From Bermuda to St. Martin

The crew of Tioga makes a fast passage through tradewinds and storms from Bermuda to St. Martin. Part II of "Caribbean Bound on a Budget" from our September 2011 issue.

Passage from Bermuda to St. Martin

Mark Pillsbury

The Atlantic can be a contrary place in late November, so our timing for the second leg was tricky. We planned to give ourselves a few days in Bermuda to fix what had been broken during the first leg and to wait for decent weather for a departure. Once under way, we used 100 miles a day as a conservative estimate in case the trade winds proved elusive. And, having sailed the 1,100-some miles to our destination in Antigua, we wanted at least a day or two to explore. All told, we booked our flights 16 days apart.

That’s not at all how the voyage played out, of course.

We arrived in Bermuda on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. By late afternoon, the coolers of food had been stored under the bunks in the V-berth, our gear was aboard, a repaired mainsail had been collected from the loft and was bent on, and the vang was back in place, though we couldn’t bleed the air out of its hydraulic lines. We also discovered a short in the solar panel that had been mounted on the transom, but we concluded it was unfixable, at least until we could order parts and have them delivered in Antigua.

Friday morning, we awoke to clear skies, a blustery northwest wind, and a forecast that promised at least a day or two of good sailing. Unfinished repairs aside, it was time. We wrapped up our provisioning while Philip and Peter, our resident handyman, made one last—futile, it turned out—attempt to fix the vang. We watched as the other few boats tied along the docks departed, and by midafternoon, we did the same.

Outside, a noteworthy swell was running as we unfurled the genoa and bore off to the southeast on a reach. The six of us sat in the cockpit, suddenly with nothing to do after 48 hours of frantic travel and pre-departure chores. As we left the island behind, though I knew we sailed with the proper gear, backup provisions, and good hands on board, I couldn’t help but wonder—with some apprehension—about what the weather and the days ahead would bring.

Now most voyaging articles advise a simple, bland meal on the first night out, but apparently my watch partner, Ulf Westhoven, hadn’t read those particular stories. So as we sat topside watching our first sunset, he busied himself below making a spicy tomato and olive-loaded pasta dish. It was a hit for the most part, though it did bring out an anti-olive bias in some.

He and I came on watch at 2100 to a still quite gusty wind and choppy swells. Behind us we still could see lights from Bermuda on the horizon, and the moon, two days from being full, shone brightly overhead. Our course took us generally southeast at a pace of seven to eight knots and would position us—we hoped—for a beam to broad reach once the easterly trades filled in. Off watch at midnight, we headed below. I was tired but tossed and turned most of the night as I tried to find a sweet spot in the berth and get used to Ulf's snoring and Tioga's motion. Both were impressive.

Saturday, the wind continued to blow northwest. The morning was consumed by breakfast and my first attempt to connect via satellite phone to pull down weather forecasts and emails. By noon the breeze moderated, and we at last hoisted the main and settled in on a beam reach, ticking off the miles at six knots.

After dinner that evening, I got my first good sleep and arrived for the midnight watch well rested and ready to go to work with my new mate, Doug Frauenholz. The wind, however, had taken a holiday. Tioga languished on remnant swells, the sails slatting loudly until finally we rolled up the genoa and drifted for an hour, waiting for the breeze to return. On Sunday morning, conditions remained light, and we lazed around in the cockpit, enjoying the mild temperature, if not a brisk pace.

At noon, we’d just finished sandwiches and a beer when the wind picked up with some authority. We deemed it prudent to put a reef in the main; then, minutes later, we tucked in the second. Then it was off to the races. For the next four days, we were on one wild, relentless ride. Our day’s run at 1530 Sunday was 136 nautical miles. In the next 24 hours, we cracked off 183 miles, followed on Tuesday by 162. Clearly, we were getting ahead of schedule.

Day and night the northeasterly trades blew 25 knots and better; we never so much as touched the sheets. Honestly, this all took some getting used to. When I was on watch and in the cockpit, the sailing was absolutely thrilling. Days were sun splashed and warm; evenings, we watched the moon rise and Orion march across the sky.

Belowdecks, it was a bit of a different story. The water coursing over the deck above found its way down in the most annoying places. The berth I favored, when it wasn’t already occupied, was the windward settee, where I could wedge in against the table, mast, and lee cloth. It quickly became a rock and a hard place, however. With my head at one end, my pillow was directly below a small drip and snoring Ulf. Turned the other way, I found (relative) quiet, but a seeming torrent hit me squarely on the ear.

Everything was wet. With hatches closed, the air was quite stuffy. Clothes—underwear, T-shirts, shoes, foulies—were strewn everywhere. Apparently, some aboard had missed out on learning the saw, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

By Tuesday, the captain intervened. All hands were mustered and a general cleanup ensued, making life more tidy, if not dry. Meantime, our frozen meals were proving their worth in terms of morale at dinnertime. We had stew, goulash, pulled pork, gumbo, and chili and rice. Each meal required just a bowl and spoon, keeping dishes to a minimum. We each settled into our routines: watches, sleep, navigation, communications, cooking, cleaning. The miles flew by, and life was easy.

After dinner on Tuesday, we watched the moon rise and then disappear into a cloudbank to the east. Soon those clouds took on ominous shapes as they billowed upward, and we could see rain falling beneath them. As I headed below for a nap, I sensed everyone becoming nervous.

Bob and Peter were on deck when hell broke loose. Strong gusts—perhaps 40 knots—hit at the outset along with white-out rain. That’s when the guys on deck, who now included the captain, discovered that the furler had jammed and the jib wouldn’t reef. Thankfully, both storm and fire drill were short-lived. When our watch came up at midnight, the trades were once again steady, and we enjoyed the lightning show well off to the west. All was good until I was smacked in the face by a flying fish.

Wednesday turned out to be our last night offshore. The waning moon rose later in the evening, so after dinner we sat on deck stargazing and spotting satellites. In the darkness, clouds on the horizon to either side created the illusion that we were passing between tree-lined headlands. Nighttime, I found, had ways of playing tricks on the eyes.

At 0730 Thursday, we spotted the peaks of St. Martin and St. Barts off to the southwest. We still had hours to sail, but I found our impending landfall to be oddly disappointing. I’d miss the rhythm we’d found and the empty ocean.

By noon, we could clearly see the islands—Anguilla off to starboard, St. Martin dead ahead, St. Barts just to port. Snacks were passed topside, and I was at the wheel when suddenly we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins; what a welcome wagon they rolled out!