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Dorado Talk

Some tales of the voyaging life, from the perspective of a small boat sailor - in what you'd probably call a yacht, though we just call them boats. Here's a yarn about the Cape Town - Horta leg of my trip back home northward, in a Sadler 32. The pelagic life of the South Atlantic fascinated me, as you will probably be able to tell.

Tales From The Atlantic

Dorado Talk

Northwest to the Equator

It had been a long haul up the South Atlantic from Cape Town, and now the Equator was fast approaching. The clouds overhead that raced past on their way north had to end up somewhere, and I reckoned I knew where that was going to be. Somewhere up ahead, in front of the ITCZ (the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, or Doldrums to most of us), they were going to dump on me.

The trip northwest up toward the Azores had been paradise, a pure unadulterated milk run for thousands of miles. I'd left Cape Town on August the tenth, and picked up the Trades a few days later at 30 degrees South, sooner than expected, and the welcome south-easters had pushed me gently along, getting stronger as we made more northing. It was the voyage of a lifetime and I knew I'd never forget it.

There wasn't much chance of getting down this way again in my future, as far as I could see; so the motto for the day was enjoy it while you can – every day. The big chute lived out on the port bow most of the time, and when it came down on a heavy day, the miles were just as good with a bit of genoa showing, helped by the big rollers racing past underneath on their way north-west toward the equator.

No worries, no stress, no clothes, no engine needed. The towed turbine following along behind pumped so many amps into the batteries that the propeller on its yard-long steel shaft and forty feet of rope often had to be pulled out, to stop the big wire-wound resistor on the dump regulator acting like an electric bar fire.

Pelagic life

The days went past in a welter of waves, sun, flying fish, dolphins, porpoises, turtles, seabirds, and the ever-present dorado shadowing the boat. These brilliant gold and neon-blue hunters loved using the boat to scare up flying fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and when I stopped at night they often said thank-you by leaping clear of the water and breaching in pure joy, smacking back down on the water with a big happy splash. We all felt the same way, down there in trade wind heaven. It didn't even make me feel guilty when occasionally they fed me – eventually I'd figured a way of only catching the little ones, and those big 15-pounders were safe again. Single-handed with no fridge, anything like that was pure waste, and even after you'd gorged yourself for two days on dorado, which must be the world's most delicious fish, there was still too much to throw back in for the squid.

In Durban a new liferaft and inflatable dinghy had come aboard, to add to the watermaker; the prices seem so attractive when you get far enough south. One-up in a lightweight cruiser-racer was going to be fun for the stormy thousand miles down the South African coast in winter; and the 6,500 mile leg from Cape Town to the Azores would be both my longest offshore passage, and the longest time I'd ever been alone. To be honest, a steel boat would have been my choice; but the boat you're sailing is the boat you've got, so you just sail on.

The night watch

The only gesture to my peace of mind was heaving-to at night. I wasn't in any hurry to get somewhere fast, so the sails came down at night and I slept like a baby. Sometimes the radar guard zone kept watch, but usually it was just too much trouble to hit the radar on-button. No ships, no boats, no land, for a long, long way in any direction. Wake up in the morning, and the trusty Hydrovane windvane steering has kept the boat going the right way for three or four miles, at half a knot or so, even with no canvas up. Some nights the wind and waves would have had us thirty miles north-west while the skipper snored; a ship's lifeboat sea anchor with a yard-wide mouth, towed astern as a drogue, kept the speed down to half a knot and no risk of an embarrassing encounter with a Chinese long-liner.

I'd never heard of anyone else doing that: all the singlehanders I'd ever met, and that was a lot, keep sailing and wake up every twenty minutes for a look around the horizon. Ignoring the ones who run dark, that is. One crazy guy (English of course) told me he got up every ten minutes for a look, and since he had an egg timer running twenty-four hours a day and ringing every ten minutes, even in harbour, it wasn't hard to believe him.

