It has taken me some time to get my thoughts together, not about the facts but about the effect of the experience. A number of skippers in the Canaries were reflecting on the journey ahead and were apprehensive. We all agreed that you never read a blog or ARC posting which says it was terrible, so we were reassured.
We went out as a crew for a last night departure meal. The crew being myself, Ju my wife, Steph my youngest daughter (and a Commercial Yacht-master) and Matt her fiancée and Ocean Graduate. Despite a strong crew we were all quiet and reflective. Sir Robin Knox-Johnson once said, "Anyone who goes to sea and is not scared is a liar". A fitful night passed.
The new day dawned and there was so much happening it took all our minds off the journey ahead. Matt and Steph set about preparing the twin foresails and putting foam on the spreaders to avoid the main sail chaffing. I was getting last minute spares, all of which we never used, and Ju was tidying the boat as usual. At 11:30 we were hugely privileged to have a number of our friends around us and they joined us on Sephina. The photo below shows from left Helena, Elaine, Gren, Cherry, Steph, Matt, Johnie, Ju and myself. As they left the emotion took over and I was too choked up to say thank you.
Just after 12.00 we slipped the berth and headed out of the marina. There were hundreds of people cheering and bands playing. We motored out and were checked out and photographed by the ARC Crew standing at the end of the mole. It was a spectacular site seeing so many yachts of all shapes and sizes making their way to the start line.
We tried to keep out of every bodies way but saw one crash and an unfortunate boat get their jib sheets wrapped around their prop. Their dreams of a crossing were over and it made us doubly careful. We had no intensions of racing across the start line as a few minutes gained in relation to 20 odds days would be insignificant for the risk.
As 1 o’clock approached we turned the engine off and set the rig. We speeded across the line some 5 minutes later and were surprised to be overhauling some of the fleet. Just as we were relaxing into it a sudden rain squall drenched us. The wind was perfect for the rig and we sailed directly down wind passed the end of Gran Canaria and were making a little west but mainly south. This is the preferred cruising route as the wisdom says “go south until the butter melts”.
The watch system kicked in and I was on 8pm-11pm, Ju 11pm-2am, Matt 2am-5am and finally Steph 5am - 8am. Over the weeks I would often join Steph for breakfast to watch the sun come up. Theses were magical times.
On the second day the winds dropped and we deployed the parasailor. We used it for 2 hours and then the winds dropped again. Nothing for it but to put the motor on and it was on for the next 48 hours. Then much to the fleet's surprise a low pressure ridge built and instead of trade wind sailing we had brief headwinds then easterlies then northerlies and everything in between. This tested our twin foresails as both sails are on the same foil so it was not really possible to sail from a run to a broad reach. Beam reach and close hauled was no problem as the sails set against each other but anything after a beam until a dead run was not possible. We had to use our engine as with the swell and strength of the wind, changing to the genoa was not going to happen! The GRIB files (weather maps downloaded over the satellite phone) showed that as the low passed we were in for a further spell of no wind. We contemplated our options as we would run out of fuel if we carried on. I decided to head for the Cape Verde Islands to refuel. So the mighty Yanmar was switched on once again and we made best speed to Mindelo to get there before anyone else had the same idea and they ran out of fuel. I used the satphone to email the ARC to see if we could refuel without checking into the country. This was important as we had the cats and it would have meant getting a vet out and the corresponding expense and delay. Luckily they came back to say the Cape Verdes had a policy of Splash and Dash. Perfect. We soon relaised we were not the only ones using this strategy as we approached we spotted familiar yacht names on the AIS (Ship Identification System) also making their way to Mindelo. Amongst them were Aditi who also had exhaust problems and were planning a stop over to fix. We arrived and filled up with fuel and then anchored off to use the washing machine. Four hours later we were off, refuled and clean!.
Before we lost our sea legs we were off and had a nice beam reach sail down the sound to exit into another period of no wind. The Yanmar was on again and the sea became so flat that Ju decided to go for a swim in the Atlantic with the depths in thousands of meters we all kept a look out for sharks! There was time and quite enough seas to see to a few jobs. There was a small leak of sea water into the bilge. Matt and Ju traced it to the non return valve on the secondary electric bilge. The skin fitting was duly switched off to avoid any further leaks. Next the generator stopped working and Ju could smell diesel under our bed! On inspection it turned out to be the fuel pipe connection and it had parted company spilling fuel into the lazerette and then drain under our bed to the bilge. Matt fixed it and we were in service again.
Steph was master of the galley and as a “dry” boat we could not celebrate half way with champagne so she managed to cook us some great chocolate brownies. She also managed to cook in some challenging conditions aided by the use of M&S tinned curries.
