The voyage: 8 September 2007, the telephone rings. TOS on the phone asking whether a boat (a multicat of 26 metres, called Blue Latitudes) could be taken from Alicante to Lagos. Would take three weeks, maximum four weeks. I agreed and on 24 September we flew to Alicante. First with a transfer in Madrid. On the aeroplane I met the other crew members except for the engineer, because he would already be there and would arrive via a different route. It was a good time to fly; not leaving from Amsterdam until 16:00 hours. At almost 21:00 hours we were on board where we indeed found the engineer, a Pole, hence the other route.
When we came in we saw that it was a mess. We ignored this for the time being and first went into town for a bite to eat. I don’t know where all those tourists eat but it took a while before we found somewhere where they would/could feed us.
We woke up the following morning and had a proper look at where we had ended up. We immediately met another crew member who went home the next day. He was glad to finally see someone again because it turned out that he had already been on board for six weeks and when you are alone that is quite a long time, although he did sleep in a hotel at night.
Following an inspection round it turned out that everything in the galley was sticky and the bridge was not much better. If you got hold of the steering wheel you had to be careful when you let go that your skin didn’t stay behind. So we first started on two days of cleaning and tidying up. The walls etc. turned out to be white.
Afterwards we lashed down everything below decks ready for departure. Sludge also had to be disposed of. We also got barrels of oil on board and another two workboats which we had to lash down on deck. We were docked with this tub in a marina so we were a little out of place and the materials could not be delivered across the jetties. We therefore had to constantly shift to another quay. In the end we managed to arrange in a way that we could stay somewhere where cars from suppliers could get to the boat. We also had a surveyor on board who had to check whether everything was ready for departure and whether everything was in working order for the voyage. We were also supposed to take a container with us. This was not permitted by the surveyor however as we were already well over our mark. He also wanted to see the satellite telephone working, this was somewhat problematic but in the end it also worked. You also need to organise all sorts of little things. A blind flange still had to be made for the bunker connection on deck, we needed some spare navigation lights, some first-aid items, a deratting certificate. Finally heavy-duty plastic had to be put around the small boats in order to cover the two brand-new outboard motors which were in them. The necessary supplies were taken on board and we were then finally ready to depart. By then it was already Saturday 29 September.
Outside the harbour on autopilot. At least that is what we thought but the thing did not work. Had to ring TOS, had to ring the person who had apparently installed it a few weeks before and had come especially from the Netherlands for this. Whatever we tried the autopilot did not respond. But we did not want to have to steer the whole journey, around 3,500 miles, by hand. We did not really want to turn back either because we never discovered why Alicante is such a popular tourist destination. So we carried on anyway with Cartagena as our destination, 78 miles in the right direction. We arrived there around midnight but we had no agent and were therefore not allowed to enter the port. Anchoring was not an option either because the whole anchor winch was out of order, not a single bearing was left. Fortunately Cartagena Traffic was willing to give me a few telephone numbers of agents. After many telephone calls we found an agent and around 03:00 hours on Sunday morning we were allowed to enter. Tied up and to bed, we had been busy since 07:00 hours.
Not much happens on a Sunday in Spain, so we had to wait until Monday. On Monday we heard that someone would come on Tuesday. He did come but could not get it to work either. On Friday another mechanic came, same story. On Saturday, another week gone, we got permission to move to the town so that we were within walking distance of the town. We also had a nicer view and in particular the smell was better because we were first moored amongst fishing boats.
On Tuesday afternoon, our third week had started, another mechanic on board. He did a few things and said he would come back the next day. He kept his promise and came with a colleague to continue his work. At around 12 noon they had it up and running, all the printed circuit boards had been replaced, cables had been replaced, differently connected, work had been done in the steering gear room, in short the job that the Dutchman had done a few weeks before turned out to have been a botched-up job.
We did a trial run with the mechanic on board and sure enough it worked. We dropped the mechanic off and set off immediately, by then it was Wednesday 10 October, 14:30 hours. We had the wind and sea behind us. The first 78 miles we had the wind against us and then there are constantly pools of water on deck. The stem has a freeboard of perhaps 70 cm. If you then have the wind against you, your speed may be 3.5 to 4 knots.
But in the Strait of Gibraltar it was the same again; wind and sea against us so that meant crawling again. On Friday afternoon we were out of the Strait and could sail in a southerly direction where everything was in our favour again and then you have a beautiful sundeck. The main port engine however did show signs that problems were imminent but we could still continue. On Saturday around 10am we turned off the main port engine in order to check the oil level. The level had increased considerably. The crankcase was full of gas oil. So that was the end of that engine. Fortunately we had two. Another phone call and if I was up to it it would be Las Palmas, otherwise Casablanca which we were only 50 miles away from. But then you would arrive in Casablanca on a Saturday, weekend, so before anything would happen… So we took the plunge and went on to Las Palmas. There the office could organise an agent and a service for the Cummins main engine.
On Tuesday afternoon 16 October at 15:00 hours we were moored in Las Palmas, immediate bunkering, loading of water, disposal of sludge, loading of drinking water and believe it or not a Cummins mechanic. We thought that the problem was in one or more of the atomisers, he thought it was the fuel pump. The pump was dismantled and taken by the mechanic to his workshop for testing.
