Exam Day

Wednesday morning I cleaned out my cabin, packed my gear and said goodbye to the boat.  I walked back up to the sailing school arriving at 0900, “Come on in, sit down, here is the exam paper, you have 2 hours” the Examiner said to me cheerfully.  “Wow” I thought, this is the first hint of confirmation from another human being  that I might have actually got my head round this! 

I sat down and all my familiar friends were back around me, Almanac, plotter, dividers, plotting sheet.  I felt very comfortable, until I started to work through the paper.  I realised this was the first time I had worked through the calculation process without a pro-forma to copy from.  There was a brief moment of panic, but it was short lived.  My hand just started writing the figures down in the right order.  Of course!  Having done this repeatedly daily for the last month I really had learned it.  The answers flowed quickly, I’d finished with plenty of time to spare and handed the paper over to the Examiner.  

  Next was a oral assessment, which was basically questions and answers about the trip.  How had I organised the watches, provisioning, routing, currents, weather patterns, ongoing maintenance, stores, power considerations etc etc.  The way the trip had panned out couldn’t have been better for me in many respects, since I genuinely had done and could prove all of the above.

   At the end of it the Examiner shook my hand and gave me a sealed envelope to post to the RYA once I got back to the UK.  I had successfully done it, sat and passed the RYA Yachtmaster Ocean exam!!  It turned out that 30 years ago the Examiner had also set off out into the Atlantic with sextant and instruction books and taught himself, thus he was suitably impressed with my efforts.

I had just enough time for a beer with my shipmates before the taxi arrived to take me to the airport.  Skipper was over the moon for me, having seen me drowning in a world of books and numbers, bordering on insanity for weeks. 

And that was that, airport and a couple of planes later I arrive home to a large bunch of flowers, a lit fire and a newly installed electric blanket!  I felt like I had just taken an exam and then had a really long bus journey home, so I insisted we drank Antigua Rum by the fire in the middle of this Thursday afternoon.

The 3 ton library had made it back home, I put my bags down and my thermals on.  

Holed up in port, or out at sea? I sure know where I’d rather be.

A crazy few days occurred in Antigua.  Friday started with a bit of a rum coma and turned in to a slow day.  Speedophobia was setting in, so keeping my eyes closed most of the day seemed a good option. 

I’d make contact with an Antigua based friend who I had sailed a race with in the BVIs last winter.  He’d invited me for a sail with them on the Saturday.  So Saturday was an adventure to Jolly Harbour on the west side of Antigua.  A lift had been arranged for me from outside a sailing school in Falmouth Harbour, so at 0900 on Saturday I had escaped Nelson’s Dockyard and the confines of the last 30 days.  Aaaaaaah, that’s better.  An enjoyable day full of youth, laughter, sailing, guys with shirts on and of course more rum with Team Liquid was just what was needed.

I woke up on Sunday, two things surprised me.  Waking up was one of them, waking up back on my boat was the second.  There was a hazy golf cart memory floating round my head, an unquenchable thirst in my mouth and I was hungry.  

On Monday things started to get a little hectic and I really wasn’t sure what to do next, but I knew I had already had enough of being holed up in port with no work or purpose.  

I had found a Yachtmaster Ocean examiner at sailing school I passed the other day.  There might be the chance for me to sit the exam here, which would save a trip to the UK for the exam.  There was a boat heading to the BVI and looking for crew to get there, leaving on Tuesday afternoon.  To add to this I had been invited to a meeting which could lead to a really good opportunity for work in Antigua, the meeting was also on Tuesday afternoon. 

  What to do?  I had no work guaranteed in the BVI, nor a return ticket, so entering by sea could make things tricky for the boat.  The meeting in Antigua sounded more promising. 

There were other things on my mind too, like the three ton of celestial navigation library that I was carrying round and the Speedos… 30 days of them…  The decider was finding a flight home for £126 leaving on Wednesday.  This was too cheap to miss, cheaper than two more days in Antigua, my eyes agreed.  

So Tuesday I donned my best flip flops and went to a meeting at a resort on the east side of the Island.  My taxi driver insisted on giving me a tour out to Devil’s Bridge at no extra cost, he was enjoying a day out.   

Later that day I delivered all of my celestial navigation notes, charts and logbook to a Yachtmaster Ocean Examiner.  I was to return in the morning and would either be sitting the exam, or getting a couple of hours of tuition, depending on whether he could make head nor tail of my “Learn yerself astro nav course”.  

Day 24. Dolphins at dawn…. Land Ho

My day starts at 0200, I come on deck to find the wind has dropped, we turn the motor on.  It had been raining so it was too wet to sit out on deck and enjoy what is hopefully the last night of stars.  

Skipper is still flapping that we haven’t enough fuel to get there.  I am sure that we have.   There is still more than ¼ of a tank in each (around 250 miles at best estimate) there are only 70 miles to go now.  Ok, so the gauges are up and down because fuel is low and sloshing around, but there is plenty of sloshing and therefore fuel.  All being well we’ll be in later today.  Once we’re a bit closer he should hopefully have the confidence to go with two engines and put the hammers down, my enthusiasm for spending a whole night bobbing around looking at Antigua tomorrow night is nil!

