by Larry Caillouet
They say “all good things must end.” I’m not sure who they are or what authority they have, so I am reluctant to endorse their conclusion. However, the time had come for our good time in the Virgin Islands to end. Hurricane season in the Caribbean was just a few weeks away, but more importantly, our affairs at home had been largely ignored for 18 weeks, so it was time to go home.
Two of our sailing mates, Richard from Bowling Green and Roger from Toronto, flew down to join the crew for the homeward passage. Where is home? Diana and I live in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but Escapade lives in Annapolis, Maryland, which is about 1250 nautical miles north of St. Thomas and 500 miles west of it, and 700 miles east of Bowling Green.
Day 1: Tuesday, May 7
We set sail from Charlotte Amalie at 11:30 am and headed west around the lesser known end of the island. The sight of the terra cotta roofs on the hillsides that frame the harbor receding behind us stirred memories of leaving St. Thomas for the first time in 1984 on a cruise ship. Steel drums were playing “Billie Jean” and other popular songs of the day. An hour later we passed by the Porpoise Rocks, a row of rocks that barely reach the surface of the water so that waves breaking against them make them look like porpoises jumping and playing in the water. These dangerous rocks surprised us the first time we sailed by them in 1998, but we knew to look for them this time and kept a safe distance from them. We passed by St. Thomas’s outlying islands, Saba, the Flat Cays, Dutch Cap, Cockroach, and Savana, before turning north and getting on a heading of 333 degrees True. If we could hold this heading all the way across the Atlantic passage, we would sail into the mouth of the Chesapeake, but sticking to the rhumb line over that many days and miles was extremely unlikely. The ocean’s moods change too much for that. By 5:30 pm the tallest mountains of St. Thomas were only a faint shadow on the horizon behind us, and only if you knew where to look.
Day 2: Wednesday, May 8
In sharp contrast to the voyage to the Caribbean from Annapolis, we had absolutely perfect sailing days at the start of this voyage. Skies were bright blue, clouds were puffy white, temperatures were pleasantly warm, seas were gentle, and winds were custom made for sailing. 15 to 20 knots on the beam allowed Escapade to cruise at 8 knots. When we added the staysail we gained another half knot or so and sometimes surpassed 9 knots. That’s very slow by automobile standards, but for a sailboat on the ocean, it’s exhilaratingly fast.
Day 3: Thursday, May 9
We knew that the perfect winds wouldn’t last forever, and they didn’t. In fact, after 48 hours they deserted us and left us looking at large swells rolling toward the boat. We furled the genoa and staysail and started the engine, leaving the mainsail open and centered for stability. The waves on top of the swells were tiny, only a foot or so, but the 10 to 15 foot swells made the passage feel like driving through the rolling hills of Warren and Allen Counties on the way to Barren River Lake. The boat climbed the long steep swells and then slid down the hills on the other side. It was a remarkably smooth ride.
Day 4: Friday, May 10
Through the night we continued up the rhumb line to the Chesapeake, deviating only a little to port or starboard to account for the swells or changes in the wind. Since our speed was perfect for fishing, we put a line out. We were rewarded with pounds and pounds of Sargasso weed, and a few flying fish that flew onto the deck. We joked about eating Sargasso salad and threw the stuff back into the ocean. Finally, late in the afternoon, Diana was at the helm studying the winds and asked, “Why don’t we sail instead of motoring?” I took a look and agreed that it was time to get back to being a sailboat. We set the sails and coaxed about the same speed out of them that we had been achieving by burning fossil fuel.
Day 5: Saturday, May 11
When I came up for my 3am watch, the sky was the clearest and brightest that we had seen so far. It was cloudless and the moon had already set. The stars fascinate me, but unlike the ancient Greeks, I have a hard time seeing bears, dragons, scorpions, gods, etc. in the splatter of dots in the sky. Still, there are familiar patterns in the thousands of points of light. The Big Dipper (Ursa Major, the Bear) was bright and clear ahead of us to port. The Southern Cross was low on the horizon behind us. And with the help of an iPad app I learned a new one, Pegasus, off our starboard bow. The Bear prowled and the Winged Horse flew with us until day began to break at 5am. They and all their cohorts soon deserted us, leaving only Venus to the east and Saturn to the west to watch over us. By 6am we were all alone again on the vast ocean.
