Atlantic Crossing

There are several ways in which the Atlantic trip has developed and helped me in preparing for my chosen career. In September 2016 I had my preliminary interview for the role of Pilot in the RAF, the final question asked by the interviewer was “what would you say has been your most adventurous experience to date?” I realised that although I have always enjoyed the outdoors and had taken part in various adventurous pursuits and award schemes (such as the Duke of Edinburgh award) there was no one experience that I felt was truly representative of my love for the natural world. I was successful at that stage of selection and informed that my medical would not be until December. It was at this moment I decided to use the time to get myself involved in an expedition of some sort. There were several things that I wanted to achieve within the expedition. Firstly, it had to be physically challenging. This was in anticipation for my medical and the knowledge that I should improve/maintain my fitness in the run up to physical testing for the RAF. Secondly, it had to be away from home. The reason for this was to experience something totally different from anything I’d ever done before and also test my mental resilience with being away from everything familiar. Thirdly, I wanted to learn something, improve some skills and/or gain some experience, and finally I was looking for something that would be a real achievement if completed. I was however struggling to find something that fit all of these aims along with being achievable and that my parents (although incredibly supportive) would be comfortable with me doing. At this point I got back in touch with a friend of mine who was also on a gap year, I knew her parents had recently bought a yacht and were currently in the Canary Isles preparing to cross the Atlantic. I suggested we meet up and enquired if they were still looking for crew, luckily for me they were. Over a few weeks myself and my Dad met up with the Skipper (Andrew) and my friend (Maddy) and agreed that I was welcome as crew provided I could cover my travel costs to the Canary Isles and back from Antigua. It was suggested by my Apprentice Master that I apply for funding from the Mercer’s which in the end enabled me to purchase some much needed equipment including: full weather waterproofs, deck-shoes and also permitted me to meet my travel costs.

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On the 13th of November I flew out to Lanzarote and met both the crew and saw the boat. The vessel Caramba is a 53ft long, twin masted yacht, also known as an Amel Super Maramu, known for being an excellent blue water cruiser and incredibly safe for open ocean sailing. There was a total of 4 crew members including myself, my friend and her two parents. It was to be the first trans-oceanic crossing for not only all of the crew but also the boat herself (needless to say there was plenty of “blue cruising” experience just never a crossing.) Due to a final addition of a solar arch on the stern of the boat (to reduce generator fuel consumption) we eventually set off from Lanzarote on the 24th of November. Before we left the harbour we agreed our watch times and daily schedule as well as some basic training on navigation, adjusting course and sail setting. Wanting to get as wide a range of experiences as possible I signed up for the 0400-0700 and the 1300-1600 shifts allowing me to get both day and night sailing and navigation experience as well as being solely responsible for the ship during the night. The crossing would take 24 days and during that time my leadership, followership, sailing/navigational skills and physical limits would be tested.

Leadership – Essential to my chosen career is the ability to lead people, to be in charge and responsible for both people and equipment. During the course of the crossing I spent 164hrs on watch including 82hrs at night when all the crew were asleep. A prime example of stepping up was during the first few days of our crossing. We left Lanzarote with a good weather forecast, 18knt winds and 1-2 metre swells, perfect weather for Caramba, however by the second evening the weather had deteriorated to gusting up to 45knts (a force 9/strong gale) and the sea had become incredibly choppy and confused meaning the motion of the boat was difficult to control. The other 3 crew members were suffering from seasickness, ranging from mild nausea up to real problems keeping water down. That evening I took 3 watches as my friend was too ill. The sun set and the weather reached a peak, we had no sail up as if something broke we would have to go on deck to fix it, not an appealing idea. To try and make the motion as comfortable as possible we had started the engine and aimed the bow inthe direction where most of the waves were coming from but due to the confused sea state we were still getting rocked by waves coming from our side. During those three hours I sat in the cockpit on watch, every few seconds a wave would break over the bow and the forward facing windows would go white with the water rushing over. Thanks to the canopy I stayed mostly dry but the power of the sea was incredible. It goes without saying I was a tad nervous, this was only my fifth watch and due to everyone feeling ill I was very much on my own. The responsibilities of being on watch were to: navigate using the GPS, avoid shipping collisions using the AIS tracker, adjust course/sails as the wind changed, try to predict sail changes/avoid other collisions using the radar and finally keep a good lookout for drifting obstacles. At night many of these become harder but during that shift it was nearly impossible to complete some of them. The navigation and AIS were working perfectly so I knew we were in little danger of running into shipping, as we had no sails up I just had to keep the bow into the worst of the weather (we had abandoned a proper course at this point and were just trying to ride out the storm,) due to the rough seas the radar was practically useless as it was just detecting all the wave heights and as a result of the darkness and the amount of water coming over the bow keeping a lookout was hugely challenging. The result was we spent that night ploughing through the waves at around 2knts just waiting for the weather to break. Strange as it may sound this night actually really helped me to settle into the voyage as it increased my confidence both in myself and in the boat. Having come through unscathed I was far more confident in taking solo watches and making decisions on my own, as well as whenever weather got rough I had complete faith in the yacht. The experience as a whole also developed my leadership, I am calmer in stressful situations, I am able to see the bigger picture, my problem solving has also benefited and I am more confident in forming a plan and carrying it out either on my own or within a team.

