Bumming around the North Atlantic

I didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a voyaging vagabond. In the Azores, some 2,600 miles down the line, the transition from cruiser to vagabond simply happened when plans for a voyage to West Africa dissolved and I found myself without a boat.

In my nine months of vagabonding, I traveled 11,000 miles on six different boats between 35 and 63 feet long. I sailed as far north as 50° N and as far south as 10° N. I circled the Atlantic and sailed the length of the Lesser Antilles, voyaging on vastly differing vessels, meeting a wondrous variety of people, and earning a little money along the way. It was generally easy while at sea, challenging while on land, and always satisfying, no matter where I was.

Early in July, aboard a pretty little 35-foot yawl-rigged coastal cruiser named Crazy Horse, two friends and I careened out of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay on a lively beam reach, bound for Bermuda 635 miles to the southeast. We knew little about the boat, having sailed her for only a month and never offshore, so this was the shakedown cruise for our untested vessel. Dreams of Africa temporarily evaporated in the face of a lumpy and wet Gulf Stream crossing. Reports that Hurricane Chantal, packing winds of 85 knots, would pass through our neck of the ocean didn’t help. A year-long voyage, every detail of which had been chiseled in stone, quickly became a wide-open affair. A hundred miles from Bermuda, delicious uncertainty loomed at every glance at water and sky.

While the forecast was worrisome, we reveled in the geometrical progression of unknowns that crashed our party. Apparently, this was why we had gone to sea, and we agreed to cheerfully meet whatever challenges came our way. To cement our accord, our immediate response to the hurricane advisory was to sing along to a Nanci Griffith tape, conduct tradewind-cloud Rorschach tests on one another, and savor the privilege of being strong, healthy, and willing to duke it out with whatever the sea had to offer. During the calm before the storm, I recall cracking, “Hey, a bad day offshore is better than a good day at the office.”

Crazy? Yup. Stupid? You bet. But after our deskbound lives, set in an all-too-controlling culture and era, we were starved for real challenge and honest adventure. With nerve-endings tingling, we flaunted our excitement in the cat-and-mouse game that was developing with Hurricane Chantal, which was rapidly closing in from the west. For a day we ran to the east, away from the storm and our destination and farther out into the Atlantic. For another day we beat back toward Bermuda into 30-knot winds and monstrous hurricane-generated seas, burying the bow in the gut of every wave. A cruise ship that crossed our stern the last night out talked to us on the VHF and estimated the wave-height at more than 30 feetabout the length of our boat.

We entered St. George’s Town Cut six days after we left Rhode Islandwet, slightly beat up, and relieved to be safe on land. Crazy Horse was soaked inside and out, having developed countless leaks during the blow. Her wheel-steering, overstressed by high winds and big waves, had blown a bearing, a replacement for which would have to be air-freighted from the States. Her roller-furling headsail had torn along a seam. By and large, however, she had come through the storm in fine shape.

But the clock was ticking; it was July 19, deep into hurricane seasonthe worst hurricane season in memoryand we’d hardly started our transatlantic voyage. And we’d arrived at The Onion Patch at the worst possible time to effect repairsduring Cup Match, the island’s biggest annual holiday, when all normal activity ceases for two weeks as the parishes of Somerset and St. George’s duke it out on the cricket field. Sail lofts and chandleries close, import agents disappear, and any boat parts shipped from the United States sit at the airport waiting until the end of Cup Match to clear customs.

Running out of summer

Of course, Bermuda is not a half-bad place to wait. We snorkeled over the North Shore reefs, closed the Wharf Tavern after more than one Thursday night jam session, fell in love with the cruise ship girls, and simply fell in with the local wharf rats, with whom we sang through the night of lost loves and glorious freedom. Three weeks after we’d arrived, Crazy Horse sailed out Town Cut with leaks caulked, sail repaired, and new bearing finally in place. We were on our way across the Atlantic Ocean, our departure made just in time to avoid another hurricane headed straight for Bermuda. But it was already August, and we were running out of summer.

