Having had a little time to relax in the sunshine after our crossing, it is fun now to look back at our trip together, reflect on some of the highs and lows, the places we saw, the people we met and the time we spent together. I think it’s safe to say that although we were prepared for the trip to require lots of hard work and preparation, neither Simon nor I had imagined just how much work would be involved. There seemed to be a mad dash from the time we joined the boat in April to making the deadlines involved in an Atlantic crossing. We could never have done it without our amazing crew who mucked in and got into the spirit of things immediately. It was great that the trip from the Cape Verdes across the Atlantic to Saint Lucia was so exciting. After a slow start we found ourselves with plenty of wind, in fact gale force winds for several days and initially quite steep, sharp waves. The boat made record speed and we finished on a high on the final day, squeezing in ahead of three other boats who were on level peggings with us. The Princess turned out to be the perfect boat for the conditions, strong and stable (sorry Theresa, but in this case the cap fits!). We learned a lot about all sorts of things. There are many things that we could have improved on as Skipper and first mate, and would do differently now but to use a hackneyed phrase, we have come a long way together. And after three weeks in the Caribbean, I still have to pinch myself when I think that we sailed here under our own steam or rather, under sail power alone (except for a few engine hours at the start of our trip). We have come a long way indeed since Corfu and with lots and lots of help from our wonderful crew we have achieved our dream to restore the Princess from her former condition as an occasional Med holiday boat to the true, blue water, ocean going vessel that she had been designed to be. She didn’t let us down.
Some highs and lows of the trip
I had been told that the Atlantic crossing from the Canaries is the gentlest crossing you can make, more often than not bedevilled by calms and lack of wind. I had heard that crossing from the Cape Verdes is even gentler and known as the milk run, a favourite with families who make the crossing with their kids. The trade winds are known to be better established in January and a crossing in November is a little on the early side. In light winds coming down from Las Palmas we had languished at under 5 knots for a couple of days as the wind dipped below 10 knots. I downloaded a good many audio books in the Cape Verdes and fully expected to have ample time to listen to them all.
So, it was rather a surprise, two days into our trip to have gale force winds. The wind went from nothing to an exhilarating 30 plus knots! The waves were anything from 2 to 4 metres high and quite steep, rather than being the gentle ocean swell that we had grown used to on the way down from Gibraltar. The seas were also a little confused at first, which means that moving around the boat was a bit of a challenge. We hit 9 knots of boat speed, peaking at 10 knots in the gusts. For a couple of days, we averaged 8 knots of boat speed. We know this thanks to the daily ARC reports which gives the boats’ positions and distance from the finish as well as their average speed over the last 24 hours as calculated from the Yellow Brick tracker which was installed on the stern of all boats. That is an amazing achievement when you consider that there is a maximum speed through the water which any boat can physically reach and which is dependent on the length of the boat (known as the maximum hull speed). Ours is just over 8 knots, so we were travelling at around maximum speed or more (which can happen when you surf down a wave for example) for 48 hours non stop.
Rock and roll
Friends of ours have named their boat “Crock n roll” as their surname is Crockaert. They are apparently dreaming of making the Atlantic trip themselves. If they do so, they will no doubt learn how aptly they have named their boat! I had been warned of the rolling motion of a boat in an Atlantic swell and on the windy days I understood why. It was, without exaggeration, like living on a fairground ride for days on end. Simple actions like eating and drinking became tricky and cooking was a circus act. At times it felt like astronaut training (although astronauts get to go home at the end of the day and relax). The lee cloths (partitions to
stop the sleeper from rolling out of bed) were deployed for those on the crew who had them (sorry John and Cathy!). Our double bed suddenly looked like a chastity bed with separate compartments. A stiff dacron curtain separated me from Simon and prevented him from rolling on top of me and crushing me in the waves (or vice versa). Poor Cathy had to go through another period of feeling green about the gills before getting her sea legs again. Everybody spilled things, sometimes in spectacular fashion. On my birthday, I foolishly left my wash bag on the side in the heads (bathroom) and returned five minutes later to find it upended and all the contents swimming in the loo. On another occasion, I put a gin and tonic on the coach roof momentarily and as I stood in the gangway (on the stairs) it promptly upended over my head. Rather than falling, it was hurled at velocity, so it rather felt as if the Princess had thrown my drink in my face. As I retreated sheepishly to the galley to wipe the gin out of my eyes, I wondered if I had said anything to offend her.
