ST. MARTIN TO BERMUDA: Solo Passage Without Underpants

Underpants on line

I think it was Fatty Goodlander who once wrote that he is always so nervous just before starting a passage that he constantly has to pee. I can certainly relate to that. No matter how many times you’ve done it, no matter how well prepared you are, at least if you’re skipper of a vessel there’s always a vague element of fear and uncertainty to wrestle with on setting out to sea. Most particularly when you’re going alone. When sailing solo the potential consequences of stuff you forgot to attend to and of miscalculations you may have made always seem grossly magnified.

You can imagine my dismay then when I realized the morning of my solo departure from Oyster Pond aboard Lunacy that I had forgotten to pack any underwear. Not that this in itself must be fatal to the voyage’s success. I did have the one pair of underpants I’d worn on the plane down to St. Martin, which I could repeatedly wash by hand en route (see photo up top). I also had two pairs of swimming trunks I could wear. And of course, being alone, I could always just prance around the boat naked if necessary. (Don’t worry, I have no photos of this.)

Even magnified these consequences seemed manageable, but the fact of the missing underpants thoroughly deflated my already flabby balloon of confidence. If I couldn’t remember something so fundamental as underwear, what else might I have forgotten?

With heart in mouth then, I cast off my lines early Wednesday morning (the week before last) from the dock at Capt. Oliver’s Marina where Lunacy had spent the winter. I had doubled up the last, most important line, a spring line I needed to back down on to pull my bow clear of the annoyingly fat catamaran that had parked directly in front of me. But when the moment of truth came–after my bow sprung out clear of the cat, and I popped Lunacy‘s engine into forward gear, and I tried to pull the doubled-up line onboard from the helm–the damn line got stuck on something. I quickly uncleated my end and let it go so as not the mess up my exit, and as I motored clear stared morosely at my marooned dock line–a brand new shiny white one just a few months old–hanging off the dock bollard with its ends dangling in the water.

Should I land again to retrieve it?

If I’d had crew I certainly would have done that. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have lost the line the first place. But landing the boat alone, then taking off again alone seemed more trouble than it was worth.

Just a moment later, as I was raising the mainsail alone before heading out of the harbor, I stepped alongside the flogging sail at just the wrong moment and got whacked in the head by the boom. The very first time in my life this had ever happened to me.

My confidence balloon was now beyond deflated; instead it was a black hole, all inverted and sucked in on itself. I felt the back of my head and wondered: should I delay my departure and wait and see if I have a concussion?

F**k that. We advance.

And so I set forth, without clean underpants, feeling alone and vulnerable.


Yours truly, spinning confidence out of thin air to reinflate his balloon

The first three and a half days of the passage were unusual in that the wind wasn’t blowing from the east, as one might normally expect in these latitudes, but from the south, most continuously. As I was going north, almost directly, this meant lots of solo foredeck work. Setting the whisker pole to wing out the jib. Jibing it when the wind shifted one way. Striking it for a while when the wind veered so far west I could no longer carry it. Later resetting it when it backed again.

But the wind was very moderate, so none of this was taxing. Working a boat alone at sea, but most particularly the foredeck, it is important to move deliberately, planning out each step of an operation in advance, then focusing exclusively on each thing you’re doing as you’re doing it. Which is always much easier when there is none of the urgency that a strong breeze can create.

Also, the moon was nearly full, shining all night long, which made it much easier to work the deck after sunset.


The moon, doing its thing. A question about the moon: why the heck have we never named it??? It’s like having a dog, and naming it Dog. Very lame!

Hazy sunset 1

Hazy sunset at the end of day one. I learned just before leaving that a huge cloud of harmattan dust from the Sahara had blown clear across the Atlantic to obscure the view in these parts

Hazy sunset 2

Hazy sunset at the end of day two. Not so much dust, with the pole now on the other side

The first two nights I slept very little, as my mind was still abuzz with low-grade anxiety. But starting the third night I slept soundly, which of course didn’t mean I was always sleeping. You read about hardcore singlehanders who set a timer with an alarm to wake up every 20 minutes, but I’m not one of those. I just go to sleep and count on the sensor alarms–AIS for vessel traffic, radar for both traffic and squalls–to wake me if anything interesting is going on. I wake up every hour or so anyway, always with a big start, as if there must be some awful emergency to cope with. But there isn’t. And I look around, check the sails, watch the waves and the sky for a little while, and then go right back to sleep again if nothing is going on, which is usually the case. Once I’m in the groove, oddly, I actually end up getting more rest sleeping this way than I do on shore.

At some point during the fourth day of the passage I expected conditions to change. The forecasts I studied before leaving St. Martin all agreed that a very powerful low-pressure system would track north of Bermuda at this point, dragging a long front beneath it that was certain to pass over me. (This was the same system that eventually caught all those boats south of the Azores and killed that little French girl.) Given the severity of its parent system, I was thinking the front might also be pretty strong.

