Monday, 17 October 2011

An amble up the Atlantic

Iron Bark is a 35ft steel gaff cutter designed by Nick Skeates, built by Trevor Robertson and launched in 1997.

On 10 September 2010 I sailed from Puerto Williams in the Beagle Channel for the Falkland Islands. The passage took five days, mostly in moderate breezes but the wind picked up as I beat into Stanley Harbour and it was blowing F7 off the public jetty as I motored up to it. There was no one around to take my line so I jumped for the dock and got a turn on a cleat but I had visions of stumbling as I landed, letting the line go and watching Iron Bark sail off untended down the harbour. Customs clearance was quick compared to the Chilean bureaucracy but at £62, not cheap.

My first stop in Stanley was for mail which I hoped included a new credit card, renewal documents for my passport and the cruising guide for the Falklands all of which I had forwarded to the Falklands than risk them to the Chilean postal system. The credit card, a parcel of books and passport documents never arrived and two parcels arrived 6 weeks apart although posted on successive days. As neither the Post Office nor the Royal Air Force, who carry the mail from Britain, will take responsibility for the delays no resolution is likely although the problem has been ongoing since 1982. One Falkland Islander told me the mail was more reliable and frequently quicker when it came monthly by ship from Uruguay.

Next stop was the bank. They do not have an ATM and would not give me a cash advance on my only active credit card (the post office having lost the other one) for reasons I could not ascertain. Fortunately the other businesses in Stanley accepted this credit card so I could buy provisions and fuel but still needed cash for such things as customs charges. I keep some US dollars aboard for such an eventuality but the bank would only accept notes in mint condition which few US bills are so I could exchange only about a third of mine, leaving me cash-strapped. I waited for mail in Stanley for another two weeks then gave up and used some of my scarce pounds to buy another copy of Ewen Southby-Tailyour’s Falkland Islands Shores and Pete and Annie Hill’s Supplement.


The Falkland Islands are in the path of the westerlies and are in the rain shadow of the Andes so are windy and dry. East Falkland is mostly low rolling plains while West Falkland has hills of moderate height. Both are treeless so there is little protection from the wind in most anchorages. The landscape has a certain austere beauty but little grandeur. All of the Falklands outside Stanley is known as “camp” and is to windward and it was there I now turned, beating westward in easy stages. The first night I anchored in Sparrow Cove, only 4nm from Stanley and sailed on to the small settlement of Fitzroy Creek the following day. I went ashore briefly but spent most of the following day aboard with the wind funnelled down the creek in an unpleasant way. When the wind eased I moved 28nm on to Pyramid Cove. The anchorage is in a well-protected pool, but like much of East Falkland, the land is low, bleak, overgrazed desert of diddle-dee. A small island in the cove showed what the mainland tussock and bird life must have been like before the introduction of sheep, rats and cats. I found a good watering stream, a rarity in the Falklands, and caught a few mullet.
Gentoos in Fanny Creek

This set the pattern for of sailing for the next six weeks. I sailed, or more often than I liked, motored, westward along the south coasts of East and West Falkland, making between 20 and 50nm a day when the weather was fair and waiting at anchor when it was not. Beating to windward in strong winds is tedious in a small gaff cutter and there is a nasty tide race off most of the headlands. Most anchorages were of moderate depth with mud bottoms and kelp. Kelp is the bane of the Falkland anchorages as it chokes a patent anchor if it drags at all. Generally I lay to two anchors: a 60lb Mason Supreme on one chain and a 75lb Herreshoff-pattern fisherman anchor on the other. The fisherman’s ultimate holding power is less than modern anchors but it is more reliable in kelp.

There is a 75lb fisherman's anchor somewhere in this ball of kelp

Fox Bay is the largest settlement in West Falkland and I spent about two weeks there with a trip to Chaffers Gullet in the middle. It has a total population of 27 including children, down from 45 in its heyday. Fox Bay is noted as a windy spot, even by Falkland Islands standards. There is limited swinging room in the creek off the settlement so I moored between two anchors. A few days later when the wind picked up only the 75lb fisherman anchor was taking any weight as the Mason was to leeward. Within an hour the wind was blowing hurricane force and I started the motor to relieve the strain on the anchor. The motor was not powerful enough to push into such a wind except in the odd lull when we would creep ahead if I was not very quick on the throttle. When this happened the next gust slewed Iron Bark sideways putting a huge strain on the anchor as the bow snatched back into the wind. I wondered if I was doing more harm than good using the engine but with a rocky shore 15 metres behind did not experiment.

