A brush with Border Technology

Antigua sunset

I stumbled into the immigration office, winded, with a neat line of new rowing blisters along each palm.  The line was long.  

Having somewhat unintentionally ignored most of the borders in Europe, I realized it had been quite some time since I’d formally cleared a boat into or out of a country.   Who knew what sorts of technological miracles had descended from heaven since 2012?

Antigua had charged into the 21st century with an integrated electronic recreational vessel clearance and control system (IERCCS, or something) consisting of a geriatric PC running Windows 98–the kind that pauses for the hard drive to spin up whenever you try to move the mouse.  

Landfall celebration

The idea was for each skipper to enter the voyage particulars with great, exaggerated slowness (so as not to overtax the processor), lose his progress a half-dozen times due to Internet Explorer crashes (there was no save button), and then click submit (only once, damn it!)  The staff then immediately print everything out, make six copies, and do the usual stamp dance as the skipper carries the thickening pile of dead trees between four different office windows.

I entered all my information and tried to clear out for St Maartin.  After I clicked ‘submit’, the immigration lady became quite riled by my declaration that I had three crew aboard.  Baby Dean was, she lectured, much too young to be crew. In a fit of agitation, she tore up all my printouts; we had to change his status to ‘passenger’ but somehow the offending designation had propagated through sixteen different highly secure government databases and was harder to kill than a roach infestation.  I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was until I saw the bill: changing Dean’s status meant he was subject to the same departure taxes and fees as any other cruise ship passenger. As far as I could see, I’d just been hit with a $55 baby tax.

I suggested–as a joke!–that perhaps it would be easier if I left the baby with her for a few years, while I sailed over to St. Maartin?  Neither immigration lady nor Kara found me amusing.

Thats not food, Dean.

Overboard with the damned Outboard

The honeymoon period of a landfall would last a lot longer if it wasn’t for the damned paperwork.  And blowing up the dinghy. But mostly, it was this cursed outboard.

Sentijn had come with a small inflatable.  I’d tried rowing it back in the Netherlands and it was like paddling a birthday balloon.  The stubby little oars barely even reached the water. By whirling the pathetic blades in short, splashy little circles I could reduce leeward drift, but progress to windward was impossible.  Kara had been haunted by nightmares of me windmilling the oars we blew out into the North Sea while newborn Dean cried out for his bottle of milk and shivered in her arms.

So, we’d gone to the local chandlery, laid a stack of bills on the counter, and let them talk us into the latest and greatest three horse-power outboard motor.  They were thrilled.

What I hadn’t realized was that regulations had outlawed the venerable two-stroke engine for marine use both in the E.U. and U.S.  The technology had been deemed dirty and archaic. While millions of people all over the world started up their mass-produced, simple and inexpensive two-cycle leaf blowers, weed-eaters, and chainsaws, outboard motor manufacturers had been forced to take the much more complex carbureted four stroke engine–such as you might find in a Chevy Camaro–and shrink it down to three horsepower.  

The result was what I’d purchased: a wildly expensive fifty-pound monstrosity with microscopic little bits and pieces that clogged, snapped, and seized at the slightest excuse.  I’d had that carburetor apart a dozen times in a half-dozen countries since we’d bought it. I even started carrying a spare carburetor.

It seemed that the stupid little mongrel was exceptionally picky about fuel quality and age.  This was terrible; we went to all sorts of places where fuel was scarce and so the motor was constantly broken, and always in exactly the locales where it needed to be most reliable: the boonies of west-coast Ireland or on Middle-of-Nowhere Island in Scotland.  In talking to other four-stroke victims, they said that constantly exchanging old fuel for new was now a fact of life.  

A typical outboard failure location

I always asked what they did with whatever fuel they couldn’t use in a couple of weeks because, back in England, I’d called the hazmat disposal hotline.  They answered promptly and were happy to pick up my gallon of old petrol in three to six months for just three easy payments of 29.95.  

Other sailors–in an ashamed and conspiratorial whisper–confirmed that it is difficult to dispose of; there were really just four options.  The best was to give it to someone with a two-stroke outboard.  

Second, sail to a civilized harbor and find a car.  Cars are fuel-injected and burn older fuel without complaint but, unfortunately, most vehicles nowadays have secure fuel doors to prevent thieves from syphoning fuel out.  Ironically, this meant that we couldn’t ‘donate’ fuel to unattended cars in the harbor parking lot either. Rather we should strap the baby into his carrier and hike to the nearest road, flagging down traffic until we could convince someone to let us top up their tank.  A bit like reverse hitchhiking.

Searching for cars on an island off the coast of Ireland

Third was to burn it somehow, but without exploding either myself, the boat, the wife, or–most importantly, I’d been firmly instructed–the baby.  Or the forest. Or any nearby houses.

