I went to bed at 4AM and had the best sleep while under way ever. Knowing that Poppi, Chris and Casey were at the helm was very reassuring. The seas were still calm, so I was able to sleep in the forward berth. Having it all to myself, I sprawled out to the fullest extent. What a treat!
[Chris here... notice a pattern here? This was the start of both Poppi's and my sleep deprivation. Overnight we passed by the base of Delaware River, a major shipping channel. When Poppi first came on watch he commented that he couldn't see a ship to our right on the radar
. I hit the "Zoom Out" button, and all of a sudden FIVE ships popped up on radar
. After talking to Poppi and Casey after I slept for a couple of hours, they said they were glad when we were past the shipping lanes!]
Hunger and waves woke me up on Tuesday morning. The seas had picked up some and the boat was rolling a bit. They were coming from behind, so it was a rolling motion instead of an up and down pounding motion. I got up and made fried eggs and buttered toast for everyone.
[Chris here... Fried eggs and buttered toast from a woman who completed an Ironman??? Something must have been wrong here...]
During the day the waves continued to build. By the afternoon we had 5-7 footers coming from behind us. I was getting a bit more nervous and a bit less playful. We have dealt with this before, but when the seas build things become serious. It’s not the 5-7 footers that scare me, it’s the thought that they might get even bigger. The more we deal with big waves, though the less nervous I get. It used to be the 5-7 footers that scared the living daylights out of me. Now I’m fine with them. And you know what? If they get bigger we’ll deal with it. It’s just a lot less fun than a laid back, sit and enjoy a beer kind of trip.
Dinner on Tuesday night was interesting. The gimbaled stove
was rocking to its fullest extent. I cooked up some pasta and vegetables. A jar of sauce was rolling back and forth on the counter waiting to be used. When everything was done cooking, I opened the jar of sauce and, not thinking, set it back on the counter. It only took a second before it hit the edge and started pouring onto the floor. Vodka sauce was everywhere. Luckily I caught it before we didn’t have enough for our dinner. Let me just say that Vodka sauce is very slippery and it is hard to get out from between your toes!
Just before dinner, Chris pointed out a storm on the Sirius
satellite weather. It spanned the whole northern portion of the east coast. It was decision making time once again. I just love making these decisions. It seems that every time we come to this point we choose the wrong path. Last time we chose to head in and we got nailed as we were entering the Ponce De Leon inlet. Our friend that stayed out on the ocean said it wasn’t that bad. So, this time we chose to stay out. We had plenty of time to make it to Barnegat, but that inlet is known to be shoaly and only to be entered if you have local knowledge. The next inlet north was Manasquan which we wouldn’t be able to reach in time.
We began the preparations. It was 6:00 and the storm was about 30 miles away. Sirius
showed it moving our direction at about 12 knots. That gives us about three hours. By this time, thank goodness, the waves had died down quite a bit. The winds were coming from the south, and we had traveled to a point where there was land to the south, blocking the wind and lessening the seas.
Our weather forecaster said there would be storms, but nothing that packed a punch. Winds were likely to stay around 12-15 knots. But when you look at the Sirius
weather and see large areas of red (worst intensity) you begin to doubt.
At 7:00 Chris, Poppi and I all donned our foul weather gear. We checked the deck to make sure everything was tied down. The storm was now 20 miles away. Two hours to go. I lay down in the cockpit to get some rest. If the storm wasn’t bad, I would need to be rested for my 12:00 watch.
[Chris here... it was at this point I resigned myself to being up for the rest of the trip. I had only gotten about 3-4 hours of sleep the night before, none of it continuous, and I didn't nap during the day.]
Chris called the Coast Guard and asked what kind of wind was being reported at the leading edge of the storm. They said that NOAA was reporting 12-15 knots. I was napping in the cockpit at the time and gave out a small cheer.
[Chris here... one thing you learn VERY quickly when cruising is that the leading edge of a storm usually carries the biggest winds and the most lightning. In other words, it's the worst part of a storm. Normally, you should try to turn in a direction that will let the leading edge pass by you, preferring to allow a tail section to hit you instead. In this case, the leading edge was enourmous, and unless we could put a 1000hp engine into Pelican real quick, there was no way we were getting out of its way. Also, while the reds/oranges/yellows on the Sirius
are a good indication of heavy weather, they aren't always perfect. Sometimes there is just a large amount of high level water density, and it shows up as orange or red. So, when the Coasties said the leading edge was 12-15kts I figured we should hope for the best but still plan for the worst. I figured we might get hit by some 30-40kt winds.]
