Well, dear Reader, I missed the boat, in every sense of the term. Having been the one to instigate the process which led to bringing forward the departure date from Rhode Island to Bermuda, I couldn’t complain when Richard did what we agreed, and took the first good weather window after Paul and Priscilla’s arrival on 11th October. So off they set on 15th, arriving on the 20th, as Richard’s blog relates (http://swallowtrip.blogspot.com/). I arrived in Rhode Island two days later, having delayed to allow time for the arrival of my first Grandchild, sweetest sweet William (who inevitably arrived early, but accordingly provided six weeks of delight before I left). Having feared snow, ice and storms in RI and for our passage, inevitably I found they were experiencing a superb Indian Summer. So Janet and I happily made our equivalent of hay in the sunshine, before I flew on to Bermuda on 22nd, in time to provision the boat before a projected 1st November departure. This eventually stretched out to an 8th November actual departure, with a few ‘Are we going? / Aren’t we going?’ false alarms along the way. This however gave us lots of time to bond with lovely Bermuda.
So how was my first proper ocean passage? Read on…
THE VIEW FROM THE STARBOARD BERTH
12 hours out from Bermuda, prone on the starboard bunk of the Catalina 380 I tried to make sense of the weird world bucketing around me, the strangeness of the movement and the creaking cacophony of stressed joinery, with base notes from the straining starboard shroud. Rough seas – yes, I’d been in some before. Seasickness – Tick. Multiple ticks actually. Difficulty moving around the cabin – of course. Fighting gravity and losing – Many times. But this violently twisty half-pitch half-roll was more, and through my haze of disorientation I was going to have to work out how to handle it. I reckoned I was probably safe from needing the loo for another couple of hours, so there was still time to work out my strategy for that. But my previously magic Scopolamine anti-sickness patch was showing its weaker side. It had protected me in the past from the effects of pitching, but the best it could do for me in this sea was to stop me from actually being sick, but not from the associated miserable sensations. Not that I wasn’t grateful for that – clearing up after myself would have been worse than the seemingly impossible loo mission. For now, lifting my head more than two inches above the bunk was not to be contemplated.
Unable to do anything physical, I occupied myself mentally. I was carrying the cheering image of the farewell from our two Bermudian old friends – and one newly-made one, energetically waving us off from the headland at the ‘Town Cut’ exit from St Georges’ Harbour, on the NE tip of the island. I reflected on our happy two weeks there, waiting for the right weather, and how largely thanks to them we had bonded with this unique country sitting improbably right in the middle of the Atlantic.
So – to the big question: Did I regret coming on this passage? The motivation of the other three was clear – as a sailing Rhode Islander, Richard was determind to make the iconic passage to the Caribbean via Bermuda before he was 70, and Paul and Priscilla were making this the initial part of their ‘Senior Gap Year’, now that Paul had finally been persuaded to retire (for the fourth time). As for me, no, I was not regretting it, curiously. I just wanted to know what it would be like, and now I was finding out. The astonishing thing was that the other three were functioning apparently normally. OK, staggering around a bit below decks, hanging on to handholds I had previously failed to earmark as essential to my life aboard, demonstrating an interesting crouching motion combined with timed Tarzan-worthy swings from one point to another, but fine. Cheerful. Competent. Getting on with the stuff of sailing the boat effectively. Would I ever rejoin that world? I miserably asked myself. Meanwhile I applied the lesson learnt from other periods of sailing indisposition: if you can’t be useful, don’t be a nuisance, and, imperatively, don’t become a liability through misplaced efforts to participate. So there I laid, doggo, nursing my misery and embarrassment, and hoping I was being responsible, though idle, more passenger than parasite. I was a chrysalis wrapped in a lee cloth, fantasising about a future when I might stretch my wings. Meanwhile the others murmured cheering words to me when they lurched past. The starboard tack that we were on positioned me nicely beside the crisp and biscuit supplies, to supplement the bottle of water which practical Priscilla had tucked beside me. Perhaps I was more a marooned castaway, in a dinghy with basic provisions. Regrettably I was unable to appreciate these properly at that stage. Many hours later we tacked and I found myself on the opposing bunk, thinking fondly of those of hours of potential plenty. I realised I must be recovering.
The loo trip finally achieved, I cautiously crawled up the companionway to announce my provisional resurrection and to examine the seas responsible for my condition. The 10 to 15 foot waves looked sufficiently rough and confused for me to feel slightly vindicated, though it must be admitted that they were with us, in a quartering sort of way, not against us, so presented no real challenge – and we were speeding happily on our way at 6 or 7 knots, with well reefed main and genny. The winds were typically around 35 knots, with one short period of 40. The log tells me that the eternity of my indisposition was actually only 24 hours of rough seas, and the high winds were only half of that. But it felt much much longer… Our friends in Bermuda subsequently told us that at the same time they recorded winds there of 75knots, only a hundred miles away. We had deliberately come out ahead of this storm, on the advice of our weather service ‘router’, who had clearly earned his fee.
THE VIEW FROM THE GALLEY
Day Three was a new dawn – the storm had blown itself out and I had returned to glorious normality. Now was my chance to prove I could be of some practical use. Eating for the first two days had necessarily been restricted to handheld snacks, seized by the crew on intermittent commando raids below decks between their three hour watches. The small boat freezer compartment was however stuffed and overflowing into the fridge area with ziplock plastic bags containing hearty stews, cooked up over a two-day occupation of our generous Bermudian friends’ kitchen. Now all I had to do was to manage to serve one of these a day to ensure essential nourishment. I set myself a preliminary trial – a cup of tea. Well, sealed insulated beakers of tea actually. It took half an hour of determind effort in the somewhat abated but still continuing fairground ride of the cabin – switching on the water pressure (other side of cabin), opening the water tank (stiff lever under sink), filling the kettle while not wasting precious water during lurches, accommodating the wild swings of the gimballed stove, going through the complexity of safety devices to achieve ignition, opening the fridge for the milk without liberating an avalanche of cascading contents (usually led, I discovered, by a very determind, semi defrosted pouch of Beef Goulasch), timing my grope in the cupboard for the teabags to coincide with a lurch to port, to avoid a similar Bastille-style liberation of the contents (led by the bear-shaped honey jar, rather anthropromorphically), pouring boiling water (think of doing this while balancing on a trampoline with a boisterous teenager) and finally nursing the results up the companionway. It was the first hot drink anyone had had since we left, and felt like a real achievement. Emboldened, I started the daily meal service, supplemented more often than not by rice, being the easiest to cook (using the 1:2 ratio of Rice to Water and slam-on-a-tight-lid approach).
A WORD FROM THE ENGINEER’S APPRENTICE
Having had its fun the weather contrarily decided to go to the other extreme, with two relatively windless days. In the event, 48 hours of motoring in the large Atlantic swell provided a pleasant contrast, if frustrating to the committed sailors (i.e. all except me.) But the first few days had ensured we were well on our way before needing to start using our diesel stocks, so there was at least no anxiety at calling on these now. Things could have been very different however, as when the wind first showed signs of dropping the usually highly reliable engine refused to fire; the control panel incorporating the ignition switch appeared completely dead. Paul and Richard came up with a fiendish rewiring plan and connected the control panel through the nearby 12 volt socket. This restored the panel to life, but failed to deliver the power needed to start the engine. It now being night, and there still being sufficient wind to sail, it was decided to continue work the next day.
Until, at 10 pm, Priscilla called for the radar to be switched on to check out a vessel she had sighted, and it became clear the battery was too low to power it – despite the generator having been run for several hours earlier. The engine problem was going to have to be addressed immediately. While Priscilla took Tanker Avoiding Action, Richard set to work, with me taking over his watch at midnight when Priscilla went off. Ultimately the fault was traced to the previously quite unsuspected main switch, which for some reason known only to the Seagods had chosen that particular voyage and timing to decide to quietly end its natural life. Richard nervously eyed up a miniature pair of crocodile clip jump leads, evaluating whether they would be man (or croc) enough for the job, and finally made the decision to bypass the switch with them. By now he had been working on this problem for five hours, and it was nearly three in the morning; I was still on watch in the cockpit, with Paul and Priscilla sleeping below us in the stern cabin. Richard took a deep breath and pressed the starter button. The engine roared happily into life – and from the stern cabin came an immediate round of applause! The crocodile clips carried us cheerfully all the way to St Maarten. We all agreed that trying to make a permanent repair en route when they were doing such a good job would be ungrateful, and possibly asking for trouble. And it was an awful lot easier once we were snugly in a berth.
The horn had decided to dislodge itself from the mast during the storm so somewhere around the Tropic of Cancer Richard was up the mast in the Bosun’s chair to retrieve it, with Paul hauling, Priscilla helming and me on the safety line. The first thing he did afterwards, South African Water Baby that he is, was to cool off with a swim. Probably one of the most remote swims it is possible to take. Our sense of awe at how much ocean there was around us in Bermuda had continued as we headed south. Days and days of water.
I was by now fully established as the Engineer’s Apprentice (holding torches, alternately passing spanners and water, locating lost tools, making soothing noises etc.), having been well trained over the years by John and Just Magic. As the Trade Winds bowled us along we passed two hours together in the hot and steamy ‘stuffing box’, tightening the stern gland to reduce the rate of ingress of seawater. Not, I can assure you, as interesting as it might sound. Apart from the replacement of a mainsail pin that had fallen out in the storm, Swallow had no other significant problems en route, (though the Skipper, and accordingly the Engineer’s Apprentice did not relax immediately we arrived – Replace croc clips, oil and filter change, coolant change…)
After two days of seas and winds and two of motoring, we had four days primarily on a pleasant beam reach, seeing our destination on the horizon in the dawn on Saturday 16th November, and exactly 8 days after leaving Bermuda coming through the lifting bridge into Simpson Bay Marina of Sint Maarten (the Dutch bit. The French side, to the North, is Saint Martin I now know).
21degrees 48.46’N 064degrees 05.41’W
What is the significance of this?
It is where we were when Skipper Richard was 70, on Day 6 of the passage, having just managed to get this trip in in time. It was marked by a party in the cockpit, complete with a chocolate cake, cunningly secretly baked in the onboard oven. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the trip, if you know that oven…
Angela Rice is the author of ADVENTURES OF A RELUCTANT BOATING WIFE (RRP £8.99), available with a 10% discount (£8.09) when you buy direct from us: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/adventures-of-a-reluctant-boating-wife-9781408182048