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Show MapAtlantic Crossing       - December 2003



We left La Gomera in the Canary Islands on Thursday 4th December, as prepared as we could be, with a reasonable forecast and laden with food, water and fuel. We were sent on our way in style as several other boats sounded their foghorns and waved to wish us luck. Tom played his bagpipes on the way out, while Sue waved a bath-towel-sized saltire (and steered the boat), so we didn't go quietly!


Leaving La Gomera.

Mount Tiede, Tenerife, just peeking above the clouds - last sight of land for a while!


Once outside the harbour we headed south-west to the horizon...

At dusk on the first night at sea, we could still see Mount Tiede on Tenerife. When the sun rose next morning, all we could see was sea - we wouldn't see land again for another 26 days.

During the first few days we settled into the routine of passage-making. As we've said before, our watch-system is that Tom sails from 9pm to 3am while Sue sleeps, then Sue sails from 3am to 9am while Tom sleeps. We also each have a an extra hour or two during the day. This watch-system is fairly unusual in that normally sailors do 3 or 4 hour watches at most, but it works well for us, giving each of us a good long sleep (Sue gets crabbit when she's not had enough sleep!). Mind you, sleep can be disrupted by sail changes and the rolling is rarely of the gentle "rock you to sleep" sort - you usually have to wedge yourself into the berth with pillows and cushions to keep still enough to sleep. When it's really rolling, we find it best to sleep on the floor in the narrow corridor beside the engine bay.


Sleeping rough.

At night time and whenever one of us is sleeping during the day, the other person is forbidden to leave the cockpit and venture on deck without first fully waking the other person, then clipping on a harness.

We don't have a rigid watch system during daylight. Once Tom is awake again, we have brekky together, then Sue usually has her extra sleep. After lunch, Tom has his top-up sleep and after a wee drink at happy hour it's time to make dinner, and get the boat ready for the night again. Despite our expectations, there does not seem to be a lot of time to do all the reading, music, languages, etc, that we had expected! Mostly it is sleeping, being on watch and preparing and eating food.

In good weather being on watch is fairly easy. The Aries self-steering gear (a piece of mechanical genius), called "Ted", keeps the boat heading on a course with respect to the wind and mostly all we do is keep an eye out for other shipping, gear failure or changes in the weather and especially the wind direction. The latter is crucial, since if we've set up Ted to keep us at say 60° to the wind, even if the wind starts to blow from a different direction, he will adjust the boat's direction to keep us sailing along at 60° to the wind, even if it's in the opposite direction to where we really want to go! The beauty of Ted is that he is purely mechanical and uses none of our precious electricity. We also have "Bill", an auto-pilot, who uses electricity and steers us on a particular compass heading. And yes, Bill and Ted are named after the heroes in the film "Bill and Ted's Most Extraordinary Adventures", as we hope that they will take us safely through some exciting adventures!

We do a lot of reading (Tom read 6 books on the way across) and any time we're in port we try to swap books with other boats. Sue also sang along to CDs, collected the weatherfax charts via SSB radio, did some crochet and every second day baked bread.



Sue collecting weatherfax - the laptop is plugged into the SSB radio.

A typical weatherfax chart. This one shows the 24 hour forecast for the southern USA, the Caribbean and northern South America for 29 Dec 2003.


Making Bread.


Fishing was another way to pass the time. Although we caught four fish, of these we only landed one tuna and one dorado. The others were so big they fell off the hooks before we could lift them onto deck. To be honest we were grateful not to catch too many fish as it was always a bit traumatic, to say nothing of messy, killing a living creature (we dispatched them with some alcohol poured into the gills - Tom says that's how he would like to go!). But at least we had proved to ourselves we would never go hungry if the tins ran out.



Bluefin Tuna and Dorado.

Flying Fish.

Six days out, we saw our first flying fish - they can fly for up to a hundred metres - and every morning we'd clear a few that had crash-landed on deck during the night. (Flying fish info.)

Lots of our flying fish had parasites. These are Cymothoa exigua, or the tongue-eating louse, which is a parasitic isopod. According to Wikipedia, the Cymothoa parasite enters a fish through the gills, and then attaches itself to the fish's tongue. The female attaches to the tongue and the male attaches on the gill arches beneath and behind the female. The parasite severs the blood vessels in the fish's tongue, causing the tongue to fall off. It then attaches itself to the stub of what was once the tongue and becomes the fish's new tongue. When we picked infected fishes up from the deck, the parasites could be easily seen peering out of their mouths. We called these little guys "navigators" - not very good ones though, as they had flown their hosts onto our boat!

A flying fish "navigator".

A gear failure which was at first quite a worry, was that of our Waterlog 100 water maker. It is a towed device which uses a propellor to drive sea water through a membrane, separating out a trickle of fresh water which is fed back to a jerry can onboard.

We deployed our water maker on day 5 and had expected to be able to produce enough water to have a shower every second day, as well as to be able to wash clothes and arrive with full water tanks (we have 3 tanks holding a total of 470 litres, plus 2 jerry cans adding a further 50 litres). Sadly the water maker appeared to suffer from a manufacturing weakness and stopped working after producing a mere 20 litres. (See how it did in the Pacific.)


Our broken water maker.

