Global warming and the wages of pain

July 2005

By Dodge Morgan

The passage from Tortola, B.V.I., to Bermuda is 830 nautical miles on a true north heading. The passage from Bermuda to Newport, R.I., is 620 nautical miles northwest or 720 nautical miles north-northwest to Portland, Maine. The purpose of the second passage is to collect the wages of pain for the first passage.

We departed Tortola late afternoon on the wings of the trade winds, 20-25 knots just north of east – a gorgeous beam reach. We kept those winds almost all the distance to Bermuda and arrived after a four and a half day passage. Nothing broke; the fancy GPS chart recorder never worked, but a midocean track on a computer screen holds no fascination anyway. Four of us stood three four-hour watches in daylight hours and four three-hour watches during hours of darkness. We ate big and delicious meals early afternoons and polished off one bottle of red wine each time. We read a collected total of a dozen books. We lived in tropical garb. We did not exercise the engine.

Bermuda was populated with boats waiting for a weather window to northeastern ports. It was blustery, as evidenced by a huge cruise ship that caromed out of control and blew apart several boats in Hamilton and one came close to the same screwup in St. Georges as we watched. Each new forecast projected the same old northerlies all the distance and a Gulf Stream with wide, snake-like meanders. We chose Newport as our destination and departed anyway along with several others with less patience. And we paid the price. Again.

The wind was precisely head on our rhumb line the entire passage. The seas for much of the sail were eight to 10 feet, close together and steep. The boat wore a blanket of green seawater that found every possible path below, many tiny drips and one a deluge when a hatch blew open as its latch handle blew apart. The engine droned under a bare patch of steadying mainsail on an apparent wind angle of 15 to 20 degrees maximum. We were constantly pounding into it, and boat speed struggled to reach six knots.

Seawater temperature was 70 degrees south of the Blue God and 70 in her. Temperatures dropped rapidly upon exiting the stream, high 50s and then 44 degrees upon coming onto the continental shelf. When it was not raining hard, it was misting hard. A passage that is expected to take 90 hours under sail took us 100, essentially under power.

But hasn’t that kind of weather prevailed over this New England winter and through the weeks of supposed spring? Everything that buds has been reluctant. The bravest of Canada geese and osprey have returned, but their full numbers are lagging. The lady-slipper sprouts poked up, but are refusing to open. Mooring balls have been slow to blossom, and boats are largely remaining on the tarmac. Late-May storms challenged everything that grows or requires outside work, and the traditional Memorial Day deadline for summer readiness looks like fiction.

The good news is that the primary cause for skin cancer has been almost absent, and lobsters have been selling off the boats at over six bucks a pound as if to compensate for the obscene price of fuel. The bad news is that environmental organizations dependent on New Englanders’ donations in response to a global warming scare are puzzled and troubled.

Dodge Morgan broke all kinds of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ‘86.