Sailing the Atlantic, Cruising the Caribbean - Avalon of Arne

By Phaon Reid

C. Verde FlagBarbados Flag

The Big One - Crossing the Atlantic

Cape Verdes to Barbados

Atlantic MapIt seems to be a fact of cruising life that you often set out with a hangover. The night before you depart there's the leaving party, of course, where you drink large quantities of the local beverage and stay up chatting all night so, on the morning of your intended departure, you feel tired and hungover. We had, however, made a firm commitment to leave on the fourth of December. This should give us time to arrive before Christmas - and Christmas in Barbados was the target we had set ourselves all along. We made an agreement with Idefix that the first boat in would buy the turkey and all the other necessities for the Christmas feast, which we would then have together on one of the boats. We also agreed to make each other Christmas presents during the voyage, using materials found on the boat.

We cleared out with Customs and Immigration in the morning, and in the early afternoon we decided to have a short nap to give us energy for the ordeal ahead. But this was not to be. Before our heads had become acquainted with their pillows, a shout of "Avalon!" rang out across the harbour. It was Eric and Toby arriving on White Bread. Needless to say, all thought of sleep was forgotten, the wine was opened, and everyone congregated on Avalon to exchange news. Eric and Toby had continued to experience rudder problems, and were stopping at the Cape Verdes for a couple of days to make further (inadequate) repairs before pressing on to Brazil. The party carried on until the evening, then we had to chuck the revellers off and prepare Avalon for sea. Well, we had said we would leave on the 4th and we did - at 11.30 pm.

In the account of our crossing, below, the items in italics are transcribed directly from Avalon's log.

It had been impossible to obtain any sort of meaningful weather forecast in the Cape Verdes. It was only when we left the shelter of the harbour, that we realised how good that shelter was. There was a strong wind from the North East and, even in the lee of the Islands, the seas were big. Without detailed charts, it was quite difficult and nerve-wracking to avoid the unlit outlying Islands in the dark.

5 Dec 12.10 - Sailing fast, very large seas, hand steering. Lots of flying fish. Distance to go - 2021 nautical miles

Once out of the shadow of the islands, the wind rose to 25 - 30 knots. As well as the seas being very large, there was an awkward cross-swell which meant that both the Aries and the Autohelm were unable to maintain a straight course. So we had to hand steer. In the prevailing conditions, this was very tiring so we had to reduce the duration of our shifts. Which, in turn, meant we got very little sleep.

6 Dec 01.26 - Still hand steering, still large seas. 1 1/2 hour shifts.

During the night, the seas didn't get any smaller but the swell became more consistent, so hand steering was no longer necessary. This was a relief - we wouldn't have wanted to keep that routine up for too long. The wind dropped to 20-25 knots, and things generally became a bit more comfortable.

6 Dec 23.05 - Flying fish for breakfast. Self steering coping most of the time. Full moon. Idefix 1 mile to starboard.

Fresh flying fish, fried up for breakfast, are delicious. We'd check the decks in the morning, and if there were at least five or six, we'd clean them and cook them up. In Barbados you can buy flying fish (which are the national emblem) either fresh at the fish market or deep frozen in the supermarket. None of them tasted as good as the ones that landed on our deck!

7 Dec 12.30 - Strong wind last night, sea still rough. Molly steering. Idefix 1 mile to port.

During that night it had blown up to over 35 knots for a few hours. The genoa was rolled down to the size of a small jib, and we were storming along at about 6.5 knots. The seas were big, but Avalon rode them well, with only the occasional splash coming into the cockpit. The Aries was doing a reasonable job of steering, although we would sometimes yaw 15-20 degrees off course before she corrected.

8 Dec 19.00 - Engine U/S, possibly seized due to water via exhaust. Favourable moderate winds. Goosewinged, then chute. Turning engine periodically by hand

The following day conditions had eased considerably, so we decided to give the engine a run, just to give it a bit of exercise and bring the batteries up to full charge. When we tried to start it, it wouldn't turn at all. The assumption that we made at the time, about water getting in through the exhaust, proved to be correct. The only reason it had never happened before, was that we had never been in such large or rough seas. Anyway, there we were, four days out, with loads of diesel stored all over the boat but no engine. Oh well, we thought, it's just as well that Avalon's a sailing boat - we'll just have to sail all the way.

We had a number of thing to be grateful for. Firstly, that we had the Aries which would steer the boat without using any power. Secondly, we had the wind generator which, given a decent breeze, would keep some sort of charge in the battery for the bare essentials, such as Nav lights (we don't believe in running dark). And finally we had plenty of batteries for the GPS and paraffin for the paraffin lamps. We also had the sextants and table, although taking sights on a small boat in large seas is far from easy. So things could have been a lot worse. But it just goes to show how important it is NOT to be over-dependent on electrics and electronics on a long passage. If we had been relying on electric autopilots, we would have ended up hand steering solidly for two weeks - not a pleasant prospect. It also underlines the importance of having a boat which sails well. Many so-called cruising boats we have seen (particularly steel and ferro ones) are very poor sailers - especially to windward - and place heavy reliance on their engines for passage-making. It's true that most of one's time is spent in harbour, where a "floating caravan" has great appeal. On the other hand, if you're off a lee shore with no motor (or becalmed in mid-ocean) you need a boat that can SAIL.

