Single-handed sailor Trevor Robertson describes a maiden voyage from Florida to Martinique in a newly purchased 38-footer
“In 2017-18, sailed from New Zealand to the Antarctic Peninsula by way of Cape Horn (60 days). Spent three weeks pottering around old haunts in the Peninsula then north to the Falkland Islands to re-provision. Departed Stanley on 4 March bound up the Atlantic. Arrived Bantry, Ireland, on 8 June (96 days).”
For Trevor Robertson, a single-handed epic such as that is taken in his easy stride. His boat of over 20 years has been Iron Bark, a 35ft steel gaff cutter drawn by Nick Skeates on the lines of his own Wylo II, a boat with too many distinguished passages astern for most of us to count. With Iron Bark Trevor has racked up an impressive list of achievements, but the time comes to nearly all of us when a change is called for.
This story, taken from Roving Commissions, the journal of the Royal Cruising Club, tells of a highly experienced mariner finding a suitable replacement for his well-tested vessel. On the face of things, the yacht Trevor buys would seem a perfect long-range cruiser, but his pithy comments as he jockeys her down to the Caribbean for a major refit tell a different story. Anybody thinking about sailing off soundings will find this narrative an eye-opener.
Extract from Roving Commissions 2019
When I launched Iron Bark in 1997 I said that I would move on to another vessel before I turned 70. In October 2018, with that birthday looming, I sailed from Ireland for the West Indies to look for her replacement. After crossing the Atlantic by the tradewind route, I hauled Iron Bark out of the water in Carriacou to prepare her for sale.
I wanted to replace Iron Bark with a similar vessel but built of fibreglass for reduced maintenance in my dotage. I decided on an Alajuela 38, a fibreglass version of William Atkins’ Ingrid built in California in the 1970s. There were several for sale and I flew to Tampa on Florida’s west coast to look at the nearest one.
Under previous owners, Diva, had covered quite a bit of water, but her sailing seems to have been entirely short hops with no ocean passages. She was fitted out to maximise comfort at anchor or in a marina with little consideration for functionality at sea and her motor had seen far more use than her sails.
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She was basically sound and although much of her equipment and fittings were unsuited to ocean voyaging, I believed the surplus systems could be discarded and the missing ones added at a cost I could afford, so I bought her.
Florida marinas are expensive so I did the minimum necessary to get her seaworthy enough to sail to the Caribbean where I could transfer my tools and gear and get on turning her into an oceangoing vessel.
Diva’s hull and rig were well built but her interior had a boat show layout with too many open spaces and far too little stowage. Her sails were in good condition but intended for the light conditions of the American coast and barely adequate for an ocean voyage. The mainsail lacked a deep reef and there was no proper high-cut sea-going jib. However, with care and patience I believed I could make the passage south with the sails as they were and sort out her deficiencies in the Caribbean.
Most of the locker doors had only friction catches that would burst open in a seaway so I bought a roll of duct tape to restrain them. The galley had no bar in front of the stove or strap to hold the cook in place, there was no usable manual bilge pump, the cockpit was huge and its drains small, the non-skid was designed to be easy to clean rather than to keep the crew aboard and there was a maze of plumbing in the bilge with the potential to sink the vessel.
I removed as much of this piping as I could along with five electric pumps and hoped the rest would last a month at sea without sinking her. There were various bits of fancy joinery that would look well in an article on a finely finished yacht but also looked as if they would not survive long on a seagoing vessel.
The beautifully built teak butterfly skylight amidships fell into that category, as did the dainty platform on the bowsprit, an elaborate folding table in the saloon and the huge hard dodger that covered the entire cockpit. I hoped they would stay in place until I got to the Caribbean where I could address their shortcomings.
More urgently the cutless bearing needed replacement, the anchors were inadequate and there was no wind vane steering, only an electro-hydraulic autopilot. We arranged that Sailor’s Wharf, the yard that was to haul Diva for survey, would replace the cutless bearing while she was out of the water. They made no attempt to do the job, or even offer an excuse for not doing it, but still charged savagely for a short in-slings haul.
The defective cutless bearing meant limited motoring at low speeds only. I bought a Monitor windvane and, having no wish to deal further with St Petersburg’s yacht yards, fitted it afloat by hanging precariously over Diva’s stern. I added a 33kg Vulcan anchor and replaced the battery system. I bought several reels of rope and replaced much of the running rigging. I should have done the lot; almost everything I did not renew failed on the voyage south.
There was also a persistent air leak in the diesel fuel system that stopped the motor at unpredictable intervals, and until I could simplify and rebuild the system, I had to accept the engine was unreliable.
On Saturday 30 March 2019 I sailed from St Pete for the West Indies. The motor lasted long enough to get me around the marina breakwater and out of sight of my well-wishers before dying. I cursed, anchored, thereby blocking the channel, bled the system and motored into open water where I thankfully made sail. It is a long time since I have set off on an ocean passage on a vessel so ill prepared, but I would have gone broke if I had stayed in Florida until all was done.
The voyage from Tampa to the eastern Caribbean divides into three legs. The first 500 miles is a coastal passage around the Florida peninsula, south down its west coast then north up the east coast. Once far enough north to clear the Bahamas I would turn into the open Atlantic, sailing east when I could and north when headed by the wind.
On this leg I intended to stay between latitudes 28°N and 30°N until about 63°W, a distance of about 900 miles. It was likely to be largely to windward. Having made my easting, I would make the final 1,000-mile leg by arcing south-east to find the trade winds then south to landfall in Martinique. I expected the voyage to take about a month.