At 8:00 the kids put themselves to bed. Chris, Poppi and I went over what we would do if high winds hit. The plan was to let out our Genoa just a smidge and heave to. This is a very common and extremely effective storm tactic. Basically you let out the sail at the bow of your boat while steering the rudder in the opposite direction. The two opposing forces balance the boat even in the very worst of wind and waves.
Part of our preparation was to reef the main sail. I don’t remember exactly when we did it, but at the time the seas were still pretty high. In order to reef or decrease the size of the main sail, we have to turn into the wind. This is particularly fun when the waves are large. With the waves behind us, we have to first turn so we are parallel to them and finally facing them. For the brief moment you are parallel to the waves, the boat rocks back and forth quite a bit.
Poppi and I got the lines
ready and Chris began the turn. When we were headed into the wind I let the sail down a bit and tightened the reef lines
. Half way through this procedure the oil pressure light came on. This is much like the check oil light on your car. When it comes on you MUST turn off the engine. This was the worst possible time for this to happen. In order to continue reefing the sail, we had to keep the boat facing into the wind. Normally we use the motor for that. Now it had to be accomplished in high seas with a sail that was loose and half down. Chris did an excellent job building up some speed and bringing the boat back into the wind. With no motor, I only had a few seconds to finish reefing. While doing this, Poppi went below to check the engine. I was extremely scared because I didn’t think we could sail the boat with a loose mainsail. I thought we were dead in the water. As it turns out, you can!
[Chris here... Kristen learned to have faith at that moment. I kept telling her not to worry - we're a sailboat first, and a powerboat if we need to be. Even with a partially reefed main drooping all over the place, all you have to do is turn down, get some speed, and then you can bring your nose back into the wind for a bit. The problem is that heading into the wind provides no lift on your sails. In other words, they can't push you forward, so eventually (very quickly) your speed drops to zero, you lose control, and you have to turn the boat in the appropriate direction to get some wind in the sails. Anyway, it was a bit tough keeping the boat in the wind, helping Kristen reef the main and keeping everyone calm at the same time, but we managed it. We guessed that if the storm hit us, we'd have winds in the 40kt range, so we put two reefs in the mainsail, bringing it down to about 65% of its normal size. We had talked a lot about heaving to, but I knew in my head that once the wind hit us there was no way we were going to be able to release just a small portion of our genoa (front sail). If we let out too much, the boat would be out of control. I was resigned to the fact that we'd be running if we didn't get the genoa out before the wind hit, but I refrained from speaking my thoughts.]
Poppi reported that we were quite low on oil and he added two quarts. We started the engine and no oil pressure light came on. As an added bonus, the funny zapping noise stopped as well.
So now we’re coming up to 8:30 and the storm is seven miles away. The three of us are awake and ready. This could be nothing, or it could be really, really bad. We continue to talk about what to do in different situations. We’re sticking with the heaving to tactic. The lines
for the genny are untied and ready. Chris is steering and I am manning the main sheet. This is the line
that controls the angle of the main sail. If we get slammed with a gust of wind, I need to let the sail out to spill the wind off.
Now it is 9:00. We still don’t know what is about to hit us. I’m grasping to the earlier 12-15 knot forecast. But, based on our past experiences and the satellite weather, my gut says be ready. The seas are about 2-3 feet, calm by our standards. Chris says that the red portion of the storm is upon us. Our sail is double reefed and we can bring it down to a third reef if it becomes necessary. We have gone over heave to procedures. “Ninety degrees is out to sea.” I keep repeating to myself. If we need to run downwind and lose visibility, we need to remember which way is away from land. We have two ships in sight. One is a faint white light and another is a larger yellowish light. They are quite a distance off and not too much of a worry. They move fast though, so we need to keep track of them. If the rain gets heavy, the radar
can’t see the ships through the raindrops. We will have to rely on our eyes.
[Chris here... the problem with the ship's location is that they were on a marked ship approach/departing lane to and from New York City. In other words, right this second we had two ships out there, but it could rapidly increase. We have radar
on board, which we heavily rely upon when it's dark out or it's foggy, but when you have heavy rain the radar
beams just bounce off of it and the screen is just filled with returns. In other words, when the rain hits, all you can see is the rain on the radar
- not other ships. If we had to turn to run out to sea, we would potentially cross that sea lane after about 5 miles. With heavier winds, that 5 miles could be within 45 or less minutes, and that's a lot of time for new ships to show up. Anyway, it was just one of many thoughts going through my head. I was a nervous wreck as I watched the storm approach, as the unknown scares the, well it scares me.]
