Day One: Takeoff
We joined the assembled 51 boats of the Caribbean 1500 Rally in Hampton, VA. The week's flown by in a round of almost constant meetings, dinners and parties, not to mention stratospheric provisioning carried to moronic extremes, followed by catatonic meanderings about the boat to find homes, however temporary, for such excess.
Mild weather and brilliant sunshine persisted all week. Last minute forecasts indicate not a tropical despression in sight; in fact, the weather is going to be benign, let us go graciously. Pacific winds and seas are predicted until at least Friday. Apparently we'll be closely trailed by a Bermuda high. This means we will probably be the last boat in the race to arrive, instead of one of the first as in 1999--it takes at least 15 knots of wind to get the Lulu the Lovely Lummox really going. Meanwhile the shorter, lighter boats will be flying by. If we want to gather any speed we'll likely have to motor. Otherwise it's going to take us longer than the 7 days and 1 hour we did the last time. Fortunately we, and not most of the other boats, carry enough fuel to motor the entire way. Not exactly the sporty, but certainly the fastest, way.
And, just in case we (over Antsy Gary's protesting body) choose the slow-boat-to-China option, we're provisioned for at least a month, without even touching the canned goods. We also love spending time with our two crew members, Jane and Chris who joined us in 1999; more even than expert, they fun.
At 1123 Monday, we're just about off, as ready as we’re going to be for an approximately 1300-mile voyage. We head out of Hampton harbor with 37 minutes to the start. The goddess of nature has indeed blessed us with perfect sunshine, 20/20 visibility and temperatures of 60 to 65. As predicted, she's unfortunately neglected to handle the wind...right now it's 9.4 true. Clearly it's gonna be a calm, warm passage.
We’ve been forewarned of some vague Navy ″operation“ and essentially scolded: Beware, don’t dare come within 500 feet of any warship and if you should stray within 200 feet you’ll not only see the acne on some 20-year-old midshipman’s face but also be treated to the sight of his Ouzi sighted down on you. We’re told to watch for submarines—now how exactly do you see a submarine, I wonder?
Sure enough three or four battleship-gray battleships of daunting proportion dominate the area. A bevy of ten-person Coast Guard inflatables nip at their towering flanks, looking silly and self-important. Black Hawk helicopters drone about their bridges like mildly irritating no-seeums. A distant mini-city of an aircraft carrier completes the picture of ostentatious military might huffing about protecting the world from sleepy Hampton and multi-malled Newport News. They’re not even there to give our fleet a 21-gun sendoff. It all seems a giant waste of scarce fossil fuel and manpower that could otherwise be diverted, say, to high school.
As we approach the start we've got the mainsail and genoa out; we're adjusting their luff tirelessly so as to pass over the line just at noon. Jane's at the helm and steers LULU just about perfectly--we sail right through the start at noon plus a few seconds. We're the sixth boat over.
Within an hour the wind drops to 5 knots; we've got all three sails out. Despite a very determined Jane--who has doggedly been directing her crew to adjust, tweak, sheet in, ease in, out-haul or inhaul, while simultaneously throwing herself left and right across the cockpit to make minute changes to the traveler (if you don't know, don't ask)--the boat is just about farting along the water in mere fits and starts. Finally, when even the smaller boats are gaining on us, we convince Jane to rev up the motor.
At lunchtime, an hour later, when the wind has dribbled to 11/2 knots, we crack open a bottle of white wine. As Chris puts it, "Well what else is there to do?"
Chris, who's given up on all other forms of weight control, is readying herself for a gastric banding procedure. Given the amount of food I've prepared or otherwise hunted and gathered, I heartily approve her approach to the procedure. Taking full advantage of the time left, she's eating most everything available. I recommend a strategy that takes her merely teetering, but not somersaulting, over the brink of a new wardrobe.
By 1530 (3:30 PM to all nautical dummies) we're motoring along at 8.3 knots, with 5.9 knots of wind. We're bare-handed, hatless and wearing nothing more than cotton tee-shirts. It promises to be a beautiful night
Day Two: Lummox Unleashed
Morning brings a first-round win for LULU! The dawn statistics show us physically ahead of the whole pack of 51 boats, which is momentarily exhilarating. However, that happy circumstance doesn't take into account relative engine usage. Every boat gets penalized for motoring. We've had our engine on almost a full 12 hours. But on the other hand, with wind in minute supply, most of the other boats have had to motor as well. Presumably we're ahead because we have a Sumo wrestler of an engine, whose whole-hearted exertions we welcome enthusiastically—though its prodigious efforts simultaneously shattered what would surely have been an utterly serene night at sea.
