The Atlantic Voyage of Plancius 2018-2019
I thought it was about time I had an adventure. It had finally worked out in life that I could take a lengthy amount of time and dedicate it to myself. I had sailed for twenty-five years and always dreamed of one day crossing the Atlantic so that was my plan, but as a plan, that was it. I had to sail down to the trades and over to the Caribbean but that was as far as I knew. I would follow my nose. I wanted an adventure and to explore, to be nudged off course by people I met or tales I heard - a time free of stress, timetables and obligations.
I was boatless, but what a delicious situation to be in, to scour the ads and to dream. I had owned a few boats over the years. I had explored the north Brittany coast in a Beneteau First 18, my first real boat, and I had loved my Contessa 32 and the wildly extravagant Ovni 36. I knew though, even before I started the search, that my magic carpet would be a Sadler 34 - theoretically unsinkable, beautiful manners, and prices that were dropping down towards my budget. I found the perfect boat in Brough.
‘Plancius’ was the dearest but the best example on the market at the time – well equipped and well maintained, though she would need a few tweaks to make her more singlehanded and bluewater friendly - mast steps, wind generator, and arch for the solar panels. She had come with an Aries windvane, but I had kept the Pacific Windpilot from the Ovni, and knew the system well, so the Aries was sold.
At the nav station I fitted a MerVeille radar detector and an AIS transponder, in my opinion two of the most important aids to singlehanded sailing, along with my two simple kitchen timers, and I had a Jordan series drogue to ride out the rough stuff. I figured Plancius would be in the water for at least a year, so I decided to Coppercoat her hull as well.
I left Holyhead on 26th of June. I was up before 6am checking the boat over again. Everything was nicely stowed and she felt good. I reset the chartplotter trip to 0. There was no wind so I motored past South Stack and down the Lleyn Peninsula. The air was clear and the sea like a lake of oil. To the east, the peaks of Snowdonia were spectacular in the clear morning air.
Razorbills and guillemots dived under the surface as I passed. As the heat built only a smudgy horizon separated the sea and sky. At midday I heard a blowing behind me and as I turned a minke broke the flat surface. Still no wind. I got a huge 2.4 knot lift south with the tide, but by 7pm the tide turned and slowed my progress to 2.7knots as I enter Cardigan Bay. I turned the motor off and drifted with the tide a mile or so back towards Holyhead. I get the rod and feathers out, setting the tone for the journey, no point fighting nature.
It was so absolutely quiet I could hear in turn a seal, harbour porpoise and another minke whale before I could see them. I seemed to perceive the curvature of the Earth. I could see Ireland to starboard and Wales to port, visibility was so clear. The whole scene was bathed in a purply orange glow. By midnight Jupiter and Venus were bright in the southern sky.
I passed Land’s End with its attendant rafts of Manx shearwaters and arrived off the Lizard as the tide began to turn against me. I made a half-hearted attempt to punch past but quickly gave up and found a glorious anchorage for the night in the pool at the foot of St Michael’s Mount. I weighed anchor early the next morning as the first tourists of the day were crossing the causeway. I thumbed my nose at the Lizard this time and made my way up the Fal estuary to Ruan Creek on the Truro river, where I was due to meet other Sadler owners for a pontoon BBQ.
After spending a few days in and around Falmouth and St Mawes, I set sail for Spain on the 5th of July. I had filled my water tanks and fuelled up, about 250 litres including the three jerry cans I had on deck and strapped to the lifelines. Falmouth was busy with boats of all kinds, some very smart, while I had laundry drying all over the deck. It seemed I had already adopted the vagabond lifestyle! The afternoon was beautiful and clear as the boat gurgled past Pendennis Castle and out towards the waiting sea.
By three in the morning I was into French waters. An unending procession of ships crossed my path until finally off Ushant I laid a course south for La Coruna and I could keep well to the east of the motorway of ships heading in and out of the English Channel.
Whenever I was tired and needed a nap I would set my two kitchen timers for ten or fifteen minutes, unless of course I could see shipping around me. My radar detector would buzz when it was swept by another ship’s radar and the AIS would also loudly proclaim what shipping was in my area. On the open ocean and away from the lanes I would sleep more freely.
