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Alone ... on the South Atlantic Ocean

AdlerMichael Adler at the chart table
"My beautiful boat Eagle III"

On December 15, 1986, Eagle III put out to sea from Cape Town towards the western approaches with only one person on board – myself.I had recently completed the yachtmaster navigation course at the Royal Cape Yacht Club, and the license required a celestial navigation exercise at sea.

I could have taken a crew, but I had been talking to Brooks Heyward, a fellow sailor, who also wanted to do some solo sailing, so we agreed to be at sea together but in our own boats which were of similar design.December is a good time for sailing because of the summer weather with a prevailing south east wind, which although it can reach gale force, at least is reliable and predictable. If we sailed across this wind, we thought that we would have an easy run out and back, rather than having to fly before it and then beat home.

I had mentally prepared myself for this challenge because you have to be able to do everything yourself from boat handling, cooking, repairs, maintenance, and navigation and also find time for sleep while somehow keeping a lookout.There was no satellite navigation system at that time so that navigation relied on accurate sites of sun, moon, planets and stars, a good sextant, accurate navigation tables and a reliable watch.

My beautiful boat Eagle III was a Miura type, thirty feet long, just large enough to qualify for the Cape to Rio South Atlantic yacht race. She was a masthead sloop with mainsail and foresail, and with a full crew, could also fly a magnificent spinnaker when running before the wind.Below decks, there was everything one would need, including a saloon lined with teak and leather seats, a small toilet and shower, two double cabins, a kitchenette on one side and a full navigation station on the other with radios and charts.

I felt mighty strange as I pushed off from the marina, backed the boat into the channel and headed along the Duncan Dock.I put the boat onto Autohelm so that it steered itself for the short while it took to raise and tension the mainsail and see that all the reefing lines were running properly while keeping a sharp lookout for harbor traffic.I had to round up into the wind outside the dock entrance to unfurl the Genoa foresail and then eased the sails out as she came off the wind and slid around the breakwater with the wide open sea beyond Robben Island.

A beautiful day, moderate south-easter, light table cloth on the mountain, gentle rolling sea and not a cloud in sight elsewhere. So far so good I thought, and went below to contact Brooks in Moyeni. There he was loud and clear and it was a pleasure to hear his voice, even though he was many miles away having also just put to sea from Simonstown in False Bay.He had to go south towards Cape Point before heading west and I doubted if I would see him on this trip, but it was nice to know that we were comrades in arms.


Eagle III at her moorings

It doesn't take long to lose sight of land.It has always astonished me how quickly a situation can change on the sea.So after a few hours, there I was out on the South Atlantic - alone - with just the sounds of the boat slicing through the water and Table Mountain a smudge on the horizon.I felt as if I was going to fall off the edge.I had a bit of lunch but didn't really feel hungry.I called up Cape Town radio, got the weather report and then retuned for a linked radio telephone call to home.The boat was going really well, and I started to prepare for a few star sights later in the day as I had already missed the noon-day sun shot.I spread the chart on the saloon table, worked out my estimated dead reckoning position from my course and speed so far and checked this with the radio direction finder tuned to Robben Island - ZUI.It put me about 25 miles west of Cape Town and slightly to the north.I had done all I could for the moment and went for an inspection around the deck, checking on the mast and standing rigging, the luff tension on the genoa and the three tell-tails on the leading edge to show wind flow.I loved the feel and surge of the boat underneath me.The ocean was a deep blue.There was nothing else to do but read a book and think about what I would make for supper.

