‘We need to get you into Horta asap’, the message on our Garmin inReach read, ‘there’s a low forming north of you and, if you don’t get in by Sunday morning, you could experience gale force winds of 50-60 knots.’
We were about 300 nautical miles from our destination of Faial, an island of the Azores archipelago, 900 miles off the coast of Portugal. We had less than 48 hours before the low was predicted to arrive. From our calculations, we would have to cruise on at least 6.5 to 7 knots the entire way to make it on time.
While our Moody 47 cruised at a reasonable speed, what if something went wrong? She was a solid boat but we had three kids aboard, we did not fancy sailing through a gale.
The next problem, according to our weather router, was another low forming below us, putting us smack bang in between two weather systems. The formation of the two systems had sucked out all of the wind, so for the next 18 hours we would likely have to motor.
There was no way we could motor at seven knots beating into moderate seas, especially without wind in our sails. However, if we decided to wait it out, heave to or even sail in the opposite direction, our weather router, Chris Parker of Marine Weather Centre, explained that we could be waiting days for the winds to pick up and blow from the right direction.
Did we really want to be bobbing around for days on end when we were so close to the finish line? Also, in the back of our minds was the fact that our generator had stopped working, rendering our watermaker unusable. As a result, we were mindful of our dwindling water supply.
One thing in our favour was the amount of fuel we still had on board. When we left St. Maarten, for our Atlantic crossing, we had 500 litres of diesel. Consistent winds and calm seas for most of the trip had meant that we had done very little motoring. As a result, we had enough fuel to motor the rest of the way
if we had to.
However, what if the engine died? We had learned earlier in the passage that no matter how prepared you are, things can and will go wrong at sea.
Before the call
Like our headsail for example, two days into our passage our new, to us, headsail, a carbon fibre sail with barely six months of use, begun to delaminate. We had bought the sail not three weeks earlier, especially for the crossing. We forked out $1000, ecstatic that we’d found such a good quality sail, one that was a perfect fit for our boat, at a third of the price of a new one.
By day three, a small rip had turned into a gaping hole. By day four, the sail had all but torn in half.
The first mistake we made was buying the sail; our second mistake was not dropping it the minute it started falling apart.
With black carbon fibres trailing in the breeze, we looked like a ghost ship sailing through the moonless night. We were still making six knots, so we decided to wait until morning to switch to our spare sail.
When morning came, husband, Dave went forward to assess the situation. What he found was a bird’s nest of carbon fibre completely entwined around the forestay. One look at the mess told him this sail was not coming down without a fight.
Seven hours later, he admitted defeat. The tangled mess was at least three metres up the stay and there was no way he could cut it free from deck level. He had tried making a makeshift extension pole out of a mixture of things: the gaff taped to the broom, the broom attached to an oar and the oar joined to our boat hook. Other than looking ridiculous, the contraption made little headway on the tangled mess.
Climbing the mast and shimmying down the forestay, a knife in hand in six foot seas was too dangerous and so, our only option was to divert to Bermuda.
We sent a message to Chris: “our headsail is torn and we can’t cut it away. Our location is 25° 28’ North 59° 23’ West; we are diverting to Bermuda, can we have a two-day forecast please?” His reply contained the forecast along with waypoints and timings and we felt safe to make the 400 mile diversion to Bermuda.
Without a headsail, we were making very little headway, so we turned on the engine and motored for 18 hours in what felt like the wrong direction.
We did not want to stop in Bermuda for two reasons. The first being that check-in for a crew of six would be expensive and our kitty was getting low. Secondly, we didn’t want to stop our momentum, risk getting stuck there, or risk our crewmember Kasia, jumping ship if things didn’t go to plan.
We had found the perfect crewmember, a young Polish woman who not only schooled the kids, cooked and cleaned, she also performed night-watches. She was too good to risk losing.
The next morning was Dave’s birthday, but he awoke for his watch feeling down. Seeing how hard he was being on himself, I encouraged him to have one last attempt at cutting down the sail.
With a calmer sea state than the previous day and the fact that we were now going with the waves instead of against them, so maybe it was worth another shot at it?
Perhaps it was a combination of those things, or it was his renewed enthusiasm after a good six hours sleep, either way he managed to cut away the sail inch by inch, until we were left with an entire bag of shredded carbon fibre.
Hoisting our spare headsail and bringing the boat back on course was the absolute best feeling of the passage. Dave threw his fist into the air in a triumphant display of relief and there were cheers and applause all round.
Once again, we fired off a text message to Chris via our inReach and, shortly after, we received the new forecast and waypoints for our journey to the Azores.
The sea state gradually grew and the winds increased in ferocity, but our gorgeous boat moved effortlessly up and over each wave.
Amazingly, our spare headsail, despite its stained and discoloured appearance, looked sturdy and durable, making us wonder why we bothered buying a new one in the first place.
