Sailing west from the middle (literally) of the Indian Ocean, to the Seychelles islands just off Africa: circumnavigate, and this may the best passage you make. “Near perfect sailing conditions have been encountered by boats making this passage in May and June” crows Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. Spectacular! We’re IN! Slow passages in light air and way too much motoring in Southeast Asia would fall farther over the taff rail.
At just over 1,000 nautical miles, Chagos to Seychelles would be our longest passage in several years, and third longest ever. Preparing for passagemaking is never something we never take lightly, but despite the fact Chagos is uninhabited, we’ve rarely felt MORE ready. Surprises happen, regardless: when we departed Maldives in late May for Chagos, the watermaker pump head failed on our first day of the passage. It was an unfortunate start to our five disconnected weeks while visiting Chagos, and although we knew there would be well water we could filter and boil if needed, it was a relief to solve the problem through the support of the cruiser community. Friends back in Maldives had exactly the spare parts we needed for our Spectra, and another boat was departing shortly after could ferry them to Chagos.
The morning we planned to depart, we realized the stitching along the soft side to our hardtop dodger was breaking, succumbing to UV exposure. It’s only about a year old, but tropical sun is unforgiving. Jamie fixed it easily enough, his well-worn sailmaker’s palm doing service again. This felt like a good open: as if we’d headed off the one thing that would go wrong on this passage.
On this passage we’d be in company with two similar-sized sloops, one of which couldn’t use their engine. A couple of weeks previously they’d broken off their mooring in a squall and run aground on the reef, bending their prop shaft and making the engine unusable. That might not sound like a big deal—we are sailboats, after all—but there are strong currents and squalls and fluky winds here. Jamie secured stout tow lines on the stern just in case they’d be needed, and a route was planned to get us around the islands just to our west with an easy, comfortable sailing angle. Once we passed Peros Banhos atoll there was open water until Seychelles, hopefully under Jimmy’s lauded conditions.
Murphy is cruel. A few hours after leaving Salomon atoll, Totem’s autopilot started acting up. Lumpy seas loaded up force on the rudder: when Totem rounded up to port, the autopilot didn’t have enough power to steer back down. This causes the autopilot to shut off, which is better than burning out the motor, but leaves Totem suddenly without steerage. Someone is always in the cockpit, but beep beep beep…shudder shudder shudder… in rugged conditions, it take a moment to understand.
This has happened before; on the way to Australia from New Caledonia in 2010 (sailing in 30 to 35 knots), and early last year when we returned to Malaysia from Thailand. Both times, the culprit turned out to be this little washer: it has round bearings that get gummed up.
It’s not a fix we want to tackle while the boat bucks in a seaway. But at least we knew the likely problem this time, and the temporary relief, because it didn’t mean 100% hand steering for the week or so ahead. We could baby the autopilot along by ‘helping’ at the helm when the boat started to round up, taking strain off the motor and preventing it from shutting down, a vastly easier task. Meanwhile, we were in company with our friends on Utopia- an Aussie family we’ve traveled a great deal with for nearly two years- and steering for their running lights after dark was much easier than holding a compass course.
We were fortunate, at least, that those first couple of days at sea generally had the kind of conditions that give this run a reputation. Wind on the beam and favorable current pushed us along at over seven knots. We left with a new moon, and clear inky nights sparkled with the most beautiful display of stars I’ve ever seen. Sitting in the cockpit, dolphins blazing by in streaks of bioluminescence, I could time my watch to the angle of the milky way.
The back half was less pleasant. A system to the south was sending bigger seas our way, which made the motion on board a little challenging for the people and the autopilot. I’m usually not too fussed by prepping meals at sea, but we were reduced to heat-and-eat options. After such a run of mellow passages this year, I hadn’t done a lot of advance cooking. Thank goodness for canned baked beans!
