|That's the back of a wave, not a scewed horizon
Sailing was now taking on a whole new dimension. We were often seeing 8-plus knots of speed.
The wind was howling in the rigging and the bow wave was so loud that we had to speak up but not quite holler.
The bow was hitting the seas very hard, charging through with tremendous power. If you’ve watched
the videos of the Whitbread races or the BOC/Volvo Challenges you saw footage of boats careening through
the sea, rolling from side to side in a wild sleigh ride. Had we had a video camera mounted on the mizzenmast you would have
seen the same thing.
We put up the enclosure so that we were protected from the windward (port)
side. Still, water in great abundance found its way into the cockpit; it was a very wet ride. We could no longer use the autopilot for steering because it could not handle the seas. We each took half-hour shifts
at the helm and worked very hard at it. But from the cockpit the boat seemed to be taking the wind and seas pretty
much in stride. Nothing looked or sounded particularly stressed. We did worry about the jib, however.
Without being able to reef it the sail was too big for this wind. It drove us hard, but we watched it closely
all through the night worrying that it might rip. Saturday we covered 173 miles.
boat the sensation was totally different. Bob hit the nail on the head when he said sleeping below was like trying
to sleep inside of a cement mixer. None of us had more than catnapped since the beginning of the trip, and now
sleeping was nearly impossible. Not only was the boat generally heeled 15-20 degrees, it was rolling and lurching
a great deal further because of the waves. As we sometimes rode around the face of a wave we broached and the
boat rolled onto her beam-ends. Despite all the hatches being closed water dripped in several places. With
the boat closed up to keep the water out the warm air and dampness made it dank below, while we made it smelly.
As the bow pounded into the waves, often at 8 and sometimes over 9 knots, it caused the boat to slam and
lurch, which in turned caused a cacophony of thumps, rumbles, snaps, creaks, and screeches from the hull and rigging.
The mast was a great conduit for rigging noises that ended up next to the ears of anyone trying to sleep in the main
cabin. With the irregular patterns of the waves there could be periods of quiet calm or really obnoxious pounding.
Below we could sense a lot of the wave action but almost none of the wind and very little of the changes in boat speed.
When the water from a crashing wave rained heavily over the deck, those below could hardly detect it except for the
soon-to-follow dripping water.
Sometimes, when heading up to
start a watch in the cockpit one noticed a stark contrast. Chris tapped me on the shoulder and in a low voice
reminding me that it was time for my watch. I got up, groped around on the floor for my T-shirt, wrung it out and put
it back on, found my life vest and tether, and headed up the companionway ladder. At the time it seemed we were moving
along at a relatively modest pace. I reached the cockpit and first notice the howling wind. Bob was fighting the
helm as torrents of water washed up along the leeward winches while a wave crashed simultaneously overhead. “Um,
wind picking up?” “Naw, ‘been building like this for a couple hours.” The reason for not
putting on a dry shirt would be apparent in a minute or so.
Using the head got to be a dreaded event.
It was on the port or uphill side of the boat, which meant that as a minimum one needed a hand to hold on, one to aim,
and one to keep the seat up. To use the sit-down option was to brace both feet against the door and pray
that it did not burst open.
Lon cautioned everyone that we were taking on water – not badly,
but we should check and pump the bilge every hour. He suspected that the stuffing box was leaking too much despite having just tightened it the day of the start. We later determined that it was a bilge-full an hour
that leaked in through the closed hatches and the mast.
On Sunday the wind moved up to 25, still out of
the northeast. A second boat reported a damaged rudder and was heading off the wind to Puerto Rico to take the
strain off the rudder. Overnight our masthead wind instrument sending unit blew first to one side, and then
off altogether. The word was that 30-plus was coming soon. The waves, now having had two solid days with
a fetch all the way from Portugal, were getting to the point that the view from the crests to the troughs left no doubt
about them being big. I wouldn’t want to fall that far. We concurred that 20-footers were frequent
and 25-footers were occasional.
Except for the increased scale of everything not much new
happened on Sunday. Lon went forward to tighten the halyard for the jib, which looked less likely to fail as a result.
While still there he was looking around and at us with a real pained look on his face. The three of us back in the cockpit
and out of earshot were conducting a game of Charades trying to figure what was wrong with Lon. Something is missing,
we thought. Ah, he had a winch handle a moment ago and it’s not there (pantomime of cranking winch). Lon
shook his head. He pointed to one of the dorade boxes; the vent was gone. Polished stainless - we now understood
Lon’s pain ($$). In all likelihood it had been gone for some time and we had just then noticed it.
at night, which was 13 hours long in November, was a big nuisance without the use of the wind instrument. We actually
relied on the compass, the masthead fly, and a flashlight to keep to the course with properly trimmed sails. That
must have qualified us as blue-water sailors right there! We sailed a whopping 178 miles for the day. That’s
24-hour average of 7.4 knots!
It was Monday, day 8. Imagine our delight when
we learned that we had only 300 miles to go! That delight was tempered, however, when we learned that one of the boats
had been dismasted. In a show of true sportsmanship another contestant, one of the catamarans, backtracked 67
miles to donate fuel and escort the stricken boat to Tortola under motor.
