Now that we’ve had some time to reflect on THE BIG CROSSING, we can look back and say wow, we did it, and minimized mistakes.
As with any big endeavor, there’s an endless list of details to be addressed. Some are obvious, some are not, and some sneak up on you just when you thought you were on track. Check things off, add two more lists.
With the whole summer to explore the Med, and make lists, we still had in the back of our minds that at the end of that great adventure we would be crossing a big ocean. Step by step we did what we could to prepare.
One of the most important things was choosing the right people to join us.
Then we needed to make sure our instruments worked, and worked well.
Knowing how to use the instruments, navigation software and apps, and getting up to date weather forecasts was going to be extremely important and that took time.
The sails had to be in good condition plus we needed to add downwind sails to our inventory.
Food is important so having good stock and buying extras of things we wouldn’t have access to was important.
And whenever I worried about having everything work perfectly I reminded myself of Kon-Tiki, the guys who sailed across the Pacific on a raft, a guy who survived for 71 days on a life raft crossing the Atlantic, and well, you get the picture. El Gato is an extremely comfy yacht so we wouldn’t be roughing it. There were days when we would come on deck and be shocked that it was blowing 20 knots in 12′ seas and in our cabin had no clue. Even if all the instruments failed we had an iPad and a compass and sextant. And since we entered the ARC+ Rally we were going to be in contact with HQ as needed. We could request other yachts positions every 4 hours and we had a list of their e mails, MMSI numbers, and our VHF could be used if someone was within 20 miles. More on this below.
Here are some of the lessons we learned in case you are curious or are considering crossing an ocean.
- Choose your navigation tools wisely and practice, practice, practice! We chose Navionics and Predict Wind as our favorites. The nice thing about these two programs is we could use them on our iPad whether we were on board or not, and could use Navionics on the chart plotter and Predict Wind with Iridium Go! through satellites while sailing. Iridium Go! was our choice for the alternative to a sat phone. Our service plan for $125/mo included unlimited texting and e-mails no matter where in the world we were. We used our phones and iPads and their App but it was easy breezy once we practiced. Predict Wind has an incredible support system and they were always quick to answer my questions and point me to the right info. Subsequently I passed the knowledge on to other cruisers who were overwhelmed in the beginning and I hope they do the same. As for the iPad, it is the best back up we could imagine. And if the power failed? We had solar chargers for the phones and iPad.
- Which brings me to the second thing – Back ups to the back ups. Regardless of what you have, if you need it, you need a back up, and sometimes two. That goes for food, electronics, water, sails, and all the essentials that one needs to be away from stores and land for weeks.
We bought too much food but very little went unused except for the back up like canned goods. Our solar panels are not up to date and we will replace them when we hit the states but they helped. We have good batteries and a generator to boost the power as needed without running the other 2 engines. Water? Our water maker runs really well and Eric has studied it thoroughly so that when we did have a glitch, he was able to sort out the problem and fix it. We have spare parts for it too. We had 2 full talks and whenever one got low we desalinated sea water and filled our tanks. So we could drink plenty and still take showers whenever we felt the need. If we ever had a leak or accidentally drained one tank, we always had the 2nd one to use.
- Safety Supplies – ARC regulations forced us to get our act together and then some. We had to buy a new life raft that is loaded with supplies, and we filled a ditch bag with extra goodies that we learned might be useful just in case. These included but are not limited to sunglasses, sunscreen, power bars, a fishing kit, headlamp, batteries, extra flares, gloves, heat blankets, and chocolate! In addition we found the best places to put our jack lines so that no matter what, we should not be able to fall overboard. Fall down yes, fall overboard no. That is one of the nice things about cats. They are wide so you can be attached and run forward without being near the edge of the boat. Our life jackets are inflatable and after researching and reading about all kinds of disasters, we chose vests that were comfortable and had good reviews. ARC required them to have hoods and crotch straps so we bought them but they are removable so we can make our own choices as to when those pieces should be donned. We bought search lights that are battery and non battery operated, and everyone had a headlamp. The rule was at night anyone on deck wears the jacket and tether and hooks in. Daytime if going forward we wore them. Our back porch/cockpit is stable and wide so you’d almost have to jump to fall over.
