Early in October 2015 Iron Bark was in St Johns, Newfoundland, provisioned and ready for sea, waiting for suitable weather to sail for Western Australia. I wanted to be on the Kimberley coast of Western Australia for the next dry season, May to November; the only route that would get me there in time was down the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean, preferably non-stop. The alternative, via the Panama Canal and tropical Pacific is not much further but considerably slower. Fortunately I was sailing alone and did not have to convince anyone else of the attractions of a voyage that would include a long leg in the Southern Ocean.
Hurricane Joachim roared up the American coast and across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the first week of October and a few days later a severe gale brought 60 knots of wind. Winter looked to like starting early. I decided I preferred the slight risk a late hurricane to the certainty of another bad winter storm, and sailed on 12 October. The wind was fair when I left St Johns but soon veered ahead and I was close-hauled for most of the four days it took to cross the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The cold Labrador Current gave Iron Bark a useful lift south, but also brought thick fog that kept me busy dodging ships and fishing boats and I got little sleep. I hove-to for 16 hours while a cold front passed but, by using the motor whenever the speed dropped below two knots, got to the Tail of the Bank in four days and sailed into the Gulf Stream. There the water temperature jumped 7°C, the fog cleared and I discarded my long johns.
On the Tail of the Bank the wind was variable in direction and strength with everything from SE2 to W8 and a lumpy sea kicked up by the current. That night I was passing between a ship and a seismic survey vessel towing an 8km streamer when a short-lived but vicious squall drove me towards the streamer. The sea state was such that neither the ship nor the survey vessel could make me out on radar nor could I see them through the spray and rain. The much-blessed AIS let me sort out what was happening and I called the ship on VHF to ask it to alter course to give me room to tack to clear the seismic vessel’s gear.
I resisted the temptation to ride the Gulf Stream eastwards although this would have ensured the Trades were a fair wind when I met them. Instead I sailed south towards better weather, hoping to reduce the odds of meeting a northeast gale blowing against the Stream and the dangerous sea that produces. For five days I plodded southeast across the Stream, generally close-hauled, using the motor when the wind was light. On 21 October in 40°32’N, 47°29’W, I reached the southern edge of the main body of the Gulf Stream and sailed into a detached eddy. In the main part of the Gulf Stream the current set east at one or two knots, but in the eddy the set was north at over five knots. I could neither sail nor motor against a current of this strength so altered course to put the current abeam in order to get out of it as quickly as possible. I wanted to go southeast but was steering east and making good a course of northeast and annoyingly wasting a fair wind. It was a day and a half before the current eased enough for me to resume course.
Once out of the Gulf Stream the peaked cross-seas subsided and I used the quiet conditions to transfer 80 litres of diesel from cans high in the lazarette down into the keel tank. With this Iron Bark reverted to being a sailing vessel, the remaining fuel being reserved for battery charging. I try to limit my electricity usage to the amount that I can easily generate and avoid power-hungry gadgets (fridge, radar, electronic autopilot, water maker and the like) but seem to need more electricity every year. Iron Bark’s electrical system once ran on a few dry cell batteries but since I fitted the AIS, which requires the GPS to be on, my electricity requirements have increased considerably, acerbated by using a computer for writing and electric lights to cosset my eyes when reading. I now have to run the engine every few days to charge the batteries when it is too cloudy for the solar panel to cope.
An all too rare fair wind in the North Altlantic Variables
After leaving the Gulf Stream behind I pushed south and east through the Variables. Crossing the Variables took 16 days mostly close-hauled, with a day hove-to in a nasty little gale. There were a couple of days of fair winds with good runs including one of 144 nautical miles, but many more when the run was under 50 miles and one of only 24 miles. With a waterline length of 32ft, Iron Bark is too short to punch effectively into a head sea, nor does being gaff-rigged help. The shape of the top of the mainsail is irrelevant but the short mast means the headsail luffs are not long enough to drive her efficiently to windward. Another drag is the propeller, a massively built thing, excellent for withstanding the impact of ice but like towing a bucket under sail.
I had hoped reach the Northeast Trades as far east as 30°W to allow me to stand south through them with a free wind, but headwinds in the Variables meant I met the Trades about 200 miles west of there. To make matters worse the Trades blew from the east rather than the northeast and the North Equatorial Current was setting strongly west so for the first six days in the Trades I crashed along close-hauled with all the discomfort that comes of living with the hatches dogged and everything on a heel. On 14 November, close to the Cap Verdes, the wind backed to northeast, the current and I eased the sheets. Dust, presumably from the Sahara, reduced visibility to such an extent that although I passed within 18 miles of Brava, the southwestern island of the Cap Verde Archipelago, I did not sight land. A nightjar and many butterflies landed aboard Iron Bark while she was briefly becalmed under the lee of Brava and dust plastered the sails and rigging.
