First time Jumping the Atlantic

A Massachusetts family and an Alberg 37 are up to the task. A story from our March 1982 issue.

April 7, 2009

Alberg 37 368

Arion earned her passage to Ireland during a famous gale.

We left St. John at the end of July for Ireland. It was the first Atlantic crossing for all of us: my husband Ev and our son Jef, our friend Ed, and myself. And Arion,our 37-foot Alberg sloop . After a three week shakedown cruise from Manchester,Massachusetts, to Nova Scotia, St. Pierreand St.John’s, Newfoundland, Ev kept usall busy for days with his lists. There is areluctance to leave a snug port for an ocean passage and one always can findreasons to delay one more day. But though there was no wind, the weather reports were fair and we were off. It was good to be at sea again.

We continued under powerfor 13 hours. Still no wind. Even with four jerry cans full of diesel we carry only 40 gallons of fuel. We could not power across the Atlantic, so we stopped the engine and put up the sails and wallowed and flapped . There was either no wind or fitful, short-lived breezes. We were visited by a huge pod of whales, 30 or 40 of them, 10 to 15 feet in length. They had gray-black backs, a light underbelly and humpy foreheads, and may have been blackfish. They were playful blowing and sporting on boath sides of the boat and under the bow, but ponderous when compared with dolphins.

That evening, as we sat becalmed in the cockpit, Ev offered a libation of Johnny Walker to Poseidon with an appropriate petition for wi nd. The next day wasflat calm and , as it continued, we made cautious and then incautious remarks belittling the powers of Poseidon and the waste of Scotch. A small low-pressure area passed by, giving us good wind and carrying Jef out of range of Red Sox baseball games. The next low arrived and we were under the influence of the Gulf Stream.The wind increased and by morning we were running under a furled main and storm jib with huge waves astern. As if to celebrate the arrival of wind and seas, porpoises appeared. They were extraordinary, coming from every direction, from asfar as the eye could see, joyfully and swiftly leaping and swimming toward Arion.


The wind continued to rise and the seas to mount. It wasgray but visibility wasgood, and the motion was not bad as we were dead downwind. We had a real gale all night and ran off before it, but it subsided next morning leaving a wild sky and a-tired crew. While the waves were enormous they rolled widely spaced without breaking, and Arion’s stern lifted dependably.

We had installed the weatherboards in case of pooping, Ev was on the helm, securely harnessed to the binnacle. Ed was on watch with him, and I was snoozing below in the pilot berth before my turn at the helm. Ed took advantage of a slight lull to come down out of the wet for coffee.

Just then there was a great lurch. I awoke, startled, thinking we had had a knockdown. Water was pouring into the cabin through the gap in the companionway where the top weatherboard should have been. The cockpit was awash and Ev was back on the stern still fastened to the binnacle. We had been royally pooped, but there was no real damage and the cockpit quickly drained. Ev’s glasses had been skewed and bent, but were still there. He was unhurt, but in being knocked over one of his feet had kicked open the instrument panel, which had flooded . Two of the cockpit cushions had been washed overboard. The cabin , fortunately, only needed a bit of pumping and mopping to be put right.


To my astonishment, Ev turned the boat to go back to try to recover the cushions. They were white, about 4 feet by 18 inches.

“Think of it as a man overboard drill ,”
Ev said.

I didn’t like to. White caps were everywhere and spray was flying through the air. You could only see when you were up on the crests and then not far or with any certainty. We finally did retrieve one with
Ed hanging over the side and Jef and me anchoring his feet.


We searched for the other cushion , but gave up. It was sobering to realize how catastrophic this could have been had the rescue attempt been genuine. There was no reluctance from then on to comply with the rules about wearing harnesses at night, when alone on watch or when forward in any sea. We always had a strong nylon li ne rigged on the deck from bow cleat to stern cleat on both sides so that one could clip on and go forward without hindrance, but securely fastened. After the storm, as usually happens, we had a beautiful clear time, and had great fun surfing down the big but regular waves. That night we had no wind and uncomfortable lumpy seas. This passed quickly,and we were back to gray skies and a good wind. Most of the time we made 7 knots on headsail alone, our Aries wind vane holding a fine course with saiI forward.

