Monday, September 28, 2009
Sao Tome Squeeze!
Do not be mislead by Mary's picture of me chatting this brassy young blond !! The squeeze to which I am referring is an altogether more nautical one, as opposed to my wishful thinking!
When we anchored in Guarapari bay at 4.00pm on Tuesday, we had without any shadow of doubt, completed by far the most harrowing and stressful 36 hours and 180 miles of sailing we have ever experienced! But before going into detail, another anatomical analogy is called for, to describe the coastline around the Sao Tome cape. Sao Tome would be the elbow on your half bent left arm, with your knuckles being Cabo Frio, and wrist, Buzios. The port of Victoria would be up near your shoulder. Lying 50 miles offshore from this elbow, is Brasil's largest offshore oilfield, comprising any number of oilrigs and platforms, in a rectangle 70miles long, by 20 wide. These rigs are serviced by the port of Macae,somewhere on you forearm! There is a constant stream of tugs, supply and service vessels, running backwards and forwards between Macae and the oilfield.The area between Sao Tome and the oilfield is also very shallow, with the first 15 miles off the point being never more than 25metres deep, and the remaining 30miles between 40 and 60metres deep. The shallow Sao Tome banks, are a very rich fishing area, and are alive with fishing boats, day and night. All of the very considerable South American coastal shipping , has to pass through this narrow 30 mile gap, between the Oilfields, and the Sao Tome banks.
To compound the problems facing yachts, is the fact that the prevailing wind is a 20-25knot North Easterly, which is right on the nose, and is accompanied by the 1 knot Brazilian current! Clearly one does not want to spend too much time tacking backwards and forwards in this area, making slow progress.Our Strataegy was to wait for a cold front to come through, bringing the Southerly winds, and get the hell through this piece of water ASAP! This stategy makes sense, but brings with it, additional problems.... like 25knot winds against the current, over shallow waters, which makes for a pretty horrid sea state! Cold fronts also bring clouds, rain, pitch black nights and poor visibility at times! With our Radar being U/S, we decided to leave Buzios at dawn, to get far enough offshore to be outside most of the smaller fishing boats in daylight, and through the Macae/Oilfield traffic as well, as most of them do not have AIS transmitters( less than 200 tons). By night , we reasoned, we would be in the shipping routes, where we could expect proper navigation lights, and, AIS positioning.
The first 12 hours were uneventful, and plain sailing. By evening, the wind freshened, and we had put in two reefs, and shortened the headsaildown to about a no.3 or 4. But all too soon, we were barrelling along like a bat out of hell, in a wind against current, wild sea, an ink black night, on a marine highway, feeling like tenpins in a bowling alley! Normally, Mary and I do 3 hour night watches, but knowing it was likely to be challenging, and for one night only, we had planned on 2 hour watches for the passage. Fat Bloody Chance!! The sea conditions, and the sheer volume of shipping and traffic, required that both of us had to be on watch, right through the night! I plotted and logged the tracks of about 20 vessels which at some time had appeared to be on a collision course with us. Thanks to AIS, I was able to call up 4 by name, when they got to within 2 -4 miles of us, doing on average 14knots, and alert them to our position and course. In those conditions, our echo would have been lost in the sea clutter on their radars! In each case, they acknowledged my call, and took appropriate course changing action, for which they received my grateful thanks! At times, the AIS screen looked like a shotgun pattern ! All in all, we must have "seen", 40 to 50 tankers (or freighters), a similar number of fishing vessels, as well as an array of exploration rigs, platforms, and flashing bouys , in just 10, very dark hours! And every so often, the rain would block out all nav lights, and leave us drenched, not to mention the electrical storm that tormented our already frayed nerves!!
Never has a dawn been more welcome!! By 5.00am, we had both been awake for 24 hours, and were physically and emotionally knackered ! Then the fish decided to hit our lures! After landing three nice fish, we pulled in the lines, and set a course for Guarapari Bay, some 25 miles short of Victoria, as we did not feel up to entering a difficult new port entrance,at night, in our exhaused state! We dropped the hook at 4pm, in a surprisingly pretty , and sheltered bay ; had a couple of Scotches, a bite to eat, and hit the sack at 6pm, and slept for 12 straight hours! We had squeezed through the Gap!