The clock changed again in the night as we passed 060W, which is handy because firstly I got an extra hour in bed and more importantly it buys us another hour to get into Antigua in the daylight.

  There is a lot of low cloud around and on the horizon I can see the unmistakable loom of lights indicating land. Similar to the haze you see over Liverpool and Belfast way some evenings, no one else had spotted it, I guess it must be an island thing.  

On my starboard bow is one hazy light patch and to port another hazy light patch.  My instinct says I’m looking at Antigua to starboard and Guadeloupe to port.  I get the hand bearing compass out and take, what I know is a very very rough fix.  Sure enough 285 mag to Antigua and 240 mag to Guadeloupe, a quick plot of this fix on the chart makes perfect sense and is within 9 miles of GPS.  For a rough rough fix 70 miles out using just the indicators of land it gives an acceptable confirmation of our position for now.

  The dawn creeps in beautifully and I get a star fix with all seven stars the Book gives me, plus Polaris too, so after 24 hours with no sun, I have a good fix for our approach.  I estimate around 50 miles to run, having chosen the furthest west position of the cocked hat, giving me worst case scenario from my fix.  Sure enough the line between my two star fixes runs exactly through my hazy land lights fix too – mighty!  

Then the day (which hadn’t really started yet) got even better. Just before the sun rose we were greeted by a welcome party of dolphins!! There must have been about 20 odd of them, common dolphins I think, small and very playful.  They spend about 5 minutes playing around our bow, leaping out of the water and doing tricks.   I told the lads they were there, but by the time they left the “wheelhouse” the dolphins were gone, to so those guys were just for me – wonderful.

  Burger and chips for tea tonight I hope!!!!!!   Well the morning was rather tense, to tense for sleeping.  The skipper was fretting about fuel, thinking we weren’t going to make it in daylight.  At this speed (one engine at 1600rpm and full sail in 8 knots of breeze giving us the usual 4 knots) we are still pushing it to arrive in daylight.  I am running round shaking reefs out, trimming sails and eeking every fraction of a knot I can get out of her (which is not a lot!).   

At 1015 I get to shout “Land Ho!!” as I see Antigua on the horizon, 30 miles off the starboard bow.  I’m just hoping now that we pick up a bit of sea breeze as we get closer, I’d really like to arrive before the customs office closes at 1700.  Finally, now it is in sight we can start to burn the black smoke a bit, 7 knots and we’re going to make it.  I await phone signal next….

Thoughts of land are making me nervous.  I’ve got butterflies in my stomach and I feel uneasy.  Is it the final pilotage or is it the land itself?  I haven’t really missed it.  People yes, but life on land, no.  That shape on the horizon marks the end to this ship board routine that I have become very much accustomed to.  My celestial companions, my clock, our position will all soon cease to matter.

I go into “harbour mode” and start cleaning out the galley, cupboards, storage spaces.  Partly to burn off this nervous energy and partly thinking the more I do now, the more time I can spend on the beach.

We close on Antigua over the next few hours.  Phone signal is my first contact with the outside world for 24 days and apparently “all is well” out there.  

The approach to English Harbour is fairly straightforward and we are anchored by 1530.  Shirts and shoes on, ship’s papers in hand, we drop the James Bond tender platform and head ashore to clear customs, drink rum and eat burgers.

Staring at me on the wall of the Galley Bar at Nelson’s Dockyard was the Three Legs of Man and the names of shipmates from home written next to it.   I drank rum… quite a lot of rum.  Back at the boat and although it is dark all of those stars are gone, just the brightest making themselves known above the lights of the land.  I wonder when I will see them all again.  I shall miss them.  

Day 23. Stars, showers, speed!

I’m on watch at 0600  and the clouds broke sufficiently for me to get a fix from the stars this morning, much to my relief and the fix looks good on paper.  Within an hour the sky had darkened and the rain had come in – really ridiculously heavy rain, no chance of a sun sight this morning or at noon, so for the final couple of fixes I’m relying on stars at dusk and dawn.

For most of my watch I’d had the hotel shifting at around 8 knots, with 2 reefs and a smallish headsail, it is a nice treat when the squalls come through and the wind blows.  In the biggest downpour we’ve seen yet I get the deckbrush out and give the topsides a wash down, then I have the joyous task of emptying literally gallons of water out of the mainsail stack pack, I basically had to half crouch under it with arms outstretched, put my neck and shoulders under it and stand up to lift the weight of water out of it!  “This could be a Youtube moment” I say to my shipmate, who reaches for his camera.  

Before this unexpected cool shower I was ready to get back into my bed at 0900, but after the soaking I am wide awake, so I set about getting the charts out and looking at an approach plan.  At an averge speed of 7 knots we’ll be there early morning, 6 knots, just after lunch, 5 knots and we’re holding off the coast for the night waiting for daylight.

I get the passage chart for the Caribbean out and note what longitude we will appear on it and then come up with an approach plan for English Harbour, Antigua.    We are now at 17 26’N 59 29’W, the clock will change again in around 30 miles time, soon after we’ll be on off the Atlantic chart and on to the Caribbean chart. I am determined to finish the journey by traditional navigation, as I started it.  I’m also not hugely comfortable with the over reliance on the chartplotter in these parts.  I want to know what I am looking for to use the physical navigation marks on both land and chart.

