The Long Way Back, Part Two - SailNet Community

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Old 11-27-2003
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James Baldwin is on a distinguished road
The Long Way Back, Part Two

This is the second in James Baldwin's three-part narrative on taking the long route from Venezuela to Brazil. Click here for Part One.


The author's idea behind taking the longer tradewind route was to avoid situations like this where winds come from forward of the beam.
Our roundabout route from Venezuela to Brazil meant that we would first sail due north toward Bermuda. After departing Margarita Island, we expected an easy beam reach through the Caribbean under the predominantly west-flowing tradewinds. To make this 5,500-mile delivery less of a grueling chore, Islander's owner suggested we stop for rest and fresh provisions at the islands lying near our planned track. We too were in no hurry and looked forward to visiting a few new islands en route.

The first leg was a perfect broad reach in 15 knot easterlies to low-lying Blanquilla Island 50 miles north of Margarita. The plucky Islander, with her modest 23-foot waterline thrilled us by averaging over six knots on the eight-hour passage, and the plastic squid we trailed snagged us a couple of mackeral for lunch. We use a fishing rig with 100-feet of 300-pound-test line connected to an elastic strap that absorbs the shock load from a heavy strike. Big fish are brought within gaff reach by winding them in on a sheet winch. Not sporting, but efficient.

The next day we explored Blanquilla's dry uninhabited western coast by foot. The powdery white beaches left us nearly snowblind. Hand in hand we floated over reefs as colorful and densely populated as a tropical aquarium. That night we shared a pair of tasty red snapper given to us by a friendly gang of Venezuelans who had passed by on a fishing boat.


Mei takes a break from the action to relax on the beach at Blanquilla Island.

Since afternoon an increasing easterly wind sent a demon swell curving around the end of the island into the anchorage. Normally this would send us into sleepless, heavy-rolling mode, but I defeated it by setting a second anchor to hold the stern into the swell. I always set a stern anchor at the first sign of cross swells, pointing either the bow or the stern into the waves.

Hopes for an effortless passage north were extinguished the next morning by a whistling 25-knot east-northeast wind. Leaping through confused seas with winds forward of the beam and water rolling over the steeply inclined deck brought a few previously undetected leaks to our attention. A port dripping over the head of my bunk and waves sloshing under the edge of the dodger and over the sliding hatch track to stream onto the foot of my bunk prompted me to retreat and spend the night wedged between two cushions on the cabin sole. My wife Mei at least had a dry bunk, but she regretted eating that leftover fish curry for breakfast.

Near land, one of us is always on watch in the cockpit, noting course, weather conditions, and any hazards to navigation. Offshore we keep less strict watches, relying on the Furuno radar's alarm to warn us of approaching vessels. By adjusting gain and sea-clutter sensitivity controls to eliminate false alarms, the unit worked dependably. I set the guard zone for an eight-mile radius and set the power save mode to sweep for 30 seconds every ten minutes.

"Attempting to retreive a person overboard is a poor alternative to keeping them attached to the boat in the first place."

The sole drawback to the Furuno is the two loud beeps it emits every ten minutes as it cycles on and off, interrupting sleep and thereby defeating the main benefit of radar on a shorthanded vessel. Mei found it easier than I to tune out those annoying beeps. When tired enough, I also slept through them. Still it seemed an idiotic feature in such an otherwise useful piece of safety equipment.

Even with two people onboard, we adopted my single-hander's habit of wearing a safety harness whenever we went on deck. Attempting to retreive a person overboard is a poor alternative to keeping them attached to the boat in the first place. What is the point of wearing a harness only during heavy weather when many crew are lost at sea after a missed step or getting clobbered by a sweeping boom during moderate conditions? I liken it to wearing a seat belt only when driving drunk.


Taking the long route to Brazil meant more distance, but it ensured fair winds and lots of sightseeing fun along the way.

The winds and seas gradually calmed as we neared Culebra Island near the eastern end of Puerto Rico. At dawn we were 40 miles shy of the anchorage with five knots of southeast wind. In these light conditions the Aries windvane tended to wander off course so I hand steered under spinnaker to make port before dark. The boredom of the tiller encouraged me to experiment until I found that by careful sail trim and by attaching a light elastic strap between the wind blade's counterweight and the main frame to act as a motion dampener, the windvane would steer in the lightest airs.

We stayed in the well-sheltered harbor of Culebra a few extra days to reseal the leaky ports and buy fresh provisions. As we left the island for the open North Atlantic, Mei caught a wahoo that she served up with a soy, garlic, and ginger sauce along with some rice. It was the last fish we would catch for many miles to come.

That afternoon as I wiggled into foul-weather gear prior to going on deck to tuck a reef in the main, I suddenly heard a loud motor. Simultaneously the radar alarm went berserk. I leapt on deck certain we were being rammed by a ship only to see a US Navy helicopter circling us. He moved in until the pilot and I were staring eyeball to eyeball and his rotor wash heeled us over sharply. Watching me hang vertically by my fingertips from the windward lifelines, he finally waved and flew away to the south. After a moment to calm frayed nerves, I completed the reef.


Islander's interior. When a boat with a 23-foot waterline starts logging six-knots on the open water, you can bet the ride down below gets an E-ticket rating.

Four days later we sailed out of the tradewinds into variable light winds and calms that persisted until we reached Bermuda. I eventually jerked the four-horsepower outboard motor from its sea berth in the cockpit locker and placed it in its specially constructed outboard well in the lazarette. We had enough fuel to motor for 24 hours. When we finally arrived in Bermuda there were only a few liters of fuel remaining.

Watching Polaris rise higher in the sky each night as we made our sluggish way north reminded me that ever since GPS made everyone an instant navigator, my sextant languished forgotten in its box. I had good intentions. At the beginning of each passage I promised myself I'd take a few sights to keep in practice. Of course, I never did. One calm afternoon, Mei, who is new to offshore sailing, asked me how to use the sextant. Unable to find an excuse, I pulled the venerable Freiberger from its moldy wooden box, cleaned it up, and corrected its mirror alignment errors.


A long passage offers the perfect excuse for taking the sextant out of its box to hone your celestial navigation skills.
I gave Mei two minutes of instruction on bringing the sun's lower limb to kiss the horizon while rocking the sextant in a pendulous arc. She nervously took her first sight and then I took one. I worked out my sight and laid down a line of position within three miles of our GPS-derived position. I explained that three miles is pretty good accuracy and that she should not be discouraged if her first sight was way off target. She nodded in due respect to her ancient mariner mentor and then looked wide-eyed in excitement as I plotted her sight, which crossed directly over our actual position. She said, "It's really so simple!" I claimed it was a fluke because of the unusually calm sea. Then I humbly packed away the sextant; probably for a very long time.

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