Longest.Passage.Ever.

Thursday October 2, 2014

calm water on Atlantic

Getting ready to leave Ponta Delgada, and extremely happy for a weather window to get ourselves someplace new, we turned on all the instruments and found the wind to be 14 kts at the docks. Perfect. We could put all sail up and have a nice comfortable ride. Getting into the harbor though, the winds had picked up dramatically, hovering around 25. We still decided to go for a full mainsail, and once that was up, we raised the staysail as well. Shutting off the engine we rocketed out of the harbor at 6 knots. It looked as if the wind strength was in our favor, but the direction however, was not. Coming straight out of the east, almost directly where we needed to go. Now forcing ourselves on a course of 160°, when we had been hoping for 100° or 110°, we moved along SSE, hoping the winds would change in the next few days. Even joking that we should move south to the Canaries and skip the Madeira group all together, we realized we were about 20° too far west of those as well.

For the beginning of this trip and when we were still close to land, I made sure to position myself behind the wheel so I could see any small fishing vessels in the wide harbor as we exited. Sitting in that position I had no protection from the wind, and sat shivering and wearing Matt’s oversized fleece, while keeping my foot positioned on the binnacle so I wouldn’t slide away in these rounds of waves and 15 degree heel. Once we were about ten miles offshore and I was safe in assuming we wouldn’t be passing any more small boats, I finally moved to the protection of the dodger and watched the island of Sao Miguel fade out behind me.

Through the night and into the next morning the winds began dying down a little which made the ride just a bit more comfortable. Then they died out completely. We were off to a less than aspicious beginning. So far we had gone just close enough in the right direction for it not to be considered the wrong direction, and now we weren’t going anywhere. We wanted to try and find out where the wind was hiding at so we could catch it, but the signal we were picking up from our weather fax gave us an image equivalent to an ink blot test and we were left scratching our heads on what it all meant. Luckily we had both my dad and our friend Jason sending us weather reports on our satellite phone, but we didn’t always know when they were coming and wanted to try to get some information from someone who was in the exact same spot as us. Although we’d never done it before we’ve heard that boaters will sometimes hail passing cargo and cruise ships to get weather reports. I was now willing to be one of those boats and spent a full day waiting for one to pass within range.

On Friday, two days out, I saw my first tanker and excitedly hailed them on the radio. Over and over and over I called an no one responded. A few hours later another cargo ship popped up on our AIS. I hailed the very Russian sounding name and was delighted to hear a response…until I asked them if they could give us a weather report and was met with a big fiat ‘Niet’. So we drifted aimlessly along in hopes that the winds would eventually fill in. Sunday they began to pick up a bit more, but of course still on our nose. During the night I was able to call a cargo ship that was kind enough to acquiesce my request for weather, but it was not looking good. Matching the latest update from my dad, taking from Passage Weather, we were in for some heavy wind and waves and not in a direction that was going to be any help for us.

I’ll just give you the short hand over the next few days. Suffice to say that even though we have actually been on passages longer than this, it will still go down in my memory as the longest one we’ve ever encountered. The trip itself was supposed to be about 560 miles, or in anyone’s average traveling, about 5 days. This trip ended up taking us 9!! That’s almost double. During all these days at sea we were barley able to point toward our end target of Porto Santo, Portugal, of the Madeira Island Group. Originally planning on keeping a course of 130° the whole way from Ponta Delgada, we were never once able to come close to it. On good days we were 30-35° off, and most days it was closer to 50 or 60.  There were a few hours, the ones that almost brought me to tears, that we were actually heading either NE or SW, more than 90 degrees off course, because the wind seemed to be coming from every direction we turned. To add insult to injury, the waves were beginning to build and any speed we had been maintaining took a dramatic drop. Punching into the waves, we were left with speeds at or just over 2 knots. This trip was turning into a nightmare.

At the beginning of the trip we had considered just turning ourselves around and waiting for a better weather window, but watching the storm that would undoubtedly pass through every few days, we knew that staying that far north might guarantee us a permanent spot there through the winter. No matter how long or tough it would be, we had to keep pushing south towards fairer weather.

The only part that worried us was the forecast that kept coming in from my dad telling us that things were going to get worse before they got any better. Both wind and waves were going to continue to build, and if we could help it, we should get ourselves into a harbor by Thursday or Friday. Around that time winds would finally begin shifting further east and then north, but they were also going to bring confused seas with them, ambushing us from every direction. Not only that, but going from Thursday into Friday they were going to build up to 4m, or just over 12 feet.

Let me just tell you that things did get worse before they got better. In fact, there was a time for me when things were pretty damn bad. Then… they got pretty damn good. And then they got a little worse again. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

Georgie on passage

 I don’t know how she can even find that comfortable.

sunset while sailing

storm over calm waters

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