One Man in a Boat (with his Daughter and his Wife)
Updated: Apr 17
The Crossing - Sunday 20th November - Mondayday 5th December 2021
Recently Sophia created a video dedicated to her father which documents our crossing the Atlantic, three handed in 15 days. This video inspired me to write.
Many people followed our journey across the Atlantic. As we were coming into St Lucia on Monday 15th December at 15:14:30, I received a text asking me “how was the trip?” The first word which came to mind was “Arduous”.
My Family's performance was exemplary from the very start. On land and at sea.
At 11:00 on Sunday 20th November 2021, Dugald stood on the dockside, in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria watching as we motored from our berth. The very first time he had been on the other side of the frame. A scene I have spent over twenty years witnessing as my family left me to wait and watch and count the hours until they returned safely. Dugald stood straight and tall, his arms at his sides until we were out of sight. Our Sequoia dendron giganteum. I knew exactly what was happening to his emotions. I could not tell Dugald I understood the overwhelming surge of pride and love which engulfed him as we became smaller, until finally he would be left alone to wait and watch and count the hours. I know that stance. It communicates volumes. It says, I will be with you every moment.
We turned the corner of the marina into the queue of other Arc boats all slowly making their way to the start line, past the crowds of people on the harbour wall. A sea of smiles and waves. Happy people sending well wishes to their loved ones. Again, there was Dugald, he had found his way to the very edge of the sea wall, waving and grinning. His booming voice wishing us luck on our way. The most exhilarating send off we could wish for. My heart was filled with pride and love for the courageous man he has become.
We approached the start line. Sophia and I were in position to unfurl the code 0 as the flag was lowered and the gun fired. We looked down the line, among the jostling, we could feel the tension building on our boat and our competitor’s boats. We heard the gun. Instantly, we sprung into action, the code 0 was unfurled. We turned up towards the line, and crossed it smoothly all sails flying just as Iain and Sophia have done many times before. Their timing and team work was slick and reassuring. I knew this start had set the tone for the rest of the trip.
Our great friend Tony Two Tacks, (because no journey ever requires more than two tacks), on Patience of London (an Oyster 655) was first across the line. A brilliant start, we gave chase, we were not going to let him get away.
Within a short while we were flying towards the multihulls who had started 15 minutes before us. Iain confirmed with Sophia the positions of our other great friends (both life savers, but a tale for another day) James and Rayna on Aphrodite (Lagoon 450F) and Tony and Lel on Games Maker II (Lagoon 42) who were both in the multihull class. I would not be knitting, reading or bonding with our now very adult daughter. We were racing.
Crossing the Atlantic is referred to as Champagne Sailing. Ha ha! I have consumed my fair share of this nectar, but I can tell you, both are very different! Although stepping onto land after 15 days at sea, I did stumble.
The winds were high, the sea was lumpy and by the end of the evening our auto helm failed forcing Iain and Sophia to hand steer through the night. My sea sickness returned, I retreated to Sophia’s cabin for the next two days armed with my “grab bucket” containing rehydration tablets, water, ginger nut biscuits and calming aroma oils to inhale. Iain and Sophia battled with the intermittent auto helm, the shifting winds and the swell of the sea.
As always, there was a backup plan. The weather pattern was downloaded for the next five days, it looked like the more favourable winds were to the south of us. It also became clear to my family, I was not going to recover within a few hours. The decision was made to head south towards the wind and Cape Verde. These are the last group of islands before the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Should I not recover by the time we saw land, we would call it a day here.
Twenty five miles from Cape Verde, the sea state lessened which probably aided my recovery. I awoke feeling much better, we altered course for St Lucia and set the pace for the monohull fleet towards the finish line.
We agreed a pattern of watches, eating and sleeping. We were sailing hard but well. Iain and Sophia agreed tactics while keeping a close eye on the three closest monohulls. Sophia was very good at spotting dolphins and saving flying fish which frequently landed on our decks. Iain made bread in our new bread maker which was a treat every day.
The long imagined periods of togetherness were not to be. Sophia and I slept whenever we could, Iain could not, for worrying. The four hour intervals which in theory meant we had eight hours of sleep didn’t happen. The auto helm continued to overheat making watches a combination of manual and auto steering. I can not keep course while under sail, resulting in Iain or Sophia helping, shortening their rest time.
Our brand new Fisher Panda generator failed before we left Las Palmas. Similar to the auto helm, the error code became an intermittent fault for the rest of the trip. The third intermittent failing to add to The List was the freezer. The alarm sounded, indicating a rise in temperature. We combated this by turning it off, letting it rest for an hour to clear the pipes before turning it on again. We were on constant alert for alarms, change in boat squeaks, flapping sails, wind shifts, squalls, or any of our competitors gaining on us.
