Yacht Fathom - Setting off from England in May 2016 on a single-handed voyage somewhere a bit warmer

Archive for August, 2019

Fernando de Noronha to Grenada

The island of Fernando de Noronha is situated about 350km off Brazil’s north east coast and is a popular destination for Brazilian tourists seeking beautiful beaches and diverse sea life. Despite this it is not overly popular with visiting yachts for two main reasons I discovered after arriving. Firstly the anchorage is incredibly rolly and quite deep at 11 to 12 metres. Secondly, I hadn’t been prepared for quite how expensive it was to check in – over £100 for a 2 day stay. Ouch! After pumping up the dinghy on the morning of the 26th March the outboard wouldn’t start so I performed the old trick of draining the carburettor via the bleed screw with a screw driver and it then roared to life. Once ashore at the harbour office the check in formalities and clearance into Brazil was nice and relaxed, so relaxed in fact that the Port Captain offered me coffee and cake. I guess I should have expected that for the extortionate check in fees. He didn’t speak a word of English so we communicated via typing into Google Translate on his computer. I learnt from the Port Captain that the authorities have a strict limit of only 450 visitors per day but visiting yachts are not included and he then went on to tell me that to visit the nicest beaches would incur a further cost of about £50 for a permit. I’ve been lucky to see a lot of nice beaches in the last three years so sod that.

 

It was a good 30 minute walk to get to the town. I found an ATM to withdrawal some Reals, the Brazilian currency and found some wifi and grabbed a bite to eat. I then found a lady that could do some laundry for me the next day. With so much motoring required to power through the calms on the way from Saint Helena, Fathom was low on diesel but with the forecast showing the North East trades only about 150 nautical miles to the north, I figured that I only needed to buy 40 litres to get me through. It was a hassle to fill the cans up at the fuel station half way up the hill and get a taxi back to the harbour so I only went once. This would prove to be a mistake. The outboard then failed to start again and to my dismay I realised the screwdriver I had left in the dinghy for such an event had been stolen. I managed to borrow one off a charter catamaran to bleed the carb and get the engine going again so I could get back to Fathom in the anchorage, a long way away.

My task the following day was to fill up the water tanks. The town water was not safe to drink so I was forced to buy 6 x 5 gallon bottles from the supermarket and then get a taxi back to the harbour. The ramp down to the pontoon was currently being rebuilt so it was quite a task to carry each bottle down a steeply inclined single plank. It proved too much for my wobbly sea legs and I managed to drop one bottle down onto the pontoon which then promptly exploded and that was 5 gallons lost. Then with the remaining five bottles in the dinghy I got back to Fathom in the anchorage and in the process of unloading them on to a very rolly boat managed to drop one into the cockpit which also exploded and another 5 gallons lost to the sea. On the plus side the cockpit did get a nice fresh water rinse. The whole episode was not one of my finest moments. I also got the laundry done and found a few items of fresh food at the supermarket but the choice was very poor, not unsurprising so far from the mainland. The larger downind jib that I had hoisted onto the furler in Cape Town was lowered and replaced with the standard Yankee foresail in preparation for some stronger winds on the beam north of the doldrums. The last task was to swim around the boat to check the hull and propeller which were surprisingly clean. It had been a short and not particularly great stopover but a necessity for water and fuel. On the morning of 28th of March it was time to set sail again – destination Grenada, 2000 nautical miles to the north west.

 

The first afternoon at sea was in a calm once again so we motored all afternoon and through the first night. I was awoken at 23:30 by the radar alarm that had detected a target closeby and after rushing on deck could just make out the lights of a vessel which was displaying no AIS or radar signal. I kept an eye on it as we passed each other very close thankful that the radar alarm had done it’s job and woken me up. Little did I know at this point that vessels passing close in the night would be a theme of this leg of the voyage.  Sleep was hard to come by for the rest of the night as the radar alarm kept going off, triggered by passing rain showers. In the morning I turned the engine off and tried to sail but the cruising chute wouldn’t even fill. I couldn’t wait to reach the north east trades and leave the hot and humid calms in my wake. The next night the same thing happened and I was woken by the radar alarm during a nap. Again, I watched a fishing vessel pass very close and then found it hard to switch off and sleep. The latest weather forecast wasn’t good news and I could not believe that now the doldrum belt was moving northwards with me! I just couldn’t reach the NE tradewinds that were so tantalisingly close. After so much motoring from Saint Helena and with several days of calms still ahead Fathom was critically low on diesel. Why didn’t I buy more in Fernando?!  On the last day of March and the 3rd day at sea the radar alarm went off again, this time triggered by a huge tanker 5 miles off the starboard beam with no AIS signal. I called them on the VHF to let them know their AIS wasn’t working and they replied saying they were sorry and were trying to fix it. Not good for my stress levels.

