Four men in a boat

We crossed the finish line in Rio a week ago today, and if there is a prize for the most chaotic crossing of the line at the prize giving tomorrow, we are surely the form contenders. (We should also get a prize for the biggest fish caught en route, at least as far as we’re concerned).

That last day had, as expected, been characterized by fluky, light, and variable winds. Four boats were finishing within hours of each other – us, and three boats from the second start: Gryphon, who had suffered a rudder failure a day earlier following a broach and who had managed to make a temporary rudder out of washboards and a spinnaker pole; Saravah and Mercenario 4, from Brazil and Argentina respectively.

Saravah was gaining on us mile on mile, and we were eking every bit of speed out of Sophie B with our big asymmetric bag. As we started ducking through the islands at the entrance to Guanabara Bay, the wind picked up nicely and Sophie B dug her shoulder in as we powered to the line. A glorious ending was assured….

Sadly, that did not transpire.

First, we mistook the island that marked one end of the line. No great deal, as the course adjustment was marginal. But as we got closer and closer to the line – close enough for the race photographer to take some stunning pictures of us in full flight  – the wind shifted by 90 degrees, rendering the asymm useless and counterproductive.

With not even enough momentum to carry us the last 20m, we had to drop the asymm, and try to unfurl enough of the genoa, while Saravah – having seen our problems and having changed sails earlier – bore down behind us, with a whole flotilla of Brazilian boats welcoming her home, complete with fireworks.

Mayhem. Chaos. The asymm, having fallen neatly every drop over the last few weeks, went overboard. The genoa, only meant to be unfurled to a handkerchief to get us over the line, unfurled completely. Ollie and Harry, who were on the foredeck, both nearly went for a prematurely celebratory swim…. Hardly the ending we had hoped for!


But as we crossed we were given six ice cold beers and a bottle of bubbly by one of the support boats. Ice cold beer! Wow.


After mooring near the yacht club, we tidied the boat and went ashore for more beer and food. And caipirinhas. Lots of caipirinhas.

whatsapp-image-2017-01-23-at-17-08-01Two days in Rio followed, punctuated by frequent beers and caipirinhas. Our first showers in three weeks. A trip to the laundry. And all the other boats’ stories – a lesson in the silliness of ceteris paribus counterfactual reasoning : every boat had had dramas at least as debilitating as our broken pole.

We spent three days on Ilha Grande, about 100 km West of Rio which was idyllic, anchoring in little coves and swimming, and paddling Sophie C (our 40 year old 2-man Avon tender) to shore for more caipirinhas than the surgeon general may deem conducive to good health.

We relaxed to the point of being incapable of making decisions (move to another cove? Stay put? Eat? ) but sleep has often proved elusive. A combination of the muggy heat (yachts are not at their coolest when at anchor) and weeks of broken sleep. We all wake up multiple times in the night, finding each other on the deck at odd hours of the morning trying to cool down.

img_20170124_121158We returned to Rio yesterday, mooring at the Marina da Gloria, a desolate wasteland of a white elephant, perhaps from the Olympics. Leaving Ilha Grande for Rio yesterday, someone commented that this was the first time on this voyage that we were going back to something – the first indicator that the trip was nearing its end. So true.

whatsapp-image-2017-01-24-at-15-21-21And we’d never really discussed how this trip would be brought to its conclusion. We knew we had to hand the boat over to Jan. We have all been struggling to sleep. But no firm plans had been made until yesterday afternoon when it became clear that we were going to leave the boat soon.

whatsapp-image-2017-01-24-at-15-28-17This morning, after an early start before the heat set in, we unpacked and repacked the boat, emptying her of our shared lives of the past month. For breakfast, we drank the bubbly we were given at the finish line with orange juice. We packed our own pathetically small carry-on bags.

And with more than a tinge of emotion, we handed Sophie B over to her delivery skipper for her trip back to Cape Town and scattered ourselves across hotels across the city. And, poof, just like that the camaraderie of the last few weeks came to an end. Not with any animosity, or bad feelings – just the clear understanding that this journey is at an end.

