Stage 2: Gomera - Guadeloupe
The second leg of the journey is upon us. Aat travels two days before the rest of us to Gomera and finds a ship with empty batteries. He checks the shore-current, replaces plugs and after some deliberation on the telephone we conclude that the two-in-one battery charger-trans- former is faulty. The apparatus normally keeps the batteries fully charged in the harbour and at sea it converts battery power to 220 volts. It is six months old, officially installed and is of vital importance. It keeps the computer going and thus the electronic chart system, it ensures that all telephones and cameras can be recharged and it also decides our provisions because we have planned for baking bread at 220 volts while underway. I call the person who installed it, the dealer and the manufacturer and call down on them hellfire and damnation if because of this our crossing is at risk. An hour before our flight takes off I get the confirmation that they are sending a new one to La Gomera, that very same day.
The crew has a new composition for this leg. Matthew takes over from his older brother Tjalko according to plan. Hans has (not according to plan) pulled out. Laurens is taking his place. He is studying, just like Matthew, business management and has even postponed his final work experience for this trip. Our family members wave goodbye to us at Schiphol Airport. Flying will never become a normal thing. From the dull and cramped biotope of the humble we enter the domain of the Gods. Everything is suddenly seen in a bigger picture. To contain myself in this sudden increase in the scale of things I try to combine the two worlds with each other. Naturally there is always sun, we just do not see it as much. And of course the countries and the seas under me are just like on the globe at home, only now they are real. And an airplane is just like a ship, only it has two masts on the side and moves quicker. In addition Gomera is just like Texel only bigger and it has a mountain.
In the Marina Gomera there are twenty yachts lying up ready for the Atlantic crossing. We hear stories from everybody and what there planned destination is. Some of them are even also going on further to the pacific ocean after the Caribbean. Aat is glued to all these stories. Later he knows exactly which ship is going the furthest and says that he would really like to go with them around the world. And much later on we find him standing on the piers in conversation with the concerned skippers praising his own cooking skills. He, himself, says that he was only making small talk. We find it nothing short of prostitution.
The battery charger-transformer has not arrived the next day as promised. It is then Sunday, 1 December, our planned day of sailing. We remain optimistic. But on Monday there is just as little sign of it. In the morning we search the internet site of the carrier and discover that the apparatus is on its way to Gomeras in Portugal instead of La Gomera. The manufacturer is confounded when we notify him of this and later informs us by telephone that it will still get to us but via Lisbon and Madrid. It might be at Tenerife the day after tomorrow and possibly on La Gomera the day after that. We don’t find this a good plan at all and propose our own plan. This apparatus return to sender, if need be by horse. And a second, still this morning on an airplane at Schiphol Airport! The manufacturer reluctantly agrees to our demand. He promises after our insistence that he will personally bring it to Schiphol Airport. It can be here tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest. Meanwhile we have arranged for a mechanic to come tomorrow morning to take out the broken apparatus and install the new one. We have also ordered five new batteries because the old ones (all six months old) are all broken as a result of the discharging. We handed in the old ones because the measurements have to be identical. Everything is coming from Tenerife. When the new batteries are finally delivered to the pier it turns out that they are two centimeters too big and have all got to be returned.
The two boys go every time to the ferryboat when it arrives to enquire whether there is a package for us containing the new battery charger-transformer. The answer is always negative. “Mañana” is what their told. As there was no flight from Amsterdam-Tenerife our package is on its way to Madrid. Mañana is when it will be in Tenerife and the day after Mañana it will be in Gomera. We call the Dutch carrier to speed things up as much as possible. It turns out that somebody in the harbour knows someone working for the customs in Tenerife. He calls him to speed up the clearance through customs. The concerned customs officer promises us that our shipment will be the first off the plane and checked through customs. But if the flight is delayed and it appears that way to him, he will not get to it before closing time, so it will be mañana. The mechanic that had assumed that the installation would be today informs us that his girlfriend is coming over and that he will not be able to help us the next day anymore.
All of us on the Breeze ask ourselves why we in the name of God ever let this rabble join the European Union. We decide to go and collect our package tomorrow ourselves in Tenerife. The skipper signs a pick-up authorization for Aat. Aat is also given documents from her Royal Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands declaring that the Breeze is Dutch territory and we ask the carrier for a fax wherein it states that the sending is free of any freight costs.
Before the airplane touches down on Tenerife, Aat has already concluded the formalities and he can wake up the customs officer, who was a friend of a friend and who would remain alert, and get him to give him a stamp. At evening time, in the dark on Gomera, Aat carries a weighty package, amid cheers, off the ferryboat. The skipper himself begins the repairs and an hour past midnight we have power again onboard. Early next morning we set sail. It is now 5 December, five days later than we had originally planned.
We made at least one real mistake during all of this and that was our translation of mañana, which we thought meant “tomorrow” but in actuality means “not today” in this country.
