Las Palmas de Gran Canaria --> Rodney Bay, St Lucia
23rd November 2020 --> 17th December 2020
23 Days, 14 Hours, 25 Minutes
S/Y Ava, a 2007 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 42 DS, length = 42ft, designed for cruising.
Onboard there were 5 Crew, the Skipper, Mark, and his Partner, Hannah both from Essex. They bought the yacht over a year ago, quit their jobs, sold their house and set off to cruise the world onboard Ava. Joining them was Marco, an Italian, a superb cook and our designated fisherman, he also decided to tell his family that he was on a 3 week business trip to New York rather than the fact he was crossing an Ocean, he found it hard to justify the strong sun tan when he arrived back home. There was also Rob from Lymington, a very keen sailor who had done a lot of sailing around the Solent, this trip was a bucket list item for him. Finally, there was me, an 18 year old boy with a crazy passion for sailing looking for his first major sailing adventure and also to enhance his knowledge and experience as a yachtsman.
The Story of Events:
Having left Tonbridge and opting to take a GAP year, I was exploring my options of what I could do in this Pandemic and the answer was not a lot. I was always going to center my year off around my passion for sailing and sailing was the one thing that was relatively COVID friendly, out in the middle of an ocean you couldn't be further from the virus, so I started searching yacht crew sites to see if there were any opportunities to join a yacht. I came across one yacht, Runaway, a 40ft X yacht designed for racing, due to compete in the ARC+, an annually organised rally from the Canary Islands to St Lucia via Cape Verde. This is when I thought, this is the perfect time to sail the Atlantic and fulfil a dream of mine, this idea was also spurred on by a conversation I had with a keen sailor a few weeks prior, who, now in his 50s, had always wanted to cross the Atlantic but never found time to do so, therefore, I jumped at the opportunity and contacted the skipper of this yacht and he very kindly offered me a place onboard.
The day I planned to fly to the Canaries came about quickly and I was all prepared to set off on my adventure, however, it was 2 hours before I was due to head to the airport when I got a message from my skipper saying he's had to abandon the trip as he and another crew had both tested positive for COVID-19 and were in no fit state to skipper a yacht across an ocean, nor would they actually be able to enter the Caribbean without a Negative test. So just like that my dream of crossing an ocean came crashing to the ground.
However, after a few days of sitting at home in the middle of Lockdown 2, I decided to resume my search for another yacht, and eventually came across Ava and her Skipper Mark. After a zoom call with Mark and Hannah, they warmly invited me onto the crew. Thankfully, I had never unpacked my bags so quickly flew out to the Gran Canaria to join the boat and other crew. Our departure was delayed a few days due to a nasty Tropical Storm and large depression just North of us that had already knocked a few of the boats out of the Vendee Globe race. Eventually, on the 23rd of November at 14:35 UTC we made our final phone calls and preparations and finally slipped lines in Gran Canaria, and headed off on our Atlantic crossing.
It took some time to adjust to life onboard and it was a very strange feeling, losing sight of land and realising this is it for the next however many days, no land, no human life, just you, your fellow crew, the boat and an ocean, moving solely under the power of nature and you are totally at the mercy of the sea. It wasn't the easiest of starts to our passage heading south-west from the Canaries, we were hit by a tropical storm that had been forming just North of us, bringing severe gale force 9 winds and 4m swells just off our beam. This made life onboard very difficult, even trying to make a bowl of cereal became an arduous undertaking, one minute it's in the bowl, the next you're sweeping it off the floor. The boat was constantly being picked up and tossed onto her side meaning standing up was almost impossible, it was rather like being in a washing machine. Thankfully we battled on through and eventually came out unscathed, the winds calmed after a couple of days, the swells however stayed around for longer as there was nothing in their path to break them. After the storm, things became more pleasant and we all settled into life onboard.
Life onboard a boat sailing across an Ocean was drastically different to your everyday life on land. Our days were taken up by conversation, fishing, sunbathing (when the weather was good), reading, card games and passage planning. We had a watch system for the crew, with each of us doing 2 hours on at night and 3 hours on during the day. Sleeping onboard was pretty tricky to start with especially given the bad weather, I was being tossed about in my berth so sleep was never comfortable and with the added noises of the boat: the wind whistling through the rigging, water rushing past the hull, sails flapping, and other squeaks and creaks down below, it made sleeping very hard indeed. However, after a while at sea and with only a few hours sleep at night, I was so exhausted, I would normally just pass out in my bed and zone out the noises and movements of the boat. Cooking was a challenge onboard, when the weather got bad, you were not only having to keep yourself balanced but also making sure the food didn't go flying across the galley, added to this was the fact that with the stove on and the air temperature in the 30s, cooking in the galley was pretty unbearable. Nevertheless, we did eat well, Rob and Marco were both fantastic cooks, however, I will confess that I didn't do much in the galley due to my inept cooking ability, my skills were certainly more valuable up on deck.