We spoke to Idefix on the VHF and told them of our problem. They were a couple of miles ahead of us at the time, and pulling away. At least somebody knew about our situation - and would buy the turkey for Christmas. We just hoped we'd be there to eat it!

9 Dec 11.30 - been going 4.5 days and covered 572 miles. Lost sight of Idefix. Distance to go - 1450 nautical miles

Don't Leave your Waterproofs at Home!At this stage, despite our engine problem and some unpleasant conditions, we were making good progress. If we kept this up, we should arrive well ahead of schedule.

10 Dec 09.10 - Idefix called yesterday - their GPS not working, but we can't see each other. Horrid night with rain and repeated squalls to 45 knots. Now heavy rain.

So Idefix had their problems too. They only had the one GPS on board, and no sextant. As they didn't know their position accurately, we couldn't find each other. Eventually we lost radio contact. Fortunately, their GPS problems did resolve themselves shortly afterwards, but they must have been a bit concerned at the time. We had not seen any other shipping at all up to this point, despite keeping a 24-hour watch . The wind blew up hard that night (Force 9), and the genoa was reefed down to storm jib size. As the wind grew stronger, the waves got bigger, and the rain came down like stair-rods. This was not how we had pictured an Atlantic crossing.

10 Dec 19.00 - Heavy rain all day. Squalls then light winds, slow progress. Sunbeam called re PAN PAN Chico. Hurt knee. Turned engine. Minced Beef & Onion pie for tea.

We never saw Sunbeam - a large yacht, 100 feet or so, but spoke to them on the radio. They had heard us trying to call Idefix earlier, so called us to relay a message about a yacht called Chico, which was in distress. We said we'd keep a lookout, and did, but never saw them or heard any more of it. We heard later that a family had abandoned their (apparently still seaworthy) yacht in mid-Atlantic and been picked up by a freighter. I don't know if these were the same people.

11 Dec 15.20 - Fairly quiet night, then torrential rain, 35 knot + winds and very large seas. Conditions have just eased for the moment. Nasty.

It was at this point that we encountered the worst seas of the crossing. The wind had swung through some 45 degrees, with the result that there was again a cross-swell. When the seas met, the resulting waves seemed mountainous. I wouldn't like to guess how high they were. Molly coped reasonably well, but it was necessary to tweak the wheel occasionally to line the stern up for a particularly large wave. I remember feeling extremely cold in the rain - this was at 15 degrees north.

12 Dec 17.20 - Dramatic sunset then peaceful night. Frustrating morning with swell and little wind . Wind now OK but still big swell.

It was a relief when the wind eased and the rain stopped. When completing the ship's log, we noticed that the speed and distance log had suddenly lost about 400 miles! It felt as though we had gone backwards. This was due, of course, to low voltage in the batteries.

Sunset in Mid Atlantic

13 Dec 09.39 Past the half way mark! Thunderstorm and large seas during night. Lightning too close for comfort. And rain, of course. Distance to go - 987 nautical miles

In the Atlantic Crossing Guide it says reassuring things about thunderstorms - that they will always pass well to the north of the tradewind route, but are likely to give a good firework display. Anyway, we had a ringside seat for this one, with the lightning crashing down into the sea on all sides. Both Sarah and I find lightning unnerving at sea. It is the thought that your mast is the only potential lightning-conductor for hundreds of miles in any direction. So we took our precautions, which probably owe as much to superstition as to reason. We dangled a wire (an old shroud) from the backstay into the sea. We wore rubber boots and gloves (the wheel is metal). And I unmounted the GPS and sealed it into the pressure cooker for protection!

In any event, we didn't get hit.

14 Dec 08.25 - Pleasant night. Good progress but still huge waves. Log screwed up again.

During this time, the wind was continually getting lighter, although the seas took longer to ease off.

15 Dec 13.30 - Quiet night, slow progress. Just made 100 miles. Now wind very light - drifting with chute up. Sarah has bad stomach cramps.

The wind was still getting lighter. At first, after days of strong winds and big seas, it seemed like a relief. However, as the wind continued to drop, it became intensely frustrating. Without the engine, it meant that progress was extremely slow. It also meant that the Wind Generator was not charging the batteries. We had left the electrics switched to the domestic batteries, so that the engine starting battery was held in reserve for Nav lights and VHF on the approach to Barbados. The domestic batteries were now getting very low - hence the instrument problems.

16 Dec 09.04 - Seemed an impossibly slow 24 hours but we managed to cover 75 miles. Now some wind but sailing close-hauled. Phaon made tasty bread and I visited the loo about 10,000 times.

The reason for Sarah's stomach cramps and subsequent visits to the heads were that she had been constipated since the Cape Verdes and eventually had to take laxatives to clear the blockage. The desired result was achieved, but not without some discomfort in the process. I baked 2 or 3 lots of bread during the Atlantic crossing. Fresh, hot bread is good for morale, and loaves don't normally keep more than a week. I had practised at home before setting off. The only problem was that running the oven for the necessary period made the cabin uncomfortably hot, especially when sitting becalmed under the hot tropical sun.

