13 April 2015

A Shake Up Cruise - La Paloma to Santa Catarina, Brazil

This is a chapter!  Excuse the length.

For the past two years, I have been anxious about this passage, thinking it might be the hardest of our entire time onboard Milly.  It is about five days long and against the current and prevailing wind.  The strategy is to wait for a low (bad weather) to pass out to sea and sail north on it’s tail end.  The route is complicated by the fact that there is only one harbour, Rio Grande do Sul, between departure and port of call which in itself is tough.  It has a long (miles long), narrow entrance which is also a shipping lane and at the mouth is a strong tidal current.  On top of that, it reportedly doesn’t have a lot going for it as a destination. We didn’t want to go there and were hoping for a long enough window to do the full five days to Santa Catarina. 
Maybe the little birds who visited offshore were trying to tell us something
We did all the right things. We studied various gribs (wind forecasts) for days, and PredictWind forecasts and route choices by dates.  We hired a professional weather router of outstanding repute to establish the best day for departure and, once chosen, to give a complete forecast for each day as predicted by boat speed. All data pointed to a Tuesday a.m. departure.  Wind was forecasted to be light but from the south or east. We anticipated a slow voyage north.  Alas, Mother Nature is fickle and none of the forecasts served us well.

We left La Paloma early with blue skies and very little wind.  An easy, slow, slightly frustrating sail.  Late afternoon we were alerted to a storm by thunder. Lo and behold, forked lightning lit up the entire horizon behind us.  An enormous black front was approaching.  We had been sailing wing-on-wing in very light winds and flat seas.  We furled both sails and put up the enclosure minus the stern panels around the cockpit.  Laptops, iPads and handheld devices were put in the oven, our Faraday Cage.  And then we held tight while watching the horizon disappear in rain and the wind pick up.  There was no where to escape to, the system was too huge.
Holy Shit! It's coming!

And then it hit us.  Winds held at 47-49 knots (87-90 km/h) for about 30 minutes. (Time stood still for awhile and seemed much longer than 30)  The top gust hit 57 knots (105 km/h).  Luckily, the seas were flat so the sailor’s worst enemy, high waves, were not a factor.  But hail the size of moth balls poured down for at least twenty minutes. 

During this time, Peter stayed at the helm.  The wind blew so strongly that although under the hard bimini he was soaked.  The enclosure was stressed to the max and a corner was torn off.  I was inside watching the wind instument reading rise with wide eyes.  I opened the door for no more than 15 seconds and I, too, was soaked, head to foot.  Neither Peter or I were afraid for ourselves.  At no time did Milly founder or seem threatened.  Instead, we were both worried about how she might be damaged by wind and hail.  Poor Milly.  But unlike Peter’s car caught in a hail storm, she showed no pock marks or damage.  After it was over and the skies were clear with light winds once again, the only consequence of the storm was the wind instruments inconsistently recording nonsense.  That settled after thirty minutes or so.  And all was well.  We were dazed and in a state of disbelief but fine and happy to know Milly was a well-built boat that we felt safe in.
Thirty minutes later, we had recovered enough to take a picture of the remaining hail.

Gradually, the wind turned from the expected and desired south wind on our stern to a head wind on our nose.  At first, the water was flat and even though our progress was slow, we had a pleasant, relaxing sail for our second afternoon.  At this point we passed Rio Grande, the only harbour on the way, thinking that we would continue on slowly under these light headwinds until the forecast played out and the winds became south again.  
Relaxing and content

Time for showers.
However, contrary to forecast, the winds increased over twelve hours to give us two or three days (and nights) of headwinds of about 24 knots or so.  No problem, except the waves also increased to two-three meters making inside living challenging unless lying down.  Waves splashed over the bow and occasionally the side soaking everything over several days with salt. 
Chart couldn't decide which ocean we were in!

Really determined that we had gone through the Panama Canal.
We had been sailing on a reefed sail - smaller sail - especially at night.  Despite the factory’s best efforts to fix a reefing line that chafed with use, the solution did not satisfy the conditions we were facing.  On attempting to reef for the second last night, the second reef line block popped out - no second reef.  Turned to the first reefing line, a bigger sail but still smaller than the full main. On tightening it, it broke - chafed through.  Good thing we had two strong motors.  The wind had decreased and so it was a relatively relaxing but noisy night.
Relaxing? upwind.  Holding on, blood in head, blood in feet.

Finally, during the last 24 hours the wind started to back and ended up turning 180 degrees to come from the south - yippee.  Instead of pounding into ever increasing seas we could surf.  Prospects looked good to get us to port at midnight - oh, oh, not so good, dead of night is never good to approach landfall.  So we were not in a hurry.  

