“You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Christopher Columbus
Having spent a year in Hamble immersing myself in the yachting world, I spotted a crewing opportunity on a yacht being delivered from Almeria to Gran Canaria. The trip would cover 850 nautical miles including five days in the Atlantic. With ambitions to sail trans-Atlantic one day, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
An easy start
I joined the boat and four other crew members late on a rainy night in Almeria. They’d just had three long sailing days from Barcelona so they were knackered, and drenched, but incredibly welcoming. We had just enough time for drinks and introductions before bed. The boat was a pleasant surprise, the 49 footer was really well kitted out, and I had my own generously sized cabin*.
We had a few days to reach Gibraltar, our jumping off point for the Atlantic leg of the trip, so we made the most of the smooth waters and easy sailing to get to know each other.
Paul the skipper took his responsibility very seriously – anyone who thinks men can’t multi-task hasn’t met a good skipper. He was in charge of the boat, crew, route, maintenance, potential emergencies, budget and food, and all of these have to run smoothly to keep everyone happy and safe, no-one wants a mutiny. Paul was very experienced, and he cared so I immediately felt in safe hands.
Gill and Roger are semi-retired, travelling the world experiencing new things on a shoestring budget. They are so open and positive I knew I’d love their company. John is a skilled mechanic with an easy, diplomatic manner and fantastic sense of humour, I was delighted he’d be my watch partner.
With an easy schedule along the southern coast of Spain, we enjoyed lunches anchored in beachy bays, swimming in clear seas followed by delicious mezzes of bread, European cheeses and deliciously ripe Mediterranean veg on deck. Evenings were spent in coastal restaurants enjoying local food and wine.
This part of the Spanish coast is lined with resorts popular with the Brits – Malaga, Torremolinos, Fuengirola, Marbella. Each is defined by a long strip of huge ugly apartments lining the beach and beyond, peppered with English pubs and tourist tat shops. Not my cup of tea, but we were all curious to see what they were like.
An evening in Fuengirola and lunch in Marbella were better than I expected, but as a fan of immersion into foreign culture I wasn’t inspired to return.
Gibraltar was a new country for all of us. A curious little outcrop of land known as ‘The Rock’, Gibraltar is a 2.6 square mile British Overseas Territory attached to Spain. We had no time to explore though, provisioning and prepping the boat for 4-6 days in the Atlantic was top priority.
Gill and I assumed the role of catering – the boys were good with engineering and we weren’t so this was where we could pitch in. We filled three enormous wheeled bags in the supermarket, balanced them on a trolley and did a great impression of two homeless bag ladies as we weaved our way back to the marina.
Food is king on a sailing trip, so we set about cooking decent meals we could reheat when the ocean was too bouncy to cook – spaghetti bolognese, gnocchi and Thai curry, with provisions for burgers, bacon butties and our favourite mezze lunches.
The boat looked like a bomb site most of the day, the boys emptied every locker and serviced everything mechanical while Gill and I cooked up a storm. The deck stank of oil and gas, the galley stank of garlic. By sunset the whole boat was ship shape.
Wandering into town for a final meal on shore, Gibraltar reminded me of the Channel Islands – British with a foreign twist. Patriotism was rampant with flags, historic cannons and British pubs everywhere. After a ‘pub grub’ meal with plenty of wine and chats with fellow sailors we turned in ready for a sunrise start.
Leaving Gibraltar at first light we were accompanied into the Strait of Gibraltar by a pod of wild dolphins, this was the one experience I had most hoped for and I saw it as a good omen. Crossing the busy shipping lanes where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, the AIS alarm* was sounding as ships that could sink us in a second came at us left, right and centre.
With clear blue skies and moderate winds we soon rounded the north west coast of Morocco and lost sight of Europe.
Our watch system now came into play – three hour watches around the clock with Gill and Roger on one watch, John and I on the other. Paul was always on, any alarm or unusual boat activity would wake him and he’d be on deck in a second to brief or instruct us. This would be our lives for the next four to six days until we reached Gran Canaria.
This type of trip has an element of endurance, but the right perspective balances that with the joy of being out in the ocean. The sunset and sunrise shifts was a real treat with pink and orange skies to starboard*, to port* a full moon sliced light across the sea towards us.
