A Small Boat on a Big Pond

 

It all started out calmly enough.  I got an email in mid-December from a sailing buddy who thought I should check out a boat transport gig, from North Carolina sailing to the Caribbean leaving ASAP.  What the hell, I thought and made the contact with really no intention of sailing anywhere during the holiday season.  I was curious about the passage.  The boat captain responded saying he needed a third person to complete the crew transporting a boat from Beaufort NC to St Thomas in the American Virgin Islands. As it happened I knew the other crew member.  After speaking with others who had done the same trip albeit during warmer months I decided it seemed like a routine transit.  I studied my schedule and with encouragement from my wife Andrea I was able to move commitments around and create time for the trip.  I signed on after what I though was due diligence, qualifying the owner about the seaworthiness of his boat.  In hindsight I am now convinced that every captain thinks his boat is capable of sailing around the world via the North Pole if necessary.

            She is a 1966 Cal 36 ft. sloop.  I did some research and found the reviews favorable.  The previous owner was said to be a coastal and off shore racer and the boat was rigged for speed not comfort.  Apparently she sat abandoned for some time between owners until Dave, our captain,  purchased her the previous year.  He renamed and refitted “Kite” for his needs as a live aboard boat with the intention of wintering in the Caribbean and summering on Lake Champlain.  I was satisfied with these findings. 

So on Monday 12.12.11 I bought a ticket to North Carolina and off I went.  During the ride to the airport I was jittery nervous.  Andrea also admitted to a deep-seated, instinctive unease about this trip but held back from making me not go.  Here I go again, I was thinking as she drove me to the airport, doing another thing to scare the shit out of myself.  But this time I felt better prepared.  After all I had just crossed the Atlantic in the spring.  This short trip to the Caribbean looked like cake.

Flights went terrific.  Maybe this was an early indicator of success.  I met up with Ned the other crewmember and we proceeded to Beaufort.  I remember the cab driver on the way from the airport telling us of the so-called “sailors” he often encountered who left from Beaufort.  “They think they are experienced sailors” he said “‘til they hit the Gulf Stream.”  I wonder what he’s talking about, I thought.  What’s the big deal about the Gulf Stream, which obviously I knew about but hadn’t encountered going transatlantic?  His comment sounded pretty ominous but more on that later. 

My first sight of the boat was positive.  It did look well-lived in, cluttered and “bachelor-pad” dirty.  Every space was filled with the captain’s stuff.  But it was an easy job to clean up.  Captain Dave, Ned and I were all motivated to shove off as soon as possible as it was late in the season to be sailing.  But checking the forecast, it looked like we found the perfect 10 day weather window to work with.  In the next 18 hours we made the final repairs and accomplished the provisioning and outfitting.  There was a last minute’s trip to the local Wal-Mart in the AM, after a rough’s first night on the hard bunks, to buy some extra foam for padding.  This proved to be one of the only luxuries of the trip.  

Tuesday AM 12.13.11 Fair, sunny and bright, Winds NE 5-10K

We pushed off about 1:00 Pm to catch the outgoing tide.  Several dolphins were jumping and swimming next to the boat on the way out as if to say good luck.  It was 60 degrees warm and sunny with a NE breeze, a perfect wind to start our voyage.

The wind steadily increased through the evening and we continued to shorten sail.  We were about 40 miles off shore when we started across the Gulf Stream. The prevailing wind sweeping down from the NE, slammed into the northerly flowing current, pushing it up into huge 10-15 ft wave chop.  Suddenly we were being tossed around like a toy boat, caught between a powerful current and an equally powerful opposing wind.  I started to see the boat’s limits in dealing with ocean conditions. 

The waves increased into the night and those below had a rough time of it.  We all became queasy with seasickness.  I pulled the midnight to 3 AM shift.  The freeboard of the boat, the height from waterline to the side of the cockpit, was low which made for a very wet and wild ride.  Also the water temp dramatically changed from North Carolina prewinter cold to surprisingly warm.   I know this because as waves crashed over the windward side I was dumped on many times and felt the bath tub like warm water running down my neck.

Around this time, the voyage litanies began.  The boat has begun to speak to me. Actually, all boats talk in squeaks and groans.  Add the weather sounds and the intermittent human voices and the conversation is constant.  I could hear several male voices below groaning with efforts of seasickness.  I could hear someone whistling, someone crying out.  The waves and wind voices demand my attention.  I have a feeling they will have much to tell me in the coming days

 

Wednesday 10:20 AM, medium chop, fair, winds NE 15K

My night shift last night was from 9PM to 12.  Not bad, then I got my beauty sleep. But beauty sleep is relative onboard as keeping clean, washed and shaved is next to impossible in this tossing boat.   My first shift today is from 6 am to 10 (dawn patrol).  It starts with a broken shroud (this is one of the key wires which holds up the mast from the side).  This could be very serious.  I’m thinking that with it broken, the mast and sail can’t take the power of the wind.  We may be dismasted.   Now Captain Dave’s repair talents come into play.  Fortunately he has the tools and the parts.  So, a half an hour later the shroud was jury-rigged. 

