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Published: January 30th 2013
The ARC seems an age ago. We arrived in St Lucia after 15 and a half days at sea. It was at times exhausting, exhilarating and pretty tough - far tougher than we expected. The so-called "Milk-Run" across the Atlantic did not materialise for nearly the entirety of the crossing. Apologies for the changes in tense throughout I have patched this together from the emails and blog bits and pieces and with much of it written from distant memory and through rose-tinted spectacles.
Our crew had been augmented by Vince Hayter (our tactician) who we know from sailing on the south coast and Ian and Kate Turnbull. Ian and Kate were found by Tim on Open Blue as being available for the ARC, after Tris Payne had to pull-out due to work commitments. Ian runs his own sailing business and Kate is an A&E doctor so we felt that the crew of Fabiola was suitably able and by comparison to many other boats – spoiled for talent. The Admiral (Lisa) was focusing on the logistics and the kids’ welfare and the Flag Captain was being thrashed as always! The kids were probably the least-excited at the prospect of spending 3
Yes, it is called Colon - nothing better for cleaning those hard to reach places!
weeks at sea – for them sailing is about arriving somewhere new and most importantly playing with friends wherever they could.
When I think back to the weather watching we did prior to kick-off in Las Palmas we were tracking a number of low weather systems that were heading eastwards across the Atlantic, on the back of Hurricane Sandy, towards the ARC fleet sat waiting to depart. It did not look good from what we could see. Vince and I went to the Skippers' Briefing and it became very clear that weather-wise all was neither settled nor seasonal. Chris Tibbs, the ARC weather router and Whitbread / Volvo Race met-man, warned of 2 depressions; one due through that night which would bring strong headwinds at the start and for the next 2 days, at least. The second was developing with an uncertain strength and indeterminate path, but it seemed likely that it would be in our way by the end of the first week with strong winds from the wrong direction, unless we headed south - and fast.
There was an audible sigh of relief and a round of applause as ARC Control informed the assembled crowd that
Vince & Gill
the decision had been taken to send the racing class, as per the normal timeline (on Sunday 25 Nov) and they would establish a second startline for the multi-hulls and cruising classes on Tuesday 27 Nov. This would be only the second change to the startline in the ARC's 28 year history.
The ARC starts with a blustery and cool day. We leave the quay in good time and join the queue of boats heading out into the large Las Palmas bay to hoist sails in time for the start. Hundreds of goodbyes and waves are given to loads of new and old friends. A wave goodbye to the guys on Open Blue, and careful avoidance of those cruiser racers hell-bent on bending their boats on the startline of a 2900+ mile voyage and then a hard charge through the line and south along the eastern side of Gran Canaria. It is blowing the top end of 25+ knots, in other words fabulous conditions for quick and close "cruiser / racing" as we overtake a throng of other ARC boats moving ahead of us. Within short order we are seeing incredible top speeds as we hurtle down waves and
Arrival of the fresh supplies
Lisa cops a feel of the fresh produce
within a few hours we see ourselves at the front of our class and not far off the leaders of the 256 strong fleet. A new speed record was broken by Vince of 16 knots over the ground. There is loads to see as we compete with other boats and the entire crew are fresh, revelling in the proximity of other boats and delighted to finally be off.
The coast of Gran Canaria is a well-known acceleration zone as the wind squirts through the gaps of the Canary Islands and the waves refract around the coast. Luckily it’s behind us but we reef the main and genoa. The testing conditions continue so the watches run 2 on watch of four hours “on” and two hours “off”, but driving the boat in these conditions is definitely the way forward to maximise speed, but it is tiring. We are hoping to get more gentle tradewinds and a longer, more regular, swell. Cameron, most of all was hoping that the weather and waves were going to ease as he was, by the morning of Day 2 already following the Kate Moss diet and evacuating the contents of his tummy over the side
Chaos down below
Where is this all going to go...?
