Saturday, 9 November 2013

Short Stories During a Long Passage

900 miles to go!

Musings during a 9 day open ocean sail to St. Maarten

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

The one thing you can expect in a long sail is change.  Our sail of nearly 900 miles from Bermuda to St. Maarten (note Dutch spelling) would be no exception, which is why we waited for the best “weather window” possible.

There were times when all the sails were up, motor off and we were travelling at 6 to 7 knots you’d think, ‘if it could only remain like this for the next week’….  But then you’d snap out of it and know that it won’t.

Curtis Smith and the deep blue

On Halloween Eve (when all the scary things come out), we sailed into a storm.  Winds had been 20 knots and we were sailing with the Sayes self-steering mechanism.  This device has its own little sail that “feels” the wind and adjusts the rudder to keep the same point of sail.  During my watch from 9 pm to midnight, it had been solidly following the course we wanted.  I also saw lightening at several locations in the distance.  Then around 11 pm, Alaria started to gyrate off course – the winds were also picking up to 25 knots so Ansley and I decided to take in the forward most sail (a jib called a “Yankee”).  Ansley’s watch was midnight to 3 am and winds remained relatively high.  Then Paul took over and during his watch he saw the lightning was much closer and in one location that he thought would be best to avoid.  However, about then the wind died… so to get the boat to move, he decided to pull the Yankee back out.  Then the storm hit.  Winds came up, he needed to get the Yankee rolled back onto the forestay but there was a knot in the jib sheet (the rope that controls the Yankee).  We could all hear the commotion so we all got out of bed, we tried to get the Yankee in… winds were now 35 knots (a full gale!), but the jib was stuck.  Everything was rattling as we worked to get the sail in.  The buffeting of the sail was so great that the far edge (called leech) was shredding. The sail was at risk to being shred to pieces…..

Sun setting below storm clouds
We feverishly worked to stabilized the sails.  Then we waited for sunrise.  With first light we found the roller furling had jammed from all of the flailing lines.  The loose jib sheet had worked the knot out from its end and had tied itself a massive knot.  We worked to free the knot, rewrap the furling system and wait for lower wind to take down the wounded Yankee jib to repair it.

Tattered sail and a gordian knot!
Tattered sail losing its leech tensioning line

Out at sea, you have to deal with what has been served to you.  In a boat that sails at 5 – 6 knots, there’s nowhere to run and obviously nowhere to hide.   Also, you have to deal with and fix your problems.  It was time for me to get out my sail sewing equipment.

Repairing the tattered sail
When you have a sail in the cockpit, you appreciate how big those suckers are.  We found the outer edge, the leech had frayed and most of the stitching had pulled out.  There is a line (called the leech line) that tensions the sail.  It had come out over long stretches of the sail.   Also the part of the sail that attaches to Alaria (the head luff cable) had started to tear.  If that had continued, the sail would be unusable.

Paul Calder stiches one end of the sail
It was clear, what we had to do.  We must sew the entire edge of the sail.  We needed to reinforce the key parts that had come apart.  So, for the next two days Paul and I sewed from sun up to sunset.  Sail needles are robust and long.  To push them through a sail requires you start the penetration and then push the needle through with a pad strapped to  the palm of your hand.  Each stitch takes a few seconds.  The job never seems to end.  After the first day, my fingers ached but the next day we finished.

Bob stitching the other end of the sail

Mornings are often the calmest period so that’s when we all set to flying the Yankee again.  We hanked her on and off we sailed.  We all saw how valuable that sail is… we were sailing again over 5 knots under the silent power of the sails.  Whew…

Moment of truth - hanking on the repaired Yankee
Yankee jib back in service!!


In days past, schooners would leave port unknowingly sailing into a hurricane with all hands lost.  Now we have satellite images and weather forecasts to prevent that from happening.  However, after a few days, any prediction you had on the day you departed becomes increasingly suspect.  Weather changes as do forecasts.  We are off on a 900 mile extended journey… we needed and had our guardian angels.

Sailing into building seas
Several friends became our weather watchers who would send short 130 character messages with weather updates.   Our three key weather watchers were my close friend Malcolm Burson (sailing buddy in Maine, now working with the Conservation Law Foundation), David Duggins (University of Washington’s captain of their research vessel and a first class marine ecologist) and Lew Incze (a professor at the University of Maine, Oceanographer and life-long sailor).  These guys kept us in the loop over our entire passage.

