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Sailing – not all gold that glitters

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The skipper. But a dad first

People sometimes get an idealistic idea about how it is to sail a yacht. True, I love sailing. I love the ocean, the freedom, even just the idea of moving on an endless sea merely pushed forward by wind and tides.

But when I go sailing with the family, it is different. Up comes the endless feeling of responsibility. In our family of four, I am the only one who knows how to sail a yacht. Tine, my wife, knows how to assist maneuvering a yacht in a harbour, and helps me steering the boat against the wind when I raise the sails, and she picks up a mooring buoy like no other, but she does not know how to sail. Our daughters, Lana (now 13) and Hannah (nearly 11), know how to sail a dinghy, but not a yacht.

So my nightmare is “what if something happens to me, while we are under sail”… Imagine for one or the other silly reason, I fall overboard – accidents happen on a yacht -, what then? Or even if it is just when getting into bad weather, where I would need skilled hands?
It is different if you have a crew that knows what to do. As the skipper, you stay on the helm and give simple orders: “Trim the main sail”, “reef the foresail”, “look up the course to the nearest port”… But when we sail with the family, it is different.
Even though I take every possible precaution to ensure the safety of my loved ones: I have taken every possible course. I have quite some experience in bad weather, in strong tides, sailing in busy commercial shipping lanes, sailing at night, and maneuvering in busy ports. I know how to read weather charts, calculate tides, and all radio procedures. I know first aid, and emergency procedures. I know how to anchor a ship, pick up a man over board, and maneuver in tight quarters. And still, when sailing with the family I always get nervous.

Let me tell you a story how fast things could go wrong.

Back in 2004, we sailed from in the Caribbean from Martinique to the Grenadines. One morning, we lift anchor from Bequia in the Grenadines, to sail to St.Lucia, about 60-70 nautical miles further North. The weather was nice and the forecast was perfect. I made one mistake: I calculated the trip to be a bit shorter if we passed St.Vincent -the next island North of Bequia- via the East, the Atlantic side, rather than the quieter Caribbean (East) side.

When we cut between Bequia and St.Vincent, the weather turned overcast, but the winds and the seas were quite calm. As we sailed past St.Vincent’s East side, the wind picked up to about 15 knots, still quite easy, even though I could see some isolated squalls coming our way. I kept an eye on them and changed course regularly to pass in front or in the back of them. As we sailed along, we saw the skies getting darker, and I did not have a comfortable feeling. I put in a reef in the main sail, just in case, but did not get too worried until I saw a real dark squall heading our way, just as we were getting close to the North of St.Vincent.

I ordered the family to put on their life jackets, and clipped the kids with a lifeline onto the ship. I clipped myself onto the lifeline, put the ship on autopilot and went to the bow of the ship to put in the third reef in the main sail. Just as I stood hooked onto the main mast, it started raining, and the wind picked up. Tine dropped some of the main halyard so I could put the reef in the main sail. I got soaked by the spray and the rain. By the time I got back into the cockpit, the wind had picked up to 35 knots, turning and twisting from all sides. It was then I remembered someone warning us of the usual foul weather due to the huge mountain at the North of St.Vincent.

The sea turned into a boiling pot, with waves coming from all sides, spraying over the side of the boat, soaking my crew. We already had our rain jackets on, but it got really cold. The wind gusted from all directions, making it difficult to keep a course and to keep the sails filled, so the boat would hold a steady angle.

The rain gusted down, and the visibility was close to nil. Long had we lost sight of land. I had plotted our course, so I knew we were about five miles off land, but also knew there was no harbour this side of the island. It took probably half an hour until I realized something was wrong. The wind had shifted 90 degrees, and to keep the sails full, I had lost my bearing. The compass and my GPS indicated we were heading straight for land, sailing West instead of North…

I needed both hands at the helm, and told Tine we were getting off course. Once the going gets rough, Tine is all business. Even though I know she is not comfortable in foul weather (that is an understatement), she stood up, and told me calmly “Tell me what to do!”. I told her to “take the green rope, put it over a winch clockwise, and to crank it up, until I told you to stop”, an order which for an experienced crew would be “pull in the main tight”. She did it perfectly. Next came “take the white and black rope, put it onto a winch, open up the clamp of the white rope, and start winching in the white and black rope”, a order which would be “pull in the foresail”. I revved up the engine, changed the course back to North and headed into the wind.

The wind was howling, the rain came down in buckets, and the waves gushed over the bow of the ship. We continued head-on into the wind, for what seemed an eternity, but in reality it was probably just one hour. The rain came down that violently I could see the dinghy, which we were towing behind our yacht, filling with water to the rim, slowing down the ship considerably. I kept on hoping that the engine would not fail as there was no way we would be able to sail on this course, head on into the wind. But the engine purred like a cat, and after a while the rain became lighter and all of a sudden, the kids shouted “Look there: dolphins!”.

