2010 Norfolk-St Thomas

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Course: Offshore Passagemaking; Norfolk to St Thomas
Date November 2-16, 2010
Vessel: IP-440 CELESTIAL
Students: Wolfgang Linke, Fred Lipp, Erico Silva, Ingo Stubbe 
First Mate: David Gifford 
Captain Jack Morton

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” Dickens got nothing on us. 

November 1: After traveling from our various parts of the East, we gathered aboard Celestial, our home to be away from home for the next two weeks. And immediately adjourned to Captain Groovy’s to talk of our aspirations, fears, goals and generally begin to come together as crew, rather than six guys on a boat. David Gifford, a veteran of several offshore cruises (he even chose to come back after doing one with me some years ago) would be my mate, joined by an experienced international student crew consisting of German Wolfgang Linke, an engineer, Brazilian Erico Silva, an information systems specialist, naturalized US citizen originally from Germany, physician Ingo Stubbe, and home grown Construction Manager Fred Lipp. 

November 2: All gathered to begin the two day training in which we go over things all need to know about Celestial – how the sails go up and down, and get reefed, how we stow and use the emergency gear – sea anchors, raft, storm sails, and such. We also begin the exhaustive review of on board procedures for galley, heads (more about that later), berths, and personal gear stowage. To make things interesting we note some problems for which we will be having mechanics and sailmakers visiting, to ensure that everything is as shipshape as we can make it before we set out. 

November 3: More of the same, plus assignment of roles for the cruise – safety coordinator (Ingo), engineer (Wolfgang), Steward (Erico – no, he doesn’t do all the cooking – we’ll share that, but he is in charge of provisioning, and the systems for people to locate the pancake mix without waking up the rest of us) and bosun (Fred). With roles assigned, people dive into their particular inventories and checklists, stopping to grab the rest when they come to something everyone should know. We also review some more of the emergency procedures, including man overboard, fire and abandon ship. Despite no night watches, these are long, exhausting days. 

November 4: Ordinarily, this would be the day of departure, early in the morning, but part of safe and efficient cruising is being aware of conditions. That includes condition of the crew (all good), condition of the ship (appears pretty much ready), and critically, weather conditions – not so simple. We are expecting several low pressure centers to be affecting the Chesapeake / Hatteras, and nearby offshore regions in the next days, as well as tropical storm Tomas, a bit farther south along our path. Our intended route is generically set as going east of the rhumb line to use the prevailing SWesterlies, and get some easting, so as to make the best advantage of the prevailing easterlies below about 28ºN, and reaching south along 65ºW. Looking at weather sources on the computer, and what Tom Tursi has forwarded, we find discretion the better part of valor, and defer departure for a day. 

November 5: We still have Lows predicted, with strong winds, but there appears to be a break during which we can sneak across the Gulf Stream, before the 30 knot winds predicted from the north turn it into a maelstrom. More consulting the best of the weather information available to us, and the decision is made – we’ll leave on the outgoing tide. The Chesapeake has a lot of water to swish in and out by Cape Henry, and whether we leave on ebb or flood can make a difference of several hours in how soon we clear the Cape. A good lunch at the Surf Rider, and with spirits high, we enjoy the gentle conditions we have for the moment. It’s cool, and several of us are grateful for the shopping trip of the night before to Walmart that beefed up the glove and fleece inventory aboard. Wind is light enough that for the rest of the evening we are motorsailing – emphasis on the motor – to boogie east, and get through the Gulf Stream while the getting is good. 

November 6: During the night, the wind has picked up, and we secure the main engine, for what will become the next full week. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered that the main engine battery charging system we’ve just had fixed in Norfolk at great expense has gone belly up. For the remainder of the trip we’ll be replenishing electrons to the batteries by generator. Redundant systems are a practical necessity for boats that dare to go offshore. Wind is behind us, and while we have both main and genoa up at first, as the wind grows, speed is maintained, and handling improved as we roll up the main halfway at first, and then completely, and let ourselves be pulled along by the genoa. Weather forecast from Tom Tursi via Skymate, calls for 30 knots out of the NW. We enter the Gulf Stream before the strongest winds hit, and while conditions are lively, they’re not overwhelming. Dinner is a simple affair, which not all the crew are prepared to enjoy. 

November 7: The predicted winds have materialized, but fortunately, not until we are pretty much through the Gulf Stream. Sail plan is cut down to half a genoa, before finally rolling that up and going with the staysail alone. Wind has shifted more north, which in the face of the current from the SW, would have made the seas even more interesting than they are, which is interesting enough, at 10 to 15 feet. Having pretty much left the Gulf Stream behind, we are now on a course of about 170ºPSC, which approximates the new rhumb line from where we are. We’ve been listening to Herb, the pro bono weather router who volunteers to give personalized weather briefings to sailboats making ocean passages, and he’s advised us that we can expect winds from the northwest for the next five or six days, which could take us most or all of the way to the Virgins. Going east to ride the 65th parallel down is no longer the plan. 

November 8: the winds are moderating somewhat, and we have what now seems by comparison a gentle 20 – 30 knot tailwind, down from the 35 knots, gusting 45 that we had over preceding days. Seas are still very substantial, probably still growing, at 12 to 18 feet, but stretching out more between crests, and while the boat is rolling a good bit, the motion is less chaotic than it’s been, and people are getting their sea legs. We’ve developed a few of the challenges that every offshore passage should be prepared to deal with. The Skymate system, which should have been giving us regular weather updates, and an avenue to send and receive emails, appears to be on strike – cannot connect to the server ashore. It’s also supposed to be sending position reports automatically every 12 hours, and we’re hoping that it’s at least doing that much, so folks back home won’t be calling the Coast Guard to report us missing. (Later found out that it was sending position reports, but no comfort on that until the end of the trip.) Oh, and yes, by the way, we are doing what has become a routine exercise, with a few extra steps to encourage the aft head to make things go away. Think waterboarding. 

November 9: Still pretty good winds, but people have adjusted, meals are becoming more elaborate, and life is becoming generally more pleasant, rolling in the following seas notwithstanding. With the Skymate down (rebooting didn’t help, and the best efforts of our onboard PhD computer whiz couldn’t coax it back to life, either) we’ve been trying to get word back to someone to assure them of our well being, without success. The SSB, our world capable radio, is doing yeoman service in contacting Herb daily, and listening to and being heard by the fleet of boats around the Atlantic who are also following Herb, but for reasons best known to the gremlins in the radio, we are not able to contact the CG, or WLO, to get a message through. 

November 10: Although we were scheduled to leave the east coast about the same time as 75 to 100 other sailboats in the Caribbean 1500 rally, we have seen precious little traffic, other than the occasional freighter crossing our path, possibly on the way to the Caribbean, and the Panama Canal. (We’ll later find out many postponed their departures more than we did, by up to a week. A few left when we did, and we start to see some of those at the rate of maybe one a day for the rest of the voyage. ) Weather encourages us to put out a fishing line. Nada. Winds still out of the Northwest, at about 15 to 25, which has become downright balmy in our frame of reference. Still no luck with the Skymate or SSB, other than Herb, but fortunately, He is willing to serve as our middleman, and pass a message to Tom – all is well. 

November 11: Armistice day, and we observe it in the cockpit at 1111 with a moment of silence, and thanks for the sacrifices of those who have kept possible our national ways of living. We’ve gotten into a range where there is more tropical moist air, and we get occasional showers, with some increase in wind, though rarely enough to really change the sail plan much, and we have mostly changed one headsail for another, when necessary. The main has not had to earn its keep at all. Will this crew ever discover that in sailing, there are occasions when the wind comes from ahead of the quarter, let alone the beam? 

November 12: Wind light enough that we finally reset the main, but for the downwind tacking that has become our stock in trade, it makes steering difficult, and tends to blanket the genoa, especially with the rolling that has also become our stock in trade, so it comes back in. After days of dragging a lure through the ocean, we finally hook and land a small Mahi Mahi, and test the theory that vinegar will do as well as vodka (which we of course have not stocked) to subdue a thrashing fish in the cockpit. Seems a poor alternative to dying drunk, but it works, and we have Mahi for the crew – thank you very much Fred, for this and all the other meals you set before us. 

November 13: Wind, though still from the NW, is finally petering out, and we wake up the main engine for the first time in a week. By late in the day, we’re motorsailing along the same course we’ve been on all week, about 170ºPSC, bound for the Virgin Passage. 

November 14: By morning, we again have enough wind to sail, and do. Still downwind, of course – what else? – but it doesn’t last, and by afternoon we’re again using the iron staysail. My thoughts of the big Mahi, or maybe a Wahoo, are dashed, as whatever it was slices through the 150# test leader without even setting the reel to whirring. There goes my favorite red feather lure. In late evening, as we approach the Virgin Passage around the west end of St. Thomas, it appears we arrive at rush hour, as we have not one but two large ships to contend with. Oh, the anxiety. The cruise ship decides not to cut us in two, and instead parallels our course into the Virgin Passage, and arrives, not surprisingly, at the dock a mile from ours well before us. By the graveyard shift, the lights of St. Thomas, and the loom of Puerto Rico are both in sight. 

November 15: By morning, land is clearly in sight, and all hands are up and about for the final approach, under full genoa, (and a bit of iron staysail) and the wind – where else? – on our stern. We round Savanna Island, and head for Crown Bay, where we are greeted warmly, fueled, and given our regular slip, D 23. Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill, where the first order of business, after securing the vessel, is a hearty brunch at Tickles. For some, the dock and restaurant seem to be swaying. 

Epilogue: Despite our crew never having to deal with a beating, this was a good cruise for them, and for me. It gave us some weather more challenging and memorable than they had previously experienced, and they genuinely melded as a crew. When there was work to do, whether they felt 100% or not, they turned to and did it. They discovered and thrived in the day to day routine that develops at sea, and demonstrated the self sufficiency that characterizes good offshore crews. They are all more confidant about going offshore, and looking forward to doing more of it. I will happily sail with them again, should the occasion arise.

Captain Jack Morton
November 16, 2010
St Thomas, USVI

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