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Lengthwise across the Atlantic

Jan 22, 2013

The final leg of a circumnavigation is a passage through the Intertropical Convergence Zone

In the late 1800s, Joshua Slocum proved that the world is round: he found his way out of Fairhaven, Mass., around the globe and home again aboard his boat Spray. Aboard our Montevideo 43, Bahati, we recently sailed much the same route around the globe.

More than 100 years later, sailing much more slowly, and in the off and on company of more than 50 friends and family, I feel fortunate to join Slocum’s fraternity. It took Slocum three years to find his way home — we were gone nearly five. Capt. Slocum carried a sextant, a few paper charts and an old alarm clock. We carried four GPS systems, two chartplotters, VHF and single-sideband radios, two radar units, and an Iridium satellite phone. A very different kind of voyage, but sailed in the same spirit!

We cast off from False Bay Yacht Club in Simon’s Town, South Africa, lying 12 nm east and north of the Cape of Good Hope, early on the morning of Jan. 26. After more than a month in their good care, we deem False Bay the best yacht club we’ve visited since Opua on the North Island of New Zealand. Despite the constant high winds (which included the challenge of arriving with 40-plus knots on the stern quarter), we enjoyed a comfortable berth in one of their guest slips and found their down-home hospitality hard to beat.

Our goal on departure was to get around the infamous “Cape of Storms” while the prevailing southeast wind briefly abated, something that had not happened in more than a week. At this time of year it blows between 20 and 40 knots straight into False Bay most days and trying to beat against these conditions is no fun.

Weather routing
On the morning of our departure, WindGuru (windguru.com) and PassageWeather (passageweather.com) both predicted about six hours of lighter air which would give us enough time to get around the Cape and bear off to the west before the next blow settled in. We were not alone. There were three other boats heading in the same direction toward St. Helena, 1,600 nm to the northwest, or up the coast of Namibia due north. We were offered three different possible strategies for escape by the local gurus for the shortest and smoothest passage away from the coast of Africa and out into the relatively calm South Atlantic waters.

1. Head due west until you get across the Benguela Current (which is typically rough and tumble for the first 24 to 48 hours) and then turn more north on the rhumb line for St. Helena.

2. Sail immediately north, hugging the coast of South Africa until reaching Walvis Bay or Lüderitz on the coast of Namibia and then turn west toward St. Helena.

3. Sail straight up the rhumbline heading direct to St. Helena and take what you get...(this, reportedly, is the approach that most boats in the Simon’s Town-St. Helena Governor’s Cup race take.)

Tony Herrick at Cruising Connections in Durban (www.cruisingconnections.co.za) offers a wonderful e-book called Cape to Caribbean Cruising Notes, which can be downloaded from the Web. It will give you all the info, including the waypoints, that you need to get away from South Africa and en route toward the Caribbean. Tony is an old hand at both South African as well as trans-Atlantic passagemaking, and if you’re in Durban a visit to his shop is a real treat. He will also offer you the best weather information and advice we found about how to negotiate the difficult passage down the coast of South Africa. It is vital to time your hops properly from one port to another on this wild coast so local knowledge is extremely valuable.

In the final analysis, the wind dictated which departure strategy we followed leaving Simon’s Town. After a comfortable escape under power, we made a sharp right turn around the notorious cape and the breeze quickly filled in to 20-plus knots out of the north. It was then easier to keep heading west until the wind shifted back into the south, southwest, and then finally southeast about 48 hours later.

The prevailing winds behaved themselves and the rougher seas churned up by the Benguela Current were more settled and consistent, so it was a simple matter of following a course north and west until we fetch St. Helena 14 days later (far from the fastest passage on record, but beating Slocum’s time aboard Spray in 1898 by two days!) Once we’d crossed the Benguela Current, the crew was able to find their sea legs and we enjoyed a relatively smooth passage. This is exactly what we had been told would happen though, of course, the timing of crossing this strong northerly “river in the sea” and the strength and duration of the rougher winds and seas is always a crap shoot.

On Feb. 8 at 1400 we picked up a mooring off Jamestown, St. Helena, and exactly a month later, after a lovely week on this castaway island visiting Napoleon’s old haunts and getting to know the local “Saints” (nickname for St. Helena residents), we sailed into Georgetown Harbor on Ascension Island. This was our final port of call on this 5,300-nm passage. We decided, after much debate, to skip Fernando de Noronha, the other logical stop in the shortest route to the Caribbean, after hearing from several boats ahead of us that the Brazilian government is now charging extortionist sums for the privilege of spending even a day or two on these idyllic islands. The cost of visiting Ascension was peanuts by comparison and we needed to choose one or the other due to the crew’s tight schedule on the other end.

