Some unexpected new terms have entered the global lexicon in 2020. Lockdown and social isolation might have been applied differently in various countries but it’s a term we’ve all come to accept. A friend from New Zealand commented, “I hope that this lockdown ends soon, I’ve run out of things to polish on the boat” as the great Kiwi summer slipped by without any of the country’s most beloved boating activity. In the United States, the lockdown assumed a political flavour as half the nation asserted the right of the individual to conduct business and not wear a mask, whereas the other half of the nation asked in despair for leadership and a medical solution to a deepening crisis. Where Atea rested, the South African lockdown included a total ban on all alcohol sales – only our foresight and the stocks held in preparation for a lengthy cruising season saved us from that particular disaster. Despite regional variations, lockdown and social isolation are now globally understood but for the crew of Atea, we took the terms one step further and applied the complete lockdown and isolation to a two month passage from South Africa to Europe.
It was never supposed to be this way. Our pre-pandemic schedule included breaking our journey up at the sand dunes of Namibia, the quirky isolation of Saint Helena, the remote secrecy of Ascension and the mystery of the Cape Verde islands. We had winds at our tail and an ocean to choose from. However, these destinations closed their borders one by one as countries around the globe responded to the pandemic. Even our final destination, the Azores, was not allowing sailors ashore when we departed South Africa. However, we felt that Europe would get on top of the pandemic before Africa did so we decided to take our chances. After a two month passage surely the situation would swing in our favour… besides, winter was coming and the liquor shops were still shut.
The distance from Cape Town to the Azores is 5,500 miles and the extra miles needed to account for wind and weather would stretch that to 6,000. This was further than either of us had ever travelled by sea before, but circumstances left us with no option. For a Pacific Ocean perspective on distance, this would be like sailing nonstop from Vancouver or Panama to Auckland, across the whole vastness of the world’s biggest ocean. We knew that it would take us 50 to 60 days to complete and we also knew that the only way to mentally survive this would be not to count the days. We would need to achieve a total state of zen, living only in the present and ignoring what lay ahead of us. We would travel from 33 degrees south of the equator to 38 degrees north and cross five distinct weather patterns, each approximately 1000 miles in distance. The journey would therefore be measured in 1000 mile chunks, with each milestone celebrated and ticked off as a passage done.
The Benguala Current and African Coast: The First 1,000 Miles
Day 1—4 June 2020: Finally, after two months of lockdown, Departure Day! Due to the circumstances of the lockdown, we have been unable to complete proper Customs and Port clearance from South Africa, so we leave the country not only with blacklisted passports but also with the risk of that a fast boat full of burly border security guards might chase us down and force us back. We plan various mitigations. Do we attempt to speak only poor French over the radio? Do we bluster our way through it and insist on our sovereign rights? Do we pretend that this was only a short fishing trip? Use the cover of darkness? In the end some light sea fog gives us cover, and perhaps it was coffee time in the watch tower. Atea slips out without being challenged and we relax a little more with each passing mile.
The tension is not just confined to the skipper. Braca is so upset at leaving his friends behind that he is inconsolable, entreating us to turn back. Ayla is confused that the other boats are not following, and the cats are wide eyed and fearful as their world slips the lines and leaves the dock. Perhaps they imagine that the boat is stable and the rest of the world is drifting away from us? Perhaps they are right.
Over the following week we maintain a 100 mile distance from the coastline, trying to keep a comfortable distance between us and the authorities. The weather has turned cold – double woolly hat cold – and we regret not having enough blankets onboard. We settle into watch-keeping and schoolwork routines and reacquainted ourselves with cooking on unstable surfaces as the coastlines of South Africa, Namibia and Angola pass down our starboard side. After two years ashore Atea is picking up from where we left off in early 2018, a pelagic craft and with crew who know the routine. The two new feline crew members take some time to acclimatise, but as cats instinctively do they settled into the most comfortable sleeping spots. We eat, sleep and sail as our own little bubble cast adrift on the winds and waves of the south Atlantic. We leave the crazy world of pandemic-dominated headlines behind and we withdraw into a social isolation that most people have never known.
Day 6 through 11—10-15 June: There is a fierce low battering South Africa bringing snow to the hills and shivering temperatures to where we have just departed. At this distance the same weather system brings us four days of strong 25 to 30 knot southerly winds and big seas. Conditions are bitterly cold and rolling crazily but with Atea running north under staysail only, we finally break free from the winter and boost ourselves north into more pleasant latitudes. The double woolly hats can finally go back into their lockers. On our tenth day at sea, we cross off our first 1,000 miles and celebrate – no school work, a midday beer, presents for the kids to mark the occasion, and we watch Frozen, confident that our next mini-passage will be farther and farther from the southern winter.
The Southeast Winds and the Islands We Missed: 1,000 to 2,000 Miles
After the blow, the winds moderated to conditions that other yachts had fondly reminisced about to us – “Ah yes, the SE trades – my favourite stretch of ocean” or “One of the most benign areas I’ve ever had the pleasure of crossing.” With the winter clothes back in the closet and perfect conditions to hand, our passage started to assume the ‘zen’ that we’d been seeking. The kids settled into the routine of schoolwork, we acclimatised to our watch-keep routine and the gentle winds were steady and temperatures pleasant. Global crisis? What global crisis?
