Transatlantic (26th November - 21st December 2008)

On Wednesday 26th November the time had come to leave Tenerife. All possible excuses for delays had been used up, the weather forecast was acceptable and if we didn‘t crack on then we would struggle to make Barbados for Christmas. Departure (D) day had arrived. The GSB was pretty much sorted and ready to go but provisioning was still to be completed. This meant working out every meal we would eat while we were at sea and even more critically the amount of water we would drink and use for cooking during the passage . No mistakes could be made on either count. Obviously our estimated passage time was a critical part of the sum; we had initially provisioned for 25 days but were struggling to come up with an estimate we had confidence in. With the exception of a very pleasant, but clearly mad, Swedish student we hadn’t come across a smaller boat than us (you were right Charlotte) and so as ’D’ Day loomed we ended up increasing our passage planning time to 29 days.

The extra few days may not seem significant but we were so tight for space and weight that every day we planned to be at sea made a massive difference to provisioning. To paint a bit of a picture; our total ships water storage is 80 litres. If just Selma and I had a cup of tea every change of watch for 25 days we would use over half of the ships total storage. If you then added 1.5 litres for cooking each day we would run out of tanked water before 25 days was up, let alone 29 days and all we would have drunk is tea and done the cooking.

In the end we allowed and stowed 1.5 litres per adult per day (1 litre per child) of drinking water, 1.5 litres total per day for cooking, 1 glass of juice per person per day and no allowance for washing us or anything else. Buying fresh fruit and vegetables is another balancing act as you make your best guess on how much you need as well as which vegetables will last longest. The market holder in Santa Cruz was incredibly helpful, using many years of expertise to advise us on which fruit and vegetables would last longest and how they could be stopped from prematurely ripening. Of course he was pretty much wrong about everything but at the time it gave us a nice warm feeling that we would have lots of fresh food for a good part of the crossing. This said I can strongly recommend his onions which have lasted forever and rather luckily so, because I misheard Selma’s instructions and bought four times as many as we needed!

The whole provisioning process was a challenge not so much because of the sums but because of the consequences of getting it wrong which at best would be very embarrassing and at worst was best not thinking about. Our next door neighbour in Santa Cruz had run out of water on a trip some years ago and had nearly died … this helped focus our already very focused minds. On our arrival in Barbados we heard of two yachts so far this year who ran out of food and water and had to issue Maydays! Anyway we worked our way through the process and stuffed Brimble with food, water and other essentials such that by departure time the Top Water Line was well under water. In fact we were so low in the water that for the first 2 weeks of the trip the cockpit was so close to the water level that every time the boat healed the cockpit filled up with water - still, kept our feet cool.

The passage to the Caribbean is a little strange in as much as you don’t sail straight to Barbados but head south until you pick up the easterly Tradewinds and then sail east or to put it another way, you sail south until the butter melts and hang a right! Estimated distance, taking the recognised roundabout route, is c. 2800 miles.

So, finally at 1230hrs GMT on Wednesday 26th November, the GSB departed Santa Cruz. As we left the marina we motored past some Northern Irish friends on their boat, Wendreda, a 38ft Nicholson. Jim, Sharon and their 4 children; Michelle, James, Peter and Martin had been the only serious challenge on the trip so far to Brimble’s unbeaten record for the lowest surface area per person. Jack was on the foredeck shouting to his mates at the top of his voice … see you in Barbados in a month, see you soon, see you in the Caribbean. Have a good trip, see you soon, see you there they all cried back. The fact that they weren’t leaving for another 2 months and it was improbable that we would see each other again didn’t seem to matter, we all clapped and cheered as we headed off on our own to cross the Atlantic.

