Saturday, 27 February 2016

A Grueling Journey

In our last blog entry, Kate mentioned that we were planning on taking Seahorse to a boatyard on Tenerife.  Well, we have since made the trip to a boatyard...but Seahorse is nowhere near Tenerife!

Waving goodbye as we leave Marina Lanzarote
Back in December, we were talking over our plan to go to Tenerife while sat at a café in Marina Lanzarote, enjoying a couple of decaf coffees.  The next thing you knew, the new plan was to ditch Tenerife and sail North to Portugal instead.  We had initially discarded this idea when looking at where to refit Seahorse, due to the length of the voyage.  The more we considered it, the more we thought it was worth giving a go.  Having never sailed the old girl, and not knowing how well she has been maintained over the last decade, the thought of setting off on a 550 mile sail was daunting to say the least.  However, being in Portugal for the refit would, for several reasons, be much better for us.  After a thorough inspection, we concluded that she was up to the job.

Having not fully made up our minds, we decided to let fate decide our destination.  We were due to fly to the UK for a couple of weeks over Christmas.  I simply said that when we returned, if the winds were from the North, we would take the easier sail to Tenerife, if they were from the South, Portugal it would be.

When it came to it we had the best forecast we would ever be likely to get for heading North, in an area where sailing North is notoriously difficult.  Our last few days on Lanzarote were a whirl of final preparations, such as filling our jerry cans with diesel.  Although Marina Lanzarote proudly boasts the largest travel lift in Europe, some of the basic conveniences for the average yachtie are sadly still missing, such as a diesel pump.  We had to walk over a mile to the nearest road vehicle petrol station, which although not far, feels like a very long way when you're carrying 70 litres of diesel.  By the end of it, our forearms burnt like we had been involved in an industrial spillage accident at the Deep Heat factory.

"Jugueton", one of the friends we made on Lanzarote
We were busy right up until the last moment.  After calling Lanzarote our home, on and off, for about two years, slipping the lines was an emotional moment.  I was sad to be saying goodbye to the people and places we have got to know on the island, but was very excited to be moving on, heading to a boatyard where we can finally give Seahorse the attention she deserves and open the next chapter of the Great Adventure.

We have had some fairly uncomfortable experiences in our relatively short cruising lives.  The one that sticks in most people's minds is the trip from Portugal to the Canary Islands, where we got knocked down in an unforecast storm.  This trip was much, much worse!

Unfortunately for our readers, there was no spectacular moment of horror for me to recount.  What made this trip so awful was that it was physically exhausting and mentally distressing for such a long time.  The passage took us 16 days.  We always knew it was going to be a slow trip, because the wind is generally North-Easterly and on top of that Seahorse's hull was badly fouled, which has a disastrous effect on a yacht's speed.  We could make a top speed of 3 knots if we had favourable winds.  Ordinarily, we would have been able to more than double this.  Our average speed for the voyage worked out at 1.7 mph.  While I was sat in the cockpit on watch one evening, it occurred to me that a toddler could toddle between Arrecife and Lagos faster than we were sailing.  After that, I kept imagining giggling children tottering unsteadily past us.

Kate's favourite pass time - feeling sick
Poor Kate was struck down with really bad seasickness for most of the journey.  It's quite usual for us to get sick for the first few days of sailing, but we have always been able to handle it between us.  Kate's sickness was on a whole different level to this, though, which was an unexpected side effect of the fact that she's halfway through cooking our first baby.  In the early stages of her pregnancy she suffered with morning sickness, but was never actually sick.  She had been fine for quite some weeks before we set sail, so we thought that was the end of it.  Not so!  The pregnancy, combined with the motion of the boat, meant that she was doing a non-stop impression of 'that' scene from The Exorcist.  This left her feeling drained from being so ill and me exhausted from doing as much as I could so that she could rest.

The sun setting while Kate steers.  It's going to be another long night at the helm for us!
When on watch, and often when off watch, we very rarely had a chance to relax.  We had a wind vane self-steerer onboard, but it turned out to have been badly installed and so it was more or less useless.  We also had an electric autohelm, but the alternator didn't work and the solar panel didn't produce much juice, so we had to save our battery power for more crucial things like the radio, nav lights and engine starting.  This meant that unless we could balance the boat so she would sail herself, we had to hand steer.  We did manage this about half the time, but this still left us steering for the rest.  This was especially tiring without a proper ship's compass to steer by.  Just how the previous owners didn't think this was a necessary feature, I'm not sure.  Instead, we had to use our hand bearing compass - not an easy thing to do.

Our glow in the dark hand bearing compass.
Guaranteed to put you to sleep
Staying awake while steering on night watch was about as likely as Kate keeping her dinner down.  The problem was that you had to rest the compass on the bench in front of you.  As soon as I tilted my head down to check our course, my body would think "oh great, the head's going down, it must be time to rest our eyes" and I would instantly fall asleep.  I can't understand how I could fall unconscious in the blink of an eye, sat upright in the fresh night air, trying my hardest to stay awake, considering that when I was off watch, snuggled down in the comfort of my bunk, wanting to fall asleep, I would find it impossible to do so, worrying about all the things that might be about to break on the boat and how I could stop them from doing so.

