Offshore challenge keeps voyager coming back

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To the editor: One thing I’ve noticed about offshore sailing is that while it’s happening, I often wonder why I’m putting myself yet again through the misery of wetness, coldness, bad weather and broken equipment of an offshore trip. More than once I’ve told myself that I wouldn’t do it again.

Yet, once ashore and steering a glass of beer with my boat mates, reflections on the trip always change — we end up saying things like "that wasn't so bad" and "I could do that again."

What is it, then, that skews the experience in our minds? Why do we keep going back? The answer to that question became a little clearer to me after a recent delivery from Bermuda to Newport.

I sailed with a crew of 10 on the Swan 53 Lady B in this year's Newport-Bermuda race. We did pretty well for a first-time offshore race under her new owner: fifth in class and 17th overall on corrected time.

Lady B had recently completed a full refit. In the last year, she'd been redecked, repowered, rerigged and had a slew of other things either replaced or added: watermaker, refrigeration, electric winches. As the boat's navigator on the race, I was both awed and delighted by the updated nav station. In all, she was an electronic marvel, and all those programs and instruments worked perfectly during the race.

With the race concluded, I had a full week to get Lady B ready for the ride home. The race crew left the island and the delivery crew arrived. Ted Reed, an old friend and offshore sailing companion, arrived with his 10-year-old daughter, Perrin. Two others — Seb Milardo and Tom Nangle — filled out the crew to a total of four. This was to be the first offshore trip for Perrin, Seb and Tom.

Looking back, perhaps the wrong expectations were set for the trip early on. In conversations shore-side with Seb and Tom, the talk always turned to the steady southwest wind that makes the northbound Bermuda passage a favorite. And on a big, elegant boat like a Swan 53, how could it be anything other than a pleasure cruise? Those expectations might also have been reinforced by the days we spent on the dock in Hamilton, with the shore power happily powering the air conditioning, refrigerator/freezer, the VCR and the electric heads.

From the moment we unplugged the shore-power cord, though, things started to go slowly awry.

We were barely out of Hamilton Harbor on Tuesday when two of the battens in the newly repaired mainsail pushed out of their pockets, necessitating sewing them back in permanently.

Leaving Northeast Breaker behind, we encountered not the promised reach of a southwesterly, but a beat with the wind steady at 18 knots from the west. Although this was not forecasted, it remained with us for the next two days.

Of course, one way to ease the pain of a long beat is to engage the autopilot, which we did. It's a reliable pilot, with a direct chain drive from the motor to a gear on the shaft of the steering wheel. However, while sleeping that night in the aft cabin — which is directly under the helm — I heard the unit rasp and grate, coming to a final and definitive clunk that signaled the shedding of one of its vital innards. We now had hand steering to look forward to for at least 3 1/2 more days.

The weather forecast that same evening (via Herb Hilgenberg's weather net and confirmed by fax) added a new level of concern, calling for a gale to coincide with our crossing of the Gulf Stream on Thursday afternoon. And the southwest winds were expected to be 10 knots higher in the stream, with proportionally larger seas. Basically, our choices added up to staying south and killing time while we waited for the gale to pass (a choice advocated by Herb and chosen by many boats on his net) or trying to get through the stream by early Thursday morning.

I'm a firm believer that modern weather routing has convinced cruising sailors that they can — and should — avoid rough weather at all times. This great bloat of weather information has taken much of the challenge out of offshore sailing and left many with a crisis of confidence: They don't know the true capabilities of themselves or their boats.

For me, the choice was easy. We started the engine and prepared to motor-sail to maintain the average 8.5 knots required to get us through the stream in time.

The next bit of trouble came Wednesday afternoon, when we noticed that the electronics on the boat were beginning to make strange noises. When one of the crew pushed the button to crank in the electric winch on the genoa sheet and the electronics shut down all together, it became all too clear that our battery power was dying! A quick look at the voltmeter confirmed what I had failed to observe earlier: The alternator was no longer charging the batteries while the engine ran. Pulling the engine cover off, we discovered the remains of the two belts that once drove the monster alternator.

Prior to our leaving Bermuda, and during the trip down, I'd become familiar with the boat, and the number of spares carried on her. I knew there were extra belts somewhere, and we proceeded to turn the boat upside down to find them. We had a short moment of triumph when we located an old briefcase literally full of V-belts — only to discover that each and every of them was either too long or too short.

