The passage from the Abacos to Eleuthera turned out to be a bigger ordeal than we expected. It was short, but still rather trying. It was only our second “big water” crossing, but unlike our trip across the Gulf Stream, this time we picked weather for sailing instead of motoring.
We were planning the trip around a cold front that came through on Sunday morning. The first idea was to beam reach on the 20-25 knot west winds behind the front for the 50 miles south to Eleuthera. The boat loves this point of sail, and we even found a St Francis 44 with the same plan that would have made a worthy competitor companion. However, the Sunday idea was abandoned on Saturday afternoon as being just a tad ambitious. The pre-frontal weather on Saturday was uglier than expected and I was having trouble contemplating a departure the next day without seeing something bearing a closer resemblance to the forecast. Timing was also a problem since I didn’t know when the front would pass Sunday morning and I only wanted a day trip, requiring we leave nice and early. Tanya unknowingly put a nail in it when she observed that we would probably have big beam seas.
This would be our first exposure to real Atlantic ocean waves. The area we were to cross is 2 miles deep and has a very long fetch. While potentially much larger, ocean waves tend to have a longer period between them, allowing the boat to rise and fall with them slowly. It is really the steepness of a wave that causes the most danger and discomfort, especially when they get steep enough to break. Nevertheless, I didn’t want our first taste of Atlantic waves to be on the beam.
By Monday, the winds (and seas) would have clocked North and give us a ride straight South. If we did get big waves, we could possibly surf them. Wind strength was forecasted at 15-20, which I felt was enough to make a dead downwind run acceptable. Tanya is always suggesting that we sail wing-and-wing (main on one side, jib sheeted to the rail on the other side), but I have a strong distaste for this configuration. Real boats fly spinnakers, but we’ve never tried ours in 20 knots and fear our crew isn’t up to it.
The front moved through Sunday morning and the scheduled west winds settled in by 10am. Instead of putting miles under the keel, we went for a snorkel/kayak exploration in Old Robinson’s Bight and had a thoroughly good time. The snorkelers found a lionfish, and the kayakers found a blue hole, both Take Two firsts. On the way out we got a good look at the cut, which I perceived at that time to be the biggest hurdle of our trip. The cuts are where the big ocean waves pile up and crash as the water shoals, and boats have to navigate through the narrow openings in the reef to transit to or from the ocean. The Little Harbor cut was pretty ugly with the outgoing tide and west wind opposing the latent Atlantic swells, and I was perfectly content not to be trying to get out. Instead, the rest of the day was spent cleaning the boat, resting, and getting mentally prepared to travel Monday.
Monday dawned clear with our expected wind from the North. We dropped our mooring and hit the cut at the 7am slack tide. It was perfect. Two other boats had the same idea, a big Hunter and a little PDQ powercat. The powercat was gone almost immediately. Once outside the cut, we turned upwind to put up the main and never saw him again. The Hunter headed way offshore. I assumed he was headed to the top or around the west side of Eleuthera.
Initially, the wind was 330 degrees and 13kts. We went with a reef in the main because we expected that to build. Our rhumb line was due south so we tried deep reaching with the jib, but with unsatisfactory results. The wind did soon build to 15 with gusts to 20, but we were only getting about 6 knots of boat speed and it was looking to be a long day. By 9am the wind had clocked around directly behind us. I initially planned to tack downwind, but the deep reach was proving difficult because the seas were pushing us around and making it hard to hold a course.
The seas were… awkward. I think overall it was “rougher” than I was expecting and not much unlike the 6-8 footers in the shallow Gulf of Mexico. They were longer, but not really long enough to be comfortable. They were about one boat length in fact. As we were on the face of one, we’d be staring down at the back of the one ahead. The troughs were barely long enough for us to fit in and the following wave could not always lift the sterns, sometimes causing the waves to crawl up one or two of our transom steps before the boat lifted free.
Occasionally the following waves would break under the boat and roll along the bottom of our bridgedeck, creating a very strange sound. The first time this happened I thought a toolbox had fallen and the contents were clattering around on the floor below. Actual slamming was minimal though, with only the occasional slap from converging waves bursting upward, and we never rang the bell.
Particularly interesting were the waves that rushed under the boat and filled the aft-facing scallops over the cockpit drains, which then shot water 6 feet high in the cockpit. Driving the boat was like being in one of those synchronized fountains. Of course this was happening elsewhere than just the cockpit, which became clear when our propane alarm went off. Those propane alarms, by the way, are also very effective at detecting saltwater.
Eventually I gave up and ran wing-and-wing. It is really nice being able to do that without a pole. The boat was actually pretty happy that way, and so were the occupants. We were still getting slapped around by the sloppy seas and we backwinded the sails a few times. We always sail with a preventer on the main, even when going upwind, since we find it better for controlling sail shape than using the traveler, and it saved us from a few accidental gybes. Usually it was just a shift or a wave that the autopilot couldn’t counter fast enough, but our worst one came when the autopilot silently went into standby mode (meaning it stopped driving). Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident and I think it is some type of software flaw in the unit’s brain.
We were about a knot faster with the wing-and-wing than deep reaching with the jib. Wind speed averaged about 14-18 all day but varied from 10 knots up to 25 knots. Boat speed averaged between 7 and 9 knots, roughly half of wind speed. We only managed a few sustained surfs over 10 knots, maxing out at 13.6 knots. To do more surfing, I think we needed either longer waves or more speed.
At times, I felt trapped with the wing-and-wing setup. I had very little maneuverability within the angles that kept the sails from collapsing. There were several ships about and there were a few tense moments when my bearing to a large tanker wasn’t changing. Thankfully, he changed course and passed well off my stern. I had the right-of-way, but generally find it better to stay as far away from ships as I can.
The wind continued to clock east throughout the day and steered us west of our line. Eventually, I had to gybe the main over and reach back east across the waves to my waypoint. It was fast, and the boat handled it well, but the ride was not comfortable. By this point, the wave tops were about level with the cabintop, so that would make them about 10 feet trough to crest. It felt very unnatural to have the boat at that angle as the waves went under. I’m glad we didn’t do that the whole way the day before.
The beam reach lasted for about an hour before we were in the lee of Egg Reef. Then we were on the bank, through our cut, and anchor down in Royal Island in about 30 minutes. The powercat was there, and probably had been for hours. The Hunter came in right behind us. He had gone way offshore to the east and then gybed back. I think he did remarkably well all things considered. In retrospect, I probably should have tried shallower angles like his before giving up on reaching.
We have little to compare this experience to, and therefore don’t know whether it is typical. If so, we can’t imagine doing it day after day while crossing an ocean. We tend to think that it isn’t. Sometimes the weather, or the seafloor, or a current can make the waves worse. With this cold front, the winds had gone from East to South to West to North and subsequently clocked back East again. That probably contributed to a lot of the sea state confusion. We may think twice before riding the tail of a cold front again.
Happy Birthday Tanya