There was an audience parked on a hilltop 50 metres to leeward who later told me that at times all they could see through the spray was Iron Bark’s topmast. The staysail blew out of its stops despite being double lashed and getting it off the forestay and down below was difficult. After four hours the wind eased and within another hour was back to F9 so I shut down the motor and thawed out my hands around a cup of tea. It was a very close run thing but was not life threatening. If driven ashore I would have been able to flounder to the bank and get to shelter in Fox Bay Settlement but getting Barky off again would have been a problem as the storm surge would have driven her a long way up. At times like these a steel hull is very reassuring but I did not feel equipped to deal with a really hard blow if this was an example of ordinary bad weather. I was somewhat relieved to hear that this was “stronger than the storm of 1992”, the standard by which all wind in Fox Bay is measured.

I met the Cockwell clan in Fox Bay, an interesting group of people. The patriarch, Richard Cockwell was the manager of Fox Bay Farm before it was broken up into smaller holdings after the war in 1982. Fox Bay was a major Argentineans base during the war. Richard did not speak Spanish at that time and the Argentinean officer in charge could not speak English but he managed to negotiate permission for everyone except himself, his wife and two children and one shepherd to go to outlying farms. Fox Bay was heavily strafed and bombed before liberation and much of the foreshore is still off limits due to unexploded cluster bombs. Richard next became a politician both locally and on a wider stage, eventually becoming (I think I have this correct) the Chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and subsequently an artist of renown. One of Richard’s sons, Sam, is a biologist with Falklands Conservation specialising in raptors. We went out with Iron Bark looking unsuccessfully for a Johnny Rook (striated caracara) with a radio transmitter and GPS backpack. Another son, Ben, lives in Fox Bay and is married to the teacher. He does the artwork for the embroidery and screen-printing business there and his sister does the actual work. Ben’s wife Claire has eight pupils, only one of whom lives in Fox Bay so most lessons are conducted by phone and correspondence.
Large areas of the Falklands are still off limits because of mines from the 1982 war

I sailed on to Port Stevens, a huge harbour, and anchored in Sweeneys Creek in a well-sheltered pool with plenty of driftwood for the heater and excellent walks. I careened Barky there to paint the bow where I had knocked the paint off barging ice in Patagonia. The only corrosion to the bare steel was above the water line so the zincs were protecting the immersed section.
Careened in Sweeneys Creek

I sailed 12nm down to the Port Stevens Settlement but only stayed a day as it is open to the south with no all-weather bolthole within ten miles. The farm of 22,000 hectares with about 25,000 sheep is run by Peter and Ann Robertson and one of their sons, a remarkable effort as both would considered to be past retirement age elsewhere. I sailed back to Stanley in three easy stages taking 11 days for the trip. The wind was often strong enough to make dinghy work difficult so I kept a bivvy bag, dry socks and mittens, matches and chocolate in the dinghy in case I could not get back to the boat after going ashore for a walk.

When I got back to Stanley on 23 November my credit card had still not arrived. Without it I did not have enough cash to pay the very substantial fees charged visiting yachts South Georgia so gave up that part of my plan and cleared for the West Indies. Argentina was applying pressure for its South American neighbours to cut all ties with the Falklands and shipping between the Falklands and Chile had ceased so there were no fresh vegetables in Stanley. Iron Bark does not have refrigeration so frozen vegetable were of no use. I had plenty rice and beans and bottle of vitamin C tablets so would not starve or get scurvy but did not relish starting out on a two month voyage without even an onion.

