10 firsts from my first 10 days on board

I have now been living aboard Mehalah, the boat I will cross the Atlantic on, for 10 days. It has flown by, but also feels as though I have always been here. Gill and John and welcomed me in to their home and involved me in all aspects of preparing for the voyage and servicing the boat which has been brilliant. The whole point of this journey is that I learn enough about sailing to be able to live on my own boat some day soon, so I need to know how to do it all.

Mehalah – a 47ft Stevens owned by Gill and John, and my home for a few weeks

As Jedidiah Jenkins points out in the video I shared a few weeks ago, breaking routine and experiencing new things makes time stretch. Days pass quickly but weeks feel like months. It has certainly felt that way for me, learning new skills every day.

Here are just a few of the ‘firsts’ from my first 10 days living aboard.

1) Always my top priority – food

When I arrived, Gill and John showed me the whiteboard of jobs assigned to each of us in preparation for departure. Top of my list was ‘familiarisation’, and we started with the Galley. Mehalah is well equipped with plenty of storage space, a large fridge and freezer (which we don’t have turned on and use as a cool larder instead), a gas oven and hobs opposite a central work station with sink, so you can easily wedge yourself in to cook in a swell (not that we’ve needed to here in the marina).

I am really lucky that Gill and John care about food too, and eat a mostly vegetarian diet full of all the things I like. We share cooking duties and have enjoyed plenty of yummy salads, curries and tonight, pizza.

One of many delicious rainbow lunches

Gill and I spent a fun afternoon emptying all of the cupboards, sorting out the various bags and tins of food, packing them away in a sensible order and working out what we needed more of (definitely not any more tins of sweet corn…!)

In the midst of cupboard sorting with Gill (with just as many supplies out of shot)

We have also made a visit to the weekly organic market in Arrecife to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, smoked sheep’s cheese and delicious sourdough. We’ll go again this week to get as much long lasting produce as we can.

At the Saturday morning market in Arrecife

John can’t eat sugar, so Gill and I have also been testing out various sugar-free cake recipes to see us all through the night watches on our journey. So far we have made fruit cakes, banana bread, carrot, apricot and orange cake, chocolate brownies and flapjack – remarkably successfully for items usually made mostly of sugar…!

Bringing out samples to test with a cup of tea after a morning baking

I am now very familiar with the galley, and we are all confident that we will not go hungry on our voyage, so ‘familiarisation’ and ‘bake bread and cakes’ have been crossed off my list.

2) Hoist the mainsail

Another important part of familiarisation for sailing across an ocean – learning how to hoist the mainsail, unfurl the foresails, reef, use the winches etc. On mornings with very little wind, we have practiced getting the sails in and out here in the marina. I did, of course, do all of these things on my Competent Crew course in Falmouth in September, but that boat was set up differently so it’s been good to see how everything works on Mehalah, and remember what all the phrases I know from reading Swallows and Amazon’s actually mean…!

3) Autohelm and windsteering

Once we are underway, we don’t necessarily want someone to have to stand at the helm for the whole three weeks it will take to cross the Atlantic. There are two pieces of equipment on board that we can use to take us in the right direction, an autohelm and wind steering, neither of which were working when I arrived on board. John’s two biggest jobs have been fixing the both, and I have helped him out when he’s needed it.

The autohelm had a leaking reservoir which needed replacing, then bleeding once the long-awaited part was in place, with John down in the lazarette (a sort of cave in the back of the boat, accessed via a very small hatch in the deck), while Gill or I moved the wheel back and forth or tested the autohelm. Eventually, after some middle-of-the-night thinking and many cramped hours in the lazarette for John, it was working again – yippee!

Then there was the wind steering, our preferred device because it requires no power. The Aries had worked on the passage down to here, but apparently protesting by making the sounds of an injured cow, moving stiffly in some places and far too loosely in others, threatening to shake off into the sea. Before I arrived, John and Hugh (a friend who’d come to help for a week) had started taking it to pieces and hit many snags where pins had been welded into place and other parts seized up. With the help of a lovely local fabricator, we finally got everything to pieces, new parts made, everything cleaned and reassembled.

An hour of reconstruction in 30 seconds – the test run
Back together for real, with everything greased, tightened and moving like a dream
And then moved into position on the back of the boat, being very careful to not drop any precious nuts, bolts or washers into the sea…

Now we are just waiting for some wind so that we can go out for a test run – fingers crossed for Sunday!

