A mellow song plays in the background, a fresh breeze is flowing through the open hatches of the freshly cleaned boat. I’m lying in the cockpit with the Caribbean sun covering me with warmth like a blanket. The kids are swimming with their friend, so bubbly with excitement at having not seen each other in nearly 3 weeks.
So much has transpired to bring us to this place. This journey across the Atlantic has drawn from all aspects of life.
How the seed got planted to sail Otoka across the Atlantic is not entirely clear, though the prevailing players are our charismatic friends on the SY Vesna and myself (Sarah) somehow talking Nick into it.
“People that cross the Atlantic in Bavarias are crazy.” Is fondly remembered as a direct quote from Nick only a month or two before agreeing to cross.
In crossing my children have become the 5th generation on Nick’s side to make passage across the Atlantic, following the same trade winds that carried Christopher Columbus and many after him. We left Las Palmas, Gran Canaria at 11:00 December 29, 2019; arriving in Charles Port, Barbados 03:00 January 16, 2020. A transit time of 17 days, 19hrs. The crew Captain Nick, Sarah, Noah Stewart Webb, Kathie Lewandowski (Sarah’s amazing sister), Miss C (12) and Miss T(10).
The excitement was palpable as we left safe harbour after close to a year of planning and preparing. So many hopes to be realized, so much uncertainty of what awaited us on the journey. A jumbled mix of optimism and trepidation. Four boats from MdR (Marina di Ragusa winter liveaboard community) pounded out of the harbour into the sloppy chop, 1 destined for Capo Verde and the other 3 for Barbados. Conditions on board were quite comfortable once we turned down onto our course. Though I suffer from seasickness it was managed by medication and so not an issue.
The days that followed allowed us to settle into life on board, watches, wildlife spotting, familiarizing crew with the onboard systems and fishing.
Noah, our long-time friend proved to us all over again what we already knew, he is a capable clutch player. Quickly he landed some fresh Mahi-mahi and was soon adjusting sails as if he had never done anything else.
My sister Kathie had joined us for a brief visit while we travelled Greece in 2018 making her familiar with life onboard. Instead of trimming sails she took the well being and happiness of all onboard very seriously. Never suffering from seasickness herself she cheerfully doled out coffee, tea, snacks, did dishes like a magic fairy in a British accent with Miss T as a sidekick, and generally kept up everyone’s morals. Proving that good crew members are not only those that can trim sails independently.
By day 2 we turned our course south, aiming for below 20°N to avoid future doldrums caused by a low sitting Azores high-pressure system. (The “Azores High” I have come to learn is an important weather feature to watch in predicting the stability of the weather in the trade winds.) Reaching across the swells being generated from a moist and red dust heavy African wind meant the life on board was not very comfortable at all.
The African air stayed thick and heavy, on Day 4 as we returned to our westward route. The sky was orange and hazy from all the sand suspended in the moist air. It coated Otoka, lines, sails and all. The twin head-sail configuration that we decided to use worked very well for downwind sailing; infinitely adjustable, stable and easy to reef.
The long-range forecast was indicating that we could expect big seas and higher winds in the days to come. We made preparations to ensure that Otoka and crew were ready for any weather that came our way.
Over the next few days as predicted the seas built and then built again. For the most part, the crew found the conditions comfortable especially in the light of day. Meals on board varied from egg wraps and banana pancakes, to pressure pot roast chicken dinner and other delights. By day 10 the seas were reaching their forecasted max. We were recording winds of 30+ knots and wave heights of around 5m. (Our Garmin tracker was giving the difference between top and bottom of 10m!) On our Portugal trip, we called them “walls of water”, this trip the swells started as “houses” and later became “apartment blocks”. With each set, we watched in awe as they loomed filling the view through our solar arch. Amazingly, Otoka went up, up, up and down, down, down. The rise occurred steadily, allowing the opportunity to take in the surrounding scenery; a landscape as alien as the surface of Mars or craters of volcanoes or the sprawling barrenness of the world’s largest deserts. We would reach the top and slide back down the back. Alternatively, the descent a fast-paced surf, the sound of rushing water echoing through the hull, accelerating us forward at incredible speeds. Garmins fastest recorded speed for Otoka 15.8 knots. Thankfully, that was only a moment in time!
