Amber's aging genoa had shown signs of wear on the trip north. I left it at the local sailmaker for a workover while we were back in the States. "Sailmaker" is an overstatement, as the island is too sparsely populated to support such a person in a full time position. Though the place advertised itself as a canvas shop local sailors assured us they understood sail repair.
I called the shop from Maryland to be sure the sail would be ready when we returned. I dialed; the line clicked and hummed. The proprietor picked up his phone and heard the noise of an international call. Before I spoke a word he blurted "hey, are you from that US boat?". Locals told us Amber was Newfoundland's only visitor from the USA that season. The cold, fog and ice scared most Americans off; a global recession eliminated the rest. Even in a good year they are lucky to see a dozen international yachts.
After two weeks back in the States we were ready to fly north to rejoin Amber and resume our voyage. Bill had not been idle in his brief stay at home. The night before departing he became engaged to Luann, his significant other of long standing. At dinner that night the jokes revolved around "love 'em and leave 'em" themes.
Travel to Newfoundland by air is much faster than by boat but still eats up an entire day. Connections are hard to get and layovers are long. Flying into the sun uses the day faster, though this part of Canada is on its own quite peculiar time zone - one half hour east of Atlantic time.
Bill borrowed a handheld GPS - a satellite navigator - for this segment of the voyage. Special friends loaned us a version accurate to a few meters. As a long-standing celestial navigator I dreaded this toy. Would it show my sextant sights to be generally wildly inaccurate? Would I become so lazy I'd stop shooting the sun and idly worship the GPS several times a day, bowing and prostrating myself until it popped up with a position? These fears eventually proved groundless since the unit was somewhat less reliable than expected.
However, I was determined to discover the exact position of the airport in Newfoundland. None of our charts agreed on the position of any part of this coast. Some show discrepancies of 20 miles! The sailing directions warn that no one seems to know the province's location.
After deplaning I powered the unit up and waited for it to acquire the needed 4 satellites. Latitude and longitude readings followed shortly thereafter. Perhaps the Defense Mapping Agency is uncertain of Newfoundland's position. Maybe the Canadian Navy's hydrographers are unsure as well. I'm not. If you'd like its exact location, give me a call... we'll talk.
A linguist I'm not. After traveling to many of the world's corners I've found I can get by with the phrases "no problem", "a beer", and "toilet?" most anywhere. Arriving in Canada I was almost immediately corrected in my enunciation of the province's name. "It's Noofoundland, like in Understand", the cab driver said. "Noofoundland like Understand" the customs lady intoned. "Noofoundland like in Understand" chanted the dockmaster.
Most regions have their own odd words. I remember as a kid being enthralled with the Bostonian's use of "frappe" in place of my southern "milkshake". In Newfoundland the favorite dinner item is "shrooms and onions", a hideous fried pate of mushrooms, onions, and spices. Scrunchies, a rock-hard fried pork-fat item eaten like popcorn, is a favorite snack. I almost broke a tooth. The local rum, Screetch, is a darkly powerful brew whose attributes are apparent only after long and searching sessions with the bottle. The Screetch we took across the Atlantic was a wild success in the pre-OSTAR parties in Plymouth, no doubt proving some old adage about drunken sailors.
On the trip north Bill and I jokingly referred to the residents of Newfoundland as "Newfies", more as a verbal shorthand than as a term of derision. "Newfoundlander" is quite a mouthful. "Canadian" doesn't seem to apply to these remote easterners.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that indeed the residents do call themselves Newfies. Never used without a hint of a smile, this seems to be a good-natured term of self-deprecation the entire population uses.
Newfies are the most racist people I've ever met. Their target: themselves! Polish, Italian, and Catholic jokes are unheard of. It almost seems some humoresque constitution requires each citizen to be the teller of Newfie jokes. All revolve around their feelings of not being worldwise. Newfies revel in their vast stores of good solid common sense accompanied by a total lack of sophistication. An example:
A Newfie visits New York City. Immediately a local hustler descends on the poor country boy. "I'll bet I can answer any question you ask and that you can't answer mine", the con artist offers. "Even better, I'll give you $20 for each one I get wrong if you give me $5 for each one you can't answer". "OK", replies the Newfie, "how many cod fit in a barrel". Immediately stumped, the city slicker answers "I don't know - how many?" The perhaps not so naive answer "I don't know either, but you owe me $15".
I owe much of this knowledge to an unexpected party. Bill met Randy King in the yacht club bar. Randy was impressed by Bill's latest inflated version of our travels so invited us to his house for a barbecue. Bill eagerly accepted for us both. My shipmate related this to me over lunch while I stared at Newfoundland's token cute girl.
On a trip to England the year before I had been warned by no less than Commander Rod Harvey of Her Majesty's Royal Navy that during his service on the Queen's yacht he found the Newfoundland women to be the friendliest in the world. As we careened around Plymouth's ancient brick fortifications at 90 miles an hour he casually explained "it's the sea you know - all their men are at sea". I came to Newfoundland with the expectation of a bevy of beauties whose charms I'd somehow resist.
In fact, the island's remoteness and resulting inbreeding has created a group of women that only a seafaring man could admire... one who has been at sea for a very, very long time.
Unexpectedly a cute brunette appeared in the bar as we ate lunch. Figuring I'd be at sea the next day, with little likelihood of returning to this remote outpost for many a long year, I admired this last vision of loveliness that I'd see for several long offshore weeks, making to attempt to be discreet.
Later Randy picked us up. After traveling seemingly halfway to Alberta we pulled up in front of his house. We walked in - "honey, we're here", be bellowed. Honey? We had heard his stories of conquests and girlfriends, but nothing of honey.
Honey turned out to be Karen Young, the girl from the bar.
Ohers arrived. Dinner was served at 0100, though by then the Screetch had dimmed our sense of time.
Randy, a natural raconteur, told a fascinating and apparently true story of the balance of rabbits and foxes in Newfoundland. For six years there are plenty of rabbits - too many, creating problems somewhat like those in Australia. Then for a single year the foxes dominate the ecosystem, suddenly vastly outnumbering the rabbits for that short time. The system then repeats it's never-ending seven-year cycle.
I tried to tell Randy about James Lovelock's Daisyworld, but the Screetch slowed our conversation. Daisyworld is a hypothetical planet Lovelock dreamed up to explain his Gaia theory. On Daisyworld some percentage of the daisies are black, which absorbs the sun's energy, and some are white, increasing the planet's albedo. A simple set of rules define ratios of black-to-white in successive generations. Given the right set of initial conditions Daisyworld exhibits exactly the same sort of wild yet repetitive behavior as Newfoundland's rabbits and foxes. To Lovelock this portrays nature's ability to mold the environment to suit life's needs.
The party broke up and Randy drove us back to Amber. I find the best part of travel is getting to know people. There is no better way than to get inside their homes.
We left Newfoundland at 0808 in a foul mood. Cathy had called me on the phone in the yacht club an hour before we left with news of severe problems which ultimately severed our relationship with half of the family.
Hurricane season made any thought of sailing home too dangerous. Part of the plan had been to get Amber far enough north to be out of the reach of hurricanes. That had succeeded, but it demanded our proceeding eastwards. I rationalized there was little to gain by a return to the States and elected to sail on.