The sun set with a blaze of color and the boat plunged steadily westward.Brooks told me he was doing fine.It was getting dark now and I put on the navigation lights, felt reassured by the compass light and instrument lights and ran the engine for a while to charge the batteries.It's a strange thing that white sails don't show up so well at night.They say that black is better but I have never seen a black sail and have never put it to the test.A torch light shone on the sails from time to time assured me that they were drawing well, and that the wind was holding steady.There was a light in the distance which quickly became two and I realized that it was quite a large ship - probably a tanker making its way around the Cape and this warned me that I needed to keep a sharp lookout as I crossed the shipping lane.I kept a careful watch on it and it soon disappeared.After a few hours with nothing to see all around, I went below for a nap with the alarm clock on to wake me in an hour.My internal clock did the waking instead, and I looked around the cabin, listened to the noises of the boat and was deeply satisfied that everything was in order and the boat was behaving itself.I went topsides and looked right around the ocean.Not a light to be seen.Time for the star sights. I took careful note of the sextant angles and the time of each sight, and went below to do some calculating.That put me 65 miles west of Cape Town and clear of the shipping lanes. 

The boat sailed briskly all next day.I took a morning sun sight and drew a position line on the chart.I worked out the probable time of meridian passage of the sun – the time when it would be at its highest due north of me, my local noon.I knew that if I took a series of sights around this time, I could plot an accurate latitude and longitude, but I had never done this on my own before.As the sun rose to near its zenith, I took a number of sextant sights, each time jotting down the time and then the sun seemed to hang for a few minutes at its maximum altitude without needing to adjust the sextant.I then followed it downwards for some minutes trying to match equal angles to those taken previously.In the end I was able to plot an accurate curve and was able to fix the exact time of maximum altitude and hence my longitude which represented the difference in time between my local noon and time at Greenwich.The maximum sextant angle could be turned into latitude giving me an accurate position fix.These were plotted on my chart. I was pleased with my efforts, and had lunch and a doze before getting ready for the afternoon position line.

After a wrestle with the almanac and the site reduction tables, I was able to draw this on the chart, advanced the morning line up to it and was able to obtain a good fix once more.Then I determined to get a moon shot that evening as well as the star shots.The moon is tricky as its position changes quite quickly and a special correction is required. Brooks reported that he was fine but was worried about the weather report which I had missed and which promised a north-wester later that night.There was no sign of that in my area and the barometer held to 1012 millibars but it worried me too, especially as it was so unseasonal.

The next morning I could see that the sky had changed and that there were white streaks of cirrus, always a sign of high altitude icy jet streams.I suddenly felt I had come far enough, and instead of turning north for a while, I did an about turn and started retracing my track.I couldn't raise Brooks but managed to put in a call to Cape Town Radio and gave my position and intentions.The wind started to die and I knew that its direction was going to change.I could see that the air had turned milky and felt very worried that I was going to be caught in a storm.Black clouds were forming quickly and the wind direction changed to the north-west, just as predicted.I couldn't get a radio signal from Robben Island and realized that being 250 miles out I was probably out of range.Nevertheless, I set course for Cape Town, eased out the main and genoa sails and put a vang (preventer block and tackle) on the boom just in case.The boat was going like a train, slicing through the waves at it lunged forwards and I estimated that it would take me about 36 hours to get back home.The wind did start to increase and although I thought the boat seemed able to handle it, I took a reef in the mainsail and felt better for it and even better when I did the same for the genoa headsail.No chance of sextant sights with this heavy cloud.The waves were curling in from the port quarter and the occasional one would smash against the side and hurl the boat over.I didn't get much sleep.Next morning I started looking ahead for Cape Town, and thought I could detect a smudge on the horizon dead ahead.My RDF picked up the island and I knew I was on track.

No word from Brooks.The boat touched seven knots on the way in and I was pleased that everything had held together.I knew that we would soon be in port and that I was going to beat the worst of the storm.I tried to phone Brooks when I got in and was alarmed at not being able to contact him and that there had been no word from him.Later he told me that he had had a hard time in the gale with a long beat back to Simonstown.The reason for his silence was a faulty radio antenna connection.

As I stepped ashore with the mooring lines, I felt a fine sense of achievement after five days at sea alone on the South Atlantic Ocean and lots of navigation experience.I suddenly realized as I looked at my boat that I had not been alone at all, and may have had the best conversation ever. 

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Wednesday, 26 February 2020

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