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An Offshore Training Passage

When Mother Nature and King Neptune turn on their collective furies, even the best-equipped boat and crew will  be put through the paces.
"I am going to have to charge extra for this hail storm," I shouted at the crew, "this is more than I promised in the original course packet." The course packet had become the butt of many jokes during the past ten days, primarily because I had failed to actually send them out to the crew. "I hope we arrive soon, the costs are really going up," grumbled Craig. "Let's see, we’ve had a lot of extras, there was sail stitching in a Gulf Stream squall, diesel lift pump repair with fuel siphoning thrown in, and of course, all that hand steering after the autopilot died. These things are virtually priceless."

Craig’s Canadian sense of humor, which is sardonic by national decree, was holding him in good stead as we lumbered north from Antigua. He was one of four paying crew members who joined me, just last week in fact, to help deliver a Hylas 49 sloop up to Solomon’s Island Maryland. The opportunity to make a 1,600-mile blue-water passage and see what an offshore delivery was all about seemed worth the price of admission last winter as they sat mulling over the single paragraph e-mail I had sent. The lure of the ocean is hard to resist, especially from the comfort of your favorite easy chair. Why not make a passage, they e-mailed back, signing on as crew.

For some, the first days of any offshore passage are likely spent in various states of adjusting the inner equilibrium.
And yes, I think they’d all agree, they did get their money’s worth. Although we completed the passage in a respectable 10.5 days, nothing quite went the way I promised, making it a real learning experience. (I can just hear the collective groans as they read that sentence.) They were lucky enough to encounter a weird aberration in the normal prevailing winds and a rash of mechanical breakdowns.

Of course my promises were verbal only, delivered in the cockpit as we cleared Jolly Harbor on the lee side of island. I am not very reliable at assembling and mailing out detailed information packages, complete with course outlines and what-to-bring lists. I provide a minimum amount of information, (remember your passport and foul weather gear) and stress that spontaneity and open-mindedness are the keys to coping with a long passage. A sense of humor and the ability to use hand tools are useful as well.

Over the years I have converted many deliveries into what I euphemistically call, training passages. This past year I have turned that concept into a mini business, offering four different passages. These trips provide sailors with the opportunity to make a blue water voyage and allow me to give the boat owner a break on the delivery fee, a so called, win/win situation. It is trail by fire, these passages are the real thing. They are run to a fairly tight schedule and regardless of experience level, everybody is expected to pull their weight. Surprisingly, they always do. It is hard to explain, but there is something about being trapped in a 50-foot floating cell that brings out the best in people. It is also a good way to make enduring friendships.

A background in racing helps when it comes to open ocean passages. Even two-tenths of a knot difference in boat speed adds up over time.
In addition to Craig, who sails a CS 30 on Lake Huron, there was John, Glen and Bob. John sails his S2 9.2 with his wife out of Holland, MI, and is one of those people who, as EB White put it,  "waking or sleeping, dreams of boats." Glen lives in Dallas but keeps his Brewer designed Morgan 38 in Northeast Harbor, ME. A long time friend, we have talked about sailing together for years. Bob, a repeat victim, I mean customer, is a software designer. He also has a rigging business and crews on different boats out of Milwaukee. He is contemplating the big plunge into boat ownership. Experience levels ranged from Glen’s many Mackinaw and ocean races to Craig’s day sailing on the lake.

Blending the crew into a cohesive sailing team is a challenge and something that can’t be rushed. Glen has a racer’s instincts, he trims sail relentlessly. John has a cruiser’s mentality, he enjoys each moment as it unfolds. He marveled as Glen tweaked the sheets, dumped the traveler, and constantly asked for telltale feedback. His labors, however, invariably added boat speed and even two-tenths of a knots adds up during a long voyage. Craig battled seasickness early on, but once he found his sea legs, was game for any task and kept us laughing with a biting wit. Bob, the youngest crew member, is a terrific shipmate. An electrical engineer by training and he tackled each new repair project with humor and logic, a good combination.

