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September '04: Transfer I - Channel and Atlantic Ocean

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On August 15th Wieland and Herbert arrive in Southampton. We know Wieland very well and he was one of the triggers that actually started this project. He has a lot of experience in sailing (some thousand miles) through many different charter holidays around the world. Herbert has no open sea certificate but has some experience as he went on some sailing holiday trips himself. It should be no problem for the three of us to do this first passage even though it will be the longest passage on open water. Our planned course is to go from Southampton direction west. On 10° West we go direction south to Spain and Portugal. The return flights for Wieland and Herbert are booked from Palma de Mallorca. Will we be able to make it in two weeks? Well, we should make it at least to Gibraltar.

Our departure from Southampton takes place on a grey, rainy day on August 16th. Right at the beginning we realized that we cannot leave the dinghy on the foredeck between mast and anchor winch. We can hardly see forward from the relatively deep lying cockpit! In our oilies (heavy weather cloths) we balance the dinghy back to the aft deck, where it will not bother us at all.

We realize quickly that the Amel Maramu is a good-natured and cosy sailing boat. Under engine we do not go very fast. Did the previous owner save on the selection of the new engine maybe? Original there was a 60PS Perkins engine. We found a completely new Nanni engine but with its 42PS it is not the strongest. However we figure that it is sufficient and we do not want to win a rally anyway!

Now we can finally try and test all instruments. The speed indication does not function correctly, despite thorough cleaning it indicates always less than actually true. We can live with this as the GPS shows us the speed over ground. Right at the beginning we also practice the interpretation of the weather radar. It does not only show weather (to be precise only precipitation zones) but also helps in navigation along the coast by displaying the exact distance to the shore and to other larger vessels. To our astonishment we realize that all instruments are properly wired with each other. That way they are able to ‘talk’ to one another i.e. exchanging data. For example we are able to move a special mark to an echo (another ship) on the radar screen and get immediately its position and the time it will take us till we would be there with our present speed. Or on the GPS a direct course can be set to an entered waypoint. The connected autopilot can be locked on this course and keeps it, independently of wind and current (obviously only under engine, otherwise the positions of our sails could become a problem).

On the first afternoon we have a first drawback: due to the fast changing and very strong current from the side we collide with a cardinal ton (large metal buoy which mark shallow areas). The crew gets away with a fright! Immediate inspection of the hull is surprising: mid ships I can only recognize some long scratch marks, only about 3mm in depth. It seems that the hull has no deformations. Inside the picture shows more damage: exactly at the point of impact the wooden crossframe crushed by about 2-3cm. However, since no real structural damage can be recognized we decide to continue. Of course we keep a very close eye on the area of impact.

Now we are in the English Channel and the weather gets worse. Again and again small thunderstorm cells with rain showers fly across the sea which hit us. Nevertheless between them we have some dry moments, even occasional sunshine. The longer the more we also feel the heavy swell from the Atlantic Ocean. Herbert doesn’t cope very well with these waves. He spends large parts of the further journey in his cabin beside a bucket and lives through all facets of seasickness.

Wieland and I slowly realize that we hardly make any miles fighting against the weather, wind and the swell. Only the current from the aft helps us every six hours to progress on our journey. On VHF radio we hear again and again of gust warnings. However these are referred to the coastal areas and 12 nautical miles offshore. We are far outside of this region, but will these winds not hit us as well? To be prepared we fix the second forestay and hook on the storm jib. If it should become really heavy we are ready to cope.

The wind gets stronger and stronger and we fight ourselves through wind forces up to 7Bf (seven Beaufort equals to about 60km/h), within gusts even more. A look on the chart which shows our way we’ve done so far does not encourage us at all. On the evening of the third day we are only south of Lands End (approx. 6°W) and the weather forecast does not really please us as all: one small low pressure area is coming from the west after another. August 19th at 2100 I decide to make a change in plans and to proceed to Brest for a break. This will give us the possibility to get new large area weather forecast and catch up on some rest. Since Herbert is not able to do his part of the watch, Wieland and I share the duty between the two of us which is quite exhausting with this weather. The wind vane steering system which does the steering under sails unfortunately broke during a maneuver in a strong gust. Now we also have to helm the boat manually (the electrical autopilot consumes quite some power and can only be used with running engine).

