Dad’s 80th birthday party – fleeting trip to UK.
Whilst the “Bird” enjoys her cruise west, I shall nip back home to join the girls. I will need to blitz the garden, gutters, general maintenance, Dad’s 80th birthday party.... and then get out to the Virgin Islands in time to meet the ship.
Well, that all went to plan. Here is a piece on "the shipping experience" which I'm hoping to refine and publish in a yachting mag.....
As usual though, I'm juggling available Wi-Fi, child care and not being too dull for my long-suffering wife. So this is something I prepared earlier!
Shipping the Atlantic
An alternative way of getting your cruiser to some winter sunshine.
I’ve sailed the Atlantic a number of times on someone else’s payroll. It was fun in many ways, but also I was single then, and had no children. Currently however, I am cruising with my wife and small child, neither of whom enjoys long passages. Also, we have given ourselves a sabbatical of just three years, so long periods at sea are to be avoided. It’s the lifestyle we’re here for, not sailing for sailing’s sake. Finally the cost of sailing from our East Med cruising area to, say the Virgin islands would be very high in terms of crew, fuel, maintenance, repairs, wear and tear - but most of all time - spent on passage and in refit afterwards.
We had accepted a competitive shipping quote from “Peters and May” and paid the full cost in June. Thus we were committed. We were to join the ship in Palma Mallorca for transit to St. Thomas in the USVI. It felt like ages before we were given a shipping date, but we understand that that’s just a fact of life in the shipping game. It was at the beginning of August that we were finally advised the yacht needed to be in Palma for October 20th. Now we were able to start booking flights home from Greece for the girls, and a crew for the delivery from Greece to Palma.
It should be remembered that at the end of the season, flight costs can escalate as the charter flights thin out, but also with I suppose the vast numbers of Brits coming home from seasonal jobs etc. Therefore it’s wise to book early, but this is hard to do with fluctuating dates coming from the shippers.
The original date given slipped fairly early to the 26th, and after that there seemed to be updates every few days. By now though, we had already booked the flights for the girls and also for the delivery crew to join me in Greece for October 9th. My crew were friends who’d kindly given up a week of their annual leave to help me. It wouldn’t have been reasonable to change these dates then. (Theoretically of course I could have done the 900 miles solo as there are plenty of anchorages en route where I could have rested.) In the event we completed the passage in exactly seven days.
The shippers kept in touch fairly well by email, but it was disappointing to see the date slip ultimately to November 5th. I had arrived in Palma nearly three full weeks before the ship finally turned up. I spent a few luxurious nights in Real Club Nautico marina, and indeed a couple of days on the hard with an unexpected prop shaft complication, but the rest of the time was spent rolling uncomfortably to anchor off Palma Nova. Certainly there are better anchorages, but being alone I wanted easy access to the shore. Our RIB had been laid-up and stowed while I had two burly blokes to help, so I wanted to make do with the tiny inflatable. That meant being close to the shore where I could find the necessities of life, plus busses to the city where many of my old friends still live.
The holding there is also shockingly poor. I was OK with two large hooks out the front and a smaller one at the back to try and keep me head to the swell. Some days though I couldn’t leave the boat.
Luckily I have plenty of friends in Palma, so although I was missing the girls terribly, at least I wasn’t too lonely on the days when I could get ashore. I mention this, as a major factor in deciding to ship the boat was that Penny and I didn’t want to spend too long apart from each other. There’s a practical as well as sentimental side to this of course; it’s far more costly to live separate lives!
Peters and May had provided good literature about what to expect on the day. Essentially the deck needs to be winterised – sails, running rigging and all canopies etc to be removed. The masts however remain standing, although the back stay has to be undone for the lift at each end. I’d not have chosen any option which would have required removal of the rig. I should also mention that in my charter-skipper years, I had participated in delivering yachts to a ship in the Med as well as unloading at the other end, so I had some built-in confidence for the scheme.
We’d been given the name of the cargo ship, Spiegelgracht, and I anxiously followed her online with “Marine Traffic” as she made her way to the first pick-up port, Genoa, and then the excitement grew as she finally set sail for Palma. I picked her up on my own AIS and then finally there she was on the horizon! I weighed anchor and made my way back to Club Nautico marina for my last night in the Med. I felt I deserved this luxury, but I also had to collect my repaired Genoa and also reasoned that my aging house battery could do with a good overnight charge before being isolated for a week. I was glad I did this. Shortly after tying up the most horrendous storm hit the coast. I would have been very miserable had I still been at anchor. But now there was yet another delay. The agent called to say that the storm had delayed loading, and my 8am slot the following morning had moved to 11am. With my homeward flight leaving at 4pm, I started to get nervous. However, the morning went well, and I was actually glad of the extra time to make the boat ready.
