of an Atlantic Crossing in a 40 year old Catalac 9M
By Christopher Langham and Esther Minter
You see, I live on the island of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; to outsiders it’s a virtual paradise, but to live here, not so much unless you have millions to spend or you’re one of the original settlers here by heritage and with privilege.
Having given you some background, I’d been looking into a Catalac 9 meter Catamaran with its original equipment, including the original Dolphin engines, and upon further research I found one in Scotland and quickly arranged a flight there to purchase her. Upon inspection, everything with my new cruising catamaran looked good; and when the owner discovered I was going to sail her from Scotland back to St. Thomas threw in all his tools, necessary for any sporadic repairs that were sure to arise. Although I’m sure he meant well, it would have been more helpful to know that the steering wasn't hooked up properly or that the engines were not the work horses he boasted them to be.
I was incredibly eager to start on my journey since I’d already dreamt up fancies and bright ideas of how wonderful it would be to sail on the Clyde, down to the Canaries, and then across the Atlantic Ocean back to St. Thomas. I allotted myself 2.5 months to facilitate this and thought it fully possible even during hurricane season as it was a very light season and the majority of the tumultuous weather was moving up the Gulf of Mexico side during early July.
A longtime friend of mine from Scotland joined me for the first leg of the journey from Largs, Scotland to Holyhead, Wales. Within 10 miles of pulling out of Fairlie Quay, Scotland the engines started stalling, the batteries were draining and it was a fight to get to the Clyde Marina; a storm swiftly moved in with waves and winds, and we narrowly missed rocks and what seemed like an impending disaster as we tried to enter the small open gate of the entrance to the Shelter of the Marina. Day one, ten miles traveled, and already a serious problem....
Thankfully, we safely made it to the marina harbor contemplating a lengthy wait for the storm to blow over. During our wait, my friend, who was savvy mechanically began to try to stabilize the developing dilemma.
The next three days were wonderful; passing the Alsa Craig, Isle of Man, we could even see Ireland in the distance, and everything was working well. I experienced my first sail at night, and we got up to 12.2 knots from the swells that pursued us from behind, it was great. For the entire rest of the journey I never reached 12.2 knots... Got 11.7, 12.0 but never as much speed as during our first days on the water.
The Irish Sea is a beast, as well as the Clyde, the locals said the weather had been exceptionally bad during this time, and me not knowing what it was usually like thought it a horrible experience; nevertheless, those three days were great.
Pulling into Conwy however, was a bona fide trial really. We were grounded on a sand bar, couldn't find the entrance buoy markers then finally, after getting through the narrow river with currents as bad as I have ever seen, both engines died again only this time we were being pushed right to the mouth of the mighty rushing river. Fortunately, Providence prevailed and my friend was able to grab a hold of the pier with the gaff hook, literally holding on for dear life, he pulled us to that pier. Where he got the immense strength to do this, could only have come from above and that pier is where we stayed, only afterwards discovering that the pier was owned by the marina. My friend and I spent the next six weeks trying to get the engines and electrical functions working properly so I could continue on my voyage.
I had already paid enormous sums of money and I was told that the issues were resolved. Some of these underlying issues were only made worse, however, none of this was brought to my attention until it was too late.
With the repairs, having been attended to, off we went only this time, bound for Spain (or so we thought). In less than an hour the engines began to malfunction once again.
We had solved the engine issue again on our own, and then the inconceivable happened, the steering cable broke leaving us to manually steer using a metal rod. We were close to an anchor point called Bull Bay, so we anchored and tried to fix the steering. We found the problem, clamped it and got going again, but, we now knew the steering cable had not been properly installed in the first place, which meant more money, and trouble. Once we were able to figure out how to temporarily secure the steering cable, we managed to make it to Holyhead, Wales which is the gateway to North Britain and Wales.
It was now September and I’d missed the start of my teaching job, I owed the bank $40,000 for my boat that I now called home (since I had no apartment to go back to on St. Thomas).
I used my last bit of credit to buy an outboard engine, added two solar panels, and a wind generator. Although this solved my trouble, getting them installed and paid for was another arduous process to say the least. Now I had to spend two months trying to get help building a transom, learning how to install the panels properly on my own, going through the boat with another Catalac owner trying to figure out the proper way to install the steering cables in addition to trying to get her ready to sail now that I was sailing alone.
My dog Blue Belle and I set sail for Spain, and within 24 hours the transom I waited 6 weeks to be built folded in the water placing the brand new engine at risk and ultimately rendering it inoperative. By now it is late September, and we are still in the U.K. At that I point, I was stuck with inoperative engines and sailing into another river entrance situation in Arklow, Ireland.
When I reached the mouth of the river, I called the marina asking for a tow and they decided it best to call Lifeboats to tow me in, which is a voluntary organization in the UK to aid and assist distressed boaters.
With a spectacle of people lining the river banks, I was paraded to the marina dock. Making the local newspaper I became somewhat of a celebrity but not in the manner I would have liked with the attention being more of a spectacle than true fanfare. Nevertheless, I became acquainted with the marina owner who allowed me to stay on the dock free of charge, allowing me to utilize electricity and putting me in touch with an authentic engineer who built a solid transom within three weeks. The marina owner and engineer even managed to convince the man who built me a slip shod transom to reimburse me so they could build me a real one. I love Ireland and I will never forget all its citizens did to help me.
With their assistance and my determination renewed, I restocked the boat because although by this time I was literally penniless and still had thousands of miles to go, I felt in my heart that I must persevere and all would work out.
