AZ(AB) 91

"American warship off my starboard bow, this is Yacht Excalibur"-

There was a pause while we imagined that someone was scanning the white capped ocean for a vessel larger than a 27 foot yacht. The radio burst into life "Excalibur, this is Warship 42, is that you one mile off with reefed white sails?"-"Warship 42, affirmative, that's us, could I trouble you for a weather forecast?"-"Standby sir" - we could see the Warship diving through the waves and taking a lot of green water over her bows, what must we have looked like to her?

The American voice came back,  "What the hell are you guys doing out here in that little boat, are you sure you want to hear the forecast - we are expecting the waves to increase to 35 feet or do you guys use metres, and the wind to increase to over 45 knots, rather you than me"

Trying to preserve our cool, I replied with traditional British stiff upper lip-" We are racing to the Azores and back, have you seen any other yachts?"

A faint signal broke through on the radio, it was another competitor, Trevor Leek on "Corkscrew", he was asking for a confirmatory fix from the warship as he was using Astro navigation and the sun was likely to be hidden for some days. The American had GPS and was able to confirm Trevor's position to within feet.

In just a few minutes the three Grey warships blended into the barely discernable horizon leaving John and I alone preparing for the storm.

The race had started from Falmouth and was organized by the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club. Peter Kelleher who had volunteered to do the return leg, helped sail the boat down to Plymouth along with his girlfriend Susan. My wife Anne continued with the boat to Falmouth for the Scrutineering and compulsory socializing. The RCYC boatmen are skilled in many arts, like helping you board with your supplies in overfull, busting, supermarket plastic bags, not forgetting the art of helping "tired" competitors find their boats after closing time at the bar! To fill in the hours between sleeping and drinking, the club arranged races in Cornish Shrimpers and Falmouth working boats.  All in all, busy socials programme, a very friendly club and fantastic food. I even started to question why we were going to subject ourselves to days of discomfort, plain food and a distinct lack of parties! John McGlasson was busy at work, and only just arrived in the nick of time to crew on the outward leg.

June 1st dawned and there was the usual pre-race activity, fond farewells to loved ones, sails being hoisted, the rhythmic noise of winches, throbbing diesels squeezing the last map into battery banks, and the splash of mooring chains being released -adrenaline was now replacing the alcohol of last nights party.

People's characters seem to change on the start line, eyes narrow teeth grit and life suddenly becomes very serious. John and I decided that with 1,250 nautical miles to go to he Azores , it wasn't so important to be first across the line, and as our sponsors were ourselves, there was little reason to cross closest to the TV cameras. The wind could not have been more perfect for the start, as the gun on Pendennis point made a dull thud, it was blowing from the North East at force 4/5 , chilling the brave band of relatives and Civic dignitaries to the bone. We were creaming along on a course of 210 magnetic, making 6-7 knots.  Once we had hoisted the spinnaker land soon disappeared. The faster boats, were drawing away, but we were doing well, keeping up with boats of our size and even some 10 foot longer. When you are ocean racing in a small yacht, it is good for moral to compare handicaps, and predict the distance you can "give" others, and still beat them on corrected time. Our Channel Handicap was 0.805, which is largely explained by the "spare keel". During the next day the wind went down to force 2, but our tails (not to mention the spinny) were still up, having covered 92 miles in the first 14 hours. We were still in radio contact with 8 or 9 boats, which meant, they were within 12 miles and judging from the orange skins floating past they were "dead ahead."

After an uneventful night the wind backed to the NW, and built to Force 5, giving us a day's average speed of 5.75 knots, still on schedule for 10 days voyage time.

Our Decca 2000 had been playing up the night before and signal strength was dropping off again, so we switched to the Transit satellite system (Navstar2000S). With this system, fixes are dependent on usable satellite passes, however the longest we had to wait was 2 hours and the shortest 2 minutes, not really a problem on an ocean voyage, especially as the set keeps a running DR position. The wind had been dropping for most of the day, from a Force 5, to a gentle breeze, we managed to hold our average speed up to 5.3 knots, a little lower than hoped for, however our overall average for the race was still well over 5 knots.

