Antigua was the first island that we visited in the Caribbean. We sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Gambia and arrived in early January, 2021. When we pulled in I saw some of the most beautiful super yachts that I have ever seen. In particular, there was a massive sailing yacht which had gold-inlay in the front and had been polish to make it gleam. Whenever we drove past we often looked at it and thought that we’d love to swap our boat for that one — but I would need a lot more pocket change to buy it.
My first thought when arriving in Antigua was that we wouldn’t be having as many coconuts as I expected; there we no coconut tress that I could see anywhere. I was expecting a low-laying atoll with sandy beaches and glass-clear water, but instead the landscape was mountainous and bushy. The beaches were far lovelier than I imaged and that’s were I spent most of my time.
Because of Covid, there was a curfew that meant that restaurants could only serve take-away and we had to be back on our boat by 8PM. That was fine because at least we could swim and explore the town during the day. And it didn’t stop us meeting people.
A few days after we arrived we met a family that lived on a boat called Bright Star. It was a catamaran who had four kids that were very lovely and I wanted to spend all my time with them. We got to play on their boat, swim in the water and share meals together. I was especially close to the two twins, Phil and Name, who were around my age. They were great buddies and it was nice to have them as close friends.
It was quite a mellow place which was always full of something to do. I am glad we visited because I made some of my best friends and I will remember Antigua as a happy time.
We shot out of Gambia like a bullet and have been racing across the Atlantic Ocean for the past week in strong 20-25 knot winds and rough seas. The skies are grey and uninspiring, but we are covering 165 miles a day at an average of 7 knots — an impressive run for our steely gal. We will reduce our transit time considerably if we continue at this pace, so I don’t mind our rolling universe as it brings us quicker to our end goal. Bring on the rum!
John has been seasick since departure and he has been the only thing around us that is running at low speed, either sleeping soundly or quietly sitting in the cockpit. He is impressive in his ability to press on through the low, maintaining his watches and keeping the boat moving between heaves. While being sick the first few days is not uncommon for him, this is the longest period of time that he has been knocked flat by rough seas.
On the other hand, I have been enjoying the transit and have been occupying my time in the galley or on my computer trying to make order of my photos taken over the course of the past six months. I’m not sure how others who maintain blogs keep their stories, photos and videos up to date. For me, while in-country we are too busy sightseeing, socialising or maintaining home and family to get the time. My time comes when we put out to sea and I finally have some downtime to collect my thoughts and organise my photos. It is slightly overwhelming trying to process six months of media, so for those who wonder what we do stuck onboard a boat all day long, it isn’t all the different than a day in the office… other than the kids are at your feet and you have to work while catching your computer on the slide. So, kids, when you read this comment one day, know while you play lego dragons and I’m staring boggle-eyed at my screen, golden memorabilia is being spun for you.
But computer time really defines my midnight hours, when all onboard are asleep, as the days are far too busy. During the day we fill our hours with as much schoolwork as patience allows and a maximum amount of time at play. The kids are often lost in their imaginary worlds together which is often far too creative and active for adult involvement; that they haven’t thought to ask for a movie is a good sign that that they are happy to create their own stories. They spend hours with a world of dragon lego creations, doodle every design of submarine and unicorn drawings, they play hunters to their collection of oversized teddy-animals, and pretend to be dragons and catapult themselves around the cabin.
However, I do like to get involved in creating the magic and have always made passages full of surprises and treats. We have a “guardian angel” that checks in on us, leaving behind books hidden under their pillows. We celebrate “moments in route,” such as departure day and half-way day, with aplomb and presents and an occasional beer. We have creative days, where we hold lego competitions, “theme days” where we dress up and stay in character for the day, and we hold puppet shows and dance parties. This time we’ve created an “idea chart,” inspired by the Advent Calendar we did on passage from the Canaries to Gambia. Every day we consult our calendar for the activity for the day which should help keep us inspired throughout the 2,600 miles of our oceanic passage.
But this trip has also brought surprises out of our control. I was listening to repeated whistles which I first thought sounded like dolphin chatting beneath the surface; but it was too rhythmic and repeated, so I decided we had a new creak onboard. I was laying on the aft bunk reading a book when I heard “dolphin!” So it was! Or… wasn’t? As the large pod raced up towards us, I looked out the port light to see one emerge inches away from my face. I was out of the bunk and on deck in a flash. We noticed they were dark grey in colour and resembled dolphin, but they were much larger in size with a rounded, bullet-shaped head. Our best guess is they were a pod of false killer whale. They stayed with us for a half-hour as we provided a mid-oceanic distraction.
Passage Play Calendar: Today we were assigned the task of creating our own jokes, which is both depressing in how truly unfunny we are and inspiring that we require so little to keep us entertained. Braca was inspired by our earlier screening of the Hunt for Red October and rolled with submarine jokes, said, ”What is a bullet and lives in the ocean? A submarine (da dum)! Ayla and I, inspired by or recent crocodile and hippo sightings in Gambia, ran with the Africa theme: “Why does a rhino charge? Because she has no cash in her pocket” and “Why does an elephant have a long nose? Because he lies all the time” (da dum dum)! John ran with the old classic, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” He got booed by his own fan club.
