Call For a Tow

Atlantic Passage Part 1


By Tom Morkin

Blue skies, good forecast- Barbados or bust! So Liz recorded in the logbook minutes before we weighed anchor to set off for our 2,800 mile voyage from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands to Barbados- our longest passage to date.

Remarkably, the usual pre-trip collection of butterflies that normally resides in our stomachs seemed to be oddly asleep for this departure. Their lassitude may possibly have been explained by a number of things: 2009 had been a year of few Atlantic hurricanes and hurricane season should have been finished; our routing would take us well north of the equatorial Atlantic- an area renowned for squally winds, fluky winds and thunderstorm activity, and the route was to take us dead downwind. Last and certainly not least, we had our good, long time buds and experienced sailors David and Gus aboard.

We were pleased to be a crew of four experienced sailors. Sleep deprivation would not be an issue as it normally is when sailing short handed. However, after years of just Liz and me alone on the boat on passages, how would we feel about two extra bodies in our sailing home for over a month? Well, we were about to find out.

The wind gods smiled upon us as we departed Las Palmas. Right out of the gate a 15 knot northeaster sent us on our downwind way at six to seven knots with just the jib poled out to starboard. It had long been my intention to do a long downwind voyage without using our mainsail. Running downwind with mainsail and jib is a comfortable point of sail but disaster is just one helmsperson’s mistake and a jibe away in 20 to 25 plus knots of wind.

Over the years I‘ve gone to some effort to install another headsail so we could run twin jibs, each poled out on either side of the boat. So at 20 knots from the stern we set the second pole and hoisted a second headsail. We immediately picked up another knot as the boat responded to the 40% increase in sail area. Beautiful! I exclaimed thinking how effortless this passage would be.

For the first week, only Dave, Gus and Liz stood watch, three hours on, six hours off while yours truly stood no watches, but was on call for any sail changes or problems that could develop at night. Dave put together this handy dandy watch schedule.

It was David who rained on my parade. The smaller pole is about to break. It’s got a big bend in it at the outboard end. If we don’t drop the sail, we’ll break it! he pointed out. The second pole was much too lightweight for the loads imposed by such a big sail. So down went the second jib and up went the mainsail and on we went wing and wing after all.

After the first week as Dave and Gus became more familiar with the boat systems, everyone seemed happy with the arrangement and we all got enough sleep.

As promised, Gus had his encounter with ‘mal de mer’ as he always does the first couple of days on passages. For two days he was ‘off’ with little or no appetite and queasy stomach, but remarkably, you’d never have known it as he was always on hand, like an ever ready battery bunny, for sail adjustments, cooking, cleaning and of course his watches. The rest of the crew was in awe of his ability to ‘keep on truckin’ despite illness. In fact, if he hadn’t mentioned it, we would never have known he was feeling sick.


To make matters worse, those first three days, we were in constant fix-it mode. Dave, Gus and I spent hours on the foredeck splicing the bent whisker pole with a piece of stainless steel pipe and various pieces of teak, along with scores of yards of light line used for lashing, while Liz stood watch. In the end, we did get a useable, very colorful and no doubt unique whisker pole. Form follows function, right!

Next, it was the second jib. The sail hanks which hold the jib to the stay were ripping away from the sail. Back up to the foredeck to put new grommets into the sail cloth to hold the hanks. For hours the boys turned the foredeck into an outdoor sail loft until the second jib was ready to hoist again.

Our first couple of days were blessed with constant east northeast winds, puffer clouds and a moderate six foot swell from astern. Nights were illuminated by an almost full moon and a sky filled with stars. We were cruising at about six knots, averaging 145 to 150 miles a day. It was on day four that we arrived in ‘mahi mahi ville’.

Mahi mahi (meaning ‘strong strong’ in Hawaiian), also known as dorado, dolphin fish or masi masi, is a beautifully colorful fish that travels the warm waters of the world in pairs. We landed and ate 16 of these creatures during the passage and more often than not, we caught two at a time. Here, Dave is holding the male while I’m holding the female. Liz is holding a male too.

Time after time, we hooked one, and then its mate immediately after. We’ve heard reports from fellow cruisers of catching only one mahi mahi and having its mate follow the boat for hours. There was never a protein deficiency on the trip and even eating mahi three times a day in a multitude of formats, we never tired of it.

Our diesel generator swallowed an unhealthy amount of salt water and one night it decided to take itself out of service for the duration. That left only four solar panels and the main engine’s alternator to power the boat’s electrical demands. Unless we wanted to run the engine just to make electricity, which we didn’t, we had to cut our power usage. Something had to go. We quickly decided we’d rather use the autopilot than drink cold beer so off went the fridge. But, what about all the fish? No problem, we’ll dry it. At that point, the fish drying facility commenced. (See sidebar for details.)

Fish drying (Sidebar) 1) Cut filets into long, thin sections. 2) Soak filets in marinade of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and sugar. 3) Hang to dry in the trade wind breeze.
If the fish is caught late in the day, sprinkle salt on the filets, enough to draw water from the flesh. Next morning, rehydrate to flush out the salt and hang filets in the breeze. Once dry, we left dried fish hanging, to be snacked upon at one’s leisure.

Only one week into the trip and we had more than our share of gear failures. In addition to the bent whisker pole and the ripping sail hanks on the second jib, the stitching on the UV cover (the one foot wide strip of cloth that protects the sail from ultraviolet rays when the sail is furled) of the furling jib began to unravel and was threatening to pull away from the sail.

One block broke but most dramatic was the rather spectacular BANG! as the winch to the preventer broke off its mount and hit Dave square on the shoulder.

Unhurt but shocked in the extreme, he apparently had never been hit by a flying winch. The winch, original gear on the 39 year old boat used stainless bolts in the aluminum body. In a salt water environment, mixing dissimilar metals leads to galvanic corrosion with this inevitable outcome.

Even my trusty iPod failed, leaving us music-less in the mid Atlantic, quite a loss on those long night watches, when having music makes the watch so much more enjoyable.

One thing that didn’t fail was our SSB radio. This long distance radio made it possible to participate in the twice daily radio networks. The morning net called the ‘Madlantic Net’ started at 0800 UTC. Each morning a radio controller would start the net and invite approximately 20 of the boats that were doing the same trip to report their position, any problems, medical or mechanical and weather conditions. Finally, the frequency is open to boat to boat traffic, which allows you to chat about anything and everything, in addition to the above mentioned topics, including routing, strategies, daily progress, gear breakage, bragging about fish caught etc. Gord of the Canadian Boat Ascension, even started a comedy segment. We were all asked to complete the following sentence…… You know you’re a cruiser when…………

You know you are a cruiser when…………………………….

1) Your kids can tie a bowline but not shoe laces

2) You’ve never bought so few books but read so many

3) Your crew offers up his old clothes for boat rags, but they end up in your own wardrobe

4) Discussing problems about your head at the dinner table is socially acceptable

5) You haven’t had a barber cut your hair in 20 years

Next time I’ll fill you in on the second half of the voyage.