Isbjorn Offshore: A Mid-Ocean Swim

Thursday May 25

Midnight watch. A new day. Wind WSW 10-15. Isbjorn is running at 6.5 knots on starboard, the genoa poled out to weather, rolling in an annoying cross swell still leftover from Monday's gale.

I have the first half (0000-0200), Mia will come on for the second half. Unless I'm feeling particularly inspired, in which case I'll stay up longer. We enacted this new 'shared' watch routine for the two of us to allow each some time alone in the cockpit at night. It's the part I like best about offshore sailing, and what I'd been missing the most about taking no watch at all (instead being always 'on call').

Coffee. Last spoonful of the instant currently on hand. I know there's more, just not sure where Mia's hidden it away. We're down to the UHT milk too, having drank the last of the fresh from Bermuda yesterday. 8 days of fresh milk at sea isn't bad! This cup of instant coffee and long-life milk ought to see me through to 0130 at least!

This is my first night watch in four days that I'm not in full foulies, as it's finally dry in the cockpit with no spray flying around. It is colder in general than I recall it being five years ago when we sailed this route on 'Kinship', Tim Szabo's Saga 43. Tonight I'm wearing long underwear beneath some fleece sweatpants with a long-sleeve base layer shirt under my light down jacket (my 'puffer') and a merino wool scarf. Chilly! But I'll admit MUCH preferred over the sweltering Caribbean heat - and great sleeping weather!

Wednesday (yesterday) dawned partly overcast, a grey, sloppy sea still running down from the NW. The wind had finally, mercifully blown itself out after three days at a near constant 30 knots. Isbjorn was under full sail for the first time in a while on my 0400-0800 watch. Ironically, we'd soon be whistling for wind as the high filled in from the south.

Just after dawn we had our first encounter of the day with another sailboat. 'Grand Cru 2', an American-flagged Hylas whom we'd been berthed next to in Bermuda, appeared over the horizon to the north. While we struggled to keep the sails full on the waning breeze and leftover swell, she'd given up and was motoring under bare poles, rolling heavily, her masthead tricolor swaying back and forth against the still-dark background of the coming dawn. Once the sun came up we tried raising her on VHF. After 1,000 sea miles, our paths were now crossing in mid-ocean and we figured we ought to say hello!

The radio call woke the skipper of the other boat, but he was delighted to hear from us. He introduced himself in a heavy Spanish accent as 'Danny'. Originally from Argentina (now living in Ft. Lauderdale), he and his mixed-nationality crew are crossing the Atlantic for the first time and will leave the boat in Europe, probably Portugal or Spain after calling in Horta like us.

Danny & I chatted for more than ten minutes about the voyage thus far. He recounted the most harrowing moment during the height of the gale. They were farther north of us, in even stronger conditions, recording several peak gusts over 50 knots. Which is unsurprising, giving the steady 40 knots we'd experienced Sunday & Monday. Anyhow, at some stage they accidentally gybed. It was difficult to ascertain the details, but it sounded like their preventer had held, but that a section of the toerail was damaged in the chaos. Danny had a joyful, animated way of talking, clear even on VHF, and I pictured him sitting there half asleep at his nav station with a sly grin on his face and sparkle in his eye as he recounted their drama. Crossing oceans is new to him, and I could feel his pride over the radio waves at weathering their first big gale at sea, despite the near-miss that ultimately left the boat in one piece (more or less), and certainly could have been far worse.

Isbjorn and Grand Cru's courses then diverged again, as we kept the boat on a beam reach to keep the sails full while Danny motored southeast to avoid the next gale we're expecting tomorrow. We signed off our radio call with promises to meet in person for a beer and more storytelling at Peter Cafe Sport in Horta next week.

By 0800 the wind had really shut down. Mia & I had the spinnaker up for a while, with no mainsail (it was slatting horribly in the old swell), but even that proved too much sailcloth for the meager breeze. We left the staysail up in an effort to dampen the roll and laid becalmed for several hours, pointing more or less ESE but going nowhere. Thane & Brenda managed only 4 miles in their 0800-1200 watch!

Thus far we've only motored for 15 hours, all of which came immediately on departing Bermuda. We're on a 7-day streak of not even cranking the diesel (Wattsson back aft is truly pulling his weight - we've had full batteries since departure, and this while making nearly unlimited quantities of fresh water on the watermaker!). So I was hell-bent on waiting for the wind. So we swam! The thought had crossed my mind, but if was Thane who spoke it first and inspired me to get the ladder out. He, Mia & I went for an invigorating mid-ocean swim in the 68-degree Atlantic, then enjoyed a freshwater rinse and some hot coffee.

Just as my impatience was about to get the best of me and force me to fire up the diesel, another boat, with sails flying, hove into view on the western horizon. It was 'Yoda', a fellow ARC Europe boat. Mia raised them on the VHF for a quick chat. They're double-handed and sounded to have had a tiring few days riding out the gale, but seemed no worse for wear.

They're attempting to sail through the calm inspired me too, so instead of the engine, we set all sail again and aimed the bows east-southeast. As they approached, they brought some wind along with them, and since then it's gradually filled in and backed into the SW.

Dinner last night saw Mia bake bread - two kinds - and whip together a lentil & carrot soup to go with it. She served it in the cockpit (or the 'sundeck', as we like to say!), our first meal outside in three days. Incredibly, Mia continued cooking in the galley right through the worst of the weather. We had chicken korma one night, butternut squash another, then chili on Monday night. All of this made from scratch, right down to the peeling and cubing and blending with the hand-mixer (!) of the pumpkin soup during the height of the gale. I went to sleep with an over-full belly (I cannot resist warm bread & ample amounts of butter).


Thar she blows! David & Mac announced whales sighted, 75 yards off the starboard quarter. I'm asleep in my bunk and rush up the companionway for a look. Mac has an enormous grin plastered on his face - just yesterday he asked if we thought we'd see whales. Mia catches a glimpse of a large grey back and big spout, but alas I'm too late.

The wind is up into the high teens, low twenties at times. Isbjorn is FLYING, touching 9.8 knots in the puffs, running wing-on-wing, still on starboard. David goes forward & we tuck two reefs into the mainsail, knowing that it's only going to get windier before anything else. It remains to be seen whether this next little gale is going to force us down to 3 reefs this time or not...

Mia is serving me my day's first coffee as I write. The sea is flat, the sun is out, the cockpit is dry, the boat is FAST and we're on course! Not much else to say!