The Tempest Trifecta

DSCN2025While my voyage aboard Coral of Cowes was smooth sailing for two-thirds of the time, the other third had its challenges. By the time we were north of thirty degrees latitude, we were vulnerable to the typical weather systems in this part of the North Atlantic, and at this time of year, that meant serious storms that track west from North America and east to Europe.

For ages, mariners took advantage of these massive lows to speed their way back to Europe. This route was a leg of the Atlantic Slave Triangle that took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Gold, sugar, indigo, salt, and tobacco were carried back to England, Spain, Portugal, France and Holland from the islands. Then ships traveled south bringing guns, ammunition and other factory made goods to African kings. Finally slaves were transported from West African ports to the Caribbean completing the trade triangle.

Today, yachts the Caribbean to go east usually do this after May 1st to miss the summer hurricane systems that officially starts in June and avoid the early spring Atlantic storms. Coral, however, left a bit earlier on April 26th due to the fact that the captain had a lucrative charter scheduled June 1st on the Isle of Wight where the seaport town of Cowes is located. After a winter in the Caribbean, Coral of Cowes was finally going home.

Cowes, England

Cowes, England

Our voyage started with unusual, but highly advantageous winds. Trade winds usually blow from the Northeast in the spring, forcing boats to sail directly north to near Bermuda. At that latitude, wind directions change due to the forementioned North Atlantic storms. During our departure, winds blew from the unusual direction of South-Southwest. This allowed us to sail northeast for three days, the precise direction of Portugal’s Azore Islands. By then, our skipper Richard Oswald was concerned that we might encounter the Azore High,DSCN2026 a large subtropical, semi-permanent high atmospheric pressure typically found south of the Azores. The high is known for little rain and variable light winds mixed with calm. We had limited diesel to motor through the immensity of the Azore High and with so much distance to go, the decision was made to sail north. We aimed to meet the tailwinds of our first Atlantic storm.

Our timing could not have been more perfect. By the time we reached the 30th parallel, seas were 15-20 feet in height, winds were blowing aft at 35 mph. This moderate gale pushed us east at great speeds. At one point, Coral was surfing down waves at 14.5 knots. The schooner was feeling her pedigree and clocked a 200 mile day.

The next storm we encountered was a different story. We had been tracking it since departure. The low formed off the New England coast and had now merged with another coming from Newfoundland. When we saw the two become one, we immediately changed our course due south to avoid the system. But the storm was too fast and we reduced sails to a minimum before it hit. The near Force Eight gale raged for twenty-four hours. Afterwards the crew repaired chaffed lines and ripped sails. We also began monitoring a third storm heading our way.

Captain Oswald believed that if we sailed fast, we might be about 20 miles from our Azores destination of Horta when the storm would hit. DSCN2089We could then sail in the weather shadow of the neighboring island of Pico and then sneak into port at Horta. The other alternative was to race due east and make for Madera, Spain or even Lisbon in an attempt to avoid the storm altogether. In the end, it was decided to make for Horta.

Two days later my mate Dexter and I were on the 2-5am shift about 50 miles south of our destination. Conditions were calm when we began, but it was the darkest night that I had seen at sea. We were occupied with a freighter on a collision course with us for about a half hour. It passed just off our bow perhaps 100 yards away. Dexter and I always seemed to attract massive freighters at night for some unexplained reason. By now the seas were rising and helming was a challenge. By 5am Richard and Paul came on deck to relieve us. The captain decided we needed to tack to the west to keep our course to Horta.  By this time the wind was howling and the waves approached 20 feet high. The third storm of the Tempest Trifecta was now a gale. During the tack, there was an enormous Crack! DSCN2078Our bowsprit, the spar that thrusts forward had broken in half and was hanging over the side. An all hands on deck was called. I was assigned to steer Coral south away from the wind and waves. It took our crew an hour to lower the sails, get control of the boat and lash the broken bowsprit to the deck. During that time we had lost the distance we had sailed in the past six hours. No matter. Our first priority was to avoided the danger of a wave slamming the bowsprit into the hull and gashing a hole. We had done that and now decided our next move.

