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Double-Handed Across the Atlantic

Double-handed Sailing Across the Atlantic
16 December 2011

Short-handed sailing is infinitely challenging at the best of times. At the worst of times, it can be downright daunting.

“It’s our Mt. Everest,” said Birgit Mester of African Affair, a South-African built Voyage catamaran.

Indeed some of the challenges are strangely parallel to that ultimate of tests. The exhaustion. The mental stress. The constant concentration. The lingering fear of something going wrong.

In this year’s ARC, thirteen boats accepted those challenges and successfully crossed 2,800 miles of lonely ocean with just two onboard.

 “You’re always tired,” said Ralf of the Pogo 1050 go. “We never got more than 1½ hours of sleep at a time,” he continued. “In the daytime there was too much to see and do to try and sleep.”

After both of their autopilots – a double-handed boats single most important asset aside from sheer determination – failed, the crews on African Affair and Cosmic Dancer had plenty to do right round the clock.

To make matters more difficult, Birgit on African Affair had underestimated her proneness to getting seasick. She had rightfully assumed – as most sailors do – that her mal-de-mer would wear off in two to three days. Even the most experienced ocean racers are often stricken at the start of a long event, but almost everyone eventually gets over it.

“My very compassionate husband Karl took all of the night watches hand-steering,” Birgit explained. “Save for maybe two or three hours here and there.”

Without an autopilot, whomever is on the helm is quite literally stuck there. It is difficult, frankly, to comprehend just how exhausting hand steering is for two people onboard an ocean-going yacht, unless it has been experienced. Just going to the head or getting a cup of coffee, normally a routine part of any watch, requires either stopping the boat (often by heaving-to) or rousting your partner out of their bunk. Sail changes are next to impossible without extra help; something fully crewed boats often take for granted.

Often merely getting the off-watches attention is a difficult task. In foul weather especially, with the companionway closed, it's not such an easy task. One non-ARC boat told of rigging a ship’s bell in the main salon of their 35-footer during a passage south.

“We hung it from the port handrail,” the crew explained. They did not have an autopilot to begin with, so had set out hand steering from the start. “We tied a string to it that fit between the cracks in the hatchboards. Any time you needed something you just pulled the string and rang the bell. It made a horrible racket in the cabin, but did the trick.”

Likewise, Birgit explained their system for waking the off-watch. “We normally sleep in the starboard forward cabin,” continued Birgit, “but we switched bunks for the crossing. When the autopilot failed, we rigged a piece of rope from the helm and through an opening porthole in the cockpit that led into the aft bunk, where the off-watch was sleeping. The rope had a knot in the end of it. All it took was a little shaking to wake the other person up.”

Birgit noted that when things are running smoothly onboard – i.e., when the autopilot is working – they do not keep regular watches. Instead, they take turns giving respite to whoever is more tired. When they’re both conked out, they set the radar alarm and go to sleep, one person always in the cockpit, an alarm clock set to go off hourly.

“It’s not the most seamanlike thing to do,” Birgit admitted, “but sometimes you have no choice.”

The lads on go had a rather pleasant trip.

“We saw whales two different times in the daytime,” remarked Ralf. “The boat is simply too small for more than two people,” he continued, “and we always planned to go with two.”

It was their first ARC, first Atlantic crossing. Ralf and Sven took two hours turns at the helm in the dark and three-hour turns in the daylight, but had the benefit of a working autopilot the whole way across. Ralf was the head chef onboard – “though not a very good one,” joked Sven – and they ate only one hot meal per day, whenever they were hungry.

Mike and Alexandra Bayley on Halo enjoyed their double-handed crossing and had a cadre of participants there to greet them on arrival in Rodney Bay Marina.

“You both look remarkably good,” mentioned one of their fans. Mike admitted that they’d lost a bit of weight, but only the extra from the office.

But Mike and Alexandra were not entirely alone out in the Atlantic. One serendipitous evening on a millpond-calm day several hundred miles east of St. Lucia, the crew of Oceanica invited them over for dinner. With no wind and only the slightest ripple of a sea, Mike and Alexandra left their boat adrift and swam over.

“It was very surreal,” Alexandra said on recalling their evening. “We drifted and went out for dinner, which was really a ludicrous story.”

“It was difficult swimming home,” commented Mike. “It was nice, it was really nice.”

The Halo crew practiced a four-on-four-off watch routine.

“Six to eight hours of sleep,” said Alexandra, “never really had a problem with it, that was really surprising for us.”

“We felt tired a couple of times,” Mike admitted, “but we just got used to it really.”

Despite the mental and physical exhaustion that comes with short-handed sailing, even African Affair, without help from the autopilot, managed a bit of fun.

“We got into racing mode one day when we spotted Babsea,” another double-handed cat, said Birgit. “Mike was hand-steering with our biggest spinnaker up,” she went on, “and we reeled off 176 miles that day. That was pretty exciting.”

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