The UK’s Brexit vote had a serious negative effect on our journey. I’ll say no more!
The next part of the journey was going to be unplanned and a serious commitment. My choice was to head for the Mediterranean with very tight Schengen time. Or head South for the Caribbean, a year earlier than we’d planned.
The stormy voyage across the Bay of Biscay was my wife’s first and last, long-distance crossing. I was on my own if I wanted to head South for the Caribbean.
Our original plan, years previous to Brexit. We would travel South. Down the West coast of the UK, over the Channel to France, head South across the Bay of Biscay to North Spain and onto Portugal, head East along the Algarve and the South Atlantic coast of Spain, then through the Straights of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean.
Our first choice was to head to Gibraltar. Stop in one of the 2 marinas and wait for good weather. Then through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, for Manilla, which was an Enclave of Spain but would allow us in without signing into Schengen. We could stay for 3 months, accumulate more Schengen time and carry on to Tunisia and further into the Med.
Our choices soon became no choice. Restricted time of 90 days in the Schengen area, no visitors’ moorings in Gibraltar (the only non-Schengen area on our journey), COVID restrictions in Morocco (no pleasure craft allowed in the marinas). We had no time left in Europe, no bolt holes, and nowhere to go. I had to head South and the Caribbean, with the 5 days Schengen I had remaining.
The journey from Lagos to Antigua was all Atlantic Ocean and more than 3,600 nautical miles. The first voyage to Gran Canaria was 630nm, of the total mileage and the shortest leg. About 6 full days and I knew in my mind, once I’d completed the first leg of this journey there was no turning back for me.
Sailing single-handed wasn’t for me at the moment. I was going to need a crew and luckily, people looking for Transatlantic crossings on sailboats were popular in Lagos and Portimão. I soon found 1 German “Moe”, 1 English “Clare” and 1 Ukrainian “Yuliya”. After a few weeks of getting to know each other and were all happy to start our epic journey.
The voyage from Lagos to Las Palmas was the shortest. If anyone didn’t fit, I could make more informed decisions on the crew in the Canaries. Things were going well.
Completing the maintenance and checking the boat over was my next job. Whilst I was busy, the crew had the task of purchasing supplies and storing them on the boat.
The weather had delayed us for over a month now, but finally, a window appeared at the beginning of January. I let the crew know to be ready for the 4th of Jan. My preferred weather prediction app showed the wind changing to Northerly in the afternoon. It was looking fairly strong at 30-38kts but mellowing a touch as the week progressed. It was the best chance we’d had for a long time. The Portuguese Trade Winds were back and it looked like they would be staying for the foreseeable future.
It was now January 4th, 2022, I took a good look at the wind prediction app. It was looking good.
Over the last few months, storms had been forming in the West and moving North one after another. Strong winds blowing in all directions.
I made my last checks on the weather, the wave heights, and direction. The raging storms had been creating an Easterly moving swell, showing 2.6-4 meters high in the Bay of Cadiz and 4-5 meters in the North Atlantic. Not very comfortable and maybe dangerous on a long South moving voyage.
It just wasn’t worth the gamble. The direction was now starting to show a Southerly direction, where it mattered. It was time to go!!!
Waiting all of December was very frustrating but I’d learned my lesson. After a few months of traveling South, from Cumbria in the UK to the Algarve, I’d made mistakes by rushing to set off. Sailing on long journeys when the wind was wrong and the rain was lashing down had cost us a lot of time and made things very uncomfortable for my wife and I. Sit it out and enjoy a rest was my motto now.
Using a Wind Prediction App and planning a few days ahead. You can be fairly sure what you’re in for, especially useful if you intend to anchor. Wind prediction apps are something you get used to if you’re using them on a daily basis but always be cautious.
I was constantly being asked if we could set off by the crew but I’d absolutely no doubt that waiting for a fair wind, and considerate waves, was the right thing to do. Leaving before the weather was right could make things very uncomfortable for a lot longer than needed. I even doubted myself in the end, thinking I was making excuses for not setting off.
The 4th had arrived. It was time to move the boat from our mooring in the marina to the visitor’s mooring, ready for our 16.00h start. I turned ON the electric drive and Moe cast off the mooring ropes. I pushed the motor control forward and finally after more than a month, we silently guided off the mooring, under power with no fumes or vibration, and headed through the marina to the visitors mooring, opposite the reception.
We arrived at the visitor’s mooring and met the crew, who commenced with loading the last of the supplies whilst I walked to the reception and organised clearance from Portugal.
I made my regular checks, all looked good and the batteries were 100%. We had roughly 1 mile of river, flowing in the right direction. I made my last weather check. After all, I’d said to the crew, I would still cancel if I saw any weather that could cause a disaster on the trip; all was good with the weather. The waves were already starting to move South on the Windy. The next few days looked good.
A guy on the boat next to us on the visitor’s pontoon had been listening and decided to pop over and say “have you seen the weather and wave report, it’s not good”, we had a quick chat but I was happy with my choice. We slipped the ropes. I engaged the electric drive and silently slid down the very windy river and into the Bay of Cadiz and the Atlantic. The wind was blowing about 30-35kts Northerly, the waves were uncomfortable but manageable.
It was 16.20h, not long before night would set in. We hoisted the sails with 2 reefs in the main and a partly reefed foresail. I shut the motor off and we were sailing South at 280 degrees, the wind on our port quarter.
Our first obstacle was going to be the Traffic Separation Zone off Cape St Vicente. It was very close to our route and looked very busy on the AIS. Something to look forward to later that evening.