Even if this decision is a drawback, we all know that it’s the best one. Nevertheless these first days showed us how seaworthy our MELMAR Y is and that we can trust her completely. The winds can’t harm ‘our old lady’ (quote from Wieland) and even if we have to fight against the waves again and again she cuts them relatively smooth (which with charter boats is usually not the case at all). Available space and nearly everywhere ‘standing height’ offers a good comfort for living aboard. Even if the weather and/or the sea are rough. Concerning speed however, I have to revise my whole planning completely! If the weather (wind and waves) is not with us, we hardly progress on our way.

After the change of plans it still takes us about 24 hours till we land in Brest. But with the outlook to some hard solid ground the seasickness of Herbert calms down a bit and he is able to come adeck to breathe fresh air. Just before the shore line we enjoy a whole school of dolphins which join us for a short time playing around our bow. For me this is a good sign that we took the right decision.

After our arrival in Brest we all fall into a deep long sleep. The next morning we get new weather data in an internet café. These show a huge low pressure area which moves slowly on a north easterly course towards England. Ideally we’d take now its south and later its south west side to sail on a westerly course. Thereafter we turn to the south. We figure that it doesn’t make sense to wait for other weather and decide to leave the same evening – we still want to get somewhere during these two weeks! We are still sufficiently provisioned, we just buy a few new shackles and rolls to replace the broken ones.

The date shows already August 21st and Wieland and Herbert have to be at Vienna latest beginning of September – work and office call. How far will we three guys get? My crew organization afterwards is kind of vaguely, I still have no fixed promises.

We start again around 11pm. With quite good weather we sail and motor out direction west. Later during the night Wieland wakes me up: “Marc, come and have a look, we have some very strange echoes on our radar. We can’t see anything outside, it’s pitch dark.” Normally the echoes on the radar screen are oval or round small spots. This time however we see some kind of a rectangular echo, relatively large. We check our position: there shouldn’t be anything, we are in the ‘midst’ of the Biscay! We can’t explain it. (Only much later I found out that this is a special code from radar receiver station – a reply-signal. Such stations are normally marked on our charts which highly simplify navigation / orientation.) Only shortly thereafter we repeatedly hear a station on the radio called ‘Ocean Safety’. In French or English they call different ships and after a while also us (by our position). They ask us about our ship, crew and what we’re up to. Because I don’t know whom we are talking to I ask them in return to identify themselves. Only after a pause they wish us a good night. What was that? Has the special radar echo something to do with it? Finally we assume that some radio operators of the French NAVY were bored…

We sail through the Biscay first direction West and more and more to the North. The weather changes all the time, the swell becomes quite strong from time to time – unfortunately this is again too much for Herbert. Despite the short recovery in Brest he spends again his time in bed next to ‘his’ bucket. However, under sails we progress on our way using the large low pressure area. When we sail only to the North anymore, we turn around and set course to the Northwest tip of the Iberian Peninsula (Cap Finisterre). On this southbound leg about 200 nautical miles offshore we pass a big buoy – basically in the middle of nowhere (just imagine the chain of the buoy at a depth of about 6000ft!!). Just in the same area we believe to see a small island. But it turns out that this is a tug and tow. By radio we chat with the Dutch guys (they bring 20’000 tons of Norwegian granite rock to the Azores) and get a weather update.

The more we approach the Iberian Peninsula, the warmer it gets. We all enjoy the better weather and even Herbert starts to get well slowly. Several times we see dolphins and we even cross a small group of medium sized whales.

