May 10, 2024

9 min

Expedition Updates

Hummingbird Update: Sail Across the Atlantic Using Celestial Navigation

05 May 2024

And we are off! Rubicon 3’s annual Celestial Navigation Transatlantic Crossing is a go. This year, it will be from the capital of the Bahamas, Nassau, to Bristol, England.

With the crew arriving last Sunday to head straight into a two-day crash course on celestial navigation with Bruce, a few days of prep began onboard. The mammoth task of victualling for 11 people for 28 days began, as well as a few routine jobs onboard and some more non-routine ones, like fixing leaky pipes!

After prep was done and the logistical challenge of finding a home onboard for every purchased item of food was complete, we launched into briefings with our transatlantic crew, briefing them on everything from lifejackets to MOB recovery to how to use the heads onboard. After a day of packing and briefing in the Bahamian heat, one last evening ashore was had in the Green Parrot marina bar.

Thursday saw us clear customs and head out of Nassau’s busy harbour and into our training sail. Putting the new crew through their paces and getting them up to scratch with all the deck evolutions, they will no doubt become masters during this crossing.

Friday marked the true beginning of our transatlantic adventure. With anchor weighed and our number 1 Yankee hoisted, we gracefully sailed out of our anchorage at Rose Island. The initial northwest direction, a bit counterintuitive for a West to East Transat, was a strategic move to enter the favourable gulf stream as soon as possible. The crew, brimming with excitement and anticipation, were eager to put their newfound celestial skills to use, engaging in shotting, reducing, and plotting their sights.

Offshore – Day 2 started off with landing a stripped tuna and then very quickly a barracuda (which was quickly released due to the proximity of reefs!). Now, as I write this, it is 1930 onboard. The sun is on its way down, and the crew is still in shorts and T-shirts, with the prep work being done for our evening star sights. Oh, and we are also charging north at 11 knots, with the powerful running north with us at an estimated 3 knots! What could be better?

Ollie

Offshore Day 3 – Blog Update 07 May 2024

What a wonderful day to be Watch A!  We had the 21.00 to midnight watch, and Watch C cooked us a delicious curry supper, whose spices stayed with us until we were relieved promptly at midnight by Watch B, punctual as ever, with the verve and vigour that we have come to expect of that redoubtable trio.  Earlier, for lunch, we ate our fill of fresh tuna (note to the purser: tube of wasabi for the next trip, please). However, Manu insisted on keeping its eyeballs to himself. Then, there was a barracuda, which we spared; its very toothy mouth offered us, at last, a spectacle in these waters that was scarier than the ire of our captain when he thought the helm was off course.  At dusk, we watched Max shoot three stars successfully, three more than most of us, but there were no early risers at dawn.

 After seeing the last of the day turn into night, our 06:00 watch saw night turn back into day.  We had the sky to ourselves.  First, a sliver of moon appeared, then the sun turned the eastern clouds pink, and finally, the sun burst through the clouds at the horizon.  A dark petrel skimmed the wave tops around us. Meg’s coffee was fine, watch-leader Tom was content, and all was fine with the world.  We wondered what it would be like to be people at work now, on phones and trains, somewhere noisy, and can’t quite picture it. 

Then, the reverie is broken. It’s action stations. Ollie says we’ll put up the kite (the yankee’s been flopping about unhappily for a while). Manu gives him a look and does something with his eyebrow.  We’ll tactfully describe what follows as a “discussion”, and presently, the decision is made to pole out the yankee.  We look at the mess of lines uneasily. Manu is reassuring.  Just do what we practiced three days ago, he says.  Oh, that’s all right, then.

Then, Watch C bounce up the companionway, and the fun is over for another 6 hours.

We’re roughly level with the Florida-Georgia border (note to Bruce: Cape Canaveral is still hiding in Florida), and things are going well.

Day 4Blog Update 09 May 2024

Day 4 from leaving Nassau. After heading north to date, we have made our most significant course change east so far (check track map.) In addition to honing our skills in celestial navigation, we are also learning the challenges of cooking for 11 people at a jaunty angle of 45 degrees. Think of cooking in a small poltergeist-infested kitchen while drunk, and you’ll get the general idea. On evening watch last night, we had the joy of waiting for the first stars to appear, sextant in hand, to try and snag a star fix. To our relief and surprise, they appeared where expected, which was rather magical.

