Wrong Way to the West Indies

As an active bluewater sailor based in New England, I’ve often delivered boats from the northeastern United States to the West Indies in early November. I have also done a few northbound trips from the Indies to New England in the spring. But I had never before been asked to take a boat south to the Caribbean in early April. Why would any sane boat owner want to do such a thing?

The answer, not surprisingly, involved a racing schedule. The boat in question, a Swan 48 named Avocation, had recently changed hands and was now being managed by Hank Schmitt of Offshore Passage Opportunities. He planned to campaign the boat at Antigua Race Week and needed to have it in St. Maarten by a Thursday in late April so he could fly in and take it to Antigua in time for the start of Race Week that Sunday.

I met Hank and the boat at his home base in Huntington, Long Island, on an early April morning. Hank had already assembled a pay-to-play crew, the members of which slowly trickled on to the scene as we attended to a few last-minute chores that afternoon. They were an excellent mix: two young deck apes, Jordan Weinstein and Nathan Korn; two middle-aged sailors, John Cavedo (a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces) and Keith Weinstein (a small-business owner from Florida); plus one seasoned veteran, Jim Donkin.

The weather charts I downloaded on the computer in Hank’s office that evening were incredibly bleak. The forecast was for deep, low-generating gale-force winds to appear in the waters between Bermuda and the eastern United States on Saturday, right about the time I expected we’d be crossing the Gulf Stream. If I were in voyaging mode, of course, I would have waited patiently for this low to pass, but since we were in delivery mode, and a no-go decision now meant that Hank could not race at Antigua, I felt we had to set out as planned early the next morning.

Though conditions were initially light, by 1400 a moderate southwesterly had filled in and we screamed east out of Long Island Sound. Flying full sail on a broad reach, we maintained speeds of more than 9 knots all through the afternoon and into the early evening. By 1640 we had cleared Plum Gut; by 1800 we had cleared Montauk and were reefed down in open water, close-reaching into what had become a quite brisk 25-knot breeze. The sea was very lively, and by sunset most of the crew were seasick.

The wind stayed strong until about noon the following day, moderated as it shifted south, then shifted southwest and became very light late in the day. Through all of this, we motor-sailed aggressively, as I wanted to keep our speed at 7 knots or better in hopes of crossing the stream before the arrival of the forecasted gale.

The fan and what hit it

Interestingly, the crewmember who suffered the most from seasickness was John (or “Johnny Army,�VbCrLf as Nathan called him), our Special Forces man. A veteran of tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he later paid me what I considered to be an immense compliment when he described our voyage together as one of the most miserable experiences of his life. In spite of his malaise, however, he did everything I asked of him. He also anointed himself weather-data specialist and made repeated attempts to download charts en route via his government-issue Iridium satellite phone. He had practiced doing this on shore before joining the boat, but for reasons we never ascertained, he was unable to download data while offshore.

As a result, we didn’t know quite what to expect when Saturday arrived. Would the gale materialize or not? We had rain and a light southerly wind all through the day and again motored to keep our speed up. After midnight the wind shifted southeast, dead against us, and started building. Soon it was blowing 30 knots, and we again reefed the boat down. It wasn’t quite a gale, but it was bad enough. There was still a lot of Gulf Stream current flowing under us, and the seas were very lumpy. Sailing close-hauled on port tack under a double-reefed main and staysail, we had the starboard rail well buried and nobody aboard was very happy.

In the midst of all this, not long after we shortened sail, I was awakened from a fitful sleep by a cry from the cockpit, “The instruments are out!�VbCrLf I shouted up to the watch on deck, telling them to cope as best they could, then rushed to the nav desk (which was on the lee side of the boat) to check the electrical panel. My heart sank when my right foot landed in a large puddle of water as I slid in behind the desk. Then came the telltale scent of smoldering wiring. After lifting several floorboards, I soon figured out what was going on. We were taking on quite a bit of water, which was pooling up all along the lee side of the boat. Under the nav seat, low down on the port side, there was a collection of small step-down voltage converters, several of which were now submerged.

After checking the through-hulls, the prop shaft and the rudder post, I concluded that the water must be coming from some deck leak that was active only when the boat was well heeled. How to get rid of the water was another problem. For this is one of the great curses of modern boat design: Shallow bilges may help a boat sail quickly, but they are nothing but trouble if you are taking on water under sail. With the boat well-heeled, the intakes for both our electric and manual bilge pumps, located on the centerline in a shallow sump, were barely awash and could not pick up the bulk of the water on our lee side. The pumps could be used to keep more water from coming aboard, but they could not pump the boat dry.

As the sun rose on Sunday morning, I was debating what to do. One option was to heave to and stand the boat up straight enough for the pumps to work. To keep the boat dry, however, I would have to do this repeatedly, which would slow us down. Another option was to re-route the manual bilge pump’s intake line to the lee side of the boat, where it could do some good. By 0900, the question was moot, as conditions moderated and the boat’s heeling eased enough for the pumps to be useful again.

Nav instruments lost

Taking stock of our situation, I found we had lost all of our navigation instruments (but not the GPS, which fortunately was on a separate circuit), our autopilot, our VHF radio and our 12-volt outlet, which we had been using to charge our two handheld satellite phones. We also found that the genoa leech was thoroughly shredded. This, presumably, had occurred while we were furling the sail in high winds the night before.

By Sunday night, the sky was clear enough to see some stars, the first of our passage. All through Monday we had a moderate northerly pushing us along on a nice broad reach; our first really pleasant day of offshore sailing so far. By 2200, Bermuda was in sight. During our final approach, I had a long debate with Bermuda Harbor Radio on our spare handheld VHF. Their ironclad policy is that boats entering St. Georges at night cannot lie at the customs dock, but must instead anchor out in relatively deep water on the south side of the harbor and wait for customs to open in the morning. I was nervous about anchoring both because we now had no depth sounder and because I had a hunch our anchor windlass wasn’t working. (Hank had warned me it had not been inspected or tested since the boat was purchased.) In the end, I elected to heave to and wait outside for daylight, and Harbor Radio felt compelled to apologize profusely for their intransigence.

We eagerly got underway again on Tuesday morning. Almost instantly, however, one small problem presented itself. We unexpectedly ran out of fuel and had to switch tanks before motoring through Town Cut.

Damage control in Bermuda

My hunch, it turned out, was correct. On testing the windlass in St. Georges, I found it exhibited unique symptoms. That is, it could drop chain, but could not pick it up. As soon as the windlass received power, it started merrily spooling chain overboard, and the only way to stop it, I soon learned on sprinting to the bow to seize the handheld control, was to keep a thumb firmly planted on the ��UP’ button. No matter how hard I pressed ��UP,’ however, the device refused to reel chain back in. Unfortunately, I was alone on the boat when I discovered this and so found myself trapped at the bow, unable to shut off the power, with the windlass control clutched in my hand.

Just then a tourist appeared on the wall where we had tied up the boat. “Where have you come from?�VbCrLf she asked in a congenial tone.

“Here, lady,�VbCrLf I answered eagerly, proffering the control unit. “Can you hold this for a minute?�VbCrLf

I also discovered the windlass could not be operated manually, which meant, in effect, that we had no windlass at all. I had better luck dealing with our other problems. Steve Hollis of Ocean Sails, truly a prince among sailmakers, agreed to repair our genoa leech on a very expedited basis. I also discovered the headsail furling line was very badly chafed in one spot, so I replaced it. Some minor damage to the mainsail leech was repaired with tape. Some sections of the overhead down below, which were continually falling down due to tired Velcro fasteners, were permanently screwed back into place.

But the big issue, of course, was the electronics. At first I assumed we’d have to proceed without these, but after poking around, I found the voltage converters under the nav seat could be easily interchanged. The converters were necessary because Swans, like many contemporary European boats, have 24-volt house power systems. This greatly facilitates the feeding of such hungry devices as bow-thrusters, electric winches and our useless windlass, but means that power for common electronics – such as depth sounders, wind instruments, stereo systems, autopilots, radios, etc. – must be stepped down to 12 volts to be useful. By engaging in some triage, I was able to reactivate useful systems, such as the instruments and the autopilot, at the expense of less useful systems like the stereo and courtesy lights. I also remounted the active converters higher up in the space under the nav seat in hopes that they might better survive another bout of serious windward sailing.

By Thursday morning we were ready to depart Bermuda – without John, unfortunately, as he had to fly home to the Army. But we were trapped in place by a stronger than expected south wind that sprang up during the night and pinned us firmly to the concrete wall where we had tied up. Because the wall was concave I was afraid to spring off it for fear of damaging our flawless topsides. So that morning we watered and refueled the boat via jerry cans (we were, ironically, just a few yards from Dowling’s fuel dock and garage), and by 1400, fortunately, the wind moderated and shifted southwest, so at last we were able to set off again.

Fuel management

On leaving Bermuda, I regaled the crew with tales of the easterly trade winds. “Just a couple of days of motoring through light stuff,�VbCrLf I promised them. “Then after that we’ll be screaming along on some kind of reach.�VbCrLf

But reality, as so often happens, made a liar of me. We did initially sail on a close reach out of St. Georges on a moderate southwesterly, but this soon shifted dead on our nose. The following morning the breeze built briefly to more than 30 knots and we again took on water courtesy of our mysterious deck leak, but fortunately this time the converters were all high and dry to windward. From that point forward, with rare exceptions, we had incessant rain and either light headwinds or no wind. As a result, we again motored aggressively, hoping not to beat a gale this time, but simply to get quickly to the trades.

Late on Saturday we again unexpectedly ran out of fuel. In all we had about 70 gallons of diesel aboard, divided between two integral tanks, plus an extra six gallons in a jerry can. The first time we ran a tank dry, going into St. Georges, I had simply been negligent, as the fuel gauge read very close to zero. But this time I was taken aback, as according to the gauge we still had a quarter of a tank left. The gauge, it seemed, read very differently depending on which tank was engaged.

After switching tanks, we motored aggressively for another 24 hours, but as we got further and further south without finding the trades, I became more and more circumspect and ran the engine at lower rpm for shorter periods of time. I also dug out the owner’s manual and spent some time consulting the boat’s fuel-consumption tables. Finally, as we flogged along through weak rain squalls very early on Wednesday morning- with some 90 miles still to go before we reached St. Maarten – I concluded, based on my study of the tables, that we had only about five gallons of fuel left. Thus, when the wind died completely (again) at about 0430, I felt we had no choice but to keep the engine off and sit motionless, awaiting its return. It now seemed very unlikely that we would reach St. Maarten by Thursday.

We didn’t wait long, however, as a moderate southeasterly soon filled in. Though this wind grew much weaker and more variable during the day, we were able to sail the boat close-hauled more or less toward St. Maarten at an average speed of less than two knots. To do so required very careful steering. By now the crew, after nearly a week of rainy weather, was too bored to pay much attention to the helm, so I steered the boat through most of the day. By 2000 we were still 65 miles from St. Maarten, and I was convinced we would never arrive on time.

But then, suddenly, we got lucky. The wind grew stronger, shifted in our favor and all through the rest of the night we sailed straight at St. Maarten at 5 knots or better. Around sunrise Thursday morning we cleared the east end of Anguilla. By 0900 we had turned on the engine again and were rounding Pointe Basse Terre, at the western tip of St. Maarten. We figured we would, unfortunately, be just a few minutes late for the 0930 bridge opening into Simpson Bay Lagoon. But then, while monitoring the bridge’s radio traffic, we made an amazing discovery – it wasn’t 0900 after all. It was 0800, as St. Maarten, despite being well east of Bermuda, is an hour behind Bermuda time.

I felt like Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, pulling victory from the clutches of defeat thanks to the unexpected gift of an extra hour. We arrived at Simpson Bay with more than half an hour to spare and, after idling around a bit, started to queue up to enter the lagoon. But then, just as suddenly, our luck ran out. Just five minutes before the bridge was to open, the engine faltered and died. Once again – literally just a few hundred yards from our final destination – we had run out of fuel.

It all came out right in the end, though. We anchored in the bay (with no help from the windlass, of course) and a tow boat came out to pull us into the lagoon when the bridge opened again at 1130. Just an hour or so after we finally got the boat secure in a marina berth, Hank arrived from the airport. He was delighted to learn that the fuel tanks were empty. This meant he could take on the very minimum amount needed to reach Antigua, and so would be carrying as little extra weight as possible when the racing began.

After our wrong-way delivery, it seemed oddly appropriate for this last detail to come out right!

By Ocean Navigator