With comms now at full working order, Jonty Pearce shares his adventure crossing the Atlantic from Antigua to The Azores
Electronic communications are hard to come by mid Atlantic, so apologies for the weeks since my last blog.
Despairing of the never-ending way that winter clung on to spring, I leapt at the chance to help sail John’s Beneteau 473, El Arranque back across the Atlantic from Antigua to the Azores.
Inevitably, I’m told that my departure from the UK triggered a heat wave…
I was looking forward to that first ice cold beer or Pina Colada at Jolly Harbour marina bar, but John had other ideas – a quick trip to pick up a gas cylinder and check out at immigration, and we were gone.
My first ever visit to the Caribbean amounted to four hours, and two of those were spent at the airport and in the taxi across Antigua.
Once aboard and after setting off, El Arranque was rightly declared a dry boat, so I am still waiting for that Pina Colada, though the first beer in Horta when we reached The Azores sizzled as it went down.
The three J’s – John, Johnny, and Jonty – and Paul settled down to get acquainted on the four hour passage across to hurricane-devastated Barbuda.
My crew mates had already been aboard for a fortnight so had many tales of Antiguan adventures, including English Harbour’s Antigua Sailing Week.
It was all too upsetting to listen to, and my eyelids were getting weighty after an early start and a long, long day, so once it got dark I indulged in a little snoozette until we approached our Barbudan anchorage. Sleep came easily that night – the last undisturbed one for 20 days.
The delights of waking up and diving straight into the warm Caribbean Sea were a revelation. I won’t try it in Wales, though.
A bacon sandwich and a good mug of real coffee, and we got down to preparing the boat for the crossing.
Spare cans of diesel were transferred to the anchor locker, while the anchor was carried back to the lazarette.
The cockpit lockers were tidied as a month of family holiday snorkels, fins, buckets, spades and cricket bats were put in their proper places. El Arranque gradually moved from holiday mode to ocean going yacht mode.
We swung the compass and finally set off at midday, enjoying a brisk reach round the sheltered west side of Barbuda before hardening up to a close reach as we cleared the island, and tasted the strength of the easterly F6 trades that determined our northeasterly course on starboard tack.
El happily carried 2/3 main and a full No3 genoa as the wind gradually strengthened to F7, and we acclimatised ourselves to the regular pitching of the waves.
Heidi the Hydrovane steered uncomplainingly, and my first Atlantic night watch was a pleasure under the bright waning gibbous moon against the sparkling backdrop of the starry sky.
The wind steadily grew to F8, and the sudden shotgun-like parting of the genoa sheet at 0600 was a good pointer that it was time to reef; El was much happier with half the genoa and 1/3 of the main.
Our weather routing was provided by Chris Tibbs through Mailasail; his input was invaluable in determining how far we had to go northward before getting above the Horse Latitudes to turn eastwards for the southwesterly trades to waft us across the Atlantic.
His forecasts suggested 20-25 knot winds rather than our 36 knots, but he did warn us that wind speeds were often greater than suggested, a point confirmed by skipper John’s experience.
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On the 10th day, the wind finally backed and we got the go-ahead to head east towards the Azores.
The wind dropped to 10-12 knots, and we struck the No3 genoa in favour of the No1 for the run across the Northern Atlantic.
Our fresh meat was nearing to an end so we had started fishing the previous day. There was much excitement when the reel started screaming with the weight of a thrashing dorado, which came in at over 30lbs.
We were delighted to enjoy a series of wonderful fresh fish meals – steaks, fish pies, curries – that kept us going until a few days short of Faial.
John and I spent our days reading up on celestial navigation and taking sun sights; soon our twilight hours were busy with star sights, while our mornings were occupied plotting the results.
My reading matter was The Barefoot Navigator: Wayfinding with the Skills of the Ancients by Jack Lagan (Adlard Coles, £16.99) and we had many enjoyable conversations working out the basics of steering by the stars, sun, and moon.
After 18 days at sea, the realisation that we would soon return to land seemed strange.
I was all for turning round and going back, but supplies and time constraints forbade it.
Nevertheless, it was still a thrill to spot the conical peak of volcanic Pico shrouded by cloud, despite of the fact that we were battling high winds at the time.
Chris had forecast a wind veer to the north, and it came at 0300 on the 20th day; we gybed onto port tack and carried on.
I awoke after my post-watch sleep to the sound of revving engines and boat-shaking flapping sails as we initially reefed before rolling away the genoa and motorsailing in the steady F9; it grew in strength to F10.
It was supposed only to reach 20 knots… Regular spray soaked the helmsman, face whipping us in the storm force wind.
El took it all in her stride, though the crew struggled to eat and drink in the tossing cockpit.
Faial and Pico drew steadily nearer, and finally we reached the lee of Faial and the sea state abated, though the wind still gusted to 45+ knots in the channel between Faial and Pico.
El Arranque rounded the corner and Horta lay ahead; the marina even had a pontoon berth for us.
Having moored up and cleared the decks, we staggered unsteadily with mal-de-terre to the hot stone restaurant to sink our first beer for 20 days. We slept well that night.