Transatlantic test

On June 4, 2000, sailing my J44, Monhegan, I crossed the Europe1 NewManSTAR starting line off Plymouth, England. This was the 40th running of the race, and I was excited to be part of it. While I knew the race was going to be a challenge, I had little idea how much events would test my problem-solving abilities and my seamanship.

The course runs from Plymouth to Newport, R.I., and, unlike most ocean races, in the Europe1 NewManSTAR you go the “wrong” way, with the winds generally on the nose. Throw in fog – especially as one approaches North America – cold temperatures, gales, large waves, foul currents, icebergs, and much shipping, and you have a competition that taxes your seamanship. In my case, an unexpected mid-ocean meeting with a fishing boat made my race even more challenging.

Formerly called the Observer Singlehanded TransAtlantic Race (OSTAR), this is the original singlehanded race, founded by such great sailors as Blondie Hasler, Sir Francis Chichester, and Eric Taberly.

I had bought Monhegan as a wreck for $4,400 in 1996. I rebuilt her by cutting away the hull and dropping the deck with the interior still attached into a new, Scrimped hull built by TPI. I set her up for singlehanded offshore racing, with an Alpha pilot, ProFurl furling on the genoa, and an inner forestay with a hank-on staysail/storm jib. Naturally, Monhegan had all the various Dutchman products I have designed, including the sail-flaking system, boom brake, and track system. I had already done the Bermuda 1-2 (singlehanded Newport to Bermuda, doublehanded back), and had sailed Monhegan from Norwalk, Conn., to the U.S. Virgin Islands through winds of more than 40 knots, so I knew my boat well and had a lot of confidence in her.

The week leading up to the start had been a mad dash of final preparations, which in my case included everything from wet-sanding the bottom to fabricating massive keel plates to reduce the tendency of the keel bolts to loosen. (When I hauled the boat in Plymouth, I discovered I had a canting keel, except that it would cant two inches to leeward – not good!) I had also upgraded the Ockam sailing electronics with MaxSea race, Ockam soft, and Ocens. Naturally, on the last day, I began to experience troubles with my mini-M system, but I had a good SSB system. The new sails looked good, if a bit light, and Monhegan was fast.

The pre-race forecast by Commanders Weather was ominous. They predicted a series of gales, each one increasing in strength, for the first two weeks, and spoke of the race becoming a survival contest. The problem was that the 500-Mb charts showed the jet stream making a sharp U-turn at about 40° west, which was to generate a never ending series of lows. If combined with a low from North America, the results could be scary. The only route to escape from this, heading south into the Azores/Bermuda high, was a ticket to nowhere, with light, variable winds. Having experienced plenty of both, I’ll take a gale to drifting conditions any day, and I set off on the classic great circle route. The first two days were mostly light air, with winds to 16 knots, and I made good time with the no. 2, and later, as the winds eased, my light no. 1. By Monday night, I was still keeping up nicely with a new, state-of-the-art open 40 Syllogic, sailed by a Dutchman, Pieter Adriaans, along with an older French 60 Afibel, sailed by Patrick Favre. I changed to my no. 3, as the first low pressure system rolled in, with winds out of the southwest that gradually built to 26 knots true, 30 knots apparent. They then shifted to the west and then the northwest as the low passed to the north of me. Worse were the large seas. The constant pounding as I beat upwind was nerve-racking. I knew only too well what was holding my boat together. Was it enough? Shouldn’t I have made that tabbing one or two layers thicker?The reality of the race started to sink in as Monhegan crashed across the building seas. The initial excitement had passed, replaced by fear and doubt. I was sick, as I often am in the early stages of an offshore trip, if weather strikes. In addition, I had not slept much, given the frequent traffic and pounding. I would sleep with at least two 60-minute timers next to my ear, set to go off between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the circumstances. It’s almost like taking care of a newborn: howling noises and no sleep, except you’re the one who’s always wet!

By the morning, the winds had clocked around to the Northwest and started dropping, and the skies began to clear. At this point, I was almost 200 miles off the English coast and 100 miles south of Ireland. Having not seen any boats for 12 hours, I went below for a nap at 1100.

