Our friend Doug had told me about a large ship wreck named Miss Opportunity near the St. Thomas airport. It was over 300 feet long and was in 60-90 feet of water. Doug brought air tanks to Escapade and we sailed out to the dive site along with our wives and another diver named Courtney. The main attraction of this dive besides the ship itself is a resident Goliath Grouper that weighs about 500-600 pounds. It was waiting at the bottom of the dive line when we descended to the boat. It looked to be about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. It would have been scary if we hadn’t expected to see him, but this gentle giant was no threat at all. Swimming through the interior of the boat was fun and not nearly as creepy as Pirates of the Caribbean might lead you to expect.
Our next guests were two friends from Toronto, Roger and Chiara. (The Toronto-Escapade sailing connection is strong.) They had lived in the Dominican Republic and Chiara is fluent in Spanish, so instead of heading east for the normal tourist tour of the British Virgin Islands we sailed west instead to the Spanish Virgin Islands. Culebra has long been one of our favorite islands. It has several wonderful beaches and anchorages and the snorkeling there is great. Flamenco Beach is usually listed at the top of the Top Ten beaches of the Caribbean and I would rank it #2 in all the beaches I have ever seen, surpassed only by Whitehaven beach in Australia’s Whitsunday Islands. For a small island with little population, Culebra has a great grocery store with the coldest air conditioning in the Caribbean and two excellent restaurants. Mamacita’s has authentic Hispanic food and seafood. It is on the narrow channel between the north and south halves of the island so it’s easy to dinghy up to it. Even better for dinghy dining is the Dinghy Dock Restaurant which serves excellent American fare. It has a long dinghy dock which is usually full of dinghies and an occasional small Hobie cat. Many years ago when we were there we added two of our old license plates, LUV DOC and AMFIBY to its license plate wall. We were surprised to see that the wall had survived Hurricanes Irma and Maria and our license plates were still there.
Barely east of Culebra is Culebrita, a turtle sanctuary and a gem of an island without any development at all. The only construction on the island is a lighthouse at the top. A trail that goes up to the lighthouse affords a panoramic view of Culebra, Culebrita, and several other nearby cays. St Thomas is clearly visible in the distance. Culebrita’s beach is a perfect half-mile crescent of pure white sand with palm trees that survived Irma and Maria. The island’s turtles don’t mind people walking on their beach or swimming in their bay with them. And paddling around the bay with your dog can be a lot of fun too!
When we left Culebrita we decided to complete our circumnavigation of St. Thomas by sailing around the north shore with a stop in Magens Bay. We were adopted along the way by a brown sea bird who used Escapade’s bow pulpit for a perch between fishing sorties. He rode with us for a few miles but left us before we made landfall at Magens Bay. Magens is better known for its fine beach and its fine homes on Peterborg peninsula than for fish.
No trip to the Virgin Islands is complete without visiting the iconic tourist destinations in the British Virgin Islands. First we snorkeled at the Treasure Caves on Norman Island. Then we walked the nature trail on Sandy Cay. Irma had torn up its “grandfather tree” and its profusion of birds, lizards, and hermit crabs seem to have deserted the place, but tourists had been busy redecorating the beach with rocks that had been deposited on the shore. My favorite was a large rock octopus. We finished with a visit to Foxy’s Tamarind Bar on Jost Van Dyke. Foxy wasn’t there holding court and entertaining visitors with his stories, but the wifi was strong, and the fix felt good. We missed seeing the most iconic place in BVI, the Baths on Virgin Gorda, but some people have to work and our friends had work waiting for them in Canada.
One of my colleagues at the University used to say “Life is not always peaches and gravy.” I think he might have been talking about when the time comes to change the oil in the engine or generator. There is no Jiffy Lube drive-in for boats. Every 200 hours of engine use or generator use the oil and oil filter have to be changed. Changing the oil in my engine wouldn’t be very hard or messy if the geniuses at Perkins hadn’t mounted the oil filter horizontally so that dirty oil pours out while you are spinning the filter off. Putting a pan under the filter to catch the oil wouldn’t be very hard if there weren’t hoses and wires in the way. So I used a heavy disposable aluminum foil loaf pan so I could squeeze it between the obstructions. That part is easy. Squeezing it back out while it is full of used oil and not spilling it all over the engine is the hard part. If that were to happen, the time it takes to change the oil would triple. Don’t ask me how I know. Can anyone tell me where I can properly dispose of 2 gallons of used diesel oil?
