Sailing in the South Atlantic
We left Rio on a Saturday, September 10th at 1400. The entrance of Guanabara bay is quite narrow and just when the fleet was crossing it, a big ship was coming in! I can imagine how surprised the pilot was when he saw 10 sailing boats heading towards him. The ship started to blast her horn non-stop, it was quite dramatic! The whole fleet decided to tack away, except us. We crossed the ship and tacked close to Santa Cruz Fort.
The great circle (the shortest distance between two points on a sphere surface) between Rio and Cape Town passes through the center of the South Atlantic High Pressure zone, an area that usually has light winds. Therefore there is a tactival trade off; stay close to the great circle and sail a shorter distance, but possibly into lighter winds or head more south and get stronger winds but sail a longer course. Some of the boats stayed closer to the great circle and others headed more south. We decided to sail in between and adjust our tactics along the way.
When we left Rio, the GRIB files showed that we would pass through the northern part of a low pressure system that was moving from west to east below latitude 40 South. I don't think anyone was prepared to what we got! For 3 consecutive days (Sept 16 - 18) we were hit by a series of squalls with gusts over 40 knots, we had 25 to 38 knot winds, big seas with waves up to 20 ft (7 m) and to make things worse, we were heading upwind! The boat was constantly pounding, water all over the deck, everything getting wet! The South Atlantic decided to show its teeth!
I've sailed through bad weather before, but usually it was just for a couple of hours and at night I was always in a safe harbor. This was a new experience to me; three consecutive days of bad weather! You don't get much sleep, you get tired, you get wet all the time and to move around in the boat is a challenge. Things start breaking and some of them we have to fix on the spot. The bilges keep filling up with water and we have to keep pumping out. As an example, on the second day of the storm, when it was already dark and at the last 30min of my watch, the yankee sheet broke. I was driving when it happened. We tacked and then the skipper took over the helm. I, Martin, Loyd and Roberto had to go to the bow to take down the yankee. It was a big challenge! The apparent wind was 25 knots, the bow was jumpimg up and down and we were constantly being washed by waves. We had to fight to tie down the yankee. When we finally came back to the stern, the skipper noticed that the wind had thrown the yankee over the lifelines. We had to go back and tie it down to the deck.
During these days I have also experienced the most challenging driving up to now. One night when I took the helm, it was a constant strugle to keep the boat on course and avoid it rounding up
(heading into the wind). The main sail was already on reef 2, but it was time to move to reef 3. When a squall approached and the gust hit 40 knots, the boat rounded up and she did not want to bear away, even though I had the wheel turned all the way to port. We stayed head to wind, heeled and with the main sail flogging for a good one minute. Finally I was able to bear away, but after that the skipper came on deck and we put the third reef. It wasn't easy! The skipper hanging to the mast to hank on the reef, the boat pounding, spray everywhere... Welcome to ocean racing!
We have also experienced very big swells. At their peak I would say that they were from 15 to 20 feet high ( 5 to 7 m). In order to minimize pounding when I was driving, I head up when going up the swell and beared away when going down. The skipper Gareth, Adrian and Ian had to take down the storm jib and it was very hard!
After 3 days of heavy weather, we finally left the low pressure system and started sailing towards a high pressure zone. The sun showed up, the wind came down and the seas calmed down. The crew morale improved and we started to clean up and fix the boat. We pumped out lots of water from the bilges and lazarette, took cushions and sleeping bags out to dry in the sun and fixed some instruments. It is amazing how things break down fast when the weather goes bad. It is a lot of pressure and a lot of tension for too long! Some of the wave pounding is so loud that it seems that the boat will split in half! No wonder you need a very sturdy vessel to safely cross the oceans.
We were now close the Tristan da Cunha islands; a set of volcanic islands where lives the most remote community in the world! The closest city is Cape Town 1500 NM away. It is a British protectorate where only 300 people live, descendants from the first habitants who came 200 years ago. The South Atlantic pilot guide says that it is a place stopped in time, well worth a visit. Unfortunately we passed 30 NM away and we could not see it. Edinburgh boat sailed much closer and the skipper described the Inaccessible island, an island surrounded by cliffs 350 feet high, as "something out of myths and legends". It must be a sight to see!
A new tactical decision had to be made; head north closer to the great circle or south towards the islands. Going north would bring us back to head winds again. Heading south would bring us to the westerlies and downwind sailing. We decided to head south.Two other boats did the sane, Welcome to Yorkshire and Singapore.
The next couple of days sailing was beautiful! Sunny, but a bit chilly, good 15 to 20 knots winds, calm seas and we got lifted and passed north of the island. We were heading now east towards Cape Town.
However our tactics did not work! After passing Tristan da Cunha, we hit a wind hole for 18 hs (avg speed 4.5 knots), while the boats at north had good wind. That was a killer! The strategy of going south wasn't working and we decided to head north. The wind filled in and backed and then we started heading east, straight to Cape Town. We were reaching on 30 knots fo winds, making an average of 11 knots. At this point we were 7th.
We sailed east for 5 days, straight towards Cape Town. WTY was in 8th and they kept sailing a bit faster than us and getting closer. They won the ocean sprint (we were second by 30 min difference) and headed more south than us. On the last day, when we had 200 NM to Cape Town, they ended up having a better angle and passed us. We arrived in Cape Town on Thursday at 0600 in 8th place, after 18 days of sailing accross the South Atlantic.