Preparations for the crossing
Like so many other sailors, we had been observing the weather reports for a couple of weeks in order to encounter a suitable weather window for the crossing to the west coast of Ireland. But this year, due to the jet stream which moved a lot more north than usual, the pressure systems also went off their usual paths. As a result, there was either no wind or from the wrong direction.
When the waiting got intolerable – especially with a heavy swell in the harbor, which rocked the boat in circles until the line broke, we decided to speed up the preparations for our leave, hoping there would soon a reasonable change in the weather. We checked the batteries, generator, alternators, radar, radios, engine, and cooling systems, filled the water tanks and stored food. The latter wasn't that easy. On Flores they don't grow a lot of vegetables and fruit – so everything arrived only once a week by boat. The other problem was getting bottled water from the store (2km and 300m up the hill) to the boat. As luck would have it, one morning somebody greeted us in Swiss German; Hans and his wife Marianne who have owned a summer house for almost 20 years, had heard about our problems. They didn't hesitate and took us on a shopping tour and a coffee brake at their house.
The weather reports still changed daily, and we often spoke to others who also wanted to leave for Ireland. Stephen, a very experienced sailor believed, that you had to leave anyway, since the weather could not be predicted over such a long voyage – “you will get what you get”. Normally, one needs about 10-12 days for the 1'100nm...
Finally off to the green Isle
So, we cast off on the 26th of June, circumnavigating the southern tip of Flores, passing Corvo on our leeward and heading straight for north. We really enjoyed the first day. Wind from the side permitted a smooth and fast sail. We had time to finally read a book, observe dolphins (you never miss them, because their whistling is even audible inside the ship) a turtle and even a sleeping sperm whale only 100m from the boat.
By that evening already, Stephen with his fast aluminum boat came in view and it took him only a couple of hours to overtake us. We were and still are wondering, how solo sailors manage to get through such a trip. Usually, they never sleep more than one hour at a time.
Now, it was our turn to start the watches – thanks to the advice of our friends from the “La Belle Epoque”, we had extended the shifts to four hours each. Like this we could sleep for at least three at one time. Well, that was the plan… However, during that first night the wind picked up to 25 knots and hit us directly on the nose. That meant changing / adjusting the sails every hour and it got hard to catch some sleep. Fortunately, the moon was completely full and the night correspondingly bright for working on the shaking deck.
The next days the wind always turned so far, that we had to tack against it – and its growing waves. Being hit by every wave meant to lose almost one knot of speed and we were happy to just keep up four knots. But in a heavily moving boat everything takes more time and is more difficult to perform. As we had learned from previous experience, being underway meant being hungry all the time, so Danielle spent up to two hours in the kitchen preparing breakfasts, lunches and dinners – only possible been secured by a belt. To our surprise we had no trouble with seasickness – only once, when Danielle wanted to splice some new ropes, the movement was too weird, the fish got fed...
When not working on the sails, in the kitchen or eating, we used the time for catching up on sleep and taking the daily shower. The highlight of the day was always at 10 p.m. when we talked to Stephen and his friend (also a solo sailor on the way to Portugal, who had visited the most remote places on earth like the Antarctic and twice took the northwest passage) on the SSB radio for up to half an hour, exchanging the happenings of the day, the plans of the next days and swearing about the impossible weather after downloading the latest grib files (computer generated weather forecast). The latter was always quite frustrating. Because of the unstable pressure systems, the wind forecast changed every 12 hours.
Mixed up weather
After almost one week, there emerged a greater change in the weather. For the past few days we had tried to sail along the inner rim of a high-pressure system, which finally passed us and we were suddenly in the middle of “no wind land”. In the beginning this was very annoying because the waves where still around, rolling the boat from one side to the other – banging the sails and masts. And in the evenings a creepy mist came up – dropping the visibility down to 50m. But on the second day, when the swell calmed down, we began to enjoy this relaxing moment. The AIS and radar alarms permitted us longer sleeping periods during day and night – we thought, until a bigger engine boat without a readable name, not showing on the AIS and without radio contact appeared all of the sudden. Usually, all bigger vessels are obliged to have the automatic identification on at all times.
Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
The diminishing water and food supplies started to become alarming. Meat had been out for a week, the water rationed down to 20L and the fruit to two pieces per day. Hence, we were more than happy, when a white tuna took the bait and served for four meals – complete with daily fresh baked bread :-)
To get out of this seemingly stationary high-pressure system, we turned on the engine and headed towards Ireland. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours an unpleasant, scraping sound started. It seemed like there was a problem with the shaft, the propeller or a bearing. So, engine out, wet suit on and into the water for a dive-check. With more than 4'000 meters water below, the feeling was kind of scary – not knowing what lurked down there or behind one self. Concentrating on the shaft, bearing and propeller it was done quickly and there was no problem to be seen – so it had to be something on the shaft inside the boat (without access). Thus, we decided to head on with no more than 2.5 knots of speed.
Only twenty minutes out of the water, on the starboard side appeared a pack of small fins. Sharks?! Getting closer we discerned silver spots on the surface. After a closer look we found a group of fishes without fins on the backs, laying on their side. After a quick look in the fish books we found, that they had to be sunbathing moonfishes. Sometimes, they grow up to 2 meters. Other impressive visitors were a curious group of pilot whales the next day – circling the boat in a tight group, poking out the heads from time to time – followed by a smaller group of dolphins.
The fourth day and night without wind quickly became very boring (after listening to the 120th Philipp Maloney audio book). So, we searched in the bilges for popcorn and spent the day with watching movies. We also discovered, that we didn't had a courtesy flag for Ireland with us. Hence, Danielle used the time to create one – by sewing other old Flags together :-)
And ultimately the wind started to pick up – and lucky for - from the back. First very gently, so we had to boom out the sails and went directly downwind like a butterfly. But it didn't take long for the wind to pick up to 25 knots, growing and steepening the waves. At one point the autopilot refused to hold the course any longer and we had to steer manually most of the time. Trimming the sails in the best position limited the corrections on the steering wheel – but still we had to stay sharp at all times to keep the boat before the waves. It was one of the hardest nights so far – with heavy rains and dropping temperatures. Time to get out the thick sailing clothes and rubber boots.
After two exhausting days and nights, far on the horizon the first rocks of Ireland appeared out of the fog. Annoyingly, we were not able to enjoy this view for long – suddenly circled by a speedboat and three rips of the Irish customs, we had to slow down and take them aboard. After questioning us for half an hour their boss on the main boat decided to make a search on the whole boat... We were completely baffled as one of them went through the whole boat with his wet and salty suit and boots – looking into cupboards, the bilges and even all water tanks. While they were very friendly and apologized more than once, they also told us, that only two weeks ago, boats with 1.2 tons of cocaine where found on the Azores heading for Europe. Still it was very annoying – because we were really tired and didn't want to have to clean the whole boat afterwards.
After two hours, the officer who searched the boat was able to convince his boss to stop the search and they let us head up the sound to Castletownbere. As soon as we entered this narrow channel, heavy rain and winds hit us on the nose. It took all our concentration to tack up this narrow way between rocks, fish farms, fishing nets and sunken ship wrecks – using only the smallest sails.
It felt like a miracle. As soon we entered the last channel to the marina, the wind dropped to zero and we could pull in alongside another boat, fasten the lines and step on land for the first time in 20 days. As mentioned before, it usually takes only 10-12 days for the 1'100nm – us it took almost double the time and 1'650nm in total.
Due to a very dry summer, the water use was very restricted – no possibility to liberate the boat from its layers of salt. We weren't really that frustrated – it gave us the chance instead, to sit in a nice pub and enjoy burgers, steaks, a couple of beers and fresh cakes with cream :-)
As it turned out – the residents of Bear Island are very friendly and helpful. They have no police and live by their own rules... We are really looking forward to spending some quiet time in this corner of Ireland!