"I had hoped to shift from dual person watches to solo watches at some point during the passage, but helming demands precluded that. There is magic in your first midnight watch, alone with the stars and your thoughts. Unfortunately that magic was mine alone..."
Super Chief is a 1993 Hylas 49, well equipped and a veteran of many ocean passages. I have delivered her down and back to the islands many times. All in all, I have put more 12,000 miles under her keel. Unfortunately, she picked this passage to act up. Early on the generator failed, triggering a domino effect with lasting repercussions. By the time Bob and I tracked the problem down to a faulty lift pump, it was too late to save most of the food in the refrigerator. You see, the engine drive compressor wasn’t working so we relied on the 110-volt refrigeration system powered by the generator. Before Craig helped me set up a jury rigged, gravity fed day tank, most of the fresh meat had to be jettisoned. It was sad to watch steak, chicken, and pork chops go over the side, but I was thankful that I had stocked up on canned goods. I always load enough non-refrigerated provisions aboard to feed the crew, but the meals certainly lose their luster.

The much ballyhooed trade winds petered out just a day north of Antigua. We were forced to motor to keep moving, and I nervously watched our fuel supply shrink. We sailed at every opportunity and all were thankful for Glen’s determination to keep the boat moving. The truth is, in absolute terms, racers are better sailors than the rest of us. Ironically, we finally found some wind where you are least likely to, in the horse latitudes.

It was just in time for the autopilot to fail. I don’t expect any reader sympathy, after all we did have five able-bodied seaman aboard, but constant hand steering changes the dynamics of a passage. I had hoped to shift from dual person watches to solo watches at some point during the passage, but helming demands precluded that. There is magic in your first midnight watch, alone with the stars and your thoughts. Unfortunately that magic was mine alone, as our watch schedule of three hours on and six hours off, paired Glen and Craig, and Bob and John. Bob and I did our best to repair the autopilot, removing the drive from the quadrant. The linear arm was seized and Bob eventually traced the problem to the electro magnetic clutch, not an easy thing to fix at sea.

John and Bob were both reading Linda Greenlaw’s superb memoir, The Hungry Ocean and they realized that our misfortunes were preordained. We had violated many serious superstitions. First and foremost, we had taken pork aboard. According to Greenlaw, fishermen never take pork products to sea, in fact it's taboo to even mention the word pig. Why, well because pigs can’t swim. That makes as much sense as most superstitions. Dumping the pork chops over the side didn’t help, I guess because contrary to popular belief, there is actually some form of pork by-product in the cans of Spam I had stashed in the emergency rations. Secondly, we had also had bananas aboard, which simply isn’t done. We did avoid leaving port of Friday, a notorious bad omen by deliberately waiting until Saturday morning, but there was nothing we could do about Super Chief’s Awlgripped topsides. Greenlaw claims that blue is an unlucky color for a boat.

A breakdown out here puts a premium on the crew's own mechancial and electrical skills.
Just when it looked like we were going to run out of fuel and drift aimlessly at sea, the gods took pity on us and a fresh southwest wind emerged. The last three days of the passage offered spirited sailing and a revival in our spirits. John plotted an accurate celestial fix and the crew even complimented me when I mixed canned corned beef in with the Ragu sauce. Things were looking up.

A day out of the Chesapeake we crossed the Gulf Stream. Although it wasn’t overly choppy, it was easy to tell we were in the stream, the water temperature shot up more than eight degrees. West of the current we came on soundings, the water turned gray and suddenly, it was obvious that we were near the coast, we had transitioned from an offshore passage into coastal sailing, and the end was near. We approached the mouth of the Chesapeake in the dark. After a brief fueling stop in Little Creek, a convenient harbor just inside the Bay, we charged north. I dismissed a warning from the dock attendant that a storm was brewing. "It’s gonna blow 50 knots," he said. "It never blows 50 knots on the bay," I told the crew, adding, "don’t listen to that nonsense."

We flew up the Bay, reaching before a gathering SW breeze. Just past the Potomac River, the wind died. Starting the motor, I grumbled, "50 knots, yea right."

The front hit us a couple hours later. A classic line of thunderstorms formed in the west. The ridge of dark clouds was majestic and terrifying, angry atmospheric energy was just waiting to explode. And explode it did. Bang! Less than 20 miles from our destination we got popped. First the rain, then the wind, and then the hail. 35, 45, 55 knots —it was howling. As the hail ricocheted off the boat, Glen noted with only a trace of sarcasm, "At least we finally have some ice for our drinks." These guys were ready to call themselves offshore sailors.

Suggested Reading:

Avoiding and Surviving Rig Failures by John Kretschmer

A Nearly Doomed Delivery by John Kretschmer

Safety Precautions Underway by Liza Copeland

Buying Guide: Autopilots

John Kretschmer is offline  
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