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Reisverslag Across the Atlantic in 27 days!
5 februari 2012
Across the Atlantic in 27 days!
------------- Statistics -------------
9.1 --> knots, top speed of the boat (nautical miles per hour)
35 --> knots, top wind speed during the trip (force 7)
30 --> flying fish that jumped on board, more or less
5 --> meters, highest waves during the trip
2 --> torn sails; 1 main sail and 1 genua
3000 --> nautical miles, distance covered
1 --> message in a bottle thrown overboard
It’s been a long trip, so here’s a long update. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! ;)
It’s January 7. Finally, after two weeks of living in the marina aboard the ‘Nevertheless’ and helping Willem with all sorts of small things so I can get to know the ship, we have set sail and leave Las Palmas and the Canary Islands in our wake. Thus begins life at sea for what I guestimate will be the next three weeks or so.
Admittedly, it sounds romantic, but I’m aware that crossing an ocean is not exactly your average sailing trip. Mechanics on the way are thin on the ground, so if something breaks, you’re on your own. There’s no place to throw out your anchor for the night, and no supermarkets to get fresh food. What’s more, if something really goes wrong, it could take days before rescue services find you. Preparation is the most important thing in the world, and a pair of eyes on deck at all times to spot any huge container ships that can unexpectedly cross your path is no luxury either.
Also not too romantic are the first two days at sea, which, for most people, are marked by seasickness in varying degrees. Funnily, for some reason quite beyond me I must have thought I would be an exception. And so, the can of soda that I stupidly attempt to drink when we’ve just reached the open sea is labeled ‘return sender’ by my stomach, with no room for discussion. I decide to take it easy and leave my stomach be those first two days, eating a cracker and drinking some tea only when I really need to.
For the next few days there is very little wind, perhaps related to the Sahara desert which is only 100 miles to the east from us. Then, while doing dishes on the fourth evening, I hear a faintly screeching sound that is getting stronger over time. I’m pretty certain that this sound does not belong on a properly functioning ship, and so, having my previous experience with the shipwreck still in the back of my mind, I call Willem and we start looking for the source of the sound.
It doesn’t take long for us to determine the sound is coming from under the floorboards, where the engine is placed. But we’re sailing, the engine is off. What could be making such a screeching sound?
The only thing still moving in there is the axis that is connected to the screw. When the engine is turned off, the screw will turn as the water passes by it to reduce its effect on our speed. This is what my reasoning tells me, but as we take out the floorboards and the engine comes into sight, I’m keeping cautious distance as Willem lowers himself down to where the moving parts are.
Engines aren’t exactly my field of expertise, and the one under our floorboards looks impressive, big, and dangerous. For some reason my mind goes: “What if it explodes!? If there are still moving parts in there, or valves or what not under pressure, and something is making a sound that is not supposed to be there, something could break loose at any moment!!”
I ask Willem if he can see anything. My strong nerves for not fleeing the scene are placed in perspective by the fact that I really couldn’t go anywhere. I sigh with relief as we find out it is indeed the axis of the screw that is making the sound, and Willem concludes that it hasn’t had any greasing for at least two years. Such was my not too heroic first contact with our engine, and so life on board continues.
In general, life on board of a sailing ship at sea is different from ashore in many ways, some more expected than others. I already mentioned the seasickness, which is caused by the swell – long waves running across the entire ocean, that can be created by the wind on the spot or by storms thousands of miles away.
But besides the seasickness, these constant waves make cooking, doing dishes, sleeping, eating and walking all a challenge that takes some getting used to. Putting your plate in front of you at dinner without sufficient precaution could result in the plate moving to the other side of the table before you’ve even had time to pick up a fork. If you’re lucky, the next wave will see your plate move back to you, but it’s more likely you’ll have to go and get it, together with a new serving and a mop to clean the floor. Similarly, it only takes one slightly bigger wave to teach you never to walk around the ship holding something in both hands, and you have to be absolutely sure you’ve steadied yourself before you start pouring boiling water in your tea cup. Same goes for doing dishes, as that is one of the things on board that really needs two hands.
