Atlantic crossing: Cape Verde to Antigua

The anchorage at Mindelo is more peaceful than the marina, where the constant wind and swell causes the boats and pontoon to strain at their moorings. Here we made final preparations for the crossing – stowing ropes and fenders, fitting the Hydrovane rudder, setting up the running sail booms, stowing all away below. Also importantly, a good meal and night’s sleep to set us up! Ahead was a voyage of 2,100 miles to the West. We would not be able to use the engine for propulsion because of the failed cutlass bearing, but that was not a great worry as the NE Trades blow consistently at this time of year.

We sailed under triple-reefed main and staysail at about 8am on 29th December. Visibility was better at the start than it had been throughout our stay in Cape Verde, but not for long. We headed out of the bay and steered a course to pass a few miles south of the high island of Santo Antao. By midday we were passing its high cliffs and getting 30 knots of wind at times in the inevitable acceleration zone. Suddenly to the SW of the island we ran into its wind shadow and calms – the rig slatting about on the swell. We drifted south for an hour, then picked up a little wind along with some other yachts that had caught us up. By evening we had been subjected to winds from the north through to SE, strengths from 5 knot to 30, and confused seas. Only after dark had we made enough distance from the island to get a steady NE wind, by which time we were down to just the staysail. The yachts were out of sight ahead by this time, and we would not see another vessel for the next thousand miles.

IMG_2144_XA_SaoAntaoCliffs of Sao Antao

Winds continued strong for most of the following week, generally 20-25 knots from the NE with a 3M swell, and waves overtaking us less than 10 seconds apart. We were able to set the twin headsails most of the time, usually well reefed, sometimes with the staysail hauled in for stability. Progress was good, but uncomfortable at times, and it’s tiring to be out surfing 24 hours a day (with 12 hours of darkness). The biggest waves were probably near 5m high; Ambition II would slow to under 4 knots in the troughs, then accelerate to 7 or 8 on the front of each wave (on many occasions exceeding 10 knots which meant it was time to reduce sail some more!). But the boat behaved well and the Hydrovane kept us on-course with only the occasional tweak. In spite of the high waves rolling down behind, there was little cause for concern except for the occasional breaking wave which sent dollops into the cockpit!

Cooking became very difficult in these conditions, but we always managed a decent breakfast (porridge or muesli and maybe eggs or beans with bread or leftover spuds), a salad lunch (that meant a tin of sweetcorn after the fresh stuff was all gone), and a hot dinner. All our bananas took a flying dive out of the fruit net, and some of the ripe ones were ruined, but the green ones survived and gradually ripened. Apples and oranges kept well (but we should have bought more). Green tomatoes from the fridge ripened in the net, root vegetables and onions kept fine under one of the saloon seats. We made 2 successful batches of yogurt in vacuum flasks (sterilise with boiling water, fill with UHT milk and add a spoonful of natural yogurt, seal for 24 hours), but the 3rd generation went off due to fridge problems. Several batches of flat bread were made (mix flour, baking powder and milk, knead and stand, roll and fry), and pancakes made a welcome change.  The smoked waxed curado cheeses from Tenerife kept very well right to the end of the voyage.

And then there was the Tinned Camembert. I think it was Moitissier who wrote of the merits of French cheese in a tin, and our family got the idea of importing a case of it for our Xmas present (in 2016).  Getting near its sell-by date in 2018 it was just maturing nicely for us!

Apart from the cheese and root veg, we lived on tins for the last half of the voyage. We had plenty of vegetables and fish but rather a lot of meals containing beans. There was no shortage of wind this trip! In future, we’ll avoid trying new varieties of beans mid – Atlantic… One morning there was a particularly good haul of flying fish on deck which, after de-scaling and cleaning, went in the frying pan for lunch.

IMG_2151_XA_FlyingFishFlying fish for lunch!

After the first week we had slightly lighter winds (average 18-20 knots) and on the whole calmer seas, though we still had occasional bouts of 25 knots and sizeable waves. We began to have warmer weather, nice blue skies with fluffy cumulus clouds, and a slightly more comfortable ride. Sleeping and tasks below became a little easier! By this time, we had tried sleeping in the fore cabin, pilot berth and saloon, with limited success due to being tossed around. Finally, we lay cockpit cushions on the floor in the passage leading to the aft cabin and slept more securely in this narrow space. (the berth of last resort). We were also getting adept at cat-napping for 10 minute intervals when on-watch, in between checking the horizon for other vessels.

