Thirty days. That's all it took. That's how long it took. It's all kind of how you look at it. One month in a lifetime is a blip. One month in the middle of the ocean, with nothing but water in front of you, behind you, all around you can be a long time...yet it really wasn't.
Our goal—and our personal challenge—was to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Dakar, Senegal, on the coast of West Africa, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in one shot. Typically, in their quest to cross the Atlantic, most "cruisers,” (as our class of boating citizens is commonly referred to in this realm), would cross from the Canary Islands to the closest point in the West Indies, arriving in St. Bart, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Martinique, or Barbados. Such a crossing, or passage, would usually take about two-and-a-half to three weeks with the trade winds. We wanted to take a different route, a road less traveled, a passage seldom embarked upon—crossing directly to South America, and hopefully arrive in time for Carnaval in Rio. Thus we spent Christmas 1982 anchored in Dakar, Senegal, while we prepared for this next step. We didn't have too many options open to us for such a passage. Dakar would be the closest jumping off point to target landfall in South America and the best possible place to load up on provisions and perform the umpteen chores, boat maintenance, and preparatory items we needed to do in order to cover every possible scenario that could occur at sea for one month.
There wasn’t any halfway stopping point from here to there, no island-hopping possible, no place where we could quickly anchor, catch our breath and rest up for a few days before continuing onward. It would have to be all at once. Michel calculated that it would take at least 30 days.
So many questions I have been asked over the years about this part of our trip. How do you cross an ocean with an infant and a 3 year old? How do you spend 30 days in such a tight space with two small children? How do you keep them from falling overboard? How do you get along with your husband all that time? What do you eat? Don’t you get bored…? Well, getting bored was definitely not an issue. There was no time for that. Living on land with two small children is time consuming in itself. On a boat without modern conveniences, it’s an all day job. Think of life in the old west: no refrigeration; no electricity; having to make one’s own bread; conserving food by canning, salting, drying; washing clothes by hand… It’s actually a “survival” mode lifestyle. However, since that’s all we have to do, and not obliged to rush around in a car running errands, working, paying bills, meeting people for appointments and the like, that’s part of the purpose: taking the time to live.
For those who have never experienced the open ocean for days on end, it really isn’t boring. Yes, it is water, water, and more water, but it always changes. It changes color, it changes tempo, it changes direction. It changes currents, the horizon, its population. The wind changes all the time, and the sails must be changed accordingly, which changes the angle of the boat, and consequently the mood on board—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Even out in the middle of nowhere, outside a major shipping lane, a ship does occasionally pass, and as the saying goes, you really do pass each other in the night.
Many of our friends and family were actually quite worried, imagining us doing battle with the forces of nature as we affronted the high seas. In reality we had very calm, pleasant, and ideal conditions, enabling us to actually dine every evening under rather elegant circumstances: a level, stable table; proper place settings; and an open bottle of fine wine. We could have even unfurled our best white tablecloth!
So, after spending Christmas in Dakar, and having conquered the drama of getting our engine repaired, we planned for our upcoming month at sea. This meant planning all kinds of provisions. Along with food and water for two adults and two children, there were diapers to account for, baby food, baby bottles and more for a 10-month-old who would be close to a year upon our arrival. However, we also had to plan for the worst, the "what-ifs": what if there were numerous windless days, what if there was a major mechanical malfunction, or worse yet, what if we were to sink (and have to seek refuge in the life raft), or incur major damage to our boat? In such cases, we could conceivably be at sea much longer than a month. Consequently, we planned provisions for two-to-three months instead of just the one month that would most likely be the case.
Since we didn’t have refrigeration on board at the time, the food and meals were planned accordingly. I would have to make our daily bread—eliminating a lot of store-bought loaves, but having to stock up on flour. Making our own bread wasn’t anything new for me at this point, since we’d already been sailing for a few months. However, I admit I wasn’t very adept at it yet. I would take advantage of our port stops to buy it instead of baking it myself. My galley was well set up with plastic gallon air-tight containers for rice, flour, pasta, etc. to keep the ingredients high and dry. After calculating how much bread I would probably need to make, and how much flour would be necessary over a 30-day period, I purchased that amount. The same calculations were made for most other items: eggs, milk, butter, fruit, vegetables, and other staples.