No one had ever accused me of being bound by convention, though, so it was an easy decision to be different. The thought of running into something in that lightweight job in pitch darkness, thousands of miles from anywhere, made my blood run cold. So I was a coward; thank God, it would make up for all those crazy lunatic times when I was younger. Though perhaps I was just growing up at last – it had taken long enough.

The prolific South Atlantic

The South Atlantic teems with life; to all us pale Northerners used to the fished-out, polluted, and freezing North Atlantic, it's a revelation. Tuna, dorado, dolphins, whales, orcas, and flying fish by the zillion counterpoise the wheeling Cory's shearwaters, gannets, and albatross-like birds above that I couldn't identify, and the piratical frigate birds as you come past Ascension Island. Mother Carey's Chickens, the little stormy petrels, seem to run pattering across the surface of the water in the troughs and across the crests; the harder it blows, the more it looks as if they are enjoying it.

The third of September, three hundred miles east of Ascension Island, at 8º 20' South, 9º 10' West: a beautiful, warm afternoon, six and a half knots on the clock, genoa pulling well, big rollers coming past underneath. It's nearing the end of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, but seems more like a midsummer day in Britain.

Way off to port, a thousand feet up, a speck in the sky comes closer. It drops lower to a few hundred feet as it nears the boat, and resolves into an Ascension frigate bird. It looks as if it was the prototype for the Stuka dive-bomber: piratical, cranked wings, the buccaneer of the skies. A big red pouch the size of an apple sits under his chin – something to do with courting rituals back home, the seabird book says. He comes lower and glides behind the boat, and suddenly drops like a stone from three hundred feet up. Looking behind at a big roller coming down toward the boat, following the ten thousand waves that went before, a large gold dorado is streaming diagonally down the face of the wave like a submerged surfer. He's five feet long or more, the peak of hunting efficiency, and looks like a golden carp on steroids, with neon-blue highlights. A small shadow a foot in front of his domed head breaks the surface, becomes a flying fish, and jets away from the dorado, inches from being lunch. The tableau passes fifteen feet away, on the port quarter. The frigate bird dives from above onto the flying fish, claws extended, and pulls out of his dive six inches off the water –- but he's missed by a whisker. The fish drops back in, petrified by the bird's attack, and instantly becomes dorado dinner. What a team!

The frigate and the dorado live a symbiotic life, linked by the flying fish. From a thousand feet up or more, the frigate cruises the Trades and watches for a dorado, which hunts near the surface. The fish has brilliant electric blue side fins, and you can easily see those bright blue fins in a wave from a hundred yards away on the boat. How much easier it must be for the frigate bird to spot him; perhaps from a mile or more away, from so high up. They glide in with that big red apple under the throat, and dive for the fish put up by the dorado. Lady luck smiles on them about one dive in six, by my reckoning, so that must be paying odds out here. Funny how they will never land on the water, and seem afraid of hitting it. Apparently they can float, and also take off without a problem – even land birds do that out here – but perhaps it's a matter of energy conservation; don't waste it if you don't have to. With hundreds of miles back to Ascension, it may be a case of better safe than sorry. On the other hand, there are many hungry mouths just below the surface around here; and that's probably a better reason not to land, thinking about it.

The smaller dorado (or mahi-mahi, or dolphin fish) swim in schools, before they leave to swim alone as big lone hunters. There are schools of minnows around a foot to eighteen inches long; but most often seen are packs of four or five three-foot long fellows who love nothing better than to swim on the shady side of your boat all day long. Many a happy hour can be spent sitting on the coach roof edge, feet on the side deck, watching their antics as they swim out after the flying fish, and then return to the shade for a rest. Catching them for dinner is not what you'd call a challenge. Just hang your fishing rod over the side with a plastic squid dangling six inches off the water, dip it in, and they go nutty jumping out and snapping at it as you pull it up out of their reach, half-paralysed with laughter. Lower it and they try again – surely they can see you and the rod as clear as day? Six or eight pounds of easy meat isn't really enough of a challenge, so you let them swim on in frustration, while you giggle all the while, like a schoolgirl listening to a friend's silly joke. Innocent times in the South Atlantic.

