Porthpean Sailing Club  


Pete Barnes & Dave Mackrell, sailed from Tenerife to Antigua, in November 2008. This is an account of their voyage written by Pete........

This is a personal journal and an expression of an absurd romance; a romance which is born in that beautiful balance between wind and water. It’s a romance that I share with most of you. You know sailing is merely a harnessing of kinetic energy, the creation of a natural equilibrium. You know the science, but it is the harmony generated in that balance which triggers the passion; a passion that drew more than a few of you to take Dave’s call for a crew to sail a yacht from Tenerife to Antigua seriously. Thus it began.

I am one of those travellers you see tripping over their own suitcase, fumbling through bags for tickets in their trouser pockets. The check-in girls receive them with sympathetic looks and motherly eyes; and to be honest, a little reassuring squeeze would not have gone amiss when I nearly missed the link flight to Tenerife from Madrid Airport; and a little “There, there, here it comes.” would have been welcome when the baggage handlers kept my bag in for detention at Tenerife South.

Stepping into a hot wind and glaring sunshine, a taxi driver, be suited in maroon livery, spotted me and my bad bag and whisked us off to the Marina San Miguel. The fare was worth it just for the sheer opulence of being chauffeured in a white Mercedes Benz to the yacht marina. It’s easy to get style beyond your origins and that puffed-up farm boy who said “Ah, there’s my yacht. Oh, keep the change” knew he was shamelessly slipping into a dream.

Yacht Itza Purla is a 36’ Oyster and even through a farm boy’s eyes she oozed a stately sea-worthiness. She looked rigged to withstand anything the Atlantic could throw at her; but dreams are light and airy, the ocean deep and scary. She was moored on a pontoon, dwarfed by a large motor cruiser, built with enough GRP to mould five proper boats. Itza Purla (IP herein) is a cutter-rigged cruiser with large cuddy amidships to protect the cockpit. She has a walk-on bow sprit and a sugar scoop below the aft davits, which make her up to 41’. She has a forward sail locker and a cabin in the fore-peak, which in rough weather can afford its occupants the sensation of zero gravity for seconds on end. Fortunately Dr Dave and his lumpy legs slept here; more of those later, in the section “Life in a tumble dryer.” The heads and the Captain’s cabin are amidships, which is the most stable area in the boat and also allows the captain, in those waking moments, an awareness of his crews’ gastric well-being. Life on a 40 footer is not for the coy, or the shy. IP had a well-stocked fridge and freezer, situated at the end of a corridor galley, which in turn leads to the after-cabin dining room.

She is a stout and well-crafted yacht whose interior can best be described as a family album displayed in a gentlemen’s club. Therefore it was no surprise to be introduced to her by her owner Charles, who is the quintessential English gentleman. His kind smile put me at ease and his eagerness to listen rather than talk, proved him to be a man slow to judge and careful in his appraisal. I had hardly been introduced to IP before Dr Dave turned up. He disguised it well, but the relief of my appearance was palpable; as if I would get on the wrong plane, or even listen unselfishly to what my beautiful wife was crying out with unspoken words. His smile belied a man who ought to be rolling around, scratching in a frenzy. He had legs like Morris dancers’ jiggling sticks; all lumps and bumps. There must have been a mosquito on the boat, swollen like a transfusion bag. Dave and Charles watched me unpack and stow my kit with an amused interest. Three week’s worth of underpants and socks, woolly hats x 2, woolly jumpers x 2 and a pristine pair of deck shoes, which I thought would betoken my nautical credentials. It seems deck shoes are bought and worn at boat shows only, and life on a small yacht in these latitudes is lived in shorts and T-shirts alone. Dr Dave had that quiet, sanguine expression he had when he diagnosed my abdominal pains as wind. He had the air of a man at ease and reinforced my opinion; he is just a likeable hippy, who has to wear a tie.

The Three Sailors in Antigua We enjoyed a farewell to Tenerife dinner at a marina-side café. The food and beer were good and the conversation easy. We agreed how essential it was we rub along together, which is a tall order for three guys from very different walks of life, who barely know each other and will be confined to caravan living; a caravan without a door. Dinner was rounded off with phone calls home; there is no connection once at sea, and e-mails are just words, not voices. Jan wanted to know all about IP. Once satisfied she sounded seaworthy, an in-depth analysis of her captain began.
“What’s he like?”
“Well, he’s tall, very English and got a moustache.”
“Sounds like Basil Fawlty.”
“Yeah. That’s who he reminds me of.”
“Oh God, you’re going to sea with a manic lunatic. Wear your lifejacket, even in bed.”
“Bye Love. Speak to you in three weeks or so.”

