Breakfast at the RWYC was very early and very quiet. French cameramen taped every mastication as we self- consciously tried to look like the tough seafarers we weren't. All of the skippers wished each other well. All looked forward to meeting up on the other side of the pond.
We stowed a few last minute items and waited impatiently for a tow. We needed help getting out of the marina; those entrants with engines (Amber being one) had had them sealed by the scrutineers to satisfy the requirement of finishing the race entirely under sail. Engines could be used only for generating power. At 0845 a towboat manned by inexperienced but enthusiastic Club members arrived. Time and tide were pressing, and only a handful of towboats were available, so each competitor was brought only to the first breakwater, a point barely outside of the marina proper. Every skipper was unhappy about this since the nearly windless conditions that morning made tacking around in the close quarters dangerous.
We were permitted to sail with friends until the gun went off at 12:00. Scott and Dad joined me for the pre-noon jaunt to the starting line. After dropping the tow, we sailed ever-so-slowly in the near calm out to a spot past the second breakwater in the English Channel.
A high speed power vessel came straight at us. It was customs, returning the flare pistol they confiscated a year earlier. In many countries these are considered weapons and are strictly controlled. It makes an interesting contrast to the USA where anyone desiring even a machine gun can buy one with little trouble. The officers politely returned the pistol in pristine condition.
The RWYC had stationed three large naval ships to mark twin starting lines. Multihulls and monohulls were segregated due to their enormous difference in speeds. Multis starting on the windward end of the course between the HMS Loyal Chancellor and HMS Brazen; the monohulls departed between the Brazen and the HMS Cordelia.
We skippers were nervous about spectator boats, a source of collisions in previous races. The Yacht Club remembered these lessons and had partitioned all of Plymouth harbour into spectator zones and race zones. A number of picket boats patrolled the perimeters. They did a fantastic job, keeping the literally thousands of spectators at bay until after the start.
I only saw one leak in the picket line - Jon Worster, my English friend, managed to sneak through in his inflatable. No doubt his training as a Royal Marine helped. Jon tied up to Amber as we slowly tacked around. At 11:40 my guests left in Jon's boat, heading off behind the picket line to watch the race begin.
My guests take their leave
I continued to tack back and forth on the windward end of the line. The breeze picked up a little but was still only about 10 knots. A dozen of us sailed around each other chatting amiably on each near encounter.
I had conservatively planned to hang well back to let the serious racers fight for the line. Collisions were too likely in the thick of the pack. In fact, the tacking duels were so much fun that I made a last minute decision to stay up with the best of them and to try and cross the line exactly at 12:00.
The race committee started a countdown at 11:58 on the VHF. We all raised our big genoas and headed for the line. At 12:00 a cannon fired on each of the three ships. We were off!
Amber and the dozen boats around me shot forward and crossed the line exactly on time. We jockeyed for the windward position to better our chances at clearing Eddystone lighthouse ten miles away, but most of us lost our wind as we came too close to the HMS Brazen's leeward side. Becalmed a few dozen feet from the big vessel we were in peril of colliding with each other and the huge gray steel wall beside us. After a half dozen heart-stopping misses we worked out of the lee of the ship and picked up the wind again.
Racers tacking around the starting line
The serious racers were much faster than Amber and shot ahead. I set the autopilot and cracked open one of the Heinekens Jon had left. My former shipmates came by in the inflatable, taking photos and waving Amber off to sea. These were the last faces I saw for 28 days.
Amber crossing the starting line
I settled down and sailed for Eddystone light. The English Channel was a mass of boats, both racers and spectators. The fleet dispersed very rapidly, which is a polite way of saying I was soon trailing the fast boats.
At 5:00 that evening I overheard Mary Falk on Q2 talking with Neal Peterson. Then Dave Sinnet-Jones called me on the ham radio and we had a quick chat. He was about 4 miles astern of Amber, under full sail and enjoying himself immensely.
After Amber rounded Eddystone light the wind slowly diminished to a zephyr and then to nothing. By nightfall I drifted in sight of numerous becalmed competitors, all worried about the shipping we had no means of avoiding. A heavy fog much later brought a little breeze. Amber's radar reported high speed targets on all sides silently passing unseen in the dark and haze. I dodged oncoming traffic by veering closer or further from the coast as each near encounter required.
I stayed up all night, using every breath of air to work Amber towards the open Atlantic 100 miles away. The wind increased and the fog lifted in the morning only to show Nord (Petia's 25 footer) astern and Galway Blazer close inshore several miles to starboard.
The radar shows serious traffic in the English Channel
Amber sailed well in southerly and easterly breezes. The weather changed constantly, ranging from sunny skies to erratic rain and breeze. We sailed between two huge squall systems, pelted with just a little rain, but somehow avoiding strong winds. I never had to reef. Later it died altogether leaving me drifting smack in the middle of the traffic separation system.
An increase in wind helped Amber pass Bishop Rock eight miles to starboard at 1651 as I passed out of the English Channel. Now I was faced with a dilemma: what was the best way to make for Newport?
The shortest distance between two points on earth is a great circle, which looks like a long, looping curve veering far to the north on a Mercator projection. The rhumb line, the "straight line" course (when viewed on a flat map) is a hundred miles longer, but misses all land masses. Both routes are against the prevailing westerly wind and face the easterly-setting Gulf Stream. Sailing to the New World on either route is a 3000 mile beat to windward into a foul current. Fog and cold predominate, and one can expect a succession of fast moving low pressure systems.
Many racers headed south just above Azores and thence direct to Bermuda before turning north. This direction is perhaps 500 miles longer than the great circle but has no appreciable current until encountering the Gulf Stream near Bermuda. Benign weather is the rule. The Azores High, a stationary high pressure system centered near these islands, can give days or weeks of nearly windless days.
The final course drops far to the south, past the Canaries where one picks up the southeast trades which blow steadily and strongly all the way across the Atlantic. On the western side of the ocean you pick up the Gulf Stream and glide north with it's substantial push to the finish line in Newport. Though the weather is almost always good, the currents all astern, and winds fair, the route is almost 5000 miles long.
I elected to return to America along the modified rhumb line Bill and I sailed the year before. Beating across an entire ocean into a foul current was not my first choice for a long passage, but I felt the shorter distance and likely strong winds would make up for the discomfort and (worse) the cold I could expect.
I hate the cold. I hate being wrapped in a bulky coat; I hate having fingers frozen and toes numb. Years ago the winter was my favorite time of year. I'd depart on solo backpacking trips along the Appalachians in January and February, loving the total absence of other hikers and enjoying the crisp air and new-fallen snow.
