4 weeks at sea between Africa and Brazil…

Arnaud had been dreaming about it… Putting to sea for several weeks, crossing an ocean and taking the time to appreciate life at sea. That’s all. And also taking along the family sextant for its first transat! Here he recounts a crossing which will stay in his memory for ever.

“Crossing the Atlantic is a dream I have had since I very first went sailing. Over time, the plan has evolved a little. It’s no longer a question of learning all the technical aspects (although why not?), but knowing how I am going to react to the three weeks or so at sea which lie ahead of me. In a sense, I’m looking at another route: it’s not the Transat which is important, but the time spent at sea. Without being either mystical or religious, I think the best analogy would be retiring to a monastery or going on a pilgrimage. You are leaving the world behind, to try and find yourself in your dreams, yours books… But now there’s going to be more than just the pleasure of sailing. This time there will be the pleasure of sailing for a long time, as I always find my sailing vacations are too short. How will it be this time?

December 12th 2014

The big day. I am leaving the office for the first leg of my journey, which will take me to Cape Town in South Africa, via London. The long flights and time spent waiting at airports is going to allow me to reflect on this project that I have held so dear for so long now. But how will I find it, after twenty days (minimum) at sea, whereas up to now I have never spent more than two or three nights on open water? And the most number of days I’ve spent cruising? Fifteen, and now I’m setting off for three weeks! And how are we going to organize the watches? The flight from London to Cape Town was pretty comfortable, with completely clear skies. I think I was more comfortable than the guy sitting next to me, who was 6’5” and 260 lbs. At least there was a good film to watch before going to sleep, The Expendables 3…

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

After a few days waiting for the green light, we’re finally off: set a course for Brazil!

December 13th 2014

We arrived in Cape Town after an eleven hour flight. It was beautiful sunshine, and there were boats racing. Mike, the skipper, warmly welcomed me on board and we joked about the 17 days he was predicting for our trans-Atlantic crossing towards Brazil.
There were to be four of us for this trip:
Captain: Mike, in his fifties, is self-employed, but works exclusively for TUI Marine. He has delivered all models of Leopard, including several 48s, like ours.
First Mate: Edouard, in his early thirties, has not been sailing very long (5-6 years). He did his first delivery trip with Mike, and has continued on other boats, including Leopards from time to time.
When not at sea, he works as a head chef.
Crew: Helène, celebrating her 29th birthday today. She’s not South African, like the other two, but Dutch. She is also Edouard’s girlfriend, and seems to not have so much experience. She has come along to learn…

December 14th. Preparation

We start early, in the cool, around 8am. Housework, settling-in, finding my bearings on the boat. I need to go do a bit of shopping: a sheet, a pillow and most importantly some candy, which will be essential for maintaining my good humor!
For this transat the boat is not in cruising mode, but in delivery mode. Everything delicate is protected: upholstery, stove-top (custom grill and aluminum foil for protection), all the screws and stainless fittings have a coating of Vaseline. Even the A-frame forward is heavily padded to prevent chafe on the genoa. All the tables and countertops are protected, as is the rest of the furniture. In effect the boat has to appear as new when we arrive. Finally, we are ready. Well, almost, because as on every delivery, we are waiting for some parts to arrive before we can set off. But not insignificant stuff… the liferaft and spare fuel! It seems as though there are lots of problems with fuel in South Africa. The nuclear power stations can’t produce enough power and even break down at times. When this happens, the authorities rely on diesel generators, requisitioning all the fuel. So there is none at the gas stations!!!
So we have to wait two long days before we can eventually set off, with the raft aboard and all the paperwork signed. But we could use those two days two to take the chance to visit the Leopard factory (currently home to 1,100 workers) and check out the new 40 footer. Even if it’s frustrating to have not set off yet, I’m not too upset, as there are 30-35 knots of wind blowing outside, and that wouldn't be an ideal start for my stomach…
For tomorrow they are forecasting twenty knots, which sounds much more acceptable.
One last piece of good news before casting off: we have managed to get hold of another spinnaker for the delivery, which seems to be bigger than the one already on board. And also I went to buy a bigger mug, so I can enjoy my tea in the morning. At last I am ready, as is the rest of the cat’s crew for this great adventure which lies ahead of us.

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

Life on the open sea can be damp… especially in heavier conditions!

We’re off: set a course for Brazil!

