three hulls, two people, one trip around the world…

The Great Crossing of The Caribbean Sea

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Many commented on our inflatable catamaran, which I reported on in the last blog. Mathias learned to sail with this type of beach catamaran. It was inevitable that there were several capsizes in the learning process. I have compiled the most spectacular scenes from this time in two videos, which can be seen on our YouTube channel. Birte Films, Desaster Strikes and Desaster Strikes – Part Deux

Mathias had no contact with sailing before that time, except through model boats. He was more of a forest man, his family had a weekend house in Gorleben. He demonstrated against nuclear power there and in Brokdorf. My family had a weekend house on Lake Plön with a wooden sailing boat. It was always an event to be allowed to sail along. Our dog lay on the bow, my brother and I held the jib together, which was not easy, and admired our father, who casually operated the tiller with one hand and held the sheet of the mainsail with the other. In my pre-school days, I didn’t understand that the mainsheet had a much better transmission. Even though I didn’t really learn how to sail until decades later, the joy of being on or in the water remained. If you’re wondering now, how do such different people come together? It’s simple: we impressed each other with our good maths skills. But enough nerd stories, back to the topic:

The Great Crossing

There was a comment on the last blog entry that the report of our crossing was eagerly awaited. I thought: “Oh dear, I’m going to have to disappoint someone. The report will certainly be boring. Just a lot of wind and waves and nothing else going on.” – You can be so wrong. 

Before departure, the genoa slider is replaced by a larger slider.

This is Mathias’ birthday cake. He claims I would never make this kind of cake for him. But there are proof photos that he even got it in the middle of the Atlantic. And also this year in a country where you can’t actually buy Quark 😉

The birthday itself was a day before our departure and we spent the day clearing out and shopping. The immigration office is in Portobelo. A terraced house, the doors were open at both ends because there was no air conditioning. Two female officials occupy the office. All documents have to be submitted in paper copy form.

There are two reasons why we decided to take the arduous route back to St Martin. One is that you can get there from Amsterdam on a direct flight and Amsterdam is a convenient international airport from Aachen, so the connection is well suited for Lukas who wants to come visit us over Christmas. The other reason is that there are many good sailing supply shops and shipyards on St.Martin. After more than three years of sailing, there is bound to be a sheet or two to replace and you never know what else is coming up. Whether the events on the way were a self-fulfilling prophecy is a question for the philosophers among you, but here is the list of things that fell victim to the rough weather conditions:

The trip along the coast of Colombia was upwind, waves, mostly 3m high, and to make matters worse at capes against a current of a good 2 knots. That means either crawling along or motor sailing.

Eine Seefahrt, die ist lustig, eine Seefahrt, die ist schön …….

Day 5: The exact route that can be sailed depends mainly on wind direction and weather areas. For the first stretch, it looked good to sail close to the coast of Colombia. When we were going to turn was not yet decided. The decision was taken from us by our boat. The SAN must have been longing for her sister ship, the “Carry On”. A sail batten fell out of our sail during the journey. On a trimaran, things usually end up somewhere on board. So we still had the batten, but the end fastening (the screw cap) had gone overboard. Pretty awful, the sail was flapping unpleasantly. But chance was on our side. Always in contact with James from the Carry On, we reported our mishap and lo and behold, he had the spare part we needed. He had once had some of these screw stoppers made in Mexico. The joy on our part was great, because the Carry On was moored in a port in Colombia that we could easily sail past. According to the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, which most coastal states have signed, you are allowed to sail peacefully through the coastal waters of a state and you are also allowed to stop there in emergencies without having to declare.

We arrived in Santa Marta around 3am, radioed the harbour master that we had to make a repair stop, anchored in front of the marina and went to sleep. The next day, a boat from the marina came to inquire about our intentions. They took Mathias to James and he came right back with several of the screw stoppers. How nice it is to have friends all over the world. What will it be like when James and Eva switch to another type of boat in the near future. We will miss the exchange about problems and even more their solutions in connection with our boats. In Santa Marta we were allowed to refuel with diesel, they opened the petrol station especially for us, but we had to get there before 12 o’clock. So we sailed on quickly and unfortunately I only saw the Carry On Crew from a distance. 