It doesn’t look like the job at that was promised at yacht show is going to happen, the owner doesn’t seem to have made any arrangements even for a berth at the show.   I’m not sure what will happen in Antigua, but I’ve got a day or two more to not think about the land.

Day 22. The Stars have their own reflections on the ocean

The 0200 – 0600 watch was a bit of treat really, flat calm and we are quietly motoring through the glassy ocean. The lightning had stayed away and the view out here is like nothing I have ever seen before.  There is no Moon and the Atlantic Ocean is so still that the brightest of the stars are leaving their reflections on the sea like fairy lights.      With the naked eye I can see the haze of a galaxy in the constellation of Cancer.  I have never even seen this through a telescope before.  It is just incredible. 

  At 0600 I am waiting for the horizon to come into view with the dawn. I’m ready with sextant, notebook and chronometer to take this morning’s star sights.  Between the clouds and the quickly brightening day it was a bit of a race, I got Arcturus, Spica, Sirius, Alphard (which I’d managed to identify in the night in the constellation of Hydra), Betegeuse and Deneb both disappeared into the clouds before I could get them to the horizon and I wasn’t quick enough to catch Jupiter before she also vanished in the cloud.  Back in my cabin by 0700 and a good fix plotted by 0730.

  As it happened that would be the only fix I could get all day.  When I woke up at around 1100 it was thick cloud and we were shifting under sail!! Yep, the breeze had finally materialised and for the first time on the whole trip I saw 20+ knots true wind.  2500 miles of ocean crossed and all of it in a force 3 or less –  unbelievable.   

The day looked like the Irish Sea (except the ocean was maybe a little bluer), it was cloudy, windy, rainy and looking kind of stormy, a huge contrast to yesterday.  We have nice rolling swell, two reefs in the main and I feel very much at home, finally the sailing is good!  Ok, so we’re not quite pointing at Antigua, our best (lowest) heading was around 225 – 230 true, but we are averaging around 7 knots, touching 8 or 9 on the occasional waves.  A bit of south in our course is doing no harm, since we are at 19 degrees 30N and we need to get down to 16N for Antigua.  To everyone’s relief we are finally over coming our likely fuel deficit and if we keep this up for another 15 hours (which seems unlikely) we will have some reserve in the tanks.  

The other massive bonus of this cloudy rainy day is that it just isn’t the weather for Speedos.  My shipmates are wearing clothes, aaah.

It wasn’t much of day to be out on deck with there being no sun around to keep me occupied in the routine I’ve become used to.  It became a bit of a duvet day with a couple of good books. 

 The extent of today’s navigation effort has been to tot up the log and heading and plot a couple of DRs on the chart.  I hope for a star fix in the morning.  We are now probably 2 days off arriving in Antigua, so not the ideal time to be relying on dead reckoning alone.  (Of course the rest of the crew are using GPS so they don’t share my tension).  We are a boat of extremes really, The Mathematician has set the chartplotter and autopilot so that it could drive us to Antigua without any human input, while I am sitting with sextant and a whole library worth of books.  

Tuna, pasta, pesto for tea and we have on the third attempt nailed cooking pasta a la microwave.

Midnight, we are looking at 225 miles to run and still trucking along at 6 – 8 knots.  Over the course of my evening watch I have managed to get the track down to 240 true and now the miles are dropping more quickly.  

“Something is wrong with the radar” someone said.  I had a quick look at the all green screen and turned the gain down.  A few more tweaks and  now we’re tracking the low squally rain clouds moving around us too.  If the clouds are low enough and holding enough moisture (look really dark) I can pick them up at a range of about 2 miles, so tonight we’ve been watching an episode of The Blob.  

I’m hoping for a decent view of the sky at dawn as I will have been 24 hours on dead reckoning by then and we are getting closer to danger (land) all the time.  I have the sunrise shift in the morning, there will only be hopefully two more sunrises left, but this depends on our average speed. Keep up 6 – 8 knots and that is a Thursday lunch time / afternoon arrival, go any slower and we’ll have to slow down even more and spend one more night at sea so that we arrive in the daylight.  

Day 21. Venus and Jupiter change places, the icing is on the cake

Today started at 0530, I plotted a quick EP to work out my LHA and GHA of Aries (me on the ocean compared to the Sheep on the dish) so I can go on deck and take a dawn star sight.  
I get sights on Arcturus, Spica, Sirius, Betelgeuse, Capella and I just miss Deneb before she vanished into the daylight (partly due to dropping a cup of tea all over the deck, I had to race for the kitchen roll before the boat rolled back to starboard sending tea down the steps and onto the deck below – I was too late!). 

It is too cloudy to see Polaris in the north, but I do see three satellites racing by. They sure shine bright in the early morning light, each one looked almost as big and bright as the ISS.  There was also an enormous falling star (possibly the 3rd biggest I’ve ever seen). 

In the east it is clear are two planets rising in the hazy of the breaking dawn.  The first one up I assume is Venus and the second Jupiter.  I take sights on them both since they are there, although the second one is probably too low in the sky to be useful.  

