(This post is the second of three chronicling our trip from the USVI to Ft. Lauderdale, FL during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Part 1, covering the first three days, can be found here.)
Day 4 (Monday, April 27, 2020)
(Karen) We see three ships on Day 4. Two show up on our chart in the middle of the night; they are so far away we wouldn’t have noticed them without the AIS system on the chartplotter. The third, however, is on a direct collision course with us when I come above for my 7 a.m. shift. Andy has been monitoring the approaching boat and deciding where/when to alter our course when he notices that the big tanker does so first. Technically, since he’s bigger and less maneuverable, it’s on us to get out of his way, so we’re grateful for this. So many big ship captains treat sailboats with indifference, if not contempt – it’s nice to encounter one who is considerate.
Andy has been keeping very close track of our fuel consumption. We’re running just the port engine, at 1600 RPMs (low, but enough to maintain helm if the wind shifts), both to conserve fuel and to protect the starboard engine. Before we left Andy did a lot calculating to ensure that we’d have enough fuel for the whole journey; now he’s monitoring our actual usage to compare it to his estimates. Always the project manager. The good news is, we’re exceeding expectations by a wide margin – using much less fuel than we’d expected. We hit the 1/3 mark of our distance home and we’ve only used 1/8 of our fuel. This is very encouraging. If it keeps up, we’ll have enough to boost our speed later in the week, when the wind is predicted to die down.
(Andy) We’ve been cutting the engines and operating under sail power whenever we can. After all, this was the only way you could do it in the olden days. We let the sails all the way out “wing on wing” to catch as much of the tailwind as possible. The waters here are an amazing three miles deep, and the bioluminescence is bright after the sun goes down.
Around 3:00 a.m., we turn to our next waypoint at the start of the Old Bahamas Channel, which is 322 nautical miles away. It will take 2½ days to get there. I am very thankful that we have a good (great) autopilot system that allows us to dial in a heading and occasionally trim the sails. We are making better than 7 knots right now.
Silence is broken as a big mahi viciously strikes the lure I rigged earlier today. It lunges up out of the water, and the crest tells me that it is a big bull. Alas, it comes right up to the boat and then under us, catching the line in the propellor on the starboard side. I can feel the line getting nicked as I fight the fish. Just like that, the prop severs the line and it is gone. I am inconsolable.
Day 5 (Tuesday, April 28)
(Karen) Today is the first time my 1:00 a.m. watch is difficult. It is hard to wake up and hard to stay awake; my eyes feel like someone poured sand in them. The podcasts are not helping. I don’t want to drink more caffeine in case it hurts my chances of sleeping soundly later. I tough it out and walk around the deck to stay awake. This decision is rewarded by the sight of a shooting star. And more bioluminescence (turns out it will be visible throughout most of our trip, until we leave the coast of Cuba). 4:00 a.m. finally arrives so I can SLEEP.
At 6:50 my alarm goes off and I wake up feeling much better. Also, I smell bacon! Andy has cooked us breakfast, which fills my heart with love and gratitude. We eat and then fire up the satellite transceiver and send/receive emails. It’s nice to hear from our family and to let them know we’re still right as rain out here.
(Andy) When we left St. John as part of the Salty Dawg flotilla, we were not alone. Other boats were traveling behind us on the same general path. This was good, because if you have some issue, you will have sailors behind you who may be able to come to your aid. The only catch is that we left before the other boats did. If I had it to do over, I might try and stick with the group. It would be nice right now to have others within radio range.
Around 7:00 p.m. just as we’re approaching Cuba, our clew flies loose! (The line tying the clew, or rear bottom corner of the mainsail, to the boom, broke free.) Also, while I am staring at our now-useless main sail and trying to come up with a solution, the fishing line begins to tear out. Mahi!
Once that fun is over, Karen figures out an easy way to fix the sail. There are reefing lines attached along the back edge that we pull in when we want to reduce the area (and power) of our sail. By lowering the main a bit and engaging one of those reefing lines, we realign the sail along the boom, where it belongs. Problem solved.
As we approach Haiti, our VHF radio starts picking up interference which only grows louder the closer we get. We had been warned about this, but the reality of it sounds like 10 machine guns firing at once. The radio is basically useless right now. It will stay that way for the next 12 hours, from one end of Haiti to the other.
A Word About Routines
(Karen) I am finding the long passage more manageable, physically and emotionally, because of our strict 3-hour watch system. We know exactly when we will be sleeping and when we will be on duty. We each have our particular rhythm in which we work, whether on watch or off.
Both of us sleep for a full two of our four “off” watches. In the other two, we divide the labor that’s required to keep the boat (and ourselves) functioning: preparing meals, checking oil levels and water strainers, tidying, showering, working out, or taking short naps. And of course we still have a little bit of free time too.
While on watch, the priority is helm maintenance. This includes monitoring our AIS and radar for other boats, changing our route between waypoints, and trimming the sails because the wind has changed. Between these tasks, we entertain ourselves with things not- too-engrossing. Listening to podcasts or sermons or music playlists is perfect, because you can keep your gaze on the horizon or the chart plotter. Probably half the time I’m on watch I’m either reading a book or doing some writing – journaling, making notes for the blog, composing emails. If my reading or writing is mentally absorbing, I will set a timer on my watch to remind me every 5-10 minutes to look around and check the chart.