Ed showed me how to repair sails, and together we put a patch on our favorite genoa where the bow pulpit had chafed it. It pleased me to have the beginnings of a new skill. The days passed with little variation. We made good time and it was rather dull . We did see a container ship on the horizon, the first we had seen, which underlined the aloneness of an
ocean passage . Twice a day we were affronted by the huge sonic boom of what we supposed to be a Concorde flying overhead. We never saw the plane. It seemed an outrage in that quiet and private expanse.

Housekeeping chores and routine took over. In the evening we would change down to a smaller sail if we were at all doubtful about the strength of the wind. No one ejoyed being roused at night for sail changes. The weather was damp and chilly. A major effort was made to fix the kerosene heater, which functioned well in port but flared and died at sea. It was unsuccessful. The kerosene cooking stove was also a great bore. I laboriously made wholewheat bread one afternoon and, after it had risen for the third time and was ready to pop into the oven, I discovered that the oven could not be coaxed or forced to function despite the efforts of everyone. It was a major frustration. I finally baked the bread in a pressure cooker (without the pressure valve) on top of the stove. It tasted quite good, but it was a very unsatisfactory shape.


The fresh food , by this time, was gone. Decent hearty food was abundantly available, but it was a bit dull. Ev complained one evening that the cuisine left something to be desired. It was not ” harmonious.”
Perhaps a different concept was needed.

I was furious. ” Harmonious?” ” Different concept?!” What was he talking about? He was irritatingly non-specific and suggested mildly that there was no need to be defensive. I retreated to the forward cabin for a small private weep, remembering regretfully how I had praised his very mediocre white sauce. Jef called me an hour late for my watch that night , a gift, and by that time I was happy again and feeling a little silly.

We had been making about 145 miles a day, sometimes more. Ev complained that the barometer had barely changed since St. John, and he was afraid it was defective. We found later that our weather was then controlled by a stalled low off Iceland , working with the Azores High to give us a regular trade wind in the North Atlantic. The days passed and the big rollers hurried by, making our steady 7 knots seem slow. That day we could pick up the Mizen Head (Ireland) radio beacon on the RDF. I remember thinking that we would be in port in a few more days and how great that would be. It had been a pleasant voyage, quite easy, but just a little dull.The good wind continued, although we had fog that night.

We were not alone . A voice via the radio came out of the fog, the Stuttgart Express calling. They had uson their radar, which was comforting. We were in the shipping lanes now and it was foggy. They gave us our position, confirming our own navigation . With the consistently gray weather, sun sights had been scarce. The Stuttgart Express was a fast, modern diesel powered container ship heading for Bremen. We had a pleasant exchange of news. Moments after she signed off the Allbright Pioneer called in ” for a chat” -the first non-Arion voices in two weeks. It felt like a party, and we all enjoyed it very much.

The next few days were much the same. Monday started off with the same overcast and wind from the south 10 to 15 knots . But by 4 p.m. the wind had backed to the southeast and risen to 30 knots. We were steering 95° magnetic for Mizen Head, which we estimated to be about 25 to 30 miles away. We had not had a fix since the day before . By 4:30 we could no longer hold our course and were gradually failing off to the north . We changed down to the working jib, the wind continuing to rise and back . By 7 p.m. it was dark. We were definitely in for very bad weather, and Ev announced cheerfully that he had maligned our barometer; it was falling fast now, down to 990 millibars. At 7:30, fearful of being pushed onto a lee shore, we headed off at 270°, wind 35 to 40 knots.

What a blow. Psychologically, I already was in an Irish pub, but with a lee shore, an uncertain position and a falling barometer, there was no choice.

The storm accelerated. We had nothing but the storm jib up now. It was hard to hold the wheel and the seas were mounting with frightening speed. The rain and spray whipped our faces so that it was hard to see.Out of the black sky we could see the gannets swooping and fishing. I wished I was one.

About 11 p.m. I saw a light through the spray and called Ev. He, too, caught a glimpse of it off to starboard. We never knew what it was. I know Ev feared it might be on shore, but we are now sure that it must have been another boat. Jef took over from me at midnight. The wind was clocking now and coming from the southwest. We headed south, clawing toward the southwest as much as possible. The wind continued to clock and to rise.

