15th april – the Atlantic crossing

A month since we arrived! Already! About time I put into words our journey here. The epic to end all epics? Hmm…well we have definitely arrived. And in rapid time. There were no medical emergencies. No collisions with a whale. No boat failure. No injuries or sickness. No fouled water or insufficient food. No catastrophe. We made it! But it almost feels irrelevant now that we are here, launching into the next phase of our other-side-of-the-pond lives. Job done.

And what a job it was. Successful, but hard. We finally left the Cape Verde Islands at 12 noon on Monday 2 March. As always, we had assumed a daily run of between 100-120 miles a day and had thus given ourselves 18-21 days to sail the 2110 miles to Antigua. As it turned out, our lowest days run was 124 miles though typically, we did 134+ per day. One day we recorded 153!!! We rocketed by. Oh that wind! The crossing took 16 days and 4 hours. Our average speed was 5.5 knots-fast for this old banger. Comparable speeds to plastic light production boats. We arrived at 1600 hours on Wednesday 18 March.

The crossing was fast but tough. The trade wind, balmy, blue sky sailing which I had been led to believe typified the best of Atlantic sailing, was not ours. At least not until the last week. For the first ten days we had strong winds, big seas, mammoth swell. We had exactly what we hoped we would not have, endurance on the edge sailing. That is not to say it was not worth it. We learnt much. Mainly that we are a family that can. That we have a boat that can. I am proud of this.

As to our expectations being met? From the day we left the UK, my mind was fixed on this crossing. My main concerns always were firstly how cranky the kids might be for three weeks at sea and how would we keep them entertained and sail the boat etc. Secondly, how rolly and uncomfortable the motion would be. As it turned out we had happy kids (phew) who entertained themselves mostly. As for the motion, the rolling did not seem to be an issue (thanks to being on a broad reach with our storm jib, put high and sheeted flat). Or maybe I’d just become immune to such motion. Who knows. All I can say is the things I worried about, we’re not an issue at all. The things I gave no thought to, were huge issues. Water. Salty water. On deck, in the cabin, everywhere. Wet bed, wet bedding. Salty, sticky, damp. Arghhh!

The headline for this passage reads ‘strong wind, big waves, heavy swell, wet boat’. Funnily enough despite this, I never really felt fear or frustration about the situation as I had on previous crossings. I do recall very vividly that for the first ten days the words rumbling through my head were ‘no one can get hurt, no one can get hurt. I was acutely aware that we were entirely on our own, should anything ‘bad’ happen as I moved about the boat clearing toys cum trip hazards cum missiles that could cause a problem.

The forecast we left port with, promised 15 knot wind for at least 7 days. It was the forecast we wanted. Else we would never have left. I had accepted that at some point during the three week crossing we could be hit by strong winds/waves/swell, regardless of the forecast. I’ve learnt that forecasting can only get you so far. I took the view that sailing such a distance was in many respects a leap of faith. I was mentally prepared for a strong blow at some point. However I never imagined that the first weeks forecast would get it so wrong and that that blow would come so soon. Neither perhaps had the other four boats who left port the same day as us.

We knew the first day would be a bit blowy as we passed between the islands’ accelerated wind zones. We assumed that once through those zones, we would enjoy the 15 knot forecast. We had sun, a good breeze, white caps. All was ok. I felt huge excitement and pride. As I read to Ben all the good luck messages downloaded at the last wifi moment, wishing us love and luck, an enormous surge of emotion hit me and spilled out of my eyes…I can pinpoint this emotional torrent to my reading aloud the good wishes of one friend who described us as ‘the bravest little family’. No sooner had those words exited my mouth did my throat seize and tears prick my eyes. I felt she was right. As I blubbed happily in the cockpit I had this overwhelming feeling that this brave little family would rise to the challenge. I couldn’t believe we were doing what we said we would do. Backed by all our family and friends. Every second was poignant and vivid.

Within 3 hours we got a reality check. We were slammed with 25 knot wind (gusting more). That was poignant and vivid too. Big waves. Gale force seas. We had wind switching from north east (trade wind) to fluky south west. Wind against wave…I could see waves being blown backwards! Spray everywhere. It was very blowy indeed. We had to reef quickly which I found difficult as I tried to cling to the boat with my feet whilst my feeble hand tried to pull down the main sail to the reefing point. Then soon after the storm jib broke free of the lashings securing it to the piston hanks (clips used to attach sail to rigging). It was intent on losing itself to the sea. Ben arm wrestled it back on deck whilst I dropped it via the halyard. Not easy as I was more concerned with trying to avoid the sheet (another rope tied to the jib), which was wildly and violently flying around where I was crouched. All I could see was a malicious snake of a rope jumping S shaped, with force, hissing and threatening to take my eye out. As I looked up from my position forward of the mast, on all fours, all I could see was a wild sea, growling. Whilst the wind cast giant fluid ripples on the sea’s surface reminding me of marbled paint. Then a wave crashed over the deck, snapping me out of my ponderings. This was to be the first of many, setting the mood for the next ten days.

That first night was a night of firsts. Shelves that had never been emptied, were. Three times the nav station shelf crammed tight with all our reference books was dumped on the floor. BAM went the wave and CRASH went the books. Both Ben and I stared at the floor in utter disbelief. Then at each other. That first night the portholes in the foc’s’le started leaking. Streams of water coming through onto the bed. Highly unnerving. This had also never happened before. The portholes were as tight shut as they could be and yet the water insisted on bedding down in our bed! We were firefighting so soon after leaving port. Everything we did not want, we got. Even Ben felt queasy, another first.

By the following morning the theme was decidedly ‘wet’. Foc’s’le soaked. A third of the boat, the playpen, simply out of action. Alfi’s car seat, drenched from sloppy waves which gave themselves up on our deck. A wave even splashed on my head whilst cooking in the galley. Never had I considered we would have water inside the cabin! In total over the next ten days I got three galley dousings, (the galley taking five)! Wet hair, wet clothes, salt salt salt-bah! Enough to elicit instant aimless fury which could only boomerang back on me. The sea cares not that it spilled itself on you, silly you for putting yourself in its path.

Even poor Olive got a bedtime soaking. One night during my watch, around 3am, I heard her cry ‘water water’ and I saw her sat bolt upright dripping wet. A wave had somehow forced its way in through the (locked) skylight and sploshed plumb on her head. We washed her down with warm water and within minutes she cuddled up with bunny and daddy in the saloon behind a lee cloth. That kid is no sissy…she was asleep within minutes and never complained. Meanwhile, I tried to silence the maternal guilt washing over me with some logic and reason…wasn’t a bit of water inside the boat inevitable? I mean to travel over hundreds and millions of tonnes of water, a bit of water here and there…? Logic 10 – Maternal guilt – 12.

As for the wind, well it remained at a steady 20-25 knots for ten days straight! My personal journal entries up to day 10 make repeated reference to it. Day 2 journal entry is typical of how things were; ‘…still gusting. Now doing 7 knots. Holding course. Staying below reading Trafalgar. Nelson is done for.’

Day 5 entry reads ‘Night watch. 2230 hours. Ben still up, he shouldn’t be. Wind gusting. Doing 6-7 knots. Boat rocketing by. Bit on edge. Cautiously nervous. Reluctant for Ben to go to bed but keep telling him too. We depend on him being rested. Girls fine, as always.’

Day 7 journal entry ‘Still 20 knots of wind. Boat holding her own. No new leaks. Old ones leaking less. Waves crashing on deck. Feeling edgy, nervous. Forecasting-pah! 15 knots they said…’

We didn’t need a gadget to tell us the wind speed (not that we had one of course), our flag told us everything we needed to know. For ten consecutive days it was ironed flat against the sky having not a ripple in it. It was as if it was made of cardboard. As I scrolled through all our photos of the first ten days, the flag is a red rectangle, with all four corners sharp and equidistant from each other. A visible reminder of just how unflagging and indefatigable that wind was.

