13th December 2003
After four weeks at sea without seeing another boat, it came as a bit of a shock when we almost didn’t see the hundred metre long cargo ship that passed straight in front of us mid-afternoon on a sultry tropical day. Ro was first to notice it, announcing its presence with a string of expletives that bought us all running to the cockpit. Fortunately we soon realised that a two-minute delay when we left St Helena meant that we were not on a collision course, but also resolved to be a little more conscientious in our attitude to watching the horizon. After the initial shock, the arrival of the boat in our little circle of ocean was a welcome sign that the progress shown on our charts was real, the empty heart of the south Atlantic now behind us, the busy shipping lanes that circle South America ahead.
A strange thing about our crossing was that even without any sign of other humans for so long, I never felt isolated. Sat on watch in the early hours of the morning we could catch up on world events withy the BBC World Service, or hear the latest US government propaganda on Voice of America (even Slovakia has a global English language station). SSB radio allowed us to broadcast our voices around the world, while the satellite phone meant that any urgent news from home could be called in as it happened. We could even send emails for the price of a couple of first class letters. GPS allowed us to track our progress across the ocean, our position automatically transferred to electronic sea charts on the PC. Weather maps showed where we were statistically likely to pick up favourable winds and currents, while a cruising guide told us where to cross the equator to avoid the worst of the doldrums. Technology could even stop the complete destruction of the boat being a disaster as we would retreat to the liferaft, activate a positioning device that alerts the emergency services to the problem (EPIRB) and await rescue.
The contrast with early journeys across the Atlantic is unbelievable. On a good trip the journey would take only 8 or 9 weeks, but bad weather could draw this out to more than 6 months, one particularly unfortunate boat taking 6 weeks just to get out of sight of England (which kind of makes you wonder why they didn’t just turn around and wait for the wind to swung to a more favourable direction). Often a large number of the passengers would die, while those that didn’t would have to wait until dark to eat so they couldn’t see the maggots crawling in their food.
One of the few things that must have changed little since these early crossings is the way days blend together. Under these conditions every 1000 miles that passes or time zone crossed gains special significance, but for us most important was the crossing of the equator. With the sun currently well south (causing the short days and pale light of the northern hemispheres winter) we had been experiencing diminishing daylight and a falling sun since just after crossing the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5 degrees south of the equator) so the passing from north to south was not marked by any dramatic change in the behaviour of celestial bodies, or length of the days. Without GPS we probably wouldn’t even have known where the equator was, yet in spite of this the passage over the imaginary line seemed important enough for us to celebrate with a swim and roast dinner. Unfortunately a strong wind meant we had to adopt storm tactics to slow the boat down enough to go swimming. This basically involves towing ropes, anchors and buckets behind the boat, with the intention of producing enough drag to bring its speed down. After some initial fear about what might be lying in wait in the 4000m of water below us (watching David Attenborough talking about the sea on DVD had given us enough fact to stoke our imaginations) we dove in to the water, it’s temperature steady at about 30C. Swimming gave us an appetite, and soon we were ready for our roast chicken, including vegetables, homemade stuffing and gravy. Quite a surreal meal in the middle of the ocean, we even had ice cream for pudding.
After the equator came the inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ), or the doldrums as it is more commonly known. Famous for its periods of extended calm, in practice it is the unpredictability of the weather in the doldrums that frustrates sailors. After hours of azure sky the horizon will darken, the first sign that a squall is on its way. The sea turns to gunmetal as the thick cloud races over the sky, strong winds racing ahead of it to test the speed with which we have dropped our sails, fearful that the sudden gusts will overpower us. With sails down and hatches battened we prepare for the torrential rain that will inevitably follow. Stood on deck we raise our hands to the sky, testing the rain gods’ resolve. Undaunted, they release their weapons, the weight of water fighting to drown the white horses that have been released from their watery stable by the wind. Defeated, we start to rub our bodies, soap slowly mixing with the rain, taking the salt and dirt that we had been preciously protecting and washing it back into the ocean from where it came.
As we approached Barbados , the mood on the boat became increasingly optimistic. The sea did it’s best to dampen our enthusiasm, pushing a strong counter current against us that slowed us severely for two days, the penalty for ignoring advice to stay close to the Brazilian coast. As a result we were also denied the opportunity of testing the truth of the adage about being able to scoop up a glass of freshwater 150 miles from the mouth of the Amazon (apparently you also sometimes sea cows floating out to sea, after the land they are grazing washes from the bank as a huge island, slowly drifting oqt to sea until it eventually becomes waterlogged and sinks).
It was not until the early hours of the 13 th December that land started to intrude upon the horizon, the lights of the airport appearing first. With sunrise came houses and vegetation, as well as steak sandwiches, a fitting end to the trip. Sails dropped we motored round to the leeward side of the island where the wind picked up the smell of tropical lands as it passed over the island; vegetation, a little smoke and just a hint of rotting rubbish. And with that fragrance came the realisation that we had finally reached our destination