Fourth, pour it out on a hot day and let it evaporate–preferably in a parking lot so it doesn’t seep into the groundwater.  Or, in a pinch, pour it overboard at sea; it’s lighter than water and should eventually evaporate…kind of…mostly.  

One of the last things I’d done in the Canaries, just minutes before departure, was run all of the fuel out of the outboard (which was buzzing contentedly, at the time). Then, I’d stormed straight past the harbor’s fuel dock (not enough turnover) and trudged two miles into town where there was a service station. Much to the attendant’s amusement, I purchased a half-second squirt of fuel.  

Now after almost a month in a jug on deck, I tricked my little puddle of gasoline into the motor for the upwind trip to the immigration office. The damned thing wasn’t having it.  I tried all my tricks. Then I pulled the starter cord until I cried.  

I failed my way towards the customs office with my stunted little oar stubs in full row-of-shame regalia: failed outboard kicked up jauntily, cowling off, eyes downcast, back slumped, spirit broken.  As I worked my way through the anchorage, crabbing between wind shadows of the superyachts, a series of oft-patched, sun-cracked inflatables whizzed past. Their motors were well-used, the paint long gone from aluminum castings and the plastic cowlings were cracked and patched with rough epoxy.  Most had tiller extensions made of sanitary hose or PVC pipe rammed over the tiller and held in place with a rusty hose clamp. They called out troubleshooting tips. Had I forgotten to put the key in? Did you forget fuel, buddy? 

I stared back, mouth agape.  These people were flashing past like gods on chariots, hair splendidly adrift, cold beers foaming over, engines purring, and their only advice on engine trouble was putting in fuel?  How was this possible? Didn’t they pack extra spark plugs, three types of screwdriver, a socket set, and a spare carburetor or two whenever they left the mothership?

Dingy dock.

One particularly friendly couple stopped beside me to chat.  As their dinghy settled down off a plane, they glanced at my motor and I saw a slight tightening around the eyes.  It said, “Oh…no wonder.”  

What I needed to do, they instructed, was sail directly to Dutch Saint Martin where everything was duty free and laws were not so important.  Once there, I should walk to the far side of town (you’ll never make it through the lagoon in that dingy, son), and buy a two-stroke outboard.  Do it soon; don’t wait.

(Almost) All Downhill

Mysterious shape rising.

We’d run into a whale once before, and that had been a whole lot more traumatic.  This time, it was a beautiful clear day with a benign 15 knots of wind. We bumped like two distracted people on the sidewalk.  If Sentijn and the whale were speaking, the conversation probably went something like this: 

“Oh deary me; so sorry!  Didn’t see you there, mate.”  

“Nonsense, the fault was entirely mine.  A thousand apologies!”

“No trouble ‘t all.  Please, after you.”

“No, I insist: after you.”

This time, the whale was moving in the same direction, at the same speed.  It came up from deep, surfaced directly under the bow, and Sentijn lifted for a moment before she slid off and settled back.  The whale was startled, thrashed for a moment, and then paced alongside. We waved, the whale saluted with a spout, and dove. We didn’t see him again.

Sarah and I split the nightwatch, but there wasn’t any traffic and sail changes were predictable and rare, with the occasional 30-knot spells forecast by approaching thunderheads.  As we closed with the Caribbean, the evenings became increasingly squally. A reef or two in the main before nightfall was called for, and although it cost us a half knot of speed we were still logging 160+ miles a day and our position bounded across the chart in regular and healthy inch-wide increments.  

We retired the clogged fishing line as we cut through the first thick bands of Sargassum weed.  Dean found a dead flying fish on deck, baby-signed that he loved it for ever and ever, clutching it to his chest.  He was not permitted to bring it into his bunk for nap and when he woke, Kara explained that Fishy had had to go back home to his mummy, but he’d probably return in the morning.


Antigua rose over the horizon in a grey, blustery dawn and we registered the first Caribbean traffic: an AIS target predictably labeled Club Med IV.  The approach to English Harbor was an easy run down the south coast and a friendly deepwater reach into a well marked-channel.  This time, the good holding sand was almost everywhere and soon we were swinging to the anchor, unashamedly drinking beer at dawn, and sniffing the strange scents of fresh water, woodsmoke, and wet soil.  

Finally, an easy passage: twenty good, simple, wholesome days at sea.

The jib comes off the pole for the first time in 20 days.


With cousin Sarah aboard, we were almost back up to double-handed capacity and life felt about ten times easier.  We had a sprightly sail down to Fuerte Ventura, spent a week surfing around the base of a volcano, and then staged for final departure at the sleepy town of Gran Tarajal.  Final supplies were hastily loaded, we topped off the water tanks, and wiped down the underwater hull. The weather forecast was excellent.

