Throwback Thursday – crossing the Atlantic Ocean

I left off last week with describing our preparations to sail across the Atlantic Ocean on a small (42ft) yacht, Triple D – my mum, my 18 year old sister and I. I’ve been telling the story of our year-long sailing trip mainly through listing the things that went wrong! Starting here, “An Ounce of Home” and continuing here, here and here.

We left Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, for St Lucia, the Caribbean on 21st November 2010. As participants in the Arc, a rally of 250 boats sailing across the Atlantic at the same time, we had an official “start” and the atmosphere in the marina in the morning was incredible. Loud music blaring, and as boats, one-by-one, started to slip from their berths and head out into the ocean, everyone around them would clap and cheer them on, as the boat sounded its horn and its crew waved at the shore. Mum was, understandably, pretty stressed (and the loud music wasn’t helping), so Jilli and I just tried to keep quiet and do exactly what she said!

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Eventually we were as ready as we’d ever be and so we set out, crossing the start line around half an hour after the official start. It was a brilliant sight – boats everywhere you looked, all starting their journey across the ocean. We had a lovely breeze as the wind funnels its way through the Canary Islands, and by the time the sun set, we could still see other boats on the horizon.

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How to describe in a blog post, three weeks so entirely different from any other three weeks in my life? How to distill it all into a few thousand words? Three weeks where nothing happened, and everything happened. We had our routine – our fixed night shifts (mine was 9pm – 12am, then 6am-9am), our naps during the day, our lunches, our dinners. But the wind and its strength and direction changed everything.

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Trying to get radio signal – before realising it was connected to the top of the mast so didn’t matter how high you hold it! #rookieerror

A few days out of the Canary Islands and it disappeared completely. We attempted to sail a bit, we turned our engine on when we were basically going backwards, we adjusted our route to sail further south in search of the elusive trade winds. One particular day as we were trying to sail, we spotted a whale to the left of the boat. Then we saw it again, just off the right-hand side. It was pretty close and had obviously just swum underneath us so we turned the engine on as the vibration are meant to deter them away from the boat.

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The main way we spent our time

Jilli and I went downstairs to start lunch. There was an overwhelming smell of smoke and burning. We weren’t great cooks by this point, but we hadn’t even started cooking lunch so it seemed pretty strange to have burnt something already! All very calm, we shouted up to mum, who turned the engine off and came downstairs. We opened the engine compartment and black, acrid smoke flooded mum’s cabin. Our engine had been on fire.

That was disaster number 1 of the trip across the Atlantic.

Disaster number 2 happened just a few minutes later. We kept preparing lunch at the same time as trying to work out what was wrong with the engine and clear the cabin of smoke. A wave hit and Jilli dropped the open jar of mayonnaise – mayonnaise literally everywhere. All over both of us, including our faces, all over the side of the fridge, all over the floor. At least it provided some light relief!

We fiddled with the engine all afternoon and eventually got it to the point where no smoke was coming out when we turned it on. This was more luck than knowing what had caused the problem as, without taking the engine to pieces entirely, we really had no idea. There was still no wind. So we now had an engine that worked, but the generator would not turn on.

The generator tops up the energy in the batteries, allowing us to have things like a working fridge and lights on board when the engine isn’t running. It also converts the power in the boat to allow us to plug in normal plugs such as phone and laptop chargers, and, most importantly, runs the watermaker. This takes in salt water from the sea and converts it into drinking water.

As there was still no wind, our route was going to take us very close to the Cape Verdes. When we heard that our friends were also going to divert in to stock up on fuel and water, preparing for a long crossing, it didn’t take us long to decide to divert. The marina in Mindelo, Cape Verdes, was absolutely bustling with boats crossing the Atlantic, either with the Arc or by themselves. We had a cup of afternoon tea with our friends and invited them over for dinner on board, enjoying the company after seven days of just sun, sky, sea and two other faces. We also spoke to the engineers at the marina and organised for someone to come and look at our engine the next day.

