Please excuse the long absence from writing this blog. The crossing knocked the stuffing out of me and shook my confidence in my plan to continue sailing. This mindset along with warm temperatures and easy Caribbean living ultimately kept me from writing updates. Once I was up to the task of catching up, my computer went down and it has been a minor nightmare getting it all back up and running.
So here is the crossing story.
We returned to Lanzarote, the northern most island in the Canary Island chain, just before the end of December.
As Cadence has been sailed some 3000 miles already this season, most systems were in good working order. Although at times you feel like you are beating her to death with every system going through shock treatment wave after wave, she is always better off when used. Sitting idle for whatever reason takes a greater toll.
An ocean crossing is a daunting task for obvious reasonas. There are no ports to pull into for repairs and self reliance is an absolute requirement. I had a pit in my stomach as the date for departure was near. We would be three souls crossing the Atlantic Ocean, David, Jess and myself. As captain of our tiny ship, I felt the weight of responsibility to get us all safely back. I had sold the crossing to both Jess and Dave as what is considered the easiest of all ocean crossings. A sail south to find the trade winds and then we would be on a sleigh ride headed west with the wind at our back. There is zero percent chance of gales this time of year and we could rely as the sailors of past have on consistent winds to push us to the warm clear waters of the Caribbean. Nonetheless, I had the usual pre departure nerves going and was doing my best to hide any concern.
David arrived Lanzarote and Jess I and were already in full swing getting prepared. I had recently done all the typical engine and genset maintenance required so fortunately that was of no concern. We had some sticky winches to clean and re grease, rigging check, finish fixing the short wave side band radio, go through all the bilge pumps and check on functionality, clean the bottom of the boat, check and change the zincs, go through the ditch bags and replace expired safety gear, and the huge task of provisioning for the trip. We wanted to have enough food to last 60 days, just in case shit hit the fan and we had to drift all the way there.
Our initial plan was to sail SSW towards the Cape Verdes stopping in Mindelo for a few days. This is about 900 miles or so from Lanzarote. We could rest up and get back under way in hopefully a WSW direction with the reliable trades. We pulled out of Lanzarote mid day. David had developed a bad sinus condition, likely from the air travel, change in temperature, new country, and of course the bottom of the boat cleaning and zincs job. He was also developing an ear infection, not taking any chances, we started him on antibiotics. Light winds and calm seas soon turned into 25-35 knot winds and short closely spaced square waves. Both Dave and Jess became seasick. Not the start we were hoping for but we pressed on. I figured the seasickness would abate for Jess like normal and David put on a patch that would soon kick in. The antibiotics would take 48 hours to have some affect.
The winds finally turned reasonable once we got away from the high mountains of the island. We were about 200 miles south of Lanzarote and a few hours before sunset, 34 hours into our trip, when I noticed a tear going down the leach line of the laminate mainsail. It was about 3 feet in length. I went into my sail repair bag and pulled out some patches and pieced together a strategy with Jess to lower sail and make the repair. What should have been a straightforward lowering of sail to the deck turned into our first nightmare. In my haste to make the repair we went to lower the sails without removing the vertical battens. We quickly realized the oversight but could not get the main back up as the bolt rope on the luff had pulled out of the track in the mast somehow. We needed to get the sail down now quickly as during this time the wind went from 10-15 to 20-25 and the sun going down. What bad fortune. Bringing down the main turned into a complete fiasco and fixing this tear was a non option, too big. We decided our best option was to head north into the wind and sea for 50 miles and get to the bottom on Gran Canaria, which lies in the middle of the island chain. Gran Canaria, the most populated island in the chain, would have plenty of available services for visiting yachts.
We made the tough trek through the night arriving Pasito Blanco, the southern most harbor, as the sun was just coming up. I had reached out to the port captain for the Ocean Cruising Club via the Sat phone on the way. He had made sure there was space for us at the marina and was standing at the dock when we arrived. A sight for sore eyes. Agustin Martin just so happened to live 5 minutes by foot from the marina and his boat was directly across from us.
This would be the first time I have taken advantage of being a member of the OCC. Once we were at the dock and the crazy boat motion had stopped we all took a deep breath and came to the conclusion that this stop was meant to be. David could get over his sinus and ear infection and he could also get his sea legs in order before we set off again.
Pasito Blanco is a quiet marina and the staff was understanding of our plight and helped us organize a car and find a sail loft that could help us out. The first loft we visited was run by a young german man. When we walked in he was jamming out to a blaring radio playing Blue Oyster Cult. He was talking a thousand miles an hour and had a strange white powder all over his nose. He was trying to sell us on his abilities as best he could but we thought better of this attempt and made our way out to find another. The next sail loft was run by a cruiser from Romania that had circumnavigated in his own boat. He ran a nice clean loft, had one employee who also seemed very experienced and was perfect for our small job. What we thought would be 2-3 days turned into a week.