If you really need to hook one and can't see one next to the boat, then set a plastic squid one boat-length back – any further is too far – and wait for the hit. Any flying fish around and you'll soon have dinner; no flying fish equals no dorado. Use a tiny green squid, and then you can hope for a small one of sensible one-man dinner size.

Watching the fish talk

One of my favourite occupations was watching the dorado talk to each other. They communicate by colour change, movements, and sound. I had no idea that any of these were possible, but saw these so often that eventually many of their meanings were clear. The most common, but the hardest to interpret, were the colour display signals. A school member would swim up to another, alongside the boat, and immediately go into a complex range of total body colour changes. When we see dorado out of the water, they are usually gold all over; after death they often turn completely silver. When communicating, though, these colours aren't used, and they launch into a fabulous display of moving stripes, bars, spots, and waves. My favourite were the moving bars; the displayer would instantly change from gold and blue to an all-over scheme of vertical bands, two inches wide, of alternate purple and brown. This was obviously a favourite 'spiel' as it was often seen. He moves these backward and forward along his body, with perfect control of the edges of the bars, which are pin-sharp. The effect is stunning, the waves of colour moving back and forth in a hypnotising motion. He finishes by moving the waves forward only, with a hilarious effect as the bands of colour disappear off the end of his nose, new ones appearing at his tail to replace them, and whizzing forward along the body. I used to lie flat on the deck, head peeking over the side, with two or three of the big fish within four or five feet. The effect of the bars of colour flying off their noses always used to make me burst out laughing, however often I saw it.

Meanwhile, his partner would reply with a slightly more conservative all-over brown, covered with iridescent purple spots, shimmering and moving, looking like a rainbow trout being electrified. A third fish might be around, putting in his bit with another display, perhaps of coloured stripes. Having said whatever they had wanted to say, one would swim off. You could just lie there for hours watching the various repeat performances, in different colours and effects. Perhaps one was male, one female: "Hello sweetie, doing anything tonight?" Or, perhaps they might have been re-bonding their school membership: "These are the East Ascension Team #58 colours, are you one of us?" Or it may have just been, "Hey, pal, look at this. Beat that if you can!"

Because brown is used so often, you think at first that this must be a strong colour to them, since it holds little attraction for us. It occurred to me, though, that perhaps brown is nearly invisible; therefore the bright purple bars and spots probably look as if they are being displayed on an invisible host. Impressive.


Suddenly a shower of flying fish erupts from the bow of the boat. Instantly, all the school members are off after them. As they converge on the hapless victims, one or two of the dorado school jump clear of the water in a clean, porpoising movement, a smooth arc keeping them on course for the prey. They have changed colour again, to midnight blue on the back, gradually melting to dark silver underneath. The colour is always the same when hunting, the arc always both menacing but joyful, perhaps to herd the flying fish onward, or just to team bond. These are obviously the team hunting colours, and the message says quite clearly "We are the Dorado 'A' Team and we are going to mince all these little fish up!"

Later, up near the ITCZ, a school of skipjack tuna of the same size performed the same ritual, using exactly the same colours, although this is close to their normal colour scheme. Do the dorado imitate them? Is it the other way round? Or is this the standard South Atlantic hunting technique? I realised I'd probably never know. No one seems to know much about fish behaviour down here. Amazingly, you'll even see experts writing that flying fish just glide and don't 'flap' their 'wings'. Make a passage in a small boat in these parts and you'll most certainly know different, after seeing several thousand of them close up, and many of them very clearly beating, gliding, then beating again. In order to hover over the water, as they sometimes do for a couple of seconds, they would presumably have to be able to levitate. This seems unlikely, and a crude powered flying ability is a slightly more realistic explanation.

Sound signals

Sometimes, a dorado would return from the hunt and find itself alone by the boat. After a while, he would get frustrated with being alone, and jump clear of the water, turn sharply side-on to the surface, and hit the water a terrific crack with his tail before dropping in. If you are down below, the sharp crack brings you running up on deck – was that a sail gybing? Then you remember what it is. It says "Hey, I'm over here, where are the rest of you guys?"

