James Muggoch learns the hard way that solo Transatlantic cruising is all about practice, more practice, and yet more practice
My solo Transatlantic in a 27ft cruiser
I first crossed the Atlantic over 49 years ago, aged 18, as one of 16 crew onboard the 180ft motoryacht Camargo V. I felt awe and fear at the vastness and relentless power of the ocean and vowed never to go near it again. So when, in 2014, my wife Louise asked: ‘What do you want to do for your 65th birthday?’ I have no idea why I replied ‘I’m going to cross the Atlantic single-handed.’
I planned to buy a small yacht, sail the Atlantic, run her up a Caribbean beach and give the keys to the first local I met, provided they drove me to the nearest airport. My friend Ian Joseph, who comes from Grenada, suggested that I give her to the Grande Anse Sea Scouts in St George’s, Grenada, instead.
Several months later, with the support of the Grenadian High Commissioner in London, His Excellency Joslyn Whiteman, and the Deputy Commissioner of Scouts, Tim Kidd, Louise and I started looking for a yacht that was up to the passage and would suit the Sea Scouts.
Finally we found a David Sadler- designed Frigate 27 in East Cowes. The owner of Annie of Orford knocked £2,000 off the price as it was for a good cause and threw in every spare part he could find. I’ve been afloat all my life but I’m very short on ocean sailing experience, and I only managed a few weekends sailing Annie in the Solent before leaving.
The broker, Boatshed’s Corrine Willard, proved an expert in her field and a good friend – indeed her husband Simon Judge delivered Annie single-handed to Marina Rubicon in Lanzarote and had to be restrained from doing the whole trip.
When I arrived in Lanzarote, friends of friends Mike and Jean met me at the airport, took me to Mike’s radio station (The Mix) for a two-hour local radio chat show, then down to the Marina to find Annie. With the victualling done, I had to wait for two days while a gale blew itself out – not a luxury I was to be afforded for the next 42 days. Finally I spent my last euros on ten lemons and a Mars Bar.
I set off at 0800 on 2 February 2016, or tried to. The 7hp Volvo engine refused to start despite an expensive service in Cowes. The spares would take 2-3 weeks to arrive so I asked the marina to tow me out of the harbour. The engine only had a range of 200nm anyway, and I would be able to sail her all the way. I had a solar panel and a wind generator to charge up the batteries to power the nav lights, GPS, AIS and VHF.
Once outside, I raised main and genoa and sailed slowly South down the coast of Fuerteventura. I’d been told that the northeast winds funnel between the islands but I left the sails up too late and, as darkness fell, I was going too fast. I had stupidly secured the preventer to the boom, so I had to cut it and, having opted for hanked-on foresails, had to go forward to change sails. An earlier accident, while breaking a stick to throw for my dog, left me night-blind in my left eye, and a motorbike accident four years earlier hurt my right shoulder so I was in considerable discomfort. While lowering the sails, I caught my right hand in the mainsheet track, fell into the cockpit, landing on my head, and had my first, but not last, totally sleepless night of the next 41.
Tired and battered
Next morning Annie and I were tired and battered, but still on course – or so I thought. After experimenting with sail combinations to get the Pacific Light windvane to behave, we were becalmed for five hours so I went below. My head was sore. It had stopped bleeding but I felt sick – not seasick, I don’t suffer with that. Otherwise all was well apart from the GPS, which wouldn’t lock onto a position. I saw a mountain far off on the port bow and thought I was looking at Africa. The wind came up, darkness fell and I found myself being blown onto a continental lee shore – as tired as I’ve ever been and sick with pain. The Pacific Light came apart and I steered by hand for 6-7 hours to clear the land, unable to get to a drink or food. In deep trouble, I cut my losses and, ignoring the ‘voices’ that were starting to haunt me, came about onto port tack, fixed the self-steering and went below.
I woke to a calm sea, aware that I had survived a very ill-prepared start. A good breakfast and co-codamol for my head made me feel much better, until I looked up and saw two large islands dead ahead, where there should be ocean. I shot below, turned on the GPS, which decided to work, and found out it was the Canaries. We were back where we started, two days ago.
