A Funny Thing Happened on the way home from Bermuda

June 30, 2010 posted by admin

Wednesday June 30,

I’m sitting here on OGOC quietly writing this note to you all and thinking about how to wrap up six days on the ocean. Paul and Tim from my shore team have been doing an amazing job of keeping the world up to date, but the fact is that the satellite phone hardly ever worked, and the spot tracker requires lithium batteries, of which I had none onboard… just regular alkaline. So I was only able to get minimal info out to the world.

Let’s start by outlining the purpose of the run back. To get into the Transat you are required to do a series of qualifying activities. One of which is a 1,000 nautical mile run solo – this was my run back from Bermuda. The reason they require this is so that you get a good sampling of what to expect over 4,300 miles, rather than get part way in, realize you are over your head and have massive rescue missions under way. Pretty logical thinking.

My 1,000 nautical mile solo qualifying run back from Bermuda starts with three days of getting the boat ready. Once on the water there is no support boat and no other competitors out there for help. If I run into any trouble, I pull my EPIRB and the Search and Rescue from whichever closest country gets put into play. Also, there’s no port to pull in to and hide from. So my biggest mission is to make sure that the boat is in good shape. That includes securing shackles, checking standing and running rigging, provisioning the boat and making sure the Active Indicating System (AIS) and the Active Echo (AE) are working. They are my eyes and ears to the rest of the world or more specifically the freighter and BIG boat world. It’s a big ocean and there’s lots of traffic on it. Nick and I saw a minimum of one freighter a night, and often it was two or three. Sailing with another person is one thing… there’s always someone on lookout, but sailing solo, you have to take catnaps, and you need eyes watching while you’re napping to make sure you don’t get run over. After working through the boat and testing the AIS/AE, I’m happy with everything and it’s time to shove off on the Tuesday morning.

Picture of Freighter

Sailing solo, you have to take catnaps and you need eyes watching while you’re napping to make sure you don’t get run over.

Day 1 – Tuesday, June 22
Out we (me and the boat) go to our start position. On my way out I go to hoist the kite, and realize that in fixing the bungee cord for the running backs, I have captioned the spin halyard in the bungee. This means I need to get part way up the mast, grab the bungee and pull it down to the deck to get the halyard out. With a little balancing and wedging and a very long boat hook, I get it done. Now we’re ready to go. The route is to go west at 280°, pass the first ODAS mark (weather station), then work my way up the Gulf Stream to another ODAS mark in a north easterly direction and pass it to port and then head to the Chesapeake light. Looks like it’s going to be port tack close hauled for a while as the prevailing south westerly winds are well in play. That’s ok, it was all part of the big plan.


Pass the first ODAS mark, being a weather station, similar to this image.

The first day passed reasonably uneventful until nightfall. Onboard there is a routine for everything. The sun goes down and the nighttime routine begins. The AIS goes on, the watches start, the batteries are checked to make sure they are topped up so I know how much hand steering I need to do, and the layering of the clothing happens. It gets cool at this time of the year, even in the Gulf Stream, but more importantly it gets DAMP and you get cold. Let’s go back to the AIS. I flick it on and it seems to light up. Funny though, the alarm starts going off almost immediately and I don’t see anything in sight. So I check the range, and realize it’s probably something beyond my line of sight. Then I check to see what it is. The system will tell me the Lat/Long and heading of the vessel. There’s nothing on the screen though. Hmmm, strange but on to sailing the boat. A little while later I see a freighter and realize that the AIS hasn’t buzzed an alarm. Long story short, the darn system isn’t working at all. I tried everything I could think of, but ultimately I think the antennae I have is too short a range to work over a mile. This is scary, because now I don’t know if the Active Echo I am sending out from the boat is working and if freighters are seeing me. The buzzer keeps going off, but I don’t know if there are ships around me or if the whole damn system has crapped out. I’m going to assume it’s crapped out, rather than assume boats can see me. This now means staying up at night and catnapping in 15 minute intervals to make sure we don’t get run over by things that go bump in the night. Did I also mention that many of the other electronics on the boat have decided to go on holiday? The spot tracker, the Sat phone, my depth gage is telling me that I have five meters under my keel…….I’m going on a hunch there that there is an octopus or something stuck to my hull, or there’s a whale that has fallen madly in love with me and is following me. Then the flying fish start. We saw them on the way over, but none landed on the boat. Not the case tonight!

Day 2 – Wednesday, June 23
I’m getting lonely and it’s only day two. The wind is averaging 10-20 knots and it’s still in the same direction. Now the Single Sideband isn’t working, so no weather reports other than the ones I am still getting from Bermuda Radio. My VHF can receive up to about 100 miles away. Things don’t feel good. The weather report is for 5-10 overnight….I guess I was too far out for an accurate weather report. I saw 20 solid knots over night and squall after squall. Multiple reefs in the main and jib. This is really starting to worry me. Too many things aren’t working properly and I’m not well prepared for this. There also seemed to be a requirement for all of the flying fish to commit suicide on deck tonight. I had to pick them out of the cockpit. The smell is awful! Like being in a fish market that is past due on a bath, and they’re slippery little suckers for sure.