The passage from the Falklands to the West Indies as you prick it off the chart is about 6000 miles with the first 1000nm in the westerlies then 2000nm of variables and the final 3000nm is in the trade winds. After waiting for two days while a westerly gale blew over, I sailed from Stanley on 5 December 2010. Within a day we had left behind the coastal shags and penguins and were surrounded by a great crowd of black-browed albatross and a fair number of grey-headed and wandering albatross, giant petrels, pintados, great shearwaters, white chinned petrels and storm petrels. For ten days we pushed northeast through the westerlies in blustery conditions with two days hove-to or ahull in gales. It was cool enough to wear thermals under thick trousers and jacket and by the time I had a reef tied in the mainsail my hands were numb to the point of being useless. When we left the westerlies at 40°S we also left behind the black-browed albatross, grey-headed albatross, giant petrels and pintados but kept the rest of our escort. The subtropical convergence at 39°S was marked by a great concourse of prions and the dark-headed southern variation of the white-chinned petrels was replaced by the clown-like spectacled morph. The water temperature jumped 4°C, I shed my thermals and the butter spread easily. After two days hove to in NE 7-8, three days of a mixed bag of winds typical of the variables took us to 35°S where yellow nosed albatross replaced the sooty albatross and wandering albatross. A northeast breeze gave us a splendid reach for two days to 32°S where I saw the last albatross and first flying fish. On 24 December we crossed 30°S accompanied by only a few white-chinned petrels, Atlantic petrels and Bulwers petrels and a turtle.

Until now we had been in the favourable Falklands Current but north of 30°S near the South American coast the current is contrary and in January headwinds predominate so I tacked eastward. The last time I came this way I stood east for two days to 30°W then could lay north to clear the bulge of Brazil but this time I beat slowly east for eight days to 21°45’W before the wind allowed me to turn north. This is a desolate bit of ocean and some days I did not see a single bird but on 2 January 2011 saw a ship, the first in deep water since leaving New Zealand. The next day I caught the first dorado. Slatting and rolling in calms is hard on the running rigging and I replaced the peak and throat halyards (using 48 fathoms of rope), a reef pendant, the gaff vang and the reef points. We reached the Southeast Trades at 15°S, 23°W on the 10 January, 36 days out from Stanley having taken 26 days to cross the variables. The trades were predictably pleasant with warm water, steady winds and flying fish. The butter was an amorphous mass in the brine barrel, clothing optional and I took to baking half-sized loafs so the bread did not go mouldy. The first tropicbirds appeared and were joined by boobies and noddies as we neared Fernando da Naronha.

Close to Fernando da Naronha in 04°S, 32°W we lost the SE Trades. The Equatorial Trough is usually narrow on the west side of the South Atlantic and on my previous two trips this way passed from the SE Trades to the NE Trades with barely a check. This time we had eight days of squalls and slatting calms before at 05°N, 42°W we picked up a steady NE breeze. The squalls allowed me to fill the water tanks and give everything a much-needed scrub. With a steady wind on her quarter and the Brazilian Current under her Iron Bark flew over the final 1370nm in ten days and we anchored in Bequia on 5 February 2011, 62 days and 6668nm out from Stanley.

I spent four weeks pottering about between Martinique and Carriacou, catching up with old friends and making new. The interior of Martinique is still unspoiled with some delightful walks, St Lucia now has too many jet skis and cocktail-party type yachts for my taste, Bequia has more yachts than ever but other than that has not changed much. Carriacou remains my favourite island. Rum is cheap and it is almost the only place left in the Windward Islands where a yacht sailing on or off its anchor or using a rowing or sailing dinghy does not attracting adverse comment.

I sailed down to Trinidad and spent five weeks there renewing my passport, getting an American visa (a tedious affair), waiting on mail and helping rebuild a friend’s diesel engine. I caught up with the ever-hospitable Don and Kath Kelshall, gave up on the mail and sailed back to Carriacou where I scraped barnacles, repaired the dinghy, patched up the anchor locker, overhauled the running rigging and drank rum with various old acquaintances some of whom have a very slippery grip on reality. Don Kelshall emailed me that the lost mail had arrived in Trinidad so I beat back to Chaguaramas to get it and sailed for the Chesapeake Bay on 24 April 2011.

The trades were light with much north in them as we beat slowly out of the Caribbean Sea via the Anegada Passage to 25°N, 69°W where, ten days out, we lost the trades. The variables were unkind to us and in the next nine days we sailed 604 nm to make good half of that distance before three days of squally fair winds together with a lift from the Gulf Stream took us to within 50nm of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. There the wind died and it took two days to make the last 140 miles Norfolk, Virginia arriving on 20 May, 24 days and 2229nm from Trinidad, the slowest passage I have ever made between the West Indies and the American east coast.