We needed to replace some of our vertical battens and no one on the island had the batten lengths we needed. We decided to order them from the sail maker, Elvestrom in Denmark. We were assured they would arrive in 4-5 days and then we could put them back up our repaired sail and get back underway. Bureaucratic red tape in customs turned this into complete fiasco. After countless hours on the phone with UPS and customs I took matters into my own hands. I wrote out a long letter translated by google into Spanish. I described our plight and worked the pity angle of whomever would be reading it. I found a guy in the marina willing to drive me to the airport customs house and I took my letter. After going through five different people and spending about 2 hours showing my letter and puppy dog eyes, my package had been located. It was at another location and was being held ransom until I paid some more taxes and gave them some special tax ID that my Scottish helper just happened to have. We made it back to the marina and were off the dock within an hour headed again across the Atlantic.
We sailed the rhumb line instead of a more southerly direction as our weather router, Susan Gannett had directed. We sailed overnight and by the next evening came across our next technical issue. The main sail was jamming in the mast and we could not get the sail in or out. After going up the mast and horsing in the sail, we decided it was again best to head for the last island in the Canary chain, El Hiero and figure out what was happening.
We pulled into the little fishing village at 3 am. As there often seems to be, we had a man on shore guiding us in with a flash light. He helped us tie up to a large concrete pier where we could diagnose the problem and make a repair. This island, the most remote in the archipelago had no yacht services so we were on our own to make the fix. We woke up early in the morning and as a team went to work. We broke out the Selden manual and went through all the workings of the in mast furling system. In turned out the part that attaches to the top of the sail was jammed up. We believe it was likely from all the sand in the air from the Sahara desert while we were in Morocco. The ballbearings would not spin freely so the top of the sail was not turning while the bottom did and the sail bunched up and jammed. We simply cleaned out the entire mechanism and re greased it. After bringing the sail in and out a dozen times while at the dock we determined we solved the issue and set off yet again.
The weather was expected to remain the same for the next 5 days and according to our weather guru, we could sail the rhumb line and cut out some of the south only miles searching for the trade wind belt. There were several large weather disturbances rolling off the east coast of North America that would provide a stable wind field in our latitude of 26-27 degrees north. Further south there was too much wind so we were directed to make a mostly westerly course while we had winds coming from NE. We were told we would need to pass through a front of nasty weather further west carrying some large seas, but until then, we should make west.
Susan gave us the heads up to expect some large swells coming from the south for a period of time. We are now into day four. These swells had started some 1500 miles away but were still packing a punch. While Jess was asleep below, David and I were in the cockpit dealing with squall after squall and winds going from 10-25 knots with direction change after direction change. We could see on the horizon a very agitated sea state and knew this was to be up on us in short order. It was literally like someone took this one swath of ocean, shook it up and put it in front of us. Fortunately it would only last 3-4 hours but we had probably the biggest sea state I have yet encountered. Average wave height was 15-20 feet but a set of rollers came through that were half the mast height, and the crests were breaking off. One of these knocked us right onto our side and put the lifelines into the water. We both were a bit scared during this but Cadence proved capable handled it better than the crew. One strong boat.
The crew, including myself, were tiring already of the inconsistent weather. We were only 4-5 days out and had much more ocean in front of us. Jess had developed biceps tendonitis and could not raise her left arm. We called my business partner, an orthopedic surgeon, and were giving the instructions of anti inflammatories and no use for 5-8 days. So David and I needed to step up and carry the extra shifts or if Jess was up, we handled all the lifting. Nothing so far seemed to be going our way.
After the white knuckled high seas we came across, winds finally established themselves but directly out of the SW. We had luff and puff winds coming directly from where we wanted to go. So, we sailed close hauled for the next 3 days due W.
SW winds are completely opposite the direction the trades blow here. We were expecting steady winds from the east for this passage and so far had not seen anything like that. Susan Gannett explained to us that we were in the middle of two weather systems, one to our north and one to our south. We had to thread the needle in this small swath of reliable weather. We were instructed to make a due west course and minimum speed of 5 knots. Sailing close hauled in a relatively smooth sea state Cadence plodded along at a steady 6-7 knots with winds from 11-14 knots. Once we reached 40 degrees west we would have to pass through the front to our south and then we would be in a steady trade wind swath for the foreseeable future, so we hoped.
We are now about 8 days out of El Hiero. We were ready to face the the front to our south. Jess was on night watch but given strict orders to wake me or Dave up if any sails needed trimming or reefing. David was sound asleep and I was in and out but awoke to a vibrating boat. Any strange motion or feeling in the boat is easily felt after you have become accustomed to her. I came up on deck and Jess was listening to a podcast on her headphones. It was a super dark night with no moon and heavy storm clouds in the sky. Cadence was barreling along at 8-9.5 knots. A little too fast. We had a steady 30 knots astern and both sails were triple reefed. I brought in almost all of the genoa, so we had out a Dorito sized headsail, triple reefed main and still cranked along. Soon thereafter, the wind dialed up to 35, then up to 40. Cadence was moving too fast again. I was having trouble keeping her going downwind. We decided when the wind was at steady 45 knots that we needed to change tactics. By this time Dave was up in the cockpit thanks to all the commotion. Having trouble keeping her downwind Cadence rounded up and I horsed her back down. Then we had the first of 3 accidental jibes where the stern of the boat goes through the wind. Fortunately the main was very de powered being triple reefed yet what was a scary situation was getting worse. Getting control of Cadence was difficult. We got the main sheeted in and amidships and turned into the wind. We put on the motor for a little power and used a maneuver called fore reaching where we took the wind and waves just off the bow. The winds were steady 45 gusting to 55 for the next 4 hours. The noise this creates in the rigging is horrible. The creaking and groaning of the boat and vibrating of the rigging was plain awful.
