Las Palmas to Mindelo, Cape Verde. : 850 Nautical Miles
Left: Sunday 11 November at 1pm. Arrived safe and sound and with everything working (more or less!) Sunday November 18th at 1.15pm.
Time at sea: 7 days almost exactly!
Lots of lovely text. You can tell that I have free time on my hands at sea (in a way that I don’t when on land!).
From Las Palmas to Cape Verde: the big shakedown cruise (or sail south until the chocolate melts)
We were all provisioned up. Oranges and chorizo festooned the stern of the boat and the lockers were a pretty damn good attempt at being organised into crates, Tupperware boxes and silos of cans (although inevitably some key ingredients such as mustard went missing). We had had a very brief crew briefing of the cat’s cradle of new lines which now ran the length of the boat. There were new sheets called guys poling out the genoa and and preventers for securing the main sail. We ate out for our last Las Palmas supper and came back to the boat just in time for the Saturday night fireworks which we watched on the bow with ring side seats near the harbour wall. The next morning was a blur of activity, packing and cleaning and organising then finally, an hour before the 1.00pm start time, we were off!
The ARC gives its participants a great send off. As we went out through the harbour wall people were waving and cheering and there was a general party atmosphere. One boat was playing “Scotland the brave” on the bagpipes up and down the marina. Another ARC cruiser saw us and shouted out enthusiastically “Hey! Another Oyster! Whoo!” He was obviously a person of good taste and completely objective opinions.
The start was slow in light winds which turned out to be a presage of things to come. Not particularly bothered about getting a fast start and far more concerned to exit the pack safely without any mishaps, we were one of the last boats to potter past the start line in very light winds. However, we got the cruising chute (a large sail for sailing downwind) hoisted after that and we zipped past a lot of the other boats on that first afternoon. The racing element of the trip was not something I had given any thought to before, but it certainly made the trip fun and gave it extra interest. The ARC publishes the positions of all boats on a daily basis and although the dozens of boats quickly thinned out to one or two dotted about on the horizon, almost every day there was a fellow participant somewhere within AIS or VHF range. Sometimes, as on the fifth day that we were languishing in light winds, we got a call from a fellow skipper in need of a bit of a chat. “Any other ARC boats within range?” asked the skipper of Eclipse. When we answered we found he just wanted to share his frustration with the lack of wind. “Are you in the wind shadow, too?” he asked. “We need to get a move on with crew arriving on Monday”. Another boat, Ventosa 2, was tacking back and forth on a reach as we sucked up the downwind dawdle along the run line (translation for non-sailors …he was zig zagging behind and in front of us).When we radioed him to ask if he could pass to our stern he very politely made a generous course alteration and added “I’ll look you up in Mindelho”. On the second time he crossed in front of us (dammit!) and the plans were upgraded to a gin and tonic.
Downwind all the way
I was impressed by both Simon and Roger who had never actually done downwind sailing and had rigged the boat together, thinking through where all the lines would run. I apologise to anyone reading this who is not a sailor. You might want to skip this whole paragraph…
This was our first real experience of downwind sailing with anything other than a goose winged main and genoa. Suddenly we had a whole new set of lines and sheets to play with. The genoa was poled out which meant that the spinnaker pole was hoisted and kept in place with an aft and fore guy and up haul. The genoa sheets were supplemented by lazy sheets which could be lead outside the stanchions to prevent that enemy of downwind sailing… chafe. We didn’t escape completely, of course. One of the sheets chafed against another line on just the second day and we also lost the starboard navigation light on the fore deck and the metal surround to the boom light due to a little unnoticed chafing. In the end there was a little tweaking but not much. Mostly the learning curve was for the crew (I personally had a little difficulty getting my head around all these new coloured lines suddenly criss crossing around the cockpit!) and to find the best sail plan that would work for the Princess. The cruising chute was a real asset in light winds until we had the wind exactly on the stern, in which case the poled out genoa and the main were the best bet.
