Atom's Second Circumnavigation - Part Two
Atom's Second Circumnavigation - Part Two
Sailing off Mindanao Island, Philippines
Between yacht delivery jobs and cruising around Asia on Atom, I stopped to work for two years as production inspector for Hans Christian Yachts in Taiwan and later as production manager at a new HC yard in Thailand. Supervising the construction of the sturdy and elegant HC cruising boats and working alongside the Chinese craftsmen gave me new insight into the union of Eastern and Western boat building techniques.
Learning to speak Chinese was the toughest part of the job and there I failed miserably. Actually, after my first year of study I spoke it well. Or I should say, I had a vocabulary. But understanding spoken Chinese requires the speaker maintain complete tonal accuracy on every word so that it is not confused with three or four other identical words of different meanings. So, being near deaf to many of the tonal nuances defeated me in the end. Besides, most Chinese people I encountered had never heard the foreign white devils speak Chinese and simply could not believe they were now hearing one do so. So although I could speak, the Chinese normally responded to my croaks with open-mouthed stares of the type you might use if your pet cat suddenly said "Good Morning" to you.
That job also provided me with the funds necessary to make improvements to my own boat and continue my wanderings under sail. On two separate voyages across the South China Sea immediately before and after this period of work at the yacht factories, I traveled for a total of two years through the best cruising grounds imaginable among the hundreds of islands in the central Philippines.
On these trips I sailed sometimes alone and sometimes with crew who stayed with me for as long as I could be tolerated. Since I imagined myself the congenial type and the voyages largely without excess hardship, I was surprised to find my crew's tolerance varied considerably from person to person! Although real life experiences shattered many of my cherished myths of exotic China, I found Asian women can make excellent crewmates, even if initially reluctant to exchange the familiar life on land for an adventure on the sea.
Banton Island, Philippines
Crossing the Caribbean Sea and Pacific and cruising extensively for several years in southeast Asia without an engine taught me to appreciate the art of pure sailing, though not without some risk and extreme efforts. Requirements for engine-free cruising are a boat like the Triton that sails well in light air, a sculling oar, and the cultivation of an uncommon degree of forethought and patience.
Like the ancient Chinese junk fleets that sailed these waters a thousand years ago - you run before the northeast monsoon in the winter, lay-up in a comfortable island during the transition months and run back before the lighter southwest monsoon of summer. Above all, keep an eye on the weather and the location of your nearest typhoon-safe harbor.
Being flush with cash for a change, when I made my final departure from Hong Kong, Atom was fitted out with all new exterior teak trim, an improved sculling oar, called a yuloh, which I copied off a sampan, a set of three stainless steel anchors, a hefty bronze anchor windlass, new dodger and bimini, and a Lavac vacuum-type toilet to please the women visitors who tended to turn up their nose at my toilet bucket.
Here I upgraded my self-steering with a new Monitor windvane. The Monitors size may be overkill for a 28-foot boat, but its performance has been exceptionally good, even in light airs under spinnaker where the Aries vane had struggled to find its way. As a singlehander I learned to not compromise on self-steering.
After much procrastination I opted to rejoin the modern world by adding GPS, an SSB radio transceiver and a 3-hp outboard motor that hung on an adjustable transom bracket for use in entering and leaving ports.So began another era in Atom's evolution. The experience was diminished in some ways and enhanced in others.
With my Swiss friend Theo on his Hong Kong-built 28-foot Taipan, Islander, as buddy boat and a girlfriend from Leyte Island we cruised back through the Philippines and the Spice Islands of Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean to South Africa. On this crossing of the South Indian Ocean we stopped at Australia's Christmas and Cocos Islands, Rodrigues, Mauritius, the French island of Reunion, and the sailor's jewel of the Indian Ocean - Madagascar. Theo stayed in Madagascar a full year while I spent six months exploring its east, north, and west coasts.
Sailing with Islander
In Richard's Bay, South Africa it was time to give Atom another major refit. I discarded her mast due to excessive corrosion between the aluminum and the screwed-on bronze sail track, and replaced it with a new locally produced aluminum mast having the standard molded slot for sail slugs. This new masthead rig, with a mast length of 34 feet, was 2 feet shorter than the original fractional rig. Due to the favorable exchange rate, it cost only $1,500 including most of the rigging.
