Travels with S/Y Thetis

Thetis only

2005: Sotogrande to Porto Santo

This web page contains the logs of the first leg of a 53 day transatlantic sailing trip that I took with S/Y Thetis. The logs cover a period of 7 days of sailing from Puerto de Sotogrande in Spain to the island of Porto Santo in Madeira via Gibraltar. In most of this leg I was accompanied by my friend Manos Castrinakis.

The logs are illustrated with photographs and maps they also include some historical and geographical descriptions of the places visited as well as several links to other related web sites.

Map of E Atlantic with route
Route to Madeira

Friday January 7, 2005 Day 1

First thing in the morning I connected my iBook computer with the GPRS and checked the weather. After that I checked the tides for Gibraltar from the C-Map. Armed with this information I decided to depart from Sotogrande at 9, as this will give me the benefit of a favorable current. I disconnected the AC and returned the plug and the bathroom key to the guard station. They promptly refunded my 120 € deposit.

I cast off from Puerto de Sotogrande at 0910. The wind was 15-22 knots from the E. Since the wind was gusty and the distance short I did not bother to use the sails but motored. There was a rather uncomfortable chop but Thetis moved briskly, making better than 6 knots over the ground. I turned on the radar and made sure that it was still working. As far as I could tell everything was working properly. I was very excited and at the same time rather apprehensive because this was the beginning of the transatlantic voyage.

After 15.6 M we arrived in Gibraltar at 1205. The wind was now gusting into the upper 30’s. With the help of the attendant I moored side-to the fuel dock. I topped up the tank with 10.3 L of Diesel fuel. Now both the tank and the extra 4 jerry cans were full of fuel. I walked to the nearby customs office and cleared formalities very quickly. But I will have to return with Manos’ passport so that he can be added to Thetis’ crew list.

While mooring was easy, departing from the fuel dock was a totally different matter. The strong wind had pinned Thetis to the dock. The fenders were almost flat. No amount of pushing and rearranging of the spring lines could get her away from the dock long enough to develop any headway and respond to the rudder. In fact she was pushed, almost scraped, backwards and her radar mast got tangled with a life-boat on land. Two of the wind-generator blades were damaged. Finally a speed-boat that had also come for re-fueling towed Thetis’ bow away from the dock and I was able to extricate her.

I motored across to the Marina Bay [36° 09' N 5° 21.3' W] where with an attendant’s help, I moored bow-to without any further problems. I came bow-to because I thought it would be easier to get in and out of the boat instead of stern-to and using the passarella which, because of the tide, sometimes becomes almost vertical.

Thetis in Gibraltar
Thetis in Gibraltar

As soon as Thetis was secured I went ashore. First I gave the accumulated laundry to be washed. Then I walked to the Sheppards chandlery where I bought a 2005 Almanac (in case the GPS fails and I have to do celestial navigation), a 40 A circuit breaker, 2 brackets to mount the strap for the galley, etc. Unfortunately they did not have a Cape Verde flag nor any Camping Gaz. This one can be obtained from a company near the main harbor. They gave me the company’s phone number and I called them. They close early but will open tomorrow at 10. I will go then.

When I returned to the boat I checked the tides and weather. The forecast looked good for the next few days. We want to sail out to the Atlantic 3 hours before high water. Now Manos is arriving at Malaga tomorrow at 2 PM but who knows when he will be here. We could depart either at 1730 tomorrow, which looks doubtful, or at 0530 on Sunday morning.

There was another Greek sailing yacht here, the S/Y Anita. I met her owner and crew. They arrived a few days ago sailing along the African coast because they had some horrific weather in the Ionian Sea. The reason they came here is because they are selling the boat and are delivering her to the buyer. I asked them if they were cold at night. No, because they have an electric heater. What a good idea why have I not thought of this? They had a spare heater, which they kindly offered me. I took it to Thetis right away and plugged it in, the boat was already connected to the shore power. What a difference it made! Soon the cabin was nice and toasty.

By the evening the wind had stopped. I had a good dinner at Da Paolo next to the marina. The night was wonderful thanks to the heater. It was a far cry from the cold of the last two nights.

Saturday January 8, 2005 Day 2

I started removing all the provisions so that I could first make an inventory and then a shopping list. This is more tricky than for other cruises because we will be away from land, and stores, for extended periods. After that, I took a taxi to the compressed gas company and exchanged an almost empty Camping Gaz canister for a full one. I then asked the taxi to drive to Europa Point for a brief stop before returning to the marina. Unfortunately my camera’s batteries were spent and I was not able to take any photographs.

