High Pressure Makes for a Smooth Passage

Even before our new Malo 45, Nada, was finished, I was thinking of trading it in! The factory was a little shocked. However, the decision had nothing to do with the boat, which is all we hoped for, and instead has everything to do with some potentially revolutionary new electrical distribution technology that I want to try on the next boat.

The Malo dealer in North America found a buyer for Nada, so I swapped it for a contract on a new boat. I offered to deliver Nada from Sweden to the U.S. East Coast, and thus committed myself to my first trans-Atlantic passage.

We set sail from Sweden, clearing the outlying rocks off the west coast in the early afternoon and hardening the sheets in moderate head winds and seas. The crew consisted of myself, my elder brother Chris, our long-term crewmate Jake Crump and Bob Baylis, whom none of us knew before this trip and who was recruited at the last minute. Very soon after departure, the forestay and backstay lost tension. The brand new backstay tensioner had failed. We were lucky it had done this so soon, rather than when we were well into the trip or in heavy weather.

We returned to the dock. Malo, our boat builder, supplied a welder to make temporary repairs while the Swedish Harken dealer arranged for us to pick up a new tensioner in England when we got there. We were back at sea by early evening.

Given the amount of shipping in the North Sea and English Channel, the oil fields we would traverse, and the fact that Chris and I are both red/green colorblind, for this first part of the passage I preferred to have two on watch at all times, with at least one crewman capable of figuring out what lights ships were showing us! We paired Chris with Bob and Jake with myself.

With a new guy onboard we were on our best behavior. I asked, “What kind of watches would you like to stand?” Bob suggested three hours on and off, so we set it up with some sly smiles. Both Chris (who has a Malo 36) and I run really loose watch schedules. If someone is feeling alert and the other half of the crew is sleeping soundly, we’ll pull longer watches, especially if a crewmember is suffering from seasickness or really tired. We have found that other crewmembers soon get into the swing of things. It only took a couple of nights to break in Bob.

On watch Chris and Bob were like a couple of overgrown schoolboys, swapping tall stories and laughing for hours on end. There was little else to do as the wind soon died, sucked away by a stable high-pressure system that had us motoring almost the entire 600 miles to England.

Pit stops

In just three days we were closing on the English Channel with a mass of shipping in every direction (this is the busiest shipping lane in the world). It’s been 35 years since I sailed in these waters. Bob and Chris re-educated me in tide and current tables with frequent references to Imray’s excellent Cruising Almanac. More by luck than good judgment we were swept past Dover, at the eastern end of the Channel, in the early hours of the morning on a lovely, clear night with a 3- to 4-knot favorable current. We made Gosport Marina in Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, in time for a late pub lunch, having covered 680 miles in less than four days.

We’d been experiencing some glitches with our Raymarine electronic navigation system. Portsmouth is Raymarine’s hometown in Britain. A couple of technicians soon sorted us out while Bob and his wife (who had driven down to join us) took her car over to Lymington, the home base of Harken UK, to swap our backstay tensioner for a new one.

A day after arriving in Gosport we motored into a 20- to 25-knot southwesterly head wind blowing against the outgoing tide. We had a fast but bumpy ride past The Needles, making it to Portland Bill’s notorious race in time to round the headland at slack water in relatively calm seas. With the iron genny rumbling away, less than 24 hours after leaving Gosport we were in Falmouth, more or less at the southwest tip of England, picturesque even in a drizzle, for a final pit stop.

Weather reports

The wind was honking up again, with low rain clouds scudding across the skies and gales blowing up the west coast of England and across Scotland. We had been having trouble getting weather forecasts. The new owner of Nada, due to meet us in the Azores, had supplied an Iridium satellite phone with software to download weather to my laptop, but to date the phone had not talked to the laptop. When close to shore, we could get weather from the VHF radio, but farther offshore we were flying blind. We wanted something better than this to cross the Bay of Biscay, notorious for its sudden gales and dangerous seas, especially with so much weather activity in the vicinity.

I have a friend, Lee Chesneau, who at the time was one of the weather forecasters for the National Weather Service at their excellent Ocean Prediction Center. I gave Lee a call and arranged a schedule to get reports and advice via the satellite phone. “You need to get south as quickly as possible�VbCrLf, he advised. “You’ll see northwest winds of Force 6 to 8 for the first day, but then it should ease. Once you get down to 45� north, you should have northeasterlies all the way.�VbCrLf

Heavy going

We had one more stop to make at Porthallow, a small village on the coast a few miles south of Falmouth. Here we visited the local Yanmar dealer to pick up some essential spare parts for the engine and squeezed in a final pub lunch at the Five Pilchards.

