I stood with one foot on each cockpit seat, leaning forward with hands gripping the dodger frame. Man and boat combined in a familiar balancing act as we lifted to the following seas, then seemingly slid back as they rolled past without malice. I remember thinking how well things were going since we’d departed Gomera, in the Canary Islands, five days earlier on the cool winter breath of the Portuguese trades.
This was Leg One of our voyage to bring Goose, a 43-year-old Pearson Triton yawl, back to the United States. Her owner, our friend Mike Freeman, had sailed this classic Alberg design from his home in New York City to the Azores, then on to the Canary Islands. He’d tucked Goose into a berth at Marina La Gomera eight months earlier and flown home to return to work. Lacking time for a transatlantic crossing, he asked us to bring Goose home.
At first, I was reluctant. Although Goose was the same design as my own boat, Atom, mine was extensively modified for offshore cruising during our two circumnavigations (see “In the Company of Giants,” March 1998). I wasn’t confident Goose was up to our standards for safety and comfort. Mike then e-mailed me a list of upgrades and equipment he’d added to make her seaworthy. But what tipped the scales, especially for Mei, my wife and crewmate, was that we’d be able to combine the delivery with a winter Caribbean cruise. We agreed on a discounted fee and flew to Gomera.
Upon detailed inspection at the marina, we compiled a lengthy list of jobs to complete before getting under way. These ranged from replacing the main battery bank, installing a galley stove, and installing a new SSB antenna to such normal prevoyage maintenance as bottom cleaning, rebedding leaky ports, and taking inventory of every item aboard. The combined efforts of the air-freight company and Spanish customs agents delayed for four weeks the arrival of a box of essential boat equipment the owner had sent from New York. This gave us plenty of time to complete these tasks, and we even were able to hand sew a set of curtains for the cabin windows and tour the island.
As with Atom, it took very little sail to get Goose swishing along downwind at hull speed on our first day out. Gusty 20-knot winds funneled between the high volcanic islands, later steadied, then increased slightly. Near sunset on the fifth day, I stood watching the sails, considering setting a third reef to ensure a comfortable night. As always, I wore my safety harness. As I stepped forward, I heard a bang and saw the windward spreader and lower shrouds fall away from the mast.
I stood frozen with indecision for several seconds; with each roll, the slack upper shrouds snapped taut and the mast shuddered and swung in a perilous arc. Moments later, I was able to get the mainsail down and started climbing the mast steps to set up emergency support lines. To attach lines while using both hands to keep from being flung into the sea seemed an impossible task, but I had to act. That evening and the following day, I made as many trips up the mast as my strength allowed, weaving a spider’s web of support lines.
While I was aloft, I saw that the spreader bases and lower shroud tangs had been attached to the mast by a single 3/8-inch bolt hidden within the inboard ends of the spreaders, which slipped over it. At any moment, the broken bolt could have fallen out, causing the starboard rigging to fall off as well. The original Triton rig had two larger bolts holding more substantial spreader bases, but a previous owner had rerigged this boat, underestimating the cyclic loads of four lower shrouds.
The first job I’d done in Gomera was to remove the mizzen sail and boom because it interfered with the windvane. The windvane was a necessity; the mizzen was expendable. Now I eyed the mizzen with a new appreciation. Two days after this mishap, we went from storm jib to bare poles to slow down and prevent running into Sal, in Cape Verde, at night. Approaching Sal, I noticed the depth sounder didn’t work. The next morning, we limped into Palmeira, and I was dead on my feet from exhaustion.
The lesson so far: Assume nothing. No detail is too small when preparing for sea. If the mast had collapsed, the voyage, perhaps even my life, could have ended from the failure of that one unseen bolt. If I’d disassembled the spreader bases before leaving, I would have seen that the fitting was inadequate.
Even for western Africa, Sal ranks near the bottom of the list for yacht repairs. With nothing of use available in the town hardware store, it was fortunate, for us at least, that a 60-foot Italian ferro-cement yacht had ripped its bottom open on rocks in the anchorage. For $25, the owner allowed me to dive on the mizzenmast and retrieve a 9/16-inch through-mast bolt and heavy shroud tangs. Another sailor in the harbor had a welding machine, and I hired him to help me fabricate new spreader-base assemblies.
Meanwhile, a high swell and dusty harmattan gusting to 35 knots severely tested our light ground tackle. I shackled an extra 20 feet of chain found in the bilge onto 25 feet of chain already on the 25-pound plow. Our only other anchors were two small Danforths, which I set to hold the stern into the swell and keep the bow rode taut to prevent chafe on its nylon extension. Even so, one night the anchors dragged enough to slacken the bow rode, letting it chafe through on the rocky bottom. I retrieved the plow with a grapnel, realizing I should’ve used a trip line when I set the anchor. I sorely missed Atom’s windlass and 150 feet of chain.
The next leg, though more than 2,300 miles, was the easiest. To ensure steady trades, I went south to 15 degrees north and followed this course west, undeviating as a train on tracks. Despite a persistent cross swell slapping the hull, sending frequent sheets of spray on deck, the weather remained perfect: no storms, head winds, or calms. For 15 days straight, we sailed on starboard tack, steered by the uncomplaining Cape Horn windvane. Most often, we sailed wing and wing, with working jib poled out opposite the mainsail carrying a reef or two, since we needed to keep boat speed in the 5- to 6-knot range. It had been six years since I’d sailed Atom without roller furling, but on this passage, it wasn’t missed.
