31 || Trying Something New
We had been in the States for a long time preparing for a trip south. The argument for solo vs crewed was always very one-sided and I guess for me there was never really an option - I saw it as an opportunity.
I had decided to join the American Sailing Group ‘The Salty Dawgs’ for the trip South. I knew a few others taking part and the rallies arrangements with US & Antigua customs would make clearance simpler / possible in these times of C-19. There was also the promise of the odd rum party when we arrived.
On Sunday 1st November Fatjax was anchored in Phoebus Channel just outside Hampton VA. All the pre-departure jobs had been completed and the remains of hurricane Zeta was on its way out. The departure planned for Monday 2nd was delayed 24 hours to make sure Zeta had definitely left
A good nights sleep would have been ideal, but I wasn’t expecting it. My mind was racing with all that was to come and I guess I have settled into knowing that sleeping before any major event is not an option for me.
Tuesday 3rd of November - Sophia’s birthday - departure day. Although the wind was decreasing and leaving early would make for a faster trip, I decided to leave at a civilised time as dawn was breaking. It was perfect; A clear bright morning. Cold (4 deg) but dry with a 15 to 20 knot breeze from the North West that would gently take me and the rest of the the Fleet out of Chesapeake bay. After leaving the anchorage I found most other yachts had already left - it reminded me of getting up really early in the UK to goto the airport etc thinking that everyone else was asleep and when you reached the motorway it was nose to tail.
But that was perfect; seeing the fleet spread out in front was a bonus - I knew after a short while I would be alone.
I was busy on that first day. Going downwind was a perfect excuse to get the new spinnaker out. All went well and it made for brisk progress - although as with all ‘A’ sailed yachts not always in the right direction. It was to remain up for 24 hours being regularly furled and unfurled as conditions changed.
The excitement of the day was added to by the US navy conducting exercises in the Bay. It was amusing hearing the ships call up yachts asking them to move - Not all did!!
The day soon turned into nightfall as I was approached the Gulf Stream. The wind was variable so we were motor sailing and it was looking like a quiet night as the wind was dying before the Easterly set in. But quiet it wasn’t.
Fishing boats. Lots of Fishing boats.
And a first for me….Fishing boats with multiple contacts. There was a master contact and usually 4 other sub contacts. All contacts appeared on AIS and it was a mission to work out which contact was the boat and which were it’s buoys it had dropped behind to support the nets. Sometimes all contacts were together when the buoys were on the Fishing Boat - easy - until they were dropped of the back in our path….at night judging distance is not so easy but when something passes by quickly you know its close - its a few feet away.
So sleep was not an option until the screens were clear of traffic; only then was I able to start my sleep routine. Check the conditions and look at the sails. Check the sensors (AIS, Radar and latest weather). Scan the horizon and if all was ok set the alarm on the iPad for 20 min (After trying many different devices and alarms the iPad was found to be the easiest and loudest device). When set I could crawl into the Starboard Aft cabin, check the instruments again (there is a readout in the cabin) and sleep. All fine…..sort of. The alarm was great and did as instructed. However I did not. When sleep time was allocated I needed to sleep. But finding the off button sometimes took most of the 20 minutes :(
The North Westerly had swung as predicted around to the North East and then to the East. Day two was the easy day. The sea was flat and the wind was steady - only building to 20 knots. The sun was out and I was settling into my sleeping. All was good.
The forecast was for the breeze to build to 20 to 25 knots. It is easy to forget that this is a sea level wind speed. The boat however is mostly not at sea level and hence we get 25 to 30 knots. Another reality that is also easy to overlook is the wind angle. We were heading SSE. The wind was mostly East. All good. However if you can do some simple vectors (something in my racing days I would do several times a minute) you will see that a heading of SSE at 10 knots and the wind at 25 knots from the East results in a gale blowing over the deck from about 45 deg app.. This does not make for comfortable ocean sailing!!
And with the increase in wind the seas began to grow.
