Seabirds, Sunsets & The Southern Cross 1 (Dec. 25 - 31, 2018)

Sailing Canaries to Cape Verde – FIRST OF TWO PARTS

 The bad news is that we have no functioning engine, something we didn’t realize until we were deep into the Western African Atlantic, almost 300 nautical miles (nm) from shore with more than 700 nm to go. The good news is that we are in a sailing boat, not a motor boat. We have sails and the free power of the wind.

On this voyage, we were forced to kick it old school. 

Well . . . not completely old school. We have devices and instrumentation that sailors of old never dreamed possible. We have instrumentation that worked just fine when we could charge the batteries with our portable generator. Our solar panels and wind generator helped us stay self-sufficient while we manually steered Seefalke during the warm, sunny afternoons of our 242-hour voyage, saving the auto pilot for night watches. 

The drama of the equipment issues—which included a tangled, malfunctioning genoa furling mechanism—took a backseat to the starry nights (highlighted by our first ever sighting of the Southern Cross), magnificent sunsets, and a small, black petrel with the stamina of an Albatross, who guided our way for the last 300 miles of our journey into Mindelo, Cape Verde. 

Meanwhile, I’m starting to wonder if there is any seasickness medicine that will work for me. Maybe it’s time to just go back to my potato. 

Tuesday, 25 December 2018 - Day 1

As we prepared Seefalke for our 1,000-or-so nautical mile passage to Cape Verde, we took a short break and visited our friends on Eastbirds and Silkap. As always, it’s never goodbye with sailors. We know we will see them again...somewhere in the world. 

We set sail around 16:00 and had another rocky departure as we left Arrecife, Lanzarote, Spain and the Canary Islands. I don’t know if it’s the huge Atlantic swells that just seem to rock us from all sides as we leave each marina, or if we truly do lose our sea legs when we sit in port so long. Perhaps it’s both. 

Ivo, one of our new friends from Silkap, had given me some strong Swiss seasick medicine that I had searched for in the U.S. until I learned it wasn’t FDA-approved. I happily took a few samples of the magic pills he assured me work perfectly for him. But after departing and then pulling in the lines and fenders while Seefalke rocked us from all sides, I was already feeling queasy and uneasy—despite the promise of a new cure. 

My newly-organized cabin began to fall apart like a house of cards. As I watched the books fly from the shelves, I looked down into the cabin just as a frightened Scout peed all over her bedding. This was not the way we wanted to start this week-long voyage. 

We had barely left the marina, and I was practically in tears—frustrated with the clutter and mess and also with the queasiness that I just can’t seem to kick. 

The good news...miraculously, everything in the bow—our newly organized pantry/closet—stayed in place. It still takes time at sea to truly test how all the pieces of the puzzle will come together. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2018 - Day 2

During my first night shift I was still feeling uneasy and very tired. I made it through my shift, but I didn’t sleep well before or after it. 

When I took over again at 08:00 I could already feel the familiar tightening in my abdomen and knew it wouldn’t be long before the contents of my belly found its way into the deep blue waters of the western African Atlantic—a premonition that came true with brutal force around 09:00. 

Maik was awakened by the gut-wrenching episode and relieved me even though he had only had one hour of sleep. 

I choked down another magic Swiss pill then went back to bed and slept until 13:00. I returned to the cockpit but felt icky all day and wondered how I would make it another week at sea feeling this way. When the seasickness hits you, all you can think of is being anywhere else. 

IMG_4943.JPG

Just before sunset, we snapped a picture of the southern coast of Fuerteventura Island, the last land we would see for the next 10 days. 

By the end of my early-evening shift, around 20:00, the sky was full of clouds. It was a bit gloomy, like my mood. A few dolphins came to play, and I rewarded them with some chum over the side of Seefalke

Thursday, 27 December 2018 - Day 3

The swells grew larger and the waves got choppier as we left the wind shadow of the last Canary Island. I continued to struggle to get comfortable all day long. 

But as I settled into my midnight-04:00 night watch, I got distracted by the black sky and the spectacular full moon that was rising at Seefalke’s port side beam, casting a brilliant light onto the black water. The choppy waves, however, continued to rob my body of its sense of balance. 

Around 10:30 the next morning, I was lying flat in the stern cabin when an alarm sounded in the cockpit. It was an engine coolant alert. 

