With a reasonable weather forecast I slipped the mooring in Elephant Bay at 0800 on 10 June and sailed the Far Reach through the mooring field past all my live-aboard friends. I let loose on the conch horn I was given by my friend Ali Baba with as long a wailing trumpet blast as I could manage. With the wind out of the east about 15-20 kts I ran west along the south coast of St Thomas. My phone was buzzing with texts from my friends I had made during my time in the VI wishing me a safe trip home. I had a lump in my throat. While ready to get home I already missed my friends and the wonderful time I had in the Virgin Islands. But I needed to get focused on the voyage that lay before me. Once clear of the west end of St Thomas I turned the Far Reach NW leaving Savannah Island to starboard and then headed out into the Atlantic. In short order I had the whisker pole up and the jib winged out and started what would be days of downwind sailing wing and wing.
There was very little to no wind forecasted in large swaths of the Atlantic along the rhumb-line between the Virgin Islands and NC. Thus, my plan was to maintain a course along an arc curving to the south 60-80nm off the coast of the Bahamas since there was wind forecasted near the islands. The trick was to get close enough to land to keep the breeze but not get too close to shipping. I also wanted to maintain some sea-room if we suddenly found ourselves facing a tropical system.
The sailing was pretty good in the beginning as I knew it would be. We made runs of 130, 125, 138, and 145 nm a day. But this was not to be an easy sail home. Right from the start I was seeing a lot of Sargasso weed. The problem was that the Sargasso would build up on the Cape Horn windvane servo blade (that’s the long slender wood blade that sticks down into the water) and cause it to “trip” or detach. This marvelous piece of equipment was critical to my getting home as it was my auto pilot. It freed me from the tyranny of the helm and allowed me to make food and eat and read and importantly allowed me to sleep undisturbed. When the blade trips it detaches from the servo pendulum stock that connects it to the quadrant.
The tripping feature is a part of the design of the windvane so a strike on a hard object won’t damage the vane. There is no danger of losing the servo blade. It’s connected to the servo pendulum stock by the bungee cord and also a safety line. It only takes a minute or two to reattach it, but I have to prone out over the fantail to reconnect it to the stock. In the mean time the vane can’t steer the boat boat so the Far Reach is momentarily not under precise control. The Sargasso does not care if it’s night or day or if I am eating or just crawled in my bunk. There is no way to overstate the trouble the Sargasso caused for us. And, it pretty much dogged us the entire passage—until I exited the west wall of the Gulf Stream about 75 nm from home. Another thing I noticed is the Sargasso arranged itself in long windrows, like cut hay in a field, with the wind. When sailing downwind if you are steering by hand you can sail between the windrows. But the windvane can’t see them. So, sometimes we sailed right down a row of Sargasso which quickly overloaded the servo blade.
On two occasions I hove-to in order to remove the servo blade and see if there was a way I could make it harder for the blade to detach. I don’t think this is a flaw in the vane design. It might be a unique problem with my specific vane. I think it’s more likely a result of the increase in Sargasso weed. But, if the increase in sargasso is the new “norm” then the vane should accommodate it. In fact, since I have returned home I read a news story about the vast increase of Sargasso in the Atlantic Ocean. I will discuss with Yves Gelinas, the designer and builder of the Cape Horn windvane, to see if there is some way to increase the amount of force required to trip the servo blade. Ideally, Sargasso would not trip the vane at all. The vane would not steer well if it was covered in weed but I think that is a better solution than it tripping when I am running downwind at night in 25-35 kts and 10’-14’ seas.
My solution at sea was to use the boat hook in such a way that I could push the sarggaso down and off the blade without tripping it in the process. It was not hard but I had to be vigilant and check it every 30 minutes. The problem came when I slept. All I could do was get up from my bunk when I felt the boat change course and bleary eyed make my way up into the cockpit ,lay-down over the lazarette hatch, reach over the stern and reattach the blade.
This is where having a windvane and an auto-pilot can pay off. In fact, most cruising boats have an autopilot even if they also have a windvane. But, since we don’t have an engine on the Far Reach or a large solar array we couldn’t generate the necessary power to operate an auto pilot very long. I’ll solve this problem though because the Cape Horn windvane is a critical component of the Far Reach. It is a superb self steering wind vane and other than its struggles in close combat with Sargasso it has worked flawlessly for us.
During the first half of the voyage I practiced my celestial navigation by taking a round of star and planet shots when the sky was clear. The accuracy was good, within three miles of my GPS fix, but I felt I could do better. I used HO249 and was impressed by what I had learned on my own in a relatively short amount of time. My determination to use celestial waned a bit as I grew more fatigued due to lack of sleep and what may have been a minor break out of the shingles virus. We also experienced significant cloud cover which reduced opportunity for star and planet shots at dusk. That’s part of the drawback of technology. It’s easy to let go the primacy of more difficult but rewarding traditional skills for the instant gratification of GPS and associated gadgets.
