A Well-Earned 55 Miles

In my introductory comments to this site, I suggested that it’s actually not a small world and time doesn’t fly. I added that I want to earn my distance, not just hop a plane and be deposited somewhere. The other night my wish was granted by the Northeast Providence Channel. It roughly separates the northern and southern Bahamas.

We started in the eastern Berry Islands, on the Great Bahama Bank. Our destination was the Eleuthera Islands, also on the Great Bahama Bank. Our rumb line course (intended overall direction of travel) would be just a bit south of east, about 115 degrees on the compass. Although both island chains are on the same bank and separated by only 55 miles, I’d be transiting the Northeast Providence Channel. In retrospect, talking to my son (Capitan Jack) a couple days later he said the Northeast Providence Channel is known for kicking-up quickly. The way the seabed is configured, I’d be crossing water that is 8,000-9,000 feet deep—talk about unfathomable.

As a quick aside, I’m writing this from Hazel James’s cockpit at sunrise anchored in Royal Island Harbour, Eleuthera. A half-mile separates me from any other yacht. It’s amazingly tranquil without a breath of wind. Two things occur to me. First, the stark differences the sea can show a person in such a short period of time, from near-raging to a pussy cat. Second, I’m only 150-200 miles from home. Lots of adventure can be had in your backyard.

Beginning with the end in mind and working backwards, it’s a very bad idea to enter a new harbor, anchorage or any shallow water at night. This is especially true in islands like the Bahamas where channels are not so nearly well marked. So far I’ve found in the Bahamas, if a chart shows a marker-light or pole or bouy, there’s a less than 50/50 chance it actually will be there. Given that, coupled with the 55 miles that I needed to put under the keel and HJ’s anticipated 4-6 knot speed given the forecasted lighter wind, my plan was to weigh anchor and set out around sunset on Wednesday, January 29, sail through the night and arrive around sunrise on Thursday (a “knot” being a nautical mile per hour, about 1.15 MPH). The forecasts I had pulled down via satellite and my on-deck observations indicated the overnight weather would be south to southwest winds of 10 knots with seas of 2 to 4 feet. Bottom-line very manageable with a full press of canvas (all sails up) and a good wind direction relative to the direction I wanted to travel. In retrospect on-average both the wind speed and wind direction forecasts were right. However, as with a lot of things in life, averages don’t mean a lot. There’s the story of the statistician with their head in an oven and feet in a bucket of ice water and they say, “On average, the temperature is fine.” In retrospect, I could have done more to prepare for a blow. Oh well; I’m here and valuable lessons were learned.

The night started off benign, the wind was well below 10 knots and out of the southeast. Not enough to really get Hazel’s 15,000 pound hull going and the wind direction was too much on the nose (the wind being too close to my intended direction of travel). We continued on though making as much progress as possible, hopeful that the wind would eventually increase just a bit and also veer more to the south and west. These conditions continued until midnight. During that time I was busy keeping track of a lot of nearby ship traffic. It was amazing the amount of cruise ships in that part of the ocean. My course intersected the lane between Nassau and the South Florida ports of Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. If you’ve ever been on a cruise with those ports-of-call, we’ve been over the same water. My main tools of collision avoidance are my eyes, binoculars with bearing compass, my Automatic Information System (AIS) and—to triple-check when things are close—radar. In addition, I could always try to hail another ship on the radio and ask their intentions and verify they see me. Compared to freighters, cruise ships are so much better lit and more attentive to their piloting. No cruise line wants the publicity that they ran-down a private sailing yacht. Still, you don’t want to take unnecessary chances. Although technically a sailing vessel has the right-of-way over a vessel under power, it’s wise to stand-down early with a cruise ship or freighter. They’re big and they’ve got jobs to do. The closest cruise ship passed within a mile of me, no worries. When they passed, I could clearly see the big-screen jumbotron on the top deck. It looked like a rager was going on up there and funny to think of them and us (us being Hazel and me). Thousands of passengers, hundreds of crew and all the trappings. Us, sailing along and operating on 12 volts of stored solar energy.

