Tales from the Atlantic: Part 1

19 November to 1 December 2021

Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, 28°09’N 15° 25’W to

In mid November we watched excited as our friends from Gibraltar, Yvette and Derek, started out from Las Palmas on Gran Canaria on their boat SV Delite to take part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers Plus (ARC +), a race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean via the Cape Verde islands. We were slightly confused and a bit concerned when less than a day later we saw their track turn around and start to return to land.

When we caught up with them safely back in Las Palmas we heard that their autohelm had broken and they hadn’t fancied hand steering for a week to their first stop in the Cape Verdes. They would get the autohelm fixed and leave again on the ARC instead, a direct race to the Caribbean leaving on 21 November. Trouble was that one of their crew would not be continuing with them leaving a cabin free for someone else to join them. This proved a temptation too great for Stefan to resist.

Anyone who has asked Stefan how his first ocean passage was has got a one word answer. “Long!”. But, although not strictly an adventure with Pintail, here in his own words, from his diary entries and his reflections, is a slightly longer version of his first Atlantic crossing…

After multiple COVID tests and two flights down to the Canaries, I found myself at the stern of SV Delite ready for a 3,000 mile crossing. I don’t think that the magnitude of the journey had really sunk in.  We were going to be at sea for 3 weeks and completely on our own.  No one to call and no one to help.

As Derek, Yvette and Alfie had already left once they were fully ready. The faulty computer of the autohelm had been replaced. Food and drink for four people for four weeks is no easy task and we started off with every cupboard, corner and crevice filled. The forecast was for no wind initially, then building as we hit the East to West trade winds.

Day 2

We’ve been at sea for 18 hours. My first night watch started at 3am. It’s lovely to have one 3 hour watch in every 12 hours. Far more luxury than I am used to. Emma and I are used to 2.5 hours on, 2.5 hours off during the night. I still find it difficult to sleep at the start of a long passage but hopefully things will improve.

We started yesterday at 12pm. It was a racing start with 150 boats fighting for the line. A Spanish Navy frigate fired the start signal so it was all very impressive. From my perspective, as a non-racing sailor, it was absolute chaos but Derek and the rest of the crew seemed to know what was going on! We crossed the line second in class and had some good sailing for most of the day.

It is strange being on someone else’s boat where everything is different. I am slowly getting used to it. The boat feels good and sails well in light winds. Derek and Yvette have done a great job with food, organising the boat and safety. Their rules are different but I have no reason to question them.

Tonight a migrant boat was spotted by one of the fleet and we just had a Mayday relay from the Tenerife coastguard. The transmission has been lost, I hope the boat and its crew are not.

Two more hours of my watch to go, I’m sitting with shorts and bare feet. Nice!

Day 4

I am starting to get to understand everything on the boat. The only big issue is the wind. There is enough to make 3 knots close haul so we are tacking around, going nowhere. It is a little frustrating and it’s beginning to sink in how long this journey is going to take.

Things are nice on the boat. We have had music playing most of the day which has lifted everyone’s spirits. We had lots of dolphins with us today. I had a lovely sleep tonight from 7pm to 11.45pm and will be off again at 3am for another nap.

We are currently sailing with the moon coming up. It is so very peaceful. I am thinking about turning the engine on but I know that will wake everyone and the diesel has to last 3 weeks.

Day 5

First watch of the day, 6am to 8am. Emma’s weather reports are proving very useful. As forecast the wind is behind us now and we are goose-winging (with two foresails) at 5.5 knots. I feel a little jet lagged and looking forward to another couple of hours sleep with the boat being so smooth and quiet.

Day 6

We are goose-winging again at 6 knots. We have been sailing for 24 hours now and it’s really lovely, nothing like my memories of sailing in the unpredictable weather of the Med. I guess everyone is getting into a routine now and getting used to each other. We have started a routine of a daily pop quiz, each of us taking turns to set the questions. Alfie is quiz master today. Given his age, it might be difficult for us oldies but, in fairness to him, he has done well at our rather dated questions. I cooked dinner last night. A gourmet concoction of bratwurst, mash and tinned peas with gravy! It was a bit stressful juggling cooking and serving dinner for four on a moving boat but it was well received.

Day 7

I am sleeping very well now. It must be a mixture of no alcohol, no social media and our odd watch hours. I can’t believe we have been at sea now for 6 days. We had two fish on the line today but sadly they got away. Yvette got her planet app working on her phone. It is pretty amazing to know what you are looking at in the night sky.

We still have no wind. Hopefully it will fill in soon as we really need to consider our diesel consumption. I fixed the GPS on the boat today so was pleased to get that working.

At this point we knew that the wind was forecast to strengthen but none of us were quite ready for what was about to come

Day 8

The wind has increased to 30 knots and with big following seas. The boat is all over the place making sleep difficult. We heard today that a crew member on another ARC boat has died. We don’t know the full details but Del did a minute’s silence for him.

It’s amazing how quickly the first week has gone. We appreciate that the weather is not calming down anytime soon but very much looking forward to when it does.

Day 12

The heavy weather still continues although we are in hope that it will calm soon. It’s been 5 days now with waves the size of houses coming from behind.

Last night as I was getting up for my watch we got an ‘all hands on deck’ call as the autohelm had failed. This is not good when it is dark, with no moon and in big seas. I went down into the stern locker to see what was wrong. Very quickly I had a panic attack. I am not sure if it was the confined space or the pressure of fixing the issues. My mind starting to play tricks on me and I really didn’t want to go back down. Once I had taken my life jacket and wet jacket off I felt much better and forced myself back down. I am glad I did. After five hours I managed to fashion a solution. It is still holding 24 hours later. I really hope that continues. It was a shit situation but I feel really good about overcoming my fears and ultimately being able to help.

Everyone is tired and bruised with being thrown around the boat.

I wonder how much of it we can endure or if it will just become normal.

What my diary doesn’t record is just how strong the wind was during those 5 days. We recorded a gusts of up to 70 knots. Needless to say this was in the middle of the night as the autohelm was being repaired.

To explain a little bit more about what happened with the autohelm. It was the mechanical connection between the autohelm ram and the rudder that sheared clean off, probably due to how hard the rudder was having to react to counter the strength of the waves. In these heavy seas, at the bottom of the boat, with only 7mm of fibreglass between me and the waves the noise inside that locker was deafening and laying on a hard surface for so long meant that the number of bruises and sores only increased.

If you want to read more about just how challenging this weather was for others in the race read this article in Yachting World.

And stay tuned for the second half of our race…

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