The cold lost its appeal after two years living on a porch, another year in a VW microbus, and two more aboard my 30 foot wooden cutter. The winter of 1976 was one of the worst in history on the east coast. Every night I'd wrap into a North Face down sleeping bag, crank up the inadequate kerosene heater positioned a few inches from my head to dump as many BTUs into me as possible, and shiver for 8 hours. That winter Arwen's fresh water tank was frozen for two months. Her skipper was as well. In December and January of 1977 I sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida, never seeing a warm day till well south of the Florida line. I swore I'd never return to the frozen north, but somehow life just didn't work out that way.
Despite all my misgivings about a month of cold and wet, I elected to sail down the rhumb line to America to save time and to avoid calms.
Traffic remained very thick even though the English Channel was astern. Below reducing a sextant sight I glanced out the window over the chart table only to discover a sailboat 200 yards to starboard! The heavy swells obscured her unless we were both on the tops of the waves at the same time.
In a lifetime of sailing I've rarely seen other small sailing vessels offshore; it's always a delight to see that others are traveling by wind power far from land. On one trip Bill and I slept while 25 miles offshore bound to New York. For some reason I awoke at 0300 and came on deck for a look around only to find a southbound sailboat 100 yards to port. I yelled; there was no answer. I suppose her crew were asleep as well, all of us content to ride under autopilot on our respective courses.
The race rules required all entrants to have some non-fuel burning source of electricity. The reason had nothing to do with seamanship; rather, the OSTAR has always been a proving ground of new technologies. In this case the RWYC wished to make an ecological statement and to encourage participants to explore non-traditional energy generation.
Most augmented their big diesel generators with a token few square feet of solar cells. No one expected any sort of useful energy output with small panels, but were at least technically compliant with race regulations. Solar energy is almost non-existent at 50º north.
Amber carried a water generator donated by "The Amber Friends Consortium" - Scott, Bill and Bob Rosenthal. It consisted of a three bladed propeller mounted to a 5 foot stainless shaft towed on 100 feet of special low-twist synthetic line. The prop twisted the line, which turned a deck-mounted generator. I found that it produced about 1 amp per knot of boat speed; not bad, as at 5 knots it could easily keep ahead of all of Amber's power requirements.
Physics is fun. It takes energy to make electricity, a fact I proved time and again by flipping the switch connecting the water generator to the batteries to the "off" position. Suddenly loadless the generator would accelerate from a few hundred RPM to several thousand. Engaging the switch immediately brought the speed back down.
At sea I log the barometer every hour or two to keep track of weather trends and to aid in making predictions for the next 24-48 hours. Ashore the Met officer warned us of days of light winds; the steady high pressure readings seemed to confirm his predictions. However, only 50 hours after the start Amber was hove to in a full gale. She handled the weather well under triple reefed main in the icy conditions. Within a few hours the wind built to force 9, so I pulled the main down and raised the tiny storm staysail. Huge, 100 yard long breaking crests overtook her. Though many came crashing aboard Amber shook each off and struggled upright. After almost a year ashore it felt somehow right to start off this trip with a good blow.
I saw ship lights passing in the night, as well as one set that could only have been from a sailboat headed west. No one answered my VHF calls, but I wondered if one of my friends was but a couple of miles behind in the race's first storm.
An east-bound sloop crossed my path only 300 feet away in the evening. We chatted over the radio; they were inbound from Bermuda after a few weeks at sea, and had chatted with David on Zane Spray two hours earlier. Apparently Dave was a bit south of Amber. The boat's delivery skipper agreed to report my position to race headquarters over his SSB.
The wind continued at gale force all night, not relenting till midmorning. As the wind decreased it veered from the north to west, dead on the nose. Amber slogged into the very heavy seas throughout the day.
As the wind slowly let up I increased sail. Every boat behaves differently in heavy weather, and each owner learns with time how to best handle his craft in varying conditions. Amber's sail inventory was not extensive but was carefully planned to handle most weather well.
In very light winds Amber was a dog. At 16,000 pounds, with a long, deep keel, she needed a decent breeze to get going. Once the wind hit 15-20 knots her main and giant 410 square foot genoa pushed her along without a reef.
Depending on the course, I'd generally reef the main at about 15 knots, more to reduce weather helm and ease Inga's job than for safety's sake. At 20 knots she needed a second reef in the main.
Around 25 knots I'd exchange the working jib for the genoa. As the wind built up towards gale force (force 8, the first level of gale, is 34-39 knots) the main came down and Amber sailed on under just the jib. At force 9 (40-47 knots) I'd drop the jib and raise a tiny storm jib on the staysail boom.
Force 10 was altogether a different game. Amber stood no chance of sailing even under the storm staysail. I'd strip all sail from the vessel, triple lashing each to deck to avoid losing one in the heavy boarding seas, and run downwind under bare poles. The windage of the boat and mast would be enough to drive her along at 4-5 knots. Running down the back of a huge sea she'd hit 7-8 knots before starting up the uphill side of the next one.
Every passing weather system had me on deck running through the sail changing routine. As the wind built I reduced sail in increments until the height of the storm passed. Then, with each decrease in wind I'd reverse the process, raising more dacron to keep her speed up. Though sometimes I'd curse being called out of a warm bunk to change sail in wet and windy weather, generally I loved being a part of the natural sequence of things - forced to adapt constantly to the sea's constant moods, without the option of blindly throwing diesel fuel at overcoming the insults of wind and wave.
The sailing improved till I barreled along in wonderful a force four southeast breeze, rolling heavily but headed direct for Newport. The skies were typically North Atlantic cloudy. Fogless days invariably invite a low cloud deck. The few clear days are cold; so cold it's rare to wear fewer than two sweaters.
I talked to Fraser Boyd on the ham radio. He was about 20 miles ahead and had been pretty badly bashed by the storm. Fraser's adventurish spirits were still high.
Under wing and wing I sailed due east, Amber's motion now easy in the following seas. I spent the morning repairing lines and sewing sails on the foredeck. At 0930 on Fridays the BBC broadcasts a shipping report, so I dragged the shortwave radio up forward for entertainment as I worked. Today transmitted interviews with Florence Arthaud, Mike Richey, and Neal Peterson in a report on the OSTAR. I was surprised to hear that Philippe Poupon (fondly called "Gray Poupon" by some of the American sailors) had retired after breaking his centerboard in the gale. Philippe had been considered the race's most likely winner. Franck Ravez (Salsa), the 22 year old Frenchman, had retired just after the gale because he was too tired to continue. The announcer mentioned that others had retired as well but didn't name names. I was dying to know more details. Where were the rest of my new friends? Was Corkscrew making the great progress Trevor hoped for? How was diminutive Nord holding up? Was Little Fritzz still tossing extra gear overboard?
