Sun, stars, sextant, three tons of books

Needless to say that by the time the end of October appeared out of nowhere I hadn’t really scratched the surface of the online course and my understanding of this vast subject was very close to nil.


So equipped with an old plastic sextant, that had been donated to me several years ago, a watch set to UT, three tons of books containing lots of numbers and very few pictures, plotting sheets, plotter, dividers, calculator, chart of the Atlantic and a this rather comfortable 47ft Fountaine Pajot catamaran I set out into the Atlantic for some enforced learning.


Worry not if you have only understood the words watch, books, calculator, Atlantic and catamaran, in the world of celestial navigation I am currently at this stage.  I have paid a lot of money for these fascinating compositions, which contain more numbers and fewer words than the phone book, not only that, but to get them here I have had to pay for hold luggage on the two flights here, so already I am heavily invested in it.


I start my navigation as I mean to go on, from a final fix off Gran Canaria, which took hours to disappear below the horizon, I am now dead reckoning and hoping that I can somehow learn it all as I go along.


To begin with a Mr Paul Rodgers is my guide as I follow the instructions he sets out in his book “Sailing by the Stars”.  The book inspires me with confidence to just pick up the sextant and start taking sights.  Just point it here, adjust that, don’t forget to use the shades when aiming at the Sun.  There are three important numbers that we must write down, one corrects error in the sextant, the next one is the time (to the second) and finally the angle our sextant tells us we have just measured.  


We have been sailing in a south to south westerly direction since departing Las Palmas, I am working by dead reckoning (using our speed and heading to estimate our position on the chart), I make it my first mission to learn how to find our latitude.

“Now bring me that horizon”

31 October

Up anchor and I’m at the helm again, it is 0800 and we’re headed for the fuel dock in Las Palmas marina.  “Do you want your boat back skipper?” I ask on the way in to the marina.  “Erm….. no, it’s alright….. can you just drive us on to the fuel dock?”  FFS… I think and then, yep ok, I’ll put the boat in there for you.  Once on the dock I rig a bow line to slip, extra fenders up fo’red and we’re all set to get off the dock nice and easy.  This time he helms and I talk him through what he needs to do.  “Ahead slow on the outside engine, let the stern come out, neutral, slip, both engines astern GENTLY!!”  And we are off the berth with no drama and this time we really are off out into the ocean, fifteen years of waiting and that moment is here….


My next mission is to get the instruments set up to show something useful, like true wind speed and direction and I have to spend a little time explaining to my shipmates why apparent wind is an irrelevant number when sailing dead downwind, and why in 8 – 10 knots true breeze our apparent wind is reading 2 knots.  Plus we need to record true wind readings in the logbook if we are to have a chance of monitoring changing weather patterns as we cross the ocean.    For the none sailors amongst you, if you are on a bicycle and there is no wind, as you start pedalling you feel a breeze on your face, this is your apparent wind, the wind you generate in relation to yourself as you move forward.  Now imagine you are on a bicycle with a good stiff breeze at your back (say 25 mph) you start pedalling forward at 10 mph, do you feel the wind on your face or do you still feel the wind on your back?  Of course you feel it on your back because it is travelling past you at a faster rate than you can pedal.  The same principle applies to a boat sailing dead downwind, you cannot exceed the true wind speed (at least not with our sail area displacement ratio), so the apparent wind you create by moving forwards is tiny.  And now you are already ahead of my shipmates.


It seems to take forever to lose sight of Gran Canaria and get out into the real open ocean.  It is lovely out here, blue blue sea, nice rolling waves.  I start the trip as I mean to go on, plotting our position on visual fixes from the land and then on to dead reckoning, then the sun and stars…  

“Some days you’re the driver”

We left the dock at around midday Saturday 28 October to sail the 80 miles to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.  Getting the boat out of the berth at Fuerteventura was not exactly pretty, our skipper being a monohull man hasn’t quite mastered the finer points of two engines yet, nor will we mention the dockline.  But we are away, heading toward the big blue ocean.


As soon as we were out of the harbour I was put on the helm while he hoisted the sails.  We had a bag of carrier bags on the aft deck which blew over the side, I’d spotted them go, so instantly put the crew into a man-overboard drill and got the bags back on board, first time, first attempt, nice little boat-handling and crew drill complete all within 10 minutes of leaving, things are good.  


