Reflections on a North Atlantic circuit

10 days after returning to Gosport after my year away sailing around the North Atlantic, I find myself in the Outer Hebrides on a non-sailing family holiday. It is a dreich day, and I am sitting in South Uist looking west out over the Atlantic through the mizzle.  It seems a fitting time to reflect on what has been an excellent and successful year, full of challenge, adventure and friendship.

Firstly, some statistics.  Spellbinder left Gosport on 16th July 2018, returning almost exactly a year later on 12th July 2019. During that time:

  • She logged 10,083 nautical miles;
  • Of that distance, she sailed approximately 7000 miles and motored 3000;
  • She visited 50 different islands*;
  • She had 26 different crew members, several of whom did multiple trips;
  • She undertook 4 ocean passages** of more than 1000 nautical miles each;
  • I spent 214 days on board: 152 were sailing days or on passage, and 61 nights were spent at sea.

It went to plan, more or less, thanks to lots of preparation, planning and thinking beforehand, the reliability of Spellbinder, the devotion and experience of her various crew, and plenty of good fortune.

From a personal perspective, it was the fulfilment of a long-held dream.  Having sailed my previous yacht Kianga on cross-Channel and coastal voyages only, the ocean was always going to call, and my experience in 2007 of being the mate on board a Challenge 67 yacht from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town (via Tristan Da Cunha) had whetted my appetite. The purchase of Spellbinder, and my decision to leave a career of 33 years and take a sabbatical gave me the necessary opportunity.

It was always going to be atypical; most people I met during the year were either groups in their early twenties or in their 60s and 70s, sailing as couples.  My circumstances required inviting friends and family to participate, necessitating the coordination of lots of people and the keeping to a broad timetable – so often the enemy of the cruising lifestyle, as weather and breakages can easily intervene. I was lucky on both counts. The weather didn’t really affect my plans – at worst delaying a couple of departures by a day or two. I suffered few breakages aboard which I was unable to fix straight away, or improvise around – in part due to having many spares on board, but also because I built in some time to the programme to get things fixed. My own ineptitude ripped a sail and bent a spinnaker pole during the first Atlantic crossing, but both were repaired in Martinique.  The only thing of consequence to go wrong was the Raymarine autopilot, between Bermuda and the Azores – luckily we could use the Hydrovane for most of the trip, even motor sailing. As far as crew were concerned, everyone who had committed turned up, and to them I am deeply grateful.

Spellbinder proved to be an excellent yacht for the purpose, and the ocean pedigree of Hallberg Rassy became clear to me. I was fortunate in inheriting a very well-maintained yacht, and the refit I carried out in Gosport over 2017 and early 2018 proved well worth the effort.  Life was very comfortable on board – the freezer, water maker, storage and tankage and hot water system making life particularly pleasant, allowing us to eat well and take daily showers. Communications worked well, with the SSB and Pactor modem becoming my principal means to send and receive emails and download grib weather files.  The SSB also came into its own for passage radio call-ins, which added to our safety and sense of an ocean community. The sat phone was for emergencies and the odd mid-ocean phone call.  Of the other equipment I would cite the following as being particularly useful: the Hydrovane, for many hours and miles of trouble-free and mechanical steering, requiring not a single amp; the Parasailor, which allowed us to sail dead downwind in light airs (7-12 knots) when otherwise we would have struggled or resorted to the motor; the Coppercoat on the hull, which in combination with a regular light scrub (something one can do in the tropics) kept the hull smooth and our boat speeds up; and the drone, which took some wonderful footage.  We were also very grateful for the fans which had been installed. On the electrical side, the solar panels proved a disappointment (a poor design had been installed) but after their replacement in the BVIs I found that in conjunction with the Aqua4gen (a water towed generator) I was fairly self-sufficient in the tropics.  The increase in battery power to 750 amp hours proved a wise move.  Finally, my new helm plotter, on a swivel in the cockpit and interlinked with the AIS and radar feeds, proved sufficient for all our needs and I didn’t even use the one which had previously been installed. On the sailing side, the new genoa and mainsail from Jeckells were excellent.  In the Caribbean, with more consistently strong winds, I found the working gib more than adequate. With the Parasailor (cited above) and gennaker – which was excellent when reaching in light airs – I found I had everything I needed.  Had we encountered gale force winds, we had the removable forestay and storm staysail which, in conjunction with a deep third reef, would have been ideal.  In the event we only encountered winds in excess of 30 knots once, and then only briefly.