Last shower, last laundry. We fill up all the tanks and water jugs, and head over to Customs.
Noon: At last we set off with a good 20 knots apparent, 2 reefs in the main and the genoa partly furled. Everyone is wearing a big smile. We’re flying. For the watches, we split into three, with Hélène shadowing the rest of us. Being the least experienced, she can’t take a watch on her own. At least not at the beginning of the voyage. Everyone is happy and in good shape. But surprisingly the whole crew (except for yours truly) are happy to put their faith in the GPS and don’t want to play with the sextant for now. But for me, it’s one of my dreams!
To help us to acclimatize to the sea, we have decided that for lunch and dinner tonight, it’s going to be snacks: nobody’s going to be in the galley to start with… My watch finishes at 1400 hours, after a dolphin salute, and I come on again at 2100. The wind has picked up, and we now have 25 knots apparent at 110°. We’re going along at 7-8 knots.
I meet my first freighter, and… by the end of the watch, three of us are on deck (at midnight) to get the main down. The wind has built to 30 knots (35 in the gusts). It’s fun - I’ve enjoyed surfing at 13 knots, with my record being 14.8!!! But now it’s time to shorten sail…
At 6am the following morning I come on watch, under a grey sky. Nothing special - we are under genoa only. The sun breaks through toward the end of my watch. After doing the dishes, a second cup of plastic-tasting tea, and a brief wash (we need to save as much water as possible, and really only our hands and our teeth really need to be clean…), I go for a little siesta. Five hours isn’t enough sleep for me, especially on vacation, and also I’m not back on watch until 6pm.
I forgot to mention that it’s cold, very cold even, and long pants and a fleece are essential all day long. And also shoes and socks as soon as the sun goes in. At night, full kit is required, including a hat, so as not to freeze to death… It’s 18/19°C during the day, but in the shade and with the wind, still around 18-20 knots apparent, it really isn’t warm, in fact you could say it is chilly… Seemingly it’s going to be like this for a week, according to the old hands.
The days roll by peacefully, between watches and duties. The wind remains settled at around 15 knots under a cloudy sky, but as the days go by, it’s becoming a bit less cold. During the day, we trail fishing lines and make sure the anti-chafe protection is ok. And then we get the gennaker ready, but the wind still isn’t far enough aft yet for us to use it.
When the wind dies, we use the motor a little to keep us moving. But on board, the watchword is looking after the boat. We are permanently sailing with one reef in the main, to avoid any chafe on the spreaders. Even with one reef and at 90° to the apparent, the boat is making 7 knots in 10 knots of wind and it really is great fun.
After a few days, Hélène is fully operational, and can take her own watch, which frees up some time for everybody. I note that since we set off, everyone is following the same routine: we read for 20 minutes, chat for 10, work for 15 minutes… then chat some more.

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

The first few days it was cold, and we had to dress accordingly…

December 19th

It only took me three nights before I started talking to the boat (which had been named Bessie by Edouard), but only to ask her if she could pick the wind up a bit, as it keeps on dropping away… But she’s not listening, and we’re under motor by the end of the watch. After my watch I go to bed, and emerge from my cabin around 10am to see our first catch: a 30kg tuna!!!! (measured with electronics scales, not by an exaggerating eye!) It’s a record for both me and the captain at the same time. Impressive. So there’s sushi on the menu for today, and the rest is cut into steaks and frozen. The lines are put away - what would we do with another tuna? Today was also another special day for me: I had brought along the family sextant on its first transat. Having got my sea-legs, I made the most of this beautiful day by taking my first sights, but I must have missed a couple of steps, because my calculations had us some 300 miles off the coast of Angola! I’d better go back to the drawing board and do a meridian altitude at noon tomorrow. The rest of crew were laughing at me, joking that my position had us going up the Congo River. Better watch out for alligators!
The following day, there was wind again, and we were going along between 7 and 8 knots. With this new wind out of the south, we hoisted full sail, and flew the delivery asymmetric kite: more comfortable, the sails not flogging with every wave.
The whole watch I was thinking: that was never a 30kg tuna… it was 30lbs - the scales were set on the wrong units!
The wind died during the day, and by the end of the night we were under motor again.
What was surprising was that since we had set off, nothing had changed the mood of the crew. Is this usual at sea, offshore? A situation which could change (it’s only four days since we set off)? We spent our days laughing when we chat. Is it because we are far from normal worldly day to day problems (bills, problems at work, the rubbish on the TV or in the papers…)? Here there is none of that, and we are simply making the most of it!

December 21st

My watch ends at 1000. By 3pm the first muffins made by Hélène are coming out of the oven. Excellent! After a snooze, I help Mike and Edouard change the gearbox oils… they’ve already done their first 25 hours.
As far as the weather is concerned, we are on the edge of an anticyclone, which we are going to try and circumvent, but the further up we go, the further up it goes… We need to make it as far as St.Helena before “hanging a left” in order to avoid it. However, this wouldn’t get us there any quicker, as we’d have to cover much more distance. So we decided to take the direct route, and cover 270nm under motor, as there was no wind forecast for the coming days, although there was some hope for the end of the week... Today I’m working on improving my sextant sights, which is something I’ve not been able to do over the past few days, due to the lack of sun. I realize that I haven’t been accurate enough with my sights, nor with my timekeeping. I’ll try to focus on these two things, leaving my iPad to do the math. When I achieve a reasonable position, I’ll set about doing the calculations myself.
Even motoring, it’s a real joy to be at sea. It’s a very simple life: you look after the boat, eat well, sleep well, read, read some more (I’ll be finishing my fifth and final book today) and finally… dream. Compared to the first few days at sea, the pace of life has slowed considerably. There is less excitement, and everything happens more slowly. We are taking the time to live by the rhythm of the watches. We are no longer in a hurry like when we are on land, and there is nothing urgent, no important meetings to go to, no checking your watch or shopping to do!
After an oil change, we stop for a swim. The water is at least 20°C: not bad for Christmas Eve.

