North Atlantic Crossing Part 2 – Hit by a storm

Day 9 – On the way again

We also used the few hours at anchor in Bermuda to replace our spinnaker halyard in the mast, as the old one was shaved through. In addition, we were able to test our staysail with the dinghy on deck, as we might hoist it in the strong breeze forecasted for the next days. In the burning noon sun, we then cast off our lines in Bermuda with fully filled diesel and water tanks. It was so hot that we burned our naked feet on the boat’s deck. All of the few people we met during our short stay in Bermuda were incredibly friendly and accommodating. We hope that we will come here again some day to spend more time in this remote country. Other boats in a variety of sizes and shapes were in Bermuda’s harbor, a true sailor’s hotspot. Every day, boats come in after having been at least one week at sea, while others leave the protected harbor to continue their journey over the North Atlantic. You wave each other hellos and goodbyes and watch the ships go through the narrow channel. We also left at the same time as a handful of other ships, which disappeared within a few nautical miles in different directions. Soon after Bermuda’s flat outlines were swallowed by the blue horizon and we were back at sea once more. After a quiet night, we now wait for the wind to increase today. Our depth sounder displayed values of 8-12 meters again and again this morning, although more than 4000 meters of water should be below us. I like to imagine that for the short time fish or other sea creatures decide to travel with us below our keel. According to Daniel and Max it is probably just a measurement error. But then we discovered a big swarm of small fish, swimming in the shadow of Porky. Unfortunately, we often can‘t see what’s going on under the water surface, but I’m sure we sometimes have some sneaky, undiscovered fellow travelers under the keel. There are no signs of rain or strong winds yet. Maybe we are lucky and the front passes us to the Northeast.

Day 10 – A Brief encounter

Unfortunately our batteries didn‘t charge properly as the last few days the apparent wind wasn’t sufficient for our wind generator to produce enough power. The partially cloudy sky prevented our solar panels as well to provide sufficient energy for all navigation devices and the fridge. Therefore, in the evening we had to run the engine for a couple of hours while sailing. Max has used his time on watch to invent his own game, called Cheese Wiz. The creative dice/trivia game works surprisingly well and is fun to play. We have not yet gotten wet from above, but the wind is, as expected, increasing, gusting up to 30 knots, which we comfortably ride downwind under reefed genoa. Despite good speed, the boat is very unstable in the waves, which have built up with the wind. Porky gets thrown around from time to time. Everything has to be kept from sliding around or stowed properly so as not to fly from port to starboard and back. Especially cooking is a challenge and Daniel wished for a few arms more yesterday to hold on to slipping pots, ingredients and himself when he prepared dinner. Since we all sleep at different times due to the watch system, we eat breakfast separately in the morning. At noon and throughout the day we snack or cook something simple. Before some of us rest in the evening, we usually eat one warm meal all together. In the galley, the duties of cooking and dishwashing is shared among all of us and that works perfectly. With four rotating chefs and different styles of cooking, we eat very well. At night, the wind and the wave continued to pick up and we were rolling back and forth in our bunks. When a big wave hits us sideways, things start clattering in the cupboards. Even if we did not get the best sleep last night, no one has become seasick. This morning we could recognize white sails on the horizon – a sailboat in sight! Shortly thereafter, we were hailed by SV Impala, a 45 ft yawl, which has left Horta 15 days ago on the way to Bermuda. While we mainly sail with the wind, their crew had to beat into it for the majority of their journey. After short small talk on VHF, while we saw our boats passing each other, we wished farewell and shortly after Impala’s white sails disappeared in the rolling waves behind us. The waves were getting higher and higher in the morning and Porky surfed them elegantly down with a current speed record of 10.2 knots, while Tony, our wind vane, diligently brings the boat back on course at the bottom of each wave. Next we expect north winds for tomorrow and are curious what they might bring; probably cold weather…

