I spend a lot of time talking with people about passages. I contend that sailing across long distances is merely the inconvenience between cool new places, new people, new beach bars, etc. People who haven’t done them think that passages are somehow romantic, even fun. Not so for me, not usually. Just wake me up when we get there.
My favorite boat that I have been aboard is Orange II. I can only imagine what it is like to go 30 knots, never really surfing because you are going too fast to surf. And I love to imagine myself sitting in Newport, and deciding to sail to Bermuda, and being there the next day-almost like being teleported. Barely have you shed dock lines, and voila, St. Georges. That’s my idea of passagemaking: get it over with!
I also admit to liking to sit on my butt, watch football, drink beer, and play my guitar. So while I am huge fan of Orange, it doesn’t have a flat screen or a BarcaLounger and that kind of ruins it a little for me. So, while Orange is my fantasy, if I could afford it, a Gunboat would likely be the ultimate boat for me, averaging high speed, and looking good and living large doing it. I’ve been lucky enough to have sailed on several Gunboats, and I just love them. Sadly, I know I’ll never afford one.
One way to obtain a high performance boat at a reasonable price would be to buy a used one-off design. For every great one-off out there, however, there are dozens of disasters-ego-driven, good sense-forgetting monuments to someone else’s skewed vision of innovation. One-offs are foolish to design, even more foolish to build, and absolutely impossible to resell which brings be to my present situation.
I am sitting on one of the best one-offs ever built, Occam’s Razor, a Rod Givens 52 built in New Zealand, a boat that recently treated me to a roller coaster ride of a passage. Last November, I left Tiverton, Rhode Island, bound for the Caribbean on Occam’s Razor with four aboard, one being my 7-year-old daughter, Remy. The other two crew, Jennifer Escher and Charle Barmonde, are experienced, competent, strong sailors. Remy is just a great, good-natured kid, who after a little squawking about TV and school welcomed the chance to see whales and dolphins in the Virgin Islands.
Figuring that Occam’s could average 200 miles a day, we hoped to be in St. John, USVI, in a week. When we got the word that there was a great weather setup, off we went. We left in a very light, northwest wind and headed straight for the Gulf Stream, arriving exactly when we were supposed to and exiting on time as well. So far, so good.
According to our professional routing service, we would get southwest, then northwest, then northeast trades. But things began to unravel. Our backup router, my buddy Tim Murphy, became a little apprehensive about the weather we were sailing into-lots of southeast, it seemed. That, of course, was the direction we were going. I called our fancy router and they told me, oh sorry, we messed up. We tried to call you, but you didn’t answer the phone. That weather system we mentioned, not going to happen. You are getting southeast for the foreseeable future, but at least it will be light.
That wasn’t what Tim said. He said, you are going to see those famous fall southerly gales. Get the hell to Bermuda as best as you can, and wait for something to change.
Occam’s Razor is a great sailing boat, wonderful motion, very strong. The boat sails upwind well thanks to daggerboards and rides as comfortably as you could hope for while crashing into huge North Atlantic seas.
Despite the boat’s seaworthiness, we couldn’t avoid a series of breakages and electrical and mechanical problems. First we lost one engine, then the other. No problem, we thought, she is a sailing machine. But we did need electricity. So began a steady condition of breaking things, fixing things, breaking things, then fixing things again.
The steering was failing. The autopilot was gimpy, and it kept getting worse. Plus, the wind kept getting stronger from the southeast. The biggest setback came in the middle of the night, in 30 knots of wind, when our roller furling headsail exploded. Shredded, and it wouldn’t come down, not without someone gong up after it. With 15-foot seas and strong wind, no one was going up the mast. We sat for a few minutes in shock, contemplating all those things we do when it looks really bad. After some swearing, some panic, and some final calm, we did the best we could. We rolled up the shredded headsail and tried to make hanks to put our storm sail up the forestay. Didn’t work.
Then I remembered that Gunboats have a baby stay that comes down only when needed. In our best imitation of that Gunboat feature, we took the spinnaker halyard, added a spectra line onto it as a halyard, and, with some lines, built a triangulated spot on the deck to serve as the tack. When the storm sail went up, we could add a down haul and get luff tension. This all took a few hours, but it worked. We were sailing again.
Now the problem was that we couldn’t point. Not enough drive, big seas, just a bad deal. We were 300 miles from Bermuda and about 400 from the U.S. mainland, with weather getting much worse to the west. No choice there, get east, get to Bermuda.
We continued to crawl upwind double-reefed with the storm sail. After three days of this, we had barely made 100 miles to windward and we were still 200 miles from Bermuda. With our jury-rigged sail plan, we were out of balance and we had to keep the double reef in or the autopilot wouldn’t work.
Then came reprieve. The winds calmed to 10- to 15-knots. It was Wednesday and Remy’s birthday was Thursday. She had one birthday wish: to see land. Jen went up the mast with a knife, and within a few hours we had a racing jib set and were tacking through 100 degrees going 11 knots. Sure enough, by the next sunset, Remy saw Bermuda.
Of course, we had to sail 15 miles past the island to get through the reef, and as soon as we finally bore off for the first time in six days a running backstay broke. We limped into St George’s on one engine, no transmission, sailing as far in as we could, steering with an emergency tiller, coached by Bermuda radio.
The next day, we heard many similar stories from other boats. Broken boats were everywhere. Charlie couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Jen and Remy decided to stay for the weekend before going back to Rhode Island. I had lots to fix and I needed crew.
During my stopover in Bermuda, I was lonely as hell, but adopted a couple of transient British girls who were also waiting on weather. They looked in on me, and we all went out together on Thanksgiving. Jo and Helen. Slowly I got things fixed. I worked on the boat for 10 hours a day or more. My pal Joe Colpitt arranged for Bill Henderson, one of his constant crewmen, to divert to Bermuda on his way from Chicago to St. John. A friend, Jack Gullison, flew out to make the passage.
We left a few days later in a 20-knot northeast wind. The forecast projected that the northeast wind would follow us south right on into the Caribbean. I have fallen for this before, I thought, there is no way this will really happen.
We provisioned for a week of sailing. Bill is a good offshore cook, and we are three big guys, so there was lots of food, strange idiosyncratic stuff like Twizzlers and hot chocolate.
After beating for a few miles east out of St. Georges we had our first chance to bear away and get on course. We unrolled half the jib and immediately hit 15 knots. The first serious surf ride, about 19 knots. Then came the sobering discussion about what to do in the event of a capsize, how to get back in the boat, the locations of the EPRIB, liferaft and sat phone. Then it began to sink in. This is a great sailing boat. She tracks really well. She has loads of volume in the bows. There is no weight in the bows, or the sterns. Just drop the traveler, ease the main, reduce the jib, and hold on.
For three days the wind never dropped. When it picked up we put in a second reef to slow ourselves as best as we could. We would accelerate to 20 knots on a wave, then back to 8 knots on the shoulder of the next wave. The steering pretty much failed, but through a series of voodoo tricks and rituals, we kept the autopilot mostly working.
The speed just permeates you. You feel it, hear it, sense it when you sleep. You grow to love it. You never relax, but slowly gain a comfort that is like a realization: “We are here, we are going stupidly fast in incredibly huge, rough seas. We are holding on.”
We were gimpy, less than agile. We were a bit freaked. After 48 hours, we had covered 550 miles, and we were liking it. We reefed all the way down and just hung on like a fighter trying not to get knocked out. Another near 300-mile day went by, St. John came on the plotter. Here comes Jost Van Dyke. A squall. We were moving 25-knots under double reef and a sliver of jib, and had covered the distance from Bermuda to St. John in three days, 11 hours.
It’s the morning after our arrival and I am sitting on the mooring, drinking coffee, thinking I still don’t like passages. But if you have to go, averaging11 knots isn’t such a bad thing. I will tell you this: Being here, after what I went through, life is pretty interesting, and I am privileged to get to do this sort of stuff.
One last thing. I talked to Remy just after we arrived. “So Daddy, where are you?” she asked.
“St. John,” I said.
“What did you break?” she asked.
“The steering,” I said, “And Otto (the autopilot) was acting temperamental.”
“Oh,” she said. “You mean he kept saying beep beep beep, a lot?”