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Solo Passage Notes, Nassau to Annapolis – Part 1

Monday May 27th, 2019

We had been waiting for over a week for Ted’s Swedish crew mate Josefin to get a US Visa processed. It was 9 am and she had just received notice it had arrived. Within a few minutes Stet and Oh! weighed anchors, departed our beautiful bay and headed to Nassau as fast as we could go.

While Josefin went off to retrieve her passport and visa, Ted and I did some final provisioning and notifying our emergency contact people of our pending departure. Ted and Josefin were going to sail his Lagoon 42 “Stet” north to either Beaufort NC, or Norfolk VA where they intended to do a large provisioning and spare parts purchase to prepare for their voyage to Bermuda and the Azores. I was going to buddy boat with them to Norfolk, VA while sailing Oh! solo. At Norfolk we would part company and Oh! would continue on to Annapolis for a summer haul out. It would be the end of Oh!’s incredible 20 month Caribbean and Atlantic circuit. Our route would take us northeast along the Gulf Stream to Chesapeake Bay. We hoped to take advantage of the current to make the 750 nmi. passage in 5 days.

As we waited for Josefin to return, a flood of memories kept taking me back to foreign ports and all the incredible experiences I had been so fortunate to have had over the past 20 months. In many ways it was mildly depressing to be making the final passage and knowing this adventure was coming to an end. However, I knew that a new odyssey was going to start in the fall…cruising and sharing exploring the world with friends old and new had become a passion I wanted to continue. For many of those who had joined Oh! to experience the sailboat cruising lifestyle or make an ocean passage, we had made a big impact on their lives and plans. Some negative, but by far they were very positive impacts – and that was gratifying. Balancing the thoughts of this chapter of my life ending, was the excitement and dreaming about where the next chapter would lead. The day was a mixture of sadness, pride in what I had accomplished and a resolution that this was only the initial phase of helping others to pursue their sailing dreams. Clearly there will be more adventures and new horizons yet to come.

It is interesting how with each new adventure that is completed, the world becomes an even bigger and more fascinating place. It is like it is pleading to be explored – and yet, it also has become a far smaller, friendlier and far more welcoming planet than I had ever dreamed it would be.

As the whirl wind of emotions and thoughts flew around inside my head, I went about checking off the last minute “to do list”. The last item was to notify Nassau port control of Oh!’s departure. Then, I weighed anchor and with very mixed emotions, departed Nassau at 1530 on May 27. Stet followed as we headed for the open sea.

The weather forecast for the next five days was excellent. East, south and southwest winds were forecast to align perfectly with the Gulf stream for the voyage north to Chesapeake Bay. A large high-pressure system north and east of the Bahamas was forecast to remain stable for 3-5 days. The western edge would therefore circulate winds clockwise as it slowly moved east. Although the winds would be light, it would be a very pleasant sail for at least the first four days; at least that was the “forecast”. The preferred landfall would be Norfolk Virginia, 750 nmi. north at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay where I planned to clear into the United States. The entire voyage to Annapolis MA would be almost 900 nautical miles and it would probably take 7 to 10 days.

The longer term weather forecast was not as good. Some of the weather models predicted a front coming off the United States that could potentially bring strong northwesterly’s clocking to northeasterly’s that would develop in 5-6 days. That was not a weather pattern I wanted to be sailing in with strong wind directly opposing the powerful Gulf Stream current. Therefore, the passage plan was to go as far north as we could with the south and west winds. Then, if necessary Oh! and Stet could divert to Charleston SC, or Beaufort NC if the predicted front and northerly’s looked like they would materialize later in the passage.