You kind of know when things are going to get out of hand with Jan, and when reticence is the only remedy. We left the café in good cheer, although I did keep a close eye on Charles’s stride, I saw no signs of exaggerated silliness.

To rise at dawn on the day you are going to fulfil a dream, is to waken the schoolchild who lives within us all; the child for whom the first day of summer holiday is the beginning of all things possible. As I watched the clouds clear from El Pico del Teide, the volcano that dominates south Tenerife, I felt the mundane Mondays and routine meetings evaporate with them. Dave came on deck with a broad and happy smile, a man who also felt the clouds disperse; his a smile born in the joy of a bird released.

There was not much time for the safety talk. We cast off at 08.30 am on 23 November and motored clear of the marina. Captain Charles knows that sea legs are earned through bumps and bruises, but to have to witness his crew skittering around the deck like drunken ballet dancers whilst trying to hoist sails must have been a woeful sight for him. We both made the same mistake, using our hands and arms to balance with, rather than hold on with. Genoa and mainsail set, IP plunged through the waves and Dave’s smile expressed the joie de vivre we all felt. Although standing well south, we caught the wind shadow of the island of Gomera. “Soddem.” We said, as the shadow released us, and we made sure the next island, El Hierro was safely distant.

The Canary Islands are high and it took a long time to be finally sailing free of the sight of land. It is at that point though, that you feel that the voyage has really begun. Just after dawn, twenty two hours out from Tenerife, the first dolphins came swimming in the bow wave. This truly is blue sea, blue sky sailing; romping along on a beam reach in a warm and steady nor-easterly, force four. With IP on auto helm, I sat on the foredeck with legs dangling just above the bow wave. The dolphins darted just under the bow, turning at the last moment. One of them swam on his side as if to look into my eyes. Perhaps it was Bill Bryson’s book, ‘A Short History of nearly Everything’, which set me thinking about life on earth as infinite and perpetual; a series of atoms being jigged and rejigged to form all life and matter from which nothing really dies, but is merely rearranged. Draw from this, heresy or simplicity. I don’t know which but the beauty and grace within that intimacy wet my cheeks and tears and sea water taste alike and purge births deaths, ages and sorrows. Moments, revelations, call them what you will, are what a voyage like this are all about. The whirling dervish Rumi, chanted to create the poem called Zero Circle.

If we are too dull-eyed to see that beauty,
If we say we can, we are lying,
If we say No, we don’t see it
That No will behead us
And shut tight our window onto spirit.

Although a wholly inconclusive sentiment, a blind acceptance of the exhilaration I felt with those dolphins swimming around my feet affords a truth somewhere through that window.

Dolphins seem interested in human activity and although the above philosophy leaves anthropomorphism dead in the water, so to speak, it is easy to see why Flipper was the Lassie of the sea and Moby Dick the voracious, boat-eating ogre. We spotted a school of whales later that morning and eagerly ran on deck with cameras to capture this rare spectacle. The whales slumped along just distant enough to make it difficult to focus before slipping under the waves, oblivious of our mammalian unity. Maybe they thought we were Japanese ‘researchers’; whatever the case, I was glad they were not too frolicsome.

We found each other’s company easy and naturally dropped into our roles; Dave as communications, Charles captain and maintenance, and me as cook. As a cook with store cupboards stocked as well as they were and a little imagination, I couldn’t go wrong. Galley-cooking at sea requires every move to be planned, a lesson learned quickly. The opened tin of tomatoes left on the side whilst you look for a tea spoon to add a little sugar to them, is the tin of tomatoes on the floor with the sugar caddy on the back of the head, if you don’t. I once wrote in a sentimental moment, a poem entitled ‘Cooking is Loving.’ I shall perhaps parody it with a maritime take ‘Cooking is Bruising.’ When it’s rough it really does pay to keep it simple. Fish steaks baked in the oven and a boiled egg, onion and red pepper kedgeree is simple enough and got eaten to the last grain of rice; a good sign. We enjoyed a lot of fresh fish courtesy of Charles’ magic fishing tackle box. We caught a fish called Mahe Mahe which comes on deck a brilliant, fluorescent yellow and blue colour. It is a very tasty fish and even a small one was enough to feed all three of us. Later in the voyage, we caught what they call in the Caribbean, a Wahoo, or King Mackerel. This fish fed us for two days, and it is easy to see why it is regarded as a delicacy on the islands