The shift system gave me eight hours sleep a day. Back on land when I can’t sleep, I imagine I’m on a rocking boat, so the sea was my perfect sleep tonic, I was sleeping better at sea than I had in marinas.
We headed west further into the Atlantic to pick up the stronger winds, and lost sight of land. Stronger winds brought swells of 1-3 metres coming at us from behind and helping push us along. We were now making great progress.
Down below we all got used to bouncing from one side of the boat to the other. I soon had perfectly straight bruises along my thighs from banging into the galley rail (I bruise like a peach). Any good sailing trip results in a patchwork of bruises, I don’t even notice anymore until a stranger back on land gasps and asks what on earth has happened to me.
Just as we were into the swing of things I noticed the boom was bent. This was bad. We didn’t know what had caused the damage, but the boom could now snap. We’d then lose our mainsail, speed and god knows what damage to the deck if the back section of the boom broke off.
Our choices were to head to the nearest marina to get it changed, which would take at least a week, or sail the boat in a way to avoid further damage. Paul opted for the latter to keep us on schedule, but this came with risks.
The course we were on put us at a gybe* risk. If we gybed, the boom could snap and we might need a mid-Atlantic rescue. So we monitored the wind constantly, tweaking our direction every few seconds to keep us on course as closely as possible without gybing. That afternoon we were joined by another pod of wild dolphins surfing the waves alongside us, another good omen, I hoped.
I had learnt to switch off during my three hours off and sleep, but the bent boom redefined the trip. Off watch, in the cabin, noises are unusual and amplified and I found myself constantly trying to identify them. One bang would mean the boat had gybed but the boom had stayed intact, and then I could sleep knowing the boat course would be altered to prevent it happening again. Two bangs would mean a gybe and snapped boom and then we’d be screwed. Other noises I couldn’t identify and wondered if there was a problem with the keel, a hangover from the Cheeki Rafiki* disaster.
We soon adapted and sailed the boat as best we could with minimal risk. John and I and Gill and Roger became like passing ships in the night, our conversations limited to “how is everything / did you sleep / any ships we need to know about / would you like some tea?” But spirits were up and we were working well as a team. We were now so familiar with the boat it felt like an old friend and I wanted to hug that boom for staying intact.
It’s the little things…
The boat was kitted out for world cruising, and its luxuries came into play after a couple of days. We had two showers and a washing machine, typically of little use offshore when water is precious, however we also had a water maker* powered by solar panels and a generator.
One night I had a midnight shower. Although I used less water than I ever have which, along with the rocking boat, dragged the process out for half an hour, I have never enjoyed a shower more. I washed the salt crust and sweat off me and felt so clean and invigorated I couldn’t sleep afterwards. I was up on deck half an hour early for my next shift, enjoying a ‘just stepped out of the salon’ moment in 30 knot winds.
Silence can be golden, on night watches it can be deadly – the combination of tiredness, darkness and a gently rocking boat encourages sleep. However the AIS alarm system relies on other boats having the same system, and not all do, so a close watch was needed on the horizon at all times.
We listened to the conversations taking place over VHF radio in English, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. Some nights we were treated to drunken, gravelly Russian singing, lovely that they were having a good time, not so lovely to know they were probably in charge of an enormous ship in our vicinity. Only once we had need to radio a ship heading for us. As a rule motor gives way to sail, but these ships don’t have the manoeuvrability we did so we needed to keep out of their way. The ship in question seemed off course given their intended destination on AIS, and sure enough they altered course to avoid us. Better to have addressed the issue 7nm apart than at the last minute. I didn’t fancy our chances if we were relying on a drunken sailor on watch.
As we dodged container ships I sometimes wondered what they thought of us, a little boat in a big ocean with huge obstacles coming at us, on a journey that was quicker and easier by air. But in the moments when you take in the wonders of nature around you, it becomes as clear as the pollution-free skies. The boat was being delivered to Gran Canaria ready for a trans-Atlantic crossing, and I was jealous I wasn’t joining that trip too. One day…
The 3am to 6am shift was particularly brutal so John and I kept each other awake with random discussions such as religion, our favourite biscuits (anyone remember pink wafers?!), I spy (P, TF?) and ‘Marry, shag or kill’. John’s sense of humour was priceless, and a good laugh would keep me wide awake for half an hour.
