Monday, June 24, 2013

Having a whale of a time

Position: 39°23’N, 31°10’W – Flores, Azores

Happy Holidays! For seven days straight, the sun has shone in a clear, blue sky and the light wind has been just enough to keep us sailing. We have been sunbathing and sleeping, enjoying the welcome surprise and thanking the source - the Azores High, a high pressure system that brings calm winds and hot, dry weather to these islands all year round.    

To make life even better, the ocean erupted with life and we had regular sightings of skipjack tuna, loggerhead turtles, striped dolphins and Minke whales. The tuna skirted ahead of the boat for six hours, their purple and yellow backs sparkling in the sunlight, teasing the Skipper whose two fishing lines trailed limply out the back. The reddish-brownish loggerhead turtles were very cute, placidly paddling through the water and raising their heads just an inch to watch us pass by. Every day we were visited by dolphins who surfed the bow of the boat, squeaking and clicking to each other as they jumped and dived around us.

The whale sightings were a first and made us slightly anxious. In the open ocean, whales have been known to mistake a boat for another whale, occasionally capsizing or damaging them in their efforts to introduce themselves. The 10 metre Minkes gave us a fright when they surfaced just metres from the boat, measuring about the same size as Ashling. While we were excited to see them, we were wary of how up-close-and-personal we got. Our defence tactic is to turn on music to indicate that we are not another whale and to the Skipper’s delight, the First Mate’s Westlife album is in the lead at driving the whales away in the fastest time. He has even identified a specific track that works better than others (First Mate sighs!). 

The light winds disappeared completely as we neared land and we turned on the engine for the final 36 hours of our crossing. After a calm night under a full moon (well, 92% of one), we arrived at the Azorean island of Flores early on Sunday morning. It is the most westerly point in Europe and for sailors, a milestone that marks the crossing of the Atlantic. With its green hills and colourful flowers, it was a sight to behold after three weeks of open ocean. 

Arrival in Lajes, Flores

Monday, June 17, 2013

Marriage 24-7

Position: 37°55'N, 43°27'W

Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, we celebrated our fourth wedding
anniversary on Thursday with a bottle of Chianti and a bag of Tayto
crisps while sitting on the deck in the sun.

No doubt about it, crossing an ocean on a small boat with your husband
or wife brings a whole new meaning to the 'for better or for worse'
clause. Every time you open your eyes, they are the only person you see.
Every time you open your mouth, they are the only person who hears. They
are your cook, your doctor, your only option for social interaction in a
floating room for weeks on end so it pays to make it work.

We've learned to communicate in different ways, generally minimising the
verbal. Like the Skipper's monotone 'uh-huh' after he wakes at 4am,
which tells a caffeine-filled First Mate that he's not quite up for a
chat. Or the First Mate's raised eyebrows that say "How exactly has this
improved my life?" when the Skipper excitedly tells her how he has
replaced a screw/bulb/belt. With both of us living the same day every
day, there are only so many questions to ask and we no longer even speak
in full sentences anymore e.g. What would you like...? Shall we check
the...? Have you seen that...?

We've learned to take responsibility for different tasks, and work to
our physical strengths and talents. Ever the Equal Opportunities
Advocate on land, the First Mate finally accepted that some tasks (like
reefing a sail in 30 knot winds or going overboard, mid-ocean, to check
the hull) are best left to the Skipper. Instead she has channelled her
energies into – shock, horror – the galley, shoeing away intruders with
a wooden spoon and mutterings of mess-making and 'my kitchen'. She isn't
quite the perfect little housewife yet but the Skipper is starting to
think another ocean or two might just clinch the deal.

With no TV, internet, deadlines or expenses, you would wonder what else
is left to argue about but even the simple life has its moments. We do
have the occasional disagreement and there are times when even a boat
twice the size would still be too small –walking out the door and
slamming it behind you doesn't quite have the same effect when the only
door leads to the head (toilet)! However even in the heat of the moment,
it's difficult to forget the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere
and all we have is each other. Arguments are resolved quickly and soon
forgotten as we move on to the next challenge the boat or the ocean
throws at us.

It has been a year of marriage like no other and who knows, at this rate
we may even still be speaking to each other when we reach our destination!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Lost & Found in the Bermuda Triangle

Position: 35°19'N, 59°31'W

One week down and we're almost halfway there already. The winds have
been strong, but kind; the sun has beamed down every day and even with
two becalmed afternoons, we've made some great progress. On Saturday we
came within 200 miles of Bermuda and considered stopping for a quick
steak and a beer, but decided to keep going and enjoy more time in the
Azores instead.

