We Sailed to the Moon...Part One

“It has to be there,” my husband affirmed after taking another sun sight with the sextant. He had been taking sun sights almost non-stop since sunrise. A lot was at stake. “My calculations say we are here; I keep getting the same position. We have arrived.” Yet, from the deck we saw nothing. None of us saw anything. No land.

We were trying to find a needle in a haystack—or just about, it seemed. St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks are a very tiny rocky outcroppings of 15 small islets (some of which are really only rocks) that literally lie in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, just about halfway between Africa and South America. Although technically in the North Atlantic, for all intents and purposes they practically sit on the equator, at just slightly over 60 miles north of the line, (Lat. 00°55'1"N, Long. 29°20'7"W). A Brazilian territory, St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks are actually the exposed jagged tips of the pinnacles of an underwater mountain ridge known as an “abyssal mantle.” Plunging 4000 meters deep into the ocean, they are located in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, a region known for severe and violent storms. This very area recently came under scrutiny and international infamy for the part it played in the crash of the Air France Flight 447, of which some of the aircraft fragments were actually found near St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks.

In the grand scheme of the vastness of the Atlantic ocean, this archipelago is really extremely tiny. Its highest point only measures only about 60 ft. above sea level. We became painfully aware of this fact early that morning when Michel’s sextant sights and calculations said we had arrived at our destination, but it certainly didn’t seem so. Finally, Michel just climbed up the mast, and indeed, there lie St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, just barely peeking above the haze, only five miles away. Any other landfall would have risen considerably above sea level, easily visible from 40 miles or so. We were all relieved to see it. Not only was Michel’s reputation as a navigator at stake, but also the fulfillment of our mission and contract for $5,000 to ferry our extra passenger, Miguel Maccio, from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, to the Rocks on his scientific mission.

We embarked on this expedition from Fortaleza, Brazil, shortly after our misadventure with the stranger in the night. It was the morning after our jarring midnight encounter with the intruder, and Michel and I were sitting outside in the cockpit, drinking our coffee, rehashing what had happened, taking stock of our situation. Miguel, an Argentinian, came motoring up alongside Cowabunga, escorted by some Brazilian associates. It seemed he urgently needed a passage to the Rocks and sought a boat to charter on behalf of Columbia University, with an offer of $5,000. The Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory maintained a wind recording station on the Rocks, but some malfunction with the station brought Miguel to these waters on a repair mission. All he needed was transportation out there.

Normally an Observatory team routinely visited the site aboard a French oceanography ship, but for this sudden urgent repair, the ship was not available. Miguel had originally arrived in Fortaleza with a prior agreement with a local fishing vessel crew to take him out to St. Peter and St. Paul, but upon his arrival, Miguel quickly canceled the deal and urgently sought another option once he saw the appalling condition of the fishing vessel and realized that the fishermen were woefully lacking in navigation experience and knowledge. Not only did they have no navigation equipment whatsoever on board, according to Miguel, they had no idea how to chart a course to St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks. Intrigued by the American flag flying from our stern that he saw in the distance from shore, Miguel figured that if we got this far under our own steam, we must know what we’re doing. He was willing to take his chances with us, and we were eager to earn a bonus $5,000 for our coffer.

It was a tall order, nevertheless. There were a lot of negatives to undertaking the trip: no place to anchor once arrived at the Rocks, rough and choppy seas for the full 600 mile northeast trip heading into the trade winds, a counter current, and two little children on board along with Miguel as an extra passenger. Then on the other hand, aside from the money, it was also a unique opportunity to discover a place practically unknown, and a feather in our cap to have run a mission for Columbia University. Nevertheless, we still were somewhat skeptical to take on this mission. Miguel had quite a bit of equipment he would have to load on board, (much contained in a good-sized trunk), along with several crates, and five large storage batteries. After much discussion and thought, it was decided that the kids and I would stay in a little hotel in Fortaleza while Michel, Miguel, and another crewmate hired on by Miguel, would make the trip. It just didn’t seem fair to make the kids endure what would surely be very unpleasant sailing conditions for at least a week, nor oblige Miguel to be cooped up with two small, and most likely cranky children under such conditions.

It took a week to prepare the boat and paperwork with the Brazilian authorities for the expedition. Along with provisioning Cowabunga with food, fuel, and finding spots for Miguel’s equipment, the paperwork was a whole other undertaking. Since the original authorizations from the Brazilian navy, police, immigration, and customs officials encompassed the now-defunct deal with the local fishing vessel, this threw them into a quandary. How does an Argentinian, acting on behalf of an American entity, importing his equipment into Brazil to board an American sailing vessel, to sail to an uninhabited Brazilian territory that has no official entry port (i.e. no stamp to be stamped on a passport!) get authorized?! They were truly distraught.

Deck of Cowabunga—view from top of the mast

The trip started out as a fiasco. Things went wrong from the start. They had barely left Fortaleza, only about 24 hours into the voyage beating into headwinds, when the forestay turnbuckle broke. This was a pretty major malfunction and misfortune since this meant the full “genoa” sail normally hoisted at the head of the boat could not be used. Without this major structural part, the genoa sail force would be too much of a load on the rigging, especially in the strong 25-30 knot headwinds. Michel was able to jury rig a replacement, but it was wise to use a smaller headsail instead. This meant sailing at a much slower speed, and much more difficulty in battling the counter current. Then shortly thereafter, the diesel fuel tank sprang a leak, not only sloshing diesel fuel throughout the bilge, but also up along the insides of the hull, behind the water tanks, bookshelves, provision cupboards, behind the galley, fridge...There is nothing worse than smelly, greasy diesel fuel permeating your air and that you touch while being confined within a 42 ft. cocoon. The hatches couldn’t even be opened for fresh air since the choppy sea was constantly washing over the deck due to the boat struggling against the headwind trade winds.

To make things worse, the hired-on Brazilian crew member began to panic. He was incapable of handling the mishaps and uncomfortable sailing conditions. His mental state rendered living conditions for all others on board intolerable. Thus, Michel and Miguel decided to turn back, arriving several days later in Fortaleza. The obnoxious crew member couldn’t get back on land fast enough. He was never heard from, nor seen again.

Although I was on land in the hotel with the kids, we were able to keep in constant contact with Michel through the on-board ham radio and a network of amateur radio buffs on land. We welcomed their safe return. Then with Miguel, Michel and I reassessed the situation. Miguel wasn’t ready to give up; he wanted to try again, once repairs were made, but this time with me and the kids as crew. He was willing to bet that we would be more competent and easier to get along with than the prior failed personnel. So, Brazil being Brazil at the time, importing and buying new foreign-made parts to accomplish the necessary repairs would be prohibitively expensive. Due to this fact, local laborers were often skilled at creating parts or copying parts quite satisfactorily. Consequently we had a new custom stainless steel diesel fuel tank made up in no time flat. As for a new turnbuckle, I was able to find a replacement from another yachtie’s spare parts among the fellow sailboats in the harbor, just prior to the return of Cowabunga. However, it wasn’t that easy to just install a new fuel tank. It was actually quite a big job cutting out the old tank first, then cleaning up the fuel mess all inside the boat before installing the new one. After a very hectic week-to-10 days, we set sail again—but this time just our family plus Miguel, and all his weather station equipment. The adventure had only begun...stay tuned for Part Two: Sailing to the Moon...and Back!