Whilst the prospect of sailing the ocean wasn't new to us - having cruised the offshore waters of England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean - an ocean crossing definitely was.
But it had to be done. After all we'd recently completed the construction of Alacazam, a lightish displacement cruising boat specifically designed for ocean sailing and living aboard.
So with gainful employment abandoned and house rented to a tenant, it was finally time to go. But go where? North or South?
Easy question, it's south for us. Palm trees and tradewinds beat icebergs and Arctic blizzards every time for us.
So stand by Caribbean,
we're on our way...
And go we did, on 6th July 2001, cruising south from Plymouth via France, Spain, Portugal, Madeira and the Canary Islands.
December 2001 found us holed up in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, waiting for the tradewinds to establish themselves before setting off across 3,000 odd miles of Atlantic Ocean on the well-trodden path of the so-called 'Milk Run'.
Alacazam's composite construction is a marriage of traditional materials and modern technology. Her hull is built of Western Red Cedar using the wood epoxy technique; the doghouse and cockpit are GRP mouldings.
The fin keel is a lead-filled GRP moulding letter-boxed through the hull and bonded solidly in place. A lead bulb is bonded to its base.
The partially balanced rudder is hung on a half skeg similarly letterboxed and bonded into the hull structure.
The prop shaft, supported by an 'A' bracket rather than the less robust 'P' bracket, spins a two-bladed folding propeller.
The whole vessel, comprising hull, bulkheads and internal structures, is an immensely strong monocoque.
Her vital statistics are;
|Length overall||11.5m (37.5 feet)|
|Waterline length||10.6m (34.5 feet)|
|Beam||3.9m (12.5 feet)|
|Draft||2.2m (7 feet)|
|Displacement||7,023kg (7.75 tons)|
|Sail area/displacement ratio||18.28|
Main halyard, topping lift and slab reefing lines fall at the mast, rather than being led aft to the cockpit. This keeps line friction to a minimum and allows the main to be reefed single-handed.
With two sets of headsail sheets, runners, kicking strap, genaker tack line and sheet, two part mainsheet, main sheet car control lines and Aries adjustment lines in the cockpit, we have enough string there already.
Alacazam's waterline length of 10.6m gives her a theoretical maximum displacement hull speed of 8.2 knots, equating to just under 200nm a day, but we know she will get up and go faster than this in the right conditions, having experienced 12.5 knots under a full genoa and reefed main whilst reaching in a force 6.
If the tradewinds hold up we should be able to achieve an average of 150nm per day, which would mean the 3,000 nautical mile passage would take around 20 days.
With such aspirations we departed Marina del Atlantico, Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 13th January 2002, bound for the West Indies.
We set out on a broad reach with full main and genoa set, changing to poled out main with preventer, and genoa poled out to windward as the wind moved aft, driving us cheerfully towards waypoint 'BUTTER', more of which later. We were familiar with this sail plan, it being our normal way of sailing downwind when conditions weren't right for the genaker.
It was fast and not too rolly, but we are never relaxed when sailing this way. If the wind pipes up and a reef in the main is necessary, the yacht has to be turned to windward. The genoa has to be furled or the pole taken down to enable it to be sheeted in. And then the whole shebang set up again when back on course.
In a big sea this is more work than I generally like to become involved with. Consequently I was very pleased to get into the trade winds proper where I could get the main down and set twin headsails. I had attached a block to the swivel at the head of the furling gear in Tenerife, reeved a 6mm spectra halyard through it, and tied both ends off to the tack swivel on the furling drum.
This was used to hoist the yankee up the second luff groove, leaving the genoa set in the other. I can't claim originality for this arrangement; it was suggested to me by my sailmaker.
However, unlike the in-harbour trial, hoisting the yankee up the second luff groove while barrelling downwind in big seas was disappointingly difficult.
Artwork by Andrew Simpson
With the genoa in the starboard groove, and poled out to starboard, the furling gear foil was pulled around such that the port groove was facing to starboard.
On hauling the yankee up the port grove, the sail blew forward such that the friction of the sail against the foil made it progressively more difficult to hoist.
The high load on the mast-mounted halyard winch indicated that I was doing the sail no good at all, but there was no option other than to grind it slowly and protestingly up the groove.
Only sometime later did the obvious method of hoisting the sail dawn on me. If I had gybed first, poling the genoa set in the starboard luff groove out to port, then the port luff grove would have been facing forward, downwind.
On hoisting, the yankee would have blown forward, inline with the groove and any friction would have been minimal. Another lesson learned; I will know next time.
The lazy genoa sheet was reeved through a block on the end of the pole and secured in the cockpit. The pole had a foreguy (the genaker tack line), uphaul, down haul and guy, fixing it in space independently of the jib sheets.
