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.
For years the questions have come from friends and family when questioning us about extended ocean passages: How can you handle so many days confined to a small space? Don’t the kids go crazy when they can’t go outside to play? How do you and your husband handle being together 24-7 with no break? Thanks to Covid-19, everyone now has the answer. National lockdowns have given every citizen in every country across the globe a first hand experience of the intensity of this intimacy.
Now that people have experience being locked indoors for weeks on end with their most beloved, it is understandable to all how we seek distance from those we are closest to. While we might imagine the bonding that comes with limitless time together and constant contact, in truth too much time starts to merge identities. Your other becomes your identical twin. Now that couples around the world have experienced that 24-7 partnership, outsiders can finally get a glimpse of the cruising couple: Tweedledum and Tweedledee. You spend so much time joined at the hip that you talk the same, walk the same, cough the same, curse the same, stay sane the same. Everything you do you same the same. Your days are so mutual that what one does is almost indistinguishable from the other. There are no evening meals where you share the days activity — you mimicked each step of that days activity. While a lockdown partnership may sound wonderful just ask a cruising couple and they’ll give you an honest answer, albeit the exact same one.
Things get even more complicated if there are kids involved. Particularly school-age kids. It is one thing to cruise with an infant who gurgles and wiggles and only cries for milk. But take on a child who has learned demand and volume, and a confined space gets even more difficult to handle. I have several friends who now know what it is like to spend morning to night with kids who are cooped up at home with energy to burn. After sharing the experience of lockdown in close confines, they are no longer telling us how lucky we are to be traveling as a unit any longer. They have had a sample of the cruising experience and they are now more afraid of their kids than they are of Covid itself. I have no sympathy. Those parents have gardens with bicycles and trampolines and tree houses. And doors that lock. A cruising family has no escape. You wake with your child in your face and it remains there all day, begging to be fed and entertained and nurtured and cuddled and read to and played with and talked to. There are no neighbourhood houses to shoo them off to, classmates who invite them for an afternoon date, sports programs to entertain them or extended family to claim them. They are yours and yours alone — every minute of every hour of every day.
Bring those children to the table for a session of homeschooling and the recipe for mental insanity is complete. Not only do children resent their parents filling the role of teacher, parents are rarely trained for it. You blunder over describing concepts you know but have little idea how you learned it, and you force your children to sit there while you try and figure it out. But the time you feel you’ve articulated your point, they are bored and distracted and you’ve lost the stage. If you have more than one child, they fight for the better pencil, the preferred seat, the newer booklet. As soon as you sit down they are immediately hungry or tired or busy. For years I’ve heard people praise my patience, my creativity, my dedication, my miracle-mom efforts. Not any more. Every parent with school-age children now understands exactly what homeschooling is like. Most parents I know who were asked to homeschool during a surge in Covid cases lasted a handful of days before the plaster on the walls started cracking from the screams of parent and child alike. Want to know what it is like to cruise with children? Reflect on school closures before you decide to take your kids out to sea.
Now consider adding working parents into the scene. For many, this year has brought the office home. No more commuter traffic. No more burnt bread scoffed down as that first cup of coffee stains that newly laundered shirt. No more early-morning preening for a glossier version of you. Now that office and home are one people are praising the void of traffic jams, lack of early morning shuttle services and pyjama-clad conference calls. For the better part of ten years we’ve avoided what many call the “rat race,” skirting the traditional work environment for such at-home luxuries. Now governments across the globe are demanding that the majority of employees do the same. Working families have been required to find a place for home, school and office as everyone seeks to fulfil their roles in a shared space.
