I had been dreading our offshore passage for quite some time, but I never imagined it to be as bad as it really was. I had gone a long time without showers, been uncomfortable, and done overnight sails before, and I didn’t like it. But, after this voyage, things that I once thought were a big deal now seem inconsequential.
On December 9th, we left behind hot showers, grocery stores, and telephones, and headed out into the great blue waters of the Atlantic. From the very beginning, the winds were very strong and the seas were quite large, and that should have been a warning to us. The conditions were reminiscent of the time when we were bringing the boat up from Long Island after just purchasing it. We had made it up to Portland, Maine, and we were heading to Boothbay, but it was so incredibly rough and windy that we turned back. That is what we should have done this time, but didn’t. The main reason we didn’t turn back this time was because the winds were favorable for getting us across the Gulf Stream quickly. We flew across the Gulf Stream even faster than we expected, but on the other side, unbeknownst to us, there was a low-pressure system, that as it moved up on us, developed into a gale. Now, I thought we had been in gales before, but in comparison to this, those other times weren’t so bad. We have been in twenty-foot seas and forty know winds before, but not at the same time or for such an extended period of time. With the constant, erratic movement of the boat, after a number of hours we were all beginning to feel nauseous. Before the end of the day everyone, except, oddly, for me, had lost their lunch. I think the only reason I didn’t was because I was able to position myself so that the motion was a bit more comfortable, but even then I felt the chunks beginning to rise in my throat every now and then. My poor father had it worst because he was constantly going up on deck or on the bow to check, secure, or fix something. And, an unbelievable amount of critical things were breaking left and right and he had to go fix them. The first day, the parrell balls and the rope they go on, for the fore, and the fore gaff jaws broke, and without these the fore was useless.
The second day out, the weather had not improved remotely, but quite the contrary. Looking back, those first three days out to sea were the three most awful days I can remember, and of those three unbelievably horrible days, the second was the most horrid, making it the single worst to date. I’m not quite sure if this holds true for everyone else, but I think it was probably way up there for them too, as far as bad days are concerned. That day, everyone was at their sickest, or at least I was. I came very close to needing the bucket, but I fought it somehow. Also, within that 24-hour period, the fore and main lazy jacks came loose and had to be taken off to save them, and the stitching came out of the jib and staysail. The jib could eventually be repaired under way, but the staysail was in ribbons, only connected by the wire running down the side. Fortunately, we were able to replace it with the storm jib.
Also, to make an already horrendous situation infinitely worse, by now, absolutely everything above and below deck was completely and utterly soaked. We had been taking large amounts of water over the bow, which alone would have been bad enough, but we were in torrential rains for over 48 hours, so finding a dry spot on the boat was very difficult with our numerous openings and leaks around the boat.
Water swirled like miniature whirlpools on the various parts of the deck when we hit the trough of a wave. With this action, the copious amounts of rope all over the boat would uncoil and slosh around in enormous matted heaps. A few were even washed overboard, so we had to worry about them snagging the propeller.
The main congregating place on the boat, the cockpit, was a foul smelling swamp, with the fragrance of wet dog and vomit permeating through out the boat. This odiferous bog was also the bedroom for most of us because the motion was too bad in our own bunks or they were too wet, or both. The motion was so horrible that you couldn’t stand to be up foreword, above or below deck, for more than a few minutes without tossing your cookies. Down below, the only parts of the boat in use were the two aft cabins, the chart table, and the head. Being a bit more sensitive to the motion than I am, my brother couldn’t stand to be down below at all, and couldn’t use his cabin, so I did. Unfortunately, his cabin leaked tremendously in numerous places. The upper bunk was covered with a multitude of soggy things that I tried in vain to keep dry. The bottom bunk, which I slept on for a while, had at least three leaks over it. I slept in sort of an S shape to avoid the wet spots, but as the days went on, the wet spots grew so that they were unavoidable. I eventually ended up on the floor, which is about a 3 by 3 square of hard wood, a bit oddly shaped because of the contours of the boat. I somehow contorted myself to fit on that small square and use my comforter as both cushion and blanket.
As miserable as these conditions were, and miserable they certainly were, mine were probably the best. Everyone else was crammed into the dank, smelly cockpit, but eventually some of them ventured out to find bits and pieces of dry floor, and once a spot was found it was usually fought over. Fortunately for me, no one else could fit in that spot, so I had no competition.
But, the adults onboard were usually quite thankful to have even a small bit of hard floor to sleep on because most of the time they functioned on very little sleep. Although, sleep was not the only thing we were deprived of. With the terrible lurching of the boat, there was no way my mother could have cooked anything, but that was just as well because no one felt like eating, and I was the only one who could keep anything down. On the rare occasion that someone did eat anything, our diet consisted of salted crackers and ginger ale, for, apparently, they are supposed to help settle the stomach. But it didn’t work very well for most of us, although it did help me a little bit.
