Going offshore in a small boat provides plenty of opportunity for satisfaction — and frustration. Last winter on a voyage to the Caribbean, my wife and I confronted the satisfaction/frustration boundary in new ways. It wasn’t always pretty.
We prefer sailing our Valiant 40 in the tropics to shoveling snow in New Hampshire. While our jobs are sufficiently flexible to allow us to escape, sometimes for six weeks, sometimes for several months, the clock starts ticking the minute we walk out the office door. Last winter we wanted to use our six weeks for bluewater passagemaking and the barefoot stuff — sailing with eased sheets past stunning island landscapes, listening to the bow wave’s seductive ripple and enjoying a rum swizzle in a cozy Caribbean anchorage.
Fair enough. We could do it. We learned the 7 P’s long ago: Proper prior preparation prevents piss-poor performance. All we had to do was allocate time and money wisely before the voyage. Buy spares. Fix stuff. Service crucial safety equipment. Help the boatyard meet its monthly targets by asking its staff to do jobs beyond our technical skill, or our willingness to suffer. And keep the faith.
By then we had owned the boat for four years and had sailed her 11,000 miles, including three round-trips from New Hampshire to the West Indies. It wasn’t as if we were starting from scratch. But the boat was 17 years old when we bought her. Along the way, due diligence demanded replacing the engine, the standing and running rigging, the chainplates, the dodger and the Bimini; installing new wind-speed-depth instruments and a Monitor windvane; and adding AIS and servicing a million other systems.
Rather than doing everything at once, we picked away each year. Recently we replaced our aging Profurl with a new Harken headsail furler, and our ancient electronic autopilot (whose control unit still had a curled cord like an old Ma Bell phone) with a Raymarine autopilot. Constant attention to detail, and endless lists, preceded every departure.
We had hoped to dash to Bermuda in late August and haul the boat there until we could return in December to head south — something we had done two years earlier. We only got as far as Provincetown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, before forecasters pointed out a developing tropical depression. Its ETA in Bermuda? The same as ours, five days out. Time to revise the plan.
Thirty or 40 years ago I never would have imagined leaving New Hampshire for Bermuda in August, the height of hurricane season. In recent years, I have done it a few times. It’s still a gamble. While tropical storm forecasting has improved by orders of magnitude, 40-foot sailboats simply can’t cover the distance to Bermuda fast enough to be within a predictable weather window. Of course, the gamble is part of ocean voyaging’s allure.
With Tropical Depression Fiona moving WNW at 9 knots toward Bermuda, we retreated toward the East Coast. We would stage the boat south, first in New York City and later at Chesapeake Bay, then, at Thanksgiving, head down the Intracoastal Waterway from Mile Zero in Norfolk to Mile 204 in Morehead City, North Carolina. The Ditch always has its charms. We spent our last day aboard in Morehead City replacing the rudder post packing. We hoped that would be the final task before we returned to the boat in a few weeks to head for the Virgin Islands.
But by December it’s winter in the North Atlantic. We sat in Morehead City for a week, fretting and studying weather maps. It was so cold that the Yacht Basin turned off the water on the docks. Finally, on Dec. 16, armored in long johns, wool hats and foul-weather gear, we left in a moderate northeast breeze.
Our goal is always to cross the Gulf Stream ASAP and get easting early. The tropics seemed far away that afternoon, however, as “sea smoke” swirled around us, the result of cold air over warm water. It was eerie. No one else was outward bound. The weather routers had promised “plenty of wind for this trip.” We could handle that, given the right direction. But the wind was heading us already, and our weather window — so plausible only 24 hours earlier — was evaporating fast.
At sea, one problem often initiates a cascade of subsequent ones, whether they are genuinely related or not. That night, as we tried to roll up the genoa, our new furler balked, and the old sail flogged itself to death. While we struggled with the shredded genoa, the engine overheated. “Shut ’er down!”
Offshore, you take what comes. There is satisfaction in playing those cards. Without an engine, it was back to pure sailing. We bore off with a double-reefed main and staysail. Yet by midnight, churning along at 6 knots under staysail alone, with 40 knots of wind on the beam, we were steering north of east, a course more suited to landfall in Nova Scotia than the West Indies. Christmas in Canada was not in our plans. Worse yet, a big winter storm was brewing between Bermuda and New England.