The 60 miles or so along the east coast of Tenerife was a bit miserable. My recollection of last time we did the trip was the same. The combination of strong winds, the notorious acceleration zones, the grey feeling you get initially from leaving friends and land and security behind for a long time, the fact that you’re risking your children’s life on a bit of a whim (or so you think for a short while) all coupled with a spot of sea sickness and a touch of self pity all make the first 24 hours a little bit bleak. This said and not far beneath the surface is the relief that finally after days of contemplation and consideration we were finally off: anything forgotten now would have to be done without. No more working out the number of water bottles or cans of beans or the various illnesses that could strike us down and associated remedies, no more weather predictions or engine servicing, rigging checks and navigational sums …. just a straightforward task to do; sail safely 2800 miles across the Atlantic to a beach in Barbados.

We left the marina and a few minutes later unfurled the headsail in a freshening north easterly wind. As the large genoa unfurled with a healthy smack it also fell down … sadly the genoa halyard had been undone whilst in port so that a washing line could be tied off to the cleat and had failed to be made fast again - good start, well, not bad, I blame the skipper… so much for all the checking … but we were still off!

It would be tiresome to relate the nitty gritty details of the whole passage; it is simply a long way and takes a long time. Some people describe it as 95% boredom and 5% blind terror which I think is not far from the truth. For the first week you try and blank your mind to the magnitude of the task ahead, it’s just too difficult to imagine being in a twenty eight foot boat , with two children, in the middle of nowhere for 4 weeks, so you embrace the routine and close your mind to the number of days that must pass before you tread on dry land. We had a few challenges over the first couple of days over and above the inevitable bouts of mild seasickness. Ella and I had caught some stomach bug which hit us a couple of days out. At home it would have been no big deal but on board you of course allow your imagination to run wild not least due to the limitations of water for drinking and washing. But, as is usually the case our unmentioned fears came to nothing and after a few days of fasting (good for stores) stomachs settled and we gradually got into the swing of things.
Selma and I continued with our 3 hrs on 3 hrs off watch pattern adopting the now officially recognised ‘Flint’ modification to ensure a full 3 hours sleep each time. We soon found that we were coping pretty well on about 6 hours sleep. After tummies had settled Jack took it upon himself to start eating twice his body weight in food. Up until now Jack has had a very modest appetite, that was of course until the time when food was a premium. We can only assume that he had some sort of ill timed growth spurt but my attempts to dish out the ‘allowed for’ modest child size portions of food to him were met with derision as his new passion for food, any food, kicked into overdrive … bloody good timing I grumbled at every meal time.

During the first week we had pretty good winds hardly using the engine at all. We typically sailed goose winged (one sail out each side) with a poled out genoa and a main and preventer. Speed was modest for the first couple of days and then gradually picked up so we were quite often averaging over 5 knots over the ground.

School started on day 3 despite vigorous protestations from the children. I would teach (well, a form of teaching) from 10 to 12 each morning and then Selma would teach from 1230 to 1500 ish. This routine worked well. I quite enjoyed the children clambering into the cockpit wearing a pair of shorts and a life line, the boat rolling all over the place as they said in unison: ‘Good Morning Mr Halsall’ ; ‘Good Morning children’ I would say, ‘now turn to page 1 of your whiteboards ….’

It’s probably worth a few lines on the motion of the boat at this point. On this passage, the wind is almost always aft of the beam (behind you). This is great for speed and dryness but does create a quite spectacular rolling motion. On GSB it meant that the boat rolled literally from beam to beam. First so that one side of the boat was under water, she then picked up 10 or 20 gallons of water and as she rolled back the other way, transferred them round the outside of the cockpit and fired them over the other side as the boat, now with the other gunwhale underwater, dipped into the sea ready to reload for the next roll. This process repeated itself about every 10 to 15 seconds. Amazingly, most of the water did stay out of the cockpit but occasionally a wave would break and catch Minnie the Monitor (self steering gear) and the GSB out and we would enjoy a refreshing dollop. After a few of these we decided that we must formally name waves and came up with the following:

Snorkellor - a wave that charges at you with the sound of a snorkel being discharged. You think they will soak you but a true Snorkellor will not enter the cockpit - these were very common. A night snorkellor tends to be less pleasant because you can’t see it and therefore can’t predict whether it will be a Snorkellor or a Licker (see next)
Licker - wave that sounds like a Snorkellor but which surprisingly enters the cockpit and ‘licks’ one or more of the crew. These were fairly common particularly when the sea was more on the beam, maybe one or two an hour when the wind was over 20 knots.
Hammerhead - a wave that hit’s the side of the boat like a hammer - again, pretty common
Rainbow - a wave that passes over the top of the cockpit without getting anybody wet - perhaps unsurprisingly we have yet to have one of these.
Jack identified and defined a further twenty or so wave types but they had such complicated characteristics that we were never able to match a name to a wave. I too had a few terms that I used for the odd wave but you can probably work them out for yourself.

The motion of the boat made cooking an entertaining challenge. Selma who made breakfast and lunch occasionally threw cereal across the boat and when the mood took her she would throw herself around as well. On one particular occasion she fell quite badly and was lucky not to break anything but I checked all round the area she had fallen and could find no damage; Selma though was quite badly bruised. Meanwhile, I threw everything everywhere and spent the rest of my free time putting it back. The kids were really good and the sight of Jack staggering to the heads at three in the morning like an old drunk will be one of my clear memories of the passage. We assume the fact that we fell over more than the children is because of their lower centre of gravity - the physics of this remain unproven.

By the second week sickness had returned to the Good Ship with Selma having been hurt by her fall made worse by the return of some historic back trouble and Ella was suffering from lack of sleep and a touch of cystitis. Ella was struggling to get to sleep with the severe rolling of the boat coupled with the hot weather. Jack, not wanting to be out done, lost a tooth and then challenged the tooth fairy to find him and it. The ability of that fairy astounded us all when it exchanged an extravagant 5 Barbados Dollars the next night.

On the 5th December we caught our first Tuna which was thrown back because we’d just had supper but made up for this by catching another the next day. It was eaten within 40 minutes including cooking time having had it’s head chopped off by Jack. Ella was a bit put off by the cleaning process, not helped by Jack making unhelpful observations, such as ‘see that Ella, see that coming out of there, that’s pooh’. A few days later we lost our only lure so fishing came to a premature end, much to Ella’s unconcealed delight.

Flying fish appeared at about this time and we also saw whales and dolphins, not quite in the numbers along the Portuguese coast but nonetheless great company.

Our first milestone, the Halsall Halfway Celebration was achieved on the 11th December. In fact at this stage we were well over halfway but a line was on the chart from the last trip and we stuck with it. Making the halfway point was marked by a Brimble Bank Holiday; school was cancelled, we all had a wash, extra half melted chocolate was dished up and a theatrical show(with popcorn) was put on for the children by the Parents - Flash Gordon and by the children for the adults - called ‘Colours’.
As we sailed eastwards towards the sun, changing the clocks every 5 days or so, the weather grew warmer and warmer such that even I was completing my night watch in shorts and tee shirts. Nightwatches were filled dodging flying fish, star gazing and occasionally madly reefing down in spectacular lightning and thunder storms. The routine of the day was firmly set too; we were not exceeding our water and food allowances, passage time look set for under the 29 days and life became really quite enjoyable. All in all, as the weeks rolled by, the passage became the norm and life ashore the exception - we speculated about our arrival in Barbados but having blanked it for so long it was difficult to bring it to the front of our minds; Ella said she didn’t think ‘we would ever arrive’.

