Friday, 23 October 2020

Confined to port by quarantine

Along with much of the rest of the world, I have been confined to port by quarantine. The time has not been entirely wasted as I have been refitting my newly acquired Alajuela 38 to convert her into an ocean going vessel. As anyone who has done this knows, transforming a coastal sailer into an ocean going one is a long, tedious business, Anyone who has not had to do this is unlikely to be interested in the details or frustrations of the job. Either way, there is no point in cluttering the world with yet another description of a rebuild/refit.

To fill the gap until I can do some more interesting sailing, here is a piece written for the Royal Cruising Club journal Roving Commissions. Every edition of this excellent annual publication back to 1883 is available online ( There are articles by well-known authors such as Hammond Innes, Miles Smeeton, Eric Hiscock and Robin Knox-Johnson. But the real gems are probably from much less well-known people such as Willie Ker, John Gore-Grimes and Pete Hill, to pick a few names nearly at random. Look it up: it is well worth the effort.

I thought this next piece described a voyage too hum-drum to be worth posting, but one of the yachting magazines (Yachting World) picked it up and published it, so it may have some merit. Here it is.


When I launched Iron Bark in 1997 I said that I would move on to another vessel before I turned seventy. In October 2018, with that birthday looming, I sailed from Ireland for the West Indies to look for her replacement. After crossing the Atlantic by the trade wind route, a voyage of no particular note other than a pleasant diversion to Plymouth to catch up with an eclectic and far-sailing group of voyaging friends, I hauled Iron Bark out of the water in Carriacou to prepare her her for sale.

Iron Bark II is going to be hard to replace 

I wanted to replace Iron Bark with a similar vessel but built of fibreglass for reduced maintenance in my dotage. I decided on an Alajuela 38, a fibreglass version of William Atkins' Ingrid built in California in the 1970s. The Alajeula is a little larger and heavier than Iron Bark and rigged as a bermudian cutter. I would have preferred a gaff-rigged vessel, but there was nothing suitable on offer at a price that I could afford. Perhaps I will be able to re-rig her as a gaff cutter sometime in the next few years

There were several Alajuela 38 for sale and I flew to Tampa on Florida's west coast look at the nearest one. Under previous owners, this vessel, Diva, had been from California and British Columbia and back. Then she moved to the east coast of the USA, probably by truck, and had since twice been as far south as Panama. Although she had covered quite a bit of water, her sailing seems to have been entirely short hops with no ocean passages. She was fitted out to maximise comfort at anchor or in a marina with little consideration for functionality at sea and her motor had seen far more use than her sails. She was basically sound and although much of her equipment and fittings were unsuited to ocean voyaging, I believed the surplus systems could be discarded and the missing ones added at a cost I could afford, so I bought her. I intended to change her name when I registered her in Australia, but this was delayed as the US Coastguard were exceptionally slow in removing her from the American register. Consequently I sailed her to the Caribbean under her old name.

Marinas are expensive so I did the minimum necessary to get her seaworthy enough to sail to the Caribbean where I could transfer my tools and gear from Iron Bark and get on with turning her into an ocean-going vessel. I stayed in the Harborage Marina while I prepared her for the voyage south. The marina was convenient to services, had a friendly staff and a large live-aboard community who immediately accepted me into their ranks. One resident, Chris Sheldon, was particularly generous with his time and vehicle, driving me around doing things that cannot be done online, such as having gas bottles inspected.

Diva's hull and rig were sound and well built but her interior had a boat-show layout with too many open spaces and far too little stowage. Her sails were in good condition but intended for the light conditions of the American coast and barely adequate for an ocean voyage. The mainsail lacked a deep reef and there was no proper high-cut sea-going jib. However with care and patience I believed I could make the passage south with the sails as they were and sort out her deficiencies in the Caribbean.

Most of the locker doors had only friction catches that would burst open in a seaway so I bought a roll of duct tape to restrain them. The galley had no bar in front of the stove or strap to hold the cook in place, there was no usable manual bilge pump, the cockpit was huge and its drains small, the nonskid was designed to be easy to clean rather than to keep the crew aboard and there was a maze of plumbing in the bilge with the potential to sink the vessel. I removed as much of this piping as I could along with five electric pumps and hoped the rest would last month at sea without sinking her.

There were various bits of fancy joinery that would look well in an article on a finely finished yacht but also looked as if they would not survive long on a seagoing vessel. The beautifully built teak butterfly skylight amidships fell into that category, as did the dainty platform on the bowsprit, an elaborate folding table in the saloon and the huge hard dodger that covered the entire cockpit. I hoped they would stay in place until I got to the Caribbean where I could address their shortcomings. The passage from Florida is after all only 2400 nautical miles in flying fish latitudes, albeit largely to windward.

