EIGHTEEN: AMITY ON THE ATLANTIC

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: SEVENTEEN: LITTLE ANGLESEY – BINSTEAD HALL

 

Why sail across the Atlantic again? Arthur and I had clear memories of our adventure in 1966, tales we had told friends and children so often that they (the stories!) had aged into legend. But had the tough parts really been as dramatic as we made out, and had the best bits been truly as beautiful as we seemed to recall? The only way to find out was to relive the experience. Of course, some differences were unavoidable: our boat was now a ketch (two masts), a metre longer than her predecessor and therefore much more spacious. We would also enjoy the comforts of a wheel-house against wind, rain and spray. And, instead of Arthur’s then wife (the courageous Nicole, who had never set foot in a boat before taking part in the Atlantic adventure), we would be taking two lads in their twenties – his young son, Young Arthur, who had crossed the Baltic with Adam from Latvia to the Kiel Canal, and Thomas Peel Yates, one of Björn’s closest friends, who had been aboard from Plymouth to Viana del Castello. We had confidently assured their mothers that all would be well, given our bigger boat and previous Atlantic experience – but we now felt a particular responsibility for our two relatively young and inexperienced ship-mates.

On 19th November, Arthur and I travelled by coach from Paris to Viana del Castello in northern Portugal and found Amity lying snug in her berth at the marina. True, her batteries had died, the engine would not start, the cooker had sprung a gas leak, but these were details. We had many more jobs to do, and equipment to get, before venturing out into the ocean.

24th November, and Björn arrived for the crossing to Madeira, bringing with him three yellow plastic ducks. On the 1966 voyage, we were towing baby Björn’s yellow rubber duck astern when a large fish surfaced, opened its jaws and dragged the toy down to a watery grave. Now, thirty-two years later, we determined to sail all three ducks safely across to the West Indies – and then bring them home again, for bath-time fun for future grandchildren of the Roberts clan.

Next day, at 2.30 p.m., we were ready to set sail when Arthur went ashore to make a final call home to Madeleine. He used a public telephone kiosk in one of the town squares. (This was years before either of us had a mobile phone.) Call made, he returned and we checked everything one last time before pushing off from the quayside. Ready, let’s go! And then Arthur realised he had left all his money, wallet, passport and other vital documents in the telephone kiosk.

He rushed back into town, sure that the kiosk would be bare, but hoping that some honest finder might have handed his things into the police. But no, there they were still, on a little shelf under the telephone receiver, a good half hour after he’d left them.

bjorn adjusts ducks' tow rope

It’s good bye to Europe as Björn adjusts the ducks’ tow rope.

 

At 4.30 p.m., ducks streamed out astern, we left the European mainland and set off on the 800 mile course to Funchal.

Rather than give a day-by-day account, I will just mention episodes that give a flavour of the trip.

28th November : 7 p.m. Rain and dark. We’re racing along, wind whistling outside and sending puffs of air down ventilators, sometimes in & out like the breathing of a great black animal out there. Rain on decks and glass hatches, running off in sudden gushes as Amity rolls, but nothing coming in, so it feels rather cosy in here. Strange to think that we’re hundreds of miles from land – just sea, rain, wind, blackness out there… in a small survival capsule, a bit like being in outer space. Inside: normality, dryness, comfort (??!), warmth, friendship – outside, the forces of nature, not necessarily hostile, but quite impersonal, and merciless if we get into trouble. Racing on into the night….

1st December: 8.15a.m. We’ve sailed into the middle of a US (NATO?) naval exercise. Various warships and helicopters. We heard them on the radio reporting, ‘…a small sailboat with white sails, which might be in distress’ and ‘We have it on the Big Eye’ (radar?). We radioed back to say that we were most definitely NOT in distress, thank you very much. They didn’t acknowledge our call.

2nd December: Funchal – red-tile houses clinging to steep slopes of a mountainside that plunges, elsewhere, straight into the sea. Very satisfying to have navigated here. Arthur scrubbed the decks to get us “Shipshape & Bristol Shanky”. All now thinking about hot showers, crispy bacon, phone calls home…  

After several busy days stocking up on fresh fruit, vegetables, pasta, flour and, of course, water, we allowed ourselves the luxury of a trip inland, the bus climbing vertiginous slopes, then dropping down again to sea level a few miles on. Most impressive were the levadas, narrow ditches on the mountain slopes, down which the water swooshed at a great pace to irrigate fields thousands of feet below.