Sailing solo on long passages is so different to sailing with crew – the two experiences really are like comparing apples and oranges. Superficially they are a sail from point A to point B. All of the same limitations and systems on Oh! are identical whether it is a solo passage, or one with crew. The precautions, weather planning, logistical and emergency planning are pretty much the same as well – yet the two experiences are dramatically different. Both solo and crewed options have many positive and negative aspects that are important to consider to find the best balance for each passage. Despite having crossed the Atlantic solo and completed several other short solo passages, this one seemed more challenging. I had already completed two previous Bahamas to Beaufort NC passages with crew, so the area ahead was not new to me. However, the higher volumes of marine traffic, cyclic nature of the weather, frequent lightning storms and how quickly a favourable forecast can change in this area was never far from my thoughts; maybe that is what made it feel more challenging. My passage planning was focused on how to best handle those variabilities while solo. The route and strategy would be similar to my previous passages, but one factor needed more thoughtful and dedicated consideration. That factor was to be more vigilant about getting good sleep as often as possible. As I learned on the trans Atlantic solo, remaining well rested was really important. The other high priority was more frequent weather analysis and local observation. This was necessary to be better prepared for potential changes in weather. It takes longer to make sail adjustments without crew to help, so higher vigilance allows for better time management and prudent sail adjustment without having to react quickly to rapidly deteriorating conditions. Finally, don’t hesitate to detour to Charleston, or Beaufort if needed – the time of arrival in Annapolis wasn’t going to be a factor for this passage.

The first leg was Nassau to Westend on Grand Bahama Island where we would clear out of the Bahamas. The 154 mile passage should have taken just over 24 hours with 15-20 kt winds from the east. However, 6 hours after departing Nassau the winds dropped to 6-10 kts and stayed there until about 15 mi from Westend. That turned an overnight passage into 2 days, but it also became a fabulous opportunity to experiment with flying the spinnaker while solo.

Tuesday, May 28th

The first job was to put soft shackles on several friction free loops that would be attached at each bow and also to the mid-ship cleats. The spinnaker sheets, clew and tack lines would then be run through these then back to the mast winches, or helm winches. I had only used this spinnaker once before and the friction free loops would be a better attachment than the blocks we had used previously. Their smaller size and ease of attachment would just make everything simpler.

Once that was finished the lines were attached and run through the loops back to the winches. It was a then a simple exercise of hoisting the spinnaker in the lee of the genoa and adjusting the port sheet, running tack and clue lines for the downwind run. I purposely hoisted the Spinnaker inside out so the writing on the spinnaker would be readable in my pictures. Since it is symmetrical it shouldn’t make any difference. However, I’m sure any passing boats had a good chuckle at the goofball flying his spinnaker inside out. The port spinnaker sheet was attached at the midship cleat through a friction free loop and then run up to the helm. This would allowed for more trimming options as Oh! gradually changed course throughout the day from west to northwest. I was expecting we would go from a downwind run to potentially a broad reach as we rounded the southwest side of Little Bahama bank. The tack and clue lines would be worked in combination with the sheets to better position and add stability to the spinnaker. Oh! does not have a spinnaker pole so using the two sheets in combination with the running tack and clue lines creates a “yoke”. This is a technique I frequently use on the Genoa with a barber haul to get better sail trim. It worked really well and Oh! enjoyed a stable run downwind in 5-10 knot easterlies while averaging 3.7 kts of speed over ground (SOG) with a high of 5.7 kts as the winds touched the higher end of their range.

The lighter than forecast winds were not a great start to our voyage north, but it was a big milestone for me to use the spinnaker while solo sailing. I got to try a number of scenarios on how to launch and retrieve it on my own as well as think about ways to make it even easier to use. A few rigging modifications on block or friction free loop placement and adding another jam cleat at the mast would be good additions. As the sun was setting I snapped one more photo, unfurled the genoa and doused the spinnaker in the lee of it. It wasn’t a race and there was no need to risk having to deal with a big spinnaker at night if a squall, or wind shift occurred.

Wednesday May 29

“Stet” and “Oh!”, arrived at Westend, Grand Bahama Island at 0700 on May 29th, a total of 39.5 hours after our departure from Nassau. The two catamarans averaged 3.7 kts over the 145 nmi distance, most of which was in very light winds. The early morning hours had been cool as the winds had picked up to 15-20 kts on a broad reach. It was a nice finish to a slow passage, but chilly. The warmth of the early morning sunshine was a welcome treat. After a quick nap in the sun and then breakfast, I joined Ted and Josefin to go ashore and clear customs. Once cleared we were on our way again, departing at 1020. To try to make up some time, we decided to sail around the western end of Little Bahama Bank rather than take a more convoluted route across the bank. Oh! performed very well in the light winds of 8-10 kts on the beam and averaged 4.8 kts as we sailed to Memory shoal. It was decided we would make a quick stop to anchor on the shallow bank and try to find a civil war era ship wreck that was marked on our charts. We never did find the wreck, but the snorkelling in the warm clear waters was superb! As Oh! approached Little Bahama Bank you could clearly see the bottom – over 15m below!

