Sailing the Atlantic from Cape Town to the Azores marked the end of an eight-year circumnavigation for Dutch couple Wietze van der Laan and Janneke Kuysters
“That’s it,” Wietze says, “Not an ounce more of anything is added to the boat. No food, no fuel and no water.” I pause, because I had just grabbed my bag for another quick visit to the supermarket. We have a 6,000-mile trip to go and my fear of running out of food is even bigger than normal. But when I check my little book of supplies, I concede and put the bag away.
The next morning we give each other the customary pre-departure look in the eye and ask: “Ready?”. Then we’re on our way for this monster voyage: Cape Town to the Azores. This will be our final big passage in over 50,000 miles of sailing around the world.
By the time Table Mountain sinks below the horizon, I’m rummaging in lockers for warm clothes. It feels as if the cold Benguela current swoops past the south-west of the African continent, straight from Antarctica.
We sail under bright blue skies, with lots of seals, gannets and albatross around us. A dream comes true when we see a Southern right whale surface close by.
On the desert’s edge
During the pleasant downwind sail to Lüderitz in Namibia, we see many ships with the sign ‘limited manoeuvrability’ on our AIS screen. Initially we are quite puzzled, because they seem to be close to the shore. Wietze then realises they are diamond-ships: alluvial diamonds are spread across the seafloor and across parts of the south-west of Namibia. Dredging boats literally suck the diamonds up.
When we enter the bay near Lüderitz, an eccentric Brit rows out to us. “You’re just in time to tie up before the afternoon breeze starts,” Andy tells us. We’re directed to use one of the moorings normally used by dredging boats. “It’s best to use this mooring instead of anchoring. The holding is not good,” our new friend says.
An hour later it feels as if a switch has been flicked and we find ourselves in 40-plus knots of wind. Where the hot desert meets the cold current, the ‘afternoon breeze’ as Andy called it, feels like half a hurricane.
We manage to get ashore in our dinghy and, after a quick clearance, go for a wander around this very German-looking town.
A few days later we slip our mooring and head to Walvis Bay. This time we sail closer inshore and enjoy the ‘stop and go’ sailing: nights and early mornings are lovely with light southerly breezes and a gentle push by the current.
At 1300 the afternoon breeze starts and we fly north, close reefed and poled out. Then, 12 hours later, all is calm again.
Walvis Bay has a small craft basin in the south where the Walvis Bay Yacht Club is very welcoming and offers us a sturdy mooring. We’ve learned our lesson and tie up before the afternoon breeze hits again – the same breezes that powered SailRocket to its record breaking 65-knot run.
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We travel inland to see the magical sand dunes up close; and we need a safe place to leave the boat.
The Namibian desert doesn’t disappoint, but we must press north, to Saint Helena.
We go from wearing thick thermals to shorts and T-shirts in a matter of days once we are out of the current. It is ocean sailing at its best: very stable 10-15 knots of wind from southerly directions, with a slight swell and a full moon. We don’t touch the sheets or helm for days, ticking off the miles in the most pleasant way.
The biggest issue is working out what to eat next – and what to do with the packaging. Despite all our efforts to reduce the packaging we take on board, it is worrying to see how much plastic waste we still produce.
We try a new trick: cutting each packet into small pieces and storing it in an empty bottle; compact and odour-free. For the next 5,000 miles there is little chance we’ll get ashore.
After nine days of blissful cruising, an email from a friend brings unexpected good news: Saint Helena has opened its borders. We can’t believe it, but a quick message to Saint Helena’s harbour master Steve Kirk confirms that we’d have to quarantine for 14 days, and take a test, but would be allowed on shore (the island honours seatime as quarantine).
How lucky we are: one of the iconic destinations in the South Atlantic is accessible for us after all.
The next day we tie to one of the mandatory moorings and settle in for four days of quarantine. Some boat jobs and chatting with cruising friends on the VHF make the days fly by.
St Helena has a ferry system because there is only a small quay for lifting a dinghy onto. The ferry efficiently takes fishermen and cruisers to and from their boats. We love Jamestown at first sight: a quaint village, steeped in history. The Jacobs Ladder with 699 steps is a challenge with our sealegs, but the views up top are rewarding.