The sea was big. I’m not bragging, it is just how it was. There were times I’d be looking up to waves, as expletives filled my thoughts. Not to mention the physics which also mess with your head. You know that boats will float but…my journal entry for day 7 reads ‘I looked up today at a cresting wave. My head was bent backwards.’ Frequently the waves lifted us up and skewed the boat around like a spinning top which then surfed down the wave. I just held on and hoped for the best! Nonetheless with lively white caps as far as the eye could see it was difficult for either of us to relax. We never spoke of being tense. We acted like everything was ok. We got on with it. But it wasn’t really…day 9 journal entry reads ’25 knots and more. Strong wind. White caps all around. Feeling edgy. Can’t relax.’ And later ‘Saw some of the biggest swell today. 4 metres. Towering above us. Went below saying ho hum, literally…’

As for those waves, they were big and loose and rebellious. They loved our deck. Journal entry day 9 reads ‘Not too many waves on deck today. Though one licked its way over the transom and casually yet with precision, splashed neatly down the companionway on to my back. I would like it if this did not happen. Infuriating.’

The waves were also noisy. I’ll never forget their sound. As they slapped the hull they literally made a bang and a crash at which Ben and my eyes would meet whilst we waited either for a splosh on deck; the splosh to enter the boat; the boat to skew wildly under the forces involved or for all of the above to happen at the same time or for nothing startling to occur. Day 9 journal entry reads ‘Sea is hissing. I can hear her from inside the cabin. Spooked again.’

Weather; grey skies, look at the colourless photos! RAIN! We had rain! Who talks of rain when recalling their Atlantic crossing. No one! But wait, we are! Unbelievable…

These photos understate the size of things but to give you an idea…

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In the end, we just set the self steering and sails, went below and let the boat get on with it. What more could we do? And she did get on with it. Beautifully. For those who want the techy details; for the first 700 miles or so, we sailed under storm jib and mainsail (2 reef). But even that gave too much power. We slackened the mainsail so it resembled a baggy towel strewn over the rigging, but still that was too much sail. So down she came and during miles 700-1300 we sped by under our number three jib alone. No mainsail. Just that small jib. From 1300 miles (day 11) to port we reverted to a reefed mainsail and number three jib. Amazing really, all those miles enabled by some canvas and wind. As for navigation-we plotted our position twice a day (noon and midnight), following a westerly course. Every evening, venus shone the way being dead ahead.

Meanwhile we remained in the cabin with the girls who ransacked the boat each day having a whale of a time. Despite what was going on outside, it was not a case of doom and gloom. No the girls kept things cheery. I actually had some of the best family times I ever had rolling around the cabin floor with my giggling girls. Following Olive’s lead who immediately worked out the sensible place to be was, lying down on the floor. She was so right! I can honestly say I have never seen them so happy or relaxed anywhere, land or sea. I’m not saying that to make myself feel better, it is just a fact. We read stories and played ‘dressing up’ and let them get grubby and eat what they wanted.

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Olive started to make friends with Alfi as opposed to using her as a cushion. Everyday she called her a new name. Day 7 journal entry reads ‘Olive has started calling Alfi ‘Denzel’…?? And saying ‘where’s that little baby going…?’ as she watches Alfi crawl off with purpose. No idea where she found that name, not one we had used or mentioned…kids brains! As for Alfi, she started to give me unprompted kisses (more like a slobbering head but, no matter, I appreciated her affection). She also developed yet more independence when one day I looked around, could not see her, panicked thinking she had somehow got out on deck when lo and behold she poked her head out of the foc’s’le grinning and squeaking happily. Ergo; she had climbed the metre height to get into it, on her own! To get down she scrummaged with pillows so as to push them on to the floor. Backed over the edge, feet first, hung from her waist for a while like a giant salami before dropping down onto her soft landing pad to then crawl into the saloon looking for mischief. Both Ben and I were surprised that neither of them seemed the least perturbed by the conditions or the length of time at sea. There were no cries for land, or when will the boat stop or I don’t like this mummy. None. They had free reign of the cabin and behaved as if living at sea was totally normal. Day 9 journal entry reads ‘In foc’s’le, mid atlantic, sea walloping outside, watching bedtime iPad with Olive, hands up waving goodbye to the Waybuloos. Sheer madness.’

As for Ben and I, well we got on with what needed to be done. We quickly settled into a watch / childcare system. The boat ran like clockwork. Watch. Cook. Eat. Wash up. Play. Cook. Eat. Wash up. Tidy up. Mop up. Bedtime. Take a fix. Watch and so it went. Quarter of the way there. Half the way there. Before we knew it we had 400 miles to go. It did take until day 8 to find our rhythm, but once found, we could have gone on for weeks like that. However privately and unbeknownst to each other, for those first ten days we were just a bit on edge, unable to relax. We didn’t talk about it until things had calmed down. Privately I was thinking ‘really? This is what we get? More friggin edge of your seat sailing. Come on…’ as I ran through safety procedures in my head. During our night watches there was little star gazing or oooing at the universe. No we stayed below, in the (nearly) dry, the cockpit being wet and salty. Upside; I got to read and finish an adult book! Another first. Fitting that I read an anthology of accounts on Trafalgar. What history. Day 8 journal entry reads ‘Trafalgar, battle won but a savage storm on the days after the battle prevented the prize ships won by Nelson, to be seized. Ships in such a state, anchors destroyed, no way to secure them so they were left to sink. But not before the British rescued the French and Spanish aboard. Ironic that the British spent life and shot on destroying Napoleon’s fleet only to save prisoners from those same sinking ships. The accounts by the French and the Spanish are of admiration and respect for the British navy for their seamanship, humanity and discipline. Amazing read. Incredible accounts. Imagine sailing on those great wooden ships!’.

When not reading I watched tv on the iPad, anything to ignore the noisy hissing and slamming of waves around the hull. Ben wasn’t happy at all during those first ten days. He never hinted at it, being the calm strong type that he is, but I now know. The conditions were rubbish, they had him on high alert not least given the weight of responsibility on him.

Aside all of this, as odd as it sounds, at all times I had a huge sense of optimism that all would be ok, and in the end it was. You could say I was blissfully ignorant through inexperience. A bit like a first pregnancy! But actually, I knew we were going to be ok. I just did. I kept imagining arriving. Day 8 journal entry reads ‘Can’t stop thinking about a night in a hotel…with ensuite. Steeping in a hot bath.’ I kept enjoying time with my family. I kept telling myself to enjoy now. So I did. It was not doom and gloom. The girls were always happy and in a way, that was all that mattered for my sanity! Also we had Ben’s birthday to enjoy. Ok, not on his birthday as the conditions wouldn’t allow. So celebrations were postponed until the conditions eased. But once they did we made daddy birthday cards and chocolate cake and licked out the bowl and dressed up and had fun. Day 10 journal entry reads ‘Calmer. Manageable. Sun out. Daddy’s party in an hour.’ And later on ‘Party went well. Cake needs improvement. Dressing up good. Indians and princesses…’

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On day 11, the wind finally started to calm down and we emerged from the cabin. Like moles. Olive put on her life jacket for the first time in 11 days! (To think all those times I imagined children falling overboard and the need for us all to be tied on. I never thought we would not be outside the cabin. We didn’t need life lines!) Alfi was once again shoe horned into her car seat-throne. The deck gleamed immaculately! The salt water had scrubbed her clean as if she’d been re-painted. The sun came out. The sky turned blue. Finally, we were in shorts. Finally it got hot. Finally, we had the conditions we dreamed of. Light winds, gentle seas, balmy weather. As our skin became warm, our anxieties ebbed away. Ben and I started to exhale, relax and talk about the previous ten days. Ben said he felt short changed. That we had a had a bum deal as we should have had enjoyable, not endurance sailing. I on the other hand just felt happy and impressed and proud (again!), that not only that we as a family had got on with it but, that we had made our dream real (despite the consequences!). And more importantly, how Dhanu had got on with it. She was incredible. It may seem odd to describe or attribute feelings to a bunch of wood arranged into the shape of a boat, but I genuinely love and admire this boat. I am so grateful to her. Strong, beautiful, safe sanctuary. I trust her completely.

