fiction, copyright (c) 2005
When Al Fishman was in his middle fifties the company he worked for was acquired by a national chain and he was eased out. He had a modest pension, his house was paid for and he figured his income was adequate to enjoy a long retirement. After a few weeks his wife, Ruth, was not too happy to find Al under her feet all the time. She had her own routine and Al was disturbing it. She encouraged him to find a hobby. They lived not far from the sea on the south shore of Long Island. Several of Al’s friends had small boats; one of them was an instructor at the local yacht club. He persuaded Al to sign up for a beginner’s sailing course, this was given two nights a week at the high school. Al also started subscriptions to a few sailing magazines and soon he was discussing the relative merits of chartering in the Caribbean or Bahamas with fellow students on the course. He went to the library, which had an extensive collection of yachting books, many written by cruising couples recounting their experiences sailing round the world. Slowly the idea began to form in his mind: that was the ideal way to retire. Why, he and Ruth could buy a boat, get a little experience and then the world was their oyster! They could sail anywhere. But despite invitations from his sailing friends Al never actually set foot on a sailboat.
That summer he began to scan the ad pages of the Long Island Boater. He tentatively suggested to Ruth that perhaps they should buy a sailboat, although he did not go into details. One day an advertisement in the classified columns caught his eye–a fairly new thirty-six foot sloop with four bunks at a very attractive price. Waiting until Ruth was out shopping he phoned the number listed; a woman answered. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘my name is Al Fishman; I’m interested in the boat for sale. May I speak to the owner, please?’ In an almost apologetic tone she replied that the boat was hers. She went on to explain that the boat had belonged to her husband but he had passed away three months earlier. He asked how much water it drew and as the woman went into details it became clear why the asking price was below market; the boat had been built by her husband and was made of wood. These days nobody wanted a wooden boat; they required too much attention. Still, the price was right and it was nearly new; her husband had launched the boat only the year before. The vessel was at a boatyard in Mattituck, about an hour’s drive from his home. Al thanked her and said he would think about it. Over the next few days the idea of owning a thirty-six foot boat grew on him. He had assumed if he bought a boat at all it would be a day-sailer to start with, but here was a real cruiser with bunks and a galley. And how impressed his nautical friends would be–he was starting at the top! With his heart beating a little faster than usual he called back and made an appointment to meet at the boatyard. As he drove east to Mattituck, thoughts churned in his head; probably, he thought skeptically, it was knocked together from plywood and looked like a floating orange crate.
A short, dowdy-looking woman was waiting at the ramshackle office of the yard. ‘Mrs. Levitt,’ he enquired, ‘I’m Al Fishman; I’ve come to see the boat you’re selling.’ ‘Hello,’ she said and held out a hand. She led him past cradled boats towards the water. ‘I’ve not been here often since Bill,’ she paused, ‘died. It was all very sudden, just a couple of weeks after he put her in the water he had a stroke.’ Al told her how sorry he was to hear that. She stepped onto a rickety wooden jetty. ‘There she is–Sea Breeze–it took Bill six years to build her.’ To Al’s inexperienced eye she looked great; the white hull gleamed in the sun. When Mrs. Levitt produced a key and opened the door to the cabin he stepped into the cockpit and followed her below. Her husband had indeed been a craftsman; the woodwork was immaculate. The settees were upholstered in a tasteful blue. ‘Bill loved this boat,’ said Mrs. Levitt, ‘he often said she could sail anywhere.’ This last remark resonated strongly with Al; this was indeed what he wanted to do. ‘Has it got an engine?’ he asked. ‘Oh, yes,’ she replied ‘a Yamaha diesel.’ She glanced at him sharply and Al realized he had sounded a bit naïve. ‘It’s behind those steps – take a look.’ He fumbled with a metal catch and swung the steps aside. ‘I don’t think the battery is charged,’ exclaimed Mrs. Levitt, who was peering at some instruments, ‘I could get Mr. Tucker to start it,’ ‘He runs the yard,’ she added by way of explanation. ‘No, that won’t be necessary,’ said Al. He thought desperately of nautical questions he felt he should be asking. ‘How about the sails?’ he ventured. ‘They’re at the house,’ she replied, ‘they were new last year. Bill bought a mainsail and two jibs.’ Al drove home boiling with excitement; he had hit the jackpot on his first try.
Al broached the possibility of buying a boat to Ruth without specifically mentioning Sea Breeze. She was vaguely encouraging. Al realized there were many practical details to solve; not least was how to get the boat home from Mattituck. It could be trucked, of course, but that would be expensive. To sail home he would need help from his more knowledgeable friends; an option he rejected. He wanted the first sail to be more like a honeymoon, not a drunken party. Then a solution appeared in the same classified columns he had seen the boat advertised – ‘Sailing tuition and yacht deliveries by Coast Guard licensed captain’, followed by a phone number. Al called and introduced himself. He was talking to Captain Fred Lumley, also a retiree. He explained he needed help getting a sailboat from Mattituck to the Great South Bay. Al asked him how much it would cost; Fred was cautious said he would have to see the boat first, but if it was OK he charged $200 per day. ‘That seems fair,’ said Al. ‘I’ll be back in touch.’ All that remained was to negotiate a price with Mrs. Levitt. This was not too difficult; she was eager to sell; summer was almost over and soon she would be stuck with winter storage charges. Al sold some securities his mother had left him years ago and within a month he was the proud owner of Sea Breeze. He called Fred Lumley and arranged to meet him at the boatyard. There he confessed his complete ignorance, and asked Fred to sail the boat home with himself and Ruth as crew. Fred was a taciturn man of few words. He examined the boat carefully, started the engine, checked the radio and with Al’s eager help bent on the sails. ‘She’ll do,’ he said, ‘when do you want to sail?’ Al had already arranged a winter berth near his house. ‘We could go anytime,’ he replied. Fred went to his car and found a set of tide tables, thumbing through he muttered to himself and said, ‘How about next week, say Wednesday? We could leave about noon and get to the Bay in a day. Of course, it depends on good weather,’ he added with a lopsided leer. ‘Make sure she’s fueled up,’ instructed Fred. ‘And put a couple of blankets aboard. Have you got foul weather gear?’ Al made a long list of things to do and alerted Ruth to his plans for the Wednesday departure.
On Wednesday morning, Al packed a cooler with drinks and sandwiches, he and Ruth met Fred at the marina which was to be the new home for Sea Breeze. They left Fred’s car there and drove to Mattituck. Ruth had not seen the boat before and was surprised at how big it was. Mr. Tucker came to see them off. Al asked him what he owed for charging the battery and refueling. Mr. Tucker raised his hand, ‘I’ll mail you,’ he said. ‘I know Bill would be right pleased to see the old girl under sail again. Bon Voyage.’ Fred started the engine, Al busied himself loosening lines, and they backed into the creek and turned towards Long Island Sound. It was a clear day with a light northwest wind. While they were still under power Fred showed Al how to handle the tiller steering, he was a quick learner and after half an hour Fred said they should hoist the mainsail. Al steered while Fred went to the mast and pulled the halyard. Ruth sat primly in the cockpit with a nervous look on her face. When the sail was up Fred took the tiller and turned the boat downwind. As the wind caught the sail, Sea Breeze heeled and Ruth let out a piercing shriek. ‘Oh God! We’re tipping over,’ she cried. ‘It’s OK,’ said Fred, ‘yachts lean when they are sailing. It’s perfectly normal. Don’t worry.’ Ruth was unconvinced, and sat white-faced, gripping the cockpit coaming. Al unfurled the jib and Fred shut down the throbbing diesel. Sea Breeze sailed sedately about a mile from the green Long Island shore. ‘Now,’ said Al, ‘this is more like it. Isn’t this terrific, dear?’ Ruth looked daggers at him and moaned, ‘I’m scared.’
After about four hours they approached Orient Point; ahead lay turbulent Plum Gut. Sea Breeze bucked and rolled in the short, choppy waves. Ruth turned from white to green and retched over the side. Al was properly solicitous, ‘Lie down, dear,’ he said, helped her to a bunk and covered her with a blanket. ‘Give me a bucket,’ she groaned weakly. He put the handle of a plastic bucket in her hand, which drooped limply over the side of the bunk. When Al returned to the cockpit the sun had set and the lights of the Connecticut shore twinkled in the distance. Ahead the powerful beam of the Montauk light flashed on the horizon. Al was entranced, Fred decided it was a good time to take a nap and he showed Al how to hold the proper course. At Montauk Point they met the swell of the Atlantic and Ruth was sick again. After an hour the wind died, they dropped the sails and Fred started the engine. Ruth complained it was noisy and she could smell fumes. As dawn lightened the eastern sky they entered the inlet at Shinnecock and negotiated the shallow sandbanks to Great South Bay. They tied up at lunchtime; Fred finished off the sandwiches and drank a warm beer. They all drove in Fred’s car back to Mattituck. At the yard Al thanked Fred warmly for a wonderful first voyage and settled up while Ruth sat in their car, drumming her fingers on the window frame.
On the drive home Ruth let Al have it with both barrels. ‘I am not going in that smelly, noisy, rolly thing again,’ she said firmly. ‘I think you should sell it and get a smaller boat that you can sail yourself.’ A brilliant pun flashed through Al’s mind, ‘Yeah, and I can call it Ruthless,’ he quipped. ‘Very clever,’ she snapped and they sat in silence for the rest of the drive. After breakfast the next day, Al said he was just popping over to the marina to check out a few things on the boat. ‘And why don’t you just pop by a broker on the way’ said Ruth heavily ‘and list it for sale?’ As Al tinkered on the boat he thought about the trip and Ruth’s unexpected reaction. His dream of sailing to the Caribbean was fading rapidly. He sat in the cockpit and suddenly reached a decision. On the way home he dropped in on a friend who was an attorney. When he got home Ruth was fixing some lunch, ‘Well, did you have a nice boatey morning?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ Al replied, ‘and I stopped in on Jack Stein.’ ‘Who’s he’ she asked, ‘a broker, are you going to get a different boat?’ ‘No,’ replied Al, ‘a different wife!’
We had arrived in Falmouth, at the western end of England’s Cornish peninsular, in mid-October, 2004, after a summer of cruising in Ireland, Scotland and the Baltic. The trip down the English Channel had been a beat against moderate southwesterly winds. But the winds had been strong enough to convince my youngest crew member, newly signed on in London, that ocean cruising was not for him and within hours of our arrival he booked a flight home. That left two of us, myself and Andrew, a lanky Aussie who had crewed previously, to continue to Portugal, Brazil and points south for the northern winter. We did try to recruit a local sailor for the leg to Portugal without success. Day after day the forecast for the approaches to the Channel was for strong to gale force southwest winds; very frustrating as we were eager to get south before the autumn gales set in permanently. After a week, it looked liked a window; northerly winds for a couple of days, the downside was an intense low in the Bay of Biscay which was tracking north. Ever the optimist, I thought if we headed into the Atlantic we might get to the west of low and pick up a tail wind for the leg south.
The Impending Storm
We left in pleasant weather on a Monday with a northwest wind and set the sail to clear Lizard Point. Bent on the boom for the first time was a brand new storm mainsail and a Genoa jib was grooved in the roller furling gear on the headstay. By Monday evening the wind had backed and we were only making good southwest. Later we started the engine to motor-sail with a very light wind, the tidal current was pushing us towards Ouessant, an area to avoid, particularly with a storm coming. Once clear of the northwest tip of France the plan was to lay a course across the Bay of Biscay to Cape Finisterre and then sail down the coast of Portugal to Lisbon. The wind came back on Tuesday morning from the sou’sou’west and we had a great day under full sail, but the omens were not good; obviously we were well east of the low center. The forecast on the Navtex from the English station at Niton was gloomy, force 10 in meteorological area Plymouth, our location on Tuesday evening. As the sun was setting we reefed the main and discovered a problem with the new sail, supposedly copied exactly from my old faithful storm mainsail that had seen Fiona three times round Cape Horn. The aft reefing cringles had been installed a couple of feet too high and the boom was canted up at such an angle that it was impossible to reach it except near the mast. The wind had reached 30 kts by midnight and the pressure had started an alarming slide down, the central pressure of the low was reported to be 955 mb. On our barograph the pen fell below 965 mb, the lower limit of the instrument, and then stuck on the edge of the paper chart, something I had never seen before.
Hove-to, Force 10
At sunrise on Wednesday morning the wind had backed to southeast with a sustained speed over 40 kts and gusts to 55 kt. . We debated tying the second reef in the main but decided with the boom so high it would be difficult, if not downright dangerous, and we forereached under the single reef with the jib fully furled and the wheel lashed up. For the next day and a half we rode out the storm, holding our general position with a boat speed of 1 to 2 kts but losing ground due to leeway. It was a rough ride. The faxes we received from the Offenbach station in Germany were ominous; the low was expected to stall on the southwest coast of Ireland and then possibly drift southeast. If this turn of events turned out to be true the storm was drawing a bead straight for us. Early Thursday I switched the Navtex to the French station on the west coast of Brittany at Corsen, their forecast confirmed that the low would move south, right for the boat, which seemed unbelievable if not downright unfair. Lows always moved to the northeast in that part of the world, right? When it was light we set the spitfire jib on the forestay; a very tough sail of only 40 square feet. This was an attempt to get the boat moving again and sail as far west as possible to keep the approaching low center to the east, but in this we were frustrated as the wind veered to the west so instead we tracked slowly south. It was a little encouraging to learn from the Navtex that the low was filling; central pressure had risen to 963 mb, at position 50ºN, 11ºW by early Thursday. The seas had built up by this time and Fiona was pounded by heavy waves that produced jarring crashes if they happened to be breaking when we slammed into them. Water forced its way through every crack, particularly the main hatch slides. The dampness below was not helped by the water that streamed off our foul weather gear every time we dropped through the hatch into the main cabin. On Tuesday night I had locked the vane of the self-steerer but foolishly not removed it from the clamp, finally the incessant wind vibrated the vane so much that the locking pin sheared off.
