Before leaving Yorktown, we had borrowed a car to drive into Hampton and pick up Pete Cateo’s old 135 jib. If it was in good enough shape we thought it could make a good dual jib down wind rig, and if not, some good bag material. While driving back, a fast moving storm hit and traveled up from Hampton and across the little anchorage at Sarah’s Creek. As it moved up highway 17, it brought down trees across the highway, and we sat for 2.5 hrs while they tried to clear traffic, wondering how Dancer was fairing the weather without us. Turns out, not too good. Since we had no idea any weather was coming in, and we were only going to be gone for a couple of hrs, we had left the boat “open” and with fairly short scope. On driving back into the marina, we could see that she had drug across the anchorage and was firmly stuck in the mud back on the opposite side. Nice start for a trip across the Atlantic!
I kedged out 2 anchors and we waited for high tide at quarter past midnight.
Once the tide had come back in, it took about a dozen turns on the windlass and Dancer was seriously wet, but floating again. Whew.
Saturday morning the 15th, we did a last few chores, put the dink on deck, and headed out the Chesapeake. Winds were out of the south at 10-12, so we beat our way out over the tunnel and into the open Atlantic by about 9:30PM and settled in for night watches. Was a glorious sail headed ENE. Made 88 miles that first day
Sunday the 16th we spotted our first whale quietly cruising about 150 yards away on our port side. Not sure what “brand” it was, but for the 2 times he broke surface the visible part of his back was bigger than we were. This was a pretty fast day, and we reefed the main at 1:30 in the afternoon. By 4:30 PM the wind had piped enough that we dropped the main and were still making over 7kts on jib alone. By 5:00 AM we had enough light to see a massive storm rolling up on us from the west. Using the radar we were able to pick our way between some of the worst, but still got banged around pretty good.
Jodi came on deck and said.” Two storms already and we are only on day two, are you sure you want to do this?” Absolutely I am! We Made 150 miles today,.
Monday the 17th as the seas flattened was a fabulous sailing day. Even reefed from late afternoon through the night we made 192 miles in 24hrs. Avg 8.0kts with the knot log showing max boat speed of 11.2kts.
Tuesday the 18. The new weather faxes showed two really fast moving lows had moved across the country and were headed out into the Atlantic.
You can imagine the look on Jodi’s face when I told her this news! The two storms were almost on top of each other, both projected to turn NE over water and cross our position by early next morning. We were now over 400 miles out and I could see no way to avoid getting hit. If we turned back, we might miss the second storm, but the first would nail us for sure. If we stayed on course, one would pass us to the east and the other to our west. Not good to be a low pressure system sandwich. If I cut SE, there was a chance that we could get across the path of the second storm before it got here, so we put her in high gear to the SE. As the seas had started to build again, we were not quite as fast today, but still were able to roll up hour after hour of 9-10 kt speeds. I thought we had made it.
Wednesday the 19th at 1:00 AM we were fully reefed down and running as fast as we could ESE. With a little help from the Gulf Stream, we were making 10.4 kts away from the storm. The boat was balanced so that we had almost no weather helm, and could handle the quartering seas without corkscrewing all over the ocean. At 4:00AM Jodi was on the helm and I was napping on the bridge deck. The wind had shifted and was now coming out of the SW so I was pretty sure we had made it out of the center of the storm track, but we were now in confused 9-11 foot seas and 24-26kts of wind again.
Suddenly I woke up to Jodi yelling “whoaaaaa…..GARYyyyyyyyy” and wham, we were knocked down on the port beam with the jib in the water, and the boom bouncing on the waves. Jodi said later that a wave “the size of a mountain with water curling over the top like the surfers like” had hit us directly on the stbd side. The next few minutes were obviously kinda fuzzy in both of our minds, but I remember seeing Jodi hunched down on the side of the cockpit seat with her head in her hands. I yelled “get your head up” and my favorite first mate in the whole world came back to life. She dumped the main sheet and Dancer started to roll back up.
