We bid a bittersweet goodbye to our dear friends on Discovery and Daydreamer on Thursday. Then we set off down wind for a night crossing from Marigot, St. Martin to the British Virgin Islands (BVI's). We hoped for an uneventful crossing. That's not what we got. Here are some excerpts from my journal.
Friday. Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, BVI’s. We got our butts kicked coming here. We sailed in from St. Martin yesterday, but today I feel together enough to write about it. Let me break it down:
- Left at 7:30pm. Beautiful skies. Calm winds. Emily made dinner. We all ate while underway and enjoyed looked at the stars. The Milky Way. Who knew!? The kids settled into a movie. Karina and I took watch from 9pm-12am. Eli hung out in the cockpit with us for a while. He came out from watching his movie, sat down and tilted his head back and looked at the sky: “Whoa….thousands.” Yes, son, there are thousands of stars. I loved this moment.
- As we got further out from St. Martin, the wind and seas picked up. I started to feel rocky so I laid down on the salon floor. Karina’s place of choice when she’s not feeling well is at the helm chair. So that worked out. Eli fell asleep in the cockpit. Lily had fallen asleep in the main salon. She woke up somewhere around 10-11pm. I helped her below to her bed. This made me sick. When I came back up, I had time to pull out a large stainless steel bowl and threw up, dumped it down the drain and rinsed the bowl. I went back to the floor and stayed there until the end of our watch.
- 12am. Turned the watch over to Emily and SJ. I stumbled below, with my bowl in hand (I’d put on a scopoderm patch by now, but it was doing me no good whatsoever.) Our bed was covered with so much stuff. I pushed it aside, flopped down and promptly decided I need to use the bowl again, so I did. My bowl of puke lay beside me as I dozed off. Around 1:30am, Emily called for me. “We’re spinning in a circle.” I stuck my head up through the hatch. I’ll be right there. I got to the helm in about ten seconds and we started to re-steer the boat. I believe the autopilot had disengaged for some reason. There was another vessel within site. According to its lights, it was a power vessel. Within half an hour, it had passed us. The lights of St. Martin were gone. The sky above alternated between beautiful star fields, and blank shrouds of blackness. Clouds. With the boat back on course, I went back to bed. Going below felt like a tumble into a large, dark, undulating, creaking pit. This time I didn’t need to throw up. I was too tired.
- 3am. My alarm went off. Time to be back on shift. By this time the night had chilled and I had put on my track pants. I wore a white t-shirt. No socks. I pulled my wind breaker from the back of our closet. I stumbled above, the boat pitching in the waves as we headed down wind on a broad reach. We originally left using just the head sail. We’d been making four knots (~4.5 mph). We wanted to make 6 knots, so before the first watch we’d turned up wind and raised the main sail. We’d put on a preventer: the old spinnaker halyard wrapped twice around the boom and tied off to the deck cleat amidships. Now, with their watch over, Emily and SJ went below. They woke up Alison and sent her up on deck. Alison and I laid down on the cockpit bench. We shared set of headphones and listened to tunes from my iPhone. I finally got up to check our course. We were on it. Moving made me feel sick, so I went to the rail. All the spaghetti was gone, so this time it was just bile. The ocean hissed eerily in the white glow of our stern light. The water was teaming, and we were moving fast, 7-8 knots. I laid back down. I felt the wind pick up strong and the temperature dropped 10-20 degrees. I went to the helm, looked at the wind indicator. Thirty-one knots. I laid back down. “Alison, that’s what thirty-one knots feels like.” Then the wind shifted to the south, the boom threw over from port to starboard and the preventer and the boom started creaking. I moved quickly to the helm. The wind built and the rigging groaned. Then the rain started. Torrents, but all in blackness. Wind at 30 knots, 35 knots, then 40 knots (~46 mph). I turned on the engines. “Alison, I’m going to point us into the wind to take the strain off the sails.” And that’s exactly what I did. The rain was inundating. I couldn’t see anything. I was soaked. I took off my glasses and held them in my left hand, while I gripped the wheel with both hands. The iPad (which I use to navigate) fell off the helm station shelf. After the second fall, I just handed it to Alison. "I'm not going to use this." All I needed was the wind indicator. I was going straight into the wind, pure and simple. Alison prayed.
The rigging and sails rattled like pent up prisoners. I kept my eyes fixed on the wind indicator and the sails. No pressure on the sails. Keep them slack. That was the plan. The rain kept coming. I was cold and started to shake. There was no time to put on more layers, so I was in track pants and a t-shirt. No socks. It kept coming. Motoring upwind took strain off the sails, but also moved us toward the back of the squall quicker. It was almost 4:30am. I knew the sky would lighten eventually and we could take the sails down then. I wasn’t about to do that in the dark. Not in those seas. I was now heading east. I thought I saw the lights of St. Martin glowing over the horizon. But then the light continued to widen. I realized I was seeing the horizon, and dark divide between the sky and the clouds over head. Like a narrow strip of paper torn, a band of light started to open in the east. The winds settled down into the mid thirties, then upper twenties, mid twenties, low twenties and then upper teens. Once we were into a steady seventeen to eighteen knots of wind, I started to trust them again. I eased us north and let the sails fill again.
The wind was still coming from the south. The rain had come with cold slabs of air, but now it was blowing warm again. My teeth chattered. My right leg shook as it was propped up against the bulk head next to the helm. “Alison, I’m cold. Can you hand me the blanket?” It’s wet. “That’s okay, so am I.” She handed me the pale blue blanket and I wrapped my self in it. My teeth chattered less. I wiped the salt water off my glasses and put them back on. My nausea returned. My leg shook less. I prayed a little too. A prayer of gratitude. (One of my favorite lessons: God doesn't always calm the storm, but he can calm us in the storm.)
The wind started to move around to the east. I eased the boat west ten degrees, then another ten. Our destination was at 300 degrees. I was now heading 310 with the wind directly on our stern. “Alison, we’re going to jibe. I’m feeling awful. Can you do the deck work?” She was wet and a little rattled, but she nodded her head. “First we’re going to remove the preventer from the deck cleat, then trim the main sheet to center. I’ll turn us further down wind, then we’ll ease out the main on the starboard side and reattached the preventer over there. Then we can switch the jib. Sound good?” She nodded. That’s what we did. The sky was bright enough to see. It was 5:30am. Back on course, we slumped into the cockpit. At 6am, I knocked on Karina’s hatch and called her up for her watch. The sky was fully bright. We could see Virgin Gorda in the distance. We’d made it through the night.
- 9am – I woke up for the last time. There were dolphins swimming along side. The whole boat was a chatter. I still felt nauseas, but made my way to the bow, laid down on the trampoline and watched as seven dolphins swam along two feet below, darting forward and up, breathing through their air holes, playing with us and each other, racing ahead and jumping up into a flip that landed them on their back. Eli and Lily squealed with delight. They were charmed. It was a charming moment. The swam with us for almost an hour. By mid-day we were at anchor in Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, BVI's.
P.S. I later learned from Daydreamer and Discovery that a 50+ foot catamaran heading from the BVI's to St. Martin had been hit by the same squall at 4am and had their mast ripped off. They had to cut it loose to save the boat. They showed up rattled and worn, but safe, in St. Martin. (Don't worry, Mom, we'll be fine : )