The Long Way Back, Part Three - SailNet Community

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Old 01-08-2004
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James Baldwin is on a distinguished road
The Long Way Back, Part Three


Bermuda's dramatic scenery often belies its low-lying reefs, which mandate a careful approach for weary mariners.
As we approached the south coast of Bermuda on a starless, overcast night, a late spring cold front swept towards us with a fierce display of lightening, rainsqualls, and gusty southwest winds. I gazed hypnotically at the main squall line on the radar screen with the nervous single-minded attention of a soldier tracking an incoming missile. When the menacing black band reached the two-mile range, I snapped out of my trance, and like presenting a white flag of surrender, jumped on deck and pulled down all sail. Moments later a west wind shrieked and drummed in the rigging and pushed us clumsily before it at four knots. Dawn came clear and cold and nearly calm as we passed through the narrow cut in the rocks guarding Bermuda’s St. Georges Harbour.

In Bermuda during the first week of June we joined a community of nearly 100 other eastbound cruising boats. The majority of sailors here were making their first trans-Atlantic voyage. Like novice mountaineers gathered at Everest base camp, there was an air of excitement, tension, and camaraderie among the fleet. Rumors, horror stories, and routing strategies were passed from boat to boat as indisputable facts.


St. George's Harbor is one of the central crossroads for cruisers bound east, west, north, or south across the Atlantic.
The passage across the Gulf Stream to Bermuda is a good testing ground to discover weak links in boats and crew. Inevitably, each year some boats here cancel their Atlantic crossings and turn back for the States due mainly to inexperienced skippers discouraged by equipment failures or disgruntled crew. Whenever we mentioned to our neighboring neophyte cruisers that we were on a passage from Venezuela to Brazil, they’d look on us like we were hopelessly inept navigators and ask in astonished tones, "What are you doing here?"

 Even Herb, aka "Southbound II" the fleet’s volunteer weather forecasting guru, sounded skeptical when I checked in on his SSB net and announced that we were waiting for a weather window to depart for the Cape Verde Islands en route to Brazil. "What’s your planned route?" Herb asked. I confidently replied, "We’ll head northeast to 38 degrees north, then turn due east with the westerly wind behind us, then turn southeast towards the Cape Verdes when about 400 miles west of the Azores."

"Sounds like you’ve been reading the Pilot Charts," Herb said. At that point I was unsure if he was commending my good sense or possibly wondering at my naiveté to think I could make a shortcut to the Portuguese Trades without first passing east of the Azores. My brilliant interpretation of the pilot charts would later prove utterly wrong.

"My brilliant interpretation of the pilot charts would later prove utterly wrong."
My wife, Mei, adored Bermuda’s boutiques, pink beaches, and touristic comforts and could have stayed for months, but we needed to be on our way before any hurricanes threatened. Bermuda was also way too expensive to hang around a moment longer than necessary. The Bermuda government felt that visiting sailors would quickly be bled dry of their cruising funds and might be tempted to find illegal employment so they recently passed a law requiring yachties and other undesirables to depart within three weeks of arrival. With gasoline at five US dollars per gallon, we decided to make the next passage without the assistance of our outboard auxiliary.


A replica of a whaling ship is a proud testament to Bermuda's seafaring past.

So we departed Bermuda despite Herb’s warnings of continuing calms. Herb was right again, of course. It took us a week of what might be called purposeful drifting to go 350 miles. Having the right mindset made a satisfying challenge out of what could have been maddening frustration. As the miles slowly fell away, I took a perverse joy in my work of coaxing the boat from one cat’s paw to another. Fingertips on the tiller, we ghosted along at one knot, silent as a shadow, leaving barely a ripple on the silky smooth waters. Speeds above one knot seemed thrilling and I watched approvingly as the windvane steered in a delicate balancing act of wind and sail. Islander became an extension of myself. Even when asleep, I instantly sensed any unbalance and awoke ready to take up my post as wind watchman. On each passage I learn again to simply pay attention, to stop listening to the noise of society and start listening to sea, sky and boat—to the secret language of sailing.

