The tension started to mount as the day of departure drew close. This was to be the big one, our first-ever Atlantic crossing on our own boat with responsibility for every little thing.
The Atlantic is the second largest ocean in the world covering 106,400,000 square kilometres or 26% of the world's water surface, and is divided by the equator into North and South. We were going to sail across the North Atlantic from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.
The hurricane season runs from May to October and during that time our route would have been shared with hurricanes born off the coast of Africa that develop as they cross the Atlantic before blasting into the Caribbean islands. For centuries sailors have played it safe by leaving the Canaries in November once the hurricane season has passed and the steady trade winds have set in. We were playing it safe too, by waiting until early December. With three thousand miles ahead of us, we wanted the best weather possible.
According to everyone we talked to, a plan to cross the Atlantic was simple: head south to 20 degrees, 'hitch up' to the north-east trade winds and catapult across in two weeks. That would mean we made it in time for "Christmas in the Caribbean" as Jimmy Buffet sings in one of our favourite sailing mantras, and we'd have our stockings for Santa hanging from the mast.
The floorboards were up, the bilges exposed. Fresh, dried and canned food piled high, ready to label and stow. Plywood storm shutters to varnish and attach, holes to drill, bilges to clean, lists to write and rewrite, grab bags to fill, emergency and safety gear to check, recheck and stow, a safety briefing to have, rig to check from top to bottom. My mind was about to explode.
At the last minute we discovered the fuel in our tanks was contaminated. There was no option but to drain and clean the tanks, then strain 400 litres of diesel through fine filters. This was an arduous and tense job, especially as the weather was now perfect for our departure with a northerly breeze softly building.
To top it all off, Ross came down with a serious virus involving several visits to the local doctor for blood tests and more blood tests. Swine flu crossed our mind as we'd heard it was prevalent in the area. I was not so sure that we wanted to head out into the vast Atlantic with our skipper operating at less than half his horsepower so we delayed for another day, our anticipation mounting as the wind continued to build ever so slowly from the north.
Our daughter Emma joined us just before we departed, full of expectation for the crossing and eager to reach the Caribbean for Christmas and a romantic rendezvous.
I made a wish list for the crossing:
1. Steady trade winds
2. Flat seas
3. No storms
4. Plenty of fish
5. No major breakages
6. No accidents or illness
8. Dolphins, whales (not too close)
9. Christmas in the Caribbean
10. Time for chats, discussions and reading
11. Still married (to the same husband!)
Finally we cast off our lines and broke free, sliding out from behind the breakwater and away from the sheltered marina at Puerto Calero.
We faced the mighty Atlantic ocean at last. The knot in my stomach tightened and I felt a wave of emotion, tinged with fear, relief, anticipation and excitement of the unknown, all mixed up in a blender full of expectation.
Three days, three tuna and a mahi mahi later, I was only just beginning to settle into some sort of routine and starting to feel vaguely ok as I gradually became more in tune with the rhythm of life at sea and its unpredictable nature.
In the galley I prepared sashimi and seared tuna but no-one felt particularly hungry and I was feeling a bit queasy myself, finally succumbing and taking some 'Paihia bombs' (seasick pills). I'd been feeling as if I had a huge hangover, tired, lethargic and weighing at least 200kg, but 15 minutes later the pills had me feeling almost normal.
The northerly winds faded and the trade winds seemed to have abandoned us leaving Sojourn wallowing in a sea of large jumbled left-over swells, making it extremely uncomfortable down below. There was no sign of the solid wall of wind from the north-east that we had been told to expect.
Fortunately, the dolphins hadn't abandoned us. At dawn on the third morning we were suddenly surrounded by a huge pod of them rocketing through the iridescent water like missiles aiming at a far-off target. Somehow, at the last split second, they would flick off at right angles, emanating a feeling of sheer bliss and a sense of total freedom. We gazed down on them from the bow of Sojourn, totally transfixed. They seemed to have a program to get through as they hurled themselves in the air, splashing down into the mirrored surface. Everywhere you looked was a bubbling sea of dolphins. This was paradise.
Emma and I were perched on the bow having the time of our lives and catching up on the news of the last nine months. She had been volunteering in Uganda in a primary school and orphanage with 600 children and had photos to show and stories to tell. That night we watched a movie on her computer featuring many of the bright wide-eyed children singing, dancing and performing in a musical that she had written, directed and had accompanied as a one girl band on her guitar. It was quite extraordinary to watch it while rocking and rolling on the large Atlantic swells.
