Crossing the Atlantic and Returning Home (The Midnight Hour – Part 3)
From-Multihull International, August 1990 By Rob Ward
Antigua – Flores (Azores) initially making for Bermuda
Having returned to Antigua for the second time from the Grenadines and many strange and wonderful anchorages in between, Tris, Ray and I set about preparing The Midnight Hour for the North Atlantic. At this point the boat had been under charter for nearly ten months without break and you’d think there was a fair bit to do. In fact, we bought food, fuel and after Malcolm Dines (who spends half his year in Antigua aboard his Wharram, Kitty of Alderney) had shown us Great Bird Island and the passage out to the Atlantic – we repaired to the anchorage in its lee and scrubbed the bottom, speared a stingray, horse mackerel and barracuda, and spent the night.
The following morning a stiff trade blew onshore and combined with the sun in our eyes the passage looked dicey. Tris volunteered for the crosstrees and, with our home-made bosun’s chair (a bowline on the bight) he sang out directions in soprano. We cracked north on a reach and banged off 170 miles on Day 0, passing close by the lee of Barbuda over the Codrington shoals. Now, for this account to be of any value to anyone reading it with a mind to assimilate another’s experience of crossing an ocean in a catamaran, it has to be the truth. I don’t believe it is possible to tell the truth about any experience, completely.
Any piece of writing involves memory; and memory is a creative re-imagining of an experience. Some people have more vivid imaginations than others! So my idea is to break this up into objective parts (days runs and so on) and subjective parts. I’ll be using memory, our log and a twenty page letter to my wife which was written between 8 and 12 most nights when I should have been looking out for boats like China Prosperity (which should have been looking out for… etc.). Hopefully this will constitute an accurate enough – but not too dry – account.
Tris Cokes – windsurf builder, gardener. Sailing experience – Falmouth, Scillies and back, two weeks in the Caribbean.
Ray McCusker – (large) builder. Sailing experience – as above.
Myself – builder of The Midnight Hour, charterer of the same. Sailing experience – as above plus 30,000 miles on one tack.
These are included less to impress (more than some, less than many) than to give a picture of what a modestly canvassed, strong, cruising cat might achieve in the circumstances in which it was achieved. They were calculated on distance Made Good using a Walker 5050 SatNav by subtracting midday’s great circle distance to Waypoint One (mostly the Lizard) from the previous day.
Our log spinner had fallen off by Ile de Ronde and we were intending to pick up another in Bermuda where my wife had sent it. The Midnight Hour is a Woods Designs Mira 35 open bridgedeck cat built on Palamos Banshee hulls with low profile keels. Her construction was foam and balsa sandwich (including the six main bulkheads) with a Profurl roller reefing genoa and fully-battened North main with Harken deck gear.
Logs are not known for their deathless prose (and letters to wives can be unprintable for other reasons). There is much that cannot be reproduced : shaky writing during a gale, the slightly forced cheerfulness of the remarks, the great watery smudges where your foulweather gear decanted a sleeveful. Still, here the story is told by the log, the letter and a few helpful comments.
Day 4 (2200 hrs)
‘Assorted bangings, whistlings and splashings suggest movement and a 400 yard phosphorescent wake. But it’s too dark to be sure . .. the riot squad have dimmed the stars, the moon’s on sick leave and no-one’s in charge.’ Hmmm … touch of the Donald Crowhurst here
Broad-reaching through broken seas. Petrel and Corey’s Shearwater on wake’. This was the first bit of fast sailing I had done in open ocean conditions in The Midnight Hour with a ‘proper-job’ breaking sea right on the beam. Rob James in Multihulls Offshore points out the difficulty of this particular point of sailing. The windward hull lifts alarmingly and the breaking sea often does so right between the hulls. This, I found, was not dangerous but was noisy and alarming.
So we get from Tris (Let’s get a spinnaker up) a cheerful:
0700: ‘Some good surfing to be done’, and later from me at
0800: ‘Four turns in genoa, second reef down’,
0830: ‘Third reef down. Main overpowering on surfs’, then a variety of comments indicating slight anxiety (never suffered by the crew. It was my job to be anxious and I did it rather well ! ).
0900: Hazy sunshine. High cloud, flecks of cloud in middle layers, black squall passes without effect. Swell 2 – 3 metres.
1000: Rough, reaching across breaking seas with occasional heavy surf. Odd cloud mix.
1140: Mamma in cloud overhead, wind increase.
1200: Rougher. I expect you get MY drift. Now back to the boys !
