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

Archive for the “at sea – 2020” Category

Azores to the UK

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!

Posted on 05 Aug in: at sea - 2020

Antigua to the Azores – Part 3

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.

Posted on 28 May in: at sea - 2020

Antigua to the Azores – Part 2

2nd Update from Sea: 22nd May 2020
32deg10’N 036deg06’W

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!

Posted on 22 May in: at sea - 2020

Antigua to the Azores – Part 1

1st Update from Sea: 13th May 2020
28deg32′.1N 053deg11′.4W

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.

Posted on 13 May in: at sea - 2020

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