SIDE-TRACKED ON THE WAY TO BARBADOS…
Although I have at least 5 half written blogs on the go, and a long list of excuses, I really feel the need to push this one to the top of the pile and share it. Our passage from Tenerife to Cape Verde was not an experience I would ever want to repeat but I/we learned a lot and it turned out to be a great preparation for our eventual Atlantic crossing, mentally more than anything but in practical terms too. Writing about this passage whilst it was fresh in my mind has certainly helped me to process and learn from the experience and to quickly take on board what I needed to prepare to move on and get my head into the right space. More on that later!
Day 1: Friday 26 Nov 2021
After confirming at 11pm last night that our insurance was all good to go (thanks James!) we woke early and with some nervous anticipation. The weather was better than yesterday, still cloudy but the wind was not howling and no sign of rain. It’s a cool 20C though so we have all the back clears down. We prepped to leave the marina berth, I called home and we headed across to the fuel dock to fill the tanks. Then we were off! Our first day was a baptism of fire with a bit of everything before lunch time. We motored initially and even put the fishing line out for a while. Had a huge pod of dolphins come to say farewell which was just fantastic. Then put the main up and gennaker coming into a rain squall. When the squall died so did the rain so the sails went away. The breeze seems to drop down when Keith and I are on which is frustrating. Lucky it did though because the 1st reef-line had come out of the sail and boom completely and after trying to feed a mouse-line through with the cable poker we gave up and used the 3rd reef-line to bring a new mouse line through the boom and take it and the 1st reef line back. Minutes later the breeze started building again and we needed to put the main up. Timing is everything!
The starboard engine MDI did not come on. This is now officially a recurring problem. Martin suggested some electrical spray onto the connectors and that, and a bit of jiggling, got it sorted. Coming to La Gomera we came into a weather front with 26kts (gusting 30kts) on the beam and a 2-3m short swell, which was really uncomfortable. ITIKI’s hull was taking a hammering and the noise was something else! Not to mention the cumin seeds taking a tumble out of the pantry and spilling all over the floor! 2nd reef went in for the first time since the Meltemi. We had to foot off which meant making the decision to go south of Hierro Island. The breeze and swell backed off considerably as we left La Gomera behind. From there we were dead downwind and goose-winged with the genoa and have shaken out the reefs. 2 reefs go back in for the for overnight watches though in case of squalls. Soni and Martin had the 6-midnight shift and were surfing at 12+kts. Soni valiantly cooked a delicious spag bol but sadly was the only one that couldn’t eat any. The swell is brutal, there are at least three patterns, and giving the boat and our nerves a beating!
Distance from departure at noon: 22nm
Day 2: Saturday 27 Nov 2021
10 mins after Keith came on watch the breeze had dropped from 14s to 6s and the frustration and flogging started. We tried chasing it for a while but we were heading too far south and finding nothing. At the start of my shift, at 3am, we re-looked at the forecast and decided we must have sailed into a wind hole, which was further north and lighter than we expected, so we gybed and slowly the pressure built until we had high teens/low 20s. We kept the apparents around 100-110 mark as we had a full genoa although 2 reefs in the main. It stayed consistent throughout my watch. Soni and Martin had some lighter breezes and shook out the reefs and changed to the gennaker. Today’s drama was when Martin noticed that small piece of the main sail track that you use to remove the cars, a section about 10cm long, had fallen off! He wasn’t sure if it hit the deck but I grabbed Keith and he found the missing piece in the lazy bag – phew! That could have been a major as dropping the main would mean losing the batten cars and bearings. Some time ago we found a mysterious grub screw inside the boat which we now know was from this part of the main track! Holy crap. Keith was able to refit the missing track and tighten everything back into place. Lucky it didn’t happen at night! Seas are still quite big (2-3m) and although the groundswell is longish (7-8 s) there is a fair bit of wind chop and cross swell on top of it so we continue to get smacked under the hull on a regular basis. Sometimes it sounds like an entire infantry battalion are running upside down under your bridge deck! It’s pretty unnerving. Weather has been fine, partly cloudy and temperatures in the low 20s. We changed our clocks to 1 hr earlier to fit with the timezone and each couple did an extra half hour on our shared watches to compensate. Winds were getting borderline for the gennaker so it has been furled around 3pm and 1 reef in the main for our night-time configuration. We are a little slower however it is much more comfortable. I slept very little yesterday, what with the swell and the creaking and adrenalin.