Hurricanes scared us most.  The frequency of their formation was declining during October and into November but they are not unheard of in November.  In 1999 Hurricane Lenny reeked havoc throughout the Caribbean around the middle of November.  The only way we know if we have something that serious coming our way is via our guardian angels.  Thank heaven for them…..
Over our long passage we did get odd weather.  The reliable Trade Winds were unreliable.  We asked our guardian angels what we can expect from the weather and they told us.  It wasn't always exactly what we wanted to hear but at least nothing too serious was coming our way.  Whew…


Alaria is a sailboat but during long ocean passages, it is an island supporting four people. We carry only 70 gallons of freshwater, we only have fuel enough to power the boat for about half the trip… we must make do with what we have.

Water is key.  We rigged a saltwater foot pump in the galley (kitchen) to wash dishes and anything that does not need freshwater.  We cannot take showers.  At best we can sponge off the sweat and sunscreen but that’s it.  Sometimes we can capture rainwater to fill the water tank but our long passage had plenty of wind but not much rain.  Our water conservation was so austere that we used less than 35 gallons of water for the four of us over a 9 day period!

At night we turn on the LED lights to illuminate the cabin. They and two fans use extremely little electricity. We listen to music but we carefully watch the battery charge level.  Alaria employs a sort of a ‘hybrid’ electrical system that charges batteries from wind, sun and engine when it is on. 

The ocean’s salt water “works” corrosively on all of our electronics.  We lost the use of some lights such as the masthead light.  Our trouble-shooting was constant.

Trouble-shooting an electrical glitch
Knowing we are in the middle of the ocean requires we watch our consumption of food, energy and water.  We sail to save fuel but when we sail we must be especially careful about the energy we use since the solar and wind generators take a while to charge the batteries.

None of this is surprising to anyone.  However, living at sea for extended periods sure sharpens your focus on what you need vs what you might want when you are on the mainland.


On a 900 mile journey it strikes you…. There is NOTHING for hundreds of miles all around you but ocean.  Nevertheless, we did get visitors. 

Our "Long-Haul" of 2357 miles

Aside from the spotted dolphins that followed us periodically, birds were our most common visitor.  We saw beautiful tropic birds with their long white tendril gracefully trailing from their tail, odd falcons, and migrant birds.  One cliff swallow few up to us and landed on Alaria to rest.  It is a handsome bird.  We offered it water and ground nuts but it wasn’t interested.  However, the next day it returned and roosted on the rail around the boat and then flew into our cabin to make itself at home. It watched us prepare dinner from a perch.  Then it sat on Ansley’s shoulder for an hour.  We moved it to our library (which is a very stable area) where the swallow slept all night.  In the morning, we were in sight of St. Maarten and the little swallow took off straight for some nice cliffs on the island.

Cliff sparrow meets Curtis Smith our on-board ornithologist
Cliff swallow adopts Ansley Sawyer who prefers birds that are roasted on the grill

Almost every night flying fish fly into our boat.  When we see them during our watch, we grab them and put them overboard.  However, so do not make it.  Flying fish don’t really fly, they glide on long wing-like pectoral fins.  Their body is triangular in cross section to be aerodynamic and so they can see down towards the water they are flying over.  The dead flying fish were used for bait as we sailed along but we had no luck with them.

Bob with one of the morning's flying fish (small species)

Paul with a larger flying fish he wants to use as bait
Not all of the visitors were accidental.  Paul was the fisherman of the group.  He baited hooks and trawled for fish everywhere we went.  We had sushi as a benefit of his actions.  However, on our last full day of travel, he hooked a marlin!  It was an amazing fighter that got to the boat where we all could see it before it threw the hook and was back to its ocean realm.  The marlin real treat to see.

Our hooked marlin!  Played it for 5 minutes before it threw the hook


On the evening of 6 November, we could see the glow of St. Maarten and Anguilla.  It is the first sign of civilization we had seen since leaving from Bermuda on 29 October.  I got up a bit early to see where we were … we had arrived at St. Maartin.  The sunrise was beautiful… especially because it was over land for the first time in ages (it seemed).

Landfall St. Maarten!

Making landfall by sea has a more profound impact than you might expect.  Of course seeing nothing but sea for several days can have this effect.

St. Maarten and the island chain before us

Upon arriving we had to bring the sails to a sail-maker to repair properly.  We hope this is all we’ll have to do with the sails.

Sails going to be repaired

Sails being professionally repaired.

The day of our arrival, George Stoyle (graduate student studying reef fish assemblages) joined us having flown in from the UK. Our “long-haul” sailors arranged their flights home and we worked to repair little odds and ends of things that needed attention.

George and I arranged to work with The Nature Foundation which is a federally funded entity focused on conservation of St. Maarten’s coral reefs. 

On day two, George and I were diving on the reefs, Ansley was fixing things (as he’s wont to do) but Paul and Curtis where working away as well.  Curtis is booked to fly home tomorrow morning.  So this is the end of the “Long-haul” crew and the beginning of the next chapter of coral reef research along the eastern Caribbean.

The "Long-Haulers" last evening together

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