Most of the time when sailing, it's normal to face forwards, usually to obtain an even suntan, however a backwards glance is a good idea every now and then, to avoid being run down by super-tankers. I turned to investigate the source of distant splashing sounds, and to my concern saw that it was a school of Pilot whales who seemed to be chasing us. At first sight they had seemed like dolphins, but through the binoculars they were heavier and less graceful. Luckily the wind held up and we left them behind, the thought of a group of half a dozen - 3 to 4 ton whales trying to become friendly did not seem a good idea.

Racing pigeons seem to appear on yachts with great regularity and at first seem very welcome, however after a day or so they tend to overstay their welcome. One competitor became so exasperated that he even threatened to bake his little hitchhiker as it strutted around his boat leaving its "little messages." It's perhaps difficult sitting here on dry land, to understand how a little feathered friend could have caused such annoyance, but after days at sea, it's strange what a lack of sleep can do to upset your equilibrium.

With little to see but the sea, it's hardly surprising that the log encouraged poetic entries.........."tonight is very unreal, a mist is hanging over the sea, and the boat's wake is painting a speckled luminescent trial, as we glide silently through little white flecks shimmering on the wavelets. It's difficult to see where the stars begin and the wavelets end."

With the wind dropping, this third night at sea was probably our worst yet, not because of the wind, which had vanished, but because of a swell and the noise of flapping sails, groaning rigging and no progress through the water. The only thing to cheer us up was that our cabin temperature had risen to 12 degrees Celsius which was much better than at home, where Radio 4 was recounting stories of snow and frost in Junel

I had been receiving weather fax pictures from Bracknell (UK), Offenbach (Germany), and now Rota (Spain), these had proved surprisingly clear and accurate.(Technical note: The kit consisted of a Sony SSB radio and a portable computer running off the ship's 12 volt supply. A very basic aerial was cobbled together using a bit of wire clipped to the chain plates, which in turn connected to the rigging this brought in some quite strong signals.( I have since added an ceramic insulator to the back stay to minimize the computer radiated radio interference and this has improved the fax quality considerably) . The only drawback with such a system is that you end up becoming a slave to the huge quantities of information at your disposal. Wave height predictions. Ice limits. Wind and pressure at various altitudes, the transmissions are continuous. There appeared to be a nasty collection of tightly packed isobars coming our way, we hoped that the depression would veer away, however one by one, the fax images confirmed our worst fears. This was reinforced by Radio France and the good old "Home Service", forecasting Finisterre Gale 8 or 9 later. When morning dawned it brought with it a welcome wind, albeit from the South West,which was very close to our Great Circle route! John and I were cheered by finally making some progress, but wary of the impending blow.

Another note-worthy log entry was that the fresh milk, kept only in the "cold box" had finally gone off after 4 days, indicating just how cold it had been! But that morning a more serious development took place, which was to make our voyage a lot less enjoyable - with an electronic scream our autopilot decided to die on us, and despite trying to mend the beast, nothing could persuade it to come back to life. It looked like a hand steer 24 hours a day for the rest of the racel As if to raise our spirits a group of dolphins came to play perhaps attracted by the autopilot's squeak for help. During the rest of the day the wind continued to increase, backing round to "South South East" and built to a good Force 6, the seas were also developing at an steady rate. With night and the storm approaching, John and I were keen to rig up some form of mechanical self steering to give us a little sleep, or at least a break from helming. After a few abortive ideas, we found a piece of bungi cord and a length of braided rope worked passably, allowing time to go below for a brew-up. Having gained an extra helmsperson we continued to ready the boat for what threatened to be quite an extended blow. The wind continued to increase and then unexpectedly started to abate, "Was that it?" John said, "so much for the forecast and those weather faxes - if we had some seaweed it would be more accurate!" However we both could not really believe that we had escaped that easily, or that the depression had come and gone without a significant wind shift.

