Caribbean 1500: The Fate of the Fleet
Unfortunately, I got left behind on the dock after the start of this year’s Caribbean 1500 was delayed several times due to the appearance of Tropical Storm Sean. After prudently waiting the better part of a week for Sean to go away and then for a cold front to pass through, the rally organizers finally launched their ducklings on Friday, November 11, into the heart of a big high-pressure cell. The ralley-goers enjoyed one good day of wind, but then burned much diesel fuel as they worked their way south looking for more breeze.
Most boats did not reach the finish line before it closed on Sunday, November 20, so the official results looked a bit comical. The vast majority of the fleet was marked down as DNF, including the rally's original founder, Steve Black, an inveterate racing man, who reportedly was a bit grumpy about the results. Rally organizers kept the parties rolling, however, until the later-comers appeared and held a second prizegiving after most boats were in.
I, of course, was most interested in what happened to the people I got to know while hanging with the fleet in Hampton, Virginia, prior to the start. Here's a bit of what I've learned:
I spent one evening in Hampton drinking with these reprobates. The boat is a custom Morelli 80 catamaran built up over time from what was originally a Morelli 65. The owner, John Winter, a most entertaining fellow, described to me how he and his crew sometimes like to fly a hull when sailing this big puppy. John insists, however, on trimming main himself when this is happening. He and the owner of Black Bird, a big 75-foot Bill Tripp-designed carbon-fiber monohull, the other big gun in the fleet, reportedly placed a little bet on which of them would take line honors in the run to Tortola.
Things at first looked a bit bleak for Fat Cat, as they were a day late leaving Hampton due to some equipment problem. On breaking out of the Chesapeake, they headed due east for over a day, straight for Bermuda, but then turned right and blasted south in good order. Though Black Bird had a huge lead for a while, the big cat smoked her in the end, by about 10 hours, and crossed the line shortly after 2200 hours on Nov. 16.
Back in Hampton owner David Povich gave me a detailed tour of this boat, a custom Tayana 64, of which he is justifiably proud. Turns out we have some background, as his family owns the house across the street from where my parents used to live in Bath, Maine. He also left-handedly ruined my vacation aboard my boat Lunacy a few years back when he ran Celebration aground at the mouth of the Kennebec River soon after she was first launched.
But that's a long story we need not go into here.
David, it seems, came within a whisker of taking line honors in last year's Caribbean 1500, having neglected to bring a spinnaker along, and this year was determined to redeem himself. He dutifully packed a chute, but was disappointed as to his line-honor ambitions when he saw Black Bird and Fat Cat appear on the entry list. He reckoned his real competition would be Archangel, a Hylas 70. Archangel led Celebration all the way down to Tortola and did cross the line first, but burned much more fuel in the process (49 versus 29 engine hours). Celebration in the end corrected out in front of her by about 15 hours and finished second behind Black Bird in the rally's Cruising Division.
David, I have to say, seemed pretty pleased about this when we spoke on the phone.
Bob Woods, the owner of this Morris 46, was a bluewater virgin prior to the rally, as was the rest of his crew, who are all buddies of his from his local sailing club in Kentucky. They'd been planning this voyage together for years, and when the repeated delays at the start of the rally threatened his crew's itineraries, Bob didn't hesitate to accommodate them. First he planned to join the Bahamas wing of the rally, so as to shorten the passage, but then opted to leave a day early for Tortola when he heard that's what two other boats (Nyctea and 1700 Somewhere) were doing. In the end Lexington made it to Nanny Cay just in time for everyone to catch their flights home.
When Bob showed me his boat in Hampton, I was most intrigued by the 50-gallon mil-spec fuel bladder (a gift to the boat from one of the crew) that he had strapped down to the coachroof. In spite of my reservations about the thing breaking loose underway, Bob reported to me via e-mail that it (sort of) worked just fine:
The fuel bladder worked well. It never shifted, leaked, or caused concern. We decided to empty it as soon as the main fuel tank would hold the 48 gallons we had filled it with. The only surprise was that when we hooked up the hose to transfer the fuel there was no flow. The fuel bladder on the cabin roof was approximately a foot higher that the fuel-fill deck fitting, and we expected an easy flow of fuel from gravity. It did not happen. We had just a dribble of fuel.
We checked all the valves and fittings. We found we had to stand on the bladder to get the fuel flowing. This worked well and the fuel was transferred with no spillage or other difficulties. The empty bladder was left strapped to the deck for the remainder of the trip. When we prepared the boat to be left in Nanny Cay, we stored it below the front berth.
Ice Wars II and Cool Change
Ice Wars is the 52-foot custom cat that agreed to take me on as crew when it looked like my initial ride wouldn't make the start. I visited in Hampton and had a long talk with the owner's son, Allan Onik. The boat is every bit as impressive in person as it is in print. But I must confess, when Allan described to me the long series of mishaps that had plagued their journey from Florida to Virginia for the start of the rally (including wrapping a sail around one propeller) I wondered if I had dodged a bullet in missing this ride.
Like several other boats in the fleet, Ice Wars diverted to Bermuda for more fuel after getting trapped in the heart of the high-pressure cell. In the end, they made it to Tortola just in time for the final party.
