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Bluewater challenge: bound for Bermuda

I was closer to 50 than 40 when I made a life-changing decision: As a sailor drawn to the sea for as long as I can recall, the time was long past for my first ocean passage.

In recent decades I had been consumed climbing corporate ladders, and my sailing exploits had ebbed more than flowed. Sailing dreams die hard, and the only antidote was to cast off for a bluewater voyage.

I opted against crewing in one of the East Coast, Bermuda-bound sailing races. Thoughts of dashing five days at 12-plus knots in 15-foot seas were unappealing, as was my squeamishness in sailing in an unfamiliar boat with a skipper I didn’t know.

Option two was to sign on with a bluewater sailing school. I chose the Maryland School of Sailing & Seamanship in Rock Hall, Md., which is renowned for personalized instruction on its 650-mile, one-way cruises from Norfolk, Va., to Bermuda, or back.

Planning and preparations

I first met skipper Tom Tursi at the Annapolis Boat Show last fall. I outlined my background: I had raced off Annapolis in high school and taught at the venerable Annapolis Sailing School. Professional aspirations had chased my family and me across the country and far from sailing for too long. With a new business, I scampered back to the southern Chesapeake last year, partly to resume my sailing passion.

Weather permitting, our departure was set for May 26. Four students were on board, all of us seeking ocean passage proficiency, weather prognostication and celestial navigation brush-ups. Students had a busy winter reading a lengthy cruise textbook. I misplaced mine, and assuaged my ocean fears by sharpening my knife and marlinspike, which I would wear proudly on my nautical-themed belt.

Launch day anticipated

We were summoned to Taylor’s Landing Marina in Norfolk on a Wednesday to begin two days of intense boat preparation on Halimeda, the 45-foot full-keel, 30,000-pound Island Packet.

On board was Capt. Tursi, a seasoned skipper who has nearly 50,000 ocean miles, and first mate Lew Jalbert, a successful environmental engineer on weekdays and rabid sailor otherwise.

“Offshore sailing is the magic of the moment,” said Jalbert, who is as affable as he is loquacious. “Inshore you are still within cell phone range, crowded anchorages and marinas. In other words, you are still in the middle of things you are trying to get away from.”

My fellow students were Garner Bennett, head of an asset management firm outside of Washington, whose wife and two young children snuck a book of family snapshots and crayon-scribbled notes inside his sea bag; Rod Bowen, the bearded and retired owner of a small chain of Hallmark greeting card stores in Kansas and Missouri; and Dan Harding, a retired international money manager from Barnegat Bay, N.J.

“You can read about navigation and crossing the Gulf Stream, but you have to do it,” Harding said. “I wanted to fill in the gap between January bedtime reading of Nigel Calder’s cruising books, and first-hand experience.”

Tursi put it more stoically: “When you go to sea on a small boat, all you have to depend on is each other.”

We had little time for idle chatter in our two days of on-shore boat prep. The two licensed captains patiently walked us through all aspects of bluewater sailing, from through-hulls to sail handling; navigation to weather forecasting; offshore provisioning to seaboard cooking; diesel mechanics to medical emergencies; man overboard to abandon ship drills.

Departure day

Friday’s departure was picture perfect for casting lines: windswept azure skies and winds of 10 to 20 knots from the northeast, growing to 30.

“The Gulf Stream dictates how you sail to Bermuda,” Jalbert said as we headed south on a starboard tack. “Everything you do, everything you plan is aimed at hitting the stream just right.”

And if you don’t, I wondered?

The first night was a pleasant sail of 4 to 5 knots in varying winds, but we barely recorded a 100-mile day. The students focused on passage tips. My favorite was Tursi’s “jibe-preventer.” He takes a line and ties it around the aft end of the boom, through the clew of the mainsail and secures it with a bowline. The line then runs through the midship cleat and aft to a cleat just behind the sheet winch. Thus, the preventer — an absolute essential in passage-making — can easily be managed from the cockpit.

