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Story Publication logo July 7, 2007

Back to Sea: Goodbye to St. Helena

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Jeffrey Barbee set off Across The Great Divide with boat maker/Captain Andre Watson and first mate...


Day 21, July 7, 2007

Its 7pm and we left St Helena this morning. It's been a big day, and it was the sunniest nicest day we have had for weeks. Some clouds were blowing in at sunset from the east, but hopefully we wont get a beating tonight. Moral is way-way down. Andre wants to now divert to the Cap Verde Islands. This is a big decision, and although it is his boat and all, for him to make that judgment in two hours without any weather data seems like a patentedly unwise decision. On the map we will cut off about 1200 Nautical miles from the whole trip, but we might also have to beat into the current and winds for 800 miles. My feelings don't really matter since it is not my boat and I am not the Captain. The Cap Verde islands are still islands, with all their sensitivity to environmental changes, and I should be able to find to find some interesting projects to cover. Things get super stressful on the boat when we beat into the wind. Today the wind is blowing more that way than Fernando, but that might not be the case tomorrow. Tomorrow our fourth shipmate was going to fly to Brazil to meet us, and being my old friend, I had to call and pass along the bad news not to leave to tomorrow. Not nice, especially since this could just be a decision we don't have to make should the wind swing back towards Fernando. So we shall see in the next few days. One things is for sure, the winds have been much more unpredictable than they are in charts that are based on decades of wind data. What a day. The sight of St. Helena disappearing under a blue sky was gorgeous but I was also sad to leave all my new friends and abandon myself to the capricious waves. So the water rushes past my bunk. We have made good time today with the wind just off our starboard rear quarter, and now I must rest before watch and resign myself to a possible course change. The chaos factor, despite the good weather and wind has been extremely high today.

Day 21, June 8, 2007

Scattered clouds and squalls. So its official, we are off to the Cape Verde islands. That's what we will do. Hopefully we wont get too knobbed by the wind (there is a storm right now as I right this, hovering out there off our starboard-fore quarter. That makes this passage from St Helena to Cap Verde the longest leg of the trip. And when, or I should rather say, If we reach there, we will have more than half the journey over. That is sounding like a better and better idea, but I know these are also the blues of leaving St Helena, where I was so busy and ran around meeting scientists, taking pictures, hiking, having fabulous dinners and in general doing all the things that we aren't doing right here. All we are doing here is sailing this boat, and counting the miles with fishing rod in the sea, hoping our loved ones miss us as much as we miss them. Our route takes us about 200 miles off the African coast, which suits us fine since in case of trouble there is always somewhere to go, even if its just Sierra Leone. That's where we are aiming for right now, and about 200 miles offshore we will head back out to sea hopefully with good winds, and head up to Cap Verde. I have always wanted to go there, the music is lovely, and I understand that the people have great food and wonderful Caribbean-like nightlife. We could use a bit of that after this leg. The boat has been blasting along, and since we left yesterday morning we have done the same distance as three days of travel on our way to St Helena. Hopefully that keeps up for the next thousand miles, since it's the last 500 or so that might prove difficult sailing. If you think of it, there are almost a hundred hours in four days. Stick with me here. Since it is 2100 miles to Cap Verde, and we have already done about 300 since yesterday, that leaves roughly 1800. Which, if we travel at 8 knots (nautical miles an hour) on average, then we will do 800 miles in four days. So IF and that's a big IF, we keep that average up, we will arrive in Cap Verde 10 days from today. Hopefully tomorrow I will get my energy levels back up and we can continue our reportage. I have a researcher who will assist in getting some of the scientists from Cap Verde to assist in understanding that island's special biome. This is an adventure, and plans change, so I am rolling with it, quite literally at the moment, and hopefully we look forward to a smooth sailing as we come up on the Line. It will be my first crossing of the Equator and I think here is some initiation in store for me. I have a bottle of Champagne to pop open when we get there. Right now we are about 14 degrees south of the equator and there are 60 nautical miles to every degree. Then we will be in summertime and may not have to put on all our cold weather gear (still!) for the night watch. Better go and heck if the guys are all right and need some help before this squall blows in. Bubble bubble the water rushing past my head on both sides up here in the front of the boat. Sometimes I hear flying fish whack the hull.