Distance from departure at noon: 176nm
Day 3: Sunday 28 Nov 2021
Came off watch at midnight and slept really well albeit on and off until 6am when Keith went back on watch. It was another very bouncy night in terms of the swell but we covered a lot of miles. The breeze has lightened somewhat but the swell remains quite big and with a counter chop coming from another direction. We goose-winged the genoa to try to come further south as the wind was taking us north. Making good progress. The boys have done a check of the rudders, engine mounts, RIB, life-raft and the main track that came out yesterday as everything has been shaken around. Martin has done something to his knee and it looks like he could have an infection so we have started him on broad spectrum antibiotics from our medical kit.
Distance from departure at noon: 372nm
Day 4: Monday 29 Nov 2021
We have come up on port tack and making our way south now, initially aiming to try and pick up some better winds or get into the trades. This also means Cap Verde remains a possible alternative port and we discuss this with Martin, whose knee is very red and hot. He consults his Dr overnight via sat. phone and the verdict is to head to Cape Verde. It should take us 3 days and we make the definitive turn to due South at 9:40am. Breeze is in the low to mid-20s with some gusts up to 30. The swell is on the beam and quite big and uncomfortable but not dangerous or slamming. We just have to ride this one out and hope Martin will be OK for the next couple of days until we can get him to a Dr. Unfortunately we don’t have the detailed charts for Cape Verde - so hopefully we will arrive in daylight. Keith went to retrieve the pennants on the mast, concerned that they might get caught in something and found the port Princess seat on the trampoline. That was screwed on pretty tightly in Leros so must have taken a big hit from a wave underneath to get it off. We had one rogue wave come over the top of the coach house and swamp the cocktail deck and helm station and gave us all a fright, particularly Soni who was on watch and got drenched.
Distance from departure at noon: 545nm
Day 5: Tuesday 30 Nov 2021
So this morning Keith was excited to find we had caught our first fish! Poor little beggar was lying on the cocktail deck in a state of rigor mortis. He was no bigger than the fish we were using as lures. He must have been tossed on board in the rogue wave that drenched Soni yesterday afternoon. Martin’s leg is looking worse if anything, not sure the antibiotics have been much use and his mobility is more limited. He will not be able to do watches tonight so the 3 of us split those. He has been advised to up the dose of antibiotics. We have been in touch with the marina and they are expecting us and will help with an ambulance if we need. We have a relatively calm afternoon so Keith decides to turn on the water-maker. This is one of the downsides of having the water maker in the foredeck hatch, he needs to clip on and go in there to do everything. We managed to fill the tanks but just as he goes back to turn everything off a wave hits us and swamps the locker and the fuse trips. I made a potato tortilla for dinner, Martin stayed in bed with his leg elevated overnight. The conditions remain pretty awful, but we have seen that ITIKI is performing well and we have kind of gotten used to the situation. A state of acceptance but certainly not enjoyment! It’s now a mission to just get there ASAP and get help for Martin.
Distance from departure at noon: 734nm
Day 6: Wednesday 1 Dec 2021
Keith had sustained gusts of low 30s for the second half of his watch and Soni for the first half of hers. Breeze had settled by the time I came on watch but the swell is at its worst. Still this awful cross swell and it just slams us unexpectedly. We are getting a fair bit of water over the port side and also lots of banging on the left side of the starboard hull and under the bridge deck. The belly button (aka cockpit drain) has turned into a geyser – Keith was standing on it when a wave came up underneath and he got a spray up the leg of his shorts! ITIKI continues to perform exceedingly well and now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, with just over 100nm to go at 9:30am. Martin made it out of bed mid-morning, feeling somewhat like the creature from the black lagoon – but also better for having rested his leg. Its not looking much better however, still very hot and swollen. He increases the antibiotic dose again.
