Johnnie's Blog - Days 25-30

Forget Me Knot Atlantic Row
Johnnie, Stef and Dirk
Tue 1 Mar 2022 21:25

About days 25-30

The Canaries was a crucial marker in our journey. Beyond the Canaries the weather becomes less erratic, temperatures rise (at night we’ve still been wearing multiple thermal base layers, fleece and oilies) and it is a ‘point of no return’ - people attempting this route often pull in or stop altogether at the Canaries, once you’re passed that option is gone.

The next milestones are the Tropic of Cancer then Cape Verde. Once across the Tropic of Cancer at Lat 23, 36min North (about 350 miles from Canaries) we are - as the name suggests - entering the tropics. Here we will shed all clothing and happily dance around like a gaggle of naked castaways in the sun. It should also mean we have consistent solar to top up those precious batteries and keep the manual water pump packed away.

Cape Verde, 750 miles South of the Canaries, is the true point of no return. It’s Cape Verde then deep, open ocean to South America. From here we either get an Air France flight home from French Guiana or get pulled from a life raft by passing cargo ship.

The calm weather out of the Canaries continued all day. The drogue came in. Stef had some additional rest to recover from his aquatic beating; Dirk and I had a leisurely row.

To this point our encounters with sea life have been mostly pelagic birds - gannets, storm petrels and boobies. The gannets soar off the waves then kamakazi dive into the sea when they spot a target. The little brown storm petrels are not dissimilar in size and appearance to swallows with a distinctive white chevron on their back. They flit about the boat, occasionally skimming the surface of the water for something tasty and nutritious. 

Boobies have become a major topic of conversation - and more so as the weeks go on. With wide, thin wings they steer mostly with the subtle changes in wing tips. More zen than the frenetic petrels, they soar just above the waves, dipping into the troughs, bopping over the crest and often banking to ninety degrees to take the next wave. And they seemingly never flap their wings. We regularly see one fly into view on one horizon, perform a range of aerobatic stunts that would put the Red Arrows to shame then fly out of view on the other. All without a flap. No wonder the boys are always looking for pictures of boobies on their phones.

As the sun set on day 25 we were treated to a new marine spectacle. A pod of dolphins came alongside and started showing off. After an initial swim-by they went around the boat and began performing tricks. They’d surf the waves then jump from them to spin, somersault, corkscrew and backflip. It went on for twenty minutes or so with each of them trying to out do the last stunt.

With the dolphin show over and darkness falling, as so often happens, the conditions became more severe. The waves increased significantly and the wind went from steady to strong. Taking the first night shift I realised there was no moon. This may sound a trivial matter but the moon provides crucial illumination. Without it you row blind, attempting to adjust and dodge the worst of things through feel alone.

Whilst rowing along in the pitch black I was pondering how pesky - even daunting - it is to not see when the next breaker is going to hit when I had a sudden, hard smack in the face. Not a wave this time, I thought - too bony. Also, waves don’t flap about the deck in that animated manner. Flying fish, I concluded. I flicked on my head torch and shone at my feet. Not a flying fish but a poor little storm petrel! He must have headed out for a late night flit about the boat and got flitted straight into my face by the wind. 

He lay there stunned, wings splayed, desperately trying to stand or take flight but only managing to stumble about like Boris at a COVID party. I couldn’t leave the oars so roused Stef. He’s always been a bit of a Dr Doolittle and he managed to pick-up the birdie and help it fly off. Happy to have saved our feathery friend but sitting there in the dark I couldn’t help wondering if it was some kind of omen for the night ahead.

As my shift drew to a close I spotted an orange spec glowing on the Eastern horizon. Firstly, I assumed it was a shipbut soon the spec grew too large, even for a tanker. As I watched, the magnificent, burnt-orange ball of the moon gradually revealed itself to light the sky and make the ocean shimmer. The clouds soaked in and dispersed the celestial light to create a palette of yellow and orange hues. 

Although equally beautiful, I sometimes find sunrises to be a little over zealous - all too keen to burst through the subtler shades of dawn to full blown morning light before you’re quite ready. The moon rise is a more delicate affair; a slowly rising orange orb that casts a soft light to the surrounding skyline before moving high above to light the ocean with a steel blue shine. We’ve been fortunate enough to see many incredible sunrises and sunsets but I believe this - my first ocean moon rise - will be the one that remains with me.

Coming out at 2am for my next night shift the weather had ramped up and Stef handed over with a warning that she was in a feisty mood tonight. The wind was very strong and the swell the largest I’d seen. However, wind and waves were in the same direction, which generally means the boat stays straight. With some care and good luck it’s possible to keep moving in the right direction even in these circumstances.

A little side note on wave size…

Sitting in a boat that’s only 6-12 inches from the water line it’s tricky to make an accurate estimate of wave size. Everything appears to tower above you. However, we’re aware of this and try to not let it hinder our judgment when guessing how big a swell is.

We also have a couple of tools: a forecast average wave height from Guru Chris; we know the length of Wa’omoni; Stef’s a builder and spends his life guesstimating things by eye. We’ve also found that when the drogue is out on big swells the line will sometimes pull taught between the crest of two waves - that is, the boat will be sat at the top of one wave and the drogue on the wave behind it, leaving the rope tight over the trough. Eyeballing the gap between the rope and base of the trough makes for a better guess than looking at the wave itself.

On the night in question the forecast was 4 metres - implying that occasional waves could be twice that. When Wa’omoni was cresting the larger waves she could sit at a steep angle on the face of the wave without stern in the trough or bow on the crest. She is 8.5 metres long so the face was larger. Later in the day we had the drogue out and all concluded you could have comfortably driven a double decker bus under the rope. And I’m pretty sure Barrett Homes could have fit a 2-bed semi in the gap.

So, all things considered, we believe that some of the largest waves were reaching 8 metres, maybe more. When you are essentially sat at the waterline you see and feel everyone of the centimetres that make up that wave!

Back to it…

The first hour went solidly. I tore along at record speed, cresting the enormous rollers and skittering down the other side at even greater speeds. There was the thrill and adrenaline of being on a roller coaster in a blindfold but without the psychological comfort blanket of knowing some clever engineer has done a bunch of safety checks. I was buzzing - but not without a pinch of anxiety. Then the squalls started.

Our experience of squalls thus far had been in turning benign conditions into wet, gusty, choppy conditions. But as I was to find out, combine a squall with already pumping wind and waves and you end up in what mariners refer to as “an absolute shitstorm”. 

Having been cruising at pace for an hour or so I was feeling quietly confident in our progress and excited to be making miles. Despite the moon having risen, it was generally quite cloudy so it wasn’t possible to see the dark squall clouds closing in. Then suddenly, it all started.

Firstly, the flag - which had been blowing consistently in the direction of travel - flipped ninety degrees. The boat strained, torn between going with the heavy wind or the big swell, which were now perpendicular. I managed to find a course in between and continue - with more than the occasional wave coming over the deck.

But then the ocean flipped. What had been large, steady swell became a broiling mess. This was not standard choppiness as the magnitude of the waves had not reduced. It was some kind of road-raged, super swell that was about to turn homicidal on us.

These conditions were not like taking a pounding from the Pontypool front row, as was the case near Tenerife. It was more a confrontation with Cerys from the Valleys after 6 snakebites and a double Malibu. Yes, she could weigh in as a prop but she’s not a professional like our Ponty boys. When Cerys gives you a kicking it’s all nails, hair pulling and screeching. Erratic, wild, haphazard and - dangerous. That’s what we were dealing with here.

The ocean surface went from being like a Sine wave from a GCSE maths textbook - all regular, smooth and predictable - to what you’d expect the brainwave output to be if you fed an aye-aye some magic mushrooms and hooked it up to an EEG. Regular, smooth and predictable? No sir. 

I fought to keep the boat straight but would have had more luck finding a straight line in a bowl of noodles. The wind howled from port then starboard then stern then starboard and back to port. Waves rose up from the stern like towering multi-storey car parks whilst monster truck size waves took to pounding each beam. The oars repeatedly got yanked from my hands and beat onto my shins and knees. The boat spun. The autohelm alarms cried out in distress and I cried out for the boys to get on deck.

From here, things deviated from our usual script. Instead of tumbling from the hatches in bewilderment to get chewed up by the frothing ocean, Stef and Dirk put their heads out in turn and declared, “understood - I’m putting on my harness and will be on deck in under a minute. What do you need me to do?”.  

You see, in Tenerife we’d conducted a debrief and safety review for exactly these circumstances. We’d developed protocol for emergency comms, drilled drogue deployment, anchor haul and boat turning procedures for heavy weather. And it worked. We turned the boat to a sensible direction, deployed the drogue and flooded the hold with sea water for stability and to avoid capsize. We were able to go from all hands on deck to crew back in bunks within fifteen minutes. You never know what’s coming next from the ocean but I’m proud of how we handled ourselves and the vessel in the worst conditions we’ve seen yet. Let’s hope it continues!

There was no need for emergency drills over the following few days. The wind and waves gradually died off to leave us floating along the lilly pad covered lake of an English country manor. After an energetic few days of tormenting little Wa’omoni and crew, Lady Atlantic needed a break. She took the opportunity to slosh about languidly and told the wind and squalls to take some me-time.  

Such conditions are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s an enormous relief to have respite from the non-stop churning and motion of the boat. Although you become used to it, always stumbling about, having to make constant rebalancing adjustments, getting hit by waves and rolling around whilst you try to sleep takes a toll.

On the other hand, no wind makes for slow progress and heavy rowing. Every stroke to drag forward Wa’omoni’s 1000kg is hard earned and none of the momentum is retained. We tried different shift patterns and minimised weight by carrying just enough water in our jerrycans but, ultimately, it was a slog.

The flat water did bring a new form of nighttime entertainment. Most nights we see some sparkles as our oars hit the water, as though someone is throwing handfuls of glitter with each stroke. We already considered this bioluminescence pretty incredible but the still water must have allowed the magic ocean dust to settle and concentrate. 

When we struck the surface a volcano of yellow-green light erupted. It was like slapping a pan of white hot molten steel and watching the fountain of glowing sparks spew out. With the back stroke, the oar dripped with glowing embers that hit the water to cause glistening ripples. I definitely felt like Gandalf with a magic oar and may have spent some time slapping away and casting the odd spell.

It turns out I’m not the only one that enjoys the magic water. During my 3am shift I heard the tell tale hiss of a dolphin blowhole. As it was pitch black I didn’t expect to spot anything but had a quick glance about. A few metres from the boat I saw the ocean light up; then again a bit further off; another hiss and splash and the water exploded with sparks. As the dolphins frolicked they ignited the luminescence creating a light show! Streaks from their dorsal fins, fountains from their blowholes and explosions when they jumped and hit the water. The display from a few days back was impressive but including special effects to this level was beyond what I’d expect from even these brainiest of creatures. What a treat.

Conditions remained calm until day 30 when we finally crossed the Tropic of Cancer. The weather had become pretty warm by this point (although still chilly at night) and it’s certainly a relief to have some opportunity to dry clothes and ourselves during the day. Next milestone, Cape Verde.