The Columbus feeling
The “Easy”, the ship we were going to sail along with did not want to wait any longer for our repairs and sailed yesterday. It has a twenty hour head start. There is little wind and the engine is regularly in use. Gomera disappears from view and after one and a half days so does Hierro, the last of the Canary islands. When Columbus discovered America in 1492 he sailed the same route that we are sailing today. Theoretically the crossing is simple. Somewhere along the latitude 20° North ?the trade wind begins to blow. A constant east by northeasterly wind. Sometimes he begins more northerly, sometimes you got to sail a little bit further south, but sooner or later he always starts blowing. The almanac talks of “the highway to the Carribic”.
As such it is obvious that fuel must be spent in order to get to that big stream. But this has got to be taken into account. The crossing is estimated to take twenty days. There is only enough fuel for four days on continuous running. But a strategic reserve is also necessary here in order to keep the batteries fully charged. Conclusion: if the tank is half full, there’s no way back.
The difference between us and Columbus is that we know there is land on the other side. He only suspected there was. And we also have vacuum packed food, vitamin pills in strips and little chance of scurvy and he had musty ship biscuits with worms. Opposed to this he was on a mission that was blessed by his Most Holy Catholic Majesty of Spain to reach India from the west and to spread the true faith there. And he most probably had the blessings of the Lord himself for this mission. The agnostic recreants onboard the Breeze will just have to wait and see.
But what we do have in common is the loneliness. We have recently regularly begun to recite the poem:
I must go down to the sea again
to the lonely sea and the sky
and all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by.
But this sea is really lonely. About Fifteen ships set sail from Gomera around 1 December who maintain contact with each other, just as was our intention. They are, meanwhile, far beyond the range of our marine VHF. That now also applies to the Easy. At night we do not even see any passing lights. My only contact with the rest of the world is the iridium telephone. I notify the Dutch coastguard of our departure and our expected time of arrival in Guadeloupe, but this is more of a symbolic umbilical chord that of any practical use. Attempts to contact any other ships, also ships that also have iridium phones, are not successful these nights.
Laurens is already days busy with line and bait. On 8 December he screams that he has hooked a Dorado. The action needed to get the beast into the cockpit, seems to be unsuitable for vegetarians, animal protectionists and other soft natured types. But even when the beast is finally in the cockpit it does not cease its struggles. Gomeran fishermen advised us earlier to pour some alcohol in the gills on this trial of strength. The choice of a glass of Beerenburg from the widow Joustra seems to offer some perspective. When this causes the beast to stop struggling we can finally measure him and it seems that he is a little shorter than a meter.
Laurens wants his photo taken about twenty times with it. Standing and squatting (himself), lying and hanging (the beast) and anything else that can be thought of. We are afraid that his housemates will have to witness a murder on poster format for many years to come.
Aat then sooths our consciences by properly preparing an exquisite meal from this Dorado.
On 10 December the wind is totally gone after days of decreasing variable winds. Tonight we could only make any progress with winds of six knots, now we really are not going forward at all. We try everything. We take the sails in partially and fix them with the boom and the boom vang but the swells just cause everything to hang and to bang off things and to break. We are totally alone in the middle of the ocean without any wind. The weather forecast from the day before yesterday promised wind today but it really messed up there and new forecasts do not promise much improvement. With distances too great to use the engine we are thus prisoners in an ocean of space.
How hard despair can strike the crew in such a situation can be summed by a comment one of the young men made: if I had the choice of two weeks of winds or three months without any sex, I would choose the first one.
After three days of barely any wind the weather totally changes in the space of twenty-four hours. The weather forecast that we called up three days ago indicated a small weather front. At around noon on, 11 December, we could sail along wonderfully with a wind of eleven knots and with all the sails out. By happy hour the wind picks up to twenty-four knots and before dark we already have a third reef in the mainsail and only the tip of the genoa. The evening and nighttime sees continuous heavy squall fronts that bring with them wind speeds of forty knots. A storm in itself is not nice but if it comes from the direction you want to go in then it is really annoying. We change to half watches. Aat who is not really a virtuoso with the tiller is exempted of any duty, the guys go two hours on and two hours in their bunks and the skipper is twenty-four hours on deck. We are lying heavy on one side and even with the reduced sail we are whizzing through the water. The ship creaks in its seams. Despite the exemption Aat comes up on deck at every change of the watch. He lights up his pipe, declares his enormous thrust he has in the Breeze and also says that he is enjoying the adventure. That enjoyment is totally different for Matthew. He ate before evening fell his whole portion of meat balls, after that my untouched portion and subsequently spooned, in youthful enthusiasm, all the rest of the leftover peanut sauce into his mouth. He must really be regretting that now. In spite of this he is still on the go.
We have a difficult night and we could really use a drink from all that steering and reefing. But drinking sooner or later leads to a visit to the little men’s room and that is an occupation that must be avoided at all costs. First of all, the wet weather gear has to be unzipped and opened but the lifejackets that are over this must remain closed. Then you have to hang over the railing hooked-up to your lifeline, as well as being forced to balance and avoid the spray as much as possible while at the same time trying to relax certain muscles.
