A Christmas to Remember

Think of the tune “Deck the Halls.” Now try to sing this tune with the words “Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young” one syllable at a time. It’s not easy. The Canadian rock band Bare Naked Ladies does an excellent version of this on their Christmas CD, but it’s surprisingly tricky to do. However it’s an absolute blast to try when surfing down 20 foot waves while sailing in 30 knots of wind.

This is how we spent our Christmas in 2012. Our crew consisted of my husband Robert, John, Karen, myself, and our two cats Perkins and Dabola. We were barely 40 miles off the coast of Mauritania, West Africa. We were not heading to Mauritania, but in fact were heading to Cape Verde, a West African island country.

We were going to Cape Verde because we had taken on bad fuel at our last stop in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, and there was a mechanic in Cape Verde. We were actually heading across the ocean to Antigua, but two days out of Las Palmas the engine wouldn’t start. We tried to bleed it with no success. We traced the fuel and saw that fuel was going into the injector pump and not out. Injector pumps are highly complicated, and we did not want to try to tackle this job ourselves, especially out in the lumpy ocean.

The wind had filled in to a healthy 20 knots out of the north, and building, meaning the 300-plus mile return trip to Las Palmas would be an uphill grind. We could have continued to cross the ocean, but that could mean extensive engine damage, more than we were currently had. Diesel fuel in Spain is clear, so we couldn’t distinguish between water and fuel in the glass bowl. At this point, we knew we had water in the fuel, but we didn’t know how much. A little can cause a lot of damage. We made contact with the folks in Mindelo, Cape Verde, via satellite email and they said to sail on down (900 miles), and they would fix us up. So we had a mere 900 miles to go. The winds were all out of the north, so sailing down was rather easy. However, we had a freezer packed full of food. Enough food for four people to last for three weeks. If the battery voltage got too low, the freezer would turn off.

So keeping the batteries charged became a crucial concern. We probably had enough dry food to last months, but then the fun factor would drop considerably. Without the engine and its high output alternator, we didn’t have the option to run the engine for an hour a day to top off the battery bank. We had to rely solely on our wind generator and solar panels to keep up with our electric usage. This is why we were so close to Mauritania.

When we were sailing dead down wind, the mizzen mast blocked the wind generator. So we headed a bit east to get more wind across the deck. This worked. The blades spun nicely. We even considered going to Mauritania, but we didn’t have enough information on it. We didn’t know if there was a safe harbor there. Or mechanics.

It took no time to scrap that idea. But we got close enough to be just hours away. We kept the solar panels clean by wiping them with glass cleaner. It was interesting to see how much of a difference this made. Sailing more east didn’t make the sun any stronger, but we could keep the panels clean and kept them aimed to the sun to optimize the charge.

To save power, we used hand-held flashlights at night to get around. We used sea water to wash dishes (the water pump uses juice) and then rinsed in fresh hot water. The food in the freezer stayed frozen. We constantly monitored the battery status and the freezer temperature. The wind generator and solar panels were doing a splendid job!

Not that they didn’t work before, but we always had the engine’s alternator for that final charge, and we had much more frozen food now. I made a mental note to thank my buddy Hamilton Ferris who had sold us these power products before we left. We continued to sing Christmas carols, loudly, to be heard over the roar of the wind and waves. Karen can actually sing! We even made up a few songs. We butchered the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young lyrics until we just gave up.

Our Christmas turkey stayed in the freezer because it was too rough to serve our big multi-course holiday meal, so we saved it for later. Instead we dined on pasta with Spanish sausage and Canary Island mojo sauce, still a wonderful Christmas dinner eaten out of plastic bowls with rubber bottoms in the cockpit.

On the morning of December 27, we sailed (surfed) into Mindelo Harbor. By noon that same the day, the injector pump was off and on its way to the machine shop. By 8 p.m. that evening, we were sitting around a cozy dinette table, filled with platters of roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans from a local Mindelo market, creamed pearl onions, and chilled wine.

We listened to Spanish Flamenco Christmas tunes on our CD player while Cape Verdean music drifted in from the streets. We even had a little decorated tree. We lifted our glasses to a safe arrival in one of the busiest, windiest, and most crowded harbors we have ever seen. And with no engine! The feast was delicious. It was all part of a Christmas I will never forget.

--by Cindy Fletcher-Holden