Atlantic Crossing: Week 3

Day 14: Chasing zephyrs and chance encounters

Sunday, May 19, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 33°55.438’N, 43°21.175’W
Distance sailed: 1,712 nm
Distance to Horta: 761 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 104 nm
Wind is north(ish) at 2-3 knots; cloudy with sunny breaks.

Yesterday we passed 45 degrees west longitude, marking another time zone change, so this morning we adjusted our clocks on board. We’re now on UTC-1, just one hour different than the Azores.

Unfortunately, the progress east hasn’t resulted in a change in the wind. The blue-purple blob that you see on the weather maps is a high-pressure area that just seems to be moving along with us. The bits of northerly winds that the weather maps suggested we might get haven’t really materialized. We’ve sailed a little (chasing zephyrs), but for the most part we’ve had the motor running to make progress towards Horta.

We’ve now used about half of the fuel we had when we set out from St. Martin. The hope was, obviously, to be able to sail most of the way, but these sorts of lulls in the wind are not uncommon for boats on this passage. We had therefore stocked a big extra fuel bladder in addition to our main tank and a further six jerry cans, just in case. I’m glad we did.

No complaints, however, because as with the day before, the last 24 hours have also been filled with some magic. The dolphin and whale encounters of two days ago turned out to be just an appetizer, because yesterday was the main course.

At around 6 p.m. four dolphins showed up and started playing in our bow wave. I’m glad that they chose one of the rare times recently when we’ve been able to sail! We marveled at them darting around and gliding in front of the boat for ten minutes before they swam off behind us, then we sat down on deck to process the experience. The dolphins weren’t done, however; within minutes they came rushing back, and this time with friends!

Suddenly there were dolphins charging towards the boat from all directions. Before long, a pod of over two dozen dolphins was swimming and leaping around the boat, some just centimeters in front of our bow. These were dolphins young and old… smaller ones only a few feet long were just as eager as the larger ones as big as us, and it seemed like each one of them wanted a turn right in front of the boat. When their turn was done and they swam to the side, they’d often jump; one or two did a flip. Looking down from the bowsprit, you could even hear the squeaky chirps of their communication. While we have really no idea what they’re feeling, you can’t watch dolphins darting around like this without seeing them as playful, happy creatures, and feeling that sense of joy as well.

All of this went of for half an hour, before finally they turned as a group and swam off into the distance leaving Glenda and I sitting in wonder at what we had just seen.

This morning turned out to be dessert. At around 9 a.m., some of the dolphins returned and we scrambled up on deck to watch them play off the bow – a sight that never gets old. We were motoring this time and not moving as fast, so after a few minutes the dolphins seemed to lose interest and swam off.

But as we raised our eyes from staring down in the water at the dolphins, we immediately saw a family of humpback whales ~500 meters off to the side. The adult whales were rolling and repeatedly slapping their fins on the water while what looked like two smaller whales swam nearby. We slowed the boat down and watched the show for a while before the whales started to fade into the distance behind us. [ETA: After looking closely at the photos, we now think it was one humpback whale and a small pod of pilot whales!]

Seeing these majestic and intelligent creatures 1,500 km from land, far away from any evidence of humanity, is an experience we’ll never forget and a powerful reminder of how we share this beautiful world with others.

Day 15: Well, it is a SAIL boat

Monday, May 20, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 34°18.902’N, 41°40.355’W
Distance sailed: 1,797 nm
Distance to Horta: 677 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 85 nm
Wind is west at 6 knots; cloudy with sunny breaks.

Last night we had our first dolphin visit in the dark. At first it was just the occasional odd-sounding splash, but then looking out in the moonlight we could see dorsal fins pierce the surface beside us and hear the dolphins’ blows. I don’t know if we happened to sail across them while the pod was sleeping or if they were just up late and curious, but a dolphin visit is always fun.

Dawn on May 20th

The last 24 hours really marks the end of the middle stage of this trip. Instead of generally making progress east and north across the Atlantic and avoiding the worst of the weather that comes our way (or trying to get out of these light winds), the discussions with our weather router are now focussing on the week ahead and the final run into Horta in the Azores. The good news is that by the end of today the winds should catch up with us and give us good sailing conditions the rest of the way.

The complication is that this nice wind is coming from a front pushing across, and so with it will come some rainy weather and, if we don’t pick our route carefully, possibly more wind than we’d really like. We are going to try and work our way to the north side of the front over the next couple of days where the weather should be clearer and we can enjoy the run into Horta from there.

