2007 Norfolk-Bahamas Report

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Course: Offshore Passage Making; Norfolk to Bahamas
Date November 2-10, 2007
Vessel: IP-440 CELESTIAL
Students: Kirk Benefiel, Kevin Reville, James Turner
First Mate: Mike McGovern
Captain Jochen Hoffmann

Thursday, Nov 1:
Our new yacht CELESTIAL is at Tailors Landing Marina, Norfolk, VA just after her first extended cruise down the Chesapeake Bay, and is being readied for offshore sail training. For the last three days, the Captain has made final adjustments, augmented the spare parts inventory and checked electronic systems. Only a few slips away, the School's venerable yacht, HALIMEDA is being readied for her offshore sail training cruise to St. Thomas and is receiving similar attention from Captain David Appleton. Both captains have been monitoring the National Weather Service extended forecast of one-time hurricane Noel. Improvements are in the offing: 


Our student crew, Kirk Benefiel, Kevin Reville, and James Turner and First Mate Mike McGovern arrive during the course of the afternoon. By now, the system is far offshore and has weakened and moved further East. 

Friday, Nov 2:
The first two class days at dockside are busy with intensive pre-departure training and yacht preparations. Students learn about CELESTIAL’s sails and running rig as well as offshore equipment, including storm trysail, sea anchor, and other safety equipment. Then we continue below decks with systems checks, and meal and route planning. After an enjoyable dinner at the Surf Rider restaurant, our highly experienced First Mate Mike demonstrates how to set up the NGA plotting sheets for our dead reckoning (DR) navigation while underway. Jim, who has previously sailed with us to Bermuda, is assisting. The captain explains Gulf Stream features using the latest chart print out. It shows a narrow finger south of our course extending some 40 miles from the Stream. Its currents can present a trap that we aim to avoid. From a point clear of the Stream, the captain draws our rhumb line of 195° True to a point off Abaco Island, Bahamas at latitude 27° N; longitude 077° W. 

Saturday, Nov 3:
After provisioning and topping off water, it is time to break out local and coastal charts, discuss departure through the busy Chesapeake Bay entrance, and check weather reports. A high is moving in and swells left by Noel, now far off New England, are subsiding. All enjoy a great seafood dinner at a seaside restaurant before calling it an early night. 

Sunday, Nov 4; Departure:
We cast off at 0630 hours, shortly after HALIMEDA, knowing that she will be in sight or radio hailing distance for some time to come. The predicted high is settling in with bright sunshine, and winds have dropped to NW 6-10 knots, enough to set the mainsail. But we're running the engine at low speed to maintain boat speed of 4 plus knots. Our initial course is 148° True to keep us well off Cape Hatteras. 

Once off Virginia Beach, we sail in company of about 50 other boats that are participating in the Caribbean 1500 rally and steering a course more easterly than us on their way to the Virgin Islands. The captain has set a sliding watch schedule to accommodate an odd number of five watch standers. At 1930 hours, Mike, our designated radio operator who is acting on a pre-arranged daily communications schedule, makes contact with HALIMEDA. All’s well on both boats as we continue on our diverging courses. 

Monday, Nov 5, at Sea:
Shortly before 0800 at position 35°12’ N and 73°55’ W, the water temperature shows a significant jump - from 71°F to 76°F. Seas are steep and confused. We have reached the Gulf Stream. The forecast calls for clear skies, winds SSW 8-12 knots, increasing to 20-25 knots by evening. At 0930, after a good breakfast and a fire drill, Mike leads our first spinnaker hoist and CELESTIAL picks up speed. Five hours later the wind begins to pick up and down comes the chute. 

The sun remains visible long enough for the captain to get a sextant shot and for students to get their first taste of celestial navigation. The resultant sun Line of Position (LOP) is crossed with our DR track to give us an Estimated Position (EP) on our plotting sheet. The wind is now in the mid-20s and almost right on the nose. 

At 1935 and Lat 34°43’ N; Lon 074°12’ W, we again make contact with HALIMEDA. She is battling the same conditions as we are. A half hour later, the watch finds our good ship extremely hard to steer as gusts are now in the 30s. The ship is over canvassed.  A second, then a third reef in both the main and the genoa make for an easier ride, but now we don't point as well. A barber hauler rigged to the working genoa sheet quiets the genoa but we're still not pointing as well as we'd like. 

Tuesday, Nov 6, at Sea:
Position at 0600 is Lat 34°06’N; Long 73°27’W. Wind SSW 20-25, later 25-30 knots. Skies overcast. We crossed the Stream late yesterday afternoon. But now seas are again lumpy and confused, and it appears that we may be in that protrusion south of the Gulf Stream. Given conditions and our sail plan, the best we can hold is 130° True to make any southing. Eventually we tack to a course of WSW to get out of these adverse currents. 

Finally, at 1500 hours nimbostratus clouds and rain bring a wind shift to NW. Gusts are topping 30 knots. Terrific! “Ease sails!” We are speeding along at 8.5 knots on a beam reach and a favorable course of 210° True under double-reefed genoa, staysail and reefed main. What a glorious feeling! 