Storms that Pass in the Night
Conditions began to improve a little just before sunrise on Friday, the wind dropped below 30 kts and veered. This gave us a chance to sail near the rhumbline for Cape Finisterre and put as much distance as possible between the boat and the storm center, now heading southeast. At lunchtime we unfurled a sliver of the jib and led the sheets inside the shrouds so that we could sail close-hauled. The little spitfire was still pulling gamely. The wind remained about 30 kts, with pouring rain, for a while the pressure dropped a few millibars then it slowly climbed. The boat was sailing well at about 5 kts and making good a course over the bottom that was only 15 to 20 degrees shy of the rhumbline. I began to feel that that the worse was over. Just as we were eating supper about 1930 hr a squall of over 40 kts hit the boat, but we were a little tardy getting on deck as there was nowhere to safely put down our plates in the violent motion we were experiencing. When we did climb through the hatch we saw the jib had torn above the clew from the leach horizontally for several feet. We furled the sail and in order to give some drive forward of the mast I decided to hand the spitfire and set the staysail. I had been hesitant to set the staysail before because short-handed in high winds the staysail boom can be a lethal club as the sail is being hoisted. We cast off the gaskets, hanked on the halyard and began to haul up the sail. After a few feet it jammed and would not go up or down. To keep the staysail boom under control during this phase we had rigged a vang with a four-part tackle, so at least the boom was not crashing about with the sail half up. In the fitful glow from the spreader lights and our flashlights we discovered the halyard had fouled the port spreader and seemed firmly stuck in the notch holding the shroud. Fortunately by standing on the forward end of the staysail boom Andrew was just able to reach the halyard snap shackle, no mean feat on the pitching bow in the dark. He attached a short line to the halyard and then unshackled it. By leading the halyard aft I was able to free it with a few vigorous shakes and we then hoisted the staysail, taking care to keep the halyard taut. A glance at the diagram showing the track of the storm and Fiona’s position makes it clear the storm center must have passed us that night heading sou’sou’east and a few miles to the west, although we did not realize this at the time.
Free at Last
As the storm headed to the east our wind veered to the nor’nor ‘west and we were able to make good the rhumbline course of 220º magnetic and even ease the sheets. It was still blowing 35 to 40 kts as dawn on Saturday revealed a dramatic seascape of long foaming waves with spindrift and low, grey clouds scudding across the sky. Fiona galloped for Cape Finisterre like a racehorse, but the weather was still atrocious, despite the freeing of the wind. The Meteo-France forecast predicted winds to force 9 with very rough seas, conditions we experienced in spades. After lunch-time on Saturday severe squalls forced us to disconnect the Aries self-steerer and hand steer in 30 minute shifts. With only one reef the Aries was overpowered by the weather helm. Stinging spray swept across the cockpit. More disturbing was the sight of the furled jib. The Dacron above the tear had not fully rolled up when we furled the sail and now the strong wind worried and tugged at the piece of cloth so that slowly the tear lengthened and the upper part of the sail began to unwrap. As I contemplated this gloomy scene a sleek jet roared out of the overcast at little more than masthead height. It was a French maritime reconnaissance aircraft. I shouted below to Andrew to give them a call on VHF, he assured them in his broad Aussie twang that we were OK and just to make sure they made two more passes. I wonder if they understood his accent? As they finally winged away I imagined the nice, dry cafeteria waiting for them with a cup of coffee somewhere in France when they touched down Then I wrenched myself back to the reality of a wet, storm-tossed boat with 150 miles to the Cape still to go. Perhaps those pilots in their hermetically sealed cocoon envied us, perhaps not. The storm careened on into central Spain with the low slowly filling to 1005 millibars. As it moved away the wind decreased to 25 kts and we had a great sail to Cape Finisterre We jibed over about noon on Sunday for the run down the Iberian coast and shook out the reef in the mainsail when the wind fell to 15 kts.
The Storm’s Parting Shot
Although the wind and sea conditions were quite manageable, the storm continued in an insidious way to inflict damage; the upper part of the jib continued to unwind and disintegrate into tatters. I made the unwise decision to get the jib off the headstay and set the Yankee. But when we unrolled just a few turns on Sunday afternoon the tear simply extended and left an even bigger area flapping in the breeze. We rolled it up again but the damage was done and the jib slowly flogged itself to pieces. We tried to restrain the flapping remnants by wrapping a line around using the spare halyard to raise it, but that did not work. Apart from the damage to the jib, which was deemed irreparable when we finally got it down in Lisbon, the boat suffered little long-lasting effects from its maiden voyage across the Bay of Biscay. But the storm’s evil eye, that spotted Fiona as it headed north and then came back to chase us certainly added to the Bay’s reputation as a heavy weather proving ground.
Crew member Andrew, who is 6 ft 4 ins, stands beneath the reefed storm mainsail. The boom is canted due to an incorrectly located reef cringle.
The barograph chart, Tuesday to Wednesday. When the instrument reached its lower limit of 965 millibar the pen jammed.
A fax received from the German station at Hamburg showing the situation at noon on Wednesday.
Diagram of the storm track, Wednesday to Saturday.
The jib hangs in tatters off the headstay, shredded by the wind.
I am frequently asked about the worse weather I have ever encountered. The highest winds occurred on a trip from Bermuda to Newport in the summer of 1988. FIONA was dismasted about 300 miles from Fire Island Inlet. A shortened version of the article below appeared in Ocean Navigator in 1994.
The past few summers I have been able to take long cruises of six to nine weeks duration on my cutter “FIONA”. She is sturdily built and rigged West-sail 42 with a center cockpit that I bought unfinished in 1975 and launched in 1983 after completing her at home. These cruises have ranged the North Atlantic from my home port on the south side of Long Island to Newfoundland, the Caribbean and the Azores. FIONA has seen her share of heavy weather and has always been a safe and comfortable boat in any seas we have encountered. The standing rigging consists of headstay and forestay, backstay and four shrouds on each side. In 1986 I fitted a Harken roller furling system and jib which was designed to be reefed. The staysail is loose-footed on a boom, it has one set of reef points. The mainsail has three reefs. On 5th July 1988, I sailed with two friends to Block Island and then, on 7th July, left Block Island for a direct trip to St Martin, in the Dutch West Indies, arriving there on 18th July after an eleven day passage. St Martin was used as a center for crew changes and we cruised as far south as Palm Island in the Grenadines before turning north. St Martin was convenient as there is a regular air service to New York and we have friends who live on the island. When choosing a point for crew changes try to have friends there who own a shower, a telephone and preferably a car! When the time came to return we sailed with three on board from St Martin to Anguilla and on to the British Virgin Islands. We left Tortola on 14th August and tied up in St Georges, Bermuda, on 20th August after a fast and comfortable passage of just over 5 1/2 days.
Bermuda was intended to be the last port for crew changes before returning to the U.S. by Labor Day. When I phoned my wife on Long Island she told me that unfortunately the fellow I had lined up to fly down to Bermuda had called to beg off due to a death in the family. I discussed the need for a crew with friends in the St Georges’ Dinghy club and while I entertained my daughter and her friend, who flew down for a few days on the boat, the sailing fraternity in Bermuda was scoured for crew. In the end no one could be found with the time to spare and as the date for my daughter’s departure came close I decided to single-hand back to Newport, Rhode Island. It was a trip I had made many times before. Although FIONA is not completely rigged for single-handling, she is easy to sail and has both an Aries wind vane and a Benmar autopilot. If I was overconfident the sea was about to administer a sharp lesson!
The First Two Days of the Trip From Bermuda
I left Bermuda on Sunday afternoon, 28th August. There was a brisk easterly wind (20-25 knots) blowing as I chugged out of St. Georges through the Cut and to the Mills buoy. At Mills I could lay off to the north for Kitchen Shoal and I set a reefed main and some jib. Tropical storm ‘Chris’ was moving up the mainland coast and was just about the same latitude as Bermuda but well to the west.
At 6:00 PM (EDT) I listened to the weather forecast from NMN, the Coast Guard station in Portsmouth, Virginia, ‘Chris’ was diminishing. As the evening drew on a full moon arose, I was making good time with the Aries vane (called ‘Victor’) in control, things looked good. By the morning the wind had dropped to about 10 knots and moved to SE’ly. This change had been forecast and, in fact, the wind was supposed to continue to veer to the SW. In the first twenty-four hours I made about 170 miles from Bermuda on a course of 345o magnetic; excellent progress. On Monday evening the wind was S’ly and light. Victor was having some difficulty holding a steady course with a light wind over the stern and we were yawning around 20 degrees or so. At about 1:00 AM on the morning of Tuesday, 30th August, I jibed to port tack and set the vang as a preventer on the main. The wind, which had dropped during the night, picked up steadily during morning. The barometer reached a high of 1020 mbar at midnight and then began a slow slide to 1014 mbar by midday. Station NMN broadcasts the coordinates of the north wall of the Gulf Stream twice a day and I plotted the position on my chart near the course. By lunchtime the wind had picked up a little and I shortened down the jib. The main still had one reef. The staysail was not set, as on a broad reach it tended to blanket the jib. The boat was moving fast and easy. I was about 60 miles from the north wall, squalls appeared during the early afternoon but passed ahead or behind the boat. I was anxious to make time and get north of the Gulf Stream. From the Coast Guard radio I had learned a cold front lying roughly on a NE-SW axis was dropping down the coast and it appeared it would get down to the Gulf Stream early Wednesday, 31st August.
This was not good news. I had been clobbered in the Gulf Stream before in this situation. I was particularly concerned about the NE wind behind the front, I knew from other trips that the wind setting against the current produced a nasty steep sea. In addition, lows tend to form along the front, causing squalls. In 1986, on the way to the Azores, a short but vicious squall pegged the anemometer at 60 knots and damaged the staysail. At the time FIONA was in the Gulf Stream but a little further east. Thus my anxiety to keep moving and get into the cooler slope water to the north of the Gulf Stream. By 6:00 PM the wind was SW’ly the boat was 341 miles from Bermuda and the barometer was 1009 mbar. More squalls appeared an hour later and I rolled 8 turns on the jib. The boat was zipping along on 345o magnetic and it looked like I would beat the front to the Stream. At 9:00 PM I decided to call my wife on the SSB to let her know things were OK. I called the AT&T Marine operator at their Florida station, WOM, and had no difficulty getting through. As my wife was somewhat apprehensive about my single-handed venture, I radiated confidence and predicted I would be in Newport by Thursday or Friday, depending on the weather. After that I had a short nap and at 11:00 PM or so I went on deck as the weather had deteriorated. The wind had backened 25o
And was gusting to 30 knots. The barometer was 1006 mbar, a drop of 14 mbar in about 24 hours, which did not seem particularly alarming at the time. I put on foul weather gear and a safety harness, Victor was coping OK but it looked like I was in for some work. We were at 37deg 47minN, about 13 miles south of the north wall and in the region where the stream runs with maximum current.
At 11:40 PM I made an entry in the log noting the squally wind and the fact it had backed. When I returned to the deck, conditions had got markedly worse in just a few minutes. I figured I was in a nasty but not untypical squall and released Victor’s clutch on the wheel. The wind increased steadily and veered. I tried coming into the wind a little to release pressure on the sails. It was raining but not very heavily. The boat was illuminated by a glow from the moon. Spray began to fly which in the moonlight gave an impression of whiteness to the scene. It was time to reduce sail. I locked the wheel and moved to the Harken furling gear and got in several turns on the jib. Some sail was still exposed when the boat jibed all standing and the mainsail boom scythed across to the port side. The vang had parted like cotton thread. Expletive deleted. I suddenly realized that conditions had gotten very bad. The boat was sailing on about 120o and continuous spray flew across the deck. The wind had gotten so high the seas were being flattened. The jib was now backed. There seemed little I could do about it for the moment. I crashed along for a few minutes and then decided to tack back onto a port tack. I brought FIONA into the wind and the sails luffed violently. The seas seemed higher once I was sailing into them. She lay irons for a moment and then dropped back. I decided to start the engine and a few minutes later I powered through onto port tack. This at least would take me out of the Gulf Stream, instead of deeper into it, as was the situation when I was sailing roughly east. The luffing had been so violent when I was into wind that I gave up the idea of reefing the mainsail and decided to ride it out by sailing with the main just filled. One factor in this decision was that I had tried to engage Victor so I could go forward but it would not hold the wheel down. Later I discovered the wind had already blown away the vane. FIONA was now sailing far too fast and crashing through the seas, which fortunately were not directly on the bow. The log was pegged at 10 knots and the noise was tumultuous, I really do not know how long I sailed like that. The boat was heeled way over and seas poured continuously over the cockpit coaming. By this time the spray was so thick it was like sailing in a snowstorm! Suddenly, silently, to my amazement the mast and sails simply disappeared. The only evidence that I ever had a mast were the port shrouds, now lying across the cabin roof. My overwhelming feeling was disbelief tinged with chagrin, how could I be so stupid?
As FIONA wallowed in the seas, ominous noises could be heard from below as the wreckage crunched into the hull. I decided the port shrouds had to be released immediately in order to drop the mast deeper. Although I had a bolt-cutter on the boat it seemed easier to withdraw the clevis pins from the turnbuckles and I crawled to port side to do this. As I left the cockpit clutching vicegrips and pliers the wind pressed so hard I had to slither along the deck on hands and knees, allowing myself to be pressed against the side of the cabin.
The adrenaline was really circulating by then and the cotter pins and clevis pins came out in quick time, despite the load on them. I also released the stays forward and aft because of the enormous load they were putting on the pulpits. I decided to cut the headstay above the roller furling gear and this I did with a hacksaw. Before releasing the forestay I unbolted the staysail boom which still had the sail tied to it. When the rig was hanging on the starboard shrouds I went below. There were still loud crashing noises coming form the hull. I imagine this was caused by the boom as I could still see a sail just below the surface of the sea. I made the following entry in the log at 2:00 AM on Wednesday, 31st August: “Very eventful period. A very strong persistent squall required me to hand steer. In trying to reef jib I jibed back to port tack after 1/2 hour sleigh ride on starboard tack. About an hour ago the mast went over the side. Released port shrouds and fore and aft shrouds. Now mast is hanging by starboard shrouds. Wind has dropped. What to do- should I try and save mast and sails? Victor’s vane disappeared.”
