Small Cat, Big Ocean
Picolé comes from Europe to Cape Town in a container, and my sailing partner, Beto Pandiani, and I arrive by plane. Back in 2008, Beto and I sailed an open sport catamaran from Spain to Australia in search of adventure and in the hopes of promoting clean energy. Now, we’re on a mission to do it again, this time sailing from South Africa to Brazil, nonstop, with no motor and no cabins. Along the 4000-mile journey, we’ll demonstrate how simple it is to live cleanly, and we’ll inspire other sailors to push the envelope in their own adventures. But first, we have to get out of Africa.
It is the end of February, and we are already behind schedule. Worse yet, Picolé, our 25-foot custom catamaran, arrives with major structural issues. She will require serious reinforcements and modifications before she’ll be ready to cross the Atlantic. After all, our lives will depend on her.
Cape Town is a city oriented toward life at sea, so it is fairly easy to find everything we need to complete the repairs. A man named Manuel, who shares an interest in transAtlantic sailing, befriends us on the docks and then dedicates 15 days of his own time to helping us prepare. We install carbon reinforcements in the hulls, shift the anchor points of the stays and reinforce the crossbeams—and that only scratches the surface of our to-do list.
It takes three weeks of hard work under the burning sun of Cape Town before Picolé finally tastes the salty waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. Sea trials go well. We share the ocean with an Open 60 that we sometimes race, and with a pod of right whales that comes to the bay to feed. Now, we only need to load our gear and wait for a good weather window to begin our sail to Brazil.
2 Days to Launch: Inventory
On board, we have food for 45 days, though we only plan to be at sea for 25. We pack mostly freeze-dried meals that require hot water to cook, though, if the little stove breaks, we can also use cold water. We carry two water-makers, each of which requires 1,500 pumps per five liters, which is what we each require daily. We carry a waterproof computer and satellite antenna that will allow us to have Internet even in the middle of the ocean, so we can transmit images, send out our daily e-newsletter, update our website and get weather reports.
These, along with our autopilot, cameras and a great deal of gadgets, will be powered by a 100Ah battery, which will be charged using a pair of 110W solar panels. If our solar panels fail, we have a hydrogenerator on board as backup. Other bits of gear include a medical kit, a survival kit, a tool box, an inflatable standup paddleboard, a backup rudder and daggerboard, two autopilots, extra line, a liferaft and countless other indispensable and useless things—including an ostrich egg I bring as a souvenir. All up, our gear and our bodies weigh more than 990 pounds.
Day 1: Departure
The boat is ready, we’re ready, and the weather is good. At 1300 on March 20, 2013, it’s time to go. The port captain appears to wish us good luck, and we pick up a tow out of Cape Town harbor. The conditions are perfect for adjusting to life on board: light southerlies and a quiet sea are forecast for the next two days.
We’ll begin by harnessing the cold Benguela Current, which will propel us north along the African coast to where we’ll catch the easterly trade winds. These, we hope, will then take us to the other side of the Atlantic. We are calm, deriving confidence from our Pacific crossing four years previous—a crossing that took 120 days aboard a 25-foot catamaran sailing from Chile to Australia. We think we’ve foreseen everything we can foresee. We can already envision ourselves lying under a palm tree on a Brazilian beach.
Day 5: Hitting the low
We’ve only been at sea for five days, and already we find ourselves in a difficult situation. Before we left, a low-pressure system was forecast to bring 20-25 knot winds. Instead, we’re experiencing 30-35 knots and 17-20 foot waves. The wind is whistling with all its fury, making it clear that the coast of Namibia is no place for a 25-foot boat like Picolé.
We’ve been sailing under bare poles for over 30 hours, at the same time towing 100 meters of rope as a drogue to prevent Picolé from surfing down one wave and nose-diving into the next. Last night we lost one of the autopilots. I lament not having had the budget for two spares instead of one.
I haven’t taken off any gear, including my boots, for 50 hours, and my body is starting to complain. What’s worse, I can feel Picolé’s structure starting to loosen. I need the sea to calm down long enough that I can go into the hulls and tighten the bolts holding the crossbeams together. On the positive side, Beto and I have noticed that Picolé doesn’t get all that wet on deck, so we’ve been able to stay relatively “dry” at night inside our little tents.
Day 28: Be careful what you wish for
We’ve been sailing for 28 days, and today marks the ninth day of dead calm, even though, according to the pilot chart, we have only a 1 percent chance of experiencing 0 knots of breeze in this area. We’ve made 27 miles in the past 24 hours, thanks only to a favorable current that nudges us along.
The large swell from the south makes the mainsail beat against the mast, and we douse it at night so we can sleep. We sleep outside, mostly, because the trampoline is so much more comfortable than our tents. Glassy sea and blazing sun: this is the middle of the South Atlantic. I never thought the crossing would be so long, and have already finished all of my books. I’ve now started in on Beto’s books as well. Next, I’ll read the instructions in the medical kit.