We’ve had no other boat traffic visible on the plotter since our first 24-hours, when we had lots of boats visible with the flash of t heir torch indicating our need to navigate around them in the night. Once we got far enough from the fishing fleet and cleared the shipping lanes, we haven’t sighted a single ship on the plotter. Watch is still maintained on a 15-minute schedule, but it means we can relax and focus on wind direction and boat speed which is easy in trade-wind conditions. There has only been one boat on the plotter – us – for the past week and then last night, bam!, two ships pass us within two miles. A reminder that, while we are out of the shipping lanes, we are not the only ones out on this beautiful open ocean.
Oh, and speaking of fishing fleet, we now travel with our own fleet of fish hunters. I have ceased trying to save the flying fish that land onboard Atea and accept our cats as true fisher-felines. I figure this lifestyle deprives them of birds and mice, and they look up so proudly when they capture a self-sacrificing fish in their jaws. Ihlosi still stands to the side, unsure of her approach but Ingwe is on them as soon as they hit the deck. They are easy prey given we are being continually bombarded with flying fish all the time. Every morning I put on the kettle, feed the kids and sweep the scales out of the cockpit. Now that Ingwe is eating daily rations of sushimi, our slinky cat is starting to carry a full belly!
Today is the end of our first week at sea and marks both our completion of the first third of our trip and, more remarkably, our transit of the line made earlier in the year when we sailed north from South Africa. Today we complete our capital “P” of the Atlantic: Bottom point South Africa, top of the line the Azores, the curve Portugal and the Canaries, and closing the letter is a spot in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at 14N/30W. It is significant as most cruisers carry forward in more of a straight line in towards their destination. We write in cursive in our cruising script. And so, we crack a mini-beer to toast to the occasion. Also, we are finally heading west for the first time since we started “heading west” at the beginning of this season, eight months from our departure in South Africa on 1st of June. Yippee! It has taken us ten years to get exactly halfway around the globe. We will run at hyper-speed for the second half, as we have only finances to cover the year it will take us to get the boat back home.
Week Two: Distance to Run: 2,600m
Our first week was marked by continuous grey skies. Mercifully, the second week has been marked by blue and slightly lighter winds. It has been great to see a vibrant sea again and finally we feel as if we are in the trades. We race across the Atlantic in conditions I’d expected of a transit across this part of the ocean, settled into consistent trade winds under a sky and sea of vibrant blue. Since we first pulled up our sails and set our course to English Harbour, Antiqua, we have held a heading of 280-300 degrees all the way. Our wind — and thus our track — hasn’t shifted in two weeks. Watches include the micro-management of our sails, small adjustments in response to the slight shift in the wind that blows aft across our starboard side, but our sails haven’t moved position since we raised them at the start of this trip. Our wind vane is proving her weight in gold as she carries us silently across the sea, hour after hour, day after day. Unfortunately, we replaced our old batteries in Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, Canaries, and the replacements have left us in a worse position than before the “upgrade.” As a result, as the batteries drop to 23.0 volts three times a day and we have to turn on the engine to charge the batteries.
To add to the noise of the engine, there is also the howling of the cats. I knew bengals were talkers, but an un-neutered female takes it to an entirely different level. Our female cat, Ihlosi, went on her first heat during this passage and the hormone driven change in her behaviour is remarkable. There are the hours she spends looking out over the water howling for a mid-ocean lover to mysteriously spring from the waves, her neutered brother totally indifferent to her plight. From a demure cat in nature, she has catapulted into an over-zealous attention-seeker, desperate for affection. She finally gave up on her Romeo and reduced herself to human companionship for tactile stimulation. “Cat sex is vigorous,” I hinted to the kids as I showed them how to pat her back and tickle her belly, all taking turns to keep the little harlot contented — and miraculously, quiet.
Highlight activities this week have included a Lego competition, themed after the How to Train Your Dragon series we are reading together. While Braca won on ingenuity (and dialog… the presentation of his word was an endless stream of chatter) and Ayla won on highest value in her twin treasure boxes of gold bullion, John and I tied in the lethal body part category… me with my killer nipples and John with his death-by-oversized-detachable-buttocks. We also enjoyed a dress-up day in the same theme, having used our lego designs to create our persona dragonistica extravaganza for the day.
As for unexpected entertainment, we spent a day chasing around the sound of a repeated radio signal, our irritation mounting as the scratchy noise continued without being any closer to the source of the noise. Having resigned ourselves to a passage of tolerance for this mysterious omnipresent noise, it was on hour five that we opened the chart table to find out the static noise was coming from our handheld which had been inadvertently turned on. Silence and relief! We banned all music, singing and humming for the remainder of the day.
Week Three: Distance to Run: 700m
We are now down to our final days. Tomorrow we will also dig through the bilge for a bottle of champagne, and the following morning we will pop the cork as we pull into the Caribbean and celebrate. I was expecting this to be a rum punch passage, minus the cocktails and palm trees, given we stayed in the trades — famous for consistent winds, rolling seas and sunshine — the entire distance of the 2,700 mile trip. We’ve sailed at 280-310 degrees west with 10-20 knot following winds the entire way and we logged 170 miles over a 24-hour period one of the days, Atea’s all-time record. We got the wind, in part the blue skies, but the “rolling seas” are a bit of an understatement. With fast wind behind us we’ve been corking it (an entirely differently kind of cork than we will be experiencing when we pop that champagne!) The boat has been rolling fast over the large swell and it isn’t the first time that I’ve been appreciative of Atea’s high sides, as we’ve been dry regardless of the ocean’s best attempts to board us. Regardless, after three weeks of lateral aerobics as we balance with the roll, I’m looking forward to the flat waters of a calm anchorage more than ever.