One day, as I deployed a plastic squid on 100 feet of monofilament tied to an elastic strap on a stern cleat, I facetiously asked Mei what type of fish she’d like me to catch. She said she’d like a dorado, and shortly before dinner, I proudly pulled in a small dorado that was perfect for the two of us. Mei had sushi while the main portion simmered in a broth of onion, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and water. From then on, we caught dorado and tuna nearly every day we put out a line.
Lacking refrigeration, we’d stocked up in Gomera with such long-lasting foods as potatoes, cabbage, squash, onions, lemons wrapped in aluminum foil, and wheat and corn flour for making bread on our single-burner kerosene stove. Trays of mung bean sprouts later supplemented our waning stock of fresh vegetables. By unanimous vote, Mei cooked and I cleaned up. Because Atom carries 110 gallons of fresh water, we were disappointed to find that Goose had only a single 18-gallon water tank and three plastic water cans. By adding extra cans and collapsible containers, we increased our capacity to 85 gallons.
On passage, I can go through several books a week. Goose’s library contained little more than technical equipment manuals. While Mei reread her cookbook and listened to short-wave broadcasts from China, I entertained myself reading The U.S. Army Survival Manual. Finally, I was reduced to studying the Yanmar engine manual, translated into 12 languages. By the time we arrived in the Caribbean, I could overhaul that engine in half a dozen languages. If the engine had given us trouble, we’d have been in a fix, since the only solar panel aboard produced a mere 10 watts. As it was, we needed to run the engine 45 minutes a day, mainly for the radar, lights, and SSB transceiver. I’d have gladly exchanged the inboard diesel for Atom’s outboard motor and two large solar panels.
Although we sighted only two ships on this crossing, the SSB radio kept us from true isolation. Each evening, I reported our position to the Maritime Mobile Service Network (MMSN, 14.300 megahertz, www.mmsn. org). MMSN updated our position on its ShipTrak Position Display System, and friends checked our daily progress online via a link from our website (www. atomvoyages.com).
Every morning, a group of boats on passage met on the SSB Flying Fish Net on 8 megahertz to compare positions and weather observations, and we learned that not everyone was enjoying an easy passage. Boats farther north had more variable winds. A yacht near the South American coast lost a man overboard who was never recovered. Another boat was complaining about a broken watermaker. Our pity also went out to a couple who were hand steering to the Caribbean after both electric autopilots failed less than a week from the Canaries.
As we neared the Antilles, I altered course to the northwest, passing near Antigua before anchoring the next day off Phillipsburg, St. Martin. Sailing conservatively to reduce the risk of further rigging failures, we’d still made the crossing in under 19 days, averaging 125 miles a day. In St. Martin, I headed straight for the marine store and retired our lead line for a depth sounder. Mei visited the tourist boutiques and was thrilled to find a Chinese grocery with dried tofu and fermented duck eggs.
An overnight sail across Anegada Passage brought us to the charter-boat capital of the British Virgin Islands, and we anchored in 5 feet of water off De Loose Mongoose resort in Trellis Bay. We left Tortola intending to sail up the eastern side of the Bahamas directly to St. Simons Island, Georgia. A few days later, head winds from a stalling cold front caused Goose to lay over and pound, which quickly made her crew groan at the unaccustomed discomfort. We gave up the fight and altered our course to the west.
A few days after that, we sailed into Luperon, Dominican Republic, where we reprovisioned, saw old friends, and awaited a weather window to head north. Unfortunately, the weather this April was more like February. The Caribbean Weather Center Net (8104 kilohertz, 0830-0900 AST, and 12359 kilohertz, 0900-0930 AST; www.caribx.com) and Herb Hilgenberg, broadcasting as “South Bound II” (12359 megahertz, 2000-2200 UTC; www3.sympatico.ca/ hehilgen), recommended that the fleet stay in port several days more because of forecast northeast winds of 25 knots. This sounded like fair sailing to us, so Goose took flight northwards.
She carried us 200 miles in 35 hours, to Mayaguana in the Bahamas, under double-reefed main and No. 2 jib with apparent winds 70 to 80 degrees off the starboard bow. Like the horse smelling the barn, we carried on in similar conditions another 200 miles to Cat Island, during which we made our fastest 24-hour run, averaging over 6 knots for 149 miles.
The final four-day leg of the voyage took us west through the Providence channels, then north along the Florida coast, where we caught a lift from the Gulf Stream in light to nonexistent winds. A seven-mile-long buoyed channel led us into St. Simons Sound, where we nested Goose alongside her sister ship, Atom.
In our three months aboard Goose, we’d become accustomed to her minor inconveniences, like the lack of a bimini, the one comfortable single bunk, and a bucket in place of a sink. And because Goose lacked Atom’s watertight bulkheads and extra mast rigging, I never shook the uneasy feeling of vulnerability. However, the perspective I gained from sailing offshore two boats of identical hull design and capabilities, but so different in their execution, was priceless.
James Baldwin and Mei, aboard Atom (www.yachtatom. com), holed up at the Brunswick Landing Marina in Brunswick, Georgia, last winter, refitting and refinishing other people’s cruising boats.