Excerpts from a crew’s log on a transatlantic crossing. Previously: pirates, macaques, and mystery fog in Gibraltar. This week: things that go bump in the night, and a minor but catastrophic case of gear failure.
Somewhere around 7 December 2018
We cooked up some one-pot meals, froze them, and got out of Gibraltar about midday, motoring through the straits in very light wind. A mini-transat racing yacht out of Tangier motored alongside about a mile distant, its sole occupant busy on the foredeck. I thought, if that one guy can do this alone on a six metre racing yacht, what the hell have I got to worry about?
The haze still hung about us, casting the Moroccan skyline as a watery, grey silhouette. I’d have given anything to go and explore it. To think I gazed at Morocco through binoculars but have never set foot in Africa is tantalising in the extreme. I could see minarets poking up above the dense housing that cascaded down the hillsides.
Slowly the haze swallowed Morocco in our wake, but we weren’t alone. The GPS showed plenty of ships around us. Eventually we ate, still under motor, and I got some sleep before my watch began at six a.m. When I came back on deck for my watch, Cam and Jo had already hoisted the mainsail. Cam and I unfurled the jib without needing to say much, and he turned in leaving me alone at the wheel. Eventually, I indulged in my favourite maritime moment, the one thing that makes everything worthwhile, the main thing that keeps me getting back on boats: I turned off the engine.
We get so accustomed to noise. Even the roaring drone of the diesel becomes tolerable after just a few minutes. Hell, I’d already spent several nights sleeping right next to it. But when we turn it off, it’s as if the very space around us relaxes. Everything about the boat – the hull, the rig, the sails – is suddenly released, and feels as if it can do what it was meant to: move through the water and the air. I’ve little time for large modern racing yachts running engines to power their winches. That’s just a total buzz kill.
As the eastern sky started to glow, the last of the ships finally disappeared off the edge of the GPS. I took great joy at being alone at the helm as the others slept. Just me, the night sky and the endless ocean, which I pictured as a kind of pathway leading all the way home to friends and family in Auckland, and Australia, and all over the world.
I looked up and gazed at Orion, standing gratifyingly upright in the northern hemisphere, even as he tumbled slowly, slowly, hour by hour, into the sea: the great celestial comic act. He’ll be here all week.
The sky brightened, the sun came out, and for the first time in my life there was not a single bit of land anywhere to be seen.
At about 1130 we set the gennaker, and made 10 knots in a following sea. It was fun, easy sailing, but not for long. Suddenly – pop! – the entire massive sail dropped in a heap into the sea before us. I was on the helm, and rapidly discovered the trick of keeping the boat close enough to the soggy mess not to over-tension it, but not so close that we’d sail over it and get it tangled in the keel, either.
Clearly the halyard had failed. We slaved to retrieve the sail, and succeeded only in wearing ourselves out. Pausing to refocus on the problem, we immediately found the solution, and let go the tack line completely, rope and all. With only one of its three corners now attached, the enormous gennaker streamed out behind us, largely on the surface. It offered little resistance and we soon brought it in, easily enough. On we pressed, a bit slower, a bit tireder, a bit wiser.
I got my head around the night watches, which were three hours on, six off (there were three of us on board at this point of the voyage). I spent a lot of time avoiding a gybe, which is easier during the day when there are plenty of visual cues about what the wind, waves and boat are all doing. On dark nights, we could be wholly reliant on the instruments, and nothing else but the silent, ever-changing signals of the rudder through the steering wheel.
I soon realised that the self tacking headsail required a preventer to stop it slamming across the foredeck every time it lost the breeze: whhhhiztBANGGG! … just a few feet above the pillow on which Cam kept his sleeping head.
If we came across another vessel, most likely it would appear on the GPS, along with everything we could wish to know about it, including the time, coordinates and speed of any immanent collision. If something showed up which wasn’t registering on the GPS, it could sometimes give us the shits.
One night while motoring in a flat calm, I looked over my shoulder and was astounded to see what appeared to be a little orange fizz boat, tracking us about 100 metres off our port stern. Ruling this out as a possibility, I put my eyes back on the instruments and sought out a horizon in the cloud-covered darkness. Recovering my bearings, again I looked back over my shoulder, and found to my astonishment that it was getting closer. And, what’s this? A mast? Couldn’t be. And yet I could not deny that this fizz-boat looking thing had a bright, white light several metres above its deck.
Practically out of my mind with anxiety, I reached for the binoculars. What I saw took my break away, and I issued the first of only two involuntary gasps of the entire voyage. It was not a boat. It was the slenderest, orangest crescent moon I’ve ever seen, perfectly horizontal, its two tips poking over the flat horizon, its lower limb kissing the sea. In a few moments it rose higher, swinging like a big, back-lit bag of beans across the horizon, casting a reflective orange pathway all the way to my feet.
As for the mast light, that turned out to be Venus, casting her own reflective pathway, which is unusual for a star or planet. She became our great friend, greeting the morning watch with a spectacular show, without fail. More on her later.
We reached Tenerife in the Canaries late on the fifth day out from Gibraltar. It was dark, so all we could see were lights. A fresh breeze came up from the west, and we reached fast under main and jib through the flat water of the leeward coast. The sun came up, the wind dropped off and the watch system collapsed entirely as we worked our way to Marina San Miguel in the south, where we made fast at about 10 am.
Tenerife is a gigantic volcano, a massive pile of scoria punctuated with cacti, poking out of the north Atlantic. Typically at this time of year, a strong wind called the Levant blows up from the east, every afternoon, up to about 25 or 30 knots. I could walk up the foothills and look back towards Africa, and gaze at miles and miles of ocean, all of it whipped into a million peaks of foaming white-caps. The metre-thick concrete sea wall seemed a hopeless defence against such an onslaught.
I prayed my atheistic prayer to the non-existent gods of chance that we might find a gap in this daily weather routine for our departure. For while this powerful breeze blowing in our direction would help us peel off the miles, it was disconcerting stuff to set out in. I’d rather ease into the trip and build confidence as we went.
We drank strong carajillos for breakfast and tasteless but refreshingly icy beer for lunch. We hauled out, scraped off some barnacles, and reapplied anti-fouling paint. We got in a row with the marina staff, who practically inisted on an argument before getting us back in the water. We picked up new crew, Toby and Marin, bringing our number to five.
We hauled George the rigger up the mast with a rivet gun and a new gennaker halyard sheeve. We bought out half a supermarket as well as the local farmer’s market, and picked up a jamón ibérico (named Gracie by the resident psychiatrist who fell immediately in love with it, and Robbie by the more radical crew factions) and G-clamped it to the saloon table. We cooked up bag after zip-lock bag of one-pot meals. We drank cheap Gs&Ts at the marina bar, a corrugated iron affair, where we brayed and bragged with the local live-aboards. And then, after several days of general shit-sorting, we found the day of departure upon us, when we could point the ship in the general direction of the Americas, and our destination, the tiny island of St Maarten, smaller than Waiheke, but higher, and definitely stranger (to me at least), over 2,000 miles to the west.
And I thought: let’s hope the bloody weather holds out for us.
Coming up next: two weeks and three days of bloody nothing whatsoever besides ocean, fish, dolphins, birds, turtles, waves, clouds, rain, sunshine, food, sundowners, philosophy, singalongs, navigation, technical problems, sail changes, a whale, oceanic plastic and an absolutely astonishing number of flying fish.
Also, coming soon: video!