Life at sea

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Editor's note: Life at sea during an ocean passage is always interesting, especially when a good writer keeps an observant and thoughtful account. The at-sea log below was written by Ocean Navigator's own Charlie Humphries and chronicles a delivery of the 100-foot Swan Virago from Newport to Antigua.  

1100 Wednesday November 15, 2017

Departed 0930 11/14/2017 from Newport after a pleasant bus ride down from Maine the day before.

Boat was pretty much ready to go after a spell in the yard. New standing rigging, bottom painted, new mainsheet and new reef lines, among other things.

Crew of eight: Richard, Carol, Joe, Erica, Forrest, Flip, Marco and Me. Age range from late twenties (Marco, Erica and Joe) to late 60’s (Flip the cook).

Temps in mid 40’s, wind from slightly east of North 15 to 20: a chilly start but making good time. Lumpy seas and winds building to 20-25 for next several hours so once dark, Erik (the autopilot) steered and we simply stood watch looking for traffic, trimming sails or course altering as necessary. Sail plan is two reefs in mainsail, full jib. Boat speed about 12 knots average. 

As mentioned a bit lumpy seas (6 to 10 feet) so moving about the boat a challenge. The adage “one hand for the boat, one hand for you” is fitting. Sadly about half past four (just after dark) at end of her watch we got hit by a big wave and Flip, while moving about below, fell, hit her head and was knocked unconscious for a short spell. Carol (a nurse), Marco (an EMT) and me, who happened to be nearby, sprung to action. Flip came around and we assessed the damage to her head. She had a very large and deep gash on back of her head. But her vitals were good and her eyes clear. Rolled up jib to steady boat and allow for a smoother ride while Carol with help from Marco and me cleaned wound and put in three internal sutures, five staples and three outside sutures (took about 90 minutes). Decision was made to press on to either Bermuda or Antigua and monitor Flips vitals. Now, 16 hours later, Flip feels good, is back cooking and we are headed to Antigua. Virago has an extensive medical kit .

Hit the Gulf stream meander (eddy) as planned and are currently in favorable current of close to 3 knots. Wind is down a bit 15-20 so our boat speed is 10-11 but SOG is 13-14. First 24 hours we logged 270 miles+. Not bad. Spirits have improved after a rough start but the ride is not that comfy. Fast but a bit of a pain moving about and with Flip's injury, even greater caution as well as a new watch schedule. Carol and I shared Flip's watch last night so no long spell of rest. On watch from 1800 to 2230, 0130 to 0300 AM and again at 0730 until 1030. Just off watch, below and thought I’d write while lunch is being prepared. We are a few hundred miles off of Delmarva Peninsula to give an idea of how south we have gone. 

We did see a few fishing boats and passed within a mile of one. Wildlife has been scarce for me although others have seen birds and dolphins.

I will have a nap after lunch.

We have about 85 miles left of the favorable push from the Gulf Stream Eddy so we are in good shape regarding weather ahead. Idea is to get ahead of a wind shift that would be on the nose and just be in light air and likely have to motor for a spell. That should happen in next 24 hours. Temps are warming. Water temp in the stream is 50° C (83° F). Would love to jump in sea but no slow down and seas are a bit daunting at 6 to 8 feet.

1340 Thursday November 16

Approximately 100 miles from Bermuda: we will pass about 30 miles to the east and never even see it… 

The last 24 hours has seen diminishing winds, and with it calming seas and in the end motor on. Our current heading is 177° (pretty much due south). We are making about 9 to 9.5 knots with very light SWerly breeze less than 5 knots. Erik the autopilot is handling helm duties as steering under power is dead boring. All are settling in to life at sea, 3 hours on watch, 6 hours off watch. I am just off watch and will be back on at 1930 and then again at 0430 (will see sunrise).

Temps are warming and today I spent in shorts, bare feet and a T-shirt.

Once in the groove of yacht delivery it is interesting in that time of day or night means little. We stand watch, we eat, we sleep, we read, we tidy the boat, we see each other as a group only around meal time as otherwise people are in their cabins sleeping, reading, watching movies, whatever… Sprung ahead last night at 1800 as Antigua/Barbuda are on permanent DST which suits us all with longer days…

Life becomes very simple. Discussion is around wind speed, wind direction, any vessel traffic and, of course, weather forecast particularly as it relates to wind. 

Sadly it looks like we will be motoring for another 20 to 24 hours before the wind builds enough for sailing. 

