As it turned out, my second trip to Bermuda was not much better than the first, when I competed in the 2006 Newport to Bermuda Race, the slowest on record, and had to catch my flight home just hours after drifting over the finish line. This time around, being quarantined in St. George’s harbor on board “Nor’easter” since Jamie and I arrived May 25, and knowing there was no chance of going ashore before our two-week incarceration ended June 8, we were both anxious for a “weather window” that would afford a pleasant passage to Newport. Unfortunately, after almost a week, no such window materialized.
Our time marooned in Bermuda was at time tedious, but not unpleasant. Our days started late, as there wasn’t much incentive to rise early and unnecessarily extend an already long, boring day. I had completed all pending boat projects during our 2 months stuck in St. John’s, so the high point of most days, other than meal times, was turning on the engine to charge the batteries and run the water maker. The harbor water was around 72 degrees F., so we donned wet suits one sunny afternoon and went snorkeling around a nearby island. There wasn’t much to see other than some huge parrot fish. We played gin rummy at night, which was a nice break from trying to use our i-Phones with bad Internet. Our groceries had to be ordered online and delivered to the dinghy dock, but provisions were plentiful and we ate well, grilling meat and making pasta, but wishing we could go to a restaurant. We did get pints of ice cream regularly from the gas dock store, which was another break in the monotony. To say we were antsy to leave is an understatement.
Around June 1, our weather routing service, Commander’s, noted there was a break in the storms starting June 3, and while it wasn’t going to be optimal, we could safely get to Newport by staying east of the “rhumb line” (straight line between Bermuda and Newport), putting us just south of a huge low pressure zone coming across from Cape Hatteras, and crossing the Gulf Stream around 37 degrees north and heading NW, exiting around 38 N. The plan was to essentially cut perpendicular to the Stream and avoid the huge waves that can develop if wind should blow against the SW to NE current. If we didn’t jump off June 3, the next break in the storms was around June 10. I could not imagine spending another week at anchor.
According to the Commander’s forecast, Wednesday, our first day at sea, looked great, with 10-15 knot SW winds. Thursday looked a bit worse, winds still behind us but 20-24 knots with gusts to 30, and Friday showed 24-28 with gusts to 35. Seas were predicted up to 9 feet. For me, this looked like a fairly typical passage, with the strongest wind and waves almost always at our backs, but I must admit I didn’t consider the impact such conditions would have on my wife. I was so sick of being stuck on my boat and baking in the tropical sun since leaving Grenada March 22, I was ready to sail into hell, and take Jamie with me. Big mistake!
At 0730 Wednesday, we briefly swung by the Customs dock, checked out, and were clear of the island’s reefs and headed north by 0900. As predicted, it was a fine day, and we made over 9 knots at times with a favorable current. Jamie took the 2200 to 0300 watch that night, winds freshened to 30 knots, and she hit 10 knots of boat speed. Conditions were such that I didn’t get more than 2 hours sleep off watch, and when I took over at 0300 to put in a reef, in my half-awake stupor, I stupidly blew up the #1 reef block by not luffing the mainsail sufficiently to take pressure off the reefing line, and ground the block through which line ran into the boom. We were seriously overpowered, so unable to use the first, I put in the second reef, went below for a new block, clipped on my safety harness, crab-walked forward on the pitching deck to remove the broken block, attach a new one, and re-run the reef line from the cockpit up through the block and back to the cockpit, in the dark with 9’ seas, 30 knot winds, and one arm tightly wrapped around the mast while I did the rigging with my free hand. My only thought at the time was hoping the autopilot wouldn’t decide to stop steering while I was up there and gybe the mainsail, which at that wind speed, might have caused our mast to fall.
Conditions Thursday morning were not any worse, but when I took over at 1300, we were caught in what is called a “meander” of the Gulf Stream, where instead of the current going north, with the waves, it went south. With the big seas from sustained 25 knot winds being hit with a 1.2 knot opposing current, the waves increased to 12’, and started breaking. While none ever came into the cockpit, I was happy to see the current reverse after about 4 hours of this misery, but by then, Jamie was seasick. I fully expected to stand her watch for her, but she improved after her initial bout, and insisted I go sleep. I apologized profusely to her for getting us into those conditions, and she forgave me, eventually.
