Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Journey Home

Contessa 26 “Red Admiral”
Newport Rhode Island - Praia da Vitoria – Falmouth.

It's Sunday 31st July, 2011 and I have been made most welcome in Newport for the past ten days whilst recuperating from my first trans Atlantic, making some necessary repairs and general preparation work for my return journey.

It was with some sadness that I departed Newport, I could describe it as that "I don't want to go home" feeling that I recall as a child nearing the end of a holiday, it's not that I don't want to go home or, necessarily, go to sea but nevertheless I feel a somewhat reluctant traveller. Perhaps it's because I have been made to feel so at home by Dianne and Norm Bailey, Shirley and Jack Ellis, the staff of Newport Yacht Club and so many of their fellow members, they have been tremendous in their endless kindness, support and hospitality, I cannot thank them enough.

Red Admiral departed Newport at approx 14.30, we motored past the yacht club pontoon, saluted by a canon from George, I have never had my very own "one gun salute", a lovely memory, thank you George and the dock office crew.

We are at sea now, full main and genoa, a close reach and a gentle sea, clear skies and the sun just setting, we are heading for the "No 2" buoy off the South Western tip of Marthas Vinyard and I am eating Clam Chowder for supper, cold, straight from the can!

The inevitable fog banks appear around Nantucket Shoals with a handful of shipping lanes for good measure, a most tiring combination for the single hander, my arrival in this area some 12 days ago made all the more difficult by a damaged wind vane and failed electronic tiller pilots!

Day 3.

Late morning, the sun burns through the fog and fresh coffee is brewed, I bought a cafetiere just before leaving. We are sailing free of the wind with a gentle swell rolling us around, the genoa is poled out and the new tiller pilot is working hard against the rolling swell, the solar panel plugged in trying to keep pace with the tiller pilot. At 17.39 I notice we have 1739 Nm to our Azores waypoint with the island of Terceira some 200 Nm to the East of that.

We have slipped off the US continental shelf and traded up from dark grey sea to ocean blue, the Stars and Stripes have been packed away until next time, who knows when. With a wall of cloud both ahead and astern who knows what the evening holds?

It held an electrical storm, I unplugged the vhf antenna but we still have a 30ft aluminium lightening conductor sticking up in the air... I'd have a job unplugging that! With the distinct feeling that there was little else I could do I sat in the companionway and watched the lightening show whilst boiling the kettle for a cup of tea.

Day 4.

It's the evening and with the deterioration in the weather I have pulled the shortwave antenna up the mast and plugged in the radio, it is my intention to listen to Herb Hilgenberg on 12.359 MHz, he is more commonly known as "Southbound 2" and for many years has broadcast a marine weather net for voyagers of the Atlantic Ocean, before leaving Newport I asked Norm for Herb's frequency. As I plugged the antenna in and dialled the frequency I heard a voice saying "I know you only have a receiver and a SPOT device but if you have copy on me I would appreciate a SPOT report so I know you are listening, otherwise there is no point in continuing with these broadcasts", now who could that be I wonder? Just how many people are out here in the Atlantic with only a SSB receiver and a SPOT device? And how would Herb know about me if indeed it was me he was talking to? There could only be one reason, it had to be Norm Bailey and sure enough my prediction was confirmed in a later broadcast.

From that evening onwards I was a daily listener and every evening Herb would steer me safely towards my destination. The initial advice was to turn immediately South East and get South of 40 degrees North latitude, away from a low pressure system that would have given me two Easterly gales, there's a lot to be said for having your own personal weather router!

 Day 7.

For the past two days we have run South East, reefed down and the one piece storm hatch fixed in place to prevent spray from blowing into Red Admiral's cabin, a lesson learned from our experience of beating to Newport for the best part of 43 days!

Day 8.

After the initial rough weather, the wind and waves moderated, for a moment we had light head winds promptly followed by a large veer in the wind direction and a three hour monsoon of rain! Still, we turned it to good advantage, with a cockpit that doesn't entirely self drain the bottom six inches turned rapidly into a bath tub... I had a full head to toe hose down, the laundry got done and my foul weather clothing had a fresh water rinse, right in the middle of all this a turtle swam by, lifting up its head to look at Red Admiral in utter amazement, they seem such an ungainly traveller surrounded in all that ocean, perhaps that is what the turtle thought of me?!

Day 10.

The days are rolling by, which is surprising when there is so little to see, there are the flying fish though, incredible in their flight, I had no idea just how far a flying fish could fly, assuming they would be more fish than bird... I was amazed to see one fly from the face of a wave, turn hard right and fly on for another fifty yards before diving back into the ocean!

 Day 13.

The light airs have returned only downwind now, the spinnaker has had an airing for days and nights at a time. I haven't seen a soul now for seven days and life is easy going, the boat is sitting upright, cooking is a piece of cake compared to the journey West to Newport, and sleep is plentiful when you're not being bounced around in your bunk! There is some news to report... Herb tells me there is a low pressure system converging on our course, it has deepened and been designated "Tropical", consequently he has asked me to slow down and let it pass ahead of us, apparently my use of the spinnaker has kept pace with this system so it's now time to throttle back.