I decided there was no way I could bring the mast and sails back on board. The combination of mast, rigging and sails must have weighed over 1000 lbs. Even though the wind had dropped from the maximum it was still blowing hard. There was no lifeline on the starboard side of the boat. With due apologies to my Scots ancestors I went on deck and pulled out the remaining clevis pins. As the last one came out the shimmering sail beneath the sea started its plummet to 2000 fathoms and I went below to note in the log at 2:35 AM that the mast had gone. I cleaned up the lines hanging over the side and started the engine, engaged the Benmar and laid off a course for Fire Island inlet- I was going home. It was fruitless to run the engine over 1000 rpm due to the steep seas, the log indicated I was going 2 to 2.5 knots. I made some tea and lay awake until a gray dawn arrived about 6:00 AM.
The Trip Home
During the night the wind had switched to NE as the front went through and the pressure by morning was 1015 mb. I had decided how to rig a couple of antennas using the boat hook and oars off the dinghy so that I could get the loran and SSB going again. This took about 2 hours. The loran antenna consisted of a few feet of old wire elevated 8 ft above the deck. The set immediately locked on and I had my position. The SSB antenna was a couple of feet higher. Fortunately the set (a Hull # 230) has an automatic antenna tuner so that the change in antennas from the insulated backstay to the jury rig gave no problems. I had decided to make a “Pan” call on 2182 kHz as it was clear my fuel supply was not sufficient to cover the 280 miles to the inlet if the boat maintained a speed of only 2 knots. I had 110 gallons of diesel on board, enough for 110 hours of running. Obviously it was touch and go if the wave height persisted. I made the Pan call at 8:45 AM and after two calls received a reply from the Canadian research vessel ‘Chabasco’ which was located near Georges Bank. I could not hear the Coast Guard station in Boston but the RV Chabasco could and they acted as a relay. I gave my position and situation and said there was not immediate danger as the hull was intact and the engine running well. The agreed to maintain a schedule of radio contact and at 1:00 PM the ‘Chabasco’ called me to suggest I move to the 4MHz band. I was then able to talk to Boston directly and we maintained a schedule of calls every 6 hours. As soon as the first Pan call was finished I checked the engine room. FIONA was rolling heavily as she labored through the steep seas. I knew that would stir up sediment in the tanks and sure enough, the fuel line suction was about 15″. I changed the filter and the suction pressure rose to 5″- within the normal range. I checked the bilge frequently but the boat was not taking water. I also called my wife via WOM to tell her I had experienced difficulties and would head directly for home, and may be home on Saturday.
As it happened the seas gradually dropped and I was able to push the engine speed up to 1400 rpm and achieve 5 to 6 knots. Boston Coast Guard handed my radio contact over to the Moriches station as I approached the coast and I entered the inlet just after midday on Friday, 2nd September with 30 gallons still in the tanks.
Intense squalls in the vicinity of the Gulf Stream, particularly in the vicinity of cold front, are not uncommon. The meteorological situation in the area was thoroughly discussed in an article in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute and in subsequent letters, following the sudden sinking of the ‘Marques’, a 117 ft barque which was participating in the Tall Ships race to Halifax from Bermuda in 1984. In more than twenty years of deep water ocean cruising I have experienced many squalls and watched them form on hot afternoons in Azores-Bermuda high. The one I ran into early in the morning of 31st August, 1988 was simply bigger and more intense than any I had previously encountered. In my experience, wind velocities over 45 knots are rare in squalls and modern yachts can usually handle that without damage. Ironically I warned the skipper of a sailboat also heading for Newport about the dangers of cold fronts near the Stream when we were gamming in Bermuda. The tactical problem is that the Stream is roughly half way between Bermuda and New England and it is difficult to predict the time of arrival of cold fronts near 38o when leaving Bermuda two to three days earlier. I have never heard of any meteorologist venture a guess at the frequency or severity of squalls that may be met on the way.
When I was disconnecting the wreckage from the boat I noticed the aft starboard shroud, made of 5/16 inch stainless wire rope, had parted about a foot above the turnbuckle. The shroud was attached to the mast midway between the masthead and the spreaders. All the rest of the standing rigging seemed to be intact. I surmise the failure of this shroud allowed the aluminum mast to buckle and the mast then jumped out of the shoe on deck and disappeared to leeward. The chainplates were all intact but badly buckled. The chainplates holding the two lower shrouds on the port side were bent about 45 degrees. This damage was caused by these two shrouds absorbing the momentum of the mast and sails as they flew away to starboard. All the turnbuckles had two toggles, so bending of the chainplates could not arise from twisting. The chainplates are all made of 1/4 inch thick stainless steel straps 2 inches wide which are attached to the hull by five 1/2 inch bolts. The chainplates on the starboard side were bent nearly double, i.e., they were pointed down. This damage was probably caused after the mast was in the water and the wind drove FIONA over the mast which lay beneath the surface to windward. Scoring of the keel by the wire rigging was evident when FIONA was hauled. The lifeline stanchions were destroyed on the starboard side of the boat. Fortunately the mast is stepped on the deck, otherwise this adventure might have had a sadder ending. The deck under the shoe, which is between the shoe and the compression post in the main cabin, showed a slight depression caused by the compressive force exerted by the mast. The deck is made of 3/4 inch plywood sandwiched between fiberglass top and bottom. The compression post is made of 3 inch diameter schedule 80 stainless pipe, it was bowed about 1/4 inch over its length. The plywood vain which senses wind direction was sheared at the metal clamp of the Aries. The vane is made of 1/4 inch thick marine plywood and is 6″ wide and 30″ tall. The wind apparently blew it away. Other random damage included a smashed grabrail on the aft cabin roof- I have no idea how that got smashed. I found the most interesting damage when I examined the staysail boom in the morning. The sail was furled on the boom, which was supported by a topping lift which had a bronze snaphook that engaged a stainless eye strap at the end of the boom. The hook had a swivel which was tied to the port forward shroud in order to leave the center and starboard side of the foredeck clear. During the melee before the mast went I noticed the staysail boom had become detached from the port shroud and was held by the sheet on the starboard side. In the morning I found the reason was that the swivel had failed. However, the bronze hook (about 1/4″ cross section diameter) and the eye strap had deformed before the swivel let go. This must have been due entirely to wind pressure on the boom and furled staysail. The force to bend the hook and eye thus gives an indirect measure of the wind speed, assuming the boom acted like a flat plate, for which the force at a given wind speed is well known. At 60 mph the force is 9.1 lbs per square foot, the force goes up with speed squared, i.e., at 120 mph the force is 36.4 lbs per square foot.
Test performed later on the snaphook and eye strap produced similar deflections about about 350 to 500 lbs force. The boom is 13 ft long and has a width of 4 inches. Assuming the furled sail doubled the effective area this corresponds to an area of about 9 sq. ft. The boom was secured at both ends, thus assuming the bending force on the aft hook was 350 lbs it appears the total force was 700 lbs. This is conservative as the furled sail increased the area at the forward end, not the aft end, and the total force was probably higher than 700 lbs. Nevertheless, this corresponds to a pressure of 700/9 or 77.7 lbs/sq ft. The maximum wind was thus 175 mph or 153 knots. This estimate is subject to considerable error, but it confirms my subjective impression that the wind was well over 100 knots. Meteorologically this seems to have put the squall well into the hurricane category.
Could this accident have been avoided? If I had a crew no doubt about 11:30 PM I would have tied another reef into the main. At no time did I think I was facing a dismasting until it was too late to drop the reefed mainsail and at anytime I kept expecting the wind speed to diminish. Needless to say, if the crew had been working near the mast or had their safety harness clipped to the standing rigging or starboard life line the consequences might have been disastrous. If I had furled the mainsail about 11:30 PM I think the mast would have survived, but that is 20/20 hindsight.
In letters which were written after Rear Admiral Kotsch’s article about the ‘Marques’, which had been very quickly overwhelmed, it was suggested better lookout or seamanship may have saved the ship. I was on deck when conditions went from routine squally to life and death. If conditions deteriorated as fast on the night the ‘Marques’ went down I don’t see how the crew could have done anything which would have substantially improved their chances. In a letter from Commander J.W. de Shazo (Proceeding, March 1985) he writes “Somewhere there is a wind or a sea waiting for each of us, and I believe that everyone who looks long and hard enough will find it. Every good ship captain understands this, and perhaps it is why some of the most intellegent men ever to go to sea- for example, Nathaniel Bowditch- retired to the land after relatively short careers at sea.”
Well, I plan to refit FIONA but now my wind and sea found me I hope it does not find me again- once is enough!
Published in Ocean Navigator Magazine- Aug 28, 2014
Gear failures sabotage a planned Antarctic circumnavigation
Eric Forsyth’s Westsail 42 Fiona nestled amongst other voyaging boats in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands.
When I departed Long Island, N.Y., on July 5, 2013, I was making my fourth attempt to cruise Antarctica aboard Fiona, my well-traveled Westsail 42. My plan was ambitious: a westward-bound circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent.
I had successfully made it to Antarctica twice. On my one previous unsuccessful attempt I suffered a broken rib due to a knock-down just north of the Falkland Islands.
This Antarctic circumnavigation cruise did not start auspiciously: one crewmember did not show up in time for departure. I double-handed across the Atlantic from Long Island with the remaining crew, Wade. As we neared the Canaries, Wade learned his son was seriously ill and flew home from Tenerife. It was important that I stick to a schedule as the window for the Antarctic leg was only about eight weeks long, so I single-handed across the Atlantic to meet a cruising couple, John and Helena in Brazil who sailed with me as far as Santos. There I met David who had signed up for the Antarctic leg. We double-handed to Punta del Este, Uruguay, to pick up the remaining crew for the Antarctic, Simon and Bob. We refueled and loaded on tons of food before leaving for Port Stanley in the Falklands. There we prepared the boat for a crossing of the Scotia Sea: we installed deadlights on the main cabin windows, wooden cover on the aft hatch, double lashings on the rigid dinghy on the foredeck and we shipped a 65-pound fisherman’s anchor.
A 65-pound fisherman anchor was lashed to the bow pulpit for use in Antarctica.
The forecast for the day we left was 30 knots from the west, which was okay as this would give us a beam reach. Our destination was King George Island in the South Shetland Islands, which lay almost due south of the Falklands. We left with the storm mainsail bent on, this is smaller than the working mainsail and has two reefs, the second being very deep, leaving almost a trysail when set. In Port William Sound before we encountered the offshore wind we tied in the first reef.
Pegging the wind needle
Offshore the wind was blowing hard with gusts to 50 knots, so we furled the jib and sailed with the reefed main and staysail. We tied the second reef in the mainsail. It was good timing; I watched with amazement and some trepidation as the anemometer climbed above 60 knots, the needle vibrating madly on the end-peg. That night we plowed south with shortened rig in rising seas. As the gloomy scene lightened with sunrise the wind dropped into the 30-knot range. The boat was taking a battering from huge waves. We shook out the second reef with foredeck gang wearing harnesses. The sea conditions were very rough.
I had just retired to my bunk in the aft cabin for a post lunch nap when Simon called out that the forward bilge pump wasn’t working and the head was flooding. I worked my way forward. There was a lot more water than just a stuck pump would account for. Even as we watched, the water level rose rapidly — we were sinking by the bow. By the time we had assembled a couple of pumps, the water was over the cabin sole. We got a bucket brigade going and I went into the water, sloshing around in the forward head to find the leak. A stream of water was running down the inside of the hull on the port side from somewhere behind a locker. The only thing up there, out of sight, was the gooseneck for the head, I shut the main thru-hull valve for the toilet and the stream slowed considerably.
After departing Port Stanley, Forsyth and crew encountered heavy weather leading to a series of gear failures. At 53° S, 59° W, Forsyth made the decision to turn away from Antarctica and head for Cape Town.
Alfred Wood/Ocean Navigator illustration
When we got the water down to a manageable level I peered behind the panel in front of the gooseneck, the hose from the thru-hull valve was detached from the plastic “U,” almost certainly caused by excessive pressure as the huge waves slammed into the bow. Water had been pouring into the boat through an inch and a half hose open to the sea, I figure we were minutes away from sinking, or, at least, shipping enough water to cause a capsize. The problem in reassembling the gooseneck was that the white sanitary hose used in marine toilets hardens like steel when it is cold. To get the thing back together, David and I had to put the ends of the hose in boiling water to soften the plastic so it would slide over the barbs on the thru-hull valve and the U-fitting. Working in the pitching bow with sea water and the contents of the discharge hose sloshing about was tough and for the first time in more than 30 years was I seasick. Later we found the forward bilge pump was completely clogged by debris, which always happens when the water rises to new levels.
The interior of the boat was saturated; besides the water splashing about from what was left in the bilge, the pounding seas found every crack in the caulking and forced water in. On the starboard side of the main cabin the pressure of the waves thudding on the sides forced the rubber gasket out from between the movable port and its frame. The result was that water gushed onto Simon’s bunk every time we hit a wave. All the other bunks were also soaked. As evening fell on the second day we retied the second reef in the mainsail in a wind that gusted to 45 knots. The wind slowly veered to the southwest and Fiona began to sail east of the rhumb line as she slogged to the south. After a few hours we gybed onto port tack and headed west, this produced a whole new set of leaks as the waves crashed against the port side. The navigation table was flooded and my laptop computer went the way of all flesh. Also, the inverter in the engine room failed along with many other victims of the flood. Two five-gallon jerry jugs filled with diesel disappeared from the aft deck.
To prepare for the expected heavy boarding seas of the Southern Ocean, the crew installed deadlights on the main cabin windows to protect them from breaking.
In due course I decided we had sailed far enough to the west and asked Simon, who was on watch at the time, to gybe onto starboard tack. When Simon grabbed the wheel, which had been locked to the wind vane, he found it spun freely; the steering chain was broken! It is testimony to Fiona’s sailing ability that for some time she had been holding a good course in tremendous seas and strong winds without any rudder control.