A surprise wake-up I was in for a rude surprise. At 1130 I was awakened by a sickening crash. Bounding out of my main salon berth, I was greeted by the sight of a large red hull out the main salon portlights. My first thought was that I was being run over by a freighter. In a second I was on deck, and saw that I had T-boned a 60-foot fishing trawler, probably Portuguese. I quickly note my position of 49 47.6′ N, 11 06.8′ W.

The point of impact was on his starboard side, about eight feet back from his bow, in an area reinforced with a series of four-inch-diameter half-round steel pipes welded to the hull. His hull showed no dent or creasing of the steel plate, just a smear of white gelcoat. Two men walked up to the bow of the fishing boat, looked at their boat and mine, muttered a few things, and went back to their nets in less than a minute. Either the fishing was very good, or collisions were not that interesting! I realized my autopilot was still trying to steer me into the trawler, so I changed course, and began to sail away.

As I headed away from the strangely indifferent trawler, I could see from the cockpit that my bow was damaged. I released the backstay, headed off the wind, rolled up the jib, and went forward. It was bad. The front two feet of the boat had almost entirely broken off. The bow was hanging on by only a few layers of glass on the port side. The stem of the boat was offset a good six inches to port, and there were gaping holes on the starboard side and on the deck.

If the bow were to completely break off and the forestay sent flying free, it certainly could help bring down the rig, especially if there was a sail on the furling system. Although I considered heading back to make repairs, going the wrong way had no appeal to me. I knew I could figure out some way to fix Monhegan and, as a backup, could sail with just the staysail and main. Within a half hour, I decided to stay in the race.

During this time I dropped the main so as to stay close to the fishing boat. I knew I was at fault for hitting them, and did not want to be accused of sailing away from the accident. I hung around for about an hour, until I saw them steam off. It’s one thing to damage your own boat, it’s quite another to damage someone else’s boat that they depend on for their livelihood. Although I was depressed about the damage to Monhegan, I was also thankful that the fishing boat was okay.

I rolled out and took down the no. 3 genoa, and sailed on with a reefed main and the staysail. I also lashed down the forestay to several deck padeyes just aft of the damaged area, in case the bow completely pulled off. After that, I did rather little for the next 24 hours, other than to call in my position. I spent a lot of time thinking about the risks of singlehanding, and worked on several inventions. On Wednesday morning, I spoke with Pieter Adriaans on Syllogic and Patrick Favre on Afibel, both of whom were within 30 miles of my position. Adriaans gave the positions of the next low and promised to report my position to the Royal Western Yacht Club.

Collision bulkhead comes in handy

Originally, the J44 had a small anchor locker forward of the V berth. The European boats I grew up with all had self-draining anchor lockers that extended well into the forward cabin. The aft end of the locker could be reinforced to serve as the support for an inner forestay. When I rebuilt Monhegan, I installed such an anchor locker, both for additional deck stowage and to serve as an Offshore Racing Council-required crash bulkhead. The bow locker ran from the bow six inches above the waterline aft to a bulkhead eight feet back. To save weight, this sloping panel was made from a 1/2-inch balsa-cored fiberglass panel, which comes in 4 x 8 sheets. The aft end of the bow locker was a 3/4-inch plywood bulkhead overlaid with glass and a 1/4-inch aluminum plate to spread the inner forestay load to the sides of the hull. The inner forestay ran from the bulkhead to 3/4 the way up the mast, just above where the runners hooked in. This inner forestay had certainly saved the rig. The boat was not taking on water, and was sailing well with just the staysail and main. However, I knew my temporary lashings on the forestay/furling system would not hold for long.