I met some wonderful people during the voyage, of all nationalities.  The challenges of sailing binds people together (it might seem from the outside to be an idyllic lifestyle but in reality is quite hard work and full of challenge!) and Spellbinder’s guest book has many more entries.  We encountered no crime and the locals we met were on the whole extremely friendly and helpful. Joining the Ocean Cruising Club was a real pleasure, and opened the way to meeting a great group of international sailors.  I was surprised by the lack of young British people on yachts – there were many more French, German, Dutch and Scandinavian sailors in their twenties who had cobbled together to make dreams happen, sailing small yachts long distances while in the prime of their youth. Perhaps we Anglo-Saxons have lost the ability to do this – has life become too serious too soon? Do university debts impede this now, or are people too eager to gain employment or a mortgage? 

The geography and culture I encountered were as wonderful as expected.  I loved Madeira and the Canaries, but on another trip would spend more time in Cape Verde – they are wonderful, the people relaxed and friendly, and relatively unexplored.  I wish I had planned another week or two there.  Perhaps next time I will head to Suriname from Cape Verde. I had already sailed in the Windward Islands and they were as beautiful as I remembered, although increasingly crowded.  Martinique was new to me though, and I found the west coast a delight – Le Marin is an ideal landfall after an Atlantic crossing. Sailing north, the Leewards are great islands to cruise, but the effects of the 2017 hurricanes (Irma and Maria) have left their mark.  Dominica was the poorest of the countries we visited, but its lack of development is an attraction in itself.  It made me reflect on the various constitutional choices these islands have made in the last 70 years, and the consequences of those choices. Of the other Leeward islands, Barbuda and Anguilla stood out to me as being the most beautiful. The BVIs had also been ravaged by Irma but are bouncing back; I can see why they are such a wonderful cruising ground, given their closeness and the ease of sailing.  Anegada was the best of them. I found Bermuda expensive but quite interesting, and the Azores requiring a summer to be spent there – as with so many of the east Atlantic volcanic islands, the walking was superb.

By way of conclusion – it was a fantastic year, one I am already savouring in retrospect. I will continue to do so.  It was an excellent mix of challenge (the first days of a long ocean passage are full of uncertainty, and it invariably took me a few days to sleep well), adventure, beauty, fun and cultural delight. It has left me relaxed and happy, and ready for new adventures. On the sailing side, I suspect Spellbinder will remain in European waters for the next few seasons – western Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic call – but I would love to do another Atlantic circuit one day.

A final word to all my crew, and to my family – thank you for all your support.  Without you none of this would have been feasible. I will shortly publish a further blog summarising each leg, to thank you more directly.

*Islands set foot upon:  Madeira – Porto Santo, Madeira and Ilas Desertas; Canaries – Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and Gran Canaria; Cape Verde – Sal, São Nicolau, Santa Luzia and São Vicente; Windward Islands – Dominica, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent, Bequia, Mustique, Mayreau, Union Island, Petit Rameau and Baradal (Tobago Cays), Petit St Vincent, Sandy Island, Carriacou and Grenada; Leeward Islands – Terre-de-Haut, Ilet à Cabrit, Basse Terre (Guadeloupe), Antigua, Barbuda, Nevis, Basse Terre (Saint Kitts), Saint Barts, Saint Martin, Anguilla (including Prickly Pear island); BVIs – Virgin Gorda, Tortola, Cooper Island, Salt Island, Peter Island, Norman Island, Jost Van Dyke, Anegada; Bermuda; Azores – Flores, Terceira, São Miguel; UK – Isle of Wight and mainland Great Britain

** Ocean passages over 1000 NM: Gosport to Madeira (1345 NM, 9 days); Cape Verde to Martinique (2100 NM, 13 days); Bermuda to Azores (1659 NM, 12 days); Azores to Gosport (1400 NM, 12 days)

 

 

 

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