Sailing home to NC from the Virgin Islands requires thinking about timing. If you leave too early you can get smashed by powerful low pressure systems coming off the SE US coast in the late spring or early summer as you approach the land. Also, along the offshore route, once you clear the trade winds just NW of the Virgin Islands, you can sail into an area of high pressure in the Atlantic and lose the wind for days or even weeks.
Many sailors with large fuel tanks just motor through these vast area of calms. If they don’t have large internal tanks they strap fuel cans on the deck and refill their fuel tank as they go. But, we don’t have a large internal tank and I don’t carry jerry jugs on deck and in reality I wouldn’t motor much anyway because it’s just not how I like to voyage. We sail…well, not completely true anymore, but more on that later. And if you wait for the season to progress into early summer when the high lifts and the wind fills in, then you run the risk of getting whacked by an early season tropical storm or, God forbid, a full blown hurricane. So, heading back to the US requires some planning with regards to timing.
In Late April Gayle flew home and I began to prepare the Far Reach for the 1,400nm voyage back to NC. I climbed the mast and checked all the rigging. I did find two loose bolts that secure the top of the forestay (stays’l) tang to the mast. I checked the halyards and all the running rigging. I began to watch the weather and listen to wx forecasts on my Sony SW7600GR short wave receiver. I discussed the route and timing with Chris Parker, a professional weather forecaster and router used by many sailors. It looked like there might be a decent window with some wind in early May. So, I planned for a 3 May departure.
As mentioned at the end of the last post, there was an unhappy surprise in store for me before I sailed home. I had visited a friend aboard his boat a couple days before I was to depart for NC. I was there to look at his classic cruising guide to Tahiti and also he wanted to show me how his home built watermaker was installed (no I am not getting one). Later in the day he texted me he had tested positive for Covid. We were both vaccinated and boosted. Within a few days I showed symptoms of Covid too. My symptoms were mild, though I was in no shape to sail singlehanded the next week. I waited almost 10 days till I felt better. It looked like I would have 3-4 days of good easterly trades then the wind would die for 4-5 days. There was no way of knowing what would happen after that. But there was an area of high pressure over the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Bermuda which meant absolutely no wind along the rhumb line between St Thomas, VI and NC. I decided to use a route similar to the one I used on the same passage in 2019 and that meant sailing south of the rhumb line about 60 miles off the coast of the Bahamas. Often there is a little wind coming off the Bahama bank before it is squashed by the high pressure. So that became the route.
Chris Parker, the wx forecaster, and I talked about a new departure date. He felt if I left on Friday the 13th (a double whammy for sailors) I would have a few days of good easterly trade winds then 4-5 days of little to no wind before the wind was expected to return. If I delayed my departure the conditions would not be suitable again for up to 10 days as a strong 30-35 kt system was expected to move through the Virgin Islands with seas up to 9 feet. So I got ready for a 13 May departure.
I texted my friends good bye and at 0706 Friday 13 May, I sailed off the mooring for the last time. I hoisted a double reefed main and sailed SW out the West Gregorie Channel and headed west along the rugged south coast of St Thomas. I headed out through the Savannah Passage and on into the Atlantic. The wind was E at 20 kts. We were making over 6 kts under just a double reefed mains’l.
At 0900 I was below at the chart table and I heard an outboard engine. What the hell? I went up on deck. There was a guy in an inflatable pacing along with me in the big swells about 20’ off the starboard quarter. For a second I thought is this dude a pirate? LOL. He yelled to me over the wind and waves and asked if I was headed to Puerto Rico. I shouted back no, I was headed to the US. He said he lost his other dinghy and if I saw it would I text him. Sure, no problem. He shouted his cell phone number to me, which I wrote down, and turned about and headed back through the big ocean swells towards St Thomas. It was bizarre.
Later that day, I disconnected the anchor chain from the anchor and secured the end below in the chain locker. I secured the cap in place to keep water from getting into the boat via the spurling pipe. For the first time in a long time I felt great sadness. I had a big lump in my throat. The windvane tripped and then tripped again a few minutes later. Ughhh. Not a good start to the voyage home.
By 1800 I had made 70 miles in 11 hours. That afternoon a sooty tern flew aboard and hopped down into the cockpit foot well. He did not seem afraid of me in the least bit. The vane tripped again so I was in the cockpit proned out over the stern to reset it. The tern was not concerned. He was between my feet while I worked on the vane. I guess he felt we had an arrangement. Two souls that needed to get along.
I saw several ships the first day. The AIS was working perfectly. By that night I was uncharacteristically seasick. I have never been seasick downwind no matter how rough. And, I was very fatigued. I surmised it was residual effects of covid. Seasickness dogged me for two days. It would, however, disappear as fast as it arrived. We made 140nm in 23 hours all under a double reefed main and a stays’l.
At 0900 on 14 May I rigged the pole and reconfigured for wing and wing. The windvane was steering perfectly. The sooty tern had stayed all night then flew off in the morning. The second day I saw a parade of ships as I was sailing NW not that far from Puerto Rico. I was in the shipping lanes or very near them. No doubt about that. I did not feel well. My fatigue remained and I slept a lot. The wind held and the boat sailed well under a double reefed main and stays’l. I had little energy. We made 135nm in 24 hours.
The 15th of May started off overcast with the sun only peeking through on occasion. I spent some time in the cockpit reading. The AIS was busy detecting more ships. There was massive amounts of sargasso as far as I could see. Sure enough, the vane detached again. There was a full moon that night and the moonlight illuminated a high mackerel sky. At 2300 I watched the lunar eclipse. At 0300 the vane detached once again. Laying across the lazarette and looking down at the vane with my headlamp I could see the shock cord was loose. To do it right I would have to heave-to and remove the servo. I reached down and tightened the shock cord best I could. With the boat running downwind and the pole up I was not enthusiastic about reconfiguring for heaving-to. So, I decided to sail on for now. I was convinced I could solve this problem as I understood exactly what the issue was. At 0430 I spotted the cruise ship Disney Fantasy at 10.8 miles away. It was lit up like a stadium. I could not believe it was that far away and yet that visible. By 0600 on 16 May we had made 145 nm in 24 hours under double reefed main and stay’l wing and wing.
By the morning of day 3 my appetite came back with a vengeance. Eggs, bacon, cereal to get started. That was followed a short time later by a grilled cheese sandwich and an orange.
I was sailing dead-down-wind and wing and wing. The wind was veering to the SE and I was being forced to sail more NW, towards the area of calms, so I decided to gybe to port tack so I could stay within 60-70 nm of the Bahama bank. I set up the whisker pole and an after and fore guy on the port side and gybed the Far Reach. I opened the foredeck hatch and let the air pour in through the companionway and forward up through the hatch. Though I was eating plenty I was also sleeping a lot and still felt very fatigued. By 0500 the wind had dropped to 15 kts. We had made 120 nm in the previous 24 hours.
On 17 May (day 5), just as Parker forecasted, the wind was dropping off. By now I was eating constantly. Around 1300 a powerful squall rolled in—lightning, rain, and wind to about 40 kts. I dropped the stays’l and hove-to. I lashed the tiller and disengaged the windvane. Eventually the squall past and I hauled up the stays’l without the pole and reengaged the windvane. Later in the day while switching propane cylinders I found a leak in the propane hose where it is crimped to the quick disconnect coupling. I shut the propane off. I knew I would need to develop a solution. I thought I had an extra hose in the spares box.
By that night the wind had dropped off to about 6 kts. And here is where a little knowledge about how a windvane works can help you a great deal. If the wind is very light and from aft it seems obvious you would want to haul up more sail to catch more wind and go faster. Not so—the opposite is true if you want to use your windvane. The reason is as the wind gets light and you are sailing downwind the relative wind speed over the deck decreases. At some point there will be so little wind coming over the deck the wind vane can no longer steer. It needs wind pressure to cause the wind blade to tilt, which in turns manipulates the servo blade, which in turns pulls on the control lines attached to the tiller. So, you need to reduce sail to keep enough relative wind over the deck to operate the wind vane. Thus, even though the wind was light I kept only a double reefed main and stays’l flying to balance the boat but still maintain the necessary relative wind speed required by the windvane to work.
Eventually the wind dropped away completely. It was very dark. The wx looked squally. I dropped the pole as I didn’t want to deal with it in a late night squall. The wind was variable in direction coming from all around. At 2100 I dropped the stays’l. We were still making 3.5 kts so it was clear to me we had a favorable current. I had to gybe the boat again as now the wind had shifted and I was getting too close to the Bahamas.
At 0100 I woke up to a banging mains’l. The wind was gone. I dropped the main and raised the stays’l and sheeted it tight with both sheets to reduce rolling. I only made 70 miles in 24 hours.
I examined the propane hose. It was leaking but only when I bent the hose at the crimp, otherwise the system did not leak as attested to by the pressure gauge. I looked for a spare hose in the spares box but I had left it at home. I thought about cutting the hose off and using hose clamps to clamp it but decided a hose that worked, even leaky, was better than no hose. So, I left it alone and shut the bottle off when I was not cooking. At 0600 we were drifting. We made 70 nm in the last 24 hours.
At 0800 on 18 May I started the engine and motored for three hours at 1900 RPM making 4.8 kts. I rigged up a line across the cockpit just below the front of the tiller and then used a 1/8” line to secure the tiller to that transverse line with a prussic. This useful knot kept the tiller from moving on its own but easily allowed me to slide the tiller left and right. I set up my cushion chair facing forward, got out my book (Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius) and carried on. I shut the engine down at 1107…and drifted. Absolutely flat mirror calm. I removed the wind vane servo blade and filed the notches even deeper. I was determined that it would not disengage no matter how thick the sargasso. The shock cord felt loose and maybe stretched from use. So, I replaced the three wraps of 1/4” shock cord with three wraps of 5/16” and made it tight. And that, dear readers, along with the notches filed deeper seemed to do the trick. For the first time, it did not disengage again for the rest of the voyage. I think I have the problem licked.
At 1500 I decided to motor again. While motoring along, a gorgeous white Tropic Bird visited me making multiple passes. These beautiful birds with their long streaming tails are curious and inquisitive creatures. I always get a thrill when they visit. I shut the engine down at 1740. I listen to Chris Parker on 12.350 MHz. I had him loud and clear. Today was Wednesday. He said no wind till Friday night. I made another Naan pizza. What a simple and delicious meal! I hoisted the mains’l at 1930. Barely sailing at 1.7—3 kts. By 0300 on a mirror sea I decided we were not sailing. We were drifting on a favorable current at 2.3 kts. I dropped the main and raised and sheeted the stays’l flat. I went to sleep. I had many weird dreams.
I woke up at 0620 on 19 May (day 7). Not a breath of air. The sea was flat at a mill pond. We had made 60 nm in the last 24 hours. I rigged the big blue sun awning. I sounded the fuel tank. I had burned less than 2 gallons the previous day running the engine 5 hrs and 20 min at 2000 RPM. I conservatively estimated I was using about 1/3 gallon an hour at 5 kts. At 1000 I started the engine. A little later a pod of dolphins appeared but never came closer than 50 yards away. I shut the engine off a little after 1200. We drifted. I read a lot in the cockpit under the sun awing. I was very comfortable. I napped. At 1700 I hauled up the main and sort of drift sailed. The sea was so flat the boat was barley rolling. But, we were making up to 2.5 kts on the current. In the evening I listened to Chris Parker on my SSB receiver. He was advising the skipper of SV Barnacle Seas positioned at 23° 30’N-63°39’W. They were way out in the Atlantic SE of Bermuda and on the way to the Azores. No wind there and none expected for a week. Chris suggested he should start motoring. The British accented skipper politely refused. Right on brother.
That evening, I sat in the cockpit and watched darkness fall over the ocean’s gently riffled surface. The sky was overcast except an opening ahead on the far west horizon all red and aglow. Silent. Serene. Powerful majestic tranquility. It was gorgeous. Soon it was so dark I could not see the lifelines. After a a while the clouds cleared overhead and I could see the stars. But, I could not see the horizon until the moonrise at 0030. The wind was about 4-6 kts. I hauled up a single reefed main and stays’l. We were on a broad reach and making about 2.5 kts. The windvane was steering beautifully. I don’t know of another windvane that can steer downwind in such light conditions. At midnight I was reading in my bunk and sensed something “out there.” I went up on deck with my red lens headlamp. Dolphins! They were swimming all around the boat chuffing away. I moved up to the fore deck. They put on quite a show for 20 minutes. They crossed back and forth many times. It was very surreal with the tropical breeze on my skin and the dolphins frolicking around the boat as we sailed down wind at 3 kts on a flat sea. Amazing! By 0600 we had made only 52nm in the last 24 hours.
On the morning of 20 May (day 7), I shook out the reef and struck the stays’. I hauled up the working jib for the first time on the passage. I poled it out wing and wing. We made 4.2 kts, the fastest we had gone in three days. At 1100 I took a sun shot as part of a running fix. The MV BW Lilac a 968’ hazmat carrier passed us at 2.7nm away. I saw more plastic on this day than any day I have had at sea. There was all kinds of trash. The wind filled in from the ENE. I dropped the pole and brought the jib across the deck to a starboard tack. The wind was 12-14 and we were zipping along at 6-7 kts on a reach. The humidity was thick. By nightfall I was back to wing and wing. At 2032, the AIS sounded. The MV Nomad, a 177’ pleasure yacht, crossed our wake at 1.7 nm away. I spoke them on the VHF. They had not seen me. By 0600 we had made only 60 nm in the last 24 hours.
By 1030 on 21 May (day 9) the wind was ESE at 8-12 kts. We were on starboard tack with all plain sail and making 7 kts. The sun was out and the seas flat. The last of the ice in the ice box had melted. It had lasted 9 full days. We made good time all day. Around 1800 the boat started to jump around. What the hell? The waves looked very weird—peaked and chopped up steep sided. The boat was slewing around a bit. I checked the windvane. It was fine. I took a reef in the mains’l. Then I checked the chart. We were crossing an underwater cliff from the American Basin at 17,000’ deep to the Blake Pateau at 3,840’ deep. It was water upwelling as deep underwater currents pushed up against a nearly sheer mountain rock face! It was amazing.
That evening I started to hear a squeak from what I thought was the rudder post which indicated some kind of potential trouble. We crossed paths with another ship. I took a star fix of Arcturus and Spica but forgot to write down the Ho of Arcturus. By the time I figured it out the stars were gone in the clouds. Amateurish. By 0600 we had made 140nm in 24 hours.
On 22 May (Day 10) I investigated the squealing coming from the rudder post. I emptied the port cockpit locker to gain access and crawled down under the cockpit sole and learned it was the Harken bullet blocks which my windvane control lines run through. It was probably the bearings getting flat on one side. I was surprised they were failing. In fact, when I got home I called and discussed it with Harken. The tech rep felt a non bearing block would be a better choice when there is a high load on the block but not a lot of line running across the sheave. He recommended I switch to their new “Element” block.
The wind veered to the south and I was headed NNE. I rigged the pole and pulled the jib across so we were wing and wing. Later, the wind went light and I dropped the main as it would slat more than the jib held out on the pole. The stars were out and I obtained a good fix after a shooting Spica and Polaris. The wind picked back up and I hauled the up the mains’l which better balanced the helm. At 0300 I awoke to a slatting main’l and no wind. By 0600 we had made only 88 nm in the last 24 hours.
We spent most of the day of 23 May (day 11) sailing in light conditions towards our entry point for the Gulf Stream. I was confident we were in the stream by 1800 as the boat was jumping around due to the fast current. By 2200 the wind was gone but we were making 3.3 kts to the north. By 0200 there was very little wind. I dropped the main and gybed the boat. Our speed over the bottom was 5 kts. We were definitely in the GS. I dropped the pole as it looked like I would have to gybe the boat a number of times as the wind shifted back and forth behind us and it would be a lot easier at night without the pole. By 0500 we were making almost 7 kts. We made 117 nm in 24 hours.
At 0900 on 24 May I once again hauled up a double reefed main to counter-balance the jib. At 1130 I tossed a sealed bottle in the GS with a note for anyone that might find it. I included my name and provided an email address. I wondered where its journey might take it on one of the world’s most powerful ocean currents. I calculated we were sailing dead down the middle of the GS aligned with its center axis and headed to the NE. Our speed was up to 8 kts. Later that day sailing downwind in only 12-15 kts of wind we were hitting 10 kts!
Late that afternoon I altered course back to the north and sadly left the GS. With all the light wind we had still made almost 80 nm in 12 hours. At 2300 I was on deck. There was lightning to the NW. I suddenly noticed a white light ahead of us. There was nothing on the AIS. I kept trying to ID it and finally realized it was an anchor light on a power boat I calculated to be about 50’LOA. It appeared to be anchored in 140’ of water! We passed by at maybe 250 yards away. At midnight, dolphins appeared. I could hear them chuffing and they were streaking around the boat in the bioluminescent water. Fantastic.
The ship traffic was increasing as I closed the land. I got anxious. The is not the time for an extended nap. I set my alarm and started scanning the horizon every 20 min. At 0230 there was a huge wind shift from the south to the north. I was asleep but immediately woke up. The wind switched nearly 180° in about 30 seconds without losing velocity. The windvane followed the wind shift so we were suddenly headed south. I quickly disengaged the vane and hauled the boat around to starboard tack then tacked back to port as I saw a green and white light ahead. I thought it was a trawler actively fishing. “Green over white, fishing at night” is the nemonic. I was still groggy. But it was not a fishing trawler, it was the 689’ cargo ship Captain Baret. Whoa! That got my attention. Now the wind was out of the north and I needed to go north. So began the long beat up into Onslow Bay towards Cape Lookout. I remained up the rest of the night. The temperature dropped significantly. I got cold. I dug through the locker and broke out long pants. I put my foul wx gear on to stay warm. The wind picked up to 20 kts and the swell began to increase in opposition to the left over swell from the south. By 0600 we had made 143 nm in the last 24 hours.
The last day, 25 May (Day 13) dawned overcast and almost cold. At least it felt cold to me since I had been barely clothed for the last six months in the tropics. I spent the morning tacking to find the best angle and just keeping the boat moving in an ugly cross swell that was steadily getting bigger. At 1142 “Land Ho!” I spotted Cape Lookout Lighthouse to the north. At noon I briefly got infected with “get-home-itus” and tried motor-sailing. It was horrible. We pounded into the swell at 3.2 knots. I shut the engine off after 20 minutes of that madness and went back to what we do best, sailing. I footed the boat off a bit and let her find the groove. Soon we were making 7 kts close hauled and making progress. Sailing is what we are set up to do. So, when the conditions get tough, do what you do best. The windvane was steering the boat perfectly. All was well again. At 1700 we were deep into the Morehead City Ship Channel. The wind died to about 6 kts on the nose. We were finally in the lee of the land on flat water. I dropped the jib and this time when I started the engine we easily made 5-6 kts and powered through the Beaufort inlet on the last of the flood tide and made our way into Taylor Creek on the Beaufort waterfront. At 1835 I let go the anchor in 12’ of water. We had sailed 1,397 nm in 12 days and 8 hours. Some statistics from the voyage:
-Length of passage: 12 Days, 8 hours
-Miles sailed: 1,397
-Ships Sighted: 14
-Times hove-to: 1
-Sail Changes: 31
-Number of reefs: 11
-Fuel used: 2.5 gallons
-Water Used: 14 gallons