I have the 0600 to 0900 watch this morning, which is fabulous.  There is not a breath of wind out here this morning and the ocean smells kind of fishy or “ozone” as Dad calls it, that low tide smell at the breakwater, superb!  The sea is like glass, it is a beautiful morning and everyone else is in bed, so there is only me sat here to enjoy it.  Lovely! Thank goodness again for the catamaran and her large fuel tanks.  Luckily the forecast is suggesting 25 knots of breeze for us for the next few days, so hopefully we can sail the rest, if we can get this hotel up to 7 knots we’ll be there in 2 or 3 days….

  As the sun rises I’m sat on the top deck doing my calculations on the sights I’ve just taken.  It turns out that this is the most accurate and beautiful star sight I have taken yet, all the lines cross almost at the same point, giving me a fix that I am totally confident of our position to within 5 miles (the thickness of the pencil cross on the ocean chart).  I love this, star navigation is my new favourite thing.

  For good measure I elect to add the sight reduction from what I had assumed to be Venus, so I go through the calculations and get an answer that doesn’t make sense.  I know my LHA is correct, the star fix has proved that already, I check the GHA for Venus and declination – also correct.  After a few minutes of musing I put the same figures in but this time I use Jupiter instead of Venus and sure enough, the numbers add up.  In the week I have been off watch for dawn Jupiter and Venus have changed places in the sky.  This really is the icing on the cake for this morning’s fix, I really am starting to understand all this.

  Shortly after 0900 a swallow lands on the rail on the port side.  The little guy was ready for a little rest, he must have been flying for some distance to be out here! He stayed with us for almost an hour, it was great watching him having a little clean of his feathers and keep his balance perched on a wire on this rocking boat.  I wanted to make a little bird bath for him, but figured I’d probably scare him off in the process.  Then he was gone, he is definitely winning the race to the Caribbean!

With not a zephyr of wind anywhere it sure was hot out on deck.  I’d not long retreated to the cool of my cabin when I heard loud voices, unusually loud.  I couldn’t work out what was going on, had they spotted or whale? It all sounded rather exciting, I headed for the deck.  The engine was off, the boat moving at less than half a knot.  The sounds I heard were coming from a couple of the crew swimming under the boat between the hulls.  It was the perfect day for it!

  The sea is SOOOOOO blue today and very very very deep (5000m according to the chart).  400 miles away from land, here I am enjoying a cooling swim around the boat, certainly not your average November day!  Pleasant as it was I quickly began to feel like shark bait and was soon back on the boat. 

Out of the sea and straight into a hot shower – ha! This is living 🙂

    The cool of my cabin was the best spot this afternoon.  I definitely have the best cabin, it is almost sound proof, there are no pumps or pipes running through it and being at the bow I get the breeze through three hatches, so it is the coolest place on the boat. 

 I force myself to wake up when I realise I am dreaming about Henry’s whisky!  Damn that bottle of Oban.  Just a wee dram would be such a treat, but I know one wee dram would rapidly lead to another….. And another…. And most likely another.

So I get up and set about working out my EP for this evening’s stars. Twilight and dinner seem to coincide exactly – again, so under pressure I shoot Vega, Fomalhaut, Deneb, and what I believe to be Nunki, but the numbers don’t add up, so I suspect I’ve got this one wrong.  Shooting stars in the evening is much trickier at least at dawn there is time to identify each star from its constellation before the dawn horizon comes in to view, as dusk I am still guessing somewhat.  Vega, Deneb and Fomalhaut I seem to have found, but the others are still a guess, so I don’t hold out much hope for a pretty fix like this morning’s one.  The Moon is also present in the western sky, just showing a sliver of a Cheshire cat smile, I take a sight on the Moon too for good measure, since I am only confident on three of my stars, a position line from the Moon might tidy things up a bit for me.

Now it is 2100, I have one more hour on watch, then up again at 0200 to 0600 and the chance to shoot the dawn twilight stars again. It is so still that Vega is actually putting a reflection on the sea.  

I’ve just seen lightning on our northern horizon, but since there isn’t a breath of wind it should stay away.  I don’t like thunder and lightning and I’m pretty confident that we are the tallest thing here for many many miles…..    

Day 20. Swallows, swells and still no wind

The clouds have cleared and the sun is shining, so today I am back navigating by the Sun and I have a fix which puts me back within 5 miles of GPS. Phew!

There is a whopping 5 knots of breeze, so we have been motor sailing most of the night and all day (and we are still on a beat).  It is another perfect day for scalloping, not for sailing. 

Two swallows flew by this morning, so we must be getting closer.  I suspect they will definitely be there before us!  

There are two opposing swells running which is strange, the larger and longer swell is coming from the north with a smaller, shorter swell from the south.  I suspect the northerly swell is being driven by a big low pressure system somewhere up toward the eastern side of the USA, and there must be another system somewhere south of us driving the other swell. We seem to be sat in the middle of the two, in a massive (1,000 mile) calm patch.  We don’t really want the weather to develop in the south or south west since we are north of the track, but any wind would be better than no wind.  

It is pretty warm out so I’ve spent most of the afternoon in the relative cool of my cabin.  