The 500-mile leg around Florida and into the open Atlantic took a week in generally light headwinds. There was predictably a lot of traffic; pleasure craft by day, fishing boats and cargo vessels both day and night. I slept in 20-minute catnaps, which soon became tedious. Although I had no difficulty getting enough sleep with this regime it left little time for cooking and cleaning and nothing for reading a book, watching birds or enjoying life at sea.
I reached the northern end of the Straits of Florida before dawn on the seventh day and, with the wind in the east, hardened the sheets and steered north-east towards the Atlantic. It was a relief to be in the open ocean after five days of dodging around in coastal waters. I turned in for a long sleep, confident that I was now clear of coastal traffic and that the AIS would alert me to any large vessels.
An ominous calm
Five days of moderate, sometimes fresh, winds got me well clear of the Bahamas, initially sailing north-east close hauled with an easterly wind that slowly veered to south-south-east and let me make easting with the sheets just started. As always, it was a joy to once again be clear of land and its encumbrances.
I spent the days on deck occupied with bosun’s work, whipping rope ends, splicing and generally tidying up. If there had been more birds I would have been perfectly content, but the tropical oceans are a poor place for birds.
The compass had extensive sun crazing of its acrylic dome and a large air bubble that made it unreadable. I spent hours polishing the dome to reasonable, if not perfect, clarity then refilled it using baby oil. Baby oil is excellent for this, being clear, miscible with compass oil and of similar viscosity. Baby oil is also an excellent lubricant for marine toilets and for treating wood cutting boards; I believe it can also be applied to infants’ bottoms. Every vessel should carry this elixir.
Twelve days out and five days after turning into the Atlantic, the breeze died away to an ominous calm. When the wind returned it quickly hardened to north-east Force 6-7, a strong to near gale head wind. With a deeper reef in the main and a smaller jib I would have carried on, but with the sails I had there was no choice but to heave-to.
For 32 hours I lay under double-reefed main with the helm lashed down, fore-reaching slowly and with leeway making a square drift. When the wind moderated to east-south-east Force 5 at dawn on 13 April I set the staysail and half the genoa and crashed off close hauled, making a course a little north of east.
The wind remained south-east or east-south-east for several days, allowing me to work to the east without being forced much to the north. Then a fresh south-west breeze gave us a great shove. At 63°W I hauled the wind abeam and headed south-east to look for the trades.
The sea was covered with great rafts of Sargasso weed that repeatedly fouled the self-steering paddle. While clearing the paddle with a boathook I hit the spinning wind generator with the boathook handle, breaking off one blade and rendering the generator useless.
I was now entirely dependent on the engine for charging. It would be inconvenient but not catastrophic if the engine failed. For the first time in my life I had gone to sea without a sextant and tables. If the engine stopped, the batteries had enough charge to give me a GPS position every day or two. This would let me make a landfall and I could do without or bypass the rest of the electrical equipment.
The fair south-westerly backed to a squally easterly headwind. I bashed on close-hauled, until, on 21 April, 22 days out, after two and a half days under the staysail only, the wind eased to east-north-east Force 6, only exceeding 30 knots in squalls. I set the main with both reefs tied in and crashed off with the wind half a point free. A couple of hours later the lifelines went slack.
When I went forward to investigate, I found the bowsprit platform had wrenched free from the bowsprit, taking the pulpit and thus the lifelines with it. The hex-head fastenings that held the platform and pulpit down were not through bolts, as I believed, but merely coachscrews. The force of a few not very large waves had pulled them out, leaving pulpit and platform dangling.
I lashed the platform and the pulpit down to the bowsprit as best I could. Before venturing down the bowsprit to do this I hove-to and trailed a line astern to give myself a chance of regaining the boat if the platform collapsed. Wearing a harness was pointless, as it often is when single-handed. If I went overboard a harness would merely leave me dangling.
Shortly afterwards the wind died completely, leaving us lurching in the left-over sea. For two-and-a-half days we lay becalmed and drifted 40 miles east. This all or nothing wind rather aggrieved me as in this latitude, 19°N, I expected steady trades.
In the early hours of 26 April a gentle north-north-east breeze slowly hardened into the trades, sending us rushing joyously along for 300 miles in just over two days to anchor off St Pierre, Martinique, 29 days from Florida. Next comes a few months’ work converting Diva to a voyaging vessel.
Life of adventure under sail
Australian-born Trevor Robertson is quietly one of the most extraordinary sailors of our times. In his lifetime, he has sailed over 400,000 miles. In 1976, at the age of 27, he sailed from Western Australia to east Africa then round the Cape of Good Hope to the West Indies in a 34ft wooden sloop, then worked in the charter business in the Caribbean and later on oil rigs to earn enough money to buy another boat.
Robertson is perhaps best known for his voyages in the 35ft steel gaff cutter Iron Bark, which he built himself. He spent many years sailing with his wife, the author Annie Hill, whose book Voyaging on a Small Income is a study of the economics of continual travel and self-sufficiency.
Trevor Robertson has undertaken many long single-handed voyages, including overwintering in the Antarctic (Iron Bark is still likely the only vessel to have done so unsupported) and, together with Annie Hill, a winter frozen in the ice in Greenland at 72°N.
In 2009, Robertson’s and Hill’s voyages were recognised by the Cruising Club of America, which awarded them jointly the Blue Water Medal, an honour reserved for the most daring and adventurous exploits under sail.
First published in the September 2020 issue of Yachting World.