For a week I was sullen and withdrawn. The weather was generally foul, blowing hard from the East directly on the nose. On most passages I write extensive notes every day. Now my mood was such that I wrote nothing other than routine log entries.
At 10 PM on the second day the headstay turnbuckle parted with a bang. Rigging failures have their own unique sound. I knew immediately what the problem was. The boat's motion was pretty wild as we beat under genoa and reefed main into a 25 knot southeast wind. I ran into the icy black night and surveyed the situation. The inner forestay was set up, as it always is at sea in case of just this sort of emergency, and had taken up the load. The mast was not in immediate danger.
The genoa flailed away downwind. Still connected to the boat at the top of the mast and by the sheet, the sail was almost vertically deployed by the force of the wind. With much struggling I managed to wrestle all 400 square feet back on deck. The sail was badly damaged. I set up the halyard in place of the headstay, using a winch to relieve some of the load on the forestay. After raising the staysail (on the forestay) I went below and back to bed.
All night I worried. Only two days out and already a major rigging failure! How were we going to make it across the Atlantic? What if we had some other problem a thousand miles from land? Was there even a prayer of making the crossing with the genoa apparently destroyed? Amber's spare genny was too old and much too light for the heavy weather we could reasonably expect.
In the morning's light I surveyed the damage. The turnbuckle's 1/2 inch bronze bolt had cleanly snapped. Its jagged edge ripped a 10 foot tear in the sail. Luckily we had a spare turnbuckle. After replacing the turnbuckle we decided to just sail on and hope everything would be OK. Somehow we'd get across.
The days passed obscured in fog and rain. For a week the sun never appeared, matching my disposition just fine. Icebergs were everywhere. The fog often masked them, though radar cut an electronic eye that picked up every one - or at least, enough of them to avoid collisions. We threaded our way through hundreds of bergs in the 18,000 foot depths for days.
The thermometer read an almost constant 48 degrees. With near gale force winds, flung spume, and occasional work on a foredeck quite literally underwater, we shivered. The heater helped until it packed up after the first few days. Neither of us cared to tear it apart in the crummy conditions. We longed for some warmer weather or for a wind shift to make the going easier and drier.
Finally, the sky cleared and my spirits lifted. Perhaps it was the sun. Maybe being 500 miles from Newfoundland helped. Somehow the land is the source of most problems, and I've always felt a sort of whole body relief at getting far offshore.
I repaired the heater in seas the logbook describes as "monstrous". Bill estimated them at 40 feet, but I suspect 20 was more likely. I finally snapped out of the black fugue and resumed my honest role of sailor.
On a cruising sailboat fresh water is even more precious than diesel fuel. Amber carried 50 gallons of water in her main tank plus another 30 gallons in small containers stored in various lockers. To conserve this vital resource for drinking we washed the dishes and ourselves in salt water drawn from over the side.
Soap doesn't lather in salt water. Long ago someone discovered that Joy does, and now every sailor I know travels with Joy exclusively. Each evening part of the cleanup ritual was to throw a bucket (with a lanyard attached!) over the side to scoop up a few gallons of ocean. We'd heat a potfull, wash the dishes with it, and rinse them very sparingly in fresh water.
At sea I like to take a bath every few days. This is easy in warm-weather sailing. One goes to the foredeck with a bucket and washes in comfort. With the air temperature in the upper 40s I had to modify the procedure a bit.
We'd pour the seawater into a big pot and heat it on the stove - not an easy operation even in reasonable conditions. The rolling made the stove gimbal back and forth; the heavy pot would swing in rhythm sloshing liquid over the side.
I'd stay below and sponge off as quickly as possible. It was cool even with the heater on! Fresh water was too precious to use for rinsing so we'd dress covered with a thin layer of residual salt.
The damp environment makes salt water boils a constant concern for ocean voyagers. It's almost impossible to keep clothes dry. Bill and I saved several clean changes in carefully sealed plastic bags. That occasional few hours of perfect dryness always felt like heaven and kept the boils at bay.
The wind diminished throughout the night until it died altogether in the morning. We motored for 10 hours until our day's fuel reserve was exhausted. Sailing ever so slowly under the main and genoa we retired for the evening.
At about 9 PM the wind was non-existent. We had so little steerage way that Inga the autopilot (all self-steering devices have names) couldn't keep Amber on course. Inga pulled the tiller mightily to one side trying to correct to no avail. The beeping of her off-course alarm drove us nuts, so I turned her off and let Amber drift around in circles all night. The last entry in the log for the evening read "Time for Screetch!"
Extremely calm day - wind 0 to 1. The ocean was as flat as I've ever seen it. Very small ripples and an oily-smooth surface reflected the clouds. Finally the barometer rose, the low we'd been battling now past.
Sailors divide the Atlantic into several sections. The North Atlantic is that ocean east of the USA but north of the equator. The Northern North Atlantic is that part north of about 35 degrees of latitude. This section of sea's weather is dominated by westward-moving anticyclones, low pressures whose wind rotates counterclockwise when viewed from above.
If you can predict where the storm will pass you can exploit favorable winds. When sailing west to east it makes sense to stay to the south of the low's center. Winds will then be southerly as the low approaches, veering to the southwest and then west as it moves by north of the boat, finally veering all the way to the northwest and north.
This a guessing game when played from the slow progress of a sailboat since no one can predict just where the lows will track. We expected to find the storms' centers above 51-52º north so had moved up to around 50º to milk the winds as best we could. In fact, in the first week we battled easterly breezes, a sure sign Amber was too far north. We started working our way south a bit. We completed most of the crossing at 48 to 49 degrees of latitude, only heading up to 50 degrees the last few days before arriving in England.
With the day's fuel reserve exhausted we were still anxious to make some progress. After a lot of thought we agreed to sacrifice some heater kerosene for fuel. Amber left Newfoundland with 10 gallons of kerosene on deck; we decided to use 5 for motoring, mixing one part of kerosene to 5 parts diesel. We powered with this mix for 12 hours at 1600 RPM (4.3 knots).
A big whale 100 feet to port paced the boat. It eventually sounded and disappeared.
Never one to "waste" time, I brought considerable paperwork along to keep me occupied. Like a student avoiding homework I rather dreaded buckling down to serious business. At home I'm always anxious to get to work early - I can't stay in the house even for a quick cup of coffee, always feeling compelled to rush to the office and jump into the day's challenges. The pace of the sailing life defies rushing and panic.
I worked for a number of days on the galleys of my book, The Art of Programming Embedded Systems. On nice days I'd spread the material out on the cabin table. As Amber rolled in following seas the light from the portholes played across the papers. Though the motion was fairly gentle I developed the habit of writing with one hand and chasing wayward sheets with the other.
Chafe duty on the foredeck
After dark the sea was lit by the eerie specter of bioluminescence. The bow wave glowed, illuminated as if by a fluorescent bulb under the sea. Billions of tiny sparkles flashed brilliantly for a brief flash as the boat disturbed the water. Bigger flashbulbs went off deeper, all creating a brilliant trail hundreds of yards astern.
