With his ideal boat purchased and refitted, Iain Macneil and his crew set off from Lanzarote on the first leg of their round-the-world adventure…
During the run-up to setting off on our global circumnavigation, one thought dominated – were my stability calculations correct?
Why? Because we were carrying an extra 17,000 litres of diesel on deck in 14 reinforced plastic tanks on the aft deck and foredeck.
Thankfully, Astra is a very heavily built icebreaker, designed to break through 1m-thick ice. She is so stiff that, like a metronome, she is weighted right at the bottom.
She rolls one way, then the other and then stops upright. As a search and rescue vessel, she was designed to be self-righting and I had updated our ship stability programme to ensure we could carry the extra weight on deck.
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I even had the stability software company double check the calculations for me and confirm that we were safe for sea.
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The extra weight meant the water level came up to our loadline (Plimsoll) mark and our wee 24m motor boat was now displacing 185 tonnes but given that the company I run is a specialist maritime publisher, we literally wrote the book on stability.
However, I had never stopped to think about manoeuvring around a marina with all this additional weight. As we eased out of our departure berth in Lanzarote fully laden for the very first time, it was immediately apparent that she handled completely differently.
The problem was I now had to make a 90° turn to starboard in order to exit the marina. I set the helm a firm 20° to starboard and, wait for it, nothing happened! I engaged the hydraulic bow thruster to full starboard, giving all 135hp and still the heading hardly changed.
The sea wall was now coming up fast at 2.5 knots. I could hear the whoops, whistles and applause of our send-off party through the wheelhouse door and here I was careering 185 tonnes of boat towards the sea wall. Would we end up in MBY’s “What were they thinking…?” column instead?
Keeping the bow thruster full to starboard, I moved the engine to somewhere between half and full astern and moved the rudder to midships.
At this point, the propeller finally bit, our forward progress slowed and we pivoted on the spot before heading for the marina exit, breathing a sigh of relief.
Catching my breath, we acknowledged our friends ashore with a long blast on our whistle and I stepped out onto the bridge wing to wave goodbye. I think I got away with it!
Day 1: Under pressure
Out of the marina and lolling around in the swell, we headed out to the traffic lane at Gran Canaria, adopting a safe distance westwards from the African coast before turning south towards Dakar.
The first couple of hours after leaving Lanzarote were spent stowing mooring ropes and fenders, deflating the larger Hypalon fenders and settling down the main engine.
We brought on the shaft generator, which is a belt-driven dynamo on the main engine that provides 50+ kW of electrical power, then stopped and secured the Volvo generator.
We now settled into our watchkeeping routine, with a rota that ensured no one did more than three hours on watch during the night and meant Mikey (chief mate and cook) had extra time available for food prep.
At this point, our chief engineer Luke noticed that a low-pressure hydraulic hose (110 bar) had been inadvertently fitted to the high-pressure side of the shaft generator’s hydraulic supply (more than 200 bar).
Worryingly, the hose could be seen pulsing under the pressure so we shut down the shaft generator to avoid rupturing the hose.
None of the spare hoses we carried were suitable but we could now see a pressure-reducing valve had been fitted on the wrong end of the low-pressure hose so we switched to the Onan diesel generator and waited for a suitable gap in the weather to stop mid-ocean and complete the necessary repairs.
Day 5: Pirate alley
As we were now passing Sierra Leone and Liberia, we put our anti-piracy measures in place, switching off our AIS and navigation lights and securing all ports and deadlights to allow us to run dark.
While this may seem excessive more than 100 miles off the coast, the following day we heard a lot of activity from an Italian warship between us and the coast. To be extra safe we spent much of Day 8 in the company of an oil tanker that declared itself “heavily armed” on its AIS.
The doldrums brought heavy grey skies and rain squalls and we stopped for 25 minutes to reposition the hydraulic hose on the shaft generator, bringing it back online. Our speed now dropped from 8 knots to 5.5 knots as the SE trade winds and accompanying swells started to build against us.
Pitching heavily, we built up a synchronous rhythm that culminated in one large pitch every couple of minutes, making it very uncomfortable for the crew to rest for the next few nights.
I altered course to port to bring the wave direction to between 22-35° on the starboard bow. This removed the synchronous pitching effect and slightly increased our speed.