This morning, saw another beautiful dawn and we discussed sail plan as the wind had shifted to be square on to our transom. We dropped the mainsail and poled out the genoa to port and a lighter genoa on the starboard bow. You would think a round-bilged boat, with opposing sails like this would rock and roll uncomfortably, but one sail acts as a damper to the other and steadies her well. We enjoyed breakfast in the sunshine, pleased with IP, who was averaging over five knots in gentle airs. By mid day Dave and I thought Atlantic sailing was about finding somewhere comfortable enough to sunbathe and read for hours on end. The afternoon saw the wind ease further and the sails began to slat. It wears the gear and frays the nerves, especially when the log shows a meagre four knots. Captain Charles opted to use the engine to get IP back to a reasonable speed. With the light genoa, furled a little and the main sail sheeted, we began twenty hours of motor sailing. We did switch the engine off when the wind picked up enough to push us along at top side of five knots but the gradient wind was light and only increased when squeezed under the thunder clouds that followed us.

In the late afternoon, Charles set up a regular radio link with a Canadian weather station which is run by a fellow with a truly beneficent soul. He comes on air every day, all year round, with laudable dedication. He receives calls from craft in the North Atlantic, from Tenerife to Toronto and down to Puerto Rico. He takes your position, and then gets back to you a little later. A typical call will go as follows: “This is yacht Itza Purla, Itza Purla, Itza Purla calling South Bound Two;” followed by your position, barometric pressure, wind speed, direction and sea state. After a pause whilst other craft register, we are re-contacted.
“IP, IP, IP, this is South Bound. Do you copy?”
“Hi Herb. Copy you well.”
“It looks like your wind has eased a bit. Suggest you get down to 17N. Could be some messy stuff where you are. The upper atmosphere is drawing cold air, creating unstable convection activity and rapid cloud formation. Be aware of possible squalls under these clouds. Have a good watch. South Bound over.”
“Thanks Herb. Contact tomorrow. IP out.”

Dave and I are speechless in the face of such omnipotence. It’s as if he can see the thunder clouds on our horizon; as if he felt that first splash of rain. The ancient Greeks painted an eye on the prow of their triremes in search of heavenly vision. What would they have made of such insight and selflessness? I suspect they would have tried to capture and possess him with the mentality of the organisers of the ARC, who adopted possession of their weather data. They did this by issuing their subscribers with coded names of sea areas. Surely exclusivity has no place in the unity of mariners.

That night we had the most spectacular light show. The lightning seemed constant, as the horizon was lit by one flash, another illuminated the sky before it ended. The show went on for hours, until disappearing below the curvature of the world and leaving us with reflected flashes under the distant clouds. It was a sky alive with electricity.

I know little about atmospheric ions, only that they are the catalysts that put the wow into dawn light. The first light had a yellow hue which gradually turned orange and crimson under the cumulus clouds. The flying fish skipped their gossamer passage over the wave crests as the sea turned from black to the deepest blue. Its odd how those ions can touch you with a perfect light and make daybreak a place for real contemplation. That is the beauty of ocean sailing and paradoxically, desert travel where they say you lose the man and find the soul. I don’t know about the soul, but I do know the breath and light of such mornings is more beautiful than I have words for.

It was great to switch the engine off and to be sailing. We were all eager to get the very best out of IP and as the wind looked steady now the light genoa poled out to starboard and the cruising spinnaker to port afforded the largest sail area we had. What a beautiful sight this expanse of sail, charging along over a choppy sea at over six knots; the hull hissing as she surfed the waves until IP shuddered to a halt. The mast head shackle gave way to allow the spinnaker to fall under her straining the pole to near breaking point and allowing the spinnaker to hang like a sumo wrestler’s pants around her hull. We quickly swung her head to wind and with much wrestling and cursing, worked the clew to a point where we could undo the guy. The rest was easy and amazingly, no damage was done; just a spinnaker halyard at the top of the mast, and a spinnaker pole that needed a bit of jiggery-pokery. IP is a well-maintained boat; this and an impeller on the engine’s water pump were the only problems on the voyage. The impeller shattered and Captain Charles spent a couple of happy hours wedged in the bowels of the boat, picking metal shards from the heat exchanger, before fitting a spare. IP is a solid boat in safe hands and Dave and I, as rookies, were grateful for that.

