Adventures of the good yacht SONAS.
The cold harsh weather of Scotland is best put to the rudder whenever possible and so this is exactly what 1/3 of TGAC managed to achieve this past winter. It’s important that in life, when offered a chance to crew a yacht for three months on a voyage to the British Virgin Islands, one dons his stripes, buys a book on knots and signs on the dotted line. You see, it’s all part of the Gentlemen’s Adventure Club philosophy for life.
On a wet and dark evening in August, I arrived in the beautiful metropolis of Ardrossan on the west coast of Scotland. The boat had been held up here for a few months seeing to essential maintenance. I promptly set about unpacking in my cabin before spending the evening in relative comfort watching some telly with the the Skipper and first mate in my new home. In the morning it was discovered that due to certain incompetencies work would not be completed for around four days, mildly disappointed and eager to get going (clearly not a clue as to what was in store) I decided that with home only a short train ride away, it was a better option to hold up there for a few days. I lied before, for the many of you that have never heard of Ardrossan, it’s not very nice. Still, being held up in my own home wouldn’t be so bad, it beats the hell out of a weeks wait in the Sahara Desert on the border of two very unstable countries (one of which was going through a revolution) in a small sand storm. Perhaps my standards for these thing have become somewhat unrealistic.
Well, back aboard and finally ready to go a week later, we cast our lines and ventured out into the big scary ocean. Some background information at this point: my sailing experience is limited to say the least. Not to be deterred by my lack of know-how, why start now, I was more than welcoming of the wealth of knowledge offered by resident skipper and all around boss of the boat, Andi. It is quite a big ask to captain a boat from one side of the world to another, whilst teaching a novice how to sail, but between Captain Andi and first mate Emma, a damn fine job was done. For this I will be eternally grateful. Skippers are a rare breed that seldom require sleep which I discovered to my amazement on my first watch. The way this whole ‘passage’ making thing works is through a watch rota. Basically you are on watch for three hours and off watch for six. The three watches then trim sails and keep look out to ensure smooth sailing day and night. Best clear up now that sailing is indeed a 24 hour undertaking and there is in fact nowhere to stop at night time whilst at sea.
Our first stop on this journey would be La Coruna, Spain. This meant taking on the Irish sea before crossing the notoriously challenging Bay of Biscay. It is often said that the hardest part of an Atlantic crossing is Biscay itself (the body of water below Britain but above Spain , with France to the East). We made it more of a challenge by being around a month past the season for what is deemed an appropriate time to cross. For six days I was able to keep down much more than a bacon roll as the seas hammered us from beneath and the rain battered us from above. Sea sickness can be suffered by even the saltiest of old sea dogs and anyone that has experienced this for a long period of time will understand the distress. It is said that there is a 48 hour period after which the effects of this should go away, but nobody told this to Biscay. On the final day of this section and with land in sight, we ran into more than just a spot of bother. with the wind speed reaching 60 knots, a force 9 storm in civy terms, we were in for it. I was awoken to shouts and instructed to don my waterproofs and get on deck, the furling line which is used to haul in the foresail, had snapped leaving the sail fully out and uncontrollable. I will never be able to put into words how terrifying this experience was, more in hindsight than at the time as I now understand better just how in danger we were in. Andi leaped onto the foredeck to battle with the sail in an attempt to coil it up while towering waves crashed over him at one point lifting him in the air with nothing but sail itself, in his grasp, to keep him onboard. It also didn’t help when his glasses were washed from his face, an error he is now often reminded of. Of course the engine wouldn’t start either to make things harder still but eventually and nobody quite understands how, it miraculously sprung to life after about half an hour allowing Andi to utilise some cunning to spin the boat in circles thus using the wind to coil the sail up before lashing it tight in position. Some of our problems solved we motored for an anchorage only to find it was no match for this weather leaving us only one option to take short watches over night to the nearest marina. Any port in a storm.
This northern Spanish town brought with it very welcome shower, beer, sleep and land. The marina was very basic but the facilities were of good quality. Our first evening was spent at the bar enjoying ‘authentic’ Spanish tapas, a selection of reheated greasy bar snacks, delicious. La Coruna is a wonderfully quaint little Spanish town that really does feel genuine and untouristy. It was only a 24 hour hop from here to Bayona, another Spanish town just above Portugal geographically. The seas had calmed down considerably and we made it here in good sport with zero problems, unless I have repressed them from my memory which is entirely possible.
