Four members of our yacht club participated in the 2005 Caribbean 1500 Rally, a race from Hampton
Virginia to Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and a distance of 1,300 miles across open ocean. The ultimate
blue-water experience turned out to be something we won’t forget as weather conditions made for a
tale to be told.
The only words we needed to hear were British Virgin Islands, November, and sailing.
Bagshaw, Chris Jacques and I could hardly resist the invitation from Lon Sherman to crew for him in his first attempt
to participate in this long-distance rally where 51 sailboats vied to be the first to reach Tortola.
It was called a rally, rather than a race, because the intention is to get all of the boats to the destination within a certain time limit. Motors were allowed, but with substantial penalty. Boats
were handicapped based on a combination of PHRF ratings and motor capacity; whenever possible it was better to sail.
For us we calculated that if we could make anything much over 3.5 knots under sail we’d sail.
To our dismay we were one of the “little” boats in the fleet. El Niño, Lon’s 42-foot
Hinckley and arguably a candidate for Fleet Queen at the AYC, was in the company of 50 and 60-foot monohulls and
sea-going multihulls. We were in the fifth of five classes.
The race started at noon on Monday, November
7th in light air. It was here that we got our first inkling that this race was not to be the kind we were used
to. While jockeying for position on starboard tack a minute or so before the start we saw two boats bearing down rather quickly across our bow. They were on port tack, no, neither tack; their sails were slack.
They were charging for the line under motor! The rules didn’t specify that you couldn’t, and the race
committee simply waved bon voyage, so I guess it was OK to do that!
The first fifteen
or so miles were at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay and once we crossed the Bay Bridge Tunnel we were in the
Atlantic Ocean, heading a course of 160°, the rhumb line to Tortola. Soon the wind died altogether and everyone
motored. The weather forecast for the next couple of days: light and variable winds out of the northwest.
Already, fuel consumption was becoming a concern.
We settled into a rotating routine where each person aboard
was assigned a day duty. There was the cook, the dishwasher, the boat cleaning person, and the Watch Captain for
the day. Watches consisted of two people, four hours on - four off, during the night hours,
and a looser schedule during daylight hours. Twice a day at 7:30 we tuned in our single sideband radio and reported
our 6 o’clock position, weather observation, and motor propulsion time to the race officials and the rest of the
fleet. Lon carefully charted this info to keep tabs on our competition.
We motored for all but 9 of
the first 48 hours, with the autopilot doing the steering. The weather reports kept promising strong winds that
never seemed to materialize. Meals were the highlight of the day and we ate well and comfortably in the cockpit. The air was warm and the skies were clear, giving us spectacular views of the stars at night. As we approached the Gulf Stream
the water turned a deep blue and pods of bottlenose dolphins entertained us as they jumped in unison and
played around the boat.
We made 133 miles on Tuesday, our first full day as we crossed the Gulf Stream. The current
in the Stream held our true speed to about a knot and a half less than our boat speed. On Wednesday we caught
the favorable side of a large eddy off the Gulf Stream that boosted our distance to 150 miles.
Lon plotted our positions on the chart several times a day the enormity of our journey began to sink in.
Each plot moved us about a quarter inch along a line that went across three feet of white space, making me thankful
that my appendix was already gone. The ocean depths ran between 16 and 17 thousand feet! From listening to the
radio reports and the conversations between commercial ships and those of us caught in their radar it became easy
and natural to think in terms of latitude and longitude rather than miles. Lat-Lon also gave us a good feel for
where other boats were.
We watched the true wind speed constantly, wishing it to go above 8 knots (from behind us) so that we could sail.
So far, we had only been able to sail for short periods of time when the wind usually died again. At least
we were diligent about sailing whenever we could, which helped our racing position. Before dawn on Thursday
the wind cropped up a little from the southwest and we finally got moving on starboard tack. By late morning
the wind had veered around to the north-northeast and we sailed under the spinnaker, main, mizzen, and a staysail. We weren’t screaming, but it was beautiful sailing. At least we had now seen our last day where
we used the motor for propulsion. Thursday’s progress because of the up-and-down wind was marginal at 136
Friday brought more steady winds from the north at 15. During the day it increased to
about 20, veering toward the northeast. Friday night was when things started to really percolate.
