18 days, almost 3 weeks, at sea. 2114 seamiles on a moving object, day and night, without stop, no getting off. What does that do to a person? Can we still walk normal or did our sea legs collapse as soon as we set foot on land? Did we get on with each other? Or was our crew prematurely expedited? Keelhauled? Tied onto the mast? Sent into solitary confinement or flogged?
How did Exodus survive the ordeal? Flawless or with many gear failures? Did we have to call the coast guard to come rescue us because we were drifting along aimlessly and the Taiwanese trawler that lend a helping hand all of the sudden turned into life threatening villains? Hang on, that was a different story. We are not American, lesbian and apart from Gitane we carry no pets on board.
Peter’s poem already provided a feel of what we got up to during our Atlantic crossing. Here are our five cents on how to entertain yourself for 3 weeks on the open ocean:
Exodus has all these great toys on board. Like the SSB radio. SSB is not short for So Slow or Super Slick Broadcasting. It stands for Single Sideband Radio. As opposed to a VHF (Very High Frequency) radio’s typical range of 35 to 50 nautical miles (line of sight), SSB reaches anything from 200 up to several thousand sea miles, making it one of the blue water sailors’ favorite methods of long-range communication. Satellite communication is also very popular amongst cruisers. Often, boats will have both systems on board.
Up to the Atlantic Crossing we had not managed to use it much. The allocated channels for the med were no longer in use. The information on the web was outdated. Fellow cruisers with SSB whom we met along the way complained about the same issues. On one of our attempts we stumbled onto a conversation between a Dutch and German sailor. Exodus called the Dutch operator more than a thousand miles away with a very clear signal between us, confirming our system was functioning well.
In the Caribbean however, the SSB is used more frequently. As soon as we left the Cape Verdian islands we tuned in regularly, trying out different channels, times and conditions. Atmospheric pressure needs to be right. Getting hold of the current scheds and channels prevents getting stuck in eternal trial and error scenarios. In the vicinity of Cabo Verde lots of static made the voices sound like Dart Vader. Just as hilarious as the scene in the movie ‘Fun with Dick and Jane’, where a recently unemployed couple resorts to robbing a bank dressed up in star wars costumes and crack up laughing whilst hearing their distorted voices.
Luckily, the further Exodus moved from land and the closer she got to the Caribbean, the clearer the radio performed. One reliable slot was the BBC news, to which we tuned in daily to keep in touch with what was happening in the world around us.
Trying to find other channels and their emission times became somewhat of a sport. We even managed to download a weather fax… for Mexico. There are around 90 weather stations around the world that regularly broadcast meteorological maps on HF SSB with a fax signal. These you can download on your laptop or Ipad with the right software. Clearly, finding the correct channel for our area requires some more fine-tuning!
In our third week we actually discovered the ARC channel. This is reserved for the paying yachts taking part in the rally. We sneaked in for some good ‘spying on the neighbours’ and listened to their daily check-ins and feedback on speed and conditions.
Eat your way through the blues
Days slide past and are only interrupted by eating rituals and watch keeping . Apart from preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there are the following momentous occasions: Making ice cream, baking bread, pancakes, Bolognese-butternut lasagna, frying pipoka (Popcorn). Every morning, Gitane was in charge of distributing Cape Verdian biscuits to go with the great tasting Cabo Verde coffee. And who could forget Arthur’s dorado coconut briyani.
Every day at five we had one mini-sundowner. Exodus does not have the habit of consuming alcohol whilst under sail, but with the watch system Apero time was the moment all crew assembled and relaxed. We bought 2 bottles of local rum in Cabo Verde, to be mixed with juice, or something more exotic like fresh lime. The halfway mark was celebrated with a rum & watermelon smoothie.
Before leaving Cabo Verde we bought 6 loaves of bread. In our Canaries to Cabo Verde crossing that worked out great. The Cabo Verde bread, however, did not seem to have any preservatives and started turning green and other variations of primary colours from day 3. Time for saving what can be saved! The girls set to work and salvaged a loaf by making ‘Pain perdu’ the one day, and the next day vegetable patties.