Each day melds into the next. Three hours on watch, six hours off, each day focuses around dinner, talking to Herb and the calculation of our twenty-four hour run. To wake here on a Sunday is to declutch the fishing reels, take a tour of the deck, checking for frayed lines, and to throw the flying fish back. They tend to be fairly small. They have large, saucer eyes that have that I’ve lost my Mum look about them. Their flight over the waves is a miracle of aerodynamics and their lives are in pursuit of avoiding pursuit. For little fish so far down the food change the ability to disappear into a different environment and reappear is as neat a trick as any evolutionary solution to defence can be.

We keep sailing south in search of that chariot the trade wind, coming for to carry us home, but Herb never seems satisfied the messy stuff is abaft enough for us to head west. The Cape Verdes far behind us, sailing at 17N, the crew of this dry ship are hankering for beer and becoming more frustrated by the fickle breezes until the wind began to fill in from the north, and a lumpy sea made the winged out genoas hard to keep driving. Before night fall a change to a more conventional rig of genoa and mainsail was thought to be prudent, and a twenty degree shift of heading made us feel Antigua bound. The sea had a westerly ground swell and a northerly chop which can be harbingers of a change in the weather. As the waves built, IP wagged her bum, wallowed for a moment, before taking off at a spirited eight knots down the waves. This is good sailing. A displacement boat has a limited speed, governed by its waterline and IP was often exceeding that limit, it was as if she was itching to be free and we were happy for her liberty. The after dinner chat was all about what we would do when we got to Antigua, other than swimming and guzzling beer. Sails bagged and dinner cleared up we had more time for coffee and lumps of chocolate whilst Charles educated the uneducated in yacht cruising. Maybe a reef in the main, to be on the safe side, as the wind increased and the sea looked purposeful. Wind talks to those who listen, and too much after-dinner chat can mute a quiet and insidious moan, can overlook an unhappy whistling and can be rudely awakened to a singing, which becomes a howling. We had the main fully reefed and the genoa furled to the size of a baggy bikini brief before the octaves pitched much above howling. The waves, like that family at the end of the estate, you don’t want to mix with, came jostling and shoving, taking liberties with IP’s bum. They scooted her down them too fast for the auto helm to cope and gave us some heart-in-your mouth moments. The wind, which I think was Herb’s messy stuff, had finally caught up with us. What was forecast as a squall, held at over thirty five knots all night. We were glad to see the back of that unseemly crowd and grateful for IP’s ladylike qualities which allowed her dignity never to be in question.

There is an advantage in writing this journal fresh off the boat because memory has a way of siphoning off the discomfort and keeping only the fun and uplifting moments. Sometimes it was very hot; enough to drain you and sometimes choppy enough for you to get thrown across the boat if you missed your handhold. It was those hot days when you couldn’t get comfortable for the bruises on the bruises that make you long to jump in the sea. It was on one of those days; a day dreaming with a book on my lap day, that I was startled into a ridiculous reality; one in which I caught a glimpse of Robinson Crusoe, stark naked and playing peek-a-boo behind the mast. I guessed it was the heat playing tricks, and was pleased with the realisation it was only Dr Dave showing his credentials as a God-fearing man, safe in the knowledge that a cleansing of the body is a prerequisite for a cleansing of the soul. In fact, bath time on IP is an un-edifying event and I am only glad there were no horses or children aboard. Three skinny men wobbling about with sea water hose in one hand and a bar of soap in the other. We used a pressurised container of the kind you would use to spray the roses, filled with fresh water for the final dousing, and although refreshing for a moment, a layer of salt soon coated the skin again.