A quick look under the pedestal revealed the failure; the master link fastening the chain which passes over the wheel sprocket to the wire rope leading to the quadrant had snapped under the tension needed to swing the rudder in the heavy seas we were enduring. Fitting a new master link took only a few moments and I noted in passing that there was only one other master link left in the spares kit. The problem was that the wire rope leading to the quadrant had come off the sheaves and the grooves in the quadrant, which was swinging violently as the rudder oscillated in the heavy seas. Getting the wire back was not going to be easy; the quadrant, which is a heavy bronze casting, fitted neatly in the quadrant box with little room to spare. With Bob helping, I lashed the quadrant to the end stop with rope and slipped my fingers between the quadrant and the sides of the box to get the wire back in the grooves. If the quadrant slipped its moorings to the stop I was going to be short a few digits. Bob guided the rope into sheaves under the aft cabin sole at the same time. Eventually we got everything in place and tightened up.
Appearing out of the gloom
As we went on deck to try the wheel, Simon gasped and pointed ahead; looming out of the gloom and spray were the rocky cliffs of lonely Beauchene Island only a couple of miles ahead, the most southerly outpost of the Falkland archipelago. We had got the steering fixed just in time to gybe over and head southeast again. The wind was 40 to 50 knots with occasional gusts that hit 60 knots.
Fiona’s rudder quadrant with tight clearances to the surrounding box.
A few minutes later I was below when I heard violent sail flogging and Bob poked his head through the companionway hatch to say the staysail boom had broken! I rushed on deck to view a scene of devastation on the foredeck: shreds of Dacron lashed by the wind flew from the forestay and a port shroud. Bob and Simon struggled to get the staysail halyard down; the sail had split in half. When we got things a little more under control, it was possible to figure out what had happened; the swivel on the staysail outhaul block had sheared and the adjacent cleat had been wrenched out of the staysail boom. With this mess attached to the staysail clew, the sail had rapidly flogged itself to destruction. Although the boom had fallen to the deck it was not actually broken. I now faced a difficult situation; although I carried spares for the jib and mainsail, I did not have a second staysail. Without the staysail Fiona’s ability to sail to windward — particularly in winds of more than 25 to 30 knots when we weren’t using the jib — was seriously compromised. Most of the other failures already mentioned could be dealt with and Antarctica was still within reach, but the loss of the staysail forced a reappraisal of the cruise objectives. I knew there was nowhere nearby that could provide another sail. Probably Santos in Brazil was the best bet, but if we sailed to Santos there would be no time to head south again in the 2013/14 season, so Antarctica was out.
I was bitterly disappointed. The cruise had been in preparation for nearly a year, and, of course, David, Simon and Bob had signed up specifically to visit the Antarctic continent. Standing in the heaving cockpit with the spray flying in the howling wind, my heart was heavy; it looked like this was as close as we were going to get to Antarctica. I told the crew that I thought we had done our best, we had been very unlucky to run into weather like this and we had to consider how to get ourselves home in one piece. I felt our best strategy was to head to Cape Town, all the facilities were there that we needed — it was a long way, but it was downwind!
Accordingly, at 53° south and 59° west we turned the boat around and headed northeast. Sometimes turning around when the destination is so close is the hardest decision one can make. The trip to Cape Town would be no picnic; it was about 3,500 nautical miles away, mostly sailed in the Furious Fifties and Roaring Forties. As it turned out, the decision was the smartest thing I could have done; we later discovered the main water tank had shifted in the melee and cracked; half the fresh water had leaked out. Later I compared notes with a crewmember of a cruise ship navigating the same area; he said they were hove-to with a wind of 75 knots.
Broken chainlink from Fiona’s steering system.
During the next couple of days we rolled downwind, cleaned up the boat and tried to dry out our clothing and bedding. David rescued the hard drive from my flooded computer and pronounced the data could be retrieved. He managed to transfer the program used for SailMail to his own laptop so we again had limited e-mail capability, a major feat in the soggy, bouncing boat. One of the first e-mail messages I received was that the Antarctic pack ice was the farthest north it had been for 34 years, confirming that even if we had made it to the peninsula my original plan of an Antarctic circumnavigation would not have been feasible. The wind was variable and at times fell to 10 knots, but mostly the log mentions relative winds of 20 knots with swells rolling past the stern. I decided we would visit Tristan da Cunha Island, it was almost on the direct path to Cape Town. I had sailed there once before, 12 years earlier. I felt the crew would enjoy the chance to visit this isolated community. It was a leg of 2,000 nautical miles.
Second steering failure
Four days later, after enjoying typical 50s sailing, that is, frequent swells washing into the cockpit, what I dreaded occurred: the steering failed again. Fortunately the wind was in the 15-knot range and we hove-to under the reefed mainsail. On inspection I again found that wire rope was dangling from the quadrant and at first I just assumed the wire had stretched and dropped out of the grooves.
In order to keep the quadrant from shifting, we rigged the emergency tiller to the rudder post extension and Simon sat on deck holding the tiller over. Although the wind was not strong there was a heavy sea running and he had to work hard to hold the rudder in position. As Bob and I toiled in the aft cabin the boat rolled quite violently. Suddenly there was a bang like a gunshot and the quadrant crashed to the other side, fortunately our fingers were not in the way.
Simon was still holding the tiller in the original position; the substantial cast iron universal joint between the rudder post and the extension had fractured, this entirely due to the force of a wave hitting the rudder. As we had done on the previous failure, Bob and I tied the quadrant down with rope and finished repositioning the wire rope. When this was done it was obvious that the problem was not the wire stretching; something was broken. By this time we were all exhausted, the motion of the boat was fatiguing, night had fallen so we let Fiona lie hove-to while we ate a simple supper and caught some sleep.
The torn staysail stretched out on the dock at Cape Town.
I lay in my bunk with dark thoughts; without the emergency tiller there was no way of steering the boat if we could not fix the original system. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest land — South Georgia Island — which was hardly a haven. I had no idea how we would steer if we could not fix the failure.
In the morning I discovered that the chain had broken inside the steering wheel pedestal; to get at it, the compass and engine controls had to be removed. We all gathered in the cockpit and carefully stored each part as I removed them so that they would not get lost in the pitching, rolling boat. We fished out the chain from the sprocket attached to the wheel and I removed the broken link using a grinder on the universally versatile Dremel tool. I inserted the last master link in the spares kit to join the chain together.
This was the last major failure, although I felt the sword of Damocles was hanging over us each time I saw the wheel working hard. Running down the 40s we had the usual minor problems; chafe of the Aries lines, whisker pole topping lift breaking, etc., but basically the boat held together and as we worked to the ENE the weather moderated and it got perceptively warmer.
Tristan da Cunha
Three weeks after leaving Port Stanley, the misty outline of Tristan da Cunha came into view. We had sailed about 2,500 nautical miles. There is a settlement on the north coast called Edinburgh, where a few hundred souls scratch a living by fishing. When we arrived the wind was quite light and we anchored, with some difficulty caused by thick beds of kelp, a few hundred yards off the shore. Being an open roadstead with no lee, it was rolly. The person on the marine radio told us we could not land as the place was shut down for a public holiday.
Eric Forsyth aboard Fiona following arrival in South Africa.
The next day Simon, David and Bob dinghied over to the jetty while I stood by on Fiona. The harbor master assessed the conditions at the jetty and waved them away. So they returned to the boat, we put the inflatable away and upped anchor in a rising wind. Simon, on the bow, had to pull masses of kelp off the chain as it came up. We bore away for Cape Town, 1,500 miles to the east.
The weather north of 40° south was pleasant and we enjoyed wonderful sailing with favorable winds. Six days after leaving Tristan it was Christmas; out came our traditional tree and to no one’s surprise Santa Claus managed to leave us a few small presents. Cape Town was not far away and early on the morning of Jan. 2, 2014, the distinctive outline of Table Mountain welcomed us to South Africa. We had sailed 4,090 nautical miles from Port Stanley.
The weather after we left the Falklands was atrocious, and bore little resemblance to the forecast. It wasn’t the worst weather I have ever been in, but close. I felt particularly chagrined that I had exposed the crew to this rough treatment by Mother Nature when nothing in their previous sailing had prepared them for it. But they bore up wonderfully; David, Bob and Simon were great crew. As for myself, it is almost impossible to express the disappointment I felt when I made the prudent decision to turn away from Antarctica. When we swung Fiona’s heading to the northeast on that stormy night, I knew I might never get that way again, which some might consider a blessing. But for me it seemed like the end of a chapter of my cruising life.
Contributing editor Eric Forsyth has sailed his Westsail 42 Fiona nearly 250,000 miles, including two circumnavigations. He is a past winner of the CCA’s Blue Water Medal.
Fiona is a cutter rigged sloop, the usual inventory consists of a 105% Genoa jib, a Yankee jib, a spitfire jib which hanks on the forestay, a staysail, a fully battened main and a storm mainsail. The Genoa has a high cut foot, designed to maintain a constant angle to the sheet fairlead from the clew as the sail is reefed using the roller furler. The staysail is club-footed and originally the lower hanks were attached to a jackline so that the sail could be raised without jamming. This arrangement made the staysail difficult to reef, now the staysail is hanked on the forestay in the conventional manner and the clew is attached to the outhaul car by a small tackle, which is eased when the sail is raised and then hardened when the luff is taut. The full-size battened main is only used in temperate latitudes, for high latitude sailing the storm main is bent on. It has only two reefs but the second is very deep and when rigged the sail is virtually a storm trysail. I did have a storm trysail but it is too much bother to set it in heavy weather. On average the sails last about 20,000 nautical miles before they become too worn for economical repair, but some sailcloth lasts lot longer than others, regardless of the weight. When repairing a tear at sea I mark the area with a fiber pen and cut a patch to size and then seal the edges of the patch on the stove burner. It is then glued in place with contact cement, I use wooden blocks and ‘C’ clamps to get a good bond. When dry I complete the repair by stitching near the edges on the sewing machine.
MAST AND RIGGING
The 50 foot aluminum mast is stepped on deck. Four shrouds on each side provide lateral support using one spreader. The shrouds are 5/16 inch diameter. Fore and aft support is provided by the headstay, forestay and backstay. The forestay wire is similar to the shrouds but after breakages I increased the diameter of the head and back stays to 3/8 inch. The headstay is fastened to a four foot bow platform braced by a bobstay. I do not use running backstays, care must be taken to prevent chafe of the mainsail on the after shroud when running. In addition it is possible to bend the mast out of column if the forestay is tightened too much. I always set the after shrouds to a very high tension to offset this tendency. The presence of the forestay has undoubtedly saved the mast from collapsing on at least two occasions when the headstay broke and probably another couple of times when the bobstay let go. The original specification for the bobstay called for 7/16 inch diameter wire but this started to shred on my first circumnavigation and I replaced it with 3/8 inch stainless chain. This chain snapped unexpectedly in relatively mild weather during an Atlantic crossing; now I use ½ inch stainless chain.
I use slab reefing for the mainsail. All the cleats, cheek blocks, etc are on the port side of the boom, this has the minor disadvantage that the boat must be on port tack in order to reef the mainsail. If on starboard tack we generally jibe over and then jibe back after reefing. With practice a good crew can accomplish the maneuver and be moving again with the shortened sail in 15 minutes. The topping lift and outhaul are connected to 2:1 purchases inside the boom and fed to jam cleats at the mast end. The halyards are all 3/16 inch flexible stainless wire and usually last five to six years, although breakage is not uncommon due to fatigue at the sheaves. When reeving a new line and swaging a thimble on the end, the cut-off wheel on the Dremel tool yields a perfectly squared end for pushing into the sleeve. The halyard winches are the old-style reel type, unfortunately no longer available. I know these types can inflict a nasty knock to the operator if the ratchet brake is slackened with the handle still mounted when lowering sail. The cure is emphasizing the correct procedure to the mast hand. In all the years we have used them only one person got clobbered, fortunately without serious injury, although he had a sore wrist for a week. For a quick trip to the masthead or the spreader I mounted ratlines on the lower starboard shrouds made of 1×1½ inch ash, grooved at the ends to fit the wire and seized with stainless wire. These proved useful in high latitudes for stationing an ice spotter. They are also handy when the occasional failure of a jib sheet happens; I simply bring the sail near the ratlines using the remaining good sheet and shinny up to tie a new line because the clew is not accessible from deck level. Above the spreader are steps. These are great halyard snaggers and I rigged small lines from the steps to the upper shroud to prevent a halyard getting caught behind a step when it might flail around as the sail is lowered.
I fitted a roller furler for the jib several years after I started cruising on Fiona, I had begun to wonder why I was always wet; I guess it took that long to figure out that the wettest job on the boat was changing headsails. There is no doubt that with this gear the crew and I are considerably drier. The downside is that when it fails it is usually a major headache to fix. I now have my fourth roller furler fitted; before the last cruise I was so fed up with the set screws working out of the foil couplings that I drilled them out and tapped in aluminum pins that were then welded in place. This worked fine and I never experienced having the swivel jam halfway down when lowering the sail. Of course, the problem with this approach is that the foils don’t come apart very easily if one needs to be changed. On my circumnavigation via the Capes, 2002 to 2003, the lower unit split vertically into two; the drum above and the foil bearing a three inch gap below. A call to the dealer on Iridium confirmed it was not repairable on board, but they offered to replace it under the warranty, small comfort with Cape Horn 2000 miles downwind. The replacement unit is now showing distinct signs of suffering from the same problem after about 40,000 nautical miles, it is caused by wear in the circlip mating groove. Probably my most dramatic horror story is the one about the furler that demolished the headstay. We were heading up the Atlantic from the Horn and stopped in Brazil. On a masthead inspection I noticed that a couple of wires were broken on the headstay. Well, that left 17 wires still intact and I figured we would get home. I didn’t realize that the upper bearing of the topmost foil had come adrift and the top 6 feet of the tube were unsupported. As we sailed north a ‘V’ shaped slot developed at the top of the foil and as it was rotated it behaved like a pipe-cutter on the headstay. One day half way between the Cape Verdes and Bermuda we rolled up the sail and suddenly the headstay fell towards the deck, held up only by the halyard. We had to jettison most of the gear overboard, make and rig a new headstay and convert the jib to ‘hanked on’ using every shackle on the boat. That took two days and a lot of masthead time for me in a bosun’s chair. The headstay failed again a few years later because the rigger making the replacement stay overswaged the tang and partially cut through the outer wires. Now I use screw together compression fittings with no failures to date.
