Saturday 13 October 2012


It is 9.30 pm and I am sitting alone on watch in the cockpit. Everyone else is asleep or reading in their bunks down below. We are 50 miles off the Coast of Morocco, well into the Atlantic, and I can feel the long Atlantic swell lift us gently and then lower us back into the inky sea. We are motor sailing again because the wind has died down and we are making good progress with a little assistance from the current which is setting to the West.   When I switch off my head torch to do a 360 degree scan of the horizon, I can make out a faint red glow over the African coast but above me the sky is black and alive with stars.

The plough is just above the horizon pointing up to the North Star which always seems so weak and insignificant given its importance to navigators over the centuries. I am in the shelter of the spray hood sitting on comfortable cushions in the glow of the cockpit plotter where I monitor the traffic moving up and down the African coast. Now that we are clear of Gibraltar there are far fewer ships, so I have little to do other than stare up at the heavens and write about our start early this morning.

The alarm goes off at 6 and we prepare for our departure in the dark. We are under strict instructions from Fatty to eat breakfast before we leave so Paul and Rosie prepare scrambled eggs and toast while Oxie and I secure the dinghy.  It is pitch black and very still as we leave the marina and weave our way through the tankers anchored in the harbour, all waiting to be refuelled.  Our plan is to carry the ebbing tide west out of the straights and to stay north of the busy shipping lanes until we reach the point of Tarifa before we start south west towards our first waypoint off the African coast. The straights are only around 8 miles wide between Gibraltar and Morocco and being the Eastern entry into the Mediterranean, large numbers of ships ply through this narrow strip of water carrying trade into Southern Europe and on through the Suez Canal to the Far East.  The westerly wind has been blowing for several days and there is a swell rolling into the harbour. As we clear the headland, dawn begins to break and within minutes it has blossomed into crimson petals which spread across the Eastern sky becoming more vivid and intense until the sun eases itself over the horizon and burns away the dawn. A pod of young dolphins play in our bow wave like high spirited children, pushing and bumping each other with occasional leaps clear of the water and we feel this bodes well for our passage.

By now the traffic in the straights is starting to build and we pick up a long line of vessels tracking west along the northern side of the straights out into the Atlantic while the eastbound ships follow the southern lane along the African Coast.   For the first two hours we are punching a foul tide which slows our progress but then the tide turns and carries us west out of the straights and into the Atlantic. As the sun rises in the sky it warms the morning air and we have our first cappuccino in the cockpit. By 9am the tide is starting to carry us north so we begin the process of crossing the shipping lanes. The trick here is to just clip the stern of a passing tanker and then nip across the lane before the next one is upon is.  Then we are into the traffic separation zone which splits the two lanes where we pause for breath and then once more we pick our moment and dash across the lane between two behemoths and into the safety of open water beyond.

After a lazy afternoon catching up on sleep, we enjoy our first happy hour in the cockpit this evening in glorious sunshine and Kim serves up the first of Fatty’s delicious meals which she had painstakingly prepared for us in Gibraltar.  With supper over and darkness fallen, all is quiet on deck and I am on watch until midnight when I hand over to Kim who will handover to Paul until 6am when Steven will do the dawn patrol. Tomorrow we hope to pick up the trade winds and head further south towards the Canaries which are 8 degrees south of Gibraltar, the equivalent of about 500 miles.

It has been a glorious Sunday afternoon in the Atlantic. Imagine a circle with a diameter of 12 miles with Juno in the middle – that’s our little world. We can see around 6 miles to the horizon all around us and there is simply nothing there other than some white clouds which drift past and long Atlantic waves which roll past on their way from Biscay down to Casablanca on the coast of Africa, 100 miles to the East. The chart plotter shows four other vessels but they are well out of sight over the horizon. The light is sharp and bright as it reflects off the sea and I am sitting in the shade of the spray hood. Steven is asleep in the cockpit, Kim is reading and Paul is making tea.
We are sailing southwest on a direct course to Lanzarote, having now cleared the African coast. After motoring all night the wind briefly picked up at 9 this morning and we were sailing at last, on a broad reach at 8.5 knots in 15 knots of wind; but then alas it started to die away again. Determined to continue sailing we decided to hoist the spinnaker. The spinnaker is a beast to handle because unlike the other sails on the boat, it is loose luffed; this means that it is only attached to the boat my means of ropes, so to make things easier it packs away in a long nylon sausage-shaped bag known as a sock with a wide collar at the top called a snuffer. It is so called because rather like the weapon I used as an altar boy to snuff out candles after mass, it snuffs out the power of the sail until it is hoisted to the top of the mast. When the snuffer line is released the sail is drawn out of the sock, pushing the snuffer and sock to the top of the mast and the bright red nylon beast bursts out of captivity, snatching at its lines. This is our first spinnaker hoist and it takes us a while to organise ourselves with tack lines, sheets, halliards and snuffer but eventually the sail is flying and it makes a great sight, bright red against the blue sky. Unfortunately the wind drops away even more and the Atlantic rollers rock the boat, disturbing the air flow over the sail and it keeps collapsing, then in a light gust of wind it cracks open with the sound of a gunshot. This is all too stressful so we pull on the snuffer line and the sock slips down around the sail, taming the beast so that we can lower it to the deck and pack it into its smart new grey bag on the foredeck.

