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Crossing the Atlantic

Crossing the Atlantic

(More pictures and video will soon be posted)

Crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat truly is an adventure of a lifetime. It’s one of those things many people speak off, some people dream off and a very few people do. When I left Norway on Sept. 22nd I had no idea if I would find people that would sail with me even to Gran Canaria, going across the Atlantic seemed like a distant, surreal, dream. As I worked my way southwards from Norway, things slowly fell into place. By the skin of my teeth I managed to find crew for every leg of the journey and when I got to Gran Canaria I actually had a long list of people that wanted to come with me. I was in the dream position of hand picking who I wanted to come across with me. I said no to six people and yes to four. The four people were: Knut, Trond, Arvid and Kaja. You never know how things will work when you put 5 relative strangers in a confined space for weeks on end, so I was a bit nervous, but felt confident that it would work out.

We decided to set sail on November 20th, 3 days before the ARC regatta. 225 boats sail with the ARC regatta, so leaving a few days before them was a great way to have their security network around us …. Without paying for it. We got the boat fueled, loaded with provisions and ready to rock by 7pm on the 19th. Then we went and had a good farewell dinner at our favorite local restaurant, before we retired for the evening. At 05:30 am on the 20th I woke the others and by 06:00 am we had cast off and were on our way. The forecast looked good, but when you have 16 – 18 days at sea ahead of you, you only know what the weather promises for the next few days and not the entire trip. We had a friend of mine Morten Wichstrøm, who also does my charter bookings, following our every nautical mile from his home in Oslo, where he sent us a continuous stream of weather updates and news. The trip certainly wouldn’t have been the same without his assistance.

From the get-go we were plagued with very little wind. It quickly became apparent that our projected 16 – 18 day crossing would probably take longer … much longer. The tough thing was we had no real clue exactly how much longer, because in a worst case scenario it could take us up to 4 weeks. Though my boat is fast, I still need wind to sail. Without joking I can say that for the whole trip we had between 8 – 11 knots of true wind hitting us almost directly from behind most of the time. We were lucky to hit some areas of low pressure that really helped us out towards the end. We saw winds from 0.1 knot of true wind, to an absolute maximum of 24 knots when we narrowly avoided a squall. Anyone that sails will recognize that we had very little wind. This is also a reason why this years ARC regatta is one of the slowest in history and they have seen many boats abort the trip across, because they had so little wind that the trip would take them too long and they would run out of food and water. They opted instead to head back to Gran Canaria, or to Cape Verde and wait for more promising wind.

We surveyed our stores and felt confident that we had enough food for 3 to 4 weeks. We had very little canned food or long-term food, focusing instead on fresh fruit and vegetables and filling my freezer with chicken and meat that we thawed before each dinner. This ensured that we had great produce that Knut and Kaja used to drum up awesome meals with. It also meant that we were very dependent on the freezer. Had it gone belly up … well … let’s just say that next time I’ll make sure that I have more control over the shopping list, so that we would have been more non-perishables onboard.

Another concern was our fresh water supply. On the very first night we lost about 100 liters from the port water tank, probably because a faucet was left open. This meant that our water supply was effectively halved. Though I have a water maker it has given me some grief, so I didn’t want to rely on it. Instead we went into water rationing mode. I think any camel would have been impressed by our efforts. We used salt water for showers, cleaning dishes, when cooking pasta and rice and only used fresh water when we really needed to. We had brought over a 100 bottles of 1.5 liters of drinking water, so that came in addition. It is after all tough to sustain your body on salt water. Our efforts paid off and we didn’t need to start the water maker (except to test it … and lo and behold it didn’t work), we even had about 30 liters to spare when we came to St. Lucia. You might wonder if it was a tough to be in this kind of mode, but it really wasn’t, once we got used to it, it became natural and even taking salt water showers was no hassle.

Our last area of concern was electrics. Running a fridge, freezer, autopilot, navigational instruments, running lights, normal lights, etc. is a huge drain on the batteries. It quickly became apparent that my poor solar panels wouldn’t be able to keep us replenished and with so little wind my wind generator was of incredible little help. Now it was time to make any Scotsman jealous at how much we could save. We basically turned off everything except for the fridge, freezer and chart plotter. Yes, you read correct, we turned off the autopilot. We are without a question one of the very few boats that hand-steered the entire way across the Atlantic. This meant that night and day, someone was on the wheel steering us across. As a side note, because we were 5 people onboard it wasn’t a huge strain and also meant that we always had someone looking forward, which sad to say is not the case on all boats. At night we naturally turned on the tri-color, but besides that and the VHF we used no extra power. As another side note I was appalled to see how few other boats had their VHF’s on. I hailed 5 sailboats during the crossing and no one responded. We also saw a number of sailboats that didn’t use their running lights at night, so I was sad to see the level of poor seamanship. I’m sure if they ever get into an emergency they will be quick to turn on their VHF’s to scream for help, but other than that they kept them off. With our supreme level of frugality we still had to run the engines for 5 hours every day to recharge. On days with little to no wind, these 5 hours gave us some momentum forward, but all in all I had a balancing act between how much electricity we needed to use on one side against how much fuel we had to run the engines on the other. It was a tough equation, especially when we had very little wind and would love to motor sail to put some distance in our log.