And yet society was never far away. Several motor-sailing yachts passed within our circle of visibility and we’d chat on VHF before they disappeared over the horizon. We also sent frequent position reports by SSB radio to Islander’s owner and let him know how the delivery was going. Although we have a Pactor radio e-mail modem, we were unable to use it on this trip because we had not brought along our PC. Instead, we passed our position to the amateur radio Maritime Mobile Service Net, whose shoreside volunteers relayed our position to family and friends.

"For peak performance of the SSB on the weather net frequencies, we installed a wire dipole antenna parallel to the backstay."

To ensure peak performance of the SSB on the weather net frequencies, we installed a wire dipole antenna parallel to the backstay. For other frequencies Islander has an 80-foot long wire antenna running from the manual tuner below decks, up through the afterdeck to the masthead parallel to the backstay and back down near the shroud. The No. 10 AWG insulated copper wire runs parallel to, but not touching, the backstay and shrouds. By switching from one antenna to another we get good performance on most frequencies.

Aside from the SSB and radar, which we run in power-save mode, our electrical requirements are modest. All power is supplied by two 55-watt solar panels mounted on adjustable brackets on the stern railing that can be pointed toward the sun for maximum efficiency. For a small boat cruising mostly in the sun-soaked tropics, the silent reliability of solar power sure beats listening to a wind charger or generator. Occasional use of power tools can easily be run off an inverter powered by the solar panels feeding Islander’s 400-amp-hour battery bank.


Heading too far north into the Atlantic increased the risk of running into powerful gales.

We worked our way northeast until we began to feel those elusive westerly winds. The trick was to ride the edge of the North Atlantic High; too far north and we risked gales; turn south too early and we would be trapped in calms. In practice, neither can be avoided.

The expanding high-pressure area forced us up to 40 degrees north where we were promptly struck by a westerly gale. For two days we slid and tumbled down the waves with only a tiny scrap of jib unfurled. The windvane steered around the clock without complaint. Mei and I merely took turns poking our heads out the hatch like groundhogs scanning the horizon for signs of fair weather. Meanwhile, inside the boat a moldy dampness of salt spray mixed with condensation pervaded everything, dampening our spirits as well.

After the gale, light variable winds returned. Following Herb’s suggestion that we stay north for steadier winds, we found ourselves passing near Flores Island in the Azores. It was an easy decision to pull into Flores. We had been at sea for 24 days. Our moldy clothes needed washing and our fresh food was finished, aside from a few limes, potatoes, and the mung beans we sprouted.


After days of unending seascape, the sight of land brings with it a special beauty.
After countless landfalls I am still awestruck at the spectacle of seeing a high volcanic island emerge from the sea. Sailing around the south coast to the anchorage at Porto das Lajes, we passed under high cliffs that threw back the sea in pulsing sheets of white foam. Above the cliffs lay terraced green pastures and scattered farmhouses. Higher up, the forested slopes were capped by a ring of cloud clinging fast to hidden peaks. Though I have many "favorite" islands, Flores gave me an impression that bumped it near the top of my list.

Part Four of Islander’s long haul back to Brazil will appear on SailNet in a few weeks.

Transatlantic Weather Routing

Veteran mariners on the Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean know to contact Herb Hilgenberg (Southbound II) on marine SSB frequency 12.359 MHz at 20:00 UTC for the latest marine forecasts. Herb is a volunteer weather forecaster based in Toronto who has been providing free weather routing advice for Atlantic sailors since 1987. Log-ins start after 19:30 UTC. At 20:00 UTC Herb signs on and acknowledges vessels he has heard log-on and will ask them to stand by as he works boats by area. If you have trouble getting through, try e-mailing him at: hehilgen@aol.com and for more information you can visit his site at http://hometown.aol.com/hehilgen/myhomepage/vacation.html.

 The Amateur Radio Maritime Mobile Service Net operates daily from 16:00 to 02:00 UTC on 14.300 MHz. Licensed MM amateur radio operators can check in here and speak to volunteer operators in the US who will provide phone patches, one-way messages, or send brief email messages. For further information, log on to the net’s website: www.mmsn.org.



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