Bob who crewed on the ARC+ crossing was asked to write an account for his old school (Daniel Stewart’s College in Edinburgh) Alumni magazine which, following some school mergers is now known as the ‘Stewart’s Melville College Former Pupils Magazine’.
It seemed appropriate to include his account here:-
Crossing the Atlantic under sail
It’s the 2nd of December 2015, 18:05 local time and we have just crossed the finishing line in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, having sailed from the Canaries via the Cape Verde Islands.
A crew of four old farts had just completed the longest sea crossing that any of us had ever undertaken.
Before I elaborate on some details of the trip, it might be helpful to explain my interest in sailing. I had enjoyed competitive dinghy sailing in Kenya in the 1970s but didn’t do much more until the 1990s when I was lucky enough to be asked to crew on a 44’ cruising yacht that a friend of mine, Nick, owned and berthed in Barcelona. We had many years of adventures within the confines of the Mediterranean, these adventures normally lasting about two weeks in the summer, in tee shirt and shorts, with the longest time between ports being about 3 days.
Nick was not content with these brief forays and clearly craved a longer ocean passage. To this end, in 2012 he bought a slightly larger, 45’, but much more sturdy Southerly 135, Hejira. As soon as Nick had purchased this yacht, which I thought looked the part, he set about carrying out some longish trips around UK and Ireland with a view to trialling all sorts of new equipment and fittings that he lavished on the vessel. During the winter months of each year, Hejira was taken out of the water and almost re-fitted! A crew was chosen; Nick himself, a very experienced sailor, Barry, also a sailor and marine engineer, Stephen, a doctor, and me, a civil engineer and nautical speed freak courtesy of my dinghy days.
The biggest adventure that any one of us had contemplated was a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Reasonably exhaustive research was conducted on the best way to do this and we all agreed that for safety’s sake a flotilla or rally type event was the best way forward. The benefit of these events is that the organisers fit GPS trackers to each yacht, provide extensive briefings and ensure that each yacht is properly prepared for the crossing. Far better and much more safe than a solo effort.
We chose to participate in the ARC+, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers +. The organisation responsible, the World Cruising Club, has been running the Atlantic crossing for many years and has the experience that we considered a must for our effort. There are two events each year, the ARC and the ARC+, although they run almost simultaneously. The ARC+ yachts sail earlier, starting in Gran Canaria, sailing almost south to the Cape Verde Islands and then west, on to St. Lucia, the big leg. The ARC yachts sail later, leaving Gran Canaria and sailing west, straight to St. Lucia. Basically, those yachts on the ARC generally sail slightly north of west to get the stronger winds, although these can be more fickle with a high chance that you head directly in to them. The ARC+ yachts, taking a more southerly route, follow the trade winds, which means that for most of the time, the wind is up your tail. There is a trade off either way; winds on the nose can actually lead to a more comfortable motion of the boat, although very strong winds can lead to some ‘heroic’ conditions, whereas winds up your tail can mean the yacht ‘corkscrews’, a motion that is unpleasant, particularly if you are prone to motion sickness, with stronger winds in that direction sometimes proving to be quite testing.
The ‘shake down’ cruise for Hejira and the Atlantic crew took place earlier in the year when we sailed from Faro in Portugal to Lanzarote in the Canaries via Madeira. This voyage, a distance of over 800 nautical miles, or 1480 kilometres, allowed us to test the yacht and all its systems and, more importantly, test how we got on with each other. Although we knew each other as friends, we were aware that it would be an entirely different matter to share the space on board a 45’ yacht for a period of weeks with no opportunity to ‘escape’ in the event of a difference of opinion! This trip took us about 6 days sailing (with a fantastic break in Madeira), and certainly provided a test of all nautical situations.
The great adventure started on 1st November 2015, when we departed London for Lanzarote. Having moved the boat from Lanzarote to Las Palmas, we then set about provisioning for the crossing and attending a series of seminars designed to provide advice on many subjects germane to the crossing, but mainly focussed on safety and meteorological matters. It has to be admitted that the reasonably intensive days were balanced by some equally boisterous nights, with a series of dinners and parties to be attended. Departure proper took place on the 8th of November with a fleet of 64 yachts departing for Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands, some 850 nautical miles (1563 kilometres) south west of Las Palmas. The trip down to Mindelo was accomplished in 5/6 days, arriving on 13th November, representing fairly brisk progress facilitated by strong(ish) winds on the beam, the fastest point of sailing. Nothing heroic, but steady stuff, certainly enough to test the yacht and our resolve!
