Wednesday 11 December 2019

All bets are off

Black cats crossing one's path are supposed to be a sign of good luck. Not so with ETA, who has caused nothing but trouble ever since she scrambled onto our decks, tempting us with rum punches, steel drums and flights home.

We have drinks on the foredeck admiring the setting sun, the distinctive
guitar riffs of Pink Floyd evoking memories in each of us. Andrew sits
cross-legged, his beard and beatific smile lending him the aura of a
Buddhist monk, although the can of beer in his hand rather undermines his
pious appearance. Not to be outdone, Nick also attempts the yoga position
but isn't as supple as Jeeves, and topples onto his back, stranded like an
upended turtle. A discussion ensues about the importance of staying
flexible as we grow older, and we all agree vehemently; and then return to
our drinks. Peanuts eaten, beers drunk, we retire to the cockpit for
Mervyn's Caribbean fish curry with apple crumble and custard for pudding.

Rosie wakes me up as usual for my 3am watch. It is a clear night with only
a few clouds on the Eastern horizon, and as he completes his handover the
wind has filled and Hera is sailing fast again at between 9 and 11 knots.
I begin to think that my ETA of 9:18 pm local time on Wednesday is looking
good, when Jan comes in with an email bid of 9:24 and I think that might
be the winner. The next message is from Caroline; unable to sleep, she
emails me at 2am from our bedroom on the Isle of Wight with her bid, also
by a huge coincidence, 9:24. Clearly great minds think alike. And then it
all goes wrong.

The wind has been increasing slowly to around 25 knots, ideal conditions
for our twin headsail configuration, the boat steady and pointing dead
downwind towards St Lucia. There is the beginning of a squall developing,
spreading organically across the radar screen, but well north of our
position and as the wind increases further I hold my nerve and wait for it
to pass. However, rather than fading, the wind builds rapidly, 30 knots
then 35, and as I race below for help to reef the sail, I see the
anemometer touch 41 knots; that's a Force 9 thunder storm. Hera is flying,
far too fast for these conditions, 17, 18 knots and no sign of the wind
abating. Mervyn joins me in the cockpit and we start to reef, but by the
time we get the genoa furler set up there is a bang and I look up to see
that the genoa is flogging in the wind, wrinkles all the way down the
luff, a sure sign that the halyard has gone. We continue to reef the sail,
furling it away completely, until we are left standing in the cockpit, our
little white staysail flapping in the moonlight, surrendering to the

Eventually the huge squall wanders off in search of new prey to terrorise
and the wind dies down. Our boat speed drops to 5 knots and ETA recedes
slowly into the distant future. All week we have enjoyed watching other
catamarans sailing the angles, gybing back and forth with their mainsails,
falling further behind, while we sail direct to the waypoint, dead
downwind with our twin headsails. However with our genoa furled away and
unusable, we now have to do the same. Mervyn and I set about hoisting the
mainsail in the dark, in a big following sea, and as I point Hera up to
wind, a huge wave breaks against the beam, soaking me in warm salty water.
This makes me crosser than anything else and as I hand over the watch to
Mervyn, I dry myself with a towel and fall into my bunk, instantly asleep.

As everyone emerges from their cabins in the morning, looking for cups of
tea and hoping for breakfast, the story of the night's drama is recounted,
no embellishments necessary. During the night we had triple reefed the
mainsail, reducing its power as much as possible, but now with daybreak
and a full crew we shake out a reef, increasing the size and power of the
sail and I sit down to think about our course over a cup of tea.

It feels as if this trip has been a catalogue of equipment failures, and
that troubles me. In fact all the issues have come down to the genoa. The
reason that the bowsprit fitting failed is because of insufficient
forestay tension. When the rig was set up, the two wire stays that adjust
the angle of the bowsprit, and therefore the forestay tension, were cut
too long and the rigging screws were fully wound up, not allowing for any
further adjustment. This is easily rectified and we will do this in
Antigua but it is definitely the root cause of all the problems. When I go
onto the foredeck to recover the genoa halyard, I find to my dismay that
the halyard hasn't chafed through as I originally thought; rather, the
splice has failed. When a fitting such as a shackle is attached to the end
of a halyard, it is spliced onto the line, primarily because a splice is
30% stronger than a knot. However the key to a good splice is using a
sufficient length of core to give it strength, and then a whipping at the
throat to prevent it moving if the sail flogs. Our halyard has none of
these. This is the issue with buying a second hand boat and not knowing
its provenance. It makes me think that I have to replace all these lines
before heading for the Pacific.

Yesterday evening as we are having supper in the cockpit, with a starter
of tuna sashimi, a booby flies overhead, circling the boat, getting closer
with each swoop, seemingly trying to find a place to land. Andrew holds up
biscuits, hoping to tempt it down but booby isn't interested in food, she
wants a rest. Refusing to give up, he places a morsel of tuna on top of
the dagger board and booby finally manages a landing, using her wings to
balance rather precariously for a while before she catches her breath and
takes off again. We take this as a sign that we are approaching land. In
fact we have 240 miles to run; and so, as the sun sets and a huge moon
rises behind us, we put an extra reef in the mainsail, slowing our pace,
to time our arrival for breakfast on Thursday.


  1. You poor guys..... Really testing Hera out - bet she is disappointed so be kind to her. So long as you are safe we are happy.... Jx

  2. Very tantalising & disappointing after all your best laid preparations...but so many positive Hera experiences sailing & enjoy Thursday morning breakfast! Much Love Katie & Jack xoxox

  3. Oh dear. Breakages are part and parcel of ocean sailing. I got quite used to them - nonetheless disappointed each time - do you have a set of climbing dumars and a full body harness to climb the mast if you need to? I was also thinking a sailrite sewing machine for your sail repairs. Would that have got your spinnaker back in the game?