But time is ticking and the season is progressing fast. Back in Steve Kirk’s office, he asks if we have a visa for Ascension Island? “Yes,” Wietze says, “but we’re not sure if we are going there, because of the difficulty to get on land in the massive swell.”
“If you decide to go, you could do us a big favour by taking a box with emergency medicine that is needed there,” Steve says. One glance at Wietze is enough: of course we will go. Steve rushes off to the pharmacy, then we clear out and say goodbye to Saint Helena with our precious cargo on board.
The conditions are the same, but no more lazy downwind sailing for us because we feel the urge to get to Ascension fast. We are on high alert for every windshift or change in wind speed. The current that helped us, has decreased to a trickle. But still we average around 115 miles a day with our 17-tonne boat in 10-12 knots of wind.
When the wind dies further, we switch on the engine. With still many miles to go, we try to minimise the use of the engine. Wietze routinely checks the battery monitor every few hours, one day he notices that one of our three batteries is very hot. “Shut the engine down!” he shouts. He quickly disengages the broken battery and, in the silence that follows, we scratch our heads.
With 3,500 miles still to go this could potentially create a difficult situation if the other two also break down. The chance that we can get another one on Ascension is close to zero.
When we arrive at Ascension Island, a large military-looking boat comes out to meet us and to show us where to anchor. Two hours later they are back to bring us, our papers and the precious box of medication ashore.
Ascension has a reputation for difficult shore access and we are about to find out if it is true. The large boat manoeuvres nimbly alongside a concrete quay in 2-3m swell. “Wait until we are on top of the wave and then jump,” the skipper instructs.
A steel arch is constructed over the landing quay, and ropes with knots are suspended from this arc. “On the top of the wave, you grab a rope and sling yourself ashore,” the mate says. I’m nervous, but we both complete the circus act without getting too wet and run up the stairs before the next wave swamps the quay.
Harbour Master Kitty George calls the doctor, who rushes down from the local hospital to pick up the box. It’s a great feeling to be part of the old traditions between seafarers and remote communities: helping each other out when possible.
When we wander around Georgetown, we marvel at the contrast between the white buildings and the dark volcanic mountains. Everywhere we look we see antennas rising into the air: Ascension is a very strategic location in the middle of the South Atlantic.
Traces of green turtles can be seen everywhere on the beaches, both the wide tracks of the females who come ashore to lay their eggs and the smaller tracks of the hatchlings making their way to the sea.
On our way back to the dreaded quay, we pass by the government stores. We step in and much to our surprise they have a battery available – not exactly what we need, but it’s a good back up.
Launching ourselves back into the ferry boat is just as hard as getting out, especially with a heavy battery, but the crew is very helpful and we reach our yacht without a hitch.
The big one
Three days later, we decide that it’s time to go for the big one: the long passage to the Azores. The start is similar to what we had before: leisurely light winds aft of the beam and clear skies.
It gets warmer every day and each morning we find more and more flying fish on deck: on one day there are 26!
On the sixth day, we pass the Equator for the sixth time on this voyage. This inspires Wietze to get all dressed up as Neptune and deliver a thundering speech, to which I obediently listen. We offer a tot of whisky to Neptune and congratulate ourselves on reaching the northern hemisphere.
As if on cue, at 3° 50’ north of the equator, the wind stops. “Welcome to the doldrums,” Wietze muses. We start the engine on a glassy sea, sprinkled with tufts of yellow Sargasso weed.
The monotonous nights are brightened by feathered guests: birds rest on the aft rail. It’s a delight to look at them while they’re trying to keep their balance.
One night, I’m watching our guests with a torch and I notice something odd: the windvane is moving. It’s not supposed to do that: two very sturdy brackets hold it into place. I scream at Wietze to disengage the engine. Wietze looks at the stern.
“Oh no, it’s come off the bottom bracket.”
We both know there’s only one way to fix this. Wietze puts on his shortie wetsuit, while I get tools ready. Double secured, he steps over the pushpit onto the swimming ladder which heaves up and down in the dark nightly swell. He ends up with his legs around the rudder of the vane, pushing and shoving until it is back on the bracket. Shivering from exhaustion he is back on board half an hour later.
