Escapade 19.3. No way to get there from here

Larry Caillouet

Wednesday, January 23, 2019.  Diana and I had been on Escapade in Bermuda for 13 days, and while Bermuda had a far more pleasant climate than the US was experiencing, Bermuda wasn’t where we wanted to be.  We had used the days to make several needed repairs to Escapade after our rough passage there, but the delay caused our two crew to have to fly back to their other lives, so we were looking for two more crew.  We talked to several folks back in the US who would have loved to sail down to the Caribbean with us, but couldn’t do it on such short notice. Our friend Elaine from Toronto, who had sailed with us several times before and is an excellent sailor, could come! We just needed one more for our standard four-man crew.   

An RYA instructor said he could come, but then he couldn’t.  Another ocean sailor said he could, but then he couldn’t get off work.  Then Elaine found Ian, a Bermudan friend from previous passages. He was perfect—he had significant blue water experience, was already in Bermuda, was an enjoyable guy, and could leave on Wednesday, our next weather window.  Early Wednesday morning my phone rang. Ian was seriously ill. He went to his doctor and the doctor grounded him. Now we were back to 3 crew.

Thursday.  We interviewed two local sailors who were available, but they both wanted to be paid a daily rate plus airfare.  We decided to sail with a crew of 3. We hurried to get ready to leave immediately even though we had missed our weather window on Wednesday.  Even though there was a horrible storm between Bermuda and the US east coast, there were no storms ahead of us. However, the seas would be 6-8 feet for a couple sof days and the wind would be directly on our nose for several days.  Sailboats can sail in any direction except directly into the wind or within about 30-40 degrees of either side of the wind. In other words, there was no way to get there from here.   By sailing to Bermuda we had checked into the Eagles’ Hotel California where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

If we decided to leave, the first few days would be slow and lumpy, but if we waited for a more favorable wind, we might get stuck for a long time.  We cleared Customs and Immigration, fueled up, and left the calm protected harbor at St. George’s and started motoring into lumpy seas, wind on the nose, as daylight began to fade.  

Setting sail just before nightfall was not my best idea.   People are usually more prone to seasickness during their first several hours on the water, and night time exacerbates the problem by making it harder to see the horizon as a point of reference.   Diana soon became very seasick again. Her days on terra firma cured the earlier seasickness but did nothing to prepare her for this new passage. We turned west to begin to return to Bermuda. West was a calmer point of sail and Diana got better, so after another debate with ourselves, we decided to press forward.

Seas were rough but manageable.  Wind was 15-20 knots, good for this boat but right on the nose.  We couldn’t sail against it. We tried motoring but made very slow progress.  At that rate it was clear that we wouldn’t have enough fuel to keep motoring for days until the wind changed.  We added the mainsail to increase stability and speed, but we had to head off our due south course in order to benefit from it.  This was the beginning of 48 hours of motor sailing.

Friday and Saturday.  Tacking upwind even with motor assist was very slow.  We gave it up and decided we could power through the waves better with full spread of sail.  Speed increased but so did heel. Escapade heeled 15-20 degrees, sometimes 25 or briefly 30.   15 degrees is no problem in a small day sailing boat, but try walking on a bouncing tilted floor.  Then try opening the refrigerator door and spotting and grabbing what you want before food starts falling out.  Or try putting it in the oven or microwave and catching it sliding out hot when you open the door. This problem occurred only on starboard tack when we were heading east, so we tried to time our meals to be on port tack sailing west.

The fridge quit cooling.  Uh-oh! Our supply of lunch meats and lasagna would soon be endangered.   And who wants to drink warm ginger ale? Maybe all the bouncing across rough seas had forced air into the sea water intake which was essential for the water cooled compressor.  I emptied the cabinet over the sea water intake, pulled up the floor boards and bled the supply line to the refrigerator pump. Success! This solved the problem and the refrigeration started working again.   Our food was safe—boat crisis averted.

We tacked several times over our first two days and were always disappointed that we had gained so little southing for all the hours spent.  Lots of east and west, not much south. After two and a half days we were only about 225 miles south of Bermuda, about one fourth of the way to the destination.   

On Sunday we encountered our next boat problem.  We decided to sail east with full main and Genoa to better position the boat for expected wind changes.  This would also smooth the ride, although it would increase the heel. Steadier and faster would be better.  We were trimming the big Genoa when boat crisis #2 happened. The block on the port Genoa car exploded with a bang like a gunshot.  It took a while for us to figure out what had happened, then we saw it. The block was split open like a smashed pumpkin, leaving the Genoa sheet flying high above the deck and pressing against the life line.  The sheet wasn’t controlling the Genoa properly and chafe would soon saw the line in two. We needed to replace this turning block but there was nothing to attach another block to but the old Genoa car, which still had the twisted broken block on it.  I used the cordless angle grinder to cut the wreckage away and shackled a spare snatch block to the car. Would it hold? Yes! Second boat crisis averted.