– even Samuel who has the constitution of an ox looked at me with daggers in his eyes as he returned Golden Grahams to his cereal bowl in part-digested form – I felt for them I really did but there is little that can be done and even if one was to turn back the thought of beating into the waves that we were currently surfing down was enough to turn my stomach too. Lisa found that throughout the journey she could not shake a queasiness that plagued her every morning – aargh “PREGNANCY ALERT” but luckily just the movement of the boat. She eventually changed to stugeron pills instead of the patches and managed. In hindsight she spent an inordinate amount of time down below and that could not have helped. Luckily I never felt sick – only tired.
The movement of the boat is pretty violent and sleeping or feeding anyone from a pitching bed / galley is tough – we later find out that this is the shape of things to come. We are not going to have it easy. Wind and waves are going to remain high, with the exception of one 24 hours becalmed.
We need to break into a more restful watch system but the conditions cannot allow it. To go fast we need to have 2 on watch for any sail changes and our intention to use Lisa or Kate as the additional crew is not going to work at the moment as the conditions are too rough. That said if Fabiola is designed for anything it is offshore racing or bluewater cruising. The 2 cockpits make sense now that we have 7 crew. Helmsman and trimmer are in the aft cockpit while occasional on-watch crew loiter behind the spray-hood in the “pig-pen”.
This morning as the sun rises weary eyes are re-generated with a fruit rich breakfast and the chance to lighten the grocer's load. Down below the central seating area of the boat has been removed and 6 crates of fresh fruit and vegetables are stowed for the passage. Above them hang three fruit-full nets, which run the length of the saloon. Each piece of fruit needs daily turning to weed out the rotting ones and those that are becoming borderline are placed in the fruitbowl, the day’s recipe or rammed into the crew immediately. Day 1 we are
The Fabiola Crew
Ian, Kate, Vince, Lisa, Samuel, Gill & Cameron
on kiwis and tangerines – already softening. We are still rich in onions, potatoes and even oranges several weeks after the ARC has finished. The logistical task of provisioning the boat for an Atlantic crossing has been masterminded by Lisa. There is a daily menu, pre-prepared meals for the first 4 days at sea and a stowage plan for every locker on the boat and each item of food. In addition a list of jobs for each day and personal responsibilities – it has been her magus opus which began upon arriving in Gibraltar in October. The planning must account for a period of 50% more time for the crossing than our best guess to allow for an unforeseen disaster. This brings us to about a maximum of 25 days. None of us can face that eventuality!
Despite the pre-prepared meals Lisa gives the fishing line the green light and within our first day of trailing an orange squid we are pulling in our first fish, a small bonito tuna. The routine is becoming well-practised: empty a squirt of the High Commissioner whiskey (from a cycle-bottle) into the fish’s gills and once inebriated, decapitated, gutted, skinned, filleted and
dipped in cornflour it is then seared in a hot pan with butter, garlic and a squeeze of lemon and eaten fresh. Our first catch only affords us a small snack for the crew. A couple of days later we catch a dorado, which is Thai curried for dinner. Our favourite fish to date is the dorado. It is much more enjoyable for the kids and while not as dense or filling as the bonito you can do more with it.
Vince runs with the daily weather and tactical guidance. From this we route to find the best conditions. The ARC has a zonal weather forecast and we have both short and longer-term planning considerations. We plot the yachts daily that are our closest rivals to include Charm Offensive, Amoress 2 and Sumatra. We also plot our friends’ boats and also those we think are well-routed by outside sources or proven reputations (such as Juno and Quokka). Vince’s role is to keep the boat moving fast and to do this we need to hunt out favourable winds – in this he is on the money. The winds are favourable and even when we are faced with a period
Vince on the helm
of calm and need to put on the motor I ask him how long we are going to have to motor for, in order to calculate our fuel consumption and remaining range. He says about 120 miles and he’s right. At 114 miles we have a return of the wind and we are out of the windless patch and moving under sail again.