Another new learning point was the satellite phone. The iridium go had been set up on our previous leg to Madeira but as the exterior antenna hadn’t been mounted and hooked up until John did this in Las Palmas (thanks John) it hadn’t really worked until this leg. For the first time Simon was able to download daily weather updates, both from the ARC and from the weather routing software, Predict wind. Ron could send emails to his wife, Sabina back home and we got updates on our position from Simon’s brother, Tim in New Zealand. A tool for browsing the internet it is not, however. Simon managed to download the news headlines but not the stories behind them. All our data was consumed by a big download of Donald Trump’s face. Great. It was like going back to the days of dodgy dial up in that respect. However, as a weather prediction tool it is luxury to be able to have up to the minute forecasts and to be able to shape the route accordingly, although the guess work about out running wind shadows and catching the right wind is always partly a matter of luck.
More wind please!
The first part of the trip was quite exciting and we made good ground… towards Africa! We took the decision to sail quite a long way east in order to escape a wind shadow which extended south of the Canary Islands for over a hundred miles and to catch the stronger winds. We certainly had wind at first! By Tuesday we were in a Force 7 with squalls coming over as well and with reefs in both sails, were flying along at 8 knots (more or less our maximum speed not taking current into account). The problem came later when the wind subsided and we found ourselves in increasingly sloppy, light airs which made the boat clank and the sails flog, putting strain on rigging, sails and everybody’s nerves. It was a gamble which hadn’t paid off in retrospect, as we didn’t have the boat speed to make up for the extra miles that we had done. But then, that’s sailing! The day that everybody can plug in their routing software and have reliable forecasts that dictate the optimum route without this element of chance and sheer luck, is the day that racing simply dies. It will never happen, although there have been so many technical revolutions in sailing since the days that Simon and Roger’s Dad got them on a boat waving handheld compasses about. There are thankfully so many unknowns and random “shit happens” moments in sailing, the wind never behaves exactly as you would like and the ability to think on your feet as well as to take a best guess based on the information you have will always be a key ingredient. Robot skippers will never replace human ones, of this I am sure. Although robot skippers might be less grumpy at 4.00 in the morning when I have left the milk out of the fridge….
Motor to the rescue
Having sailed almost 600 nautical miles over 5 days we regretfully did the maths and concluded that limping into Mindelo in very light winds on a Tuesday or Wednesday ( 10 days after leaving) was not worth the diesel , especially as 5 of us had booked a day trip on the Monday to visit the neighbouring island of Santo Antao. So, reluctantly we put the engine on and motored the rest of the way. Still, every trip on this journey across the Atlantic beats a record and we had never intended to join the ARC to win prizes. The goal was always to arrive safely with as few breakdowns as possible and to enjoy the journey.
Life on board
A week in a confined space, occasionally being thrown around like a rag doll and adopting radically changed sleeping patterns with no possibility to just go for a walk and stretch your legs, obviously presents its challenges. By day 2 at sea at least four of us, John, Roger, Simon and myself had been together for over a month already. At sea it’s quite important to have a little personal time. Retiring to read in your bunk or, in my case, disappearing off to polish the stainless steel work on the bow, is necessary to the crew’s sanity. I had heard that you “get into a routine” and that the days go quickly, and so it is. It was luxury to finally be able to relax and read a book (albeit an audio book in my case) after the manic preparations in Gibraltar and Las Palmas.
I settled into my Stugeron (anti sea sickness tablets) aided sleep rich life, doing a lot of sleeping at first! This in itself is a total luxury. The sailing that I had done with Simon double handed had meant arriving at port exhausted and pinching yourself to stay awake during the boring night watches. On this leg, a four hour night watch in company quickly became a bit of a treat for me. It is an opportunity to sit back and watch the stars, have the run of the boat to ourselves and chat with your other half or pal. The way we had organised our watches, Roger and Ron, Cathy and John and me and Simon were together for our watches. I had had the impression that I had hardly seen Simon since Gibraltar, such were the demands on his time, so this was a nice opportunity to spend some time with him, just the two of us.
