Back in Blighty, 27th + 28th September (Days 23+24)

27th – Headwinds again and going slow. The wind was gusting up to 30knots and when the tide was against us our speed was dropping down to 1.5knots. Our hope of getting into Ipswich before pub closing time on the 28th was fading. Our only hope was to catch what is known as the ‘Gravy Train’. Where the tide changes direction at Dungeness it is possible to have it pushing you along for 6 hours on the flood up to Dungeness and then for a further 6 hours after Dungeness on the ebb before then catching the tide flooding into the Thames after that to make it in your favor for a total of 18hours. We just have to maintain an average speed of 4.5knots up to Dungeness and that 18 hours of tide with us will get us to Ipswich in time for a meal in the pub.

28th – We made it! Back home in England after over 4 months sailing abroad and at least 15,000nm logged by SOTW. There was a worrying moment as we motored up the river when we heard other boats ahead of us calling the lock keeper on the VHF radio, from what we heard it sounded like the lock was broken and nobody could get in. We called up ourselves and the rumor was confirmed. Bugger! We were all desperate for a pint after a few days hard slog against the wind and we frantically searched for a way to get ashore without entering the marina. However we needn’t have worried, as we approached we heard that the lock was fixed (just a minor electrical fault) and we could enter. We passed through the lock and got a big wave, smile and “welcome home” from the keeper and I got another chance to prove myself capable of parking the boat as we moored up alongside the fuel dock ready for fuel in the morning. The parking went perfectly as we very slowly and gently stopped just centimeters from the pontoon and before we knew it we were showered and in the pub. That night I proceeded to drink as much as I could get my hands on and consequently was woken multiple times in the night as people tried to suppress my drunken snoring. I do like a drink when we get ashore though and it seemed like the right time for a celebration. It’s the end of the season (I am personally planning for a . . . not quiet, but a winter with more free time this year) and I have managed to write 54 A4 pages of blog entries since we left in late May. Not bad considering I was so self-conscious about my writing this time last year that it would take me an hour just to write a one sentence email.

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Fog, Rain, Headwinds and Painful Listening Watches, 25th + 26th September (Days 21+22)

25th – As we head into the English Channel the number of sightings decreases, the weather worsens and the listening watches (where we listen to the hydrophones) are avoided like the plague as they threaten to deafen you with the noise of passing ships.

Despite the fog and rain the weather did have one good quality.  We were treated to an awesome days sailing.  I got all 3 sails up in the morning and practically drifted down wind in the light breeze but by the evening the wind picked up and we were steaming along at 8 knots under sail.  Eventually however the batteries needed charging and then engine went back on but with the sails still up we were now making nearly 10 knots!  It is good to take advantage of these favourable circumstances whilst we can because I don’t think we will be going so fast tomorrow when the head winds hit us.

There has also been one sighting which kept everyone’s spirits high.  A small land bird has taken refuge on our deck and he manages to force a smile onto everyone’s faces as he strolls around with his big round belly and puffed out feathers turning him into a perfect waddling, fluffy sphere.  No name I could think of seemed comical enough for this character so I have just been calling him Puff Ball which is basically just a description.

26th – It’s no wonder we stop seeing so many dolphins and all whales.  Nobody who listens to our hydrophones would expect a species which relies so heavily on sounds to live here.  The headphones deafen anyone who wears them with the monstrous mechanical noise that is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world and there are so many fishing boats crawling back and forth that there can’t be much in the way of food left over either.  As if the engine noise from the other boats wasn’t bad enough we then had unbelievably loud sonar on the hydrophones.  I actually stopped doing some of the listening watches because it was giving me a headache.  On top of the misery of the acoustics we have also had a real pea souper of a fog (we couldn’t see our own bow!) and headwinds steadily increasing in strength.  Our ETA is slowly slipping further and further away as the headwinds look set to stick around an increase so long as we are in the English Channel.

I just found out from Brian that he saw some distant Pilot Whales this morning.  If you see a mass stranding of Pilot Whales on the news tomorrow you can bet it’s because of that probably military, insanely loud sonar we have been hearing today.