Apart from the first few days, the weather was fairly benign for the majority of the passage, the sun was out most days and temperatures were anywhere between 25 to 35°C. It was particularly hot when we moved south into the tropics near to the Caribbean, at points it was unbearably hot and there was little shade, even down below was like a sauna, so to cool off we would drop a bucket overboard, collect seawater and drop that over us. The winds stayed pretty consistent at 10-20kts for most of the passage but there were times when they exceeded 30kts and other days where they dropped below 10kts which didn't help our progress. As we were sailing East to West, we made the most of the North Easterly trade winds, meaning the winds were, for the majority of the passage, just off our stern. This allowed us to deploy our parasail which was very useful when sailing downwind in light airs and with a sail area of 137 metres squared. There was always a threat of a passing squall and during the day it was pretty clear that one was on its way, however, at night they would just emerge from nowhere and catch the person on watch, off guard. One of our biggest challenges was a 600nm wide Doldrum lying right in front of the Caribbean, bringing very light winds and frequent stormy squalls. This meant we had to head south to skirt round the bottom of this low pressure area in order to avoid the low winds and nasty squalls. In doing so we did clip the edge of this area giving us a few nights of squalls and lots of lightning, which was quite eerie when in the middle of nowhere. We were hit one morning before the sun came up, by a large squall that came out of nowhere, bringing 35+kts of winds, sheet rain and lighting. I was just about to get up for my watch that morning and was woken by rain hammering on the roof, the winds howling, the boat flying along at nearly 15kts before we had a chance to reef the sails and flashes of lightning that lit up the dark sky. It was not the most pleasant start to the day but thankfully it didn't stay for long.
Some of the most memorable parts to the passage were the things we saw. Out in the middle of the Ocean with nothing on the horizon, we were able to witness some spectacular sunsets and sunrises, the sun would always rise on our stern and set just off our bow, this big orange sphere just dropping off what seemed like the face of the earth. I was lucky enough to have the sunrise on my morning watches, and it would be a great way to start the day. We were lucky enough to witness the most magical night skies, skies filled with stars and the occasional shooting star, it was a nice way to pass the time when on watch at night by lying on deck and watching the stars go by.
Certainly one of my favourite parts of the passage was when we were able to swim in the middle of the Ocean. 2 weeks into the voyage, the winds had dropped to below 10kts, and the sea state was calm, so Mark gave us the all clear to drop the sails and jump overboard. I measured that we were over 1000nm away from any bit of land, the water was over 6000m deep and a lovely 32°C. It was an incredible but slightly weird feeling to be swimming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and also rather refreshing to finally be submerged in water having not had a shower since leaving the Canaries.
After 3 weeks at sea and as we were only a couple of 100nm from St Lucia, our thoughts started to turn to the feeling of being on land again, what we would have as our first meal and we all dreamt of that first pint when we arrived. At this point we were hopeful of arriving in the early hours of the 16th of December, however, the weather Gods were not on our side and the winds dropped to below 5kts, meaning there was no air in the sails and we were no longer moving under the power of the wind, instead we were drifting with the current which thankfully was flowing in the same direction as our heading. We were agonisingly close but just making no headway this meant that our arrival time was pushed back further.
Eventually at 19:30UTC on the 16th December, whilst sitting up on deck with the binoculars in my hand, I scanned the horizon to see if I could make out any land formation and sure enough I did, I could make out the faint landscape of St Lucia sitting just under the cloud line, having not seen land for 23 days it was an unbelievable feeling to know that we have almost made it safely across the Atlantic Ocean. As the day moved on and the sun started to set on what was to be our final day at sea, St Lucia became clearer and clearer, and we were treated to the most incredible sunset, with the sun falling just behind the Island. After so long with no human contact, the VHF crackled into life with the welcoming sound of the Caribbean accent.
Thankfully, closer to the Island the winds picked up to 15kts meaning we were able to make good headway towards St Lucia. Due to the timings we knew that annoyingly our arrival would be in the dark meaning pilotage would be harder and we wouldn't be able to see the island properly. It was a welcoming sight to see the lights of civilisation come into view as we approached the Island. Marco and I were left to make the final gybe round the North of the Island as we headed to our final destination, the swells by this time had started to pick up considerably. We decided not to enter the marina in the dark due to a very narrow entrance so we chose to anchor in the bay so we furled away the sails for the final time, switched on our engine and entered into the anchorage.
At 05:00UTC on the 17th of December, after 23 Days, 14 Hours and 25 Minutes, and 2,886nm later we had finally arrived! The anchor was dropped, the boat ceased moving and all was silent for the first time. It was quite an incredible moment. I sat up on deck under the starry night sky and reflected on what we had just achieved, it was a surreal feeling, realising the magnitude of what we had done. We had just safely sailed our way across 1000s of miles of the Atlantic Ocean in a 42ft Sailing Yacht, I couldn't quite believe it!
Overall, it was the most incredible experience, they are memories I will treasure for a lifetime, such a rewarding experience as well, and without a doubt I would drop everything to do it again.