After a brief respite of a few hours the seas became confused, the wind started howling through the rigging and the barometer plummeted like a stone, 11 millibars in just 5 hours. This is how I started our story, and the memory of how we were thrown around for the next 36 hours, as if our 4 tonne boat was but a matchstick, is still vivid in my mind. We had 24 hours of this hell - the nerve racking climb up the face of towering 35 foot high waves, each with a different hissing curling top waiting to cover us with spume - then the exhilarating acceleration as we shot down the back side of the wave into a dark hole and a brief respite before being elevated upwards again for another soaking!.Although the wind still continued to blow, it was showing signs of changing direction making the seas very confused, there seemed little doubt that we were half way through the blow. It was now 0200 on our 7th day at sea and sitting in the cockpit on a dark night wondering when it would end, with wet shirt, pants, socks and wellies full of water fibrositis pains shooting down my back, I couldn't help thinking that maybe this isn't the side of yachting you see in the brochures for fun sailing holidays.

The only mishap that occurred was when at the height of the gale a rogue wave swept up behind us, hitting us in the back and propelling us across the cockpit. We were only saved by our safety harness's from a watery grave and the yacht becoming a Marie Celeste. Throughout the gale we took it in turns to hand steer and about midday on the 7th, the sky started to clear, the barometer began to rise, and we were able to raise a small triple reefed mainsail and make some progress westward.

George Mark 2 was working quite well and while he made a valiant attempt at steering, like lizards we lay in the sun drying out. The state of ones mind after a blow is fascinating, with simple pleasures like a shave, cup of tea, or even a hot meal seeming to be one of the great luxuries of life. By midnight we had all the sail back up and on our way again with just 577 miles to go to Ponta Delgada .

A gentle South Westerly breeze blew all night and we took it in turns to get some deep (level 4) sleep. The barometer had risen to 1020 millibars and the seas had settled down to a regular swell. Feeling that all this was too good to be true, that morning, I apprehensively tuned in a 48 hour prognosis weather fax. We received a good picture from Rota in Spain , showing the tightly packed isobars of the gale, on its way to Britain , and no more nasties for us.

The afternoon was glorious, even better for the forecast, light winds with little wavelets, we were still making 4.6 knots through the water and to crown it all about 20 dolphins came to play around the bows sgueaking very loudly . The only malfunction that occurred during the gale, was the electronic log, which had given up the ghost. The impeller can be retracted from within the hull, so the plan was to withdraw it and check that it was still working, easier said than done with 3000 metres of water between us and the sealed. I had a horrible vision of a great fountain of water shooting up and me having to do the little Dutch boy trick of sticking my finger in the hole, to prevent the boat filling with water and descending to the deep. Well it did all go well, we took in very little water and managed to fix the log.

Sunday was our 9th night at sea, and we hadn't heard from any other boats for quite some time, the log says" I wonder how many other boats are out here with us, Trevor must have gone West and Villager has Radio problems from her knockdown. The Azores High seems to be well established at 1023, just 1 millibar and 447 miles to go to Ponta Delgada ." That night I had the most unforgettable experience of my life, whilst on watch at 0200, I felt a strange presence, and on the horizon, I saw what looked like 2 torpedoes, coming in a straight line for the boat, leaving a phosphorescent trail, they were of course dolphins, who played around the hull leaving the most intricate silvern patterns, showing off they may have been, but the vision of these magnificent creatures frolicking like playful children around the hull is still vivid in my mind's eye!