For many, however, this includes multiple rooms in a multilayered house. In cruising terms a boat is not only home, school and office, it also serves as garage, service station, grocery store and storage facility. A cruiser will wake up and smell the job list before they smell the coffee. The work desk doubles as chart table, nav station, electronics and technology centre, and general dumping ground. With a miniature seat fixed to the wall and knees tucked up against a cramped belly, cruisers usually work jammed into the corner of a room that also serves as kitchen, dining table, lounge, bathroom and bedroom. They stare mindlessly at the computer screen as their partner bellows from the galley and the kids climb the walls of the saloon. To compound matters, they try to maintain focus while being surrounded by a long list of boat jobs that continue to pile up and, if neglected for too long, begins to tap relentlessly on the brain as a reminder of things left undone. You want to work in peace and quiet? Never envy the employed cruiser. One day in their shoes and you’ll be demanding the earlier version of your coffee-stained burnt toast life.
Regardless of degree, however, we all have our stresses and a number of friends who were on lockdown at home were starting to feel the pressure of proximity in close quarters. They needed to find an outlet or an escape route. A few would grab their keys, jump behind the wheel and hit the road. Confinement feels quite different when you are moving at high speed. Some quarantined themselves in “Zoom Only” rooms and would hunker down for a group chat with friends-turned-therapists. There were those who dedicated the lockdown period to self-care and spent a small fortune on stationary bicycles and home gyms, and others who dedicated their pets by default for an excuse to walk around the block.
I had friends in each of these categories who repeatedly told me, “Ah, but you have the life! Simple. Carefree.” True, to a degree. But for those of you who think lockdown at home is similar to being confined on a boat, there are a few key differences of note. For the cruiser there is no “other space” to go to get a clear head — on a boat you have no escape and no detox outlet. There is no gym to help sweat out frustrations, no bestie to sit beside you while you rant, no dog to walk, no fast car to race, no bubblebath to soak in. Then there are the practicalities to deal with: The fridge on a boat is the size of a chilly bin and when the food runs out there is no car to zip down to the grocery store. In fact, often there is no grocery store. Tired? At home you can just excuse yourself to your nice comfy bed. On passage you tag team with your partner and set a watch schedule that allows a three-hour rest interval, often on a surface that is rolling about and repeatedly tossing you out of bed and onto the floor. You miss your friends and you can see they are online, but the bandwidth isn’t strong enough to hold a good connection. Want a dog? Buy a fish. Want a friend? Buy a book. Want a community? Go home. So, before you think that life onboard a boat is something to envy, just reflect on your lockdown experience before shopping for that boat.
While there is nothing positive about a global pandemic and Covid is truly a savage beast, the national response to containment has given the world an insight into the experience of long-distance cruising. For my friends and family who have repeatedly asked through the years, “What is it like?” — they now know. They may not know it exactly, but they know it close enough. I have a feeling I will see a shift in commentary after 2020. Instead of the usual “I wish I could,” the standing line is going to be “there is no way I would!”
Having departed South Africa on blind faith, we look back at the last six months of travel knowing that we won the jackpot when we gambled in June. At that time, we sailed away from a strict winter lockdown in South Africa into an ocean with borders closed in every direction: Namibia, closed. Brazil, closed. The Caribbean, closed. Europe, closed. We departed into the the Atlantic knowing we couldn’t return and aware that we wouldn’t be accepted anywhere we we heading. Our blind faith lay in the belief that Europe would open within the two months it would take us to sail the 6,000 miles from the southern Atlantic to the northern Atlantic.
We rolled into the Azores at the end of July to a warm welcome. The chaos that resulted in the early Covid confusion had cleared into a smooth entry protocol: An email was sent to our Sat phone a week before our arrival welcoming us to the island and accepting orders for food delivery on arrival. The officials had prepared a free covid test with results given within 24-hours. We were free to travel around the archipelago unhindered.
After spending two months under strict lockdown in South Africa and two months of total isolation at sea, being given the pass to travel freely through the archipelago was akin to winning the lottery ticket. The weather was warm, the water inviting, the islands Covid-free and we could wander around the streets freely. We slowly island-hopped our way around the country enjoying our new found freedom, we were finally doing what we’d set out to do four months earlier — cruise.
