4,111 miles in 37 days, 19 hours & 35 minutes

The sun’s shining, I’ve got a nice big beer in front of me, and the table isn’t moving. Not even a tiny bit. Nor is the waiter throwing water over me, so this can mean only one thing – I’ve arrived!

Arriving in Les Sables d’Olonne

The faint blurry thing that looked like land yesterday afternoon gradually came into focus and by 5.30 I could clearly see buildings, and soon a lighthouse came into view which looked just like the one in the picture in my pilot book for the harbour entrance at Les Sables d’Olonne. The strange thing is that it didn’t feel any different to a normal landfall after a pleasant little day sail down the coast, which surprised me. I’d really expected to be leaping about with excitement or falling on my knees and giving thanks to Neptune for my safe passage so it almost felt like a bit of an anti-climax to be so nonchalant about it.

However I wasn’t there yet, and the wind and swell had picked up considerably which was going to make life difficult for getting the boat ready to enter the harbour. First I had to furl up the genoa, but I’ve found this is not easy in anything more than a stiff breeze, so in the F6 that was blowing by now it was quite a game. However I did eventually manage to get it mostly rolled up.

Next came the moment of truth – would the engine start, and more importantly, continue to run until I was safely docked? It certainly burst into life as normal so I engaged the autopilot and brought us heading up into the wind to furl the main sail. This was a little tricky as the sail is pretty big and by now we were rolling around quite crazily, but after a brief struggle with some rather lively canvas and my usual entanglement in all the flailing ropes I finally got it under control.

As I turned the boat to head into the harbour we started to get the waves hitting us from the side, and with no sails Odyssey rolled from side to side more than ever. The engine was clearly not happy about this and started hesitating every now and then, so I guess what little fuel remained in the tank was sloshing around so much that it was getting harder for the pump to slurp it up.

The next half mile was a little nerve-racking as each time the boat rolled the engine would falter, and I expected it to finally give out at any minute. There wasn’t really anything I could do about it so just gritted my teeth and kept us on as steady a course as I could hoping that it would hold out. My backup plan if it failed was to quickly let out some of the genoa and let the following wind carry us into the harbour, where I could furl the sail again and hope to drift gently in the general direction of the fuel pontoon which was just inside the entrance.

Luckily it didn’t come to this and soon enough we were in the shelter of the harbour, upon which the engine was a lot happier and ran smoothly again. Phew! That was a huge relief, and before long I was tied up safely right next to a lovely big sign saying ‘DIESEL’.

My right foot was the first to touch France at exactly 18:55 local time, making my total journey time from Fort Lauderdale 37 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes, during which I covered a distance of 4,111 miles. I actually found walking a little strange and stumbled and shuffled my way into the harbour-master’s office gradually finding out how to make my legs work again.

I soon had my tank full of fuel again and was given a nice easy berth in the marina so all that remained was to hit the shower to rinse off a month of Atlantic salt before meeting Reg at the station. We returned to the boat and cracked open the bottle of champagne my father gave me before I left Florida, which was swiftly followed by a very pleasant bottle of St Emilion.

So it’s all over now and somehow I made it across the pond. It hasn’t really sunk in yet and it still feels as though I’ve just arrived in France after a normal Channel crossing from England, but I’ve got a log to prove it so I guess I must have done it. It’s hard to sum up how I feel about it but it’s a mixture of relief to have arrived tinged with a strange feeling of nostalgia for the ocean life.

I genuinely enjoyed all of it, including the rough stuff and the frustrating days of calm, with the only downside being the constant motion and interrupted sleep. I can’t say for sure whether I’d want to do it again, certainly not for a while, but there are other oceans out there and I now know I’ve got a boat which can do it so who knows what the future holds.

Meanwhile I now intend to have a pleasant cruise home to England with Reg via the lovely Brittany coast, sampling the local wine, cheese and crepes on the way and aiming to be back in Poole by the end of September.

Right, I’ve nearly finished my beer so it’s time to go and do some tidying up. I’ve discovered that after 5 weeks at sea everything on board that is made of metal has gone rusty, and everything else is covered in mildew, so there’s lots to do.

On the other hand it is very pleasant here watching the world go by, and the sun’s warm and the beer cold, so I might just sit here for a while yet 🙂

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Day 39: Land-ho!

Well, this is all getting jolly exciting as I think I can just very faintly make out something which could be land on the far horizon. It’s quite hazy and I could well be wrong, but I’m now just 20 miles from the closest bit of France so it could be possible. Or of course it could be wishful thinking!