The time was about 22:30hrs as we approached the TSZ, the swell was increasing as predicted and the wind was blowing hard. We had our first problem, due to the swell, and I suspect a meal the crew prepared before we left, everyone by now was suffering from seasickness.
The tiller pilot had started to struggle and wasn’t keeping us on course. I had a feeling the leisure battery was struggling. We would have to steer manually. Only Clare and I could manage to steer all night; the least affected by seasickness.
As we negotiated the Traffic Separation Zone, I remembered there was a modification I intended to make before we left Lagos. I had a 20amp DC to DC converter. A piece of equipment that will convert 48v which feeds the engine, to 12v used by the leisure system.
I was originally instructed it should be connected directly to the engine’s control box. Which meant the ignition had to be ON for it to work. I wanted to connect directly to the engine’s batteries, not the control box. I made a suggestion which was checked with the manufacturer, who authorised to connect directly to the 48v battery.
Ships were entering and leaving the T.S. Zone, one after another. We needed to sail East to give ourselves room and then South again.
It was a hard night, with heavy seas and strong winds. The other capable crew member, Clare, and I were exhausted. We’d navigated the Traffic Separation Zone and turned South towards the Canaries.
The initial night’s problems had cost us. Our first 24 hours were not as I expected, we’d only taken 80 nautical miles off this 635mile voyage.
Just thinking about manual steering for another 550 miles was more than I could cope with. I set about the modification whilst the crew sailed the boat South. I connected the DC-DC converter, directly to the 48v battery and made a connection to the tiller pilot. It worked perfectly from then on.
We were into day 2. The waves were getting higher but more Southerly, the tiller pilot was much more reliable and working well. The other 2 crew were still out for the count but we could now rest a little. The ride was now enjoyable, Ocean Strider was making easy work of the conditions we were flying.
The wind was taking us a little further West than I wanted but Ocean Strider was just eating up the miles. Our speed was constantly over 6kts, for a Cobra with twin keels, that was fast. It was as if somebody else was driving on a cushion of water. We were gracefully rising and falling of what seemed huge waves. The wind at times was 38-40kts we were running gull-winged. We covered almost 140 nautical miles, on a course of 237 degrees. Our second day passed without incident. I was so happy.
Our third day was much the same with the 2 sick crew who were not recovering well from seasickness. They did manage to sit up during their watches but both managed very little but sleep. We continued to sail, gull-winged, on a better course of 224 degrees. The wind speed had slightly reduced but we were still eating up the ground, 124 nautical miles covered in the third 24 hours. We were now doing better than expected. I prayed the wind would continue as it was.
It was our fourth day with the powerful Northerly, pushing us South for the Canaries. The miles were clicking away, the end total reducing by significant amounts every time I looked.
Dusk was upon us. I noticed a mast light on the horizon, the first we’d seen for a few days on this lonely ocean. I checked AIS and realised it was a friend Jeanette and I met in Porto sin, Spain. He’d contacted me before he left for the Canaries, to say he’d be setting off from the Rio Guadiana, (the Southern border of Portugal and Spain) that same afternoon. His light was a reassuring sight.
Another great 24 hours passed. Sails gull-winged, 134 nautical miles covered at 213 degrees. At the start I estimated our journey to Gran Canaria would take us 6-7 days, it was looking much better than that.
Day 5, the wind easing slightly, blowing North Easterly. Our average speed was down but the 24hour total was 113 nautical miles at 227 degrees. I couldn’t complain we were still making good progress and pretty much managing to keep on course.
On day 6, the wind was beginning to die. Only 70 miles to go, heading of 200 degrees. As long as the wind was taking us South, I was happy. We were moving slightly West of Las Palmas when the wind died completely. I was gutted, we were so close and I’d promised myself we wouldn’t use the electric motor to drive us through any calms.
However, we had just two hours of calm. It was with relief the wind started to pick up; first 10kts, then 15kts and more. We were on our way again with 70 miles to go. It’s a strange feeling, praying the wind will do its job and get you to your destination.
I’d contacted my wife on the satellite phone, during the calm. My way of checking the weather, for Las Palmas and a quick chat of course. We would be OK for wind but to my calculation, roughly 20 nautical miles off Las Palmas at approximately 05.00h. We would be perfect for 25-30kt Southerly on the nose.
I couldn’t let the thoughts of headwind delay us, we slogged on regardless. It was roughly 04.00h when we first spotted the lights of Gran Canarias. My longest voyage and time at sea. Those lights were a very welcome sight.
Then bang we were hit by a head-on storm in the dead of night. Not unexpected, I just didn’t realise it would be so instant. We were blindly smashing through waves, they were completely covering the boat with salt water, soaking Clare and me from head to toe. The wind always seems much stronger when head-on. After a short while a member of the off-duty crew, opened the hatch to see what was happening. We are OK, it’s just a bit of bad weather, please shut the hatch.
Ocean Strider was looking after us, it was a matter of trust.
The storm continued until day brake, then died as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving us to becalmed again. It was now 08.45, we were 9 miles away but there was no way I was going to use the drive now. We were going to sail to the harbor. I was too tired to think straight then Moe luckily picked up a signal and said there was a 10-15 knot wind expected at around 10.00h; it was an Easterly and perfect for getting us in. Thank you, weather apps.
In my state of drowsiness, it was almost like magic. The wind arrived dead on time. We sailed to the huge harbour wall, which protects Las Palmas harbour and marina. Then silently motored to the anchorage. The last day had been hard work but we’d made it in just over 5.5 days.
It was now time for a rest.