African hitchhiker - a nightjar
Where to cross the Doldrums is debatable. They are narrowest on the South American side of the Atlantic but the Equatorial Current runs hard there and may sweep a sailing vessel so far northwest that it cannot weather the bulge of Brazil. If this happens there is little choice but to stand north into the Variables then east cross the Atlantic and try again, wasting several weeks in the process. Close to the African coast the Equatorial Current is weaker but the belt of calms is wider, which can also delay a sailing vessel for weeks. Ocean Passages recommends entering the Doldrums well over towards the African shore, and that is what I did.
On 19 November, 38 days out in 07°19’N, 020°28’W, the Trades died, marking the beginning of the Doldrums. For four days I chased every breath of wind, making hard-won runs of 76, 50, 16 and 30 miles. I hoped to top off the water tanks in the squalls that are a feature of the Doldrums but it took so long to wash the sails and deck clean of encrusted salt and dust that I only got a few litres of water into the tanks before, on the fifth day, a light southerly breeze set in. Iron Bark rode this breeze southwest and on 27 November she slipped quietly across the Equator in longitude 21°55’W and into the Southeast Trades. The relatively painless crossing of the Doldrums had a price. The water tanks were not full but I lacked the moral courage to turn back in the hope of collecting more rain. I had enough water to get to Australia, but with little reserve for emergencies. In the southern summer there is little prospect of rain in the Southeast Trades and there is generally has too much spray mixed with the rain in the Southern Ocean for it to be potable. My best chance of catching water was in the South Atlantic Variables with diverting to Cape Town for water a last, unattractive option.
Waiting on wind in the doldrums
Iron Bark does not have refrigeration and the mainstays of my diet are pulses (chiefly chick peas and kidney beans), rice, rolled oats and flour with a little salted meat (beef, bacon, salami or whatever is locally available) to flavour the stews. Except for bread, which I make with undiluted seawater, all need fresh water to prepare. I try to avoid tinned food although it comes with water included, regarding it as an inefficient and expensive way to carry water and the resulting diet to be bland and not particularly healthy. With care but without rationing my usual water usage is two litres per day. To reduce the chance of having to divert to Cape Town, I decreased my daily water allowance to one and a half litres, which is an adequate but uncomfortable ration. On days when the run was over 100 miles I had an extra pot of coffee, but light airs and headwinds meant I had few extra coffees.
The Southeast Trades were disappointing. I hoped for fresh, free winds that would push me across the Trades in perhaps 12 days, but it took 21 days. The best day’s run was an unspectacular 118 miles and the worst only 8 miles. The poor showing was party due to the fitful wind but also because Iron Bark’s hull was becoming foul with gooseneck barnacles. Whenever it was calm I went over the side to scrape them off.
Rolling and slatting in light airs is hard on the gear and in many ways worse than a gale. Steadying the booms with preventers and guys does much to stop chafe, but quietening the gaff down is more difficult. A gaff vang led aft keeps the gaff off the shrouds and saves the topsail from being nipped, but a gaff fore guy is difficult to arrange on a cutter. Fortunately the topsail steadies the gaff in light airs, especially if the peak halyard is eased so that the topsail sheet takes some of the weight of the gaff. The topsail, being a light sail set high, keeps drawing when everything else is slatting. Its benefit is amplified because it steadies the whole rig, helping the other sails hold their wind. The gaff vang is useful at the opposite end of the wind scale. When dousing the mainsail while running before a gale the wind often catches the bunt of the sail and blows the gaff skyward. I use the gaff vang to pull the gaff down to the boom and hold it there until I can get a gasket around gaff and boom.
The topsail steadies the whole rig in light airs
On 14 December, 63 days out from St Johns, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in longitude 25°W and left the Southeast Trades behind. In preparation for the Southern Ocean I overhauled the running rigging, splicing a new section into the throat halyard and replacing a jib sheet and the reef pennants, then went up the mast to check the standing and running gear at the masthead and replaced the strop on a peak halyard block. Next I dropped the mainsail to replace some frayed gaff robands and reef points and put a few stitches in a seam. Finally I changed the old, worn, fair-weather headsails that I had been using in the low latitudes for newer, stronger sails in preparation for heavy weather in the Southern Ocean.
Light airs and poor progress in the South Atlantic Variables
I need not have hurried. The South Atlantic Variables were even less kind than the Southeast Trades and it took ten days of light airs and headwinds to work south to 31°44’S, 021°30’W, where a fair breeze carried us towards Tristan da Cunha (37°05’S, 012°15’W) and the long awaited Westerlies. Each day there were more birds, a joy after the desolate Trades: white-chinned and Atlantic petrels, white bellied and Wilson’s storm petrels, greater shearwaters, yellow-nosed, grey-headed, shy and wandering albatross.
