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Bravo Zulu

As I approached Plymouth, the breakwater in sight, our first challenge was achieved: Godot and I had successfully passed our first crossing of the Channel and I will be part of the Saturday dinner at the club house of the Tamar River Sailing Club. Just tied up and not yet stowed, unknown faces with caring attitude asked me:

“Hi Oli! Do you need anything?”

I had not slept much for I had to steer for a week non-stop from Amsterdam. My teammate had almost no experience and had to struggle all week against his stubborn seasickness, and I had never spent more than three days at sea without making a stop. And moreover I carefully hid the palm of my right hand which had been deeply burnt because of an accident at a lock by IJmuiden. Even if the boat seemed to me ready I could evidently be regarded as this year’s no-hoper. This first encounter seemed almost too friendly to be true, suspicious, I was not yet accustomed to the urbanity of pontoons, and I answered jovially:

“Yes, a wind-vane! And catch my jib halyard at the masthead”

Wrong answer. Trying innocently to break the ice by simultaneously shooting my own foot I noticed behind their smiles, suspicions rose: Is this guy this year’s no-hoper who would be wrecked at Cape Lizard?

A windvane, surely what I had been fantasising about for months and which took the form of an impossible dream. I had tried in spring to develop a wind vane adapted to Godot, a 19 feet long keel craft with an outboard rudder on a Norwegian stern. After some research I thought the most suitable windvane would be a vertical axis vane gear operating a trim tab. Which looks like a weathercock, on which a counterbalance is fixed ahead of the axis. One of the oldest, simplest and cheapest forms of wind-vane. The trim tab steers the rudder that steers the boat - child’s play.

With a friend artist welder we conceived and built a weathercock wind-vane, which seemed for many of our friends an amazing artwork since no one had ever sailed before; beautiful and reliable enough for my Norwegian stern. It was built very intuitively and within a few weeks. In my new home port of Zaandam, the comments rained. I had many arguments because no one remembered that a weathercock wind-vane could steer a boat without being tied to the tiller. Being myself not very confident of my engineering technical knowledge, learned in books and not by practice, the game was already unbalanced. I had to protect my instinct and stay away from what appeared to be a campaign against self realization. Fortunately my determination served as a shield.

Anyhow, I knew that a passage to the Azores single-handed would be problematic without an operating self-steering device and considering also that the chances that my self made wind-vane would not work at first were high, I took the wise resolution to study during the winter the sheet-to-tiller system with the book of Gerard Dijkstra. I investigated and prepared myself during the winter and bought 10m of latex tube of 4 and 8mm plus few meters of sandow elastic 8 and 6mm.

Evidently my first hours on the North Sea proved to me that the conception and the manufacturing of a wind-vane is a serious affair and an affair that asks time and precise engineering, it can’t be only an art work. Godot could not keep any course more than a few seconds. My wind-vane became a bulky and inoperative passenger which I quickly got rid of and brought back to her gallery. The main issues were that the weathercock was not designed properly and likewise the counterweight on which depends the core of its operating method. At least the trim tab was working honourably and I could finally experience the physics of it. The trim tab steers the rudder that steers the boat - child’s play. At that moment a small electric autopilot fastened on the trim tab would have been inexpensive kit to invest in. But I had already decided for long time to not bring any electrics on board and to remain as minimalist as possible. So a battery 55Ah deep cycle AGM (+ a spare acid one that I had previously safely packed) was all I had as electric power, supply by a 30w solar panel in order to light my navigation lights and to charge a handheld VHF radio with GPS/DSC.


1_“A storm jib can be used to steer the boat
and is hanked to the windward shroud when
the wind is abeam but to the backstay on a
run. The system is shown here at its simplest”.
© Gerard Dijkstra Self-Steering for Sailboats

Overwhelmed, tired and not so lucid for a few weeks already, I didn’t have the courage to really try seriously to settle my sheet-to-tiller and latex tube while crossing the Channel. On that Saturday afternoon, Len Hiley, British specialist of the practice was on the pontoon and I explained to him the problems and five minutes later my chances of reaching Praia da Vitoria were high again. I had the necessary gears onboard to steer with my sails from close hauled to close reaching and on broad reaching. A following wind would have required to set two identical headsails, an implementation not prepared and barely possible with my old spare of main and jib sails. Thus close hauled, close reach and broad reaching could be assured and shall be in theory the points of sail available on my passage.

