Heading out on the water isn’t always smooth sailing

My job on Swell Rider, a 34-foot “weekender” type sailboat more suitable for island cruising than offshore ocean crossing, was delivery captain. Captain Hank Schmitt, owner of the crewing network business, Offshore Passage Opportunities, had organized three such sailboats, a 34-footer, a 37-footer and a 43-footer, for delivery to a charter business in the British Virgin Islands.

  • Monday, January 19, 2009 10:00pm
  • Life

My job on Swell Rider, a 34-foot “weekender” type sailboat more suitable for island cruising than offshore ocean crossing, was delivery captain. Captain Hank Schmitt, owner of the crewing network business, Offshore Passage Opportunities, had organized three such sailboats, a 34-footer, a 37-footer and a 43-footer, for delivery to a charter business in the British Virgin Islands.

The crew, Josh, Rueben, Jim and I, had a job to do – sail 650 miles to Bermuda for a stopover and then 850 miles to a new home in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. I was a greenhorn skipper in this little fleet. My background, though extensive, was in the commercial marine industry.

There was a real storm in Newport, R.I., before we left with winds up to 60 knots, almost hurricane strength, which caused some damage in the harbor. On Monday morning, Oct. 30, we had our weather briefing, which was favorable for a Monday afternoon start, so we made plans to leave that afternoon.

Steep 6-foot seas from the west met us when we emerged from Narragansett Bay and they pounded us on our starboard side. Swell Rider, the smallest boat, bounced like a cork and our movements around the boat were like some kind of spastic dance from handhold to handhold.

With this rough sea, that dance would continue for days and days, preventing any relaxing unless sitting or lying down. Such is life offshore in a small boat that I would pee sitting down until I reached Bermuda. Also a result of the rough seas, it was only a half an hour before my watch partner, Ruben, began to vomit (beginning with pizza). He did this for two and a half days. It makes for poor conversation when one person has a green face.

Our plan for the crossing to Bermuda included encountering the Gulf Stream, a giant river, 60 miles wide in places, within the Atlantic Ocean. It is a warm current and was, according to our weather router, flowing at 2.5 knots from south to north, then turning east where we would meet it.

Around day four, we managed to pick up a weather forecast on a multi-band radio receiver announcing a gale warning. When we heard that the weather front was coming, we immediately turned west in order to meet the weather and pass through the worst of it as quickly as possible.

At sunset the wind speed began to rise. With all sails down except a tiny headsail (in front), I motored Swell Rider into the wind and seas, taking the waves slowly and at a slight angle to lessen the strain on the boat. This is called “hove-to” and is a standard heavy weather tactic. In this way we rode out the bad weather for about eight hours, then changed course back to the east and took the waves on the stern.

The stern of Swell Rider rose as each 6-to-8-foot following sea passed under her. The waves pushed the stern to one side or the other as it lifted the boat. Swell Rider’s rudder is a “spade” type rudder and this means it hangs down in back, completely unsupported by any skeg or large keel structure. With the sideways strain on the rudder from each shove of a wave, the rudderpost support structure inside the back of the boat broke away from where it was glued to a bulkhead running lengthwise between the aft cabins. The movement of the fiberglass against the wood bulkhead caused a noise, which began as a squeak.

Each day, the squeak got louder until Jim became so annoyed at the sound when he tried to sleep, that he attempted to remove the wood panel that covered access to the rudderpost. After some effort, he and I got the wood removed and that is when I saw the crack in the rudderpost support.

With a surge of adrenaline, we began emergency preparations. We first put together an abandon ship kit with food, water, clothing, radio and locating transmitter. Then I had Jim get on the radio and make an announcement to anyone that might be listening, saying we were experiencing trouble, but that we were not in danger yet.

I continued to monitor the damaged area and we discussed our options. Being about 70 miles from Bermuda, we were able to pick up radio transmissions from “Bermuda Radio” the government agency, but we were unable to reach them on our VHF. We spotted a sailboat on the horizon and sent off a flare to attract their attention. The sailing vessel, Chimera, a 60-footer, responded by coming to us and answering on the radio.

When we advised them of our situation they immediately agreed to stay with us until we reached the safety of St. Georges Harbor in Bermuda. The Chimera was our guardian angel for the rest of the trip, the sight of her behind us gave comfort in our time of need and that boat and those people (whom we met later at the customs office) will always have a warm spot in my heart. The rest of the passage to Bermuda was uneventful but tense because we never knew for sure whether the hull would crack and we would have to abandon the boat. We were fairly sure Chimera would pick us up, but in the night and in rough seas anything can happen.

After a two-day layover in Bermuda, I left for Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. But I had been promoted to the 43-foot Beneteau because of the damage to Swell Rider and Hank, the boss and veteran delivery skipper, would take the little broken boat (I was happy with the bigger boat, for sure). The 850-mile trip went well. I can’t say “smoothly,” because we encountered another gale, which we fought for about 12 hours with seas reaching 12 feet in height and winds reaching 45 knots. After the gale, we had smooth sailing the rest of the way to the islands and the delivery job was complete. I was a better skipper for all challenges I faced and satisfied to have accomplished what I set out to do. My thanks goes to Hank for offering me the opportunity, to my crew members who did most of the work and to the crew of the Chimera who made me safe when I needed it.

Donald Langlois is an expedition leader and adventurer who lives in Greenwater.

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