Maik checked it out, but not too closely, and didn’t have much cause for concern . . . at first. 

He called me up to the cockpit when he saw some pilot whales swimming alongside Seefalke. I was able to catch a glimpse, but they were not as curious as our other whale and disappeared as instantly as they had arrived. 

Later that afternoon, after another trip down into the engine room (which is located under the floor of the cockpit well below sea level) Maik realized that the cooling fluid loss was actually a leak. At first, he thought it was coming through the casing bolts. 

He didn’t feel comfortable running the engine without further research and investigation. We don’t use the engine much, especially when we have good wind. But we need to run it occasionally to charge the batteries. The batteries keep the instruments—most importantly the auto pilot and plotter—running when the solar panels and wind generator do not produce enough energy.

He fired up the portable generator—a last-minute impulse-item we purchased the day before we left Stralsund—to charge the batteries. Meanwhile, the gasoline fumes wreaked havoc on my already splitting headache and queasy tummy. 

I was still struggling, but I tried to be positive. We had not been able to cook anything since we left the marina because of the rocking boat. I ate some canned tuna and canned salmon on saltines. It was good protein that helped my headache. The dogs loved it too! I also took my chances with an orange. I felt like I needed the vitamin C and would risk what the acid might do to my tummy. 

I enjoyed a brilliant, bright burnt orange sunset reflecting off the clear blue water. This made me think of Auburn...and of family.

IMG_9361.JPG

I texted a bit with Shelby and Bo and my friend, Trisha, through our satellite device and once again was grateful that Maik made the extra investment in communication so that we could stay in touch with family and friends, even when we are technically off the grid. 

 Friday, 28 December 2018 - Day 4

I began my midnight-04:00 watch as the wind had picked up to 21 knots. Maik was happy about the speed, but I prefer to go slower and be more comfortable. The sails seemed to be absorbing some of the wave movement which also tempered my queasiness. 

I finally got a little rest and by 09:30 the next morning I noticed we had sailed 265 nautical miles in 65 hours. 

Maik went into the engine room again and after much closer inspection, found a crack in the casing of the heat exchanger. This is where the engine was leaking water. He began to read all the manuals and texted our mechanics in Stralsund through our Garmin InReach satellite communication device. 

He was receiving advice and suggestions. Our friend Dean did some research and suggested adding finely ground pepper into the casing. An old sailor’s trick, the pepper would separate itself from the water and rise to the surface of the cast iron, temporarily filling the crack. He said this worked like a charm with cracked radiators and might work for this. 

Maik wanted to think and study some more before taking action. This is how he is. If he has time to think, he likes to think. And we had nothing but time. 

Meanwhile, the genoa furling line tangled again as we were trying to tack. This has been an ongoing problem that is fairly easy to fix while in port but almost impossible to fix while at sea with heavy wind and rocking waves. 

Saturday, 29 December 2018 - Day 5

350 nm - 80 hours AT SEA

I didn’t sleep at all during Maik’s 20:00-midnight shift. I couldn’t sleep in the main cabin because I kept sliding off the bunk due to the starboard tilt. I moved to the stern but couldn’t sleep there because of random noises and generator fumes. 

At this point we had not had a proper meal or a shower or any relaxation since our departure. The seasickness hasn’t been as bad as other passages, but in my exaggerated mind at the time I was feeling like this passage was even worse than the Bay of Biscay. At least that passage was over in four days. We were not even to the halfway point on this voyage, and I was just miserable. I could also see the stress of the engine situation wearing heavily on Maik. When he is worried, this adds to my anxiety. 

There was no moon yet and the sky was black as coal. I became distracted by the zillions of bright stars and decided I really must study the constellations so I can learn what all these now-familiar formations are called! 

I also told myself I would drink more water. I noticed that my pee was bright orange, which means dehydration. I have to take care of myself if I want to feel better. 

As my mood was improving, there was a beautiful half moon rising just off the port side beam. The bottom half of the moon was stark white with just a faint ring around the top half of the circle. It looked like a tea cup and reminded me to think “cup half full.” 

After some rest I took over the morning shift and reminded myself that as bad as it gets, it still beats going into an office every day and working for someone else. I really need to remember that! And, I don’t think anything will ever be as tough as the Bay of Biscay. That was just my pity party talking. 