 

On the 1st of April Fathom crossed the equator and was back in the northern hemisphere again. It wasn’t really a time for celebration as the rain was torrential with very poor visibility. A brief puff of wind in in the middle of the day temporarily allowed some sailing before it died once more by sunset. I calculated that I had enough diesel to run the engine through the night but at 07:00 the next day it would have to be turned off for good. I even tried whistling for the wind. Just after dark I could see the loom of a light on the horizon which grew steadily brighter. Peering around the sprayhood in the driving rain I could eventually make out it was a fishing trawler but it’s course was erratic and we were getting close. Eventually after I had changed course a couple of times she disappeared astern. Tired and a bit fed up I dropped back into my bunk longing for some wind, a Caribbean rum and the end of this long sea passage.

 

The next morning, at long, long last, the breeze began to fill in from the East North East and I can’t tell you the relief in turning the loud engine off and feeling the motion of the boat as the wind pushed her along once again. All of a sudden I felt great, there was 1 knot of current boosting our speed, I began to relax and even baked a cake to celebrate. The next day continued in the same vain and all was good. Then at 01:00 on the 4th April all hell broke loose. 30 knots of wind from the north barrelled into Fathom out of nowhere and torrential rain hammered down on her decks. I jumped out of my bunk, stripped off and put on my harness before heading out on deck to reef the sails, a real battle in the conditions. I headed Fathom off downwind as I struggled to install the 4th reef in the main. The wind direction and our NW course to Grenada meant upwind sailing for the first time in forever and it was a long night. By sunrise conditions had begun to moderate and I shot some footage on the GoPro As Fathom slammed into the waves. The forecast had only indicated 15-20kts when actually gusts were 35kts or higher and it had been a bit of a shock to the system.

 

Thankfully over the next days conditions improved, a nice 15 -20 knot wind set in on the beam and speeds increased with a strong current pushing Fathom to the north west. A messy swell made the motion a bit uncomfortable but we were sailing so I didn’t care. On the 7th April as Fathom closed on the coast of French Guyana a new record 24hr daily run under sail of 152 nautical miles was achieved which was smashed again the following day with 167 nautical miles! Pretty impressive for a 28 foot boat even with 2.5kts of current giving a helping hand. I very much doubt Fathom will ever have a better 24 hours again. In the night, yet again, the radar alarm detected vessels very close and I was on full alert. At one point I was tracking a target on the radar only half a mile abeam yet as I stared out into the blackness I saw nothing. It was eerie and very unsettling knowing there was a boat so close showing no lights or AIS signal. I couldn’t switch off and sleep was hard to come by. The remaining miles to Grenada seemed to tick down slowly and I found myself monitoring the eta a bit too obsessively. I was tired and felt fed up with long solo passages.

 

In the last of the evening light on the 11th April I could just make out the outline of Tobago on the horizon. I was keeping a wide berth and planning to approach Grenada from the east. Recently, due to the chaos in Venezuela the piracy risk around Trinidad and south of Grenada had been increasing sharply and only a couple of weeks before a yacht heading north to Grenada from Trinidad had been approached by a skiff with 4 armed men who attempted to board the yacht. The high sea state and the skippers evasive zig zag course had prevented the men from boarding but they had fired shots at the yacht which had pierced the hull. This was playing round in my mind as I stared at the horizon, imagining pirates speeding towards me and it was another long night with little sleep. I was very relieved to see the sunrise on the 12th April, my 16th day at sea and the lush green slopes of Grenada lay in front of Fathom. It was hard to believe that we had set sail from this island just over two years before, it really did seem like yesterday. A good 20 knot breeze picked up from astern and Fathom flew along as the last remaining miles flowed under the keel. I sat in the cockpit with my morning coffee and watched an excitable pod of dolphins playing in the bow wave. Jumping high in the air and diving forward they seemed to be leading Fathom back to the Spice Island and across our ground track from 2017. The sleepless nights and endless calms were soon forgotten, we had done it. Fathom and I had been a great team, I had cared for her and she had looked after me. We had circumnavigated the world!

Posted on 25 Aug in: at sea - 2019

Saint Helena to Fernando de Noronha

As I sailed away from Saint Helena I was sad to say goodbye but on the other hand looking forward to reaching Grenada and the Caribbean again. Only 3,500 nautical miles of sailing to go! Having said goodbye to my friends on ‘Plastik Plankton’ who were heading north back to Europe this next stretch would be done very much alone and as normal before a long passage, I was feeling a little apprehensive. To break up the passage to Grenada and to replenish the stores my intention was to stop at Jacare on the eastern bulge of Brazil, about 1700 nautical miles and two weeks of sailing.

