Duncan and Inge Stewart, sailing their Westerly Oceanmaster 48 Anam Cara are in the lap of the wind gods

It seems aeons since a rainy October day on the M11 driving in yet another queue just 12 months ago that I had this ridiculous idea to sail off. Yet after 12 months of dreaming, planning, scheming and endless strategy investigations, that magic moment when we cast off from the pontoon eventually arrived – we were off. Duncan and Inge Stewart, along with Andrew Duerden our able crew, heading to St Lucia in our Westerly 48, at fifteen years old, not a youngster within the fleet, but tough and with a been there, can handle anything attitude of a big well built British yacht.

Our stay In Las Palmas had been wonderful, if very tiring. The World Cruising guys are in a league of their own in creating just the right atmosphere of party, seriousness and intent, which generates a wonderful camaraderie and belonging within all ARC participants. Andrew, Jeremy and Sue, the three main partners in crime deserve every plaudit they receive, but they would be the first to admit they would be nothing without the posse of wonderfully happy and committed guys who make up the ARC team. I was also very surprised at how Las Palmas as a whole welcomed us. The ARC is a big deal there and we all loved being part of such a fine event. From Pedro’s dingy race to the lavish and well stocked welcoming party, we had no doubt, we were indeed welcome.

Our rig had been checked by Neil of Solent rigging, a free service for all Admiral Insurance clients and a very reassuring one at that. Rolnautic, the local and magnificently well stocked chandlery had invited us as one of their best customers to their private do – Anam Cara does like to keep chandleries profitable – and we were ready for the challenge ahead, 3000 miles of Atlantic ocean. We were now moving from that world where familiarity and control carry so much weight, to a world of unknown and uncertainty, where the God of wind carries our destiny. We can only trim the sails and care for our boat – the rest is out of our hands. Maybe this is the real joy of sailing?

The start was a very quiet affair wind wise, but a wonderful sight to see with 200 yachts at the line. Yet one of the wonders is just how quickly we have lost sight of other boats. 14 hours ago there were 200 yachts around us. As I write, there are no more than 10 in sight. It’s either a very big ocean or we’re sailing in the wrong direction. Frankly, either is possible.

We slowly gybed our way along the Gran Canaria coast then tired of the slow progress and wizzed down the genoa and started the engine. Most others followed in an attempt to escape the vagaries of the land effect on the breeze. It worked and after an hour or so, the breeze picked up and we along with most yachts had our spinnaker flying to wonderful effect. There is little to beat sailing under spinnaker at 7-8 knots in about 10 knots of breeze on a calm sunny day. It’s bliss and we had this till after sundown.

And here we immediately ditched one of the many deeply thought out strategies of our land based planning and we flew the spinnaker in the dark. The intoxication of the experience was too much and it would have been criminal to pull it down when we were doing so well, so up it stayed. And on we went. The plan was spinnaker during the day and poled out genoa at night but I can feel a team talk arising tomorrow on the matter.

But we also learnt something else that makes ocean cruising very different. Diesel is valuable. Well of course it is one says, but when I say valuable I now mean valuable. Most sailors, me included, when the wind dies stick on the ‘metal sail’, our trusty engines. We sail from A to B, sails up, down, engine on according to the wind. But now, we have to conserve our fuel at all costs. Every hour counts, so now we must SAIL. No up, down – just sail sail sail. We must find wind and we must keep those sails full and if this means we head away from B for a bit, well c’est la vie – it’s back to that God of wind thing again. We are now ocean sailors – it’s a whole new ball game.

The darker side of our adventure was highlighted an hour or so ago with a MAYDAY alert on the VHF radio. It was undesignated and about 60 miles to the north east, so not an ARC fleet member. But it sharpens the senses and reminds us of the need for constant vigilance and safety.

Otherwise, life on the ocean wave on our first night has been the usual first day and night challenge – this being to settle into a new routine. There was excitement in abundance but also many quiet, reflective moments where we pondered on the quick phone calls to family earlier. I was first night chef and rustled up a quick paella in the microwave – how sailing has changed – and then we started our watches at ten. Three on, six off. As usual I have not slept a wink, but by the third night I will be so knackered, it will not be a problem. Happens every time! The upside is that I get plenty of time in my watches to write, then before I know it, it’s time for bed. And that’s where I’m off to now.

Day 2

Well the first day did not go so brilliantly in terms of speed and distance and I have a feeling that we could have done better. We got drawn into heading too far west and ended in the lee of the island and therefore little wind. Other yachts had kept south and they simply scooted into the distance. It took us some time to get back to the wind and progress. But we like a challenge and whilst we are not racing, we don’t want to be laggards either.

Some yachts are 60 miles ahead already, but they are also bigger and we have yet to click into gear. We are chasing.

We were all very tired this morning, so we decided not to fly the spinnaker but to run on a broad reach, then with a poled out genoa. This worked pretty well and we were making good progress but after hearing some of the position reports, we quickly became motivated to put out the spinnaker and we ran with a bit more west in our course for the afternoon. Anam Cara sure likes to fly the spinnaker and goes so well – our top boat speed being 11.7knots. Wheeeeeeee.

