Solo offshore sailing

After a few weeks in the Canaries, it was time to head back North. Rather than going the direct route via the Madeira archipelago, I decided to take the scenic route via the Azores…

And as I couldn’t find anyone mad enough to sail the North Atlantic on a 36 footer at this time of the year, I left Tazacorte, a small harbour to the west of La Palma (yes, that’s where the volcano did quite a bit of damage last Autumn) and headed Northwest into the Atlantic swell alone, on the 21st of February.

The Azores high was in the way, which meant I had four day close-hauled in the North-easterly winds that prevail to the South East of it, and one day becalmed in the middle of it before I eventually caught the Westerlies which got me to Punta Delgada, on Sao Miguel Island in the morning of the 1st of March.

Magic moment offshore, sailing into a rainbow

I stayed there a week before moving to the smaller island of Santa Maria where I waited for a weather window for the crossing  back to Europe. As soon as a narrow one appeared, on Paddy’s day as luck would have it,  I left, ahead of a Westerly gale, and had a fast and furious sail for 36 hours, ahead of a cold front in 20 to 30 knots of South Easterly. The westerlies that followed were kinder, but there was a big swell. Eventually, the wind turned too light to sail, forcing me to motor for a while. When the wind came back, it was from the Northeast, almost dead in the nose, and I went on the port tack, to the south of the direct route, eventually ending  up in the Ria de Puntavedra, in Galicia, where I refuelled, had a full night sleep and did some shopping before heading North again toward Lorient.
I was to pick up my daughter Maude in Lorient before heading back to Ireland, but various delays (including me catching COVID) meant that she ended flying back, and that for the last leg of the return journey from Brittany to Clare Island I was, again, sailing solo.
I waited in Brest for a suitable weather window and had a fast sail in Northeasterly winds up to Mizen head, where the wind dropped, leaving me to motor to Derrynane, a delightful  little harbour on the North coast of the Kenmare river, where I spent a night on a borrowed mooring.
The following day, the wind was back, from the East, and again, a fast and most pleasant sail got me through the Blasket sound with the last of the rising tide, then straight up North overnight toward High Island sound where I arrived at dawn the following day in a dying wind, which had turned easterly. After a futile attempt at tacking up toward Cleggan point, and with the tide turning against me, I turned on the engine and arrived back to Clare Island in time for lunch on the 20th of April, having sailed over 2500 miles solo since Gran Canaria.

For those who have never done it, solo offshore sailing may look like the ultimate sailing challenge, but in a lot of ways, it’s easier than coastal solo sailing.
First, when you are far offshore, there’s always plenty of room to leeward, and generally few boats around, so  you can usually sleep comfortably for most of the night with the windvane or electric pilot at the helm, while the AIS and the radar detector look for any boat that might be on a collision course.  Closer inshore, where there’s far more traffic, more changeable winds, and where the boat position needs to be much more closely monitored, sailing solo is more challenging, with much more time spent on watch. And manoeuvres are always easier with as much sea room as you need than when there are rocks and other obstacles nearby.
Furthermore, as Jean Le Cam (one of the world’s most experienced solo sailor with five solo round the world races to his name) says: “when you are on your own, nobody  else knows when you f** up.”

But perhaps more importantly, the best part of solo offshore sailing is the feeling of total freedom. Where are we going? Wherever the wind (and my fancy) takes me.

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