Tag Archives: sailing around the world

Saint Helena to the Caribbean

15th January to 15th February 2021

St Helena, over the equator once more and on to the island of Martinique. World circuit completed.

What do you really look forward to when you reach your destination after a long passage? What have you missed during those solitary rolly days on the big empty ocean?

For me, approaching Saint Helena, it was a chance to walk and stretch my legs, meet people and chat, emails and WhatsApp with family and friends, a meal out perhaps. And then there’s always the excitement of new local interest with history, architecture, novel foods, wildlife, ways of speech, strange customs. So much to explore and enjoy.

Dream on!

Moored off St Helena

All of that was denied in St Helena. Since leaving Cape Town the rules for St Helena had changed. In fact I left South Africa on 30th December, rules were I believe changed at a St Helena Council meeting on 31st December. As I have no internet at sea, I had no way of knowing.

On arrival a VHF call from the port tells me I can’t land. I’m not allowed to leave the boat. I’m not to approach any of the other cruisers (there seem to be four or five occupied boats that must have been here for a very long time – what on earth are they doing?) I have to leave the mooring within 24 hours. I must go away. 

Talk about feeling unloved and unwanted.

Covid paranoia on this tiny remote and isolated island has reached new heights of absurdity and two weeks’ quarantine in total isolation many hundreds of miles from all human life forms, plus a negative test on arrival is not enough. Now, quite simply, one is not allowed in. (I smile at the silly thought that Napoleon would never have been allowed in. When he was exiled here, just think of the dreadful bugs that were around in his country, France, and Britain, horrid diseases like smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, polio, cholera, typhoid, scarlet fever, plague plus all those viruses like measles, mumps etc. He of course was sent here and died here.)

Plenty of other countries have applied the same draconian emphatic ‘NO, GO AWAY’ to sailing boats, but they’re not British territory; it’s not for me to comment, none of my business. But Saint Helena is a British millstone; UK taxpayers keep it afloat. I feel I can comment.

To say I was very disappointed and quietly seething understates my sentiments. Presumably a caucus of local politicians made this decision. I’m checking which decisions, if any, have to be rubber stamped by Foreign Office in London. Research to be done. Questions to ask. I’m awaiting replies to my first round of emails. 

This little outpost of 4,500 people is almost entirely sustained by aid from the British Government.  Around half its GDP, nearly £20 million is for Government Services alone. That doesn’t include the $374 million spent on what was dubbed ‘The World’s Most Useless Airport’ which was completed four years ago. 

To be fair, I add that the local Harbour Master, Steve, and his staff seemed bemused by (but respectful of) the new ruling, and were of course obliged to follow their government directives. I needed a new bolt for self steering, that had sheared off in the boisterous Cape Town conditions, and they found this for me, plus a box of food to help me on my way.

Johnny and Steve deliver a box of food

I enjoyed some swimming in the clear blue sea off Henrietta’s stern as well. A bit chilly but I feel clean and fresh. It cooled my frustrations too.

One of the ugliest looking settlements I have ever seen anywhere on earth scars the cliff top and ridge above the anchorage of St Helena. This eyesore is the capital of this isolated outpost in the South Atlantic, a jumble of chaotic ugliness called Jamestown. You could not devise a more unsightly set of dwellings were you to try. That’s what it looks like from offshore. Folk on land may tell me otherwise.

The crumbling grey brown cliffs that loom over the anchorage are home to sea birds, mainly masked boobies and white terns I think, but the high cliffs look dirty and threatening rather than majestic, not a pretty sight. 

It is wonderful though for me to imagine the history of long-ago sailing ships calling in on their passages to and from the Far East – days before the Suez Canal when St Helena was a welcome port-of-call for provioning (as it is for me right now! ).

The Northumberland brought Napoleon to St Helena

I left.

It’s a long way from St Helena to the Caribbean, nearly 4,000 miles.

