30 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] Gibraltar

Well, all attempts to get to Gib by sea were thwarted, and I arrived here by taxi. We set sail from Sines in clear skies and headed out towards the south, not even bothering about being 50 miles offshore as there was no qualifying possibility for this leg of the passage now. As we rounded Cape St Vincent with its magnificant lighthouse perched on the edge of the spectacular cliffs that bordered the sea, all was going well. I had called up a passing freighter on the radio to find out the weather forecast for the area to be told that they were expecting northerly winds, force 3-4. What utter rubbish! Every forecast but one was completely misleading, and I will come to that one shortly. Watch on, watch off, sleep when you can, pump the bilges, enjoy the sun's rays, pump the bilges, take some sun sightings, pump the bilges, prepare and eat food, pump the bilges - you begin to get the picture. 

Yesterday dawned after a red sky on Wednesday night full of promise. The wind was veering towards the east and the forecast was east to south east force 4-5 - potentially a good sailing day. Another freighter came close by so we called them on the VHF radio to get their weather forecast. Not so good news: a Levanter wind was kicking up and was blowing a hooley from the East, force 6-7 maybe storm force 8 throught the straits of Gibraltar. Nonetheless, we plugged on beating our way towards our destination, zigging and zagging along our track. Come dusk, we shortened the mainsail down to 3 reefs (still with no foresail, and the forestay supported by two halyards now just in case it decided to part company), I also created a new soon-to-be-patented backstay reinforcer - the "Witting Wrapper" which basically was a set of rolling hitches lashed onto the steel backstay to prevent it parting company with the gas strut that pumped up the pressure on the backstay, raked (put a bend in) the mast and tensioned the forestay. Then we watched as the winds and wave heights rapidly increased. When the winds were a steady 40 knots and the seas were tossing us around like we were in a tumble drier we were still 50 miles or so away from our waypoint at the entrance to the straits. 

During the next three hours of tacking and bashing into the ever steepening seas, we had made the grand total of 4 miles to the east and our destination - only another 46 to go, which at our present rate of progress would have taken more than another 36 hours. The boat was suffering from the constant pounding of the waves and several fittings were broken in the maelstrom: Cupboard doors parted company with their gas strut supports and were hanging limp and lifeless on their hinges; Renny (one of the crew) threw up, fortunately, he waited until I furnished him with the ship's bucket, the door to a storage locker was stoved in when a particularly strong thump on the bow took me by surprise and threw me across the cabin; oh, and did I mention that we pumped the bilges? The waves crashing over the bow sent what seemed like 3000 gallons of seawater across the deck which flooded backwards into the cockpit area and we ended up sitting in pools of it; it was at about this time that I realised my waterproof suit wasn't waterproof any more - not nice. Cold, wet, and under pressure to get to a safe haven at a place called Barbate and out of the storm I tried a different tactic and pointed the boat straight into the storm to try and make some headway. We managed some reasonable progress and with an extra 500 revs on the engine we got the speed over ground up to the 4 knot mark. All we had to do now was avoid the notorious shallows of the Cape Trafalgar, keep away from a magnetic anomaly area in the middle of the sea, and by-pass the tunny fishing nets that stretched for miles and some of which were marked on the navigation charts. By six in the morning, having been up all night wrestling with the elements, I finally came off watch. Soaked to the skin, I stripped everything off and crawled into my sleeping bag, put my head on the pillow and remember nothing for the next two hours when I was woken up to drop the sails and prepare to enter the harbour. Half an hour later, we were tied up at the fuel dock replenishing the diesel in the tanks and shortly thereafter we were berthed in the marina.

First things first, all the oilskins were hung out to dry, the boat hatches opened to dry out the sodden interior and it was off to the marina heads to do what no-one can do for you. We went to the cafe for breakfast and I got chatting to some locals about the weather. Sticky was hell bent on resuming our journey to Gib, but after talking to the locals who said 'no chance of making Gibraltar before Sunday', we persuaded him to change his plans and stay in port. Three of the crew (me included) had flights booked for departure or rendezvous with friends, and so we decided we would jump ship and make our way by taxi to Gib. In the meantime, Sticky had unilaterally taken himself off to Gib in his own taxi to collect a replacement electric control panel for fitting on the boat. This really hacked us off - one thoughtless action and three crew members backs were up. It would have been a simple move to get a taxi and share it, instead of which we had to pay for a separate one and share the cost. Sadly, this left a bitter taste in the mouth and could very easily been avoided with a little consideration for the crew members. As it is, I now have a spare day tomorrow to go and explore Gibraltar. I think I'll go up the rock and see my ancestors (the apes if you hadn't guessed!), explore the tunnels etcetera. Early night tonight - absolutely knackered.

