If you tuned in last month I was in Florida helping a Beneteau sloop and her owner John, relocate to the Caribbean. It was September and so it was hurricane season in that part of the world. After a trip down the St. John’s River we were preparing to head out to sea for the 290nm leg south to Miami. Wx reports showed a hurricane going ashore north of us sending strong north winds from which we expected a large southbound swell. The entrance to the river was deemed ‘all weather’. Still, with the tide running out into a large cross swell I was expecting a rough departure. It was nighttime, it was raining, my crew and boat were untested. It seemed like a good time to give it a try.
I suited up and went forward to secure the anchor. I had left it ready to drop in case of engine failure on our river trip. By the time I got back to the helm I could feel the large swell sweeping under the boat. I looked around one last time to make sure we were ready. I wondered if John had taken me seriously about securing everything below for knockdowns, which were likely this time of year. We could hear the rumbling of large surf. I assumed it was coming from outside the seawall. I was favoring the left side of the channel because that is where my wind was coming from at upwards of 30kts.
Our first wave tumbled in, definitely inside the breakwall and definitely coming right for us. I brought the motor up to cruising speed and advised John to get under the dodger. The wave rolled over us. It was impressive. It hit the boat hard and covered the bow and filled the cockpit. We pushed on. The second, bigger wave inspired John to stand for the remainder of the action and to suggest, in no uncertain terms, that I should be steering directly into the waves. Hadn’t he seen Perfect Storm? That doesn’t always work out.
And the waves kept coming. Though they were stacked close together and were steepened by the outgoing tide, I was not concerned about the boat. Each breaker hit hard on the port bow launching her into the sky then dropping her into the pit between walls of water. All the while she felt sturdy underfoot and the motor ran strong. The headsail was ready to deploy had the engine failed and we needed a push back in.
John gave up giving me steering directions and seemed to accept his fate, whatever that would be. To ease tensions, or maybe just because I felt so alive for once, I started singing the show tune from Gilligan’s Island. Loud raging conditions are the only time my singing voice sounds good to me. I would usually cut the corner, but to be safe, I carried on through the surf and current out to the last green buoy before pointing the bow finally south.
As it always does when turning downwind, sanity came rushing back and all seemed relatively calm. We regrouped. In regards to steering directly into waves I later explained that 1) we had a low seawall reportedly just to port and 2) a boat can make more headway not hitting waves straight on thereby shortening the ‘ordeal’ or ‘adventure’ depending on who you asked.
We rolled out about half of the headsail and bolted off south. The waves were still rolling into the cockpit from behind us but we hardly noticed. We started our watches, three on, three off. I went below first, as John seemed to be wide awake. I awoke to a loud bang followed by a vibrant rolling sound which ended in a thunk. The furling line had chafed through and the headsail had unfurled to its full size. It had been run wrong, something I had not checked for. The boat accelerated. This was good, I thought, we are really seeing what this boat is made of on this easy coastal leg.
This situation posed a bigger problem to me than motoring out through a tough entrance. The only way to shorten sail would be to go to the bow and pull the whole thing off the headstay by hand … in 30kts. Though I require them on my crew I don’t like harnesses. The time and focus consumed by clipping and unclipping can be frustrating to me. Still, I was willing to make an exception considering the circumstances. I slipped my way along the jackline to the bow that was lurching side to side as the boat surfed along with each large swell. We had a plan John and I. I was concerned because John had a habit of implementing his own ideas into my plans. This time he was perfect and maneuvered the boat under the big sail right on queue. We hoisted a much smaller sail and went back onto the watch schedule.
It was somewhere in here that I noticed the rudder shifting in its casing. Not much I could do about it. As our storm to the north broke up our sail just got more and more beautiful. Being pushed past those big coastal towns was a sight. I’ll say it again; I’ll take downwind 40 over upwind 15 anytime. We had made good time which had put us off Miami in the dark before dawn. What else is new.
They call it the Biscayne Channel. It’s a nasty little cut, a couple feet deep on each side, with more dog legs than a Korean restaurant. With every third marker light out and with the blinding city lights behind them, the turns were hard to find. John went to work, standing at the bow with a small flashlight picking out slight reflections from old daymarkers. With a current running cross-channel I kept looking back to check our drift by aligning previous markers. We made it to Dinner Key and got tied up, a nap, a shower and headed in for brunch and a coldy at Scotty’s. After that we went to work on the boat.
I have some minimum requirements for taking a coastal cruiser 1000nm through an unprotected part of the Caribbean, upwind in the wrong time of year. Not in any particular order I wanted a depth sounder, a thumbs up from the Beneteau engineer that the rudder wouldn’t fall off, a mainsail that had reef points, and crew that listened intently and carried out skipper requests verbatim. John’s list was shorter. He wanted to go now. Though I admired his drive and fearlessness, his plan reeked of shipwreck. On the brightside a depression off Haiti seemed to be breaking up which could give us a few days of descent wx. It made me want to go too.
In the end, John couldn’t wait. He knew that a departure delayed even a couple days would mean that he couldn’t make the trip. We agreed that John should find another skipper. It was all very amiable. I returned all unearned money and then some. John found another skipper but they decided to wait until November, after hurricane season, when they found sunny fast downwind conditions. There’s value in the drive he displayed but with the sea, drive should be balanced with finesse that allows the conditions to adjust one’s plans.
I suspect that Kim was disappointed though she did well not to complain. I had invested in food for the trip which she had gone to the trouble to acquire, even cooking a few meals in advance. It did not go to waste as Kim lives at “the compound” where she has surrounded herself with a bunch of wonderful people, the peace and love types who are always a pleasure to be around. I spent two soothing days there before heading back.