After returning to Thetis, I stowed the gas canister and then removed the primary anchor from the bow and stowed it in the chain locker. I then walked to a large Safeway supermarket and got a supply of cheeses and cold cuts. The rest of the provisions on my list I got from the smaller supermarket next to the marina so that I did not have to carry them. These I stowed in the various bins. I then vacuumed the cabins and cleaned all the interior surfaces. Now Thetis was ready to go, all she needed was her crew.

I received an SMS from Manos that he had landed on time in Malaga and he was on his way by bus to Algeciras, from there he will take a taxi to Gibraltar. He sent me another message when he got into the taxi. I met him at the Gibraltar/Spain border because Spanish taxis are not allowed into Gibraltar. We had to take a Gibraltar taxi to the marina.

After leaving his things in the boat we walked to the customs and declared him as an addition to Thetis’ crew. Now we can legally depart from Gibraltar.

After Manos got installed in the boat we went to the local supermarket to buy more supplies, especially things that he would like to have. Following hot showers in the marina facilities we went out to dinner. We sat at a restaurant in the main square. It was not bad but not great either and it was rather expensive.

We returned to the boat early because we wanted to depart by 0500, 3 hours after the high water. The cabin tonight, thanks to the borrowed heater, was nice and warm. Before retiring we sent various messages to our relatives and I called Alice in Washington.

Sunday January 9, 2005 Day 3

I woke up at 3 and I was too excited to go back to sleep. Manos also woke up way before the 4:30 that he had set his alarm. We prepared for what will be Thetis’ longest passage so far. First I returned the heater to S/Y Anita, then we removed the AC connection, etc.

By 0522 we were free from the land. We motored the first 5 miles, almost to the entrance of the Gibraltar/Algeciras Bay. The wind was a nice 15-25 knot easterly breeze. We raised the mainsail and opened the headsail but it blanketed the main so we rolled it back in. Following the recommended routing we hugged the Spanish coast, staying away from the heavy shipping traffic.

Everything went very nicely until we approached Tarifa. At that time the wind was gusting to over 45 knots. With some difficulty we took in two reefs, but while doing this we broke one of the plastic sail slides. After reefing, Thetis was much more comfortable and sailed well. After going W for another 6 miles we set a course of 228 to cross the shipping lanes perpendicularly. There were many large ships in this, one of the busiest channels in the world. We had to take evasive action several times. The wind was now in the upper 30s still from the E.

I tested the communications with the Iridium satellite phone. I called Nikos’ girlfriend Rozina, in Greece without any difficulty. She can receive an SMS from the Iridium but her SMS does not reach us. Nikos on the other hand can neither receive nor send an SMS to the Iridium. We tried the e-mail server via the Iridium SMS center. This worked fine. I can both send and receive short (160 characters including address and headers) e-mails with the Iridium. We agreed on a schedule. I will be sending, via e-mail, to Nikos and to my daughter Corinna our position every day at 1500 UTC and they will send us a weather forecast. Also I will be leaving the phone active from 1500 to 1700 so that we can receive any incoming telephone calls.

Soon we were clear of the shipping lanes and near the African coast. We now set a course of 256 for Punta Cina, the easternmost point of Porto Santo, the closest of the Madeira islands some 550 miles away. Thetis was making very good speed with just the reefed mainsail. Soon the wind settled down to 10-16 knots ENE and gave us a very smooth ride.

We decided to remove one reef, and while doing so to replace the broken slide. But, although I was certain that I had plenty of spare slides I could not find them. In desperation I replaced the broken slide with the lowest slide since that one gets the least strain.

Soon after we removed the reef the wind increased and changed direction, coming almost astern. While adjusting the main sheet we took an unexpected gybe. I was sitting at that time in front of the companion way. The sheet which is attached to the boom and on a traveler rail in front of where I was sitting caught me and and squeezed me to the wall. The wind was knocked out of me and Manos was rather scared. Fortunately I did not suffer any damage other then some rather sore muscles. But will have to be very careful. To avoid such gybing in the future we set a preventer line and changed our course to a less direct one. Now we were zigzagging around our course but were safe from accidental gybes. Despite this near mishap I was very thrilled to be sailing, and fast, in the Atlantic.

By 1930 we had made over 75 M. Every 3-4 hours I made an entry into the logbook of our speed, wind direction and speed, and position. The position I also marked on the paper chart. These are in addition to the electronic records kept by the GPS/Chart Plotter and on the logging page of the Navtex. So far we have passed several fishing boats.

Manos was too sleepy and tired so I kept the first watch but in the evening there was no traffic. I cooked some rice and made an omelet: Manos was not hungry. My arm and left side were very stiff and were hurting. Nevertheless I was exhilarated by the smooth and fast sailing on the ocean towards our distant landfall to let such things bother me.