We have two dinghies on board; a 7 foot rigid fiberglass dink stored on the foredeck, upside down over the forward hatch. It acts as huge dorade and permits us to keep the forward hatch except in the heaviest seas. It can be launched in a few minutes using the staysail halyard. I have small outboard for it but it rows very easily with one or two aboard. For heavier work I carry a 10 ft inflatable with an 8 hp outboard. This dink is useful when we are spending a few days at anchor and possibly reprovisioning, but it takes the best part of an hour to get it fully assembled and the same to deflate. It has an inflatable floor and keel; I found wooden floors a pain to install. In temperate climes I keep it lashed to the aft cabin coach roof (deflated) but in high latitudes it rates a bunk to itself below. I built the rigid dinghy when I was building Fiona and it is still in good shape, but the PVC inflatables have a 5 to 7 year lifespan, in my experience the seams begin to go first.
The upper lifelines are vinyl covered 3/16 inch stainless wire; the lower lines are the same but without the vinyl. Once the vinyl is punctured the wire inside rusts much more quickly than the bare wire. I have replaced the lifelines three times during the life of the boat. An important safety modification was to incorporate a permanently mounted collapsible boarding ladder in the starboard gate. On a trip to Bermuda in 1987 I was knocked overboard at about 1 a.m. by a swinging boom; I made it back to the boat OK but the crew could not find the boarding ladder, which in those days was kept underneath a bunk. That won’t happen again.
The anchor windlass is a very robust design with a one-horsepower electric motor: it has to be able to lift the 280 ft of 7/16 inch chain I carry together with the heaviest anchor – a 65 lb fisherman’s. The baked-on paint finish deteriorated years ago and twice I have had it sand-blasted. The only mechanical problem has been failure of a thrust bearing. I replaced it with a washer during the cruise which functioned fine until I was able to buy the correct metric bearing when I returned home.
At the stern sits Victor the Vane; the much traveled Aries wind gear which has handled the steering for much of Fiona‘s mileage. Chafing of the steering ropes at the sheaves is ongoing and typically calls for replacement after several thousand miles. I have rebushed the moving spindles a couple of times. The only major mechanical failure has been a fracture of a 1½ inch diameter mounting strut when we ran our easting down between Cape Town and Australia in 2002. The heavy swell for day after day put immense strain on the steering system. We had no material suitable for a repair and put into Hobart where I ordered a replacement from England. Now I carry a couple of feet of aluminum tubing which can be cut to size should that failure reoccur. One idea I tried to increase the versatility of the Aries was to replace the plywood vane with an autopilot designed for use with the tiller of a small boat. This greatly improves performance downwind in light airs. An adaptor has to be made to convert the push-pull motion into the rotary action needed for the Aries, but that is not the major problem; the pilot I chose was simply not designed for day in, day out service. After a few weeks at sea the plastic drive gears and toothed drive belt wore out. I modified the unit to fix this problem but it is not something I recommend unless you are an inveterate tinkerer.
In most parts of the world diesel fuel is often contaminated with water, dirt and goodness knows what else. Commercial users, such as trawlers, employ elaborate filtration including centrifugal separators. Yachties have to get by with a simpler approach, but the price is often engine stoppage. For a while I carried a ‘Baja’ filter, so called because of the fuel in Mexico, it is used directly at the intake deck plate, but its problem is that the fuel filling rate is very slow and most dock jockeys don’t like to wait hours while you fill up. So I abandoned it. I depend on four filters to deliver clean fuel to the engine. I have seen installations, mostly on power boats, with two duplicate filter systems, selected by a ‘Y’ valve. When one clogs then use the other, but I simply don’t have the room. The system on Fiona is shown in the diagram, it evolved as problems arose. Fuel from either of two tanks is selected via shut-off valves and fed to a small wire mesh filter which can be disassembled and cleaned quite quickly. From there the fuel is led to an electric pump which is usually switched off, but which can be used to pressurize the system when purging air or refilling a filter when a new cartridge has been installed. The next filter is a combined cartridge type filter and water separator. The water collection bowl at the bottom of the filter has two terminals connected to an electronic alarm which signals a warning if the resistance between the terminals drops below a preset level due to the presence of water. I usually fit 10 micron cartridges in this filter and 2 micron units in the other filters. The filter/separator is followed by a conventional filter which incorporates a manual pump. After that the fuel is led to the engine lift pump, a vacuum gauge is teed into this line. After the lift pump the fuel passes to the engine-mounted high pressure filter, also fitted with a 2 micron element. From there the fuel enters the injection pump. In normal operation the electric booster pump is off, the lift pump produces suction to pull the fuel from the tank and the vacuum gauge shows how hard the lift pump is working to get the fuel through the low pressure filters. Typically the gauge indicates less than 5 inches of Hg when the filters are clean. As the filters become contaminated the vacuum will rise, I clean the mesh filter and possibly replace the first filter when the vacuum hits 10 to 15 inches. Above 20 inches the engine is in danger of stalling due to fuel starvation, if it does stop almost certainly air will be drawn into the fuel system and a lengthy purging may be needed to get it going again. The vacuum gauge doe not indicate the condition of the high pressure filter after the lift pump. When the injection pump failed I suspect I had allowed this filter to become too dirty and particles broke through causing the problem. Replacement on a routine basis is the only cure; injection pumps are expensive.
At the end of the 2002/3 cruise, 20 years after the boat was launched, I smelt diesel in the bilge and I could not find an obvious leak. I reluctantly concluded the fuel tanks were leaking but they were completely hidden out of sight under the cabin sole in the galley and dinette area. That winter I demolished the cabin furniture in this region and removed the tanks. Close inspection showed that one tank had developed a few pinholes along the bottom corner, originating from the inside. The tanks were black iron, I had bought them from Westsail at the same time as the hull as they were custom designed to fit the inside curve of the bilge. I had new tanks made to the same design using aluminum, epoxy painted on the outside. At the same time I changed the fuel gauges from an electrical/float type, which constantly failed, to the pressure gauge type which reads the head of fuel above a tube in the tank. This has worked reliably except when the tanks are actually being filled, so a careful reading must be taken before filling commences in order to know how much to add.
THE ELECTRICAL SYSTEM
Like most things on the boat this has grown in complexity over the years, I shall try to keep the description simple. The main engine-driven alternator feeds two battery banks which are isolated from each other. One is used solely to start the engine, the other runs all services including the anchor winch, heater, refrigeration, etc. The batteries are lead acid; three batteries can be connected in parallel via switches if needed. Two of the service batteries are intended for golf cart use, but even so there is a noticeable drop in capacity after two years. Both battery banks can be connected by a bolt-down link in an emergency. I have had to use this feature a few times in high latitudes to get enough oomph to turn over the engine in very cold weather. While under sail an alternator driven by the free wheeling propeller shaft keeps the system charged enough to support the refrigerator, lights and the GPS receiver. There is a built-in battery charger which is used with shore power, but a 1000W ac generator mounted on the engine can also be used to power the charger if the main alternator fails, although I carry a spare alternator.
At sea I use an inverter rather than the generator to obtain 115V, 60 Hz power at a nominal 1000W. The newer synthesized models have proved rather unreliable and I have replaced the inverter several times. I have a small inverter of low power, 300W, which uses the older style switching power transistors and a step-up transformer; it has never failed and is the back-up for the synthesized kind. Incoming shore power is directed to a transformer, rated at 200W, so that 115 or 230 Volt sources can be connected to the battery charger. The major problem in keeping the electrical system serviceable on an ocean-going yacht is not equipment failure but corrosion of all exposed conductors. Terminal strips and plugs and sockets are vulnerable. Use plenty of grease and WD40 to keep that creeping green slime at bay. I carry plenty of spare wire and crimp terminals and a good meter. A problem with modern digital meters is that they draw virtually no current to operate and thus may well indicate that 12 Volts is present on an open circuit that will not energize a load due to a resistance further back, often caused by corrosion. In this case a bulb with clip leads is a better way to track down a failure.
Over the years I have fitted four 12 V refrigerators with a capacity of about 1½ cubic feet, these commercially made units are not particularly well insulated, they draw about 3½ Amps and in the tropics can run for as much as 75% of the time, I usually turn the ‘frig off at night. Next to the refrigerator is home-made freezer of about 2 cubic feet with 4 inches of foam insulation. Even in the tropics it will maintain a temperature of about 20 to 30ºF over 24 hours with an hour of engine time. I built it using the reciprocating compressor from a car air conditioner, reliability was not great and it used R12, which I always stocked up on when I was in Brazil. Four years ago I completely rebuilt the freezer using a commercially available kit with a rotary compressor which used R134A. Although this refrigerant is not widely available outside the US the system has never failed or needed a top-up. I do carry a few cans of refrigerant and a technician’s gauge set.
When I was building the boat I installed a forced air heater that burned diesel fuel. It worked quite well for many years but died as I was rounding Cape Horn for the first time in 1992. I replaced it with a similar model, about 8,000 BTU, from the same company. In the intervening years the designers had added many knobs and whistles to shut the unit down should a variety of perceived unsafe conditions arise. So many, in fact, that after a shut-down a code is flashed to let you know why it shut down. The upshot, of course, is that it is hard to keep it going, particularly in really cold weather, which it doesn’t like at all. Some years ago I bummed an old heat exchanger off a car from a friend who runs a garage. I installed it behind a riser on the companionway steps, tapped into the engine hot water and mounted a blower at the back. It works like a charm when the engine is running.
The boat has two heads, one at each end. At the urging of my wife I originally installed an electrically powered type in the forward head. It was the same as the manual type with a husky motor to crank the handle. It did not work very well and in the damp environment the motor soon turned into a rust ball. Now the heads are all manually operated and apart from replacement of rubber parts from time to time have worked reliably, although the original units have been replaced over the years. Originally the waste treatment was a chlorinator/macerator, which drew a high current but seemed to work OK. Then this type of treatment became illegal and I replaced the unit with a 20 gallon holding tank. I was quite concerned that in most parts of the world there are no pump-out stations, so I mounted the tank above the water line and installed a ‘Y’ valve so the tank can be emptied either via the deck plate or into the sea when offshore. To facilitate this, a pump can be turned on to inject seawater into the top of the tank. A curious thing I have noticed for many years is significant salt build-up on the inside of the discharge hoses to the toilets during a cruise. This build-up can effectively halve the diameter of the pipe, necessitating replacement or a thorough cleaning every year.
For many years I used four burner stoves intended for an RV in the galley. They tended to rust out and require replacement every half dozen years, but they were simple and very reliable. About four years ago I decided to splurge and install a stainless steel beauty certified for marine use; its name implied you could make yourself a cup of tea hove-to under storm conditions. It has proven a disappointment, the safety system intended to shut off the gas in the event the flame goes out is very touchy and frequently prevents the burner from being lit at all. It is not easy to service; the burners are fastened with very small stainless screws that corrode in place and break when some torque is applied. I carry two aluminum propane tanks; the one in use is located in a gas-tight lazarette at the stern which is vented to the outside. The other is carried on deck. If I am uncertain about the amount of fuel remaining I weigh the tank on a 50 lb fish scale. Typically with a complement of three on board we use 2 lbs a week. Next to the tank in the lazarette is an electrically operated shut off valve. This was installed at the insistence of an insurance company, but the valve itself has failed twice due to electrical malfunction, resulting in the solenoid burning out. Conditions in the lazarette are very damp due to condensation when the propane is expanded during operation of the stove. Next to the stove in the galley is a most valuable item; a gimbaled counter. The stove itself is not gimbaled; I use stainless one-inch wide flat stock as fiddles to keep the pans in place.
“This article is in the Spring, 2004 issue of Ocean Voyager. Presumably to save space my comments on similar passages by other sailboats were omitted. At the end of the published version they succeeded in mixing up the time for Moitessier’s passage from Tahiti to Cape Horn for our passage from Hobart to Cape Horn. Moitessier was slower, the 5,700 nm trip took 49 days at an average of 4.3 kts. Fiona‘s passage from Hobart to Cape Horn of 5,600 nm actually took 42 days at an average of 5.5 kts.”
It seems in recent years that sailing the Southern Ocean and rounding Cape Horn after a passage has achieved an almost mystical quality; comparable, perhaps, to climbing Mount Everest. Of course, over a thousand climbers have made it to the top of Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary first did it and the bloom is apparently wearing off. Nevertheless, although thousands of sailors have sailed round the Horn in small boats an aura remains. Many books have added to the mystique, but, as often as not, the authors were describing the passage under special circumstances, such as single-handing or racing or crazily enough; both. I recently completed a circumnavigation around the major southern capes aboard my sea-kindly Westsail 42 Fiona with a crew consisting of myself, Bob Bennett and David Pontieri. My intention was to make a passage similar to the old square rigged clipper ships, east about from New York to New York with only a few stops. Our passage through the Southern Ocean began when we left Cape Town and sailed to near 50º S. We made a brief stop at Kerguelen Island (See the article on Desolation Island in Ocean Navigator for Mar/April, 2003) before sailing in the forties to Hobart, Tasmania. From there we sailed to 51º S for a look at Auckland Island and then sailed in the fifties around Cape Horn to Stanley in the Falkland Islands. We stayed in the fifties for a passage to South Georgia and then headed north in the South Atlantic to Brazil.