While the big swell made me think of storms to the north of us and of the political storm that may be even worse, nothing brings to mind the unpredictability of the sea and the potential for disaster as does finding a lifeboat drifting out at sea. We were 800 miles from the closest landfall when we sighted it. The hull and the lines dragging in the water were clean and the paint still in good condition, indicating the boat hadn’t been at sea for long. There weren’t oars or oar-locks, so it wasn’t set up to row but there wasn’t an engine either, so there was no means of propulsion onboard, but there were rope hand-holds on the outer side that ran all around the boat, something I’d expect to find on a lifeboat. Odd. It was an intense moment when we altered course and pulled up to investigate… were there people onboard and if so, what state would they be in? There was nothing but a few rags and six 2-liter water containers strapped inside. What was the story?
The long range radio hasn’t worked properly for a few seasons, and this year we decided to invest the thousands needed to buy a new one. Long range radio is a dying art as most sailors use satellite comms these days, and we struggled to get the installation right without expert advice available to us. Finally, we found the right cable and specialist support in the Canaries and we are now able to receive weather and email. Our first download brought news that a favourite aunt of John’s passed away while we’ve been out here. It is the second family death that has caught us unawares while at sea, and it reminds us how far away we are from our family and friends in this lifestyle. We were also able to send a signal to the Atlantic Maritime Rescue centre about the drifting lifeboat; at the minimum it is a potential hazard to other ships at sea as it would be impossible to see at night, at most there may be people in need of emergency support.
Moving on to lighter topics, I’ll take a moment to talk some trash. I don’t really like to talk rubbish, but sometimes dirty matters just need to be commented on. As I was preparing my final meal of the passage it hit me how truly skilled we have become at waste management while at sea. Take rubbish for instance. Carting along bags of rubbish across the ocean would be fine if you had the storage for it, but we don’t; unless we want to live on top of a rubbish heap for a month, we must manage and maintain. Usually the bin is filled in two days. We are still filling our first rubbish bag three weeks and it still isn’t at capacity. Staring down into the dark abyss, the gravity of this accomplishment hit me: Where had all our trash gone? If I break down the waste and account for it in sub-groups, it makes sense. The food scraps go overboard, the plastics get compressed and the cans crushed, and John digs deep to ensure it is all folded into the smallest dimensions possible. And then I had my second epiphany: Our tidy trash gets sorted and organised with a higher degree of consciousness than the rest of the boat. Kinda sad to say, but true. Perhaps a confession better not made to the public.
We conclude the week with Floor is Lava day, whereby we all had to jump onto high ground if someone (invariably Braca) yelled, “FLOOR IS LAVA!,” pass the parcel and a treasure hunt. Tomorrow is our final day and we end it with “Teach Mum How to Play Minecraft” day… oh the merriment. I ooze with excited anticipation.
On our last full day of passage we also had our first contact with another boat — and another human — for the first time in three weeks. We’d seen a boat pop up on our AIS and kept scouting the horizon but couldn’t see them at five miles off, not at three miles and not at two miles off. Where was this boat? Was it technological error? Was our AIS failing us? Within five miles, and certainly within two, we should be able to see them as we crested the waves and looked out at the top. Then we suddenly got a call on the radio when the boat was 1.5 miles away and still out of sight. They were in route to Antiqua, just as we were, on a 9m rowing kayak. “A what?!” I returned, surely I’d misheard. But they confirmed four people and four oars on two hours shifts for the past 42 days. We popped out, no longer looking for a mast but for a tiny pink rowboat and they were right abeam of us, visible only as they rode up on top of the peak of the swell. Of random ocean sighting, we were starting to collect them on this trip. Apparently we will roll into Antiqua behind twenty others, all competing in an offshore race from the Graciosa in the Canaries to Antiqua. And here we are, a day away from the end of our passage feeling we’d done the hard yards to get there. These women put us right back in our place! We watched as they stood and waved, then slowly dropped back and disappeared. I sat thinking what their journey had been like, in contrast to our own across the same body of water. The swell has been huge the past two weeks and keeping the boat in control would have been hard work to say the least. I sat looking out at sea in awe of them, full of respect, then popped down and made the kids some popcorn before settling into a family movie on our soft, warm settee. I haven’t felt more comfortable all trip. I know I won’t be feeling quite as deserving, however, when I crack open that bottle of champagne tomorrow to toast our arrival into the Caribbean.
Our passage notes on our 1,000 mile passage from the Canaries to Gambia
Day 1: John said it, and he’s right: We should have a phrase we say when we watch land slip down past the horizon. Every time we see land again after an ocean passage we greet it with an enthusiastic, “Land Ho!” Rightfully so, as it is uncommon to human nature to go without that beautiful green earth underfoot. So, when we get that first glimpse of a 360 degree view of nothing but blue we should have a universal sailors cry, perhaps something like, “Land Go!” That’s it – I like it. Land Go! There’s an enthusiasm for what lays ahead and a proper nod to the island or continent we leave behind.
