We never intended to race. But as we set off on the first leg of the ARC Europe rally, we could not resist the challenge of a good start. Over two dozen boats eager to cross a short line between a committee boat and an orange buoy at the sound of a horn was sure to be exciting!
So we came out of the marina early and picked the best angle; one that would give us right of way and put us at the right place at the right time. Sure enough, our calculations proved to be right and as you can see above and on Andrea’s face, we went out front and center!
Of course, our conservative choice of sails and an autopilot issue soon placed us in the middle of the pack but unlike other more aggressive participants we made landfall with our rig and sails intact.
Watch this video to see the start in real time and get a sense of what life was like aboard Can Drac during this leg.
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Meet crewmate Bill
What does it take to go offshore for days on end with a married couple you barely know? It takes an appetite for adventure, tons of patience and a big sense of humor. And those are things Bill has plenty of! Poor man didn’t know what he was getting into; spending his birthday away from friends and family and in the middle of the miserable weather we had on our first day out. But hey, he seems to want to keep going so we still have a full crew after 5.5 days and 850 miles at sea!
In the skipper’s words: Bermuda Triangle or simple logic?
The muscles in my arms were starting to hurt. Both hands on the wheel, trying to keep the boat straight in 25knots of wind with big swells on the beam was beginning to take a toll. Perhaps it was because I’d been at the wheel for hours. But all I could think was one thing: should we turn back? is this it? so many months preparing for this transatlantic rally and right there, on our first day, the thought of abandoning was haunting me.
The reason was simple: the autopilot was incapable of keeping a straight course. Every time we set it, the boat slowly turned to port and never came back.
The prospect of hand steering non-stop for six days was a daunting one, even for the three of us. Yet, neither Andrea nor Bill ever brought up the possibility of abandoning, despite still being close to land where the issue could be fixed. I knew they both had faith in our ability to sort it out underway. So I set aside all thoughts about abandoning and got to work on the problem.
After hours of sifting through all the manuals and trying different ideas we were clearly going nowhere fast. And then we had a Eureka moment. Earlier in the day we had noticed that the chart plotter was showing us pointing a few degrees in the wrong direction. We had already adjusted for it by recalibrating the system but we had never found the cause.
Now that the autopilot was also failing we knew it had to be related. That's what lead us to the autopilot's own compass which we knew was hidden away somewhere.
But where was it?
Well, that turned out to be the key that solved the mystery. As soon as we traced the cables from the autopilot we realized what was happening. It turns out that this sensitive piece of equipment is installed inside the closet in the aft cabin that we usually use for gear storage.
But we had just turned that into Bill's cabin and in an effort to make it comfortable for him, we had placed a large electric fan on top of the cabinet. Of course, as soon as we moved the fan away from the compass, all our autopilot problems went away. Apparently, the electric motor inside was acting as a magnet confusing the autopilot's compass enough to throw us off course. Sorry, Bill! No fan for you on this trip!
After the drama with the autopilot ended and Can Drac finally stayed on course, we got into the offshore rhythm and days started to go by easy.
The sailing was uncomfortable at first but as the wind and waves eased and we finally got our sea legs, the motion became more tolerable. At night the full moon helped our visibility, but not that of the ever-present flying fish that keep crashing into us at night! Luckily, this time they stayed away from our faces hitting only the window of the dodger or just plain flying over our heads.
Our watches began shortly after sunset, starting with Franc, who stayed up until 11pm. Then Bill and Andrea took over for 3 hours each until Franc returned for a second watch before sunrise. At 8am we would take our position and report it to rally control via satellite and to the fleet via radio. Then we would set our fishing line and do our best to enjoy the day underway.
Of course, it’s when you most need fresh fish that you don’t get any, and when you least expect it that you catch something. After a month in the Virgin Islands with a useless fishing permit we were craving mahi-mahis like never before. Instead, we found a sea full of Sargasso weed and no fish.
What we did see was an interesting kind of jellyfish called Portuguese Man-o-war that looks like a blown up plastic bag floating with the wind.
What appears to be plastic is actually a natural sail that allows them to move on a broad reach instead of simply downwind. Despite their beauty, however, these innocent looking creatures pack a deadly sting that is best avoided. As you can imagine, any thought of swimming was quickly discarded by all on board.
Lacking access to fresh fish we had no choice but to resort to chicken, sausages, pasta and other stores.