The motion below was horrendous. Sometimes, as Arion crashed down a wave, I wondered how much she could take. About 1 a.m. Jef called down to say that he was overpowered with the storm jib and was having trouble controlling the boat. This was frightening. My shoulders ached from struggling with the wheel. But Jef is 24 and very strong. All hands were called to lower the storm jib, and we managed the job without mishap . Our drill at sea was paying off. Ev was right when he said that we were in the best possible shape to weather a bad gale. We had had lots of practice as a crew with this boat at sea and had confidence and knowledge of the boat and in each other.

Now we were racing under bare poles. The speed was astonishing and worrying. We could not be sure how far offshore we were. At about 2:15 Ev decided to put on the engine and head just off the wind to gain sea room and give us some steering control. He would be on watch with Jef, Ed and I were to go below. I knew I wouldn’t rest and to be boarded in below was a horrifying thought.

Nevertheless, Ed and I went below and Ed promptly flopped into his berth.

“You know, Ed,” I said casually, “the anemometer says 60, no, 65 knots. I’m a
bit frightened.”

“Well, of course,” replied Ed,who had evidently mistaken me for a sensible person. “It’s just rational to be frightened.”

And with that he apparently went to sleep . At least he closed his eyes. I didn’t.

My eyes were morbidly glued to that anemometer. The needle made one awful swoop to 76 knots. After what seemed an endless amount of time, Jef came below to get gloves.

I quavered to him, ” It’ s pretty awful out there, isn’t it?” Jef has known me longer and answered cheerfully, “Oh, no, Mom. It’s a piece of cake now.”

The anemometer said 68 knots; I knew he was lying, but I was reassured nonetheless and did go to sleep. So much for rationality.

In the morning the wind was down to 40 to 45 knots and it was better, despite the chaotic seas.Everything is better in the morning. At 7 a.m. we were able to raise the storm sails and heave to. I stayed on watch while the others slept below. It was a beautiful and awesome sight-those mountainous waves and the gannets overhead. It was a wonderful few hours. I was tired and lightheaded and safe and thankful. I felt a great affection and admiration for my crew. Ev’s calm and purposeful confidence was contagious. He can think and innovate in bad situations, and though he had been on deck through the entire storm, he had never seemed overtaxed.

At this time we were quite unaware that we had been through the famous storm that hit the Fastnet racers. Later we were to hear about the tragedy this storm had been for so many crews, and the initial surmises about lightly constructed boats, racers who carried on too long, etc. I was astonished that so many abandoned their boats, as I can vividly remember sitting in the cockpit and thinking that nothing would make me leave the boat and trust myself to a rubber raft in those seas.

However, I think we were lucky. I think we did the right things and that we had a strong, seaworthy boat. We were not knocked down or rolled as could easily have happened despite skilled steering. It must be much harder to recoup after an initial catastrophe. Many skillful sailors in good boats came to grief that night. They were unlucky. But for now, I knew nothing of all that. We had come through a terrible adventure and I just was drained and glad and peaceful. It did have some long-lasting effects on me. I became a tapper of the barometer, more conservative, more reluctant to leave port on a falling glass.

We raised sail at 4 p.m. and headed for Mizen Head . Again. There were reports on radio Valencia of gales to come, which seemed unbearable. Radio bearings and a sun-shot put us 50 miles off. The steering became very stiff, then froze up almost completely. Ev and Ed investigated the steering cables and could find nothing wrong, so they oiled what they could reach and we were able, just barely, to turn the wheel. Then the wind dropped and we put on the engine. It was unusable. The prop shaft tube heated up and there was smoke and tremendous vibration . Thank heavens it had functioned when we needed it so much. Later we discovered that the strain it had been subjected to during the night had wrenched it askew on its mounts. We slopped and drifted toward Mizen Head. In the early morning a breeze sprang up and at last we were able to sail into Crookhaven, our landfall. We dropped anchor at 8: 15 p.m., the middle day of August. Generous Scotch libations, generous self-congratulations, high spirits and an exhausted crew. We all went below fora secure sleep.

We awoke in the afternoon to find a crowd lining the shore of this small town. Dozens of red-sailed Mirror dinghies were skudding about the harbor, rounding Arion, too intent to even wave. It was Regatta Day, and a bullhorn from the shore identified us, “the blue-hulled sloop,” as the third marker in the race.
Soon we pumped up the Avon and rowed ashore. An Irish pub has to be the
most enchanting spot in the world to celebrate an Atlantic crossing.


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