We left Las Palmas in 30 knots of wind with everything flying. For the first few days, the wind did not drop below 25 knots. At all times Iain and Sophia kept the boat at its optimum speed. Instinctively my family sail as close to the wind as possible, making use of every puff of wind, feeling each lift as it approaches, using its power to drive our chariot forward. An outstanding performance from them both, given all the other issues which were being overcome.
The days were passing, progressing towards the end of the first week. Cooking was not an issue as we were still able to reheat meals I had cooked before we left. We had 24 main courses, enough for three weeks. Breakfast and lunch usually involved fresh bread with cold cuts and cheese. Night watches were pot noodle, cuppa soup and cereal bars.
By the fifth day, the wind had dropped to 17 knots. We needed to keep our position ahead of the fleet. It soon became a pack of four monohulls. Fatjax, Emma (German Swan 60), Feeling Good (Dutch, Southern Wind 75) and Paradox (Dutch, XP55). The decision was made to hoist the spinnaker. Big Yellow was coming out to drive us faster. Big Yellow, is the last of our original sails which came with the boat. There have been many discussions aimed at buying a new one, something which would be addressed in Antigua.
Big Yellow was brought up on deck, the sail was prepared. There was a silent prayer hoping the manoeuvre would go smoothly. We sensed Big Yellow was telling us she is an old lady, but we were not listening. We talked through the manoeuvre, each of us was given a task. I started to winch, somehow the snuffer lines were caught in the snuffer, the wind was filling the bottom section of the sail, straining and twisting. It had to be dropped quickly without hitting the water. Sophia and Iain were on deck as I lowered, under instruction. Not a simple task while moving forward, trying to gather 360m sq of bellowing nylon into two sets of arms. After much pulling, heaving and the odd exchange of words, they managed to get Big Yellow down completely dry. We decided to wait for 30 minutes before trying again.
The next attempt was equally unsuccessful. This time the hoist was straightforward but the snuffer was twisted. The twists would not release with the pressure of the wind, again Iain and Sophia filled their arms and strained to keep the sail under control. They grappled her to the deck and untangled the mess as I steered the course. Once on deck, Sophia was exhausted. She went below for a rest.
As we prepared to repack the sail, ready for the next attempt, we noticed the snuffer sock was ripped. Iain was becoming very disheartened. Big Yellow was testing our resilience, however, we do not give up easily. I reassured him, the rip was not a problem. I could fix it. Armed with a needle and thread I sat on the foredeck, aided by Iain at my side, instructing me on how to sew two pieces of material together, while reminding me of the fact, every minute the sail was on the deck we were losing ground. Sophia was out of ear shot, holding our course until we were ready to hoist.
Thankfully, the fourth attempt was successful, we were exhausted as it had taken most of the day to achieve, only to take her down within two hours as the wind shifted again! We all slept very well that night.
We were averaging between 9-10 knots. The constant speed and adrenaline was tiring. Life On The Ocean Wave, is far from silent. Everything creaks and shifts, the sound of the rushing water increases and the heeling becomes a way of life, silently putting pressure on every muscle as they strain to keep balance, but Iain and Sophia coped magnificently with every hurdle presented.
Iain and I had many watches together. Most of our time spent on Fatjax has been just the two of us, so when, one day, it was time to drop Big Yellow we thought we could do this without Sophia. We have done it many times before, surely nothing else could possibly go wrong? I started to lower as Iain gathered the material. The wind caught a tiny section of the foot of the sail which filled with wind and then collapsed into the water. We were heaving and straining, the sail was filling rapidly with water, dragging us both onto the life lines. I started to scream at the top of my voice hoping Sophia would wake quickly, which she did. Sophia hurled herself on deck with such terror on her face, expecting to find Iain in the water or hurt. Thankfully, neither was the case, and with her strength we managed to get the sail safely onto the deck once more.
I was a bag of nerves most of the time. I could not relax my chest, constantly trying not to project my fear. I was failing. Every time I was given a task, I made a mistake. I could feel Sophia willing me to breathe out, hoping I would not panic at the simplest instruction. My heart ached seeing the silent pleading in her eyes. Sophia has observed an expert, Sophia is her father’s daughter. When it is critical, she is calm and gentle. This approach makes me freeze. I know they are depending on me, I know the task is crucial.
