Escapade 19.1. Dark and stormy nights

I had been dreaming of sailing the South Pacific since I was a teenager watching “James A. Michener’s Adventures in Paradise starring Gardner McCay as Captain Adam Troy” on television.  I can still remember the sound of the announcer’s voice and the opening scene of a big schooner cutting through the black-and-white waves.  And now, after all these years, it was going to happen. We had spent years cultivating our ocean sailing skills and months planning the details of this voyage.  We recognized the inadequacy of our skills, particularly my mechanical skills, but if we waited until we were fully adequate, we would be too old to go. I had recruited and selected some outstanding crew members to give us a crew of four for each segment of the voyage.  I selected people whose skills complemented and filled in the gaps in my own, and whose interviews demonstrated that they were folks we could enjoy being in close quarters with for weeks at a time.

We planned to leave on November 1 from Hampton, Virginia with a group of sailors called the Salty Dawgs.  We had sailed to the British Virgin Islands with them in 2016 and 2017 and back to Newport, Rhode Island with them in 2017.  But we got hit with a monkey wrench. The mechanic whom I hired to put the engine in ready-to-cross-oceans condition convinced me that the oil cooler really needed to be changed.  It had corrosion on it and if it rusted through and let engine oil mix with salt water, the engine would be dead. That’s bad news if you are at home, but catastrophic news if you are in a really out-of-the-way place, so I had him to order an oil cooler.  We discovered that there were none in the USA that would fit Escapade’s Perkins M-90 4.236 engine so it had to be ordered from Europe. It didn’t arrive in time for the November departure. In fact, it arrived and was installed in December. Escapade spent the holidays at a dock on Mill Creek, Annapolis.  

This caused us to lose one crew member who was going to crew for us in November, but a crew who was going to sail with us later volunteered to crew on this passage also.  Diana and I and the two crew met on the boat in Annapolis on January 1 and set sail on January 3. We had sailed only 2 or 3 miles when we concluded that the autopilot wasn’t working.  The autopilot, whom many sailors name “Otto” is like a fifth crew member, or maybe a fifth and sixth. You just absolutely do not want to leave home without it. Hand steering across hundreds of miles of featureless ocean waters is very tedious in good weather.  In bad weather, don’t even think about it. So we turned back to the dock and called our mechanic. He put us in touch with a Raymarine dealer who came to the boat to analyze the problem. The good news was that he isolated the problem to the computer “brain” of the autopilot system.  The bad news was that it couldn’t be repaired. The good news was that he had one in stock. He installed it the following morning and we set sail.  

The cruise down the Chesapeake was uneventful and we reached the mouth of the bay a few hours ahead of the deadline that the professional weather router gave us for entering the ocean.  It felt good to know that we had gotten a small jump on the weather window. Storms sweep across the North Atlantic frequently in the winter, so timing is all-important for navigating a sailboat across the ocean.

Ocean navigating is like a quarterback throwing a football to a player who isn’t where he is going to be when the ball arrives where it is going to be.  The ball (the boat) travels at a different speed than the receiver (the weather) and follows a different route. The quarterback has to calculate both trajectories and anticipate all potential interferences that could affect either.  The ocean navigator uses the best data he has about boat speeds and weather patterns to anticipate what the weather is going to be at the location where he hopes to be when that forecast weather develops. Woody Hayes, the irascible coach of the Ohio State University football team, said he didn’t like to pass the ball because three things can happen and two of them are bad.  The quarterback’s pass can be caught, dropped, or intercepted. The navigator’s odds are no better–he can sail the boat into fair winds, doldrums, or storms.

For the next 16 hours after leaving the Chesapeake we sailed in a southeasterly direction which roughly paralleled the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina.  We were 20 miles offshore from the notorious Cape Hatteras by 5 am the next day and left land behind. We entered the Gulf Stream around 8 am and were expecting rough seas, but they were remarkably well-behaved.  It took about 14 hours to cross it and during this time the seas began to build into the rough weather that we normally expect in crossing the Gulf Stream. Southbound wind over north bound current creates a nasty confused sea.

We were approximately 140 miles ESE of Cape Lookout and 200 miles ENE of Cape Fear when we exited the Gulf Stream.  We expected milder weather but instead the weather continued to deteriorate. Diana was thoroughly seasick by this time.   

By Tuesday morning it was obvious that this was going to be a peanut butter day.  Cooking was out of the question and assembling sandwiches with things that don’t stick to the bread was not such a good idea either.  Winds were in the mid-20’s with gusts to 35 knots and the sea state was increasing. We were sailing mostly eastward, but that’s not bad.  We think of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands being far south of us, but they are far east of us as well. It is important to get far enough to the east or south east before turning south on the trade winds.  By evening we had furled the big genoa and were sailing on the staysail and a reefed main. We deployed a running backstay to stabilize the mast from the pull of the staysail and a preventer on the boom to avoid an accidental jibe.  In heavy wind an accidental jibe could take down the rig.    

Wednesday morning brought more of the same—high winds, big seas, and peanut butter.  We were making 8 knots to the southeast on reduced sails, but the ride was “challenging.”  Winds continued to increase into the mid to upper 30’s and seas were 15-25 feet. We were remarkably dry and

comfortable inside the cockpit enclosure, but when waves washed over the foredeck they would surge all the way to the top of the bimini.  Looking through the dodger window was like looking through the glass door on a front-loading washing machine. The boat was handling the weather well, but Diana wasn’t.  She continued to be quite seasick to the point of being incapacitated. The report from the weather router indicated no prospect of the weather easing up for the next 200-300 miles to the east or to the south.    Puerto Rico, our destination, was to the south, but there was no assurance that the storm wouldn’t continue spreading southward. To the east was Bermuda, a port of refuge. The boat had developed a few problems along the way, including loss of refrigeration and a rip in one panel of the mainsail.  It all added up to a decision to divert to Bermuda. Around 4 pm we jibed to the northeast and headed for that reef-fringed dot of land in the mid-Atlantic.  

Unlike a road trip where the highways stay firmly in place to make route planning reliably predictable, route planning on the seas is more ambiguous.  The report from the weather router said we could expect the wind to clock around to the north or northeast, so we set our course north of Bermuda in anticipation of that wind shift, the wind shift that never occurred.   When it became apparent that our course was going to miss Bermuda to the north, or perhaps flirt with the deadly field of submerged rock and coral that extends far to the west of Bermuda, we changed course again to come under the south end of Bermuda and up the safe east side to the entrance at St. George’s.  This course required that we either jibe onto a port tack, or sail by the lee for several hours through the night. Maybe we were just too tired or too lazy to go through all that would be required to jibe in high winds, but we decided that the normally taboo practice of sailing by the lee was the better choice.  Well, after all, we had a preventer line on the boom, so if we kept the wind above 150 degrees, it seemed safe enough to me. By doing this we cheated our way around the south end of Bermuda and as morning dawned we were sailing comfortably in the lee of the island. St. David’s Lighthouse, the icon which marks the end of the Newport-Bermuda Race, marked the end of our race from Annapolis.  We turned into the calm waters of the Town Cut and headed for the dock at the Customs and Immigration office.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.