How do you keep fit on a sailing boat, is one of the questions most frequently heard from non-sailors. Imagine living on an ever moving object, going about business as usual: going to the bathroom on a rollercoaster, peeling carrots and onions on a swing, taking a shower on the merry go round, screwing in things on the jigsaw. Washing dishes entails scooping up water from the sea with a bucket, carrying the bucket downstairs, pouring it gently in the sink and hoping not everything will go flying around. The most ordinary tasks can become challenging when under sail.
On windless or calm days, you do not get the constant core exercise of trying to keep your balance while preparing food, washing up, steering, showering, … and chances are small you have to hoist, lower, or change sails. So, no exercise. To keep fit we engage in push-ups on the cockpit benches. Even the small ones.
During the crossing Exodus applied 2h watches. Being 4 adults on board, that means you get a 6h break in between helm times.
Setting out from Ilha de Fogo (Cabo Verde) following the bearing of 270 degrees would bring us straight to Martinique (Caribbean). With leeway that meant steering at 285 degrees on the compass. Needless to say the sea is no flat plain with one tarmac road to take to your destination. It is highly dynamic, an ever moving mass of bright blue to deep purple water, on which your boat will zigzag its way across depending on how brother wind and sister Atlantic (and her current) are behaving during that time frame. Spending time on the helm is therefore an ever challenging experience:
- Riding a wild mustang in a rodeo
- Driving an old landrover up a steep mountain in low range gear (the one with the tortoise on)
- Steering a big truck, fully loaded. She is heavy to steer. She is plump, pregnant, weighted down, smacking down heavily on the waves.
- Bodysurfing on the waves
- A flopping and fluttering oversized butterfly, when the low wind and wave motion make the sails flap
- Sliding from 300 to 240 degrees on the waves. At 240, Exodus is slowly heading for Brazil. At 300, the lights come on and Exodus takes off at full speed for New York.
- Paragliding: Weightless gliding over the waves, only the soft bubbles on the side remind you of the fact you are sailing instead of flying
Pickle a fish
- Pick a day where there is no wind. You are running the motor and are not sure what to do with yourself.
- Catch a rare species of oversized tuna in the middle of nowhere. It was begging to be caught.
- Fight it for 20 minutes, gently pulling it closer, tiring it out, or tiring yourself out.
- Admire its colors under water: light blue to turquoise glittering.
- Wrestle it on the fish hook and deposit it on board
- Notice the purple stripes on its tail
- Gut it off the stern of the boat on the therefore designed fish cutting board
- Undo the fish’s body armor, cutting your finger in the process. Mingle your blood with the tuna’s, you are now blood brothers
- Now you have access to the blood red meat. Fillet the fish. Cut off some nice chunks to braai later that night. Clean off the soft bits on the spine and tail for a sashimi starter. Dice the rest of the huge fillets for pickle.
- Clean the whole deck, scrub all the fish blood and pieces off.
- Go inside and start cooking
- Fry the tuna dices. Empty half of your spices cupboard into the pickle vinegar. Boil into a burning hot yellow liquid and pour gently over the tuna dices.
- Wait for the swaying boat to do the rest.
- From now you have got your seaman’s curry in a hurry!
If the pickle fish does not work for you, you may also catch a big dorado. However, for those you need to wait until the wind picks up.
One important tip for those who want to fish during crossings: it is wise to put on fresh, thick nylon cord on your reel. It prevents you getting all excited and so disappointed when yet another lure disappears in the void, along with the fish that ripped your line.
Stuck in the middle with you
Crossing the ocean gives you experiential knowledge of the saying ‘we are all in the same boat’. Weather conditions determine how fast or painstakingly slow you’ll go. No amount of swearing, pleading or bribing can change the weather. Therefore it is better to focus on composing a great team. Fortunately, Exodus managed this time. The calm and friendly Peter who started sailing when he was 6 years old brought 60 years of experience in racing and family sailing to the boat. The lovely, cheerful Annalisa who is a professional traveler on her own exodus, was always ready to lend a helping hand or to jump right in. We all got along great and Gitane had a good time finding companions once schoolwork was finished. So well, we awarded our crew with certificates ‘I survived a crossing with Gitane’. For her, normal life in her house Exodus just continued, with the only constraint she could not jump overboard for a swim or go to the beach.