From Falmouth it’s around 1,200 miles to the Azores on a southwesterly heading. In the expectation of nasty conditions we added an EPIRB, handheld VHF radio and GPS to the ditch bag and headed out to sea.

The wind and seas were coming out of the west. Before we cleared The Lizard, the final headland on the coast of England, we had three reefs in the main with the genny well rolled up. We pushed Nada as close to the wind as was practical while still maintaining a boat speed of 6 knots. Even so, we were being driven south of the rhumb line to the Azores. The challenge was to make enough headway to the west to enable us to clear the shipping lanes off Ushant, the westernmost headland in France, without having to tack.

The rail was well down, with the occasional sea foaming up the side deck. The waves were relatively short and steep. Nada is a terrific sea boat, but even so, every once in a while we came down fairly hard and the motion was decidedly uncomfortable. However, within 12 hours the wind began to ease and by daylight we were clear of Ushant. We soon had the reefs out in light and variable winds before the wind once again filled in from the west-northwest.

For the next five days we found ourselves between the mid-Atlantic high and a relatively strong low-pressure system over the Iberian Peninsula. The wind remained more or less in the west-northwest, putting it well forward of the beam, mostly Force 4 to 6. It was five days of reefs in and out, sheet lead cars forward and back, and outhaul, vang, traveler and halyard trimming. Fortunately, the crew are all keen sailors and enjoyed the challenge of keeping Nada moving. The helming was left to the Monitor wind vane until a control line chafed through, after which we fell back on the autopilot. The Monitor is particularly good in shifting wind conditions because it keeps the sails in a constant alignment with the wind.

Chris has an iron stomach, whereas the rest of us are susceptible to seasickness. He took the cooking upon himself. Pretty much regardless of the conditions, he treated us to a cooked dinner every night, fried breakfast some mornings and excellent ploughman’s lunches.

Six days out of Falmouth the first distant sight of Terceira in the Azores produced that knee-jerk reaction of modern sailors – the mobile phones came out! Dolphins jumped high out of the water alongside, with a flock of birds wheeling overhead and fishing in their wake. The sun put in a brief appearance for the first time in a week. The crew was getting frisky as we closed the coast.

As the last of the twilight faded from the sky, we slipped into the Marina Praia da Vitória. There was plenty of time for us to grab a beer in a waterfront bar. Overnight, a cold front displaced the relatively stable weather conditions of the previous few days, bringing what would have been 25-knot headwinds had we still been at sea. We could not have timed things more perfectly. As the saying goes, it’s generally better to be lucky than good!

Planning versus reality

Our original plan, based upon generalized weather and current predictions, had been to follow the great circle route to Boston, taking us up to the southern edge of the Grand Banks south of Newfoundland and far away from the normal track of early season hurricanes. But 2006 was already shaping up to be an unusual weather year. All through June a succession of strong low-pressure systems had paraded across these North Atlantic latitudes, bringing gale and storm force head winds. This pattern continued into July.

Meantime, the mid-Atlantic high was not as well established as usual. And following a June tropical storm that hit Florida there had been little tropical activity (the precursor of a hurricane), and now there was none. Lee Chesneau, our weather guru, summed it up as follows: “You can go north and take it on the nose or go south of the high with light following winds.�VbCrLf Put like that, the choice was easy!

The rhumb line from the Azores to Bermuda is 1,800 miles. We had enough fuel to motor for at least a 1,000 miles at 6 knots (top speed is closer to 9 knots, but that doubles the fuel consumption). To find the wind for the other miles, we needed to get south of the high, which would add another 150 miles, so we were looking at 1,950 miles. We considered it reasonable to estimate 150 miles a day, making it a 13-day passage.

In July, the lead time is at least a week (later in the hurricane season, it’s less) between the occurrence of a tropical wave in the Atlantic or Caribbean and its development into a hurricane that might strike the eastern U.S. (or Bermuda), and in any case early season hurricanes tend to track west rather than re-curve into the mid-Atlantic region. We felt it safe to set sail so long as we kept a five-day reserve of fuel to motor away from any approaching storm. If we could get half way with no tropical activity, we would be clear to press on and burn the remaining fuel reserves.

