Calm before the storm…

November 6, 2015

It seems utterly ridiculous that just as I write these words I have to count back in my head to work out what day it is today. Friday.

Eight of our crew arrived at the Centre De Voile on Tuesday morning and almost immediately we were laughing at our own mini adventures and sharing individual stories of Dakar. The excitement in the air put to bed any concerns I had entertained about dynamics and compatibility without effort and it was evident immediately that these women represent an eclectic mix of talent and personality from across the globe. Undoubtedly their individual stories and areas of expertise will emerge as the expedition evolves and I found myself feeling a welcome sense of curiosity. One of our crew for example is a 25 year old Norwegian engineer called Christine who specialises in the design of ROV’s (remotely operated vehicles). With her, Christine carried a large pelican case which contains a prototype underwater vehicle from her company ‘Blue Eye’ that we can send to depths of 100m and operate directly from the yacht whilst watching everything that it discovers from on board. I find this concept really exciting and it’s a great privilege to be part of a team that will assist in trialling it.

It’s amazing that thousands of miles away the great British weather could still be heavily influencing our working day and yet fog in the UK meant delayed flights for 3 of our crew which pushed many of of our plans back to Wednesday. The Senegalese authorities were still dragging their feet regarding the fuel situation which made for an extremely busy day. After attempting the refuel in the morning we were promptly sent away by Dakar VTS (vessel traffic services) due to incomplete paperwork and so we returned to CDV to pick up the remaining crew and finish our safety briefings. As we lifted anchor for the last time in Dakar to set out on the start of our ocean adventure I realised how accustomed I had become to the smell that I associate with Senegal. Strange that I may even miss it.

The refuelling process was bordering on farcical as we underwent similar procedures to that of a container ship. The fuel hose was absolutely filthy with diesel and dirt and leaked badly from the hose join. I could only imagine the amount that would be lost to the water without the level of care and application that we gave to it. We seemed to draw a great deal of attention on the commercial fuel dock and the men that worked there expressed their obvious curiosity and bemusement at 14 women on one large yacht attempting to deal with local bureaucracy in broken French whilst fuelling with a filthy pipe donning blue surgical gloves and with old towels spread across the decks in a vain attempt to maintain a level of cleanliness.

Finally at around 1700 we were fully fuelled and on a steady SSW course for Ascension Island. I was really looking forward to settling into the watch system and relaxing into a gentle night motor sail under the glittering star speckled night. I always wonder in what capacity anyone else would spend so long gazing into the night sky as we do when we steer to a star. I remember the first time many years ago that I first noticed the relative movement of the night sky and how very aware I was for the first time of the whole motion of the planet and how very small I felt. To add to the magic, we were treated to an amazing phosphorescence display by some passing Dolphins much to the delight of the working watch.

Despite the oppressive heat below decks, I was glad that our journey was beginning with such serenity and calm and as I relaxed in my bunk I thought of loved ones at home and wondered if they were sleeping soundly in their beds. As I closed my eyes on a perfect evening at sea, I had no clue as to what I would soon awake to.

I awoke for my watch at 0730 to a sound that was unexpected.  As I climbed out of my bunk and glanced up at the mosquito nets in the main saloon hatches I was presented with a sight not unlike something out of a horror film. They were teeming with large black and brown insects that were scuttling around furiously trying to find their way into the boat. As I emerged on deck I could sense the tension in the crew immediately as they hosed the decks with salt water and looked upon the situation in disbelief. It would seem that a swarm of insects that I believe to be locusts had descended on the boat shortly before daylight and literally thousands and thousands of them began to bury themselves in the sails, the rigging, the blocks, the compressor, the dinghy, the bimini, the bowlines in the halyards, the spinnaker poles, the sheets, the gas locker, the danbuoy compartments, literally everywhere. It was absolutely horrific .  My greatest concern was that they would damage the boat and the scientific equipment as well as the psychological impact on the crew.

In my experience it is usually the greater challenges that unite a crew or dissolve it completely and in this instance, the girls on board really delivered. For 12 hours we worked from the bow to the stern with the salt water hose and the wet vac to chase the insects clear. They were utterly relentless and the scene across the decks was of utter carnage. Every time we moved some gear the critters would scuttle for the next cavity or hiding place. It was as if the entire superstructure of the boat was alive and moving. We managed to keep going between us and Imogen, Holly and myself tag teamed the effort to clear the yacht. Our efforts made a huge difference but still there were hundreds left in the rig and in various cavities around the boat. They even found their way into the electrics behind the nav station and 2 or 3 would appear on the charts as we wrote the log entries.

As dusk came we believed we had cleared most of the creatures away but the second part of the nightmare was still to come. As the darkness descended, so the remaining insects made their way straight to the lights, the majority of which were below decks. Imogen and I deduced that by leaving one primary light on in the forward rope locker and shutting the watertight door, we could attract the majority to the mosquito net in the forward hatch and deal with the result upon daylight. The plan certainly helped but the night was still a very very long one resulting in some very tired faces this morning.

The clean up operation continued today and finally we can sit on clear decks and look out at the vast expanse of glassy ocean with a sense of calm. The boat is mostly clean but we can still hear the distinctive sound of some of the remaining stow always that no doubt will taunt us for days to come. For now, we are all on deck enjoying displays from Dolphins, sea birds and flying fish and reflecting on the crazy crazy events of yesterday. There will be some deep sleeps on Sea Dragon tonight as the watches evolve and we continue on our passage towards the Equator.

Emily Curuso – 1st mate eXXpedition crew

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