It being Monday tomorrow the watch pattern rotates again, so I get to sleep from 0000 to 0600 tonight!  Although I will need to be up by 0530 to get a star sight when the horizon becomes visible just before dawn.  This is my least favourite watch pattern, but I do get the sunrises for the final few days of the trip.   At least the distance is dropping more quickly now.  As I write this at 1730 we are almost at the 500 mile point. 

My mind starts to turn toward making landfall and I starting flicking through the charts and cruising guide for the islands.   Antigua should be the first land we see, Guadeloupe is a lot taller than Antigua, but is 45 miles further south.  Monserrat is also pretty tall,  but it is a fairly small island and we shouldn’t be able to see it until on the south side of Antigua.  I have a vague mental picture of what it all looks like, but it is stored somewhere way back in a distant memory.   Another 4 or 5 days to go all being well, then burger and chips, phone calls and wifi 🙂

Dinner is baked beans and corned beef, with the last of the potatoes used in a reasonably successful microwave attempt at chips.  Mighty!  It is my watch now until 2200, it is drizzly again, so I chance another movie night.  Tonight’s choice (and choices on board are pretty limited) was the Seige of Jadotville, which turned out to be another superb film, again based on a true story.      

The Great Conga in the Sky

It has taken me a fortnight to get to grips with sun run sun, Moon and planet sights.  I still have around 800 miles of the trip left to fathom star sights.  I’ve been shying away from this somewhat as the pro-forma given in Mr Cunliffe’s book is basically a page containing seven columns of numbers and it looks like a lot of heavy calculations.

  My Favourite Book gives a list of 57 Stars, the brightest ones, thus they are the most useful to the navigator.  I learn that there are more we could use, but 57 seems like plenty to me.  I had been spoiled in the early part of the trip with a huge full Moon lighting up the horizon for hours.  The horizon is an essential part of sextant operation, through a clever series of sights and mirrors we can look at both a celestial body in the sky and the horizon in the same viewfinder, no horizon – no sights.  On these bright nights I took sights on everything and anything that I recognised, all of them featured on the list of “The 57 Stars”, thus I had assumed that I would be able to deduce my position from any or all of them at any time I could see them.  

  Lesson number one, I need the horizon.  Lesson number two, taking sights on any random stars because you know their names, is not how this works!  It probably is possible,  I think the maths based book I had brought with me has all the right ingredients, but the language of cos, tan, sin, P, Z, X, and other Greek, was not one that I had ever learned or understood.  Throw in the added complication that we are not dealing with ordinary, regular straight edged triangles, no, our triangles have curved edges and this is all too much for my little brain.

  I left the stars alone for a couple of weeks and focused my efforts on the Sun, Moon and planets.  Eventually I return to my best friends Mr Rodgers and Mr Cunliffe, they make a fix from the stars sound so simple and efficient, but the process looks so lengthy.  We must begin somewhere…

  Aries, The First Point in Aries, to be precise, is where we start.  Already this couldn’t be straightforward, The First Point in Aries is just a point in the sky (more accurately a line of longitude on the celestial sphere).  

  Aries…. Longitude…. Celestial sphere…. Confused already?  Yes, me too.  It gets easier when you realise that it is all just painted on a dish and most importantly that dish is spinning around us.  On that dish there are paintings, a sheep, a cow, a giant and his dog, then a unicorn, a pair of twins, a serpent, a lion and more, all locked in an eternal conga across the heavens.

  As the dish spins around us we see the sheep pop its head up over the eastern horizon, over the course of the night the sheep will rise up, pass above our head and then descend in the western sky, the last thing we see is its tail dipping below the western horizon.  The cow follows the sheep, the giant is chasing the cow and the giant’s dog faithfully runs after the giant…. All night…. Every night…. Since long before we were around to observe them.

  Back to the Point of Aries.  The point is this is our sheep.  The sheep passes exactly overhead at Greenwich in London at known (but slightly different) time each day.  The Favourite Book gives us “Sheep o’clock” for every day of the year, so that part is straightforward.  Provided I remember to read the “Sheep” column in the book of numbers, and not the “Sun” or “Moon” or one of the other numerous options given there.

  Now, if I were at Greenwich, at Sheep o’clock, I would go to my new found friend The Stars Epoch book, find the page for my latitude, find the section for Sheep o’clock and the book will give me a list of seven stars.  If I use these seven stars to take my sights I can compare my sights directly to the numbers given in the Stars Epoch and from that I can work out where I am.  Once the correct numbers are there, the mathematical process is along the same lines as for Sun, Moon and Planets.  Seven stars and seven sights looks and sounds like a long and literally numerous task.

  The next consideration is that I am not standing at Greenwich at Sheep o’clock, I am quite a long way west of Greenwich (two time zones different), so the sheep will pass over Greenwich two hours before it passes over me.  After all, they are just pictures painted on a dish, luckily the dish spins at a nice constant speed and the pictures are always the same distance apart.  If I’m standing in Greenwich looking at a sheep over my head, someone in Estonia would be looking directly up at, say, the unicorn.  

