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Encounters on an Ocean Passage

T’was the season to cross the North Atlantic from east to west. It was mid-December 2018 and a good many, such as the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers participants, had already left, most having made their departure from the Canary Islands, and a few, like us, who made one last stop at the Cape Verde Islands.

Judy and I were in no particular hurry to leave on this passage to the Caribbean as the later in December, or even January, is typically the better time to cross. So while in Mindelo of Sao Vicente Island, the second largest town of the Cape Verde Islands, we matched the pace of a slow clock while doing some last little boat jobs, topping up with provisions, and chatting with other sailors doing the same.

Colourful sailfish sculpture

It was interesting to meet newbies to sailing and hear their nervous excitement as they prepared for their imminent departure for their first ocean crossing. As Judy and I have made numerous major passages, we were happy to assuage their worries, letting them know that this was historically one of the easiest crossings as the predictable and steady trade winds should usher them right along.

So, being as prepared as we could and with a forecast showing steady winds for the next week, we headed out.

Now there is a worthy adage, “Don’t Forget to Look Up”, and from experience we can say that a lapse in that exercise could cause the careless sailor problems, if not disaster. One such incident occurred as we were leaving Borneo for Malaysia, when for a period, we had to beat into some pretty heavy wind and seas. Sea Turtle was taking a pounding that built an anxious tension in me and on the boat. I happened to look up and what I saw made me gasp! At the top fitting on our backstay I saw strands in the cable separating, signalling an imminent catastrophic failure. Immediate action saved the day, but if I had not been cognizant of the importance of looking up, the outcome would have been much worse.

And so it was again, while we were making our departure into a channel between two mountainous islands, we began with a fully deployed genoa, but as the winds accelerated in the gap, it required some furling. Just as I was about to do so, I looked up and noticed something peculiar near the top of the aluminum furling foil that is around the forestay. It was a dark spot on the shiny foil that shouldn’t have been there. The foil is made in sections and they are joined with tiny set screws when installed with the rigging, making it as though it is one long continuous unit. I quickly deduced that the upper joint had come loose and was separating, with the top section of the foil slipping up, to expose the dark connector backing inside.

At this point, the winds had whipped up to 30 knots and we were surfing the steep waves. I had to furl. However, if the upper portion of the foil had slipped up the connector backing enough, the upper section wouldn’t rotate with the lower, prohibiting furling. Well I had no choice but to try. It held! I got a few wraps, wiped my brow, and continued.

But now what were we to do? We couldn’t continue our passage as it was. The fix would require going up the mast, but it was unimaginable to do that while pitching in open ocean seas with one hand holding tiny screws, the other the driver, reaching a way out while being whipped around like a rag doll. And fighting back up the channel in those waves and wind to return to the safety and calm of Mindelo’s port was really out of the question.

Fortunately we weren’t too far along that we couldn’t get around to the back side of the next Island, Santo Antao, and out of the churning blue for some degree of protection in the lee of the towering cliffs. We knew there was a village in a slight indentation in the coastline, where hopefully we could anchor and deal with it there.

Mountainous profile

We arrived and anchored in a blanket of darkness, in a deep open roadstead, relieved that there was only a slight swell that rolled in. In the morning, we woke to a stunning scene worthy of a King Kong setting. A spectacular canyon cradled a village that seemed lost and detached from the world outside. The only access was a narrow gravel switchback road that went up into the clouds and over the top of the steep mountains to the other side. Their challenging ocean access reminded one of Pitcairn. No pier, just a ramp.

Vivid rudimentary village

The seas here were quite calm, so up I went and fixed it quickly without too much trouble. It struck me though how the loss of a couple of wee screws could be so critical…

Critical repairs

…but more importantly it was a sobering reminder of the old and wise adage, “Don’t Forget to Look Up!”

I always remember a conversation I had many years ago with an old salt who had sailed the seven seas, and he told me that the east to west passage across north Atlantic was the easiest of them all. When he did it, he said he flew wing-on-wing and never touched the canvas for two weeks. Well, Judy and I were hoping that would be the case for us. We were off to seek the conveyor belt trade winds to carry us across.

Long after those imperious mountain peaks of the Cape Verde Islands dissolved like ghosts into the Sahara- induced haze, we knew it would be the last land we would see for 20 or more days. This passage was typical in that after a few days, we settled into an indolent rhythm where the desultory days blend one into the other and it would matter not if the voyage was 10 or 30 days, or if it was Sunday or Wednesday, or if it was the 1st or the 15th of the month.

Sea cat’s berth

However, we were diligent in our routine of watches. We do three hours on and three hours off during the night and every 18 minutes, a 360° visual regardless day or night. The other relentless event is our cat, Chanty’s demand to be let out each morning for her ‘walk around the block’ to fetch her breakfast, that without fail is waiting on deck. It’s those flying fish accompanied by an occasional squid that make their fateful, last nocturnal flights.

