#1 2012-11-06 13:35:37

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Snowball Crosses the Atlantic

In 2009 I was sailing my Victoria 30 Tui to the Azores when I met another single handed sailor, Hans Böbs in his yacht Snowball. We both arrived at Ria Cedeira in NW Spain after a dusting in Biscay. We kept in touch and in July 2012 I flew to Newfoundland to crew for him on a return Atlantic passage. This is my account of the trip.

Snowball Crosses the Atlantic
By Colin Reid

I didn’t see much of Newfoundland. The wind had finally come round to the west when I arrived after a long spell of easterlies and we didn’t want to miss a favourable wind. My sightseeing consisted of two supermarkets where we provisioned at prices that seemed more like Norway than North America, and a couple of gas stations were we struggled to get the propane cylinder filled.

I did get a flavour though; it was rural and beautiful like a Canadian version of the Hebrides, harsh climate, friendly hospitable people.

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Snowball was lying in Long Pond marina in sheltered Conception Bay. Hans pronounced the capital St Johns unsuitable as a port of departure though a lovely town, as the water is dirty and there are no facilities for yachts. Long Pond is a quiet spot and the guys in the yard couldn’t have been more helpful. They didn’t say much, just got out the pickup truck and helped us out. Not a Beneteau in sight, the local boats are built for the conditions which are about as unlike summer in the Ionian as you can get.

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Snowball is a Taranga 10.6m steel sloop. She is rugged, set up for short handed sailing and heavy weather in a thoughtful, knowledgeable, seamanlike way. No slouch, she came third in the 1986 Twostar transatlantic race and has been cruised extensively in high latitudes. Owner Hans Böbs, intrepid yachtsman and Master Mariner, sailed her singlehanded from Travemünde in the Baltic via the Azores to Greenland and on to Newfoundland in 2011. I followed his progress with admiration and offered to crew for him, helping to bring her back across the Atlantic.

We stowed away the provisions, I was introduced to the various onboard systems which included the coffee percolator. I was pleased to find that Hans takes his coffee seriously. The percolator has its own page in the log book recording the number of spoonfuls of coffee, the minutes of percolation etc, all in pursuit of coffee nirvana. None of your slapdash English ways. Very good it was too.

We had a final meal of fish and chips in the clubhouse on a beautiful crisp evening while the club boats came back from racing in the bay. In Nfld they catch cod for local consumption and to check stocks which are slowly recovering from disastrous overfishing. We were asked if we wanted it with gravy, an odd unappealing concept although plenty of locals had it like that. Hans called the German met office for a personalised forecast and we retired to Snowball to look at the grib files and discuss the prospects.

There was a big low heading NE to the east of Nfld. We planned to get into its southern sector to pick up the westerlies. Clearly we would get a lot of wind, but at least it would blow in the right direction and moderate. The outlook was for westerlies.

6.7.12

In the morning we filled the water tanks, Hans climbed the mast to check the rig, and we set off in quiet weather.

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It took several hours to motor up Conception Bay to Cape St Francis where we would turn east for the Grand Banks and North Atlantic. The scenery was beautiful in the cool northern light; we saw a humpback whale spouting and a pod of minke whales that I mistook for porpoise. Low cloud was cloaking the hills and as we approached the cape we could see fog banks at sea. There is fog on the Grand Banks about 50% of the time in summer as warm moist air from the Gulf Stream encounters the cold waters of the Labrador Current. Whereas fog in European waters is associated with high pressure and light winds, here it can be accompanied by gales. And then there is ice. We would be within the summer ice limit for several hundred miles. However it is forecast meticulously on the VHF rolling 24 hour weather channel (good idea) and there was no ice reported.

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As soon as we rounded the cape we were into fog and increasing wind. The fog closed in and the wind and sea built. We were soon sailing fast upwind into a stiff southeasterly, reefing progressively until we were down to three reefs in the main and storm jib.

7.7.12 - 18º 30.0N 50º 06.4W

We had a rough night. By morning the wind had veered south as expected but was blowing a full gale and the chorizo and lentil stew I had made the day before didn’t seem like such a good idea. Snowball was magnificent; she stood up to the wind and the sea and charged on apace. The human element was struggling. We were both seasick.

Conditions were grim. The cabin sole was the safest place to stretch out, secure but miserable. We were sailing fast in fog, keeping watch via radar, AIS and radar detector but visual lookout was difficult in the conditions. Apart from a small vessel seen on the radar near Cape St Francis we saw no other shipping, there was no radio traffic and no sign of ice. The sea was magnificent, big seas streaked with foam. They weren’t really threatening and I became confident of Snowballs seakeeping abilities. She sailed fast under deep reefed sails, the wind pilot steering in a southerly gale with a violent motion.

8.7.12 - 19º 04.5N 47º 20.8W - Days run 115 nm

We were both sick as dogs and feeling weak that night and day. I couldn’t keep anything down and resorted to frequent sips of water so as not to get dehydrated. Eventually I found I could manage a cup of camomile tea with honey, then some porridge. Things were improving and we both gradually regained our sea legs. I never felt a tinge of queasiness for the rest of the trip.

