Russell Morgan & Neil Ainsworth, owners of F55-046 who took this Fleming from Florida to Europe
After leaving school, I attended South Tyneside Marine College where I qualified as a marine engineer and went on to work for BP Shipping Ltd. My knowledge and experience of marine systems gained during this period is considerable; not to mention the far away ports I have visited around the world. But it wasn't all milk and honey. Life aboard even the largest of ships can be extremely uncomfortable in high seas and, in rare cases can result in severe consequences.
Symptomatic of a mid-life crisis my brother-in-law, Russell and close friend, Neil decided to purchase a motoryacht earlier this year and to sail it across the Atlantic Ocean. What's worse, they thought that I too may be suffering from a similar, age-related ailment and asked if I would accompany them on their voyage as ship's engineer. The problem was, I'd been used to all of the frills and trappings onboard BP's tanker fleet, so the answer I gave was a far cry from a resounding Yes. Apart from the lack of a bar; a library; a cinema and a swimming pool, I was more concerned about how on earth they thought they'd carry sufficient fuel to run the engines and generators for thousands and thousands of miles across the Atlantic. Completely mad, I thought.
Anyway, the voyage was far from a certainty; they hadn't even decided upon the manufacturer that built a boat to best suit their needs, let alone actually made a purchase. So I figured that if I just kept my head down, then, with the passing of time and a following wind, their silly 'sickness' would hopefully be cured; the idea would go under and the whole mania would turn into nothing more than dinner-party conversation.
Not so. Thinking about it now, it's obvious that these two successful entrepreneurs would not allow anything to prevent them from fulfilling this ambition. With the US dollar weakening relentlessly against the British pound, they had settled on buying in the US. And as for the destination, well, the Mediterranean Sea was enticing as the Euro currency offered an attractive opportunity for resale profit, should the need or situation ever arise.
Within one month, I learned that the boat manufacturer had been selected; two or three prospective motoryachts had been identified on the US eastern seaboard; a mooring had been arranged in Mahon harbour, Menorca; an Australian company had been commissioned to manufacture the collapsible bladder tanks that would be required in order to provide the necessary additional fuel capacity and, that a professional skipper was being sought on the internet. This was most definitely going to happen - with or without me.
Then the phone call came. "Hi Al, just checking you'll be back from your half-term holiday in time to go out to Florida in early June? I need to book your flight soon. It's hurricane season soon after, so we'll have to leave early to avoid?" My mind raced, thinking about how I could possibly buy some more time before having to inevitably say No. I was just about to blurt out some garbled and feeble excuse when "... oh and I'm having a meeting up at my house with the skipper next Tuesday lunch. He's a really great guy, I'm sure you'll like him so I want to introduce you. See you about 12 o'clock then. Bye."
The nibbles and wine were very nice at Russ' house that Tuesday lunchtime. Russ, Neil, and Damien the appointed skipper, myself and Martin (Marty), another friend of ours, were all present. The conversation and the wine were flowing well. They were planning that the trip would take about four and a half to five weeks. This was the moment of realisation. It hit hard. I was considering the awful prospect of being away from my wife and children for a heck of a long time, with four other middle-aged men aboard a plastic boat that would quite probably fit into the bar at my local pub. Now who's mad?
Then, it was announced that the boat was very likely to be a Fleming. I knew that this was a spectacular boat indeed, designed by a British architect, Tony Fleming. I couldn't help myself. Soon, the romance of the journey embraced me like the lure of a mythical mermaid, calling me back to the sea. But, what would my wife Louise have to say?
Tuesday June 3rd 2008 was Louise's 42nd birthday. It was also the day that Marty and I boarded an aircraft at Leeds Bradford Airport on our way to Florida. I guess that I wasn't too popular that day. However, waiting for us on her berth at Dania Beach Marina, Fort Lauderdale was a 55' Fleming, named Beluga.
The journey out didn't go entirely to plan due to airline delays and, the US immigration personnel in Dublin requiring us to have purchased flight tickets for our return journey. They wouldn't accept that we were travelling back on a motorboat. "Who the hell would do such a thing as that? Join the line, Sir and buy yourselves a ticket!" 1,200 Euros later, we were allowed to proceed to the gate to board our flight to the US.
Marty and I arrived at the marina at 22:00 local time. Beluga looked fabulous, despite her fifteen years of age. Russ and Neil had been living onboard for the previous three days. They'd been working twelve hours a day checking, fixing, cleaning, preparing, then checking again, and again. For six weeks or so, the boatyard engineers, electricians and woodwork specialists had been carrying out a thorough investigation, repair and maintenance schedule. Much of the work had (apparently) been completed though disappointingly there were still some areas requiring attention. Damien arrived late on Wednesday evening to make up the full crew for the crossing.