Day 6

What a difference 24 hours make! This morning, our watch sees a sunrise so beautiful in seas so languid that even our hard-bitten first mate is moved to get his camera. There’s barely any wind and only the gentlest of swells. It’s a perfect morning for cooking bacon for breakfast (controversially) and for photography, but not so good if you have places to go. We decide to get the engine going.

24 hours earlier, a rather different scene and a short episode that exemplifies Rubicon 3’s fabulousness. It’s 4 a.m., another warm night, pretty clear but with occasional distant lightning flashes, which we perhaps should have taken more notice of. The 30kts of wind behind us have been causing us to steer increasingly off-course for a while, and so we decide to make the gybe.

And that’s when the squall arrives.  The rain is coming down at an impressive angle with abundant volume in a moment. None of us have proper rain gear on; we’re very quickly soaked.  We have to do things to the three lines controlling the spinnaker pole, the Yankee sheets, the preventer, the vang, the mainsheets, and probably a few things I have forgotten.  In the dark, with our red-light torches and all that water falling out of the sky, it’s hard to see what’s happening. The cockpit is a mess of lines around our feet, cranking winches, legs, arms and bums flailing about without apparent owners. Manu’s on the foredeck being athletic.  And the rain keeps coming, and the sea roaring by at 12kts.

On my boat, with this much chaos, the air would be blue with profanity, but on Hummingbird, we have Ollie, and all there is the red from our headlights.  He directs and corrects us with a calm authority that makes everyone feel safe.  (He may be thinking,” Not that line, you daft b****r”, but he has the good grace not to show it.)  And when Manu appears beside me to add some much-needed horsepower to my efforts on the mainsheet winch, I realise this is only this much fun because we are in such capable hands.

We made 33 miles in that watch, the fastest run so far, and we later worked out that the 24-hour run was 242 miles. We are told this is Hummingbird’s biggest-ever run, and we are happy to believe they only tell some of the crews this.

For now, though, we are dawdling again, but we are heading properly east.  And we need to enjoy the calm while we can, we are told, because we’ll soon have big winds behind us, and it’ll be a few more days of bashing, crashing and surging. Yay!  Watch this space… 

Day 10Blog Update 12 May 2024

Hummingbird's Location

And the wind came!  45 knots of it

Think of a cardboard egg tray, all hollows and ridges and peaks. Imagine an egg tray for a million eggs, with just one small white egg in the middle. Hummingbird is that egg (though somewhat less fragile, one hopes). For the first time, the sea is not relatively flat when we look over towards a distant horizon; it is something we are part of.  The water is above us, alongside us, rushing by.  Today is the day the sea has become three-dimensional.  And we’re in it!

Big grey-blue lumps of water loom next to us in the cockpit, but we know Hummingbird will lift herself over them, so they’re not threatening. Instead, they are like big St Bernard dogs looking over your shoulders when sitting on the sofa. When they decide to come aboard, these dogs give you not a warm Labrador lick on your face but a bucket of cold water on your head.

And the noise, and the motion.  Everything rattling along.  The boat, of course: We clock 12kts, which is not bad, with almost no canvas, just the mainsail, fully reefed.  And the waves, rolling and rolling and rolling.  And the tops of the waves, whipped by the wind, occasionally a bigger one breaking slightly a few hundred metres away, and we’re glad it’s over there, not right here. And sometimes a turquoise strip between the blue-grey mass of the wave and its white breaking top.

Manu is particularly excited by the turquoise, for some reason, and even more so by the Portuguese man-of-war that only he sees.  We are battling the gale here, and the duty officer is on jellyfish watch.  Oh well, a sign of confidence, I suppose.  Indeed, he seems energised by the high winds, leaping around excitedly, gleefully grinning.  This is the weather he loves.  No matter what, if our wind gauge fails, we can see its speed by the breadth of Manu’s grin and knowledge.

But in truth, we’re all energised.  Knowing we’re in a solid boat and well-prepared, this is nothing but fun. We each take turns helming as usual, guiding Hummingbird over those waves.   We’re grinning as we shout over the wind, and when the rain burst happens, for just a few minutes, that adds to the scene.  And then, somehow, the sun comes out, and the backs of all those crazy waves between it and Hummingbird are suddenly gleaming metallic.

The watch finishes, and we retire below. Wetter than is ideal, perhaps, but happy for what we’ve done.  We know full well there are much bigger storm stories to tell, perhaps even in store for us on this trip. Still, today’s experience was definitely a highlight so far.  We were in the storm, part of the storm, and part of the sea. It’s what we came for.

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