Though it might seem harsh that we needed to conserve both water and electricity and hand-steer on top of that, I think it worked out well. No one complained and everyone pulled their share of the load. At the end we had a much more true sailing experience, closer to how it was in the old days. With the exception of the freezer of course.

When talking about the freezer I can’t begin to the great cuisine we enjoyed onboard because of it. We bought a lot of chicken, minced meat and bacon that we broke down into daily packets and froze. This meant we only thawed what we needed. For the first week at sea, Kaja dished up some great salads stretching our fresh vegetables for as long as they would last without spoiling. We had apples for basically 2/3 of the way and we ran out of oranges 2 days before St. Lucia, so there were few cases of scurvy onboard. To give you an indicator of the meals we had, listen to some of my favorite: Chili con carne, shepherd’s pie, tex mex, Indian chicken curry, chicken onion soup, taco’s and fajitas, bangers & mash, Pasta Bolognese, pizza and burgers. All of the meals were lovingly prepared by Knut and/or Kaja and it was something everyone looked forward to. It felt like we were having a Sunday dinner every day.

We ate all our dinners together, but left the rest of the meals up to each person. Due to our shifts we never really had a fixed time of day to eat breakfast and lunch, so people ate when they were hungry. The first week we had good bread, then we moved into the long-life bread and lastly we moved over to the Swedisk knekkebrød. We had a large variety of spreads, cheese, meats and so forth, but as time passed our selections decreased, but we never really ran our of anything. On top of that we had a variety of muesli onboard and when topped off with ice cold long-life milk it was a pleasure to eat. On top of this we had a variety of snacks that we also polished off on the way. In short we had a great variety of food and I think it is why spirits were high on the entire trip. A well fed crew is a happy crew.

I mentioned that we did shifts and it worked out the following way: Each person did one 4-hour nightshift and one 6-hour dayshift. Then every 5 days each person did 2 nighshifts and got the whole day off. It worked out well. Because then people could look forward to a day off every 5 days. At all times, two people were on watch. The shifts ran from 18:00 – 22:00, 22:00 – 02:00, 02:00 – 06:00, 06:00 – noon, noon – 18:00. In the beginning I also did a slight shift, so that one shift started 2 hours later, so that you would stand watch with two people instead of just one. That worked well up until the two least experienced people, Kaja and Arvid, were on watch together on the one shift we had the most wind. The result was that we had the one sailbreakage on the whole trip: The old gennaker split and was firmly broken. After that incident I shifted the watches around a bit, so that the inexperienced would never be together on shift. I also changed them, so that two people went on watch at the same time and stayed together the whole shift. The change proved successful and we had no more accidents after that.

