Topic: Azores to Falmouth Solo
Written for Flying Fish, the journal of the Ocean Cruising Club.
Photos (more still to be uploaded):
Flying Solo in the Atlantic Ocean
With an extended summer holiday between university degrees, and the loaned use of a 1969 Contessa 26 it was clear what I had to do – finally realise the ocean-going dream. With an unbelievably tight budget but the support of an enthusiastic maths teacher for crew the ship was readied for the deep blue, charts cheaply picked up second hand, revision for my Finals juggled with time spent painting the hull.
Learning rather quickly while dual-handed from Dover to the Azores (via Porto Santo), my inexperienced crew was now fully competent – but had to fly home to teach. All that was left was to return to the UK – and this time it was going to be Solo.
With a certain amount of trepidation, not to say unease, I gently puttered out of Ponta Delgada marina. I had procrastinated from leaving for days; I could always find one extra job to do, resealing windows, hack-sawing through a seized anchor shackle, repacking and repacking the cramped forepeak. All of it was time spent productively - but there were some jobs that my budget simply couldn’t extend to - the setting sun lit up the subtle brown tint of rust that permeated the standing rigging, the solar panels and wind turbine had both given up the ghost. If the engine failed; the nav lights would be reduced to a solitary hurricane lamp, radio just for the Metero-France broadcast and no more calls home on the 'eBay' procured sat phone. My sails (except for the bright orange storm canvas) were in a sorry state; chafed and UV damaged almost into oblivion. Most of the foresails had multiple repairs, my crooked hand stitching forming ugly scars where the seams brushed the cross-tree and safety rail. The main was rather baggy, and combined with the weight of blue water gear and water, left us tacking through around 110 degrees.
But the Contessa 26 is built strong and well, and though my daily distance average was appalling (just 70nm per day), we would relentlessly chew our way through the miles. Provided the mast stayed up that is!
Out of the concrete pen we had sat in for the last few weeks; the canvas was hauled taught with a thankful creak. The abominable engine silenced, the wind vane engaged - such simple joy at spreading the wings. I head out around the west end of the island - the coast was beautiful from the land, and I hope to catch it lit up by the sunset. I am not disappointed - the calderas glowing up high, the lush green vegetation all offset by the deep blue above and below.
A fair wind held during the night, seeing us clear of the island, dodging through a couple of ferries. The watch-keeping scheme was a simple one indeed; twenty minute cat naps dictated by a mechanical oven timer. When awake & below deck, I set it to ten minutes. The lookout routine was always the same; by day & in fair weather I clambered up into the cockpit properly, at night I generally choose to huddle on top of the washboards and peak around the horizon, waiting for the boat to rise if there was any sea on. The Genoa was frustrating as it obscured a good 45 degrees of the horizon, and required a rather energetic leaning out over the rushing water to peek around. If I could avoid it, I did this all without any light, checking compass direction by finding Polaris, telling the time by where Cassiopeia was in her slow cartwheel towards dawn. The LEDs at the masthead cast a gentle white light over the push pit, allowing one to infer weather helm by how central the wind-vane was.
The first week out of the Azores we suffered under a high pressure system, desperately trying to gain latitude and enter the realm of the westerlies. The wind hovered at around a Force 2 - not enough for the stubby wind vane - but thankfully from the South. By day I hand steered with the cruising chute, fighting off the sunstroke with a wide brimmed hat, a loose sheet over my shoulder and fresh lemonade. At night, down to the Genoa, I tried my best to balance the boat, but invariable woke to find that we had fallen onto a reach towards America or were completely backed.
I slept soundly during my twenty minute allocations - the navigation lights burned bright in the moonless night, the visibility was brilliant, and there were almost no waves to detract from the oversized radar reflector dangling from the cross trees. Perfect conditions for not getting run over! At around four in the morning, I wake to check on a tanker clearing past a good few miles out in front. Squatting on the horizon, slightly to aft of the port mid-ships is a black silhouette, lit on the corners by burning points of white. Odd that I can’t see a tell-tale red or green. A few minutes catnap in the cockpit and I wake to find her still on the same bearing but bigger, and still with no port or starboard lights. The conclusion is obvious - she’s heading right for me. Excellent.
I consider reaching straight for the white hand flare, but go for the less pyrotechnic spotlight option. A few blips pointed at the bridge, the brilliant cone of light searing into the retina of my one open eye. A few moments later and all the tension dissolves as a red light appears out of nothing, she continues turning until about thirty degrees off her original course, sliding past my stern with all her massive bulk. So someone was awake & looking out of her bridge at least! I guess her master was too busy tracking the passage of the tanker to notice a slow 'star like' light on the horizon, and wasn’t bothering with radar due to the excellent visibility. A close shave indeed – had I slept through I genuinely believe that I would have been hit!