Then there was a whole strategy for keeping fruits and vegetables as fresh as possible. I bought them in various stages of readiness at the last minute: very green and not yet ripe, those that would ripen within a week to 10 days, and those intended to be eaten immediately. Cabbage would substitute for lettuce down the road, and we grew our own sprouts on board.
I spent a lot of time in the days approaching the departure canning and preserving meats, fish, as well as preparing dishes with my onboard sterilizer/pressure cooker. With one “starter” yogurt, I would be able to make yogurt throughout the whole trip, and there were other similar tricks to making a basic cottage-cheese type cheese and “fromage blanc.”
Of course we intended to fish too, and hoped to catch as much as we would want or need, but we needed to be realistic and not depend solely upon that as our source of food. Any fish caught would be a bonus. However, should we have the good fortune of catching too much, there was no question of throwing it overboard. On a few occasions we did catch too much for just one meal, so we immediately launched into preserving the catch through the various methods we had at hand: salting, drying, and canning. As an added bonus, we also carted along two live chickens for the route, designated to be our fresh Sunday dinners the second and third Sundays of our trip—and they were.
Eggs were always good fallback items if there wasn’t much else to eat, and since I enjoy baking, I would need quite a few. There are some handy strategies passed around in the boating community as to keeping eggs fresh for several months without refrigeration. Some would dip their eggs for just an instant in boiling water, others would hard boil and pickle them. I subscribed to the Vaseline method. This consisted of coating each individual egg with a thin film of Vaseline. The eggs MUST be fresh, i.e. never been refrigerated. As an added precaution, we also turned each egg upside down once a week. The theory behind all this is that the Vaseline closes the porous shell, reducing any air exchange which contributes to the rotting of an egg, as well as keeping the yoke traveling so as not to touch the shell. Supposedly it can take a week for the yoke to travel from top to bottom and once it nestles on the bottom of the shell, that adds to its deterioration.
So, how many eggs does one take for one month, possibly two? I figured one egg per person per day, so four times 30 would be 120. That way it would balance out if I did some baking, thus using more than the daily average on occasion, because we surely wouldn’t eat an egg a day. Then for good measure, figuring on two months, along with a few broken here and there, I upped the amount and rounded it out to 200 eggs. We set about setting aside a spot for 200 eggs in the boat, carefully nestled in their cartons and we studiously coated all of them with Vaseline. During the crossing, each week was checked off with the weekly duty of turning the cartons upside down. The system worked quite well, because once we arrived in Brazil, we still had a few dozen eggs left, and preserved in that manner, they lasted several weeks longer.
One big advantage of being in a third world country (as we were sailing our from Senegal) where many, or most people, don’t have refrigeration in their homes, is that it is easy to find items we don’t have in more “modern” cultures. It was easy to find such things as canned butter, canned heavy cream, and “long-life” milk in quart cartons (similar to juice boxes). I found some stew meat in a vacuum-sealed brine solution. We wanted to keep actual commercially canned items to a minimum to preserve space and eliminate weight excess. Almost as a joke, but to have on hand as a real last resort should we exhaust all our meal options, we did include a few cans of Spam—the brunt of all onboard cuisine jokes.
We lifted anchor on January 22, 1983, sailing into Rio de Janeiro 30 days later, the dawn of February 21, under the watchful eye of the huge Christ statue. It was the best passage we ever experienced: calm, hot, blissful, and harmonious. Between sharing watch duty, cooking, fishing, meal times, snack times, nap times, reading, repairing boat items, sewing, and all the other daily chores that occupy a family and sailors, there was not a minute’s worth of boredom. There were amazing sunrises, fabulous sunsets, dolphin escorts. At one point we were mesmerized by huge manta rays jumping in the distance off the coast of Brazil. It was quite spectacular and as we sailed closer to them, they weaved in and out under our boat. At 10 ft. wide, and 42 ft. long, our boat was dwarfed by these giants as they glided beneath us in the crystal turquoise water.