Monday, Day 22, July 9 2007

Sunny, partly cloudy with a 3 meter cross swell.
It was a gorgeous day today with a good strong wind, the same that carried us out of St Helena, still blowing abaft the beam from the south southeast (the best point of sail for our direction). We carry on towards the equator and then into summer. It's still cold at night now, with jackets and fleeces and a rain-jacket in case of squalls. Our destination today is still Cap Verde, and as long as we still have good wind, we are pretty much all happy, except for the captain who seems to be regarding this more and more as a laborious task that needs finishing ASAP. He also has his light moments though and we have all been getting along more or less. The stress builds when we are beating up into the wind, or when the wind keeps changing direction, as it did on the leg to St Helena. The challenge now is to keep up our spirits for what will most likely be our longest, most challenging leg of the trip. Reminding ourselves that we are very lucky indeed to spend a Monday out here in the big blue and not behind a desk with an unappreciative boss and a deadline long passed. Surprisingly its hard to remember that sometimes; cause the stove burned me, the wall is still the floor every 30 seconds, and I dropped my full mug of hot tea, burning myself again, or any number of things. But I am happy. The flying fish are amazing. They are big, sometimes the size of the trout I used to fish for in Colorado streams. They come jumping overhead during watch and often plunk themselves down onto the deck with a pathetic flapping. We gently tip them over the side and let them carry on in what seems a very merry way, ducking and diving through the swells on their wing-like fins. Tonight on watch I will try to photograph and film one before I tip him back in. They smell very bad but it's nice to have them along for the ride. One, and considering their size hit Deon in the side of the head, a smack on the nose with a wet fish could really ruin your night. That's not the only wildlife we have seen out here in the mid-ocean wilderness. We caught a fish today! A healthy Dorado, about 8 Kilograms, also called a Dolphin (not the mammal kind) or Mahi Mahi. It's a rainbow coloured fish with a small sail. Its fast growing, and very tasty with firm flesh and few bones. I cooked some of it up with onions and tomatoes from St Helena and we had a great meal, the best of the trip, out on the deck under the sunshade. We have enough for another great dinner and counting the fresh tuna from a St Helena fisherman that we have been chopping up and eating as sashimi with hot mustard and soy sauce, we should have fish the next two days. What a joy. It was my dream to be out in the ocean, catching fish and cooking them up on the fly. Very nice to see that dreams come true today.

Tuesday, Day 23, July, 10 2007

2-3 meter following swell, SSE winds between 28 and 25 knots. Partly cloudy skies
It's been a long day, but a good day. Gorgeous hot weather today, with lots of sun and fluffy white clouds marching across the sky. We are pointed about strait north, just 11:55 off of noon on the compass rose, heading for the big bulge of the African coast sticking out into the Atlantic. The swell has backed around much more behind us, which is a blessing, so we don't have that corkscrew-type motion anymore. We are however kind of living in the far left hand corner of the boat. The winds keep us heeled over about 20 Degrees, but sometimes that increases to 45 or even 50. Blankets, pillows, food bottles and cans, it all ends up down there in the corner. Yesterday morning the boat heeled right over, while Andre was at the helm. Everything ended up on the port side of the boat…thank goodness all my equipment was stowed tightly against the port side. So life carries on here, the days kind of running into each other. It seems miraculous that people end up getting all the many things done in one day out there on land. Here it seems just a bit of editing a bit of sailing, maybe make lunch, and the day is through. It's a little unsettling, since all our days are numbered that they should just flit by so quickly, so inconsequentially. By the same token, with morale as its been on this ship the last few days, despite the fish and the good weather, maybe its better that the days fly by and this becomes one of those dream-like fond memories of the past. It surprises me how little there is out here. No other ships since we left St Helena, and nothing but those lovely yet stinky flying fish. No whales or dolphins, only one turtles way back, halfway to St Helena from Cape Town. It is deep here, roughly 4000 meters (almost two miles) and will get much deeper. We are coming up on the Romanche Gap, an abyss cutting into the mid-Atlantic ridge more the 7500 meters deep and only a few miles wide. It's far, far down there. In short there are few places for small fish to live, and no small fish then for the bigger folks to eat. The deep ocean wilderness is indeed a barren and empty place, but with the waves, the stars and the clouds it seems far from desolate. I stood at the bow of the boat today at sunset, rising and falling above the ocean. I was reminded of a revolutionary book written by Robert Heinlein called The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It was written in 1960 something and predicted the rise of the Internet. Other than that, it's only its title that harks to an underlying sinister thought that has been hanging over my head, which I stumbled upon while researching a trip to the arctic. The oceans are our biggest carbon and methane sinks, and have been for millions of years. Some of this sequestered methane, itself a very powerful greenhouse gas, is frozen in the arctic seabed in the form of crystals. As the sea temperature rises, and the oceans absorb more solar energy, we run the risk of huge methane upwellings and sea floor collapses as these ice crystals melt, reaching a tipping point of more warming and more melted ice releasing more methane from the sea floor in a growing cycle. What seems like a very steady climate cycle, one unchanged for thousands of years, is in fact only stable to a point. Natural systems are inherently prone to abrupt state changes and we are very silly indeed if we think even the smallest changes we introduce will not affect the environment. Imagine a glass of water. It is water from 0 dg all the way to 100 dg centigrade. But change it to 101, its just gas and at -1 its all ice. All of it. An abrupt state change has occurred. She has been very forgiving to us, but for sure, as we have seen in places like New Orleans, the sea can be a harsh mistress.

