Newsletter #1- Round The World The Way Of The Clipper Ships

A word of explanation about this cruise is due. The great clipper ships reached their apogee in the late 19th century. They were extraordinarily efficient, carrying thousands of tons of cargo with crews of thirty men or less. There was no fuel cost, of course, apart from what the cook used! But being so heavily laden they were slow, and because they did not sail too well to windward the captains sought routes that kept the wind behind the beam, on average. This often made the sea miles between ports much longer than the direct path. Over the years these routes between major ports became formalized and were published as sailing directions. Typical was the route from New York to Cape Town. First the ship sailed east across the Atlantic keeping north of the permanent Azores-Bermuda high. When the wind shifted they would sail south into the prevailing NE trade winds. Near the equator lie the doldrums, an area of calms and fickle winds. Working their way through this region, usually with some difficulty, the ship would pick up the steady SE trades, and sail south for nearly two thousand sea miles. Finally the captain would work through variable winds to reach the boisterous westerlies and then run before them to Cape Town, Australia, New Zealand and home via Cape Horn. That’s the theory, anyway. Such a trip may well have lasted a year, depending on the time to unload and load in port. We will see what it is like in practice because, apart from a few diversions to interesting islands that lie near the route, this is the plan for Fiona’s cruise.

Quite a few friends and relatives came to see us off when Robert, David and myself left Weeks on schedule, June 10th. Bob Lyons with Red and Jim aboard Fireplace, escorted us down the Patchogue River at high tide in case we got stuck. To avoid that embarrassment our water tanks were empty, which saved nearly a ton of weight. I don’t know if that did the trick but we did not touch bottom all the way to the inlet. In order to water and refuel we stopped at Block Island for a couple of days. We walked to both the southeast and north lighthouses and had our last shoreside meals for a few weeks. Fully loaded, we left for the Canaries. Northeast winds in the vicinity of Georges Bank drove Fiona a little more south than I wanted and we did not get a significant boost from the Gulf Stream current. Rather, for several days, we had to fight an unexpected west-going counter current. Sometimes the GPS receiver tells you more than you really want to know – ignorance is bliss. We experienced mostly light winds, although we did have a spell when it gusted to 30 knots, necessitating a double-reefed mainsail. Thus it was a complete surprise on the twelfth day after leaving Block that David discovered, when he went forward to check the roller furling gear, that the bobstay had snapped. This heavy, 3/8 inch chain (listed breaking load 7 tons) attaches the bowsprit to the hull at the waterline and resists the upward force of the headstay. With this restraint missing the jib pulled up the bowsprit and allowed the stay to bend. However the aluminum tubes around the stay do not like to bend too much and the lower piece cracked at the furling drum. Temporary repairs had to be made. Fortunately, if I can use that word, the break occurred in the middle of the chain, so we were able to snag the bottom bit with the gaff, pull it up and attach it to the upper piece with a shackle. A break near the bottom would have been much more difficult to deal with as we would not have been able to reach it from the bowsprit. We able were able to turn the furling gear with a useful tool called a chain wrench, so that within a day or two we were sailing quite nicely again. However, permanent repairs were needed and I decided to make for the Azores where there were reasonable facilities.

