Back in the Saddle!

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking,
Racing around to come up behind you again….

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

—Pink Floyd, Time, added to the hjsailing playlist

Ahoy friends! I’m back in the blog-saddle after a several week hiatus to sort out some land-based-life things. I appreciate your patience and continued readership. It’s fascinating to see what undone stuff stacks-up after 4 months at sea.

In this blog post, I’ll cover the more technical, numerical and logistical aspects of my passage home from the British Virgin Islands. In my next post I’ll focus on the “softer side” of the passage and the voyage—that is, what I learned and how I think I changed during my time voyaging.

First, let’s start with the numbers for both the passage home and also for the entire voyage. The non-stop passage home from the BVI ended-up being a 9 3/4 day sail covering 1,090 nautical miles (1,250 statue, or land-based, miles). That makes an average of 4.7 knots (nautical miles per hour)—not bad considering I had several extended periods of being becalmed and chose wait for wind rather than motor. My top speed over ground (SOG) for the passage was 11 knots. This was off the coast of Miami when I had the combination of strong winds in a favorable direction and the Gulf Stream pushing me.

Looking back at the entire voyage, I slept all 115 days on Hazel James and sailed a total of 2,500 nautical miles. This included 283 hours of singlehanded night sailing.

On the passage home, my sailing was generally westward in the tradewind belt. Since the tradewinds blow from the east, my sailing was generally downwind. When sailing downwind with winds above 15 knots, I’d sail with Hazel’s two headsails “wing-on-wing”. When the wind was below 15 knots I would fly her spinnaker. While the spinnaker really gets the boat moving in lighter winds, it’s a big sail and you want it down before the wind builds too far or a storm sets in. Any crew—especially a singlehanded sailor—can get into a bit of trouble trying to carry a spinnaker in high winds.

Hazel’s two “headsails” (the sails ahead of the mast) poled-out “wing-on-wing”, good when the wind is >15 knots
Hazel’s spinnaker flying. For those of you into the technical aspects of sailing, this is an asymmetrical spinnaker or gennaker (cross between a genoa and spinnaker), good when the wind is <15 knots

Sailing downwind is called “running”. Running to the west day-after-day reminded me of the Pink Floyd song “Time”. For a series of days, the sun sets off the bow (front) of the boat and ten hours later rises off the stern (back of the boat). With that repeated pattern of the sun—combined with the waxing moon, and circumpolar stars wheeling around Polaris (the north star)—you truly get a sense of the earth spinning through space and your tiny, and ever-so-brief place on that earth.

As I thought about the other lyrics of the song, I smiled at the lines:

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled lines

I was so happy that I had actually found the time, the 115 days, to make this voyage—this dream—a reality. While I can be so sad, and just about cry on-demand when I think about my sister Amy and wife Colleen dying, I’m happy that their final gift to me was the courage to unplug and the courage to take that step off the dock and onto Hazel James in January and go sailing.

Rewinding to the preparation for—and beginning of—the passage, the afternoon and evening of Tuesday, April 28th was my last night on Peter Island. To celebrate, I went for a hike with harbor-mates that I had been in quarantine with for the past month and enjoyed the sunset. My friends Kim and William then treated me to a wonderful dinner on their boat.

Hiking on the evening of my last night on Peter Island (Hazel James is the smallest boat in the photo, third from the top)
Sunset on my last evening

The next morning (Wednesday, April 29th) I made the 4-5 mile sail across the Sir Francis Drake Channel from Little Harbour, Peter Island to Road Harbour, Tortola. Given the pandemic, The BVI authorities were carefully monitoring all ship traffic in the area and I had gotten approval to move Hazel James for the purpose of reprovisioning. It was a real shock to my system to go from the deserted Peter Island to bustling but masked and socially-distanced Road Harbor/Road Town. My French friends Gautier and Lancelot had repositioned to Road Harbour the day before so I found them in the harbor and anchored-up next to them.

Gautier and Lancelot aboard Go & Lan in Road Harbour, Tortola

In Road Harbour the economic impact of the pandemic was startling. If you look carefully in the background of this picture, you will see all the many, many masts of mothballed charter yachts. Each one of those masts represents about $25,000 of lost revenue per week to the islands, and this is just one harbor in the Virgin Islands, and there are many more islands in the Caribbean.

Mothballed charter yachts in Road Harbour

The next morning, Thursday, April 30th, I weighed Hazel’s anchor (pulled the anchor off the bottom) and swung Hazel close to Go & Lan to say my goodbyes. When I did, I threw Gautier and Lancelot, two yachting caps as good luck for their 2,300 nautical mile passage to the Azores (followed by a 1,400 nautical mile passage from the Azores to France)—with distances like that, good luck is required. As I motored off toward the harbor mouth, Gautier and Lancelot gave me a good blow on their conchs that reverberated through the harbor.

Gautier and Lancelot with yachting caps on and giving me a good conch blow (note the hurricane damaged and derelict boats in the background)

Here are a couple parting shots of Hazel James taken from Go & Lan.

On my sail from Road Harbour to West End, I watched Little Harbour be enveloped in a rain shower and thought of the month I had spent there and great friends I had made. I also of the lines from the Harry Nilsson song Everybody’s Talking: “I’m going where the sun keeps shining, through the pouring rain. Going where the weather suits my clothes.”

Looking south on my sail from Road Harbour to West End. Little Harbour is on the right (you can barely see the masts of boats in the harbor). A rain shower is moving from the east to west about to reach Little Harbour.

I also thought of the Dr. Seuss quote that has comforted me with Colleen’s death: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Even so, I couldn’t help but tearing-up thinking about all the friends I had made there and if, and when, I would see them next.