The wind meter oscillated primly between 2 and 3 knots all night and we saw not more than five knots, nor much more than one or two boats passing far, far off in the distance. A quarter moon and about a billion stars lit the amphitheater around us--our own private planetarium.
A mini-flurry of excitement occurs during my watch. (Anything works to keep the watch person awake around 2AM.) At around 0330, the Coast Guard announces a downed plane at coordinates 35.10 North, 75.02 West and a sighting of significant flare activity near it. LULU is at 35.22, 75.06, about 12 miles north of the area, but moving south towards the alleged plane. Several Coast Guard cutters are steaming toward it, so I adjust course 5 degrees east, just to stay out of the mayhem, to avoid pissing off the CG in any way and to preclude hitting the plane as well. Half an hour later, I can see several ships, presumably Coast Guard beaming searchlights off our starboard bow and a plane hovering over the scene. I do not slacken speed--after all, the race goes on. I leave the "crisis" and the matter of steering back on course to Chris and go off to bed, amid a perfectly calm sea.
Not 15 minutes later, around 0500 just as I think I might actually be dropping off to sleep, we’re treated to a snappy, side-to-side rolling--a brisk welcome from the Gulf Stream. Six hours later finds us more than half-way through this turbulent course of warm water that rushes up the East Coast from the Gulf of Mexico, takes a starboard turn after rounding Hatteras and heads toward England to prevent it from turning into an iceberg.
By the time we’re out of the Stream the sea has smoothed out to the consistency of a near-perfect gravy.
Which, of course, brings to mind the subject of "What's for dinner tonight?"
This morning's sanguine prediction calls for westerly winds piping up to 20 to 25 tonight, which occurrence could induce an ecstasy aboard LULU surpassing, possibly, the short ribs and gravy dinner I just popped out of the freezer.
As for the crashed plane: given the short-distance reception of VHF transmissions, we heard nothing further of the rescue operation. We’re short on real news here.
Days Three and Four: Some clip…and some clunk
This passage is somehow so much easier than the first, six years ago. Truly earnest cruisers invariably talk about getting into the rhythm, falling into a groove on a long passage after a few days. I always thought they were the real deal, while we were just power boaters playing the role of serious sailors. But, lo and behold, this passage is so much easier, after two days, than six years ago.
Six was probably too many people to have had, especially when one was sort of an odd-duck loner. Four seems the perfect number in the cockpit for meals and still allows a watch schedule that works out to an unbroken six-hour sleep stretch every night. At least potentially: I find long snoozes problematic anyway—even in cradle conditions—but almost impossible with a boat pitching and an engine grinding away directly under our mattress. Still, with such light wind and little heeling we've haven’t had to arrange our bodies athwartship and clutch on to the night tables by our fingernails so as not to roll completely off the bed.
Shooting stars streak the skies all night long. Tuesday night the moon dropped from a dark fuzzy cloud and hung there like a cartoon lemon slice. The water’s given up it’s East Coast industrial grime; it’s as if it’s been treated to a good rinse and emerged perfectly clear, ready to reflect the baby blue sky. I’d just about forgotten what clean water looks like.
After two days of no appreciable wind at all—generally 3 to 6 knots and mostly on the nose, we finally got wind, glorious wind, up to 24 knots and primarily abeam. Jane and Chris sure know exactly what to do with it. They get LULU charging at it like a puppy with a sturdy leg to ride. They’re constantly fretting over the sails, fixing the lines, fluttering about other still-esoteric stays and blocks. They’re like a set of obsessive parents who actually produce results.
For these next two days we fly, taking the wind gratefully in great gulps and rocketing forward. Wednesday we hit a steady 8 to 9 knots and Thursday, with even stronger winds, frequently abeam, we've been in the 9s regularly and hit as high as 10.7.
At the two daily chats, where boats report their locations, we can’t wait to see if we’re still whupping their asses. And, somehow, incredibly, we’ve kept the lead. It seems almost the entire fleet is without wind and is motoring. The combination of our strong engine and being in front of the pack and the developing weather pattern, has us poised to get the first strong winds and it’s given us, if not a commanding lead, then a healthy one.
The nearest boat, JOY FOR ALL, is about 17 miles away and there’s surely no joy among that crew: they radio us frequently, question our position, our strategy and in general are fairly busting a gut to catch up with us. We shouldn’t really be ahead: though we've got the longer water line, LULU’s meant for cruising and they're designed as a racing boat.
We're in the highest of spirits, which is a damn good thing, because on Thursday our generator goes and it's beyond one of Gary's fantastic feats of fixing. He thinks the problem is a cracked exhaust elbow. Meaning parts we don't have.