Spiegelgracht had to turn around on her wharf before I could come and load on her starboard side, and just before 11am I saw the tugs in attendance across the harbour. At 11.15am I slipped my lines and went over to the commercial area. Then at about 11.30am a work boat came alongside and deposited a team of riggers (and a diver) on board and I was directed to manoeuvre alongside the ship. They were very professional; not at all pushy and very friendly. We collected lines sent down from the cargo deck way above us, undid the mainmast backstay and the slings were craned into position overhead. The diver went in to see the slings were correctly placed and then suddenly we were on our way up! My last action was to close the seacocks so as not to get too much air into the engines’ cooling systems. (A debatable benefit, especially as in all the excitement at the other end I nearly forgot to open them again!)
Wild Bird was in her cradle and strapped down by 13.00. I locked her up and left as the cradle’s chocks were being welded to the deck. The agent kindly gave me a lift to the airport and I caught my flight with plenty of time to spare.
Predictably my week at home was a frantic one. Our flights to the Caribbean were now confirmed for Sunday 13th which we now realised was going to get us there several days early. However we preferred it that way rather than arrive at the last minute having fretted about the ship arriving with nobody there to collect our yacht. We stayed in an agreeable B&B in St Thomas where we began to acclimatise. However there was a sense of the surreal which peaked when Spiegelgracht docked and there were our masts visibly poking up into the tropical skies.
The ship was docked on a massive double wharf opposite a huge cruise ship. The agent phoned to say we were unloading at 13.00, but we couldn’t keep ourselves from sneaking a peak. “Stop! Back behind the line” commanded a stern uniformed security guard as we tried to enter the dock area. She was used to admitting cruise ship passengers, and they in turn are used to showing their security tags at the gate. The situation finally became clear to her and we were allowed to walk alongside the Spiegelgracht. Eventually, and not without some more earnest diplomacy I was allowed aboard to prepare for launch. The previous day we had made good use of a rental car and had a mountain of provisions stacked up in an office at nearby Crown Bay Marina. The staff there had been simply magnificent to us, but at 5pm the office would close, so we HAD to be at their fuel jetty by 4pm. There was some final kerfuffle as the crew for a very large yacht which was technically in our way had failed to show up. Luckily for us the loading master agreed to launch us off the other side which meant the crew had to drop the ship’s head ropes to allow us out once we were afloat.
There is no simple, stress-free solution to crossing the Atlantic. Whilst shipping had its own headaches, it was far less stressful than sailing across. When we finally got aboard the Bird in the tropics, it was a spooky experience to find her just as I’d left her, (albeit with a smelly fridge!).
If you have fully flexibly crew who will pay their own flights and expenses; if you have fair winds and an open ended future then sailing across may be more cost effective. Also, the Atlantic Crossing gives every sailor a little feather in the cap and may even be your long held dream. Fine, sail across.
At less than £10,000 for a 40ft yacht it’s much less money than we expected. I haven’t done a detailed cost analysis; it wasn’t necessary for me as the practical advantages far outweighed the disadvantages. Also it’s a very emotive topic, so ultimately it’s your heart that may decide!
We're currently at anchor off Red Hook, St Thomas. The sails are bent on, we've bought enough provisions to last for eternity or beyond, and we're full of fuel. I could wish for more fresh water, but that's nearly as much as Diesel, so we're eking it out in the hope of finding a cheaper source.
It's curious to see Christmas decorations abounding in the shopping malls etc. Curious because of course it feels so summer-like. Happily the seasonal bombardment feels much less acute here, but that's maybe due to the lack of telly more than anything else. Santa has been tipped off that Libby will be in the Virgin Islands for Christmas and we're hoping he remembers.
Already met some very nice people, and also endured some equally traditional American bull-headed bureaucracy. On balance though, all is very well, and the good definitely outweighs the bad.
We were dogged by more generator problems - still with the raw-water pump. The cheap impeller proved an unwise investment having shed a vane after just over a hundred hours. Strangely, shortly after fitting a replacement the mechanical seal failed in a big way. Happily a very nice chap at the back of Crown Bay Marina wielded hammers and other unlikely implements and fixed it for just $50 - on a Sunday too. I liked him; he reminded me of me. His enormous workshop was a complete pickle, and he improvised to get the job done in a somewhat unorthodox yet effective manner.
Opposite St Thomas is "Water Island". Just a short hop across the water and you find complete tranquility and gorgeous beeches. Poor Libby got bitten on the bum by a pit-bull terrier which spoiled the tranquility somewhat. The dog's owner - a bit of a tramp I suspect - made off in double quick time. I missed the whole episode as I was off snorkeling, and by the time I got back it was all over.