I was on watch alone at night, quietly cocooned in my thoughts when I glanced behind and got a huge fright. Right in our wake and closing rapidly was a massive shimmering passenger liner with all its lights ablaze slightly off to port. I checked and re-checked the AIS (Auto Identification System) and radar on the chart plotter but there was nothing showing.
By now my heartbeat had quadrupled as I started to panic, thinking how slack I was not to have noticed we were about to be run down by this huge liner. I cranked the motor on ready to change course and manoeuvre out of harm's way. Ross immediately appeared in the companionway, woken by the sudden sound of the motor. He was bleary-eyed but had a faint look of amusement and certainly no sign of the panic I was experiencing.
"What on earth are you doing?" he asked calmly as I glanced behind again. In a split second it dawned on me: I was looking at the huge full moon oozing up out of the water with some streaky clouds adorning its face as it peered up over the horizon. My 'cruise liner' festooned in glimmering lights holding its own private party at sea was telling me it was about time to end my watch and get some sleep!
After many days at sea you lose track of time completely. The hours and days seem to merge into an endless blur of confused ocean swells and the relentless sun.
Life afloat in the middle of the Atlantic can make doing everyday tasks such as making a cup of coffee, baking muffins, preparing meals or simply doing some washing quite a major achievement. Much of the time I felt as if I was in a tumble dryer, lurching from side to side. It became important to have small projects and challenges, things to achieve and look forward to so that you could pat yourself on the back quietly if any were attained. Reading, writing, cooking, washing clothes, listening to the radio scheds and researching weather forecasts became a real highlight. Emma logged our journey in her own way, creating a colourful chart counting down the miles covered and miles to go.
We even rewarded ourselves with a quick dip in the turquoise waters at the halfway point where we were 1500 miles from the closest land. It felt both exhilarating and scary at the same time to think how deep the ocean was (over 3km) and what lay below us. On other days, Ross and Emma occasionally played guitar and sang as we cruised along in the lazy swells.
Sojourn had a radio sched each morning and evening with 10 other yachts that were crossing the Atlantic with us. Each reported their position and any other vital information, trivia or gossip they may have gleaned during the day. Known as the 'The Madlantic Net', it became our daily news fix, morning and night. It is really helpful to know the whereabouts of the other boats in your vicinity in case of breakages, sickness, or simply to share advice or knowledge for any unexpected problem at sea.
Sojourn's watch system was three hours on and six hours off but during the daylight hours we had a more relaxed schedule. Whoever felt like being in the cockpit kept an eye out and this way the days seemed more relaxed, with no need to keep checking the clock. At nights with the boat charging along in the blackness, creaking and groaning, I never got used to the ominous voice echoing through my vivid dreams telling me it was my turn on watch.
"Hey Jo, it's your turn now." The voice, however gentle, always seemed to echo and reverberate around Sojourn's reinforced plastic hull, dragging me away from my cosy dreams and back into the reality of my lone night vigil.
Missing the trades
Everyone told us that the north-east trades always kick in at this time of year but unfortunately they didn't for us. We started with reasonable northerly winds followed by light winds from all directions.
Even Roger Badham - aka 'Clouds', the best weather guru available today - couldn't find the trade winds for us. He would email us regularly with a weather forecast and I felt secure knowing that he was keeping an eye out for us. He told us that there were some of the biggest storms on record in the North Atlantic off the east coast of America and these low pressure systems were dragging the high pressure systems further north than usual, resulting in light westerlies where the north-east trade winds should have been. These were the same winds Ross had promised me had been blowing since the "beginning of time". Our only option was to keep sailing south in search of wind.
Originally we had planned to head to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands but as days turned into weeks it became obvious that Antigua would be a closer landfall. A few days later Ross awoke to find his two female crew mates studying the charts. After a short mutiny, the decision was made to sail to Barbados, now the nearest piece of land in the Caribbean islands. The persuasive powers of the mutineers were enhanced by the fact that Barbados just happens to be the home of Mount Gay rum, something that the skipper has a weakness for.
Soon, a slow realisation dawned on us as the days merged and stretched out like a mirage in the desert: we would be at sea for Christmas! My mind blurred as this reality took hold. No Christmas, no steel-drum bands, rum punches or dancing on the sand eating flying fish sandwiches. We would be communing with the mermaids, whales and dolphins far from land.
