North Atlantic crossing to Azores 25th May 2017

category 2017, North Atlantic]

Hi everyone

All is well aboard Blue Heeler. Here’s the diary so far:

Day four: Tuesday 23rd May..Two years since sailing this route and the conditions are a little kinder. Northeast winds have shifted to easterly so we are travelling further to the north east on a course of 020degrees. The winds are expected to shift further south helping us to maintain our course. Our aim is to reach 34degrees latitude and catch the bottom of a passing low and ride this on an easterly course to the Azores. Winds are no more than 12kn and averaging 8-10kn. Seas are slight and the air is warm during the day and cool in the wee hours of the morning as I sit on watch. We haven’t seen any other boats since Inishnee disappeared ahead of us on the AIS. But last night the glow of a vessel on the horizon had me wondering who that may be.

Day five: Wednesday 24th May. After a calm evening, but still managing to sail at 4.5kn, we put up our spinnaker in between having our morning coffees. With the wind now coming from the southeast and still around 10knots our vessel needs a helping hand to shift all 12 tonnes of Blue Heeler in light breezes. Before long we were moving along at 6.5kn with only 9-10kn of wind. Perfect! With the wind forecast to remain the same, we kept the spinny up all day and even threw the night snuffing it the following morning when the breeze strengthened.

Day six: Thursday 25th May. Another glorious sailing day! Wind is 12-15kn from the southeast and our course is 040degrees. We are sailing at 6.5kn and settled into the rhythm of the ocean passage. Skipper relaxed and looking forward to a piece of stowaway cheesecake for dessert!

Latest position: Direct distance to Azores: 1829nm

Date/time(UTC)/position: Thursday 25th May 2017 / 1530UTC / 27deg31min N 062deg46min W.


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North Atlantic crossing to Azores – 22 May 2017

Hi everyone

It’s so nice to be away from the sounds of St Maarten: the vibrating buzz of low flying aircraft, the doof-doof music from nearby nightclubs and the constant VHF chatter! Once again the deep indigo ocean extends to all horizons as we gently ride the slight swells on our way to another land. The sky is opaque like a steamed up mirror, with glimpses of blue sky showing through. It’s quite warm – 30degC in the saloon – and all is well aboard. We are making slow but steady progress in the light conditions.

Here’s the diary so far:

Day one: we left St Maarten mid morning on Saturday 20th May and headed to the west of the island then sailed on a northerly course. Unfortunately the forecast easterly winds were in fact light north easterly winds which meant we sailed close to the wind and travelled further west than we would’ve liked. Behind us is the US yacht “Inishnee” and Aussie Mark aboard “Sealife”. Winds are generally 7-10kn from the northeast, our course over ground is 340deg.

Day two: Sunday 21st May. Despite the calm winds, we managed to clock over 100nm the first 24 hours, but still heading further west rather than north. Ideally this leg of the trip should be northerly as far up as possible (up towards Bermuda) to catch the westerly winds from passing lows.
At 1100UTC I opened the SSB net for the small group of boats heading to the Azores. I can only hear a couple of them, but managed to get everyone’s positions through relay and later by Satphone SMS.
Had to run the engine today through a calm patch so decided to make water while we motor-sailed along. We have three weeks of sailing ahead so we have to use our diesel wisely.

Winds today same as yesterday, although a little lighter for a few hours. Still heading west but hope that changes on Monday.

Day three: Monday 22nd May. Happy Birthday to my brother Mick! Today we expect much of the same weather and fingers crossed we may get some south in the wind to guide us onto a more northerly course. We’ve settled quite quickly into our four hourly watches, no doubt due to the light conditions.

Latest position: Direct distance to Azores: 2110nm

Date/time(UTC)/position: Monday 22nd May 2017 / 1030UTC / 21deg02min N 063deg59min W.


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Destination: Azores, North Atlantic

As much as I like St Maarten, eight weeks is a long time here! Fortunately, besides working on Blue Heeler, there’s always Lagoonies, JabJabs, and the Yacht Club to get off the boat and catch up with friends.