Besides the mentioned gennaker, we had few other problems. The spinnaker halyards was a constant source of chafe and worry. I gaffa taped the area that comes out of the mast, right where the gennaker is attached. The forces at play there really tore into it and as the pictures below shows, I need to take a closer look, because things like that shouldn’t happen after only 10 hours of being under tension. I need to get my ass up into the mast to check what’s going on. The brand new foresail also has some issues, because I think the sailmaker screwed up on the measurements closest to the furler. The reason I say this is because from the looks of it, the sail should go about 20cm higher to be in the right spot … well, it doesn’t, so I’ll need to hoist it a bit and secure it down with rope. The whole ordeal of hoisting and lowering the foresail would be a lot easier, if it wasn’t connected to a wire, making raising and lowering it a lot more time consuming than it could have been. It also ensures that it’s something I can’t do by myself, but need assistance. Of course the sail itself is beautiful and on the furler it is very easy to use, but I need to get it positioned perfectly on the forestay for it to be perfect. Even though we had ridiculously little wind, we did have days when I feel like the wind generator (Seabreeze) should have generated electricity, but it didn’t. I really feel like it’s been a struggle to get the thing to give me anything remotely in the vicinity of what it promised. One big blow is that both my trampolines are basically falling apart. Gideon said they would be good for another 2 – 3 years, but from the looks of it they’ll only last a few more months, maybe less, now that I’m here in the Caribbean and they’ll see a lot of use. Another blow was that the port side bilge pumps stopped working again. This greatly irritates me, because I’ve spent so much time on them and Gideon even had an electrician come and rewire them in Amsterdam, but it seems to be to no avail. I had to manually bail out over 200 litres of salt water from the bilge during the crossing. Irritating to say the least! I also need to find out where the water is coming in, but I’m not too concerned, because it only happens in rough seas, so I think it’s through one or some of the through-hull fittings above the waterline. It’s also clear to me that both forward hatches leak not only in rough seas, but also when it rains. It’s also clear that it’s not from the seal, but I hope it’s not structural. I’ll need to spend more time on them in the weeks to come. Another disappointment was the solar fans I installed in Amsterdam. I installed 6 and already 3 of them have stopped working. In 50% breakage in 5 months is not a good track record. They basically just pack in and stop working, so I need to jump on the warranty band wagon and get them replaced. Of other pressing concerns I also need to drill two holes in the anchor roller, so that I can move the roller back a few cm. This will stop the anchor from jamming, a problem that becomes evident anytime I anchor.
Now that the temperature is getting warmer and warmer and the sun’s rays are relentless it’s become very apparent that my dodgy Bimini will need to be replaced. I’d like to replace it with a hard top, so hopefully I can scrape together the funds for that. On top of this it is of course the repair that I need to du to the pulpit I broke in Ijmuiden. I’m a bit puzzled at how the stanchions are fastened to the deck, because they seem only to be secured with a screw and no backing plate, maybe not even a washer, what’s worse is that they are in the actual deck molding, so I can’t get to the screws from underneath to strengthen them. Hopefully the mooring cleats are done properly, so that I don’t have to worry about their strength. It’s definitely something I need to talk to Gideon about.
Besides these things I have a nice little list of things I need to do and improve, but hey, that’s the way it always is. The key thing though is that I still think the FastCat is the supreme boat and I’m deeply satisfied with her. I wouldn’t exchange her for anything, especially once I get through with the repairs and improvements I need to do.

I hinted earlier at the poor wind we had and it’s true. In the end it took 21 days and 3 hours from when we cast off in Gran Canaria to when we were tied up in St. Lucia. Considering that we sailed close to 3000 nautical miles, this means an average speed of almost 6 knots, which is respectable for a normal boat, but I was expecting a much faster time. I can’t blame anything or anyone, but the wind. It certainly wasn’t the boat’s fault, because even with an inkling of wind we were moving graciously through the waves. In fact everyone onboard was amazed at how the boat moved. No matter the waves, we were safe and when the wind did pick up (on those rare occasions) the boat loved it. It’s also easy to look at the wind and think: 11 knots of wind. Well, they should do 7 – 10 knots then. Maybe if I got it at a different angle, but when it’s coming from straight behind it’s tough to get a lot of power out of it when you don’t have a huge spinnaker. My sailrobe is basically the main and genoa and two 135sqm and one 120 sqm gennaker. On the days we really moved, we had around 14 – 16 knots of true wind. Then it was a joy to sail and we flew along doing around 8 knots. The problem and what really dragged the average down was the bad days when we hardly any wind to work with. Days with daily averages of 4 knots or less are a killer. We didn’t have too many of them, but those we had meant that we needed to sail so incredibly much faster to lift the average back up again. Our worst day by far was day 14 when we averaged 91 nm in 24 hours. That’s 3.7 knots as an average. We were dying onboard. Then it looked like the trip could take almost 4 weeks and we felt a bit demotivated. Around that time the time-to-go indicator seemed to be stuck on 10 days. It was certainly our big joke onboard that we’ll be there in 10 days. Things got better and towards the end we were able to average between 170 – 185 nm in 24 hours, which we were very happy with since the winds never exceeded 18 knots.

Though we were plagued with little wind, the weather was gorgeous for the whole trip. I think we only had 2 or three days with rain, and even then it wasn’t continuous. We were able to lounge around and enjoy the sun and the great food. I finished 3 solid books: The Birds of Prey trilogy by Wilbur Smith. It felt exhilarating to read about pirates and privateers off the coast of Africa, when that’s where we were sailing. Everyone else also finished a large number of books, so it was a well read crew that walked ashore. The favorite book of the trip was Collective Suicide by Arto Paasilinna a book everyone read and loved. On one of the particular dead days in the middle of the Atlantic, we dove into the ocean and enjoyed a leisurely swim… and a bit of action.

All in all, the trip across was amazing. It was one of the things I dreaded the most when I left Norway, but it turned out to be the best parts of the journey. It is certainly something that will stay with me forever.