The Kindness of Strangers
“But human survival always has and always will depend on collective knowledge."
To travel by sailing boat is to wait for the winds to blow in the direction you want. For short passages you can go against the wind, but for longer passages, such as to the Canary Islands, we have to wait for the winds to gust favourably. We’ve been waiting a week already and it looks like we will have to wait another week as well. But it hasn’t been time wasted; it’s given us time to fit our Hydrovane. We have also been well and truly encompassed into the cruising community here; we’ve met so many kind and experienced sailors who have all been eager to teach us what they know.
Our fifth crew member has now arrived: The Hydrovane. The Hydrovane has its own rudder to steer the boat and you can set it to steer a particular course using a wind vane. This method of steering is entirely mechanical and wind based, meaning that it uses no electricity. Moreover, unlike our electric autopilot, it will work even in strong winds. Fitting it was quite some task though. It is a daunting prospect to deliberately drill holes into your boat’s hull. We had to drill six 10mm holes through the hull in order to bolt the brackets of the Hydrovane to the boat. These had to be very carefully positioned so that we wouldn’t make a mistake and have to drill even more holes. The bolts had to go through the brackets, through the mounting plates, through the hull and finally through the aluminium backing plates. To ensure we had exactly the right measurements before cutting the stainless steel pipes to size, we had to procure dummy PVC pipes. We had to find PVC pipe of a similar diameter to the stainless steel pipe. The first problem was that the Hydrovane is a Canadian company so the pipe is in imperial measurements; we are in Spain which only uses metric. We just had to get as close as we could. I had to walk to two different shops to find the pipe, but on arrival I realised I didn’t have cash and they wouldn’t accept cards. This is something we really miss from the UK, not having to go and find ATMs all the time. In Spain and Portugal they still only accept cash on most low value transactions. So I had to leave the pipe in the shop and walk to the cash point. On the way there my flip flop broke and there was no fixing it. So I had to walk with one bare foot to find shoes so that I could walk around. Then go back to the cash point, withdraw the cash and then back to the pipe shop to get the pipe with the cash and then back to the marina. The shoes don’t even fit properly so I had blisters by the time I arrived back and will have to give the shoes away to someone. Or maybe I’m just not used to wearing shoes any more. My feet have gained freedom and fresh air and do not wish to go back to the dark captivity of shoes.
Once I eventually got back we could continue with fitting the Hydrovane. The lower holes were a nightmare. We have a step at the bottom of our stern so the only way of reaching it is to remove all our bedding and lie down on our backs, reaching under the steering gear until we felt the bolts poking through the hull to screw on the nuts with one hand. Anyway we eventually fitted the Hydrovane, smothered the bolts in sealant and butyl tape and have tested with the hose that the holes don’t leak and won’t sink our boat in a hurry.
Sailors have to become very self-sufficient and to do so you have to acquire a huge amount of knowledge. But human survival always has and always will depend on collective knowledge. While your boat may be an island ‘entire of itself’,* your ability to repair, maintain and sail your boat safely is dependent on the collective knowledge and experience of the sailing community, who may be spread far and wide as is their wont, but when you run across one another, you share what you know. This is because all of our survival depends on each other.
One source of help was Paul Breen-Turner, a sports radio broadcaster who we have interviewed for our podcast this week. He has lived on his boat for the past six years but was more recently introduced to the benefits of cruising chutes. Many cruisers have heavier boats which can be sailed anywhere in contrast to racing boats or boats that are sailed just in coastal waters which tend to be much lighter and move faster, even in light winds. Like us, Paul has a very solid and heavier type of boat, which is difficult to get moving when the wind is light. A cruising chute is a huge sail which you can only use when sailing downwind. It billows out in front of you, as Paul says, ‘like a hot air balloon’ and will get you sailing even when the wind is as light as two knots. If it gets above eight or nine knots, or if the wind moves from behind you then you have to rapidly take it down again though! We have a cruising chute onboard but have never used it as we didn’t know how; but it is something which will be very useful when crossing the Atlantic or even to the Canary Islands if the wind drops light. Paul showed us how to put it up in the marina and we are very excited at being able to use this rather than the engine when the wind drops. The sail itself is really beautiful, red and blue stripes fanning out like the rays of the sun against the sky from each corner and we can’t wait to try it out for real.
