Travel diary: the crossing of the South Atlantic

In this long crossing of the South Atlantic I would like to use a compilation of selected entries from my travel diary. It seems to me the best way to have people understand the conditions that are experienced on a sailboat, crewed by two people, tackling a passage like this; it was not one of the most demanding, but not one of the shortest either.

Departure from Lüderitz bay
Departure from Lüderitz bay

‘After crossing the Indian Ocean, the South Atlantic will seem like a five o’clock tea.’ I remember reading a phrase that sounded more or less like this, attributed to the guru of ocean navigation, Jimmy Cornell, famous sailor and author of the World Cruising Routes manual, a bible for those who are sailing around the globe. True to fact, it turns out that this passage was accompanied by light winds, stable weather conditions, a little rough sea, sun and increasingly mild temperatures as we rose in latitude towards Brazil. A relaxing cruise after all. But the work on a sailboat is continuous and there is never a moment of respite, even when conditions seem ideal. This is because when there are about 3,000 miles of ocean to go, the boat has to run and progress as fast as possible; and when there are light winds it is necessary to work continuously on the sails, finding the best strategies to follow and the shortest routes according to wind angle and the currents. Navigating efficiently does not only mean moving the boat faster, but also safeguarding equipment, making the passage safe for the crew and trying to anticipate possible problems. In addition, rolling around in the middle of the sea for 24 days in a row, doing night shifts in rotation and continuously maintaining focus, is still a bit tiring. Even if, as usual, every effort is more than rewarded by the beauty of sailing from one continent to another across the ocean, driven by the force of the wind alone, in harmony with nature, free as an albatross flying between sea and sky.

En route to Brazil

Wednesday, 17 February

We set sail in the morning from Lüderitz Bay and set a course for Saint Helena. A dolphin comes to greet us at the exit of the bay dancing in front of our bow. I take it as a good omen. We are sailing with 15 knots of crosswind. We attach a barber hauler to the gunwale to position the genoa sheet at a wider angle; Milanto flies over the waves with a constant trade wind that pushes us towards the northwest. There are no clouds in the sky, and the Atlantic opens in front of us. We meet some freighters sailing along the African coast, but the more we progress, the more we are alone. Seabirds are also becoming rarer as we move away from the land. The first night is a bit tiring for me; I am not well due to a bout of gastroenteritis that I picked up in Namibia and I am a bit debilitated. I had a fever a few times yesterday. At 5 in the morning we decide to rig the pole and jibe the genoa to set up a goose wing (with the genoa poled out to windward, so as to have the mainsail on one side and the genoa on the other, like the wings of a goose), because the wind is turning more and more from the east.

Thursday, 18 February

I feel a little depressed today. Maybe because I’m still recovering, even though I’m better, or maybe because I still have to get used to this ocean. I’m reading Matthiessen’s, The Snow Leopard and I come across a reflection by the author on how atmospheric ions can induce depressive states. He says that for example, it happens with the French midday mistral. I wonder if there are no other winds that have similar characteristics. Valerio says that in Tuscany the old men say that the sirocco can make people go mad. Perhaps a sort of emotional geography of winds could be drawn up to coincide with latitudes and places. Because if foods, colours and climatic conditions in general can affect moods or induce certain moods, so it could also be for certain winds. In this case, would the South Atlantic trade winds bring a certain depression? We will see in the coming days if this is the case or if it is only the product of a banal intestinal infection in the process of healing.

Yet thinking about it I could truly describe an emotional geography of the oceans. I have a memory of each one linked to different emotions. The Indian, the most difficult even in terms of sailing, was like a vase of melancholy for me. I wrote letters filled with sadness and had to deal with heartbreaking memories. The Pacific was the brightest, the most active. I felt good, strong, confident, like I would be able to face any storm – I felt a great vitality. In the Caribbean Sea I remember the doubt, the mental confusion. But how many of these moods are due to the contingencies of the moment and how many to atmospheric ions? These latitudes are colder than those I experienced in the Pacific, this alone would be enough to affect you psychologically.

Sunset at sea
Sunset at sea

Friday, 19 February

It has been a difficult night where I slept badly in the few hours off-watch due to an annoying cross wave that continually jolted the bow and also dealing with the mysterious breakage of the handle to the hatch in the corridor. I have breakfast in the saloon talking to Valerio about the spare equipment that is needed for a boat embarking on a circumnavigation. ‘It takes two boats!’ he says, meaning spare parts are needed for nearly every single thing.