We have ample time to chat with our watch mates as for six hours a day we are fast friends sharing the responsibilities of operating the vessel. A new person comes on deck every 90 minutes so my two watches are spent half with Forrest and half with Carol, both of whom are watch captains. 

Flip is doing great. She is feeding us well and I am doing my best to stay hydrated and away from the snack box, which contains all sorts of goodies (chocolate covered cashews and cranberries, chocolate covered digestives, ginger cookies, raisins, chocolate chip cookies…)

Looking, at this stage, like we will be arriving on Tuesday or Wednesday next week.

Time to tuck in for a couple hours nap…

1045 Friday November 17

Motorsailing as of 0630. Boat speed is back up to 11 knots. Wind at about 10 knots from SW so we are doing some easting. Feels like sailing even though the motor is on and prop is turning. RPM down to 1,800 which is more conservative. Transferred fuel from one fuel bladder yesterday 1700 and the other at 0730.

Getting to know watch partners better. Forrest is a good guy. Carol is a pleasure. Feeling a bit more comfortable assisting with jobs on deck, knowing which speed to use winches in when, how to ease and furl hydraulic head sail furler, some of the navigation stuff, etc. It’s the same old thing, after a week I’ll have things sorted, and it will be a few years before I sail the boat again and all that knowledge will have slipped from memory to the ether. At any rate, we passed the threshold of less than a thousand miles to go last night on watch and on my early morning watch (0430-0730) we had a beautiful sunrise at sea after we watched several planets rise ahead of the sun. I said to Carol, “You can tell people just how beautiful it is at sea, but unless you witness it firsthand you just do not understand.” I have seen no sea life. Others have seen and had visits from dolphins. The whales have already migrated.

Yummy shepherds pie with sweet potato instead of normal potato. I am well rested as I stayed up all day yesterday and watched “No Country For Old Men” with Richard yesterday so was exhausted when I finished my watch at 2230 and slept hard until 0415. Movie was disturbing.

All is well aboard Virago. Spirits are high. We are hoping for more wind and as wind direction goes right, as it is forecast to do, we will go with it to get us back on or close to rhumb line.

1224 Saturday November 18

Last night's watch 2230 to 0130 featured shifty winds and squalls and two hours of very heavy rain all while motorsailing. The journey, other than day one, has been fussy with light winds and a lot of motorsailing. My morning watch this AM was a bit better as the wind began to get more steady, increase in velocity and move further East of North freeing us to finally turn the motor off and sail. Had some good fun driving the boat. Weather is overcast, showery but lovely and warm. I go back on watch at 1630 and hope for some further sailing. Another hole lurks ahead in about 24 to 30 hours that will require further motoring so we are all enjoying this respite from motor and the ability to do some sailing. Spirits are high, all are settled in to watch schedule and I am happy to have some time with Richard and Carol. We will arrive sometime on Tuesday. We are now well past the half-way point of our trip. It has not been the best regarding sailing, but still nice to be on a big, comfy fast boat at sea again. It is an experience I do enjoy. Oh, I mustn’t forget, Flip the chef who fell early on is doing fine and cooking up a storm We have been eating really well both in terms of quality and quantity. I am also quite well rested… Speaking of which, I may take a nap shortly.

Plan is to arrive Tuesday (looking like afternoon arrival), clean up boat Wednesday, goof off in Antigua Thursday and fly to Miami Friday afternoon, then to Maine Saturday for an early afternoon arrival. 

1353 Sunday November 19

Just off watch. A beautiful sailing day with steady winds 15 to 20 T. On my three-hour watch we averaged nearly 12 knots and the wind is forecast to hold like this for another 6 hours or so and then go lighter. We have just passed the 400 miles to go mark and we also just crossed the Tropic of Capricorn…

Spirits are high as we close in on Antigua. I have now been six days with no Internet, no news and no drink. Not terribly bothered nor do I miss any of these things. I do miss the ability to have contact with those I love, but we will be in Antigua and have access to wireless soon enough.

A bit about the crew:

Richard and Carol are both very good and Carol helps to take the rough edge off Richard. He is no-nonsense at sea but has a ton of responsibility so I understand his “tight ship” mentality. It was 23 years ago today that I flew out to CA to attend Carol and Richard's wedding. Amazing how time passes.  