It is clearly a year for the southerly route across, but I am mindful of the weather trough ahead of us and don’t quite know yet how this is going to affect us. The Azores high has not settled yet and it isn’t a typical picture, but there is the threat of little wind. The trough is forecast to bring south easterly winds and heavy squalls with gusts to gale force, so we will have to see. Our course currently is 250 degrees, with 2590 miles to St Lucia, but our direction is always under scrutiny and we may yet add a bit of south to this direction. For now we hold.

The team talk on spinnakers mentioned in yesterday’s bulletin decided to modify the plan and to fly the spinnaker during the day, and at night when conditions allow, otherwise we will pole out the genoa at night. As I write it is 02.00am and we are running at 7-7.5 knots goose winged, that is with the main on one side and the genoa poled out on the other side. It is a little rolly, but this is the first time I have tried this and we are making very good progress. We lose about a half to a full knot without the spinnaker, but it is so much easier.

Today for example, we had an hour glass on the launch of the spinnaker and the snuffer jammed when we were dropping it. All interesting stuff in 20 knots of wind and though we sorted each event out, to do so at night, short handed with three of us is testing the nerves a wee bit too far. The good news is that we have an able hour glass remover in Andrew, who’s technique is interesting in that he spent ages attempting to coax the spinnaker to open, only to turn to us to admit defeat, when out it popped and off we went. We plan to try the nonchalant turn our back approach next time we have an hour glass.

On the matter of three crew, we had considered for many a month that we would be double handed on the trip. As skipper I must say I am very pleased to have Andrew with us. He is a fine chap and makes life so much easier with his involvement and commitment. He quietly goes about things in a very unassuming manner and I am very glad to have him on board. Not least because we get six hours sleep on watches and not three as when double handed. It is his first trans Atlantic and I admire his cool approach to the ordeal.

On the finer details, we had a wonderful green thai curry tonight, mixed up by Inge, complete with nan bread and a starter of fried green chillies. Wonderful and just to show we don’t think of spinnakers and sailing all the time.

4th Day 25th Nov 2004-11-25

We have around 2200 miles direct line to St Lucia and it suddenly seems like a marathon. Our trip suddenly changed with a single event on Tuesday just as we were preparing for a wonderful fish dinner being prepared by Andrew.

It had been a most pleasant day, with the routines just beginning to form and each of getting used to the new way of life aboard Anam Cara. We had done a little fishing but caught nothing but a plastic bag. Then on a later attempt, we hauled in the line to find the lure totally gone, so we had little fishing success, but we had great winds from the right direction and the sailing was perfect.

The event that changed everything was the linear drive on our autohelm failing, this being the vital piece of kit that actually drives the rudder and without which not a lot happens. There was this horrid grating noise, the sort of noise any motorist or sailor knows the minute they hear it?? they did not want to hear it. A quick dive into the back of the boat and our worst fears were confirmed. We were in trouble.

I will pass quickly over the fact that we have, brand new, the very latest and best autohelm system head and computer, but having had the drive unit inspected and confirmed to be OK, we decided to save some money and stick with the ‘trusty’ old unit. Man oh man, that was a bad decision.

We had three options. First beat three days back to Gran Canaria. Two, sail to Cape Verde Islands and fix it then leave for the Caribbean in Dec /Jan. And three, continue in the ARC and hand sail all the way, just the three of us, 2,500 long long miles. We chose three.

So this is sailing and I share our thought processes . When we left GC, I said earlier that we were in the hands of the Gods and we are. So we feel we do not have the right to be here in the first place if we cannot at least give this project our best dammed shot. One and two were cop outs, the patter being very attractive and pulled us very hard, but ‘we gotta do what we gotta do’. So St Lucia here we come.

I reported it at the ARC evening net and was amazed to get an offer from another boat to use his spare. (OK, I know we should have one too!) Unfortunately he was 60 odd miles back so it was a fair wait for him, but the offer stands and so we will see how it goes.

The big big change for us is sleep. It is too hard to helm at night every night for more than an hour, so we now have one hour on, two off at night and one and half hours on three off in the day. Writing this is eating into my utterly valuable comatose time, and I want and need it, but now the balance is in successful prioritisation of tasks, mixed with sleep and helming. And I want to write to you.

We are and we will adjust, and Inge and Andrew are totally amazing in their commitment and acceptance. Whoa, what a team, just getting on with it and accepting the challenge. Inge in particular, with her specific health needs once again shows me in meeting the challenge in the way that she does just what a wonderful and completely special person she is. I’ll never know why she fell for my charms, but I sure am lucky and I love her to bits.

So on that happy note, and already concocting the wonderful bar room stories of blisters on our hands, sun beating relentlessly on our back, as we handballed our wonderful frail yacht across the Atlantic ocean, I bid you a deep deep sleep.