Trials and Tribulations of an Atlantic Crossing in a 40 year old Catalac 9M

By Christopher Langham and Esther Minter

When I started my journey in late June 2015, I envisioned emblematic escapades. Nevertheless, what I encountered was tremendous challenges that I never could have fathomed.

Catalac 9M Atlantic crossing

These surprise factors after embarking on the journey from Largs, Scotland to St. Thomas USVI were mostly unnecessary, and had I known in advance what fiascos were ahead of me, I never would have left the comfort of my Government Housing Subsidized Apartment, in the Crime ridden projects of St. Thomas. 

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.

Catalac 9M Atlantic crossing

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.

Four days later, we seemed to have band-aided the engine trouble, so we continued moving towards Conwy, Wales.  We decided to stop at out of the way Conwy, Wales, to visit some friends and get some help with the engine, and its electrical system.

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.

Catalac 9M Atlantic crossing

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.

Tensions ran high, and it was here my friend informed me that due to all the unforeseen issues, he wasn’t going to continue on with me. It was during this hiatus I began to realize that these engines and electrical issues were costing me more than they were worth paying for; with this realization, I had to make some serious changes if I was going to get this boat home.

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). 

Catalac 9M Atlantic crossing

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!Having sorted out all the transom troubles, and restocking the boat with supplies, and with a good one week weather window, I departed from Arklow, Ireland and crossed the Bay of Biscay.  A few days in, the weather turned horrible, and the Genoa was taking a beating from very strong winds, the main boom goose neck broke on the main sail, and the torrential waves slammed into the side of the boat as crescendo like cannons.  Waves towered over the boat and crashed on top of her, I was scared for my life…

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.

Catalac 9M Atlantic crossing

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. 

Continue to Part 2


By Rick

Owner of a Catalac 8M and Catamaransite webmaster.

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