Luckily, everything on board is designed to cope with this uninterrupted movement. All cupboards have locks on them, and every surface has a rim of a couple of centimeters to ensure nothing falls over. Of course, it’s not uncommon for waves to get much worse, so everything is also stored in such a way that movement is practically impossible, or so you hope when you leave. As Willem says: “There’s always something you forget, and that will be the first thing to fall.”
We approach the Cape Verde islands after about a week of sailing, and now the wind is picking up. Our speed is, too, and during my watches at night I don’t feel quite comfortable. Wind gusts are between 25 and 30 knots, and I haven’t gotten used to the boat’s movements yet with the now growing waves. When a wave picks us up and then lets us down again our speed increases a lot, and the hull starts vibrating as we approach rump speed. It’s unsettling to say the least. Slowly, though, I start to trust that the boat will manage, and before long the weather front that was responsible for this weather has passed, and all returns to normal.
As the days are spent doing all sorts of things – from fixing things that need fixing, clearing the deck of any flying fish that jump on board, or reading a book to monitoring the wind speed and direction – the nights are divided into two segments: one where I’m awake and on deck at least every half hour, and one where Willem does that. Basically we have to make sure that, when there is a ship approaching, we know its heading, and if we’re on a potential collision course whether we have the right of way or the other ship does. Also, we need to keep checking the wind speed and direction, to avoid nasty surprises where you have to take down a sail in the middle of a gale or even a storm instead of well ahead of that.
Of all the things on board, these night shifts took the longest time for me to get used to. Not because I had trouble staying awake or because of the tasks, but more because I couldn’t see the sea anymore. When you’re in the cabin on deck, all you see, especially during a cloudy night, are your instruments which tell you the wind speed and direction, radar, gps, etc. Outside it’s absolutely pitch black. So, even though in principle you know everything you need to know, you have no reference anymore to what’s outside. You cannot see a big wave coming in before you feel it lift the boat and push it sideways, and if the wind is increasing, you can hear it and see it on the meter, but you can’t see what it’s doing to the boat. I had to learn how to ‘feel’ when something is really wrong, and when there is nothing to be worried about even when the movements and sounds of waves and wind are intimidating. Of course, I’m still not as good at this as Willem, but I’m improving.
But once you’re used to this and able to relax a bit on your shift, the rewards are there too. There is nothing more enjoyable than lying on your back looking at the sky as the mast and sails move through my view with the waves. On starry nights the sky turns into a true spectacle, with an overwhelming amount of stars shining down, the milky way clearly visible, and as we move down the degrees of latitude strange new constellations start appearing above the horizon. Also, fluorescent algae make for quite a show next to the boat!
And then there is the social component on board. For better or worse, the people that are on board are dependent on each other, and stuck with each other for as long as it takes to cross, so it’s important to take a really good look at your own behavior. Not that I try to be, but I know that I can be pretty annoying at times. I have a tendency, for example, to be curious to no end. I want to know how everything works, and once I get an idea of how it works I try to form an idea of when to use or do that particular thing.
For someone like Willem, with a lot of experience when it comes to sailing at sea, the first few days must have been very tiring with someone like me trying out my recent insights into what needs to be done when. As I got more comfortable on the boat, this got better and better though, as every day that we sailed I got to develop some more trust in the boat’s qualities.
Incidentally, Willem has very few rules aboard the ship, but the two most important ones are also sometimes a bit tricky if you’re not used to them. I’ll quote them here:
Rule 1: The captain is always right.
Rule 2: In case the captain is not right, see rule 1.
This might seem counterintuitive, but democracy on a boat doesn’t have a very good track record. In case of an emergency it needs to be absolutely clear who gives the orders and who follows them. When there is time, though, Willem always explains why he wants things done in a particular way, so that makes following these rules every day a lot easier.