In a night like this the skipper also has to perform some mental tricks. Because his body language has an influence on the morale on the ship, he looks as if the Breeze has encountered this many times before (which is true, only not in the middle of the ocean) and he is at the same time, imperceptibly focused on listening to every sound that the ship makes and that does not belong in this ear deafening cacophony.
Both the boys seem to be trusty shipmates.
We are not having any fun but we are more concerned for the Easy. The last contact we had Fabio was talking disturbingly about North Sea type weather that was hanging over his head. And with a broken automatic pilot and a with a slight Margherita that means a difficult night for him. Only on 12 December in the afternoon does it ease off. When we eventually make iridium contact with them our worries are eased. Margherita indeed talks about a “terrible night”, but sounds cheerful. They had taken in nearly all of the sails, closed all hatches and crawled into their bunks. When Fabio subsequently compares the positions that we exchange, he calls us “bloody Dutchmen”. It appears we both went for the same strategy and laid in a southerly course to our port side. Before the storm we were lying forty miles behind him, now we are lying seventy-eight miles in front of him.
We still have a small hope that we can celebrate Christmas on Guadeloupe.
Becalmed and a heading change
When the storm has passed on the light winds return. This means no more pressure on the sails but still heavy swells and thus sails that bang back and forth. At sunrise on 13 December we see a tear in the genoa at the height of the uppermost cross-trees. We should have taken in the sail a little bit more last night. Laurens and myself strike the sail and repair it on the foredeck while the others sleep. When we are busy repairing it a school of humpback whales pass close in front of our prow. So close that we can smell their breath. Because the camera is lying close by they are caught beautifully on film! They are about as big as the Breeze and swim peacefully spouting in front us. Officially we have right of way but seen as though there are seven of them we let them off for now.
After breakfast the spanners are taken out. Last night the rpm of the engine dropped off a few times and we have turned him off. If there is no wind then the engine at least has to work. It sounded as if the filter was starting to get blocked. I replace it with a new one. After a couple of hours of working on it the engine is buzzing as faithfully as ever.
The wind stays away for a long time. We find ourselves in total uncertainty about the weather because we are momentarily out of satellite range and cannot call anything up. Nothing is worse than to find oneself in uncertainty, I can assure you. However, if I later think about the happy go lucky life that my dog leads there is also something to say for this.
In the night of 13 going on 14 December there is not even the slightest breath of wind to catch in the sails and it seems it would be better to strike all the sails. When all the others are lying asleep, I go and lie on the floor of the cabin and look out through the open hatch at the beautiful star filled sky. I am lying as close as possible to the keel so as not to have too much bother with the swells. They are long and easy, but they are three meters high and being adrift we are rattling around every which way.
A couple of hours earlier the Easy contacted us and proposed that we change direction, switch on the engine and use that last bit of fuel and head for the Cape Verde islands. Fabio is also going through his fuel reserves because of the lack of wind. Fabio has had singlesidebandradio contact with Italy and heard that the trade wind is momentarily more southerly than it normally is and he wants to take on more supplies. To sail southeast instead of west is nothing less than going back!! I therefore let him know that I would like to sleep on it for a night.
At UTC 07.00 I make iridium contact with Meteo Consult in Holland. I let myself be fully informed. The weather systems are thoroughly confused. We are in the doldrums and have to drop to 15° latitude to find the trade winds. That is three hundred miles more southerly. There is at this moment ten to fifteen knots wind. This confirms the messages I received yesterday from the yacht Sarabande. On our present position it will become more windier in four or five days only for it to drop off after two days.
I wake the crew and we begin to deliberate. Other than the option to remain here and wait for the wind, there is also the option to empty the tank by sailing in a southerly direction. This would then mean that we would in a couple of days have no more battery power and no more communications and run the risk that we would still not be southerly enough.
It is clear, the rudder is turned. But will we actually reach the Cape Verde Islands with our limited fuel supply?
By engine on its most efficient rpm to Cape Verde. We repeatedly estimate our fuel consumption and come to the conclusion that without any wind we will never make it there. With every bit of air the sail is set, but more often it is of short duration. It would be a pity for all the effort if we just before our destination were drifting and were forced drifting =2x back towards the west by the equatorial current. We remain in contact with the Easy and hope for a tug in the event it is needed. For three days and nights we lie on this unforeseen and unwanted heading. Once I am awoken was awoken/ they woke me up? for the next watch while I am dreaming of my grandmother. We are eating together and she says she finds it sad that I have not come for her birthday for thirty years. That is correct because she has not had a birthday for the last thirty years. The human spirit is peculiar. Why does she choose this particular time to visit me now that I am underway to the Cape Verde islands?
For so long as we looked for the islands, so sudden do they appear. By the dawn of 16 December no clouds on the horizon, but the silhouettes of volcanoes. Impressive lumps of rock, spit out by under the sea layers of the earth millions of years ago. With our breaths held we sail nearer, as in the meantime there is a bit of wind.
Cape Verde means “green capes” but because of climate change there is not much green left. Bare brown rocks for as far as we can see. We see small settlements numbering some dozens of houses in some valleys. In complete isolation and dependent on supply by water.
The Easy comes into view and we are now at ease about our arrival. The ships video each other; insignificant small sailing boats against a background of massive mountains groups accompanied by the music of Bocelli from the loudspeakers onboard the Breeze. I-max cinema, but more real.
Sao Vicente is the second most northerly island. The bay is a volcano crater lying at sea-level with about a two mile cross-section, which is open on the north side so that you can sail into it. One large aiguille in the entrance way shows that the crater’s edge carries on underwater and gives the bay its character. Mindelo bay cannot be confused with no other bay and is sung about in many shanty (towns?). We enter sailing. For centuries long the crossed rigged sailing ships lay here to take on provisions. Often as the last stop before home, full of homesick sailors. We take on provisions as well. First fuel! A rubber boat comes along side and two black children young men tell us they are our friends. Homberto is the leader of the two and he introduces Carlos to us; also a friend. They don’t let the grass crow under their feet here don’t have a waiting attitude. Homberto lays an abundant amount of references of previously helped skippers at my feet in the gangway. He wants to be our guide. This is Africa. With him onboard we sail to a bunkerstation. We fill our diesel tank of 200 litres up with 196 (!) litres. We search for an anchorage and Homberto brings the other three crew members onshore for stocks. In the evening the two ships efficiently share an Indonesian rice table onboard the Breeze. Leaving your ship behind unattended, even if it is only for a couple of hours, is strongly not advised here.
The next morning we get the rest of the shopping. Mindelo is poor. Broken-up streets, badly maintained houses, no hygiene and a pathetic state of health of the people. An old blind woman and an apathetic(2x), totally depressed man remain drawn on my retina. They have searched for a sheltered place for life by the front door of the church by the feet of the bare Virgin Mary. We stock up on some essential necessities first. But it appears of the stuff that we buy that once home the apples have rotten cores, after opening the yoghurts have mould and the batteries have a life duration of five minutes when used. And we wouldn’t even go to the harbour hookers if they paid us. Heaven is a place on earth. But not this place. Africa is not for me.
Just after noon we raise anchors. The still impressive mass of volcanoes disappear slowly on the horizon.
On 19 December at latitude 15° North we have the first trade wind. The sea is calm and the sky is clear, there is a full moon and there is just enough wind to fill the spinnaker. Laurens and myself have the night watch. Taking turns we steer through the night without saying much. There is a meditative mood in the cockpit. If a person cannot feel calm and reflective onboard in the trade winds then he will never be able to. Zen and the art of ocean-sailing. When I go to my berth after my watch at 04.00 hours, I feel the movements of the ship so intensely that I do not immediately fall asleep. I think of the skipper of the yacht Syllogic. He is a professor at a faculty where artificial self teaching intelligence is developed. He is trying for years to get computers to steer a sailing ship by themselves under all weather conditions at optimum speed. He has made much strides in this, given the recent performance of the Syllogic in a Transatlantic race. The professor was himself onboard during the race, but according to him only to see how his computers pulled it off.
Every seaman knows that a ship rolls, plunges and lurches. But because computers are stupid, have no sea legs and do not feel the ship’s movement, the professor has made a computer programme for this. In this the ship’s movements are described as separate speeding ups and slowing downs along one vertical axle and two horizontal axles. Last year, the professor enthusiastically told me about his ship. He could barely contain himself when telling about the race the ship had sailed in. But when telling about the computer he became completely overwrought. Graph after Graph was shown as well as screens full with series of numbers. The majestic and ecstatic movements of a ship transformed into a language of ones and zeros. A language that can only be used between a professor and the computer he has brought up himself. Fascinating. But at the same time, we of the nautical poetry faculty found it barren. As if you want to capture the music of Bach in sinuses pictures of air vibrations. Now in my berth I realize that the movement of a sailing yacht is especially a function of the swell; the beam number of the ship; from the wind pressure in the sails and the course certainty of the helmsman. Moreover there is the old psychological law that states that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A ship is not only just an object made up of its movements. A ship is a living thing. A ship has a soul. She also moves without us steering her.
From my feet her prow is momentarily pointing towards the Caribbean area. The point of her prow writes, caused by her movement as it was, big curling calligraphic letters on the horizon. Just now, caused by an extra big wave the capital letter G beginning by the blissful Grenada and then from a small gust of wind a bit unsteady writes along the Jamaican island of the rum broad beans and finally a yearning long swing to the Virgin Islands caused by the inattentive musings of the helmsman.
The ocean is rocking me. While writing on the horizon I fall asleep.
Meteo Consult warned us before we left Mindeloo of a stretch of large swells with high northerly swells between 30° and 50° longitude West. When we cross 30° longitude there is little to be found. We conclude in our cheerfulness that it is most likely gone. A day later we get a really long stretch of incoming sea from the side with waves reaching six meters in height. This goes on for a couple days and is exhausting. At first we have wind with it and as such a stabilizing sail pressure, but later on the wind drops off. The rigging begins to bang, the mast grinds and the ship creaks. Outside on deck in the cockpit you can anticipate the waves but if you have to go inside you go crazy from the swells. Anybody who saw us moving inside would find that not even John Cleese, nor any other member of the Institute For Silly Walks, would beat us today.
