Sailing to Bermuda
by Ted Robinson
A sailboat has been my transportation of choice between Block Island and Newport since the 1970s. Topaz, a Hobie 33 sloop, is an ultralight "sportboat" that makes the trip in about four hours. She had a straight flat bottom aft, which gave her the speed of a surfboard when riding a wave. With this maneuverability she could surf in and out of Block Island's Old Harbor on waves that kept the 100 ton ferries in port. To make her comfortable in heavy air, the boom had been lowered a foot and her mainsail replaced with a 9 ounce one having four reef points and full battens. Her regular jibs were replaced with pair of different-sized "mules" that were less tall but overlapped the mainsail like a genoa. This lower sailplan gave more power with less heel, a necessary adaptation for punching through offshore waves and staying upright without the leverage of 1000 pounds of crew sitting on the rail.
I met Drew Wood during last year's Newport to Block Island race, in which we were the only solo sailors. He told me about this race he'd sailed from Newport to Bermuda called the "Bermuda 1-2", and said my solo experience in the winter waves around Block Island was perfect preparation. Between Newport, R.I and the island of Bermuda the ocean is moving in various directions due to the Gulf Stream, creating ocean conditions sometimes resembling the inside of a washing machine. It sounded like great boat surfing on the way over and back, and great board surfing while in Bermuda.
Since Bermuda was 600 miles from Newport, the new challenge would be sailing continuously for five days. To avoid collision at sea required a visual scan every 30 minutes. I enrolled in a "sleep seminar" to learn the fine points of sleeping animal-style in short intervals, using a kitchen timer to wake up. I installed a radar alarm, and a bright white LED 360-degree masthead light. Instead of averting collisions, this light ended up attracting fishing boats at night that wanted to play "chicken," so I soon learned to douse all the lights as soon as a boat appeared.
For comfortable life at sea, I installed a stove, heater, chart table, food lockers, a real head, and a 100-Watt ham radio, modified to transmit on marine frequencies and attached to a loop antenna made by connecting the bottoms of the backstay and the mast with a wire in the bilge. Fed through a tuner, this unconventional antenna was very effective, giving intercontinental communications and spanning a frequency range from 2 to 20 Megacycles (Mc). To power this setup I hooked a 1 hp 4 stroke weedwhacker motor to a small race car alternator, and put this mini generator set under a bridge deck added to the forward end of the cockpit well. This location kept the noise and fumes outside and improved seaworthiness by reducing cockpit volume. To do the steering, a 60 pound Sailomat wind vane was added, with two electric Autohelm 2000 tiller pilots as a backups for light air. I planned to spend as little time as possible hand steering.
For big wave encounters, a stainless pole was added in the cabin to support the aft part of the coachroof, and 24-ounce fiberglass woven roving was added to reinforce the cabin wall around the window openings. The stock plastic window frames were replaced with through-bolted stainless steel ones, 50% thicker acrylic panes were installed, and the windows were doubled in area for watchkeeping below decks out of the weather. An inner "baby" forestay was added to stabilize the middle of the mast while hitting waves, and to offset the backward load imposed on the middle of the mast by the top of the mainsail when it was reefed down and sheeted tight.
To survive a 360 degree roll, hold downs were installed for the two batteries, gas tank, life raft, head, and bolt cutters. Stringers were glassed along the aft bottom of the hull to secure water jugs, anchors, and chain. Dozens of screws were put in to hold down floorboards and settee hatches to keep tools, liquor, and supplies from becoming missiles. For worst case scenarios, the surfboards and wetsuits I carried for inshore self-rescue were augmented by a 60 pound life raft, 406 Mc. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), about 30 pounds of assorted flares, an air band handie talkie, and a Mississippi "bird buster" gun that fired explosive shells to discourage attacks from either man or beast.
To keep speed up in the light air expected around Bermuda, an A-frame bowsprit was fabricated out of two six foot lengths of angle aluminum bolted to either side of the toe rail three feet back from the bow and connected at a junction point four feet in front of the forestay. With a "bob" stay tying this junction to the bow at the waterline, this assembly could offset the greater upward loads of a 450 square foot upwind "code zero" in addition to a 650 square foot assymetric spinnaker for going downwind. If the wind died completely a 12 gallon gas tank was installed to give a 150 mile range with the 5 HP outboard.