We start the engine to make water with the desalinator and we realise that no water is coming out from the stern cooling circuit! We hope it is the impeller and we start to disassemble it to see what condition it is in. Fortunately, we find it broken, it was working with only one blade remaining intact. We work on the replacement which turns out to be more difficult than expected because due to the wave motion we lose one of the bolts that holds the lid and so we have to search for another identical one to close it hermetically. We do not find it among the spare parts we have, so we have to adapt one by sawing off the end piece. We also notice that one of the cooling circuit belts is worn out because the whole system is not perfectly aligned. We work all day. Finally, at five in the afternoon we can close the engine compartment. We are exhausted, but now it seems that everything is thankfully working well. Going around the world means attending to all kinds of repairs, not only of a seafaring nature, but also mechanical, hydraulic and electrical. There is never peace and rare are the days when you only think about adjusting the sails. We often work in sea conditions that make any intervention more difficult, moreover being bent over for hours inside an engine while the boat rolls and pitches is not exactly pleasant.

South Atlantic
South Atlantic

Saturday, 20 February

Luckily we had a quiet night with 15-20 knots of constant wind from 120°-140°. I am much better, in fact I would say that I am completely healed. The morning has beautiful colours, the soft light of dawn reflects on the sails, tingeing them with pink. I see a fishing boat a few miles on the horizon and I am reminded of all the abuses and crimes of the fishing industry that I read in the book, The Outlaw Ocean. Many of these vessels employ Asian fishermen while maintaining alienating working conditions on board. In some cases these workers live as semi-slaves, blackmailed by the companies who use threats against their families. Every time we eat fish we should ask ourselves where it comes from and how it was caught, even though I realise that this is sometimes impossible. Years ago a proposal was made at an international conference to safeguard this part of the ocean from indiscriminate fishing for whales by establishing a large reserve dedicated to them. But the proposal did not go through due to the vote against by countries like Japan and Norway – large consumers and traders of whale meat. Our oceans are like a no man’s land, without adequate protection laws, and it is sad to think that the largest part of our planet is subject to the worst environmental and social crimes.

The sky in flames
The sky in flames

Sunday, 21 February

We sail goose winged all night and day at an average speed of 8 knots. In the afternoon a beautiful sea rises and we often exceed the 10 knot threshold. I do some video footage climbing astride the pole. The sea from up there looks like a blue savannah where the waves ripple, lashed by the wind. Are there any greater feelings of freedom?

Fortunately, a tear opens in the genoa at a height that I can reach. We roll the sail up to the point of the tear and I make the repair with a needle, waxed thread and adhesive tape.

In the early afternoon, a medium-sized mahi-mahi fish bites on our trolling hook. We fillet it for dinner cooked in a pan with oil and lemon. We thank Neptune, as we always do in these cases, for the gift he has given us. Tonight, to mark the occasion we will also allow ourselves a glass of wine. Normally we do not touch alcohol during longer voyages, especially now that we are only two and we need to be always lucid. But on weekends we indulge in a coffee laced with Cape Town brandy and a glass of wine for dinner. Truly it’s all relative, for us tonight is a big party!

I read Chatwin’s collection of writings, Anatomy of Restlessness which fascinates me because I find passages of narration that speak to me directly. I like his dry and direct prose (he himself was surprised to be more Yankee than English in his way of writing), I find it light and veiled with a certain irony. I take a lot of notes. In re-reading Hemingway in the original language, however, I always laugh at the author’s overwhelming ego and I think back to the caricature that Woody Allen makes of him in Midnight in Paris. Really spot on!

We have entered 20° of latitude. We are now in the tropics and every day it gets a little warmer. Today, for the first time since we set sail, I was on deck shirtless. But this hemisphere seems colder than the Boreal one. In the north when it reaches 20°, coming from the Canary Islands with a route to the Caribbean, it is already very hot. The Tropics start at 22.5° in the north (Tropic of Cancer) and south (Tropic of Capricorn), but I believe that in the north the Gulf Stream affects the temperatures. I should consult a meteorology book, but these are the kind of questions that I can normally find immediate answers on Google. But here we don’t have the internet and like in the old days we start discussing possible solutions to this problem.