Chef is especially suffering. The ship is making such plunges that while preparing the evening meal a lot of the ingredients are falling beside the pan. When the asparagus with ham and the mashed potatoes can be dished out, his normally unflappable humour is really put to the test. The pan with cream sauce takes-off across the counter, works itself over the raised edge and spreads out over the full width of the cabin. When we eventually get something onto our plates, this is then, with a small degree of Amy-Groskamp-ten-Have (Dutch etiquette writer) without manners or thoughts of others, as quickly as possible shoveled into our mouths before the sea tries to take it away from us again.
In the evening we hear something fall over inside the cupboard. Cautiously with the door opened a crack we look in to see what has happened. But it is too late. Matching the rhythm of the swells the contents of a box of Benco grains flies past our ears. We decide that we have had just about enough of these days long swells. We are going to go on hunger strike for awhile.
On 24 December we celebrate Christmas Eve. The sea is somewhat calmer and it is tropically balmy. We eat pancakes with syrup and watch the sunset in our short trousers. We get emails from loved ones. We laugh and sing till it gets dark. As we have not really got into the Christmas spirit yet, the songs are mainly limited to south sea ballads and of little bars that are in the harbour.
We sail after the sun with the mainsail on the leeside and the genoa tacked in the boom. Without using too much fantasy, a rigging in the shape of a big white Christmas tree.
On St. Stephens day at 04.00 hours we get strange showers above our heads. It is cloudy, there is no moon yet and it is pitch dark. Even the horizon cannot be made out and our knowing what is above and what is below depends for an important part on the position of the floor of the cockpit. Before the sunset we already saw behind us threatening skies. In the meantime they have come to hang above our heads. The first shower causes the wind to drop off some, then there follows veering and contracting wind shifts and then all hell breaks loose. It begins to blow and to pour. With a third reef in the mainsail and the point of the genoa we can get through this, but we totally loose our general sense of direction. This is also caused because we cannot discover any pattern to the wind shifts. To hold to our course under these conditions would mean the constant changing of the position of the sail. So we decide to keep the wind intake constant. The consequence: we slalom and go around in circles. From up above it must like we are dancing the tango. The one moment we are heading Greenland, the next moment we are heading Venezuela. That is what the compass indicates in any case because from the cockpit you cannot see a thing. Not even our own forestay. With our eyes on the meter which tells us from which direction the wind blows and our fingers on the push keys plus 10° and minus 10° of the automatic pilot we keep the quarter from which the wind intake is as constant as possible. The wind picks up in the showers to thirty-eight knots, a full Beaufort 8. It almost looks like we are busy playing some sort of computer game as we stand there pushing buttons. As if we are not sailing in the middle of the ocean but at a fairground sitting in a simulation cabin. But then with real rain and a floor that really moves. Every shower is about 15 minutes long. Getting off and handing our tickets back in at the counter of the ride is not an option. Even without buying new tickets we are allowed stay on the ride for about ten times. With the first shower we are fairly apprehensive about what can happen. Later on we see the idiocy of all our elegant turnings and the mood despite the pouring rain and the screaming wind becomes resigned. So these are the feared squalls.
Our basic assumption for this trip, namely that we ourselves were the ones that would decide in which direction the Breeze would sail and not the other way around, is through this experience severely tested. Sailing as a metaphor for real life. Where we also find great difficulty in giving up the idea of freewill. We know that a lot more of our behaviour is predetermined than we ever wanted to accept, but we only admit it with difficulty.
The Breeze comes out of the battle washed clean when all the showers have passed on. We ourselves mainly come out of it relieved. Somewhat dazed and giggly at the same time. We think of the Christmas spirit that is at this moment back home. Now that we have been spared that natural violence, there is all of a sudden, even without a turkey, a bit of reflection onboard.
Perception is an active and creative process. The reality is not there, we construct it. The Big Dipper is nothing more than a handful of randomly scattered stars. You can see a figure in them, but only if you use a bit of imagination. That is the way it is with all perceptions.
Whomsoever reads a book has to use a lot more imagination in order to form a picture of it than someone who sees the same story as a film. With a film there is such an overload on your senses that you become a passive viewer.
This is almost the same as on the one side an ocean trip and on the other side a journey over land or a visit to a big city or more extreme, a visit to a fairground. The ocean indeed has a thousand faces but this environment is less rich on visual or other stimulants. What you experience at sea is because of this decided to high degree by your own fantasy and the meaning which you give to things that you hear and see and feel. Traveling is for a large part traveling in your own head. It is not just the waves and the clouds around us that decide what we see but also what we find in ourselves when we traverse our sea of memory. I think that this is the reason sailors put so much reflective elements in their stories.