After three days of further preparations, buying food and a vast array of supplies, we had gathered together cases of tools; hoses and buckets; drums of engine oil; boxes of filters for fuel, engine oil and water; engine belts; emergency bilge pumps; tapered bungs; fishing rods and tackle including a de-scaler and stainless knives; clips, ties, rivets, all types of fastener; every type of glue; cleaning agents and solvents; gasket sets; liquid gasket; cloths and service kits for the desalination plant. The amount of equipment was astounding.
It was Friday morning on 6th June when we all made what was to be our last calls from the US back to our loved ones at home. During the course of the previous evening, we concluded that we would operate a four hour watch system thereby giving eight hours between watches. This was considered to be sufficient for relaxation and sleep. Damien was the most capable, certainly in terms of navigation and so he would do his watch alone, between midnight and 04:00 and also midday to 16:00. Marty and I would do the dawn watch from 04:00 to 08:00 and the 16:00 to 20:00 watch. Russ and Neil would do the day watch from 08:00 to noon and from 20:00 until midnight.
By 11:30, after carrying out all of the necessary engine checks, we had dropped the mooring lines and were heading off to our pre-arranged meeting with the fuel barge, before heading out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Filling Beluga's four main fuel tanks went without a hitch, though naturally took a fair amount of time due to the quantity of fuel required and the fact that we wanted to ensure that we had the maximum possible amount in each tank. During this time, we exchanged pleasantries with the fuel attendant and he was astounded when he learned of the trip that we were about to embark on. Then it was time to fill the bladder tanks. These were two bright orange, neoprene-based flexible tanks that had been manufactured to lay in the walkways down the outside of the salon, one on each side. They were a bit like gargantuan sausages really. We had already fitted the necessary connectors and valves to the fill and outlet hoses. The process of filling the bladder tanks proved testing to say the very least. None of us had any previous experience of such massive and seemingly restless tanks. I had visions of these monstrous bladders wallowing around the cockpit in heavy seas like a pair of pregnant walruses. While Damien had crossed the Atlantic Ocean many times previously, he had done these crossings while delivering sailing boats, and therefore his experiences of handling temporary fuel tanks were non existent too. However, being a practical and innovative group of Brits and, following an incident in which [ironically] the barge attendant almost drowned in his own fuel, we perfected a system that may have taken what seemed like an eternity, but ensured that none of us was likely to drown in the stuff again. The bladders filled, and they began to adopt a reassuring stability as they nestled themselves into their respective walkways, working themselves right into the corners that were formed along the walkways by the well-built outer walls of the salon and the extremely sturdy sides of the Fleming hull.
It was now 14:00 hrs, three hours since we'd left the marina. We had 1,485 US gallons of fuel on board. While this was far more fuel than was needed to travel the 862 nautical miles to our first port in Bermuda, we had decided that as near as possible, we should simulate the conditions which would be present when we depart Bermuda for The Azores. At 1890 miles, this was the longest leg of the trip. The reasoning behind this lay with the fact that the cruise out to Bermuda was in actual fact our first proper outing. This first leg would effectively be our sea trial and would enable us to operate and closely monitor various systems, more than we could hope to achieve whilst we were in the marina or when we had been out for a few hours in the bay at Dania Beach. Being able to accurately ascertain the volume of fuel being consumed per hour, whilst cruising at our planned 1,100 rpm was our principal objective.
Maybe the fuel attendant was still mad at us for the fuel soaking or perhaps he had anticipated a more generous tip. Who knows? We dropped the lines from the barge, then looked at each other with terror in our eyes as we heard him shouting out at us at the top of his mighty voice, "I'll be seein' ya all on CNN. Yure all surely gunna die!" It really was like a nightmare or a scene out of some bizarre movie.
Spirits lowered for a while as we turned to head out into the ocean. But hey, we're Brits, and we can do anything we set our minds to. We weren't going to let some lily-livered land-lubber tell us what we could or couldn't hope to achieve with our boat.
Unfortunately, we spent the first ten hours in some fairly uncomfortable conditions. This was the result of a strong northerly wind combined with ten feet waves coming at us adjacent to the port beam. Fortunately however, our Fleming was fitted with excellent stabilisers. Stabilisers are hinged fins, fitted to the hull, one per side. The axial rotation of the boat or, roll as it is more commonly known, is continually monitored by a gyroscope. This information is processed by a system that independently controls the movement of the stabiliser fins via hugely powerful hydraulic rams that push or pull them according to the amount of movement required to stabilise the boat. Stabilisers do not counter the pitch or yaw of a boat and as such, the conditions we were experiencing could only be mitigated by the stabilisers and not entirely removed.