Day 15.

The wind has indeed picked up, the spinnaker and full mainsail was replaced with a triple reefed mainsail and no head sail whatsoever. During the night I woke with a bang! it was the boom gybing over and with the wind vane steering I jumped out into the cockpit to sort things out. I gybed the boom back over but something wasn't right?! I was fighting like hell with the tiller and the moment I let go the boom gybed once more, kneeling on the aft deck with a maglite between my teeth I found the problem, a small universal joint had become detached, quickly reconnecting it and gybing the boom once more onto it's proper course Red Admiral sailed on and I retired to my bunk.

Day 18.

Finally I have spotted a ship, it's been 9 days now since I have seen any sign of life other than sea life. I contact the ship "Iris 2" by vhf and request they relay a message to Herb on the SSB. It was a difficult conversation, I was not entirely sure of their nationality and certainly didn't speak their language but with regular repetition of the message we got there in the end. All I had to do now was wait patiently for 19.30 hours Zulu (UTC) and await their communication with Herb. Right on time I heard MV Iris 2 communicate with Herb, it was as difficult for Herb to understand as it was for them to understand me but most of the message got through with the exception of the one piece of information I wanted Herb to hear... that I was going to Terceira, prior to this message Herb only knew I was making for the Azores.

Day 19.

We are now heading North, the tropical system has withered away, the winds are light and forecast to remain so. Herb tells me there is a high pressure ridge lying to our North and if we can climb above it we will have light South Westerly winds to blow us to our destination some 400Nm away. At the time I was not too sure of this strategy, I could sail directly to the Azores at 3 knots from my current position and light winds often make sailing to windward beneficial, we increase the apparent wind speed and with a smooth sea the conditions are favourable. But as time moved on the wind became lighter and our only option was indeed to head North of the high pressure ridge.

Day 21.

During the night a change in the breeze, full credit to Herb, as we tracked North we came under a line of cloud and found our high pressure ridge, the breeze filled in and with the spinnaker set we're averaging 5 knots straight down the rhumb line. We have also been having reception problems with the SPOT tracker, Herb has been commenting on the lack of position reports, this is through no lack of sending messages but something to do with the SPOT system itself, perhaps it's an area of poor satellite coverage... who knows?!

We are seeing some amazing sunrises and sunsets, the colours are truly amazing!

 Day 23.

The wind is more changeable now with cloud banks coming through, bringing gusts and bursts of rainfall, it's all rather exciting and unpredictable when you have a spinnaker flying and a wind vane doing the driving. We are only 100Nm or so from the Azores archipelago and there is more sea life present, pods of dolphin make regular appearances, the more boat speed we have the more they tend to stick around.

Day 24.

And we can now see the first islands of the Azores, Flores and Corvo, I have engaged the engine for the first time since leaving Newport. This period of calm lasted several hours but the breeze filled in during the evening such that we could sail between the islands on our way to Terceira. I spotted a fishing vessel during the night, another reason to remain more vigilant now that we're surrounded in rock! Once clear of the islands we have another night at sea at least. The sea is so beautifully clear, I manage to shoot some wonderful video of the dolphin playing with Red Admiral's bow and a small shoal of fish that have been swimming along with us for a few days, where they get the energy for this is incredible!

Day 26.

After a quieter night with no Islands to avoid or fishing vessels to change course for we are closing on the island of Terceira, as we approach from the West our destination, the port of Praia da Vitoria, lies on the Eastern side of the island. We are running quite close to the shore and I can see clearly the makeup of the island, the landscape is very green and cultivated with what appears to be terraced fields, small communities of houses scattered along the coastline and plenty of waves breaking on the shore. The final hours as we skirt the island's Northern coastline are spent motor sailing, rounding the North Eastern corner and I make my preparations for arriving, the mainsail is flaked across the boom, fenders and warps are bent on and my first duty upon arriving is to call Norm Bailey.

Having arrived in Praia da Vitoria there was little time spent sightseeing, for the most part it was sound sleeping all night long followed each day by preparation for the next stage of the journey home. I had an e-mail exchange with Herb, he now knew a little of my circumstances, sailing alone, in a small boat and the limitations of my receiving equipment. He was, however, able to offer some expert advice to improve reception with my home made antenna, notably adding 24 feet of wire to the 33 Feet I was already using.

It is now Sunday 28th August, 2011 and after 3 nights in the marina, Red Admiral and I are on our way North East, heading for home with a fair wind and as I look over my shoulder a large black cloud hanging over the town of Praia da Vitoria... we got away just in time! Within hours of leaving we almost run down a whale, it must have been half asleep but at the last minute it leapt out of the way and then followed us at a safe distance for several minutes.

By the evening I am tuned into Herb for our daily update only to discover that things have changed, a low pressure system over Europe has changed course and is creating gale conditions along the Portuguese coast, Herb gives me two options: 1, head back to Terceira and sit it out for a week or 2, head North West to avoid the worst of the headwinds. Being rested and keen to press on I take the second option, sure enough the wind comes on to the nose and builds and before long we are triple reefed and bouncing our way to windward.

