Waking in the morning, we found Macaroni penguins were not on our agenda. The wind had risen to nearly 30 knots and a big swell was running. Europa battled east for a little while but by 0830 it was clear we wouldn’t be able to land. Harko turned our bows to the north and we said goodbye to the wonders of South Georgia. Grey sea foamed white under our keel. We were leaving the land behind.
The Cape to Cape trip is inevitably an adventure of two halves. The first four weeks are primarily about visiting the shore. There’s the adventure of the 480 nautical miles (nM) across Drake’s Passage and, for us, a big storm. That took about four days. For us, too, the Elephant Island to South Georgia passage (another 690 nM) was a fast four days (compared to Shackleton’s 23 and Tim Jarvis’s 18. Four days is roughly how long a yacht takes to sail from the UK to northern Spain across the Bay of Biscay. I’d done that before, on a fast Falmouth to La Coruna crossing under sail in 2006, so it felt a familiar length.
Otherwise though, while south of the Antarctic Convergence Europa is day sailing, anchoring much of the night and making shore trips during daylight hours. It’s an intense adventure, new places all the time, climbing, photography, the huge excitement of wildlife and icebergs.
Now we were leaving harbours and bays behind. The second half of the story is two long legs at sea. First off, South Georgia to Tristan de Cunha, about 1500 nautical miles to the north east. The harbour there is often closed by the massive Atlantic swells, so there can be no guarantee of landing, or even anchoring there, but Europa will try. And leaving that isolated island, it’s another 1500nM to Cape Town, our final destination. Of course all those distances in a straight line, but that’s not always the course you can actually sail, let alone the fallibility of straight lines on a curved surface. The shot below (taken from Google Earth) shows how much blue we had to cover. It also betrays the inaccuracies of a flat picture of a sphere: Tristan de Cunha is actually south of Cape Town.
On a sailing boat you can't really be sure how long such a trip will take. How much northerly or easterly will be in the wind? How strong will it blow? Will the swell build up against us and slow us down? Or will we get a steady wind and flat sea to drive us towards our destination? A ship like Europa, much faster than most leisure yachts, might make only 120 nM in 24 hours, or she might get as high as 180. Sailors need to be pessimistic planners, making sure there’s enough food, equipment and stamina to keep going. So the passage to Tristan could be up to a fortnight. Certainly my longest single passage ever.
Weather forecasting has greatly improved over the years – and make no mistake, Europa is right in 2016 when it comes to getting that information. This chartlet is the Passageweather forecast for 20 August, taken on 18 August, showing the sorts of strong winds you can expect crossing the South Atlantic. Even with such information, there’s no way of predicting far ahead. Some people will say not more than 48 hours, while others give today’s computer models reasonable accuracy up to 72 hours. But after that, we’re at best guesstimating what’s coming.
Any boat heading more than a few miles from a safe haven needs to be ready for anything. For a venerable square-rigger heading out into the autumnal Atlantic, that’s even more important. Indeed, Matt (bosun), Aaron (carpenter) and Devin (engineer) were busy checking ropes and gear. Matt in particular, over the previous week or so had stepped up his routine of examining every line and block for chafe. All the crew continuously looked at sails, at rope and woodwork and the paint protecting Europa’s hull. We were entering one of the stiffest tests of her year
It started off pretty rough as the storm swept over South Georgia. The waves were coming from two directions, mostly from the south west, having swept through from the Pacific. Some, though, came from south of us, reflecting of Sooth Georgia and even the Continent itself, so the ship lurched and swayed. I missed one watch, rediscovering my sealegs. This time, though I took just one Stugeron, so I wasn't knocked out by drugs as I was in the Drake and soon returned to duty. I was a bit feeble for a few hours (and thanks to Kleis for this picture of me, not looking my best.) During those hours, we saw some strong winds and seas taking us in the right direction. At one point Europa was making seven knots under bare poles - that's with no sail up at all, just the windage generated by the masts, yards and hull.
Now the voyage turned both inwards and outwards. Out towards the ocean, the miles covered every day, the birds and whales, the sun, stars and wind. The classic blue water and purple skies of off-shore adventures. We turned inward too, to each other, to watch-rotas and maintenance jobs. Jordi and Sarah called for people to offer talks on any topic of interest. And it was time to get serious about sailing, finally get to grips with climbing, learning the pin rails and how to approach sail trim on a square-rigger. We were on our own.