Crossing the Stream
Trying to keep our narrative chronologically correct while busy each day with new adventures, incidents and chores has created a “blogjam.” Rather than delay posting until every interesting event and aspect of our trip is covered, without further ado, our rally from Hampton Virginia to Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas…..We will label all further posts with Voyage 1 or Voyage 2 to eliminate confusion.
The start was originally scheduled for Monday, November 7th, but a forty-eight hour delay was called due to weather issues. Additional delays pushed the start to Friday the eleventh. The delays create a kind of limbo, since we’ve done everything we could to feverishly prepare and now it was nothing to do but wait and do more sorting, stowing of gear and eating food that was planned for the voyage and having to replace that. For folks with day jobs, like most of the rallyers and both of our crew members Tim Harris (who crewed with us last year) and Bill Wier, delay creates problems at work.
As the delays mounted Tim had to rethink his commitment, and we had to scramble for back-up if Tim couldn’t make it. I called the remaining people on the volunteer crew list and they had already made other plans at this late date. Fortunately, Tim pulled through as he did last year and we slipped our dock lines at 0800 for a 1000 start two miles west of Thimble Shoals Light. Since the start point off Old Point Comfort between the Hampton River and the tunnel / bridge was fixed, and the weather was not, we were treated to a downwind start with sixty other boats. The wind was 20 knots and we set a single reef in the main. The following swells were 2-3 feet and we were surfing. We were well positioned for the start crossing the line as the third or fourth boat. It was exhilarating to be at the front of the pack and see so many boats behind us. Bentaña was in perfect stride. We were told to stay out of the channel due to all the commercial and military traffic.
About a half an hour in and we’re still flying. Most of the pack is headed to the right, but we are headed to the left. The first of our series of unfortunate incidents dawns on us. Judy had selected a waypoint on our chart plotter from last year. Instead of the point we used last November, on the way down, the chart plotter had overwritten the point with one we used going north last spring. Since the Tunnel / Bridge causeway separated us from the fleet by at least a mile, we had some catch up to do, and catch up we did.
The mistaken route actually gave us a better wind angle, and we quickly caught up to the other boats while avoiding the plethora of tugs, tankers and other commercial vessels that were in the southernmost channel. We set the whisker pole to keep our beautiful new Genoa full, a task that usually requires lots of practice to do smoothly. It went very well, a testimony to the skills of our crew who had little chance to drill on Bentaña.
Out beyond Cape Henry, the seas became heavier, and the whisker pole which doesn’t have a downhaul kept reaching for the sky, spilling wind and becoming less efficient. I grabbed some line and jury-rigged a downhaul in the middle of this telescoped spar, which I soon came to regret. The incredible wind forces which had us galloping across waves at eight knots and better were too much for my rig, and the pole bent in half and parted. This was a dangerous situation. Two aluminum shafts were flailing in the wind. The half attached to the mast posed a danger to anyone on the fore deck, and the other was dangling and dancing on the clew end of the foresail to possibly rip it to shreds or puncture the hull.
I quickly doused the pole-lift and unclipped the boat end of the pole from the ring on the mast. The clew end has a trigger line which runs all the way back to the mast. With that, after a few jerks, the jaws opened and shook free of the clew ring. The broken end of the pole dropped into the water but was still tied to the pole lift halyard and was soon retrieved and secure on deck. An exciting few minutes followed by the knowledge that one of our downwind racing tools was no longer available. Another lesson learned. Properly rigged, the downhaul, like the pole-lift would have been attached at the ends of the pole, creating a structural bridle instead of in the middle, inviting bending and breaking.
This second incident on day one led us to decide to shake out the reef in the main since the Genoa was less effective without a pole to keep it in the wind. Lo and behold, there is a tear in the sail near the foot, so we belay the shake out. The tear is not a problem while reefed, but would be if it were raised into the wind. It was small, and I felt that in a steady sea we could patch it under way without taking it down. That was to wait for the next day, as it was getting dark and we would have reefed anyway and we’d had plenty of excitement for one day. We are in the lead of our class of eight boats.
One of the hard things to deal with at sea is operating around the clock. We found that during the day there was no shortage of help in the cockpit or on deck, but at night we needed a watch system. We started out with three hours on and three hours off, alternating with a new person in the cockpit each hour and a half. The first one and a half hours was helm and the second one and a half hours were stand-by to aid the helm with sail trim or other assistance. So we always had two people in the cockpit at night. With the help of Otto the Autopilot this was pretty easy.
Day Two (Saturday 11/12) the water temperature rose and we were approaching the Gulfstream. Bentaña was still in her glory and in fact we all were. We agreed that this was some of the finest sailing we had experienced. Those who wished us fair winds and following sea were our angels, and the heavens blessed us. The gulfstream is one of those conveyors I referred to earlier. We were pointing southeast and going east, but that’s okay. The object is to cross this north flowing current in the sea and get to the other side as quickly as possible. Pointing further south to keep us on a straight line to our goal would only extend our time in the stream carrying us further off course. As often as I kept telling myself to believe the instruments, I found myself becoming crazy with worry when the chartplotter, the autopilot and the compass were all indicating different directions. I spent 15 minutes frantically checking the chartplotter documentation and then Bill said, “No problem, it is just the set and drift of the Gulfstream.” Duh (hitting forehead)! Thanks, Bill!!!
While Otto and Aeolus kept us clipping along, we mended the mainsail using sticky-backed Dacron sail repair tape on both sides of the sail. The sun was shining and it was warmer than when we left port. We were still in foul weather gear as we were getting some spindrift off the waves, but the seas were kind. Below decks was a different matter. Constant heeling, pitching and rolling had tossed anything not tied down on to the cabin floor. Sleeping was a challenge and dressing was a farce. Eating didn’t seem to be a problem. Luckily, we had prepared one dish meals in advance that just needed to be thawed and heated up.
It’s not easy to tell when you’re out of the stream. There are eddies which spin off from the stream and create countercurrents and gyres of their own. It is in search of those potentially favorable currents that we devoted the next leg of our journey. As a sailboat makes five to seven knots more or less, a one knot boost from water moving our way is a big help. By comparing our speedo (boatspeed) against our SOG (speed over ground) we can determine if we are with or against the current. By the end of day two we were at the edge of the stream and looking for a lift.
During our pre-rally seminars, much was made of the benefits of riding the eddies. Charts were passed out and studied. Unlike last year when we tracked the rhumb line (the most direct path,) and ignored any currents, this year we pursued them diligently. We didn’t find them where they were supposed to be and we became baffled by the countercurrents. Oh, well! The winds had come more south, and we were able to reach with four sails set and we were still in the lead of our class.
As evening turned into night the winds shifted. We were headed by the wind, that is, the bow was being pushed away from the wind more than usual. Our heading became too far east and we tacked and were again headed, pointing too far to the west. Bentaña, Bill and I in the cockpit were now baffled by the winds and currents (in every sense of the word). After several tacks we began to question all we knew about sailing. Usually if you are headed in one tack, you are lifted in the other tack. We knew that we should be able to tack near 90 degrees or better, but we were tacking 120 degrees and making no headway. It almost seemed we were losing ground and headed the wrong way.
When in doubt see the Captain. Judy was fast asleep, but had an instant perfect answer. “Turn on the engine.” “Yes perfect” I thought, “That’s why she’s the Captain.” In this rally, we check in twice a day to get weather, position and condition reports. In order to get good transmitting on the single side band radio, we run the engine to charge the batteries otherwise idle. We also need to report on engine use (for propulsion) which is factored into our scoring. Captain Judy, now on deck and viewing these unexplained and unexpected glitches mutters something about the “Bermuda Triangle.” A shudder runs through us all, but we quickly put it behind us and make a note not to mention the “BT” concept again. At sea it’s too easy to be superstitious. Day three and despite adverse winds and current, we are still in the lead. I’m off for a few hours sleep
Which day is which I cannot truly remember, but awakened for my watch on day four (?) of our seven day passage to Green Turtle Cay, Captain Judy says, “We had the “dreaded clunk!” [indicating water block] while you slept.” Back at Caribbean 1500 pre-departure seminars, Rick Palm and Miles Poor had warned us of water siphoning back into the cylinders from following seas. Despite following the advice to run the engine a couple of times a day, this gremlin had struck “Bentaña.” Apparently the first clunk is a warning as the incompressible water stops the engine before it starts. Trying to start the engine a second time will break stuff leading to an expensive repair on shore. We’re talking $20,000 for a new engine.
The good news was that we were given thorough instruction on how to remedy the problem on shore. The bad news was, after a previous ugly encounter I told wife Judy “I’m never going in that engine room again. It’s a sailboat.” I protested in my best macho voice, “We don’t need no stinkin’ engine“. Well, the Captain prevailed, I followed orders and into the breach I went.
The first injector came out without much fuss. Losing the crowbar into the bilge after prying the first injector loose made it even more difficult. It eventually took 12 hours of sweat, brute persuasion and more than a few salty words to oust the other three. Some vital washers were lost to the “black hole” under the engine in the operation. After each evolution, we waited for the next semi-daily radio communication to review and prepare for the next step. As our battery bank was diminishing without the engine and the light winds for the wind generator, our signal was too weak to reach Miles. Our questions and answers were relayed by Steve Black, the Net Controller, and originator of this event twenty some years ago, every hour for the first few hours.
While in the midst of resolving the engine issues we noticed that at some point, an old flag halyard had broken loose on the main mast and gotten jammed in our new wind generator stopping it cold and placing more reliance on the ol’ Perkins diesel to charge the batteries. Unfortunately we did have a limited amount of fuel aboard (and no engine at that point) and needed to conserve it as much as possible and use it only for charging the batteries and if the wind petered out or slowed, which it did for a couple of days. Double whammy! We were without engine and without wind generator power! Since we needed the wind generator to produce energy and save fuel, we heaved to and I, being the smallest aboard and a confirmed mast monkey, went up the mizzen to see if I could clear the halyard. The seas were relatively calm with 3-4 foot swells but it was still “rockin’ and rollin’“25 feet up. After going up twice assessing the situation and not having 3 arms and hands with which to work on it and hang on at the same time, I decided not to risk fingers or other body parts to clear the line at sea. Luckily it was a lovely sunny day and the solar panels did their job.
After sucking over a gallon of water out of the engine, giving it a loving dose of WD-40, blowing sooty water everywhere and bolting everything back in place (minus a couple of washers);we crossed our fingers and started the engine. After a few turns, and a miasma of fumes and sparks on top of the engine from a high pressure hose leak (or missing washers?), we shut the engine down and waited for the next net to consult and make sure we would not blow the boat up or catch on fire. After retightening all the connections and being assured on the net that we would be ok, we cranked her over and our mighty Perkins 4.108 came back to life to a round of applause from a tired and grateful crew. I think no one was more surprised or thrilled than I, an avowed anti-motorhead. I know that cruising and passagemaking test us and then require us to reach beyond our comfort zone and do what has to be done. When we arrived at Bluff House, our marina at Green Turtle Cay, one of the other rally captains came up to me and said, “I need to buy you guys a drink and hear about your voyage. One of my crew members was listening when you reported your worries about the engine possibly catching fire and said, “There is this woman on Bentaña talking about possibly catching fire and she is so CALM!!”
Thanks to “Doc” Miles who talked me through the operation over the single-side-band and Steve Black who relayed when needed; scrub nurse Judy who handed me tools and mopped my brow; and Bill and Tim, our stalwart crew who kept “Bentaña” moving on course on a voyage we will all long remember fondly.
The engine is now stilled and we are making good time through the water, so why is there a rumbling in the engine room? I open the door to where the blue heart of the boat (ol’ Mr. Perkins) lives and the prop shaft is free-wheeling to beat the band. Now this isn’t supposed to happen. It’s noisy and creates unnecessary wear and tear on the shaft and engine, because the engine isn’t running, lubrication which would ordinarily take place doesn’t. Bearings become starved for oil. As Roseanna Roseannadanna famously said,”If it isn’t one thing then it’s another!”
Bentaña is fitted with a folding “Max-Prop” designed to feather and reduce drag when out of gear under sail. She also has a shaft-brake, hydraulically linked to the “Velvet-Drive” transmission. When out of gear this is supposed to engage what is basically a disk brake, as it name says, stopping the shaft. I call for my leather wrangling gloves and a screw driver and ask the helm to slow the boat down. We slow and the disk is no longer turning like a buzz saw. I grab the shaft and stop it, searching for one of the discs cooling holes. I shoved the screw driver through the hole and let the shaft turn to where the tool fetches up against a bracket and locks the lock. SUCCESS…I turn to the crew and say, “Make sure the screw driver is removed before you need to put the boat into gear.” Well my advice was heard and heeded, but it turns out later when we needed propulsion, removing the screwdriver was not as easy as inserting it. The water pressure on the unfeathered prop pressed the screwdriver into a place where the blade and handle had no clearance fore and aft to remove it. Back to the leather gloves, slow the boat and turn the shaft backwards and extract the screwdriver. SUCCESS.. Note to self, “next time use a stubby screw driver.”
Figuring something out and working it through is very rewarding. You are actually faced with no choice. But I’ve stopped patting myself on the back and begun cringing, “What’s next? It’s not long before the next problem arises. Well, at the shaft brake, I’m face to face with the stuffing box, and “what’s next is obvious.” The stuffing box is one place on the boat that water is allowed to enter the boat. It is the seal between the boats hull and the engine shaft. A small drip is tolerable, say one drop every 15 seconds when the shaft is turning. At this point, the shaft isn’t turning and a steady continuous stream is evident. This due no doubt to the freewheeling the shaft was doing in the previous paragraph. By their nature, stuffing boxes require occasional adjustment, being stuffed with sacrificial packing. In olden days they used oakum, retired rigging rope soaked in grease. Bentaña uses flax braid and Teflon grease.
It’s generally a simple process at the dock, made more difficult in a pitching seaway. There are two large sections of pipe around the shaft. They are each fitted with flats like a nut, requiring two two inch wrenches. The aft pipe contains the packing, which with compression and wear needs adjusting. The other pipe threaded to it is the lock nut. So… hanging face down in the bilge, wedging myself between the engine room door and the bulkhead, I go to loosen the lock nut and advance the inner packing using the two wrenches. However, two of our bilge pump hoses lie against this connection and I am out of hands. I need to maintain my physical purchase in place while pushing the hoses out of the way and exerting pressure on the wrenches. This makes yoga look simple. No big deal, the job is done and on to the next.
We then noticed a small tear near the foot of the mizzen and patched it up right away.
Our rhumb line changed as the winds changed and we tacked back and forth looking for the best bang for our buck. We discussed the pros and cons of tacking more often or having longer legs and tacking less often. Since we were going in and out of eddies, we compromised and did both!! The winds were light for about a day and a half, so we did more motoring than we wanted to.
Weather so far has been quite good. With a day or so to go, the wind is finally piping up. There were some squalls in the area and after we passed them we prepared for our last leg. We had “only” a hundred miles to go and our last tack put us right on track to cross the finish line. We were headed dead downwind and couldn’t use the genoa as we had no way to pole it out. We set the main and hoisted the mizzen to sail wing on wing! Amazing, but it worked! We were galloping along at about 8 knots with following seas that we surfed from time to time. It was lots of fun. Unfortunately, the mainsail chafed on the rig and lost stitching at the top, so we had to drop it and could not patch it at that time.
More critically, at this point the sea swells are growing and becoming confused and incoherent, which is hard on the crew, the ship and Otto. Otto slips his chain and we lose autohelm. So now the most difficult leg of the trip and we are hand steering though big seas from multiple directions.
Communication is sketchy, but word is that we are still in the pack. The weather is expected to build and our ETA at the finish is near first light so if conditions are good, we can cross the finish and head for port. The conditions are not however favorable. The name Bahamas is a corruption of the Spanish “Baja Mar” or low or shallow sea. Most of the Bahamas is a bank less than twenty feet deep. The Ocean several miles off shore is thousands of feet deep. This creates strong currents and wave action at the cuts that define the entry to the Sea of Abaco. These strong currents often manifest as “rages” as they are called and make entry impossible for most vessels. It was conditions like this last year which took the life of one of our fellow Caribbean1500 sailors and shipwrecked Rule 62. (See our blog entry from last year.)
With our main out of commission, we ended up motoring over the finish line and crossed it at 0817 EST (0917 AST) on November 18, just short of 7 days at sea. See our video on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/jayheartsusa?feature=mhee#p/u/7/wjINd4pKd1w
We were in VHF communication (short range) with Troubadour and Transylvania and actually had glimpses of Troubadour as we crossed the finish line. Troubadour had crossed the line in the dark and waited for daylight to assess the cut. Transylvania had gone in earlier and reported it as “manageable.” We got as close to the cut as we deemed prudent, but it looked too rough for us. We could only get 1500 RPM’s and a maximum of 5 knots out of the engine. With 7-12 foot swells and heavy winds we were concerned that we may not be able to turn back if we could not make the cut. We didn’t want to chance hitting a reef.
Troubadour followed suit and also reported the cut as “manageable,” but by the time we heard that, it was too late for us to get back there in daylight. The forecast was for strong winds diminishing tomorrow.
Our SSB and VHF radios had lots of static and we were able to only communicate from time to time successfully.
There is a saying amongst pilots, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are few old, bold pilots.” Judy and I subscribe to the notion of the “Prudent Mariner,” choosing the more conservative approach when in doubt. This was one of those times. The options we had were to continue south to a more favorable cut sixty miles away; take a chance at a safe passage here, with compromised engine and sails, or lie off shore in deep water and wait for better weather. Both Tim and Bill had planes to catch back to the “real world.” The delay would cost them real time and money, and it was a tough decision, but we headed back out to sea. This was no place for a crap shoot.
It was time for a plan. We discussed options. Bill talked about setting a Drogue or sea anchor, as the legendary Lin and Larry Pardey would do aboard Taleisin. So Tim and Bill set about rigging our small “lunch drogue,” having no massive storm drogue aboard. They set out a spare halyard with the home made three foot sailcloth “parachute” off the bow. Tim organized a bridle using our longest dock line. Bentaña continued to float off the wind, riding parallel to the swells and moving forward at a slower pace. We had done all we could do but wait, and keep watch.
And it’s not like we turned around and headed straight for deep water. The wind carried us mostly parallel with the off-shore reef line, grudgingly allowing us to creep slowly seaward. We decided that we should haul in the drogue and motor further out to sea and heave to. It was several hours before we had enough depth and distance off shore to heave to. (Heaving to is a method of slowing the boats motion by back winding the foresail, jibing the main and putting the rudder hard over.) It is a much kinder and gentler ride, the boat is more stable, but we were still making three knots in the wrong direction. Now it was mostly a time to wait out the weather and I sensed disappointment in the crew. Also remember, dear reader, that we had no main to use, so we hove to with the mizzen and the genoa partially furled so that we would be balanced
The ride was gentler with less pounding through the waves and we were more tired, but sleeping was not easy. The boat had a strong heel (20 to 25 degrees) and no bunk was level. Bentaña rode up one steep swell and down the next (more precisely, the swells passed under us as we floated like a cork.) Gusts would heel us further and occasional rogue waves would peak higher above our deck. My concern grew as the possibility of a simultaneous gust and rogue wave might lay us on our side and put the rig in the water. We took two hour single watches along with the flying fish that flew into the cockpit and it was thrilling (in a scary sense) to watch 15 foot swells with occasional breaking crests, especially when we were at the bottom of the wave troughs.
We all got up at 0200 and started to motor sail back towards the cut as we were 40 miles out to sea and wanted to be at the cut as soon as we could. Our friend Bob Carter dislikes heaving to as he says, “I never like my sails laying on steel (the mast support cables.)” This night I saw the wisdom of that, as looking up, our mizzen was chafing on the back stay. Soon after we noticed a dark spot near the top of the mizzen. The stitching had let go, so we brought her down. In a desperate situation we could have repaired the seams at sea, but it would be a shabby job. We would be ashore soon and we would let a sailmaker fix them.
The engine is laboring over a long term problem which may be bad fuel or throttle linkage. In either case, the engine won’t turn over more than 1300 RPM, only about half its design rotation. Luckily our new Genoa is pulling us along at boat speed, crashing through the waves and we don’t need the engine just yet.
Now the job was to get to shore with an underpowered engine, one useful sail, the fuel tank pointing to empty and communication hit or miss. Are we having fun yet???!!! Fortunately the weather had greatly improved. The sun was shining and we were both rested (I wouldn’t say that!) and excited about putting our feet on solid ground. Coming through the South Spanish Cay Cut proved anti-climactic. After motoring for an hour and a half we arrived at Green Turtle Cay , Johnny Powell, the Rally rep in here came out in a Boston Whaler to meet us and lead us in through the narrow winding channel into White Sound where we received a hero’s welcome at the dock at Bluff House Marina. We pulled into our slip and had two gallons of fuel left in the tank.
That afternoon, Johnny brought us a debriefing sheet. One of the items read: “List any problems encountered during the passage.” I turned to Judy and Johnny and said, “We’re gonna need a lot more paper.”
One thing I want to say is a huge thank you to Troubador. They were so concerned for us and kept the SSB on all night in case we needed to call for help. It is amazing how nice and caring people are. I know that everyone was worried about us but Troubador kept in touch.
Here ends the beginning of our second voyage to the Bahamas.
P.S. Oh, did I mention how seawater was flooding the engine compartment around day three? Sort of a déjà vu all over again. Last year on this trip we took on water while heeling in a brisk seaway. It was washing in under the battery boxes and into the bilge. I found a repeat of the problem during one of my regular inspections this trip. The cause was the same, a removed piece of equipment whose throughhull had not been sealed. Last time it was a generator removed before we bought the boat. This time it was an air conditioning compressor I had removed over the summer. I hadn’t realized it circulated sea water and I cut the discharge hose carelessly. I quickly found the problem and fortunately the throughhull, fairly high up on the topsides rarely was under water, and more fortunately had a shut off valve. I closed the valve and pumped the bilge. This mishap seemed so routine by this time, that I didn’t even mention it. After completing the narrative above, Judy reminded me I left it out. The “adventures” were endless.
To view the “virtual” rally, see http://www.worldcruising.com/carib1500/viewer.aspx and click on the BC tab (Bahamas Class.) This is a very robust inter-active tracking program which allows you to replay the event in detail showing every tack. Using the time-line and speed controls at the bottom right you can observe boat speed and rank, wind direction, even night and day. You need to set the start time at 11/11 by dragging the time line. It takes a little practice. Enjoy.
|About 10 minutes after the start|
|Bill and Steph repairing a rip in the main|
|Shorts at last!|
|Tim enjoying the sun|
|Judy up the mast at sea|
|One of our flying fishy visitors|
|Are we there yet?|
|Near the finish. Note the waves to the right|
|Land ho! Entering White Sound, Green Turtle Cay.|