On the way across the Atlantic I used the ham radio and on one or two occasions even managed a contact with Mike, who lives just down the street in Brookhaven. We also had on board for the first time a satellite telephone that I used to call Brenda so that the yachtfiona website would have the latest info. Bob also called Sue on a weekly basis and she kept all our friends in the SBCC up to date. Fiona communications have joined the 21st century! Shortly after we fixed the bobstay we sailed into the Azores-Bermuda high which extended much further north than usual. The pressure rose to 1040 mb (30.7 inches), higher than I can remember experiencing before, with light or zero winds. But we slowly made it to the most western island of the Azores – Flores. Here we hoped to pick up a little fuel so that if the calm conditions persisted we could motor to Horta, about 120 nm further east, where we planned to make our repairs. I last visited Flores on the 1986 cruise, and I vowed never to go there again. Although it is one of the most beautiful islands in the world (and I have seen a lot of them) the harbor was incredibly dangerous. A narrow rock-strewn passage led to a small cut swept by Atlantic swells. We nearly came to grief. However the latest guide said that a new harbor had been built at the southeast corner with room for a couple of dozen yachts. And sure enough, there was a solid, large jetty that provided a dock for the ferry and shelter behind it. It was probably built with EU funds. We dropped our anchor near a few other boats, launched the rigid dinghy with its antique Seagull engine (the one I used during Iona’s 1968-69 cruise) and treated ourselves to a beer and pizza at the Beira-Mar café handy to the dock. Entry is very informal, the marine policeman drives down to the port a couple of times a day, we spoke to him the next day. We trudged up a long hill with our jerry jugs but the gas station was out of diesel. But the market next door was nice enough to phone for a taxi from Santa Cruz and we enjoyed a perfectly breath-taking ride through the green hills and valleys. The driver gave us a short tour of Santa Cruz after we filled our jugs, I gazed at the old harbor and wondered how we ever squeezed Fiona in there. We left in the late afternoon and, sure enough, found ourselves motoring across a mirror-like sea. In the small hours during Bob’s watch he picked up a distress call from a yacht that had developed engine trouble. They were not too far away so we motored over to them. In the absence of wind they asked for a tow to Horta. Normally it would have been quite impossible for Fiona to tow a 39ft boat on the open sea but conditions were so calm we gave it a shot. We were slowed down, of course, but by the late afternoon we had covered the 60 nm to Horta. The boat was a Canadian yacht called Tuaq under delivery from the Caribbean by two British lads. The harbor was very crowded but we were given a berth rafted up to other boats. The next day we replaced the broken bobstay with a piece of our own anchor chain. We also cleaned up the bottom end of the jib furler and got that working again. We had lunch at the famous Peter’s Café Sport and repainted Fiona’s sign on the jetty wall. The original sign, painted during the 1986 cruise, had long weathered and been painted over by later visiting yachts. Besides repairs the hectic four-day lay-over included a taxi tour of the island, reprovisioning at the supermarket, checking our e-mail, sampling the local restaurants and chatting with other visiting crews. It was a nice break after the ocean passage, but it was not on the original schedule and set us back a few days we never regained.

The one-week passage to Santa Cruz, Tenerife was quiet and brought no surprises. It is quite an elegant city with many outdoor cafes and a pleasant climate. On the evening after we arrived we witnessed a traditional ceremony in which a statue of the sailor’s patron saint, Virgen del Carmen, was paraded round the harbor with a vast flotilla of local boats hooting away. There were lots of fireworks almost until midnight. It was all very Spanish. On the way to and from the boat we passed a large memorial to the siege of Santa Cruz by Admiral Nelson, he failed to take the city and lost an arm into the bargain, it gleefully noted. At the local chandlery I was amused to see a Seagull outboard just like mine on sale as a collectible antique. We could not linger, we were pushed for time and left after a couple of days for Mindelo, on St Vincent Island, the second largest city of the Cabo Verde group and almost on our direct route to Fernando de Noronha, Brazil. We were now well into the tropics and picked up strong northeast trade winds. Each morning we found a crop of half a dozen flying fish that had unfortunately crashed onto the deck during the night. We planned only a brief stop at Mindelo, as much as anything so that Bob and David could experience a genuine third world African country and to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables. I had visited Praia, the capital, in1992, on the way back to the US from Tahiti. I had been rather horrified at the dire poverty but this time things seemed a little better. At least young women weren’t blatantly soliciting at the cafes. But unemployment was still rife and a bunch of men clustered at the dinghy dock offering to be guides or take care of your dinghy. A young man called Orlando had approached us in a dinghy as we were anchoring and I hired him to help us get through entrance formalities, etc. When I got some escudos at the bank I gave him a couple of days pay to get it out of the way, but that was a tactical error. This windfall went to his head and the next day he was so hungover or zonked he showed up very late and we had to get someone else to help do the fresh food shopping. When we left the next day Orlando chased us out of the harbor in a borrowed dinghy demanding to be paid, I pointed out I had paid him up front and he turned shorewards, looking very puzzled. We were not sorry to get on the open sea. That afternoon, with St Vincent still in sight, I was below when we felt a slight bump. I rushed up the companionway just in time to see a vast iron-gray, corrugated wall slide past the stern. We had grazed a whale, a whole pod of them surrounded the boat, serenely gliding to the east and paying not the slightest attention to us.