The sea state also meant fewer breaks from “autopilot assist,” so one of us was always at the helm (normally, on-watch crew is in the cockpit, but comfortably in the protection of the dodger; our helm is relatively exposed). Torrential rains one night made it so miserably wet, all we could do was laugh! But the tradeoff was that we made excellent time. Boats bound for Seychelles in previous weeks had such light wind, their passage time stretched well beyond two weeks; ours was less than six days. It’s partly because we had stronger, more consistent wind, and also experience taught us to pay close attention to current near the equator, enabling us to plan a route that avoided the adverse flow they encountered.
For all the challenges, it was still a good ride. The kids are a terrific help. We had dolphin shows almost daily. Siobhan dominated me in cribbage.
Looking back… what did we do well?
- We waited for weather. We watched, we planned, and then- when we were totally ready to go, but the weather behaved differently than forecast, we waited. Our conditions were boisterous and at times intense, but in general made for a solid passage.
- We learned from other boats to inform our planning. We make active use of Predict Wind through their Offshore program (with routing algorithms that uses current data), and corroborated that information by following boats on passage to Seychelles via the twice-daily HF radio net. Several encountered significant foul current and squally ITCZ conditions on the rhumb line; went south to find the favorable countercurrent and trade wind conditions. It mostly worked.
We’re still not sure on how we’ll route from here to South Africa, but expect another lengthy passage down the Mozambique Channel before landfall in Richard’s Bay or Durban later this year. What did we learn from this passage?
- Check our autopilot washer before a long passage! A minor task, and at least there is a known culprit…the first time this happened, we thought we needed a new autopilot. Ouch.
- Have more “rough weather” meals prepped. It’s not a really big deal, there’s always *something* to eat, but we like to eat well. Low-maintenance meals are not the norm for us, and takes a little planning…but it’s worth it, because a well fed crew is a much happier crew!
And then, enjoy the ride as much as possible.
Passage dreamers and doers alike know we appreciate when you click through to read this on Sailfeed.
America's Cup sailing camps are in full swing in Bermuda, with Oracle Team USA and Artemis Racing out on the water most days of the week on their modified 45's. Ben Ainsle Racing, the first to sail in Bermuda months ago, recently returned to Portsmouth, England to prepare for their role as host of the first America's Cup World Series stop, and Softbank Team Japan is expected to arrive on the island next. Amid the hustle and bustle of mid-June on the island, we stopped by the Artemis Racing dorm to catch up with Design Coordinator Adam May to get the scoop on the latest developments.
Sailing World: So, this is a pretty cool place to sail…
Adam May: This is our second camp in Bermuda so far. We did a three-week camp in May, then a short camp now in June to check out the conditions at the venue around race-time. Something we’ve learned from the Olympics, which many of our team members have done, is that training at the venue is something that can’t be beat. You need to know what the challenges are, not just on the water, but in getting your base set up as well. We have a great, established base in San Francisco, and it was very tempting to do more time there, but then we wouldn’t get that time at the actual venue for the Cup. Bermuda has been so friendly and welcoming to us being here, so it’s been really good.
We plan on doing camps for now, with a bigger move to the new base at Morgan’s Point later on. These camps gave us the opportunity to decide when we’re going to do that big move—if we had arrived here and realized it was really difficult to do testing then we might’ve done something else, either stayed in San Francisco or sailed elsewhere to accomplish what we need to.
What have you learned from your camps at the venue so far?
Well, I could tell you but I’d have to kill you…We’ve really just been learning more about the race course. Initial impressions are that its very small, but actually having sailed here, it’s going to be a good size and produce good racing.
So far, we’ve had a few weeks of great breeze in June and July which we're told is rather unusual. There has been stunning weather every day and a good range of conditions for practice and to get a good feel for the venue and the course.
When you’re here, you’ve been sailing on the modified AC45, or what you call the AC45 Turbo. Tell us a little more about the boat and it’s role in the development process.
The plan with the Turbo was to use it as a test-platform for the AC62. The protocol allowed you to modify one of your old AC45s, basically to retain the lower portion of the hull, and then anything else we could change. So, we took those hulls and we scaled the key variables that we were putting on the new 62 down for the 45. We wanted it to be as close to the 62 as possible. The beam became wider and more powerful, with more righting moment, so it’s faster. We changed the foil geometry positioning. We wanted to get the crew into cockpits like the 62 was going to be, which is a lot safer at the speeds we’re doing. The wing was extended a bit as well. These changes were to test as near to scale as possible to the 62. And, then the rule changed and we got even closer to the new design so it’s even more valuable as a training tool now.
