June 4, 2012
~ by Dimitri Garder, Global-Z Captain
May 10, 2009, 18°02.07’ N 063°05.38’W, clear skies, warm, winds east at 25 knots.
We left the docks at Sint Maarten’s SimpsonBay around 1115h in order to catch the 1130h bridge opening. Once clear of the slip pilings, the skipper asked me to take the helm. I navigated to the entrance of the bridge channel, holding steady in the slow channel current and negotiating for space among the many other boats waiting for the bridge. At 1130h sharp the drawbridge opened and we headed out to sea. It was a warm, clear and sunny late spring day, with a strong breeze blowing 25 knots out of the east, a perfect starboard beam reach for our course to Bermuda, heading 005° magnetic for the next six days. The vessel was a 46-foot, Finnish-built sailboat, skippered by a salty Welch professional delivery captain, and four volunteer crew including myself. Our task was to deliver vessel and crew safely to Bermuda, and from there to Newport, RI, where the owner awaited delivery. Volunteer crew sign up for these trips in order to gain valuable offshore sailing experience, as many of us hope to someday take our own boats offshore. Professional skippers make these deliveries in order to pay the rent.
One of the alluring aspects of offshore sailing, despite the obvious benefit of experiencing the tremendous beauty and power of the sea, is the opportunity it provides to live a simpler life, albeit briefly; the kind of life that was commonplace before creature comforts and modern technology began to dictate our lifestyles. No phone ringing off the hook, no barrage of emails requiring action, no SMS messages clamoring for our attention, no Facebook. No television. No distractions. No news. No idea what’s going on in the rest of the world. No gas stations to pull over and refuel if the wind dies for a week straight and we run out of fuel. No cell phone service to order out for pizza, or to call for medical attention because of seasick or dehydrated crew. Or a crewmate with an aggravated heart condition. Or a crewmate with traumatic head injuries caused by an impact from the boom due to an unexpected jibe. Or to make a distress call if the rig is lost in a storm. Or to call for help if, God forbid, someone falls overboard.
To be sure, offshore sailing is difficult and dangerous business. We take precious vacation time to spend a week tethered to a 46-foot-long plank, heeling at 35 degrees for days straight, pounding into heavy seas, and drenched by green water dropping on the cockpit with the sound of a large truck hitting the deck. We abandon the more conventional 24-hour day in favor of an irregular schedule, standing solo watches at the helm for two or three hours in a row, with at least one watch each day in the wee hours, and interspersed with brief periods of off time attempting to catch an hour of uninterrupted sleep. For the first two days, any sleep at all is pretty much out of the question. By the third day you basically just fall asleep due to complete exhaustion. After four days, it becomes pretty normal. Not to mention the risks associated with all of this. In short, the sea wants to… well… kill you.
In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman describes how people in Beirut adapted to life during the raging Lebanese Civil War of the 1980’s. He describes the surreal scene of Beirut residents playing tennis on an outdoor court while all-out war waged over their heads. So strong is the basic human need for normalcy, that we’ll get used to pretty much anything. Offshore sailing is a little bit like that.
Then there’s navigation. My good friend Calvin Blodgett tells a story of his first trip sailing his boat to the Bahamas thirty years ago. Nautical navigation at that time was done primarily using “dead reckoning”, literally “deducing” your position from a last known fix (sometimes several days old), recording boat speed over an elapsed period of time, attempting to adjust for leeway and current, and “reckoning” that you’re at approximately a given location, give or take. In fact it’s a bit like trying to hit a mosquito with an arrow from a mile away. Imagine starting from the coast of Florida, sailing into the horizon for a day and a half, and trying to hit an island 4.5 miles wide sitting in the middle of the big blue ocean. If you’re off by more than 15 miles to either side, you stand no chance of even seeing it. On Cal’s first trip to the Bahamas in his 30s, he was the only young sailing cruiser there. The only sailors able to make the trip back then were salty old dogs who had years of dead reckoning experience, or crazy guys like Cal. Yet by the time he made his second trip only 10 years later, he was the old guy in the fleet. GPS technology made Bimini nothing more complicated than a lunch trip for the power boaters coming over from Miami Beach and getting back home before dinnertime. Cal was shocked by the number of 30-somethings with literally no sailing experience at all, able to spend the winter cruising the Bahamas day-trading from their boats, using the magic of GPS navigation, electronic chart-plotters, and wifi Internet access. Any nautical navigation book worth its weight will endorse the use of electronic navigation instruments as a luxury, but strongly suggest a fundamental knowledge of traditional navigational skills in the event that the electronic aids become unavailable for any reason. Few new sailors follow that advice; the ease and accessibility of the technology is just too alluring.
Off the coast of Sint Maarten, the skipper explained the decision-making process: “you guys run the boat, I have veto power”. He explained that in his experience, most crew can get the boat safely across the ocean, if just given a little guidance and input. In short, there’s no better education than learning from our mistakes.
As our passage began, I asked the skipper to explain his electrical consumption policy while on board. “Only while the engine is running so we don’t run the batteries down,” he said, guffawing at the sight of me with my cell phone and charger cord in hand, first trip to sea and not quite sure what to expect.
In fact, I have always had a fascination with maps and nautical charts, and had equipped my smart phone with a nautical navigation application and a digital chart package for the Caribbean region. I had planned to track our progress each day in order to have a digital record of my trip and our daily geographical coordinates. But explaining this to a salty professional skipper was pointless, so I just accepted looking stupid, not the first time in my life for sure.
As the first few days passed we began to realize that there were a number of important pieces of business that we should have taken care of before ever leaving the dock back in Sint Maarten. There was that third mainsail reef, which hadn’t been set up in advance and needed to be rigged from scratch at the worst possible time, namely during a full gale on day three. Reefing a sail is a technique for reducing sail area to compensate for increasing wind speed. Visualize a sail the size of your house taking 40 knots of wind (nearly 50 mph) in 15-foot seas, and you can imagine that taking a lot of time stumbling around on deck to reduce sail is not something you want to mess around with.
Then there were the navigational charts. “Hey Cap, what kind of charts we got on board?” “Well, there’s the GPS chart-plotter at the helm which shows our course, but I discovered yesterday that it’s not equipped with a chip for Bermuda.” Oh well, as long as we can reach Bermuda, how hard can it be to find our way to the harbor? The skipper had done the trip many times before, and knew the name of the buoy marking the channel to Saint George’sHarbour, Spit Buoy. An older paper chart that we found down below confirmed the geographical coordinates of the buoy. The paper chart used the old system of navigational markings which had long ago been changed to the international standard of red and green markings, but as long as we had the latitude and longitude coordinates of the buoy entered in the chart-plotter, all we needed to do was to get there, find the channel markers, and navigate into the harbor by sight. We were on schedule to arrive during daylight, so no worries.