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.Continue reading
This was my third voyage to the Virgin Islands. I knew the area pretty well. Covid, and the restrictions put in place to limit its spread, definitely changed my experience from previous voyages to the islands—more on that later. Nonetheless, it was worth the considerable effort it takes to get there from the continental US (the details of the 12 day voyage from North Carolina were covered in the previous blog post).Continue reading
With the selfsteering windvane back in fighting condition we provisioned the Far Reach for our planned six months in the West Indies. Since this was our third voyage there Gayle has gotten pretty good at knowing what we need to purchase here in the states. I have heard sailors argue that “excess storage capacity and heavy provisioning in the states is not necessary since people eat everywhere.” That may be but almost everything in the West Indies costs two to three times what it costs in the states. So, while she worked the provisions I gathered all the tools, gear, equipment, lines, repair parts, books, navigation equipment to include my sextant, snorkel gear, etc that needed to be stowed on the boat. I made lists then began making trips to the marina to get the gear aboard and stowed. I tested my Sony SW7600GR short wave SSB receiver and the long-wire antenna making sure I could get the key stations I needed to be able to hear to get weather. We also test a new piece of equipment for this voyage–a Garmin In-Touch Mini satellite texting device.
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 southeast coast creating dangerous and miserable offshore conditions.
There was no good crossing window in early December except on the 3rd. But, Chris explained I had to be willing to motor the first day through flat calms. Chris knows I loath the idea of using an engine when I’m sailing, however, the next window appeared 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.
On the morning of 3 Dec I rowed Gayle ashore in Beaufort, NC. We said our good byes. I hauled the dinghy up on the Far Reach, inverted her and secured her in the chocks, weighed anchor, and made my way out to the Beaufort ship channel. We had a light NW wind and I hoisted sails, 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 staying on the west side of the Stream 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 a few minutes at a time. We made about 5 kts at 2000 RPM. I unshackled the anchor chain, plugged the chain pipe (correctly called a spurling pipe) and secured the anchor on the roller.
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 slipped 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 back out to the deck, his curiosity satisfied. A half hour later he was gone.
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 patty 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, Castor and Pollux. It was great to be out voyaging again.
The wind increased and I struck the jib and hauled up the stays’l with a reef in the main. We spotted several ships and I spoke them on the handheld VHF. “Yes” they replied, 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 ship 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 and on 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 planning check list.
The weather for the voyage was for the most part rainy, squally, and brisk. In fact, with the exception of one calm, which we shamefully motored through because Chris 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, 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.
We spent the last half of the voyage under double reefed main and a stays’l. As we worked our way east and south we 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.
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 than 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′ wave. 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, mesmerizing, and other worldly. 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 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 that 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 manage just about any condition we might encounter. We had squalls day and night.
In order to make it to St John, US Virgin Islands in the daylight I needed to cross the north bank of the British Virgin Islands 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 to the BVI were not user friendly 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 enforcement agencies had boarded, seized, impounded boats, and fined sailors violating BVI 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.
-0020. All is well. Wind remains 22 gusting 28 kts. 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.
-0810. Cross N bank. On soundings.
-1200. Stays’l and double reefed main. Wind 25 gusting 30. Tearing along at 7.8 kts.
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 yard off a beautiful white sand crescent beach studded with palms and lapped with lovely clear blue water. We made it. It felt great to be back in the Virgin Islands
- 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: 10 gallons
- Ships sighted: 8
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.Continue reading
The wind in the SW North Atlantic north of the Caribbean remains elusive. I discussed it with Chris Parker of Marine Weather Center last week. Together we came up with three options:
I was having morning coffee and lounging in the cockpit chatting on the phone with Gayle. I could see the rain coming…a lot of rain. I signed off and sure enough it was a real gullywasher.
The day before yesterday the stars were finally back out at dusk. I was able to shoot Sirius and Procyon from the fantail of the Far Reach. I recorded the precise time for each shot.
My good friend Colonel Steve Davis USMC was the first person I ever heard say “the main thing….” He was a terrific leader and had a unique gift for preventing his unit from getting distracted. He never lost sight of the mission and knew how to keep the team focused like a laser-beam.
As the departure date for the sail home gets closer it was time for a haircut. So I took Sweet Pea into the dinghy dock and walked up the hill to the local barber shop.
It was a sad day to see Gayle fly home. We had a great time together. But the kids have to declare their college selection by 1 May. She needed to assist them with another round of campus visits so they can make a wise choice. So we divided our combat power into two elements, each with missions to accomplish.