It took the Kafka-esque Homeland Security in Norfolk seven hours to clear me in. It was the least competent, most bizarre performance I have encountered in a lifetime of travelling. I sailed up north up the Chesapeake Bay and three days later, having anchored each night, I tied up to Rob and Phyllis Caldwell’s dock on Cuckold Creek off the Patuxent River. Rob has been a friend since school days and we spent a week catching up on news and views while wining, dining, provisioning and watering. On 1 June I left for Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and two days later sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay into thick fog. I stayed on the shallows of the Middle Ground to be safe from shipping and was only keeping a desultory lookout when I hit a large unlit green navigation buoy which left a dent in the bow and me rather shaken. The buoy was not shown on my chart but I hesitate to call it an uncharted hazard as the chart was last corrected in 1968.

For the next 12 days we beat slowly northeast in generally light, foggy conditions. There was a lot of shipping in the approaches to New York and numerous fishing boats further north so I got little sleep. An AIS and perhaps radar would have been a comfort. Only twice did we make more than 100nm in a day and the worst day’s run was six miles. On 14 June, 80nm from Lunenburg, the breeze freshened to NNE5 with squalls to 7, a dead noser, the Labrador Current was setting us back at two knots and the fog thick so I so bore away for Shelburne and anchored there at 1400hrs on 15 June. Customs clearance was painless and the yacht club friendly. Welcome to Canada.

In 2005, thinking I would not be back this way, I gave my Canadian charts to a friend in Lunenburg so now stopped there to retrieve them, then on the way to Halifax where I was to meet Annie Hill for our now customary annual two month cruise. Annie and I spent a week in Halifax on Silver Don and Margery Cameron’s mooring catching up with them and other friends then sailed to Rogues Roost, a lovely keyhole anchorage where we spent two days. We sailed on to Lunenburg and spent a week catching there up with friends. On 14 July we started back east. The summer winds along the Nova Scotian coast are dominantly southwest so the passage east is an easy one but summer was late in coming and July was foggy and wet.
Rogues Roost

We sailed, and occasionally motored, between six and 50nm most days and tried to use anchorages that we had not visited on previous trips: McGrath Cove (well sheltered but with an unsightly retirement village), Sambro Harbour (an attractive little commercial port), Shelter Cove (pretty and hurricane proof) and so on along the coast. We threaded through the islands and rocks of the Inside Passage from Beaver Harbour to Mary Joseph Harbour, which requires close attention to pilotage, and a few days later used St Andrews Passage to cut inside the Canso Ledges to Isle Madame in the Canso Strait.

D’Escousse on Isle Madame is usually a sleepy little village but when we arrived it was buzzing with people and boats in town for a festival so we retreated to River Bourgeoise to see friends who own a copy of Badger. When the festival was over we returned to D’Escousse then sailed on to St Peters visiting friends in both places. The St Peters Canal leads into Bras d’Or, a wonderful inland sailing ground that cuts Cape Breton in two.

We spent several days in West Bay, a part of Lake Bras d’Or we had not previously visited and one afternoon we saw a yacht aground on a sandspit in the anchorage between the Crammond Islands. We sailed in, anchored, ran a line out and Annie wound away on our sheet winch and had her off, all within 15 minutes. They were impressed that we could put Iron Bark in exactly the right spot without using the engine to nose in around the sandbank. I did not tell them I had leadlined the anchorage for a sketch chart two days earlier.

Summer finally arrived and with it biting deer flies that chased us out of several anchorages as we sailed north up into Great Bras d’Or. On 14 August we beat into Maskells Harbour on a dying breeze fortunately having resisted the temptation to start the engine as we had an audience of Cruising Club of America members. In 1922 several American yachts anchored in Maskells decided to form the CCA. The CCA now regards Maskells as holy ground and members, who own most of the surrounding land, treated us very hospitably. They are planning a grand bash in August 2012 for the 90th anniversary of that first meeting.

Beating into Maskells Harbour Photos Scott Flanders

We arrived in Baddeck and tied up at Cape Breton Boat Yard on 19 August, five days before Annie had to leave to fly back to New Zealand. We spent the winter of 2002/03 in Baddeck and were married in the boat yard so have many friends in the town. Henry Fuller, owner of the CBBY, CCA member, Royal Cruising Club port representative and a close friend was particularly generous. He heard me talking of the difficulty of collision avoidance while single-handed now that ships rely on AIS instead of a lookout and immediately gave me a new VHF with built in AIS.