We had a well stocked and carefully planned first aid kit. I took a couple of first aid classes but even so, knew if there was a disaster I would need to refer to the medical books we bought. Asking one other crew member to know the kit and back me up helped my peace of mind. Our crew safety briefing a few days before Leg One gave everyone a chance to chime in and add to the conversation. We gave ourselves roles of who did what in all matters including what if we had to abandon ship. But we also agreed that would not happen unless we had to step up to the raft. Cats are difficult to sink as there are two hulls but it can happen. Everything was documented and posted on the window in the salon. We also had a safety chart of where all safety gear was located. Next to that was the scratch sheet so we knew who was out there sailing, their names, call signs, etc.
The Iridium Go! meant we were just a phone call away from help using our own phones. IG! also has an SOS button which we carefully registered. The back up to that? A borrowed Sat phone that the Iridium phone card could work in if needed. We had a Yellow Brick tracker that showed our speed and course and if that stopped the ARC would take notice. And of course we had an EPRIB. But we also had one personal location beacon (PLB), and everyone had a personal AIS unit that was carried in a fanny pack. If someone were to fall off and break rule number one (no one leaves the boat – ever!) their AIS would be activated and in addition to hitting a MOB button on the chart plotter to record their location, this would be on their body. Each AIS was tested before leaving the dock. Every fanny pack was a different color so each crew knew which one was theirs.
VHF would work if other yachts were close. Safety in numbers was originally a big reason for entering the ARC+.
- Sails – we bought a Sailrite sewing machine that is made for tough materials like sails and covers, along with a well stocked sail repair kit that included ample webbing and were extremely grateful for the expense when on Leg One, night one, when the Stella spinnaker lost her head! We managed to get her onboard safely without further damage and Eric whipped out the machine and with a combination of hand sewing and machine sewing we had her up and flying within 4 hours. That’s about when I hit our all time high speed of 20.3 knots and said “Take her down!” It was very dark and surfing was fun but in the balance of pushing hard and staying safe and not doing further damage, we made the right choice.
- It’s all about making good choices. – Choosing how hard to push, when to take a break, what sail to put up, when to take it down, how much sleep to take, water to drink, fun to have, there are always many choices and depending on which road you take will effect your crew, safety, and moral. The same night Stella lost her head, we were pushing hard to sail fast, but moral was getting tested with the water maker on the blink, we had wrapped the kite around both headsails and took 1.5 hours to unwrap, and quite frankly we were getting tired and cranky. That’s when we had a little talk about what are we doing, this is supposed to be fun. And for the first time in a long time it wasn’t, it was just plain hard. Fine if you are racing with a full crew as some of the other top competitors were, but we were short handed and it was taking it’s toll. It was a good thing this happened early in the trip because it helped us refocus on our priorities. To have fun, be safe, and enjoy the experience while going as fast as possible without hurting the boat or ourselves. We reaffirmed our mission statement, and it worked! Good choices and a good balance. It didn’t take long for everything to be back in good order and our spirits soared! It also didn’t hurt to get some good rest after eating well.
- Preventative Measures – Wherever there was a possibility of chafe on the deck we added Astrodeck under the blocks. Halyards? We moved them often but once we got lucky. We took a spinnaker down and found it was hanging by a thread. Timing is everything. We learned from Jerry the Rigger at an ARC seminar to do a 3 minute rigging check everyday. He kept repeating how easy that is and how helpful it is to prevent big problems later like losing your mast when 1000 miles away from land. There were pictures to illustrate. We checked our sails for chafe and if we found any trace, we added protection or reinforced the sail. The foot of the spinnakers where it touched the furled headsail is one example. Checking the battery levels was a high priority. Besides the read out on the battery monitor, the freezer and refrigerator temperatures were clues to whether or not we needed to boost the batteries. Having a cooler outside let us grab drinks without wasting fridge energy. Being rested was important in case we needed all hands on deck. Being mindful and responsible for our own safety was addressed. We all agreed not to take stupid unnecessary chances that could possibly put ourselves at risk and as a result take others down too.
