BERMUDA TO NEW ENGLAND: Solo Passage With Underpants (A Performance Comparison)

Masthead shot

Phase Two of this experiment began with a grand round of socializing in the harbor at St. George’s, in which I was ably assisted by my bride. Clare also assisted refueling the boat and in spotting me as I ascended the mast to see if I could get the tricolor light interested in being a light again. (You can’t see her in that photo there, peering up at me from on deck, because actually she was down below flipping the anchor and tricolor lights on and off countless times at my command.) I spent a good deal of time up there, and that foot you see in the maststep went numb from carrying all my weight for so long, but ultimately I wasn’t able to figure out why the light was unhappy.

It’s one of those combination tricolor-anchor lights, all in the same fixture, and both bulbs were good, all the connections were good, and current was flowing freely. Finally, after I whacked and poked at it for a while I got it to the point where the tricolor light would go on if you flipped on the anchor light, but only if you substituted a 10-watt bulb for the tricolor’s usual 25-watt bulb. Which was hardly ideal, but was certainly better than having no tricolor at all.

Masthead light

The recalcitrant light fixture, in all its glory. The taped-over socket is for a strobe light I removed and never replaced. Now I was kind of wishing I had it back again

Rich and Sam

Rich and Sam Malone, aboard Aurora, a Belliure 67 they manage together. They’ve been good friends since I did a delivery passage with them way back in 2001. They are the best skipper-mate team working the North Atlantic. And Sam is the best chef afloat anywhere, bar none. Lucky us! They had us aboard for a fine feast on Saturday evening

Neal and Darlene

Our neighbors in the anchorage, ex-BOC racer Neal Petersen and his wife Darlene Kristi, had us aboard their catamaran for a visit with some of their local friends on Sunday. I could tell you all about Neal’s amazing story, but he’s much better at telling it himself, so be sure to check out the video below

On Sunday (the one before last) we also paid a visit to the Dockyard, both because Clare had never been there before and because I wanted to check out the incipient America’s Cup scene.

Oracle base

Incipient is definitely the word. The Oracle base currently consists of a shed, an inflatable skiff, and a couple of foiling beach cats. There’s also an Artemis presence, but I couldn’t get close enough to inspect it

Cruise ship

So far the cruise ships are still a much bigger presence down on Bermuda’s West End. This is Norwegian Dawn, which I met again later on in this adventure

On Monday morning Clare hopped a flight back to the world, and Lunacy and I, after a bout of last-minute provisioning, sailed out Town Cut a few hours later. This time, as you’ll have gathered from this post’s title, I had remembered to bring along plenty of clean underwear so was feeling a bit more confident than I had starting out on the last leg.

As far as the wind was concerned, there was no reason not to. The forecast was calling for a big high-pressure ridge to stall over my route for the duration of the passage. This would feed me moderate easterlies through my first days offshore, a day or two of light wind as I crossed the spine of the ridge and the Gulf Stream simultaneously, and then hopefully some west wind as I closed the coast. My prospects seemed as sanguine as one could hope for.

The only question was how to game the current in the Gulf Stream. The images I had studied online showed a huge figure-8-shaped meander right on the rhumb-line route between Bermuda and Cape Cod, with lots of potential positive and negative current, depending on how you crossed it. To get the best advice possible, I asked Ken McKinley of Locus Weather for a departure report with a Gulf Stream chart from Jenifer Clark, the acknowledged Queen of Stream Prognosis.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to download a copy of Jenifer’s chart before I left Bermuda. I did receive, however, a list of recommended Gulf Stream transit waypoints from Ken, and he advised this route should provide me with up to 3 knots positive current over 100 miles or more. In an offshore sat-phone call on Tuesday morning, he confirmed to me his waypoints were valid based on his having studied Jenifer’s chart, and his only proviso was that, if anything, I would get into the Stream earlier than expected.

All of which sounded perfectly fabulous.