More urgently the cutless bearing needed replacement, the anchors were inadequate and there was no windvane steering, only an electro-hydraulic autopilot. We arranged that Sailor's Wharf, the yard that was to haul Diva for survey, would replace the cutless bearing while she was out of the water. They made no attempt to do the job, or even offer an excuse for not doing it, but still charged savagely for a short in-slings haul. The defective cutless bearing meant limiting motoring to short distances at low speeds until I could fit a new one in the West Indies.

I bought a Monitor windvane and, having no wish to deal further with St Petersburg's yacht yards, fitted it afloat by hanging precariously over Diva's stern. Adding a 33kg Vulcan anchor was simple but expensive, as was replacing the defunct battery system. I bought several reels of rope and replaced much of the running rigging. I should have done the lot; almost everything I did not renew failed on the voyage south.

There was also a persistent air leak in the diesel fuel system that stopped the motor at unpredictable intervals. The fuel system was complex with dozens of hose-clamped joints, half a dozen ball valves, three filters and two pumps, any of them capable of leaking air. I fixed a couple of air leaks, which reduced the severity of the problem but without completely solving it. Until I could simplify and rebuild the system in the Caribbean, I had to accept the engine was unreliable.

On Saturday 30 March 2019 I sailed from St Pete for the West Indies. As a change from my usual quiet, almost stealthy, departures there were a dozen or more people to see me off. The motor lasted long enough to get me around the marina breakwater and out of sight of the well-wishers before dying. I cursed, anchored (thereby blocking the channel), bled the system and motored into open water where I thankfully made sail. It is a long time since I have set off on an ocean passage on a vessel so ill prepared, but I would be broke and my visa long expired if I stayed in Florida until all was done.

The voyage from Tampa to the eastern Caribbean divides in three legs. The first 500 miles is a coastal passage around the Florida peninsula, south down its west coast then north up the east coast. Once far enough north to clear the Bahamas I would turn into the open Atlantic, sailing east when I could and north when headed by the wind. On this leg I hoped to stay between latitude 28°N and 30°N until about 63°W, a distance of about 900 miles. It was likely to be largely to windward. Having made my easting, I would make the final 1000-mile leg by arcing south-east to find the trade winds then south to landfall in Martinique. I expected the voyage to take about a month.

There is an alternative route much used by American yachts. This is a series of short hops through the Bahamas to Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and on to the Virgin Islands that allows them to remain in port when the wind is contrary then motor to the next refuge when winds are light. This way it is possible to reach the Caribbean from Florida without spending more than one or two nights at sea but it adds months to the passage south. I never considered this option as I wanted to get to the Caribbean with dispatch; also Diva's dodgy cutless bearing and my predjudice against engine noise precluded that much motoring.

The 500-mile leg around Florida and into the open Atlantic took a week in generally light headwinds. There was predictably a lot of traffic; pleasure craft by day, fishing boats and cargo vessels both day and night. I slept in 20-minute cat naps, which soon became tedious. Although I had no difficulty getting enough sleep with this regime it left little time for cooking and cleaning and nothing for reading a book, watching birds or enjoying life at sea.

I reached the northern end of the Straits of Florida before dawn on the seventh day and, with the wind in the east, hardened the sheets and steered north-east towards the open Atlantic. There was one final zigzag to avoid two merchant vessels rounding the tip of the Bahamas Bank with minimum clearance that squeezed me up against the bank before they inconveniently disappeared into a rain squall. The squall passed and the sun rose on an empty ocean. I turned in for a long sleep, confident that I was now clear of coastal traffic and that the AIS would alert me to any large vessels.

Five days of moderate, sometimes fresh, winds got me well clear of the Bahamas, initially sailing NE close hauled with an easterly wind that slowly veered to SSE and let me make easting with the sheets just started. As always it was a joy to once again be clear of land and its encumbrances. I spent the days on deck occupied with bosun's work, whipping rope ends, splicing and generally tidying up the running rig, or with a needle and palm sewing canvas covers, with all night in except for rare AIS ship alarms. If there had been more birds I would have been perfectly content, but the tropical oceans are a poor place for birds.