I now added a Harken jib furling system but kept two of my working jibs and a storm jib to use on an inner forestay if the furling ever were to become inoperable. To give extra support to the mast, the inner forestay normally attaches to a heavily reinforced pad eye halfway between mast and bow stem where it does not interfere with tacking the jib. If I ever need to hang a sail on it, there is a wire eye strap near the bow that it connects to. To support the inner forestay, I installed intermediate aft lower shrouds that can be set up like running backstays, but which I usually keep attached to chainplates just aft of the lower shrouds. These semi-permanent running backstays have a plastic sleeve on them to prevent chafe on the mainsail. They not only act as support for the inner forestay but also provide a degree of redundancy if my backstay or a shroud should ever break.
Down below I modified most of the lower storage lockers into watertight compartments by adding sealed partitions and gasketed access hatches. Ive added enough of these sealed compartments that Im confident you could knock a hole in Atom anywhere below the waterline and she would remain afloat long enough to make emergency repairs. Even the Lavac toilet was placed behind a watertight bulkhead to prevent any of its plumbing fittings from flooding the entire boat.
My Triton originally came with a plywood cabin sole that was covered by a thin veneer of teak. Over the years the teak had become worn and chipped until it looked so hideous that I covered it with a piece of outdoor carpeting. Since I was rebuilding the majority of the interior, I went ahead and resurfaced the damaged plywood sole with 1/4-inch thick by 2-inch wide strips of African iroko, a teak-like wood. The strips were separated by seams of black polysulfide sealant. This made the unvarnished sole as attractive and secure underfoot as a bare teak deck.
I converted the area below the v-berth where the original 23-gallon fiberglass water tank was located, into a 43-gallon integral water tank whose bottom was the hull of the boat itself. Another 30-gallon integral tank was installed in the otherwise useless space between the cockpit floor, the cockpit side lockers and the hull. A third water tank was planned for the aft part of the bilge. I fit the two deck scuppers with valves that can divert rainwater collected on deck to a hose below deck that I insert into the water tank or use to fill plastic water jugs.
You don't always want to carry the weight of all that water, but there are times that it's useful to have the extra capacity.
In South Africa I replaced Atom's modest electric system: from the charging system to the battery to the accessories and appliances themselves. To begin with, I replaced my single 12-volt battery with four 6-volt golf cart type batteries wired into a single 12-volt bank of over 400-amp hours capacity. These rugged batteries are more cost efficient and stand up better to frequent deep discharges than other batteries I've used. To recharge them I installed two solar panels each rated at 43-watts output, mounted on fully adjustable mounts on stainless steel tubes attached to the stern rail.
Now that I had a good charging system and massive battery storage capacity I chucked out the portable gasoline generator which I had used since Hong Kong to run my power tools and replaced it with an 800-watt inverter. To take advantage of the inverter, I added such luxury appliances as a juicer and a blender. Even with all this electrical capacity, you never know when a week of cloudy weather may cause your batteries to run low, so I do what I can to conserve electricity. For this reason I replaced all my power hungry incandescent lights with either fluorescent or halogen and later with xenon. (This was before the miracle of efficient LED lighting, which I now use.) I could not find a proper masthead light at the marine chandlers so I replaced my nearly opaque plastic 25-watt masthead anchor light with a homemade light consisting of a 5 and 10-watt halogen bulbs in a glass peanut butter jar. This not only saved electricity and about $100 in replacement costs, but I had a light that was far brighter and longer lasting than the original.
Atom was now in better shape than she had ever been since her birth in a Rhode Island boat factory 33 years earlier. This was fortunate because she would soon be tested to the limits in her second passage around the South African cape.
Having parted ways with my previous female crew, I took on Alex, a young French traveler who claimed to have no sailing experience. His only other qualification was that he'd been in the elite French commando marines which I figured would make it highly unlikely that he would gripe over any discomforts that lie ahead.
On my first rounding of the Cape twelve years earlier, I sailed nonstop from Durban to Cape Town in 10 days. To make it more interesting and easier (as local experts claimed), and because I had crew for the extra demands of watch-keeping in coastal waters, this time around I adopted the standard strategy of running from port to port between favorable weather forecasts. Unfortunately, due to either El Nino, or maybe the wrath of God, that year the South African coast was plagued by an unending succession of westerly gales. With the rest of the international cruising fleet we crawled and cursed and beat our way from port to port through one cold front after another.
Upon rounding Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, Alex and I were congratulating ourselves on our clever weather timing when out of nowhere came a southeasterly storm, locally called a Black Southeaster. In Cape Town, the wind-weary locals hardly notice the average 40-knot gale, which they refer to affectionately as the "Cape Doctor." But even the rugged Cape Towners furl their umbrellas and curse the dreaded Black Southeaster.For two days we ran off, then hove to, and even tried to run for shelter at one of the fishing harbors in False Bay.
By deciding to go into False Bay I had weighed up the sailors classic dilemma of choosing between seeking safe harbor in a storm or staying offshore with plenty of sea room.