I adapted to catnapping with shocking ease, but started having very strange and vivid dreams. Waking up so quickly, the dreams and reality are still tangled as you check around for ships. I think this is what Slocum describes with his ‘Captain of the Pinta’, alone at sea you obviously dream of crew, and when you wake you are left unsure of whether they are there or not. One particular night, I woke believing I was sailing through an archipelago of islands populated with Lilliputians, and stumbled into the cockpit with the intention of chastising my diminutive crew for failing to keep a proper watch.
The pilot guide warns of gales early in September, but the Azores had been too pleasant to leave so soon. And anyway – it's only a statistical average! At 2am on the 1st September, about 500nm North of the Azores, the barometer plummeted, the night and morning were spent reefing down until we finally found ourselves hove-to with storm jib and try-sail by noon. Rotten luck! We stayed hove-to for forty-eight hours, though it was only a true gale for the first twenty-four. The boat leaned at a jaunty 30 degrees, enormous whirlpools shed upwind by the long keel. The visibility with the size of the waves and spindrift meant keeping a lookout was pointless - my first full night's sleep in a week! Eating was rather exciting; cold beans from a can that I kept on smearing over my nose.
Very little water was shipped until after the first twenty-four hours, when the waves started collapsing in earnest once the wind had dropped to a Force 7. If you heard the deep rumble of a wave tripping over it had already missed, the sound to be fearful of was the hiss of the wave crest tripping and surfing down itself. There wasn’t a sound when they hit - more a thump to the chest as the boat lurched and quivered. So low in the water; it was common to look up from my nest of lee-cloths and see windows on both sides of the deck house submerged, while a squirt of water came in through the washboard ventilator! The storm passed, and soon we were galloping in front of the dying swell. I find the CO26 very happy to run or broad reach under a F7 with storm-jib alone, whereas the presence of the trysail makes her very unstable and liable to attempt a broach.
Days turned into weeks; the moon came back and made night sailing glorious once more. A few more trifling gales, and occasional 12hrs hove-to and an insane full day spent pointlessly trying to beat into a Force 7. The weather was uncooperative as ever – winds either too strong or from the wrong direction! A few days were absolutely perfect; broad-reaching under a Force 6 clocking up a good 125nm per day with the gulf stream.
Still 300 miles from Falmouth and there is a most disastrous equipment failure - the paraffin stove develops a terminal fuel blockage! There is enough Ryvita and Marmite to survive, albeit barely. The coffee situation is far more dire, especially with the coming trawler fleets and associated insomnia of the continental shelf. An experimentation with instant cold coffee is not a great success. However, the careful application of the blowtorch (previously used to light the paraffin stove) to an enamel cup of water is wonderfully quick and successful - better than boiling a kettle had been. The smell of stripped paint filling the cabin slightly detracts from the aroma of the coffee, but it’s only instant anyway!
Finally through the last of the trawlers, I pass the Lizard at Dusk with dropping visibility and wind. The motor on, the foresail dropped, I hand steer up the coast, the freezing dew soaking my clothes. The flash of the Manacles left long behind, St Anthony guides me in. We're getting close – the mouth opens to show the pearly whites, dozens more navigation lights than the last time I or my chart was here.
My head is full of cotton wool, vomiting with fatigue I desperately try to check my position, eyes straining to pick up the concrete cone of black rock before it leers out of the darkness, I creep forward into slack water at just a couple of knots. Oh to have crossed all this distance to lose her here!
Safely in, all the flashing lights settle into position within my mind. In the peaceful harbour, I drop the engine revs to a bare minimum. There is no hurry now, there had never been any hurry. The street lights bounce off the low cloud and light up the estuary with a wonderfully soft orange light, the comforting glow of civilisation. With no shipping to worry about we gently coast into these familiar surroundings, the perfect millpond split by our tiny bow-wave, the white flecks of startled gulls zoom off to a quieter resting place as we pass by. With a lashed tiller she self-steers for a few minutes as I attach warps and fenders. We thread our way between the ocean-goers and drift onto the pontoon, touch, and jump ashore.
Pull on the decompression lever - the engine dies with those last few familiar thuds. Deafening silence. I sit on the pontoon for a while, my hand gently resting on the sun bleached teak toe-rail, dew soaking through the seat of my worn oilskins. This tiny sliver of fibreglass had brought me safely home.
I can’t sleep - no rustle of wind, no gentle slap of waves, no ‘feh feh feh’ of the propeller free-wheeling, my cot no longer rocks me to sleep with the passing swell. I eventually drift off; to be awoken far too soon on a brilliant morning by a polite girl with a clipboard asking whether I would like to pay now or later.
Oh to be back in Blighty!
So that was 'Solo' – eighteen days of it. At times terrifying, utterly exhausting, almost unbearably lonesome. I wouldn't change a single second.