Sitting in a frigid, fuzzy envelope of fog, the chartplotter gave me sickening news, which the computer screen soon confirmed. Despite all our heroic efforts, WildHorse, our Valiant 42 cutter, was side-slipping straight for Cape Sable’s lethal ledges in the mean grip of the Fundy tide. The message was loud and clear: we would have to retire from the race.
This was not the first time we had been becalmed and it would not be the last in what had already been a slow, trying race. Our target was Brazil Rock, the famous turning point in the 360 nm Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race, one of the world’s finest tests of sailboats and crew. Like most distance races, the race to Halifax has several hurdles, but none so challenging as Brazil Rock.
The “Rock” is located at 43° 21’ north, 065° 26’ west, off the southwest corner of Nova Scotia, and provides the key target for navigators wanting a rhumb line course to Halifax. Just aim for Brazil Rock, make the northeast turn up the south coast of Nova Scotia, skirt Sambro Ledges and make the finish just inside Halifax’s huge harbor.
The problem is this: Brazil Rock happens to lie in one of the wildest tidal races in the world, with the whole North Atlantic trying to round it one way or the other four times a day. The fast currents rush north on the flood and south on the ebb. At Nova Scotia’s southwest corner the flood will carry westerly before turning north and then northeast, curling around Yarmouth and rushing like mad into the Bay of Fundy, where some of the largest tides on earth occur. The water is cold and dense, 45° F at race time, and really hammers the boat. If you miscalculate and get sucked into the Bay of Fundy, there’s nothing to do but wait for the tide to turn fair and try again. If you get sucked into the rocky ledges of Nova Scotia’s southwest coast, you could lose your boat or worse.
I had briefed my crew on the challenge of Brazil Rock well before the race. Because WildHorse was bred as a blue water cruiser — not a go-fast race boat — our race strategy was to stick close to the rhumb line to keep the course as short as possible. This strategy had risk: The boat would need wind steady enough to weather at least one, or maybe two, periods of foul tide at the corner.
Everyone understood the stakes, so when the wind died at 0400 hrs on July 10 as we made our approach to the corner, there was a chorus of “Oh no!” — and even some more colorful comments. WildHorse slowed to a walk, and worse yet, her course over ground (COG) went from a comfortable 104° M to a hair-on-fire 340°. With the bow pointed resolutely at a distant Brazil Rock, the boat was now headed northwest into the Bay of Fundy! Our first battle with the Fundy tide was joined.
I will forever be grateful to my crew for their stout-hearted response. Their dogged efforts to keep the boat moving would have made General Patton proud. And they were a new crew, too, new to WildHorse, to me, and to each other. My original crew had taken massive casualties, dropping like flies to unexpected business crises and illnesses. Two weeks before the race I was left alone with WildHorse. Anxious and scrambling I used the crew-available page on the race’s website and phone-interviewed several new crew, then hastily got them together for a 24-hour sail south of Block Island. However quickly assembled, this crew had heart, along with a never-say-die mentality.
There was Mike Kentz, a gritty, seasoned sailor and photographer from New York City; Bill McGraw, a good-natured, wholly competent, commercial real estate entrepreneur from Cleveland; Michael Brown, an IT consultant from New Jersey with a mind like a computer; and my secret weapon, Mark Peters, a 26-year-old free spirit who had just spent the last three years delivering and racing boats in the Caribbean. All proved to be fine sailors and knit together well during the 24-hour drill. A good thing, too, for they would need a good sense of humor and true grit to get through this one.
It was Mark’s gymnastics and wild assortment of bow tricks, along with a faint-but-favorable seven-knot zephyr, that restored a generally easterly course at 2200 and allowed WildHorse some progress toward the Rock. That is, until 0230 on July 11, when the wind crapped out again.
This time, with initial luck, the tide was fair and we kept our easterly progress at a whole 1.5 knots of boatspeed. Meanwhile, we began to hear VHF reports of boats retiring from the race due to light wind. This became seductive as the day plodded on and we realized we could not finish in time for the fabled pig roast, one of the big events of the race.