Most importantly though, although there were a few sprains and knocks (notably John and Roger managed to remove the skin from the tops of their heads regularly as they passed under the low doorways) we got through this bumpy time without anybody having sustained any injuries.
The right boat for the job
This is the moment perhaps to sing the praises of the Princess, even if she did act like a diva and resort to tricks like spilling my toiletries into the toilet on my 50th birthday.
Still, she was a pleasure to sail. The centre cockpit which is not spacious as an eating out space when docked in a marina became a cosy and secure space in which I never felt alarmed, in spite of constant gale force winds and building seas. I remember that on our previous Benneteau Oceanis, Thursday Island, a more conventional marina style boat with a cockpit open at the stern, I had to train myself not to look back at the building seas when sailing downwind in a force 5. And yet, here we were merrily speeding down the waves in a force 7 to 8 and feeling snug. The cockpit no longer seemed cramped on those occasions when all six of us were awake and congregated for dinner or a chat. In these conditions it felt secure and looking back at the waves behind the stern of the boat was not a frightening prospect.
The Princess weighs thirty tonnes and has a solid, encapsulated rudder, solid as a barn door. It was one of the reasons that Simon chose her. Modern boats are designed with lighter displacement to travel more quickly and depend on their hull shape for form stability having much lighter keels. As a result, in big seas they slam into the waves and slew from side to side in the water, thrown about by the waves when travelling downwind. The Princess was designed to track through the waves rather than to skid over them. Although the motion inside the boat was challenging, I can only imagine what it must have been like on smaller, lighter boats. One skipper that we met in Saint Lucia when we had arrived in the Caribbean described his sleep deprivation during the windiest part of the trip. He said that it was as if someone was striking him on the shoulder with every wave.
Ground control to Major Tom…
There was only one moment when I felt a little spooked by the potential threat to life of this venture and it was nothing to do with a particular incident but merely a trick of the imagination. I watched “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” on my laptop one night. There is a scene where one of the characters is cast from his space ship and left to suffocate in the vast emptiness of space. It suddenly struck me that our boat was like that tiny space ship carrying its fragile human cargo in an immense, hostile sea. The reality was that, sitting in the snug cockpit on my night watch I was always only a few feet from certain death. Anyone who ventured outside the cockpit was, of course, always clipped on and wearing a lifejacket. However, we also always wore a knife with our lifejackets to cut ourselves free in the eventuality of being thrown overboard by a rogue wave. Life harnesses are designed to prevent you from being lost overboard but in practice they can also drag you along the hull, banging your head against the side of the boat and submerging you in the waves. We all knew that if anyone were to go overboard at night despite our state-of-the-art automatic inflation life jackets and our portable AIS systems, the chances of being retrieved alive would be extremely slim in such high waves and fast winds. The boat was travelling at 10 knots and a human head, the size of a cabbage, would be impossible to see in the waves after a few metres. I wasn’t often given to these musings but that night, as I sat comfortably in the cockpit listening to my audio book and drinking my tea, I looked out at the ocean with more than usual recognition of the clichéd need to respect the sea.
Racing up the pack
At first, we could see a bunch of boats on our AIS and followed Mon Ami of Sweden for several days. A Benneteau 57, 59 feet long and much lighter than us, we were proud to be keeping pace with her. We got occasional radio calls from her. Matts told us that his wife, Louise was happy to see another boat nearby. One day we heard them announce that they had eaten fresh baked Swedish scones for breakfast and wished they were out of radio distance! We had left the smaller boats far behind. The likeable crew of the 37-foot Bavaria, Corryevechan had invited us to take part in their Poetry night on Saturday if we were within VHF range. Writing a poem for the occasion was thankfully not necessary!
Lat and long
Although every day we received the list of other ARC boats with their latitude and longitude, we couldn’t follow our progress relative to the other boats as easily as friends and family back home who could log in to the ARC website and pull up our track as well as that of all the other ARC participants. We got emails from Simon’s brother, Tim in New Zealand, congratulating us for our progress and for doing so well in moving up the pack. It felt good not to be dawdling along at the back of the pack again as we had been on the previous leg to the Cape Verdes. As the trip went on, we were more and more excited to see
ourselves moving up the pack and looked forward to Tim’s updates eagerly. After a few days of trying to plot all the other boats’ positions on the latitude and longitude scale, we realised that the daily ARC update contained the useful information “DTF”; distance to finish. Suddenly we were able to gage our position relative to the rest of the pack quickly and easily. We went from 17th position to 15th. In a group of 72 boats we found ourselves in front of some much bigger, lighter and more modern boats. That was a morale booster that we expected to come to a sudden stop with a change in our wind fortunes but every day the news continued to be more and more encouraging. We started to take an interest in racing tactics and in studying the strategies of our fellow ARC boats in a way that we hadn’t on the previous leg to the Cape Verdes when we had found ourselves at the back of the pack!
