Crossing the Atlantic Crossing by JoJo

Passage Island of Sao Vincente in Cape Verde to Martinique in the Caribbean February 2015

Our dream was to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean. Although I had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice before, this would be the first time as an adult and skipper (a big responsibility!).

After all the preparation, mental as well as physical, it was finally time to leave Mindelo, on the island of Sao Vincente, and sail across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.  The Mardi Gras carnival was over, the forecast was good.  It was Monday 23rd February, and it was time to go.
We hoisted the dinghy on board, hauled up the anchor and sailed out of Mindelo, waving goodbye to our friends as we left.
We were very quickly out of the lee of Mindelo with two reefs in the main sail, running down the channel between the two islands. Both boys started to feel seasick almost immediately and took some tablets.  This was a bad start as they now also started to feel very sleepy.
During the evening, as we sailed under the lee of Santo Antao (even though we had given it a wide berth), the wind decreased and we shook out the reefs.  A school of dolphins came and said good-bye as we sailed west, and all the anxiety of the pre-departure nerves slipped away.  We were committed. From now on it would be easier to sail on rather than back.
My first early morning watch was rather exciting as I saw the Southern Cross for the first time! We were sailing nicely, all crew asleep below, the Southern Cross to port and Jupiter to starboard. All would have been fine except the wind increased and we needed to reef. I waited for first light, and at 6am Simon and Lochlann came on deck to help reef.  Poor Simon had only gone to bed two hours previously – not a great start to our trans-Atlantic crossing!
We found our first flying fish on deck that morning. Sadly, it was too small to eat.  Throughout the passage we all enjoyed watching the flying fish dart out of the sea and fly away from the boat. I called them ‘ocean fairies’, speeding us on our way.
The second day out we were having difficulties with our self-steering gear.  We realized that it was the first time we had used it while running on the starboard tack.  Simon spent the morning successfully fixing the problem.   Later that day, Tuesday 24th February, we logged 3000 nautical miles since leaving the UK - Falmouth did seem like a long way away!
Every morning Lochlann was awake at 7am to make breakfast for me (thank you Lochlann) and then stand watch, so that I could do some chores down below, and get some extra sleep if all was well.  The first thing Lochlann would ask was, ‘are there any flying fish for breakfast?’ It was not until the fourth morning that the answer was ‘yes!’ From then on there was one fish every morning for a week. We noticed that on the western side of Atlantic the flying fish were smaller, so (sadly for Lochlann) not big enough to eat. 
Daily chores were sweeping the floor, turning the eggs, checking the vegetables, oiling the self-steering and Walker’s log, and a general tidy-up below.  Most mornings I also spent some time having a good look at sails and rigging, trying to spot signs of chaffing.
After three days of sailing south-west we altered course to west for Martinique.  In retrospect, we could have gone further south, because we had a good current in our favour and then we seemed to lose it (I think it ran further south, and it was not until two days before we arrived in Martinique that we got the current again).   As we lost the current, we started to see loads of seaweed. This was a problem because it got tangled up in our Walker’s log.  In the end we brought the log in, and thus had to rely on our chart plotter to give us our ‘speed over the ground’, rather than ‘speed through the water’. Sadly, this was an occasion where modern technology won over our ‘old-fashioned’ mechanical equipment.
During the crossing we had loads of treats. I made fudge regularly, which the boys particularly enjoyed as a reward after a quick bit of reefing. I also made scones and fruit buns and, of course, chocolate cake.  When things were steady, we would watch a video together in the early evening, while the boat sailed herself (very surreal watching X-Men in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!). On other evenings we played card games, usually Bridge, which we had taught ourselves since leaving Falmouth.
We put our clocks back three times during the passage, on Day Four (at 31˚ west), Day 12 (at 48˚ west) and on the day we arrived in Martinique (GMT +4 hours).  We adjusted the clock at mid-day which is traditional on sailing boats.
By Day Five we were all getting into a rhythm, so I celebrated by washing my hair. It felt so good to get rid of all the salt! This was a special day, I did sextant sights and made yeast buns.  But by the evening the wind had increased, we had two reefs in the mainsail, and had brought down the jib and staysail. This meant that the self-steering would not work so well, because the sails were no longer balanced. The wind and seas continued to increase and in the morning we could see that the boat was covered in Sahara dust! 
Day Six records in the log: ‘Good job, Fin – saw a rare ship and got two soakings!’ (this was the only ship we saw on the whole passage).  Throughout the passage we had quite a lot of water on the aft deck, but the sea was warm, and by Day Seven the wind and sea had reduced slightly.  We celebrated with a new video (Wallace and Gromit’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit!) and with Mexican beans and chocolate cake for supper.
Throughout the passage I tried very hard to get the short side band radio working, or a least picking up something.  I managed to get BBC West Africa a few times in the early morning or evening, but what I really wanted was weather charts.  Sadly, even though I tried many times, I did not get a good enough resolution to read any of the weather charts I managed to register - a very frustrating process.  I hope I can sort it out for when we sail back across the north Atlantic, weather reports then will be very important.
