Newsletter Oct-Dec 92
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Written  December 6, 1992

It was a dark and stormy night...  Wait a minute! More about that later. Let me bring you up to date regarding all that happened since we left Annapolis, October 25, 1992.

Bob and I left Mears Marina on Sunday morning with a NW wind which blew us down the Chesapeake Bay to Solomons Island, MD in record time. We then took a leisurely few days sailing to the St. Mary's River off the Potomac, Reedville, VA, Fishing Bay and finally to Norfolk, VA. We arrived at the entrance on Oct. 30th at twilight, entering with a submarine and 2 large cargo ships. After some excitement and long motor, we finally arrive at Waterside Marina. This is a beautiful marina situated right in a shopping area. It is a Rouse-designed area similar to Baltimore's Harborplace. We spent 2 night there where we rendezvoused with friends from Annapolis who where going south to the Bahamas.

Monday morning, November 1st, we left with our friends to start our trip down the inter-coastal waterway (ICW) to Beaufort, NC. When travelling the ICW, you motor all day and tie up in a marina or anchor somewhere for the night. This was a somewhat interesting, somewhat exciting, somewhat boring trip. It was interesting to see all the little towns and shipping traffic on the waterway. The bridges, which are numerous, make the trip exciting, as you and several other boats try to remain stationary in a 20-knot wind, while waiting for the bridge to open. The canals, I would say, were probably the more boring part of the ICW experience.

We made it to Beaufort on November 5th. This is the major jumping off place for the passage to the Virgin Islands. Now we just wait for good weather. And we waited and waited. Finally a front came through that had winds of 15-20 knots out of the NE with predictions of them lessening and switching to the South and SW. While in Beaufort, we linked up with several other boats that were going south. PUFF, with our good friends Dave and Nancy from Annapolis, SEA WOLF, with Wolf and Sharon and SIMPLEX, with Fred and Pam. SEA WOLF left a day ahead of us to sail to Puerto Rico, PUFF left to sail to Charleston and then the waterway to Florida and the Bahamas. SIMPLEX and LONG PASSAGES left on Monday, November 10th, to sail to the Virgin Islands. We established a radio schedule with all the boats in the morning and evening and I really enjoyed our "check-ins" with everyone.

We motored out of Beaufort Inlet and put up the mainsail with 2 reefs in, a reefed mizzen sail and a staysail. Little did we know that this was an indication of how the whole trip was going to be for us. After sailing for about 5 hours with SIMPLEX, they developed engine trouble and turned back to go to Charleston for repairs. We were left alone with SEA WOLF a day ahead of us.

The Gulf Stream was very close to Beaufort and we encountered it approximately 8 hours out. There were somewhat confused seas and we spent an uncomfortable night, but we made it across the worst in about 4-5 hours. After the stream crossing, we spent a frustrating day being set South of our rhumb line. We then tacked over and spent the night sailing back North of the rhumb line. We made very little progress east, which is where we wanted to go. In order to sail to the Virgin Islands, the recommendation is to get as far East as you can while also going South to a point about 25 degrees N latitude and 65 degrees W to 64 degrees W longitude, depending on your destination. At that point, the easterly tradewinds are supposed to start and you are then able to sail South to the Virgin Islands while on a nice reach. If you don't get far enough east, you are faced with prospect of beating you way to the VI or only be able to go to Puerto Rico, or even the Bahamas. Oh well, so much for the "ideal" situation. Our winds continued out of the NE and east, so it was very difficult for us to sail east.

One of the first things we did, upon leaving Beaufort, was to set up our Monitor windvane self-steering device. This device steered the boat for us. We named our windvane "Betsy" after a friend of ours. Betsy was the best crewmember on the boat and worked tirelessly under less than ideal conditions. With just a couple of exceptions, she steered the boat for the entire passage and didn't eat or drink anything. The windvane is entirely mechanical and requires no electricity. We also have an electric autopilot, which we name "Alan" (also after a friend, Betsy's husband) and he was a great help during all the motoring down the ICW.

The next 2 days in the trip were spent feeling the effect of another approaching cold front and then having the front sloooowwwwllly pass over us. During the worst of the squalls, the high water alarm in the bilge went off. Bob and I spent the next 30-40 minutes letting Betsy do her best to steer us in 30-35 knot winds, while we pumped out the bilge and tried to determine what happened to fill it up. Well, it seems that we had some leaks and that the small automatic bilge pump was broken. The large pump is turned on manually and, fortunately, worked just fine to pump out most of the water. After that little episode, we just waited for the alarm to go off and then turned on the large pump. As best we could find, all 17 chainplates started to leak and maybe some stanchions as well. Since, so far on this trip, we were going to windward, the decks were frequently awash and the rail in the water a lot.

When not contending with leaks and bad weather, we had time to entertained by several large schools of dolphins which would swim alongside and in front of the boat and, at times, leap straight out of the water and come splashing down. They looked as though they were having great fun. One night, during a meteor shower, I saw a shooting star with a brillant tail that looked as though it landed right in the water. The stars at sea are so bright and there are so many more visible than on land.

Well, the cold front that passed over us turned out to be front from hell. We were looking forward to the north winds to assist us in going east, but we got NE winds 20-25 knots and then the front stalled in front of us. We were facing the prospect of sailing through it again and then have it move back over us. Then, another little interesting development occurred. A trough (low pressure) formed along the front and seemed to be moving slowly NE - right toward us.

