a head stand on an ice rink. Poor Stef.

No plan survives first contact with the enemy and we discovered that no training done in a marina survives first contact with the ocean. To effectively deploy an 80metre rope holding a large parachute whilst the ocean tossed us about like it was Shrove Tuesday was - to say the least - a right saga. After several misfires and a stream of language that demonstrated our potential as true seafarers, we finally felt the bow line pull tight and prepared to be anchored and stabilised.

Dirk and I had the bow birth - tapering about 4ft to 1ft wide by 7ft long. Hadn’t realised when packing just how tight this is so our personal kit was hung from low slung nettings that spilt into most of the space. Too sick and tired to change anything, we piled the bags on ourselves and shut our eyes.

Sleeping in rough weather on sea anchor is not the grounding experience we had envisaged. A bit like trying to get a restful night sleep inside a salmon that’s been caught on a line. We needn’t have piled the bags on top of ourselves because very soon Dirk, the kit and I were one. Shaken, rolled, kneaded and smashed together in the tossing boat we ended up like three colours of Play-Do squished into a ball.

Hours passed. Maybe days and nights. A nauseous timelessness punctuated only by the odd dry bag or greasy Dirk limb to the face. Noise was the other feature. Our Wamoni might be small but she could hold her own against a two stroke outboard in terms of racket. Her thin fibreglass shell acts as an amplifier as she rips out remixes from every splosh, slap and clunk she can sample all through the night.