Land ho!

As ever I’ve changed my plans at the last minute. We made excellent progress yesterday afternoon and all night, so this morning I sat down to calculate the tides and stuff for my arrival at La Rochelle and unfortunately it didn’t look good. My projected ETA was around midnight, which is just before low water, and since it’s spring tides today there wouldn’t be enough water in the shallow approaches for me to enter the harbour. I would therefore have to linger offshore somewhere until the early hours to make my entry.

Bearing in mind that I have next to no fuel and would rather not make landfall at night given my possible inability to manouvre I had another look at the chart, and decided that the best course of action would be to alter course a few degrees and head for Les Sables d’Olonne, which lies about 30 miles up the coast from La Rochelle and is the closest harbour to me with all the facilities I need. Given my current speed of 7 knots I should be there around 6 or 7pm local time which would be great.

It’s actually a very fitting place to end my journey as it’s a major yachting centre and is the home of the Vendee Globe single-handed round-the-world race. I can pretend I’m a hearty racing type returning from a punishing circumnavigation so I’d better start working on my tales of freak waves in the Roaring Forties and strange beasts lurking in the windswept wastelands of Cape Horn.

Another good thing about Les Sables d’Olonne is that the entry looks easy by day or night and there’s plenty of depth, but the major boon is that the fuel pontoon is just inside the harbour entrance and is open till 8pm, so that’s definitely my first port of call. My gauge was showing empty today and you may remember a couple of days ago when I last ran the engine it sounded like it was running on vapour, so this is my only worry now.

However, I might just make it. When I bought Odyssey there was a red plastic fuel container marked ‘Gasoline – 10 litres’ under the sink containing a mystery substance which I hoped might be diesel. Today I thought I’d better check so I got it out from under all the soggy carrier bags and odd rubber gloves which always seem to accumulate under kitchen sinks, and took it up on deck to open it up.

First signs were encouraging as it smelt vaguely like I think diesel smells, and had a reddish tint to it. I decided to try the combustion test and dipped some rolled up paper into it, then lit the end. My theory was that if it was petrol it would ignite with a whoosh and take off my eyebrows, whereas diesel would burn rather more sedately. Sure enough it did catch light but fairly gently, and burnt steadily giving off thick black smoke. Hooray – I think it’s safe to put in the tank, whatever it is, as it has at least some of the characteristics of diesel and marine engines are pretty forgiving. At a pinch it might even run on the remains of my drinks locker, though I’d rather not waste it.

After I poured it into the the tank the fuel gauge wavered between 1/8 and 1/16, which means I should have a good few gallons now, and hopefully at least enough to get into the harbour. I guess we’ll find out tonight!

Meanwhile Reg is on his way to meet me there, so I’d better start tidying up this boat which is a complete tip. Honestly, anyone would think I’d just crossed the Atlantic in it!

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Day 38: run, little hedgehog

The southerly wind got us moving nicely yesterday and we kept up a speed of 7-8 knots all evening and into the night, giving us a great push in the right direction at last. I’d spotted a couple of ships during the day but wasn’t at all prepared for what happened around midnight when I’d just finished watching a film and was getting ready for bed. I turned on the radar for its night shift and to my amazement saw the screen filled with blips, all seemingly heading straight for me.

Rushing up on deck I got out my binoculars and sure enough, there were lots of little lights twinkling in the distance. Then it clicked – I was crossing the main shipping route which comes down the English Channel, across the Bay of Biscay, and round Spain towards the Mediterranean and South Atlantic.

Crossing shipping lanes in a yacht has been likened to a hedgehog trying to get across a busy motorway and it certainly feels that way, particularly at night. Imagine a hundred thousand tons of super-tanker moving at 20 knots, with another one a couple of miles behind it, and then another, strung out across the horizon as far as the eye can see. Then just beyond that line there’s the opposite lane going the other way, but it’s not single-file so there might be several ships sailing in the same direction in a little group.

My measly little 15 tons moving at 7 knots feels a bit inadequate amongst these giants, especially as they wouldn’t feel a thing if they hit me. Next stop Davy Jones’ Locker, 4000 metres down, so needless to say I was a little apprehensive last night.

However I still believe in the ocean being a big place with only a small chance of collisions, so stuck to my course which ran straight across the shipping lane. This is the best way to cross, but you have to be sure to time it right of course. Luckily the radar is a great help, especially at night when it’s hard to judge distances, although it’s essential to keep looking out at the real thing to get a good overall picture of the situation in your mind.

