Part 3 of Michael’s solo Atlantic crossings is finally here! I had previously “interviewed” him and started writing about his amazing journey. Again, apologies for the lack of images, the photos got lost moving the blog to a new host and the backups were on the hard disc that was stolen on one of the many occasions we were burgled.
However, living on a boat can be tough, I slipped on the jetty towards the end of last year (yeah, yeah, a small amount of wine might have been involved) and smashed my right wrist, am slowly gaining the use of it and can type again!
Back to the story….
Decision made, time to head home to Cape Town from Jacare, Brazil, dollars are running low (almost non-existent) and visa had run out so time to move on. Brazil allows a 3-month visa which you may extend for a further 3 months only. Which I had already done. Provisioned the boat in Jacare, all the usual, plus yacht parts to be taken down to Argentina for a friend, everything from huge winches for a 70-foot yacht, a marine engine and a gun!! Before I left Brazil, Waggis had to be scraped and cleaned, the growth was so aggressive that I knew once I had done this job I would have to leave within a few hours or the growth would be back. I finished the job late in the evening and left at 4 am. that morning. No growth all the way back to Cape Town, once I was on the move I kept moving.
25 days almost smooth sailing down the Brazilian coast, passing Rio de Janeiro was nerve-wracking with offshore rigs lit up like cities, fishing boats, a seismological search vessel crossing my path continuously from left to right, called him on the radio and he informed me he was pulling a 3-mile pod along the surface of the water (at night of course) and was directly in my path. Identified the vessel by AIS and called them again by name to ask what the f&k they were doing going backwards and forwards across my bow. They recognised me and could see my bearing, gave me a new heading for half an hour or so, then called me to say I could stay on the previous course. Without the AIS, which not only identifies you to them and them to you plus their speed and position, I would have been totally screwed and would probably have collided with their several mile-long cable and pod. Passing Florianopolis, more drama, I was unable to start the engine, no wind, no solar power, batteries ran down, waited a day or two, tried again, no luck, had to make a decision, looked at the chart, saw a bay 100 miles away that could be sailed into. Took 2 days, tacking through fishing boats and fish farms, realizing how the ancient mariners did things. The last puff of wind of the day brought me into the bay and a little yacht club. Just as the sun was setting. Phew!
Next morning charged batteries with shore power. Nice, helpful people at this small local yacht club. So, time to sort out the non-starting engine. To this day still do not know what was wrong but after cleaning out the diesel I suspect it was contaminated diesel in the high-pressure pump. After purging and fiddling for many hours, in panic mode, managed to start the engine. YES!! Although still having problems with fuel and cooling still not resolved, set sail South a week later, destination Rio Grande. This is a big city/port, the southernmost city in Brazil, entrance is a long channel, a couple of miles long. The cooling on Waggis was so bad, when I was heeling, that angle was enough that the water couldn’t release, the temperature started shooting up in the last 100 metres before the entrance, had to abort and go back out to sea, sails flapping, engine temperature going through the roof, not a happy Chappy at all at this point. Weird wind pushing me onto a lee shore, fishing boats all over, bumbled around for hours until daylight, took down sails at dawn, managed to motor in, canal split into 2 rivers, checking the charts, trying to navigate, slowed down the boat and then ran aground! Reversed once I had checked the charts and took the port side turn into a tributary of this ten-mile long canal. Absolutely exhausted after navigating blind, worried about boat, totally alone finally tied up at the Marine oceanographic institute. The very friendly manager said I could stay as long as I needed – for free! Civilized, very European, cooler climate, safe, could leave the boat to explore inland and not worry, conservative, not the hectic carnival-like atmosphere I had experienced in Jacare, lots of German-speaking residents and some German named towns. The only bad thing, man-sized Mozzies! Met a man with a yacht the same colour scheme as Waggis and turns out the owner is Dutch (my mom is Dutch), he was born on the exact same day (and year) as me, really bizarre! Took a photo of Waggis and her “Big Brother” but sadly, that has gone missing. After a week there, provisioning done, felt energized again so off to Rio da Plato to deliver the cargo I am still lugging around the ocean. Cleared immigration and customs again, gave me a bit of shit as I had apparently not paid some tax, explained I had not planned to stop in Brazil again, was actually aiming for Argentina. In general, I found the officials in Brazil friendly and laid-back, not really there to give one a hard time. Took about a week to get there, huge delta where you have to watch the shipping channel and look out for submerged wrecks. Passed Cologna (Uruguay) 200 miles to get to this point up the river, huge river. 5 miles further I took a tributary that should lead me to my friend’s farm, only 2-metre depths (my draught is 1.7 meters!), going downstream in a 6-knot current. You just CANNOT get stuck there as there is no turning back. Found him, delivered his goods, got paid some Euros, the work he had promised me did not materialize and he actually turned out to be a bit of a letdown. Impenetrable bush all around his “farm”, decided the ocean was a better bet. Sailed down fast-flowing river and took a tributary leading to Buenos Aires and the local yacht club.