The compass had extensive sun crazing of its acrylic dome and a large air bubble that made it unreadable. I spent hours polishing the dome to reasonable, if not perfect, clarity then refilled it using baby oil. Baby oil is excellent for this, being clear, miscible with compass oil and of similar viscosity. Baby oil is also an excellent lubricant for marine toilets and for treating wood cutting boards; I believe it can also be applied to infants' bottoms. Every vessel should carry this elixir.

Early on Thursday 11 April, 12 days out and 5 days after turning into the Atlantic, the breeze died away to an ominous calm. When the wind returned it quickly hardened to NE6-7, a strong to near gale head wind. With a deeper reef in the main and a smaller jib I would have carried on, but with the sails I had there was no choice but to heave-to. For 32 hours I lay under double-reefed main with the helm lashed down, fore-reaching slowly and with leeway making a square drift.

When the wind moderated to ESE5 at dawn on 13 April I set the staysail and half the genoa and crashed off close hauled, making a course a little north of east. The wind remained SE or ESE for several days, allowing me to work to the east without being forced much to the north. Then a fresh SW breeze gave us a great shove so that we crossed 63°W in 29°30'N on 16 April. There I hauled the wind abeam and headed south-east to look for the trades. Despite the time spent hove-to, I had made about 1000 nautical miles of easting in 10 days, faster and more easily than I had expected.

The sea was covered with great rafts of Sargasso weed that repeatedly fouled the self-steering paddle. While clearing the paddle with a boathook I hit the spinning wind generator with the boathook handle, breaking off one blade and rendering the generator useless. I was now entirely dependent on the engine for battery charging. It would be inconvenient but not catastrophic if the engine failed. Before leaving Florida I had eliminated most systems that relied on electricity - autopilot, pressurised water, electric toilet and so on, but for the first time in my life I had gone to sea without a sextant and tables. If the engine stopped, the batteries had enough charge to give me a GPS position every day or two. This would let me make a landfall and I could do without or bypass the rest of the electrical equipment.

The fair south-westerly backed to a squally easterly headwind. I bashed on close hauled, reducing sail as the squalls became more intense until we were down to the 147 sq ft staysail alone. With a deeper reef in the mainsail I could have continued to plug to windward, but I could do no better than a beam reach with only the staysail, making about south. Occasionally a wave broke aboard and filled the cockpit, which took a long time to drain. To my surprise, the hatch covering the engine instruments in the cockpit well did not leak enough to short out the maze of wires behind it, but I will move those instruments to a safer location soon and give the cockpit bigger drains.

Ashore in Carriacou awaiting conversion to an ocean-going vessel. 

On 21 April, 22 days out, after two and a half days under the staysail only, the wind eased to ENE6 only exceeding 30 knots in squalls. I set the main with both reefs tied in and crashed off with the wind half a point free. A couple of hours later the lifelines went slack. When I went forward to investigate, I found the bowsprit platform had wrenched free from the bowsprit, taking the pulpit and the lifelines with it. The hex-head fastenings that held the platform and pulpit down were not through bolts, as I believed, but merely coachscrews. The force of a few not very large waves had pulled them out, leaving the pulpit and platform dangling.

Before sailing from Florida I had noted the fragile nature of this platform and intended rebuild it on arrival in the Caribbean, one of several modifications needed to correct multiple faults in the design of the bowsprit. I lashed the platform and the pulpit down to the bowsprit as best I could, an unpleasant business as I had to sit on the unsecured platform while passing the lashings. Before venturing down the bowsprit to do this I hove-to and trailed a line astern to give myself a chance of regaining the boat if the platform collapsed. Wearing a harness was pointless, as it often is when single handed. If I went overboard a harness would merely leave me dangling, unable to regain the deck. I forbore as unnecessarily melodramatic making the log entry alleged to have been found on yacht drifting empty in the English Channel: 'I have to go to the end of the bowsprit, but will I return?'

With the pulpit and platform temporarily secured, though it would not survive a hard blow, I reverted to jogging along under staysail alone. Twenty-four hours later the wind eased and I made more sail. Shortly afterwards the wind died completely, leaving us lurching in the left-over sea. For two and a half days that we lay becalmed and drifted 40 miles east. This all or nothing wind rather aggrieved me as here in the latitude of Antigua, 19°N, I expected steady trades winds.

In the early hours of 26 April a gentle NNE breeze got us moving again. This breeze slowly hardened into the trades as they should be, a fresh to strong wind on the quarter that sent us rushing joyously along for 300 miles in just over two days to anchor off St Pierre, Martinique on 28 April, 29 days from Florida. Next comes quite a few months' work converting Diva to a voyaging vessel.