Day 11 – Stormy night

The bikini weather seems to be over. Wearing sweaters we sat on deck yesterday eating freshly baked brownies. We expected strong southwest winds in the afternoon and at night and had only a tiny bit of headsail out. According to weather forecasts, the wind should then turn to North during the night. During my night watch, rain and thunder appeared on the radar and moved quickly towards us. But the rain did not bring Northerly winds, as expected, but the wind turned even further to South. It was immediately obvious that we are being sucked into the storm’s eye and it will not pass north of us. At the same time, the barometer fell within 45 minutes from 1008 to 1002. We were now very close to the eye of the storm. In my foul weather gear, I sat alert in the pouring rain in the cockpit. Suddenly the wind completely vanished as if someone had turned off a switch. I woke up the others and we quickly furled in the remaining headsail. The boat, without any speed, began to be knocked around on all sides from high disorganized waves. It felt like being in a washing machine. In addition, we could not see anything through the pouring rain. We turned on the engine and tried to run with the waves. It’s simpler said than done when heaven and ocean merge into dark gray infinity without any horizon visible, when you can’t open your eyes in the heavy rain and, because of the strong rocking movements, almost can’t keep on your feet. It was difficult to keep oriented. Suddenly the wind increased and we felt the rain whipping us in the back. With up to 50 knots, the wind whistled loudly through the rigging. We sailed exactly downwind with nothing more than a towel-sized headsail, which explains the detour in our track yesterday. Like every night, we were all clipped in and wore our life vests. Within a few minutes, the strong wind tore our Bimini apart, which was now flapping violently over our heads. Our solar panels could not withstand the storm either and tilted up into our wind generator, which turned so quickly that all blades broke off immediately upon impact. After an hour, the weather calmed down again and a cool wind filled in with 20-30 knots from the North and we were able to return to our course to Horta with a heavily reefed genoa. We are all well and apart from some turned over stomachs, frozen limbs and little sleep, we made it through the night. The solar panels still work and the wind generator is a lot less efficient, but also works with smaller blades. Fortunately, Porky has not taken any major damage. We simply underestimated the weather system based on the forecasts and learned to move further away from the storm’s center next time, if possible. With the prevailing fresh north wind we are now on a beam reach course in 2nd reef and try to go east as far as possible before the next calm hits us. The North Atlantic is not easy on us with its changing weather conditions, but the boat and the crew are doing great so far!

This was our first storm on the high seas. We read all the signs correctly even though the forecasts predicted much less wind, but we had never experienced Porky being tossed around unexpectedly like this by the rising waves without any wind to allow us to steer. As soon as the wind started roaring , we were stable again with a tiny headsail hoisted and could drift with the wind and waves. The course and our position was not important at that moment, riding out the storm safely was our only task. At no time during this night has anybody of us felt fear or unsafe. In retrospect, we even found we handled the situation with calmness, everyone was 100% focused, our communication (or at least what the screaming wind allowed) was short and clear, everyone knew exactly what to do. Although we had an “ah shit” moment when the bimini snapped and the solar panels tilted and shredded the wind generator’s blades in pieces, we quickly realized the damage was only minor. As soon as the wind gusts decreased, the pouring rain stopped and the boat comfortably surfed down the waves, we took care of checking and securing everything again.

Day 12 – Cold Northerlies

After the storm last night we had perfect sailing conditions in cold north wind, but sunshine and beam reaching until the evening. We also dried our soaked foul weather gear in the midday sun. From time to time squalls appeared on the horizon. But we were able to notice them early on radar and accordingly reduced our sail size in time. For several times we took in reefs and shook them out again during the day. For the night we stayed in 3rd reef for comfort. Although the wind was quite gusty, the wave evolved into large Atlantic waves that came rolling towards the boat from the side and towered next to us. Just before we expect it to break, the boat lifts up and gently lowers itself. So Porky climbed many altitude meters since yesterday up and down the waves. In the evening we were facing the back side of the low pressure system with its strong N to NNE winds that we used to make our way East on a beam reach/close-hauled course. Waves constantly splashed on Porky’s hull over the deck into the cockpit. Since it gets very cool at night, and we don’t want to get wet, especially because nothing really dries onboard, we sit under the dodger in the companionway during our night watches protected from wind and spray. From there we can watch the sails, see all the instruments and control the wind vane with a long rope. Just to adjust the rudder or sails, we have to leave the comfortable spot. After we slept without any blankets in the tropics, we now use our warm fleece blankets for the first time since Europe. It is really hard to leave the warm bed for the 3-hour night watch, but climbing back in afterward feels even better. Maybe the high pressure system approaching us today or tomorrow brings warmer weather. In any case, we expect a few days with little to no wind.