The wind was shifting and we could not hold the spinnaker, we were preparing to drop Big Yellow onto the deck once more. It was imperative I do as I was told, immediately, without hesitation. Sophia and Iain were on deck, I was in the cockpit. Iain asked me very politely to press the auto helm button once turning us 10 degrees to port to ease the pressure in the sail so they could gather her onto the deck. Sophia’s eyes widened and she gently nodded with a small reassuring smile. I could do it. Not wishing to let her down, I pressed the button. The boat started to turn and continued to turn with no apparent sign of stopping. I dare not touch anything again. Iain leapt as quickly as he could towards me. I didn’t understand my mistake, I followed the instruction, however, in my absolute panic and determination to get it right, I pressed so hard the button got stuck and kept changing the angle. We were about to gybe in 25 knots with big yellow flying. Iain stayed very calm, Sophia was frozen on the deck, I was stuck in the cockpit not knowing what to do. Iain coaxed the button loose, turned off the auto helm and altered course, without a word. We all returned to lowering the spinnaker once again, which was relatively simple after that. The fact I nearly killed us all with my over zealous button pushing was only regaled to me some weeks later when we were on dry land.
Dugald tracked us hourly sending encouraging messages and updates from home along with other friends and family, willing us to continuing pushing onwards. We were holding our position in the pack. Big Yellow was flying which was a blessing given all the other problems taking up most of Iain’s sleeping time. We were all exhausted, however, the first week ended with birthday celebrations for me including messages from home, balloons, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and a shared bottle of Ting! We had a remarkably good day and a fitting way to end the first week.
Week Two and A Most Memorable Day:
Monday 28th November - Sunday 4th December 2021
The week started on a calm note. On Tuesday 29th November at midday, the winds were fairly steady dropping from 20 to17 knots. All was going well. Sophia was on watch, Iain and I were asleep. There was a sudden squall gusting to 24 knots. The spinnaker could not take the pressure and within seconds Big Yellow split from the head to the clew. Because of the speed, a large proportion of the sail was instantly swept away, trailing behind us, held by the luff, foot and leach tapes. She became tangled around one of our rudders. The stress was immense. The weight of the water in the sail had ripped the parts the wind had not. Iain decided to cut Big Yellow loose before she wrapped herself around the other rudder and whatever else is at the stern of the boat. One by one the tapes were cut, until finally the last tape was severed. Graciously, our old lady freed herself from the rudder. Our fight with her was over. Sophia and I stood at the stern watching as we sailed away from our Big Yellow old lady. We thanked her for her service and apologised for not listening to her many warnings.
As the head was still attached to the halyard, we were able to keep a third of the sail including the snuffer and carbon ring. Who knows what we will do with it, but Sophia was happy we didn’t pollute the sea more than was necessary, Iain was happy to still have the remnants, thus confirming his new purchase and I contented myself with the knowledge my family were safe.
We unfurled the jib. Finally we were cruising. All was calm, we decided to watch a film in celebration of our new cruising status. The calm!
That same night, on Sophia’s watch at 23:00, Iain and I were urgently woken. Sophia had finished watching a video and went on deck. She was marvelling at the midnight sky, counting the stars. Brighter than on other nights, more stars than she usually saw, she thought. So many in front of her. After a moment, Sophia realised she should not be able to see stars at the bow of the boat. Usually there is a dark black shadow on the starboard side. The jib was missing!
Along with our life jackets, we donned our head torches and headsets to ease communication and rushed up on deck. I was given strict instructions not to leave the cockpit while Iain and Sophia went forward to inspect the damage. The shackle at the head of the jib had failed, causing the sail to slide into the water. Luckily the clew and the tack were still attached, however, the majority of our 100m sq jib was trailing down the starboard side. We needed to retrieve the sail. This sail was not going to be cut loose.
Night watches are a magical time. The inky blackness is illuminated by stars and planets. Intermittently, shooting stars cascade towards the horizon as the boat cuts effortlessly through the waves. I enjoy the night watches, a time to reflect and thank God for the many privileges I have been given. However, when there is an emergency in the dead of night, this same tranquility and peace is a blood curdling defiance of death.
All senses are disoriented as you stand in a small patch of light from the head torch. The rest of the vista is black. During daylight hours the whole scene can be observed and assessed at once, in the darkness this is not the case. I could not see Sophia and Iain at the same time. Should my family be pulled overboard, how could I retrieve them in the blackness? As I could hear Iain through the head sets, I kept my torch on Sophia.
It took some hours in this darkness trying to work out how to lift the sail. The boat was slowed, the sail was twisted, trailing behind us. I could hear Iain discussing solutions with Sophia through the headphones. An elaborate construction of lines and hoists were used to lift small sections of sail vertically over the rail, securing each section with a sail tie. By the early hours of the morning all was calm once more. The Jib was onboard strapped along the starboard deck. In true British fashion, we had a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. All was right with our world. My family were safe and the jib secure to be inspected the next day.