After midnight and six hours of slow going, things changed. The wind veered to the southwest, as expected. Unexpectedly, the wind slowly increased from 10 knots to well over 20 knots. For a time, it was exhilarating. HJ loved the power under full sail and threw herself forward into the blackness. Thankfully, the cruise ships had cleared out and there wasn’t another boat for 20 miles. Over time, the wind continued to build and I decided I needed to get some sail down. Three reasons: first, safety—there’s no use breaking things, especially at night; second, efficiency, HJ was getting over-powered and she’d be happier with less sail; thirdly, to slow her down a bit. Given our increased speed in the increased wind, the GPS and my manual calculations of our time to make landfall in Eleuthera had decreased. If we pressed on at this speed, we’d be in shallow water well before sunrise and we didn’t want that.

Many higher-tech sailing yachts have all sorts of sail handling gadgets that allow a lot to be done from the cockpit without having to roam the deck. HJ is old-school that way. Eventually, I may “upgrade” her but I’m going with old-school for now. While the newer, higher-tech stuff is great when it works. When it doesn’t, you’re left in a bad spot with few options. Besides, I grew-up a small-boat sailor and I like sail handling with my own two hands.

At this point, say 1:00 AM Thursday morning, I’d been sailing for 6 hours and taken several 20 minute catnaps. The wind was consistently above 20 knots and with some periods blowing in the high-20s and up to 30. The seas had built from the projected 2-4 feet to 6-8. There was rain and electricity in the air. That all may not sound like a lot but given my experience in those situations at night and single-handed, it was plenty. I donned my foul weather gear, flipped-on the foredeck light that illuminates HJ’s deck, clipped-in to my harness and tether system and started forward from the cockpit to get some sail down. I first put one, then two reefs in the mainsail. As the wind continued to build and our speed didn’t diminish, I decided to get my yankee down. The mainsail, as it’s name suggests, is the main sail on a traditional boat. It’s the classic sail that children draw when asked to draw a sailboat. It runs up the mast (the big vertical pole in the center of the boat) and runs along the boom (the horizontal pole that sits low behind the mast). “Reefing the main” entails lowering part of the mainsail to reduce sail area. In front of the mast, HJ is rigged as a “cutter”. While a sloop, the most common rigging of a sailboat, has one sail in front of the mast, a modern cutter carries two sails ahead of the mast. Compared to a sloop, a cutter “cuts” the sloop’s one sail ahead of the mast in half making it into two sails. While there are some tradeoffs with a cutter, having more but smaller sails makes for easier sail handling and provides more options. Both sails forward of the mast on a cutter-rigged boat are, collectively, the headsails. The one furthest forward is the “yankee”, the smaller—between the yankee and mast—is the staysail.

With “Foulies” Donned
(foul weather gear in daylight)

Back to the story, with two reefs in the main, full headsails and the wind continuing to build, I decided we needed to get the yankee down (the furthest forward headsail). While I could haul the yankee down from the cockpit, which I did, I needed to venture up front to tie it down on the foredeck so it wouldn’t flap around or—worse—get loose. It’s a bit intimidating to be sitting alone in the front-end of a 31 foot boat on a pitching deck in the middle of the night taking a lot of spray getting a sail under control. Some of it might sound insane and you may be right. It must have been a good sight if anyone was nearby with the foredeck lit-up in the blackness like a stage, and a single person sitting on the bow wedged-in as best as possible wrestling with and unruly sail in 25-30 knots of wind and 6-8 foot seas.