We aim to have one adult awake at all times while on passage and our watch-keeping routine had evolved into a steady pattern that suited each of us. John would be on watch from midnight until seven, keeping the ship steady through the darkest hours of the night. At seven am Kia would take over along with the morning tasks of feeding cats and kids and starting homework for the day. School work would consume the early part of the day, and in the afternoon we would relax as the kids played. John would go to bed early evening following dinner, and the routine would start again at midnight.
Day 16—16 June: We crossed the Greenwich Meridian today, zero degrees longitude. We’ve gone from the eastern to the western hemisphere. We are now half way around the globe and for the first time in ten years we are getting closer to home rather than further away from it.
Equatorial Transit and the Half-Way Point: 2,000 to 3,000 Miles
As our passage track extended our across the South Atlantic and our own lockdown passed its three week duration its worth looking at what makes this different to lockdown at home. Lockdown at Home: Live at home but travel to the shops if you require anything. Whatever you do, do not stockpile goods! Kids can do schoolwork via internet or library books. Adults can catch up with friends via high speed tele-networking apps, open a fresh wine from the capacious fridge and not worry about commuting to work for a few weeks. In the evening, select a new movie from Netflix for your widescreen TV.
Conversely, Lockdown at Sea: Everyone lives in one room about the size of an average domestic kitchen and there is no escape. It is hot. You’re tired but the cat litter tray needs changing. During an argument over why schoolwork is important, you tread on a piece of Lego that seems to have been sharpened for maximum pain. Any food not stockpiled three weeks ago in front of disapproving shoppers remains a craving, amplified by the fact that the next shop is a thousand miles away. The fridge is too small and overstuffed with necessities to chill a beer, and most of the contents fall out when the boat rolls so it is easier to just leave the door shut. Like everything else around here, the fridge is too warm and overwhelmed by the heat. You are isolated in the middle of an ocean and the batteries are too flat to watch the TV (which is broken anyway). Oh yes, don’t forget you have to get up in the middle of the night…..
That is the glass half empty perspective on our life. The log is the reminder of the glass half full:
Day 19—21 June: Wind 150, 15 knots, sunshine. Running under main and poled out genoa, we’ve had the same conditions all day and haven’t touched the sheets. The previous day days have been exactly the same. The new Hydrovane self-steering is quietly doing its job, hour after hour, day after day, as the sea miles roll gently under our keel. Our aim of reaching an oceanic zen feels completed on days like this. We are a self-contained unit, removed from the rest of the world as the days merge into each other.
Day 26—28 June: Atea crossed the equator today. King and Queen Neptune came onboard to celebrate and grant safe passage through the north Atlantic, and a tot of rum is offered to the crew, the yacht and the ocean. We’d warned the kids that we’d be getting a special visit today to congratulate them and they cleaned the cabin in excited preparation. Both were genuinely disappointed to find that King and Queen Neptune was just mum and dad in disguise – again – and that the promised escort of mermaids were nowhere to be seen. It’s Braca’s fifth equator crossing by yacht so you’d think he might have known that the mermaids were going to be a no show? But then again, what man wouldn’t be excited by the prospect of these water maidens boarding mid-passage?
Day 25—27 June: 3,000 Mile Day. With the half way point, the equator crossing and 3000 mile all coming within a few days of each other, it feels like it has been a week of parties. A good thing, too, since the next two legs will be the hardest.
The Doldrums: 3,000 to 4,000 Miles
With the equator and the half way point behind us, we look towards the second half of the journey and the challenge of finding a route into the northern hemisphere weather patterns. The scientific name for this region is the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) , but it is known to sailors as The Doldrums or, more starkly, The Horse Latitudes (so named for the live cargo that used to be thrown overboard due to lack of fresh water whilst becalmed). With a steady diesel engine we don’t worry about being stuck for weeks but we do need to retain enough fuel for the approach to the Azores. We consider two routes: A westerly path means a better likelihood of wind and less motoring, but a longer distance to travel and a worse sailing angle on the approach to our destination. An easterly path offers a shorter distance and better sailing angle but we may burn up our diesel reserves in light weather so that we risk being becalmed within sight of the finish line. As a further complication to planning, a lack of remaining satellite minutes this month means that our weather map is out of date – our final path is based on outdated science and a prudent amount of silent prayer.
Day 29—1 July: Our heads are blocked today so we spend the morning dismantling the toilet and discovered various treasures wrapped around the macerator, then pass the rest of the day shouting at the kids who are fighting each other. Clearly the heat and the time at sea is getting to all of us. The time at sea is beginning to tell on our hardware as well. The breakage list now includes the leaky engine cooling, chafed spinnaker sheets, and today we add the 240V invertor to this list. We can use a work-around to keep computers and cameras running, but this means no coffee grinder and therefore no coffee for the rest of the trip. The bickering that has started is about to get worse!
