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A Sailors Story of the ARC Path to St Lucia

"Shall we do the ARC?" Pete, my neighbour and dinghy race skipper for the winter series in our local sailing club at Hythe, thought about my question for a few seconds and then said, "I'd have to check with Lyn" (his partner).

It was a cold February day in 2005 and we were surfing in his Merlin Rocket at 12 knots with the spinnaker set and leading the race fleet by 100 yards. Southampton water at that time of the year is a pretty inhospitable place, wet suits are mandatory, when it rains it feels like a shower of ice crystals hitting your face, and getting knocked down or capsized (a not-uncommon occurrence in a Merlin Rocket) means getting very cold in places you really don't want to get that cold (even in a wet suit). My yacht at that time was a Hanse 301 named Dancing Demon, a very seaworthy design but a little small to live aboard in comfort, so my thoughts had already moved on to a boat with a long keel, heavy displacement, standing headroom and a good galley, in short a proper blue-water cruiser.

Three years later, I'd sold Dancing Demon, searched for and found Sephina, Pete was now the proud father of Daniel (3), and Lyn was expecting Daniel's sibling (soon to enter the world as Jamie). Lyn had agreed that Pete could join the boat for the Atlantic crossing with the ARC, so the entry forms were filled in, the fees paid and our ARC 2009 had begun.

Sephina is one of those boats that people in the know stand back and say, "she's a proper yacht." Designed by Holman and Pye in the late sixties, she's a Super Sovereign, built in 1972, 35 ft on deck, nearly nine tons displacement, 3/4 length keel, ketch rigged – in short, a go-anywhere yacht. (www.sovereign35.com for more information.) All I had to do was turn her from a coastal cruiser into an ocean passage-maker. The next year was spent in a whirlwind of refitting the boat, offshore training courses, closing my business and preparing myself for my first ocean crossing.

The passage south from Southampton to Las Palmas to join the ARC was not without problems, and I learnt some valuable lessons.

Lesson #1: check the things you can see before setting sail! Crossing from St Peter Port (Guernsey) to L'Aberwrach (France), the spinnaker halyard freed itself from the deck, streamed out astern and wrapped itself around the wind generator at the top of the mizzen mast. Fortunately, the refit had included fitting mast steps, so climbing the mast and recovering the halyard proved an easy ten minute job.

Lesson #2: check the things you can't see before setting sail! We were running south at night from La Coruna (Spain) in 30 knot winds and 12 – 15 foot seas when I noticed a faint clonk from the steering whenever the rudder took up the weather helm. The next day, having made it to Bayona, inspection of the rudder stock provided a shock. The nut on the link rod universal joint was loose and hanging on by a couple of threads. If we'd sailed much further it would probably have let go completely.

Lesson #3: beware the weather forecast! Having reached Lagos (Portugal), we waited, calm-bound for ten days. We'd motor-sailed most of the way from La Rochelle (France) with little or no wind, but for the next passage to Las Palmas, motoring wasn't an option as our range of 300 miles would get us less than half way, so a good sailing wind was essential. Finally the wind forecast looked promising so we checked out and set sail. The predicted NE 15 knot wind quickly veered south, so we had the choice of sailing SE toward Gibraltar or SW toward Madeira, not a difficult decision as Madeira was only 450 miles away and would only add around 150 miles to the trip. Then the wind died, so on with the engine again, hoping to find some wind further south. Would we ever start sailing?

Lesson #4: listen to the boat. If she isn't happy, she'll let you know!
During that first night out from Lagos, having succumbed to a bout of seasickness, I woke for my watch feeling pretty rough, and noticed the exhaust note of the engine had changed a little. The noise slowly worsened to the point that I decided to stop the engine. We took stock. The sky was overcast, so no power from the solar panels; there wasn't much wind so no power from the wind generator; and without the engine, no power from the alternator. The nearest island was Porto Santo still 350 miles away, we had plenty of food and water and the batteries were fully charged. Not much choice but to make the best course and sail very slowly. Now Porto Santo is a delightful island, but the options to repair a 37 year-old diesel engine are zero, but at least we could plug in to shore power and recharge the batteries. My diagnosis was a blown head gasket. Ok, not a good idea to run the engine for long but it would get us out of one harbour, and into the next. My third crew member was flying to join us in a week, so with emails and phone calls, spares were ordered and tools from home organised. At last the promised trade winds started to blow, so with fully-charged batteries, we left the marina and set sail for Gran Canaria. With NE winds of 15 – 20 knots, it took just 58 hours to sail 300 miles. We motored into Las Palmas at midnight, with the engine popping and banging and sounding very sick indeed.