Predict the wind
On route, Simon managed to master the Iridium go, our satellite phone and the accompanying weather routeing software, Predictwind. He was often absorbed for hours on end at his navigation table, staring at the tablet, trying to will the latest weather forecast to come on down. Although it is possible to get a daily update to the weather forecast with waves, gusts and all manner of information which is far superior to the Met office bulletin style of the weather prediction emails that we received daily from the ARC, in practice you need the patience of a well-rested saint to be able to download them. Patience that a sleep deprived skipper had to dig deep to find. As for picking up email, every time the connection broke, Simon had to start again.
He made a bold decision only a couple of days into the trip. Again, we would go south of the rhumb line to get greater wind. It was a gamble which hadn’t paid off on the previous leg, when we had watched other boats sail past us in a straight line down to Mindelo, while we bobbed around off the coast of Africa on a course which had put extra sea miles on the journey but had promised to pay off with stronger wind. The wind had not materialised however, and we had limped into Mindelo having had recourse to our engine. So, it was doubly brave to deviate from the course
The more successful Oyster, Moana, had come into Mindelo in the Cape Verdes a full two days before us, one of the first boats to complete this leg. The skipper, Steve, had modestly professed to having had the simplest of strategies which he had stuck to. “I just go down the rhumb line” he said, “as these boats are quite heavy, so you don’t make up the extra miles with extra speed”. However, in this instance Simon got it right. We blasted along in high winds all the way to Saint Lucia, with day after day of record speeds. Roger had asked us all to estimate the top speed of the boat that we would achieve as well as the day and time that we would reach Saint Lucia before setting off from Mindelo. I had never seen the Princess exceed 9 knots and made a conservative estimate of 9.2 knots. We regularly topped 10 knots and reached 11.7 knots on a particularly gusty night watch (John and Cathy always seemed to have the windiest night watches).
Keep it simple
Although we had kept our original genoa and had plans to fly both genoas at once in a configuration called a twizzle rig, in the end we sailed so well with a more conventional goose winged sail plan and with the genoa poled out that we never got the old genoa out of the bag. It was still useful though, as at one point Simon lost his balance and fell on his backside onto the genoa bag which lived in the saloon. It cushioned his fall perfectly!
We did have a secret weapon to our sail plan, however. The goose wing was improved on by putting up our stay sail on the same side as the main. This had the effect of funnelling the wind into the genoa, ensuring a more stable sail with no collapsing of the foresail. It also seemed to add half a knot of boat speed. This was a tip from Eddie Scougal, the engineer at Oyster whose two courtesy visits to the Princess were invaluable for giving us tips and drawing our attention to minor issues which could have become major ones, such as the worn bearings in the boom or the need to replace the exhaust elbow on the engine.
Our sail plan worked so beautifully that we rarely needed to change it, except for reefing down in the squalls which often seemed to come at night. Again, John and Cathy seemed spoiled for the attentions of the wind gods at night. The radar helped to pick out the squalls, showing them as evil looking pink clouds which often seemed to surround the boat. These squalls meant sudden downpours as well as high winds. Although we were almost always in t-shirts and shorts even at night, the exception came when these squalls arrived. I mostly managed to sleep through them, however, although Simon would be up and down “more often than a tart’s knickers” as he said.
It’ll be alright on the night
Amazing to report, but the boat gremlins gave up the ghost in Cape Verde. Maybe the warmer climate just doesn’t suit them. They had followed us pretty constantly throughout the Med with everything from the Autopilot to the water pump breaking down. They had put in a decent appearance on the leg from the Canaries to the Cape Verdes when both generator and water maker gave us a scare and stopped working, as well as the fridge and the freezer. However, Simon managed to reboot the generator by carrying out an impromptu electrical service (otherwise known as waggling the wires). Once in the Cape Verdes the water maker came back on line and has behaved itself beautifully ever since. The fridge and freezer issue was solved. iIf the thermostat freezes after a period on constant shore power in a marina both go on strike until it thaws thoroughly. In other words our fridge and freezer don’t like to be too cold.
In conclusion, throughout the trip we had as many fresh water showers as we wanted, power when we wanted it and fresh, cold drinks. As for salt water showers, they were restricted to the teak decks.
