Thursday June 12, 2014
They say that you should never leave on passage on a Friday. Sailor’s supersition that it’s bad luck. We were almost caught leaving for our Atlantic crossing on Friday the 13th. Does that make it doubly worse? Or do the two negatives cancel each other out and make a positive? I wasn’t sure and made SURE that we busted our butts so that we wouldn’t have to find out, leaving one day earlier on Thursday the 12th instead. I think we would have been better off taking our chances with Friday the 13th…
The morning should have started with relaxing, enjoying our last cup of coffee for the next month where we didn’t have to hold everything down on the counter to make sure it didn’t slide off, before completing last minute projects like stowing everything away and deflating the dinghy. It did not start like that. Just as we were going to bed last night we realized that the fitting on our bow water tank had broken, leaking all of it’s contents into our bilge. Since this was to be our back-up source of water for our crossing, only taking from and refilling our port water tank, this was an issue we needed to fix right away.
The new goal was to wake up first thing in the morning and walk to the local Ace Hardware to pick up the replacement part. Knowing that we were already going to get very little sleep as it was, since we had stayed up well past midnight since we had pushed off all that evening’s projects to enjoy a hot pizza and an episode of Sherlock, I was vexed, and truthfully, terrified, at the thunderstorm of epic proportions that rolled through our anchorage at 5 am, bringing with it 50 knot winds and leaving me wondering if something similar could roll through the next night while we were on passage. Letting ourselves sleep in just a little bit longer we ended up with a late start to our morning, but we were back to the boat with the issue fixed by 11 am. The other small projects took a little longer than we anticipated, as they always do, and the anchor wasn’t weighed until 1 pm. Spending another 45 minutes circling the anchorage as we calibrated our autopilot we were finally off, exiting the Government Cut at Miami just after 3 pm.
Even though the sun was shinning down on us on our way out it didn’t take long for the clouds to roll in, and we watched Miami become consumed by darkness and rain which we were soon swallowed up by as well. It wasn’t anything more than a nice rain shower though, and winds continued to stay around 10 knots and we glided up the Gulf Stream in glass waters at 5 knots under headsail alone. Based on sheer excitement about the journey ahead of us, we even frolicked out in the rain for a bit (or Matt doing whatever the manly term for that would be) while taking in a free shower during the downpour. Things cleared up a few hours later as we passed Ft. Lauderdale and we even managed to catch a decent sunset while enjoying left over pizza in the cockpit.
Before I even knew it my eight o’clock bedtime was before me and I was more than ready for it. I’ve learned that the key to a good first night on passage for myself is collecting no sleep the night before we leave so I am more than ready to conk out at such an early hour. Sliding in behind the lee cloth that we’d set up on the starboard bunk in the salon, I slid easily into sleep. Something that normally takes me three hours to do our first night out.
I had been lying in my bunk for just over an hour when I heard a loud ruckus on deck. I knew it was Matt messing with the headsail, and even though all sounds are amplified below deck, this seemed much louder and as if something were wrong. Jumping out of bed I raced over the companionway boards and into the cockpit. It was immediately evident to me that we were in trouble. I looked at the chartplotter to find winds nearing 60 knots and we were being pushed so far over that our rail was in the water. Matt was feverently working to get the headsail rolled in, but had enough good sense to yell at me to get back in the boat and get a harness on before I could topple out the boat and into the Gulf Stream.
Rushing back below deck I tore through the cabinet to search for our second harness. Usually we never have both out at the same time unless we know bad weather is coming, normally just trading off the one harness between ourselves, but this storm came upon us so suddenly that we barely had time to react.
Finding the second harness I raced once more into the companionway where the headsail was still being overpowered by winds that were now sustained in the upper 40’s. With the furling sheet in hand, Matt was still trying to save the sail by bringing it in, asking me to gently release the sheet for the headsail still wrapped around the winch. The strain on the line was so heavy that I couldn’t even loosen it from the teeth that hold it in place, all the while trying my best to work it free while we’re still heeled all the way over in Force 9-10 winds. Finally Matt realized this was not going to work and it was very likely we’d tear the sail in half while working to winch it in. Looking up through the dark and thinking that we’d already blown it out he slid over to my spot he released the sheet from the winch and let it flap in the wind while he quickly grabbed the furling sheet back to get it in. Eventually the sail was rolled in, though the lines were a knotted and tangled mess that would have to be saved for another day.
Now at hand we had to deal with winds that were still blowing in the 45-50 knot range and showed no signs of relenting. Not wanting to keep any of the sails up we turned ourselves downwind and began to ride the storm out with bare poles as we were pushed along at two knots of speed. The winds were coming directly out of the north which meant that we were now moving south, working against the current of the Gulf Stream, had absolutely no sail up, no engine on, and were still making that kind of forward progress. Bolts of white and pink lightning were crashing down on each side of us as buckets of rain began to pour down. The whole experience was miserable and I think both of us began to start rethinking this whole ocean crossing. As I stood behind the wheel to hand steer us, Matt sat clipped in under the dodger and confessed, “This just isn’t for me. I can’t do this anymore.” Can’t do an ocean crossing? Or can’t do cruising?
Seeing that we were only 12 miles north of Ft. Lauderdale we tried to start setting a course there to ease our nerves and see what steps we wanted to take next. As I tried to keep us ass to the waves, I was going just by feel for the wind direction and slipped up a few times where we took the building waves on at a bad angle and they’d crash over the stern and into the cockpit, soaking me in the process. Yes, a break from cruising sounds pretty good right now. Immediately my mind went to us leaving the boat in Ft. Lauderdale while we hopped a plane to Guatemala to backpack for a few weeks while visiting friends, and then returning to Michigan for the rest of summer to spend it with friends and family. It all sounded so tantalizing that it was probably one of the only things keeping me from breaking down while we continued to fight this monstrous storm which was showing no signs of letting up.
For another hour I stood behind the wheel, knees growing weak and teeth chattering until the winds finally let up into the mid 30’s and the autopilot was able to go back into use. Somehow I was still wired even though I’d only gathered about 5 hours of sleep in the last 30 hours, and sent Matt to bed while we pushed on toward Ft. Lauderdale with the engine on, still fighting the Gulf Stream and moving at 2 knots. Two hours later, while he was resting his nerves and gaining a little perspective while I stood awake and continued to daydream of a life back on land, he came to relieve me and discuss our rash decision. By this point I was beyond exhausted and finally started to break down.
I complained about how it seems like everything for the past six months has been working against us and maybe this is a sign that we should stop before something really awful happened. He told me to grab a few hours of sleep, but for him, removing himself from the situation for a little bit made him realize that it was just frazzled nerves that made him want to quit before, but he thought that moving forward and continuing our crossing was still the right decision and what we really do want. He made the comment that it was extremely unlikely that we’d go through anything like that again and the worst of it was probably out of the way. We might hit the random storm here or there in the future, but none of it would likely be worse that what we’ve already seen in our cruising history. Hmmm. Guatemala, Lake Michigan, friends, family…….or 3,000 miles of open ocean and uncertainty ahead. I think a few hours of sleep might be necessary to make that decision.