When Due Dili­gence Is Not Enough

Soundings - - Contents - Story and Pho­tos by Jeff Bol­ster

Jeff Bol­ster, his wife and their Valiant 40 were ready. Un­for­tu­nately, Nep­tune and Mur­phy’s Law weren’t go­ing to make it easy.

G oing off­shore in a small boat pro­vides plenty of op­por­tu­nity for sat­is­fac­tion — and frus­tra­tion. Last win­ter on a voy­age to the Caribbean, my wife and I con­fronted the sat­is­fac­tion/frus­tra­tion bound­ary in new ways. It wasn’t al­ways pretty. We pre­fer sail­ing our Valiant 40 in the trop­ics to shov­el­ing snow in New Hamp­shire. While our jobs are suf­fi­ciently flex­i­ble to al­low us to es­cape, some­times for six weeks, some­times for sev­eral months, the clock starts tick­ing the minute we walk out the of­fice door. Last win­ter we wanted to use our six weeks for blue­wa­ter pas­sage mak­ing and the bare­foot stuff — sail­ing with eased sheets past stun­ning is­land land­scapes, lis­ten­ing to the bow wave’s se­duc­tive rip­ple and en­joy­ing a rum swiz­zle in a cozy Caribbean an­chor­age.

Fair enough. We could do it. We learned the 7 P’s long ago: Proper prior prepa­ra­tion pre­vents piss-poor per­for­mance. All we had to do was al­lo­cate time and money wisely be­fore the voy­age. Buy spares. Fix stuff. Ser­vice cru­cial safety equip­ment. Help the boat­yard meet its monthly tar­gets by ask­ing its staff to do jobs beyond our tech­ni­cal skill, or our will­ing­ness to suf­fer. And keep the faith.

By then we had owned the boat for four years and had sailed her 11,000 miles, in­clud­ing three round-trips from New Hamp­shire to the West Indies. It wasn’t as if we were start­ing from scratch. But the boat was 17 years old when we bought her. Along the way, due dili­gence de­manded re­plac­ing the en­gine, the stand­ing and run­ning rig­ging, the chain­plates, the dodger and the Bi­mini; in­stalling new wind-speed-depth in­stru­ments and a Mon­i­tor wind­vane; and adding AIS and ser­vic­ing a mil­lion other sys­tems.

rather than do­ing ev­ery­thing at once, we picked away each year. re­cently we re­placed our aging Pro­furl with a new Harken head­sail furler, and our an­cient elec­tronic au­topi­lot Hwhose con­trol unit still had a curled cord like an old Ma Bell phoneI with a ray­ma­rine au­topi­lot. Con­stant at­ten­tion to de­tail, and end­less lists, pre­ceded ev­ery depar­ture.

We had hoped to dash to Ber­muda in late Au­gust and haul the boat there un­til we could re­turn in De­cem­ber to head south — some­thing we had done two years ear­lier. We only got as far as Province­town on Cape Cod, Mas­sachusetts, be­fore fore­cast­ers pointed out a de­vel­op­ing trop­i­cal de­pres­sion. Its eTA in Ber­muda? The same as ours, five days out. Time to re­vise the plan.

Thirty or 40 years ago I never would have imag­ined leav­ing New Hamp­shire for Ber­muda in Au­gust, the height of hur­ri­cane sea­son. In re­cent years, I have done it a few times. It’s still a gam­ble. While trop­i­cal storm fore­cast­ing has im­proved by or­ders of mag­ni­tude, 40-foot sailboats sim­ply can’t cover the dis­tance to Ber­muda fast enough to be within a pre­dictable weather win­dow. Of course, the gam­ble is part of ocean voy­ag­ing’s al­lure.

With Trop­i­cal De­pres­sion Fiona mov­ing WNW at 9 knots to­ward Ber­muda, we re­treated to­ward the east Coast. We would stage the boat south, first in New York City and later at Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, then, at Thanks­giv­ing, head down the In­tra­coastal Water­way from Mile zero in Nor­folk to Mile 204 in More­head City, North Carolina. The Ditch al­ways has its charms. We spent our last day aboard in More­head City re-

plac­ing the rud­der post pack­ing. We hoped that would be the fi­nal task be­fore we re­turned to the boat in a few weeks to head for the Vir­gin Is­lands.