The cockpit during the day becomes the social area where we meet and share a drink and a chat, as well as being the working area of the boat. We got into the routine of having dinner together at 6pm and getting together around sunset (which is quite early, at 7pm). On our last day at sea, we decided to treat ourselves to a mid ocean swim, trailing a floating line behind the boat. By now, (Saturday, a full five days after having left) the weather had made the transition from warm to hot and we unfurled the sun screens over the bimini. I was amazed to see delicate, phosphorescent jellyfish on my swim, over a hundred miles from land.
John earned yet another crew brownie point by unhooking a plastic bag that had got snarled around the prop. It was invigorating to go for a swim and only slightly alarming to see a mysterious lone fin circling in a tight hunting circle just metres from the boat only an hour later. Roger pointed out that it couldn’t have been a shark as we couldn’t see its tail. Nevertheless, it gave us food for thought. Luckily no food for sharks.
This trip finally put an end to Roger and John’s streak of ecologically sound fishing in which from Gibraltar to Madeira no fish were harmed, or caught although some lures went missing. Finally Roger caught a tuna, only to have it taken by some bigger beast as he trailed it behind the boat to bleed it. A few hours later, John hooked out a beautiful tuna which was just the perfect size for dinner and sushi and lunch for 6. This formidable fish is truly amazing… it is almost as round as a football with nothing but pure muscle. The meat was warm with its effort to resist being reeled in. After this we took out the fishing rods as we had too much meat to scoff down in two days and limited freezer capability. In fact, one of our early gremlins was that our fridge and freezer stopped working on day one of the trip! This was infuriating, obviously, as the bloody things had worked without a hitch all across the Mediterranean. However, there seems to be a correlation between turning down the freezer temperature and temporary breakdown. As soon as the freezer had come up to around minus 1 degree, they both came back online again. However, on day 6 our water maker suddenly stopped working after a week of flawless operation. This may make for a considerably less comfortable crossing. At the moment of writing I am crossing my fingers and toes that we can find a way to get it up and running again before leaving on the big step.
Fine dining aboard the Princess
As for food on board… if there were an ARC award for the best provisioning, I think we would be up on that podium. I had read so many times that food is important and a good morale booster on any long sea trip and that it is important to think of some little treats and provision up on those as well as tins of beans and cabbage. I had not realised that putting on weight on board would be a danger! For all of this step of the journey we have dined like kings, thanks in large part to Cathy and John’s excellent provisioning organisation. They had compiled an excel sheet weeks in advance, emailing us to ask for recipes that we would like to cook and making a rota for evening meals. Roger had found an excellent butcher in Las Palmas who vac packed meat and provided fresh chicken, salmon, bacon and beef. And as for Ron’s baking… the freshly baked focaccia bread is behind me as I write this and I am doing my best to resist it.
Over the finishing line
So we got into Cape Verde safe and sound on Sunday at lunchtime. I did my final night watch with the distant lights of three of Cape Verde’s ten islands twinkling in the distance on my bow and went to bed at my usual time of 6am only to wake at 11 with the stark and uncompromising volcanic islands clearly visible through the saloon windows. The shock was such after days at sea that tears came to my eyes.
We got in to Mindelo marina almost exactly a week from having left. We were greeted by one of the ARC representatives almost immediately and felt a rush of camaraderie towards the other boats that had made it. It was fun to meet the crews in person on board boats whose names we knew so well from our AIS (Automatic Identification System) on the chart plotter. We had arrived safe and sound and with the boat in one piece without any major repairs needing to be done. We were not the fastest boat in the fleet certainly, but arrived safely with a great feeling of excitement nonetheless to have made it this far. The air was definitely warm and tropical and I couldn’t wait to see what was on the other side of the marina quayside. I did stop at the marina bar for a cool beer on the way, though…
To be continued!
We leave on Wednesday 21 November from Mindelo, Cape Verde to St Lucia. Follow us on www.worldcruising.com and then Follow the fleet.