I felt I had only two choices: stay where I was or continue moving forward. I needed to at least get back home to my jobs and to the commitment I made to the children at the school in St. Thomas. I really want them to have a real chance at Life and the S.T.E.A.M. jobs available to those who study and master the Sciences. I chose to keep moving forward!
In addition to all that transpired, I was seasick for months and although my entire journey was plagued with turmoil, this 5.5 day passage was the worst of it all.
The irony of it all was that as I sailed into La Coruna, Spain, and entered the slip, I did so like only a professional could have done. I was elated and feeling relief for the first time in months having safely reached the marina and having officially left the U.K.
Although I’m sure I smelled bad because it was all hands on deck, the entire time, I was welcomed warmly, aided in repairing my sails and although I’d passed out from exhaustion and physical fatigue, after a long rest, I prepared to continue on my way. This time traveling past the infamous Cape Finisterre.
It wasn’t just the weather traveling along Cape Finisterre that was rough but things took a turn in my life as well, however, I thought I could handle both but I couldn't so yet again, I found myself calling the Coast Guard and having to be guided into a Marina in Muxía, Spain to avoid yet another huge storm.
During my brief stop in Spain, my paternal Grandfather passed away and in the midst of trying to compose myself in dealing with my grief, I continued moving forward despite my lapse in funds and having to refit the Genoa. I tried to figure out a way to leave the boat and fly home, but I couldn't. No more credit, no money to pay the marina, and only provisions to do one thing... Continue moving forward and I’m glad I did, because God always provided enough funds to keep moving forward. (Nothing more:-) While in Muxía, two lovely people from Frankfurt were in the slip next to mine; they fed me, played my granddads favorite game Yahtzee with me, lit candles in memory of him, and were there for me in all capacities. Although my family isn’t German, my Grandfather spent a lot of time there while working with the Army Corps of Engineers.
I had to continue moving forward, so with only God, and Blue Belle my blue tick beagle, we set sail for The Canary Islands. It was here my steering cable broke again and I was left floating adrift for 7 days trying to rig the steering the way it was supposed to be. My spotter, who was in contact with me via my satellite phone; contacted Jon Lack, the son of the Catalac maker. 30 minutes and one email later I was all fixed up and back on my way. Simultaneously, I learned a valuable lesson, if you are having a problem; go to the Maker or the Maker's son. Because like Jesus said: "If you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father". He knew the intricate details and from the time I arrived in La Palma, and rewired the steering until today, I have had no trouble with the pulley system or the cables.
La Palma was a wonderful place; I was tempted to stay there and find work, however, I’d given my word to the people of the Virgin Islands that I would return to resume my teaching commitments. So after fixing the steering, I was assisted by the Spanish Social Services with enough provisions to restock the boat for what I thought would be a three week Atlantic crossing home. With it now being early December, I was eagerly off when 7 days and 700 miles out, the rudder was violently ripped off by something, and the pressure on the other rudder deemed it useless, forcing a big hole in the back of the boat.
I attempted to steer a rudderless boat to the safety of one of the Cape Verde Islands.
During the duration of those 22 days, I was aided by three different ships stopping to deliver gas to me, for the outboard, I used my boom and a cabin door as a makeshift gondolier to steer. 40 miles near Sao Vicente, a sailing vessel heard my distress call and towed me in the rest of the way.
I spent the next 10 weeks, calling everyone I could to get help, including the U.S. Embassy, selling everything I could, even attempting to sell the boat at one point. Being in Sao Vicente was a very hard place to be; the winds are violent, the terrain desolate, the people hardened by their conditions, but happy in a content way. When it was time to go, I worked as a cook for about $4 a day in order to eat and stock my boat with a few provisions. So many people contributed towards my cause, and on March 4, 2016 at around 15:30 God, my dog, and I took off, bound for St. Thomas.
Two days later the auto pilot drive motor stopped. It was chock full of black carbon, and that little motor had given up the ghost.
Consequently, I had to sail as long as I could each day and at night I had to anchor the Genoa while simultaneously trying to maintain direction while I rested.
A three week journey home escalated into 8 weeks and a day.
The weather was spectacular; except for a few short violent squaws, we had earned peace for the duration of the trip. Other than the auto pilot, only the anemometer broke during a squall.
We did get marooned 500 miles from St. Thomas, and provisions were running slim; miraculously a tanker stopped and supplied me with fresh pineapple, watermelon, apples, oranges, juice, water, milk, bread, jam, noodles, etc. all of which put me over the top and got me through the becalmed time.
Unaware of what issues may arise besides the auto pilot breaking, as well as limited finances I had about 30 days of solid food, and 2 months of water and staples like lentils, rice, etc. so this miracle from the tanker was so welcomed and I was elated like a child on Christmas morning.
We immediately went for a 2 mile run, and then on to an AA meeting; it all felt so surreal because I felt drunk for days after arriving.
So many things are still to be determined. I’m in debt up to my eyes because of this journey, but I wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China. It was life changing in ways I can't explain, and I’ll conclude the way I opened;
"Had you told me up front what I would face on a daily basis with this journey, and how long it was going to take, I would have ran ... not walked from the idea". That said, it was the worst time of my life, and also the best time of my life.
Thank you for reading my story.
There are a lot of details as you can imagine omitted in order to keep it readable on a website. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for me to get out of my current predicament, you may contact me through this website by using this contact form.