Meaning also no watermaking. And we've been using water at our usual profligate clip, soaking it up liberally for everything from showers to dishes to washing clothing, greedily draining the last fill-up at the dock. Then, as we blithely rev up for our refill, the generator farts a few times and then quits, literally in midstream.
We haven't got a great deal left. Gary's not really given us a tank reading, claiming the boat's on such a regular heel now it wouldn't be accurate. Truth is, I don't think he wants to know. We've got enough drinking water under the floorboards (again, we're not quite looking or counting.)
We have three to four days left to go, so we're just in for discomfort, but not danger. We’re taking it on as an adventure—sort of camping out like (some of) our kids. There'll be no air-conditioning as we hit the real tropical temperatures, for sure, but there'll also be no showers and we'll be washing dishes in salt water—outside on deck—with trickle rinses inside. The way the majority of cruisers boat; most don’t have watermakers but do have salt water pumps at the galley sink to soap the dishes.
So we’re conserving at every level, even the toilets: except for the big stuff, we're also not doing too much flushing. But, we’re flushed enough with the thrill of the race and the fun of trying to keep this lead.
Days Five and Six: Friday’s a Blah, Saturday’s a Blast
Thursday night the wind dies down but the moon is bright, lighting a Rorschach sky. Cirrus clouds of mythic proportion ring the horizon, inviting human interpretation: a fanged cheetah poised to attack, a rotund blowfish with Tweety Bird lips, a craggy Rocky Mountain mesa…Gary— predictably pursuing his two ruling passions—sees a stuffed goose with meaty drumsticks and a classic set of female genitalia.
At morning roll call we hold our lead. Clearly our Sumo engine is still throwing its weight, shouldering and heaving into the ocean, trading blow for blow. . All day Friday the wind becalms us, clocking in at far below 10. We motor for 16 hours. And continue into the night.
“Damn you, wind, blow! “ I rage, while Gary philosophizes and Jane and Chris watch the meters, popping up at any hint of gust to schlep out the sails. Thus, we are amazed to discover at the evening report that most of the fleet, which is now scattered hundreds of miles apart, has been sailing all day. The boats behind us—by 75 miles to 200 miles—have seen consistent winds above 20. It’s amazing to think we’re all in the same race, in the same sea, but just as in life we’re all in our separate pockets of reality, fighting our private battles, scoring our individual triumphs.
Notwithstanding, we hold the lead and have widened the LULU/JOY gap from 10 ˝ to 22 miles. There’s Misery on the Bounty. JOY, we like to imagine, is getting sullen. They’ve stopped the cheery radioing.
Friday night starts off quiet but by midnight the wind builds into the teens. The Sumo gets cut off in mid-grunt and we are again asail. Wind builds throughout night, up into the 20s. We viscerally understand “fickle as the wind.” We’re moving gratefully under our own steam again…and fast.
Ignoring the watch schedule, on and off during the night we gather on deck to celebrate, to nip, tuck and ease the sails, taking advantage of each new wind angle, then dribbling off to sleep, to the tune of whooshing wind, rushing water. JOY is silent, we assume licking their wounds with salt water
In fact, outside, day and night, nothing related to humankind is within sight, not even within radio distance. Nature is doing a far better job entertaining—no dazzling—us. Lit sapphire in the sunlight, the ocean is calm as a lake, its undulations gentle as a sleeper’s breath. The clouds continue Cecil B DeMille in scale, the days are gleefully sunny and its sunburn-peel hot, especially without any breeze.
More treasure at sea: at night LULU cleaves a deep groove in the black water, sending back froth lit emerald on one side, ruby on the other by the bow’s opposing navigation lights. Cresting at midships a bright moon burnishes it silver and gold as it dies back into the ocean. At 0400 a glowing orange moon, almost full, sinks into the cloud line, treating us to a moonset that rivals the sun’s doings
The wind is out of the northeast building up into the 20s. Can’t be better.
We anticipate morning roll call like a hot cup of coffee. The boats in our class are clustered together near the top of the list. We report one after the other—except for that miscreant, JOY, which somehow landed near the bottom of the list. The wait for their location is maddening.
It’s also unbelievable. We’re 56 miles ahead. Oh,JOY, oh joy! And still in front of the horde. For only a short time more, though. The fact is the catamarans, feather light and incredibly efficient in big wind, can easily do speeds of 25 knots, even 35 with expert crews. They always come into port first, which is why they’re in Class One. They’ve been held back by the lack of wind and motoring because their engines are tiny. ALACRITY, appropriately named, is just behind us, poised to fly past us.