We not only have just the paper chart onboard but also two electronic charts. The plotter and the pc programme. Oddly enough the one system gives a course heading to waypoint Guadeloupe that deviates by no less than 15° to what the other system indicates. And in this way the other system appears to be wrong. For a long time we could not understand why this was the case. Both systems give our position identically. We know the difference between rhumb line sailing and great circle sailing can be at the most a few degrees. The usefulness of email per iridium telephone comes to the fore again. The consulted experts onshore suggest that maybe the one system gives the real course and the other the compass course. And sure enough the variance in these areas is around 15°. But since the repair of the wheel chain our compass has not been reset and as such is not the instrument we are using to navigate by anymore.
Another remarkable phenomenon on the ocean here is the constant mood swings. During the day no sea is too high for us. We sail up and down mountainous like water. Even at wind-force 8 we have a sailing race with the Easy. We feed out the spinnaker up to and including wind-force 5. We cheer as we surf down a wave and when we break a previous speed record. We hope that the next wave coming along will be a little bit bigger than the previous one so that we can take an even better photograph.
But when night comes, when there is no moon but clouds and the world around the Breeze becomes small and shadowy, then our mood darkens. I notice that I am focused on every unusual sound that the ship makes and I jump if suddenly a dolphin spouts out his breath two meters away. I also think of the participant of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers who drowned here on this crossing a couple of days ago. And I sometimes lie awake pondering and brooding about what I should do in the eventuality that the mast should fall overboard. While that is a procedure that I know like the back of my hand. I then tell myself to get it together and start thinking about something else.
And this all the while there is barely any change compared to a couple of hours ago. The same ship, waves and wind. Only a different light. And thus different emotions. Ergo: courage is determined by sunlight.
For days Aat and Laurens are busy with foolish things but worth mentioning nonetheless. They are making number charts from which they are trying to decipher when the Breeze will arrive at the harbour entrance in Guadeloupe. This is remarkable seeing as though there are two computers onboard that can produce an ETA (expected time of arrival) with just one push of a button. But so easy are these to produce so little of value are they. Because with an estimated time of arrival of 4 January 20.13 hours on the screen at one moment this easily changes to, for example, 2 January 11.55 if the Breeze gets a little gust of wind. And also the vice versa is true. In spite of this detailed non-information, the men get stuck into their calculations. The old entrepreneur with his contractors pencil and the young aspiring manager with his modern jargon which involves a lot of targets. And it is not a one off thing, it becomes a daily ritual. The way others pray, drink tea or have a siesta. “If we could maintain a daily average of …” Or: “if we make sure that we do not sail below five knots …”, are the words that we constantly hear. And this while everyone knows that every calm throws all the calculations overboard. And that calms cannot be predicted.
The psychological explanation for this useless behaviour appears to me to be, that the ocean is too large for the spirit. She makes us feel small and dependent, which we all find difficult to bear. Calculations provides us something to hold onto, and predictions give us power. Are not all rituals attempts to allay our fears?
These predictions asking the question when will we arrive, are in any case originating from the wrong point of departure. We are already there! Here at sea, this is what we wanted. Here it is also about, like in the rest of life, not about when you arrive, but how you got there. Arriving is the end, reaching your destination is a form of dying. And once again we discuss in the cockpit the meaning of life, the existence of God and the infinity of the universe.
Wear and tear
At least once a day we have marine telephoneVHF contact with the Easy to exchange the afternoon positions, (if there)or if they are not in range iridium contact. On 28 December we get no reply. Only later on in day does Fabio answer the phone. He has problems. The engine is making a strange sound and he does not dare to use it too much and then only in a low rpm. We use the propeller shaft generator to get power (if we have enough speed), but up till now he used the engine a few hours everyday to recharge his batteries. This doesn’t work now anymore. The batteries are almost empty. They have switched of every piece of electronic equipment and are steering manually. They even think they will need our assistance in a couple of days for entering the harbour.
Today on 30 December at UTC 10.05 hours our spinnaker explodes. We have sailed through the night on an almost aft wind of about twenty knots. This goes wrong when in the middle of a gust we make a too late correction, steering 30° too high. We drop off, the spinnaker straight away fills with wind and the top immediately explodes and then also the complete forleech. Matthew and Aat come from their bunks alarmed and the four of us stow away the rest of the sail in the hope that a sail maker can do something with it.
Later on in the day we find some pieces of a disk from a block at the top of the mast and it is unclear which block it is from. And I further confirm that there is some play tolerance in the lower starboard rigging. There is something dislocated in the construction. Possibly below there is locally some delamination between the deck and a cupboard. If this is the case then it happened during the storm of 12 December.
It is about time that we made land.
Instead of arriving on 20 December like we previously kept thinking, it is now already 30 December and we are still not there. We are going through more and more of our provisions. Used up or gone past its cell by date. Everyday sees a couple of cans of beer from our beer supply under the floor explode. The Breeze as a result smells like the Rotterdam student society Hermes.