So the rule change didn’t throw your development plans off too much?
One of the things to remember that even with the change was that we couldn’t backdate anything. We’d done a lot of work on the 62 already, and a lot of work on boats that we were already sailing. We couldn’t stop that; the 45s just became more relevant. And it wasn’t just us, every team was working on developments to their 45s and 62s in some capacity.
A lot of the development that we did on the 62s remained valid when the rule change was announced. Since we were already testing concepts on the modified AC45 at scale, they’re now closer in scale to what we’ll be racing in the AC Final in June 2017. The platform development was effectively traded away, as well as hull development. A bunch of those things will unfortunately sit there now, and not be seen, but I think the principle is that we’re thinking longer-term. Yes, there was a hit in this cycle, but the change needed to happen sooner rather than later because they really had to make a change at some point.
I think this is a positive change. Not that we particularly have a choice. The team that wins this Cup could very well be the team that deals with the changes best and just gets on with it. You can’t sit and complain about it. We already have a lot of experience sailing foiling 45s, and so the smaller boat is fine for us. We’ve got a very experienced team of small-boat sailors, so we’re quite happy as we’re used to that. But, the main thing is that the rule is what it is. If they said it was a 100-footer, we’d get on and deal with a 100-footer.
The only way to change the rules is to win it. That’s the bottom line.
Has the decrease in size in the boats been a challenge to manage when you already had a team mostly established?
The size of the boat has decreased, but the size of the sailing team hasn’t changed. We need spares and rotation, so the squad has mostly remained the same. The demands of the boat have change, though—how much reliance we need to have on the big, powerful guys who grind, versus the small boat guys who are more skilled foilers and lighter. That’ll be interesting to see how each team deals with that—do you change your personnel to fit the boat or stick with who you’d been planning for the 62? The decisions are still being made as we sail and learn more about these boats.
Let’s talk about the competition. Groupama Team France formalized their challenge pretty late in the competition. Did the rule change give them an advantage to come in without spending early time and money on a now non-raceable boat?
I’m not sure that it’s an advantage, because we’ve all been thinking about this for a long time. We’ve put so much time and energy into developing these boats and testing them. I don’t think they have an advantage coming in late, but the disadvantage is less considering the circumstances. There’s a much clearer landscape—we were all going off down one route with the 62s, and then there’s a change. They’re been able to hold off a bit on their 62 work and can work on the current class. If the rules hadn’t changed, I don’t think a team would have been able to come in at this point in the game. With the bigger boat, the longer build and development times, the differences would have been hard to overcome.
Softbank Team Japan came in after this change as well, and while it was unfortunate to lose Luna Rossa, there are a few other teams that are still talking about it and deciding if it’s too late or not. This leveling the playing field with the rule-change and the smaller boat is making it less daunting to come in late. The changes to the protocol really weren’t in relation to the 35th America's Cup, but looking forward to the future and the next America’s Cup after that. As the size of the boats and the teams get smaller and more manageable, I think we’ll see the effects going into the next Cup far more so than this one.
You’ve been sailing against Oracle Team USA quite a bit in the Great Sound, how is that helping the progress?
We’ve agreed to a bit of race training with Oracle. We haven’t done any starts, we’ve more just lined up against each other. It’s powerful, the intensity increases. It’s always better to develop the boat when you’re against another. We can try new things and learn from them more easily than just doing it on our own.
The advantage is to both of us. We’re looking to step forwards as fast as we can and I think it can help us to do that.
It’s something different each day, but we learn in every area.
When you're out practicing, you've got a swarm of chase boats following along. What exactly is happening aboard those ribs?