The next day he was back again, there was nothing wrong with the pump. It was the atomisers after all, only he had nothing in stock and they could not be found anywhere on the island. Also, we had already moved to a quay close to the town, a magnificent location. 200 metres from a large shopping centre and next to the cruise terminal and a three-minute walk from the centre, and four minutes to Playa de Cantares, the beach.
In total we saw at least seven to eight cruise ships come and go and all those passengers had to go past our boat if they wanted to go into the town, so we attracted a great deal of attention, but we also had a lot to look at. There were some with whom we also would have liked to have gone on a cruise. Luckily our cook wanted to go home and we got another one in return who would bring with him the new atomisers from the Netherlands. So on Thursday afternoon we had our atomisers. They didn’t understand it at all in Spain how we had organised this so quickly. Well, it was already afternoon when the cook arrived, so repairs would not be started until the next day. To be on the safe side all atomisers would be replaced. The following morning the mechanics worked hard, the new cook went shopping so that we could leave in the afternoon. But unfortunately during the repair works it became apparent that a plunger rod and a valve spring had also broken. And those also had to be brought in from the Netherlands. TOS sent them the same day via UPS, but they appear not to follow the same slogan as TNT Post “posted today, delivered tomorrow”, because the goods did not arrive until Thursday 26 October, i.e. 6 days later. They said that this was because there was a weekend in between and because everything goes via Madrid. The 24-hour economy apparently has not got through to Spain yet, although St Nicholas does work at night. In the meantime the mate had had enough and was replaced. The new mate arrived before the atomisers. The cook who had just come on board also had to leave again because TOS could not guarantee that he would be home by 10 November as had been agreed. On Friday morning the mechanics were back on board, at 13:00 hours the port engine was working again. We had to wait again for another cook who came on board at 14:30 hours. Cast off and off we go.
The ship was running well. We had a great deal of tail wind until Dakar, the wind behind us, and therefore also the seas. The deck stayed reasonably dry. Near Dakar this changed. A diagonal wind from the front, the current against us, therefore a great deal of water on deck. The last stretch before Liberia the current was with us again, we even reached speeds of 8.5 knots. But near the Ivory Coast this stopped again, in spite of the African pilot who said that we should have the Guinea current with us. We later found the current again by sailing more to the south.
The captain’s cabin had been smelling of gas oil since Alicante. But it was becoming worse all the time such that the door and a porthole had to remain open. Which is not good for the air conditioning, because yes, this boat does have air conditioning. By then we had slack fuel tanks, therefore more sloshing, more vapour and somewhere something must be rotted through. Along the way we regularly encountered the usual schools of dolphins and from Senegal beautiful African skies with magnificent cloud formations. We once got caught in a heavy downpour and the captain went to enjoy a free fresh outdoor shower. It felt as if he was being sandblasted because there was also a great deal of wind, a sort of massage therefore. But in the absence of an attractive masseuse, it was still invigorating.
The long, mainly nightly, thunderstorms were also breathtaking with the many flashes of lightning which dived straight into the sea. When we left from Las Palmas it was full moon. At night, the mate therefore still had a reasonable amount of light shining over the water. On 6 November that was also over and it was pitch-dark outside.
On the evening of 5 November, because we were sailing close to the coast (30 miles from the coast), we ended up in the middle of a group of canoes, not even a dot to be seen on the radar, but they were there. And then you realise that you are susceptible to perhaps paranoid thoughts regarding piracy. But it does occur, so you have to be prepared for it. We therefore locked all the doors, turned off the lights except for the navigation lighting. For the same reason we had stayed around 70-80 miles from the coast, hopefully far enough for the pirate. Because since 6 November we found ourselves back in the full Guinea current the ship was travelling really fast and we had to slacken our speed otherwise we would arrive too early.
First you have to wait in all sorts of ports and the client wants you to depart as quickly as possible. Once you get near you have to slow down, otherwise they lose their rhythm. Which means more waiting.
You wait until you may go to the ship, you wait until you can go home again, you wait because you have to drop anchor because the quay is not free, you wait for parts, you wait (in Dutch: “wachten”) until your watch (in Dutch: “wacht”) is finished. In short, you watch and wait…
A sailor does a great deal of watching and waiting, they have even thought up a verb for it in shipping, you have the “watch”! I once wrote in the engine room log when I was still a second engineer and you had to describe what you had done during your watch. Well, “watching and waiting”… but it turned out later that the first engineer did not have a great sense of humour. Which shows that waiting is not always a passive activity.
On Thursday 8 November we ended up twice in a school of whales, the second time alongside a whale with 100 m at the most between us. The dolphins were also present, and in extremely large numbers. Everywhere you looked they jumped, somersaulted and spun around.
In order not to arrive too soon and not to have to float near the coast, we turned off the engines from 18:00 to 23:00 hours and drifted a little. The mate went for a swim and we all sat on the afterdeck enjoying our last sunsets. The sea was very calm and the silence was strange again after having heard the monotonous sound of the engines and fans for so many days.
Today (Friday) we were treated to the last but also the heaviest tropical downpour, including thunderstorms. It was just as if the heavens had opened. There was also a great deal of wind, but half an hour later the sun was shining again and everything was fine again.
This crew really enjoyed the trip and we are embarking on our last few miles, our ETA is Saturday 10 November early in the morning, return the boat, through immigration and fly in the evening so that from Sunday we can wait for another adventure. It is a shame that we have to go straight from the ship to the airport, which means that we won’t be able to sample the African ambience.
Tom: Master of Blue Latitude