Up to this point we have been watching the lightning all around us. Oh yes…I forgot to mention the lightning. There was no thunder yet. This tells us that the lightning is far away. Knowing it was no threat at the time, we could enjoy the show. Poppi and I saw three streaks run across the sky at the same time, flashing rapidly 3-5 times in a row. These were strikes where someone could say, “Whoah!” and it would still be going when you turned your head. There were tons of cloud to ground strikes over whatever city was to our left. It was all heading our way. We were prepared and ready.
[Chris here... Prepared and ready is a relative term. So is "enjoy the show". I was watching the frequency, duration and brightness of the lightning and knew that it was more than deadly. When there's a streak, and you have enough time to turn to someone else on the boat and say "Look at that!" and they can still see it, you know you're in for a treat!]
It was sometime after 9PM, I’m not quite sure exactly when. Chris said, “Here comes the wind.” With about a second pause between each number he calls out, “Twenty, thirty, forty.” Between thirty and forty knots I let out the main sail. Chris said, “Don’t let it out too far.” By this time I had let our mainsail almost all the way out. We were in the thick of the storm. I was holding on to the mainsheet ready to let it out the last couple of feet if we needed to. “We’re running now!” Chris yelled. All of our preparations to heave to were out the window. According to our wind meter, the wind was blowing at 50 knots (almost 60mph). There was no way we would be able to let the genny out now. I prayed that this was the worst of it.
[Guess who here! The wind hit us like a freight train. I barely had time to count it up to let Kristen know what was going on. It also shifted by about 120 degrees from where it was originally blowing. As I mentioned earlier, I knew there wasn't any way we'd be able to pull the front sail out safely. We could have done it, but it would have probably put us in more danger than running. We were fortunate that the seas were fairly low (2-4ft), otherwise running might have been a difficult option. When the wind first hit us, we had our mainsail sheeted in fairly hard (almost centered on the boat). As you come off the wind (turn away from the wind direction), you need to ease your sails out to let them catch the wind from behind you. The wind hit, and Pelican wanted to round up (head directly into the wind) due to the power in the sail. This is a natural state for a sailboat, but I had no interest in heading directly into 60mph winds. As I mentioned earlier, when you head directly into the wind, your boat eventually stops moving forward, and you lose control. Also, the sails and lines flog all over the place, potentially damaging themselves or other things around them. I couldn't imagine what our sails and lines flogging in 60mph winds would be like. Unfortunately, with the sail in so far, I couldn't get Pelican to turn downwind.
I yelled for Kristen to ease the main out and for Poppi to drop the traveller. This accomplished two things. Dropping the traveller changes the twist on the sail, making it so that more wind spills over the trailing edge. Letting the main out allowed me to turn the boat to keep the wind behind us. I've had people ask us why you run with a storm (i.e. keep the wind on your back). Think of it this way. You're a runner. There's a 10mph wind and you can run at 6mph. If you run facing the wind, it's like there's a 16mph wind hitting you, right? Now turn around and run at the same speed. Now it feels like there's a 4mph wind behind you. Running with the wind behind you reduces the forces on your boat and what's called the "Apparent Wind Speed", or the speed you "feel" when you account for your angle to the wind and your boat speed.]
Chris was holding on to the wheel and keeping the wind behind us. “Our boat speed is 8.4 knots.“ he announced. Darn, he broke the old record of 7.2 knots that I previously held. “8.4 knots,” I thought. Holy Cow that’s fast!
[Chris again... I saw 9.1kts at one point in time, but it was a quick blip and not sustained. This is WELL over the theoretical hull speed of our Passport 40. I just find it amazing that we only had a small smidgen of sail out and we were exceeding hull speed. I hate to say it, especially since we were in a somewhat dangerous situation, but I wanted to let out a bunch of WHOOPS of excitement while we were surfing downwind.]
“Where are those ships?” Chris said. Poppi and I looked around and saw nothing. If they got hit by lightening they would have generators for lights
. The waves or wind must be obscuring them. There was no rain yet. We kept watching for them with no luck. “Don’t worry,” I told Chris. “They were far off”.
Flashes of lightning started hitting around us. They were so bright in the darkness that it would take a second to get your bearings after they hit. We heard the crack of thunder seconds after the flashes. They were close. Luckily they never hit too close. Not once do I remember a flash and a boom of thunder at the same exact time.
