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Ocean Safety 2021 - LEADERBOARD

Memories of a Circumnavigation: Crossing the Atlantic

by Hugh & Heather Bacon 20 Jan 16:22 UTC
Las Palmas to Sal Cape Verde Islands © Hugh & Heather Bacon

In their last article, Hugh, Heather and nephew David departed the continent of Africa, sailed to the Madeira Islands and on to the Canaries. In Las Palmas, Gran Canaria they prepared for an Atlantic crossing.

We now continue with the adventures of Argonauta I. This is an account of their voyage from the Canary Islands south to the Cape Verdes then west to Barbados and the Caribbean where they completed their circumnavigation. Following a nostalgic cruise through the Windward Islands, Hugh and Heather continued to Venezuela where this voyage ended.

December 15, 2005 we departed Las Palmas for the Cape Verde Islands. At first, winds were light. Shortly though, we were sailing in 20 Ks from the ENE. Heather was caught out by the motion and resorted to a medicated patch to stem motion sickness. But wind is what we wanted as there was no wish to listen to the diesel for a passage of 800 NM! Day 3 we covered 160 NM for a 24 hour period one of our best days ever. It was nice to cross 23.5 N latitude and once again enter the tropics. December 22, less than seven days out of Las Palmas, we dropped anchor in Porto Palmeira, Sal and checked into the Republic of the Cape Verde Islands.

Next morning we continued to the island of Boavista about 40 NM south. We reached Porto de Sal Rei midafternoon and settled into the anchorage between the off lying island of Sal Rei and the main island. Startlingly white beaches and sand dunes extend for miles south of the port and the nearby island has its own white crescent of sand along with a crumbling old fort complete with six rusting cannons. The town itself has a certain charm. Since total island population is about 5000, much of the island is unoccupied. We hired a four wheel drive to explore the arid sandy interior. There was not much to see except for the amazing hand paved roads using the stones taken from adjacent terrain. Remarkably, white rocks had been used as a centre line! Later, we found lunch at an upscale beach resort while David developed his boogie boarding skills.

Heather had brought along some caviar and champagne which has been our personal Christmas morning tradition over the years. She also produced a creative red and green pasta on Christmas Eve and a truly delicious rolled stuffed turkey breast on December 25th. A small artificial tree with miniature decorations provided some festive decor.

The trade winds were strong for the few days following Christmas. A couple of days of F6 to F7 kept us on the boat. Again the rigging was covered in dust this time from nearby dunes. We set off on December 31 for Mindelo on the Island of Sao Vicente some 136 NM to the west. New Year's Eve found us on an overnight passage which gave us an early morning arrival New Year's Day 2006.

Mindelo is an attractive town surrounded by stark, craggy hills. At that time it was an offbeat cruise ship destination. We did a little provisioning, walked through the town and found a bar. We filled a propane tank and topped our diesel supply. Typically, we have a motoring range of about 800 nautical miles and that's with 9 jerry jugs in addition to a full internal tank. Barbados was our planned landfall. There we had arranged with Doyle Sails to replace our mainsail with an integrated Mainsail and Stakpack as well as a Tides Marine track and slide system.

Early morning January 4 we raised anchor. The distance to Port St Charles, Barbados was 2024 NM and the rhumb line was roughly 285 degrees magnetic. Weather for the next 5 days looked ideal with easterly trades of 15 to 20 K. The passage began at hull speed under reefed sails. We expected an average speed over the ground or SOG of better than 6 K. The westward flowing Canary Current which in winter and spring is both weak and variable would offer little push, lower than half a knot. That is much less than the Pacific South Equatorial Current which affected our passage to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. It provided us with a 1 to 2 knot push, a free ride of some 400 NM in 22 days. As an offset, our winds overall were much stronger on our Atlantic passage. We were blessed with stable conditions and never saw more than forty knots of wind and then only during the odd squall which served to wash the dust off the rig. Apart from traffic the sole known obstacle was an ocean weather buoy about mid passage.