The sailing direction for sail ships give very specific instructions on crossing the doldrums which lie a little to the north of the equator. Two strong currents must be crossed and near the equator the ship runs into the edge of the southeast trade winds belt. The first current sets to the east and square-rigger captains are advised to sail southeast while they can so that when they encounter the west setting equatorial current and the trades they as far to windward as possible. The danger is that they may not be able to weather the great bulge of South America poking into the South Atlantic at Cabo Branco. As Fiona has a diesel engine with about a 500 nm range (in calm conditions) to assist with crossing the doldrums I felt it was safe to ignore that injunction and head directly for Fernando de Noronha. In fact, we were able to sail close-hauled to the southeast trades and made it to the Baia de St Antonio in one tack from the equator. When we crossed the equator we were honored by a visit from old Father Neptune himself, who inducted our two pollywogs, Bob and David, as true sons of Neptune. Fernando de Noronha is a volcanic, lushly tropical island lying about two hundred miles south of the equator. For about two hundred years, until early in the 20th century, it was a prison for Brazil’s most incorrigible political dissidents. When I walked to the fort down a path through the jungle the cobblestones underfoot had the look of a make -work project for the prisoners. Now the government of the Pernambuco state is trying very hard to make it an attractive but low-key tourist resort. There is only one small hotel but many homes function as posadas, or B and B’s. A couple of dozen small charter boats operate sight-seeing trips or scuba diving. David had his first underwater scuba experience on one of them. We sampled the many restaurants and bars, restocked the fresh food and shuttled a few jugs of fuel out to the boat. Also anchored there was a 39 ft South African yacht run by a retired surgeon. On board were his wife, two children and two crew, goodness knows where they all slept. His wife was kind enough to bake us four loaves the morning we left for the long haul to Cape Town.

The 4,100 nm leg to Cape Town is basically a beat; the SE trades blow directly from South Africa. For about 1,600 nm we sailed due south, the wind varied in strength, at one point we furled the jib entirely and set the staysail. After a few hours we found the forestay turnbuckle had snapped like a carrot; 5/8 inch diameter stainless. Fortunately I had a spare. Near 30º S the wind became variable and we were finally able to sail east. The boat settled down into a daily routine; stand watch, eat, sleep. After we crossed the Greenwich meridian the weather deteriorated and instead of the westerly winds we expected we often had easterly winds. Twice we hove-to in winds that reached 45 kts. We tore the genoa jib, took it down when the wind moderated and set the yankee jib. However we slowly gained and the last day almost within sight of Table Mountain we had a great day of sailing. Sea otters basked on the surface of the sea. When we pulled into the Royal Cape Yacht Club Sue, Bob’s partner, was waiting on the dock. The leg from Fernando de Noronha had taken five weeks. The next few days were hectic; sail repairs, stainless welding, airline tickets, laundry, etc, etc, all had to be organized. We were a week late on the original schedule, due to extra days spent in Horta and the Cabo Verde Is. Thus we plan to leave Cape Town a little later than planned, probably October 15th. So far we have put 9,938nm on the log since leaving Patchogue.

Until the next time, when hopefully I will write from New Zealand, best wishes from Eric.

Scrimshaw at Peter’s Cafe Sport, Horta. Shown is Bill Tilman

Father Neptune greets another polywog

A crew member floats in the dinghy

The Volcanic peaks of Fernando de Noronha

Beating into the SE trade winds

A fresh loaf awaits lunch
Distortion of the bow platform following failure of the bobstay

Capt. Forsyth at The Royal Cape YC, Cape Town