The lazy sheet from the yankee was similarly reeved through a block at the end of the boom which was squared off and held in place by the mainsheet, topping lift, kicker and preventer. Easing both sets of sheets a little a time and hauling on the furling line simultaneously rolled the twin headsails around the Furlex gear. I used it as a throttle and it worked perfectly from a mechanical point of view.
The problem was that the headsails differed too much in both size and shape, such that the rig became increasingly unbalanced as the sail area was reduced. This did little to help the appalling rolling. Although the trysail was ready for hoisting, bagged in its separate track at foot of mast, I couldn't set it amidships to dampen the rolling with the bimini in place. Of course in conditions when the trysail would normally be required, the bimini would be folded aft against the transom, and the problem wouldn't arise.
I set the working staysail amidships but it slatted about too much. Perhaps I should have replaced it with the storm staysail, but I didn't. A second identical genoa set in place of the yankee would have been perfect, and would be the only change I would make to Alacazam's long distance downwind rig.
We generally undersailed the boat in an attempt to keep the rolling within manageable proportions. Consequently the 200 mile day aspiration was sacrificed on the altar of comfort and self-preservation. It's an age thing!
Traditionally the advice is to sail south until the butter melts and then turn right. Refrigeration has put paid to this technique, and modern thinking suggests 25ºN, 25ºW as being the point at which the tradewinds become properly established.
After intense daily study of the on-line weather predictions at weatheronline, we programmed the GPS with waypoint "BUTTER" at 20ºN, 30ºW, our 'turn right' point. Both websites proved to be reasonably accurate for 3 to 4 days ahead, but diminishingly so after that.
In the event we sailed considerably further south than this, so much so that a stop in the Cape Verde's was considered. Then the tradewinds filled in and we rolled our way westwards, Cape Verde's abandoned till next time.
Before leaving the UK we had purchased a TARGET SSB Receiver and Weatherfax software, which when interfaced with our new state-of-the art laptop would provide weather information at sea. It never did though, because the weatherfax operated in DOS and the operating system on the computer (Microsoft Windows 2000ME) opened only in Windows. Even the DOS Prompt screen opened in a window, which the Weatherfax software wouldn't recognise.
The time we wasted trying unsuccessfully to sort that out was staggering. Well done, Mr Gates. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway as it was always too rolly at sea to risk taking our expensive laptop out of its protective case.
Our NAVTEX gave us weather information from the Las Palmas station in the Canary Islands for the first few days at sea, after which we became out of range.
Further weather information was gleaned from eavesdropping SSB conversations on Herb's Net on 12359kHz at 2000 zulu and Trudi in Barbados on 21400kHz at 1300 zulu. Trudi gives an English translation of the daily French forecast, which is the only one I know of that covers the crossing.
But even if you know what's coming there's not much you can do about it. You might just as well forget about weather until it arrives and deal with it then. A friend of ours left Tenerife a few weeks before us, and as a result of listening to Herb every day zigzagged about all over the ocean, eventually landing in Barbados after 30 days at sea.
Both of us enjoy helming, but not for 3,000 odd nautical miles of sailing the ocean.
We relied upon 'Arry', our ancient Aries vane gear bought second-hand for £150. Helen Franklin, daughter of the designer Nick Franklin, overhauled it to as-good-as-new condition and provided a service kit for a further £150. I had been concerned whether it would have worked in downwind conditions, but it performed extremely well. I wouldn't contemplate a long distance cruise without windvane self-steering, preferably of the servo-pendulum type.
On the few days when there was insufficient apparent wind over the blade to keep it in equilibrium we resorted to our 20 year old Autohelm 2000. I had no confidence that this would stand up to the loads caused by the large cross seas, owing to its vintage and lack of maintenance. But it did, still does and long may it do so.
In the event that both the Aries and the Autohelm fell over, I had a plan for sheet-to-tiller steering, but this was never tested in anger.
Earlier, 50nm off Portugal the active antenna of our Magellan 5200DX GPS had expired, leaving us to find a 7 mile long by 4 mile wide island (Porto Santo) in a very large ocean by dead reckoning and the occasional sun sight through gaps in the persistent cloud. Owing to the heavy ocean swells (and my lack of practice with the sextant) I was never sure if I was bringing the sun down to the true horizon or the crest of an approaching wave.
To our great relief Porto Santo showed up exactly where it was supposed to, but not wishing to put ourselves to the test again we bought a handheld Magellan 315 in Madeira and a fixed Garmin 320 in Tenerife. Nothing like a bit of system redundancy.