Back in Funchal, Björn would have to leave, but his friend Thomas arrived, along with Young Arthur. The latter, as befits the Bohemian image of a Parisian musician, had an enormous head of hair, but decided to trim it for the crossing.

visit to barbers

Before and after a visit to the barber’s

 

9th December: pushed off from the quayside at the start of our 2,700 mile voyage, Björn waving us goodbye .

For the next week we made very slow progress, drifting down to the Canary Islands in light winds. For three days and nights, when the winds picked up they coated our boat in a grey Saharan dust, with the sun no more than a pale white disk, but we were sailing a hundred miles a day and morale improved.

15th December: Food stocks slightly worrying, seeing we still have at least three weeks to go. Plenty of pasta, but the stuff to go with it is starting to look a bit sparse. Also, Tom has a HUGE APPETITE. He’s not greedy, just genuinely hungry.For the evening meal I made a big pan of potato salad, cut the mould off one and a half loaves of bread, took three eggs, milk powder, a little water, flour and seasoning and made a massive pile of French toast. For the first time on this trip Tom couldn’t finish his meal. This date duly recorded for later evidence, as apparently both Björn and Adam, independently, had warned Tom to take along extra food supplies, ‘Because Dad isn’t interested in food and won’t buy enough’. (!!)

18th December: Speeding along, leaving Africa further and further behind and on the 19th crossed the Tropic of Cancer (22½° north of the Equator). Soon afterwards the GPS counter dropped from 2,000 to 1,999 miles still to go to reach Antigua. A minimal difference, but somehow, for that two to turn into a one made us feel great. Tom proved a good navigator.

guitar

The guitar

 

Made a four-string guitar out of a biscuit tin. Every boat needs a musical instrument for its leisure hours!

tom establishes longitude

Tom establishes our longitude. Only 1,999 miles to go

 

What leisure hours? From the 23rd to the 29th December violent north-easterly winds knocked us about day and night and we had more to worry about than singing sea shanties.

We struggled most of last night (22nd) and all of this morning getting sails up, hauling them down, hoisting others, having been dragged from our bunks – and Amity is going like an express train, with a new-found sense of purpose, racing up the backs of large waves and roaring down their fronts…

Christmas Day began with our spinnaker pole snapping, the jib thrashing around in the dark, Arthur taking terrible risks to catch it and pull it in, big seas crashing all around us as the boat raced into the darkness. Later, I was in the cabin trying to cook a Christmas dinner on our two little gas rings, being hurled from side to side as Amity pitched and rolled. The menu was to be: crispy roast potatoes, succulent ham (thick) in traditional gravy and a white mustard sauce, tropical pineapple, fragrant mushrooms, fresh green peas, together with a good red wine – followed by Christmas pudding, custard and a splash of rum. The meal was almost ready, in fact I was actually serving it out onto the plates
as Arthur (Sr.) took a photo, when Young Arthur shouted that our steering had failed – the wheel just span loosely in his hands.

Losing steering 1,500 miles out in the stormy Atlantic, is very worrying: being thrown about sideways-on as waves smash into and over your little vessel. Christmas dinner, scraped into one big pan, was shoved in the galley sink and we clambered into the stern cabin – to find that a vital bracket had snapped, our hydraulic fluid had leaked into the bilges and the steering wheel was now useless.

christmas lunchTwo pages of my diary for Christmas Day, 1999

 

True, we had a crude emergency tiller with which to steer. It dropped down over the rudder post and it got us sailing again – for 24 hours. Then the sub-standard welding on the tiller itself fractured, the socket opened up and no longer gripped the rudder post. Once again, the seas pounded against our small craft, sending shock waves down its entire length. We spent a whole afternoon devising a steel wire nest, held by clamps, put it over the rudder post and then tightened it with wedges. The first wedges, of wood, only lasted an hour or so. Then we tried hammering in brass screws and coins. They lasted perhaps a day. Finally, we sawed the blades of our steel (cutlery) knives into short sections and hammered them in – and they took us across the Atlantic, just.

broken tiller

Broken socket couldn’t grip the rudder post.                     Wrapped round with wire, clamped and wedged

 

29th December: At last – we’ve eaten our Christmas pudding. Just never got round to it since the 25th. Squalls starting. Driving rain. 1,125 miles to Antigua.