It took a long time to clear the wind shadow of the Canaries, but after a day of slow progress we settled into a fast wing-and-wing run due south.  Sentijn loved it; she really wanted to go straight, and to go fast.  When the wind piped up and I started to get antsy, instead of trying to broach (as our previous boat liked to do), Sentijn just seemed to snuggle down into the water like a mother hen settling onto her eggs for the night.

Dean wasn’t seasick, but it was hard to say exactly why.  First, we’d filled him to the gills with anti-nausea medication (wonderful side effects include: drowsiness!)  Both his wrists were stacked with magic magnetic bands and acupressure actuator bracelets. We force-fed him Ayurvedic ginger tea, homeopathic ginger tincture, and plain old organic free-range sustainably-harvested shade-grown carbon-neutral dried ginger that Sarah brought from the grandmothers.  We also didn’t give him much to eat, fearing that anything we deposited might return to haunt us. Plus, the sea was small and playful.  

We started to find flying fish on deck each morning.  When the butter melted, the wind veered from north to northeast to east and the steering vane followed automatically, tracing the trade winds to the Caribbean.

Despite the lack of vomit, the baby decided that the world on deck was awfully big, indifferent, windy, and a little scary.  Instead, he’d explore every nook of the interior. It wasn’t until day 9 that he discovered the bilge sump, much to Kara’s horror.  The more she forbid him to climb down between Sentijn’s frames, the more this dark and mystical place fascinated. There was dust to play in, pipes to swing on, hoses to wrestle with, flaking toxic zinc-chromate paint to eat and–what’s this?  The high water alarm switch!

Usually, if the high water alarm sounds, we’ve got serious problems: water flooding in, sinking, perhaps the need to abandon ship and face possible death due to dehydration, exposure, starvation, etc.  It was triggered by a float switch–easily actuated by 1-year-olds crawling about in under the floorboards–that caused a screech designed to wake the dead. Dean decided that setting it off was great fun, particularly as I always sprang out of my bunk and slammed my head in the process.  

Eventually I became desensitized to it, and when Kara woke me with the alarm sounding, I thought nothing of it.  But she confirmed that, yes, this time, the boat was actually filling with water. Furthermore, the bilge pump wasn’t working.

With all hands attending an emergency conference, we determined that a) Dean had been exploring the engine bay that morning, and b) the alarm had sounded shortly after.  Suspicious! Maybe even sabotage! I shot Dean an accusing glare, and he vroom-vroomed his tractor over my foot.

After an hour of head scratching–during which the water level continued to rise–we determined that Dean had been adjusting valves on the raw water intake manifold.  Furthermore, he’d stumbled upon an improbable combination of settings that, if actuated at precisely the correct time in the boat’s roll, in exactly the right order, could not only start a dangerous back-syphon between the engine’s seawater intake and the bilge pump pickup, but also disable the primary pumps.  I calculated the odds of this to be significantly longer than the 64:1 indicated by binary valve positioning probabilities alone. I cast another suspicious, penetrating glance at Dean. He smiled back and signed that now he’d like to go on a dinghy ride to Boom Boom Beach.  

We were 1,200 miles from land. 

A Hard Look

I’d slept for what felt like days.  Kara and Dean were arriving shortly, and I was still huddled at the base of a remote volcano on the wrong island.  So after a twenty-tack beat out the narrow channel between Graciosa and Lanzarote and a spirited reach down the East coast, Sentijn wafted into the ostensibly illegal anchorage at Arrecife and I dropped the anchor.  There was physical room for a dozen boats, but the only patch of good anchoring sand was smaller than a tennis court.

I wasn’t on it. When I dove the anchor its tip was precariously perched on a nub of dead coral. I swam down and gave it a tentative nudge.  The anchor started racing along the coral, leaving a wake of overturned rubble. By the time I caught up to the boat and used my noodle-arms to haul myself aboard, the rudder was grinding into a pile of boulders. But the ol’ beast started right up, rust and all, and I struggled upwind, alternately manning the helm and the windlass.  The temp gauge was climbing vigorously, but this time when I scrambled forward to drop the anchor, we caught a corner of the sand patch. I sighed in relief.  

My calculations, in this case, had been completely misleading.  Singlehanding was a whole helluva lot more than twice as difficult as double handing.  Huh.

Kara and Dean arrived after long wandering.  They’d made the rounds with the remaining boats in the Portimao anchorage.  They’d stayed a few nights with cousins Anthony & Cordell, who were visiting Portugal and had an extra bed-shaped section of tile floor in their hotel.  They gave Dean the bed, and they complained about it not one bit, which I found perplexing. Then, Kara and Dean stayed a night on a farm on Gran Canaria.  They wandered toy stores, gift shops, and playgrounds across two countries.