You don’t need much time to understand the functioning of the sheet-to-tiller self-steering practice, nevertheless if the basics looked easy it evidently depends of the boat. Indeed Len advised me to have a look at Letcher’s book Self Steering for small craft, on the website of the Jester Challenge. I did already and as many others never opened it.

And I could finally make my first step on land, a bit groggy, and immensely happy to find such brotherhood. Although I guessed in some of them a little apprehension about my condition even if they did not let me see it. The rules of the Jester Challenge being what they are, each one is responsible for his own survival at sea according to his beliefs, his knowledge and his seamanship. But with a Jester like me they were caught in their own trap and probably the last thing I wanted was to create useless worries. I did not take to the sea to prove anything to anyone, only to escape from a country I felt at war with. My ambition was simple: to restore a simplicity of life which I found had been stolen from me.
I innocently pursued the dreams that do not know the price of what they make emerge. There was evidently the old desire of a teenager to discover life through the sea, a wish that never knew how to calm down and had to be realized without delay, for my health. The philosophy and final stimulus for this journey I found in Roger Taylor’s The Art of Minimal Ocean Sailing, a wonderful expression that he summarizes thus: minimalist navigation consists in concentrating on the essential. It is a matter of eliminating the superfluous, all that is not strictly necessary to the pure act of sailing, as well as to survival. On the smallest of minimalist boats, you have to make tough choices. The space is limited, as is the weight that can be taken aboard. Each element on board must justify its presence in two ways: by its own utility to the enterprise and by its superiority to any alternative, (...), does not necessarily mean that it is necessary to have on board only one of each indispensable kit. Far from it. (Chp16).

2_“The rigs shown here are all able to keep a boat on
course. Some boats can steer themselves perfectly using
these systems. SPRAY in which Joshua Slocum sailed
alone around the world, is a well-known example. She
steered herself the whole way with her sails suitably
trimmed and her rudder lashed”.
© Gerard Dijkstra Self-Steering for Sailboats (p113)


Is Minimal Ocean Sailing lead by necessity or a lack of funds? This is the issue that sometimes occupied me, and I now believe that in my case the two were interrelated. It seems to be an ethical question and it happens to be a perfect antidote. But what resonated most in me at that time was in the expression Art of Minimal that I interpreted as Minimalist Art, in the French translation. Minimalist Art offered itself in its time as an antidote as well, anti-art, refusing the myth of genius, giving preponderant importance to places, forms and colors. This journey single-handed with Godot became for me the continuance and the putting into practice of a personal performance gesture. Knowing that everyone has to improvise when sailing. My experience was not extensive, single-handed navigation was unknown to me in practice and I did not yet know what an ocean passage meant. My education was solid and serious and amounted to a total of six months of sailing school during the summer period, from the beaches of Noirmoutier to the Abers of Finistere.

The adventure did not torment me but worried me, my body could no longer hide the anguish that gnawed at me. An anguish that some had planted in my head before I left, nourishing them with their phobia. Bad flow of thought. In the Netherlands a similar thing had happened before; my project awakened in them the memory of Bas Jan Ader, national artistic hero who disappeared at sea on a minimalist boat found drifting off the Irish coast. This desire to travel along with the anonymous by an anonymous, without any  communication whatsoever, activated a sensitive detonator on my audience, hidden by a few decades of TV reality show adventure and social media.

I know now that one should not worry about the seaman on the dock, only help him to go to sea, pat him on the shoulder or deliver a simple sentence with long echoes. It must be known that at sea everything resonates and amplifies.

I knew I would not be able to cross the line on Sunday morning. I had to heal my hand and the boat. And while watching the boats pulling off I thought seriously about the thoughtful advice of Bill Churchhouse, who said: “if you don’t feel ready, come back next year, we are going to Ireland!”. Fortunately my determination had not been weakened and Bill actually had the need to alleviate his worries and remind me once again what everyone hammered me for a day that in open sea safety comes first.