We are constantly watching over our shoulder to gauge where the next squall is coming from and whether it will catch us or pass us by. The darkness of the cloud, its height and the visibility below it and rain or absence thereof are key indicators. From this we may need to gybe or reef; in the northern hemisphere squalls veer outwards from the equator because of the earth’s rotation. Consequently on our heading (pretty much due west) we would cut across the path of a squall on port tack and be carried by it on starboard tack. It can pay to gybe across the front of a squall if you want its shortest effect or hunt them out if you need more puff.
First and foremost we
must head south as quickly as we can to avoid a frontal system that is due to hit the slower boats or those on the rhum line. There are essentially 2 choices for crossing the Atlantic from east to west; firstly “head south until the butter melts and then turn right” (west) the other is the rhum line (or straightest line from Gran Canaria to St Lucia. Those taking the straight line have a shorter distance but are more likely to encounter headwinds and then run short of wind further across while those watching the butter melt should find the trades and then ride them all the way to the finish. We are taking the southern option and it becomes clear that this is where the smart money is, this year, for the cruising classes. We avoid the very strong depression by cutting ahead of its path and into safety but it will ultimately force 13 boats to retire or take to the Cape Verdes or other Canary Islands to repair their boats. Incidentally the winning racing boats followed the rhum line (but they depart 2 days ahead of us and are able to travel far faster in light winds
than a heavily-laden cruising boat). Fabiola is a heavy girl and needs more breeze than lighter, more modern designs.
One concern is that southerly heading boats add much mileage to the route and many find that the winds drop away as one nudges up to the doldrums or ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone) but encounter more fierce squalls. In the first few days we are heading South West towards the Cape Verde Islands. We watch as the forecasted low pressure system develops in the Atlantic to the North West of us and starts to pull winds in towards it as it tracks North East. This literally sucks out the air / breeze from other systems that we need to power us westwards. Amoress 2 overtook us after about 2 days then continued to extend her lead to finish about 24 hours ahead of us.
At the end of day 2 it is evident that Mildred (our Hydrovane self-steering) is not happy. She is making a grinding noise. I give her the once over and it is not immediately obvious what the issue is until on further torchlight inspection I see that the supporting wooden and plastic plates, to
Rare sighting of kids on deck
(not so rare to see oilskins)
which she is moored, are working loose. In fact the starboard one is out and our high speed through the water is worsening the situation as it continues to stress the steering blade. It has to come off so that we can look to effect a repair. The following morning the lazarette must be emptied of 160 litres of bottled water, 50 litres of diesel, ropes, chain and all manner of other things that have been relocated and a thorough examination of what has happened and whether we can get her up and running again. She provides an alternative steering system – should ours fail – and is therefore critically important. As I gently drive the boat slowly, Ian removes the paddle while Vince is stood by with a line around it to avoid us dropping it 3 miles to the bottom of the Atlantic! It comes out ok. Having waited for the light we can see what the damage is. One of the bolts through the transom onto the Hydrovane has sheared in half. The remaining half of the long bolt is still blocking the hole so we leave it with a good thick blob of sealant to arrest
First morning at sea
Ian sleeps off-watch in the cockpit - 4 hours "on" and 2 "off"
any drips. We don’t have a suitable replacement that is sufficiently long or strong so it will be either hand-steering, as we are doing throughout the day and night, or the electronic autopilot which is being saved from the hard work that going downwind in heavy seas creates. It is a blow that the hydrovane is not going to be of any use for the crossing as it reduces the strain on the autopilot and when the boat is well balanced Mildred copes admirably at zero cost in terms of the critical amps that we must generate daily from solar power or the generator.
Hand-steering is fast so long as the crew are fresh or the duration of the watch is short. We are doing 90 minutes on-watch and 3 hours off during the night and 2 hours on 4 hours off during the day. It is no surprise that a school lesson is 40 minutes only – as that is the length of a good spell of concentration. Looking at our GPS track shows the same for each helmsman on watch – 5 minutes settling in with a slightly erratic path as the helmsman gets used to the
conditions and the setup of the boat, an hour of good quality speed and bearing and then about 25 minutes where it starts to rapidly drop off prior to handover. The off-watch crew can sense this too as the boat starts to move about more violently in the conditions when it is not being driven in the optimum way.