Struggling for control
I pulled myself together and reached the open Atlantic. Out of the islands’ lee, with 25-30 knots over the deck, the sea came up. Eight days of heavy cloud and my eye problem meant I couldn’t see the compass, sea, sails or stars so I lay ahull and went below – not seamanlike, but the best I could do. By now I was hallucinating quite badly. Imaginary voices and shadowy shapes haunted the boat for two weeks and became seriously worrying. Days and nights blurred and I struggled to control Annie. I was managing runs of over 100nm a day, but with great effort and little sleep. The windvane had a will of its own and I would fiddle with it at dusk, creating no end of trouble through the night. About 500 miles south of the Canaries I thought ‘I haven’t seen a ship for six days’ when I saw what turned out to be the Maersk Tacoma. I contacted her Master, Capt Catalin Petrescu, and asked him to email my wife Louise. He also gave me the forecast: ‘Force 8 becoming 9, sea 8m becoming 12-14 overnight.’ Thanks for that…
I had to make a decision: head for the Cape Verdes, or press on to Grenada. My hands had rope burns, my shoulder was killing me, and salt water sores on my bottom made life very uncomfortable. I tossed a coin – and did the opposite: Grenada it was.
Over the next few days, Annie’s log records 35 knots over the deck, lost jib halyards, stray sheets, a soaked sleeping bag and bunk and lots of water below. The entry for 15 February reads:
‘Opened the main hatch and removed the top washboard when a breaking wave washed me back into the cabin. Floorboards afloat, electrics out and the sound of rushing water behind the galley lockers. Bailing like mad with no automatic bilge pump and the manual pump in the cockpit. Sprayed the electrics with WD-40 to dispel the sea water and carried on bailing, tiring badly. Suddenly smelled burning, smoke and flame from the electrics. Had extinguisher to hand, but thought it might make things worse, so turned the batteries off, which worked. Annie sailing on, waves still breaking on deck and more and more water coming below via the galley deckhead.’
I was at a fairly low ebb but kept bailing. Thinking I was sinking, I put out a pan-pan call on my handheld VHF, then I sent my first – and hopefully last – Mayday. With no response, it was down to me.
I lowered the sails, which stopped a lot of the waves driving over the deck. With a hammer, I smashed out the galley lockers, cut up two Tesco Bags for Life and rigged them so that any water coming into the boat went straight into the sink. The wind dropped and the sun began to shine so I pumped out and tidied up. The cooker had come off its gimbals – no more hot drinks or food – and the chart table had collapsed.
On deck I found that a port stanchion had been ripped out by the preventer as Annie broached, leaving a triangular hole big enough to put my fist through. I tied my feet to the starboard grabrail, laid across the boat and tried to fill the hole with Plastic Padding, but the waves and the difficulty of mixing the paste with both hands while gravity tried to pull me overboard proved too much. I deployed the sea anchor and took the night off.
This was the third time I’d nearly gone overboard. On day three I just caught the starboard shroud with one hand as I went. Later I slipped while adjusting the windvane. I grabbed the ensign staff, which broke, but not before it had given me enough leverage to fall into the cockpit. After day two I gave up wearing a harness or lifejacket. Every time I went on deck I got tangled in something. I knew I couldn’t get back onboard unaided, as the emergency ladder I had was the same one with which fit, young magazine testers had failed to get back onboard – in a marina!
Things got better: tradewinds, sunshine and clear skies – I could steer by the stars! The windvane and I had come to an arrangement: with genoa and double-reefed main, we made 5 knots at 20 degrees off the wind.
With better weather came more sleep and an end to the voices. I’ve since found that I’m not alone in being visited by these bloody things and I hope never again to hear a voice I recognise threaten to kill me.
There were still ups and downs. I was becalmed for three days, which was worse than the storms. I saw loads of flying fish, dolphins and the spouts from whales. I didn’t kill the big fish that stayed with Annie for two days – I had loads of Army rations and the fish was the only friend I had. I rewired the VHF and re-installed the cooker for the last week: coffee!
I hove to 25 miles off Grenada to make landfall in daylight and got underway around 0500. At 0730 I heard a lady’s voice over the VHF saying ‘Morning Grenada, this is Cruisers Net radio. Come in please!’
I was beside myself with joy and listened to boats in Prickly Bay, Secret Harbour, St George’s and many others checking in. During a silence I called in ‘Grenada, this is Annie of Orford’
‘Hello Annie! Welcome to Grenada, we are all waiting for you!’