This work went on throughout the winter of '02-'03, followed by an April haul-out at the Jamestown Boat Yard to take advantage of their high end offshore expertise. Someone said the 73 mile daily commute down I-95 from suburban Boston to Jamestown might be more dangerous than the race itself. The mast was lowered and inspected and the rudder was pulled and reworked, with new bearings and rivets. A hundred pounds of chain for anchoring in the Bermuda reefs, two 20 pound surfboards, 70 pounds of gasoline, 120 pounds of water, and 20 pounds of food were put aboard, bringing the total additions to over 500 pounds. By one velocity prediction model this 12% addition to Topaz's displacement would cost about 20 seconds/mile, or about three hours over the course of the race.
Launched just in time to enter the Newport to Block Island race on Memorial Day weekend, Topaz sailed downwind in a sloppy 15 to 20 mph rainy nor'easter, so heavy and slow she barely was able to surf. But she was the only one to finish in her class, so speed didn't matter. The trip back to Newport was a real "shakedown", pounding ferociously upwind against worsening weather at 6 knots with the fourth reef in the mainsail and the smaller 120 square foot mule up front. The new rudder rivets were the only thing that failed, and were replaced the next day at Jamestown using aircraft stainless steel instead of aluminum.
The qualifying passage of 100 miles and 24 hours was done a few days later on another rainy day, heading out 52 miles to a spot on the chart called the "dumping ground". The head plumbing leaked but everything else worked flawlessly, including my ability to sleep with the timer. This success was despite the quarter berth having the noise and motion of a New York subway. My confidence soared.
SATURDAY, JUNE 7
Race day dawned with Herb Hilgenberg the weather guru asking if we could postpone the start due to a low pressure system forecast to hit the fleet right in the Gulf Stream. In addition to the gale forecast, the current in the Stream was extra strong. At breakfast one experienced skipper said the upcoming ride would be "lumpy", while another observed, "Its only water." As this wouldn't be happening for two days, I ate well at the big breakfast, my last shoreside meal for a while, and headed out to the boat. About 30 boats were entered, including another Hobie 33, and one other ham operator. With two others from Yale and three Brown alumni, those schools could together claim over 20% of the fleet, an interesting reflection on the independent minded types they attract.
The start was sailed just as aggressively as for a short race, followed by hard work tacking out of Newport in a dying breeze. I made the mistake of concentrating so hard on staying out of the current that I repeatedly fell into windless holes. Not wanting to get sucked over Brenton Reef by the foul tide, I was forced to make a long tack 90 degrees off course. At 4 PM our first en route weather briefing from Herb indicated that the low-pressure storm system would be in the middle of the fleet by the middle of the next morning, and that deviation to the west would be advisable. I steered 190 degrees, about 25 degrees to the west of the rhumb line.
By 7 PM I had the full sails out again as the wind continued to drop, the seas subsided and some dolphins came out. Night fell, it rained, and later the fog lifted, revealing several competitors, all ahead. In ten hours Topaz had made good a whopping 20 miles, leaving 200 to go to the Stream, which meant at least 36 hours or a Monday morning arrival after the worst of the weather was past. Toward midnight the wind came up to 15 mph from the east. The 280 square foot 150% genoa was taken down and I put up the smaller mule due to the forecast.
SUNDAY, JUNE 8
The wind died instead, dropping to 10 mph. I chose not to go out into the rain to change back up to the full sails and then have to change down again. About 2 AM I was on deck enjoying a break in the rain when what looked like a torpedo came rapidly at me. It was a porpoise leaving a glowing trail in the phosphorescence so clear that the shape of its tail was perfectly outlined. A large fishing boat also came straight at me, and we exchanged search light flashes.
At daybreak the wind dropped from 15 to 10 mph as it backed from the east to the northeast, indicating the low was moving past. Visibility increased to 10 miles, revealing four boats, all ahead. A 6-8 foot swell was coming up from the south. I left the small sails up.
I tuned to 14.212 Mc, a favorite 20 meter ham frequency a group of us had been using for decades. My friend Jack, W5CNE, was on, and he was interested to hear I was finally under way. He had single-handed to Bermuda from Florida many years ago and told a few sea stories. At 9 AM I tuned in to the weekly "Bermuda Net" on 14.275 Mc. where Mike, VP9KK, and Glenn, VP9ID, were impressed that I was actually under way. By now the boat was 80 miles out, bouncing through a 4 foot northeast wind chop that was mixing with the south swell, now up to 8 feet. Three competitors were in sight 1-3 miles ahead.
A plastic bracket that connected the autopilot control lines to the tiller disintegrated, and I hove-to to fix it. This maneuver involved sheeting the jib to the wrong side so that it acted like a spoiler on an aircraft wing, stopping forward motion with the sails full, so the boat was steady. A competitor sailed past, watching me work on the tiller with the electric drill putting in a jam cleat jury rig. I was underway again while finishing the other jobs on the list, including installation of a work-around of a one-way valve failure in the head plumbing, making two more plywood vane paddles, bolt tightening for the steering vane, and a rudder bolt jam screw.