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English Weather, 23rd + 24th September (Days 19+20)

23rd It was an easy night watch last night due to a constant stream of dolphins coming in to bow-ride in the bio-luminescence and putting the hydrophone in. It is the first time we have had the hydrophone in this month and it is fantastic to be able to hear the sounds of the ocean once again. Also it took half an hour to deploy it and time on watch always goes quicker when you have something to do. For the other 2 ½ hours of my night watch there were usually 3 or 4 of us on the foredeck as everyone enjoyed the show put on by the glow in the dark dolphins and before I knew it my watch was over, the dolphins swam away and I was fast asleep in bed. When I got up for my morning watch, which started at sunrise, the dolphins returned. We had dolphins bow-riding almost continuously for my entire watch and I even covered the first 30 minutes of the next watch so I could continue to enjoy their company. However after 3 hours and 30 minutes on watch fog closed in, it looked like rain and the dolphins disappeared. I decided this would be a good time to get the next watch up and go get some breakfast before bed. As others started to get up I noticed a trend forming. For the first time everyone was wearing trousers! Fog and trousers! I found this terribly exciting and decided it must now be cold enough to eat porridge in the mornings and so with great ceremony I made everyone porridge, tea and coffee for a nice team sit down breakfast outside enjoying the miserable weather.

24th The last couple of days we have been teased with both Sperm whales and Pilot whales loud and clear on the hydrophones. The excitement is obvious as the tell-tale clicks get louder and louder and the watch looks out, yearning for a splash or a blow to stand out on the calm waters surface, comparable in stance to that of a meerkat looking out for predators. And the disappointment is hard to hide as the clicks grow fainter again and the hope subsides. The time spent looking out hasnt been entirely without reward though. The Bay of Biscay has proved itself to be the bay of Fin whales. On one watch alone I was lucky enough to spot three separate individual Fin whales and although most of them appear to be travelling and uninterested in any passing vessel, two individuals did treat us to a closer look as one passed within 20 metres of the boat. Luckily I was ready with the underwater cameras on the end of a pole but the luck was limited as the water was so murky and the light so dull behind the low clouds that the Fin whale was nowhere to be seen on the footage. It was nice to have that encounter with such a large animal though and we sail on towards the English Channel still with some hope of a Sperm whale as they continue to haunt the hydrophones.

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Fin Whales and a Feeding Frenzy, 21st + 22nd September (Days 17+18)

21st Whales! was my wakeup call today. I had only been asleep an hour since my night watch and it was still 5 minutes before sunrise but I grabbed some trousers and made my way to the deck as fast as my sleepy grumpy state would let me. Once in the morning light I looked around and before my eyes had a chance to clear I heard the unmistakable sound of a large whale blow as it surfaced. There were four Fin Whales between 50 and 200m from the boat. I grabbed the remaining camera and joined Tessa on the foredeck who had the other camera. It was so exciting and also such a relief to see these Fin Whales (second largest animal on Earth) so close. I had been desperate to see some large whales for such a long time, our last sighting of large whales was way back in June outside Monaco. For at least an hour the whales swam round, diving and surfacing again within a few hundred metres of the boat. Sometimes they would disappear for a couple of minutes before reappearing with a towering blast of air and water and once they really took us by surprise by reappearing just a few metres from our bow. The smell of rotten fish wafted over the boat as they exhaled and the girls shrieked with excitement. 3,500 photos later (yup, thats an accurate figure) we decided to leave the whales to it and started to gently motor away. They stayed where they were and we carried on towards England. I went back to bed but it took me a fair while to get to sleep after all that excitement.
Later, in the afternoon, we broke track and popped into Cascais, Portugal. This wasnt a scheduled stop but the weather forecast showed continuing calm and lots of motoring so we thought we would grab some fuel while we could. Our lightning stop in Cascais ended up taking a couple of hours as we seemed to pick the slowest pump on the fuel dock but I was in good spirits as it was all on my watch and I got the chance to park the boat. Qualified as a skipper I have had tons of experience parking boats in the past but recently I have only been working as a mate and so chances to keep practiced at mooring are few and far between. As we departed Cascais I couldnt help but notice the large quantities of jellyfish in the area. Not only was there lots of jellyfish but also small fish, big fish and dolphins. Not everything in the sea was alive though as I also spotted large quantities of rubbish. I refer to my previous theory that where there is rubbish there is life. Rubbish, jellyfish, small fish, big fish, birds, dolphins . . . coincidence?