  We know for certain that in a particular position, at a precise time the angles between the seven stars and us the observer, would match those angles given in the book.  Essentially from our estimated position we assume we are at a nice round number latitude and longitude that is nice and close to our estimated position.  We work out whether it is sheep, cow, giant, dog, or other o’clock with us and refer to the Stars Epoch book, to find the seven stars to use.  I frequently end up repeating this process, mostly through my own mathematical ineptitude, but practice makes perfect, so they say.  Next step is to go and find those seven stars, then wave the sextant at them, write the numbers down, do the maths and hope for the best.

  Under the brightness of the moonlight, with the horizon visible this is feasible for many hours during the night.  But the full moon soon wanes and the nights get darker and darker as the weeks pass by.  The challenge now is that there are only two very brief times of day where both the stars and the horizon are visible together, the twilight at dawn and at dusk.  Now we need to know whether it will sheep, cow, giant, dog or something else o’clock during the short twilight spells.

  I quickly learn lesson number three, prior preparation is essential before attempting star sights.  Then I come up against lesson number four when I discover that taking star sights at twilight is a constant race against the rising sun or the growing darkness each day.  There is no pause button, the dish keeps on turning.

  I find it easier to take the morning sights.  Once the pre planning is done below deck, I get my head outside into the night while it is still nice a dark and all the stars are out.  There is time to sit on deck, stare at the pictures on the dish that is the sky and find the seven stars listed in the book, for my present time – Lion o’clock.  As the dawn starts to break and the horizon appears it doesn’t take long to get the stars lined up in the sextant, down to the horizon and the numbers recorded quickly.  

  At dusk twilight, things are a little trickier.  I have been through the pre-planning, found which seven stars I should use for my local hour angle (which today is Fish o’clock).  Next  I need to shoot them before I lose the horizon to darkness, the race is on.  

  To make matters more complicated I only know and recognise two of the seven stars and I have no other stars to use as reference, they are not out yet.  The seven listed stars are bright and so should appear first, but of course more than seven appear at the same time.  To solve this the Stars Epoch does give a bearing to each of the seven stars and a very good idea of roughly what angle above the horizon it should be.  So now armed with hand bearing compass, sextant and Star Pocket I search for my stars.

  Vega is the first to show herself in the north west followed by Deneb in Cygnus.  Now for the others I don’t recognise, I manage to find Altair in Alquila and Fomalhaut (not sure which constellation). The weather is now working with the nightfall to thwart my plans and the stars in need in the east are lost in clouds.

  It transpires that the daunting page of several columns of numbers is actually not as daunting as it first appeared.  Having followed the practical instructions of Mr Rodgers this far, I go to the pro-forma given by Mr Cunliffe, and copy his method with my numbers, I begin to see the simplicity of this final part.  We have been through all the complicated bits to reach this point, it is all downhill from here.  With numbers transferred to their corresponding columns, index error, height of eye and corrections all applied we are left with that magic number “Ho” for each star.  The mantra Ho Mo To returns again.  

  The numbers lead a dance and again this mathematical pattern is trying to appear in the periphery of my mind.  I can’t see it and I doubt I ever will, it is far too complex for my little mind.  But I can see when my numbers look right and when they look wrong, dare I say it is starting to make sense.   

  The final step is to draw the results on a Plotting Sheet and unlike Sun navigation which needs around four hours to produce three lines on a sheet, star plotting is a dream.  In one hour the sights are taken, calculated and there on the Plotting Sheet you have a position, with up to seven lines!  Our position is there, staring me in the face, that small triangle where most of the lines cross.  This whole process is super satisfying, I am totally confident that fix I proudly mark on the chart is where we are to within the thickness of a pencil line.

  Occasionally on the Plotting Sheet I have a line which looks a long way off, I accept this human error. The stars all look pretty similar and I am battling the spinning of the dish, clouds and my sextant, with the useless telescope eyepiece removed and having to work the whole thing backwards.  I am not surprised that I lose a star every now and then.  Of course by now it is too dark or too light to go and take another sight, the dish has moved on, so have we, I can only accept the error for what it is and move on too.

Day 19. Sleeping Beauty meets angry bull

Bed at 0600, it is cloudy and rainy outside so I don’t hold out much hope for sun sights today.  I get up at 0900 just to see if the sun was going to appear, but no, so back to sleep until 1100.  The Atlantic looks like the Irish Sea today, cloudy and grey, I feel quite at home. The sun shows herself very briefly at 1102 so I take a morning sight.  At 1210 I catch another fleeting glimpse of her and manage to take a very rough site for latitude, something is better than nothing, but I know today’s fix will not be very accurate.   By 1500 the weather has cleared and I get a decent afternoon sight.   I’ve been working on dead reckoning for over 24 hours now, so my estimated position is not that accurate either.  Using the three sights gives me a big circle of uncertainty, so today I am driving a 20 mile long boat around the Atlantic, which is fine as we are definitely at least 600 miles from any land.   I’m on the 1500 – 1800 watch this afternoon and everything passes uneventfully, although we are now beating towards Antigua, this shouldn’t be so! At least we are now being assisted with the engine when drop below the painful 4 knots under sail alone (which is a lot of the time, we still trust the Mathematician has done his sums right!)  It is too cloudy for a star sight this evening, so we’ll hope the sun is out tomorrow.   Skipper cooks another successful microwave dinner, pasta this evening.  Everything was peaceful, until washing up time and it was then that I discover exactly where my breaking point is…. Sleeping Beauty decides to apologise for his lateness last night,  which turned out to be waving a red flag to and already angry bull.   After nearly three weeks, the nightly “Bomb Squad” routine had finally gotten the better of me.  The tick of the timer struck zero and the bomb went off.