Each day ended with a concoction Bill calls a "Greyhound" - Absolut Vodka and Grapefruit juice. After 9 days at sea there was still a bit of ice to cool this drink. After the Greyhounds we made a fancy spaghetti dinner, the calm sea for once permitting use of the table and place settings. Normally the North Atlantic's heavy motion made us eat with plates cradled in our laps, our bodies wedged into corners. A great bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon topped off the meal, followed by coffee and Screech.
The evening sea was covered with dolphins - from horizon to horizon thousands of dolphins blanketed the sea.
We awoke at 0500 to find the spinnaker wrapped around the headstay and forestay. No amount of going in circles could shake it out. A 20 foot rip zippered through the sail as we watched. The wild sail was dangerously overpowering the boat.
We tried every trick we could think of to get it down. Finally, Bill winched me to the top of the mast. I was slammed around a lot - for the next few days I was pretty sore! Holding on was tough, and of course I needed both hands for the work. Amber's 50 foot mast amplified each ripple on the ocean. The sea's motion gives quite a swing - one minute I was over the boat, another I hung well out over the ocean.
I wrapped my legs around the mast and waited for a lull. With each tentative reach towards the sail, an errant wave would slam me back into the mast or drag me through the stainless steel rigging. Slowly I hacked at the top of the sail. Each knife slash felt like a slash to my belly, considering what it would cost to repair the sail. What option did I have? With the wind building, the spinnaker could pull the mast out of the boat. I destroyed the top of the sail to remove it. Then it was fairly easy to get the pieces down.
At this point I was getting concerned. The spinnaker was now gone. The good genny was ripped. The 150 light genoa, which we were using constantly, had a hole at its tack. Though we patched it, there were 1200 miles more to go. Would it hold up? Would we have enough sails to make it? The genny was our only weapon against light airs. We hadn't the time to sail all the way to England under the working jib!
The sail inventory was getting bleak: main (head slides working loose), spinnaker (dead), heavy genoa (dead), light genoa (failing and too light for 1200 more miles), working jib and staysail (both OK so far).
The Toshiba laptop computer took a wave and failed. I disassembled it in a vain attempt to effect repairs. A dozen ultra-fine integrated circuit leads were completely corroded away. I had to resort to pen and ink.
Our GPS performed well, though I continued to view it with some suspicion. Will GPS finally kill of traditional navigation techniques? The Coast Guard announced a half-baked plan to eliminate lighthouses from the coasts. Their rationale is that cheap electronic navigation is replacing the need for piloting. Don't they realize that any tiny failure will render the most sophisticated electronics useless? How many small boat operators carry redundant electronics? Further, the Coast Guard won't guarantee that any system will be operational all of the time. Loran has a feature called "blink" that tells you the readings from a secondary are not to be trusted during maintenance periods.
I've been an electronics person since childhood... and I don't trust it at all in the terribly corrosive environment of the sea.
Early sailors were uneducated seamen, plowing the same short routes across the Mediterranean. Rarely long out of sight of land, they depended mostly on piloting, the art of figuring out where you are by looking at features ashore.
As voyages became longer a need developed for some easy way to determine the direction of one's destination. Portalan charts were invented. The Portalan looks like a conventional map crisscrossed by dozens of lines. Sailors followed the courses laid on these lines, perhaps mentally correcting for the tide and wind, relying on well-trodden paths mapped out by generations of predecessors. Some had access to compasses, but even by Columbus' time the compass was still little more than a needle floating freely in water.
The ancient Arabs learned to find latitude by observing the stars. It stands to reason that as you head north any specific star will appear lower and lower over the horizon. Arab astronomers invented the astrolabe to measure the stars' angles above the horizon. Some incorporated crude ephemeris data (the position of the stars based on season) into intricate rings inserted into the instruments.
Polaris was found to bear due north at all times. Now we know that the earth's complex motions create a Polaris drift but even without compensating for these errors it is always within a single degree of north, creating an easy way to measure latitude at dawn and dusk.
Published ephemeris data became available during the great age of discovery that began around the time of Prince Henry. Finding latitude by observing the sun at meridian transit (when it is due south of the ship) became one of the expected arts of the sailing master. Longitude remained a thornier problem.
Longitude is easy to find if you know the time. In effect all one has to do is note when a star passes due south; if that time is 0000 GMT, and if the star's position in the universe is cataloged with an "hour angle" of 0 degrees, then you are standing on the prime meridian. If this same star transits your local zenith at 0100 GMT your longitude is the distance the earth rotates in one hour to the west of the prime meridian: 15 degrees.
Prince Henry's sailors did not have reliable clocks, so longitude determination was just not possible. A sandglass is not terribly accurate to start with. When subjected to the heaving of a ship at sea its time keeping qualities are absent. Clocks built prior to the middle of the 18th century mostly relied on a pendulum and counterweight, mechanical analogs of the sandglass with all of its shortcomings.
The English Parliament ruled a nation of seafarers - seafarers who had no bloody idea where they were. In 1714 the desperate ruling body enacted a law offering 20,000 pounds for the first clock that lost or gained no more than two minutes after a round trip to the West Indies.
The prize went unclaimed until 1761. John Harrison invented a temperature compensating chronometer that used a spring instead of a weight that passed the test well within specifications. Though decades passed before chronometers became cheap enough so every ship carried one, accurate clocks had solved the problem of computing position anywhere on the globe.
Now sailors could observe the angle of two or more celestial bodies above the horizon, note the time of each observation, and by not terribly difficult mathematics compute their position. Officers guarded the secrets of navigation so a mutinous crew would be lost, creating an almost priesthood-like mystery shrouding it that persists to this day.
Cheap microcomputers revolutionized electronic navigation in the 1980s. A full featured Loran can now be had for under $200. It will spit out positions with a mile or two accuracy as long as the boat is in range of a transmitting station.
Amber carried Loran. During our Bermuda trip it produced reliable positions when no more than 300 miles from the USA. On this transatlantic voyage it worked well near the USA and less than admirably in Canadian and deep ocean waters. A giant Loran "hole" off Cape Race generated positions the Loran receiver marked as "good fixes" but that differed by 60 miles from my DR calculations. If we had believed the Loran we'd be in pieces on the rocks of Newfoundland.
The GPS system uses its own constellation of electronic stars - satellites that broadcast radio signals to a computer in the user's receiver - and produces positions accurate to better than 100 meters. GPS gives worldwide coverage and requires no expertise to use. The perfect system was finally born: idiot-proof high accuracy instantaneous navigation. Costs are low, too. A reasonable receiver goes for under $1000.
I love electronic toys, but am appalled at the unspoken philosophy of GPS which is "be happy, don't worry". A thousand years of navigation history have taught us not to rely on any single source of information - your DR could be off due to an unexpected current; your sextant sight might be skewed by odd atmospheric effects. For generations navigators learned to gather as much information as possible and then to balance the conflicting data to discover a most likely position. Now we are expected to bet the safety of our vessels and crews on a magic box few sailors understand.
The sailor determining position from a GPS or Loran looks like a worshipper at Sunday services. There he stands, hanging on the lip of the chart table nervously watching the LCD readout. Will the system acquire satellites today? He bends over to press a button. Suddenly a position appears! The miracle has repeated itself once again!
And it is indeed a miracle. Arthur Clark, writing about advanced aliens visiting our backwater planet, commented that any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic. The sailors shuffles off, content that somehow this group of numbers simply must be right - the little box told him so.
