Saturday 15th October 2011, departure day…
Having put back the date many times during the week already, it had finally arrived. I was feeling the pressure as I made the final packing selection, -then a definitely final one just in case. I was sure I had everything I needed now. Up to Caernarfon where we met Mark the dockmaster who still didn’t believe I’d ever get away (on my last visit of many, he was asking me if I wanted winter berthing). Final rush to get all the gear on and stowed with dad, while my mum and sister Anna were dispatched to Tesco to buy 80 litres of drinking water. And the replacement fresh food which I’d left in their fridge…
I sailed from Victoria Dock at 14.30, en route to Porth Dinllaen just a few miles away. The plan was to anchor there for a few hours and get some rest; I hadn’t been able to eat or sleep properly for days now, and we reckoned that it would give me some breathing space to be alone with the boat. Looking at the tides which would give me maximum flow I would have to start out again by 23.00 for Southern Ireland. At 22.00 I watched the all weather lifeboat crew tow someone back into the harbour- hats off to those guys, they’re amazing. It was blowing hard outside in the pitch dark, and I was still tired. Surely it would be pointless to venture out into this? I stayed where I was and decided to read up on how some of my sexy new instruments operated instead. Now where was that file marked “All Instruction Manuals”…?
I called dad at 8 in the morning just to check. Sure enough they were there. There were too many to talk me through over the phone so they drove them out to me- I couldn’t believe I’d been so organised to file them in the first place, but then so stupid to leave them behind! At least I got to see my folks one last time.
Passage over to Wexford was relatively uneventful, even if it took a little longer than expected. The wind was forecast to be from the South, which meant that if I kept hard on it I should in theory be able to lay it in one tack. Sailing boats cannot sail directly into the oncoming wind, so if they need to go in that direction they must point at about 50 odd degrees towards it, before changing course and zig zaggging onwards. It is called “beating” and is neither quick nor comfortable; in fact there is a saying “gentleman do not sail to windward”! The wind however doesn’t play by the rules and veered round to the SW instead- directly my path. My ETA that I’d filed in my passage plan with the coastguard was now some 6 hours out… I wasn’t going to be sleeping for a while. 23 hours after leaving I was negotiating the challenging approach (google maps it), and 24 hours later I was snug in a free berth. I had the famous Irish welcome- I’d only asked a couple of the locals where I should tie up when they showed me to suitable spot, and insisted I come and visit their yacht club for a pint and a shower. “Get your stuff and I’ll take you there” said Hirch before returning five minutes later in his boat. Even the lifeboat crew on a training exercise came alongside to say hello and that they’d have escorted me down the difficult channel if they’d have known. Arriving at the club the reception was every bit as warm, the commodore generously granting me full use of the facilities and “honesty box” coffee making during the day. With a gale raging outside, I holed up there for two nights making the most of their showers, bar, and checking weather reports in preparation for Biscay.
I’d been unable (and still am) to think of the trip as a whole- it’s just too big and scary. I’ve tried to overcome this by breaking it down into much smaller parts, the first one being the three hour sail to Porth Dinllaen. Biscay was simply another stage in that respect, but with a big difference. I’d heard horror stories of people requesting airlifts from their (uninsured) yachts because they felt so horribly seasick in the savage conditions. It’s by no means a “bay” in the calm, picturesque context that the word suggests, more a spiteful, unforgiving environment, and definitely not one to be undertaking this late in the season. My feelings of dread haven’t been eased by people sucking their breath in through their teeth like a dodgy builder- “bit late for Biscay, isn’t it?” Well I know it’s late, but thinking about it, other than to call the whole thing off, isn’t going to help matters!
Weather forecasts (five different sources, I’m a careful chap) all agreed that the coming day was possibly the most suitable window I could expect. The drawback was that it was still going to be blowing a force seven. I’ll usually go out in up to a six (aka “yachtsman’s gale”) if I have to get somewhere, but choosing to start a passage of between a week and ten days in worse?? I came to the conclusion that frightened or not, I would have to try. I remembered an entry in the log of John Hoare and David Johnstone before they set out to row the Atlantic in 1966. “If we don’t have a go, we will live the rest of our lives wondering if we might have made it, and that only fear persuaded us from the attempt.” My biggest fear in life is that I will look back on my time with regrets. My mind was made. I was going to get out there and take a look.
Tuesday 18th- Biscay here we come!