To break the journey and add interest, I toyed with the idea of stopping at the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, but it charges extortionate fees even for brief stops, and I wasn’t clear about quarantine rules. I thought too about Surinam, but learnt that I’d be faced with a week of quarantine on a mosquito infested river, and that restaurants were take-away only and, the killer for me, no tourism to the interior. So, just kept going to the Caribbean….

It is essentially an easy journey across the South and North Atlantic Ocean, even if quite a long way. More or less reliable Trade Winds north and south of the equator, a patch of Doldrums somewhere in the middle. Hot sunshine and grand empty blue ocean all the way.

I was about to say not much happened. But then I remembered that on day 17, I started a new tube of toothpaste….

….Then it all came flooding back. A lot happened. In fact I’ve never yet sailed a long ocean passage without some drama to disturb life. It’s just that I’m extremely proficient at forgetting horrid stuff. You have to be or you’d give up.

Early on and tired of slow progress in light winds I fished out the cruising chute, which had lain unused for three years. I seldom use it as it’s big and hard to handle alone if the wind gets up, and it doesn’t add much to speed except in these very light downwind conditions. Plus I don’t much like its colour or pattern; letter-box red and silly flat white chevrons near the edges. It is gaudy and loud, and looks out of place and clashes with the beautiful natural blues of ocean and sky.

Sailing peacefully northwards, slowly

Once hoisted, all went well and speed picked up. The great big red nylon balloon swung and rolled with the swell. Even if I still didn’t care for the colour we were moving faster.

…and a bit faster..

But then, after three days and nights and in rising wind, the tack line (short bit of rope at bottom corner of chute) had chafed itself to extinction and broke free. I’d not spotted it weakening. 

As they say, with wind growing stronger by the minute, all hell broke loose. The giant red nylon blob was wildly angrily flapping itself forward of Henrietta, the shackle a demented murderous lump of metal flying everywhere. The noise was awful. Time to do something.

I’ll spare you the details, but if you’ve ever had the excitement of regaining control of a spinnaker or gennaker that’s gone berserk, you will know how hard life can be – and how many muscles are needed. It took me over an hour to recover the sail, fit a new tack, trim the sail and get going once more. I was bruised, grazed, burned, sore and blooded. Hands and knees, whole body, needed a holiday. I was shakey and pretty much knackered – but at least, I thought, letter-box red hides the blood stains. That’s more than enough drama for an Englishman in retirement.

A bit bruised

Two more days of red blob sailing and then it had to come down. Surfing down the waves at over eight knots is no fun for Henrietta and makes me very nervous. Wind was much too strong and my armpits smelt of garlic (sure sign that anxiety levels were way through the roof). We were not in a race. It took nearly an hour lowering the beast and stowing and tidying up before life was back to something more sensible. I had a good wash too, and soon smelled sweetly of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo (it makes bubbles with seawater).

The Doldrums are not necessarily all calm. They weren’t for me. Instead they gave four days of wildly variable winds, intense rainfall, some calm and frequent squalls. Better equipped sailors have access to weather forecasts and can find the best longitude to cross the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (the proper phrase to describe this unsettled, and often calm, equatorial band across the ocean). I just went the way that experience had found most favourable in the centuries of sail trading vessels. 

After that it was a fast sail for the next 2,000 miles on to Martinique, just one small semi-open Brazilian fishing boat, over 400 miles from its home. They offer me a fish, a big tuna I think, but it’s too tricky to slow or go close enough. But such kind gestures make me want to sail to Brazil – another day. A few other fishing boats, I guess from French Guiana or Trinidad were around too so it’s not an area for much sleep.

Then, one full month after leaving Saint Helena and nearly seven weeks out of Cape Town, Henrietta took me into Martinique. The bay at St Anne is a mass of masts bright in the early morning sunshine. There are hundreds of yachts here, more boats than I’ve seen in the past two years. Clearance at the port of Le Marin takes five minutes.

A mass of masts, anchored off St Anne, Martinique
Quickly cleared in, Q flag can come down

Martinique marks the end of Henrietta’s trip around the world. We were last here four years ago.

I should perhaps have a glass of champagne. But there’s no crested flute on board; no champagne either. A tin of beer is fine. Perfectly amazing in fact..

