I will never forget the incredible welcome on my return to the Solent after 37,000 nautical miles around the world. I sailed to 19 countries and 80 islands, incredible places such as the uninhabited coral atolls of the Tuamotu’s in the South Pacific, isolated villages in Madagascar and iconic landmarks such as the Opera House in Sydney Harbour, but nothing beats the sight of the Needles appearing on the horizon after 4 years and 2 months away.
Thank you to everyone that came out to greet me, both ashore and afloat. It was a special day and a perfect way to finish my voyage on the River Yar, surrounded by friends and family at the very place I learnt to sail in my Optimist dinghy all those years ago.
Some facts and figures from The Voyage of Fathom:
*Miles under the keel: 37,223.3
*Length of voyage (Yarmouth to Yarmouth):4 years, 2 months, 4 weeks and 2 days
*Intended length of voyage: 12 months
*Countries visited excluding territories: 19
*Islands visited: 80
*Best 24 hour run under sail: 167 nautical miles (South Atlantic)
*Best 24 hour run under sail and engine: 201 nautical miles (Mozambique Channel)
*Total number of days where Fathom was on the move: 524
*Total nights alone at sea: 272
*Longest passage: Panama to the Marquesas, 4,000 nautical miles
*Longest time alone at sea before making landfall: 5 weeks and 3 days
*Max wind speed encountered: 49.5 knots (East Coast Australia)
*Longest time spent hove to. 3 days straight
*Fastest speed over the ground: 12.6 knots
*Largest number of people onboard for drinks: 14
*Largest number of people from one nationality onboard at the same time: 11 Norwegians
*Largest number of people sleeping onboard: 5 during the Panama Canal crossing (cosy)
*Number of times I had to jump overboard at sea to clear rope or net from the propeller: 4
*Number of times I was seasick: 0
*Number of times a meal ended up on the cabin floor: 7
Then and Now:
As I headed out to sea from Praia da Vitoria on the 21st July, the last ocean passage of my long voyage, the forecast was good and I was hopeful of a straightforward sail home. Only 1,177 nautical miles remained until Fathom and I were back in Blighty. But at the back of my mind was the memory of the stormy North Atlantic I had found myself in after leaving the U.K in 2016, and I knew a certain amount of luck would be needed to avoid bad weather. Sailing in the higher latitudes is a completely different ball game than the predictable tradewinds, and sure enough, the journey back did indeed turn out to be fairly eventful.
It was a sedate start motoring north in a calm sea and sunny skies to break clear from the windless Azores High and reach the westerlies. Dolphins played in the bow wave and life onboard was thoroughly enjoyable despite the drone of the engine. Conditions remained calm the second morning but eventually I began to notice the engine tone sounded a little different. On removing the companionway steps there was a lot of vibration going on and I could see a small amount of oil had leaked from around the edge of the gearbox. Out on deck and peering over the stern I could see what looked like a thick rope trailing out about 5m behind the boat. Once Fathom was stopped in the water the rope turned out to be a huge bundle of fishing net that had snagged the propeller. Nothing for it but to strip off, tie myself on and jump overboard into the ocean to free it. Rather bracing to say the least but still about 3 degrees warmer than UK waters. Thankfully it didn’t take long to clear and we were soon on our way again with a lot less drag and half a knot faster.
The wind filled in on Day 3 and it was a relief to finally turn off the engine and start sailing. I found myself in familiar company as friends Chris and Frankie on ‘Gitane’, a Moody 44, overtook me under cruising chute and Richard and Tracy on ‘Zephyr’, a Moody 34, passed a few miles away within vhf range. Over the next 24 hours the breeze increased and it was fast sailing wing on wing in 15-19kts. The weather forecasts then started to indicate the jet stream was moving south and would hover over the English Channel, directing two low pressure systems close to my route over the next week. My hopes for an easy trip wouldn’t be realised now. Late on the 24th I decided to gybe and put in more easting to increase the distance to the centre of the low pressure that was due to arrive in two days time. It was already breezy with 25kts of true wind but very manageable, well reefed and sailing downwind. Before things got interesting a calm descended and in order to keep gaining distance I reluctantly turned the engine on and had to put up with a few more hours of motoring.
