Atlantic – What did we learn?

Let’s break this down into several key areas:

  • Preparations
  • The Ocean
  • The ARC
  • The Boat
  • Geographical Issues
  • People
  • Changes we would make etc

We have been sailing for years but prior to our journey ‘the ocean’ was a complete unknown. We therefore left the UK and headed out ‘beyond the Isle of Wight’ into unfamiliar waters. With regard to sailing and after approaching 10,000nm of coastal cruising we still felt like beginners. Now, having added a further 9,000nm to our log including roughly 8,000nm of ocean passage making we are stepping up our status in the sailing world to that of ‘intermediate’, but only just! We still have lots to learn.

Preparations:

We spent about 4,500 hours preparing the boat. The final few weeks before casting off were completely manic even though we had project managed carefully over a two and a half year period. We controlled progress because we fitted out the boat ourselves but even then production was pretty much flat out as we made parts in steel, aluminium and delrin. We left the UK with a long list of stuff to be done and there hadn’t been any spare capacity on our part that could have changed that. The professionals were utilised with regard to some rigging and hydraulics modifications, hydraulic servicing and rebuilds.

Preparations continued as we headed south and we were fitting essentials like tri-colour, bilge pumps, fog horn, securing life line stanchions and other parts as passed through Spain and Portugal. We found that beyond the Solent there were no significant yacht chandleries or services until reaching Gibraltar where a minimal number of yacht bits were available. It was remarkable to walk into chandleries in some yacht centres to find that they carried almost nothing on the shelves. Only when we reached Las Palmas did we again come across excellent parts and services. That said it was a huge problem sourcing an M12 bolt in A4 steel!

So an option for re-fitting is to get to Las Palmas early and sort things out there. The chandlery is excellent, the yard services equally so and overall the services were good value.

We finished our transatlantic preparation by fitting a DC Limiter (to protect the hull from stray currents) to the SSB antenna ground and re-wiring/changing the SSB backstay connector at 7pm the evening before the ARC departed. There were still items left on our project list but our time was up so they didn’t get done. And we had help from two wonderful sailing friends that came out to Las Palmas to give us a hand if we needed it. We really needed it!

By the time we reached Las Palmas we thought we were ocean ready. We had ticked through the ARC safety requirements and almost every requirement was met. Then we attended the ARC seminars on ocean life, survival and repairs. Plus we wanted to make some changes based on our experience over the last 1,200nm. Suddenly we were buying spare lengths of wire rigging, cable clamps, filters, more bungs, more putty and stuff to bung up holes, more blocks, more anti-chafe measures, more dyneema, more sail battens, making soft shackles, boat safety diagrams, stowing hundreds of litres of fresh bottled water, making a passarelle, re-wiring, re-splicing, re-testing, sewing new jackstays for the aft cockpit. Added to the endless social program of the ARC it was all truly gruelling and exhausting but we loved it. The only thing we didn’t do was have a look at Gran Canaria; not even a glance.

Then came the ARC safety inpection. Now you might think ticking off the safety list item by item would get you by but it didn’t. Our scrutineer wanted additional items to be added for crew recovery and safety based on his personal experience and liking so we had more to buy, more to fit, and needed to report back on completion in order to qualify for race entry. We left Las Palmas feeling confident that we were well prepared. In truth we were but the must-do project list was still several lines long and eventually you cross those items off as you work out ways around them.

 

The Ocean

When we set out on the ocean for real it took us a while to settle down at sea. We were not helped by setting off into a large front and a first night with wind blowing a F7, followed by our headsail furling gear packing up on Day 2 and then two of us getting food poisoning/a virus one after the other on days 3 through 5. The reality is that it’s quite hard to tear yourself away from the land when you have a big mileage ahead of you and the first couple of days are laced with anxiety and fear of the unknown but that slowly drifts away without you realising. It comes back again too if the weather starts to kick up until you readjust to the new norm.