Sometimes, I pause before returning to the book or the podcast and get up, walk around the deck, and stare out over the ocean. During the day, I might see flying fish, seagulls if we’re not too far from land, or something really fun, like dolphins. At night, I soak in the stars, the twinkling bioluminescence, the reflection of the moon on the water. This week we’ve had a new moon, just a sliver of a crescent, but there’s still enough shine on the waves to light our course.
Andy spends a lot of his down time reading, too, as well as watching downloaded movies, maintaining his fishing gear, and nudging his programming projects along. And we both enjoy the NYT Crossword app – we downloaded several from the archives before we departed. We work together on the harder Friday and Saturday puzzles.
Day 6 (Wednesday April 29)
(Karen) We are now northeast of Cuba’s shores, in the waters between Cuba and the southwestern Bahamas, heading toward the entrance to Old Bahamas Channel. The 1 a.m. watch is somewhat easier than it was last night – I am definitely tired, but my eyes are not so stinging and teary. I am glad when 4 a.m. comes, though, and I can sleep again.
When I come above at 7 a.m., Andy is filleting last night’s catch on the stern. I heat up some mini-quiches I had made and froze, and we eat breakfast together. Then I climb to the helm and send an email to the Salty Dawg folks to update them on our current position. Yesterday they sent me a link to the website where they are tracking all the boats in the current flotilla. You can click on each little dot on the map and see the boat’s name. We find our friends Candace and Cliff, on High C’s. They are about 8 hours ahead of us.
At lunchtime we have a decision to make. A couple of days ago the Salty Dawgs sent us an advisory that very heavy weather is predicted around the exit of the Old Bahamas Channel from Thursday evening until around dawn on Friday. We’ve been casually discussing a contingency plan, knowing that if all goes as expected, we will not exit the OBC on Thursday in time to avoid the predicted storms. I say “casually” because there are no guarantees that all will go as planned. The wind might die, or we might have other issues that require us to slow or change our course.
We have two basic choices: keep going, at a drastically slower pace, to add 16 hours to our travel time. Or stop and wait those 16 hours out. We can’t anchor – we don’t have permission to be in Bahamian waters, and we sure can’t go to Cuba. But there is a sailing technique called “heaving-to,” where you trim the sails and turn the rudder to work in opposition to each other. It doesn’t completely stop the boat – but it slows us down dramatically.
We study the chart and pick a nice wide area, about 12 nautical miles off our current course, where we think we can “park” Gratitude. He plots the course, and I trim the sails. Then it’s my watch, so I man the helm while autopilot steers us to our parking spot. (Andy’s note: Outside of sailing school, Karen’s never done the heave-to maneuver before, so this is a good opportunity for her to get hands-on experience with it on Gratitude.) We set the angle of the boat, arrange the sails and rudder in opposition to each other, and the boat slows to a 0.9-knot speed. We are officially “hove to”.
We still have to maintain a lookout, so we can’t just pass out into a nice 16-hour nap, like I wish. However, we’re out of the main sailing channels now and miles away from Bahamian waters, so we can relax our vigilance a bit. Our speed is so slow that we will have plenty of time to see and react to anything unexpected.
We decide to keep our normal watch schedule but allow ourselves naps between hourly checks. If anything shows up on the radar, it will be at least 1-2 hours away. I bake some cookies for our afternoon snack. For dinner we season and grill half of our mahi fillets, and wow! They are DELICIOUS, with some rice sprinkled with sesame oil and mirin.
Andy retires, and I take my 7-10pm shift. Our speed is still nice and slow, but the boat is now slowly drifting INTO the waves, back toward the spot where we changed course. This makes for a rocky, rolly, bumpy ride. Very uncomfortable.
I sit in the aft cockpit, where I can stretch out a bit, and listen to the next two installments of Serial. I climb to the helm to check the plotter every hour on the hour, holding the handrails carefully as the boat continues to bounce. At 10 p.m. I go to bed, looking forward to – gasp – FOUR straight hours of sleep! Andy will check the helm at the end of his 10-1 shift, so there’s no need for me to awaken till 2.
This makes me almost giddy. All day long I have been… well, not sleepy, but slow. Dull-witted. It takes me a hot minute to express a thought or answer a question or figure out my game plan for fixing dinner. Four straight hours of sleep, followed by one two-hour stretch with only one short interruption to check the chart plotter, sounds downright healing! Even with the washing-machine action of the boat.
Day 7 (Thursday, April 30)
I awaken to the alarm at 1:55 a.m. And when I come above, I find – wait for it – ANOTHER SHIP! IN OUR PATH! It’s a large freighter, and it’s 75 minutes away, but if I take no action, we will get way too close to it. As in, maybe 50 feet. It is the only ship we have seen, or will see, all night long. THE TIMING!
To be continued…