When I wasn't steering or trying to sleep, I was fixing things.  Because Seahorse hadn't been put properly through her paces for so many years, one thing after the next needed my attention. The following is an example day, taken from the log book:
  • Discovered water in the engine bay, so spent time pumping to clear the water
  • Investigated where the water was coming from, which meant tearing up most of the aft cabin
  • Found that the exhaust pipe had rusted through and it was the cooling water that was leaking in through that hole
  • Fixed the leak using some 'boat saver' putty
  • Fixed the leak again because the putty wasn't actually that good at saving a boat (luckily I had some epoxy putty as an alternative)
  • Fixed the leak yet again because the boat saver putty failed in another location (luckily I had rags and gaffa tape, which, it turns out, along with a big hammer is all you need to fix almost anything)
  • Filled the diesel tank from a jerry can
  • Fixed the bow light which had broken such that it couldn't be turned off
  • Lowered the Spanish and Canarian courtesy flags
  • Tried, unsuccessfully, to get the alternator working
  • Checked the engine and fuel pump oil levels
  • Tried to get the wind vane self steerer working, which proved impossible without reinstalling it
  • Spent time trying to get the sails set up to chafe less
  • Boiled eggs, ready for snacks when the weather makes cooking tricky
  • Ate spaghetti from a tin
All that took about 6 hours, having only had an interrupted 3 hour's sleep the previous night.  This was a particularly busy day, but wasn't far off typical.

With no contact with the outside world, we were left trying to predict the weather by reading the clouds and swell that came our way.  Several times, a large container ship would pass close enough for us to be able to identify and I would call them on the VHF, to see if they could give us the forecast for the area.  One day when completely becalmed, I called a passing ship and was kindly told that "there are blue skies and it's quite a nice day".  Once I had managed to politely explain that I was more interested in a shipping forecast, rather than the information I could glean by stepping out into the cockpit, we received an accurate and pleasing forecast, but the first version did make us chuckle.  Maybe he heard a British accent and thought that I must simply be interested in discussing the weather as small talk!

Like ships passing in  A rare but welcome sight: a commercial ship close enough to identify and call for weather

Kate and I both felt that this trip was the worst experience of our lives so far (mourning aside).  So many things kept breaking that we couldn't help but worry about what would break next, hoping that it wouldn't be something that would stop us reaching Portugal.  Of course, running on so little sleep made every problem much worse.  When we were sailing into the wind, things were at their worst.  We had lots of leaks from on deck, under the teak where the steel has rusted.  When heeled and pounding into the seas, water would flood through these holes, soaking our possessions below decks and forcing me to mop up the bilges before going on watch and again upon getting off watch, so that Kate wouldn't have to do it as that kind of work would be tremendously worse for her with her seasickness.  It's hard to explain how awful it feels to be so intensely worried and exhausted, without  break, for such a long long.

New potatoes and pesto.  Try it!
Luckily, we had each other to help get us through.  Bad experiences usually bring us closer together and this trip was no exception.  "We're going to make it" became our mantra and we would say it over and over whenever one of us felt particularly low.  Then we would talk about "That Glorious Day", which was what we called the day when we would arrive.  We went over every detail of it time and again, imagining how amazing it was going to feel.

We continued to have problems right to the end.  We were crossing the large shipping lanes about 30 miles off the coast of Portugal when the wind began to die.  It wasn't long until we were in a dead calm.  Shipping lanes are no place for a small craft.  The scale of it probably isn't far off a matchbox car trying to cross a motorway.  For this reason, we immediately started the engine so that we could continue making progress.  I was nervous about how much diesel we had left because we needed to get out of the shipping lane, but still have enough remaining to get into the marina when we arrived, which is up a fairly long channel that is too narrow for sailing.

There's no fuel gauge on Seahorse, so I had been using a piece of wood as a dipstick to take the level of our tank.  I did this and recorded in the log that we could run the engine for about a further three hours before running dry.  Thirty minutes later, the engine stopped!  We initially thought it had broken down, as it had overheated and seized earlier in the trip.  It was hard to estimate how much fuel was in the tank, because it's a cylinder on it's side, rather than being square, which means the level doesn't drop at a constant rate.  In our estimates, though, we always erred on the side of caution, but we obviously didn't do so enough.  We think that the feed pipe must be quite high in the tank and maybe the rolling of the boat gave a false reading on the dip stick.  Either way, we were now well and truly stuck right in the middle of the shipping lane.  This was bad.  Really bad!

I tried making a radio call to any boats in the area that might be able to sell us fuel.  We thought it would be an easy way for a local fisherman to make some extra cash, but either no one heard us, they weren't interested, or they couldn't understand my bad Portuguese.

Celebrating 100 miles to go with a packet of 'emergency' biscuits

What did happen, though, is that after a brief spell, we got a radio call from MRCC Lisbon (Marine Rescue Coordination Centre - you can think of them as the coastguard).  They had heard my message and wanted to check that we were OK.  They took really good care of us, putting out a navigational warning that would be picked up by any shipping in the area, and individually calling any ship that was heading in our direction, to make sure that they had heard the warning and could see us.  They did this all through the night while we waited for the wind to pick up, which they had told us it was forecast to do.

