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

Archive for May, 2020

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Antigua to the Azores – Part 3

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3rd Update – From Horta: 28th May 2020

The final days to Horta, after my last update on the 22nd May, turned into a race against time to beat strong northerly winds. I had a feeling that the SE winds would fail before I arrived and sure enough the new forecast on the 23rd indicated some calms and then 20 to 25kt headwinds would arrive with a punch in the early hours of the 27th, my ETA @ 5kts was a few hours later at 06:00 the same day. Typical. At this stage there were about 460 miles to go and I calculated I had about 300 miles worth of diesel left. In the meantime, with 12 to 15kts of good wind still blowing, I went into full speed mode with Fathom lapping up the miles under full main, yankee and staysail. Just after downloading the depressing weather forecast I was on the head, sending a package off to sea as my Dad used to say, but while pumping it on its way the discharge hose jammed up. This is due to calcium build up inside, it happens every so often, but the timing could have been better. Without taking it all apart there was no chance of getting it working again so bucket and chuck it for the timebeing. A method that is always reliable!

 

The 24th started with a beautiful sunrise but it appeared far too early for my liking at around 04:30 so I put the boats clock forward an hour to UTC -2. I realised that I should have done this a few days earlier and still had 2 more hours to catch up before making landfall in the Azores as they are on UTC time zone for the summer. A French yacht appeared on the AIS, also bound for Horta, and as we got close we had a chat on the radio. They were friendly but told me rather pompously that I should be sailing under a gennaker and not with two headsails. I replied that this configuration had worked pretty well for the last 35,000 miles to which they didn’t have much of an answer! To my surprise my old uni mate Barney, the Captain of J-Class yacht Velsheda, then called me up after overhearing my conversation. He asked if I needed anything and we exchanged positions. Unfortunately they were 15 miles to windward of me and our paths were not converging. A shame as a rendezvous with Velsheda at sea would have been quite the photo opportunity.

Later that day the breeze began faltering and as the speed dropped the ETA slipped and my thoughts increasingly focused on how unpleasant it would be to bash to windward for the last 50 to 100 miles, making slow, uncomfortable progress to Horta. There were now around 300 miles to go so I decided to motor-sail to improve speed. I am always reluctant to use the engine but there are times when it makes sense and this was one of them. But oh no, not again. It wouldn’t start! Same problem as before, just a click from the starter motor. I linked the house battery bank which had worked the last time but still just a click. Shit! Floating around in a calm waiting for headwinds nearly called for a glass of rum but one last try. It reluctantly started. With Fathom now making 6kts towards Horta I decided to stick to coffee for the timebeing. A little later, while clearing yet more weed trapped on the self steering paddle, I noticed some rope trailing behind the boat. Not my rope and despite my best efforts with the boat hook I couldn’t free it. Only one thing to do, jump over the side. With the wind calm, I dropped the sails, put on my snorkel and mask, tied myself on to the boat and after a good look for any Portuguese Man of War jumped in. I have dived into the ocean a few times over the last years and everytime it is a surreal feeling to leave the safety of the boat and have thousands of metres of water beneath my feet while wondering what hungry sea creatures are looking at me and licking their lips. It didn’t take long to unwrap the rope from one of the propeller blades and I was back onboard within a minute or so. With the water temp now around 21 deg C it was certainly refreshing and in hindsight actually nice to have a free bath! After an eventful day things ended well when a pod of dolphins approached to say hello just as the sun set. I spent a good hour on deck watching them play around in the bow wave which is always entertaining.

 

The wind remained light out of the SE during the 25th, too light to sail with any great speed, so in fear of the engine never starting again, I continued to motor-sail. With the help of a little current pushing Fathom to the NE we maintained a good speed of 5.5 to 6kts. The ETA started to look good again but it remained touch and go whether we would arrive before the headwinds. Today it was the time for a visit from some small porpoises but they were shy and didn’t accept my request for some jumps. The weather became very unstable with some strange looking clouds and rain showers. I decided to bake another loaf of bread and hoped it would be better than the last one which had not risen very much and had tasted a bit odd. While kneading the dough I noticed that the ‘grains’ in the multigrain flour were actually moving. Weevils! The flour was infested with them. Somehow while making the previous loaf I hadn’t noticed. No wonder it had tasted strange but I guess I should be thankful for the extra protein consumed.

