Great seamanship: Slow Boat to Uruguay

Great seamanship: Slow Boat to Uruguay

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Four days and nights of gale-force conditions is a baptism of fire for Andrew Tunstall and crew in their cruiser-racer. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Slow Boat to Uruguay

If you’ve ever dreamed about buying a boat and sailing to South America with no firm plan about what to do next, Slow Boat to Uruguay by Andrew Tunstall is essential reading. I have sympathy with Mr Tunstall and his inimitable wife, Abi, because that’s exactly what my wife and I did in 1975. They even made a similar landfall on Ilha Grande 50 miles beyond Rio. What strikes me about their subsequent wanderings around that mysterious continent is how little things have changed outside the big cities in 40-odd years.

The book is a thought-provoking and satisfying read from the author’s near-death confrontation with gun-toting bandits, to his philosophical conclusions following the premature death of a close friend in the final pages.

For a real feel of South America it’s a unique perspective.

Andrew and Abi sell up, quit their jobs and buy Josephine, a Beneteau First 38. These boats always performed well and can still muster a useful turn of speed. Abi, her tiny daughter and her mother – also signed on as crew – opted wisely to fly to Brazil, leaving the skipper and three of his mates to make the passage. We join Andrew and his shipmates fresh out of St Helena bound west, a wide ocean away.

What follows isn’t a story of destruction and unbelievable endurance on the high seas. Rather, it’s a yarn of four guys making the most of a long spell of extreme conditions in an area where they had every right to expect a better deal. Nothing significant breaks and despite their lack of deep-sea experience they come through a prolonged storm in good shape with an enviable series of days’ runs.

Like the rest of the book, the house-high seas and the chaps dealing with sundry knock-downs as all in a day’s work, makes a refreshing read.

Extract from Slow Boat to Uruguay

For the first four days out of Cape Town we’d surfed northwards on the swells ahead of gale-force winds. After that the weather for the leg to St Helena had been perfect, with consistent following winds and mostly sunny skies making for near perfect sailing conditions. Things were to change on the second leg.

As we ventured further out onto the Atlantic and St Helena slipped inexorably over the horizon in our wake, a cell of intense low pressure was barrelling its way up the South American coast from the Southern Ocean. Over the ensuing days it developed into a full-blown tropical cyclone, bringing with it violent winds and torrential rain that led to some of the most destructive flooding in the history of the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, killing more than 100 people and leaving thousands homeless.

Of course we knew nothing of this, and had been at sea five or six days when we noticed a pronounced swell coming through from the south west; a deep, wide swell that conflicted with the prevailing ocean swell driven by the south-easterly trade winds we were sailing on.

This conflict set up a lumpy, erratic sea with frequent rogue waves coming from odd directions that reared up unannounced and slammed into the boat, shaking her like a toy and swamping the cockpit. The high cirrus cloud feathering the sky warned us we could expect some excitement, and later the following day the barometric pressure plunged. Without access to weather reports we had little idea we were headed on a collision course with a massive storm cell as it bludgeoned and battered its way up the coast of Brazil.

In due course the wind veered from easterly to north-westerly, further confusing the swells running from the south, and we put a third reef in the mainsail to keep the power to a minimum for the coming tempest. Both the wind and the waves continued to build, until we were surfing down the faces of waves 30ft high.

Down in the troughs there was eerie quiet as the waves shielded us from the wind, then as we were lifted high on the next crest the wind screamed through the rigging and slammed the sails tight, Josephine surging in response and accelerating off the lip, carving the bottle green water into a twin bow-wave of tumbling foam.

It was a wild ride. Steering demanded absolute concentration as we anticipated the movements of the water and lined the boat up to minimise the risk of being spun out or rolled over. The wind had picked up to 55 knots before the rain came, and when it came, it came in a deluge, as if another layer of the ocean were falling out of the sky under its own weight.

Into freefall

With the wind howling, the tops of the waves exploding into stinging white needles and the rain cascading down, it was difficult to read the water and we started making mistakes. Rupe and I were tied to our bunks in the saloon during one of Dael’s afternoon shifts when we heard a muffled cry of alarm as the boat rolled awkwardly on her side, then our bunks pressed hard against our back as Josephine climbed steeply, followed by an eerie weightlessness. Gone was the sound of running water along the hull as Josephine went into freefall. Our stomachs floated up under our ribs as we held our breath and braced ourselves for the impact.

Time stopped. We hung motionless in the air, then a sudden, juddering crash forced us violently down into our bunks. I looked up through the top hatch at where the sky would normally be, but there was only a deep green, swirling like liquid malachite against the glass. The boat was underwater.

With no autopilot, Slow Boat’s Andrew Tunstall and his crew of three friends took turns at the wheel of Josephine

But Josephine is a resilient ship and she looked after us. She shook the water off like a duck and burst above the surface, Dael whooping like a teenager in the cockpit (I was relieved to hear he was still there!) and the rest of us falling over each other to rig our harnesses so we could get outside and join him. Then Dael was shouting again in alarm, and as I scrabbled up the steps and out through the hatch he was pointing forward and babbling incoherently.

