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

Archive for the “at sea – 2017” Category

New Caledonia to Australia – Part 2

Following the passing of the front, the wind and waves increased throughout the afternoon of the 7th December. I remained hove to through the rest of the day and night and by morning began sailing NW in 25 knots of wind. Felt very fatigued after no proper sleep in the last three days and couldn’t help but feel demoralised as the forecast was showing no improvement. Conditions were at their worst over the next couple of days and I spent the time mostly hove to. Winds peaked at 25-30 knots in the afternoons which wasn’t so much the problem more the seastate. Despite being outside the EAC the waves were very steep and confused and this made being onboard uncomfortable. Fathom handled everything superbly and I had no concerns about being unsafe yet without being able to make progress towards shore it was tough times indeed. I even resorted to having a couple of sips of rum one night in order to switch off enough to sleep for a few minutes! To try and perk myself up I wrote myself a mantra on the white board which I read everytime I felt properly pissed off. The Wind will moderate, The Seas will calm, The Sun will shine, Just give it some time.


By accident I come across an area of sea with a small eddy of north going current alongside the edge of the EAC. By heaving to on one tack for a few hours then the other for a few hours I realised I could hold position within a few miles which worked well and stopped Fathom being pushed too far NW. I contacted the weather forecaster on the afternoon of the 9th who suggested a plan B, give up on trying to cross the EAC for now and head north on a 350 mile detour to Bundaburg. Initially this new idea gave me some encouragement before I realised that such a big detour could end up being a huge mistake if the currents changed so decided to wait it out for Brisbane. I received an email from the marina to ask where I was and after updating them they informed me their offer of a cold beer had now turned into a six pack! I contacted the border force again and asked if I could anchor inside Moreton Bay to get some rest before proceeding up the Brisbane river to check in at the marina. After checking with their bosses they agreed. By this point Alex and David had reached Coffs harbour but continued to send me supportive messages and weather information – legends!

The forecast still showed big waves and wind for the following 48 hours so I had to be patient and not try and head to shore too early. It was great to read morale boosting emails from friends – thanks everyone that messaged. Fathom was knocked down to about 80 degrees on a couple of occasions by breaking waves (see video at bottom). I can’t imagine what the conditions would have been like in the middle of the EAC. I must have been tired because I couldn’t stop myself thinking about selling Fathom and ending the voyage in Australia. It gave me a lot of comfort to think i’d nearly finished the trip. By the 12th I felt that, at long last, conditions and the forecast were good enough to head to shore and I spent the day and following night sailing the 90 or so miles to Moreton Bay, slowing in the wee small hours so as not to arrive at the channel entrance until first light. Conditions were bad in the EAC but not as bad as I had faced already and improved massively once inside the 100m depth contour. As the sun rose I finally began to feel positive and encouraged again.

By mid morning on the 13th Fathom was about 10 miles into Moreton Bay motoring against current and short steep waves. I emailed the border force to let them know I was proceeding to the anchorage to rest as previously agreed. A short and firm email come straight back instructing me to proceed up the Brisbane river to the marina immediately and without delay. I was then met by a border force boat which came alongside and told me again to proceed to the marina, still about 20 miles and several hours away. They then spent the next five hours following Fathom a few boat lengths behind. What’s going on here I thought?


I reached the marina about 16.00 and waited for the customs to come aboard. Six armed officers approached and I was heavily questioned about why I had spent several days holding position at sea, why I diverted from Coff’s to Brisbane and why I asked to anchor in Moreton Bay before coming to the marina to check in. I realised that they suspected me of picking up something from another ship and trying to smuggle it into Australia. I was so tired it all felt surreal and a bit like a weird dream. They asked to see the chartplotter and Fathom’s track. The area I had ended up holding position in for several days was close to a seamount (underwater mountain) over which were confused seas and bad waves so I had put a waypoint over the seamount on the chartplotter to remind me it was there and stop me drifting too close. It just so happens I had chosen a skull and cross bones symbol for the waypoint so this needed explaining too…! Eventually they seemed satisfied that I was just a tired sailor in need of a cold beer and left. The quarantine officer then came aboard, didn’t find any creepy crawlies, took my fresh food, complimented me on coming so far and having a nice boat and left me alone. A very friendly Aussie couple on the next pontoon having watched all this play out invited me aboard for some food and wine and I could finally relax at last.