Sailors often speak of the perils encountered crossing the Gulf Stream, but ours was uneventful. As we approached 37 degrees N late Thursday night, the water temperature went from the high 60’s to 86. We saw up to 4.5 knots of current pushing NNE, and worked hard to keep our course NNW, but the waves were too large to sail close to the wind, so we kept being pushed further north. Eventually, 0930 Friday, exiting the Gulf Stream, the strong current abated, the water temperature went to the high 50’s, and we set a course direct for Newport. That night, winds were still in the 30’s, so I took Jamie’s watch 2300-0300 and caught a few hours of sleep harnessed into the cockpit and tucked under the dodger, waking every 30 minutes to look for ships. Jamie took over as scheduled, and after ten hours on deck, I actually got my first 4 hours uninterrupted sleep in 2 days, which brought me back to life. When you are thoroughly sleep deprived, sleep is possible in any sea conditions.
Jamie was feeling better Friday, so I cooked our pre-made spaghetti dinner and she ate her first food in a day. That night, she took the 2300-0400 watch and let me sleep an extra hour until 0500. I felt like a new man! During her tenure, she unreefed the jib when the wind got lighter, charged the batteries, adjusted the jib lead, and had the sails trimmed perfectly when I took over. I was impressed. Commanders had warned us to expect severe thunderstorms with up to 40 knot NW winds between 1000 and 1400 on Saturday, so when I saw solid red coming from behind me on the Doppler radar at 1030, I rolled up the jib, double reefed the main, and got some rain, but nothing more. For once, the forecast was more ominous than the reality.
As the day wore on, winds got lighter, seas got calm, and we saw 2 sharks, one of which was a great white, and a couple of sunfish, which are huge, saucer-shaped creatures that bask at the surface. Things were going well, we were both rested and well-fed, but then in rolled the fog. All afternoon we had to run our automatic fog horn, which gives a 5-second blast every 2 minutes, preventing any sleep, and closely monitor our radar and AIS, as by afternoon we were crossing a 40-mile wide shipping lane that runs south of New England. One large cargo vessel was on a collision course with us, so we tried to call him on our VHF to ask him if we should slow down, change course, or whatever else he wanted us to do. The vessel didn’t answer, but we saw on our AIS system that he changed course 5 degrees to the north, and passed about a mile ahead of us. We heard his fog horn as he went by, but never saw him in the mist.
By sunset, the fog lifted, we were less than 50 NM from the coast, but the winds shifted to the NW blowing 30, exactly from our Newport bearing, along with a 1.4 knot current, also from that direction. King Neptune wasn’t done with us yet! We dropped the sails, powered up the diesel, and began the arduous process of trying to get close enough to land so the waves would abate. The air temperature was now in the 50’s, and I had to dig out my few warm clothes from deep storage under the forward bunk. Poor Jamie, who had planned on flying home from St. Martin late in May, and had only one pair of light pants and nothing warm, so she raided Travis’s locker for jackets, sweaters, and trousers, which she wore with the cuffs rolled up and a sail tie for a belt. Once in Newport, a consumer’s mecca, she had fun buying an appropriate early summer wardrobe.
“Nor’easter” will power at 6.5 knots in normal conditions, but that night, about every fourth wave would raise the bow high in the air, from where it would slam down just in time to plow into the following swell. The knotmeter would go from a high of 4.2 knots to 1.4, then slowly back to the 4’s, at which point another big wave would bring us back down below 2. I spent most of my watch clad in 6 layers of clothing, none of which were particularly effective, and wrapped in a blanket. I don’t remember ever being that cold. By the time Jamie came up at 0400, seas and current had subsided, dawn was showing in the east, and Newport was on the horizon. By 0700, we were securely moored at the Goat Island Marina gas dock, and my wife was still speaking to me. After one year, 3 months, and 4 days, “Nor’easter’s” (almost) Circumnavigation had ended.