After only two days of motoring, the north-east tradewinds kick in all of a sudden. We hoist the main with a reef, hoist the cutter jib and roll out the yankee.
Anna Caroline loves this wind angle, so we hear the water rushing along her sides. Inside the boat, it is another story: we heel quite a bit and I wonder how long this is going to be enjoyable for.
The rest of the day we experiment with sail configurations and wind angle to find a point of sail that is both fast and comfortable. It’s a delicate balance to keep the pitching motion bearable and to keep the boat in one piece in the 20-plus knot trade winds.
We snap off some chocolate pieces to celebrate crossing our outbound track of many years ago. Since then, 52,460 miles have passed under our keel. We hug and enjoy this special moment.
The next morning we keep looking at our boat speed in puzzlement: with this wind force and angle we should easily be doing 5-6 knots. But we’re doing only 3-4. Wietze is tense with frustration, so while he is taking a nap, I send a message to Lynnath Beckley, our ‘weather friend’. She replies instantly and suggests changes in sail setting and course.
“You’re brave to choose this upwind track,” she writes, “By the time you get to Azores, one leg will be shorter than the other”. She confirms that we have 2 knots of current against us for the next 200 miles, and in a post script adds: “Have you looked over the side?”
When Wietze wakes we joke about dragging a net along. Just to be sure he looks over the side. And there it is: a giant net. Sighing, he gets the diving gear out again, his neoprene suit and the knives.
The days go by smoothly in a routine of watchkeeping, navigating, eating and sleeping.
Sooner than we thought, we get used to the heel and the pitching of the boat. To cook, I have to strap myself to the stove to be able to use both hands. Using the heads becomes an art in itself. But we adapt quickly and both remark on how comfortable we both feel.
We’ve never liked long crossings, but somehow this one feels very manageable despite the 2,000 mile upwind slog in the middle of it. “It’s the food,” I conclude. For this crossing, I decided to go for many small snacks during the day in addition to the three meals we normally eat. Bits of chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, salty crackers and sweets have had more impact than we thought.
Almost every day there is something to celebrate with a special treat. One morning Wietze hands me another generous piece of chocolate. “We have reached the fold in the chart,” he points out.
We marvel that we are both still learning new tricks after eight years of sailing. “Like mowing the lawn,” I joke. Once a day we have to remove the Sargasso weed from the foredeck, thrown there by the waves crashing over our bow.
“If we would have to continue this for another week, I wouldn’t mind,” Wietze says. I agree – and it’s the first time we’ve ever felt this way, on all our other crossings we were counting down the days to our arrival.
A week of beating passes, then another week, and then almost another one. The current slackens and the wind turns a bit more to the east, allowing us to steer almost directly to the Azores.
We plot the courses of two fellow boats making the same passage, knowing there is a silent competition who can point highest, enduring it, to sail the fewest miles on this long track.
Anna Caroline sits in the middle between an Oyster 40 and a 36ft steel Rekere. The Oyster takes the westernmost track, holding their light cruising chute until they enter the doldrums, the Rekere is more easterly.
Having stopped in St Helena, we are about a week behind, and also take an easterly route, but are faced with much stronger winds and steeper waves, and so have to veer off a little.
And then the wind peters out; we have found the Azores High. It’s a funny, pear-shaped high, but a high it is. Down come the sails again and the engine takes over the job while we are surrounded by rafts of Portuguese man of war jellyfish.
While the boat slowly rolls in the long swell, we enjoy the change of motion. But there is a nasty low lurking to the west of us; twice a day we look at the weather charts as we need to decide on a strategy.
The front is showing 40-60 knot winds; we need to avoid that at all cost. As soon as we are north of the high and back into lovely south-westerly winds, there is no other option than to slow the boat down and let the front pass north of us.
For 24 hours we potter along with mini sails and just 2 knots boatspeed. As soon as we are in the clear, everything goes back up for a sprint over the last 200 miles.
Mist, drizzle and cold winds make the last miles difficult, and we are only a mile out of Faial when we finally spot the island. There are high fives, hugs and kisses: 3,185 miles in 29 days. Done.
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