Am in Argentina! Took down the British flag as I went down the river in case some bereaved person took a potshot at me (Falklands – don’t mention the war!!!). Coast guard stopped and questioned me right at the entry to the yacht club basin, told them I was waiting for the right side to enter yacht basin which I did the next morning. Tried to clear into the country, the official did not like the British registration, although I am Swiss he would not allow me to enter, 3 days of drama and then he gave me 96 hours to leave the country! So, off I go again, hugely frustrated, although the yacht club people were very friendly, there was a Swiss club close by where I was welcomed. Fixed my Genoa on yacht club lawn with contact glue, 3 litres of the stuff. Bought a barometer there, gas stove, a gas bottle which I mounted to tilt when cooking. French couple with rusty boat also there, told me to go to Uruguay for provisioning as its cheaper – big mistake. So, off to Cologna, Uruguay to stock up, roundabout mid-November. Big mistake. Everything was double the price, no wonder it is called the “Switzerland “ of South America. Pretty bloody broke now, not even money for booze for the crossing, oh well, a good time to quit drinking I suppose. Spent around 3-4 weeks in Cologna. Oil problem. For every litre of diesel one-tenth of which was oil running into the bilge from what appeared to be the oil pump. Later discovered it was also the flange adjacent to the oil pump. When I motored across to Cologna I lost 3 litres of engine oil in an hour which is BAD news. Limped in! Week one was spent trying to repair the leak – now have 40 litres of oil and 400 litres of diesel for Atlantic crossing, 1000 nautical mile range (3715 nm journey) – clearly no safe harbours along the way. Cross thumbs it’s good enough. Cologna is a Spanish speaking town, laid back population, no violent dictatorship past. Apart from the “Attack of the Bees’, a very pleasant stay. Woke up to a rather loud buzzing noise one morning…………..thought there was rain coming as this dark cloud descended on the boat with a humming sound! Horrified when I saw them land on the windsurfer, dived down below and tightened the hatches very carefully! Managed to Facebook a beekeeper friend in SA, he said: “spray them with insecticide”! Can you imagine, what crap advise a), I’m not going to kill bees and b), I am on a yacht and do not have gallons of insecticide at hand so what’s a man to do? Call the non-English speaking coast guard and shout help, help, zoom, zoom, HELP!! Sweating buckets locked in the boat, scenes of “Invasion by Bees”, and “dies on the yacht” flashing through my panicked mind…they arrived an hour later with 5 cops on a police tender, as they came alongside the bees rose in the air and they realized what zoom zoom meant and fu&#d off very fast!! Came back an hour later with a full-on beekeeper but they had missed the boat!! The show was over.