On Day Eight the jib forestay lashing chaffed through leaving the jib flogging in the wind. We quickly pulled the jib in and I went out onto the bowsprit to repair the damage. This was the only ‘damage’ we suffered and luckily easy to repair.
On Day Nine we were half way across the ocean, and for the first time we were sailing with no reefs and both topsails up. But this did not last for long, as a line of rain and clouds headed our way.  After these passed there was cirrus cloud in the sky and the barometer dropped 3mb in seven hours. This indicated that there was possibly strong wind on the way. After all the wind we had already had, this made my heart sink.  But after an unexpectedly peaceful night with reducing winds, up went the topsails again. But not for long. As the promised big seas and strong wind arrived, two reefs went back into the mainsail.
By Day 11 we are all getting tired and crotchety.  Simon said: ‘I thought trade wind sailing was supposed to be easier than this!’  We had so many wind increases and decreases that reefing became routine, although none of us wanted to reef in the middle of the night because we were all getting very tired.
Finbar held the evening watch, from 9pm until midnight, then Simon took over until around 4am (sometimes even later!) and then it was my turn.  It was such a pleasure to see Finbar take responsibility. Over this whole trip he has become a very solid crewmember.  But Simon spent the most time on watch, allowing me during the day to cook and also giving me more sleeping time.
On Day 12 we crossed Researchers’ Ridge where the ocean becomes shallower and the seas became rough and confused. Island Swift started rolling around, giving an uncomfortable ride.  On Day 13 the sea was reduced, the wind too, so we took out all the reefs very early.  The sunrise was beautiful, and the Sahara dust had cleared, improving the visibility. We celebrated by putting up the topsail and agreeing that this was what trade wind sailing was supposed to be like. All was well until just after sunset when black clouds and lightning brought a threatening horizon.  We immediately put two reefs in the mainsail and all of our electronic equipment in the oven, but no storm arrived so we took out the reefs.  Then, shortly after midnight the thunderstorm reappeared right behind us. We only just managed to reef again before it hit.  At one point I was on deck alone, steering Island Swift through the squalls, hoping the lightning would keep away, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and it felt amazing! Simon soon joined me and together we watched the sun rise on our wedding anniversary, 8th March, Day 14. Sadly, this was not a good day. 
Simon was making morning tea and tried to clean something under the stove.  The stove moved on its gimbals, caught Simon’s arm and the boiling hot tea poured over his shoulder! We all moved fast to get Simon on deck and cool seawater was poured over his arm for at least 20 minutes.  Finbar took responsibility for the boat while I become nurse (thank goodness for our doctor-friend Daisy, who had given us lessons on First Aid before we left the UK).  We cleaned the wound, covered it with special burn cream and then cling film.  Yes, we used cling film, top tip from Daisy.  The cling film stops the oxygen getting to the burn and is a very effective dressing.  Simon was amazingly stoical throughout, but cross with himself.  The worse part was not being sure whether it was a second or third-degree burn, and the worry of burn shock.  In retrospect it was a bad second-degree burn, but Simon heals incredibly fast.  For the rest of the voyage he was drinking loads of water to reduce the chance of burn shock. (A week after arriving, Simon is now fine, with new, pale skin on his upper arm that needs protection from the sun, but doesn’t stop him swimming in the beautiful, clear Caribbean waters).
It was on Day 16 when Finbar noticed that the ocean had changed colour, from deep, deep blue to green, and we also had the current back. Later in the day we saw a beautiful frigate bird, and also a gannet, so we knew we must be close to land – we could almost smell it.  But the wind started increasing again so we were back to three reefs in the mainsail.  The seas were very ‘confused’ with nasty cross-waves.
By early morning on Day 18 the wind had slowly reduced. We knew we were very close to land, but the visibility was poor.  Lochlann woke up and made me breakfast.  As we sat talking on deck, a fast-moving, open fishing boat came out of nowhere, right across our bow – it was very surreal!  We couldn’t see land, but felt we had arrived.
However, the Atlantic had not quite finished playing with us.  First we got a squall, next rain, then (for the only time on our voyage) the wind completely disappeared!  Shortly afterwards, Lochlann was the first to sight land - at 8:30am on the 12th of March.  Suddenly, the wind returned, we put back two reefs in the mainsail, and a few hours later sailed into the harbour of Le Marin, Martinique.  While looking for a suitable place to anchor we made for a space beside the beach.  As we steered out of the channel I put down the lead to check the depth. There was only one fathom! We immediately tried to get back into the channel but too late we were aground.   We had sailed 5000 nautical miles from Falmouth and we run aground on our first day in the Caribbean.   Six friendly lads aboard a powerful high-speed motorboat approached us and asked if we were ok.  They kindly took our line and Island Swift came gently off the mud.  Luckily the tide was coming in and we only just touched the bottom. Everyone thought it was very funny, but as skipper I felt rather mortified.
We eventually found a space in the crowded anchorage, rowed ashore and cleared customs (on a computer in the marina).  It felt very strange to be on solid ground, our legs were wobbly. Back on the boat we celebrated our arrival with a bottle of champagne, and I fell asleep at about 7pm (apparently snoring rather loudly). It felt really good to have arrived. I don’t think I have ever been so tired. Well done everyone on Island Swift.
Written by JoJo, March 2015

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Jo, what a crossing. Well done one and all. Glad there's plenty of cake being made!! Huge respect and loveXXXXPauline