And what a journey it’s been. Since arriving and reconnecting with the world outside our little ship, we have been astounded at the interest shown in the banalities of our voyage. We are humbled beyond belief, by the cries of exhortation, by the care and concern shown by so many. To everyone who has shared our journey, thank you.

And now for the sentimental part. It’s been the trip of a lifetime. Literally, a dream come true. That we have ended up coming second in our class, both across the line and on handicap, is an unexpected bonus. Winning was not our primary goal. But we have made it across an ocean, two brothers and two others, with remarkable equanimity. The occasions when cross words were spoken were incredibly few.

whatsapp-image-2017-01-23-at-17-08-02And it really does come down to that. A story of four men in a boat. Four with a shared love of sailing and the sea, but very different on so many other levels. Would I sail with the same crew again, on the same voyage? Hell yes. And there can be no greater compliment.

As skipper, Harry’s obsession with the safety of the boat and her crew got us here in one piece, with comparatively minor breakages. Petri brought a load of much needed sailing experience, as did Ollie. I have learned more about sailing in these weeks from the two of them than in an entire lifetime.

Ollie’s provisioning and pizza; Petri’s formidable engineering skills. I did what I could to navigate us across an ocean and the vicissitudes of its weather. A better suite of complementary skills and personalities would be hard to marshal.

Will there be another journey? I don’t know. I would love to continue with a hobby of offshore racing; the Mossel Bay Race; the Governor’s Cup; another C2R campaign. We need to decide on Sophie B’s future. Things will become clear.

In the 1980s, before adopting some utterly crazy social views, Michelle Shocked sang that “the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go”. It is nice to fantasize about a life, itinerant, cruising verdant islands. But too much is lost and put on hold: despite the inherent madness of a household of three kids between the ages of four and fourteen, and a wife in medical school, a month is a long time to be away from one’s family. My trip has burdened them.

And I miss Kathryn and the kids too much.

It’s time to go.


Same ship, different day

The sea is still both insanely blue, and hot (33 degrees in the puddle yesterday afternoon). The flying fish are still flying and committing suicide on the deck each night. The daily routines of sailing and watch-keeping, meal preparation, boat cleaning are all familiar to all of us. To a degree.


Two of us are incapable of keeping track of boat time (one hour behind UTC, and UTC), leading to the others being woken an hour earlier than required for their watches. On coming down to wake the next watch, Petri finds both Ollie and Tom getting dressed and prepped for duty. “It’s like a railway station down there, ” he remarks drolly to Harry.


Harry has been trying to hone his celestial navigation skills. He is inordinately proud of having got his estimate of longitude correct to within a few miles, until it is pointed out that all that requires is the ability to tell the time (OK, so half the boat struggles with that) and to perform simple mental arithmetic.

On the matter of latitude, things are not nearly so peachy. But if this was still the Cape to Uruguay, we’d surely be in the lead. At least on paper.

Today is our last day out of contact with civilisation. Tomorrow we skirt around the area on the chart “ATBA – Area to be Avoided”. One wishes hand-drawn dragons and sea monsters on the chart but, no, this is the focal point of Brazilian oil-drilling efforts. I’m curious to see it. Others have described a rather dystopian scene of the rigs burning excess gas in the dark.

By Thursday, we should make landfall at Cabo Frio, before we start the most challenging part of the race – the part between there and Rio. In this section winds are notoriously light and fickle. Boats have been known to become becalmed for days literally in sight of the finish line. We consult our weather predictions with the same desperate desire as those in the past who believed soothsayers and auguries.

And we are really missing our spinnaker pole. Petri has fashioned a third out of the remnants of the two previous breakages, and while excellent for poleing out the foresail headed dead downwind, as we have been now for days – why do the forecasts lie? – it is now over a meter shorter than it was when we left Cape Town. Too short to fly a spinnaker, sadly.

So we continue to lose ground to Avanti (they are going to beat us by around 180 miles, or 7-8 miles per day. Some of that is due to our spinnaker problems (but all credit to them for sailing an excellent race – I suspect we would have been beaten by them regardless) and trying to fend off the two boats, JML Rotary Scout and Bolero, snapping at our heels… We are close to the end but the hard sailing may be yet to come.

