We completed our passage from Virginia to the British Virgin Islands some days ago. After resting up, and enjoying time with our families in Michigan and New York, it is time to record some of the highlights of the trip.
At the start, we were worried about the traffic jam that would occur when 70 boats all tried to leave the marina at the same time. After some discussion, we decided to leave our slip on Sunday night, fill our fuel tanks, and then anchor in the river near the marina. That way, we could raise our anchor and be off the next morning, without playing bumper-boats.
We weighed anchor shortly after 8:00 am, and this got us to the area of the rally starting-line around 10:00, an hour before the official start time. This was OK because we were in the cruising class, and no records of our passage time were being kept. We saw several cargo and Navy vessels on our way out of Chesapeake Bay, but we stayed outside the official channel and had no difficulty avoiding them.
Once the passage starts, you are really independent and have to be self-reliant. We got a direct lesson in self-reliance the afternoon of the first day out. We had been sailing with our mainsail reefed (part of the sail gathered up on the boom), because the winds were fairly strong. During the afternoon, the winds became lighter and we decided to shake out the reef, and return to our full sail area. This involves loosening lines that gather up the extra sail, and then tightening the halyard, the line that raises the sail to the top of the mast.
When tightening the halyard, the motor on the electric winch began to work really hard. I thought that this was just caused by friction between the sail and the mast. But no, it was something else – a fold of the sail had caught on a fitting on the mast. It was on the far side of the sail, and completely hidden by the boom. So, RIPPPPPP, and we suddenly had a large tear along the front of the sail.
Our expert crew was quickly able to make a temporary repair. Fortunately, I had purchased some basic sail repair materials before the trip. Andy (our professional skipper) and Christian (a neighbor from Switzerland) used temporary lines to keep the luff rope tight, and sewed on a patch. This repair held through the rest of our voyage.
The wind built up again, and we soon had the sail reefed again, which took all of the strain off the patch. Wind and waves continued to be strong for the next several days, and we sailed with the first and often the second reef in the mainsail for much of the trip.
During the passage, it is important for someone to be on watch 24 hours a day. There are cargo ships and cruise ships to be avoided, and changes in wind speed and direction require adjustments to the sails.
We started with a three-hour watch schedule. Gretchen was uncomfortable being on watch by herself, so she shared a watch with Aaron, our son. The rest of us were on watch by ourselves. That meant a total of four watch crews, or a 3-hour on/9-hour off watch schedule. We modified this by planning two 1.5 hour watches during the middle of the day. The crew members who had the shorter watches were responsible for cooking and cleaning up our main meal of the day. Because of these “dog watches,” the watch schedule rotated from day to day, so no one got stuck having the 3:00 am watch all the time.
We had been advised by the weather forecasters to sail more south than east for the first part of the trip. There was a strong low pressure system stalled near Bermuda, and taking this course would help us avoid the worst of the winds and waves from this storm.
This strategy meant that we passed quite close to Cape Hatteras during the first night of the voyage. With strong winds and relatively shallow water near the Cape, the wave action was very chaotic and unpleasant for a few hours. In these conditions, the boat bounces around unpredictably, which makes it hard work just to sit or lie down in one place, let alone move about the boat. Once we got further offshore, the deeper water helped things smooth out a bit.
After passing by Cape Hatteras, it was time to cross the Gulf Stream. This is a “river” of water that flows mostly northeast through the Atlantic, with strong currents. If the wind is from the wrong direction, you can encounter very steep and dangerous waves. Part of the delay in starting the rally was to ensure that the wind was from a favorable direction for the Gulf Stream crossing.
We entered the Gulf Stream sometime after midnight, and had a very uneventful crossing. The air temperature rose several degrees immediately after entering the stream, and our overall speed dropped because of the adverse current. There is a pretty distinct boundary on the North/West edge of the Gulf Stream, but it is much less distinct on the South/East edge. I would estimate that we were completely out of the Gulf Stream by mid-morning on Tuesday.
The next several days were simply great sailing. The wind was strong, and from behind the boat. We sailed very fast (for a sailboat of our size), maintaining consistent speeds of 8.5 knots and often faster when sailing down the front of waves. It was very common to see speeds above 9 knots, and not unusual to see speeds above 10 knots. There were a few very exciting (and somewhat scary) moments when we saw 14 or 15 knots on the speedometer. Usually when this happened, we made a sail change to slow down the boat a bit (much to Christian’s dismay). At such high speeds, there is a risk of losing control of the boat.
We saw slowly rising temperatures over the first 4-5 days of the trip.