This morning, however, threw us a bit of a curveball. We are still in the light winds, and early this morning Glenda turned on the engine so we could motor for a while. Suddenly, the bilge alarm went off and there was diesel exhaust in the cabin. We quickly shut off the engine and investigated to find that the exhaust pipe on the back of the engine (technically the exhaust elbow for those familiar with marine diesels) had completely sheared along a weld, allowing the cooling water and exhaust gas to spill into the boat rather than overboard.

Although we have some extra exhaust hose and are working on a patch that might work temporarily, the safest thing to do now is to leave the engine off unless there’s an emergency and assume that we will sail the rest of the way.

As mentioned, the winds are looking up, and after all, it is a SAIL boat. We have lots of food and water, and our solar panels provide all the electricity we need for our instruments, communications systems, autopilot, watermaker, lights, etc. So we’re good – it’s just slow going right now while we wait for the wind. If it takes us an extra day to get to Horta, that’s okay.

Day 16: Adrift

Tuesday, May 21, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 34°52.906’N, 40°16.093’W
Distance sailed: 1,874 nm
Distance to Horta: 601 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 77 nm
Wind is SSW at 15 knots; cloudy with some sun.

The light winds continued all yesterday afternoon and into the evening. While I sat in the cockpit and refined my sail trimming skills, Mike used some spare hose, hose clamps, and liquid gasket compound to patch up the broken exhaust elbow, then left it to sit for 24 hours to let it all cure. When we tested it this morning, everything looked great: the exhaust fumes and water were once again being pumped out of the boat. We should now be able to use the motor long enough to get ourselves on anchor when we arrive in Horta – we will test it one more time when we get there just to be sure, and if it looks sketchy we can always call the marina or the coast guard for a tow.

Sailing in light winds is an exercise in patience. On calm water, you can drift along quite well, using each little puff of wind to gain speed, and keep your forward momentum. On the ocean, however, the constant swell knocks the boat around too much – just as you start to speed up you get hit by a wave, which flops the wind out of the sails, and slows you down again. The rocking motion of the boat confuses the autopilot, as it struggles to make sense of the false readings from the wind instruments. Putting the autopilot on a direction-based setting helps a bit, but only to a point – if the winds change direction but your sails don’t, it really doesn’t help you go any faster. It was interesting to see what our respective thresholds were for how much flopping we could take before standing up to hand steer the boat, only to give up again and return to using the autopilot.

The winds continued to drop all afternoon and into the night. By 9:30 p.m., the wind disappeared completely, and the ocean came to a standstill. Mike furled up both foresails, tied off the main so it could no longer move (to reduce wear and tear from the bouncing boom), and settled down to let the boat drift as it wanted (and had a quick visit from a few dolphins!). When I got up at 11 p.m., the ocean looked like glass – moonlight reflecting off flat water, with barely a ripple anywhere. This is not something I would have ever expected to see in the middle of the Atlantic!

By midnight, the winds came back – from the south, as per the forecast – and I slowly got the boat sailing again, just as I would have even if the engine had been working. If anything, we are now preparing for a few days of bigger winds – defrosting one-pot meals for dinner and making sure we get lots of rest throughout the day, in case we have to be awake more than usual overnight.

We were remembering yesterday that this is not the first time that we have had to sail Innisfree a long distance without being able to use the engine. Back in 2022, we had our engine mounts fail when we were 90 nautical miles from the nearest (very small) town, way up north on the coast of British Columbia. That adventure took us 36 hours to get back to town, involved about 6 hours of drifting the wrong direction in adverse current (and close to the path of an oncoming tugboat!), and ended with us being towed into the harbour after sunset by a 110-foot sailboat. Our current version of this story involves a longer distance to travel to reach port, but it is reassuring to know that we have done this once before and will be able to successfully do it again.

Day 17: Run like you stole something

Wednesday, May 22, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 36°47.521’N, 39°10.912’W
Distance sailed: 2,018 nm
Distance to Horta: 522 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 144 nm
Wind is SW at 22 knots; dodging squalls

For a few days now, we’ve known that a storm front was approaching and would be the primary weather feature we’d have to deal with in our last week. The strategy we had planned with our weather router, Charlie, was to keep heading ENE until today (Wednesday), then making a short jog north to stay above the strongest weather in the front.

Unfortunately, the exhaust issue with our engine prevented us from motoring in the light winds Monday, so when the south winds preceding the front finally arrived, we knew we were already behind schedule. All day yesterday the sailing conditions were excellent, and we pushed along at 6-7 knots on a broad reach trying to make up time.