I knew there must be competitors all around. Fraser was ahead somewhere, and David most likely to the southeast, though no targets showed on Amber's 16 mile radar. It gave me a strange sense of not being alone; I felt that all of us, though each alone and possibly hundreds of miles apart, were together at least in spirit.
My morning inspection of the boat's rig uncovered a big crack in the massive bronze casting that connected the tiller to the rudder stock. I broke out some spare steel bars and fabricated reinforcing brackets, but decided to watch the crack's progress before installing the brackets.
Amber carried a spare autopilot, a Navico the US dealer sold for a highly discounted price. I had asked for a freebie, citing my position as a sailing writer and OSTAR entrant, but settled for about half of the normal discount price. They did specially encapsulate the circuit boards for me. This application was not to be the normal bay sort of sailing encountered by most of their users. Unfortunately, the Navico required a different mounting position than Amber's usual Autohelm. Today I cut a block of wood and shaped a mount on the cockpit's port side. If the Autohelm failed I could now quickly substitute the Navico.
The northern North Atlantic is typically rough, often with short steep seas. It was fun watching the water generator's tow line arching out behind, entering the sea directly behind and reemerging into the air before plunging into the second wave behind the yacht.
Sometimes the tow line chafed the rail as Amber lifted her stern skyward before sliding down a sea. I flattened an empty can of England's best bitter and nailed it to the woodwork where the line passed overboard.
Later the generator stopped rotating. I hauled the propeller in only to discover it was fouled by a huge hunk of plastic. Unenforceable antidumping laws make it illegal to throw plastic overboard. Aboard Amber we always put plastic trash in a special bag in the lazarette, disposing of the bag (or bags on a long passage) ashore in the first port.
The weather varied from strong sailing breezes requiring reefs to dead still. I changed sails several times a day to keep up with the conditions. Several nights in a row the breeze left with the daylight only to return the following morning. In very light conditions we can still sail, albeit slowly. With no wind at all I removed the genoa to keep it from rubbing the rigging all night and shut down the autopilot. Amber would drift in circles. I got up every hour or two in the hope of finding improved conditions.
Few wood boats had the extensive sensor array Amber carried. The radar, when active, swept 800 square miles of ocean each second. Her VHF automatically monitored all traffic on multiple channels. A radar reflector high in the mast returned sharp echoes to ships electronically sweeping for traffic. Her Watchman radar detector picked up emissions from any active radar within 5-10 miles. Like a highway fuzz-buster, the Watchman beeped loudly when ships were near... if their radar was on. I found that in nice conditions many vessels turn the radar off. Still, the detector often woke me when ships were about, giving me a chance to alter course or make a call on the VHF.
The radar detector bleeped about 2130. Amber's active radar showed a large vessel three miles off. I called on channel 16 and had a nice chat with the deck officer of the Raleigh Bay. Their radar had picked me up about 8 miles. I heard the low moan of her fog horn, followed by the rumble of the engines, but never saw her in the dense fog.
For two days the weak westerly wind gave little progress. My offshore goal is to average at least 100 miles per day; 125 is much preferable. The previous two days' runs, measured noon to noon, were 40 and 45 miles. I was getting frustrated with the slow progress and my inability to follow Rod Harvey's exhortations to "go west".
Now the wind increased, building from a light northwesterly to full northerly gale in an hour. Amber carried on at great speed under no jib with just a deeply reefed main. The ocean was very confused. Amber suffered a near knockdown in the late afternoon as an erratic beam sea threw her way over. I was below reading at the time. We went over so far that Amber's big toolbox (she carried 4 of various sizes), normally stowed on the floor of the main cabin and secured in position by a pair of heavy chocks, flew into my lap.
The gale decreased to 20-25 knots from the north. I raised the working jib and shook out some of the main. Amber moved fast, now making her 125 miles per day. The north wind brought extreme cold and more overcast. With the heater down again I shivered in 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants, a shirt, sweater, and hat. The sailing was exciting and fun; despite the cold and big beam seas I had a great time.
Inga had more and more trouble steering anything remotely resembling a steady course as the shims inside the tiller head gradually degraded. I saved an empty beer can as material for shims but couldn't make repairs until the weather calmed down.
Every morning at 0200 GMT I woke to try to contact the States (2100 the night before in the USA). Friends promised to listen for my call. Night after night I heard nothing but static from America. My ham license was good only for 10 meters on HF, which gave me links to South America, Africa, and other more distant places. At 0700 David on Zane Spray and I had a schedule, but we managed to make only a few contacts when closer to England. My 1200 schedule with Fraser was a bust as well.
I decided to try harder to get a ship to pass my position back so the family would know all was OK. I was glad to have pictures of them hanging over the chart table, and wondered how things were going ashore for them.
At this point Amber was exactly on the rhumb line to point "BS" on the pilot chart: a spot southeast of Newfoundland that was the recommended turning point for ships headed from North America to most northern European ports. Point BS is just south of the worst of the Grand Banks. The year before we were north of the rhumb line and saw only 3 ships in 18 days. Now one or two appeared on the radar each day. I felt like I was in a traffic jam. Upon waking this morning I looked out the porthole and was shocked to see a big east-bound tanker only half a mile away. This ship, too, had her radar off, giving me no warning of its appearance.
In the morning I looked around and saw another racer! Only a mile astern, at 47º 37 N, 22º 49 W, a serious racer (by the mylar sails) was headed south. Straining through the binoculars I identified her as Global Warning, a 50 footer sailed by American Ed Sisk. I called and called on the radio and even popped off a white flare, but Ed never acknowledged.
The light northerly wind gave great sailing to the West - why was Global Warning sailing due south? Later I found that he had sailed back to England to effect repairs, and had then restarted. Ed must have been asleep during our close encounter.
It's odd sailing so blindly, without knowing the position or fate of the other racers. There were 67, more or less, of us out here, all groping along. The 1988 race was won in 10 days, 9 hours. The leaders most likely were approaching Newport, while I still had over 2000 miles to go.
About a dozen 30 foot whales appeared - False Killer Whales, according to the paperwork. A Canadian organization provided each entrant with an elaborate whale identification kit. We were to record all sightings to help provide migratory data on the cetaceans. They looked like very large porpoises, with a Beluga-shaped head. The whales moved much more slowly and gracefully than porpoises, and had no interest in playing in Amber's bow wave. Instead, they leapt out of the steep leading edges of the 10 foot swells, appearing suddenly in the air before splashing underwater again.
