The passage south with the 2015 Fall Salty Dawg Rally dishes up all manners of weather and puts the Outremer 51 through its paces(Published Winter 2016)
As we had expected, on the fifth day out of Hampton, Virginia when we finally turned south into the easterly trade winds, the line squalls began to appear on the horizon and on the radar screen. For the four of us onboard, this was to be the part of the passage to the B.V.I. that would require the most vigilance. Being hit by lightning at sea is not anything you want to experience. I know, having been hit twice in my life.
So began the game of cat and mouse as we altered course time and again to miss the squalls that were stampeding westward. They are called line squalls because they form a line of small squalls along a trough that stretches from east to west, the cells forming and disappearing rapidly with some developing into weather bombs that promised both a lot of wind and thunder storms.
We paid particular attention to the billowing white thunder heads that rose into the sky above some of these cells, clouds that spoke of strong convection which in turn indicated the strongest possible wind and upper level sheer that would create lightning. For two days and two nights each of us during our watches maintained a vigilant look at the horizon and kept an eye on the radar and we were always ready to call another crew if we needed to reef the big mainsail quickly, something that was hard to do alone.
It was crewing for old friends Rick and Julie Palm and with us was Scott Gohn from Cleveland. I had met the Palms in 1991 when they were in Panama on their way west around the world with the first Europa Around the World Rally and we were heading west into the Pacific in the first year of our five year circumnavigation. We’d stayed in touch ever since. Scott was a veteran cruiser and had been a rally sailor for many years; several years ago he had taken off work for a year to go cruising with his wife and is a very competent sailor.
Rally for experienced sailors
So there was a lot of experience aboard and with that comes the kind of caution and vigilance that kept us alert in the trade wind squalls. Experience was also the basis for how Rick and Julie made their decisions about how to find the best weather window for the departure from the East Coast in early November.
The Salty Dawg Rally, which is sponsored by Blue Water Sailing and Multihulls Quarterly magazines, is somewhat unique among rallies. It assumes the skippers in the rally are experienced, well equipped for offshore sailing and prudent about making their own decisions. After all, once you are offshore you are on your own and self sufficient whether you are in a rally or not. So, the SDR does not inspect boats, does not require gear other than two forms of high seas communication and does not enforce a day for the rally to start the passage south. Skippers are responsible for making the departure decision on their own while taking into consideration their crew, experience, boat and schedule.
The rally usually starts two or three days after Halloween; in 2015 the nominal start date was November 2. Over the three days leading up to the start, skippers from the 79 boats that had signed up for the rally gathered each afternoon for a weather analysis by Chris Parker. As is often the case in the fall, the weather patterns were changing rapidly making it hard to pick a weather window.
In the last days of October, a weather window did open up and several boats got away early and made a dash east to miss a system that was developing along the southeast coast. About 20 boats looked at the forecast for steady easterly winds on the nose for the days following November 1 and decided to depart anyway. Some headed to the B.V.I.—1,350 miles up wind away—while others used the wind angle to sail south around Cape Hatteras to Beaufort where they would wait for a better window.
Aboard Archer, Rick and Julie discussed the weather picture with their crew and decided that sailing that far upwind in a lightweight, performance cat with the likelihood of gale force winds at the end of the trip, made it prudent to wait for a better forecast. It looked like it would be a five day delay so Scott and I packed our bags and headed home.
Early the next week the weather window we were looking for was beginning to open and our departure was set so Scott and I returned to Hampton and prepared to get underway. But during the interim, the fleet that had been trickling out of Hampton and from ports south of Hatteras and those already our there—some 60 boats—had another weather issue to deal with – hurricane Kate.
We had been watching the tropical depression forming and were impressed with how fast it went from a bend in an isobar to a revolving system to a hurricane. Three or four boats ended up near its path, which was a sprint to the northeast, but they were lucky enough to avoid winds over 30 knots or so.
For us, as we dropped the mooring lines and pointed Archer’s bow seaward, the forecast had Kate moving away rapidly and behind her, in the ocean we were sailing into, the winds were strong northerlies that would blow us southeast on a beam reach along the rhumbline. We were the rally’s rear guard but we had the reaching winds we wanted and a clear forecast all the way to 65 west, 25 north, which was the way point where we would turn south.
We left the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay with a fair breeze and Archer had the bit in her a teeth. Under working sail and in 18 knots of wind, the big cat was humming along at 14 to 16 knots. We screamed down the coast until we were off Hatteras and then turned east to cross the Gulf Stream at its narrowest point. Through the evening and overnight, the wind died, which gave us a peaceful motor sail through the stream and a good rhumbline course on the other side.
Over the next two days, the wind settled in the northwest and Archer sailed fast and flat toward the B.V.I. The boat has a large square topped, fully battened mainsail with three reef points and we made regular use of all three. As the wind built with pressure ridges that were coming off North America, we would see the boat’s speed start to creep upward. At 12 knots, you start to pay closer attention. At 14 knots the noise gets to be an issue and the boat’s motion is much more active as the hulls climb over waves and then leap onto the next one.
It became pretty clear to all of us that sleeping with the boat going 12 to 14 knots was difficult. You just couldn’t get comfortable and stay in one position as the boat leaped ahead. So the daily pattern developed that we would sail fast during the day when most of us were up and then shorten down at night. At eight to nine knots the motion was much more docile and we could sleep quite happily, while still making 200 mile days.