Relatively speaking, there is a lot of safety involved. First, let’s remember that engineers design cars with air bags and ABS and collision detection. Then, we drive those cars over a hundred feet per second and while staring down at our laps and sending text messages. On a boat, the same as a car, the first and most important safety item is your mind and mindset. I read from a mentor that it’s important to look over the side of the boat and imagine a 500 foot crevasse with broken rocks at the bottom. While the fall off the boat would only be four or five feet into water, the ultimate results of a fall would likely be the same. More-tangible safety gear includes HJ’s lifelines, two stainless steel cables that run the perimeter of the deck, the highest a little below the waist when standing on the deck. In addition, whenever on deck I’m wearing a combination harness and auto-inflating PFD (personal flotation device, a.k.a. life jacket). If I were to fall in the water the PFD would automatically release a small carbon dioxide cylinder inflating a horseshoe collar around my chest and neck. Still you’d have the problem of HJ sailing off at 6 or 7 knots. Diana Nyad or Michael Phelps wouldn’t stand a chance of catching her, and for sure I wouldn’t either. Attached to my harness/PFD I have a PLB, personal locator beacon. It’s about the size of a large cell phone. If floating alone in the ocean, I could activate the PLB and it would transmit a distress call with my latitude and longitude coordinates and, in theory, I’d be rescued before I became hypothermic (eternal hats off to the US Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force—may I never need them). Still, that’s not a good situation to be in.

As you’ve guessed, it’s much better to do whatever you can to not fall and stay with the boat. Therefore, I’ve spent a bit of time building a tether system on HJ. While I tested it in mild coastal sailing, I’m happy to say that it’s working great. Now that I have it, I’d never sail without it. My harness/PFD has a strong ring in the front of it, slightly above my belly button. Whenever I’m on-deck, or even in the cockpit, on open water and underway the goal is to be clipped-in to one of the six tethers strategically located around HJ’s 31 foot length and 10 foot beam (width). While none of it’s perfect and—as Bilbo Baggins said, “It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.” —it’s a lot and a lot of redundancy. When working on-deck in unfavorable conditions it’s also important to resist the temptation to get a sketchy situation over with quickly and move fast. It’s critical to move slow, take the time to unclip and clip from tether to tether and do your best to keep one hand on something solid.. Still, as climbers say, “At times, you just need to know when to not fall.”

With main double-reefed and yankee down and secured on deck, we sailed on toward our destination under much better control.

Sailing southeast and about 5:00 AM Thursday morning we began to see color in the sky. It felt good to know the sun would soon be up. We made landfall in Eleuthera about 7:30 AM. When we reached our waypoint in 30 feet of water, I started HJ’s 27 horsepower, 3 cylinder diesel auxiliary engine, dropped sail and motored several miles to Royal Island Harbor (25 degrees 31 minutes North, and 76 degrees 51 minutes). I anchored HJ in 13 feet of water, secured a few things on deck, cooked a nice breakfast and took a long, well-deserved nap.

Is there a moral to the story? Probably several hidden in there somewhere. What sticks with me is being on-deck organizing some sails and lines in rough the middle of the night after the diciest was over. In that moment, I thought about Colleen. What I thought about was that I hadn’t thought about her for several hours. The intensity demanded complete focus.

Thanks for reading and thanks for following along with me. While I love the solitude, it’s comforting to know that I have friends and family. I think about all of you so much and often imagine you’re with me.

I’m reading Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”. While I’d never compare his writing to mine, I find this quote of his inspirational:

\“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closed, but unused.”

The next morning’s tranquil sunrise in Royal Island Harbour

9 thoughts on “A Well-Earned 55 Miles

  1. Appreciate your details Dan. A non sailor like me is starting to get a feel of your adventure.

  2. Justin had a quote from his crew team where I think two teammates had to ride in the trunk of the car to get everyone to the boathouse on time. And they made the distinction that they could get in trouble for that “but not serious trouble.” Henceforth college misadventures would fall into the two categories of “trouble” vs. “serious trouble”. The 55 miles sounded close to “serious trouble.” Glad you’re safe Dan.

  3. Oh my ! My sitting here watching the super bowl is so mundane and boring compared to your exciting journey!! One hell of a night you had.. thank god your being so cautious with all the float devices harnesses etc.. keep the stories coming and Hemingway quotes!! Enjoying it!! Stay safe

    By the way my brother has a house in Eleuthera.. he goes pretty regularly throughout the winter.. ward snyder 1 (772) 260-6844..just in case you want some human contact😀try him! He’s awesome.

  4. Hi dan!

    What a crazy trip you are on. I admire your courage. It’s wonderful to hear all you’ve experienced. I think you are on your way to publishing a book! Your description of your light on the deck and you wrestling with the sails is one for the big screen. Love you keep going and send pictures

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