Our ‘Bob Marley’
Our ‘Bob Marley’

Monday, 22 February

A wonderful day spent sailing with the spinnaker – our old ‘Bob Marley’, as Valerio calls him, which we have stitched up several times – on a flat sea with 10 knots of wind. By now I have entered into the mood of sailing, the sadness has dissolved and I live this ocean with joy and gratitude. In the afternoon I record the lecture I gave in English at the Italian embassy in Cape Town. Someone who could not follow it online advised me to make a video of it during this passage and then upload it to YouTube. But when it comes to recording it I realise it’s not a good idea. I find it ridiculous to see myself in the middle of the sea talking about Dante, Petrarch and the Italian navigators of the Renaissance. It all seems so self-congratulatory to me. I have a big laugh and abandon the idea. There is nothing more beautiful than laughing at yourself.

Tuesday, 23 and Wednesday, 24 February

We continue to sail with the spinnaker day and night, but the wind begins to turn and decrease and then increase again and we often have to jibe or lower several times during the day. I play the guitar in the evening at sunset sitting in the bow. The kite (our ‘Bob’), dances with the wind in front of me as if following the notes of my voice. It looks like a secular prayer. I am in harmony with the ocean, I breathe with it.

Sailing with the spinnaker
Sailing with the spinnaker

Thursday, 25 February

The wind drops almost completely and we struggle to get in sight of Saint Helena during the day as we had planned. At sunset we are finally a few miles from the east coast and the island appears beautifully defined by the last lights of the day with its harsh and steep contours. Skirting the northern side, an almost full moon rises behind us and illuminates the sheer walls. At 10 in the evening we enter the waters of James Bay under the town of Jamestown, the capital of the island, where with the permission granted us by the harbour master – with agreements made via email before our departure – we take a buoy, but we will not be able to go ashore because the island is closed to defend itself from the contagion. The buoys that we find with the light of our torches are circular platforms, gigantic, yellow and red, designed to hold up to 30 tons. It is not possible to hoist them with a boat hook. Jumping from the bow onto a wobbly platform to insert a rope inside the large steel ring, we tie two mooring lines to the bow cleats and relax, toasting with a glass of brandy and looking at the cliff of the island illuminated by the moon. At night I abandon myself to a deep sleep lulled by the lapping waters of the bay. How many times have I imagined arriving on this island, one of the most remote places on earth whose memory is inextricably linked to the death of Napoleon?

Saint Helena after sunset
Saint Helena after sunset

Friday, 26 February

In the morning, the island turns out to be rough, with little vegetation. The waves break on the coast overlooking the sea. On the top of the rock wall you can see the defensive structures of the castle and the bunkers from the Second World War with the cannons pointed towards the sea. If it weren’t for Napoleon’s final exile, Saint Helena would be a rock in the middle of the Atlantic known to sailors of the past as a stopping point en route to Brazil. We were hoping to buy fresh vegetables and bread, but we are told by the Port Control that it is not possible until Monday. They will only be able to refuel us with a little diesel with a boat that will join ours, filling the tank that we have hardly used – just to charge the batteries and make fresh water.

The Castle of Saint Helena seen from James Bay
The Castle of Saint Helena seen from James Bay

It is too bad that we are not able to go ashore. I really wanted to visit Longwood House, the residence where Napoleon died on May 5th, 200 years ago. This year, in fact, it is the 200th anniversary of his death, but unfortunately all the planned celebratory events have been canceled due to the total closure of the island from any external visits.

Napoleon arrived here on October 17, 1815 escorted on HMS Northumberland, which had left England two months earlier. He came here after dark, just like us. What must he have thought in front of these rocky peaks, while the ship’s crew completed the mooring manoeuvres? I once wrote an article on Napoleon’s hundred days on Elba. It would have been nice to be able to write about it here too, really a shame not to be able to go ashore.

James Bay
James Bay

Saturday, 27 February

We set sail from Saint Helena. We face another 1,792 miles to Cabedelo in Brazil. The forecast says light winds for the first few days, then we hope to find a slightly more stable trade wind with 15 knots of wind and sea state 4. We plan to sail on a starboard tack with a course slightly north of the rhumb line and then jibe when the trade wind should be more from the east. We hoist the spinnaker while leaving the island at our stern. The sunset is as beautiful as every night in this ocean. We are surprised by the stability of the sea and the weather conditions. A full moon rises on our starboard side and illuminates the sea like a street light in the night. It’s like being in a dream. We sail on a calm sea, illuminated by the moon, the only sounds are those of the bow that plows through the light waves and the flick of the spinnaker in the wind. It seems like to be on the stage of a theatre, inside a fairytale world. All is perfect. From one moment to the next, a magician could appear riding a newt.