The first batch of three ships passed safely ahead of me, but when I went back down I found eleven more coming my way, some from the north and some from the south. Lordy, this is more ships than I’ve seen in the last fortnight, and they’re all coming straight at me! Sticking resolutely to my course I managed somehow to avoid them all. Or maybe they were all avoiding me? Some came close, but no more than half a mile which is fine. I stayed at my post till 4am, when the last glimmer of lights faded away over the horizon.

I’ve no idea how many ships passed altogether, but it was more than I’ve ever seen before at sea in such a short time. It was certainly a relief to be clear of them all, and I finally fell into bed for a bit of sleep, leaving the ever-watchful radar on just in case of any stragglers.

Luckily there were no more, and I haven’t seen any other boats since then. The wind has held up pretty well except for a couple of hours around lunchtime, which was handy as there were a couple of maintenance issues, as usual.

The most important one was the bilge pump, which last night didn’t seem to be working. As I’ve said before, the main purpose of a boat is to keep the water on the outside, but some inevitably gets in, especially if you’ve got a boat as leaky as Odyssey. Hopefully the water will all drain down to the lowest part of the boat, called the bilge, from where you can pump it out. Well, you can if your pumps are working, and both of mine were now dead.

It didn’t take long to strip it down and find that the fault was simply that one of the valves was blocked with rust and sludge, so I cleaned it out and reassembled it. Once refitted it worked better than ever so my bilge is now nice and dry again. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I could eat my dinner off it, but then I’ve never been renowned for the cleanliness of my bilge, as Rupert will confirm. Apparently he’s just about managed to clean Flogg’s bilge out after owning her for nearly a year, which is more than I ever did in eight!

The other problem was that the Monitor steering wheel adapter managed to chew it’s way through the retaining clamps again and dropped off the wheel. Since I’ve already used up all my spares I had to resort to tying it all back together with bits of string and sticky-back plastic in the best Blue Peter tradition, so I hope it holds out till I get to France. If it fails I’ve got some old chewing gum stuck to the bottom of my chart table which might just do the trick…

Finally, one slightly more worrying but non-critical thing is that last night I ran the engine to cool down the fridge and heard it falter ever so slightly for a fraction of a second. Being attuned to it’s reassuring constant drone this immediately got my attention, and after a couple of minutes it did it again, and then a third time. I stopped it straight away as I’ve got a horrible feeling that it may be getting so low on fuel that it’s beginning to struggle to pump out the last dregs from the bottom of the tank.

This may have been due to the fact that we were sailing fast in a fairly lumpy sea, so the boat was heeled over and rolling quite a bit, making the fuel slosh around in the tank. I’m planning not to have to run it again now until we get into the hopefully calm and sheltered approaches to La Rochelle, and have a couple of gallons in a spare tank, so we might just make it. I can just see it dying as I’m about to engage reverse gear coming into the dock which could be a little embarrassing, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Or hit it, more likely.

This afternoon there’s just under 200 miles to go and we’re still heading in the right direction at a good 6 knots, so it looks like I’ve only got another two nights at sea, or possibly even just one if this wind holds out. However we’re not there yet and one thing I’ve learnt from this voyage is that the weather never does what you want or expect, especially not over these last few days, so I’m just taking it as it comes and will get there when I get there. Besides, I’ve still got 3 litres of wine to finish as I’m sure the French won’t appreciate me importing cheap American plonk!

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Day 37: stop the boat – I want to get off!

Sorry if I sounded a bit miserable yesterday, I wasn’t really, just feeling a bit frustrated at being so close to France but unable to make decent progress due to the annoying easterly wind. Once again I sailed about 100 miles in 24 hours but only managed to make 30 miles in the right direction.

By 10pm it was really getting to me as I was trying to watch a film but the boat kept pitching and rolling as though it were trying to throw me overboard. Maybe it’s had enough of me after five weeks at sea? Every few seconds the bow would rise up and there’d be a horrible pause, then a moment of weightlessness before gravity returned with a vengeance and we slammed down into the next trough with a crash and shudder that shook me to the bone every time.

Bearing in mind that Odyssey has a relatively conservative hull design with a fairly fine entry I would hate to think how a modern yacht with a flatter hull would have felt in these conditions, it would probably have been ten times worse as it slammed into every wave so I should be grateful for small mercies.

Finally I’d had enough and decided to stop for the night. Stopping in mid-ocean might sound a bit odd as you can’t just pull over into a layby. Anchoring is not an option either as it’s several thousand metres deep here so even if I tied every rope on the boat together I’d still have nowhere near enough.

