Day 30: a sailor’s life

I could really get used to this – Odyssey has now spent the last three days doing all the work and I haven’t needed to touch anything at all. Yesterday we made another excellent run of 160 miles, and in exactly the right direction too which is always a bonus. Nothing has broken, no sails have torn, and Monty is steering a nice steady course over the big swells.

The only problem really is finding something to write about as the sea is still as big and blue as ever, as is the sky. I haven’t seen any ships so there are no thrilling near-misses to report, and the hurricanes have been lashing my former home of Fort Lauderdale so I have no tales of daring seamanship to regale you with either.

So what do I do all day? Now that I’ve got the hang of tradewind sailing (ie letting the boat do the work) I have the same routine every day, which goes something like this:

0800: Rise and shine! Or more accurately, swear at my alarm clock and go back to sleep unless I’m feeling really perky in which case I stagger out of bed, slide back the companionway hatch and check that we’re still afloat and sailing in vaguely the right direction.

0830: Breakfast – my favourite meal of the day and the most vital as it gets me going. I’ve learnt that even I shouldn’t talk to myself before breakfast as I’m such a miserable old git in the mornings. I always have the same thing: a large bowl of cereal, a mug of tea, and a glass of fruit juice. After breakfast I read for a bit, either in the cockpit if it’s sunny or lounging in the saloon.

1000: Start to think about what I should do today, but can’t be bothered to do it yet.

1100: Elevenses, after which I really can’t dawdle for any longer, so start on the list of repairs which is never-ending as I’m constantly breaking things. All this week I’ve been sewing up the huge tear in the genoa, but there are lots of other things to do like generally tidying up and cleaning the boat, or fixing little things like leaky hatches.

1200: Write my diary entry and emails, then spend half an hour trying to get my satellite phone to connect before I can send anything. It always seems to take a dozen or so attempts to dial before I get connected, although there hasn’t yet been a day when I’ve totally failed to get online so I can’t really complain.

1300: Lunch – my second favourite meal of the day as it’s the second one. All I eat is four slices of Ryvita with either vegetarian cheese substitute (pre-formed yellow rubber slices) or brie, depending on how posh I’m feeling. If I’m really hungy I might splash out and have an extra two Ryvita, but then feel terribly guilty so spend the rest of the afternoon regretting it.

1400: Siesta, either in the cockpit to top up my tan if it’s sunny, otherwise in whichever cabin is most comfortable. Comfort level is a complex mathematical function of angular vectors, flow rates and decibels, but what it boils down to is whether I can find a bunk where I’m neither dripped on by cold wet seawater or flung out onto the floor every two minutes, nor kept awake by a crazy drummer on the roof. Not always easy in this boat, I can tell you!

1600: Tea time, either on the lawn if it’s fine or in the conservatory otherwise. Or if you’re feeling nautical, in the cockpit or saloon. Consists of a cup of tea and three slices of Ryvita spread with peanut butter and strawberry jelly. With the crusts cut off, of course.

1700: More boat-related tasks, if I can be bothered, which is by no means certain at this stage of the day as I’m starting to wind down for the evening after my strenuous day’s work.

1830: Tidy up the boat and get it all ship-shape (boom tish!) for the night. This includes such obvious things as checking that all the sails are up and looking well set, and that there are no ropes trailing over the side. Sailing boats have far too many ropes in my opinion, and there’s always at least one sneaking quietly towards the edge waiting to leap overboard the moment you start the engine and wrap itself inextricably round the prop.

1900: Prepare dinner. Thanks to my terrible memory I can barely remember what I ate yesterday, let alone the day before, so with a fixed menu of three different dishes which I eat on consecutive days I am constantly surprised by my culinary creativity. These three are: pasta with sauce, rice and beans, or vegetable stew with artificial mince. The latter is not disimilar to the fabled sock stew which my father used to cook when taking my brothers and me away on holiday as I tend to chuck anything to hand into it, but it always ends up tasting the same.

