Well, we did it! We successfully completed our first overnight sail. We had put this off for a long time for a number of reasons.
WHY WE HAVE BEEN PUTTING OFF OUR FIRST OVERNIGHT SAIL
First, we don't have autopilot. That means someone has to be at the helm actively steering the whole entire time. And there are only two of us to take turns. Momo hasn't quite passed his training to be able to stand watch on his own while we are both below sleeping.
|Steering the whole time can get tiring|
Secondly, we don't have radar. (Actually, we DO have it, but it's still sitting in a big box taking up most of our forward cabin. We just haven't put it up yet because we haven't decided exactly how we're going to mount it way up on the mast and how we are going to run the wires through the mast: a project we've been putting off and dreading for a while.)
|Our Radar is still in its box|
No radar means that we can't see upcoming weather (squalls) and other vessels that don't have AIS. AIS stands for "Automatic Identification System." AIS is required for big commercial vessels on an international voyage, such as tankers and cruise ships. But it is optional on privately owned vessels and smaller commercial vessels. We have an AIS receiver and transmitter, which means we can see other vessels with AIS and they can see us on our GPS display screens. You can track our AIS signal on marinetraffic.com or click this link: Salt Whistle's location. You can also create a profile on that website and sign up to get notifications when we are moving.
|AIS shows you where other boats with AIS are located|
Third, an overnight passage requires traveling in the dark, unable to see any upcoming obstacles that aren't illuminated. Floating debris (like logs, trees, trash) and fishing trap buoys can usually be seen in ample time in the daylight hours if you are paying attention, and you can steer around them. However, at night, you are at the mercy of good luck. If you are far enough offshore, in deep enough water, and on the windward side (upwind) of land you don't have as much to worry about as far as floating debris and fish trap buoys.
|Shipping containers lost at sea are one of my fears|
But there's always the dreaded shipping container lost at sea. According to a survey conducted by the World Shipping Council, an average of 1,679 shipping containers are lost at sea each year. There's a lot of ocean out there, but even the remote possibility of plowing into a 60,000 pound shipping container scares me. Even in the daylight hours, though, you may not see a mostly submerged shipping container in time to avoid it. So, I guess, what's the point in worrying about things out of my control?
WHAT MOTIVATED US TO DO OUR FIRST OVERNIGHT PASSAGE
What pushed us to do an overnight passage? It was a combination of a dwindling bank account, the desire to take on a new challenge, and impatience. Bad weather and poor sea conditions had impeded our progress on our passage north to Saint Martin. We waited out weather in St. Lucia, again in Martinique, and then again in Guadeloupe. This stalled us by more than two weeks. We had planned to arrive in St. Martin by early to mid November, and that time had already passed. Arriving before the "tourist season" begins gives us a better advantage for finding jobs in the tourism industry, our line of work.
We had intended to stop in Antigua and Barbuda, since we hadn't been there yet, but the more we read about their rules and regulations the more we wanted to avoid it. It does sound like a beautiful place, but they sure don't make it appealing at all to the low budget cruisers. They nickel and dime you for everything. Entry charge, cruising permit, daily park fees, anchoring/mooring fees, departure tax...Fees, fees, fees. Plus, when you arrive they require you to pull up to their customs dock where they will likely board your boat, and if you have a pet you will need to have a Veterinary Officer come aboard and examine your pet for a large fee. Not to mention that our little fur baby, Momo, is typically traumatized and not himself for weeks after a veterinary examination.
|Antigua's fees are out of control|
Stopping at the island of Montserrat was another option, but from previous experience and from everything we read, the anchorage there is extremely uncomfortable and rolly. Getting a good night's sleep is impossible there when the weather conditions are anything other than glassy pond-like conditions because the bay offers little protection.
|Montserrat isn't well protected|
Nevis was our last consideration. But looking back at how much they charged us last time we visited, we decided against it too. It seems that the British and formerly British island nations are the absolute worst when it comes to regulations and fees. On the other hand, the French islands are the most laid back and the cheapest. Definitely not what we would have guessed before we sailed through the Caribbean.
PLANNING AND PREPARING FOR OUR FIRST OVERNIGHT PASSAGE
We had been watching the weather and sea conditions very closely. After a couple of bad experiences getting caught in some terrifying weather at sea, we weren't about to make the same mistake again! This time we were safely tucked into the bay at Deshais, Guadeloupe while the nasty conditions passed over us. There were 8-10 foot seas outside of the bay and lots and lots of downpours. No thank you! We were so happy to be on a mooring in a safe place when some of those nasty squalls passed by with whistling winds, buckets of rain, and sometimes zero visibility. At least we were able to collect water to fill our tanks!
|The anchorage in Deshais, Guadeloupe|
Our plan was to sail from Deshais, Guadeloupe to Gustavia, St. Barths. The journey would be 117 nautical miles (135 miles for you landlubbers). Based on our limited experiences, our sailing speeds in open water averaged at least 5-6 knots. We figured it was safe to assume that we could average 5 knots, since we'd be in open waters. We calculated that our voyage would take us around 23 hours (117/5), or maybe less time if we were moving faster. If we traveled at 8 knots, the voyage would take us 15 hours. Based on this calculation, we decided to leave at 5pm on Wednesday night, when the seas would finally calm and the skies would be clear. That would put us in St. Barths some time after sunrise but before sunset on Thursday.
|Our path from Guadeloupe to St. Barths|
We filed a float plan with our families, using the pdf on the US Coast Guard's website: http://floatplancentral.cgaux.org/download/USCGFloatPlan.pdf That would keep our loved ones informed of our intended journey, as well as give us a better chance of being rescued in the unlikely event of a catastrophic disaster at sea.
|Coast Guard plane|
We tend to go to bed pretty early, but we forced ourselves to stay up late for a few nights prior to our big passage so we didn't fall asleep at the wheel. We slept in as much as we could to help adjust our sleep schedules too. It's harder than you might imagine to sleep in on a boat in the Caribbean. Once the sun comes up the light pours in through the portholes, and the cabin starts to heat up and make you start sweating. So despite our efforts, 9am was the most we managed to sleep in.
We did lots of reading about overnight passages on different sailing forums, online sailing magazines, and sailing blogs.
The afternoon of the day we were leaving, I did a little food preparation. It's not the most pleasant feeling to be down below in a hot rolly cabin while underway and heeling 15 degrees, trying to prepare something to eat.
Eating nothing but granola bars is fine for a shorter passage, but for a longer passage like this we wanted some real food. I mixed up some tuna salad in a tupperware container. I put it in an easy to access part of the refrigerator, along with a couple of apples and our leftover pasta from the previous night. I filled a waterproof box with crackers, granola bars, some ginger cookies, and some ginger candy (great to combat that queasy feeling in rough seas).
We went around and secured the boat inside, making sure nothing would come crashing down to the floor as we sailed. Sinks are good places to put some things, since they are deep enough to keep them in place. We knew we would be on a starboard tack (meaning the wind would be coming over the right side of our boat, and we would be tilted with the left side down), so we put anything that might fall on the port (left) side of the boat so it wouldn't go anywhere.
We made sure everything was secure on deck (outside), and that nothing would fall overboard. We also had to make sure that we didn't forget to pull up the swim ladder and the cat's rope (which dangles in the water to help Momo climb back aboard if he falls in the water).
Skeeter rowed us to shore (the dinghy motor was already secured to Salt Whistle's rail) and we checked out of customs. When we got back to the boat we raised the dinghy using the halyard (line that is normally used to raise the sail) and put the dinghy on the forward deck. Skeeter tied it down tight with ratchet straps. We sure didn't want to have our dinghy go airborne in the middle of the night!
We put our rain jackets, life jackets, water, headlamps, binoculars, and box of dry snacks in the cockpit. Skeeter did our final engine check while I ran around closing all portholes and hatches. Then I turned on our VHF radio, GPS & AIS, and our navigation lights since it would soon be dark.
LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN!
I started up the engine and plotted our course on the GPS. We put on our life jackets for safety, as we do every time we go sailing, especially offshore.
Skeeter untied our mooring lines and we were off! We left at 5pm, just as planned. The sun was low in the sky, about to set. I motored to the outer edge of the bay, then turned into the wind so Skeeter could raise our mainsail. We had it double reefed, reducing the overall surface area quite a bit so we wouldn't be in trouble if bad weather hit unexpectedly. Once we got out of the bay and far enough away from shore so the winds were more steady and consistent we unfurled our Genoa sail.