And the first news from the competitors we received was not good. Heavy seas, wind of South-South West sector strengthening and one abandonment. I kept a low profile and took my time patiently to prepare for my departure. My adventure reminded the ancients of their first great post-war voyages of 11 months on battleships bound for the Indies.

Would I get very without any proper self-steering system? Sailors did it before. Why did it become such an issue and debate when it comes to modern sailing? Of course literature and videos on the subject abound. In my inexperience and despite hours of mental projection, I could not rid myself of the night-time worries that this idea brought me. I reassured myself that ultimately it was the essence of minimalist sailing, a return to a rudimentary practice that could only strengthen my seamanship, and keep me at a human pace.

The videos found on YouTube on the subject, as a whole, show only boats in fairly mild conditions, a fairly constant wind and a calm or poorly formed sea. The reason is simple; these are the fairest conditions to steer with sails effortlessly and without other preparations with all small craft. John Letcher’s Island Girl 20-foot fin-keeled, appears to be the ideal boat for such a system, light, docile with an outboard tiller and rig as a Bermudan cutter. Furthermore a small sail area facilitates all manoeuvres and errors that can occur relentlessly in an unpredictable established sea and wind. And the errors or accidental change of course is paid immediately for it is necessary to imagine that it can create great tensions when the tiller is turned directly via pulleys on the genoa.

The decision was made to leave on Sunday morning, exactly one week after the departure of the group. Peter Orban and Tisza had left Tamar three days earlier. The forecast predicted a 3 to 4Bt of South-South East for two days and then backing East, just enough to get out of the Channel and check the boat's good holding under sheet-to-tiller self steering.

Godot knocked a 120 miles in a day, heading 240 S-SW, totally amazed I already saw the Azores appearing on the horizon. Although the nausea of the open sea had caught me and would not let go before the next week, I was doing my best to remain concentrated even if it sometimes took me a good hour to make a decision. I passed Lizard effortlessly and in about three days I passed the latitude of Ouessant Island, close hauled/close reaching, the tiller simply moored with a Sandow as Lin had advised me (figure 6). Having split my main sail sheets to the two ends of the pushpit, the tensions generated on the windward sheets was too high to be able to use the alternative sheet-to-tiller system, which in my opinion can be a better system than the Sandow (figure 3.3).

2_“The rigs shown here are all able to keep a boat on course. Some boats can steer themselves perfectly using these systems. SPRAY in which Joshua Slocum sailed alone around the world, is a well-known example. She steered herself the whole way with her sails suitably trimmed and her rudder lashed”.
Ó Gerard Dijkstra Self-Steering for Sailboats (p113)

The good setting for Godot, rigged as a sloop, was to slightly ease the main sail or to take a reef in the main and always take a reef in the jib at the last moment for it will dramatically changes the boat balance. It took me practically two days to understand why the boat lost its course as I tried to rest and stretched out a few minutes on starboard where my coffin bed was, the ship sailing on port tack. Slightly paranoid I first thought of a mockery from the boat and the elements. The reason is more pragmatic for a small craft is extremely sensitive to balance and my own weight would subtly create a slight heel that would slowly make her luff and ultimately stop in irons. I had to pay constant attention to the moment I would lie down and trim the sails accordingly.