I yelled to Chris, “If you head to the left, we’ll spill some more wind off the sail.” It was more of a question than a statement. I was trying to figure out what we would do if the wind got any stronger. I don’t remember what his reply was. The boat was doing fine and I was scared, but not worried about our current situation. The wind seemed to be holding at 40-50 knots.
[Chris, yet again... did I mention the whoops I wanted to do? There aren't many times you get to surf in, what we thought at the time, 40-50 knots of wind with waves that aren't huge. Spill more wind off the sail? There was nothing we could do, other than to put a third reef in, that wouldn't damage Pelican or put us in (more) danger. I don't think I responded to Kristen. The only issue I had was that spray from the foam being generated by the wind kept coating our wood covered wheel and it made it really difficult to get a grip. I should have put my gloves on.]
We were all completely focused on our tasks. With the wind behind us and the sail almost completely out, I had to be ready for the accidental jibe. If the wind suddenly shifted, there is a chance the boom could wildly swing to the other side of the boat. If this happened with 50 knots of wind pushing the boom, it would most likely break something. I stood ready to pull in the main sheet to slow the sing of the boom and then quickly but gently let it out before the wind pushed the boat over. Thanks to Chris’s expert steering I never had to deal with an accidental jibe.
[OK... moving forward, those little brackets mean "Chris here...". Anyway, "most likely break something" is a bit of an understatement. Literally, in the blink of an eye, the boom would have swung 140 degrees effectively carrying thousands of pounds of pressure. The possibility of breaking our boom, rigging and ripping our traveller off the deck would have been VERY high. I can't say my steering was "expert" though - Pelican pretty much told me where she wanted to go, and if the two of us disagreed we'd make adjustments to the sails until we came into agreement. A few times I had to hold onto the wheel for dear life to keep us headed in the right direction, but for the majority of the time Pelican was awesome - just tracked straight, and felt more like a sports car than a Volvo.]
After what seemed like 5 minutes I announced that the winds seemed to be dying down. Chris said that the red area had passed, but there was still a yellow area heading for us. I thought we were back to 5-10 knot winds when Chris said we were down to 25 knots. I looked at my watch and it was 10:30. At least an hour had gone by.
We stayed ready, but relaxed just a tiny bit. The worst was over. We made it. We left the sail up and gently sailed along for a while. In the distance the two ships appeared again. Chris gave us the stats. Max sustained wind was 48.4 knots. Max boat speed was 8.4 knots, but he swears he saw 9 at one point. Things didn’t go exactly as planned but everything turned out OK.
As a side note, later the next day we were explaining our ordeal and telling about the 50 knot winds. “But wait a minute,” Chris said. “That was apparent wind.” We forgot that our knot meter was broken. The wind we were measuring was actual wind minus our boat speed. Because we were traveling in the same direction as the wind it measures less. So the true wind speed was our measurement plus the speed of the boat. That puts the actual wind speed at 60 knots. That is 70 miles per hour. Holy Cow! I have read stories about people caught in winds like that and wondered how they could possibly have dealt with it. Now I know. You just do. There is no choice. You call upon your experience and knowledge and crew and hope for the best.
[We found out later that they clocked winds of over 80mph in Central Park, New York City! Apparently, numerous trees were blown down, and they took over 1,000 lightning strikes in the city.]
For the rest of the night we went over the whole ordeal. We talked about what we did wrong and right, what we could have done if things became worse, and how fortunate we were. We each took turns sleeping a bit once the adrenaline loosened its hold.
[After being up for 36 hours with a total of about 3 hours of sleep, I zonked!]
As we approached the entrance to NY harbor, the ship traffic started to build. Two heavily lit boats were approaching us on the port side. As the first one went by, Poppi and I noticed something in the water. It looked like and overturned boat with two people standing on it. The charts
showed no buoys there, and whatever it was was completely unlit. The second boat went by it and turned around. It circled the object once. We could tell that it was two poles sticking up with some sort of cone lying on its side between them. We guessed that it was some sort of debris from the storm. The other boat never called the obstruction in to the coast guard. We thought about going back to check it out, but I deemed it too dangerous. Once the lit up ship left, it was pitch black again and you couldn’t see the object. If we hit it, we would be putting ourselves in danger. We decided to keep our course. We had had enough excitement for the night.
Our entrance into NY harbor was without incident. We stayed just outside the shipping channel, and let three to four huge container ships pass on our port side. When we approached the Statue of Liberty at about 6AM, I roused Poppi and the kids. At 6:30 we docked at Liberty Landing marina. It was good to land.