Luckily there is a solution, which as I mentioned yesterday was practised in days of old and is every bit as useful today. It’s called heaving-to, and all you do is tack the boat but don’t release the jib sheet as you normally would. Once the boat has turned through the wind and the jib is pressed hard against the stays you bring the rudder back over as though you wanted to get back onto the original course, but since the wind is now pressing equally on the main and the jib you end up stopping dead in the water.

This worked perfectly so I lashed the wheel and sat back to see what would happen. Immediately the motion all but ceased and we bobbed gently over the waves which rolled quietly beneath us. We came around to face more or less west and drifted slowly downwind in that direction at about 1.5 knots which is as close to stationary as I could get. The force of the wind in the sails kept us from rolling and held us at an angle of about 5-10 degrees of heel so it was very comfortable indeed.

Heaving-to is a trick which is well worth getting to grips with as it can be a life-saver. It’s a survival tactic in storms and even in moderately rough weather if the crew are feeling seasick and can’t carry on then it’s a great way of taking a break from it all. Not all boats can do it so effectively, particularly some modern designs, but it’s another reason I chose Odyssey as her hull and rig are pretty much ideal for it. I didn’t have the mizzen up so don’t know what difference that would have made but it would probably have allowed me to trim things even better to reduce the downwind drift still further.

It was a huge relief to finally stop moving, so I treated myself to another glass of red wine and sat back in comfort and peace to read for a bit, finally retiring to my nice stable bed around midnight. One advantage of the strong wind for the last 24 hours is that the batteries are nicely topped up so I didn’t have to run the engine at all and could happily leave the radar on all night, which is good as several ships passed by with one coming within a couple of miles.

After a wonderful nights sleep I awoke at 8.30 feeling refreshed and ready for anything. That’s exactly why I decided to stop as I’m now approaching the coast where I’ll find a lot more shipping and will need my wits about me, so would rather sacrifice some speed as and when necessary to ensure that I’m all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I guess that’s something Ellen MacArthur wished she could do on her epic voyage round the world, but she was racing against the clock so had to put up with ridiculously small amounts of sleep. Still, she made it, so it just goes to show what the body can take if you push it hard enough.

I have no intention of pushing myself at all thank you, and was delighted to find when I arose today that the wind had indeed veered still further and is now blowing from the south. I resumed my course and am now sailing directly towards La Rochelle at a good 7 knots. Today’s weather chart for the next 24 hours shows high pressure over Spain with a depression to the west of the UK so hopefully that’ll mean the wind will carry on veering to the west which would be great.

Now that we’re off the wind a bit the motion is a lot easier so I’ve got back to my sewing, which I can do in the cockpit as the sun is shining again. With a bit of luck I might even have it finished by the time I arrive! And since I’m now pretty much due south of the Fastnet Rock off southern Ireland I really feel I’m finally into European waters at last. Next stop France 🙂

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Day 36: another rant

I’m afraid this is becoming a bit of a theme as I’m going to harp on about the wind again. As I said yesterday, I hate sailing to windward and the last 24 hours has done nothing to change this view. Forgive me if I go into a little detail about it but I feel like having a good old moan today and it’s my blog so I’ll rant if I want to!

My tactic for sailing towards a specific destination is to draw a line from it to my starting position, which in this case is where I was about three days ago as I felt I was close enough to La Rochelle to start taking the navigation a bit more seriously. I then draw two more lines radiating from my destination at 5 degrees either side of the direct route. This gives me a 10 degree arc within which I stay while approaching the target, rather like an airliner coming in to land and homing in on a beacon which keeps it on the right glidepath.

By 9pm last night I was right on the southern edge of my arc and was heading more or less south-east, so put in a tack which put me back onto my earlier course of just east of north. I stayed on this all night and by midday today was pretty much on the northern line which should make it time to tack again. To put it into context for you, in the last 24 hours I’ve sailed around 100 miles but am only about 30 miles closer to La Rochelle.

However the wind has gradually been veering through the morning (which means it’s blowing more from the east than the north) and I’m now heading north-east instead of north. If I were to tack now I’d end up heading pretty much south, or exactly back the way I came in the night. See what I mean about sailing close to the wind? It’s a wretched and largely fruitless exercise in my experience and I’ve half a mind to simply stop the boat where I am and wait for a more favourable wind. The old square-riggers used to do that due to their inability to get even as close to the wind as I can, so it’s quite a reasonable thing to do.