The third day out wasn’t quite as bad, just because nothing broke. The weather was pretty much the same, perhaps very slightly improved. By now, my father had almost completely run out of dry clothes from going out on deck and getting completely drenched so frequently. But, even foul weather gear wouldn’t have kept him dry. Because of the constant violent movement of the boat, the stays for the masts and bobstays for the bowsprit kept loosening up and he would have to go tighten them. Tightening the bobstays on the bowsprit was a particularly difficult and miserable job. Occasionally, the bowsprit would become completely submerged because of the enormous waves, and several times my father was unfortunate enough to be on the bowsprit when it was submerged. One time, he was lying down on it tightening the bobstays and holding on for dear life. (Of course, he had a safety harness on and was tied off, as anyone up on deck had to be.) A wave approached, the bowsprit went down with my father on it, and water flooded the forward end of the boat. The bow came back up and his head came up a bit further and issued a spurt of water, like a whale.
The bilges were incredibly full by now, from all the water that had leaked through the decks, almost to the point of seeping up through the floorboards. I could hear the water sloshing around with the motion of the boat very clearly, especially because I was in such close proximity to the bilge, as I was sleeping on the floor.
Those first three days out to sea were a blur of misery, each day melding imperceptibly into the next. After being beaten up for three days straight we were ready to turn back. None of us had eaten more than a few crackers since we left the protection of land, and most of the time those came back up. Just moving became an Olympic event, one which none of us had the strength for. I spent most of the time lying down on that small bit of floor with my hand over my mouth, so it was just barley tolerable. But, after not eating and barely sleeping for three days, I think my father had had enough, and this was HIS dream. So, we actually were turned around for a short period of time. But, after being turned around for a few hours my mother got on the radio to ask for weather advice. We had heard from other cruisers about a man in Canada who, I would guess, is a retired weatherman and boating enthusiast who was also a ham radio operator, and frequently gives weather advice to cruisers in just the sort of predicament that we were in. We had intended to check with him before we left, but the coastguard chose to board us for a safety inspection just as we were about to check in on the weather, so we missed his forecast.
So, my mother braved the vomit-inducing motion of the boat down below to use our ham radio, for she is the licensed ham onboard. We were advised to go as far east as quickly as possible to get our of the system, so we turned on the motor and steered a compass course as close to 90 degrees as we could keep. Although our boat is an excellent one for offshore sailing and the like, it doesn’t have very good fuel capacity, so we had to watch that very carefully.
Once we were clear of the system we were becalmed for about a week. For the most part, this was a rather pleasant change, but we didn’t have the fuel capacity to motor the whole way. So, our wonderful weather resource told us which way to go to find some wind. Who knows what we would have done without him. But, once we did find some wind it was rather light, and it takes at least 15 knots to start moving this 33 ton tank, but it was certainly better than nothing.
If it hadn’t been so incredibly rough and so long overall I think I would have a much more positive opinion of offshore sailing. By the 5th day out we were able to stay down below and cook, and everyone was starving after eating next to nothing for quite a while. It was quite an interesting event to sit down and eat a meal. Our gimballled table rocking back and forth made it impossible to eat off, but it did a good job of keeping everything from going everywhere, so we ate off our laps.
By now the motion was such that I could sleep in my own cabin. I was quite surprised to see that it had stayed relatively dry, in comparison to the rest of the boat. It was still fairly wet, and my cushions needed to be dried out for a while. After they were dry enough to sleep on, the salt in them and my sheets attracted more moisture, so they were always kind of damp, but it was a big improvement over a tiny piece of floor.
For a few days we were in an area of the Atlantic known as the Sargasso Sea, which was named after the large patches of Sargasso weed floating around in the cobalt blue waters. One of the things that I found quite amazing was the incredible shade of blue the water is out there. I think Crayola should make a crayon that color; it is unlike any other shade of blue I have ever seen. It was especially neat to see the water swirl around in the portholes in my cabin when a rather large wave hit. It was like a swirling blue raspberry creamsicle slushie.
My favorite part about offshore sailing was seeing all the stars. Out in the middle of the ocean the only unnatural source of light at night was our own running lights, and on occasion, a pinprick of light from a passing vessel. The night sky was more incredible than any planetarium I have ever been to. I could identify all sorts of constellations, planets, clusters, the Andromeda galaxy, and even our own galaxy, the Milky Way. I can’t imagine seeing the Milky Way any more clearly with the unaided eye than we did our there, it was incredible. But, the mist incredible natural phenomenon we saw was a meteor, or at least we think it was a meteor, that was at least ten times as bright and impressive as any we saw in the Leonid meteor shower. I’ve never actually seen a comet, but I think this meteor looked somewhat similar, it even had a tail. It was about 1/10 of the size of a full moon and just as bright. It streaked across the sky quite slowly in a rather big arc, leaving a small trail of light behind it. My father, his friend, my brother, and I stood with our eyes and mouths as wide as they could go, completely in awe of the workings of nature and our universe. My mother, who just happened to be down below at the time, really missed something.