The light of the moon
The light of the moon

Sunday, 28 February

In the morning the wind picks up and becomes constant again. We continue to sail with the spinnaker day and night. I’m sorry not to be able to share this relaxing sailing with so many friends and with the people I love. I can think of many people for whom it would be perfect to enjoy this peaceful and pleasant ocean. It is Sunday, the day to give thanks for the beauty of creation. I improvise a small Mass at the bow, a song facing the ocean, facing the Star of the Sea that protects all sailors. I am reminded of the paintings and statues dedicated to the Stella Maris that I have seen in many Mediterranean ports. The most beautiful are those in Naples, Ischia, Capri or Sicily. Procida will be the next Italian capital of culture, it should think of a project incorporating these devotional images to which generations of fishermen and sailors have entrusted their prayers.

Monday, 1 and Tuesday, 2 March

We are in March! We continue to sail with the spinnaker day and night. We often jibe to hold a better angle and be faster towards our destination. In the last days, I have been reading the two books by the English historian David Abulafia, The Great Sea on the Mediterranean, and the more recent one, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans. I take several notes. This is in contrast to Pessoa’s, The Book of Disquiet which I can’t stand, as well as a recent English thriller set on a Dutch merchant ship in the seventeenth century that I find dull and truly illegible.

Wednesday, 3 March

We continue to navigate with the spinnaker. At midday we lower it to continue goose winged. The wind has picked up, but most of all we need to rest our good old ‘Bob. During the afternoon we focus on making bread with a German wholemeal flour that we bought in Fiji; the fresh one has long since run out, as well as the one in crates, parts of which are mouldy. From our oven, which unfortunately cooks at low temperatures, two amorphous pairs come out as hard as stone, with a decidedly sour taste. However, despite that we are happy about it, because on the boat there is at least the good smell of freshly baked bread. We eat it as if it were bought in a boulangerie in the Marais. We then work to improve the connections of the gas cylinder in the aft locker.

Thursday, 4 March

Early in the morning we fly the spinnaker again. The wind has dropped to 10 knots, but we manage to have an average speed of 6 knots. We hope to be able to keep it flying by fine tuning the sail with every slight change in wind. We should try to maintain at least an average of 150 miles per day if we want to arrive in a week. We are now close to dropping below 1000 miles from Brazil.

In the late afternoon I dedicate myself to my usual gymnastics training in the bow. I do a progression of exercises that I invented in this sailing year using the equipment of the boat like the tools of a gym. At the bow the planks for the abdominals and push ups, on the lifelines the dips, I attach myself to the companionway for the pull ups, at the stern the squats that Glynn taught me (SQUATS!) And so on up to the stretching exercises where I hang on the boom, to the shrouds, almost everywhere like a macaque. The ocean runs in front of me, is there a better gym?

Friday, 5 March

In the night we lower the spinnaker, the wind has dropped further and is turning more and more from the east. We decide to do a few hours of running the engine to charge the batteries and progress forward. At dawn we raise the spinnaker again and proceed on a starboard jibe until the afternoon, when we decide to jibe. I am reminded of Jimmy Cornell’s joke about 5 o’clock tea. Yes sure, but this tea never ends!

The sea has a beautiful colour, indigo blue, and the blue of the sky has a very soft shade, a light blue interrupted by small groups of white clouds on the horizon. It looks like an enchanted landscape, as if we were inside a dream that is always the same, within an immutable landscape.

Last night I saw Mars and Jupiter very close, side by side, and just above Mercury to complete a kind of triangle. I had never seen them so grouped together, I thought they could have an astrological meaning. Certainly positive, because it is a beautiful image with harmonic proportions, moreover their light was particularly intense, strong enough to reflect themselves on the sea.

Saturday, 6 March

In the night the wind dropped under a large cloud that brought rain for the first time in many days. In the morning the sky is clear again. The temperature begins to rise. It is getting hotter and the humidity also increases, we are getting closer and closer to the equator. We always sail with the spinnaker jibe set to get the best angle of the wind towards our destination. Often our weather prediction tools that we have at our disposal fail because the conditions we find do not match what we expected. I keep reading. The history of Umberto Eco’s philosophy, jumping from one chapter to another to create parallels and intertwines, Bodei’s, Le forme del bello and the introduction to Dante’s Divine Comedy in the new edition by UTET.

