Thursday, July 4, 2013

Saint Helena to French Guiana (2013)


On February 21st, we left Saint Helena and set sail on the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.  Our destination was French Guiana, 3,100 miles to the northwest.  The initial 2,000 miles would likely be dead downwind in the light SE trades, so we rigged Saviah for running with twin jibs.  The whisker pole was on one side and the mast from our sailing dinghy on the other.  Once out of the lee of Saint Helena, we hoisted both the genoa and gennaker and set the windvane for a course dead downwind.   

It seemed to be a much more comfortable and slightly faster ride with the two headsails.  For the first 11 days of the trip, the winds were ESE to SE at 10 – 15 knots, and our average speed was over five knots.  During this time, adjustments to the steering or the sail trim were seldom needed.   One exception was that we had to drop the gennaker every few days to retie the sheets due to chafe where they rubbed against the dinghy mast. 

running with twin jibs
The winds were incredibly consistent during the first two weeks.  There was very little to do in terms of sailing, but we kept busy on a few days fixing things that broke on passage.  We have been lucky so far in that our gear failures have been rare, but the harsh marine environment and a lot of blue water miles over the last few years are starting to take their toll.  

On day three, Andrew noticed one of the stove gimbal pegs was about to break off.  We had made our third temporary repair in Saint Helena, but it wasn’t effective.  These small pegs that are attached to each side of the stove had nearly been sawn in two by the mounting brackets they rest in.  They were near the end, but we needed them to last until we could get our new gimbals in Barbados.  After disconnecting the propane, we pulled the stove out of its cradle and put it on the cabin floor.  This is never easy on a rocking boat, but we were able to rotate the pegs and reinstall the stove.  We checked it daily and kept our fingers crossed that it would hold for a few more weeks.

Other minor repairs included replacing the latch on the head door that snapped in two, stopping a new water leak that developed in the thru hull for the sink drain, and replacing the hinge on one of the galley doors that broke off.  Then some stitching along the foot of the genoa began to unravel. While in South Africa, we had the sail re-stitched, but they apparently missed one seam.   Andrew tried sewing it while the sail was up, but it wasn’t easy, and he almost fell off the boat a few times.  So we dropped it for about an hour and hand stitched it. 

Day seven brought our most worrisome gear failure.  A squall was looming on the horizon, prompting us to drop the gennaker temporarily while it passed.  We were sailing along downwind with only the genoa and suddenly headed off course on a beam reach.   The windvane was no longer steering and seemed to be stuck in place.  Upon closer inspection, we found that the ratio rod had broken in half.  Without it, the windvane wasn’t going to work. 

At this point, we were 1,000 miles from Saint Helena and 2,000 from French Guiana, with no spare on board for the part that broke.   With several weeks left on the passage, the thought of hand-steering 24/7 was daunting, so we started brainstorming ways to rig a temporary fix.  The half inch thick stainless rod was three inches long, with half of it protruding from a bronze housing.  After the break, the longest part was now two inches long, and fortunately, it did not fall in the water.  If we could put the broken rod back into the housing and find a way to hold it in place, maybe it would work temporarily.  We considered gluing it, and then decided it would be better to drill and tap a hole in the housing and insert a screw to hold it in place.

When we left Seattle, we had tons of extra screws and a new drill and tap set.  Nearly three years later, there are only a couple of rusty taps left.  We managed to find two screws that happened to fit the remaining taps, and a few dull drill bits that were close to the right size.  Di steered, while Andrew hung off the stern of the boat, drilled a hole in the bronze housing, tapped the threads and finally tried to put in a screw.  This was extremely difficult to do while Saviah was rolling back and forth, and he broke several drill bits in the process.  It took an hour to get the first one done, and then the screw broke off in the hole.  He started over again, and this time was very careful, since it was our last screw.  He carefully tightened it, and it seemed to hold the bolt in place.  This entire repair would have taken less than five minutes in a marina, but off at sea, it took several very frustrating hours.  Fortunately the repair worked, and we set the windvane to steer us downwind again.  Now if it would just last for another 2,000 miles. 

Winds remained light and steady from the SE, and by day 12, we found the south equatorial current, which added an extra knot to our speed.  A few days later, we were approaching the equator near the NE coast of South America and entered the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone).  This area, also called the doldrums, is the band between the SE trades of the southern hemisphere and the NE trades of the northern hemisphere.  There are generally very light winds and lots of squalls.  On day 15, one squall passed through during the night with gusts of 25 knots.  This put an end to over two weeks of running with twin jibs when our gennaker blew out.  This was another very old sail that was near the end of its life, and our time sailing dead downwind was almost over anyway.   

By the time we reached the equator on day 16, the NE trade winds were starting to fill in, and we had 10 – 15 knots just aft of the beam.  We sailed along with the genoa and a single reef in the main for our last seven days, with a bit of a boost from the Guiana current.  On day 23, we were in the fastest part of the current, and Saviah was flying along between eight and nine knots.

In the late afternoon of March 16th, we approached the Iles du Salut, which are part of French Guiana.  We sailed around to the south side of the islands and dropped the hook, completing our longest passage of 3,100 miles in 23 days.  Saviah certainly didn’t break any speed records, but considering the winds were light and most of the trip was dead downwind, we were happy with our average of 135 miles per day or 5.6 knots.    

