The Next 5, 000 Miles (The Midnight Hour – Part 2)

From-Multihull International, July 1990 By Rob Ward

This is written in Prickly Bay, Grenada. The Midnight Hour arrived in Barbados a week ago. We stopped in Bequia and Martinique and then took our charterers to their plane in Antique before picking up some friends, two of whom will be making the passage to Falmouth (UK) in three weeks.

We have headed south to Grenada to ‘start again at the bottom’. We ‘made’ the Atlantic. So did someone in a boiler last time I sailed it eight years ago and, dammit, a Frenchman (of course) did it on two log floats (a catamaran?) with no water or food. Mon Dieu! How we British lag behind now.

Still, the passage had its interesting moments; but first to wrap up the Canaries. I spent the winter taking people, for the most part, surfing between Graciosa, Lanzarote, Lobos and Fuerteventura (we were fully booked). The boat was either at anchor or sailing, daily, for six months. It was a fair test of a boat and an education in seamanship. I believe that it was an extraordinary winter from a variety of evidence: Canaries 7, the principal local paper, reported that the reservoirs throughout the Canaries were at an historical high (it rained a lot) while the Pilot states that gales are rare (there were a lot of gales).

I have six months’ worth of weather maps from Canaries 7: depressions formed regularly over the Canaries but they didn’t necessarily arrive. The void between an Atlantic and European high – often extending into the Sahara was a convenient site for a depression. If a cold front trailed from one of the jolly high latitude storms, so much the more intense. Then there was the old favourite – a southeast gale from the Sahara – the Sirocco.

People arriving late from Gibraltar and Madeira often had long faces and very hard tales and this meant that I was rarely able to sleep at anchor and never at a single anchor after an early, salutory experience: Mike and I were on our third night off Playa Francesa – an isolated south west-facing anchorage on the island of Graciosa – having sailed from Ilha Selvagen. At 0130 in the morning, no moon, clouds, Force 6 NE, we found each other on deck after a mutual but individual sense that things were not quite right. They weren’t. Graciosa, Playa and our anchor were about two miles to the NE. The Midnight Hour had a somewhat agitated joggle to her motion. We tidied up the deck, got the dinghy on board and put away my mountain bike (soon to be stolen). The volcano, Montana Amdrilla, was just visible against the night sky and we felt our way towards the bay having come down against, spending the night off hove-to. We were most keen to avoid the reef and the surf breaking on Punta Marajos. The job sees finally made possible by a light in a tent which we recalled was tucked behind the reef.

Thanking providence that the Spanish youth takes its studies so seriously, we assembled the fisherman and dropped it in. During the following morning I dived and found our CQR with it’s 20m of chain. My fault was one of excessive caution: in letting out more than enough scope to develop a useful catenary , the octoplait line to which the chain was spliced was able to drift under a ledge of volcanic rock – super sharp ! When the breeze stiffened during the night, it was cut through easily (luckily within 61’ of the chain). The thought that this could have happened when we were both three miles away on the north of the island, surfing, made me feel very peculiar. I modified my procedure as follows:

I never again left The Midnight Hour on one anchor only: I always lay two anchors; I always dived on the anchors – in Graciosa – positioning the CQR in sand and the fisherman down a convenient hole in the reef

I always dived and observed the anchor cables in the conditions that prevailed ensuring that the nylon line terminated above the bottom. This led me to believe that the numerical rules which govern anchoring procedures fail to take into account the conditions: I’d suggest, simply, more wind, more scope and VV.

In Selvagen Grande I noticed the anchor held on a flat, sandless lava bottom in 20m of water during a brisk NE trade by the weight of the 351b CQR plus 20m of chain alone, with sufficient nylon to take most of the chain onto the bottom. Finally, I lost all insouciance and readily upped anchor at unsociable hours (this facilitated in Graciosa by the extension of a westerly arm to the harbour moles in La Sociedan – not shown in the excellent 1989 RCC’s Guide to Atlantic Islands)

Two other evolutions proved stimulating one, entering the lagoon in Isla de los Lobos: Isla Lobos lies NE of Fuerteventura, not far from Corralejo. It is situated well inside the Bocaina channel between Fuerteventura to the south and Lanzarote to the north. Although the Admiralty (and local) charts give little indication of it, most multihulls should have no difficulty in entering the lagoon on high tides and enjoying the superb entirely enclosed anchorage. Drawing lm I found I touched in tides of 1.7m. I got in finally on 2.25m and later, on 2.10m. I discovered that swell wraps down the island (my charterers’ object was the world-renowned point wave on the island’s SW side). That swell then wraps around its south facing reef and right across ‘the channel’

The first time I saw the surf I just wasn’t prepared to go in. But my charterers, six young Cornish surfers, were very keen, so I sent them to test the depth in the inflatable. They reported: ‘least depth – half an arm and an oar’. We went for it, they joyfully enthused (risking a 50m swim) but I was seriously reserved – risking 3,500 hours work. As you pass over the shallowest part of the flat lava reef, minding isolated rocks, the smallest craft is visible going about his business. A loud cheer of relief was raised as the water deepened.


Later, on 14th December, we were saddened to see a French cat leaving the lagoon (drawing 30cm less than The Midnight Hour) strike the reef repeatedly – audible from several hundred metres. We followed them out not taking Shoughi’s disastrous line into the surf. (It is natural to want to punch through surf bows-on but on Lobos waves must be taken obliquely on the starboard bow to stay in deeper water.) We followed Shouyhi for half a mile before turning back to Lobos to anchor up for a surf under the volcano.

