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Gibraltar

In a historic first, Nordhavn leads 18 boats across the Atlantic.

October 4, 2007

It was four in the morning, and I had just come on watch. BANG, a huge wave slammed into the boat. POW, another. Our boat, Atlantic Escort, a Nordhavn 57, was pitching up and down like a rocking horse on steroids. Another BANG and then a doubleheader-two consecutive waves swept over the top of the boat. The 100,000-pound boat fought her way forward, but BANG, SLAM, BANG, the hits just kept coming. The wind, gusting to 43 knots, was right on our nose, and the seas, as one captain described them later, were “vicious. Jim Leishman, the captain of our boat and the leader of this 18-boat fleet, had given up trying to sleep and was wedged into the settee behind the helm station. “We’re getting clobbered, he said.

On the VHF, the captain of one of the other boats in our fleet radioed Autumn Wind, a Nordhavn 62 whose autopilot had broken, to ask who was on watch. “Everybody! came back the immediate and forceful reply.

This was the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally, a 3,800-mile voyage from Fort Lauderdale to Gibraltar, with stops in Bermuda and the Azores. Brad Kovach from Motor Boating and I had climbed aboard in the Azores for the final seven-day, 1,100-mile leg to Gibraltar. For most of our trip the weather was beautiful; at one point it was so calm that we launched our RIB to carry beer, dvds and a tin of pepper to other boats. But then, in the last night, it went to hell in a handbasket. And it wasn’t pretty.

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In all the pounding, our speed over the ground had dropped to 3.5 knots. I nudged our throttle forward; that was a mistake-more pounding. A glance at our radar gave me a start; we were in a sea of red dots. Earlier we had turned on our spotlight so we could serve as guide to the other boats. This worked too well. Now, a lot of boats were around us in the one-quarter mile ring, gathered together, it seemed, out of a sense of collective security. But this was too close for comfort; I really didn’t want to run into another boat. Meanwhile, large radar targets, freighters and commercial traffic, were appearing on the outer rings, all converging on the Strait. (We must have presented a very unusual target on their radars, to say the least.)

It was an enormous relief when the sun came up, a glorious orange/yellow ball slowly rising out of the ocean ahead of us, and the conditions settled down a bit as we entered the Strait, certainly one of the most history-laden spots on the planet. It’s only nine miles across, Europe to port, Africa to starboard, but it serves as the entrance to the Med and the key to the ebb and flow of entire civilizations. Fortunately, when we were passing through, we were going with the tide.

At the southernmost tip of Spain, we passed Tarifa Light, which looked absolutely medieval, Moorish; you almost expected to see some Crusaders leaning out of the parapets on the low stone fortress surrounding it. As the weather calmed, we realized that the Spanish coast looked uncannily like California, with rolling golden hills and sharp cliffs dropping into the ocean.

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The entire fleet came together for a Yachting photo shoot when we got to Gibraltar, circling so that the famous Rock was in the background. The top was shrouded in clouds until we all got into place; then they parted, as if greeting us, and all of the Rock was in plain view. The crews came on deck; people were cheering, laughing, waving. Sans Souci, a Nordhavn 62, pumped out “YMCA from their on-deck speakers. (Much earlier, on a calm day in the middle of the ocean when the fleet stopped so the crews could go for a swim, they played the Beach Boys’ greatest hits.)

When we all tied up at Marina Bay in Gibraltar, with the Rock in the background, everyone toasted each other with champagne and beer, traded sea stories and got their land legs back. (Actually, we were all rocking for days afterward.) But the sense of accomplishment-and pride-was almost palpable. After all, this was the first time that a group of recreational powerboats (15 Nordhavns, one Seaton 55, one Krogen 58, and one Monk-McQueen 90) had ever crossed the ocean together. It probably won’t be the last.

Milt Baker, one of Nordhavn’s organizers for the rally, strode down the dock with a big smile. “Well, he said, “18 boats started, 18 boats finished, 18 boats are tied up. YEAH! Jim Leishman jumped off the boat to hug his wife, Sue, on the dock and then said, “It’s amazing when you think about it. We kept the timetable. There were no significant problems. We’re getting compliments from everybody. It’s been great. …But I’m glad it’s over.

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-Peter A. Janssen

* * * * *

Jim Leishman is a cool character, not prone to worry publicly. But the chief shepherd of the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally fleet had obviously been worrying mightily in the days before the fleet’s arrival in the Azores. Wolves of disaster had been nipping at our calves, but now we were safe in Horta, where Leishman confided that the final leg-the 1,100 miles to Gibraltar-would not begin without the most favorable weather forecast possible.

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I was aboard Atlantic Escort for the second and longest leg of the Rally-the 1,800 miles from Bermuda to the Azores. In those last few days before Horta, the grand design began to unravel slightly when a series of mechanical problems coincided with moderately heavy seas and foul weather. Our division was splitting up as some boats increased throttle to get to port sooner, while others lagged behind because of breakdowns and difficulties.

At sea in small boats, even the smallest difficulty holds the kernel of disaster. Each vessel in the fleet, for example, required some form of stabilization in order to participate. When the smallest vessel, the stalwart Nordhavn 40 Uno Mas, lost her stabilizers 160 miles from the Azores in the worst of the weather, the problem was not just that the crew was uncomfortable. That kind of rolling can cause injuries and debilitating seasickness. The point was driven home to us on Escort when we tried to talk the crew through the repairs. Their radio replies sounded frazzled, as you might expect from people rolling through 60 degrees.

