Weather window heading south

Midwinter, 1999

By Dodge Morgan

The standard sail from Maine to the West Indies in the late fall is a rough passage to Bermuda followed by a warm, easy slide to the islands. But there are always variations on this theme and we got those this time.

There are four of us on Wings of Time. Casco Bay to Bermuda is 736 nautical miles. We depart Nov. 1 in mid-50-degree sea and air temperatures typical for early winter. Our propulsion is a brisk westerly wind. Watches are set for single-handing, four of three hours during darkness and three of four hours in daylight, one sailor alone in command at a time. We skim by Provincetown and over the edge of Nantucket Shoals on a plan to edge east for a quick, right-angle Gulf Stream crossing and for a close-reaching angle on expected southerly winds later.

It is a one-hand-for-me-one-hand-for-the-boat bumpy ride reaching on 30-knot winds. Two and one-half days of chattering in the cold ends abruptly as sea temperatures blossom into the mid-70s to signal we have entered the Blue God. Then things begin to happen. Our automatic pilot quits and we are forced to abandon our single-hander technique for two-man watches. The leech of the jib tears away; we jury-patch the sail with sticky-back tape and cloth. We are reefed way, way down making 8 knots through 8- to 10-foot seas.

Then the marine radio emergency channel comes alive with trouble. It seems we are surrounded by a dispersed fleet of 54 sailboats and several are in real trouble. They all belong to an organization called “Caribbean 1500,” which each year organizes a group sail south on the theory, I guess, that ocean passages are easier and safer in a crowd. This theory is not working.

One boat has been abandoned by her crew for a freighter ride. Another has been dismasted and none in the crew of four is able; they cannot even manage to haul aboard a hawser with its messenger line thrown by a ship attempting a rescue. We listen to the rescuers discuss alternatives. A Coast Guard helicopter finally reaches them.

Next we hear Bermuda Harbor Radio report on the newly energized tropical storm Mitch, which, after devastating Central America, has pulled a 180 back into the Gulf, crossed Florida and now heads directly for Bermuda carrying 60- to 70-knot winds. We stay our course and decide to race the storm to Bermuda’s St. Georges Harbor. The storm travels at 25 knots and we make 8 on the reciprocal course, the two of us heading right for each other.

The fates and Lady Luck choose us to win this race by a neat five-hour margin. After sailing into the protection of St. Georges, we are settled at anchor, 7-to-1 scope, with drinks in hand and are watching Mitch bend the trees and raise the spume with 60-plus knots of wind. Our toasts are to the poor bastards still off shore. The storm passes quickly.

In 24 Bermuda hours, we drink hard and sober up, get our jib sewn up, install a spare automatic pilot pump and set off again in lively 35-knot northeast winds, perfect for the passage straight down longitude 65 west to Tortola. The 12- to 18-foot seas churned up by Mitch stay with us for the four days it takes to cross 835 nautical miles. Winds vary between 25 and 55. We take a beam reach all the way and baby the boat with minimum sail area. The motion is amusement park caliber, but our daily runs are impressive, up to 195 nautical miles.

Four and one-half days after departing Bermuda, we are snorkeling in 85-degree water on a reef at Carter Cay, British Virgin Islands. The air is exactly the same temperature. I think I have just completed my 27th passage between Maine and the West Indies.