During the spinnaker hoist we discover that one of the winches isn’t working properly so after lunch we settle down to try and fix the problem. I have a pretty good idea of what is wrong so I disassemble the winch with Pauls help and sure enough, one of the pawls is sticking, allowing the winch drum to run free under load rather than locking in position. A Lewmar 58 self-tailing winch has 44 moving parts and the only reason that I am happy to tackle this repair at sea is because I spent two days over the winter in Palma, servicing all nine winches with Rory's help, disassembling and washing each part in alcohol before re-greasing and reassembling.  The reason the pawls are sticking is because one of the tiny springs which holds the pawl open has broken. I replace the spring and with Pauls help we clean and re-grease the spindles, the cogs and the bearing races and then we reassemble the gears and fit the heavy drum back in position. The winch runs smoothly with a satisfying heavy metallic clunk, confirming that the pawls are now locking in position. It seems curious that one tiny spring costing just 20p can cause a heavy steel winch to fail.

With the jobs done, we take it in turns to retire to our cabins for an afternoon sleep before the night watches begin. By mid-afternoon everyone is feeling relaxed and rested and the mood on the boat is buoyant. The weather is glorious, the sea state is benign and we feel that ever since we left Gibraltar, with dolphins playing effortlessly in our bow wave, we have enjoyed an easy journey. We eat Fatty’s chilli in the cockpit and watch the sun slide down over the Western horizon. Tomorrow the wind is forecasted to increase as the trades fill from the North so we settle down to another calm night, motor sailing under a starry sky.

It is now 2 am on Monday morning and I am on watch. The sky is again ablaze with stars and I recognise Orion’s Belt low on the Eastern horizon. The chart plotter shows the only vessel within 100 mile of us is the Beatriz B, an 800 foot tanker travelling at 11 knots on its way to New York, its light signature of two white lights and one green light confirms that it is moving away to the North.  Our navigation lights cast a red and green glow on the sea and as our bows break the waves, showers of phosphorescence sparkle on the surface of the water. Our trusty diesel engine rumbles away quietly in the background and I am glad that we topped up the tanks in Gibraltar.  It is 43 hours since we left Gibraltar and in that time we have covered 300 nautical miles, averaging 7 knots.  We are almost exactly half way with 280 miles to run. Our ETA in Lanzarote at our current speed is Tuesday evening, maybe sooner if the trade winds blow.

We woke this morning to 15 knots of wind and at last we are able to set our sails and turn off the engine. Setting up the spinnaker pole to hold out the genoa is a complex and time consuming task and it requires all four of us on deck. Oxie and I go on the foredeck to manhandle the pole and Paul and Rosie stay in the cockpit handling the lines. We unclip the heavy aluminium pole from the mast and I attach the lines while Kim adjusts the height of the pole. Meanwhile Paul and Steven are keeping tension on all the lines so that we don’t lose control of the pole as it is winched up and out.  Once in position we unfurl the big genoa and as it fills with wind the boat speed starts to build.

10.5, 10.7, 10.9, 11 Knots! The digital speedometer counts up the speed as we surge down waves of bright blue water crested with brilliant white surf under the bright African sun.  Big rollers travelling at 20 knots barge past us on our starboard quarter and push our stern out of their path as they rumble  beneath us rushing towards their unknown destination.  Once the wave goes by, we slide down into the trough and a huge bow wave of white water surges around us as Juno gathers herself for the next shove. Occasionally a big gust hits us on the crest of a wave and the combined energy of wind and water lifts Juno with all her 35 tons and she surfs down the wave at speed. Our mainsail is sheeted out to starboard and our big genoa is poled out to port giving us a goose wing sail plan harnessing maximum power from the 25 knot winds which have been building all morning. There is a high pressure system over the Azores and a low over North Africa and these two vortices of wind are funnelling their combined power down the coast of Africa and straight at Juno. We are firmly in the trade winds and it is exhilarating sailing.

As the afternoon wears on the winds get stronger and the sea gets bigger.  The auto pilot does its best to steer in these conditions but it can’t anticipate the waves charging up behind us, so we hand steer to try and smooth our track and by using the rudder less, we increase our boat speed. We soon discover that Kim is a natural helmsman and his misspent youth surfing on the beach in Sydney makes it instinctive for him to head up in the lulls to build speed and then bear off and accelerate down the waves. By late afternoon Kim is on the helm and the wind is gusting 30 knots. Juno is surging down the face of a big wave when a strong gust comes through and we ride the wave accelerating faster and faster until the speedo hits 15.2 knots. A 35 ton cruising boat doing 15 knots in big seas is a thrilling ride and we all have huge grins on our faces as Juno settles in the trough of the wave and white water surges around us, gurgling through the deck drains.
We continue sailing fast all evening and because of the boisterous conditions we double up our watches, with me and Kim on watch until 1am when the wind is predicted to be at its strongest, and Paul and Steven from 1am to 5am.  As dark falls we reef the main and the genoa and we continue to hand steer but it becomes harder as the wind continues to build and we can’t see the waves in the falling light. By now the wind is constantly above 30 knots and we furl away the main and continue with just a reefed genoa. We are still charging through the night at 10 knots but Juno feels steady as a rock although the big Atlantic waves roll us around in our bunks as they push us South toward Lanzarote.The strong winds continue throughout the night and when dawn breaks we estimate that the biggest waves are five metres high from crest to trough, and the sight of them charging up behind us makes us glad to be on a powerful yacht which seems to relish these conditions.

It is now 4pm local time on Tuesday and we are now only 30 miles from our destination. We furl away our downwind rig, stow the spinnaker pole, set full main and genoa on a beam reach and power in at 10 knots towards Puerto Calera on Lanzarote.  ETA is 8pm, 4 hours from now and as i sign off i hear Paul and Steven shouting that they have just sighted land. The wind has dropped, the sea is calmer in the lee of the island and we have a glorious evening sail towards the setting sun and our destination of Puerto Calero.We have had  a great trip in some quite testing conditions and both boat and crew have performed amazingly. It bodes well for the ARC when our fifth crew member Andrew, will add to the team.

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