From La Coruna we made our way further south to Lagos. Portugal, not Nigeria. My seamanship skills finally developing to the extent that I had around 7 knots in my arsenal including the challenging but not very useful monkeys fist and the extremely unchallenging but entirely useful bowline. In addition to this I knew how to adjust sails, though admittedly not when to do so and I still couldn’t get to sleep whilst being thrown around my cabin by the wind and the waves. Lagos provided a good base to rest up while the weather improved and we made our way to our penultimate destination in the canary islands. On the morning we left I happily volunteered to make a supermarket run for a few last minute essentials and with stock purchased and the quartermaster quite happy, we slipped lines once again for the passage to Lanzarote where in a few weeks time our crew of three would become a crew of five and we would begin the crossing.
After a couple of weeks in Lanzarote waiting for the opportune moment to set sail the remaining two Gentlemen arrived on the scene. Perhaps not the ones that you might be expecting. Allow me to introduce Mr John Dunn, as it happens John is the father of TGAC’s own Richard Dunn. His bunk mate on this trip, Mr Bill Crossan, father of a good friend of the Gents as it so happens. The pair arrived eager for adventure and quickly got aquatinted with the team. What followed was four days waiting for things that were still to be delivered or for the fearsome wind to die down so we could at least stand a chance of leaving our space without crashing into everybody around us. Please see earlier comment regarding sand storms, unstable nations and Arab Springs. Steak, port, coffee and good company in the sun; not complaining.
When the time did finally come, and most of Lanzarote’s tobacco had been purchased, we set sail. I’m not entirely sure on the physics of how a vessel with that much stuff on board can stay afloat, but needless to say, it did. The wind was still blowing strong and getting off the pontoon was a tough act, manoeuvred with Andi at the helm and the rest of the crew covering the boat with inflated rubber tubes known as fenders, for obvious reasons. There’s few things scarier than the prospect of denting, scratching or otherwise physically impairing an expensive toy such as this. It was a short journey to the fuel pontoon before we were on our merry way. We anticipated 16 days at sea.
It was only about half an hour before the rudder seemed to become unresponsive to the wheel and panic ensued. Just as quick as the sails had be hoisted, they were dropped. With Andi crawling around under the deck throwing ropes, fenders and other random objects on deck out of his way. In a tense situation as this there is really only call for two people, one to fix the problem and one on the wheel shouting back. I believe my job was to keep an eye on the rather large container ship on our collision course, along with other traffic in the area. With the problem resolved we set our sights on the horizon and whilst slightly concerned about the rudder situation, I settled back into the watch pattern with my new watch partner, John.
Light winds and flat water for the first couple of days as we motored through the canary Islands. After this though we had the Jib out and eventually the main sail, reefed slightly to counter the winds as they picked up. There is not much to report here as day in day out the routine on a boat is very similar and apart from the occasional excitement of a dolphin playing in the bow waves or a potential fish on the line, there really wasn’t anything to write home about.
Around five days in, due to the wind coming from the West, very unusual at this time of year, we were forced to cover more miles south than was necessary. At this point in the trip the charts didn’t show us having made any real progress and we even spent a night travelling NE, the complete wrong direction. Moral onboard became quite low. On the 3rd of December after my watch finished at 9am we spotted dolphins, rather a lot of them playing in the waves of the boat. One of the more sensible pre-departure purchases was a GoPro which captured incredible underwater footage of them swimming when attached to a boathook.
Following a morning watch I was bellow deck reading when i heard the reel of the fishing rod on the back of the boat burst into action. I quickly glanced over at John who at the time was responding similarly and we both shot up on deck and with the entire crew, stopped the boat and landed a magnificent blue oily tuna fish. John gutted it and Emma prepared it for the evenings meal. The wind still was coming from W/NW forcing us to steer a course of 220, due south. Still, a week in and my mind was not yet lost. Back into old habits and reacquainted with the movements of the sea. The full crew gathered on deck for a feast of tuna steaks, cabbage and potatoes expertly prepared in the kitchen and as fresh as it comes.