The second week continued to present its challenges with defective systems, but we were able to coax the electronics back into service. The watches became regular for Sophia and I. Iain continued to sleep with one eye open. The next challenge was the ever decreasing wind.
As predicted towards the end of the week, the wind began to drop and we knew eventually the whole fleet would be becalmed forcing us to motor to St Lucia or drift for at least a week. The next hurdle was to ensure we had sufficient fuel to get us to the finish line. Iain began calculating our consumption. From his reckoning we consumed 8 litres of fuel at 7 knts per hour, it was imperative we sailed until we were 500nm from St Lucia. We continued to sail using all the tactics Iain knew to ensure we could get within range before the wind dropped while our Jib remained lashed to our starboard rail.
We rarely saw other boats. The vastness of the sea made me speechless; I know, hard to believe, however; starring out into the horizon with nothing but ourselves to break the vista was surreal. Similar to the scene from The Truman Show when Jim Carrey is battling the storms and wind only to discover the door on the horizon where sea and sky collide. The shear scale of water without interruption to the horizon held the same image.
By the middle of the week, we spotted another yacht. First we saw it on AIS, then the yacht came into view. He was a lone sailor taking part in the Route du Rhum solo race, from St Malo to Guadeloupe. It was quite comforting for us both to see another yacht pass close enough to wave.
The winds were steadily dropping. Sailing became less of a challenge enabling Iain and Sophia to catch up on their sleep. I started knitting while on watch! Could this possibly be the Champagne Sailing everyone refers to?
Feeling refreshed, Iain and Sophia debated assessing the damage at the top of the mast. There was no mention of hoisting me up, the smallest, less vital member of the crew. Iain and Sophia dismissed me, concluding I would not be able to assess the damage, or fix it and probably kill one of them when I dropped a screw driver or camera from 24 meters in the air. Sophia was absolutely adamant. Iain was not going up. She concluded, we needed Iain to stay alive to sail the boat to the finish line, therefore she was the obvious choice as she could deal with the damage and post on Instagram simultaneously. Once again I was between a rock and a hard place. I did not wish either of them to do it. I could not see the hurry but they were determined and as the sea state lessened and we were drifting, today was the day. Sophia was winched to the top.
As predicted, the wind lessened. To stay in the “rally”, with a chance of winning, meant drifting, for possibly a week, maybe more, or concede and finish under engine in two days time. It was an unanimous decision to motor. We had given it all we had, we didn’t need to fight anymore. Iain sent an email to our competitors informing them we were motoring in, thanking them for a fair game. We were all thinking the same! We received an email from the other boats. Firstly Emma, followed shortly by Paradox and Feeling Good. About the same time, we all started our engines.
The next twenty-four hours we watched the fuel consumption and the electronics. We were slightly deflated to concede, however, we were ready to arrive in Rodney Bay, St Lucia and moor up in the same berth Iain and our racing team had done in 2019 and where I stood to greet them on the other side of the frame.
Monday 5th December 2022, 15:14:30 hrs
We crossed the finish line. Fifteen days after leaving Las Palmas to a most noble welcome from the official photographer, the committee boat, and our great friends on Catarsis (Outremer 55) who came out in their rib to greet us! What a wonderful greeting from another family yacht. They circled us and blew their horn, they clapped and waved, they understood our fight. We achieved the same and like their family, Catarsis acknowledged we had made it.
We stepped onto land and Sophia FaceTimed Dugald so he could be part of our arrival. I felt so many emotions at once, but I was elated to know the four of us were there.
Despite the many set backs, Iain and Sophia sailed us across the Atlantic without any permanent damage to our chariot or ourselves.
At times, tensions were high, many words exchanged, but through it all, the sheer tenacity of my family never ceased to fill me with utter pride. I am sure, as the weeks passed, giving us time to digest the enormity of their achievement, Iain and Sophia will have concluded; as I concluded; despite their differences, together they are formidable.
Sophia knows no fear. She did not give up, always thinking of a solution, always sure she could do it. Her animal instinct was to protect. Sophia protected us without thought for herself. She is a lioness, she is our sunshine girl.
My husband did what he does best. He continued. He recorded and planned, he thought and rethought. He did not fluster or falter. He approached every hurdle with logic and calm. And in his way, he blanketed us in his love. With this knowledge and security, I will continue what I started. With this man in his boat, I am going around the world.