However, she was wrong and at 0730 in the morning on the 21st of December we motored into Bridgetown Harbour to clear Customs. The welcome was delightful with Lawrence the Harbour Master coming out to take our ropes and welcoming us to the Caribbean, but despite his helping hands we were unable to moor up. The combination of a harbour wall designed entirely for cruise ships (we were trying to moor next to a cruise ship called The World) and a significant swell running into the harbour made coming alongside for our somewhat diminutive craft entirely unsafe. At any moment we thought we would take the rigging off and be dismasted or smash the side of the boat against one of the enormous steel piles as we desperately fended off. But help was at hand. Snuggling, quietly in the bottom of the cockpit locker, waiting for our moment of need was … Uber Fender - a giant inflatable fender that as Alasdair (fellow owner of an Uber F) pointed out cost as much as most peoples dinghies. With the exception of Norway, Uber, had not been needed, but now was the time and when inflated and safely wedged between us and the offending wall, saved the day. Selma and Ella left to clear customs and immigration whilst I stayed with Jack to mind the boat.

An hour or so later we were safely anchored in Carlisle bay, 100 metres off a pristine beach of white sand in water so clear that you could clearly see the anchor snugged into the sandy bottom, a turtle popped up and casually nodded at us as we jumped into the tropical, turquoise water.
After 24 days sailing and over 2800 miles at sea in our 28 foot, 37 year old yacht, we had arrived. It felt really, really, good.


Sarah said...

Amazing....what a wonderful account....!! Not sure if I liked the sound of the pit of the cock being filled with water - or the rolling side to side...that is something I'm happy to keep as a memory!! Lots of love....Sailing Sarah....xxxx

Vansetersbarbara said...

Thanks for writing that down, that was a really good read. I especially liked the bit the with the tuna. I can just 'see' Jack chopping of the head. So if I ever need any help with a chicken ( kidding !) . And isn't the toothfairy clever. It made me wonder that there is probably more then one tooth fairy, each with her or his own terratory ( never occured to me before) Hope you had a good christmas and newyear as well. Love from all of us, but a special greeting from Robin to Jack, who was very happy to know that Jack was safe and well on the other end of the ocean.


Anonymous said...

Hello there Jack, Ella, Selma and John!

This is Finn, Ruth and Holger, writing from Tokyo and hoping you are all well and enjoying yourselves!

A spendid read that! You really should go into travel writing next. Michael Palin pales against you (could not resist that). I also very much liked and learnt a great deal from Ella and Jack's introduction to the Good Ship Brimble.

A couple of obversations seem in order, however:
- The preparation of an Atlantic crossing clearly calls for an McK project, since you seem to have overbudgeted for water
- I would very much like to have witnessed headmaster John teaching Jack and Ella some German
- A propos, the correct spelling should be "Ueberfender", if you are short of the Umlaut "Ü"

As for ourselves, we have just completed 5 weeks of holidays in New Zealand. Sweet as! Among other things, I have learnt to surf (instructed by a crazy 67 year old American on the North island's East coast), have cruised the Marlborough sounds on a 31 ft Beneteau (clearly oversized for such a task!), and have seen both Peter Blake's "Lion" and one of the remaining three J Class yachts, the "Endeavour", in Auckland's Viaduct Harbour. The rest of the days were spent in what must be the world's smallest campervan, trying to master NZ's long and winding roads. The point of spending some days in Tokyo now is to counterbalance the extremist laidbackness of Kiwis with some Japanese neurotic stiffness before returning to moderate climates.

Anyways, as said, we hope you are all well. We are very envious and praise you for having undertaken this trip (in case no one else has done that yet). I, by the way, still get a very warm feeling from reminding myself that it was me who was ultimately responsible for you doing this - remember the n-th roast duck in the French Horn and you asking me, as usual, "What should I do now, Holger?" - me replying "I believe you should take a year off and sail the world!"


Finn, Ruth and Holger.

PS: There shall be no more of these roast ducks, by the way, since I have quit McK to become COO at Q-Cells International. These guys built solar power plants and have a really rotten recruiting process...

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Makes fantastic reading your blog. You definitely need to consider a book! Missing you all, looking forward to reading more.
LOVE Sare xxx