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  • Writer's picturetheblacksprayhood

Far from the Madding Shore

“being out at sea will take some getting used to and coming back to land again may take some getting used to as well."

Last week we were unable to post as we were out at sea on our longest passage to date - six days and nearly six hundred nautical miles. We had been planning to go to the Canary Islands to complete our preparations for our Atlantic crossing, but as there are two Atlantic crossing rallies in November and another one coming up in January, all of the marinas are fully booked. The Canary Islands can get quite windy so we didn’t want to risk being at anchor indefinitely without knowing when a space in a marina would become available. Two Australian boats were planning to go to Madeira first to wait for the Canary Islands to become less busy and invited us to join them.

We departed La Línea de la Concepción, just over the border from Gibraltar early in the morning and headed out of the Gibraltar Straits. Even though we had only been in La Línea for two weeks waiting for our weather window, we both had the strange sensation of being stuck there, perhaps because we are used to constantly moving on. We felt a bit nervous the day before our departure as this was to be our longest ever passage out to sea and because it felt like much longer than two weeks since we had last sailed. However, when we finally left and got out into the Bay of Gibraltar, we felt a sense of relief to be finally getting going again. Heading westward through the Strait out to the Atlantic is slightly more challenging than heading eastwards into the Mediterranean. In addition to the usual tidal currents which flow one way and then the other depending on the tides, there is an additional two knot surface current which always flows into the Mediterranean posing an additional challenge if you are heading west. You have to be very sure that at least you have the tidal current going in your favour. Moreover, the currents flow at different times depending on whether you are in the middle of the channel or if you hug the Spanish coast. We tried to keep as close to the Spanish coast as we could, especially after realising we were doing 1.7 knots under engine, we headed even further inland and were soon doing 4.5 knots again. As we were heading south, we then had to cross the shipping lanes and head past the Moroccan coast. Our whole first day was spent dodging container ships. Think of all the ships going in and out of the western Mediterranean from across the Atlantic area, they are nearly all funnelled into this tiny strip of water. This meant crossing the lanes was not easy because they are so busy. We decided to cross one lane first, amble along in the neutral separation zone and then wait for a gap before crossing the lane for ships heading in the other direction. We managed to make it through the shipping lanes unscathed. However, even once we were past the shipping lanes, it continued to be very busy that first evening and night with big ships heading up and down the African and European Atlantic coasts.

That first night was pitch black, with no moon at all, but the clear sky meant we could see lots of stars and it was also freezing cold. Jupiter was huge and bright and gave a smidgen more light as we headed south west. At about 2.30am while Luciano was on night watch and I was asleep, he woke me up, saying “I need your help.” I thought we had a ship coming towards us that he needed help avoiding, but when I got up on deck, he pointed behind us at the pitch blackness. “Just wait” he said, “you will see it”. Then it appeared, huge orange clouds of light, it looked like the world had exploded into fire behind us. On and on it went, huge orange flashes lighting up the mountains. It was a lightning storm over Morocco, but the effect of the light meant it didn’t appear as the usual lightning bolt flashes.

It took us two or three days to get used to being out at sea. It was nowhere near as turbulent or stomach churning as the Bay of Biscay had been; however, the waves were two to three metres. The constant movement of the boat means it is very difficult to do anything as things slide around everywhere. Cooking is a huge challenge so you often just eat crackers and that’s all you can manage anyway if you feel seasick, as Luciano did in the first couple of days. The thought of doing nonessential tasks down below like cleaning and washing up seemed outlandish. Plus your sleep is broken every night by the cold dark nightwatches. Even when it is your time to sleep, it is difficult to sleep immediately as you know you soon have to wake up again, put on all your gear and go and sit out on deck again. This means you are tired the next day. However, as time went on, we got used to it, the wave height reduced, there were barely any ships after a couple of days and it gradually got less freezing after three or four days. Adaptation to a new environment, which humans are supposed to be so good at, was happening, albeit a little slowly. The cats had also adapted, they certainly seemed more mobile than when we crossed Biscay, although when we finally arrived they both spent some minutes drinking water, suggesting even the trip to the water bowl had been a bit of an ordeal that they were only making when necessary.

We were determined to practice some new techniques that we had been taught by some of the experienced sailors we met in La Línea. One of these techniques was taught to us by a Danish skipper who has crossed the Atlantic 25 times. For the price of a bottle of beer, he spent some time showing us how to ‘goosewing.’ Goosewinging is a technique that allows you to sail more directly downwind without the risk of a dangerous accidental gybe, which happens when the wind swings behind you and the boom swings to the other side of the boat. Goosewinging means you have the mainsail out on one side, held in place with a preventer line to stop the boom swinging. The headsail is held out on the other side of the boat with a long telescopic pole. It is quite a complicated procedure to set up and after the boom, the pole is said to be the second most dangerous item of equipment on a boat, so many people don’t use one. The pole has to be attached to the mast. Then through a hole on the other end of the pole you have to pass through a bow preventer line to prevent the pole swinging backwards and a stern preventer line to prevent the pole crashing into the vertical headsail pole. You need the topping lift line to lift the pole up and then you need to untie the headsail line and run it through the pole as well and then stretch the headsail along until it reaches the pole. Amazingly it actually worked on our first try. However, as you can imagine, it is not that easy when you need to change course and switch everything to the other side of the boat. As it is quite stable when it is up, we decided to keep it up during the third night, which was the second day we had tried the technique. By that time there were few ships. However, that night we saw a ship heading straight towards us. We faced two options; one to go through the whole process of bringing in the headsail, and then gybing the mainsail, which also has the preventer line on. We decided to go for the second lazier option of radioing the ship and asking them to change course. In that situation we felt it was fair enough as it is much easier for the ship to change course out at sea as it is not in a narrow or busy shipping lane. The helmsman was very happy to do this and it saved us a lot of trouble and we could keep our course.

