The Atlantic Crossing
La Vagabonde was purchased in 2013 in the small Italian town of Monopoli from 3 arguing Italian businessmen. She is a 43ft Beneteau Cyclades. I had been sailing for a total of 10 hours before that time having hoisted a main sail exactly twice.
After a myriad of really very embarrassing mistakes, a vertiginous learning curve and a solid 6 months aboard sailing pretty well every day it was decided that we should attempt an Atlantic crossing to the Caribbean. I had met the lovely Elayna in Greece (from Geraldton W.A.) and she was getting cold.
Aware that I still didn’t know all that I needed to attempt this crossing I hit the internet for hours on end and questioned every cruiser we met along the way. I had left it pretty late in the season apparently as we were still in Greece in November when most people were starting their crossing and I also found out that we were against the prevailing winds trying to get to Gibraltar to leave the med and that we’d best get our skates on. The Gibraltar Strait lived up to its reputation (40 knot winds, 4 knot currents and a shredded headsail) but thats an entirely different story.
We left Gibraltar Jan 2 after some New Years celebrations and an almanac of advice from an Aussie we met in La Linea marina. He had studied the tides and weather patterns and knew a lot more than we did so we just followed him. We caught 2 tuna in the Strait whilst doing 7 knots in confused water and were really having the time of our lives. As we passed Tarrifa there were a few big container ships to dodge but we safely crossed the shipping channel. Our Aussie friends on a larger Bavaria slowly gained ground on us off the west coast of Africa, by nightfall they had disappeared.
On day 3 the wind had completely died but with stubbornness I refused to turn on the engine and a day and a half later of creaking, rocking and clinking the winds picked up again and we sailed into Lanzarote (Canary Islands) 5 days after leaving Gibraltar. It had become apparent that we needed more power if I was going to persist with the no engine policy and here we had a wind generator installed. It took about 17 days from landing to organise but was well worth the effort and money. Unfortunately because of the Wind Generator installation we weren’t able to travel to any of the other islands of the Canarys but we covered Lanzarote head to toe. It was here that we met the third member of our crew, my cousin Jack, who was to help us with the upcoming crossings. We hired a car, refilled the gas, gorged ourselves at the French boulangerie and relaxed.
I have since learned that so late in the season the trade winds have moved far enough north that a sail straight from the Canarys to the Caribbean is possible. Had I known this at the time we might have skipped the Cape Verde islands. I was under the impression that we needed to get within a 100 miles of Cape Verde and therefore decided to stop in there for a few weeks. I had also heard that the fishing was brilliant.
Having gotten the wind generator installed we set sail in late January for the Cape Verde islands. This was Jacks second sail ever and we were all anxious to see if he would get seasick. Jacks first sail was with me off Montenegro and we decided to “go check out those dark clouds.” After that storm I did 2 things. I invited Jack as crew for the Atlantic crossing and I also got a third reeve installed in my mainsail.
As we left Lanzarote it blew at 30-35 knots for the first two and a half days directly astern and we were making incredible time but the waves were making the trip a little unpleasant. Elayna was having trouble cooking and we really couldn’t do anything but wait it out. It did die down a little but we still covered the 900 Nautical Miles in just short of 6 days which was nearly twice as fast as what we had done in our other crossings. The trade winds are such an incredible force of nature.
We stopped in at Ilha Do Sal where there is a nice and free anchorage at Palmeira. There are a few French lads who have opened a bar there and sell the locally made indigenous “Grog”, do basic meals and its generally the place to hang out. From here you can get a bus to any of the islands attractions. The old broken down salt mine that looks like something out of one of the J.R.R Tolkein novels and subsequent movies. We passed what looked like a scene from Mad Max here with old pressed cars lying atop buildings in some sort of fenced off compound. We all went a little quiet here as we got a sense of what Africa might be like away from the tourist spots. At the southern tip of the island is the very touristy Santa Maria famous for its wind surfing.
We sailed to Ilha De Sao Nicolau where we met three french guys sailing and doing it pretty hard. It was an older yacht and they didn’t have a fridge or an Auto Pilot so because there was only three of them they were hand steering for huge hours during their crossings. At least Thibault was a Michelin star chef! We ate some of the most delicious Wahoo that has ever been cooked. From here we sailed to Mindello and stayed at the Marina there as that is supposed to be the safest option on this island.
