2013 Norfolk-St Thomas Report



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~ A Cut Above ~

Course Ocean Training Cruise, Norfolk to St Thomas, USVI
Date November 2 to 17, 2013
Students: Claude Bilodeau, George “Nordie” Norwood, Theo Wolfensberger
Mates: David Gifford; Tom Tursi
Captain: Jack Morton

Friday, Nov 1   
Crew flew or drove to join Celestial at Vinings Marina, and gathered for orientation and dinner at Captain Groovy’s,which despite the teenage name, is a fine seafood restaurant a few blocks away.  Three intrepid crew matched by three staff – try to match that ratio at any other sea school.  Catalina owner “Nordie” Norwood, from Florida, and Theo Wolfensberger both already had their ASA108 certifications, and IP420 owner Claude Bilodeau from Canada was going for his ASA108 certification as part of this cruise, and all were enthusiastically looking forward to the trip.  For mates I was privileged to have David Gifford and school founder and owner Tom Tursi aboard, both of whom have done many of these trips.  If I fell overboard, the ship was going to be in good hands. 

Saturday 2 Nov
Promptly at 0800 we started the shore component, in which we review the “blue book” and ensure that although we’ve all done a good bit of sailing, we see eye to eye on how things will be done on Celestial.  And of course, as is true for any November trip, we begin the agonizing process of deciding when it makes the most sense to depart, and what our initial courses and waypoints ought to be, in light of the expected weather.  Ultimately, we do our own routing, but it would be rash and temerarious to do so without at least considering the advice given by the professionals like Chris Parker, who was advising waiting four or five days and then jumping almost due east to get across the Gulf Stream before more bad weather was expected.  We considered that, and the capabilities of the boats to which that advice had been given – larger, more weatherly craft than ours, and felt that it might not be geared particularly to us.   While others provisioned the boat, allowing the food to get good and cold before we left shore power behind, I spent a lot of time integrating the information from our myriad weather prognosticators. 

Sunday, 3 Nov
More shore seminar, and more balancing the input of the various weather gurus.  More discussion of heavy weather techniques, planning and how to use the various things responsible sailors take with them when they venture offshore – life raft, emergency gear, and sea anchor, which we brought out, inspected, and simulated deployment.  

Monday 4 Nov
Still undecided in the morning, we commit to an afternoon departure, on the tide, figuring that with the projected winds, we are better off coasting down to and past Hatteras, and crossing the stream south of there before heading east to get over to 65º west, and the prospect of easterly trades to carry us south to the islands.   It’s not a bad plan, although as time will tell, it doesn’t work as well as we hoped and had good reason to expect.  While the rest of America went off daylight savings time, we stayed on, which would work better for meals, and would be the time we’d be on when we reached the Virgins, which keeps Atlantic time. We left at 1540 ship time, setting a course almost paralleling the coast towards Hatteras. 

Tuesday 5 Nov
Pure sailing for a time; motorsailing for a time, and making better time than expected, we slow down in the wee hours of the morning to time our arrival to the region of the Gulf Stream below Hatteras about Wednesday morning, when the wind is expected to be least unfavorable.  In echoes of former trips, it seems the ship is hungrier for electrons than is seemly, or maybe the genset isn’t making enough of them?  Either way, it feels like we’re running the genset too much, and seem to do better for electricity when the main engine is engaged.  

Wednesday 6 Nov
Big event of the day is expected to be the crossing of the Gulf Stream, with the prospect of uncomfortable seas if the wind opposes, which could happen, depending on when we cross it.  Life is complicated by a peculiar northwest leg to the GS that has been predicted in the area.  For a time we appear to be on the edge of that leg, then out of it.  We surmise that it was the corner where the GS was due to turn back northeast, but wait!  Where has the GS gone?  When we cross the area that was to have the eastbound leg below that, it’s not there.  I’ve crossed the GS many times, and it’s always had the courtesy to at least show up, whether to help or hurt us.  In this trip, we never did come across more than what we took to be eddies or edges.  A mystery. 

Thursday 7 Nov
At daylight, we see that we’ve got about a foot long tear in a genoa seam, just above the clew.  Among the principles of offshore cruising are redundancy and self reliance.  I consider lowering it and sewing it on deck, but ultimately yield to the suggestion that we replace it with the spare genoa, which we do.  Serendipitously, the old sail gets rid of the annoying ‘drumming’ that we sometimes got with the newer genoa close hauled.  

Realizing that whatever happened to it, the GS was now behind us, we take advantage of the developing SSW wind to beat feet to the east, and try to get ourselves positioned about 65º W to catch the easterly trades down to the islands.  A long way to go, as by the time we’re through where the GS should have been, we’re still about 75º W.  ‘Til this point, although the wind has had too much east in it to suit, it hasn’t been too strong, and while some people were feeling the effects of their first real offshore seas, conditions were OK, to which we’re now adding rain and drizzle.  Between spray and precipitation, we’ll be wearing foulies a lot this trip. 