It would be a long old sail to Gran Canaria, we don’t have a spinnaker (but we do have a washing machine!) so in around 12 knots true breeze we are making a painful 4 knots through the water, 5.7 SOG makes it more acceptable.  


Next we need to address the sail set if we are going to stand any chance of sailing somewhere like downwind.  There is no whisker pole either and the shrouds are swept quite far back, so 150 apparent wind angle is the most comfy at the moment, it could be a long trip on the ocean sailing zigzags!  We get the jib set up with additional blocks to run to the cleats amidships on the side deck, as with it tracked on the coach roof this sail is never going to set.  We have a better sheeting angle now, but sailing deep is going to be slow a painful.  


Now… the fully battened mainsail…. The top is squared off and the leech is massive and open, while the boom is tracked down the sail is still sheeted in, so of course it looks like a bag of shite, no vang or kicker on these hotel cruisers either.  So the top is out and touching the spreaders while the boom is still in, I gently persuaded my shipmates to let the boom out a bit, then some more, then a bit more and aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh, that is better, we look like we’re sailing efficiently and the boatspeed reflects that.  I would be surprised if we averaged more than 8 knots across the pond (I hope I’m wrong), as my friend commented “that’s like taking a trawler across the Atlantic!”.  At least I will have plenty of time to figure this astro nav stuff out.


It is brilliant to be back on the ocean in the sunshine and sailing downwind for the first time this year I think.  I’d forgotten how blue the sea is down here, so incredibly blue, superb!  I decide 6 – 8 knots would be quite acceptable, no need to rush really, it is great out here and the climate is most acceptable.


We settle into ship routine with night watches starting after dinner.  We’re on a four and four rotation at night with two people on watch at all times, watches overlap so you’re with one person for two hours, then the next person for two hours.  It worked fine overnight, but chasing four and four through each day for three weeks could be tricky.  


I’ve come up with a new watch system giving everyone 3 hours on watch alone through the 12 hours of daylight, then into the two-up, four and four pattern overnight, so there is now plenty of rest opportunity during the day, thank goodness!  The plan is approved.


I had the first night watch (1800 – 2200) and the 0200 – 0600 shift.  I tried to set my alarm for 0145, but I couldn’t fathom why this was proving impossible on my phone.   “Of course!” It dawns on me…the clocks change tonight, which has really confused things, I now have UT, ship time, local time and our celestial time based on our longitude (which is now the same as local time, but until 2am it wasn’t), no wonder I can’t set my alarm.  Luckily the sound of the engines firing up at 0145 served as my cue to get up.  We are now going upwind – hence the engine – how bloomin’ civilised! No wonder people find “sailing” enjoyable 🙂


Arriving at Las Palmas at 0430 was interesting, almost impossible to pick out anything against the backdrop of lights.  The radar picture looked like it does at the Chickens on 1st November, except these boats are ships.  Las Palmas is a busy container port, with all manner of shipping going on, tankers, containers, coasters, drilling platforms, tugs, we got it all here.  We did not have a berth booked in Las Palmas and the skipper had elected to anchor in a small bay to the north of the main port.  Our navigation circumstances weren’t ideal giving the lack of equipment (pilotage notes) on board at this time, so we ended up just holding off the coast waiting for a hint of light to give the confidence to go into the intended anchorage.  Happily I’d done my 2 – 4 watch and was now on snooze on deck (standby) until 0600 and it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference to me whether we were anchored or driving round in circles, I was happy dozing away under the stars.


Which brings us up to this morning, safely anchored everyone had sleepy time this morning (hence my designing a new watch system with more rest – everyone was already knackered from one night of four on four off shifts).  Our skipper took the tender into the marina, he’d been gone about three hours and reckoned it had taken him an hour to get back in the tender! However, he had found us a spot to anchor just outside (literally just outside) Las Palmas marina.  We opt to move the boat and once again I’ve been given the helm.  The anchor had snagged in the rocks a little, but with a bit of persuasion, a spin of the boat and some engine power we popped her free motored round the corner.  It was a massive eye opener to actually see what the radar was showing last night – oh my word there are some boats and ships here!  I’m glad we didn’t attempt getting in here in the dark last night with no guidebook.