27 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] Somewhere out in the Atlantic

After an uneventful night sharing a bunk with a snoring shipmate separated only by a leecloth to stop us rolling into each other as we tacked the boat (thankfully he was on watch for 3 hours so I was relatively undisturbed except for the Man Overboard alarm which kept triggering in error) I woke to dappled sunshine and the prospect of another thrilling day afloat miles from anywhere and with the same faces around me. The bilges were still filling up with water at a rate which was requiring frequent pumping out, but we hadn't got to the bottom of where the water was coming from. An hour later, the sun shone through, and I got stuck into my sun sights with a borrowed sextant and sight reduction tables. This was what I really wanted to get to grips with, and my first set of reductions put me within 1 mile of our GPS position - not bad for a starter! However, on the second set of sights I took in the afternoon, I was not so good - 1 degree (60 miles) out - we put it down to the fact that I wasn't wearing my  specs, and misread the scale on the sextant. I'll try again in the morning - the more practice I get, the easier it becomes. Might try some star sights tonight to see how I get on with them too.

This afternoon, we finally found the source of our water ingress - one of the pipes coming off the enging exhaust cooling system was not tight, and despite our attempts to fix it by adjusting the jubilee clips around the pipe - it was all to no avail. So we will have an engineer on standby for when we get to Gibraltar. In the meantime, we simply keep on pumping the bilges out.

We altered our planned course today as we have had no wind and being under engine all the time, we (I) calculated how much fuel we have used, and what remains in the tank. We decided that we wouldn't have enough fuel to get us all the way to Gibraltar with sufficient safety margin, so we are now diverting into Sines on the Portuguese coast to refuel before heading back out into the Atlantic and round to Gib. All good fun. Ho hum. At least I got to have a shower on board tonight as we can refill the water tanks too in Sines. I might even be able to upload this blog!

26 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] Bayona, NorthWest Coast of Spain

We arrived in Bayona a few hours ahead of schedule early this morning with the mist hanging over the sea. We were expecting to be later as we had been beating into the wind and swell all the way across the top of Spain from La Coruna, but as we rounded the corner to turn south, the wind eased a bit and eventually swung round to the SSE which enabled us to come in for the last part of the journey on the route I had planned. Whilst on watch I had the most surreal experience: At night time there are sea creatures that give of phosphorescent glows when disturbed in the water, and usually it is most noticeable in the propeller wake. Off to starboard as I was on the helm I saw a stream of phosphorescence which tracked along side the boat. After a few seconds three dolphins popped out of the water, still streaming and with their bodies aglow. Sadly it was only a fleeting glimpse, but very special nonetheless. I had only been talking about such sights earlier in the evening, and amazingly had the opportunity to see it for myself. I also saw a couple of meteorites burning up and disintegrating in the skies overhead - free fireworks but without the bangs.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings - back to the journey. We had a rapid turn around in Bayona, took on two new crew, renewed the gas cylinder which was empty (not easy to do on a Spanish bank holiday) had a shower to freshen up, and off we headed. We are now steadily moving offshore so that we are more than 50 miles out, where we will stay for the next several hundred miles until we reach the mouth of the Med. A new watch system has been drawn up, and I am on at 6:30 till 9:00, then from 2am till 5am. A case of snatching some sleep now to gird my loins for duty. Signing off for a nap....

25 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] Off the north coast of Spain

Heading out towards the Atlantic at the moment with the swell right on the nose. A little bumpy as a result, but we expected that. Winds picked up more than forecast, but without the foresail we can't expect to make many knots into the wind with just the main out. In about 30 miles more, we can bear away and get some advantage for the final two legs of our journey to Bayona. Crew of three today, watch periods are 4 hours on, 8 hours off. I got my 4 hours in first and now have time to do my blog!