But by De­cem­ber it’s win­ter in the North At­lantic. We sat in More­head City for a week, fret­ting and study­ing weather maps. It was so cold that the Yacht Basin turned off the wa­ter on the docks. Fi­nally, on Dec. 16, ar­mored in long johns, wool hats and foul­weather gear, we left in a mod­er­ate north­east breeze.

Our goal is al­ways to cross the gulf Stream ASAP and get east­ing early. The trop­ics seemed far away that af­ter­noon, how­ever, as “sea smoke” swirled around us, the re­sult of cold air over warm wa­ter. It was eerie. No one else was out­ward bound. The weather routers had promised “plenty of wind for this trip.” We could han­dle that, given the right di­rec­tion. But the wind was head­ing us al­ready, and our weather win­dow — so plau­si­ble only 24 hours ear­lier — was evap­o­rat­ing fast.

At sea, one prob­lem of­ten ini­ti­ates a cas­cade of sub­se­quent ones, whether they are gen­uinely re­lated or not. That night, as we tried to roll up the genoa, our new furler balked, and the old sail flogged it­self to death. While we strug­gled with the shred­ded genoa, the en­gine over­heated. “Shut ’er downA”

Off­shore, you take what comes. There is sat­is­fac­tion in play­ing those cards. With­out an en­gine, it was back to pure sail­ing. We bore off with a dou­ble-reefed main and stay­sail. Yet by mid­night, churn­ing along at 6 knots un­der stay­sail alone, with 40 knots of wind on the beam, we were steer­ing north of east, a course more suited to land­fall in Nova Sco­tia than the West Indies. Christ­mas in Canada was not in our plans. Worse yet, a big win­ter storm was brew­ing be­tween Ber­muda and New eng­land.

The reg­u­la­tion that “ev­ery ves­sel shall at all times main­tain a proper look­out by sight as well as by hear­ing” is per­fectly rea­son­able, un­less, per­haps, you are a hus­band­wife crew of two fac­ing an un­holy sea with vir­tu­ally no vis­i­bil­ity in a 40-foot sail­boat. We had ab­so­lute con­fi­dence in the boat. Our no­to­ri­ously stout Valiant 40 would see us through. But I did not want ei­ther of us alone on deck if a big sea came call­ing. We would let the au­topi­lot do its job and take our chances that we were out there alone. It’s a call I’ve rarely made.

These days many long- dis­tance cruis­ers work scrupu­lously to avoid bad weather. So­phis­ti­cated fore­cast­ing and ro­bust com­mu­ni­ca­tions have changed many as­sump­tions about go­ing off­shore.

While I don’t have hard data, it ap­pears that fewer cruis­ers carry storm sails or sea an­chors than a few decades ago. Why bother, the rea­son­ing goes, if you don’t plan to use them? With weather routers, grIB files and — for some cruis­ers — lots of time, it is pos­si­ble to wait for a suit­able weather win­dow, or even to de­vi­ate from the rhumb line sig­nif­i­cantly en route to avoid threat­en­ing weather. Yet here we were, just 24 hours out, in the midst of a snotty lit­tle gale mak­ing me re­think the term “weather win­dow.”

By the end of the sec­ond night, things were im­prov­ing. We had 30 knots of wind, but it had clocked, so we were no longer head­ing for Nova Sco­tia. I got the en­gine go­ing again, and by 0800 on the third day, we were mo­tor­sail­ing with the stay­sail. The next morn­ing we set the full main, shut down the en­gine and peeled off our soggy socks and long johns. The in­te­rior of the boat was still a swamp from leaks around a chain­plate and the main hatch, but it would dry.

Off­shore sail­ing al­ways means “higher highs and lower lows.” As I cleaned the bilge pump fil­ter that af­ter­noon, I felt fine, as though we had han­dled the sit­u­a­tion well. By then the boat had an easy mo­tion, close-reach­ing with main and stay­sail. This was my 22nd trip be­tween New eng­land and the Caribbean un­der sail. I had seen my share of crummy weather and com­pro­mised sys­tems. We’d be fine. Af­ter sun­set, the South­ern Cross beck­oned from beyond the bow pul­pit, and we were lay­ing Ber­muda. Life looked good.