Further out the forecasts had shown a spate of weak northerly headwinds, then easterlies along my route, with another low forming to the west just off the Florida coast. This was looking to get quite deep, so deep I was thinking it might become an early-season tropical system (which in fact it did and is now romping up the U.S. East Coast as Ana), but the forecasts were projecting it would remain more or less stationary, and by the time it formed I reckoned I would already be in Bermuda anyway.

But this was now old information and what I wanted, obviously, was something more current. So when I saw another yacht, a rather large one, on my AIS display late that morning (this was Saturday) I called them on the radio and asked if they had a forecast. They read off to me what they had from their weather-router, which included a prediction that a second front would follow shortly after the one I was already waiting for.

This was disturbing. Where was this second front coming from? All I could think was that nasty little low off Florida was forming early and was already up to no good. So I dug out the sat-phone and called up my weather-router, Ken McKinley of Locus Weather, and asked his opinion. His forecast coincided pretty much with the one I saw in St. Martin before leaving, with no mention of a second front. As for the imminent front, he predicted it would assault me soon after sunset, with thunder squalls and wind blowing at 30-35 knots, and would be gone by midnight.

Pre-front sunset

Pre-frontal sunset. Prelude to an anti-climax

I got all conservative in preparation for this. Doused the main before darkness descended and sailed on for several hours under jib alone, all in vain. The frontal passage was a huge non-event, with no big wind in it, with only a little bit of spitting rain, and no sign of any lightning anywhere.

At midnight, like clockwork, the wind went light and shifted north and I rehoisted the mainsail. I tried to keep sailing for several hours, but finally gave up after sunrise–rolled up the jib, flicked on the engine, and started motorsailing on a tight port tack angle, heading now east of Bermuda in anticipation of the next wind shift.

This came finally 28 hours later, early Monday afternoon. With the wind veering steadily eastward, from NNE to NE to ENE, I was able to sail first closehauled and then on a fat close reach straight for Bermuda. The boat was fast, making speeds up to 8 knots in a breeze that never blew harder than 14 and was steadily weakening, and I have to say I felt quite proud of her.


Closehauled Monday evening. One reef in the main, full jib and staysail

Screecher and staysail

Cracking off a bit on Tuesday, under full main, screecher, and staysail, a surprisingly effective combination


Command view of the cockpit, inside looking out. When sailing alone I tend to spend a lot of time standing right here in the companionway

Early Tuesday afternoon the wind died altogether, so I had to motor the last few miles into St. George’s and arrived at about 1700hrs.

Total time from St. Martin was 6 days, 9 hours.

On mooring

Lunacy on her mooring behind the wreck in St. George’s last Wednesday evening. She’ll be staying here until I return later this month to sail her the rest of the way home

Mooring view

View from the mooring looking west on Thursday morning, shortly before I caught my flight out

TECHNICAL ISSUES: The most annoying thing was that the masthead tricolor light went dead, so I had no proper light to show when sailing at night. Not a great situation for a singlehander to be in, but I wasn’t about the climb the mast alone while underway to fix it. I showed the masthead anchor light instead and noticed it is not nearly as bright as the tricolor.

The engine mounting bolts, which I tightened last time I was here in the fall, have worked loose again, and the engine is again out of alignment. If I run the engine at low RPMs starting out, however, the shaft soon whips the engine back in line, and then I can increase RPMs with seemingly no harm done. I’ll have to get the engine properly aligned and secured when Lunacy finally gets back to Maine. I won’t be surprised if I also have to replace the cutless bearing.

The good news is I finally figured out how it is the engine keeps flooding with seawater. It’s not coming up the exhaust, as I previously assumed, but is coming in the inlet side. So all I have to do is shut off the raw-water inlet when the engine isn’t running (and, of course, remember to open it again before starting the engine). I can only assume that this problem was created when we replaced the raw-water strainer and re-plumbed the inlets, but I can’t tell you exactly what difference that made.

INTERESTING NEIGHBORS: Turns out Lunacy is now moored next to a 49-foot Schionning catamaran named El Gecco that belongs to ex-BOC racer Neal Petersen and his wife Darlene. I had a very nice visit with them and spent some time discussing Don McIntyre’s new Golden Globe event with Neal. It turns out Don is lobbying all the old BOC crowd, including Neal, in hopes of getting them to join the event.

Seems Neal and Darlene will be based in Bermuda for some time, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again on my return.

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6 Responses
  1. Sean

    I live in St. Georges, we are currently hosting quite a few cruisers as of late. Some rather impressive vessels. Will keep an eye out to see if I spot Lunacy if you’re still here.

  2. James Eaton

    Sad there are no photos of you prancing. Myself, my balance is t that good so I sort of crouch-crawl on deck when alone. I was hoping to get advice on how to prance. Great article, thanks.

  3. Charlie

    @James: Yes, when sailing alone all prancing should be done with a low center of gravity.

    @Tanton: OK! I’ll keep that in mind. You’d be as proud as me, if not more so, at how well she sails.

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