Yesterday evening, however, it didn’t seem like we were going to get clear of the front and we had started adjusting our course more to the NE from ENE. Then at 8 p.m. an email update came through from Charlie confirming our concerns – not only were we behind schedule, but the front was moving faster than expected. If we continued on our course per our previous plan, we’d end up getting caught in the worst of the weather. The recommendation: change course immediately, head north, and “put the hammer down” to try and get above 37.25 degrees north by Wednesday evening. The strategy was akin to racing across a highway to the other side, across the path of an oncoming bus. You had better get there.

The challenge with this new instruction was that the strong winds from the front hadn’t arrived yet – it was still blowing only 12-13 knots, and from the south, so heading north would be a dead downwind course. It may seem counterintuitive, but sailing straight downwind on a sailboat is not the fastest way to sail. The reason is that with the wind directly behind you, your sails no longer act like wings generating lift; instead, they are just big “blockers” for the wind, like the sails on an old 18th century square-rigger tall ship. The faster you go, the less wind you feel: going dead downwind at 5 knots in a 12 knot breeze means your sailboat only feels 7 knots of “apparent” wind, which isn’t much to push you along.

On Innisfree, the fastest way for us to sail straight downwind is to set the sails opposite each other. Our mainsail (aft of the mast) gets pulled out to one side of the boat and then we use a big pole, called a whisker pole, to hold the foresail out on the other side. This is called sailing “wing on wing”. Rigging the pole is tricky in rolling seas and takes both Glenda and I working carefully on the foredeck for about 20 minutes. Taking it down later isn’t quite as tricky, but still takes both of us and if the boat is rolling around it’s certainly not a walk in the park. It’s also something we’d rather do with the light of day than at night.

Okay, back to last night and the change in course – we knew we could set the pole in the conditions we had, but given that there was a storm approaching, we weren’t sure if it would be too rough to get it down safely later on. We decided this was worth a phone call to discuss the strategy, and got Charlie on the satphone, which helped us settle on a plan. Conditions wouldn’t be too bad through the night, so we could set the pole now, drop it in the morning, and by then the wind would have shifted somewhat so we would no longer need to go dead downwind to head north. Glenda and I moved quickly and got the pole set and the boat pointed in the right direction before we lost the last of the daylight.

While we were slower than we wanted at first, we knew the winds would build and give us a decent sail through the night. After safely dousing the pole this morning, the winds did pick up and we’ve had a very fast sail today. With the seas building behind us, Innisfree has been pushing along at 7 knots most of the day, hitting over 10 knots running down the front of some bigger waves. As expected, we’ve had some big winds (gusts over 30 knots), and lots of rain at times, but Innisfree has handled it well and Glenda and I have both been able to sleep on our off-watches. We even had a very brief visit from a whale – hard to say which one of us was more surprised by the encounter!

And the good news is that we’re ahead of schedule and are going to make it to the north side of the storm before the worst of it comes through. There’s still going to be periods of high winds this evening, but in a few more hours we’ll be able to bend our course east again for some continued fast (but less stormy!) sailing towards Horta.

Day 18: Roller coasters

Thursday, May 23, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 37°24.274’N, 36°31.815’W
Distance sailed: 2,165 nm
Distance to Horta: 376 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 147 nm
Wind is WNW at 16 knots; sunny with the occasional passing rainstorm

We reached 37°N around 5:30 yesterday evening. We had raced along all day, and it was reassuring to know that we would be clear of the worst of the storm. Just before dinner we turned east, knowing that the winds would soon follow us around and put us on a downwind run. Unfortunately, the winds would be too high, and the seas too strong to allow us to put up the whisker pole – there was no way we were going out on deck in all that bouncing, nevermind trying to maneuver an 18-foot pole! Instead, we doused and secured the mainsail and tied the boom out to the starboard side. Mike then rigged a snatch block (a special kind of pulley that can be added to an already-rigged line) to the end of the boom, and ran the genoa sheet through the block. This holds the genoa out to the side and allows us to run deep downwind, but in a much safer way than fussing with the pole.

With high winds expected overnight, we hoped to be able to sail on just the genoa. It was a bit rolly, but it didn’t seem too bad. When I went to bed at 8 o’clock, however, the rolling was too much to bear. I could feel myself being bounced down the slanted bed when we’d get rolled by a wave, and I could hear the food in my galley cupboards being bashed from side to side. After an hour of not sleeping, I got up so that Mike could go on deck and untie the mainsail – our policy is that no one goes on deck unless the other person is in the cockpit watching, just in case. The double-reefed main helped a little – either that, or I was just so tired that I fell asleep regardless.