Heavier Weather

We experienced Force 9 twice with the wind peaking at 48 knots. Of course it was between 2 and 3am. We always wondered what it would be like to be in a gale and we had spent some time chasing heavier weather in the English Channel to get used to it before setting off. We found F7 and sometimes F8 in short choppy seas but the ocean was different. The waves were probably large and the hull surfed at just over 12kn before we reduced sail to next to nothing. This maintained steerage and kept us generally moving at about 6 knots. Aditi, being heavy, rode it out well and we found the need to stop the laptop from sliding sideways on the chart table occasionally a bit of a chore. The wind created a deafening roar all round but in the doghouse we could still chat. Listening to music was, however, a bit of a waste of time. As things eased and we dropped to F8 it seemed so quiet and so calm that 35kn over the deck was normal. Just as well because we stayed at 33kn for about three days without a break!

In heavy weather the boat goes quiet, in a sense everyone is quite lethargic but then lots of energy is burn’t up sitting still, or trying to. At night the sea roars and on moonless nights you hear rather than see anything at all. Under moonlight you can see the sea state such that you can brace before the waves strike because visibility even at a distance is good. Radar is effective but has to be de-tuned to cut out the sea noise. AIS remains the number one tool for easy collision avoidance. We would not be without it.

Food intake drops sharply during bad weather so we would snack often. Already living at sea there were no issues regarding seasickness as we were used to motion but for sure it takes some adjusting to as conditions ramp up. Going from being gently rocked to grabbing hold every few minutes and then eventually being ejected from your seat and thrown across the cockpit means being careful and planning your every move. Coming down the other side is easy and eventually the appetite for both preparing and devouring food returns; everything and anything requiring minimal preparation gets eaten. Being on the ocean at the right time of year means that it is warm, the deck is probably worked in T-shirt and shorts despite the 35kn winds, and effort builds up a thirst for nice cold water. Rehydration is seriously important and thanks to a tip from Simon and Clare we each have our own 0.75 litre sports bottle (Evian bottle in fact) which we continually fill and drop into the freezer. It’s quite a contrast from a F5 down (the English) Channel at 2am when even with thermals and multiple layers it’s still freezing after 20 minutes on deck; returning to home waters the reality of sailing in 50 deg N came as a not entirely welcome surprise.

You will never see another ARC yacht?

I don’t know how many times I have read on forums the many sailing comments about the ARC being pointless once at sea because within 24 hours you won’t see anybody. That is completely untrue. The 2013 ARC was a year in which it was said by the World Cruising Club that yachts were more widespread than ever before. Some went way, way north, some south of the Cape Verde’s. If you have SSB radio (in our opinion essential) then you can download ARC position reports and find out who is close to you (be ready to receive lots of high SSB data usage warnings and threats to cut you off for heavy usage – trim the reports to request only the data you want eg boats within 100nm of you). We plotted the progress of familiar boats; others we met via VHF for the first time mid-Atlantic. To wind the clock back a bit we had to take avoiding action about 25 miles south of the Needles to avoid an ARC yacht in fog at about midnight as is crossed our port light mid-Channel. But on the ARC itself we were a couple of days south when our friends on Millport II came over the horizon behind us, then heading south we ran parallel with Saphir, then Catara, crossing east to west above the Cape Verde’s we were running in 35kn wind just ahead of Great Escape of Southampton and we closed the islands just behind Windleblo. Crossing the Atlantic from Cape Verde we may have been alongside Nefeli, we were close to several ARC yachts, took avoiding action during the night to miss an ARC cat, had VHF contact with an ARC yacht Nauticat 42 which I think we caught sight of, had constant contact with Misfa and at the latter stages closed St Lucia alongside ARC yacht Jambo. On the northern tip of St Lucia we had to take evasive action to avoid that ARC cat once again as it cut across our port side in the darkness. And all of this followed after we had dropped out of the crossing for four days in Mindelo so were no longer in the mainstream ARC fleet. That’s an understatement, we were pretty much tail end Charlie!

3 am!