In Biscay the wildlife abounded - in the space of a few hours I passed a huge sunfish, perhaps two metres across, then a me-sized shark and my first Risso’s dolphin. Bottle-nosed dolphins played around my bow. More often than not, the presence of these delightful creatures was announced by the squeaking, clicking and whistling that I could hear through the hull, followed by me smiling and rushing up into the cockpit to greet them (I would always chat to them).
The weather was fine and a single tack took me nearly all the way across Biscay. The trip was problem free, as had been my two previous crossings, but in high summer and with a good forecast there shouldn’t really be any difficulties. In the early hours of the 9thof July I glimpsed the first twinkling of the lights of Spain. Approaching the coast, torpedoes of bioluminescence darted around the boat indicated the presence of more dolphins, my Spanish welcome.
La Coruna is a wonderfully vibrant city and the bustling marinas are full of boats going your way. It was hotter too and here I felt that the journey had really begun. I stayed for a couple of sun-soaked days then began my coastal hops down the Iberian Peninsula.
As I made my way down the Spanish coast, it seemed that each port I visited was celebrating its own festival. I made short stops at Camarinas, Muros, and San Vicente before reaching Baiona where I simply got caught up in the atmosphere and stayed for 10 days. A big safe anchorage, friendly neighbours, festivals, great hiking and fantastic bars and tapas all added to the attraction.
Having taken part in the Jester Baltimore Challenge in 2017 I was intrigued to find Tim McIlvoy’s Jester folkboat ‘China Blue’ at anchor nearby, so rowed over for a chat. I admired his beautiful, engineless little boat but shuddered at the thought of being caught in a mid-ocean blow in what was little more than an upturned shed, gorgeously crafted though it was.
A little north of Lisbon I approached the western-most point of mainland Europe at Cabo Da Roca. I was enjoying a lovely calm afternoon and had all sail up in less than 10 knots of wind under a beautiful azure sky. Now began what might be called in the sailing magazines ‘a challenging few minutes’ and certainly the most humbling and frightening of my sailing so far. Passing the headland I felt the wind build slightly but thought nothing of it. Within a minute or so the wind became a steady blast from astern. I went to reef but thinking this would be short lived I decided to try and run with it, not my best idea.
Within seconds I had more than 45 knots of wind and full sail up. For a moment I almost felt as if I had the situation under control… right up to the point when I crash gybed. The boom flashed across the cockpit, missing my face (and surely my death) by inches. The violence was shocking. The mainsheet block was ripped from the boom and punched its way through the portside pane of the sprayhood and lay innocently on the roof next to the companionway hatch.
The boat now wallowed at right angles to the wind and waves in the worst possible position. The surface of the sea was white with spume. The genoa was lashing the rigging and the sheets were writhing and cracking, and the mast shook horribly, really horribly. I was convinced it would come down and my little adventure would be over.
I stared blankly through the spray, trying to formulate a plan of attack. I gathered myself and made my way forward. I braced against the shrouds on the foredeck and unknotted the thrashing sheets. Back in the cockpit, and with stinging hands hauled at the furling line, all the time screaming and swearing at the elements (and, it has to be said, at myself) The rig shaking increased and snapped the wind indicator from the top of the mast. Turning my attention to the main. I scrabbled in the cave lockers for a line to throw around the bouncing boom and to pull it back amidships. I released the main halyard and dropping the main, I climbed onto the roof and with the wind howling and spray lashing my face, yanked it down at the mast. I crept back along the sidedecks to the cockpit and the boat’s movement gradually became more manageable.
The boat was now under control again. I let out a scrap of genoa and her head turned slowly downwind. I looked around. I was wearing neither lifejacket nor harness… guilty as charged. Adrenalin pumping, I headed the few miles around the point into the now absurdly welcoming anchorage at Cascais, my body shaken and mind fuzzy.
For two days and nights, thirty knots of wind kept the boats swinging and dancing at anchor and prevented any attempt to go ashore. When at last I left, I sailed up the Tagus river to Lisbon passing close alongside Belem Quay and the Monument to the Discoverers. It felt appropriate to be passing by boat and I saluted them. After a week in Lisbon I continued my voyage south. I rounded Cape St Vincent accompanied by a small pod of my constant companions, and into the Algarve and on to southern Spain.