After changing the oil and then spending a couple of days crawling through the engine room with a St. Thomas mechanic/electrician, we set sail for Cane Garden Bay in Tortola. This is where we and three of our friends had worked with a local church 16 months ago putting a roof back on the building after Hurricane Irma. We counted 20 boats in the bay, 19 more than the last time we were here.
On Sunday morning we dinghied ashore and walked through the town to the church. As we arrived before the worship service began, Pastor Turnbull was hurrying across the yard in front of the church. “Good morning, Melvin,” we said, and he returned the greeting–then did a quick double-take. His face lit up in a smile and he hurried back to shake our hands and hug us. When we stepped inside the church Sister Michelle recognized us immediately and started hugging and kissing both of us. I can’t describe how good it felt to be welcomed so warmly by both of these people with whom we had worked.
The church building itself looked wonderful. The grounds were clean and orderly, the roof was fully repaired, the smelly salt-water soaked pews had been replaced by rows of individual chairs, and shutters were opened to let light through the windows. The interior was simple and clean and radiated the sense of recovery and confidence that the congregation was experiencing. There were about four times as many people in the service as we saw a year ago. The praise and worship was led by six women that I call the Cane Garden Bay Supremes and the energy level was high. If you have never worshipped with a black church, you should try it sometime!
What do you do when you wind up in American Paradise by accident? Well, you just have to make the best of it. There wasn’t much we hadn’t seen before in the Virgin Islands, but there were plenty of places worth seeing again for the second or even the twentieth time. One of them is Coral Bay on the east end of St. John. Coral Bay is the name of the large bay that branches into many sub-bays and it’s also the name of the community. We had first visited this bay about 20 years ago on our first bareboat charter in the Virgin Islands and always enjoyed revisiting it. The three outstanding physical features of Coral Bay are the eclectic menagerie of boats in various degrees of derelictness, the historic Moravian Church on the hill, and the Skinny Legs Bar & Grill. We wondered whether Hurricane Irma had changed Coral Bay for the better or the worse. The bay itself seemed cleaner, although we counted twenty sailboats with broken masts or no masts at all. People were living on some of them. Some were being repaired. Some were probably like this before Irma and just got a good washing. Still, the bay seemed to have improved.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the Moravian church. Its thick stone walls were built when the USA was still feuding with King George and it had weathered many hurricanes and storms over the past couple of centuries. The walls were still there but the roof, like several roofs before, had been blown away. The congregation was no longer meeting in the building, and because they are small, we wondered if they would rebuild the roof and restore the church. We hope so. We have good memories of their warm hospitality and their devotion to the Lord.
Skinny Legs, on the other hand, was still the vibrant cultural center of the community. Its patrons, like the community, are a Bohemian mix of left-over hippies, people evading taxes and alimony payments back home, water squatters, island red necks, and a few yachties. Skinny Legs had repaired its roof but everything else looked exactly the same, including the Boston Red Sox pennants and two large flat panel televisions over the bar. The food was good, the live Saturday night music was good, but the best part was watching the people. Folks decked out in all the right brand name apparel talked and laughed with other folks who looked like they might have known Ernest Hemingway, or perhaps were the model for his Old Man and the Sea. Families with children fit comfortably with the singles. People of different ages tried the hula hoops in the yard at the edge of the floored section of the bar. I don’t know if “everybody knows your name,” but it wouldn’t be hard to believe.
We returned to St. Thomas to spend four days at Sapphire Bay Marina so that some gelcoat work could be done on the boat. The cowboy who towed us to American Yacht Harbor marina had scraped Escapade down the side of a concrete dock. The towing company sent a top-notch guy to repair twenty feet of scrapes and gouges on the port side. An ex-Rhode Islander named Niles manages the marina. He not only helped us into the slip using his dinghy as a tug boat against the strong cross-wind, but also loaned us his truck to go shopping. On Saturday Niles and his Pomeranian ran in St. John’s “Eight Tough Miles,” a race which goes up and over a 2000 foot mountain. Not bad for a 77-year old with a hip replacement and a 3-year old with short legs. Both were awarded medals for the race. We had many conversations in our four days there and by the time we left, Niles felt like an old friend.