Luckily the nearest neighbours were probably at least a few hundred mile away.   Once again I see my Mum disowning me, my fishermen friends on the other hand, well I can see them cheering from the sidelines.  

And now the tension has gone, in the same way a thunderstorm clears the air after those close muggy days.  

I find myself laughing as I recall a memory from my teenage years…. One morning I was literally petrified, deafened, shocked, stunned and very much forced from sleep, with all my insides shaking.  My dear Stepdad, in possibly his most outstandingly funny moment ever, decided that one long blast from an actual foghorn, straight into the bedroom, was the perfect method of waking a sleeping teenage girl.  I must admit, it probably was.  I laughed again as I caught myself thinking “well, I’ve had it done to me, so it is fair game to do it to someone else…”

 Unfortunately, well…. probably more fortunate really, another shipmate had opted to diffuse the situation. After another beautiful night under the stars, at 0345 I am both amazed and slightly disappointed that Sleeping Beauty is reported to be “awake and standing up”.

Day 18. Mainsail, masthead, microwave meals

All the stars are out and then some!  There is a light haze in the sky which makes the stars look even bigger and closer than they are.  I counted 12 shooting stars in half and hour tonight!  On average if I’ve seen 10 per watch I’ve seen over 300 now, that is more shooting stars than I’ve had cups of tea!

  As I write this it is 0200, the Mathematician has just got up to take over the watch from me, I still have 2 hours left to stay on deck, so I think I’ll grab my duvet, get out of the “wheelhouse” and move to the comfort of the top deck to enjoy the heavens.  Sleeping Beauty actually wakes me up at 0400!!!! I had been fast asleep in deck in duvet, which mean that the Mathematician had had the pain of getting him out of bed, that sure was an unexpected turn of events!

  I was up for my 9am watch, after another sleep of bizarre and crazy, but somehow pertinent dreams.  Shaking myself into reality, I go on deck to find it a perfect day for scalloping, absolutely flatto!  “Don’t worry, you haven’t woken up on the Thames” the skipper says.  There is 8 knots of breeze, but for a change it is on the beam, so we are sailing at around 5 knots in the right direction still and it is a beautiful day.  The sea is ridiculously blue.  

I start the watch taking my morning sun sight, then assume my spot at he helm’s seat in the “wheelhouse” at least here you get a nice draught funnelling through and it is in the shade.  Another three hours of intensive reading as there is not a whole lot to watch for.  We had a couple more flying fish deposit themselves on the deck in the night, so they are rigged up to the fishing lines, it is wonderful that they so willingly jump aboard for us to tow them on a line behind us.

  A couple of minutes before midday I hear the unmistakable sound of the mainsail falling down into the lazy jacks “Bugger!” I say out loud.  Sure enough the halyard is at the top and the sail at the bottom.  The halyard has a double purchase on it and the sail connects to a block with a swivel to a shackle, turns out that the swivel part had sheared, so the shackle had come down with the sail, luckily the block and double purchase system meant we hadn’t lost the halyard down the mast and it was just a case of climbing up to retrieve it.  

Within a matter of minutes I’m in the bosuns chair attached to the spinnaker halyard.  I had thought the process through a little a tied a long line to the bosuns chair in case I needed to be pulled down.  (Last time I’d only climbed up as far as the first spreaders and there is so much friction in the systems that I was nearly climbing down again, I’d worried that the weight of rope in the mast coupled with the friction would be enough to hold me up there and that I might not be heavy enough to get back down).  

I start climbing, about two thirds of the way up I have to stop looking up.  Most people will say it is looking down that scares them, for me looking up is more scary, looking up you can see how much the masthead is swinging around – even on this perfect scalloping day, looking down the whole platform looks a bit more stable.  Deep breath and keep climbing.  The kite halyard runs through a block just above the forestay, which is a 7/8ths rig, so it won’t get me all the way to the top.  My options are free climb up with not much to grab on to, or have the boat hook sent up to me on the additional “down” line.  Of course I choose option 2.  

I am now as close to the top as I can get, hanging on with one hand on the shroud, the other foot wrapped around the other shroud, so with me free hand and my teeth I pull the line and boat hook up to me.  Letting go with the other hand was not really an option , just too much swinging going on up there.  The boat hook is exactly the perfect length for me to reach the block at a stretch, it couldn’t have been any shorter!  Block and halyard pulled down to me there is one car in the mast track for the head of the sail, so I tie a small thin line between this and the bosun’s chair and send the boat hook and the “down” line back to the deck, basically I just dropped it all.  Ok, job done, time for a couple of photos and a cheeky masthead selfie and I am ready to get back down.  

Down is fine while there is slack in the main halyard, as soon as I overtake that slack my weight transfers off the kite halyard and on to the thin line connecting me to the main halyard.  This makes the whole experience rather more scary as for a few moments each time this happens I feel like I am just free hanging there, once the main slack is pulled through and my weight is back on the kite halyard again everything is more comfortable.  These total fear moments happen a few times on the way down, but I am back on the deck again, over heating, slightly traumatised and a little bit battered and bruised – again!  My work here is done and within 30 minutes of the sail coming down we have it back up again.