From Santa Marta, however, we finally headed across the Caribbean Sea. Mathias gets weather updates by email (short wave), which he reads into a routing programme. Then he looks to see which strong wind areas need to be avoided and on which side. St. Martin lies against the prevailing wind direction from Santa Marta. That means tacking again¹. But a somewhat unusual wind from the north was forecast to start in a few days. With a north wind like that, it’s good to sail east. (For non-sailors: wind from the side is the best for a sailing boat, you get good speeds). So it made sense to first head north across the Caribbean Sea and then turn off. As the current wind was blowing from the north-east, we had to sail upwind. Even the non-sailors among you know: upwind = a lot of wind blowing around your ears and always surfing directly into the waves, so not only rocking back and forth but also up and down movements. As I was seasick for the first three days on the way to Santa Marta, I had my sea legs back by now and we could start. During the first nights of our trip there was no moonlight, it was pitch black and steering was done exclusively via the instruments. When the spray splashed over the bimini tent of the helm, we felt like Boris Herrmann. But our SAN is not a racing yacht and we are happy with lower speeds if it runs safely. Like the big racing yachts, we have to plan a good route, but instead of looking for storm areas, we avoid them. This time we even had a pit stop in Santa Marta and James monitored our progress crossing the Caribbean Sea. But we could well have done without the near-parallel to Boris’ collision with a fishing boat…. Nor did we have to manage the repairs to sails and sheets alone. It’s easier when there are two of you. 

Tag 6: Boom! 

Oi, joi, joi, didn’t sound good at all. It wasn’t good at all, because a ceiling panel almost fell on my head, only the table deflected it. I quickly put the panel on the floor and went up to the helm station. Yes, the noise was really not good. The genoa sheet is torn and Mathias is in the process of furling the genoa. That done gives us time to think. The wind has become too strong anyway, so we continue with the jib. To make matters worse, the rope we used to attach our spinnaker halyard to the deck is also torn. The halyard was flapping in the wind and we had no choice but to pull it up. Stupid, but it can stay that way for now. No one wants to be up in the mast in big waves. But on the same day we are forced to act, because with a little “Boom!” the jib sheet breaks! Now what? The jib clew of the quickly furled jib flutters in the wind. We don’t feel like sailing on without a foresail and we don’t feel like setting the storm jib either. (We have a second halyard). First we go down and think in peace. 

Then, a little later: Mathias, clearly in his darling-you-know-what-I’m-thinking mode, speaks: “Come upstairs with me, we’ll take the red one.” Contentless expression on my part: the red one????? The red what??? The red genoa sheet, the red and black mainsheet, the red reefing line, a red line???? And do what??? Tie it around the jib?? Trying to replace the sheet?? I say: “the red one? Can you elaborate on that?”. Mathias, annoyed expression on his face: “Well, the red genoa sheet of course and tie it to the jib.” – Aha. – Said and done 3 hours later. This work was not so easy. When furled, the clew of the jib is out of reach above our heads and right in front above the bow. So first we put on the lifewests and use the harness and steer the boat into the wind. Mathias is already busy on the foredeck. A critical look from me: “Are you hooked in?” Answer Mathias: “Sure, but look!” He holds up one end of the safety line, which is no longer attached to the boat. That’s where the knot had come loose! We have flat lines that you have to fasten with buckles. But I had only knotted them, not a good idea. While Mathias goes back to the back and gets a (red) auxiliary line, I crawl onto the foredeck and tighten another safety line that can be knotted wonderfully.