The wind began building steadily on the 26th, the 6th day at sea, and by mid afternoon Fathom was heading N.E under triple reefed main, staysail and partially furled yankee in 25kts of westerly wind and a building sea. That evening at 1900, the halfway mark to Falmouth was passed beneath miserable grey skies and drizzle. It was unclear how much wind would accompany the cold front so to err on the side of caution I replaced the staysail with the storm jib. As the front went over at 05:00 the wind veered to the north gusting around 32knots, which is not overly strong, but became very uncomfortable now that we were bashing to windward and not sailing downwind. Once again Fathom handled the conditions in her stride and at all times I felt safe and secure. 4 reefs in the main provided a good balance for good ol’ Thelma (the Helma), the trusty Aries self steering gear that has never let me down. As the hours passed the wind began to back and moderate and the worst had soon passed. It had proved too much for the Yankee (headsail) though which developed a split along one seam and before I could furl it in the split had quickly grown until the sail had nearly flogged in half. I knew the sail was near the end of it’s life and unfortunately it had given up about 500 miles too soon. It didn’t owe me anything though.
With the low now heading off to Scandinavia the next couple of days were a mixed bag of fast downwind sailing in 15-20knots of westerly wind with the occasional calm period thrown in. I had not slept properly in days and was feeling super tired but swapping the ripped yankee with the lighter weight downwind headsail gave me something to do and stopped me feeling sorry for myself. On the morning of the 28th I was checking the boat from top to bottom and was alarmed to find the quarter berth was sodden and there was water in the bilge and at the bottom of two cupboards on the starboard side of the cabin. It tasted slightly salty so I spent a worried couple of hours trying to find the source of the leak, only later discovering one of the 20litre jerry cans of drinking water had emptied itself through a loose breather cap. A great relief! Shortly afterwards I turned on the Iridium sat phone to download the latest weather forecast and it decided randomly to go into emergency mode. Despite taking the battery out as quickly as I could I couldn’t stop it sending an SOS to the emergency rescue centre! One minute later the phone rang and I had to explain that I had only pressed the on button and was safe and well and didn’t need to be rescued! But that wasn’t all, a few minutes later a text message came through from a friend saying “28 knots, gusting 40kts on the way!”. The latest forecast confirmed that there was an unusually deep low pressure for this time of year deepening to the West of Ireland. The different weather models were disagreeing on how far east it would come and therefore how hard I would be hit so I changed course a few degrees to starboard just in case. It was definitely a three cups of coffee kinda morning.
The atmosphere onboard was a bit more relaxed during the following morning of the 29th, the 9th day at sea, and Fathom was visited by a tired looking racing pigeon clearly in need of some rest. After first attempting to land on the solar panel it’s courage grew and it moved to the sprayhood before perching on the tiller and later upgrading to the cockpit seat. I took pity on it and treated it to a small amount of the previous nights leftovers and a bowl of water which it readily lapped up. It’s visit provided some unexpected entertainment and I found myself talking to it for an embarrassingly long period of time. A sign that perhaps i’ve now done too much solo sailing and if I don’t stop soon a high probability I might start talking out loud to wildlife on a regular basis. Several hours later once the pigeon had regained its energy and flown off, I settled down for a relaxed afternoon and perhaps finally, a tuna would take the fishing lure. While napping down below on my bunk I was woken by a loud din of squawking birds. One of them had caught the hook in its mouth and the others were trying to help free it. I slowly reeled the bird in not knowing if I should cut the line or risk hurting the bird or myself by trying to release the hook but eventually it managed to break free itself and fly off. For some reason my fishing exploits continue to be a disaster. Just before dark, with dolphins swimming alongside in the moonlight, Fathom finally left deep water behind as we sailed over the continental shelf and into the English Channel. The water depth reduced from 3000m to 200m in less than 20 miles.