When we were in the Virgin Islands in 2017 we met Doug and Diane Rebak. All four of us were an hour early for the Sunday worship service at the Dutch Reformed Church because their services were delayed due to the difficulties following Hurricane Irma. We used that hour to get to know each other and found out that they are members of the St. Thomas Yacht Club. Mutual interests made fast friends, so when we returned to St. Thomas we got in touch with them. Doug is a water enthusiast and eagerly accepted our invitation to sail with us to Buck Island a few miles from St. Thomas to snorkel with the turtles and over a submerged wreck. We were the only boat in the bay when we arrived and so we enjoyed the quiet setting as we snorkeled over the wreck. Then we moved to the turtle cove and found two foot-in-face catamarans loaded with about 40 or 50 snorkelers each. We raced another catamaran to a prime mooring ball and jumped into the water with the other snorkelers. Then two more catamarans arrived and emptied their tourist snorkelers into the water. So 200 snorkelers watched three turtles eating sea grass and we watched the snorkelers. Fortunately before all the crowd arrived, a turtle about 3 feet long came toward me and swam with me only arm’s length away. It was a magical moment not captured on film but in my memory.
We sailed back to Tortola, BVI, in order to get new halyard clutches installed on the mast and to go to the big barbecue hosted by our friend, Rayon. Every year he organizes a giant barbecue to raise funds for poor people in BVI. The barbecue pork was great and the music was loud. Apparently that is the only volume available in the Virgin Islands. The party went on until about 2 am, but we fizzled out long before that and went back to our boat where we could still hear the music carrying across the water. Life is getting back to normal in many ways after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but some things are still a work in progress. One of those is the customs and immigration office in West End. They operate out of a metal temporary building now, but the dinghy dock is just a large tire hanging on the ferry dock.
From BVI we sailed back to what I call the “Bongo Islands” in USVI. This consists of Congo, Lovango, and Mingo Cays. Congo and Lovango are parallel to each other about 700-900 feet apart. The channel is shallow, 15 to 35 feet deep and the water is a gorgeous shade of teal/turquoise, especially when the sun is shining brightly on it. We were enjoying being the only boat anchored in this special hideaway when we heard a motor and music. We looked out to see Kenny Chesney’s 86-foot Gypsea motoring by us. Five guys on board seemed to be taking photos or video of the 3 young women clad in black, orange, and neon pink bikinis. We weren’t sure if Kenny was onboard, but we were sure that the guys were having fun. It might have been a photo shoot for swimsuits, or maybe a video for an upcoming music video. Or it might have just been guys and gals partying on Kenny’s boat.
We were excited for Diana’s sister, Donna, to fly down and spend a week with us. We eased her into island time by spending the first two days at Sapphire Beach Marina lounging at the swimming pool and visiting our new favorite eating places. Our first voyage out of the marina was three whole miles over to St. John’s Caneel Bay. We went into the town of Cruz Bay to revisit some of our long time favorites like the Caravan shop at Mongoose Junction and Willamina’s fruit smoothie stand. It just wouldn’t make sense to go to St. John and not drink a Willamina fruit smoothie. Her shop is really just a wooden shack but she said she had no damage from Irma and Maria except for water getting inside.
We stepped the action up the next day and sailed to Jost Van Dyke to trek to the Bubbly Pool on the north shore. It was at its bubbly best with waves crashing through a cleft in the rocks and flooding the pool with foam so thick that it looked like frosting on a cake. Being in the pool we were treated to a bubbly full body massage, except for the times when the waves knocked us down and we were treated to a bumpy wild ride. That experience prepared us for a day of snorkeling at the Indians and at the Treasure Caves on Norman Island. This area was the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We capped the week by anchoring at Christmas Cove on St. James Island and ordering a pizza from Pizza Pi, a boat in the anchorage built specifically for being a floating pizza parlor. We are hoping they will open a franchise on Barren Lake.
Saturday April 13th .. starts at 10 am or so, goes till noon, Wings for lunch!. Please bring some sides or dessert. Meeting after! Bring some yard tools and we can marvel at the high water together.. Thanks!
A slip opened up for us in American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook, so Towboat US came to tow us in. Two inflatable rigid dinghies came out to serve as tugboats to put us into our slip and after a bit of confusion and shouted instructions we were in. The misfortune of 2017’s Hurricane Irma was our good fortune on this day because after the Customs and Immigration office in St. John had been destroyed it was relocated to Red Hook. A short walk and a few minutes was all it took to clear in. Now we were living in luxury with shore power, a good grocery store, and free WiFi. Man cannot live by bread alone. In 2019 he needs WiFi. Days of unseen emails were dumped into our laptops, phones, and iPads. Answers to burning questions of geography, history, commerce, and philosophy were at our fingertips. Life had gone from good to great at the click of a few keystrokes.
