Sailing is a great way to see the world with the family in tow. The kids eyes are opened every day to new experiences, culture, food and people. They rapidly learn to not be too shy and make friends with other kids quickly and are confident around the boat – safety wise and usefulness wise. Our ten year old can happily use appropriate knots for tying the fenders onto the boat, take a bow or stern line ashore and even helm under power and sail in some quite tricky conditions as we found out on our last passage from Lisbon to Porto Santo, one of the islands of the Madeira group.
The distance from Lisbon to Porto Santo is just shy of 500 miles. We assume our average sailing speed to be about 6 knots and therefore it’s going to take us 3-4 days depending on wind and sea state. This was the longest ocean passage we’d done with the children so far.
15 hours into the trip our auto helm failed. This is an essential piece of kit for us. Usually we would embark on a longer ocean passage and once on our route and the sails have been set for conditions and direction we would switch on the auto helm, sit back and enjoy the journey (occasionally ‘tweaking’ sails and auto helm as the conditions change. So long as someone is on lookout we are free to move about the boat, cook, make tea, read a book, sort the kids out, anything really. Making long ocean passages with the children on board and no auto helm is not much fun to say the least!
For 60 hours day and night William and I had to hand steer the boat by compass. We decided on a two hour rota. Two hours helming, two hours off. On the helm you can literally do nothing else, the wind was strong and coming from directly astern of us and made the boat roll heavily from port to starboard and back again continuously. You constantly had to adjust the course steered with the roll of the boat to continue on course and watch out for waves our 40ft yacht Moonlighting might like to surf down.
In the day this is relatively straight forward – there is nothing around you but wide open ocean and the occasional huge cargo ship, so a visual fix on something in the distance to make sure you’re going in the right direction isn’t an option. But you can at least see the direction the waves are coming from, feel the wind on the back of your neck and even use the clouds and patches of blue sky as a reference point – something to aim for, with the odd glance down at the compass immediately in front of you, just to be sure.
But at night it’s a different story. It’s pitch black from about 6pm, you can hear and feel the ever present strong wind berating down the back of your neck and you can sense the power of the huge waves all around you, but you can see nothing but the glow of the compass which is lit so you can see it to steer by, but destroys any night vision you might have other wise been able to see by. All you can do is stare at the compass and feel the boat moving and make helming decisions with all the senses available to you. If you’re lucky, the night will be clear with stars and when the moon rises it will give some light to dissipate that closed in, dark, lonely, claustrophobic feeling. Sitting at the helm under these conditions is not passive. It very, very physical. You’re constantly bracing yourself for the heavy rolling of the boat side to side. The wheel is heavy and stiff because of the wave action hitting the rudder, requiring large amounts of efforts to move it port to starboard. You feel bruised and beaten up. I’m sure I now have abs of steel and my arms have been nicely toned!
And of course the conditions are changing often, and with that requires sail changes and adjustments. Usually I’d be on the helm while William would half walk half crawl along the deck to make changes to the main sail or the headsail – both of which have been secured so they can’t accidentally be blown across to the other side of the boat (accidental jibe) which is a high risk with the wind coming from behind us and would be bad news. It’s one thing doing this in daylight but quite another in the dark. I’m sure Will got fed up with me double and triple checking that he had ‘clipped on’ whenever he went forward- secured himself with a line from his life jacket to the boat – I’ll leave the potential consequences of not clipping on in these conditions and at night to your imagination! The boat naturally wants to round up into the wind and she wants to surf down the waves, veering off at the bottom, but this is not what we want the boat to do – we want to steer as straight a line as possible to get there as quickly as we can.
Off watch for two hours does not mean you can relax. Those sail changes I mentioned have to come out of someone’s off watch time – it’s just too exhausting to spend extra time on the helm. At night, the kids are asleep snug in their bunks, oblivious to the sleep deprived labour both their parents are going through (thank goodness they did sleep through it!). So this means whoever is off the helm can try and get their head down for some sleep. Neither of us managed to get much of this high value and prized commodity! We opted to sleep in the saloon on one of the sofas that’s not a proper bunk so we were within easy shouting distance for the person on watch if they needed help. The sofa is narrow, you’ve got the table at your back pinning you in position but the boats throwing you around so much your constantly under threat of being thrown onto the floor. Cupboards and lockers occasionally popping open through ageing catches, threatening to tip out their contents with the next wave (we must buy some bolts for those before the next ocean passage!), the contents of the lockers rattle around with the rocking of the boat. Grabbing something to eat or drink all uses up precious little off watch sleeping time. We slept fully clothed, ate food that was convenient and need little cooking, if any at all. The day before we’d set sail I’d made a big pasta sauce, cake and brownies – I always do this before a passage because it’s good to have something to just heat up or grab – just in case.
During the daylight hours off watch was same – we still needed to try and get some sleep because we were getting so little of it at night, but there was also the children to consider. I have to say they were amazing. They’re all proper little sailors having been dragged along on family sailing holidays since they were in nappies, so they know their way around boats well. But they really did just get on with it and sorted themselves out. Occasionally William or I would throw some food in their direction,but they know where the snacks locker is and took full advantage of not being told to stay out of it! The big one plugged herself into audio books for three days straight, now and then slowly responding to a request for her parents – once we’d managed to get her to unplug her headphones! The other two just played together or watched films either in the saloon on their bunks – we barely saw them they were so self sufficient! Personally I think it was self preservation on their part – they know how horrible I am without sleep and thought it better to keep out of the way!
One or two other incidents also kept us on our toes – a very small Galley Fire woke everyone up a bit on day three – the kettle had been put on for a cuppa and a plastic food container had worked itself loose from its stowage and ended up sitting on the gas hob. I was on the helm and William on the foredeck – he soon scampered back when the girls started shouting ‘fire,fire,fire’! At the top of their voices!
On another occasion I was once again on the helm and William was behind me checking the dinghy was still ok on its davits. Without any warning I had all 14 stone of husband land on my back, knocking me flying off the helm – he’d tripped as the boat lurched ( nothing to do with my helming!), he swears he tried to miss me but I’m not so sure – land on a hard deck or a nice soft wife?! We’re lucky we got away without injury. I about eighteen years of sailing with my husband I’ve never seen him stumble before and we’ve seen some fairly wild conditions – that will be the sleep deprivation then……
All in all it was quite a passage – it did have moments of feeling like a Royal Navy sleep deprivation exercise, I half expected someone in uniform to turn up and shout ‘EndEx’- releasing us form our torture (we’re both ex Royal Navy Reservists); that didn’t happen until we finally arrived in Porto Santo when we gratefully picked up a mooring.
It’s interesting how sailing with family Davies seems to quite regularly turn into an Expedition! I think perhaps subconsciously my husband is turning our children into the next generation of hard core adventurers! Whatever…it doesn’t seem to be putting them off the sailing!
I however am quite keen on a caravan holiday in Cornwall next year!…..