At 9:00am on 7/12/2020 we hauled up anchor and sailed out of Las Palmas, Canaries heading southwest with a distance of 1,000 miles ahead of us. For all of 2020 we’d planned on heading from South Africa to Western Europe to end the year in the Caribbean, expecting to sit under palm trees and be sipping rum when Santa pulled in. But over the past two weeks I caught wind of the possibility of Gambia, and my intrigue was captured. A big muddy river filled with crocodiles surrounded by pristine native jungle filled with birds with overhanding bush filled with monkeys — I’m in! So, with a little persuasion I convinced the crew we should head for a small detour before crossing the Atlantic. Only a thousand miles to the south, a 300 mile river to transit, then back out to that rum.
Oh, and Land Go! At 13:00 we watched the tip of Teide slip out of sight, the tallest peak in Spain. Land Go feels right – for the land we leave behind, and also for the land that lay ahead.
Our first day at sea is always a quiet one of adjustment. Usually we’ve been running at full speed so the forced enclosure feels like a sanctuary of calm. The movement of the boat also takes some adjustment, as we finalise stowage by securing the odd repetitive knock of things left untucked. Homework is paused. The books come out. We nap. We read. We nap. We read. It is all the pace we should enjoy at anchor, but never seem to find time for.
But to stir up some trouble, we’ve collected two stowaway elves in Las Palmas. Not as in mischievous elfin-like crew, but two small red and green cotton-stuffed elves that have been entertained the kids since they’ve come onboard. My daughter is a firm believer — these elves are eyes and ears for Santa, though they’ve yet to make the desired impact on bringing out sweet and diminishing sour. I can’t tell if my son, however, is truly gullible or if I’m the gullible one for thinking he’s falling for the magical creatures act. Either way, they are proving to be a lot of entertainment as they mysteriously appear in odd places and odd positions around the boat. I’m also not sure if the kids are having more fun, or the kid in the adults are. Either way, the “elf magic” is helping to keeping things light and entertaining onboard.
Day 2: We are clipping along at six knots with a consistent 20 knot north-easterly wind, but the rolling seas are keeping things lively onboard. It isn’t comfortable per se, but at least the conditions are reliable and the weather forecast indicates we can expect wind all the way. The day onboard was rather dull as John and I devoured books and the kids got sucked into their tablet. We tend to keep a tight reign on digital time, but somehow today became defined by them. The quiet was good, but the battles that come from it are not – too much time zoned out turns our two angels into little monsters. So, I change the passcodes once again.
To the rescue was their guardian angels, who come to visit on passage and deliver books under their pillow while they sleep. There’s a lot of magic onboard, usually that twinkles to life when we put out to sea. For those who wonder how we can keep sane while away from outside contact for so long, you obviously haven’t yet been introduced to our magical kingdom of fairies and angels.
Night watches are still cold. We are at 24 degrees north but the wind is coming down from a wintery Europe. We look forward to the tropics where a blanket of warm wind makes the evenings comfortable. It lays just days ahead of us, and I look forward to sitting out under the stars when it comes. For now, a blanket of wool warms my body as I sit out in the cold wind.
Day 3: We are now going s l o o o w w w. Two knots slow. In the night our genoa halyard chafed through and our sail was dumped into the sea bringing us to an abrupt stop. It is now lying crumpled up on deck and soiled with antifouling, like an oversized wet nappie and just as useless. After a few hours of slow progress under jib alone we hoist the main and gain some speed again. There are alternate halyards that we could use to re-hoist it, but getting it threaded up the foil is not something we want to try at sea. We will see the rest of the way under jib and main; under-powered but at least moving at a reasonable 5 knot speed with good wind. It won’t break any records to the finish line, but let’s just hope we that’s the only thing we don’t break.
Other than gear failure, all else remains calm for the day. I am months behind on organising photos, editing video clips and writing since my computer died on the long-distance haul across the Atlantic, and now that I’m digitised again with a new computer I’m catching up while on passage. I’m not sure what the pace of life on other boats is like, but for John and I we remain incredibly busy when we are cruising — boat maintenance, the general upkeep and homeschooling combined with maximising our time in a country and socialising — that our down time gets completely absorbed. I was amazed at how many people we met in the Canaries brought crew onboard for the passages, as well as how many people asked to be our crew… No thank you! Give away the only quiet time we get to enjoy onboard? You got to be kidding me!
Day 4: We finally turned the corner of the western “Horn of Africa,” or just rounded her continental rump, depending on which way you look at it. The only significance being we worked so hard just four months ago to cross this point heading north from South Africa, and now we are retracting our steps south. if you’ve followed our route through the years, we do seem to run backward before moving forward. New Zealand – Tonga – Fiji – New Zealand in 2011 (and from New Zealand back up to Vanuatu in 2012, Fiji’s western neighbour). Australia north to south in 2012 and north again in 2013. Malaysia – Thailand – Malaysia in 2014. Chagos – Maldives – India – Maldives in 2015. Mozambique – Madagascar – Mozambique in 2018. Africa – Europe – Africa – Caribbean this 2020. When are we going to learn just to travel in a straight line?!