Well, that'd be a long and very complex answer. But, basically, the chase boats are observing, data logging for post-processing, and watching numbers to give direct feedback to the guys aboard. There’s a lot of data being processed and it takes a lot of time to put it all together. In the daily grind of sailing, you accumulate a lot of information.
The ribs are having a hard time keeping up with the foiling boat; it’s pretty full on. They have a much nicer ride on the 45 than we do in the rib. But, the fact that we’re in shorts and a t-shirt here in Bermuda is a nice change from full wet weather gear in San Francisco.
The World Series kicks off in Portsmouth, UK in just a few weeks. What were the major developments since the last go-around with the 45s racing in the series?
We’ve converted the AC45 “classics,” as we now call them, to foiling AC45s. It was a collaborative project, with a designer from every team coming together to design the new AC45s for the World Series. So, they’ve now got a full foiling configuration. All of the teams have to launch those in time for Portsmouth. We call it the AC45F.
On the other hand is our AC45 Turbo, which is not raced in the World Series. It's consciously a development boat focused entirely on the final. We call ours the Turbo, Oracle calls theirs the Sport. There’s a bit of a battle of who’s is better. But, it’s basically an upgraded AC45 to give us a representative boat to train on and try design ideas on.
Between the World Series, developing the new race boat for the final, and then the qualifiers and playoffs, that seems like an awful lot of variables and logistics to manage. How does it all come together?
Logistics-wise, we’re split up into different groups. We have a group specifically dedicated to the World Series—that is entirely their project. It’s an entirely separate team, in addition to the core program which is all about the Cup. The World Series is great for the team as far as racing foiling boats, but it doesn’t offer much to the design team as far as development. We have to make it a balance of where to prioritize time, which is why we try to keep them separate.
With the small boat, everything now fits in a container, so we can decide to move things around and do some sailing in both San Francisco and Bermuda. It’s cheaper, easier, and faster.
The World Series is purely one design that tests sailing technique. That’s relatively easy for us to manage. Everything else is totally on our own schedule—you can do your own thing, race every day, not care about what the other teams or doing. Or, you can keep an eye on everyone else and do some upgrades, but when you’re doing the upgrades the boat is off the water. What you’ll see is the team doing upgrades on their test boats when the sailors are away competing in the World Series Events. It’s natural down time, so that’s when you catch up.
A Gale or a Lobster?
We were heading for Newfoundland and wound up in Nantucket. The first time I sailed alone across the Atlantic in 2008 I was heading for Iceland and wound up in England. In my defense I had a late start in 2008 and then got nailed by tropical storm Christabel in nearly the exact same location we are in right now. Christabel blew hard enough that some other guy sailing alone had to get rescued off his boat. My dad heard about it somehow and thought it was me who was rescued. After the storm I realized I could make it to Iceland but I wouldn’t make it back down again before the season changed and the fall weather began, so I changed course for England. This time was a bit less dramatic but was still weather related.
After the first night at sea and the massive frontal boundary passed the winds died and remained light. We were slowing motoring along when I starting seeing easterly headwinds in the forecast. At first they were forecasted at 15kts, then 20kts, then 25kts. With easterly headwinds we can can’t sail east, we can only go north or south. Trying to get to the Arctic by going south makes no sense at all, so north would have been our only option. The forecast continued to get worse, 30kts, 35kts. I really don’t like stopping once we have started but if we were to stay at sea and head north we would get hit by a gale right on the nose (check picture of forecast). The closest port was Nantucket only 50 miles to the north. I asked Nikki, “Dear would you like a gale or a lobster” she looked at me funny and said “lobster please”, so we were off to Nantucket.
All I knew of Nantucket was its whaling history, I had no idea how high tony the place had become. We pulled into port and were about to grab a mooring ball when I found out they want $75 a night. What? $75 to tie off to a mooring ball? I’ve sailed all over Europe and the US and have never seen a mooring that costs more than $25. Welcome to Nantucket.