From day 11 until arrival we had wonderful conditions. We both agreed that with conditions like that, we could sail for weeks and weeks. I could. It was easy. We hit our stride. We played and relaxed and realised how easy it is when conditions are F3-F4 (in this boat at least). Day 11 journal entry reads (in capitals) ‘BEAUTIFUL DAY. BALANCED SAILING. NOT NERVEY. HOT. CLEAR SKIES. SUN. AWESOME. FINALLY.’ And later, ‘Bread on. Alfi asleep. Olive happy. Boat mellow. 858 miles to go.’ And later still, ‘Oliveisms ‘this is the way to the Caribbean…’

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Days 12 to arrival were a warm sunny blur of relaxation and satisfaction and relief. We pailed the Atlantic into big buckets in the cockpit and made paddling pools for the girls. They loved it. Day 13 journal entries read; ‘In shorts, warm breeze…’. And ‘Birds birds birds! What are they doing here 1200 miles from land? What are they waiting for? Where will they stop?’ And then ‘Itchy. Ripe. Need a shower. Still thinking of hotel bathrooms and hot water running over me.’ And more; ‘Today’s highlight, Alfi sat in my lap waving at Venus making happy curious ‘who put that there?’ squeaks.’ Capped off with ‘Great day. Perfect conditions. Fast. Smooth. Blue. Sun. Hot. Amazing. Makes me feel regret we did not have such conditions all the way.’

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This crossing saw me go the longest (and only?) period in my life where I saw not a soul nor sign of human life. 13 days went by during which aside my family, I saw no other boat, no aeroplanes, not even their traces, no nothing. No ships, no other yachts, nothing. Apart from sea and more sea. I didn’t even realise this until Ben said, aren’t you missing signs of life? Or rather, how many times in your life have you gone without seeing life? He was right, I hadn’t ever really gone without seeing signs of human life, of society. Of human creation. When do we ever go without that? Rarely…but we went 13 days seeing nothing but water and sky. Of course this number may seem puny to those who sail for months and months. But whatever. It wasn’t bleak. It was simple and pure and I liked it. This surprised me. I always thought I quite liked humanity, society, the land, the culture, even the really messy stuff. And whilst I still do like man and all his brilliance and mess, I didn’t mind being beyond the reach of all that. There was no effort in it. Then on Day 14 I spied an empty water bottle bobbing around. In that one empty piece of plastic, man rushed back into my thinking. Where did that bottle come from? What factory, where? Who packed it into a crate? Who dropped it in the sea and so on.

As for food, well we provisioned extremely well. We wanted for nothing. In fact it became clear, as we slowly reduced supplies, that we had over stocked. We had loads of food! (We are still eating the dry stores nearly seven weeks after we left our last port.) We ate three meals a day. Fresh produce stayed fresh. The day we arrived I made butternut squash risotto with a squash I’d bought in September 2014 in Portugal-I’m not kidding! Still good. We still have onions bought in the Cape Verde Islands. We ate our last tomatoes the days after arriving. Along the way we also caught fish, dorado. DELICIOUS! However there was sargasso weed everywhere which messed up the lines and got caught in the lures which hampered the fishing. Never mind, we caught 4 fish over 16 days…it was enough and at least we ate all that we caught. It’s sad to see boats which caught too big a fish which they can’t eat. By day Ben and I at out the pan or one bowl to save on washing up, but also it was easier to hold one bowl between us than two. One night we decided to chance it with a plate each. Just when we thought it safe to step away from holding them, swoosh crash they went. As we threw them overboard we wondered how long they would take to reach the seabed, 4km below.

Another real surprise for me was our water consumption. Ben had said we could do it on 10 litres a day. This seemed low to me. I suspected it was a figure that reflected the limitations of what we could carry rather than what we would need. I am happy to say I was utterly wrong and he was totally right. We used ten litres of fresh water a day, in fact a little less than that. No one went without. We allocated five for drinking and five for cooking and washing, including nappies! Of course dirty dishes, clothes, nappies and our showers all had salt water washes first followed by a fresh water rinse. This worked fine. Day 15 journal entry reads ‘Sea water bucket shower on deck. Feeling gorgeous. Never been two weeks without washing before…Skin fell off in handfuls.’ So in total, we used a little over 160 litres. Not bad given that the average land based consumption is, I understand, 60 litres per adult. Our tank held 140 litres and in addition we had lots of five litre bottles of drinking water stashed around the boat. Each day we decanted five litres from the tank into an empty bottle so we could monitor usage. To those boat owners with huge tanks and / or water makers all of this will sound inconvenient and undesirable. But we are doing this on a small budget with a low tech boat. We have not earned enough money (and probably never will) to have greater capacities! But hey, our carbon footprint must be tiny with so few gadgets onboard. Our one solar panel charged our devices (engine and house batteries, GPS and iPad). As well as keeping the engine and house batteries topped up via the engine which we let run every few days.

Other peculiar facts; day 5, 600 miles away from the nearest coast, the wind cast a smell in my nose. Hot food being prepared. A pot bubbling somewhere, yet not on my stove. Then where? Bizarre. As were the voices and other noises I heard; feint background noises like the sounds from a TV or radio, or the sounds from the street, of cars going by, sirens…aural hallucinations? I’ve no idea…but I heard them and yet that must be impossible given the million tonnes of ocean all around.

People we met along the way told us, you find your rhythm and when you do, you won’t want to stop. Those who’ve travelled with kids said, the kids weren’t interested in making landfall or even getting off the boat, as the boat had become their world. For us, we were very happy to get to land. Our children too I imagine. The best moment for me, was as we sailed close along Antigua’s eastern coast, Olive awoke from her nap (during which land was sighted) and climbed into the cockpit. She looked to the land in surprise, raised both hands to the sky and exclaimed excitedly ‘Look! Look where we are mummy, look where we are!’ Her excitement reflected all of ours. But also, her (& our) satisfaction. She knew we’d just come a very long way and this land was our reward. To see her happy, excited, rewarded made it for me. That little person who may never even recall first hand these events, has wisdom enough to appreciate her and our enormous achievement. Well done family.

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How will I look back on this crossing? The end of an incredible awe inspiring challenging family journey. The beginning of another and a year or so in the Caribbean. The Atlantic passage was more about all the previous passages which prepped us well. It is so true to say, it’s all about the journey.a cliche but oh so true true true. But now that we are here, we are not remarkable at all. Nearly every boat here is foreign. Most of which have crossed the Atlantic, some multiple times. To cross the Atlantic is just no big deal. That said, it damn well is with two nippers in tow…no one here can beat that or tell me otherwise. But what of it. It doesn’t matter anymore. All of that is past. Now is what counts.

Within a week of landing, Ben found a job working for boatbuilders here. The girls found places in nursery (they are the only white kids there). The local kids are adorable and polite and warm and caring as they seem to love our girls. We go to the beach every day. Local kids stick to us like glue. They swim up and drool over Alfi each fighting to get a hold. I’ve never seen anything like it. Since they started nursery, Olive is recognised. We hear ‘Aahlive, aahlive..’ wafting down the beach. That’s how we hear her name, it is sung really before these beautiful kids come running to play. To have suddenly find ourselves in the work / nursery routine was a rude shock to the system. Making packed lunches? Packing up nappies and beakers and spare sets of clothes? Getting up at 6am?! What? Took me a while to get used to that. But for a 9-5 routine, it could be a whole lot worse. The commute is a dinghy ride to shore waving at all the boats along the way. Then we pass under the enormous bows of super yachts, their size is ridiculous! Before getting to shore to be greeted by a funny benign down and out guy who gets about on a mule whilst wearing huge specs without lenses…he is brilliantly odd. Olive just thinks this is normal now as she skips off onto a bus with daddy to nursery.