Downwind sailing

From the Azores we motored southwest toward a waypoint at 33� N, 36� W. We hoped this would put us far enough south of the high to give us 10- to 15-knot following winds – more than enough to maintain a 6-knot boat speed under sail. We found our first sailing winds after 30 hours.

The wind was more-or-less dead astern. We let the main out as far as the shrouds would permit, added a preventer to keep the boom from gybing and poled out the genoa on the other side, sailing wing and wing. In spite of being a moderately heavy displacement cruising boat, Nada moves exceptionally well in these conditions. With just a light breeze coming up astern, we’d be doing 6 knots; another couple of knots of apparent wind speed would put us up to 7 knots.

For the next five days we alternately sailed and motorsailed, shutting down the engine whenever the apparent wind moved above 5 or 6 knots. We were able to sail just enough to maintain our fuel reserve target.

One quiet day slid seamlessly into the next. We barbecued hamburgers and pork ribs, read books, watched movies and took hot showers every day, giving the watermaker a work out. We stopped to swim in mid-ocean, almost 1,000 miles from land in all directions and with over 10,000 feet of water beneath us. This high-pressure sailing is unlike any I have ever done before.

We came across a singlehander, 35 days out of Brazil, still shell-shocked after having narrowly escaped being run down by a ship the previous night. Our own nighttime adventure was less dramatic: a flying fish came through an open hatch and landed in bed with a sleeping crewmember!

Change in the weather

With seven days to go, and Lee reporting still no tropical activity, we felt we were over the hump. We needed to sail for at least 300 of the remaining 1,000 miles, but were comfortable we would find the necessary wind as we moved toward the southwest limit of the mid-Atlantic high. Three days later that confidence was waning. In 72 hours we had had no sailing winds. The ratio of necessary sailing time to motoring time was changing rapidly as our fuel reserves dwindled. Meanwhile, the weather picture had heated up dramatically.

A low-pressure system moving off the Carolina coast was rapidly developing into an unusual higher-latitudes tropical storm. A succession of tropical waves was forming to the south of us in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Our weather window appeared to be closing.

The tropical storm, with winds up to 60 knots, tracked up the Gulf Stream past Cape Hatteras to the waters offshore of New England and south of Newfoundland. Had we followed conventional wisdom and taken the northerly route from the Azores to New England, as we originally planned, we would have run directly into it.

To the south, the tropical waves were generating gale force winds in the Caribbean. We, however, continued to motor in light swells with little wind under skies dotted with scattered, puffy, fair-weather cumulus clouds. The five-day forecast from the Ocean Prediction Center in Washington, D.C., was for more of the same. Thus, we realized that if we could just find the wind necessary to sail another 300 miles we would be able to motor the remaining distance and be safely in St. George’s harbor, Bermuda, before any unpleasant weather could touch us.

Sailing on empty

With the wind continuing dead astern, we ran wing and wing whenever the opportunity presented itself. Periodically, swells generated by the far-off weather set Nada rolling from side to side. In the light winds, this back-winded the main. The fully battened sail popped back and forth, shaking the entire rig and the boat each time, disturbing the equilibrium of the voyage. We looked anxiously aloft, wondering if we were shaking screws and other components loose from the sail’s batten hardware.

And then just when the crew was becoming increasingly anxious over the dwindling fuel supplies, the wind pulled forward to the beam, we broke out the asymmetric spinnaker, and Nada picked up speed to 6 or 7 knots in 8-to-10 knots of wind. This development produced smiles all around. Thirteen days out of Horta we sailed into Government Cut at St. George’s, Bermuda, with a quarter tank of fuel remaining.

We refueled, heading back out to sea 24 hours later for the final 700-mile passage to Norfolk, Va. The big challenge on this passage was the Gulf Stream running at up to 3 knots. The rhumb line route cuts obliquely into the stream, so we headed well south of it and then curved to the north to cross the stream at right angles. The wind cooperated, coming first from the south southwest, and then gradually veering into the southwest and west southwest as we curved to the north, putting us on a fast close reach the entire way. We were in Norfolk in less than four days, completing what turned out to be the easiest extended passage I have ever sailed.

This high-pressure sailing has a lot to be recommended!

By Ocean Navigator