Nights and days seemed to merge together and watches became routine, with John and me sharing the steering, cooking and navigating. Our speed had dropped to 3 knots, but at least we were making steady  progress in the right direction, the sea temperature had risen to 16 degrees Celsius and the sun was shinning all day, enabling us to verify our position with some sun sights, life could be worse!. "Do you hear an engine I asked John, as we lay sun-bathing on deck?" We scanned the horizon with binoculars; in the distance was a military plane circling with only three of its four engines running. The radio was crackling into life and throughout the day it became clear from the conversation that we were slap bang in the middle of a NATO convoy exercise. From the variety of accents trying to synchronize maneuvers it could have been a day long episode of "Allo Allo" with undertones of Dads Army. In my youth electronic navigation consisted of a Seafix RDF set, and I have never lost my faith in this simple but reassuring method of navigation. I now also have a Lokata 7 with its digital frequency read-out but it is still essentially the same kit, the reason I found it useful is because the Azores have very powerful radio beacons, some with a range in excess of 300 miles. That afternoon we picked up the reassuring Morse call sign from the island  Santa Maria on 323 kHz, almost on the nose, at least land was ahead and we hadn't missed the Islands - next stop South America !

That night as the sun set on us we still had 306 miles to sail, after 12 days and nights at sea. During the night, as forecast on the weather fax, the wind increased to a Northerly 4/5 giving us between 5 and 6 Knots through the water and we spent the day creaming along under our spinnaker. At 1700 the main 20 gallon water tank finally ran dry and we were on to our reserve of Highland Spring bottles (4 gallons) for drinking, leaving the remaining Whisky for medicinal purposes and teeth cleaning!. As we entered the 13th day of our voyage we only had 186 miles to sail, and as the excitement increased of an uninterrupted nights sleep and the thought of seeing my wife, the wind did the reverse and dropped to a Northerly Force 2, giving us the prospect of an agonisingly slow spinnaker drift into Ponta Delgada where the barometer was reported to be 1026 giving us virtually no wind gradient. With the lack of fresh water, the rising sea and air temperature and the thought of meeting other sweet smelling land based humans, I decided to have a swim from the stern and it proved very difficult at 3 knots to wash with one hand whilst holding onto the rope and trying not to drop the soap to the bottom of a very deep  "bath". That night we saw navigation lights on our Port side and at midnight made contact with Villager, a Rival 32. They had suffered damage to their aerial when they were knocked down in the storm and had also written off their electronic Astral computer and so were very glad to have an accurate fix. With just 100 miles to go, we had a race on our hands and as dawn broke we were neck and neck. Out of the morning mist appeared the 3623 feet high volcano on Sao Miguel , it was a tremendous sight, stark yet inviting. The VHF station whose aerial was sited on summit was coming in loud and quite clear, but we were still too far away to be received, however our attempts were heard by my friend Trevor Leek on Corkscrew, who came in to say that he was just 10 miles ahead. It was good to talk to him as we had been concerned for his safety after the Storm and we spent some time swapping tales and experiences. The wind was now barely a zephyr and we spent the rest of the day chasing "catspaws" on the water as we slowly approached the finishing line. As time was moving on and we weren't, I tried to raise the Coastal VHF station and after several attempts I was able to speak to Peter Kelleher lying in the relative luxury of his bed in Croydon. The reason for disturbing him was to ask him to bring out a replacement Autohelm when he flew out to crew on the return leg. Having contacted Peter, I felt that the return journey would be more restful, but at that moment the calm sea was disturbed by a noise like Compressor Station venting or a Southern region train releasing its compressed air, and a large Whale surfaced along side. I was completely taken by surprise and disgusted by the fishy smell, and as quickly as it had surfaced the whale slid back down to the inky depths leaving little more than a nasty odour and some waves. The colourful spinnaker of John Passmore in Largo , a larger Rival had appeared on the horizon, giving us more reason to trim our sails in the sweltering heat and frustratingly little wind as the four of us fought for line honours. We finally crossed the line at 1400 hours on Saturday the 15th and were welcomed by my wife  and the fantastic Portuguese hospitality.

The only thing to mar our elation was the news that Minitech had lost her keel and sunk. The crew had been adrift in a Tinker Tramp for 6 days before a chance sighting by a Nimrod and finally being rescued by a ship.

The next edition will have details of the parties including "Fun for Sailors Disco", the breathtaking beauty of the Island, the incredibly fast return journey to Falmouth and unfortunately yet another End

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