A new question for all: What is causing the rapid voltage drop of battery # 2 requiring energy management and repeated charging with the generator or alternator? (It would take three more days to solve the voltage puzzle. A electrical diagram error had us babying the wrong bank.) 

Now we are really hungry. Although everyone shares in meal preparations, Kevin, an experienced delivery captain, and Mike enjoy coming up with tasty meals during a blow while strapped-in by the galley belt. Thanks, guys! 

Wednesday, Nov 7, at Sea:
Position at 0600: Lat 33°03’N; Long 074°38’W. Forecast: Wind NW 15-20; rain early, then partly cloudy. Course: 213° True. Speed 7.5 knots. To smooth out the sliding watch schedule, Kevin and the captain are coming up with adjustments that keep mate and captain on watch a little longer at night, plus Kirk for one extra hour during the day. Kirk is eagerly scouting our route for possible future adventures in his own boat. 

After sundown, the captain gives a tour of the night sky. Low on the western horizon, we can still make out Antares in the constellation Scorpius. At 25° above it, Jupiter is the brightest object in the evening sky. And the Gemini twins, Pollux and Castor plus Capella are already high enough in the east to show that Orion will be up before midnight. 

Thursday, Nov 8, at Sea:
At 0400 the watch had called the captain. Cargo ship TEVAL 10 NM aft is becoming a concern. She shows on our state of the art automatic vessel identification system (AIS) as heading toward us on a steady bearing and decreasing range; and she is not responding to our VHF calls to arrange safe passage. When she finally does respond and changes her course 003°, she does so for only 30 minutes – not enough for comfort. To resolve the situation, we trim sails, come up 80° to close hauled, and let her pass at a distance of one mile. 

Now we have time to admire the beautiful morning sky. The star Regulus, almost directly above the bright Venus plus a faint Saturn 10 ° above her, tells us that the two planets have joined with constellation Leo. What a sight! 

Position at 0800: Lat 31°57’N; Long 075°41’W. Forecast: Wind NW 15-20, then NNE at 10. Course: 198° True. Sail plan: One reef in the genoa, full main. After sun-up, a good breakfast and boat cleaning, we practice an MOB maneuver using the offshore recovery system. The lesson is clear: such maneuvers require practice. A review of the ASA108 standards has us busy until lunch followed by nap time for the off-watch. We haven’t touched the sails since early this morning and CELESTIAL  is surfing down the waves. 

Late in the afternoon, James spots a reddish object fine on the port bow that proves to be a large oblong fender often used to float fish nets. We heave it on board to be used as a spare sea anchor float. At 1930 we can hear HALIMEDA hailing us on the SSB, but she can’t hear us. We test radio signals by trying to get a weather report and then calling the office via the WLO radio operator. No luck with either. Enter Kirk Benefiel and his trusty satellite phone to let the world know where we are. 

Friday, Nov 9, at Sea:
We are motoring; there is no wind. Since last night we have enjoyed a 1.8 kt. favorable current. Our waypoint off Abaco is only 107 miles away; we should be there before sunrise. It’s time to discuss landfall preparations and for Jim, Kevin, and Kirk to plot a series of waypoints through outlying reefs into Marsh Harbour. 

Broken clouds mean that the captain can take more celestial shots to refine our DR navigation and that students can again try their hands with the sextant. A sun-run-sun fix puts us only 18 miles south and 4 miles west our DR position – not bad DR navigation, given conditions of the last few days. Another MOB practice midmorning with very good results: The “victim” was recovered in under10 minutes. Good show, crew! At 1545 we perform a real rescue of sorts. The watch had spotted a sizable reddish-blue object, which proves to be a bundle of party balloons. The abundant plastic and the knotted strings can be deadly to sea turtles and fish, so we cut and bunch them up for disposal on shore. 

Saturday, Nov 10, Arrival:
At 0430, on approach to our waypoint off Abaco Island, another call to the captain from an alert crew: The overtaking cargo vessel HENRY JACKMAN tracks not unlike the vessel of the night before. But since we are now under power, we reduce speed to let her pass at a safe distance. 

The call “all hands to breakfast and prepare for landfall” comes at 0600. Our timing is perfect: We’ll reach the cut in the reefs that marks the Man O'War Channel to Marsh Harbour in daylight and with the sun behind us. Without the sun’s glare, we’ll be able to see the potentially dangerous, shallow sea bottom where the color of grass, sand, or coral gives the mariner ample warning to effect a safe passage. 

First sounding of 450 feet comes 0645 after many days at sea. It’s time to raise the quarantine flag (Q-flag) on the starboard spreader as a signal to immigration and customs officials and to place a securité call. An hour later, we have cleared the channel, tied up at Marsh Harbor Marina fuel dock, and notified authorities about our arrival from foreign soil. Three hours later, while the crew is cleaning the ship and packing, we are cleared into the Bahamas and exchange the Q-flag for the Bahamas courtesy flag. Two more hours and everyone is packed and ready to say good bye. Kirk and Mike are to fly home today, and James tomorrow, while Kevin is meeting his wife for a vacation on this largely unspoiled island. 

From the mate and captain, a heartfelt thank-you to our accomplished student crew for an exciting and safe ocean voyage. 

Captain Jochen Hoffmann
Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco Island, Bahamas

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