Saturday, October 31, 2009

Anatomy of an Offshore Passage

While any offshore passage on any sailboat is in one way or another noteworthy (in my book at least), an offshore passage onboard Wandering Dolphin is perhaps a little more interesting than some. Take the normal ingredients for a passage, weather window, wind direction, wave height and frequency, speed and sail configuration, crew relationships and the drama that always occurs when you put people together in a very small world that rocks and rolls constantly and where most of your time is spent trying to find a way to stave off the boredom and the rest of your time is spent fighting or holding on for your very life. These ingredients all add up to a fairly interesting yarn no matter what. Wandering Dolphin just magnifies a few things by adding five children and a seasick dog into the mix we also refuse to kick on the engine to make life easier and, at least for the last few passages have to hand steer every mile because our auto pilot is out.

One of the most important decisions one makes when planning any offshore passage is the weather window. Becky’s sister said it best when she said, ‘You guys pretty much live by the weather don’t you?” We do too. When the weather is nice living on a boat is great, when the weather is terrible it becomes scary even anchored out. Passage weather is even more critical, being caught in a serious storm offshore instantly reminds you that you are a fly speck on an enormous, heaving world that cares not one bit if you live or die. My family believes in God and can find comfort knowing that He, at least, is master of those winds and waves, but we certainly plan our trips so as not to test His patience.

When Jimmy and I arrived back from our New York to Miami delivery on S/V Marinette we were confident that Rebecca would have Wandering Dolphin ready for sea. We were not disappointed, she had had the bottom scraped (nothing slower than a barnacle encrusted hull), provisioned and filled the water tanks. Every thing was stowed on deck and below so all we really had to do was wait for a weather window. I use about six different sources online for my weather information and all of them were in agreement that although there was a low to the east that coulp possibly develop into a tropical storm it was unlikely and that it would not enter the islands until late sometime on Tuesday. The winds were to be SSE switching to East at 15 to 18 knots and since we were going to be running a line straight offshore from Trinidad to St Croix we would be sailing NNW which meant we would have a beam reach most of the way (a beam reach is when the wind comes over the side of the boat just a little bit aft of center). This is generally a very fast point of sail with only one real drawback, the wind pushes the waves so the swells would also be on our beam. When you have beam seas the boat rocks back and forth and days of it can make the best of us feel like butter in a churn.

We had our weather window and now Rebecca would choose our departure time. She has become very adept at listening to my predictions for wind, waves and my guess for the speed of our boat and then totally disregarding all of that information, punching around some other numbers and figures of the present state of the moon in transit with the fog off of Nantucket and from who knows where else in her pretty head and coming up with the best time for us to leave so that no matter what we will arrive in daylight and NEVER, NEVER have to slow the boat to wait for the sun. In her mind this is the most evil thing a man can do to a woman and she will have none of it! At any rate she decided that we would have a normal supper and watch our shows and leave just after supper.

The night was beautiful as we pulled up our anchor and motored away from our friends from the summer. The kids all came out on deck and watched at a pod of dolphins escorted us by Scotland Bay where we had spent a very happy month or more, some of it with Becky’s sister Amy and niece Ellie. The dolphins played on our bow wake and made beautiful trails of phosphorescence (or foxcrescents as Kaleb calls it). As we headed through the cut with the outgoing tide our boat picked up speed and rushed along at almost 10 knots with the help of the current. The main sail was already up and double reefed which is our standard procedure on a night passage and now we pulled out the Genoa and the boat heeled over slightly on her beam reach. Then came the moment every sailor truly loves. We shut down the engine and suddenly were surrounded with nothing but the sound of the wind in the sails and the water rushing by the boat.