We carried several books that described similar passages in small boats and it was interesting for us to compare our experiences with theirs. It became clear that sail handling depended very much on the characteristics of the boat and, of course, whether the boat was in a race. For example we had Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth Circles the World, which describes his pioneering single-handed circumnavigation in 1966/67 with only one stop, at Sydney. Although he sailed alone he was racing–against the ghosts of the clipper ships, whose best time he wanted to beat, or at least equal. Gipsy Moth was specially designed for the trip; she was 54 ft long, rigged as a cutter ketch with a canoe stern. She carried 10 sails including a mizzen staysail and 2 large genoa jibs. She was very tender and Chichester frequently changed sails to avoid excessive heel. We also carried Bernard Moitessier’s The First Voyage of the Joshua, the story of the trip he made with his wife from Moorea to the Mediterranean around Cape Horn in 1965/66. Joshua was also a cutter rigged ketch of traditional Colin Archer double-ended design just under 40 ft long with a 7 ft bowsprit. Moitessier carried 7 sails, in his book he constantly complains that even when reefed the sails were too big. The reason is that in his first heavy gale from astern he trailed immense warps; 182 fathoms of rope, 280 lbs of pig iron and an old cargo net. This tactic was following the advice of Vito Dumas, an Argentinean who circumnavigated in the Southern Ocean in the 1940’s. Not surprisingly the boat was sluggish and did not respond well to the helm. When he ultimately cut the whole mess loose he found that the boat was sailing too fast. Neither of these sailors used roller furling, which had probably not reached a sufficient level of reliability at the time of their voyages It was especially interesting to read the largely anecdotal story of the 1996/97 Vendée Globe single handed race written by Derek Lundy entitled Godforsaken Sea. The participants in the Vendée Globe were extreme machines about 60 ft long, lightly built, some had internal water ballast and pivoting keel, all were designed for speed. The message that we got from Lundy’s book is that the tactics of boat handling, and even the impact of the wind and seas on the crew, depend to a large extent on whether one is all-out racing or merely cruising. The race entrants were justifiably nervous in the Southern Ocean; of 16 starters only 6 finished. Two were lucky enough to be rescued under amazing circumstances after suffering capsizes but a Canadian, Gerry Roufs, was lost at sea. In his last message before his disappearance near Cape Horn Roufs wrote, “You’re always under stress in these waters. If you drag things out too long here, you’re sure to come to grief.” Better than anything, this illustrates the difference between racing and cruising: after Fiona rounded the Horn we felt the weather was manageable and pushed on another 1,200 nm east to South Georgia even though we had to deal with considerable floating ice.
PREPARING TO MEET THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
Fiona is a cutter rigged sloop of just less than 43 ft with a 4ft bow platform, the hull is of the Colin Archer double ended style but without the outer hung rudder. The jib is on a roller furling gear. We carried 6 sails but we only used 4 in the Southern Ocean: the full main and genoa jib were used only in milder weather further north. Before we left Cape Town we bent on the storm mainsail and set a yankee jib in the groove of the furling gear. The storm main is a loose-footed, battenless sail of about 310 square feet with two reefs and a negative roach. The second reef is very deep so that essentially the sail functions as a storm trysail when that reef is tied in. The yankee has an area of 312 square feet, it can be reefed using the furling gear. The staysail is hanked onto the forestay, it has one set of reefing points and an area of 165 square feet. The staysail is attached to a club footed boom sheeted to a traveler. This arrangement requires the lower piston hanks to be threaded on a jackline; a system that very much complicated reefing the staysail. We also carried a spitfire jib of only 38 square feet that could be hanked onto the forestay above the furled staysail by using a 6ft long tack pennant. The sheets for this sail passes through blocks on deck padeyes placed inside the shrouds. On the assumption that running with jib and staysail would be the most common point of sailing I added a running backstay from the masthead to relieve the strain on the permanent backstay and to provide some security should that stay fail. A second whisker pole with associated mast-mounted padeye and topping lift was also added so that both headsails could be poled out. I assumed that the mainsail would be furled under these circumstances and only one running stay would be needed. In fact, these assumptions were not bourn out in practice.
The normal macroweather pattern in the southern Indian Ocean usually consisted of deep low pressure cells passing south of the boat’s track with associated fronts extending to the north. Typically these fronts passed us every four or five days with the wind shifting from northwest to southwest. To stay on course we were either broad reaching or running, shifting the staysail from the club footed boom to a whisker pole as we adjusted from reaching to running proved to be wet, tedious work on the foredeck. Although I have every admiration for Chichester, who appears to have spent much of his cruise on the foredeck shifting jibs or staysail, that is not my style; I prefer to limit the time on deck in cold seas to the minimum. Thus we evolved a different sailing plan than I had first anticipated; we left the staysail permanently bent onto the club boom but rigged both whisker poles, one on each side. The two sheets of the yankee were led through snatch blocks on each pole so that the sail could be sheeted to either port or starboard with ease. When running the yankee was poled to windward and we set the mainsail to lee, usually with a reef tied in. The staysail was sheeted amidships. The main boom was connected to a preventer that ran to a snatch block on the bow platform, from there the line was taken to the rope drum on the anchor winch where it was bowsed tight. The preventer is made in two parts; the aft end is shackled to the boom and terminates with an eye. The second part is connected to the eye with a snap shackle and led forward. In this way we could always hook up the preventer, even if the aft end of the boom is well out over the side of the boat and out of reach. This wing and wing arrangement proved very stable, the boat showed no tendency to broach and we left steering up to the Aries self-steerer virtually all the time. There were occasional gybes, of course, but the preventer kept the boom in check and it was up to the person on watch to hand -steer for a few minutes to bring the boat back on course. When shifting the point of sailing from a run to a reach we simply furled the jib, dropped the windward sheet block on the pole using the trigger and then reset the jib to leeward. The staysail sheet was eased and the staysail vanged by a four-part tackle connected to a bail on the staysail boom. In strong winds we furled the jib and reached under staysail and main, both reefed as appropriate. When shifting from port tack to starboard tack or vice versa we always gybed the boat; we found early on that tacking the boat in the seas commonly found down there was virtually impossible. To gybe we furled the jib, fell off the wind and moved the preventer to the other side. The main boom at this stage was controlled by the sheet and a four-part tackle on a vang strap. Then in a coordinated fashion we sheeted in the main as the boat was steered downwind until the boom was pressed over, the sheet was eased and the preventer re-rigged.
SOME TYPICAL DAYS
The local weather usually varied considerably from day to day, probably due to minor low pressure cells that complicated the macroweather systems mentioned above. For this reason the daily weather forecasts we received from radio amateurs in South Africa and Australia were usually wrong. That is not to say that the weather was always bad; the logbook records some pleasant sailing days and for one five-day period when we were sailing in the South Pacific Ocean at about 54ºS the winds were so light we never tied in a reef. But that was the exception, on average we spent about two hours a day on deck shifting or reefing sail. If the wind was behind the mast we tried to keep our speed between 6 and 7.5 knots by reefing or even furling the main. The higher limit was imposed to minimize gear failure due to wear and tear; more on that topic later. If the wind was well forward of the mast we would try to maintain course for wind speeds up to 35 knots, higher than that we usually hove-to with the staysail backed and the main reefed. For wind speeds up to 50 knots we tied the second reef in the mainsail and sometimes reefed the staysail. On a few occasions we bent on the spitfire jib.
Once in the South Atlantic Ocean in the 40’s the wind suddenly increased so quickly to 60 knots that we only had time to furl the sails and lay a-hull, but normally we tried to keep some sail flying. When reefing the mainsail we first furled the jib and then hardened the mainsheet so that the boat jogged 5 or 6 points off the wind. We always tied the reef with the boat on port tack as the cheek blocks and cleats for the reefing lines were on that side of the boom. Next we dropped the halyard, tied down the forward cringle and hardened the reefing line. We then used a short line round the boom to hold down the aft cringle and tied the reefing points under the foot of the sail. The helmsman then let the boat fall off wind to gain speed and rounded up so that the main luffed and the halyard could be raised. If we were originally sailing on starboard tack we would gybe and then reset the jib and proceed on our way. If all went well and we did not foul a halyard the whole procedure took 15 to 20 minutes.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
The wear and tear on the boat gear during a voyage of about 32,000 nm, about half of which was in the Southern Ocean, was simply enormous. The sails and associated gear in particular took a beating. Small tears and seams becoming unstitched were common for all sails. These were repaired as soon as practical using an old Read sewing machine that we carried on board. We glued on patches with contact cement and then stitched them. The result did not look too pretty but the repairs were strong and held until we got to the next port with a sail-maker. When we were hove-to with a reefed staysail backed to weather in a gale of 40 kts gusting to 50 kts a heavy wave swept over the bow and burst the staysail, causing a ‘T’ shaped tear several feet long in each direction. This was serious; we did not have a spare for that sail and it was a workhorse. It took us five hours to repair the sail but we were able to bend it on again by midnight of the same day. The staysail hanks tended to wear through due to the rubbing action on forestay and several had to be replaced. The grommets to which they were clipped also fretted the sail-cloth, which had to be reinforced when a new grommet was installed. On the mainsail the webbing holding the slides frequently chafed and had to be replaced; the slides themselves also fractured. About half-a-dozen times the jib sheets chafed so badly that they had to be replaced, occasionally they broke under load which resulted in a few minutes of feverish activity until the jib could be brought under control. One bad day when we were about as far from land as it is possible to be; 2,500 nm west of Cape Horn and 1,500 nm south of Pitcairn Island, we noticed that the lower unit of the jib furler had separated into two pieces and the foil assembly and jib were riding up the headstay. We furled the sail with some difficulty and winched David to the masthead so that he could push the wrapstop to the top of the foil and thus limit vertical motion. A call to the service center on the satellite phone confirmed our suspicion that it could not be repaired on board. However, the company was nice enough to replace the unit free of charge, but it was several months before we could actually pick it up.
It goes without saying that you are far from help in the Southern Ocean; when gear fails you must repair it yourself. The skills, tools and raw materials to do this must be onboard. For the sails we carried a sewing machine, a grommet punch, spare Dacron cloth, webbing and slides, spare sheets and replacement piston hanks.
Gipsy Moth sailed 6,600 nm to the Horn from Australia in 50 days; an average of 132 nm/day or 5.5 kts. Moitessier sailed Joshua south from Moorea until he hit the 40’s, where he stayed until edging down to 56ºS to round the Horn. The 5,700 nm passage took 49 days; an average of 116 nm/day or 4.3 kts. When leaving Australia Fiona drove south of New Zealand and stayed in the 50’s to the Horn, a route that shaved a 1000 nm off the distance compared to Chichester who elected to go north of New Zealand. The 5,600 nm passage took 42 days; an average of 133 nm/day or 5.5 kts. Christophe Auguin won the Vendée Globe with a time of just under 106 days; an average of 245 nm/day or 10.2 kts for the race; in the Southern Ocean his daily average was probably higher. For example, on one unbelievable day when west of Cape Leeuwin he covered 374 nm at an average speed of 15.6 kts.
Although there is always the risk of a catastrophic wave or storm in the Southern Ocean it is clear that the danger is greatly magnified if the sailor is pushing his boat to the limit. With a sturdy sailboat, properly handled, and a cautious approach to heavy weather I would classify the passage as only fairly strenuous cruising. But why do it? Well, why do people climb Mount Everest?
Just Why Was Darwin There?
by Eric B. Forsythby Eric B. Forsyth
“I discovered the basic facts in the article when I was reading up on Patagonia, the Chilean Canals and the Beagle Channel in preparation for the cruise there in 1998-1999. I frequently told the story to friends who were usually amused. So I decided to write it down and I submitted it to Ocean Navigator. They rejected it; too sexy I guess. In that case, I thought, it’s just the thing for Latitudes and Attitudes. They rejected it too, not sexy enough, I suppose. So rather than waste any more stamps I am going to post it on the FIONA web site.”
Anyone who navigates in the wild channels on the southwest coast of Chile or ventures near the bleak rockbound shores south of Tierra Del Fuego into the Beagle Channel must be struck by the profusion of British names given to hundreds of bays, promontories and distinctive features. For example, entering the Canal Cockburn near 55º S (the pilot warns to do so only in daylight in clear weather) you will find Cabo Gloucester, Bahia Euston, Bahia Laura and Bahia Otway. These names were given during surveys by the Royal Navy, which explored and charted the forbidding wastes starting about 1826. Ever suspicious of the French after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the Admiralty kept a large body of trained seamen on the books by engaging in a vast program of exploration of the world’s more remote places. One of the ships dispatched literally to the end of the earth to chart the desolate and wind-swept coast north of Cape Horn was the Beagle, destined, of course, to achieve lasting fame when its famous supernumerary, Charles Darwin, postulated the Theory of Evolution many years later. Incidentally, he also gave rise to Darwin Cordillera, Isla, Monte, Narrows and Paso on the charts. The seeds of the theory were first sown in Darwin’s mind by observations he made during his five-year cruise aboard the Beagle. But how Darwin came to be on the Beagle in the first place is a tantalizing mystery, and at least one explanation implies the world of science owes Darwin’s Theory to a rather unpleasant member of the local Yaghan Indian tribe nicknamed York Minster.
Four Indians wound up aboard the Beagle during its first cruise, 1826 to 1830. The skipper, Captain Stokes, had committed suicide and Captain Fitzroy was appointed in his place to complete the tour. Stokes is remembered by two Bahias, two Cabos, Monte, Ensenada, Punta and Surgidero (anchorage). Towards the end of the cruise Yaghan Indians stole the whaleboat which was vital for surveying the smaller bays and creeks inaccessible to the Beagle. Fitzroy made furious attempts to get it back, finally kidnapping the four Indians as bargaining chips. Unfortunately for Fitzroy, the Yaghans were a very primitive society with no chiefs and no concept of property. So there was really no one to bargain with and he never got the whaleboat back. At this stage he decided to take the natives back to England, his justification being that they could return in a few years speaking English, and trained in rudimentary agriculture so that the tribe could begin to lead a better life. Most important of all, for Fitzroy was deeply religious, they could become Christians. He argued the action could also help any sailors who might be shipwrecked on the coast in future years. The admiral commanding the South American station gave Fitzroy permission to transport them on a navy ship to England, all subsequent expenses to be borne by Fitzroy himself. It should be mentioned that Fitzroy was independently wealthy and came from a politically well connected family which traced its descent from an illegitimate child of Barbara Villiers, the powerful mistress of King Charles II.
On arrival in England in late 1830 one of the Indians contracted smallpox and died. The remaining three were packed off to a quiet village to receive an education in English and Christian values from two Church of England clergymen. Also keeping an eye on them was the coxswain of the Beagle, James Bennett, who doubtless kept Fitzroy briefed. News of the strange denizens of an unimaginably remote part of the world titillated London society and ultimately, in 1831, Fitzroy was commanded to bring them to an audience with King William and Queen Adelaide. The youngest of the Indians was a girl the sailors called Fuegia Basket, because she had originally been hauled up the side of the ship in a wicker basket. At that time she was about ten years old. Next to her in age was a young boy called Jemmy Button, so called because Fitzroy gave his father a mother-of -pearl button for him. Both Fuegia Basket and Jemmy were bright children who rapidly picked up a smattering of English and adapted quickly to the life into which they had been thrust. York Minster, by contrast, was probably in his twenties and was slow to learn, truculent and generally unhappy. Queen Adelaide was very taken by Fuegia Basket, she gave her a bonnet, a ring and some money. All the officers that were even remotely connected with the Beagle’s voyage were suitably honored by the royal attention.