Basically, Kara had been faced with a one-year old baby in a pair of countries in which she spoke neither language.  She had no reservations, no plan, and almost no supplies. Her mission: maintain sanity for the difference between the five days I needed to sail Sentijn to the Canaries, and the two hours that the airplane needed to fly there.  Dean’s fever had peaked shortly after I’d sailed off, and then subsided over the next few days.

She arrived looking like a single hander after a long, trying, but ultimately successful passage.  I felt much the same, but less successful. Dean was mischievous, excited, and full of energy–but that was no problem.  The Spanish knew exactly what we needed, and where we needed it: a playground, on the waterfront, overlooking the anchorage, with a corner devoted to a kiosk-shaped bar expressly designed for haggard, exhausted parents.  Brilliant!

Rig Check

It was clear that we could not go on this way.  Sailing offshore with the baby was hard in all sorts of ways I’d never imagined.  Sailing alone was even worse. Our difficulties were two-fold: unforeseen medical concerns, and a dire watchkeeper/babysitter shortage.  To address the former, I emailed Dr Forman back in the U.K. He was a friend, a medical doctor, and an accomplished solo sailor who’d crossed the Atlantic twice and survived a devastating lightning strike along the way.  He’d managed to repair the most critical of his melted electronics using cannibalized diodes, a roll of duct tape, a section of fishing pole, two paper clips, a cup of Bovril, and a stiff upper lip—the latter being most useful for overcoming injuries sustained in the strike.  I could imagine him, in true single hander style, as he gave the barest sigh of discomfort before rolling over in his bunk, hair still smoking from the strike, to catch up on sleep.

It was good news; according to Doc, if there was anywhere left in the first world where the cover-your-ass mentality had not reached the medical field, it was here.  There was a good chance we could come up with prescription-strength and hospital-grade medical supplies right here in this outpost of Spain. We wandered the streets for an hour, asked directions at a local hospital, and a generous patient stepped out of line to take us to a local clinic.  Our guide told us that the private clinic would be more expensive than the public hospital, but they would see us immediately. They did. The doctor spoke no English, but my broken Spanish was enough to net us a fat stack of prescriptions. The doctor charged us twenty euros; the pharmacy about fifty more.  I staggered back to the boat under a veritable medicine chest.

I knew exactly what—or who, rather—we needed for the second difficulty.  Cousin Sarah had cemented her reputation aboard Sentijn as a fun-loving badass by showing up unexpectedly in a Dutch boatyard, grabbing a paint roller, and attacking Sentijn’s antifouling job as if she were frosting a cake.  She took a wad of toxic bottom paint straight into the eye, but as I fawned over her in concern, she looked at me with blue tears leaking down her cheek, and said—and I quote—“Don’t worry, Johnny! My eyeball is totally having a hella ‘mazing adventure right now!  Woooh!”

Cousin Sarah was last seen at the helm of her wheezing Subaru, driving north from her ski job in Tahoe.  Rumor had it she’d run out of road at a rough pub in Alaska where she’d signed on to a salmon tender with a crew of beard-fringed, Xtra-tuff and Carhart-enthused fishermen last seen on the Discovery Channel.  I tried a few different social media, left a couple of messages, and she called back a couple days later: she was on her way to Lanzarote.

Offshore Alone

Capricious conditions in heavy squalls, north of the Canary Islands.

It proved a terrible passage.  I’d expected a sleepless day to clear the busy shipping lanes (for the third time, I noted grouchily in the log), but the traffic didn’t stop there.  Ships from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and the US East coast were approaching the Straits of Gibraltar from all angles and in great numbers.  It wasn’t until the third day that the AIS proximity alarm’s strident beeping began to taper. Sentijn had, however, caught up to the fleet of sailboats and there were always red, green, and white lights dancing on the horizon.  Some boats, choosing to jibe downwind in a series of zig-zags, would cross our path many times in a night. One of these had two young children aboard and the skipper checked in by radio each time they crossed into range. I could hear children crying or laughing in the background.  After each call it felt oddly quiet aboard Sentijn.  

Traffic between Portugal and Canary Islands.

By the fourth day, we’d crossed into a surprisingly vigorous eddy of freighter traffic around the Canary Islands and the AIS alarm again seemed to shatter any snatches of sleep.  The weather turned squally and the sail changes and traffic management exhausted me. I hadn’t budget my resources well: just shy of the most dangerous part of the passage—landfall—I had nothing left.  Worse, during final approach to the anchorage at La Graciosa, the wind died altogether. A short temper tantrum changed nothing. I started the engine and it overheated, as I knew it would. Two months of frustration all came to a head as Sentijn drifted past lava cliffs and booming surf, slowly swirling in the current while I stomped about the foredeck cursing.  Sails were piled against the lifelines, heads bent to halyards and clews to sheets…I slumped into a pile of nylon, defeated.

