John Simpson is back with another of his excellent tales… For more from John, click here.
‘My early-hours-of-the-morning entry into Fort-de-France, Martinique after crossing the pond for the third time in my 22ft boat was definitely the most laid-back – even though it was under sail and at night.
Undoubtedly, I was helped by the fact that I’d owned and sailed Miss Content for six years and had already spent a year sailing her engineless during my first Atlantic circuit.
It had been a slow passage of thirty-five days with unreliable NE trade winds, and I had left the Canaries much later than intended after my sister Pat and partner Janet had both joined me for holidays… possibly we had enjoyed some slow exploring of these warm Spanish islands a little too much, and too long.
Single-handed sailing or being alone on watch during a dark night does allow your imagination to run riot. It brings us all quickly back to primitive man – so I well remember when, standing up looking around in the cockpit on one dark windy night running downwind in the trades, I was punched in the chest by some unknown creature that then flapped around the cockpit close to my bare feet my heart missed a beat! I reached for my torch and found it was just a small flying fish.
The landfall was a bit of a mess. I spotted what I assumed to be Martinique shortly after mid-day, but it was much farther south than my astro fix suggested. Stupidly, I began heading for the high land I could see only to realise I was looking at Saint Lucia!
One shouldn’t take anything for granted navigationally, but convincing myself this didn’t matter wasn’t that hard: for the last couple of nights I’d been enjoying listening to the radio and live test match cricket, West Indies versus Australia from the Wakka in Perth, and with a bit more sailing to do I’d be able to catch the fourth days play!
It was amazing how comfortable I’d become. There was a wonderful feeling inner of peace in the ocean and I was coping easily with my solitude and tiny living space.
As I approached Martinique, the wind lightened as I came under the lee of the land. After weeks of running under large twin jibs (or even using the spinnaker on one side), I hoisted the mainsail and noumber 3 jib. The boat would easily carry a much larger headsail, but this sail was high cut and allowed good forward view underneath it in the slow sailing to come as I entered at night.
Passing Diamond Rock with a few miles to go I recalled the struggles between the British and French during the 18th century Napoleonic wars. The Royal Navy took the 600ft rock and held it for over a year while they harassed the French. They named it HMS Diamond Rock.
It took two ‘74’s and other ships for the French to recapture the rock on Napoleon’s orders.
During my last visit to the Caribbean some bold sailors had come down from English Harbour in a RIB and retaken the rock just before the French Navy sailed in, hoisting the Cross of St George. Unfortunately, even 180 years on, the Admiral of the French fleet had a complete sense of humour failure…
Gently tacking up into the harbour, I eventually spotted other yachts anchored in the bay at Anise des Flames. With my mainsail scandalized I let my anchor slide down and waited for the boat to settle. Finally, at about four o’clock in the morning I dropped the sail and the boat and I quietly congratulated ourselves on making another crossing.
Then, while filling my kettle for a celebratory cup of tea, the water ran out. It had been a close run thing!
Whether you’re entering a strange bay or harbour during the day or at night, if you are tackling it under sail it must be done slowly. Not so slow that you don’t have enough control of the boat and end up possibly running aground, or being blow onto the bows of another moored craft, but clearly also not sailing so fast, that any manoeuvre (particularly gybing) loses this essential control.
What’s required is moderate speed giving enough steerage and directional control, not racing along gunwales-under.
This needs to be experimented with on your own boat, using plenty of space and a variety of wind conditions, and perhaps even different tidal flow situations, if they occur in your local area.
Find out how your boat performs using just the main or jib. One sail might do the job. Generally, three quarter rigged or seven eight rigged (ie, forestay only that far up the mast) dinghies/yachts have much bigger mainsails. Find out if just a jib will do the job, if it’s windy. Masthead-rigged craft have small mainsails that may not be big enough to give sufficient drive, when it’s light, and under just the jib they don’t always beat or even tack well in stronger winds. So a reefed main and slightly furled or smaller jib may well be the answer.
Sails must be ready to be sheeted in or dumped, even backed, or dropped or hoisted.
It’s good to practice using the sails to steer, with the mainsail helping turn the boat into the wind and pulled in to tack. Hanging onto the jib can be good if it helps to bear away for a gybe with the main sheet dumped. The technique needs to be practiced so it can be quickly used to help turn in tighter spaces.
Mainsails may need to be reefed in open water before entry.
Low-cut genoas cut down on all-round vision, so change the headsail early and use a higher cut jib, or roll it up enough so you can see underneath it, unless the wind is extremely light and things are going to happen slowly anyway.
Most importantly, your crew must be familiar, with how all the rig and sails work!
Finally, scandalising the main – on a Bermudan main it can be done by by hoisting the boom up higher with the topping lift – can give you a quick way of de-powering a mainsail or any other sail on a boom. This de-powers the boat temporarily without having to drop the mainsail and enables you to rapidly re-power up, if you have to accelerate out of a tight spot quickly and leaves the sail ready for almost instant use, say, until you are completely sure that the anchor has bitten-in safely, clear of any hazards or the boat is properly secured to a buoy.
It’s wonderful technique to use when manoeuvring under sail and pretty well an essential part of your armoury on an engineless boat.
Having released both sheet and vang, the boom needs to be lifted so it depowers the sail and can’t bang anyone on the head. (Topping lifts are useful in other ways too – for example, when it’s needed a topping lift can make a useful spare main halyard.)
On modern boats, of course, rigid vangs may not allow the boom to raise, fully battened sails can be almost impossible to de-power and some goose-necks can be too rigid to lift sufficiently.
On gaff and gunter rigged boats, scandalising can be achieved the opposite way, by lowering off on the peak of the gaff. Again, after dumping the sheet and taking up the weight of the boom, with the topping lift enough to keep the gear clear of the crew’s heads!
It’s worthwhile playing around with these ideas in light winds and in a crowded place – one day if your engine fails you might need to use this method in anger, and then you’ll be pleased you’ve practised the method beforehand.
For me as an Anglophile my bonus was clear: I’d sneaked into French territory under sail at night, yet again!
- On water… Fresh water had been something I’d worried about during that whole of the passage, which was well before the advent of manual desalinators – I had even considered diverting south to Barbados to slightly shorten my crossing…. but in the end I arrived with two emergency gallons in my grab bag. I‘d set off with five gallons less than during my first crossing, at the end of which I arrived with 15 gallons left, much collected from rain squalls. This passage, however, had taken a week longer, and there had been no proper rain! You can’t assume anything, when dealing with Mother Nature.