Three other boats, meanwhile, were still sitting in Bermuda, including Cool Change, a 42-foot Fountaine Pajot catamaran. This boat was seized by U.S. Marshals just as the rally was initially scheduled to depart, but fortunately was released again in time for the delayed start.
The boat's owner, Ray Lillie, was reluctant to explain to me in Hampton exactly why the boat had been seized, saying only it involved a dispute with a local boatyard. The U.S. Marshal on the scene was even less forthcoming.
This was my ride, a gorgeous Cambria 44 owned by Larry and Cathy Clough. They had a tumultuous time prior to the start getting their rudder bearing sorted out. And they weren't too happy when I had to pull out after the final start delay, but they did find some replacement crew, another guy named Charlie.
They had a slow, but uneventful passage, but it seems the Other Charlie served them well.
I received two e-mails describing the voyage, the first from Tom Trump, another crew member:
The Katahdin story is pretty vanilla. We had light stuff until we had motored through most of our diesel. We were actively discussing contingency plans, but picked up the trades in the nick of time. They were SE for the first 2-3 days and we were sailing just off of close-hauled, then backed to E, and we didn't have to heel as much. Mostly 15-20, though one evening they sped up to 25 and we put a reef in the main. Saturday night (11/19) they briefly went over 25-30 in the gusts and we rigged the second reef and took a couple of good tucks in the genoa. They were back to 15-20 by morning. Cathy was a trouper, fixing up hot 3-4 course meals every night in a heeling, bouncing galley. When it was over she did say she never again wanted to do an extended offshore trip. We'll see if that changes after a winter of living aboard.
We went across the non-existent finish line about 0250 Monday, then took our time getting to Nanny Cay in order to enter at daylight. Charlie II had to leave that afternoon, and I left Tuesday morning early. Everyone on the boat was pretty happy with the outcome.
We had four mostly minor gear problems, which Larry coped with well: The first was a small rip in the main after we reefed and tied off the bunt of the sail with sail stops. One cringle tore out when we jibed. Larry sewed the sail back up. Second was a noticeable clunk sound in the steering about two nights out. He and Charlie finally diagnosed an overworked hydraulic pump, which was tamed by hand steering for a while and reducing the autohelm sensitivity. Third was the boom end shackle that held the two reef lines, which came undone then pulled open. We replaced it with a spare. Fourth was the roller-furling line, which chafed through at the drum and parted about two days from Tortola. It too was replaced with a spare. Pretty minor stuff compared to my last C1500, but our max winds this time were 30 kits briefly, and max waves were est. 9-10 feet.
The second was from Larry himself:
Overall, once we finally left our pre-departure stress behind, the crossing itself was benign although longer than is typical. I believe Steve Black commented that this was the longest 1500 ever--we finished about 10 minutes behind his boat.
Although it does not make good copy, the primary problem was light winds due to a large high pressure ridge parked between Florida and Bermuda. No isobars = no wind.
As Ken at Locus Weather predicted, ultimately we had to motor for about 40 hours to get through it, although due to fuel concerns we kept the rpms down to conserve fuel--we used 70 of 90 gallons over the 11 days.
The Gulf Stream crossing was very benign for us. Our friends on Centime started, diverted into Beaufort due to autopilot issues, started out again and got so badly beaten up in the Gulf Stream that they returned for repairs. They are still in Beaufort.
The last few days were a broad reach in about 25k of wind with big swells. Living on 20 degree tilt with continual cyclical lurches gets tiresome, particularly for Cathy who was cooking. I noted that Charlie Orne, the 23 year old Maine Maritime grad we hired to replace you, spent a lot of time sleeping during that part of the voyage.
The wear on the boat caused by swells during the last part of the trip was significant. The autopilot was making thumping noises which we spend several hours trying to figure out for fear something was loose. It seemed to resolve itself once I dialed down the sensitivity the next morning, but the autopilot did fail just before we arrived in Nanny Cay. My guess is the noises were some relief valve letting go, which caused the hoses to jerk and thump. We have an appointment to visit the electronics tech next week. We also had two pairs of set screws in the new Harken furler that protruded about a 32nd of an inch that wore a hole right trough our partly furled genoa and a shackle that unscrewed itself on the reefing line but was noticed before it let go. The engine drive side of the refrigeration failed, which the tech at Nanny Cay diagnosed as blown undersized fuse on the clutch for the compressor.
The AIS stopped displaying on the Garmin chartplotter--I purchased it at Milltech Marine and installed it. It worked for three months then temporarily failed to display for a day twice coming down but then recovered. Now it only displays for about five minutes before failing. AIS significantly lowers anxiety in crossing situations with fast commercial traffic particularly at night - it is not just hype.
Our fishing was a failure.
Last but not least, the rudder fix performed flawlessly. So much agony.
The moral of the story: persistence prevails--at one point I had given up on the 1500, but kept on slogging. It is hard to believe we are finally here after 3 years of planning and re-organizing our lives for this trip.
At dinner last night at a local bar, there was a definite sense that after focusing on this goal for so long we all felt at loose ends in finally passing the finish line.
You can look for more coverage of the Caribbean 1500, and of the North American Rally to the Caribbean (in which one woman was lost overboard) in the February issue of SAIL.