Departing St. Helena Island at 1500 January 16, we knew we’d done everything possible to make this, our longest passage ever, safe and trouble-free. In addition to our 260 l of fuel in the main tank, we had an additional 140 l in jerry cans, which were stowed both in our anchor locker and cockpit lazarette. Since we were crossing the equator at some point, we knew the doldrums, extending several hundred miles either side of the 0 degrees latitude, would becalm us several days, and we needed fuel capacity for that eventuality. Additionally, we had dropped and inspected our sails, gone aloft to check and clean the rod rigging, installed new chafe protection on our genoa halyard, and were confident all systems on board were functioning well.
Amazingly, we pretty much nailed it this time, arriving one day before we had planned, and with almost ¼ tank of diesel remaining. It was a long, tedious journey, crossing not only the entire Atlantic Ocean, but also going from 15 degrees south latitude all the way to 13 degrees north, 1,680 nautical miles just with the south to north component. The entire trip was 3,900 NM. To conserve battery power, hence fuel, we hand steered most of the time the sails were deployed. This was fun as long as the wind blew, but awfully tiresome in light airs. Standing a 5-hour watch, then resting for another 5, then back at the helm again, and repeating this routine nonstop for 22 days, sometimes I felt like a robot. My feet got numb from standing on teak and not moving for hours on end. I wore the same Mt. Gay Rum T-shirt almost the entire trip, hosing myself off, shirt included, with our cockpit shower on hot, still days around the Equator. This not only turned my torso into an air conditioning unit, as the breeze from our boat speed evaporated the water on my T-shirt, but it also did my laundry. With all fresh food consumed after 4 days, we luckily caught dorado for the next 4, which was a treat with our pantry offering nothing but pasta, canned chili, tuna, salmon, chicken peri-peri, and chicken curry, which we ate at least twice daily.
Night watches were our favorites, with relief from the sun, cool breezes and either moonlight or starlight making headlamps unnecessary. When we hit the Horse Latitudes around the equator, so named because in days of yore, crews becalmed for weeks in this zone were forced to eat their livestock on board to survive, we fired up our reliable little 55 hp Volvo diesel, which saved us from a similar fate. Good we had that, since we had no livestock on board.
When the engine was on, which it was constantly for 4 days in the doldrums, we read a lot, or studied French on the Babel language app. We have both, since leaving San Diego March 3, plowed through the entire course, and are now brushing up on idioms and vocabulary. While neither of us can understand native French speakers, we can decipher most of the written language, and probably get by making our wishes knows in a French-speaking country. With St. Martin, Guadalupe, and Martinique on the itinerary, we are looking forward to taking off the training wheels and seeing how we do.
Many nights, when I wasn’t tending the wheel surfing down wave faces, I found myself lying in the cockpit, just looking at the waves, the stars, and the moon. After the first week at sea, the Big Dipper began appearing in the northern sky, something we hadn’t noticed for many months in the south latitudes. The Southern Cross shines diametrically opposed to the Dipper, but the North Star has remained below the horizon thus far. While it’s such a cliché to speak of realizing one’s insignificance while contemplating the vastness of the universe, being thousands of miles from another living soul on a 44’ boat does focus one’s perspective. I thought about how far we have sailed, all the people and places we have seen, and how, after being essentially a feral creature wearing nothing but board shorts for the past year, I will assimilate back into polite society.
On Day 21 of our passage, knowing our circumnavigation was within 100 NM of completion, I made some log entries of things for which I was either most grateful or by which I was pleasantly surprised. Our mechanical equipment did great, including, in no particular order, our Raymarine Autopilot, which in spite of being over 6 years old, steered magnificently over 22,000 miles without fail. Our Volvo diesel, while stalling several times due to fuel line problems, ran perfectly for over 1500 hours since San Diego. Our new Raymarine GPS/Chart Plotter/Radar was wonderful, but the touch screen function failed in wet weather. Our North 3di Dacron sails I bought before the trip still look like new after 22,000 miles. They have seen some awfully heavy weather. Our bottom paint, Petit Pro Trinidad new in Marina del Rey December, 2019, has held up perfectly. Even our boat’s fiberglass hull, freshly waxed one year ago, gleams like new. The Swan itself, I was not surprised, proved as bullet-proof as its reputation, and handles huge seas easily. Driving that boat through steep, confused seas, “Nor’easter” seems like it’s actually dancing with the waves, and the helmsman is but a spectator.
The fact for which I am most thankful, however, is that neither Travis nor I have sustained even one minor injury on board whatsoever. We have been hit by a rogue wave, beaten into 4 meter seas off Africa’s Wild Coast, changed sails single-handedly on a pitching, wet foredeck in the middle of the night, taken down hour-glassed, hopelessly tangled spinnakers in high winds, and transferred sails and fuel cans to fellow cruisers in distress, always in big seas, and never once gotten hurt. The elaborate medical kit my doctor friends provided me, plus my lessons in suturing lacerations, have, thankfully, gone unused. While we are highly experienced sailors, knowing with great certainty that one lapse in concentration can be fatal, I believe we were extremely lucky this trip was so easy.
As I write this, Travis, his friend Brian, who joined us in Barbados, and I are moored off a turtle sanctuary in the Tobago Cays, Grenadine Islands. Tomorrow we go scuba diving, then head to Grenada, from whence Brian flies home and I meet my wife, Jamie. Travis will soon get a job as Mate/Engineer on, hopefully, a large sailing yacht, and Jamie and I will cruise the Caribbean until I take the boat north mid-May. While I still have a chunk of ocean to cover between here and Newport, RI, having chartered, raced, and cruised these azure waters almost annually since the early 1980’s, Travis and my great adventure of the past 11 months is essentially over. My next trans-oceanic passage, according to my son, will be helping him on whatever sailing yacht he happens to be delivering. Then I’ll have to do things HIS way!