My Autohelm had been acting up for a few days and 30 miles from Cadiz it finally died. It was 35deg C and flat calm. I spent the next six hours under the blistering Spanish sun, hand steering in an almost shadeless cockpit. I arrived at Cadiz marina scorched and desperate for a beer. I found the city enchanting. I walked the short distance from the marina and strolled lazily through the tight, ancient streets, following some of the many historic routes, or sat with a beer or two and people-watched. In the evening the plazas were filled with the laughter and yelling of hundreds of children at play, their guardians watching discreetly from the terrace of a bar or restaurant.
I waited for a good wind before I left Cadiz so I could engage the Windpilot, not wanting to motor again for any distance until my autohelm was replaced. I stopped for the night just south of Barbate. The coastline was bare and wild here and I anchored in 8 metres just off the beach at the foot of a huge sand dune. I could see the anchor chain glow with bioluminescence all the way to the seabed.
I planned my passage through the straits of Gibraltar meticulously, if not the tidal gate would simply be shut to me. As I passed Tarifa, the southern-most point of mainland Europe, the Pillars of Hercules to the east were stunning in the evening sun. I sailed into the Bay of Gibraltar, passing dozens of sunfish and huge shoals of flying fish. The importance of this maritime hub was brought home studying the AIS screen, it seemed completely filled with overlapping targets. I slipped through the dozens of anchored ships and made my way to the new marina at La Linea. I had planned to stay in Gibraltar just long enough to pick up some spares and my new autopilot. In the meantime I played the tourist, taking the cable car to the summit and photographing the apes.
The urge to leave soon became irresistible but I had to wait for the next Levante to be able to leave Gibraltar. This is the warm moist wind that blows from the Med (the wind direction best indicated by the large union jack on top of the Rock). I had the fluttery feeling in my stomach I always get at the start of a long passage. Visibility was good and I had clear views of Tangier and Morocco from the boat. Right up to the point of leaving I was having a ‘left or right’ moment, the freedom a sailor has to go where he chooses, in two minds whether to head down the African coast to Agadir or to sail out to Madeira and the Canaries.
Despite studying the tidal streams in detail and picking the brains of the sailing school instructors in Gibraltar, I still struggled against the tide around Tarifa wasting the cheap duty-free fuel I had filled up with. Eventually free of the straits, where the difference between heading and bearing could be as much as 40deg, I passed within a few miles of the African coast and by evening the Atlas Mountains were fading in the heat haze behind me as I tacked out into the Atlantic.
I sailed into Porto Santo in the Madeiran archipelago just before dawn and was met by the eerie squawking of Cory’s Shearwaters on the cliffs. I anchored off the beach for the night and the following day took my place at the pontoon. The mooring fees of this small and friendly harbour are famously cheap if you stay here a month (122euros for a 34 footer), so that’s what people do. There were boats here from all over Europe with many French, Dutch and Scandinavians, along with a sprinkling of Canadian and American yachts.
Because most people stay a while a great cosmopolitan community spirit builds up and friendships were formed here that lasted for the entire voyage. It was here I met Tony Meakin and Cariad, his Sadler 34. Tony circumnavigated solo in the 1990s and it was a great pleasure to hear his tales. I walked the hills overlooking the harbour and snorkelled the best spots on the island. On Porto Santo the water is crystal clear and underwater visibility was often 50m.
In early October a buzz began among us weather watchers. A nasty depression was tracking eastwards in the central Atlantic. Soon everybody was following the developing storm which would become Hurricane Leslie. On the 12th and 13th it become apparent that Leslie would pass uncomfortably close to us. We prepared our boats as best we could with everyone helping each other, doubling up on lines and fenders, and turning some boats around so masts wouldn’t clash with each other. When everyone had done what they could, the only thing left to do was wait... and have beers and a BBQ for 20 crews. Later that night and the following morning winds of up to 52 knots sent waves and debris crashing over the harbour wall where hours before we had been partying.
As the full force of the storm hit from the west, the dedication and professionalism of the harbourmaster and staff were commendable. They constantly patrolled the pontoons, and the dory dashed between the mauled yachts at anchor in the harbour, helping to reinforce and relay ground tackle. Leslie was later to hit mainland Portugal as the strongest storm in 150 years.