The issue was with an AC pump designed to cool the hydraulic fluid that drives the stablilizers. That means that the pump has to get its power from an inverter that converts 12-volts from the ship’s batteries into 120. Good as they can be, no inverter yet has proved free from failure, and that’s what had gone wrong aboard Uno Mas: No inverter, no cooling water, no hydraulics, no stabilizers. Starting the generator was no help either because the ailing inverter refused to distribute the generator’s power.

Fortunately, the fix was a simple one: disconnect from the inverter, six wires from two power cables, reconnect them to each other (green-green, white-white, black-black); then the generator would power the boat’s 120 circuits directly. As simple as it may sound to someone sitting dockside, Leishman and Nordhavn project manager Justin Zumwalt were frustrated when they tried to explain this procedure over the VHF radio to the discombobulated folks aboard Uno Mas.

Conditions were too rough to launch a dinghy, but Zumwalt, a California surfer dude and fleet engineer, very nearly begged permission to swim over to Uno Mas to make the necessary modifications. In one of the photos I took for the Yachting web site, you can see Zumwalt in his black wetsuit riding the crest of a wave toward Uno Mas, while the vessel plunges into a trough in the background. Needless to say, the trio aboard Uno Mas was extremely grateful when Justin got the stabilizers working again. But it wasn’t easy.

Nor was this the only example of extreme problem solving. The next day Justin Zumwalt was joined by Leishman’s son, James, for yet another tactical swim. This time Leishman the younger became hero of the day, after diving beneath the heaving, pitching stern of the Nordhavn 62 Autumn Wind to free a line caught in the prop. This would have been a far riskier proposition, were it not for the fact that James swims like Tarzan. “The water is my element, he insisted, and dad relented. We all watched silently as James disappeared under the plunging stern. When he reappeared after that single dive, he had succeeded in getting three cuts of the knife through the rope. Soon Autumn Wind, which had been using its spare “wing engine, was steaming ahead under its main engine.

The role these young men played in the second leg of the rally suggests to me that any future undertaking of this kind should deliberately include-if they can be found-the equivalents of a Justin Zumwalt and James Leishman. It’s an old lesson relearned that even in an era of technological marvels we must rely on the young to ensure the safety of their less nimble older comrades.

Every subculture has its debates and its truisms, and the world of trawler people is no different. To me, the real-world lesson of the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally has shattered at least one of these truisms. It has been casually accepted as gospel that 90 percent of all breakdowns are fuel related, and yet on my leg of the voyage (and to the best of my knowledge during the entire rally) 100 percent of all breakdowns and mechanical failures were not fuel related. If you had witnessed the many stray net buoys and other plastic trash, even in the middle of the Atlantic, you would not be surprised that Autumn Wind picked up a line in her prop. And besides Uno Mas, niggling stabilizer problems beset several participants.

While that 90 percent figure may have been more accurate decades ago, the attentiveness of manufacturers such as Nordhavn to the issue of delivering clean diesel to engine injectors has dramatically decreased the likelihood of fuel-related failure, as long as each skipper keeps to his end of the bargain by performing required maintenance.

Each day of the rally featured a morning and evening roll call. Part of the evening roll call was devoted to discussions of fuel remaining. It was during one of these reports that Uno Mas‘s fuel burn came into questions. Leishman decided that we would use the calm conditions early in the passage to transfer fuel from Atlantic Escort to Uno Mas.

This proved to be a remarkable spectacle and reinforced the military aspect of this venture. Escort deployed both her tenders as helpers took Uno Mas in tow, passed her the end of a 100-foot hose and proceeded to pump 100 gallons of diesel into her belly. Like a man-overboard drill, this procedure would be a worthy exercise for any powerboats voyaging in tandem. At Horta, Uno Mas later reported that she had arrived with 101 gallons remaining. Without the refueling she would have had one gallon left.

The rally required that participants carry a back-up or “wing engine in case main propulsion was lost. These are often referred to as “get-home engines, and the trawler community continues to debate whether these little kickers could ever get anyone home. The Rally will do nothing to quiet the argument. Autumn Wind used hers while the main prop was fouled and was making 4.5 knots toward the Azores, but with wind and seas behind her, she probably would have made half that with no motor at all. It’s open to question how much progress she would have made had her destination been in the other direction. Where the wing engine proved most valuable, it seems, was providing steerage and stabilization while work was under way to get the big engine back on line.

Until the day that boats work like cars, complicated systems are inevitably a tradeoff for the ability to cross oceans under power-and in the comfort to which we have all grown accustomed. Big boat owners hire engineers to keep the systems running. Small boat skippers or those unwilling to provide a permanent technician’s berth need to be able fix this stuff themselves and under duress. For many would-be voyagers learning that is just too much like working for a living. Perhaps the success of the Nordhavn rally will inspire more rallies just like it, giving a comfort level to owners with only modest mechanical skills.

-Peter Swanson

For a complete compilation of the Rally from Ft. Lauderdale to Gibraltar, log onto yachtingnet.com’s special Nordhavn Rally Web site.

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