“I am a coward,” Tursi said late that night as I made ready for my midnight-to-4 a.m. watch. “I want to do everything possible to prepare the boat well, and safely, for sea.”

The Gulf Stream

We began Day 2 groggy from our body clocks jolted by round-the-clock watches, which we ran in pairs. We sailed most of the trip hand steering. Watches included manning the helm, hourly boat checks, meticulous log entries, chart plotting and the ever-watchful eye — both on the horizon and the radar screen — for passing ships.

The NOAA forecast called for winds gusting to 20 knots from the northeast, the worst possible conditions for crossing the stream. The contrary winds can kick up huge waves of 20 or more feet amid a confused sea. Many a vessel has been lost in Gulf Stream crossings, often during northeast winds.

But our luck prevailed. We entered the stream under winds aft of the mast and steamed along on a sleigh ride in rolling seas of 6 to 8 feet. A better sail I have never experienced — a gracious introduction to the Gulf Stream few can rival.

“My biggest surprise thus far is how pleasant it has been,” said fellow-student Bennett, who divided his little free time between reading and celestial navigation drills. “I expected it to be more work, more rough weather.”

Nonetheless, aboard Halimeda, every action is difficult and grossly exaggerated. The boat is never level, and often you feel as though you live inside a tumble dryer. Sleep often is fitful and rarely comfortable. Sometimes I yearned for a level playing field; other times I wished the trip would never end.

Heavy weather

The weather forecast worsened on Day 4, just as our gimbaled stove jumped its track and dashed further thoughts of morning coffee and hot meals. Now 275 miles west of Bermuda, the forecast called for a low-pressure system that included gale-force gusts.

At 4 p.m. the wind began to howl and the seas jumped to 10 to 12 feet, with some as high as 15 feet. No one disputed that the heavy weather we all craved had arrived, but few seemed to welcome the onset.

Our midnight-to-4 a.m. watch under double-reefed mainsail and jib tri-sail was unnerving, like riding a 30,000-pound bronco destined to shake you from the saddle. Rogue waves worried me, as did gusts that could knock down a sailboat with surprising ease. All hatches were battened, and crewmembers emerged from the cabin adorned in full foul-weather gear with harnesses and tethers.

But it also was breathtaking to be at the helm of Halimeda. Intermittently a bronze moonlight would break through soupy clouds and expose thunderous seas that rolled with the regularity of a metronome.

“Now you can see how quickly the ocean can change,” Tursi told us as the heavy weather entered its second day.

Landfall in Bermuda

As quickly as the stiff weather arrived, it abated. Wednesday, our last day at sea, saw winds drop to below 10 knots and our speed a third as much.

We reflected on the lessons learned, including adroit use of a sextant, good log keeping and deft dead reckoning navigation skills; using a fore and aft guy to secure a jib whisker pole for lengthy wing-and-wing runs; the nuances of radar, and the deadly serious business of tracking and safely passing ships.

“The trip will help me immensely to become a better sailor by using the tips and techniques I learned,” Bennett said as we powered toward Bermuda. “I certainly will be a better-organized sailor. Now, I can see taking off for a season or so in the Caribbean or Tahiti.”

Land was first sited just before 3 p.m. We picked our way into the narrow channel to St. George, past the famed Dinghy Club and in the midst of a cavalcade of cruise ships filled with badly dressed tourists.

“It is the most unpleasant when you have no wind,” Tursi said as we neared the customs dock. “We had a nice combination, a variety of weather and enough of a challenge to see ocean sailing from many aspects. Many people say they want to see heavy weather. We did.”

Christopher Simpson is the owner of Simpson Communications LLC, a marketing, media and crisis communications firm with offices in Williamsburg, Va., Washington and Chicago. He and his wife are looking in the Annapolis area for a used sailboat, preferably a C&C, to sail on Chesapeake Bay and offshore.