1915: Eat dinner in the cockpit. Come rain or shine I eat alfresco as I believe it’s character building and if there’s a nice sunset I can pretend I’m at the best table in a really expensive waterside restaurant, albeit one where the waiters keep rocking the table and occasionally chuck a bucket of water over me.

Atlantic sunset

2030: Darkness is now upon us so I start the engine to run it for an hour to cool down the fridge and charge the batteries, and settle down to watch a film on my laptop with a nice glass or three of red wine. I sit where I can see the radar screen, which comes on every 15 minutes to have a quick scan around and will alert me if anything is close enough to care about, but there very rarely is.

0000: Make final log entry, usually somewhat illegibly due to wine, and retire for the night. Initial cabin selection invariably fails the tests described in the siesta paragraph above, so I usually spend the first hour trying various sleeping positions. I’m a light sleeper and hate noise at night so it’s probably foolish of me to even try to sleep on a sailing boat with it’s multitude of creaks, groans, taps, rattles, bangs and squeaks, and I spend ages going round tightening halyards and stowing loose items. However I do eventually fall asleep, usually just before my alarm goes off saying it’s time for another log entry.

And so pass my days. Nothing too taxing, but then I’m still on holiday so that’s exactly as it should be. In some ways it’s a shame that I’ve just about got settled into my routine when I’m only a few days from land but to be honest it’s not that different to being at home really.

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Day 29: are friends electric?

Are they? Mines broken down and now I’ve no-one to love.

So sang Gary Numan somewhat mournfully in 1978, and again last night when I found to my delight that I had his greatest hits compilation on my iPod. I was always a huge fan of his and loved his bizarre performances on Top Of The Pops where he always appeared as some kind of electro alien. My favourite was when he came on stage dressed in a silver spacesuit driving around in what was probably meant to be a scary alien transport podule but was actually a thinly-disguised dodgem car sprayed silver.

I remember as a teenager being terribly excited when he crashed his plane (again) on a road near Southampton, not far from where I was living at the time. I felt honoured that out of all the places he could have come down it happened to be so close to me, and it almost felt like an alien visitation.

So, last night the eastern Atlantic reverberated to the sound of such classics as I Nearly Married A Human, We Take Mystery To Bed, I Die: You Die and Remember I Was Vapour, and of course the timeless Cars.

However I don’t live entirely in the 1980’s and today have been paying homage to God himself, aka Mauro Picotto, whose Lizard Man from 2000 is still one of my favourite and most played CDs with it’s flawless production and smooth blend of techno and trance. Lovely!

True to yesterday’s promise not to touch anything on the boat I’ve been having a very peaceful 24 hours and am delighted to report no further breakages. This is clearly the way to do it! I let Odyssey get on with what she does best, namely the sailing bit, while I lounge around eating peanut butter Ryvita sandwiches and listening to 80’s pop. Fab! Why didn’t I think of it earlier?

Meanwhile we’ve just crossed the 3,000 mile line so with 1,000 to go I’m now three-quarters of the way to France. The wind is still a brisk westerly and yesterday we sailed 160 miles, the second best day’s run of the trip. At this rate I should be there in no time, although best not count my chickens before they’ve hatched. Not that I would have any, of course, being a vegetarian animal libertarian who would never dream of enslaving another living creature (cabin boys excepted).

And in other news I’ve nearly finished stitching up the genoa so it should be ready to put back up this afternoon, but that means stopping the boat which I’m reluctant to do while we’re sailing so well, so I might just wait till the wind drops again. Anyway, we really don’t seem to need it at the moment, and I’ve got quite used to climbing over it to get around the cabin.

Ooh, guess what I’ve found on the iPod now – John Foxx!!! That’s this afternoon’s listening sorted 🙂

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Day 28: least touched, soonest mended

Commenting on my daily reports of breakages and inconveniences such as wet bedding and lack of sleep, Nigel has cheerfully pointed out that the “killer” won’t be a single disaster but the cumulative effect of all the problems combined with my lack of sleep. In such a situation any otherwise survivable event could prove to be too much.