Since Wieland and Herbert have soon to return home, we decide to stop at La Coruña (Spain). From that point it should be easy to organize new flights. August 25th, just after midnight under highest concentration we approach the coast and enter the harbor – all the ‘civilization lights’ do not really help in finding the important navigation lights!

Whow, a large part is done! Instead of the about 650 nautical miles on a direct line we needed almost 1000 miles (over ground) and my time plans are also screwed up. But from now on the route will be along the coasts (except for one other part). Also it will not be necessary anymore to do 24-hour shifts – only if I want to save time of course.

After a night rest in almost unknown peace (barely no rocking of the boat and an almost frightening silence) Wieland and Herbert organize their return travel. The next cheap flight departs on the next day from Allicante – they take it easy and drive by rental car across Spain!

Since I couldn’t continue to organize my next crew I have now nobody. Melanie will be my next help, but only in two weeks time. What should I do till then? Take someone from ‘the street’? Wait? Or even continue by myself? I don’t like to sail with some complete strangers. It wouldn’t be the first time that a boat returns without his owner… The weather will not be a factor since a huge high pressure area spreads itself from the Azores all the way to Switzerland (most probably with not too much of wind as well). The study of the coastal areas shows that there are many marinas (ports) to stay overnight. And after all MELMAR Y should be transferred in due time! I decide to start alone. If it gets too hard for me, I could just wait in one of the marinas for Melanie.

After cleaning the whole boat, reprovisioning a few items and last but not least another famous ‘ratione de pulpo’ (tenderly cooked squid on Spanish olive oil) I start all alone on the 27th just before midnight. As expected there is barely any wind, I motor around Cap Finisterre with a good distance to the shoreline.

Just this first night or to be more precise early in the morning I have one of the most beautiful experiences of the whole transfer. It’s pitch dark, my navigational lights and steaming light (white light on my mast to indicate the vessel is running under machine) are the only lights around. Suddenly I hear splashes – dolphins?! Having a hard look I see a trail of light under water. What’s that?? Slowly I recognize dolphins which by their fast movement energize fluorescent microorganisms. All together this results in these light trails. Overwhelmed by this phenomena I sit several hours on the bow and observe the dolphins playing in my bow wave. Suddenly one light trail follows a smaller one – hunters and chase. I take these ‘glowing dolphins’ as a good sign for my solo travel – Neptun seems to have a good cast of mind.

I realize quite soon that this kind of travel is no problem to do alone: only good weather and all under engine. From time to time I haul up the genoa and mizzen sails to slightly increase my speed. There is too less wind to really sail but the two sails support a bit and I get about one knot more on my travel speed – nevertheless a gain of about 20-25%! Also the manoeuvres at the marinas are no problem without wind (it seems that the skipper training with the never-ending manoeuvres in Palma pays off!). Very soon I realize that in two weeks I will be able to do a good distance until Melanie comes aboard. Wieland which follows my journey closely by SMS (text messages by mobile) is quite astonished as well.

Always with a good distance to the shoreline (I carry only an overview chart on board – no detailed coastal maps) I proceed towards the South: Portosin, Bayona, Varzim (Portugal), Figuera da Foz, Nazaré, Cascais, Villamoura, Barbate (again Spain) to name a few. Because I can’t stay up all the time I stay every night in a marina. Only two times after the rounding of Cap Finisterre I stay awake for 24 hours to take some shortcuts.

The weather remains beautiful for the whole route along the Atlantic Ocean (the gigantic high pressure area stretches all the way to Switzerland). Sunshine, comfortable warm temperatures, from time to time it even gets hot. Since I wear always long trousers and a t-shirt it’s even hotter. But I can not stand the thought to accidentally fall overboard and have no-one aboard to turn around for me. Therefore I always carry a handheld radio in my pocket and wear the life jacket nonstop. This way I hope that at least I had a chance to survive.

September 7th, proceeding towards the South I see unexpectedly mountains ahead. Mountains?? There mustn’t be any mountains in this direction…

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