By Monday we had come to grips with the realization that this was not going to be a three-hour tour.  With more favorable winds or more favorable positioning 900 nautical miles would be a five day cruise, six if the winds turned light.  Our amateur mathematicians calculated the sines and cosines of our track thus far and projected landfall in 9 more days, twelve in all.  Which land wasn’t exactly clear. Maybe St. Thomas, maybe Puerto Rico, maybe Dominican Republic. Cuba?

We were enjoying our most pleasant sail thus far when with sundown approaching we noticed that the dingy, which should be securely hoisted under the dinghy davits at the stern was swinging around rather oddly.  Wearing my PFD and tether I crawled out the back of the cockpit to investigate the situation. I discovered that the wire cable that hoisted the bow end of the dinghy had snapped and the only thing holding the dinghy up was the webbing belt that ran under it.  I was able to rig up a temporary hoist with a couple of spare lines and secure the dinghy to the davits. Third boat crisis averted.

We had made a lot of easting on a long tack.  In fact we were 150 miles east of the rhumb line from Bermuda to St.  Thomas. So we decided it was time to turn back toward a southwest heading.  This fit our overall sailing plan, plus it put the boat on a port tack, heeling to starboard.  This was the most comfortable tack for cooking dinner and for sleeping.

At 4am Tuesday morning, we had sailed 135 miles on an ESE tack and a SW tack to achieve 65 miles south in 22 hours.  We had come 320 miles from Bermuda in 4.5 days. The steady east Trade Winds were still 200 miles south of us.   15 hours later we had sailed 95 more miles but made only 21 miles of southing.

Somewhere in the night boat crisis #4 occurred.  We started the engine to assist with a light wind tack.  Within a minute or two we heard a hissing sound like steam from the engine room.  We shut the engine down immediately and completed the tack the old fashioned way. The next morning I examined the engine and found orange residue of engine coolant on the starboard side of the engine.  We started the engine again and found the leak. Several turns of a screwdriver on a hose clamp solved boat crisis #4.

On Tuesday we finally found gentle seas and a bright sunny day.  We tacked back to the east again and enjoyed a picture perfect sailing day.  The wind had dropped so we opened the full main, Genoa, and staysail. I’m not sure of how a staysail’s physics work, but it seemed to allow us to point higher as well as sail at 6 knots on 8 knots of wind.   75% efficiency is good for a heavy blue water monohull.

Tuesday night was dark but not stormy.  Cloud cover moved in turning the normally crispy bright stars into soft glowing orbs.  The seas gave the boat a galloping effect. When Escapade rose up on a wave, you could feel yourself being pressed into your mattress.  When the wave dropped out, you could feel yourself slightly levitating, just before the next lunge into the mattress.  It was a lee cloth night. Heeling 15-20 degrees to port is a formula for rolling out of bed, but with your lee cloth raised into place, it was easy to snuggle up against it and sleep, knowing that Lee had your back.

By sunrise Wednesday the good breeze had faded but the seas were almost flat so we were still making 4 knots on 5 knots of wind.  Winds increased during the day, but when evening came the winds were light again. The evening watches were peaceful but required a different vigilance.  The highest priority was keeping the boat moving. The exact direction was less important. The best combination of speed and direction occurred when the wind was at 60 degrees apparent to the boat, so steering became a matter of constantly making small adjustments to keep the wind at 60 degrees.   

Diana was on watch at midnight when boat crisis #5 occurred.  Escapade had hit the wall between northerly winds and southerly winds.   The air movement in the narrow gap between northerly and southerly winds seemed wildly random.   No matter how we turned the boat or set the sails it was wrong. Part of the problem was that this was occurring at night when we had very little point of reference.   The cockpit enclosure panels were so drenched in salt spray that it was virtually impossible to see through them, so we opened them to be able to see the stars for reference points.   We tried port, we tried starboard, we tacked, we jibed, and finally the boat seemed to find a heading it liked and began to move forward. Looking back at the track the boat left on the chartplotter showed that we had changed direction 16 times in about 30 minutes.   

