Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Escape from the Bermuda Triangle

                             Bermuda 2012 - Four Men and a Goat

    Let me start off by saying that I did not approve of the trips slogan from the instant I heard it.  My brain immediately goes to a place I do not like but Gib said that was the point.  The trip was from Bridgeport, CT to the island of Bermuda and back.  My Dad and Scott Smith went both ways.  Gib and my brother Tom sailed the outbound leg while Gregg Gallatin and I sailed the return voyage.  During the planning stages Gib's wife jokingly worried about what we would do for milk and suggested taking along a goat.  The idea was quickly latched onto and became a running joke.  On the outbound leg of the trip besides one day of calm they had excellent weather and winds, both in wind speed and direction.  This got them to Bermuda in just over 5 days.  The goat jokes kept escalating during that time so that when they arrived in Bermuda and were asked by customs whether they were importing any livestock they were barely able to keep from cracking up and getting the boat quarantined.  After I arrived while on a run I discovered some loose goats so Tom and I considered getting drunk and stealing one.  We decided not to for three good reasons (and if you can think of three reasons not to do something maybe that is a sign that you shouldn't do it). 1) While we thought that Dad would see the humor in our stunt he would probably not be happy with it being tied to the mast, scuffing the deck with its hooves and shitting/pissing on it.  2) We were going to have to cut a fence into a military installation to extract the goat.  And 3) It's wrong to steal things that don't belong to you.
    I flew into Bermuda on Saturday, got through customs, and found the boat without too much difficulty.  This was the week of the biennial Newport, RI to Bermuda race with 165 boats entered so Bermuda customs was very prepared for a bunch of sailors to be flying in and out as crews changed.  The types of boats range from normal cruising yachts like ours to the most absolute cutting edge technology open ocean racing boats on the planet.  The fastest boat, The Rambler, was able to do the crossing in 39 hours 39 minutes (shattering the previous record) but due to the handicapping system only earned 2nd place in its division.  These boats would be approaching Bermuda as we were leaving.  After hanging out in the town of Hamilton for a couple of days and exploring the island some we had a favorable weather forecast so it was time to put to sea and see what Neptune had in store for us.  Here is the breakdown of the main events of each day during the 8 days it took us to get back. 

Day 1:  Monday, 18 June 2012:  We left the Royal Hamilton Dingy club to go to the town of St. George where the customs dock is.  At this point both crews were aboard along with Peter, a local farmer and friend of Gib's, who had familiarity with the channel markers through the reefs we had to pass.  This took about 3 hours and it turned out there was a long line of boats for the fuel dock and motor boats kept crowding in ahead of line.  At times there was yelling going on between boats.  We decided to avoid the nonesense, tied up to an empty pier and just took jerry cans by hand to the fuel dock.  We were also able to go to the grocery store for last minute provisions and check out through customs.  Good byes were said and the homebound crew set off for the open ocean by mid-morning.  The first day and night we had good winds and made some miles.  This was the time when we were passing the race fleet on their last leg in.  With so many boats involved they were scattered all over.  Some passed miles away but some ended up being within 100 yards so that crews could wave to each other.  During the day it wasn't so bad but at night it was nerve racking trying to figure out if you were on a collision course or not.  By morning the last of the race boats had gone by.  During this day I was queasy.  In the past I have tried most seasickness medications (Dramamine, Meclizine, Scopalamine Patches, and Phenergan).  Despite the medications I get sick, get it out of my system, and then recover.  My Dad calls me a "functional puker".  That night as soon as I went below decks I got sick but my Dad has a bucket on board that is decorated with a variety of stickers and other flair that says "John's Bucket - Thar She Blows!" with a picture of a whale on it.  After that I went to sleep but when I woke up I still didn't feel well.  At that point I started to worry that if I didn't get my act together soon it was going to be a VERY long week.  However after another 4 hour watch on deck and another nap I woke up feeling absolutely fine and starving to death.  For the rest of the trip I was fine even though we had rougher conditions later on. 
Leaving Bermuda behind

