Trip Stories

The Atlantic Crossing (D86 to 105)

March 4th to 23rd : The Transat’

The real departure for the Atlantic crossing had finally come aboard the Fun Shway (Catamaran led by Gégé and with Mat’ as other crew member). We refilled the fuel and water tanks before leaving. We also took the opportunity to have a last shower in the marina, which wouldn’t lower our water level.

We were living for 15 to 20 days of sailing without seeing the earth. The trip would in fact last 19 days.

The wether forecast were not that good : no strong wind in the nose such as the one had the past week, but the wind wouldn’t be directed in the right direction and we would soon encounter a no wind area… We were leaving with the forecast up to 10 days. Without internet nor any other device able to get the forecasts, past those 10 days we would have to sail as in the past : looking at the clouds and putting our destiny in the hands of Eole. The forecast is usually good up to 3 to 5 days and then it’s quite random. In our situation it was already wrong after the second day.

Along the Atlantic crossing we used a lot the engine. We ware systematically switching the engine on each time we were sailing under 5 to 6 knots. It was a delivery, which meant the boat had to be delivered as soon as possible. The skipper was pretending that he wouldn’t be refunded of any of the costs, and that he wouldn’t be paid more if the delivery was taking more time.

We split days in 12 watches of 2 hours, each one of us was taking his turn every 6 hours : we had 2 hours watch and then 4 hours to rest or do whatever we wanted before taking our next watch all along the cruise.

Here is a small story that I wrote while I was taking my watch in the middle of the night on march 14th :

It’s 1:50 am— Canaria time, that I keep as a reference for my watches, otherwise it’ s 00:50 if we consider our position on earth and soon we will be put the clock back of one additional hour. My alarm rings, I jump on it to switch it off and, still a bit dizzy, I get up to switch on the subdued light of my bed’s end. It’s been already 20 minutes that I am awake due to the moment and the cracking of the boat which is currently a bit bullied by the waves. I grab my tee-shirt and swimming short. I look for my shoes but I realise that I left them outside under the stairs in order to let them take some fresh air. It doesn’t matter I will get them during my watch. I stand up  trying as well as I can to balance myself with the movement of the boat pushing against the wall of my exiguous room. I swiftly rub the bottom of my eyelid to help me to open my dried eyes which are full covered of salt. The wake up is obviously never easy at that time. I open the door and look up the stairs leading to the saloon to see, without surprise, Gégé — the captain — sitting at the chart table, only enlighten by the screen of the AIS.

I say “Hi” to let him know that I am here. After a short gaze at me he answered “Hi” with a grumpily tone. I walk up the 4 stairs to stand in the saloon and have a look at the AIS’s screen. The situation has not changed compared to my last watch : light wind coming from the North-West, about from the 150° while we are heading 280°. I listen to the noise and notice that the engine is still running. I grab the head lamp and begin my watch by a patrol outside to have a look at the sky as it has been taught to me. As I am moving I 

always pay attention to grab the boat with one hand, following the proverb “ one hand for the man, one hand for the boat”. With the swirl of the waves and me who is still waking up, we are never too prudent! Up in the sky I can’t see much except that we can’t see the stars and that the mass above our heads is much more grey than deep dark. It lets us guess that we won’t see a storm any time soon.

I go back to the saloon and say to Gégé “ still the same”, to which he answers shortly “Yes, still the same” before adding “you will tell to Xavier to change the engine, still at 1500 revolution”. I acquiesce, he stands up and goes to sleep in his cabin, in the starboard hull (mine is in the port hull). I say goodnight to him and sit down in front of the AIS.

With 2-3 clics on the tactile screen I see that we still have 1423 miles to sail before reaching St Martin. In 8 hours it will be exactly 10 days since we left Las Palmas. We are about half way. It’s been already 4 days that we are traveling without the weather forecasts as those we have are those we downloaded in Las Palmas. We are often looking at the sky in order to prevent any sudden rise of the wind forcing us to set down the sails in a rush. We are currently traveling in the exact direction of St Martin where the boat will be leaving me.

I pop down to my cabin to grab my computer to write those line at the same time as I am looking to the screen of the AIS. Then I start a film which will help me to stay awake during my watch. I put it in pause very often in order to go outside have a look at the sails and check that no boat which wouldn’t be indicated on the AIS was coming.

During the Atlantic crossing the wind never ceases to change direction and its strength is also variating a lot : from no wind to 30 something knots (we were lucky to encounter no storm). It was only 4 days before our arrival that we finally got the trade winds (Est winds quite stable of 15-25 knots).

About a week before arriving we lost a porthole, probably not so well stuck and which had been to much twisted during the trip from La Rochelle to Las Palmas. We fixed the hole with the door of a cupboard that we protected with polythene and pulled strongly into place against the hole from outside with the help of straps and metal sticks placed against the inner border of the hole.