Looking ahead I could see we were in for some wind. It soon kicked in and we had to head slightly north to keep the wind on our beam. The direction was set to veer so after a couple of days we would be able to use the twin foresails rig again and sail direct for St Lucia. I soon started to realize the winds were going to continue to increase in strength and now with 10 days to go I could see the weather files to the end. My heart sunk as I realized it would only get stronger and the seas would start to build. We had our sea legs but after another couple of days as we set off dead downwind the corkscrew motion and ferocity of the confused seas started to take its toll. None of us felt great but Ju had to retire to her bunk. For two days she was very seasick and I started to worry about dehydration. It was a testing moment for me as I had convinced her to do this with me and as I saw her crying I had to question why we were doing it. It is to her great credit that she never missed a watch throughout this time. The seas continued to build and we were now taking the odd wave broadside and the occasional wave over the stern. Some started to lap the dingy on the davits and this was a worry as if it got much worse the force could take the dingy off and the davits with it. We reefed even more but still the odd wave would knock the boat off course. I was amazingly surprised that during these roundings the auto pilot never missed a beat and put us right back on course again. It was a good decision to upgrade the drive unit to a beefy Simrad planetary gear unit instead of the usual rams. At this point the hot water connection to the clarifier came off for a third time since we left Deganwy. Stupidly, as we were only a few days from the finish, I had opened the second water tank. This meant that our entire water supply emptied into the bilge. We had no water and 5 days to go. We were saved by two things, one the decision to have a 240volt and 12 volt water maker and two, the emergency water bottles stuffed in the bilges. As at this point the generator was not working but we were able to run the engine to supply 12volts to make water. We started to drink the emergency water but after 8 hours our tanks were back full.
The weather continued to build. We reefed again as the wind was now consistently 25 knots and over and in the squalls reached over 35 knots. This is all very well on coastal sailing but with the wind and Atlantic swell it is a whole different ball game. At one point we reefed all the sail away and were considering using the drogue to add some directional stability. With no sails at all we were still doing over 5 knots. I wanted to tell Ju it would get better but I knew it wouldn’t. Matt and Steph were brilliant not only because of their ability but the confidence of youth made them see the up side all the time. I, on the other hand, had dark thoughts about rig and autopilot failure. I had been awake for over 40 hours and was sent to my bed with the sound of Genesis on full blast to clear my head of all the noises I started to think were things breaking. It is amazing how much you hallucinate when you are sleep deprived. I had some fitful sleep but as I awoke Matt noticed the head sail furler was twisted where it attached to the bow. This could result in rig failure. We had to slow the boat down and go forward to assess the cause. It became quickly apparent that the force of the wind on the two headsails was twisting the furler beyond normal limits. (Having two sails on the foil even if set on opposite sides still puts the force of both sails in the same direction on the furler) We slackened off the sheets as we had been having the sails bar tight to stop flutter, and this bought us some time. The attachment was via a clevis pin and split pin.
The split pin was under extreme pressure. I slept fitfully again that night and in the morning decided we had to jury rig some strain relief. Matt and I went forward and used some stainless steel bar and Dyneema rope with the “handy billy” to not only rig some strain relief but put in an emergency lashing in case the rig parted. Now we were settled again and were counting down the days until this was all over. The last day dawned and as if we had not had enough we were greeted with continued squalls with torrential downpours. By now we had the plan off pat. Reefing was easy as we had rigged the twin poles in such a way as to be able to reef all the lines from the cockpit. As we did not have to use the mainsail with the twin foresails rig it only took 20 seconds to do. Next we would simply switch on the radar, go below and wait for it to pass. This was better than the original plan of staying up top and getting soaked! The squalls continued throughout the day and at noon we were in site of land at last. We estimated we would be in just after dusk and as dusk started we were greeted with another fierce squall to remind us it was not over yet!
We were in sight of Pigeon Island and had to radio ARC finish line to tell them of our ETA. As we rounded the island I went for a shower to don our Sephina of Beaumaris polo shirts as Matt steered us to the finish line at 7pm. He let me helm it across and I radioed the committee boat to say there were three crew and two cats relieved to be here. That brought a laugh. We then went into Rodney Bay Marina to be greeted by Jon and Colin from Kika who had travelled all the way up from Marigot Bay to be there and Mary my ex Chief Exec who had travelled all the way from Wales to be there! With Mary’s friends and Kika’s crew clapping and applauding the whole waterfront of Rodney Bay Marina started to cheer and clap. Emotional. We were then greeted by the ARC welcome crew and were duly given our rum punch courtesy of St Lucia Tourist Board. That was very, very, very welcome. The ARC was over.
We had crossed an ocean in what the ARC later described as “One of the most challenging crossings in recent memory”. We had done 3,055 miles across the Atlantic and 5,122 miles since leaving North Wales. We were a family crew and I must thank them all for making my dream possible.The talk on the pontoons were of a horrible last 8 days and many skippers were contemplating changing their plans. Will we ever cross another ocean? I don’t think so, but more on our plans later.