Like a duck on the waves

May/June 2006
Image Credit: Courtesy Eben Whitcomb
The 131-foot schooner Harvey Gamage, built in 1973 in South Bristol, Maine, under nearly full sail.

There were three low-pressure systems that converged on the northeastern United States in 1992, creating what was later referred to as “the perfect storm.” One came from the east, another from the west and the third from the south. I got stuck in the southern low on my way to Bermuda aboard the schooner Harvey Gamage. We had departed Annapolis toward the end of October with a vessel full of navigation students bound for St. Martin via Bermuda. Owner Eben Whitcomb had given me command of the 131-foot schooner, and my good friend Captain Ken Hamilton was in charge of teaching the students. I knew that if things got tight I could always call upon the expertise of Ken, who had served for many years as a skipper of the vessel. We departed Cape Henry and sailed into the teeth of a rising nor’easter. Once in the embrace of the Atlantic, I motor-sailed to get my easting. Gaff-rigged schooners prefer sailing off the wind, and when going to weather they like to make a great deal of leeway, so I wanted to get some sea room before I fell off the wind. As we sailed east, the wind gained in intensity. Crossing the Gulf Stream with a wind that opposes the current can be tough. Sure enough, we got slammed by big waves. Gamage was built for heavy work and under three lowers we slid to the southeast. I thought the worst might be behind us. All navigation was done with sextant and dead reckoning, so I took advantage of every chance I had to get sights, knowing that as the weather got more foul my chances of getting a shot would diminish. Three days out from Bermuda, the weather took a turn for the worse. The winds were gusting at more than 30 knots and building. It was time to heave-to and give the crew a break. Dropping the sails, we broke out the storm trysail and raised it on the fore. We sheeted it in to windward and then brought the wheel over, lashed it in place and waited. Gamage hove-to like a duck riding the waves gently, and all the noise and commotion of the storm died down. We were far out at sea and safe. The bilges were dry and the boat was comfortable. By the time the storm passed we had experienced wind gusts to 70 knots. Before the sun disappeared I got a quick shot of the upper limb and created an estimated position on the chart. Our DR position at this time was 34° 20′ N by 65° 40′ W. My height of eye was 10 feet and my Plath sextant had no error. The time of my last shot before heaving-to was at 18:22:25 GMT. The day in question was Nov. 4 and my Hs was 30° 55.4′. For the sake of this problem we will use the 2006 Nautical Almanac. And for those who don’t have a copy of Ho 249, the information in those tables is as follows: Hc 31° 17′ d-51′ Z 141°. Table 5 yields a correction of -26′. A. Calculate the Ho and intercept. B. What is the estimated position? I’m always looking for any good short tales that we can use in these navigation problems. Contact me at  

By Ocean Navigator