14 July 2018 – Crossing the Blue Desert

Mindelo (CPV) – Salvador de Bahía (BRA)

“Your turn, nothing to report!” Floris wakes up Ivar at 4 in the morning. It’s the first night of our Atlantic Ocean crossing and Floris can hardly keep his eyes open. “The first night is always the worst”, Ivar sighs while rubbing his eyes. A few minutes later, he is in the cockpit. To reassure Floris, who has crept onto the couch for some much-needed sleep, Ivar snaps the carabiner of his lifeline and attaches himself to the boat.

After a quick look at the sails, the stable rhythm of the approaching waves behind Herbie – our windvane autopilot – and the dark emptiness surrounding the boat, he checks the screen of the plotter. There are no other ships around, and Brazil doesn’t even look very far away when he zooms out. Of course, on that scale we are still very close to Mindelo. He grabs the iPad. A couple of episodes of “Troy” will keep him company until sunrise in a few hours.

Weather and Wind
While anchored in Mindelo, we studied the grib files, the weather charts and the hurricane forecasts for the next week. The grib files showed a reassuringly stable picture: northeastern trade winds for the first part and southeasterly trade winds for the last. The area in-between – known as the notorious doldrums – was forecast to have variable winds or no wind at all. With a stretch of around 400 nm of light winds, this area would present a significant challenge for us as we want to keep the use of our engine to a minimum.

The weather charts show tropical waves, which are front lines with thunderstorms that pass over the doldrums from east to west. As we will pass the doldrums from north to south, we won’t be able to avoid a passing tropical wave, so we’ll just have to deal with the circumstances there and then. We also look at a chart of historical paths of hurricanes that we obtain from NOAA. It tells us that hurricanes are very rare this time of year in our cruising area.

Finally, we read blogs by other sailors who sailed the same route. They are not particularly reassuring. Many motored through the doldrums for many days, and got hit by heavy squalls. We wonder: how will we fare on our 2,000nm passage from Cape Verde to our planned destination – the Brazilian town of Salvador de Bahía?

Sector North East
“If this is how it’s going to be, I don’t see what the fuss is all about” Floris says with a smile over breakfast in the morning. Our first two days are going splendidly. Although the wind got accelerated between the Cape Verdian islands, on the open ocean a light north-easterly trade wind takes over. When the mainsail and genua start to flap due to the swell, it’s time to hoist the gennaker. Thanks to its light fabric, a few knots of wind are sufficient to fill up the sail and provide a constant force, pushing Luci forward and reducing her rolling. It makes life on board very comfortable. While we move southward with around 6 knots, we can read, write and cook without having to hold on to something for support or getting seasick.

The sky is still grey, but the sun shines through openings in the cloud cover every now and then. The rays are burning on our heads, so we put up the bimini to stay in the shade. And it’s not just us who are feeling the higher temperatures. Our fridge is working harder than ever before. As the ocean gets warmer, too, the fresh water in our tank is taking over the warmth from the other side of the hull.

In this vast blue desert, we don’t see any ships, buoys or other man-made structures. Just water and waves. Only occasional boobies and flying fish offer some entertainment. Without any distractions, we focus on writing and reading.

After three days of the same wind, weather and view, we almost get a bit bored. “We’re lucky to have perfect circumstances and no worries,” Ivar assesses. Yet when we check the weather prediction via our satellite phone, we see the inevitable: we are about to enter the doldrums. Over the course of the day, the wind dies, slowing the boat down and allowing the swell to rock the boat. The gennaker gets tossed around, so we take it down and just float. How long before we can sail again?

Drifting in the Doldrums?
Suddenly, during the night, a light northerly breeze appears. It offers just enough wind for the gennaker to push Luci forward again. Over the course of the day, however, a heavy rain shower coming out of dark cloud columns hits us. There is still enough wind to sail and, fortunately, the wind only slightly increases. We haven’t felt any rain in months and welcome its cleaning effect on Luci. Salt and Sahara dust are washed away in minutes! We also enjoy this treat of fresh water and take a shower on deck.

More showers follow, bringing lots of rain but no gusty winds. During Ivar’s watch in the middle of the night, another shower passes. Suddenly the gennaker drops down and overboard. “I could use some help here!” Ivar shouts to Floris, who has just laid down to sleep. The gennaker is in the water, but still attached to our boat with the clew and the sheet. Together we pull it back on deck. Luckily, the gennaker is still in one piece; as it turns out later a broken shackle seems to be the cause. To sail again we roll out the genoa.

