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A misadventure on an Atlantic Crossing!

Click the image to step through the pictures.

The boat - bows on.
The boat - bows on.

After two years of lockdowns and being stuck at home we were itching for a “grand adventure”, especially as before Covid we were more often away than at home helping other people move their boats around the world. Indeed, in November before Covid we had just finished a Cross Atlantic, our 6th so far, this one taking us from Baltimore in the USA to Bermuda and then on to the Azores and Lagos in Portugal. Just before lockdown we had also agreed to bring back a boat from Portugal to the Solent and were about to book the flights, then Covid and lockdown changed the world!

Although we were luckier than most, as my partner and I had just bought a new home together, we quite enjoyed our lockdowns as the new house and garden kept us busy, however after two years of no traveling we were humming and hawing over whether to “take the risk” and put up with the hassle of traveling with all the new rules and regulations when we were offered an opportunity to help take a 55ft Catamaran from Tenerife to St Maarten in the Caribbean. It was far too tempting an offer, especially as it was on a catamaran, which would make the voyage far more comfortable than on a mono-hull. So yes, indeed, we were raring to go!! And then I was called to do Jury duty!! So it seemed that only my partner would be able to go, however thanks to a bit of luck, I managed to get away with only one week of Jury duty before being thanked kindly and sent home, and the sailing was postponed by a week, due to the boat still getting some work done on her. So once again, bags were packed, Covid passes and Spanish forms were filled in and printed and our air tickets arrived and on 22nd of March we took a taxi to the train station got on our first train since Covid had arrived and our adventure began.

We were amazed at how busy the airport was and equally the plane was pretty full too! Our Skipper was on the same flight and we had a nice reunion. Our masques were in full use, except for a snack and a sandwich. We were half way through the flight when the captain announced that a medical emergency was happening on board and unfortunately due to the seriousness of the patients, we would be diverting to Porto to get the two medical emergencies off the flight and into a hospital. Having touched down in Porto, waited another two hours to fill up with fuel and get the two sick passengers off along with their luggage we were up and away again and arrived in Tenerife two hours later than expected. Luckily (or was it good planning?) our third crew member had arrived before us, picked up a hire car and was waiting for us at the airport thus avoiding further delays. We were soon at the Marina and on the boat and making plans for the coming days, getting victualing lists together (food lists for our 17-to-21-day passage across the Atlantic Ocean), and checking weather forecasts, which were unfortunately looking far more changeable than a week before, with plenty of nasty little weather fronts coming in. The boat also got a good clean, engines were checked and charts, both electronic and paper, were looked at and passage plans made ready.

By Friday the food was on board, the boat was cleaned, engines had been checked and we were ready to go. However, the coming weather showed a storm coming down on us from the North and it looked prudent to wait until the Tuesday to get away. However, the Skipper, having carefully looked at the weather patterns decided if we left straight away, we could get some decent wind giving us a good speed and should be able to get ahead of the worst of the weather, be on our way and hopefully find the all-important Westerly trade winds which would give us a smooth passage across. So, decision made, we set off, fueled up and were away, although we had a slight problem with the steerage and came a bit too close for comfort to some outlying rocks while getting out of the Marina and into the open Sea. No harm done though, and we were away.

We had enough wind to get the sails up and put in two reefs as the wind was expected to get livelier through the night. Our watch system was set up and we had our first meal, a fine chicken tikka masala!

We were four on board, the Skipper, a man of many years experience with whom we had sailed before, myself and my partner all three of us being in the “pensioner” category of life, with our third crew member a somewhat younger middle-aged man from Scotland who was a mountain climber and hiker as well as sailor and planned to take his exam for his Yachtmaster Ocean certificate, which would entail navigation by astro-navigation (the stars to the unitiated) using a sextant, a science which my partner was also interested in.

The first night went by without any problems, although by the morning watch we noticed one of the reefs on the sail had come loose and this would need to be fixed as the reefs are used to shorten sail when the wind gets too high and allows us to stay safe and not become overpowered.