And our arrival, hopefully on Thursday evening or Friday morning, will be timed perfectly: our stock of beer runs out on Thursday afternoon. Rio had better have a large supply of cold ones.

Flying into Rio

Last night saw our distance to go fall below 1 000 nautical miles. Our nose is pointed firmly at Rio, and chances are that we will be there within the week – somewhere between Thursday and Saturday seems most likely.

The mood on the boat changes subtly by the day. There is a term for it, not quite Stockholm Syndrome (but earlier post on Dr Google applies). As we get closer to our destination, two conflicting processes are at work.


The first is the obvious mad dash to the finish, although the end is not quite literally in sight. We talk about Rio, what we are going to do, the caipirinhas we are going to drink.

The second is subtler – a vague unease at the approaching end of the trip. The “real” world also starts to impinge, manifest in conversations about what some of us are planning next with our lives. I’m sure that Dr Google will inform us of the term for nostalgia for things not quite yet in the past….

But there are curveballs too. Today’s weather looked like nothing our most-reliable models told us was in store. Instead of trending calms and light winds, we have instead found ourselves slap in the middle of a squall line, with the heaviest weather we have had to contend with so far: winds up to the low 30s (around 60 km/h) and big and messy seas. But these storm clouds do have silver linings – the winds are propelling us in the fastest possible way towards the finish.

And they do seem to be localized. Avanti, the boat that will in all likelihood beat us into second position to the finish and on handicap is some 160 miles (roughly a day’s sailing) ahead of us. At the time of writing, she was making 2 knots towards Rio. We were making 9.

But even we are no longer sure that that’s entirely a good thing.

A beautiful fish

We take turns holding the gaff, kneeling  on the aft cockpit bench with arms extended outboard between the backstay, tracking device, and the cords which tie down the sunshade.

The enormous fish thrashes about on the other end of the gaff, its head held  just above the water surface. It is a violent, intimate death. And it is protracted, taking perhaps 5 minutes to die from when it was gaffed.

Once we are sure it is dead, we loop a line around its midriff and hoist it with some difficulty into the cockpit. It is enormous, 1.9m in length (excluding the tail) and perhaps 40 or 50 kg. It is clearly too big for our needs. Marlin? Sailfish? Swordfish? We hazard guesses but none of us know for sure.

We send a picture to Jacques and ask him to  identify it. We also request him not to share the picture on social media yet.  The response comes back – swordfish, Sassi orange.


We cut two huge fillets from the fish. Skin them, divide them and place them in four ziplock bags. It is enough fish for 5 or 6 big meals for the four of us. It is all we could possibly eat.


The rest of the carcass is dropped over the side with some mumbled words. We are acutely aware of the waste. Something will eat the rest of it, we reassure each other.

We felt no elation, nor sense of achievement, in catching the swordfish. Instead we were all a little uncomfortable, possibly disturbed,  by the death of an incredible creature and the waste.


We had sashimi with our sundowners and swordfish steaks for dinner that night. Last night we had ceviche. We will eat well for days. The rod and reel have been stowed. Our fishing is over.


Squalls and wind-spikes

Spot the wind spike that finally broke our spinnaker pole completely, bending the inserted stainless steel pole that we had previously used to repair it.

Early this morning, a squall saw the wind increase from a steady 15 knots to a peak in the high 20s minutes later.

We are now forced to take the big ballsy move that we mentioned a few days later, as without a spinnaker we simply cannot sail the deep downwind angles the conventional strategy requires. If you are following us on the race tracker (as you should!) the effects on our course are patently obvious.


The (long) home run

We have just hit peak Northiness, 20 degrees and a little bit south of the equator. Twenty minutes ago we put in a gybe so we catch the Easterly trades on our port (left) side, and this is quite possibly how things may stay all the way to Rio. We are likely to stay deep in the trades for another two days before decisively pointing the bow toward Cabo Frio, the usual landfall on this route.