17 Dec 09.30 - Slowish day (100 miles) with light winds. Instruments and VHF off to save power.

At this stage we had enough wind (about 8-10 knots) to sail, but not enough for the wind generator to make useful contribution. This was one of the rare occasions when we would have swapped the Rutland for a couple of solar panels. Ideally, of course, you should have both.

18 Dec 10.35 - Saw two container ships yesterday. One called us on VHF. Another very slow day (88 miles) even with the chute up, and a pathetically slow night.

These ships were the first visible sign of human life since we parted company with Idefix. The tradewind route is miles away from the commercial transatlantic shipping lanes. Presumably it was different in the days of the clippers. One thing that we did during the calm was to make the Christmas presents for Idefix. Sarah blew some eggs and decorated them to look like Daniel, Murielle and Christophe. Murielle had kevlar hair! I made up a ship's rubber stamp for Idefix, using dinghy repair patches and plywood. Sarah also made a rather ambitious biplane out of empty coke cans.

19 Dec 09.37 - Becalmed all yesterday then gentle breeze overnight. Saw one ship. Frustrating. Very good shepherd's pie last night. Chute up now.

This was probably the point of greatest frustration. At just over 50 miles it was our worst day's run, and a lot of that distance must have been down to the current. We were still 440 miles from Barbados, and our target of arriving for Christmas seemed to be slipping away. Sarah was getting impatient and mumbling that she much preferred the gales to the calms. I could see her point, but a happy medium would have been nice. You know, the sort of weather you're SUPPOSED to get on a tradewind crossing.

20 Dec 09.32 - Good run with chute yesterday, then bumpy night with large confused swell. Good Pizza for tea. Baked bread.

At least we were moving again. By this stage, we regarded anything over 100 nautical miles as a satisfactory day, although earlier in the trip we'd been doing 140s. My main concern was that we would have sufficient wind on the approach to Barbados. I didn't want to get swept past Barbados towards Central America or (much worse) be becalmed with the windward side of Barbados as a lee shore. I knew how the Captains of those old clippers must have felt - and they didn't have GPS!

21 Dec 09.37 - Just under the 100 miles. Swell yesterday then a quiet night. Cloudless sky. Sarah just got chute up. Distance to go 233 nautical miles.

By this stage it was beginning to look as if we'd make it for Christmas - but only just. Fortunately, this was to be the last day of the calm spell, which had lasted about a week and had probably added 2-3 days to our crossing time. Of course, if we'd had the motor, it would have been a different story, as we had enough fuel on board for almost a week's motoring. So by this stage, we would probably have been in Barbados sipping rum punches - well, maybe not at 9.30 in the morning.

22 Dec 08:37 - Good progress, chute all day, genoa at night. Already 32.5 degrees in cabin. Still no boats.

This was good progress, and with only 124 miles to go we were beginning to look forward to Christmas ashore. As we approached Barbados, we had expected to see some other yachts converging on Barbados. A number of other boats had left the Cape Verdes at around the same time as us, and there must have been more leaving from the Canaries. But no, we still had the sea to ourselves.

23 Dec 08:26 - Yeah - almost there! At 4.30 am sighted another yacht and a plane. Rescued two flying fish. Barbados a hazy glow, now clearly visible

Barbados MapIt's a great feeling, making a landfall after so long at sea. We had a good breeze, ESE 12-15 knots, and everything was looking good for our arrival. A little later, we saw Concorde coming into land at Barbados. There can't be a much greater contrast between two forms of travel.

23 Dec 12.15 - Tacked into deep water harbour and tied up ready to check in. WE'VE ARRIVED!

Things had worked out well in the end. We had arrived in daylight, and had perfect sailing conditions as we rounded the southern point of Barbados. We hoisted our Q flag and the Barbados courtesy flag, plus (not for the first time) the code flags "RN" at the port crosstrees. Heading up north in the lee of the island, we sailed past Carlisle Bay, where we could see dozens of yachts at anchor. We called the signal station on the breakwater to notify them of our arrival, then headed in, tacking up between the cruise liners to where some yachts were moored at the far end. Rounding up under sail, we took our lines ashore and made them fast. We'd made it.

My first job, of course, was to attend to the customs and immigration formalities. This is one of the bugbears of cruising. When arriving after a long and/or rough passage you just want to relax with a cold beer. But no, you have to attend to the paperwork. This can involve chasing around between three or four different offices (which may be some way apart, and must be done in the correct order). At each office you may have to queue for an age, and you will undoubtedly have to fill in a large number of forms, with up to five copies of each sometimes being required. Many of these are the same for a yacht as a cargo ship, so you may have to specify how many head of cattle you are carrying, or how many tons of bauxite. Very often you have to specify the numbers of stowaways on board. In Barbados these formalities are attended to in the Cruise Ship terminal, a sort of shopping mall thronged with plump, red-faced cruise ship passengers. The Barbados authorities have (or had) a reputation in cruising circles for being a bit difficult, so I was relieved to find them polite and helpful. The whole procedure was remarkably painless. We could now go and get that cold drink.