Where do you begin to tell the story of a transatlantic crossing? It is hard to know where to start but so many friends have asked for a blog post that I shall attempt to highlight the things that stand out in my memory.
Duncan and I flew out to Tenerife on 4th January, six days before the scheduled departure date of the Cornell Caribbean Odyssey. Steve and Linda gave us a super welcome and the next few days were a flurry of preparations. For Linda and I these mainly revolved around provisioning. One afternoon we spent about 4 hours in Carrefour supermarket with a trolley each, trying to shop for four people for an indeterminate number of days. We also had to consider eventualities such as the freezer breaking down or problems with the cooker. This led to the purchase, amid much else, of a huge, catering-sized tin of tuna and a daunting quantity of baked beans! We also bought a whole Serrano ham, complete with stand for carving which quickly become known as Del Boy (Trotter). More of Del Boy later…
There were various events organised by Cornell for those taking part in the Odyssey, including a pot luck supper the night we arrived and a full day of seminars on the Saturday, (thought I’d avoided those for a while by ducking out of uni for a few weeks! 😉) The seminars covered topics such as downwind sailing, receiving weather reports and provisioning. This last was a bit late to be honest, just two days before departure, as most of us had already done the majority of our provisioning. They strongly recommended that we should buy our fresh fruit and veg from the Sunday market.
As a result, the four of us stumped off to the market where the women got frazzled and the guys were very bored but had to be there to help carry it all. In the event we found that stuff really didn’t keep very well and most of what we bought had either been eaten or thrown out by halfway into the trip. Having since chatted to several other boat crews, they all seem to have found the same. Duncan suspects it was week-old stock, as much of the preceding week had been public holidays relating to the Three Kings festival.
One afternoon, I dragged Linda, metaphorically kicking and screaming, along to a ‘Ladies’ meeting. It turned out to be every bit as dire as it sounds so Lindy left halfway through, complaining of a headache. This was perfectly genuine as one woman had brought her two pre-school sons with her and then shut them the other side of a glass door where they screamed to be let in. The room was stuffy and frankly it was all a bit fraught.
On the morning of 10th, Jimmy Cornell came round taking photos of us in our Cornell Odyssey t-shirts and we set off at 0950 LT, Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ blaring out from the speakers, courtesy of my lovely friend Mags who gave me the cd as a Christmas/Good Luck gift a couple of weeks earlier.
I shall not attempt to describe the sailing in detail as Duncan plans to write another, more technical and sailing orientated post. Suffice to say, we hit 15+ knots that first day which made Steve a very happy skipper. Those of you who followed our progress online may know that we passed several of the others that first morning as we headed south down the coast of Tenerife. We actually didn’t manage similar speeds again until the last couple of days when the winds finally picked up and we were surfing down the waves in a final gallop to the finish line. Much of the trip we were only doing between five and seven knots. We sailed more conservatively than some of the other participants, reefing at night and replacing the code zero or cruising chute, (both large, relatively lightweight sails designed for light winds,) with the sturdier genoa. There were two principle reasons for this, both around safety: we had single person watches during the night and we were concerned that a sudden squall might catch us unawares and damage the sails before we had time to summon help and reef. This was even more important later in the trip when there was no moon and lots of cloud cover so it was nearly impossible to see an approaching squall. One night we even resorted to putting the radar on as a precaution. This all meant that we perhaps didn’t go quite as fast as some others but we suffered no damage to any of the sails and had no dramas.
We soon settled into a pattern. Almost immediately we decided not to worry about allocated watches during the day as most of us were up and about so there was always someone to keep a lookout. Bearing in mind that we only saw a tiny handful of other boats during the entire trip, this worked well. Steve took the 8pm to midnight watch as he was semi-on-duty throughout the day, apart the occasional hour’s sleep. Duncan had the graveyard watch from midnight to 4am and I took over for the remainder of the night. I got off very lightly with this arrangement as my sleep pattern wasn’t much disturbed – I merely went to bed early and got up early. In theory I was on watch until 8am but without fail Steve was up by 7 or 7:30 am and sometimes earlier. We stuck to the same 4 hour watches throughout because it is easier for your body to adjust but Duncan and I both had strict instructions to wake Steve if we needed to reef or gybe or had any concerns.
Most days all of us had an hour or so’s sleep during the day. Initially Linda was wearing a sea sickness patch behind her ear which made her super-sleepy. She was sleeping about 16 or 17 hours a day for the first week, getting up to prepare a meal, eat and collapse back into her cabin. After three days she abandoned the patches; if she felt at all dodgy she would retreat to her room again but she wasn’t sick at all which was great!
Linda was an outstandingly fantastic chef on the trip. I was amazed when we were provisioning before departure, to discover that she had laid all sorts of dessert and baking ingredients, thinking they were rather unnecessary. In fact they were fantastic. One of the chief problems on a crossing such as this is, in fact, boredom. Our evening meal became the highlight of the day, wondering what confection she was going to rustle up each night. Linda would spend hours pouring over cook books and thinking what ingredients she had on board. Quite often she would announce we were going to have such and such only to change her mind several times before the meal actually appeared. Poor Duncan started to go into a decline when we were told three nights on the run that we were to have steak, only for Linda to change her mind again before she started cooking! When the steak did appear however, it was well worth the wait!
Among other delicacies that Lindy produced were Thai curry, dauphinois potatoes, and a magnificent quiche (aka cheese and egg pie because, according to Duncan ‘real men don’t eat quiche!?!’). We had crumbles and Eton mess, banoffee pie desserts and freshly baked cookies. All of it was a huge morale boost. Most mornings the men insisted on clogging their arteries with bacon butties using part baked bread, (okay, okay, I weakened more than once myself,) and several times Linda produced pancakes and maple syrup! This is a huge achievement as we went further south and it became hotter and hotter doing anything in the galley. Having the oven on, in particular, made it almost unbearable but Linda would very rarely accept any help. If we were lucky we were able to persuade her to let us do the washing up while she had a well earned rest and a ciggie!
We were very fortunate because we had very few technical hitches, for which much credit goes to Steve and all the careful preparations and planning he did. He and Duncan also resolved quite a few problems on the trip from Levkas to Gibraltar, which turned out to be much the most challenging leg of the journey from Greece to the Caribbean. (See Duncan’s previous posts). On our very first night however, I woke at about 2am because D had gybed and it is incredibly noisy below if anything is done with the sails and winches. I went up to see if he needed a hand and demand to know why he hadn’t summoned help and was told that the gybe had gone okay but he was about to summon Steve because in the process the goose neck which joins the boom to the mast had come adrift. Again, I’m sure D will explain this in detail but suffice to say here that a nut had come off so that the bolt had then worked itself out, getting slightly distorted in the process. Having found a replacement nut, they were able to put it all back together, hoisting the boom up and supporting it with a halyard while they drove the bolt home by whacking it with a winch handle! Next morning Steve had a happy time cleaning all the oily hand prints away that we had left round the boat, working with head torches in the dark.
A day or two later, Steve decided that he needed to be hoisted up the mast. He had been trying out various fore sails in order to try and get the best speeds possible and found that the big, lightweight sails were inclined to chafe against the end of the spreaders. Chafing of sails and ropes is one of the main problems on a long passage. Before we left Tenerife Steve had tried wrapping tape around then but this wasn’t really sufficient so up he went. Having been a mere spectator, I can assure you that stitching a leather cuff around a spreader using sail thread and a sailors palm is no mean feat as we sailed. Just trying to stay in the right position and brace oneself without the use of hands required great perseverance. It took Steve about an hour to do the two on the starboard (right) side by which time he’d had enough! However it was the starboard ones that were causing the trouble and he’d really resolved the problem. He half thought about doing the port spreaders another day but came to the conclusion it wasn’t necessary.
So apart from from the occasional other vessel, what did we see? It was curious but I didn’t really feel overawed by the vastness of the Atlantic. The distance to the horizon is fairly small, just a few miles in any direction so in some ways it felt like being in a big, circular pond!
Occasionally we saw two or three sea birds – types of gull? They weren’t terribly interested in us and made no attempt to land on Tantrum. The same cannot be said of the flying fish. We saw lots of flying fish, sometimes individuals leaping from the water and flying up to 50 metres, a metre or so above the surface. Sometimes a large number would erupt from the water simultaneously, presumably to avoid a predator. Are these fish part of a shoal while they are in the air or while they are in flight, should the collective noun be a flock? At any rate, by day they left us alone but at night they either developed navigational or visual difficulties or possibly kamikaze tendencies. At any rate, any number wound up aboard. Occasionally one would land in the cockpit with a great fluttering and banging. The first time this happened I was scared half to death until I realised what was causing the commotion. I didn’t much care to pick it up with my bare hands but with the aid of some tongs I was able to rescue it and return it to its natural environment. One particularly brave or foolish fish attempted to attack Steve as he sat at the helm one night but most were littered round the deck and trampoline and remained undiscovered until morning by which time rigor mortis had set in.
My apologies to any vegetarian/vegan friends who may find what follows next distressing: Steve had acquired various items of fishing equipment for the trip and was keen to try it all out. None of us had ever been terribly successful at catching fish before but the very first day we let out a line we hooked a pretty big mahi mahi. There was huge excitement as Steve reeled it in and Duncan prepared to land it. Linda rushed for the camera, and to my surprise I was sent for the gin bottle. I could only imagine they were planning to bash the poor creature over the head with this to finish it off but it struck me as a curious form of weapon. Surely a winch handle would be more effective and more practical? I was soon disabused and ridiculed for my ignorance as the gin was solemnly poured into the fish which had the same result but far more quickly, and hopefully, more humanely.
Duncan gutted, filleted and grilled half the fish that same evening and we froze the rest. Three of us thought it was absolutely delicious; Steve really prefers the excitement of catching a fish to the reality of eating it! Having caught this first one so quickly and easily, we blithely assumed we would catch one whenever we felt like it. This was not the case. Some days there was no interest in our lures at all. Two further mahi mahis managed to escape as Steve was reeling them in and one day something managed to bite right through the line and make off with the swivel, hook and lure, much to Steve’s disgust. We were beginning to give up hope of landing another, when finally, not long before we reached Barbados we caught a tuna. Once again, Duncan dealt with it and this time managed to contain the mess rather better so Tantrum didn’t wind up looking as though there had been some fearful, crazed axe murderer aboard.
We didn’t try to catch all the sea life we saw, you may be relieved to hear. One evening as we sat up on the bow watching the sun go down and quaffing alcohol-free beers, I suddenly spotted a dolphin. The others had seen a few earlier in the day while I had been sleeping, much to my chagrin. However this time we were joined by a pod of maybe 25 or 30 who danced and played in the bow waves for perhaps half an hour, giving us a fabulous aquatic show. It was completely magical and a perfect end to that day. Sadly we didn’t see any others on the trip and neither did we see any whales, though we did look out for them.
Days were mostly spent reading or just chatting when we weren’t adjusting the sails, sleeping or eating, but interestingly none of us really got bored. On night watches, I divided my time between checking for other vessels and possible approaching squalls, keeping an eye on wind speeds but also taking time to admire the stars, unspoilt by any light pollution. It was also a good time to catch up with my reading for uni.
One night, I spotted another yacht on the chart plotter only about 12 miles away and was incredibly excited when it was identified on AIS as Explora, whose crew we had met and become friendly with in Tenerife before departure. I watched her gradually gain definition as we got closer, developing from a vague light on the horizon, to clear definition as daylight increased. I tried repeatedly to call them on the radio but got no response. I couldn’t work it out because by now they must have been able to see us as clearly as I could see them. Once when I was below, trying to figure out how to switch on the main radio, I thought I heard something on the handheld up at the helm but when I dashed up to respond, there was no reply. Frustrated and beginning to think I was doing something wrong, I eventually woke Steve. I knew he wouldn’t want to have passed so close to Explora and not made contact and sure enough, as soon as he heard the news, he was out of bed. Finally we made radio contact and although the transmission was a bit broken up, we managed to exchange news. By now everyone on board both boats was wide awake and up on deck. It was quite extraordinary to have passed so close to each other when Explora had set off 24 hours before us, (she was not part of the Odyssey,) and in all the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. We were very giddy and rather sorry to watch her fade into the distance as we pulled away.
