Crossing our wake

17th April 2017
Everyone says the South Atlantic is the sailing you dream of, and it is – constant trade winds and what (little) swell there is comes from the same direction day after day. Bar the first day or two off South Africa when we had slightly confused seas, fog and night watches in long trousers and jackets it has been bliss. For the nautically minded steady F3-4 south east trades and swell of only a couple of metres, all on the quarter, day after day for ten days. So, although progress may not have been the fastest (at 20 tonnes it does take some wind to get us going) it has been steady and constant and, more importantly, we haven’t had to put the engine on.


Fuel is a major concern with 5,500 miles to sail from Cape Town to the Caribbean, including crossing the Doldrums (the area of little/no wind round the equator). Every mile under sail is one more you can motor when you lose the wind. The other concern being will the wardrobe hold out – five weeks at sea equates to the need for an awful lot of clean knickers!
Our first milestone out of Cape Town was crossing the Meridian. This meant we had sailed through every line of longitude and had technically circumnavigated. Was an odd feeling as for both of us but didn’t feel special, if that makes sense. For us, crossing our wake in the Caribbean and sailing up the Thames will be closing the circle. But having said that is was a bit of a wow moment.


We had decided we were going to stop at St Helena. It was like stepping back into the 20th century. Like so many Pacific Islands we had visited they are dependent on the supply ship, in this case the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena, for all of island supplies, passengers and of course the mail. As an article put it ‘ships used to rely on St Helena, now St Helena relies on the ships’. Despite being a long extinct volcano with rich soil they don’t seem to do much market gardening so fruit and veg are always in short supply. I spent hours wondering up and down the high street between the three main shops buying a cucumber in one, tomatoes in another etc. and you only get eggs on Wednesday unless you are lucky and track some down in between. It’s like the black market with furtive exchanges of ‘The Star has X’, ‘Queen Mary’s has Y’ followed by scurrying up the road to avail yourself of the produce that has been sourced before it too has gone. One saying here is ‘you snooze, you lose’ Not sure, but must have walked several miles in the process. They shouldn’t need to be so dependent on the supply ship, there is a modern airport here, funded by the British taxpayer but it has yet to open. The reason is almost comic, meet the arachnid’s NIMBY! The runway wasn’t built on the site proposed by an extensive feasibility study because late in the day it was discovered it would disturb the habitat of a rare spider. So, two hundred and eighty million pounds of our money was spent building the airport in a different spot only to discover that there is excessive wind shear at one end of the runway! (Google flights St Helena to see YouTube video of the first plane trying three times to land). Red faces and one smug spider!


Jonathan, the island’s oldest resident has seen it all! At one hundred and seventy years or so old said to be the world’s oldest reptile.

Like most people, we knew this had been the island of Napoleon’s exile, what we hadn’t realised is that of course all the seafarers of that time and earlier had been here as it was a major staging post for restocking of supplies en route to the far east and back from the Pacific. So, Captain Cook (yes, that man again), Darwin, Nelson all featured as notable visitors amongst others. Surprisingly the island makes very little of this role in maritime history, concentrating on Napoleon and the Dutch East India Co. Hadn’t realised that we (the Brits) continued to use St Helena as our Alcatraz when we imprisoned Dinizulu, one of the Zulu kings during the Zulu wars as well as many other tribal leaders, followed by several thousand Boers during the Boer War, coincidentally inventing concentration camps at the same time. Mind you the conditions were such that the majority of the prisoners had the run of the island by day, just had to report back in the evening and not bring any alcohol back with them! Something the Boers quickly found a way around using walking sticks made of hollowed out bamboo! Life obviously wasn’t that bad as several elected to stay once they were released and there are still people with Boer surnames.
We hadn’t appreciated how racially diverse the island would be. Somehow had pictured a very white ’little England’. Of course, with generations of visiting seafarers, slaves and traders from around the world the place has become a real melting pot of races. All of whom appear to get along and work together on this island of approx. 4,000 people which boasts a British Governor with a splendid residence, Plantation House.


Back to Napoleon. We did the Napoleonic sites tour – the two places he was held captive and his tomb (the latter being empty as his body was released back to France several years after his death). In this British Territory (second oldest after Bermuda) these sites are owned by the French and the entrance fees go to France. Maybe it’s the French ownership that is the reason we didn’t see Waterloo mentioned once at Longwood, the house he spent most of his time! Our driver Harry was great at showing us around the island and even spotted an out of town shop selling beans, did I want any? That’s St Helena for you, a sightseeing tour ends up stopping for French beans. Two other improbable things on the island, first a small distillery.


