2013 USVI-Norfolk Report

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Course: Ocean Training Cruise, St Thomas, USVI to Norfolk, VA
Date: May 5-17, 2013
Vessel: S/V CELESTIAL, IP440 
Students: Glenn (Skip) Stebbins, Adrian Gnyra, Joseph Pazourek,  Richard Westrick (participated during prep phase)
Mate: Captain Steve Runals
Master Captain H. Jochen Hoffmann

List of Abbreviations used:

BDA Bermuda
CF Cold Front
DR Dead Reckoning Navigation
GS Gulf Stream 
HP High Pressure weather system
Kt Knots = Nautical miles per hour
MOB Man Overboard  
N, E, S, W North, East, South, West
NM Nautical Miles
PSC Per ship’s compass
SSB Single Sideband Radio
T True direction relative to North Pole of Earth
Wx Weather

Crown Bay Marina, St. Thomas, USVI, Sunday, April 28 to Saturday, May 4, 2013
I have stayed on CELESTIAL after my just-finished Virgin Islands class to perform maintenance, test all systems, and retrieve our extensive ocean gear from storage. To ready the boat for our ocean crossing, I also arranged for experts to inspect or repair all sails, all standing rigging, electronics, the steering mechanism, hull and rudder, and to service engine and generator. Fellow MDSchool Captain and friend Steve Runals, who has himself completed many ocean trips, arrived May 3 with a new steering wheel. Great! We install it right away.

Our student crew arrives May 4. They are a group of experienced boaters who seek more intense blue water exposure: Adrian owns an Island Packet, Joe has completed an offshore class with me before and wants to build on that, Skip and Richard Westrick (Rick is joining us for the two-day preparation phase) are longtime boating partners who want to cross the Atlantic and are looking for the “right” type of boat. Over dinner we all get to know one another. 

Sunday, May 5 in port
We begin two days of dockside training to familiarize the crew with systems and electronics below, lines and sails on deck, and all safety gear. This includes breaking out our offshore medical kit, collision tools, life raft, manual bilge pump, etc. Adrian has volunteered to go up the mast “for practice” and to inspect rigging and lights, and Steve is taking the lead showing rigging of our boom crutch and storm trysail. After lunch, we gather below to make a meal plan for the trip, buy and stow food and supplies, and ensure that refrigerated items cool down completely before we switch from shore power to battery power. Next, I show how we would rig and deploy our multi-part sea anchor in case of heavy weather and how we stow it. We then stow the port anchor below, and I demonstrate safe handling of our electric windlass that controls our heavy starboard anchor. By now, the sun is setting, and we are eager to take a shower and have dinner.

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Click image to enlarge

Monday, May 6 in port
Students had weeks to prepare at home, using the MDSchool’s Offshore Training Cruise Preparation Guide. I now review such key topics as medical emergencies (we have a contract for such a purpose with a special medical team ashore), fire, abandon ship, etc. I now make related crew assignments for the voyage: Adrian – emergency coordinator and navigator; Joe – engineer; Skip – boatswain (bosun); and Steve, a licensed Ham operator, had agreed earlier to take on such topics as SSB communication, weather, and GS currents. All go to work now to familiarize themselves with the location, inventory, and state-of-readiness of their assignment-specific gear.

Steve and I analyze weather data for the next five days collected from various sources. Chief among those is a comprehensive thirty-page weather data package faxed to us today from Tom Tursi of MDSchool of Sailing. Tom will monitor the U.S. National Weather Service and Bermuda Weather Service and give us daily forecasts by email over our Skymate satellite transceiver. Tom’s data gives us first a macro view of trends between central U.S. and Europe between our latitude up N to the Canadian Maritimes and Iceland. He has also sent us Internet GS charts and charts of frontal boundaries plus wind and wave charts that show us what to expect in the near term. 

Adrian, together with Steve, sets up a detailed navigation plan for our departure. I break out and explain the Atlas of Pilot Charts which shows for the world’s oceans, and for each month of the year, nineteen-year averages of wind directions and strength, shipping routes of the world, and equal lines of magnetic variation from true North – among many other data. We need that data to make up our own charts, called a Plotting Sheet, to span the vast spaces of ocean beyond those coastlines where available marine charts are normally used. The preprinted Plotting Sheets are mostly blank showing merely 15° of latitude North or South each between the equator and the earth’s North or South Poles. Also, only lines of longitude without degree designations are printed. That allows us to pick and write our own degree labels based on the Meridians we expect to cross. Next, we draw a rhumb (or direct) line from Savannah Passage in the Virgin Islands to Cape Hatteras, Virginia, some 1,387 NM away on a projected course line of 333° True. Actual distance sailed will be greater since we shall steer courses based on wind, weather, or current consideration. But we measure our progress against this rhumb line. It is now late in the evening, and we are almost ready to cast off.