As with all longer passages, it takes two or three days to settle into a routine. Wind was constant from the NE to ENE from 15 to 30 K. It was consistently from starboard usually 20 degrees off the stern. I lowered the mainsail after day one and ran on the genoa poled to starboard with the stay sail winged out to port. Our rig always favored the genoa poled to windward. To adjust for a backing wind, we would ease the genoa sheet allowing the leech and pole to move forward while adjusting the genoa furling line Reefing simply meant cranking in the furling line against the sheet. The option of furling completely to run on stay sail alone was of course possible. On this passage, there was never a question of deploying the downwind sail! Some cross swell made for occasional slewing or yawing which put lateral loads on the rudder. I was glad when in France we had done a complete rudder tear-down and inspection. Early days I had learned that over-stressing the rig in search of that extra knot was a bad idea. My objective was to arrive with no breakages, something we had failed to achieve during our Pacific passage to French Polynesia!

With a cross swell, the autopilot kept a straighter course than the pendulum wind vane. As we were producing lots of solar and wind generated power we kept to the autopilot. Battery top-up necessitated an engine run every two or three days for an hour. We used that time to make about ten gallons of water. Yes, we had a large charging capability consisting of two alternators totaling 405 amp hours output and an 800 amp hour house battery bank.

We ran four hour watches during darkness and we always had someone in the cockpit during daylight. With a crew of three, this was much easier for Heather and me; we had done eight hour watches on the Pacific passages.

Following a similar rhumb line was a gaggle of about ten other yachts separated by distances of up to 1000 NM. Most had departed from the Canaries. An HF radio Net had been established with a scheduled daily communication. About 1000 NM east of Barbados, a major drama began to unfold. On January 10, a US registered J-44, SV FIRST LIGHT, lost its rudder and was wallowing out of control. The crew had reported a leak around the rudder bearing area prior to rudder departure. They were attempting to jury rig steering and had been working at it all day without success. We were the closest yacht to their position which was about 130 NM ahead of us.

I had suggested that a train of yachts sail by the stricken vessel over the next week or so. The idea being that at some point, if steering proved impossible, a crew pick up would be available should the gut wrenching decision be made to abandon the yacht. We fervently hoped the crew would succeed in regaining steering. Needless to say, all the various authorities had been advised of the situation. As the closest yacht, we proceeded to their position, 15 34.44N/043 04.106W, some 980 NM from Barbados. We made visual contact at 1000 GMT, January 11.

It was early morning. The swells were huge but the vessel seemed secure. A tow by us looked impossible in such seas. There were three onboard. The skipper evinced strong determination to devise a jury steering rig. No supplies were needed. We circled them as moral support and to assure them they were not alone. Shortly thereafter, the Net offered precise guidance for a bridle/spinnaker pole solution. The next vessel would rendezvous in about 24 hours. It was heartbreaking to sail away watching FIRST LIGHT slowly dip below the horizon.

We maintained VHF contact and learned that the drogue they had thought might work as a warp proved too large but a bicycle turned out to be about right, By the end of the day, they had got under way making 2 K but only in a northwesterly direction. A Mayday declaration would of course save life and limb but it would mean abandoning the yacht. To the surprise of all, a sailing trawler with only an HF receiver appeared on the scene and offered a tow. The skipper accepted. Towing was indeed unsuccessful due to chafe and tow induced yawing of up to 90 degrees. The tow line reportedly had parted twice and by then, the crew of first light was exhausted and disheartened. At 1800Z, January 13, the decision was taken to abandon ship. The crew intended to transfer by dinghy to ROS AILITHER, the towing vessel. In the prevailing sea conditions this seemed life threatening! There could be no further communication as there was no HF transmitter on the rescue vessel. Silence.

We resumed our passage routine. Navigation, monitoring weather, checking yacht systems, managing the batteries, cooking... There was a lot to do but ample time to sleep, suntan and read. Our livers rejuvenated too although we did allow ourselves a mid-passage toast! In diminishing winds, we raised the mainsail. It would have been nice to catch a fish. We arrived in Port St Charles, Barbados Tuesday, January 17 just before sundown. We picked up a mooring, had showers and opened the Moet Chandon.

