Day 3, Batteries, spreaders, dolphins

It is 0000 on 2 November, I have the 0000 to 0400 watch.  It was quite a chilly night, at least chilly enough for a jumper and a duvet while I lay in the comfort of the cushions on the top deck, staring at the moon and the stars, I’m in heaven.

 And to top things off I treat my fellow crewman to jam on toast, Juan’s home made Manx blackberry jam.  My American crewman was delighted (apparently blackberries were expensive in the US when he was a boy), “but the grow everywhere for free” I exclaimed, explaining that these weren’t shop bought, but hand picked.  Apparently the jam is so good that I’m worth throwing overboard for, I’d best watch out!


It was shortly after the jam treat that the autopilot started complaining about low ship battery, to be honest i was surprised it had taken this long to register.  Sure enough we’re down to 11.4V on main battery bank, we fire the generator up, the alarms stop.  Our skipper wakes up after a while of the genny running, wondering why we have it on and how could it be we are using so much power?


I’m off watch at 0400, but I’m still awake and alert and thinking about our power situation.  We are running a lot of domestic systems, plus autopilot, radar, chartplotter, but we have a huge battery bank, so something seems amiss.  The worry is that everything on this boat needs power, you can’t even pump the heads out manually, the worst case scenario is not a pleasant one, but I guess it is more like the kind of sailing I am used to!  It is a worry for the daylight tomorrow.


The next thing on my utterly sleepless mind, is the noon sight I took today.  I was 2 degrees out (doesn’t sound like a lot but it equates to 120 miles in real terms).  I rework the sums again, then I rework it with different numbers to see if I can get us closer to our actual position.  In the end I do the whole thing backwards from my known lat off the GPS to work out what I should have had as the sextant reading.  The problem all along had been the accuracy of my sight in the first place, but this is a big learning curve and we can only aim to improve.

I doze restlessly until I’m back on watch at 0900 for three pleasant uneventful hours, we’re plodding along averaging 5 knots, it isn’t very windy and is dropping, the sea is calm in relative terms.  

This morning watch also saw the start of the fishing competition.  Who is going to catch that illusive tuna?  Our skipper has got an actual rod mounted on the starboard side down aft and is using some kind of squid lure, I’m on a hand line which is lashed on to the port side, I’m using the bad boy big silver lures that Juan sent me off with, I reckon my chances are better, but it is going to be a long game this one 🙂


The next part of my daily ritual is to work out the time of the sun’s meridian passage for our longitude. I estimate today it will be around 1158 (ship time).  So, I finish my watch poised on the foredeck, sextant in hand to try again for a noon sight.  I think this time my sextant altitude is closer than yesterday’s efforts, but we’ll have to wait until later to do the sums, something more pressing has come up.


One of our crew points to a very definite hole in the mainsail where it has been sitting on the lower spreaders.  This boat is advertised as being an ocean cruiser, surely on an ocean cruiser you would at least reinforce the sail with spreader patches? Apparently not.  So, I am not getting off watch to catch up on sleep.

 Nope, I’m climbing into bosun’s chair on, armed with knife, gaffer tape, rope and a couple of towels to put some chafe preventers on the shrouds.  Luckily it is about as calm as the Atlantic gets, but unlike a monohull there is no constant heel angle.  I climb up the shroud (easier to grip and climb that than the big fat mast), the spreaders are too long for me to be able to wedge myself in between the mast and the shroud, so I’m trying to stop myself swinging in circles around the rigging which is tricky.  

The main halyard has a double purchase system, so there is a turning block shackled to the harness which is a massive pain in ass (or arms) as it kept pinching my skin between the block and spreader or rigging as I’m trying to hang on and keep steady with my feet and legs on the shroud and an arm over the spreader so I can work.  After an hour both spreader ends are well and truly padded out with towels and a shit load of gaffer tape.  All of this is the heat of the midday sun, at least it was calm.  Mainsail is back up and we are away again.


I’d worked up an appetite after all that hanging around so I served up lunch, the usual cheese, cold meats, tuna mayo, tomatoes and bread etc.  Man I was hungry, two sandwiches, left-over pasta salad, cheese and apple!  


After all that exercise and food I am too alert to sleep for the afternoon, so I set about looking at today’s noon sight.  This time I am within 20 miles of our GPS position, which on the large scale charts looks like almost no difference.  YES! I am happier with this one, although I am still a long way off, but hopefully, with more practice my accuracy should improve.

Then I hear shouting from on deck, I thought someone had caught a fish, but no, we have dolphins!!!! Loads of them all stopping to play in our bow waves for a good five minutes.  It was incredible, lying on the bow of the catamaran watching the dolphins around the bow and under the trampoline, the water is so blue and so clear, just beautiful.  I am so lucky to see this, I am watching Blue Planet for real 🙂


Yet more novelty for the afternoon as we put the washing machine into use at sea for the first time, by sunset I have clean and dry laundry!!


So the day was just too busy to catch up on any sleep.  As I write this I’m on the 2000 – 0000 watch, I’m sat on deck under a nearly full really bright moon, you could almost read a book out here it is so light, too light for the stars to be out and there is a full moon bow glowing around the moon above the masthead.  I’ve just finished watching the final episode of Game of Thrones whilst sat on deck under the moonlight (yet more novelty).  

It is 2340, I’d best go a wake our German crewman up now if I want to get off watch on time, he doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept of setting an alarm and being on deck early, I won’t be putting the kettle on for him.  Then I’m off to bed until 0400, so I will see the sunrise in the morning, and maybe have another go at getting some star sights with the sextant (really really really tricky with the plastic sextant I have, but I’ll persevere) provided the clouds allow me to opportunity to do so.


