The offshore passage was always a dark cloud on the horizon as we worked our way down the East Coast, the huge hurdle that we knew had to be cleared before we could get to go cruising around the Caribbean. So it was almost with some relief that we pulled away from Norfolk and were at last finally getting it underway. Just as we left, we were treated to the spectacle of a massive aircraft carrier cutting across Hampton Roads, circled by a protective ring of coast guard patrol boats commanding over the radio for no one to approach within 100 meters.
Before long we passed over the submerged portion of the bridge-tunnel connecting the end of the Delmarva Peninsula to the rest of Virginia, and were out to sea. From the outset, it was rough and unpleasant, but this was expected. The strong winds were, in a way, what we wanted: it would be bad at first, but we would quickly shoot across the troublesome gulf stream and get into the gentle swells of the broad ocean.
We struggled to keep this in mind as we suffered through the constant chop. Normal activities below became either impossible or sickness-inducing, and the crew was confined the wheelhouse and two cabins at the stern of the boat. Entering into the watch schedule of 4 hours on, 8 hours off, the crew became out of synch both from each other and from the natural day-night cycle. Life became a of blur tired watch, attempted sleep, little food, and sea sickness, sometimes in light, sometimes in dark, against the backdrop of the relentless rolling seas.
But after what was probably about two days of that, things did get a little better. The first part of the plan had worked: we were over the gulf stream, the wind was less, it was sunnier, and though the waves were still big they were at least broader. We devoured a delicious dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce. Semi-normal existence returned to the boat. If only the waves would flatten a little more, this really wouldn’t be too bad…
But instead, it was going to get worse. A front was bearing down on us from the north. Since the passage takes roughly two weeks, hitting a storm or two is inevitable, but based on our weather info this one wouldn’t be too bad. We were actually happy about the wind, watching our speed pick up and time to go drop down. But as evening fell, the wind kept on picking up, faster and faster. The fore jibbed uncontrollably. Ted yelled out: “everyone get ready, we’re dropping sails before we break something.” Ted and Horatio harnessed up to head forward on deck to ready the lines, while Bev took the wheel, and the rest of us handled the sheets. To drop sails the boat has to be held up into the wind. In the extreme gusts, this became impossible. The wind grabbed the sails and wrenched the boat over. Scott and Ted stood knee-deep in ocean as half the deck was buried in water. From the wheel house we heard the terrible racket from below of our belongings flung to the floor. But now was not the time to clean up. We tensely waited, able to do little but watch, and occasionally grab a line from trailing overboard. Finally, the main was down. The wind could not overpower us anymore. We took down all sails and motored through the night.
This terrifying ordeal was not the last of it, but it was the worst. As the days passed, high winds appeared and abated, and we became experienced at reefing or dropping, unreefing and raising, and just generally adjusting the rig to whatever was needed. Though Ted and Horatio always did the largest portion of the work, even the indoor wheelhouse crew (Isaac, Danica, Molly) became more confident and useful in adjusting the sheets. Though still our main activity was just watching the people on deck filled with anxiety that someone could fall over (this never happened, and everyone always wore harnesses outside).
I have talked about the bad, but there were good moments too. Offshore, the ocean is a stunning deep blue, almost purple. Sargasso weed stretches out in long ribbons atop the swells, trailing to the horizon. Flying fish occasionally burst forth without warning to dart across the wave caps. There is nothing comparable to the feeling of being at the wheel in the open ocean, with no other object in view but sea and sky (or at night, stars) and a strong breeze sending the boat crashing through the waves.
The moments of excitement, good or bad, passed by, and as the days stretched on, overall the word to describe the offshore passage is just long. We settled into our watch schedule, sleeping or resting in off-hours, with few other activities. The chart program’s time-to-go estimate receded oasis-like before us, predicting time three days remaining for what seemed a week. But inevitably, after 12 days at sea, we did finally reach the land, if not our original goal. With winds too much from the east, we gave up on reaching St. John, turned south to Puerto Rico, and with relief pulled into San Juan harbor for some much needed rest.