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Team work ­ Equally as important in my chosen career is the ability to work well in a group and use individual skills/knowledge to achieve a shared purpose. A prime example of when our team working skills were tested was after an accident during sail changes; we’d broken our genoa halyard (the rope which raises/lowers the genoa sail) and as a result had lost the most powerful sail on the boat. With the winds the way they were we desperately needed this sail up and working in order to complete the crossing in time for me to fly home. In order to fix the problem we had to thread a thin rope from the top of the mast to a small hole about a quarter of the way up, then attach a new halyard and pull it through, secure the halyard, attach the sail and hoist it. What should have been a relatively simple process was made problematic by the swell and motion of the boat. First, we hoisted Andrew to the top of the main mast using a Bosun’s chair and a harness. I then climbed up a quarter of the way to the hole and balanced myself on a crossbar looping a length of rope around the mast and clipping on, my friend stood below me waiting to receive the line after I hooked it out of the mast and Lindsey went to the bow to make sure the lines didn’t tangle/wrap around either us or the rigging. What should have worked first time in the end took 3 hours of trying without success. We retreated for a break, some food and to formulate a new plan. After a rest we went out and tried again at 1800 when it was cooler and slightly calmer. With a different rope we managed to get the line down first time, hauled the new halyard through and secured the sail. What then followed was a further 2 hours trying to hoist the genoa due to gusting winds and not quite the right angle however, after a fair amount of elbow grease the sail was up and pulling. The only way we were able to complete this significant repair job was by working well together. Good communication and situational awareness helped keep me and Andrew safe while we were up the mast as we were warned if there was a particularly large wave approaching and so could brace ourselves. A cooperative and open discussion helped us to come up with a new plan and adapt it as we went along. A willingness to keep going combined with a sense of humor and the desire take care of each other during the work enabled up to keep up morale even after the 20th failed attempt, and finally an appreciation for people’s strengths helped us best use our resources.