When my month’s cheap mooring was up, I left Porto Santo and sailed for Madeira. I had already crewed over to beautiful Funchal a couple of weeks earlier with some Dutch friends and was looking forward to spending some time exploring this most dramatic of landscapes. That evening I was reaching along the stunning south coast, marvelling at the overhanging cliffs and the terrace upon terrace of houses as they reached into the clouds.
Bustling Funchal harbour was crowded with yachts from all over the world, even one from Japan. It felt good to have steered my little ship to an island hundreds of miles into the ocean, and I felt just a little bolder than the tourist arriving by plane or cruise liner. It is a charming town, full of life and colour. I climbed the hills to the botanical gardens and relished the views. On a tour of part of the island I marvelled at the engineered valley floors that managed the huge amounts of rainfall the island sometimes receives, resulting in the amazing lushness. I left Madeira promising one day to return.
After a short day sail from Funchal I stopped for the night at Ilhas Desertas, a small cluster of steep islands that form a Portugese designated nature reserve. I arrived at the only sheltered bay and had the place completely to myself, anchored 10 metres from the bottom of a huge multicoloured volcanic cliff, the only inhabitants a few scientists and wardens in a hut complex along the shore. Hundreds of brightly coloured fish swam in the hull’s shadow. It was like floating in a giant aquarium.
The trip to Tenerife in the Canaries was exquisite. For two days I dodged between huge squalls. Under a full moon the towering clouds were illuminated and impressive, and they came at me one after the other like malevolent and lumbering giants. Lightning struck the sea a few miles away and waterspouts formed and collapsed in their wakes. The sailing was exhilarating though, the squalls would kick up 30 knot winds in seconds and I kept a reef or two in all the time. In the calms, the air was crystal clear, the sunsets beautifully gaudy and the sea as flat as spilt mercury. Then one morning, with the squalls behind me, Mt. Teide, the highest point in Spain lay clear ahead on the southern horizon 70 miles away.
I left San Miguel on Tenerife mid-afternoon on the 10th of December. I figured it was 810 miles to Mindelo in the Cape Verdes and that that should take me about seven days. Winds were fair and the forecast good as I slipped away from the tourist hell that is south Tenerife. Within an hour a huge pod of striped dolphins passed my stern and a couple of pilot whales surfaced 50m to port, a good omen. As night fell the lights of shore twinkled behind me, shooting stars flew above me and a luminescent trail followed the boat, magic moments. The wind fell light but I was happy to be on the move again. The following morning Teide was still visible to the NE, 65 miles away.
After a few days the battery lights began to show red, in this heat the fridge was drawing too much power. For the first time I ran the engine to charge the batteries but they wouldn’t hold a charge well. I switched the fridge off. It stayed off for the whole of the rest of the voyage.
Progress was steady in classic trade wind conditions, fluffy white clouds, warm steady breeze from astern and higher waves. But from a wildlife perspective it was dull, this stretch of the Atlantic seemed totally barren. I hadn’t seen a seabird or dolphin for days. I entertained myself making a Cape Verdes courtesy flag from a scrap of old sail and some paint I had left over from the trip to Horta the previous year.
At 3am on the 18 of December I spied land and as dawn began to break the Cape Verdes began to take form. To port, the island of Sao Vicente was built up and dry, whereas Santo Antao to starboard appeared mountainous and verdant. As I approached the channel between the two a couple of minke whales surfaced a few boat lengths ahead. I reduced sail, anticipating an acceleration zone. The wind built briefly to force 8 and I was propelled into the sweeping bay around Mindelo. As the wind died away and as the bay opened up I could see dozens of yachts at anchor, with large rusting hulks aground on the shoreline. I dropped the hook next to a tiny French boat and rowed ashore to my first African country.
The marina bar was full of familiar faces I had crossed paths with for the previous few months. This was the point of departure across the Atlantic and everyone was busy preparing and provisioning. The colourful local market was well stocked but surprisingly expensive, perhaps twice UK prices, and I bought less than I would have liked. One of my priorities in Mindelo was to try to find replacements for my dying batteries. I bought two starter batteries, no deep cycles being available. Rightly or wrongly I decided they would be constantly being charged by my wind generator and the solar panels so they would have to do.
I sat in the cockpit and watched boat after boat leave for their trips of a lifetime. A group of French teenagers sounded their airhorns excitedly and drifted out of the anchorage. Soon it would be my turn.
