Passage Notes: Escaping the Big Chill
Nothing like a little climate shock to carry you through a slow-coming spring.
Last March, I got up at 3:30 a.m. to chip the "wintry mix" off car and
driveway, and 12 hours later I stepped off the plane in St. Thomas into
that wonderful wall of scent, warmth, and humidity that breathes
"tropics" into every pore of your body. Aaaah! And even as the Fast
Ferry pulled into Road Town, Tortola, my eyes still ached from the
vibrant blues of the water.
With time to kill before my real
work began (a photo assignment for a future feature), I sauntered down
the road to Fort Burt Marina, home to Conch Charters. This is one of
the smaller bareboat companies in the B.V.I., offering a fleet of
slightly older than brand-new boats to a clientele who aren't looking
for a hand-holding experience. The briefing room is the patio of The
Pub, which overlooks the marina and offers three meals a day of
reliably high quality. And it's where I cornered charterers Harry and
Lynda Munro and Lynda's brother, Steve Cranton. The Munros'
daughters--Eva, 20, a student at McGill, in Montréal; Fiona, 17; and
Monica, 15, at school in Nova Scotia--were due to join them later.
Steve and Lynda, from Canada, raced sailboats as kids, taking part in
local regattas as well as the Canadian Olympic Regatta, Kingston
(CORK). Harry, who grew up by Cromarty Firth, in Scotland, was a
powerboater before meeting Lynda, who coaxed him onto her Laser. In his
teens, he built a 20-foot lapstrake Orkney Launch, trading his labor in
the boatyard for space and materials.
Harry, a lawyer, and
Lynda, a dentist, live in Pictou, Nova Scotia. They love their home
cruising grounds, but in winter the area can be a little forbidding.
Pictou's location on Northumberland Strait gives them ready access in
their Nonsuch 30, Full Circle, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, by passing through the Canso Causeway, the Bras d'Or lakes.
"A gunkholing dream," Harry says of Bras d'Or. "About 2:30 every
afternoon, a lovely southwesterly breeze blows up, then dies away again
after sunset. It's perfect." And when they stay on the Gulf side, the
Îles de la Madeleine are but a 20-hour sail away. Sailing season
doesn't really begin until June, after the ice pack flows out. But
then, Harry says, while ice-chilled ocean waters create a fog that
cloaks Nova Scotia's Atlantic coast, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is
fog-free. Nearly enclosed and relatively shallow, the gulf warms up
rapidly, the incoming tide absorbing heat from the vast expanses of
sun-soaked intertidal rocks and beaches until the temperature reaches
70 F. It's then quite pleasant even through December, when winter truly
sets in. The Munros like to make their trips to the Caribbean in the
latter part of March because when they get back, they can begin to
think about sailing season. "We can go out and buy our boat-cleaning
supplies and get the canvas mended," says Harry.
Steve lives in
Okanagan, British Columbia, where he races a Dash 34 on the lake. "It's
already showing green there," he said, "and we've begun our winter
series." At which we began to show green. Steve looked as though he was
there to provide muscle for the winches, and no doubt would, since the
others aboard seemed more inclined to recline than to heed his calls
for "trim." His luggage bore the evidence of an incurable sail-tweaker:
yards of red yarn and VHS tape to adorn the shrouds of their chartered
Beneteau 445, Candis Lynn. "I was pretty sure there'd be no telltales on this boat," he said.
Roger and Ardy Ellis of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, aren't exactly cruising
sailors, but they've been taking winter breaks in the B.V.I. for longer
than they can remember--and longer than Conch Charters' computer can
For the Ellises, summer in Pewaukee usually means
racing C Scows in such exalted company as the Harken brothers, Peter
and Olaf, and, until recently, the late Olympic sailor Peter Barrett.
In winter, iceboats take over the lake.
When he's not on the
water, Roger represents a German machinery manufacturer. He can date
his sailing days back to 1966, when he was stationed with the U.S. Navy
in Naples, Italy, and a friend would take him out on a 40-foot boat. He
started sailing scows soon after returning. Ardy, an administrative
manager for an insurance company, caught the bug from Roger and
particularly enjoys brisk conditions.
Having chartered at least
six times through Conch Charters in the past 12 years or so, Roger
thinks of the Sir Francis Drake Channel as his personal lake, but he
does have pangs of nostalgia for the days when they didn't have to
share The Bight at Norman Island with 90 other boats. The folk at Conch
reward Roger and Ardy's good custom (and good record) by giving them
leeway to take some of the less-trodden paths, including that to
Anegada, where this year they spent a couple of days hiking and
exploring. The Ellises limit their visits to alternate years "so as not
to spoil a good thing by overdoing it," says Roger. On the last two
occasions, they've sailed with friends John and Sharon Lotz on a Lagoon
37 catamaran, which, while it doesn't go to weather like a C Scow,
doesn't heel, either--a comfort to Sharon.