First, the fridge and freezer door latches let go; in glorious style. On first inspection it was horrific. Our previously immaculate galley and salon area had now been spewed over, with the contents of the fridge which had been accompanied by several other items that had now found their preferred place by performing the art of gravity-initiated self-stowage. Essentially anything and everything that had not been tied down was now down, down as low as it could possibly go. Our skins now turned a peculiar shade of grey. This was not a comfortable ride. Conversation was minimal. Eye contact had almost completely stopped. Where were our sea-legs? I felt that this was the mighty ocean stamping its mark of authority on us all, including Beluga. The old saying, still waters run deep, is absolutely true at sea. Wave heights are augmented in relatively shallow water as there is less space for the water to travel. We had been in fairly shallow waters for a while after leaving Florida, though as we navigated around Grand Bahama the sea depth gradually climbed to well over 1,000 metres and the sea conditions calmed considerably as a result.
I spent many afternoons on the foredeck talking with Neil. One day, he had just announced that our evening meal was to be chicken curry when a distinct change in the faint murmur of the engine tone prompted us to investigate further. "I've got one, I've got one" shouted Marty from the cockpit. We could now hear the fizzing and buzzing of his fishing reel as it had its line tugged out in great lengths that seemed like a mile at a time. Whatever it was that had taken a fancy to Marty's lure was surely bigger than anything we'd seen at the local fish market that was for certain.
Damien slowed the engines, reducing our speed to ease the process of winding in the line. Russ had grabbed a landing net and was eagerly waiting to assist with Beluga's first catch, while Marty wound and wound and wound. We all watched the surface of the sea far out beyond the wash for signs of what Marty was bringing in, closer and closer to our boat. By now, Damien had joined us in the cockpit and was using the cockpit controls to maintain a speed which was not so slow as to allow the fishing line to become entangled in the propellers, though slow enough to keep Marty's workload to a minimum. Neil spotted it first and he almost jumped off the boat with excitement. This was big. The thrill was incredible. Then, just as suddenly as the commotion had begun, it all ended. The line had gone slack. Marty remained positive and kept reeling in his line though the rest of us were certain that the catch had been lost. Our spell of depression was suddenly broken when, at less than twenty metres from the boat, we simultaneously saw what appeared to be a very large catch, though none of us was entirely sure what it was. As it came closer we recognised that this was indeed a very large fish. Neil rushed inside then reappeared a moment later with a laminated sheet of pictures which showed just about every living thing you're likely to catch in the Atlantic Ocean. Next to each picture were their respective usual names, scientific names with their length and weight ranges.
Russ landed the fish into the cockpit and while Neil removed the hook from its mouth, Marty was excitedly preparing the line, ready to go out again. He was hooked. What we had here was a four and a half foot Mahi Mahi, and we made sure that we took photos to prove this one. The chicken curry would certainly have to wait until another day.
Our journey to Bermuda took five days. After passing through customs and immigration at the harbour of Saint George's we decided to remain there for the duration of our stay as it was so charming and appealing. We had planned that two or three days would be sufficient to make the necessary repairs and modifications to the generators' charging circuits and to carry out the necessary provisions re-stocking. Queen Elizabeth however, had other ideas. The inhabitants of the Islands of Bermuda are extremely proud of their status as an overseas British territory and the resulting link with our Queen. While her birthday is in late April the celebrations actually take place in June. As such, everything closed from Thursday evening through to Tuesday morning as a public holiday. I suppose there were far worse places on the planet to be trapped.
At the point on our planned route, at which we considered that we were as far from land as possible we shut down the engines and drifted; to soak up the experience I suppose. We all (except the skipper, of course) had a swim mid Atlantic. We'd had a similar experience in the Bermuda Triangle too, though this was even more surreal due to the strong sun and almost complete lack of wind causing the surface of the sea to lay absolutely still. This was a silence like I've never experienced. The sea looked like a sheet of blue glass, stretching out to the horizon in all directions. Save for catching two more large fish and seeing some spectacular sunrises and sunsets our daily routine was seldom disrupted. The passage across this ocean without seeing another boat or even an aeroplane was taking it's toll. Monotony instigated boredom and tedium. Minutes took hours then hours took days. Was this ever going to end?
