Lisbon -> Canary Islands in 10 days

I left at 17:30 from Cascais, with the Hooligans attempting to steal my ship (again). I suspect they think it would make a nice little dinghy to play with in the harbour on boring Sundays. They’re probably right…! As I waited in the office to sign the long winded exit papers, the Policia Maritima took a copy of my boat details and destination, at which point I thought ‘oh here we go, I guess I’ll have a snap inspection or something’. Luckily he just showed me a weather report and said ‘do you know what you’re doing, there is 5metres of swell outside, and more predicted for tomorrow?’. I smiled politely and just said ‘yes, thanks’, and quickly left before he decided to check me out any further. I had a good quality forecast from Commanders Weather, whom I trust highly, and also a good plan of attack for said swell (it was simple really, get the heck offshore and don’t look behind you!).

I motored out of the breakwater, and the swell was up, as one could easily see from the waiting pontoon. A pilot boat was being cheeky and surfed past the entrance at great speed on an incoming wave, leaving a huge wake for me to contend with – Instantly I felt seasick… As soon as I was far enough out, I launched the sails, set ‘Windy the Windpilot’ to course, and lay in my bunk, feeling horrible. I spent some time vomiting over the rail, and then just lay down with my eyes closed, willing it to all go away. Thankfully the wind was steady, both in strength and direction, allowing me to be sick and not have to contend with the boat. I dozed a little throughout the night, but mostly I was awake, doing checks and trying hard to think of nothing.

The next day I felt considerably better, but had no appetite whatsover, eating a few jellybeans for breakfast, and drinking water all day. My kindly wind had died by 17:00, leaving me drifting around. I motored for a few hours, and then just decided to let it be, killing ‘August the mighty Yanmar’, and dropping the headsail. I slept with all the lights on, adrift, with only a few tankers far in the distance towards the Portuguese coast, climbing slowly North, from the Straight of Gibraltar.

Morning came with a light ENE wind, allowing me to continue on, feeling much better physically, and celebrating at lunch time by listening to Simon & Garfunkel, drinking Coke and eating cans of tuna. The lyrics to ‘America’ (…’I’ve come, to look for America…’), ‘Homeward Bound’ (‘Homeward bound, I wish I was…’), and particularly fitting the track ‘I am a rock’ (‘I am a rock, I am an Island…’) were all highlights – As you can see, Simon & Garfunkel were hauntingly apt for my little 10 day sailing jaunt.

What little wind there was, eventually died, the swell calmed down, and before I knew it, the Atlantic Ocean was a sparkling mirror. The light airs and complete lack of wind was really beginning to get to me. I didn’t have enough fuel to motor all the way to Gran Canaria, and if it was going to be like this the whole way, I was in for a lot more singing along to Garfunkel et al… As in, about four weeks of singing ‘I am a rock’ as I paddled south from the bow of Constellation with my dinghy oars.

Eventually I motored far enough to find the illusive wind, which appeared at around the 34degree latitude mark. I hoped that this was the point where I might find tradewind style conditions for the rest of the trip, and more or less, it turned out I had. Running with the boom out and a headsail, there was an all mighty ‘snap’ at 04:40, as the boom went flying overhead. Luckily I always run a preventer, which probably saved further damage, but unfortunately this didn’t stop the main track from breaking loose at the base, leaving me to jury rig it for the rest of the trip. I’m a strong believer in using a preventer as common practice, because contrary to popular belief, more solo sailors disappear from being hit on the head by the boom, or falling overboard when taking a leak, than being ravaged by enormous storms or similarly dramatic circumstances. While this was a minor annoyance, the day was beautiful, and actually rather warm. I was in a T-shirt before you knew it, and the air smelt sweet, as it blew over from the African coast. Later in the day I could have sworn I smelt cigarette smoke. I pictured a group of Moroccans smoking Gitanes on the beach, pointing in my rough direction, with an elder telling the story of a long-lost shipment of rugs, the vessel foundered on a wicked lee shore, while on route to northern Europe… Little did they know, they were in fact pointing to a tiny red vessel far out at sea, the captain quite clearly showing an overactive imagination, due to a lack of contemporary distraction.

From this latitude on, the wind kept blowing from almost the exact same point, only varying in strength for the remainder of the trip. In my second day of steady winds, I was so excited to finally be doing real miles, I made an omelet with cheese and salami, and sat in in the cockpit, enjoying the uniform horizon and strengthening sun. As the sun went down, I looked forward to finally being able to listen to the BBC (the signal propagates better at night), and am therefore an expert on all sorts of world issues at the moment, so if you need any tips or clarifications on climate change in developing countries, or even the impending global recession, just ask in the comments below…

As I came further south, the winds picked up in strength, yet also tended to vary more frequently. This required numerous sail changes, which to begin with, became somewhat tiring at times (remember, I have hanked-on sails, not roller-furling). I did notice however, that by about the sixth day out, night and day became so irrelevant, it was quite extraordinary. I think I must have become more in touch with my ‘inner animal’, because I’m quite convinced, that in the animal kingdom, such human preoccupations with time, and particularly day and night, are not even noticed. To clarify, I mean to say, when you are entirely free of outside restrictions, one develops a state of being, which allows you to do what needs doing, when it needs to be done, regardless of of any other pre-concieved notions of familiar restraint. Therefore, a 4am sail change and getting dunked into the water on the bow, is no different from doing it at any other time, and is of no more, or less convenience. This I think is probably a unique situation to solo sailors, whereby you are pitted against the elements and time for extended periods, allowing you to develop a time-less existence. It is also something which crewed boats probably don’t experience, where they are more regimented by watch schedules and the like. I can’t really think of any other occupation where this kind of thing might occur, outside of sleeping experiments. I suspect this will become an even deeper phenomenon on my longer voyage across the Atlantic.