Morning catch

Most of our idle time is spent on such things as reading, watching DVDs, playing Scrabble, and writing and ruminating. However, the lonely lazy days were made more interesting in a few delightful ways, mostly involving, what else? Fish.

Once, our languid aura was broken by the frantic tolling of the bell on the fishing rod, and it was all hands on deck, including Chanty. It was a big Mahi Mahi. These ubiquitous pelagic roamers are one of the fastest growing fish in the sea. As we watched the vivid iridescent hues of blues and greens of its skin dissolve into a lackluster grey before our eyes as it expired on board, there is a certain measure of guilty regret of the sacrifice not to mention we, sadly, quite likely snatched it from its travelling mate.

An ocean rainbow

The latter fact was made evident one night when we were on deck awash with spreader lights. There we saw in the deep blackness a pair swimming tight formation right alongside, like sleek escorts for the lumbering mothership. And again in the morning, the same thing, maybe the same ones?

If Chanty could talk, this would be her tale:

“We were given a start one night as I was being held in Dad’s arms in the companionway, while he was doing his 360° visual check, when a flying fish whizzed by my face like a ballistic missile, ricocheted off the inside of the dodger, and crash landed inside the boat, leaving a tracer of scales. I dispatched him at once.”

Flying fish shrapnel

In another chance sighting as we were slowly sailing along, I saw a fin sticking out of the water. A sunfish? They are known to lay on the surface. No. This one was moving and then I saw the corresponding tail following. It was a big shark, and judging the space between the dorsal and tail, I would estimate his overall size to be maybe 4 metres or more.

Well along, we were given notice with rafts of gilded seaweed, that we had entered the Sargasso Sea. The sea was a palate of royal colours as the opulent gold was in a perfect compatible contrast with the rich aqua marine of the deep ocean. Its presence lasted for days and frustrated any attempts of trailing a fishing line.

Golden sargasso seaweed

Twice we were visited by pods of breaching pilot whales. In one pod, there were about a dozen that included a wee one swimming in unison with Mom as though attached, while another fellow, like a black submarine, maybe 5 metres long, cruised right along beside us, barely moving a muscle.

A pod of pilot whales

After several days, our loneliness was interrupted when Judy spotted another ship. As we focused on the blip on the horizon, there is a mustering of inquisitive thoughts like, who are they? Where are they going? It is easy to conjure up romantic thoughts of adventurous itinerant mariners heading to exotic ports, that is, until the modern tech of AIS gives the pragmatic answer. It was a Japanese fishing vessel, about as far away from home as it could get.

When the lambent light of twilight gave way to night, most nights were sailed in a blanket of darkness. The moon being elsewhere would leave us in the care of brilliant stars, from the North Star to the Southern Cross. It is those nights in this vast remoteness that you realize just how utterly alone and remote you are. It isn’t a scary isolation, but a privileged tranquil peace that very few people ever experience. It is a rare and precious opportunity for reflection and contemplation.

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” by William Arthur Ward

As far as the sailing conditions were concerned, our expectations inspired by that old salty sailor’s experience were not met. Starting out, it took us about three days to break free of the clutches of tangled wind and confused seas that the lees of the Cape Verde Islands produce, when the winds eventually became relatively constant in direction and strength. Before leaving, the forecast we had for the first week suggested we should head SW before turning west for a straight shot across.

We were in daily contact with Adam back home, who was constantly consulting online weather forecasting and routing us. He warned of a 5-day calm that was forecast to develop on our plotted course and suggested we drop more south to avoid it. So we extended our SW trajectory to 12° north and then turned west. That was just about the time that the butter melted.

Well, it turned out the weather feeds from Adam, our land based router, paid off. We only had about 10 hours of faint winds in which we motored, as we skirted that particular calm area. After that it was back to downwind sailing, but not exactly constant. At times it was wing-on-wing, with a poled out genoa on portside and poled out staysail on the other. Then other times, it was just genoa. Sometimes it was down to a wisp of 5 to 10 knots and at times 25 plus.

Then about four days from arrival, we hit light and variable winds that had us ghosting on frequent sail changes and adjustments combined with motor sailing.

Where’s the wind?

The majority of days were sunny. There were only a couple of days that had the sun play hide and seek with a myriad of clouds that polka dotted the sky. Once we had a light rain shower, a welcomed chance to towel off the salty decks.

On the morning of the 21st day and after about 2,200 nautical miles covered, we rounded the southern point of Martinique (Caribbean) and into the big bay at La Marin, in the lee of the verdant tropical hills. When we dropped the hook, a kind of hush fell over us and it was as though our reliable ship Sea Turtle fell into a sound sleep in – what seemed strange – calm and peaceful waters.

Even though this passage wasn’t a sleepy trade wind run, as had by that old salt we talked with, it had its delightful moments and left us with yet another feeling of accomplishment.