This effect is symptomatic of modern society. Our technology is so advanced we've fooled ourselves into thinking it's all magic. How many people understand why that suspension bridge stands up? Who cares - it's a miracle! Few bother to learn about the bridge's delicate web of forces engineered to cancel each other out. What about the MRI machine that saves your life, or the TV set far too many remain glued to? Insatiable curiosity was never important before the industrial revolution since there wasn't that much to know. Now I'm afraid it's been all but bred out of us.
I've always been reluctant to trust that little box, even though I know exactly what is going on in its electronic brain. I know dozens of failure modes that could be disastrous. Beside... the GPS removes all fun from the navigation. The system is indeed marvelous and reliable, so there's frustratingly little uncertainty.
I love the thrill of trying to figure out just where I am when dealing with insufficient or conflicting data. It's like a puzzle with too many or too few pieces. Sometimes the shapes of the pieces are fuzzy, reflecting the data's error bands. I've always relied on celestial navigation, DR (Dead Reckoning - estimating your position by computing distance run and course sailed, trying to correct for currents you cannot measure and leeway you can only guess), and Piloting. When the Loran is up I use it as another input, but not as gospel. Like Henry Ford relishing his model T's hand starter, perhaps I'm a navigation anachronism, unwilling to accept the ease of electronics. (I say this while constantly praising Amber's radar which cut through fog and rain with an invisible beam - hey, I never promised to be totally consistent!)
Navigating by sextant and DR requires a lot of plotting. Any chart would soon become an unrecognizable blur of ink if one were to draw all of the plots directly on it. When sailing off soundings the chart scales are vast - a single chart covers the entire Northern North Atlantic. At sea this big one remains at the chart table where I transfer the vessel's position once a day for comparative purposes. All intermediate plotting takes place on mercador mini- charts I construct every day or two.
Plotting instruments are simple: parallel rules for drawing and measuring courses, one-handed dividers for measuring distance, and a slide rule for quick calculations. I carry a calculator occasionally, but the slide rule never suffers battery or corrosion failure. A little WD-40 once a year keeps it in shape for thousands of miles.
Our borrowed GPS ran off a limited supply of AA cells so we couldn't leave it on all of the time. I took great delight in switching the GPS on and then shooting and reducing sights before the machine acquired all of the satellites needed for a fix.
The Theotokos from Hamburg hove into view. The Captain responded to our call on the radio, and was just beside himself with excitement to see us. Apparently the sight of a small sailboat so far from land was quite unusual. He changed course to come close by. This always makes me nervous - I try hard to stay a long way away from shipping. The Theotokos offered to send a boat alongside with ice cream or anything else we might want; I declined the offer, hating to stop such a large ship for so unimportant a mission.
She was running 100,000 tons of oil from Norfolk to Amsterdam, which seemed an odd direction only a few months after the Persian Gulf war.
We had a nice long chat with the Captain, though his English was heavily accented and hard to understand. He kindly radioed messages home for us.
At Bill's suggestion we hauled out the genoa to see just how badly it was damaged when the headstay let go. About 10 feet of the luff was destroyed. We decided to stitch it up, figuring even a poor job would be better than leaving the torn sail in the locker for the rest of the trip.
At first I was inclined to think the job was just too big for us. I was still in land mode, where we use some sort of power tool for even the simplest tasks. Without a sewing machine fixing a yards-long tear would need lots of time. Time was of course the one thing we had plenty of. The 410 square foot sail filled the cockpit, overflowing down the companionway and out over the lazarette.
We worked together all day under a gorgeous blue cloudless sky. The white material strongly reflected the bright sun. Even with sunglasses on we were partially blinded by the intense light. Working with a palm and needle, using pliers to pull the needles through the tough 6 oz fabric, was fun and rather relaxing. The result was not terribly ugly and proved seaworthy enough to last through the OSTAR.
Repairing the genoa
We hoisted the repaired sail and stuffed the light 150 below. I felt relieved to have a spare.
Before dusk several dozen dolphins came by. Hundreds of birds whirled and dived over their feeding grounds 100 yards to starboard. When their dinner ended the mammals swam back to gam. Small ones were barely a yard log, a third the size of the adults. All had gray topsides and white bottoms.
The sea flashed turquoise in their wake. Though they soon left later thousands reappeared. I always wonder what mysterious signal makes them disperse as quickly as they come.
Dinner was a canned ham somehow made tasty by Bill's meticulous cooking. I have been lucky with crew over the years. Each group always seems to include a great chef. I, however, am a terrible cook. Only boredom drives me to taking an interest in the galley. Sailing alone I'm content to toss a can of chili into the pot. Generally my solo passage provisioning consists mostly of many cases of Hormel's chili.
During the late evening we blasted along with the main boomed to starboard and the big genoa poled to port. Amber behaved like a lady. From my perch below I could look out the companionway and see the boom and all of its rigging bouncing up and down with each passing sea, hearing the ocean rushing by attenuated by a mere inch of hull thickness behind my head.
Friends with no offshore experience imagine sailing the oceans to be very quiet; in fact quite the opposite is true. The boat's motion through the seas sounds like a nearby waterfall. Blocks and lines creak with the rolling. An occasional clang of pots and pans as we roll remind us that we could have stowed these a little better. When beating to weather heavy boarding seas sound and feel like Richter 7 earthquakes. The harsh sound of the autopilot sawing back and forth adds the only element of mechanical cacophony to this symphony.
I love being at sea, especially at night. This day's sailing was easy and peaceful yet we cranked along at a good speed without fuss or even much sail management.
Amber left a bright submerged trail of phosphorescence as her passage disturbed billions of bioluminescent plankton. A swath of brilliant light glowing hundreds of yards astern marked her passage through the night. Shooting stars completed the scene. A landlubber could never, even if he made a billion dollars and lived forever, see the universe from this perspective.
Sunset a thousand miles from land. Landlubbers will never understand the magic.
A swiftly falling barometer gave portents of a blow. The wind built throughout the day till it finally hit force 8 in the afternoon. We worked the sails down from a full main and 180 to a main and working jib, finally ending up with just a heavily reefed main as the wind went to full gale.
Though the ride was wet and wild shipboard life continued more or less undisturbed. We were used to cold wet weather by now, spending too much time hiding out below as we basked in the (limited) warmth from our kerosene heater. The southerly gale changed little. Amber blasted along at 5.5 to 6 knots with just a token piece of main showing. Despite the rough ride we rather enjoyed ourselves, joking and laughing as we played with the cameras.
I'm a lousy photographer. Big sea photos never seem to turn out well - that 20 foot sea looks like a balmy bay day in photographic retrospective. All sailors love to take gale pictures to "prove" the wild stories we wield shoreside. Bill and I took a number of pictures during the blow. None showed the true effect. Believe me, it really was wild...
Bill enjoying the gale
The gale veered from south to southwest during the afternoon and evening. Our strategy of keeping south seemed to be working perfectly as we never altered course or reduced our speed towards England. By now we were down to 48 degrees, south of the rhumb line from Newfoundland to England. If we had sailed the great circle route I'm sure Amber would be in the northerly part of this anti-cyclone bashing into easterlies. As a wise man once said, "Gentlemen never beat to weather".