Brian and Wayne enjoying a beer at Simpson Bay floating bar “JabJabs”

But tomorrow the weather is right and we are off to the Azores!

Sailors agree that the best time to cross from the Caribbean to the Azores is from mid May and June as high pressure systems make their way into the Horse Latitudes pushing those nasty low pressure systems farther north. (Apparently in the days of tall ships, to conserve precious water, sailors would sometimes throw the horses they were transporting overboard. Hence the phrase ‘horse latitudes’. Maybe they should have taken more water…).

This could be a challenging trip, particularly as we approach the Azores at 40 degrees north where there are a potential for large seas to knock us around. With the Atlantic hurricane season starting on 1st June, we are hopeful that we have a safe sail with no dramas! In 2015 our sail to Bermuda then New York was fine and we didn’t encounter any gales. This year the distance is far greater – 2300 to Azores then 1300 to UK – so our wait could be rewarded by favourable weather conditions.

Safety gear checked

Although we are heading into ‘summer’ it will be nothing like a Caribbean or Aussie summer. From the lockers I’ve uncovered and laundered polar fleeces, beanies, gloves, warm clothes and blankets. Further down in the lockers our Dubarry sea-boots have been revived with a generous smear of Dubbin wax to keep them dry (mine also have a good dollop of 3M-5200 sealer at the toes which deteriorated somewhere near South Africa!). Life jackets are re-armed with CO2 cannisters for automatic deployment in case we fall in the drink; grab bag stocked with all sorts of survival stuff is ready; safety gear and flares checked; jack-stays in place; rigging inspected; hull cleaned and cupboards stocked with food! Wayne has been super busy making sure the boat is in top shape for offshore sailing. Now, the whiteboard has no more jobs listed and I’m hoping it stays that way, at least until we reach the Azores!

Another few hand-made flags to my collection!

Blue Heeler carries 500 litres of diesel aboard (we will have to motor at least a few days as we cross the calms of the Horse Latitudes); gas bottles are filled and ready for cooking up plenty of meals; water tanks are filled with 400 litres of water, although we also have a watermaker; I whipped up a few of flags – one for Azores and one for Portugal (Azores is part of Portugal), plus another one for the Ocean Cruising Club as I’m not able to buy one out here.

We are as ready as we can be.

Unlike the Indian Ocean or South Atlantic crossings, I haven’t stocked up with many month’s worth of food. Sometimes it’s easy to go overboard (pardon the pun) with food, but this time I’ve kept it simple and plan to cook easy meals along the way. It’s only a few weeks after all and we definitely won’t starve!

Rob and Josien “Inish” left last week, already are 600nm away.

So that we can keep in touch with our sailor friends who are also making the crossing, I’ve organised an SSB net with about eight boats. Each morning, four vessels which have already left, report their positions and weather conditions. They are making good progress and will be around 700nm from us when we depart.  The call quality isn’t always good, but between us all we can usually hear each other. Other vessels will leave next week so we’ll be scattered across the North Atlantic.

Beers and Pizzas for crews heading to Azores.

While we are offshore I’ll be posting to this blog and the Blue Heeler Facebook page every few days so you can follow our voyage. Look out for Tweets now and again too which are also visible on the right hand side of this page (#BHAtlanticXing).

That’s it! It will take a few days to settle into our trip and get used to the effects of sleep deprivation then in around three weeks we should be in the Azores.

Until then… fair winds!

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April in St Maarten

Wikipedia map shows the Greater Antilles at the north of the Caribbean sea, and the Lesser Antilles to the east. St Maarten at the north east.

The small Caribbean island of French St Martin/Dutch St Maarten is located at the north-east of the Caribbean Sea – nestled between the Lesser Antilles to the south, and the Greater Antilles to the west. This is our third visit to St Maarten in as many years, and the second time preparing for a North Atlantic passage.

