2008 Norfolk-St Thomas

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Course: Offshore Passagemaking; Norfolk to St Thomas
Date November 2-16, 2008
Vessel: IP-440 CELESTIAL
Students: Matt Carlson, Paul Kidd, Tom Kopcik, Larry Weld
First Mate: Louise Orion
Captain Jochen Hoffmann

Nov 1 Saturday, Preparation for Sea
Captain Jochen Hoffmann and First Mate Captain Louise Orion who has agreed to chronicle this cruise, team up to carry out essential preparations under a crystal clear blue sky. Indeed, the Captain has been doing maintenance since Thursday afternoon, installing a new satellite weather transceiver and many other essential tasks. Today the rig is fine tuned, and the outboard motor is moved from the stern to the side to prevent chafe against the dinghy. Students arrive and settle in. Tom Kopcik, an IT professional from upstate NY, arrives first and helps out with the outboard evolution.  Matt Carlson, a Marketing Manager from PA is next, followed by Larry Weld, a retired IT Manager also from NY. 

Nov 2 Sunday
Paul Kidd, a Law Enforcement Officer from MD joins us in the morning, completing our crew.  After stowing their personal gear and a round of introductions, all aboard are soon ready to get on with cruise preparations and training.  Every sail is deployed and inspected, including setting up the storm trysail. The sea anchor is inspected, rigged, and deployed on the dock.  A thorough interior walkthrough familiarizes the crew with the boat’s systems and amenities.  Weather checks indicate that a substantial front is moving in, and the sky is already covering up. 

Nov 3 Monday
Crew assignments are made. Tom will be Bosun, Paul will serve as Radio Operator and Emergency Coordinator, Larry is Engineer, and Matt is Electrician and Assistant Bosun.  The Captain encourages everyone to take an interest in all crew functions. Preps continue in earnest.  The crew hoists the Captain up the mast for routine inspections and maintenance.  A provisioning list is made and existing food and cleaning supplies are inventoried, as are all tools and spare parts. The emergency gear is inspected and stowed for sea:  liferaft, abandon ship containers, collision mat, emergency steering, emergency rudder, crew overboard gear.  The sky is fully overcast with forecast gale conditions in the path of our course, so it is decided to delay departure. 

Nov 4 Tuesday
Provisioning and stowing food, supplies and spare parts is the major event of the day, along with a considerable amount of deck work.  Among other tasks, the dinghy, storm trysail and emergency water jugs are secured on deck.  The evening finds us watching election results aboard on the ship’s TV!  We are continuing to watch the weather closely and elect to delay departure another day to await passage of a strong front which is sitting offshore on our intended track.  It is raining on and off all day with gusts above 25 knots at the dock. 

Nov 5 Wednesday
There is still plenty to do in expectation of our departure.  The Captain goes over the watch assignments and the watch routines.  A weather and navigation briefing gets us all on the same page, and the crew then prepares the charts and plotting sheets necessary for our pilotage out of the Chesapeake, our crossing of the Gulf Stream, and subsequent intended track South. Familiarization with the engine, the generator, the electrical panel and the vessel’s various pumps and through hulls rounds out our preps.  Weather continues foul at our dock location.  Meanwhile we are also tracking tropical storm Paloma which has developed over Nicaragua. We are gaining much practice in the fine art of marine weather acquisition and analysis from various sources including internet, HF radio, navtex and VHF. 

Nov 6 Thursday: Day 1 at Sea
Finally the long awaited day has come!  CELESTIAL pulls away from the dock at 11:30 AM under leaden skies and 15-20 knot winds.  Our progress is swift under engine and double reefed main, so that by 1445 we have cleared Cape Charles and are sailing under reefed main and genoa in steady 20 knot winds on our starboard quarter.  The ride is smooth and every one is settling in nicely to the ship’s routine.  The watch system goes into operation, and we make our way South fairly close to the coast, as our immediate goal is to reach 35ºN 75ºW, just South of Cape Hatteras, where we have planned to cross the Gulf Stream at its narrowest point. The skies are still overcast but thankfully without rain, and we continue to broad reach under sail alone all through the night. 

Nov 7 Friday Day 2
Daybreak finds us at our intended position to cross the Stream, still broad reaching on starboard tack. Although the skies cleared for a short while, we are again under full overcast skies. At 0930 we execute our planned gybe to tackle the Gulf Stream crossing at right angle.  We anticipate a 36 mile northerly set during the crossing. The seas are lumpy but manageable and we are fascinated to log a water temperature increase from 65 degrees to 82 degrees in the space of 4 hours. We make a fast right angle crossing, executing our next gibe around 2100 to start heading South.  We are taking a conservative route with possible ports of refuge in case hurricane Paloma, now located in the Caymans, veers significantly towards our intended track. 

Nov 8 Saturday Day 3
Finally, clearing skies greet us this day, along with splendid news that Paloma is forecast to dissipate after crossing Cuba.  Perfect winds of 15-20 knots clocking around West and North as we plan to sail East and South over the next few days should make for happy sailing. The Captain gives a training session on weather in the morning, and explains the sextant to those new to this instrument of traditional navigation.  Out come the sextants – trained at the sun, daytime moon, and Jupiter. But the overcast returns and we are unable to get a fix.  Sailing SE at a fast clip, we occasionally see boat speeds up to 10 knots through the water!  The main sail is reefed at sunset, and the genoa is also reefed around 0200 when a weak low passes overhead with gusts above 25 knots. 