During the late afternoon, the skies to the west, east and north - straight ahead - lit up with lightning!  Mother Nature was testing us big time and it was getting a little tiresome!  As night fell, we could follow the lightning visually and the heavy rain cells on the radar.  With us both at the helm, Peter dodged them successfully by slowing down or turning east or west.  It was quite a game.  About this time the chart plotter computer announced to us that it was no longer sending wind data.  Gremlins!

As the lightning eased to the east over the ocean, I took my watch.  Slowly the winds and waves built up.  I was attempting to go slowly - boat speed under 5 knots. As the wind picked up I had to pull back on the throttle.  On Peter’s watch, I attempted to sleep.  I woke after about an hour to howling wind.  Peter was surfing down 3 meter waves at 13 knots boat speed with bare poles - no sails - while listening to a podcast!  No more sleep for me.  We sat together at the helm watching these breaking waves.  It was a bit like a roller coaster.  One pooped our cockpit, meaning it broke right at our stern and flooded the cockpit.  Thanks to great design, the water did not enter the saloon even though the door was open.  We turned on the motors to keep up with the speed of the waves.  No more pooping.

I got both our lifejackets.  Unfortunately for me, I had read too many books all of which said not to take a breaking wave broadside in a catamaran and we had to cross the wind to go into the channel leading to the harbour of sanctuary.  Granted the books were referring to much bigger waves but these were the biggest I had seen and that was enough to provoke my first anxiety of the trip.  Peter, on the other hand, was having a wonderful time and completely enthralled with how Milly was handling the waves.  The wind and waves were wild but Milly and Peter were in complete control.

Gradually, we turned and made headway into the relative shelter of the island.  Maybe 2 meter waves now.  Peter went for a quick nap.  It was still dark, sunrise due in about 30 minutes.  I slowed the motors a bit so as to get to harbour in the light.  But Mother Nature wasn’t finished with us yet.  A squall hit with winds that woke Peter with a start.  No wind reading but when exhausted and with the end of the passage in sight - literally - it was a bit over the top.  We were breached from the side.  Then I read that the winds in the channel can be “vicious” with a south wind.  Great!

We motored into the harbour, anchored without pause, put away lines etc. ate a bit of food and fell into bed.  The wind was still howling but we were protected with the much gentler rocking of the harbour.

Lessons Learned:

  • Put the full enclosure up for an upcoming storm
  • Peanut butter on crackers is a good meal with big waves - PB doesn’t slide off
  • You get a full core workout trying to stay upright even while sitting down when waves are big
  • Keep toilet seat down in big seas - otherwise, it falls down and you wonder what the noise is
  • wear polyester
  • iI’s never over until it’s over.  No complacency allowed.
  • One feels “more alive” with all this (over)stimulation
  • Put all electronics into oven pronto with lightning
  • Everything gets wet with saltwater and then never dries - ie. bedding, cushions, feet, floor.  By the last night we could only sit on the helm chair.  Everything else was wet.
  • Satellite communication (KVH) is a godsend - we could download weather info (even though it was inaccurate, it felt good to have) and communicate by email to reassure family
  • Microwaves can be useful after all.  I am a convert.
  • Podcasts are good company on watch
  • Screw jar tops on well in fridge.  Otherwise, pickle juice soaks everything.
  • Heads are small in boats for good reason.  Big spaces mean more room to fall.
  • Elasticized waist for pants or shorts handy for single handed removal or retrieval

At the end of it all, I have a great respect for Milly and how she is designed and built.  Thank you, Ted Clements, Memo Castro and Antares!  

I have a great respect and have thanked Peter numerous times.  He always remained calm and positive - talk about seeing the silver lining - even excited. I could see the wonder and enjoyment in his face when I was perhaps not as happy. His understanding, confidence and expertise are just what I need to be able to learn and enjoy myself.  

But I have little confidence in weather forecasting which has left me a bit freaked out.  Even with all our studying and with a professional weather router, the experienced weather was no where close to the forecast.  So what to make of that?  Hopefully, it’s the location - reknowned for fast changing and unpredictable weather patterns. We were caught in a high pressure system between two lows.  When the high eventually moved to the east the two lows squished us.  A cold front with lightning passed us followed by very strong winds.  They even have a name for this southwest wind here it’s so infamous, The Pampeiro  
Safe harbour.  
    As we go north, especially to the trade winds, the weather should improve and become more predictable and consistent.  Meanwhile, we have done our big voyage in the south.  For the next 1,000 NM or so, we are hopping up the coast.  We will wait for weather windows - we have no schedule and are not in a hurry - and, hopefully, will have some easier, downwind sailing.


  1. Glad you two are safe! Sally, we're hull 4456, launching late next year, and are enjoying reading your first steps in Milly. Quite a ride you had, and your evocative, economical writing helped us live it a bit. You write beautifully. Well done, and thanks. Valerie and Matt

  2. Hi Valerie and Matt
    Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you are enjoying our trip and looking forward to your own. It's some fun....mostly.