Crazy Horse climbed to about 38° N to catch the westerlies, the prevailing summer wind that voyagers traditionally ride to Europe, but this was the “summer of no westerlies.” The train of tropical depressions that marched from Africa toward the West Indies had introduced schizophrenia to the normally predictable North Atlantic weather patterns. The first four days out of Bermuda, the wind was on the beam and we made tracks; during the final 15 days the wind was non-existent or right on the nose. It was a long beat to windwardabout 1,500 miles from the time the westerlies diedand it took 19 days to raise the grand volcanic peak of Pico. The previous summer, a middle-aged couple of my acquaintance, sailing a 32-footer, completed the passage in 12 days.

Weather perversity aside, we didn’t want the passage to end. We’d had calms; a six-hour gale, with winds of more than 40 knots, in which Crazy Horse truly frolicked; and, when we were running short of food, we caught a tuna, which we ate for two breakfasts, two lunches and two suppers. Above all, we became sea creatures, nearly as pelagic as the petrels, whales, and dolphins that daily welcomed us into their world.

We tied up along the wall in the marina at Horta, Faial, Azores, 100 years and 38 days after Joshua Slocum. It was also nine days short of Labor Day. We knew we weren’t going to Africa this year, and I had only one year to play. The skipper thought wintering and writing in Sao Miguel sounded nice. I decided to get on the first boat heading anywhere as long as it was heading north or east.

Three boats away from us was a 48-foot cutter called Testadura (Italian for hard-headed). She was skippered by a young South African who’d had a long, arduous, short-handed delivery from the British Virgin Islands, where Testadura had been in the bareboat charter trade. Testadura was bound both north and east, 1,300 miles to the south coast of England for a mega refit, and she was looking for crew.

I signed on, said my good-byes, and moved my gear aboard. As autumn approachedand I had shipped all my cold-weather clothing home from Bermuda because I was bound for AfricaTestadura made for the gray and chilly western approaches to the English Channel. The vagabonding game was afoot, and there appeared to be very few rules: Simply be a good shipmate, trust in the goodness of life, and keep moving on wherever the winds were willing to take you.

We left Horta in company with a small schooner, also bound for the south coast of England, sailed solo by a vivacious South African named Barry. Barry followed in our wake until dark, then went over onto the other tack, which put him on a northerly track that would, the pilot charts promised, put him in a zone of strong westerlies within a week. Testadura and her skipper were tired, so we gambled on a tack toward Gibraltar, leaving open the option of putting in at Lisbon, Bayonne, or La Coruña in Spain should we need repairs, food, water, or fuel.

Lucky voyager

As is the habit of the singlehander, Barry engaged his self-steering windvane and went below for supper and a snooze, and we watched with horror as his stern light closed with the lights of a westbound freighter. Attempts to raise him on the radio were unsuccessfulsinglehanders seldom bother to monitor the VHFand we could do nothing but watch in disbelief as his boat jogged deliberately toward what appeared to be certain disaster. For a few white-knuckle seconds, Barry’s lights were lost in the profusion of lights on the cargo vessel. Then, miraculously, they popped out against the black sky off the freighter’s stern.

At sea, voyagers often say they’d rather be lucky than good, and that night Barry had an angel in his rigging. As the schooner’s lights grew faint in the distance, I pondered vaguely the fragility of life on both sea and land, and I coveted even more this brief time I had stolen to sail the sea. And, now, without a planwithout a real scheduleI was intoxicated by a sense of true, open-ended, off-the-clock freedom.

“Right on the nose or non-existent” again describes the wind for the first 12 days of this passage. However, nothing could dull my heightened sense of adventure. As we neared the western approaches, nutrient-rich offshore rips attracted bottlenosed, spotted, Clymene, spinner, and common dolphins, as well as fin whales and long-finned pilot whales. Marauding schools of bluefin tuna chased flying fish, and frenzied gannets, skuas and shearwaters circled the action below, feeding on scraps. The westerlies finally filled in, allowing us to crack off toward Land’s End at the entrance to the English Channel.

The channel had assumed the status of a pilgrimage for me. We were bowled over by a sense of history as a fresh breeze on the port quarter pushed us northeast between Brittany and England’s West Country in the wakes of the Crusaders, Drake’s Golden Hind, the Pilgrims’ Mayflower, Nelson’s Victory, Allied convoys, German U-boats, the U.S. Normandy invaderswhat ocean vagabond could deny kinship with the mariners who had plied this hallowed strait before him?

