North Atlantic Crossing

Our last sunset in Las Palmas.

Peter and Anne Babbidge seeing us off. (Peter and I were born at the Booth Memorial in Cape Town!)

Esprit’s crew ready to leave.

We cast off from the marina in Las Palmas on the 18th December with the prospect of little wind for the first 24 hours, but hopefully a calmer sea than the swells that had been rolling in from the north-west for the previous two days. There was some wind, which allowed us to motor sail for the first 24 hours, covering 140 nm. The next day was frustrating as we motored on, with hardly any wind – the only highlight being the numerous dolphins occasionally swimming next to the boat.

Bye bye Las Palmas.

Before departure, we invited some friends intending to sail across the Atlantic at roughly the same time, to set up a communicating network via Iridium satellite email and SMS. This enabled us to exchange our daily positions, wind and sea state and to be able to assist one another in case of problems. The group, apart from us, included Robbie and Bev from the USA on Mersoleil, Sam and Nicole from Australia on Beaver, Jonny and Tina from New Zealand on Paikea and Peter and Anne from the UK on Sacre Bleu.

A low forming ahead of us – the Predictwind modelling suggests passing to the south by the 24th.

On day 3 the easterly picked up and we were able to sail for 48 hours, before we had to start the motor to power through the confused 3-4 m sea. By day 5 we were still motor sailing through confused seas and were thinking of gybing to sail west, as we were down at latitude 21 deg north. The trade winds are supposed to get going by 20 deg north. The GRIB files downloaded that morning, by satellite from Predictwind, however, indicated a low pressure cell forming on our planned route, which could see us becalmed for 3 days. I also noticed a continuous squeaking sound coming from the stern.

The Hydrovane lashed to the pushpit.

This turned out to be the fibreglass gelcoat cracking around the top strut fixing of the Hydrovane! Closer inspection revealed bending of the stern panel, so I quickly lashed the Hydrovane back to the s/s pushpit before it decided to part ways with the boat. That focussed our minds on getting to Mindelo on Sao Vicente island in the Cape Verde Islands, 265 nm to the South, to source bigger backing plates, or to reinforce the stern panel with timber or fibreglass from inside the rear locker.

Approaching Mindelo harbour.

Arriving at Mindelo marina around 09:00 on the 24th  December, we tied up opposite Paikea, who had arrived late the previous afternoon. We checked in with the marina and then walked to the customs and immigration police offices to complete the formalities. Jonny kindly offered to help with the required reinforcing of Esprit’s stern panel, so we bought threaded s/s rod, nuts and washers, before catching a cab to a timber yard outside town. Jonny, a carpenter and builder in his working days, selected a dense madeira plank of 150 x 50 x 3,000 – that’s 6 x 2 inches x nearly 10 feet (no cutting at this yard – take it or leave it). We got a lift on a ute, back to the marina for $3.

My helpful Kiwi friend – Jonny Patrick.

I was planning to do the reinforcing work after Christmas and rather ease into the Season’s festivities, but Jonny said: “Let’s do it – there is no time like the present”. So, under his guidance, we tackled the work and finished the job by 7pm. Wonderful to be the offsider to a guy that is so practical. I think the Hydrovane will now last the distance back to Australia – you can judge for yourself from the photos. I now have a lot of spare timber on board!

The transom panel stripped of all plates and fixings

Jonny shaping the new backing beam.

The reinforcing completed.

Christmas Day was very relaxed, starting with a champagne breakfast at 10:00, tidying up the boat and having a Nanna nap before a fish BBQ dinner on Esprit. The 26th December was a recovery day, with small jobs, topping up supplies and then, after Sacre Bleu arrived at 4pm, another extended sundowner evening.

Christmas morning champers – Jonny, Annie, Tina and Dirk.

Mindelo marina’s social hub, the floating bar.

We enjoyed the beer and the company here.

Could this structure be a bit over the top? An American boat in the marina.

After three days, on Friday the 27th, we checked out with Customs and Immigration, filled up the diesel tank and at 2pm set off for the remaining 2,250 nm Atlantic crossing. Soon, we had the easterlies on the rear quarter and were using Harry the Hydrovane to do the steering. 

Our last day at the marina in Mindelo.

Harry the Hydrovane at sunrise.

On day 9 at sea from Las Palmas, Annie caught a medium sized yellow fin tuna for dinner and the following morning, another huge tuna, which we released, as it was too big for us to store in the freezer.

Annie selecting her fishing lures.

