The Best Laid Plans
A man who is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns. ~ Joseph Conrad
All boatyard experiences end up taking longer, and costing more than ever imagined. I accept that in theory. But when it happens to you, when you are stuck on the hard each passing day as the frost grows harder each night, you get, well, antsy.
Lisa and the girls had flown home weeks before. I had bach'd it aboard for a couple of weeks, tackling long overdue projects and making some headway with clients on the programming front. It was a cold, lonely existence. Temperatures in this huge fiberglass tent fell to the mid-thirties at night, despite the whir of my $20 electric heater. Daniel, Ken and Steven arrived on the 5th to help me finish a few boat projects before heading out.
It doesn't take long and I start seeing the same live-aboards suffering as I am, day after day, at the coffee machine in the morning and again in the heated lounge in the evening. Often they sport my same look, faces dusted with anti-fouling paint, hands impregnated with grease and grime. Clothes are torn and often wafting with bilgy smells that only seem to happen on boats. Their hair? Don't ask.
Camaraderie takes over. We swap stories of how we got here, and where we are headed. Most are headed south, like me, to the warmer waters of the Caribbean and beyond. Some are rebuilding their craft after round-the-world adventures. Others are newly sprung from the cubicle and in that dazy, hazy getting started phase where everything is new, scary and exciting. We are all watching the weather with a gravity that makes the be-bopping spouting Weather Channel blonde seem like a junior varsity cheerleader. Go Tornadoes, Go!
Tornadoes weren't the unspoken thought in the back of everyone's mind though. Hurricanes were. Many boats were joining one of the rallies, such as the Caribe 1500. A rally is basically a group of boats that all go together with the general agreement that there are safety in numbers. Maybe. When you have 70+ boats all paying moorage fees, eating through carefully rationed stores and, in general, biding their time, the pressure to say "go" even if the weather is iffy becomes invisible but intense.
So, when I downloaded the weather on Thursday the 10th, just prior to the start of the Caribe 1500, I realized that we weren't going anywhere. Some weather bouys were reporting 27 foot seas and a suspicious low was working its way northward. The Caribe 1500 organizers announced they would depart the next day, Friday, at noon as planned (they came to their senses in the wee hours Friday morning and delayed, thankfully).
But stuck we were. First there were delays fixing the tree damage to our starboard rudder, then delays getting parts for the sail drive seal, then some undiscovered keel damage from the tree to be repaired. When, at long last, we were finally ready to launch, it was two weeks later than planned and several missed 'weather windows'. By this time, to put in mildly, I was hot to trot. My volunteer crew were nearing the end of their allowable absenses from work, from wives and from reality. They had chipped off old teak and generally ground through miserable boat tasks with the assurance that soon we would be free, free and at sea.
The weather on Thursday, November 17, was miserable. We lifted the boat in the pouring, cold rain and set her in the water. The tide was lower than when we came out and the fit between the hubs of the Travelift wheels was really tight. The crew put blankets in the gaps to protect the gel coat, but when we finally slid clear and the blankets came off, the boatyard owner was aghast. There, larger than life, was a king salmon size gash through the gel coat.
"I damaged your boat!" he exclaimed with wide eyes. "I'll fix it or pay to have it fixed, whatever you want."
I couldn't believe it. Another setback. We went out and anchored in Jackson Creek. I examined the damage more closely. The thought of finding a capable boat yard in the tropics, of getting these guys to pay those guys that which they demanded to do it right just sounded like a nightmare. It would be best to get the fix done immediately by the people who were responsible. Anything else could turn ugly, and expensive. The weather seemed perfect; I felt sick.
It might have been possible to still make this current weather window, if things went smoothly. We moved over to the service dock. Jeff, our 5th crew member, arrived late. Stan the gelcoat man arrive at 8am sharp the next morning and started grinding then spraying. But it was cold, too cold. "The chemistry just isn't happening very fast in these temperatures." He explained. We were stuck another day.
Waiting for a weather window
The boys packed the boat, cramming food in every nook and cranny; food we would find for months to come. Stan worked all day Saturday and at last things were looking good. The head sail went on and we were finally provisioned and watered to the gills. We could leave tomorrow morning, Sunday, November 2oth.
Sunday broke crystal clear with a nice breeze. It was an exhilarating feeling.
We cast off the lines about 8am and headed for sea and promptly ran aground. After a year aboard and thousands of miles, this was the first time I had touched bottom. It was soft sand and we were going slow, so with ten seconds of reverse we were free. But it gave me a moment's pause.
Out in Cheasapeake Bay, the wind picked up and the sun was climbing. The air sparked with anticipation of the days ahead, the thrill of meeting the challenge of the open sea, as generations of sailors before us had experienced. We were prepared, we were ready; a rough 24 hour period on day 2 to day 3 was predicted, but nothing too serious. It was hard to imagine a dark and stormy night under such glittering sunshine.
The wind shifted and rose. We were making good time south, down the Cheasapeake. The wind fronted us, we fell off and I cranked in the mainsheet a bit. There was a pause, and then a resounding RRRR-IIII-PPPing sound. Like the world's largest zipper, our mainsail parted right in the center, the top half going one way, the bottom half another as a major seam completely parted.
I was shell shocked. Steven, came out from downstairs, took one look and went speechless. We were corporately crushed. There was no way to reasonably justify heading offshore for 10 days with a mainsail in two pieces when we hadn't even entered open water. It was Sunday and, with Thanksgiving coming on Thursday, this could set us back days, maybe a week. Whatever the details, this weather opening was smashed.
The mood shifted immediately to doom and gloom. Sailors are a superstitious bunch, even today. No one admited it out loud, but we were all thinking the same thing. This can't be a coincidence.
We motored two and a half hours to Hampton, Virginia, and set the hook. Out came the cell phones. Plane reservations were made. We fumbled around and got the mainsail off. Crew departed the next day. The dinghy motor died preventing us from getting the sail dropped off when planned. I sat around numb with disappointment and disillusionment.
To our surprise, the loft repaired the mainsail that same afternoon anyway. That night we put her back on and were, in theory, ready to go again. The weather shifted around us and we hunkered down a for a bouncy night. The frontal wall of the predicted storm passed over us blowing like snot for nearly 24 hours shifting through 270 degrees of wind angle. We rocked and rolled in the anchorage. The clouds were dark and fierce, the sea oily black and foreboding.
The frontal system passed. Two days later, the weather shifted and a real window appeared. Ken, Daniel and I left on a perfect Thanksgiving morning and enjoyed day after day of picture perfect sailing, 1,500 miles of easy seas and temperate winds. We were even becalmed for three days, swimming, motoring and fishing in peace and solitude.
Dan goes for a dip in 17,515 feet of blue water.
We saw one other sailboat in 12 days of passage-making. We arrived in the tropics with 80% of our water, 50% of our fuel, no damage and two crew who would have preferred to keep going. Dan's quote was, "I guess I'll have to cross the Atlantic now."
Once in the islands, we started hearing stories. Some told over the lifelines in hushed tones, others on the radio, others on quiet beaches while the kids played in tranquil bays. Each of the weather windows we had missed had been cruel deceptions. Three boats were lost northwest of Bermuda, their crews picked up by freighters. One lady was ejected from the cockpit by a confluence of rogue waves. She was lost at sea. An experienced sailor on a serious boat reported waves so large and confused that "all my toilets were sheared off at the bases, the motion was so extreme. I've never seen anything like it." He spoke quietly with a shell shocked look in his eye.
While all these sailors were suffering, we were safely tucked in a harbor eating nachos and I was sulking like a child because my plans had been thwarted once again. Coincidence?