The 25 knot wind yielded fast and exciting sailing, with several visits throughout the day from dolphins. Though I did have to drop the genoa at cocktail hour ("how uncivilized" the log reads), and the weather stayed very cold, this was the sort of sailing I'd entered the race for. As Amber surged over the top of each sea and then surfed down its back as a rush of foam bubbled up along both sides. The clear sky gave a magnificent starfield in the evening, accompanied by brilliant phosphorescence in the water disturbed by Amber's passage.
I awoke at 0200 as US Navy ship 28 approached and set off the radar detector. I called her at a range of 5 miles on the VHF. The deck officer noted my position and said they'd stay clear.
Not long thereafter the ship was in sight. The officer was puzzled by my tri-color, a red-green-white combination light on the top of the mast that only small sailing craft are allowed to use. "How long is your vessel?" he inquired. "35 feet" I answered, knowing that this was most likely the first time he had seen such a small boat a thousand miles from land. After a few seconds this sank in, and he called back incredulously: "how long have you been out here, anyway?"
Another look at the tiller casting showed that the crack was growing. I felt that, since the gap was at most 1/32", the steel straps fabricated earlier would be ineffective if even a little chafe wore their bolt holes slightly out of round. Instead, I rigged a turnbuckle as a strap to take up the tension and compression loads and permit adjustment. The repair looked ridiculous but worked well and stopped the crack's growth.
The water generator made lots of electricity but hurt Amber's progress in light winds, costing perhaps as much as a knot at times. When the breeze was force four or more its impact was minimal.
Great sailing in the deep Atlantic
The RWYC provided the press and each competitor with a booklet about the race that contained a thumbnail sketch and photo of each skipper and vessel. I found myself constantly referring to the book, looking for information about all of the friends formed in those hectic two weeks in England. Though most were hundreds of miles distant this gave me a sense of togetherness on the big ocean. I wasn't really alone out here; I was distantly surrounded by friends.
During the night I had another of a recurring series of scruiteneering dreams. Like test nightmares that persist long after college my mind played frantic preparation scenes, never quite getting the boat ready for the inspectors.
The continuing easterlies gave a nice easy motion but were too light to get much speed. I rolled along, with the genoa and main rigged wing and wing, at a slow 3.5 knots.
Wind uses the Bernoulli principle to pull, not push, sailboats on all points of sail except downwind, the course Amber now steered. With the breeze behind only one strategy works: get maximum sail area up to catch every zephyr. I used the spinnaker pole with a topping lift, downhaul, sheet and a foreguy to hold the genoa out. The foreguy kept the spar forward of the shrouds to avoid chafe. Then, I hauled the main over to the other side, and tied it in place with its own foreguy. This line prevents accidental jibes (suspected in the death of Nigel Burgess in the round-the-world race), and controls the sail despite autopilot-induced yawing. The effect is over 600 square feet of deployed sail, and an incredible confusion of lines and gear.
For some days the weather was dominated by an extreme high pressure driving the barometer up over 30.60 inches of mercury. I was lucky to have had days of north and easterly winds, but, as Blonde Hassler (one of the founders of this race) said "prevailing winds have a habit of not prevailing".
The northern North Atlantic is dominated by clouds. Of the 12 days Amber was at sea so far, only two were sunny more than half a day. Taking celestial sights was tough. It is possible to compute your position using a glimpse of the sun through clouds, but the cloud cannot be so thick that the sun's edges are vague.
A recent plummet in the price of hand-held satellite navigators caused a last minute scramble in Plymouth as every skipper outfitted his vessel with one of these marvels. I was the only to sail without a GPS; neither my finances nor pride permitted taking such an easy and boring solution to offshore position finding.
I sat in the cockpit, sometimes for hours a day, with the sextant in its box on the bridgedeck. On rough days with a lot of water coming aboard I'd leave it below chocked beneath the radio shelf, available in an instant in case the sun made a sudden brief appearance. I'd sit and wait, often reading but looking at the sky a few times a minute. If the clouds started to thin in the sun's suspected vicinity I'd pull the sextant from its box and wait braced in the companionway. Sometimes it might peek out, teasing me with a quick appearance and then hiding again just as I swung the arc and brought the sun's image to the horizon.
If a fix was really essential I'd precalculate estimated sextant settings for each hour. Then I could snap off a sight even if the sun showed for only a few seconds. Normally I like to spend a few minutes getting adjusted and comfortable, and insuring that the sight "felt good". The clouds eliminated such easy navigation techniques. Often I had to accept a sight even if it seemed shaky, as new clouds scudded across its face in the mirror, giving perhaps only seconds to finish up.
Beating into the North Atlantic rollers soaked the sextant in salt water in seconds, reducing the sight's accuracy and the efficiency of the mirrors - to say nothing of the shivering skipper, soaked and cold trying measure angles to a minute of arc.
Celestial navigation is only as effective as the observer, who must measure the angle very accurately. An error of only 1 minute of arc - a sixtieth of a degree - throws your position off by a mile. The northern North Atlantic's constant heavy swell makes accurate observation tough, and big seas often obscure the horizon. A sailor learns to sit patiently with the sextant to the eye, tracking the sun, and waiting until the boat is at the top of the swell and no intervening seas block the sharp edge of the interface of ocean and sky.
Not noting the time carefully has its perils as well. A four second time error, whether caused by carelessness or drifting clocks, adds another mile of error. Amber carried a shortwave radio so I could get daily time ticks from WWV, BBC, or one of a number of other sources. In the event the radio were to die or reception was poor I also "rated" every clock aboard to determine their error and rate of drift.
Despite the difficulties, celestial is one of the very few things I'm good at. Most sailors dread the math and exacting plotting. I love it. I love the heft of a good sextant - even ashore an instant bonding takes place when I lift the sextant out of its box. Somehow, it just feels ineffably right. There's a tremendous satisfaction in bringing the sun down to earth in the sextant, making it's limb just kiss the horizon, and then working the arithmetic on the corner of a plotting sheet.
I rarely use star shots. You cannot see the horizon when it's dark, so must shoot stars at dusk or dawn. My eyes are just not good enough to pick out a faint star in the backwash of twilight, so rely almost exclusively on sun, moon and planet sights.
The southerly wind increased throughout the day. At 0200 I reefed the main, and reefed it again after dawn. Amber cranked along at a steady 6 to 6.5 knots all day, making fantastic progress on 260º magnetic.
At dinnertime I dropped the genoa and raised the working job in the increasing winds. I rigged the companionway doors shut for the first time since leaving England to block out the water coming over the side from the beam seas.
I hid out below most of the day, feeling strangely not quite up to par - not really sick, just a bit low. A beer and bowl of chili at dinnertime helped a lot. I hoped to get a good night's sleep, but figured the approaching storm would keep me up.
By evening the wind was at gale force, still slowly building. At 0122 I dropped the working jib, now sailing under little more than a token piece of main. The deck was bathed in bright phosphorescence from boarding seas. My seaboots were in a midst of swirling pools of illuminated microscopic life, leaving individual sparkling points behind as the water drained off.
Bitter experience subtly teaches us to expect cruddy muddy highways, pale brown city sunrises and murky nights. The snow turns black in a few hours; occasional clear nights are obscured by a trillion watts of carelessly unused illumination. Even after 20 years of offshore sailing I'm still taken aback at the intensityof nature in the raw. The sky a thousand miles from land suffers from no obvious pollution and is a deep, satisfying blue. No hint of brown contaminates the water. And, the nights - the nights are the most magical of all. A moonless night is illuminated only by a billion brilliant stars and the glow of the phosphorescent creatures gently disturbed by the ship's passage or a big breaking sea in the distance. Thankfully, few people are out on the ocean to disturb this last refuge of the unspoiled. Unfortunately, not more can see this last remnant of the world in its pristine state.
Speed takes on a new dimension under sail. Six knots seems like a breakneck, foolhardy speed after weeks away from the freeway. Yet three knots seems pathetically slow. The scales are strangely compressed; compressed only by my own odd internal clock.
For the first week of the trip I read almost incessantly, plagued by the "get it done" mentality of shore life. I felt a compulsive need to do something all of the time. The pace of sailing finally slowed even my type A metabolism, so by now I could actually listen to the BBC without doing anything else or enjoy watching the ocean for more than a few minutes without reaching for a Daytimer.
At 0700 I dropped the main entirely and raised the storm staysail. The wind was now force 9. Amber cranked out a nice 128 miles noon-to-noon despite huge seas. The big North Atlantic chart was folded in half on the chart table; today, as Amber crossed 32º west, I turned it over, hiding Europe and making the USA visible for the first time
Sitting on the lee settee I watched the seas through the opposite porthole. Each wave roared up, obscuring the sky as it crashed aboard, burying the windows and deck in a wash of green water. A high velocity spray shot through the tiny gap in the companionway doors with each crash.
During the day the gale let up and I slowly started raising more sail. The wind backed to the west so I tacked to 320º magnetic and reset the sails. Portuguese men of war sailed by oblivious to the weather, their bluish air sacks inflated as they bobbed up and down, up and down, 15 to 20 feet at a time.
The gale destroyed Amber's tri-color navigation light at the masthead. Pieces of it rained down on the deck. I switched to the backup deck-mounted lights.
It seems ludicrous to go to bed under autopilot with no one keeping a lookout except for the electronic sensors, and Amber barreling along at 6 knots into unknown traffic and debris. An automobile driver maintains a constant lookout, never daring to look away for more than a second or two. A bay sailor looks around every few minutes at least. At sea it's easy to go for hours without scanning the horizon. A certain discipline is needed to pop on deck regularly when the air is cold and rainy.
At night I wake every hour or two for a quick check around, but rely heavily on not totally effective electronics. The radar detector is useless if a ship has its radar off. The VHF will be quiet unless two large vessels approach each other. And debris - well there is no defense against debris. I lost one boat to it already, and that was while I was on deck keeping an unusually good lookout.
Yet it's fun to rush along at night, wrapped in a sleeping bag and curled into the lee berth. Amber lifts on each passing sea, her acceleration pushing me into the berth and then leaving me almost weightless above it as she rushes down the slope. Sometimes I go on deck just to watch the waves and the phosphorescence. Coming out of the cabin I'll almost always find Amber on course, tending herself, with the sails pulling strongly. Astern, her wake glows brightly for hundreds of yards. Forward, when the weather is benign, the occasional boarding sea washes glowing sparkles of life down the sidedeck as she heels against the breeze.
Amber's noon position was 46º 12 north, 35º 46 west, about 80 miles north of waypoint Weld. Phil Weld, the winner of the 1980 race, studied a century's weather patterns to find the optimum course for a typical crossing. His research resulted in the famous waypoint named in his honor. Most storms track north of this location.
My plan was to sail a little north of waypoint Weld, rather than south as suggested by his studies. I felt that staying above it would reduce the chances of encountering strong Gulf Stream currents, and would keep Amber away from the Azores High, a mostly stationary high pressure system guaranteed to bring long windless days. Now, the High was south and east of the boat, safely behind. That part of my plan had worked.
With the waypoint successfully passed I spent much of the day working on an approach strategy. Drifting too far south would bring Amber into the strong, eastward-setting Gulf Stream. Too far north, and I'd spend days working across the Grand Banks in fog and dense traffic. The fog would make celestial navigation impossible so I'd have to rely mostly on dead reckoning. However, near the coast of Newfoundland the south-setting Labrador Current could speed our passage. I elected to take a middle route, crossing the Grand Banks about 50 miles above their southern extreme, hopefully picking up some of the favorable current but staying out of the Gulf Stream.
Another low pressure passed to the south bringing gale force winds that Amber never slowed for. She turned out a 135 mile day. Once again I slowly stripped sail as the barometer fell and the wind slowly built, ending at force 8 with only the little working jib set. By 8 PM the gale was over so I raised the reefed main which kept us at 6 knots in the 25 knot southeasterly. During the blow we crossed the halfway point between Plymouth and Newport.
Great sailing under storm jib; Amber's skipper having a hell of a time!
For some reason I had trouble keeping the batteries charged. Something was drawing more power than usual. After a careful search of the electrical system I concluded that leaving the VHF on 24 hours per day to monitor ship traffic was probably a mistake.
When I started the diesel the ship's voltmeter suddenly jumped to 15 volts, far higher than it should be. After killing the engine I checked all of the wiring and the voltage regulator bypass circuit but couldn't find the source of the problem. Perhaps something was intermittent; perhaps even the regulator, mounted in a practically inaccessible location inside the alternator itself. After restarting the engine everything magically worked OK - a puzzle I'd keep an eye on.
A year earlier I had dissected the alternator to disconnect its field wire from the integral regulator. I added a circuit to let me manually control the field current so that on charging days I could dump as much as 50 amphours into the batteries instead of the 10 or so permitted by the inadequate regulator. This cut charge time dramatically but made the wiring a bit more complex. I always worried about the new field connections coming loose, as a loose field wire will destroy an alternator's diodes in seconds.