Day 11: Head spin
Luke (Ch Eng) discovered that the continual pitching was causing the watermaker to cut out and suggested we alter course to 30-40° for three hours to remedy this.
My head began to spin. We had nine days to Saint Helena with seas ahead all the way and it would be worse on the leg from Saint Helena to Cape Town. Turning away from the weather for three hours every day to run the fresh watermaker was not a viable option.
In our logbook there is a spare box where each day I make my own notes as a record of the trip. On Day 11 I wrote one word: “Blink”. After years of planning and assessing this voyage, I felt that my inner self “blinked” in the face of this challenge.
We had spent the last four days averaging less than 6 knots and our equipment was struggling. Could we really pound on like this through the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South Pacific?
I knew from sea trials that Astra excelled with the winds and seas abaft her beam. I also knew that seas within 30° of either side of the bow would slow us down.
While I had gone into seas of 4.5-5.0 metres off Norway, I now kicked myself that I hadn’t run trials against a trade wind, but it was too late for that – I was learning fast and the hard way. Could I plot a route to South Africa further west and carry these winds and seas with us round the Cape of Good Hope?
I went back to the Ocean Routeing Charts and saw that if I went WSW from Saint Helena, I could carry those trade winds over to Rio De Janeiro or Montevideo.
If I looked at the west coast of Chile, crossing the Pacific from Valparaíso rather than Valdivia (my planned eastbound landing port) I could catch similar trade winds and currents.
La Niña had been announced for the second year running on the day we left Lanzarote, bringing stronger than usual trade winds pushing warm equatorial surface waters westward toward Asia and Australia.
A revised plan was forming, the need for which was emphasised by the continuing effect of the equatorial current’s 2.5-2.7 knots acting against us.
Day 12: Wine O’Clock
After crossing the equator, I assembled everyone on the bridge and shared my thoughts on changing the route after Saint Helena, proceeding west to South America and crossing the Pacific from there.
I explained I needed two to three days to evaluate this route. A positive discussion ensued with some great input from Orlando and Mikey on routes down the eastern coast of South America, but I was keen to settle any further nerves.
We had one bottle of red wine onboard, gifted by the yacht HEXE prior to departure. With the mood onboard lifting even with a difficult week to Saint Helena ahead, it seemed the right moment to enjoy it with dinner, drawing a line under the previous week as a fresh sense of excitement appeared.
After a week of reassessing our route, I notified our insurers of the intended change. Only then did it strike me that we will have crossed all 360° of longitude on our return to Saint Helena.
Day 18: Stability returns
For the first time since our departure, we finally switched off the stabilisers and increased speed to 6.5 knots.
Day 20: Land ahoy
Our first stop came into view today. The remote volcanic island of Saint Helena is over 1,200nm west of Africa and it’s another 2,500nm from there to South America.
It’s also very steep-shelving but we found a spot to anchor in 20m of water some 300m from the cliff face.
We had a long job list to get through, including activating the large six-tonne aft crane to lift the air-conditioning unit for repair.
We took on 22,000 litres of fuel, necessitating four deliveries from the island’s fuel truck, and quickly departed west for Montevideo, Uruguay.
Day 24: Christmas afloat
The decision to go west immediately rewarded us with our fastest week yet, averaging a speed of just over 8.5 knots and recovering the days lost bouncing down to St Helena.
We put up the Christmas decorations and spent our film nights watching old classics.
On Christmas day itself we even had a fabulous turkey roast and all the trimmings from the British store in Lanzarote.
Everything was as good as we could hope for on a small vessel in the middle of the South Atlantic!
As we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, we were closely watching a weather system building SW of Rio De Janeiro.
It was expected to attain near gale levels but if we squeezed another knot out of Astra, in four days time we would be 100 miles further on than previously expected and might manage to dodge it.
Day 29: Black hole
Today we entered an unanticipated satellite communications black hole in the South Atlantic. After a call to Inmarsat to complain about our broadband, they said that we would not have any coverage for another 550 miles.
However, Astra is well equipped with back-up systems, including an Inmarsat Fleet Broadband system, although we were now down to 64kbps in small data packets!
A steady stream of traffic on the Santos to the Cape of Good Hope route now crossed our path and we started to find stronger currents and attained 10 knots for a complete 24-hour period. The 3,000-mile leg to Montevideo took us 14 days rather than the 20 that the same distance to St Helena had taken.