With the westerlies came gales and thick fog, in waters crisscrossed by cargo ships, naval vessels, and fishing boats. Testadura lived up to her name, with no help from the skipper who, intent upon getting to England in time for a lucrative motor yacht delivery to Lebanon, refused to shorten sail. On the second day of gales, the mainsail, rendered diaphanous by five years under the Caribbean sun, ripped just above the third reef, and the jib blew out for the second time, leaving us with one ineffectual staysail. Late in September, and none too soon, Testadura limped into the Hamble River under power.

I paid my vagabonding dues in England. I took a room on the Hamble River and, for a month, days began at 7 a.m. and ended around midnight. When I wasn’t cleaning and painting boats at a local marina, I pounded the pavement and walked the docks between Southampton and Chichester seeking a berth to the Med or the Canary Islandsa good month after most boats already had left. I made inquiries at marinas, chandleries, and pubs; scoured the bulletin boards and posted my own notices; and followed up every lead.

By late October, as frost coated the docks and curlew and brent geese proliferated on the river, I still hadn’t found a ride back across the Atlantic. Then, during an apparently fruitless day on the Southampton waterfront, I heard that Creighton’s Naturally, an old Whitbread Around The World Race boat, was “somewhere in the Hamble” and looking for crew. The next day, in driving rain, I began my search, slogging up the shoreline footpath to Swanwick to see if she was lying at Moody’s Marina.

Among the broken shells on the path, I spied a ringed flint “lucky stone,” which I picked up and rubbed fervently, willing the Fates to bring me a miracle. Within an hour, I had a ride to Las Palmas on Creighton’s. The next day, I was offered a berth on 30-foot steel ketch bound for New Zealand in the spring. Then I met Ian MacGillivary, delivery skipper of a 23-year-old Swan 55 yawl named Golden Aura, headed for a winter of racing in the West Indies. While GA’s outboard profile was classic and sensuous, her interior, in design and construction, was not suited to offshore passage-making. She was an ex-drug boat, bought at auction, and she’d been stripped by DEA personnel and flimsily rebuilt below by freshwater carpenters.

The token Yank

Ian and I hit it off, and I signed on, the only American in an all-Brit crew”Every boat has to have one”. After two weeks of fitting out and provisioning (for me they laid in a tub of peanut butter and some salt and vinegar potato chips), with a crew of sixone of whom, ironically, was a London narcwe were on our way down Southampton Water, out the Solent, and down-channel toward the open sea. On November 9, abeam of Ushant off of Brittany and 60 miles from The Lizard in Cornwall, my 0800 log entry reads: “Very bleak, wet and raw. I lose feeling in my hands even with gloves on, but we take 40-minute tricks on the wheel, allowing us to get warm and dry.”

For most of his 38 years, our skipper had been a river rat on the Itchen River, which flows into Southampton Water. He lived on a houseboat among the curlews and oystercatchers, ran a small boatyard, and, in his spare time, restored a 1904 gaff-yawl Ytene Rose. Three years earlier, “Mad Dog” MacGillivary had skippered one of 10 British Steel Challenge boats that raced around the world “the wrong way” against the trade winds. He had earned that sobriquet when, at the start of the race, he stole the lead by threading the needle between Ile d’Ouessant and mainland Brittany, a dangerous route that none of the other boats dared take. He brought his Pride of Teaside in fifth, and won a prestigious European seamanshipaward for rescuing a crewmember who had fallen overboard in the Southern Ocean.

Ian was tough. On a dare during the Challenge, he eschewed mittens or gloves while in the Southern Ocean, in the neighborhood of 60° S. Ian could climb hand-over-hand up the forestay and slide down the backstay. He could singlehandedly, and with apparent ease, make multiple sail changes on a boat Golden Aura’s size. He could quickly repair damage to any part of the tired, old boatand he was often called upon to do so. And he had an impish sense of humor and sense of play that surfaced in countless ways during the 5,000 miles I sailed with him. More than once, in the middle of the night, the hatch over my bunk would open and a redolent flying fish would join me in my repose.