The next few days will be interesting. While I’ll be sad to leave the bath-hot royal blue sea (30+ degrees today in the pool), it will be good to see other life forms again. We haven’t seen a bird since a few days out from Cape Town, and other than that one Dorado and despite experiments with lures and lines, have caught nothing.

Also, nearing the Brazilian Coast are enormous oil fields, marked ‘to be avoided’, that competitors in previous races have described with awe.  And in the stretch between Trinidade (which we will leave on our right hand side but likely too far to see) and Cabo Frio, we will get some quite heavy winds. Which, may be some kind of relief. The trades have been rather weak – around 10-12 knots,  not the 15-16 we anticipated. And those five missing knots make a huge difference to our speed. (And have also resulted in us about to suffer an imminent wine crisis!)

Last night, just before diving into Ollie’s Best Boat Pizza Ever (think Col’cacchio’s ‘carne’ but oh so much better) I downloaded the weather forecast as per usual and fed it into the routing software on my tablet (shout out to sailgrib, an awesome app for Android-using sailors – worth every cent, and more).

What came out can only be described as a Big Balsy Move – turn immediately and make for Rio. We discussed this as the crew last night and decided that while we could see that the machine was trying to get us to do different, too many horror stories of promised winds not materialising with  consequent becalming meant that we should not take the risk of a solid second place. Are we a boat for which winning is the only and every thing? The answer is no. And that is the way we all want it to be.

The not-so-high life on the high seas

While this voyage has been fantastic, and everything I had hoped it would be, it may help you to understand our lives on Sophie B if I related the events and activities of today…

Midnight to 12:40 a.m.: Fitful rest, having stood down from a watch at 11 pm.
12:40: Alarm goes off – up time! Off one’s bunk again. Pillow and fleece blanket stowed away – there is not enough place for everyone’s clobber to be left lying around. Waterproof trousers and jacket on. PFD on. Torch and gloves found. Just enough time to make and drink a cup of instant coffee before heading into a half-moon lit seascape.

Someone is helming. I can’t remember who was supposed to be on duty, and it’s too dark to recognize him. “Top o’ the morning to you,” I grumble. The response confirms the other’s identity. I crawl across the bridge deck, flop onto the cushions in the cockpit and instinctively reach for a clipping-on point. “What’s up?”. “Same as two hours ago. Getting a little calmer. Wind 12, gusting 18. Try to hold 305“.

And that’s all one actually needs to know. For the next two hours, he and I alternate 30 minutes at the helm in the red loom of the compass light and the softer yellow lights of the speed and wind dials.


When not actually helming, one looks out for traffic, makes minor adjustments to the sail settings, stares at the stars – many are familiar if unnamed, having been used as navigation markers on previous nights. One might go and sit at the navigation table and complete the ship’s log, stare at the GPS plotter, make more coffee. I must make sure my fellow watchkeeper’s replacement is awake and ready by 3.

0240: The versicle-and-response above is repeated as my fellow keeper is replaced. Nothing changes.

0340: My replacement is now getting ready. In 20 minutes time, I’ll be able to go below, unpack pillow and fleece, get out of my deck wear, and crash. With any luck, I’ll get 3 and a bit hours undisturbed rest.

0530: No. Not tonight. A squall is approaching – we’re in the tropics after all. Sails must be brought down, the boat made secure. Taking spinnakers down (and raising them again) requires all four crew. We know that the boat’s safety is more important than our sleep and everyone accepts that these interruptions are part of the package.

Being the most asleep, I’m the last one on deck. Preparations to drop the lightweight spinnaker are far advanced. I haven’t managed to pull my shoes or gloves on, but go forward on the dew-wet deck in a pre-dawn greyness, wearing socks, shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Sartorial concerns are not high on our priority list: a running thread of commentary is on who has changed a shirt recently…

0600: The sail comes down. The genoa is unfurled. We wait for the squall to hit. Finally it does, sluicing down for 15 minutes. Other than the helm, the other two hunker below. I grab a towel and shampoo and head for the foredeck for a first proper wash in 12 days.