Now we have just finished a Sunday roast and I have been through the boat doing another safety check and adding more to the shopping list for the chandlery tomorrow.  Once all items on that list are sourced I am happy that we are all set and ready to go.  All being well, we’ll be on our way across the ocean by tomorrow afternoon.,


The plan is to head to Antigua ultimately, but there is the option of stopping at different Islands in the Caribbean and then island hopping up to Antigua – it all depends where the wind decides to take us.  There isn’t much breeze forecast for our latitude for the rest of this week, but from next weekend the trades seem to be starting to fill further south, so that is the way we’ll be heading.  We are not intending on stopping in the Cape Verde, however if for any reason we need to, it is an option (roughly 6 days sail from here).  Ideally we’ll head down to around 20N and then head west, but we shall see what the journey brings.  So a good trip across the pond for us would be 16 days I reckon, 20 perhaps, 25 would be bad – we have enough food and water for that, but I really don’t like the look of the tinned ravioli, so let’s hope for less than 20 days.


At this point I am satisfied the boat and crew are ready and I am looking forward to adventure.  I’m currently sat on the beach in Las Palmas, there are thousands of boats in the marina here, it really is a sight to behold and nice to know that we’re not going to be too much alone out there.


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Off we go into the wild blue yonder

Back in August I had a winter job to go to with a yacht charter company in the BVI and a thirst for another Atlantic crossing, the last one being 15 years ago.  I signed up to join a catamaran that was bound from La Rochelle to the BVIs and leaving the Canaries in early November.  I had also enrolled on an online celestial navigation course with the intention of using the Atlantic crossing as a qualifying passage for the Yachtmaster Ocean exam.  When I say “using the crossing”, I reasoned with myself that the qualifying distance for the exam was 600 miles, so given 2600 miles of ocean I had four attempts at it and plenty of time to learn it!


Life was good, everything was on an even keel, plans had come together.  But mother nature had other ideas and on 6 September she sent hurricane Irma to smash up the BVIs and the lives, hopes and dreams of so many people across the Caribbean.  


While my winter job ideas were blown away with Irma, I was still committed to the Atlantic trip and I had mentally committed to the Yachtmaster Ocean idea.  Plus, with the boat’s owner offering me work on the boat at the Antigua Yacht Show it seemed like a good option.  At the end of October I left the grey of the more no’therly latitudes and flew to Fuertaventura and found the boat tucked away in a quiet marina in the south of the island.


The boat is a 47ft Fountaine Pajot catamaran, brand new having had its shake-down sail from La Rochelle to Fuertaventura with the owner and the skipper on board.  I arrive to learn that the owner had been taken ill on that trip and will now not be joining the boat for the crossing.  The responsibility had now fallen to the owner’s friend to skipper the boat across.   He is a good guy, but hasn’t sailed the Atlantic so he is pleased to have me on board, I’m pleased to be listened to!  We have two other crewmen, both have some, but not a huge amount of sailing experience.


The boat is very well equipped in terms of comfort, this is certainly the most luxury I have ever sailed in, I even have a window in my cabin so I can watch the waves going by from my bunk.  My bunk is not a bunk, it is a double bed, my cabin is more like a plush hotel room.  I have an en-suite of course, with heads that flush at the press of a button and an actual shower I can stand up in with hot and cold running water.  There is a water maker on board, so there will be no waiting for a big rain to have a shower this time!  


The galley has more mod-cons, fridge and freezer space than we have at home, plus microwave, coffee maker, ice maker and probably more things I haven’t found yet.  


Two Volvo Penta engines a Panda generator, solar panel on the to deck, a large battery bank and 1,000 litres of fuel means we should hopefully have the infinite amount of power we need to run all the domestics.   I include also a washing machine in the domestics, yes we have an actual washing machine on board, so mid Atlantic, 1,000 miles from anywhere I will be doing my washing!


The tender sits on its own platform on a hydraulic ram so the platform drops down to scoop the tender up and you just press a button and hey presto the boat is out of the water, secure and sitting on its cradle.  Neat!  And very James Bond!


Boat is also equipped with radar, chartplotter, autopilot, Iridium Go, so in technology terms we have plenty.  There is also VHF fitted with DSC and about 500 other yachts heading out into the Atlantic at the same time, so there is a good chance someone should be within DSC range a lot of the time.

The boat is however lacking some basic fundamentals…. Luckily I have brought a chart for my astro nav attempt.  But we still need an EPIRP which we can’t buy  in Fuertaventura, so we are bound for Las Palmas to go shopping.  Also on the shopping list are; hand bearing compass, dividers, charts for the Caribbean, cruising guides, barometer and a few other primitive fundamentals!  We are not crossing the ocean until we are properly equipped.  So with those few exceptions we have a well equipped, well prepared boat.