Wednesday afternoon, June 7, the next low came through, with winds of more than 30 knots. With one reef in the main and the staysail, Monhegan was making nine knots on a beam reach, with winds out of the SSW. That evening, as the wind again clocked around to the west, then the northwest, the bow locker hatch flew off into the sea. I watched it sail off to England, followed by two fenders I had stored up in the bow. I realized that the pressure of the breaking waves forced into the hole in the bow blew the locker off its hinges. It was obvious that I had to make repairs soon. The bow locker was filling with water with each wave, slowing the boat down and putting plenty of green water on board. I began to feel like I was on a sub!By Thursday afternoon, the winds had lightened to 10 to 12 knots, and the seas flattened out. Still, several large waves came on board and filled the bow locker while I was working in it – a cordless drill will work underwater, at least for a little while! By now I was doing repair work in earnest. I drilled two 5/8-inch holes in the bow under the damaged area, and cut off 10 feet of line from a 5/8-inch Kevlar jib sheet. I tied a figure eight knot in the end, led the line out one hole, up through the end of the spinnaker pole, around the forestay pin, and back around to the other hole. The difficult part was securing a forestay and keeping it from moving around too much as the boat rolled around in the ocean swells. I used vise grips to hold the line tight, like a line stopper, while I tied in the other figure-eight knot. I also ran side support guy lines from the front end of the pole back to the bow cleats. Once these lines were in place, I moved the mast end of the pole down to push the front end of the pole out, helping to tighten all the lines. When I tightened the backstay, I had a little more mast rake than normal, but it looked good, so I moved on.

I had a hull-patching kit made by Naverex, which I tried out. The kit consisted of a sponge with several chemicals, which, when mixed, soaked into the sponge, and when exposed to seawater, were supposed to harden and lock the whole sticky mess in place. It seemed to work well. Next, I covered the bow with a very strong tape, which was difficult given the constant wave action. Then I ripped a section of the interior overhead out, which was 1/4-inch plywood with a Formica overlay, and used this to make a new bow locker cover. This was screwed and glued with 5200.

Submarining through the seas

Normally, Monhegan would lose about 0.2 knots when going over six- to 10-foot ocean swells, but with a large hole in the bow, the bow locker would fill with water faster than it could drain. The bow would then dig noticeably deeper into the water, and I would lose up to a knot in waves. The steering was also heavier with the bow locker filled with water, and I had a lot more green water on deck. The additional weight also would make for additional stress on the hull when going through waves. Keeping the bow locker empty was essential. The bow repairs held through the next low, with winds up to 30 knots out of the northwest on Friday night. Saturday saw the winds drop back down to 20 knots out of the southwest, then build again to 30 knots by Saturday night, as low no. 4 came through. By Sunday night, June 11th, I had winds up to 37 knots true, 43 knots apparent out of the southwest. Monday morning, the winds quickly shifted 70° to the northwest in three hours.

The rough seas were more than the sponge/tape repair job could handle, and bow locker hatch no. 2 disappeared that night sometime after the repair was stove in. Tuesday evening the winds finally abated, and I fabricated bow locker hatch no. 3 by cutting up a spare dodger I had sewn up for the trip, and securing it to the toerail using wood battens, just as it was getting dark. The center wrapped over the spinnaker pole, and it served well to keep green water out of the bow locker. I also wrapped canvas around the bow, and secured it with battens. This bow repair again only lasted through the next two gales.The final repair to the hole in the bow included plywood over the hole, with a canvas overlay, which prevented the canvas from chafing on the exposed fiberglass. This lasted the rest of the race.

The weather never let up. I went through a total of eight low pressure systems with winds more than 30 knots. After a while, it became almost normal. By far the most difficult thing to deal with was the fact that everything was wet and cold down below, from my clothes to the bedding and cushions. You come below, get out of wet foul-weather gear, and climb into a wet bed with wet bedding. Delightful! During this part of the trip I was reading Slocum’s classic book on his singlehanded circumnavigation. What I would have given for his coal burning stove! I had a compartment over the engine that served to dry clothing, but with the humidity inside more than 90%, it had little effect on this passage. I drew the line at putting on wet underwear. I would wash my underwear and then dry it over my little Seacook stove. I burned a few holes, here and there, but no one seemed to mind! Fortunately, Capilene long underwater and fleece bedding provide at least some warmth even when damp or wet.

Low number 6 was the big one. The winds Wednesday afternoon and evening, June 14, were unusual in that they were out of the ENE blowing 25 to 30 knots true. As always, it was overcast. I was broad-reaching at nine to 12 knots, steering by hand to surf the waves as much as possible. On a course almost due west toward North America, I hit 16.4 knots in a 40-knot gust at 2000 UTC. The bow wave rose two to three feet above the deck, as I hung on the back of a 20-foot wave for more than two minutes.