The days flew past in an astonishing blur and with not a hint of boredom or longing for land, we fell into our routines.
Every second morning while on my watch, I would text Chris, providing him with our location, sea state, direction and wind strength.
It felt nice to know he was keeping tabs on us. Later in the day we would receive a detailed weather forecast from him, complete with waypoints for us to follow and keep tabs on.
As we slowly inched towards our destination, we marvelled at our location on the chartplotter. We were a mere dot on a screen, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, how we never felt alone or scared I am not sure.
Perhaps it was because we knew we had Chris watching over, not only our position, but plus the bigger weather picture all around us.
Where we came in
When we were around 500nm from landfall, Chris mentioned the possibility of a low forming both above and below us, requiring us to continue east, even though it would have been faster to sail at 45 degrees straight to our destination. For that reason, we expected to still have at least another four or five days at sea.
So when we received the troubling message instructing us to make a beeline for Faial, it came as quite a shock. While Dave was asleep, I began tossing up the pros and cons in my head: what if we could not get there in time; what if Chris was wrong by a few hours and we were caught in 60 knot winds; was it too risky placing so much faith in our engine and what if something broke because we were pushing our boat harder than we usually would?
On the other hand, our engine had always been reliable; it was meticulously maintained and had never given us any reason to doubt it. The longer we stayed at sea, the higher the probability of encountering bad weather and we did not want any worries about a drinking water shortage.
I woke Dave to share the message. His face looked grim, “I do not want to be caught in 60 knot winds,” was the first thing he said. “I think we should make a run for Horta.”
I said, “let’s bring this baby home.”
Dave agreed and the engine was switched on. To get the speed we needed we had to motor at 2000 revolutions per minute, slightly more than we would usually sit on. The boat was flying along and we were making good speed; however, twelve hours later the wind died and our boat speed fell to 5.5kn, not fast enough to get us in before dark the following day and the impending storm.
We pushed ahead as fast as we could, but with only 7knt of wind and two metre seas on our starboard bow, there was no way we could go any quicker.
It was a warmth emanating underfoot that alerted Dave to our overheating batteries. He quickly pulled up the floorboards and removed the battery cover to have a closer look. His heart sunk. Smoke emerged from the small compartment, with the batteries too hot to touch.
Had we ruined the batteries? Were we now a sitting duck, just waiting for the low to come and engulf us? Dave fished out the distilled water from a locker and started pouring it into the first battery. It swallowed more than one litre of water, leaving only one more litre for the four remaining batteries.
“Why did we not bring more distilled water with us,” Dave yelled to himself. With no choice but to use our watermaker water for the rest of the batteries, he proceeded to fill the rest of them with varying amounts of liquid. There was no way we could turn the engine back on now; we would have to continue under sail until we’d given the batteries a chance to cool down, assuming we had not ruined them.
With the lack of wind, we were making between 3kn to 4kn. At that speed, we were due to arrive into Horta Sunday afternoon; the storm was due Sunday morning.
Anxiously we continued on, obsessively checking the chartplotter and Navionics for our estimated time of arrival. Day turned into night and, as the light faded, we noticed more and more ships on the radar and a higher number of birds flying around us. A sure sign of land nearby!
The motion of the boat was uncomfortable and, for the first time in 16 days, I found myself wishing the journey was over. Gradually the winds increased and, for the last time, I watched as bioluminescence crashed into our hull and reverberated off, causing our boat to look as though she was sailing through a sea of glitter.
The chill of the night air made my fingers stiff so I was eternally grateful for my offshore jacket and boots, neck warmer and beanie. Our boat speed had increased to a consistent five knots, but it, still, was not enough.
A message from Chris soothed our worries: ‘low not due to arrive until noon Sunday now, you’re safe to make landfall Sunday morning.’ We all breathed a sigh of relief.
We turned the engine back on and amazingly there did not seem to be any ill effects from the overheated batteries. We were finally making good speed and were expected to arrive around 8am the next morning. I finished my watch and attempted to sleep in my rocking bed for the very last time of the passage.
I awoke at 4am for my watch, only to find we were now estimated to arrive in just over two hours! Alone in the cockpit, I navigated the last leg of our journey in silence.
With the island of Faial to our leeward and another called Pico dead ahead, I felt a sense of alertness and nervousness I had not felt for the entire trip. The thought of making it this far only to come to grief now was too much to bear.
The seas were building and the sky was overcast, making our arrival feel ominous and intimidating. What if Chris had made a mistake, what if the storm was about to hit?
The last one and a half hours were filled with mixed emotions: elation for our impending arrival, empowerment because I was sailing our 47’ yacht by myself towards land for the first time in almost three weeks and trepidation, would we make it in time?
