Johnnie's Blog - Days 30-40

Forget Me Knot Atlantic Row
Johnnie, Stef and Dirk
Sat 12 Mar 2022 17:25

About day 30-40

"Choosing to cross an ocean using oars is like choosing to fell an oak tree with a nail file. You begin with fury. Trying different angles, speeds, pressures. You keep filing for days. No finger skin remains; wrists ache; tendinitis screams out. Weeks in and broken, you step back. The culmination of your efforts is some smooth sanded bark. Reality check. Breathless - grasping around your soul with bloodied fingertips for the reason you ended up here - you can’t help but think, “I wonder if there’s a better tool for the job?”.

After a few days of hauling ourselves through the windless molasses of the Eastern stretches we entered a new weather system. One characterised by strong wind and large waves but most of all - chop.

I’ve no idea if ‘chop’ is legitimate nautical terminology but within the bubblette of vessel Wa’omoni we know it all too well. When the ocean loses all structure to become a crosshatch of swell, geysers, foam, fountains, froth, whitewash, bubbles and chaos. Chop is always a mess but needn’t be comprised of large waves - although our current choppiness is. 

Rowing in chop is difficult as one can’t use proper technique or establish a cadence. Oars are snatched by hidden ocean claws to smash the knees and shins. The boat is continuously shunted, causing it to rock side-to-side and make the oars slap the water helplessly in a ducky paddle. Cresting waves engulf the boat in whitewash from the stern and high speed rollers hit the beam to soak those on deck and skew the boat off course. The vessel is in a constant, haphazard motion which fires every stabilising muscle from the eyebrows to little toes. It makes for incredibly physical rowing and leaves us exhausted after each shift.

Forecasts for the past 10 days have been in the range: 20-25 knot winds, 3-4 metre waves, 8 second intervals. That is, the prevailing conditions are fast-following, large waves and strong enough winds to cause them to crest and break. These prevailing conditions set a backdrop which has been churned in with massive amounts of chop. The result has been what I’ve dubbed an aqua-shambles and Guru Chris has said must be ‘ghastly’. A ghastly, aqua-shambles does feel about right.

We reached the Tropics around day 30 and strong winds helped propel us at good speeds to Cape Verde by day 34: our last geographical waypoint, approximate halfway mark and point of no return. Here we’d planned to celebrate but couldn’t muster the spirit after several days of being battered by the merciless chop.

The conditions were taking a major toll. With waves constantly crashing the deck we could not dry ourselves or clothes. The cabins dripped with condensation so bedding and spare clothes all became damp or outright soggy. Any attempts to dry clothes on deck had them soaked by a wave within minutes.

On day 37 the water maker suddenly packed up whilst filling a jerrycan. Some initial checks of fuses and blockages showed no obvious problem, so further investigation was required. At this point we had 10 litres of water on deck (enough for 1 day). There are emergency supplies of around 50L in the hold. The weather forecast showed continued wet and shitty conditions for the then foreseeable. Our options were:

  • use emergency supplies and hope we have an alternative water supply before it runs out 
  • use the manual water maker until conditions improve enough to work on the main water maker
  • attempt to fix the water maker in current conditions

The use of emergency supplies was ruled out, if these were depleted and we could not make water we’d be in real trouble. Given the conditions it would be incredibly taxing to pump water manually - we could barely stand up on deck so crouching down to hand pump for multiple hours per day was not appealing. This left the option of battling the elements to fix the machine.

To set the scene - the Schenker water maker lives in its own hatch in hold. It is not easy to access. The critical electrics and pump are hidden inconveniently deep in the little hatch and behind various pipes, wires and the bulk of the machine itself. As our on-site fixer of all things, Stef had the unenviable task of sorting this out whilst Dirk and I covered his rowing shifts.

Despite having been stripped off much of his body mass by our ongoing calorie deficit, Stef remains the stockier member of the crew and his arms aren’t yet the size where they can squeeze into little gaps in little hatches. On land, getting anything from this hatch would have been a very awkward job. According to the prodigious amount of swearing coming from Stef, getting tossed about like a wok of special fried rice didn’t make things any easier. 

It was a mammoth effort. Somehow, Stef stripped out the pump and all electrics then dismantled the lot - all whilst getting pummelled by waves and on something less stable than a waterbed on a washing machine. He tested all the components and wiring. After identifying the offending component he fixed it, reassembled everything and put it back together in the hatch. I’m not going to pretend I know what was wrong or how he fixed it but it took 6 hours and was all achieved with bare minimum of tools and spares. Certainly the greatest solo feat of our journey so far!

It was evening by the time Stef finished. After some back patting and a celebratory glug of rum, Dirk and I agreed to continue rowing so Stef could recover. But after an hour conditions became incredibly challenging. At this point in our journey, we’ve seen more than our fair share of big waves and high wind. We have protocols and are well practiced to enable us to keep rowing. In line with protocol, we deployed the drogue to keep our stern to the waves. 

Alas, this worsened our position. The waves and wind were not sufficiently aligned so the drogue pulled us to one side instead of straight, locking us beam on to the massive waves. As well as the usual unpleasant charade of having waves crash over us, we were at real risk of capsize. After hauling the drogue we attempted to continue rowing but the stern  and rudder kept lifting from the water on high waves and losing traction, causing the boat to spin. We fought on, trying anything to avoid stopping. 

But the autohelm couldn’t cope with the drastic changes in direction and we kept getting trapped beam-on, only to get crushed by waves to our port side. The decision was made, the worst of fates was due - a night on sea anchor.

Choppiness and more extreme conditions are physically demanding and mentally draining but there is solace in knowing that miles are being won. Being stuck on anchor, especially when the wind is on your side, is an all out defeat. Morale was like a badger on the M4 - flat and getting flatter.

The familiar old anchor drill from the first few weeks was carried out efficiently but with low spirits. As the wind howled and waves rumbled over the cabin Stef and I rearranged the stern to accommodate two; swapped our sodden clothes for damp clothes and crawled into moist sleeping bags. 

A few hours later I whacked my head on the VHF radio as I writhed about in shock trying to escape my sleeping bag cocoon. “STEF! What the shitting Hell is going on!?”, “I don’t know! I’m stuck in my sleeping bag! Bloody do something!”. Someone managed to flick on a headtorch. We looked at each other, perplexed. Then at the spurts of water that poured into the cabin. Then at the puddle we were lying in. All that was once merely damp was now swimming. I pulled off my wet top in an attempt to dissuade the water from washing across the mattresses and sleeping bags. No use. 

The pouring slowed. We sat up, wet and baffled - then cracked up laughing. I guess this should have been a cement truck over our morale-badger but some situations are too ludicrous to not see the funny side.

The water had come in through an air vent in the cabin wall. We’d only left it open enough to avoid asphyxiating - which would usually be ok. However, a big wave had washed over the deck and filled the middle gulley with water. As the bow lifted to crest a wave all of the water ran to stern, swamping the vent and gushing into the cabin until we came off the wave. Sigh. There was no hope of drying ourselves or the cabin. After a good laugh at the situation we shrugged, climbed back in the sodden sleeping bags and got another hours kip.

The choppy conditions continue. We are steeped in sea water, the stern cabin has a pool of water in it. My feet are succumbing to some salt water version of trench foot. At day 40, the forecast shows no signs of change. It’s been a relentless 10 days of grind but despite feeling low on an individual basis, camaraderie is as solid as it has been for the whole trip. Even in the grimmest of times there have been no crossed words and we look after each other. We’ve adopted an attitude of radical acceptance - if this is what the ocean offers us for the remainder of the journey then so be it. Wa’omoni and her three daft crew will get across through Hell, chop and high water.  

Here’s a little verse to see future ocean rowers through similar times:

May the waves rise up to meet you;

May wind be always at your stern;

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

And the rain fall softly upon you skin,

To cleanse the brackish spray.

And until we meet again;

May God cradle you in the palm of his hand;

So you can drink rum from the hold,

Whilst He condemns chop to be damned!