We anchored in 4-5 m of water over a pure white sand sea floor and spent about an hour snorkelling in the late afternoon sunshine. The water was beautiful, very warm and surprisingly full of life. At one point a school of at least 100 small Bar Jack fish literally surrounded me as I snorkelled through them. They would each be about 40cm (1ft.4 in.) long. We also found some huge conch that we photographed then let go. Plenty of Trigger fish, Grey Angel and a few Barracuda were also seen. It was wonderful to just enjoy this massive aquarium we had found…especially knowing it would be our last swim in the Bahamas for a very long time.

Josefin, really enjoyed snorkelling and exploring the world beneath the sea. After each dive she would look up the names of all the fish we had seen. Here she is checking out the inhabitant of a large conch shell she found. Over the past 10 days since she had joined Stet, we had explored many reefs, the underwater sculpture park, sand flats and banks. Each time we both returned excited about the beauty beneath the sea – the Bahamas are a snorkelling paradise.

Anchoring in calm clear water with no land in sight to enjoy a refreshing swim is an incredible experience. Add to that discovering a healthy reef just 100 m from Oh!’s stern easily made up for not finding the wreck we had stopped to see. Another unplanned surprise that would be a great memory.

The anchor chain visible in the photo below is over 6 m below the surface and the ripples in the soft white sand are clearly visible. What a great way to end our Bahamian cruising!

As the sun began to get low in the sky we took one last look at the endless horizon sparkling in the setting sun beam and weighed anchor for the voyage north. Rather than return to the sound to the west, it was decided we would simply sail straight north off the end of Little Bahama Bank into the open Atlantic Ocean. There were no reefs in our path or shallows to be concerned about – just smooth shallow water sailing. As the sun was setting the easterly winds gradually increased from 7 kts to as high as 12 kts and Oh! steadily gained momentum under full sail in the flat waters. Oh! was in her element reaching in the smooth seas and comfortably held sustained SOG values of 6-7 kts. It was a fabulous evening sail.

 

Thursday, May 30th

The transition from the bank to open ocean was barely noticeable. In the dark moonless night the only clue was a gentle rolling motion from the weak ocean swell. A perfect day that concluded with a spectacular star filled sky and brilliant Milky Way above.

Night watches when sailing solo are a routine of short naps punctuated by a well rehearsed check of the data screens; heading, wind, SOG, the AIS display for identifying any nearby ships within 18 miles and finally a 360 degree visual check of the horizon for any lights. If nothing is found then I set the timer for another 29-35 minutes and go back to sleep. Total elapsed time is usually 3-5 minutes. A few times in the night an extended check that involves scanning the sails with a powerful flashlight and a quick bilge check are also done. On a good night at sea, you can actually get some pretty good sleep. Plus there are longer naps during the day when Oh! is much more visible to any other boats. I am always impressed when a large ship alters course for Oh!. On the sea there is no such thing as a “right of way”; each vessel is equally responsible to avoid a collision. So despite the size of many of these ships and their limited maneuverability, if they are the stand off vessel and do indeed alter their course, I always acknowledge it and thank them by VHF. Often that leads to a brief conversation with the radio operator about our respective destinations and modes of travel and where we are each from.

The following morning started like the previous day – another beautiful sunrise with its slowly building warmth flooding the aft deck. The starboard sugar scoop was the perfect place to soak in the penetrating warmth of the sun. Early morning is my favourite time of day. The sun is gentle without the searing tropical heat of mid day and the light is subdued making colours more vivid.

