Sea Mist en Route to Tortola
Friday, November 18, 2011
On Sunday November 6, I set out from Newport, Rhode Island, bound for Bermuda and then the British Virgin Islands, with Arnie Hammerman, Yachting’s west coast sales manager; Chris White, our managing editor, and my longtime friend and experienced Caribbean marine professional Tommy McCoy.
Like best laid plans, this one gushed with purity. We’d sail the approximately 650 miles to Bermuda, where Chris would jump ship. I would meet my girlfriend for a day or two of Bermudian hospitality between boat chores, and then Arnie, Tommy, and I would have a blustery cruise propelled by the ever-so-reliable easterly trades all the way to Tortola, arriving in enough time to take a swim and spin a few sea tales over a Painkiller.
In hindsight, the naivety of the plan is astounding. All of us have completed multiple long distance passages. So in the back of our minds we knew the risk of everything going to shit. Yet optimism almost always quashes memories and previous experiences. We went for it, got the plan underway and let momentum pull us through the motions, right into one unpredictable weather pattern after another. Granted, if we didn’t have day jobs and had more flexibility, we could have taken different steps.
It’s 13 days since we left Newport, we never made it to Bermuda, and up to this morning, we were facing the real possibility of being becalmed. Arnie is sharing his experiences on this same blog page and will offer details on a few of the issues and challenges.
Believe it or not, this is the first time since leaving Newport that I’ve found the time to sit down and type a quick missive. Between boat items, trying to address a few work issues and write some stories, it’s been tough. Through our boat’s email system, we’ve received a few friendly jibes from friends and family as to the lack of a daily blog. I was unaware we were in the process of a real time adventure. The messages questioning our time management skills seem to appear in the boat computer’s inbox for everyone to see during the haze of the 12am to 3am graveyard watch.
So I thought it would be a good idea to communicate a time elapsed version of events and bring everyone up to date. Also look for specific topics by Arnie.
Basically we had to alter our course from Bermuda to Portsmouth, Virginia to avoid what eventually became named, sub-tropical depression Sean, forming directly in our path. We really wanted to reach Bermuda for multiple reasons. I wanted to see Lindsay, Chris wanted the offshore passage, and Tommy wanted to experience Bermuda for the first time. We diverted to Portsmouth after three days at sea, restocked, had some shoreside adventures, and headed back on Friday 11/11. (As a side note, we’re a fairly superstitious crew and leaving on a Friday is bad karma.
However, Arnie rationalized that we actually began the trip on a Sunday, and that once the passage was in process, the issues of a Friday departure do not apply. I admit I bought into that at the time, but now I’m having second thoughts.) After a few last minute errands, we left Portsmouth, bound directly for Tortola. Today, Friday November 18, we’re 528 miles north of Tortola. After a combination of motoring, motor sailing, and sailing into head winds, the trades have finally decided to show up for the party. They’re filling in lightly, which we’ll take since we’re down to about 15 hours of fuel reserve. God willing, we’ll be able to get into Tortola between Tuesday and New Years Eve. (How’s that for a margin of error?)
Here are a few of the basic facts so you can join us on Sea Mist.
The Boat: Sea Mist is a 1986 Shannon 43, centerboard ketch. Shannon builds a very seaworthy boat in my opinion. She may be a little tight in the interior compared to some of the beamy production boats that fill the Caribbean charter fleets, but she is designed to go to sea. There are two, fairly tight staterooms that could forego some of the abundant stowage in favor of berths that don’t require a full gymnastic routine to climb into. But once you’re in, you’re in.
I’ve been packaged into the forward stateroom, which can bounce around a bit when we’re running into head seas. Although yesterday I had to vacate my home after a deluge of water cascaded through my opened hatch onto my head, and everything else. It was calm, there was not a hint or even a wisp of water coming into the hatch until it sounded like someone dumped a ten gallon bucket into the boat. Tommy, lying in his berth in the saloon heard the sound, knew what happened, and just started laughing out loud. I felt like one of those poor souls living in a trailer park after a tornado wreaks havoc. (Trailer parks do seem to attract a laser beam focus from Mother Nature’s fury.) I picked through the pieces of my tattered on board life; a soggy book I wanted to read; several magazines now stuck together, my clean shirts now starched with salt, drenched bedding, and general carnage. It was 0100, and I came back onto to watch at 0300. I grabbed my one dry T-shirt, a pillowcase and moved into Tommy’s neighborhood on the adjacent settee, Chris’ former home. Bit by bit I’m getting organized, dried out, and hopefully tomorrow I can return home.
Arnie is camped out in the port aft cabin that has a quarter berth that tucks under the cockpit and straddles the engine. At night, since we arrived in warmer, southern latitudes, Arnie resembles a little kid who had a bad dream and wants to sleep with his parents, as he wanders into the cockpit completely delirious with his blanket and pillow and collapses on one of the six foot plus cockpit benches. His stateroom, otherwise known as The Cave, houses an odd and arbitrary assortment of gear and equipment. There you will find survival suits (the fact that he volunteered to sleep with three of them made me suspicious) life jackets, electrical connections, various roles of tapes, tortilla chips, Dove bars, books and Arnie’s gear. Without wind and with the engine running, it can get hot and slightly stale in The Cave. Even as my stateroom cried saltwater tears from every corner, I politely declined Arnie’s invitation to move my base camp into the Cave.