Out at sea we also had some amazing interactions with wildlife. There were the ubiquitous dolphins of course, following us, leaping and prancing around the boat. One very special encounter we had was with a tiny little bird with a fluffy yellow chest. Probably the size of a sparrow, it saw a place to rest on our boat as we headed away from the Moroccan coast. It perched on the guardrail, then flew under the sprayhood, exploring for a little while, before unexpectedly flying inside the boat. I hurriedly chased after it. It flew straight past a bemused Chocolate Cat who was lying on the sofa and then into the bow cabin where it tried to fly out of the closed hatch. Suki was asleep on the bed but was woken by the noise. I opened the hatch and it flew out. I came back out on deck and it was still there, not seeming too scared by its close encounter with the cats, just having a nosey among the ropes on the deck. Our other enchanting experience with nature on this trip was when we drew into Porto Santo. We were approaching the anchorage just outside the harbour. The water was calm and crystal clear. I glanced over to the left and saw a large creature with hummingbird-like wings buzzing over the water in front of us. We couldn’t work out what it was. I had always had in my head that flying fish get their names as they jump out of the water, but they actually have fully developed wings - more like webbed fins in reality that allow them to glide over the water for a considerable distance. Such a reminder of the amazing diversity that still exists on our planet.

As we approached the small island of Porto Santo, 21 miles north of Madeira Grande, part of the Madeira archipelago, we realised we wouldn’t get there until after dark. We brought in the headsail and sailed just under the mainsail. This slowed us down so that we could continue sailing through the night and arrive at first light. We anchored just outside the harbour. One of the Australian boats had already arrived and came over to greet us and we went to the marina to complete the formalities. We had drinks with the two Australian boats later in the afternoon and the next day we went on a guided tour of tiny Porto Santo. Porto Santo, like Madeira and the Canary Islands, is dominated by its volcanic characteristics. It is much lower lying than Madeira and is thus drier and less green than its larger neighbour. The tour was interesting, particularly with our maverick tour guide. The six of us piled into the tour guide’s van. ‘So which side of the road do you drive on here mate?” asked one of the Australians, answering his own question with “Oh, I see, both sides”. He hurtled down steep offroad tracks, unexpectedly pulling in at the side of the road with a sudden flick of his wrist to show us an amazing site, or view. Fossilised coral in a high sandy landscape or the incredible rock formations made visible by the erosion of the inside of an extant volcano. The landscapes and history of pirate and Arab plunder of the early Portuguese farmer settlers were fascinating, but the tour guide had alternative views on the official version of everything. None of the historians’ accounts of the history of the island sounded plausible to our tour guide. For instance, he had once owned a boat, so he knew for sure that they must have been wrong about

which bay the Portuguese first landed in.

Arriving on land after even such a short passage was strange. When we left, the COP26 talks were underway, as was Richard Ratcliffe’s hunger strike to free his wife Nazanin. After six days with no contact with the outside world we emerged, somehow expecting a new world. It’s disappointing that so little progress was made on both of those fronts. Sailing feels a little like escapism than engagement with these important issues, but we can certainly understand why some sailors emerge from a passage only to go straight back out to sea. Like Bernard Moitessier, the French sailor, who on the verge of winning the 1968 Golden Globe race, elected instead of completing, to keep sailing, on a spiritual rather than a commercial journey. The human world can be a disappointing place, especially when at sea you encounter nature so gloriously, in its vast skies, powerful winds and seas and weird and wonderful flying fish. I feel bad not to be joining my Extinction Rebellion comrades in their protests, but take heart that this journey will inspire us to become more radical by seeing up close and personally what the loss of our delicately balanced Gaia will mean. As we keep sailing we will meet for real the Pacific Islanders who are threatened with the imminent and complete obliteration of their homes and I hope we can do something to tell their stories. The distant diplomats are failing to protect them and all those currently suffering from the impacts of climate change. Those out protesting are our only hope. Moitessier did not only journey inside himself, but became an environmental campaigner, protesting against the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. We feel as though we’ve had a little taste of what an Atlantic crossing might be like - being out at sea will take some getting used to and coming back to land again may take some getting used to as well.

You can check out the blog for the Australian sailing yacht Zen Again here, especially if you are interested in the technical aspects of sailing and navigation

This week's Vlog.

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