At noon the wind had dropped from 15 to 10 mph, and the competitor who had watched me drilling was now well ahead. I changed back to the 280 square foot genoa and shook out the two reefs in the mainsail, increasing total sail area from 200 to 500 square feet. Topaz accelerated to 6 knots, bashing through the waves which continued to grow. The 1000-fathom curve was crossed 110 miles out with 525 miles to go. My conservative westerly deviation appeared to have been overkill, and course was altered from 190 to 160 degrees to hit the Gulf Stream meander now only 120 miles ahead.
The rudder began to squeak. I was napping in the quarter berth in the back of the boat where the whole circumference of the hull is exposed and gives a clear rendition of any sea noises. Suddenly louder squeaks than normal pierced the hull, and I jumped up on deck to investigate. The rudder appeared normal, and I noticed a group of dolphins swimming alongside about 50 yards off. Those pesky fish were apparently imitating the boat's noises to entertain themselves.
MONDAY, JUNE 9
At about midnight, with the Gulf Stream still 80 miles away I noticed the water temperature increased to 65 degrees, the wind dropped to 5 mph, and an adverse 2 knot current had appeared. Apparently I'd run into an uncharted warm eddy and would have been doing 5 knots instead of 2 if I had been a few dozen miles farther east. With little wind and big seas, the sails were banging around until I discovered that rigging four strands of bungee cord between the midpoint of the mainsheets and the windward jib winch not only stopped the banging, but also created a flapping mechanism that actually propelled the boat forward. Between midnight and dawn the boat averaged 2 knots against the continuing 1-2 knot adverse current with hardly any wind.
After running without problems for two months the mini generator set suddenly lost power at 9 AM. The backup system using a towed propeller spinning a generator was deployed successfully, saving me the ignominy of turning back. Unfortunately, the drag created by this unit would seriously hurt my racing performance, but its quiet was an amazing improvement over the noisy motor.
Rain had begun and the mid morning 5 mph wind out of the southeast had veered to the southwest and increased to 20 mph by early afternoon, accompanied by swells from the southwest that rapidly grew to 12 feet and occasionally broke, dumping a lot of water aboard. The boat handled well, surfing the occasional steep wave, but not requiring hand steering. The wind stopped the sails from slatting, and the big genoa jib was changed out for the little mule. After months of anticipation, I was in the Gulf Stream at last.
Water appeared in the bilge and the electric bilge pump wouldn't suck properly until surgery to reduce the strum box height was performed. The 20 meter ham band and the batteries were in good shape, so I checked in to the Maritime Mobile Service Net on 14.300 Mc to place a phone call to inform my family all was well. The ham on the other end reported that my wife was very relieved, and I resolved to make contact home a daily ritual.
The water was tropically hot now and colored an amazing blue like paint thinner into which a blue brush had been washed. It was so clear that the white generator propeller on the end of its 75-foot tether was plainly visible. By evening the GPS was showing a solid 9 knots over the bottom while the log showed only 5 through the water, with winds of 10-15 mph out of the northwest and the 12 foot breaking seas continuing to make the ride "interesting". These waves were so warm I changed to trunks and actually enjoyed the occasional dunking.
Just before dark I noticed the gooseneck hanging at a funny angle, which upon inspection revealed one of two welds had failed. The gooseneck attaches the boom to the mast, and its failure would destroy the mainsail and cripple the boat. Everything still worked, so the decision was made to continue, but from now on the priority would be making it rather than racing. For the past day I had been feeling progressively worse, with a growing headache now hitting my stomach hard enough for me to actually be seasick briefly about midnight. It felt like a cold coming on from three days of exposure to the wet and cold weather, mixed with hours of work doing repairs below with the boat pitching and rolling in the seas. I lit the Aladdin heater, thoroughly warmed myself up, and got some rest. The boat was almost halfway, 300 miles out, with 350 to go.
TUESDAY, JUNE 10
At 6 AM on the daily get together on 14.212 Mc Dick, K1RAW, in Massachusetts was received for the first time, as the East Coast was now far enough away for the radio "skip" to connect us. The wind had shifted to the north now at 15 mph, less directly astern, making for a more stable, faster ride. The meander's added four knots had made the slow, sloppy progress through the waves into an express run over the bottom, with 88 miles from 7 PM to 7 AM. And the rest and warmth had helped, as I actually felt good enough to cook a breakfast.