It appears that our cat – the more inquisitive of the two – has turned into our first truly qualified fisherman onboard. I write this surrounded by the pungent aroma of fish and my cat running wild around the spot in which I just saved (or more likely, half-saved) a very large flying fish. Yesterday I was not the honourable saviour; I caught Ingwe with just a fish heed, all other parts devoured. I sat and watched him as he ate that head down, leaving behind nothing more than a tiny jaw full of miniature teeth. While I prefer fish in the ocean, at least our mog leaves no waste.
Day 5: The kids have been on good form, but seems the two of us picked up a minor stomach bug and have been worst for wear this trip. John and I are finally starting to round the corner, though I do confess John is rounding a little slower than I. Today I woke feeling back to normal, so it was board games with the kids in the morning followed by school and then catching up on some of the advent calendar activities I’d put together for the kids. Each day they cut a square out of their paper calendar and a message is revealed; little treats, small activities, the sort. I was cunning and put in a few self-serving items like the massage I got from Braca the other day and the cup of tea Ayla made me for breakfast. But on low speed, tasks like baking cooked, puppet theatre, and making Santa and elves were delayed. So today we crafted in the afternoon while devouring hot baked cookies, enjoyable for child and adult alike.
To add to the perspective comment earlier, our new House batteries that we bought in the Canaries to replace our old dying ones seem to have their shortcomings. Regardless that they are just off the shelf, they seem not to hold their charge. So, while we are sailing all the way (good), we have to listen to the thump thump thump of the engine for a few hours every day while the engine charges the batteries (very annoyingly bad).
Three out of seven. My cats look at me in disgust every time I ply a fish from their mouth and toss it gasping and flapping back to sea. I get it — its their catch and I am depriving them of their glory. But if John, kids and I are going to abstain from fishing for “the cause,” then so too must they.
Day 6: We are now at 19 degrees north and truly in the tropics. I felt it the moment I woke up (correction, was waken – you never get the luxury of waking up naturally on passage) as I was sweating in the clothes that had been keeping me warm the past few days. I peeled off the layers and sighed my contentment; there is nothing like that moment when you have sailed clear of the colder weather. Unfortunately, with it went the wind and without our genoa, ten knots wind was giving us three knots through the water.
Today was a social one for our little pack, energised by the change in weather and the decrease in roll inside the boat. We did artwork and crafts, schoolwork with unusual cooperation and played Monopoly for hours. I’ve been enjoying the time we get together on passage, so different than the more busier life we tend to have when in country, maximising experience and exploring the sites while trying to inject a modicum of routine. Routine? As if. When you know you only have a few weeks or months in a country, it is hard to let the days roll by without feeling the push to take in as much as possible. But on passage we have our roles, our timeframes, our routine and for a short period of time, the regularity of it is nice.
Oh, but never expect this life doesn’t throw its curveballs! We were sailing along comfortably today when in the near-distance an orange float and black form floated past, just out of sight to catch the detail. All hands on deck as we whipped Atea about face, Braca hollering all the while, “I’m scared! I don’t want to see a skeleton!” The hint of death put an urgency in it, but alas, after our quick response to save the day it was only a torn orange lifejacket that we plucked from the sea. It was enough to cause pause and reflection, however, and bow in reverence to the sea.
Moths. An acceptable replacement to flying fish. One hundred miles offshore and they were fluttering into the cabin, drawn in by the light. The cats have hit payday, and we applaud their acrobatic leaps and summersaults as they manically tried to soar to new heights to reap their reward. We don’t have the most agile cats, so the display was of particular hilarity as they bumbled around, falling off the companionway steps and landing on each other in an escalating fever to catch the moths.
Day 7: I concede. If my cats choose to be pescatarians, so be it. I’ve tried my best to help protect the continuous stream of fish that make they way onto our boat, but when they jump the six feet to clear our freeboard and then manage to get through the netting that surrounds our guardrails, then somehow bump up and additional two feet to get onto our topsides and then wiggle across the deck and flop through a six inch square hatch into the heads, then they have a death wish I won’t interfere with. For the first time, our male cat who usually gulfs down his food and then shoulder-badges into his sister for his share of her food, now takes a sideward glance at this bowl at mealtime and then saunters off indifferently. He has eyes on a bigger prize.
Today’s Christmas calendar instruction was to perform a song and dance. After our midday game of never-ending Monopoly, we pulled out the ukuleles but failed to pull any talents out and brought the speakers out on deck perform every style of dance we dare not to ever perform in public. For the first time in days, there was an absence of flying fish on deck — seems we even managed to scare the fish away.
But what did fall on deck was a long, thin VHF antenna aerial. Seems Atea is in a slow, continual state of disintegration this trip. The irony is we spent an extra week in Las Palmas working on sorting out all our comms, bringing on an electronics expert to work on our long range radio and buying and reinstalling a new VHF. After years of crappy comms, we now loose the simplest component that brings us right back to where to started: Mute and uncommunicative.
