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Sailing to Bermuda for a light lunch
By Roger Long
For Points East
I have had two sailing lives. The first ended about 15 years ago after spending so much of my adolescence and adulthood obsessed with sailboats that I thought it was time to move on to other things. The second began last year when we purchased Strider, our 1980 Endeavor 32.
I didn't truly understand how to sail to windward until nearly the end of the first life.
One of my clients press-ganged me to help sail a 135-foot schooner operated as a school ship from Gloucester to Bermuda. The Coast Guard had decreed at the last minute that the students could not board the ship in a U.S. port, setting off a frantic scramble to get the ship and the students to Bermuda separately. Since the captain and many of the crew were also teaching staff, they had to go with the students by plane. The schooner was to be sailed to Bermuda with a delivery captain and a hastily assembled skeleton crew.
Although her rig had been cut down somewhat from her racing days, she was a brutally powerful ship. The slim steel hull was 19 feet in draft and shaped somewhat like an America's cup "J" boat. The running backstays were over an inch in diameter. I later designed a 170-foot square-rigged ship for this school. When asked whether I thought it was responsible for the school to ship out students on such a large vessel, I displayed a plan of the schooner overlaid on the drawing of the proposed barque. The mainsail of the schooner completely hid an entire mast of the larger square-rigger. "Look at the size of the gear your kids are handling now on the schooner," I responded. "They could handle all these little sails on the barque one-by-one quite easily".
Departing for Bermuda, it took almost an hour just to get the schooner's main up. As Gloucester slipped over the horizon astern, I realized that only one person on each watch had ever been out of sight of land. Then the engineer came up and reported that an oil line was clogged and would require repairs ashore. We could only run the engine about 10 minutes at a time so we would be sailing all the way. If we encountered any heavy weather, it was going to be very, very hard work.
The wind came on fresh and strong under clear skies the next morning. It was the start of glorious and virtually unchanging conditions that we would have for the entire trip, but Bermuda lay almost directly in the eye of the wind. I came on watch to find the ship pinched up hard and jerking around with that irregular motion of a vessel that isn't really putting her shoulder to it. There was a little flutter coming from the headsails and it all felt kind of dispiriting for winds in the 15- to 20-knot range. (There was no anemometer on the ship.) I was surprised, therefore, to see on the speed log in the pilothouse that we were going almost 10 knots.
Eventually, the captain asked me to steer and gave me the course. I repeated, "Course one three five it is," and then asked, "Since we are trying to work straight to windward, would 'full and by' be OK?"
"Full and by it is."
I knew then that my job was to let the wind direction and any shifts direct our course and simply sail the boat so as to make maximum progress towards the island that lay far away and many tacks to windward.
A sailboat going to windward usually has two potential maximum speeds. If you keep her optimally trimmed and gradually let her accelerate, she will settle down at one speed. However, if you can get her moving faster than that by sailing a lower course and then keep her optimally trimmed as she slows down, the final steady speed will be slightly higher. As the captain's head disappeared down the companionway, I reached far down to the bottom of the wheel and heaved the lowest spoke up and over the top. There was a chorus of creaks, groans, and pops from the huge wooden rig as she heeled over and the water started running fast in a deep trough by the main chainplates. Then I reached down and did it again.
It takes several minutes for such a large vessel to get up to speed, so I held her down until she was really cracking along; then started letting the spokes slip past my hands one by one. I let her come up towards the wind fairly quickly at first, four spokes, three spokes, two. She was really moving now. The headsails are invisible to the helmsman on a rig like this so there is no way to watch for a luff in the headsails without a spotter. That isn't the way to get maximum performance out of a boat anyway. Instead, I kept my eye on the angle of the masts to the horizon and the sideways motion of the bowsprit against it.
I found the position for the last wheel spoke where I could see the bowsprit move the least perceptible amount against the horizon each time the bow pitched down, and hold steady as her head came up. She was now taking just the tiniest possible little nibble closer to the wind with each wave as I held the pressure against the spoke.
The flow of wind over a sail has inertia to it. If you very slowly and smoothly decrease the angle of the wind on the sails, you will actually be able to point higher for a brief time because the airflow "sticks" in its former path. These seconds on a small boat (minutes on a very large one) can give you significant gains in distance made good to windward. Soon though, a flaw in the wind, a slightly harder pitch, a butterfly flapping in China — something will cause the airflow to suddenly break down and a bit of drive will go out of the rig. The mast will make a small angular jerk against the horizon, signaling it's time to quickly reach far down the wheel and haul several spokes up over the top to restore the drive before any speed is lost.