Then my day begins! I dinghy back to Dhanu. Then swim to the beach. Or just drink coffee in the cockpit watching boats big and small come and go. Gazing at enormous superyachts and pondering the vast wealth needed to run them. Reaping the rewards of our epic efforts to get here! At long last.

Classic race week is upon us. Remarkably we have been accepted into classics week which means we can race with all the other classic yacht. And go to all the posh parties. Woohoo! I’m trying to forget the lopsided insanity that must explain the bloated spoilt wealth that must surround an event like this. The size of the boats, the cost of their upkeep, the fact that their crew spend more time enjoying them than the owners. The reality that I’d probably earn more cleaning their bilges than a legal aid lawyer. What a crazy topsy turvey world. But notwithstanding the insane elitism or wealth and privilege, (I’m trying to ignore it just for now), here Dhanu sits in all her fine working glory ie, beautiful, grubby, nappies aloft with an olive tantrum soundtrack. As I walk down the dock I see chrome being polished, varnished wood being buffed. That we are here too is hilarious! We’ve also got international cricket! Tomorrow we watch day 4 of England’s first test against the West Indies. Life is on the up! So against all this, the crossing just seems a wonderful means to an end.

Could we do it all again? Yes I reckon we could without to much to do. Ok, I wouldn’t want those conditions but I now know at least what they feel like. And in spite of them, I find myself wanting more life at sea, at some point. It’s just so simple living out there. I’m nearly missing the planning, list making, provisioning, how much formula-food-nappies-wine will we need calculations. And the buzz of forward momentum. Pacific…? Circumnavigation? Yeah! Why not! Not such a crazy idea after all. Though perhaps we will wait til the girls can pull up a sail or at least their pants. Anyway for now we letting Carib time wash over us and soothe our Atlantic fatigue – we are still recovering. So excuse us whilst we lay down and have another rum. God knows we have earned it. Tata for now. But I will be back as I am sure I will have lots to say about Classics week, cricket and more! Please stay tuned…

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24 March

Just to say two things. One; massive post coming once time found to write it etc. But two, more importantly, to thank everyone for all their support and encouragement and kind comments which mean the world to us. To know that we were bobbing about in your (worried) heads whilst bobbing about the ocean gives us goosebumps. Anyway here is a (not so brilliant) shot of us literally minutes after we dropped anchor on 18 March, with a much needed rum in hand…

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19 march

Well folks, we’ve done it! We crossed the Atlantic in 16 days 3 hours arriving yesterday in Falmouth Harbour, Antigua. We’ve sailed 2110 miles across that ocean with two wee tots and a lot of wind and some pretty big seas! At least we were fast. We are understandably exhausted but very happy (and a bit stunned) to have made our dream, real. What now? Rest, beer, rest and then sometime soon some work. I’ll post the epic to end all epics in due course. Sending lots of love. Xxxx

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Sunday 1 March – eve of departure

It is now the eve of our Atlantic departure. We leave tomorrow. For sure. It, is happening. I can’t believe it. The mood is quietly relaxed whilst resonating a mild sense of shock. Silly really as we have not stopped getting stuff done over the last week. Seemingly endless lists shortened as tasks get done. Millions of trips to town, to the laundrette, the market, the hardware shop, now complete. Chores nearly finished on the boat. Stuff being packed away. And yet I still can’t fathom that I, we, are about to set sail across the Atlantic until 2000 miles are behind us. We are right now on the cusp of (probably) the hardest thing that we’ve done to date. We know it will be tough. We’ve stopped saying we want to ‘enjoy’ not ‘endure’. We know that’s unrealistic. But I also know we will deal with whatever is thrown. The best we can hope for are conditions that don’t leave us too ragged. The first week looks ok. Others agree, there are four individual boats leaving to cross tomorrow. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I am. It’s a big deal. I’m sure some of those others are too. Ben is solid and focused and cautious and considered. And as his sage seafaring father says, foolish is the sailor who is confident about everything. Who questions nothing least all his own abilities. We are in the very best of hands, I know. Still can’t believe we’re leaving tomorrow. There really is no going back now.

Three weeks. That’s how long it will take. It’s an expression I’ve been repeating since this Grand Plan began. I remember saying it around tables of food with family and friends. And imagining it. Well, now I don’t need to imagine it. In fact I almost wish I could keep imagining anything but the bouncy reality. Today, Ben grabbed for the saloon hand rail as the boat lurched and turned and said ‘are we ready…to be holding on for the next three weeks?’ He is right, that is what it’ll be, holding on and powering through and keeping our kids happy and everyone fed. That’s all we have to do.

How strange is it that the first time Ben crossed the Atlantic, in a different boat with two friends, their last port of call was Mindelo, where we are now. He suddenly remembered yesterday that they arrived here on the night of carnival. They left after that for the Caribbean, same as we are about to do. They left on the 4 March 1992, his 23rd birthday at sea. 23 years later, here he is again. Commencing the crossing in early March with his 46th birthday to be spent at sea with his wife and kids. Oh, the symmetry of numbers. Must be a good sign…

Back then, he says he had a great crossing. He has always tried to describe the conditions, the swell, the wind etc, the level of comfort. He says he can’t recall exactly but his overall sense was of a good crossing. They swam in the sea, they would not have done that had conditions been anything other than pleasant. He also remembers they put the spinnaker up, again, not a sign of horrible wind or swell. But of course the crossing is more than a few days and anything can happen. No way of knowing til we are out there. However we are buoyed by the general consensus held by others that from tomorrow the wind although strong still, is ever decreasing. We met a guy yesterday, 17 atlantic crossings under his belt, he says it’s good. He’s leaving tomorrow. I’ll take that. The swell forecast is dropping all the time as is the wind and gust heights. At least both wind and swell will be behind us. We would not go unless we thought it a wise plan, believe me. Here’s to it being good Mr 17 times.

So dear friends and family and dare I say, followers, we bid you a very big happy expectant loving and little bit nervous farewell. See you in three weeks(ish). Please be thinking of this little family of four seafaring adventurers in their beautiful boathome. Knowing that this is not happening by accident, or mistake or coincidence. No. We have worked our proverbials off for a few years now and since leaving the UK, with the sole intention of getting to this precise moment in time. The right here and now and next three weeks, is us living our dream. In every gust and glide westward, in every sunset, in every physical challenge and most importantly, in every happy moment we share with our kids in a pure kind of way within the embrace of magnificent nature. And so. Wish us well, as we do you. And whilst you do so, appreciate every drop of your endless water, the warmth of a deep hot bath, be happy for your cosy static stable home. Have an extra cup of tea, glass of wine, kilo of chocolate for us to keep us going. Thinking of you.

Deep breath in…

taken this afternoon...dont confuse Olive´s expression for anything other than a quiet moment...the pther ones had fingers up noses, chewed apple being spat...you get the picture...this was the only decent one of us all

taken this afternoon…dont confuse Olive´s expression for anything other than a quiet moment…this was the only decent one of us all

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23 february

So a few words on Mindelo. It is small. It is poor. It is colourful. It is littered with signs of a Portuguese colonial past. In the crumbling, paint flaking buildings. In the mixed race faces. In the tempting hip loving custard tarts winking at me in the bakery. In the twingtwang phonemes of the local creole. But there are also sights and smells of Africa (as I imagine it). The incredible jaw dropping beauty of the human form.  Especially the women. Oh my goodness. Hey that is not to exclude the men as they aint bad either.  But they don’t compare so noticeably to the stunning casual beauty of the women who are mesmerising (well some of them at least). All brought squarely to the fore during carnival when most were basically naked shaking their sequinned body bits about. More on that in a mo. Then there are the women carrying things on their heads, dozens of eggs, kilos of bananas. (yes And what about the older women having a roundness of bosom and stature that is welcoming, sat on street corners with large plastic boxes of homemade cakes and pastries and fudge. But the thing that gets me the most, are the derrières. The further south we go, the better they seem to get. More round, more muscular having a far greater profile. They assume a life of their own…so imagine all this and then we hit carnival.