We set off, for the crossing, from Mindello Marina on the island of Sao Vincente with what looked like a good weather forecast. With no means of attaining any updates we could only keep one eye on the sky and another on the barometer. We did have the EPIRB incase of any serious emergencies. And a life raft. But I’m pretty sure thats out of date. Expecting some swell from the north on day three for a few days running slightly counter to the westerly running trades we tried to make a little headway north early in the sail and stayed on that tack. The predicted swell from the northerly storm didn’t eventuate. We did, however, encounter quite a few squalls of our own, one in particular when I was on watch at night and was caught with the main sail up in too much breeze. Elayna and Jack awoke of their own accord and were up to help out in short order. Having doused the main we dropped out the headsail again and the squall passed almost immediately. It must have been quite a sight to wake to, sails flapping, rain pouring and our little boat spinning around and around. For all our sail changes and our conservative sail plan though I think that if we had fallen asleep on day one, with the Auto Pilot, we would have woken up in the Caribbean 17 days later. Actually probably less.
We caught about a dozen Dorado (Mahi Mahi) on the crossing. There is weed in the Atlantic which gets caught on your lures and it can get annoying but if there is a large mass of weed you can be sure that there are a few Dollies sitting under it. It got to the point when Elayna wanted fish for dinner, we would drop out our lucky lure “Alfred” and would have one filleted within the hour. Dorados are a magnificent eating fish and we were really spoiled in the fishing department.
The days slowly ticked by. Books read, miles gained, routines established, supplies consumed, shooting stars counted. There was a steady easterly of about 20 knots for over a week. When the wind dipped below 13 one day and our speed below 4 I decided to try our new asymmetrical spinnaker. I had gone over this manoeuvre in my head dozens of times. We set it all up, Elayna making sure to film the salient parts, and hoisted the spinnaker without problem. Everyone of us was on edge as this was the first time anyone on this boat had attempted this. The speed quickly increased to 8 knots and La Vagabonde felt good in the water. It was necessary to hand steer at times to avoid rounding up and we were slightly overpowered in larger gusts but we all relaxed after the first hour and just watched the beautiful big sail billow out and drag us ever closer to our destination. After the third hour it fell in the water. The Asymmetrical Spinnaker did. There was a snap and I hit off auto pilot and drove around the sail so as not to collect it with our keel or rudder. All hands were on deck as we hauled it onto the boat, and we stretched it out so as to re-sock it. The sail went from the tip of the bow through our forward hatch into Elayna’s and my room (wetting everything) through the saloon and nearly off the back of the sugar scoop aft. We dropped out the head sail and had a swim before having a beer and a long hard think about what had gone wrong…
Two days later the wind died down enough for me to get hoisted up the main to see what the hell had happened, and I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me. I decided to sleep on it and when I awoke the next day I realised that I’d rigged it up wrong. The halyard hadn’t been led through an eyelet to keep it vertical with the mast after exiting the sheave atop the mast causing chafe where the cut out for the sheave is located on the mast. I had actually been standing on the aforementioned eyelet whilst atop the mast.
We rigged it up again the next day and it fell down a few hours later. I’m blaming the rope this time that we bought off some dodgy Turkish bloke. Well rehearsed in Assy retrieval by now the crew managed to pull it onboard in short order and we didn’t use it again that trip.
It was getting late in the trip, mutiny was afoot, faint whispers in the night, I had apparently not taken enough water for the crossing. We have 2 x 200L tanks aboard and I googled average human consumption per day. With this, now forgotten, number in mind I had decided that after the first tank was emptied we would assess the situation. The first tank was emptied and we had travelled well over half way but being as circumspect with water rations as I was with my sail plan I decided to stop all showers and dish washing with fresh water. The second tank was through with 3 days to go. I will claim that the aft tank was never fully filled, members of the crew will claim that I inadequately provisioned my water. After boldly stating that I wouldn’t change a thing about my water planning and being unwilling to admit fault there was a mildly heated exchange and Jack went to bed. Probably thirsty. There was some water set aside for an emergency but I hadn’t deemed it an emergency just yet. One of these bottles was retrieved from its hiding place and a note tied to it. Written on it thus;
There is not enough water for all 3 of us to make it.
You and I are the stronger sailors and I think that we need to throw Elayna overboard. Its our only option. This water bottle is a token of my sincerity.
Elayna and I tied a fishing line to it and lowered it down his hatch until it bumped him in the head. We all had a laugh and I was forgiven my foolish obstinance. We arrived in the BVI’s a couple of days later. We were hungry and thirsting for steak, beer and pina coladas respectively and gorged ourselves at the restaurant affiliated with Village Cay Marina, Tortola, BVI. We anchored in mangroves just outside the marina there and managed to collect a few fenders as they floated past from the fleet of charter vessels crewed by holidayers with sub par clove hitches, over the next few days.
It truly was a life changing trip. The world seems smaller.[optin-cat id=”62″]