Day 8: We are 70 miles east of Dakar and have turned in towards land and a direct line to our destination, the town of Banjul which now lies 130 miles in front of us. As if that weren’t excitement enough, soon after we were broadsided by a breaking wave that hit our hull at exactly the right angle and sent a wall of water upward and sideward, flooding our cockpit and aft cabin. The bed and carpeted floor were soaked and the kids came bolting out in fits of laughter as they stood drenched in salt water and holding up the dripping teddies they’d been playing with. For the kids, it was as if the boobie traps they’d been setting throughout the boat over the past few days had finally escalated into a grand finale, the ultimate practical joke being laid on both parents who were looking around the boat in mute astonishment.
Day 9 : As we continue to close the coast during the night, various fishing boats and floats are seen – some are lit, some are not, and eventually we heave to until daylight so that the last 20 miles are in the light of a hazy African dawn. By midmorning we are anchor down off Banjul, and another 1,000 miles have passed under Atea’s keel. The heat rises along with a cacophony of noise from trucks belching smoke and fishing vessels preparing their nets. As we listen to the cheerful hubbub of noises and bubbling voices, we realise that we have left calm controlled Europe behind and are about to dive once more into the chaos and reward of Africa.
The Seychelles has been a dream destination of mine for as long as I can remember… or, at least, as long as I’ve known how to sail. This mid-Indian Ocean archipelago represented the epitome of top cruising destinations and I remember sitting of the shores of Mozambique, looking east, dreaming of a future when I’d get to weave my own track through her waters. I wasn’t quite certain if this dream would ever come to fruition because at the time I’d only been a coastal sailor, never venturing far from the sight of land. Regardless, I often imagined what the country would hold for me: Crystal blue waters shimmering over glittering diamond white sands, endless islets and atolls teaming with sea birds and land turtles, a steel band beating a tune as I turned fresh-caught lobsters on a fire, my toes buried in the sand. I am not sure if it was from a book that I pulled these images or the rumours of a fellow traveler; however they got there, the images were imbedded deep in my sub-consciousness. Now, firmly entrenched in the cruising lifestyle with six years of open-ocean sailing behind us, I was finally going to get my chance to see these images firsthand.
Cruisers often seem to travel in a flock. Perhaps it is some collective force of nature or the under-appreciated inclination for human sociability, but there is an undeniable gravitational force that pulls people together. Watching the fleet of boats transverse the Indian Ocean these past few years, it seems a random pattern of a southerly route followed by a northerly route from the Asia to South Africa; this year the majority of boats that we knew were heading south for Mauritius and Rodriquez but we weren’t to follow them. The Seychelles had been on my radar far too long to pass her by. We would cross the Indian Ocean this year, and I was determined that the Seychelles would feature in our route planning.
While arrival in a country after a long passage is always an emotive experience, seeing the peaks of the tall mountains rise up on the horizon was a particularly emotional moment for me. Here she was, the Seychelles at long last, unfolding herself in front of me on the very ocean that had separated me for so long. Having spent the past six months in a country made entirely of low-lying atolls, it was quite a sight to see the tip of Mome Seychellois, a 905-meter granite rock, rise up on the horizon. The detail of earth and humanity began to fill the blank green tapestry of the mountains as we inched towards Mome Seychellois and Trois Freres: The rich smell of dirt combined with the acrid smell of the tuna processing factory, the sound of chatty shorebirds mixed with the repetitive hum of rotating wind generator blades, a smattering of colourful roofs materializing from the canopy of trees as ornaments decorating the hillsides. I was abuzz with the same ecstatic enthusiasm of a young child licking her first ice cream cone – this was my first taste of the Seychelles and it couldn’t have been any sweeter.
Having waited so long to get to the Seychelles, it was ironic that we would work so hard to sail to her shores and fly immediately out. That said it had been a long time since we’d been home and family was calling. Tickets had been booked well in advance and the departure date was upon us – our time in the Seychelles was going to be short and sweet. We pulled in, played for a week and flew out. Given my anticipation to get here, I could appreciate our agent’s response when we petitioned for the boat to stay during our month departure: “What? You’ve just ARRIVED in the Seychelles and you already want to LEAVE the Seychelles? WHY would you do that?” Us: To visit family. “But, then why wouldn’t you leave from another country?!! Why would you choose to leave from THIS ONE?” Implied: You must be crazy! We were nervous. She was going to reject our application on grounds of national pride. While I understood her line of inquisition — we were leaving a dream holiday destination for a holiday elsewhere — we had already committed time with family and held tickets in hand. With a series of disapproving grunts and shake of the head in disapproval, she stamped our documents and dismissed us.
The next month saw us indulging in almost every shoreside pleasure available to us — something that England has in abundance. My standing joke was that I was going to eat as much cheese and drink as much wine as I could manage to consume, either leaving the country feverishly addicted or my long-standing cravings completely spent. We enjoyed time with family and reconnected with longstanding friends and fellow cruisers we’d shared company with in previous seasons. It was fun to ride the trains through the lush countryside and wander through quaint British villages, sail dinghies on the Solent and drive a RIB to the Isle of Wight, picnic in the manicured parks, dine in the pubs, grog up with the family, rock out at a concert and chase a rolling block of cheese down a hill. Above all we were reminded that while the cruising life is rich with reward, life ashore is rich with diversity.