After about three weeks, we were getting pretty close to Surinam, and every day a sizeable chunk was taken from the miles we had left to go. The weather was deteriorating though, with lots of rain showers and strong winds, irregular currents and high waves. During one of the final nights before reaching Paramaribo, during my watch, we picked up a hitchhiker. He was as black as coal, looked like a local, and I think he said his name was Peter, although I may have heard it wrong with all the sounds of the wind and the waves.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice Peter some white spots on his head. I didn’t want to ask him about it, because I felt awkward. He probably gets those questions all the time, so I just let it be. I invited him to sit in the cabin, but he preferred to sit on the solar panels. “Fine,” I said, “as long as you don’t shit on them!”. That was fine with Peter, and he kept me company throughout my watch. Not very talkative, but I was glad he was there anyway. The next morning he flew away again, well rested, off to catch some fish.
That same night, the wind had been pretty strong, with gusts up till 30 knots, and the next morning we found out the main sail had basically been torn in two. We had already done some emergency fixing earlier on the trip, when the tear was still manageable, but this time the sail was way beyond a quick repair. We had to take it down, before the damage would get any worse, as Willem thought it could still be mended by a skilled sail maker. That brought the number of sails that had been torn on this trip to two, with the genua tearing at the bottom about a week after leaving Las Palmas.
With only about 120 miles to go, I was starting to believe that I might actually get across the ocean without getting wet this time. Neptune, however, thought otherwise. One morning when I was clearing the front deck of flying fish, a big wave slammed into the ship. The wave shattered and the water went up and back, and I made a sigh of relief. Too soon. A strong gust of wind blew all the water on deck, leaving me with a wet pair of pants and t-shirt. On the bright side, what gets wet at sea, stays wet (because of the salt), so it was a good excuse to put on some clean clothes which I had saved for occasions like these.
This is the point where I thought I wouldn’t have any more to tell, because we were approaching land, and I thought all I could say would be “yay, land!!”. Instead, it sounded more like “wow, shit, that looks like quite a lot of rain!” And that wasn’t all that was in store for us.
We were in a long, very narrow passage for ships through the very shallow waters along the coast to the mouth of the Suriname river when I saw the pitch black skies coming towards us. It was past midnight, and I had started clearing the front sail, but when I was only half way the rain reached us. Within 20 seconds I was completely soaked to the bone, but also the wind had gone up to 35 knots almost instantly.
While Willem had started to take down the back sail, the autopilot had not been able to cope with the sudden change in winds, and we had gone completely off course in the 40 meter wide passage. If we would get blown out of the channel we would run aground with no immediate chance of getting out again because of the particular shape of the keel of the ship. To make matters worse, were completely disoriented, because we didn’t immediately realize how bad we had been blown off course and visibility of the buoys indicating the whereabouts of the passage had gone down to near zero.
After making a couple of circles we finally managed to get back in the passage without a lot more trouble, but it had been quite an intense half hour. The tropical rain shower had now passed, and we could now enjoy an easy trip up the river. Or so we thought.
I was on the front deck enjoying the lights of Surinam coming closer when suddenly the sound of the engine changed. I hurried back to the cabin, where Willem told me the engine was overheating. Steam was coming out of the fumes pipe, and not much later the entire ship was filled with hot, asphyxiating fumes from the engine.
By running the engine at its slowest we managed to get the temperature down, but we couldn’t sail anymore because of the wind direction, and we had very little time before the tide would turn and the water of both the Suriname and Commewijne rivers would start gushing out. It would be difficult getting through that current with full engine power, and completely out of the question in our current situation. But we had no choice but to continue, because we couldn’t just throw out the anchor just outside the passage, if not because of the shallow water, the abundant fishing nets would also make anchoring in the dark a real nightmare.
Luckily, we managed to get past the point where the currents would be strongest before the tide changed. We slowly passed through Paramaribo, the capital, around 3am, and it was quite special to enter a new continent, country and city this way. By the waterside we could see the cafés and bars, we could hear the music clearly and see people drinking as we glided past at only 50 meters distance.
