When I left Ohio on Feb. 25 for two months of island hopping in the Caribbean, the longest planned passage was going to be about 85 miles. I worried about going upwind on those “long” island hops. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would be double handing our Swan 44 850 miles from the USVI to Bermuda. George had arranged his buddies to crew with him on those long passages. As news of the country and airport closings progressed, our options to get the boat to the East Coast narrowed. Since I was on the boat and the incoming crew canceled, I became the logical, if unenthusiastic, crew to do the passage with George.
Our idyllic time on the mooring in Caneel Bay was coming to an end as May 15th approached and the National Park Services were enforcing time limits. I realized the scenario I feared for two months was approaching and Nor’easter soon would be heading North, with me aboard. There was a tropical storm churning in the waters north of the Bahamas and expected to move north. We would need to wait for that system to pass and knew that windless days would follow. My initial euphoria at the prospect of calm waters and light wind gave way to anxiety as George and others explained that light wind in the middle of the ocean meant the boat would roll gunnel to gunnel in the swells. The light wind forecast convinced me that we would be better off without a third crew member. George had once again won the argument and we would sail to Bermuda with just the two of us.
We spent several days in Magen’s Bay on St. Thomas, enjoying the stunning white sandy beach and taking long swims in the 86 degree crystal clear water. As the deadline to leave approached, we moved to Yachthaven Grande Marina to prepare the boat for departure. A frantic two days ensued, with provisioning, laundry, fuel, and cleaning and deflating the dinghy for the passage. Frequent checks of the weather, along with a forecasting service, enabled us to confidently leave on May 20. George expected us to sail/motor an average of 170 miles per day but I thought 150 was more realistic, given the light wind forecast.
We pushed off the dock at 7 am in light air. As we motored along the south side of St. Thomas with the wind directly behind us, George reviewed the systems and procedures. After rounding the island and getting on our northerly course that would take us to Bermuda, the wind was on the beam on a comfortable sail. The outline of the USVI islands retreated into the distance as we sailed along. The first day we both stayed on watch as I became comfortable with the responsibilities. I volunteered to go off watch after dinner and to try to sleep so that I could take the midnight to 7AM watch and let George sleep.
Sleep was slow to come as I adapted to the rolling motion and the noise of the winches above me as George trimmed the sails. That night and throughout the rest of the trip, I woke up about every hour to check if it was my watch time. I finally went up on deck at 11:30 and told George to go below to sleep. The wind was blowing a consistent 15 knots off the beam and I was comfortable with the boat.
The next 5 ½ hours were the longest I have experienced. The night was pitch black with no moon but bright stars down to the horizon that I would sometimes mistake for ships. Since I didn’t want to use earplugs so I could hear the alarms and any changes in the sails, I hadn’t downloaded any books on Audible. I sat looking out at the churning ocean trying to determine if there were squalls ahead. Periodically I would stand and scan the horizon watching for lights signifying ships. My stomach was unsettled by the motion and the anxiety of expecting a sudden wind shift or acceleration. The patch I had applied before leaving was keeping me from full on seasickness but I had no appetite and was feeling slightly nauseous.
Days merged one into the other as life became a hazy routine of five hours on watch and five hours below (ostensibly sleeping). I forced myself to eat and tried to sleep more than an hour at a time. I kept thinking about the mariners who relished their days on the open ocean and wondered when I would develop an appreciation for the experience. Although the winds changed from very light to 25-30 knots, I found the long hours on watch to be monotonous when we were motor sailing and anxiety-producing when the winds picked up.
One night George left me on watch with a full jib and mainsail. The winds were 15-20 knots and he wanted to maximize the speed of the boat. I worried about having to reef (shorten) the sails, which George and I had practiced multiple times prior to our departure, but I had never done completely on my own in the dark. With winds building to over 25 knots, I knew the time had come to practice what he had taught me. I let out the main sail until it was luffing, and then lowered the sail and brought in the reef line. This was a noisy, chaotic process and I worried I wasn’t doing it properly. I used a headlamp to see Sharpie marks on the lines to indicate how far to bring them in on the winch and after completing the reefing, I was convinced I hadn’t brought the lines in far enough.
After agonizing for 30 minutes, I finally went below to wake George to check the sails. He was in a deep sleep and wouldn’t wake up. I went back up and stressed further, worrying that if I brought the lines in tighter, I might break something. I went down below again and shook George, calling his name and again, he wouldn’t wake up. Convinced he needed his sleep, I again went up and tried to relax with some deep breaths, seeing that the boat was maintaining 8 knots of speed and not heeling too much.
After another 30 minutes, I decided I had better get George to confirm that all was well and I went back down, determined to wake him. This time I had success and he stumbled up, looked at the sails and said they were fine and returned to his bunk. Three hours later he came up on watch and stepped me through the proper way to reef, as the sun was just beginning to light up the sky. I had done it all properly but should have brought the lines in further and he reassured me that I could see the markings where the lines were supposed to be.
Days 4 and 5 brought larger swells but still small by George’s standards. With a 1-2 knot current in our favor, we were logging more miles than I had anticipated. George calculated we would arrive in Bermuda on Day 5 around 1 pm. I took the 10 pm – 3 am watch on the last night, feeling grateful that we would be in port the next day. When I went down to my bunk, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I had completed my first major blue water passage. I reflected on the gorgeous sunsets and sunrises and the starry nights I had witnessed. I was glad to be completing this part of the passage and looking forward to some rest and relaxation. Little did I know we would have plenty of time for rest after spending close to two weeks in quarantine unable to leave the boat, anchored in Bermuda waiting for a weather window to Newport.