My First Offshore Voyage:
A Father & Son Adventure
By Dale K. Humbert
The first time a sailor commits to a serious offshore voyage, all priorities change. My focus sharpened as I prepared for a 1500 mile ocean sail that included the Bermuda Triangle and crossing the swirling Gulf Stream on Enchant, my Jeanneau SO 45.2. Prayers and planning consumed all my time. My excitement gushed forth every time someone asked about the trip. Alternative visions were conjured up when a 70 foot rogue wave hit a cruise ship in the Bahamas. Life is risk. However, dreams of my first offshore voyage on my own sailboat outshines everything.
Most death defying adventure stories begin with a phrase implying ‘we were warned not to do it that way… but we did it nevertheless.’ There may be a lesson in there. Avoiding ‘death defying’ events was the primary objective. Proper planning would improve my chances for a safe, comfortable and enriching 1500 mile offshore passage plus an additional 1000 miles on rivers, canals and The Great Lakes.
Five months of planning blew by like a squall. Books, charts, conversations, e-mails, my two decades of personal experience and plenty of time in catalogs and chandleries helped create a To-Do List longer than my mortgage. Planning a voyage from Tortola, British Virgin Islands to Bay City, Michigan with me in Michigan and Enchant in Tortola, complicated every part of the process. For six years, I had enjoyed winter vacations on Enchant in the Virgin Islands. However, it was time to bring her home for a refit.
Discovering a spring rally of sailboats going my way was a major help. The Cruising Rally Association organizes fleets for various offshore cruises in the North Atlantic Basin for both experienced and untested sailors. Their spring Atlantic Cup sails from Tortola to Bermuda followed by a more informal second leg to various points on the Northeast coast. Since 1990, hundreds of yachts from 30 to 80 feet including Beowulf have safely sailed in Steve Black’s rallies. Safety standards and inspections are particularly valuable to first time offshore sailors. A May 1st start date is important for good weather expectations. The entire fleet participates in twice daily communications for positions and status reports. Daily updates from Commanders Weather Corporation generated instructive discussions. Steve’s file of experienced and agreeable crew members is monumental.
The Crew IS the Voyage!
The boat and resources are critical but the crew makes it all work. Recruiting capable and compatible sailing teams is a serious challenge. The safety of all onboard is at stake. I detailed the expectations and minimum requirements for volunteering. I am serious about seamanship and just as sincere about enjoying the time on the water. The people invited on this voyage would embrace team work. Scrambling over a pitching deck, in a driving rain on a dark night may be required of any crew member. Good preparations minimize the odds of performing these demanding tasks. However, no guarantees of personal safety are made or implied.
The opportunity to include my adult son magnified my personal feelings. Andrew is a good sailor and a reliable man to have at your side in challenging situations; all the same as father and captain, I was exceptionally focused on safety. He rarely gets time to go sailing with Dad anymore. His business is in Washington State. However, when I mentioned the ocean voyage, he committed without hesitation. His good nature and problem solving skills made an enormous difference in the quality of the outcome. Andrew stayed with me for the entire 2500 mile voyage. Most crew members could only leave home for a week at a time and over 33 days we rotated through eight other crew members.
The first 850 mile leg from Tortola to Bermuda is considered the easiest offshore sail. Nevertheless, I choose to maximize the number of crew. With 5 sailors on-board, the stress on any one person is diminished. There is always the chance of a crew member becoming incapacitated. The large crew gave us time to prepare appealing meals, a major moral booster.
Time to Set Sail
Our preparation days in Tortola were packed with tasks from the infinite To-Do-List. The groundwork did get the crew familiar with Enchant. Sunday morning, we slipped the dock lines without fanfare. We were all looking forward to six days under sail. It was a beautiful day as they all are that time of year in BVI. Cameras and smiles were abundant. The noon start time came and passed like the easy breezes of the islands. We had signed up for the ‘friendly race’ part of the rally. Although we did not perform like true racers, the competition added an additional element of interest.