To decide of my course was always a compromise, it always depended of my useable point of sail: close hauled or broad reaching. I knew that the zone where the continental shelf meets the deep water formed a vicious sea, so I kept my course pushing the boat faster to enter shallow water. On the night of the third day, the wind increased and backed East, to implement in the middle of the night the sheet-to-tiller was impossible for me at this time of the trip. My only choice consisted to steer only with the sails, in using two reefs in the mainsail guyed with a restraint and the jib reefed and trimmed in the axis, the tiller fixed in the axis too, this is what I named instinctively when try to find rest in my bunk: le lupanar, no more balance or trims issues, just rocked by the waves (figure 2.b).
Godot was still sailing at an average of three/four knots swinging on the crests of the waves alternating its descents according to the gust; suddenly we literally were on our beam ends in a deafening waterfall sound. For some seconds I found myself standing ready for battle before hitting my face on the cabin table. The mast resumed its vertical position pushed by the keel. We had capsized and Godot was starting again, as if nothing had happened, in the cabin all sorts of things were wandering around, and among it my first bottle of milk had exploded, the first of a silly weekly series. On deck all was fine. I went back to bed serene, proud of Godot who had behaved well during her first major attack from the Celtic Sea. Was it an breaking wave? I doubt it, I may just have left the continental shelf.
The next morning I sat on deck and prepared my self steering for broad reaching, which is always a little complicated because the forward sail will become the driving power at the tiller so it is useful to build a lever with cleat that will help to ease the sheet that needs to be released from the winch. I managed without making a big knot that I had to undo before each jibe. Wonder, the boat surged to 5 knots with spikes to 6! After 4 days at sea I knew now that we were able to go all the way without wind-vane or autopilot. What I did not take into consideration was the fatigue that all this work demands in a small craft, very sensitive to gusts, sea and useless as soon as the wind strengthens or softens. Which will be part of the conditions that I will encounter during my next two weeks. It is necessary to constantly strive to regain the adequate balance, which can become exhausting for both the body and the mind. The optimum wind speed for the system is I believe between 4 and 6 Bt. For with 3 reefs in the GV the close-hauled method is inoperative and likewise by broad reaching with a storm sail. Thus in light air or in heavy weather I had to be glued to the tiller.
Moreover I never managed to keep a good course on a beam reach, certainly the most difficult bearing to steer with sails. I learned later a system that is mentioned by Letcher and Dijkstra in which both sails genoa and main are combined and should keep the boat on course (see figure).

On the thirteenth day I was at the helm all day long and reread my Instant Weather Forecasting by Alan Watts, first day that its Crossed-winds rules made sense to me. I did stand with my back to the lower wind and if upper wind comes from the left hand then the weather will normally deteriorate and I watched the litany of the crossing of a developed depression: Jet Stream Cirrus, Altostratus and the most expected Pannus. At that moment I could no longer distinguish the fresh water from the sea water that kept coming in the cockpit. like a mop attached to its wooden handle and to close the debate the Cold Front. It was an exemplary depression. At the end of the tunnel at an unlikely speed, the cirrus of the sky drag in front of me and behind me a gigantic rainbow over the cumulonimbus, as a sign of greeting that my camera will no longer be able to photograph: Godot is officially declared flood zone area.

When I thought of continuing my little path, night fell and all began again. A strong southerly wind and what seemed a formed sea and a stressed barometer, judging from my awkward position at the helm at dusk. I decided to heave to with three reefs in the main, close-hauled, no foresail, and the tiller to leeward strongly fastened.
I went down into the cabin and I spent the best nights of my passage, it was clearly not a time to put his dolphin out. Some waves broke in the cockpit or on deck to remind me of the good memories of the North Atlantic Ocean, but she floated so smoothly, I stayed a good half day or so looking ourselves drifting slightly.

Is Godot a sailor? The definition tells us of a boat that takes the open sea with ease and robustness. Godot would be rather a tosse-mer, from the verb tosser  - to knock and shake, a brave and honest boat. Life on board leaves no room for pride, the seated or kneeling station brings us back to the early stages of evolution. Imagine a small space and how much attention and care this place asks its occupant.

After 21 days at sea and some other vagaries Godot and I touched land in Praia da Vitoria. No one was there waiting for us as no one knew where we were. The other Jesters had already left. Everything was in suspension, a sunny Sunday morning in Praia. Likewise on the pontoon, silent and unstable, due to a strengthened thermic wind. I began to walk towards the town. I already felt my mindfulness evaporate at every step. And then suddenly the mirror of the city reminded me of my condition while foul odors escaped from all parts of my body. I was getting ready to meet a face, for the first time in three weeks, I was ashamed.

