The subject was cruise ships. In the harbor at St. Georges, no less. I promised to tell you a story. This dates back to 1992, when I arrived at St. Georges as crew aboard the old Alden schooner Constellation, having completed the first leg of what would become my first transatlantic voyage (please refer to my latest book for more detail on how we almost sank en route to Bermuda). We had tied up on one corner of the St. Georges Dinghy Club dock, which was not then the swarthy concrete pier that it is today, but an old wooden structure that was well past its prime. We’d been stuck there a few days, waiting for parts, when late one afternoon a great squall blew in from the west.
The wind grew stronger and stronger and finally was blowing a solid 40 knots. The Dinghy Club’s dockmaster came down and stood studying Constellation, a large heavy vessel, as she strained fiercely on her lines. He frequently made worried noises about the integrity of his dock. It was clear he was politely hoping we would politely volunteer to move off the dock, but our skipper, Cliff, remained resolutely tone-deaf to this implication. Finally, just as the wind was roaring its hardest, the dockmaster overcame his shyness and flat out ordered us to leave. We slowly, reluctantly, were preparing to do this, when our first mate, Tim, looked up and glanced across the harbor.
“Hold on,” he said. “The cruise ship has lost it.”
Sure enough, the very large cruise ship that had been berthed on the quay at Ordinance Island had chosen this very moment, driven no doubt by a merciless schedule, to depart St. Georges. Not a wise decision. This thing had all the windage of a high-rise building laid on its side and was out of control pretty much the moment it was free of the quay.
All of us on Constellation, together with the Dinghy Club dockmaster, watched in wonder as the great ship blew broadside down into the yacht anchorage. None of us had ever seen so many yachts trying to hoist anchor all at once. It was a fantastic, frenetic scramble. Unfortunately, not all the yachts had their crews aboard, and three were crushed by the cruise ship before a pair of tugboats darted out from the old U.S. Navy base to seize control of the situation.
We watched slack-jawed as the tugs pasted the ship back on the quay. Then the dockmaster, snapping to as if waking from a bad dream, again ordered us off his dock.
“Just a moment,” said skipper Cliff, with one of those proverbial light bulbs now flickering over his head.
He pulled out a handheld VHF radio, hailed Bermuda Harbor Radio (as it was then called), and formally asked for permission to move Constellation off the Dinghy Club dock.
The radio operator, traumatized by the ugly scene he’d just witnessed from his hilltop aerie overlooking the harbor, immediately refused.
Cliff shrugged, then smiled at the dockmaster, who said nothing and marched off with an ugly scowl on his face.
Ten minutes later–of course–the wind died down to a flat calm.
There were still cruise ships putting in at St. Georges when I returned there three years later on my own boat Crazy Horse, but after that they disappeared. For good reason, I always believed. St. Georges is a tight spot for vessels this size, and I was surprised this year to see they have now returned. I sure hope someone remembers what happened in ’92 and regulates their comings and goings accordingly.
Which brings us to my own comings and goings. My new crew, Adam “Cuddles” Cort (my successor as executive editor at SAIL), flew into Bermuda late on the afternoon of Saturday, May 18, and we left early the very next morning. We did not have a very good weather window. Our plan was to motor hard for two days through more or less calm conditions, in hopes of getting across the Gulf Stream through a fast northbound meander before a big northerly breeze, perhaps as strong as 30-35 knots, whacked us on the nose.
Cuddles poses as a sea-going ninja in his anti-UV rig
As on the first leg up from Puerto Rico we were much annoyed by Sargasso weed and had to stall the boat every so often and back down a bit to keep clearing the prop, which seemed to suck in the weed like a magnet. Very soon after sunrise on our first morning offshore we assumed this was what was causing an angry rumbling vibration we heard under the boat. We did our little round-up-back-down trick, then powered up to full revs again, but still felt and heard the awful vibration.
Cuddles then noticed there was a short bit of polypropylene line streaming out behind our transom. We stopped the boat and tugged at the line for a while, but it wouldn’t come loose.
Time for a swim, I reckoned, and pulled on my wetsuit. Once in the water I saw there was indeed a big swatch of tangled lined hung up on the weed cutter just in front of the rudder. I pulled it off very easily. The prop, I could see, was perfectly clear, with nary a stitch of weed or line on it, so I reboarded the boat.
Preparing to swim. I’m old enough now that this doesn’t exactly feel like fun
We put the engine in gear again, powered up to 2100 rpm, and again heard and felt the dreaded vibration. I opened up the engine bay and peered at the prop shaft behind the transmission, but it looked perfectly fine, spinning true. I then climbed into the aft lazarette to inspect the steering gear. Placing a hand on the top of the rudder stock above the quadrant, I discovered the source of the vibration. The stock was loose.
We stopped again and drifted for a while as I pored through every piece of paper and every digital file that came with the boat, searching for a drawing or at least an explanation of how the rudder was installed. But I found nothing.
What to do? I immediately ruled out the first notion that came to mind–getting back in the water for a much closer look at the rudder and its bottom bearing. Conditions were not rough, but they were lively enough that sticking my head right up close against the bottom of the boat was probably not a good idea. I thought of the forecast northerly wind, potentially fierce, and of the consequences of being caught in it in that northbound meander, and thus also ruled out the idea of continuing on toward the continent. Bermuda was just one day behind us–it seemed obvious that was where we should go.
