2008 USVI-Norfolk Report

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Course:      Ocean Training Cruise, St Thomas, USVI to Norfolk, VA
Date:          May 5-17, 2008
:       S/V HALIMEDA, IP45 
Students:    Bob Mains, Eric Mendolsohn, Mike Robinson, Jim Turner   
First Mate: Jim Bortnem
Captain:     Jack Morton

Log of the St Thomas to Norfolk cruise of May 5 through May 20, being an account of the travails and vicissitudes visited upon the dauntless crew of Halimeda, in the year 2008. 

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . . but wait - I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s go back to where it started, at Crown Bay Marina, on the lovely tropical island of St Thomas, one of the former Danish islands of the northern windward islands, now a territory of the United States. 

I was the captain, and it is my account of this tale you’ll be seeing here, though others may echo through the lower parts of some towns favored by seafarers.   I arrived on the afternoon of May 4, where I met most of the crew already aboard.  Faithful and trusted Jim Bortnem, my mate of many previous voyages, had gladdened my heart when he agreed to venture yet another.  His fame and glory as the fixer of just about anything preceded him, and me, as I arrived to find he had already rousted the rest of the crew to hang the new mainsail, and all but rebuilt the Yanmar, with new fluids, belts, impellor, and the other sorts of things that can make an engine feel proud, and anxious to please. Joining him before my arrival were Mike Robinson, a veteran of last summers Bermuda - Mystic run, back for more; and newcomers Bob Mains and Eric Mendolsohn.  Even more grizzled veteran Jim Turner, who first sailed with me somewhere in the last century, and again with Tursi et al, was back for more, arriving Monday.   A word to those of you contemplating following in the swashbuckling footsteps of this motley crew should note - no two ocean cruises are the same - those in the know keep coming back to collect the complete set.  Sunday evening we searched out a restaurant to let us begin to forge the bonds that make a bunch of guys a crew, though from the tab, it appeared clear that we had unwittingly wandered into a pirates den.   

Monday morning, the 5th, still feeling pretty well fed, we trained, and reviewed the skills and procedures that would make our voyage safe, and effective.  Raised, reefed and struck all plain and storm sail, did some troubleshooting on the reefing line attachments to the new main, and reviewed the overall cruise plan.  

Tuesday, the 6th, saw us going over checklists, doing our own raiding on the shelves at Pueblo to provision the ship, and going back for more, because it always makes sense to carry food for more days than you expect the trip to take, knowing that sailboats and weather are movable feasts, and not as firmly tied to schedules as many people would like them to be.   More on that later.  Weather was predicted to be mild the first several days out, but there was indication of a strong front maybe four or five days out. 

Wednesday, the 7th, we took leave of the marina by nine, navigating by pilotage, and took departure - the point at which we leave the chart and start navigating on plotting sheets, because the land and bottom features become irrelevant - about 1100.  Weather was brochure lovely, and spirits high as we reached along in light easterly winds that began to clock around behind us. 

Thursday, the 8th, we started by shaking out the reefs that we had left with, anticipating brisk trade winds, that never materialized.  Sunny day - good celestial practice weather for the navigators, and the wind had moved around to an uncharacteristic SSW, and stayed light.  Not much traffic, but enough to begin training with the radar, and CPAs.  

Friday, the 9th, we had put one reef back in as the winds briefly got up to about 16 kts, but it was short lived, and soon was back under 12, mostly SSE.   Sailed wing and wing for a while, but what they say is true - it’s generally not as fast as downwind tacking, but gave us some variety.   Jim and I were pleased to note that the battery bank was taking and holding charge very well - a particular blessing since the generator was belly up.  The new batteries put in last year have made a big difference in how often we had to run the engine to charge. 

Saturday, the 10th.  Winds still light, putting us behind where we had expected to be given the trade winds we had expected to be reaching with. About noon, light winds and a broad reach - seemed right for the cruising chute, and it was a real treat for the afternoon, adding one to two knots.  Forecasts are still indicating a strong front ahead of us. 

Sunday, the 11th, the winds have moved around to the west, in keeping with what we expect before a front, but are still light - in the 10 - 12 knot range.  By noon, when we were more confident that the wind wasn’t building imminently, we set the chute again, for another afternoon of nice pulling. 