After filling ourselves with the splendour of the volcanic isles and treating ourselves to a very relaxed atmosphere free of the usual bombardment of summer tourism, we decided to follow our what we could of our original plan of cruising the European Eastern Atlantic. We sailed across from Terceria to Porto and spent the next two months exploring Portugal from northern to southern tip. We struck it lucky again as Covid was under control and restrictions were lax: The bars and cafes were open, no reservations were required and the lines to get into the top sights were non-existent. Given the reduced tourism, we were free to experience the country void of the usual thong of summer holiday-makers and beer-binging beach-goers. Places that usually required bookings weeks in advance and would pack you in with another 200 visitors were on a walk-up basis and you shared with no one. We explored castles and cathedrals, drove inland through mountains, sipped port in the valleys and sailed around Europe’s westernmost tip down to the stunning cliffs and caves of the southern Algarve.
After the indecision and gamble of deciding to cruised in 2020, so far we have experienced hassle-free entry into Europe through the Azores and a wonderfully relaxed and comfortable cruising season; for us the decision has been the right one. As Spain and France experience their second wave of Covid infections and winter descends on Europe, we decided it was time for us to start moving on. We sailed for at the Canaries at the end of October and are currently enjoying the stark beauty of these volcanic isles.
Looking towards 2021 we must decide if we are going to maintain our seats at the 2021 poker table. Do we fold and head home? Do we hold our cards and remain in place through uncertainty? Do we place our bet and head for the Caribbean, hoping we hold the winning hand? As a second wave of Covid strikes Europe and America and countries are looking again at closing borders, perhaps a trip up Africa’s deep Gambia river is a sensible detour. No one can guarantee the outcome and we can only hope that our luck holds as we sail forward into uncharted territory in this Covid-influenced world.
In December 2010 John was surfing the internet looking at avaliable yachts online – not with the intent to buy, but to spend a little time in dreamland, an ocean fantacy that neither of us were looking to create. He found a yacht, Taiko, and with it we began discussions of turning this dream into reality. We put those thoughts on hold as we traveled Vietnam at the end of December, but resumed discussions when we returned a month later. Taiko was sold to her first bidder, but the seed was planted and we begun our search for another suitable yacht. We found one in Viginia, and were to begin conversations with the broker when we found out that we were pregnant.
Determined to bring this child into the world without letting it stop our dream of cruising, we altered plans. A yacht on the other side of the globe posed complications we thought best not to take on at this stage, we began our search again locally. Within a week we put an offer on a Ganley Solution we’d seen in Auckland, and on the day we had our 7 week ultrasound confirming the pregnancy, we received an acceptance on our offer to purchase Atea.
And so our adventure began. Within two months of purchase we completed an intense execution phase and on 5th of May, 2011, we departed Auckland for the South Pacific.
How long will it take time to fade the memory of a kiss? To drain the potency of the passion and the tenderness of our bliss? A name not forgotten but details of face will fade into fleeting moments of reflection on the connection that we made.
A poem once written for a man, now applied to a country. I have come to appreciate how much of a love affair with life is lived by the transient sailor. We get to know no country in depth or detail, but we flirt with the fringes of society and leave invigorated and passionate about the place and people we encounter along the way. Whereas most individuals live entrenched in a village their whole lives, we flit in and out of countries like migrating pelagic seabirds, never returning to the same place twice. It is this continuous exploration that brings with it an intensity born from the rawness of new surroundings and unexpected outcomes. We cast the mould aside and accept a life of constant flux and continual evolution. We shun normalcy to live a life of extremes. We seek out exploration and adventure. We try to make the most of each day, mindful of the clock ticking in the periphery. Tick tock. The countdown of the clock. We are always conscious that our time in country is on a running stopwatch, and as time closes in we try to fill every moment with the sweetness of a place we will most likely never return to. Tick tock, ping!