The wind was increasing, and the clouds clearly showed a frontal line to the south running east to west, so I decided that it might be a good time to roll up the jib and reef the main. The frontal line was moving North. I carefully steered to keep the wind at 160 degrees apparent while winching in the no. 2 genoa at the same time. I had already spun out once, and did not want a repeat in the building winds. The barometer had dropped from 1014 to 1003 in less than nine hours.

Next, I headed up, and double-reefed the main. In 30 minutes, the wind shifted from northeast to west as I sailed south into the front. By 0200, early Thursday morning, the barometer dropped to 1000, and I recorded steady winds out of the west at more than 62 knots true or almost 70 knots apparent. Due to engine problems, I only had my electronics on for five minutes every two hours to do a log entry. I continued on with a very flat double-reefed main and my staysail. I was averaging six knots at 35° apparent, and the boat was sailing herself nicely with the wheel lashed down. I had planned on using just the staysail in such conditions, but I doubt Monhegan would have sailed herself with only the staysail up. Since I did not have the power to run the autopilot for long, and she was doing well with the wheel lashed, I decided to keep the main up.

Big waves

The winds gradually subsided and shifted more to the north. At 1100 the winds were 40 knots out of the northwest. At 1900, the winds were still more than 35 knots true, but there was a fair amount of blue sky to the south of me, and the barometer was back up to 1012. Winds held in the 30-knot range out of the WNW for the next 24 hours. I had survived a pretty serious low pressure system. Wave heights averaged 25 feet, but some were clearly about as high as Monhegan was long, or more than 40 feet. Initially, I certainly was north of the center; however, the system was tracking to the northeast, and I must have sailed through the center of the low when the wind shifted from the northeast to the west. The system was moving fairly quickly to the north, so I doubt I could have held onto the easterly winds much longer by heading NW instead of west. I also wanted to get south, as I was coming to the Labrador current and its icebergs.

If I wrote about everything that broke or wore out on the trip, this would be a book, but going through eight gales takes an incredible toll on a boat and the equipment. My Dacron staysail was up from the 3rd day until I arrived in Newport. I used the same, super-low-stretch line as my genoa halyard to hoist it. Even with proper halyard tension, every hank on the sail was worn out by the time I finished. The wire had worn away at least 1/2 the bronze hank, and several had already broken open. I had never before worn out a hank. The staysail itself did extremely well, needing only one new batten pocket.

Monhegan took on bad fuel at some point. To make matters worse, about a gallon of water got into the fuel tank from the vent, which was located just under the toerail next to the transom. I could not believe that much water could seep in, since I was never sailing with my toerail close to the water. Taping the vent solved the problem, but engine performance got worse and worse, until I was only running on one cylinder after 10 days out. I repeatedly bled the Racor filter, and ended up having to change the engine oil, since the fuel the injectors were dribbling out would not ignite and instead was forced past the rings into the crankcase. One hour of running the engine would dump about two quarts of fuel into the engine oil. Needless to say, I almost never ran the engine, relying instead on the one to two amp/hours produced by the wind generator. The mechanic who looked at the injectors said the gunk that came out of them was the worst he had ever seen.

Although the Alpha pilot was completely reliable, and in normal conditions would use less than an amp per hour, gale winds would bump the power consumption to the three- to four-amp/hour range. I sailed more than three quarters of the race with the wheel lashed down. I found I could sail as far off the wind as 60 degrees apparent with the wheel tied off, although the balance was more sensitive the farther off the wind. Monhegan easily sailed herself upwind, with no self-steering vane, in everything from six to more than 60 knots of wind. I became quite adept at adjusting helm angle and sail trim to maximize pointing ability and speed. Adjustments were needed whenever the wind speed changed by more than about 10%, so I monitored wind speed carefully.

Most of the electronics, except for the Mini-M system, worked well, especially the 10-year-old ICOM SSB, Ockam electronics, Furuno weatherfax, and the new MaxSea race navigation program. Naturally, as the race went on, I cut back all electronics use. The only piece of gear that stayed on more or less constantly was the VHF. Although I had a radar detection system to avoid collisions, it would only give a warning when a target closed to less than two miles, much less than the range at which the radar itself would pick up a ship. Since the alarm was certainly not enough to wake me, I never used it. The radar, a Furuno unit mounted on the stern 11 feet above the water, with the gain set for maximum sensitivity and adjusted for heel, would pick up a typical large freighter at six to seven miles away, and most fishing boats at three miles away. In the fog on the Grand Banks and on George’s Banks, I was monitoring the radar every 15 minutes, since I was often sailing at seven knots.

The VHF was the most useful tool for tracking other vessels. Every 15 minutes in fog, and every hour in clear weather, I would broadcast onhegan’s position, course, and speed, and ask for any other vessels in the area to reply with their course and speed. About 20% of the time, I would get a response, and I would plot the other vessel’s position. In one case a ship was able to give me my course and speed very accurately. It certainly makes you realize how many other vessels were out there. Of course, if the person on watch does not speak English, the measure was useless, but especially approaching North America, this tactic works well.

Looking for icebergs

On Sunday, June 18, in less than 10 hours, I sailed from the 68 degrees water temperature of a warm eddy to the 46degrees temperature of the Labrador current. It was hard to write, it was so cold. The fog was the densest of the trip, with 100-foot visibility. The idea of seeing an iceberg was a fascinating one to me, and that evening, at 44 20′ N, 46 11′ W, I spotted a large object within two miles on the radar that looked like an island. It was not moving, and did not answer my VHF calls or horn signals. I was sure it was an iceberg. Still, I thought I would see more the next day, and I wanted to see a berg in the daytime when I could take a picture. Two days later, the water was back up to 50°, but I was still close to the iceberg area. Again, in pea-soup fog, I spotted two large, fixed objects. I tried to call them on the VHF. No answer. So I headed toward them. They seemed to move, but I kept on. Finally, a voice came over the VHF. It was two fishing boats, quite worried about who was trying to run them over! I apologized, and gave up on my iceberg hunt for this trip.

I cleared the Grand Banks and the last gale, and sailed into the first clear, blue skies of the passage. With 30-knot winds out of the northwest, things began to dry out, and I was making eight to nine knots. I sailed through several more fog banks and quite a few calms. On Tuesday evening, I arrived in Newport at 2100 local time. The first voice I heard was my four-year-old son calling out from the tow boat, “Daddy, don’t worry, we’re coming to get you!” All entrants get a free tow, which most of us needed! I took 23 days, 13 hours, and was the first American to cross the line and the second to cross in class 3. The winner of class 3 beat me by a little more than 2.5 days. Given the damage I suffered, I was pretty happy with my results. All the racers had stories of being knocked over and having equipment damaged, and all felt pretty darn good just to have finished the race. About 70% of the boats less than 50 feet had dropped out or had gone south into the high pressure region with no wind, and would not finish in time.

The first question everyone asks is, “Would you do it again?” In thinking about that question, I have to admit that singlehanded sailing is difficult and risky. For me and for other solo sailors, however, this riskiness is both a problem and an attraction. While I did experience a collision, this is a very rare occurrence for the solo racer. And risk can be reduced; I believe the risk of sailing offshore with an unprepared boat or skipper is vastly greater than that of a knowledgeable singlehander in a well-prepped boat. I would definitely do the race again.

The benefits for me were many. No matter how good a sailor you are, doing such a race will make you a better sailor, and the experience will help make our Ocean Sailing class at Sound Sailing Center, and my Dutchman products, even better. The experience also changed me.

One of several books I read, Seeking the Face of God, was about what the ancient Christians could teach us. They endured great hardships, which they used to make themselves more patient, understanding, and less likely to complain. My trip certainly did the same for me.

What about future solo efforts? Before the race, J.P. Mouligne, who won the last Around Alone in the open 50 class, told me: “First you do the OSTAR, then you want to do the Around Alone. It will be the same for you.” Well, if I can find a few sponsors, or sell a whole lot more Dutchman products, he might just be right!

By Ocean Navigator