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

Grenada to Colombia

It was with a fair amount of trepidation that I left Grenada on the 18th January. I knew I had to leave and keep moving but felt unsettled and not completely at ease which is unusual for me. Initially a nice breeze pushed Fathom to the west away from the south of Grenada but by mid afternoon we were becalmed in the lee of the island. After several hours of motoring to the west the wind had still not made an appearance and as the sun set I was torn between carrying on or heading back to the islands. There was a blues music festival at Bequia over the next few days, maybe I should just head there. I sat in the cockpit struggling to make a decision. It was an important moment. To carry on westwards now was a big call, no turning back afterwards into the N.E tradewinds with the only possibilities thereafter to head through the canal into the Pacific or wait out hurricane season in the ABC islands or Panama. I turned Fathom 100 degrees to starboard and headed N.E towards Bequia, 15 hours or so motor away assuming the wind didn’t return. I went below to cook dinner. After eating I poked my head out of the companionway to have a look around and to my surprise noticed there was now 10 knots of breeze. Right, the final chance to decide. It didn’t take long to realise that heading back to the Islands wasn’t what I wanted to do and Fathom was destined to keep chasing the sun. Engine off, sails hoisted and sailing again to the west, the target Bonaire.

The sailing was excellent over the next four days with winds ranging from 10 to 15 knots and a low swell of under 1m. I set a course which strayed no closer than 50 miles to the Venezuelan Islands as there are sadly increasing reports of armed boarding’s and robbery’s and I didn’t want to take the risk. To maximise speed I chose not to deploy the tow generator (which slows the boat by just under half a knot in light airs) so turned the fridge off at night to save power. Tried my luck with the fishing line and during the afternoon of the 21st caught something very big and powerful. So big I was struggling to haul it in until the line went limp – turns out the hook had snapped. My fishing success rate has dropped alarmingly since I lost my special lure during the Atlantic crossing.

The stretch of water around the ABC islands and down the Colombia coast is renowned for being extremely rough and windy between the end of December and end March when the tradewinds are at full strength. This is also due to the local topography and rapid decrease in water depth from 2000m+ to 50m along the coastline. Many voyagers have reported this area to be the roughest they experienced during their whole circumnavigation. I was therefore not completely at ease and avidly analysing the daily GRIB weather forecast downloaded from the satellite phone and thankful to mates Tim, Mike and Joe for regularly emailing me a summary of the wave height forecast for the area. Unusually for this time of year there was a very nice weather window for the next days with next to no swell and winds under 15 knots.

On the evening of the 22nd, just after dark, I noticed a strange looking light on the horizon which would regularly disappear and then reappear again. After monitoring it for several minutes I checked the AIS and turned on the radar but neither showed anything. Strange. After a few more minutes of observation the light seemed to be getting closer. Accounts of armed boardings in the area swirled around my head and I decided to turn off all the cabin lights, mast head navigation lights, turn off the AIS transponder and then hide the sat phone and other valuables just in case. I sat in the darkness as Fathom continued sailing on. After another 15 minutes I realised I had been a complete muppet. I had in fact been looking at Venus which had been regularly obscured behind some clouds. I admit I was a little tired that evening but even so..!

By the 23rd I had decided to bypass the ABC islands and continue on for the port of Santa Marta in Colombia. The weather window was holding and although I was likely to lose the wind for a day I decided this was preferential to battling on in 4m + seas and 30 knot + winds. During the morning I hoisted the cruising shute for the first time since leaving England and Fathom glided along at 5 knots in 8 knots of breeze, aided by a knot of current. During the afternoon I noticed on the AIS a tugboat called MTS Vanguard which was heading east towing a drilling rig. I knew the tug and the its owners well from my previous work as a shipbroker. Once a tug spotter, always a tug spotter! I had a pleasant chat with the Master on the VHF and asked him to pass my best wishes on to the vessel Owner and a few of the guys I knew in their commercial team back in the U.K. The wind then died just before midnight and Fathom was becalmed. For the first time ever I was forced to motor through the night which was not enjoyable.

It was hard to get sleep with the noise of the engine filing my head and by sunrise there was still no wind. After going on deck I couldn’t believe how flat the sea was, like a mirror. I suddenly had an urge to go for a swim so turned off the engine and waited until Fathom had completely stopped. After deploying a floating line off the back of the boat, just in case, I jumped in and swam a few lengths away from the boat to take some photos. The photos, taken with the Go Pro, give the impression I am further away than I am. Must admit it was quite a surreal experience floating around in 2,000m of water, 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela looking at Fathom bobbing up and down in front of me. I underestimated the transparency of the water which is why, to protect my modesty, there is a star in a certain area of the photo!

The next day, 24th January, was not a great one. Firstly the starboard Genoa car snapped where the block is fixed into the car. It had clearly worn after 25 years of use and was not fully repairable. I have a huge number of spare parts on board but a genoa car is not one of them. Thankfully it didn’t break mid ocean. I rigged a temporary repair with some spectra and will order a new one + spare for delivery to Panama. Then during the late afternoon I was sat in the cockpit when I noticed a small insect/bug crawling on the cockpit locker lid. It looked remarkably like a dreaded cockroach. Then I saw another, and another. Oh no! I looked on deck and there were bugs everywhere, ranging from cockroaches, to grass hoppers, ear wigs, moths and other strange looking creatures. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I have taken the utmost care to wash fruit and veg before bringing them onboard to minimise the risk of getting a bug infestation. For the next two hours I was a man possessed wielding my can of bug spray and aiming at anything that moved. I untied the diesel jerry cans in the cockpit and lifted them up to find several bugs underneath. Everything I moved on deck seemed to have a nasty sheltering under it. I emptied the can of spray and crossed fingers that I could buy more in Colombia. I came to the conclusion that the bugs had arrived onboard due to a combination of Fathom being completely becalmed for a few hours close to a small area of low pressure over the land where thermals or high altitude winds had picked up the bugs and deposited them many miles away out of the sky.

More motoring was required until the wee small hours of the 25th when the wind returned and I was thankful to hoist the sails and turn the engine off at last. On the approach to Santa Marta the wind rose and rose until it was blowing over 30 knots for the last couple hours and Fathom flew downwind under staysail alone. Talk about a change in conditions! I had booked a place in the marina as I was planning to leave the boat for a few days and was met by a RIB on the approach. A friendly welcome to Colombia and they even insisted on one of the staff coming onboard and helping me to moor up. That evening, with Fathom safely tied up and in my bunk reading, the wind began to shriek outside. I turned on the wind speed display and it showed 41 knots. Now that is good timing!

Posted on 10 Feb in: at sea - 2017 (No Comments)

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