Category Archives: At sea

Last night I got hit in the head by a flying fish ….

As I sit to write this entry the clutter and hustle of The Gambia has fallen in our wake. The rattle of donkey carts, the call to prayer resounding from the mosques and the constant shout of “toubab” (white person) from the street urchins has been replaced by the gentler cadence of a different nation. Here in Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands the streets are redolent with the swing of salsa music emanating from the colonial buildings clustered of a pristine blue bay surrounded by hazy barren slopes. The cobbled streets are immaculately clean and the populace seems charged with an energy that seemed to be lost amidst the poverty and dirt of West Africa. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the time we spent in the Gambia – but then again the change of pace and scenery has been a balm to our souls.

Not that getting here was exactly easy though!

first landAfter throwing down the anchor in Lamin Lodge I guess we cast away our sea legs and thus getting prepared for the five-day passage to Cape Verde was a little stressful, especially considering the constant entropy involved in keeping a steel boat tied up in a tropical estuary. Preparation involved righting a plethora of small wrongs and when we finally pulled up the anchor (along with a few kilos of black mud that are still ingrained under my fingernails) we were a little nervous as the sea-swell started to roll under our hull once again.

not-happy-dogAnd it didn’t help that the gentle swell in the mouth of the estuary rapidly picked up to constant near gale conditions with an occasional gale force squall of rain! None-the-less Widdershins bravely took to the Atlantic Ocean and was soon sliding over the wind-whipped waves with a grace that was somewhat absent from the three intrepid explorers staggering around on deck! Leonie was a little green for the first day and Captain Sparrow was trying hard to develop a facial expression that conveyed disappointment, bewilderment and exasperation as she staggered around the heaving deck. As for me I was simply holding tightly to the helm as regular waves smashed over the cockpit and the occasional flying fish clattered on the deck or in one instance smacked solidly into the side of my head!

The passage was not without the expected contingent of equipment breaking after a long layover. In addition to small breakages, leaks and electric malfunctions, I was somewhat startled to see a red strobe light flashing down below decks in the early hours of one morning. After a few panicked calls to the sleeping Leonie about “what the ^”&*is that!” it became apparent that our EPIRB had decided on its own that near gale force winds was simply too much like hard work. In an effort to escape the situation it had decided to alert the world that we were in imminent danger and required immediate rescue! Whilst Leonie and I were a little wet and tired, we disagreed …. So after various curses, a consultation to the instruction manual (helpfully in Norwegian) we resolved the situation by disconnecting the battery of the EPIRB and trying to call Norway to cancel the distress signal – except that of course our satellite phone decided that this was a good time to break down. Well, all we could do was radioing through every half hour to inform the world that all was safe and well. We received absolutely no response from any ship as it happens, but as no SAR helicopters descended on us we figured all we could do was keep going.

mindeloIn fact it wasn’t until two days later when we sailed into port and checked our emails that we found out that the authorities were actually aware of the distress signal …. but as it was only active for a short while they figured it wasn’t too important. Hmmmm. Not sure whether to be relieved that we didn’t trigger a whole scale rescue effort or to be a little miffed that our alert signal was rather hairyignored. Actually it turns out that the Norwegian authorities had actually consulted our website and contacted my parents (who spent a few days in agony over our fate) but the available information wasn’t sufficient to launch an international rescue effort. I guess it was pretty lucky in the long run as otherwise we probably would have had to foot the rescue bill!

mindelo-streetAnyway our days are now filled with the beat of Latin music. The north east trade winds are stirring the flags on the waterfront and my grilled shrimp have just arrived in accompaniment with a cold beer.  Christmas promises to be a relaxed affair with the warm sun lulling us into a pleasant contemplation of the journey ahead of us. There’s still a lot to do before we tackle the Atlantic again, but for now it’s time to soak up some sun and enjoy a different pace of life for a few days. The hard work can wait until after Christmas!

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From Dakhla to Dakar – arriving in West Africa

dakhlaDakhla, our last stop in Morocco/Western Sahara, turned out to be a far cry from the touristic hotspots of Essaouira or Agadir further north. First, we were greeted by no less than five different authorities boarding our small sailboat: the civil guard, the police, the customs, the military and the port authorities all wanted copies of our ships papers, passports and various other documents. Once these obstacles were surmounted we briefly explored the town, a short taxi ride away from the harbour. Walking through the long, dusty roads our little Jack Russel “Sparrow” sought shelter from the merciless sun wherever one of the artificially watered little shrubs would allow it, whilst Patrick and I longed for a cold beer – a rare refreshment in this Islamic town. Strolling amongst men in long dresses and women in long floating, colourful scarfs skilfully wrapped around the whole body, we felt like we once again entered a different world. However, the obvious presence of Moroccan military and UN soldiers, paired with one of the most hostile climates we’ve yet encountered, also made us feel slightly uneasy. Indeed we were almost a bit relieved when after a couple of days we set our sails once again to head further south.

pilot-whaleTo reach our next destination, Dakar in Senegal, we had to cover the distance of over 600 nm, more than 110km, which is the furthest non-stop passage of our trip yet! The most comparable journey took us from Svalbard to Jan Mayen across the North Atlantic. In comparison, the present crossing can only be described as benign, with the biggest challenge being posed by the burning midday sun. Low to moderate winds from the North gently pushed us further south, flocks of shearwaters and storm petrels accompanied us for much of the way, and occasionally a pod of dolphins jumped around our bow. One day we even spotted the big blow of a giant rorqual, possibly a fin whale, from a distance, the first big whale we’ve seen since leaving Iceland. Not much later a pod of large, black pilot whales briefly followed us, waking memories of cold Norwegian fjords, the last time we’ve come across this species.

sunset-mauretaniaDuring the third night Patrick suddenly cried out: “Léonie, come up, quick!” Sleep-drunkenly I stumbled on deck, to be told very enthusiastically: “Look, the Southern Cross! We’re on our way home!!”. Indeed, hovering just above the horizon were the five stars that make up the symbol of the southern hemisphere’s sky. We were definitely on the right track!