Day 33—5 July: Snowball fight followed by Hands to Bathe at 10N. Before departure Kia found some fake snow at a novelty shop. By mixing this miracle powder with water we have quite a realistic snowball fight on the aft deck, ambient temperature 30 degrees and all suitably protected against the sun of this latitude. I’ve read of yachts in Patagonia making snowmen on deck, but proud to claim that no other yachts have had a snowball fight at 10N. To clean off, we stop the ship and order “Hands to Bathe.” Everyone jumps overboard. No need to look out for the deep end of the pool at an unknown depth in excess of 3,000 meters. The kids love this and don’t seem to think about the endless rich blue beneath their toes. We’ve done it for the past three days in a row but it is only an option in calm weather.
Day 34—6 July: 4000 Mile Day – this has been another undemanding mini-passage to put behind us. Only time will tell if we made the right choices to conserve fuel and pick the right route, but we today celebrate our true transit into the northern hemisphere weather systems and the summer to come.
The Northeast Trades: 4,000 to 5,000 Miles
Perhaps the toughest stretch of the voyage came as we left ‘The Doldrums’ and entered the NE Trades – a belt of reliable and relentless winds from the north east. For centuries these winds have been the sailors friend, named the ‘Trades’ since that was where you could reliably establish trading routes. However, these winds are only friendly if you are going downwind. Taking them on the nose as we were doing is a very different story:
Day 38—10 July: Ugh, the Trades have had a northerly slant for the last three days and Azores remain obstinately 1500 miles directly upwind. We are close hauled but laying 60 degrees off the desired track. Despite pounding up and down and punching wave after wave aside, most of our progress is sideways rather than towards the destination. Cooking while heeled over results in a ‘mystery chuck-it-all-in stew’ and our aspirations turn towards golf as a far more desirable pastime.
Try this exercise to experience the conditions onboard: Put all the settee cushions under one side of the mattress and place two children and one adult in a suitably tilted bed. Try to not roll onto the kids while a friend shakes the bed violently every 15 seconds while you attempt sleep. When your time comes to get up in the middle of the night it will come as a relief as there is no more need to pretend laying in bed is remotely restful.
We battle these winds for four long days, taking wave after wave over the bows and stripping life on board down to the basics – eat, try to rest, go on watch. The kids are unaffected by the weather but push for a break in schoolwork since they know that both parents have lost their will to fight. While a tiring period for the adults, the kids revel in their freedom.
Conditions gradually ease as predicted and we eventually find a better slant on the winds:
Day 40—12 July: After forty days at sea our fresh food stocks began to peter out. We still have a few eggs, one more apple and some cabbage. We ate our last eggplant curry today in which we saluted its longevity. However, we do have some tricks up our sleeve (or more accurately, in our cupboard). Before departure Kia had the foresight to can and preserve a variety of vegetables, so we can still supplement beetroot, beans, capsicum and carrots from our canning jars. And as a bonus, the diminished stocks in the fridge mean that there is finally space for a few beers and a wine in the bottom shelf. Take That, South African Liquor Ban!!
The Azores High: 5000 to 6000 Miles
A Meteorologist would refer to the Azores High as the semi-stationary sub-tropical area of high pressure and low winds in the mid-Atlantic, often centred just south of the Azores Islands. On Atea we refer to the Azores High as that feeling that we both experienced when the end point became tantalisingly close and we finally allowed ourselves to start counting the days remaining on this epic passage.
Day 45—17 July: We are approaching the Azores High and the winds are getting weaker and weaker. After motoring through the doldrums and running the engine to keep the batteries charged over the past six weeks, we register 300 litres on our fuel dip which leaves us 100 hours or 400 miles under power. This is not quite enough to reach our destination which is 550 miles away. Some cunning and patience will be needed to eek out our precious diesel reserves.
Day 53—25 July: An excited crew awake to the sight of Faial Island on the horizon. We are motoring in very light wind, but put the revs up after a careful calculation shows that we should arrive with 5% of fuel remaining. By 3pm the anchor is down, by 3:15 the champagne cork is popped and at 6:00 an arranged supplier drives up in his dinghy dressed in full hazmat to deliver hamburgers and fries. There is a family frenzy in the cockpit as these fantasy treats are devoured in record time.
And so, after 53 days and 5,888 miles our ultimate lockdown is complete. After being Covid-tested the following day we were permitted to re-join the world. As always, Atea ended her journey a little bit battered but not beaten. There is a long list of boat repairs we must attend to, but this is to be expected after such a passage. How did the crew do after their extended social isolation? We conclude that even the most challenging project can be nothing with the right attitude. We deliberately focussed on the trees and not the wood. We sailed from the south Atlantic to the north Atlantic in a series of stages, breaking up one long trip into a succession of smaller voyages, celebrating each leg as a milestone when we hit that target. There is a valuable lesson in this experience: We all may be surprised by what we can do when we break down our biggest challenges down into a number of distinct steps, and take it on one at a time. It is with great pride we look back at two months at sea knowing how full and satisfying an experience it was, and how well we operated through it as a team.