We regularly during this trip called the young lads spoilt if they did not want any peanuts because they were not cashew nuts and if they turned their noses up to a beer because it was a
B class beer. But meanwhile all B brands are being rationed and are eagerly used up. This trip is turning out to be a proper upbringing for the – I want it all, and I want it now – generation. Also the last of the three water tanks has been broached and hand washes for cloths are taboo.
Today at UTC 13.00 hours, still another 360 miles from Guadeloupe, we see the first signs of land. Just like Columbus we see pieces of seaweed floating. A couple of hours later a bird comes flying towards our boat to check us out. It is a robust white bird with an enormous big mouth and a powerful wing beat that is nothing like the gracious skimming shearwaters that we saw around us during our crossing. He flies at least twenty times around us; looks straight at us; ignores the snacks thrown out to him and finally goes his own way.
As expected from this moment we arrive in the night of 1 going on 2 January. It has taken us twenty-eight days to get here, not including our late start. Ten forty-four foot yachts, the same length as the Breeze, took part in the 2001 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. Out of the ten the last one came in after twenty days and the first already after sixteen days. It seems plausible that the El Niño effect is responsible for the present disturbing weather picture.
Some other conclusions that I already draw for myself from this crossing:
One: The universe might be infinite, but the ocean is also huge.
Two: There is a lot to say on the existence of God.
Three: The real question is, whether landlubbers will ever understand anything of the world.
Today is 1 January and at UTC 16.25 hours sounds the long awaited shout. “Land ahoy!!”. It is the island Marie-Galante that is part of Guadeloupe. There is an exhilarating mood onboard. We did it despite all the setbacks. Longer than this would have been just too long. Nearly all our food is gone, the third drinking water tank today began to pump air.
We are sailing straight with an aft wind on heading 285° and have to jib a couple of times in order to maneuver between the various islands. While evening falls Guadeloupe comes closer. We keep seeing more lights on the coast. We make contact with the Easy, which appears to have moored just before it got dark. He strongly advises us not to enter in the dark. In 1999 hurricane Lucy caused the breakwater at the entrance to the harbour to collapse. The entrance to the harbour is since then strewn with chunks of rock and there is only one passageway that is the width of a ship length.
At 21.30 hours local time we are at the harbour. It is then UTC 01.30 hours on 2 January. Just at that moment we get hit with a tropical shower making visibility less. We drop anchor one hundred meters from the coast in waters ten meters deep. I realize that the last little bits of mud on my anchor from the Ketelmeer are mingling with the sand of the Caribbean.
When the downpour is finished we hear shouting from the shore. Car headlamps are flashing and we recognize our loved ones. They have been keeping watch for days and saw our navigation lights. What was expected has happened. We decide in any case to try and attempt to sail into the harbour. Isn’t it an old sailors saying: that a woman’s hair pulls stronger than a upper topsail? The anchor is hoisted, the glasses are wiped; the spotlight is switched on and more drifting than sailing we glide towards the rocks. The harbour entrance is indeed very narrow, but whomsoever sails across the ocean must also sail the narrow passageways.
The girls are not the only ones waiting for us. They have been keeping watch for twelve days and half the marina knows of our arrival. We drink punch on the terrace of the clubhouse, swap stories, drink yet more punch and swap yet more stories until we fall over. Time at that moment no longer exists for us. The prime meridian time what we have lived by for the past month, served specifically for the ship’s regime for the changing of the watch and for weeks was no longer an indicator for day or night. We have to get used to sleeping eight consecutive again as well as walking on the mainland.
The next day there is a change of décor. The plastic bowls in the galley get stowed away in the bottom of the cupboards and the porcelain harbour service appears as well as the glassware. The house rules of the mistress of the ship return and everything onboard is put back in its proper place. It seems that the stove can actually shine, greasy gray tea towels are replaced by cleaner colourful ones and embroidered table cloths appear on the tables. The miracle of a woman’s touch.
Daily routine in this piece of France is Caribbean. Pas ni problème. Nobody asks me for harbour fees or if we have anything to declare, for example, let alone that a customs official comes onboard. But there is also no berth reserved for us despite confirmation before the crossing. We get a temporary berth in a place where we do not dare to leave the ship behind for a number of months and therefore keep insisting for a better solution. But the people here, primarily Creoles, are really nice. Greetings are lavish and physical. If I meet the harbour master or someone else from the marina whom I have just got to know, then the following ritual takes place. Aaaahh!! From a meter of ten is called out to each other with big grins. Bonjour!! At a distance of five meters. Then hands are stuck out and all kinds of shoulders are clapped as if it was a reunion of old friends. And they take all the time they want for this, apparently engaging in totally trivial conservation with each other. Il fait chaud aujord’huit n’est ce pas? Aaaah oui, il fait très chaud! And we laugh, as if we have just told each other the funniest joke. Contagious laughter from every place on the street where people gather is just as much a characteristic of this island as the cacao beans and the pelicans.