Break a pole
When sailing dead downwind a whisker pole is a bare necessity for any cruising boat. Swell makes it difficult, if not impossible, to wing the jib or genoa out unsupported. Add to that a weak wind, and the sail will collapse on itself the whole time. The further the wind moves to dead astern, the more wind will be taken away from the jib or genoa by the mainsail, losing the ability to sail efficiently.
Sailing the trade winds equals sailing downwind and Exodus held her pole ready. Coming down from the Canaries to Cabo Verde, we used our pole for the first time on the bigger genoa, which took some adjusting from its normal use on the jib. During the Atlantic crossing we improved our way of setting it up with the pole now being held in place by 3 ropes: the genoa halyard, a preventer and the genoa sheet. This worked well most of the time. But one does not bake a cake without breaking eggs. Or one does not cross an ocean without breaking a pole…
At the start of night watch, the helms person was caught off guard by a sudden gust of wind combined with a big wave that temporarily took Exodus for an off road drive. The gust of wind scooped underneath the genoa and forcefully ripped the pole from where it was connected to the mast. Result: our once perfectly straight extendable whisker pole, was no longer straight, but bent in a perfect 90 degrees corner. The captain was sent up front, twisted the huge L shape around and returned aft with the pole in two pieces.
Exodus continued without its whisker. The next day, repairs started. The parts that could be recuperated were sawn off and mounted together, making a shorter, non-extendable, sturdier whisker. Exodus proof.
In our second week, Peter was relaxing underneath the boom, listening to a bit of music on his phone. All of the sudden he noticed something amiss. The boom was sitting off center, swiveling too much. He called Arthur to have a look. As soon as Arthur touched it, part of the goose neck fitting broke off. We hadn’t even reached the halfway mark yet! With a rickety whisker and a broken goose neck, things were looking slightly grim. The guys started repairs immediately, as the wind picked up. Most of the sailing up to then had been on weak to moderate wind. So it was our luck to be performing tricks under big swells and apparent wind speed of 15-17 knots, creating a very uneven work surface. It took 2h to fix it, with the guys lifting the boom, putting on ropes on pulleys and winches, trying to get the boom back in its bracket while the girls where stabilizing the boom to prevent the guys landing in the water or crushing their hands. The highlight of the exercise happened close to finishing, where Arthur told Winnie to put her weight on the boom, forgetting that it was already back at its normal height and therefore Winnie’s feet no longer touched the ground. Annalisa grabbed hold of Winnie and ended up swinging along, just like two monkeys in a tree.
Seaweed and fly fish
Crossing the ocean might sound exhilarating. But actually it is far less dangerous than coastal sailing. There are fewer other boats and sea traffic to take into account. And there is no hazardous land mass with sandbars, cliffs and reefs that wish to run you aground. No fishing buoys to zigzag past. With a few kilometers of water underneath your keel and the entire ocean to maneuver in, these risks are obliterated.
Downwind sailing, especially if you have only little wind, is not very challenging. The most annoying part is to experience low wind, combined with swell, causing a constant flapping of the sails and forcing you to sail along a compass bearing that does not allow much space for maneuvering. Apart from that, you can enjoy the view. Endless ripples of blue. We saw very little sea life, yet several strikes proved plenty of fish to be around. The most commonly viewed thing was fly fish. We should have gotten a subtle hint from the logo of the Ocean cruiser club being a fly fish!
Along most of the route we followed a trail of sea weed, at points even complete carpets of orange yellow brown Sargassum seaweed. This seaweed was first documented by Columbus on his 1492 expedition while crossing the Sargasso Sea. Sargassum can survive a wide range of temperature and salinity. It is asexual and can regrow broken off pieces. Therefore, you’ll find it floating in every ocean except the Antarctic or washed up on the shores. There is no lack of the stuff, the Sargasso Sea alone has about 10 million tons of it! Current conditions, warmer, more polluted (yet nutrient richer) oceans make the plants bloom, and the recent hurricane season helped to disperse the Sargassum all over the place. The huge mats of Sargassum provide food, home, and shelter to a variety of marine species like shrimps, crabs, birds, fish, turtles and whales.