As navigator I was interested to see the arrival of the summer solstice. For weeks I applied positive declination corrections to the sun's position; now, two successive declination entries in the Nautical Almanac were identical as the sun started its slow descent towards the equator.
With yesterday's gale over the wind stayed at a steady 25 knots out of the southeast until dinner time with 10-15 foot seas. The day was surprisingly warm so I stripped to only a single pair of pants and one shirt. Though the morning started with heavy rain by noon the sun dispersed all of the clouds. I retired in the evening to write about the nice sunny day; in the time it took to jot down a single paragraph a heavy black cloud deck moved in.
The water generator pumped a lot of power into the batteries. I loved watching its line trailing in the heavy following seas. Plastic fouled it twice in the afternoon. Each time I had to haul the line in, a painful process with Amber doing 6 knots, though much easier than getting the line in when not fouled. At times I almost wished more floating trash were around to jam the prop. Pulling on a half-inch line turning several revolutions per second was physically hard and hell on my hands. Once the line was aboard it was always a mess of snarls and kinks. I'd get the tools out and remove the prop, then toss one end of the line overboard for a while for the water to untangle it.
I thought that if unwanted flotsam occasionally stopped the rotation maybe sliding a garbage bag down the line would have the same effect, making retrieving the propeller and line much easier. The experiment was a grand failure - the bag wrapped itself around the line 10 feet from Amber's stern, 90 feet from the prop, so tightly I had to cut it away with a knife.
After three wonderful 120 to 135 mile days the wind died altogether. 35 pathetic miles noon-to-noon. The windless night gave so little steerage way I shut Inga off at 0320. Amber drifted in circles for 12 hours. At least the moonless sky was totally clear with the Milky Way's arms stretching from horizon to horizon.
For the past few nights I seemed to have an ethereal companion. I first noticed an unusual squeaking noise that drove me crazy till I found that it was coming from somewhere off the boat - a fact a little hard to reconcile when 1500 miles from land. The squeaks seemed to come from a dancing point of light 20 or 30 feet astern. The mysterious glowing blob waved and pranced, always pacing Amber, always about the same distance off her stern, dipping sometimes almost to the sea and then quickly rising 15 feet above. It would disappear for a few hours, only to reilluminate, with the occasional squeak, some time later.
The entity, if such it were, seemed so non-corporeal that, after 19 days alone I started to wonder if I was going a little batty. Surely no sea creature could fly for so long. Was it a bird? How could this strange companion be visible only at night... and why did it glow? I thought perhaps Amber trailed some string that, dipped in the phosphorescent water, picked up glowing photoplankton and then lifted in the weak breeze. Daily inspections showed no such dangling line. A few days later the strange phenomena disappeared for good. I never figured it out.
A lumpy sea tossed Amber about like a cork bobbing in a rowdy child's bathtub. The boom and sails crashed about, straining the sail's stitching and my patience. The constant bashing created chafe that was almost impossible to do anything about.
As if to prove this Inga broke yet another tiller pin. Then a press-fit pin connecting her actuator unit to the cockpit coaming broke. With no spares I pounded in a four penny nail as replacement.
I pulled the main down to sew a few square feet of sacrificial sail cloth to an area that had been chafing against the new, extra large radar reflector installed in England, and replaced several jib hanks.
The noon log entry reads "as quiet as a painted ship on a painted ocean". Fifty dolphins pranced around the yacht as Amber lumbered along at 2.8 knots in a southerly 5 knots. At 4:45 I reefed the main in as the wind built to a great force five sailing breeze. By 9:00 Amber slogged along under a working jib in full gale conditions. Wishing for wind sometimes works; sometimes one gets a bit more than wanted. Still, I'll take a gale over a calm any day. The beautiful sunny day gave way to black squalls and rain.
Sudden squalls are breathtaking in their rapid formation. In a matter of minutes the clear blue sky turns into a mass of dark, low scudding clouds. Sometimes the rain falls in patches; looking around you can see the vertical streaks indicating bands of showers. The radar, aimed too low to see clouds, picks up the rainy areas as glowing patches on the screen.
A year after the OSTAR we attended a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at Oregon Ridge, a wonderful bowl- shaped park just a few miles northwest of Baltimore. We arrived early to claim a spot on the lawn, to picnic, and to let the kids play. A summer squall moved in. We smelled it first, sensing the high pressure and unusual cool dampness in the air. Clouds merged into dark bands, their hard edges ending in the downward rain streaks. Delightedly I pointed out the system's rapid development to Graham, casually mentioning how much this was like what you find at sea. Soon we were huddling under our blankets as the heavy downpour started and continued for 20 minutes.
I hiked back to the car to get a space blanket, now wet and cold, but enjoying the dramatic weather. I caught myself thinking how great this was, just like being offshore... and then suddenly realized how bizarre the thought was. Why should miserable conditions remind me of sailing to far horizons? Why should rain-soaked jeans, shoes full of water, and a slight shiver make me think of my favorite times and places? Surely there's something perverse in such a sport!
At 0300 the wind built to force 9 as I continued along under the working jib. Amber was overpowered, but sailing well and I was loathe to change to the tiny storm jib. The night was awash in heavy rain, not so much falling as propelled sideways with demon force by the gale.
In the morning the wind veered to the west - dead on the nose - and dropped to a good, strong breeze in thick fog and continuing rain. Amber was in iceberg territory. I powered up the radar for a few sweeps once an hour, 24 hours a day. It had been 10 days since I last saw a ship.
The westerlies while so close to the Grand Banks posed tough problems. Since a sailboat can't travel closer than 45º to the wind I could sail northwest or southwest at best. Should I take the northerly tack, deeper into the icebergs and fishing vessels, or swing south, bearing towards the eastward-setting Gulf Stream? The cold, fog and rain helped me decide - I'd head southwest towards warmer weather and perhaps some sun.
Amber's progress was pathetic in the weak winds, making a miserable 50 miles in 24 hours. For four days I was within a circle with a 75 mile radius as we tacked and tacked. It seemed impossible to get onto the Grand Banks. First calm, then gale, than strong westerlies, then another gale, and now I was plagued with very, very light southwesterlies. Amber was making about one knot in fog and rain, but lost most of even that in bucking a half- knot foul current.
The barometer fell over .06" per hour all afternoon - a sure sign of a monster blow. The wind built slowly, going to full gale at 1800, but easing back to force 7 (not quite gale) and even 6 for a few hours before midnight. I went to bed and an uneasy sleep as the barometer continued to fall with Amber headed into numerous very black squall lines.