I saw a lot of ships and a few sailboats on this passage. Early in the trip I passed a 200’-250’ ship holding station dead still. She was pointed straight into the wind. She was not transmitting on AIS. I saw no signs of life. I passed down the port side maybe a mile away. She appeared to be some kind of government research ship. She was displaying two black balls and a diamond from her signal yardarm indicating she was “restricted in her ability to maneuver.” Very strange.
At 0600 on 15 June I made my way up the companionway and there, clear as day about six miles behind me was the behemoth Harmony of the Seas. She is the second largest passenger ship in the world displacing 120,000 tons. She is 1,188’ long, has a 31’ draft, and an incredible 218’ beam! The AIS went off minutes later reflecting a CPA of 2 nm. I contacted HOS on channel 16 and they in fact had us on AIS and radar. Not too long afterwards they turned off to the west to continue on their way to the Bahamas.
The plan was to follow the south bending arc along the east side of the Bahamas and eventually aim for N28°/W77° then sail north and enter the Gulf Stream about N32°30’/W77° and continue on to Beaufort, NC. A few days after I departed St Thomas Chris Parker on Marine Wx broadcast to me that around 18 June a large impulse of energy would move NE off the coast of north FL generating violent thunderstorms and squalls to 50 kts which would likely cross my path. The T-storms would be followed on 20-21 Jun with a powerful Sou’wester hammering the coast of the Carolinas producing winds to 40 kts in the Gulf Stream and along the coast. That was about the time I was projected to make landfall in NC. He said I should keep the “pedal to the metal” to make it into Beaufort before the storm arrived. But by 17 June I knew there was no way I could reasonably expect to make it into port before the big blow started and have any kind of margin for error. There was too much risk in putting myself in a situation to get slammed off the coast of NC. If I failed to make port the Outer Banks would be a lee shore and the Gulf Stream would box us in leaving no escape route. So, I decided to slow down and let those two wx systems sweep north up the coast while I remained safely to the SE.
I could have loafed along working west around N28° but with four days to kill I decided instead to head south towards the Abacos in the NE Bahamas. I made good time making 70 nm in less than 12 hours.
We had some great sailing covering about 130NM. But, on one of the evening broadcasts Chris Parker gave me some excellent guidance: “Don’t go north of 28° before Wed 19 June, north of 30° before Thursday, north of 32° before Friday.” That strategy served as the base plan for the rest of the voyage. To meet those timelines I needed to head north right away. So, less than 30 miles from the Abacos we turned around and headed back north.
I was making good time with more downwind sailing. In fact, we would have run right past 28°N before 19 June if I didn’t slow down. So, at N27°40’ I hove-to for about 15 hours. The SE line of the long forecasted impulse system of violent thunderstorms passed over us. We saw the lightning to the NW but other than some rain and about 20-25 kts of wind we got little else where we were. With the wind vane up, the helm lashed to leeward and the boat hove-to I slept like the dead. In 9 hours we drifted 6 miles NE.
The next morning I decided to remain hove-to until the early afternoon. So, I hoisted the trys’l and spent a few hours checking the lines and leads to see how I liked the set up I had. Pretty good I thought. By 1400 we were underway and headed NNW.
We had a day or so of light and variable winds. We saw more lightning to the NW. We chatted via VHF with a 981’ tanker, the Shinshu Maru. He reported he had us on AIS and radar at 8 miles away. The seas were rolly due to the wind storm to the north of us. Eventually, the wind came up and we made good time once again.
As we raced north the wind began to increase because we were running into the backside of the sou’wester. By 2030 on Thursday 20 May the wind was SW at 20kts and increasing. We were running wing and wing with a double reefed main and working jib. I think it’s unwise to be over canvassed at night and by 2230 the wind was a sustained 25 kts and climbing. I decided to strike the working jib and haul up the stays’l. You can just roll a furling jib up from the cockpit. But we use hank-on sails on the Far Reach. So, I put on my safety harness and headlamp and carefully made my way forward in the dark to the mast. This is the kind of event when I catch myself saying “Oh, what were you thinking? If we had f’ing jib furler this would be so easy.” From the log book:
“It was tricky getting the working jib down while running down wind in 25 kts. I got the boat going as dead-down-wind as I dared. Then, I slacked the active jib sheet while hauling in the lazy sheet. Then I changed heading to a broad reach so the jib was back-winded. Let go the halyard and hauled on the jib downhaul and she dropped right on the deck—no problem. But it was dark as hell and a lot of noise and whooshing water, etc. Very scary but as I said went off without a hitch.”
