So off we went. 700 miles of sea to be sailed over with a couple of tricky little obstacles on the way. The first, a low pressure system with its attendant fronts was heading across the US and looking to exit the coast the day we arrived. That was okay. Providing everything went according to plan, we would be in New York Harbour as it came through and spared the worst of its effects.
I should add at this point, that we had been delayed in Bermuda due to an endless succession of weather systems identical to this one. Each had provided the route we would take with storm force winds and huge seas. Additionally, the wind would be on the nose making for a difficult, long and uncomfortable passage. Thunderstorms also tend to ‘hang out’ with this sort of weather. We had witnessed a few whilst waiting to leave, so the prospect of setting out in that sort of weather really didnt appeal. That and the fact that the first fifty miles or so would be close to dangerous reefs. We would be foolish to head out in such circumstances. What we had now was a gap and a short one at that.
The second tricky obstacle was a small front passing, which would put the wind on the nose for a day. This was something I was prepared to live with. We had already extended our visas in Bermuda as they only allow for a 21 day stay. Another extension would be as welcome to them as it would have been to me.
The third little obstacle was a little number known affectionately as the Gulf Stream. Thats right, its what allows us in the high latitudes in which we live in the UK, to go swimming.
Imagine a river between 10 and 60 miles wide, flowing very quickly, between 3 and 6 mph, trust me thats quick, all the way from below Florida, up the East coast of the US before it turns a hard right and ends up on the left hand edge of Blighty. You are probably thinking its a bit like a sort of tide thing, but its not. It has sharply defined ‘banks’ which change, sometimes daily, with small eddies on either side. It has a totally different colour than the surrounding ocean and a much much higher temperature. Its an obstacle to us because it flows so quickly. If we dont take the flow of the stream into account, we will leave it at a point that we didnt bargain for. This could add a lot of time onto our trip and we could encounter other weather systems as a result. But the main reason the strength of flow is a problem, is if the wind comes from the opposite direction. Those of you who have been sailing in the Solent will probably remember how when the tide turns so that the current is flowing against the direction of the wind, the waves become dramatically bigger. Imagine that on a much much grander scale. Current thinking is that if the wind is against the flow of the Gulf Stream by 20 - 25 mph, the conditions would be exceptionally serious for a small sailing yacht. Now we arent that small, and we are built for very rough conditions, but I dont like to take chances, especially with guests on board! This feeling was exacerbated when I was told a story by David from Northern Breeze, when in a phone conversation he mentioned that a work colleague of his had been rolled in a large yacht during a similar passage earlier this year. Happily, I’ve spoken to the person concerned and both they and their boat are now fine and continuing their adventures in the Pacific. He is an offshore worker in the oil industry and he recounted that he had never seen waves like it and that it all happened so quickly. Needless to say, I was nervous, but also had given some thought as to tactics in the event of such a wind being forecast. One of those tactics was to enlist shoreside help in the form of a professional forecaster who would help us define the stream’s boundary and ensure there was no forecast of potentially dangerous winds, from the North, on our approach.
So off we hop. A beautiful day to start. Just what the doctor ordered for James, his first sailing trip offshore. Feeling a bit woozy to start with, he was beginning to really get in the swing of things. We were about 100 miles from Bermuda, when the satellite phone rang. It was Bob the weatherman. Bob wouldnt normally have called, but he was very concerned that according to some of the computer models, a new powerful low pressure system was forming rapidly and threatened to cut straight across our path. What would we like to do about it? The choices we had were to return asap to Bermuda, not great; head south west and try to track under the low. This was possible, although it would really scupper our course and give contrary winds for a couple of days. The third option was to see what happened and keep on our current course.
In the end, given the possibilities and that the computer models were due to update in a few hours, we chose to split the difference and head west for a bit until all became clearer. That was we had a couple of options open to us should the conditions deteriorate. A few hours later, Bob phoned back. The low that looked so dangerous was now much weakened and heading further south. He had the chance to look at other sources of weather, as had we, and we made the decision to resume the original course, full steam ahead. Both Sinead and I were below having conferred on some navigational issue when there was an almighty bang and crunch. Our first thought was to check for water in the boat. None appeared, then we ran on deck to see what might have happened. Despite looking and checking we could see no object or no damage. We were both confused. It had been an almighty crash, but everything seemed to be working normally.
As it turns out, that was a taste of things to come. The forecast southwest winds didnt materialise, instead we had them from pretty much on the nose, just above west. We were keen to reach New York for independence day and that skewed our thinking somewhat. In retrospect, we would have done better abandoning that idea totally trying for a different destination, although none seemed that easy at the time and we were sure the wind would back... soon. So in the meantime, we chose to alternate between sailing as close as we could to the wind and motorsailing. Neither of these options are a bundle of fun. The seas were not huge, but steep, so we couldnt make much speed through them. Coupled with that, when sailing towards the wind, the boat adopts an angle and motion which at best are very uncomfortable and at worst are downright so. After several days of similar weather, we were flagging. Sinead, conscious of looking after the crew was cooking like a five star chef in conditions that James refused to believe were possible. On day three and four the squalls, thunder and lightning joined the party. As this was James’ first trip, only Sinead and I stood watch overnight. By the end of the fourth night, we were both exhausted. We managed to keep gong, partly due to the excitement that James showed everytime a squall came through. Once in a while a little monster would hum through and the waves and spray would fly about. To his credit, James seemed to be loving it! I think that spurred us on. It wasnt really that rough or cold, although we were in full gear at night, but it was uncomfortable. Couple that with the increasingly lavish light show we were being treated too each night and New York couldnt have come a moment sooner.
On the fifth day, we met the Gulf Stream and a funny thing happened. Although things had not gone totally to plan, the wind had finally swung to the South and increased. This was no problem though as long as it stayed in that direction. Horror of horrors, should it choose to swing through 180 degrees when we hit the Gulf Stream. As we arrived at the very edge of the stream, that is, of course, exactly what it did. Not by degrees, not over some hours, but in an instant. One second we were making six knots, twenty seconds later, both sails had backed and we were making precisely none at all. So.... next dilemma, do we go in or do we just hang around in the middle of the ocean waiting for it to stop playing games and change back. Well.... we did a bit of waiting, and to be fair, the wind tried to change back, but it just wasnt having it and to compromise, it settled into a gentle 5 knot breeze from the North. We went in.
What followed was a spectacular all night light show, which mercifully stayed behind us and absolute flat calm seas, With no wind we were forced to motor, but at that stage, beggars really couldnt be choosers. To be fair it was absolutely beautiful. The light show, the stars, the warm air from the water and most important of all, a chance to grab a few hours of smooth, calm, uninterrupted sleep!
The sleep really rejuvenated us, so much so that although the wind still hadn’t picked up by lunchtime the next day, we caught a fish! a good sized mahi mahi, which to James delight, we then had as sashimi, followed by grilled fish etc. I tried drying some using a technique used by Rob and Sue on Barbarossa. I’m happy to report it was delicious, although is an acquired taste! I acquired it rather quickly.
A beautiful day and far too good to last. Serious thunderstorms loomed ahead, which we took some pains to avoid. It was really obvious to see how the Spain thing had affected Sinead and me. Once, there was nothing I’d rather be doing than watching a storm, now we slunk below decks, our places taken by James who still found it fascinating. Only once did we have to make the decision that we really all needed to be down below as the situation wasnt looking pretty at all. Along with the thunder came the inevitable wind. On the nose of course, where else. Our approach to the New Jersey coast was made dodging ships and storms, like being a pilot and sailor simultaneously. If you want to read more about that, theres a bit in the post about lightning. I think it may be called wash day, as thats when I wrote it.
Due to the traffic and the ‘severe thunderstorms’ both Sinead and I spent much of the last 36 hours awake. Tired? exhausted! but any fatigue was instantly put aside as we finally entered New York Harbour.
At the end of the day, this had been a rotten old passage. Not particularly rough most of the time, but fraught with difficulties and very uncomfortable. James had done a stirling job and seemed to have really enjoyed it. I’ll ask him to write a little note and maybe we’ll see the truth!
And the crash? A couple of days after our arrival in New York, I raised the ‘oar’ of our Aries self steering device. The lower half was completely missing!