That is when I knew all would be ok. Dolphins have always been a token of good luck for me. So it was no surprise that as the pod of dolphins swam alongside the ship, the wind turned again, the rain stopped and the seas calmed down. The squall had passed us, with nothing else but clear skies ahead of us.

I put the ship on autopilot again, and pulled the dinghy closer to the yacht. I just had to heave out the water from the dinghy as it was slowing us down too much. I told Tine to keep an eye on the course, and got ready to jump into the dinghy, knowing if I would miss my jump, there was no way for me to get back onto the ship. So I jumped, heaved all water out of the dinghy, pulled myself onto the ship again, and away we were.

The silver lining of that trip came soon: the seas became dead calm, with a broad side steady wind blowing at 15 knots. I put all sails back up, and trimmed them. And boy, we sailed! With our 35 ft yacht, towing a dinghy, we sailed at 10-11 knots, at a perfect angle, and with perfectly trimmed sails for hours, until we reached St.Lucia.

The strange thing was that the kids had no idea in what danger we had been. The only thing they said “Dad that was exciting, when can we do that again?”. Kids!

Some lessons learned:
- Never pass an island in the Caribbean on the Atlantic side.
- Always be prepared for the worse, and hope for the best.
- Be aware of high mountains in the vicinity of where you sail. Often the weather changes near them.
- Better one reef too much than one too little.
- Be prepared, be prepared, be prepared.
- When sailing with kids, make sure they always wear their safety jackets and are hooked onto the boat, in foul weather. You should be able to concentrate on the ship, and not have to worry where the kids are, and what they are doing.
- When things go bad, kids have to get into the habit of following orders without questioning…

More about sailing on The Road.

Written by Peter

July 13th, 2008 at 1:55 pm

Letter to a Mum – Spoiling Innocence

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ARC 2006 – Sailing Vessel Persuader Too.
Log entry December 8, 2006 – Transatlantic crossing, day #12.

With his 18 years, Tom is the youngest of our crew. Thanks to him, our crew has an average age of only 45 :-). We do joke a lot with him, and often ‘threaten’ him ‘to tell his mum’. Below is an invented letter to Tom’s mum.
The one in the red Tshirt is Tom. Obviously fiddling around with something again. Keep your hands off that rope, will you, Tom? Dammit!Dear Mrs. Mallet,

Greetings from the Persuader Too, now well on its way to St.Lucia. We were sorry you only found out that Tom was crossing the Atlantic when he was no longer available on his cellphone. Indeed, he did not stay overnight at a friend. He promises to call you once we arrive in St.Lucia.

As all sailors smoke, Tom started to smoke too. He says hi and asks you if you have a good recipe to get the nicotine from his fingers.

It took some effort to make sure he kept all his underwear, T-shirts, and shampoo in his cabin, as he clearly has the habit of leaving everything hanging around. Eric, our first mate on the passage from Hamble to the Canaries was rather upset as he left the boat and cleared his bunk. He found out he had slept on 5 pieces of Tom’s used underwear under his pillow case for at least a week.

Tom is very interested in technology. He has pushed every possible button on this boat (and there are a lot). His favorite pass time is to reconfigure the skipper’s navigation computer and to reprogram the response time of the autopilot.

Tom is also intrigued by the red/yellow plastic dummy steering wheel we have installed for him in the cockpit. He does quite well steering the boat with it, especially as we never switch off the auto helm and the dummy helm is not connected to anything. He makes the ‘Brrrrr’ noises too, just like 6 year old kids drive a car.

Tom did dishes yesterday. He rinsed a cup as there were no clean ones left.

He is the only one who watches cartoons on the DVD in the afternoon. We are running out of cartoons soon, so we are rather worried how to keep him busy for 10 hours a day. We have thought to run the same DVDs with Swedish subtitles and Swahili sound. We hope that will keep him entertained for 2 more days.

We do limit his beer consumption to 10 six packs per day. He has been quite good actually, and reduced his alcohol consumption quite a lot since he came on board.

We run out of dried mushrooms for our soup. We think Tom had something to do with it, as one night, he was rather ‘happy’, smoking weird shaped rolled cigarettes.
We also run out of dried soup, and oregano spices. We think he is in his ‘experimental phase’. He does have a dripping nose all the time though..
Tom would like to inform the other teenagers on the ARC-boats that the book with the celestial navigation tables works very well to roll cigarettes.
He also found a way to ferment the oranges, mixed with apple cider and sugar. He is now working on a device to distillate this mixture to a 90 degrees pure alcohol. He intends to sell at least 100 liters of it once we are in St.Lucia.

We asked him to put his stack of Playboys on port side, as it gave us a better tack, increasing the boat speed by at least one knot.

Tom has found ‘Indies Nightclub’ at our destination in St.Lucia, Rodney Bay, on the electronic charts, and kindly asks to wire over more money in anticipation of our arrival.
Since he discovered Indies Nightclub, he does stare westwards a lot, and does whine ‘are we there yet?’ continuously.

