2012 USVI-Norfolk Report

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Course: Ocean Training Cruise, Norfolk, VA to St Thomas, USVI
Date: Nov 1-15, 2012
Vessel: S/V CELESTIAL, IP440 
Students: Jim Barber, Rick Briggs, David Bradsher, Ingo Stubbe 
Mates: Jim Bortnem
Captain Jack Morton

11/1- All students and crew have arrived by dinnertime, and we’re off to Cap'n Groovy’s for introductions, goals, aspirations, fears & hopes.   And a great seafood pot pie dinner.  Jim Bortnem, mate/engineer extraordinaire, Rick Briggs, Jim Barber, David Bradsher, and Ingo Stubbe – all professionals in their fields, and journeyman sailors in search of more experience offshore.   As the Greek tradgedians say, ‘Be careful what you ask for’.   The first of a few calculated gambles pays off as this year I took the chance of bringing a down sleeping bag to an inherently wet environment, and slept like a very warm baby.

11/2- Pre-departure training begins in earnest, starting with setting, reefing, and striking all plain sail.  We’ve all done it before, but we want to be sure that we all understand how it has to happen on this boat.  We begin to review the blue book, again, to be sure that we all have the same understanding of how things will be done on Celestial.   In the afternoon, we talk of menus, cooks, shopping lists, and then send half the crew off to provision the boat for the anticipated time of the voyage, plus several days extra for safety.  (Some readers may remember that last year’s cruise didn’t arrive at the other end ‘til Thanksgiving eve.)   Food is stowed to insure that it will be good and cold before we forego shore power to the reefer.   After dark, checked running lights, steaming light, anchor light, and tricolor.  

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11/3- More training – storm sails, hardware, sea anchor deployment, and more time with the blue book before assigning watches and roles, and setting crew to their individual pre-departure checklists.  A trip up the mast to insure that everything looks OK up there, and we’re off, about 1600.   Why today, attentive readers might ask?   Because we’ve been following the weather predicting a very strong low coming thru in four days, and if we don’t take off now, prudence will call for us waiting five days in port before going.  I’ve looked at it six ways from China, and calculate that we’ll have some rough but manageable weather if we leave now, but be past the worst of the weather before it develops to full strength.  Some other boats along the dock prepping for the same trip opt to wait.  In going we catch the outgoing tide, and make excellent time past Cape Henry, motorsailing in light winds to make all the distance we can between us and the approaching low.

11/4- We are blessed with a gentle crossing of the Gulf Stream, as the wind is not strongly opposed to it.  It’s a daylight crossing, but we still don’t catch any fish.  Humbug.  The first of two weak lows preceding the big job passes without much fuss.  Some DLBs come aboard.  Displaced Land Birds, whose future looks dim, as they’re exhausted, and don’t eat anything we have to offer.   Breeze builds to about 20 knots, and we reef the Genoa.  The bilges fill periodically to the criterion level to pump, which we usually do with the hand diaphragm pump in the cockpit.   We find, however, that although it was replaced last June, it stops working. Not an emergency, and we switch to the electric, counting seconds so we can continue to log the amount pumped to monitor for increases.   Knowing that we have the big diaphragm pump in the lazarette is also comforting.  Night orders call for continuing to motorsail SE.

11/5- Weather turns wet, with ‘showers’ (a friend at the weather bureau assured me a few years ago they don’t qualify as squalls unless there is lightning) with winds to 30 knots.  Deeper reef in the genoa, and one in the main. Between the showers, winds go light – 10 knots or less – so even though wind is not against us, progress is not as swift as we would like.   Grateful for a good dependable iron stays’l.   By afternoon we’re able to give it a rest (that lasts the next several days) as the wind has built to where we can sail about as fast without it as with. With the wind mostly behind us, in building seas, steering is challenging, and I allow more autopilot than I usually like to in the early part of the trip, when I want folks to be honing their steering skills.  With the main engine off, we have to run the genset a lot to keep up with electrical demand. In response to building winds, we have deeply reefed the main, too.

11/6- After the fairly strong winds following the passage of the first cold front associated with the passing low, the wind has again abated, and we’re back to motorsailing with full sail. Still buying distance in anticipation of the LOW to come. By afternoon, we can again dispense with the engine, and soon reef both main and genoa again. Crew is getting good at that. By midnight, wind is regularly at 30 + knots, and gusting to 45 knots.  We heave to for the night, on port tack, which lets us keep forereaching in a favorable direction.  

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11/7- In the morning, the wind has abated some, and we un-heave-to, and set some more sail – now back up to a single reef. Seems a good morning for pancakes and sausage. One of the surprising but very welcome bits about the trip is that despite fairly heavy seas with lots of slamming and rolling, no one has gotten seasick. Today is the time of the LOW off Hatteras, and it comes through with substantial fury, but our judgment in leaving when we did has been vindicated. Some exciting sailing, and lots of opportunity to learn about heavy weather sailing, but nothing dangerous where we are. Virgin Islands here we come!   That’s not to say we’re in the clear – still working with 20 – 30 knots, now out of the SW.

11/8- By morning, wind is down to 15 – 18 knots and we can keep going with a single reef main and a full genoa. Following the passage of the cold front, wind has gone NW, and is again mostly behind us.  More rolling. Showers showing up on the radar, but mostly miss us.

11/9- NW wind diminishing, and gradually shifting to the NE as we’re in the region where the trade winds begin to kick in, interacting with the synoptic weather systems.  Wind from here on will generally be some variant of E. This has been a generally rough weather trip so far, and the people who wanted heavy weather experience are getting their money’s worth. Toward late afternoon, I notice that we’ve picked up a tear in the genoa, high up. To limit damage, we roll it up and set the staysail. As heavy wind is still predicted, that should not be a problem.

11/10- We locate the spare genoa, if we ever have light enough wind and calm enough seas to swap it out for the damaged one. Not today for sure. More wind – more sailing SE, reaching in 15 – 22 knots NE breeze, but the big news of the day is that we caught a couple of Mahi Mahi, or Dorado, or Dolphin, or Coryphaena, depending on your background. Rick and David turn it into a delicious dinner. Life is good.

11/11- Armistice day. Some veterans aboard, but you don’t have to be one to appreciate the sacrifices made by generations of military to protect and defend the American way of life and liberty. An un-moused shackle at the mainsail traveler works loose, allowing the traveler block to jam at the boom. The two Jims on watch have it fixed before other watches even notice it happened. A trough to the east has kept seas at 10 feet and more, which is not so unusual except that ordinarily they would have been diminishing by now after the heavy weather of recent days. Given the predictions of SE winds for the next several days, we continue SSE, going further east than 65ºW to bank some easting that we may need to lay a tack for St Thomas.

11/12- Unexpectedly, after an evening in which the SE wind was far enough south that even with the extra easting, we could not lay St. Thomas, and were dismally looking forward to having to tack to get there, the wind backed to NE again. This let us lay a course not only toward, but even upwind of St. Thomas, putting more easting in the bank. The wind diminished to 15 – 20 knots, and we shook out the reef in the main, making fine time, in the direction we wanted to go. Life is good. By midnight, we are able to retire the main engine again, and sail at 6 knots, still in the right direction. Someone up there likes us.

11/13- We are not liked so much as to be denied opportunities to cope, however. Not long after midnight we note that the main potable water pump has gone belly up. It’s in a bad place to work on, and crew are mostly sleeping  (some on top of the failed pump) – we’ll tend it in the morning. Come morning, we do, and find that it has salt water intrusion in the motor case, and is truly dead. OK, we’ll dig out the spare, but when we do, we find that it is 24V rather than the required 12Volt. How did that happen? (We won’t find out until making port that 6 months ago, when we bought it as a spare, the pump in the box was not the one described on the outside of the box.)  So until the end of the trip, a several times a day chore will be pumping water for daily living into gallon jugs with a small, cheap hand pump, which we’re very grateful to have along, thank you very much. NE wind – our unexpected gift – holds, as does our course for St Thomas.

11/14- We continue on our way, with occasional showers that bring winds to 25 knots, with about 15 – 18 knots in between. Without our full genoa, we are often able to just turn downwind, blanketing the headsails with the main and reducing the apparent wind at the boat by the boat’s speed. When the wind abates, we again take our course. When I try to communicate our ETA to the world central offices of the Maryland School, I find that the Skymate program, which has been our faithful satellite communication link, has lost the faith. Fortunately, David has brought a sat phone, and we pass on the critical information. The thing about going offshore is not to imagine that there won’t be problems, but to prepare yourselves and the boat so that when problems arise – as they inevitably do – you can deal with them. High excitement comes mid afternoon when the line we’ve been trolling for another dolphin hooks a whale instead. OK, probably not a whale, but whatever it was, it strips all the line off the reel before we can get the boat stopped, and breaks the line. Not long after, St. Thomas is in sight, and by midnight we’ve passed Savana Island, and are tacking – with the tide, fortunately – toward Gregorie channel, and Crown Bay Marina.

11/15- And at 0100, we tie up there, secure the engine, and wander up the dock in the middle of the night to use a head with a normal water supply. Now that’s living. 

Captain Jack Morton
St Thomas, USVI
November 15, 2012

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