Offshore: Know your boat, be prepared

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Fresh off his first Bermuda One-Two, Soundings senior writer Doug Campbell reflects on his experience

Fresh off his first Bermuda One-Two, Soundings senior writer Doug Campbell reflects on his experience

As my Westsail 32, Robin, worked her way toward Bermuda, there were times when I asked myself what I was doing out there, alone in the night and a long way from shore. I didn’t note these times in the logbook, but they are etched in my memory. I was telling myself never to forget — and never again to go so far from the safety and comfort of land.

There also were times my heart swelled with joy — when Robin was cruising on a beam reach at hull speed but also when the sun rose or set. And it happened on that clear night when the stars were reflected nearly perfectly by the calm sea as if I were riding inside a dark sphere, lighted everywhere by starshine.

I did not — and could not — anticipate these experiences or myriad others. What I did predict was that racing in the 635-mile Bermuda One-Two in June — single-handed from Newport, R.I., to St. George’s, Bermuda, and double-handed on the return — would improve my seamanship skills. It did that and much more.

Sailing solo was the key. With no crew, every decision was mine to make and the success or failure of the voyage was entirely up to me. Options that are ever-present close to land evaporated. I had to sail the darned boat, like it or not. And this is where Robin became the teacher and I her only student. The first lesson came the first night out of Newport. Caught in a dead calm off of Block Island for six hours, I struggled to stay awake. There was a tug with barge off to the west, and it showed up on my radar. I kept track of the tug as it appeared to draw closer. I made a couple of radio calls, with no response.

Then I took a 20-minute nap. When I awoke, the tug was within a mile and headed right for my drifting sailboat. I got on the radio again, this time switching to channel 13. Irritated, the tug captain said he had been trying to call me for an hour on channel 16. We avoided a collision, and then the lesson came into focus. When the race started, the competitors were communicating with the race committee on channel 72. I had never switched back to channel 16, so all my calls to the tug were evaporating into the night.

The next lesson came a little more than 24 hours later when, after midnight, I had to go forward in building seas. I admit that I hesitated. I had been cat-napping in the cockpit as Robin sailed herself on a downwind run. Twice earlier the mainsail had jibed with a lot of unnecessary banging around. I knew I had to shorten sail and put a preventer on the boom to eliminate the gybes. I knew, in theory, how to shorten sail under way; in practice, I had always luffed the mainsail to tie in a reef. But I couldn’t luff going downwind, and I didn’t want to turn up and into the wind and waves.

I was surprised how easily the theory translated into practice. As the wind pressed against the Dacron, I eased the main halyard, and the sail slid gently down its mast track. I cranked in the first reef on the deck-mounted winch, and in no time, sweaty from the exertion, I was safely back in the cockpit.

By my seventh night at sea, when I needed to go forward in gale-force winds off Bermuda to tie two reefs in the main, I did the job with confidence. I found myself working on the foredeck as wind-driven rain streaked horizontally over Robin’s deck. I was calm and actually thrilled to be handling the situation with competence.

Later that night, unable to see my surroundings even on the radar, I hove-to. Robin settled into a 1-knot drift away from Bermuda’s reefs, and I went to sleep in the comfort of the lee berth. I awoke after dawn, fully refreshed. I raised the mainsail with two reefs and resumed my voyage. Within an hour, I was sailing on a course toward the finish line, hand-steering because the winds — 15 to 20 knots — had raised a steep beam sea, and I didn’t want to stress the autopilot. Soon, Robin was screaming along at 7.5 knots, and the headlands of Bermuda were in sight.

The lessons for any type of sailing that I learned from competing in the Bermuda One-Two fall into two seamanship categories: Preparation and boat handling.

Preparation

The boat: Every system on board gets used when you are cruising, whether along the coast, in a great bay or offshore. One of the Bermuda One-Two competitors lost battery power the second day out of Newport, the reason unclear. The impact was enormous. He had no autopilot, no on-board electronics, no navigation lights. He had to hand-steer the boat about 500 miles, an exhausting ordeal. And at night, he was at the mercy of the radar on the many ships crisscrossing his course. Another vessel lost its carbon-fiber mast, apparently due to fatigue. Other boats lost halyards. Some sails were torn. So the order of the day when preparing for a long voyage includes plenty of backup: a windvane in case the autopilot fails, spare sheets and halyards, lots of engine filters and belts.

The crew: Preparation for a long voyage should include an assessment of your human abilities, including your ability to stand watch. In other words, you need to know how to manage your sleep. I found practicing this very difficult except when I was sailing, so my recommendation would be to get in as much sailing — and sleeping aboard — as possible. You also need to know that you have the physical strength and agility for the job. I work out daily when I’m on land. That helped when I needed to dance across the foredeck in a 10-foot chop or spend long spells grinding my too-small winches to set the sails.

Boat handling

The best advice I received before the race included these two comments: reef early, and know your boat. Boat handling is dependent to some extent on the boat. Robin, at 19,500 pounds and with a full keel, is very stable and very comfortable when things get rough. She goes where I point her. A lighter boat with a smaller keel will face boat-handling issues that I avoided.

On any boat, you will be confronted with a range of information on which to base your boat handling, and for me, this was the biggest lesson to be learned. On the return trip from Bermuda, my wife, Monica, and I were approaching the Gulf Stream, which we wanted to cross on a course of due north, magnetic. Our two GPS receivers said that’s where we were headed. The compass said we were sailing northwest. We were making only about 2.5 knots, and I was confused, since we had decent wind and should have been making about 5 knots.

The answer presented itself late in the afternoon, when the sun settled toward the west-northwest horizon, confirming that the compass — not the electronic gadgets — was telling the truth. We turned and began clocking 4.5 to 5 knots once we were no longer bucking the Gulf Stream current.

The lesson: Look at all the factors, then use your own good judgment in choosing your course. The machines can be wrong. But you’ll never be wrong when you decide to leave the dock, prepared in body and boat.