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Cruising - Trans-Atlantic log

Editor’s note: The following excerpts are from Ken Williams’ book, “Crossing an Ocean Under Power,” which is his account of the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally two years ago.

Editor’s note: The following excerpts are from Ken Williams’ book, “Crossing an Ocean Under Power,” which is his account of the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally two years ago. What started off as a series of daily e-mails to Williams’ family and friends eventually turned into a 274-page book. (Visit to order a copy.) Prior to the rally, Ken, a “happily retired” software entrepreneur, and his wife, Roberta, had done a lot of dayboating, but very little cruising. They viewed the rally as a chance to acquire valuable offshore experience aboard their 62-foot Nordhavn, Sans Souci, while cruising in the company of more seasoned boaters.

Read the other story in this package: Cruising in company

Day 1: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

My suspicion is that most people were reading my e-mails because they were curious to see if we were going to sink. It's something like cars slowing down to look as they pass an accident.

If the people at our dinner table last night are any indication, there is a lot of boating experience here. Roberta and I felt like total wimps. We have spent a lifetime on boats, but in small bursts. Other than one three-day trip that I had participated on when Sans Souci was first delivered, we've never done a run of more than eight hours.

Roberta and I have taken Sans Souci to virtually every port and island in Puget Sound and the south of France — with just the two of us. But these are always day trips, done when the weather looks calm. I describe myself as a person who likes boating for the anchoring, not the boating. I like being anchored in some bay, just off a remote island, tendering ashore from time to time, having dinner (and perhaps some wine) on the back deck, swimming, playing with my computer, etc. That's my idea — or was my idea — of boating.

But Roberta and I wanted to stretch ourselves. That’s why we’re just days away from leaving Fort Lauderdale on the first leg of our trans-Atlantic crossing.

Day 15: In Bermuda

The next leg of our journey (Bermuda to the Azores) is the one that worries me most. We've spoken to several people who have done the crossing recently and all experienced flat seas. What concerns me is the overwhelming distance — 1,800 miles is nothing in an airplane, and not even much of a drive. But for a small boat it's a serious distance. The smaller boats will be at sea for a full two weeks, and we'll be out for 11 days.

Our crew is dropping from eight persons to seven. Many of the boats are running with four or five, so I’m not complaining. Kirk White, who works for Nordhavn builder Pacific Asian Enterprises, will be joining us. It’s clear watching him in action that he knows the boat’s systems better than almost anyone. He will be a huge positive for us.

Day 24: 240 miles east of Bermuda

With each mechanical problem that occurs on Sans Souci, I've asked myself whether or not I could have fixed it had Roberta and I been on the boat alone. Thus far, the one that scares me is the alternator problem. Would I have been able to figure out where the smoke was coming from before it caught fire? Maybe. Would I have known how to take it out of the system and continue the voyage? Probably not. Unless we could have contacted someone at the manufacturer who could do some real-time diagnosing by sat phone, I think we could have been turning back. Or worse. Luckily, Dan Streech of Nordhavn was on board and solved the problem.

This is an issue Roberta and I discuss often. We still have a lot of the world to visit aboard Sans Souci. The fact of the matter is that I am a retired software entrepreneur. I'm a software guy, not a hardware guy. If I can press a button or write some code to fix a problem, I'm fine. But when the electric meters and torque wrenches come out, I start to sweat.

My “fix” for this has been to duplicate all systems aboard ship. We have two engines, two radars, two generators, two GPS units, two watermakers, two autopilots, two VHF radios, two fuel filters, two water filters, etc. Do you see a pattern here? My primary repair strategy has always been to flip to the backup when needed, and this has served me through thousands of miles of cruising.

The right answer is to force myself to become a diesel mechanic and develop a strong understanding of electrical systems. I'm smart and will learn quickly, but even smart people can't learn without making a concerted effort. Aside from this trip, and until that day when I can honestly look in the mirror and see someone who could have diagnosed and replaced the alternator, my sense is that I'd like to confine my voyages to no more than eight to 12 miles from shore when Roberta and I are traveling alone.

I'm not sure I'll ever be fully self-sufficient. I've been watching Rip Knot [a skipper who has helped Williams run Sans Souci on occasion] and Kirk White in action. The odds that I'll ever possess their mechanical skills are somewhat comparable to the odds that they will ever be able to master computers or spreadsheets at my level. The question is: Where does one draw the line to have a safe boating experience? What level of competence is needed, and what level is reasonable to expect?

Day 33: We're in Horta!

Sans Souci is safely in the marina here at Horta [in the Azores], after traversing 1,880 miles of ocean non-stop. I received an e-mail asking whether Roberta and I would now be willing to make this trip again, without the rally. The answer is yes, to the extent that we had someone along who was a skilled mechanic. I am not at the same level as most of the owners here. I can handle filter changes and oil changes, and perhaps even bleeding the lines. But diagnosing any type of serious electrical problem or fixing a leaking hydraulic system is over my head. Even with the wing engine as a backup, I wouldn't feel comfortable. However, this trip has definitely expanded what I would feel comfortable doing. I remember worrying about 10-hour runs in 15-knot winds. This sounds like a milk run now. Roberta and I wouldn't hesitate to undertake a 24- or 48-hour run.

Although I would be nervous to cross an ocean alone, I suspect that mine is a minority opinion. I haven't spoken with everyone about their plans, but most of those whom I have spoken to are in no hurry to go home. Some see this as the first leg of a circumnavigation. Others plan on cruising the Med for a few years before deciding where to go next.

The crossing was an amazing learning experience. At the start, Roberta and I were nervous at the idea of not seeing land. At the conclusion, we felt confident enough to tackle a four-day crossing of the Med essentially alone. We are now planning a crossing of the Pacific and have started talking about circumnavigating.

Epilogue: Williams has spent the last two years studying marine electronics, weather, diesel repair and more. He also received a Yachtmaster Coastal certificate from International Yachtmaster Training. Williams says he now is “50 times” the skipper he was, but still believes anyone crossing an ocean alone is taking an unnecessary risk. While he is waiting for his new Nordhavn 68 to be completed, Williams is looking for others to cross the Pacific with him and his wife in 2008.