Two days later our chart told us that the “Cap Verde”, the green cape that Dakar is built upon, lay only a few miles ahead. It took some time to penetrate the haze that lies over the African continent but finally the ephemeral silhouette of the westernmost tip of continental Africa appeared through the shimmering air.

arriving-dakarShortly after we dodged around small, buzzing banana boats, uncharted ship wrecks and a handful of sailboats on anchor, until we finally dropped our own anchor in front of the “Cercle de la Voile Dakar” yacht club. Once we stepped on the rickety jetty leading ashore we received the warmest welcome of our journey yet: located between flowering bushes, acacia, papaya and palm trees lay the picturesque buildings of the yacht club, with a big terrace overlooking the bay crowded with a cheerful mix of yachties, European ex-pats and locals. We were quickly offered a cold beer, all arrival formalities were postponed to the next day, and after a cold shower we felt more home than we had anywhere for a long time.

But talking of home: back in Switzerland another very important event is taking place: my nephew turns five years old today! Dear Maxim, we wish you all the best and hope you have a fantastic birthday! This little video is just for you!

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Empty Ocean, Full Tummies

Well it’s been another two days at sea on the way from Jan Mayan to Scoresbysund in Greenland. While flocks of curious fulmars escorted us from the island, very few birds are to be seen out here in the Greenland Sea – in stark contrast to the previous offshore legs where fulmars where our constant companions along with the occasional puffin, kittywake and skua. We are also coming to grips with a new phenomenon of our arctic trip – night time! As we head further south we are starting to get twilight conditions in the early hours of the morning, a fact that certainly makes me a little nervous as I scan the horizon for ice!

So on these long, dark lonely watches without any wildlife to break the monotony you need something to lift your spirits – for us that has come to represent a warm meal at the end of a watch. It’s amazing what you can come up with in our small rolling galley provided you have a little ingenuity. We have pulled down the layers covering our noses and mouths to consume such delicacies as donuts (deep fried bagets rolled in cinnamon and sugar); wholegrain pancakes with lemon and sugar; a hearty salted pork stew flavoured with clove sauce; fresh crusty bread with blue cheese; sautéed chicken with a creamy zucchini and bacon sauce …. and my personal favourite – bacon, baked beans and eggs with toast this morning! We certainly aren’t going to waste away anytime soon!

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Where is that bloody rock?

Six days at sea are grinding us down a little but are spirits are now high as we are, theoretically, in sight of Jan Mayen. This 2000m high active volcano is a landmark and a planned break in our passage to Scoresbysund in Greenland. The only problem? Well despite approaching rather closely at present we still can’t seem to see this great big tower of rock! Presumably we will stumble onto it rather shortly but at present there is a dense cloud on the horizon and we are still alone with the birds (though it should be noted there is suddenly an increase in the amount of puffins circling the yacht and casting a curious eye upon these weary voyagers. Oh well …. In 24 hours we should be at anchor!

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Life at sea

It is now 48 hrs since we left Svalbard in our wake. These hours have been spent slowly getting into the rhythm of offshore sailing. Our entire world is condensed into four hour watches. These four long hours are spent grimly holding the wheel of the yacht while the weather of the moment passes us by. After these four hours in the elements we get a brief reprieve while we huddle in front of the heater with a mug of hot chocolate (spiced liberally with scotch in the case of the last), before crawling into a narrow cot to be rocked to sleep.  Only to be awoken again after an all to brief slumber for the next watch.

Our visual world has also been condensed into a bubble as for the entire crossing we have been escorted by a heavy fog – all we see is a small ring of water painted in shades of grey that slowly fades into white. Of course within this small bubble of visibility we have fulmars and an occasional puffin or guillemot to keep us company.  But it seems a very empty ocean out here. The only sign of human life we have seen in fact is some strange floating scientific array that may just as easily have landed from outer space as to have been tossed into the ocean by our own species.

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Two in the blue and the faithful fulmars

It’s just the two of us now that we said our final heart wrenching goodbyes to our smallest crew member. Shy is now happily making his home among his litter mates at the Greendog kennel, and by all accounts he is having a great time and fitting in well. I hope his time with us helped him to turn into the playful and inquisitive puppy that he became in the weeks we had him aboard.

As for the two of us – we have now bid our final farewell to Svalbard and all the friendly and helpful people that helped us on our way. 24hrs ago we saw the mountains of this arctic outpost dissolve into a mist, and our own horizon shrink into a small section of frothing white waves and blustery wind within a big misty ocean. In a way it is a little lonely out here away from everything but it’s great to be on the move again and there are always the fulmars circling the boat to keep us company on the long watches. It will take us over a week to cross the North Atlantic so it will be some time until we can post images again, but keep posted for text updates …and wish us fair winds!

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