In 2007, Nick Ward and his young family emigrated from England to Canada, by way of a two year cruise from England to the Caribbean and the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. Nick’s wife, Gesa, didn’t relish the idea of an Atlantic Crossing with two young and active toddlers. So Nick, his father Dave and two friends made the passage to Antigua. This is the first of two articles describing a day at sea, mid Atlantic.
Thursday, November 22, 2007. 16:30UTC 17’06N 031’24W Wind NE5/6
We’re sailing fast right now, good breeze and just broke the record for the 24 hour run since I bought her: 152 miles from noon to noon.
Yesterday I thought I would jot down what I did in the day. We have fairly relaxed days, so I didn’t reckon it would be too long, but here I am with many pages of text. Life out here is full in so many ways.
Today, my day starts at midnight. I’m dozing in the settee bunk in the saloon, drifting in and out of sleep as we get used to the rolling motion of the boat. Ian taps me on the shoulder. ‘Your watch’ he says.
It’s warm, so I’m just sleeping in my shorts, in a cotton sleeping bag liner. I get up, swinging myself out over the lee cloth, a fabric barrier that stops me from falling out of bed as the boat rolls. Finding my t-shirt and a light jacket, I dress in the moonlit cabin, trying to time my movements to those of the boat.
We exchange a few words. No ships, nice night, boat going fast but the autopilot’s making a funny noise. I’d been worrying about the autopilot; it had been tripping out during the day. We’ve previously christened the autopilot ‘Georgina’, and she’s a full time member of the crew. Without her, we’d be hand steering; a dismal prospect for 15 days non-stop, 2 hours each, turn about turn. Now I’ve got to think about what might be causing the problem.
I put on my life jacket and harness whilst Ian writes up the midnight log entry. Bidding him goodnight, I step up towards the cockpit, find a harness line and clip it to the steel loop of my safety harness. I remember that I’m not wearing my life tag, so I reach to the grab rail in the saloon, peel apart the velcro strap and wrap the tag around my wrist. The harness should keep me on board if I trip or fall, but the tag is always sending a radio signal to a box on the boat. If I and my tag fall over the side, the signal is lost and an alarm sounds.
Clipped onto the boat now, I step out into the cockpit and stand, legs apart to balance for the rocking, holding onto the spray hood rail and watch the moonlit waves roll under the boat, feeling the rise and fall as we tumble our way across the Atlantic. I listen, the autopilot is noisy, working harder than it should and making a ‘grrunch’ sound every minute or two.
I sit down, un-clip my harness line from the u-bolt near the cabin and re-clip to the one at the back of the cockpit. Moving to stand behind the wheel, I hit the button to turn off the pilot and take control of the boat myself. It takes a few minutes of 100% concentration, judging the slew and twist of boat and waves before I’m into the groove and can relax, my movements of the wheel becoming more instinctive and automatic. And in those few minutes, the autopilot problem is clear to me. As I turn the wheel there’s a delay, some slack, before I feel the rudder move. That final symptom helps it all click into place; there must be a shortage of hydraulic fluid, the pilot is pushing against some air bubbles and not getting a response. That’s good, now I know how to fix it, we just need to wait till daylight. I hand steer for most of my two hour watch, enjoying a buzz from steering MY BOAT over this great ocean.
Finishing my watch at 2am, I wake Ed to take over, and head back to my bunk. I sleep fitfully, the noises and motion of the boat intruding on my rest. I don’t hear the autopilot much though, so the guys must be hand steering a fair bit, just using the pilot when they come below to check the radar.
Around 7am, I wake to the first glimmer of a grey dawn. The wind has risen nicely and it’s great sailing weather. Ian and Dave are both up and on deck; Ian’s enjoying hand steering just as I had been earlier. We all chat a little about the plan for the morning, then I go below to put the kettle on and get the morning emails.