“Shit! Shit!” he was shouting, eyes round with fright.

“The boom! Shit!”

“What? What is it?” I shouted above the roar.

“I don’t know! The boom! It just flew up…”

“What do you mean, ‘flew up?’ Up where?”

A lull before the 60-knot gusts of a pampero wind off Uruguay

He wore the face of a man who had just been scared out of his wits, and no wonder. He had been at the wheel when we were dropped off the crest of a huge wave and fell past a grey cliff of water to be buried in the boiling cauldron below, and now he was in shock. I squinted at the boom. It looked fine, but the mainsail was sagging, and I realised the boom was bouncing.

“The kicker has gone. Dael, there’s no kicker!” I yelled into his face, and he nodded wide-eyed as if he understood. I crawled forward on my stomach over the coachroof until I reached the attachment point for the kicker to discover the steel wire had parted in the middle.

The impact of our landing had had a whiplash effect on the mast, jerking the boom up and snapping the kicker. I removed both ends of the broken cable and inched my way back to the cockpit as Josephine twisted and bucked like a bronco on the waves, trying to throw me off. Two minutes of crawling around on my stomach on a heaving, rolling deck triggered a bout of violent vomiting.

Dael was the best foredeck crew we had and was not prone to seasickness, so I sent him forward with some rope to rig a new kicker while I took the wheel. He was in his element clinging to the pitching deck fiddling about with shackles and tying knots, and by the time he came back, job done, was his normal cheerful self again. The new kicker worked perfectly and we had Josephine back under control. Then we whooped and chanted like football fans as we surfed mountain after mountain, competing with each other to set the fastest speeds.

“We are such cowboys!” remarked Rupert, wearing the broadest grin as Josephine plunged into the next abyss.

We were running on attitude.

Foredeck check by Dael ahead of rough weather

For four days and four nights the storm raged around us, and for four days and four nights, two hours at a time, we clung like limpets to the wheel cajoling Josephine over, through and occasionally under the waves towards Brazil. Nobody knew how Rob kept a steady stream of hot meals flowing but he did, in spite of frequently having to dash out through the hatch to puke over the side as he was afflicted by dreadful bouts of seasickness huddled over the gas stove in the heaving, sweaty bowels of the boat.

Nights were more difficult as we could not see, and we took regular sucker punches from rogue waves that knocked us on our side, causing the helmsman to cling desperately to the wheel under a deluge of cold saltwater, and those in the sleeping bags below to brace their feet against the side walls and ceilings of the cabins.

Rupert lashing spare fuel drums in heavy weather

1,000-mile run

By the fourth night the wind had abated to a manageable 35 knots and we were racing the swells with regular boat speeds of over 12 knots (our maximum recorded speed was 15, with the cook at the wheel!). Moon and stars were smothered by dark cloud, but at least there was no more rain, and the inky black sea around us was alive with phosphorescence, the breaking crests of the waves flashing like neon in the night.

We would be lifted up from behind by the invisible mass of water, Josephine would hang a moment in space then accelerate down into the dark void, a brief silence shattered by a roar as the wave collapsed and tumbled beneath us, and we were riding atop a rolling cascade of bio-light that lit up the cockpit. Surfing on flashing thunder. In five days we covered over a thousand miles at an improbable average speed of well over eight knots, logging 217 miles in our best 24 hours.

After the fifth day of this rollercoaster ride the wind died away in the night and by morning we were becalmed. It was a wonderful opportunity to spread soaked clothes and sleeping bags on the deck to dry, and for us to plunge overboard for our first swim in three-mile-deep water. Dael and Rupe paddled around the boat on the surf board – ‘because they could’ – and Rob conjured a sumptuous lunch of canned meatballs and limp cornflakes. Most of that day was spent motoring over smooth turquoise water, startling swarms of flying fish from under the bow.

Knowing they’re a favourite food of tuna and dorado, we dragged two rubber lures about 50ft behind us, and in the afternoon changed course to pass deliberately under a flock of diving birds to be rewarded with two skipjack tuna of 15lb apiece that Rob turned into perfect sushi rolls.

Josephine at anchor in St Helena while waiting to clear customs

Those fishing birds were our first hint that we were drawing near the coast, and the last few days of the trip were uneventful, except for the hilarity of seeing first Rupert, then Dael, smacked on the head by rogue flying fish. There are apparently 64 recognised species of flying fish, of the genus Exocoetus (from which was derived the name ‘Exocet’ for the French-built anti-ship missile that saw extensive service in the Falklands War of 1982).

Another hint of land came from a white plastic miner’s helmet floating on the ocean with a little water in it and a tiny, lost black fish swimming around in frantic circles. We were closing on Brazil.

Buy Slow Boat to Uruguay now from Amazon


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