The regulation that “every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight as well as by hearing” is perfectly reasonable, unless, perhaps, you are a husband-wife crew of two facing an unholy sea with virtually no visibility in a 40-foot sailboat. We had absolute confidence in the boat. Our notoriously stout Valiant 40 would see us through. But I did not want either of us alone on deck if a big sea came calling. We would let the autopilot do its job and take our chances that we were out there alone. It’s a call I’ve rarely made.
These days many long-distance cruisers work scrupulously to avoid bad weather. Sophisticated forecasting and robust communications have changed many assumptions about going offshore.
While I don’t have hard data, it appears that fewer cruisers carry storm sails or sea anchors than a few decades ago. Why bother, the reasoning goes, if you don’t plan to use them? With weather routers, GRIB files and — for some cruisers — lots of time, it is possible to wait for a suitable weather window, or even to deviate from the rhumb line significantly en route to avoid threatening weather. Yet here we were, just 24 hours out, in the midst of a snotty little gale making me rethink the term “weather window.”
By the end of the second night, things were improving. We had 30 knots of wind, but it had clocked, so we were no longer heading for Nova Scotia. I got the engine going again, and by 0800 on the third day, we were motorsailing with the staysail. The next morning we set the full main, shut down the engine and peeled off our soggy socks and long johns. The interior of the boat was still a swamp from leaks around a chainplate and the main hatch, but it would dry.
Offshore sailing always means “higher highs and lower lows.” As I cleaned the bilge pump filter that afternoon, I felt fine, as though we had handled the situation well. By then the boat had an easy motion, close-reaching with main and staysail. This was my 22nd trip between New England and the Caribbean under sail. I had seen my share of crummy weather and compromised systems. We’d be fine. After sunset, the Southern Cross beckoned from beyond the bow pulpit, and we were laying Bermuda. Life looked good.
This is the point in the story when I would like to explain that all of our preparations and experience paid off, and that the cruise redeemed itself. We were certainly in better shape than the big ketch tied up near us in St. George’s, Bermuda. Among other problems, its crew had lost their forestay and their engine, and torn up their sails. As soon as the towboat got them alongside, the crew trooped en masse to the airport. They were done. We were also in better shape than the dismasted Beneteau from Annapolis, Maryland, which limped into Bermuda with a jury rig. Kudos to that crew!
Our plan was simply to take up on our headstay so the furler worked better, bend on the spare genoa, change the filters, smear some goop around that leaky chainplate, buy a Bermudian Christmas pudding and head south. The fates had other ideas.
It turned out that our shaft seal was leaking more than we liked. I thought it would be a simple matter of flushing it and recompressing the bellows, which I had done before. Nope. It kept leaking, despite expert assistance from Steve Hollis at Ocean Sails and his son, Austin. The internal O-rings were leaking. To fix it right we would have to haul the boat. Hollis finally said, “What about wrapping waxed sail thread around the collar — poor man’s packing?” I did, and that night the leak slowed considerably. But sea-trialing the spare genoa and furler in St. George’s harbor the next day revealed that we had not solved all of our problems.
“Safety first” can be a complicated concept for boats going offshore. There is virtually always something that can be improved. And unless you have quit your jobs and retired to your boat, with endless time on your hands, there is also an imperative to go. Perfection is the enemy of the possible. We had just six weeks.
I liked to think that our spares, preparation and experience would suffice. So we went. It was only 900 miles. The shaft seal leaked all the way to the Virgin Islands, but manageably. We monitored it and pumped a bit every day. We arrived in time to meet our daughter and her fiancé for a charming island cruise — an important commitment — but the tech problems never stopped. Our radar died. OK, I could have seen around the curve. It was old and needed to be replaced. Our electric head failed. We had to “bucket and chuck it” until I sorted that out. Our engine shut down erratically several times (too much salt water on the ignition panel) until we slathered the panel’s connections with corrosion blocker. The furler didn’t always cooperate, thanks to a boatyard’s installation error.
Call it whining in paradise. The frustration of this trip, compared to our previous cruises, was that we thought we had prepared thoroughly, as usual. Yet the problems never stopped. They weren’t life-threatening or cruise-halting, but the technological “hassle factor” was high.
I’ve known for decades that even with preventive maintenance, systems can let me down at inopportune times. It’s a matter of perspective. I still find tremendous satisfaction in passagemaking, boat handling and island hopping. And it’s a privilege to spend time in the West Indies. The older I get, however, the less charmed I am by fixing broken stuff. I want dividends from my due diligence!
Boats always ask us to prove ourselves, but they don’t let us choose the tests we will face. Maybe we just got off easy the first three times. We should know by next winter because we are going back for more. It is the song of the sirens.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.