In the morning, the wind dies completely. With clear blue skies and a flat ocean, it feels like we are drifting on a big lake. With no sails, our patience is being tested when we move only 28nm in 24 hours, mostly due to a favorable sea current. When we consult the grib files again, the forecast doesn’t look promising. Five days of no wind are predicted. We see no other way but to turn on the engine and motor our way out. “As soon as there is just the slightest bit of wind, we’ll try to sail again!” Ivar instructs.

Some 20 hours later, the weather defies the forecast. The wind and showers are back. Could this be the influence of the tropical wave that the weather chart showed? Some showers bring wind gusts op to 30 knots and we reef and unreef the sails frequently. At some point Floris looks at the GPS and looks surprised. “Hey, we’re sailing north!” Ivar looks up from his book. “You’re right! But…Herbie still steers a beam reach course?” It takes a moment for us to realize that the wind has completely changed direction due to a shower. Herbie, loyal as always in keeping our boat at a constant angle to the wind, is now steering us in the completely wrong direction. “Time to gybe!” Ivar decides. Despite the wind constantly changing direction and speed and keeping us busy, we are happy to sail again.

Sector South East
A few days later the wind direction changes yet again and seems to settle on south. We hoist all sails to sail close to the wind. Does this mean we are out of the doldrums and under the influence of the southern wind systems? Over the course of the next days, our suspicion is confirmed when the wind becomes southeast and steadier. We have reached the southeast trade winds! On a close reach course, we’re sailing considerably faster than before and set a new 24-hrs distance record on this trip with 176nm.

Just after noon on our 12thday at sea we are watching our GPS screen, as we are about to cross the equator. When the last few digits of northern latitude tick away, we look around us into the blue desert. There is only the endless ocean swell, completely unmoved by this artificial boundary. If it weren’t for our GPS, which has already started showing the increasing digits of southern latitude, there would have been no way of knowing that we have passed this milestone. Outside the appearance of Neptune that is, who surprises Floris with a brief visit.

The southern hemisphere welcomes us with sunny spells and the showers disappear. Apart from oranges, onions and potatoes, we have reached the end of our fresh fruit and vegetable supply. Luckily, our fishing efforts are finally paying off. We catch two fish at the same time and feast on them that evening. We’re not sure whether we caught sea bream or jacks, but they taste delicious!

And then, after a little over 13 days at sea, we reach Fernando de Noronha, an archipelago some 200 nm off the Brazilian coast. It’s the middle of the night when we get to the anchorage, so Floris is standing at the bow with a torch to look for unlit buoys and moored boats. We cautiously manoeuver our way to a suitable spot for anchoring, at a safe distance from the other boats and the shore. The anchor holds immediately and although it’s a bit rolly due to the incoming swell, we soon fall asleep.

An Oasis in the Desert
After sunrise we wake up to a blissful panorama. The island is covered in green, its lush vegetation reaching from the top of its landmark Morro do Pico all the way to the golden beaches. Birds – boobies, magnificent frigate birds and others – surround the boat. “Dolphins are swimming underneath the boat!” Ivar rejoices. “This is paradise!” Floris sums up our feelings. Over breakfast we let the beauty of the island sink in. We kayak to the shore and spot a turtle close to the beach. It dives even before we try to approach it, but the sight of it makes us smile.

We walk up to a wooden house overlooking the beach and anchorage and find Marcos. He is in charge of clearing us in. Floris’s Portuguese lessons come in handy, as Marcos speaks no English. We understand that the fees for anchoring and visiting the island are very steep, so decide to limit our stay to two days. While we fill in various forms, Marcos makes some calls. Fifteen minutes later, his small office is filled with six more people. Immigration officials and park rangers inspect our passports and have us fill in more forms. It’s seems a bit over the top, but we are happy that we can arrange it all in one place. Marcos even offers to lend us money for the bus to town, so we can get local currency from the ATM.

Instead of waiting for the bus, we decide to walk and enjoy the scenery. Four-by-four beach buggies pass us, the preferred means of transport of the Brazilian tourists, it seems. On top of the hill we reach a town and find supermarkets and an ATM. After getting our hands on some Reais, our hike continues to the edge of the national park. We don’t have a permit to enter it, but suspect that the area outside it has enough to offer. The first lookout confirms this. Two unspoiled golden beaches on either side of a rock we climb take our breath away. Seldom have we seen such idyllic yet deserted beaches. We quickly make our way down and hit the waves on the Praia do Americano. It’s turbulent, as the swell is quite considerable, but we enjoy it like children. The many palm trees carrying loads of coconuts complete our picture of paradise. “This place feels like an oasis in the middle of a blue desert,” Ivar summarizes what we both think.