Ghosting past with intermittent steerage.

After a brief drowse, I felt better.  The setting autumn sun was still slightly warm, the sky blue and pink with a torn thunderhead carcass dissipating over a pert cinder cone.  

As I struggled to regain some semblance of equanimity, I realized that losing it had been a serious error—worse, even than the loss of four night’s sleep.  A good single hander, I suspect, needs to be the kind of unflappable person who—at most—gives barely a sigh over even the most brutal setbacks. They might even simply fall asleep; it was, after all, a precious commodity to be hoarded whenever possible.  They might, I mused, make excellent parents of small, feverish babies. A successful long-distance single hander would be a lot like Kara—stoic, stubbornly even-tempered, persistently patient. Not like me. 

Anchorage in sight

I snuggled into a hollow of piled sail and watched the cliffs drift past, feeling  strangely at peace with the idea that there was nothing else to be done. Currents usually go around rocks rather than through them, and Sentijn would surely move with with them. 


The anchored fleet at La Graciosa

A slight breeze ruffled the water, and I came groggily awake.  The sun was down, twilight was well underway, and the rocks looked a lot closer but a chart check showed they were simply taller.  I set the mainsail, an awkward fifteen-minute singlehanded job involving a series of 10-yard dashes between the mast winches and the helm.  We picked through the confused catspaws swirling off the volcanic crags and into the anchorage. There was a wide void in prime position, almost as if the dozens of newly-anchored boats had saved us a spot.  I suspect they had.

Casting off…again

Plotting escape from Portimão. Photo: https://www.instagram.com/anthonysamuelnz/

Sentijn’s overheating engine became a community project.  Cruisers I’d never even met, who were anchored in entirely different ports, were stepping off the train platform looking for “…uhh, Sen-tey-jen with the engine?”  Dinghies hung from our transom like a line of ducklings and crusty characters from all over the world crawled into the access space.  A few even managed to hide their grimaces when they caught sight the monster lurking within.  

The beast was caked in belt dust, glooped with coagulated grease, and layered in delectable flakes of rust like a burnt croissant.  In the inaccessible sump below (which could only be seen with the aid of a dental mirror) pooled an ancient unidentifiable black sludge flecked with failed red paint.  There were broken-off bits of machinery protruding from it like half-sunken shipwrecks. 

Carving pumpkins and unwinding after a day in Sentijn’s engine crawl space aboard Detour (http://blog.sailingdetour.com/)

The consensus was that a) it wasn’t going to be an easy fix, and b) this engine didn’t seem like it warranted a high-effort-and-expense procedure. I pulled a drain plug for the raw water circuit out of the engine block, and instead of the expected flood of seawater a dry wisp of rusty dust trickled out.  Recognizing signs of a massive project in the offing, I decided to try the power of positive thinking.  It started every time!  Plus, I pointed out brightly, it still ran cool(ish) at idle!  This gave us a sustainable speed of a full knot.  And, what’s more, we could probably even do two knots for short periods!  No problem at all; now that we knew our limitations, we’d just plan accordingly.

A decent weather forecast finally presented itself and the fleet prepared for an early departure.  Sail covers came off and galleys everywhere loaded up pressure cookers that bubbled hearty one-pot aromas into the still evening air. Hissing echoed across the water as if we were in traffic among 18-wheelers with air brakes: inflatable dinghies were being deflated and stowed for offshore work.  

Dinghy hoisted aboard to deflate and stow for departure.

Just before dawn, Kara rolled out of bed and started coffee.  There was, it seemed, some excessive rattling of pots—or perhaps I was just sleeping with my head a few inches from the galley.  Dean had commandeered my usual spot in the v-berth, so I’d been sleeping in chilly exile on the vinyl settee for the last six months.  

I wasn’t bitter about it, although I may have mentioned that the blown-out foam had collapsed from the originally luxurious 4-inch thickness down to about 4 millimeters.  When pressed, I sometimes noted that the bunk width was such that one arm and a leg trailed over the edge onto the floorboards, requiring regular end-for-end midnight maneuvers in order to maintain a symmetrical blood distribution.  Furthermore, I occasionally confessed, it was right in the middle of Dean’s daytime territory. Despite this, I only seldom made a show of waking up with an anguished, old-man groan while dramatically extracting the plastic helicopter or toy tractor that had appeared under my back during the night.  In fact, I was quick to stress, the only real downside of having Dean in the V-berth was that he was directly under the windlass.  

As the anchor rattled aboard, he woke up with a unusual wail and Kara rushed below.