The weather was becoming cooler and I dug out long-forgotten clothes (29°S), then a blanket (35°S) and finally long johns (39°S). Although there was some rain it was always mixed with too much spray to let it into the tanks. At night I lay in my bunk comparing water usage to the ever-decreasing daily runs then went on to mentally design seawater distillation systems. Christmas and New Year passed uneventfully and, with water short, uncelebrated.
The sea was becoming too cold and rough for me to dive to clean the hull and I was reduced to using a scraper on a long pole from deck. This could not reach around the turn of the bilge and soon the bottom was so foul that Iron Bark would not come head to wind and I had to wear her around to change tack. With such a foul bottom, a day’s run of 100 miles became a rarity. The failure of the antifouling was the most complete that I have ever experienced, but it failed in an odd manner. Nothing grew on the hull except gooseneck barnacles: no weed, no cone-shaped barnacles, nothing but closely packed gooseneck barnacles 10cm long and apparently unaffected by the antifouling.
On 7 January 2016, 87 days out and about 1000 miles west-southwest of the Cape of Good Hope, I crossed 40°S in longitude 002°32’W and sailed into the Southern Ocean. The wind was fair for most of the first week in the Southern Ocean, but her foul bottom meant Iron Bark made good only 706 miles of easting in that time. The next week brought headwinds, light airs, fog and little progress. One hundred days out we were still 159 miles short of the longitude of the Cape of Good Hope; I had hoped to be two thousand miles past the Cape by then.
Running before a fresh, fair wind in sunny weather - unfortunately a rare occurrence
For a few days I was close enough to Cape Town to hear the news on medium wave radio. This was the only news I heard on this voyage until close to Fremantle. Short wave radio has been largely replaced by digital satellite transmissions that unfortunately target land areas only, leaving those of us who lack access to internet at sea ignorant of the wider world.
Ocean Passages recommends making the passage from the Cape of Good Hope to Fremantle between 39°S and 40°S but this year the west winds were unreliable in those latitudes. I pushed further south hoping to find better wind and was 400 miles south of Cape Agulhas in latitude 41°27’S when I crossed its meridian, still without a steady breeze. By keeping well south of the Cape of Good Hope I hoped not only for fair winds but also to avoid the rough seas on the Agulhas Bank caused by the Agulhas Current flowing against the prevailing winds. However the strong currents extended much further south than the routeing chart indicated and about 435 miles south-southeast of Cape Agulhas, in 41°S, 024°E, I encountered a current setting northwest at between three and four knots. This was directly against the wind and produced a lumpy, unpleasant sea. This was merely slow and uncomfortable while the wind was moderate, but the barometer was falling.
The promised gale arrived just after dark on 24 January. In 20 minutes the wind increased from S6 (25-30 knots) to W10 (45-50 knots) and it was a scramble to strip all sail and run off downwind. Iron Bark has run before many gales under bare poles without a problem, but now, for the first time ever, the Aries wind vane could not cope. The foul hull and unresponsive steering meant the Aries was unable to prevent Iron Bark from broaching in the steep, breaking, wind against current seas. The wind eased to W8-9 but she was still broaching frequently unless I hand steered, so I streamed my new and previously unused Jordan series drogue. It is 95m of braided nylon rope with 124 small cloth cones attached at half metre intervals, towed astern on a bridle. The effect was dramatic; Iron Bark's speed through the water slowed from three knots running under bare poles to a little over a knot with the drogue out. More importantly she ran steadily downwind with the rudder lashed amidships and despite hard knocks from the cross-seas, there was no sign of broaching. There was nothing more for me to do so I went to bed; I should have had this drogue years ago. Overnight the current set Iron Bark 27 miles to the west, although we were running eastwards at over a knot, so the current was at least 3 knots against the wind. By mid-morning the wind eased to W6-7 and I spent three hours retrieving the drogue then made sail.
Retrieving the Jordan drogue. The small cloth cones are half a metre apart.
On 3 February in 41°S, 063°W, 114 days out, there was two hours of steady rain with a moderate sea and no spray. Rain unmixed with spray is rare south of 40°S, so I hove-to and caught enough to nearly fill the tanks. Now I had enough water to cope with almost any eventuality with enough over for an extra coffee whenever I wanted one. The rain ended with an abrupt wind shift to the southeast, a dead noser, and the wind stayed between east and south-southeast for the next ten days. Initially I sailed on whichever tack gave the most easting, but then decided to tack south to look for west winds although that meant losing some easting. In a week I sailed 589 miles but only reduced the distance to Fremantle by 100 miles and ended up 5° south of the recommended route, still without steady west winds.