Nov 9 Sunday Day 4
Overcast skies still, but steady winds in the low twenties allow us to close reach on our intended course.  We are sailing SE toward a way point at 27ºN 65ºW, where we hope to pick up the trade winds and reach all the way down on the “I-65” meridian of longitude, the “highway” to the Islands.  Today’s Captain’s briefing is about firefighting strategies.  Later in the day the skies clear, winds drop as the barometer is rising. A message over satellite link from the Head of the Maryland School, Tom Tursi brings immense relief and cheers all around:  “Paloma is no more.  Sail on.” 

November 10 Monday Day 5
Early in the day, the winds continue to lighten up at around 5 knots, so we are motoring for most of the day, from midnight right on through to 10 PM.  This also allows us to recharge our battery bank which seems to remain lower than we would like it to be.  Although we are still at 30º North, perhaps this is the beginning of “Horse Latitude” conditions. The day is uneventful, except for noticing that about a foot-long section of the mainsail luff has pulled out of its track above the tack, which is corrected.  Overcast skies preclude celestial shots, but instruction centers on offshore Man Overboard strategies, and engineering issues. 

November 11 Tuesday Day 6
The wind returns, but from the NE where it will stay for the rest of the passage, and is now building up above 10 knots to our delight.  Training involves an interesting session about world sailing routes and the pilot charts of the North Atlantic.  We also have an opportunity to practice heaving to, and to take a closer look at the features of our radar. 

November 12 Wednesday Day 7
We are sailing fast under full moon and clear skies.  What a treat!  We are now at 27º North and the Trade Winds have come roaring in at a sustained 20-25 knot from the NE.  With a deeply reefed main, plus traveler down to control her weather helm, CELESTIAL thrives in these conditions.  She can carry a lot of headsail, which allows her to punch through the waves as we make our way South.  The close reaching is not overly comfortable but the boat is sea kindly.  Those of us who are keen on celestial navigation are able to take and reduce sun shots.  We have been experiencing problems with our holding tank overboard discharge pump, so we rig an alternate discharge system using the deck discharge fitting instead. 

November 13 Thursday Day 8
The NE trades continue to build to sustained 25 knot levels.  By 0800 we have reached our intermediate goal of 65ºW longitude at 25ºN latitude, so that we can now ease our progress with a kindlier, more southerly course.  Today’s technical challenge is unusual.  The aft head, a high tech vacuum flush unit, mysteriously packs it in for a day. The culprit turns out to be a plastic brace from the toilet seat which had dislodged with the ship’s motion and fallen into the toilet.  Life at sea is full of surprises.  Meanwhile we are now learning to read the skies even more carefully watching for tropical weather cells which bring bursts of higher winds and occasional rain. We adjust our sail plan as needed. 

November 14 Friday Day 9
Our 0800 position finds us at 23ºN, 064º30W where tropical cells continue to pop up on occasion to keep life interesting.  Clear skies in between the clouds allow us to catch a series of sun shots, from which we derive a “sun-run-sun” position fix. We also use the sun to calibrate the ship’s compass. Additional training involves getting better acquainted with our state-of-the-art electronic chart plotter. Never a day without some form of mechanical challenge.  Today, one of the padeyes which anchors the dinghy hoisting harness gives out, so we rig a temporary dinghy lifting mechanism to do the job until we reach port. 

November 15 Saturday Day 10
With East winds in the 20 knot range, we are approaching our destination and our training today involves preparing for landfall and visual navigation and GPS.  Around dinner time, one of our crew members falls and hits the back of his head, and a shipmate, a trained first responder, assesses his condition and recommends “no wheel duty” for the night.  Shipmates step forward to pick up the slack and by next morning our ailing crewmember is back in action. 

November 16 Sunday Day 11
Land ho!  At 0530, the lovely peaks of the Virgin Islands are sighted in the distance, and take shape as the sun rises.  We cap off this passage with a wonderful downwind sail, running down the passage between St Thomas and St John, and then heading West to reach Crown Bay on the southern coast of St Thomas.  Those of us who know this cruising area are delighted to be back, while the first timers are taking in the beauty of these islands.   By midday, CELESTIAL is docked at her winter home at Crown Bay Marina.  Showers, a nice meal ashore and phone calls to friends and families are at the top of our personal to do lists, while laundry and boat clean up take up the rest of the day.  

Since we left at noon on November 6, our passage took just ten days and one hour. And we soon learn that we have beaten the school’s record for this passage, which normally takes 11 days.  Now here’s something to celebrate!  We’ve logged a total of 1560 nautical miles, over 150 miles per day on average, to cover a 1300 mile rhumb line distance.  

Paraphrasing Captain and crew: What a voyage to remember!!

Captain Louise Orion
First Mate, S/V CELESTIAL IP440
November 16, 2008
St Thomas, USVI

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