This is different. ISBJORN’s been at sea over 20 days now. The world we’re about to re-enter won’t be the same from the one we left. Three weeks is enough time to guarantee that. We’ve been well and truly cutoff. Not so much as in the old days - I can text friends and family and we get weather reports of course. But no email. No news. I have no idea if the US government has re-opened yet, nor do I know anything else about the world outside our little bubble. Sailing across oceans is like traveling in a steam-punk time machine. In slow-motion, we’re moving into the future with no knowledge of what’s happened in the interval.
Welp, we did it. Mia & I got complacent and paid the price of letting our guard down. I figuratively kicked myself the first time I was at the top of the mast in the dark, freeing a horribly twisted spinnaker halyard, and then promised myself I’d not make the same mistake twice the second time I was up the rig cutting the wrapped sail down from the forestay and swinging around in the swell like an idiot.
About a week ago I had found a broken screw on deck, and had quizzed the crew at dinner to figure out where it had come from. I knew of course that it had come from the pole track on the front of the mast (it’s never good by the way to find broken screws that have fallen out of the rigging!). At the time we noticed just that one and two others - three, total - that had succumbed to the shearing forces of the sail on the pole. We just repositioned the car higher or lower on the track and figured that’d be fine.
A whale came to visit on my mom’s birthday, after I had written that tearful post about stargazing early in the morning, before dawn. Later that day the rains came while I was on watch, again alone, and RIGHT next to the boat a 20-30-foot minke whale made his presence known with a puff of air and a glimpse of his dorsal fin. He stayed with me for over an hour, diving and playing under the boat.
My mom would have turned 69 today had she lived. Today marks the second birthday I’ve celebrated at sea on this trans-Atlantic passage - mine, with Mia’s birthday balls dessert on Jan 25; and mom’s this morning, where on my 0200-0400 early morning watch I shared a quiet cry and contemplated the sea and the stars for two hours by myself in the cockpit, gazing out at the vastness and just being.
Note: The title - and gist - of this post will come back to haunt me in the next installment…
So much for the January Trades. Shortly after my birthday balls celebration the weather pattern took a turn for the weird. A not-unheard of cutoff low spun up at the tail end of a strong cold front much farther north and began meandering around to our north, just west of the Canary Islands, disrupting the classic easterly tradewind pattern we were so very much enjoying prior. By sunrise on the 25th, the wind had started veering into the SE, then S, and getting lighter...we dropped the spinnaker that evening as the apparent wind moved forward, and have been fighting for every mile since.
In the days before accurate longitude at sea, trans-Atlantic skippers followed the by now cliched “sail south until the butter melts, then turn right.” Once the New World was discovered, and in turn mapped, sailors knew where the different islands in the West Indies lay, north-south anyway. They’d have known the Virgin Islands were about 18º30’ N, for example. Or that Nelson’s base on the south coast of Antigua was at exactly 17º N. They’d have known too, with a good trade wind blowing, roughly how many days after the butter melted it would take to get there. But they wouldn’t have known exactly.
NOTE from Andy, Feb 14, 2019: I’m hesitant to publish this, for risk of it being too personal, causing too much interference with the public persona I’ve created about myself and of the business. But you know what - f&%k it. If I don’t publish this, anything I do publish would just feel like propaganda. Yes, there are certain things I’ll never publish - to this day there doesn’t exist an online photo from our wedding, for example, and while I talk all the time about the decision to have kids or not, you can safely bet that if the day comes, you won’t read much about it here. That said, re-reading this now, which I wrote over 3 weeks ago while tired and just getting started on the trans-At…well, as I sit on the new Swan 59 publishing this, all the feelings I describe below are basically gone - I’m STOKED! But, this is how I felt then…here goes.