Physically challenging – My desired role within the RAF is very physically demanding, not just in the way that you need to be physically fit but also that you can keep going and endure tiring situations. The crossing as a whole was draining as the boat never stopped moving, you were constantly adjusting and reacting to its movement, even when sleeping. This became harder not only as time went by but as the swell increased. There is however one particular event which really pushed me. As I’ve already mentioned we had an accident whilst trying to change some sails, we forgot one step in the process and in about 2 seconds had snapped a halyard, bent two stainless steel bars 90 degrees and wrapped several ropes around the forestay (the wire at the bow which supports the main mast.) Although it wasn’t very dramatic the end result was we had the genoa stuck all the way up, we couldn’t reef it (make it smaller by wrapping it around the forestay,) and we were unable to get it down. At this point the sun set and the wind picked up. The genoa is the largest sail on the boat, it’s about 64 meters squared and is made of heavy windproof canvas, fully out it provides a huge amount of thrust for the boat however you don’t want it un-reefed beyond 18knts as it will make the boat heel (lean over,) if you’re caught by a wave whilst heeling you run the risk of broaching (water coming over the side) or in extreme cases capsizing (completely tipping over.) Naturally we all got a bit nervous as the wind was now starting to pick up as were the waves. The only option was to go and try to untangle the wound ropes from the forestay and haul the genoa down by hand. Myself and Andrew (the heavier and slightly stronger two of the crew) got our life jackets on and made our way to the bow where we clipped on. Maddy and Lindsey tried to keep the boat pointed into the wind so as to make it easier to unwrap the ropes and pull the sail down. We were eventually successful in getting the ropes untangled but hauling the sail in would prove to be much more difficult. By this point the waves and wind had picked up to a point where we were ploughing through some sizeable swells, this meant that at the bow Andrew and I were being drenched by the spray and struggling to keep our feet as the deck pitched. It was also nearing 2300 and so was very dark, thankfully we had powerful torches that Maddy was aiming so we could see what we were doing but it meant we couldn’t predict the waves and were slammed against the railings more than once. At the same time the genoa is so large that the boats engine is not powerful enough to keep the bow into the wind, the genoa just catches the wind and pushes the bow away which causes it to violently back, a bit like a flapping sheet on a washing line, as a result both and Andrew and myself were hit with the sail or where jerked almost off our feet tying to keep a hold of it. The final complication we faced was if we managed to get some of the sail down the wind would then gust causing the sail to fill and shoot back up again, a couple of times we were lifted clean off our feet as the sail filled only to be pulled back by our tethers. In the end careful timing and a lucky spot of calmer weather allowed us to get the sail down and lashed to the deck, it had taken about 2 hours. All in all Andrew and I were pretty badly bruised and rather sore but the sail was down and the next day we were able to fix all the damage meaning that although it was a costly mistake it did not impact on our crossing as a whole. The experience taught me that you are stronger than you think and that anything is possible provided you preserve and adapt a plan which you commit to completing. It also taught me that a sense of humor is crucial to keeping moral up and that trusting your team to keep you safe and within your limits is crucial.

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Learning new skills – One of the key things I really wanted to achieve from this expedition was to learn and get experience on a range of skills. I emerged from the crossing confident in sailing a ketch rigged yacht, at day or night, whilst navigating, adjusting the course/sail set, predicting potential weather changes and doing hourly checks on everything from the engine to the water levels all completely alone. As well as greatly improving my knowledge of sailing and of the sea I learned how to repair a wide range of sailing equipment from snapped wrappings to navigation lights and even some engine maintenance and checks. I become competent on using the radar to track incoming weather systems and plan ahead for changes in wind speed, I learned how to operate the AIS shipping tracker/GPS and adjust course to avoid shipping. Finally I learned key skills on how to look after both myself and the crew, keeping a good schedule, drinking enough water, eating regularly (even if you didn’t feel like it,) and making sure everyone was keeping hydrated and sleeping enough. Not to mention essential experience on living in a confined space with 3 other people for nearly a month with little contact to the outside world.

New experiences – The final thing I was searching for when planning this expedition was to find something that would push me out of my comfort zone, let me experience totally new sights and events and something that I could be truly proud of. This crossing fully allowed me to fulfill all of these, away from home and at one point thousands of miles away from the closest land it definitely pushed me beyond what was familiar. We were lucky enough to see some incredible sights; pods of dolphins jumping a few meters away, fantastic night skies, the phosphorescence in the boat’s wake, incredible sunsets and (in my case) sunrises and a full range of sea states and weather. Lastly there were some truly unforgettable experiences, going swimming in the middle of the Atlantic with the closest land being 11miles below you, taking control of the boat through tough seas, getting to grips with all the systems and understanding the various pieces of equipment and getting to spend time with great people.

Having returned to the UK I attended my OASC (Officer, Aircrew Selection Course,) at RAF Cranwell, a part of the selection phase is an interview with two boarding officers, needless to say I used my experiences learnt on the voyage to provide examples of situations where I had used leadership, team working skills and determination as well as to show my love for adventurous pursuits along with the ability to deal with difficult and stressful situations. I am now waiting to hear if I have been successful at this stage.

To sum up, 24 days at sea, 3400 nautical miles, 4 crew members and an absolutely unforgettable and invaluable experience which has not only helped prepare me for my chosen career but has equipped me with lessons that I will never forget, and memories which I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Tabitha Hall

Photos by Madeleine Snowdon

 

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