Day 13 – Halfway there

We are over halfway there, 1206 nautical miles left to Horta! We were still exhausted from the sleepless, stormy night and caught up on sleep yesterday. Since yesterday noon we sailed on a close-hauled course, that means the boat heals a lot more than before. Although the boat is very stable in the waves on a close-hauled course and it rocks less, we basically live in a world tilted by 20°. Constantly we have to counteract gravity, no matter if we are sitting, cooking, climbing through the boat or in the bathroom. Initially uncomfortable for people who are new to sailing, it requires some getting used to. Porky then glides motivated with the bow over the wave combs, sometimes followed by a rather unsmooth landing. After several crossings beating into the wind, it does not really bother us anymore and we sometimes even prefer it in settled conditions to downwind sailing. When lying in the bunk we can lean onto the leeward side and find a cozy sleeping position. Daniel built a leeboard between the two mattresses in our aft cabin, which comes in very handy now. We no longer have to fear to slide onto and squeeze the other person. First, the wind blew with up to 25 knots and then continuously decreased until the night. Every 2-3 hours, we increased our sail area until the sails started flapping at only 4 knots and we had to turn on the engine. When taking down the main sail, I discovered a gigantic brown bird poop that stretched over the entire dinghy on the foredeck and splashed all the way behind the mast. A single bird can hardly produce such huge mess alone and I wonder if it was perhaps the revenge of the two seagulls that we have caught in our fishing line. Max thinks it was a flying dinosaur, as big as the poop was. Well, the mess is now cleaned up. It’s a shame that we have caught more birds than fish so far. We still need to work on the statistics and are now trawling two lines. After the minimal damage from the storm, we can no longer align our solar panels to the sun and Turbie, the wind generator, provides less power with its shortened wings. Although we generate electricity during the day, it’s not enough to power our nightly consumption over a long period of time. That’s why it was good to let the engine charge our batteries at night. And sailing with no wind is tough anyway. The wind picked up enough in the morning that we could hoist the sails. Although we make little speed, we are happy as long as the sails do not flap and the engine remains turned off. In addition, the sun shines and it is a few degrees warmer again. This afternoon, the wind will turn south and then continue to turn southeast, on Monday even East. Based on the current weather models, we try to sail east until the wind then turns so we can tack to the Northeast towards Horta. Very likely we will see a lot of upwind sailing in the coming days. The two boats of our friends are about 180 nautical miles east and the other approx. 260 nautical miles southeast in front of us. Regularly, we exchange our coordinates and so far we seem to be able to keep a similar pace. We are curious how Porky does in the second half of the route. After we faced low pressure systems in the first half, sailing around the wandering Azores High will be the next challenge.