Iles du Salut
French Guiana is an overseas region of France, bordered by Brazil on the south and east and Suriname on the west.  Our plan was to stop here for a few days to a week to rest and take on water and fresh food before finishing the last leg of our Atlantic crossing.  We were also looking forward to spending time on the Iles du Salut (Islands of Health).  These are three small islands, Ile Royal, Ile St. Joseph and Ile du Diable (Devil’s Island), grouped close together and lying six miles off the mainland. 

We had the anchorage all to ourselves and slept hard that night.  We awoke the next morning to see our friends on the Swedish sailboat Mare Liberum sailing into the bay.  We had met Mark and Maria in Cape Town and were excited to see them again.  Later that day, the four of us headed over to check out Ile Royale.  It was nice to stretch our legs with a walk around the island and see some of the local wildlife, including iguanas and monkeys.  

view of Ile du Diable from Ile Royale, curious monkey on Ile Royale
While on passage, we both read the novel, Papillon, by the French convict Henri Charri√®re.  It is his account of the 14-year period that started with him being wrongly convicted of murder.  After being sentenced to life in prison, he was shipped off to these islands, which were part of a French penal colony.  He was imprisoned here for nine years before he ultimately escaped to Venezuela.   

The penal colony operated on these islands for a hundred years, before being shut down in 1953.  It was used for only the worst criminals of France, and its inhumane conditions made it controversial at the time. Prisoners were murdered by each other, and tropical diseases killed many others.  Apparently France transported around 56,000 prisoners to the penal colony, and fewer than 10 percent survived their sentence. 

It has been 60 years since the prison was closed, but many of the structures are still standing, including the guards housing, prison cells and various other buildings.  Catamarans from the mainland bring tourists out on most days, where they can visit two of the islands, Ile St. Joseph and Ile Royale.  No one is allowed on Devil’s Island, which is where the political prisoners were previously held. 

penal colony ruins
After two nights, we headed to the mainland to buy groceries and take on water.  We weighed anchor and made the nine mile sail into Kourou, the nearest port in French Guiana.  The waters off the coast are quite shallow, so we waited until high tide and had a fast downwind sail, with 20 knots blowing from behind us and a swell of 8 ft.  Fortunately the waves were going in the same direction, but they were a bit steep, and we realized we may be stuck in Kourou for a while waiting for good conditions to sail back to the islands.    

We sailed far enough up the Kourou River to get some protection from the ocean swell before dropping the anchor.  We were a concerned that it would be hot and buggy up the river, but it wasn’t too bad.  The winds blew steadily while we were there, which kept it relatively cool, and we put nets over the hatches to keep the mosquitos out at night.  After checking the weather, it seemed prudent to stay at least one night before heading back to the islands.    

There isn’t much to see in Kourou other than the Guiana Space Centre, which is the European Space Agency’s primary launch site.  We considered taking a tour, but it was all in French so we figured we wouldn’t get much out of it.  Instead, we walked around the sleepy little town to do our shopping.  The food was a bit expensive, but we were desperate at that point.  The last big supermarket we were in was Cape Town, nearly two months prior.  They did have a nice outdoor market where we found cheap locally grown produce.  We filled the rest of our time catching up on boat chores and laundry.  Fortunately, our friends on Mare Liberum were there as well, and we had a good time hanging out with them. 

We also used the outboard we bought in Cape Town for the first time, which was mostly a fiasco.  We still hadn’t figured out a good way to get it on and off the boat, and we kept forgetting to open the air vent or fuel supply or something else, causing it to die on us half the time.  It almost died for good when we were approaching Saviah one afternoon right as a squall with heavy rain was arriving.  Andrew was in a hurry and turned hard and gave it a bit too much throttle.  The outboard wasn’t tightened down enough, and it flew off the transom.  Andrew held on to the throttle, but the outboard was completely submerged in the river.  So after only about an hour of use, he already had to change the oil, replace the fuel, and take off the carburetor to clean it.  He got it running again, but it was starting to seem like we were better off just rowing.  

French Guiana is often on the edge of the ITCZ, and lots of squalls with heavy rain passed through.  The weather forecast called for more of the same, and one night turned into several.  We hadn’t even cleared into the country, as our plan was to only stay for a day or two, and we were told that as long as you weren’t French, the local authorities didn’t care. Finally after four days in Kourou, the winds shifted to the east and moderated a bit.  We sailed back to the islands, but were disappointed to find that due to the recent wind shift, some swell was now entering the anchorage. 

It was late in the afternoon when we arrived, and the catamarans that bring tourists out to the island were untying from their moorings to sail back to Kourou.  After they left, we decided to tie up to one of these moorings for the night.  Unfortunately, the next morning it was more of the same, and the forecast showed two or three days before conditions improved.  We could see the catamarans approaching in the distance, and they would not be happy to see us tied to their mooring.  The thought of anchoring in the very soft mud and bucking seas made us nervous, so we decided it was time to leave. 

We had really hoped to spend more time there, but it just wasn’t in the cards.  We quickly stowed things aboard and got Saviah ready for passage.  On March 23rd, we untied from the mooring and headed out on the 635 mile trip to Barbados, the last leg of our Atlantic crossing.