One More Sail South

April 2007

By Dodge Morgan

Does someone make an instrument that measures a boat’s vertical movement? There’s a confusion of choices for the horizontal: speed paddles, GPS machines, chip logs, patent logs. Why I’m wondering is that I would really like to know if, during our passage from Quahog Bay to Bermuda with Wings of Time, we traveled up and down as far as we did forward. For two days, we staggered into a 25-knot headwind over 15-foot seas, making three knots of boat speed. I figure we went up and down somewhere around three thousand feet in each hour, and this is coming close to challenging our distance going forward.

November 2006 was a month of very heavy weather bluster in the North Atlantic. A parade of storms pounded across the ocean between New England and Bermuda, detonating an ugly and nearly continuous sea state. And, as any offshore sailor knows, it’s the seas and not the wind itself that punishes a small boat. We were looking for a November weather window suitable for a couple of old goats and two sailing neophytes. We did follow the passages of several November sailing boats and saw that they wrote some lousy stories: several lost and abandoned, a couple put under tow, several of the larger, stronger vessels hove to.

We finally departed early December, with the wind dead behind us until south of Georges Bank. The seas were still November-storm-driven; the water temperature, high 40s; the air temperature low 20s. The Gulf Stream crossing was uneventful in the following wind, actually our easiest sailing over the passage. We were again blessed with the traditional shedding of heavy clothing as water and air temperatures rose into the 70s.

Then the wind and seas came straight at us for three days, blowing 25 knots and feeding steep waves 15 to 18 feet high. With green water bounding across the decks and the motion torture-caliber, it was reasonable to believe that anyone who does this for fun is either clearly masochistic or certifiably crazy.

It’s almost always true that the passage from Bermuda to the British Virgin Islands is a reward for those enduring the passage from Maine to Bermuda. We sailed out of St. George’s harbor into a wondrous 18-knot east wind, acting like the trades were all the way north to 32 degrees latitude. We kept the easterlies the entire 840 miles, covering the distance in four and one-half days, two of them just over 200-mile runs. Tortola blessed us with water and air at 80 degrees.

This was my 16th fall passage from Maine to the West Indies. Time, or age, has remade some of the details of life aboard. I am now more concerned with not causing any damage to the boat, am slower to act on anything, hang on tighter to something when pissing over the rail, move everywhere at a snail’s pace, covet an afternoon glass of wine, sleep rather than read off watch, and use an abusively loud speaking voice.

The loud voice is against the very nature of how I have always believed life aboard should be lived: No yelling ever. But Merle Hallett and I are losing our hearing, so we’re forced to get close and bellow to each other. We are testing an alternative, which is to just shut up, and this is reasonable because, upon reflection, we realize what we say is most often not worth listening to anyway.

A resident of Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine, Dodge Morgan honed his particular brand of communication during his singlehanded, nonstop circumnavigation aboard American Promise in 1985-86.