For the Whitbread Race entry America’s Challenge to actually start the race, it had to get from Newport, R.I., to Southampton, U.K., by September 21. Race rules actually required all boats to be in the U.K. by September 1, but we were unsure if we could get to the U.K. by that date as it was already August 18 when the boat was finally ready to depart.
The great circle distance from Newport to Southampton is 2,880 miles, and the rhumb line is 3,300 miles, so sailing a great circle saves more than 400 miles. Adverse weather and the Gulf Stream current play a big role in route planning, however. While we didn’t intend to break any records on the trip acrossthe boat had to get there intactwe did need to make the trip as quickly as possible.
After reviewing Jenifer Clark’s Gulf Stream analysis and weather forecasts, our initial plan was to sail over the top of the Bermuda high pressure system, staying close to the north side of the Gulf Stream. We would adjust our course north or south as weather systems came through. What we did not want to encounter were low pressure systems coming through to our south, which would give us east and northeast winds on the nose.We departed Newport on the afternoon of August 18 just behind a passing cold front. We had west and then north winds at 15 knots for the first two days. A good way to start a voyage. However, on the third day ( August 21) winds began building from the east and northeast as a gale approached us from the west. We soon realized the gale would be passing almost directly over us and slowing our forward progress with building winds and seas. To dodge that problem we elected to head southeast to sail beneath the low and put us into an area of south and southwest winds.We fell off and put the wind abaft the beam on the portside, which quickly allowed America’s Challenge to pick up speed and begin surfing down eight- and 10-foot seas. Boat speed averaged near 12 knots, but we hit consistent speeds in the high teens and low 20s while surfing. While running off that night we began to hear a loud crackling sound. Though we investigated at length, we couldn’t find the source of the crackling. We did agree the sound was loudest under the aft deck near the rudderpost.
This crackling sound, which imitated that of a massive electrical short circuit, continued for several hours thatnight and then abruptly stopped. The following day we were still investigating the reason for the sound when a crewman happened to look through the hull viewpoint next to the rudderpost and immediately noticed the reason for the sound: the bottom quarter of the rudder was missing.
A lost tip
We quickly figured out that the previous night’s crackling sound was caused by the skin and foam tip of the rudder separating and peeling off the body of the blade. Not sure of the rudder’s integrity, we sailed cautiously for the next few hours as we monitored and examined the rudder through the viewport. We soon agreed the remainder of the rudder would probably remain intact, as we could see no further separation and we heard no renewed crackling coming from it.
We hugged the top edge of the Bermuda-Azores high and had winds abaft the beam. We dipped to 38° N in the process of sailing below eastward-moving low pressure systems, and though this took us off a great circle path, we had consistent winds on the quarter and averaged more than 250 miles each day. If we had been further north, the wind and seas would have been forward of the beam, and that would have significantly slowed our progress.
To keep speed up in light air, we continually shifted water ballast as well as bagged sails. This produced the minimum amount of wetted surface and kept the boat level. Sail bags were moved from belowdecks to the gunwale and then back again. With the seemingly unlimited sail inventory we had aboard this was a laborious task. Many of the larger sails required half the crew to move, and when the sails were wet their weight seemed to increase exponentially. There was, though, a noticeable increase in speed when the boat was kept level and weight distributed properly.
Sailing flat has a number of advantages: it’s physically and mentally less stressful on a crew and therefore less tiring; and having the boat flat increased our speed, often by more than a knot. Sailing faster than the surrounding waves reduces the opportunity of being pooped or broaching, and it makes the boat’s motion less jerky.
Working at the navigation station was never a problem due to heel or speed. I will admit that seeing GPS SOG readings of 25 knots made me wonder, at least momentarily, what might happen if the boat slammed into a sleeping whale or a floating container. I elected to spend little time contemplating this and instead banged away at the computer keyboard.
GPS goes blank
One morning about halfway through the trip, while downloading weatherfax charts via the SSB and watching a satellite image scroll down the computer screen, the GPS display went blank. The screen didn’t go dark like when it is powered down; it stayed lit without a display of numbers or letters.
Turning the unit on and off numerous times and following the manufacturer’s restart and reprogramming procedures had no effect on restoring normal GPS operation. The only entry in the unit’s troubleshooting manual that appeared to address this problem told us to return the unit to the manufacturer. We continued to search for a solution and, finally, many hours later, saw the display briefly return when the antenna connection was jiggled.
Disconnecting the antenna connections showed saltwater corrosion and a loose crimp fitting, so the fitting along with six inches of cable were cut off and a new fitting attached. Failure of the first fitting was due most likely to the antenna being mounted less than a foot above the deck on the boat’s stern where it was frequently immersed in salt water.
We had a plastic sextant and Celesticomp calculator aboard, so I knew we could rely on that for the remainder of the trip, but the GPS was the heart of the electronic charting, communications, and performance sailing systems and was needed for running these programs.
We regularly had water coming across the deck when winds were greater than 15 knots and water coming across the deck always came through the cockpit on its way out the open stern. On one night, while we were surfing down waves, sufficient water came into the cockpit to dislodge the 406 EPIRB, which was mounted in its hydrostatic release on the underside of the mainsheet traveler.