A month after flying out we were back on creole soil, cravings satiated and addictions firmly rooted, this time with a month in front of us to explore the fabled Garden of Eden. What I didn’t appreciate then and do now is that the Seychelles is very different from my picture of a cruising paradise. It is worthy as a sailing destination to be sure, but not in the way I’d constructed in my head. The building blocks were there: the white sand, the clear water, the reggae music and the creole seafood. What was missing was the countless isles and the limitless possibilities. For all 115 islands that make it up, the Seychelles has a relatively constricted cruising area. There are three main islands, each with a collection of smaller marine reserves attached to it, that are the sum of cruising grounds for the majority of sailors. The rest of the hundred or so islands are uninhabited or protected marine reserves, most of these lying in the outer islands at a considerable distance from the inner hub and exposed to the weather.
I am and am not one fundamental thing: A planner. I am a Gemini with a drive for change without an interest in detail. The combination means that I do things at the spur of the moment without forethought or planning. I fly on a whim and learn on the way. This has many drawbacks but the advantage is the comedy of learning things in situ. The Seychelles is famous for a few things; well known to anyone that does a quick Google search of the country. I, however, having spent countless miles of hard work to get here never once researched the country to see what it offered. I had a dream, therefore I had drive – that was enough to draw me. As a result, the heart of the Seychelles unfolded itself to us in a series of comic moments, details of the country that I was to learn about over the course of our stay.
The first was the Coco de Mer. For the ungoogled, the image of the Coco de Mer is of the voluptuous derrière of the female figure, and it was everywhere. The female bum greets you on arrival at the airport, it fills the curios stalls in the streets, it is printed on postcards and every brochure of the country, it is even stamped on a page in our passports. There is a collective national fascination with the female reproductive anatomy. You can have a carved wooden statue, hold a key ring, wear a t-shirt, drink from a shot glass — all of a woman’s ass. Having just arrived from six months in a highly conservative Muslim country, the brashness of it was refreshing. The Seychelles was sexual, and they were proud of that sexuality. Or so I thought.
It took me a week, but I was to gradually learn that the Coco de Mer was, indeed, a coconut. It was endemic to the Seychelles and a rich part of its history. It was this nut, visually so representative of oversized human genitalia, that created the myth that the Seychelles was the Garden of Eden – scratch that apple, the nut was proof of the origin of mankind. For what it is worth, at half a meter in diameter and 20 kilograms in weight it is the largest seed found anywhere in the world, the male tree does hang a very long penis from its branches and the female does produce the most delicious looking derrière. Had I done my research, I’d have known a decade ago that it was trees on hillsides and not seashells on sandy shores that the Seychelles was known for. The Garden of Eden beckoned me, but to understand why I had to look toward land and not the sea.
The second of our comic relief moments was the granite. What I didn’t realize prior to arrival is that the country was full of rocks. Big, big rocks. In fact, I’d spent over a decade fantasizing about the Seychelles and not once had I appreciated that it was rock rather than sand that made the country famous. How did I miss that 41 of the 115 islands were built on a foundation of granite? Was it just oversight that made me ignorant of the exceptional fact that the Seychelles was the only mid-ocean granite islands in the world?! Expecting idle days anchored off low-lying islets with our heads poking around coral gardens, our reality was days spent gaping up at huge mountain peaks, over sheer rock cliffs and at boulder-crowned beaches. Rather than idle, our time was filled with vigorous hikes up steep rocky paths, walks through wooded forest, cycling up hills, meandering around boulder-strewn beaches and rock hopping above the surf.
Another misconstrued notion was that we’d spend all our time in the water. For one, it was cold… or at least, cold in comparison to the sauna-like waters of the Maldives. It took a week to acclimate to the 28-degree water temperature. Once that was corrected, it took time to work a strategy for tackling the big surf. It wasn’t big as in dude, ride that wave big. It was big as in doc, bust out the neck brace big. The waves that rolled into the bays were short and powerful, but once you worked out the set you could tackle a suitable approach – body surf four then race out before the next two rollers came and knocked you out in a body-crushing, ego-shattering washing machine. Outside of the in-your-face beach break, there were no obvious reefs to snorkel or charted dive sites to explore – ironic given the sites were fill with as many big rocks underwater as big rocks above water – and both were activities we expected would consume our days. What distinguishes the diving in the Seychelles are the unique granite underwater formations that make a spectacular underwater landscape but the sites weren’t easily accessible and required local knowledge. As a result we didn’t get time underwater as hoped, but we got plenty of time tumbled through it.
It was the third of the comic lessons that filled much of our children’s interest, and fulfilled their sex education. It was the first time the kids had seen a land tortoise and as the heaviest tortoises in the world at a whopping 300kg, they made quite an impression. They were held in open pens in parks, botanical gardens, beaches and bars. They were free roaming and also found in the backyards of local homes as they were often kept as family pets. We watched them eat, sleep, bathe and just as often, mate. There was one particular batch that seemed particularly inclined. The kids fed them their afternoon rations for a week and every day, like clockwork, we’d bear witness to their repetitious and droning copulation – clearly they too felt they were livin’ it large in the Garden of Eden. With the innocence of youth, each time Braca watched the act he told us they were “marrying each other;” it was a honeymoon destination indeed!