Only Ian and I had made long ocean passages, and his mix of fun and fiber was tailor-made for green crew making an autumn crossing of the Bay of Biscay. No one reads the fine print in a dream, and a Force 9 southwest gale 200 miles north of Spain’s Cape Finisterre proved a baptism of fire for most of the crew. After two days with headwinds gusting to 50 knots and two knockdowns, during which the old boat was reluctant to recover, the score was Biscay 1, Golden Aura 0.

The toll from the gale included a torn headsail and mainsail; roller-furling mechanism failure that dictated a dicey sail change; multiple hatch, deadlight, and mast partner leaks; and two head doors smashed when crew, unaccustomed to moving about in a seaway, were thrown into them by waves. Ian decided to put in at La Coruña to make repairs, dry out, rest up, and re-group.

Ian had been immense during the gale, using fast, simple, and non-threatening heavy-weather sail-handling techniques I’d never seen before. On the way into La Coruña, he also dusted off his warcraft, singlehandedly winning a food fight precipitated by my watch when, snacking in the cockpit, we cut the centers out of two fruitcakes, leaving only the perimeters. Ian gained control of the companionway and, thus, the food supply, and finished us off with a relentless whipped-cream assault. Such was the mercurial shipboard life with Mad Dog MacGillivary.

The 1,000-mile passage to the Canaries was routine. The northeast trades finally kicked in 150 miles west of Cape Finisterre, and thereafter the impression, especially at night, was of careening diagonally down an endless grassy slope, always just on the edge of control. It was exhilarating, often surreal sailing and a hint of great things to come on the 3,000-mile run to the West Indies.

After reprovisioning in the Canaries, Golden Aura was again ready for sea, and she dropped to below 20° Nabout the latitude of the Cape Verde Islands finding steady 20- to 25-knot tradewinds that stayed with her until landfall at St. Martin, Netherlands Antilles. Because of his offshore experience, the token Yank had been named watch leader for the crossing, which initially didn’t settle well with his British mates. Our watch was composed of a young, powerful Englishman; an energetic and cere-bral Irishman;anda middle-aged Am-erican vagabond with sea miles. We complemented one another. We needed the stren-gth of the Englishman for frequent reefs and sail changes with antiquated equipment; the energy and intelligence of the Irishman to conceive of new, inno-vative ways to solve old problems; and the judgment of the Yank to know what to do and when. Through our needs for one another, differences dissipated and a team materialized. When we drew the graveyard shift between 0200 and 0800, the Brotherhood of the Sarcophagus would meet to conjure up outrageous scenarios, pillage the larder, and cover each other with plundered rice pudding and cream.

So we fell into a tradewind spell that transported us to another time, another place, another dimension. With a bright moon casting silver light through tradewind clouds, the sea at times assumed fantastic land characteristics, a broad meadow backed by a forest here, an island with a clump of trees over there. I mused in the log after one night watch: “across an ancient land, unchanged since time began.”

The teamwork developed on our watch came into play 1,000 miles east of St. Martin. December 11 began as a red-letter day. We reached the halfway mark of our voyage, broke the 1,000-mile mark to St. Martin, the 4,000-mile mark from Southampton and the 2,000-mile mark from Las Palmas. We saw a “moonbow” caused by moonlight on a rain shower, as well as a massive double rainbow, and we saw our first boat in 12 days. But then we were chased down by a Force 11 blow that threatened to disassemble the boat.

A trade is rejected.

We spoke to the 56-foot ketch Challenge, also bound for the West Indies with an all-American crew, save the cook named Rebecca from New Zealand. After rejection of our skipper’s offer to trade his token Yank for their token female/Kiwi, Challenge relayed a Herb Hilgenberg forecast that predicted “little or no wind below 20° N.” Golden Aura was at 18° N and we raised all available sail to keep her moving in the dying breeze. At 2200, we motored as zephyrs boxed the compass. When lightning was spied to our north and east, we coveted the wind that likely accompanied it. As they say, “Be careful what you wish for; your wish might come true.”

The wind picked up gradually, and we cut the engine and began sailing. By midnight the wind was gusting to 30; by then we’d dumped the mizzen, taken a big tuck in the genoa, and put a couple of reefs in the main, while the little staysail just kept pulling. It was a great sail, a screaming tradewind reach, but dark clouds materializing astern had us considering more drastic sail reductions.