For the rest, we are all well and love Tom very much.

The Crew of the Persuader Too.

PS: Is the story of Tom and the Chinese nanny really true? We thought so. We have give him plenty of tips, experienced men as we are.
That is Tom (on the right) with me

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

January 30th, 2007 at 12:00 am

We Are All Going No-Where

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ARC 2006 – Sailing Vessel Persuader Too.
Log entry December 3, 2006 – Transatlantic crossing, day #7.

For days, we have not seen another ship. On Saturday all of sudden a vessel popped up at the horizon. We locked her on the radar and observed she was not moving at all. It was a fishing vessel, which looked like hovering on one spot. We were speeding on our massive green kite, autopilot set to follow the wind, about 155 degrees off wind, a course that brought us heading straight for the fishing vessel. – is it not odd, that for days on end you don’t see any other ship, and when one is spotted, it always seems to be on a collision course? –

Anyway, there she was, just hovering on one position, not moving at all. She did not drag any fishing gear, just ‘lay there’. We called them on the radio, in English, No response. In French. No response. In Portuguese. No response. In Spanish. No response.. It was not until we raced past her, a hundred meters off her bow, that all of a sudden we heard a voice on the radio. It seemed the crew only saw us the moment we passed her.. The guy on the radio sounded surprised… Probably he was on watch on the bridge, and had dozed off, until he saw us speeding by. I mean, put yourself in his place, here you are, in the middle of the Atlantic, minding your own business, not seeing anyone or anything for days on end and all of a sudden, this sailboat with this massive green sail comes racing past you..

Anyway, they were very friendly. They were Portuguese fishermen (what is a Portuguese fishing vessel doing so far south in the middle of nowhere, we wonder?). They asked who we were, where we were going to.. We answered we were on our way ‘to Saint Lucia’.. And he said ‘but you are going the wrong way, Santa Lucia is behind you..’. It took us some time to explain we were not going to ‘La Ilha de Santa Luzia’, one of the islands in the Cape Verdes – indeed now one day off our stern – but to St.Lucia in the Caribbean..
So we parted, with the fishing vessel left in our wake. We were wondering what the hell a Portuguese fishing vessel was doing so far south, just hovering on the spot in the mid Atlantic. And they were probably wondering what a sailing vessel was doing crossing the Atlantic only to go from one from one St.Lucia to the other St.Lucia.

Looking back… Video courtesy of Thomas Mallet
Click (twice) on video to play it.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

January 29th, 2007 at 11:44 pm

250 Boats Facing The Same Direction

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November 26, 2006 – Just off the coast of the Canary Islands

I arrived back in the Canary Islands two days ago. In the marina, all ships participating in the ARC, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, had assembled. 223 ships from different nationalities. From 27 feet (9 meters) to 100 feet (over 30 meters) monsters. From homemade boats to big luxurious one-off designs. From competition racing boats with little luxury to standard cruising yachts like ours. The ARC is an annual event trying to assemble yachts at the ideal time of the year to sail across the Atlantic. The purpose is to get everyone safely to ‘the other end’, in a competitive way. The people participating are from all kinds of walks of life. Some are professional skippers taking their charter ship over to the Caribbean for the season (like us), with a random crew often consisting of people who never crossed the Atlantic before. Some are competition boats with a well trained racing crew on board. Some are families, many of them from Europe where the ARC is their first trans-ocean crossing of a multi-year world cruise, often with kids on board. There was a pleasant and hectic atmosphere on all the docks as all ships were readied for the crossing. Everyone was busy stocking food, fuel, water, and making last minute repairs or changes to their ship.

This morning, one by one the yachts left the marina, cheered by thousands of people who stood on the cays, docks and breakwaters or ferried in small boats around us. Helicopters above, filming, and brass bands playing on the docks. Together with the 223 ARC participating yachts, there would be about 250 ‘ghost riders’, yachts which would cross the Atlantic at the same time as us, but did not participate in the ARC. We all gathered just outside of the port, zigzagging while raising sails, trying to get a good position near the one km long starting line. Once the start signal was given, up went all the big spinnakers (the huge colourful sails which are used to sail down- wind). The start was one of the most memorable pictures I will never forget… Over 200 boats starting a race at the same time. And not only a race, a transatlantic crossing but also starting an adventure, chasing dreams. Even though we will often sail hundreds of miles apart from the other boats, we are still connected to one another, because of our common goal, our common dreams, our common interests, all to do with adventure, water, sailing and being addicted to the horizon.. It was an absolute fabulous sight, hundreds of boats and sails, and thousands of crew working on them.. All heading into the same direction: St.Lucia in the Caribbean.

Wish us luck and fair winds!


Picture 2 courtesy of Thomas Mallet

Start of the ARC 2006. Video courtesy of T.Mallet
Click (twice) on the video to play it.

Start of the ARC2006
Click (twice) on the video to play it.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

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Written by Peter

January 29th, 2007 at 11:29 pm