 Day 3.

We have been set a boundary of 26 degrees West longitude and Herb wants us to stay West of this boundary, stray too far to the East and we expose ourselves to winds above the 25 knots we are currently experiencing. It seems only fair then that the wind prevents us from maintaining a course to the West of this without putting in a tack to the West, due West in fact, pointing us directly at Newport Rhode Island! And so it is that we shape a course that resembles an inverted question mark and all in the name of gale avoidance.

Day 5.

A beautiful sunny day, the wind has abated and life is so much more pleasant, I am enjoying the change! There is another low pressure system to our North, a long way North but it affects us all the same, so we are pacing ourselves in the hope it will dissipate. In the meantime Herb has asked me to continue in a Northerly direction until 44 degrees North latitude where we turn East to avoid the worst of the weather.

Day 6.

The wind in now Westerly and we are broad reaching to the North East, there's plenty of breeze so there's no spinnaker involved, all the same we are making good speed, averaging 5 knots, and all the while keeping our eye on the weather and staying South of 44 degrees North. Later in the day and the breeze veers with the arrival of a frontal boundary, all predicted by Herb. So now we are sailing South of East and nicely converging on the rhumb line from which we diverted all those days ago.

Day 8.

600Nm to our waypoint to the South of the Scilly Isles. We are now a mere 35 Nm from the rhumb line, the sky is infinitely blue and the wind right behind us. Last night Herb told me to expect gale force conditions and to expect them at midnight tonight! I've had a good night's sleep and feel well rested in preparation for tonight's foul weather, having extended the antenna I am still receiving Herb's weather broadcasts and as I close the European Continent I can now hear the BBC radio shipping forecast so one way or another I have an idea of what's coming.

Day 9.

We spent the whole night double reefed under a clear sky and a three quarter moon, waiting in anticipation of the impending gale... all to no avail! disappointed? no, if Herb is going to be inaccurate I am happy for him to get the gales wrong!

Day 10.

We are creeping North but for the most part heading East, Herb has set us a new Northern limit of 46 degrees, as each day goes by it seems there's another low pressure system threatening to bring foul weather, the good news, as far as my positive outlook is concerned, is that the winds are all South Westerly, as we track North East it means we run with the weather.

By night I fall sound asleep and wake to discover we are sailing back towards Newport! The wind vane has no sense of direction and slavishly follows the wind, usually a bonus but not when the wind becomes variable and the only crew is sound asleep! Fortunately the conditions didn't last long and the breeze filled in once more from the South West.

Day 11.

We are goose winged for one of the few occasions this entire voyage and we are sailing straight down the rhumb line to the Western Approaches of the English Channel. The weather has turned grey which seems appropriate given we are heading North in latitude and summer is heading South. Herbs broadcasts are getting more difficult to hear though still readable which is surprising given how far East we are, he even commented how surprised he was that I could still hear him apparently people with dedicated SSB equipment struggle this far East!

Day 12.

Last night the word "Storm" got a mention and once again Herb gave me two options: 1, to turn South East and head back towards the Spanish Biscay coastline or 2, take down sails and stream a drogue etc whilst riding it out. I took a look at the gps, our distance to Falmouth, 330Nm and my understanding of our possible average speed, with all that in mind I took the third option... hoist the spinnaker and get go-in!

Day 14.

The race is on now, the gale force conditions didn't arrive, the low pressure system that was predicted failed to materialise, but just to keep the pressure on there's more talk of impending foul weather, the tail end of Hurricane Katia! I press on, holding all the sail up I can within limits, my own self imposed sense of how much is enough without being too much for either the wind vane or my little red boat. There is a distinct lack of shipping which ought to be a comfort as we approach the busiest shipping lanes in the world but somehow leaves me wondering when and if?!

Day 15.

We're on the Continental shelf, the depth meter confirms the gps position and the foggy horizon creates camouflage for a grey ship heading out into the Atlantic! as if I needed a reminder to keep my wits about me. We press on making good speed, averaging over 120Nm per day in our little red boat with its long keel, so beautifully described by Judge as "A plank on its side"! Herb has noted my "third option" and also the increase in daily run, he calculates I need to be in Falmouth before midnight tomorrow and we have 125NM to go.

Day 16.

We are closing the land, I have no idea visually it's so grey and visibility is poor, I only know this by my un-erring faith in the gps, it's not until I am within 3 miles of the Lizard that I spot the rocky shoreline and the light itself, flashing. there's plenty of shipping now, most of which is heading for or from Lands End, a couple of gybes are required to avoid two ships and then we are altering course for Pendennis Point and the safe haven of Falmouth. It's 18.00hrs and once again I am running through the list of seacock open, engine on, fenders, warps etc.

By 20.30hrs I am tying up, alone, in the dark, with a little rain to keep me company and a phone call to my old friend Norm Bailey!

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