We managed through the night and into today with this sail plan. The winds have been strong – low 20’s, with periods of 30+ knot gusts as little squalls pass over or beside us. The seas have also climbed to 2.5m, making it feel like we are on a roller coaster. And of course the ‘average wave height’ is just an average – so every so often you have a much bigger set of swells come up behind you. Shortly after dawn I had a squall go by, bringing a few minutes of 33-35 knots of wind. I hung on tight as Will (our autopilot) coasted us through a set of waves that had towered over the back of the boat as they approached. Our speed over ground hit 12.75 knots as we glided down the waves, with the bow wake crashing over the toerails and almost into the cockpit (but we stayed dry!). That was definitely the fastest I’ve ever seen Innisfree go! In conditions like this, I am thankful for our almost-full keel, which keeps us moving steadily through the big rolling swell.

Now that it’s mid-day, the winds have settled in the low 20’s and we have mostly blue skies with just the occasional passing raincloud. We are expecting a wind shift to come later, which will allow us to turn more northward, so we can point directly at Horta. The swell is still up, but seems more steady: the waves are likely to continue with us through the weekend, but the wave period, or time between each swell, is supposed to lengthen a little more each day. That should make for more of a gently rolling kiddie ride, instead of a gravity-defying Super Coaster!

Day 19: Hurry up

Friday, May 24, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 38°08.521’N, 33°30,628’W
Distance sailed: 2,316 nm
Distance to Horta: 232 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 151 nm
Wind is NW at 14 knots; sunny

Having caught our breath yesterday after the front came through, we turned our attention to the remaining miles to our destination. A quick look at the weather forecast for the next few days showed good sailing with the wind shifting to the northwest today and then gradually, painfully, slowly going away on Friday and basically shutting down completely on Saturday. If our engine was fully operating, this wouldn’t be that much of a problem – we’d just motor the last few dozen miles.

Without the engine, however, it looks like we’re going to be facing a frustrating drift and flop day, quite possibly with Horta in sight. We’ll have to sit there and try to work every little puff but it looks like there will still be a fair bit of residual swell shaking the wind out of our sails and confounding our attempts to make progress. After 21 days at sea, and with Horta staring at us on the horizon, I know that waiting for the winds to fill back in on Sunday will be a big test of patience. Really, I just hope that they arrive in time so that we can sail into Horta before nightfall.

Appreciating the forecast, we realized yesterday that the best thing we could do was to get as close to Horta as we possibly can before the winds shut down. In other words, hurry up! Often on passage one can get a bit lazy about optimizing sail trim. After all, when you have a thousand miles ahead of you, getting that last 10% of speed out of the boat all the time doesn’t seem as critical. Well, we’re paying attention now.

With good sailing conditions (20 knots on a broad reach), and the boat surfing down the swell, we’ve covered 151 nm in the last 24 hours – an average speed of 6.3 knots. I think that’s a record 24 hour run for us on Innisfree. The local dolphin pod certainly seemed to appreciate our speed playing in our bow wave yesterday!

Today’s sailing conditions so far have held up as well. Despite the push for speed, with the swell easing, life on board is reasonably comfortable. The sun is out, the wind is a bit lighter, but the angle is good. We’ve both taken advantage to take showers. As the day goes on and the wind slowly drops, we’ll make a call to raise the spinnaker and keep moving along as best we can. Then tomorrow the winds will drop to around 5 knots testing our light wind sailing skills, before shutting off for the night.

At least that’s the current forecast. Whistle up some wind for us on Friday and Saturday!

Day 20: And wait

Saturday, May 25, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 38°22.562’N, 31°10.039’W
Distance sailed: 2,429 nm
Distance to Horta: 120 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 113 nm
Wind is NW at 1? knots; sunny

We continued to press on all yesterday afternoon. The winds were good but you could tell that bit by bit, hour by hour, they were gradually decreasing. Shortly after sunset the winds had dropped to around 10 knots and we furled up our genoa and jib and hoisted the spinnaker to make the most of the winds through the evening. And the overnight sail was good – some bigger clouds moving across our path brought boosts in the wind at times and we continued to make miles towards Horta, hoping that we could keep our speed up through the day.

By mid-morning, however, the forecast came true and the wind dropped too far for us to be able to make progress. It’s not that there’s been no wind – you can see and feel whispers of wind across the water, but there’s so much residual swell (waves up to 1.5 meters from multiple directions) that they just bounce the boat around and kick the wind out of the sails. It feels like we’re a flag being waved by an energetic six year old on Canada Day. In the last four hours we’ve only progressed a couple of miles towards Horta: we’re flopping.

As frustrating as it is, there’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to be patient and late tonight or tomorrow morning some southerly winds will start to appear letting us finish our journey.