The wind continued to veer and die, going north, then northeast and then dying completely by the afternoon, leaving the boat drifting sideways in calm water at 2.7 knots in another eddy not shown on the chart. With accurate information I would have intercepted this mass of spinning water some miles to the west where it would be setting toward Bermuda. The air was motionless so I dropped the sails to shade the cabin and stop the cabin temperature from going past 95 degrees.
The calmer seas allowed replacement of corroded wiring on the bow running light which had failed late the night before. The clear blue water and tropical heat was inviting for a swim, but the water was full of sea lice and other swimming bugs. A light southeast wind came up at sundown and died later. Then the wind came up suddenly, hitting 20 knots, and in yet another Chinese fire drill I reefed the mainsail and changed jibs just in time for the wind to die again. Noon to midnight I had done another 6 sail changes and I envied the boys with the roller furling. This continued fluky weather was wearing out the skin on my fingers, and the slatting of the sails was wearing out the rig.
About midnight, on one of my horizon scans I saw the green blinking light of a buoy, flashing at 3 second intervals. At sea, no boats are supposed to have blinking lights, only buoys. With the nearest land 250 miles away, and the bottom 3 miles down, there should be no buoys around. As I was tired, and the boat was going less than 2 knots, I went back to sleep. On the next scan 30 minutes later, it was now behind me, and I triangulated its position at 35-47 N and 67-11 W. I learned later from a radio ham on the Maritime Net that these are oceanographic moored buoys, and that when they break loose, a mile or two of tether is floating around, waiting to foul anybody who approaches too close.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 11
Every day at 7AM and 7PM the racers attempted contact with one another for chat hour and position reports. This morning there were fish tales. A huge floating white lump was seen by another boat, and on approach, it turned out to be a dead right whale with a cloud of birds and a few shards of skin, its head crushed in and its white blubber exposed. On recounting my experience with the dolphins imitating the rudder squeaks, I heard from some experienced skippers that they like music, especially opera, and that in a previous race one boat had kept a throng swimming alongside for half an hour with a rendition of La Traviata.
By noon the wind increased to 5-15 mph out of the southwest, and the slatting stopped. The rudder was making more noise, and I had my first look at a flying fish. It stayed a few inches over the waves with rapidly beating side fins, which were a blur like a hummingbird's wings. I rewired the radio power leads that had gotten soaked from all the water sloshing in the bilge, and did further work on the strum box to get better suction from the electric bilge pump. Installing a bungee cord lifting gently up on the tiller near the rudder post magically silenced the squeaking rudder, implying it was O K, and so full sail was set. The four o'clock weather briefing informed us that a cold eddy had appeared on our course to Bermuda. Course was altered 15 degrees to the west to take advantage. A phone patch home courtesy of the 14.3 Mc net was gratefully received.
During the 7 PM chat hour there was an alert regarding a missing member of our fleet, Palangi, as no one had heard from her since Saturday night. The family and Coast Guard were getting concerned. By midnight the wind was up to 25 mph in the gusts, and sail was once again reduced, this time down to three reefs in the mainsail with the little mule up front. With 130 miles to go the big swells of the past few days continued dying. It seemed the swells were shrinking with increasing distance from the Gulf Stream.
THURSDAY, JUNE 12
At 2:30 AM a red position light appeared, close in, and calls on channel 16 were answered by none other than David, aboard the missing Palangi. After his autopilot died on Saturday, he hove-to to fix it and sleep, and then found himself out of VHF range of the fleet. With no HF or satellite phone, he was cut off. His autopilot had subsequently "dried out" and he caught up. This was the first really sunny day of the trip. Now it was finally possible to use the solar panel, although first the plug had to be repaired. With good signals and plenty of juice, I spent an hour talking with the crew on 14.212 Mc: Jack in Florida, Bill, GI4TUJ, in Northern Ireland, and Barry, DJ0JX, in Germany.
The wind settled down to a steady 15 mph, and I put on full sails attempting to catch up with Palangi, a Catalina 36 rated to be about half a knot slower than Topaz. She continued to move ahead until by noon she had disappeared over the horizon. I thought about putting up the new spinnaker, but thought better of it since I was already doing 6 knots, and it was a lot of wind for someone who had never put one up before. With the batteries nearly recharged the generator was retrieved, and Topaz, moving under full sail with nothing holding her back, rapidly overhauled a sail that had appeared on the horizon. With Bermuda less than a hundred miles out, I decided to practice with the sextant in case it was needed, so I measured the angular height of the mast ahead at intervals. I deduced that the time it takes a mast to double in size should equal the time remaining before the boat it belongs to is passed.