With the next really long leg to St. Lucia scheduled to start on 18th November, we had a few days to top up the provisions (little to be had in real terms in Mindelo, which proved to be quite a green and pleasant backwater), repair any damage sustained (several yachts required significant work to be carried out following the voyage down, although we had suffered none), re-think our fishing tackle (since we had caught only one fish on the way!) and suffer the many social events that just had to be attended, not to mention the inter-boat impromptu drinking sessions! These were great times, allowing us to establish some friendships, albeit fleeting, with other crews.
The big day arrived and again the 64 yachts set off, with a very brisk breeze providing an exciting time as the start line was quite short!
The scheduled distance Mindelo to St. Lucia is 2084 nautical miles, 3866 kilometres, so even with a fair wind, the crossing would take some time. In fact, we crossed the finish line in Rodney Bay at the top end of St. Lucia in the early evening of the 2nd December, a total elapsed time of 14 days plus a few hours. As you may imagine, that crossing, over that length of time with such good company has left some indelible memories, far too many to commit to this text. Having said that, I consider that it would be remiss of me not to outline some of the more poignant episodes!
It should be borne in mind that for 14 days we saw nothing at all apart from dolphins, sea birds, a shark and each other. No yachts, no merchant vessels, no land, nothing! As I say, this is not to say that the voyage was without memories! For example, cooking, for me, a desperately bad cook at the best of times, was not a pleasant task. Trying to slice up such things as onions and potatoes in a galley that is bouncing around the sea in a most unpredictable manner is not for the faint hearted. I can only believe that the other crew members must have been ravenous to consume some of the stuff that I put before them! A damned good thing that we took it in turns to prepare the evening meal, as others were considerably more adept! Fishing was carried out exclusively by ‘the Doc’ who stuck to his task stolidly throughout. He managed at least two sizeable fish, one dorado and one tuna, that provided us with good eating. I am minded not to attend his surgery however, having watched him gut fish! The only piece of kit that provided us with any trouble was the water maker. The shake down cruise had not really tested it, nor had the first leg down to Cape Verde. It appeared that the intake allowed air to enter the system, causing a failure in the process. This was quite a concern, clearly, and it was only the skills of Barry and Nick that sorted it all out and we were allowed showers again! ‘The Doc’ and I shared the middle watch, each night from midnight to 4am. This allowed us lots of time to natter or to become lost in our own thoughts, as the mood dictated. I have to confess to spending many hours musing on such thoughts ranging from ‘what causes all those stars?’ to ‘what is the real meaning of life?, right through to ‘why the hell am I doing this?’! There were moments of high drama when we realised that a monster shark, and I mean a monster, was trailing along behind us, literally nibbling at the towed electrical generator, and would very probably have had a nibble at Nick’s leg as he stood on the transom trying to adjust the generator! There were also moments of extreme levity; ‘the Doc’ throwing a piece of bread at the shark as a distraction, a flying fish invading the leg of my shorts. The actual sailing was marvellous. At times we were lucky enough to have enough wind to drive us along at a steady pace, allowing time for ‘normal’ activities to take place. At others, when we were trying to skirt around squalls, we were absolutely creaming along, with all of us on deck handling the sails, no matter what time of day or night it was! However, the most abiding and strong memory that I have of all of these is the camaraderie. We had a hugely enjoyable time. We took the mickey out of each other endlessly. We didn’t squabble over anything. We thoroughly enjoyed the whole trip.
I have tried to give a very brief flavour of the crossing, but for those of you who might want a little more, I would suggest that you look up ‘www.hejirasailing.com’ where a complete set of blog entries can be found, providing much more detail of all things nautical and otherwise.
Our arrival in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, was greeted, as for all boats, with a very welcome rum punch followed by a few beers! Shortly after our arrival, but allowing us enough time to clean (read fumigate) the boat, our wives arrived and we had a very enjoyable holiday in St. Lucia, visiting the rain forest with its nine zip-wire descents, sailing to other idyllic parts of the island and enjoying the local rum!
Would I do it again? Probably not immediately. I had a great time with a great crew on a great yacht, but it can’t be re-created and I wouldn’t want to do anything that might spoil the memory. I can’t speak for the others, but I believe that we all did what we set out to do; we proved to ourselves that we could cross the Atlantic under sail. It really provided me with an experience, maybe not of a lifetime, but certainly right up there with the best!