After so many days of fighting lumpy seas and wind directly on our nose, Thursday was the kind of ocean sailing day you dream of.  The early morning hours were gentle with 5-knot winds still moving the boat steadily forward at 4 knots.  Wind and boat speeds picked up during the day and by noon we had reached 25 degrees north latitude, the soft northern boundary of the trade winds.  Not only did speeds increase, but the wind had a pronounced shift to East Southeast allowing us to turn to 195 degrees true, the most southerly course we had been able to achieve.  Now we were racing toward our destination. This is what we came for!

Then night fell and a whole new world of beauty emerged.  Bright stars were splattered all across a dark and cloudless sky.  The boat was tending to itself and freed us to watch the sky in wonder.  The clarity was breathtaking. Orion’s Belt across our lap, Ursa Major at our shoulder, and Gemini’s twins watching us from above made us feel not so alone on the big ocean.  It had been 6 days since we had seen another ship of any kind, so our companions in the sky were comforting and beautiful neighbors. Such a starry, starry night!

Friday morning.  The wind is a sailor’s friend, but she can be such a wicked woman.  She sits down south blowing the perfect east wind while giving you nothing but wind in your face.  With an enticing smile and soft eyes she coaxes you, “Come on down here, sailor man, I’ve got just what you want.” So you fight through hell and high water to get there and just when you reach for it she laughs, tosses her hair, and pulls it away from you.  “Northeast wind? That’s what we asked for a week ago! Why are you doing this to me? What have I done for you to tease me and treat me so wickedly?”

We had been eagerly awaiting the 15 knot trade winds from the east.  They would give us our best speed and steadiest sailing, but the wind shifted so quickly from southeast to northeast we had only an hour or two to enjoy true easterlies.  But what’s wrong with a northeast wind that will blow you down the rhumb line to the Virgin Islands? How soon we forget the wind that was in our faces or no wind at all.

Saturday midnight.  It had been more than a week since we had seen another vessel of any kind—not a cargo ship, not a cruise ship, not even an airplane, and certainly not another sailboat.  Then around midnight we saw two cargo ships about 10 miles away and they had us in their crosshairs. Paulina was approaching from the west at 20 knots and E.  R. Soule was approaching from the east at 14 knots.  Our AIS told us that each was projected to pass about two miles away from us.  That’s a safe distance, but deserving of vigilant monitoring. We felt relieved when Paulina passed 2 miles behind us and E R Soule passed 2 miles in front of us.  We could relax and enjoy another beautiful starry night.     

Saturday 4am.  Can you sail too fast? Ordinarily sailing too fast is like being too rich or too good looking—no such thing.  But if you are trying to time an arrival, you might be sailing too fast. We wanted to arrive in the Pillsbury Sound between USVI and BVI in the daylight because there are many navigational hazards in this area.  Some are tiny islands, some are rocks that barely protrude above the water’s surface. Some rocks and reefs don’t quite protrude, making them the most dangerous of all, lurking just beneath the surface. Sure, these are all marked on our charts, but it is still safer to navigate them in the daylight.

Saturday was our last full day at sea and it was picture perfect.  The blue sky dome over the Atlantic was decorated with white, puffy clouds.  The wind was a steady 13 knots on the beam, driving the boat at 8 knots over long rolling waves.  Escapade heeled 10 degrees to starboard, and if a boat could purr, she would have.   We plotted a course to enter Pillsbury Sound between Jost Van Dyke to the west and Cane Garden Bay on Tortola to the east.   Then we would turn slightly to starboard and angle down to Lovango Cay. That would put us in US waters for the first time since we left the Chesapeake Bay.   US waters was important for two reasons. First, it meant that our AT&T phones would work as local phones and emails would be free. Second, it meant that we would be eligible for free towing by Towboat US since we are members of BOAT US.   

Towing?  Yes, due to the problems we had experienced with the transmission and the collections of strange sounds we had heard from the engine room, I was nervous about going into a marina anywhere and having to wonder if I could maneuver and stop the boat on command.   I had paid for this insurance, so why not use it?

Would we be able to navigate to an anchorage by Lovango in the dark and avoid the rocks that are numerous in this area?  The wind must have read our minds because when we entered the semi-protected waters of Pillsbury Sound, the wind dropped significantly and our speed decreased to 3 knots.   This slowing allowed the sun time to rise and when we reached Lovango it was already early morning. We executed a 180 degree turn into the wind and dropped anchor in about 50 feet of water.   We could relax now. We were finally at home. St. Thomas was only 3 miles away.

The American Yacht Harbor marina at Red Hook, St. Thomas wasn’t ready to receive us on Sunday morning, but we were happy to relax on the boat in 80 degree weather with soft breezes.   There were several tasks to complete on the boat after the 10-day passage, so this was a good time to do them. The marina could wait.

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