Flat water and lack of wind gave us an opportunity to fulfil the ‘tradition’ of a mid-atlantic dip. At midday with a depth of around 3 miles underneath us we dropped the sales and prepared to dive in. The water was warm and clear and I had no hesitation to enter the water, despite all manner of beasts lurking beneath. This was a fantastic experience and a great opportunity to get off the boat for a short while. Back onboard, with the engine on for the foreseeable future I finished reading Jupiters Travels, Ted Simons’ infamous book journaling his RTW motorcycle trip in the 70s. John and I promptly began looking at maps and planning something similar, perhaps in a TGAC vs. Old Boys style.
After losing most of our sinkers to big atlantic fish, we had resolved to using what ever heavy metal objects looked most unusual in the tool box. This seriously upped our fish catching ability and around 5’oclock we had a Tuna on the line only to be lost as we hauled it out the water. The next day though we managed to land a Dorado.
Still the weather blows from the west with the trade winds yet to set. A pod of whales spotted not far of the starboard bow.
Finally the Trades look set and with this, we should have land in 7 days. The heat is getting overbearing now especially in the cabins which are becoming stuffy and uncomfortable.
The past few days were rough sailing with only the jib out in an effort to stay on course. The main sail acts to keep a yacht balance as its force against the wind counteracts that of the waters force on the keel, simply put. So without this, we rock from side to side as we sail, making for an uncomfortable ride. As a result of the cold air and warm water we were experiencing a great deal of squals every night. These are sharp and sudden changes in wind speed and direction causing the boat to gybe, meaning the wind to come around the other side of the sail slamming it over the foredeck and changing our course. The only way to deal with this is to act quickly and grab the wheel, hauling it back on course. It became extremely tiring jumping up to do this so often and it was frustrating knowing the sails and ropes were taking such a beating.
I felt at this point that my skills as a sailer were hugely improving and I was able to trim sails and assist with everything as necessary. The more time that I could spend with the skipper and first mate, the more I learned. A milestone was reached on this day of covering over 2500 miles at sea! this happens to be the experience requirement for the qualification of Yacht Master. We still had around 900 to do and were averaging 180 a day.
The general feeling on board at this point: two weeks at sea is plenty.
Boats are equipped with portholes down below functioning as windows. There is however one distinct difference which is that portholes, whilst providing an often necessary breeze of fresh air, really shouldn’t be left open when at sea. Andi being an old hand at this game is well aware of this, as is Emma. The rest of us did, of course, find out the hard way. Around 3am I awoke for my watch to a rather unpleasant smell in my cabin. Not unusual after two weeks at sea however this time it was different, fishy in fact. I sat up and looked down to find a deceased fish on my cabin floor. Great. I quickly delivered it back to the sea and found out the next day that the same fish had been thrown from a wave to hit Andi directly in the face whilst he was on watch. After chasing its flopping body around the cockpit for a short while it disappeared and he assumed it had either gone off the back of the boat or into my open porthole. Thanks for the heads up.
Bill and John however, had it worse. Not correctly closing an outward facing hatch in their cabin caused a wave and half of the North Atlantic Ocean to enter their cabin soaking everything in sight. I’m glad that I was asleep during this ordeal and therefore cannot report too clearly on the drama that unfolded. The mood onboard this day: slightly uncomfortable and for once, it wasn’t because of the sea state.
The British Virgin Islands
Seeing land for the first time after exactly three weeks at sea is an indescribable feeling. This was an extremely slow year for atlantic crossings due to the unusual weather so it seems unlikely, even if I undertake another crossing, that I will ever be completely out of contact for this long again in my life. Being with a small group of people in such a small environment with your eyes not gazing upon any colours or shapes not found onboard can be extremely draining. Similarly the sounds and smells that one does not notice on land become instantly apparent after a spell at sea.
We arrived in Tortola, BVI on the 18th of December 2013. Something that I would never have thought about before this trip is the situation whereby the rocking of the boat and limited potential for movement requires a sailor to be sat down or lying 90% of the time. Do this for 3 weeks then try standing at a bar when you make land.