 

The first few days were nice and relaxed, a low 1 to 1.5m swell and light breezes ranging from 12-15kts, just perfect. The trouble was despite the conditions I was finding it hard to settle into life at sea again and I continuously found myself counting down the miles and days to go. I had a sore throat and felt lethargic. As my friends Janneke and Wietze reminded me on an email one morning, “Don’t count the days, make the days count!”. Wise words and I told myself to cheer up. By the end of the first week the wind began to falter and on the night of the 18th March I was woken up by banging sails as Fathom wallowed in a calm. As the next few days ticked by in daylight hours I hoisted the cruising chute and we glided slowly north west and in the night hours had to resort to running the engine.  On days 12 and 13 there was enough wind to sail wing on wing again, the mainsail fixed out on one side of the boat and the headsail poled out on the other. With no vessels detected in the vicinity or squalls clouds overhead I was able to take the luxury of 3 hour sleeps overnight as the Aries windvane steered Fathom along in the blackness. As we continued towards the doldrums the temperature and humidity rose sharply and it was hot and sweaty in the cabin. On the 22nd a brief rain shower passed overhead, the first rain that had fallen on Fathom since leaving Cape Town.

 

The Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, or doldrums, is not located exactly over the equator and actually migrates north and south with the seasons throughout the year. It is a region where the South East tradewinds and the North East Tradewinds meet and is calm and very wet with frequent thunderstorms. I knew I would have to get through this area as quickly as possible and every couple of days would download a weather GRIB file via the satellite phone to check it’s current position. The forecasts showed the ITCZ was hovering just south of the equator and at a latitude just above the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha. At this point I decided to change plans and visit this island instead of sailing the further distance west to Jacare on the Brazilian mainland. The information I had onboard indicated I could obtain diesel and water at the island but it was expensive to check in so I would make only a short stop. By the 24th the wind began to falter again and by night it would die down to around 5kts meaning yet more motoring.  On day 14 I began to see many more birds in the sky and my spirits were lifted when the fishing line went tight that afternoon. I battled to pull in what turned out to be a 1m long yellow fin tuna which provided some much needed variation into my diet and breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next couple of days!  As the sun began to rise on my 16th day at sea I could make out the dramatic outline of Fernando de Noronha on the horizon. We were completely becalmed and after motoring all through the night I headed Fathom into the anchorage and the hook went down mid morning. My first time in Brazil.

Posted on 25 Aug in: at sea - 2019

Saint Helena

I had been looking forward to stopping at Saint Helena for a long time.  Measuring only 10 miles by about 5 miles and with a population of 4,500 it is one of the most remote islands in the world. It’s position in the South Atlantic make it a popular stop over for cruising yachts sailing between South Africa and Brazil/The Caribbean.  I was not disappointed and my ten day stay was hugely memorable and has become one of the many highlights of my whole voyage. With the new airport barely functional due to wind sheer issues the island is still one of very few destinations left on earth where as a visitor you get a certain respect from the locals for simply getting there. They know the distances involved to arrive by sea and enjoy welcoming us salty seadogs to their special island.

 

After arriving on the morning of the 2nd March, and once secure on the huge mooring buoy, I hailed the little ferry boat taxi which took me ashore along with the three crew of a 46ft Leopard Catamaran which had arrived an hour before me. The check in was simple and friendly and the customs lady even drove us up the hill in her official car to save us walking to the immigration building. A bit lazy really after sitting on a boat for 15 days but seemed rude to turn down such a nice offer. After the formalities were complete I was pleased and not unsuprised to discover the South African crew were in as much need of a cold beer and a burger as me so an enjoyable afternoon was had in company at Ann’s Place adjusting to land life again. It was quite strange to be paying for things in ‘pounds’  for the first time since 2016, Saint Helena pounds that is.  The island has it’s own currency which is fixed to the British pound and both are accepted on the island but only the local pounds can be withdrawn from the bank. Important not to withdraw too much local currency as trying to pay for anything in the UK with a Saint Helena pound would not prove successful and likely raise some strange looks.  After checking my emails on probably the most expensive internet connection anywhere, £6.60 for one hour, the last water taxi back to the moorings was at 17.30.  Probably a good thing and after the long passage and with the near sinking episode now a fading memory, I slept well that night.