It didn't.  As dawn broke, we decided that we couldn't wait any longer and MRCC Lisbon arranged for a marine breakdown service to bring us more diesel so that we could get out of danger.  It took quite a while to arrange, because we couldn't talk directly to "Diesel Man", as we referred to him.  Instead, we had to talk to MRCC Lisbon on the VHF, and they talked to Diesel Man on the phone.  Guess what happened shortly after we had finally got everything arranged and relayed our current position to Diesel Man?  Of course, the wind picked up!

We weren't sure that we would be able to get a new location to Diesel Man if we moved, seeing as he had already set off, so we had to sit there for a couple of hours, wasting the wind.

Diesel Man to the rescue!
It was a great sight to see Diesel Man, who actually turned out to be two men, come crashing through the swell, which had picked up considerably by this point.  They hung around nearby, eating sandwiches, to make sure that we could get going again while we filled the tank and bled the engine, which was nice of them.

With the engine back up and running, we decided to motor-sail out of the shipping lanes.  We had more than enough wind to sail, but we figured we may as well go as fast as possible, and didn't want to stop the engine again anyway, in case it didn't start again, seeing as it had given us so much trouble on this journey already.

Several hours later, when we had to turn into the wind to head for Lagos, we took the sails down and continued under motor alone...only to find that the clutch was broken and we didn't go anywhere.  I couldn't believe it!  We had been sailing so well, faster than any other time on the journey, that I hadn't noticed that the engine was in effect just running in neutral, wasting our precious diesel.

Just 10 miles from salvation and now we weren't even sure we could make it.  If I couldn't get the clutch fixed (about which I knew nothing), we would have had to turn round and sail to an anchorage, which would have been massively depressing, not to mention stressful as we have never anchored Seahorse.  To be forced do so for the first time, under sail, without the backup of an engine, was not top on my to-do list.

After an hour of working away in the filthy engine bay, which was completely covered in oil after the engine decided to spring a leak earlier in the journey, in the dark, trying not to drop spanners and sockets into the bilge where I wouldn't be able to find them amongst the oil and water lurking down there, fighting seasickness, my work was done.  With my stomach in my mouth, I fired up the engine and shoved it into gear.  Hallelujah, the prop shaft turned - I had fixed it!

A glorious sunrise to lift our spirits
Those remaining 10 miles took us over 5.5 hours!  Once we were in mobile phone signal range, we let our families know that we were still alive.  They had been quite worried about us, having been out of contact for over two weeks.  Kate's parents, who were staying nearby, drove to Lagos to wave us in.  They stood under a lighthouse that marked the headland we needed to reach before turning for Lagos marina.  We were so excited when we saw them flash a torch at us.  We gave them a flash of our strobe light in return, after which, they got to experience just how slow we were going.  After a bit more torch flashing, they realised that, although we weren't far away (about 3 miles at that point), they had better go for a cuppa while they waited for us.  Next time you take a toddler on a 3 mile walk, you'll know why!

Thankfully, there were no further breakdowns or incidents while we slowly chugged towards the marina.  Getting Seahorse tied up and stepping ashore was an indescribably joyous moment for us.  Kate's parents had very kindly brought "Dad's special bolognese" with them, which we ate below decks while regaling them with the trials and tribulations of our journey.  I thought their sagging eyelids were simply a sign that Kate was going on a bit, but my watch told me otherwise.  Feeling exhausted was normal for us, so we didn't realise that it was well into the early hours by then.  We bid farewell to Chris and Mike and went to sleep until the marina office opened for us to check in.  5 hour's sleep, at the same time as each other, without having to continually get up to fix or adjust something, was absolute luxury.

We made it!  Seahorse on the reception pontoon at Marina de Lagos, 16 days after leaving Lanzarote
Even though this journey was so tough and I hope I never have to do something similar, I did try to keep reminding myself that things weren't actually that bad.  We had plenty of food and water, we weren't having to madly bail to keep the boat afloat, or battling hypothermia, we had a working rudder, sails and engine (mostly!) etc.  Sometimes, though, the fear of what might be is worse than the reality.  Also, the trip wasn't all bad.  We saw some amazing skies while on night watch, with more shooting stars than we have previously seen.  We got visited several times by dolphins and briefly by whales and we enjoyed eating meals together in the cockpit when we were becalmed.  Furthermore, the trip was very useful at showing us what changes and improvements we need to make to Seahorse, to make future journeys enjoyable.  What was great as well is that we completely feel that Seahorse is the right boat for us.  Once she has been given the attention she deserves, she is going to make a wonderfully safe and comfortable home for us.

Dolphins showing us the way to Portugal.  They probably wondered why we were going so slowly!


  1. Wow, what a trip! I particularly liked the response from the ship: "there are blue skies and it's quite a nice day" - haha! And those dolphin photos are amazing.

    1. Maybe it's time to trade your bike in for a yacht


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