At 0200 (why do problems always occur at night?) Inga died. She just stopped steering. With the big seas and the continuing gale this became a real headache. An accidental broach could have been a disaster.
Bill steered as I dismantled the unit on the chart table. The gale's 15 foot seas threw Amber all over the place. I had a terrible time keeping all of Inga's innards from flying about the cabin. I spent more time hanging on and grabbing mischievous autopilot pieces than getting productive work done.
I wired Inga into the ship's electrical system down below and started looking for the problem. Although there were dollops of ocean in her heavily advertised "waterproof" case drying things out helped not at all. I broke out the voltmeter and my thinking cap to analyze the situation.
The autopilot beeped constantly, indicating that a button was pressed, or that she thought the boat was off course. I found that pressing any button stopped the beeping as long as the button was pressed - all except for the "-1" course adjustment control. I concluded that this control was wet internally, so unsoldered the switch and dried it out with the engine-starting 12 volt hair dryer. I bought the hair dryer for a cold Intracoastal Waterway trip some years ago after discovering just how hard Amber's new Westerbeake diesel started in winter conditions. Preheating the injector pump and then propping the appliance in her air intake as the engine cranked was an almost sure cure for the Westerbeake's cold weather blues.
By about 0630 things seemed to be working. Bill dozed at the tiller with never a word of complaint. We put Inga back on duty and hit the sacks again.
Although we managed a couple of hours of steering success Inga soon failed the same way. Beating on the case would sometimes restore operation for a short while but apparently all was not well in her little electronic brain. I unsuccessfully dissected her a number of times during the day. She inevitably started working again as soon as I opened the case.
In desperation I made a schematic by tracing the tracks on the PC board. Aha! The "remote" connector (used to connect an optional wind sensor) was wired in parallel with the switches. I found a minuscule amount of green goo, a sure sign of corrosion, in the center of the wire bundle coming from the connector. As we never used this option I cut out the wires, instantly and permanently curing this particular illness.
I wondered how non-technical sailors cope with electronic failures thousands of miles offshore. In England I found that many racers carried three, four, or more autopilots. One had 8 Autohelms! Though I shudder at the thought of solving problems by throwing money at them perhaps there is little choice.
At midday we crossed over the mid-Atlantic ridge. Landsmen may think of the ocean as a huge body of water covering a featureless plain, but in fact the deeps have dramatic contours rivaling the Alps. The Atlantic plunges to 29,500 feet in the Puerto Rico Trench yet on the continental shelves depths never exceeds 100 fathoms.
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge girdles much of the earth, stretching from the far north, across the equator, around the Cape of Good Hope and up towards India. Iceland and the Azores are just particularly shallow parts of this feature.
The Ridge is a tear in the planet's crust. It's a subsea mountain range whose peaks are formed by lava flowing from the mantle into the ocean. The Ridge is the border of great tectonic plates which are moving slowly apart, creeping a few centimeters each year more distant.
In the early part of this century Alfred Wegener noticed that the continents nestled together like separated puzzle pieces. He proposed the then-radical notion of continental drift. Mainstream scientists discredited the notion until experiments in the 1960's showed magnetic patterns in the Ridge's cooled lava that could only be explained by tectonic motion. Many times in science an idea that goes against the grain is ignored because it is too radical. Science attains a certain dogma where questioning of well-known "facts" is simply not allowed.
Our course took us over a peak rising from the normal 12,000-18,000 depths to only 5000 feet. As one interested in science and oceanography I was excited about being on top of the Ridge, but there was no noticeable change in the ocean or sky; only our chart told us of its existence.
Later this day we crossed the halfway point from Newfoundland to England - 950 nautical miles to go! Before departing Scott gave us a carefully sealed package to be opened at the halfway point. Bill was hoping for dry underwear. I wanted more diesel fuel. Surprise! What more could two sailors a fortnight from the comforts of home want than a pair of outrageously pornographic magazines? The thought was nice.
Every evening we tried to contact someone, anyone, on the ham radio on 10 meters. Today's attempt finally yielded success. WA1CSG in Maine came booming in even though his transmitter was a meager 5 watts. He kindly relayed messages for us.
At 0100 Amber called for help. Inga had failed again. When the autopilot failed Amber rounded up in the strong winds and broke her 5/8 inch genoa sheet. A 16,000 sailing vessel generates incredible loads. We rerigged the sheet and pole and got Amber back on course.
With Bill steering again I dismantled Inga one more time. The control unit, the source of all of her previous problems, worked great; the actuator did not. I pulled the motor out to find that its brushes were simply missing. 5000 miles of sailing had worn them to oblivion. We had no spares. I made temporary replacements from a section of sheet lead Amber carries for emergency hull repairs. The reassembled unit worked fine, so we went back to sleep.
Throughout the night I tossed, unhappy about using lead for brushes. In the morning I found a solution - the 12 volt cabin fan had a DC motor we could sacrifice. Although I had to destroy the fan to remove the precious brushes it seemed the wise thing to do.
With Bill back on helm duty, I removed Inga's motor. Unfortunately, the fan's brushes were 5 times the 2 by 4 mm size of those in the autopilot. I ever-so-slowly sanded the carbon elements down to Inga-size. After reinstalling them we powered her up - success! Inga gave us no more trouble.
The temperature skyrocketed to 64 in the afternoon on this second sunny day since Newfoundland.
The GPS kept crashing - software faults, no doubt, some so severe we were forced to remove the batteries for 30 minutes before restarting the unit. Then the unit would sit and think for up to an hour before spitting out a position, burning up the AA cells.
The unit had trouble getting data through the North Atlantic's usual heavy clouds. The clouds made sextant observations impossible as well so we were doing a lot of dead reckoning.
At 0030 the Queen Elizabeth 2 passed in the distance. We chatted with the deck officers over the radio. They remembered Amber from the Baltimore to Newfoundland leg. Though we were still about 10 days from England they expected to make a quick turnaround in Southampton tomorrow. We could see them yet again on their return to the USA.
Now that we were east of 25º we broke out the Mint Milanos cookies. Kathy Knight, an author of children's books turned transatlantic sailor at her husband's insistence, wrote a charming chronicle of her adventures. While hubby basked in the journeys Kathy, ever the proud Jewish American Princess, lay miserably huddled in her berth gobbling Mint Milanos. Ever since reading her "Atlantic Circle" we've carried emergency supplies of these cookies.
The sailing was fantastic. We continued running downwind wing and wing. Despite the awful cold the trip was surprisingly easy. Not easy enough for the two birds that followed us all day. They tried to land on top of Amber's VHF antenna mounted 50 feet above the sea. Even their acrobatic antics couldn't keep pace with the antenna's wild gyrations as the boat rolled.
A fantastic starfield topped off a day of wonderful sailing. There are no lights at sea. The closest city is 1000 miles away, so when the moon is down the stars are unlike anything most civilized folk are aware of. On a cloudless night the Milky Way stretches quite literally from horizon to horizon, disappearing in the ocean. City folk know the Milky Way as a vague overhead dim splotch of light. Offshore every detail is evident, including the fork into two tongs you'll see on some starmaps.
