Saturday, 26 January 2013

Passage to Cabo Verde

We're in Mindelo! It felt disconcerting leaving Gran Tarajal after so long in the harbour, and it was a windy day, so it was good to have a few hours in the lee of Fuerteventura to get used to things in slightly gentler conditions.  The passage plan to Mindelo was about the simplest possible: leave the harbour, steer 224 degrees for about 890 Miles, then turn left for Mindelo breakwater!

Going well with our downwind rig
We put up just the genoa for the first night before trying out our proper downwind rig of two headsails, one poled out to either side (we use the boom to hold out the roller genoa to leeward, with the sheet run through the end , and our spinnaker pole for a number 2/3 sized sail to windward hanked on to a removable inner forestay, all held together with a slightly complicated arrangement of snatch blocks and vangs).
We’ve been refining our watch system as we go on, but seem to have settled on three-hour watches overnight and four hours in the day, with whoever is coming off watch at the appropriate time making lunch (1300) or supper (1700).  This rotates our watches each day and means we’re both up at the same time for about an hour at meal times, although in practice we stay up for more of the day once we’ve got into things.  There’s not actually that much to do with Wilhelm, our superb Windpilot, doing all the steering.  The iPod sees an awful lot of use, and we have a great stock of Radio 4 programmes to listen to.  It was still fairly chilly at night nearly all the way down, which made getting dressed for watches a bit of a chore (full waterproofs and fleece hats being the order of the day).  We were expecting nights to be a bit warmer by now!  The nights are quite long – on this trip it got dark from about 1800 and the sun didn’t rise until nearly 0800 – but once the sun is up the warmth sets in quickly. 

Rolling along..

The first three days were great sailing, with completely cloudless skies, reasonable seas and a good NE force 4-5 wind.  The downwind rig was working very well, and we weren’t rolling too much (most of the time..) as long as we kept both sails up.  We didn’t need to touch the sails or the steering at all, and just kept going comfortably.  I started to hope the whole passage would be like this, but on the night of the third day out the wind increased and a big swell came in.  We started to see some interesting speeds going down wavefronts (8.8  knots being the record!) until we got down the second headsail in the morning to get things under control.  The sea was quite confused, with 3-4 metre waves coming from two or even three directions at once, creating an unpredictable and sometimes violent motion.  On the second night of this, the self steering started to respond poorly and, assuming it just couldn’t cope with the waves, we disconnected it.  Steering downwind was hard work;  too far one way and the genoa would start to flap, but a few degrees off the other way would catch the wind on the wrong side and bring it across with a loud bang (this happened a couple of times, which was more than enough).  Exocet-like waves would come rushing out of the darkness, sometimes passing harmlessly beneath us, but sometimes catching Limbo off-guard and shoving her over.  I stayed on the helm for 8 hours or so while Natalie tried to get some sleep, but this wasn’t going to work for long: conditions weren’t extreme, but we had to calm things down a bit just to have a break.
We rolled away most of the genoa, which brought the speed down, but the downside was the sense that we might not now have enough control to stay stern-on to the waves rather than being slewed sideways.  The classic thing to do in this situation is to drag some warps over the stern, which helped a bit, but we were still doing 3 or 4 knots.  We carry a Seabrake drogue, so I thought we’d try that (after a bit of a struggle getting it out of our overcrowded cockpit locker..).  Put out from one quarter, on the end of about 40m of rope, it did exactly what it was meant to and provided a very strong, steady pull on the stern which brought our speed down to under one knot and let us sit almost still, the waves passing under us.  We still needed someone on the helm to keep us facing properly downwind, but it was a lot more manageable.  The only downside – and it was a big downside – was that the slower, lurching motion made us (particularly me) very seasick.  This defeated the object of the whole exercise, which was to make things more comfortable and get some rest.  Nevertheless, we put up with it until dawn and I got some very poor sleep on a sailbag on the cabin floor, where the motion was less than in a bunk!  It had calmed down a bit in the morning (one wave passing under us had showed 28 knots of speed on the log), and we wanted to get moving again.  Getting the drogue in again involved reversing down on the line under power, which worked surprisingly well.  It was still rough and rolly, but we knew it was calming down (a friend at home sends us text weather forecasts via our Yellowbrick tracker when we’re on passage – thanks Rob!).  With hindsight, we should have just carried on sailing, but trying out the Seabrake was at least a useful exercise..

The rest of the passage was more comfortable.  We discovered that the problem with the steering gear was due to the bolt attaching the tiller lines having come almost unscrewed, which just took a few minutes to fix.  It was great to have Wilhelm back, and we relaxed again.  The wind dropped a bit then went back up to about force 5 for the next couple of days.  The waves were still confused, and we rolled horribly at times, but it’s amazing what you (almost) get used to…

A (formerly) surprised squid
The sky had gone from being cloudless to overcast and hazy, with poor visibility.  This was the harmattan, bring desert sand over from Africa, and the sun was hidden from view.  It was feeling warmer, and with good progress and plenty of water left, we had good freshwater washes in the cockpit.  Natalie was surprised one night by the sound of desperate flapping at her feet: a flying fish had visited!  This was our second, much larger than the first one which had come to an unfortunate end in the scuppers.  We managed to rescue it and put it back.  Apart from various things landing on our deck at night (a squid, an unidentified 6-inch long fish which looked like a miniature barracuda, and the flying fish), we didn’t see much wildlife on this passage.  We saw dolphins two or three times – once at night – but had none of the prolonged visits we’d enjoyed before.

An unidentified but probably quite surprised fish

Flying fish!
Around 6 days out, it looked as if we should just be able to get in before dark on Friday, day 8. I didn’t want to slow down and wait another night, so we pressed on and had another good couple of days’ runs.  The approaches to the Cape Verdes are well-known for poor visibility, but it was still disconcerting to be just 6 miles off and still not have spotted any signs of land at all… We finally saw the hazy silhouette of San Antao, a higher island to the east of our destination Sao Vicente.  The latter was harder to spot, but we eventually saw its grey outline in the dimming sunset.  The wind had been increasing, and we got our running poles down and gybed so we were just under the roller genoa.  We were expecting stronger winds in the channel between the islands, but the seas were also building, and we had quite a wild last couple of hours with force 7 gusts and some steep following waves.  The sun was setting too, making it all look fairly bleak and grey.  A prominent rocky islet just off the harbour makes an excellent landmark, and by 1830 we were motoring round the breakwater.

We're quite proud of our home-made courtesy flag
Arriving in Mindelo (passage time 8 days and about 5 hours) was fantastic; not just because of the satisfaction of having completed a long passage, but because it felt properly exotic.  The air was warmer, the harbour surrounded by dusty hills with jagged summits.  Fishing boats were pulled up under the palm trees on the beach, backed with balconied colonial buildings.  Our home-made courtesy flag at the spreaders, we anchored among the other yachts, inshore of some rusty tramp steamers.  We were in Africa! 

Mindelo anchorage
Relaxing in the Club Nautico

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating account and sounds like you remained calm despite the helter skelter ride ! The experience you are having is what 99% sailors only ever think about. Congratulations.