We rearrived at St. Georges late Tuesday morning without mishap. We’d found if we kept the engine running at a moderate 1500-1700 rpms, the rudder stock stayed quiet, without the gross vibration, though I could still feel it shifting around in its massive tube when I placed my hand on top of it.
The tall ship Picton Castle was inbound right behind us as we reentered Town Cut
The good thing about returning to Bermuda was that I got to spend a lot more time hanging out with Steve and Irene Macek, who sail a very cool three-masted Herreshoff Marco Polo schooner named Star. They’ve been trekking back and forth between a home in Nevis and a summer base on Cape Cod for many years now and are a common sight at St. Georges this time of year. I’d spoken briefly with Steve while passing through Bermuda a few years ago, but this year got to know both him and Irene a lot better. They’re a fantastic couple, with deep roots in the cruising community.
The Marco Polo, an “ultimate” world cruiser, as conceived by L. Frances Herreshoff. They have enormous load-carrying ability, in spite of being quite narrow. Steve and Irene, when they sailed Star around the world westabout, only had to stop once for fuel!
Star, as viewed through Lunacy’s rig at St. Georges
Irene and Steve and their dog Sylvie visiting aboard Lunacy
The bad part of returning to Bermuda was figuring out what to do about the rudder. Diving on it now in flat water, I soon divined that the hard plastic bushing at the bottom of the rudder tube had come free and had dropped down on top of the rudder blade. The bushing had dropped only a small distance, about 8mm, and most of it was still up the tube, but evidently this was enough to allow the rudder stock to shift around a bit. Conferring with the builder by e-mail, I obtained a drawing of the installation and learned the bushing had been simply glued in place, with Sikaflex 295, a polyurethane adhesive sealant, and had not been secured with any mechanical fastener.
Boréal 47 rudder, side view. The black lines represent the rudder, rudder stock, and steering quadrant. The green lines show the rudder tube, part of the hull, and the huge buttresses supporting the tube inside the boat. The small orange bits either end of the tube are the plastic eratlon bushings. The builder explains there is no fastener to secure the bottom bushing because they don’t want to have a hole in the rudder tube (for a set screw) below the waterline
Exploded view of the rudder. The bushings again are shown in orange
I found the problem both supremely aggravating and ironic. In my younger days, when I was more conservative regarding boat types, I always owned boats with rudders attached to full keels, or to a full skeg, and decried the inherent vulnerability of free-hanging spade rudders. But after years of being told by various “experts” that modern spade rudders are perfectly secure, I at last relented and got a boat (brand new, no less) with a spade rudder. And what happens? Here I was, with the boat just one month out of warranty, coping with a wobbly spade rudder.
I spent a couple of days checking out the prospect of hauling the boat in Bermuda, but soon realized this would be expensive, and slow, and most likely even more aggravating. I wondered: could I just sail home with the rudder as is and solve the problem later? After deep consultations with my new best buddy Steve I figured I could. I’d learned while motoring back to Bermuda that the rudder didn’t move around too much with the engine running at low rpms. Under sail, with the rudder properly loaded, it should move even less. Best of all, I now had a much better weather window in front of me, with no fierce headwinds on offer.
So it was exactly a week after leaving the first time, on a bright Sunday morning, Lunacy departed St. Georges again, bound for North America. Cuddles, who had fled the boat as soon as we returned to St. Georges, was good enough to rejoin me and together we enjoyed an excellent passage home. There was a good deal of sailing, with winds behind us or on the beam, and not too much motoring, and a lot of fair current as we crossed the Gulf Stream.
Star hoisted anchor, raised sail, and headed north just a few hours before we did
It may look like we’re sailing slowly here, but in fact we were making good 7-plus knots, thanks to positive current. When the wind was stronger we were doing better than 8, touching 10 and 11 in surges
As you can see here, we had more than 60 miles of fair current, from 37 to 38 north and then some, between 68 and 69 west, pretty much right on the rhumb line between Bermuda and Newport
The only hard part, it turned out, was getting out of the Stream. Sometimes you hear the north edge of the Stream referred to as “the Wall,” and this was one of those times when a wall is definitely what it was. The delta in the water temperature was enormous. We saw it drop from 77 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours and during those hours sailed through a long line of very angry thunder squalls. The wind, thank God, wasn’t too bad, with peaks mostly in the high 20s, poking rarely into the mid-30s, but the rain was periodically torrential, and the lightning was right on top of us. Not for the first time I said to myself: “This is it, I’m going to find out what it’s like to get hit.” But fortunately I never did.
The aforementioned rain
Back side of the Wall… at last
Approaching the continental shelf we encountered dolphins (including electric phosphorescent ones at night), lots of spouting whales in the distance, and the usual assortment of grumpy fishermen
Cuddles, de-ninjaed, on the bow looking for dolphins
Anchored at Menemsha Bight, Martha’s Vineyard, where we arrived at 0100 hrs on Friday, May 31, four and a half days after leaving Bermuda. We enjoyed a nice nap here and a lazy morning waiting for a tidal window to transit the Cape Cod Canal
In the canal, with Cuddles on the wheel
The last sunset of our voyage, viewed not long after clearing the canal. We arrived in Portsmouth the following morning