Groundhogs and Desert Dogs

Favourite quote from the passage: “Mum, I wish you spent more time with me.” “But Braca, I’m with you all day long.” “Yes, but I miss you when you go on night watch.”IMG_2274 (800x533).jpg

We have just spent twelve days at sea without sight of another vessel for over 1,200 miles. Without any comms, we’ve had absolutely no contact with the outside world and no interaction with another human other than the four that inhabit this 44’ space. That kind of confinement and isolation is a mindboggling concept for all but hard-core prisoners in solitary confinement and the slightly eccentric trans-oceanic cruisers Why do it, city folk may ask. The answer is simple. But I’ll leave you to figure it out from the clues left in the entries that follow.

Take two, Scene one. Rewind to Wednesday, 26th April, 2017. The expiry date on our permit was up after a three-month tour of the Maldives and we needed to prod Atea onwards; not only because that is the natural course for a cruising vessel, but also because we had a date with an aeroplane bound for Heathrow in just over two weeks that we hoped to board. Given a small window of time to make it, we had no luxury of waiting for wind. We departed Gan that balmy afternoon with a light breeze and strong currents against us. Our strategy was to cut a path due south until we got out of the strong easterly currents, then head west until we arrived in the Seychelles. In doing so we would add approximately 200 miles to the journey but we hoped to gain time by not fighting against strong currents. We would test our theory in route to see if we made the right call.

Meanwhile, we settled into life at sea. Ironically, the first day on the water always seems to be the most taxing. For one, provisioning and preparing the ship for passage is always a demanding period, filled with long and busy days. Then there is the adjustment to the movement of a boat at sea and an ever-oscillating environment around you: You have to hold onto the toilet seat to take a pee and pray you aren’t launched when leaning forward to wipe; you learn to balance a pot over a burning flame with one hand while chasing your veggies around the chopping board with a knife with the other, keeping one eye on each to avoid slashing your finger or burning your arm; you eat your meals with your plate and cup wedged between your thighs while working your hand-eye coordination to make sure what is balanced on you spoon actually makes it to your mouth. During the first few days you train your body to cope with shifts and disrupted sleep patterns, as we run the ship on a four-hour night watch routine, and you mentally and physically shift from active and social to sedentary and solitary.

The first quarter of the trip served us variable winds and strong currents against us, a good indication that our strategy to drop south as quickly as possible was a good one. On the 27th of April, the log reads: “02° 00 S, 73° 27 E, Log 85, DTG 1216: Strong current pushes us east and we’ve ended the day further from the Seychelles than when we started.” For three days we slowly slipped southeast and we watched the days tick by as our total distance to go changed little. Being concerned about the flight deadline, John ran a speed/time/distance calculation daily to graphically display our progress, or lack thereof. We passed the intertropical convergence zone on the fourth day. The current eased and the winds filled in, and we were finally able to make some westing. Excitement ran high as we turned course towards our intended destination.

IMG_1582 (800x533)Friday, 28th April: 02° 47S, 72° 53E, Log 165, DTG 1158: Today was defined by more motoring in very light winds and continued current against us. Chagos lies 70 miles off in the near distance, harbouring all our cruising mates from the Maldives. Ah, how nice it would be to pull in for a surprise visit!

Passing the northwest rim of the Chagos archipelago marked the start of the second quarter of our journey. We held 30° degrees off the rum line in order to get well south of the ITCZ and we were anxious to see if our strategy had paid off. Until that point, we’d predominately motor-sailed; with a thousand miles of sea stretched before us we knew we would push the limits of our diesel reserves unless the wind filled in at some point in the passage.  The next log entry reports:

Saturday, 29th April: 03° 56S, 71° 59E, Log 255, DTG 1070: Weather brings nothing but light winds, grey skies and intermittent punch-less squalls. Another firking bird on the solar panel. The forward water tank is half empty, indicating we have three weeks remaining on our water supply at our current consumption rate. Real shame that the watermaker membrane collapsed two weeks before departure, but at least we had a test run on rationing our fresh water before it became a necessity. Water is now reserved for cooking and to fill our drinking glasses; otherwise, all washing – body, dish and boat – is done in salt water. The forks are beginning to rust and my hair is a tangled mess but it has cut our water consumption in half.  A dip of the fuel tank shows 300 litres diesel used so far, our remaining range under power is about 1,100 miles – almost exactly the distance remaining to Seychelles, so here’s hoping for some better wind soon!