CRUISE IN COMFORT
Life aboard Archer at sea was as good as you will find on any good cruising boat. Rick and Julie are very experienced sailors and have made the passage to and from the Caribbean a dozen times. We had four watchstanders aboard so the watch system was simple: three hours on and then we were done for the night. Rick took the dawn watch as many skippers do; Julie took the graveyard watch. I took the watch from 2200 to 0100 and Scott took the 1900 to 2200. During the day we rotated without a formal schedule. Now and then Rick would ask “Who’s got the boat?” and one of the rest of us would reply in the affirmative.
The main meal of the day was in the early afternoon and each of the crew, except Rick, was called upon to produce two hearty meals during the passage. It was fun and we ate well with several variations on curries, ratatouille and stir fries, most often with rice. Cooking on a cruising cat at sea is not quite like cooking in your level kitchen at home, but close.
The navigation desk was equipped with a PC, Iridium phone, SSB and Furuno sailing instruments, autopilot and the multifunction display that was mounted at the helm. The Palms use MaxSea as their navigation program and this interfaces with the Furuno MFD and sailing instruments. For email communications, they use Oceans mail, which they access through the Iridium phone. And, for high seas communications, they use the SSB.
We were able to get and send emails and we had access to weather information by email from Chris Parker and other sources. The MaxSea program allowed us to download weather files that gave us grib files that could be overlaid onto the digital navigations charts. Suffice it to say, we had just about the most sophisticated system for communications and weather that you will find on a couple’s cruising boat. That made our decision making process a lot more straightforward since we had so much information that we could cross referenced. Having that information really helped us with the next phase of the passage.
On the fourth day, the wind died and we had to switch on the engines. We had entered what have been called the Horse Latitudes for the last 400 years. There are a couple of derivations of the name of this windless zone of the Atlantic but the one I like best goes like this: When the early Spanish explorers were shipping troops and weapons to the new world in search of gold and silver, they brought horses with them. In the regular calms of this region, ships were often becalmed for days and would start to run low on water. The horses would start to perish and one by one would be tipped over the ships’ sides. The region is named in their honor.
We had been sailing more or less down the rhumbline and had a strategic decision to make. Ahead of us were the easterly trade winds and at the angle the rhumbline to the B.V.I. would bring us into them, the wind would more than likely be ahead of the beam. On a multihull that sails at the speeds Archer can achieve, the apparent wind moves forward pretty dramatically. Starting with the true wind ahead of the beam put the cat on a very close hauled upwind angle. The choice, since we were motoring anyway for the next 12 hours or so, was to head on a course east of the rhumbline to position ourselves for a more favorable angle in the easterly winds we would find later.
We were now south of Bermuda and in the Bermuda Triangle and we had a fun triangle encounter of the strange kind. We had not seen another boat since we crossed the Gulf Stream but at about midnight a set of running lights appeared off to port. I was on watch and could see that it was most likely a sail boat motoring. There was no signal on the AIS but radar showed that we were on a collision course with a rendezvous ahead about six miles.
As I was working out the bearing, speed and time of collision, the VHF chimed in with a call from our neighbor in open sea. The boat was also in the Salty Dawg Rally and headed not to the B.V.I. but to Antigua so their course was slightly south of ours and our course was slightly north of the rhumbline. We were motoring at eight knots; they were running at about six.
We chatted on the VHF on and off for the next hour until I had to alter course 20 degree to port to pass their stern by about a quarter of a mile. Had we not altered course, we would have been T-boned a thousand miles at sea by one of our own.
The next morning the trade winds began to fill in so we were able to roll out the genoa and begin sailing again. Behind us a wide wall of dark clouds had formed during the night and seemed to be sagging southward toward us. We expected the worst and got ready to shorten sail. But the front stalled and by noon we sailed out of the gray and into the bright sunlight of the trade winds and the Caribbean.
The water was so blue, the colors so sharp that they hurt our eyes at first and that blinking is also the recognition that we’re not in Kansas anymore, were in the tropics and over the rainbow.
But not quite yet. As we sailed out from the shroud of the front to the north of us a rainbow formed where the squall under it was pelting the sea with rain. That was the clue of what lay ahead. Turbulent air, convection, line squalls and the threat of thunder squalls.
All day and through the next night we successfully dodged squalls as we altered course and reefed and unreefed the sails. We got hit a few times and found ourselves in emergency reef mode with the off watch person who was enlisted to help working in the rain still in their sleeping clothes. At least it was warm. But we were making good progress and had a goal to beat Rick and Julie’s best passage time from Hampton to the B.V.I. of seven day and two hours.
On our last night at sea, as we were sailing toward Anegada and getting ready to make landfall on the B.V.I., we ran into a line of squalls that had the radar screen exploding with bright green splotches and the skies above displaying huge black clouds that occasionally erupted with lightning bolts. To get through the line and around Anegada, we had to time our passage to dodge between the cells. At one point we actually turned due north and sailed the wrong way until we saw a gap in the line and motor sailed through without a drop of rain or a puff of squall force winds. Ahead we saw the lights of Virgin Gorda and the bright stars in a clear sky above them.
As we entered the channel into Gorda Sound, another small squall challenged us but was soon gone and six days and 17 hours after departing the Chesapeake Bay we had the hook down. We averaged 208 miles per day and arrived with no breakage and the crew all in good spirits.
A new landfall is always a good thing in a sailor’s life. Making one with good friends aboard a great boat and in record time makes it that much sweeter. And, yes, we beat Rick and Julie’s record passage time by nine hours.