Of course he’s right, so I’ve taken this to heart and have developed a new survival strategy. After all, it would be annoying in the extreme to come to a sticky end in the final stages of my journey. Under my new regime I am confining myself to my captain’s quarters which is the driest part of the boat and have filled it with all the nice clean dry bedding, along with lots of yummy food and drink.

I will now spend all my time simply sleeping, resting and eating, and will not touch any part of the boat in case I break it, which given my clumsiness is more than likely. It seems quite happy steering itself and is heading directly for La Rochelle, so as long as I don’t do anything at all to upset things I should arrive there safely, not to mention well-fed and well-rested. Thank you, Nigel!

Actually I did do one thing today which so far appears not to have broken anything else so I think I got away with it. Having realised that I like listening to music while I do my sewing I suddenly remembered that I’ve got a brand new stereo and some rather large speakers still sitting unopened in their boxes. It didn’t take long to rip out the old and install the new, and it’s totally transformed my listening experience to near-nightclub levels. In fact it’s so loud and bassy that it should drown out even the most determined hurricane so I know what to do if one of Irene’s siblings should suddenly turn up.

Odyssey is, as I said, still charging happily along without me having to do anything at all, and we’re eating up the miles as we head for France. Even with only the working jib instead of the big genoa we’re still hitting 8 knots at times which is excellent, although there’s quite a big following swell which knocks us off course every now and then. Monty quickly pulls us back into line which makes sleeping in the aft cabin fun as I get rolled from one side to another as the boat zig-zags it’s way across the Atlantic.

And finally, on a culinary note, since I’m saving my supply of chocolate chip cookies for the next storm I’ve had to come up with an alternative snack for when I get the munchies. I deliberately didn’t buy any unhealthy nibbles so have had to experiment a bit and have discovered that peanut butter and strawberry jelly spread liberally on Ryvita makes for a delicious and guilt-free accompaniment to my afternoon tea. Well, it’s the closest I can get to scones and clotted cream out here!

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Day 27: Lordy, I don’t fancy yours much!

I have a small but varied library on board, ranging from sailing books and nautical almanacs to science fiction to exploration to thrillers to history to philosophy, so what have I been reading for the last two days? You guessed it, the 1997 Viz Annual. My head is now full of colourful characters like The Fat Slags, Cockney Wanker, The Modern Parents, Millie Tant and Spoilt Bastard, to name but a few. It’s been my favourite comic since 1988 with a blend of childish humour, cutting political satire and just plain filth that never fails to amuse me. I didn’t see it on sale in America, but perhaps it’s not their cup of tea.

Another excellent book I’ve just finished is “Give Me A Ship To Sail” by Alan Villiers, who skippered a replica of the Mayflower across the Atlantic in 1957. It was fascinating to read his account of the voyage from Plymouth in the UK to Plymouth in the USA, retracing the steps of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed the same route to start their new lives in 1620. It’s almost the reverse of my trip, and interestingly the Mayflower’s average daily run was almost exactly the same as mine at 106 miles. Mr Villiers comments that this figure applies to pretty much all large sailing ships on long voyages so it’s nice to find out that Odyssey can keep up with them.

My voyage is still going well with settled weather and a nice stiff westerly. I’m now about 1,300 miles from La Rochelle which means I’m about two-thirds of the way there. So far today I haven’t broken anything although I did have to fix the steering wheel adapter for the Monitor which fell off due to two of the the three retaining clamps deciding to fail at the same time. Not a problem though, and I fixed it in a jiffy to get us back on course.

The sewing is also coming along nicely, but I’ve only done about 6 feet with about another 10 to go on the massive tear in the genoa. It’s not actually as bad as it sounds as it’s up the trailing edge of the sail where the leech tape and UV strip have separated from the main part of the sail. Since it’s taking forever I think I’ll just fix the worst bits and then stitch it every foot or so and hope it’ll hold out, providing I don’t meet any more hurricanes…

I’ve found that the small working jib is in the best condition of all six sails and sets very nicely. It’s the one I should have had up in the storm but hadn’t got round to taking down the genoa before the wind arrived, after which it was impossible to do as I could never have managed to lower such a huge sail in storm force winds without it flying overboard, probably taking me with it. Next time I’ll try to remember to do it before the wind gets up unless it happens in the night, in which case I’ll pursue my normal course of action of swearing at it, putting a pillow over my head, and going back to sleep.

