December 16, 2006 GMT
Not The Road To Mandalay

I could quite get used to this sailing lark; it's a bit like the trip overall really - the good days more than make up for the really bad ones.

I only had to wear the wellies once, but that was for 36 hours including sleeping (plus full wetties and lifejacket). It's taken five days to sail the thousand miles from Port Aransas to Canc¨n in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula.

We sailed from Port Aransas on Friday afternoon, and made good speed in 12-foot seas and rain. Ian was seasick almost straight away. Stuart felt bad but didn't actually throw up. I couldn't see what all the fuss was about myself. The chaps became increasingly convinced that I was seasick really but just very good at hiding it. But I slept like a baby in full wetty gear between the three-hour watches through the night and had no problems at all. I was the only one for breakfast on Saturday morning. We do watches at three hours, and at night we have a kitchen timer so if we're on autopilot you set it to ping every 15 minutes in case you fall asleep.

We had a small problemette on Sunday soon after we found some decent wind and unfurled the screecher: the halyard snapped at the masthead, and I had to learn fast how to keep us into the wind while Ian and Stuart retrieved it and reconnected it to the spinnaker halyard instead. It was just after this that Ian was getting the new sailbags out of the forward locker and found it full of water.

We unloaded everything into the head and hand-pumped the water out into the bilge. So far so good. Stuart investigated and thought it was probably a leak into the forward watertight compartment, transferring from there into the locker. We rigged up the handpump with a length of waste hose and pumped all the water we could find out into the bilges, dried everything off and tidied up.

At around 6 on Monday morning Ian was steering us through a rather nasty
rainsquall and 20-foot seas (with which the autopilot couldn't cope) while I kept watch on the radar scope. Stuart woke up to take over, upon which Ian noticed about six inches of water swilling around in the forward cabin. At this point the forward watertight was completely full and was overflowing via the locker under the forward berth and thence out into the passage beside the head. OK, so.

Ian (who should have been going off watch then) returned to the helm while Stuart and I stripped down to shreddies and set to work. We threw everything into the head, rigged up a spare bilge pump to a length of aluminium bar, attached four sections of waste hose with gaffer tape, and wired it to one of the batteries with several feet of cable and crocodile clips. With this jury-rig we emptied an estimated 200 litres of water into the bilge. Working on the hypothesis that the leak emanated from one of the bowsprit bolts, we furled and lowered the screecher, folded it and strapped it down on the starboard trampoline. This, as you can imagine, lightened the bows considerably and made the ride somewhat less bumpy. We celebrated with a cuppa, the squall having abated by this time, and while the chaps sorted themselves out I retaped the hoses, secured the wiring and generally tidied up. What appeared to have happened is that one of the bowsprit bolts had worked loose and started a leak, exacerbated by the force of the screecher halyard break (the screecher furler being on the bowsprit). The rest of the day was exceedingly uneventful, being spent mostly on deck in the sun in
minimal clothing with the autopilot taking care of things for us.

It was Ian's birthday on Tuesday, and to celebrate he cooked a great curry after we had another day in the sun, albeit not at great speed. We even caught a dolphin fish (no relation to dolphins) on the line strung out aft, but Stuart took too long reeling it in and it escaped. We have pix to prove it, though.

Tuesday night was spent avoiding fishing boats (the first ships we'd seen since leaving Texas apart from the odd tanker or bulk carrier), and on Wednesday morning the sky was clear again and all looked good. Ish.

First, Ian noticed that the fishing line was trapped somewhere. Of course, it was the sail drive because no-one remembered to reel the line in before starting the engine when we had to do a bit of motoring to a) tack and b) charge the batteries a bit. An aside here - on a boat this size and with the distances being covered tacking happens at most once a day unless the winds are very changeable; and we have solar cells but the radar takes a fair bit of juice, and of course there's our evening movie show on the flat screen telly (Apocalypse Now last night).

Anyway, I was back on the wheel while Ian donned the snorkel and investigated the fishing line, finally disentangling and cutting it from the sail drive. During this process he noted that the bowsprit was now hanging off the bow and should probably be removed before anything else fell apart. An hour or so later the bowsprit had been removed, everything tidied, and we were back under sail and under control.

Around lunchtime we encountered small fishing boats, 50 miles off shore along the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula. The 30-footers shepherded small one-man dinghies dotted around the ocean, and we threaded our way through while the fishermen waved cheerily back at us.

Of course, life's never that simple. Ian and I were on watch that evening, and things were a bit quiet. We passed a couple of fishing boats, which turned on their lights when they saw us approaching - they were too small to register on the radar which meant we had to peer a lot through the gloom. The wind dropped and dropped, and Ian decided he needed to reef the mainsail. So I did things with winches and things while he heaved on other things, then did some steering. Only the wind wind dropped even further, necessitating starting the engine. This was going to be a challenge, because earlier we'd established that there was a problem with not only the throttle but the gear linkage, and gear changing and throttle control had to be done at the gearbox instead of the binnacle. As a precursor Ian decided we'd better drop the main altogether (we'd already dropped the jib) but were a bit hampered by the broken lazyjack, and which resulted in me steering in a tent formed by the dropped sail. And the autopilot was refusing to cooperate so I had to steer without the option. So eventually we woke Stuart as it takes two to do the mainsail in those circumstances and without the autopilot I was needed at the wheel. At around midnight we'd got sorted, but it had taken four hours altogether. I went for a bit of a lie-down.

By this time I've learned the naming of parts, can keep our head into the wind in the dark in a heavy swell, can man sheets, halyards and winches with equal facility, hauling them in the correct direction and securing everything that needs securing. And, of course, radar and other instrument interpretation and knowing when I can handle things and when to wake one of the chaps. I've been entrusted with solo watches and done three tanker encounters single-handed now - not all that difficult, and the radio officers appear all to speak English which makes things
easier. In fact, Stuart reckons that with the ocean miles I'll have done and the stuff I've had to do, I'd need only a few hours of instruction and a bit of navigation to do the RYA Coastal Yachtmaster certificate. He must be joking. The chaps were decent enough to give me lifelines longer than theirs, in fact long enough that I could stay connected to the cockpit and still get at the galley to do a brew-up. Wasn't that gallant of them?

But in between the exciting bits we've been accompanied by schools of dolphins and shoals of flying fish - I can't believe how far they can fly above the water. The occasional seabird drops in and lands on a trampoline to beg for ginger bikkies. And when there's enough wind and sun and we're sailing on autopilot we can lounge around looking at sea and sky and listening to very loud Bach organ music because the neighbours don't complain when you're 200 miles from land.

When I'm alone on watch in the middle of the night I sit in the cockpit

watching the masthead lights swinging gently against the starfield as the moon rises off the port bow; it's difficult to believe there's a whole world out there.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at December 16, 2006 10:14 PM GMT

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