Our goal is to win our Class Two, eight boats. We’ll probably arrive in Tortola first, but even then the trophy may elude us once our handicap and engine hours are added back in. Still it’s these moments of elation—and beauty—that we’re here for.
Of course, this is a race and anything can still happen. 336 miles to go.
The two-day forecast is for continued strong winds out of the northeast—a perfect point of sail for us. Boats out in front—between latitudes 22 and 27— will see the highest winds, 20 to 25 knots, spiking even to 30.
Bring ‘em on!
Night 5 and Day 6: Saturday night (and Sunday afternoon) fever
Remember, “Damn you, wind, blow!” And “The ocean is calm as a lake, its undulations gentle as a sleeper’s breath”? You heard it here, folks, and barely two days ago.
All history. Ancient history. Someone more inclined to double entendres than I would say antediluvian.
Last night just after the rally experts forecast 20- to 25-knot winds, spiking to 30, the wind decided to best those numbers. And did exactly that, successfully through the night and continuing deep into Sunday afternoon. Twenty-five has been pretty constantly the floor, and while the ceiling for us hasn’t been any higher than 30, our wind meters consistently read 26, 27, 28. Other boats farther back reported 30 as the norm, with frequent blasts to 35 and 40.
Meanwhile, the ocean is has become manic. Repeatedly, single-mindedly, it’s been heaving up imposing, sometimes even colossal—as in brontosaurus-, whale-sized—waves. Heavers, rollers, jumpers, hold-your-breath-ers. Some splash over the canvas; others crescendo higher than the cockpit; some suds up over the windshield, inviting carwash comparisons. Others are merely 7- to 9 footers. Sometimes as we heel over, the sky is blotted out and all we see is a solid mass of ceaselessly roiling water. All of which is awe-inspiring, commanding, even plenty daunting, even more so at night.
The elements have clearly established their omnipotence, yet in this instance not their command, over us. Not that they couldn’t. We remember Katrina, haven’t forgotten Rita.
To paraphrase some expert at this rally, if you’re going offshore you’ve got to learn to recognize the difference between danger and merely impressive.
We know we are not in any trouble. We’ve taken all the necessary precautions: shortening sail, reefing sail while remaining minutely vigilant. There were two, usually three, of us in the cockpit all night. Sleep was fairly impossible anyway, given the sauna temperatures in the closed cabin, given that we were rocking continuously side to side and heeled so far over that we pulled the fitted sheet on our bed halfway off the mattress attempting to maintain some, any, position and, failing miserably, sledding far to starboard. We were tired but exhilarated as the hours passed and we maintained good speed, direction and control.
Such frenetic weather activity gives LULU a chance to demonstrate her mettle, her unfailing ability to take heavy weather on and sail resolutely through it. But not on her own; she was handled ever so skillfully, expertly, authoritatively by Jane and Chris, who continued to design new sail trim in response to the wind’s and water’s A-D-D behavior, delivering 8- and even 9-knot speeds through the night. Today, as these conditions prevail, show no sign of slackening and may even escalate, we are necessarily moving a tad slower.
And, at the 7:30 AM call-ins. LULU yet rules! The catamarans have closed the gap only slightly, the closest one about 25 miles away. JOY and the others in our class remain 60 miles and more behind.
All this velocity and hyperactivity did not, and does not, bode well for the shorter, smaller, lighter boats in our class, who fall more often into troughs, bash deeper into the waves and thus move more slowly. The likely, but not necessarily foregone, conclusion of this exciting race is that we will win. Now, so close to the finish, and, scenting victory, we’re greedy not only for a First in -Class but also Line Honors for crossing the finish line first.
We passed under the 200 mile-to-go mark sometime around 6AM and, as of this moment, Sunday afternoon, have 128 miles to go. We’ll make landfall tomorrow morning.
Night 6 & Dawn 7: Hell’s Belles and Landfall!
As predicted, the “overenthusiastic” weather conditions not only prevailed but, again putting a lighter face on it, “amplified,” rather than “worsened.” And, as fate usually has it, fell upon us at night, when it’s most creepy. Winds built, seas climbed to 10- and 12-footers, possibly even higher, coming first straight at us, creating a seesaw forward and aft motion and then broadside, pitching us sharply side to side.
During one of those broadside starboard thrusts, while standing on the companionway steps I was catapulted down, propelled like javelin over to the nav station bulkhead, landing smack on my forehead. Dr. Jane had ice compresses on my sore head within minutes. Captain Gary was by that time, felled by seasickness and spent most of the day and night wedged across our bed—uncomplaining but not nearly comatose enough.