With no chance of landfall for at least seven days and the wind continuing to dance around the compass, I began to think I was going mad. I felt like an elephant in a china shop as I lurched around the boat. It was crazy to think that although the wind was really light the swells were massive, just as Clouds said they would be. As the swells from the storms in the north met the opposing swells from the dying trade winds, the result was giant lumpy seas from all directions. A sudden sideways lurch and there was another bruise to add to my already colourful patchwork. Thank heaven for all the extra handrails Ross had put in the main saloon and in the head. He had even put stainless steel bus rails on the roof to grab hold of, just like on the #10 bus to Newmarket.
Another sunrise, another sunset, but I was really over them by now. All I wanted was to see the hazy blur of land on the horizon. Noises were starting to take on new meaning, the crash, bash, creak, squeak, whoosh, flap and bang were starting to do my head in. My only escape was into yet another book - that would make seven so far.
Christmas day dawned calm, humid and hot. Any passing mermaid peering up from the water would have been forgiven for wondering if she was hallucinating as sparkling decorations, a singing Santa and a decent pile of presents magically materialised under a fully-decorated Christmas tree. Christmas lights and sparkling decorations adorned the mast and interior.
Pancakes emerged from the galley dripping in lemon juice and sugar. Jimmy Buffet blasted out through our SSB radio to all of our new Madlantic Net friends. It made a few of the boaties smile as we were all sharing an unexpected Christmas at sea.
Even yachts unseen over the horizon became very much part of our day. On one boat the lone female among five males burst into tears, telling us that the men were all no fun and that she was missing her daughter, so Emma assumed the role of surrogate daughter and calmed her with some mother-daughter chat.
To celebrate this momentous mid-Atlantic Christmas at sea, a glass of champagne was deemed appropriate. We were just about to pop the cork when there was an almighty bang followed by frantic mad flapping as the halyard that held up our fantastic 'booster' (our downwind sail) snapped. It was quite a surprise as Ross had lowered the sail and inspected it only the previous day.
Christmas dinner went on hold and Emma and I spent an extremely anxious hour watching Ross up the mast amidst vast lumpy swells, trying to mouse and re-run the halyard. It was all to no avail as it was far too difficult and dangerous with the boat pitching and rolling and the mast swaying through 90 degrees. We helped him down, battered and bruised and definitely ready for that champagne.
However, just before our Christmas dinner of scrumptious chicken marbella, crunchy roast potatoes, pumpkin and peas was served, the gas bottle ran out, putting the skipper in a precarious position yet again. As Ross perched on the transom hanging out over the ocean swells, harnessed on as he changed the gas bottles, I quietly reflected on the difference between this Christmas and all the other ones I had celebrated. I guessed that I would see the funny side of it one day.
The champagne cork was finally popped and we proposed a toast to friends, family back home and the "wind and sea gods" in the hope that they would hasten us on our journey. Presents bearing a strong resemblance to objects we already owned were distributed with much hilarity as we rose to the occasion. I was lucky enough to receive a handwritten voucher from the skipper which read:
Merry Christmas. IOU a night ASAP in the best hotel of your choice.
My immediate thought was that it sounded wonderful but I didn't believe we'd ever get to land to see a hotel.
Finish in sight
As a special Christmas treat the trade winds finally started to fill in and we sailed the last two days as we had hoped to sail for the whole passage. On December 28th, after spending 24 days at sea, there it was. Land ahoy! Barbados!
As I sat on the bow watching the island grow out of the distant horizon, my mind drifted back to the wish list that I'd scribbled down 24 days before. Were all my wishes granted?
1. Steady trade winds - No
2. Flat seas - No
3. No storms - Yes
4. Plenty of fish - Yes
5. No gear failure or breakages - No
6. No accidents or illness - Yes
7. Sunshine - Yes
8. Dolphins, whales - Yes
9. Christmas in the Caribbean - No
10. Time for chats, discussions and reading - Yes
11. Still married (same husband) - Yes
Seven out of 11 wishes had become reality and when you achieve something that you thought was totally out of your sphere of possibilities, you can't help but smile and say to yourself in a quiet moment "I did it. I actually crossed the Atlantic. I survived and enjoyed most of it."
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
- © Fairfax NZ News