I’m tired this morning, a little weary. I didn’t sleep well last night, despite being in my bunk for about 12 hours. Not uninterrupted. The night was strange. Just before dinner we gybed the chute (flawlessly I might add) and rocketed off to the south while Mia served a chicken quinoa dish. ISBJORN was loving the big sail and I didn’t want to take it down. Some funky looking clouds on the northeastern horizon made my mind up for me. I wanted to sleep, and it’d be easier with the spinnaker in its bag belowdecks.
I put my head out the companionway and saw the leading edge of the earth’s shadow just beginning to take a bite out of the brilliant full moon. I made a pot of coffee for Mia, Walter & I, plus a cup of green tea for Fred. We shut off the tri-color and the instrument lights, put a towel over the VHF and started sailing by feel, wanting to black out any source of artificial light to give ourselves the best show.
T-minus 5 hours until departure. This will be our longest passage to date on ISBJORN, and the longest, mileage wise, of my entire sailing career. It’ll be Mia’s 5th trans-Atlantic, my 4th, and the 1st for the four crew - David, Walter, Etta & Fred - that joined us in Las Palmas two days ago for the voyage to Antigua. As I write it’s 8:10am, Mia’s making breakfast, the crew is stretching their legs one last time ashore in search of a shower, and I’m about to make the long walk down to the border police at the other end of the harbor to clear us out of Spain.
We’re five days into a warm, dry, downwind sail the whole way from Lagos. The boat’s been flat, the wind’s never been above 15 knots, there hasn’t been a drop of seawater on deck, nor a drop of rainwater from the sky. Not exactly an accurate representation of what life at sea can really be like. I’m not complaining.
The night’s have been dark. No moon and clear, cloudless skies makes for some epic stargazing. When I came up at 2230, I turned off the steaming light, which we’d been using to keep an eye on spinnaker trim in the dark. I also had Mia kill the tricolor and the instrument lights. With those extinguished, all that was left was the natural light of the stars, which filled the sky in a way impossible to see ashore. They covered every inch of black sky, from horizon to horizon, the lower ones even casting a shimmering light over the flat, dark sea.
I find it interesting how stretches of ocean seem to have a kind of character about them. The sea-state, despite the lack of wind over these first two days, has been decidedly annoying. Waves from both quarters slewing the boat around. If it’d have been calm, there would have been just enough breeze to sail. But as it were, yesterday afternoon, the waves overpowered the light wind and the sails, rather than pulling, just slatted and banged around.
When we added the Madeira passage, Jardim do Mar rocketed to the top of my list of places to see in the limited time we’d have ashore. I had this vision in my head about the place from reading the book, and I wanted to see for myself what it was like, see how that vision matched reality and see how much of the village had changed since the author spoke so highly of it.
Old town ended as I ran high above a public bath, far below the road at sea-level, a popular place for locals to swim and sunbathe. The road continued up and into the suburbs of Funchal. I passed two men smoking cigarettes outside their home on a narrow side-street, and 30 minutes later on my return they were still there, still smoking. A Sunday morning ritual.
In this way, the Atlantic islands exist in two parallel universes. That of those who earned these islands, and the one of those who didn’t. The sights look the same. All the colors are there, bright. The flowers smell delicious in both of these universes and the fish tastes great. But in the universe of those of us who make landfall in these places, we who earned it, there’s a feeling in the air that’s reserved just for us. If you’re reading this having made a landfall of your own like this, you’ll know exactly the feeling I mean. If not...well, you gotta go and earn it.
We’ve sailed almost 1,000 miles south from Svalbard and yet the temperature and the weather remains much the same. Grey, overcast skies, light drizzle, patchy fog and cold. Feels like we’ve gone sideways. I said to Mia earlier that when you leave the Chesapeake in November to sail south, you get a distinct change in climate along the way. By the end of it, you’re in shorts. Not so on this trip. We’re 14 degrees of latitude south from our northernmost point - but we’re still in the Arctic. It’s almost August, but still feels like winter here. As I type, I’m in my long underwear, jacket and hat. The hatch is open, so I guess the temperature has gone up a few degrees. But the climate feels the same.