Then things got a whole lot worse. At 0330 a remorseless foul tide began its six hours of menace, marching into the Bay of Fundy and sweeping us along with it. With just enough wind to keep the boat moving, the strong tidal vector subverted WildHorse’s course. We could manage only a NNE course straight for disaster on the ledges of Cape Sable, or a SSW course away from our objective. I had never before ordered a light air heave to, but I did now. When I appeared in the companionway and told Mike and Bill to strike the jib and heave to on main and staysail, their faces reflected my own desperation. But the move was necessary to stop the boat and, thus, stop the bleeding. So there we sat, at 43.15° north, 065.48° west, or about 20nm WSW of that now-gloating Brazil Rock.
Poor Mike and Bill suffered their whole watch hove to in six to seven knots of air. At the watch change, Michael and Mark came into the cockpit to a surreal scene: heavy fog, a hove-to race boat, and an exhausted captain trying to explain a strategy that had WildHorse stopped dead in her tracks.
At 0500, still hove to in light SE air, I sat slumped at the nav station trying to rationalize our fate. We had tried everything and fallen short. With a skimpy five miles of sea room between WildHorse and the ledges, I would have to crank the engine soon and disqualify us. I was just sitting there, not wanting to say the words, when the ever-optimistic Michael appeared from the cockpit saying he and Mark thought the wind was up just a tick and that we could sail. We broke out of our pathetic hove-to position at 0515 and, giddy as schoolboys on a snow day, began to sail ESE at about two knots.
The wind built to 10 knots and clocked south, allowing WildHorse merry progress on the Rock. But this did not last long, and soon the wind was failing us again. With anemic air we teased WildHorse to within seven nm of the Rock when all went still. With sails slatting and energy draining, our hopes of rounding the Rock soon were crushed, and worse, sent the crew into a group depression. This third setback produced a pitched psychological battle between our will to finish versus the almost tangible sense that time had run out on us. We had missed the pig roast and now even the awards ceremony was in doubt. I gathered the crew to openly discuss the camel that was in our tent: retirement from the race. Just an ignition switch away. No one argued for all were spent.
As we were setting a firm go/no-go time limit to our predicament, I heard Bill McGraw exclaim, “There’s wind!” And sure enough, a polite but steady nine-knot breeze had filled in and we were off the hook again, for it was just enough to eke out an easterly course against the Fundy tide.
At 0838 on July 11 we passed five nm south of Brazil Rock to a chorus of exultant cheers that sounded like we had won the race. We never saw our worthy adversary as the Rock was shrouded in thick fog. But every crewmember took turns looking at the chartplotter and computer, and the indisputable evidence we had won the battle for Brazil Rock. Mark put it best when, stabbing a finger at the graphic image of the Rock he said, “We beat you, you SOB!”
It turned out that Brazil Rock had, indeed, defined our race. We sailed steadily up the coast toward Halifax, running into one more dead zone at 1230 on July 11. But with no tidal currents to harass us we waited patiently for the wind that would carry us the rest of the way. And it came with strength this time. At 1345 we broke out the asymmetrical and in wind that built to 20 knots true, WildHorse responded like a thoroughbred at the snorting pole, averaging more than eight knots to a fogbound finish at 0330 EDT on July 12. As we crossed the finish line and hailed the race committee boat (which we could see only on radar), there were handshakes and slapped backs, but not the euphoria — the pure joy — produced when we had passed the Rock. It dawned on me that the actual finish of the race had become subordinate to the all-consuming contest with Brazil Rock.
I had promised the crew an “astronaut’s breakfast” of steak and eggs (and beer) as soon as we cleared customs at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, and I kept my word. In a wonderful miasma of protein and alcohol, we waxed philosophical, comparing our ordeal to the usual storm-at-sea sagas. All agreed that gales and storms provide a huge character test of boat and crew — the feeling of true peril snaps the senses into sharp focus.
Yet we also agreed that heavy weather cannot match the subtle, sadistic cruelty of light air, overwhelming tides, and a dangerous shore.
Sitting in the cockpit, plates clean and cans crushed, we watched the rising veil of fog and reached happy consensus. We had been tested to our very core and come close to believing that giving up was just the thing to do. That we did not made us true winners. That was the lesson of Brazil Rock.
Author’s note: WildHorse missed the pig roast but finished eighth of 15 in her class and 38th of 69 in the PHRF racing division.
Rick Meisner sails his Valiant 42 WildHorse out of Watch Hill, R.I., and has captained WildHorse in several Newport Bermuda Races and
Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Races.