As I write up the 0000 log entry I realised we are yet another whole degree further south… getting warmer!  24N now, another 4 degrees before the final turn to the west, maybe another gybe south tomorrow could be in order?  At the moment we are cutting the Cape Verde corner, not much wind about anywhere it would seem, we’ll decide based on tomorrow’s weather download.

Noon is not at noon

It turns out that during the day a sailor has only one real chance at confirming the ship’s latitude, this happens at noon each day.  When the Sun is at her highest point in the sky we can take our sextant, measure the angle between the Sun and the horizon and after applying some maths we can calculate our latitude.  


It also turns out that noon is not at noon, so already the whole affair becomes a little more complicated. This is where my new favourite book to be, The Admiralty Almanac, shows me exactly why it carries the hefty price tag, all the answers are in this book, I’ve just got to decode it.  Mr Rodgers and Mr Cunliffe provide sufficient guidance and I’m away.  Even standing still the time of noon varies by up to 16 minutes away from clock noon over the course of a year, because of something called the Equation of Time.  


The beauty of the navigation side to this is that you don’t need to know why this is, one simply needs to know where to look in the new Favourite Book.  Today noon is actually at 1144 if you’re standing on the Greenwich Meridian, which of course we are not. .  So… I know the Sun will pass over Greenwich in London at 1144, from my dead reckoning position I have an idea of how far west we are, so the Sun will pass over my head some time after 1144.  I can now refer to the favourite book and estimate what time the Sun should reach her highest as she passes over my head (or my meridian on the globe if you prefer).  


Then it is off out on deck in the heat of the midday sun, armed with sextant, watch, notebook and pencil.  First thing, check and write down that sextant error bit, once that is done it is time to start watching the world spin round using a small telescope and a couple of mirrors.  I am on deck 20 minutes before I expect my local noon to happen (since mine is only approximate based on my estimated position), and so I measure and watch as the sun stops rising in the sky, now she seems to steady on the horizon for a few minutes before she begins her slow descent toward the western horizon.  And that is it, it is all over, we have our time and measurement taken with the sextant written down and it is time to get back into the shade.


Now I am getting more acquainted with my new Favourite Book, it will help me do a handful of calculations to (hopefully) ascertain our latitude at noon.  Two important things happen here.  First off the world tilts on its north south axis, hence we get longer days and the sun higher in the sky during the summer and now, in the winter our days are short and the sun is low in the sky.  In the celestial navigation world this is called declination. And that, is more than we need to know about it, we’ve just got to ask the Favourite Book for the answer.  We do however have to ask it the right questions, mostly “what time is it at Greenwich” and “what time is it with me here and now”, the book reveals differences between the two that we must take into account to find our precise declination.  Then a very quick sum and we have our latitude.


At this point I don’t think it is cheating to now check our noon position according to the GPS to see if I am close or not.   In a beginners kind of way I probably am close, on the scale of the ocean chart it looks close, but for the first three days my noon sights were not accurate enough.  


I continued this process like a devoted student, on day three I realise the error I have is a consistent one, so this time I take the noon latitude from the GPS and do the maths backwards to work out my errors.  Operator error and operator understanding are definitely the cause, looking at the sextant instructions on or before day one would have been an idea too.  So with errors found and corrected and corrections applied to the previous sights too, my latitudes are now acceptably close to our GPS track and I am starting feel that the task I have set myself might still be achievable..  

Day 2. Wind, waves, spin, sway

It is midday on 1st Nov, our second day on the ocean and I have just had another attempt at a noon sight.  We have been averaging 6 – 8 knots so far, although our heading is closer to south than south west, since with our swept back rig and total absence of any kind of useful downwind sail, sailing any lower is painfully slow.

However, in many respects, catamaran sailing really is living! We have more luxuries than I have at home including hot running water on demand, shower, gas oven, hob, freezer, big fridge and another drinks fridge on the aft deck, (well, I call it “deck” but conservatory might be more a fitting description) and of course we have the washing machine.

The motion on the cat is considerably more comfortable than a monohull. Where, by now a monohull would be rolling side to side, the catamaran seems to work across the diagonal axis of the two hulls, when one bow is down the other is up and vice versa at the stern. The marvellous outcomes being that I can stand up in the shower without bracing myself against anything, I can use the heads without fear of incident, I can lie in bed without rolling out – no lee-cloths required and best of all, I can put my mug down on the table without any concern for it falling off or even spilling much of a drop. Oh yes, this is living it up on the ocean for me.

The highlight of our second day on the ocean came shortly after midday, when, having had enough of seeing Africa getting closer to us, we elected to gybe and take a stab west. The result was a more acceptable heading for the Caribbean, but the loss of a knot of boat speed which was the difference between sailing west and northwest! There is valid concern at a distinct lack of wind forecast for the next few days too, it looks like 5 knots might become the norm.  Living maybe, but sailing, I’m not so sure.


We are all quietly settling into our new ship life as the daily routine starts to rotate around the ship’s watch pattern.  At the same time I am finding a second pattern which is dictated by the Sun, Moon,twilight, dawn and dusk as the Earth carries on spinning her way through time and space.  I sit here watching her constant rotation, watching her slow wobble through the seasons. 

Once again my mind explodes at the vastness of it all…. And who figured all this out…. and how did they do it…How?  The enormity and complexity of it all brings as many questions as it does answers.  I find a certain peace and sense of purpose in my routine and studies, it fascinates me on so many levels and to think that this view is just the same view as all the great navigators gone before, it hasn’t changed.  I think an old sailor spirit lives in me somewhere.