The red auxiliary line is first used to thread it through the bowline³ still hanging on the clew² of the jib. The knot had held, the sheet had broken off behind it. Attempts to thread the red line directly failed. The loop of the bowline could only be reached by means of the boat hook. The sea was a bit too rough for a step on the foredeck. So a thinner line had to be used first, and a spanner was tied to the end of it, which served as a needle for threading. This worked, but when pulling the red line, the thread pulled into the knot and the line could not be pulled around the corner. Solution: knot a medium-thick line in between. But where to get such a line in a hurry? Mathias delegated the work, he stayed strapped to the foredeck with the boat hook, I turned to the stern and looked around. I had stowed away many of our small lines, but one was still lying around, so I quickly found what I was looking for. The three-line system worked and we could fix the clew for the time being. Now the jib just had to be rolled out a bit so that you could reach the clew and the genoa sheet could be pulled through the eyelet and knotted tight. Then a deflection ring was attached to the jib sheet carriage and we passed the sheet through the deflection pulley for the genoa sheet and again had two headsails at our disposal: Port the jib, starboard the genoa. A few days later we rebuilt the system again. The jib is a self-tacking jib and the sheet is pulled centrally and through the mast. The torn sheet had been fallen out the mast bit by bit, so we had a long enough end at our disposal again. Therefore, we started another action and knotted the red genoa sheet back to the genoa. This can be done when the sail is open and you are sailing upwind, then you can easily reach the clew from the sun deck. The jib got its old sheet back, it is now no longer a self-tacking jib, but the provisional guidance of the sheet to the winch works and is sufficient for us for this trip.

Day 9: After a long time on the open sea, we come close to land again. We wanted to avoid Haiti, but we dare to sail along the Dominican Republic. We head for the island of “Velo Alto”. It is a prominent mountain that can be seen from a distance and is almost on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We pass it quite closely and meet two panga boats, each with two people. They try to approach us. Since James once had a very bad experience in this area (a gun was pointed in his face) and they are not police boats, we ignore them and just continue. Our course leads away from the island and we are not followed. Maybe they were friendly, or maybe they were national park rangers, but we didn’t really want to find out.

Day 10: In the middle of the night, Mathias has just gone to bed. The sail flutters so strangely. Correct course? Shining the torch on it shows: The back reefing line is blowing in the wind. Get Mathias out of the bunk again and pull in the third reef instead of the second. We do have enough 😉 Repair during the trip is not possible, so it goes on the list. At least the wind shifts a little and we can cruise for a while at 9-10 knots despite the third reef.

It is getting light, we are off the coast of the Dominican Republic. The wind is completely gone, the headsails are rolled away, the sea is smooth, we are sailing under engine at a comfortable speed. Mathias sits at the navigation table, I go up to the helm and look at the plotter there to see how I should set the course. Suddenly someone calls out. – I look up and ahead: there is a small panga fishing boat directly in front of us and we are on a collision course! I quickly turn far to starboard and we just avoid ramming the boat. How horrible! Clear visibility and yet you only see the small boats very late, an open boat like this doesn’t have an AIS signal either and the sunlight glistened and dazzled on the water and made it even more difficult to see small items. I hope the two fishermen didn’t get too bad a scare. This event and the following one show that you also need a lot of luck when sailing the oceans. In the afternoon of that day, we narrowly missed a floating measuring buoy on the high seas. The buoy had no AIS signal, but a teasing little flag that meant: “Keep clear of me: I am manoeuvring with difficulty”. At short intervals we encountered two more such buoys, already without the flags. All three buoys were also dragging something in a net behind them and protruded 1.5m out of the water with a diameter of about 80cm. They certainly don’t bother big ships, a monohull probably pushes them aside, but with our trimaran they can get between the hulls and become very dangerous for us. (Parallel to Boris: he puts out similar buoys like this, hopefully with an AIS transmitter).

{I looked up the meaning of the flag on the buoy in a little booklet. It is called “Reed’s Maritime Flag Handbook” and it helps me to hoist the national flags the right way round and to look up such meanings. I have now discovered that there is even a flag combination that means: “I have lost my propeller”. We should have known that back in Panama. But, well then, surely there is no flag combo for: “I am being pushed by my own dinghy” 😉 }

We took advantage of the relatively calm weather on the morning of day 10 to stop on the water. The Watt&Sea hydrogenerator was not supplying power. Mathias got into the water and swam to the centre hull. You can’t see it from the deck because the dinghy is in the way. On of the lines that adjust the generator was wrapped around the propeller of the hydrogenerator. It had broken. We haven’t had any luck with this hydrogenerator so far. In the beginning, we even lost one in the big waves.