 

I continued to motor sail into Tuesday the 26th, and with about 5 to 6 kts of wind on the beam, and half a knot of useful current, Fathom raced along at over 6 knots. I now knew I could reach harbour before the N winds arrived at 03:00 later that night, and spent a relaxed day cleaning up the cabin and reading. I also decided to give my unruly seabeard a trim and make my appearance a little more presentable, not that there was any chance of socialisng off the boat on arrival, let alone ashore. Feeling productive I even decided to try and unblock the toilet discharge hose which proved to be a messy mistake and I regretted that shortly afterwards. Definitely a job to undertake in a non rocking boat in the anchorage! 10 miles from Horta, with daylight fading and in a complete calm, I could just make out the volcanic peak on the island of Pico and sat on deck with a cup of tea watching Storm Petrels swooping around the boat and gliding between the swells. After a somewhat tense race to arrive in time it was a nice relaxed finale.

I got the anchor down just before 22:00 local time. It had been good to exchange messages with Ben and Caroline on ‘Balou’ and Tim and Gayle on ‘WildBird’ before I arrived and nice to chat with friendly faces as I entered the anchorage. Overall it had been a fast passage from Antigua at an average speed of around 5kts. I had avoided the gale and the bad conditions in the NE ridge but that had meant plenty of calms and motoring. I think I made the best choice overall. I felt sorry for Greg on ‘Nebula’ and other yachts still at sea that would not make landfall before the headwinds set in, it would be a long slog for them. After attempting to sail to the Azores from the UK in 2016, and failing, it felt great to have finally made it four years later. I guess you could say I took the long route to get here. The anchor beer(s) tasted oh so good.

Posted on 28 May in: at sea - 2020

Antigua to the Azores – Part 2

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2nd Update from Sea: 22nd May 2020
32deg10’N 036deg06’W

Fathom is currently 575 nautical miles from Horta and 1,656 nautical miles from Antigua. The second week at sea has been all about taking the ‘low’ road not the ‘lo’ road! Although I have faced no direct issue from Tropical Storm ‘Arthur’, which is currently N.E of Bermuda, it has been playing havoc with the weather systems in the North Atlantic and has meant my path towards the Azores has been more of a dog leg rather than the more conventional arc to the north.

 

After a fantastic first week of sailing, I reached 30degreesN on the 14th May, day 9 at sea, and that evening a weather front swept overhead introducing some cooler and less humid air with a wind shift to the west, then north, and then north east before it veered back to the south east 36 hours later. It was frustrating facing some headwinds but after so long lazy sailing in the trades probably about time I worked for some miles. The worst part was the drop in temperature which forced me to wear a T-shirt and sleep under a blanket at night. I don’t imagine I’m going to get much sympathy for this but it was a bit of a shock. A total calm then descended for the next day and a half so I decided to use the engine instead of listening to the maddening sound of banging sails as Fathom rolled in the swells. Queue a mildly stressful moment when the engine refused to start, just a click of the solenoid. It turned out to be the start battery which is on the way out but thankfully I can start the engine by linking in the house battery bank. All ok unless It gets too low on charge so I’m being careful. I celebrated passing the halfway mark on the 16th by breaking my no alcohol at sea rule and enjoyed a cold beer at sunset to mark the occasion.

 

Looking ahead I could see from the weather forecast, and was also warned by friends ashore, that there were two threats lurking. The first was a large low pressure system that was deepening and looking increasingly nasty. It’s direction of travel to the east was converging with mine so I made the decision to alter course and put some distance between it. It was a pain losing miles to the south but I wanted to err on the side of caution. On the plus side the detour meant I qualified for another halfway beer as miles had been added on to the total distance and I passed half way again! I continued to sail on a south easterly course on the 17th and that night, as I was on deck in full wet weather gear in torrential rain, I realised it was the first time I had dressed up like this since sailing down the South African coast in December 2018. Still heading to the south east on the 18th and 19th, losing latitude all the while, and a little frustrated at having to endure more very light conditions and lots of motoring. Just as I was getting a bit concerned about the low diesel reserves a Norwegian yacht, ‘Ocean Viking’ sailed close by and we got chatting on the VHF. They kindly offered me 20L of diesel but with a large swell running it was too dangerous to bring our boats close together. Instead they put 10litres of diesel in two 20litre jerry cans, tied them together with rope attached to a buoy, and threw the whole lot into the ocean in front of Fathom. I then motored up, leant over the side and caught the rope with the boat hook and hauled the whole lot aboard. It worked like a charm and the whole experience was quite surreal: speaking to strangers face to face in the middle of the Atlantic! I continued preparation for some bad weather during the afternoon of the 19th and during a check on deck noticed that nearly all the screws in the mainsail batten cars were loose and one had fallen out. No issue as I had a replacement, was just relieved I had checked everything carefully. I made a huge batch of stew in the thermal cooker which provided easy dinners over the next few days.