It’s important to spread out our daily activities. Otherwise, we find ourselves with nothing to do three hours after sunrise. One of our main activities is to refresh our bodies by dousing them in buckets of seawater.
Day 30: Harnessing mind-power
We’ve been at sea for 30 days, five days more than we were expecting, and we still have 820 miles to go. We’ve voyaged barely 160 miles in the last four days. We ran out of things to talk about weeks ago.
I’m realizing that this crossing doesn’t require a great navigator or even a great athlete. It does, however, require a strong mind. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting in the middle of the ocean with no wind for days on end. You feel useless, you get moody, and relations with your crew become a challenge.
Although we’d prepared our boat as best we could, we’re finding that our focused and cheerful mindsets are turning out to be our biggest strength. On a journey like this, it’s essential to maintain conversations, even when you don’t have much to say; to respect your partner’s privacy, even though there’s very little of it; and to let go of the negative and concentrate on the fact that you have to make it to Brazil, preferably safely and with good stories to tell.
Day 35: Release the traveler!
Around 0300, I awake because the wind is increasing and the boat is gaining speed. I poke my head out of my tent and see a little black cloud above us. It’s not the first little black cloud we’ve seen, and it certainly won’t be the last, so I choose not to worry. But Picolé keeps going faster and faster, until she’s hitting 15 knots and more. I release the traveler and the mainsheet, but still Picolé charges ahead. Beto calls from his sleeping quarters in the leeward hull, “Release the traveler!” But of course, I’ve already done that…
Picolé is surfing the waves now, and heeling dangerously. I know I should leave my tent, tear off the autopilot and take control, but I can’t move. I’m paralyzed by fear. In my mind, it is already too late. I imagine Picolé capsized, with Beto and me in the water, at night, in the middle of the ocean.
I have no idea how much Picolé actually heeled that night, but it was enough for Beto’s cabin to crash into the sea and fill with water with him still inside. Thankfully, this also slowed Picolé enough to decrease the apparent wind sufficiently to return her to horizontal.
Day 35: Wildlife, garbage, almost there
It’s been 24 hours since we spotted the coast of Brazil! Now only 20 miles separate us from the beaches. Tonight, we’ll pass by Rio de Janeiro. The wind is quite calm, so much so that two young boobies landed on our bowsprit and then stayed a while. It was nice to have some company. In fact, our trip companions have been steadily growing in number in recent days, and we’ve seen turtles, pilot whales, albatross, petrels, dolphins and sunfish, just to name a few. What’s impressed us more, though, is that there hasn’t been a single day of this trip that we haven’t seen some sign of pollution: a bottle, a plastic bag, a buoy or a fishing net. Since nearing the coast of Brazil, the situation has shifted from dismal to catastrophic. The sea is so polluted, we cannot use our watermaker, and we have to lift our keels and rudders almost every hour to free the plastic bags that have hooked on them.
As the boobies take flight, I can’t help but think of how they will spend their whole lives in these polluted waters.
Epilogue: 20 percent improvisation
If you want to cross the Atlantic in a little catamaran with no cabin and no engine, it isn’t enough to acquire the boat and take a few months of holiday. The preparation is a marathon; the crossing itself only the final sprint.
We began our planning two years before our departure, splitting our time between preparing the boat and securing sponsors. We researched the route, seasons, winds, currents, weather and sea state. We thought of everything and left nothing to chance, because even the slightest mistake can make you pay dearly in open seas.
Securing sponsors proved to be more difficult than expected. With just six months to go, we were missing 40 percent of our required funding and were forced to turn to “crowd funding” to secure the rest.
A brand-new concept, crowd funding allows a large number of people to act as smaller sponsors, as opposed to securing sponsorship from a small number of large donors. In exchange for funds or services, we offered a range of rewards: your name on the boat, an official trip T-shirt, a copy of the trip diary in book form. The risk was that if we fell short of our goal, we’d have to pay our sponsors back in full. In the end, we had over 500 crowd-fund sponsors: friends and family from around the world who both made the trip with us and helped us achieve our dream.
I believe that 80 percent of our success depended on preparation, while the remaining 20 percent depended on our ability to react to those moments when we skirted the line separating danger from adventure. Although we were well prepared and provisioned, the one thing we couldn’t really prepare for were the hours of sheer boredom. In the end, the journey required more than just a sturdy boat and steady sailors—it required guts, creativity and, perhaps, just the slightest bit of madness.
Photos courtesy of Igor Bevy
Igor Bely grew up on a sailboat.
He’s sailed over 300,000 miles,
including 20 expeditions to Antarctica
and the first crossing of the south
Pacific in an open sport cataraman