While in the Canaries some Dutch friends had persuaded me that visiting Suriname in South America would be a good idea - “Paramaribo (the capital) is like 1970s Amsterdam!”, so I left Mindelo on the 22nd of December on the 1900 mile passage towards Suriname. I had butterflies as usual on departure - a pleasant, excited feeling. The weather was quiet; overcast but getting warmer. I savoured the moment as I sailed gently out of the bay. I felt truly alive and about to embark on the most daring and exciting thing I had ever done. I made a meal using some of the precious Cape Verdes veg and washed up in sea water for the first time. In the evening I was drifting serenely in Santo Antao’s wind shadow on a totally flat sea. By midnight though, the boat started rolling and the sails slatted horribly. The movement was unbearable so I fired up the lump to try to escape the island and find some wind.
Within a couple of days the fluffy clouds were forming and the trades began to set in and I remember flying through the night under the brightest of moons that illuminated everything with a silver clarity. Christmas dinner was M&S stewing steak and boat-made roast potatoes and a very poor attempt at a jam sponge. On Boxing Day morning one of my homemade lures caught a small dorado, my attention drawn to it by a storm petrel as it flitted around the stern of the boat. I fried half the dorado with lime and was the tastiest meal I think I ever had onboard. The rest I dried on the lifeline for another day.
Days were blue and hazy, with waves to 3m. The wave train was still from the north east, but would hopefully come around more to the east and give me an easier passage. The North Equatorial Current finally lifted us and with little to do or see I read, and read, and read. Huge squadrons of flying fish glittered across the boat’s path. I didn’t touch the tiller or sails for 48h hours. Great streams of sargassum weed preventing fishing and occasionally pushed back on the servo paddle of the Pacific Wind Pilot, setting the boat briefly off-course. Usually a stab with the boathook was enough to clear it. Days ran into each other; dawns, flying fish, sunsets.
One evening a strong fishy smell filled the boat and I found a six-inch flying fish which must have come in through the companionway, flown the length of the saloon and come to rest on the floor of the heads (the French word for flying fish is ‘exocet’!).
Being singlehanded I choose mainly to run under poled-out genoa alone, only using the main with the wind more on the beam. The sailing was easier, especially at night and I was happy at sea. If the passage took a few days extra, so what? Even so I was expecting faster noon to noon runs than I was making, which were often under 100 miles a day. The trades seemed to me very mild, though the short seas made the boat’s motion very bouncy and rolly. I had hoped for 5.5 to 6 kt averages but the boat’s movement reduced speed to less than 4.5kts.
By 8am local time it would get very hot and I would lean over the coaming and lazily watch the dorados swimming alongside. One day I noticed a large marlin, perhaps 8 or 9 feet long following the boat, beautifully coloured, shimmering blue, green and gold. It stayed with me all afternoon, often surfing down the waves and was a stunning animal to watch.
Log entry 7th of January
‘Feeling better today. Slept well and made good progress last night. Left a little more sail up than usual overnight. Weather and conditions as every other day. 4 tropic birds. 5-6ft shark. Large shoal of foot long fish, maybe tuna. Other dark shapes following the boat.’
Into the third week at sea and the temperature in the cabin had climbed to a humid 30deg.C. and the bedding started to become very damp and unpleasant. For 3 days I had an east-going counter current running along the South American coast, slowing the speed over the ground by up to 2 knots, making huge sloppy seas and throwing the boat around (again). Spirits were flagging.
Then one morning I was reading in the cockpit when I heard what I thought were porpoises blowing. I look up and was astonished to see twenty or thirty false killer whales all around me. I taped my GoPro to a broomstick and spent a thrilling thirty minutes filming them from the safety of the boat. I wasn’t going to get into the water! They kept me enthralled until en-masse they wheeled away.
At last the chartplotter began counting down in hours, not days. The sea became much greener from the great rivers, and all manner of fishing boats began to appear. Then one day we were on soundings. The coastal shelf is extensive and shallow here and depths can be as little as 20m for 50 miles off the coast. I arrived in Suriname after 21 days from the Cape Verdes.