Thankfully the deep low pressure was stopped from coming any further east by a ridge of high pressure and by the 30th it was clear that the threat of more big winds had been averted. Instead a calm area blocked the path to Falmouth but with enough diesel remaining in the tank a simple few hours of motoring. Simple until I pressed the engine start button and only got the dreaded click from the solenoid, the same problem I had experienced on passage from Antigua to the Azores. I had thought the issue had been a bad wire connection which I had fixed but now began to think it was actually the solenoid on the starter motor that was playing up. Despite linking in the house battery bank the engine still wouldn’t start and I was faced with the likelihood of drifting through the night to the west away from Falmouth in an adverse current. With the wind rapidly dying but still puffing at 10kts, I threw the tow generator over the stern which generated just enough power to excite the solenoid and the engine fired up. Bloody boats!
Finally, on the 31st, land was near. My expectation of seeing the iconic Lizard appear on the horizon was dashed by thick fog and drizzle that descended at dawn and instead it was a slightly stressful few hours calling up ships every few minutes to confirm that they could see me on their radar as I weaved Fathom through the shipping lanes. It wasn’t until after lunch, and several miles past the Lizard, that the fog began to lift and I could sight land at last. A surreal feeling to be back in familiar waters again for the first time in 4 years. The border force patrol vessel paid me a visit and asked a range of questions but were friendly and wished me well. As I sailed north up the coast towards Falmouth harbour the clouds cleared and dolphins played in the bow wave. I opened a beer and offered some to Neptune as well as pouring a little on deck and a splash onto Thelma the Aries as a thank you for their efforts. The sun was out when I finally motored into the harbour and it was great to be met by Chris and Frankie in their dinghy who showed me to a mooring and not long after took me ashore for a pint. It had not been a relaxing trip but I was safely back in home waters and it felt fantastic!
The weather was rather miserable as I steered Fathom out to sea from Horta harbour on the 22nd June on the 82 mile passage to the island of Terceira. Ben and Caz on Balou left half an hour after me and as forecast, the conditions quickly improved as we enjoyed a fast downwind sail through the channel between the islands of Sao Jorge and Pico. We were hoping to spot some whales and dolphins on the way but they remained illusive. The wind shadow from Pico required a couple of hours of motoring and then it was 10 minute cat naps through the night and an easy downwind sail the rest of the way. As the sun rose on the approach to the harbour of Praia da Vitoria it was a satisfying moment for me as this had been my original destination after setting off from Plymouth in May 2016 as part of the Jester Azores Challenge. To pass between the two breakwaters and finally finish after 4 years and a slight 35,000 mile detour felt fantastic. Ewen Southby-Taylor, the organiser of the Jester events, has since confirmed I have completed the inaugural ‘Jester World Challenge’!
The marina at Praia is very reasonably priced at around 7 Euro a day including free electricity and water so I treated Fathom to a berth. Ben and Caz were on a timeline but keen to explore the island for a few days before heading off to Scotland so it was nice to join them. We hired a car and explored some of the sights Terceira has to offer including the natural bathing pools on the north of the island at Biscoitos, squeezed in between the volcanic rocks. The most stunning place was Algar do Carvao, one of very few places in the world you can go and walk down into a lava chimney and magma chamber. The chambers were created during two eruptions, 3200 and 2000 years ago. Over 80m down from the entrance is a clear water lake formed by rainwater and stalactites and stalagmites line the walls. An amazing place which the photos don’t do justice to. We also made a stop at Angra do Heroismo, the capital of the island and a UNESCO world heritage site with it’s colourful buildings and winding streets. It was very sleepy though without tourists so apart from the locals we had it all to ourselves, a far cry to normal times here in summer when the high energy festivals and bull run attract thousands of people.
I was sad to see Ben and Caz depart, they had been great company through the lockdown period but I look forward to seeing them again at a Fathom/Balou raft up on the south coast of England in August. With only one other visiting yacht in the marina at the time it was all quite sleepy at Praia but I got to know Matt, a Canadian crewing on a 50 footer, who had been here for 5 months all through lockdown and Pedro, a local dentist who has a boat moored on the same dock as Fathom. On a couple of occasions Pedro invited me over for dinner with his family and I enjoyed tasting the great local food and learning about life in the Azores. Matt is passionate about climate change and likes to interview different people he meets on his travels. You can read the interview he did with me here http://thefacesofclimatechange.com/thom-isle-of-wight-united-kindgom/With lots of time on my hands I decided to make amends for my rushed mural in Horta and paint a better one. I went all out and washed and wire brushed the wall before starting to try and make it stay attached a few years. The result looks much better and is in good company alongside the paintings of fellow Jester Challengers.
