The 1840 miles to Devil’s Island was the most difficult sailing we have done so far.
We left Salvador on the 21st of July 2015. (This gives you a good idea of how behind our blog is).
The wind was light and we motored out from the coast to catch some more wind. The sea was not calm and as with every journey, we took our sea-sick pills. These knock out the children who then just disappear and sleep for nearly a day. Frans always stays up in the cockpit and I try and keep him company as long as I can. The seasickness lessens gradually and usually on day three, we don’t need any medication. For Karin J this always happens sooner than for the rest of us. We DO expect the girls to do their watches, even if in sleep mode : ).
Looking back at the Salvador coastline, it seemed as if Salvador was never going to end. There were sooo many buildings along the coast for soooo long, that we realised we had not even scratched the surface of what to see in Salvador. We only saw the Old town and some more modern areas adjacent to it. All of these were touched with the aura of neglect. Old Town just more so. But now, from the sea, we could see sky-rises and new areas and many more buildings.. Therefore, we don’t think that you should take our “feeling” of Salvador as a comprehensive guideline.
Just out of Salvador, we suddenly saw this Navy Vessel come quite close to us. The AIS system showed it to be VERY close and on a possible collision course. We were still concentrating on the screen and trying to make sense of it all, when a huge rubber duck filled with navy men suddenly appeared RIGHT beside our boat, gesturing and calling something in Portuguese. Wow! Talk about scary! We didn’t know WHAT to do. Fortunately, just at that moment our radio came alive and we could hear someone calling us in English. The caller identified himself as the Brazil Navy and that they would like to board us for a check-up.
We had no choice and of course gave permission. Even though the wind was light, the sea was nice and choppy. As it can be tricky even to get onto our boat from the dinghy in a calm anchorage, it was interesting to see these guys work-out trying to help an officer and a sailor board Shang Du. But then, they were strappy, muscled, able-bodied seamen, and this is what they were trained to do. Frans and I immediately roused the girls for the formality. They struggled up from the companionway and sat mesmerised (or maybe just sleep-drugged) watching the phenomena of strange men on the boat. Even though in the end, they weren’t needed, the sight of four young daughters might have swayed things in our favour.
We felt a bit apprehensive, as our paperwork showed us clearing out of Brazil in Rio – and did not include a stopover in Salvador (even though it was for emergency repairs). The younger guy did the first perusal of the papers and looked worried, but the officer seemed satisfied after giving our papers only a cursory glance. He then smiled, wished us a safe journey and they both jumped back in the hovering rubber duck. Phew! That was close! Not exactly sure what it was close to, though.
Frans said that he thinks that it was a Training Exercise and that we gave the poor, bored seamen something to do on patrol. The Naval Vessel stayed visible on our AIS system for a long time afterwards and eventually, as we left the coast of Brazil behind, we left the Navy as well.
The wind shifted more northerly and we were being forced closer to the land. Fortunately land was at least 25 miles away, so that was okay. We all seemed a bit more seasick than we should have been, but the boat was moving quite hectically and we wrote it down to that. Our bunch of bananas was swinging too wide and hitting the frame of the cockpit, so we did some more strapping. My lovely little Aloe Vera plant (a gift from Natalie – the chocolate lady in Itaparica) dumped all its earth into the cockpit with one of the big swells, even though I tried to seat it securely. (The poor little plant barely survived this part of our journey and was in a very sorry state when we reached Devil’s Island.)
With the wind and the waves working against each other, we really battled with just staying sane on board. Day three wasn’t much better, but towards the evening the waves settled a bit and those not on watch, could catch some sleep.
Day Four and my seasickness did not abate. We realised that Sophia and I must have a tummy bug on top of the seasickness as we were the only ones still sick. A debilitating nausea and tiredness, combined with aching all over. Every little action was an ordeal. It took all my courage just to try and organise meals, even if I was not doing the cooking (or eating). Life has to go on.
On July 25 we were still heading north, but at last with a westerly vector to it. Ever since Ilha Grande in Brazil we were sailing east – wrong direction if we wanted to circumnavigate the globe.( Of course, we had to sail east if we didn’t want to carry Shang Du over that round part of South America sticking out to the east – right through the Amazon rainforest, no less.)