Once everyone was up and breakfast was had we put the motor on and took down the sail to get the reef line re-attached. We soon realised that the reef lines had not been attached properly and spent most of the morning getting these fixed as best as possible. The reef lines are a necessity if the wind should pick up and we would need less sail up, so it was a job that could not be left. Our mountain climbing crew member proved very helpful in getting the task done as there was a fair bit of climbing up on the sail and manoeuvring the lines while re-attaching them. It took a few goes before a satisfactory job was done and we were on our way again with two reefs in the sail, as the wind had strengthened and the seas were becoming quite lumpy and confused. The first two “sights” were taken with the sextants and calculations duly done. Chart plotting would be done the next day. Unfortunately, our youngest crew member succumbed to sea sickness, although he was a seasoned sailor, he was not used to the confused seas an Atlantic Passage can throw at you and he was soon struggling to keep food or drink down and was sent down below to his bunk. The rest of us ate a fine spaghetti bolognaise and the night watches began with the three of us covering for our sick crew member until his recovery.

We made good progress in the night but by the morning with the changing winds we had to change course to a more south-westerly and by the end of the Saturday with the seas building and the wind changing yet again we changed course going more north, which at this stage, unbeknown to us, would be taking us into an ever-strengthening storm coming down to meet us. Having lost so much time with fixing the reefing lines we had not been able to get ahead and away from the storm. Our sick crew member was still quite poorly but was able to help with his watch keeping, but all of us were already feeling quite tired having had a rough and loud night. We had been through all this before though and it always takes a few days to get used to broken sleep patterns which the “watches” inevitably bring and get into the “rhythm” of a passage by sail. Unfortunately, no Sun sights could be taken with the sextant as the seas were too lumpy and there was also too much cloud coverage.

Our third night began, my partner was on her three-hour watch from 6 to 9pm, then it was my turn from 9 to 12pm and Tony, our skipper took the watch from midnight to 2pm. My partner was asleep in our cabin below, as was our younger crew member. I decided to sleep in the saloon, as it was slightly more comfortable than sleeping in our bunk below. The seas were quite lumpy and the wind quite strong but all seemed under control.

Then suddenly, I was very rudely awakened by a giant splash of water being thrown at me, soaking me from top to toe, this was followed by pots and pans flying off of shelves and my partner said she woke to this sound followed by water “avalanching” down the steps. She immediately got up to see what help could be given and we found ourselves awash INSIDE the boat! Now we are quite used to getting wet and being surrounded by water OUTSIDE the boat, but certainly not inside!! The water made the floor incredibly slippery and as we found towels to throw on the floor to soak up the water as best we could, first I slipped and hit my head on the floor and then my partner slipped down in the cabin below and hit her arm very hard on a wooden step. Her arm blew up like a balloon, quite alarming, I thought it was broken at first, but thankfully was only badly bruised. Our younger crew member finally came out of his forward cabin having also been soaked to the skin with water coming through his hatch. At 2am in the morning we were indeed a sorry sight, but could do nothing more than clean up as best as possible and wait till the morning and daylight could give us a chance to assess the damage. Thankfully, other than being battered and bruised and soaked to the skin we were all right!

That morning the full extent of the damage was seen. What must have been a giant rogue wave hit the boat from the side taking away the front steps and a seat on the front of the boat and then rushed into the cabin via the open back door and soaked not only us but also the electronics inside one of the lockers, and filling the bilges with water. The decision was made to head back to the Canary Islands as we were only three days out and therefore could have the damage assessed and fixed. We had a cracking sail back which only took 18 hours. The owner of the boat had been called and advised of the situation and he found a berth for us in Gran Canaria, as Tenerife was now fully booked and had no room for us. We arrived in Gran Canaria and realised the full extent of the damage and how lucky we really were that no one had been outside in the cockpit of the boat when the wave hit as they would most certainly have been thrown overboard, even though we always wore safety lines when outside, the strength of the wave must have been phenomenal. We stayed only a day in Gran Canaria as they did not have a lift big enough for the boat, so on we went to Lanzarote where a big enough lift was available. So instead of an Atlantic Crossing we had a grand tour of the Canary Islands! We left the boat and the owner in Lanzarote as she (the boat that is) could only be lifted over Easter.

Our return journey will be remembered for the “cattle market” quality of it with airports packed and disorganised, buses and trains full up like sardines in a can and finally a taxi home to a warm non-moving bed! It was certainly good to get home after our “mis-adventure”!

Author: Brian McCarthy

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