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Come hell or high water, Neptune’s always in charge at sea

2010 May 13
Even with the best of intentions I am not the most prolific blogger on the ocean. Somehow several months and nearly 5,000 miles of pretty amazing sailing have slipped by with nary a blog entry. Sorry about that, lets catch up, at least a little bit.

I last left you blathering on about waypoints while Quetzal was lying to a mooring in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Now I am back in Fort Lauderdale. Since then we've sailed from Lunenberug to Bermuda and on to St. Martin. We survived a gale that another boat did not, and that was sobering. We endured calms that tested our resolve and rang up $2,000 in satellite phone bills changing flights as the Atlantic wind machine went on strike. And now we've circled the Caribbean in three legs, visiting some of the nicest islands all the while reaching, for the most part, before very civilized trade winds. The ocean gives and takes away and always keeps you guessing.

The so-called weather window opened on November 7 and Quetzal cleared Lunenburg bound south. It was a crisp, cold, classic northern day, with a light but dense wind escorting us toward Bermuda on the rhumbline. I had a great and geographically diverse crew: Rolf and Mike from Minnesota, Pete from Alabama, Kristi from southern Georgia and John from Jacksonville, Florida. The southerners were bundled up like arctic explorers while the Minnesota boys thought it was balmy. Soon we'd all be decked in full foul weather gear racing before a northeast gale. But first we had to cross the Gulf Stream.

A sinister loop in the current arched north and then northeast, and despite having the latest satellite imagery in hand and a weather router back home, I managed to steer right into it. That takes a real navigator! We spent 24 frustrating hours sailing at 7 knots through the water but making less than 4 knots toward Bermuda. We were wasting precious hours of perfect weather, something you know will come back to haunt you at those latitudes in November. Luckily we managed to clear the wayward current just before the gale fully developed.

Sadly the same can't be said for Canadian solo sailor Herbert Marcoux. He left Lunenburg two days after we did in his 46-foot steel boat. He was an experienced mariner, having spent 18 years circumnavigating, and while his boat was a bit funky looking, it was stout. Unfortunately, a deep low that we hoped would track north of us reached south and strong northeast winds collided with the feisty Gulf Stream. South of the main body of the current we had winds steady at 40 knots, gusting to 50, and seas between 20 and 30 feet high. It was exhilarating sailing. We reefed once, and then twice, then finally tied in the third reef. The headsail was furled and the staysail was hanked on. Dressed down to storm canvass, Quetzal rode out the blow without missing a beat. Indeed, the 180 miles we logged during the blow was our best 24-hour run of the passage.

Two days behind us, Marcoux was in a different universe. According the Canadian Coast Guard the winds were 60 knots and seas well over 10 meters high. Like us, Marcoux was bound for Bermuda but he never turned up. We reached the island oasis in a slow seven days. When I called my Lunenburg friend, Alan Creaser, he was relieved to hear from us. He asked if we'd seen or heard from Marcoux. We hadn't. A few days later the Canadian Coast Guard began searching for him. By the time we finally reached St. Martin after a maddening passage of nine days, we learned that the Coast Guard had called off the search and pronounced the 68-year-old sailor as "lost at sea."

With a willing and capable crew, well-found boat and a storm strategy, it would have been easy to feel like we'd survived and Marcoux didn't because we were somehow better prepared, maybe even better sailors. But none of us felt that way. We were lucky, we had a two-day head start. Hebert Marcoux was terribly unlucky. One window opened, another slammed shut.

I keep thinking about him and wonder why he foundered. Did a hatch give way and flood the boat? Was the boat rolled over, or even pitchpoled? Was he washed overboard? Did the boat sink slowly or was he overwhelmed by a monster wave. We will never know. As sailors, the pact we make with Neptune, with nature, is as serious as it gets, deep ocean sailing is not a casual enterprise.

Reaching before a soft Caribbean trade wind was a world away from, as my friend Christian Pshorr calls it, "the wilderness that is the ocean." My new crew assembled at Captain Oliver's Marina in Oyster Pond, St. Martin. We were bound for Trinidad. Many islands littered our route. We ended up calling at Antigua, Guadeloupe, the Saints, Dominica, St. Lucia and Bequia during the 11-day passage. We had Dan and Deb from Oregon; my dear friend and longtime shipmate Eric from the island of Roatan; Abe, a potato farmer from New Jersey with a natural feel for the sea; David from New York City, who at age 71 was as spry as anyone else aboard; and Robert, an Illinois doctor by day, filmmaker by night and a man passionate about sailing.

Say what you will about the French, but I love them and their subsidies. You can buy a fine bottle of Bordeaux in Guadeloupe, the Saints or Martinique for 6 or 7 euros. In Antigua we explored Nelson's Dockyard. In the Saints we drank a lot of wine. In Dominica my friend and guide Edison took us up the Indian River. In St. Lucia we relaxed and drank more wine. In Bequia we watched the Canadians beat the U.S. for the gold medal in the best hockey game I have ever seen. Then things got interesting.

Sailing south from St. Lucia we had a great reach on the windward side of St. Vincent. There was no reason to fire up the engine. However, as we eased into Admiralty Bay, Bequia's storied anchorage, I went to crank the diesel. Nothing, nada. We dropped the hook under sail, and while most of the crew went ashore, Abe and I worked on the engine. Abe's a farmer and has conned old diesel tractors back to life for years, and I am a Kentucky mechanic in my soul, and always get the engine running one more time. This time we were stymied. Alas, we'd sail to Trinidad. And we did-we had a great sail, again staying upwind of the Grenadines and Grenada to avoid wind shadows. We clipped along all day and night and in the morning we were just 10 miles from Bocas del Drago, the mouth of the dragon that guards the harbor at Chaguaramos. Then the wind died. We drifted, and drifted and drifted some more. It was utterly breathless. We drifted back toward Grenada. There was not a wisp of wind. The crew had flights to catch. Swallowing my pride I called for a tow. Soon a small skiff emerged on the horizon. As they eased along side it seemed doubtful that the small outboard would have the oomph to pull us home. But it did, and a few hours later we were tied to the dock at Coral Cove Marina. It was an ignominious ending to a nice passage to be sure and another clear reminder that Neptune's in charge out there. The next blog, which I promise will turn up sooner than later, will cover legs two and three of Quetzal's Caribbean odyssey. Stay tuned.