Rockin’ Across the Atlantic Trades

Week One (of Three): Distance to Run: 2,700 miles

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.