On Feb. 23, knowing we had the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) and the doldrums ahead of us as we approached the equator, we upped anchor and departed Acension heading northwest again, hoping to find the sweet spot to make our crossing as we aimed for the zero meridian for the fourth time on this five-year voyage.

The longest leg
This was the final passage in our circumnavigation. It was not supposed to be the longest and certainly won’t be when measured in nautical miles. That distinction goes to the run from the Galápagos to the Marquesas in the Pacific at more than 3,000 nm without landfall. But, in the end, this 2,900-nm run becomes longer by three days due to the lack of consistent wind. We also beat our Pacific record for number of days and nights flying Big Blue (our trusty asymmetrical spinnaker) without adjustment! It was not safe to fly it in more than 15 knots of breeze, but what a godsend in lighter airs when the wind was far aft. Without doubt, we spent more time swimming and reading at our record slow speed than at any other time in the entire circumnavigation. It was a test of patience and perseverance and helped us understand why sailors from yesteryear often went bonkers floating around in the doldrums sometimes for weeks on end waiting for wind.

Having never crossed the equator before, my three crew are known as “pollywogs,” initiates to the rites of passage celebrated at the equator. When they have done so, they officially become “shellbacks.” Of course, they have heard and read stories about the horrors of this ancient ceremony during which those who have already received the honors get to dish them up for the newbies. In our case, I was the only shellback on board, a dubious honor but one which comes with a heap of responsibility. What could I possibly do that will make this a truly memorable moment for my shipmates?

In the end I summoned the sea gods, Neptune and Poseidon, dressed myself in next-to-no garb topped with a frightening bat mask from the jungles of Panama. I blindfolded the crew and warned them, in my most threatening undersea voice, that they should also “dress-down” for the occasion since, “Who knows what can happen out here!?” I ordered them to sit close to each other on the aft deck box and then pressed a length of battered line into each of their quivering hands and, at the exact moment of crossing, as the GPS showed 00.00, “Neptune” spoke: “Turn and give your pitiful pollywog neighbor a proper lashing!” They managed to roughly follow orders collapsing in tears of pain and laughter on the deck after less than a minute of mutual torture. “Neptune” then dumped several buckets of salty equatorial water over their unsuspecting heads followed by some cheap Indian rum, all the while proclaiming them “shellbacks extraordinaire” and demanding their allegiance. Needless to say they cooperated!

Swim call
After the ceremony was complete, and because there was no wind (nada!), we stopped the Yanmar “d-sail” cold, leaped over the side, (trailing a couple of long safety lines just in case Bahati decided to sail off by herself), and swam in more than 16,000 feet of water, just to say we’ve done it! The theme from “Jaws” was sung lustily as we splashed around in the warm, deep blue waters.

We were always sure that at least one person was on deck keeping an eye peeled for Man o’ War jellyfish (plentiful on this passage) and other denizens of the deep. A delicious Atlantic ocean bath right smack on the equator. The water tasted saltier and sweeter than we remembered ...home again! (Actually, more than 3,000 nm to go before we will finally cross the Gulf Stream again and find ourselves truly back in the North Atlantic!)

Later that evening, as the sun set blood red ahead of us, my initiates, San Francisco and Maine-based textile artists, Susan Hoff (www.susanhoff.com) and Sarah Haskell (www.sarahhaskell.com), and my engineer and inventive “fix-it-all” guy, Weston Haskell, Sarah’s younger brother, prepared and served a magnificent formal dress-up and sit-down cockpit dinner. They presented Capt. Biscuits (I received the nickname “Capt. Biscuits” from my Pacific crossing crew who quickly discovered that no matter how many biscuits/cookies were dished-up at the beginning of the evening watch, they’d be gone by dawn!) with a beautiful, artisanal, and now-treasured necklace commemorating the high points of the 45 days spent at sea since leaving South Africa.

Tracking the weather en route, we found the SailBlogs text reports and GRIB files from SailMail (sysop@sailmail.com or www.sailmail.com) most useful and quite accurate all the way from South Africa to Barbados. The Met.5 report listed under SailBlogs’ Atlantic offerings comes complete with daily updates on the position of the ever-shifting ITCZ. You have to read closely and dig deep for the actual data, but it is there.

That information combined with daily check-ins with Ken McKinley at Locus Weather in Camden, Maine (www.locusweather.com), helped us suss-out the best strategy for crossing the equator after we left Ascension. Ken’s good advice of “Keep going north!” once we crossed in order to find the most consistent northeast tradewinds proved sound. We ended up crossing at around 27 degrees west on March 1, but the trades did not really settle-in until we got above 4 degrees north, not unusual for that time of year as the northern end of the ITCZ keeps creeping higher through the northern hemisphere’s spring months.