Before we knew it, the 1st of January 2020 arrived, which also meant Annie’s 65th birthday. This was celebrated in style with a champagne lunch. It was our day 12 on the ocean, excluding the unplanned 3 day stop at Mindelo. We had sailed 1,668 nm since leaving Las Palmas, with another 1,432 nm to go, before reaching Antigua in the Caribbean. Our going was good in 1-2m seas, although we could have done with a bit more wind, than the 9-12 knots of easterlies we were experiencing. With a poled out jib, the Hydrovane did its job and Esprit tracked well.

Happy birthday Annie and welcome 2020!

Michelle enjoying the sun.

Day 13 and we reset all the instruments and timing devices through two time zones, as we were on the same longitude as Sao Paolo in Brazil. Our wind GRIB files downloaded at 10:00 showed a low moving down from the N-W, into our path to Antigua. This would mean no wind on Saturday, so we changed course to the S-W, to try and pass the low to the South. Shortly afterwards, Annie caught a 1 m long Mahi Mahi (Dorado). Along with Spanish Mackerel, this is our favourite fish –  no scales and no bones when filleted from the spine. Grilled fish, potatoes and salad for dinner.

Annie and her Mahi Mahi catch.

After 24 hours, we reached 14 deg north on Friday the 3rd and changed course to the N-W, to head for Antigua, now 1,200 nm away. Day 15: We realised we didn’t go far enough to the South, when the wind died and we had to start motoring. At this point, we were discussing the fact that we hadn’t seen another yacht in 15 days at sea, apart from those in the marina in Mindelo, Cape Verde, or anchored outside. Yachts were mustering in Las Palmas and Mindelo for the right weather window to cross the North Atlantic and between the two anchorages, were departing at a rate of 10 – 12 yachts per day. It gives you an idea how big the oceans are.

More lack of wind problems due to the low (in blue)

Just after midnight on day 16, we were smacked by a 30 knot rain storm, so dense that the air was white with spray in the half moon. This lasted for 30 minutes and I came off watch thoroughly drenched. Annie on her watch, had a replay at 05:00, but the storm was receding as the sun was rising. After the fun and games, the wind was down to a pathetic 4 kn again, so we continued motoring in the lumpy sea. The highlight of Sunday morning was breaking through the 1,000 nm remaining distance to Antigua.

The storm receding at sunrise.

On Wednesday the 8th January (Day 19), the wind materialised at last. We had a decent 15 – 18 knot N-E wind on the stern, allowing us to do a good speed with one reef in the main and 50% of the jib poled out. Harry the Hydrovane now proved his mettle – kept course in 3-5 m swells, surfing at up to 12 knots down the face of some swells, without using power, or the constant whine of the hydraulic pump and hydraulic ram on the quadrant, that Ben & Gerry the autopilot generates.

Reefed main and 50% jib poled out.

Harry doing the job despite the growing swells.

Antigua was now 490 nm away and we could almost hear the sound of steel drums. We were disappointed with the lack of wind on this crossing, originally we were planning to cover the distance in 18 days, it now looked more like 21 days – but that’s the nature of wind! As MetBob in NZ says in his disclaimer: “Weather is a mix of pattern and chaos.” It also meant that by now, we had used the 200 litres of diesel in the jerry cans!

Michelle on watch.

Dirk on watch.

The last two and a half days turned out to be hectic. The wind was constant at 25 knots from the East, gusting up to 35 knots – which is not a problem for us, as we reef accordingly. The problem was the cross swell from the North east building to between 3 and 5 metres. Neither the Hydrovane, nor the autopilot could cope with these conditions and the three of us hand steered for 60 hours in two hour watches. Just to add insult to injury, rain squalls hit us continuously, right up until we sailed into Jolly Harbour in Antigua at 06:00 on Saturday the 11th January 2020.

Harry at his limit.

Annie with a 5 m growler coming up from behind.

Dirk and Esprit surfing down a growler at 15 knots – concentrate and please don’t broach!

We tied up to the harbour wall in Jolly Harbour at 06:45, made some coffee and waited until 9am for the Customs and Immigration offices to open. Once checked in, the marina dinghy came out to lead us to our berth, where we tied up at 10am. Then it was out with the champagne, before going out to lunch.

We have arrived in Antigua!

To summarise: The North Atlantic crossing took us 21 days to do the 3,201 nm distance (excluding the unplanned stop of 3 days in Mindelo). It was at times a frustrating experience (lack of wind) and at times an exhausting experience (too much wind and swell), but hey, it’s good to get out of your comfort zone! We got to spend time with Michelle, who we so seldom see – she and us can now tick this crossing off our bucket list. Antigua looks fantastic and we will report on this next time. 

Esprit’s route.

Our trip so far.

See videos below: