After five gruelling months at sea, Iain Macneil and the crew of MV Astra battled big waves, vicious currents, submerged logs and falling space debris on the last leg of their circumnavigation.
Day 122: Fremantle, Australia
After yesterday’s fun and games with our ‘polar foil’ April Fool’s joke, we arrived at Fremantle in good spirits. Despite spending just six hours alongside we managed to load 33,600 litres of fuel into our tanks, release Mikey and Dan for a quick run ashore, complete a crew change with Pete Harvey taking over from Carlos for a few weeks, and receive fresh stores and provisions.
Day 123: Irn feast
We left Fremantle at 10.5 knots, hoping to complete the 3,300 mile crossing of the South Indian Ocean in less than 14 days. Astra welcomed Pete with heavy swells of 4m on the beam and winds of Force 6. With so many Scots on board, Pete’s gift of square sausage and Irn Bru were well received for Sunday breakfast!
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Day 124: Water, water everywhere…
The day started with an unpleasant surprise – no fresh water. Further investigation revealed that our 1,750 litre water tank, which had been topped up on Sunday evening, was now empty.
It appears the battering from waves striking the port side overnight had pushed a heavy rubber deck hose against the tap, causing it to open and drain the contents dry.
Unable to access the decks due to the heavy seas, we isolated the tap from the engineroom and brought the water maker back into operation.
On a more positive note, at 1,000 miles west of Australia and 2,300 miles east of Mauritius, we took a slight anti-clockwise arc across the Southern Indian Ocean to pick up some favourable currents, allowing us to make 10.5 knots.
Day 126: Radar waves
Today we lost our main radar set, the only one which delivers the modulated input to the wave analyser. In heavy weather, we have become reliant on this to make sense of the confused sea conditions found at each of the Capes, helping us determine the best course and speed to adopt.
Given that we were now well on our way to the coast of South Africa, which is renowned for freak waves, getting it fixed was now our top priority.
The troubleshooting section of the manual advised us to check the connection between the radar antenna and the power control unit (PCU). It was a reasonable day so we powered up the stabilisers and I went up the main mast to check the visible connections. All seemed fine at that end.
We then contacted CanaryTrack Electronics in Las Palmas and they directed us to the Power Control Unit. This involved removing the console panel while Iain and Pete performed a precarious balancing act with the very heavy radar PCU mounted on the deckhead.
We found a loose CAT5 cable and after securing everything and powering up, it all started working again – much to our relief.
Day 128: Surf’s up
We covered an impressive 270 miles in the last 25 hours (the clocks went back 1hr), resulting in an average speed for the day of 10.8 knots. However, with winds of up to 30 knots immediately astern of us, we were now starting to surf the following seas.
This was not good news, as while it’s perfectly possible for a displacement boat to surf down the front of the wave, you tend to lose steering and the risk of being pushed or even rolled over onto your side (broached) by the passing waves increases dramatically.
With the rudder limit and off course alarms letting us know we were starting to lose steering, there were still a few options open to us: starting the second steering motor, changing course to reduce the risk of surfing, and adjusting our speed.
The general guidelines suggest that if the waves are short and steep, it is best to slow the boat and let the waves run under it. However, if the waves are tall and long, it’s better to apply as much speed as possible and try to run ahead of them.
Another measure worth considering is adjusting the trim to lift the bow higher and stop it burying into the back of the next wave.
On this occasion, we were able to adjust the trim by selecting which deck tanks we were using. We also put the stabilisers on to avoid the rolling period matching the pitching period, as this can destabilise a vessel even more. These combined actions helped reduce and control Astra’s tendency to surf.
Day 129: Star wars
Our VSAT satellite communication link dropped out so we contacted INMARSAT to ask what the problem was. They weren’t aware there were any vessels in the South Indian Ocean and had allocated the bandwidth elsewhere! “Give us a few hours and we will sort it,” they promised. Sure enough we soon had seven VSAT satellites providing us with coverage!
Later that night we watched the skies closely after receiving warnings about a 360-mile space debris path in the South Indian Ocean. So, after not seeing another ship since leaving Australia eight days previously, we were now stargazing while keeping a lookout for big bits of metal falling out of the sky!