  I sit in the shade on the transom step with my feet in the sea trying to get my body temperature back down when a huge fish (probably Mahi Mahi?) leaps out of the water – there must have been something big chasing it!  Which makes me think of Jaws, I take my feet out of the sea.

  In the calmer sea state we can now see Sargassum seaweed, this is a good sign that we are approaching the western side of the pond and the Sargasso Sea.  I forget what creature lays its eggs in the Sargassum – eels maybe?    There is also another long tailed tern flying about, a good indication that we are still not close to land.

  I catch a few zeds in the afternoon and having missed my noon sight due to being up the rig there is little point in an afternoon sight, so astro nav duties are put on hold in hope of a star fix at dusk instead. 

  Then we reach a low point on the trip.  While I was sleeping we had apparently caught a huge fish on my little hand trolling line, Skipper has wrestled it as close to the boat as he could, but the line snapped and it got away.  The same thing happened on the other line just after sunset, another fail to land, we got him right up to the boat, but this guy had obviously seen Finding Nemo and knew to “swim down”, he escaped too.  Both these fish have taken the last of our hooks and lures, so if we start starving I’ll have to come up with a recipe for flying fish, since these guys are kind enough to volunteer themselves on to the deck with no fishing tackle required.

  “It doesn’t rain it pours”, the next downer was the realisation that we have run out of gas for cooking.  I find Skipper in the galley trying to get the hob lit “what is wrong with this thing” he is saying, “have we used all the gas?” I ask…. He checks…. Erm…. yes we have.  So even if we were to catch more fish (which we now can’t) we’d only have been able to freeze or microwave them anyway.

  Luckily we do have a microwave, so the next challenge is a microwave menu plan.  We have another 5 or 6 days to run to Antigua (all being well).  The tinned ravioli is getting closer… 

There is very little wind, we are motorsailing again.  730 odd miles to go and the fuel tanks are just above half full – it is going to be a very close call.  The Mathematician reckons we have 150 hours of fuel remaining at 1600 rpm, on one engine at a time.  150 hours is 5 days, with no wind this damn shed will make just over 4 knots under one motor alone.  At 4 knots were are 7 days away, at 5  knots we are 6 to 7 days away, at 7 knots we’ll be there in 4 days.  This tight and slightly unknown educated / calculated guess is a cause for some concern.  The weather  files suggest that we have nothing but doldrums between here and Antigua for the next five days.  I don’t want to eat the ravioli and the bottle of Oban I have bought for Henry in the BVI (if I make it to there) is starting to look very tempting….  Morale has dropped, I am tired after today as well which doesn’t help.

  Just before sunset we are approaching a huge cloud bank on the western horizon.   It doesn’t look too threatening from the tops of the clouds, mostly all stratos, no mountains or anvils reaching high aloft.  But at the southern end there is a really defined sharp edged cloud touching the horizon, it is so well defined it looks like land under the clouds.  I don’t like the look of it, however it should pass to the north of us, to be sure we alter course and put a little bit more south in the route to try and dodge it.  I keep watching it, slowly I can start to see the red post sunset horizon appear below it and it seems to be dissipating, phew!  I had just got my star plan ready for taking my sights at 1810, but alas, by 1800 we are under the thick clouds and there are no stars to be had.  It looks like we’ll have to go for a dawn star sight and then sun tomorrow.  Today’s estimated position on my chart is just a pure dead reckoning.

  Our skipper has cooked up a successful meal a la microwave and for pudding he’d made Angel Delight!! Yep, chocolate Angel Delight, made with orange juice, so it is like Terry’s Chocolate Orange mousse, mmmmmmmmm. It is like a trip back to childhood in the 80s. Morale has instantly improved.

  Now I’m on my 2000 – 0000 watch, we are still covered in the thick clouds, it is warm and muggy, and really really really dark!!  So dark you can hardly see the front of the boat!  The only light offered anywhere is that from the phosphorescence.  Things are looking up a little, the electric coffee machine also makes tea and as I write this sentence I have just been handed a cuppa – aaahhh.  

And of course we are now getting closer and closer to Antigua.  Today I am ready for it, yesterday I could have stayed out here for a few more years, but today land, burger, chips, a phone call home, wifi and a bar are all very very appealing.  It is now 2200 and this is now officially the longest I have been at sea for – ever.  Muc Maun and the Doldrums – a recipe for a painful few days, a few minutes ago we were motor sailing at 6 knots, now we’re back down to 4, head sail furled because the wind is on the nose.  Thank goodness we have a catamaran, all the gadgets and a large fuel capacity, I hope we’ve got the fuel sums right.  Had we had fewer gadgets and a spinnaker instead we would probably have been just about arriving there now still cooking on gas??  C’est la vie as my Breton skipper friend would say.

  0000, well 0008 actually I am supposed to be off watch, but Sleeping Beauty has not surfaced, I am furious. This time the usual rude yelling routine is unrepeatable here… My mother would probably disown me.