I was in South America. I would never have imagined myself to be here - an adventure indeed! But some practical sailing matters to attend to. According to my chartplotter there were fish traps reaching a kilometre across my course into the mouth of the Suriname river. I kept a very sharp look out and noticed thin wooden structures stretching as far as I could see in both directions. I rushed down to turn the engine on and with all sails backed I urgently searched for a way through the traps and into the river, made more difficult by the shallow depth right across the mouth. I eventually entered the river and headed with the tide towards Paramaribo.
I glimpsed small fishing villages and colourful houses and boats amongst the trees along the banks. Dusk was falling and the jungle thickened as I motored further inland, accompanied by a chorus of bird calls and howler monkeys. I was heading towards Domburg, the small anchorage about 20 miles from the sea.
Eventually I came across a handful of yachts moored in the river. A torch flashed and a voice shouted, “Hey Glenn… that you?” My friends Tjaart and Pieter Jan were swiftly alongside in a tender helping me tie up to a buoy. Despite my interesting aroma and Stig of the Dump appearance after 21 days at sea, I was invited without ado on board Zouterik (once Koopman’s own boat) just as dinner and COLD beer was being served – imagine that! The best possible welcome.
To clear into Suriname we were warned in Dombourg to dress well – no T shirts, flip flops or shorts. I shared a taxi with a New Zealand couple and headed into Paramaribo to visit the harbour authorities, bank, police and customs, all in different offices scattered across the city. Jimmy the taxi driver and fixer made everything very easy although it took a whole morning to complete. The bustling city of Paramaribo, described by Lonely Planet as ‘Amsterdam meets the Wild West,’ is home to half of Suriname’s 500,000 population and the historic quarter is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The Suriname River was Humber-coloured and busy with tramp steamers and small ferries. A dead anaconda drifted passed the boat followed a short time later by a whole tree. Brightly coloured birds landed in the rigging and I found butterflies inside the cabin. On shore, hummingbirds buzzed around the bushes.
After a week in Suriname though, the stifling heat and humidity was getting to me and I was eager to move on. Four or five boats left the same day and we all headed for Tobago. Anders the Swede and Guido the Dutchman raced their boats at full tilt down the river and out to sea, laughing and joking over the VHF. Offshore I had a steady 1.5 knot current with me, and with strong winds at night it made for a fast passage and I covered the 470 miles to Tobago in three days, with dozens of solid squalls and very heavy, sea-flattening rain. There were many rig ships and larger fishing vessels, which made me nervous and brought to mind piratical encounters in waters not very far north of here.
In the late evening of January the 20th I saw the loom of the lights of Tobago, the Caribbean! In the early hours I hove-to to grab some sleep and make my landfall in daylight the following morning as I always tried to do. I rounded St Giles island off the north east point as local fishermen were heading out for the day, all waved at me as we passed, a very good first impression. I anchored close to the beach in Pirate’s bay at Charlottesville among the little floating community. Guido had arrived the previous night and came over at 8am with the traditional ‘anchor beer’
Charlotteville in the north of Tobago was a neat and colourful little village wrapped around a cricket ground on which chickens roamed freely. We had BBQs and beers on the beach and built a verandah for Son Son’s sailors’ bar with bamboo cut from the forest. I spent hours photographing the birdlife, all of which was new to me. Square riggers arrived daily in the bay and were a spectacular sight.
I sailed on to Grenada after a week in Tobago. The south coast was fringed with excellent anchorages in long shallow bays. Most boats anchor when in the Caribbean and the mangroves were thick with liveaboards. Grenada, like most islands, had it’s morning VHF radionet where sailors called in to share any news. It seemed very American and at times a touch saccharine, but nevertheless very useful and became quite addictive.
I left St George’s, the Grenadan capital, on starboard tack, as is nearly all sailing when heading north through the Caribbean. Guido’s ‘Morgaine’ was alongside as we romped up towards Ronde island. We snorkelled the kaleidoscopic reefs off the beach in Cornstore Bay on the west coast of this deserted island. I found an ancient mother-of-pearl covered bottle in the sand, and still have it. The next morning we headed out north across the channel to Carriacou. Reaching in 18 knots of warm easterly breeze was perfect sailing for Plancius. I engaged the Windpilot and enjoyed the ride.