It was during these conditions that we spotted other boats on our AIS, The Grey Escape, Lily, White Row, and Persistence. Vesna called them on the radio and discovered that they were rowboats, with 4 people per boat crossing the Atlantic. The crew of the Grey Escape had an average of 65 years of age. They expected the journey to take 2 months. We were halfway through our journey looking forward to land and feeling challenged by the conditions and here were these rowboats taking on a task that seemed so, so much more. We congratulated them on their grit and bravery and continued on with a renewed sense of security in our massively ocean-worthy vessels by comparison.
We had a bit of a reprieve from the swells for a few days and life aboard continued. Miss C read 8 books during the crossing, Miss T practiced her acting personalities at all times of the day, Nick fixed things and played guitar, Noah fished, Kathie watched for whales and saw them, and I cooked and watched waves. We all talked about what we looked forward to in Barbados, top of the list was a quiet anchorage, a walk on land and swimming off the boat.
Squalls started appearing, mostly at night, sometimes accompanied by lightning. There are few things sailors dislike more than lightening and in the middle of the Atlantic, we like it even less. We tried to reassure ourselves how unlikely it would be to be hit by it, but no one really wanted to tempt fate by making overly optimistic comments on the matter. As a course of action, we utilized the radar unit to identify the cells of weather and then picked our way between them. We also made an offering to the gods Zeus, Neptune, and the spirits of the N, E, S, W winds. At the moment it seemed like the thing to do, and once thought it only tempts fate further to refuse by calling it silly. It was all very exciting but also a reminder of how having backups and contingencies is so important.
The forecast for the last few days at sea showed another increase in swells and wind. Our hope for a quiet run into Barbados was not to be. The seas became large and confused with two differing swell sets converging from our port and starboard stern quarters. When there was enough wind it was much more comfortable by pressing us forward, but when the wind lessened we pitched and rolled endlessly. Hatches, for the most part, had to remain closed to avoid waves from periodically coming in. Despite the weather, the crew enjoyed star watching, noting the southern cross being visible because of our proximity to the equator; “moonbows” the night time version of a rainbow that we never knew could exist; and celebrated Noah’s birthday on board, complete with a cake made in 6m seas!
After a year in the making, landfall was euphoric and emotion-filled. It’s hard to quantify how proud I am of the crew. Crossing oceans is not easy work but the crew of Otoka took everything in stride, supported each other and shared so many beautiful, magical and unique experiences that we will be dining out on these stories for years to come. We learned to adapt to the conditions physically becoming human gimbels; walking uphill/downhill in a straight line; or sleeping unrestrained in a space more lively than a ride at the fair and as loud as a surround sound action movie.
We are thrilled that nothing more than minor issues were encountered from a boating perspective; a minor sail repair, some tangled net on the prop, and new clunks, dunks and squeaks that we monitored. We levelled up our sailing and sailed more distance than both our summer seasons in the Mediterranean combined.
About our buddy boat Vesna, we would not have taken this on without their encouragement. The conversations about planning, about strategies, and about the whole experience of this adventure were invaluable. It buoyed us on the days when we wavered. It also gave the most amazing sense of reassurance to see their mast light every night on watch and to know that both boats were looking out for each other. At times it meant reefing to allow one another to catch up. Each day we would chat throughout the day on the VHF about anything and everything. One day our daughters had close to an hour-long conversation of “would you rather” that had both boats laughing and chatting. Although sailing across will always be a solo art, to have the backup, comradery, and reassurance was priceless and I fully recommend it. (Caveat- our boats were nearly identical and we had the same sail plan. This helped to make our progress easily matched because they responded similarly to conditions.)
About the kids. I am blown away by the bravery and composure of Miss C and Miss T. Even after our horrendous experience with having a major stomach illness from Portugal to the Canaries that affected the entire boat for what we refer to as the worst 48 hours of our life; they still insisted on following through on the trip. They found ways to be helpful members of the crew and found entertainment. They accepted the challenging conditions and felt at all times that they were safe. I wonder how crossing an ocean at 10 and 12 will affect what they believe is possible moving forward in life. I look forward to seeing what the long term takeaways are for them. Time will tell.
To quote Benard Moitessier
“My real log is written in the sea and the sky; the sails talking with the rain and the stars with the sounds of the sea, the silences full of secret things between my boat and me, like the times I spent as a kid listening to the forest talk.”
Thank you to all of our extended family, friends, colleagues and community that took the time to follow along and sent messages and shared the excitement. We had the adventure of a lifetime!