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Dispatches from the Atlantic: Oh What a Night

Associate Editor Chris White gives us another update from the Atlantic.

December 2, 2009
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19°16.578N 40°54.698W Boat Speed: 8 knots Wind Speed: 20-27 knots Magnetic Direction: 248° Distance Traveled Thus Far: 1,611.2 nautical miles

After an hour or so of being entertained by whales, flying fish, and the occasional dolphin, our focus shifted to the heavy waves, the high winds, and our still malfunctioning generator. We have been turning on the engine periodically to charge our batteries, and despite solar panels on the bimini top, the long nights of running George (the autopilot) have been draining. So, we’ve decided to try and jury-rig a solution. Since the problem may lie in the generator’s starter battery, Ben dug out his voltage gauge but we quickly realized that its 9-volt battery was dead. (Funny how a device that tells you if other things are charged or not cannot alert you to its own level of electrical inadequacy.)

We hailed around nearby vessels to see if any of them had the battery we needed. The closest was a Norwegian vessel, an X-452 named Odin, whom we have been within sight of the last several days. They had the battery we needed, but were about four miles away, and, with nightfall about 20 minutes off, we decided to wait until morning. Odin’s crew suggested several places to look for 9-volt batteries on board: fire alarms, gas alarms, the remote to the electronic anchor windlass…Unfortunately, we have none of these things on board Snark. However, we tried one of their suggestions this morning and taped 6 AA batteries together, then ran wires from either end to where the 9-volt battery attached to the volt reader. It worked!

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We thanked Odin for their advice, and said we’d hail them when the sun rose. They had one more piece of knowledge to give. “Ve have been told zat zare may be squalls this evening, winds up to 35 knots, so ve are going to put a third reef in our sail-you may want to watch out.” Odin has been using a Norwegian weather service for the forecasts. On board Snark, we rely on the grid charts issued by the World Cruising Club. Every vessel in the ARC needs to have some sort of Internet access, so they can report their daily positions for fleet tracking, and for downloading the grid charts with wind and weather forecasts. Ben and I each have an Iridium 9555 satellite phone, which works wonderfully, and allows us to access e-mail and the Internet, despite the fact that we are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. (For example, I send these blog entries through a Gmail e-mail account over the satphone. Over a thousand miles from any land mass and I can get on Google. I am continually astounded.)

We ate our dinner and I got ready for the 2000-2400 hour shift. Again, with the constant slamming of the waves and jarring of the forepeak, I stumbled and pitched in the shower, smashing my elbows into the cabinets, using my feet to brace against a fall…Earlier in the day we had taken a hell of a wave suddenly and while stumbling down below to regain my balance I kicked a chair and my toes were forced spread-eagle. Now there was a dull throbbing each time they bent against the side of the shower as I braced myself.

I geared up and went topside where Ben had been watching the helm. “All right, now let’s go over something real quickly,” he said. “If there are squalls out there, they’ll be moving faster than we are, so if they’re ahead of us or behind us we should be all right. If they’re abeam of us though, we’re screwed. There’s no time to take down the sails if they hit us, so if you see anything coming that looks bad, just wake me up.” I nodded. Easy enough. He went downstairs and slept on the settee in the salon-it was just too rocky for the aft-cabin. Except for a brief moment during our breakfast yesterday morning, the seas have been heavy and slightly erratic for the last three days. Last night was no different. I sat behind the helm and read by the light of my headlamp, turning it off every 15 minutes, so my eyes could adjust to the darkness while I scanned the skies. Trying to pick out approaching clouds at night is like trying to tell where mist stops and fog begins. They creep out of the darkness like apparitions and, suddenly, they are there. I watched as one approached-it didn’t look too angry, but it was a little higher than the others. I debated whether or not to wake Ben. On a transatlantic voyage sleep is not so much a right as a privilege, and I didn’t want to take that away from him. I decided the cloud wasn’t a problem, then sat and watched the wind gauge climb-22 knots, 23 knots, 24 knots-hoping I hadn’t made a bad call. 26 knots, 27 knots, 28 knots, 29 knots…I was getting a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. But the cloud passed overhead, and all hell did not break loose.

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Still, the waves were heavy and the seas were high. At one point, as we came off the crest off a wave and shot down into the trough, the starboard side of the boat plunged deep into the water. My hand was on the side of the cockpit, braced against the impact, and it shot underwater as the boat dipped into the waves. The genoa and furler sheets were swept off the deck and into the water behind me. As I pulled them back on board, for the first time I can remember, I felt seasick-I wanted to lie prostrate on the boat and retch off the stern. I remembered going to an amusement park as a child with my older brother and his friends, and, wanting to be like one of the big boys, I let them goad me into going on a roller coaster. I stood on my tiptoes in order to reach the “you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride” line-then I had hung on for dear life. Last night, behind the helm for the last half hour of my shift, I fought to stay in the seat. Somebody stop the ride, I want to get off. Then I told myself what I always tell myself when the waves are too rough, “I don’t get seasick. Hey, seasickness, you can go f&$k off.” I don’t know why, but it always works. Ben came topside before my watch was over. The boat was crashing around and he was afraid something might get damaged. We put a second reef in the sail, then I went down below. I braced myself in the salon settee, took a drink of water, and fell asleep. When I awoke the seas were still rough. Ben said he’d had 28 knots sustained for an hour or two, and, while he hadn’t been watching the wind gauge the entire time, he was pretty sure that the winds had topped 30 knots. But hey, we’re making great time. Oh, and as for the generator, when and if we get it fixed, I’ll let you know. Stay tuned.

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