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Landfall in the Virgin Islands
15 December 2021

Once we got the FlexOFold prop dialed in I finally managed some time to take the Far Reach out on a four days cruise. We motored down the ICW from the Neuse River to Beaufort NC–about 28 miles. The engine worked perfectly. Then we beat out the inlet 8 miles to the Bight at the Cape Lookout Seashore.

It was great to be back aboard the boat even if it was in the summer heat.

I am not a big fan of sailing in the south in the summer. It is true I grew up sailing in south Florida but having enjoyed the cool dry weather of Southern California and Montana summers I no longer care for sailing in blazing oppressive heat while fighting off swarms of kamikaze mosquitoes and vicious no-see-ums. So, I try to dodge around the worst of the southern summer when it comes to sailing. However, I needed some time with the my sleek spirited magic carpet to make sure she would be ready for my planned late fall voyage back to the West Indies.

I have to admit the port side looks pretty good without the outboard hanging off the quarter. The only remaining artifact is a bronze flange I’ll take off when I can touch her up with some Awlgrip.

We spent about five days anchored in the wonderfully protected Cape Lookout Bight. I did a little swimming, launched and recovered Sweet Pea, our 9′ Fatty Knees dinghy we have had for 18 years, and generally reacquainted myself with the Far Reach after being on the hard for nearly two years.

After sailing back from Cape Lookout we worked our way west on the Neuse River in a flat calm. I noticed during our sail out to Cape Lookout earlier in the week the windvane was not steering well. I could not diagnose the vane without some wind though.

I’d say this is the textbook photo of a dead calm…

We had planned for a month long fall overland camping trip through the Midwest in our Jeep. Our final destination the eastern tip of Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan Upper Peninsula. After our fun (not fun) with Hurricane Florence in September of 2018 I thought it unwise to leave the Far Reach in the water and unattended during the worst month for hurricanes in North Carolina. So, we hauled her out on 17 August for what turned out to be three months.

Hauling out for the worst part of hurricane season.

Though I had planned to relaunch her in late Oct it was not to be. There were some compelling reasons to wait until we were sure the planned voyage would in fact be possible. I don’t think we could have waited another day.

We relaunched the FR on 17 November and immediately went about trouble shooting our much loved Cape Horn Windvane. It had given me some trouble during my summer cruise holding course in light air but I couldn’t address it till we were actually back in the water sailing. I spent several critical days trying to understand the problem. If the vane would not reliably steer in light winds there would be no voyage to the West Indies.

I took the vane off the boat and brought it home. I rigged it up in the shop and manipulated the mechanisms to see what ailed it.

I hung the vane upright in my shop to determine what was ailing it.

But, I could find nothing amiss. So, I took it apart like an M4 assault rifle examining its bare components. Once I had it in pieces I was stunned and maybe even a bit awed at how simple its design and construction and also all the more impressed with Yves Gelinas’ genius.

I could not find a culprit. So, I put it back together, reinstalled it on the boat and went for a light air sail. It would still not hold a proper course in winds under 10 knots. Yves and I discussed it through a series of emails. I sent a couple videos of the vane under sail. I was getting frustrated. Then, Eureka…the problem was revealed. I should have figured it out in the very beginning. The teak servo blade was warped about 5/16″ over its length. I had never noticed and stupidly it had never even occurred to me. In light wind the blade was being pulled off to the right steering the boat to the left and the air blade could not overcome the more powerful forces of water gripping the warped servo blade.

Is a picture is worth a thousand words? You bet. This is a still shot from the video I sent to Yves that led him to suggest I check for a warped servo blade.

I took the blade home, slapped a straight edge on it, drew some lines with a pencil, and started planing it flat with my smoothing plane. In 45 minutes all that aggravation was behind us. I reinstalled the blade and went out for another short sail in light air. The vane steered perfectly.

Once I clamped a straight edge to the servo blade the warp was obvious.
Reshaping the servo blade so that the foil shape was symmetrical.
After a little quick work with a hand smoothing plane the blade was once again flat and symmetrical.

Tick, tick, tick–the time for a safe voyaging window was marching past us. While trouble shooting the vane I had been inspecting the boat and loading provisions and the mountain of tools and parts I always take with me when out voyaging. It is critically important to me to be totally self sufficient. I built the boat, maintain the boat, upgrade the boat. That’s how I can afford the boat. Plus, I think I do a better job than than anyone I could pay to do it. And truth be told I wouldn’t let anyone else work on her even if I could afford it. That’s just not how this sailor-boat relationship rolls.

During the summer I had decided I wanted to depart for the Virgin Islands in mid Nov. But, for all the reasons previously described that simply was not possible. By the time I had the vane sorted out and we had the boat provisioned and loaded with all the gear on my list, it was Thanksgiving. The lovely sailing windows of early to mid November were history. Now the weather was getting ugly. Strong north winds and the early phases of the winter storm season were beginning to show themselves. It was not a good time for crossing the Gulf Stream.

One of several days worth of provisioning with staples which are far more expensive to purchase in the Caribbean.

Chris Parker, the well known weather forecaster, and I had a couple conversations about a suitable window for crossing the Stream as well as the follow on requirement to get southeast before subsequent low pressure systems would invariably roll off the the southern coast creating dangerous and miserable offshore conditions.

There was no good crossing window in early December except on the 3rd if I was willing to motor the first day through calms. Chris knows I loath the idea of using an engine when I’m sailing. But the next window looked to be up to 10 days later. Fine. Damn it, let’s motor. So Gayle and I repositioned the Far Reach 30 nm to Beaufort NC and did all the last minute things you have to do for a long voyage.

The Far Reach, her wings folded, patiently waiting on a Taylor Creek, Beaufort, NC. for a weather window.

On the morning of 3 Dec I rowed Gayle ashore. We said our good byes. I hauled the dinghy up on the Far Reach, inverted her and secured her in her chocks, weighed anchor, and made my way out to the Beaufort ship channel. We had a light NW wind and I shut the engine off and sailed out the inlet past Fort Macon and onto a broad reach for about an hour, the wind vane working perfectly. Then, the wind gave its last gasping breath. On went the engine. Chris wanted me to hold off on an ESE heading to cross the Gulf Stream and instead go south for as long as I could to avoid some nasty weather that would pass behind us. I hated the motoring. I don’t have an electric autopilot–just the windvane–so I rigged up some lines to the tiller and fiddled with them till we could maintain a reasonable course for five to ten minutes at a time. We made about 5 kts at 2000 RPM. I unshackled the anchor chain and secured the anchor on the roller.

An hour into the voyage and we were already motoring. Even though this was part of the weather window I did not like it one bit.

I toured the boat inside and on deck to insure she was ready and began to settle in to life at sea.

A lovely but tired Red Winged Black Bird flew up our wake and rested on the fantail. He seemed confident and inquisitive cocking his sleek black head to examine me while strutting back and forth on the Far Reach. He briefly flew into the cabin then, his curiosity satisfied, back out, A half hour later he was gone.

My visitor and I had a very interesting conversation about the meaning of life….

Around 1500 the wind began to fill from the NE and we sailed a reach on port tack with all plain sail. The wind continued to veer to the east then the SE and soon we were close hauled and cutting an oblique angle towards the NE running Gulf Stream.

Around 2130 it was evident we had entered the Stream. This was my fifth time crossing the Stream on the Far Reach and it never ceases to amaze me how powerful it is. The air warmed up. The humidity increased. The wind continued to veer. We were forced to sail more into the current. Our speed over ground dropped to 3.5- 4 knts. At times we could only maintain about 225°T. Finally, we tacked to the east to a new heading of 100°T. Our speed instantly shot up to 6.5 kts as we sailed at a right angle to the 3 kt current.

Though I had not been to sea in over two years I felt pretty good. I ate a hamburger paddy and sliced potatoes cooked in the skillet. The sky was clear and the stars were on fire. I saw all my old friends–Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, Sirius, Casor and Pollux. It was great to be out voyaging again.

The wind increased and I struck the jib and hauled up the staysail with a reef in the mains’l. We spotted several ships and I spoke them on the handheld VHF. “Yes” they reported, they had us on AIS and on radar.

On the 5th of December I had the scariest event of the voyage. At 1430 I stuck my head up out of the companionway for no particular reason. There was the 600′ MV Horizon Theano. Less than a mile astern and she had already crossed our wake! Why hadn’t the AIS alarm gone off? I usually set it to alert if a ships is 6nm away and will close on us to within 3nm. But no shrieking alarm had sounded. I checked to ensure the alarm filters were on. They were set correctly. I scrolled deeper into the settings. There it was. While the filters were set the alarm was turned off!!! I must have shut it off when we were on the hard in the boatyard testing the new panel and batteries. For the love of Mary–how close had ships come in the night while I was sleeping? I was very surprised I had missed this key safety step. My boat may be simple without a lot of so called “safety” gizmos but I am a very careful conservative offshore sailor. It was a valuable reminder and a mistake I will not make again. I wrote it down to put on my voyage planing check list.

With the exception of one calm, which we shamefully motored through because Parker suggested if we did not make it to the VI by the morning of the 15th we would get seriously whacked by an on-rushing system, the wind was brisk and very squally for much of the voyage. In fact, this was the most difficult of my three voyages to the Virgin Islands. It was not helped by the sudden onset of an ugly case of vertigo. I’m not talking about being dizzy and light-headed. I am talking about wild head spinning puke your guts out vertigo. I had this once before at home. Something to do with a crystal getting loose in your inner ear and wrecking havoc on your balancing mechanisms. Luckily, it was what I would describe as mild. I could not look down or to the left. But that meant I could not tune the SSB for weather or look down at my chart table as I would get insanely nauseated. I could not eat without throwing up. I spent a good deal of time in my rack looking up and to the right. I attempted the body and head positioning exercises that are supposed to reposition the offending loose crystals but it only made me more nauseous. Fortunately, about 36 hours later it was gone as fast as it appeared.

Vertigo–The face of a man who can only look straight ahead or to the left without the boat spinning like a top. The least enjoyable 36 hours I have experienced in a long time.

We spent much of the last half of the voyage under double reefed mains’l and a stays’l. As we worked our way east and south we began to encounter numerous squalls. Most of them topped out at about 35 kts. Unlike the night time squalls I could see the daytime squalls coming a fair distance off. So we were ready. But those at night came out of nowhere.

This was without a doubt the most windy, rainy, and squally of our voyages to the
Virgin Islands.

While we were never in danger and the Far Reach handled them easily they had a major impact on our speed of advance. Because I could not see them in the dark I sailed under more reduced canvas at night then I would normally. After a squall passes it often sucks the wind out with it and thus the wind can get quite light for awhile. I was reluctant to drop the stays’l and haul up the working jib at 0200 only to get smashed by another unseen squall 10 min later. Sometimes normal 20-25 knt breeze would return 15 min after a squall passed or it might be an hour or more. As we got closer to the Virgin Islands the frequency of the squalls increased. Our daily runs were the lowest of my voyages. Many were in the 120nm range. We had only one this voyage in our usual 140nm range. The seas seemed to hover around 5′-8′ with larger waves interspersed. Close reaching in these conditions can be quite uncomfortable. I think it unwise to push a boat offshore, especially upwind, as the potential for shock loading the rig, sails, and deck hardware is real. The result can be minor to significant damage. I have always prided myself on no drama professionally competent offshore sailing.

On 13 Dec I experienced one of the highlights of the trip. The windvane had disconnected due to the prevalent sargasso seaweed. I quickly reconnected the servo blade. I moved up to the bridge deck. I had my hands resting on the bronze and iroko gallows frame looking ahead. We were close hauled. The wind was about 15 knots. Suddenly a long and very high swell approached. A very big wave. There was no breaking water anywhere on it. We met it at about 30-45°. And began what I would describe as a long slow climb. Like jogging up a grassy treeless hill. There was no sound. No swooshing crest. Just this steep climb up, up, up. Maybe a 20′ high wave. I don’t know. We reached the top. I glanced right and left. We were well above all the other swells I could see. The swell we crested stretched a long ways left and right. Suddenly we were sliding down the back side. No sound except the hull slicing water. It was breathtaking. It was other worldly. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I have no other words to describe it.

The challenges of keeping the Far Reach going in the night time calms that followed the squalls had me thinking for the first time in six years of voyaging about the benefits of converting our hank-on jib to a furling jib. As soon as a squall passes and the wind goes light I could quickly unfurl a jib or even genoa and keep charging along. Then roll it away and rely on the stays’l as the higher trades and squalls returned. I have always enjoyed the reliability, simplicity, and performance of our hank-on headsails but I found myself less eager this voyages than on previous ones of performing middle of the night dynamic foredeck work of raising, dropping, and securing the jib.

I was determined to get us out to 63°W. Significant easting early would allow us to avoid uncomfortable upwind sailing later as we worked south eventually reaching the powerful December easterly Tradewinds. It was a good thing too as the Trades came early. For the last 2-3 days of the voyage the winds were about 25 kts gusting 28 with squalls to 35 kts. We reached along heading about 160° T determined to maintain 63°W. By the 14th of Dec we were finally about 120nm from landfall. I had determined a waypoint around 20°30’N-63°W to use as a turning mark. Once we reached the way point we footed off to the SW on a broad reach under just a stays’l. It was pleasant sailing though not particularly fast. On a broad reach under stays’l we could managing just about any condition we might encounter. We had squalls day and night.

This was the actual voyage route. You can see the easting we achieved in order to foot off at the end when the trades tend to be their strongest.

In order to make it to St John in the daylight I needed to cross the north bank of the BVI NLT 0900. In previous voyages I sailed over the north bank and continued south about 25nm and cleared in at Jost Van Dyke in the BVI. But the pandemic made that much too difficult. The protocols for clearing in were not user friendly there so I intended to head straight to the USVI where my clearance was pre-approved. But with high winds and 9′ seas expected on the day of my landfall I thought it best to sail through the lee of the BVI relying on Anegada, it’s reefs, and the large island of Tortola to the east to provide protection. The problem was I had been informed by friends via satellite text that over the last 18 months BVI Customs/law enforce agencies had boarded, seized, impounded boats, and fined sailors violating their sovereignty during the pandemic lock-down. This new information made me anxious.

I texted my wife on our Garmin inReach Mini and she made a series of phone calls ultimately getting the BVI Deputy Commissioner for Customs on the phone. After discussing the situation with him he thoughtfully authorized me in writing direct access through the BVI and on to St John. Was it necessary? I don’t know, but it was one less thing I had to worry about.

The night of 14 Dec was long. From the log book:

-2300. Squall upon squall. Easily 35 kts. Huge bang on port side (wave slap). A little nerve wracking. Water poured all over the deck. Wind vane steering well. Short lulls after squalls pass but don’t last long. Parker got this forecast right it would seem. Setting alarm for an hour. Checking course. Checking boat. looking out hatch. Waiting for morning. Definitely don’t want to run into Anegada.

Plotting our location and constantly thinking about wind angles, weather considerations, and sail selection.

-0020. All is well. Wind remains 22 Gusting 28. Seas are big. Moon is out with lots of light so visibility is pretty good. Lots of clouds but no imminent squalls I can see. Looking aft from companionway (all three drop boards in place) the scene is raw and majestic. Lots of waves hissing past.

-0045. Windvane detached on sargasso. Got it reconnected quickly.

-0313. Replace 1/8″ shock cord on wind vane dampener. Old one was nearly torn through. Made ramen noodles. Moon has set. Lots of stars.

-0445. All is well. Wind has lightened. Switching from passage chart to Virgin Islands chart.

-0545. Land Ho! Virgin Gorda off port bow. Lots of squalls all around. Good size one coming down on us now.

Land Ho! Well, Virgin Gorda is on the right side of the photo just behind the squall!

-0810. Cross N bank. On soundings.

-1200. Stays’l and double reefed main. Wind 25 gusting 30. Tearing along at 7.8 kts.

Double reefed main and stays’l carrying us across the goal line.

For the next three hours we were hammered with fierce squalls and williwas as we sailed south past the west end of mountainous Tortola. I dropped the mains’l and we carried on under stays’l only. The rain was pouring down in the squalls. I estimated one short lived squall at 50 kts. We jogged back and forth waiting for a break in the squalls (visibility down to less than 50 meters at times) which finally came and we slipped through Thatch Island cut, crossed the Narrows, passed through Whistling Cay cut and into Francis Bay, St John. We picked up a National Park mooring about 100 yards off a beautiful white sand crescent beach studded with palms and lapped with lovely clear blue water. It felt great to be back in the Virgin Islands.

On a National Park mooring in Francis Bay, St John, US Virgins Islands.

The statistics:

⁃ Total distance sailed: 1,466 nm

⁃ Time: 12 days and 6 hours

⁃ # Reefs: min of 16

⁃ Sail changes: 19

⁃ Tacks: 4

⁃ Fuel used: 6 gallons

⁃ Water used: 12 gallons

⁃ Ships sighted: 8

The blue triangle is our location in Francis Bay, St John Island. The orange line is the border with the BVI to the north.

As far as the third time being the charm…oh yeah. Every bit as much as the first two times!