(and then Glenda takes over…)

While Mike is slowly going mad by trying to eke out every bit of speed from the flopping sails, I’m making the most of the down time. Knitting is a very convenient hobby on days like today, especially with small projects that can be picked up and put down frequently, without losing your place. Fortunately, I have trained myself to be able to knit most things without actually looking at my work – an essential skill when sailing, so I don’t miss any of the passing sea life!

In the last few days, we have been seeing a new kind of dolphin. Previously, the dolphins were smaller in size and had an overall speckled dark-grey colour. The older (and bigger) they were, the more speckling they had, making them easier to spot in the water. The new dolphins are larger, and you can almost describe them as striped – their backs are dark grey, they have a lighter grey stripe that runs along the sides of their bodies, and they have light grey bellies. There’s almost a curve to the stripes, which matches their form as they leap through the waves alongside the boat.

This morning, we must have been sailing through prime fishing territory. From about 6:30 until almost 8 a.m., there were 8-10 grey sea birds gliding over the waves around us, accompanied by a pod of these larger dolphins. As they passed back and forth across our path, the dolphins would stop by to say hello, and occasionally swim near our bow before heading off again. Then a few minutes later, back they came, bird friends in tow. It doesn’t matter how often we see the dolphins, they are always a highlight to the day – even days that are spent flopping along through very light winds!

Day 21: Into the home stretch

Sunday, May 26, 2024, 15:00 GMT – 38°26.354’N, 30°02.030’W
Distance sailed: 2,484 nm
Distance to Horta: 62 nm
Distance in last 24 hours: 55 nm
Wind is SSW at 12 knots; sunny

Sometimes sailing is like this. From late in the morning yesterday until 2:30 a.m. today we sat, flopped, drifted forward on the swell, and occasionally picked up a zephyr of wind to move forward. In total, we advanced about 15 miles in 14 hours. Most of that distance was covered in a one-hour period late in the day when some passing clouds delivered a bit of wind. The rest of the time we drifted on glassy seas.

The bright moonlight helped us see the little ripples on the water that signaled the arrival of the south-westerly winds we were waiting for. Before long, though still flopping occasionally, our instruments showed the boat starting to move… 1 knot, 2 knots…

Now we’re having a wonderful sail for our last full day. The seas are smooth, we have the spinnaker up and we’re flying along toward Horta at over 6 knots. We’ve had dolphin visits and we each keep pulling out the binoculars to stare ahead and see if we can spot the first sign of land, which should be the volcano on Pico.

I’ve been using some of our time today to send emails ahead to locate a welder in Horta and make sure we know what other parts we might need to fix the engine exhaust. Also trying to understand as best I can where to go and anchor when we arrive. One of our friends who arrived a couple days ago is also inquiring at the marina to see if they can accommodate us somewhere at a dock, given our engine issues. Then, he and another friend of ours are going to meet us when we get there in their dinghies (which have nice big outboard motors) to escort us into the anchorage just in case something trips up with our engine.

As much as we’d like it to be, however, that won’t be today. Despite the good sailing we have, we lost too much time in the light winds yesterday and won’t make it to Horta before dark. Instead of entering an unfamiliar port sometime after midnight, we’re going to tap the brakes before too long: pull down the spinnaker, slow the boat down and sail more gently on through the night to arrive in daylight in the morning.

While Glenda and I are both trying hard to just stick to our usual daily routines (meals, blog, naps, making water, etc.), it’s hard not to think ahead. You can tell we’re both suppressing a big amount of excitement, not wanting to jinx things. Excitement not just to see friends, have some long hot showers, eat fresh food, enjoy a cold beer, and be able to sleep for more than two and a half hours at a time, but also anticipating a release from the stresses and intensity of the passage. Soon enough we’ll be bursting with joy, and we can’t wait.

Land Ho!

Sunday, May 26, 2024, 17:14 GMT – 38°30.431’N, 29°40.540’W

The volcano on Pico and the island of Faial visible on the horizon ahead.

50 nm to go.


Monday, May 27, 2024, 08:37 GMT – 38°32.092’N, 28°37.433’W

Innisfree anchored safely in Horta this morning with the generous help of our friends on Frog’s Leap and Josephine.

Total distance sailed: 2,538 nm
Time taken: 21 days, 21 hours
Average speed: 4.8 knots

Shortly after checking in we moved Innisfree into the marina, rafted to two other boats along the wall. Our broken engine exhaust elbow has already been removed and is with the welder for repair. Time to catch up on some sleep.

Thanks everyone for following along. Your messages along the way were wonderful to receive and always boosted our spirits!