We arrived on a Friday. From the get go we could here this one song blasting from shore all day all night. We later learnt it was the anthem written for this years carnival. Every year it changes. This year had a catchy repetitive tune of which we (somehow) never tired despite it being the only song we ever heard for the ten days leading up to carnival and for the whole week of carnival. The first Sunday we were here there was a practice run for carnival, where a PA system on the back of a truck drove around the route. We followed that procession and had fun. We didn’t realise then that a week later they would be carnival proper.

So all week we hear music and drums and the word ‘carnaval’ on everyone’s lips. We see kids coming back from carnival practice. We even bumped into a Mandinga out for a practice run. The Mandinga are a whole show in themselves.  Their purpose is to celebrate and remember Cape Verdean’s African ancestors.  Anyway, we bumped into one (the first one pictured below) on Saturday.  We stood still gawping in true tourist fashion.  Mr Mandinga did not hesitate in stopping to show us how mean he could be. I asked for a photo, he raised a flat palm inviting a token. I pressed some silver and took some snaps. At the time, Olive was on Ben’s shoulders and Alfi was strapped to my back. The mandinga posed for shots and only after did he seem to notice our kids whereupon he stopped dead in his tracks and reverted to very sweet uncle mode. Straightening Alfi’s head in the sling so she was more comfy, stroking her head whilst being a bit stunned by her blonde blue eyedness (or so I thought). Olive meanwhile just stared on…after we parted company I checked in with her to see what she thought. I asked her what did she think of the man in his dressing up outfit. She stopped for a moment and declared calmly ‘he’s a princess mummy’. Of course! It must have been the pink and blue plastic gems he had in his head dress. Toddler logic trumps again.

So by Saturday night we hear the streets alive with samba mayhem. Not that we saw it being aboard watching Pippa Pig (again). But we know that it is all hotting up out there. The next day we saw kids carnival and the Mandingas proper and this is how the show kicked off…

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https://www.youtube.com/watchv=3mdaNzv5NcU&feature=youtu.be

The girls didn’t really know what to make of it all. The Mandinga with the ring through his nose made Olive cry a bit…but also a few local toddlers too…I think that is their point, to be a bit scary. They are black black black. And oh so shiny. They had black oil on them, or something. They were dark. And percussive, with tied on bells and blackened bottles full of something that made them rattle and clash as they pounded their feet. It was brilliant to be present and to observe and for our little children’s minds to be blown just a little bit.

So on Wednesday few days later we saw the ‘proper’ carnival…the girls wore tutus and fairy wings. Even I put on some slap and wriggled into a dress. It was a Jolly Exciting Occasion I can tell you. Excepting the dinghy to shore ride. Not jolly. We climbed into the dinghy. Wings and tutus off, life jackets, on. What followed was the wettest ride I’ve ever had. The wind was blowing hard.  We were heading into it. Sure enough within a second of untying and motoring off, we all got soaked. Well, I did. Olive did. Drenched. It made me instantly furious with Ben (of course all adverse conditions are his fault…). By the time we hit the shore I laughed, stripped down to undies (unusual. Perhaps buoyed by the fleshy carnival spirit?), wrung out the sea water from my dress, put it back on, reapplied lipstick (I know girls! Lipstick!), put the girls into their tutus and wings and off we set.

Immediately we hit the crowd, it didn’t matter. Frankly I’ve always found the crowd as interesting as whatever the live act is. There were derrières everywhere! Some that had no friends, that really should not have been double skinned in leggings and orange hot pants…but then again, I could not help but admire the wearer’s ambition and self belief. What skill I thought…but mostly people looked amazing and freaky and hot. I started to wonder what Halloween would be like here. Then there were all the procession folk limbering up, waiting, rearranging boobs, applying a bit more glitter, pulling up tights, unsticking netting from their shoes…all of which I found utterly fascinating.

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In the end, we opted for a spot not far away. The procession had not yet started so we were standing in between two floats whilst they waited back stage as it were. We took loads of pics which was easy as the locals were dying to vogue it for the camera. We were there two hours, in the sun, within ever decreasing space, mostly silent in a mild state of happy disbelief. Every now and then the carnival anthem would boom out and the soon-to-be-on-duty performers would all start moving, at the same moment, practicing their moves but not in unison, whilst a few trumpeters ambled by…

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Then we met mudman.  Well, I presumed that was mud. I presumed this was just all part of the show. Then I realised that even the locals thought he was a bit barmy. See feathered cap man in video below.

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By the time we realised all our photos were of the same groups and that we had better go see others, Olive was red and hot and a bit overwhelmed. Were we surprised? No. Poor lamb, she had no frame of reference for carnival, let alone the dark naked glittery skin, huge headdresses, floats, live drumming, booming PA systems. Hardly surprising that she focused on the ground, spotting orphaned sequins and lost feathers and retrieving them into her sticky palm. They were small. Accessible, familiar, comforting…Alfi meanwhile slept. By the time she woke we were in a cafe drinking coke. Ben and I were taking turns to go back to the pavement alone to watch, video, enjoy carnival. The second best highlight for me were the drummers…man, such a deep powerful sound.

I ran back to Ben to compel him to go see them. He did and thereafter produced the best highlight. As he ran back to me all excited, he tittered in true schoolboy style, ‘go quick, there’s a naked woman, totally naked…’. I of course immediately dashed off laughing to hear him shout ‘she’s between the drummers and the school kids!’ Hilarious. Sure enough there she was. Basically nude save for some small coverings where fig leaves should go…she had swirling lines all over. I gawped on like all others, in awe of her beautiful female curves but more by imagining how she must be feeling. Wowsers. Naked, free, sun on her skin, dancing to an audience all admiring her during carnival…phewy! Here she is…

Anyway the naked lady came and left in a bum wobbling way. I returned to the cafe. Soon after two tall dressed up procession girls walked in. Silver hats, canes, bra thing strapped to a skirt thing. Naturally, everyone’s heads turned. They got a drink and walked back to a table opposite me where they stopped. Their skirts were sort of gladiator style, short. In fact skirt is a gross misrepresentation…they were basically some rectangles attached only at the waistband and carefully (or not?) placed to reveal their bum cheeks. Oooooer, titter titter no sex please we are british…anyway as I was piecing all this together, they just helped themselves each to a piece of pizza that belonged to those sat at the table. There was a nice looking man, mid 30’s say and a cute kid, daughter one presumes.  As the pizza grabbers grabbed, they looked their hosts square in the eye, everyone was smiling. How could they do anything else. It was a wonderful moment.
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After this we decided it was time to go. We regretted that He and I could not come back later to party…as we would in the olden days, before kids. Oh how we lamented…We got home, flannel washed off the glitter, watched some Peppa Pig and fell asleep to the noise of a humming carnival.  That was Wednesday 18th.

By Sunday 22nd they were still partying! More Mandingas having it large. Squeezing every last drop out of carnival juice. We bumped into some outside the supermarket yesterday. One of them stopped at the window and starred through at Alfi in her pram as we were standing at the til. He was all orange and scary with a beaming inquisitive smile aimed at her. There he stayed as we dodged the other happy drunk Mandingas on leaving the supermarket. They asked for some money but then Ben ‘communicated’ that he was giving it to the poor guy in the wheelchair. This was instantly accepted by them as they then raised an affirmative hand salute our way. Nice mandingas.

So what now? Well it is still windy! The wind here accelerates so that whatever is the forecasted wind speed, you can expect another 30%+ on top. So where blowing 20 knots at sea, here will be 30 plus as the wind funnels up over the peaks and then rushes down. I hear and read the words kabatic and venturi. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Suddenly the wind will roar, as if a giant ‘wind on’ lever had been pulled. Despite the fantastic holding in the harbour, that level of wind gets very tiring at anchor. Shore rides are a pain, two nippers jumping about and squabbling over who will drive.  Sense called us into the marina. Though whilst more convenient (power, shore access, showers) it is probably worse here. The boat is tied up. She is not very happy that is for sure. Going to sleep in the foc’s’le I will describe using two metaphors. The first, it is the same movement you get in the dodgems at the fair. Exactly the same. That jolty, unpredictable slam. But then last night’s realisation made me feel like I was inside the head of a horse. A horse that was chomping at the bit, flicking its head and tossing it side to side. We, the peas inside.