Stunning Tyrell Bay on Carriacou was full of boats, all facing east into the prevailing wind. I anchored as close in as I could get and was met by Tony Meakin (Cariad), who lived on the island. I liked Carriacou enormously. The skies were deep blue and the seas pale turquoise. I spearfished lobsters under the boat and travelled by cheap taxi vans all over the island. I explored the mangroves in the dinghy and in the evening we had beers and fried chicken at Lucky’s and watched the sunsets for the green flash. There were no boat boys to hassle the new arrivals and everyone had a smile for you. I could see why Tony chose to live here.
The Tobago Cays in St Vincent and the Grenadines are one of the jewels of the Caribbean. I cleared in to Union island and the following morning joined the succession of yachts sailing into the Tobago Cays Marine Park, I passed through a gap in the reef and was dazzled by the beauty of the place. Such intense blues! I paid the park’s daily fee to the warden and walked the small island of Baradal and swam with the turtles off its shore. I weighed anchor and sailed along the reefs to Saltwhistle Bay on Mayreau, the most beautiful beach so far, but was put off by dozens of charter catamarans, some motoring at full speed just a couple of metres away, helmsman waving apologetically.
Bequia was the sailing meccas I particularly wanted to visit, and Admiralty Bay at Port Elizabeth is a superb anchorage completely protected from the easterlies that sweep the islands. I anchored conveniently next to the floating bar in about 4 metres of crystal clear water. There were perhaps a hundred and fifty yachts here and many of my Dutch friends were close by. As with most of the other Caribbean islands this year the sargassum weed had been a real problem with banks of weed up to a metre thick covering the bays and beaches on the east of the island. Teams of young men were employed to fork it into trailers to be taken and used as fertiliser on the fields.
Sailing up the chain of islands was fast and often bumpy. In the lee of the islands the sea calmed but gusts of strong winds dropped down from the hills and mountains and could catch the unweary. Fortunately the change in the surface of sea pointed out any sudden changes. As I approached Wallilabou Bay on St Vincent, boat boys waited at the headland in their skiffs in just such gusts. They would zoom up to yachts and very pushily insist you follow them into the bay. I declined their help but anchored there anyway. This was the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, and I suppose rich pickings were to be had. "I was in the film you know, so was my boat, buy a Jack Sparrow necklace? No? Mango then?”
I made my way north to Portsmouth on Dominica to meet friends who shared my birthday. When I walked along the main street I was shocked at the damage hurricane Maria had wrought. Every third or fourth roof was still missing, 18 months later.
When I got to Antigua I fell in love. I sat on my foredeck everyday and just stared at her. Her lines captivated me. At the dock in Falmouth Harbour no more than 80 metres from me was the gorgeous J-class Velsheda. She was here for the classic yacht regatta along with some of the most stunning yachts in the world, and I rowed drooling under her lovely bow to the dinghy dock 2 or 3 times a day for a week.
I was invited to crew aboard Morgaine for the regatta, never having raced before. I was designated as bowman and began training. I was sent off to the bow with the Dutch crew muttering something about Brexit. Despite my initial enthusiasm, it soon became obvious that racing is not for me and I jumped ship, far too hectic and shouty!
The return crossing
After four months in the Caribbean it was time to turn the boat to the east again and sail home. My departure point was the island of St Martin/St Maarten. I fuelled up and filled all my tanks and plastic bottles with water and then anchored off the marina. I had my daily swim, had a good meal and left St Martin around two in the afternoon. I had to pass Anguilla which very roughly lies west/east. I had a choice of passing the western end with its many reefs, or to go to windward and round its eastern end, I decided to tack eastwards up the Anguilla channel and spent 10 beautiful hours closing and then leaving the coast of Anguilla. Lovely sailing before I was clear of the island and could head north. I felt stupidly happy. I stared at the wheeling stars and with my mind so uncluttered I believed the secrets of the cosmos were mine alone.
The next five days were hot! The sea was a beautiful turquoise and the wind was a steady F4 and I sailed on into the heat in my birthday suit.
Two hundred miles south east of Bermuda I made my turn and headed east across the Atlantic towards the Azores. This would be the most challenging stretch of water I had yet sailed. Even in the summer, gales and messy weather trundles eastwards, punctuated by the flattest of calms. I had no weather forecasting but even so, could not sail fast enough to look for good weather or try to escape the bad stuff, so would have to take whatever came my way. Anyway, by this time I was confident in my heavy weather tactics and of course Plancius was a very strong sea boat in which I had perfect faith.