Cant remember much. Had 2 reefs in the main and the staysail - first time for Fatjax to have so little sail on show. Boat was bouncing from wave to wave. I remember thinking how can I describe this for those who don't sail at 10 knots in the Atlantic .
So...... for those with an old Landrover - Lie on the floor in the back and ask someone to go 14 miles an hour up a mountain river bed. There is no suspension on a yacht. And this yacht has very little give. It is a carbon box much like a tuned violin. The noise is continuous. The shuddering from making its way through and between the waves is also continuous. And then occasionally it would all go quiet….not good…..quiet means we are mostly airborne. So, quiet is waiting for the impact. These impacts would always wake me and depending on the level of my sleep I would wither wake and understand the impact, or wake thinking the world has just ended. Day four was quite tough.
I was beginning to ache - ache everywhere. There was no let-up in the boats motion and so every procedure including sleeping required most muscles to hold the body in a certain position. How long can you stand on a wobble board?
During the early days of the passage the weather forecasts were promising light winds for the last two days - something to look forward to. But that was just a forecast…..
Tropical storm / hurricane Etta had other plans. Etta was heading towards Florida some 600 miles to the West - so real issue for us….until it increased its size and power and started to suck in weather over 1000 miles away.
Two days out from Antigua a tropical wave formed running from East of the Caribbean islands, over Antigua towards Etta.
I slowed slightly and began to bank sleep. I knew anything could happen ahead and it would be as I approached the islands and their reefs - sleep would not be an option as I approached land.
By the end of day five the sun had been replaced by dark clouds and rain squalls started. Not bad to start with - more annoying as they would change the gradient wind by up to 90 deg and hence I would find myself heading the wrong way as we were sucked into the system. Tacking and or motoring away from the system center would solve this in order to find the gradient wind again and make progress towards Antigua.
The frequency and size of the systems increased as I approached Antigua until they seemed to form into one large storm. The accompanying rain also increased until visibility was reduced to a few meters and make any operation in the cockpit a mission.
With every hour we nudged closer. My initial target was under 7 days and on day 5 we were on course for 6 days 13 hours. But the tropical wave put an end to that.
With daylight on day 7 I could see on the plotter we were close. However only on the plotter. The visibility was still very poor in the rain.
About 5 hours out from English Harbour in the shelter of Antigua I decide to knock the sailing on the head and take down the main. It was a great feeling. I knew It was still a long way to go but the continuous sail trimming and storm dodging would be over. I think I was a little tired. So the last 5 hours was a slow motor around the southern side of Antigua to English Harbour. Not the normal way to approach but a safe bet for me. I didn’t know English harbour and was not sure if there was enough room for me to flake the main alone. So, using the Island as shelter was the best option.
I was surprised by a VHF radio call from Roxy - A salty Dawg boat anchored in the harbour to welcome the fleet in. They reassured me the anchorage was calm - the sea was not. So I gingerly entered between the rocks and anchored in the bay. It was a great relief to find the windlass worked. The Bow thruster and deck winch did not.
So I had made it…almost. Just needed to check in with customs. So……pull out the dinghy, pump it up, put the outboard on etc, get the paperwork together. make sure the online forms had been sent and go ashore. It was A little quiet but it was still raining.
It had been raining on me for over 36 hours so maybe I didn’t appreciate how hard the rain was. It was torrential - apparently the most rain the islands have seen for years. So I was ashore, but no one else was. The port office, customs, marina staff all gone home. It was midday and English harbour was deserted. So back to the boat and sleep.....well not quite.
I have not yet mentioned how the boat was during the trip. To summarise it appears there are several areas that allow water to come into the cabin. Lots of water. Lots of salty water. And over 6 days running salty water found its way everywhere. So even though we had stopped at anchor, the rain was heavy enough to still cause trickles of water - splashing on the cabin table, dripping in the heads, running all over the sail locker and its equipment….So before sleep was an option I put the sun canopy up (rain canopy!)
It would take me 5 days to clean the inside of the boat - i haven’t really started the outside yet and today (day 10 ashore) I have managed to restore functionality to the bow thruster, Windlass and Deck winch.