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

The fishing was good, but the scales were a little optimistic about the weight of our catch…

December 25th, slipping along under sail

For Christmas I try to call the family. Yesterday for some reason, emails and text messages were getting through, but not calls… the joys of technology! During my watch we saw a really impressive pod of dolphins. They were jumping, going in every direction, but never banging into each other. What a sight!
The fishing line went back in the water, and after just two hours, we had a dorado on board. We’ll keep the fillets for tomorrow, because we have meat planned for Christmas…

December 28th

We had a fairly rough night, but eventually I got to sleep. The wind was all over the place, but it ended up in the right direction. We covered 34 miles during my four-hour watch, which isn't bad… We are at 110/120° to the apparent, with 15 to 20 knots of wind, but there wasn’t much surfing to be had in the cross seas. I don’t know if I’m going to see the beautiful long Atlantic swells they talk about in all the books…

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

Arnaud left the boat in Brazil, but the Leopard 48 and its crew continued on to French Polynesia.

December 31st

We’re all a bit grumpy for this final day of the year, as we’re now hard on the wind, and going in the wrong direction… Even though the boat is going along nicely, it’s difficult to enjoy it.
Fortunately Edouard has made some donuts to cheer us all up.
The seas are a bit too big for me to do any sextant work, so I prefer to sit and read Dava Sobel’s “Longitude”, a passionate tale about the search for a method of determining longitude.
The weather forecast isn’t good, but as the conditions are very changeable, there’s no point in getting too worked up about it…
The following day we celebrated the New Year in a dying wind. We were making a better course, even if we weren’t quite back on track: we had to skirt round another depression… With the return of more manageable weather, we got back into a few other activities, and with hindsight you realize how your actions become limited when it starts to get uncomfortable.

January 3rd

Awake at midnight. At last, there is wind, and from the right direction. Well, upwind, close-hauled. Downwind will have to wait for the next transat. With 20-22 knots we’re really moving, sailing at between 7.5 and 9 knots. Watch out Brazil, here we come!

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

A nice dip right in the middle of the Atlantic for Christmas Day. The best possible present!

January 6th

Two days we’ve been under spinnaker. Excellent!!! The forecast is updated and in theory we will be sailing all the way to Santos.
That’s exactly three weeks we’ve been at sea. The time passes really quickly, the days all seem alike, yet we never get bored. A peaceful life, free of stress, doing simple little things: I am beginning to understand why some people are never able to re-acclimatize to life ashore after they’ve been on a long trip…
The only negative thing during this final week is that I’ve got to start preparing for going home. Plane tickets, transfer from Santos to Rio… I would willingly carry on to Tahiti with the rest of the crew.

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

The land starting to appear on the horizon. The last watch, and the last moments of solitude before returning to shore.

January 8th

I’m on watch from 3 to 6 and the wind is continuing full-on. We’ve got 20-22 knots, one reef in the main and some genoa. The seas are big, and I’m storming along at 10 knots, surfing at 14 at times!
When I come back up at 10 o’clock, after a snooze, it’s a different world: reaching in 30 knots, with two reefs and the jib partially rolled up. We’re not surfing at 14 knots now, but at 17! Yippee….!
At this rate we’ll be there tomorrow morning. The local Leopard agent is on standby, waiting for us to arrive - he has an open viewing on Saturday… So we spend the evening starting to strip the boat of all the delivery protection. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day: housework; customs; immigration and at last… the first beer ashore.

Lessons learnt on a transat

- You’re never bored offshore (anyone who gets bored at sea must be the kind of person who gets bored ashore!)
- Even at these latitudes, you need to have enough clothes to keep covered up.
- Take lots of books. You read much more than you would on vacation (there’s lots of spare time at sea)…
-If you’re taking a sextant with you, don’t hesitate to take a refresher course (I had to contend with trying to work things out from memory)
- You’ve got to do it, and go back again. Racing to improve your technical skills, and working the weather. An incredible time to share with friends and family.
-Ultimately I waited too long to undertake my dream Atlantic crossing (I’d previously missed the opportunity of a transat so I could fail a college exam!) The reality is that you can do it while you are working. My next trip will be a trans-Pacific, so that I can spend even longer at sea…

The transatlantic between Africa and Brazil

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