Sunday, 7 March

Beautiful day of navigation with the spinnaker always on the best angle. We can relax. No physical exercises today. Reading, writing and a glass of wine. In the afternoon I dedicate myself to small seafaring jobs. I create intertwined knots for the opening of the barber hauler blocks. I strum a few songs on the bow at sunset – my concerts for the fish.

Monday, 8 March

Women’s Day! It’s a shame that we haven’t seen even a shadow of one for weeks. I dedicate a song to all my distant friends. Many of them were at the Florence airport to say goodbye at my departure, that morning at dawn more than a year ago, when this long journey began.

We are in the month of the initiatives related to the M’illumino di Meno (I light up less) project, promoted by Caterpillar Radio 2, of which our trip is one of the features. It occurs to me that m’illumino di meno does not just mean turning off the lights to save energy and getting used to the economical use of energy sources. In my opinion it also means to light up more. With technological progress, we have irreversibly changed our environment in a few decades. Most animals are unable to adapt to the new conditions we have imposed on them. The oceans are less and less full of fish, not to mention the Mediterranean, a sea considered in agony. Our rivers are increasingly polluted and global warming is creating climate changes that are visible to all. What until now we called progress is the exact opposite. We are like shrimp swimming backwards. We are stealing from ourselves, using our own hands, and we don’t even notice it. Our societies have abdicated from the wonder of living with the rhythm of the seasons, of looking at the stars in the sky, of living in contact with Nature. And all of this for what? For some air conditioning in our homes? Vegetables packed in plastic? Many of the small comforts of life today are not only useless, but they are detrimental to our existence. And then when m’illumino di meno, it means that I light up more, because becoming aware of the condition we are in and starting to take measures is the first step to rediscover the true light, the infinite one of our soul which is part of that an eternal one that western philosophers and mystics have been talking about since ancient times, early Christianity, as well as the Indian Vedas, Buddhist teachings and the most advanced theories of physics today.

A night guest
A night guest

Tuesday, 9 March

We continue to navigate with the spinnaker. I am passionate about a book, Submerged City by Marta Barone, which I initially discarded but I picked it up again. I had misjudged it from its early pages or perhaps the right time had not yet come. It has happened to me before. Books are like people, you meet them when it’s time to meet them. I reflect on the submerged life of people. How much do we think we know them? And how much do we think we know ourselves?

Wednesday, 10th March

At dawn a violent squall arrives, we are approaching the land, there are now 280 miles to go and the weather is changing. We lower the spinnaker and continue goose winged. We are both tired. These long days at sea are starting to take their toll. During the afternoon we return to hoist the spinnaker. Before the evening sets in we notice a tear and we decide to lower it to jibe and repair the damage. The night passes quietly.

Milanto sails with reduced sails
Milanto sails with reduced sails

Thursday, 11 March

In the morning we permanently pack away our old ‘Bob’. He did a great job, we sailed almost constantly with him, day and night, and he brought us here despite his venerable age. Now it’s time to rest. We thank him as we fold him into the bag and carry him below deck. Bravo ‘Bob’! We jibe and set the white sails to our destination, we hope to arrive at dawn tomorrow morning.

The wind in the afternoon grows in intensity. It is always like this, the sea is a joker. After more than three weeks of light winds, now that we are about to arrive there is too much of it and we have to reduce as much as possible so as not to arrive too early in the night. We proceed with three reefs in the mainsail and a reefed genoa, but we are still making 5 knots anyway! Before dawn, when we are now about 10 miles from the coast, we meet several small fishing boats that cast their nets. We must be careful because they are poorly lit and so small that they are not even detected by the radar. I’m at the helm just in case, as one slips by me just few metres away. We must also pay attention to the risk of piracy which is not common near these coasts, but it is possible.

At dawn we arrive at the Rio Paraíba entrance channel, on the Cabedelo promontory, with the waves rising from the sandbanks and the current of the river. We planned an entry for an hour after high tide, when the current outgoing is still not too strong and we can be sure of the depths of the channel that will lead us to the marina of Jacarè.

We are currently at the buoy in front of the marina waiting to know if we will be able to go ashore due to the latest restrictions issued by the local authorities for the containment of the infection. We are tired and need to rest, but we are finally in Brazil and Milanto’s dream of the trip around the world continues.

Brazil, Rio Paraiba, Cabedelo
Rio Paraíba, Cabedelo, Brazil,