2012 USVI-Norfolk Report

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Course: Ocean Training Cruise, St Thomas, USVI to Norfolk, VA
Date: May 5-19, 2012
Vessel: S/V CELESTIAL, IP440 
Students: Jacques Desailly, John Keane, Jim Ozenberger
Mates: Jim Bortnem, Steve Runals
Captain Jack Morton

Friday, May 4, 2012 
All students arrived at Crown Bay Marina in time to join for a briefing and get acquainted dinner at Tickles, the restaurant conveniently located at the head of the pier, where we would have dinner the next two nights as well. John Keane had mostly day sailing and racing experience on the Potomac, but also had taken a long offshore in the Pacific not so long ago. Jim Ozenberger came to us from the Great Lakes, well experienced with both daysailing and cruising in his own and chartered boats. Jacques Desailly hailed from New Jersey. Relatively new to sailing compared to the others, he had prepared himself well with USPS courses, and done the Delmarva with the MD school, an excellent precursor to the offshore. All were enthusiastic and full of energy. Filling out the 1:1 instructor /student ratio were Steve Runals, a near coastal instructor for MDSchool, also a veteran of several Caribbean – Chesapeake voyages. Jim Bortnem has done nearly as many of these trips as I have, and has always been a stalwart, cheerful, and resourceful co-instructor on both Bermuda and Caribbean trips. For many years I’ve been fortunate in having Jim continue to put up with me.

Saturday 5/5 
All turned to at 0800 for a full day of training and review of the Blue Book they had already read, but I like to ensure that we understand things the same way, and clarify how things are done. For starters, although everyone has experience with similarly equipped boats, we set, strike, and reef all plain and storm sail, to insure that we all can find the halyards, outhauls, inhauls, sheets, and traveler. Trying to find those for the first time in the dark is never a good idea. In a departure from the organization of the past, we take much of Saturday afternoon to discuss our menu, set our shopping list, and send half the crew off to secure the provisions. This allows us to have the things that need to get cold in the reefer/freezer doing that over the next 30 hours while on shore current, easing the load on the generator after departure.

Sunday, 5/6 
Review of storm tactics, the sea anchor, drogues, weather, and the cruise plan (go generally west of the rhumb line to use the prevailing trade easterlies and be in position to take advantage of the prevailing SW winds we should pick up about halfway.) We put the newly assigned Engineer, Bosun and Safety officer to completing their pre departure checklists. We’ll all be involved in navigation.

Monday 5/7 
We top water, disconnect electric, make our last minute phone calls, and are off for the Chesapeake by 0900. Light winds on the south side St Thomas call for motor sailing until about noon, when we take departure a little past Cockroach Island. Taking departure marks the official end of coastwise navigation, by reference to landmarks, and beginning ded reckoning and celestial and electronic navigation for positions and courses. As we leave St. Thomas behind, we get a nice sailing breeze of about 15 kts ENE that holds through the day, and have dispensed with the engine by noon. Although the wind is manageable, we put a single reef in the main about sunset, a fairly common precaution in cruising boats with short crew.

Tuesday 5/8 
I’ve left night orders at midnight, as I will do each night, to guide crew through the time the captain is asleep as to course, conditions, and remind them of the things that should trigger waking me. I get to sleep well if I know they will; less soundly if I am not confident they will. The wind drops below 12 kts in early morning, inviting use of the Gennaker, which Steve leads the crew in setting. Adds a knot and teaches yet another resource for light air cruising to those not familiar with setting the asymmetrical spinnaker, and we’re able to fly it through the day. The first of many celestial running fixes for me and Jim O.

Wednesday 5/9 
More light air, but the wind is far enough behind us to make setting the whisker pole more advantageous than the gennaker, and we pick up an extra knot sailing wing and wing, with the genoa and main set to opposite sides of the boat, again led by Steve. Strike the whisker pole at dusk, and continue sailing mostly downwind, holding west of the rhumb line. Winds light enough that we motor sail part of the night.

Thursday 5/10 
Weather has cooperated for us to be having bacon & eggs or pancake breakfasts, prepped by John and Jack, assorted sandwiches for lunch set out by Jacques and Jim B, and pasta and chili and other delicious dishes for dinner, courtesy of Jim O and Steve. Eating well is our best revenge, to paraphrase Richard Harris. Wind is light enough now that we furl the genoa completely and are using the main as a steadying sail while we motor for a while, then reset the whisker pole for the afternoon. Lightning in the distance keeps us alert, but none comes to us. First of several Skymate contacts to let the home office know we are alive and well, and get the weather.

Friday 5/11 
Weather from Skymate and Tom Tursi warn of a frontal passage this evening, so by dusk, although we have been motorsailing in a very light SW breeze, we see the cloud line of the front ahead of us, and put a reef in the main in anticipation of possibly violent weather with the frontal passage. In the first of several such drills this cruise, we err on the side of caution, and thread our way though light showers with hardly a rise in wind speed.

Saturday 5/12 
Following the frontal passage, the wind increases enough to sail, and we do. All systems are working, but we note that the genset charger is not putting out as much bulk charge when first engaged as the main engine and its alternator do. Henceforth we will be using the main engine for more of the charging, as needed, to keep total time with engines running to a minimum. We all like the quiet and peace of pure sail – part of why we do these things. 

By dawn the wind has picked up enough to shut down the main engine, and we sail again. Mid morning we encounter a strong south running current that shows up on our GPS track taking us straight south despite our sailing NW. There is always a little current running somewhichway in the ocean, though only the major ones are tracked well enough to have any advance warning of. This one lasts maybe 90 minutes, before we again show a current favorable to our progress. This is a bit misleading, however, as a discrepancy between our boat speed through the water, and our speed over ground as measured by the GPS generally shows that we have some current going our way. Comforting, even if not true.  

Sunday 5/13 
Big thrill of the day – we sight a great whale, 50’ or more, which appears to be a sperm whale from the shape of the head, that stays at the surface as we pass about 50 yards alongside before sounding. 

whale1.gif (126208 bytes) whale2.gif (111069 bytes)

We try the gennaker in the morning, but strike it as it will not stay full at the downwind course we are trying to steer. By afternoon, the wind rises to 20 – 25 kts and we are sailing 5 – 7 knots under genoa and reefed main in the northeast breeze that has come around after the passage of the front. Given the reach we’re on, we put out the staysail, which balances the rig a little better, and gives us the option of striking the genoa without losing balance or speed if necessary, which we do. With the increased seas, we have the first sailor experiencing a bit of the mal de mer, but to his credit, he keeps on plugging, standing watches, helping with meal prep and cleanup, and generally asking no quarter, but not much food, either. A little fasting doesn’t hurt us a bit, as long as we keep drinking water and staying hydrated.  

Monday 5/14 
The wind holds at 20 – 25 knots, calling for a more deeply reefed main through the night. By dawn the wind is easing a bit, and we set out half of the genoa, which brings back some of the speed we had sacrificed in striking it. We have noted that in the heavier seas we were pumping the bilge more often than usual, and although we had stuffed the hawse pipes (where the anchor rodes come through the deck) with rags earlier, we beef that up with plastic wrappers to minimize water ingress there. As the day progresses, we ease out more genoa as the wind decreases; still making very good time.

Tuesday 5/15 
On these trips I often check in with Herb, the pro bono routing expert who gives individualized weather advice and routing from his SSB base in Canada. I don’t always follow his advice, but always find it helpful. This seems to be a bad year for sunspots and radio propagation, and until now I haven’t been able to connect. Today reception is good enough that I can hear him say that unless boats sign up in advance of their trips, he won’t acknowledge them. A new requirement, so no Herb this trip. Ah, well. Fortunately, I’ve been getting regular Skymate weather as well as frequent updates from Tom and Jochen. Can’t have too much information about the weather. At this point I am pushing to get across the Gulf Stream before predicted weather sets in from the NE, which can make it pretty nasty going. Fortunately the wind is with us, and we’re making 6 – 7.5 knots under Genoa, staysail and reefed main.

Wednesday 5/16 
Wind still from the SW, and easing a bit, so the Gulf Stream crossing, which can be hairy, isn’t. Our last best chance to land a fish, and we make the whole crossing in daylight, but alas, it is not to be. For only the second time in the dozens of these trips I’ve made, we’re skunked for the trip. Bummer. No Mahi Mahi dinner. As we come out the other side of the stream, we see weather developing along with the strengthening wind from the NE, which will hold until we make port. We again dodge a few squalls with lightning and keep plugging north along the North Carolina coast, having passed Cape Hatteras as we left the Stream. Around 2000 we see a strong line of thunderstorms with heavy lightning going the same we are at nearly the same speed, stretching from the coast out to 20 miles or so to the east. Prudence calls for slowing down a bit to let them stay ahead of us while they burn themselves out. OK, they’re going too slow, and dropping back to begin to encircle us, so with reefed main and genoa, we decide to punch on through the line. Yet again, we have prepared for more than we get, and have no more than 20 knot winds as we work our way through, though we do get pretty wet.

Thursday 5/17 
Rain pretty much over by midnight, and the rest of the night we motorsail in the NNE wind to get the best windward advantage. The wind is increasing, and we’re glad to see Cape Henry by about noon. We have our end of trip meeting in the cockpit to recognize the achievements of the crew in their long offshore – everyone has learned a great deal, and fully deserve the certificates awarded. Rounding the cape puts the wind on our quarter, and we make 6 knots or better under staysail and reefed main in really sloppy seas as we enter the shallower waters of the Chesapeake in 25 knots NE breeze. Good thing, because the tide is ebbing from the bay at over a knot and a half at this point. All downhill from here, and we enter the calm waters of Little Creek in time to tie up to the fuel dock about 3 PM. We’ve used only about 3/8 of our diesel fuel, which we top off before moving to our slip for final clean up and departures.

On the whole, a good, safe, trip completed in good time. With all the threats, we never really experienced any sudden violent weather, which may seem a good thing, but leaves out a bit of experience that most don’t enjoy particularly, but appreciate having learned how to manage. Next time.

Captain Jack Morton
Norfolk, VA
May 18, 2012

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