Stopping would also ease the motion which is horrid to say the least as we’re slamming into short steep seas, causing the boat to pitch up and down violently while all the time heeling sideways at an angle of around 25-30 degrees. I tried to carry on patching up the mizzen sail but it was pointless as every time I tried to put in a stitch the boat would lurch, causing the needle to go in some random direction, usually ending up in my thumb. I soon gave up on that and sat back in a huff listening to music instead.

I then thought I should at least try to do something productive so tuned the radio into the frequency for the Fleet weather centre in the UK in the vain hope of picking up a signal. I tried a couple of days ago and it was too distorted to be useful, but to my delight I found today that it was crystal clear. This means I can now receive weather faxes directly into my Mac so I can see exactly what’s going on. Fleet have an excellent schedule of different forecasts throughout the day so I can now arm myself with useful information for planning ahead. Of course this depends on my being able to interpret the charts to predict what the weather is going to do but I’m slowly getting used to it.

Another useful function of my short-wave radio is that it can receive so-called Navtex broadcasts which is text-based weather and navigation information in English. I managed to tune in to the French station in Brittany and received this forecast for my area:

PAZENN C
VEERING OUTHEASTERLY E TO 5, VE*RING SOUTH AT END. MODERATE*M
R C OUTLOOK FO* NEXT 24HOURS
NO *ANG*ROUS PHENOMENOM EXP*CTEDM

It’s a little garbled but the good news seems to be that the wind is forecast to come round to the south later, which is absolutely perfect for laying in a direct course to La Rochelle. I have therefore decided to stay on this tack for a bit longer to see if it materialises.

Actually I’m almost tempted to stay on this tack a lot longer as I’m in a similar situation to the start of my journey as I approached Bermuda and was headed by the wind, facing me with the prospect of four days of beating to windward. As you may recall I gave up in a huff and bore away to the north to sail directly to France, and I could now do the same and head straight for England.

However I don’t think Reg would be too happy about that as he’s on his way to Bordeaux for the weekend before meeting me in La Rochelle next week. I already forced him to cancel his plans to meet me in the Azores and I don’t think I can do it to him again or I’d never get that new car when I get home (hint hint).

So, onward and upward, and I’m just going to have to put up with this miserable windward sailing farce for a bit longer. Oh for that lovely week of westerly trade-winds!

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Day 35: ungentlemanly conduct

I suppose I could say this is my third month at sea since I left Florida in July and it’s now September, and at the rate I’ve progressed today it could well be another three months till I get to France.

We sailed well during the night and I got plenty of sleep, too much in fact as I slept through my alarm. I think – and hope – I would have heard the radar alarm as it’s very insistent and doesn’t stop till I acknowledge it, so hopefully we didn’t sail merrily through the shipping lanes causing havoc in our wake.

By the time I finally emerged this morning I discovered that we were getting too far to the south of my projected course to La Rochelle, and the beastly wind was now east-north-east, pretty much where we want to go. As you may remember me saying a while ago, gentlemen don’t go to windward so normally in situations where I can’t sail directly towards my destination I’ll simply start the engine and sit back with a nice drink while it does all the hard work.

Sadly this isn’t an option on this trip so I reluctantly put in a tack and tightened up the sheets. There was only a light breeze and quite a big swell which shook the sails each time we dipped into a trough thus spilling what precious little wind there was and we ended up barely making east of north, but that was the best I could do.

By midday the wind had faded almost to nothing and we were now heading just west of north, which of course is not the right direction at all. I tried tacking a few times but on the other tack could barely make south-east, which wasn’t much better. In the end I did what I always do – gave up, furled away the genoa, hove to and went to bed.

After a very pleasant siesta I arose at 6pm (hence the late blog entry today) and found the breeze had picked up and backed slightly to NNE, so we’re now just about managing to head due east at 5 knots or so which is better and only a few degrees off course. I must say I hate sailing close to the wind, as does Odyssey. It’s such hard work and I keep having to tweak the sails and watch that we’re not drifting off course or about to tack accidentally. Let’s hope the wind backs a bit more so we can come onto a reach and pick up speed.

Anyway, enough of my woes with the wind and onto happier affairs. This morning I made a start on patching up the torn mizzen sail and think I might just be able to save it. I discovered that it tore due to a rusty old shackle on the topping lift chafing away at the trailing edge of the sail until in the storm it gave way and ripped horizontally for about a metre before hitting a vertical seam. This then came apart for a metre or so as well, and there are a couple of other little rips. I’ve cut a strip out of a sail bag and have almost patched up the first tear with it so it’s looking encouraging. Although the storm jib has done well at replacing the mizzen so far it really doesn’t cut it close-hauled so it’ll be good to get the real thing up again.