Meanwhile I’m sailing more or less dead downwind with the breeze just off the port quarter. I’ve got the mizzen, main and working jib out downwind with the big drifter poled out to windward, which seems to give the boat a good balance and keeps us going nicely.

Not much else to report so it’s time for tea and biscuits on the lawn, after which I’ll get back to my sewing while I listen to some gentle chamber music, if I can find any on my iPod, otherwise it’ll just have to be more pounding techno 😉

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Day 26: trans-oceanic glider

Last night I suffered a similar problem to that which befell an Airbus crossing the Atlantic a while ago. Due to poor maintenance a hydraulic line rubbed against a fuel pipe, causing it to rupture mid-flight. The crew watched in horror as their fuel gauges steadily wound down to zero, then the engines stopped. This isn’t really what you want in the middle of the night halfway across the ocean. Incredibly they manged to carry out the longest-ever glide in an airliner of a hundred miles or so, and succeeded in landing on the only island in the area. I can’t remember which – it might have been one the Azores – but they only had one shot at it and thanks to their skill everyone survived.

OK, so my situation wasn’t quite as dire, but I’d noticed over the last couple of days that my fresh water pump didn’t stop cycling when I turned it on. Normally it’ll pressurize the system then stop, so this implied that I was losing pressure, and thereby water. That’s precisely the reason I don’t leave the pump on all the time, only turning it on when I want to run a tap, otherwise a small leak somewhere would rapidly drain my tanks.

Once again I had to go poking around in dark damp spaces, and eventually found that the steel steering cable had been rubbing against a copper water pipe until it wore right through it, hence the leak. Checking the whole steering system again I found that everything was fine with it, but the cable must have been aligned differently in order to have come into contact with the pipe, which was well-secured and didn’t look as though it had moved.

I can only surmise that perhaps that loose steering pulley which I fixed had actually come adrift ages ago, and by repairing it I moved the cable into a position where it could touch the pipe. I guess I’ll never know, but at least I found it before all my lovely fresh water was pumped into the bilge. Believe me, bilge water is not something you want to drink, even if very thirsty indeed!

So, another day, another maintenance issue. I’m really glad I spent so long getting to know the boat before setting sail as so far I’ve been able to find and fix everything that’s broken fairly easily, so let’s hope it stays that way.

Other than that the last day has been lovely, with the fresh south-westerly breeze strengthening during the night so we’re now charging along at 6-7 knots, making excellent progress in exactly the right direction. The sun is shining in a clear blue sky and the barometer has risen to 1031mb so I assume I’m now safely into the Azores high, a large area of high pressure which stretches from the Iberian peninsula to Bermuda and is a permanent feature of the North Atlantic, just edging slightly north or south depending on season.

The Azores are now the closest land, being just over 200 miles to the south-east of me, so if I wanted to I could be there in a couple of days. However with a perfect wind and France just over 1,400 miles ahead of me I see no need to stop. The lure of fine wines and smelly cheese is proving too strong to resist!

It’ll be strange seeing land again after so long at sea, in fact it’ll be strange seeing anything at all that isn’t blue. I haven’t seen a ship for a couple of days now, and still can’t believe I haven’t seen a single yacht since leaving Florida, but then one of my sailing books rather snootily comments that only a suicidal skipper would contemplate an ocean crossing in hurricane season. Hopefully I’m far enough east now to be clear of any more Irenes, but you never know…

Right, time for my siesta, then back to the sewing. Luckily I haven’t torn any more sails today so I think I’m slowly gaining on myself!