Cooking under way wasn’t always comfortable or easy but we got by. It was hard to properly celebrate a birthday and a wedding anniversary at sea but we made sure we had a big dinner as soon as we set foot on dry land.
Once the waves of the first two days subsided we kept ourselves entertained by doing lots of reading. We also took the opportunity to try our new spinnaker in light airs. The test was a success and now we have one more tool to tackle the North Atlantic during our upcoming crossing.
Breakage, emergencies and other dramas
During this first leg, three boats participating in our rally had to return to Tortola: two due to gear failure and the other due to a medical emergency. But it wasn’t until we received a call from our friends on s/v Private Affair that we realized how easy it is to get into trouble at sea. They were motoring just a few miles ahead of us when a fishing net got caught on their propeller. They were 400 miles from land, drifting without wind and with a dead engine so they called us to make sure we stood by while they attempted to sort out the problem.
We immediately deviated from our course and approached them but by the time we got there it was clear that the only way to solve the issue was with the use of diving bottles, which we didn’t have. Fortunately, s/v Quasar was also close by and had a diver on board with all the necessary equipment. It was a heroic mission of quick underwater work by an experienced crew that certainly knew what they were doing so all we could do was stay close until Private Affair was free.
Aside from the autopilot incident, we only had one brief moment of near panic. It all started when Andrea uttered the words that put all offshore sailors on their toes: “Honey, there is water over the floorboards on the cabin sole”. Fortunately, it was only a trickle and once we traced it we found it came from one of our reserve fresh water jugs.
Arriving in Bermuda
After several pleasant days at sea, approaching Bermuda felt more like a drag than a relief. The sky turned gray, we hit some rain and the wind got cold and turned on our nose, as if pushing us away. No wonder their most popular drink is called Dark & Stormy! Fortunately, Andrea was able to prepare a warm meal that made our night approach more bearable.
We have to admit we were actually tempted to veer East and keep going to the Azores but we knew it would be a mistake. We would have missed the charm of what we now call Sunny England. St George’s Harbour, where we are currently moored looks like a small English town on a sunny tropical island, something we haven’t seen in any of the British islands we’ve seen so far.
Thanks to the recommendation from SeaKnots member and Sailforwater sponsor Dan from s/v Another Miracle we were fortunate to have Sandra, Mark and Francis from Bermuda Yacht Services make us feel at home on their floating dock. It was there that we first attempted a med mooring using our own anchor and we’re very proud to say we did it on our first try!. Special thanks goes to Francis and his guidance from the dock. We were also very lucky to be there because they went far out of their way to make a last minute warranty rudder reinforcement on Can Drac. If it wasn't for Bruce at Winters Sailing Center and the guys at Bremuda Yacht Services we would be facing a delay on the start of Leg 2.
Our stay in Bermuda was full of fun activities organized by Fionn and Olie from Rally Control: from a fish fry and rum tasting to a visit to Bermuda Harbour Radio (the island’s vessel traffic control and rescue coordination center). Additionally, a special highlight for us was briefly meeting up with Hank Schmitt from Offshore Passage Opportunities, who was also in the harbor on his Swan called Avocation. He was not only the one who introduced us to crew mate Bill, but also one of our first Sailforwater.com sponsors and for that we’ll always be grateful.
Andrea wins an award for Saildforwater.com
During our stay in Bermuda, our last stop this side of the Atlantic, Andrea took the time to fly back to New York to pick up an award for her efforts with Sail For Water. This was awarded by the mayor of the town of Aberdeen during “Women’s History Month” to women who make extraordinary contributions to society. We thank all of you who sponsored our cause because you are the ones making this project a success.
During her visit to Aberdeen she was asked to address the students of Mattawan High School so she played some charity:water videos and explained our project. She was particularly impressed by the depth of the many questions she was asked. Of course, she was also able to squeeze in some quality time to get together with her loving family one more time before the big passage.
Ready for the Atlantic crossing
The time has come. There is no turning back, now. Tomorrow we leave on what will be our longest sail for a very long time. We’ll start on one side of the Atlantic Ocean and hopefully end on the other. Close to 2,000 miles and about two weeks separate us from our goal. We are ready and excited and want to share it with you day by day. That’s why we plan to send a brief e-mail every day to each and every one of you who has contributed to our cause.
Now you can also send us brief messages (150 characters only) for free while we are at sea by emailing email@example.com
And if you want to follow our progress over the water, our position will be updated daily at http://www.worldcruising.com/arceurope/viewer.aspx