Now the wind is falling.  After two days of excellent wind we are fighting to stay on course due to the tossing of the windless waves.  No matter how many electronics you have if it all goes to hell you have to kick into manual.  We start the motor.  At this point I begin to realize how far away from anything we are.  There is no radio or any other way to know what the weather will be.  This coupled with the broken shroud leads to a change of attitude and we come to realize that this is a serious crossing and the smallest thing could be a matter of life and death.  But I have a natural trust in the providence of grace.   Everything will work out.   But Dave the skipper is really freaked out that something more will happen.  I mentioned the $500 rule which is, if something breaks it means you are having a good time, but if it is over $500 then you are having a really good time.

 

Friday 12.16.11 Zero wind.  Motoring again.

The engine ran all night.  It’s also surprisingly difficult to keep on course motoring a sailboat.  During the night you have to keep eyes glued to the compass to stay on track.  The boat tends to weave very easily due to its design.  The diesel engine is also very loud.  We are all wearing earplugs which help some.  There are 3×4 hour watches from 6 am to 6 PM during daylight then there are 4X3 hour’s watches at night.  With 3 crew times at watch change every day. The way we have scheduled things is that every 4 days we rotate back to the original schedule.  Within the 4 day cycle someone gets the hardest 2 watches from 6-9 PM and 3-6 AM, I took the two worst night watches last night.     It’s hard staying awake for the 2nd turn. 

In preparation for the long night watches I had downloaded some apps for my phone.  These included an astronomy and navigation applications as well as a sailing game which help me to stay awake and alert through the night.  The others mentioned the irony of playing a sailing game while sailing the Atlantic.  I also listened to music and employed all the other tricks learned from my previous trip to stay awake during the odd hours of watch. 

By the 4th day we enter the Sargasso Sea.  It is basically a huge whirlpool created by currents and winds and is the mid point of the Bermuda Triangle which is thought to be bad luck to sailors and pilots.  The Sargasso kelp is thick enough to foul the motor propeller.  We have had to put her in reverse several times to clean the prop.  Fortunately no one has had to go over the side for a manual cleaning.

Weather has been in our favor so far.  Even though there is no wind the sun is shining on our lonely boat.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else out there.  It’s reasonably warm now as we make our way further S.  We are now in shorts and tee’s and barefoot like the boat bums that we want to be.

So far Ned and Dave don’t realize how far away from land we are.  This morning it hits them and they both expressed their uneasiness.  Dave in particular is nervous. He cannot sleep and is constantly checking and re checking all rigging and sail set as well as watching everything we do.  I can understand his behavior because it is his boat.  I think he realized how vulnerable we are when the shroud broke for the second time yesterday.  I t would be easy to over stress the rig and break the mast.  Then we would really be in trouble.  Ned is nervous and jumpy.  He looks for assurance by chatting about every little aspect of sailing or personal activity.  He often wakes up startled and scared, yelling out, “what’s going on?  Where are we?”.

The stars were amazing last night with all the constellations, planets, and full moon shining away.  Again the IPhone astronomy app worked great identifying the great beyond.  The amount of information is a bit overwhelming but I try to take it a little at a time.

I’m getting used to the safety harness tether which Dave requires for all crew on deck.  It was annoying at first but now its second nature.  I realize it’s necessary really good because even though there is no wind there are leftover ocean swells which pitch, roll and yaw the boat making falling overboard a real possibility.

Food and cooking onboard are surprisingly easy.  There is no gas, power or food rationing because this is a short trip.  We think we have enough water in storage tanks and Ned is very particular about it.  We can all three cook so this and cleanup are shared duties.  It’s also nice that we are from the same culture so there are no “food fights” like my previous trip as in what is appropriate to eat and at what time.

We are all getting along though sailing with two captains is difficult because they have different styles and particulars and both are used to being in charge.  Though they are friends sailing decision conflicts arise.  I carefully stay out of the way and do what I’m told trying to help out when I see something I can contribute to.

 

12.17.11 Sat 8:45 AM  W S @ 15K  Partly cloudy warming trends as we go South.

We had put up the mail sail at 3:00 AM with slightly increasing breezes, peace and quiet, Silent Night.   We are having trouble with the bilge pump and as the boat leaks a surprising amount I am concerned.  Dave figured out that it was blocked with seaweed so at 3:30 AM he was tearing apart the lazaret storage locker to find the filter.  I hits me now how crazy distance sailing can be.  There is virtually no rest from the boat.  She is always asking for something.  Trim my sails, pump my bilge, clean me up or repair something about me.  We sleep on her time.