The low passed by on the 20th and in the end we had gained enough distance from its centre that there were barely any gusts over 20kts and it was a bit of a non event. The sea got up into a confused mess but was easily manageable. Friends on boats further north experienced gusts over 40kts and had a tough time of it. The next threat to address was a mid ocean ridge, a spin off from TS Arthur that was developing in the wake of the low pressure system. The forecast showed 25 to 30kt north east headwinds above it and south west winds below. Directly on the ridge line an ugly mess of thunder storms and heavy rain squalls. This was far from appealing so I decided to carry on to the south east where I calculated I could sneak around the corner of the ridge on the 21st, and then stay in favourable winds up to the Azores. The timing would be touch and go but I was now committed to the low road.

 

Yesterday, the 21st May, was my birthday, and the best present of all was confirmation I could sneak around the ridge and remain in the good winds. I baked a chocolate cake and celebrated with a tot of rum! Back in 2016, I also had a birthday at sea, arriving in Spain that day after a storm in the Bay of Biscay. At that very early stage of the voyage, I remember feeling completely disheartened and ready to pack it all in. Four years later, I must admit it did feel good to be enjoying a birthday in better conditions, with a few miles under the keel since that miserable day in Spain, and to be on the way home.

The forecast for the next few day’s indicates that I should remain in favourable southerly and then easterly winds, but there is a small chance of meeting some headwinds a day or two before arrival in Horta. In the meantime I’m enjoying the sailing and Fathom is going along nicely. Now there is finally less weed floating about I’m determined to catch a fish to spice up the evening meals. The lockdown rules in the Azores are such that yachts are only permitted to stay 48 hours to take on provisions and then must be on their way again unless they have repairs to carry out. I plan to arrive with ‘something’ time consuming to fix!

Posted on 22 May in: at sea - 2020

Antigua to the Azores – Part 1

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1st Update from Sea: 13th May 2020
28deg32′.1N 053deg11′.4W

All is well on the good ship Fathom, at 1400 UTC we are currently 835 nautical miles from Antigua with 1,365 miles remaining to Horta. The first week couldn’t have really gone any better; clear sunny skies, wind around 10 to 15kts, and for the most part calm seas. I had been expecting to face periods of headwinds and calms during this time, but instead the SE trades have persisted all the way up to 28degreesN. Fathom has been on starboard tack the whole time making good progress to the NE. Sailing at 60 to 70 degree apparent wind angle and a constant angle of heel has been comfortable and a nice change to rolly downwind sailing. It’s still warm and I’ve yet to wear more than a pair of shorts although in the last couple of days it has become noticeably cooler once the sun has gone down. The water temperature is down by 3.5degrees C since setting sail.

 

I’ve been eating well, highlights from the galley have included a tasty spaghetti bolognese with the last of the fresh meat and the vegetable jambalaya wasn’t too bad either with a generous dollop of Susie’s hot sauce to liven it up. I have also been baking a loaf every couple of days, the smell of fresh bread filling the cabin never gets boring. Despite my best efforts to catch a fish all I manage to do is snag Sargasso weed, there is so much of the stuff out here and it also regularly gets stuck on the self steering paddle. I caught some plastic in the fish hook yesterday which was another sad reminder of how much pollution there is floating around. Days have been spent reading and practising celestial navigation. I’m taking morning and noon sights with the Sextant and starting to get more accurate with my observations. For the first few nights I was treated to a ‘super moon’ and didn’t need a head torch to work on deck. More recently it has been Venus that has been shining extra brightly.