Looking healthy the day before departure…

Dean had a fever.  This, Kara had read, could be dangerous in babies. We had a discussion, shouting over the crying baby, and circled the anchorage.  As we talked, the other boats heaved their anchors aboard—eyes carefully averted from the domestic ‘discussion’ wandering their midst—and drifted quietly out to sea.  Another dozen slipped docklines at the nearby marina, and by the time we’d extracted a decent temperature reading from the squirming baby, the horizon was dotted with spinnakers catching the first of the woodsmoke-scented northerlies. 

Baby Dean’s temperature was not yet dangerous, but seemed to be climbing…would he be okay on the 5-day crossing?  We’d waited weeks for this excellent weather forecast.  The Portuguese immigration official, sitting in his air-traffic-control-style tower overlooking the anchorage, had soundly scolded us for our previous botched departure.  I could just feel his Eye of Sauron focused on our distinctive red-striped Frodo Baggins mast.  And, in the back of our minds, we could hear the red-digited countdown clock of our Schengen visas inexorably ticking away, lining up in zeroes, driving us to hurry up and cut either the RED wire or the BLUE wire.  

We decided: Sentijn and I left Kara and Dean on the fuel dock with a handfull of diapers, a toy police car, and a wad of all the euros left aboard. She’d find a flight to Lanzarote, and I’d try solo-sailing.

Marooned by Captain Bligh.


Looking spry…for the moment

Leaving was a mistake; there was no doubt.  Afterwards, Kara wrote a triple-underlined entry in the log.  The heading was something like “How to be a nautical dumbass”. The steps were simple and all-too-easy to follow:

  1. Exercise great, stupid, self-indulgent impatience
  2. Defer maintenance in order to a) babysit, and b) drink preposterous amounts of beer while doing so.
  3. Rely on the engine.  At all.  Ever.

Number three, in particular, had really come home to roost.  In my hair.  And crap all over me; I could feel the hypothetical birdshit oozing around my ears.

Anchored with new friends.

In our last boat, we’d had a 40 year old raw-water cooled diesel which we’d expected to fail at any moment.  We didn’t run it much; our logs show about 75 hours in 38,000 miles.  We were accustomed to ignoring it except for the annual changing of the oil ceremony, in which we waved an incense brazier, chanted in latin, and partook respectfully of sacred wine . It never failed us when we needed it…mostly because we made sure we never did.  Need it, that is.  But then…we did not have a baby

It all started with a marginal window to Madeira.  A forecasted day of ‘spirited’ conditions leaving the coast, two of light air, and then, well, it was anybody’s guess.  Nothing to worry about— it was better than picking a departure randomly, but far from ideal.  Impatience had set in, accompanied by a low but increasing level discomfort as the season progressed.  Perhaps a little like I imagine one might feel when falling behind on credit card bills.  It’s hard to resist this siren call to action, but in my experience most of the requirements for a successful offshore passage are met sitting in port: maintenance, planning, and patience. It was a straightforward three-ball juggling act in which I adroitly fumbled pretty much all the balls and never even realized it.

Sentijn sailed proudly off the hook in Portimao, jibed with a flourish, and rolled the jib onto the pre-rigged pole in a carefully choreographed sequence designed to impress the anchorage (precisely timed to coincide with Dean’s morning nap, of course).  We reached smartly out of the lee of Cabo Sao Vincent, feeling quite grand, and crossed a busy shipping lane in a flume of spray…until the baby and the first open-ocean swell collided.  Baby Dean barfed extravagantly, somehow covering the V-berth, both settees, the pilot berth, most of the cockpit, and the engine room.  It was just the normal seasickness; nothing to worry about. 

But he didn’t get better.  The sea was sloppy and uncomfortable but not dangerous; 3 or 4 meters from the north.  But after 18 hours, the baby hadn’t really eaten or slept.  But worse, he hadn’t taken any drink.  He was so small; how long did it take a 9kg baby to dehydrate?

Feeling rough.

A few hours later, the wind began to die—as forecast.  The motion got much worse; Kara and I were coping, but Dean chundered a few times over anything that could still have conceivably been cleanish.  I turned the key for Sentijn’s 41-year old raw-water cooled engine, planning to spend a few hours motorsailing and get some milk plugged in with the easier motion.  The rusty old beast started promptly, as she always had, but the temperature gauge didn’t steady out at 65 C.  It climbed a bit beyond what even denial could explain before shooting decisively to the far side of the gauge with a small ‘tinking’ noise against the stopper peg. Overheated.

Head stuffed in the access hatch, I called for my tools.  Kara was mopping up vomit while breastfeeding, cooking dinner, warming a bottle, inverting the bedsheets, inside-outing everybody’s clothes, watching the horizon, scanning the chart, monitoring AIS, and trimming the sails.  Needless to say, she replied with a phrase I hadn’t much heard her say before.  During a lengthy and nauseous troubleshooting session, I determined that there was plenty of cooling water, the pump and impeller were fine but the thermostat was suspect.  We removed it and jammed a wine cork in the bypass—an rude open heart-type procedure that should have resulted in a much-too-cool engine (better than too hot) but which changed nothing. Dean vomited feebly in agreement, contributung a few strings of extra-viscous saliva.