We motored passed the overpriced mooring field and dropped anchor. We had some time before the gale hit so we went ashore and played tourist. It felt very strange to stop and smell the roses (there are a lot of roses in Nantucket). In the past we always just stayed at sea until we had collected our data. We went to the whaling museum, walked all over town, I ate a 2lb lobster and it was all quite nice. Even though I knew a gale was coming I still had a hard time blocking out the voice in my head telling me “you should be a sea right now”.
We pulled anchor and tucked into a more protected part of Nantucket bay. It blew hard and rained even harder. Instead of battling the gale at sea we just went to bed. We left the Smithsonian’s PCO2 sensor on during the gale (the PCO2 device measures ocean acidification, more or less). It will be interesting to see if there are any changes to the amount of carbon in the water as a low pressure system passes by. It was a battle keeping the sensor working as it kept sucking up eel grass and clogging. The research doesn’t stop just because the boat has stopped.
The moment the wind shifted from east to southwest we pulled anchor and pushed out to sea. On the way out we passed a sailboat that had broken free of its mooring and was laying half submerged on the jetty. The poor boat died in that gale. Usually sailboats are not lost at sea in some big storm, often they are lost due to neglect. In this case it was an old mooring line chafed through. What a shame.
For the first 24 hours the seas were still very lumpy and the wind died down. This is a horribly uncomfortable situation, without wind to pin us over we get tossed by the seas something awful. All things come to pass and we have been mostly motoring since. Right now we are motoring into a current which is slowing us considerably. There are good winds in the forecast and by tomorrow we should be sailing along nicely. We need good wind as we still have a long way to go.
In 1853, the 235-foot clipper ship, Flying Cloud, sailed from New York to San Francisco, around Cape Horn in 89 days and 13 hours—a record for a sailing vessel that held until 1989. In 2008, the 110-foot French racing catamaran Gitana 13, with a crew of 10 traversed the 13,000-mile-plus journey in 43 days and 38 minutes. It’s a record that stands today. There is no record for sailing non-stop on the old American clipper ship trade route singlehanded, but Ryan Finn wants to set one with his throwback 32-foot Polynesian style proa.
“It’s not a very yachty type of thing that I’m doing here,” says Finn. “This is more of an American adventure. An American exploration of what is possible. This is an adventure, first and foremost.
Finn first became intrigued by offshore solo sailing as a nineteen year old undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and now, at 36, Finn has accrued more than 20,000 miles of solo offshore experience, as well as three transatlantic and three transpacific passages on boats ranging from an IMOCA 60s to 21-foot Mini Transat designs.
Finn has partnered with Paul Bieker, one of the top minds in naval architecture and part of the design team for Oracle Team USA, which overcame an 8-to-1 deficit in the 35th America’s Cup. He also has wizard Russell Brown, who has more miles on these unique Polynesian proa designs than any known western man. In coordination with the World Sailing Speed Record Council, Finn and his team are raising money through a Kickstarter campaign, as well as corporate sponsorships for the build, launch and attempt at this record.
“I wanted to do something outside of a race committee—something bigger,” says Finn. Inspired by Tom Follett, who was initially rejected from competing on his proa, Cheers, in the 1968 OSTAR until he proved the concept by sailing from St. Thomas to Plymouth and was only then allowed to compete, Finn also sees his attempt as a proof of concept. Wanting a design that could go upwind quicker than a monohull, but with fewer structural demands than a tri or a cat, Finn first contacted Russell Brown and then Bieker came onboard.
With the project getting closer to reality, Finn explains, “I’ve never really been afraid of anything offshore, but this is intimidating to me—and that alone interests me. This will be the longest non-stop passage ever sailed by proa, that I’m aware of.”
Aiming to complete the journey in 80 days or less, and well aware of the obstacles of mental and physical exhaustion, navigating in remote parts of the globe, two equator crossings, extreme weather events and the legendary hazards of a Cape Horn transit, Finn says, “It will truly be a battle against the elements and against myself.”
Sailing under the 2Oceans1Rock.org banner, Finn kicked off his funding campaign in May 2015. Sea trials with the boat are expected to get underway in the fall.
Most recently, Finn has left today for the 1,000 mile solo qualifer for the Azores event. Keep up with his campaign and follow his blog here.