Lisa continues to make amazing meals for us. This is no mean achievement as the movement is both nauseating and makes it extremely hard for anyone to do anything – let alone produce fabulous food from heavy rolling surfaces. The soft fruit and veg have not fared so well. They are bruised and the attrition rate is high. By following our trail of fruit and veg, plus the slight whiff of methane, the backmarkers from Cruising Class do not need GPS!
In the early stages of the crossing we have lots of fresh food to eat so these are “extras” for our diet – not that we are ever going to get anywhere near starvation! Lisa wants us to leave off the fishing until we need to augment our fresh rations. When we do get permission we decide to
try one of the new larger lures and quickly hook a heavy fish. 45 minutes later I manage to get the largest fish any of us has ever caught near enough for Ian to use the gaff and a 20 kilo tuna is brought aboard where it is anaesthetised and decapitated. It is an amazing fish and once skinned, filleted and put in the fridge. It is clear we are going to be eating tuna for quite some time. What is amazing is that as each of the four filets are removed from the skeleton the pulse or electrical charge coming from the fish’s muscles are still felt despite the animal being some time dead. One problem that we suffer is that we can’t freeze food down so with around 15 kilos of tuna in the fridge we are blocking space and after a few days of tuna fried and stir-fried we are not close to denting more than a third of it and so with pangs of guilt we release its remains to the deep where it will be enjoyed by other small fish.
Flying fish are now regularly being seen launching from our path or away from
Normal working rig
Main and poled out genoa
predators. They blast from the surface and waggle their way at not inconsiderable speed over wave crests often as far as a few hundred metres. Most mornings we find a number of them in the scuppers which have flown off course and landed aboard the boat – sometimes we hear them and in the hope of receiving reciprocal mercy from a higher power we try to release them back into the sea. If fish talk down the “fish-pub” they would have an incredulous tale of their unbelievably narrow escape which would be rubbished by their mates. On a number of occasions we have been sitting in the cockpit and are just missed by centimetres by a fast-flying fish coming through the cockpit and, if lucky, back into the sea on the other side. One blats by me directly from behind at night and nearly down the companionway and another is found, probably by smell, in Vince’s bed having come either down the companionway or through an open hatch.
The marine life is relatively limited. Lisa and the boys see a school of dolphins but there is precious little that is visible. However on the dawn of our Halfway Party
Spinnaker at work
Came down 15 minutes later and lived in the bag for the rest of the trip.
(tactically called when we were considerably further than halfway across) we sighted 2 whales coming slowly past down the starboard side. Clearly they were also disappointed by the absence of marine life so they decided to play with us. They spent about 30 minutes doing high speed rushes past us and then playing in our wake, rolling over and showing us their white stomachs before running past again. Whilst they look exciting and intentionally benign I did not want to have too close an amorous encounter with a pair of large whales (we’ve all been there on Union Street on a Thursday night) for fear that a gentle rub along the underside of the hull might spell disaster if it damaged the keel or the rudder. It goes almost without saying that a whale is hugely bigger and heavier than a dolphin and far less agile. We chose not to flush bleach down the heads or play loud music to deter them but were ready to take evasive action if they decided to come too close. As it was they spent their time with us and then disappeared to play with someone else.
The girls made fresh rolls and
a loaf of bread and prepared for the “party-tea”, complete with streamers, balloons and bunting and served with Jubilee plates, hats and cups! I was quietly cynical that it would feel different but as the weather remained benign throughout we enjoyed a couple of relaxed drinks and a fabulous meal before relaxing into the watch system again. It is quietly noted by all how quickly a balloon (the size of a man’s head) disappears from sight, despite its bright colour. It serves as a good lesson to make sure no one chooses to be on deck without their harness.