The next few days were spent recovering, sleeping and giving Fathom a good clean and tidy. The marina staff were very helpful and fulfilled their promise to give me a six pack of beer and also drove me to the local supermarket a couple of times so I could stock up on food. I decided to head towards the Gold Coast on the 17th and was up early having a coffee in the cockpit that morning when a voice from behind me on the pontoon said “excuse me sir, could you please step off the boat”. I turned round to see eight armed border force officers and two dogs. They told me they were not satisfied and wanted to search the boat again. For the next two hours they interrogated me, went through every nook and cranny on Fathom, the dogs went aboard and sniffed round and they even took up the floor and pushed camera probes around. I had to give them my mobile phone which was then plugged into a machine and everything on it downloaded. Eventually they told me, I sensed with a hint of disappointment, that all was ok and I was free to leave. I couldn’t help saying that they had told me that the first time! The worst part was probably that Fathom’s nice clean cabin was now covered in dog hairs.


So, 18 months and 16,200 miles after leaving England, Fathom and I have made it to Australia! And for anyone wondering, after catching up on some sleep, i’m not quite ready to end the voyage quite yet :-).

Posted on 02 Dec in: at sea - 2017

New Caledonia to Australia – Part 1

I set off from Noumea, New Caledonia on the 1st November bound for Coff’s Harbour on the east coast of Australia, 950 nautical miles to the SW. After sailing in the tropics for so long I was aware that this leg of the voyage could potentially be tougher as there was the possibility of hitting some bad weather from the south at some point. But the weather forecast, backed up by a professional forecaster in New Zealand, showed moderate E to SE winds and I hoped to make landfall in eight days time. Due to a history of drugs and people trafficking the Australian border force are very strict and I made sure I had emailed off the mandatory notice of arrival to them before leaving to ensure I wasn’t welcomed to the country by a $2,500 fine.

storm jib set as the front approaches (left of photo)

The first couple of days was good sailing and Fathom romped along under cruising chute in the daylight hours. My friends Alex and David on Bonavalette departed Noumea a few hours later and overtook on the second day. By day three I decided to ask the weather forecaster for an update as I could see on the long term forecast something stiring in the lower Tasman Sea a few days ahead. Sure enough an update was emailed back showing a cold front associated with a low pressure system sweeping up the east coast of Australia in a few days time and bringing with it a prolonged period of very strong S to SE winds. It was touch and go whether I could arrive in Coff’s Harbour before it hit. At this point I wasn’t overly concerned and decided to wait another 24 hours before making a decision on whether to divert to another entry port.

The following day it was clear that if I was to arrive in Coff’s Harbour I would have to meet the weather front at sea and then make landfall in the proceeding strong conditions. Despite Coff’s being an all weather entry I began to make enquiries about diverting to Brisbane, 200 miles to the north, but the more I read up on the approach and entry the more concerned I became. To clear in to Brisbane it is necessary to enter Moreton Bay through one of two narrow channels surrounded by shoal areas and rough seas, proceed more than 30 miles upwind across the bay to the entrance of the Brisbane river and then past the commercial ship docks six miles upstream to the Rivergate Marina. This would be simple in good weather and settled conditions but in strong winds and waves and when fatigued and sailing alone it would not be easy. After much tooing and froing I decided that despite the difficult entry the most sensible decision was to make landfall before the worst of the weather hit so peeled off from the Coff’s route and headed to Brisbane. I called the marina on the sat phone to let them know my intentions and they kindly said a cold beer would be waiting for me on arrival and wished me well. I notified Customs of my intended change of destination which they acknowledged. Alex and David already 150 miles ahead of me decided to press on to Coff’s.