With only 580 NM to go and 1400 left behind us we saw the fifth ship of this leg of the voyage pass in the early pre-dawn hours. Container ships have converted the Atlantic Ocean into a voyaging desert. During the sailing ship days sightings of other vessels was common. Even after the industry's conversion to steam most vessels were rather small so world commerce employed thousands, bound to hundreds of destinations. No longer. The 50,000 ton container ship carries the load of 2 dozen ships of yesteryear.
Though we powered from midnight till dawn we were still ahead of the fuel budget. The main tank was full with 11 gallons of diesel and 3 gallons of kerosene on deck. We did lose six gallons which washed overboard in the gale, but the remaining 30 or so could give about 300 miles of motoring range in light weather.
The stern light failed numerous times. Each time the bulb shattered into pieces. Today I used up the last spare. When we purchased Amber she had a worthless little stern light on deck. I replaced it with a high intensity vertical filament arrangement. One of my complaints about modern sailboats is the placement of lights - all too often the stern light blinds the helmsman on a lonely dark watch. To avoid this I built a bracket to hold the light assembly over the transom. It was so effective that it's just about impossible to tell if the unit is functioning without hanging over the stern! This has worked perfectly for years without a single failure. I guessed that the very cold waters this far north shattered the hot bulb when a boarding sea hit the boat.
Though we were certainly not working very hard and were under very little pressure to get things done, we decided to take a holiday. As this was possibly the clearest day of the trip with an easy motion we dropped the mainsail so Bill could winch me to the top of the mast. Though I rationalized the jaunt as an inspection tour mostly we were going a little stir crazy.
Heights don't bother me. Years ago, I used to dive from the spreaders of a 30 foot double-ender. At one point I picked up a few bucks here and there going aloft to fix and inspect rigging for middle-aged cruisers.
All too often sailors have taken a fatal plunge from above, so I always go up with the safety harness on, clipping it to convenient points with a short tether. The harness would keep me from falling too far if the hoisting halyard were to part. I hope.
Competition is a fascinating dynamic. So many companies try to get consumers' attention that products often have to go to extremes to achieve some level of differentiation - Tom Peters calls this "products as fashion". Bosun's chairs are a perfect example. In times past a bosun's chair was no more than a plank perforated with a large hole in each corner. A line reeved through the holes in a manner prescribed by tradition completes the chair. The sailor sits on the plank with the line looped over his head and connected to the halyard. It's hard to think of a simpler or more reliable solution to the problem of going aloft, but dozens of manufacturers provide a wide variety of customized alternatives. Most are fabric; some have built-in pockets for tools. Others include strategically placed cushions to ease one's backside while aloft - I often wonder just how many days per year the purchaser of these ultra-comfortable chairs expect to spend at the top of their mast? I made Amber's bosun's chair in the traditional manner. It served us well for years, and cost nothing more than the reuse of extra boating supplies.
The view was much like that from the deck: water, everywhere. Though I took a number of pictures later I stupidly opened the camera without rewinding the film, destroying most of the images.
After coming back down to the deck we spotted something floating in the water. Desperate for diversion Bill disconnected the autopilot and sailed over to it. A lost fishing float had found a new career as a mid-ocean oasis. Several cubic feet of mussels covered it. A huge grouper grazed on these delicacies a few feet under water, as visible as a fish in an aquarium in the crystalline ocean waters.
Without thinking we tend to associate our society's evil with the entire world. After boating on polluted rivers and bays most people subconsciously assume that the ocean's water is murky. It's true that within 20 miles of the coast (especially near an inlet on ebb tide) the water is discolored by our refuse. Well out to sea quite the opposite is true. The ocean is as clear as the water in any swimming pool. When its surface isn't disturbed by the wind one can see perhaps hundreds of feet below. Years ago I towed a Walker Log on a 100 foot line behind Arwen. The log rotated, spinning the string and recording distance run on a clock-like readout on deck. When becalmed the 8 inch rotator dangled 100 feet straight down, as visible as if it were an arm's length away.
We started looping further north. Our strategy of staying low worked; the winds had been overwhelmingly favorable. England was now about 60 miles north and 500 miles east.
Preoccupied with cooking pancakes for breakfast, I was startled by Bill's yells from deck. Whale! Whales are exciting anytime, but this one was especially so. We sailed five feet from a sleeping 60 footer. Both of us watched aghast as Amber slid along the creature in a perfect port-to-port encounter. We never saw its tail. To this day I can only conclude it was submerged deeper than Amber's 6 foot draft. I'm not sure what's it's reaction would be after a collision, but I'd hate to have to deal with a pissed off 50 ton intelligent ramming iron!
The day ended on another exciting note, again centered around a meal. Bill decide to make a canned ham, beans, Bernaise sauce, and mashed potatoes. Both burners on the kerosene stove were in full play.
Cooking at sea is a special challenge in itself. The boat's motion catapults anything not tied down. Like most offshore cruisers Amber's main stove is gimbaled so it stays level as the boat rolls. I've put a lot of work into that stove to make it gimbal a full 360 degrees. Still, the ocean's movement is very complex. Pitching makes the pots slide around, the sudden heave as she falls off a wave can leave dinner suspended in mid-air, and crashes as the boat plows into seas all combine to reduce the effectiveness of even the best gimbals.
For rough conditions we used the Sea Swing, a butane one-burner suspended on two-axis gimbals above the main stove. The Sea Swing had high sides to confine a pot no matter how bad conditions get. I love that stove. In the thick of a storm I could always coax a pot of coffee or a batch of instant soup from it. After a few weeks at sea it's sometimes hard to gauge the boat's motion when chocked securely in one's bunk, but a glance at the wild motion of the Sea Swing gives an accurate assessment of sea state.
The stove's little butane bottle was empty. We had not gotten around to changing it so Bill simply used both kerosene burners at full bore. He happily slung pots around preparing a masterpiece of deep sea culinary delights. Suddenly the boat was rocked by a gigantic explosion! The empty butane can, heated excessively by the kerosene stove underneath, burst with a bang that shattered the stillness of the night.
The force of the explosion drove a steel pot into the kerosene burners, creating deep dents in its bottom. The Sea Swing exploded upwards, breaking the 1/2 inch thick stainless steel pivot pin that secured it to the boat.
Bill's ears rang for three days. Dinner, though delayed, was a great success.
Once mankind was content to go to bed when the sun set, arising to work throughout the daylight hours. Sailors used to hand, reef and steer all the weary watch, sleeping whenever they could. Affluence made evening artificial light possible, creating a demand for books, musical instruments, and all sorts of things for entertainment. Bill and I, prime examples of late twentieth century middle-class affluence, couldn't exist for more than a few hours without music and culture. We brought about 50 cassette tapes ranging from 60's acid rock to classical. Though I usually listen to classical music I've never really gotten past the protest music of my high school days.
Attending a Jesuit school just 5 blocks from the Nation's Capital from 1967 to 1971 was an eye-opening experience. Jesuits were once were the church's enforcers, stipulating and controlling the dogma of the times. Balancing this, Jesuits have a history of being the Roman Catholic intelligentsia, encouraging free thought (or, at least as free as it gets within the confines of the Vatican). While these teachers tried to drive correct-think into our teenage skulls they did indeed make us examine life around us. An odd group, the Jesuits always had funds for gold-plated vestments and chalices while the school's ceiling quite literally caved in on us. The beer truck made twice-weekly drop offs at the rectory while we were ordered to live the lives of the saints.