Monday, the 12th.  By dawn, winds are freshening, with gusts to 20 knots, and we reef the main, and a couple of hours later, as the winds pipe, we add a second reef.  By noon the genoa has been reduced by half, and by mid afternoon been furled, and replaced by the stays’l.   Winds now in the 20- 25 knot range pretty steadily.   With the reduced sail plan, the boat is riding well, and spirits are high.  People are getting the kind of experience they came for.   Be careful what you ask for. 

 We are spending more time than usual scouring the weatherfax and SSB for the previews of weather to come, and what they’re telling us is to expect gales from the NW as the front passes. 

Tuesday, the 13th.  Heavy winds all day, mostly N and NW, but occasionally, inexplicably, backing to the WSW.  Heaviest in the afternoon, 30-35, gusting 40, and seas that are beautiful, and awesome, at 15' - 20'.   By afternoon it’s clear we’re making no headway towards Norfolk, less clear where we should be pointing the boat for best advantage, crystal clear that not all crew are functioning at full effectiveness, and we follow the better part of valor, and heave to for the night.  Wonderful trick, that heaving to - exposure can be limited to sticking your head outside every 10 to 15 minutes to check for traffic, and how the boat and gear are doing, and the watches can be doctored to make the best use of the crew available.   About 2015, a solid wave breaks on portside, breaking the 2" x 4" that we secure emergency water to.  By the time I get to it, one of our emergency water jugs is gone, gone, gone.  Bye... 

Wednesday, the 14th, the NW winds behind the front have abated some, but are still coming from the NW, where we want to go.  We’ve pored over the weather info we have, and the day before we consulted Herb, the altruistic weather router who guides his flock by SSB every afternoon, and decided to head west, as best we can, to get beneath a high that will be forming to ride the west side of its winds north.  Off to the west, beating, with winds now NW in the mid teens.  Oh, by the way, another front is predicted for Friday. 

Thursday, the 15th the winds have clocked to the N-NE  and are back in single digits most of the day - lighter winds in high pressure centers - motorsailing in left over seas that still are running 8' - 10'.  What’s next? 

Friday, the 16th, finds the winds again building from the SW, heralding the arrival of the next front, and by early afternoon, we’re again in 20+ kts WSW.  Seas are more mundane, at 5' - 7' , mostly.  Earlier advice had been to stay below 31 degrees N to avoid the worst of the coming blow, but it’s now clear that it’s going to be about the same above and below, so we use the SW wind to make hay while the sun shines, to mix our metaphors.  Oh, by the way, the GPS makes clear that we’re now in an adverse current, holding us back to about a knot less over ground than we’re making through the water.  Consistent for many hours.  Who knew these things before the advent of the little black boxes? 

Saturday, the 17th dawns with brisk (20 - 25) winds out of the SW that abate quickly as this front passes and the winds fill in light from the N, again discouraging travel in the direction we need to go.  Time again for the iron stays’l, and we’re grateful that the Yanmar is as reliable as it is. 

Sunday, the 18th, the wind again pipes to 30-35 knots out of the WSW as the harbinger of yet another front.  We hoist the storm trysail for the second time in my ten plus years of sailing Halimeda.  Both times on this trip.  Boy, are these guys getting their money’s worth of heavy weather experience.  Under the storm sail plan, we’re still racking up 7 and 8+ nautical mile hours, boosted along by the Gulf Stream, which we’re crossing in 10' seas.  We’re having some fun now. 

Monday, the 19th sees what we hope will be the last front of the trip pass, emerge from the Gulf Stream, and experience slowly abating winds from the NW.  The northwest, you’ll recall, is where we want to go, so we’re again motorsailing, beating, and trying not to slip back east into the Gulf Stream, to be carried to England.  As the wind lightens, we strike the storm trisail, and with the double reef main are able to almost hold a course for the Chesapeake.  By nightfall the wind is again in single digits, and we motor for home, arriving early 

Tuesday, the 20th, at 0224.    Some clever docking in the middle of the night, and off to bed with us all.  The trip has taken three to four days longer than expected; flights had to be cancelled and rescheduled, and it was worth it.  Only a little of the emergency food we had provisioned had hit the can opener.  Careful rationing had let us shower maybe four times, and still arrive with adequate water.   Not bad. 

Note: A Swan of my acquaintance dismasted in one of the weather systems we went through, and limped into Bermuda, where they made sufficient repairs to continue the trip to the northeast US.

Captain Jack Morton
Little Creek Harbor, Norfolk
May 20, 2008

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