 We are now settling into routine.  With little to do because of the auto pilot, when it works, we occupy time by sleeping, reading, and cooking.  I am getting a chance to learn about my Iphone and fun applications.  As well I’m getting a chance to observe the personalities of the captain and well, the other captain and how I fit in.

My own role on the boat is as a junior member.  Though I know most of the boat tasks, the two captains take over all chores.  So in the interest of staying out of their way I retreat into this journal.  Also I find I don’t have much in common with them, me being a fitness and book nut and they with other interests.   So, conversation is somewhat difficult.

Ned is self-described as “thoughtful and gregarious” he is quick to do any chores and is a very good cook as well as a master sailor.  From his conversation, he seems to be somewhat of a womanizer and was quick to make conversation with anyone of the opposite sex at the airport and dock though there are darn few of them out here.  “Say hello to my vinyl girlfriend” (his sleeping cushion). 

Dave is somewhat of a lone wolf defiantly far from the pack.  He enjoys his boyhood passions of guitar, sailing and travel and his lifestyle is envied by his peers.  He is officially the captain and owner of the boat but with Ed acting also as captain conflicts of sailing decisions come up.

 

12.18.11 Sunday S 10-15 gentle chop sunny and warm

We have been together almost a week now and personalities are on the table.  As Ned and Dave are long time sailing buddies, they have a bond which is strong.  But yet they bicker about every little thing like what’s for dinner, who ate the last of the cookies (Ned is a very big man and has an enormous appetite) and how to sail.  It’s annoying to listen to but I take a lesson.  How much am I like that with Andrea?  And she me?

I resort to my quiet self, reading when I can and hanging out on deck.  Ned has asked me how I can be so calm out in the middle of nowhere with no safety contact.  I tried to explain my concept of Grace as my higher power but don’t explain much.  I’m not a crusader.

Both Dave and Ned remain uncertain and nervous, unable to relax.   I reflect on my own certainty that everything will work out.  But I do however, reflect on why I launch myself into these situations, sailing thousands of miles away on an untested vessels and crew.  What am I trying to do?

 

 

12.19.11 Monday 10 :45 am W NE 15 K mostly cloudy, cooler

Whew!  What a last 25 hours.  A little gale blew up yesterday about noon and we have been stormin’ it for some time. There is nothing like a little blow to bring out the worst in people.  What is amazing is the fact that this little boat was still able to stay afloat.

What is the difference between exhilaration and fear?  I gotta admit that I felt a lot of both last night.  We had 10-20 ft waves with 20 to 25 K winds.  It was just about more than Kite could take.  She rattled and creaked and rolled from side to side right to her extremes and we the crew could only hang on.  The man at watch was frequently up to his knees in seawater due to the breaking waves and down below became a leaking mess with water dripping and spilling in from every seam in the boat.  We went through the entire sail inventory to find the right sail for conditions until final we just rigged a little for sail called a blade which is sorta a tiny jib.  That’s all we carried through the night still cruising at 7 knots which is the boat’s maximum speed.  It was my turn to pull the double night watch so I got the worst of it.

It’s now clear this little lake-cruising vessel with 3 feet of freeboard shouldn’t be out here.  I got washed around and blown about on deck.  At one point, standing high on the windward rail, I took and step into the center of the cockpit, tripped over the tiller and pitched headfirst over the leeward rail which was buried under water.  My nose was 6 inches from the rushing water when my harness tether pulled me up short.  If not for the safety harness I would have been tossed overboard.  When I crawled backward onto the deck, I felt an electricity of fear and adrenaline through my body that I’ve never felt before.  Yet on we sailed through the storm with the others pulling their watches and the captain constantly checking the rigging to make sure she would hold.

Now its still windy and wavy but it has eased off from the particularly violent conditions last night.  The crew is tired and cranky.  We haven’t really eaten anything because of the threat of seasickness.  And, we haven’t really slept because it’s impossible to stay in the bunk and sleep through the roar of the storm and as an added bonus we have had to dodge the flying projectiles below, everything from cooking utensils, cups and wet foul weather gear even though we thought we had stowed them.  They shook loose and we spent the morning gathering them up.