Day 2:  Tuesday, 19 June 2012:  By morning the winds had stopped or if there was a little bit of wind it was dead ahead so we had to tack.  Minimal forward progress was made.  There is a limited amount of fuel on board and this was needed to charge the batteries a few times a day.  When the motor was on to do this we would be able to grab some miles homeward but this only helped a little.  In the summer what is known as the Bermuda High tends to set up in this area.  High pressure makes for wonderful weather but piss poor sailing.
    Nighttime can be the scariest of times on a boat when you can't see the waves or what is going on in the rigging or it can be the most magical of times.  This night was one of those magical times.  It was a new moon and being in the middle of the ocean there are absolutely no lights except the dim glow of the instruments and navigation lights.  When there were clouds on the horizon you could not tell where the ocean stopped and the sky began.  We were just floating in a dark bubble but since mostly it was clear out the amount of stars and the intensity of the Milky Way was breath taking.  I hadn't seen a sky like that since living in Vermont on those crystal clear 30 below zero nights but now there were no trees or hills on the horizon.  Constellations, planets, shooting stars, and satellites were all readily visible in a slowly spinning dance around the North Star which basically was where our heading was.  The dance of light continued into the water around the boat and in its wake from the phosphorescent bioluminescence twinkling like the fireflies I used to see as a kid.  If I stared too deeply into the flashing lights I would lose my sense of depth perception and have the feeling that I was falling into it.  Between the 3 miles of water underneath the boat and the sky above I felt pretty small and insignificant.  In fact the entire solar system felt pretty small and insignificant. 

Day 3:  Wednesday, 20 June 2012:  The complete lack of wind continued through the morning.  It is amazing how flat the middle of an ocean can be.  Barely any swell and no wind waves at all.  At this point we realized that we needed to be aware of food, water, and fuel consumption because we were going nowhere fast.  In fact we were drifting at 0.4 knots/hour deeper into the Atlantic Ocean.  Wildlife to this point had been Greater Shearwaters, White Tailed Tropicbirds, flying fish, lots of Portugese Man-O-War jellyfish, and then midmorning were visited by our first of several pods of porpoise jumping around and playing off the front of the boat.  Around 9pm the wind finally picked up and we started moving again.
Sunset at end of Day 3

Day 4:  Thursday, 21 June 2012:  Steady 20 to 23 knot winds from a good direction made for some fast sailing but for the biggest waves and swells of the trip (10-15 feet).  It was a very bumpy herky jerky ride.  A couple of times a minute the waves would set up so that the front of the boat would come slamming down into a wave.  This would stop a lot of the forward motion and if you were below decks it was like someone was outside periodically beating on the side of the boat with a baseball bat.  I can sleep through a lot but even I had trouble that day. 

Day 5:  Friday, 22 June 2012:  In the middle of the night a thick fog developed and by morning everything was soaking wet.  The fog burned off in the morning and then we proceeded to have a sunny warm day with fairly calm seas and 16-18 knot winds from the perfect direction.  We made good speed and it was exactly the kind of day our spirits needed at that point.  In the early evening we started to enter the 60 to 90 mile wide Gulf Stream which was potentially the most dangerous section of water we had to cross.  This was about the halfway point of the trip.
   Dad as we cross the Gulf Stream

Day 6:  Saturday, 23 June 2012:  As we finished crossing the Gulf Stream the winds died down and we used the motor to get out of the strongest of the current.  The water is so powerful that at times despite motoring to the North-Northwest the boat was actually moving due East over the ground.  We calculated at this point that we had some fuel to spare so used the engines more when the wind died down.  Mid-morning clouds started to build and by midday a cold front stretching from one horizon to the other with visible lightning making its way toward us.  Sail was shortened and the hatches were secured.  As it approached you could see the wind line coming at us by the rippling of the water.  Within seconds the wind went from basically zero into the 20 knot range.  Shortly after you could see the rain line approaching and that's when it really hit the fan.  The winds jumped up into the 40s but then the gusts knocked out our wind speed indicator.  Visibility from the driving rain went down to 100 yards.  Lightning and thunder crackled and roared all around us with the nearest strike being within 1/2 mile.  The worst of the squall lasted about 30 minutes and by 1 1/2 hours it was basically over and we were back to sailing.  That evening I saw the first boat I had seen in 4 days.  All night we could see the lightning from the storm raging behind us and were super thankful that we weren't trying to cross the Gulf Stream then.
  Approaching cold front
  Watching the approaching storm