Doyle Sails did a great job of replacing our mainsail and we found it much easier to handle with the almost frictionless Tides system. Heather enjoyed the swim-up bar at the marina pool and David partied on the "Crew Beach" with other young people. A couple saw our Canadian flag and invited us to dinner at their condo. They were from Winnipeg and knew very good friends of ours; this was a great return to the familiar. In socializing with mega yacht crew, David became intrigued by their lifestyle. This led to his leaving Argonauta I once we reached St Vincent in the Caribbean. From there he flew to St Martin, became crew to a mega yacht and in spring 2007 sailed back across the Atlantic for a summer season out of Nice in the south of France.

To the huge relief of all, January 21 ROS AILITHER appeared in Carlyle Bay, Barbados with FIRST LIGHT crew safely onboard. They immediately departed by air for the USA. On February 16, 2006, FIRST LIGHT fetched up on Morgan Lewis Beach on the east side of Barbados near the town of St Andrews. Evidently she had drifted with the current and wind some 800 NM over a period of 33 days. Clearly, she was intact throughout and progressed to Barbados unseen. A witness at the beach with whom I spoke, described FIRST LIGHT as broken in two with gear scattered about the beach, a total loss.

After a few more days at anchor we departed Barbados early morning, January 28, 2006. At 0700 hours local next day we crossed our August 3, 1997 outbound track from Grenada to Tobago thus completing a circumnavigation. An hour later we arrived at St David's Harbour, Grenada. We moved on to Prickly Bay where we replaced a couple of batteries and took an island tour. Later, we sailed north to the Grenadines. After a week or so in Bequia we continued to St Vincent to drop David off for his new adventure. We gunk holed up the Chain as far north as Antigua catching up with some old friends along the way. Then we backtracked to St Lucia and continued to Venezuela to put the boat into dry storage until March 2007.

May 4 we dropped anchor at Porlamar, Margarita Island, a Venezuelan territory to the north of the South American continent. Ashore we attended a beer call at Juan's Marina which consisted of a dinghy dock and utility shed. At the time, Margarita was a tax haven frequented by many yachts, some pretty much welded to the bottom. Getting local currency was a bizarre experience. We went to a bank. They told us to exchange USD for Bolivars on the street. We made the exchange at a ladies clothing store. Everything was available: marvelous supermarkets, rum $3 a bottle but only Bolivars were accepted. Crime was the major problem with security pervasive.

Puerto La Cruz, our final destination on the mainland, would have to be done nonstop as bad things had happened quite recently at several of the enroute anchorages. Armed boardings had been frequent, some resulting in gunshot or knife wounds! May 8 we set out at 0400 hours and ran the 70 NM transit by 1630 hours. We were soon safely secured in Bahia Redonda Marina. It had all the amenities including pool, restaurant, WIFI and rental apartments. We had chosen this location as it was the only hurricane-safe area in the Eastern Caribbean with the exception of Trinidad. Puerto La Cruz was less crowded and cheaper. Then a 25 L jerry jug of diesel cost USD 3.

Arriving was like old home week. Some people we had known in 1998 were still there so we received quite a welcome. They even took over the restaurant and threw a circumnavigation party for us.

We spent several days cleaning and preparing to secure the boat for dry storage. Security in the storage yard at Proyectos Marinos Orientales (PMO) was intense. High walls were topped with glass shards and razor wire. There were many surveillance cameras. The yard was floodlit at night with semi starving dogs on the loose. Guards had serious weaponry! Haul out was May 24. Much to Heather's pleasure, we moved into the penthouse in time for her May 25th birthday party! June 5, 2006 we departed for Canada leaving Argonauta I secure behind barbed wire and broken glass! Our circumnavigation was behind us. The voyage was over.

Some statistics:

  • Total circumnavigation distance in nautical miles: 30,228
  • Total engine hours accumulated during the circumnavigation: 2924
  • Diesel burned @ 0.7 gph: about 2056 US gallons
  • David crewed with us for 9736 NM on three separate passages.
In the next episode Hugh and Heather prepare Argonauta I to sail to Panama and on to Canada.

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