Selma and the kids left the USVI’s on the 12th May; it was really tough. The fact that we had spent the last 10 months living both physically and mentally in each others pockets and knew that we would be apart for at least 2 months created a somewhat eye watering environment. Stiff upper lips were maintained with moderate success but I must confess that as I bid final farewells to the gang there was a slight catch in my throat. Selma maintained an impressive level of decorum until just after I’d left at which point I understand she handed parental responsibility over to Ella and disintegrated. The children were well briefed on how to deal with the situation and approached the problem with enthusiasm by repeatedly instructing Selma ’to just completely forget Dad, not just for a few weeks but forever … he’s gone, completely gone’ they said. Whether this approach was entirely helpful is a moot point but it was a good effort by both of the children and reflects a natural empathy of which I’m quietly proud.
I walked the 4 miles or so back into town from the airport and felt miserable - not so much lonely but just missing something - I kept thinking that any second I would hear the kids shouting at each other or that Selma would pop round the corner; but of course it never happened. The feeling of something not being quite right, sort of like you've left your coat behind in the pub or not locked the door as you left home, didn‘t go away for quite a few days, it‘s funny what living on a 28ft boat does to you.
I cleared customs later that afternoon. They were their normal officious selves and when I explained that I was sailing on my own to the Azores in a 28ft boat they thoughtfully boosted my confidence by declaring me a ‘lunatic‘ and giving me the contemptuous stares that presumably they normally reserve for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. I left.
The Good Ship was almost ready to go but there were a few odd jobs that simply couldn't be done with Selma and the nips on board and in any case I needed a couple of days to quieten down and get in the right frame of mind. The weather forecast for the next day wasn’t great so despite having cleared out I decided to stay one more day and leave on the 14th May which I duly did.
A couple of friends, Gordon and Jacques, waved me off and at 1117 local time I set off on my first ever single handed passage. Up until this point I had never sailed on my own anywhere for any distant - I was in seriously new territory and it was rather exciting.
The blur of emotions that I felt as I motored out of the marina were the most complicated and vivid of my life. Worry about the boat, whether I could cope with sleeping for no more than an hour at a time for 3-4 weeks, the weather, provisioning, the risk of falling over the side and watching the GSB sail off without me; excitement at fulfilling a longstanding ambition; sadness at saying goodbye to Selma and the kids; happiness tinged with a bit of guilt to be on such a great adventure and so on. All of these thoughts swelled up inside my mind as we unobtrusively left the cosy environment of the marina and headed out to sea. Ahead of us were 2600 miles and 3-4 weeks of ocean sailing. 2 hours later I was feeling moderately sea sick as we crashed, headlong, into 3-4m waves with a 25 knot headwind and heading in roughly the wrong direction - all pretty much business as usual.
The first night was really quite boisterous with strong winds of 25 to 30 knots from ENE. This meant that we were bashing headlong into the sea and waves but making no significant easting, in fact we were heading straight at Bermuda 750 miles to our north. This said, it was early days and to make the best of wind and current on the passage we wanted to head north to begin with anyway so although not ideal it wasn't a big problem. Cooking wasn't high on my agenda so that night I wolfed back a pot-noodle-thing just to get something warm in me and had little else to eat for a couple of days.
We sailed through the night with triple reefed main and heavily reefed foresail but despite this were taking a fair amount of water on board both in the cockpit and on occasions down below. I mentally congratulated Selma and I on our decision to fly the kids home - it would have been awful for them; a few days like this and the wonderful memories they had gathered up from 9 months of sub/tropical sailing would have been rapidly destroyed by the crashing, wet and nauseating environment that we were now exposed to.
Although a little miserable the good ship was sailing like a witch and critically my concerns around getting enough sleep whilst maintaining an adequate watch proved unfounded. During the night I used an egg timer to wake myself up every 45 - 60 minutes to check for shipping, track and sail trim; this worked well and once I was a few hundred miles away from land I increased the length I slept to 60 - 90 minutes depending on weather and traffic.
After a few days the wind moderated to 20 kts but was still right on the nose and the good ship stayed somewhat bouncy-bouncy but by now I had my sea legs and was getting into the rhythm of the passage.
On 16th May (Day 2) I noticed that one of the self-steering lines was almost worn through; this was a big concern because although I had some spare rope it wouldn’t be enough to replace it all every few days and without the lines I would have to hand steer the whole time. I tightened up a couple of loose blocks which could have been causing the chafe, changed the lines and kept a close eye on it. Whatever I did worked because it lasted to the Azores
The wind stayed between E and NE for the first week and with a slight current pushing me to the west I was really struggling to pass Bermuda to the east. I could have tacked but the thought of heading south of east and therefore backwards was too depressing so I cracked on northwards and hoped for a wind shift. I clearly didn’t hope hard enough.
On Monday the 18th (Day 4) I encountered the first signs of the Sargasso Sea which is a bed of floating seaweed that drifts on the surface around this bit of the Atlantic Ocean. The patches are quite large, many of them extending 30 or 40 metres square. It’s a bit like sailing through a very wet lawn and makes a rather unpleasant scraping sound as you pass through it. This causes a rapid clenching of the buttocks on the first few occasions as you try and figure out what the hell is happening.