Wait a minute, why did the water pump just cycle? It is amazing how attuned one gets to out of place sounds! The only reason it would cycle “on” is if there is a leak in the system. Time to check the usual suspects – the aft deck shower, no it was off and no leaks. Next up, the port side hot water heat exchanger. For some reason – this area has been the source of more than its share of leaks. Sure enough, there was some fresh water near the exchanger – but where did it come from? Checking all the couplings yielded nothing, yet it was wet on the shelf below the heat exchanger. Then a chance glimpse of a falling drop of water from behind the engine coolant lines betrayed the location of the leak. Separating the coolant lines that had been zip tied to the fresh water supply lines revealed the leak – two micro fine pinholes in the blue cold water supply line. The twin sprays were each thinner than a single strand of a spiders web, but it was enough to cause a slow pressure drop in the water system and that would be all it took to cycle the pump every half hour or so. This was the second time I had found a similar pinhole leak in the blue plastic cold water supply lines going to the port heat exchanger. Identical leaks, but in separate line segments. A new item on the to do list for the summer haul out would be replacing the plastic water supply lines – but for now it needed to be fixed.

The twin jets of water show up on a paper towel as they slowly but steadily wet the towel and accumulate.

“Rescue Tape” to the rescue! Start to finish from hearing the pump to sealing the leak was just over an hour. Many people who have spent time on Oh! have commented about “the massive quantity of stuff and parts on board”. Yes we are pretty loaded, but there are no plumbers, hardware stores or chandeliers at sea, or even at many of the places we love to go to. So that makes two challenges:

1: carrying a wide enough variety of parts and bits to fix most issues, and

2: trying to remember just where a specific bit or part is, especially when there are hundreds of “bits” on board.

As one guest remarked in somewhat stunned awe while sailing in the Canary Islands, “this is an incredibly complex boat…the amount of stuff that needs to be working just to get a drink of water is mind boggling”. Well, yes and no. As cruising catamarans go – Oh! Is pretty basic, yet there are still a lot of systems to maintain. However, Stet the Lagoon 42… now that is a complex boat.

Later in the afternoon a small tear was seen near the leach of the main sail above the third reefing point. From the second and third reef points up, Oh!’s Dacron mainsail probably has well over 3300 hours of sun and wind exposure (usually between 18-30 kts of wind) plus 700-900 hours of night sailing which would translate to somewhere around 20,000 – 23,000 miles of use on the mainsail. Most of that would have been in the strong winds and UV conditions of the trade winds and eastern Caribbean. It was simply wearing out and I had already repaired multiple patches in various areas from the head to the clew over the past 18 months. A new mainsail was the “big item” on the list of repairs and refits scheduled for this summer. It had been a good sail with extensive use on 3 Atlantic crossings and 5 winters in the Caribbean, plus the 5 passages to and from the Caribbean islands and the eastern cost of the USA. Hopefully, it could be repaired to keep as a backup to the new sail. For now, I would simply add yet another patch to the half dozen already in place so it could continue to be functional as far as Annapolis.

Friday May 31st

Basic or not, a boat is a boat and in the harsh combination of environments boats live in…stuff wears out, corrodes, gets destroyed by the sun, or just breaks… and usually when you really don’t want it to. The next job on the list was another good example of just that statement, and one that I had been mulling over how to repair for the past 24 hours with one unsuccessful attempt already.

Six months ago the glued on handle of the overhead Lewmar deck hatch in the starboard shower fell off while Diane was closing the hatch. Much head scratching, internet surfing and finally an expedition to hunt down an appropriate glue to repair it ended successfully in the Azores with what looked like a great repair. Ahh yes, but the handle is glued on from the inside of the clear plexiglass lens and so time in the Caribbean sun has a way of really destroying plastics… or more specifically in this case – the glue that binds them. So… 24 hours earlier, the handle was found on the shower stall floor, (not its normal location) rather than holding the hatch closed. Obviously the sun and gravity had been scheming up another way to try my creative powers of repair, yet again! The first attempt was to simply re-glue it with the same glue. Initially it looked promising but just 24 hours later that clearly wasn’t working. Gravity won again and the hatch handle was again sitting on the shower floor. If it could speak I am sure it would have grinned and said, “ok, now what you gonna do?”

So what’s the big deal? Well an unsecured deck hatch while at sea is not good, even if it is directly over the shower. Fortunately, the seas had been very calm since the glue failed, but weather here can change very fast and Oh! was several hundred miles offshore approaching the Gulf Stream. The previous owner had a left a bag of old Lewmar handles on board as spare parts, so the challenge became finding a way to make one of those handles designed for the larger Lewmar overhead hatches, work on the smaller shower overhead hatch. Yes, all those “bits” stashed in lockers actually have a reason to be on board, as well as a small workshop of tools to modify or install them.