 

Life is actually quite sociable out here. I am in regular contact via the Garmin Inreach with friends Greg on ‘Nebula’ and Ben and Caroline on ‘Balou’ who left Antigua at the same time as me and who are also bound for the Azores. Another UK boat I know sailed within 10 miles on Sunday so we had a good catchup over the VHF. Looking ahead at the weather forecast I expect the easy days are now over. I write this while motoring in a calm, more typical of these Horse Latitudes, the easterlies have spluttered and finally given up. I aim to get above 30degreesN to pick up some SW winds at the weekend but first have to contend with a day of headwinds. The weather patterns are a mess and I’m expecting some bad weather at some point. Slightly alarming is a tropical depression NE of the Bahamas which currently has a 70% chance of developing into a hurricane. Very, very early in the year for this to happen. It should pass well to the north of my track but will be keeping a firm eye on it! For now, anyway, life is good. I feel at one with the boat and am savouring every moment of my time out here on the ocean again.

Posted on 13 May in: at sea - 2020

Antigua – Part 2

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During the first week of March, the more I read the news, the more I realised life here in the Caribbean was not in a protected bubble but would be changing very soon. With the Coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world and hundreds of people starting to die from it every day, it was only a matter of time before the effects were felt in Antigua. It began to feel like human civilisation was playing out the script of a far fetched Netflix series, completely surreal.

lockdown anchorage off Pigeon Beach

For what seemed like an age after many countries had started lockdowns, life in Antigua continued as normal, planes landed, charter boats still crammed the anchorages and cruise ship passengers from all over the world still walked the streets and packed out the bars and cafes. With the future becoming so uncertain I decided it was sensible to get Fathom stocked up for the Atlantic crossing when I could. I sailed a few miles down the coast from Falmouth Harbour to Jolly Harbour for a few days to visit the better supermarket and make the most of the greater selection. On the way I passed close to the beautiful J-Class yachts Velsheda and Lionheart match racing in a regatta. It would turn out to be their last race for the foreseeable future, the next day both Classic Yacht Week and Race Week were cancelled. The excitement and buzz around the harbours of Antigua dimmed instantly and there was a big sense of disbelief. Back at Falmouth I moored Fathom on the dock for a couple of days to top up the diesel tank and jerry cans and plugged into a shore power connection to give the batteries a conditioning cycle. Then back to my favourite local anchorage off Pigeon beach to see what would play out. I had everything I needed to be self sufficient except drinking water which was easy to get hold of.

By the end of March there was a lot of uncertainty and a considerable sense of fear circulating as no one quite knew how bad it would get. With less than 20 ventilators on the island and a population of over 80,000 there was a real risk of a major disaster. Flights were now being cancelled and many sailors were rushing to haul out their boats, ship them across the ocean or leave them in a marina and get back home when they still could. Hurricane season was only a couple of months away. On the 28th the authorities introduced a curfew meaning beaches, bars and restaurants would close. Furthermore, cruisers living on their boats would only be allowed ashore between 0600 and 2000 for a visit to the supermarket. Break the rules and face a $5,000 fine and or 6 months in jail. During the last afternoon of freedom a group of us enjoyed some beers on the beach and I went for a final run up in the hills. It was great to finally catch up with Barney, an old uni mate who I hadn’t seen since graduation in 2006. He is now Captain of Velsheda, one of the most beautiful yachts ever built. On the 1st April, a state of emergency was declared and a full lockdown was introduced with no one in Antigua allowed to move around unless for an essential hospital visit or food shop between the hours of 0800 and 1200. Everything fell eerily silent.

 

Being confined to my boat for extended periods of time is something I have become quite used to over the last few years and I never find it a problem, but being positioned a few metres off a beautiful beach and not allowed to step ashore is a very different feeling to being in the open ocean. I couldn’t complain with the situation I now found myself in; reliable internet connection with data to burn, swimming and snorkelling off the boat for exercise whenever I wanted and friends anchored next door. I was lucky. In not such a fortunate position were friends currently at sea who were struggling with the uncertainty of where they could legally make landfall. David and Amy on ‘Starry Horizons’ were sailing up the South Atlantic and with more Caribbean islands going into lockdown each day they were running out of options. I continued to email them updates and thankfully they made it to Antigua two days before the island closed it’s borders. Mike and Marie on ‘Roke’ were on passage from Panama to the Marquesas and after a month at sea were unaware of the Coronoavirus situation. It was not an easy satellite text message to write as I updated them that the authorities in French Polynesia might require them to leave their boat in Tahiti and fly out on arrival. I won’t type Mike’s reply to me! Even here in the Caribbean, the rules and regulations on other islands were far more harsh than in Antigua; swimming off your boat in Saint Maarten was illegal and risked a fine and people were only allowed to visit the grocery store in Grenada once a week at a time dictated by the first letter of their surname.