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Mindelo is pretty cool – the marina was set up by a German guy who decided to train local people from the Cape Verdes as engineers etc to run the marina and provide as best a boatyard service as possible!

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Disaster number 3

We had started cooking dinner for our friends and mum went into her cabin to get some clean clothes to take up to the showers. She decided to check the bilges under her floor ….. “girls, I think we have a problem!” The bilges in her cabin (the same as the engine cabin) were absolutely FULL of water. Brimming to the top. Jilli and I set about bailing into buckets, while mum went to see if she could find the cause of the leak. We were bailing and bailing but the water was coming in as fast as we could empty it and it was a really, genuinely scary moment. More scary in fact than the engine smoke.

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Me bailing, mum exploring the cause of the problem

After a few moments, mum called from on deck “Taste the water! Is it salt water?” I made a face at Jilli, but tasted it – no, it wasn’t salt water. To cut a long story slightly short, we have a hose at the back of the boat which tucks away into a cupboard. One of the fittings had become loose and so the hose had turned itself on and was emptying itself into the cupboard, and then into the bilges. We had drained almost our entire water tank into the bilges. So more annoying than anything else, especially it wasn’t free to top up with water in the Cape Verdes and so it was also quite an expensive disaster!

The next day, the engineer came to have a look at the engine.

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Those are some of the parts of our generator, which had basically exploded. It looked like this had happened as a result of the leak we had had months before – parts of the generator had gotten wet where they shouldn’t have. So they were able to fix the engine, but not the generator – we would have to cross the rest of the Atlantic Ocean without it.

So. Nothing to top up our batteries. But more importantly – nothing to top up our water tank. We filled up with water as much as we could, and re-filled up with fuel, before leaving to set out on the ocean again. Two weeks from St Lucia.

For the first five days we had very little wind still. We taught ourselves how to bake bread, with varying levels of success. We read lots and lots of books. We sunbathed. It was so hot the most we ever wore was a t-shirt with our bikini bottoms in the middle of the night on the night shift. One day, when we were about to decide to turn the engine on, we decided to go for a swim.

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Sunrise at the end of my nightshift

We set out a few fenders from the back of the boat and jumped in – obviously making sure one person was on the boat at all times! The nearest land was underneath us…… The water, which had looked so flat from the boat now formed huge mountains which came towards, picked us up and sent us flying towards the boat, before picking the boat up and carrying it away from us. It was incredible and exactly what we all needed to wash ourselves off and provide a bit of entertainment.

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This might be one of my all-time favourite pictures of my mum and I

Afterwards, we turned the engine on and slowly motored forward. Until one morning, when we were all in the process of putting up our biggest sail. We didn’t tend to sail with this during the night as, if the wind had gotten up, it would have been quite tricky to get down in the dark, and needed all three of us. So we had woken Jilli up first thing to help mum and I. She was in a bad mood as she always was first thing in the morning.

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Our big sail, and the sun beginning to set before we took it down one night

We put the sail up, always a bit of a struggle as we are all quite small and it is very big and heavy. Then, just as we were returning to the cockpit, and Jilli going back downstairs to sleep, she pointed to the horizon…. there was a huge dark cloud obliterating it, something we hadn’t seen for weeks! We tracked it on the radar and it was heading towards us so quickly took the sail back down again and braced ourselves for the wind…..

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The wind hit, and it didn’t leave us for five days.

More next week!!!!

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4 comments

  1. Oh my goodness! I went on a yacht that size this summer and would be terrified crossing the ocean in it – you must be amazing sailors. The idea of a storm on a boat terrifies the life out of me. xx

    • Oh no not at all! I think a lack of imagination really helped me as I could never really imagine all the awful things that could happen so was just able to enjoy myself! My sister on the other hand is super-brave as she was almost constantly scared but still did it! (And she’s now conquered her fear and works on a boat!)

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