By going to the
B.V.I. in late March, these Wisconsinites know that on their return
home, winter will be in retreat: The iceboats have been put away, the
ice is breaking up on the lake, and it'll soon be time to warm up the
Roger is tempted to try different locales. They once spent a week in the Leewards--St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Kitts--aboard Procyon,
the state-of-the-art sailing-industry showboat built by the Harkens, et
alia, in the 1980s. That vessel had a captain with local knowledge, an
accessory that, on another boat, might tempt the Ellises to venture
And, Roger says, if they were to move closer to a bigger lake, they'd probably put a bigger boat on it.
Karen and Roy Thorpe both grew up sailing on Manhassett Bay, Long
Island. "Everybody we knew had a boat," says Karen. They later owned a
series of boats that they sailed on Smith Mountain Lake, in Virginia.
The last one of these, Good Buddy,
a Hunter 27, they took with them when they moved to the Chesapeake Bay
area. Two years ago they sold it, deciding then that they would get
their sailing through chartering. That way they could try different
locations, preferably where evenings and the water are warm, like the
B.V.I., where they've been chartering since 1999. They could also try
different boats and maintain the pretext that they were looking for the
ideal one--or, at least, that was the plan. Having convinced themselves
they had no good reason to own a boat in their home waters, in January
they then went and bought a 1993 Hunter 42, named it Freedom, and found
a berth in Solomons, Maryland, a little over an hour's drive from Falls
Church, Virginia, where Roy is the city attorney. They expect to begin
their explorations with forays to places within a day's sailing range
before succumbing to relatives' invitations to sail to Maine.
Last winter, the Thorpes had already taken a break in Belize, but it
didn't come up to expectations, so when Karen got a new job, at the
National Institute of Mental Health, she decided she needed another
break before settling into it. While shopping around companies with
bases in Tortola, Karen came across Conch Charters, which happened to
have a center-cockpit Beneteau available at two weeks' notice, at an
attractive rate, with a sleepover, and with The Pub conveniently nearby.
Northern breezes blow cold in winter, especially in the Minneapolis
area, so it was no surprise to find Thom Burns, editor of the sailing
magazine Northern Breezes,
taking a long spell in the Virgins. "You have to," he says. "You can't
live in a place like Minnesota without leaving it for a while in the
Thom also owns Northern Breezes Sailing School, an
American Sailing Association (ASA) school on Lake Superior, and it's
his custom at this time of the year to move his teaching venue
southward. I accosted him and his crop of students as they were
disembarking from a J/120, Jahazzi,
at Tortola Marine Management (TMM), bearing all the signs of a week
well spent in a sunny and salty clime--the winds had been up in the
high range most of the time, to which faces and hair lent ruddy and
This was the third back-to-back charter Thom
had taken in Tortola this year, and he was getting ready to fly to St.
Vincent to take another TMM boat down through the Grenadines.
The first time Thom came to the B.V.I. was in 1979, when he took Steve
and Doris Colgate's cruising class. The following year, his brother and
his wife--"They're over there, on the cruising catamaran, right now,"
he said--followed suit, and it's been an annual ritual ever since.
And it makes concrete sense when you can bring your business with you,
especially while your assets are frozen into Lake Superior. Thom
teaches the ASA cruising courses, and he always has a cook along.
Filling that role on this crew was Deb Sanders, who's also an
instructor. "It really helps to have someone else available to go on
one of the boats with the students," Thom says, adding that because
Deb's a woman and doesn't have tremendous upper-body strength, she's
particularly supportive for the female students.
I was beginning to think that Northern Breezes must be a thin magazine, because as well as sailing his Islander 36, Aerie,
on Lake Superior "as much as possible," Thom also makes time to race
trimarans and a Wilderness 21 on Lake Minnetonka. It's just as well the
summer days are long in Minnesota.
Associate editor Jeremy McGeary was denied the position of Editor at Large While Winter Lasts. He's not yet over it.