With limited sails and the diesel on, we tried to resume our course north to Horta. But we made little progress sailing into the wind . We heaved-to, a method of fixing the helm and sail positions so that the boat makes little forward progress. In doing so, we only made one-knot per hour to the east in a stable, controlled manner. We remained in this mode until the storm passed twenty-four hours later.DSCN2068

I was back on the helm at 6 am. There were fair winds and the sun shined. When I asked my mate what compass course he had been steering, he said “Just aim for that island.” It was my first land sighting in 16 days. DSCN2067Faial, the Azore island with our destination port of Horta, lay ahead. The waves were still high and I would loose site of the island and its neighbor, Pico, time and time again. I started singing an old Donavan song at the top of my lungs, First, there is a mountain. The there is no mountain. Then there is.

The island of Pico in the distance.

The island of Pico in the distance.

The Tempest Trifecta was over. By two in the afternoon we would be arriving in the comfort of Horta. The crew was all smiles. Oh, Juanita. Oh, Juanita. Oh, Juanita, I call your name…

For the song… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-oi9GtY1MU

 

Underway

DSC03035So what is it like to do a trans Atlantic crossing on a 113-year-old sailboat? In a word, multidimensional. Like skipper Richard Oswald said, “ We are sailing pretty much like it was 2 centuries ago”. Sure, we had a diesel engine, a satellite phone, batteries and some poly lines. But for the most part, how we sailed was much how it was like for sailors 200 years ago. For me, that was rarified air. I felt a real connection to those that had done this voyage before me.

DSCN2056Raising and lowering sails took a crew of four plus a helmsman. Many times two would handle one line with one person ‘sweating’ the line (pushing then pulling it toward him and down), while the other would take in the slack and eventually tie it off with a figure eight around a pin. No modern winches for these halyards. Also, we had no autopilot, that clever device that controls the steering to a direction that you dial in to a specific course. Rather, Coral of Cowes required one of us to manually steer the boat at all times, day or night, regardless of weather. We had shifts of two crewmembers for two hours in the daytime and three hours in the night. Each crewmember would man the helm a half hour at a time during a shift. The other would do everything else in the meantime—monitor the horizon for boats (we had close encounters with ocean-going freighters every day), make coffee or tea, check lines for chafing and sails for rips, monitor the radar—you name it. The skipper banned gambling and declared this a ‘dry’ cruise—no alcohol until we reached Horta 16 days later. Both were good ideas although I had never considered gambling much of a problem.DSCN1886

There was always two of the crew assigned daily to the galley to prepare food and drinks for the other six on watch duty. Before we left Sint Maarten I had joined the boat three days before departure.

Claire Briggs

Claire Briggs

My main job was to assist Claire, the assigned quarter-mistress responsible for provisioning the boat with food and other consumable necessities. Charlie Couture also joined the trio since he had made an earlier Atlantic crossing and had a good idea of the quantities needed to fuel a Coral crew. We had to feed 8 people, three times a day for a maximum of three weeks. That’s 500 meals. In one day we spent $1700 on food. We rented a car and scoured the French and Dutch sides of Saint Martin for the best foods for a hungry crew. When all was done, we probably spent $2400 for everything. A couple of times I was paired with Dexter, our bosun from Grenada, on galley duty. Man, did we make some mean West Indies curries with liberal amounts of the hot peppa’ sauce. The island boys did well.

Charlie hauls in a mahi mahi.  Fresh sashimi tonight!

Charlie hauls in a mahi mahi. Fresh sashimi tonight!

Once under way, I was surprised how busy I was with helming, crewing, cooking and cleaning. I gave up trying to shave the first day. We bathed every 4-5 days, as water was a premium even though we had a tremendously efficient water maker. There was still plenty of time for contemplation. I spent hours staring out to sea, memorized by the vast undulating, cobalt blue surface upon which we sailed. It was a one-time-only configuration of wave, wind and sky that changed by the second. I felt privileged to witness the impermanence of this waterscape that would never be repeated again. It was the power of being there at that precise moment, at that slice of time in our planet’s methodical journey around the sun. If you want to see a bit of what I did from the deck, check out this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJzPdODGiUc  or type in ‘coral trans atlantic’ on You Tube for other clips.

