After a year's hard work that carried me from my Connecticut home as far as New Zealand, it seemed only right to take some time off. By early November my two new books—one a history of a yacht club, the other a collection of classic photos titled Sleek
—were published or on their way to it, while piles of encyclopedia articles and book reviews had been written, and a string of speaking engagements was coming to an end. I was eager for the sea, and it was time to get some blue water behind me. When the chance came to help deliver a boat from New England to the Virgin Islands, I grabbed it.
Capella IX, a Hylas 54 that summers in Portland, MA, and winters at Tortola, springs from the new generation of shorthanded but fully appointed all-out cruisers. A big engine, a generator, 240 gallons of fuel support, and an array of amenities that old Yankee salts like myself have long considered dubious but that, when finally experienced, really seem pretty nice. There's a toaster, a microwave, a freezer, a satellite telephone, a trash compactor, a watermaker, bow thrusters, a heater/air conditioner, and electric winches. They provided satisfactions like the poached eggs that skipper Toby Tobin, with a glow of delight, created one morning in the microwave. Who would deny a crew the pleasure of ice cream on the last night before reaching Tortola?
We were thinking safety well before casting off. Toby had already sent out a checklist in which he assigned duties. The four of us would stand two-man watches—four hours-on/four-off from 1800 to 0600, and six-on/six-off during daylight. Meals came at watch changes, the old watch cooking and the new one cleaning up. I was a watch captain and the appointed bosun, my watchmate Harry Wilmerding was ship's doctor, Tom Upham was engineer, and Toby (who used to navigate America's Cup boats) was navigator and in overall command.
Before leaving Portland, we carefully talked through crewoverboard, dismasting, holing, and other emergency procedures. We agreed without any debate that, even though our ship was big and her center cockpit was far from the water, we would wear and clip on safety harnesses when on deck at all times. To keep people away from the rail, we also agreed to use the toilets below so as to avoid the risk of being flipped overboard while fumbling with zippers.
We gradually made known our physical requirements, which were not all that onerous because the crew, with an average age of 63, was in good condition. Toby covers 10,000 miles a year in his own and others' boats. Harry, who roomed with Toby at Yale and often joins his deliveries, has played vigorous ice hockey since his youth on black ice at the remote New England rural school that I also attended. As for the two relative youngsters, Tom (another delivery veteran) is a former Olympic-caliber cross-country skier and works at a ski area in Maine, and I (the new boy in the crew) try to fit some running, hiking, and sailing around punching the computer keys.
We left Portland on November 12, and with a grim forecast for steep front and northwest gales, we decided not to head offshore but power through the Cape Cod Canal. As we powered fast across Massachusetts Bay, the National Weather Service's repeated, loud warnings of 50-knot winds and 30-foot seas kept us plenty alert. So we were happy to hole up in South Dartmouth, better known as Padanaram (see Genesis 28), where, securely lashed to a slip at the Concordia yard by a web of dock lines, we stared at a fearful, scuddy sky.
It took two days for the breeze to finally ease below 40, and then we were off and headed toward the tropics, though you wouldn't know it from the sub-freezing temperature or our Michelin-Man style bulk. My many layers included two sets of long johns, helmsman's gloves with silk inserts, a balaclava, and a salopette—a bib-type apparel somewhat like snow pants that marvelously insulates the legs and torso. In over a day of fresh following winds and a rough sea, Harry peaked at 14.3 knots and we averaged a solid nine under deeply-reefed mainsail and either staysail or reefed genoa jib, with a preventer holding out the boom and running backstays set up to keep the middle of the mast from pumping.
With the strenuous loads of such a hefty, well-canvassed boat in even a moderate breeze, the big electric primary cockpit winches were crucial to our happiness. Jib sheets led there, as did roller-furler lines and the controls for the Leisure Furl system, which rolls up the mainsail inside the boom. Reefing and unreefing the mainsail quickly requires practice, good timing, and a sure hand at the helm, since the boat has to be luffing almost dead into the wind for the gadget to work cleanly. We found that setting sail was relatively easy so long as the halyard was on the big winch, but rolling in a reef often required someone to go forward to guide the sail into the boom.
As we learned the boat's and our shipmates' considerable capabilities, we settled into a happy ship's routine—catching up on sleep and reading, making new friends, learning new jokes, coming up with ingenious new meals. As the breeze slowly died, we commenced motorsailing. Having lost two days against an expected 10-day trip, we had time and distance to catch up if we were to get home for Thanksgiving. The Gulf Stream was satisfyingly warm as the water temperature lept from 55 to 80 in a day, and it was also unusually glassy and near-empty of wildlife, with just two schools of dolphins. After 90 hours under way, one dark night we curved around Bermuda's treacherous reefs and slipped into St. George's for a short stay. We topped up the tanks, provisioned, made a thorough inspection, had a pleasant lunch, visited St. Peter's Church, and were away the in late afternoon.
We headed out in a moderate northeaster that, according to the weather guys, would soon be transformed into a fine northwester to push us all the way to the Virgins. It never came, and though we had some modest trade winds, we motorsailed for four and a half days, almost all the way to Tortola—more than 850 miles straight at close to eight knots under the great Orion, lying on his side in the southern sky. We could have sailed, but more slowly, and there were promises to keep back home.
Once in the Virgins, we celebrated the end of a fine voyage by anchoring in a cove and taking the afternoon off with a swim, a beer, and a nap. We were full of thanksgivings, but the real Thanksgiving called, in my case one full of wonderful family news. Among life's passages, an ocean voyage under sail in a good ship with good shipmates is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding, but there are others.