Monday, 3 February 2014

Las Palmas to St Lucia

2800 miles in 21 days. I was single-handed, so some nights when the wind dropped, I left just a small amount of sail up and didn't bother myself with speed. The main issue I had to deal with was slowing the boat down in big waves, without going too slow in the troughs.

The wind was from dead astern all the way (I set off with a good forecast, unlike the ARC people who set off two weeks earlier and had a week of no wind and contrary wind on setting off). The first 1000 miles was fine with fairly light winds, up to max F5-6.

Around 1000 miles out, I saw a signal from a boat that was doing just 2-3 knots on my laptop. Thinking it might be a dismasted yacht, I changed course to meet it. It turned out to be a man in a rowing boat. The closer I got, the more anxious he became that I might run him down (it was night) and I realised at last that though I could hear his radio fine, he couldn't hear mine. So I turned away again to let him sleep. A man in a 7m rowing boat out there! Most likely he is still there, still rowing. I remembered him fondly whenever fear inclined towards self-pity (those dark and stormy nights).

Jib and Genoa poled out.

I found twin headsails to be just the job. I used my spinnaker and the mainsail on just one day - on all other days, the main was left under cover. What would have been nice is roller furling with twin luff grooves and a pair of genoas, but, well, I don't have that extra complexity, expense, weight, windage and convenience. My sails just hank on, but I found a neat way of dealing with it.

I numbered the hanks on each sail with coloured marker pens so that I could attach any two sails to the forestay, interspersing the hanks without them fouling. I attached a block to the jib halyard, and attached the heads of the two foresails with a short strop that lead through the block. This allows the tension from the halyard to be divided evenly between the two sail luffs. That worked well.

1000 miles of this.

I caught a few dorado - stopping the boat, or slowing it to 2-3 knots anyway - was just a matter of opening the halyard clutch and both sails would drop in a moment onto the net.

A Dorado lying beside a really huge green funnel.

The fish are much more easily reeled in with the sails dropped. Hoisting the sails back up again was straight-forward too. Most of the way I could pull both sails back up by hand, needing a winch only for the final tensioning. I didn't have to mess with the sheets at all. However, despite the pleasant and favourable winds, I remained anxious about what to do in the stronger winds, which is what I had for the next 1700 miles...

Surfing was scary. I don't know what speeds I had. At the fastest speeds, I certainly wasn't looking at the laptop. I've previously seen 18 knots with no sail up, and that was just in a F7. Squalls were dramatic, and most days I had some, sometimes maybe 6-8 a day! In one, on a moonless night, I dropped all sail and was doing a very steady 11-12 knots with no sail up and no surfing - the wind was so fast and so localised, it didn't really build any waves. It was more like driving over corrugated water. That lasted half an hour. Another time a wave got the boat surfing to my great surprise - because I'd hardly surfed at all in the previous few hours - and it went so fast it ended in a nose-dive, with a lot of green water over the roof. That was the scariest bit. I think there was quite a bit of cross-swell at the time, and lumps of water would appear where the swells coincided. I guess one of those lumps appeared in my path while the boat was surfing.

Anyway, to cut a very long story shortish, the answer to my excessive speed was not simply to reduce sail. In strong winds the boat could still easily start surfing with little or no sail up if the waves were big and steep enough, and it would just go too slowly in the troughs. The answer is the Abbot drogue. Dave Abbot wrote about this on his website, but I hadn't appreciated how useful this drogue would be with sail up. I had assumed Dave was writing about just slowing the boat down after he'd taken all sail down. Sail up AND drogue out - that was the answer!

I already had a pair of steel plates at the stern for attaching a Jordan series drogue. I used these to attach an Abbot drogue instead, with a slight variation on Dave's scheme. I attached one end of a long rope to one of the plates, and led the rope through a block attached to the plate on the other side and then up to a sheet winch. 10 metres of chain was attached to a length of plastic pipe that went over the rope. I put a knot in the rope a few metres from the end, so that when I winched the rope in, the knot would snag the pipe and the last bit of rope and chain could be pulled right up to the block, making retrieval easier.

One end of the Abbot drogue attached to my drogue plate.

A short bight of rope. At the end of the bight is a bit of water pipe that slides over the rope, and 10 metres of chain tied to that. Even this length of drogue significantly reduced my maximum surfing speeds without reducing my average speed that much. More rope was let out as the waves got bigger.

On the other side of the boat, the bight of rope is passed through a block attached to the drogue plate...

...and to the sheet winch - which made it easy to retrieve,

I found that it was pretty easy to find just the right length of rope that would take the top off the maximum speeds, but not slow the boat significantly in the troughs. The self-steering did a much better job with more stable speeds. With a set up like this, I'd average 6 knots, varying between 4 and 8-10. That was actually pretty comfortable, and with no rolling of course. My speed was now easily adjustable, and surfing was controlled. Quite often there'd be cross-swell, and the seas would be very uneven, so I would sail quite slowly through those periods. When the seas were more even, I could pull in some of the drogue or put a bit more sail up to allow a little surfing - but it never got out of control again.

1700 miles of this.