- Sail Handling – Whenever we made a decision to do a maneuver whether it was simple or complex we talked it through. Everyone knew what their role was and once completed, we discussed how well it worked and how to improve. As we progressed, we tried to be consistent with having the same roles. This worked really well. And it sounds like this takes a lot of time but it didn’t. It actually saved time. Our sail handling improved to the point that we did not hesitate to jibe, change sails including spinners (we had 2 spin sizes plus a code zero, large reacher and Solent) or reef the main.
- Tradewind Sailing – It’s all downwind! On leg 2 which was the actual crossing, we used our asymmetrical spinnaker with our main single reefed party because we had lost a batten on leg 1, and party because it can out farther without touching the shrouds when it’s reefed. After a 3 days of zig zagging at high speeds but getting similar VMGs as the leaders, we had trouble with one of our rudders. Only one rudder was steering and the other was mostly drag and trailing. The auto pilot was showing error messages. After all was sorted and both rudders working properly, the auto pilot needed to be reset but since we couldn’t do this unless in calm waters, we had to hand steer. That wasn’t so bad as we actually prefer hand steering and all of us can drive pretty well in most conditions. But this gave us time to reconsider how we were going to sail. We took the main down and using the boom as a spinnaker pole, with the sheet running through a block at the end of it and then down to the deck. With the kite up we attached the tack to the center of the bow sprit, and then rolled out the reacher aptly named Gordo to leeward. We sailed wing and wing with big sails in front. Nothing to blanket them, nothing to reef, no worries! We sailed as fast but now we were sailing rhum line straight towards St. Lucia. Of course we had heard about others who had symmetrical kites and others with huge sails and poles but we had not felt those would serve us well after the crossing. When the wind increased or decreased we tried different configurations. Light? Tigger (large kite) and the Gordo. 17-23? Stella and Gordo. 21-27? Code Zero and Gordo. 26- consistently? Gordo and Solent. Squall? Reefed Gordo and Solent. The trick was to stay ahead of the game. Look back and see what’s coming before it’s too late. We were conservative with the clouds so if it looked dicey, we chose the safer path and reduced sails before it was too late. One night just before sunset we saw our first yacht on the horizon in front of us. It was Adrienne, a Swan 65 and they had a huge kite up. We were feeling a little wimpy but as we were sailing short handed with only 3 working crew members compared to their 8 men, we did what we felt was the right thing. Sadly we lost a lot of ground as they sailed fast that night between squalls, but also learned later they blew out that kite. Ours is still in great shape! The other cat that was near the front called Lir had an asymmetrical spinnaker and we saw them the next night. They had been many miles behind and now we were neck and neck. We played it safe with the squalls and lost a more ground. No doubt we could have risked the kite and gone faster, but weighing the options there is always a risk reward factor to consider. We didn’t have an autopilot so losing a sail overboard meant only 2 of us could help get it back. And that doesn’t take into account the $$ it costs to replace one. We made the right choice for these reasons, and when it was over we were 30 miles behind the first yacht and only hours behind the three yachts that beat us across the finish line. It was a total blast to have such nice strong winds to cross the Atlantic. We did it in 10 days, 9 hours, and 10 minutes and heard afterwards it was the best year in anyone’s memory. Do we feel lucky, YES!
- Reading – There is a plethora of good nautical books out there and Eric and I have read some great ones. Magazines that focus on sailing and cruising always have good tips too. Some books focused on disasters at sea, others of wonderful discoveries and explorations. We took knowledge when we could, and found our own as we sailed the Med.
One thing we all need is good luck, especially in sailing!
But preparation sure does make that luck factor work in your favor.
We’ll take it when we can.
11. Choosing crew – if you’ve read this far and would like to know more, we will address the subject of choosing crew in the next blog. My background as a racing skipper, 100 ton licensed captain, America’s Cup Team crew member in the afterguard, and having spent the past 20 years facilitating team building with different Universities has given me some insight on personalities and how to build a good team.
Until then, happy 2016!