Another gale! The third gale in our 15 day passage from Beaufort, NC to the Bahamas was approaching fast. It was only a little over a day since the previous one, and I was really not looking forward to yet another.
Dropped the main and the jib, left the staysail up, reefed the foresail and set the storm trysail. With both the wind and a current against us, we didn't want to stop sailing until we really had to. A few hours later, in the darkness, with the wind howling and spray flying, we hove-to.
We had waited in Beaufort for over a week for the weather to clear. Listening to weather forecasts from several sources, it became clear that due to the speed with which low pressure systems were forming and moving, no one was going to be able to accurately forecast more than 18 hours in advance. Given that we were expecting to make about a 10-day passage, weather forecasts weren't of much use to us, since we are not able to move fast enough to avoid storms.
Laura, in a comment I was sure she would later regret, said "all the passages I've been on have always started out rough, because we always left on a schedule, no matter what the weather. So we should just leave, and it will be miserable at first, but improve later." I had no doubts about Orbit's ability to handle rough weather, and few about mine, and really wanted to make an offshore shakedown passage to test all the repairs and modifications I'd done over the last few years.
In a northerly wind, we set off down the coast, waiting for a southerly wind to cross the Gulf Stream on. Crossing the Gulf Stream in a northerly wind we had been extensively warned against, as the wind-against-current situation makes for big, unusual seas. The next day we saw our opportunity for crossing...a southwest gale was forecast! We were just north of Cape Fear at the time, and immediately headed west, into the Gulf Stream.
The SW gale arrived that evening. Until then, I had always hove-to in gales, which is the safest, most comfortable way of dealing with them, as far as I know. Now, however, we are in a strong current pushing us north, towards Cape Hatteras, and directly away from the tropics we are heading for. So we batten down the hatches and sail through the gale, as long as we can. Steering by hand seems much safer than trusting to the windvane, because a helmsman can see the waves coming, a windvane can't.
A shackle attaching the foresail peak halyard block aloft broke or came undone, causing the foresail to drop. I used the fisherman throat halyard as a substitute (though it only had a 1:1 advantage, versus the 4:1 that the proper foresail peak halyard setup used), since it was too rough to climb aloft and fix it.
I began to get really impressed by Orbit while sailing thru this gale. She'd always been a comfortable boat to heave-to in during a gale, but I was now impressed with how well she handled the seas when sailing in the rough water. Every time we fell off the crest of a wave and hit the trough hard, the full bow avoided going under, so we were never in danger of getting the bow caught underwater and causing a broach or pitchpole. During the previous cruising I had done, I had gotten somewhat disillusioned with Orbit, as she is slow in light air, and the small motor makes motoring anywhere a really long process. Now, however, Orbit was in the blue water that she was designed for, and she seemed a much more suitable boat.
Eventually, after dark, we hove-to for a couple of hours. There was a bright moon, but that really only illuminated the breaking water, not the waves beneath, and it did not seem safe to proceed any further.
A lot of water was coming into the boat. This turned out to be the fault of the bilge pump (or the bilge pump installation). In an earlier moment of temporary insanity, I had installed an electric bilge pump as the main bilge-pumping method. I did this on the grounds that steel boats don't really leak, so what I really needed was an emergency pump that would pump a lot of water without requiring a person, in case there developed a serious leak. I had also bought a one-way valve for the pump's discharge line, but then read that it was against ABYC (American Boat & Yacht Council) standards to have a one-way valve in a bilge pump discharge (it could clog on debris, and the extra resistance it adds reduces the ability of the pump to clear the bilge), so didn't install it. Now however, the big Rule bilge pump was just allowing any water in the 1.5" diameter discharge hose to flow into the boat whenever it was turned off! Plugged the bilge pump discharge with a rag, and reduced the flow (the next day plumbed in the one-way valve, which works well).
The hatches leaked, as did all the portholes, so while neither leaked much water, lots of stuff got wet.
When trying to get underway in the morning, I noticed that the steering linkage was broken, so that turning the wheel did nothing. While searching for the emergency tiller, I came across the original parts of the steering gear linkage that had broken before I owned the boat, and had subsequently been brazed (they were bronze) back together. While these were easy enough to install, I did not believe the brazed repair would be as strong as an unbroken set would be. So we installed limiting ropes on the rudder, something which I should have done long ago, certainly before heading offshore. Limiting ropes (or chains) prevent the rudder from fully turning, so that the steering gear linkage doesn't get shock-loaded whenever the rudder comes up against it's stops (which are the steering gear linkage). They reduce the amount of rudder that can be applied, but greatly ease the strains on the steering gear. I had had an eye welded to the back of the rudder for this purpose earlier, so we used a stick and a boathook to thread a line thru the eye, then haul the other line thru, and set up limiting ropes on either side.
After a few days of calms (when the fuel filters clogged, stopping the engine) and headwinds when we made some progress east, and a little south, the next gale arrived.
This time I tried heaving to with the aid of a big parachute sea-anchor and bridle, as recommended by a book on storm tactics. Unfortunately, I didn't read the details close enough, or the book didn't stress enough the importance of having big winches to make this work. The idea is to stream a big parachute sea-anchor off the bow, but have another line attached to the sea-anchor line via a snatch block, going aft. Pulling in on the line going aft adjusts your position from bow-on to a far more comfortable forward-quarter-on. After streaming the 18' diameter parachute sea-anchor, in the high winds, it was impossible to tighten the bridle. So we lay with the sea-anchor off the bow, rolling terribly.
It was an awful night. Even though the gale was nothing special, there was nothing we could do but endure the relentless rolling from side to side as waves passed beneath us. We rolled about 40 degrees each way, every few seconds, in an irregular pattern. Sleep was almost impossible. Every hour I went forward in the driving rain to ease the line out a few feet, so that it wouldn't chafe through and part. Even after the gale had gone, we had to wait several hours for the wind to die down to 10-15 knots before we could retrieve the dreaded sea-anchor. One more piece of equipment for the to-be-sold pile.
The third gale was easier. No more messing about with ridiculously large sea-anchors. Just a simple, straightforward heaving-to under reefed foresail. A fairly comfortable night of periodic radar scans and attempting to looking out through the doghouse windows past all the lightning and rain.
The winds eventually eased into a gentle force 2 headwind. Close reaching along under light-air sails, in much reduced seas, I got into the bosun's chair and went up the foremast to re-attach the foresail peak halyard block. The motion aloft being much more severe than the motion on deck, it was an unpleasant task, but after half an hour, it was done, and we could set the fisherman as well as the foresail.
Soon after the wind died away altogether, and we motored. Having bounced around so much in the gales had stirred up a lot of sediment in the tanks, so the fuel filters kept clogging and requiring replacement until we were down to the last set of spare filters (lesson: offshore passages require taking a case of spare fuel filters). Disassembled the alternator to clean the brushes, but a day later it failed again, due to a short circuit, which also drained the battery. Could not get the proper pulley installed on the spare alternator, so we were without any means to charge the battery.
With little electrical power available, started using the kerosene anchor light as a riding light at night. This seemed to work well enough.
Laura wrote her Christmas on a Schooner song, as we wondered just when we were going to arrive.
We had been offshore for many days, and needed more fuel filters, and another alternator. So we altered course for Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, where boat parts and repairs were more easily available than in San Salvador, Bahamas, our original destination.
The next day, we finally got a tailwind. It was so nice to finally start making decent speed towards our destination. The tailwind was a "norther", which is what winter storms in the Bahamas are called. A norther is a few days of 25-30 knot winds, first NW, then N, then going NE, then dying out. As the norther brought us closer to our destination, the wind went from NW to N to NE, just as the book said it should. After a day of NE, when it could have been expected to die out, it showed no signs of diminishing.
It was Christmas Eve, and we were now hove-to, as the wind of the norther and a wind-generated current bore us towards the reef we had to cross to get to Marsh Harbour. The reef was now a lee shore, and we were heading straight towards it, due to the current.
So much for the reasonable comfort of being hove-to. Set the storm trysail, reefed foresail and staysail, lashed the wheel, and started clawing our way off the lee shore. While we seemed to be making our way to windward adequately, there was a break in the reef several miles along that looked like the current might push us towards the break in the reef, which would be really nasty. So we added the motor as well, which let us sail about five degrees closer to the wind.
On Christmas day, after motorsailing all night, we were nearing Walker's Cay, at the northern end of the Abaco Islands. The wind was moderating (20-25 knots), and the pass through the reef looked safe. We motorsailed thru the break in the reef, dropped sails in the calm water behind the reef, went into a marina, cleared customs & immigration, ate, then slept for a long time.
Copyright Richard Hudson, 2001