St Maarten is a convenient stop for sailors planning to sail offshore. There are well-stocked chandleries, sail lofts, excellent supermarkets, riggers, electricians, a good variety of eateries, and many helpful people too if you need a hand with anything. To acquaint visiting sailors with what’s going on, each morning at 7.30am on VHF10, Mike from Shrimpy’s Laundry & Yacht Services hosts a cruisers net where visiting sailors can learn about social events, where to find local businesses, to buy/sell items, or to just say hello. 

Boats can either anchor on the French side, or the Dutch side, but you must check into whichever country you’re anchored in. Once ashore, you can move around freely between both countries. If there’s a northerly swell, anchoring on the French Marigot Bay is disastrous; similarly if there’s a south-easterly swell, the Dutch Simpson Bay is untenable. But there’s always the lagoon, accessible from the Dutch and French sides, but be prepared for a welcoming committee of thousands of barnacles after just a couple of weeks. 

View of Simpson Bay – looks nice from this angle!

Obviously our biggest expense is the boat so it’s important we get the best prices on anything we need so that we can continue our sailing adventures. After researching online we usually find things much cheaper elsewhere and have them shipped. Despite St Maarten’s duty free status, some off-the shelf items here can still be more expensive than products from the UK or the US. One method I’ve used since I left Australia is to have a virtual mailbox in the US. Over the past few months I’d bought items for the boat so that when I arrived in St Maarten I consolidated the lot and had it shipped in one package. Local businesses are not forgotten though; chandleries, supermarkets, computer stores, restaurants, even our local shoe repair guy receives a good percentage of our sailing kitty!

Large items from the US can be shipped directly to St Maarten. As was the case with the purchase of three new Lifeline AGM batteries direct from Miami. Including shipping we saved a substantial US$200 per battery. Sometimes though it’s impossible to buy things locally; such as Navionics e-charts for UK and Europe. But I managed to purchase these direct from the UK (cheaper than the US) and they arrived via UPS within four days.

Heavy buggers those batteries!

To install the new batteries and discard the old, we needed stability. So we berthed at the Simpson Bay Marina (inside the lagoon) for a few nights. The batteries arrived the following day, delivered in one huge 180kg bundle! Wayne split the package and we lifted each 60kg battery onto the back of the marina’s golf cart then back to Blue Heeler. Using a pulley system through the aft-cabin hatch, within an hour we had removed the old heavy batteries and Wayne wired up the new ones. Perfect!

We were hoping to spend only a couple of days at the marina, but upon inspection of the wind pilot (which is our primary offshore steering method), Wayne decided to dismantle it and give it a good overhaul. Now it’s in good order for our voyage. I didn’t mind staying at the marina, as it was a treat to have the luxury of showers, toilets, and electricity for a few days. (And Burger King is across the road so I could easily grab a yummy ice-cream too!).

For internet, it was recommended to us to purchase a Chippie data SIM card (from UTS on the French side). For only 10Euros, we have unlimited internet for two weeks. The strong signal works on both the French and Dutch sides of the island. Now in the evenings, if we’re not out partying at the local nightclubs (ha!) we can watch online movies, documentaries, news shows, and research heaps of sailing stuff without worrying about blowing our gigabyte limit. Very impressed with Chippie!

Lagoonies Bar: Mark and Mike share their ocean crossing experience.

Now we’re back out in Simpson Bay’s cleaner water where we can swim and use our watermaker, and our hull is remaining relatively clean. Socially, now and again we’ll catch up for drinks with friends at Lagoonies bar, have a meal at cheap’n’cheerful Pineapple Petes or the Pizza Galley. One afternoon, to help cruisers prepare for their impending ocean crossings, a couple of sailors talked about their experiences crossing the North Atlantic to Bermuda or the Azores. A surprising number of people went along, so it looks like this year will have many sailors heading for Europe and Bermuda.

Storms still hanging around… we wait.

It’s generally agreed that the best time to leave is after mid-May as the weather improves, with 1st June the official beginning of the hurricane season. Already though the first tropical storm of the season – T.S. Arlene – appeared between Bermuda and the Azores. This was the highest and earliest on record, but already we can see the weather improving as we head into May. Fingers crossed!

Two years ago we left St Maarten and sailed to Bermuda, then onto New York. We left in mid May/early June and had a reasonable trip with no bad weather. So with May upon us, in only a few weeks we will sail to the Azores then onto the UK.

It’s important we get the timing right.

So as we wait for optimal weather, we are making sure everything aboard Blue Heeler is ship-shape for the impending voyage.

Until then…

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St Barths Bucket

From the rolly anchorage of Montserrat to the chic streets of St Barths is an 80nm voyage.  Rather than sail overnight and have to deal with the tiredness which tends to inflict crew on a single night sail, we hoisted the yellow pratique flag and dropped anchor at Ballast Bay, off the island of St Kitts. Our home for the night only as we would leave bright and early the following day to sail the remaining 45nm.

With a forecast wind shifting to a north-easterly breeze, motoring anti-clockwise around the south of St Kitts presented a kinder wind angle to sail to St Barths. Turned out to be a good decision as the wind shifted a little more north.

Comfortable sailing with full sails and a 20kn breeze was a nice change from beating to wind. Over those two days sailing our Windpilot steered the boat as it hasn’t been used much over the past year and we wanted to make sure it was working well for our upcoming ocean crossing.

As we approached St Barths, our chart plotter lit up with dozens of boats sailing clockwise around St Barths and heading directly at us as we sailed in from the south east. Our timing couldn’t have been better – we were approaching St Barths at the same time as the fleet of super yachts in the annual St Barths Bucket Regatta!

It was a real treat to see such beautiful multi-million dollar yachts with their massive brightly coloured spinnakers billowing high into the as they gibed south around the island towards the finish line just outside the Port of Gustavia.

Once they’d gibed, we were to leeward of the fleet all sailing in the same direction. It would have been easy for us to harden the sails, change course and head across the finish line. But with a bicycle, jerry cans of fuel, and dinghy on deck we thought better of it. At least we had full sails and weren’t reefed in case we ended up on one of the finish line photos!

We last visited St Barths a couple of years ago, so thought we’d hang around a few days this time as the weather was forecast to be stable. The check-in at the Capitainerie in the Port of Gustavia is a simple online system and retained our boat information from our previous visit, unlike the usual online check-ins at other French islands. It’s all very straightforward and anchoring out in the bay costs around 10 Euros per night – easy.

In this part of the world are many of the world’s most luxurious super yachts owned by famous and wealthy folks (doesn’t include us!). I’d love to get aboard one of those beauties and have a look inside. I Googled one nearby vessel – the 76m luxury yacht “Axioma” – and it’s available for charter at US$525,000 per week but they offer discounts in the off-season!

St Barths has many fancy restaurants and bars, a chandlery and heaps of other fine stores. But a bar that serves cheap and cheerful food and is usually pretty full with salty sailors using the free wifi is ‘La Selection’. For those that want to recycle unwanted clothing and items, I was surprised to discover a Croix Rouge shop (Red Cross shop) up behind the town.

Overlooking the Port of Gustavia, St Barths

After St Barths we sailed the 15nm trip across to the familiar French/Dutch island of St Martin/Sint Maarten.

St Martin is a place to restock, fit, fix and replace things so our stay is never entirely for pleasure. New Lifeline batteries are on their way from the US plus a few other items struggling to find their way here from various places around the globe. Hopefully this time we won’t be here more than we need to!

Even the impressive luxury yachts need some down time and the Simpson Bay marinas have many of the finest super yachts in for maintenance of rigging, cleaning, polishing, and no doubt restocking the caviar and cigars.

So we’ll be here for a few of weeks to do a few jobs aboard our own little bucket!

Bye for now.

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