leg 11: St Helena to Ascension
We left St Helena in perfect conditions to fly our asymmetrical gennaker and Irene clipped along beautifully at up to 8 knots of boat speed, we had an interesting time dropping the kite in the dark in 20 knots of wind though and decided it may be better to take it down come sunset to be on the safe side in future. Red Herring and Matangi gave us a two day head start to Ascension and so the race was on to see how long we could stay in the lead!
Our SSB radio hadn’t been working brilliantly so although we were able to hear the other boats they weren’t able to hear us unless Denzell shouted really loudly, which was a bit frustrating but it was still good to hear everyone’s position. Matangi reported they had broken their spinnaker block at the top of the mast and Rob had had to climb the mast in not great conditions to get the spinnaker down. Unbelievably the very next day the same thing happened to us! Luckily we didn’t break the block, only the U bolt on the mast, so we were able to lower the gennaker without Denzell going for a climb. Unfortunately this meant no more kite flying for us and racing Red Herring rapidly overtook us.
Dead downwind sailing without the gennaker was frustrating. With the wind too far behind us the mainsail starts ‘stealing’ wind from the foresail resulting in the extremely annoying sound of a flapping sail. It really is enough to drive you mad. Sea conditions were relatively calm so Denz went up the mast to try a fix for the U bolt so that we could get moving with the gennaker again, but no luck. We tried goose winging with some success but really found we needed a spinnaker pole to hold the foresail in position. First order of business on Ascension is going to be the hunt for a bamboo pole.
We arrived on Ascension Island friday, 14 December around lunch time. There is a floating fuel hose and numerous mooring buoys to negotiate around in the anchorage and so we were happy to have Red Herring and Wasco there already to give us some directions, sometimes it pays not to win the race! There’s not a lot of protection from the Atlantic Ocean swells here so Denz dived down to check our anchor really was secure before we launched the Pillager to negotiate the pretty hectic landing on the pier head to complete check in and catch up with the other salty sailors for a well deserved beer.
Matangi arrived soon after us and as Wasco are leaving in a few days to sail directly to Barbados, which is a pretty long haul, we decided to have an early Christmas party before they left. We cooked the gammon I’d bought on St Helena and glazed it with cherry jam and the blowtorch and a very festive celebration ensued. There was even champagne and Christmas cake.
As there’s only one rental car on the island we had to share it between all the boats. We also couldn’t pick it up until Tuesday because Wasco had already used all the fuel in the tank and the fuel station is only open on Monday afternoons. This island really is a remote outpost! When we did finally get wheels we took a drive through the American base across the runway, much to Callum’s delight, and then to the old NASA station where Neil Armstrong’s message from the moon was relayed to Houston. Then onwards to green mountain to hike to the dew pond. Turns out that when Darwin visited the island on his exploration of the new world, the soldiers garrisoned here complained about the lack of fresh water. He suggested they plant a forest of bamboo on top of green mountain (which wasn’t green back then but rather a barren volcano) to capture the sea mist and essentially create a cloud forest to harvest fresh water. There’s a really interesting article about this experiment of Darwin’s on the BBC and you can find it here.
Thank goodness for that experiment because we really needed a bamboo pole and there were plenty to choose from. Driving back to town with a 5m length of bamboo strapped on the roof of our compact rental car drew a few amused looks from the locals. We weren’t too sure of the legality of our harvesting mission (we also had a bunch of pilfered bananas in the boot) and then managed to take a wrong turn back in town which meant driving past the police station twice trying to look normal. Graham from Red Herring came over with his years of sailing expertise and with some rope and a block magically turned our bit of bamboo into a spinnaker pole and also showed us how to use it.
Sadly it was time to say goodbye to Red Herring as well as Wasco, we weren’t sure if we would be meeting them again as we are all taking different routes from here. Matangi are going to Brazil with us and we’ll also be seeing Era there again though.
Ascension was without a doubt the most magical place we have seen so far. There were turtles swimming around the yacht all day and fresh turtle tracks and nests on the beach every morning. And it wasn’t even turtle season! Under the yacht we had schools of trigger fish with an electric blue stripe on them, they would ferociously devour all food scraps thrown overboard and were especially partial to orange peels. We had a wreck to dive on right next to us and the bay was littered with old admiralty anchors. Denz shot grouper to order for the anchorage and managed a surf in the shore break. The people were incredibly friendly, the immigration officer even invited us for dinner after our kids all made friends on the beach. It was truly a privilege to visit this remote outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean and we highly recommend stopping here to anyone sailing this route.