At 6pm we filled out our logbook, including GPS position. Conditions were as good if not better than expected. 3-5 foot seas from the east & 10-15 knots of wind from the northeast were predicted. The seas were probably around 3 feet high, and the winds around 10 knots. We were on a close reach, with the wind coming from the northeast and we were heading northwest. It was a bit rolly with the swells hitting our beam, but relatively comfortable.
As the sun set behind the horizon we felt excited but nervous at the same time. By 6:30 it was completely dark, except for the glow of the half moon. With the sun gone, it started to get a little bit chilly. We put on our raincoats for splash protection and warmth. Believe it or not, it can get pretty cold out on the water, even in the Caribbean. We decided to shut off the engine and just sail, since were making pretty good time so far. We could finally clearly hear the sound of the wind in our sails and the seas lapping against our hull.
Unfortunately, our compass light didn't work and we didn't have any visual references in sight, so I had to navigate based on the GPS. We had it set in "head up" position, meaning that the boat would always be pointing up but the map would be rotating around. Blah!!!! It was making me way too pukey feeling watching the map spin around every time our heading changed as we went up or down the side of a wave. And it was so bright compared to the night's sky so it was screwing with my not so good night vision. It was time to grab my first ginger candy. Skeeter changed it to "course up" and dimmed the screen, and it was much better.
|It's important to keep a good log|
At 9pm our shift schedules began. Skeeter grabbed the logbook and recorded our position, average speed, and conditions. We were moving along at about 6 knots. From 9 until midnight Skeeter sailed while I went below to get some rest. We both agreed that while on shift we shouldn't hesitate to wake the other for any reason if we are worried or unsure about something. Also, it was important to pee before every shift. I felt the need to remind Skeeter that he is not allowed, for any reason, to leave the cockpit to tinker with anything or pee without first waking me. During the daytime when we're both on deck he likes to move around and tinker with things a lot and it makes me nervous. One of my biggest fears is to lose him overboard and never find him again. Scary stuff. But it does happen. We have a friend who lost his wife overboard and she was never found.
The wind got lighter and the sails starting luffing (flapping around when not full of wind), so Skeeter had to sheet in (tighten the sails). Every little change in the way the boat moved, change in wind, or different sound that I heard had me worried. Had he fallen overboard? I have a wild imagination, which can sometimes be a blessing but at other times a curse. This time it was a curse. I had a hard time relaxing and getting rest. I called up to Skeeter to see if everything was okay and make sure he was still there! It was. And he was. I closed my eyes again and tried to get used to my body rolling around the bed and tried to stop imagining bad things happening up above. It wasn't easy. I squirmed and repositioned myself until I finally figured how to lay without moving around too much.
When Skeeter called down to me that it was my turn, I felt kind of disoriented and dazed...so that means I must have gotten some sleep. I got up, went pee, recorded our position, average speed, and conditions. We had slowed down to about 3.5 knots, and the seas had calmed to 2-4 feet. We were now just east of the island of Montserrat. You could see the glow of Antigua ahead of us off our starboard side. I ate some cold leftover pasta while Skeeter debriefed me on the conditions and everything that he had observed during his shift. He only saw one boat the entire time, and it was a cargo ship, about 12 miles away. He saw it's lights first, and then zoomed out on the GPS to see if it showed up on our AIS. It did, and he was able to get all of the details about the ship's size, speed, and where it was heading. It wasn't going to pass anywhere near us. The skies were pretty clear, and the stars were shining so brightly.
After being updated on what was going on out there, I took the helm and Skeeter went down below to try to get some rest. It was my shift from midnight to 3am. It was kind of thrilling sailing by myself at night. I was really enjoying the sounds of the wind and the sea. We were on a starboard tack, heeled to port. The water was being pushed off the port side of our hull in sheets of shimmering blue-green light. Bio-luminescence! It was so beautiful and magical. Like something out of Peter Pan.
Steering was pretty easy for the most part. The sails were adjusted well, so the boat stayed on course when the winds were consistent. When the wind died down I had to make adjustments and steer toward starboard, and when the wind picked up I had to steer toward port to keep us on course.