At night I would often scan the heavens for stars. No light pollution this far away from land. Down below, I slept deep and had enormous amounts of dreams in super saturated Technicolor. I had not dreamed this much ever in my life. None of the dreams were about the sea. Most were about my past and included family, friends and old acquaintances, many who I had not thought about in ages. Most dreams were pleasant, a few disturbing and a few brought up old regrets. The experience was one of exhilaration while being exhausting at the same time. But once awake, the  immediate environment took over. I moved on with the demands of the boat and my fascination with the sea.

I remember we were about three days out of Sint Maarten thinking, “OK, I’ve seen enough.” But there is no drop off point and I was quite wrong to think that I had seen all that I was about to. It was only beginning. One surprising event was that my old body changed. I got physically tough. My fingers thickened with muscle. My hands become a leathery surface of dried skin and salt. Weeks afterwards while taking a hot shower, the skin from my palms flaked off like white snowflakes. I learned how to steer the 75-ton ship in demanding seas without putting additional stress on my right shoulder’s rotator cuff that started giving me pain from Day One, the result of too many years carrying 30-pound video cameras.DSCN2062 All of us had the requisite bruises and bumps that everyone gets being on board, especially during the three storms we experienced. No one was immune. One day while sitting on a fixed stool by the salon’s dinner table a wave hit Coral broadside. Its force sent me flying across the room to the opposite side of the boat. DSC03062Fortunately I landed in the soft comfort of a beanbag chair. By the time I staggered down the dock in Horta with a serious case of sea legs 16 days later, I had become one tough hombre. I found that enlightening.

Lastly, I was enchanted by the sounds that Coral made while underway. “This old lady, she speaks to you,” said the captain. And it was true. There was the creaking of rope on wood, whistling sounds that at night brought images of sirens wooing me into the black water, the crack of a sail by the wind, the strain of a preventer holding back a boom, the sounds of waves breaking all around us or against the hull. Paul Briggs asked to me one morning if I had heard Jimmy Hendrix playing among the rigging the night before. I said I did. It must have been The Wind Cries Mary. This sonic world dominated my time aboard. Those sounds still enter my dreams now and deliver me back to the sea in a heartbeat.

Porthole under the waterline.

Porthole under the waterline.

My Mates

To embark on a voyage such as I did involved living with seven strangers for several weeks. The only person I “knew” was the captain, Richard Oswald, and our relationship was based on a few phone calls over 10 months. DSC03030So it was a leap of faith that I joined the crew aboard the Coral of Cowes on April 23, 2015, for me and for them.

There were four that were the permanent crew of Coral and they had sailed since at least January together, many longer than that. Oswald had taken on Dexter Telesford DSC03027from Grenada early on when the captain had just bought the boat four years ago and sailed it to Grenada for some repair work. It was there he met Dexter and signed him on as permanent crew. Dexter told me he loves Coral and that was evident to me at our days at sea. These days he serves as boson and knows the old schooner well. Then there is Charlie Couture, DSCN1955a young man in his twenties who has worked aboard Coral for several times in the past four years. The captain has known him since he was a small boy. Charlie later attended a private school on the Spanish island of Ibiza where Oswald taught for a time. Charlie is also a burgeoning shipwright, skills that we would need desperately later in the voyage. Lastly, there was DSC03045Henry Morgan, late teens who joined the boat in January in the Caribbean. Yes, he’s related to that Henry Morgan—famed British pirate, buccaneer, conqueror of Panama and later the governor of Jamaica.