Owing to darkness no one on deck saw or realized the EPIRB had been swept overboard until we received a message on our Inmarsat C receiver asking if we were okay and requesting that we check our EPIRBs to see if they were on board. We quickly determined that the on-deck unit was gone and sent a return e-mail that all was well aboard and that our on-deck beacon had been washed overboard. Fortunately we had a second EPIRB below. This incident makes clear that an EPIRB on deck needs to be easily deployable but also protected from seas that could wash it overboard. For those who can afford to do so, a second EPIRB mounted belowdecks might be a good investment, especially if a vessel will be venturing to remote or rough weather areas.
Several countries, including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Spain, New Zealand, and Canada picked up the emergency beacon signal and queried us within a few hours of the EPIRB’s being swept overboard. We were impressed by the response time.
I had completed and sent in three EPIRB registration forms that came with each of the two units we had aboard, and I found it interesting that two of the cards had addresses printed on the front side while the third one was blank. One card was to the manufacturer, one to the U.K. Marine Safety Agency, and the third cardthe one with no addresswas for the Coast Guard. But instead of a printed address this third card came with instructions saying it should be sent to the “U.S. Coast Guard,” but without any hint on where or how the proper addresses could be obtained. Possibly a fax number should be provided so completed forms could be sent in immediately. This is especially true since one of the main advantages of the 406 EPIRB is its digitally encoded signal that allows the Coast Guard to identify the vessel sending the signal. This feature only works, however, if the mariner who has purchased the EPIRB has sent in the registration form.
Our Inmarsat C and B systems worked fairly well though there were bugs in both software systems. For example, numerous outgoing messages from our C unit never reached their destination. This was not due to any failing in the Inmarsat C system itself, which I have used with pleasure many times previously, but with this transceiver’s particular software and, I think, with the placement of the C antennas on the boat. Both C antennas (we had two separate C-units aboard) were mounted on the stern adjacent to the corner lifeline stanchions. These stanchions and their stainless steel wire may have been causing some signal reception and sending problems. Problems with our GPS reception may also have been related to its antenna being mounted below and near stainless steel lifelines and next to a stanchion. An arch or pedestal may be a better place for these types of antennas, as it places them away from sources of possible interference.
Three times during the passage our vang exploded and each time it was due to failure of a block within the vang’s multiple block and tackle system. The vang was designed as the weak link in the boom-gooseneck-mainsheet system, and so its failure prevented worse problems had the gooseneck or mainsheet failed. All three vang failures occurred under similar conditions of dynamic loading, brought on when waves were contrary to the wind and the mainsail and boom were undergoing cyclical loading as the boat accelerated and decelerated.
Fortunately no one was near the vang the times it failed, so there were no injuries. I examined what pieces could be found of the destroyed blocks and was reminded of the tremendous forces developed when vangs, as well as sheets, halyards, and preventers, are under load.
Wear and tear of active sailing induces great stresses on deck hardware and leads to the idea that blocks, shackles, and pins can never be too strong or robust. The bigger the better, but there always needs to be a weak link in a system, and the weak link should be selected so its failure will do the least harm and prevent further problems. In this case the gooseneck, mainsheet, and preventer were all designed to be strong and the vang selected as the weak link since its failure would preserve the boom and gooseneck and be the easiest to fix.
When we were just 60 miles from Southampton and sailing on a beam reach with a full main and jib, the seas were short, sloppy, and confused and we regularly felt the boat lurch as cross-seas slowed our progress. With each impact the mainsail, which was eased out to port, would slap against the spreaders. A particularly large set of cross-seas caught the boat; as the boat slowed, the mainsail, still full of wind, slammed hard against the port spreaders and immediately split along several of its upper horizontal seams.
Since a repair job would have taken several hours, we doused the main and continued under jib and iron genoa. The stresses of 12 days of hard sailing exacerbated by slams against the spreaders did in the mainsail. A lesson to remember is to keep the mainsail off the spreaders.
We arrived in Southampton on the evening of August 31, meeting the race deadline for arrival by several hours. We covered nearly 3,500 miles in a little more than 12 days, which gave us a daily run of around 290 miles. Our best day’s run was 359 miles, and we had several days where 320 miles was the average. We encountered half a dozen gales during the trip and fortunately were able to position ourselves on the south side of all except the first so that we experienced winds abaft our beam. The strongest wind we experienced was 40 knots and the minimum 10, and when I compared these figures with the pilot charts after the voyage I found that our experience fit within the average conditions shown on those charts.
I attributed our ability to make consistent daily runs to several factors:
1) Excellent boat design and construction, allowing consistently high speeds in both light and strong winds.
2) The ability to receive weather charts, text forecasts, and real-time satellite imagery. Real-time imagery (infrared and visible) allowed us to track actual development, movement, and dissipation of weather systems. We thus placed ourselves within desired weather patterns instead of sailing a route and accepting weather as it came.
3) Simple and reliable on-board systems that took little time away from the important tasks of sailing, navigation, and routing.
Few voyagers would want to rack up such high speeds, but many voyagers would enjoy getting to their destinations faster. Our transatlantic trip aboard America’s Challenge had some valuable lessons for the voyager who wants to get there faster.
Michael Carr is a marine specialist who owns Ocean Strategies, which does weather services and routing in Peaks Island, Maine.