It was the calm before the storm over the next couple days. The wind died and the engine was required to make progress westward but it was slow as Fathom encountered a head current. I started to become more and more tired and sleep was harder to come by as various scenarios kept playing round in my head. Every time I downloaded an updated weather forecast it showed higher winds and waves which would last for longer and arrive earlier. It was hard to find any positives. I realised that there was now no chance I could make landfall before the front hit. To make matters worse I still had to cross the EAC. This is band of south setting current which runs along the Australian coast at up to 4 knots and when up against 25 to 30 knots of southerly wind creates very steep messy seas and occasionally breaking waves. I suddenly felt extremely helpless as there was not one obvious solution to the situation I was in. I was caught in no mans land, hundreds of miles of open ocean astern and the dangerous sea conditions between me and the Australian coast. How on earth had I got myself in this situation when only a few days before there looked like a perfect weather window! The only seamanlike decision I could think of was to find an area outside of the strong southerly current to meet the weather front and bide my time by hoving to before conditions improved and I could cross the EAC safely without taking a big risk. On the evening of the 6th, 200 miles from the coast, I spotted a fishing trawler on the AIS and called them up for a chat, hoping they could give me some useful info on entering Brisbane in bad conditions. “I wouldn’t want to be in your position”, they replied, “friends of ours died when a fishing boat sank in similar conditions a couple of months ago at Bundaburg. Brisbane is not an easy entry when its blowing from the south, good luck, I don’t know what else to tell ya”. Certainly not the reassuring conversation I was looking for and I felt a whole lot worse afterwards.

I started making preparations for the weather front to hit during the early hours of the 7th December. The staysail was replaced with the storm jib, the first time I had hoisted this sail since leaving England and three reefs put in the mainsail. Lightning filled the sky to the south as the low pressure system spun up from the Tasman Sea and added to the feeling of apprehension. I tried to nap while waiting for the wind to back to the north as the front approached but couldn’t sleep so decided to list in the logbook what I thought would be the significant mile stones over the next days.

1. Windishift to the north (25 -30 knots)
2. Front hits – heavy rain & wind backs to S and builds. Waves build
3. Successful crossing of the EAC and big seas
4. Arrival and passage through Moreton Bay
5. Approach along Brisbane River and arrival at Rvergate Marina

It was fascinating watching the cloud formations during the morning as the front approached. At 2.30 in the afternoon a band of low lying cloud stretching from horizon to horizon consumed the sky and the front hit. I had already hove to and Fathom comfortably saw out the next hours as I stayed down below reading and trying to sleep while the wind howled in the rigging. Many birds filled the sky during the late afternoon and I stood in the companionway and watched them for some time, amused that they didn’t have a care in the world. At least I could now tick off the first two items from the list but knew that this was only the start and the worst was yet to come.

Posted on 02 Dec in: at sea - 2017

Palmerston to Tonga

Fathom departed Palmerston on the 9th August with the intention to stop at the island of Niue, about three days sail away to the west. Conditions were lively as Palmerston disappeared over the horizon with the wind hovering around 20-25 knots and a confused sea making conditions quite uncomfortable onboard. Danika left an hour after me and were soon roaring up astern, a perfect opportunity to get some photos of each boat as they passed on their way to Beveridge reef. Thanks to Moh and Oceana for getting some great shots.