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Day 25: water music

Today has been one of those perfect sailing days – blue sky, calm sea, gentle breeze, and not a care in the world. OK, so the breeze could have been a little less gentle as we only managed 4-5 knots all day, falling to 3 this evening, but it’s been lovely just to loll around in the sun. It’s definitely one of the things I do best, and I model myself on the behaviour of the ring-tailed lemurs at Monkey World in Dorset. If you’ve ever been there then you’ll know what I mean as on hot days they just lie back on the grass with arms, legs and tails outstretched. You can just picture them in big sunglasses with cool drinks in one paw, letting the lazy summer days drift by.

Dusk somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean

However I haven’t been completely idle as there are still a lot of storm repairs to be done, primarily to the sails. I managed to put a little tear in the drifter as I was getting it up this morning so it seems I’m breaking things faster than I’m fixing them. I know how those Forth Bridge painters feel now!

My cross-stitch is coming along nicely now thanks to a patent ‘Awl For All (Made Proudly In America)’ with which I’ve been making rather crude repairs to the genoa today. It works well and I’m now up to around 2 feet per hour, so with another 10 feet to go I might just get it fixed before the next storm hits me.

My poor mizzen sail will need rather more attention I fear, so I’ll have to do a bit of reconstructive surgery rather than mere stitching. I think I may be able to cut a piece out of one of my sail bags to make a patch, but that’ll have to wait till the genoa’s finished. Meanwhile I’ve found that the storm jib does a passable impression of the mizzen, so I’ve now got my ketch rig back. Mind you, the boat didn’t seem to go any slower without it so maybe those sloop evangelists are right.

Thus passed a pleasant afternoon with me sewing peacefully in the cockpit. Well, peacefully if you don’t count the pounding hard house pumping forth from my speakers. I wonder if it’s ever been heard in these parts before? Somehow I doubt it.

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Day 24: a stitch in time

It’s a good thing I don’t write this diary just after I get up as I’m a bit of a grump in the morning until I’ve had my breakfast, particularly today. Last night, you see, was a bit of a nightmare.

It all started in the evening when I was trying to find the best course to sail for the night which would be closest to the direct route to France. It was cold and grey, and tipping down with rain which was dripping into the cabin through every orifice, so I was keen to get the boat settled for the night so I could have supper, watch a film, and crawl into the one reasonably dry bunk.

While tacking yet again in the feeble north-easterly the wheel suddenly jammed, so I gave it a bit of a heave upon which it jerked free and spun round and round. Oops, that’s not a good sign, I thought, and went below to take a look. The rudder is directly below the bunk in the aft cabin so I pushed aside the sodden bedding and saw to my horror that the steering cable had jumped off one of the pulleys and got jammed round the spindle.

In order to get it back on I had to unbolt the plate holding the pulley, and then remove the spindle and pulley so I could free the cable. This took an hour or so and was made very frustrating by the big swell which rocked the boat from side to side continually, sending me and my tools rolling across the cabin. Once I had it all back together and bolted it back in place something still wasn’t right as the cable was far too slack.

Tracing it back to the wheel meant removing lots of access panels and rummaging around in awkward little places like lockers behind toilets, and eventually I found another pulley which had broken free of it’s mountings. It was held in place by four bolts, three of which had broken, allowing the pulley to twist round and cause the cable to go slack, thereby jumping off the first pulley I’d worked on.

It must have taken a huge load on the rudder to cause such stress on the bolts, and was probably during the storm. Not having any bolts which were big enough I took one off each of two other pulleys, hoping the three remaining on each would be enough, and finally managed to get it all reassembled and working.

It took over three hours and by the end of it I was soaking wet as the aft cabin has more leaks than the Cabinet, all of which seemed to be concentrated exactly over the places I needed to work. Still, all’s well that ends well, and I was finally able to settle down with a meal and film at midnight.

On retiring for the night I left Alan in control as he has his own independent means of moving the rudder, so it meant there would be very little stress on the cable and pulleys. I definitely didn’t want to have to fix it again in the early hours! We set off into the darkness doing about 5 knots in the gentle breeze.