I also enjoyed seeing the flying fish. We had quite a few wander onto the boat, but unfortunately only one made it back into the water alive. I think the ones that jumped onboard probably came one at night, because in the dark, they couldn‘t see the boat. And, the one that survived the jump came aboard at night. I was steering well after sunset, and all of a sudden I heard what sounded like a candy wrapper flapping around in the wind. I looked over to where the noise was coming from, but it was very dark so I couldn’t really make out what was making the noise, but it was much bigger than a candy wrapper. I told my mother, who was half-asleep in the cockpit, to come see what it was. I couldn’t go myself or else we’d quickly go way off course. It turned out it was a flying fish, so my mother tossed the little guy back in. For anyone who has never seen one close up, flying fish are rather peculiar little things. They look a bit like a small mackerel, except for their spiny little wings, which are really large, elongated pectoral fins. As strange as they look up close, they are even stranger to see from afar. Gliding over the water in schools, from a distance they look like swarms of insects hovering over the waves. It’s amazing to see how long they stay out of the water, it’s quite a bit longer than I would have expected.
After a little while, I started to get used to the routine of daily life in the middle of the ocean. I even got to like steering. It was nice to sit up at the helm, listening to my CD player, and look out over the sparkling blue waters. It could be deathly boring at times, but there was still a bit of unpleasant excitement every now and then.
On the 8th day out, we had a bit of that unpleasant excitement. The throat on the main broke, so we had to let the peak down as well, fix the throat, then haul the sail back up. Putting up the sails on a gaff-rigged schooner isn’t exactly easy, and it’s especially difficult when you’re rolling around, because you have to pull and somehow keep your balance at the same time. As annoying as that was, that same day, something even more critical and difficult to fix broke.
An unexpected wind shift caused an uncontrolled jibe, which broke the port cross tree spreader tip. At the time, we were rolling around quite a bit, and the masts were going back and forth at unnerving angles. In spite of this, my father had to go up and fix it. I had been up the masts oiling the batons when a ferryboat went by back in Rockland harbor, and the boat rocked a bit and the ratlines shook with me on them, and that was a bit nerve-wracking. I can only imagine going aloft in rolling seas must have been a million times worse. With the masts swinging like a pendulum, my father went up. Of course he clipped on once he was in reach of the spreaders, and somehow was able to fix it, and we could continue south.
After a few more days of going discouragingly slow, worrying about fuel consumption, and trying to head towards a sufficient amount of wind and the Caribbean, we sighted land on December 22nd, after 13 days out to sea. Those dark green, tall, volcanic islands shrouded in mist were sure a sight for sore eyes. As we got closer, some of the islands looked like moss-covered rocks that had just been placed in a pool of water. Once we were between the various islands, we had to go through a very narrow passage. After not even seeing the stuff for over two weeks, it was a bit awkward navigating around the land. The fact that we could see bottom was also a bit disturbing, even though it was deep enough.
Just as the sun was setting we reached the entrance of Charlotte Amalie harbor, St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But, just as we were about to go in, an enormous cruise ship was on its way out. So, we figured we’d just wait for him to go by, but just as he was clear, another one was on its way out. Since it was now fairly dark, we called him on the VHF and said we were going to sneak by him while he was turning the corner. And it was a good thing we did because a third one was also on its way out.
But it didn’t matter, we had finally made it. We anchored by the light of civilization, and went to bed soon after. I think we all had the best night’s sleep we had had in a while. And tomorrow brought the promise of showers, for after over two weeks with out one we were all unbearably disgusting. We had also diminished our fresh food supplies so that we had been eating out of cans for the past day or so, so restaurants and grocery stores were also going to be a luxury. The list of all the little things that we had been deprived of for those two weeks just goes on and on, but the important thing was that we had made it. We had all worked very hard to get where we were, and there were lots of obstacles preventing us from getting there along the way, but we had beaten them all. We finally made it to the golden Caribbean and we were ready for some serious recreation. But, we were already dreading the trip home.
After swapping sea stories with other cruisers who have made the same voyage with similar experiences, they talked of selling the boat and flying home. But after a few drinks and swapping sea stories with others, they were ready to set off again. The same seems to be happening to us. As time goes on, and we explore more interesting places, that ordeal just becomes more of the adventure. For as it is stated in one of our favorite magazines, “the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is the attitude.”