In other matters related to the psychology of sailing, or more to the point, how I felt mentally about the whole thing, I was remarkably calm and collected. The fear of Biscay (as a result of at least four hundred years of British maritime fear being drummed into me from every corner!) was quite intense. I sailed out of Brest with my heart in my mouth, where it stayed the entire trip. Biscay was mostly uneventful, but still, mentally I was concerned, nervous and exceptionally over tired throughout. I knew that fear had to be dealt with, which was why I left, and why on this trip I felt a lot more ‘together’. I knew what was coming, and while I didn’t relish the first few days (they are without a doubt the toughest), I felt I at least knew what I was in for, in some respects. Also, I believe a three day sail is probably tougher than a six to ten day sail, because it isn’t until about the fourth or fifth day that any kind of semblance to routine or normality is developed. Another curious note (I hope I’m not boring you with observations, I just find this all very interesting, and maybe it’s not spoken a lot about, so potentially it’s interesting to you too…) in the first few days, your mental state is quite fragile. For example, listening to depressing music, attempting to read difficult novels etc, are a big no-no. In order to keep it together, I amused myself with a bunch of hand-me-down yachting magazines, which are by nature light on the neurons (they’re just filled with photos of Tom Cunliffe holding a spanner with a stupid grin on his face anyway) and airy pop music. Trying to wrap your head around Raoul Vaneigem’s chapters on ‘Mediated Abstraction, Abstracted Mediation’ or listening to a particularly depressing Jeff Buckley track, will quite simply send you insane.

Constellation was a real dream – She reminded me so quickly once the wind started blowing what a great boat she is. Despite her size, she sails so incredibly well, the long keel gives immense directional stability, the displacement in the water gives a predictable movement, and one feels inherently safe sailing her. On more than one occasion, I woke up to find Constellation positively flying at over six knots. To begin with I jumped out of bed to de-power her, but after getting out of the cabin, and sitting on the deck under the mainsail, the sparkling full moon and stars coupled with the perverse exhilaration of cutting through the water in the middle of the night, it became a sight too good to miss. Usually I would spend ten minutes or so, simply watching the speedy wake disappear from the stern before dealing with the over powered sail configuration. The moon in full condition was a real help to night sailing, it almost felt like daylight outside, the water shining a cold silver. The stars alone are beautiful, but the moon has a somewhat friendly calming personality (that’s why it’s a smiling cheese-ball, right?), with the distance of the stars being a little too existential to appreciate fully when you’re hurtling along entirely alone in a small vessel. I think the stars were created for desert aficionados, with the moon built specifically for sailorly personalities.

‘Windy the Windpilot’ also performed with bells on, virtually steering the entire trip minus the 24 odd hours of motoring when the wind was nowhere to be seen. I genuinely don’t think I could have made better choices of boat and equipment (ok, with a lot of money I could have bought something of similar pedigree but bigger/more confortable…), and it felt good to finally experience those decisions fully. Constellation was not made for motoring around in unpredictable and non-existent winds, of which I experienced a lot down the European coast. She was built for sailing, and when she does, it’s amazing. Another breakage on this voyage was my Tri-light, which has been giving me trouble since day one. It flickers when the boat heels, and I’ve climbed the mast several times to try and fix it, and last attempted in Cascais, to no avail. I thought it was an odd sizing in the new LED lamp, so I swapped it out with a standard bulb. Unfortunately this worked for the first night, but again flickered out and then stopped. I ran with bow and stern lights, placing the LED lamp in the stern casing, which meant I was using a total of 27.5watts during the night. It seems one of my batteries (both new in August of 2007) may be on the blink: If I charge for 8 hours, it last for about 5 hours with minimal load, and drops in voltage dramatically in it’s dying failure. I suspect this could be from overcharging, since I have no regulator or charge system, it all comes off the engine, and if I forget to alternate batteries for charging, I think they become overcharged and destroyed. Disappointing. Thankfully other than nav lights and the shortwave radio, I have no other power requirements. My GPS is handheld, I use paper charts, and I don’t use the internal lights at night, other than to cook briefly, as I tend to start napping when the sun goes down, and I’m up again when the sun rises. This simplicity is wonderful, because other than two AA batteries to run my GPS and some power for the LED nav light, I can run free. So many boats are up to the hilt with complexity, that once something stops working, the entire boat becomes almost dead in the water.