The boat ahead turned out to be Ned in Lolligag, instigator of our "Mad Hatter" sailing team in last year's Newport to Block Island race. At 1 PM, with Ned just 3 miles ahead, Harbor Radio was contacted on the 4Mc. marine band, and they wanted my present position, route, and an estimated time of arrival at the St. George "Sea Buoy". They sounded just like Boston Center, and I responded "65 miles northwest, Kitchen Shoals, Sea Buoy at midnight" as if I was reciting an instrument clearance. With success now at hand, I got careless, with frightening results. Missing a step going below, I hit my head on a sharp protuberance and had a sudden rush of blood saturating my hair. Luckily paper towels were sufficient to stop the bleeding.
At 4 PM Ned was passed, the loom of Bermuda was sighted, and I was amazed at how unmoved I was. After hearing all the stories about how wonderful and emotional the first sight of land is supposed to be, I was surprised at how little it mattered to me. Soloing an airplane was similarly anticlimactic. Much more exciting was the fact that another boat had popped up on the horizon and its mast height had doubled from 4 to 8 PM, indicating we would be neck and neck at the finish around midnight.
The wind continued at 15 mph and Kitchen Shoals, a few miles from the finish, was passed about 10 PM., with the boat ahead only a quarter mile away. At the Mills Breaker finish line I was 200 yards, or 1 minute behind, after 7896 minutes (5 days, 11 hours and 36 minutes). Later at the club I found out I was in last place on corrected time, but that did little to detract from my triumph that I'd made it and had five days of quality time on the ocean.
FRIDAY, JUNE 13
Unfortunately, the swell had all but vanished, even along the northeastern part of the island, so surfing was not looking good. Harbor Radio was contacted at 0045 local time (2345 ship's time), and clearance received to enter the Town Cut, which is a man made passage through the reef just barely wide enough for one cruise ship. The boat was docked at the St Georges Dinghy and Sports Club by 2 AM Bermuda Time, and I stepped onto land for the first time in five days.
On the dock I discovered just how much Gulf Stream swells had affected my equilibrium, and the cold Heineken pressed into my palm had no stabilizing effect. The club was quiet, and I returned to the boat to pump the bilge one last time and catch a catnap. After daybreak a gala breakfast was served at the club, and we queued up in the afternoon to visit with the customs inspectors, who didn't even look in the direction of the boats. So much for the blather about firearms, drugs, etc. that had been in our pre-race paperwork. That night the Club provided an excellent live band to dance to.
SATURDAY, JUNE 14 - THURSDAY, JUNE 19
After another great breakfast at the club, my Bermuda Net friend Mike, VP9KK came by in his cab, and we headed out to see the Cut completely filled by the bulk of a departing cruise ship. He drove to a nearby beach, and the waves bounced straight up off the reefs, indicating that the coral might be shaped wrong for surfing, even if there were waves. Very discouraging. I was invited to attend the Royal Bermuda Radio Society meeting, which featured a debate as to whether to use US or British ham licensing rules. The Bermuda government had apparently left it up to the local radio club to set the country's regulations.
With some uncertainty regarding whether the boat would be repaired in time for the start of the race home, I decided to cancel my crew and single-hand back. My wife Judith and daughter Kate flew in for an overnight visit, and the surfboards got wet in the boat basin with daughter Kate's paddling off the dock. Repairs to the gooseneck were done on Thursday the 19th, in between rain showers, with 600-volt wires snaked on a wet deck. The rudder had checked out OK as far as I could tell from diving on it, so I signed up to make the start of the race on the next day. The replacement crankshaft for my weedwhacker had not arrived, but this was not a show stopper. I bought a case of Gosling's Crystal, a tasty $8 gin, to help me pass the additional time afloat. As most of my provisions were uneaten on the way out, minimal food shopping was necessary for the trip back.
At the weather briefing for our departure, the Bermuda weather gurus provided a series of daily forecast charts showing the prospect of another "lumpy" crossing, as there was a front and a low with gale force winds scheduled to hit the fleet in the Gulf Stream. I had gone to the local sailmaker/internet cafe to plot a route home and found that the huge meander that had brought us down in such fine style was still sitting on the direct (rhumb line) course. The choice was either to go east into the thick of the weather and grab a better looking but complicated pattern of meander and eddy, or go west, have less weather, and get shoved sideways crossing the Stream, which should give a better opportunity for boat-surfing, as the big rollers would be coming from the side rather than astern. I wrote down the coordinates of the aiming points for each course and headed back to spend my last night ashore at the Club dock. Customs appeared and we were officially cleared out of port that afternoon.
FRIDAY, JUNE 20
Another big gourmet breakfast was followed by un-docking at dead low tide to get to the start. I had been diving to clear rocks from around the Topaz's keel in the slip as it bottomed at every low tide, and now it scraped and bounced on the way out, barely making it to the channel under full power.