Once the winds had abated down into the high twenties we put our big boy pants back on and turned Cadence back on course. We were all shook up pretty good at this point. I got the weather router, Susan Gannett, on the Sat phone to see what lay ahead. I told her about the ordeal that we just went through and stressed we needed to steer around anything else like that if possible. She called it a sea storm. They creep up unannounced and not predictable with the tools she uses to forecast with. She again gave us directions to stay in the latitudes we were at make only due west, so we did. The winds for the next few days were mostly right on the nose but we made progress nonetheless in a westerly, even northwesterly at times direction. Again, how many of you sailors going east to west this time of year have had wind from the SW? Likely never.
We were now 11 days into the passage and had yet to have a comfortable wind abaft the beam. WTF. Susan warned us that we would be in squally conditions for another 48 hours and to expect some thunderstorms. She said no really big winds or seas but there would be some rumbling around us. This didn't sound too bad at first. We could hear rumble all day while we creeped westerly at about 5 knots. By nightfall the skies were dark and stormy in all directions. The rumble of thunder did not seem to stop. At midnight the light show started. There were streaks of lightning in the sky pretty much nonstop for for the next 8 hours. I thought the big seas were scary, then the high winds, but the lightning I think proved to be the worst of all. It was not just thunder and light high up in the clouds, it was streaks down to the water and completely around the boat in every direction. After a while you just give up on the fear and say “what will happen will happen.”. Lightning is so unpredictable, it can hit you and just go through the boat into the sea, fry all the electronics, or it can even blow a hole right through the hull. The best we could do was turn off the electronics and continue sailing.
We finally made it out of the stormy weather by day 13. The wind had turned and was coming out of the east. We would expect this 15-25 knots for the next 3-4 days. Wow, finally a break. We were still 900 miles from Barbados, our closest point of land but had finally found trades. Skies were blue, seas were moderate and spirits were high. We don’t like to stress the boat this far off shore so we always sail conservatively until we are within motoring range but we still made 7-8 knots easily. We were making 160-185 miles per day. Sailing was either with the genoa poled out and the wind at about 150 degrees to the boat or we would swing the main over and sail wing on wing.
There was not much to do as Cadence sailed with minimal sail changes and the Hydrovane coupled with electric autopilot steered her perfectly. We spent a good amount of time playing chess and cards. On our Furuno navigation system we plug in our exact destination and it gives us an ETA (estimated time of arrival). The computer doesn't allow the countdown to start until there are less than 99 hours of time before arrival. So it was exciting when then counter clicked on and we could see 99 hours. The downside is that you continually watch the counter and time seems to slow down to a crawl. There is a huge difference in time if you are doing for example 6.5 knots and then you speed up to 7.5 knots. The time is cut down by 15%. Next thing you know the boat slows to 6 knots and the time goes up by 10%. Its maddening. I dont think I will plug the destination in on long passages anymore.
We were all very antsy to get to land. We routinely had conversations about what we would do and eat once we landed. There was much talk about ice cream and cheeseburgers. We had long conversations about our favorite breed of dog, favorite land activity, what we missed the most about land, family and friends. We talked about the sailing life and what we were missing out on. For a young man of only 22 years, David seemed to have a well thought out perspective on happiness and how to achieve it. Much wisdom was inseminated from this young mind. Perhaps there will be some changes in the way we live our life and I have to say a big part of this inspiration came from my young recent college graduate.
On day 18 Susan's forecast was for lighter wind speeds, the luff and puff variety. We were so disappointed as we all wanted Cadence to race to the finish line. Our diesel tanks were left with about 30 hours running time. We had burned through most of the diesel during our light wind days coming straight out of the SW, from the generator running several hours every day to top up the batteries, and from our storm management times of fore reaching. We finally needed to run the engines when the winds fell below 8 knots and we just couldn't keep the sails full. We powered for about 20 hours and then were forced to shut down as we still had 200 or so miles to go.
The wind was light and directly on the stern. We turned off slightly, sailing as deep as we could, with the Asymetrical poled out. Eventually we were able to move to a wing on wing sail plan again and went back to the rhumb line. On day 21 at around midnight we could see the lights of Martinique on the horizon. We were making 4-5 knots. We sailed in between St. Lucia and Martinique before sunrise and dropped our anchor in 20 feet of water on the large bank off Martinique's SW coast. All were exhausted yet the excitement to have reached land safely fueled us to sit up and watch the sun come up over the island. A wee scotch was poured from a bottle procured some 4000 sea miles away, a totally different latitude and longitude sailed earlier in the season. Cadence had stood up to a lashing and was non worse for the wear. The crew on the other had had been beaten up and was ready for some serious relaxation.