Soaked but warm, and now down to shorts, I wait out the rest of the squall in the cockpit. Somewhere in this I grab breakfast of a bowl of plain yoghurt with honey, and an orange. I can’t remember when I ate them.

We raise the spinnaker. I go below to file our daily position report, and to record the few items of data that we send with that to help forecasters with their weather predictions. I just about finish washing up breakfast bowls (it’s my day for that, says the roster. Later tonight I’m on dinner duty) …

0830, and things go awry. The next squall is coming in. We suffer a loss of faith and decide to bring the heavy weather spinnaker back down. No one can remember who is supposed to be on watch, and who not. We tie the spinnaker to the foredeck, hoping to raise it immediately after the squall passes – this is a race after all.

The genoa is partially unfurled to help us maintain speed through the squall. Until, with a loud swoosh, it collapses from the masthead into the sea and a mangled, broken, piece of shackle lands on the foredeck next to me. Thankfully the sail is still attached at the other two corners, but the weight of the sail brings the boat to an immediate stop.

Three of us wrestle 100m2-plus of sail onto the other side of the foredeck from the spinnaker and tie that down just as the squall breaks. We are all soaked, again.

The squall passes and we now have to consider what to do. We have to fix the genoa, but that will require pulling someone to the masthead, 20m above the deck. And it will take time.

But the necessity of having a backup sail other than the spinnakers is clear. Petri, the lightest and most agile of us, is the only candidate considered for the trip. With two halyards (one for safety) attached to his climbing harness, Petri is pulled to the top of the mast.

On a line, he sends down the genoa halyard, fixes the wind direction indicator – which being not vertical has given some decidedly odd readings the last few days – and inspects the top of the mast. Back down on deck, the genoa halyard is refixed and the sail hoisted. And then furled so we can fly a spinnaker and get moving again.

It’s 1130 in the morning and we resume with the watch almanac. Everyone has been up for six hours. Six hours when sleep should have been had by some.

1130: My next watch, it turns out, was from 8-12. I offer to take the helm, not least because conditions are excellent for surfing our 12 tonne boat down the long lazy swells of the trades. This part of sailing is so much fun that it will get its own post in the next few days.

1200: I’m off for the next four hours. Except that one of the crew is so exhausted from being interrupted that the rest of us cover for him for an hour. More surfing. Then down below to download weather files to plan our sailing strategy for the next day or so.

Three of us have lunch together – the fourth is helming. We will eat and then one will go to relieve the helm, so one is free to join the other two for ten minutes. Out of such things is conviviality nurtured. Lunch is leftover tuna and potato salad from yesterday. A brie. Cheddar. Salticrax. I fall asleep for two hours.

1540: Awake again, and going back on watch at 4. My co-watchkeeper offers to do the first half hour, during which time I write this post. I’m on duty till 8, and again from midnight to 3 am…

1700: Happy hour! Our daily beer. And biltong. We sit and talk for the duration of an album chosen by a member of crew. After, some repair to sleep, to continue the cycle of watches…

1800: But this is a race, and a slight windshift means that we are sailing in the wrong direction. So all four are gathered to gybe the spinnaker, and put us in a better, faster, track to Rio.

1900: Supper – we have our quota of wine with it. And everyone goes back to their place in the cycle.

So, yes, pretty much as I expected it to be. Routine. Mayhem. Routine mayhem. Periods of idleness. Periods of busyness. Sleep gathered when one can. Would I change any of it? Not at all. We have all become so adept at grabbing fragments of sleep – at four pm, two of us are fast asleep on their bunks.

Conversation is fragmentary; for the most part there is a concern for the boat, with the immediacy of our surroundings. As we become ever less informed of events outside of this bubble, those conversations become more stilted – for me, they are just too remote for proper engagement.


Actually, that is not too far from an honest depiction and yes we are mostly semi-permanently exhausted, but it does not begin to capture the wonderment at being here, on the Atlantic Ocean, with its unbelievable blueness and silence.

I think a lot about home. I miss my family. My friends. I so want you to experience this. To comprehend this vast emptiness.