This rusty beast needed more than ceremonial offerings.

My scant mechanical ignorance now spent, we had to make an uncomfortably uninformed decision.  It was not whether Kara and I were willing to spend the next 48 to 96+ hours rolling about, as it has always been before.  Rather, we had to guess whether the baby could survive it.  Some parties aboard, who’s names will be withheld for their own protection, reckoned he was fine. Other, more maternal parties, weren’t so sure.  To be honest, he didn’t look all that great after 24 hours of vomit.  But then…who would?

We turned back; it was a bit over 70 miles of sailing straight to windward in a freshening coastal breeze.  My usual coping mechanisms (‘just wait it out; the wind will change’, and ‘just keep moving forward, it doesn’t matter how long it takes—you’ll get there eventually’) were rendered useless as Dean continued a pitiful desiccated retching.  

The large bi-directional shipping lane at at the Cape, about 20 miles wide, had been easy to dart across with a fair breeze on the way out, but returning was another matter.  It was a two or three day sail to go around but only a one-night beat to windward across it; we opted to cross. Maritime law strongly suggests crossing shipping lanes at 90 degrees; we zigzagged across at about 15. There were plenty of grumpy freighter captains on the VHF that night, but little sleep.

Late the next afternoon, we beat slowly to-and-fro across the mouth of the Portimao breakwaters.  We finally achieved the angle to slip between, and as we eased the sheets an inflatable approached.  Fellow sailors had monitored our progress on AIS, deduced our difficulties, reflexively purchased beer, applied ice, launched dinghies, and prepared an escort service.  As we drifted in under reduced canvas and the tide, a pair of beer cans thwacked the mainsail and Dean drew a deep breath, rolled over, and blew a contented spit-bubble.

Boom Boom Beach

Portimão was nice; it was easy to admit. There was an excellent left breaking off the east breakwater, and an intriguing semi-surfable surge refracting into the small beach on the east. The town had a nautically-inclined family hardware store that seemed to be missing a zero on most of the price tags. It was from there that I purchased the best onboard shower of my life; the deluxe 2-litre Man-Tool insecticide sprayer had a smooth and easy pumping action, a vigorous yet gentle spray, and an ergonomic handle with integrated spares kit–extra gaskets and spare pump diaphragms included!

It was obvious after a couple of days in the anchorage that we’d rejoined a traditional cruising route. The backpacking vibe had neatly intersected with the sailing tradition in Europe. Dozens of boats were waiting to start the first leg of their Atlantic crossing. Typical bios among the refreshingly motley crew went along one of two themes.  

The inspirational:

  • “After Uni’ I decided to travel the world with my boyfriend. I bought a cheap sailboat; the boat was a good purchase–the boyfriend not so much. Left him on a beach in Spitsbergen.”
  • “…borrowed my dad’s 24-footer for a daysail back in 2014 in Germany—still haven’t returned it.”

And the somewhat horrifying:

  • “I bought a old steel boat, removed the interior, re-plated most everything below the waterline, and sailed off in the bare hull—no plumbing, electrical, or furniture. My parents hastily retired, bought a Beneteau, and…well…followed me. We’ve been buddy boating ever since.”
  • “My wife and I finally sailed to warmer climes. She spent more time in her bikini…one thing led to another…we had two kids. After two, you reach some economy of scale and it doesn’t matter so much after a while; now we have ten.”

The only downside was an international techno/dubstep convention that began setting up refrigerator-sized speakers across all the beaches of the anchorage. The bass was truly spectacular; my vision seemed blur as the optical fluid in my eyeballs pulsed to the beat. At one a.m Kara’d wander around the boat to resettle the silverware and pad any rattling bottles of Spanish wine in the bilge. A 6-pack of beer bottles was a serious sleep liability, buzzing like a wasp nest into the night.

Anchorage at Portimão

Baby Dean got a little confused. He was just starting to learn a few ‘words,’ most notably “di-di” accompanied by a twist of his wrist miming the revving of an outboard motor. It meant “put me on in the dingy or I’m going to melt down in a cataclysm of spectacular infantile boredom.” Another, closely related message usually followed shortly thereafter which–roughly translated–meant: “Excellent; I’ve finally got you properly trained. Now take me to the nearest beach.” This was communicated by shouting “Boom! Boom!” while jumping up and down like the boiling crowds of dancers on the beach.

Without exception, every skipper was watching the weather. We were all looking for that elusive opportunity to sail smoothly south, away from the incipient winter storms of Europe and towards the trades and tropics just beyond the Canary Islands. While there is no risk of tropical cyclones along this 600-mile passage, it is notably plagued by variable winds and heavy commercial traffic across the approach pattern to the Straights of Gibraltar.