The clearing-out process with BVI customs and immigration at West End was straightforward given I had a scheduled appointment. I then sailed out of West End and set a course for my first waypoint, some 300 nautical miles to the west.

Throughout the passage home I stuck fairly close to my charted course but took the opportunity to deviate here-and-there to take advantage of the wind. The images below illustrate my passage on my GPS chartplotter and on my traditional paper chart.

The pink line is my actual track home (the black line is my track from the Bahamas to Virgin Islands back in February)
If you look carefully, you’ll see my intended course in a dotted line and actual course in solid line

On our first night out, with a combination of nighttime rain shower and waxing gibbous moon, I saw a “rainbow” caused by the moon. I’d never seen that before and may never see it again. It’s fascinating on a boat far from land, you see things that you would never see otherwise. In the moonlight, the rainbow didn’t have the classic rainbow colors, but it did have a full spectrum of grays that was eerie, beautiful and haunting.

The next morning, Friday, May 1st, I was off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico and encountered a bit of ship traffic waiting to get into the port of the capital city of Puerto Rico. I elected a close-quarters crossing of the bow of the 193 meter freighter Desert Peace. I could see both visually and on my AIS (Automatic Information System) that she was idling into the wind at ~1 knot, and heard her on the radio conversing with the US Coast Guard regarding entering the Port of San Juan so I knew she wasn’t going anywhere. Given that information, and that it was daylight with good visibility, I chose to cross her bow. I wouldn’t cross that close ahead of a large ship if she were moving at speed.

Looking right down the bow of Desert Peace
Desert Peace from an angle

Two days after passing San Juan, Puerto Rico, (Sunday, May 3rd) I could just barely see Hispaniola (the island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti) 30 miles to the south.

Land ho! Hispaniola faintly visible in the distance

On Tuesday, May 5th, my sixth day of sailing, I passed close to Great Inagua Island. Anyone reading the book “Into the Storm” that I recommended will know how centrally the US Coast Guard base on this Bahamian island plays into the story.

Great Inagua Island on my GPS
The Great Inagua lighthouse several miles distant

For those of you interested in a bit more of a first-hand experience of what it’s like on the open ocean, I took two videos while sailing that should be helpful. The first is from Hazel’s foredeck sailing in 22 knots of wind. The second was taken shortly after below deck in her saloon.

After I cleared Great Inagua Island, I was off toward the Old Bahama Channel. It’s a relatively narrow channel of deep water with Cuba to the south and the Great Bahama Bank to the north. While I approached the channel with some trepidation given what I had heard from other sailors, I found the transit to be easier than expected. The sailing was smooth and there was plenty of room outside the main shipping channel where I could navigate without getting too close to the shipping traffic. My sense is that the shipping traffic was a lot lighter than normal with the pandemic and—of course—there were no cruise ships about.

After exiting the Old Bahama Channel I sailed up on the Great Bahama Bank for 60 or so miles. That was pretty bizarre. There was no land in sight, yet I was sailing in a consistent 7-8 meters of water. Given the clarity of the water and that I was sailing fast at 6+ knots, I could see the coral and sand bottom streaming under me. While all my charts showed safe water all around, it took me a half hour or so of sailing on the bank to calm down and relax. It would be bad enough to hit a coral head a couple miles offshore; it would be disastrous to do so far, far away from anyone else. I trusted my charts and my navigation and was fine. Still, I was happy when we sailed off the bank and into deep water on the other side.

After my sailing on the Great Bahama Bank, I was so close to my destination of Hillsboro Inlet and home. I started doing some calculations to estimate my arrival time and guessed I would arrive home the afternoon of Mother’s Day, May 10th. I thought about the coincidence of arriving home on that day, our first Mother’s Day without Colleen.

On my final leg, I managed to catch a nice pelagic barracuda. “Pelagic” being that it lives in deep ocean water. While reef-dwelling barracudas are prone to being contaminated with ciguatera toxin that causes a nasty poisoning if consumed, pelagic barracudas are safe and quite tasty. I had lemon-pepper poached barracuda for lunch and barracuda ceviche for dinner!

Nice pelagic barracuda

While my predictions were correct about making landfall on Mother’s Day, I was way off on the time. While I originally thought I would arrive in the afternoon, on my final night of the passage the wind really picked up and shifted favorably. In addition, I was in the middle of the Gulf Stream that added another 3-4 knots to my speed over ground. I began seeing the light of the Hillsboro Inlet lighthouse around 2 AM of Mother’s Day and reached the inlet around 4 AM. I fired-up the engine for the first time in 10 days and motored home to a big welcome from my son Jack and his girlfriend Jessica and a much, much, much needed and enjoyed shower.

Hazel James in safe harbor after 2,500 nautical miles

That’s it for the logistical side of the passage. In my next post, I’ll try to explore what I learned and how I think I have been changed by the entire voyage.

Thanks as always for reading. Hazel James out.

12 thoughts on “Back in the Saddle!

  1. Welcome back, Dan! Back to blogging that is. I enjoyed reading the details of your journey home. The whole thing sounds like an inexpressibly marvelous adventure to me yet you expressed it so well. I’m definitely interested in that book thing you hinted at.

    BTW, it looks like you posted links to the same youtube video. I’d like to see more video of your adventure.

    Best wishes, sailor.

    1. MPL: Thanks for the comment back and the head’s up about the YouTube link (user error!). I heard the same from someone else and have fixed the link. Should be good now and let me know if it isin’t.

  2. Fantastic story with a safe ending. Perfect. I loved the videos and can almost taste the poached barracuda. It’s been a blast to ride along this journey with you, Dan.

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