What with swapping out old Lunacy for new Lunacy and last year’s jaunt down to Florida and back it’s been a few years since I pilgrimaged to the W’Indies for the winter. It’s past time to revisit old haunts, I decided, what with last year’s awful storms, plus I have some business to attend to down there. Having again pimped out new Lunacy to her builder to be shown at Annapolis, it was preordained I should depart from the Chesapeake, which is something I hadn’t done before. I assumed it would be easier than leaving from New England.
I made the run from Annapolis to Norfolk last year (with crew), before diving down the rabbit hole of the ICW, and had not forgotten how long the bay is. I’d hoped to have crew again this time, but another un-named boat magazine editor (different from the last one) who volunteered to come along, unvolunteered on short notice, and I was left on my own. I thus felt some urgency and hastily left Spa Creek in Annapolis on the afternoon of October 22, same day I flew in, and motored 10 miles down the bay to the West River before sunset. A small first step down the long road south.
A forecast west wind the following day, which I hoped to use for sailing, did not materialize, and I (again) had to endure many hours of solo motoring. My reward was getting to pull into Solomons Island, a renowned Chesapeake cruising destination, at the mouth of Patuxent River (called the Pax River by locals and savvy transients), not long before sunset. There are many sailboats here, but they are all in marinas, and I was definitely in an anchoring mood.
“You have a reservation?” called a dockhand as I loitered in the gap between the slip-studded shore of Solomons and the tiny fortress of Goose Island, wondering if I’d be asked to move if I dropped iron here.
“No,” I called back. “But I’d really like to anchor in this basin.”
“Just a little further off my dock then. You’ll be fine.”
It was all the license I needed.
Anchored off Solomons, which I’d never visited before. There’s a major air base just across the river and the calm of the place is frequently punctuated by the roar of over-flying fighter jets
Crab boat, with traps on top, calls it a day
Young 420 sailors rock their way home in the remnant breeze
The following day there was no need for motoring. I was one of a tight phalanx of cruisers rushing down the bay under jib alone (see image at top of post) before a raucous northerly that blew as hard as 30 knots–a gift from the wind gods to southbound snowbirds. This ultimately landed me at Fishing Bay, up the Piankatank River, where I stopped last year with my buddies Phil and John.
Last of the several transients who put into Fishing Bay for the night was this well-known first-generation Gunboat catamaran, Zenyatta. They sent their tender roaring ashore to pick up one soul, presumably the owner, before they even had their anchor down
From there it was a relatively short hop down to Cobb’s Marina, in Little Creek at Norfolk, where I’d agreed to join forces with three or four or maybe even five other boats forming the first-ever NARC (North American Rally to the Caribbean) squadron to sail out of the Chesapeake. This in support of my old buddy and shipmate Hank Schmitt, who first organized the main NARC event, a rally that sails out of Newport every fall, after Steve Black’s well established Caribbean 1500 rally pulled up stakes and shifted its departure point south to the Chesapeake nearly 20 years ago.
The politics of all this are rather picayune. For the Chesapeake-based version of the Caribbean 1500 itself bifurcated some years ago, when disgruntled rally veterans formed their own break-away event, the Salty Dawg Rally, after Steve Black sold the Caribbean 1500 to the British World Cruising Club (organizers of the famous transatlantic ARC and several other events), which, among other things, imposed more stringent safety regulations.
What with Hank now throwing his hat into the Chesapeake ring there were this year three different rallies leaving for the Caribbean from the Norfolk/Hampton/Portsmouth area. Which is, of course, a bit silly. Hank’s position has always been that he only runs his rally to create crewing opportunities for the members of his organization, OPO (Offshore Passages Opportunities), the premier bluewater crew-placement service in North America, which he’s been running for over 25 years now. He’s always offered to fold his rally into any other Caribbean rally that grants him exclusive crew-placement rights, but no one’s ever taken him up on this.
Hank’s master plan this year was pretty simple. His Newport boats and Norfolk boats would both depart on Saturday, October 27, and sail separately to Bermuda, where he planned to throw a big rally/book-signing party–starring me; Tania Aebi, who was co-skippering one of the Newport boats; and Peter Bourke, owner/skipper of Rubicon, one of the Norfolk boats. Then all boats would sail together to St. Maarten.
Cobb’s Marina (docks in the middle of the photo), home base to the NARC’s Chesapeake squadron
Of all Norfolk/Hampton/Portsmouth yacht havens, Little Creek is by far the closest to the entrance of the Chesapeake
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: buy this book!
So obviously I can’t pretend to be a neutral party here.
Things, in any event, seemed to unravel early on. One of Hank’s Chesapeake boats announced days before the start that they wouldn’t leave with the squadron. Another never showed up. Another decided to haul out to replace through-hulls. Tania forgot to bring copies of her books to the Newport start. And, of course, the weather did not cooperate.
Meanwhile, my crew situation was somewhat volatile. For the upcoming ocean passage I’d organized two OPO crew well in advance, but one dropped out due to a family emergency. My remaining crew, Mark Salisbury, volunteered a buddy of his, Guy Bishop, who actually came to Norfolk with Mark (on Mark’s private plane!), and was great company, but he demurred when I opined I might skip Bermuda and go straight to St. Maarten. Fortunately, another prospect, Katy Petersen, an OPO refugee from another NARC boat at Cobb’s, immediately emerged to fill the void.
In the end Lunacy, with three souls aboard, sailed out the mouth of the Chesapeake on Monday morning, October 29, two days after a large low-pressure system rattled up the coast. We were the only Norfolk NARC boat to leave the stable that day, but most Newport boats also pushed off, bound for Bermuda.