Around 4am I was awoken to find the wind had changed and the boat had tacked itself and was now stalled, just bobbing in the swell. Being a miserable old git when faced with such nonsense I just swore at it briefly and went back to bed, deciding we could stay where we were for the night.

This morning I rose to find things looking much better with the sun shining, the barometer risen to the giddy height of 1029 millibars, and a gentle breeze from – wait for it – the south-west! At last, back to the settled trade wind conditions I’ve been waiting for.

Since then I’ve been a busy bee as I found that a bolt had fallen off one of the mounting brackets of the Monitor and the pendulum lines were chafing, so I fixed that and got it back in action. Then I got all the sodden bedding, cushions and clothing out on deck to dry, so Odyssey now has a distinct trailer-park look to her with sundry tattered garments flapping from the railings.

Drying my cereals and stitching the genoa in the cockpit

Finally I took down the genoa (that’s the big sail at the front for you landlubbers), got out my needle and thread, and set to work trying to repair the tears in it. This is going to take a couple of days so in the meantime I’m using the drifter, which I will replace this evening with the working jib in case the wind gets up in the night.

So, although it’s been a testing 24 hours and we’ve made precious little progress at least I feel I’m a real sailor as I’ve been fixing things, drying things, and sewing sails. Ooooar me hearties! I definitely intend to splice the mainbrace tonight 🙂

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Day 23: English summers & Chinese charts

I’ve been lucky enough to have had over four months of wonderful summer weather in Fort Lauderdale so it’s all been a bit of a shock these last few days when I’ve had to dig out a pair of trousers and even a jumper to ward off the cold. I’ve definitely left the sub-tropics behind and it’s noticeably cooler up here at the heady latitude of 40 degrees north.

Since Irene passed us by on Thursday it’s been cold, grey and wet, pretty much like England in August. It’s rained or drizzled virtually non-stop so everything that got soaked in the storm is still just as damp, including me. My only consolation is that despite my best efforts we seem to be being pushed inexorably southwards again towards warmer climes, so perhaps I will be seeing the sun again before too long.

The wind has now died and we’re drifting gently south-east, pretty much as the Chinese treasure fleet did in the 1420’s after exploring the eastern seaboard of the US. They were the first to discover the clockwise rotation of wind and currents in the Atlantic, which is how Columbus actually knew about it before he set off to ‘discover’ America, having come across an old map showing the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico along with remarkably accurate charts of north and south America.

What the Chinese hadn’t at first realised was that the Gulf Stream flows strongly up the east coast of the US before heading out into the Atlantic until about where I am now, where it divides into the North Atlantic Current which goes north-east towards the UK, and the Azores Current which turns to the south-east.

In case you’re wondering why I’m rabbiting on about the Chinese explorers of old, it’s due to an excellent book by Gavin Menzies called ‘1421’ which my father recently gave me and which has totally changed my outlook on the European navigators such as Columbus, Magellan, de Gama, Cook et al, all of whom apparently knew exactly where they were going thanks to said Chinese charts. The Emporer of China had sent out great treasure fleets of enormous junks in 1421 manned with thousands of sailors, with the intention of charting the entire world and inviting it’s citizens to join the Chinese in trade.

His admirals did precisely that and charted every single continent, from the edge of Antarctica to the far north of Greenland, with at least five different fleets going off in different directions. However on their return they found that foreign policy had changed and China decided to close it’s borders to the world, so most of the evidence of the voyages was destroyed. Luckily some of the charts found their way to Europe, hence the voyages of Columbus and friends, who were all actually simply following someone else’s directions.

Although all of this is still open to some debate the basis of it does seem to be true, with evidence of Chinese settlements from around the world dating back to this time, and several wrecks of enormous junks found where they should never have been, such as Australia, South America, and the Bahamas. The book also comes up with the only plausible explanation for the mysterious sunken stone roads in the Bimini Islands, which some had previously claimed to have been made by aliens.