Good wind on the beam or slightly behind it carried us 150 miles or so up the rhumb line. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but not necessarily the fastest passage between two points. So a sailboat does not try to stick slavishly to the rhumb line but must consider the direction and speed of winds and waves as well as the comfort of the crew. We sometimes chose to leave the rhumb line for more speed or for a more comfortable motion of the boat. Still, by Saturday evening in 640 miles of sailing, close to the midway point of our voyage, we had never been more than 11 miles from the rhumb line and found ourselves only 2 miles east of it by nightfall.
Day 6: Sunday, May 12
More ocean. Lots of ocean. Nothing but Escapade and ocean. It had been more than a day since we had seen anything but waves, stars, clouds, and each other. With our eyes we can see the horizon 360 degrees around us, approximately 3.9 miles away. That’s 48 square miles with nothing but Escapade, her crew, and whatever happens to be living unseen below us. With radar and AIS we can see approximately 30 miles in all directions. That’s 2800 square miles for the same few inhabitants, an area five times the size of Warren County where I live my land life. Oh, Lord, your ocean so big, my boat so small.
By the afternoon the wind was almost directly behind us, so we went wing-on-wing with the genoa poled out to starboard and the main prevented to port. This allowed us to turn the engine off, but sadly did not provide the speed we had hoped for. The considerable effort it took to put the 40-pound spinnaker pole into place was not rewarded except by the satisfaction that we knew we had tried.
Day 7: Monday, May 13
“We are not alone,” I said to myself when I discovered a 600 foot tanker overtaking us from the southwest. The AIS projected that its Closest Point of Approach would be 85-480 feet from us in 35 minutes, so I had more than the stars and wind to pay attention to. I was relieved and thankful when it changed course 25 degrees and passed 2 miles behind us. It was still in sight to starboard when an 800 foot tanker appeared on AIS. This time the CPA was a half mile, still plenty close enough to pay careful attention to it. As it moved closer to us, it too changed course and passed a mile behind us.
As the day went on, the wind built to 18-22 knots and clocked to the southwest. This was perfect for our course to the northwest, and the wind helped Escapade to punch through 6-8 foot waves, but it was stronger than ideal for us so we put two reefs in the genoa and one in the main. As night fell we shortened the main even more as a precautionary measure for the squalls that were forecast for the evening. Our speed dropped from 8+ to 6 knots, but we slept better with a smoother ride and knowledge that we were ready for the squalls.
Then at 10 pm the Roseannadanna Factor happened (It’s always sompting!). The autopilot quit working! The autopilot is not essential (Columbus didn’t have one), but it is extremely useful when sailing out of sight of land. When there is no visual point of reference to steer toward, such as a mountain peak, the tip of a peninsula, a rooftop, or a communications tower, the autopilot steers the boat by GPS. The alternative is extremely taxing on the helmsman. He or she has to constantly check the compass, look up at the sea, check the compass, look up, check, look up, check, look, check, look, etc. Imagine driving from Chicago to Louisville on a highway that has no lines and is 100 miles wide. You know the bearing toward Louisville and you have a large compass in your lap. As you are driving along, you look down in your lap at the compass and quickly look back up at the blacktop which spans all the way to the horizon in front of you, to the horizon to your left, and to the horizon to your right. There are a few other cars on this highway to watch out for, but the bigger problem is that the highway is somewhat elastic and it has waves that ripple across it periodically. And occasionally it rains or storms.
Instead of the normal 3-hour watches, a helmsman is ready for relief after 60 minutes if the seas are rough. This means that the off-watch time for the other crew members is shortened to one hour if there are only two helmsmen, or two hours if there are three helmsmen. The loss of the autopilot affects the sleeping schedule and all normal patterns of the entire crew. With over 300 miles to go to reach the mouth of the Chesapeake and another 125 miles to Annapolis, there would be many changes of watch instead of the normal eight 3-hour watches per day. Otto was a key personnel. We hated to see him abandon ship. He would have been a VIP in the crossing of the Gulf Stream with its predicted nasty weather that still lay ahead of us. We have hand steered on the open ocean before, but never for this long a passage and never through the potentially treacherous Gulf Stream.