Day 136: African adventure
We arrived SE of Mauritius in the early hours of the morning and headed to Port Louis. Shortly after anchoring a doctor boarded to take PCR swabs of all the crew, meaning we had to wait eight hours for the results before we were allowed to make landfall. We put the time to good use with oil and filter changes.
We finally berthed at 16:30 and in our quickest turnaround yet, departed just three hours later after loading 23,500 litres of fuel, receiving stores, welcoming back Paul and Carlos and saying farewell to Luke and Pete.
Day 138: Current affairs
As we picked up the body of the Mozambique current, we recorded our fastest day’s run to date, managing 264 miles at an average of 11 knots and briefly maintaining a top speed of 12 knots!
Day 140: Bucking bronco
Two days from Durban we experienced very awkward seas, with the wind-driven waves opposing the prevailing swell, making it feel like we were riding a mechanical bucking bronco. A day later, a lot of large debris appeared in the water from the devastating floods that had hit Durban earlier.
Day 142: Durban pit stop
At 08:00, when I should have been handing over the watch to Carlos, the handover was postponed as Astra was ‘standing on’ for a vessel on our port bow, which was obliged under the Colregs to give way to Astra.
Imagine our surprise when the watch officer on the 170m-long, 30,000 tonne ship called us up on VHF Ch 16 and asked if we wouldn’t mind altering course as he didn’t want his ship to start rolling and risk waking the sleeping crew. I immediately responded with a very firm message, reminding him to take note of the Colregs!
At around 16:00 a helicopter flew overhead. A minute later the port of Durban called, telling us to proceed into the port where a pilot would board us from a boat. I think they were expecting to land one on our helipad!
We tied up at 17:18 and bunkering started. Within two hours we had loaded 36,000 litres of diesel and by 21:18 we were outbound once again.
Day 143: Freak waves
Today we entered the main body of the Agulhas current, seeing speeds in excess of 12 knots. The Agulhas current, which has been described as an ocean river, is 1,000 miles long, 60 miles wide and more than a mile deep, flowing at speeds of up to 6 knots along the Indian Ocean coastline of South Africa.
The unique characteristics of shoreline, continental shelf, ocean currents and strong winds frequently create freak waves here. The coastal region between Richards Bay and East London is identified as being the most dangerous.
In extreme conditions, ships should get out of the current by moving inshore. Being relatively small, we kept between the 200m contour and the shoreline, where abnormal waves have never been recorded.
Day 145: Dolphin pod
At 17:30 hrs we passed 7 miles south of Cape Agulhas, the most southern point of Africa. As we settled into a NW course towards the Cape of Good Hope, we felt the influence of the Atlantic swell taking over and building up from the SSW. A pod of dolphins arrived to shepherd us on our way so we put on the searchlights to watch them playing in the dark.
Day 146: Cape of Good Hope
I took over the watch from Dan at 05:00, some 16 miles from Cape Point. It was going to be a fabulous morning so we adjusted our speed to ensure Astra had the Cape and the sun in alignment for sunrise at 07:18.
The view of the sun rising over the Cape of Good Hope was truly stunning and a fitting end for this, the final Cape of our circumnavigation. We were now speeding back to Saint Helena to refuel before setting off on the final leg to Lanzarote.
Day 147: Cold snap
We now found ourselves surfing in the South Atlantic swells of 4.0-4.5m immediately astern of us. As the waves overtook us, the foamy consistency caused the propeller to cavitate for a couple of seconds until it was back in solid water and the steady engine revolutions resumed.
Thankfully, the cold waters coming up from the Antarctic meant our cooling water supply to the main engine was once again at a nice low temperature, helping to prevent any risk of overheating.
Day 152: St Helena
We made landfall from the eastern side of Saint Helena as sunset approached and dropped anchor at 19:18, needing to wait 36 hours for the island ferry to vacate the berth for us.
Once we did come alongside we were fuelled by three 5,500-litre mini road tankers, requiring two runs to deliver the 33,000 litres of diesel we needed. It seemed very fitting to be back in Saint Helena as our last stop, and the locals could not have been any more helpful.
Day 155: Home run
We were back at sea once again and heading north at full speed, keeping a close eye on the main engine temperature. In order to run at 940rpm we had to remove the coupling from the ‘get me home engine’ to the main shaft as it’s not designed to run this fast.
