Out of Sight

The Abaco Islands, Bahamas to North Carolina: 440 nautical miles

In April, after sailing from Cuba, the Florida Keys, and finally the Bahamas, Z and I made Electra’s longest passage yet. Towards the end of the cruise we recounted the best hours riding the gulf stream, the wind behind us, the calms, and the electricity of the squalls. The good outweighed any negative sensations from the past few days. We made it past the seemingly insurmountable challenges like fear, seasickness, and fatigue. Hindsight made me feel like I could stay at sea indefinitely.

We were a tenth of the way into our voyage when a 30 knot puff descended on us. A crash jibe caused the main sheet traveler car to explode with a bang. The boom swung hard and broke the adjustable hardware securing it to the deck, the boom vang also broke. The entire main sail and boom flailed violently against the rigging. That night and day of squalls are burned into our collective memories.

I stood at the helm in my harness and tether, foul weather gear and sneakers. I stayed calm after the squall hit and tried to think rationally. I was terrified that the flailing boom was going to find a weakness in the rigging and cause another breakdown. I was scared stiff, yet game for anything that had to be done to correct the mistake.

The crash jibe could have been avoided if Electra was allowed to steer herself into the wind. Instead of letting the boat balance herself, I muscled the wheel hard to the lee in a knee jerk reaction. It was more like I was going for speed on a race course instead of sailing in survival mode. Immediately after the gust, blood pumping, I was glad to be hanging onto the helm.

Without me saying a word, Z sprang from his bunk into the cockpit suited up in his bibs, jacket, boots, harness, and tether. We both knew the risks associated with leaving the cockpit and going on deck in a storm. Z safely improvised a repair. He cut some extra line and rigged a bridal from the traveller bar to the main sheet block. We had our game faces on. We continued to sail through the night’s turbulent deluge of pelting rain, howling wind, and limited visibility. Our conversations were short bursts. Answering my question, Z shouted, “We have to keep sailing! it’s the only way!”

Another concerning moment was when we were potentially stuck East of the Gulf Stream in a North West wind. The waves had calmed down since the first day, but we couldn’t forecast if the wind was going to shift to the North, turn against the Gulf Stream producing steep frequent chop, making the Stream basically unnavigable. We accounted for what seemed like unrelenting bad weather, and a failing battery bank which we planned to replace after returning to the U.S. We considered bailing out of our planned cruise track.

During brief periods of rest between each storm cell we collected ourselves, we were tired and hungry. Every step you take in a seaway is a little more effort than on shore. For two days, lightning bolts and heinously terrifying yet freakishly beautiful clouds surrounded us. Early on the second evening, strong multidirectional gusts of wind made for a wild ride. We attempted to shorten sail again, furling more of the jib and the mainsail.

To shorten sail, Z positioned the boat’s heading into the wind, while I wrapped the main sail’s furling line around the automatic cabin-top winch and let the main halyard ease off around a horn cleat. As the bottom of the sail spooled into the boom, the top of the sail luffed loudly. With dismay, we watched and heard three main sail battens snap due to the changed boom-mast-angle, a result of the broken boom vang. One piece of a batten flew out of the sail and into the ocean. We salvaged the other two pieces, and later modified them to a smaller size for reuse.

We watched the clouds and took evasive maneuvers. Our VHF radio blared loud alerts. The National Weather Service in Florida was broadcasting emergency weather announcements, on repeat we heard something like: “Seek shelter from severe weather, high winds in the 40-50 mph range with gusts exceeding 60 mph. Hail, rain, lightning, flooding pose a threat to life and property.” We watched as this heavyweight storm rolled off the land and into pieces. The smaller storms were not as menacing as the storm over ground, but paired with the official warning, they were not taken lightly. Night fell and the darkness magnified the lightning bolts and obscured the shapes of the ominous dark clouds.

Around 20 nm East of the Gulf Stream, and 80 nm East of Cape Canaveral, Florida we experimented to find the best point of sail while accounting for multiple variables: the storms, the wind and wave direction, our fuel supply, and coastal destinations. In the early hours of April 25th, we hove-to for some peace amidst the chaos.