Day 14 – Light winds

We have been two weeks at sea now. Two tankers passed us closely yesterday. At night, we were overtaken by a large sailboat under engine during Max night watch. Since we usually get nothing else to see, apart from the blue sea and sky, it is exciting to spot other ships. We seem to sail along a main traffic route for cargo ships. Every time we see one we look at AIS, where the freighters are registered, what their next port of call is and when they plan to arrive. Thankful for the distraction and company out here we looked after them as they disappeared behind the horizon, just as fast as they appeared in the first place. Yesterday afternoon a large pod of pilot whales swam several hundred meters away from us, while we slowly sailed in light wind headed Northeast. With 6 knots true wind speed we could barely sail as the waves were very small. We ate very good yesterday and a lot. For the quesadillas for lunch and noodle casserole for dinner we used the unfortunately slightly moldy cheese (no worries, we cut that piece off) and the last bell pepper. We are astonished how long the fresh produce from the Bahamas last, especially since we couldn’t buy anything in Bermuda. We would definitely not survive on fishing alone, because yesterday only seaweed and the stinging tentacles of a Portuguese Man O’War were caught on the lures. In the evening the wind increased slightly and we were able to alter course to NNE with 2 reefs in. Before the moon rose, the sky was incredibly beautiful and the bright milky way stretched over us. Not one cloud was hiding the sparkling stars. Without any light pollution so far from any land and under the pitch-black sky, the water splashing from Porky’s bow glowed from bioluminescence. From time to time, bigger spots illuminated from either deep-sea creatures, which come to the surface at night to feed, or accumulations of plankton. This is one of the most magical moments of sailing and night watches. Without any reference points in the blue infinity, apart from our GPS devices of course, the foamy line that we leave behind the stern of the boat indicates that we are progressing. For hours we can sit in the cockpit and watch, as the water bubbles and splashes from the boat’s hull and creates a long white track behind us; some days like yesterday rather slow, today a little faster again. Daniel said that sometimes ocean sailing feels like sailing on a supersized treadmill as the progress is not visually recognizable until you reach land. The weather is nice and the mood on board is good. It can continue like this!

Day 15 – Rainy morning

We still have plenty of food on board. The cans are barely touched and apart from that we also have fresh onions, potatoes, pumpkins, still ripening plantains, eggs, a bit of cabbage and chilled vegetables left. We could live of rice, noodles, cereals and snacks alone and have enough flour for sourdough and baking bread. We definitely won’t starve; on the contrary, we are even more creative in the galley than ever. Throughout the day we sailed in the light wind with Porky’s full sails up towards East Northeast. Daniel made a large pot of soup with vegetables and Vivi baked a tasty French blueberry-egg cake. The conditions were very quiet yesterday and allowed us to move around without much effort. In the evening we like to watch the sun go down behind the horizon. From many sailors we have heard about the green flash, which supposedly is a green light appearing for a few seconds shortly after the top edge of the sun disappears behind the horizon. We have never seen it and already thought it might be a myth, until Daniel yelled yesterday loudly from deck that he finally saw it. So it really does exist! The wind became less and less at night and sometimes died completely. Again and again the engine had to be turned on for a few hours. In the morning a front brought rain, which meant a cold freshwater shower for Daniel (nobody else was awake yet). On the other side of the front, as soon as the rain stopped, the wind picked up from the south with 15 knots. In 2nd reef we now sail to the east. And the sun’s rays have fought their way through the cloud cover again. Perfect, now we can hopefully speed up on the last 1000 nautical miles to Horta!

Day 16 – Bumpy upwind ride

Yesterday was a rather uneventful, quiet day with good wind. We knew that the crossing over the North Atlantic can offer many different weather conditions, but we wouldn‘t have thought that we had to tack upwind for over a week on the last stretch. But that’s how it is and so far we make ok speed against wind and waves. As long as we have wind, we don‘t complain. And we can not change the forces of nature anyway. Yesterday we considered how similar and yet different the life of an space astronaut is compared to the life of a sailor on the ocean. We found some interesting parallels between a sail boat and a spaceship and how both have to cope with any conditions far away from land and civilization. In both scenarios, one goes into one for humans not habitable, even deadly, environment and is fully dependent on the ship, whether floating on water or weightlessly in space, to survive. We find an ocean crossing would be a suitable space training with the great advantage of being able to breath and not to be exposed to extreme temperatures. Very fitting to these thoughts, a huge object (presumably space trash) fell from the sky during the night and lit the entire boat in a bright green for a few seconds. It looked like a huge, too heavy, green shooting star, which fell perpendicularly. We start to dream with anticipation of restaurants, especially European food and showers and are getting more and more curious what the Azores are going to be like. Against wind and wave, we continued to move to ENE today, which is a bumpy upwind ride. Suddenly a big octopus appeared right next to our boat and we drove slowly past it. The approximately 1 meter big animal was drifting at the surface and we assumed it was dead. Again, we have gotten a little glimpse at what mysterious life forms are hiding in the deep sea, which extends up to 5,000 meters below us, while we can barely see through the water surface from the boat.

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