Its now clear that at this pace we will be arriving at night, between midnight and 2am! It's a dark, moonless night. This is an unfamiliar and apparently wreck strewn harbour, some of the wrecks are not lit. We have no no internet to get Google Earth. Fortunately Martin had Open CPN and a GPS device on his computer. This was a godsend as he could at least provide Keith with bearings to get us past a large islet near the commercial port and into the marina area. It was a challenge to find the marina and fuel dock in the dark as it doesn’t have its own entrance or mole with navigation lights, it just sits in the corner of the harbour. The security guards were waiting for us expectantly and answered immediately on VHF, waving us into the fuel dock with their headlamps. The marina has floating docks without piles (just anchored to the seabed) and they are bouncing around incredibly in the strong winds. We manage to tie up and get settled. There was an ambulance waiting for Martin which the marina had organised. One of the young guys even gave Soni some local currency to get a taxi back to the boat. Soni and Martin returned a couple of hours later, having been given instructions to return to the hospital in the morning. Needless to say stiff drinks were in order. It was a stressful unpleasant and at times downright frightening journey - we are all very sleep deprived and running on adrenalin but we made it safely and help is at hand and that is what is important. We made the right decision to divert here, and some valuable lessons have been learned from the experience.
Distance from departure: 1016nm
So what lessons have been learned, re-learned or re-enforced.
1.Alternate destination planning
For each of our longer/overnight passages I have prepared a “Float Plan” (credits to SV Starry Horizons for their template). This plan details information about our boat and safety equipment, crew list, emergency contacts and planned voyage, including alternative destinations. It’s filed with our land based “safety coordinator” in Australia, who is our primary point of contact with AMSA should we set off our EPIRB. I had listed Cape Verde as an alternative destination, never giving any further thought to what a diversion there might look like. We are crossing the Atlantic, there really are no feasible alternatives and returning against the trade winds and swell would be pretty awful. We had talked about heading to Cap Verde for a week or so and departing for the Caribbean from there, as many cruisers, including one of the ARCs does. However as we had decided against it so we had not done any detailed research and had not purchased or downloaded the detailed charts for the area. Our chart plotter only had the base map for Africa zone, which is very basic. I did know there was a marina in Mindelo on the island of Sao Vincent, and some fellow cruisers had stayed there and used it as a base. We were able to contact them and get the email address for the marina, then make contact with the marina via Satellite (Iridium Mail) to arrange our arrival. Arrival in an unknown port can be challenging enough but when you are without charts, which show navigation lights & beacons, wrecks, rocks, currents and back eddies etc. well that really adds to your woes. So lesson #1 is to better research alternative destinations. Downloading google maps or google earth for the area, even screenshots and verbal descriptions would have been really helpful. As would emergency or marina contacts. Fortunately the arrival went smoothly.
2.Meals for first night out
The first night out can be tough, depending on how close to land you are the winds can be stronger in acceleration zones and seas can be lumpier close to land. Add to that any first night nerves - cooking a complex meal from scratch can be challenging and lead to sea-sickness or injury. Important to have something relatively light and easy ready to go, preferably one pot meal that can be eaten from a bowl at the helm if necessary. In fact for our “Take #2” there are several ready made meals already in the freezer!
3.Managing sea-sickness – no heroics
Like I said the first night out can be challenging after being in a marina or anchorage for a few days. Rough conditions and/or first night nerves can challenge the strongest stomachs and on a dark night when the horizon is gone it is even more difficult. Hopefully not everyone is affected, Keith and I have well and truly gotten our sea legs over the last 6 months but there are no guarantees on that score. If a crew member is badly affected they will need time out of the watch system to get it under control. That may mean taking medication and/or taking some time out to sleep it off without the pressure of having to do a night watch. Day watches however are usually beneficial if they are up to it. It's not wise to try to soldier on and even cook meals. It doesn’t really do anyone any favours to prolong the adjustment time.
4.Thank goodness for Satellites
We had the IridiumGO installed when we commissioned ITIKI but have never actually connected it or subscribed to a service. I bought 5 SIM cards from PredictWind (a NZ company) when we were back in Australia and activated our first subscription in Gibraltar. I chose an unlimited data package so I would not have the extra stress of counting how many minutes I have used downloading weather files etc and am so pleased I paid the extra for this. Can you imagine trying to coordinate a rescue, calling emergency services etc and then running out of credit??! Importantly, having local marina contact details and emergency contacts for the arrival port and alternative destinations would be really useful to prepare in advance.
