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!