The perfect ending to a red-letter day? Not quite. To quote the journal of one of my mates: “The helmsman counted out the wind speeds as they climbed above 40 knots. Without any warning, we gybed as the wind changed direction and the boom slammed into the running backstay. As he read 47 knots, we crash-jibed again and the vang pulled out of the mast with a resonant report.” With the wind still accelerating, we dropped the main and took in most of the jib, but by the time we reached the staysail it was torn from luff to leech, its shreds buzzing like a swarm of hornets in more than 60 knots of wind.

Our six-hour watch officially ended at 0200. At 0330, exhausted but with adrenaline still pumping, we went below to decompress over beer and chips before collapsing in our bunks. Dawn revealed two tears in the mainsail just above the second reef and a broken Norseman fitting on the starboard aft lower.

The rest of the passage was same-old, same-old: wind 18 to 25 out of the northeast, boat speed more than eight knots, FFP (Flying Fish Patrol) every morning around the decks, and medubbed the “nervous sailor”spreading the gospel of “reef early, reef often” with no success whatsoever. My journal entry for December 15: “The Brits’ bravado seems to be generated by adrenaline and the legacies of Robin Knox-Johnston, Chay Blythe, and Nelson before them. They come off-watch with crazed eyes and voices up an octave, roaring uncon-vincingly, “Great fun – 40 in gusts”

“Doesn’t sound like fun to me.” I said. “We’ve got an old boat with nearly 5,000 miles behind her. We’ve got three tears in the main, one in the genoa, a jury-rigged lower shroud fitting, a tired crew, and a few hundred miles to go. In three days I want to be in a bar in St. Martin with a lampshade on my head propositioning a goat, not wallowing around with the rig lashed to the side.” At 2111 on December 16, Golden Aura anchored in Simpson’s Bay, and at 2230 I stood crestfallen in front of the bar of my fantasy. I’d forgotten to wear shoes and, thus, was denied entry. So much for the goat.

Getting back to work

After Christmas a day-long affair punctuated by dinner cooked on a driftwood fire on the beach some of Golden Aura’s crew began looking for work. We got the ball rolling with a delightful and all-too-brief delivery of a new Beneteau 44 to St. Martin. Upon return to Simpson’s Bay, I signed on as delivery crew aboard Carmen, a 44-foot ketch going to Antigua, and I stayed on for a few days sprucing up the boat for its owner.

From Antigua, I returned to St. Martin as crew aboard a nice little cutter, the owner of which disturbed me no to end. The owner took the first watch, and I turned in, as we sailed close to the lee of the island in wall-to-wall squalls. Within an hour, the boat began slamming around out of control, then quickly it gybed twice. I tore up through the companionway and found the owner frozen with fear. The Christmas winds were too strong for his autopilot, and he had never learned how to steer a compass course.

I cajoled him into going below to rest. Because it was night and the wind was honking, because the owner’s irrationality disturbed me, and because I wasn’t familiar with the boat, I decided against a straight shot to St. Martin. Instead, I set a course east of St. Barts that would put St. Martin about 25 miles to our west by dawn. My peace of mind needed massaging, and this route eliminated any worries about the Groupers off the northwest corner of St. Barts, or any other natural hazards, for that matter.

The owner wanted to go to Marigot on the west side of St. Martin, but I took the boat to the first harbor I could reach, which was Phillipsburg. Exhausted and a bit disillusioned, I took a cab to Simpson’s Bay, where I found my second disappointment in the past day: There was no room for me on Golden Aura.

Tired, salt-encrusted, and disappointed, I trundled toward the marina office contemplating my next move when “Hey Nim, wanna go to Trinidad?” echoed across the lagoon. What I really wanted was a place to crash, and I really didn’t care where this place was headed. So I moved aboard my new digs, and the weirdness continued: A half-hour before departure, while anchored outside the lagoon, a skiff unloaded six or eight TVs and stereos to be smuggled into Port of Spain. Gradually it dawned on me that this was no longer my adventure.

In Trinidad I rented a room at a guest house on the outskirts of Port of Spain. I began to think of home. In a few days I decided to head back to Rhode Island. It had been an exciting adventure.

Nim Marsh is a freelance writer based in Middletown, R.I.

By Ocean Navigator