ISBJORN Trans-Atlantic p. 5 // Birthday’s at Sea

22 Feb

Captain Andy turned 35 on the trans-At!

Captain Andy turned 35 on the trans-At!

In the days before accurate longitude at sea, trans-Atlantic skippers followed the by now cliched “sail south until the butter melts, then turn right.” Once the New World was discovered, and in turn mapped, sailors knew where the different islands in the West Indies lay, north-south anyway. They’d have known the Virgin Islands were about 18º30’ N, for example. Or that Nelson’s base on the south coast of Antigua was at exactly 17º N. They’d have known too, with a good trade wind blowing, roughly how many days after the butter melted it would take to get there. But they wouldn’t have known exactly.

The butter melted on ISBJORN two days ago as we approached Cape Verde and gybed, effecting our right turn towards the Caribbean and starting to ‘run down our latitude.’ In the old days, a simple noonsite would give accurate latitude, so a ship could simply line up on the latitude of their destination – 17º north, in our case – and adjust slightly north or south as needed after the daily noonsite. When they eventually made landfall, they knew it’d have to be the place they’d planned for. We’ll be adjusting our course 50 miles to the south over the next 2,000 miles of ocean, but for the time being we’re close-reaching just slightly north of west, trying to ride a dying southerly off the bottom of a cutoff low ambling along towards the Canaries to the north of us. The cutoff low has cutoff our Tradewinds for the time being, but at least we’re still sailing.

Of the 20 sunsets we had on the crossing, this one was the best!

Of the 20 sunsets we had on the crossing, this one was the best!

Birthday Balls

Happy birthday to me! I turned 35 yesterday and celebrated my first birthday at sea. Mia woke me up with a birthday kiss before dawn around 6:30 so we could share the last 2 hours of her dawn watch with a birthday coffee. She had left me a small present on the nav station wrapped in a paper towel and tied off with a re-used gold ribbon she’d taken from the box of chocolates the Austrian boys shared with us back in Las Palmas. Inside was a notebook for recording my onboard exercise routine and a small ceramic keychain she’d picked up for me in the mountain village at Fataga where we’d spent three wonderfully restful days hiking in the hills and eating & drinking on the balcony of the B&B.

For 9 days straight we didn’t see another boat.

For 9 days straight we didn’t see another boat.

That dawn watch was spent under spinnaker on starboard tack, drinking coffee and watching the sun rise astern of us as we talked about the things you talk about after having been a week at sea. Both of us are fully into this passage now, the worries and stresses from ashore long forgotten. I wondered aloud how we can possibly get so much accomplished in a single day ashore – work, exercise, meals, etc. – when here on the boat the days go by so quickly and yet nothing really happens! Time really does change it’s character after a week or more at sea, there’s no other explanation for it.

19.01.25_Andy Mia Birthday Coffee_1.jpg

We gybed just before 0800 as the wind started it’s slow swing into the southeast (and which we expected to swing all the way around to southwest over the next 24 hours). Mia & I enacted the gybe ourselves, in peaceful silence before the rest of the crew woke up, first dropping the chute and switching everything over, then gybing the mainsail and re-hoisting the spinnaker on the new tack. This whole process takes 30 minutes at least with the crew, who are new to the boat, yet Mia & I can do it, efficiently and silently, in about 10.

My birthday celebration continued. We cracked 1,000-miles sailed later in the afternoon, yet another reason to celebrate, and we marked the occasion with another round of showers and a boat cleanup. The southerly windshift has brought with it a new heat and humidity we’ve yet to experience on this passage, so instead of showing belowdecks in the head, we took turns at the bow, using the saltwater washdown pump and rinsing with the long hose attached to the freshwater spigot under the helm seat. The seawater was startling at first, then refreshingly cool, and not fearing that we’d empty the ocean, could let the spray fly as long as we liked. I scrubbed the head, Fred & Walter scrubbed the cockpit and for the rest of the afternoon wet clothes and towels hung to dry (quickly) on the lifelines.

Mia had asked me to pick three of my favorite ‘boat meals’ that she could pick from to cook for my birthday dinner. I chose bean burgers, chili or the Moroccan quinoa first introduced to us by Kristin & Ryan out in Pittsburgh last October and quickly adopted onboard. On a very flat sea, Mia made bean burgers and we feasted. I ate four (and later paid for the piri piri hot sauce I’d generously slathered on the buns with two very spicy stints on the toilet this morning). She surprised me then with some homemade cocoa raw balls, rolled with coconut oil, muesli, honey, oats and almond flour, complete with 3 1/2 candles (for my 3.5 decades on Earth), two of which actually stayed lit through the entirety of the happy birthday song the crew sang for me in the cockpit. The crew even got me a present – a Snoopy birthday card and a screwdriver set!

Then Mia, who just loves birthdays (and surprises), found one more gift for me – a picture of the straw hat I’d wanted for the warm Caribbean, which will arrive in Antigua with Liz in a few weeks.

The best seat on the boat, on the aft deck leaning against the fenders!

The best seat on the boat, on the aft deck leaning against the fenders!

What Happened to the Trades?

Just before sunset we dropped the chute and transitioned back to the fore-and-aft rig. The latest GRIB showed we could expect the wind to continue to veer into the south and eventually southwest as that cutoff low traveled east, well north of us, so the angles would very soon be too high to carry the big white sail, and I didn’t feel like waking up in the middle of the night to take it down. So we pre-empted it and had it all bagged up just as the sun disappeared over the horizon in the west. The wind then just about died completely, so I laid awake in my bunk until about 2300 listening to the mainsail sheet clank and bang as the boat rolled in the gentle northerly swell.

The beautiful Trades we’ve had for a solid week are gone. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to sail through this little ‘disturbance in the force’, carrying the southerly breeze along the 18th parallel and attempting to avoid a wind hole to our sail, biding our time until the high re-establishes itself early next week and we can get back to the downwind rig and the business of real Tradewind sailing, what we all came out here for. One of my goals on this passage was not to motor at all, so I can’t complain – over 1,000 miles covered and we’ve not only managed to sail the entirety of it, but have done so at a good clip, averaging 6.8 knots or 166 miles per day and touching close to 10 during some of our little surfing runs.

I’ve challenged myself to do 100 pushups for each of my decades today, the day after my birthday (for a total of 350 – not all at once!). Thus far I’ve done 120. More to come! – Note: I DID finish them ;)

Sunset spinnaker takedown.

Sunset spinnaker takedown.

This article was syndicated from 59º North Sailing // 59º North Blog


  1. First Last

    I can, certainly, appreciate the stress and anxiety you accumulated during your preparations. I personally witness, the deterioration of the relationship of a normally loving and thoughtful cruising couple prepare for a long term cruise from Lake Ontario to Long Island Sound. I, even, experienced this grumpiness preparing for my long term cruising. I designated this malaise the “Pre-cruise blues” . Once underway, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

  2. brad

    Got to ask; why not leave the spin up, disconnect the spin pole, gybe the boat/main/spin and attach the pole to the other sheet after the gybe. seems like you go thru a lot of work dropping the pole and spin, gybing the boat and raising the spin, etc. you are risking shrimping the spin during the takedown with only 1 crewmember on the foredeck.

  3. Ron

    I hope that you realize that those of us who are more than twice your age, live vicariously thru your adventures. Thank you Keep up the enjoyable commentaries. Look forward to many more armchair adventures.

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