And indeed life was fabulous all through Monday and Tuesday, with Lunacy roaring along on an easy close reach, and on into the early part of Wednesday. The only potential fly in the ointment being my discovery on Tuesday that there were not one but two yachts in my vicinity who, like me, were not broadcasting an AIS signal. One of these, Safari Nema, a European boat with a couple aboard, I actually sighted and overhauled (go Lunacy!) on Tuesday afternoon. The other was Lone Star, an American boat with another singlehander aboard, who assiduously broadcast Securité calls via VHF so as to publicize his existence.

Once we were all aware each other and had swapped positions on the radio, any threat of unintended raft-ups was obviated and the chatter between us served to alert any other “dark” vessels in the area as to our whereabouts.


Legs akimbo as I admire the set of my sails

Sunset sailing

Same set later same day, as the sun goes down

Nav station

Keeping an eye on things as the hour of midnight approaches

By 1000 hours Wednesday morning I had reached the first Gulf Stream transit waypoint on Ken’s list and had turned for the next, expecting any moment to see an extra 3 knots of SOG rushing me northward toward North America. By afternoon, however, the expected boost had failed to materialize. If anything the current seemed negative, or at least was doing nothing but setting me sideways, and the seas were disorganized and lumpy and the wind was getting weaker, so that it was getting harder and harder to maintain both my course and onboard comfort levels.

Somewhere in there I started motorsailing. I also was working the radio, chatting with Lone Star and Safari Nema (with whom I again also briefly made visual contact) and learned that Lone Star, not more than 30 miles ahead of me, was already across the Stream, with water temps falling and positive current building as he was now heading straight for the east end of Long Island. Safari Nema, meanwhile, which putatively was following my strategy of trying to ride a northbound meander for a good long while, seemed to be floundering same as me.

Clearly it was time to do some deep strategizing, so I got out my iPad to study the Gulf Stream images I had downloaded before leaving. Trying my best to visually transpose Ken’s waypoints on to these images (note to self: in the future always print out stuff so you can actually draw on it), I concluded my best move might be to follow Lone Star‘s lead.

Stream chart 1

The Gulf Stream image I had to work with on my iPad, with Ken’s suggested waypoints and route shown with circular dots. Looking at this it seemed to me I would be bucking a lot of negative current in the second half of the transit. So I plotted out an alternative waypoint (the square) that I figured would take me across the main body of the current as quickly as possible and leave me in a position to catch some positive current when I turned toward Cape Cod

Stream chart 2

This is the Gulf Stream image that Ken was using with his recommended route and my alternative waypoint shown same as above. Again, I did not have this image onboard to refer to at the time. What is most striking is how little it resembles the other image. Also, to my mind, it is more difficult to interpret

The fact that Lone Star seemed to be doing well was a powerful argument, so I turned for the alternative point you see on the charts above. I was rewarded fairly promptly, as I was soon in much smoother water, traveling at a higher rate of speed, which was gratifying, needless to say. Would I ultimately have received a bigger boost if I’d stuck with Ken’s route? Who knows? In the end my alternative route at least didn’t seem to harm me significantly, as I never saw any major negative current working against me.

What I did see from this point forward was a major lack of wind. From Wednesday afternoon until Saturday, when I made landfall south of Martha’s Vineyard, I had the engine running constantly and grew mighty tired of the sound of it.

Cruise ship in the dark

Another encounter with Norwegian Dawn (that little blob of light you see on the horizon) on Wednesday evening

No wind sunset

An emphatic lack of wind around about sunset on Thursday. Note the reefed mainsail. This keeps the sail much flatter when motoring in null air, so that it doesn’t slam around so much and also keeps the luff from chafing on the backstay


A visit from dolphins on Friday as I was coming in over the continental shelf

As far as managing the boat singlehanded was concerned, the incessant engine noise (which is quite loud on Lunacy, as the engine space is poorly insulated) was a major problem, in that it drowned out the AIS and radar alarms I was counting on to alert me to collision threats while sleeping. While well clear of the continent I didn’t worry about this too much, as the traffic was still relatively thin and my body was doing a good job of automatically waking itself up about every hour or so I could check for targets. As I started closing the coast, however, I worried a lot more. As Lunacy and I passed over the edge of the continental shelf in the dark hours of Friday morning, I started seeing fishing gear in the water, big trap buoys topped with radar reflectors, and there was also one fishing boat bearing down on me. As is typical of American fishing boats working far from shore these days, this vessel, though I hailed it by name, refused to answer my call, and from that point forward I knew sleeping was not an option.