IMG_2508.JPG

By now we had hit 400nm and passed the 3,000-mile mark for the complete voyage (since we departed from Stralsund on Aug. 19). We were making good speed at an average of around 5.5 to 6 knots. This is fast for our heavy, slow-but-sturdy, steel vessel.  My body was finally adjusting to the waves and to the tilt and the sailing soon turned from uncomfortable to completely pleasurable and fun. 

We were beginning to get a taste of the trade winds we expect to experience when we cross the Atlantic to Barbados. I remember thinking, “Ok, I can handle this kind of sailing for several weeks at sea.”

It was at this point that I made a big decision. I’m not going to take any more seasick meds.

I’ve tried every pharmaceutical prevention and so-called remedy out there. I’ve often heard that the only real solution for seasickness is to sit under a tree. In other words, as long as you are on the water, you are vulnerable. If my body is going to react to the motion, the medicine doesn’t really help. In fact, I believe it makes it worse. For me, the medicine makes me groggy, it reduces my appetite, which in effect causes me to deprive my body of nutrients and vitamins, which gives me a splitting headache. And I’m still spending time over the rail.

From now on, I’ve decided, I’m just going to rely on my potato. 

For those of you who haven’t read my previous blogs, my friend Yvi was a sailing instructor and told her students that if they held a potato in their left hand then they would not get seasick. It was a mind-over-matter trick that worked. And I’m going back to it! 

Maik spent most of the morning in the engine room. First, he drilled two holes at the beginning and the end of the crack to prevent it from cracking further. He then tried to apply emergency leakage paste to the crack, which is not designed for hot environments under pressure, but it’s generally a very effective paste. We filled the cooling system with fresh water and cranked the engine. The water found its way through the crack almost immediately.

We wanted to use liquid steel, but we didn’t have any left after using it to repair the dent on Seefalke’s starboard side of the bow after our bumper-car episode with an offshore buoy in The North Sea.

He then applied the only other kind of sealant we had on board, Sikaflex. We let it dry for about two hours. Then we cranked the engine and held our breath.

After about 20 minutes, water again began to drip, however at a reduced rate. Considering this slow drippage rate, Maik calculated that we had about 1 to 1-1/2 hours of running time before the engine would overheat.

He was worried that if we tried to use the engine, we could cause further damage. He decided to save what little functionality it had for when we arrive in Cape Verde. We will need it for the mooring maneuver. But that was still 600 nautical miles away. 

The waves began to calm as the day went on and so did my mood. I was finally able to read for a couple hours even though the generator that we ran for about two hours twice a day was a loud annoyance. 

In the late afternoon, Maik cooked dinner for us, our first warm meal in 96 hours. It was simple spaghetti but so delicious. It was probably still too dangerous to cook though. Maik burned his hand, but not badly. I think he knew that I had a strong need to feel civilized. I just wanted a regular meal. 

Now that my attitude and health were improving, it was Maik’s turn to not feel well. He was queasy and tired. This sounds crazy, but it makes me feel less guilty knowing that he sometimes has bad days, too. When he wasn’t in the engine room, he was in the cabin reading the engine manuals from a 3-inch thick white binder. I could tell that finding a solution to the engine problem was weighing heavily on him. 

As I was reading there was a passage from my book, “Taleisin’s Tales,” that really spoke to me. 

Lin Pardey, who sailed with her husband Larry for more than 5 decades, circumventing the globe many times in small sailboats, wrote: 

“Truly memorable days were vastly outnumbered by those days when sailing was merely pleasant, or other days that were utterly mundane, or hard work, or even downright difficult. I knew this would be the case as we voyaged onward.”

She went on to describe some of her truly spectacular days at sea that made the difficult days not only worth it, but forgettable. 

This helped me put things into perspective as I recalled some of our memorable days—like when we saw landfall after a grueling passage across the Bay of Biscay, or when we played with a curious whale swimming right next to Seefalke, or the day I saw Africa for the first time as we sailed into Morocco from Portugal. 

Even more spectacular moments would outweigh the difficult ones as soon as in this current passage, although I didn’t know it yet. 