Went provisioning for the week yesterday afternoon to the only supermarket in town where we spent €110 of the victualling budget. Loaded up the trolley bag, picked up the 12 1.68litre bottles of water and headed out in the vain hope of finding a taxi to take us back to the marina. Sods Law stirkes again - Taxi? Nix. Nada. Niente. None. So we slogged it the mile or so back to the boat trailing a hundredweight of groceries (breaking the tow handle of Sticky's bag in the process). My arms were a good few inches longer by the time we got back.  However, I had a great shower in the marina last night before heading out into the town for some beers and Tapas in a little street just off the main square.

Talking to a couple in the marina who are keeping their boat there for the winter, I found out that the marina charges in la Coruna are far cheaper thath the UK. Not a bad starting and stopping off point for the season. Worth exploring some more, particularly if Spain drops out of the Eurozone and the pound strengthens against the Peseta. There is an airport 10 minutes away with direct flights to London, or Santander is not that far away with regular ferry links to Plymouth. 

I heard an alarm go off on board at 6:00 local time this morning (5am UK time) and there was no getting back to sleep, so I got up and did the passage plan and pilotage plans for the day's sailing. we are aiming to do 130 miles today and should arrive in Bayona in the morning in Daylight to collect two new crew and then straight out towards The Atlantic (keeping 50 miles offshore at all times) and round cape St Vincent, turning east towards cape Trafalgar and the pillars of Hercules before entering the Mediterranean.

A Spanish naval vessel appeared on our starboard quarter and passed us by in the last few minutes - I looked for it on the chartplotter  to see which one it was, but they don't transmit any AIS signal. Sneaky!

A new issue has cropped up today, we are monitoring the level of water in the bilges, checking every two hours and counting the seconds required to pump out dry. Currently about 10 seconds per pump session. We have had the floor panels up trying to find out where the water ingress comes from, but so far have found nothing obvious. The forestay is wobbling around all over the place and we have put a secondary stay in place in the form of the spinnaker halyard as a precaution. That should get us there in one piece.

24 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] La Coruna

Last night on watch I saw something I had never encountered before: Two fishing boats working in tandem with a purse-seine net strung out behind and between them. I had to steer the boat away to leave them a good several hundred metres searoom in case their nets had billowed out to the side. Otherwise, nothing significant to report from the watch. Several stars out, some shooting stars visible from the deck, and the temperature is definitely getting warmer. I was distinctly overdressed in my oilskins, but we had had a weather forecast that predicted rain and I didn't want to be caught out.

Hopefully we can get the foresail sorted today, if not we will be sailing off tomorrow under main only en route to Gibraltar. I am learning all about the benefits of Navtex and AIS on this trip. Both essential for long passages and full of useful information necessary to manage a safe trip. My attempts at creating a spreadsheet to calculate the Lat & Long position need to be revisited, but I have been looking at the calculations and have a way of improving it (I think!). I have been working through some sun sights and have a much better understanding of it now. Still much to learn, and practice will make perfect.

23 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] Mid Biscay

Yesterday, part way across the Bay of Biscay, we were trying to roll in the reefing headsail but it jammed. This was the mechanism that had failed in the Channel and caused us to divert into Falmouth for repairs, which clearly weren't successful. We removed the headsail to look at the mechanism to the great interest of a pod of dolphins, who stayed with us throughout the exercise. Presumably they had never seen a sail taken down before. No success with the mechanism, we think it is the cable inside the forestay that is caught and is winding itself tighter with every turn. So we have rolled the sail in by hand, tied it in place and are now diverting to La Coruna instead of Bayona. Also, the shower pump packed in yesterday afternoon and I had to bale out the shower with a bucket and sponge. Apparently the pump was blocked solid with grey pubic hair - not mine, I hasten to add - I haven't got any! Well no grey ones anyway, I wouldn't want you to think I had had a Hollywood!.

Who said sailing is a science? You can plan with the best of them, but you always need a plan B as well. So, having stood three watches last night I got my head down this morning to catch up on some sorely missed zzzz's and feel much better for it. Getting out of my bunk at 5am was not easy!

The whole trip is making me think long and hard about our own boat - whether we would want to do the hard physically demanding, mentally draining long passages is up for debate. Would I want to do deliveries on a regular basis? No. Would Debra want to do a trip like this at all? Probably not. Therefore, should we be looking at a cheaper boat to pootle around on day sails or short trips? Maybe, possibly definitely. We have some discussions to have when I get to shore in La Coruna. What I have found out though, is that the longer you are on passage, the more you attune to the rigours of life aboard and it becomes second nature to cook eat, drink, and ablute in the various forms whilst hanging onto a grabrail somewhere nearby and leaning into the heel of the boat. Definitely need non-slip surfaces wherever possible.