Day 22 Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wind from the east southeast (what a pleasure) and following seas
What a nice day. I am sure we will face some very serious days ahead, but today was not one of those days. Last night we had the last supper of our first beloved Dorado fish, and today we caught another, exactly the same size or slightly bigger. So we are set for fish for tomorrow and the next day. It was a gorgeous evening. The dust from central and southern Africa's dry seasons blows this far out to sea, and although the sky is still baby blue, about an hour before sunset the sun sank like a fiery ball which I could watch with my naked eye, filtered by the thickness of dust more than 1200 Nautical miles off the continent. We expect our wind conditions to change at any minute. As I explained before the guiding hand of luck was far from us on our way up to St Helena, so we are taking the days as they come and just being happy that fortune favored us today. This may sound like namby-pamby silliness and nouveau religion, but it works for right now so we aren't knocking it. There has also been a rise in odd nomenclature. Like in the old British boarding school system, when a boy was particularly unpopular, the other boys might slip a tennis ball, or a even worse a bar of soap, into a sock (we all wore blue socks up to the knee) and beat the boy pretty hard but very quietly after lights out. He dared not make a sound, or else he knew it would happen worse later. This was called a right good knobbing. Well, here in the Atlantic, far from Mr Dalton's evil wicker cane and the Form 4 dormitories, we live in fear of that time, maybe just around the corner, when the sky will wind up its strato-knobs and its knob-o-cumulus clouds, and give us a right good beating. Once bitten, twice shy, and now, having had a few days of happy sailing (barely touched the sails in four days) compared to re-rigging the boat every hour, and all that earlier beating, we live in fear of being reduced to the most meager forward speed, every mile fought and bled for. So we look no further than the next watch and at least Deon and I hardly ever mention our good fortune, for it feels like we sit on a knife edge, and any passing comment except for the acknowledgement of good winds and fish just in time to fill our fridge would be inopportune at best, and downright regrettable at worst. This is the longest leg of our new trip plan, and we are keenly aware that usually these winds stop around 3 degrees north of the Equator. We are around 4 Degrees south of the Equator, so sometime tomorrow night or Friday very early we will pass The Line, if our luck with the wind holds out. Just so its clear what is good wind and what is bad, imagine a 2000 km journey. If you walk and run, 24 hours a day, at 5km an hour, you will arrive at your obviously very important destination in 400 hours, which is roughly 16 and a half days. But, if your destination is even more crucial (imagine) and you manage to jog every once in a while and walk very fast, say 8km an hour, just that little difference makes your journey 10 and a half days. Almost a week less. Now understand that in bad winds, at just the wrong angle to a swell, we can make about 3-4 knots an hour instead of our usual 7 to 9. That means our roughly 2300 nautical mile leg can either take 11 to 13 days, or 23 to 31 days. So speed matters because although I like our days on the boat, (even though the Captain follows in a long line of nutty Captains) I do not want to spend 30 days with him getting to an island chain that I will only get to spend 6 days exploring. I also don't like it when my bed becomes a roller coaster. But I guess I should get over it, since one thing that all the scientists seem to agree on is that a warmer world means bigger and more frequent storms. These I imagine will unfortunately do more than just knock us out of bed, but maybe every one of us needs a good wake up call. Mine tonight is at 1:30.

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