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

Archive for the “at sea – 2019” Category

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

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

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