Manos emerged from his cabin at 2300 and relieved me. I went into mine and fell asleep almost instantly. Later I heard Manos making lots of noise. In my half asleep state I thought that he was rearranging the cabins. Not so. It was not Manos but the wind had died and the sail was flapping.

Monday January 10, 2005 Day 4

Another noise woke me up. It was Manos, this time, knocking on my door. It was 0200, time for my watch. By that time there was no wind at all and Thetis was making less than 1 knot. Reluctantly I started the engine. Right away I noticed that the charging current produced by the alternator was substantially less than it was supposed to. The only cause of that must be that when the alternator operated for a few minutes without load in Sotogrande its Zener diodes were stressed and now at least one of them had failed. We will have to remove the alternator, open it, locate the burned diodes, and replace them from the spares. We will have to tackle this problem when we arrive in port.

We overtook a sailboat, less than a mile to our port side. Also a ship, 6 M away, crossed our bow. I listened to music on my iPod while every so often looking outside for lights and checking the radar. I was very stiff but time went by quickly despite the drone of the motor. Soon it was Manos’ turn to be on watch and I crawled back into my cabin and slept.

I woke up at 7:30 longing for a cup of coffee. I was greeted with a lovely sunrise over distant Africa. The day was much warmer than the past few days. The temperature inside the cabin reached a high of 22°C (72°F) the humidity 65% and the barometer was down to 1025 mB from the high of 1032 in Gibraltar. But still there was no wind and we continued motoring. The morning was pleasantly sunny and both of us snoozed on and off.

After lunch I took a nap. Later the wind came at 11 knots NE. We removed the reef from the mainsail and opened about 10% of the headsail, it was too heavy for more. At last we turned off the engine and sailed, albeit slowly. At least we were not expending our fuel supply this early into the passage.

I cooked a pork roast that I had bought in Gibraltar. I braised it with garlic, fresh tomatoes, tomato concentrate, and canned mushrooms. I called my wife Alice on the Iridium phone but she was out and I left a message. I sent our fix to both Nikos and Corinna. We did not receive a weather report from Nikos but Corinna sent us one. The wind will stay around 10 knots until Thursday when it will strengthen.

I made rice to go with the roast. Manos was still not eating very much. I took the first watch again. The night was beautiful. Dark, without a moon, but brilliant stars galore. No other source of light. Realization hits me that we are all alone smoothly, slowly, and silently sailing in this vast expanse of ocean. It feels that we have come from nowhere and that we are going to nowhere. The only life is us two on this small ark.

Tuesday January 11, 2005 Day 5

We sailed slowly all night. During one of my watches I thought that I saw a light a mile or so astern to our starboard side but I was not able to find it on the radar. After I looked again it was gone. The wind veered E but stayed at 10 knots. During Manos’ watch he also saw a light for one moment but then lost it. When daylight came we could not see anything.

In the afternoon we received two messages with weather information: one from Rozina and the other from Corinna. It looks that we cannot expect much of a wind. We must be very careful with our fuel. We had to start the motor again because our speed fell below 3 knots. Motor-sailing, at reduced RPM, brought our speed to better than 6 knots over ground.

Later, just like yesterday, the wind picked up and backed to NE and we were able to turn off the motor and sail with the full mainsail and the genoa fully opened. Other than that, nothing happened. We had just sea and sky. The sea was fairly calm, for the ocean, and it was very pleasant and comfortable, not cold, in the cockpit.

While I was sending messages with our position, Manos prepared a pot of lentil soup with tomato, carrots, garlic, parsley, and bay leaves. We had an early supper. Shortly after eating Manos went to sleep. I have seen nothing since that mysterious light of the early morning hours. But near midnight there was a ship going S about 2½ M to our starboard.

Wednesday January 12, 2005 Day 6

When I woke up for my 2 AM watch we were doing less than 2 knots and the apparent wind was down to 3 knots. I started the engine. The sea was calm, other than the long wavelength ocean swell. Once again it was a lovely night. Another ship, a freighter perhaps, crossed our bow about 6 M away. Not much else happened. Manos dutifully relieved me at 5 AM.

Bread for made in Thetis
Bread made in Thetis

After I woke up I prepared dough for a bread which after it had risen I baked into a loaf. This is a first for Thetis. The bread was not bad either. The day was nice and warm. The temperature inside the cabin reached 24°C (75°F), while the humidity was down to 49% and the barometer steady at 1029 mB.

After lunch we transferred 2 jerry cans of Diesel fuel to the main tank. The wind was still too low and we continued motor-sailing. At 4 PM (our local time now was the same as UTC) we turned on the Iridium phone and sent our fix. We received weather reports from both Nikos and Corinna. The forecast was substantially the same as yesterday’s: same low wind conditions for today and tomorrow with a wind increase on Friday afternoon when we may expect force 3-4 from the SW. In the meantime we passed the 400 M milestone from Gibraltar.

By the evening we were only 130 M from our destination, Porto Santo in Madeira. For dinner we boiled spaghetti and served it with the left over pork roast. After dinner I once again took the first watch. Tonight we have a new moon. A lovely sliver in the sky, setting early, ahead of us.

During my regular inspection of the engine I noticed that the water pump belt was getting loose. I turned off the engine to tighten it. With the change of sound Manos woke up and helped me. Unfortunately after we re-started the engine the belt broke and we had to shut down again to replace it. This, however, required that we first remove the two alternator belts. But after we replaced the broken belt, re-installed the alternator belts, and re-started the engine the Ah meter stopped working. Fortunately I found a loose connection in its power line and made a temporary fix. The bad thing is that once in port we will have to repeat the belt exercise before removing the alternator to replace its Zener diodes.

Thursday January 13, 2005 Day 7

Map of Madeira Archipelago with route

We were only 75 M from Porto Santo. At our present speed we should be arriving around 8 PM. Unfortunately the marina office there closes at 5. After we discussed between us the options of either to delay arrival so that we arrive during working hours tomorrow morning or to continue as we were. We decided not to slow down. We will try to contact the marina when we are close either via VHF or by the GSM mobile phone. In the worst case we may have to just anchor offshore for the night.

The morning was cloudy but still no appreciable wind. We continued motor-sailing. After lunch we siphoned the two remaining jerry cans of fuel into the main tank so that we will arrive with plenty of margin. We also ran the water-maker and replenished the 45 L of fresh water that we had consumed since we last ran it.

When we were within 30 M of Porto Santo we tried calling the marina on the VHF channels 9 and 16 but there was no response. We as yet had no GSM signal. We tried calling them, before their 5 PM closing time, on +351 291 982 577, the number given by the Atlantic Islands Cruising Guide, from the Iridium but we got a “the number you are calling does not exist” message. This was very frustrating.

I finished reading Azar Nefisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran a moving account of a dedicated English literature lady professor in post revolution Iran where the discrimination against women and religious frenzy were, and most likely still are, out of control.

We were presented once again with a lovely sunset. This time it was even more special. The sky turned completely red with the island of Porto Santo, our first ocean landfall, outlined as a dark shadow. By the time we approached Cina, the little island NE of Porto Santo, it was dark but we could see its powerful light beacon and we also had it on our radar.

We approached this unknown and mysterious destination with some trepidation. I am always nervous when approaching land, especially an unknown harbor, and especially when it is dark. This time it was even worse. Slowly we entered the harbor. Contrary to what we were led to believe from the cruising guide the small marina was far from full. We prepared fenders and lines to tie to an empty “finger” pontoon. Here they get significant tides; at this time of the year the range is over 2 m. The marina uses an ingenious system of floating docks guided by metal pillars. The dock rises and falls with the tide and the boats tied to it do not need to change the lengths of their lines nor do people have to perform acrobatic acts just to enter and exit their boats. The “finger” pontoons to which you tie your boat side-to are perpendicular to these floating docks and swivel at their base. We approached our “finger” with the bow towards the dock. Manos was at the bow with a line ready to jump to the pontoon while I slowly edged Thetis along side it. But the finger was so low, just 20 cm from the surface, that Manos could not jump from the height of the bow. He moved amidship and I made another approach. This time he did jump with the line and held Thetis in place, but our fenders were now set too high. I too jumped to the pontoon with a line from the stern. I tied both lines while Manos fended off. I then adjusted the fenders and tied several spring lines and moved one fender to the bow.

Sunset over Porto Santo
Sunset over Porto Santo

We were in Porto Santo [33° 03.6' N 16° 18.8' W], Madeira! The time was 2050. We had come 574.8 M from Gibraltar. This was the longest distance that both Thetis and her master had ever sailed. We were both elated.

While underway Manos had prudently prepared a tray of potatoes with garlic and baked it in the oven. Now it was emanating wonderful smells reminding us that it was way past our usual dinner time. We warmed the last of the pork roast and, along with a nice bottle of red wine, had a celebratory dinner inside the cabin. We also sent several messages to our families advising of our safe arrival.

The Beach in Porto Santo
The Beach in Porto Santo
Courtesy of Manos Castrinakis