We started in the harbor with a brisk 15-20 mph southwest breeze, our class 3 going over the line at 10:40 local time and jockeying for position to squeeze through the Town Cut two miles away. I had a single reef in the mainsail and the bigger (180 square foot) mule, rather than the full genoa, and appeared to be the only boat not under full sail. At the exit from the Cut I was surprised at the size of the crowds standing and waving to each of us as we headed out to sea.
I got an enthusiastic cheer from the crowd, perhaps because I was the only one going solo. Several boats ahead flying spinnakers were occasionally losing control as the breeze stiffened. An hour out, after passing Kitchen Shoals, still with no swell, the fleet began to split up as each skipper set course, either to the east or west. For some reason feelings of anxiety and melancholy settled in.
I envied the more aggressive skippers going east, as the gale force winds forecast on Sunday on that route would be less of a delay than the likely calms on the western route. Sailing solo with a squeaking rudder, a repaired gooseneck, and still dependent on the backup generator, I had to aim west. Up ahead one competitor's blue spinnaker shredded as the breeze continued to increase. I saw several flying fish, and noticed that they were actually able to make long aerial runs around wavetops under complete control. By sundown the wind was averaging 20 mph and the mainsail was reefed twice, with the boat barreling along at 7 knots through 6-8 foot seas.
Unknown to me, about 30 miles ahead Everest Horizontal was going 12-13 knots under its 100% jib and full main, no doubt bouncing off those seas in spectacular fashion as skipper Tim Kent was trying to catch the other Open boat, Margaret Anna, which he had just learned was a "few miles" ahead. Tim later reported hearing two loud bangs, and the Everest rolled over, its 4000-pound keel bulb gone. With a handful of flares and his headlamp to read the instructions by, he and his crew clung to the rudders of his inverted boat and got the attention of the cruise ship Nordic Empress, which rescued them.
SATURDAY, JUNE 21
By 1 AM Topaz had already covered the first 100 miles, the seas were up to 8', and a third reef was taken in the mainsail. Even so, the boat was still doing 6 knots, although a knot was lost to an encounter with yet another uncharted eddy that would be boosting those steering farther east. Two competitors still in sight slowly pulled ahead, indicating that the comfortable ride I was having under reduced sail had its cost. Carrying extra sail on Topaz in her present condition meant leaking heavily, pounding, and a high risk of breaking either the rudder or the gooseneck.
By 7 AM I was steering a course of about 320 degrees, "heading for the pizza on the boardwalk at Asbury Park N.J.", as I said during chat hour. The seas were up to ten feet, coming from the northwest, and a third reef was taken in the mainsail just in time for the wind to back off to 10-15 mph. With the seas growing, I decided to prepare for the weather ahead before the motion got too violent to do the work. I lashed down the engine and its hatch cover and screwed down the hatches under the settees. With 500 miles to go at 11 AM I was able to get a call home via the Maritime Net and let the folks know I was well on my way.
At noon the wind had piped up to almost 30 mph, the jib was taken down, and the seas were up to 12-15 feet. The Sailomat vane steered flawlessly, and the boat was making 7 knots under the triple reefed mainsail alone, but riding remarkably well in the boisterous seas. The water sluicing over the deck and cabin top was finding new ways to get in, leaks were proliferating, and the water rose above the cabin floor when Topaz heeled, with stuff falling off the table and getting wet.
At the 4 PM weather briefing Herb's weather forecast focused on the eastern route. With the HF I called him up and got the information for the western route that light northwest winds (on the nose) would be coming in a few hours. Not good news, especially since these headwinds would not hit the eastern part of the fleet till later, giving them a further benefit. Unknown to all but a well-informed few, it turned out that the meander had suddenly moved east, and most of those who were going east were in for the mother of all foul currents, a day long slog against 3-knots on the nose.
By 7 PM the wind had become squally. One moment the wind was howling, the ocean streaked with foam, and the boat was hitting 9 knots with the triple reefed mainsail alone, but still riding easily like a duck. The next minute the wind backed off to 5 or 10 mph. A nearby boat had measured a gust at over 50 mph. As the night wore on the sea and wind dropped rapidly, and I put up a little 70 square foot storm jib which doubled my sail area and got the speed back up to 7 knots . Just before midnight, the wind hauled around to the northwest at 15 mph and it began to rain. I pointed the boat due north.
SUNDAY, JUNE 22
The seas were 6 feet and diminishing, and Newport was now a little more than 400 miles away. As the night wore on, the rain stopped and the wind switched back to the west at 10-15 mph. At 7 AM I put up the big mule and shook out a reef in the mainsail to maximize this opportunity to lay course directly toward my Gulf Stream entry point 120 miles ahead.