The only alternative we could come up with was modifying two of the longer belts by cutting them and "re-stitching" the ends together. They would have to be exactly the same length, so as to enable them to be evenly tightened. My first thought on how to accomplish this was to drill the two ends of the cut belt, and to lace them back up using stainless seizing wire. Alas, no seizing wire could be found, so we bent four small cotter pins flat, and pulled the ends together with them. This was a decent solution, as the cotter pins were flat, and thus had a low profile on the inner edge of the belt.

Because the house power on the boat is 24 volts and the engine 12 volts, we were lucky to have a separate alternator for charging the starting battery. Naturally, though, there was a fair amount of trepidation when we turned the engine off and fitted the new belts on … would it really start again? It did. In the end, though, despite the fact that the belts held and the alternator turned, we were still receiving no charge output from it. I learned later from the owner that the alternator demands a minimum rpm before kicking in, and that it was either slipping (though we had no evidence of that), or we simply weren't cranking the engine high enough. Regardless, the boat would be dark all the way to Newport!

The crew received the news well. We were in a sailing vessel, we still had the engine, and we could navigate from a hand-held GPS that was onboard. So the VCR might not work, and the propane stove might not light, but there was nothing critical that was also electric that we needed, right? Wrong — the boat's two heads were electrically powered, with no manual backups; out came the bucket.

The irony of carrying around a waste-laden bucket on a Swan 53 was not lost on my sharp crew. Seb, poking his head out of the companionway as we bulled our way through the square waves of the stream early that Thursday morning commented: "This pleasure palace is fast becoming a haunted house!"

And it wasn't over. Before dawn, as Seb and Tom moved to change positions behind the wheel, Tom fell, resulting in what looked like a nasty break (it later turned out to be dislocated) to his middle finger. "What else?" I thought as I tried to splint the finger straight from its 70° sideways bend. Now we were down to three helmsmen and expecting bad weather.

The dawn brought a new challenge: The automatic bilge pump had cycled for as long as it could on the near-dead house batteries and could no longer keep water from rising above the floorboards. Working the manual pumps produced no results, so while we tried to fix them, we were reduced to pumping bilge water into a bucket (yes, that bucket!) with a dinghy pump. It wasn't keeping up.

I went forward on deck to investigate the probable cause of the water influx — the hawse pipe in the anchor locker. Good news, bad news. The rubber cover that was stretched and clamped over the hawse pipe had slid to one side, meaning I'd found at least one of the problems. But because Lady B tends to bury her nose in seas, most of my time was spent underwater while I fumbled to get the rubber fastened properly.

Back down below, Ted found the problem with the manual pumps: cracked strainer bodies, which allowed air into the hoses. We fixed them and got one of the pumps primed and sucking water. Our initial elation was immediately tempered, though, when the bilge filled back up with water almost immediately after being pumped dry.

We pumped again with the same result.

This was more than either of us could stand, so we proceeded to pull the boat apart again (after having restored everything back to their original locations following the great V-belt search), in order to check all the seacocks for leaks.

There was no problem with the seacocks, but the search yielded the answer: over time, as the pump slowed down due to lack of power, the entire bilge spaces slowly filled with seawater. Because the limber holes between Lady B's frames were small, our first emptying of the bilge simply provided that excess water with a low point to seep back into. Four complete pumps of the bilge finally allowed us to get ahead of any incoming water.

We emerged from the stream late that morning, and the gale hit us an hour later, right on schedule. That day and night were tedious, as I demanded two people in the cockpit for each watch. With only three helmsmen, that worked out to two hours on and one off — not very restful. Although the seas were now high (15 to 20 feet), they were more regular, but still hard to discern as the clouds covered the moon.

The gale broke late on Friday, and as we motored toward Newport, the sea gods took two last shots at us: first fog, then engine failure. With no VHF, radar, or running lights, and about to enter shipping lanes, we simply handled the fog with a good watch on the foredeck. The engine mysteriously revived after switching tanks, despite the fact that the original tank wasn't empty.

On the dock in Newport that night, I felt obligated to apologize to my crew for the trip. I felt that it had turned into more of an Outward Bound experience than the pleasure cruise they may have expected.

To my surprise, they responded unanimously that they felt they had accomplished much more on the trip than they would have, had it been easy. They had been challenged; they had responded well to those challenges. Far from being disappointed by the problems and stress of the trip, they were proud of what they had weathered.

For me, this was an important revelation, and another piece of the puzzle as to why I keep coming back to offshore sailing fell neatly into place.

Peter Stoops runs a software company and is a delivery skipper in Portland, Maine.

By Ocean Navigator