In the recency of our interlude I can clearly see your face, in that moment of silence the minute before you wake. Then follows the shattering of solitude when your eyelids flicker blue — alive we come in passion as I crash into you.
Yet, while that clock is still ticking we get an intimacy of place that often eludes even the most resident of citizens. Days that flash past into weeks in a routine wind-down to the slow tick of minutes when that routine is gone. Tick tock. Tick tock. Once that pendulum is broken, the desire for its rhythmic beat is gone. As newcomers, we become completely involved in a place, consumed by the daily barrage of experience. Like a love affair, we dive in head first and bury ourselves in every nuance of culture and custom. With that intensity comes an addiction: An addiction to change, to unpredictable existences and to unforeseen futures.
With time against us, we fill in our days with a frenzy of activity, trying to eek out the most of our short interval in country. Time shifts and expands, and we define how we spend the hours in our day. We are allowed to fall into a slow routine of the undemanding life, with hours that aren’t gobbled up in commuting, meetings, schedules and commitments. A portion of time is spent ogling a country’s top landmarks and famous attractions, indulging in a “tourist brochure” exploration of a country. But as a cruising sailor you are more than a holiday-maker. We shop elbow-to-elbow in the street markets, bartering like locals over the cost of fruit and vegetables. We visit the community clinics looking for local remedies with fingers crossed on one hand and a translation book in the other. We wander through shady back alleys looking for an odd assortment of boat parts, smiling at the old men giving odd looks as if witness to a pare of doves in a badger den. Our kids chase their kids, not a common word between them but expressions of glee on their faces. In this knee-to-dirt experience of a country, we are exposed to her underbelly and we fall in love. We fall for all the things that aren’t advertised on the tourist brochures. We fall for her crooked streets and crooked houses, with the bad smells and the odd food, with the sly glances and the open laughter and the friendships that stem from curiosity and goodwill. We absorb the essence of a country into our pores and feel an intricate part of the fabric of life. In so short a period we feel an assimilation that generally happens in years. This is perhaps an overly romantic notion of a place, but every cruiser knows what it is like to feel the essence of a country under their skin, begot through the highs and lows of their experience. When the trip is behind us and we reflect on our time, it is the collection of these seemingly small, insignificant moments that defines our experience.
Passing time will soften this yearning from within and leaden the longing of desire — memory of scent and skin. So for now I cradle these lonely moments without you by my side, in the remembrance of your lips I twist and wake inside. For in the forgotten passion that lay dormant in the shadowed crevice of my soul, you spoke and woke that part of me with soft a gentle nudge.
What strikes me in this transient life we live is how potent but fleeting our experiences can be: intense, powerful, concentrated, all-consuming. You slip into the life that is in front of you at the moment and then – in the blink of an eye – it is gone. There are very few countries that we’ve visited that haven’t captivated me for some inherent quality. We know nothing of it other than the spelling of its name and in a small hop we land on site, amazed and awed and transfixed. In Tanzania it was the friendliness of the people. In the Seychelles it was the beauty of the land. In Madagascar it was the rawness of the on-the-brink existence. In South Africa it was the diversity. In Sumatra it was the intrepidness. In Mozambique it was the sea.
It was only yesterday that had you by my side, wrestling beneath cotton sheets and tying me up inside. My singularity lost in that connection with you — so sweet a tender place — to banish morning solitude in your butterfly embrace.