Our well loved little friends, the flying fish, showed up everywhere again. We didn’t see as many of them land on our deck this time and they were sizeably smaller than before. Many of them, darting out of the waves, looked more like insects than fish. Frans was determined to catch them on video. He spent a lot of time holding the video camera in place – for nothing. The moment he left the cockpit or turned his back – they would suddenly put on a lovely display. We have quite a bit of video footage of the waves.
Now we were out of sight of land but still on the continental shelf . As we rounded the ‘elbow’ of South America, we were sailing downwind, directly towards the Carribean. In the space of six days, we covered 702 nautical miles. We always plan for 100 nm in a 24 hour period, so this was definitely a bonus. We even reached our record sail so far : 168 nautical miles in one day.
Franci and Sophia are the two people in our family who do not really like to EAT fish. They are, however, the keenest of all of us to CATCH fish. Franci is forever asking when she can put out the line again.
I asked these two eager fishermen to describe the process for me. So here follows my take on their explanations:
On Shang Du, we do our fishing by letting a lure (they assure me that the squid lure works the best), trawl behind the boat. This is attached to a long fishing line rolled onto a plastic disk. No fancy reel or anything. On the deck, there is a piece of bungee cord tied parallel to the line to provide ‘some give or something’. The fishing line has a ‘noisemaker’ near the lure that hits the water rhythmically, trying to sound like a fish.
Foamy sea conditions are the absolute best to catch fish in. These are, however, also some of the more tense sailing conditions with either strong wind or rough seas or both. How the children spot the difference in the movement of the line is beyond me, but they tried to explain it to me. Apparently the line can pull a bit skew, or the ‘noisemaker’ can seem to disappear as the fish dives. Sophia and Franci both managed to catch a bonita each of about 2 kg’s and very good to eat.
The actual catching of a fish was also explained to me – as I am seldom there when it happens:
Sophia or Franci spots a change in the line. They start to reel it in. As Sophia says – it is important to pull the line over your palm and not just the fingers, or you could lose your fingers. Often it is a false alarm and then the line just gets put back. Once you are sure its a fish, you shout as loud as you can and jump up and down. You especially shout for your dad (because of his strength) and as the fish is pulled into the air, someone catches it in the net. The fish is dumped out of the net into the basin at the back of the boat. Here Frans gives it a stab with the knife in (hopefully) the right place to kill it. He is also the one who pulls out the hook. According to Sophia the hook is then dangled out over the sea to keep it out of the way. Frans always cleans and guts the fish too, but is now training the girls to do more of this. It is easy to see from this whole description, why Frans is not always as keen as Sophia and Franci to put out the fishing lines, LOL.
End of the fishing interlude.
By now, sunrise was becoming earlier and earlier as we neared the equator. There would be many firsts for our family as we cross the equator. For Karin J and Sophia it would be their first time ever. For Marike and Franci it would be the first time that they would be able to remember it and and for all of us it would be the first time in a yacht at sea.
We were all doing well by now. The miles were being eaten up and we reached that happy state of equilibrium where we have adjusted to doing everything to the swinging rhythm of the ocean. At this point in a crossing, the girls often play a game where they try to get from one side of the boat to the other without touching anything. Quite a challenge.
We were sailing really fast with strong winds and large seas. Frans decided that it was as good a time as any to try to start the engine again. We were doing it regularly to make sure that it kept on working. This time it did not start immediately. By now, we had so many tricks to try that we were sure it was just a matter of perseverance. First step is to bleed the injectors and try again. As we were starting her up after bleeding, it was obvious that the starter batteries were now flat and we had to charge them first. Still, no problem, it was just going to take even longer.
Frans got out the generator to hook it up for a few hours. The generator needed new petrol and while tricky, this operation was also nothing new. Where Frans would have easily done the filling on his own, the rough seas made it necessary for me to carefully assist him. It was while we were engrossed in our task that we suddenly heard a great crack on the foredeck. We could see one sail flapping furiously, tumbling into the water at the bow. We immediately stopped the boat by turning it into the wind. Frans managed to pull the sail back on board. It was the halyard we use to hoist our second jib – for downwind sailing – that snapped. **(For non-sailing readers, check out the definitions page under down-wind sailing). It was a real Godsend that Frans happened to be in the cockpit at that exact moment and not with his head stuck in the engine.