With waypoint 'BREAD' off Guadeloupe programmed into the Garmin, navigation was of course simplicity itself. We logged our position every four hours and plotted it at 1200 Zulu each day.
The Raytheon thru-hull log/speedo is a largely redundant piece of kit, only used now to observe the effect of sail trim, and as a desirable residence for shrimps and other marine crustaceans when stationary for more than 5 minutes.
If we were building Alacazam now' I would not bother with one, relying on the GPS when it works, and the Walker towed log and Zeiss sextant when it doesn't.
We expected Beaufort force 4 to 5 north easterlies and a sea commensurate with these winds. But the wind seldom blew less than a 5 and was frequently considerably higher. The sea conditions came as something of a surprise.
Surfing down some of the larger waves, the view from the cockpit suggested that the entire hull forward of the keel was cantilevered out above the sea. Only occasionally did we land with a crash, mainly when we were knocked off by a cross sea. Below, the hissing of the water past the hull was intoxicating.
Frequently we had a 4m to 5m wave system coming from the east coupled with a large ocean swell from the north. When the wind increased to 30 knots or more these cross seas became more confused than you'd ever believe - not something you might expect when sailing the ocean on a tradewind crossing, and made for some very lively sailing. Some 'milk run'! I was gratified to hear Trudi describe our sea state as 'rough'. I would have been a bit chagrined if what seemed to me as bloody rough was considered 'slight to moderate' by everybody else sailing the ocean at that time.
Squalls were frequent and varied in their intensity. Some were vicious with heavy rain and strong winds, and others passed overhead with little effect, but you never knew which it was going to be until it arrived. We were delighted to find that the squalls were very visible on Alacazam's newly installed Radar, and by tracking them from 12 miles or so most could be avoided without difficulty.
We know of crews who turn in when it gets dark and arise when they're ready for breakfast, relying on the statistical improbability of being run down. This approach is not for us.
We saw two ships on the crossing, both during the hours of darkness. One of them would have come very close (at best) to running us down if we hadn't been keeping watch and hence able to alert him to our presence on the VHF.
We kept to the following watch system:
|12 hours daylight||12 hours darkness|
|0800 to 1400||1400 to 2000||2000 to 2400||0000 to 0400||0400 to 0800|
Of course night and day are not so precisely defined as the table suggests, but this system ensures that we each did the two night watches on alternate nights, and had a 6hr daylight watch every day, which seems fair.
'Leap hours' have to be applied at every 15º increase in longitude to keep the hours of daylight and darkness in the right place.
This system worked very well and we kept strictly to it. There were no concessions given as to the change of watch time. If the person off watch was called on deck for any reason, it was, well, tough. But we did allow ourselves the luxury of dozing for 10 minutes at a time while on watch in good visibility, providing the kitchen timer was set and placed 'ear adjacent'.
You can read about other watch keeping rota systems here...
One of the design features of Alacazam was that key facilities would be available at the foot of the companionway; the galley, the heads, the navigation station and particularly the off-watch sea berth.
This berth was excellent in normal weather, but being at almost maximum beam it was difficult to get to sleep when the boat was rolling through 40 degrees or so every 6 seconds.
In these situations the off-watch crew slept on the saloon floor, just off the centreline, wedged between the folded-down table leaf and the starboard settee berth. Not very elegant but effective.
Mary did most of the cooking, in return for which I did most of the dish washing. If the weather was reasonable then this was done in a bucket of seawater in the cockpit, but otherwise I used freshwater in the galley sink.
A seawater pump at the galley is now on my 'to do' list. We had fully provisioned in England and topped up on our passage south whenever the opportunity arose. Further quantities of tinned and packaged food were purchased in Tenerife, as it was much cheaper than it would be in the West Indies.
Consequently we did not victual up against a list of requirements for a passage of a fixed duration. We simply filled all the available lockers with food. Famine Relief would have been pleased to see us arrive anywhere.
We'd purchased plenty of fruit and vegetables in Tenerife, which were stored in net hammocks in the forepeak.
These must be sited such that it is impossible for adjacent hammocks to crash into each other or the hull sides.
It is also better if the string doesn't break as ours did, resulting in mortal injuries to a number of tomatoes and avocado pears. Nothing was wasted though, but you can eventually tire of a diet of tomato soup and guacamole.
Mary had entered all her purchases in a database on the laptop, which she had printed off before leaving Tenerife. This was used as a stock control sheet on passage and enabled her to locate ingredients for her chosen meal without too much difficulty.
It also meant that the boat would not be taken apart in the futile search for the delicacy that had been eaten a month previously.
Our diet was enhanced by the occasional dorado (also known as the mahé mahé, or dolphin fish), which fell to my lure trailed astern on a trolling line.