5.ITIKI is a great boat!
We have done over 10,200 nm in ITIKI since she was launched. While we obviously try to avoid going out in adverse conditions we do sometimes find things are not as forecast and we face some challenges. Strong winds, big seas etc. The trip down from the Canaries was by far the most challenging conditions mainly because they were sustained for so long. Having seen how the boat performed really did re-enforce for us how well built and solid she is. She sails well even in reefed down conditions. Whilst the waves and swell might knock her around she rarely rounded up, coping very well with constant adjustments by the hardworking autopilot. Our confidence in her has just continued to grow and we feel well attuned to her performance.
How do we move on from this?
We were pleased to be able to get Martin safely to Mindelo and into the expert care of the Medico Centro and Dr Carlos. We had of course hoped that a few days on IV antibiotics would have seen him ready to resume the journey, but sadly it was not to be. The recovery would be a lot longer and we all agreed that the risk, not only to Martin but to all of us, was too great to continue. This was indeed a heavy blow, albeit not entirely unexpected. The reality of our situation starts to sink in. So here we are in Cape Verde, a small island archipelago off the coast of Africa. The last staging post for an Atlantic crossing. We have lost our very experienced and highly regarded crew and dear friends. We were sleep deprived, stressed, shell-shocked after the horrendous journey down from the Canaries and left very much wondering WTF do we do now?! Keith has injured his shoulder in the fall off the boat onto the dock, and will eventually need surgery. Personally, I was feeling a lot of self-doubt and anguish. The ARC had reported to several yachts abandoned, including one death. We were not the only boat who diverted to Cape Verde unexpectedly either, with one of our dock mates reporting having been contacted by a cargo ship and being advised to divert due to adverse weather conditions. Various other boats reporting damage, gear failure, crew sickness or just having a shit time. What on earth made me think I could do this?!
So we try to turn our minds to Plan B and for me it’s a steep climb out of a big hole to get to where I need to be mentally to restart our journey. Our options are fairly limited, but still there are always options. It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas, preparations for the Sydney to Hobart would be in full swing and everyone already has plans in place so getting sailing friends or indeed anyone experienced from Australia to join us for an impromptu Atlantic crossing would be highly unlikely, although we did explore this anyway. We also explored the idea of professional crew based in Europe, however at this time of year they are in high demand and obviously expensive. It would be a long wait for either option.
While we had been approached on the docks in Canary islands by numerous people with varying skills and experience, looking for crew/passenger positions to cross the Atlantic, we were now in Cape Verde and there were a lot less people looking. At that time I remember thinking to myself, who in their right mind would take a stranger off a dock, onto their boat and across the Atlantic, to another country…
Another complicating factor - as lovely, competent and caring as the Marina staff were, as well run as it is - the Marina itself was untenable in the conditions we experienced. We had gusts up to 30kts coming down into the harbour and the floating docks just bounced and swung more than anywhere I have ever seen. Steel springs, snubbers and mooring lines have been broken and cleats ripped out here. Keith had already injured his shoulder because of this. Also the stress on the boat of the constant snatching and jerking 24 hours a day made it hard to sleep or even relax. This is not a place you could leave a boat for any length of time. However this issue is one that is within our control and we decided to go and anchor out in the bay. Finally we can get a good night’s sleep, think clearly and hopefully get some plans together.
I check the various crew finder sites and FB groups and the marina notice board and send out a few messages. We make contact with Alana, a young Dutch girl who came down from the Canaries in the same shitty conditions we did. Her boat decided not to continue on the crossing at this time so she moved into a hostel and waited. We met up and talked and after some initial hesitancy we decided she would be a good fit for us. Keith and I talked a lot about our experience, how the boat had performed and how we had handled our journey so far. We realised (well mainly it was me who needed convincing) that we could actually do the crossing with just the two of us. It would be tough, it would be long, it would be tiring but we could do it. Many couples do long crossings two up, but an extra pair of hands would mean sharing chores, extra rest and extra sleep, which would be a bonus. The weather was settling and the window opening up. Several boats were planning a Saturday departure and this was looking good for us too. And so the three of us, Keith, Alana and Lynda, would set off for Barbados...
Lynda is slowly getting used to the transition from working to not working and racing to cruising.