Email comes via the radio. I open up the computer and jot a quick note to Gesa, file a position report and then prepare to dial into the email system. First thing to do is check the radio propagation. My email software has a screen that shows the chance of connecting to various stations at certain times of the day. Right now, the Belgium station shows green on 8422kHz, so I turn on the radio and modem, select the frequency and listen. Bleeps and chirps suggest that someone else is already dialed in on that frequency, so I wait. After a few minutes the sounds revert to the usual static and random beeps, so I click ‘connect’. The lights flicker as the radio puts out full power and connects to Belgium. Two messages to send, and two to download Gesa’s news from last night and a weather file. After 3 minutes, all is sent and received, a tiny 10kbytes of data. It’s nice to hear from home, Gesa’s analysis of the weather looks good even if things back in Cambridge are a little stressful right now. I’ll have to write something nice later to try and cheer her up.
Switching off the radio, I load the weather file into the viewer and get the news we want. As Gesa had already suggested, we’ll get favourable strong breezes all the way to Saturday. Need to work our way south a little to about 17N in order to be well positioned for Friday but that’ll be easy. The kettle’s boiling, it’s time for a coffee.
As coffee is made the remainder of the crew stir and stagger out of their bunks. We sit in the cockpit, enjoying daybreak – the sun doesn’t rise till 8:30 – and sipping our coffee. We talk about the plan for fixing the steering and changing sail.
Coffee finished, we heave to. This is a very useful technique, where you tack the boat, putting her nose through the wind – but don’t release the headsail. It lies against the inner forestay, trying to push the nose down to leeward. Meanwhile the mainsail and rudder try to push her up to windward and, with these forces balanced, the boat jogs along at about 1kt gently riding the waves. It’s very stable and comfortable, useful for doing tasks like repairs or cooking in heavy weather.
We put the engine on gently and drop the mainsail. The batteries need to be charged, and the engine replaces the balance of the main as we pack it away. The sail is quickly dropped, folded and the cover put on. We probably won’t use it again for days. Whilst we’re at it, I pull the staysail cover out of the forecabin and we put that on too, so our unused sails are protected from the ultraviolet rays that slowly destroy sailcloth. With the boat still hove too and stable, we have breakfast.
The next job is the steering, so I dig out the tools and hydraulic fluid. The top up point is on top of the steering pedestal, but to get at it we remove a wooden plate, which holds the main steering compass. This is a delicate instrument so we carefully remove the holding screws, slide it back a few inches and disconnect the wires for the compass light. That done, the compass is laid carefully on a cushion out of the way. We remove the plug on the steering pump and can plainly see the fluid level well down on where it should be. Good, looks like the diagnosis is correct. One of the fluid bottles has a pipe that screws on the top, making it easy to squeeze the fluid into the pump. We empty it of the few milliliters in there, then Dave and Ed top the bottle up from another full container, via a funnel. A roll of the boat predictably tips fluid over the swearing pair, but it’s easily mopped up.
We finish topping up the pump, work the wheel and autopilot a few times to get the air bubbles out and put it all back together again. Next job is to raise the second headsail. This sail is hoisted in a groove on a ‘furler’, which is a roller that swivels to roll the whole sail up around it, thus reducing the area as the wind gets stronger. The crew is now used to this procedure, so we work quickly and smoothly in our tasks. We come out of hove to by releasing the jib sheet and steering us at ninety degrees to the wind. It’s fast and stable for this job. Clipping my harness on, I take up position on the plunging bow, ready to feed the new sail into it’s groove. Ian and Ed take the sail from it’s bag, tie on the sheets and halyard and feed it to me. Ian pulls on the halyard and the sail slides easily up the rig. Dave manages lines back in the cockpit. Tying off the halyard and the strop at the bottom, we can furl the two sails together a bit before rigging the poles.
Each sail has a five metre pole that holds it out from the side of the mast and stops it flapping as we sail with the wind behind us. Ed controls the lines that hoist the pole upwards, and I clip it to the jib sheet. As Dave and Ian in the cockpit give us slack or tension on the sheets, we lift the pole four metres off the deck and tension everything up. Moving to the other side, we do the same for the second sail and now we have two little triangles of cloth, held by the poles, pushing us forward at full speed.
The whole maneuver only takes 10 minutes, and as we return to the cockpit and get on our way, Dad says ‘nice seamanship’ to me.That comment is all the praise I need!
The next part of Ty Dewi’s mid-Atlantic day will be published soon…..