In Cologna I met a fellow Swiss guy who was cycling around the world. He seemed keen to travel to Cape Town but as he had never sailed before, I though a test sail prudent. Prior to the test, the boat was just outside the breakwater in Cologna where I felt safe (and it’s free), 2 metres in depth, 300 metres from the beach. Well, there we were, comfortably chatting, saw a cloud on the horizon and recognized it as the dreaded Pampero wind. I had encountered this once before between the Rio Grande and Argentina and knew what was headed my way. Zero to 60-knot winds ten minutes later. When it hit me ten minutes later I realize no breakwater wall is going to protect Waggis and my 80 metres of chain better bloody hold. Huge waves in no time, from completely calm to Hawaii world champion surf zone in 5 minutes. My horrified new sailing companion was told to check if there were any lines hanging over the side and check the dinghy which by now was doing a wild pony ride behind the boat, was secure, while I tried to keep the nose in the wind. New sailor did not check properly and when I started the boat, a rope tied itself around the prop and of course, we couldn’t move. So now, in a state of mild panic, slapped on scuba tank and flippers, knife in my teeth like Crocodile Dundee to cut the rope off the prop. By the time I had finished this, the wind was already dropping, within ten minutes the wind was gone. So was new sailor. Decided to stick to his bicycle.
Went back into the harbour and happily paid the fee for the next 2 days as I had literally had the shit scared out of me. If I hadn’t had that ridiculous amount of chain out (80m), I would have been wrecked on the beach.
Alone, Christmas Eve, no money (last $100 tucked away for Tristan da Cunha or Cape Town), so miserable that I decided to just go. Into the delta I went, some 5 or 10 miles then realized I couldn’t go further, 20-knot wind directly on the nose, not even the wind was working with me, forlorn and pissed off with the world, convinced I was heading for certain death in the Atlantic. Head on the pillow, shed a self-pitying tear, woe is me…
Christmas Day dawned, 2009, the small breeze so here we go, 250 nautical miles just to get to the bloody sea but let’s get the show on the road. Having decided the previous evening I was going to die somewhere on the ocean, every mile was a bonus! Went far south, 40 degrees, knowing this came with rough seas and wind which I wanted. Bring it on!! Mother Nature listened. A week later, 800 miles off South America I got hit by a 48-hour depression with up to force ten winds. The little barometer I had bought in Argentina started flashing, little bars doing a jig across the screen, quick gander at the user manual told me: this is not good.
What goes through your mind when you are alone on the ocean and bad shit is on its way? Start reducing sail, before the wind hits you to the bare minimum. Storm jib, second smaller sail, hank on sail. Double reef the main, make it really tight and get your preventer on so the boom doesn’t take your head off if you inadvertently gibe as the force is so great. Set a course as best you can to keep as stable as possible. Close hatches , lock up, stow away anything that can fly around, think, think, get prepared. Sense of urgency but keep calm and focus. Got to be able to release any rope in a split second, check, check, check. Tie yourself to your boat, safety line from cockpit to front and back of the boat, harness and shackle on, snap onto safety line , constraining movement somewhat but you cannot fall overboard if the rope is taut enough. If you do all this in good time , prepare as well as you can then you can actually deal with it. Keep bloody calm!! THINK ! Its all about survival now.
Autopilot managed well, it had to, sailing solo there is no way you can handle the helm non stop for 48 hours while battling the elements. At one point I had to helm for a few hours, at the height of the storm, that is when you know if you have balls or not, you’re 1000 km from land, in a howling gale, huge swells, crests of waves crashing into the side of the boat, roller coaster ride down the edge of the waves. Although worried about the very real threat of the boat rolling, that is when I lost my fear. If you’ve already accepted that you might die on the ocean, which I had on Christmas Eve, albeit in a coma of self pity, then there is nothing to fear. Majestic, terrifying, life changing. 2 days and 1 night of this hell.
Back to safer sailing. What does one do for days on end in the middle of a vast blue ocean. Fucked up my computers system by trying to install Linux on a dual boot with windows. Lost the ability to start up the computer, just crashed, so no more charts and I only have electronic charts…..yes, yes, rookie error. Had 6 English books, hard to come by in South America, read them in the first week. Read “The Cloud Spotters Guide” from cover to cover and now feel I am a cloud fundi. Learned how to bake bread on my new gas stove in a cast iron pan, (cover bottom of pan with an upside down, oval, empty tuna tin with holes in the bottom!) freshly baked bread, olive oil, garlic, eggs and maize cakes, staple diet for the next 6 weeks. Turn my 70 eggs once a day so they don’t go off! Played Solitaire for hours on end, had music but somehow didn’t want to listen to it. Watched dolphins daily, skipping by in their hundreds, the odd whale alongside, dark submarine shadows disappearing into the depths below , tried to fish, caught 2 birds, no fish. Awoke one morning with the fishing line taut, wow, this is a whopper, slowed down the boat, huge excitement…..had caught a huge Albatross, dead. Freed the second bird, decided fishing is not my forte and gave it up. Others have caught plenty of fish. I didn’t.