The tides around the area needed careful examination if I was even going to exit the harbour. Access was HW +- 2, which meant I had to leave between 09.00 and 13.00. I planned for 11.00 but of course ended up leaving at 12.00 which sluiced me out of the channel faster than I could blink. The wind and tide conditions were too much for the autopilot, so I had to steer by hand if I was to stand any chance of staying on the transits between the marker buoys. I knew full well that straying by even a few metres would involve a dangerous six hours drying out at an angle, and probably the return of my friendly lifeboat crew…
Going out on this falling tide also meant that there was no return to Wexford at this time; my back up plan was Rosslare across the water. I also had the option of continuing around the tip of Carnsore Point to Kilmore. Of course, if I felt that a seven on the beam (side of the boat- a more manageable point of sailing) was safe I could carry on. It took me twenty odd minutes of panting and hauling on lines to get the sails set up as they needed to be. I felt more like a fish out of water as I struggled with the job than the heroic sailor I’d fondly imagined- feeling like that is- I don’t fondly imagine sailors.
I reckoned it was manageable, if a bit lively. “So this is it” I thought, “I’m on my way…” I made a few phone calls back home before I left range. I knew that once I left mobile phone coverage, I would only have short range communication via my vhf radios (one main, one backup, and a spare handheld- like I said I’m cautious). My sister Anna texted to say that she assumed I had decided not to go as my satellite tracking beacon was switched off. This was a big concern for me; it most definitely was switched on, and should have been relaying my position every 10 minutes! This was the only means I had of letting people know I was still alive and well. Luckily, a phone call to the ever sensible Eve provided the answer. “Have you tried changing the batteries?” It worked, and just in the nick of time. Shortly after that I lost signal, and was to be completely on my own for the next week or so. It was what I did or didn’t do from now on that would determine following events, a scary feeling I’d never experienced to this degree before.
I knew things were going to turn out ok for this trip, as before too long I had a great omen- an escort from a school of dolphins! They are such wonderful creatures, and just watching them play alongside takes my breath away. I know sailors are a superstitious bunch, but I always consider them to be good luck.
As the sun went down I prepared for the night ahead, but one thing was troubling me. Despite numerous attempts to alter our heading using the self steering settings, I couldn’t get Makatea to go quite where I wanted her to. She insisted on steering a few degrees above her course, no matter how many changes I made. Why was she being so obstinate and not doing as she was told? All of a sudden the answer came to me. A bolt on the windvane had worked loose, effectively disconnecting the servo arm. She wasn’t actually being told to do anything, and yet was still merrily sailing along on a near perfect heading. What an amazing boat.
It was a cold night, and I wearing my full thermal gear. I was certainly looking forward to getting a few degrees further south, and needing to use the sun shade mum had made me, and the windscoop generously bought by Nick & Jane Lane.
Sleeping while sailing alone took some getting used to. I had some really crazy dreams; I was being driven around a racing track in a fast car, all accelerating braking and cornering. I guess that’s what happens when you try to sleep on a roller coaster, blind at more than seven knots… I did think about shortening sail and going slower, but would that lessen my chances of being hit? It may give others longer to react, but what about the ships which don’t keep proper lookouts? I reckoned that I would come off pretty badly whether I was doing four or seven knots anyway, and at least it would reduce the overall time I spent out there. Sleeping is quite an issue for the singlehander. You have to do it, but you are also required to keep a proper lookout. I take the view that this is an inherently risky business anyway, and that a degree of luck (call it what you may) is needed. I tend to take catnaps of as little as 10 mins at a time if there’s anything visible; if the sky and screen is empty I will allow myself longer. Shane Acton, a chap who sailed a 19 foot boat around the world, used to take all his sails down and sleep for 8 hours! (Note- I’m still not sure about this one, and have since taken the opposite approach at times and deliberately kept my boat speed low.)
Wednesday 19th Day 2
Generally spent generally settling into life at sea. Tummy hadn’t quite settled enough for my liking by this point, and so didn’t risk doing too much reading down below. I used to be fine with motion sickness when I was an operational paramedic as I used to work in a moving vehicle every day. I now find that I do get out of tune and that it takes a while to get my sea legs.
I enjoyed listening to music as I was sailing, and was really glad that I’d chosen to install a CD player. I smiled as I remembered a conversation with my sister Anna and brother in law Colin.
Anna- “So what’re you doing for music?”
Me- “Well I have some CD’s and an MP3 player- that has about 100 songs you know…”
Colin- (laughs) “Well that’s the first week sorted, but what about the rest? I’ll lend you my ipod.”
Being a bit of a technophobe I wasn’t keen at first, The rest of my family all have them, (including my big sister Sarah who’d kindly offered to lend me her only one), but I’m a bit behind the times like that. Anyway, I was glad I had accepted their offer now- and it also provided insight into their taste in music. Personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Johnny Cash, and certainly nothing whatsoever to be embarrassed about! ;-)
Thursday 20th, Day 3
I woke to find my inner cordon had been breached. Not as worrying a thought as it might sound, it was the alarm from my Automatic Identification System (AIS) radar alerting me that a vessel was within my preset range. A brilliant device from one of my sponsors, NASA Marine, it intercepts the pings which all vessels over 300 tonnes and all passenger carriers are required by international law to transmit. This in turn is interfaced with the GPS system, so it knows to plot all positions relative to mine which is at the centre of the display. The other great benefit to the system is that it gives the vessel’s name, their digital selective calling number (effectively a telephone number for marine radios) which can then be used to call them up if needed, course over ground (COG) and speed over ground (SOG). From this information, a closest point of approach (CPA) can be calculated. Or you can just keep things simple and call to request it. The main limitation is that it is not an active radar as such. Many fishing vessels (FVs) do not use it, and they can be a real hazard at night as they zig zag at will across the sea. My ability to scan the horizon in such low light levels and make out what was going on was reallly helped by the loan of a night vision scope from my good friend Dave Savage.