The next two weeks flew by in a whirlwind of ARC seminars and events, engine repairs, entertaining friends and family visiting from home, shopping for stores for the Atlantic crossing and making final preparations to the boat. Departure day finally arrived. The atmosphere in Las Palmas was party time, a wonderful send-off for a big adventure. Twenty-two days, one hour and twenty-three minutes and thirty-six seconds later, we crossed the finish line in Rodney Bay, lowered the sails and motored into the Marina. We were met with greetings from friends as we moored, and rum punch and fresh fruit waiting for us. Wind-down time at last.

Lesson #5: beware the innocent squash bottle. Extract from our ARC log: The Mystery of the exploding apple juice, Thursday afternoon (day 11). There was I, just before lunch, innocently typing an email when a loud BANG came from the galley (o.k., it's only three feet from the chart table), suddenly followed by a cold shower of something wet and sticky. Our cook, Robin, had saved half of the contents of a carton of apple juice (at least that's what he told us it was) in a squash bottle and hadn't noticed it had started to ferment (we assume). Everything in the galley, companionway and nav-station was dripping and smelling of rough cider, and I'd only just changed into a new snowy white tee-shirt!

Lesson #6: fatigue can fuddle the brain. Extract from our ARC log: 0330UTC Wednesday 9th December 2009. "Skipper, there's a ship coming up astern, very fast." I was off watch, sound asleep for a change, when Pete shook me awake wanting to call the ship on VHF to establish its intentions. Now to set the scene, since the fleet separated south of Gran Canaria, we'd seen two ships within the first few days, and then two yachts (neither in the ARC) and the top of another mast at some distance, so other vessels had been a bit of a rarity. It was a clear starlit morning, dark enough to see the Milky Way.

"It looks like a cruise liner, lots of lights along the side, but I can't make out the nav lights yet," says Pete. I climbed out of my bunk, carefully negotiating over Robin's bunk so as to try and not wake him unnecessarily, and made my way to the companionway, thinking, if it's coming fast enough to worry Pete, then it must be the Queen Mary 2. "If you can see all along the side, how is it coming toward us then," asked I. On closer inspection, it appeared (to my sleep-fuddled brain) to be becoming airborne. Just then, the cloud bank shifted, and lo and behold, there's a pale white crescent slowly ascending into the heavens. "Which VHF channel do you think we should use then Pete, 16 or 77?"

My crew were due to fly home after Christmas, which for a few days looked unlikely with the threatened British Airways strike, but that was quickly resolved and we finally relaxed and started to enjoy life in St Lucia. The first few days were filled with ARC parties, a sightseeing trip around the island, lots of rum and getting used to a world that had stopped rocking and rolling.

Having read about it, on Christmas Eve we finally visited the St. Lucia Yacht Club, and a warmer welcome would be difficult to find. Sadly, we'd missed the Christmas Carols Afloat event as we'd been south to explore the coast for a few days, but would we like to join in with the Christmas Day on the beach barbecue ? I'd been told that St Lucia was a paradise island, and a paradise it's proved to be. Within a few days, I'd made some new friends, enjoyed my first New Year on the beach, joined the Yacht Club, and been talked into joining the World ARC flotilla.

Lesson #7: seize the day! For ten years, I'd been dreaming of escape from the rat race and of blue water sailing, but always found reasons to not take the plunge. Remember, life isn't a rehearsal and sometimes opportunity only knocks once.

What an adventure it's been. Since leaving Southampton, I'd seen stunning sunsets and sunrises, glorious star filled night skies, dolphins, whales, flying fish, squalls, thunderstorms, flat calms, big waves. At times I'd felt elation, frustration, depression, boredom, trepidation but never once was I frightened. I'd learnt to trust my boat and know that if I looked after her, she'd look after me and my crew. The weather gods had been kind, and through good fortune and careful preparation, my first ocean passage was now part of ARC history. Our handicapped finish position was 118th from 158 starters in our cruising class, very creditable for the second oldest yacht in the fleet (and third slowest rated).

I'd started the journey as a relatively inexperienced coastal sailor, taken on old boat, refitted it myself and nursed it through all of the problems, crossed an ocean to fulfill a dream, and proved that you don't need megabucks to sail successfully on blue water.

Submitted by Duncan Gray, skipper of SEPHINA, ARC-2009 entry number 230

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