The weeks went by relatively fast and I actually started to enjoy all the time I now had for catching up on writing and for the opportunity to reflect on my voyage over the last four years. I finally managed to finish another piece for Yachting Monthly magazine that I had been struggling to write for a while, it should be published in the late summer/autumn. I even started to think about what the future might hold but didn’t get very far with that. The lack of available outdoor space on 8.5m Fathom did spur me on to being creative and I discovered that the dinghy hoisted alongside made a nice comfortable seat for a sundowner! It also provided the perfect position to watch the diving Pelicans during their feeding frenzy every evening, just after the sun had dipped below the horizon. I wasn’t alone either as Greg on ‘Nebula’ was anchored alongside as well as Denis on ‘Oriana’ and new friends Ben and Caroline on ‘Balou’. We were all planning to sail back to the UK soon and met up regularly for catchups – respecting social distancing of course! Greg’s wife Jenny had flown back to the UK at the end of February to visit her unwell Mother and her return flight to Antigua in early April had been cancelled. With no possibility of reuniting in the near future Greg would now be a reluctant solo sailor back across the Atlantic. Fresh food continued to be in good supply with the two local supermarkets nearby well stocked with fresh produce. Face protection was now mandatory and I had to make do with a thermal neck warmer which was very hot and not so ideal for the tropics. It also gave me the appearance of someone who was planning to rob a bank! I later upgraded to a rasta style mask which was much more suitable.

 

Finally, on the 23rd April, the outlook started to look more positive. There had been 24 confirmed cases on the island and sadly 3 deaths but thankfully no evidence of any community transmission. The curfew was relaxed and it was possible to exercise ashore again between 06:00 and 1800, some restaurants opened for takeaway which was exciting as cooking for myself night after night had become very dull. Denis was getting impatient to leave so decided to set sail for the Azores before the end of the month despite the unsettled Atlantic weather. He likes a good challenge having sailed his other boat, a 27 foot Albin Vega ‘Lizzie G’, solo from the UK to America against the prevailing winds and currents and has no satellite communications onboard or means of obtaining weather forecasts at sea. We went out in our dinghies to wave him off. My visa had been automatically extended until the end of May so there was no rush to leave and the rest of us decided to wait a little longer for better weather. One afternoon as I looked over some old photos from the confines of my locked down boat I realised it was the 3 year anniversary of my landfall in the Marquesas after 38 days at sea. I could never have imagined back then what a different place the world would become before I had sailed home. The unlimited freedom to explore is for now, at least, no longer possible.

The first days of May were busy with preparations for another long ocean crossing. It had been over 12 months since I had completed my circumnavigation in Grenada and I had not done more than a day sail since so a bit of adjustment to the mindset was needed. I began to feel that knot in my stomach I always get before heading off to sea, a combination of a little anxiety, excitement and anticipation I think. The coastguard granted me permission to move so I made one last trip down the coast to Jolly Harbour for a night which was a much needed shakedown sail. It was great to finally hoist the anchor after being in the same spot for six weeks and so nice to catch up with David and Amy on ‘Starry Horizons’ who I hadn’t seen since Australia. Amy spoiled me with some fantastic cooking and David kindly offered to get some drone footage of Fathom under sail, the first ever taken and the results are amazing. The five hour beat back to Falmouth harbour was a reminder that I much prefer the wind from astern but I am not sure how much of that there will be over the next weeks.

 

I type this now a couple of days before setting sail for Horta in the Azores which is currently open for yachts to stop to reprovision for a few days. I really hope that by the time I get there restrictions will have eased enough that it will be possible to step ashore, otherwise I am going to be onboard for the best part of 2 months. I have always wanted to visit those islands and it is where I was aiming for when I set off from the UK in 2016 as part of the Jester Azores challenge before diverting to Spain. Four years later I guess you could say I just took the long route! It is a very strange feeling to be starting the final leg towards home, something which always seemed so far in the future. The next chapter of my life is lingering close beyond the horizon.

Posted on 05 May in: Caribbean

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