I was feeling more at ease and relaxed. With the backdrop of a tangerine sky leftover by the sunset, a few dolphins showed up to play a little while before the end of my early evening shift. And already, I was focusing more on the spectacular and less on the difficult. 

With the heavy tilt we finally decided to move to the floor bed between the two bunks in the main cabin and as a result, we finally both got some sleep. 

Sunday, 30 December 2018 - Day 6

485 nm - 105 hours at sea

Just before midnight, we crossed over the Tropic of Cancer, putting us officially into tropical waters. But it didn’t feel tropical yet. It was a cold night. I buried myself inside Maik’s coat and could feel the warmth of his body wrapped around me. 

Around 01:45 we lost connection with the wind indicator. This was an obvious result of low batteries as electronic systems began to shut down. To save energy, Maik spent his next four-hour shift steering manually. 

As I took over the morning 08:00 shift we hit the 500nm mark, officially making it halfway to our destination. 

I started a new book, “Atlantic,” and settled into the cockpit with the pups while Maik went down for some well-deserved rest. When he awoke around 10:30 I decided to make some eggs and bacon. We were all grateful for a warm meal in our bellies and some protein. I was just grateful to feel some sense of normalcy again. 

We worked in shifts manually steering to hopefully save energy so that we could use the auto pilot during the night. 

We took turns steering for about four hours then I decided I wanted to take a shower. Deep into our sixth day at sea I was starting to smell my own stink. 

Seefalke doesn’t have a shower so we use a portable deck shower bag, the water in which is heated by the solar energy of the sun. This felt great in the hot sun even though the water in our shower bag was only lukewarm and the wind was freezing!

dreamstimemedium_129044574.jpg

Maik worked more on the genoa and got the furling line repaired . . . we thought.

Sometime during that afternoon, Maik noticed a small, black petrel circling the boat. These are birds that live at sea and only come on land for breeding. They are some of the least known birds because they can only be studied at sea. They can’t walk well on land because they have weak feet and legs and struggle to carry their own load. Some are shy and stay away from ships, but others have been known to seek ships and stick around for a while.

Monday, 31 December 2018 - Day 7

600 nm - 128 hours at sea

Even though there were no ships in sight, there was a lot of activity on the radio in the wee hours of the morning—lonely sailors longing for a little company. This always makes for good entertainment. I worked all shift writing one of my blogs, still making my night watch checks every 10 minutes or so. 

I had not been seasick since I stopped taking the medicine, but I was feeling congested and achy. I took a Zyrtec to help with the congestion and some ibuprofen for the body aches. I was wondering if the cold deck shower might have given me a chill, but if so, it was worth it to be clean! 

dreamstimemedium_7538228.jpg

After my watch, I slept soundly while Maik had an incredible and remarkable experience.

Sometime during his next watch—between 04:00 and 08:00—he spotted the Southern Cross shining brightly in the black sky. 

The Southern Cross is a five-star constellation that is only visible in the Southern Hemisphere and in the winter of the Northern Hemisphere. You can only see it, theoretically, from 25 degrees North in the northern winter. But this is right above the horizon, so you need to be further south to see it clearly sitting in the black of the sky.

The Southern Cross is to sailors in the South what the North Star is to sailors in the North—it’s the main point of orientation for celestial navigation. The North Star never moves, at least not from perspective Earth. It is always pointing North. But the Southern Cross moves—making a semi-circle voyage across the sky. However, the two stars at the long leg of the cross always point to the celestial South Pole.

Maik spends his night shifts studying the stars and the constellations while I spend my night shifts just gawking at them and admiring their beauty. This is his version of the experience:

dreamstimemedium_23296232.jpg

“I have always wanted to see the Southern Cross. That night, I was looking at it for hours thinking it was the Southern Cross, but I was not quite sure. In my mind, I thought the Southern Cross was only visible from the Southern Hemisphere. But then I spent the long night thinking about it. Eventually, I pulled out my iPad app, Star Chart, and my iPhone app, Planetarium, to confirm it. Then it was just . . . Wow! The Southern Cross!

“We have really come a long way. For 99% of my lifetime I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere. From where I come from, the Southern Cross is on the other side of the world. And there it was…just hanging right above us, and we were following it further South. It’s like you know it’s there, but to see it and to experience it was just magnificent.