After the audience things went downhill and the mystery begins: in the summer of 1831, less than a year after the Beagle‘s arrival, Fitzroy suddenly decided to take the Indians back to Patagonia, but why so quickly? As the Admiralty was not planning to send the Beagle back to South America for at least two years Fitzroy applied for a year’s leave of absence and hired a privately owned schooner to take the party back. This set him back about a thousand pounds, a substantial sum in those days. Riesenberg in his history of Cape Horn suggests that James Bennett caught Fuegia Basket and York Minster in flagrante delicto and communicated this Captain Firzroy. Just the news that the hulking York Minster was enjoying the favors of an underage girl would have been disastrous for Fitzroy’s career considering the royal interest. Worse, suppose she became pregnant? No wonder Fitzroy put together an expedition at lightning speed. This reason for Fitzroy’s haste is not supported by other historians, although it is extremely unlikely that anything was written about the matter and the speed with which Fitzroy moved is circumstantial supporting evidence. At this stage perhaps the reason for Fitzroy’s trip was whispered in the highest echelons of the government. A well-placed relative, Lord Londonderry, leaned on the Admiralty and suddenly the Beagle was ordered back to South America. In fact, Fitzroy forfeited the money he had already paid for the schooner charter. Of course, some kind of cover story was needed for this change of heart – enter Darwin. He would be charged to study the strange flora and fauna in remote Patagonia and points west. Ironically, both Fitzroy and Darwin believed the studies would confirm the story of creation told in Genesis. Fitzroy moved the Indians to Plymouth on October, 1831, where they were directly under his eye and out of the London spotlight. Repairs and modifications to the Beagle were rapidly completed and after a couple of false starts caused by bad weather the expedition left England just after Christmas, 1831. Besides Darwin there was a missionary who planned to disembark with the Indians when they got back to the Beagle channel. What happened to Darwin is history. What happened to the Indians, the missionary, and the subsequent attempts to civilize the region is also a fascinating history, but that is another story.
Cape Horn, Felix Riesenberg, Dodd, Mead and Co, New York, 1939
Fitzroy of the Beagle, H.E.L.Mellersh, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1968.
Darwin and the Beagle, Alan Morehead, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1969.
Three Men of the Beagle, R.E.Marks, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991.
The article below appeared in Latitudes and Attitudes in the late 1990’s. It was written before my trips round the world and to the polar regions. Perhaps another chapter is due! I wrote it under a nom-de-plume so as to avoid tipping off my many friends on Long Island who had crewed for me.
By Eric Boyland
Many cruising sailboats are run by the captain and his wife and/or family, or the captain and his girlfriend. When I was younger, my wife used to crew for me but she rapidly wised up and for much of my sailing career she let me and a crew do the hard work and then flew in when we got to some exotic port. Over the years I’ve sailed much of the Atlantic and some of the Pacific with a wide variety of friends and acquaintances who have greatly enriched the voyages. Some signed on for a few days, some for a few months. A small boat at sea can be a psychological pressure-cooker and there is no doubt that trying to keep the lid on has made me a better captain. I once saw a boat dock in St. George’s, Bermuda, after a passage from the Carolinas. The crew stormed off the boat hurling epithets at each other and the captain as they each hopped a taxi to the airport, presumably never to talk to each other again. It’s sad when that happens but it had been a long, wet sail to Bermuda. Fast, safe passages help morale no end. I cannot say all my voyages have been free of discord; later I will touch on some of the reasons for disputes and ways to avoid conflict.
Many of my crew have been relatively inexperienced, some of them making coastal or ocean passages for the first time. In the face of adversity some of them have been amazingly stoical; others have cracked. In the 1960’s I made a cruise along the southern New England coast as far as Nantucket. I had on board my wife, very young son and a new college graduate called Seth* to help with the heavy work. This was Seth’s first cruise of any length.
*I have changed the names in this article to protect the innocent, as they say.
As we sailed from Block Island to Cuttyhunk (yes, in those days it was actually possible to find room to anchor in Cuttyhunk!) the weather deteriorated into a stiff blow from the northeast and we didn’t get off Sow and Pigs reef at the south end of the island until night, in pouring rain at that. Once we had a lee I decided to run under power up the west side of the island to the entrance channel, which is at the north end. I asked Seth to douse sail and I started the engine. My wife was lying in a bunk below, the victim of mal de mer. After a few minutes I heard her calling from below and I slid open the companionway hatch.
“The engine is on fire,” she said weakly and I saw wisps of smoke coming from the access door. I asked Seth to put the mainsail up again and shut down the engine. He didn’t seem concerned when I brought him up to date. A quick examination revealed a slipping belt that had overheated. It didn’t seem to be burnt through so I adjusted the tension, started the engine, and we headed back to the island.
It was pouring cats and dogs and was as black as sin. I rather foolishly left the chart below so it wouldn’t get soaked. I could see the anchor lights of boats in Cuttyhunk harbor. My problem was to find the buoy that marked the western end of the channel to the harbor. I sent Seth up to the bow with a spotlight. He couldn’t see a thing and I got worried that I was going too far north, which would put the boat on the rocks to the north of the channel. Finally I reduced rpm and turned east.
“Keep a sharp lookout”, I yelled to Seth.
After a while he called back, “I can see something”.
“Oh, good”, I said, “Is it a buoy?”
“No”, he said calmly, “a wall!”
I had turned too early and run into the sea wall, which was put up to enclose Cuttyhunk harbor. At that moment the boat bumped heavily on the bottom and I reversed off without major damage. When we finally got the anchor down that night I poured myself a stiff scotch, but Seth took the whole thing in his stride. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.
Many years after the trip to Nantucket I decided to spend two weeks cruising in the Azores. As usual my better half made arrangements to fly there with our daughter. My problem was to find crew for the trip there and back from Long Island, New York, a period of about seven weeks. My first crewmember was a teacher who could get the time off in summer – a grizzled veteran of destroyer service in the Navy. Bill was good crew and was never fazed by bad weather. Finding a second crewmember proved more difficult. Finally a teenager, Peter, was ‘volunteered’ by his father. I was assured Peter was very good at sea having made many fishing trips to twenty miles off the Long Island shore on his father’s power boat. Peter was just the opposite of Seth – he worried about everything. There was also culture shock from finding himself trapped on a small boat with two old men who could actually remember World War II – to him this was an incident in remote history that was mentioned in his schoolbooks. Bill tried to allay his fears but he was petrified throughout the trip, particularly in bad weather. When we got to Horta the prospect of turning around in a couple of weeks and sailing back just floored him. We had to pick up my wife and daughter in Terceira, a day’s sail from Horta. As the time came to go there was no sign of Peter. I knew the Portuguese authorities would not be very impressed with me leaving odd crew members scattered throughout their islands. I had no choice but to leave with Bill and look for Peter later when we returned to Horta. By then he was in hot water with the police. Peter had camped out with some Portuguese kids with a predilection for drugs, and after a bust he bummed a berth out of one of the cruising boats in Horta. I bought a ticket so he could fly back with my family, and on the night before their trip we more or less kept him locked in the cabin so we wouldn’t lose him again. Bill and I sailed the boat back to Bermuda alone. In Bermuda we found a lost soul who needed a lift to the States. In retrospect the problems with Peter were entirely my doing. I was so keen to get somebody – anybody, that I accepted his father’s glib assurances. Peter and I both paid a price, but Bill enjoyed the trip to no end.
A Cruising Lady
Over the years many women have crewed on my boats. I think it’s a good thing – women bring an element of refinement that prevents the atmosphere on board from degenerating into the feel of an army barracks, something that is common with an all male crew. But one year I shipped a woman who certainly had a knack of looking at things in a different way. My summer cruise that year had the usual complicated crew swooping arrangement starting with a crew of two from Long Island to Prince Edward Island. Here some friends would meet us who intended to drive up to Prince Edward Island. My wife and daughter planned to fly to Prince Edward Island. One of my crew on the first leg would drive my friend’s car home from Prince Edward Island and one of the original drivers would sign up as crew for the continuation of the cruise to St. Pierre and Cape Breton Island. The crew for the first leg consisted of a teenage friend of my son’s, called Harvey, who had limited sailing experience in small boats on the south coast of Long Island. The other crew was a lady in her 40’s who was a teacher at a local community college, her name was Sally. Sally, it turned out, was a militant feminist who insisted she be treated the same as anyone else, which was OK by me. On the first evening she announced firmly that she would not wash any of Harvey’s dirty dishes after supper, but she may do mine if I was busy with captainly duties! Normally I like all the washing up done so we don’t start any night watches with the sink full of dishes. I was not surprised to learn, as the voyage progressed, that Sally was recently divorced. One bone of contention, apparently, was who cooked the evening meal. Before crossing the Gulf of Maine we dropped anchor in Provincetown for the evening. As we prepared to go ashore I suggested that we did not use the head for anything substantial while in such a congested anchorage, and that we could use the facilities on shore instead. Sally did not want to go ashore immediately so I returned with the dinghy for her in a couple of hours. When I got back to the boat and descended into the main cabin I was greeted by an awful smell. I thought the hose must have come loose on the chlorinator-macerator unit, but Sally soon provided the explanation. She approached me holding out a plastic bag – the source of the odoriferous emanation. Inside the bag was, to put it delicately, a large piece of human waste.
“This just slipped out while I was on the head”, she said. “As you said we shouldn’t put anything into the harbor I fished it out and saved it for you”.
“Well”, I said, “we’re all for the environment and all that, but you just tip it back into the head and PUMP IT OUT”.
As we approached Prince Edward Island in the Northumberland Strait we had a stiff blow that broke a few of the nylon slides on the mainsail luff. Sally helped manfully with the repair and as we got off the south coast the wind dropped and we had to motor. Within a few minutes the engine instruments showed we were overheating, and a quick glance at the exhaust pipe confirmed a distinct lack of seawater. Cleaning the filter didn’t seem to help so I said I would have to look at the intake pipe by putting on a mask and going for a swim. Sally pressed me for details and then said she would take a look. After all, she was a strong believer in equal opportunity. As the water temperature was under 40°F I didn’t argue. I showed her where the intake was located and Sally slipped beneath the waves as the boat rolled gently in the calm sea. She came up spluttering a minute later and after several tries found some plastic garbage stuck in the intake. As she came on board she was blue with cold. I gave her a large bath towel and Harvey made a warm drink. I asked how difficult it had been to find the intake pipe in the dark under the turn of the bilge.
“It wasn’t too bad”, she said. “It’s just that I’ve never been skin diving before!”
As soon as my friends arrived in Prince Edward Island on the ferry, Sally took their car and was gone. We hadn’t quarreled, but I never saw her again. Perhaps she felt the boat was too liberating.
One of the largest crews I ever sailed with for any distance consisted of four young men from the village where I lived. In the late 1960’s I sold the house, paid off the loan on the boat, and set sail for the Virgin Islands with my four companions. My wife with our young son planned to fly down when we arrived. The discussions in the cockpit as we ploughed our way to the first port, Bermuda, opened my eyes to an aspect of village life that had previously escaped me. My crew apparently engaged in a ceaseless campaign to ensure no virgins survived in the village for very long. I heard lurid tales of slinking off through the back door, pulling on their pants, as their girlfriend’s parents came in through the front door. I also discovered why the sailboats in storage on their cradles in the local yard tended to creak at night, even though there was no wind! By the time we got to Bermuda I was convinced of two things:
The young women of Bermuda were at serious risk and, I deserved a letter of commendation from the parents in my village for temporarily removing this bunch from circulation.
After we had completed customs formalities in St. George’s I called a taxi. The driver was a portly black man with twinkling eyes.
“Take this gang to the nearest whorehouse,” I said, “I,ll pay for the fare”.
“Well cap’n,” he said “there aren’t any whorehouses in Bermuda, there are too many amateurs!”
In the end they settled for mopeds, what they got up to I didn’t want to know about. I found solace in the bar of the St. George’s Dinghy Club, which in those days was on Ordnance Island, right next to the dock. The barman mixed a memorable rum punch and my faint memory of our stay over consists of drunken evenings and ghastly hangovers the next day.
One of the gang, Chris, had just returned from Vietnam, where he had been a combat photographer. It turned out he had also picked up a few bad habits over there, such as smoking pot. After we left Bermuda bound for St. Thomas I came on deck just as the sun was rising. Chris was at the tiller with a serene look on his face. I stretched in the early warmth of the sun on my back. The sun on my back! A quick glance at the compass showed we were heading west, St. Thomas lay to the south.
“Chris”, I said, “What course are you steering?”
“Gee, I dunno, does it matter?”
When we got to St. Thomas the crew scattered, I ran into Chris several times down island as he crewed for charter boats. The last time I saw Chris was on a small island in the Grenadines – he had been marooned by the captain of a luxurious Italian charter boat for throwing overboard their best silver with the garbage!
One of the most disappointing incidents concerning crews occurred on a planned one-year trip to the South Pacific. Months before the trip began, an old friend, Chuck, who had crewed with me before, including the Virgin Island caper and a transatlantic trip we both made as crew for someone else, signed up and made the necessary arrangements, including renting his house. For the third member of our team he proposed his brother, Vince, who was very keen to gain some knowledge of ocean sailing as he planned to take his own boat to the Pacific some years down the road. We assembled on Long Island in early June, my wife and daughter planned to join us in Tahiti in late August, a schedule that gave us just enough time for short explorations of the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands along the way. We stopped in Bermuda and had a fairly hard sail to St. Martin. Chuck was seasick much of the time. In St. Martin I picked up some rum and visited old sailing friends who had bought a condo there. On our last evening my friends held a farewell dinner for us all. As we sat in the cockpit prior to going ashore for dinner Chuck and Vince astonished me by saying they were quitting the voyage at this point, and I should look for more crew “on the waterfront”. That wasn’t my idea of how to crew a boat that still had 5000 miles to run before my rendezvous with my family in August. The reasons they gave for jumping ship were vague, and although Vince had a somewhat prickly personality our relationship had been amicable enough. I persuaded them to sail to Panama before returning home. I then made a phone call to my long-suffering wife before we left St. Martin, explaining the situation. She promised to get some friends lined up to fly to Panama.