A week before the end we fished a Dorado of 4-5kg : big enough for several really good meals. A couple days later were appearing the flying fish, signification that we should fish much more easily. But at the same time appeared the sargasso weed — a non eatable alga floating at the surface of the oceans and that boats are encountering in rising quantities in recent years…

Some days before arrival we saw a killer whale which was only showing it’s head each time it needed some air. But we were able to see it clearly by transparency when it was standing in the waves. It swam 15 minutes quite close to the boat before changing its course. The following day we had the opportunity to see a whale 100m away from the boat. It was jumping out of the water, letting us admire half of its body. Several time in the cruise we had the opportunity to sail along with dolphins. They were usually playing at the front of the boat, allowing us to admire their jumps out of the water from the trampoline.

One night during my watch a flying fish came jumped into the cockpit. I decided to kill it and keep it, paying attention to pack it well in order to avoid the stinky smell to spread in the fridge. I was hoping to cook it later as it was indicated in Tabarly’s book that I just finished. But once again I was severely chided by the captain who told me it was stinky, full of bones and disgusting. Regretfully I had to throw it away. I would learn later, from other crew and skippers that this fish is totally eatable, doesn’t smell that bad and is even quite good.

Aboard the ambiance is quite… special… The captain frequently bawls me out. He was probably expecting a better level of sailing, even if I never lied about my lack of experience. He was asking me to execute manoeuvres to a rapid pace without indicating me how to do them his way. When I was taking time to think about what I was doing in order to avoid any mistake he was shouting at me, saying I was to slow. When I was doing them quickly and eventually I was doing mistakes, he was also shouting at me and even insulting me. In terms of sailing as well as life on board , he was always ordering and never asking. He was certainly not a bad guy but he was terribly bad at communication and had a strong lack of respect toward me. It made of him an awful teacher and manager. He had an amazing capacity to lose his cool even when it wasn’t necessary at all. The experience is quite rough for me and it’s pushing me far from my comfort zone but I have to admit that he identified faults of mine and that I will endeavour to correct.

The contact seems better between the captain and the other crew member, who is an excellent sailor. Quite often I am ignored, isolated, alone with myself to think and meditate about ways to handle this social situation which seems inextricable to me.

After 19 days of navigation we were finally seeing St Martin. That’s where the captain would leave me.

As soon as I was able to connect to the mobile network I received the message of Christophe telling me that he was in St Martin, that he had found a catamaran heading to the Mexique and making a first stop in Dominican Republic. I didn’t know when the message had been sent so I texted him to ask. It had been sent 3 days ago but they were leaving the next day in the morning. We changed some messages and I decided that I would go with them : it meant that after 19 days of navigation I would stay less than 24 hours on land before going for a new sailing trip of 3-4 days.

We slowly arrived in Marijot bay— main city of the French side of St Martin— that was my first vision of the Caribean ever : It was sunny the turquoise water was so clear we could see the white coral sand. Lots of boat were anchored there. Among them was a splendid old 3 masted boat. I saw a white carp jumping several time out of the water and then splashing down at the surface.

From far we could only see the big rich and nice hotels placed a bit over the city, but the closer we arrive the more we were able to see the damages of the last cyclone (6 months before) : many houses had no roof and some broken boats were standing close to the road.

We first anchored in the bay in order to have a last meal on the boat, then we went into the marina, docked the boat and here is  where I disembarked.

I met up with Christophe, exactly one month after our separation. He had had plenty of time to visit the French islands.

Gégé went to take me off the crew list of his boat to the customs without hurrying, keeping my passport in hostage when the office was closing soon (potentially preventing me from doing the paper to come aboard the new boat). Finally I managed to get my passport back and give it to my new captain so that he could  add me to his crew list .

I went to get my stuff from the Fun Shway. The good-bye with my crew of the Atlantic crossing was really short : the captain didn’t shake hands with me and insulted me freely one last time so I just went away and didn’t turned back.

Though the experience wasn’t that much fun, it was for me a really good life experience from which I learned a lot. It allowed me to realise some defaults that I have and to initiate a process to correct them. It’s a unique experience, though it has a lot of similarities with the life in a colocation, it has the peculiarity of leaving you no possible escape plan. I had no other choice than to stay aboard until the end, forcing me to try to resolve all conflicts. The severity of my captain forced me to be more rigorous, which may help me for the rest of my life. This cruise also taught me patience and allowed me to meditate on the meaning of my trip.

Recap of the Atlantic crossing experience :

  • Atlantic crossing sailing : Check!
  • a unique experience
  • an occasion to learn sailing things because of Xav (the other crew member)
  • a good occasion to learn to keep calm and be less sensitive to disobliging remarks.
  • lots of patience

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