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Joe Skip Adrian

Tuesday, May 7 - Day 1 at Sea: DR (Dead Reckoning) Navigation:
After breakfast, we finish our assigned tasks, top off fresh water, check officially out of the Marina Office and disconnect shore power cords and docking lines. We are ready and depart Crown Bay Marina at 1000 only to anchor in nearby Honeymoon Bay. Here, Adrian has volunteered to jump into the water and rig a rudder safety line as a potential stabilizer in case of heavy weather. Once our anchor is up, we review and practice one of several MOB procedures we need to know in case of a real emergency. Finally, we motorsail in near calm conditions to the W-end of St. Thomas. From here, we steer 338° psc through the Savannah Passage, where, at 1200, we mark our departure waypoint at the N-end of Savannah Island. Our course to our first waypoint is 320° True. 

Since I had earlier assigned shipmates to their watches, we now assume our watch duties as follows, 12-4: Joe Pazourek and Skip Stebbins; 4-8: First Mate Steve Runals alone with autopilot; 8-4: Captain and Adrian Gnyra. Before we settle into our watch routine and literally “sail off” our coastal chart, I review a central aspect of ocean passagemaking: the conventions and procedures of dead (or deduced) reckoning navigation. To this end, we need to know how to plot and label DR course lines on our Plotting Sheets, and how to convert course values from a ship’s (magnetic) compass heading which we use at the helm to True heading mariners record on charts and vice versa. 

We also need to know how to enter celestial lines of position we have obtained from calculations of measured sextant angles of celestial bodies that we “shoot” and the procedures to combine lines of position to achieve a celestial fix position that tells us where we are on this big ocean. Only then can we restart our DR plot.

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Day 2 at Sea: Weather Forecasting and Current Sailing:
Our 0800 position is 18°53.69' N; 65°03.72' W. Sky overcast, intermittent showers. Tom Tursi’s email forecast reads:
“Atlantic High settling in for next several days. Expect Trade Winds E 10-15 below 25°N latitude and clocking S to SW as you proceed to NW. No Lows in near term.” Indeed, the Trade Winds have finally retuned and now blowing E 15-18, gusts higher. Knowing that CELESIAL sails faster when more upright, our sail plan shows a double reefed main, single reefed jib, and full staysail. Course is 335° psc, speed 6 knots. 

Shipmates begin to carry out assignments in their “off” hours made earlier, including setting up two more Plotting Sheets for the latitudes we will transit. Steve, who has taken on SSB weather and Atlantic currents had earlier provided background and explained the advantage of entering waypoints on the Plotting Sheets.  He had given an excellent weather seminar and also explained (by way of a recent Gulf Stream current chart) how GS eddies can help or slow our progress. Namely, eddies - having separated from the GS and existing for weeks and often far away from the GS – maintain a clockwise (warm eddy) or counter-clockwise rotation (cold eddy) of up to 2 knots. Students are learning how to make use of them. (We all need a break!) After days of intense physical and mental efforts, Joe and Skip’s chicken dinner tastes really great. Great cooks!

Day 3 at Sea: Celestial Navigation:
At 0800 we are at 21°025’N, 067°35’W. Our noon-noon plots show that we have covered 124 NM, at a decent average speed of 5.2 knots. Wind has clocked to ESE 10-16, cloudy skies with intermittent rain. Most of the Captain’s stowed clothes have gotten wet. Where is the leak? Bosun Skip traces a bead of water back to mast and ceiling and applies silicon sealant. Better! For today’s training topics, I briefly include the much anticipated Sextant. Student crew breaks out their instruments, and we review handling and rocking the sextant. 

Then we practice “shooting” using sharp cloud contours in the absence of the sun. Given the boat’s rolling, pitching motion, the word patience takes on a whole new meaning. Discussions on how sun lines of position are calculated and entered on our plotting sheets follow. We try getting a weather update via SSB radio, but propagation is too poor. Based on Tom’s first weather package and observation of the falling barometer, we conclude that we have reached the stationary frontal boundary. For the night we expect rough conditions and use our roller furling systems to reef (reduce) sail area.

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NOAA Weather Chart, 7 May 2013

Day 4 at Sea:  Storm Squalls and Whales:
Last night’s watches, sailing deeply reefed, had their hands full as strong squalls overtook us. At 2145, gusts up to 38 kts, Adrian at the wheel, we reefed the jib even further – down to a scrap of sail. As we brought the wind to our starboard quarter to flatten the boat, gusts gripped the bimini and I started to take it down. Fortunately, the wind decreased, stayed in the 20s making matters more manageable. Course is 344° T to the No 2waypoint, 250 NM away. 

Tom’s wx email signals that more will be in store for us: “Intense Low over Canadian Maritimes drags Cold Front offshore Mon = SW gale NW of BDA. Another Low off Hatteras Mon moving NE.” As Steve picks up an SSB weather report as well, Skip marks the front on our weather chart, while Joe (great engineer) and Adrian check engine fluids and pump the bilge. This crew is adjusting well.  

Our reward: The afternoon watch alerts us to a whale mom and calf blowing repeatedly nearby. To boot – three beautiful Bermuda Longtails have been circling our mast.

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Skip Steve Joe

Day 5 at Sea: More Current Navigation:
Position at 0800 is 25°28’ N, 069°25’ W. To start the day, the Captain makes pancakes and hash browns. After four days of overcast, rainy, squally conditions, finally some sun. Although seas and swell are still high, students grab sextants and practice sun shots. They use the Captain’s sun fix and learn how to restart a DR course from a known position. But rather than plotting a straight rhumbline course toward Cape Hatteras, we lay out course lines to five waypoints marked on our Plotting Sheets by Steve. As he explained earlier, those waypoints are positioned to give our boat a push from perimeter currents of warm and cold eddies ahead of us. They make our way to Norfolk look a bit like a slalom course. But by examining the current vector on our electronic chart plotter, we see the positive results. Currents of 0.75 to 1.5 knots are most often on our quarter or stern, rather than on our bow. The result: 24-hour speed over ground has been boosted to 157 NM or 6.6 NM on average. Course to waypoint No 3 is 313°T. As to SSB weather, reception is improving, due to decreased sun spots as we learn, but most stations still cannot hear us yet.

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Ocean Currents & Waypoint Predictions as of 1 May 2013

Day 6 at Sea: Routines and Safety Training:
Position 27°08’N, 071°14’W. We are under sunny skies. To catch the last of the dying Trade Winds, Steve shows how our spinnaker is set. Spirits remain high, even though the spinnaker has to come down and we need to start the motor. All have settled nicely into our daily routines. They include - outside of sleep and rest during the eight hours between watches – morning boat cleaning, meal preparation and saltwater dish washing (freshwater rinse), SSB watch or communication via satellite with the MDSchool Office, log keeping, and boat maintenance. For example, Skip has repaired a wind-torn bimini strap, Joe has refastened loose hinges and looked after the engine and generator, and Adrian has taken down SSB weather reports along with Steve or the Captain so that we would not miss information whenever reception was poor. Daily training has so far included MOB practices under motor and sail plus such topics as firefighting, collision, and abandon-ship procedure. All along, celestial navigation practice continues as we head to waypoint No 4 on a Course of 320°T. 

Day7 at Sea: Weather Routing:
Our 0800 position:  28°43’N, 072°47’W. Motoring in calm conditions since noon yesterday tells us that we are in the so-called Horse Latitudes. We raise the main sail at noon in gentle SW 10 and are now motor sailing. Still, the current is pushing us at 1+ knots, giving us good ground speed. Students are getting much better at their celestial navigation and are excited about it. I have finally established contact on SSB channel 155 with famous weather router Herb Hilgenberg, call name Southbound II, who analyzes for us local conditions ahead and cautions about the front with gale-force winds moving to N of BDA. It’s the one Tom Tursi had signaled earlier by email. But winds at our location are now at N 18-20 while at 25-30+ to the N of us. Herb advises that we continue W to stay below latitude 30° N. We shift our course to 255°True and sail deeply reefed into the night. In short, weather considerations trump current navigation. Also, to be safe, progress to our goal slows as we detour happily WSW then W - away from the low.

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Steve checking navigation chart

Day 8 at Sea: Shooting the Sun:
Although the wind would gust to 28 knots last night, we took it just abaft the beam with acceptable heeling because of our reduced sail plan. As on previous occasions, all of us would either extend our watch hours a bit or go on deck to give lonely Steve a break or provide nourishment during his 4 to 8 watch periods. By 0800 we are at 29°38’N, 074°06’W. Per Herb’s weather routing, we have remained safe below latitude 30° N, but believe we can steer now 315°psc since the wind is clocking and remaining on our quarter. Our propeller has caught some debris (Sargasso Weed? Parts of a fish net?) which subsequently shook loose. Students have gotten so accomplished in shooting the sun that those resultant lines of position make for very good fixes allowing us to restart our DR course each time. They are ecstatic. At 1630 Herb advises boats near BDA over SSB to ride out the gale in their area at sea and not attempt landfall in BDA. For us he is still monitoring the low off Hatteras and advises we go into Beaufort, North Caroline to let it pass out to sea. But since winds are forecast to decrease and veer to the SW – again a favorable quartering wind – this now experienced crew considers all options and is comfortable with the decision to change course northward toward Diamond Shoal off Cape Hatteras. 

Day 9 at Sea:  Sail Change and Landfall Preparation:
At 0630 Steve alerts me that a three-foot panel of our older, roller-furled, reefed mainsail is beginning to tear. As winds have dropped below 10 knots, we quickly unfurl and drop the sail and replace it with a newer sail that we carry as a spare. By 0800 our position is 31°52’N 076°45’W; course now is 340°psc. At this angle we are rapidly closing with the Gulf Stream perimeter currents. We unfurl the full jib and run its sheet through our whisker pole thus holding it full and drawing as the wind is coming from behind. Time to make landfall preparations. They include breaking out proper coastal charts, reviewing the Light List regarding major buoys and navigation lights ashore, and reviewing – yet once more – the various navigation lights ships might display at night. A big day ends with elation: We have entered the Gulf Stream at 2000 hours based on water temperature readings and current velocity.  Skip has seen dolphins. I am supposed to write in my daily emails to the School that CELESTIAL has “a happy crew."

Day 10 at Sea: Gulf Stream Crossing:
Position 33°11’N, 076°12’W. Winds increased during the night and have stayed at 20-25 knots under clear skies – still from the favorable SW direction.  Although we have been carrying just a scrap of main sail and reefed jib, our speed over ground is an amazing 8-10 knots, thanks to the current. But, it wasn’t the Gulf Stream just yet last night, perhaps only a warm eddy pushing us at consistent 2+ knots.  By 0800 consistent water temperature of 81°F and increased current tells us we have reached the East Wall of the Stream. Lots of ship traffic here. Ten hours later, at 1800, the temperature drops: We have passed the West Wall. We head for and round Diamond Shoal off Cape Hatteras at 2300. During our approach to Diamond Shoals Light, we look at our chart plotter. It shows that our AIS is picking up seventeen ships – all heading S. We keep a sharp lookout for traffic as we turn 000°psc toward the Chesapeake Bay Entrance, sailing along the North Carolina shore. Noon-to-noon entries show we have progressed 200! NM – the greatest 24-hour distance the boat has ever recorded; average speed over ground 8.3 knots. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling for all of us.

Day 11 at Sea: Landfall:
At 0800 we are E of the popular beach of Duck, NC at 36°00’N, 075°32’ W. We have concluded our DR navigation once we had sailed ourselves into an area covered by coastal charts and switch to piloting procedures instead. The wind has dropped below 5 knots, and we are motoring up the coast over flat seas, sails finally furled for good. Cell phone service allows us to call family, the MDSchool Office, and our Marina in Norfolk. At 2115 we tie up at the fuel dock of Vinings Landing Marina in Little Creek, Norfolk, toast one another and fall into our bunks – tired but extremely happy.   

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Captain Jochen at Landfall

In Port - Norfolk, VA, Saturday, May 18, 2013:
A myriad of details needs to be tended to – from refueling, docking, watering, cleaning, and tending to maintenance. The computer technician has arrived to work on the ship’s computer. The torn main sail is loaded into Steve’s truck so he can take it to the sailmaker for repairs. Hotels or flights are being booked and one car rented. One more lunch together and we bid each other a fond farewell. What stories my great shipmates will be able to tell. Your Captain and Mate thank you for a job so well done.

Cruise Statistics:

1,578 NM Distance Sailed
71 gallons Fuel Consumption (engine and generator)
10 days and 9 hours Time at Sea (from Departure Waypoint)


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Route positions as shown on our tracking blog

Captain Jochen Hoffmann
Norfolk, VA
May 18, 2013

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