Amidst all this our minds are very focused on leaving.  Daily weather checks, top up provisioning. Cleaning. Varnishing. Repairing. Waiting. Oh yeah, and childcare.

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Next week things look calmer. As it always does…but if the current forecast holds, we plan to leave on Monday 2nd March.

Meanwhile, potty training is going great guns. Olive gets it. Motivated by stars and special treats.  ‘Ten stars and you get a toy’ has been our cry since arriving. It’s like a game show. But it seems to work.  I found her today perched precariously on the edge of ‘the bucket’ declaring she wants to use mummy’s potty! Wonderful. Her dinghy driving is also coming along and so too is her love of lime…here she is enjoying both and driving us to shore whilst sucking on a lime. Think she needs a Capri with a monogrammed ‘Olive & Alfi’ sun visor?

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15 february

So, here we are in Mindelo, Sao Vincente, Cape Verdes Islands. Our passage here was the longest to date, 979 miles over 9 days and 8 nights. Another epic, at least to us. (So another eipc post I’m afraid…I have tried to be succinct!) Perhaps all ocean passages have this potential. I’m not sure it can ever feel humdrum. This one had it all. Major highs, some deep lows. Wind, swell, no wind, more wind and swell. Rolling. Growling regret, dog tired exhaustion, physical challenge. All set against the demands of kids and the routine of stay at home parents. And oh the emotions. Well, mine at least. And then the wonderful magic cast by dolphins, phosphorescent seas and the marvel of the silvery light of a very full moon. And kids that weren’t that cranky. Perhaps above all the best thing was that at long last Ben’s wind vane self steering system worked perfectly. It proved itself to be the long promised third crew member. This meant no hand steering, well not unless we felt like it.  It was brilliant!  Powered by the wind in all senses.  No more droning battery draining autohelm. The wind vane worked impeccably through light wind, strong wind, swell (well nearly all). It transformed life on board. No more solo helming for Ben or solo parenting / firefighting down below for me. Well, nearly no more…but the point is the cockpit could be left and yet the course was maintained.  Ok a head needed to be poked out the hatch every 15 minutes or so, but hey! What a revolution!

As usual we left with the best forecast we had seen (in 3 months, literally). We knew the first day would be a bit blowy but were comforted by a low wave/swell height forecast. However we were hit straightaway with a big cross swell which made for an uncomfortable rolly ride. Pan! Forecasting! That combined with F5-F6 wind glued Ben to the tiller for the most part. My log entry for 2am simply reads ‘shit’. Not that any of this seem to bother the girls. Olive seemed genuinely excited to be sailing, observing what sail went up and identifying them as triangles in true mister maker fashion. Alfi’s was tucked up in her car seat chewing her toes. They were happy. Good. However somewhere in amongst day 1, Olive knee’d the laptop screen such that the liquid crystals burst. Where once octonauts and mister maker were available to sate the olivetoddlerbeast, now all that could be seen were rainbow lines which grew like mould, from a knee shaped patch across the screen each time the laptop was opened. Oh crikey I thought…this is not a good start. How will we make it to the Cape Verdes let alone cross the Atlantic without Olive TV? Remarkably, once we’d made it very clear to her that she had broken the TV, she didn’t ask for it once during the next 8 days. On day 6, I found her lying on her front on the floor of the cabin. I asked her what she was doing. She replied ‘watching tv’. She was staring at a plastic transparent sunglasses case which she had stuffed with (deflated) balloons. Brilliant I thought, laptop? We need one…? Anyway, all that aside, day 1 saw us tot up 120 miles which is a decent days run on Dhanu.

Days 2 and 3 were much better. Not enough sleep but the swell had subsided and we had enough adrenalin to keep us going through the child-centric sailing day. We had good wind which saw us slam dunk another 230 miles. We were under sail the whole while, mainsail up, reefed when needed along with the jib being poled out (2 triangles!). We were as they say, goose winged. During these days life was normal, Olive painted in the cockpit whilst Alfi watched on rubbing her gums as two more jaggedy points rammed themselves through to the surface. Or they played below making camps out of sail bags and towels. Night watches found us squarely in the shipping lanes. On one night, within an hour of taking watch I’d spotted 5 ships, all from different directions and aspects. The binoculars were glued to my nose as I twiddled for focus, waiting to see if the single yellow orb divided into two clear lights. If so, then to work out their respective heights to determine bow from stern. That done, to scan for a red or green light to work out the ship’s direction. Hoping it would be red so I know it’s heading away not toward…ah yes, there it is, red. Or oh f*#k green…hand bearing taken….collision course? Yes, maybe. Quick, wake Ben. And so it went. As for Ben’s watches, well his log entry for day 3 reads ‘0340 hours, 1.5m sea, F2 wind from the northeast, cloud, 1 reef main. Alfi can’t sleep so doing her first night watch with me. Sat in her car seat in a wooly jumper and grobag smiling at the moon.’ Could we want better?

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Ahh, the emotional world of a toddler…makes mine look bland…!  Ok, so, just a word on watches. People have asked ‘what happens at night? Do you keep going?’ Some may say what silly questions, but when you know the answer…in fact I think if you’ve never been on a boat, never had to contemplate what it is to be on a boat let alone one on an overnight (or longer) passage, it’s not such a silly question. At least it infers curious interest. So, no we keep going. We do not anchor. We do not stop. We cannot stop. There is nowhere to stop. No chance to anchor. No anchor chain would be long enough, nor strong enough the arms to drop and raise it. Some of the depths we sailed over were greater than 4000 metres. No, the boat keeps going which means someone has to be on watch all the time. To maintain the course, to spot hazards (other ships mainly), to ensure enough, or, not too much sail is in place. All of these things require a human. Preferably one who is awake. Each boat will have its own way of organising the watch. But the basic principle is that the watch rotates with each crew member taking their turn whilst the other(s) sleeps or at least rests. On this boat we are only two crew. So if you are not on watch you should be asleep or resting. We found this can’t happen in daylight hours because of the little darlings. So our rule is that if you’re on watch, you watch everything. Boat and kids. That is the only way the one off watch gets to sleep. No sleep will eventually lead to disaster. Especially on a long passage. So being on watch is a walk in the park really! We do like the easy life…

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So until day 3 we had operated a 4 hour on / off watch system. But it was failing us simply because there was no way either of us could catch up on sleep during daylight hours. The little darlings made sure of that. Them, their noise, their boisterousness, their needs, their demands (you have to feed them) combined with the small space meant they could not be ignored or shut away (damn it). We found this extremely testing. We calculated that by the end of day 3 we had only 10 hours sleep each in 72 hours. Not enough.

So we overhauled the watch system. For those techy geeks that want to know; we began two 5 hour watches starting at 9pm. So 9pm-2am; 2am-7am. This was great as it meant, only one night watch each and the opportunity for up to 5 hours sleep (as opposed to up to 4, which in fact means 3 by the time you’ve fallen asleep etc). Then we did two 3 hour watches; 7am-10am; 10am -1pm. Each doing every other one and resting in between. If all went well we each had the potential for up to 8 hours sleep. Brilliant. Then from 3/4pm-9pm we had to go with the flow as a rigid watch just did not work with the kids at that time of day. Anyway as long as we’d got 5-6 hours sleep staying up during the afternoon was doable. By day 5 life was more or less transformed. We finally caught up on sleep and the game of competitive exhaustion ended in a draw.