By 23.30 that evening I had gone to my bunk for some sleep but was woken by John from Danika calling me on the VHF. They were about 10 miles ahead of Fathom and had just been hit by a 35 knot squall and driving rain and he was giving me a heads up. I grabbed my harness and went on deck to reduce sail even further but thankfully that one missed my location. Sleep was hard to come by as the boat rolled horribly in the confused sea. I woke up tired the next morning so an extra cup of coffee was required. The latest weather forecast downloaded from the satellite phone was quite different to the previous days and wasn’t good news. It showed an active trough/front passing over the Tonga and Niue area in 5 days time. As it moved eastwards it would bring with it very strong winds, heavy rain and even bigger seas. Furthermore as it passed the wind would back from the east, to the north, west, south and back to the east over a 48 hour period. Not the time to be at sea trying to head west. This system was also mentioned in the weather forecast from the New Zealand weather service who stated in their forecast “better to wait for this trough to make its way south-southeast, and so delay that trip towards Tonga until early next week”. Palmerston and Niue are not safe places to be with wind from the west so I had no choice but to bash on and hope I arrived in Tonga before the worst hit. It would be touch and go. I baked some bread and the smell of fresh dough baking in the oven perked me up.

On the 3rd day at sea the wind completely died so the motor was required for about 12 hours off and on in order to maintain suitable progress west. The latest weather forecast showed the trough hitting Tonga several hours earlier than before so all the more reason to keep the speed up. By this time the swell had reduced to around 2m so conditions were much more comfortable on board. The following day the wind hovered around 10 knots, just enough to sail fast enough. I celebrated turning the engine off by baking a chocolate cake. The 14th of August was memorable because it passed rather quickly. I crossed the International Date line and skipped forward 24 hours. One moment i’m 11 hours behind UTC and its the 14th and then i’m 13 hours ahead of UTC and its the 15th!

I’ll admit to feeling more and more tense and apprehensive as I closed on Tonga and knew that it would have to be a night time arrival. I started checking the weather forecast twice a day and each time I did the wind and wave estimates were higher, now 40 knots and 5m at the peak. On the afternoon of the 15h the weather began to deteriorate. Rain showers and squall clouds became more regular and it was frustrating sailing as one minute the wind was 10 knots then suddenly boom 25 knots under a cloud then back to 10 knots 5 minutes later. As the light faded that evening I could just make out the main island of Vava’u on the horizon. Meanwhile, Danika who had visited Beveridge reef were now also racing to Tonga to beat the trough but about 50 miles behind me. We kept in regular contact through texts on the satellite based inreach device.


After Fathom had rounded the northern tip of the main island around 22:30 temporary relief was found in the lee on the west side and the sea flattened out and there was some protection from the rising wind that was now blowing constantly 25 knots. Entry through the pass into the main channel is straightforward in day light but there are no navigation lights or markers so at night in driving rain and poor visibility it’s not easy. I didn’t trust my electronic charts so resorted to navigating into the channel using the radar. The rain was so hard and the night so dark that when I poked my head up past the sprayhood I was blinded and couldn’t see anything. It was the first time I had worn my sea boots and full foul weather gear since the passage to Cape Verde from the Canaries last year. The radar was working really well and it clearly showed the two small islands I had to pass between on the way in. The wind was bending round the main island so now on entry into the main channel 25- 30 knots of wind was blowing right on the nose and as the tide was coming in against the wind short steep waves were pitching the boat quite violently and almost reducing the boat speed to zero every time the bow slammed down into a trough. I crossed my fingers that the engine would keep going. Eventually Fathom made it inside into the protection of the inner channel and things calmed down and I could take a deep breath.

Friends already in Tonga had emailed earlier to say that there were no spare moorings in town due to the Oyster World Rally swallowing them up but the customs wharf was empty. I approached slowly and it was not easy trying to come alongside a high commercial wharf with strong wind trying to blow the boat off. I managed to jump up with the mooring lines and get the boat tied up without too much drama.15 minutes later, just before 01:00, Danika arrived and I waited on the dock to take their lines and help them moor up. Seemed the wrong way round that the solo sailor had to tie up his own boat and the fully crewed boat had someone waiting on the dock advising them where to moor and ready to take their lines! It was great to see the Danika gang again and I was invited onboard to celebrate our arrival with a late night rum punch. A surreal feeling to be back in Tonga again after ten years.

Posted on 10 Sep in: at sea - 2017

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

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