A look around us showed that we were in good company here at AYH. Our next slip neighbor was a beautifully restored and refitted 1994 Bristol 57. I envied all of its gleaming brightwork, its impeccably polished navy hull, its golden teak deck, and its owners lounging in the cockpit with nothing to do. They in turn admired my industriousness, climbing in and out of my lazarette in my ragged cut-off jeans, so they invited us over for some refreshments. I don’t know if they pitied us or just wanted some relief from watching us work. On the other side of them at the T-dock sat the pride of the marina, an 86-foot powerboat named Gypsea. No one was on it, but it knew it was king of the hill. My admiration of it only grew when I discovered that it belonged to the patron saint of St. John, Kenny Chesney.
When the initial elation of arrival had worn off, we began to deal with the realities of our situation. Most pressing was the transmission problem. What did it need and who could do it? We were fortunate that the resident guru of diesel mechanics had a shop at Red Hook. We were unfortunate that he was so good he had weeks of work scheduled. I camped at his office door toward the end of each workday to beg a few minutes of his time. He came to the boat, took a look, and said, “I can fix that.” “When?” I asked, feeling both relief and anxiety at the same time. “In two or three weeks. I’ll let you know when I see an opening coming.” The awkward uncertainty of that schedule was compounded by the fact that hanging out at the American Yacht Harbor was costing about $150 per day.
The guru did give me enough advice and insight that I could formulate a plan. The transmission was installed in Road Town, Tortola, about 18 miles away by sea. A call to the manufacturer assured me that Parts & Power in Road Town would be the best place to get warranty service. So if we could get out of the marina without hitting a dock or another boat, we could make it to Road Harbor. Once there we could anchor and dinghy in.
We escaped AYH without any further damage to our boat or our dignity and sailed to Road Harbor, the site of various mechanical miseries in previous visits. Parts & Power was located on the east side of the harbor in an ugly industrial complex, but since there was easy access from an anchorage there to the shop, we chose to set the hook, spend the night, and bring a technician to the boat in the morning. We had anchored here once before in the mistaken notion that it was a protected anchorage. It was one of the two worst nights we had ever spent at anchor. It was phenomenally rolly. Everything slid from side to side including us who were trying to sleep. But that night was just a sample of one. Surely it wouldn’t be like that again. You guessed it—it was exactly like that again. That anchorage now constitutes 2 of the 3 worst anchored nights in our boating life.
We brought the technician to our boat in the morning and he was able to correct the problem that day and for numbers in the low hundred$. In my imagination it could have been a lot worse. Finally the boat was ready to set out for the Panama Canal and the South Pacific. The boat was ready, but what about the crew?
We counted heads on the boat and could only find two—Diana and me. By now our crew schedule was totally messed up. We have made it a policy to not sail more than two overnights with only the two of us as crew. The rigor of having someone on watch all night long, even in shifts, takes a toll on anyone’s energy and mental alertness. Well, to be honest, I did exactly that in my college days, but those days were years behind me. I’m either wiser or lazier now. Either way, I won’t do it.
Perhaps we could get some crew to help us sail on to Panama where we would get ready for transiting the Canal. We counted days on the calendar and found that there just weren’t enough days to get a couple of crew onboard and sail across the Caribbean to Panama to meet the schedule that we had laid out.
What to do? We had fought through storms, repairs, crew changes, and sea sickness to get here, but now what? Kenny Rogers had built a music empire on the simple advice “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” Gambling is not completely unrelated to ocean sailing. In spite of all our heartaches over the crashing of a lifelong dream, our sea gambler’s calculus told us that it was time to fold ‘em. We would not cross the South Pacific this year. Equipment had been purchased for this voyage, fees had been paid, but we didn’t hold a winning hand. It was time to fold ‘em and walk away.
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.
While waves of ice and snow storms were sweeping across the continental United States, in Bermuda we were enjoying sunny days in the 70’s and nights in the 60’s. It was great weather and a great place for vacationing, but our days were busy with getting the boat ready for the next leg of the voyage. We tied to the town dock in St. George’s which proved to be a really convenient location. A grocery store and a pharmacy were a block away. A laundromat and a barber shop were a block away. Restaurants and pubs were in sight. And repair services were nearby. In fact, the Doyle Sails shop was—you guessed it—a block away. The crew helped me remove the mainsail and hoist it off the boat onto the Doyle truck that came for it.
