June 28, 2010, dawned cool with rain and light wind from the northeast. We had slept aboard my 1972 Bristol 34, Starling, after spending the previous two days provisioning and making final preparations for our big cruise south. Our plans had developed over the two years since I first purchased Starling in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was well equipped for offshore cruising and had proven seaworthy during a cruise from Halifax to Bathurst, New Brunswick, in 2008, and again in 2009, cruising from Bathurst to the Iles de la Madeleine. We were confident we could now handle a five-week cruise from Bathurst to Charleston, South Carolina, where I planned to keep the boat close to my home.
The crew for the first leg of the cruise was Murray Hill, first mate, Al Fraser, and myself as skipper. Murray and I have sailed together for years. Al was substituting for another crewmember who announced at the last minute he could not join us until the end of the first leg. Al also has many years of sailing experience and was a good fit onboard. We expected our first leg, from Bathurst to Halifax, a distance of approximately 450 nautical miles, to take four to five days.
Our final checks that morning included an update on the weather forecast, which now predicted that the northeast wind that had been blowing 20-25 knots for the last couple of days would diminish over the next 24 hours to 10 to 15 knots and back more to the north. We cast off at 0900 and once clear of the harbor set a course to take us out of Chaleur Bay and clear of Miscou Point, a distance of approximately 55 miles.
The wind was stronger than anticipated, and we soon reefed the main. Two hours later, we took it down altogether and continued sailing on the jib alone. Sailing close-hauled under reduced sail in choppy seas soon resulted in our slipping below our rhumb line, so we decided to motorsail. The wind had not diminished as forecast, nor did it show any signs of shifting to the north. If anything, it was veering more to the east, which put it virtually on our nose if we were to make Miscou Point.
At 1930, after more than 10 hours of motorsailing and beating up Chaleur Bay, we had sailed a total of 55 miles and were still 20 miles from Miscou. Wet, cold and tired, we now decided to put into Caraquet, a fishing port, which we knew from previous visits had a good marina.
The next day, after monitoring the weather forecast all morning and learning that the winds should diminish further during the next 24 hours, we cast off around 1330 and motored through the 12-mile channel out of Caraquet Bay. The seas were heavy and directly on the bow, but we kept going and eventually intersected our rhumb line again and motorsailed out to Miscou Point, which we finally rounded at 2200.
To our consternation, although the wind had indeed diminished to 15-20 knots, the sea state had worsened considerably. We realized this was because the strong northeast wind of the last three to four days had been blowing against the 2-4 knot current that typically flows north around the point. It was now raining heavily as well.
Our new course to the west of Prince Edward Island was immediately difficult to maintain because the heavy seas, which we estimated at 8-10 feet, were irregular in direction. The motion was also quite violent, due to the lighter winds, so once again we resorted to motorsailing.
The 24 hours at sea since leaving Caraquet had been hard on the crew. Al and I had both been sick, everything on board seemed to be wet, and it was impossible to get anything warm to eat or drink. We were surviving on power bars and water and getting very little rest. The boat’s motion was so severe, with the bow often dipping into the steep seas, that it was dangerous to move around belowdecks.
At 0400 on June 30, Al alerted us to the fact that the cabin sole was awash, and we soon discovered that the electric bilge pump, which had been set on automatic, was not functioning. Fortunately, when we manually activated the electric pump, it instantly started up again. We augmented its efforts by also working the manual bilge pump in the cockpit and quickly had the boat dry. The bilge on a Bristol 34 is huge compared to those on more modern boats, and the fact that we had taken on so much water was a major concern. After checking the freshwater tanks, the diesel engine’s cooling system, the seal on the rudder post and the stuffing box on the propeller shaft, we were at a loss as to its origin, so we resolved to check the bilge every hour.
It was at about this time we also noticed that Al, apart from his seasickness, was not doing very well. He could not keep anything down at all, including water and his special anti-organ-rejection medication, which he’d been taking for the past 15 years since having a liver transplant. He appeared jaundiced and, like the rest of us, was extremely fatigued.
For the next 24 hours we motorsailed in ever improving conditions and finally reached the east end of Prince Edward Island. We now set course for the Strait of Canso, which would lead us into the Atlantic Ocean and thus to the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. As conditions improved, we all managed to eat more substantially, Al got back on his medication, and we started to dry out. Going into our third continuous difficult day at sea, sleep was a priority.
My watch from 0300 to 0600 on July 1 was uneventful. It was flat calm and foggy, so we were motoring, using the GPS and radar to make sure we stayed well clear of the islands off the western shore of Cape Breton. Then, at 0620 on Al’s watch, the diesel engine stopped and refused to start again. After checking its vital fluids, we discovered there was no oil on the dipstick and that the engine temperature was way above normal. While waiting for the engine to cool down, we realized we were drifting toward some shoals off to our port side. As soon as they were too close for comfort, we decided to put in a call for assistance.
Prior to departure, we had filed a float plan with the Canadian Coast Guard that included full details of Starling and her crew. We had also arranged to check in via radio every 24 hours. We had honored this schedule for the first 48 hours, but then neglected it as we struggled off the coast of Prince Edward Island. Sydney Coast Guard Radio responded to our call for assistance and told us there was an alert out for us because we were overdue. We later learned that a small plane from the Canadian Natural Resources Department that had over flown us late on June 30 did, in fact, log and report our position to the CCG.
A towboat soon arrived, and we were towed into the small fishing port of Cribbons Point. Here we learned that the engine had a broken connecting rod and that our grand plan to cruise south would have to be delayed for another year. We also discovered that the cover on the anchor deck pipe on the foredeck had been dislodged by the seas breaking over the bow and that this was the source of all the water in the bilge. Later, we investigated the bilge pump and found an electrical connection that had come adrift. Unfortunately, we had only completed about 280 miles of our 1,600-mile passage south to the Carolinas and it remains uncertain when I’ll be able to finish the voyage.