Then, the icing on the cake, a long peaceful night of calm undisturbed sleep. 

I suppose I ought to feel happy, elated even, to have sailed around this unique and wonderful planet. It is true that I’m pleased, especially as four years ago I was very unsure what to do, feeling a bit creaky, weary, and lost. Thought I’d just have a look at more islands in the Caribbean then sail home and complete a second Atlantic Circuit. But I didn’t; instead I carried on westwards.

For me it was never a dream; and I’ve never had a ‘bucket list’. I just went. Henrietta looked after me.

Perhaps it really is best to try something rather than regret never having had a go. I do not know. Don’t ask me.

South Africa to Saint Helena

1st December 2020 to 13th January 2021

Tourist Cape Town, Christmas and a sail to Saint Helena

A month in Cape Town passed quickly; a fascinating month, which included the typical cruising sailors’ diet of boat bits, tourist bits, sociable bits and unmentionable bits, plus Christmas somewhere in there. Briefly then….

First though I point out that Cape Town is made interesting less because of its scenic splendour, fine beaches and high quality wine (nice as they all are) than because it’s such a bubbling stew pot of people, folk from every corner of the planet. New African arrivals from most countries of the continent, people who have short term work here, freshly arrived Europeans, and others, all muddling along with the historic residents, African, Afrikaans, Cape Coloured, Indian and English. 

It is a beautiful, yet for me an uneasy metropolitan city of contrasts: global glamour and awful poverty, striking city architecture, luxurious villas alongside desperate shabby townships, privileged wealth and struggling immigrants, the entitled and the misfitting outcasts, ragged down-and-outs at a Ferrari showroom. All this human life beneath the fabulous backdrop of Table Mountain and Lion’s Peak, and an overarching blue sky.

Cape of Good Hope (or Storms, depending)

The racial divides and tensions are complex. Much too complex for me. I was going to tell you something about it, but remembered it’s best to gloss over the three minefield topics of politics, religion and Marmite – best not to upset people. “Cry, the Beloved Country” which I’d read as a youth, is well worth reading again.

With such warm welcomes everywhere, and outstanding friendly generosity and help, it would smack of ingratitude were I to dwell on the Nation’s difficulties. (And it’s not as if my nation, Britain, doesn’t have its own heavyweight problems.)

When here, you will often hear the words “This is Africa”, delivered with a fatalistic shrug, not because your knowledge of geography might be limited, but rather like the commonplace British phrase “it is what it is”; both being uttered to explain anything that is wrong, or fails to happen or seems ridiculous. Most tiresome.

However, this blog is meant to be telling you about Henrietta’s little adventure, not these rambling observations.

Memorable highlights for me? 

Lunch with the Portuguese Cape Town community. Mainly originating in Madeira, they’d invited solo sailor Henrique (Madeira), who’d then invited Frank (German solo) and me (British solo) to go too. Wonderful generosity, white table cloths, real interest, a feast and excellent wine. Huge thank you to the local Portuguese.

Portuguese/Madeira Cape Town for lunch

Kirstenbosch Gardens. Perhaps the most beautiful, serene and magical botanic gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world (and I’ve seen many). A fabulous variety of plants, textures and colours perfectly set in the rolling foothills behind the city and with Table Mountain behind. Visited twice but would readily have returned many more times. In fact I could live there.

A sweaty leg-throbbing clamber up Table Mountain – on a very hot sunny day. Ample water and a banana used. But some titanium definitely needed. Fifty years ago it was easy-peasy, but things change. At little over 1,000 metres Table Mountain isn’t even very high.

Half way up Table Mountain, and puffing

A wonderful Christmas Day with my kind host Michael (originally New York but long time South Africa), plus Othmane (Morocco to Cape Town, four years, on bicycle and skateboard), and Regina (Germany with Kazakhstan origins working here).

After four of the past six Christmases spent alone, usually at sea, it was an especially memorable, friendly and happy day. And much as I enjoy the company of my fellow sailors it’s good too to spend time with terrestrial friends.