We were getting really good weather info from Herb, a fellow in Bermuda, who broadcasts weather info every evening to all boaters in the Atlantic and we also tuned into NMN weather from Portsmouth, VA. So we decided to head South - SW to try to avoid the trough. Well, that brings us to the dark and stormy night. We ran smack dab into the worst lightning storm I've ever seen and hope never to see again. It was around midnight and the sky was black as pitch. There was continuous strobe lightning for about 30 minutes. Bolts were striking the water all around the boat and the winds were gusting to 30-35 and maybe 40 knots. The seas were up to 6-10 ft. and, due to all the unsettled weather, a large NE swell had developed. It rained so hard that cockpit filled with water. Bob had the engine on and was trying to steer the boat into the wind. I had my sea boot off trying to bail out the cockpit. That's when it happened. The main mast was struck by lightning. Sparks flew everywhere and I felt a small jolt of electricity from a steel deckplate on the cockpit floor. Fortunately, Long Passages has a wooden wheel, so Bob felt nothing.

When this happened we were approximately 21 degree N latitude and 66 degrees W longitude - approximately 3 1/2 days from St. Thomas, VI. We were up all night recovering from the storm and finally, at dawn we were able to steer toward a clearing area in the sky. We hove-to and tried to rest and discover how much damage had been done by the strike. The bonding system on the boat worked well and no thru-hull fittings were blown out. The VHF antenna was vaporized along with the wind speed paddle on the mast. Additionally, we lost the knotmeter instrument, depth finder, HAM radio tuner, shoreside battery charger and stereo. We still had our GPS and SATNAV units working, though, and the RADAR survived. We could transmit on the HAM radio, but could not tune the antenna, so we couldn't transmit very far.

We only rested about 2 hours before getting the boat moving again, trying to avoid any black squally clouds. We had a somewhat easy sail, but I was still jittery after the storm. That night and the next 2 days we were still feeling the effects of the front. Winds were between 15 and 25+ knots, mostly NE and east, and seas were 6-15 ft. There was still the NE swell to deal with. When Long Passages reached the crest of one of those swells, it looked as if were sitting on top of a 5-story building, looking down. Some of those waves were about 18 ft. high (not breaking, though). With such big seas, we were off the wind and the good news being that we were on course heading SE. The bad news was that we could not let Betsy steer because she could not react quickly enough when the waves kicked the stern around. Bob and I were now taking 1 - 1 1/2 hour tedious shifts at the wheel, with the other person trying to sleep in the cockpit. We were facing about 30 hours of this, but fortunately, after about 8 hours, the seas moderated to the point so that Betsy could steer, but she required constant vigilance.

We just could not get away from the front and the wind and seas generated by it. Wet, wet, wet conditions with the swell sometime slapping the side of the hull and coming on board. When we were about 10 hours from St. Thomas, we put us as much sail as we felt we could safely carry, hardened up on the wind and, rail in the water, clawed our way east enough to get safely through Virgin Passage where we would enter the Caribbean Sea.

But, the seas and front were not yet done with us. It has one more little surprise in store for us. The depths offshore were about 1000 fathoms, but once we got closer to St Thomas, the sea floor came up dramatically. This caused the already large seas to become steep and closer together. As we were approaching Virgin Passage, we were hit broadside by a breaking wave and knocked over about 50 degrees. The boom touched the water and my reef-runner shoes went scooting up the gunwales of the boat. But, remarkably, other than to shake up the remaining strands of our nerves, nothing was lost or damaged. We were under sail and I was at the helm. I saw the wave, as did Bob, but could not take any action, as it all happened so fast. We finally got through the passage, into the lee of the island and away from those horrible swells.

We motored in Charlotte Amalie Harbor and dropped our anchor at about 2230 hours and collapsed. I think we'd had about 5 hours sleep over the last 3 days. We arrived on Nov. 22nd after leaving Beaufort Nov. 10. Since our arrival, we've done nothing but dry out everything on the board and seal chainplates and stanchions. We did go into a marina in order to have access to fresh water and electricity. During our stay in the marina, we talked to several other boats that were sailing during that time and learned that they also experienced the same rough conditions and some even worse conditions than we did. One boat (a 50 ft. Hinckley) has a 20 ft. wall of water sweep across their stern that injured the helmsman and carried away their liferaft, inflatable dingy, kayak, some stanchions and cockpit dodger.

Ten days later, the boat and my nerves are finally back to normal. We are planning to enjoy the beautiful weather (80-90) and crystal blue waters of the Virgin Islands. Once we get new instruments installed, we plan to sail to St. Johns and the British Virgin Islands and then head "down island" to Grenada.

St. Thomas is a pretty island, but the downtown area is like a small NYC. It is crowded and dirty, with hucksters everywhere. . The people are somewhat friendly. The island is somewhat chaotic, with little strip malls thrown everywhere, roads in disrepair, and houses stuck just anywhere. There is a lot of construction going on, though, and the economy seems to be improving. In contrast, the yachts in area are incredible. 60, 80, 100 and 140 ft. sailing yachts dwarf our little boat. They are unbelievably beautiful and talk about luxurious.

Well, time to fix a rum and tonic (gin and tonic for Bob) and watch the sunset. Please write as we find that receiving mail from our friends is very exciting and we look forward to hearing from everyone.

Love,

Judi and Bob

 

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