I took yet another scan of our surroundings, my face covered in a smile as I inhaled the fresh smell of soil and moist foliage. It was then I noticed the clouds had parted to my right, illuminating an enormous volcano I had no idea was there two minutes earlier.
“Wake up everyone,” I yelled down the companionway. Three sleepy little bodies rose from their beds, their hair tangled and their bodies tanned and, for a few glorious moments, we stood in the cockpit and drank in the magnificent view together.
Arriving into Horta around 7am, we were stunned at the sight of the village before us. Like nothing my children had seen before: the whitewashed cottages and red terracotta roofs punctuated by church spires, were a far cry from the villages in the Caribbean. Rolling green pastures surrounded the village and fields, divided by neatly trimmed hedges, were home to plump cows, grazing happily.
We entered the harbour hidden behind the ancient stonewall and, after radioing the marina only to find they were full, made several attempts to anchor in the tight space between the equally salty and seagoing vessels.
Eventually the anchor was down and the engine was off, we had made it! We’d sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite not sailing more than 120 miles in succession before our departure, we had just sailed for 17 days and 2514 nautical miles. Perhaps we got lucky, or maybe it was due to our meticulous planning and preparation.
One thing is for sure, paying for the services of a weather router was by far one of the best decisions we made when planning to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Methods of communication
When deciding on our means of communication for the Atlantic passage, we researched several options.
Our primary form of communication was our SSB radio with SailMail. However, a day before we were due to set off we discovered that the radio was no longer transmitting. In a panic, we questioned our decision to cross an ocean with only one form of communication, our Garmin inReach.
We had chosen the inReach because it was the most affordable option. It was able to send and receive unlimited text messages, if you choose the unlimited plan. Plus I could use an application called ‘Earthmate’ to connect it to my iPhone, which allowed me to write text messages with ease.
I contacted Chris in a fluster, explaining that we would have to change our method of receiving weather from SSB to our Garmin inReach. Thankfully this was not a problem.
Receiving the forecasts via text message was both convenient and easy. We ended up being grateful that we had changed the method of delivery at the last minute, because being able to refer back to Chris’ messages again and again was useful.
While we did manage to get our SSB radio working and we did listen to Chris’ weather forecast most days, having a clear and concise message written just for us was by far our preferred way of receiving weather forecasts.
Three adult crewmembers were the perfect number, especially where our watch schedule of 3-2-3 hours worked well.
The children handled the trip surprisingly well and there were few complaints of boredom or seasickness. It helped that our third crewmember was a qualified teacher and spent many hours teaching and playing with them.
The route and timing
From the research we had conducted, we decided to depart St. Maarten around the beginning of June as we’d heard June would bring lower winds. However, it is advised that you bring plenty of diesel if you do depart in June as sometimes boats can get stuck for days on end with no wind.
That was not the case for us. We were happy with our decision of leaving a little later in the season, despite the majority of other boats departing in early to mid-May.
We used our engine for about 30 hours the entire crossing. Arriving after 17 days, averaging 6.5 knots, sailing a total of 2514 nautical miles.
The route we took was NNE out of St. Maarten until we reached latitude 38 north, about 400 nautical miles off the coast of Bermuda. We then turned east to follow the ridge between the Azores high and the low-pressure systems coming off North America.
In this way we avoided gales, while having enough wind to keep our boat moving. We then approached Horta from the south, to make the most of the southwesterly winds that are usually experienced during the last leg of the trip.
The boat: what went wrong?
Besides our headsail delaminating and our batteries overheating, our generator stopped making AC power. Despite my husband having an excellent working knowledge of the generator, as Murphy’s Law would have it, he could not fix it.
Other issues we had to overcome were water ingress from the anchor locker and leaking deck plates, although both of these issues were more of a hassle than a safety concern.
The bottom line
Overall our trip went well, we had a swift, smooth sail to the Azores.
Would we do it again? Yes.
Would we do anything differently? We would install a battery temperature sensor so we could be alerted to the batteries overheating next time, before the potential for a thermal runaway occurs. A fire at sea is not something we want to experience.
We would also ensure we have a more reliable headsail.
Provisioning for what could have been an apocalypse, next time we would take less food but take more water.
Lastly, we will definitely use a weather router for any future ocean crossings. To have vessel and crew specific advice, taking into account our crews capabilities, risk tolerance and boat speed, was priceless. To have someone we could turn to for expert weather advice was comforting and provided the peace of mind we needed to ensure our safe passage to the Azores.
Marine Weather Centre’s Chris Parker provides high value-added forecasts geared specifically for small (typically 30’ to 65’) sail and power vessels, with the information needed to support good tactical decision making. He provides the forecasts on an annual, monthly or per-forecast basis and via numerous communication methods including: SSB voice, e-mail, phone, fax or text message.
He also simulcasts SSB Nets on an internet webcast.≈