Another, less enjoyable drama concerned Del Boy. We had been slicing away morsels as tasty snacks between meals and as an alternative to the treats box of mini mars bars, lion bars etc. One afternoon, Steve suddenly spotted that Del Boy had visitors and without further ado he and his stand went to a watery grave. There was then a flurry of activity as we cleaned and disinfected the whole of that part of the galley where he had been living. We don’t know whether these unwanted stowaways came aboard as eggs with Del Boy, or joined him in Tenerife in the day or two after he was bought and before we set sail. One thing was certain: there were no insects out at sea so they had been with us for the duration of the trip. We were all revolted by the idea, some of us more traumatised than others. Nevertheless, none of us was ill and we’ve all lived to tell the tale. It was almost (but not quite,) enough to make me consider becoming vegetarian!
Later on the trip we spotted some tiny black flying insects aboard. Suspicious that they had hatched from eggs under the paper labels of the emergency bottled water supplies, Steve hauled all 80 litres out of the bilge. He then cleaned it all out while Duncan and Linda solemnly removed all the labels which we dumped overboard as biodegradable waste. This seemed to resolve the problem.
Although we were a dry ship for most of the trip, Steve did relax this rule briefly when we reached what we reckoned was the halfway point when we opened a bottle of bubbly and had a little celebration! Apart from this however, the main indulgence was food. It was quickly realised that Duncan has a great weakness for sweet food and so treats from the goody box, intended to cheer those on night watch, had to be strictly rationed, as did the wonderful homemade cookies produced by Linda!
Probably the most remarkable experience of the entire trip, as far as I’m concerned came towards the end of the crossing. Steve has a projector on board and had discovered on his watch the previous evening, that he could project a film up onto the mainsail, using his Bluetooth headset so as not to disturb the rest of us who were sleeping. He persuaded us to try watching Bourne Ultimatum, deck chairs set up on the stern and the volume booming out across the water to enable Duncan to hear it over the sound of the wash – well we weren’t going to disturb the neighbours were we? It was a truly surreal and rather magical experience to be skimming across the waves, the stars gleaming above in the blackened sky as Jason Bourne struggled to outwit his enemies. It is certainly a memory I will treasure for a long time but sadly none of the photos we took really came out.
After days of fairly sedate, downwind sailing, the winds picked up for the final stage of the trip and we found ourselves surfing down the four metre waves, rushing towards our final destination. Having decided that we probably wouldn’t make it to Barbados before 30th, it began to look as though we might come in a day earlier. In the end we crossed the finish line 5th out of 16 participants, at 6:30am on 29th. We then had to kick our heels until 8am when we were allowed to enter and tie up in the shallow draft harbour to be processed by immigration. Pascal and Pascale from the Cornell organisation were there to greet us, take photos and hand over a goody bag containing the mandatory bottle of Barbados rum.
We then had to move round to the ‘marina’ which involved negotiating a fairly narrow entrance under a lifting bridge. The arrival was something of an anti-climax; Steve was unhappy with the berth, feeling we were too close to the quay and very dubious about the reliability of the buoys to which our bow mooring lines were secured. In addition we were all ridiculously tired so after a brief sojourn in a bar to send emails and make a few FaceTime calls, we all retired to bed apart from Linda, and slept until about 10pm by which time we were desperate for something to eat. Bridgetown on a late Sunday evening is uninspiring. In fact, to be honest it is fairly underwhelming most of the time. After tramping round the local area searching in vain for somewhere – anywhere to have something to eat, we gave up and retired back on board where Linda, bless her, donned her pinny once again and made hamburgers. We then all collapsed into bed again.
Since then, we have found that most of the decent restaurants are not in Bridgetown itself, but on the outskirts and down the coast in St Lawrence Gap. We have met up with other participants of the Odyssey, been to a beach party organised by Cornell and spent time on the beach, swimming and relaxing, before retiring to beach bars for one or two pina coladas or rum and cokes! Duncan and I also had a fabulous morning scuba diving on a reef just offshore which was a delight. Overall, however, the little we saw of Bridgetown was something of a disappointment: dirty, impoverished and full of beggars and drunks yet everything is ludicrously expensive so it would seem that a few fat cats are making lots of money but not ploughing much back into the local economy.
Duncan and I flew back to the UK on 3rd of Feb so that I can resume my university course. We left Linda and Steve planning to visit a bit more of the island, party with friends and consider their itinerary for the rest of their time in the Caribbean. We both enormously appreciate having had this opportunity to share their transatlantic crossing and we are deeply grateful for their kindness, generosity, tolerance and friendship. We wish them fair winds and safe travels for their on-going adventures.