The "Remotest Distillery in the World" is run out of an enlarged garage making gin with Bermuda juniper – only place other than Bermuda this is made and Tungi a prickly pear, tequila like spirit. We now boasts a bottle of each. The other surprise was to find local coffee, made with an Arabica bean that only grows here, having been introduced from the Yemen a couple of centuries ago. Now very rare and the only place you can buy it in the UK is in Harrods for a ridiculous price.
Given the island’s strategic position pre-Suez Canal and even in the world wars, you can’t move without tripping over fortifications. Many defy belief in their location when you realise there were no roads and no sophisticated cutting machinery when they were erected. One of the most extraordinary feats is Jacob’s Ladder originally a wooden ladder type structure for hauling goods and manure (hopefully not in the same cart!) up and down from Jamestown to the fort and houses atop the hill. Now it’s a pretty vertical 699 stair way. Mike did it, I didn’t, and his calves were still aching six days later!


Sadly, the whale sharks that migrate through had all gone by the time we had arrived, so that remains on the to do list. After a brief respite, it was off of the Caribbean, our longest passage – virtually 4,000 miles and four weeks at sea. Would we be able to hack it and would we still be talking to each other at the other end? The South Atlantic continued to live up to its reputation with day after day of glorious conditions – pleasant F4 – 5 south east trade winds and only 1 -2 metres swell. As Mike put it Sea Rover just purred along, much admired by passing brown noddys (at least that’s what we think they are – are we right?), they took to us big time and one night we had five of them roosting around the boat.


When the winds dropped to F3 we flew our chute day and night for several days, only dropping it occasionally to gybe as the wind was right behind us.


Early one morning just before dawn Mike heard a bang, flashed the light around the deck, couldn’t see anything amiss, went below to check, came up and realised he had a perfectly unobstructed view forwards - where was the chute?


Answer the halyard we had replaced in New Zealand had chaffed through and the chute was in the drink.


Once it was hauled aboard unscathed, Mike went up the mast, simple phrase that but in any rolling seas no mean feat. Remember the laws of levers and pendulums and you can imagine Mike was hanging on for dear life.

What was clear is that the new halyard had been too thick for the mast fitting, only a millimetre or so, but enough to damage the protective wear plate and then the halyard sawed through on the rough metal where it exited the mast.

We tried to drop a mousing line down but despite the weights on it (or because of them?) it got tangled round the other halyards in the mast. Oh well one for the ‘to do’ list in the Caribbean.


The next major milestone was sailing across the equator, once again flying our chute; Sea Rover, for the first time since 2009, was back in the northern hemisphere. A day for toasting Neptune, an exception to our ‘dry on passage rule’ and a magnum (yes had managed to squash a couple into the freezer for the trip).

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Thankfully it also meant the beard Mike had been growing since St Helena came off. It really was beginning to sink in that yes, we are on our way home. We had decided not to go via Brazil but to stay mid Atlantic where the wind angles mean a more comfortable sail, even if it foregoes the favourable currents off the coast of Brazil and we risked struggling longer in the doldrums. Almost on cue barely two hours after we crossed the equator we lost the wind. On went the engine. Fortunately, we had enough fuel (having topped up in St Helena and only motored for eight minutes leaving the anchorage up until this point) so we could put on a few revs and ‘found’ the north-east trades some 16 hours later and the perfect sail down the rhumb line continued.
Of course, we were now back in the northern hemisphere and that meant one thing – squalls. Although not as vicious as they had been on the trip over in 2008, they did mean you could never quite relax, especially around dawn when they seemed to come thick and plenty. And just to add to our joy the NE trades brought something we hadn’t seen since the Canaries – red rain, dust/sand from the Sahara which left our decks, ropes and fittings all splattered with a red muck.


The big milestone a few days after crossing the equator was when we crossed the track from our passage to St Lucia in 2008 – we really had circumnavigated. Still can’t quite believe it and somehow, looking back some nine years never really thought we would get to this moment. But we were 48 hours from land, so celebrations had to be deferred.
We headed for Iles des Saintes, part of the French Caribbean, where we arrived 26 days and 3,948 miles after leaving St Helena – still talking to each other! Both in complete agreement that this may have been our longest passage but it was also our best. Oh, that we could bottle the south Atlantic and take it further north with us for the return to Europe. And yes, another excuse for bubbles as we celebrated circumnavigating – as if we need much excuse!

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Comments

Photo comment By Bill Saunders: Congratulations! Enjoy the rest of the trip. I am looking to take Liberation to Fiji again.
Photo comment By Jan + Graham: Wow - fantastic trip! Well done - go safely for the last bit. Keep in touch and we'll come and greet you in London.
Photo comment By M and Simon Owens: Just caught up with your amazing adventure, safe journey back to the UK, keep at eye out for whales and make sure you avoid them (see Daily Mail). Happy memories of meeting you in Auckland in early 2016.
Photo comment By Glyn & Birgit: Well done Sea Rover team for knocking out the miles in such great style. Loved the photos as always, and great to see the chute up so often prior to gravity overcoming it!
Photo comment By Kousk Eol: Dear Sea Rover, Could you please humbly remind your navigating hosts, Devala and Mike, that YOU did most of the job, even if they have the impression they activeley participated? Bravo mes amis!I hope our routes will cross again! Claude
Photo comment By Kerry Blackburn: disappointment we won't witness Mike as a hipster, what a lovely read. So right to be proud of yourselves... Bloody amazing. Fair wind for the final clicks x"

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