Sure enough, about 500 miles south of the Grand Banks the first gale arrived. The wind and waves built steadily and within 8 hours or so I had 10m seas. At first Plancius managed these conditions easily but eventually the crashing motion was shaking the fillings from my teeth so I decided to employ my favourite tactic and I hove-to. The boat’s violent movement ceased immediately - I was hove-to for 20 hours.
In light winds a few days later, a target showed on my AIS, the first a had had for over a week. It’s strange but in the middle of the ocean I latched onto any problem I thought might stimulate or entertain me. Few details were being displayed, but a boat was approaching from the west at 11 knots. All the ships I had seen at sea sailed at between 13 and 20 knots so this was an enigma. I thought it could possibly be a biggish sailing vessel, so I wondered… I looked at the AIS screen again and the vessel’s name displayed – my old friend Velsheda. I scanned the western horizon and could just make out a sail. I kept my eyes peeled and 10 minutes later she sailed majestically past a few miles to the south, she was hull-down but her huge spinnaker, the Dutch flag, showed proudly above the horizon. I was awestruck, a wonderful sight.
For most of the crossing there were Portugese man o’wars, like small, pale pink and blue party balloons, every boat length or so – it occurred to me that if I were to fall in here, the danger would be from these, not sharks or the cold! Between the gales there were beautiful but maddening mirror calms when I could see any disturbance on the ocean’s surface for miles around. An inquisitive young sperm whale surfaced 20m from the boat and scores of Atlantic spotted, bottle-nosed and common dolphins passed by regularly and stayed with me a few minutes each time, such a wonderful spectacle!
Around midnight on the 22nd of May, I arrived in Horta in the Azores after 26 days and 2700 miles from St Martin. I was excited to be here again, a most welcome mid-ocean stop! I find the islands utterly enchanting and Horta is one of my favourite places. Such amazing marine wildlife, beautiful scenery and a friendly melting pot of crazy sunburnt characters. The following night I was sharing drinks and a meal in Peter’s Café Sport with a Swede, a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Turkmenistani, all singlehanders and drawn together by some invisible force.
I departed Horta and ghosted north for 3 days to find my westerlies. During a calm I thought it prudent to motor to look for wind, and having just dropped the cruising chute, a line became tangled around the propshaft (luckily not the prop). I used the GoPro on the broomhandle to see exactly what had happened. It didn’t look too bad but this was a first for me and tried all the tricks I had read about and even considered jumping in to try to free it. I decided to tape my sharpest knife to the broom handle and fumbled about and tried to imagine where I was cutting. Amazingly after just a minute a so of sawing the line was cut and I was free.
I picked up reliable westerlies earlier and more south than expected and made good time sailing goose winged under full sail, at least during daylight.
In the Western Approaches one night, I quickly became aware of the presence of cetaceans by noises I could hear through the hull, but this time something was different, the rhythm and strength of click was not the dolphins I was used to. I rushed up to the cockpit and after a few seconds I could make out the dark shapes of a pod of five or six Pilot whales breaking the surface alongside the boat. I leant over the rail and stared down into the darkness. A meter or two under me the Blackfish that swam lazily had turned to pale spectral shapes in the bioluminescence. For a few wonderful minutes I was completely entranced by the proximity of these beautiful ghostly images - what an amazing but eerie privilege!
Approaching the Celtic Sea and the traffic began to build up. I was seeing more fishing trawlers, lots of them French. I began my kitchen timer watch system of napping for 15 minutes then scanning the horizon and the AIS screen then resetting the two timers (in case one of them failed). The temperature became cooler and the vista greyer. Seas were occasionally rough enough for me to have to heave -to for short periods. I watched the coast of Ireland appear and darken into a solid entity and I felt the effects of the first tides since Gibraltar the previous September. The mountains of Snowdonia were gradually unveiled and began to stretch further and further across the eastern horizon.
On the 7th of June and after one year, 11000 miles, 11 countries, 4 continents, and 127 bottles of rum later, the circle was complete and I rounded the breakwater at Holyhead with my teeth chattering and half a gale at my heels, the ubiquitous dolphins welcoming me back into the Irish Sea and home.