Judging distances at night time is no easy task. I saw some white lights far in the distance and was having trouble figuring out just how far away they were, identifying what kind of lights they were, and if I should be concerned or not. I grabbed the binoculars, but it was kind of hard to look through them while the boat rolled around on the waves. Yuck. Trying to focus and look through the binoculars made me a little queasy. Time to grab another ginger candy and stare at the stationary lights of Montserrat. I felt better pretty quickly, and went back to enjoying the night. I just kept an eye on those mysterious lights to see if they appeared to be moving or getting closer.
|A Carnival Cruise ship|
A little bit later I saw a big glow behind us on the horizon. I zoomed out on the GPS and saw that it was a Carnival cruise ship, headed to St. John's, Antigua. It was 14 miles away and wouldn't come anywhere near our path. I couldn't believe how few boats were out there. It's lonely in a way, but in another way its very reassuring that our chances of a collision were extremely slim. I relaxed a little bit more, looked up at the stars, and enjoyed the peace and quiet.
Skeeter's next shift was from 3am to 6am. I told him to wake me at 5:30am because I was very excited to see our first sunrise at sea. We did our change of watch routine, and I went down below for some attempted rest. Once again I tossed and turned trying to get comfortable and trying not to worry about changes in sound or movement. Somehow I was much more relaxed when I was the one at the helm. I trust Skeeter's skills and judgement 100%, but there's just something comforting about knowing the source of any changes. I guess I'm the same in a car on road trips. I tend to be very sensitive to any changes and jerk to attention at the slightest thing. I finally convinced myself that he would let me know if something was wrong, and I drifted off to sleep.
It seemed only seconds after I finally fell asleep that Skeeter woke me up. It was 5:30, and I had asked to be awoken for sunrise. Part of me regretted this request since I was so tired I was delirious, but I reminded myself how magical this experience was going to be and I got my butt out of bed and outside.
|The horizon glowed when the sun began to rise|
We were now off the coast of Nevis. The morning was more beautiful and magical than I could have ever expected. The horizon began to glow a beautiful shade of yellow, orange, and red. Yes, I know what they say, "Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors be warned." It could be interpreted as rough weather to come, but I convinced myself that it was more orange than red. I grabbed my phone from down below to snap a few pictures of the colorful glow on the horizon.
Skeeter made an interesting observation. He said, "How many people in the world do you think ever get the opportunity to be this far away from other people?" It was just the two of us (and Momo, our kitty) and no one else for miles. We were truly out there all alone. Then I heard a sound that scared me. Pfffft! What was that!?!
Apparently we weren't all alone. I was completely alert now. I was so excited I think I may have squealed. Dolphins!!!!! I could hear them but I couldn't yet see them. I was certain: there was a huge pod of dolphins swimming alongside our boat! As the sun crept up higher and higher we could finally make out their sleek shapes and see their little blow holes break the surface and make that wonderful, "pffft" sound. They were EVERYWHERE! In front of us, on the port side, on the starboard side. There were at least 30 dolphins, if not more! They stayed with us for a while, and I attempted a few pictures and a video, but it was too dark to really capture the magic of the our first dawn at sea. I am sure glad I got up early for my shift!
|Dolphins wished us a good morning!|
After the excitement was over we did our change of watch routine and filled out the logbook. The lighter than expected winds made our ETA way too late. Our GPS was telling us that we would arrive in over 30 hours, which would mean FRIDAY! Yikes. We wanted to get there on Thursday by 5pm at the latest. For one, we were exhausted and wanted to get there. Most importantly, though, we put 5pm on Thursday as our expected time of arrival on our float plan. We didn't want our families to worry about us, and we didn't want them to call the authorities and have the Coast Guard out searching for us! So we decided to start the engine so we could arrive on schedule and not cause any unnecessary drama.
Skeeter went down below for some rest. I was on duty from 6 - 9am. The first hour I was still glowing with excitement about the sunrise and the dolphins. But by 7am I was beyond exhausted. I had to pay very close attention to stay on course. The wind had shifted a little bit, and we were now motor sailing very close to the wind. My eyes were literally starting to roll back in my head. I needed to stay alert. If I accidentally steered too much upwind the sails would start to luff and make a lot of noise, and disturb Skeeter's slumber. And if I steered too much downwind I would get us off course and potentially get too close to land.