A squall line established itself and all through the night we passed from beneath one stark black cloud formation to the next. With each attendant storm came rain and stronger winds escalating in just seconds from the 25-knot range up through the 30s. The highest we saw was 44 knots. Jane and Chris, AKA Gary’s Deck Bunnies, The Wench Winches and, when in their superhero mode, The Dynamic Dike Duo, reefed the massive genoa in and used the smaller, more easily managed staysail as our heavy weather and secondary sail. They anticipated the wind spikes accompanying the sudden storms and, in continuing masterful exercises of prescience and teamwork, were at the ready to attack first, the mainsail, reefing and sheeting it in, then to move rapidly to shorten the staysail.
These moves sharply checked our boat speed, and, since my self-designated job was Chief Whipper and Flogger, in charge of getting us in first, I spent the night pleading with them to let the damn things out again so we could win. Depending on your point of view this was due to my experiential confidence and certain knowledge of LULU’s solidity in big seas (my point of view) or my imprudence, over-optimism and innocence about how bad things could get. (Jane’s) Taking her usual role, Chris took the road straight up the middle, comforting and cajoling both of us. Would it surprise anyone to learn she comes from a family of eight kids?
Indeed, on that subject, we were to learn along the way but mainly after we arrived, that three boats had lost rudders and one boat was completely dismasted, making difficult conditions dangerous and even more unpredictable. One of the rudderless, MERLIN, a 54-foot Little Harbor, got as far as Anegada, about 25 miles from Tortola, before running out of fuel and calling a tow boat to bring them in. Several boats diverted to the injured, bringing fuel and lending welcoming moral support.
We also learned that ALACRITY, which we had mistakenly assumed neutralized, was, in fact, a 50-foot racing trimaran. It looks like a low-slung submarine, a water torpedo so futuristic in shape it might be an overgrown bath toy. Except it performs like a rocket ship, is capable of 35 knots (for a sailing boat that’s warp speed) and was merely hanging back. Presumably the crew was establishing a suntan base. For sure they weren’t eating well or living the high life—we were told there wasn’t more on board for the four guys than a loaf of bread and one roll of toilet paper. Now that’s impetus for a timely arrival.
“There’s more ballast in our freezer than their entire boat weight,” says Gary.
From behind us to the west, they blasted into Tortola on Sunday afternoon, we were shocked to learn on the evening report.
Disabused of our innocence and misconceptions, we soldiered on nonetheless. At 0400 (4AM) we saw the lights of Tortola afar—I at first mistaking it for a cruise ship.
The last squall descended on us as we passed the finish line at 7:24 and 38 seconds: our elapsed time 6 days and 17 ˝ hours.
If not deserving of line honors then, we have the honor of being the first monhohull to finish, before the far faster, lighter catamarans with their rollerskate capabilities. Arriving about 1 ˝ hours later, within minutes of each other, came the three cats, ZIA, RUNAWAY and SUNSHINE, the latter skippered by a renowned professional captain Bill Biewenga.
As for our Class Two, it seems SEPTEMBER MORNING, a 53-foot racing J-boat came up from behind and, despite having to hand-steer in grueling four-hour shifts through those horrendous waves and winds, arrived some 12 hours after us, with 21 less engine hours than we. It looks like they will take first in class after all the handicaps and motoring gets taken into account.
We’re disappointed but nonetheless deservedly proud and deservedly so. Plus, if we had to lose we’re thrilled it was to them, because they became friends in Hampton and we’re pretty crazy about the boat’s professional hired crew, Glen and Ann, and their volunteer crew, Gretchen and Don, who are cruising friends (sailboat ELIXIR) from earlier cruising years.
Thanks, all for following our exploits, successes and blessedly few travails.
Golfers among you will maybe understand the final scores. We certainly don’t. Much to our shock, at the awards ceremony we discovered that, with handicaps and engine hours accounted for, LULU came in fifth in Class Two. And, rather than taking the category, our friends on SEPTEMBER MORNING fared even worse: they came in seventh. The winner was BETWEEN THE SHEETS, a 62-foot Hallberg-Rassy, which had only 24 hours, 20 minutes on the engine. Their strategy truly a racing one and exactly the opposite of ours: move slower but under sail, wait for wind and then take full advantage of it.
An irony: at landfall they cranked the engine to come into port and discovered it had died some time during the trip. We jumped into our dinghy, as did two other boats, and zipped out to haul them in with ropes.
If they were willing to hang out, risk exposing themselves further to all that ferocity, apparently they wanted the win even more than we did. We, on the other hand, responded to the lure of port, to bellies at the bar and umbrella drinks. We’re still power boaters after all.
On the subject of handicaps, then, Jane’s decided our only real handicap was when it was too rough for a second bottle of wine at lunch. .