We’ve also made the acquaintance of two Australian couples who have been sailing for years; one of the couples invited us round for coffee and gave us all kinds of advice from their four years of cruising from Australia. From how to stop things flying around your boat, to ensuring you are well stocked up with three months of food in case of sudden restrictions for Coronavirus. They explained that travelling during the pandemic has been far easier than people say as many countries want you to visit and of course sailors are naturally self-isolating due to the passages between countries when you are alone on your boat. They told heartening tales of how sailing has really opened their minds in relation to the people they have met. In Djibouti where they were restricted due to the pandemic, they had food delivered to them. In Tunisia, they met so many people who wanted to leave Tunisia and were desperate to be taken away on their boat. Of course, this is illegal so they couldn’t accept, but they learned that so many highly qualified and decent people are just looking for a better life. They felt they had understood the humans behind the immigration headlines in a way that you cannot do unless you meet and speak to individual people for yourself. They felt that sailing had enhanced their own humanity. They are now on their way back to Australia to see the birth of their first grandchild. Another Australian couple we have met here have been living on board and sailing for more than a decade, stopping to work to earn enough to keep going. They have introduced us to the wonders of the open source charts and satellite weather information networks that sailors have set up for each other. Using Google Earth imagery, charts can be created across the world where official charts are inadequate and these are all provided free of charge so that you can access charts to help make your navigation safer even in remote areas. They’ve also taught us about how to read the ocean currents and to read for unstable weather patterns that can indicate lightning storms.
A Danish sailor who has eight crew members and has crossed the Atlantic twenty five times is coming round to teach us how to use our spinnaker pole. This is used for downwind sailing. If you are sailing into the wind, you have to keep your mainsail down the middle of the boat. Likewise, you winch in your headsail as tight as possible. If the wind is behind you, you allow your headsail to be more billowy to catch the wind behind you. The boom is pushed out on the side of the wind, so that the mainsail can also catch the wind behind you. However, the boom is one of the biggest dangers on a boat. If you are sailing with the wind behind you and it shifts just slightly to the other side then the boom can swing violently to the other side of the boat. This is called an accidental gybe and can knock you out or off of the boat. We use a preventer, a piece of rope tied to the boom to stop it swinging back to ensure this doesn’t happen. However, if the wind shifts behind the headsail, then it will be pushed to the other side of the boat, but because the lines are on the other side, it will get trapped on the mast and standing rigging. To stop this happening, the headsail can be poled out, this will keep it out on the side you want it on and allow you to sail a more directly downwind course.
We’ve seen first hand the generosity of the cruising community this week and seen the universe of knowledge we are yet to acquire opening up vastly in front of us. One day, when we have learned a bit more, we will be able to pass on some important techniques and tips to those coming behind us. In the meantime, we are already giving prospective sailors a little bit of inspiration. As we came into the marina last week, we were helped by the crew of a sailing school, eager to practice tying on the knots. They were doing a course to improve their knowledge and were hoping one day to get a boat of their own. They wanted to do what we are doing. One of them was a vet and wanted to sail with their cat and their tortoise. We were able to show them around our boat, show how the cats have adapted and are enjoying themselves and explain how little we know and how little you need to know to just go for it. You can live a different sort of life, a lower impact life, a slower paced life and one in tune with nature, the seasons and the weather. You learn the essentials for safety before you go, you improve your techniques along the way and you help each other.
*'No Man is an Island' - John Donne
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
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 http://yachtzenagain.blogspot.com.au
This week's Vlog.