Having full water tanks made it easier to be philosophical about the lack of progress but it was getting tedious. Iron Bark has five metres of well-filled bookshelves but by this time I had read everything aboard at least three times, including the labels on the jam jars. Fresh vegetables were a distant memory and rum was getting low. My waterproofs now leaked copiously and to preserve a set of dry clothes for wearing below deck I changed into wet clothes whenever I needed to work outside. My self-discipline was barely up to pulling on cold, clammy clothes when I tumbled from my warm bunk to reef on a wet, windy night. I was getting stale and wanted to be done with this passage, but at the current speed land was still six or eight weeks away.
The easterlies finally relented and late February and early March brought generally fair winds with two short-lived gales in which I deployed the Jordan drogue. Normally I would have run before these gales with a storm staysail or bare poles as the wind was fair, but the foul hull meant the Aries could not keep Iron Bark running without broaching. The drogue solved that problem at the cost of losing a day’s run each time. With a strong fair wind Iron Bark can make 140 or 150 miles per day but the foul bottom meant the best she could do now was barely 100 miles and I reckoned any week’s run over 500 miles to be a good one.
About this time I got food poisoning from some poorly preserved salami. This left me weak and made deck work difficult for a few days. Then I had to undertake bit of do-it-yourself dentistry and extract a tooth; the tooth was loose so this was not difficult but it was a bloody business. I had no other health or injury problems on this voyage except the usual minor cuts, sprains and torn fingernails. Fisting in Iron Bark’s mainsail is hard on fingernails and, although I keep mine trimmed short, months without fresh vegetables made them fragile. Vitamin tablets are better than nothing, but are a poor substitute for fresh food.
Early in March I started to slant northward towards Fremantle, but by keeping south of the great circle course stayed in the Westerlies and in the first half of March there were only three days of headwinds. The hull was now so foul that the rudder was almost ineffective and I was steering largely by trimming the sails. This is fairly easy as Iron Bark’s rig spreads well beyond the hull, but trimming the sails for balance rather than drive further slowed her down. The foul hull made gybing difficult. For a while I could get the rudder to push the stern through the wind provided I scandalized the main, but eventually the hull was so foul that I had to strike the mainsail completely to gybe. It had of course been impossible to tack for months.
Gooseneck barnacles - Iron Bark's bottom after arrival in Fremantle. It is obvious how far I could reach around the turn of the bilge with a long scraper.
On 19 March, 160 days out and 700 miles from Fremantle, the jib’s roller furling gear failed. The lower bearing had been jamming intermittently for some time so it was no surprise when it seized. The gear was 16 years old and had done over 100,000 miles so the failure was hardly premature, but it meant I now had to set the jib flying.
Man unto woman born has but a short time to live,
He goes up like a jack yard topsail and comes down like a flying jib.
Many years ago I took heed of the first bit of that doggerel and abolished the topsail yards by lengthening the gaff and fitting a standing topmast. Now, having reverted to setting the jib flying, the truth of the second part came home. A flying jib can be a difficult sail to retrieve from the end of the bowsprit and it is vital that it does not take charge, as it will if given any chance.
The roller furling jib is one of the few concessions to mechanical complexity in Iron Bark’s rig and one I made knowing it to be a potential source of trouble. However I decided that was preferable to having to muzzle a jib at the end of the bowsprit in heavy weather. The rest of Iron Bark’s gear is simple, robust and easy to repair at sea. The mast is short, stout and well stayed and her running gear is largely worked with tackles that are reliable and provide all the power needed at the cost of a bit of pulley-hauley work. All halyards and control lines are external and can be inspected for chafe then slipped and cut to renew the nip or replaced as necessary. The long, low rig makes it easy to trim the sails to keep the course with minimal input from the Aries wind vane or, in the present situation, the rudder. Iron Bark’s spread out ballast gives her a lovely, easy motion and she will carry a great weight of stores and gear without worrying too much about trim. Unfortunately these virtues have a price. The combination of the windage of the maze of running rigging, the lack of lift from short-luffed headsails inevitable with a low-aspect rig and the large wetted surface from the long keel means her windward performance is unspectacular. This can be irritating in coastal sailing but seldom matters in deep water.
The last 700 miles into Fremantle took 11 days and were easy enough despite the lack of the roller-furling jib. A cold front on 20/21 March briefly brought SW7 with squalls to F8, but this was fair wind and gave a run of 77 miles. It would have been 140 miles with a clean bottom. The front marked the end of the Westerlies and the rest of the passage was made in moderate east to southeast winds. By this time the course was northeast so I could generally lay Fremantle close-hauled, averaging 60 miles a day.
Late in the afternoon of 30 March the Rottnest Island lighthouse broke the horizon. At midnight I hove-to to wait on daylight then let draw at dawn to sail through the shipping anchored in Gage Roads. I used the motor to come alongside the small craft quarantine dock in Fremantle at 0915 on 31 March, 171 days out from Newfoundland, having sailed a little over 15,000 miles to make good about 12,500 miles. It had been a long haul.