Especially for Z, a good percentage of the previous forty hours were exhausting. During a blow, if Z wasn’t addressing something in need of immediate repair, he was at the helm, or adjusting sails to efficiently sail through the some of the worst weather that either of us had ever seen. Oddly, he seemed to enjoy it.

Thriving despite the compromising weather, Z expounded on the importance of learning to sail in small boats. Relentlessly, Z kept Electra moving forward. He was humble and respectful of the power of the sea, but not shy in reiterating his handle on the situation. Even so, heaving-to was a profound relief. The maneuver slowed us down, and made the ride more comfortable.

As described by Nigel Calder in his Cruising Handbook, “The idea [of heaving-to] is to establish a balance in which the boat lies about 45 to 50 degrees off the wind, making minimal forward motion and not much leeway.”(Calder 518). For two hours, Electra’s double handed crew relaxed. Z finally got some sleep, while I periodically jumped to my feet to scan the horizon for lights.

In order for Electra to heave-to, Z trimmed both her sails to close haul, tacked without releasing the jib, and secured the helm hard to windward. Almost immediately, the tune of Electra changed. Everything quieted down with a reduction in speed, and without losing too much ground. The backed jib held the boat from pointing into the wind. To quote Calder, quoting Peter Bruce’s Heavy Weather Sailing, “’For many non-extreme yachts in heavy weather, heaving-to should be the preferred primary tactic.’ [H]eaving-to is a completely passive form of storm management that makes it impossible to actively maneuver around threatening waves.” (Calder 519) Heaving-to has its limitations, however it worked well in our situation.

At sunrise, we heard radio transmissions of updated weather forecasts between two other passage makers. The wind would eventually back (turn south), and the Gulf Stream’s rough sea state would smooth out. This was information we needed to stay on course. The predictions came true. The mesocyclone dissipated until it was out of sight, the sun appeared and delivered three days of decent wind and swift movement up the Gulf Stream.

I took the earliest opportunity to open the port holes to refresh the cabin. Before we pulled anchor in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas we stowed and secured most loose objects in preparation for the motion of a boat at sea. Despite our care, a few books came loose and hatches leaked. We dried out by the time we reached Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

It felt good to fall back into our night watch rotation. The change in wind velocity and direction produced the perfect conditions for the boat’s mechanical self steering vane, a heavy system mounted on the stern – consisting of a wind vane and rudder. To use it we secured Electra’s helm to center, trimmed the sails to the heading and wind, and adjusted the angle of the vane to the apparent wind direction. Unlike the electronic autopilot, the Hydrovane drew no power from the ship’s batteries.

On a dead run with sails wing on wing, the autopilot steered an accurate course for hours with only subtle adjustments. Night watches were easier once we were freed up from hand steering. Falling into the underway routine only happened just before reaching land. The most unique feeling was falling asleep and waking up sailing. I woke up and looked out the porthole to a complete seascape and thought I was still dreaming. Electra sailed herself, and during that time off shore we savored the feeling that the voyage was our true destination. Sailboats make good homes, but living on one is best while underway.

Assessing the trip in whole, we misjudged the weather window. Leaving a day later would have given us the good winds we expected. We could have chosen a better sail plan to prevent the crash jibe. The brutal squalls that caused a number of breakdowns could have been avoided with better passage planning.

Despite the roughness, completing the 440 nm passage in five days felt like an accomplishment. In times of struggle, it seemed as though our only choice would be to divert course and cut the five day passage in two parts. Eventually the weather let up, and staying on course was the right decision.

The only difference between cruising and racing is trophies. Sailing, in any capacity, can challenge one’s mind endlessly. Weather, electronic and mechanical systems, and passage making hold a life time’s worth of knowledge to read, experience, and share. We could have been more prepared for our sail across a small portion of the Atlantic. However we survived, and are now more prepared to face another challenging passage. In the end, the losses are nothing more than learning moments. It was a successful passage from the Bahamas to North Carolina.


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