Two easy ocean passages

August, 1999

By Dodge Morgan

The air and water temperatures in the British Virgin Islands both hovered between 85 and 90 degrees F. The normal West Indies habit of occasional downpours that serve to cool things off were absent and people moved slowly, particularly those of us with old carcasses. Much of the bareboat charter fleet lay idle in home slips, and most of the migrating boats had already headed north for the summer. After what had been a lively season in these popular winter cruising waters, life was pleasantly quiet and laid back.

Wings of Time had been tended well by Manager Jim Woods at Penn’s Landing in Fat Hog’s Bay on the southeast coast of Tortola. She seemed like a horse pulling at the bit, anxious to be released from her stall and set free on the open sea. This would be her fifth passage north in as many years of her life; it would be my eleventh.

I made this passage with two others aboard, where, usually, this annual return to Maine from the BVI is my time for a solo sail. I do truly enjoy both sailing alone and sailing with others, but the two are very different experiences for me. When sailing with mates on board, my awareness is dominated by their presence. A special sunset or whale sighting or squall passage always prompts me to share the event with the others. I truly enjoy my company at sea. A small sailboat specifies a very self-contained social unit of the most intimate nature, unencumbered by the rules that blur our land-based relationships. Social registers, political intrigues, and organizational structures can be discarded at sea. I have a rule on board that the only cause for a voice to be raised in volume is with laughter.

I wonder constantly about how the others are handling life aboard, whether the lee cloth is secure when I come about to put their bunk on the weather side, if the next evening meal needs to be thawed. I worry about a watch captain alone on deck in heavy weather and have a difficult time remembering that I should leave details of trim and sail choice to someone else at times. I suppress the urge to follow my mates around checking for any small changes in my boat-keeping habits. I do, however, manage to be very laid back at sea with others. Sometimes too laid back. Interestingly, this results in my making mistakes more often with others on board. And, strangely enough, the more experienced the crew, the more the mistakes. This results, I think, from my assuming each part of a task will be performed by others just as I would do it alone; not a matter of right or wrong, simply one of how those parts fit together. It is not uncommon, then, that small, individual differences in addressing the task can add up to surprises. I speak very little at sea. I guess I can count too much on telepathic communication.

I have put in more hours and miles sailing alone than with others. When sailing alone, sharing is off the agenda and my awareness is totally focused on the task or the event at hand. A special sunset is just mine. A sail change is accomplished every step just by me. I am more deliberate in planning and acting out when alone. (It is also true that my errors can be easily expunged from any public record.) Sailing alone is engaging because I am freed from concern for others and because every victory, every defeat, small or large, belongs exclusively to me. The solitude is delicious.

The passage from the BVI to Bermuda is 831 nautical miles. The standard sequence of winds is two days of reaching on the easterly trades, a day of fumbling in the variables, and a less predictable two days in westerlies. Bermuda is very close on the rhumb line to Maine, so it makes a logical stop. We had the standard script but with winds lighter than usual. The passage used an hour over five days with 18 hours of it under engine assist.

The passage from Bermuda to Snow Island, Maine, is 736 nautical miles. We departed just as the first tropical storm of the hurricane season was named, but it remained well south and east of us. We were plagued the whole way by light southerlies, making us endure the irritating rumble of a diesel engine for a full half of our four and one-half days at sea. The Gulf Stream, the Blue God, was strangely quiet. We saw no other vessels until arriving off Georges Bank, when a few draggers dotted the horizon. Just north of Provincetown, Mass., land we did not see, we thrilled to one of the most explosively colored and most sustained sunsets I have ever seen. The sea was orange and gold for more than an hour. And, just to add living drama to the scene, the sea erupted with dolphin and whale all around us. We all asked, why in God’s name would anybody choose to be anywhere else?

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives in Portland, Maine and is setting up camp on Snow Island in Brunswick.