Not only was the wind getting stronger, the waves were really building. We took our first big wave over the bow,
which dumped water through the open cabin hatch onto sleeping Bob and Chris, causing them to report promptly for their
10PM watch - sputtering. The timing was perfect.
We had a couple of new concerns.
One, it was night and we could not see the waves very well. Two, we had the 135% genoa up, rolled up a few turns
along with the double-reefed main, but it was not the right jib for the conditions. We had a 110% aboard but
decided to let things ride for the night since nighttime deck maneuvers would have been risky. But now we
were really moving: 170 miles for the day. Because of the rolling seas meals were reduced to simple sandwiches
and heat-and-serve dishes.
At Saturday morning’s radio roll call we learned that one of the boats
had lost most of its rudder. That boat finished the race by using a drogue and a jury-rigged bridle. Now
that’s blue water sailing! Although we were seeing winds mostly around 20 knots, others were reporting
up to 30. The fleet had spread out around 400 miles by now, and there was something ominous in the forecast.
A large high-pressure area had formed over the Chesapeake and the winds were now forecast to increase to 30 to 35 knots
out of the northeast, and last for several days. We had to change that jib, better sooner than later.
This was going to require all hands. We waited until after breakfast to haul out the 110, our smallest jib short
of the storm jib. It should have been of heavier cloth than the 135 so we could reef it more aggressively without
injuring the sail. But we first had to get the 135 down. Chris tended sheets, Bob held the boat into the
wind and waves using the motor, Lon went to the mast, and lucky yours truly went to the bounding bow. A 135 jib
on a 42-foot boat is huge. In that much wind it took everything we had to get it down, move it aft, and
shove it below. It would later take over an hour to roughly flake it, roll it into a big ball and lash it behind
the mizzenmast. There was just nowhere else we could put it.
A bigger problem arose when we
raised the 110. We got it up without too much of a fuss but we took it down again in order to better arrange the
sheets and blocks. After sorting those out we raised the jib again only to have the leader at the
sail head break when it got near the top. We pulled the jib down a second time, leaving the upper swivel of the
roller furler at the masthead still attached to the busted leader. Using the spinnaker halyard we hoisted
the jib again and we were on our way. However, without the roller furler it was no longer possible to reef in
the jib, which actually seemed no heavier than the 135. So we hadn’t gained anything and we were probably
worse off than if we had stayed with the 135. At least I appreciated my many dunkings while at the bow because
the water was warm and I hadn’t had a shower since Wednesday.
While we were changing
the jib another boat passed us about a third of a mile away. Even at that short distance we rarely got a glimpse
of the hull; more often we could see only the top half of the mast. We therefore must have been getting into some
serious waves. I’m a marketing guy so I may tend to fluff things, but I’d guess we were seeing 10-12 footers.
An interesting thing about the waves: they were big, sure, but they were anything
but organized. They were nothing like what we normally see near shore – generally long rows with some
sort of cadence to their motion. The waves offshore were individual peaks that sprung out of nowhere, got big
really quickly, some crested and broke, but most died fairly soon after traveling maybe 150 yards or so. The odd
thing was that if a wave looked like it was about to slam into the boat, it probably wouldn’t, at least not usually. It would die before it reached us. The ones that hit the boat were the ones that sprung up under
it or very close to it, making it hard to see it in time to brace for the next drenching. They seemed to be both
quartering from behind and coming in from forward of abeam. Two waves would sometimes hit each other, causing
their joined peaks to burst and form a resemblance to a blowing volcano. Except for the rocking and rolling and making it a headache to steer, the waves, for the most part, were not such a threat to the boat. It just
took a couple of days of living with them to figure that out.
By Saturday night we had had our last hot
meal, Dinty Moore beef stew. The wind and increasingly heavy seas forced us down to Granola bars, candy, pretzels,
and whatever we could scrounge. We were bouncing around and moving very quickly now.