In early July, Chris and Frankie on Gitain and Richard and Tracy on Zephyr arrived from Sao Jorge. It was good to see them again and fun to go out exploring together over the following weeks. I even got the fold up bike out from the depths of the bow and am ashamed to say it was the first time it had seen the light of day since Cape Town. On a few occasions Matt would drive and a few of us would ride our bikes and then we would convene somewhere for a hike. Life continued to be very sociable with us all meeting up regularly at the local beach bar for an evening beer and I even resurrected the Fathom Ti-Punch bar for rum cocktails. One of the best things we did was go coasteering with local company ‘Rope Adventures’. The official definition of coasteering is the movement along the intertidal zone of a rocky coastline on foot or by swimming without the aid of boats, surfboards or other craft. We donned seriously thick wetsuits, boots, gloves and helmets and spend a lot of time jumping off cliffs. It was great fun and definitely pushed my fear level to the limit on a couple of occasions.
I type this now in the midst of final preparations before heading off to sea on the final leg of my voyage back home. The last weeks have rolled by quickly and although I had originally planned to set off for the UK around mid July the Atlantic weather has again had other ideas with calms and headwinds on the rhumb line home. In hindsight I’m glad I stayed in the Azores longer, the local weather has been sunny and warm and the islands have been a really relaxed place to spend time. With no positive cases, I know all us visiting sailors have felt lucky to have the freedom to explore so easily in these COVID times. It is with mixed emotions that after 4 years of voyaging, it is finally time to head home.
The 17th June was a big day – ashore at last! What a great feeling to have the freedom to walk around for the first time in six weeks and give the sea legs a much needed workout. And how nice to finally be able to visit the legendary Peter Café Sport that evening for a beer with my isolation buddies Ben and Caz after spending so long staring at it from the water. We tried to keep it low key that first evening to avoid frustrating the others who were still waiting to get ashore! The following day the rest of our lockdown gang got the all clear from their COVID tests and we all celebrated our new found freedom by going for a long walk up to Monte da Guia and down to the beach at Porto Pim. In the evening a fun get together at Café Sport for drinks and dinner. The locally sourced beef steak by far the best I have ever tasted, over 1kg on the bone (shared with Ben). It felt surreal to be all together ashore and finally off our boats. The wait had been worth it.
It was now time to be a tourist and explore the island. Ben, Caz, Greg and I hired a car and spent a day exploring various sights around Faial including the half buried lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelinhos. It was the only structure in the nearby area to survive a year long eruption from 1957-58 and is now surrounded by new land created from the lava and ash that spewed out of the Capelinhos volcano, burying the first few floors. We also visited the 1,043m summit of Cabeco Gordo, the highest volcano on the island hoping to walk around the rim and look down into the 2km wide crater but unfortunately it was shrouded in cloud. Then a walk along the cliffs on the south of the island and a wrong detour into a field of aggitated cows. On the way back to Horta we stopped at a viewpoint and a random gust of wind blew my camera off a ledge and onto a rock as it took a self timer selfie of us. A big dent in the case and sadly it has bitten the dust. An expensive and super frustrating mistake. The following day we were invited by ‘Peter’ to a tour of the Cafe Sport Museum to view the schrimshaw artwork – a technique of engraving and carving artwork on whale bone and teeth. They were often carried out by fisherman passing time on the whaling ships and it was later a technique developed by local artists. The detail is extremely impressive and intricate and some are now worth considerable sums of money. It was also an opportunity for all of us to personally thank him and his team, especially Duarte and Phillipe, for all the help and support they gave us sailors during the lockdown.