Leslie’s track.

Well, that was what I’d thought. Hurricane Leslie was driving me bonkers…forming, dissipating, and reforming several times over the next month. The weather models and cyclone specialists all threw up their hands in shock and horror as Leslie looped the loop and turned a baffling 1,000-mile wide figure eight across the mid-Atlantic. She finally regathered for a decisive third and final time, accelerated, and set a course that nobody expected: straight at Portugal. Warnings were hastily issued for places that had never, in recorded human history, been threatened by a hurricane.

Casting a critical eye over Portimão’s breakwaters, we decided they weren’t quite as high as they could have been. And, under close inspection, the easternmost seemed to have a few chunks missing. Noting a favorable spring high tide, we relocated down the coast a few miles to the snug little estuary at Alvor, wiping a few barnacles off the keel as we entered. The anchorage was in a tide-scoured channel too narrow for proper swinging room, but was so well protected that it didn’t much matter if we left a fan of Sentijn-shaped impressions in the surrounding sand banks.

At the bar for a beer in Alvor.

Leslie, luckily, decided on a slight course change and made landfall a hundred miles north. The miss provided a blustery evening, a night of ominous thunderstorms, and a large but sloppy swell breaking at the estuary’s entrance.

Spain and Portugal

We must have transited the Spanish nature reserve on opening minute of opening day for a lucrative fishing season because large, battered boats were setting strings of traps at planing speed in an angry swarm.  While the interpretation of nature reserve seemed a little loose, inspection of the chart showed no toxic waste dumps, spoil grounds, unexploded ordnance disposal sites, or military live-fire zones within the eco-area; I figured they were doing just fine.

Dean crosses into

Rounding a rocky headland in tandem with the Australians, Kara called out a course for the nearest town; vegetables beckoned.  But as we passed a fishhook in the coast, our flotilla began a slow, spontaneous yet inexplicably elegant curve towards the beach.  Like a school of sardines, somehow synchronized without communication, every helmsman swooped to starboard–maintaining perfect formation–while winches ticked and popped in harmony as sheets were hardened.  Navigators protested unanimously and indignantly as the white-knuckled helmsmen changed heading, a steely glint in every eye.

Sudden detour. Photo: Kris on Taipan.

Red Roo, being a swing-keeler, reduced draft and tucked close to the sand.  Taipan nosed in as far as depth would allow, dropped the hook, and swung the cockpit shoreward on a stern anchor for optimum viewing angle.  And, as our anchor splashed down, I fished out three beers and whipped out our best set of binos.  

We’d stumbled upon a nudie beach.

There were hundreds of people–all nude.  Nobody was laying in the sun; nobody was reading a book; nobody was scrolling their phone.  I’d never seen such relentless beachgoers in my life; frisbee, volleyball, yoga, and–everywhere–walking.  Vigorous, bouncy walking. There was rippling and rolling, jiggling and joggling, swinging and swaying no matter where I looked.  That evening, the skippers all came together over a magnum of wine and decided: the fleet would stay at least a week.

Spain’s rocky headlands, stunted pines, sweet eucalyptus and dusty roads gave way to the low, sandy coast and industrial breakwaters of western Portugal.  Pushing on at a snail’s pace through crab traps in very light air, we finally found a few hours of the mythical ‘Portugese Trades’, a diurnal breeze that ostensibly wafts peacefully and predictably down the coast every afternoon.  

Typically, we found it just past midnight, at 30 knots, in thick fog, surrounded by inky cliffs and surging swell as we searched for an anchorage among a labyrinth of fish farms we’d stumbled into after rounding Cape St. Vincent.  The beam from the lighthouse spun off into the black, scattered by the fog and spray. Groping around blindly, we eventually stumbled back out to the safety of the open sea.

Smooth sailing far from land.

This Portuguese coastal cruising with its light, fickle air was proving to be very nerve wracking, and Sentijn was not well equipped for it.  However, the temptation to find an anchorage, have a hot meal, and sleep for more than a few minutes at a time was irresistible.  Before the baby, we could achieve such luxuries at sea by taking shifts; landfall was a risk and hassle with which we often didn’t bother.  Now, sailing the boat and baby Dean competed for top priority. Regular food, sleep, and even boat maintenance got shuffled down off the list of priorities and the only surefire way bring them back aboard was to risk the shifting sandbars and unmarked rocks of an unfamiliar harbor.  Ironically, instead of making more conservative choices, the baby aboard was causing us to take more risks than ever. I didn’t like it, but I also didn’t know what to do about it.  

We decided to settle into the well-regarded, all-weather and all-vegetable anchorage at Portimao for a few weeks to regroup.