I think about Jennifer starting big school next week. Of Sophie turning 13 in a few days time. And I am also finding what I don’t miss. The echo chamber of much of social media. The minutiae of university politics. And why does one sail? For days like today – with all its mini dramas, excitement, ennui, moments for reflection. Living life, really.

Alea iacta est

One lovely thing about being here (here being S21 47.257 E008 25.844 as I write this sentence, which will not be ‘here’ when I have finished writing, let alone dispatched it off into the ether. But *those* existential questions remain for another day. No matter, being here-not-here has some interesting side effects.) is that Dr Google is not present in any shape or form.

So one is thrown back to an antediluvian reliance on things remembered, half-remembered, or simply made up. Was it Alex Ferguson who said that the premiership was not won in (?) May? I really am not sure, but I think it was and if he gets credit for an aphorism that isn’t his, well… My rug-dealing friend will grin and point his fingers at me, singing “Funny, the way it is….”. And it is.

But, not being a MUFC fan (who is?), the gospel according to St Alex is only of ephemeral relevance. We are, roughly, half way through the race… Rather to our collective surprise, and despite the broken spinnaker pole which we handle like a porcelain teacup, we find ourselves doing rather well.

And so we are in a tussle with another boat, Avanti, for line honours (and handicap victory, almost certainly, given how the other boats in the fleet are performing) in Rio. Neck-and-neck for the last few days, we have thrown everything at trying to best them. They have miles to Rio, we have miles North (another aphorism: always be the northern most boat). The distance between us is tiny, in a race of this distance, and with around 12 days to go.

But today a zen-like moment descended on the boat, as we collectively realised we are not actually racing them. This is our race. We do not have to follow their every move, hatching plans to cover any surprise gybe or course change. We have to have our own strategy – let Sophie be Sophie B, as Josh Lyman put it (no need for Dr Google on that) – and we have to believe in it.

So. De Bello Atlantico. Alea iacta est. We have rolled our dice. We are heading North, to around 21S, before tracking West to Rio. Will it pay? We don’t know yet. But it’s our call. And we’ve made it. The premiership is not won in May, nor is the Cape to Rio race won halfway through.

As the temperatures rise in the tropics (the sea temperature is over 28 degrees!) and the beer gets warmer (we only have fuel to charge the batteries for three hours a day, not enough for our little fridge), we have employed the sound system on a more or less 24 hour basis. We have multiple iPods loaded with almost all music genres known to humanity. So what are your suggested playlists for

a)  calm days?
b) hot and sticky mornings?
c) in between days?
d) days just grooving to a full spinnaker a following inky royal blue sea and 15 knots of glorious trade winds.

Answers via FB, and our shore support will share with us.

Random thoughts for the day:

1. No-longer meaningful clichés : “there are plenty more fish in the sea”. Not these days, kiddo, not these days.
2. What is the collective noun for flying fish? Lacking Dr Google, I don’t know whether it’s a school, or a flock, or a flocking school.
3. Why flying fish? What kind of dumbarse idea is that? (and yes,  they are mesmerizing to watch as they flap, and swoop, and glide, over several hundred meters at a time….)

Paradise found

While writing this blog we are slowly leaving the island of St Helena to our starboard beam, almost exactly 400 nautical miles due north.

Yesterday evening Harry and I were watching Oliver with great amusement as he was looking more and more desperate. After searching the same locker for the fifth time, Ollie finally found his cache of chocolate.

Early morning spinnaker hoist; S4 kite flying beautifully and the repairs to the pole seem to have been successful. Yesterday afternoon it handled breeze of over 20kn without any trouble. A perfect day for some serious blue water sailing.

Happy hour: Castle lager and some nice biltong in the company of Leonard Cohen.

Another bucket shower this morning on the sun bleached teak foredeck, now rich reddish brown in color as it is wet. Water temperature 28.7*C . Sitting naked for a long time thinking, feeling and just being deeply happy. Staring into the vastness of the deep blue sea, feeling the motion of the waves and the gentle strength of the wind moving us along.

Paradise found, for those who venture far.

May the sea gods and wind gods carry on smiling upon us.