After eleven days, land came into sight. It was Pico Alte, the tallest of the volcanic islands in The Azores. At over 2300 metres it is actually Portugal's highest mountain. I was on watch at that time and recall the utter excitement at the prospect of stepping off the boat onto dry land and seeing other people. This was a truly spectacular feeling. We were allocated our berth in the marina at Horta on the island of Faial. Over the course of the following three days, much merriment ensued. As a parting gesture and in keeping with tradition, I designed a logo and painted our boat's name along with the names of our crew onto the harbour wall. The story goes that if you do this then you are given the promise of a safe onward voyage. Time would tell.
From The Azores we sailed to Funchal, the capital city of Madeira. A relatively flat sea made for a comfortable crossing. We spent three days here converting the boat's power services in readiness for arrival at our berth in Menorca. European electricity voltage is double the US voltage so transformers were required to allow for this. We had heard from sailors around the harbour that there were some severe storms brewing up in the north. Damien decided that we should make for an early departure so as to be ahead of the weather. Next stop Gibraltar.
After two days since leaving Funchal we were now about 250 miles West of the Gibraltar Straits when we encountered our storm. This was one hell of a storm. A combination of our heading and the complex sea system caused Beluga to roll and yaw like a pot-bellied pig. Once again, flesh-tones paled. With the passing of time, we managed to become a little less startled at rolling over to about 45 to 50 degrees. I now began counting the number of smaller waves that were spaced between the big ones that pushed us over. I even counted how many seconds passed whilst we maintained this unsteady pose before the hull was hopefully allowed to right itself. The counting drew me into a false sense of security. As I was counting away the seconds, a massive and quite unexpected wave broke on the port side of the hull. Our already precarious angle was worsened still further. I was horrified. I sensed Marty looking at me. I didn't reciprocate. I feared that he was looking for my reaction on which he would then base his. If I were to show signs of anxiety then between us we could lose the plot. I was speechless. Somehow though, I managed to say something. With forced enthusiasm I shouted over the crashing and thudding noises "Wow, Marty, that was a big un!" After a while, Marty gave a dry smile. Silence followed. I felt an excited sensation within. Like a naughty school children, we knelt down and gathered up various pieces of equipment that were now cluttered the wheelhouse floor. We decided to take a more southerly course in the hopes that this would prevent a recurrence. For three or four hours more the weather persisted, though fortunately we didn't encounter any further rogue waves.
As we approached the Straits of Gibraltar, the radar began to warn us of other vessels entering our zone. At one point there were no less than twenty boats and ships of different shapes and sizes within a 3 mile radius around Beluga. Whilst the painful memories of the earlier storm still lingered on, we did now feel a sense of relative safety. Due to the relatively low fuel prices in Gibraltar, we planned a quick splash-and-dash. We would then head up the east coast of Spain giving Marty and Damien easy access to the airport from Marbella. We would continue to Menorca without a skipper, though Marty was replaced by a new crew member Thomo.
Oh, how wrong we were. While we loaded with fuel we each enjoyed a fantastic bacon butty and a bag of pickled onion flavoured Monster Munch from a local greasy spoon along the jetty. We were then asked to head round to Customs and Immigration where they would check over our papers etc. Lined up on the customs jetty were two sniffer dogs with handlers, fifteen customs officers and an array of highly technical-looking equipment.
It took almost five hours of searching with endoscopic cameras, mirrors and dogs for them to concede to the fact that we were all in actual fact thoroughly nice chaps and really just wanted to get on our way as people had planes to catch. Though I must admit, we were all a bit scruffy around the edges and probably had the outward appearance of the archetypical drug smugglers, bringing their cargo of contraband into Europe under the guise of a pleasure boat. A boat that had just been bought in America and sailed across to Europe!
Each day, Beluga's engines had been run at relatively high revs for a short period of time as a preventative measure in order to blast the carbon away from inside the engine cylinder heads and turbines as possible. Despite this, the black exhaust smoke left behind us as we wound up the twin 435 bhp Caterpillar turbo-charged engines was probably similar to the cloud of ash from a volcanic eruption.
With only minutes to spare, we arrived at Puerto de la Duquesa and said our goodbyes to Damien and Marty. The following three days to Mahon were truly amazing. The sun shone brightly and the usually choppy Mediterranean Sea was almost flat calm. As we had been away for six weeks we ran at approximately 10.5 knots for this final leg of the journey. If we got our skates on, we could catch Monarch's Monday flight to Manchester. The first question asked of us all when we arrived in Mahon harbour was whether any of us would do the same trip again. I was the only one who immediately said, Yes.