IMG_2182_XA_J_RelaxingTrade wind sailing – 15 knot wind, blue sky, fluffy white clouds

It soon became apparent that the domestic batteries were not holding enough charge. The fridge was a big consumer and was struggling to keep the food cool. The lights were growing dim so on the 3rd evening we had to run the engine for 45 minutes to recharge the batteries.  A piece of wood was lashed to the prop shaft to stop it turning, but still we had to heave-to to prevent the shaft from crashing about in the shattered bearing. So far the shaft seal only leaked slightly when the prop was turning, but we couldn’t risk the damage getting worse. Heaving-to under bare poles worked well, and gave an opportunity to do some jobs below with relatively little motion, or just have dinner! After that we ran the fridge for shorter periods each day, and after most of the fresh food ran out, switched it off altogether and kept the remaining cheese, butter and milk in the bilge. A can of beer had burst in the fridge and drowned a couple of chorizo sausages which had to be jettisoned halfway. Incidentally, they used to say “turn West when the butter melts”, but ours never did, wherever we put it!

IMG_2177_XA_HalfwayAre we nearly there yet?

The Raymarine plotter gave us a great circle route to Antigua (2,100 miles) which followed the curvature of the earth about 50 miles to the north, and then south again (both start and destination were at about the same latitude). Each morning at 10:00 UTC we noted our position and miles-to-go. We changed our wrist watches back an hour four times during the journey, so as to arrive in Antigua’s local time (UTC-4). On 7th January we were halfway, and celebrated with a banana split made with homemade yogurt and chopped nuts and chocolate.

IMG_2175_XA_HalfwayTreatA half-way treat – banana splits!

It was nice to have the moon for company most of each night for the first week. As she began to wane, she rose later and later until our last few nights were dark. Most nights we had a good view of the stars, and a few hours before dawn the Southern Cross could sometimes be seen between the clouds.

IMG_2195_XA_Weed1Curious floating seaweed

We saw few birds or any other wildlife (apart from the flying fish). A few storm petrels made a brief appearance and the occasional shearwater would check us out (no doubt they profit from fishing boats sometimes). With about 750 miles to go we encountered a red-billed tropic bird with its long tail streamers, and a few days later saw an adult and juvenile which flew around us for a while. We passed long mats of a curious floating weed: though apparently composed of many separate plants, the mats often looked 100m long. One night on J’s watch a large flying fish landed in the cockpit and rolled and flapped about until caught and put back in the sea. It was a beautiful blue colour in the torchlight.

The few ships we saw always seemed to pass on J’s watch! The first of these was about 1,000 miles out from Cape Verde and seemed to be coming too close for comfort in the dark. Our AIS was not working due to lack of battery power, so we altered course to go round the back of the ship. The other 2 ships were seen as we neared the Caribbean. They came past us in the day without any problems.

IMG_2239_XA_RedDawnRed sky in the morning

With 500 miles to go, the clouds grew taller and greyer, with the occasional shower and roll of thunder. One particular night was very wet, and there is no shelter in the cockpit with the wind behind, so we both got pretty soggy. After that the full wetties were put to use. The rain came mainly in the evening and overnight, though mostly in short showers. This is the place where hurricanes develop (thankfully not at this time of year), and we could see the process in action – seas progressively warmer as we moved West, evaporation under the hot sun, clouds forming in the rising air and cooling in the evening. When a rain cloud passed over, the wind would change to the south a bit, then return to its ENE course.

IMG_2234_XA_Clouds2 IMG_2225_XA_Clouds1IMG_2218_XA_RainbowCloudscapes in thunder alley

On 14th Jan we estimated our arrival at English Harbour, Antigua, in the early hours next day. To avoid arriving in darkness we elected to heave-to at midnight, some 25 miles short of the island, and wait 3 hours. This also gave us more rest, and an opportunity to charge the batteries so we could have full power for the approach. The loom of the lights of Antigua shone on the clouds ahead, and of Guadeloupe to the SW (though these faded at midnight, maybe they are more environment-conscious?). At 03:00 we set off again, and at 07:00 the dawn showed our destination ahead. Again we hove-to, this time to set the main and staysail, which we would need for coming into harbour. Half an hour later we passed the impressive column-like cliffs, topped by the flagpole at fort Charlotte where they start the yacht races, and sailed into Freeman Bay with the engine gently running. The bay was very crowded, and it took 3 attempts to anchor. Finally, we rigged a stern anchor and moored with two anchors off the beach.

IMG_3079_XA_AnchoredEnglishHbrAnchored in Freeman Bay, English Harbour, Antigua

Some statistics

  • Distance covered (plotted COG): 2092 nm
  • Time: 17 days of which about 5 hours were hove-to)
  • Average speed: 5.2 knots
  • Best day: 139 nm (av 5.79 knots)
  • Slowest day: 114 nm (av 4.75 knots)

IMG_2256_XA_TwinsFromAboveRunning sails

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