Ooh, and I saw another whale this afternoon. It was about twenty feet long and looked black, so I wonder if it was a killer whale? It came close to the boat then dived underneath, rolling over to show a white belly. They’re beautiful creatures and so graceful but completely impossible to catch on camera so I’ve given up trying. I’m sure they know exactly when I’m ready to snap them as they always disappear just as I press the button.

Right, time to go and make some food now before retiring for the evening. Luckily yesterday’s wind topped up the batteries and there should be enough power to run the radar all night, so let’s hope I hear the alarm this time!

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Day 34: bewinded again

Humpfh, as my good friend the lovely Ulrika would say! That’ll teach me to moan about the lack of wind as it gave me a bit of a runaround last night.

All day there had been little or no wind, puffing fitfully from the south-east which isn’t really much good to me as I’m trying to go east. It finally returned around 8pm, coming from the north-west now and giving me around 3-4 knots which is better than a poke in the eye I suppose.

Since it was also trickle-charging the batteries via the wind generator I decided to compromise with power and watch a film (Monsters Inc which was most enjoyable) and leave the radar off until I went to bed, going up on deck every 20 minutes to check for ships. Once I retired for the night at midnight I put the radar in watch mode with the screen brightness turned right down, which according to my ammeter uses just 2.2 amps, as opposed to 4.5 on full brightness.

Before going to bed I started to re-read Francis Chichester’s account of his solo transatlantic race in 1960, and it must have inspired me as when the wind changed around 3am I sensed it in my bones and got dressed and ready for action. It’s all a bit of a blur but I found we were charging off to the north so I had to gybe, which is a real pain as it means releasing the preventer lines on both booms, hauling in the main and mizzen sheets, releasing the Monitor wind vane and engaging the autopilot, starting a turn of 90 degrees (to starboard in this case), waiting for the main boom to swing across before letting the sheet out, ditto for the mizzen, releasing the windward genoa sheet and pulling in on the leeward one, re-rigging the preventer lines on the other side of the boat, trimming the sails and fiddling with the Monitor to get it settled on the new course, and finally engaging it and disengaging the autopilot. Phew! What a lark!

It took about 30 minutes and don’t forget it’s pitch black, raining, and the boat’s heaving around like a wild thing, and I’ve just got out of my nice warm snug bed. However rather than being my usual grump I congratulated myself on my motivation as normally I’d just let it do it’s own thing and carry on sleeping. I think as I’m now so close to France I want to get there as quickly as possible, so am prepared to go through a little hardship now and then.

Mind you, I only said a little hardship, so as I settled back in my bunk I fully expected a nice uninterrupted night’s sleep. Actually I should mention that around 1am I’d been woken by the radar warning me of a ship overtaking me about 3 miles to starboard and had stayed up until it was clear, so I hadn’t had more than a couple of hours sleep and wanted lots more.

So needless to say I was dismayed to sense the wind gradually increasing and the motion of the boat getting more violent as it picked up speed and started crashing through the growing waves. It kept me awake until 6am, by which time it was very noisy indeed and all hope of sleep had long since fled into the murky half light of dawn.

Coming up on deck I saw that the wind had shifted again and we were now heading south at 8 knots. Argh! We’re clearly doomed to sail up and down without ever actually making any headway towards our destination. The wind had picked right up to what felt like a force 6 or 7, but my wind instrument gave up the ghost soon after Irene and now just vaguely indicates roughly where the wind is coming from, but doesn’t even try to guess how fast it’s blowing, with the speed indicator reading zero.

Odyssey was clearly overpressed as she charged through the swells, spray flying everywhere. She’d come right up from a broad reach and was heading far too close to the wind, indicating too much weather helm which in turn means there’s too much sail up. I wound in some of the genoa but it was still too much, so reluctantly I clipped onto the lifeline and crawled up the heaving deck to put a reef in. Thank goodness I fixed that first reef point yesterday! By the way, I was also pleased to notice that my leak-plugging seems to have been a success and the rain stayed on the outside.

Back in the cockpit things still didn’t feel right and the wind seemed to have increased even more, howling through the rigging and blowing spray off the wave crests so it was probably around 30 knots or so. Heaving a weary sigh of one resigned to a night of hard labour I made my way up to the mast yet again and put in a second reef, which is no easy matter when the boat is leaping around all over the place. With a bit more taken in on the genoa she was far more settled and we came round onto a broad reach heading due east at a good 7+ knots.

By now it was 8am and time for breakfast, so I settled down with Francis Chichester and a big mug of tea to wait for the wind’s next little surprise. Thankfully it never came so I finally got back to bed around 9.30 and slept till 12, by which time the wind had eased and I could shake the reefs out again. We’re now making good progress which will make up for the last two days, when we covered only 100 miles in 48 hours.

I tell you all this just to prove that I do occasionally do a bit of the sailing stuff, despite appearances. I know sometimes I just can’t be bothered, but I must admit it does feel good when I’ve had to brave the elements and get the boat under control again when I could have pulled the covers over my head and waited for it all to go away.

To cheer me up this afternoon I had my first ever sighting of a big whale, which came up around 200 metres away and snorted at me. It was huge, at least 40 feet and possibly as big as Odyssey but it’s really hard to tell. It followed me for a few minutes then gave a final sigh and disappeared, leaving me in the company of a gaggle of tatty looking seagulls.

Despite lack of sleep I’m feeling jolly happy as France is now just 500 miles away, the sun is shining, the sea’s calmed down a bit, and there’s an empty packet of chocolate chip cookies blowing around at my feet 🙂

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Day 33: becalmed again

So much for that nice little south-easterly of yesterday – it died away before midnight and since then has just occasionally puffed a bit in our direction, so in the last 24 hours we’ve only managed a measly 60 miles, and have been pretty much stopped dead in the water for most of today.

However I can’t really complain (well I could, but it would be petty) as the previous few days were pretty good with above average mileages, and now we’re just evening things out. It’s also given me the chance to get more maintenance done, and I’ve fixed all of the storm damage apart from the torn mizzen sail, managing to reinstate the first reefing point on the mainsail which is a relief in case of strong winds. Not that it looks like there are any in the offing just yet though!

Stripped down winch

Yesterday I noticed the port primary winch was grinding a bit more than usual, and it gradually got worse until it felt like I was crushing gravel in a big peppermill. On taking it apart today I found that this was exactly what was wrong – it was indeed full of gravel, or salt and mineral crystals which must have accumulated over the years until they’d totally gummed up the workings. I didn’t have a big enough hex key to take it fully apart but managed to flush out all the dirt with lots of water, and now it’s back to normal again. Good thing it was so calm as otherwise I’d probably have dropped half the cogs and springs and things over the side, so I should be thankful for the lack of wind after all.

Actually as I write this we’ve accelerated to the heady speed of 2 knots. At that rate it’s about two weeks to go, but I hope we can go a bit faster as I think I’m almost out of diesel now. I reckon I’ve got between 10 and 20 gallons left, and since I think the engine uses about a gallon per hour I’m going to have to think whether I can really afford to carry on running it for an hour a day to charge the batteries.

If there was enough wind to spin the generator I’d be fine, but there isn’t, so it leaves me in a bit of a quandary. The biggest draw on the power is at night when I go to sleep and leave the radar in watch mode so it’ll alert me if anything comes close. If it comes to it I suppose I’d just have to risk not using it, and in theory I should be OK as so far no ship has come closer than about 3 miles. I don’t bother to turn my navigation lights on at night unless something is within 5 miles as they can only be seen for 2 or 3 anyway, and it’s a waste of power to leave them on.

The biggest drawback of the lack of power is that I might have to forgo my nightly film, which would be a major blow. What on earth would I do? I suppose I could light a fire in the cockpit and entertain myself with a selection of bawdy sea shanties, while toasting Ryvita and knocking back the grog. Actually that sounds like fun – maybe I’ll try it tonight!

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Day 32: plugging the leaks

Now that Odyssey’s pretty much dried out after a week in the sun I’ve decided it’s time to try to make her a bit more watertight before the next storm arrives. At the moment if it rains or if waves wash over the deck then water comes pouring into the cabin all over the place, and since the whole point of a boat is to keep the water on the outside this is really not good.

Most of the water comes through the opening hatches, some of which I’ve now managed to seal. The only leaky ones now are three of the big ones in the coachroof and I think I’ve found out why. The sealant I used is supposed to be very good but just comes away from the perspex (or is it Lexan?) ‘glass’ bit of the hatch, despite me using lots and lots and getting it smeared all over me and everything else in the process. However yesterday I noticed that it says on the tube that it’s not suitable for use on plastic. Is perspex plastic? I don’t know, but it might explain why this stuff doesn’t work. I’ll have a rummage around in my bosun’s locker and see if I can find something more suitable.

One of the other worst culprits was the chainplates, which are steel rods bolted to the inside of the hull and protruding up through the deck, onto which are attached the wires which hold up the mast. Over time the movement of the mast has caused the sealant around all of these to come away so I’ve now gone around the boat and re-sealed all 14 of them. It was water coming through these gaps that was getting my bedding wet, I’ve found, as the water would run down the inside of the hull and onto the bunks under the mattresses, getting them wet from below. I’d assumed they were wet from water dripping down from above so hopefully now I won’t have to lie on a soggy sponge if it rains again.

However, the biggest problem is where the masts come through the cabin. Both masts are mounted directly onto the top of the keel inside the boat, and stick up through the cabin via big holes which leak like crazy when it rains. I say leak, but if a wave comes over the deck then I get literally a waterfall cascading into the cabin. OK, so I know indoor water features are all the rage, but when it gushes straight into my drinks locker and soaks the boxes of wine into a mush then I’m not happy.

I’m not sure how to tackle this one as the masts move noticeably in any wind, up to a centimetre in every direction if it’s really blowing a gale, so I guess I’ll just have to bung loads of flexible sealant into the gaps and hope for the best.

Luckily it hasn’t rained for over a week but since I’m going to be back in England in a couple of weeks I need to be prepared!

Meanwhile the nice westerly I’ve had for the last week has finally fizzled out. It died completely around 4am so we drifted for a while, then a little southerly breeze started to apppear around midday. This is giving us around 3 knots in the right general direction, and it’s actually rather nice that it’s so calm now as the big swells were getting a little tiresome. I’ve lost count of the number of bumps and bruises I’ve accumulated as a result of my drunken lurchings around the cabin, not all alcohol-related either!

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Day 31: a month at sea

I seem to have made a bit of a swerve to the north during the night which wasn’t intentional, but was once again due to my inability to get this boat to sail in the right direction at times. As usual it happened after dark, and perhaps the odd glass or two of red wine didn’t help, but for some reason the closest I could get to east was north. Oh well, I pursued my usual policy of letting Odyssey do whatever she wants and went back down to continue the film I was watching. I’m sure it’ll all work out fine in the end.

Yesterday afternoon I finally finished patching up the genoa and since the wind had dropped to a gentle F4 I decided to have a go at getting it up. First I had to clear the foredeck where I’d left the drifter and the pole ready for use, so I stowed those, then lowered the working jib easily enough. Raising nearly 500 square feet of sail is a little tricky on my own, particularly as it has to be fed into a groove in the foil of the furling gear without jamming or kinking, but somehow I managed it and it immediately added another knot to the speed.

This morning the first thing I did was check whether all my hard work had unravelled but amazingly it held up and the sail is still in one piece. Next I’ll have to make a start on the mizzen which is in pretty poor shape, but my sewing skills have been honed to perfection so I’ll have a go.

Unfortunately this success was somewhat tempered by my foolish intervention with the boat this morning. Once I got us heading in roughly the right direction it seemed like a good idea to pole out the genoa to windward as we were on almost a dead run. It didn’t take too long to rig so I left it alone and went to have breakfast.

Just as I was finishing my nice hot cup of tea I heard a nasty grinding sound, then a crash, followed by lots of bumping around on the coachroof. That’s not normal, so I poked my head out and to my dismay saw that the pole had managed to acquire a bit of a kink. Quite a lot of one actually, as it was bent at almost 90 degrees halfway along it’s length. I’ve now managed to break both poles during this trip which is annoying but given my track record I guess it’s not altogether surprising.

After salvaging any useful fittings from the pole I chucked it over the side and watched it slowly sink in my wake, doing a pretty good Titanic impression as it slid beneath the waves after sticking it’s back end up vertically for a few seconds. I could just imagine all the tiny passengers leaping into the icy water with little squeals and shrieks, but being a heartless soul I left them there to their watery fate.

Today marks the end of a month at sea, and the good news is that the closest land is now mainland Europe, with the Azores well to the south-west of me and the north-western corner of Spain only 500 miles away. The big swells have subsided and the sun is shining, with the westerly breeze sending us pootling along at a steady 6 knots directly towards La Rochelle, which is now some 750 miles to the east. It looks as though with any luck I’ve only got another week or so at sea, so I’d better make the most of the final opportunity to top up my tan before returning home to gloomy old England.

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