Saints we were not. The times, they were a changin'. I remember escaping DC during the riots that burned the city after Martin Luther King was killed. In 1969 protest marches became ever more frequent, culminating in May Day, 1971, when the DC police turned RFK stadium into a huge jail, arresting over 6000 people.
I spent that day and others, marching - fruitlessly, it seems, now that acres of black monument stand as mute testimony to the lives lost due to congressional dithering. Once again I avoided arrest. Most of my generation were brought up with a fear of jail (an afternoon stint in a New Jersey jail for hitchhiking on the New Jersey Turnpike was as close as I got to doing any sort of time). Plenty of friends were tossed in the pokey for legitimate reasons - protesting Vietnam, sit-ins for civil rights, and the like. Decades later it seems they have suffered no long term effects, other than perhaps an earned pride in their remembered stances.
I visited the Mall recently with my young son. We looked out from the Washington Monument towards the Lincoln Memorial. Graham saw a few hundred tourists wandering about snapping Kodachrome memories of their visit. Like a flashback my mind played back a scene of 50,000 gaily dressed young people dancing and partying, chanting and singing. Disgusted with our loss of the love and peace dreams of yesteryear and our national infatuation with Rambo, guns, and violence, to me the Mall seemed incomplete; no protesters resisted... anything! The protests of the 60's were perhaps in themselves more important than the causes of the times. We need a national tension about great subjects. The alternative is apathy and indifference.
These memories are clouded with the shroud of tear gas; of running before rocketing gas canisters, and of trying to avoid the drifting clouds. Gas was common then; on my first date the dance we attended in the Maryland suburbs was gassed and disbanded in panic. My blind date, a stunningly beautiful 17 year old, was clearly not as happy with her end of the chance bargain as I was with mine. She disappeared in the melee, never to be seen again.
Even more than gas, my memories of these times are filled with the music. Bob Dylan, the Stones, and a hundred others sang our anthems. For me, the Jefferson Airplane was the ultimate spokesman: We Can Be Together, Volunteers, Wooden Ships, Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon, and of course White Rabbit all tied in with the protests, the anarchy, and the change we felt was brewing.
The Airplane evolved into the Jefferson Starship, whose first album was a take-off from one of Heinlein's science fiction stories. The cry was to hijack the first interstellar spaceship and head off for planets unknown with the 60's revolution in tow. Of course, deep space travel never happened and the group's audience got old and tired. I remain almost alone in my continued love of this group's singular music. It's rare that I come across another Airplane/Starship fan.
A few years ago I was killing time in San Francisco and I noticed that the original Jefferson Airplane were putting on a free concert in Golden Gate Park. 1969 all over again! 40,000 youngsters enjoyed the show; 40,000 youngsters and one aging child. For 6 hours I enjoyed the music and reveled in the ramblings of the MC - Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm and Woodstock fame.
All of my sailing crews have learned to put up with hour after hour of taped songs of these times, especially the most perverse of the Jefferson Airplane. In most of the video footage Scott took of Amber's sail to Bermuda the background sound is an Airplane album playing for the thousandth time. It's a measure of the friendship of the crews that they have never complained. Well, at least not too often.
On a voyage of this length we'd cycle through the tapes every couple of days so generally kept a short-wave radio tuned to BBC or whatever station we could find.
Today we were shocked to hear that Gorbechev had been ousted in a Moscow coup. What will this mean for the future? The poor Russians, serfs for a thousand years, oppressed comrades for 70 - were they to enter another reign of terror?
Later of course Gorby reclaimed his position for a time. Where will the Russian people be in a decade? I only know that despite all we hear of rampant alcoholism the Russian engineers I work with routinely slave away for 70-80 hours a week. Perhaps like the immigrants to the USA in past times these determined people will create a future of promise for their children. I hope so. We should be prepared to deal with them as strong economic competitors, a far more powerful and hopeful threat than that we faced not so long ago.
Remnants of the cold war showed themselves in strange midnight lights on the horizon. We tentatively identified these as belonging to submarines and surface support vessels. The vessels' erratic motion kept us worried about the peril of collision. I called on the radio and was disappointed to see the lights extinguish. Perhaps Amber's wooden hull and mast was a stealth vessel, not showing up on their sensors until we announced ourselves via VHF. Annoyed at this mindless obedience to an archaic military mission and frustrated by their poor seamanship I broadcast calls to "Submarines at location 49* 35N 19* 27W", perhaps helping some other country's confused military mariners to pursue the same lost cause. With their lights out and no replies we changed course to hopefully skirt their operating area.
During the evening we chatted with G0OYQ in Hull, England on the ham radio. He was reluctant to pass a message to the families for us. The ham radio was a bust, with only two decent contacts. We heard a lot of South American and African stations but couldn't contact them.
Motoring since dinnertime depleted our fuel reserves. A drizzling light rain from low black clouds with a heaving sea of giant rollers obscured the horizon despite the lack of wind.
Neither of us like to motor but it does allow us the power needed to run the radar all of the time. Under sail the radar pulls the batteries down quickly so we use it only when necessary. Though at 0700 we were still 180 nautical miles from England the traffic was getting dense, with one or two ships on the screen most of the time. One passed today only 3/4 of a mile across our bow. Even at closest approach we could barely see her in the midst and fog. Our electronic eye had tracked her from 16 miles out. They gave us a discouraging weather report.
We hid out below to stay comfortable. The heater made life quite pleasant. We learned to love the cheerful roar of the burner's blue kerosene-fed flame. Long ago I vented it to the deck through the port Dorade box to avoid carbon monoxide problems and to get rid of the water that results from kerosene combustion. The result: unlike most kerosene heaters, this one does a good job of drying things out below, and it preheats the winch handles stored in the Dorade. On cold, wet nights it's a pleasure to pull out a warmed handle to change a sail.
I shaved this morning for the first time in 16 days. The itching was just too much! We were also getting a little bored and anxious to make port - shaving is something I do to mentally prepare for arrival.
The FM radio picked up dozens of Irish stations. One broadcast in Gaelic. It was fun to listen to the accent, and a bit hard to believe that a century ago half of my ancestors spoke in the same manner from their "manor" (a sod hut my parents visited recently).
At dawn our DR position placed us only 70 miles from Bishop Rock, the most prominent of the tiny Scilly Islands (pronounced "silly"). Bishop Rock is the traditional landfall for vessels making for the English Channel. Finding it is crucial to staying off the deadly Scillys.
The GPS couldn't get a signal through the heavy clouds. I hated being on DR this close to land. A shaky sextant sight in the early morning matched our DR longitude spot on but the sun's bearing gave us no latitude information. A very weak RDF line vaguely confirmed the DR latitude. I needed the latitude desperately to keep us off the rocks that were surely looming not far away.
A strong easterly wind drove us inexorably into the Irish Sea on about 050º. The seas were very rough and choppy from the shallow water (200 feet) of the continental shelf. We maintained a continuous radar watch as the visibility was poor in recurring fog.
The Atlantic off England's southwest corner is the busiest shipping area in the world. Vessels from all over the world funnel into the English Channel, passing through the six traffic separation zones designed to minimize collisions. Deep sea sailors hearing of six zones within a 20 mile radius are immediately appalled - no where else on earth is such control exercised. The entire 2000 mile east coast of the USA has only five zones.