4) In case there’s no wind – engine servicing

If we can’t use the sails or the wind steering, we might choose to use the engine (or just bob around in the middle of the Atlantic for a while – we’ll see!) John taught me how to service the engine; we changed the engine oil, the primary and secondary fuel filters, checked the water filter, replaced the anode and the impeller – all words that I knew, but I’ve never done any engine work before because my wonderful Papa has always done it for me in my car… If I one day have my own boat though, he’s not going to be able to help me with any engine trouble because of his terrible seasickness – just stepping aboard is likely to make him queasy, without having to go below deck and squeeze into the engine. So it’s been brilliant to find my way around an engine and get my hands dirty.

Changing the engine oil

5) Up the mast!

After a long period in the marina and before a long passage, it’s important to check all the rigging for chafing or corrosion, so that you (hopefully) don’t find yourself with an out-of-control sail in a storm. This means someone needs to be able to examine all the ropes and joints up the mast – and that person was me! Gill and John strapped me into the ‘bosun’s chair’ – a seat and harness attached to a rope, and hoisted me right up to the top of the mast. I was relieved to find that I had no instinctive reactions to being at such height – no wobbly legs or dizziness, just excitement!

It’s a long way down!
Checking the spreaders on the way back down

6) Dinghy practice

When we arrive in Martinique, we will probably anchor somewhere rather than moor up at a pontoon, so our only access to land will be using the dinghy. I hadn’t used a dinghy before, so lessons were a great excuse to take the dinghy over to the nearest bay for afternoon swims on a couple of the hottest days this week. My manoeuvring at low speed in confined areas (i.e. the marina…) still leave a little to be desired, but other than that I think I’ve got it!

Taking us to the bay for an afternoon swim
Well worth it – the water is warm, clear and full of shoals of fish

7) Passage planning

So where are we going?! Our fourth crew member arrives on Tuesday. We’ll have a couple of days of briefings and settling into the boat together, then hopefully set off on Thursday or Friday (depending on the weather). We are planning up to a week of short day sails and night passages hopping down through the Canary Islands while we get used to working together as a crew and to allow for troubleshooting and repairs if necessary.

Gill gave me the task of researching anchorage’s en route, then we used a chart map on the iPad to check distances between them, timings, tides and moons, and have come up with a couple of options for passages. We are currently planning to reach La Gomera or La Palma, two of the most westerly (and greenest!) islands for a few days of exploring before we set off for our three week crossing.

8) Testing the satellite phone

We have a couple of ways of keeping in touch with the world while we are in the middle of the Atlantic. The first is an InReach device which we can use to send a short message to say all is well and our location to a few people (including my parents). The second is an Iridium satellite phone which we can use to send short text-only emails, including blog updates – Gill and John already have this set up to update their blog, and I’m working out how to do it to mine too. Hopefully I’ll be able to update you all on our progress, whilst remaining blissfully ignorant of the post-Brexit apocalypse.

Linking up the satellite phone

9) Radio practice

Without a radio license, I’m not technically allowed to use the DSC radio unless it is an emergency, but Gill and I had a fun session pretending I wanted a berth in the marina, and then calling MayDay in various different scenarios this afternoon. Finally, learning the phonetic alphabet is coming in useful. Yankee India Papa Papa Echo Echo!

10) Polishing stainless steel

There is a lot of stainless steel on deck, and Gill and I are working out way around it all with metal cleaner, a toothbrush and rags. I have taken the port side and Gill starboard, and she is making good use of my competitive streak to get everything polished before we set off. Polishing is a good way of checking for corrosion, loose screws or missing pins too.

I am using the polishing time to compile my sailing-to-a-desert-island discs playlist… Desert Island Discs is one of my favourite radio shows/podcasts, and a lifetime ambition is to one day have achieved something worthy of being a guest (har har!)

I’m not quite there yet, but I’ve often wondered what it would be like to only have 8 tracks to listen to, so I’m going to test it out on our three week passage. I have been listening to many tracks as I polish, but the more I listen to the longer the list gets… Still, I have another few days to narrow them down. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them! (Same goes for podcasts and audiobooks, which I am not limiting myself with – please leave recommendations in the comments or contact me however you usually would!)

Polishing stainless steel with a trial playlist in my ears

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