There would have been more were it not for a Brown Booby (that's a bird, if you're wondering) that spent its annual vacation with us for 11 days, and which may have grabbed the lure had it been deployed.
Flying fish found on deck were scaled, gutted, opened up and grilled whole. Delicious!
Apart from our delightful booby, pictured here trying hard to hang on to the guard rails with its webbed feet, the only seabirds we saw while sailing the ocean were tropic birds and petrels.
The Bird, as he became known, enthralled us daily with his magnificent flying displays, gliding effortlessly through the wave troughs with his wingtips just clear of the sea.
We saw very few dolphins but we did have a False Killer Whale circling the boat for two hours one day.
We have three excellent reference books on board, 'Seabirds', 'Shorebirds' and 'Sealife' to which we regularly refer for identification of marine wildlife.
I was happy to drink the Tenerife water from the tanks, which was drawn through a Jabsco AquaFilter and tasted fine. Mary preferred the bottled mineral, of which we had a 25 litre supply. Bottled beer is very cheap in the Canaries, hence it seemed prudent to make a considerable investment in this essential commodity, which was stowed in the bilge.
On arrival in Guadeloupe we had used an average 13 litres of water per day, and there was noticeably more space in the bilge where the beer used to be.
Alacazam's galley surfaces are properly fiddled which prevents things falling off, but does nothing to prevent things sliding about. Enter non-skid tablemats! In our view they are right up there with 'Arry' the Aries as essential cruising gear.
One day we noticed some small black bugs crawling around. They were quickly despatched but shortly after we noticed a few more, then a little later a lot more. Clearly we had an infestation, which had to be dealt with. So in this rolling sea we started to unpack the food lockers. It was a nightmare, tins rolling everywhere but eventually we found the source. Several packets of rice purchased in Spain were alive with the little blighters.
Weevils! They had invaded packets of pasta, cornflour and breakfast cereals. I had learned to accept these as part of my diet in Libya, but neither of us could do with them crawling all over the boat like some kind of interactive wallpaper.
So all the contaminated food went over the side, the boat was doused liberally with insect repellent which gave us both headaches.
It took us all day. We were exhausted, but someone had to do the next watch. "Unlucky, Mary"!
We have a single fuel tank of 175 litres capacity. Our three cylinder 27hp Nannidiesel uses about 1.5 litres per hour in pushing Alacazam along at 5 knots in a flat sea. We had a further 25 litres in a plastic jerry can as a reserve. Consequently we had a maximum of 130 hours of engine usage available to us.
I think this is plenty, but other skippers were aghast that I intended to set of with 'so little' fuel. One skipper of a 53 foot Amel Super Maramu 2000 intended to run his engine (or generator) up to 6 hours a day just to charge the batteries.
Unbelievable! This push-button boat had electric everything; sail controls, microwave, watermaker, washing machine and tumble drier, air conditioning, dishwasher, two electric flush heads, even toothbrushes probably. It was new so I suppose everything worked, but just imagine when the appliances start to get a bit tired in a few years time. A full time janitor will be required.
But Alacazam had no such luxuries and needed only about 120 amp hours a day to keep things ticking over. Two 140Ah house batteries provided this power and were charged by the combination of two 50 watt Solarex solar panels, a Rutland 910 wind generator and a 65A alternator on the engine. A separate 140Ah battery provided power to start the engine. The alternator charged through an Adverc TWC. Net current draw and battery voltage was monitored by an Adverc Digital Current Monitor.
The DCM registered a net current input during the day due to the solar panels, and a net draw at night due to the navigation lights. The downwind rolly conditions were not good news for the wind generator, which contributed probably no more than 60Ah per day.
The solar panels contributed a further 35 amps hours, leaving a deficit of about 25Ah, which was made up by running the engine for about an hour each day.
The solar panels would have performed much better, perhaps avoiding the need to run the engine at all, had I not done something particularly crass before leaving Plymouth. I had mounted the radar scanner on the gantry, along with the radar reflector, above the solar panels. This together with the wind generator, various aerials and the anchor light all conspired to throw shadows across the panels. I have also mounted the panels on a ply base, which reduces ventilation under the panels, further affecting their performance.
The wind generator, radar scanner and reflector will now be moved further outboard, and all the other stuff resited, and the ply dispensed with to give the solar panels a chance to perform to their optimum.
Even so, when we arrived in Guadeloupe we had used less than half a tank of fuel.
We never did achieve the 200 mile day though. Our best noon-to-noon run was 177 miles, and our average daily run was 150.3 miles.
So what broke in 3,000nm of sailing the ocean? Nothing! (unless you count the tomato and avocado incident).