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?
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…
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…
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…
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.
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…
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?
Alfi LOVES driving the dinghy. She screams the moment the engine revs into life…future petrolhead???
Inspecting the single flying fish which came to an end on deck…
Learning to swim in the deep blue sea (off the back of the boat, dont worry we were at anchor…)