We had a sleigh ride before the Trade Wind to Panama. Once we got there the brothers helped me transit the boat through the Panama Canal but left abruptly in Balboa as we tied up briefly to drop off the Canal pilot. There were no hard words, no discussion of any problems that might have yielded to a solution; the chemistry was just wrong, I guess.
The afternoon they left I sat in the cockpit sipping rum and looking at the huge bridge that carried the Pan American highway over the Panama Canal. What the hell was I doing, I thought, alone on a boat I couldn’t sail alone for the 4000 miles that still separated me from Tahiti. I began to empathize with Captain Bligh.
My wife had been able to locate only one friend, Irving, who was prepared to take time to sail to Tahiti. He had sailed with me before to Newfoundland. By profession he was a clinical psychologist, so I felt he would fit right in. As it happened we had a wonderful sail to Tahiti, visiting the Galapagos Is, the Marquesas and the Tuomotos before arriving in Papeete a few days before my family. Irving had a wonderful sense of humor and took all the usual ups and downs of sailing in his stride. He tended to sweat profusely in the heat and when we got to Hiva Oa after a three week reach from the Galapagos Island he celebrated by sinking a 2 liter bottle of cold coke in one sitting!
After a couple of months in French Polynesia my family and friends departed and I began to search for crew to replace the brothers for the trip to Cape Horn and the South Atlantic. Ads posted in local marinas and newspapers flushed out a couple of likely lads, one French, and one Polynesian. Then tragedy struck. When I made a phone call to my wife about spare parts she was shipping down to Tahiti, she said she had developed symptoms that may betoken cancer. And, indeed, it turned out she had developed ovarian cancer, a very fast-growing and debilitating condition. So I told my crew the trip was off, arranged for the boat to be hauled in Raiatea and flew home. Unfortunately my wife’s cancer did not respond to treatment and she passed away in September following my return.
It had been a very difficult period. After my wife’s death I found myself up to my eyeballs in lawyers, accountants and the IRS. I decided to get back to the boat as soon as possible; it had been moldering away in the tropics for nearly a year. I found a couple of young men, Paul and Gerry, who had six months to spare and we flew back to Raiatea exactly a year after I left there. I got my crew for the trip back in two ways: an ad in a cruising club newsletter and the local grapevine. The ad aroused the interest of Paul’s father, who had completed a circumnavigation. Paul had crewed for some legs of his father’s trip. For the last couple of years he had worked as a cook. As it turned out he had had some disagreements with the state police over his driving habits -dropping out for a few months was a good idea. Gerry had been the summer sailing instructor at the local yacht club. He had attended a merchant marine academy for a couple of years but ironically, spent too much time sailing and his grades had suffered.
This was going to be a difficult trip; we were going to sail over 16,000 miles to Bermuda round Cape Horn. There would only be a few ports of call. We would have to leave French Polynesia in three weeks in order to catch the best weather off the Horn and to avoid the start of the typhoon season in Polynesia. Fortunately I made the right choice: Gerry and Paul were both in their early twenties and good company for each other. They brought along a stack of cassettes of extremely dubious music, but we managed a compromise on the volume of the stereo in the main cabin! When we were doing our final provisioning in Papeete, Paul was most useful in selecting food; he also did his share of cooking during the trip. Gerry was very adept at repairs on deck and he basically took over the maintenance of the sails and rigging. We arrived in Bermuda in late April having had a good sail without serious disagreements. Gerry went back to school and Paul started to study for a Coast Guard license.
The Care and Feeding of Crews
Perhaps the success of Cape Horn trip was due in part to the lessons learned on many other cruises. Here are a few golden rules:
1) The captain/owner should NOT use the possessive pronoun during the trip it is “our” boat, “our” problem, etc. Do not say “my” boat.
2) On long trips give each crewmember some responsibilities. For example, sail repair or even cleaning out and inventorying lockers.
3) Get the crew interested in some classical nautical activity for an hour a day, for example, tying knots or celestial navigation.
4) On a long trip everyone has habits that get under the skin of someone else. It is amazing how aggravating little mannerisms can become. Try to deal with them diplomatically, under no circumstances allow a shouting match to develop. Once a serious row has occurred it is difficult, on a small boat, to erase the friction.
5) Have a happy hour each afternoon. Serve a small alcoholic drink to those who want one. I encourage competition to see who can make interesting snacks from leftover bits for happy hour.
6) In heavy weather try to keep the crew dry and warm. If you have no heater use heat from the engine to dry clothes the next time you run it. Have soup or warm drinks available anytime. Also have a “free” locker containing candy, chocolate, preserved fruit, etc. This food should be available anytime someone feels like a snack.
7) If a crewmember is really seasick, try to cover their watch so they can have a few extra hours in their bunk.
8) Loud music can be a problem. Have a couple of Walkmans available with lots of AA batteries.
9) Finally, you will run into the odd weirdo. I once read that at least 1% of the population is mildly psychopathic. So despite your best efforts some friction may arise. If you can, try out potential crew on short trips before you make long ones with them.
2001: It is ten years since my wife Edith passed away, I often think of our experiences together. Typical is the article below which I wrote for the Cruising Club News, here it is:
I always look forward to a Maine cruise; the coast is certainly among the finest in the world. In the fall of 1999 I planned a six-week sail from Long Island which would give me a little over a month to savor the delights of autumnal cruising in Maine. Apart from a couple of overnights on the way north, and on returning, it was to be a leisurely sail, with anchorages every night.
It didn’t quite turn out to be as leisurely as planned: we were chased up the coast by Hurricane Floyd and we took shelter in the barely adequate Cape Neddick harbor. After that we had a strong wind to Portland where we effected a crew change followed by delightful and quiet anchorages at Jewel Island, Ebenecock Harbor and Harbor Island. We gathered mussels for happy hour, bought lobsters for supper and sipped on Caribbean rum in the evenings.
In a brief stopover we restocked a few things at the charmingly old fashioned Port Clyde General Store and had a warm shower. Then it was a mooring in Tenant Harbor, still busy with lobster and fishing boats. We were now in beautiful Penobscot Bay. What better than to anchor at Butter Island for lunch and then walk among the pine trees to the summit for a breathtaking view of the bay? To add a dose of reality the usual afternoon breeze sprang up and we had a hard beat to Rockland, complicated by dodging lobster trap floats with the sun low in the west.
In the morning we dinghyed ashore for coffee and donuts. When I browsed in a used bookshop, the cool, crisp Maine morning was suddenly contrasted with memories of my first visit to the tropics, nearly forty years ago. These were triggered by a book for which I had been vainly searching since that visit.
I thought of the blast of hot, steamy air that greeted my wife, Edith, and me as we stepped off the plane at St. Thomas in the winter of 1961-62. I thought of the busy quay with native schooners unloading fruit and goods (also, no longer) as we searched for a Brixham traveler called Maverick, on which we had arranged an eight-day cruise in the Virgin Islands. She was operated by an American couple, Ruthie and Jack Carstanphen, who had purchased her in Antigua several years before.
The boat had a fascinating history; she had been built at the height of the Depression by J. A. Upham and Sons at their yard in Brixham, England along the lines of the traditional ketch rigged fishing trawler, but fitted out as a yacht. The owner was a Colonel Beddington who had retired from the Indian Army and whose ambition was to spend the rest of his days holding a fishing pole over the stern of his boat in the most exotic locations he could sail to. The owner punningly name his dream boat Cachalot.
Lying in the quiet, empty (as they were then) anchorages of the British Virgins, Jack regaled us with stories of the Colonel’s adventures in the Red Sea and on the west coast of Africa. These were drawn from the Colonel’s book, published in 1938, entitled We Sailed From Brixham, a copy of which resided on a shelf in the main cabin. This was the book I had looked for since that cruise, so imagine my surprise when my eyes lit on a perfect copy in the marine section of that shop in Rockland, Maine. How did it get there? If only books could talk. I bore my prize eagerly back to the boat and re-read it for several days. It was surprising how much space the Colonel devoted to the fish he caught and how they tasted.
An early morning start brought us through Fox Island Thorofare and lunch at Moores Harbor, Isle au Haut. During the tranquil sail to Stonington for the night, with little more than seven and eight knots of wind, I left sailing up to the crew as my mind turned over those distant adventures of the Colonel and the Cachalot more than sixty years ago. How he loved to fish!
It reminded me of an incident during our ’61 cruise; a fellow passenger caught a large fish, which he gave to Ruthie for supper. That evening we had fish, chopped in cubes, baked and served with a thick tasty sauce. There were many comments about the superior taste of really fresh fish. Years later, when Edith and I lived aboard our first ocean-going yacht, Iona, in the Caribbean, we ran into Ruthie, who confessed we had eaten cod that night. She and Jack had a fear of ciguatera, often contracted from locally caught fish, so she had simply pushed the fish through the galley port and thawed out some cod from the freezer.
After the Colonel’s book was published the sequel was quite tragic; in 1939 Cachalot was cruising in South African waters when war was declared. The Colonel volunteered Cachalot to the British admiralty for wartime service, which was accepted. As he returned to the English Channel, the boat was attacked by a German plane and the old soldier was shot to death at the wheel. After the war a grateful navy installed a new engine and the boat eventually found its way to Antigua, where she was chartered for fishing trips and renamed Maverick. When Jack bought her, she still had the original tan colored sails, probably unused since the Colonel’s time.
We sailed all the way to Castine with a brisk Southeast wind that had frustrated us in our first choice of destination for the day; Brooklin and the wooden boat school. By the next day it was still blowing from the Southeast, but more strongly, over 25 kts with gales forecast on the NOAA weather channel. We reached quickly across the bay to Belfast, the friendly harbor master waved furiously as we approached the shoal water at the head of the harbor and then gave us a break on the fee for tying up at the town dock. After all, the season was over.
Belfast is a very traditional Maine town with many interesting, substantial brick buildings in the downtown area. As we discovered when we sailed south to Camden, Belfast has so far avoided the horrendous tourist development that has completely changed Camden since my last visit, about a dozen years ago. We put into Rockland for another crew change; the bus service to the coastal towns makes it a good meeting point. The weather was turning colder, our short day trips headed generally southwest, into Muscongus Bay and past Seguin Island to Casco. We had several blustery days, some with driving rain. Frankly, I quite enjoy that kind of sailing, but at this stage I had but one hand crewing, a charming lady from Italy who was not too impressed with Maine’s beauty when viewed through slitted eyelids in the driving rain.
When we moored in Portland prior to heading south I found a wonderful old bookshop, piled high with books stacked higgledy-piggledy on chairs, the floor and sagging shelves. I asked the proprietor if there was a marine section — he indicated a dusty corner with a sweep of his arm. I browsed through the dozens of books, many were familiar but I saw one stranger — The Yachtsman’s Yearbook for 1935, edited by Alfred F. Loomis. I flicked through the pages; suddenly a familiar word caught my eye — Uldra.
Again, the memories crowded in of that wonderful cruise aboard Maverick ? of my wife Edith sitting in the sunny doghouse and idly turning over a brass bowl used as an ashtray. On the reverse side it read “Uldra, Royal Thames Yacht Club, 1905.” That rang a bell, because we had first read about Uldra in Dennis Puleston’s charming book, Blue Water Vagabond, the story of how he and his friend Geoff Owen had sailed Uldra from England to the Virgin Islands in 1931. Dennis now lives about a mile from our house on Long Island’s south shore, and is quite a celebrity among the sailing fraternity; he has been a CCA member for many years.
We asked Jack where the brass bowl had come from. “Well” he said, “Uldra was a small boat some crazy Englishmen sailed here before the war, it sank during a hurricane years later and we found the bowl while snorkeling on the wreck.” “But we know Dennis,” we told him, “he’s our neighbor.” Jack was amazed he was still alive. “If you let him know I’ve got it,” he said, “I’ll mail it to him.”
Mr. Loomis had included two articles about Uldra: the first, written by Geoff Owen, described a cruise from the Virgin Islands to New York. Geoff had apparently acquired a small dog and a wife, Nicky, who had no sailing experience. Nevertheless, he conned her into making the long cruise to New York via the Bahamas. On the way, they picked up Dennis in the Dominican Republic. The second article was written by Nicky, who discovered Uldra had no plumbing beyond an oaken bucket.
Her account was wryly written, poking fun at herself. For the nonstop leg to New York from Nassau she had been responsible for laying in provisions. But she cut it fine; on the very night they finally staggered into the New York Yacht Club anchorage at E. 26th St. she had planned to serve their last protein ? dog food pie. In fact their original destination had been Montauk Point, prior to sailing down the Sound, but an unreliable watch, the loss of the log rotator and guesstimation of their dead reckoning position put them over 100 miles west of there. How lucky they were to sail past Cape Hatteras without disaster!
Our trip to Long Island consisted of lengthy daylight legs; Portland to Gloucester, where we waited three days for a fair wind to the Cape Cod Canal, then a mooring at South Dartmouth. We waited out Hurricane Irene, safely tied up at Wickford Yacht Club, before leaving for the last leg around Montauk Point to Fire Island Inlet and the tricky channel in Great South Bay to the Patchogue River.
A few weeks later Dennis Puleston, now in his nineties, gave a talk and slide show about the local wild?life. He is a recognized authority on ornithology. I asked him about Geoff Owen. “Oh” he said, “Poor fellow’s dead, died during the war.” I reflected that Jack and Ruthie had sold Maverick many years ago and Jack had died from the complications of skin cancer. Maverick sank at anchor at St Thomas during a hurricane in 1995, I believe.
On our second vacation aboard Maverick, Jack had showed me how to take a sun sight with his sextant. On the same cruise I met some South African cruisers heading for New York who ultimately took Edith and me on our first transatlantic sail. I had kept in touch with Ruthie via the odd letter so I sent her a card from Rockland saying I had found Beddington’s book. She never saw it. When I got home I saw her obituary in a sailing magazine.
Only my wife, Edith, would have fully comprehended all these skeins of memory; but sadly, she passed away ten years ago. The loss of a spouse of many years is also the loss of shared memories. Perhaps that is why I am writing this yarn.