1500: Reaching nicely. Then Tris’s fatal remark:-
2000: ‘Looks like a quiet night’, at which I screeched;
2100: Don’t write that ! ! ! Well, as it goes we didn’t get a REAL blow that night although I wrote at one point
2200: Third reef in main and about eight rolls in the genoa. The last squall went by an hour ago. We’ve been surfing hard until I put the final reef in. Many waves breaking heavily but Midnight Hour rises well to all breaking waves as we reach across them.
2300: Breaking- wave pours onto watch keeper’s head having obscured obscure horizon. ‘Unsteady’ sums it up – ‘noisy’ perhaps. How come gales always arrive at night ? I know, I know, they just feel like gales. Well, here’s how our best gale started.
0100: Whispering along under full cloud cover.
0300: Muggy, wet and miserable … so’s the weather.
0600: Blasting along on reach. Overcast, wind increasing.
0800: Heavy sea. Third reef down. A/C 100 to port to put sea on quarter.
0850: Six rolls in genoa. Surfing hard in powerful gusts.
1000: Mar Grueso … not southern ocean yet though. Look out for the big one.
1200: Gale. Hand steering. Helmsman tied in.
From here on the gale established itself as boss by inducing everything to go wrong. So, the SatNav, solar panels, battery and engine packed in one by one. Entries in the log were reduced to one every two hours. Things got done between entries. Terminals cleaned, got a battery back. Twelve hours passed before a dismantled carburetor got the engine back on line for charging. And later still we filtered all our West Indian fuel through a coffee filter (the coffee had long since run out) and a T-shirt to remove the dirt and water, and the fuel pump biopsies. The solar panel remained down, badly corroded and is being replaced, cheerfully, by BP Solar who have made improvements to the product.
It wasn’t over.
1600: Barograph in steep decline.
2000: Stronger. Down to pocket handkerchief. Rain etc. Pretty much running before.
2030: (in shaky, small writing) – Rain, occasional slap. Not surfing now with very small genoa. No sooner written than giant surf takes place.
2200: Running with the waves.
0300: Daylight comin’ and me wanna go home.
That was about it. Tris and I did the steering. We both surf and Ray doesn’t and he was very unhappy on the helm so it seemed wiser for us to try and cope. The wind dropped. The sea remained large and ugly but the great tumbles of breaking sea were no longer there and the danger was gone. We just had to mop up our fatigue and get dry.
There doesn’t seem to me much point in denying that a gale at sea – I mean beyond all hope of a harbour of refuge and a dry bed – is a miserable and frightening experience. And I’m not talking about a survival storm. On deck seeing what The Midnight Hour was up to, how she handled the surfs and the breaking seas I felt fine. Below, ‘resting’… well, there’s the irony. Each surf was an unknown commodity: will she broach ? Capsize ? The answer was No and No. Never, ever, felt like it – on deck ! I wondered if the worry was greater in a catamaran than a monohull. But I cast my mind back to the capsize in a Gibsea 104 some distance north of the Azores eight years ago and the apprehension was in every way identical. With the difference that in the Gibsea I had to jam myself into the quarter berth to prevent being slammed from side to side.
In The Midnight Hour, although I fretted as before, I barely moved from the centre of the double berth I occupied, however alarming were the kinesthetic sensations of surge, acceleration, surf. The noise, of course, is there: a combination of high pressure fire hose striking the hull side on a big surf, and the maniac with a rubber sledge hammer trying to stove in the hullside. But he didn’t succeed and I have no doubt in saying I’d rather be in a cat in a gale than in a similar size mono. And I’d rather not be in one at all. And we achieved this on our passage from Flores to Falmouth … because we were in a cat ! See below. I’ll leave the log here.
At some point, with winds freshening from the direction of Bermuda, we passed on the long windward passage to Hamilton (for the sake of fresh food, gas and water) and turned towards our homes and wives. Later, after departing the strange and disturbing weather around the confluence of the Labrador current and the Gulf Stream, we fell into high pressure. At this point it became clear that, for a detour of 160 miles to the Azores, we could eat our lentils, brown rice and pasta, COOKED ! And, after excusing myself to my wife for this detour, I wrote to her:
(Day 17) ‘This afternoon we were visited by many dolphins. Tris and I put on masks and flippers and went swimming with them alongside the boat (we were sailing at about 2 knots), underneath and holding on to a rope astern. We saw the dolphins clearly but they were shy of us and swam deep, sometimes approaching a little way and looking quizzically at us with heads bent forwards or rolling over to look at us sideways. Then, as we were drawn along by the boat, we found ourselves in the midst of many strangely shaped ‘jellyfish’ (for want of a better description). These things were translucent and had a reddish nucleus and were formed in bands, spirals and spheres. The water was clear and very blue, but rich and milky too and every now and then a teardrop-shaped school of baby squid passed by or between us. It was like drifting silently through the cosmos in a space capsule; it was out, of this world.