Day 7:  Sunday, 24 June 2012:  My watch that night began at 0400.  Coming on deck we are informed that there are two fishing vessels ahead (presumed fishing vessels it turns out) on either side of us that have been there awhile.  We have been trying to save electricity (and therefore fuel) for the last several days and since noone has been around we had the radios turned off.  Just as it was becoming light out one of the boats crossed in front of us, circled around, and then came charging directly at us with all its lights on and blaring its horn.  At this point my Dad turns on the VHF radio to see what is going on and we are informed that we are in the middle of a live fire naval exercise and that they have been trying to hail us for hours.  An entire ocean out there and the US Navy has decided that they need to blow up that little section of water at exactly the time we need to cross it.  We are told to go immediately South (ie: back towards Bermuda).  We decide to turn East which is still in the totally wrong direction for us but beter then due South.  At this point the other boat (USS Ryan T. Miller) is shadowing us off the port side and then a naval spotter airplane starts making passes over us at 500 feet.  They hail us again.  "Sailing vessel Sierra Hotel.  Declare your intentions!".  We explain that we are overdue by 2 days and low on fuel needing to go Northwest.  Eventually they compromise and allow us to skirt the edge of the exercise area but both the ship and plane escorted us until we were out of the area.  Who knows but we probably wasted several 100s of thousands of tax payer dollars and pissed off an admiral by delaying their exercise for a few hours.  By the afternoon we were close enough to the mainland to pick up FM radio stations and chatter on the VHF radio (which was now left on all the time).  Being a weekend there was a fair amount of chatter and being off of New York some of it was quite foul mouthed.  At 7:48pm "Land Ho!!!" could be cried as Montauk (the eastern edge of Long Island) was spotted.

  USS Ryan T. Miller
  Spotter Aircraft

Day 8:  Monday, 25 June 2012:  King Neptune wasn't going to give us the last day easy.  We lucked out and timed our arrival to "The Race" perfectly to have the flood tide help push us along.  This is the narrow entrance into Long Island Sound.  Since a large volume of water passes through here the tidal currents can be quite strong.  The forecast called for thunderstorms after midnight but they managed to hold off until morning.  The first squall line hit us shortly after 8am and was nowhere near as intense as the first storm we had had.  However, about 2 hours later lightning could be seen ahead of us again.  This time the clouds were scary looking.  They were green in color and seemed to glow from within.  We went to minimal sail right before it hit.  Once again visibility went down to nothing.  I just watched the compass which had us going straight despite my brain telling me we kept turning right.  The rest of the crew kept an eye out for other boats and lobster pots.  This storm was also successfully withstood despite some near lightning strikes.  As these clouds passed we were then able to see Bridgeport about an hour away.  At this point the attitude became "Christ!  What next?".  We decided that we hadn't had hail yet and then decided we wouldn't be surprised if a plague of locusts descended on us or it started to rain frogs - poison dart frogs at that.  I also suggested we might sink in front of the yacht club pulling into the marina.  Scott's idea was that since his boat was in the slip next to my Dad's that we would crash into it and both boats would sink.  Fortunately, none of that happened and we arrived back at the slip in Captain's Cove shortly before noon with both the Customs official and Gib with a tray of Bloody Mary's waiting for us on the dock.  Final Tally:  7 1/2 days.  750 miles. 
  Green glowing thunderstorm clouds

  Safely back in the slip