John dreamed up the next day’s lunch one night – burgers made with beef patties, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and thousand island dressing. We made it the next day and he christened it ‘The Atlantic Stack’. It was the best burger we’d ever had.
There’s plenty to see along the way if you keep your eyes peeled; turtles, a little bird which hitched a lift for a few hours and flying fish. Why do fish need to fly? I had no idea and no Google. Where was David Attenborough when I needed him?! This along with the wonderful sunrises and sunsets, the gorgeous blue water, sparkling stars, clean air…. You can see nothing, or you can see everything, it depends on your perspective.
The home strait
With the end in sight we were now at peace with the bent boom – it had held together in strong winds and if the worst did happen, we were close enough to our destination to motor in if needed. We were on track for an afternoon arrival so after our final night watches we all stayed on deck. It was so lovely to have everyone together again having barely seen each other for days. Despite spending so little time together, teamwork had underpinned our whole journey; the meals prepared for those coming off watch, the washing up done, the flask filled with hot water to see each other through the night, the positive attitudes and smiles.
I dare not mention our achievement until we were safely parked in the marina, but I was full of pride and joy at a successful journey with people I now thought the world of.
As we docked in Las Palmas we all jumped to the skipper’s instructions, setting ropes and fenders in perfect unison. The boat owner had offered us a round of gin martinis on arrival so we showered, changed and headed off to the hotel Santa Catalina. Paul needed a drink more than the rest of us having got us and the boat safely in on almost no sleep. Our five martinis used the best part of a bottle of gin. I barely remember dinner.
The following day was a blur of cleaning, the briefest wander in to town and lunch before saying our goodbyes to each other, the boat and that trusty boom. The following week the boat would be pulled out of the water for an overhaul in preparation for the ARC*.
We were but a small chapter in the boat’s journey, but to me, that trip was a significant milestone.
I had wondered if I’d love or hate the trip, but the high points shone through; the laughs, the teamwork, the beautiful views over water, being at the mercy of, and at one with nature. I had loved it all. And as ever with sailing, I learned and improved a lot and made new lifelong friends. I can’t wait for the next trip!
Info for sailors
From Gibraltar to Gran Canaria we were on a straight course of 225° with a NNW wind. When we noticed the bent boom we were on a beam reach, and didn’t adjust the sails thereafter or fit a preventer, to avoid aggravating the boom. We couldn’t risk a gybe from a broad reach or run.
Winds and swell
We had 15-30 knot winds, with gusts up to 42 knots, giving us a speed of 6-9 knots, with a high of 13.
The swells were mostly 1-2 metres, sometimes 3-4, the maximum was 5, quite calm for the Atlantic. The swells were coming from our stern and starboard quarter so they sent the boat surging forward deliciously, with a fair bit of surfing into wave troughs.
Route and course
Day 1: Almeria to La Herradura – 66 nm
Day 2: La Herradura to Fuengirola – 47nm
Day 3: Fuengirola to Marbella to Gibraltar – 40nm
Day 4: Gibraltar – 0nm
Day 5 to 9: Gibraltar to Gran Canaria: 730nm
The 49’ Jeanneau Sun Odyssey is pimped, with such comforts as A/C, water maker, washing machine, fans, fridge and freezer, motorised tender with davits and an inverter for 240v electric, all powered by solar panels and a generator.
The sailing kit includes an AIS* with alarm, autopilot, bow thrusters* two furling jibs and an electric winch* one of my favourite bit of kit, although I like the exercise involved in pulling ropes, it’s bloody lovely raising a mainsail with one finger. The boat is rigged to be controlled from the cockpit, and can be sailed single-handed.
The boat has a 15 foot beam and most berths we were given were exactly this, with boats either side. Skilled parking and precisely placed fenders are required!
Other ‘nice to haves’ include fans, a microwave, 2 TVs, foldaway bike, wheeled shopping bags and even a bread maker.
We typically furled the jib away at night to stabilise the boat for those sleeping, and for safety. However this took away our biggest tell-tale – the wind instruments weren’t working so we relied on the jib and windex*, which was difficult to see at night.
We wore lifejackets on deck in the Atlantic, with tethers at night and in rough seas.