However until day 5 the new watch system had not bedded in. So by day 5, we were dog tired. I felt battered. I kept thinking I’ve done nothing harder than this. How does one cope with mental and physical fatigue alongside full time childcare? I didn’t know. All I knew was that the wheels on my machine we’re about to fall off. In such a precious state, doom set into my thinking. I felt weighed down with regret about our decision to set to sea, blinded by disbelief that we ever thought we could physically do this let alone with kids and tired like never before. My body was also littered with the usual bumps and bruises. (Note to self; buy shares in arnica given the amount Alfi and I seem to lather on – it is amazing stuff!) The sky was grey. It was still a bit chilly. (I was still wearing that bobbly, now filthy jumper!) The wind was also decreasing. This would lock us into a further 4-5 days at least. How would we do it? We weren’t even half way. Thoughts of the Atlantic were full of dread and impossibility. And yet every mile done took us closer to the Atlantic. During my night watch the GPS logged 1.5 knots…there was not a ship in sight. We were in the watery back of beyond. Oh god, what the hell were we doing I thought as the main sail drooped and slapped in the whispers of wind. Could I do this? Could we do this? Physically if nothing else? And then to remind me how very self indulgent I was being, Olive woke up convinced it was daytime so bright and full was the moon. I could not persuade her otherwise until I’d put her in her car seat in the cockpit, with me, all rugged up. She immediately looked at the nav lights atop the mast (lit at night) and pointed at them declaring ‘it’s the moon!’. I forgave her error as the actual moon was behind her head. So I turned her around and proudly pointed at the full bright white moon and declared ‘no, THAT is the moon’ convinced it would blow her little mind. ‘No mummy’ she replied, deadpan and entirely unimpressed, ‘that’s a torch. That’s the moon’ as she pointed once more at the nav lights in a triumphant self satisfied way. I could hardly blame her assessment. In fact in a way it was quite logical and relative to her experience. A visible full moon at sea is unbelievably bright and unbelievably large. Anyway that wonder-of-the-full-moon-lesson-not-learnt, we settled for silent star gazing. I had been focused on my newly learnt constellation, Canis Major which had been my celestial signpost, leading my course South west. A short while later she pointed upwards and ahead and declared urgently, ‘mummy mummy horsey, horsey!’ I kid you not, she was pointing directly at Canis Major…ok dog not horse, but to have picked out the stary four legged animal shape, I of course found incredible. Well done Olive little star gazer you! (I think thanks must go to Mister Maker for shape recognition.) After such triumph and equal praise, she was open to accept it was night time and thus consent to return to her bed. That left me alone again with my thoughts…no wait! Thankfully some mind boggling phosphorescence showed up. Square blocks of bright green fluorescent shimmer just beneath the surface of the water. Not stary sparks but solid shapes. It was like nothing I’d seen before. It reminded me of metre squared green disco tiles which flashed on and off randomly, all around the boat. What caused that? Dolphins? Oh this crazy sea!

The next day after a good sleep I woke to realise I just had to accept some basic facts. (Yes it took me this long!) Agreed, what we were doing was tough. Tougher as we were doing it with very small children. Silly us for having such a Grand Plan. True, there could be no guarantees as to how any future passages may fare. There could be too much wind, swell, rolling, discomfort, physical challenge. In fact we should bank on any and all of these things especially given that we don’t have the upper hand. That belongs to the sea. Deal with it I told myself. This is the once-in-a-lifetime-adventure you were striving for. So the best we can do is go at the most tranquil time, hope for the best yet be prepared for any curve balls we may be thrown. Yes, we may be tested. This should be no surprise. But the rewards will be great and on levels even beyond the picture postcard Caribbean idyll that spurns us on. That is living in our boathome with our kids all freckle nosed at our feet, in beautiful anchorages. She who dares…she who dares.

Day 6; as if to high five me for working all that out, the universe’s chief exec in charge of natural forces gave me one of the best days of my life. Literally. I’m not kidding! Conditions were perfect. Clear sky, sun. A balanced flat sea. Enough wind; an average speed of 5 knots. We were both felt rested, finally. The kids were as happy as I’ve ever seen them. We could leave them with their toys behind lee cloths in the saloon or in the foc’s’le. Or even on the cabin floor as they slid around in a soup of rolling toys. I felt energised, alive, utterly content and most importantly, strong. Bread was baked. We chilled out in the cockpit. To cap it all a pod of about 50 dolphins appeared just as I was cooking supper. Until that point we’d seen none. On previous night watches both Ben & I had heard the plosive sound of them breathing air through their blow holes as they surfaced, but there had been no proper sightings. Literally an hour before the pod arrived we were bemoaning the lack of wildlife, dolphins, whales, fish on the end of our lines etc. (We had two lines out all the time. No fish in 9 days. 8 strikes, 8 got away, 2 giant lures lost, one large hook straightened by the force of a big fish strike!) Then bang, there they were. They surrounded us. This was no blink and you miss them. No. You could see them behind and ahead of us, advancing towards us as if they had some urgent message to deliver. They were beside the cockpit, at our bow. For hours. They were so close you could differentiate one from another. I could see individual scars and marks on their curved muscular form. I’m not surprised as they must occasionally hit a bow or something so close do they swim to the boat. If you have had the fortune to see dolphins in the wild you will know the joy they bring. We all knew we were communing with them. Sharing something with them and each other. A family of dolphins entertaining a family of humans. Big and small. Everyone at the party. We all felt it as we stared over the bow, me clutching Alfi, Ben holding Olive. Even Alfi knew something wonderful was happening. I felt her twitch on seeing a nose or a blow hole spurt or a whole dolphin flopping on its side above the surface of the sea. I could hear her expel little shocked grunts as she responded to these beauties with a one fisted salute. Meanwhile Olive immediately said ‘they’re amazing’ before she began counting and categorising them based on size. ‘There’s a mummy one, a daddy one, that’s an Alfi one. Look there’s an uncle foo one’. (Uncle Foo is her measure of anything larger than daddy sized…brother all I can say is it doesn’t take much to be bigger than daddy Ben). For those that want to know, according to our wildlife book, the dolphins were ‘Atlantic Spinners’-an entirely appropriate name, as they were exactly that. After 30 minutes of gawping, we returned to cooking supper, playing with daddy’s fishing lure box, chewing our toes etc and still the Dolphins were dancing around the boat, swimming right behind the lines checking out the lures…we couldn’t get rid of them! They were with us well into the night.  It is shame that this video just cannot do the spectacle justice, but you get a sense of them and how close we were to them. Stunning.

Ben trails a walker log to record distance through the water (as opposed to speed over ground). This is what happens when walker log meets fishing line…

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Day 7 saw the wind increase and gusting 20 knots plus at times. Lively! This pulled us both back to ‘work’ – getting on with what needed to be done. Enduring the motion, the friction, the rolling whilst tripping over toys and entertaining kids, preparing food, milk, snacks etc…welcome to the endurance nursery!  These videos are great as they give you an idea…but only an idea.  Video seems to flatten the sea.  So what you are seeing is a flatter version…and even then you can see something of the movement…but it isn’t really the whole story…

The old fashioned looking speedometer thingyme is the walker log.  It tells us how fast the boat is going.  The GPS tells us how fast we are moving over ground, ie, that speed includes any current.  So compare GPS and walker log and you can caluclate current.  We had about half a knot of current with us per hour.  Our final approximate speed was 4.9 knots.  Not bad for an old banger.

Note to self; even the promise of dolphins and whales won’t trump this toddler tantrum. Nothing ever would I suspect…volume here is essential.  You have full permission to laugh your head off…I do everytime…cruel mummy.

Day 7 night watch was under a full moon and semi cloudy sky. There were moments where I had tears of I don’t know what in my eyes. I’m reluctant to use the word joy as it so cheesy, but I think that is what it was. Or at least that’s the only word I can think to use. And even that fails as the silvery light, the majestic ocean, the wind, the natural harmony of it all was just so powerfully moving ‘it’, joy, call it what you will, seeped out of my eyeballs. Imagine that! The fact that the wind got up, that our speed increased to 6-7 knots just made it even more intense. The power of it all. I went to bed that night on a high at what I’d just seen. I wanted more…or so I thought!