This is the point in the story when I would like to ex­plain that all of our prepa­ra­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence paid off, and that the cruise re­deemed it­self. We were cer­tainly in bet­ter shape than the big ketch tied up near us in St. george’s, Ber­muda. Among other prob­lems, its crew had lost their forestay and their en­gine, and torn up their sails. As soon as the tow­boat got them along­side, the crew trooped en masse to the air­port. They were done. We were also in bet­ter shape than the dis­masted Beneteau from An­napo­lis, Mary­land, which limped into Ber­muda with a jury rig. ku­dos to that crewA

Our plan was sim­ply to take up on our head­stay so the furler worked bet­ter, bend on the spare genoa, change the fil­ters, smear some goop around that leaky chain­plate, buy a Ber­mu­dian Christ­mas pud­ding and head south. The fates had other ideas.

It turned out that our shaft seal was leak­ing more than we liked. I thought it would be a sim­ple mat­ter of flush­ing it and re­com­press­ing the bel­lows, which I had done be­fore. Nope. It kept leak­ing, de­spite ex­pert as­sis­tance from Steve Hol­lis at Ocean Sails and his son, Austin. The in­ter­nal O-rings were leak­ing. To fix it right we would have to haul the boat. Hol­lis fi­nally said, “What about wrap­ping waxed sail thread around the col­lar — poor man’s pack­ing?” I did, and that night the leak slowed con­sid­er­ably. But sea-tri­al­ing the spare genoa and furler in St. george’s har­bor the next day re­vealed that we had not solved all of our prob­lems.

“Safety first” can be a com­pli­cated con­cept for boats go­ing off­shore. There is vir­tu­ally al­ways some­thing that can be im­proved. And un­less you have quit your jobs and re­tired to your boat, with end­less time on your hands, there is also an im­per­a­tive to go. Per­fec­tion is the en­emy of the pos­si­ble. We had just six weeks.

I liked to think that our spares, prepa­ra­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence would suf­fice. So we went. It was only 900 miles. The shaft seal leaked all the way to the Vir­gin Is­lands, but man­age­ably. We mon­i­tored it and pumped a bit ev­ery day. We ar­rived in time to meet our daugh­ter and her fi­ancŽ for a charm­ing is­land cruise — an im­por­tant com­mit­ment — but the tech prob­lems never stopped. Our radar died. Ok, I could have seen around the curve. It was old and needed to be re­placed. Our elec­tric head failed. We had to “bucket and chuck it” un­til I sorted that out. Our en­gine shut down er­rat­i­cally sev­eral times Htoo much salt wa­ter on the ig­ni­tion pan­elI un­til we slathered the panel’s con­nec­tions with cor­ro­sion blocker. The furler didn’t al­ways co­op­er­ate, thanks to a boat­yard’s in­stal­la­tion er­ror.

Call it whin­ing in par­adise. The frus­tra­tion of this trip, com­pared to our pre­vi­ous cruises, was that we thought we had pre­pared thor­oughly, as usual. Yet the prob­lems never stopped. They weren’t life- threat­en­ing or cruise- halt­ing, but the tech­no­log­i­cal “has­sle fac­tor” was high.

I’ve known for decades that even with pre­ven­tive main­te­nance, sys­tems can let me down at in­op­por­tune times. It’s a mat­ter of per­spec­tive. I still find tremen­dous sat­is­fac­tion in passagemaking, boat han­dling and is­land hop­ping. And it’s a priv­i­lege to spend time in the West Indies. The older I get, how­ever, the less charmed I am by fix­ing bro­ken stuff. I want div­i­dends from my due dili­genceA

Boats al­ways ask us to prove our­selves, but they don’t let us choose the tests we will face. Maybe we just got off easy the first three times. We should know by next win­ter be­cause we are go­ing back for more. It is the song of the sirens.

The writer and his wife sat in More­head City, North Carolina, for a week, fret­ting and study­ing weather maps. Des­ti­na­tion sat­is­fac­tion: Fran­cis Bay and Maho Bay on St. John in the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands.

(From top) Close reach­ing with main and stay­sail for Ber­muda; the skip­per, ar­mored for a De­cem­ber depar­ture; he has never doubted the Valiant 40.

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