Now to get fit.. what better way to get back into shape than climb up to the 2,351m summit of Mount Pico! On the 21st June I took the ferry across to the island of Pico with Ben and Caz and then after a short taxi ride we reached the start of the trail at 1,231m. I was expecting a tough time of it after reading blogs of people that had done it and struggled, more so as they hadn’t been stuck on a boat like us! We decided to go with a guide and were met by Nuno who provided us with walking poles. It ended up taking us 3 hours to reach the summit with several rest stops. We had chosen a good forecast and were rewarded with incredible views from the top across to Horta and the neighbouring island of Sao Jorge. Nuno told us that in normal times there is a queue to climb the volcano and numbers are capped at 160 people a day. In this COVID time we just about had the whole place to ourselves. As we ate lunch we received a whataspp from Greg saying he had just set sail for the UK. We could just make out the white sails of Nebula more than 2,000m below us and took pictures of him setting off, a very unusual photo opportunity. The descent down the volvano took 2.5 hours and was harder on the legs than going up but the poles really helped. Overall it went surprisingly well for us unfit sailors.
In the taxi back to town we were chatting with the driver and asked him for any recommendations of things to do for the afternoon as our return ferry to Faial wasn’t until late in the evening. It was a Sunday so most places were closed but he mentioned he grew his own grapes and produced his own wine. Would we like to stop by for some wine tasting? Yes please! It was a great local experience to be shown around his property and sample his different wines and port. We ended up buying a few bottles for our respective boat stores. Back in town we found a bar offering another wine tasting which we decided was an excellent use of our time before the ferry arrived to take us back to Faial. A brilliant day all round.
None of us was in a rush to set off for home so decided a change of scenery would be a good idea. Next up the island of Terceira.
It had been a race against time to arrive in the safety of Horta Harbour before the strong northerly headwinds set in, so it was with a sense of relief that I sipped my anchor beer late on the evening of the 26th May. The passage from Antigua had only taken 20 days and 7 hours, faster than I had envisaged, and only 24hrs slower than Ben and Caroline on 42 foot ‘Balou’ which I was secretly chuffed about! The only downside had been lots of motoring but i’ll take that over uncomfortable days bashing to windward. Fathom doesn’t enjoy that point of sail and neither do I.
I struggled to sleep that first night as I had become accustomed to the routine of waking up at short intervals and the silent motion of the boat in the calm anchorage felt strange after so long rocking around in the Atlantic swell. Due to the COVID lockdown the Portuguese border was closed but the local Azorean authorities were allowing yachts to stop to take on provisions before sailing on to their home countries. The first task was to check in with the marina via the VHF, who were acting on behalf of the Port Captain. They asked me a series of questions such as last port, date of departure from last country, persons on board and were keen to know if I felt unwell or had a cough. Later, the maritime police pulled alongside with a form to complete and sign, basically a declaration that I wouldn’t stay longer than 48 hours and would remain on the boat at all times. The trouble was the weather forecast was terrible and I had no intention of going anywhere.
I didn’t waste any time in tackling the two main issues on board; the engine and the toilet. As I mentioned in my last post, I had been doing my business in a bucket for the previous couple of weeks, which is fine when alone at sea, but in a crowded anchorage not so for everyone else! I set about taking apart the toilet pump and disconnecting the discharge hose which as I knew from past experience is an unpleasant job in the confined cabin. After installing the service kit and checking the pipe was free of blockage I was dismayed to find it would still not pump out so there was only one thing left to do – jump into the cold harbour water with a screw driver! After diving down it was immediately clear that the Antigua toilet paper was to blame; despite being labeled as 2 ply it behaved more like 10 ply and had blocked the outlet thru hull. It turned out to be a refreshing dip and an easy fix. The engine starting issue was next up. I had assumed the 7 year old engine start battery was to blame but now the engine would not start with the house battery bank linked in. For a while I was preparing myself for an expensive starter motor fix or replacement but after investigating all the wiring connections again, I eventually discovered the crimp in the terminal from the engine start negative cable to the shunt was slightly loose. A tighten and wallah, the engine started first time. I love quick and cheap wins like that!