Big seas roar up astern
At 0111 I changed sails again as the wind backed west at 20 knots. Back to bed... only to be roused again 30 minutes later as a gigantic truck seemed to run Amber down. In a matter of seconds the wind jumped to over 50 knots, force 10, from the northwest. Amber had a not-very reefed main and working jib up; the sudden screaming wind seemed to bodily pick her up and heave her over onto her side, pressed down into the seas by the force of the blow.
I raced on deck with only one thought: get the sails down! Amber was being tossed about like a toy, and the 300 square feet of sail drove her out of control. I knew it would be futile to try and turn her downwind until her rig was bare. Up forward, connected to the boat by my ever-present safety harness, I released the main halyard from its mast-mounted winch and slowly hauled the sail down. Normally the main practically falls free when released, but the wind's force jammed the sail slides in the track. I grabbed fistfuls of the dacron, now iron hard from the screaming wind, and painfully hauled it down.
The working jib was a bit easier to pull in. Its big bronze clew tried to beat me senseless as I held the halyard in one hand and pulled in armloads of sail with the other, kneeling braced over the staysail boom up near the bow. Releasing any sail drives it into a madness of destruction, as the dacron flutters and flies about. In the black night and force 10 wind the sail seemed a malevolent creature, bent on destroying anything it came in contact with. I wrestled it down and lashed it around the boom. Amber was still beam to the seas that crashed aboard every few seconds. I worked mostly underwater.
I crawled aft and pulled the mainsheet in hard to keep the boom from swinging wildly about, and then climbed atop the dingy to secure the loose main. Amber rolled like a wild drunk, pitching me first onto the boom and then to weather. I grimly hung on to lash the sail every foot or so. A wild lurch which threw me into the spar sent my hat careening over the side and crunched a leg that ached for several days. Finally, with the sails down, I returned to the cockpit to turn Amber downwind under bare poles.
The shift from south to west and then suddenly to northwest meant a front had passed over, a fact confirmed by the sudden and extreme cold. The rapid mercury plummet caught me unprepared. I froze, sitting in the cockpit after engaging Inga, trying to gauge the sea state by starlight.
At 0310 I logged "wind north at 10. Extremely cold. Fantastic starfield." Cold fronts often bring incredible clarity to the skies, a clearness I enjoyed now as I sat in the cockpit baby-sitting the yacht.
Perhaps to a non-sailor force 10 doesn't sound like a lot of wind. Stick your head out of a car doing 60 miles an hour and there's a lot of breeze, but the car is under control - what's the big deal?
I remember battling a force 13 storm (hurricane is 12) on a Florida waterfront one night. On the dock the weight of the wind overwhelmed every other sensation; it peeled the deck from a 70 foot power yacht and sank several big commercial fishermen. I went into town several times to secure tires to use as fenders. Walking the streets of the small city I could barely imagine the scenes of chaos I'd left a few minutes before. Land, trees and buildings attenuate the wind, till a force 13 blow ashore seems like nothing more than a really windy day.
At sea the element's fury hits an unstable yacht with mast, dingy on deck, lifelines, and all sorts of gear that traps the breeze, pulling the vessel's control from her master and making her a victim of the wind's will.
For the wind does seem to have a will. It starts lightly, building to a force a non-sailor just cannot imagine. Seas quickly rise, amplifying the wind's effect by the wild, uncontrolled motion. It's something like being in on a roller coaster ride that lasts for 24 hours but that has motion in all four axis: roll, pitch, yaw, and heave (rapid vertical accelerations as seas pass under the keel).
The wind both creates and attempts to destroy the seas. A normal full gale in deep water generally produces large but more or less regular seas. In force 10 the seas grow enormous quickly, but the wind tears the tops off. Huge breaking waves form on the top of the rolling monsters. The torrent of air rips the tops of the waves apart, hurling solid masses of water at the boat and her crew.
A small sailboat has only one option in these conditions: run downwind under bare poles, keeping the seas and wind astern with a small angle between the course and the waves to avoid pitchpoling (where the bow digs into the trough and causes the yacht to pirouette upside down), but avoiding too much of an angle to keep the boat from broaching (turning sideways). Generally the yacht won't have enough speed in the troughs to maintain steerage way so the trick is to start at just the right angle when starting down the sea to have her positioned correctly at the bottom.
Even running downwind under bare poles the boat is overwhelmed by the seas rushing up behind and breaking aboard. Each flings the stern around to bare her vulnerable beam to the next wave. The helmsman frantically throws the tiller over to show her rear to the storm before she's hit again.
Most of the truly big storms I've been in have little or no rain, yet all are hideously wet. The sea becomes mixed with the air. Sometimes it's hard to tell where the ocean ends and the atmosphere begins. On deck you spend lots of time sputtering and spitting salty water out of your mouth. Even the best foul weather gear is no match for these forces.
Many years ago a force 10 blow in a smaller boat just about did me in. I tried lying ahull, since many old-time sailors wrote of successes they had had with it. In the intervening years since my attempt this tactic has been (wisely) discredited. Lying ahull is simplicity itself: strip the yacht of sails, lash her helm down, and let her drift beam to the seas. Like a duck she should just bob around. Of course, each sea picks the boat up and hurls her downwind. This motion is combined with the yacht's natural tendency to roll with a beam sea, and gives arcs that range through more than 180 degrees. On two occasions Arwen's mast went underwater; once with me on deck hanging on by my fingernails to the weather gunnel, completely submerged as was the entire yacht. The boat and I were underwater for a devilishly long time - it seemed like hours but was certainly only seconds. I finally turned tail and ran downwind. Though Arwen was eventually blown 100 miles off course this tactic worked so much better than lying ahull I've used it many times since.
Steering when running is thrilling and terrifying. The yacht is likely overcanvassed on the tops of the seas (even with no sail up), yet underpowered in their shelter when in the troughs. Two hands are not strong enough to heave on the tiller of a heavy overpowered boat surfing down the seas, and two hands are needed in a frantic attempt to swing her around with bare steerageway at the bottoms, yet those same two hands are needed just to hang on. Soaked by crashing impacts of spray and green water every few seconds, perhaps cold, constrained by heavy oilskins, one has no choice but to enjoy the ride.
Too many sailors try to fight gales, stupidly pitting their macho strength against the sea's relentless force. The ocean never tires; it can throw a seemingly infinite amount of water and wind for hours or days without a hint of exhaustion. My philosophy is to yield to nature and try to work with its rhythm. I know the storm is stronger than I am, and so conserve my very limited strength. If at all possible - if the boat seems safe under its own devices - I'll rest below during a blow, especially one that rages all night.