It isn't enough to just head off at the first decrease in mast angle. The angle is changing slightly all the time as the hull goes over the waves. I had to watch and feel the wave action so I could detect the slight motion that was at a different speed and out of sync with the hull's response to the seas. It was only a degree or so, but I was helped on this on this vessel by the fact that the huge and quite flexible wooden rig would produce a slight creaking sigh as the pressure suddenly changed. I wouldn't have noticed it just standing beside another person on the wheel but, once I was tuned into the vessel's motion and listening closely, it was as unmistakable as a jib sheet breaking.
After a while, I noticed that the rig would produce a tiny but distinctive creaking pop just before the little upright lurch. From then on, it was even easier. I just let her up as slowly as possible until I heard the pop, then gave the wheel a heave to bear off a couple of degrees and started the sneaking-up process again. Someone came out of the pilothouse and told me the speed log was now reading 14 knots.
I was having a grand time. The sun was bright, the wind as steady as if we were in a wind tunnel, and the big rig far up in the clear air above the wave induced turbulence that could prematurely break down the flow over the sails. The size and shape of the hull minimized the pitching and other motions that do the same thing and I was able to hold improbably long slants up to windward. Four hundred tons of ship riding the knife edge of maximum performance with a deep quarter wave trough along side, the bottom of which appeared to be at least 20 feet below me. It was magnificent.
The Captain came up after a while and looked at the compass. Although he was new to the schooner, he had a lot of time in the short-rigged, low-performance sailing vessels that the U.S. Coast Guard stability regulations cause to dominate the sail training fleet. "Uh, Bermuda is over there," he pointed.
"Yes, but this is as high as she will go," I said.
"No, she'll do better than this. Course One three five."
"One three five."
Pretty soon, we were back to slatting along unsteadily at 11 knots. The Captain came back to me at the wheel and said, "See, she's doing fine."
My mind wandered. Soon we were back up to 14 knots and the apparent wind from the faster speed had taken us an additional few degrees away from our objective.
The captain came back again and looked at the compass. "Please keep the course I gave you."
"But we're making 14 knots."
"It doesn't do us any good if it's in the wrong direction."
This went on for a good part of the day. I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't keep my focus. The big schooner would just come alive in my hands and I would get another lecture from the captain.
I tried heading up when I saw the captain appear in the deckhouse. It takes a long time for 400 tons of ship to lose speed so we would still be moving along smartly when he looked at the compass.
"I know exactly what you are doing," he snapped. "We are not out here for your yachting pleasure. If we don't get this ship to Bermuda before the charter flight arrives, the hotel bill is going to bankrupt this operation and that will be the end of it." It was getting a bit tense and he finally took me off the wheel.
There weren't many on board who could maintain a course, especially with the soggy rudder response of the ship pinched up hard, so I was back on the wheel before long. I had her booming along when one of the crew came up and said, "Roger, I can always tell when you are steering because everything is so steady down below." That was nice, but a little later the captain took me off the wheel for good. I just didn't have the concentration to maintain his course for any length of time.
A few hours later, I was walking down the main passage when the captain asked me to come into the chartroom. "Look at this," he said. "I've plotted our courses from the loran for the past day. Here are your tricks at the wheel, and here are the others." Mine were clearly 2 or 3 degrees closer to the wind than the others and the additional speed put us even farther ahead. Even with 19 feet of draft, the leeway produced by pinching the ship to weather was greater than the difference in heading.
The upshot was that the captain asked me to take the wheel as much as I could and teach some of the others. For them, it was hard work and mentally demanding, as it would be for anyone just learning to do it. The crew was therefore glad to let me steer as much as I wanted. That was a lot. The wind blew from almost exactly the same direction and at the same velocity for nearly the whole trip and I spent hour after hour flying the big rig to windward at 14 knots. We hardly touched a line except for tacks once a day. That was a very good thing because we would have been hard put to handle any seriously heavy weather with such a small crew.
Bermuda came up over the horizon at 0400 on the day the students were to arrive. My flight out was early afternoon the same day. After clearing customs, there was just time to have lunch at the White Horse and head to the airport. I have always called this the trip when I sailed to Bermuda for lunch.
Thinking, "Nothing could ever top this!" on the flight home probably had something to do with my drifting away from sailing for so long. I'm now looking forward again to many grand adventures on the water but I still don't expect to ever see a passage like that one again.
After squandering his youth attempting to become a yacht designer and boatbuilder, Roger Long turned to the design of working boats. He became an internationally recognized expert on the stability of large sailing vessels and designer and consultant to many sail training organizations. He now specializes in the design of oceanographic research vessels. He is also a researcher into the sinking of the Titanic and made a dive to the wreck for an appearance on a recent History Channel show. His web site is at: http://www.rogerlongboats.com.