She then dumped the jib sheet and I was wrenching so hard on the wheel that we now need to retention the cables. Dancer popped up, and immediately gybed tearing part of the vang loose, and blowing the preventer up like a bomb. I could NOT turn the wheel, period. Once she came up from the her roll to the other side, Jodi was trying to get the jib sheets under control, and I was trying to figure out which way the wind was coming from, and all this in total darkness except for the glow of the instruments lighting the cockpit. I could not find the center of the wind, the sails seemed to be flogging from both port and stbd, and the rudder would only move if I jerked it using a hand on each wheel together. Something had jammed the rudder.
24760 hours later…well it felt like that… I had found the wind and gotten us pointed directly down wind. Our heading was 180 degrees from when we went down so we must have been hit by the eye of the storm. Jodi was spinning the primary winch with the jib reefing line like a cowboy riding on a spinning bronc, shoulders pumping and hair flying in circles around her head. She was something to see as she managed to get the jib furled and the boom back under control. The rudder had loosened up some and I could steer if I used sort of a back and forth motion. I needed to get off the wheel to help Jodi, so decided to see if the autopilot could hold her down wind, and IT seemed to have no trouble steering at all.
We got the cushions back into the cockpit and the 6″ of water finally drained out. Pulled everything out of the port lazarette and leaned in upside down with a flashlight to clear what ever had jammed the steering gear. Nothing! No loose lines banging around, no paint cans in the cables, Nothing. We ripped everything out of the stbd side and I did the same, with the same result. Absolutely nothing. The jam had to be in the rudder bearings or something in the rudder its self, not the steering gear.
Now 500 miles at sea, our whole world dumped out on the cabin sole, everything wet, major gear broken or damaged, in a 35 kt gale with 11 foot seas, and I can’t steer the damn boat. Not my finest moment.
Sanity returned very slowly, but the autopilot seemed to be able to keep us pointed directly down wind, so we just started to take stock, and try to make it livable in the cockpit again. I tried hand steering again, and everything seemed perfectly normal, except that the cables seemed to have stretched some. The sails seemed intact, except for a broken batten in the main and both jib sheets with “blown” breaks in them, so I built a new preventer and tied everything down tight.
We ran directly down wind with bare poles at 3-7.7 kts for the next 30 odd hours. In the afternoon I got the latest weather faxes, and the two lows had merged into a single long system with a full gale to the SE…right over where we were. The centers were predicted to move several hundred miles north in the next 24 hrs, so if we could just ride it out we would be OK …… NOT!
There was a 5th system that had come across Georgia and would be headed into the Atlantic….and come up the same track, the next morning. The fax also showed a front stretching down the Atlantic from the North Sea to Cuba, like a fence dividing the ocean top to bottom. 5 storms in the first 5 days, and a fence between us and the Azores and Ireland…..it’s time to turn home and do this trip next year.
After it seemed like thing were settling down, we raised a little jib, and turned slowly back to the west in the remaining heavy seas.
I had just gone below, holding on to anything I could grab and working my way over the mounds of rubble on the floor, when I heard the wind building again. We got the jib down in seconds and turned down wind again before a squall hit us with 10 minutes of sustained 45 kts and one long gust that held the wind speed meter at 62 kts. Enough is enough already, we are leaving, just let us go !
The return to Martha’s Vineyard was fabulous. Winds very light for most of it, and no longer concerned about fuel, we motorsailed through glassy flat seas, looking to get pictures of the hundreds of white tip sharks fining the surface. Firmly anchored in Edgertown harbor, we are going to take a couple of days OFF our beloved Dancer before starting to put her back together. The Gods of the the sea said NO Ireland this year, so we will cruise New England for the summer and then to the Caribbean or Mexico for the winter. Next spring, we will join the ARC rally, and the Gods willing, cross the Atlantic and see Ireland in 2014.
Fastest day – 192 nautical miles
Fastest speed – by Jodi 14.2 kts, by the log 13.9 kts
Time spent sailing over 9kts -more than 12 hrs
lbs of stores dumped on the cabin sole – all of it!
Time sitting at anchor in beautiful places – priceless