Since re-gluing the small handle was no longer a solution, I would need to find a way to install one of the larger “through the lens handles”. With a little modifying, drilling a hole in the hatch lens ( not a good feeling on a rolling sea) and some creativity, it worked. There was just enough room inside the smaller hatch’s frame to accommodate the larger handle. By removing the locking collar and moulded protrusion on the larger handle, the inside surface of the larger handle could be made to fit flush with the lens. A few low friction shims were needed to align the handle to the clasp, which also made the handle easier to rotate and…voilà, a new handle was installed. That was a big relief and well timed – just 12 hours later waves and heavy rain would be soaking that hatch with a lot of water as Ma Nature weather tested my repair for me.

The disappointing part of this whole exercise was, “Why wasn’t the original handle attached through the lens, like Lewmar does on their larger hatches.” The “through the lens” handle design is solid and reliable. Gluing a handle onto an overhead watertight hatch that is exposed to constant tension and the harmful effects of full sunlight was a guarantee that the bond holding that handle would fail, sooner or later. That is just really bad design; especially since that could have some very serious consequences if the glue fails while at sea and in bad weather. Argh.

Saturday June 1st.

The hatch handle repair test was about to begin. At midnight Oh! encountered a storm front that try as I did, I just could not get around. Oh! was eventually surrounded by a line of thunderstorms that initially stretched over 25 nautical miles. For 5 hours I tried to evade the approaching menacing line of squalls bursting with a staccato beat of sheet and bolt lightning. Needless to say there was no sleep that night! The squalls could be seen approaching from over 20 miles away as their lightning bolts lit up the horizon and the tell tail signatures of torrential rain appeared on the radar. The conveyor belt of squalls forming and blowing themselves out steadily advanced and morphed until it was like a giant pac man chasing Oh! around the ocean.

As can be seen on Oh!’s track, by making multiple tacks throughout the night I managed to avoid most of the squalls, but in the end it came down to; find a gap, fire up the engines and full throttle through it…and hope Zeus and his lightning bolts would be kind to Oh!.

The break out occurred just as daylight was revealing the menacing clouds that had only been visible in brief flashes of light, or where they were dumping torrents of rain so the radar could see them. It had been a long night and it was a relief to look back on the wall of clouds still firing off massive bolts of lightning. Ahead were clear skies and nothing threatening on the radar. All that remained were some very confused and lumpy seas left over from the passing storms and rapid wind shifts they created. The highest winds I saw were 36-38 kts. Ted on Stet recorded gusts up to 55 kts where he was some 31 miles further west. However, Stet was well west of the squall line and managed to avoid the rain or getting close to the lightning.

After a few hours the waves and weather settled to steady winds from the southwest and calmer seas that allowed for a few 45 minute naps. By mid afternoon life on Oh! was back to smooth sailing reaching in 15 kt westerlies at 6-8 kts. Oh! even had a banana pineapple, cranberry cake in the oven as a treat for the captain – he likes that kind of stuff. No doubt the aroma emanating from the oven must have been what attracted a small bird to stop by for a rest, explore Oh! and enjoy some bread crumbs that were put out.

With cake still warm from the oven accompanied by fresh cold brew coffee and hazelnut creme, life on-board was pretty nice. Perfect treats as I worked on this article in the warmth of the afternoon sun.

The sailing conditions and sea state steadily improved throughout the day. By dinner time Oh! was again enjoying a fabulous sail in light airs with the flow of the Gulf Stream speeding us north. The 10-12 kts westerlies gave Oh! a beam reach in almost flat seas. The frequent short naps between checking for any shipping traffic were quickly making up for the previous nights lack of sleep and my energy had returned. Another beautiful sunset was followed by a clear night sky filled with stars and a brilliant Milky Way. It was all topped off with gentle following seas and almost no shipping traffic – which equals lots of good naps.

To be continued in “Solo Passage Notes, Nassau to Annapolis – Part 2”

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