Otherwise, one sits and waits for things to break down …..as they do on a boat. First was the autopilot, as per usual, in the middle of the night. Woke to the unusual sound of sails flapping (that is one thing about living on your boat, you learn every sound, know when somethings off immediately), the electric motor on the hydraulic pump of autopilot had stopped working. Stripped it down, cleaned parts inside with petrol, reassembled and was good to go. If I had not been able to fix this I was in deep trouble, the single biggest risk for a solo sailor, you must carry a complete spare autopilot system, no one can helm nonstop. As I did NOT have a spare autopilot I decided to construct a backup using windsurfing parts and some plywood. is. However, when it came to testing it off the back of the boat, I hit a problem. Picture the scene, calm seas, actually completely becalmed, blue skies, wanted to attach the tubing on to the ladder at the back with huge cable ties, the idea being that the improvised rudder would be attached through a system of pulleys, using the mizzen sail as a wind vane. Good theory.
Got to the ladder. Contraption in my hands. Stepped down the ladder. Sudden thought: the water is 4 kilometres deep. Got the creeps. Couldn’t do it! Had visions of Waggis sailing away from me, even though I was tied to her with a rope. No wind. No danger. Could not do it. No whisky for Dutch courage. Clambered aboard, decided to postpone test until situation demands its deployment, started the engine and motored the hell out of there…..
Tristan da Cunha 200 miles away, thought I might stop and have a beer or ten, no such luck, sailed in and they were friendly, the sun was setting. However, in radio conversation, the wind picked up to 25 knots and I was told I could only disembark in the morning. Decided to give it a miss and headed off again after asking them to log my passing, destination Cape Town. Am more than halfway now, 1500 miles to home. 1700 miles behind me.
Winds turn easterly against Waggis, dead on the nose. Heading for Namibia instead of Cape Town due to the wind. 500 miles off Cape Town the wind finally turned and was more favourable, could hold the mark for CT, 100 miles off the wind dropped completely. Tried my radio and picked up a local FM Radio signal via Table Mountain. Getting close now! South African accents! Started engine and motored all the way into beautiful Cape Town, for once luck was with me.
Total fuel consumption for entire journey 200 litres, most of it on that 24 hours, 100-mile dash home. Of course, I had a huge fright just before I arrived, a collision course with a container ship in the shipping lane, he’s doing 20 knots, bearing down on me at my piddly 5 knots, AIS to the rescue once again called him, helpful skipper adjusted his mega supertanker and turned the vessel away from me, a few minutes later he would have run over me, so scary when you see this massive structure looming up fast and do not know where what, who, fuuuuuuck, don’t hit me!! I’m so close to home, not NOW!!
Royal Cape Yacht Club, Cape Town at 3 am in the morning. Tied up. Woke security guard in yacht club, asked for beer, none available but he had a phone I could use to call mom. I did. Hugely relieved to hear from me after 6 weeks at sea with NO communication – promptly called and woke the rest of the family. Next morning, cleared customs, took a stroll through Cape Town, “ Great Scott”, I thought, “some major changes here”. Had not seen the city in 20 years. Changed my last $100 , bought beer and had a haircut. Visited mom. Hard to believe I did it. Alone.
So, that’s a few of the past adventures , now what’s in the future? Waggis is still with me but I will do my next journey on my new boat, a 43 foot Mauritius ketch. Probably sail the Indian Ocean but who knows where the winds will blow us (yes, I have a sailing partner now, no more solo sailing). At this moment in time we are preparing to haul her out and do the 101 things we need to do to continue the adventure.
Thank you for reading this far, keep following us on www.sailingandsunshine.com. to see where the winds blow us next.
Captain Mike and Nikki.