I had expected this would be the case eventually, which was the primary reason I had decided back in Bermuda that I would pass inside Cape Cod via the canal, rather than outside via the Great South Channel. Following the former route I figured I could always stop somewhere and sleep if necessary, while the latter route pretty much guaranteed I would spend two full nights in coastal waters frequented by recalcitrant fishermen before reaching my destination.

Sunrise 1

Saturday sunrise, southeastern view

Sunrise 2

Saturday sunrise, northeastern view

Sunrise 3

Saturday sunrise, western view

The sunrise on Saturday as I passed south of Martha’s Vineyard was spectacular and weird (see those pix up there) and ominous. What it brought in the end was heavy fog, which clamped down around the boat like a soggy vise as I eased across Vineyard Sound, through Quick’s Hole, and up Buzzard’s Bay. There was unseen traffic everywhere, and I was thoroughly exhausted keeping track of it by the time I anchored off the west end of the Cape Cod Canal in the afternoon to wait for the tide to turn.

By late afternoon, most gratefully, I was rocketing through the canal on a fair tide and emerged in a bright and sunny Cape Cod Bay with a firm south wind urging me on toward Provincetown. I planned to stop and spend the night there, but while listening to weather reports while transiting the bay it occurred to me the best plan was probably to just keep going north while the wind was fair.

Undeniably, this was the best plan, but pursuing it meant another night with no sleep, and the whole point to taking this route was to get some. So I maintained course for P-town, arriving just at sunset, whereupon the engine decided it didn’t want to start anymore. I could only guess where the anchorage was, and guessed wrong, so ended up anchoring under sail in the middle of a mooring field, which made things only a little more exciting than they needed to be.

P-town blow

Roaring northerly in P-town harbor on Sunday afternoon

On Sunday morning, with some help from Noah Santos and Malcolm Hunter of Flyer’s Marine, I moved Lunacy on to a mooring and after a brief sojourn ashore hunkered down onboard for a fierce cold front passage that sent 30 knots of north wind howling through the harbor. On Monday morning, Doug Deibold (father of Olympic snowboard bronze medalist Alex Deibold, no less!), also from Flyer’s, helped me get the engine going again.

The cold front, as you may have noticed, didn’t actually pass, but stalled over New England for several days. Early forecasts projected a brief window of easterly wind on Monday afternoon and evening, and I had thought I might take advantage of this to keep sailing north. Alas, by Monday morning this prospect had evaporated, so rather than beat to windward against a 20- to 25-knot breeze in pouring rain with temps in the 40s, I elected to punt and leave Lunacy in P-town for a spell while I jetted home via ferry and bus.

Call me a wimp, or call me prudent. Your choice.

The plan now is to return Monday or Tuesday of next week, when the wind goes south again, to fetch the boat all the way up to Portland.

TECHNICAL MATTERS: The problem with the engine was dirt-simple, just a loose neutral-safety switch inside the throttle control.

Crushed block

The only other problem I had was when I tried to furl the headsail while motorsailing in light conditions under a wing-and-wing set. Without my noticing the headsail wrapped a loose screecher sheet into itself during the furl, and as I ground in the furling line on a winch against increasing friction I crushed the furling line block. Fortunately, I did notice this before I did any more damage.

In that photo there you see both the crushed block and the one I replaced it with.

CONCLUSION: I have to say, in all honesty, things seemed to go better without the underpants onboard. Sailing with underpants involved much more motoring than I would have liked. Also, the boat seemed a bit faster without underpants, presumably because of the weight saved.

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2 Responses
  1. Spencer

    A very valuable and scientifically rigorous analysis. You could also try wearing your underpants inside out as some studies have shown this to be bring good results.

  2. Charlie

    @Spencer: Right! I’m remembering that old Woody Allen movie, Bananas. Where the new dictator announces that from now on everyone will change their underwear on Tuesdays and wear it on the outside so they can check for compliance.

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