Then I woke up. The remaining two days were intense and unrelenting. They really were about endurance sailing. The wind was more or less constant. We never went less than 5 knots and usually more. And all via just the mainsail with one reef! Also constant was the realisation of the vastness of it all. Ocean and more ocean. On a huge scale. A powerful mass of swirling energy. It just felt bigger than any sea so far. The swell was big too. Big and persistent and unapologetic. The shape and state of the sea was striking. It was pointy. Choppy. Lumpy. Full of triangular waves. There were waves upon waves which crested all around. It hissed and whooshed. It was alive. To this slightly wimpy sailor it seemed to me we were suddenly in a very different sea. Gone were the dolphins and flat seas. In their place was a wildness. It wasn’t threatening, but it was just that. Wild. Giant. In charge. Is this the Atlantic I thought? The destination after all these months. Ahhh, right. I get it. Hmm. OK. I see. This must be The Atlantic Swell? Ok! Well. Right. And so it went. Every forward motion saw the boat displace such volume of water as each wave from behind carried us up and down and then rolled us to the side. And yet we were occupying a teeny tiny part of that mass of water. It was overwhelming. I had a moment one night watch during these days, of feeling very very very small and utterly powerless. I guess that is sort of inevitable. Just at that moment to starboard within a few metres of the hull, a giant fish jumped out of the water, bounced twice on it (slap slap went the sound, I’ll never forget it) and then submerged itself. I saw a pointy fin dart toward the hull. I could not believe my eyes. I shouted aloud ‘Oh. My. God.’ Then as if to reassure me I was not hallucinating, it jumped again. F*#k me I thought-where the hell are we? What is this place? And before you ask, this was not a dolphin. It lacked the soft rounded lines and balletic movement. No. This silhouette was angular and sharp, almost mean and definitely tough. A tuna? A marlin? Why was it jumping? Was it being hunted…? Must have been…truth is, I had no clue. What did it matter. I saw it and instantly accepted my tiny insignificant place in the ocean. In fact, correction, I had no place. Me, mankind, machines all of that, no place, no role, no right, total insignificance. How often does one feel like that? I can recommend it. It’s a great slap in the face. I guess you could call it an awakening of sorts. That, or just not enough sleep and too many toddlers draining me…haha…let’s not get too heavy, right? Right. So, on we pushed. Living within these enormous forces at work, this little family of humans in their survival boatpod. Amazing. Tiring. We didn’t sleep much. The rolling saw to that. Regardless of the improved watch system…

What of the kids? They hadn’t the foggiest. They slept (more or less) like logs. They didn’t know about the wildness or the over analytical philosophising in mummy’s head. No. All they wanted was breakfast or milk or painting or ‘my windmill NOW!’ The scale, the rolling, did not seem to matter. Well for a short time the cranking up of scale / movement / swell annoyed them as they were less able to move easily around. But they soon got used to it. It just meant that as they reached for a toy on the cabin floor, it rolled away more quickly before they could clutch it. All of which was quite entertaining from where I sat, grubby, sticky, look at that hair!!! Oh well, any light relief…

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Day 9 was Alfi’s first birthday. Baffling did I find that fact. The idea that only 12 months ago she bust out of me. What a year! Moreover to think Alfi has lived more of her life in a boat than a house. She must find all this ‘normal’? I’d love her take on it. (Or perhaps I should be grateful she can’t yet give it.) Sadly birthday celebrations had to be sidelined given our exhaustion, the sea state and the fact that we were soon to make landfall. I reassured myself I was not a bad mother with the conviction that the birthday pancakes, the birthday cake, the presents could arrive a few hours later from the steady balanced comfort of port….or so I told myself. We had to get a wriggle on. By 10am, we still had 40+ miles to go. A 10 hour sail assuming at least 4 knots an hour. Having done not less than 5 knots an hour for the previous 3 days, it was a cruel twist that we now dipped just below 4…if we didn’t make headway we would arrive after dark which would mean another night at sea so as to avoid entering an unknown port at night. No brainier, we fired up the engine which gave us a steady 6 knots.

However soon after Ben’s face dropped. Up ahead the horizon was obscured by several dark smudges of cloud. From them rumbled thunder. I heard that. Then Ben said ‘oh my god, lightening’ Whereafter he was hoping about the cockpit. Then he saw 3 long bolts clear as day amidst the cloud smudge. I asked him casually, whilst crossing my fingers, ‘have you been in a storm before dear?’ He replied firmly ‘once. In port, in Dorset.’ More thunder clapped. Nothing more was said. (Later he told me his mouth went dry. This doesn’t often happen). Ben looked nervous. As rare an occurrence as finding hens teeth. I found this unusual and what was even weirder, I didn’t freak out. But I did realise this was no place for us to be. Ben didn’t like what was happening. This was new. He looked at me. Did I detect a momentary invitation to offer up any pearls? I didn’t know but I suggested the obvious, out sail it? Head away. The logic snapped Ben back to his calm assured self. Of course. He set to jibing and we headed south, away. So I left him to the man stuff and took the girls below. Perhaps it was a good time to deploy two homemade birthday tutus I thought? Great idea…I needed the distraction even if they didn’t! They loved them as they rolled around the foc’s’le looking like dirty sugar plum fairies and squealing like piglets. All whilst hail (yes hail) thundered on the deck. I couldn’t be bothered to be too worried. Really, what was the point? Anyway that would expend energy I did not have. Better I use it for celebrating Alfi turning one, playing squealing fairies and giving my captain moral support ‘from below’. All of which paid off as the thunder storm quickly passed, the sky cleared and we were on our way again.

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A few hours later I sighted land and screamed ‘land ahoy!’ Imagine the excitement! We beelined for the jaggedy pointy landscape feeling already like we had arrived.  This is what it looked like on closer inspection…

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Suddenly, with all that ocean behind us, all the nerves, the bruises, the uncertain regret, the doubt, the man-meets-sumfink-bigger theorising nonsense, all vanished. What did it matter? We’d (nearly) done it…we would soon to be at anchor celebrating our achievement. Wow. Another topsy turvey whirlwind of emotional and physical experience.

We knew Island Swift, a family boat we’d meet in the Canaries was anchored in Mindelo. We texted ahead to say we were close. As we arrived they had signal flags in their rigging which said ‘happy birthday to you’. We dropped anchor, which held immediately. Before we knew it Island Swif were beckoning us over and promptly dispatched their dinghy to collect us. The girls must have been a sight grubby, in tutus, hair everywhere, being swung down into their dinghy by the D rings on their life jackets…hilarious watching their tutus flapping in the wind. And so it was on their boat we finally celebrated Alfi’s birthday. Their female skipper put on a feast including cold beer and homemade chocolate cake! Yum yum! Not to mention hand drawn cards and presents. Of course Olive got treated too as she smeared chocolate cake everywhere. It was a perfect end to an amazingly intense week. Thank you all aboard Island Swift for making it so. We left their boat, boarded ours and all collapsed in a tutu’d heap. We slept like the dead for 10 hours.

On waking my mind knew I was at anchor, but my body was still at sea. As I walked through the cabin, I kept swaying and falling over as my muscles were still programmed to counteract the rolling boat, and yet it was not. Most peculiar. Drunk without the drink! It took til the next day to find my land legs. Anyway having had much time now to reflect, I can say WOW, that this was a major ocean passage for any sailor, let alone a sailing family with two small and dependent people aboard. We did it! Somehow. Despite the sheer lunacy of the plan! I can’t help but feel very proud about what we’ve achieved even if our ambition may at times put us through the wringer. But I know that it delivers to us moments and places and people like these and then it all feels absolutely worth it. Do I need to say more?

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Alfi LOVES driving the dinghy. She screams the moment the engine revs into life…future petrolhead???

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Inspecting the single flying fish which came to an end on deck…

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Learning to swim in the deep blue sea (off the back of the boat, dont worry we were at anchor…)

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11 feb

Lots to say but no time to write it down. Meantime here is olive with Jessica who insisted on a cuddle as she sold us beautiful fresh tomatoes and onions whilst gifting bananas for the girls…more to follow Continue reading

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