One of the attributes of Sea Mist that will only reveal itself at sea for an extended period of time is the silence. There is almost no creaking of bulkheads or joinery. She has a soft entry, and even on the occasion where we fell off a wave, she’s as solid as granite. There’s more noise coming from the clanging of the 19 different types of hot sauce, than the boat working. It makes being off watch a lot more enjoyable. So does the abundant amount of ventilation and large Dorade vents. All of us are hyper focused on keeping the boat clean and in fact collectively spend several hours a day keeping the interior organized, cleaning the fridge, wiping down the woodwork, cleaning heads, wiping down the galley, and simply ensuring the boat is fresh. Besides basic hygiene issues, when we do hit foul weather, a neater environment is important.
Her galley is one of the best seagoing galley’s I’ve worked in, especially on a starboard tack when you can strap in with a harness. By placing non-skid mats on the counters, the cook can prep and cook away. To be sure, in some of the more blustery conditions, you need to almost double the time required to plate a meal compared to being at home. I’m religious about limiting the number of times I open the fridge and freezer during meal prep to conserve energy, and also constantly put dry items away and clean as I go. On Sea Mist, it’s a little more difficult to cook on the port tack and you basically have to straddle the fridge with one leg. It’s not a pretty sight. Trying to get anything out of the oven on this tack entails sitting down on the floor to balance a hot gimbaled oven that swings toward your head violently while somebody stands above you trying not to dump a hot pan down your back. We’re well stocked and the Sea Frost refrigerator that runs off the engine is operating flawlessly.
The ketch rig is incredibly well-balanced. Arnie has vast experience with running a Shannon 50 ketch and also cruised his parents’ Shannon 43 cutter extensively. So he knows the boats, which is a huge help. Off the coast of New Jersey Arnie showed us how easily you can balance the wheel. After the autopilot failed (see Arnie’s blog) we were able to trim the boat to steer herself.
I have always loved going on offshore passages, ever since my father took me out of school to help deliver a friend’s Intrepid 40 from Marion, Massachusetts to Annapolis, Maryland when I was 9. Where else can you disconnect, except maybe in the mountains. This may also help explain why we are not blogging daily. Sometimes you simply have to live in the moment and enjoy it, versus reporting on it. Someone also asked me, “Don’t you get bored? What do you do?” Well, here’s just a rough view of yesterday.
I got on for the 0300 to 0600 watch. Arnie came on after me. Since we’ve had five days of headwinds, unusual for this time of year, we’ve been going through our fuel reserves at a rather uncomfortable pace. Although the gauge of the tank we’re drawing from reads ¼, the motion of the boat doesn’t allow us to draw the remaining fuel. (As a rule of thumb you should always plan on not being able to access the last 10 percent of your fuel.) The sound of a fuel starved engine gulping for its last breath is never a welcome one. Sure enough, the engine was only getting air, sucking both filters dry a little after 0600. Arnie takes the wheel, while Tommy (a mechanic by trade) opens the Racor, then we transfer diesel from a deck jerry can into the filter. The primary filter on the engine is also fuel starved. The Mercedes diesel has a priming pump on the side of the injector pump allowing Tommy to pump fuel into the injectors. Just after 0700, we have an operational engine again.
Then Arnie notices the topping lift (which has already been repaired) fouled with a reefing line. Arnie addresses this issue while I take over the helm. Then it’s time to make breakfast, and by this time we’re experiencing a healthy head wind and start sailing. I make some fresh biscuits in the oven and combine with sausage, egg and cheese. The left over sausage is put aside to toss into meatloaf later. By 0830 I’m returning the morning emails, addressing some work issues, and trying to put out a few fires shoreside. I head down at 1000 for a quick nap, then up again at 1130, make a meatloaf, stick it in the fridge for later, and I’m back at the wheel for my 1200 watch.
Tommy and Arnie rig up a system to siphon the fuel left in the tank that we can’t use and transfer it into the main tank. I hand steer in the 12-16 knot breeze and try to work the stronger puffs to move us in a more easterly direction. The sailing is fantastic, albeit not exactly putting us where we want to go. Our course aims us at the Dominican Republic, not Tortola. I stay at the helm until 1600, lie down for 30 minutes, and then pop back into the galley to start dinner. Reaching for some carrots I find that the under sole bin we are using has been flooded with nasty bilge water, spoiling some of our stores. This takes a little while to clean up. Then it’s up to the cockpit to clean and peel the potatoes. During which time we catch a dolphin, which sends us on a sidetrack. Tommy fillets it for lunch. Then it’s time for dinner in the cockpit, which consists of meatloaf, homemade mash potatoes and broccoli and New Zealand Merlot. We’re wrapped up by 1700, I help sort out the galley, read a little, and then I’m back on for my 2100 watch.
So are we bored at sea? Not at all! Who has the time? The trades are here, another fish is on, Arnie is installing cockpit speakers, and it’s time to batten down for a front that’s on its way. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll be home in time for Thanksgiving. If not Arnie and I have plans to head to the Dominican Republic and lay low for a while. Stay tuned!