A machine shop was next to Doyle Sails. We needed a new latch on the hatch above the forward head. It had broken and every time a wave washed over the deck, gallons of sea water would push the hatch open and flood the head. We had to bail the head out because the sump pump couldn’t keep up, and then we rigged a spider web of small lines to hold the hatch down. It wasn’t water tight, but it reduced the flood to a splash. The machine shop made the most beautiful polished stainless steel latch for the hatch over the head. It was a work of art, and priced accordingly.
The list of repairs had grown to an even dozen. Some were essential, like the sail repair, and others were only highly desirable. The refrigeration had quit working after we crossed the Gulf Stream. This was after paying a king’s ransom to a marine refrigeration company in Annapolis to have the freezer and refrigerator working perfectly for the long voyage into tropical seas. It turns out that when they changed the refrigerant in the system they did not replace the high pressure valve with one for the new refrigerant and when the boat got to warmer waters, the pressure increased and cut off the refrigeration. The correct valve solved the problem. Other repairs were marked off as various technicians came to the boat or as we walked to the hardware store (two blocks) for hooks, screws, etc.
The town dock is adjacent to the town square, a popular place for strolling, eating, socializing, and taking photos. It is also the place where the historic dunking machine is located. At noon on Saturday the town crier announced that a woman had been convicted of being a gossip and a nag. With much ceremony and repartee between the woman and the town crier, a crew bystanders was assembled to administer the dunking. I had wandered down to see what the commotion was about and was pressed into the dunking crew. After the woman was seated in the dunking chair, we rolled her out over the water, and after a final obstinate refusal to repent, we dunked her! When she came up shouting protestations and insults, the town crier instructed us to dunk her again, so we did! If I counted correctly, it took seven dunkings to reform the woman’s character. She left the square a sober, repentant, and thoroughly soaked woman.
History is ever-present in Bermuda. It is the oldest continuously inhabited English settlement in the Western Hemisphere. Ancient light houses and forts warned, welcomed, and defended the island, but now serve mostly as tourist attractions. The dockyards at the southern end of the archipelago that is linked together by bridges into the “island” of Bermuda served the British navy for almost two hundred years in the 18th to 20th centuries, but now are filled with interesting shops and recently hosted the America’s Cup. The oldest English speaking church in the New World in continuous operation is St. Peter’s Anglican Church in St. George’s, founded in 1614. We went there on Sunday and found a small congregation served by a priest with a decidedly Tennessean accent.
Although there are many fine churches in Bermuda, the one that all tourists go to see is known simply as “the Unfinished Church.” Construction was started in 1874 on a Gothic styled cruciform cathedral to seat 650. Funds were sent to complete the church, but a fire had destroyed the main cathedral in Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital, so the funds were diverted there. Hurricanes and other storms have battered the church since that time and as of now, there are no plans to finish the Unfinished Church, making it one more historical tourist attraction.
Bermuda is old, but not out of touch with what is happening today. The town square and every restaurant has WiFi and the restaurants on the narrow streets of St. George’s all seem to be sports bars with flat panel televisions. We treated ourselves to dinner at the White Horse Pub on the evening of the NFL conference championship games. The meal was excellent. It was also long, due to the big television in plain sight from our strategically chosen table. Diana and Elaine gave up and went back to the boat long before I did.
Kentucky doesn’t have a monopoly on cave attractions. We were surprised to learn that Bermuda, which is of volcanic origin, has its own Crystal Caves. Diana and Elaine toured the caves one afternoon while I was working on the boat and
said that while they are much smaller than Kentucky’s famous cave system, they are beautiful.
The town of St. George’s where we docked and lived for almost two weeks is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island of Bermuda is relatively small, but is so filled with historical and modern attractions it is a worthy destination for a vacation. But what we admired and liked best were Bermuda’s people. They were highly skilled, well educated, friendly, and polite. All tourist destinations don’t welcome their tourists, but Bermudans make theirs feel right at home.
Starts at 10 AM , goes to somewhere past noon .. Lunch will be served but please bring a side dish.. Marvel at the High Water! Watch snakes trying to escape the flood.. Help Troy do his Anti-rain dance so we can start racing before July!. Bring some rakes and stuff.
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.