Swift Boat To Virginia
By Bernadette Bernon
As a march of hurricanes wrecked havoc in Florida and elsewhere, Douglas and I stared at the weather charts and pondered the news coming out of NOAA and The Weather Channel. Sitting in Newport, Rhode Island, we needed to get south, yet we were unwilling to risk going too soon. This had been a violent hurricane season, and we’d been staying put until Jeanne, Ivan, and their trouble-making buddies were well out to sea.
Winds were brisk, and the sky was clear. Ithaka tore along on a beam reach, despite the fact that she was sitting deeper in the water than we would have liked. Regardless of our efforts to the contrary, we’d managed to put even more weight on her than last year. We’d replaced our chain, and added 100 more feet, we’d bought a heavy-duty sewing machine, lots of new tools, spares, books and provisions. Then, to make matters worse, we’d taken everything out of our starboard-side guest cabin (we treat it as a two-car garage) so that we had somewhere for Paul to sleep. Then we moved all that gear to the port side settee in the main saloon, and tied it down there. Ithaka immediately listed to port, and with all the extra stuff in the main cabin, the boat had a slightly chaotic, claustrophobic feeling. We made a note to get rid of the extra weight, but to both of us it smacked of yet one more dieting resolution.
Day one on an offshore voyage is all about finding your sea legs, getting things re-arranged on board and settling into a watch schedule. Douglas and I are accustomed to doing these things by ourselves, and it was a novelty – and a luxury -- to have Paul aboard. Suddenly lunch would appear, or a snack, or lemonade, or a sail would get trimmed. Without any bidding he shared in the chores that go along with moving a sailboat from A to B. The aspect of a third crew that we really noticed was how much more sleep we all got. Instead of two hours on and two hours off, two-hour watches among three people meant we doubled our naps! That was an extravagance that made the nights zoom by.
Then there was the metal-against-metal clinking of the intermediate backstays. We only use them when we’re sailing upwind with the staysail, so they were in their storage position amidships, snap-shackled to pad eyes on the side decks, where they telegraphed their knocking through the deck and into my brain. I vowed that by the next nightfall they would not be able to steal another minute of my sleep. The solution was to tie rope quoits through the pad eyes, securing the two sets of tackle to them, a simple and clever idea I’d just read in a book by Bill Seifert (with Dan Spurr) called “Offshore Sailing: 200 Essential Passagemaking Tips.”
Well yeah, I know that, I thought, as he strolled along into the aisles. I mean, jeesh, what do I look like? Then I took another look at myself in the mirror, and decided to change the jacket to the next size up. Bill caught this from around the corner, and I noticed him smiling at me. We struck up a conversation, and when I told him Douglas and I were headed south the next morning, he told me all about his book, and the next thing I knew he’d gone out to his car, gotten a new copy, inscribed it, and given it to me as a gift.
“Have a great trip!” he called as he left the store.
Douglas and I have been reading the book on and off since we left Newport. It’s a treasure of practical ideas that Seifert as picked up over years during his thousands of sea miles on different boats, during his career as a marine project manager for Tartan, Alden, and other top builders, as well as in his own yacht-management company. Here are a few of his tips that hit home for us.
After Douglas picked up the book on one of his off-watch afternoons, I noticed him polishing the tumblers of all our combination-locks. “When we open up a boat,” writes Seifert, “we leave combination locks showing the opening numbers on the lock, making it easy for thieves to figure out our combinations by looking for the weathered numbers.” This is especially true on the popular Sesame type of lock, which we use on Ithaka , which have tumblers that must be aligned in the correct sequence in order to open them. The numbers weather in this configuration and that’s easy to spot as each tumbler is rotated. “Cleaning the numbers with metal polish makes them all look the same.” Done.
Ithaka sailed along as Paul, Douglas, and I read our books and magazines and newspapers, ate all kinds of meals and snacks, talked together, slept well, and stayed on the lookout for ships by scanning the horizon every 15 minutes or so. Standing on the deck of most small sailboats, such as Ithaka , your eye height is roughly 10 feet above the water. Seifert reckons that from that height the typical horizon is roughly 3.6 miles away.
The next morning, as we entered Norfolk’s shipping channel, I was on watch to see the sunrise paint the sky orange. As we sailed over the underground tunnel in Thimble Shoal Channel, a Coast Guard cutter zoomed directly toward us. What on earth could they want with us at this early hour, we wondered? The cutter slowed when she reached Ithaka , and we saw immediately what the fuss was about. Directly behind us was the rising conning tower of an enormous black submarine. We held our breaths as it ghosted by, its massive upper body breaking out of the water near little Ithaka , and then leaving us behind, with our mouths still open.
The Atlantic Yacht Basin, in Great Bridge, is a completely protected basin of deep water, sitting just the other side of a lock, so water levels are controlled and storm surges just don’t happen. We knew that soon we’d be off Ithaka for more than a week – to attend a family wedding -- and that seemed the safest place by far to leave her in the event another hurricane came this way.
“Where’s Jeanne now?” I asked her.
“Oh... Hmmmm. I don’t really know that,” Betty answered. “I only know where Al Roker is.”
Jeanne lost most of her strength long before she arrived in this neck of the woods. Tucked inside the inner pool of Atlantic Yacht Basin, behind the protection of the Great Bridge lock, we had some rain and wind, but none of the destruction.
Our sail from Newport had been well planned, and fast. This cabal of hurricanes was almost history -- we prayed anyway -- and it looked like it might be safe, once again, to set our sights on a new journey ahead. We looked forward with hope.