I have mentioned that our auto pilot is out but to those of you who live on land this may seem to be simply a minor inconvienience. You might picture us driving our boat along as you would your car on a long trip from state to state and think… “So what? That’s what you’re supposed to do right?” While to another sailor the mention of an offshore passage of any duration without a working auto pilot is met with a shaking of the head and usually a long discussion about how it can possibly be fixed before you leave. Why is this? I have personally driven across the country in a car almost non-stop… a car drive from Florida to Montana takes 3 days with only a few hours rest in a road side pullout. It is torture but possible. There is the difference you see? We are not at sea to be tortured… REALLY… our course is often the same straight line for days on end without even touching the sails except to reef them or pull them out for a little more speed. Without an autopilot someone has to steer for 24 hours! Fortunately we have three of us to divide the night watches with and four for the day. The way we do this is two hours at the helm in the day for EmilyAnne (at 12 we let her off the hook for night watches), Jimmy, Rebecca and myself. In a lot of ways this has been good for us. We have learned to balance the sails almost perfectly now so very little help is needed from the guy at the helm. Often with no tie off or anything one can leave the helm for up to a few minutes and the boat will still be right on her course when you sit back down at the captain’s seat. We have also been able to tie off the helm with a piece of string for whole days of sailing but only when we are going to windward. This trip with its beam reach was impossible for the string to work… every time the boat was hit by a wave from the side (wave is perhaps not the most descriptive word to used there since each one is about the size of a greyhound bus) and they hit the boat about every six seconds, the boat would sheer off her course and the string would hold her on her new wave altered one. So if you do the math it didn’t take very long for the boat to be heading for Panama instead to St Thomas. So we hand steer until our friend Auto is back in service.

When Rebecca was doing all her mojo to figure out the best time to leave she told Jimmy and I that she was figuring on an average of 6 knots… figuring there would be hours of 3 to 6 and hours of 7 and 8… Jimmy and I looked at her, looked again at one another and broke out in knee slapping, high fiving, laughter. “ Eight knots! What a dreamer!” We guffawed. But she stuck to her guns having apparently had a little girl talk with the Wandering Dolphin and made a secret pact that we guys knew nothing about. So on our first night out within minutes of turning off the engine I began to call down or speed and it sounded like this,
“We’re cruising at 7 now… Uhhh 7.5… 8… hey guys we’re going 8 knots… wait 8.5…. Hey what’s going on we are doing 9 knots and holding?”

And we did… it seems that our boat goes a lot faster with a clean hull and empty cupboards… we usually cruise with her all provisioned for months at sea rather than just enough food to make St Thomas… and she loved that beam reach she clipped right along doing 8 to 9 knots for the first 24 hours with a double reefed main and full Genoa.

During that first 24 hours of sailing we had our usual queue start up at the aft rail where the leeward side of Wandering Dolphin was repainted by Kaleb and Benny in modern pinks and browns as they succumbed to Mal de Mer. This trip was a little rougher than most because of the side to side motion of a boat on a beam reach. Jimmy and I having just returned from a rougher than usual Marinette delivery only suffered mild headaches in the first 24 hours. Rebecca just felt a little under the weather with a headache and lethargy. She never had to bow the knee at the scuppers to sacrifice her supper like the little kids though. Kanyon has a rock hard stomach and has never been sea sick he just gets sleepy and crawls into his bed like a bear going into hibernation. EmilyAnne was fine for days actually until she saw me up on the heaving bow with the video camera… for some reason watching her father lurch and sway his way forward and back with a video camera sent her right to the rails.

By far the biggest sufferer on our boat is our poor dog. As soon as Charlie heard the anchor coming up and the boat began to move he ran into Kanyon’s berth and hid at the very end of the bed, but we were hardly out of the harbor before he was up on deck spilling his dog biscuits. He stays sick for a day at least and is a truly miserable sight as he crawls around looking for a hole to hide in. I have never really thought it possible that a furry white dog could actually look green… but he does.

On the second day right before lunch we caught a nice Mahi Mahi. We always sail with two line dragging lures. Sometimes we make our own out of candy wrappers and tin foil but this time it was two store bought squid things in bright yellows and reds. I have been told that Mahi are always hungry and will strike at pretty much any colorful thing pulling through the water, this has not been my personal experience though. We seem to be missing something because we rarely catch fish. This one was a beautiful 15 pounder, just enough to feed our brood. I filleted the fish right in the scuppers and we wrapped the filets in tin foil with spices and oil and put it right on the BBQ. Beck made a pan of rice with soy sauce and that was lunch.