At dusk on the evening of Tuesday 19th (Day 5) I turned the masthead tricolour light on which flickered and then died. I tested the circuit inside the boat and at the deck fitting and realised that the fault was at the top of the mast - bad news. I briefly considered trying to get to the top to fix it but rejected the idea as I recalled a story doing the rounds as we left. A couple crossing the Atlantic had had some sort of problem which required the husband to go up the mast which he duly did. In accordance with good practice he locked himself on and when secure he promptly had a heart attack and died - his wife could not lower him down because he had tied himself up there, so she had no choice but to complete the trip with her husband dangling and presumably gradually decaying at the top of the mast. With this in the forefront of my mind I was buggered if I was going up the mast. Anyway I had a Plan B. The alternative to the masthead tricolour light are three navigation lights mounted at deck level. They use far more electricity (big issue) but considering I was alone were better than nothing. I begrudgingly turned them on only to find that one of them was faulty as well! (I might add that I checked all the lights before I left). I changed the bulb in the starboard side but had to replace with a traditional bulb which uses about 10x the current which was a showstopper - we simply didn't have enough power to run these lights every night. Still I had lights for the moment and went to bed to sleep on the problem. That night we used as much power in 8 hours as we had on the whole trip so far - an alternative was required or we would have to operate in unlit stealth mode. In the end I only marginally improved on this but did set-up a make shift all-round white light out of an old LED lamp we had in the stores and hung it in the cockpit. The flaws with this were that it was only visible about 5 boat lengths away, was invisible from anything coming from ahead because it was masked by the sails and because it was an allround white light any vessel that saw us would assume we were either anchored or they were seeing our stern irrespective of what they were looking at! As I slept that night I briefly considered whether the light problem invalidated my insurance but then realised that I hadn't got any so that was allright.
At 1430 on Friday 22nd May (Day 8) and to avoid an embarrassing collision with Bermuda I tacked. It was really rather strange. Having been on the same tack for over a week it was all a bit surprising to be heeling over the other way - I even had to sleep on the other side of the boat.
It took a further 3 days to clear Bermuda with progress made even slower by light easterly winds This said the weather was quite lovely with clear skies great visibility and plenty of dolphins.
Clearing Bermuda was a bit of a milestone. I had been tempted to go in to fix the light and get some more line for the steering gear but just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Partly because I don’t really like Bermuda and partly because I was in the groove and didn’t want to have to stop and then start again.
By Sunday the 24th May (Day 10) the wind had reduced to next to nothing and I barely maintained steerage making only about 2 knots. My progress was already hideously slower than planned I began doing sums on water, food and gas - all of which were OK although only because I had grossly over provisioned. If the family had been on board we would simply have run out.
On Monday 25th May (Day 11) I had had enough of sails slatting in the swell with no wind to fill them and started the engine. We donked along the next 24 hours until 1230 the next day when we managed to get sailing again. That night I celebrated the return to sailing with a Brimble Mega Special Fried Rice comprising everything I could find mixed with rice and soya sauce; I suspect it would be pretty unpleasant onshore but on the good ship is was just the ticket. I intend to cook for friends and family at the earliest opportunity.
On Thursday 28th May (Day 14) the wind at last moved round to the south and aft of the beam. I celebrated with a nice cup of tea.
Progress from here on in was better with the wind between 5 and 15 knots. Occasionally We were badly hit by up to 2 knots of adverse current but was normally managing a respectable 100 mile day. We started to head further and further north gambling on picking up stronger winds but also risking an increased chance of a gale.
The gamble paid off and by the time we reached 38 degrees North on Thursday 4th June the winds were freshening and still coming from the right direction. For the next few days we made good progress and even managed one day in excess of 140 miles.
By now I was really noticing the cold and had taken to sleeping in a hat. I used my lucky hat which is so incredibly lucky that I can’t wear it outside in case I lose it over the side - in fact it’s usually put safely away and not used at all but I felt it was justified on this occasion - the first night I slept particularly well such is its mighty power.
On the 8th June with just 400 miles to go the wind started to increase to a bustling 25 knot westerly which meant I could drop the main and sail fast with just the foresail. Good progress was made to begin with but we slowed a little as the swell picked up to a few metres. For the next few days we had between 15 and 30 knots of wind and made great progress - I could see and feel the end of the journey approaching but was worried about tempting fate, relaxing and then making some cock up.
By now traffic was noticeably increasing and every other day we were seeing a yacht or a merchant vessel; nice to see them but not so nice when I thought of my somewhat inadequate and slightly illegal lighting system.
At dawn on Thursday 11th June we sighted land for the first time in just under a month. I remembered from the last trip that it appeared lush after the arid islands of Caribbean but I was amazed. Seeing such a breathtakingly beautiful island after so long at sea was simply shattering. I just love the Azores.
As we sailed along the south coast of the island we felt that a wash and brush up was the order of the Day. I cleaned up below, shaved off a months beard and then spent an hour or so with a jumbo pack of baby wipes cleaning and scraping myself as far as was possible - some of the dirt was sort of embedded and irremovable but I think most came off. We felt both smart and casual as we sailed into Faial although for several days after you could see people searching for the toddler who must be the source of the strong smell of baby wipes.
At 1020 on Thursday 11th June I moored alongside Aquilibra, a 45ft catamaran, and stepped onto dry land after 28 days at sea. The log simply said ’1020 Arrived Horta. Delighted’ - which in hindsight was a bit of an understatement. Twenty minutes later (thank god I’d had a good go with the wipes) Jim from Starblazer arrived, the sun shone and we cracked open the first beer for a month and the most memorable I have ever tasted. I surveyed the harbour with a warm, quietly proud and satisfied feeling and for the first time in a long time started to relax.