22nd Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins today. Mostly common, some striped but also a few Rissos. Its always fun watching them bow ride, seeing the little juveniles mimicking their parents every move so quickly they appear to be moving in unison and listening out to their whistles from the foredeck. That wasnt all they did today though. We were also treated to quite a unique spectacle. Our last pod of dolphins in the daylight was spotted leaping out of the water in quite a frantic fashion. As we got closer we could see the water bubbling around them and then through the binoculars it was apparent the water was bubbling with small fish. It was a pod of Common Dolphins feeding. They were rounding up a school of fish near the waters surface and then hurtling up at it from underneath and leaping out the top, through the waters surface and flying through the air with their catch. As some dolphins surrounded the ball of fish others surged in from all angles and the fish, desperately trying to escape their fate, were swimming away in flocks with such panic that they would appear to be climbing out of the water on each others backs in great silver waves. This feeding frenzy lasted 30 minutes or so and then slowly started to calm down as the dolphins took more interest in us. They swam slower and inspected every inch of our hull in a relaxed fashion before ambling back over to the fish for a bit more food. Soon a flock of birds spotted the action and started bombing the fish from the sky as well. The fish were doomed but you forget the mass murder taking place when you see the inquisitive dolphins pausing to say hello to you in between courses. By the time the sun was reaching the horizon we had been drifting long enough that the fish were no longer scared of the boat and even approached it, perhaps seeking shelter from their predators. I was there waiting with the underwater camera on a pole to capture the dolphins actions from a different angle. The footage is exciting but unfortunately the light was crap and the water slightly murky so it doesnt do the show justice. The whole episode was fascinating for us onboard though. We spent a relatively large amount of time with dolphins but so rarely get to see much behaviour other than them bow riding.
Aside from the dolphins I noticed a couple of interesting human activities. As we head north, today I noticed for the first time in month that people were actively seeking out the sun. Previously we have all been fighting over and squeezing into the tiniest, uncomfortable shady spots on the deck but now people are stretching out to show as much surface area to the sun as possible. It is also the first time anyone has worn shoes on the boat since we passed through the Gibraltar Strait in June. Admittedly they are currently only worn on the night watches but it is still change. I suppose it is only a matter of a day or two before we forget all about what it was like to be too hot and start moaning about the cold again.

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The Atlantic, 19th + 20th September (Days 15+16)

19th You can tell someone has spent too much time at sea when they think of the Atlantic as home. That is how I felt about passing through the Gibraltar Strait from the Med to the North Atlantic. Back to the strong cold winds, cold sea, abundance of life and vast expanse of international waters which have been more familiar to me over the past 4 ½ years than anywhere else. One of the most exciting aspects is the thought of wearing shoes, jackets and trousers again! All items of clothing I happen to love wearing. Shoes allowing me to kick every passing object without stubbing my toes, trousers providing the extra comfort as I sit and jackets full of pockets to hold all my secret stolen chocolate bars and wrappers. As if I wasnt excited enough to be leaving behind the unbearably hot desert that is the Med, the Gibraltar Strait is an impressive way to do it. A great rock jutting out forming one side of the gateway and Africa just a few miles away forming the other. Hundreds of ships passing through all bottlenecked together and countless dolphins leaping out of the water in-between. A very exciting stretch of water. It comes at a cost though. Due to the funnelling effect of the land the wind only blows two ways in the Gibraltar Strait. A strong easterly or a strong westerly. This means you have a 50% chance of head winds. Unlucky for us we got the head winds in both directions this year. This time we had 30knots of wind from the west, no other direction to go in and the tide to compete with as well. We spent hours at a time managing not much more than 1knot but after a good 24 hour slog, hunting any lee from the wind or eddies of tide available as we went, we were finally clear of all strong tides and winds and making good progress towards Portugal.

20th Day one in the Atlantic and to my great disappointment, its really hot and sunny. Its the hottest day we have had in a while and now Im lethargic and sweaty. Fortunately the dolphins have been working hard to stop me getting too grumpy. Multiple sightings of large groups of dolphins, throughout the day, have played just a couple of hundred metres away from the boat. Always just out of range for any good photos and difficult to tell between the Striped and the Common Dolphins. This has been happening a lot recently and after dinner I was getting irritated with their shy behaviour (I realise how spoilt I sound sometimes) and so set about figuring out why they wont come close to us like any more. A few ideas came to me but the only half reasonable idea was that we are more exciting to the dolphins when we tow the hydrophones. Perhaps it sets us apart from other vessels or perhaps they initially mistake it for fishing gear which might lead to dinner. Another one of my thoughts was that we dont normally have the depth sounder on as it interferes with the acoustic recordings. The depth sounder is the instrument we use to see how deep the water is. Its sends pulses down to the sea bed in order to do this. Wondering if this was what was putting the dolphins off I switched it off and to my surprise came up on deck to find a pod of Common Dolphins were now heading straight towards us and proceeded to bow ride. I roused the rest of the crew with my excited jig and song of there coming to play, there coming to play, there coming to play and enjoyed the next 20minutes with the dolphins just centimetres away from us as we photographed them and listened to their whistles which could be heard above water without the need for hydrophones. We had another pod of dolphins bow ride after they left and I was sure I was on to something.
During my night watch between 0300 and 0600 it cooled down and I was to be heard pacing round the deck grumbling that its too bloody cold in the Atlantic and that I shouldnt have to wear a hoodie and a jacket to keep warm.