We set a 3 hour on/off watch pattern with each person having set hours as opposed to a rotating system as it kept the body clock to a set routine. There was no interest in varying the hours. My shift ran to 3am and eventually I figured out that this was the witching hour. If anything is going to happen then it either kicks off at sunset just as daylight fades, or at 0245 in the morning. Just as we are preparing to handover the watch the wind shifts significantly or increases in strength, or starts to fade. I raised this issue with other crews and sure enough 3am was a well established event. So each night, about to come off shift having removed all the gear, you can start to sense a change and you know in 10 minutes it’s life jacket on, crotch strap on, harness lines on and wait for the almost certain ‘event’. If negotiating a watch I suggest you aim to finish at 0230 hrs and don’t stay a minute longer on the handover!

The Boat

 

A Trintella 57a is one tough, well engineered, go anywhere boat. It tracks straight, the movement at sea is good and it has the power to punch through unusually rough water in tidal races and estuaries. There are lots of ‘zones’ for crew to hide out and enjoy whether in their own cabin, saloon, galley, doghouse, ‘the patio’, sleeping on the rear cockpit seat, reading on the dog house roof or the rail.  It’s great to live on and equally pleasant in the cold and tropical heat up to a point; in a marina at 35 deg C and over 80% humidity it would be great to have air-conditioning.

Watermaker – having a watermaker made life onboard so much more pleasant. Hot showers, washing, whatever you needed there was always water. We kept our 1,200 litre tank topped up at all times on the ocean. We opted for a 24v energy recovery unit knowing that we could make water off either the generator or the engine. Then came the big surprise; the unit making 60L/hour only draws about 8W and with our two 190W solar panels we were able to make water directly from the sun power for 4 hours a day at anchor. We made a mistake, however, on arrival in St Lucia. We took marina water for granted and ran down our tank only to find that the marina water pressure was non-existent. Filling the water tank was nigh on impossible. Then came the storm that wiped out all sources of water across the island for weeks. We had to run the watermaker in the marina just to get by. The first problem was that silt in the water eroded the vanes on the low pressure water pump which then packed up altogether a couple of months later. Secondly, when island water was resumed it contained a massive amount of clay which clogged filters. Our lesson was never bank on a shoreside supply! And carry a spare low pressure pump head.

At all times we were very pleased that we had ultra simple hanked on sails to call on when the going got tough. It was our plan to sew a cover for the staysail and leave it on deck when on passage but we haven’t quite got there yet. It’s a tad large for one person to lug around on deck but the bag can be clipped to the jackstay and it can be taken for ward in stages. Once out of the bag it does it’s best to slide off the rolling deck until most of the hanks are on. To steady the sail we belayed the sheet hard on the rail using a snatch block and that locked it in position for downwind work.

The cruising chute; we carried an A4 chute cut for 15-25 knots of wind. In reality it was too heavy to work on the ocean so never got used. In more sheltered coastal areas we love it and the speed and the ride it gives is tremendous but it is a beast for a short handed crew to control when the true wind hits about 20 knots. What we actually needed was a light wind chute to help save some of the 6,000 litres of fuel that we consumed. A proportion of that was burnt via the generator as a result of our months at anchor.

Mosquitos are probably the ultimate nuisance. We carry electronic sonic repellant, a UV light frazzler, mains driven heated tabs, sprays and all kinds of lemon citronella based stuff. Citronella was also added to our shampoo. Occasionally we were invaded and had a disturbed night but just as long as the trade winds were blowing it was fairly good at anchor, very good in fact. But in a marina it was necessary to deploy all defences. The last straw is our tennis racket frazzler bought in St Martin which causes bugs to expolode on contact. One tip, don’t wear black in a mosquito zone at night!

Nitrile rubber – carry a few sheets of different thicknesses to repair anything from outboard carburettors to pump valves.

Hatches – we should have covered them with a UV reflective mirror finish type film from 3M.

Christmas in the Caribbean brings heavy winds and constant rain showers. As soon as the rain started we had to close the hatches so all day it was close, open, close, open…..and the heat with the hatches shut was horrible, the humidity as the rain stopped and moisture burn’t off unbearable. We should have made a coachroof cover so we could have left the hatches open at night.

Fuel Capacity – we carry about 2.000 litres of fuel, with huge tankage being a great advantage on aluminium vessels, and just 20% of our fuel capacity was often equal to the total fuel available to ARC boats inclusive of their jerry cans lashed to the deck. We were often nicknamed ‘the tanker’ but in fact it enabled us to schedule our fuel stops around duty free and low cost ports. Gibraltar was a favourite at £GBP 0.62 per litre. We burn about 7 L/Hr under engine and 1.8 L/Hr under generator so we are able to motor long distances and then anchor out for a couple of months before thinking about fuel.

The Wifi booster from Crucial WiFi was excellent. Extremely fast with a long range enabling internet and TV/movie streaming via a VPN provider. We would have liked TracVision and a satellite box.

Davits are essential. Not having them limits your movement particularly if you need to deflate the tender. Most trips in the Caribbean are daytime hops. Not many sail at night. Why we don’t know as the weather is very predictable and the navigation easy although a daylight arrival at anchorage is desirable. But then we listened to a May Day which was broadcast for over 2 days concerning two catamarans that had collided in the night, one of which was missing. Help, if needed is likely to come from other cruisers and they aren’t there at night.

In-boom furling proved reliable and has greatly protected the main from UV.

We got through three Jabsco pumps. The Jabsco warranty is a farce. Find an alternative manufacturer (if you can).

Anchor chain – we carried 100m of 12mm chain and generally we put out 40-60m with the rare extension to 70m.

Geographical Issues

The key issues are support for the boat, security and provisioning

Sources of support for a yacht declines in proportion to length. We found good support in The Solent, Las Palmas and St Martin. There was nothing of note between Brest through to Lanzarote. La Linea, just outside Gibraltar, was abysmal and there was little to be found along the Atlantic coast of Europe.

Las Palmas boatyard appear to be very capable yet we had such huge difficulty finding an M12 bolt in A4 steel and that was with the assistance of knowledgeable islanders.

Security started to become an issue in Las Palmas but only in relation to opportunistic theft. The Caribbean operates on an altogether different level. We were warned before we left but that’s not the same as living it. Every night despite temperatures we were locked in with all hatches shut. The curfew was complete. Have a quick read about all the boardings and thefts that take place ‘whilst crew were asleep in the saloon’. So it’s a curfew on the boat after dark each night if you are onboard and in many places it’s a curfew ashore with movement restricted to a few tourist bars. Being used to freedom we found the security aspect of the Caribbean a major downside and like many we breathed a sigh of relief upon arriving at the Azores.

In the tropics we fitted a fan in the engine room as working in still air, heat and humidity next to the domestic boiler and alongside at least a warm generator was impossible.

People

We met so many amazing people. Sure the ocean community has a few bottom feeders about which we have read; the type that steal from other cruisers and free-load all over the place. But we were always astounded by the tenacity of ocean cruisers, their independence and resourcefulness as well as, I suppose, their bravery. It is incredible meeting people who have worked years to make their dreams come true, who think nothing of pointing at places on a world map sailing here to here to here. And for all the entertainment and friendships that were instantly forged we thank the good nature of the sailing community or the floating village that mills around at about 5 knots on a good day. One thing proved true; for great friends and a good time take a boat, a few people and add a little water. And uh, what’s that, can’t hear you? A little rum? What do you mean a little! Cheers to the wonderful people we met from the UK, Germany, France, Brazil, Spain, Denmark, Ireland, USA, Italy, the Canaries, South Africa, Portugal, the Azores, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and many others.

Changes we would make

Improved security defences aimed at repelling drugged up youths and thieves.

Redesigned companionway locks

Overall deck/hatch covers in canvass so we can keep hatches open during tropical downpours

Add a chain wash for the anchor which could simply be pumped sea water lifted to deck level and then directed by hose over the bow

Make canvas baskets that improve provisioning capacity/portability. Carrying a small trolley proved excellent.

Maybe fit lee cloths.

Air-conditioning. Beyond mid-May in the Caribbean give us air-conditioning; it sky rockets to the top of the must have list.

More locking containers for rice/flour

Add davits

Add more solar panels and at least one wind generator

Take fewer books, games and other locker stuffing pap that you don’t need!

That’s about it folks!


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