Having had my fill of rocks and nuts, we quickly became restless. We’d done the required gape at the country’s natural wonders: We’d pet the giant land tortoise and rubbed palms on the erogenous nut. Now we were keen to explore the country by sea but we had one problem – we didn’t see a labyrinth of reef-encrusted islets sprawled out around us. When looking in detail at the charts, the list of destinations within reach extended to three names, Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, all a short hop between each other. Basically, we had a month to play aquatic hopscotch.
Initially my enthusiasm fell flat as the experience fell far from my expectations — there was nothing intrepid about this experience at all. It was a land full of tour agents catering to tourists. There were lots of charter boats moving daily on their week tour of the country and the beaches were filled with sunburnt foreigners, but there were very few long-term cruisers exploring the area. After a few days of shaking my head in puzzlement, I readjusted my expectations and redefined what our time in the Seychelles was about: We were not going to hunker down with the indigenous population, use sign language and guess translation. We would not traipse across land left virgin to the traveler’s eye. We were going to take a holiday like the rest of them. Regular routine was cast out and we postponed schoolwork and put boat jobs on hold. We pulled out our sunblock and our beach toys and spent the days rolling about in the surf and lazing in the sand. We partied with the bareboat charterers, socialized with the holidaymakers, and entertained locals onboard in a revolving door of new faces. We rented bicycles to explore the villages, walked well-laid paths through native forests, surfed the shore breaks, and ogled at the breathtaking scenery around us.
We started our holiday in Mahe, the largest and most populated of the islands. With 90% of the country’s population living in Victoria, the smallest capital in the world, we had good grounds for observing the engaging confidence of the Seychellois. Their manner is forthright and confident, their personality gregarious and outspoken, their dress daring and bold. In social circles this was charming but in official circles we found it arrogant and blunt. While we tried to distance ourselves from as many administrative agents as possible, we welcomed locals onboard with open arms – this brought many entertaining evenings and some of our fondest experiences. One discussion that stands out was the local concept of self in relation to community. As our friend Ronny informed us, “to say a name anywhere in my country is to know the face” – a beautiful description for a country where everyone knew everyone. I compared it to my own community where even neighbours are strangers. “We care little for money here,” he added, “it is time and family we value. In this country, no one is ever alone and no one is forgotten.” Poetic. Regardless of the actual authenticity for the majority, it was a good reminder of the value often lost in Western culture where everything is fast paced, family distanced and friends forgotten, and money matters most. I find myself reminded again and again by local speak how it is the present that we live for in a world where family, friendship and community connection is paramount. When we invited Ronny for an evening onboard, we didn’t host one – we hosted a group. There were three generations amongst us and friends were included. Nor did they come empty handed; wrapped gifts were brought for the kids, beautiful shells were brought for us and the fish they pulled in that night was all donated to us. It was an incredible show of community, hospitality, warmth and camaraderie and I will always value the insights they shared and the friendship they offered.
From Mahe we followed the glossy brochure prompt to the neighbouring island of Praslin in search of the “best beach in the world,” page 8. It was a bold claim and I was keen to verify it for myself. Indeed, there was something to it. The large granite boulders that fringed the white sand beach resulted in a breathtaking panorama, the backdrop filled with tree-filled mountains and turtles that broke the surface of the water around us. It was here that a generous local tested our perchance for defying the law by offering us a sapling Coco de Mer. A generous offer and a tempting one, attracted as I was to the thought of my own palm-fringed deck, but one we had to refuse.
Given my agreement with page 8 of the brochure, I thought I’d follow its next suggestion on page 12: “It is not advisable to visit La Digue as a day trip only. There are so many beautiful spots to visit and so many interesting people to meet that we insist you spend a few days at least on this magnificent island regardless of your length of stay in the Seychelles.” With an advertisement like that, who could miss it?! We tucked ourselves into the tight little harbour in the center of town and enjoyed all that the island offered – charter yachts inches from port and starboard side and the socializing that came with it, bicycles to tour the island (it was that or tour by oxcart as vehicles are exempt from the island), creole meals and the festive atmosphere that defined the relaxed little island. In a fast moving world, this was the epitome of chill.
After four weeks of aquatic hopscotch, our little stone thrown at random determining if we moved ahead one space or back two between Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, we hit the end of our cruising permit and were ready to move on. Our key question was: Where to? Having diverged from the flock we were keen to return to it, a regrouping that would set our course south to Madagascar. But my sonar was bending my head to the west and all primal senses were driving me towards the shores of East Africa. It was not a common route; at this time of year the wind and current make moving south difficult and most of the yachts intending to exit the Indian Ocean by the end of the year need to get southward in order to round the Cape of Good Hope. We also need to pass this cape and we couldn’t understand a feasible way to make both East Africa and Madagascar happen this season. However, on close inspection it looks like the current splits at the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and the winds might be favorable if we stuck close to the coast, dodging behind the wind-shadow of Madagascar. In fact, going west to Tanzania might save the battering that wind and sea would give us if we tried to reach Madagascar directly. Besides, we weren’t the only wayward stragglers. We had cruising friends in Tanzania and we had cruising friends heading that way – either the route was feasible or we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt it. Either way, we were going to find out. A week prior to departing the Seychelles we did a typical Atea gybe. We scrapped our plans to head south towards Madagascar and decided to continue our trek west. Onward we sail to East Africa – she has held me in her clutches before, as I am sure she will do yet again.