 

Saint Helena can suffer from large swells from time to time throughout the year and it just so happened that my stay coincided with some of the biggest of the year. On the second day of my visit Fathom began rolling beam to beam on the mooring and it became quite uncomfortable onboard. Each day from 07:30 to 18:00 the little water taxi would run back and forth taking us cruisers to shore. It was just too dangerous to take in our own tenders which would likely be smashed to bits. To make disembarkation easier ropes hang down from an A frame at the quay and the idea is you swing out of the water taxi like Tarzan when it’s on the top of a wave. It was a bit of an eye opener for me and trying to get on and off while also passing across several 20 litre water cans called for some good co-ordination skills. It proved too much for the elderly lady crew on one of the yachts who let go of the rope too early and promptly fell into the water between the ferry and the quay. Luckily only a scraped leg and she was fine. For us sailors hoping for some flat calm after rolling around at sea for a couple of weeks we were in for some disappointment.

It was a little frustrating that due to some politics between two companies bidding for the water taxi contract the last ferry was 18:00 each day. But the South Africans and an American catamaran that pulled in were super friendly and for several evenings invited me over for beers and food and even provided a taxi service for me with their dinghy. As the weekend approached the swell was due to pick up even more and we were informed that it was unlikely that the taxi would be able to run the next day. Thankfully Hazel from the Consulate Hotel in town came to the rescue. When she has room she offers a heavily discounted rate of £50 per night inc full breakfast to yachties wanting a night off their boat. The thought of being trapped on a rolling Fathom for the weekend was too much so I said yes please to Hazel and enjoyed a night ashore. Before heading in I jumped over the side to attach a stronger mooring line to the buoy and in the process got stung by what I thought was a Portuguese man of war jelly fish. An agonising stinging rash appeared on my belly and once ashore my first words to Hazel were ‘hello, do you have any vinegar please’. By wiping this on the burns it soon subsided and in hindsight may have been instead a reaction to some poisonous seaweed that was growing on the mooring buoy. Anyway, Friday night turned out to be great fun. I enjoyed meeting some locals and a group of Brits who have been posted to the island for work. When they invited me to join them at the night club I thought they were pulling my leg. I still can’t believe there is a night club on Saint Helena.

 

 

Once my friends Kathi and Wolfi had arrived on their boat ‘Plastik Plankton’ we all took an island tour by an older local Robert who has been showing tourists around for over 30 years. He certainly kept us entertained with his stories and described how his father and grandfather used to make their living cultivating and processing flax for rope and string, something which is is no longer done here.  He drove us all over including stops at the ex-quarters of Napoleon Bonaparte who was imprisoned on the island between 1815 until his death in 1821 and we looked down at his now empty tomb. At the Governer’s house we caught a glimpse of Jonathan the tortoise,  aged 185 the oldest known living terrestrial animal in the world. We enjoyed great views over the capital Jamestown and from high in the lush green hills down over the barren rocks to the endless blue sea. The town of Jamestown itself is quite quaint with a number of small independent shops, the bank, a couple of hotels and the market building. One of the shops called Thorpe’s sells goods from Tesco and I can’t tell you how happy I was to find a Frey Bentos Steak and Kidney pie! The locals, or saints as they are known, talk English with a strange accent that sounds like a mix of Irish and Cornish and they never fail to smile and say hello while passing by.  A real test for the legs was climbing the 699 steps of Jacobs ladder which rises from the town to Ladder Hill Fort, 180m above. The ladder is all that remains of an old railway and my time of 12 minutes to get to the top didn’t get close to the world record time of 5 minutes and 17 seconds set by a Scot in 2013.  With that speed the fella clearly hadn’t arrived by sailing boat.

 

The most amazing experience on Saint Helena was swimming alongside Whale Sharks. I had enjoyed a very brief encounter with one in Madagascar but this was on another level. It is now believed that Saint Helena is one of the main breeding grounds for Whale Sharks in the world because equal numbers of males and females are found here for a few months every year. A couple of licensed companies do tours and every effort is made to protect these creatures. What amazed me was how inquisitive they were, changing course and swimming towards us to check us out as we snorkelled close by. The sight of one of these 10m beasts swimming right at you with its huge metre wide mouth open does get the heart rate going but we were reminded that their throats are the size of a golf ball and they have tiny teeth so nothing to worry about! For me it was right up there with swimming alongside humpback whales in Tonga. How lucky have I been to have had these experiences.

 

 

After ten fantastic days on the island I was keen to get going and to get another long passage out of the way.  With the water and diesel tanks full and with a few Tesco goods filling the cupboards I let go the mooring on the 11th March and pointed the bow NW towards Brazil – 1,700 nautical miles away.

 

Posted on 22 Aug in: Saint Helena

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