Joe and Erica have been on Virago all summer as mate and stew. They are mid-20-somethings, in love and with dreams of running boats together one day. Erica is from Maryland, Joe is from England. They met traveling and were married with in just a few months of meeting. Both are learning a lot and both are very kind. They head to Ft. Lauderdale upon arrival for the next phase of their learning and job search as Virago has no real plans for owners or guests and it will be just Richard and Carol on board.

Marco is my cabin mate and is a nice young man from Italy. He is fluent in French, Italian and English, has no accent and is quite an interesting lad. A professional photographer and professional sailor, he aspires to blend the two and travel the world on race boats as a sailor photo/documentarian… The Volvo round the world race as well as America’s Cup are on the list. He brought with him a drone that he flies really well and has taken some amazing photos and video of Virago underway from vantage points that, until drones, would require a helicopter to get. I will maintain contact with Marco and follow his rich life. A super young man.

Forrest is a watch mate so we have gotten to know each other well. He is a lifetime yachty who runs an 85-foot Swan called Marinka. He was running a boat called Hound back in the days when I was in Caribbean. Originally from Georgia, he now has a home and a wife in Westerly, R.I. He is knowledgeable but makes me realize how much more knowledgeable Richard is regarding all aspects of this sailing business. Forrest and I get on well. He and I will likely travel back to States together. 

Last is “Flip” from Cornwall in England. She has been living in Antigua for 20 years. She is a chef and R&C flew her to Newport to do the cooking on the trip down. Other than falling down day one, she has been great company and has fed us all very well.

 So that is the merry band of delivery crew. 

The rust on my offshore and big boat sailing skills will just about have worn off as we reach Antigua. I do enjoy the experience and, although not a tremendous asset, am not a liability either. As the trip winds down I must say I’ll be ready to get back to a regular wake/sleep schedule, but I’ll miss the good sailing, the beauty and simplicity of being at sea and power of this incredible yacht.

Today while I was off watch but on deck we spotted another sailboat on radar screen several miles ahead of us heading in approximately the same heading. In short order we caught and overtook them as if they were standing still. They were a 50+ foot Oyster (very nice boat). We spoke on VHF as we passed and they said they’d see us in Antigua. They will be a day or more behind. At the time we were blasting along near 13 knots. The oyster was going well at likely about 8 knots, which is great for a boat that size.

0750 Monday November 20

Finished my 0430-0730 watch in light wind (6 to 10 knots). The previous watch 1930 to 2230 was action filled with vessel traffic (we came within less than a mile CPA with a tugboat that was coming across from Europe with nothing in tow), a series of showers and squalls that shifted the wind all over and changed wind speeds (requiring different sail configurations) and some quiet. In the end, all the activity made the watch pass quickly. We are closing in on Antigua. Less than 24 hours to go and just over 200 miles. Today feels festive. All but one is up and on deck and the sea is calm with light wind slightly south of East (not ideal) so we are motorsailing once again and making about 10 knots. Something about the thought of nearly arriving after an ocean passage creates very high spirits, a lot of banter and joking around. Richard continues to be busy with some work on watermakers and the final navigation and weather checks. We currently have a fishing line over and there is talk of stopping the boat and having a swim, but I doubt Richard will have that. It is possible, however, as we may have something fouling the propeller a bit as it is fussy when it comes time to open. It is a feathering prop so when sailing (not under power) it closes (feathers) to lessen its surface area and drag (we go faster more efficiently). The prop is not going from feathering to open when the engine is on and engaged in gear, so theory is there may be something fouling it; something a jump over the side and inspecting could confirm. The seas are calm enough to allow that to be done safely but I reckon Richard will wait until we are in Antigua. Time will tell.  

The tropics are warm and I will be finding some time today to read in the sun. I am about to finish my second book. First book, More Faster Backwards was a very good read (thank you Jason). I have passed it on to Forrest to read and he too is enjoying it. Next watch is at 1330. I slept well last night from 2245 til 0410 so will likely stay up today and enjoy the sun and calm and easy maneuverability around the boat. Staying hydrated as well. Wonder what Flip has in store for lunch. We are on own for breakfast (I’ve been eating cereal each AM but had PB on English muffin this AM). I wonder if any of my family and friends has been checking our progress on AIS ( I am looking forward to making contact with all tomorrow.

1126 Monday November 20

Sun has turned to rain. Pouring rain, but it too will pass. Almost time for lunch and then I am on watch from 1330 to 1730, off until 2230 and will stand my last watch then until 0130 Tuesday AM. I will tuck in after that and be awakened for landfall, which — if all goes well — will be by mid-morning at latest.

By Ocean Navigator