Finally, we arrived at Domburg, our anchor site. We threw out the anchor and sat on deck with a beer to see if it would hold. We couldn’t have done that inside anyway, because the entire ship was still filled with the fumes. We later found out that the hose that guides out the fumes and cooling water had come off, so there was quite a lot of water accumulating in the keel as well.
But we’d made it. We sat for a while enjoying the view as the rain forest around us was slowly waking up. After a while the fumes had somewhat dissipated, and at 8am I went to bed, just after Willem. I was woken up at 9.30am by the sound of the engine starting. The anchor wasn’t holding!! We were almost pushed in the shallow part of the river near the side by the now strong river current when our neighbors had seen our boat drifting and had managed to wake up Willem. He was now trying to steer us away from the side in his underwear, but the engine was still spewing fumes into the boat, so we could only use minimal power.
Eventually, we managed to pick up an anchor buoy attached to a block of concrete at the bottom that we hadn’t been able to see in the dark, so we could finally be sure that everything was ok for now.
That was the story of the crossing. After 27 days (and nights) of sailing I’ve been in Surinam for about three days now. It’s the rainy season, and all the locals think it’s cold. I’m afraid I don’t agree. In fact, whenever I find a little bit of a breeze I feel like staying there until the evening.
I’ll write about all the people I’ve met here next time, but they include two other Gerbens, an older woman that used to run a brothel in Amsterdam and a very handy couple that built an island out of plastic bottles. But that will probably be written from Tobago.
P.S.: I’ll try to put up some pictures soon!
Foto's bij verslag (14)
5 februari 2012 17:20 | Door: pap
Wat een verhaal man! Had nog best langer gemogen hoor. Ik had even nodig om te snappen wie Peter was maar begrijp nu dat het toch een oude bekende van ons is, leuk dat ie langskwam.
5 februari 2012 19:25 | Door: ido
Manmanman, wat een avontuur! Prachtig geschreven weer. Toch ben ik wel blij om te lezen dat je er veilig bent!
5 februari 2012 19:45 | Door: Celine
Woehoe, op naar het volgende verhaal! Blij dat je veilig bent aangekomen. Zo te horen zal ik me maar niet wagen aan zo'n reis, haha!
5 februari 2012 19:55 | Door: Ko
Woont Peter tegenwoordig dáár? Verklaart waarom we nooit meer iets van m gehoord hebben. Nou ja, zorg dat je je adviesbenodigdheden over suriname een beetje slim thematiseert en vervolgens aan de juiste mensen vraagt, dan overleef je t wel. Goeie reis!
6 februari 2012 00:49 | Door: Tibi
Sounds good Gerben! :) Happy you arrived relatively dry ;)
6 februari 2012 08:28 | Door: Arie en Marijke
Goed gedaan en veel bewondering dat je de tocht gemaakt hebt. We waren erg benieuwd naar de manier waarop jij deze zeil-belevenis zou kunnen weergeven. Heerlijk zoals je tegen dat leven aan boord aankijkt. En passant leer je zo ook onbekende engelse woorden. (voor jou ook?). Ben benieuwd naar het vervolg. groetjes, Arie en Marijke
6 februari 2012 09:49 | Door: Maaike
Misschien kun je Peter weer deze kant opsturen, dan kan hij zijn verhalen aan opa vertellen. Die moet op zijn beurt namelijk binnenkort al die verhalen weer doorvertellen. Fijn dat je veilig bent aangekomen. Volgens Veerle stond je gister trouwens nog voor de alsof-deur en had je een cadeautje bij je voor Bas en haar, dus dan weet je dat vast...
6 februari 2012 16:53 | Door: Marjoleine
Heerlijk, zo'n verslag! Als het weer een beetje meewerkt rijden "wij" over een paar daagjes de elf-steden-tocht. We zullen er verslag van doen.
6 februari 2012 20:01 | Door: oma
IK ben blij dat je veilig de oceaan over bent, maar wat verzin je nu weer? Ik vind je wel geweldig hoor!!!! Groetjes, oma Riet