The degree of control that the drogue allowed was a revelation. The drag that the drogue produces is of course relative to the speed that it goes through the water, but a doubling of speed should quadruple the drag (I think that's how it goes - that's certainly how it seemed). So the drag is quite low at low speeds, and rapidly increases at higher speeds - meaning that by adjusting the amount of sail and the length of the drogue, very even and reasonable speeds could be achieved.

Still, despite my easy sail handling and adjustable drogue, the winds were ridiculously variable in speed for that last long stretch, and I was never able to predict whether they'd get stronger or weaker. So I did spend a lot of time some days doing sail change after sail change.

Squalls were very frequent for about 10 days of the trip.

At first, I'd just drop all sail till it blew over, but this seemed a waste of wind, and sometimes if there were big waves, the boat could be knocked side-on to the waves and the self-steering was then unable to get the boat back on course. This required me to go outside in the howling wind and rain and raise sail, drop a dagger-board and get the boat back on course, the drop the sail and raise the board again.

A better solution for dealing with squalls was to put up the storm jib on the inner forestay, and leave it there, no matter what other combination of jibs I had on the forestay. When a squall hit, all I had to do was open the clutch to drop the jibs on the forestay and leave the storm jib to provide good steerage way through the squalls. After the squall, I just raised the pair of jibs again. Quite often, a squall would pass in this way and no speed was lost at all. The storm jib would keep me going at 6-7 knots, and when the wind started to diminish it was a simple matter of raising the jibs on the forestay again.

I moved all the chain and anchors from the bridgedeck anchor lockers to the floor of the bathroom. That improved the ride quite a bit. And I dumped a lot of the water I was carrying. I had far too much, especially as once I was being hit by squalls, I could very easily catch as much water as I wanted from the guttering I'd put round the coachroof. I set off with 350 litres. I reckon I only used 50 or so, so that was 300kg of useless weight! I rather stupidly carried that for almost 1000 miles!

That was it really. There's a big emptiness out there! I was accompanied by Minke whales for a couple of days, but apart from the occasional bird and dorado and later the flying fish I saw no other wildlife and had no human contact either. 25 miles out of St Lucia, a man said hello me and nearly caused a heart attack. I was busy sail changing, sitting on the net at the time, and I hadn't looked around. There were  a couple of blokes on a very colourful little open boat close by, fully dressed in waterproofs and balaclavas. I was sweating in a pair of shorts.

I used an AIS transceiver and a Merveille radar alarm. I never saw another boat that one system or another hadn't previously alerted me to. It's just the little fishing boats you've go to keep an eye out for I guess!


  1. Trying to figure out your drogue arrangement. I'm nearly finished building a KHSD 30' cruising cat (not nearly so commodious as Scrumpy) and am interested in taking your advice. I see the attachment plates, but it appears the heavier line (attached to a shackle) is heading off outboard, where a lighter line is heading off toward centerline aft. Similar on the third drogue attachment photo - the rope passes through a block but looks to be heading off to starboard outboard. Can't wrap my head around it. I'm missing something.

  2. Hi Jim,

    It's all the same line. The rope looks thicker by the shackle as the eye is spliced, and the splice is perhaps longer than necessary. Imagine a bight of rope shackled to plates on either side. The water pipe with a chain attached slides over this bight of rope. Now, to make the rope adjustable in length, instead of attaching the rope directly to one of the plates, attach a snatch block to the plate and pass the rope to that. The rope is then lead to a sheet winch.

    If that doesn't clarify it, let me know and maybe I'll try a diagram. I perhaps didn't mention that the chain needs to be passed around the water pipe and shackled in place. I just tied the chain on once, and lost the chain. Anyway, after looping the chain round the water pipe, I'd tie bits of rope on either side of the chain to prevent it sliding off the water pipe. There was no chafe at all with this system.

  3. Thanks John,

    I understand the setup I believe - just couldn't figure out the pictures. The pic after the fish pic shows your rope (with orange or red tape in the eye) heading outboard it looks to me. That is assuming the picture was taken aft of the plate, looking forward. But I see now that I was mistaken. I think we are looking port on that picture. The little line (white with blue or green tracer) is not involved. So now I get it.

    I'll have to figure out where to mount my plates. I have some largish pad eyes that might work with good backing on the back box beam. Or similar plates as you have alongside at shearline of transoms. I'm building this boat (am not a sailor -yet- and live where there are no sailboats to thief ideas off so your blog has been a recent discovery with some helpful info): and the first pic is my boat, unfinished.

    I did wonder how you kept the chain on the hose. I figured maybe a couple wraps of chain might do it, but the bits of rope sound more manageable.

    So thanks much for this blog. It may have already saved me nearly a thousand bucks since I was thinking of buying a AirHead or NaturesHead but hearing your ideas make sense. Going to try that.

    Looks like you might be getting out of the sailboat voyaging life, but if interested in what I've done I kept a photo blog from the beginning of my boat in 1993-'94 when we launched her to get into a new small boat crab fishery and then before we could pull her she got smashed by a barge. Sat for 20 years in my boatshed, and am finally fixing her up.

    cheers, Jim