Call For a Tow

Atlantic Passage Part II


By Tom Morkin

Into the second week, things got decidedly tropical as we dropped down below 20 degrees north latitude. It must have been at this latitude when butter melted on the early sailing ships that sailed from Northern Europe and turned right when making for the Caribbean Islands. Only this far south could they be assured of avoiding the north Atlantic gales and be well ensconced in the northeast trade winds. From this time, T-shirts and sheets and bed sheets became the exception rather than the rule. Keeping cool was harder than keeping warm.

Day after day, night after night, Feel Free bowled along at five to seven knots propelled by those same wonderful winds that moved the early explorers, pirates, privateers, traders and navy men. We felt linked to those earlier characters in a very elemental way. Sure, we had a whole lot more toys aboard but the main driver remained the same. In a way, we were as much in their world as we were in the modern age. This heightened our appreciation of their voyages without maps, and with only rudimentary instruments and minimal creature comforts.

By this time, we had gotten used to not only our watch system, but also our cooking schedule. A long time ago, Liz established that she wanted the galley to be an equal opportunity work place, meaning cooking and cleaning is equally shared aboard Feel Free. This meant that not only is galley duty shared, but also that the crew is guaranteed a more varied menu.

In our case, each of us had only one main meal to prepare every four days. That gave each of us lots of time to think about putting together something decent to eat. Our crew really got into the spirit of it. Gus even packed 2 recipe books from Vancouver. A sampling of our meals included: plum dumplings, breaded fish cakes, blood sausages, grilled mahi mahi, linguine mahi bechamel, spinach and cheese lasagna, Spanish omelettes, lentil and vegetable curry, black bean soup.

It was into the third week that an unusual weather event took place in the North Atlantic. Without going into a lot of meteorological detail, let’s just say a series of big low pressure systems invaded the area that is usually occupied by the Azores High and its smaller partner the Bermuda High. These lows pushed these highs much further south than is normal for the winter months. The good news is that the weather was very settled; the bad news was that the boats that left some days after we did ran out of wind. In our case, we still had wind but not as much as before or as much as we wanted while the boats ahead of us managed to hold the wind and keep on truckin’.

Every evening we tuned the SSB radio to the frequency of 12359 kilohertz to listen to the cruisers’ patron saint. His name is Herb Hilgenberg and he operates a free weather service from his home in Burlington Ontario, Canada. Every day at 2000 hours UTC he reports and forecasts weather to mariners in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

We were grateful that we just managed to keep ahead of the parking lot, an area only 400 to 500 miles behind us where our fellow cruisers were either stopped for lack of wind or resigned to using their diesel engines. Day after day we heard complaints of no progress or boats altering course 90 degrees to chase the slim prospect of some wind- anything to get their boats moving again.

Although Feel Free managed to stay in the wind, we encountered a problem of our own. On the morning of the 13th day, while bringing in a hooked mahi mahi, I looked down behind the stern and reported- Hey, we’ve got another big fish following the boat! No such luck. What I thought might be a huge mahi mahi turned out to be a large piece of polypropylene fish net that we managed to snag around our keel or skeg or rudder or propeller or, heaven forbid, all of the above. This was not good.

Not only did this slow us down, we didn’t dare start the engine and turn the propeller. That could result in damage to the propeller, strut, cutlass shaft bearing and even the transmission.

That net definitely had to go, but diving under a pitching, yawing and rolling boat in even a five foot sea is not my idea of a good time. Furthermore, the thought of all the fish carcasses we’d tossed over the side recently and the reports from another boat who had just lost a nice tuna to what must have been a shark, set my already hyperimagination into overdrive. If that weren’t enough, I learned a long time ago that large pelagic sharks not only occupy a place at the top of the food chain, they are hard wired to view all the ocean critters as food, and that would include little ole’ foul tasting me!

On the plus side, as long as we didn’t turn the propeller, it wasn’t doing any harm and it didn’t slow us down too much. Maybe we could just wait until we were just outside the anchorage of Barbados and I could jump in and cut it away. So we let it be for two days.

We dragged that cursed net until the wind and seas moderated to the point where I donned the mask, snorkel and fins and we dropped the sails and turned into the wind. Just as I prepared to jump in, Dave exclaimed Hey look- the net is drifting away!

Sure enough, it dropped away and drifted to leeward. I quickly jumped in anyway to be sure none of it remained and was happy to report that we were well and truly free of it. What a relief.

Our last week at sea provided none of the dramas of the first two weeks. It appeared that everything that was destined to break was broken already. Here’s a list of our gear failures: 1 IPod, 2 lost lures, 1 snatch block, 3 jib hanks ripped out, 1 broken bolt on spreader, 1 winch, 1 genset, 1 bent whisker pole, uv cover stitching.

The crew was totally functioning with all the main procedures and systems of the boat. Routines were firmly established and we all had plenty of time to engage in personal interests. For the most part, that meant a lot of jabbering. David would regale us with tales of the 12 years of sailing the Caribbean with his wife Eileen Quinn, while I’d tell Dave and Gus more than I’m sure they wanted to hear about Liz’s and my sailing past. While Gus would politely listen, he’d wonder out loud how he could persuade his wife Angie to sublet their townhouse and set sail on their 27 footer to Mexico or the Caribbean.


After exhausting ourselves with talk, we’d usually find a shady corner of the boat and read, often to be alerted by someone calling out Fish On! or Lunch is ready! or Dolphins off the bow!

One afternoon it was a pod of Minke whales that chose to hang out with us for a full 15 minutes. These magnificent creatures have the unfortunate nickname “Stinky Minke” resulting from their hellacious halitosis caused by decaying pieces of fish and seafood that become trapped in their baleen for extended periods. This situation would give any critter seriously bad breath!

The effects of the Azores High descending to 20 degrees north latitude and the resulting windless ridge was beginning to affect our speeds to the point that, for the better part of two nights, we resorted to the iron jib (our trusty 70 hp Isuzu diesel engine.) Although we weren’t in a hurry to end our passage, whenever the boat speed slowed to less than three knots, there wasn’t enough wind to keep the sails filled, so as the boat rolled, the sails would slat and flog, both hard on the sails and definitely hard on the nerves.

Fortunately, as we got closer to Barbados, the wind filled in and we were well and truly on a sailing boat again, and I finally got to fly the twin head sails, alas, though only for half a day.

Dave had taped a “golden dubloon” to the mast (actually, a Canadian loonie) and, as in the old sailing days, it was to be given to the sailor who spotted land first. It was in the morning of our 19th day at sea that I took possession of that prize. It was after seeing a cloud bank that was clearly associated with land that a definite outline of hills emerged. That night, we anchored off Bridgetown Barbados.

After 10 years aboard Feel Free and with Dave’s and Gus’s help, we were back in the New World. So what was it like crossing an ocean with a crew of four rather than just the two of us? Well, pretty darned good actually.

We really appreciated the extra hands during sail changes and it was a real benefit when things on board needed to be repaired to bring extra hands and brains to the job. There were more people to stand watch, catch and clean fish, cook, tidy up, talk to, listen to, laugh with, laugh at.

We were also fortunate enough to have the right crew. Dave and Gus had never met before the trip. Not only were they competent seamen, they got on like gangbusters. Moreover, Feel Free, being 51 feet overall, meant we weren’t in one another’s way and each of us had enough privacy and space.

So, will we have crew again on the longer trips? Absolutely. Hopefully, they’ll be as good as Dave and Gus, or better still, if we’re lucky, maybe it will be those two again.

Barbados Stamp