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9.7.12 - 49º 58.8’N 43º 56.6’W - Days run 145 nm

Another rough night with S 6/7 but sailing fast and making good progress. The wind continued to veer until we were on a reach, the motion improved and life didn’t seem so bad after all. We were approaching the Gulf Stream so there was hope of better conditions. Dolphins came out to play in the dawn, always a lift to the spirits. Hans downloaded grib files via the sat phone so we could ponder the weather. The strategic decision we had to make was whether to continue as planned for Cape Wrath and pass to the north of Scotland, or head south for the English Channel. The jury was out.

Our watch routine was 4 hours on, 4 hours off but 2 hours between 0000 and 0400. This gives short night watches and switches the pattern every day. For two people it worked pretty well.

10.7.12 - 50º 50.07’N 40º 27.4’W - Days run 146 nm

Into the Gulf Stream, out of the fog! Sunshine, blue sky with broken cloud and SW4. Good visibility and the sea has turned dark blue which shows we are out of the cold Labrador Current and into the waters of the Gulf Stream. We are bowling along downwind at 6 knots with full sail.

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I washed my hair and felt like a new man. Sadly my shaver had run out of battery so I cannot shave for the trip. I should arrive looking like a true seadog. Hans baked bread, and I am impressed. There is nothing more homely and comforting than the smell of bread in the oven and the result was delicious. He uses an Omnia stovetop oven shaped like a giant bagel which works extremely well. The plan is to bake our own bread for the crossing. Canadian bread does not appeal. I cooked the first proper hot meal for several days, simple and bland out of consideration for our stomachs. Boiled spuds, fresh corn on the cob, butter, black pepper. It felt like a feast. After dinner we listened to Ravel’s Bolero loud on the hifi. What an atmospheric piece. As it reached the crescendo an almighty thunder storm broke out. I felt a bit nervous being the only thing above wave height for hundreds of miles but I was assured that due to the Faradays Cage principal we were quite safe inside a steel hull.

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Called the German met office on the sat phone and found our decision was a foregone conclusion; if we headed for the north of Scotland we could expect NE gales, if we made for the English Channel we could expect westerlies, strong at times but blowing our way. We altered course onto the great circle track to Bishop Rock.

11.7.12 - 51º12.7N 36º48W - Days run 140 nm

Spent a quiet night watch enjoying the stars and sliver of moon. As we are sailing downwind Hans rigged the ‘winter garden’ as he calls it. This is a canvas stern door to the sprayhood which keeps out the following wind. It made a big difference sitting in the cockpit at night, very cosy. He cooked a slap-up breakfast, scrambled eggs and coffee, so clearly we are both feeling a lot better. It was a lovely sunny day and as the wind dropped we poled out the genoa then took it in and flew the gennaker. We experimented with my method for dropping it, letting go the tack to de-power the sail and hauling in from the clew standing by the mast. It looks dramatic as the sail blows high out to leeward but it works well. Towards evening the fog returned for a while.

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12.7 12 - 51º16.4N 33º15.5W - Days run 135 nm

During the morning the wind increased to W7. We took in the main and ran under a deep reefed poled out genoa which was plenty of sail. We experimented with a snatch block for the sheet at the pole end so the sail could be adjusted easily and to reduce chafe. This worked well. The sea built and Hans was concerned that the pole would dip into a wave endangering the mast as we were rolling heavily so we changed to deep reefed main only. Hans excelled himself in the galley, producing an excellent soufflé.

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13.7.12 - 51º 22.6N 29º 38.8W - Days run 139 nm

It blew W7 all evening and night with a rough sea. This is the second frontal system we have encountered. It was a black night and hard to sleep with the din from the contents of the lockers crashing rhythmically about as we rolled. The cockpit felt exposed in the big following sea and with lack of sleep, noise, the endless rush of speed as we sailed fast downwind I spent a stressful night.

Half Way!! We are 900nm from land. What an extraordinary feeling to be so far out in a small boat. During the day the wind eased and veered to NW4/5 and we ran with just the poled out genoa.

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14.7.12 - 51º 38.8N 26º 12.7W - Days run 131 nm

The wind dropped to NW3/4 during the night and we were back to full sail and had a quiet days sailing. We sat in the cockpit experimenting with knots and I learned to do a diamond knot. I watched Hans’s mainsail handling techniques. He has a way of hoisting and lowering the main sailing downwind using the reef pennants to keep the sail flat and away from the shrouds. A useful trick as I always have to point up to lower the sail when sailing downwind.

We got out the jar of moose meat killed and preserved by a Newfie friend. I stewed it in red wine, and it was a real feast, rich and flavoursome, similar to venison.