The highlight of the day was the return of the dolphins. They came round to say hello again and this visit I spent more time with them. I lay on the foredeck with my arms dangling over the side watching them as they jostled for position and played. It really felt like the greatest show on earth, they were there playing because they wanted to be, not because they’d been trained to whilst caged in some zoo. They’re also wonderfully perceptive creatures; they would only come over when I was watching! A few times I would see one out of the side windows and go on deck. Within minutes there would be at least six alongside, all chattering in dolphin speak. (I’d never heard this before, but it sounds very like a long wave radio being fine tuned.) Absolutely breathtaking.
Friday 21st, Day 4
A bad start to the day. In the early hours of the morning Makatea had tacked herself through the wind. Not a problem in itself, until I found the cause of this unscheduled manoeuvre- one of the ball and socket joints on a part of the self steering gear had failed and was now hanging limply out of place. Loss of this vital piece of gear would potentially be a major problem for me.
The system works by means of a vane projecting upwards, which always points into the wind. When the boat moves off course relative to this vane, a push rod moves a servo blade which points downwards into the water. (Just imagine holding the top end of an oar straight down off the back of the boat, and twisting it when moving forwards.) This results in a powerful swing of the servo arm to one side. Steering lines are connected from here to the tiller, to pull the boat back on course.
I couldn’t do anything about it there and then, I’d only end up falling overboard as I nearly did while retrieving the broken remnants. I set the autopilot to take charge while I returned to my bunk to ponder. The autopilot is great for close quarters stuff where a high degree of linear accuracy is needed, but has real drawbacks on the open sea. For a start it is quite power hungry, but crucially it will only hold a course relative to an electronic compass, not the wind which is constantly changing! This means that when it comes to steering as close to the wind as possible it can never compete. I could either set too low a heading (a greater angle to the wind) and accept the inefficiency, or right on the limit and know that as soon as the wind moved forward of the bow the boat would tack herself and turf me out of my (now uphill) bed…
As soon as it became light outside I stopped the boat and set to work. I knew that these ball joints had been made in a workshop with more tools and equipment than I had on board. I also knew that the actual loads on the joints were very light at this point in the system. To start with I tried to reproduce the original which proved to be impossible in this environment. Despite spending an hour cutting out the components as accurately as possible with what I had, I only succeeded in dropping them into the water while attempting to fit them. Twice. Thinking laterally, all it needed was some means of holding a ball onto a socket to prevent it popping off, and it must to be able to withstand constant movement. Luckily I had packed quite a few bits into my “come in handy box” which included the solution; two shackles, two stainless hose clips, and some bungee cord to lace the lot together and provide the flexibility I needed in the coupling. I was on my way again, one nil to me.
I’ve always enjoyed problem solving puzzles in this way, much like the programme “scrapheap challenge”. I think that’s one of the reasons I love being a paramedic; ambulance crews constantly have to think on their feet, adapt to the situation they find themselves in, and make what they have into what they need.
My joy was short lived however, as later in the afternoon I encountered another big problem. Looking up at the mainsail I could see a split across one of the panels, about 30 cm long. It was on the back edge (the leech). Ironically it is the very part that provides the driving power, and is therefore subjected to the highest forces. The wind was rising; yet another force seven with big waves.
There was no argument. It had to come down straight away before the split ran unchecked across the whole sail and left it in half. But what then? While I had been ordering kit from a catalogue I had noticed something called a “stitch awl”. Thinking it would make me look more like a proper offshore sailor I added it to the list and my box, never appreciating just how handy it was about to become…
I dug it out and read over the instructions for a few minutes, smiling wryly at the bit which mentioned clamping the work in a vice! Thrashing around on a dancing deck more like- but still, hard luck. I had a quick practise on a piece of canvas first, before setting about the job for real. I knew that there was no chance of sewing up the whole tear, but if I could just get some stitches into the end of the split I reckoned that it may stop it developing; half an hour later I knew that despite the fact I teach suturing to medical students, my stitching was never going to be pretty. But they were in, and they were holding for now at least.
I spent a very uneasy night as the wind continued to rise, sleeping fully kitted ready to jump to. The sail was fully reefed down (as small as possible) but how was I to know how long my repair would hold out?