To meet Jester and Trevor Leek was a great relief to me and if I hadn’t I would have experienced it as a loss. And it was together a month later that we left back to Plymouth. Leaving Praia and being so far from Amsterdam were the heaviest moments of solitude I have ever experienced, I regretted not having a VHF to talk to Trevor. I found myself face to face with the frozen smiles of the dolphins who seem to look at you like fools, laughing and tumbling at her bow after a few pirouettes to tease us. They had no hurry and they were not alone. Every minute seemed longer than the previous one. It took me four long days to regain my solitude. Keep concentrated and observe the sea, observe the sky, day and night, with this strange condense immobility, to take up this place of man facing the sea. Recovered a clear-minded since to shout out into the open sea does not release anything for nothing can give you an echo.
My great discovery was to see how much maritime space is social. And among the most jovial and annoying, the dolphins, that reminds us of our clumsiness, our handicap floating valley that echoes their signal and gives no answers. I should confess that it was always a festival, for them as for us. Pilot whales, whales or dolphins planted their laughing eye into mine, whispering: now we will take care of you blind on the ocean. As for dreams, they protect us the same way all day long and keep us in touch with the familiar. They restore order to external chaos. They always return to the mainland, they appear at night and sometimes solve problems that do not exist.

As expected this return trip to Plymouth saw winds prevailing in the W-SW sector 4-5Bt fairly stable with some gusts. Having no twin foresails I found myself without a solution for facing a single-handed downwind run. I had studied beforehand with Carlos, a very good friend of Praia, to prepare for the eventuality of a continuous downwind crossing; we had prepared several solutions with old booms of optimists (see figure). When sailing downwind, there is no way to improvise, obviously on a flat sea with 3knt of wind, any well balanced boat works without any regulator but from 2Bt on, she can’t keep a correct course. It must be built and planned in advance. With Godot everything happens at the mast foot and from 6Bt, going to work at the bow, without a helmsman becomes pretty hairy and rather dangerous. So it was sitting at the helm that I spent half of my time on my way back to Plymouth, jib or genoa tangled, at an average of 100 miles per day. In the open sea this was really no problem, it was when I had to cross the Channel that the situation proved more delicate. It is just exhausting for a long single-handed passage when the wind and the sea constantly change, for it requires constant attention day and night. Obviously it has the advantage of plunging your hands into the sludge. The ocean becomes more modest and less imperious, it seems that the determination that it requires creates a mutual respect in which one finds its place naturally. Like an object that takes its place respectfully where it has been given, neither present nor invisible, just blind. And each day demands a new improvisation, depending on the degree of laziness garnered the response may be the general strike or if the time is merciful the relaunch of the negotiations.

The observer who remains on the quay always has difficulty in imagining life at sea. He always wraps it in a veil. The more I left the shore, advancing far from the land, the more this passage reduced the fields of interference in my thoughts, I came every day to question the performance, and the clothes of the city disintegrated in tatters. The insignificance of life at sea, my non-existence with regard to the community, cleared up all sorts of unformed intuitions. The world of art and its performers whom I attended assiduously a few weeks before, appeared quite thin and insipid, its magnetism had lost all its power, a fixed circle without movement. Arguments fundamentally opposed: on the one hand the aesthetes and on the other the public, the anonymous; To detect the performance where it was born of itself, this thought became a safe place in my mind and had not left it since Plymouth. It is the same distance that separates performance in art from performance in life which is that of the anonymous, pure performance, non-documented, improvised, without archive, without announcement, without appointment; something calm, non-anthropocentric.

9_On my way back to Plymouth. Jury boom.

7.2_ On my way back to Plymouth, broad reaching with the rope
lashed to the jib sheet and sent via two pulleys to the tiller.
Combination a latex tube 8 and 4 mm on windward to regulate the

6_First day, close reaching with sandow elastic lashed to the tiller

bravozuluimage147.1_On my way back to Plymouth, broad reaching with a rope lashed to the jib sheet.

bravozuluimage1510_On my way back to Plymouth. Running in light air with head
drifter and main sail reefed on leeward, Genoa tangled on windward.

8_On my way to Terceira. Reaching with a rope directly lashed to the boom and combination of latex tube 8 and 4 mm on windward to
regulate the tension.

11_Praia de Vitoria. Terceira.

10_On my way to Terceira. Becalmed.

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