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Almerimar, 17th + 18th September (Days 13+14)

17th On the 17th we arrived in Almeria. This was the planned stop to drop off Carla and due to the forecast of more favourable winds the later we progressed we ended up staying the night and getting a few more boat jobs done. Simple things like servicing winches and replacing bulbs up the mast which are much easier to do on land then at sea as well as the usual shopping and cleaning was our evening activities before a nice 3 course meal and a glass of wine onboard served up by our newest crew member (and best cook judging by the dinner) Eve. An early night and a good sleep and we will be off as soon as the marina office opens at 0900 tomorrow.

18th Today, as we left port, I was informed by Tessa not to sleep at all because we would have 8 sightings. Trying to contain my excitement I ran down to the log book and titled the day 8 Sightings Day. . . WOW ! ! ! just to make sure it was set in stone. I spent as much time as I could standing in the A-Frame on the back of the boat with binoculars and a camera, ready for everything. As the day wore on I honed my camera skills on any passing birds that strayed close enough and got more and more excited. By dinner time I was bouncing around the deck as I knew there was less than an hour left before sunset and therefore we must get all 8 sightings in the next hour. What an hour it would be! At midnight I started my 3 hour night watch disappointed and having lost faith in our Dutch crew members abilities as a seer. I checked back in the log book and noticed in brackets under the days title:
1. Seaweed
2. Seabirds
3. Flying fish
4. Fishing boats
5. Sailing boats
6. Seawater
7. Rubbish
8. Big fish

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The Hangover, 15th + 16th September (Days 11+12)

15th I woke up in body, but not in spirit on the 15th. I didnt wake up in spirit for a couple more days. We had a good night and we paid the price in the morning. Gradually we ticked the few items left on our to do list off one by one. The first was the hardest, moving the EAR and two anchors (two tyres filled with concrete) from the car onto the boat. This would have been difficult on any normal day due to the extreme weight of these big concrete blocks but take away all our mental abilities, physical strength and will to live and the result is slow and painful. We soldiered on and had the boat ready to go by midday so then we took the boat over to the fuel dock before leaving the harbour. Just our luck, it was a self-service fuel system with Spanish instructions. Worse than that was after a half hour scratching our heads, a Spanish man discovered it wasnt working. As frustrating as the delay was it later became apparent that this was a blessing in disguise. We now had to wait for someone to come and fix the pump which meant we had time for a civilized sit down lunch and more importantly time to recover just a little more before we headed out to sea.
By dinner time we had recovered just about enough to grunt at each other and I think Tessa understood the effort put into our grunts of appreciation for the dinner she had cooked. However I am not sure the dolphins fully understood our grunts of appreciation at their playful behaviour around the bow of the boat whilst we sat on the foredeck with our vege-burgers and chips watching.

16th There is no more promising start to the day than flat calm and whale blows. That is what Eve saw on my morning watch. She described the blows as being fairly bushy and slightly angled to one side which is a perfect match for a Sperm Whale blow. I took the helm and headed over to where she saw it but before long she saw another blow in a different location. Over the next 15 minutes we trucked around chasing these phantom whales from blow to blow until the last blow was seen on the horizon and we gave up without a single sighting of the whale itself. We werent disappointed though. We were too excited to have seen a blow at all to be disappointed about not seeing the whale. It felt like a sign of things to come.
Next excitement of the day was a couple of hours later when we reached the spot where we planned to deploy the EAR. It took over an hour of careful winching and lowering to get it all in place but apart from a couple of ropes wrapping themselves into a mess we untied it from the boat and sent it to the deep without a hitch. Just as it faded out of view I turned to Carla and checked you did turn it on, right? A panicked look rushed onto her face as she began to understand my English but instantly faded again into a smile. It was turned on.
There was a few more surprises of the day. Striped dolphins, Rissos and Commons all showed some interest in the boat and swam alongside for a while as we photographed them and then at 1830 we dropped the sails, stopped the engine and went for a swim. The swim stop was my favourite part of the day. I was first in with my mask and snorkel and was first back out to grab a camera. The sea around us was littered with a whole variety of jelly-like creatures. Most of the creatures I dont know the name of so I wont bother trying to list them but there were a few things I recognised. One or two of the others were asking if anything would sting them to which I confidently replied definitely not, Ive seen and touched all these hundreds of times before. Of course I didnt have a clue but I didnt want anyone to miss out on the spectacle of flashing, wafting and swaying creatures below. The best part of an hour must have gone by before I finally crawled back onto the boat, a little exhausted and very excited. I had dived deeper and swam further from the boat than ever before as new creature distracted me and helped me forget my fear. It would be impossible for me to describe all the shapes, sizes and details of the creatures I saw but hopefully one day I will be ashore and able to upload some photos.