Every year over 1,000 sailing boats make this west to east passage
across the Atlantic, with most leaving the USA/Caribbean by the
beginning of June - the start of hurricane season. Some stop in Bermuda
to break up the long passage; almost all stop in the Azores before
continuing to the Mediterranean in time for the European summer. Already
it's clear that we are among the latecomers as we have seen a few
container ships and tankers, but no other sailing boats.

Fact or fiction, there is no shortage of stories about strange
happenings and disappearances in the waters near Bermuda. Crew and boat
are still present and accounted for but we must admit we've had a few
disappearances of our own this week.

• 1 boat hook (a long pole with a hook on the end)
• 1 winch handle (for winding winches)
• 1 towed generator (a steel propeller that we tow through the water to
generate electricity)

We had only ourselves to blame for the boat hook and winch handle.
Living in the boatyard for six weeks, we had gotten used to putting
something down and finding it exactly in its place when we returned a
day or a week later. At sea, the boat is always moving (even when
becalmed) so if you want to keep something safe, you need to secure it
each and every time you put it down. Too late, we remembered this just
as we watched the boat hook and winch handle slide down the deck and
tumble into the big, deep blue.

• Saragossa seaweed
• 'Jelly boats'

We were calling them Jelly Boats for lack of a better name but our
onshore sea-life expert Ethna has informed us that these are Velella
(try saying that five times quickly with a few rums in you!), colonial
hydroids that look like a small jelly fish. We first mistook them for
some plastic packaging until we looked closer and saw a translucent,
blue, gas-filled, oval disc, bearing something that looked like a sail.
It uses its 'sail' to position itself to the right or left of the wind,
sailing northeast-southwest or northwest-southeast across the water.
It's like nature's version of a sailboat! Birds inspired the design of
aircraft and deep water fish inspired the design of submarines, so we
wonder if the Velella may have inspired sailing boats?

Not found:
Fish. We have upped our game since the Pacific with a new 'yo-yo' rig,
thanks to our friend Phil in Fort Lauderdale. It certainly looks the
part with bright yellow line and fancy, colourful lures. However it has
been trailing behind us for three days now and no results yet. No doubt
about it, there is definitely something out there but so far it seems to
prefer steel towed generators to pretty lures.

Monday, June 3, 2013

25 knots and gusting

Position: 32°28'N, 75°49'W

A windy departure has become something of a trademark for us now. With
just one exception, every time we have departed from land over the past
nine months, we have faced winds of average 25 knots, with swelling seas
to match.

Our first priority when leaving land is the wind direction i.e. that we
can sail away from land, ideally in the direction of our destination.
Our second priority is the strength of the wind - 15-20 knots (nautical
miles per hour) would be nice. While global marine weather forecasts
seem to be pretty good at predicting wind direction, they are not so
accurate with wind speed and we usually add 5-10 knots to the predicted
wind speed to be safe. It's a difficult call for the Skipper but
whatever we do, we seem to be destined to always set sail with a bang.

Our departure from Fort Lauderdale on Friday was no different. Up early
to catch the turning tide, we wove our way out through the bridges and
canals, enjoying the last views of the multi-million dollar mansions of
the $6 million dollar man, Mr Wendys, Mr Firestone and Mr Sunglass Hut.
We passed through the entry to Port Everglades and BAM! A strong
easterly wind swung around the corner, pushing us back into land. Over
the next hour, we inched our way out into the ocean, often sitting
enviously in the wake of a cheeky speedboat, whose Skipper just put the
foot down and zipped out through the channel in minutes. Finally we
found ourselves back in the Gulf Stream, moving north-northeast as the
speedometer crept up to a wonderful 8-10 knots – twice our average
speed. My, how we love this current!

The sky and sea remained busy for the next 24 hours, with gusty squalls
and large waves putting Ashling's new spray dodger to the test while the
crew hid out behind it. By now, we've become accustomed to the signs and
sounds of a heavy sea like the ringing of the ship's bell from the
forepeak as the boat crashes into the water. Or the loud thud of a wave
as it hits the side of the boat, and the moment immediately after when
time seems to stand before the boat falls back into the water. We also
know what to expect from our bodies as they adjust to life on the water
again. On and off watch, we try to keep ourselves busy with small,
non-taxing tasks to keep us awake and help establish a routine. Eating,
drinking, sail trimming, cleaning; going to the toilet especially
demands a balancing act as both our bodies and the boat lean 20° to the

On the bright side, all that wind and current did give us a new daily
record of 180 miles. We're now four days in and the winds have abated to
18 knots off the beam – Ashling's happy place. The sun is shining and
the sea is gently rocking us along, still in the Gulf Stream. Now this
is what we're talking about! Over the next few days our route will take
us north-east along the east coast of the USA past the Carolinas.
Somewhere between the notoriously stormy Cape Hatteras and Philadelphia,
we will take a right turn and head due-east towards our next destination
– The Azores Islands.