Wednesday, 15 April 2015


This will be the last blog post for a while. I have no satellite phone, and so no connection to the net. I'd like one - I could get a weather forecast each day and adjust my course accordingly. But then, I'd like a boat that was a little bit longer, and I'd like there to be less stuff on board (I'm taking home power tools I used to repair the boat in Antigua), and I'd like newer sails and... well, in the end, you draw a line through your list of what's needed and what's wanted and everything under the line becomes part of a would-have-been-nice list. And then you go.

I'm aiming for San Miguel, the east-most island of the Azores, 2730 miles away. That might seem a strange choice of destination. Bermuda is on the track, and Faial is a more convenient Azore. But there are cheap flights from the UK to San Miguel, so my wife can fly to meet me and we can spend a few weeks sailing and hiking. So San Miguel it is. Maybe I'll stop by Bermuda, for a fresh forecast mainly - it depends on the weather when I'm around there. I'd be loathe to sacrifice favourable wind for the time taken to obtain a new forecast.

I'll keep some sort of log on the crossing, and post it here when I arrive in San Miguel (or wherever).

In the meantime, this seems an appropriate place to answer some of the questions I'm frequently asked about sailing across oceans single handed.

Here's a question I like: what do you do at night? I've found that if I don't answer right away, the question might be followed by a further question, like whether I anchor each night, or if there is anywhere to stop. These questions display such an innocence about what is involved in crossing an ocean in a small boat (of course, most people have no reason to give it a moment's thought) that I can't help teasing, suggesting there are service stations along the way at convenient locations, or suggesting that since the Atlantic Ocean is no more than 10 metres deep, it is easy to anchor wherever I choose.

What I really do at night is what most people do, I go to sleep. I have electronic self-steering gear. I only steer for a few minutes of most sailing trips - sailing in crowded harbours. For all of the rest of the time, I have a little robot that steers the boat. Because I sometimes sail alone, the little robot is crucial. So crucial that I have two backups, and in case all three fail, or lightning wrecks my electrics, I have bungee cords to attach to the tiller so that I can rig a rudimentary self-steering system that relies on just the wind. Steering across an ocean is boring, and prevents you from doing other important things like cooking, reading, relaxing, navigating, sleeping and fixing stuff, in no particular order.

I'm always a little anxious on the boat. It's not so bad. If the wind changes when I am asleep, I notice and wake up, and adjust the sails and or the course if necessary. Every noise carries information. Every clunk and bang and whoosh - I seem to hear them all. And if I can't identify the noise, I have to get up and find the source.

Ships - I think I covered this in my mention of AIS in the last post. And I have a radar alarm too. An alarm goes off if a ship is running radar beams across the boat.

Floating stuff to collide with: as I can't look out all the time, this is just a risk I have to accept. I reassure myself that I am sailing on a catamaran with no ballast, and I have several full bulkheads, so even damage under the waterline need not be catastrophic. And I haven't hit anything yet, in over 40,000 miles. Had to swerve a couple of times, that's all.

Whales. I used to consider them benign and wonderful, and I was dismissive of stories of hitting sleeping whales or being attacked by one. But then I was chased by one... but it never caught me, and it was only one out of hundreds of encounters. I still consider them usually benign, and still wonderful, but I'm more wary.

Storms. I avoid them as much as possible. I set off with a favourable forecast, and choose a route to avoid high winds. I've experienced a lot of storms - when I first started sailing, I was under the impression that my boat ought to be pretty much invulnerable, capable of handling any storm, and I just had to learn to be the same way. I learned alright, eventually, to check the weather forecast and avoid storms. But the boat has to be able to endure a storm. On a long voyage, encountering one may be unavoidable. As my last resort, I have a Jordan series drogue, which I have never yet deployed. But I have a lot of confidence in it, especially as my experience with drogues made of adjustable loops of rope with a chain on the end have proved very effective in limiting the top speed of the boat as it surfs down waves. So I'll do all I can to avoid storms, but I have equipment to deal with very rough seas.

Calms. On a monohull, calms mean rolling. The boat picks up some momentum from swell, and starts rolling, and the rolling gets amplified by each new swell and stuff gets thrown around, and people are tipped out of bunks, then the swell and the rolling get out of synch and it all stops, only to gradually start all over again. It's maddening. On a multihull, the boat just stops. No rolling at all. You can sleep, rest, cook, read, whatever. I once spent 5 days becalmed in the Mediterranean, and ran out of water after two. I made a solar still from an inflatable dinghy, putting a bit of seawater in the bottom, and covering it with polythene. A shackle in the middle of the polythene made the fresh water condensing on the polythene run into a pan. Two of us had enough water for drinking and cooking that way. Calms can be very nice. In the Biscay, I had two nights surrounded by whales and dolphins, and went to sleep each night with the only sound being their breathing, little short puffs from the dolphins, and great wheezing expulsions from the whales. Soon I learned to distinguish individuals from their breathing sounds. Some I thought, might have lung infections, or colds - it sounded that way. Those two nights were magical. But anyway, usually people assume I'd motor through calms. Many boats travelling through areas prone to calms carry all the spare fuel they can with ranks of jerry cans lashed to their guardrails. I have to travel light in a little catamaran, but this means my light weather sails can really make the boat go. I have occasionally sailed past a monohull motoring in what they regarded as a calm. I have 2 gallons of petrol on board, enough for getting in and out of harbours. That will have to do. If I'm becalmed, I'll stop, and I'll be 'late'.

Calms can be hard work too. Sometimes a little wind picks up, and you pile on the sail, and move slowly, and then it stops, or changes direction radically requiring a sail change, but with the wind so light, you wonder if it is worth the work. Fickle light winds are tiring for crew and cause a lot of wear on the sails.

Of all the stuff that could happen out there, the real issues people seem to want to know about are loneliness and fear. Loneliness I deal with by remembering the brevity of my isolation - 2, 3, 4, 5 weeks max. And remembering the several people who will not have forgotten me within that time. And fear? There's the useful and practical fear, which has me climbing the mast to check the standing rigging, and swapping halyards round end-for-end to change the places the ropes are wearing, and generally being aware of the state of the boat and the state of the weather, and tweaking and adjusting things to prevent chafe and wear and stress. And then there's the useless fear, which comes when I am over-tired or stressed - the fear of doom, which is no different to the fear landlubbers and sailors alike feel in the middle of a wakeful night. My solution to that one is culled from years of studying the wisdom of the east (it took me a long time to discover there's much less of it than advertised), and a persistent but usually fruitless interest in psychology and philosophy - turn over, and go back to sleep.

So, if you haven't forgotten me in the meantime, you'll soon see a splendid blog post here describing the Atlantic crossing, full of interesting details and observations and jokes that occurred to me that I had no-one to tell and expressing delight at having had such cushy weather for the crossing. Fingers crossed.


  1. good luck, all the best, Lesley.

  2. Fair winds, lots of fish and a safe landfall!

  3. Wishing you a safe and joyful transit.

  4. I have been followed by whales frequently, pilot whales and minke whales especially. But the only time I thought I was being chased was by a sperm whale, that chased me at 12-14 knots for over 15 minutes, frequently slamming its tail on the surface. This was 400 mile north of the Azores. When I arrived at Falmouth, an old friend was anchored there, and his steel boat was badly stove in near the bow above the waterline. He had been rammed by a whale in the same place as me. And a few months ago, I read of a British(?) boat sunk in the same area. So I have a theory there's at least one big bad whale out there.