Dieseling through the doldrums
Ultimately, we used the trusty Yanmar “d-sail” for nearly five days to get us through the dreaded doldrums. The squall activity along the equator was not as active as it might have been or as we had seen in the Pacific. The highest winds we saw on the Atlantic route were 30-plus knots and then not for long as numerous small squalls with plenty of rain but not much wind passed over us. We burned more fuel during this passage than I was comfortable with, but I trusted that once the northeast trades kicked-in, we’d be able to sail consistently the rest of the way to the Caribbean. This proved to be true and we arrived in Barbados on March 18, happy to plant our feet on dry land again after nearly 52 days on passage from South Africa. Our new shellbacks definitely earned their shells on this route. Finally, not the most exciting sailing we’ve done though the days and nights flying “Big Blue” were glorious. “Chairman Mo,” our stalwart Monitor wind vane (see Autopilots & wind vanes, Issue #194) did well by us the whole way with only minor adjustments.

To get through the dullest part of this long passage Susan, our youngest crewmember, initiated a designated person to share a quote for each evening at sunset. We each loved reading our favorite poetry and passages from books we were reading or discovered in the ship’s library. Eventually, we even got into teaching knot tying and origami folding as well as Haiku and songwriting as a way of exciting our otherwise often bored and tired mental states. This daily sharing also included a chance for each of us to check-in and speak about any concerns or joys we had discovered each day.

This practice developed into some very pithy conversations and allowed each of us to share moments of insight and perspective we inevitably gained after weeks at sea. It also gave us the opportunity to clear the air when inevitable tensions arose. During several of our longer passages on this voyage we instituted a similar daily boat meeting during which anyone could speak about whatever was on his or her mind. I am grateful to my son, Josh, for encouraging us to adopt this valuable habit.

At the same time, occasionally, Capt. Biscuits even sanctioned a “sundowner” to help us relax or to mark an important moment such as the equator crossing or a halfway mark. For the first time in our entire circumnavigation the “sundowners” became a daily ritual on the passage from South Africa since the weather was so calm and uneventful. This “little libation” or “dram-a-day” definitely gave us something to look forward to, helped relieve boredom and anxiety.

All in all, our passage across the Atlantic was satisfying, the more so for our stops at the legendary St. Helena where Napoleon spent his last years in exile. The other extraordinary visit we made en route, at Ascension Island, revealed an equally remote island strangely combining elaborate, sculptural, high-tech 21st century communication systems (mostly U.S. and British-owned and operated) with a home for the many migrating green turtles who annually swim from the coast of South America and back again to lay their eggs at night on the beach. Watching them swim ashore, lumber up the sand dunes, dig holes and then sit in them all night, departing at dawn after carefully covering their precious eggs with sand was an experience worth the entire voyage...remarkable and moving in a timeless way.

Most of the cruisers we talked to en route experienced the same lack of wind this year. We had expected more consistent southeast trades below the equator and also expected to find the northeast trades above the equator more quickly. We would encourage anyone following this route to carry plenty of fuel (and wine, if you’re so inclined!). We were blessed with favorable current throughout nearly the entire passage.

We heard from boats ahead of us, who had sailed only 100 miles closer to the Brazilian coast, that they had encountered up to two knots of counter current for as much as a week as they closed in on the Caribbean. This negative current seemed to run pretty consistently about 200 nm off the coast whereas we found positive current at around 300 nm. The pilot charts indicate this possibility, but we had not studied them closely. We were fortunate to be in contact with those ahead of us on a regular SSB radio schedule and heeded their warnings while carefully plotting their coordinates in order to avoid the bad current.

We also heard from a couple of voyagers who visited the coast of Brazil that they had run into a good deal of dangerous flotsam en route. One boat experienced serious damage to their shaft and propeller as a result. Other friends encountered strong head winds when they tried to sail north toward the Caribbean close to the Brazilian coast and ended up powering into them for nearly a week before finding favorable trade winds again.

The moral of the story seems to be to stay in touch with boats ahead of you en route and pay close attention to the pilot charts and GRIB files as you strategize your passage. We also recommend taking advantage of the several expert weather gurus available via e-mail and satellite phone. They include the aforementioned Locus Weather as well as Commanders’ Weather (commandersweather.com) located in New Hampshire.

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Nat Warren-White just completed a circumnavigation aboard his Montevideo 43, Bahati. He was accompanied on some legs of the trip by his wife Betsy and his son Josh.

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