Via the coastline we hike back to the village and stock up on fresh produce. Just as we come out of the supermarket, we can jump on a bus back to the port. Rain starts falling as we pay Marcos the anchorage fees and environmental taxes, but we decide to paddle back to Luci instead of waiting for it to pass. “It must rain here quite a lot, that’s why it’s so green here,” Ivar reasons. He is proven right the next morning, when we wake up to the sound of rain. Our tropical paradise is showing a different, less picturesque side. Nevertheless, we jump in for our morning swim, only to be greeted by a pod of small dolphins! While we float motionless, they pass by us, not the least concerned by our presence. Only one of them swims a circle around us before joining the group again. The encounter is magical. It’s a wonderful feeling to share the ocean with such magnificent creatures. While we dry off on the boat, some of them jump out of the water, performing high-speed pirouettes in the air. This trademark behavior has earned them their name, spinner dolphins.

In-between showers we hike to a beach that looks ideal for snorkeling. Yet heavy showers thwart our plans, so we seek shelter in a beach restaurant. We enjoy a tasty lunch while waiting for it to get dry again. When it finally does, it’s time to head to the kayak. We almost make it back dry and treat ourselves to a coconut drink. In the shelter of the beach umbrellas we meet two Brazilians and exchange phone numbers. Will we see Lucas and Victor again in Rio, their hometown?

Back into the Blue Desert
Early the next morning we hoist the anchor under grey skies and with showers approaching. “Staying an extra day would have been a waste of money,” Floris declares. Soon after we round its western cape, Fernando de Noronha disappears in the clouds behind us. All day the weather is unstable, and the next day the south easterly wind becomes stronger. Despite the grey skies and heavy rains, we are making great progress towards Salvador de Bahía, some 700 nm southwest. After three days the weather improves. Under a blue sky, the wind becomes less strong and veers easterly. A much calmer sea immediately makes life much more comfortable on board. Our speed remains high, some 7 knots, and although we are getting closer to the coast, we only see a few other ships a day. The circumstances remain ideal for the rest of our passage and make our final leg through the blue desert a very relaxing trip.

Our fishing fortunes are also turning. While Floris is pulling in the line as night falls, it gets pulled back with force. “Ivar, get the vodka, I’ve caught something!” Ivar obliges and also has our hook and net ready. Pulling the line in goes smoothly and as the fish gets next to the boat, we see that we have our biggest fish yet on the hook. “It’s a tuna, for sure!” Ivar exclaims in excitement. He manages to land it and holds it still while Floris pours some vodka into the fish’s gills. It calms down and “peacefully” ascends to fish heaven minutes later. What a catch! Ivar serves tuna steak within the next hour, as fresh as it can get. After a delicious meal, we both look forward to the rest of the tuna steaks that have completely filled our small freezer compartment.

Welcomed by Whales
Our final treat just before reaching Salvador de Bahía fulfills a wish we’ve had since we started our trip. A whale, a few hundred meters away, jumps out of the water and lands on its back. It keeps on broachingand Floris manages to capture it on film. Exalted, we turn towards the city. Its high-rise buildings give it a Manhattan-style look and we wonder what awaits us in this large city, with its 3.5 million inhabitants the fourth in population in Brazil. After three weeks of sailing, reaching our destination feels like an achievement. At the same time, we didn’t know what to expect before we set off on our passage and it went more smoothly than we could have hoped for. As we dock at the pontoon of Terminal Nautico, in view of the city’s famous elevator that connects the port area to the old town, reality sets in: we’ve crossed the blue desert!

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2 Comments

  1. Nico van der Wel

    Bedankt voor dit prachtige verslag van jullie ‘grote oversteek’ naar Brazilië! Ik heb het vandaag ook weer met plezier gedeeld in de Groep Duurzaam Nederland. We zijn blij dat jullie zonder al te grote problemen gezond en wel ‘de overkant hebben gehaald’ en kijken uit naar jullie ervaringen in Brazilië en de rest van Zuid-Amerika 🙂

  2. Anouk

    Fijn dat de oversteek goed is gegaan! En wat een mooie foto’s en verhalen, veel succes op jullie volgende continent!

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