All in all it was a very positive trip, and gave me excellent insight into the longer one ahead. The conditions were mostly ideal (only a few days had water over the bow, scuppers awash), but if you told me I had to leave across the Atlantic tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t be very happy… However I know after a rest I will have my gusto back to tackle it. Thank you again to Ton & Petra for the loan of their satellite phone, it was a real boon to call my family to let them know I was ok, and send back some position details. As I left in a fluster, I was unable to set things up properly, however across the Atlantic reporting will be sorted out properly, and I have a unique method of sending back my experiences to the web, which I’ll talk about later.

For now, Jack is in town, and I’m going to eat lots of home cooked food, which I really need, as I have definitely lost weight (he promised to cook in exchange for interviews!) and also attempt to regain a normal sleeping pattern ASAP. No doubt I’ll be waking up at all hours of the night, muttering to myself about checking the mainsail, ensuring the heading is correct, and glancing at the horizon for the dreaded ‘over 50metres and steaming’ lights, unawares we are safely tied up in the marina! Thanks to everyone who sent me good wishes in my last post, and for all the direct emails with positive thoughts.

nick.

11 Comments

  1. Hey Nick,

    you made it!! 🙂 Congratuliations!
    Enjoy your time at Gran Canaria (I really wish I could be there in these stormy and rainy days in northern Germany…).

    Say “Hi” for me to Jack and the mighty Yanmar “August” 😉

    All the best,

    Johannes

  2. Awesome, been following you with alot of interest, since you were sleeping in the boat and on the hard and living on pasta cooked by candle!

    I really am amazed you have pulled this off so soon. Not only that I am so impressed with your psycholgical explanantions of single handed sailing, I have searched long and hard on the net and that previous post was the best synopsis I have read..

  3. Adam

    Hey, what are you doing? Everyone /knows/ you can’t sail out of sight of land in less than a 45′ boat with at least a half dozen highly experienced (and expensive) crew in stylish blazers. Not to mention the tons of money you aren’t spending. Is that even legal?? 🙂

    Seriously, I don’t remember where I first ran across you; but I am greatly enjoying your trip from afar.

    Fair winds and following seas!

  4. Pingback: Blue Zone » Blog Archive » I love the beach!

  5. Tim

    Well done !
    A safe voyage conducted in a thoroughly seamanlike manner .

    I have to confess to cautioning in YBW against doing it at this time of year,but you and the boat were actually ‘sorted’ and ready to go as soon as the weather let you. Good boat,great attitude ,well done indeed.

    You arrived in time for Australia Day !

  6. Hi again Rick. First of all I’ll comment on that sweet boat; the Contessa is the only boat that compares to my little Mighty Merry Too, a Dana 24 buuilt by Pacific Seacraft. So many used to say “such a small boat. Is that safe?” Frankly I think small is safer. Secondly I chimed right in with your thoughts about time and feelings. Being alone teaches one to depend on self and is a great conficence builder as well as just being pleasant. Your choice of hanked on sails, in my mind, is also a good choice, maybe because that’s what I used across the Pacific. Thanks for responding to me and I’ll keep watching as you proceed. You’re bringing back lots and lots of memories.
    Mary the Merry Sailor

  7. Paul Varel

    Hey Nick,

    Kickass 😉 I knew that you could do it!! Thanks for connecting me with Ben he seems like a nice guy! So how is the mighty August feeling, has it been working porperly?

    Well i wish you all the best and i hope that you have a good atlantic crossing. Pedro is coming to visit us in Scorpio tomorrow and is staying for a week so that should be quite nice 🙂 I hope that your luck keeps up 🙂 I do have to whine a bit though and i was kinda looking forward to see some more pictures.. 🙂

    Take care!!!

    Greets /Paul

  8. Jarv

    Congratulations Nick! Absolutely brilliant, making me very jealous sitting here in snowy Brixton…
    Offshore with a stiff breeze is definitely where CO26s are meant to be.

    For the masthead lights: For me the problem was the connection on the top of the cabin – spray would work its way into the contacts and corrode a layer. I found I could turn the lights on and off by touching the connector – not good! In the end it didn’t actually take much… just a thorough cleaning with WD40 down the three socket holes & pipe cleaners to remove the crud, then a serious greasing up of the plug prongs with vaseline before screwing the whole assembly back together.

    Batteries: Doesn’t sound good 🙁 Have you tried topping them up with deionised water? If you overcharge they start to boil… Your Yanmar most certainly _should_ be limited in charging. Your photovoltatics will not be. You could buy a little gel-cell 12V battery & keep it as a charged spare stashed in a waterproof container…

    Main-Sheet: Contessa had no traveler, there was a block on the end of the boom attached to the same metal item that the topping lift went to, then went down to blocks attached with shackles to the furthest forward bit of the pushpit.
    You can just see it here:
    http://flickr.com/photos/jarvist/194687394/

    Oh man. So very jealous. Enjoy the trades – are you rigging some kind of double headsail job? I never found anything to go downwind happily steering by ‘Windy’ except for a single headsail… doesn’t take much swell to make a co26 crash gybe if you’ve got it balanced in a gull-wing configuration.
    On reflection I think I could have put in a second forestay with some thin stainless wire u-bolts.

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