Friday 8 Nov
Anticipating the trades to kick in about 29º N, we are using our SW wind to go mostly east, and not holding for a rhumb line course.  (The right judgment at the time, although in retrospect, the trip would have been about a day shorter had we then gone for the rhumb line.)  Doing lots of motorsailing, partly because the wind comes and goes, and we want to keep our speed up, since we’re getting a bit behind the 8-ball, as far as schedule and easting go, but also because the main engine seems to be doing a better job of keeping the house bank charged.  First of a series of cold fronts has given us north wind. Pushing for all the easting we can get 

Saturday 9 Nov
In the early AM the recently repaired MOB pole loses its upper section overboard – better not fall overboard.  Varying between motorsailing and sailing as the wind pipes and wanes. During the day, the wind slacks to the point that we strike sail for a time, and head the 130º that we are trying to steer.  Latest word is that trades may kick in about 27º north.   We are pulling weather information from daily updates from Jochen, Navtex, and weather maps and forecasts from Skymate, our satellite service.  The latter usually arrive in time to predict the weather we had experienced earlier that morning.  Visually, and by radar, we see that we are being surrounded by large rain clouds.   Some we dodge, and some make us wet.  Another cold front approaching. 

Sunday 10 Nov
Wind still SSW.  We’re expecting it to clock, and finally work its way around to the long awaited trades, hoping we’ll have the easting we want before that happens. With as much cloudy weather as we’ve come through, there has been little opportunity for the celestial navigators to do their thing.  We see some sun today, and heave to for a while for them to get the best sightings to reduce.  

One of our most critical, and irreplaceable, provisions is water.  Yesterday, daily checking looked like we were doing OK on that front, and I authorized ‘sea showers’ for the crew.  Apparently, I hadn’t explained well enough what ‘sea showers’ entailed – make yourself wet – turn off the water – wash – rinse off – turn off the water.  The whole process can be done with less than a gallon of water.  It wasn’t, and by day’s end, we had used 20% of our total supply of water in 30 hours, which called for imposing water austerity for pretty much the remainder of the trip.  No more showers ‘til further notice; dishes to be washed in buckets of salt water in the cockpit; selective activation of the marine head system (which, saints preserve us, uses fresh water) to disposition of solids only.   

Monday 11 Nov
Wind goes light enough that we strike sail and motor toward our newly selected waypoint of 27º N x 65º W for a time.   Calm interrupted by a lightning squall around 0330.  By morning, sufficient steady breeze has arisen to again be sailing, in fairly calm seas.   How pleasant it must be to sail like this often enough to not find it worthy of logging.  Sometime in the morning we discover more of our precious fresh water overflowing the forward head.  Hourly boat checking means we didn’t lose much, as verified by the morning tank check, but it postpones any relaxation of the water austerity program.   Morning is brightened by our catching a small Mahi Mahi.  It’s enough to feed all the fish eating crew come dinnertime, but no seconds or leftovers. 

Tuesday 12 Nov
More rain, but no electrical show.  Motoring in calm, relieved by wind at 15 – 18 knots later in the morning, still unexpectedly from the SSW.   Trades not now expected until 25º N.   Well, we’re at 25º N, and still in SSW – what gives with that, huh?  The SSW wind has not allowed us to turn south, and we’ve already overshot our 65º W destination by a degree of longitude, and still going SE.   Trade winds,  Hmphh.  Consolation prize – we got enough sunshine for a few shots. 

Wednesday 13 Nov
Another strong cold front approaching.   It appears that it’s the repetitive strong cold fronts that have robbed us of the trade winds we feel entitled to.   N wind predicted – I’ll believe it when I see it.   Caught a little dinner for two size Mahi, and threw it back to grow up. 

Thursday 14 Nov
Well it’s about time – wind clocks enough for us to lay a course for the Virgins.  We’ve come to about 63º W, which means laying a course for the Anegada Passage, which will let us cruise past the whole the BVI on the way to St. Thomas.  Caught our third Mahi – a nice dinner for five fish. 

Friday 15 Nov
NNE wind, although it’s light, still gives us enough way to give the engine a well deserved rest.   The strong CF that gives us this pleasant sailing was more robust farther north, and the leftover swell from that is running 10’ to 12’.  Period great enough that it means a bit of rolling, but nothing really unpleasant.  About midday we hook into the fish we’ve been waiting for, and after about a 45 minute fight, land a 30# (by scale) Mahi.  It’s a dinner for 35 fish, and I retire the fishing gear for the remainder of the trip.  We get two more meals out of it, and still will have fish to give away and take home at the end of the trip. 

Saturday 16 Nov
Wind is still light, and now we’re motorsailing just because the trip has gone into overtime, and people are hoping to make their rearranged flights.  Wind far enough behind us that we try the whisker pole for a time, but find the angle isn’t quite right, and the wind is very light, so we soon strike it.  More rain.   Hope it’s sunny enough tomorrow that we don’t have to pack up our foul weather gear soaking wet. 

Sunday 17 Nov
Landfall on Anegada, and the eastern British Virgins.  Rest of the trip will be done by pilotage, keeping track of Nav marks and identifying islands.   The wind briefly pipes to 17 – 18 knots as the front comes through, and we make 7 +/- knots under sail alone, which feels good after all that engine time. Grateful to have had that reliable iron staysail, but on the whole, would have preferred much less use of it. Sunny enough that we all get our foul weather gear dry.  Secure at Crown Bay Marina 1434 Atlantic time, and Nordie makes his Sunday flight.                 

Captain Jack Morton
St Thomas, USVI

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