Annie left and I was back to single-handing again. I spent three days anchored in the Washabuck River while a hurricane passed bringing no winds above gale force. The Washabuck River is superb: well protected, good holding, a soft mud to landing if you drag and no other boats to hit. Back in Baddeck I provisioned and watered then sailed to Otter Harbour to wait for a fair wind to cross Cabot Strait to Newfoundland. On 3 September I sailed through Big Bras d’Or with the last of the ebb and drifted in light airs 120nm across to Newfoundland to tie up alongside the breakwater in Codroy late the following afternoon.

Sisyphus, a Concordia yawl owned by a friend, Jack Towle, came in late that night and tied up ahead of Iron Bark. The following day the forecast was for NE35-45 knots and Sisyphus moved from the breakwater into the inner harbour. I should have followed but the fetch to the NE was only 300m, Iron Bark was well fendered and moving in to the inner harbour would mean rafting to a fishing boat so I stayed on the breakwater. By nightfall the wind was N45-50 knots and despite fenders and a hold-off line, Barky was being bashed against the dock and the wind was too strong to move using her engine alone. Several fishermen appeared and over the screaming wind shouted they would send a messenger line across from the dock opposite then a heavy warp and use a truck to pull Iron Bark’s head off the dock so could I could use the motor to get across to a more sheltered berth. Despite not being able to shout over the wind and the number of long lines in the water ready to foul the propeller the operation went smoothly. With a dozen strong fishermen heaving and the truck pulling we got Barky off and secured on the main dock. In most places it would be remarkable if a group of fishermen turned out on a wild night to help a stranger but that is how things are done in Newfoundland.

Codroy, like much of Newfoundland, has been hard hit by the collapse of the ground fish stocks. Many men have gone to work in Alberta and there are few young women in the town. Those remaining scrape a living from fishing and whatever other work is around helped by a bit of hunting, not always with a permit, and are generous far beyond their means. During the nine days I spent in Codroy I was driven around the district to see the sights, given more fish and moose meat than I could eat and invited to join the “byes” for a drink most afternoons.

My original plan was to go north-about around Newfoundland and leave for the West Indies from one of the east coast ports. However autumn winds funnelling through the Straits of Belle Isle and the lack of good harbours on Newfoundland’s west coast convinced me to change my plan to a cruise of Newfoundland’s south coast. In light airs I motored-sailed 35nm to Isle aux Morts and the following day poked around, making sketch charts of the two obvious anchorages and visited the village. Hurricane Maria was heading towards us so I moved to Squid Hole, which looked to be the best anchorage. The maximum sustained wind was only 40 knots so my mooring of two anchors and two shore lines was never tested but I ended up with a foul hawse, of course.
Squid Hole

I sailed east to Rose Blanche, a pretty little outport on the end of the road from Port aux Basques then on to Culotte Cove in Cinq Cerf Bay. Culotte Cove is a lovely spot, uninhabited, well protected except from the east, wood and water to hand, a beach for careening, good walking in the surrounding hills and a very snug hurricane hole nearby. On 5 October with Hurricane Ophelia and the first severe winter storm threatening, I moved around to the hurricane hole, which I had leadlined a few days earlier, and was snug while the wind blew.

Autumn arrived with hillside shrubs turning red and the nights cool. After a pleasant and productive three weeks, sails repaired, boat careened, hull scrubbed, ratlines renewed, rigging overhauled and in all respects ready for sea, we sailed on to Burgeo, the nearest town, to post this account off (and buy some onions) intending to leave for the Caribbean in early November.
Rose Blanche waterfront
Le Cou
Culotte Cove

Dried out for scrubbing, Culotte Cove

2 comments:

  1. Great writing Trevor - I've read your account of the Antarctic winter too. You bring your experiences to life in a wonderfuly understated way that nevertheless imparts the magnitude of your achievement. Your accounts are helping to keep my dream of ocean cruising alive. To date have not got outside home (UK) waters (except charters in the Aegean). In a couple of years once the kids are through university and I've worked out how to keep my marriage (to a strictly non sailing wife)going I hope to undertake a modest (by your standards) Atlantic crossing (UK westwards). I very much hope that by then I will have read even more accounts of your adventures and will have picked up more tips and insights.

    Keep going!

    Tom

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