Also on day 10: Things are running steadily and calmly, I feel good and cheerfully start preparing a meal that needs a tad more preparation time. Mathias has just been asleep, wakes up full of beans and realises: the wind is no longer blowing hard. (Exactly, you can work well in the kitchen.) For Mathias this is not a state of affairs, there is room for improvement. He climbs up to the helm station, rolls in the jib and sets the genoa. The speed is right again. Poseidon, however, thinks to himself: “Guys, make up your mind, do you want to cook or race?” The wind and the waves pick up again. Mathias can’t be shocked by this, he sets the autopilot to “stand-by” and steers the SAN by hand, hissing neatly through the waves. His eyes shine, his hair flutters in the wind, everything is reminiscent of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Meanwhile, down below, I have a big pot of potatoes on the cooker and now have to stand wide-legged again to catch the inevitable rocking in the wave. So we both have “fun” 😉

One night: On night trips, we usually sleep on the couches in the living area. The large glass door is pushed open and sensibly latched. Then we can hear the noise of the sails and the sound of the stern water. Both provide information about whether the journey is going well. Moreover, these couches are in the middle of the ship, where the movements are the least and you can therefore sleep well. When sleeping becomes difficult, because you can clearly feel the port float rising completely out of the water, vibrating through the air before it dives back into the next wave, and you can hear some waves slapping against the hulls with force, then, yes then, you long for an ideal sailing day. With a nice wind force 4, smooth water and elegant gliding of the boat. Unfortunately, such days are rare and often the weather conditions don’t last a whole day – sigh – sailing remains an adventure 😉

Keyword adventure: In the sequence of pictures below you can see a night manoeuvre. With a base wind of around 18 knots, a gust of over 30 knots comes sweeping in. We sail with the genoa. Mathias steers the boat downwind to take the pressure off the sail. I had already heard that something was wrong. Together we furl the genoa and set the jib. (These short track changes are not shown in the satellite track, as a position point is “only” sent there every 2 hours).

Day 12: Probably only one more sail through the night until we will make a stopover on Tortola. The island belongs to the British Virgin Islands (BVI), is a base for many boat charter companies and therefore has good sailing equipment shops. Another advantage: English is spoken. Disadvantage: You have to go to a marina, there are no anchorages in the harbour area. Hm, did I just write “disadvantage”? According to the guidebook, the facilities are linked to nice hotels with swimming pools and all kinds of luxury. Perhaps not at all wrong after our crossing? There we can look at the luxury while we check out the sailing supply shops, make repairs, free the SAN from its salt crust and move things back from the floor to their places in the interior. But, British Virgin Islands, maybe there’s some delicious fish and chips somewhere 😉

But there was also a surprise on the last night at sea: when we zoomed in further on the chart on the plotter, we could see a small island. We were heading straight for it. So we had to adjust our course. The island was not illuminated:

Arrived safely in Road Town, Tortola !!!!!

On the 13th day, after a little less than 12 x 24 hours.

Successfully crossed the Caribbean Sea. And that with the replacement autopilot, which had to be corrected every now and then and can only steer “heading hold”, i.e. could not be set to maintain a certain angle to the wind.

You can see our route on the map. The red line is still from 2019 from the outward journey with the prevailing wind direction. The many blue dots mark the route from near Panama City to the British Virgin Islands.

However, my anticipation of Tortola was dampened. The hotel complex is very small, the pool only suitable for splashing around and the people rather unfriendly. More about this and Mathias’ odyssey when clearing in in the next report…

Footnotes for non-sailors:

1 Tacking = zigzagging against the wind and only progressing very slowly towards the destination

2 Clew = corner of the sail to which the sheets are attached.

3 A bowline is a knotted loop connection.

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