So, wonders never cease, we didn’t have a single gremlin on our Atlantic crossing. Nothing broke down at all except for the generator malfunction which was rapidly resolved. The only issues we had were a couple of broken blocks which we replaced with dyneema shackles and some lines which chafed but that we identified and changed. Once we arrived in Saint Lucia we realised that we had let out the boom too far and scratched it. However, the damage was merely cosmetic. We had got away with a scratch on our paint work! We tried not to feel smug but couldn’t help giving the Princess a few compliments. Good old girl. It’s not as if we hadn’t put her through her paces on this trip.
Many a time Simon and I thanked our lucky stars that the Autopilot had broken down in Stromboli and resolved to send an email to the Italian engineer who fixed it in Palermo, Vincenzo. We were lucky to find him, a registered Raymarine mechanic who took both autopilots away and brought them back, thoroughly serviced and repaired just two days later. We have always called the autopilot “George” and he was the hardest working member of the crew, helming for mostly 24 hours a day in very high winds and confused seas. From the comfort of our living room back in February when we first called our first crew meeting, we had resolved to hand helm for half of our watches. That didn’t happen! Helming downwind in high winds is highly skilled work and an unplanned gybe can be disastrous for the boat. It is certainly hard work to helm in a lot of wind at the best of times. Lying in my bunk and listening to the hard work that George the auto pilot was doing, I thanked my lucky stars that he was on our crew!
Race to the finishing line
The final day was an adrenalin-soaked race to the finish. Ten days at sea over 2000 nautical miles covered and we found ourselves within spitting distance of three other boats, all at level peggings with us to finish the rally. This peloton included Hummingbird, a Clipper boat which had once been part of Robin Knox-Johnson’s round the world fleet which rounds the Cape Horn and undertakes similar feats of racing prowess. She now takes paying crew across the Atlantic. Roger’s racing instincts kicked in. He took to the helm and hand steered tirelessly the whole day, attentive to each gust and the slightest wind shift, tweaking the course and the sail trim to add another half a knot of boat speed here and there, shaving off the distance between us and the rest of the pack. He worked in tandem with Simon at the navigation table to make course decisions and get the fastest approach to the island. When I asked him later for his favourite memory of the trip, he cited that day, so I am happy for him that his favourite day was the final one, finishing on a high.
At one point we even deployed the cruising chute and had it goose winged with the genoa … for maybe five minutes before a squall came and spoiled the fun, obliging us to quickly douse the cruising chute again.
It was my turn to cook that night and for some reason that I cannot now fathom, I decided that it would be the right evening to cook the meal that I had intended to cook on my birthday but hadn’t: duck and chips. I had ordered three massive cans of confit de canard (French duck, precooked and oozing in delicious duck fat) thinking that this would be the easiest recipe in the world to cook. After all, I had done it at home and it was easy as pie. Open can, warm duck in frying pan, cook sautéed potatoes in lovely duck fat, add green beans. Voila.
Except that the racing became critical, the wind switched to being on the beam and we were over on our arse, crashing through the waves. First, I had to parboil the potatoes. A huge pan of boiling water became a liability and I understood why the ARC organisers recommend that you wear a plastic apron and boots when boiling any food at sea. The pan lid crashed across the galley, I managed to splash boiling water down my leg and then skidded around in the water when I put ice cubes onto the burn with one hand while holding the pan in the other. I opened the can of duck. Instantly the duck fat (which had been solid when I’d cooked this dish in the UK around Christmas but was liquid at Caribbean temperatures) sloshed over the surfaces and quickly seemed to coat everything, myself included. I found myself slipping around as we tacked in what would have looked like a circus comedy, had there not been so much colourful language from the cook. One by one, fellow crew members very sweetly came to visit me to ask, in a concerned way, did I need any help? Could they do anything? They were all very polite about the duck and chips when it was served up.
In the end, we came in to Saint Lucia ahead of the three other boats, so the exciting racing finish had a happy ending. I popped my head out into the cockpit and couldn’t believe how quickly we had come up onto the island. When I had started cooking there had been the faint signs of what could have been a distant island or a cloud on the horizon. Once the chips were finished, Saint Lucia stood bold and clear on our port bow. What’s more, it all looked like a photo shop dream in a spectacular sunset. Days and days of tending the boat across the ocean and suddenly land had come up in the time it took me to laboriously hand cook chips for six in batches, which was admittedly quite a long time.
Another chapter was beginning. Land ahoy!