Lying in a berth in a gale one is surrounded with noise. The howl of the wind overwhelms every other sensation. It screams through the rigging, at force 10 whistling high frequency squeals modulated by a lower almost mournful moan as it whips around the boat's wooden structure.
Other sounds reveal themselves. Cans and equipment in their lockers crash back and forth, back and forth, with each roll. Occasionally something not well secured flies off a shelf, crashing noisily against the far side of the cabin. Through a bare inch of planking I hear the rush of foam as each sea passes the boat, Amber lifting and settling in syncopated rhythm. Breakers roar out of the night, rearing up until they crash aboard, the yacht shuddering in response. Smaller waves land just a sprinkle of spray on deck. The rudder bangs in its pintles, halyards slap the mast, and Inga saws mechanically back and forth.
Just a few hours later the barometer started a rapid rise, rocketing up 0.30 inch in 6 hours. The depression was fierce but happily narrow.
Morning brought westerly winds still screaming at force 9 with 30 foot seas. The topping lift failed from the wild motion, so I rigged the spare. I carried on downwind under bare poles till after 0900 when the wind subsided to a normal gale.
Inga's drive motor failed, perhaps overwhelmed by the harsh weather. The Navico steered while I soldered the replacement Andy Autohelm had so kindly donated in Plymouth.
Now the rising barometer brought lighter airs. In a few hours the gale fell to a light westerly in dense fog. Amber slogged on, the seas subsiding much more slowly than the wind. Throughout the day conditions varied constantly. I reefed and unreefed, and tacked time and again, always trying to make some sort of progress towards Newport, but frustrated by the constant change.
A succession of gales left me exhausted. Each brought chaos, fading to a few hours of reasonable sailing, only to be replaced the next day by another blow. The day started with yet another midnight storm that built to force 10 for a couple of hours. I stripped Amber down to bare poles once again and ran downwind until the wind died off to a force 8 gale and then raised the working jib.
The constant westerly wind, so often screaming at gale force, only made life more difficult as Amber beat directly into huge seas day after day. She labored up each one, with waves crashing aboard around the clock, as we slowly strained to the west. Lying below I could look up through the skylight and see the waves washing completely over the yacht. Amber's wild rolls to leeward often drove the deck under water, scooping up tons of water.
Amber surfs down the back of a sea
On a calm bay day Amber could sail within 45 degrees of the wind; here, she had to bear off a bit to generate enough power to plow into the unrelenting seas. I sailed NNW or SSW, depending on the tack, making more progress to the south or north than towards Newport.
The northwesterly daily blow on Tuesday drove me south into the main axis of the Gulf Stream. Some of the other racers were equipped with weather faxes primarily to receive satellite downlinks of the Gulf Stream's constantly varying position. Amber had no such technology - I identified the Stream by its brilliant cobalt color and by feeling the warmth of the sea. Amber was now caught in its grasp, fighting a knot or more of eastward setting current.
Strangely, and in retrospective prophetically, I started developing a strange fear that something awful would go wrong. The mast and hull loomed in my mind each night. Amber was only 850 miles out - would a late major failure abort the trip now? My morning sea ritual includes a detailed stem to stern survey. I doubled those efforts, discovering no more than routine wear and tear I fixed when found.
Perhaps these fears were fed by an even more ominous threat. Amber left Plymouth with 50 bags of cookies crammed into her lockers. Now the supply was dwindling. I was forced to ration the remaining supply. Only three eggs remained; worried about possible spoilage after so long without ice I tested each one and found them still fine.
I cleaned the sextant today. Amber and her navigator are bathed in a constant heavy spray as we beat to weather, glazing the mirrors and shades with salt and fogging the telescope. It was a new joy to shoot the celestial bodies with clear optics.
The Loran had been intermittently receiving weak signals from the Canadian chain, but the positions were unreliable, sometimes jumping 20 miles or more in a few seconds. Stronger signals would have been a big help to compute course made good. The sextant gave me numerous lines of positions on each clear day, but only one or two fixes. Keeping an accurate DR position was tough as the westerly gales threw off Inga's steering, the Gulf Stream pushed us east an unknown amount, and beating into the heavy weather made estimating leeway accurately impossible.
I repaired the stern light once again as well as the starboard sheet winch. Salt had clogged its workings, and the heavily loaded mechanism almost broke my arm when both pawls froze while I winched in the sheet in the gale. I pulled down the genoa for the day's gale and notice a frayed leech seam. While raising the working jib a loose batten pocket flapped madly. I dropped it and sewed both sails, and then reset the jib.
The day ended on a high note. For a month I had tried every day to contact a ham radio operator anywhere in the USA to relay a message home. For a month I listened to static and radio operators in Europe and South America. Now a lucky break in atmospherics gave good coverage into the States. I broke into a conversation between two hams and explained that I was desperate to get a message home. One operator patched his rig into the phone system and connected me to Cathy for our first conversation since leaving England a month earlier. I had a nice chat with her and Graham, and let them know I'd arrive in a week or so.
My calculations put the Gulf Stream's strength at 1.9 knots from the northwest, driving us inexorably further south. None of the charts even hinted at so much current at this position, and none showed the Stream with a northerly component. No doubt I was caught in one of the unpredictable giant gyres spun from the main axis. For days I traveled with the sails sheeted in hard, striving for every bit of northing we could manage to try and break out of the Stream's grip.
The Watchman radar detector seemed oddly insensitive. Last night the unit's beeping woke me for the first time in quite a while; I looked out to see a ship only one mile to starboard. Normally it gave 5 to 10 miles of warning. I stayed up all night and took a radar sweep every 30 minutes to watch for traffic.
In the morning a bit of detective work showed that the Watchman was functioning perfectly, but the week of gales had so saturated the entire boat with water that the antenna, mounted inside the cabin, couldn't pick up signals through the waterlogged wood of the house. Moving the antenna to a window cured the problem. Of course, with so little shipping it was rather hard to test the unit. I fired up Amber's radar and detected our own emissions reflected off the gale-driven seas.
The blows continued - this, the ninth stormy day in a row, was different from the others only in my expectations. "It seemed to Nicholas Easton that he could not remember a time when there had been no storms". This line, from a book I was reading about racing in the Southern Ocean (Great Circle by Sam Llewellyn) summed up my feelings. The blows were a normal part of the day, and by now I expected a endless routine of slamming into oncoming seas under little more than a working jib.
At 3 in the afternoon I broke free of the Gulf Stream. The water was suddenly cold again, and the Sargasso weed that covers so much of the Gulf Stream's surface was nowhere to be seen. Amber picked up almost 2 knots over the bottom.
Link to part V (the last section)