Sailing alone with only a sextant and no detailed weather information as I had last time here, meant there was no way I would head inshore in those conditions. Going offshore now was dicey too, since the winds could carry us way out into the South Atlantic and make it difficult to get back to Cape Town. My decision to attempt making port this time was partly influenced by my crew. Alex may have been the only marine commando never to find his sea legs. During the height of the storm, Alex retreated to his bunk drenched from the icy waters that had gone right through his faulty foul weather gear, teeth chattering like Spanish castanets, and heaving his guts out into a bucket. It was a pitiful sight, but I couldn't help showing the smug superiority of someone who's never been affected by seasickness.
Because the katabatic winds coming off the mountains were increasing the closer we worked our way in towards port, I finally decided to exit False Bay and take our chances offshore. This was also my first encounter with hurricane-force wind gusts and I was surprised to find most of my well-planned storm tactics were totally unworkable once the wind had laid us over flat and the breaking seas were constantly sweeping the decks. Going forward to hoist the storm jib on the mostly submerged foredeck was impossible and, besides, I suddenly realized my storm jib was way too large to hoist in winds around 40 knots with occasional gusts approaching 80 knots (as recorded by nearby shore stations). Even glancing to windward during the gusts was physically impossible in the whiteout of machine gun-like blasts of water flung into the air.
Because of a lack of sea room I couldnt deploy the sea anchor. My parachute-type sea anchor needs a minimum scope of 600 feet of line to be effective, and once clear of the coast there was too much shipping in the area to sit there as an unmaneuverable 600-foot-long target waiting to be sucked into the side of a passing ship. I was thankful that at least my cockpit lockers were now individual watertight compartments because the lee side of the cockpit was constantly awash and during the gusts the cockpit was half full of water.
We eventually managed to hoist the tiny 12-square-foot storm trysail which, along with an even smaller corner of unfurled jib, allowed us to claw our way offshore, saving us from being dashed to pieces against the cliffs of Cape Point. In these storm-force conditions we could point about seventy degrees off the wind in the lulls and make good about ninety degrees, but we were unable to tack through the wind and had to jibe downwind onto the other tack which caused us to lose a little ground on each tack. Without the windage of the furling jib, kayak, solar panels, dodger and other deck gear, and with proper sized storm sails I'm sure the Triton can make better progress to windward in these conditions. Lack of weatherliness, if we can call it that, is one of the prices you pay for your comfort gear. Early the next morning we weathered the surf-beaten cliffs of the Cape Peninsula by a narrow mile and turned directly downwind to round the bony finger of the Cape of Good Hope under bare poles.
Departing Hout Bay, South Africa with crewmate Alex
Atom stood up remarkably well to this storm, the only damage being some chafed lines and repairable cracks in the kayak stowed on deck. Even Alex's wounded pride recovered when I congratulated him on surviving the worst storm he was ever likely to see. Surprisingly, after a romping shore leave in Cape Town he agreed to continue on with me to Brazil. To add insult to an uncomfortable trip, I read a few months later in a Seven Seas Cruising Association bulletin some woman talking about this fierce storm and how many boats were making distress calls including Atom, who "was rescued by a fishing boat" or some nonsense like that. This was absolute rubbish. We did see flares going up and heard three other yachts near us who radioed for assistance, but I took some pride in knowing that we looked after ourselves.
Ever since then, SSCA members often remark how fortunate it was that we were "rescued" from that storm. Good Grief!
As on my previous circumnavigation, the little horrors of the South African coast gave way to a joyride across the South Atlantic. The southeast trades filled in a few days out of Cape Town and carried us to St. Helena Island and Ascension Island and on to our destination of Cabedelo, near the city of Joao Pessoa on the eastern tip of Brazil. More on our trip from South Africa to Brazil can be found on the Articles page.
Sailing on Brazil's Paraiba River.
In Brazil I made use of dry-out legs fabricated of stainless steel pipes to dry the boat standing upright between tides and also loaned them to a friend on a similar size boat when he needed to repair his rudder. I dropped Alex off in the care of four lovely barmaids at a riverside beer joint near Cabedelo and continued on alone back to the Caribbean. Alex had plans to backpack around South America, but five months later I heard he had not yet moved out of the bar! I not only lost my crew in Brazil, but also lost my outboard motor to an envious fisherman who figured he needed it more than I did - which proved to be true, because I sailed easily on to Trinidad alone without its assistance.
Since I had sailed Atom to Trinidad several years earlier, being back here marked for me the completion of a second circumnavigation. But the number of times you sail around the world is not important, it's the living you do that matters.