31st December: New Year’s Eve.  925 miles to go. Under a thousand at last; it almost seems as if we are in coastal waters. We all feel that we have crossed an important psychological threshold, though I guess there are lots of Solent sailors who would consider 900 miles from land still a long way off-shore. Rang in 1999 with the ship’s bell, fog horn, whistles and banging on various kitchen utensils. Had a glass of wine each, opened the hatch and invited anyone who might be out there to come and join the party. Hoped a few mermaids might take up the offer…

Our next week was pretty uneventful, but at 4.30 am on January 7th, with only 250 miles to go, the shackle holding the forestay (connecting the top of the mast to the bow of our boat) broke. With no forestay, we had virtually nothing in front to hold up the mast – and losing your mast is pretty much on a par with losing your steering: very bad news.

Arthur and I spent the next four hours on the rearing foredeck, drenched by waves breaking over the side, and used the anchor winch to tighten the stay using a connecting wire.

broken forestay

 

That was our last major crisis. The weather improved. At night, brilliant stars and constellations shone above, amongst them the legendary Southern Cross (and the ominous False Cross, a few degrees away, which has lured more than one sailor to a watery grave).

9th January, 1999; 75 miles to go. With only (hopefully) a day to go till Antigua – mixed feelings. After 31 days’ sailing, problem-solving, not much sleep and being constantly off balance – it will be good to set foot on land, can’t deny it. But it’s also the end of a saga, presumably the last Atlantic crossing I’ll ever do. Still, even that doesn’t feel so bad. This crossing was in a way nostalgic…. Sitting here in the saloon – quite a few reminders of the past – an oil painting of Amitié in Tunis harbour, the brass lamp we had on Claire, Geneviève, Amitié and now Amity, the red and white chequered curtains that Liz Backhouse ran up for us, the Carl Larsson picture of a Swedish farmhouse, so like Sigyn’s home in the forest.

10th January: Motored into Falmouth Bay, Antigua, just as it was turning daylight and anchored only a hundred metres or so from (what turned out to be) Bill Gates’s obscenely huge motor yacht. Broke into our survival rations and ate rice crackers and chocolate. Drank a glass of wine and had Scott Joplin and Beethoven playing on the wheelhouse radio. All around was warm, green, hilly and tropical, the water the most beautiful greeny turquoise. I let down the stern ladder and had my first swim in a month. Glorious.

arrival

After 32 days on the Atlantic, we swing at anchor in Falmouth Bay, and Arthur, Young Arthur and Tom take in the view.

 

Grateful that we arrived safely. There were moments when I was seriously concerned, but it was great to see how our little team worked together to deal with each crisis. Young Arthur, though fairly new to sailing and badly missing his girlfriend back in Paris, is still the most reliable steersman of us four. Tom, less sure at the tiller, and ever-hungry, is strong, consistently good natured and ever-ready to help. My old mate, Arthur, though of changing moods, is 100% dependable in an emergency – as he has been over all these years.

Later, took everyone’s passports to the Immigration Office (the rest had to stay on board) but when I got there, the man said, ‘Sorry. We’re closing. Come back in two hours’. I groaned inwardly, thinking of my mates stuck on board, only a few feet from dry land, but said, ‘Fair enough. You have to have your meal’. I went outside and sat on a bench, ready to wait it out, but after a while the clerk came and sat next to me. He asked, ‘Where you come from, man?’ and I told him something of our story. We also looked across at the millionaires’ yachts moored close by and agreed that huge amounts of money and good taste in boats do not always go together. Then another official came by, expecting my friend to join him, but he said ‘Hold it there, man. We’ll just admit his gentleman. He’s had a rough time of it’.

He took me into the office, opened up and did all the paperwork. I was out on the street ten minutes later and rushed back to Amity. Soon all four of us enjoyed the sensation of solid ground beneath our feet and an excellent meal, thanks to Tom, the only one with foresight enough to have Antiguan currency. A few days later, Young Arthur, Tom and I flew home, while Arthur stayed on to arrange for Amity to be stored on land until we could return and sail her back to Europe. For various reasons, this never happened, and we had to sell her out there.

falmouth bay

Thank you Amity, and happy cruising in the West Indies
NEXT CHAPTER: NINETEEN BINSTEAD HALL 1999 – 2004
CONTENTS: MEMOIR CHAPTERS