Different splashes have different meanings. At the end of the day, with dusk coming on, it was time to slow down, drop the cruising chute if it was up, and cook dinner. As the boat slowed up, one of the dorado school often jumped clear of the water and fell back in with a splash, turning sideways on and deliberately hitting the water surface with the entire length of its body, making a big soft splash. He's saying "I'm happy, happy, happy", as clearly as if it were shouted out aloud.

When dusk turned to night, I would switch on two vertical red lights showing NUC (Not Under Command; or under way but not making way, please keep clear), and drop the sails for a night's sleep. Hard work, this voyaging. In the morning, the dorado school have gone, bored no doubt by the lack of movement; but by mid-morning, either they or identical pals turn up again to continue the yacht-powered northwest-bound flying fish hunt.


Calm sea, racing heart

The fifth of September dawns with a near flat-calm. Unusual in the Trades, but clearly marked in this spot for the pilot chart for the month. Optimistically, I'd hoped it would be wrong; no such luck. Poodling along at a knot or two with the main and genoa up and slatting away regularly, I know we need to be further out to the west to get some more wind; but, on the other hand, this track is keeping me east of the Cape Town - New York shipping lane. The chute won't fly just yet, as it would collapse and then open with a hefty bang; perhaps later there'll be a knot or two more breeze. Now, we're becalmed right on the east-west Luanda - North Brazil shipping lane, two hundred miles northeast of Ascension. Marvellous! You can't bet on ships just being on lanes, especially now that they tend to use weather routeing more; but it makes you feel happier if you think you're off a lane, and of course worse, conversely, if you are stuck on one.

Sighing deeply with the memory of yesterday's good run, I potter about with breakfast. A sudden snorting noise brings me out into the cockpit – there is a huge fin moving away from the boat. "What kind of big shark is that?" I think to myself, stupidly. Of course, no shark has a monster fin of that size. Then another five-foot fin breaks the surface, and suddenly as the big black body gives way sharply to a cream belly I realise they are orcas: killer whales. I duck back down below the level of the cockpit spraycloths and peer meekly over. They're big, sliding past on the surface. The air of menace and power as they cruise past is tangible; it seems as if there are three or four of them, but it's hard to tell as only one or two are visible at the same time. Suddenly in my mind there is a direct comparison to a nuclear submarine, as they slide past on the surface with no visible sign of effort, water climbing up in a thin sheet over their 'hulls' and back down aft, the huge fins completing the illusion of a conning-tower. Not a peep from me as they take a look, eventually lose interest, and disappear. Goodbye and good riddance!

They have an evil reputation for sinking yachts, and out here you realise that they are the boss; if they took against you, that would be that. What are orcas doing out here, I wonder – surely their food is seals and other inshore stuff? Looking at the chart, I see that we are 720 miles west of Luanda, Angola, right on the shipping lane; about two days steaming at the 15 knots of the average ship. About where a hapless stowaway would have to come out from hiding to look for water. Thinking sinister thoughts, I put the chart away and finished breakfast.

It was going to be a long, hot, slow day, and somewhere I needed to find the energy to hoist the big nylon cruising chute that would give me a couple of knots of progress, onward toward the Cape Verdes and the Azores. It's a hard life.

c. 3,330 words

Way too long for magazine use, of course - as usual. So, the magazine editors said, "Some good reading there - chop it up into sections and we'll buy it."

I said, "Thanks - but no thanks."

You wouldn't cut up Rembrandt's 'Nightwatch', would you - just to make it easier to fit in a small room?

So I ain't cuttin' that up. Take it or leave it.

Searches that somehow got here:

Q: How to extend Hydrovane wind steering

You should buy a new, longer shaft. A longer shaft can be used for any model. There are two types of shaft: standard and heavy duty. You must buy the same type as the existing shaft, as they are of different diameters.

The shaft should be long enough that the gearbox centre is at about the same height as the pushpit top rail. It must not be shorter than this, in my opinion. This will result in two advantages:
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  • The windvane will then be up in clear air. Any lower and it may not work correctly.
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