Sunsets to Remember
The best of days must eventually come to an end. A spectacular sunset was followed by my first night’s sleep offshore under sail. Fascinating! The boat never stops moving side to side and up and down. The forward motion is not at all constant as the boat climbs up and slides down each wave. The noise of water rushing past the hull never stops. The knowledge of where I was and the sounds of the boat under way, are not part of my usual bedtime experience. I studied and memorized each and every resonance, creak, hum, thud, swish and echo. Providing sleeping comfort in a moving vessel is not easy. Our fervent wish is for sleep that promotes a refreshed new day. Our lives depend on alert crews on watch at all hours of the day and night. Fatigue is the number one cause of judgment errors that lead to serious problems and injuries. Proper support for my ‘experienced’ body is an imperative. Our three custom Tempur-Pedic® beds from Artisans Custom Mattress demonstrated exceptional shock absorbing properties that eased the motion in all kinds of seas. The mattress “collects” you at the bottom of the wave with acquiescent grace. The mattress is just as considerate returning you to your original position at a reassuring pace. Its ability to dissipated heat is also appreciated. Lee cloths were easy to cinch down on the Tempur-Pedic material without divisions in the mattresses. The undeniable excitement of the last few days caught up to me and deep sleep was eventually attained. The call to watch at 5:00 AM was eagerly answered.
The night watch performed well without me. The crew chose a four hour watch system with two people on duty. It helped to have detailed procedures and diagrams of systems and stowage. Potential changes in tactics and strategies were always discussed with the captain and crew. ‘Standing orders’ were not micro management exercises but basic guidelines for the adjustments that must be made while the captain is not available. The capacity to trust crew-mates while off duty, helps the next watch start rested and alert. The time spent on crew selection and training was paying off.
Warm breezes and laughter filled the sails
Warm breezes carried us most of the way to Bermuda on a reach. We sailed on a starboard tack all the way with only a few hours of propeller time. We had a great crew and laughter filled the sails. However, on Thursday, it was reported that a storm battering the Mid-Atlantic States was marching towards us. Our weather service expected it to hit Bermuda by late Friday or Saturday. My standing orders became ‘boat speed.’ If the sails could not maintain 6.5 knots, then the iron genoa would. The national drink in Bermuda is called a Dark & Stormy. I wanted my Dark & Stormy in a glass, not on the coast of one of the most famous boat grave yards, on a moonless night with 20 foot waves. Bermuda is surrounded by a mass of coral reefs with a tiny channel on the northeast corner. If we missed the goal for a daylight entry on Friday, it might require a night hove to in the storm waiting for daybreak. Our race gained new significance.
Late Thursday, a fresh southeast wind appeared as promised. For the next 24 hours our alert crew demanded more from the rig and maintained over 8 knots on a broad reach. The ‘Land Ho’ shout at 3:00 PM Friday brought each crew member on the deck for personal confirmation. We rounded Spit Buoy at 6:00 PM. We cleared customs and were neatly anchored in Powder Hole before dark.
The ocean wind and waves over the next few days were ugly. Therefore our planned two day stay in Bermuda stretched into 5 days. Tough duty… Two crew members had to fly home and we were sorry to see them go.
Tragic news quickly spread through Bermuda’s sailing community concerning the storm we had just missed – three yachts floundered and one sailor perished. That heartbreak made us thankful for our fleet’s safe voyage as well as prompting us to carefully consider our options for the second leg.
Andrew’s Log – Tortola to Bermuda
We are finally at sea. I am convinced the preparation was more trying than the actual voyage. Thus far everything has been great. The crew is happy, laughing and they claim to like my cooking. I am glad we can forgo keel hauling someone.
I keep trying to compare this trip to other adventures, however nothing comes close. It is not like road tripping in a RV, nor is it like hiking deep in the mountains. This is as far removed from the regulated world as it gets. Nothing can compare to being completely self reliant. The most exciting part of the sail for me is night watches. The dependable autopilot is critical, particularly to night sailing. It does the job better than any person. Of course the watch has to be vigilant, keeping both eyes on the wind, sails and all the other details involved. I look out and see a black abyss, lined with more stars than I thought possible. My first watch was a little tense. Later I found it serene. It is an inspirational canvas for my imagination – with the sound of waves rushing past the hull, and phosphorescence glowing as their slumber is disturbed.
By day the ocean is a magnificent royal blue. Words can not explain the color. We saw some flying fish but not much else in the way of life. I could not imagine being anywhere else. Sun sets are amazing. I spotted the infamous green flash, and watched the night exhibition slowly march across the sky. I am grinning ear to ear.
