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

Cape Town to Saint Helena

After six weeks in Cape Town, and after the long coastal passages down the South African coast, I was looking forward to getting offshore and into the rhythm of a long ocean passage again, about 1700 nautical miles to Saint Helena. Fathom was ready too, with new forward lower shroud U bolts and new house batteries and appeared in good shape. The three year old Lifeline AGM batteries had disappointingly lost a lot of capacity so I decided to replace them with Firefly Carbon Foam types. Without trying to sound too geeky these new technology batteries are well regarded and were about half the price in South Africa. Time will tell if they were a good choice. It was sadly time to say goodbye to my cruising family that I had been sailing alongside since Madagascar, Alan and Annie on ‘Kiwi Dream’ and Mike and Marie on ‘Roke’. The end of a chapter and I really hope our paths cross again one day.


At noon on the 15th Feb I slipped out of the Royal Cape Yacht Club marina and out to sea. As on my way in it was necessary to dodge several whales that were loitering around the harbour entrance. A tanker passed close by with no bridge, strange, but actually it was the first sign that fog was on the way in. The weather forecast had indicated 15 to 20kts of breeze and clear skies but a couple of hours later there was zero visibility and zero wind. Once the shipping lanes outside Cape Town were astern there was still a lot of traffic around. I always find being at sea in thick fog rather stressful so remained glued to the radar. That whole night the fog stuck and it was a long motor until dawn. It was cold too and I slept under a couple of blankets.

By mid morning the following day the sun had replaced the fog, the wind had filled in, and it was time to go sailing. The water temperature around Cape Town was a cold 14 degrees celsius and over the first few days before it began to warm up there was plenty of bird life around. I spent a lot of time sat in the cockpit watching several huge Albatross circling the boat. Progress was good with a nice push from the Benguela current and night sailing beneath a bright full moon. After four or five days the water temperature had risen to the low twenties and flying fish began to make an appearance. Time to put the fishing line out!


It was clear from the weather GRIB files downloaded via the satellite phone that the South Atlantic High Pressure system had extended a ridge north, stifling the SE trade winds and there was a large area of calms on the direct route to Saint Helena. I changed course and steered more NNW for the next week sailing more parallel to the Namibian coast before turning to the NW. It turned out to be a good decision as the wind held for the whole crossing. It was really great sailing with the breeze hovering around 15kts most the time, a lowish swell and no rain or squall clouds. The fishing was great too, I even caught one fish while letting out the line, it just couldn’t wait to get in the frying pan.

By the 2nd week at sea I was fully relaxed and enjoying the crossing. It was warm 24 hours a day and the fleece and blankets had been stored away. Plenty of reading on the Kindle, listening to podcasts and playing guitar. The wind never rose above 20kts and it was up there with the best passage of the whole voyage. I was sleeping in 1 to 2 hour chunks at night and was well rested. On the morning of the 26th Feb, the 11th day at sea, things got a bit interesting. Here is an account of what happened.

A Wet Boat

It was early morning about 450 nautical miles to go to St Helena. I was sitting at the chart table drinking a coffee, still a bit sleepy, when I noticed that a cloth on the cabin sole underneath some of the spare water bottles was wet. Assumed that one of the bottles had a leak but on closer inspection they were all full. Looked under the floorboards and horror of horror there was water sloshing about everywhere! Split water tank? No… it’s salty…. then I lifted off the steps above the engine and what I saw was a bilge completely full of water, so high it was lapping at the bottom of the engine and had filled the engine tray. S*#$!! Turned on the bilge pumps – the automatic switch had failed to activate the pump as the water level rose.

Water was pouring into the boat somewhere at the stern. Fathom was low in the water and sluggish. Why had I not noticed earlier? I hadn’t been awake long. Rolled in the headsail and hove to. For a few seconds before I had found the source of the leak I must admit the thought of sinking in the middle of the South Atlantic crossed my mind. But survival instinct kicks in and time for a calm head….. DON’T PANIC! Went on deck, opened the starboard cockpit locker and emptied it at lightning speed so I could climb in. It was immediately clear that the exhaust hose had split open where it fixes onto the thru hull fitting and had nearly completely detached. There was a good 2 to 3 inch hole letting in water. This thru hull is just above the waterline when the boat isn’t moving but when sailing, and now with a heavy boat full of water, it was below. The water was coming in like a high pressure hose and Fathom had been filling up fast.

Squatting in the cockpit locker with the water up to my waist I quickly plugged the hole while cutting off the split end of the hose then reattached the hose with the two jubilee clips. It was crazy how much water was in the boat. The bilge pumps had only just been keeping up but as soon as the hose was reattached the water level started going down and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The next 8 hours were spent clearing the inside of the boat of water that was trapped from the bilge pumps. There were over 6 buckets worth of water in the locker under the quarter berth alone. To get access the spare anchor and chain had to be pulled out of the locker and up on deck, all in a rock and rolly boat. Lockers from the chart table aft on the starboard side had water in but the port side of the boat was ok. Water had sloshed up onto the quarter berth itself so the mattress and covers were soaked in salt water. Thankfully the engine worked fine as the water had only reached the bottom and everything electrical and the batteries were ok.

Not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon. Despite regular checks the section of exhaust hose that failed is about the only item onboard I haven’t replaced since I’ve owned the boat. It will be replaced as soon as I can find some new.

What have I learned from this? Regularly check the auto bilge pump sensor is working! Always ensure there is a wood bung tied in position ready to use next to every thru hull and maybe install a seperate bilge water alarm.

Strangely enough I was a little preoccupied to take photos of a wet boat


Everything was pretty much back to normal on the 27th apart from a damp and salty quarter berth that I was still trying to dry out. Just after lunch I reached a nice milestone, crossing the same Meridian of Longitude as Yarmouth, where I had started the voyage in 2016. It was a good job I had discovered the leak in time as crossing this line in the liferaft wouldn’t have felt quite the same. There are various ways of qualifying for a circumnavigation and sailing around 360 degrees of longitude is one of them. I celebrated by opening a can of beer, offered some to the South Atlantic to keep Neptune on side, and enjoyed the rest. For the first time in 3 years, and with 28,715 nautical miles under the keel, I was back on UTC time again.

around the world

The final few days into Saint Helena presented no drama and I slowed down a lot to arrive in daylight. It was a nice sight seeing the island appear on the horizon in the first light of the day on the 2nd March. By 10:00 Fathom was safely on a mooring surrounded by four other visiting yachts including a couple of familiar faces. Another long ocean passage out of the way and despite that ‘minor’ incident, one of the best.

Posted on 08 Mar in: at sea - 2019 (2 Comments)

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