Day 3 – Thursday, June 24
Last night was a very bumpy ride. I could really use some sleep, but that won’t be the case. I am also feeling very uncomfortable about all of the equipment not working and the high winds we’ve been experiencing. Add to this that my foul weather gear is shot. My boots hurt and I’m soaked to the bone every night. I’ve been thinking about the risky position I have put myself into. The mental exhaustion, the electronic equipment failures that I rely on, the gear to keep me dry and warm and not hypothermic and the lack of communication I have with the rest of the world should I need help.

picture of waves

The conditions are getting worse and worse. The weather is just blasting through. 20 – 30 knots all the time and lots of pounding at night with twenty to thirty foot waves.

Day 4 – Friday, June 25
The conditions are getting worse and worse. The weather is just blasting through. 20 – 30 knots all the time and lots of pounding at night with twenty to thirty foot waves. Every night there are multiple squalls. Fortunately there is also a moon, so I get the full benefit of seeing the magnitude of the cloud formations and the squall lines as they are nicely back lit by the moon. Scary stuff. Add to that the fact that my calculations on how long to finish the run are grossly incorrect. Looks like I will need an extra four days at a minimum. I don’t have enough food. Time to make a decision. This isn’t worth life risking stuff. I call Paul and tell him I’m heading the boat for Annapolis (north west), and not finishing the full miles for the run. It’s not worth the risk. I called my sailing partner Nick who did the race to Bermuda with me and asked him to find a spot at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay where I could pull in once I got in.

The Bay is a plethora of traffic, tide / current, weather action, Naval air strike training targets, fishing nets that are legal and lit and ones that are illegal and not lit, and tremendous shallow areas. I was spent and I didn’t need an extra 125 miles of pain just to get to the trailer.

Norfolk from the water

The Bay is a plethora of traffic, tide, current, weather action, Naval air strike training targets, fishing nets that are legal and lit and ones that are illegal and not lit, and tremendous shallow areas.

Day 5 – Saturday, June 26

The winds are so strong today that not only are the waves cresting and breaking, but I can literally see the wind blowing the tops off of some of them. I’m seeing things I’ve only ever read about. Glad I made the decision to head home. Still going to be a long slog but it won’t be as long as it should have been.

Saturday night I saw the wind meter hit 40+ knots. After that I stopped looking. I have never been scared on a boat like I was that night. I half expected the boat to role over or the mast to snap under the pressure. 3 reefs in the main and no headsail at all, and it was all I could do to keep the boat 45 degrees (ish) to the wind and the waves to make sure we didn’t get rolled and still keep some steerage control. Without a headsail it’s difficult, but there was no way I was going on deck to deal with that.

Day 6 – Sunday, June 27
Saturday night’s God fearing storm seemed to be on the edge of the Gulf stream. As I worked my way out of the stream, the sun came up and the breeze slowed up. I think I passed the test and was shown the way out.

Butterfly on Winch

Saturday night’s God fearing storm on the edge of the Gulf stream. I worked my way out, the sun came up and the breeze slowed up. I passed the test and was shown the way out.

I have had a lot of time to think about all of this. As scary as it was, I think it was a VERY valuable lesson. What did I learn? For as much sailing as I have done, I am not prepared yet to do 1,000 miles. I have a HUGE list of things to further prepare myself so that I am properly in shape to attack conditions like this and win the round. More training is on the schedule, more time on the boat is scheduled and more support around the electronics and the gear on the boat is scheduled.

I can do another qualifier. It’s certainly not the end of the world having not completed this one. The class will allow me another go at it. When I get back to Toronto, the team and I will meet and we’ll decide the best approach to take. Everything in life happens for a reason, you just need to recognize the reason and act on it. Lots of people that I have met along the coast and in Bermuda say “keep safe” at the end of conversations where you and I would say “see you later”. I like “keep safe”.

Racon Buoy Picture

People in Bermuda say “keep safe” at the end of conversations where you and I would say “see you later”. I like “keep safe”.

I’m very proud of what the OGOC team and I have accomplished to date. We’ve secured a fantastic boat, competed and performed very well, learned the next phase of the game, and ultimately “kept safe”. I’ll let you all know how we decide to do the next round for the qualifier. In the meantime it’s the LO300 July 17th, in the single handed division.

6 Responses to “A Funny Thing Happened on the way home from Bermuda”

  1. Danno Says:

    Glad to hear you’re back. Let me tell you….I can relate ! Like you say, it was a great learning experience…I have full confidence in you for the next 1000 miler!

  2. Jane Says:

    So glad you’re through the worst of it in good condition (you and the boat). Thanks so much for posting.

  3. Heidi Says:

    What an amazing journey – physically and mentally. Reading your words, I can imagine the range of emotions you must have gone through, starting with a very frustrated “[subsitute favourite expletive here]!!!!!”. Kudos to you for keeping your head, keeping the boat together, and making it back whole. And thanks for sharing the experience! Good luck in the 300!

  4. Freda Kemp Says:

    Just glad you made it back safely Diane – you can try again and you will be better prepared. Best to learn about all the things going wrong so they can get fixed for next time. Freda

  5. Mollie Says:

    Unbelievable dear Diane,
    We are all so proud of you and cannot imagine how you were able to endure such an adventure. Jay Jay is certainly relieved to have you back on earth and so are we.
    Bravo is not a strong enough word!
    Love to you,
    Aunt Mollie and uncle Ray

  6. Janet Bagnato Says:

    Inspiring account Diane. Thanks and keep safe.

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