On 14.212 Mc. in the morning I told Bill and Jack about my fun in the weather, and Bill recalled a 100-knot hurricane he had been in while working as a radio operator on a steamship. I also got Mike on the morning Bermuda net, as I was now far enough away from him for the "skip" to work. The news about Everest Horizontal had gotten into the papers, and everyone was curious about the weather we had experienced. The wind was down to 15 mph, so I let out the mainsail to one reef, increasing speed to 7 knots through 10-foot seas. The boat continued to leak, so I wasn't anxious to push harder.
In the afternoon the west wind veered and increased to 20 mph, forcing me to steer north of my entry point, but still kept up good speed. I sent another ham radio message home, letting them know Topaz was now halfway and estimating an early Thursday AM arrival. At this point in the race the boats were the most spread out, so that the radio chat hour with the rest of the fleet on VHF found few within range, so I switched to the Marine HF channel at 4.149 Mc to join those boats that had HF. The mainsail was lowered down to three reefs and the storm jib put up as the wind was getting squally approaching the edge of the Gulf Stream. Toward midnight the wind shifted to the north and would die between rainsqualls, but the sails were kept small to minimize slatting in the 6'-8' swells. Newport was now 300 miles ahead.
MONDAY, JUNE 23
During the night several flying fish came aboard. They were strange creatures, with outsized wing like side fins and skinny bodies. Seas were less than 10 feet but I was definitely in the 100 mile wide Gulf Stream as the current was now setting me to the east at 1-2 knots. From my surfing experience I had learned the fastest way to paddle across a rip current was to go at a slight angle downstream, so I steered a bit east of north. The northwest wind occasionally piped up to 20 mph and was offering the best boat surfing of the trip, with some rides comparable to those on a board.
Just after sunrise the 20 meter ham radio band was good, and I had a chat with Bill and Jack, and later got Mike again in Bermuda. Everybody was interested in how the Gulf Stream was. While the water was very different from the regular ocean, and definitely had that jumpy quality of the inside of a washing machine, there were no 20 foot square waves or walls of cloud filled with lightning. Days earlier it had probably been different, as the 15 foot swells I had been encountering on the way from Bermuda had come from the direction of the Stream.
The backup water generator was now making noise and after the morning battery recharge, I disassembled it to give it a lube job. One of the four rare earth magnets had split and was rubbing the commutator. Ignorant of how glasslike and grabby these exotic magnets were, I sliced open my finger removing it and spent a half hour mopping up blood and bandaging it with masking tape and paper towels. I now had a severe imbalance in forces as the opposite magnet's pull on the commutator was unopposed, and had to use a hammer and drift pin to whack a similar piece off the opposite magnet, leaving two of the four magnets intact and functional.
I celebrated my successful splitting of the magnet with a beer, marveling at how casually I was watching the disassembled generator's parts rolling around the cabin floor as the Sailomat steered and occasionally surfed the larger Gulf Stream swells. The bilge water was below the floorboards, so the parts remained dry while I cleaned the commutator, repacked the bearings, and put it back together. When it was tested, it put out the expected half power, enough so that I wouldn't need to do severe power rationing, and could continue to use the HF and power tools.
With the ocean water temperature finally dropping it appeared that I was clear of the Gulf Stream about midnight, so I could finally turn west and head more toward Newport without bucking 3 knots of current. Unfortunately, leaving the warm stream also seemed to kill the wind, with the boat speed dropping from 7 knots to 5 as the wind dropped from 20 to10 mph.
TUESDAY, JUNE 24
By daybreak the wind had veered to the north-northeast, allowing me to head almost straight home. The seas subsided to less than 6 feet, the two reefs were shaken out of the mainsail, and the water temperature continued to drop, reaching 64 degrees after breakfast. The ride was getting pleasant, with nothing breaking down, no water coming on deck, and no more major leaking.
I had my morning chat with Bill, who mentioned the heat in Northern Ireland and in London, then got onto the Maritime Mobile service net to tell my family I had crossed the Stream. I then saw my first enroute ship, apparently an empty tanker sliding southwest in the countercurrent north of the Gulf Stream. I hailed her on VHF with the title "Big Tanker", and identified myself as the "little sailboat" off her port bow. I told her I was the "Topaz, 5 tons" and she replied that she was the "Iridell, 8271 Tons"
The north wind was dying, the seas continued to subside to less than 3 feet, and the boat was down to 3 knots. Just before 5 PM a pair of cannon shots shattered the calm, and I spilled my coffee. I was talking with another boat at the time, and he said "what shots". Two minutes later he heard them and came on the radio to say that the double boom was the Concorde's distinctive sound signature. No wonder they kept that thing subsonic over civilization. At 1200 mph the two minute time delay told us the lateral separation between our boats was about 40 miles. On the evening radio "chat" hour "Indigo" reported that during Sunday the weather on the eastern route included a waterspout and winds of 60 mph.
