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.

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.