All places captivate you for some inherent quality; a few places consume you. For me, that place was Mozambique. It was as if the country, unknown to me all my life, opened its arms for a quick embrace and I fell headlong in love in that short moment of intimacy. I don’t know what led Mozambique to impress me with such a rare intensity of emotion. It was no single part of the country or specific moment in the trip, but a collective experience that left me raw and exposed. It was the infinite empty bays and the never-ending stretch of glistening white sand dunes. It was the myriad of single moments with strangers that we intersected with. It was the starlight shining down on unlit earth. It was the jellyfish that flashed and glowed beneath our hull with an intensity of a meteor shower. It was the slow rise and fall of a sleek back as a whale surfaced for air, exposing no more than a blowhole and an oval disk of flesh. It was the slow beat of a gull’s wing as it glided overhead, surveying us with a simple curiosity. It was the peace and quiet of the islands that dangled down the coast like a string of beaded pearls. My notes as we traveled down the coast captured the feeling at the time:
It is amazing out here, blue skies flanked by billowy white clouds on the fringes of a deep blue sky. We move through a patch of soft wind that ripples the surface on an otherwise flat, reflective sea. We’ve been passed by flocks of seabirds, and we’ve been assaulted by flying fish that shoot like arrows out of the water and bounce around the deck as if tossed by a novice archer. We’ve been joined by racing dolphins that play in our wake and sailed passed the solitary humpback resting on the surface of the sea. The serenity of our surrounding environment is exactly what the over-stressed office worker craves when dreaming of flinging off societal constraints. It isn’t always like this but when it is, you breathe it into your soul.
This was not my first time in Mozambique. I was lucky enough to land a position running a dive operation in a remote corner of the country a decade ago. I knew that it may be the last time I had the opportunity to spend an extended period on her shores and my farewell was an emotionally difficult one. At that stage in my life I was trying to carve every new experience out of the time I had; I’d severed the umbilical chord to my native country and the life I had established and was charging towards any unknown opportunity that presented itself. After two years in the African bush it was time for a change. I bought a ticket for America and a month later I was afloat in a small boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. And that was the end of my time in Mozambique.
Or so I thought. Life has a way of throwing its curveballs and a decade later I was unexpectedly back on Mozambican turf, enchanted with the country all over again. Mozambique was not on the radar when we’d set out for the Indian Ocean, however the draw to return was a strong one. When we decided to sail to East Africa it was only natural that Mozambique would pop up on the radar… we were so close, too close, not to find a way to include it in our route. Of course, including it meant shaving off time in Madagascar and our time there had already been cut short by our detour to Tanzania. Tanzania or Madagascar? Well, let’s do both and while we are at it, how about Mozambique too?!
Having agreed “Why not?” we sailed down the coast from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to the Quirimbas, a small archipelago of 32 islands in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique. We were about to hit the stretch of ocean that cruisers avoid altogether – the currents rip along the coast making southward progress impossible as the 2-knot current sweeps you north. Our strategy was to hug the coast, keeping no more than 10 meters below us. Grazing the seabed with our keel, we tiptoed Atea through a slice of coastline peppered with free-diving fisherman; while hair-raising from a clearance perspective, it was a sociable stretch with men popping up from their hunt to wave to us in passing. So, although the threat of a northern push to Somalia is the common fear, we found a way to avoid the strong current and had a relatively simple passage south. Having built up a brazen confidence over the previous 300 miles, our cockiness was dashed in the last 30 miles as the current wrapped around the Ponto Delgado headland and completely stopped our progress. With an unreliable engine that left us unable to power through the current, we tacked back and forth in the same mile-wide band of water for five hours, pacing over the same ground like a caged bear. We watched the slow crawl of the midday sun from the same spot. We witnessed a glorious but underappreciated sunset in the same spot. Night descended while we were in the same spot. Determined not to spend another night at sea with our destination only five miles ahead of us, we pushed on into the darkness with the brilliance of phosphorescent jellyfish laying a glittering path to our anchorage and will forever hold a lasting impression of their underwater brilliance – Atea walking on stars.
We pulled into uncharted territory as illegal trespassers at 10:00pm, drawn by the call of a good night’s sleep and the calm of a boat brought back in from sea. We dropped anchor at Isla Tecomagi, the northernmost island in the Quirimbas. With the anchor down at long last, there was only one problem: We’d tucked in but not cleared into the country. Mozambique has a reputation for corrupt officials, something I’d had a lot of experience with ten years earlier. Avoiding bribes is easiest Continue reading “Say Goodbye”