This was welcome, since we all had felt chilled at the beginning of the trip. By the middle of the voyage, we were all in t-shirts and shorts, and even less clothes by the end of the trip.
During this period, we found the wind was almost directly behind us when we sailed toward our destination. This is not ideal, because it puts the boat at risk of a “crash gybe,” where the boom moves suddenly and violently across the boat. We experimented with a variety of approaches to deal with this, sometimes sailing at an angle from our direct course, sometimes sailing with just a headsail and no mainsail. Probably our best sail combination was with the mainsail furled, the genoa held out to one side using the boom, and the solent sail rigged to the other side on the whisker pole. This was a bit complicated to set up, but gave us a very balanced rig that was easy to steer.
About midday on the fourth day of our passage, we got another lesson in self-reliance. Until that time, we had relied almost completely on our autopilot to steer the boat. That meant that the person on watch could be out of the weather, could read or listen to music, could take a few minutes to use the toilet, etc. Suddenly, however, our autopilot quit working. Everything looked normal on the control panel, but it wouldn’t steer the boat. At all.
This meant that we needed to have someone steering 24/7 for the rest of the trip. Especially when the waves are high, this is hard work and three-hour watches were no longer feasible. So Andy worked out a new watch schedule, with two-hour watches. By this point, Gretchen was much more confident of her skills, and she immediately agreed to do solo watches. With five of us steering, we had a 2-hour on/8-hour off schedule, which was very manageable. We kept the dog watches at mid-day for cooking and cleaning.
Watchkeeping when hand steering is a very different experience. At the wheel, you are more exposed to wind and spray. You can’t read. You can’t go to the toilet unless someone helps you.
But what was the option? I was impressed because everyone just took the change in stride, no grumbling or complaining at all.
On Sunday, the wind and waves had decreased significantly, and the temperature was quite warm. It was time for a swim! We turned into the wind, so that the sails worked against each other (this is called “heaving to”), and the boat nearly came to a stop. Then splash! into the water. According to the chart, we were in water about 5000 meters (16,500 feet) deep. But I guess anything more than 2 meters deep is too deep to stand up in. The boat was still moving slowly ahead at about 1 knot, so nobody went too far away. The water was warm and very refreshing. We all took the opportunity to wash bodies and hair.
We had acquired some fishing tackle before we departed, and by the middle of the voyage we were ambitious enough to try it out. Ocean fishing is not sporting at all. No rod or reel. The fishing line is very strong (200 lb test), and tied directly to the boat. The lures and fish hooks are huge.
The first few days of fishing, using a couple of different lures, we had no luck at all. Then I heard on the SSB radio that some people were having success with pink lures. One of the lures we had purchased was a combination of bright blue and pink. We had only two days before the end of our passage. Why not give it a shot?
After a few hours of trolling, finally success! We caught a nice Mahi-Mahi (also known as Dorado). We pulled the fishing line in hand over hand, and pulled the fish onto the platform at the stern of the boat. Aaron put on his sea boots, and stood on the fish to keep it from flopping off the boat. The recommended way to kill a big fish like this is to pour vodka into its gills. We had purchased some cheap vodka for this very purpose (it was the only alcohol on board), and found that it worked well, but that it took more than we had expected. Andy gave Aaron a lesson in filleting a fish, and we soon had VERY fresh Mahi in our freezer. Gretchen and Andy made a ceviche for an appetizer to eat the next day.
The last full day of the trip, we had more luck. A very nice Wahoo took the bait only minutes after setting up the fishing gear. This time Gretchen was the designated fish executioner, and she chose to cut the fish into steaks. We had some of these for dinner soon thereafter – delicious!
With about two days to go, we started to calculate potential arrival times. We didn’t want to arrive at Tortola in the middle of the night. The wind had pretty much died, and we had started to use our engine. This gave us complete control over our speed, and we decided to slow down enough that we could arrive shortly after sunrise on Tuesday, November 16. By this time the waves were much reduced, and steering was a lot easier.
On the final night of the journey, Aaron was on watch when the lights of the Virgin Islands appeared over the horizon. My watch was next, and I watched the lights slowly rise higher, and as the sky began to lighten with the sunrise, got the first glimpse of land. Watching the mountains rise above the horizon, and the details of the landscape become clear was an experience I will always treasure.
For the last few miles, we had one of the other rally boats, Patriche
II, sailing near us. We noted that they had their sails up, and decided we would come into port in style, sailing instead of motoring.
That slowed us down enough that Patriche II beat us into the harbor, but it was still the right decision. Finally, almost exactly 8 days after our departure, we arrived in the harbor at Soper’s Hole, Tortola, picked up a mooring, and were attached to the Earth once more.