Christmas lunch. Othmane, me, Michael and Regina

Othmane Zolate from Morocco has been in Cape Town for two years now. He’s wide-eyed, gentle, modest and open, not born to either money or privileges, but with a local production company is now making a film of his four year cycle/skateboard trip for several African TV stations. (Out early in 2021, Netflix too). Here’s a link to a YouTube clip.

Othmsne’s Trip

One of the many extraordinary people I’ve met during the past few years, his next venture is to sail around the world. He’s done a sailing course here in Cape Town and I’ve no doubt he’ll go on soon to his next venture. Bicycle, skateboard, African deserts and hardships on land will make life on a boat at sea seem oh so easy and relaxed – most of the time.

A few unlucky participants in the Vendée Globe (a singlehanded round the world non-stop sailing race) were forced to retire and their beautiful racing boats, the Formula 1 racers of the sailing world, found themselves in Cape Town. To my eyes they are beautiful and of course I’d love to sail one, but for cruising round the oceans give me Henrietta any day.

Vendée Racing yachts, Initiatives Coeur (Samantha Davies) and Hugo Boss (Alex Thompson)

Soon it was time to move on. Home is still a long way away. The first step is 1,700 nautical miles from Cape Town to the little South Atlantic island of St Helena, perhaps 12 days; quite a long way but nothing special in the world of circumnavigation. 

Changes to Covid rules in South Africa at the end of December 2020 had among other things banned the sale of drink. A new level of restrictions was introduced. All alcohol sales had been banned. No shop could sell it. Vineyard visits and wine tastings were over. Every bar shut down, restaurants and clubs such as the Royal Cape Yacht Club could no longer sell booze. The place died.

Wine tasting before the ban

But that wasn’t the reason I left. It just happened that way. I’d had a month in Cape Town, seen what I’d wanted to see, enjoyed a convivial Christmas and done enough shopping. I had the nomadic itch and wanted to move on.

I’d expected an easy passage northwards with following breeze and warm sunshine, so it was a horrible shock by day three to have a full gale, cabin soaked from a breaking sea that sluiced inside (I’d foolishly removed washboards for fresh air).

Feeling queasy, unwell, downhearted and exhausted, it was a rare spell when I asked myself what on earth was I doing on the wild ocean waves when I might instead succumb to advanced self-pity, lie around at home, hug a hot-water bottle and broach a bottle of whisky.

The crashing wave had made trouble for electronics too; AIS and chart plotter were out of action (fortunately partially fixed a couple of days later, along with my morale).

The gale, with howling winds gusting over 50 knots and harsh foam-crested waves, lasted nearly three days, much stronger than forecast before I left Cape Town. It definitely shouldn’t have happened. It was a wild downwind ride, all sails stowed and still at speeds over 5 knots.

Such conditions make you feel very small, insignificant and powerless in the face of nature – which indeed we are. It’s very rare to encounter them and in about 45,000 miles over the past five years this is only the second such occasion. After that wild start, it was a slow warm easy sail the rest of the way, an occasional gull or tropic bird for company.

Apart from very rare incidents of vile weather, time passes easily enough with on-board chores, minor maintenance, cleaning, cooking, reading, looking out enchanted by the confident dance, swoops and glide of occasional ocean birds, and the less confident skittery flights of flying fish, music, podcasts, thinking, planning, dreaming, sail trimming. And I find I’m tired, happy to sleep when I can.

If ever boredom threatens I remember my mother’s comment to a listless moody teenage son, “it’s only the boring who ever get bored”. And with routine established, boat tidied and feeling better in warm sunshine, St Helena soon comes into view.

Approaching St Helena
Sailing ships have stopped here for many centuries

In the end the passage took longer than 12 days but, as I’d known landing in St Helena would not be permitted till at least 14 days had elapsed since leaving Cape Town, there was no rush. I was looking forward to stretching my legs, chatting to fellow mankind, fixing broken Hydrovane bracket (a bolt had sheared in gale) and buying some fresh fruit and a beer.

Little did I know…….