The first night we had beautiful sailing under a starry sky. Benny stayed up all night with the people on watch and he counted 11 shooting stars. He was a jabber box on my watch telling me all about the spacemen that lived on other planets and flew from star to star in their ships… the more I listened the more detailed the stories became. He loves to have an audience and the person at the wheel is captive.

On the second morning we were visited by a pod of spinner dolphins. I thought these little dolphins were only found in the Pacific but there was no mistaking them. They are tiny little dolphins with a mask and they leap into the air and do tight spins. I saw one as he came out of one wave do a double spin before entering the next wave. We all sat at the lifelines clapping and shouting encouragement just like the audience at the Olympics. On a side note I have to put in a little sad fact for those of you who do not know… the Tuna fisheries use these little dolphins to track schools of tuna, who for some reason, love to hang out with the spinners. The tuna boats then encircle the pod of dolphins with huge nets in order to catch the tuna. In this way hundreds of thousands of dolphins are dying every single year sometimes over 1000 dolphins die in a single tuna take. PLEASE check your tuna for the dolphin safe marking on the can, it is generally a little more expensive but certainly the least we can do to help these amazing mammals.

The second night we ate freeze dried food left over from my backpacking days…. Yep it’s still good and it’s easy to fix offshore as it only requires hot water. Rebecca was only appearing to take her watches, the rest of the time she was in lala land dreaming of soft meadows and hard packed earth. Everyone went to bed early and little Kaleb slept up in the bouncing v-berth where he had two fans blowing on him and could wedge himself between the sailbags.

Rebecca had the early morning watch on the third day and Jimmy and I were awakened by her calling all hands to reef the sails. As I came up the companionway I noticed a full blown squall rushing down on us… it had snuck up on Rebecca from behind and before we could get the Genny in it hit us with 45 to 50 knots of wind… the main was already double reefed but with a full 140% Genny flying that much wind was enough to drive the rails into the water on the lee side instantly… Rebecca had the crash course in rounding up under sail rather than trying to fight the push of the wind against the sail. Once she rounded up we were able to wrestle the sail in. I had to go all the way forward and pull the reefing line right at the furler while Jimmy helped Beck control the loose sheets… at one point the jib sheet got away from him and pulled right through the blocks ripping out the end of the sheet which had a figure eight stopper knot tied in it… by the time the sail was reefed the squall had passed over us and we had to clean up the mess.. The jib sheets were a tangled mass of knots and my hands were blistered from wrestling the reefing line. The rest of the day proved to be very squally and everyone was now watching behind them for the sneaky squall to come eat us for lunch. Rebecca is now a firm believer in REEF EARLY – REEF OFTEN!

That evening found us approaching home waters of St Croix and during the night we faught three more squalls, reefing in the sails, getting drenched, pulling out the sails, reefing the sails, getting drenched… Jimmy took over in the morning and he balanced the reefed sails and we zipped on over to St Thomas anchoring in Honeymoon Bay by 9:00am.

No passage is complete without the cleanup which took most of the day. We washed down the decks and all of the gear with fresh water, cleaned up the mess below, and put up the awnings.

We had a great summer but every one of us smiled ear to ear as we sat on deck in the sunset and looked at the perfect little crescent beach and the aqua blue water surrounding Wandering Dolphin… It really felt a lot like coming home!


  1. Nicely Done! Hopefully I have a passage similar to yours, without the squalls of course! See you soon!

  2. Have been following your blog since I saw the 5 kids aboard!! Wow, I'm impressed. We're out here too, and thanks for the info way back when on the mooring balls in the Lagoon in Grenada. Did put your name down on the sign-in sheet - hope it works out for something if you get back there!