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The Voyage of Spectacle Episode II — Big Wind = Not Fun

The Voyage

Spectacles

Andy and Melissa are sailing around the world on their 48-foot sailboat, Spectacle.

The Position

Bali, Indonesia

The Pictures

The Voyage of Spectacle

Episode II — Big Wind = Not Fun

When we finally left the dock, I knew it was going to be bad when Erik’s eyes exploded.

Oh — do I have your attention?

Although it was our very first passage, for sheer “Sea Story” value, the trip described below is unlikely to be surpassed in the annals of Spectacle.  At least, I hope not.  O.K., I just knocked on wood.

Before we get to the good parts, a few disclaimers are necessary:

  1. We were never in any personal danger.  Ultimately, we were tired, but no one was ever injured (beyond the “exploding eyes”) or in any kind of health crisis.
  2. The boat was never in any danger.  The boat is a SAIL boat – it is designed to sail. We never lost the ability to sail.  We weren’t taking on water or anything like that.
  3. We did a lot of things right to ensure that #1 and #2 remained true at all times. This story is going to make us look like The Three Stooges, but please also keep in mind that a fair bit of thoughtful caution, good decision-making and proper execution ensured that this is a funny story, not a sad one.
  4. Some of you who read this and are considering a visit will now reconsider.  Please don’t.  I assure you that your experience will be nothing like this.  We are not inviting guests for difficult, multi-day, upwind passages.  By the time any of you visit, we will be sailing off the wind – i.e. flat — and having hors d’oeuvres at sunset.
  5. It wasn’t scary.  Were we exhausted?  Yes.  Were we frustrated?  Yes.  Scared?  No.  After all, we didn’t have any reason to be scared.

OK, on to the story …

After having received the autopilot on December 19, we were able to schedule Merlin’s to do the reinstallation on the morning of the 20th.  At this point, we were pretty much bound and determined to go sailing.  We’d even gone to the market for an extensive supply of groceries (steaks, curries, shrimp, etc.). 

I checked the weather forecast, which appeared somewhat mixed.  Although it called for big wind (25-35 knots), the wind was supposed to be from the NE, which meant we could sail to the southeast.  We’ve been in bigger wind in smaller boats.  We weren’t particularly afraid of 25-35, just so long as it was at least somewhat northeasterly.  The wind was supposed to die down the following day and remain at least somewhat northeasterly (good for us).

So, we made the decision to sail from Marsh Harbour to Providenciales, Turks & Caicos.  Although this was slightly off course from our original destination (St. Thomas), it wasn’t too much of a deviation, and it was about a 3-4 day sail, which meant Erik should make a plane home for Christmas.

This is where I made Schoolboy Error #1.

Schoolboy Error #1:  Never attempt to shoehorn a sea trip into a “land” schedule.

We rebooked plane tickets for Erik out of Provo on Christmas Eve.  I will never make this mistake again.  You simply can’t be sure when you’re going to get there, so don’t even try to make deadlines such as Christmas Eve flights.  Darn near every tragic sea story starts with something like “So, we were trying to make it home for Christmas when…”  Never again! 

Because the Marsh Harbour channel entrance is poorly marked and so treacherous for deeper draft boats, we pretty much had to leave on a rising tide near the daylight high tide.  We also had to leave enough time to get through the Man-O-War Channel before dusk (about 90 minutes away).  Because high tide was at 6:00 p.m., this meant that we had to leave very close to 4:00 p.m.

At this point, I also made a decision about fuel.  We have 300 gallons of diesel tankage on the boat.  This is a massive fuel capacity – enough to motor at least 1500 miles (or 1/2 way across the Pacific Ocean), and more than twice the fuel capacity of most comparable boats.  When we bought the boat in July, both fuel gauges (we have two tanks) read “Full.”  Indeed, the previous owner told us they were full and said the capacity might even be higher than 300.  After several day sails, a trip back and forth to Key West, and the Lauderdale-to-Marsh Harbour journey, one gauge was at 3/4-full and the other was well above half-full.  This means approximately 200 gallons of gas – an awful lot.