More Passage Notes from the Field by Jeremy McGeary
Dragonfly Takes Flight:
On last summer's solstice, Janna Cawrse and Graeme Esarey sailed away
from their Whidbey Island wedding aboard their 1973 Hallberg-Rassy 35
ketch, Dragonfly, on a cruise
around Vancouver Island, the shakedown for their extended honeymoon: a
circumnavigation of the Pacific. They are now well into the dream
itinerary, which started in Seattle and includes Central America, the
South Pacific, Japan, Russia, and Alaska. "It's an audacious goal,"
Janna says, "so we keep reminding ourselves of the ancient cruisers'
maxim: All plans are made in Jell-O."
is an old girl, but she's sturdy, and her comfortable motion inspired
confidence in the high winds and rough seas Janna and Graeme
encountered off the Pacific Northwest coast and while crossing southern
Mexico's Golfo de Tehuantepec.
"So far, cruising has exceeded
our expectations," says Janna. "We love life aboard, and we've enjoyed
the fascinating people we've met and the adventures we've had."
While holed up in Noyo River, California, they made fast friends with
other cruisers and traveled south with them. In Bahía Santa Maria,
Baja, they dinghied up a mangrove estuary, climbed up an arroyo, hunted
(successfully) for whale bones, and wandered through sand dunes "à la
Lawrence of Arabia." In Oaxaca, Mexico, as well as in El Salvador and
Nicaragua, they made trips inland so they could explore more than just
beach towns. And although numerous visits from family and friends
significantly affected their cruising schedule, they feel having them
aboard has been worth the effort.
Graeme has had the cruising
bug since the age of 5, when his family moved aboard their fishing
boat, Ingrid, for a year. Thus began his long career of commercial
fishing with his father in waters from northern California to Alaska.
Janna, too, grew up in a boating family, exploring Washington's San Juan
Islands and B.C.'s Gulf Islands in Captain Teach, a Bill
Before they became full-time
cruisers, Graeme headed international operations for a Seattle company
that imports stone building products, and Janna was a high-school
Graeme and Janna are in their early 30s, much
younger than many of the cruisers they meet. When older cruisers say
they wish they'd set sail when younger, Dragonfly's
crew counter by saying that they envy the retirees' ability to cruise
into the sunset and not have to return to work to restock the cruising
On March 30, Dragonfly
set sail from Costa Rica for the Galápagos, and if the Jell-O plans
remain fairly firm, Janna and Graeme expect her to be chugging down the
Inside Passage, homeward bound, in about a year and a half. They post
news of their travels on a website (www.svdragonfly.blog spot.com).
Trudy and Graham Norbury Aboard Luna Azul:
Trudy and Graham Norbury met at high school, in England, at the sweet
ages of 16 and 17 and together pursued their passion for windsurfing on
inland lakes in England and on holidays in Turkey.
moved to northern Virginia for work in the booming world of software
development, lack of a windsurfing breeze drove them to explore other
avenues for being on the water.
Graham had spent his childhood
sailing with his father in the English Channel on classic wooden boats
built for handling the often cold and gale-force conditions, but
Trudy's sailing experience had been in dinghies in Poole Park. To test
out Trudy's sea legs, they took a series of courses with Annapolis
"From the first moment we saw Luna Azul,
a Nicholson 35, at anchor, we knew that her classic design and
oceangoing capability were for us," says Graham. It was a bonus that
she was built in Gosport, England. They bought her in July 1999 and
sailed her on weekends and occasional holidays, not expecting that the
bursting technology bubble would induce them to leave their large
American house, move aboard, and go on a sailing adventure for a year.
On October 12, 2002, they did just that, along with their two cats,
Shadow and Sylvester.
On their way south, they made their first 24-hour offshore passage to shake down themselves as well as Luna Azul
in preparation for crossing the Gulf Stream a month later. "We spent the
winter in the Bahamas fishing, beachcombing, and making new friends,"
says Trudy, "and Graham got to race on a traditional Bahamian C-class
racing boat--but it sank after a botched jibe."
A four-day, 825-mile offshore passage brought Luna Azul
back to Beaufort, North Carolina, from where Graham and Trudy
motorsailed to Oxford, Maryland. A planned cruise to Maine was
scuppered by a lightning strike, but they had a fun summer crewing on a
J/22 while Graham worked as an electrician/mechanic at Oxford Boatyard
and Trudy reupholstered the saloon.
Graham and Trudy began
their 2003/2004 winter season with a nine-day passage from Beaufort to
St. Thomas, and after several months spent exploring the Virgin
Islands, the south coast of Puerto Rico, and Luperón, in the Dominican
Republic, they returned to the Bahamas. While there, they fished and
caught up with friends from the previous winter. Graham raced on a
Bahamian C-class boat that stayed afloat to place third at the annual
Farmers Cay Regatta.
Having lived aboard Luna Azul
for 18 months, Graham and Trudy suspect they'll continue to do so for
the foreseeable future. Find out at their website (www.bond car.com).