Anyway, enough of a history lesson, fascinating though it may be, for unless the westerlies return soon I too will go drifting by the Azores in a few days, although I don’t intend to land there as I’m determined to make it non-stop to France. Meanwhile there’s not much to do other than eat, sleep, read and watch films, and just hope the sun returns soon.

By the way, going back to Irene for a moment, I discovered that my wind instruments recorded a maximum of 60 knots which is officially Force 11 – Violent Storm, just one step below Force 12 – Hurricane!

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Day 22: mopping up Irene’s mess

Last night was pretty uncomfortable at first as the wind died but the enormous swells took much longer to subside, so the boat rolled horribly until the early hours. It didn’t help that what little wind there was kept changing it’s mind on where to blow so I kept having to rush up on deck to change the set of the sails or fiddle with the autopilot.

In the end I did what I usually do and just left it to do what it wanted while I slept. I have the utmost respect for solo racing types like Ellen MacArthur and Pete Goss but honestly can’t imagine myself ever doing what they do. If the wind shifts they immediately rush up on deck all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, tweaking a sail here or tightening a line there to squeeze the last fraction of a knot out of the boat.

I’m afraid I really can’t be bothered as it’s all far too much like hard work and besides I’m in no rush. France isn’t going anywhere for the time being and I’ll get there in my own good time, thank you. The thing I dislike most about this trip is the constant interruptions to my sleep from the boat which always seems to want attention at the most inconvenient times. I think next time I’ll be done with it and buy a nice big Sunseeker complete with marble bathrooms, shag pile carpets, and an attentive crew in little white uniforms. It’ll whisk me across the oceans at 40 knots and I won’t have to do a thing.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I’ve spent the morning trying to make a start on tidying up after Irene. The first job was to get all the bilge water out of the fridge. Yuk! I didn’t know it was there till I poured the milk onto my morning cereal and it smelt suspiciously of diesel and rancid socks. I’m no cook but even I know that’s not right, and further investigation revealed a scummy tidemark around my beer and cheese. It seems there’s a drainage pipe from the bottom of the fridge into the bilge so any spillages don’t linger, but with the influx of water yesterday combined with some silly angles of heel it all came gushing upwards.

After that I tried to make some of the hatches a bit more watertight as most of them still leak, despite my efforts to do it before I left. It seems the sealant I used at the advice of the boatyard is not up to the job and is not flexible enough to cope with the inevitable movement of the boat, so has cracked and come away in places. I can’t do much about it out here so plastered masses of good old duct tape all over everything.

The bedding in both main cabins is soaking wet but luckily the little crew cabin seems to have escaped the floods, so I’m sleeping in there now. It’s got a brass plate over the door saying ‘Captain’s Quarters’ so I feel very grand as I retire to my personal cabin at night. I haven’t yet decided which of the passengers to invite to dine at my table tonight so will leave them to sweat it out till the last minute before I end their misery. Mind you, the only bona fide passengers are Clarence the dog and a small plastic fairy called Anne, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of inviting any stowaway cockroaches to dinner unless of course they were dressed appropriately

Progress today is slower but at least we’re still heading in vaguely the right direction, despite an annoying north-easterly when I was hoping for a westerly. These so-called trade winds are very fickle so I can’t imagine how they ever came to get their name. It’s surprising any trade ever made it over the Atlantic in the days of sail unless all the ships were captained by Elene MacArthur and her ilk. Meanwhile I’ll just carry on ambling across the pond at my own leisurely pace, taking in the scenery as I go.

Oh, and before I forget, I’m afraid I claimed my first roadkill victim today. In Florida I seemed to have a thing for squashing iguanas beneath my wheels, and now the fish are leaping out of the water and committing suicide when they see me approach. Yes, today I found my first ever flying fish on deck. Sad little thing it was too, all slender and fragile with long wings and big eyes. Too small to fry (even for a vegetarian) so I donated him back to the food chain.

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Day 21: lucky escape

Big waves and ripped mizzen

Well, I’ve just been as close to the eye of a hurricane as I ever want to, thank you, and have survived to tell the tale. Yesterday afernoon I was feeling apprehensive but a little bit smug at the same time as I was managing to keep up about 7 knots, nearly as fast as Hurricane Irene who was hot on my tail.