A quick assessment of our tanks suggested we had 410 litres remaining. Not knowing exactly what lay ahead of us in terms of duration of the trip, we decided to instigate water restrictions - no washing of bodies, use a cupful for washing hands and cleaning teeth, use salt water where ever possible in cooking and for rinsing off of cooking utensils, etc. We prefer not to wash in salt water as your skin never dries completely and it can lead to painful boils. The longest we went without a shower was 10 days, ugh!! BUT I hasten to say we were not dirty - we used the wonder of the modern age - baby wipes. Did you know that it is possible to have a reasonably thorough, overall body wash with just 3 baby wipes?!! Did we enjoy the showers on the few days we allowed ourselves such a pleasure? What do you think???!!!

Anyway, when we finally arrived after 27 days at sea, we still had about half of our tanks full, so we had done very well!

On day 8 we followed the old Atlantic crossing saying of "head south until the butter melts, then turn right" and we turned right! Just 1958 nautical miles to go to Barbados.

On the 9th night at sea (13-14 Dec) we saw the Geminid meteor shower - free fireworks and a good way to pass the long night watch. And Sue was pleased to see the Southern Cross again - a reminder of Australian night skies.

On day 10 we used the last 2 bananas to make a banana loaf.

1000 Nautical Miles to go!


At around 0530 hours on the 17th day of the crossing (21 Dec), we earned our "1000 nautical miles to go" treat - a tin of choccies ..... mmmmm! We also ate the last apple this day.

Every twelve hours we would mark a cross on the chart, showing our noon/midnight position, slowly stepping our way across the ocean at roughly 100 nautical miles a day. Four times during the passage we put the clock back by an hour - taking four weeks to cross the Atlantic certainly gives you time to get over jet-lag. The weather slowly warmed up too and by the time we were about half way across we were doing our night time watches wearing just t-shirts and shorts.

On Christmas Eve, after 20 days at sea, we managed to pick up Christmas carols on Barbados radio. It felt a bit strange to hear them and to be so far away from anything and anyone. By being at sea for most of December we had even missed a lot of the hype that goes with the last couple of weeks before Christmas Day. Only 600 nautical miles to go!

Happy Christmas!


Christmas day, the 21st of the crossing, was certainly different. Sue had made fruit mince pies which we had for breakfast! Christmas dinner consisted of melon starter, cheeses and biscuits and a Christmas pudding given to us before we left (Thanks, Colin and Yvonne!).

We shared the last of our fresh fruit, an orange, on day 24. Tinned fruit from now on.

During days 24 and 25, a big weather front passed over us and the winds became south westerly - just where we wanted to go! We ended up beating for 27 hours, at least 40° off course, with triple-reefed main sail and just half the genoa. During one squall the rain fell so heavily that we stripped off and had showers in it - we've heard of other folk soaping up when the rain starts only to have it stop just when they are ready to wash off the soap! No such problem with this squall as it went on for ages!!

On day 25 we saw our first frigate birds circling above the sea.

Dolphins are difficult photographic subjects - they move, the sea moves, the boat moves!

The wind finally returned to the north east on day 26, but the squalls continued until we were in the lee of Barbados the next day. It was there that we noticed that Ted was damaged - one side of the hinge attaching the paddle to the main pendulum was broken right through. We think it was the huge following seas remaining after the front that caused this damage, although Ted had been hit on that side when another yacht lost control and sailed into us while we were moored to the pontoon at Kerrera in Scotland back in August 2003 and this may have weakened him at that point. (He was eventually welded back together at Marin in Martinique.) How lucky we were that he held together until to the last day before breaking!

Finally on our 27th night at sea, we saw lights on the shore of Barbados. Next morning, Hogmanay (31st December, or "Old Years Night" as they call it in Barbados), we cleared in through Barbadian Immigration, Customs and Health at Port St Charles after a trip of a minimum of 2720 nautical miles. We finally dropped anchor in Carlisle Bay off the capital, Bridgetown, just in time for the New Year party. What a great welcome after almost a month at sea!

*   *   *   *   *

As far as negative physical aspects of the crossing go, being tired, dirty and bruised (the latter was Sue mostly) were probably the worst of it. Despite holding on as best you can, during rougher days the movement of the boat means that doing even the simplest things such as brushing your teeth or pouring a cup of tea can be injurious. A lot of the tiredness comes from the relentless motion of the boat - while awake your body is constantly trying to keep you vertical, and even when lying down it tries to keep you still, and that all burns up energy! This loss of energy is on top of that which you lose from not having a normal full night of sleep. The potential water shortage and consequent lack of regular showers was not pleasant, but it was endurable, and we are most grateful for baby wipes!!

Mentally, Sue's worst times were those nights when it was a bit rough and the boat was rolling relentlessly in such a cloudy, moonless, pitch black night that you could not see the other end of the boat - she is a bit afraid of the dark and has a vivid imagination (what might be lying in the water in front of the boat??!!). Also by about week 3 we were both getting somewhat bored with it!

Overall though, we had a relatively good crossing and only had rough weather in the last couple of days. Even so, we certainly have nothing but the deepest of admiration for the sailors of yore, not just the Captains such as Cook, Columbus, etc, but also the crews, who sailed in far less well equipped vessels than ours, often without any real chance of even roughly knowing their position. They were truly brave souls.


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