Day 158: Pirate measures
At 14:15 we re-crossed the equator as we headed north again. It turned out this was Dan’s first crossing of the equator at sea and as tradition dictates King Neptune made a visit to join in the celebrations.
Although we were not entering the Gulf of Guinea, we received warnings that the pirates off Africa were now venturing up to 200nm offshore. So I decided to stay a substantial distance off the coasts of Liberia and Sierra Leone where the larger Atlantic swells further reduced the risk of attack.
We also tested our water cannon, switched off our AIS beacon and all the ship’s lights allowing us to run ‘dark’ until reaching Dakar with just our end-of-watch positions reported to our DPA, Kat, throughout this period.
While running dark at 3am, a tanker in ballast spotted us coming over the horizon at 11 knots, quickly changing its status from ‘Not Under Command’ and moving directly away from us. Maybe Astra doesn’t look that friendly in the dark!
Day 159: Calm before the storm
In the equatorial currents we recorded our fastest day of the trip, covering 272 miles in 24 hrs at an average speed of 11.34 knots. As we reached the doldrums, we spent a day basking in completely calm conditions, before encountering sporadic squalls with winds gusting over 40 knots treating Astra to a much-needed washdown.
Day 162: Hull strike
At 04:00 and 40 miles from Dakar, we were woken by the noise of something striking the hull. Carlos in the forward cabin thought it was the bow thruster being inadvertently activated but Paul and I both sensed something scraping along the side of the hull.
Quick checks revealed nothing and we soon returned to sea speed. We think it was a semi-submerged log, thankfully our 16mm thick steel hull has its advantages.
Day 163: Light show
The 450-mile run from Dakar to Cap Blanc, a windy headland in NW Africa, saw wave heights gradually building during the night to 5m, made all the more dramatic by the flashes of bioluminescence from the spray which sometimes reached the bridge windows.
Day 165: The last leg
Excitement built onboard as we were now just 24hrs from completing our circumnavigation. Astra was a hive of activity, as the crew rushed around tidying up the signs of our last 3,000nm leg in preparation for our arrival.
Day 166: Mission accomplished
Our last day started with a lunar eclipse at 02:30. This felt like a suitably auspicious start to the morning of our return to Lanzarote – our point of departure some five-and-a-half months previously. At 11:00 a small flotilla formed around us and a helicopter circled overhead.
As pre-arranged with the authorities and with the clock ticking down to our 12:00 arrival time we fired a number of flares and switched on the water cannon. A family friend, who had released the last rope back in December 2021, was given the honour of catching the first rope on arrival before other friends and family joined in the celebrations.
It was an emotional moment for all of us, made all the sweeter by a much-needed hug from my family.
At the outset, I was only looking to get round Cape Horn until I realised that a circumnavigation of all of the Capes in the Southern Hemisphere had never before been completed by a motor vessel of less than 24 metres. And so the chase was on!
Five-and-a-half months and 31,500 miles later, having endured big seas, sleepless nights, medical emergencies and countless other challenges on a boat originally designed to make short rescue trips in the Baltic Sea, the five of us had done it.
But most of all I am glad simply to have got myself and my crew home safely to such a brilliant welcome.
What now for Astra?
After so much time in the Southern Oceans, Astra returned to the shipyard at the end of May for a programme of servicing and maintenance. She has proven to be one of the most capable expedition vessels of less than 24m.
As for me, I am now balancing my return to my day job of running a maritime publishing company with the search for a larger boat, so Astra will be listed for sale in the autumn.
Departed Lanzarote: 01 December 2021 at 11:00 hrs UTC
Returned Lanzarote: 16 May 2022 at 11:00 hrs UTC
Distance travelled: 31,500 nautical miles
Days at sea: 151
Days in port: 7.5
Days at anchor: 7.5
Dates rounding each cape
Cape Horn, Chile – 19/01/2022
South Cape, New Zealand – 20/03/2022
SE Cape, Australia – 26/03/2022
Cape Leeuwin, SW Australia – 01/04/2022
Cape of Good Hope, SA – 26/04/2022
First published in the August 2022 issue of MBY.