Little did I know that she suddenly caught scent of me (fragrant as ever, of course) and started galloping towards me at 30 knots. The first I suspected was at dusk when the sky was a very odd colour indeed, all golden and pale and shimmering with strange cloud patterns. I’m not too hot on clouds, rather like birds and fish, and really only know the nice fluffy white ones that drift lazily overhead on pleasant summer afternoons or those ominous dark ones that make me think “Hmm, that doesn’t look good” seconds before being hit by a blinding squall.

The only time I’ve seen a sky like that was back in July in Fort Lauderdale when a hurricane swept up past the tip of Florida into the Gulf Of Mexico, so I was a little nervous. Putting a reef in the main and winding in some of the genoa seemed prudent, and it was none too soon as within an hour of nightfall the wind was up from 20 to 30 knots and still rising, with large swells coming from the south.

By midnight it was blowing a near gale and was very rough indeed, so I resigned myself to a night of no sleep and tried at least to rest in the aft cabin where I was tossed hither and thither all night. (Quiet at the back, please, Nigel…)

Around 6am I heard a rather horrid combination of sounds which was a kind of demented howling and whip-cracking. Rushing up on deck half expecting to see some kind of demonic dominatrix brandishing a cat-o-nine-tails I instead saw a scene of utter mayhem. The sea was a mess of enormous crashing breakers and horizontal spray, the sky was leaden grey, and the sails were flogging themselves to bits with the wind gusting over 45 knots, which is well into gale territory.

I hauled myself along the deck to the mast and managed to get a second reef in the main, noticing to my horror that the block holding the first reef had given way and was about to let go completely. Lucky I got there in time. I also saw that the rigging on the leeward side was all loose so immediately rigged the inner forestay and grabbed a couple of wrenches to tighten all the bottle-screws.

By now waves were breaking over the foredeck so I really didn’t want to go up there again to rig the storm jib, and besides I couldn’t furl up the whole genoa as the wind was too strong, so I left out the remaing 25% or so. Next on the list was the mizzen sail which had suddenly started to shred itself below the first reef point. I tried to reef it but the torn bits just flapped around, threatening to rip all the way up the sail, so I dropped it completely.

Finally getting back to the cockpit for a breakfast of Red Bull and cookies I realised that all this had taken nearly 3 hours, but we were more or less under control again, surfing down the 15-foot swells at 8 knots with the wind on our starboard quarter. Once inside I fired up the laptop and managed to download the latest hurricane update from NOAA and was relieved to find that Irene was now safely veering up to the north-east, exactly as I had hoped and predicted. However due to her sudden spurt in speed she came a lot closer than I would have liked, getting to within about 150 miles at around 8am this morning by my reckoning.

Reasonably satisfied that all I had to do now was ride out the storm till it passed I tried to find a dry spot to lie down. Waves kept breaking over the deck with solid blue water crashing over all the hatches, which promptly let most of it in. At one stage the cabin was ankle-deep in water sloshing around, and twice I had to pump the bilges dry. Of course the electric pump never works when you need it so once again my right arm got plenty of exercise.

I finally crawled into my nest in the crew cabin and got a couple of hours rest before lunch, then came back up to survey the damage as the wind was starting to subside a little. There’s nothing too serious but lots of chafed ropes, torn sails, twisted blocks, and of course far too many leaks. Things are calming down a lot now as the afternoon wears on and we’re down to about a F6, coming round to the SW, although the swells are still huge with the occasional unwanted deluge of water over the decks and into the cockpit.

One good thing to come out of all this is that I have made excellent progress over the last couple of days and am delighted to announce that I’m now just over halfway through my voyage with 1,900 miles to go. I can’t believe I’ve come 2,000 miles but certainly hope I don’t get any more hurricanes!

Right, it’s definitely belated siesta time now, so I’m going to ignore the mess and crawl back into my hole. Night all!

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