Annie and I sailed past the South coast and turned to starboard, tacking for the first time in 42 days, towards Annie’s new home: St George’s Bay. Half a mile out, an officer on a police launch came up behind shouting ‘Put some bloody clothes on!’ I’d forgotten I’d been naked for four weeks.
Annie raced into the harbour and a large RIB came up behind with my best mate Brian onboard. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘I’m with her,’ he said, pointing to my wife, Louise, who I hadn’t spotted.
The landing, the greetings, the landlegs, the first beer and the best burger in the world all passed in a dream, but I knew one thing: I had made it!
James learned fast on a crossing where so much went wrong. These are his key lessons
Choose the right boat. Mine would be steel with a doghouse, a boarding ladder welded onto the transom, a bar running down the centreline for clipping on and a deep, self-draining cockpit (Annie’s drains are small and block quickly, once with a dead flying fish).
It would have granny bars at the mast, where you need two hands to work, plenty of handholds on deck and below that you can actually grab (Annie’s were too close to the bulkhead), a deep bilge and a sump where water can collect and be pumped out.
Having water sloshing around the sole soaking everything is no problem in the Solent but gets tedious on a 40-day ocean crossing.
On no account choose a boat with its mainsail traveller running at knee level across the middle of the cockpit. It’s difficult enough in calm seas and daylight, but a dangerous nightmare in rough seas at night. I still have trouble with two fingers on my right hand, which was in the wrong place during a crash gybe.
I’m sure there are performance advantages to a fin keel, but I was never happy with it. When I bought her I had a surveyor check the keel. Apart from a visual inspection, this involved someone swinging on the keel with the yacht in the slings, while someone else watches inside to see if the bolts move. She passed, but I was never truly relaxed at sea. Having once, many years ago, tied my Yorkshire Coble to a 40ft container while half-way across the Adriatic from Brindisi to Dubrovnic, I promise you that, should Annie have hit one of those at night or in bad weather, the keel would have come off.
Don’t replace your furling genoa with hanked-on foresails.
Have a waterproof ‘boat book’ with details of stores, spares and kit, so you can find things quickly when you need them.
Have comfortable, waterproof seating, both inside and out, and avoid wet clothing, which leads to boils, salt water sores, and all the associated discomfort.
Practice. You need to earn money to pay for the boat and time off work, so you don’t have enough time to go sailing. She’s out of the water, the engine needs attention, the sails are being checked, the liferaft is being serviced: there are always reasons not to go, but you must make time to sail before embarking on a long passage. It’s too late when you set off to realise you can’t see the compass at night, you can’t remember where various switches are, where things are stored etc. Go at night, in bad weather, alone – but go.
How not to clear in and out
Though delighted to have been made an Honorary Commissioner of the Sea Scouts, it was time to go home. Then I realised I hadn’t cleared in. I went with Scoutmaster Elisha St Louis to the immigration office at the marina. A strict-looking lady took Annie’s details and asked:
‘What time did you land?’
‘About 1220,’ I replied.
‘But it’s only 1130.’
‘Yes, but I arrived two days ago.’
‘You can’t leave Grenada if you haven’t arrived!’
She woke up the snoozing chap next to her.
‘Who’s he?’ I asked.
‘He’s the officer who hands out fines.’
‘Where have you come from?’ he asked.
‘The Canary Islands’
‘Never heard of them, where are they?’
‘Who owns them?’
‘Right. Can I see your leaving documents?’
‘Sorry’ I said, ‘I haven’t got any.’
‘How did you leave?’
‘I just sailed away.’
Dead silence. ‘You can’t come into Grenada without leaving somewhere!’
‘Sorry,’ I said, ’do you want me to do it again?’
Luckily, Annie and I were still being treated like rock stars and a swift call to His Excellency Joslyn Whiteman (the former High Commissioner in London) cleared up the matter.
My family moved on to a houseboat when I was 14 and 53 years later I’m still here. My other boats have been everything from canal boats to barges, RIBs to sailing yachts, motor yachts, oil exploration vessels and film location pirate ships.
I hold various qualifications such as ICC, Yachtmaster and Ocean Yachtmaster (shore-based). For the past 20 years I have owned the ex-RN steam tug Cob, and I’m hugely proud that she led the vintage tug flotilla in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant.