Commodore’s Story #3

By Brian Bailey

It was two or three weeks after haul-out and our boat was not yet winterized. My friend and neighbour, Brian Rose (also President of North/South Yacht Charters), asked if I had a job yet, no I didn’t, well then how about delivering a boat from New York to Virgin Gorda to take your mind off things for awhile. I said I’ll think about it and let you know soon.

Mentally I had already decided I was going. Brian Rose said I could go with another crew or better still organize my own crew. People who could arrange the time off – about 3 weeks maybe, would be hard to find. I needed more than just a warm body with a winch handle attached. I needed people who could steer and think for themselves.

A back straightening session at Wayne McNabb’s clinic revealed a great deal of interest on his part but not a definite commitment. (Wayne’s keenness versus his worry about the dangers were to result in a “Yes I will go – no I won’t go” situation until after I was actually in New York on Nov 2nd)

I thought it would be good to have people with salt water experience so I asked Peter and Sally Stevens and Jim and Ruth Sneath. All declined, Peter and Sally because they were to be on vacation – most unreasonable.

High on my potential list was Klaus Pankatz but he immediately said no because he couldn’t take the time off. However, early next morning he called and asked if there was a vacancy still and proceeded to get his passport up-to-date in a hurry. Peter Kriisa was also on the list but unfortunately he was obliged to be at a conference in the U.S.A. Steve Armstrong said he was interested but would not be too keen with only three of us.  He would go if Wayne would.

During this time, I was using Jim Russell’s two sextants and an upside-down garbage lid filled with water for an artificial horizon, learning celestial navigation from scratch. I practised shooting the sun or moon anytime the weather would allow. I purchased nautical almanacs, sight reduction tables, plotting charts, work sheets, Atlantic, Bermuda and Caribbean charts. Now I could take a sextant reading, reduce the numbers and plot the result in less than four minutes on dry land – it was to be very different on the boat.

I arranged to borrow Louis Foubert’s Loran and in the process of trying to remove the coupler unsuccessfully, I severed the antenna lead. I will have to fix it for him before next season. I decided I would buy the coupler in New York instead. I also decided I would need new foul weather gear, harness, boots, hand bearing compass, gloves and a good sextant.

At the same time as all this activity was occurring, we were having strategy meetings. At these meetings we were deciding who was to bring kitchen gear to cook with and plates to eat from, who was to make up a medical kit, where to get an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), a life raft etc. etc. Wayne, with a great deal of advice from Dr. Don Smith made up a comprehensive medical kit that filled two large boxes.

We knew that the boat would be a C&C 37 or 41, brand new and without any gear or instruments except a compass and VHF so we literally had to carry everything to New York almost including the kitchen sink.

I left for New York on Nov 1st. My friend Bob Zimmerman, a writer, met me at LaGuardia airport and I stayed in his apartment in Manhattan until just before we left on November 10th. I spent the time running all over New York trying to find out-of- stock sextants, foul weather gear etc. etc. The boat, one of the last 37’s thrown together by C & C, was a 40 minute drive. In Bob’s car we drove to Port Washington on Long Island. It was nowhere near ready for the trip, even the compass was not installed. I cleaned the boat up as well as I could and carried some of the new gear up the ladder. I made up a wire lifeline to run our safety harnesses on and installed the wiring for a Loran and a plug for a radio and a calculator.

I arranged for a life raft and started to bug the yard about painting the bottom and launching and rigging the boat. After being told “tomorrow” a few times, the boat was put in the water on Thursday Nov 7th, so I phoned Cindy my wife , to tell everyone to come on down on Friday. They arrived at the boat early before I did as I was still chasing around in New York after pieces of gear. On Friday afternoon Wayne and Klaus went food shopping and Steve did some odd jobs around the boat while I connected my new Loran. We had  our last good shore meal in the restaurant nearby.

Saturday we took the boat and filled the tank with diesel fuel as well as 12 jerry cans. We also filled the four on board water tanks and three jerry cans with water. We found later that the boat water tasted peculiar and the jerry can water was OK. We ate our first and what was to be our most comfortable dinner on the boat and went to sleep early. I had calculated that a departure at first light would give us good tides to and through New York especially through the notorious Hell Gate where the Harlem river joins the East river.

We left at 0625 on Sunday November 10th. A terrific 5 hours of motoring gave us a great view of New York, the harbour and the Statue of Liberty. We reached Ambrose light just after noon and started our watch-keeping system of three hours each from 0600 to 1800 and two hours on with six off from 1800 to 0600 through the night. The wind was fresh from the south and not too cold, a great broad reach. We all soon started to feel seasick with the waves running up to 10 feet and were to feel that way for about three days. We quickly found the boat’s major weakness – water leaks every time we shipped a wave on board. Water came in through the mast/deck hole, hatch seals, hull/deck joints and lots of other places. The berth cushions were soaked, especially the V berth where Steve tried to sleep. Some of the lockers were not drained to the bilge and the small swimming pools in them wet Wayne’s clothes.

Navigation at this point was easy, the Loran C worked beautifully. The automatic wheel-steerer from Navico failed after only four hours. We soon settled into our routines, steer, lie in your wet berth, sleep, steer, but not much eating. Klaus and Wayne tried a little cooking and I tried even less navigating. By noon on Nov. 13th we had covered about 438 nautical miles and were well across the Gulf Stream. We had beam-reached the whole time and we now were double reefed with not much jib showing. The going was getting heavy. A container ship gave us a position fix that was close to my calculations. We went through a period of lighter winds in the night with thunderstorms all around and the odd shower, however the temperature was warm and no one felt cold.

On November 15th we were south of Bermuda motoring in a flat calm so I practiced my sextant shots now that we were out of reliable Loran range. The MV Faraday gave us a position confirmation at about 1707, we motored on until 0200 on the 16th when the wind started to come from the east. By 1700 the wind was averaging 30+ knots and waves building to 10+ ft. A Japanese ship named Kajima, I think, had confirmed our position at 1519. Every few hours I listened to the Atlantic weather status broadcast on shortwave radio  from WWV in Colorado.

Around this time we first heard about a tropical storm named Kate with 65 knot winds located near Puerto Rico moving N.E. at 4 knots. This would be big trouble for us, since, if it kept this course, it would come too close for comfort. A pilot chart I had showed that hurricanes had tracked this way in the past during the first part of November. After a discussion we all agreed that the safest course was to run off to the west to put as much distance as we could away from its possible track. We completely removed the main to reduce the risk of damage if we did get caught and furled the jib the whole way in. We would remove it later if necessary. We were running downwind at 3 or 4 knots under bare poles.

All that night my thoughts were of the CYC annual dinner and awards night and how everyone would not yet know of our danger. I wondered to myself if I would ever see Cindy and the kids again. I was very scared. I have actually experienced 4 hurricanes at sea on board a Flower Class Corvette converted to a weather ship so I knew what real giant waves looked and felt like. I had real doubts about the ability of this leaky boat to withstand a real battering. I didn’t share my thoughts with the others except to say we would have a tough time if the storm held its course. By 1700 on the 17th the storm had become a hurricane with 95 knot winds but was now heading WSW at 6 knots, ah relief.

We were not out of the woods yet because hurricanes tend to wander until they get moving at speeds over ten knots, however the prevailing weather situation with a high over Bermuda should encourage a westerly movement of the hurricane. By now we were experiencing gale force winds of 35 knots gusting to 45 or 50 and the waves were about 22ft with the odd bigger one. We decided it was time to try and head back south again so we turned around and slowly motored into the big seas until 0700 on 18th. A Spanish speaking sailor gave us a position at 0630 that was much further west (about 60 miles) than I expected.  At this time, I found sextant shots next to impossible for me in the big waves. We were experiencing a lot of breaking waves that put water into the cockpit and pushed the boat sideways at the bow or stern depending on where the wave broke, it was heavy work steering the boat. Everyone was happy to come off shift and rest. Some of us felt queasy again and it was difficult to cook or eat.

At 0700 we pulled a small portion of the roller furled jib out and sailed. The wind eased during the morning to about 20 knots with seas down to about 12 feet. By noon we had the jib out all the way and made reasonable speed but were not able to get upwind much because of the pounding as we fell off waves. This was to be the story until the last day before BVI, strong winds varying from 20 to 25 knots from the east. At 0345 on Nov. 19th, we contacted a Russian container ship who gave us a good fix and asked how many people we had on board and if any were women (why I don’t know). He was steaming around waiting for the hurricane to move past his destination of Cuba. l managed both a moon shot and a sun shot at about 1530 since the moon was visible. This gave me a reasonable fix and showed we were still not making enough progress to the east but pretty good to the south.

At 0145 on the 20th we had a long conversation with a US ship, the MV Philadelphia, they told me their set due to the current- was 3 degrees. We were experiencing more than that I thought, maybe a total of 8 degrees between the current and the waves. So we tried to steer about 155 magnetic to get the necessary easting. That day we also found we had an engine problem when we tried to charge the batteries and run the freezer compressor. Next day Klaus determined we had water in the fuel and we spent a messy couple of hours getting it out. We also had suffered failures of the bow lights, first starboard then port. Next to fail was the compass light which is very frustrating when you are trying to steer at night in the total blackness. A temporary repair failed the next night and we then taped a small lifejacket light over the compass. On the next day, the 21st, we   realized that we had a serious propane leak so we could no longer cook since we could not find the source of the leak.

During our voyage other things broke such as a very large snatch block which was bent pretty severely by the jib sheet. The electric bilge pump quit very early in the trip, it was fixed and quit again. We did not fix it this time. The compass binnacle became loose. The latch on the head door was torn off finally when Steve was thrown against it. The door had been receiving quite a beating from all of us as the boat threw us around, while we endeavored to use the head. We never used the pressure water system and if we had done so there was a major leak from the faucet in the head. We had showers out of the kettle (one fill allowed). On the next to last day we found the baby-stay lying on deck because the upper fitting had disintegrated. There were many places where stainless fittings were showing rust, such as lifeline stanchions.

More interesting were things like the flying fish. Everyone except me had seen one and then in the night whilst I was steering, we took a big wave in the cockpit and a fish hit me in the face. Now I could see it! We also saw the odd dolphin. There were meteor trails quite often visible at night and I saw one go over the horizon and immediately afterwards the horizon lit up all around in a pale green colour.

At 2l00 on the 21st I reckoned we could be as close as 50 miles to a dangerous reef called Anegada just north of Virgin Gorda. We decided to heave-to until daylight and we all had a relatively restful night as the wind and waves decreased. Next day at 1520 just after Steve came on his watch, he saw a hazy Virgin Gorda almost directly ahead. That was exciting! We now had to sail around Anegada even though it was not yet visible. We arrived off Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour after dark at about 2000. Just prior to that, our fancy North Sails zipstop main jammed as we tried to zip it so we left that for the shore crew to fix. I had an old chart that said we should leave red buoys to port on entering the harbour. It turned out that had been changed over two years ago. We went onto the coral reef by the channel and were able to slowly get off and back in the channel.

As soon as we tied up, we headed for the bar and took turns phoning home and ordering rounds. Next day we checked into customs and tried to arrange flights home. That turned out to be difficult and we were obliged to stay for three days. How terrible – we just had to stick around and gatecrash a big wedding party and have a lobster meal in a French restaurant run by a Toronto expatriate. We rented a jeep and drove up over the mountain to a little harbour where we had a boat pick us up for our lunch at the Bitter End Yacht Club.  CYC was never like this. On one day we visited the famous Baths and the experts did a little snorkeling.

We finally had to leave this paradise and tried to get on the little commuter plane with four others and our baggage of around six hundred pounds (kitchen sinks are heavy you know). The pilot said “Forget it!” We ended up in Puerto Rico waiting for our bags to join us and missing lunch. The flight to New York only had ridiculous sandwiches. The airline was Arrow Air. We had never heard of it, and we were not surprised later when we heard about their terrible crash at Gander. In New York we needed two cabs to get to La Guardia and we ate a great meal in the airport restaurant. We were very happy to land back in Toronto on Air Canada but were not too impressed with the slushy snow that greeted us. All in all, it was a great experience and some of us would do it again if we had the opportunity.