“I always love to use my time at sea to discover the world from a different perspective, and spotting the Southern Cross felt like an accomplishment. It’s one thing to jump on a plane and fly to Australia. It’s another thing to see the world from a small little sailboat on the gigantic sea. This is not just a chapter in the geography book. We are living it. It’s kind of like how we know that there is land on the other side of the Atlantic. But to actually see it from our little sailboat is going to be remarkable.”

It was another beautiful morning, and I made another batch of eggs for the crew. Then I got busy working on the cabin organization. 

When you live in a house that doesn’t move, you simply place books and other items on the shelf and they will stay where you put them. 

When you live in a house that moves, the air around you is moving, and the water beneath you is moving, and often in many different directions. Placing a book on a bookshelf becomes less about organization or decoration and more an issue of the physics of space and balance.

I was finally able to create a rig to work for the books on the shelf above the lockers. On one side, I placed a wooden silverware tray right next to the upright row of books and anchored it with our heavy brass ship’s bell. On the other side, I used one of Maik’s heavy technical manuals placed on its side to anchor the other books. It was just the right size—31 cm—to squeeze tightly in between the wall and the edge of the shelf, turning the book into a bookend. It worked. 

Then I used an empty egg carton as a locker door buffer, attaching it to the inside of the door, to help with some of the clankety-clanking that happens when all the locker contents shake, rattle and roll with the choppy sea. 

It’s amazing how ingenious you become while at sea. There is no Walmart or Home Depot that you can rush off to for supplies. You have to use what you already have onboard, and you have to get creative. 

With each onboard puzzle I put together I think of my high school algebra teacher, Ms. Frickie (she was Ms. Hill back then). I was an energetic and ambitious 15-year-old girl who thought I knew everything about life but actually knew nothing. I remember telling her that I didn’t need math skills because I wanted to be a reporter. “I will be in the business of words, not numbers,” I told her emphatically. 

In her sweet, patient way, she then explained to me that algebra was less about math and more about learning how to solve problems. With every challenge that presents itself onboard, I think of her and appreciate the problem-solving skills she taught me all those many years ago. 

While I was computing the value of “x” down below, Maik was solving algebra problems of his own. He hoisted the mizzen stay sail so we could pick up an extra knot of speed, and continued to find ways we could utilize natural energy and perhaps find a temporary solution for the cracked casing that haunted us from deep below the cockpit. 

There was not a cloud in the glorious blue sky. We hadn’t seen another ship for days . . . only the horizon. We took a break while I read and relaxed on the deck. Maik joined me and we cuddled in the hot sun, the cool breeze in our faces, and marveled at how lucky we are to be at sea chasing our dream and bringing in another New Year together. “It’s moments like this that make all the hard work and seasickness worth it,” I told him as I was appreciating the spectacularness of the day. 

His response . . . ”You’ve earned it.”

Maik made dinner then went below for his early evening pre-night-shift rest while I enjoyed the last sunset of 2018. I have now seen hundreds of sunsets at sea, and each one is special and uniquely different. 

IMG_5082.JPG

As long, smooth 3-meter swells rolled underneath us, the golden sun melted on the horizon like a scoop of ice cream that had just fallen onto a hot pavement on a warm summer day. The only sounds were the wind and the waves. The golden fireball fizzled in a flash, leaving behind brilliant hues of ruby red, tangy orange, and golden yellow that reflected off the silvery blue water and faded into the cloudless sky. 

We had enjoyed orange sunsets all week. But somewhere in the Western African Atlantic with nothing in our 360-degree view but the glorious horizon, the sky on the last night of 2018 was as bright orange as Seefalke

Just before 21:00, during Maik’s watch while I slept, he could see through the glow of the green and red navigation lights on the bow the small black petrel circling us again. The German word for petrel is sturmvogel, which means “storm bird.” They are called this because they are seen at sea flying around in all kinds of weather. This would not be the last time we would see this tiny little black bird with a white crescent on her back. 

READ PART TWO TO FIND OUT HOW WE SURVIVED THE EQUIPMENT STRUGGLES, FOUND WAYS TO USE NATURAL ENERGY, AND EVEN WITH CHALLENGES ALL THE WAY INTO THE MARINA FOUND OUR WAY SAFELY TO MINDELO, CAPE VERDE . . .