Every fall, on both coasts of the U.S. and Canada and in Europe, sailors step onto their cruising boats, let loose the docking lines and point their boat’s bows south toward the sun. But, as sailors have long said, great voyages often have bad beginnings. Ours certainly did.
We had our 43-foot ketch more or less ready and on a floating dock near our home in Jamestown, R.I. For a week we had been loading her with provisions and attending to a hundred last minute details before heading to sea on a 635 mile passage to Bermuda. The crew was to be Rosie and me, our two sons Si and Tim and we had my brother Steve and old friend Herb for crew.
In the weeks prior to our departure for what was to be a 10,000 mile voyage to New Zealand via the Caribbean, Panama and the South Pacific, we had been wined and dined by friends in a series of departure parties. There had been late nights and toasts and mirthful revelry. For many of our friends and family, watching us quit our jobs, pull the boys from school and head off to sea the whole adventure was fraught with danger if not outright recklessness.
On the appointed day, dozens of people came down to the docks to say goodbye and in all the excitement I have to admit I lost the plot. We dropped the mooring lines, put the engine in gear and headed south. Except, I had forgotten to fill the water tanks so with tail between legs we turned around and motored back to the dock. Luckily, most of our friends had left.
Underway once again, we set sail in a freshening easterly breeze and cruised past the lighthouse at Castle Hill where a gaggle of well wishers were waiting for a last wave goodbye. The sun was getting low when I tuned the high seas radio to November Mike November—the NOAA weather broadcast—to hear the mechanical voice announce a gale warning in the Gulf Stream. I was exhausted and certain I didn’t want to take my family into a gale on our first night at sea.
We waited an hour for the next broadcast and when it came the gale had been upgraded to a storm. Our decision was made. For the second time that day we turned around. We sailed into Newport, dropped Herb off and picked up a mooring. That night the wind steadily increased and by the next afternoon we had steady winds of 30 knots with gusts up to 50.
My brother Steve headed home as we waited for the storm to pass. And, when it did, we abandoned our plan to sail to Bermuda and instead headed south along the East Coast for the Bahamas. We had been humbled and admitted it. We would start with baby steps before we were ready to run.
Thirteen months later we sailed into the calm waters of New Zealand’s Bay of Islands after an amazing first year of cruising in the Caribbean and South Pacific. It would be another four years before we would be back at that floating dock in Jamestown with a west-about circumnavigation completed. Yes, great voyages often start with bad beginnings.