Horta is home to the ‘Peter Café Sport’ bar and restaurant which is one of the most famous yachting pubs anywhere in the world. It has played an important role in refreshing, sustaining and helping successive generations of cruisers passing through the Azores and during this lockdown was no exception. Duarte and Phillipe were a constant presence in the anchorage buzzing around in their yellow RIB wearing their masks and hazmat suits, delivering orders from the supermarket and even evening takeaway dinners from their restaurant. We would whatsapp them our orders in the morning and later that day would have our goods. Nothing was too much trouble for them including supplying a local SIM card for internet access and gas bottle refills. Deliveries of beer and local wine definitely helped with morale too. They began to refer to themselves as the ‘Atlantic Resistance Movement’! Being confined to our boats after a long ocean passage would be frustrating at the best of times but without the support and assistance of Café Sport, it would have been unbearable. A massive thanks to them.
My 48 hour stay in the anchorage soon expired and it became clear that the authorities would not force yachts to head out into bad weather. And bad weather there was with gale force northerly winds tearing through the anchorage and driving rain. In the summer months the pilot charts indicate that the winds should blow from the SW to W above the Azores High Pressure system, perfect for the sail home towards Europe. But this year there was high pressure unusually far north in the Atlantic creating north to north east winds. The anchorage soon began to get crowded as no one was leaving and more and more yachts were turning up from the Caribbean. I was delighted to see Miki and Karl on ‘Fai Tira’ arrive safely and then shortly after Greg on ‘ Nebula’. However, many yachts had been damaged in the strong headwinds, two French solo sailors were towed in dismasted, another two yachts with torn mainsails.
After a week at anchor rumours began to circulate that the border would remain closed until at least mid June. With no weather window in sight to leave the frustration levels began to grow as the crew of over 50 yachts were unable to go ashore. Thankfully life became increasingly social as the Port Captain allowed yachts to raft together. I spent most the time alongside Ben and Caz on ‘Balou’ and enjoyed many shared meals, beers, films and games of scrabble. From time to time our raft grew to include Fai Tira and UK boat Mirage with Paul and Sally on board. Greg on Nebula rafted with Tim and Gayle on ‘Wild Bird’ and Richard and Tracy on ‘Zephyr’ (who I had chatted to mid Atlantic). On a couple of occasions, we all managed to cram together for drinks on one boat (not Fathom!) and even initiated a jam session with Frankie and Chris from ‘Gitain’ joining too. Lots of fun and a great way to let off some steam after being couped up so long.
My first steps off Fathom since the 5th May, and after 2 weeks at anchor, were alongside the fuel dock where I topped Fathom up with diesel and water. I also took the opportunity to paint a quick mural on the wall, as is customary here, but it was rushed and Fathom was moving all over the place in the swell. I think I got more paint on the mooring line than the wall and I was not best pleased with my efforts. It was maddening to be so close to the shore yet restricted to a few metres of concrete pier for an hour before heading back to anchor. A security gate blocked the path to town and it was maddening to see the locals walking about and enjoying the bars and restaurants a few metres away. The lush green hills so close in the background baited me with the opportunity to hike and exercise.
On the 12th June the Maritime police finally announced that the border would be opening the following week and after a COVID test, yacht crews would be allowed ashore. After so long isolated on our boats it was crazy we needed a test at all but great to finally have some good news. On Monday the 15th the marina started to call a few yachts on the VHF and directed them to come ashore for a test. The trouble was boats that had been in the anchorage for over 3 weeks were not called and yachts that had only just turned up were. Queue frustration levels going up another notch and lots of calls to the authorities to try and discover how they were prioritising the tests. We never did find out for sure but think it had more to do with how long we wrote down we wanted to stay in the Azores on the form the police handed out when we arrived in the anchorage. Eventually, the following day, the 16th June, I was called for the COVID test with Ben and Caz and unsupringly the results came through negative the following morning. We were then invited to check in at the marina office and clear into the country with customs and immigration. After six weeks afloat I motored Fathom into the marina and at long last was free to walk and explore dry land again.
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.
2nd Update from Sea: 22nd May 2020
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!
1st Update from Sea: 13th May 2020
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.
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.
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.