Furthermore, I wanted to use up the old fuel.  Diesel fuel is easily contaminated by bacteria and fungi, and this fuel had been in the tanks for six months.  Rather than dump in more additives and mix in fresh fuel, my plan was to try to use up as much of the old fuel as possible.  When we successfully ran out of fuel on Tank 1, we’d just switch to Tank 2 and refill Tank 1.

Racing around, we managed to get everything together and pushed off the dock around 4:20.  Unwittingly, I had just made two more Schoolboy Errors, only one of which was quickly apparent.

Schoolboy Error #2: Never leave home without Stugeron.

Schoolboy Error #3: (to be revealed later).

Stugeron is a freaking miracle drug.  I can’t imagine there is a better seasickness remedy in existence.  I’ve never been even close to seasick when taking Stugeron, and I don’t know anyone who has.  Why we didn’t track some down in the Bahamas (it’s not FDA approved in the US) is beyond me.

The sun was setting just as we approached Man-O-War channel, and the wind and waves began to pick up.  By the time we went through the channel, it was dark (far from ideal, but … oh, well) and we could feel the wind howling and the waves picking up.  Having made it through the channel and being in total darkness, we were now committed to the open ocean … no turning back.

Now that we were out of the lee of Man-O-War Cay, we had the chance to see what the wind and the waves were really like.  And the answer was: not good … at all.  It was blowing really hard.  At one point, our wind indicator hit 44.6.  That, my friends, is a lot of wind.  It being dark, we couldn’t see the waves, but they were at least 12 feet, bunched up and steep.  And worst of all was the wind direction – dead easterly.  You can’t really sail southeast in due easterlies.  Furthermore, it being dark and violent, we were disinclined to try.  So, with the motor on, we pounded into the waves.

This was my first bad weather experience aboard a center-cockpit boat, and I must say that I was surprised by how wet it was.  The cockpit was being routinely douched with buckets of water.  We’ve done plenty of upwind sailing in aft-cockpit boats.  We never took this much water into the cockpit.  Getting hit in the face with buckets of water every few minutes … it gets old.

A couple of days earlier, Melissa and I were guessing how many times we’d get out our full foul-weather gear during the course of the trip.  Melissa guessed zero.  I guessed once.  We had the foulies out within 45 minutes of leaving the channel.

Within an hour, Erik was barfing, and by barfing I mean, “Vomiting so hard that he burst multiple blood vessels in both his eyes.”  By the next morning, the whites of Erik’s eyes were completely red.  That’s what I meant by Erik’s eyes “exploding.”  Within another half-hour, I had joined the Barf Brigade.  At one point, Erik was wretching over the starboard cockpit combing, and I was puking away over the port cockpit combing.  Only Melissa emerged unscathed (at present, she has never been seasick … pretty surprising for someone who claims she can’t read in the car).

Just to be clear — some of this was expected.  Sailing upwind is MUCH tougher than sailing downwind or reaching – three days close-hauled is significantly more draining than a week downwind.  I expected reasonably big wind, a close-hauled course, and a bumpy ride, but this was very bumpy, very wet and very unpleasant — and surprisingly cold.

Try as we might, sleep was pretty much out of the question on the 20th, but things did begin to calm down a little bit the next morning.  Unfortunately, the wind direction stayed due east, bad news for a boat trying desperately to make some easting.  Erik was still awfully green, and I was a bit out of it.  We did make some good headway and were on schedule to have Erik make his plane.  The night of the 21st was a lot warmer and drier, which was quite an improvement.

By the afternoon of the 22nd, the conditions had continued to improve (other than the wind direction), and Melissa and I were actually beginning to have some fun (Erik was still spending a lot of time horizontal).  I cooked up a hot lunch (some surpisingly delicious Cajun shrimp), the sun was out, we were still making good time (thanks to the engine), and morale was up.  It looked like we weren’t going to do much actual sailing (the wind was now ESE) but that a morning arrival on the 24th was still possible.  About 3:00 p.m. on the 22nd, Spectacle was off the coast of Cat Island, Erik was asleep, and Melissa and I were in the cockpit enjoying a couple of cold Presidentes.  Spirits were high, we were laughing.  And then, out of nowhere, the engine began to sputter … and sputter … and then it died.  What did we do?  To find out, check out Episode III.


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