22 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] Bay of Biscay

Aboard 'Heartbeat IV' a Dufour 45, part way across the Bay of Biscay. The weather is sunny, the winds have dropped significantly, and we are motor sailing our merry way southwards towards the north coast of Spain.

It's been a funny old few days. Having had to join the boat at Weymouth instead of Dartmouth because the bad weather had precipitated (excuse the pun, but fully intended) a diversion into a comfortable berth alongside the town quay. I joined on Sunday, met the rest of the crew, had my briefing on the boat, reworked the passage plan to avoid going into Dartmouth altogether, dined aboard and we went off to the pub. Monday we set sail around noon and headed out past Portland Harbour and the Bill setting south for a good distance to avoid the Portland races. Having achieved that, we headed west straight into the wind and tide. Knowing we would be beating (tacking) up into the wind we didn't expect it to be easy, but after a couple of hours, the Portland Bill was still on our starboard side, even though we were making 6+ knots through the water.

Come Monday evening, we were still making heavy weather of the journey, coupled with some knotting of the foresail sheets which decided to recreate the Philosophers knot. Going forwards to clear this tangle, one of the crew that remained back in the cockpit took a heavy fall and injured his hip. Shortly afterwards,  another crew member got 'side-swiped' by the mainsheet and also feel in the cockpit. Who says going forwards on the boat is dangerous??? However, having exerted a lot of energy and focus in getting the bloody sheets untangled, I returned to the cockpit feeling rather queasy, and for only the second time in my life, I was seasick, and threw up at sea into the ship's bucket. A Ralph, Ruth and Huey later, I had cleared my system and promptly headed off to my bunk to get some sleep.

After a somewhat fragmented sleep on Monday night,Tuesday dawned much the same, except this time there was a liberal dosage of rain to add to our discomfort. Nevertheless, we continued on our way with one crew member unable to do much, slowly making our way westwards with the aim to reach The Lizard before bearing away south. In an attempt to roll out some additional headsail, the roller mechanism jammed. As we were trying desperately to free this off and drop the headsail down to the deck, a pod of dolphins swam alongside, obviously curious to see what was going on on the foredeck. They cavorted around the bow for the best part of 30 minutes or more while we struggled, then I suggested we diverted into Falmouth which was only 6 miles away to sort it out. Wrapping the headsail by hand, we eventually got it furled, tied it off, and headed for port. By the way, the water pump had also packed up, so we had no means of getting water out of the tanks to use. By the time we had sorted the boat out and had something to eat, no-one was in the frame of mind to go ashore, so we retired early absolutely knackered.

Next morning the sun shone. We hung our our oilies to dry, had a shower ashore, the riggers came out to sort the foresail reefing mechanism, the water pump issue appeared to be resolved and the crew were about to mutiny. We were not happy with the faults that we were constantly having to fix on a year-old boat that has obviously been thrashed by racing her regularly. Three of us went off for breakfast to think about the circumstances we found ourselves in, and Peter, the injured crew member went off to hospital to get his injury checked out. An hour or two later, the problems resolved, we reconvened aboard to decide whether to continue or not. Peter was to leave the boat on medical advice, and we were now a crew of four, which meant watch on, watch off. More tiring, and a case of sleep whenever you can, but we decided to continue.

At 2pm, we set sail and headed southwards towards Ushant. For once, the wind was brisk (around 20 -23 knots) and the swell was not hammering the boat so we made better progress. Creaming along through the water at a steady 8 knots, this boat showed her paces and we arrived of Ushant 2 hours earlier than expected. Crossing the traffic separation scheme in the middle of the Channel (effectively like a motorway for large boats and tankers), we had to dodge several commercial ships who kept to their course even though we were the stand-on vessel and had  'right of way'. I came off watch at 6am and hit my bunk like a lead weight. The wind dropped to below 10 knots during the night and we are now motoring at a steady 1600 rpm to maintain speed without consuming too much fuel. The boat is steady enough for me to type this, and I am going on deck to enjoy the sunshine.