The miles to go were now measured in days and all the milestone syrup puddings had been eaten; beer and swimming seemed just around the corner. The human psyche is an unfathomable mess and why we should be feeling Sunday morning lethargy this close to the end of the trip is illogical. Yet here we were, digesting the biggest fried breakfast, fondly prepared by our good captain, when yacht 0Ayesha was inconsiderate enough to send an emergency call
“Pan pan, yacht on our port quarter. This is yacht Ayesha of Yealm. We have been dismasted and require assistance.”

They have no idea of our full-bellied torpor, or what an intrusion on our Sunday morning day-dreaming their crisis was. Yet we were becoming more intrigued by this bright orange isosceles triangle that kept disappearing below the long, rolling waves. After another round of toast marmalade and more coffee, we came within hailing distance of Yacht Ayesha. The crew, two grumpy Devonians, had cleverly arranged a jury rig utilising the boom, spinnaker pole and the mast stub. They only requested diesel, of which we floated sixty five litres, our reserve, to them. We did our best to give them good cheer, but having sailed all the way from Yealmton in Devon to within four hundred miles of Antigua before disaster struck, theirs was sheer frustration. Their planned Caribbean cruising was now going to be weeks of insurance wrangles and hanging around the boat yard, whilst Ayesha would undergo a complete re-rig. We bid them a cheery wave and promised we would think of them whilst we drank long cold glasses of beer in a beach-side bar, but somehow they looked even more dejected.

Squalls are perhaps the most dangerous hazard of yacht cruising; they are usually heralded by a darker sky. The weather systems in the Atlantic are so vast it is impossible to predict with confidence where or how strong a squall can be, but a vigilant daytime watch can often spot the clouds which might be compressing air under them. The night watch though, with no moon light, suggests prudence and a reduced rig makes sense. Yacht cruising is about getting from A to B safely and all that kinetic energy in harmony nonsense means nothing to the sailor with his sails reefed to tea towel and tablecloth, and his oil skins tied so tight, only his eyes are exposed. All that beautiful, primal, precariousness has no place in getting a crew and a good boat home. In here lies a lesson that I am ashamed found me sadly wanting. Two days out from Antigua on the 3 am to 6 am watch, IP making six knots on auto helm, a dinghy sailor switched it off, knowing with a bit of concentration he could get her sailing at top side of seven knots. The wind fifteen to eighteen knots, a large following sea and IP and he in harmony. I can’t say he didn’t see the sky turn black. I can’t say he didn’t consider furling the genoa, but IP and he were deep in his romance. That was until the dinghy sailor was caught in the rain with no wet weather gear, and an auto helm alarm, telling him it was too far out of its parameters to switch it back on. IP was now surfing the waves at over nine knots and to take those dinghy sailor’s hands off the wheel for a moment would have been an inevitable broach. The primal beauty washed over the deck, leaving only the precariousness. Captain Charles, woken from what never amounted to more than a cat nap came on deck.
“I think IP is trying to tell me something; you reckon we should reduce that genoa a bit?”
“That’s better, yeah.”
“Night Pete. Are you OK?”
“Yeah fine.”
“Well that’s good then, ‘night.”

Five minutes later, Dr Dave’s sleepy head appeared through the companion way.
“Morning Doc. Sleep well?”
“I did until someone switched the auto helm off. Been a bit of a white-knuckle ride in the forepeak/tumble dryer.”
“You mean you can tell when the boat is being hand steered?”
“Yeah. It can get a bit lively.”
I thought about Dave and those inflamed legs cannoned around below and “Sorry” seemed somehow inadequate.

When you approach an island from the sea, it’s just a misty smudge, easily mistaken for a cloud but as you get closer the smudge takes form until it is possible to interpret that form on the chart. Just twenty one days out and here we are, sliding past the reef that protects English Harbour sliding from one dream into another. We spotted a white sand beach with palm trees and rickety jetties jutting into the sea. Dave and I rowed around, pulled the dinghy onto dry sand. I felt my feet running full tilt over the wooden slats and felt this skinny body arms and legs out-stretched take to the air; and Oh sweet Jesus; life is such a celebration.

A journal, at best, can only be a compression of moments, impressions and thoughts, but I hope this heartfelt and muddled amalgam gives you a taste of what has been a wonderful experience, enabled by Dr Dave and the kind generosity of Captain Charles and a dictum of my father.
“Listen always to your heart before your head.”

Return to the beach.