Traffic separation zones are defined in areas of extreme shipping density to keep inbound and outbound vessels a few miles apart. Although sometimes buoys mark portions of the zones they are generally recognizable only as artificial boundaries noted on the charts in broad purple bands. I'll never forget sailing across one 50 miles out of New York on a dark night many years ago - a line of brightly lighted, fast moving ships marked each lane. Crossing it at right angles at a snail-like 4 knots was thrilling and terrifying.
Now our course took us to the intersection of four such zones. Two controlled traffic from the Celtic Sea through a narrow north-south passage between the Scillys. The other two directed vessels bound east and west. These four merged into another pair handling Channel traffic paralleling the coast of France.
Ships were everywhere. The radar screen was a blur of echoes; when the mist lifted the ocean was covered with their steel shapes. All maintained a surprising speed - 15 knots or more - plowing blindly along oblivious of smaller craft. Our strategy was to make for Bishop Rock barely north of the east-west zone, crossing the ones leading to the Celtic Sea more or less perpendicularly. This meant coming closer to the rocks of the Scillys than I liked but kept us away from some of the pell-mell shipping.
The wind veered to the southeast and picked up strength. By noon it was a full gale. We beat hard into the teeth of the storm to avoid being blown north of Bishop Rock. Life was very uncomfortable. Amber heeled far more than I like as we carried more sail than perhaps wise to keep up speed. She needed every bit of power we could muster to batter through the waves coming from ahead.
Every few seconds Amber would crash into an oncoming sea, all but stopping her forward motion and burying her 35 feet in water and foam. The scuppers couldn't keep the deck clear; it remained underwater for most of the day. Every deck attachment seemed to drip water below.
The blow continued all night. The motion was awful. Bill retired early with a mild case of seasickness. I started motorsailing to help us point a bit higher. We clearly were going to have trouble rounding Bishop Rock.
Seas boarded almost continuously so I stayed in foul weather gear throughout the night, going out constantly but for just a few moments each time. Trying to time my deck forays between crashes of water was a joke. I was quickly soaked. On each trip to the cockpit I peered into the blackness for a sign of the lighthouse which had a rated 24 mile visibility. The steep-sided seas obscured it until we were only 3 miles out.
I navigated furiously. The dark cloudy night admitted no possibility of a sextant sight. Occasionally the GPS did spit out a fix which agreed well with the DR position. Trying to compute current vectors, our plot, and the like became more and more difficult. For hours I worked at the chart table, my wet foul weather gear dripping seawater onto the charts and books. Amber's heel forced me to stand on the edge of Bill's berth. It's hard to describe the challenge of careful plotting and calculations when all your effort is expended in hanging on. The parallel rules and dividers were like birds determined to take flight if they slipped from my grasp for even a second.
Though I wanted to leave the Scillys at least 3 miles to port the weather just did not permit it. The radar confirmed that we rounded Bishop Rock 1.25 miles off. Even this close the 350 foot high light was often hidden in the heavy seas. Bishop Rock lighthouse has a RACON which responds to an incoming blip with an electronics-enhanced return that shows up as a distinct identifying pattern on the radar display. The seas and Amber's motion made us miss most of these, but once in a while the screen lit up with the satisfying triple RACON echo.
After passing Wolf Rock light a few hours later Bill took over as we turned and ran with the gale mostly behind us. We dodged ships all night. For the first time in 18 days we maintained a 24 hour watch. The traffic was truly unbelievable.
Just after dawn we saw a glimpse of England through the haze. Landfall! The mist closed in again shrouding the world in gray. We had sailed across the Atlantic, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
The wind never abated and the shallow depths of the Channel kept the seas very large and very steep. But what a classy way to arrive - running downwind before a gale!
The danger of downwind sailing is that the apparent wind is reduced by the boat's forward motion until one loses track of the true weight of the gale. I sat on deck drinking a beer and watching the 15 foot near-vertical seas race up from behind us. It seemed impossible that Amber would lift over them as they roared by, but lift she did, as we then raced down the slopes. Our wake seemed unusually disturbed so I glanced at the knotmeter - 7.2 knots! This was far too fast for her 24 foot waterline. An additional reef in the main slowed her to 6.5 knots.
The seas never went down. As we came within sight of Plymouth a line squall hit forcing us to run under bare poles for 30 minutes. After its passage a perfect double rainbow hung over the sea. Both were intensely brilliant in the afternoon sun, and both were visible throughout their entire 180* length that started and ended in the sea. The colors were exquisite. Even the delicate indigo at the edge of the inner rings stood out clearly.
Finally we passed inside of Plymouth's breakwater. Amber motored in and rafted to the Customs vessel at Queen Anne's Battery Marina at 8 PM local time in the old part of the inner harbor. After 18.5 days, Amber was finally at rest.
Some quirk of British bureaucracy made it impossible for the crew of the Customs cutter to clear us into the country. They called another branch in town which promptly sent three officers to complete the formalities. They drove to the marina, clambered over the Cutter, and did what the Cutter's crew does every day.
I hate moving around in a strange marina - especially when there's an 18 foot tide to contend with. The owners asked us to raft up alongside a number of other small craft, which we did reluctantly.
We met Mark Gatehouse, one of the marina's owners and an entrant in the upcoming OSTAR. He had lost his 60 foot catamaran after crashing into a whale in the 1990 double-handed transatlantic race. A copy of the painting Mark had commissioned of the collision now hangs in my office.
A charming group of locals were living for the week on one of the boats. They made us quite welcome. We visited just about every bar in Plymouth. I retired about midnight waking only to see Bill stumble below at 0400.
5 AM rolled around with a vengeance. I practically had to winch Bill out of his berth. We noisily clambered across the 5 boats in the raft (damn yanks! I imagined them to mutter in their disturbed sleep), and caught a cab to the airport.
It was tough getting up so early. Bill was trashed. The fur started to fly when we discovered that the flight left an hour later than we expected, something about local daylight savings time not being factored into the times printed on our tickets.
The tickets were actually for several days later. We stood standby for the Plymouth-Heathrow commuter flight but just did not luck out. On a lark we jumped on a train to London and thence to Heathrow airport. Paperwork flew; calls were made; somehow for an infinite amount of money British Airways found us a spot on the next flight to Washington DC.
Bob and Carol Rosenthal strolled by. Astonishingly enough, they were coming back from a conference in Aberdeen and had seats on our flight! It's truly a small world.
Bill's was seated several rows behind me. My neighbor was a 19 year old from Germany making his first trip abroad. We communicated in very broken English. As I look over my notes from this trip I see the words "Panhandling", "Brassiere", and "Horny" written down - the results of my attempt to teach this fellow English. I suppose his knowledge of the language may be a bit skewed, though perhaps he'll have the practical grounding necessary for survival in the big city.
Somehow he mentioned bombs. Moments later a very stern-looking stewardess arrived. "Please come with me", she commanded. With a sinking feeling I stood, ready to be convicted. Then I noticed Bill smirking. Apparently he had explained our story to the attendant and had asked to visit the cockpit.
The pilots were friendly and informative. From 40,000 feet, they never see ships or other vessels.
Link to Part III of the story.