Guadeloupe is a volcanic island. The highest peak is the souffrière, which is 1,467 meters high. The island has for this region a lot of rainfall and is therefore very green. Every mountain is covered to their peaks giving it its tropical appearance, and there is even real rainforests inland. As a result of all this there are also many small rivers. The original name of the island is “Karukera”, which means, island of the beautiful waters. It has a population of 350.000 of which only 8% are white. It is a province of France just like Martinique. There are daily schedule flights from Paris. The supermarkets stock a good variety and what is more important, likewise the water sport shops. A new V-string for the generator, a membrane for the water pump, the correct thickness sail maker’s thread and a lot of other things that can make a skipper happy can be found.
For the boys the first necessity of life is a visit to the disco. It is a culture shock for them. The Creoles’ girls are either shy or look unfavourably on whites, which of the two is unclear, but no conquests are made. And when there is dancing, in the eyes of both the young men it seems very old fashioned. It is considered polite to first ask a girl to dance and then once on the dance floor to dance as a pair. There is no suggestion here of the anarchistic polygamy like they are used to back home, where you get up on the dance floor by yourself and begin to move in the hope that a passing chick moves with you for couple of beats.
The island is a remarkable mixture of French and African. The roads are in good repair and have more lanes closer to the large population centers, just like Paris. But they become more bumpy on the periphery. The road signs are identical to those in France. And just like in France, the French language and culture is emphatically upheld. The radio stations are obliged to play a French chanson after every English hit. An old fashioned normative authority in place of our own?slack regents that confuse laziness with tolerance.
The African element is their laid back way of life. Little inclination to do much during the day. But an enormous vitality when after sunset the steel drums and the maracas are taken. Everything is rhythm and you would have to have feet of clay to remain still.
We get to know a Frenchman in the marina who offers to be our guide on our trips inland. He once made the same type of ocean crossing as we did. He once also had a sailboat but that has no sails anymore and only barely floats. “Once I was a sailor too”, he tells us, “but now I am a husband”. We hire him as our guide. Someone who is so long down on his luck deserves support.
We take in the inland rainforests with him and the “chutes” as the waterfalls are known here. We soak in the hot sulphur baths that can be found here and there between the rocks up in the mountains. And we mingle with the day-trippers. In the knowledge that we are not like them. They have booked a fully all inclusive trip at the travel agency around the corner. Maybe using air miles. They walk behind their guide and they look left if the guide points left. They are tourists. We on the other hand, are explorers. Got here on our own keel. By our own compass. Explorers like Columbus. Or like the forgotten Dutch explorers Houtman and de Keyser, who reached India Indië (nowadays Indonesia). Like Bontekoe and like Tasman.
And from the top of Souffrière we look out over the ocean. Our ocean. Crossed over at the right time just in time?, I think reflectively. In the heydays declining years of my invincibility.
The story of Odysseus is well-known. The great Greek hero after years of wanderings and heroic deeds with his crew sails by the islands of the Sirens. He wants to hear the beautiful and bewitching song of these women, but at the same time does not want to be ensorcelled by it. And so he makes his men plug up their ears with wax, so that they cannot hear anything and are therefore immune to the spell. And he lets himself be bound to the mast so that he will not jump overboard and swim to them. No matter what command he gives while passing the island, he says to them, they must sail on and leave him bound to the mast until they have sailed passed the island.
This story tells in fact something about halfheartedness. About your fears to give in to something. Look through the window and enjoy yourself but then runaway really quick. Like fascination is a contagion. As if being touched by it and thereby changing is the same as loosing control. Instead of that, choosing to sail on to house and hearth and resume your old and trusted life. Conclusion: Odysseus was just a lower middle class guy.
How enchanting the Caribbean archipelago is for us too, we also fly back to house and hearth and we will also pick up our normal lives. Tied to a practice schedule full with patients, to a mortgage, to the familiar drizzle. We also recoil at the thought of this rigorous change of course. Only on Sunday mornings does a restless fantasy every now and again surface, about casting off all mooring ropes in Holland and have a long-term stay on this tropical island realm.
Bernard Moitessier did it. Montessier took part in the very first around the world solo race in the 1960s. After months long battling that was followed by the whole world via the press, he was in first position after almost half of his competitors had given up. They had already sailed around three quarters of the earth. England and the finish line was almost in sight and eternal fame would be his. But then he reconsider. The ocean had cast a spell on him and he did not want to leave her. Moitessier turned the prow about and began on a second sailing around the world that eventually ended at an out of the way Polynesian island in the middle of the pacific ocean. Not a winner of the race, no cameras, no contracts. But a self-conquest, peace of mind and for always the crashing of the waves.
We have in the meantime decided that the Breeze will not be going back to Europe next May, as planned. Firstly because some repairs have to be carried out, but mainly because there is so much to see here. Only in May 2004 do we want to bring her back at the earliest, but maybe not for a couple of years. We are going to visit her often. We hope every now and again to take some friends with us. And we shall, in the interim, carry on working for a couple of months and fulfil our obligations.
A dash of Odysseus and a touch of Moitessier.