As the seabirds graced us with their company, we tried diligently to sabotage the IMG_1405 (800x533)relationship by frantically hooting and screeching them off the wind indicator and from the solar panels at full volume, madly waving and rudely gesturing on deck. They fully ignored our ridiculous, benign efforts. It looks like we will have to replace yet another wind indicator and scrub a lot of poo off our decks.

Sunday, 30th April: 04° 42 S, 70° 38 E Log: 249, DTG 958: Pancakes in the morning and another damn bird on the Windex. Finally, a steady breeze arrives and with it long periods of fast sailing. Relief!

Finally the winds filled in, the engine got a rest and we began to watch the DTG log (distance to go) start ticking down the miles. With it, our attitudes became more playful. IMG_1645 (800x533)At one stage King Neptune honoured us with a visit, marking the equatorial crossing we’d actually done in the Maldives but had been too distracted to give proper celebration to at the time. This time King Neptune Junior presided over the ceremony, blessing the family and our ship for a safe passage onward in the Southern Seas.  Our passage notes over the next few days read:

Monday, 1st May: 05° 26 S, 68° 58 E Log: 462, DTG 848: Great sailing throughout the night and clocked 102 miles in 24-hours, but winds gone by midday. We motored the rest of the day but broke the tedium with a visit by King Neptune, marking Braca’s fourth equatorial crossing. Rum dashed on the deck and down my belly…thank you Cap’n Morgan!

Tuesday, 2nd May: 06° 08S, 67° 26 E, Log 564, DTG 748:  Winds strong and great sailing throughout the day. Progress is good and the boat surges through the water so quietly. Not a rattle in the mast or a creak in the hull– the silence below deck is both reassuring and unsettling!

Pointing our bows west marked the half way point, and we felt that we were finally bound for the Seychelles rather than Antarctica. When averaging 3.5 knots a day with over 500 miles ahead, days slip quickly into a routine and the hours start ticking by with the slow countdown of the miles behind us. For the next three days Atea charged forward at an average of 6 knots, and we were finally enjoying some good progress. We’d been right to drive south and extend our miles; in doing so we saved ourselves an additional two days at sea and 400 extra miles on the engine. The ship’s log reports:

Wednesday, 3rd May: 06° 33 S, 65° 07 E, Log 706, DTG 598: 140 miles over the past 24-hours – hooray! We finally turned due west as we have enough wind right here so no need to drop further south. Our strategy has paid off and I’m ready for a beer to celebrate! Today also marks our half-way day, with 700 miles behind us and 600 left to go, so I just might have to follow the first beer with a second.

But the favourable conditions weren’t to last. The following day the winds died and we had to resume under engine to keep up our required 3.5 knot average to ensure we reached the Seychelles in time to make our 15th May flight. Tracking progress on the DTG graph allows us to have a couple of hours rest from the engine noise each day since we know we are slightly ahead of the curve.  The next two log entries read:

Thursday, 4th May: 06° 50 S, 63° 47 E, Log 791, DTG 519:  91 miles over the last twenty-four hours. Fairly windless, and the engine has started making quite a lot of smoke. Must check the piston rings. Keeping fingers crossed. Speaking of fingers, I’ve cut each of my ten digits throughout the day, bleeding out a continuous stream of red permanent marker for Dr Braca.

Friday, 5th May: 06° 43S, 62° 14 E, Log 882, DTG 427:  IMG_1725 (800x533)The last twenty-four hours yielded a 85-mile slog. We could be optimistic and say at least it is an increase over the day before. Nothing much to say, it is all a bit Groundhog Day by now. Windless, and so ever sweat-in-my-butt-crack hot. To make the most of the heat we held Desert Day onboard, with Ayla dressed up as a coyote, Braca as a snake, myself as camel and John (yes, there is a story here) as a dung-beetle. Games and activities all supported the physical melting conditions onboard.