I heard a rattling noise on deck at 0130 and went up to investigate. It was the snap-hook on a safety tether I keep hooked up near the mast. I also took the opportunity to use the boat hook to push the Sargasso off the servo blade. The moon was up. It was majestic, raw, powerful, and a bit scary. I went back to my bunk and said a prayer hoping the servo blade would not pop off. I woke up at 0430. I knew right away we were over canvassed. The Far Reach was handling it no problem but we were sustaining 8-8.5 kts. I put on salty shorts and a T-shirt and my safety harness. Once again, I worked forward to the mast in the darkness. This time I dropped the main which is not always a simple event when running downwind as there is a lot of friction between the sail and the rigging and mast. The upper batten got caught on the spreader. I carefully made my way back to the cockpit and reset the windvane so we would be on a reach which would take some pressure off the mains’l. It came down easily thanks to the Tides Marine Strong Track. I got the boom in the gallows and strapped it down. We were running with just the stays’l. I set the second running backstay, coiled loose lines, and sent the SPOT. I was very grateful the servo did not disengage all night. Must have been a pretty good prayer after all. The seas were only 8-10’ but they seemed very steep with a short period. Our speed was down to 5.8-6.8kts. We made 75 miles in less than 12 hours.
Next day, the AIS went off at 0920. It was another sailboat on a parallel course right behind us. The AIS projected a CPA of just over a half mile. We altered course for more separation and contacted SV Keltia on the handheld VHF. They had not seen us.
By 1100 I hauled up the main and we reached to the NW in an attempt to get back some westing we lost during the night. The wind slacked off some more during the day and afternoon. I shook out the reefs in the main. By 2120 the wind was back up to 20 kts. I napped on the settee for a couple hours. At 0120 I got up and rinsed off in the sitz tub and crawled into my bunk. As soon as my head hit the pillow the servo bade tripped. The Far Reach rounded up. Damn! I got up and reattached the servo blade and got us back on course. We were tearing along. For the rest of the night the servo tripped on Sargasso about every 40 minutes. It was too dark to see anything. While proned out over the stern I checked the bungee on the vane and it seemed tight to me.
At the 0600 Wx broadcast I received no individual forecast from Marine Wx Center even though I sent three SPOTs. I was discouraged. I had a cold front inbound and no forecast or any info on the GS though I was rapidly closing on it. I was not happy. I had to remind myself that I chose this way to sail—that I wanted minimal communications, no engine, with an emphasis on sailing skill. “So, quit complaining and get to it bub.” I focused on what I needed to do and got back to “living in the moment.”
On Saturday 22 June about 1000 we got surprised and slammed with a powerful 50 kt squall which was part of a cold front. I just happened to stick my head up out of the companionway and there it was. It came out of the haze. I had just enough time to dash up on deck and turn the boat more downwind. As I was getting the jib down and secured I felt a rush of cold air that always precedes a powerful blast of wind. I hoisted the stays’l just in time. I raised the windvane servo blade out of the water and lashed the helm to leeward. We fore-reached at two kts. Our heading was 050°, more east than I wanted. In an hour the squall was passed. But the wind veered around to the NW and then the N and remained NW to NE all afternoon and night.
The Gulf Stream crossing turned out to be a real challenge. Though we needed to go NNW, we sailed NE and even E at one point then tacked to try to make westing then got headed and tacked back to the NE. Around 2300 we got hit with a 40 kt squall which we took with just a double reefed mains’l. I could not see the horizon so I had no idea if there were any squalls headed our way. From the log book at 2330:
“Finally tacked to port. Heading 270° mag. But, wind backed so we tacked back [to starboard]. Wind all over. Finally moving on original heading 350° mag°. But, lightening ahead. Dropped working jib. Hoisted stays’l. Lightening closing but no booms. Double reefed main. Then dropped stays’l. Big wind on us now. Pitch black. Cape Horn steering close hauled with double reefed main. Estimate wind at 40 kts. A single line is whacking the deck on the starboard side.”
I napped on the settee when I could. The wind would go light and we drifted with the GS then we would get blasted by more wind and attempt to tack. My strategy was just to keep the boat moving NW to get across the GS. All night long I hauled up sails when the wind got light and dropped them when we got over powered. Sometimes I hand steered as no windvane could handle wind changes and sloppy seas like we were experiencing. At times we hit speeds of 10 kts so we had a good push from the GS while I kept the Far Reach moving NW. At one point I was too tired to get out of my foul wx bottoms and just lay down on the walnut cabin sole and fell right to sleep.
We had a gorgeous sunrise at 0530. Just a burning red sun hammering the low hung clouds on the east horizon with a brilliant neon red glow. Fantastic! By 0740 our speed was down to 7 kts so I knew we were safely out of the GS. The rest of the day was generally overcast with the winds holding at 12-15 kts from the SE. We broad reached for Cape Lookout. The water changed from cobalt blue to slate grey.
At 1545 we saw the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on a bearing of 035° magnetic. At 1825 we sailed into the Bight tacking three times to make it through the narrow entrance. We anchored in 25’ of water at 1830. Our voyage home was complete. We sailed 1,685 nm in 13.5 days. If you took out the two days we were hove to and the small number of miles we made on those days we averaged 138 nm a day.