Bermuda to New York– Captain’s Log
We slipped the Bermuda dock lines at daybreak on Wednesday. Our planned crew rotation was altered by the weather delay. Only one of the two planned replacements was able to accommodate the new schedule. Then four became three. The new member’s complexion was an unusual shade of pale green. His shoulders were sagging and his morose eyes just peaked out from under a hat. He assumed a less than dignified pose over the rail – a picture suitable for framing in the seasickness hall of shame. He claimed he would have to get better to die. Fortunately, after some rest and a meal that stayed down, he decided to live. Three working crew on a five day sail is more akin to work. Meals are basic. Duties are basic. Conversations are often ‘data dumps.’ The captain’s responsibilities never change however. Safety, health and crew moral continue to be top priority.
A second nasty storm was to cover the northern part of the North Atlantic on Friday. Our weather experts sited historical data to convince us that heavy storms of this type do not blow hard south of the 35th Parallel. Therefore our plan was to start sailing due west and stay well below the 34th Parallel. We would head northwest after the storm had crossed our planned banana shaped route to New York.
Ride on the wild side
On Friday the 13th, the south edge of the storm greeted us with vigor, although considerably less severe than the storm north of 35º latitude. These were the kind of seas necessary to experience if we are to claim any credible offshore sailing knowledge. The spectacle of water mountains repeatedly bearing down on us and the sensation of the boat surfing down the face of a huge wave is without comparison. Enchant performed beautifully. Three of the four crew members were energized by the experience.
The waters eventually calmed and we pointed northwest. Commanders gave us coordinates to help make the Gulf Stream crossing less trouble. As we passed over the Stream, the southeast wind helped us but the strong flow acted like a drogue and the twisted currents attempted to change our course as we motor sailed. A water temperature of 88º F warmed the air and boat, a welcome relief. Once the current released the boat, the southeast wind immediately pushed our speed to 8 knots. However the sea had another surprise. The water temperature quickly dropped to 54º F. Once that water laden southeast wind reached the cold ocean, an obtuse fog formed. Everything in the boat was suddenly cold and damp including the crew. We speculated that the rising sun would help. No such luck.
Watch duty was much more intense as every eye was searching for the first sign of danger popping out of the dense vapor. Our radar reflector looked demure hanging from the spreader. The regular clang of the ship’s bell was hopefully penetrating that pea soup. Prayers and a sharp lookout were all we had. A radar system is high on the refit list. In the afternoon a whale made a brief appearance and later we were joined by a pod of 20 dolphins. They were uplifting shepherds. Occasionally one would jump completely out of the water and wink at me. It was a game for them and a grand show for us. They kept up with us for almost an hour and by the time they disappeared, the fog had faded enough to give us a mile of visibility. Details of that day are indelibly imprinted on my soul.
The fog continued to dissipate throughout Sunday thanks to a dry southwest land breeze. New York Harbor was less than 70 miles away. We changed course several times to avoid collisions. Avoiding fishing stakes at night was challenging. Monday’s dawn and the site of land were welcome; however navigation remained complicated. The final approach to New York Harbor is a designated “Danger Area” because all routes converge on it. There are giant freighters, pilot boats, work boats, pleasure boats, fishing boats, and fishing nets in all directions. After many hours of vigilant navigation we entered the relative safety of Ambrose channel.
As we passed Coney Island and turned north, the Statue of Liberty majestically came into view. Approaching her after a long sea voyage presented us with an exceptional welcome home. Cameras were burning up batteries. Cell phones were tuned into local networks for calls to loved ones. A safe and memorable 1500 mile voyage was ending and a different 1000 mile inland and Great Lake sail was about to begin.
Welcome home from Ms Liberty
“Life at sea is for me!” Captain Dale
Cruising Rally Association, Steve Black, Tel and Fax: (757) 788-8872: www.carib1500.com/Carib1500/event.aspx
Commanders Weather Corporation , www.commandersweather.com
Artisans Custom Mattress, Inc. customized Tempur-Pedic® mattresses 800-482-6960 www.ArtisansMattress.com
Offshore route of Enchant