Our 30-35 knot
predicted wind was now here, although we could not confirm that directly without our departed wind indicator.
About 10 o’clock in the morning black clouds appeared in our path – a predicted squall line.
It’s funny how one’s perspective of these things changes when viewed in the circumstances. At home
the sight of a line squall would garner an immediate call to action and extreme shortening if not removal of sails.
We just sat there and relished the prospect of a freshwater rinse. When the squall hit it was probably only 10-15
knots stronger than what we were in already, so it did not seem such a big deal. One by one we all stuck our heads
and whatever we could out from behind the bimini enclosure and let the stinging rain pelt the salt off of us.
A second squall followed an hour later, after which we figured the jib would probably stay in one piece for the
rest of the race. We entered our last night and the wind slackened a little. Progress for the day: 170 miles.
On Tuesday the winds were back down to 20 (estimated) and gradually eased around more to the east.
As it did so we beat more into the waves, which caused enough pounding that we chose to fall off a bit. That caused
us to drift west of the rhumb line by about 12 miles – a problem now that we were only 45 miles from the finish.
We had to either head up and deal with the waves or tack over at some point. Our boat could probably point
better than most in this fleet, so we took advantage of that and started sailing it upwind like a dinghy, going for
lifts wherever we could. The helmsmen, still on half-hour stints, had to earn their keep.
Ho’ was called at 15:30. I crawled up from below expecting to see small lumps on the horizon, but Tortola
loomed large less than 20 mile away. A not-so-obvious haze must have been obscuring it until then. Boat
speed was a more sedate 6.5 knots and we were cruising nicely – no more pounding seas. We were also working
our way to windward pretty well. If we had to tack it would be a short one. We figured we would
around sunset and probably pretty well given where we thought the other boats were.
in the low side of the cockpit with my arm and head sticking out over the coaming, much like a train engineer, I stared
blankly at the bow wave while reflecting on all that we had been through. We, without a doubt, had just had the
most exhilarating sail of our lives, with it being unlikely that I’d ever experience a sail of this magnitude
again. I mean we not only sailed 1,300 miles nonstop, we sailed at hull speed and then some for four days,
round the clock, pressing the boat for all she was worth! That was absolutely thrilling. I actually had
mixed feeling about it coming to an end in a few hours. As for being blue water sailors, I’d say we earned
In all honesty the sailing was not especially difficult given that we were
on a beam reach most of the time. What fear we had was the anticipation that things would become dangerous,
especially at night. Things may have been on the edge at times but the boat never seemed in any real danger; it
stood solid. After all, this had not been a storm, more a string of windy days and a lot of big waves. None
of us had any serious sleep and yet, despite signs of fatigue we all felt pretty good. We all got along the entire
trip. In fact, I’d say the camaraderie and teamwork were noteworthy. Yes, I’d do this again
in a heartbeat!
We continued driving upwind enough to avoid a tack and crossed the finish line slightly
after 18:30 - 8 days and 6-1/2 hours after the start. A welcoming committee greeted us with champagne when
we reached the marina in Roadtown. We were tired and hungry and we smelled – badly, as did the inside of
El Niño. Bob showered as we motored to the marina while the rest of us decided that there was no point
in taking a shower only to turn in on salty wet sheets. What we craved most of all was to stand, sit or lie on
a horizontal surface. We ate a cooked meal on board, drank rum, slept soundly and saved the cleanup until
At the awards ceremony the following Friday we learned that our teamwork, attention to detail,
and probably carrying so much jib, paid off. We finished First in Class and a remarkable Third in Fleet.
We celebrated with Havana cigars and painkillers, courtesy of Mount Gay Rum.
While hanging around
for the awards ceremony we had a few days to put the boat back together and otherwise enjoy Tortola. Since before
the start Bob was bound and determined to find a place that would braid Lon’s zany hair into cornrows. With
our post-journey giddiness, Lon’s good spirit, and a couple of accommodating local women at a flea market,
we did manage to get Lon’s hair braided, although his hair was not quite long enough for cornrows.
Lon did insist on a caveat to his agreement to cooperate; thus, we all ended up with beads braided into our hair.
El Niño remained in the BVIs for the winter and Lon planned to be in the return rally in April, which went first to Bermuda and then to Newport. Yes, I was definitely on board.
1. This was the 16th running of the Caribbean 1500.
In its early years it had a layover in Bermuda, which we guess is why it’s called Caribbean 1500 rather than 1300. West Marine and Mount Gay Rum sponsor the event.
2. I spoke of two boats having
rudder troubles. Well before the wind kicked up another boat apparently struck something and damaged its rudderpost
housing enough to be taking on water. It made for the nearest point of land, Bermuda, and made it after
a harrowing ten days since Bermuda was upwind when the wind did come. A container ship passing nearby assisted
by donating some fuel.
3. The winners in all the classes were the ones who motored the least.
4. The luff tape on the jib had parted from the sail for about 5 feet down from the top.
It couldn't have lasted much longer.