A ship at sea is like a jail, without the comforts of jail.
A ship at sea is like a jail, without the comforts of jail.
Here’s Bob O’Brien at the helm of Valhalla on approach to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Many people asked us if we were brothers. We suspected that they really wanted to know if we were a gay couple.
It’s an oft quoted saying in the sailing community and for good reason. I made reference to the beating on the way to Bermuda. The trip from Bermuda to the U.S. Virgin Islands was no better.
We waited for a change in the winds and left Bermuda on Dec. 19 at 4 p.m. The wind was out of the north-west and was perfect for our south-east course. Valhalla was running with the wind and all was well.
The winds were supposed to become easterly, which would still be good for us. Instead, they were from the south-east. We were beating upwind again into 15 – 20 kt winds and “confused seas.” The wind would remain pretty constant in direction and vary from 15 – 25 kts. Usually 20 kts, but at times up to 30. As the wind increases the force on the sails increases as the square of the velocity. That means that a 30 kt wind has 4 times the force of a 15 kt wind.
The rigging and the sails performed perfectly and we were able to deploy the proper amount of sail for the different conditions. We were logging great days, but it sure was uncomfortable below decks. The cockpit was comfortable, but wet. Spray would sometimes become like being hit with a bucket of water. That kept us below a lot. Below decks, our bunks were the most comfortable spots and moving around was difficult.
Some of the water that landed on deck found its way below. That certainly enhanced the pleasure factor and made the floors nice and slippery. By the time we made it St Thomas, we hardly had a dry piece of clothing left.
We left Bermuda without a functioning generator. That meant no refrigerator. We had ice that would last a few days. I also bought some things to eat that didn’t require cooking. I got some granola bars, bananas, apples, fig newtons, and tortilla chips to munch on when it was too rough to cook. It’s a good thing I did because on the first morning out, we found that our propane stove failed.
On Dec. 22, the engine failed to start. The engine was run a couple hours per day to keep the batteries charged. The batteries run all of the lights, instruments, and most importantly the autopilot. Without an autopilot, we would have to hand steer. That would be exhausting and miserable. The problem was traced to the starter. I will post more on starters separately.
The good news, we had a spare stater on board. The bad news, it would be a real chore to install. I’m no mechanic, but installing a starter is technically simple. There are 3 wire terminal connections. Plus and minus battery and ignition. The starter mounts to the engine with 3 bolts. The problem is that it’s on a boat. The boat is moving and auxiliary equipment has been installed that blocks access to the starter. In defense of the designer/builder, there would have been room to make this job easier if the previous owner had not installed a refrigerator compressor and some pumps to the left of the engine.
On the morning of Dec. 23, I descended into the “engine room.” for what would become several hours of turning a few bolts. While below decks trying to unbolt/bolt the starter, there was no comfortable place to stand, sit, kneel, or brace against the motion of the boat. Some piece of steel was always in my back, side, shoulder, hip, etc. Parts of the cooling and air intake systems had to be removed to improve access. I can honestly say that it was the most difficult repair I ever made at sea. Several hours later, the new starter was in place. For several reasons, I only connected the battery leads to the starter and left the ignition switch disconnected. Then I started the engine by using a screwdriver to short between the + battery and the solenoid terminal. The engine started immediately. After a short “atta boy” moment, I turned off the starter battery switch to ensure nothing could cause that starter motor to run. Diesel engines only need the battery to start and will continue to run without it.
We decided to keep the engine running for the duration of the trip. On the morning of Dec. 24 it was obvious that we couldn’t make it to the passage between the island and Puerto Rico before dark. Entering a port for the first time in the dark is an unsafe practice. We both knew that we would have to slow the boat,, spend another uncomfortable night at sea, and make our final approach at dawn. That’s what we did and we made it into a marina on Christmas Day.
Now we are drying out, assessing work to be done, and preparing for the next stage. I am going home on Dec. 28 and Bob’s son is coming for a visit. Then Bob goes back to the states to take care of family and personal business. We are reconsidering the continuation of the trip which will be sometime in Feb. We may head west to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Florida, the Gulf Coast, and end in Texas instead of trying to go further east. 1800 nm of mostly upwind sailing has been enough.
Dec. 10 and we finally depart. We had a lot of engine problems that are all resolved. A cool, sunny day with no wind. We are motoring with autopilot and also have a chart plotter and radar. We are able to stay below where it’s warm. The large windows of the pilot house offer excellent visibility.
It was getting cold in Maryland with ice on the windshield of the rental car most mornings. We both expected and prepared for a few very cold days at sea. I have thermal underwear, sweats, sweaters, wool socks, rubber boots, and rain coat. Oxford, MD is at 38 degrees north latitude, the same as San Francisco. What a surprise when we were in shorts and tee shirts on the second day.
On our second day out we were in the Gulf Stream, a strong northerly current that follows the coast. It’s exact location varies and is difficult to judge. It’s like a big, strong flowing river in the ocean. You can’t see it, but you can feel the effects. We had no wind and were motoring east. Suddenly the water temperature rose from the 60s to 79. We kept watching for cold water again, but never found any. We were pushed quite a bit north.
The next day, we were still motoring on calm seas. I caught and cooked a small fish. We think the locals call them “Blues.” It was tasty. In the late afternoon, the wind started to blow and were were sailing east all night.
The next day the wind was increasing to 20 kts. From the south. This was exactly the direction we want to go. We were able to continue on a SE course. We reduced sail area and were moving nicely at 7 – 8 kts. Sailors call going upwind (or as close as you can get to upwind) “Beating.” There’s a good reason for that. The boat heals and you live at an angle while the boat slogs through the waves. Anything not tied down falls off counters. Water that splashes on deck can find its way below, making floors slippery. All you can do is try to be as comfortable as possible. The boat continued to make good progress east, but little to the south.
As we neared Bermuda, it was clear that the wind would not let us pass to the south. We decided to spend the night near Bermuda and stop there the next morning. That’s where we are now. We are tending to some maintenance and waiting for favorable winds. Saturday afternoon may be the best time to leave. Friday will be a repeat of the 20 kt. Southerlies. There’s no need to fight that.
Next stop. St Thomas. Probably about a week from now.
Today should be the day. It’s been a lot more work getting the boat ready and a bad starter had us delayed. We will have a new one this morning and will leave as soon as the engine starts.
Working on a boat always takes longer than you think it will. It is best to be small, limber, and ambidexterous. I am none of those. Finding 2 wires that run up to helm sounds easy until you crawl in below the cockpit and try to identify and pull back one cable from a bundle of cables and hoses. Then make a connection on your back while dropping a short screw three times. It can all be done, but it takes a lot of time. Multiply that by 5 or six simple jobs and time flies.
Now we are stowing supplies and spares and are down to a few non-mission critical tasks. The Virgin Islands are about 1200 nm from here. I say about, because we will not go on a straight line course. First we will go about 200 nm off-shore before turning south. That is to stay clear of Caper Hatteris. The trip will be about 10 days, plus or minus a couple. Winds and seas will dictate.
I should post again before Christmas.