Phase One of our passage, running from Monday through Thursday consisted first of dead-downwind sailing and later broad-reaching under a port tack wing-and-wing set. Finally there came some beam reaching and ultimately some motoring, as the wind, which started out blowing hard from the northwest (a steady 30-35 knots true for a while that first night), gradually veered north and a bit east of north as it moderated and subsided over the days. The only worrisome part was when we entered the Gulf Stream early on Tuesday morning. The wind by then was still blowing 25-30 knots, mostly from the north, and I fretted over whether this would kick up a contrary sea in the northeast-bound Stream. Fortunately, though the waves were a bit square and bumpy, they were not too large, and we got across easily enough.
Otherwise we were mostly preoccupied with the birds that came aboard. Bird One, which was smaller and more bedraggled and blatantly tired, showed up late Monday afternoon, consumed some crumbs and water we offered, and spent the night dozing in one corner of the doghouse nav station before disappearing sometime the following day.
Bird Two, which was larger, sleeker looking, and much more energetic, promptly appeared to take its place. It stayed three days and two nights and soon we wondered if it might not make the entire voyage with us. We put up the companionway bug net to keep it from staying (and defecating) below and opened a cockpit coaming box for it as alternative shelter. We fed it crushed peanuts in the mornings and always had water out for it, and it took full advantage of this. Annoyed by the chore of having to continually pass back and forth through the companionway netting, and the need to closely monitor open hatches, and the prospect of this going on for the entire passage, I did suggest at one point that it might be necessary to kill the bird. But only half-heartedly, as obviously this would have brought us very bad luck.
Wing-and-wing set our first evening out before things got sporty. True wind was in the high 20s and we had one reef in the main plus had roller-reefed the jib a bit. Later in the dark of night it was blowing in the mid-30s and we stowed the jib and ran under just a double-reefed mainsail for a while
Mark in the galley, preparing a meal
Katy on watch as we motored with sails down through Wednesday afternoon
As it happened, Bird Two decided not to stay aboard for Phase Two of our voyage, which involved motorsailing at a narrow angle into a contrary and steadily strengthening southerly headwind for three days non-stop. Definitely not much fun. During much of this time we were close to Bermuda and by Saturday morning were just 30 miles off its southwest corner. Bird Two, we hoped, had detected its presence and decided to visit and we couldn’t help wondering if we should follow suit. Ultimately, however, we could not countenance giving up any of our hard-won progress and so lurched past the island as the engine droned on.
About that droning: this is the first boat I’ve owned in which I’ve even thought about motorsailing to windward for days on end, much less actually doing it. The key factor being fuel capacity. On past boats I would have been forced to just sail to windward in this situation and most likely would have put into Bermuda to avoid doing it for very long. But new Lunacy has a large fuel tank, 156 gallons, and burns less than gallon an hour at moderate RPMs. My practical side appreciates having all this range under power, but the purist in me also resents it, as the truth is if you have the capacity to motor long distances you will certainly take advantage of it.
And as I’ve pointed a few times lately: I don’t really like motoring very much.
Finally, finally, finally the wind shifted far enough east of south just before noon on Saturday, November 3, that we were able to tack over and head (still motorsailing) almost directly toward St. Maarten. By that evening, thank goodness, we were at last able to shut down the engine and just sail where we wanted to go.
Sounds like we’re set up for a happy ending here, doesn’t it??? The glorious Phase Three power-reach all the way down through the trades to the islands. And yes, it was glorious… much of the time. The only fly in the ointment was the recurring squalls, which first showed up around 2100 hours on Sunday night, and just kept on showing up at different times over the next three days. They weren’t super-strong squalls, but they were strong enough that we had to react to each one that ran over us, reefing sails or bearing away off the wind for a while, or both, and eventually this became tiring.
The last long series of squalls had their way with us through late Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. By now we were perpetually under-canvassed, flying a single-reefed main with just the small staysail ahead of it, so we actually looked forward to them, because that’s when we sailed best.
Mark didn’t bring enough to read and was reduced to studying his iPhone manual in detail. After that he came to the bottom of barrel and resorted to reading my book
Oh no, here comes another squall! I cannot remember another passage between Bermuda and the W’Indies, north or southbound, in which I encountered so many of them
By late Thursday morning the squalls seemed at last to have evaporated and we were emboldened to fly the full jib and shake the reef out of our mainsail. By sunset that same day we were squeezing between the Prickly Pear Cays and Dog Island, just north of Anguilla, and by 2000 hours had dropped anchor off Marigot on the French side of St. Martin. Total transit time from Annapolis was 18 days.
Approaching the Prickly Pears
Lunacy in her berth at Simpson Bay Marina
Her closest neighbor
Makeshift facilities at the airport
After the delicious enjoyment of a full night’s sleep, we motored around to the Dutch side and slipped through the bridge into Simpson Bay the following morning. Here at last, more than a year after the fact, I had a chance to survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma.
A lot of things have been fixed and much of the island seems to be at least partly operational. At Simpson Bay Marina, for example, where I left Lunacy, I’d say somewhere between 20-30 percent of the berths are usable, and they are working every day to increase that number. But still it will be a long time before everything is back to normal. Indeed, I wonder if everything will ever be all the way back to normal. The most important thing, however, is that everyone is upbeat and optimistic. Boats and visitors are returning to the island and gears are turning.
Not long before I flew out Sunday morning some of the other NARC boats started arriving. Turned out all the Norfolk boats made the run in the end, and I was the only one that didn’t stop at Bermuda. Shame on me. But at least I was the first to St. Maarten!
NOTE: Many thanks to Mark and Katy for helping get Lunacy south this fall. They were both a great help! Thanks also to Weather Routing Inc. (WRI), which provided the NARC as a whole and Lunacy individually with very professional weather forecasts and routing advice.