Occasionally the cockpit, and boat as a whole, need a thorough rinsing to remove the build up of hair, dust and general detritus. We strip down to costumes and sling buckets of water over the boat – and each other – in what we know as a “caveman shower” – which involves:
1 x cold bucket of sea-water
1 x Captain Caveman blood curdling scream
It is most effective to cool down and also wash off the schmeg that accumulates which a very small shower or birdbath cannot reach. The port tank and the watermaker enabled us
to have relatively bountiful amounts of water but the water was not the most potable. It did enable us to shower and wash clothes but we needed to swap over to the starboard tank for drinking water.
Showers were not always high on the list as every night we lined up for sundowners in the cockpit. Drinks orders were given and nibbles put out – a part of the day to be greatly enjoyed. What failed to amaze us was mother nature’s ability to determine where we were and what time we were having sundowners and transform it most violently into “lash”downers. Quite often we would be set with drinks in hand ready to play a game or read emails from home whereupon a cloud would gather over the helmsman’s left shoulder and the crew could tell that we would need to take quick action. Pretty much every time it was Ian’s watch and we would charge forward put in the reef – human chain our drinks and crisps below and leave the helmsman to endure a vicious shower of biblical proportions whilst taunting him from below decks with a G&T in hand! If he was lucky he’d get
his waterproofs thrown up to him as the wash boards were slammed tightly shut. If you were after sympathy you were on the wrong boat!
In fact oilskins became a regular part of daily life. This was astounding. I think we wore our foul weather gear on every day of the crossing for some small part. Below decks became quite wet with oilskins near the companionway and invariably when sailing downwind the showers would push water down the hatch. Lisa’s and my oilskins have seen too much rain and are about a water-wicking as kitchen paper so I think we may be making a visit to Douglas Gill before we look to head home!
Down below in the cabins life was pretty rocky too. Off watch you definitely needed to have your lee-cloth up and even so one particularly large wave threw Ian against his lee-cloth that tore out the securing point and he was launched onto Kate who was sleeping on a mattress on the floor – that’s his story for jumping her in the afternoon and I am not one to spoil it! Lisa and I had the aft cabin – fabulous in harbour – less
so when in heavy seas. You either rolled onto against each other or lay across the bed to prevent the roll and if that was the case we always ended up on the floor. As the aft cabin had become a storage area too we would be showered with items of kit and equipment that were insufficiently well secured. One night we were hit by Samuel’s guitar, followed by my guitar, followed by a toaster! I was expecting Larry Grayson’s glamourous assistant to start calling out “his and her’s matching watches, a cuddly toy, an assortment of kitchen knives...”! It was almost laughable.
Breakages are a part of life on ocean crossings and especially when we are pushing the boat. That said they are thoroughly depressing as we cannot carry spares for every eventuality, or necessarily find every type of spare that is needed even if there were a well-stocked chandlery mid-way across the Atlantic (note to self – establish mid-Atlantic chandlery!). The bill mounts up – a spinnaker head torn off within 15 minutes of it being flown, the gooseneck (join between boom and mast) is working loose, the spinnaker pole track on the mast is warped from
the pressure it is repeatedly put under, 3 of 5 battens in the main have split apart leaving small abraded holes in the Dacron where the batten wears through, the generator has decided not to play despite having been serviced in Las Palmas, the watermaker is depositing overly salty water into the port tank and water into the bilges, several of the seals on the hatches are letting in water... the list goes on. Much is manageable / bodge-able to get us across and in planning we have already considered how we might deal with some of these eventualities – it just means repairs at the other end and some use of initiative here and now. Ian is very good at the physical aspects of this. He can see workarounds for the pole and battens and we patch the sails sufficiently to prevent further damage. In isolation it feels as though we are being singled out for harsh treatment by Neptune / Poseidon / the ARC-Gods but once I plug into the email system and the SSB radio net it becomes apparent that the strong winds and confusing swells are causing similar breakages across the fleet.
