Jester Challenge – A modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self sufficiency, and personal responsibility.
The Jester Challenge was created for skippers of small boats who want to test their skill and self-reliance, is a uniquely successful experiment in single-handed ocean sailing. This site tells you everything you need to know about it: its history, philosophy, guidelines and future events, along with the views and experiences of skippers who have taken part over the years.
There is a Challenge every single year and new skippers are always welcome. If you like the idea of developing your offshore seamanship in a relaxed and supportive environment, visit the Jester Challenge website.
This is the fourth of a 10-part post where solo sailor Bernie Branfield shares his first hand account of his single-handed, 2022 Jester Challenge, from Plymouth, UK to the Azores, in his 26′ Invicta Mk2, Louisa. You can read more about Bernie at the end of the post.
The passage plan I had identified is termed the southern route. In theory this avoids the heavy weather on the shorter great circle route where the Atlantic depressions run against the direction of travel. The great circle route also has the strong possibility of ice and fog banks off Newfoundland. I don’t like fog, I am terrified of ice and I prefer slightly warmer, not hot, weather. There is a mid route but unless the boat you are on is low displacement such as a multihull, the gulf stream can account for up to 30% of boat speed for the final third of the passage. The southern route is about 700nm longer than the great circle route and the plan was to sail south west to 40N and then west south west below the gulf stream until south of Newport then head north to cut across the gulf stream at its narrowest point. So with this in mind I set off in a south westerly direction, problem was that the weather was moving from the south west towards the UK and a day out of Plymouth I reached the edge of a depression that had been sat off the UK for the previous 48 hours. The sea state had built up and heading south west was not an option. Between heading north west or south I opted for south. This took me into the bay of Biscay which I had been hoping to avoid but it turned out to be calm, I was becalmed for two days in the bay. To get back on track I tried heading west again but further weather systems pushed me south.
Navigating to way points on an ocean scale was new to me and I tried to keep in mind that 100nm off track is irrelevant if that is where the weather puts you. I use my Matsutec AIS navigator to monitor progress towards way points and on this passage it kept me on track through a combination of range reduction and course to steer changes. I opted for the heading that I could achieve that caused the range to reduce and if this put me into heavier weather then I opted for increasing bearing. Increasing bearing has limitations as it is very slow to respond over the ranges in question. By setting sub waypoints at shorter ranges this became more usable. After the third weather I was able to make progress in the desired direction, albeit I would have preferred to have been level with the Azores by now.
As luck would have it a friend had lent me his spare Azores pilot book so I had no qualms about navigating to the Azores, I had downloaded Navionics for the Azores as well. Anyone who knows me will appreciate that the Azores has far more appeal to me than almost anywhere else. So I changed plans and headed for the Azores. The passage making became easier as did almost everything with the exception of my worries about the rigging. There was a final sting in the tail, the fourth weather system of the trip caused me to divert to Angra do Heroismo instead of Praia do Vitoria which had been my preferred port. This was the final nail in the coffin of thoughts of Newport. When I was in the lee of Terceira I turned the engine on and motored the final 10 miles into the anchorage at Angra and promptly retired from the challenge.
In parallel with the GPS navigation offered by my AIS / Navigator unit and the other half dozen GPS devices I had on board I ran celestial navigation. This comprised a morning sun sight followed by a noon sight. The reasoning for morning sights was that if I missed one I had the contingency of an afternoon sight. In practice afternoon sights are probably better as they give a position line that is perpendicular to the direction of travel and therefore a better indication of progress. Noon sights were taken whenever the sun was available and it wasn’t too rough. I clocked up 13 noon sights in 24 days, I also managed 21 sun sights, a moon sight and a dubious Polaris sight in this time. The main reason sights were not achieved was cloud cover, also boat motion accounted for a significant number of missed sights. If I used a GPS derived estimated position then my intercepts were within 5’ of arc, noon was within 3’ of GPS latitude. I had confidence in my sights and the calculations. I didn’t even attempt a star sight, there was too much cloud cover, boat motion made the administration of stars problematic but I did practice locating and shooting individual stars when conditions allowed.
What wasn’t so good was my dead reckoning work. Monitoring course and speed for any duration was almost impracticable in all but the most steady of weather. As the wind speed and direction changed so much, on average I was changing sail plan 6 times in any 24 hours, that it proved impossible to achieve a dead reckoning position that gave anything better than an intercept of 15’. If I had kept better records of travel and plotted then on a sheet this might have improved the accuracy.
I was able to navigate using celestial bodies and my 4 figure Reeds almanac tables. With a land fall on Terceira of 25nm I would have been successful but being on my own and given the weather conditions I wouldn’t have been confident in my position keeping with just celestial navigation. I used a pad of universal plotting sheets and this worked well but had the limitation of the centre fold where a protractor wouldn’t lie flat. I achieved 13 daily plots but of these only 11 gave a usable position which was typically around 10nm out from GPS. My assessment of each plot identified poor DR work as the main cause.
My sextant is one I have had for a very long time, some arm chair navigator told me it was useless on a boat because it had the wrong telescope. It worked for me and when it was very rough I used it without the telescope. My chronometer is a cheap Casio F-91W wrist watch that I rated over an extended period. It lost an additional 2 seconds against rating over 25 days of fairly rough water sailing.
You can read the complete story on Bernie’s blog page here.
About Bernie Branfield
I have been sailing since I was 7, I started in Mirror dinghies at the local gravel pit and made my way up to VLCCs for a large oil company as Third Mate. After a break for family life I bought a MacWester Rowan 22’, Chantilly, which I sailed to Holland, Belgium, France and Ireland as well as around the UK East Coast. I still have Chantilly. For a short time I owned an Achilles 24, Mischief, that I had hoped to sail to the Azores but abandoned this plan after an eventful trip back from Ireland. My current boat is an Invicta 26’ Mk2, Louisa, which I bought just before the Covid lockdown. Due to timing, work commitments and various other factors I decided to enter the 2022 Jester Challenge to Newport Rhode Island. When I am not sailing my own boat I try and crew on a yacht delivery each year to build up experience. I have around 30,000 sea miles in yachts and various qualifications including YM Offshore under my belt. Louisa was built in the early 1970s and suits my singlehanded sailing needs to a tee, she is moored at Hoo Ness Yacht Club on the River Medway in Kent.