Michel and I were strict about sticking to our scheduled four-hour watches. This regulated our day, and everything else revolved around that. Typically I took the midnight-to-4:00 a.m. watch. I would nap from around 8:30-9:00 p.m. or so until midnight, and then take over from Michel. We tried variations on the watch schedule, every two or every three hours. These options didn’t work for us. Indeed the fourth hour part of the watch at 4:00 a.m. wasn’t be easy, but at least the person off-watch got a four-hour sleep stint in. Two or three-hour sleeping periods just were not enough.
“Keeping watch” didn’t necessarily mean constantly keeping our eyes fixed on the horizon. It meant keeping an eye on things: on sounds that suddenly changed, on the wind direction, on the sails, on the automatic wind vane pilot, on the sleeping children, and also on the horizon. Any red or green light in the distance would signal a boat: red lights on the port side (left), green lights on the starboard side (right). This international signal system is handy because depending on what color you see, you know from what angle the boat is approaching. A full frontal view of a red and green light is not good. This means a head-on confrontation. But typically, once a boat is spotted on the horizon, we could count on 10-15 minutes before it could reach us. During that interim, I could continue reading my book, listening to my music, or whatever else I was involved doing as I prepared to peer out at the horizon in the next 10 minutes. We actually hoped to see a cargo ship or fishing trawler on occasion so we could initiate radio contact and confirm our position.
There was no GPS in these “olden” days of the 1980s. An early satellite navigation system was just beginning to make its debut on pleasure boats, but at $10,000, it was well beyond our means. Michel accomplished all our navigation with an old fashioned sextant, at which he became very adept. So much so, that he was able to predict within a day or two, and then within just an hour when we would have our first sighting of Rio.
Our two boys were always busy. Sean would play with his Lego or his own little boat that often trailed in the water behind us; he would fish, draw, feed leftovers to the chickens perched in their cages on deck, and always, he talked. He always asked questions: about the sails, the sextant navigating device, about the maps, and about fishing. He loved to fish and tweak ropes. He played well with his baby brother, Brendan, and they both spent a lot of time in our cockpit “pool”—a little inflatable bathtub we filled with seawater that they could splash around in.
By now Brendan was quite the crawler and I was amused at how his body literally rolled with the punches. The boat was the only home he knew. As a newborn, we brought him on board directly from the hospital. The boat’s movement was part of him and as he crawled around, his body moved in sync with the boat.
Conserving fresh water was the priority of daily life. We had an ample reserve of fresh water in our in-board water tanks, supplemented by additional jerrycans we stored on deck. We used salt water as often as we could, and mostly for showering and washing up—the dishes and the like. We discovered early on in our trip that baby shampoo lathers up well with salt water, so that became our personal hygiene product of choice. Once well lathered up with salt water, a good salt-water rinse, followed by a very stingy fresh water rinse, and we were clean every day crossing the Atlantic.
We didn’t actually have to spend much time at the steering wheel. We had a sort of a third crew member in the shape of an automatic wind vane pilot at the rear of the boat. It was ingeniously rigged up with ropes to the steering wheel and synchronized with the wind with its own wind vane. Although we did experience a few windless days in the “doldrums” latitudes as they are called, it wasn’t too annoying and despite those days, we still made pretty good time with Michel making an expert landfall prediction. Once we hit the trade winds, it was as if Cowabunga was on remote control, effortlessly riding the rails down to Rio.
February 3 was a milestone for us—we hit the halfway point as we crossed the equator, and we celebrated with champagne. It was also now officially summer as we ventured into the southern hemisphere for our first time. On February 18, our twenty-seventh day at sea, we spotted land for the first time. Michel figured we were about 300 nautical miles north of Rio, and we had first seen the blinking light of a lighthouse two evenings prior to that. He announced that in another three days we should reach Rio de Janeiro, and then still closer to the mark, on the evening of February 20, he announced that we should see some lights on the coast around midnight. Indeed, around 1:00 a.m. on February 21, I spotted a very bright light in what seemed to be the sky. It was quite high up from the coastal horizon, it seemed. As we approached and dawn shed the dark, the “sky light" proved to be the iconic statue of Christ. That was quite something to behold.
We were both quite taken aback, and emotional. We had arrived. We did it, together, and as a family.