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15.7.12 - 51º 36.7’N 22º 50.1’W - Days run 130 nm

Another day, another near gale. When I came on night watch I was greeted by incredible phosphorescence. It was a dark night and the sea was rough. Every breaking wave as far as the eye could see produced a shower of silver light. Snowball’s wave was a trail of silver. And there was a pod of dolphins ducking and diving around us, invisible but leaving wakes of molten silver. Stunning!

During the night the wind increased and backed to SE6. Rather than try to go to windward in the confused sea we hove to for a few hours. What a relief from the relentless driving motion of fast sailing. Peace reigned in the cabin and we got some sleep. When I awoke Hans had the sails up again as the wind had eased and veered. Gradually the wind dropped right down and we started the engine. The batteries need charging anyway but this was the first time since Nfld we had motored to help us on our way. I found a cosy spot wedged in the companionway, my lower half snug and warm from the engine. The wind veered and increased to SW6/7 and we were sailing fast again with reefed sails.

Email from my daughters, cycling through Bulgaria in 40c. Strange to think of them so far away in such a different world. Sailing across an ocean is a bit like being an astronaut locked in a tiny capsule cut off from the rest of humanity.

16.7.12 - 51º 13.7’N 18º 11.1’W - Days run 133 nm

A quiet night and day, sailing fast downwind. We ran the engine to charge the batteries. The solar panels aren’t getting much of a chance as we haven’t seen much of the sun. Hans took advantage of the warmth from the engine to get the sourdough to rise and baked another delicious loaf of bread. Later on the wind picked up again to SSW 6/7 and we double reefed the main with the heavy weather jib. Snowball has a great sail wardrobe and it is always possible to find a snug combination of sails. The big genoa is set on a furler rolling forestay, and there is a range of hanked-on jibs for the inner forestay. I have yet to see how easy it is to tack the genoa with the inner forestay in the way as we have been on the same tack since we left.

17.7.12 - 50º 54.6’N 15º 46.5’W - Days run 142 nm

It blew hard all night and the next day, SW6/7, increasing to SW8. We were reaching fast with 3 reefs in the main and the heavy weather jib, but ended up with just the headsail. The wind pilot has steered all the way and really likes the strong windy conditions. Hans works like a Trojan changing sails and never flinches from foredeck work whatever the conditions. He does most of the sail handling because he knows exactly which sails he wants and where everything is. I keep an eye on him and ponder on how to do an emergency stop in these conditions if he went over the side. I don’t like the self tacking jib because it makes it impossible to quickly go about and back the jib to stop. In the evening the wind gradually eased.

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18.7.12 - 50º 28.3’N 12º 20.0’W - Days run 135 nm

After a quiet night the wind picked up to a comfortable W4/5. Dolphins came out to play in the morning, a joy to behold. We heard BBC Radio 4 for the first time, very evocative of home listening to Sailing By and the Shipping Forecast read in those measured BBC tones. We saw a fishing boat so we must be onto the continental shelf. Feels like we are nearing home…

19.7.12 - 50º 07.5’W 9º 04.5’W - Days run 130 nm

A fine sunny day sailing goosewinged. We tried fishing and nearly caught a big one, but it bit through the stainless steel line and got away. I felt bad about the poor fish escaping with the lure in its mouth so we tried for smaller fry with no luck. The wind dropped and in the evening we started the motor.

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20.7.12 - 49º 50.5’N 5º 53.5’W - Days run 126 nm

We motored all night in a calm sea. It was a beautiful night with stars in the sky. It felt like summer at last. When I came on watch in the morning we had passed Bishop Rock and the Isles of Scilly were in sight to the north. I gazed through the binoculars at those blessed isles, remembering other trips and favourite anchorages. We shaped a course for the Lizard, into tidal waters now. We motored for most of the day and picked up a nice breeze off the Lizard. Watched the lifeboat help a yacht fouled on a pot off the headland. We have splendid sail across Falmouth bay in the evening sun and finally leave Black Rock close to starboard, head into the town anchorage and drop the hook in 10 mts.

14 days 8 hours to cross the North Atlantic in a small yacht. Not bad.

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#2 2012-11-14 18:37:35

Admin
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Registered: 2011-02-24
Posts: 323

Re: Snowball Crosses the Atlantic

The following has been received by email:

Dear Editor,

i just found Colin Reid's account of this year's trip in Snowball in your forum and, although he's joking about my coffee percolating business, I feel that he writes rather favourable about me, deservedly so or not. As I'm not a member of your Association and as such I'm not entitled to comment in the forum, I'd like to ask you if you could add a few words from me about Colin as a sailing companion.

I really must say that I couldn't have any better company on board as Colin knows his ropes, which perhaps goes without saying for a Victoria Skipper. But there is more, as Colin is an excellent cook - thank God, it wasn't my day of cooking duty when the moose meat had to be prepared - and he's great at enduring hardships like cold, seasickness and deprivation of sleep without complaining. And he keeps his humour all the time, so spirits on board were always good. What more is there to ask?  Here you have a member you can be proud of.

Hans
Snowball's skipper

High praise indeed!  Thank you Hans!

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