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Cartagena, 13th + 14th September (Days 9+10)

13th A good days sailing but not a lot else. Speculation as to what the two new crew members we are picking up in Cartagena tomorrow will be like.

14th More dolphins today. Dolphin sightings are definitely getting more regular but what we want now is whales. We are just entering an area in which we had more sightings than we could stay awake for on our passage out in May/June so hopefully we are in for a repeat over the next few days.
In the evening we arrived in Cartagena, Spain. We have come here to pick up a scientist, Carla and a new crew member, Eve. The scientist is only sailing with us for a couple of days and is bringing an Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR) which we will be deploying in around 400-500m of water off the coast of Algeria. Here the EAR will sit on the seabed and record any vocalizations of whales and dolphins (I believe Fin Whales are the primary interest) before being released sometime in March or April next year when it will be picked up again and the collected data will be analysed. Once in Cartagena we set about the usual routine of washing down the boat, oil changes and locating fuel and then at 1730 we celebrated with a gin and tonic. The drink disappeared all too quickly and after a quick shower we hit the town, little did we know we wouldnt return until the early hours of the morning.

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Sailing along the front-line – 12th September (Day 8)

As I got up for my night watch this morning I was even more tired than usual and consequently even grumpier. When it was pointed out to me that there was quite the lightshow in the sky on the horizon I merely thought of the possibilities of rain and of the lightning coming our way. I was satisfied that the lightning was over Africa and would not bother us at sea. Later as I began to wake up a little I began to appreciate the awesome bolts streaking through the sky lighting up the clouds and the sea, revealing the silhouettes of ships on the horizon. My memory was jogged back to when we first saw Africa this year, in the Gibraltar Strait at the start of the season. Africa was then also lit up by the terrifying flashes of power which came from the storm clouds. As the watch wore on I realized I was hypnotized by the spectacle. It was a constant barrage of light and power varying not in frequency but only in intensity. Most flashes were clearly a long way off, expelling their power harmlessly over the distant land of Africa but with others the bolts seemed to fork their way through the sky, reaching out to sea, like the stinging tentacles of a jellyfish being used as a whip, thankfully falling just short of us. I took comfort in the stars I could see above me. We were sailing along the front-line, the storms reach faltering just metres to the left and a calm peaceful sea lying to the right. As a tall metallic object standing alone in an expanse of flat empty ocean lightning strikes a little anxiety into most sailors. With an unbroken horizon, with nothing to hide the origin and resting place of each crack that appears in the sky, lightning is awe inspiring and terrifying.

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Green Lanterns, 11th September (Day 7)

I got up for my night watch a little tired and grumpy as usual but pleased that I had another watch to myself. We mostly do solo watches when its dark so we can all get a bit more sleep and I have to admit I love having the boat to myself for a couple of hours. Privacy and me time is generally hard to come by on a boat and so I look forward to these night watches in which I get to play with sails or drink tea till my hearts content without feeling the need to make small talk or involve someone else. After all I can be sociable during the daytime when everyone is up. This night watch had an added bonus though. There was no room left for tiredness or grumpiness when after a half hour or so we passed through the densest group of Pelagia Noctiluca I have ever seen. The sea around the boat was polka dot with green lanterns of a varying size and intensity and the light given off by such a large mass of jellyfish was impressive. As I raced to the stern where I knew the turbulent flow of water around the boat would gather the most jellyfish the pattern only got more intricate as the light from the bodies was bright enough to illuminate the tentacles as well. Here all the lanterns were connected by seemingly hundreds of thin strands of light creating a vast network of light. The masses of jellyfish came in waves lasting just 15 seconds or so before their numbers thinned until just one or two could be seen and then they grew again a few minutes later until the boat was once again the centre of a field of light. I saw this no more than 4 or 5 times before the sea returned to normal and I turned back to trimming sails.

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