12.20,21 thru 22,23.11 Today is Thursday Trade winds E 15-20 with higher gusts.  Seas 10-20 ft

The brief let up in the wind passes and the gale picks up again.  It’s clear we have been in the middle of a shifting and powerful storm.  It started as a gentle SW wind of 15K  Then it rounded to the NW and built to 20K.  The seas followed the wind.  We broke the aft shroud again and had to jury rig something at 3:00AM involving ropes, braces and truckers hitches.  I have little confidence it will hold.  Now with wind in the 25K range and rounding to the NE seas have become confused and big with swells and chop coming in from all northerly directions.  We toss and turn and are not able to rig correctly to drive the boat.  Water was coming in from all openings, the portals, and the companionway hatch.  Fortunately the manual bilge pump works.   The closet like space we live in is drenched by every wave that went over the boat.  Everything is wet.

We thought the first night of the storm was the worst.  How can the boat possibly survive this beating.  Still we each had to take our turn at the watch.  During the day it was bad because we were able to see each rolling and breaking wave.  We saw the wind pick up the water and scour our little boat like a pressure washer.  The dark clouds and the sometimes blinding rain were numbing. 

But at night it was worse.  I remember the feeling of hopelessness as I mounted the gangway up to the deck for the 1st night watch, usually the easiest one because you are fresh.  I came above in the dark and could hardly keep my balance.  I dropped/fell to the deck and just hung on thinking there is no way a boat can survive in these conditions.  Doug who was on watch went below for relief and I was alone up top.  I felt an almost hopeless fear.  I crouched below the dodger somewhat out of the main fury of the storm, hung on and tried to feel secure knowing that my harness held me to the boat.  Trembling, I managed to keep the boat upright and on course for my 3 hour watch.  I was very relieved to give up the watch not even thinking that the next person had to endure what I just had.

During the second watch Ned finally was overcome with despair.  I hear him on deck wailing to the captain over the storm.  He could not go on, “we are not meant to be out in this”, “there is no way we’ll survive”, he cried out into the storm as the captain tried to assuage him.  After a while he came below, drenched and wrung out. He collapsed into the bunk as I put on my wet gear to stand watch.  His breakdown was a sobering emphasis of our situation.  We were all shaken.  Thought the storm continued on the next day,  Ned was quiet and spent from his despair.    

Finally we sailed far enough south to pick up the trade winds which blow east.  Apparently these east winds were responsible for the storms we just had endured.  We thought the trades would be sweet, gentle and tropical.  Instead we found them to be very strong, up to 25 and 30K with rolling monsters of swells reaching up 20 to occasionally 30 ft.  The boat rolls side to side and back and forth tossing everything that we thought was secured, each overhead wave dumping 10s of gallons on us.  Anyone on watch suffered the brunt always alone against the pounding elements.

Watch was survival time.  Just getting ready to go on deck was a time consuming endurance effort.  First finding the least wet clothes then donning already soaked gortex foul weather gear.  Then clipping into the harness/pfd and finally butting on wet deck boots.  Just going up the gangway into the storm was an act of courage.  

The relentless East wind combined with a powerful east current was steadily pushing the boat west.  We had a goal of the Virgin Islands but in order to make the heading we needed to be further up wind pushing in a Southeasterly direction.  We couldn’t push the fragile rig.  It became clear we couldn’t make or destination.  After discussion, chart reading and weighing the benefits of different landfalls it was decided that San Juan Puerto Rico was our best chance to get to land soon.

Oh to be dry again, to be off these rolling seas.  We all started to yearn for land.  It became a countdown of miles to destination and hours to port.  We were able to head off the wind for a more moderate course through the waves and slowly our attitudes became better.  We were getting closer to land.  Each watch brought us closer and I began to count the number of shifts left.

Finally Ned spotted land some 25 miles out.  It was a blue stripe across the horizon with a pillowing cloud cover.  Each hour brought it closer.  We discussed possible marinas and finally chose one that coincidently was just across from the airport.  Sailing in we crossed under the gun sights of the 16th C fortress Morro the stronghold of the Spanish Maine.  It was a welcoming sight and fun imagining just having crossed the Atlantic from Spain, not too far from the truth. 

Pulling up to the dock on Christmas Eve at 3:30 PM and tying off I was almost frantic to stand on land.  I felt the dock sway beneath me and assumed it was floating.  I soon realized it was me still feeling the effect of the swaying boat. I was very unsteady on my feet and staggering on my feet.   It took some time to get my “land legs” back.

We were welcomed by a neighbor boat owner who bought us drinks and everyone at port was amazed at our journey.  Even the local police exclaimed that the seas in the area had been more rough than usual for a storm “almost 10 ft!” and were surprised to hear of our passage.  Dave called his friend who was anticipating our arrival and the friend also said “I’m glad you made it!  There has been a huge storm dogging you”.  This was not news to us.

I called Andrea, she found a flight back home that was leaving that night at 3:00 am.  I packed up my wet things, took my first shower in two weeks, cold, got a cab and headed off to the airport which happened to be only a few miles from the marina. 

I’ll be home for Christmas.