Onboard Atea, there are two adults who run the ship around the clock and there are two children who run themselves around the ship. It might seem that a confined space would be the most taxing on a three and five year old, but they have the undeniable advantage of an overactive imagination. IMG_2024 (800x533)We’ve taken to calling our days out not by the day of the week, but by the theme of the day. On this passage, we celebrated Desert Day, Medical Emergency Day, Doctor Day (because fixing wounds was so much fun), Tropical Reef Day, and Oh-My-Graciousness-We-Are-Almost-There Day. Creating themes is a good break from routine for all of us and allows each of us to stretch our imaginations by creating outfits, scenes and objects to suit the occasion. As for coping with confinement as an adult, there is no better way to keep entertained than to get lost in the imaginary world of a young mind. It is fun to see just how much child bubbles to the surface when void of the business and preoccupation that plagues so much of our adult lives.

But it is not all play and no work on the good ship Atea. We’ve also settled into a routine with Braca’s home schooling, something we’d failed to do while wrapped up in the constant activity presented by the Maldives Rally. We focus on different skills in three to four sessions a day and it has been fun to see Braca progress through the two-week intensive course. The next test will be to see how well we do on holiday, but we all know how that typically goes.

Saturday, 6th May: 6° 19 S, 59° 02 E, Log 1075, DTG 236:  Another cause for celebration! We crossed the 1,000 mark today, leaving us with a little over 200 miles to go. John stocked the fridge with beer in anticipation, and we accidentally cracked the seal on one… whoops! We’ve lost all wind but gained one tuna. Not a fair trade.

We’ve watched the seas over the past several days, unable to identify what is causing eddies to run a line just off our port side. Our best guess is that the disturbance marks the boundary between the west-flowing equatorial current and the east-flowing counter current. In addition to the water, we’ve also watched the sun set on the horizon each evening and I am awed by the beauty and diversity of nature. Some evenings the horizon is clear and the sun a blazing orange orb, IMG_1369 (800x533)others the sun is screened behind a line of moody squalls, casting dramatic rays of yellow, orange and red across the sky. I also watch the moonset with equal awe – sometimes a bright, clear disk and at others cloaked in a shroud of cloud. Over the course of the past two weeks we’ve sailed through nights so black that every imaginable star shines brightly overhead and shooting stars periodically blaze a path overhead, and we’ve watched the moon fill in and blanket out the stars, brightening the sky and the water below it. I guess it feels different out here because there is nothing but you and the environment; there are no buildings or street noise or smog to mar the view. There is no quick, distracted glace towards the horizon before a distraction pulls you away. It is you, the sea and sky, and all the time in the world to sit and absorb it. Or maybe it is just too much time on our hands…

Monday, 8th May: 5° 35S, 57° 33.9E, LOG 1172, DTG 176: Cleaning Day – let’s get the chores done before we get in and arrive in a boat that is semi-respectable.  Water supplies have held up nicely so we splash out (ha ha) and use fresh water.

Tuesday 9th May, 11:00am, Log 1268, DTG 50. IMG_2147 (800x533).jpgAfter 1258 miles at sea and no outside contact, within five minutes a large dolphin sweeps across our bow, a flock of terns fly overhead, a boat is sighted on the horizon and behind it – Land Ho!

Tuesday 9th May, 21:30pm, Log 1318, DTG 0. We arrived into the customs anchorage at 9:30pm and after so long with the beating engine in our ears, the silence is deafening. Bliss.

We have now motored a fantastic 200 hours out of a 310-hour trip, for all intents and purposes turning our majestic sailing ship into a punch-less ocean tug. We are a veritable motor launch with sails as functional as broken wings, but regardless of the method Atea has again delivered us safely across a large expanse of ocean. Again, my imaginary city-friend pipes up, “Why do you do it?!” IMG_2300 (800x533).jpgWe do it because cruising isn’t a holiday, it is a lifestyle. It comes with all the ups and downs of everyday life in its own unique forms: The long hauls, the slow miles, the late nights, the growling storms balanced by the travel, the adventure, the discovery and the freedom. Is it all worth it? I know my answer.

The following day we cleared in and were issued a month permit for person and boat. We fly out in four days so it wasn’t an issue for us, but Atea will need extension papers before we depart. At custom’s the officer berated us: “Why do you leave so soon, you just got here! I don’t understand. Why come to the Seychelles if you are about to fly out in an aeroplane? Don’t you want to see the Seychelles? You should have flown out from the Maldives!” Clearly, a proud national. This was our first taste of the expressive and exuberant French-African culture after the more reserved, respectful tone of the Maldivians. With my excitement brimming all I can say is bring it on!