Two minutes later they sent up a red distress flare. Bernird told me later that they had steered off with their outboard, their rudders on aluminium stocks being bent back 30deg. We were able to tow them into Corralejo with our Yamaha 9.9 and offer some epoxy to help their repairs. Bernard said, albeit grateful, ‘But these are not the SP containers we are used to!’ I pointed out that the resin was in a milk bottle and the hardener in a honey jar. Marie-Jose kindly gave us of bottle of wine from the village in Provence where they built Shoughi (they pronounce it Scoogy – odd name, eh? ). .

The other brief, unsolicited thrill was on a sail from Arrecife in Lanzarote to Fuerteventura. The rhumb line passes close to the reef running north from Lobos. Normally this isn’t a problem but on this day, circumstances were a little unusual. I got my charterers to sail fairly high on the course to avoid the possibility of a close encounter as we sailed SW in a fairly typical winter Trade wind NW 6 – 7. Conditions in the lee of Lanzarote were flat with squalls coming off the land. We reefed and unreefed as required.

I predicted more swell in La Bocaina – the channel between Lanzarote and Fuerteventura – then forgot about it! Coming about a mile clear of Papagayo I took a bearing on Lobos to see if we had stayed up on our course. Looking to the west I saw a set of about eight 6m swells rising to windward, three breaking quite heavily. There wasn’t time to take the helm. We were unreefed and Steven Ross, a New Zealand surfer, was on the helm. I said, ‘OK. Concentrate now, steer straight into the breaking waves, then bear off on the back’ (pausing only to explain the phrase ‘bear off’ – Steve was in his first hour of helming! ). He handled it perfectly and our saving grace was 10 knots of boatspeed and his easy, surfer’s reaction to these very serious waves. We had gone, metaphorically, from the Solent (in the lee of Lanza) into the North Atlantic in the space of two miles. We surfed very big lobos the following day when the wind changed, fortunately not with The Midnight Hour!

On 6th April we left San Sebastian de Gomorra spending a brief period of meditation in the little church where Christopher Colon (Columbus) thanked God for Beatrice de Bobadillas’ more-than-adequate provisioning services (his mistress at the time). We sailed round to Valle Gran Rey for one night. Our first day was of light to zero wind with horrendous cross swells which wrapped around La Gomorra and came at us from the northwest and northeast redoubled. Then three hours of Force 8 rounding Hierro in a wind acceleration zone (WAZ!). The passage then differed to my last, eight years ago, in almost every respect:-

No Tradewind, for 800 miles. Actually a light NW for the most part and calms.

The Trade ‘filled in’ – a sturdy, untruthful phrase – 200 miles SW off the Cap Verde Islands and we reached with spinnaker and main nearly west, wind strength Force 2 – 3.

The beginning of the Trade, as such, was heralded by a fine waterspout, happily two or three miles downwind.

We didn’t roll.

Notable occurrences included the five-foot (honest! ) Blue Marlin that swam behind the log for ten thrilling minutes and really tried to eat our homemade fishing lure. It leaped clear of the water in sheer frustration at not being able to get hooked, although we’d have hated to kill such a beautiful creature. And this: has anyone noticed the 20deg wind back-up each night ? As our set up (reaching with spinnaker) was relatively sensitive, we observed this nightly phenomenon and made use of it to correct our course. Later, running downwind, I attempted a number of different rigs including taking the spinnaker to the end of the main boom and hauling the genoa out to windward.

None was as satisfactorily stable as twin boom downwind sailing. I shall definitely look at a pointing bowsprit to get a more solid base for reaching and at least one booming-out pole to the mast. Does anyone have any ideas?

Loaded with 7501b of people, 30 days food. water and fuel, and three anchors with their cable and chain, it detracts from the advantages of reaching downwind – at any rate in light airs. Yes, I’d go for more sail now I realise how quickly reefs can be put in. The difficulty is in persuading others that a stable cat banging along at 10 – 12 knots with no apparent fuss needs reefing. It’s difficult to tell sometimes the difference between prudence and paranoia.

We went through three Autohelms. Two older models, factory rebuilt. and one new 2000. The new 2000 was very good until the actuator arm went out. We were able to splice an older actuator on to the new motor and get 800 miles more self-steering after a few days of’ hand-tillering. Nautech (Autohelm) have been very good in sending a replacement. We found the Southern Cross and, with the aid of the Collins’ Guide to the Stars and Planets (brilliantly clear) many other constellations. And, I learned how to dismantle the Yamaha 9.9’s carburetor. Canaries’ fuel is somewhat dusty and atmospheric water alway seems to get sucked into fuel tanks and condensed. I’m putting in a diesel filter and water-separator (and remember the clean oil and filter too, or the Yamaha cuts out!

I’ll sign this off in Union Island.

We’ve just been given a barracuda for towing a local boat five miles to safety (under sail) and we had all our cash stolen from the boat last night. We look forward to beginning our Transat return passage in two weeks after our two friends, and Tris’ boy, Tobias, return by air. There are many isolated reefs and islands still to find in the Caribbean. Tris and I dived up half a dozen lobsters just a couple of days ago despite concentrated commercial diving in areas like the Tobago Bays. But there is a commercial worm in the Caribbean apple. West Africa and the remoter areas of the South Atlantic, South Pacific and Indian Ocean beckon a sturdy cruising cat. It’s the only way to sail.