Topping list of
technical advice for breakages is medical advice, being sought for ailments caused by crew being thrown across the boat or snagged on fish-hooks, hit by spinnaker poles etc. These breakages are more worrying as we have no spare crew. Lisa slips on wet steps and turns her ankle, it balloons up and she is confined to the aft cabin for the day to rest and elevate it. The kids flood into see her and submit her to belt-fed films for the day. Vince pulls something in his back during a sail change and is lying on the cabin-floor unable to move. Kate has her work cut out to get them both back in the game or Ian and I are quickly going to become exhausted and the quality of food is going to become very Fisher Price! Luckily Kate’s medical training and our copious amounts of painkillers and assorted medical paraphernalia is more than enough for a couple of sessions of “Doctors and Nurses” – not sure that me dressed in sexy nurse’s rig is really required though! More serious on “Open Blue”, JJ has been clubbed on the head by Ollie during a gybe and he is knocked unconscious
and has a nasty gash to his head. Ollie treats him (he used to be a nurse before he became an osteopath) and worries that he may need to be medevaced but with the boat being over 500 miles from land (and well beyond the range of a helicopter) they are on their own physically but with a call to the MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) in Falmouth Tim is patched through the on-call doctor who talks to Ollie, assesses the symptoms and reassures them that they have done the right thing and that they are best to simply push on. It is amazing how much better one feels once confidence is restored but it only goes to show how isolated you feel despite the fact that you are only a satellite phone-call or email away or most likely only a horizon away from one of the other 255 yachts that are all headed the same way. In one such instance Oostrea (a Dutch yacht) moves to an injured crewmate aboard another ARC vessel and renders assistance – the ARC is pretty special in that way – a caravan of 1500 people all traversing the Atlantic with a
114 miles of engine
plethora of skills that can be drawn upon.
For fear of boring the reader to tears I will abridge this chapter further by fast forwarding to dusk on the 15th
day – as the sun sets to the West we know we are going to close the coast of St Lucia soon but to our huge surprise “land-ho” is called and as the sun sets it highlights the mountainous silhouette of St Lucia. The wind over the last 36 hours has become more traditional tradewind-like and the swell more regular so the race is on for Rodney Bay for last orders. The gennaker is brought out from the forepeak and we are racing to the northern corner of St Lucia at 14 knots – watching the distance reducing by about a mile every 6 minutes is hugely satisfying and as we round the corner of the island and start to peer into the lights of Reduit Bay for the finish line we are relieved and excited in equal measure. Crossing the line we are delighted and drop the sails and pilot our way into the Rodney Bay lagoon and into a berth, a reception party including Paul from Juno
1/2 way party
No that's not a huge phallus that I'm waving!
– who has very kindly bailed from his friends at dinner having heard of our approach on VHF – are there to take our lines and ply us with cold beer and rum punches but our focus is on scrubbing up and getting ashore to the bar in an “Ice Cold from Alex” style. We are rightly proud of our achievement and that of Fabiola to cross the Atlantic a full 6 days faster than I managed 21 years ago. We are 37th
out of 256 on corrected time and forth in class behind 2 race-fettled Swan 48s and a very experienced race crew on Charm Offensive. It has been hugely satisfying and whilst not enjoyable all the time it has been a truly memorable event.
By the morning the berths around us are starting to fill up – we had seen many more competitors over the last few days of the crossing as their paths converge on St Lucia and now we root out our friends and let the children maraud again with other young crews. Within a few short days the repair work is well underway, the kids have found the beach, Vince, Ian and Kate have
moved into their hotel and we are still coming to terms with what we have achieved. We revel in sleep on a still bed without a 3-hourly call and enjoy being able to speak to other people and find out that everyone has their tales of derring-do and catastrophe to rival our own and that this year has been an unusual crossing – quick but very demanding.
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