Marike and Frans sorted out the rigging and we continued with one jib only. The wind strengthened even more and we were still doing 5 to 6 knots water speed.
As we sailed into the night, we passed quite a few pairs of cooler boxes (the white foam type) floating along the surface of the sea. There was a fishing boat on the horison and we assumed that the cooler boxes were due to some fishing activity in the area. It is a really weird feeling to pass these little, white boxes floating in the middle of nowhere.
The wind moved position slightly, but we made a decision not to change the configuration of the sails. Just before dinner though, a while before the night watches commenced, we noticed that the waves were getting even bigger. We also noticed that now we were only doing 3 knots in 22 knots of wind. We decided to quickly put up the fore main-sail, but an exercise that should have taken mere minutes, suddenly turned into an hour ordeal. We battled profusely to get the boat to point into the wind. Changing sails in these rough seas are hard on my nerves as it is. Marike and Frans usually get to go to the foredeck (lifejackets and tied to the boat) and Franci or I steer the boat. This hour felt like a year. Eventually the sail was up. The hoisting of the main was to stabilize our uncomfortable ride, but we still felt decidedly unstable. As Marike trailed Frans into the cockpit, she asked him if he was okay. “Why?” He asked. ”Because of all the blood on the deck” she said. Only then did Frans realize that he had a nasty cut on his foot. I think it was Sophia – our little nurse – who gave him the care he needed.
After all of our efforts, the wind decided to shift nearly immediately. Now, the main was stealing all the wind from the jib and the jib was flapping madly. Flapping always causes damage to sails and rigging. We rolled in the jib, until just a tiny piece was visible, had a, by now, cold dinner, and with just our 3 knots, Frans decided to call it a day and went to bed.
Frans always started his watch at 4:00 in the morning. This means that he sleeps during the first part of the night. Although he might retire to the cabin, he is always on call and we are commanded to call him for anything ‘funny’, For the first part of any journey or for the really hair-raising sailing parts, he tries to sleep in the cockpit around the watchers.
Franci and I were on first watch. Somewhere, just before midnight, we were relaxing into our positions. I was at the wheel (we try to give the auto-pilot a break some of the time to save electricity) and Franci was happily stretched out on the starboard side, reading. Fortunately, for both of us, the side-flap was fastened on the starboard side of the cockpit. We normally close the side from which the wind is coming as this makes it much more comfortable. Out of nowhere, a HUGE wave washed up onto the boat and would have drenched the cockpit and especially Franci, if it was not for that flap. We saw a line of foaming water – halfway up the see-through window – rushing past………and then it was over.
After just sitting in stunned silence for a while, I went inside to assess the damage to my stove. On this trip it had already happened twice that a load of seawater was dumped onto my stove through the air-vent built especially for the stove (go figure). This is part of the lowest area in the boat and waves do frequently wash over here. Not so in the cockpit. Anyway, this wave did not wash over the stove part of the boat and I was just turning away relieved, when I noticed that our aft cabin door was strangely glistening.
I found Frans awake and sopping wet, He left the two little portholes above his head open for air, but received much more than what he bargained for. It is surprising how much water can be washed in by force through two openings the size of a small saucer each. Our bathroom is clean on the other side of the cabin and the water reached even there. Frans woke to a torrent of water being poured onto his chest. (This must be one of the nastier ways to wake up). We dried up everything as best we could and tried to shield Frans from the wet bed. He managed to fall asleep again and the rest of our watch went by without any incidents. I soon joined Frans on the wet bed and Marike and Sophia took over for the next watch.
3:00 There is a panicked call from the cockpit. The steering was not working! The chain jumped off the sprocket. Everyone to battle stations!!
The sails came down first. Even with the sails down, we were drifting at 2 knots towards our destination because of the current. This was quite gratifying as it meant that even while we were taking a long time to fix things, we were still making ground even with bare poles. What was NOT so good was that at the same time we were drifting at 1 knots toward land.