By 7 PM the seas were flatter than Newport Harbor, a phenomenon I had never seen before on the open ocean. The sea was littered with lobster pots, and a check of the chart showed I was over a prime offshore ground, at the edge of the Continental shelf. Now both Panacea and Indigo were visible, and the wind died completely for two hours, freezing our relative positions.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 25
The wind came up out of the southwest just after midnight at 5 mph, actually filling the big genoa as the seas were so flat it wouldn't slat. The lack of waves had deprived me of my "rock-it" fuel for the bungee powered mainsail. As a result I had logged a record low 6 miles in the 6 hours ending at 1 AM with 120 miles to go. Adding to the strangeness of this lack of wind or waves, I noticed that the water temperature had climbed back up to 70 degrees as I drifted north of 40 degrees north. Apparently I was near the center of an uncharted warm eddy. The eastern fleet would likely be feeling some pain from this one.
With two competitors, Panacea and Indigo in sight, 80 miles to go, and the seas still table-flat, I decided it was time to try out the new 650 square foot spinnaker whose color matched Barney the Purple Dinosaur. This was the first time I had ever set a spinnaker single handed, but it was an asymmetrical type with a sock, so it went up easily. In the 5-10 mph southwesterly the propulsive effect was breathtaking. Instead of wallowing in the heat going 2 knots, the boat steadied down with a slight heel and accelerated to 5 knots, with a nice breeze across the deck. On the ham radio I soon found an experienced racer who told me a spinnaker pulls best when its sheet is slacked off until it is almost collapsed, a tip good for another knot. While on the radio I also got a phone patch home and gave an ETA of early the following morning.
It was time to rest, as the coming night would be a busy one dodging traffic while approaching the coast. The wind had veered to the west, but I gave it little thought and went below for my sleep. It shifted back to the south as I slept, and the wind-following vane gear did its job, keeping the spinnaker full but turning the boat 90 degrees to the left. When I awoke, the GPS revealed the off course track was only a few miles, Indigo was still in range, and Panacea was almost gone.
During the afternoon I slowly overhauled Indigo, passing her around sundown, but watched Panacea getting smaller during the evening. With 50 miles to go I discovered a mosquito aboard, which is not supposed to fly more than 50 feet offshore. Bermuda was supposed to be a mosquito-free island, so that meant this critter had either bred aboard the boat or hitched a ride all the way from Newport. Either way, there may have been others that left the boat in Bermuda, thereby contaminating it.
The wind was now 10 to 15 mph and the boat was ripping through the flat ocean at 7 knots under the pull of "Barney" when I went below again to get some more rest. I awoke this time to a blow to the head, having slid on my bunk and hit my head on the bulkhead. The boat was stopped, and on deck I noticed a large sunfish lollygagging astern, which explained the cause of my sudden stop. Chat hour wisdom revealed that such collisions are quite common. Because my boat is so light, the typical 500 lb. sunfish would stop it dead, so harnesses should be worn in bed when going fast.
By evening the wind was up to a steady 15 mph and "Barney" was dragging in the water and really heeling the boat. As night fell I was able to douse the chute without destroying it. By standing on the cabin top I got the cell phone to hit the tower on Block Island, and called home and the Newport Yacht Club to warn them of my imminent arrival. The wind started dying after dark, and Indigo, still flying her chute, was gaining.
THURSDAY, JUNE 26
Somewhat after 2 AM, with half a mile to go to the finish off the Brenton Reef buoy, Indigo was now a quarter mile away, gaining with spinnaker up in almost no wind. After some fumbling I managed to get my spinnaker set in the dark in time to beat Indigo to the line by about a tenth of a mile. The 635 mile trip home had taken 137 hours of sailing, and I later found out I had gained some time on my friend Drew Wood, who was still more than half a day out.
The next morning I went ashore to the Newport Yacht Club to clear Customs and hand in my log to the Race Committee. I noticed I was not rocking on my feet like the first days ashore in Bermuda, presumably because of the flat seas the last two days. A young sailing instructor came up to me and asked if I would give a talk about my trip to his group in the junior sailing program, which I did for about half an hour. One of the kids wanted to know if I'd seen any sharks. Driving my car home in rush hour on route 128 the next day, I marveled at how enjoyable it was. It was as if the other cars were waves in the Gulf Stream and I was once again weaving and sliding between them.