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!