Someone went to fetch the emergency tiller and fortunately for us, we didn’t really need it, because it broke off completely when we put any force on it. To our immense relief and in answer to our prayers, we realised that the autopilot uses a different mechanism to steer by and was not affected by the chain’s coming off. Now we could pull out some jib and steer comfortably (as comfortably as the seas would allow) while putting the chain back. Marike is the chain expert, as she is small enough to fit into the space and her hands are the most dexterous we have on board.
Just as we were starting to settle, realising that we have gone from emergency mode to maintenance mode (albeit at 4:00 in the morning), the auto-pilot started complaining of low voltage and died on us. The generator was quickly pulled out and started and that made the auto pilot happy which made all of us happy too. As soon as the chain was fixed, the family members not on watch, retired, and we left Frans and Sophia to do what they had to do.
The next morning, just as the sun was rising, Frans noticed that something was trailing behind our boat. At closer inspection, he saw that we picked up a polystyrene box trailing a long, heavy rope. He took off all the things attached to his person that he definitely didn’t want to get wet and started some frantic acrobatics on the swimming platform. (I’m using his own words here – I was not there to see this). The goal of these antics, were of course, to cut the rope. He eventually managed this and as he cut it, another polystyrene box popped out from underneath Shang Du.
Immediately, the movement of the boat changed to normal and the speed went up to the expected 5.5 knots. No more milkshake-making either.
All of our excitement – from before dinner the previous night to this point – was caused by a fishing net! They do say that fishing activities can pose some of the greatest dangers to sailing vessels. After this night , we fully believe it to be true.
Now we went back to just the fast sailing.
The wind picked up to 30 knots at times and settled on the lower 20’s.
30 July 2015 in the late morning, we crossed the equator.
It is tradition for seafarers to “offer” up some food or something by throwing it in the water when crossing the equator. This would appease Neptune, the god of the sea, and ensure a safe journey onwards. Sailors are probably the most superstitious folks around.
We, however, do not believe in Neptune at all. We know and worship God Almighty, who by His breath brought all of creation into existence. He is sovereign over the mighty oceans and He is sovereign in our lives. We have the privilege of having a loving relationship with Him. Psalm 89:8 :”O Lord of hosts, who is like You, O mighty LORD? Your faithfulness also surrounds You. 9.You rule the swelling of the sea; When its waves rise, You still them.”
We spent some time as we waited for the GPS to count down to 000°00’000″, reading out of the Bible in turn. All the verses about the sea and its Loving Creator. We gave thanks to Him for all He provides – the sea and everything in it and also His provision for all our daily needs and for the privilege of being able to call Him Our Father.
Marike made ‘brigadeiros’ especially for the occasion and the girls even parted with some of their hoarded ‘Guarana’ to celebrate the occasion. We all did the last count-down together and shouted “hooray” when we passed the equator. Frans took a video of all the excitement, but for all that – the sea looked pretty much the same everywhere. You would expect them to mark the equator with something, wouldn’t you?
Instead of the expected doll-drums around the equator, we found LOTS of wind an were still sailing fast. There was some thought that we might be able to swim in the sea at the point of crossing, but with strong wind, this was a big NO NO.
It was comfortable sailing this time. Easy wind, easy seas and a very good current to carry us on. We were covering more distance than ever before.
But this did not last. On the 2nd of August the wind died and even the current reduced to 2 knots. We started the engine again. We let it run for 5 minutes and from then on continued to start it every 12 hours. We now had 124nm of sailing left.
It is amazing how much the Amazon still influences the sea this far out. We were at least 60 to 70 nautical miles out from land and have passed the mouth of the Amazon without seeing anything. The sea, however was a murky green colour and when the rest of the family (not me), went for a swim, the water tasted much less salty too. This same colour water accompanied us all the way, right up to French Guyana, flowing from the Amazon on the current.
On 4 August, we safely motored into French Guyanian waters and anchored at Iles du Salut (Devil’s Island).We would stay at the Island and recuperate some, before we attempted the last leg of our journey to Trinidad in the Carribean.
Alas, this was not to be. After venturing onto the Island, we realised that there were no supplies and definitely no internet available here. We needed to sail across to the mainland and up the Kourou river to civilization. We ended up spending more than two weeks in French Guyana, with a short trip back to Devil’s Island during this time.
French Guyana with everything we experienced there, was a very good break after an eventful and exciting and tiring voyage.