Day 31: Uruguay Grand Prix
On New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay for us Scots) the VSAT came back, along with the most tremendous red sky, heralding the arrival of the weather system we had been tracking.
We celebrated Hogmanay with a wee dram (or two) of a fine malt whisky presented by friends in the final minutes before departure. Around this time we were also in the middle of the three-day paperwork burden required for our first South American port of entry.
Just before Montevideo, the compulsory pilot for all foreign vessels boarded and we berthed at 11:30am. In addition to refuelling and stores, we had two crew members joining us.
Paul Griffiths was taking over from Luke as chief engineer while Daniel Rafferty was replacing Orlando as second mate – he had not been able to settle to the motion of a 24m motor boat on the open ocean and realised 10 days in that the trip was not for him but had bravely stayed on for the 4,000nm to Montevideo.
During the five hours we spent alongside there was time for the briefest of handovers between Luke and Paul and they did an oil change on the main engine (370 litres) and replaced the filters. We also took on another 22,000 litres of diesel.
Sensing that Montevideo would be a great location to stock up on meat, Mikey increased our meat order by a factor of six with some of the largest and best cuts of steak, lamb and chicken breast I’ve ever seen. For a while we followed the Montevideo Atkins diet!
Day 34: Rollercoaster ride
The Rio del Plata, which Montevideo stands on, is basically a funnel-shaped plateau, the mouth of which is 100 miles across and 175 miles to the end.
The whole area has an average depth of six to eight metres. As we stuck our nose out of the breakwater at Montevideo, we were into winds of 30 gusting 40 knots but with the shallow water the two-metre high waves created a pattern with a period of three to four seconds, resulting in short, steep-sided waves and a rollercoaster effect.
We pitched heavily and this continued until the water depth increased to more than 21 metres and the wave period grew to eight seconds between crests, enabling us to speed up to 8 knots again.
Our weather assessment showed we could not proceed straight to Cape Horn, so we looked for somewhere to anchor.
Day 41: Prop problems
We found a secluded cove to anchor in Bahia Marino Bay at 48°S. By 17:30 the wind swung to SW with gusts of 40-45 knots and we started dragging the anchor.
Paul got the engine started and we moved 200m closer in, dropping the anchor again and running the engines 30% astern to give it a good test.
Through the night we had short-lived gusts of up to 40 knots. As we prepared to pick up anchor, in a moment of real magic we spotted nine Argentinian wild horses, known as ‘La Pampa’, near the shore.
That evening, we had settled down to watch a movie when we felt a heavy vibration. It felt horribly like running aground. We couldn’t see any silt in our wake, so what had happened?
Paul’s checks revealed that we had lost 15 litres of oil via our stern seal, which suggested that something had fouled our propeller.
We had been running at half speed for 20 minutes during these checks and as we started to slowly build up speed we heard a ‘thwack, thwack…’ within the nozzle around the propeller, indicating that whatever had fouled us was still there.
With nothing more we could do we settled down for the night at reduced RPM. We were in comparatively shallow water, so could anchor to inspect the propeller if needed and Punta Arenas was close by.
Mysteriously, the next morning all trace of vibration had gone so we slowly built up to sea speed again, checking the steering and stern seal after each adjustment.
Day 45: Sting in the tail
Cabo de San Diego (the Scorpion’s tail of South America) saw us running at 11 knots pushed along by 2-3 knots of current, but as soon as we rounded it we were battling against 4 knots of current on the final push towards Cape Horn.
The 80-mile run from Cabo San Diego to Cape Horn felt like the crossing from Ardnamurchan on the West Coast of Scotland to my birthplace on the Isle of Barra, maybe as Cape Horn is at 56°S, while Barra Head is at 56°N and both locations are battered by an expanse of ocean and almost continuous South Westerlies.
When we reached 56° 02.3’S, 067° 15.0’W on the approach to Cape Horn it was 22:30 and the world’s most notorious headland was looking daunting.
In the 69 years since Hillary conquered Mount Everest in 1953, more people have climbed Everest than have sailed single-handed round Cape Horn. It is a special place and our wee crew felt privileged to be there…
First published in the May 2022 issue of MBY. Next month: Round Cape Horn and into the Pacific