The rest of us are paying customers. Claire and Paul Briggs hail from the British Isle of Guernsey. Both are experienced sailors.DSCN1969 (1) Paul was quick to point out that Guernsey is not part of the United Kingdom. I liked the “Key West -Conch Republic” anarchical spirit that Paul claims. Both he and Claire were great mates. And there was Chris Morphy,DSCN1920 (1) accomplished jeweler in gold and silver, entrepreneur and seeking knowledge of classic boats. For all of us that were not permanent crew, plus Henry Morgan, this was our first trans Atlantic. Charlie and Dexter had all crossed before. For the skipper, this would be his fifthteenth crossing. “You will be a different person by the time we reach Horta,” claimed Oswald. I was willing to experience the transformation to come.DSCN1958

Sunsets At Sea

DSCN2041Stunning extravaganzas often strut their stuff in the middle of the ocean at that late time of day when sun kisses sea. Perhaps these are distinctively different from other sunsets since the events are unencumbered by the voodoo of terrestrial interference. The palate is only water and air meeting way out at sea. This atmospheric gumbo of light, energy and molecular moxxy delivered sunsets that I never witnessed before. It was one of the many payoffs I received putting myself in that unique, but vast, place of only water and sky.DSC03069DSCN2047

Take, for instance, these two photos of the same sunset. DSC03064DSC03066They are blue, frigid and frighteningly beautiful. To me they conjure images of the North, perhaps the Arctic. Strangely, this sunset was at the end of our third day while Coral still was sailing through the Tropic of Cancer.

This sunset featured cirrus clouds, wispy strands of delicate cotton adrift at 20,000 feet. DSCN1897The air was warm, the seas calm. The crew, short sleeved and comfortable, laughed and ate dinner on deck. The cirrus was an early warning, however. DSCN1896These clouds are often the prelude to new weather systems, usually ones where conditions deteriorate. By this time the following day there were black skies, disturbed seas and growing waves. Coral was about to face the first of three major storms that we encountered during the 16-day voyage.DSCN1893

Not everyday ended with an entertaining sunset. Storms of the Atlantic ensured that. But on those evenings of fine weather, mother ocean and father sky collaborated to show the endless beauty or our big blue marble in images of color and form that I will never forget.DSC03074DSCN1900

Choosing The Ride

DSC_2259When it came to picking my boat to sail across the Atlantic, there were many choices. I wanted to make sure I chose the best for this endeavor is both time and money intensive, and because of that, this would be my only opportunity. The trans Atlantic for me would be a one-time only event. Plus, there are so many peaks to climb upon our big, blue marble. I have other plans in the bucket that I still need to pursue.

Last year I attended the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, a showcase of some of the most beautiful sailboats in the world. Even in this nautical beauty show of 100 classic yachts, Coral of Cowes had caught my eye. I would pass her every morning as I walked the dock to my ship for the week, Grayhound. Two months later, I was looking at Coral’s website and discovered that she was slated to cross the pond in 2015. That is when I contacted the captain, Richard Oswald, about the ride.

DSCN2029But the right boat is only one part of the puzzle. The captain is the other and during various conversations with Oswald, I felt that he was competent, experienced and safe. He had graduated from university in economics back in the 70s. And while his student buddies pursued life long careers that involved debt, mortgages and suburban bliss, Richard took another path. He tried working at an investment company for two months, but that nearly drove him mad.

Soon he fled south to the Spanish island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean. There, Oswald crafted a catamaran from plywood and became a charter boat captain. He would hustle tourists on the beach for sunset cruises. This launched a lifelong career at sea sailing to ports in Europe and the Caribbean.

So with captain and boat in order I made an appointment to fly to the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten to do my dream voyage, 2200 nautical miles to Portugal’s Azore Islands.

Horta.

Horta.

Crossing the Ocean

sails & linesBack when I was just a kid, I had a dream that I wanted to cross the ocean much like Columbus, Vasco de Gama and John Paul Jones.  Well, it took me over six decades to fulfill that dream.  I was really pushing the clock on this one.  The next few entries will be about that voyage.  What follows is a summary of my time at sea.  Short pieces of that amazing experience will follow in days to come…