British Virgin Islands to Hampton, VA
Jenny usually does the blog and I change the oil. Consequently, every picture of me is in front of an empty bottle of wine! Well, I could do that in Tulsa. I thought it was about time I told the story of a passage, something we couldn’t do in Tulsa (except on a horse).
Jenny and I have always had crew to help us on our annual fall migration from Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean and, with one exception, on our way north in the spring. This year, we decided to test ourselves and do it on our own. At 1115 on May 7th, we left the British Virgin Islands headed north. I had asked Jenny to work out a watch schedule and told her that I thought it important that we each have 4 straight hours of sleep each night. So, she took the watch from 2100 to 0100, then I would take the watch from 0100 to 0500. We alternated watch during the day about every 2 hours with the other napping.
The one thing that takes the much of the drama our of ocean passages are the services of a professional weather router; a private weather man who is an expert at ocean weather and passage making. We think the best for the east coast of the US and the Caribbean is Chris Parker. For $195 per year, he will hold your hand every time you need him. Initially, he would broadcast his forecast and answer questions on single sideband radio (SSB), but more recently he also uses a PACTOR modem to exchange emails over the SSB. This never fails to get through, while a voice transmission is sometimes difficult. Chris is usually days ahead of the National Weather Service, giving us enough time to change course to avoid storms.
From the time we left the BVI’s, Chris alerted us to the possibility of a deep low (40 knot winds on the nose) might cross our course. We were enjoying a great sail north and with 15 to 20 knot East trade winds, we were making 170-180 nautical miles per day. On May 10th, we decided to change course and head to Bermuda to seek shelter from the storm. At 0022 on May 12, 40 miles south of Bermuda, we tore the mainsail from front to back. Well, it was 10 years old and had about 25,000 miles on it. Or maybe it heard me exchanging emails with our sail maker in Florida asking for a quote on a new one. Anyway, we motored in light winds to Bermuda arriving St. George’s at 0830, the morning of the 12th. The passage was just short of 5 days. As forecast, on the 14th, the front came through while we were safely anchored in St. George’s harbour, Bermuda. Our sail was repaired by Ocean Sails on the 15th.
We left Bermuda the morning of the 16th. We had been gone from Tulsa since November 1st and now have business we need to take care of at home. The weather forecast was not perfect, but it seldom is perfect; it was acceptable. As we motored out of the harbour and cleared out with Bermuda Radio (separate from clearing out at Customs), they asked me where I was headed (Hampton, VA, USA) and how long I estimated that it would take. Well, I’d already done that calculation and answered 4 days even.
We motored, in no wind, around Bermuda to the north of the reefs for hours. We were at sea in 40 to 50 feet of water and could see the bottom. We could see when we were over sand and when we were over rocks and the shape of the rocks; amazing! The forecast was for no wind at Bermuda, so this came as no surprise. We were motoring on a course of 306M, motoring to where the wind was forecast to be. By 1625, we were sailing. Unfortunately, the wind was a little more west than south, so we were close hauled and only able to hold a course of about 320 degrees. There is a saying in the sailing community, “gentlemen don’t go to weather”. The reason is that you are fighting and pushing your way through the waves instead of having them push you along from behind. Also, you are heeled over and movement down below is impossible without using the handholds. There is a lot more boat movement. For the rest of the 16th and he 17th, we were crashing through progressively bigger seas. Lady is a lot stronger then her crew, but the crew was doing alright. Occasionally, Lady would leap off a big wave and crash down on the other side, throwing tons of water out of her way and coming to a jarring landing. Anyone asleep was now awake. We had been sailing with reefed (reduced) sails all day the 17th. We were making 150 to 165 nm per day, good job Lady.
At about 0600 on the 18th, we were able to set full sail. The winds had come more south and the seas had moderated. We were not sure where we would find the Gulf Stream, but when our speed over ground plunged to less then 5 knots, we knew we had found it, we altered course to try to stay on a course perpendicular to the course of the stream (less time in the stream). Since leaving Bermuda, we had only seen one ship. Approaching the entrance to Chesapeake Bay we knew that this would change.
Shortly after midnight on the 19th Jenny woke me up. Our AIS showed that we were on a collision course with the ASTI Snug (600 feet going 20 knots), west bound approaching from my right. At 6 miles, I hailed her on the VHF radio. She answered right away. As is typical, they had not known we were there. The seas were so big that she could not see me on her radar and she couldn’t see my running lights at the top of my mast. As always, she was most agreeable to working with me. I was already out in front of her, so she changes course to port and passed 2 miles behind me; we never did get a visual on her. Of more concern was that while I was working out a passing arrangement with Snug, up pops NC Barbara, 900 hundred footer projected to pass close by on an easterly course. She was also going 20 knots. She didn’t know that we were there until I called.
The Barbara wanted to alter her course to starboard and pass behind me. I told her that I had a policy of NOT taking the bow of a big ship at sea! I suggested that I jibe my sails and come to port as much as I could; passing her starboard to starboard (she comes down my starboard side and I her starboard side). She immediately agreed and in addition she came 20 degrees to port, opening up a much appreciated 2 mile closest point of approach. Well, that was exciting for the middle of the night.
Things got more exciting during my watch at 0330. For no apparent reason, the automatic steering gear failed monentarily , sending Lady into an uncontrolled jibe. I grabbed the wheel and attempted to reestablish control. Although we have a boom brake, 25 knots of wind with a half reefed main can create quite a force. The jibe threw Jenny out of her bunk and she came to the hatch asking what was going on. I told her to buckle her harness to Lady. This was a dangerous situation and until I could assess it, we could jibe again and one of us could be thrown from the boat. Well, we jibed back (not having any other choice). We got back on course and the fault never reappeared. While working the wheel, I knew something was wrong. When I got things stabilized, I would a 12 inch fly fish flopping around at my feet. I sent him back home. We were now 182 nm from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. By noon on the 19th, we had covered 160 nm since the pervious day’s noon position.
Unfortunately, we encountered rain and lighting. We altered course to avoid the lighting. The rain became heavy and lasted into the evening. Although Lady has a bimini top over the entire cockpit and side curtains, we still got wet. The good news was that since about 0600 that morning, we were out of the Gulf Stream. Our speed over ground had increased from in the 5’s to in the 7’s and our heading and course over ground had converged.
The evening of the 19th and the morning of the 20th were beautiful. Stars were brilliant. Winds was from the south at 15 knots allowing a smooth sail toward Chesapeake Bay. Lots of other ships, some close enough to radio, but nothing as exciting as earlier. At first light we were entering the Bay; by 0732 we were abeam of Thimble Shoal light (the entrance to Newport News) and docked at Bluewater Yacht Center at 1030.
So, our elapsed time was 4 days, 1 hour and 10 minutes. You might wonder why I was off by one hour 10 on my ETA. Jenny wanted me to reduce sail and level the boat every evening so she could cook dinner. And, since I was always hungry, I did. Otherwise, we would have arrived in 4 hours even.
We are at dock in Hampton resting, cleaning Lady and ourselves and preparing to move up the Bay. We sailed about 800 miles to Bermuda then 600 miles to Chesapeake Bay. I estimate that we burned 25 gallons of diesel fuel, much of which was to generate electricity.
We are still happily married and look forward to the return trip south next year. People ask why we do this. The funny answer is to see if we can go a week without a drink. The real answer is to tame the wind and make it do our bidding.