I tried different techniques to stay awake. I tried standing up, I tried dancing, I tried singing, and I even tried slapping myself in the face. One time I couldn't overcome the exhaustion and I had one of those "falling asleep in class" moments. We've all had them. Despite your most valiant efforts, your body's desire to rest wins, and suddenly you lose consciousness and you body goes completely limp. I almost smacked my head on the helm. But then I jerked myself awake and managed to fight it for the remaining part of my shift. I sheeted in the sails as much as possible so we could get as close to the wind as possible without luffing.
We were now off the coast of St. Kitts. Good thing I got myself to be fully conscious again, because there was a tiny little fishing dory directly in my path. The boat was small...so small that I didn't even see him until I was less than 1000 feet away. I was shocked to see two guys in a tiny fishing boat over 10 miles offshore on the windward side of the island. Those fisherman are brave souls, going out to sea in such small boats. I diverted course, turning downwind toward St. Kitts to safely go around them.
I noticed that the skies were changing, and there were lots of clouds. Some of them looked ominous and tall - storm clouds. I was hoping they would miss us. On a positive note, the storms in the distance produced the most beautiful rainbows in front of St. Kitts and Nevis. But unfortunately, I was by myself in the cockpit and didn't want to abandon the helm to go get my phone to take a picture. And I didn't think Skeeter would appreciate me interrupting his much needed sleep because I wanted him to get my phone and take a picture of a rainbow.
Finally 9am came around, we did the change of shifts, and I went down below to get some sleep. This time I had much less trouble falling asleep. After minimal squirming I passed out. I woke up after about a solid hour of sleep. Hallelujah. That was the best rest I'd gotten so far. I dozed back asleep, but jerked back into consciousness every time I heard or felt a change.
I was completely out of it when I heard Skeeter calling down to me. "We're heading into a squall. Sorry to wake you early, but I need you up here." I stumbled out of bed, drunk from exhaustion. I quickly peed, then I went up on deck. Uh oh. It looked pretty nasty. Skeeter tried to steer around it as much as he could, but it was way too big and impossible to avoid.
|Heading into a squall|
I took the helm and turned into the wind so we could furl in the Genoa sail. I was to keep tension on the sheet (the line connected to the back corner of the sail) while Skeeter pulled on the furling line, rolling up the sail. I was still in a daze. I was having trouble keeping Salt Whistle pointing into the wind (it was variable and gusty) and holding onto the sheet at the same time. It's normally not that daunting of a task, but I was still totally out of it. By this time the wind had picked up significantly, and was gusting hard. Skeeter was pulling the furling line with all of his might and for some idiotic reason I let go of the sheet. The line went flying out of my hand and luckily we had tied a stopper knot in the end of it, because it caught in the track-car and I was able to retrieve it and avoid any catastrophes from my mistake. If there wasn't a stopper knot tied on the end of it, the sail would have been flapping out of control and the sheet (line) would have been whipping around dangerously. It would have been difficult to retrieve without getting hurt, and may have caused damage to our sail.
By this time the rain had already begun. The sky grew darker and the rain came down harder and harder. It was stinging our faces, and making it hard to see. We spotted a tiny patch of blue sky still remaining, so we pointed the boat in that direction.
|A teeny patch of blue peeked through the storm clouds|
To our good fortune, it was also in the general direction of St. Barths, where we were trying to go. After toughing out about 20 intense minutes of heavy rain and wind, the tiny blue spot increased in size. It was like a miracle. The weather was terrible just to our left, and horrible just to our right.
|The clouds took over the sky|
|Wasn't there a huge island there before?|
Huge islands that we could previously see just vanished into the storm. Good-bye St. Kitts. Good-bye Statia. Good-bye Saba. HELLO St. Barths! We could finally see our destination.
We both stayed outside for the remainder of the journey to St. Barths. We managed to arrive unscathed by around 3:30pm. Just ahead of schedule. We hoped and prayed that the AIS receiving tower on St. Barths had picked us up and updated our position Marine Traffic. We moored in Anse de Colombier, a beautiful uninhabited beach. We couldn't get internet to alert everyone that we had safely arrived, so we hoped they would get updates form Marine Traffic and not worry about us (or send the Coast Guard searching for us!).
We were beyond exhausted but so happy to have successfully completed our first overnight passage! We arrived just in time, too. Shortly after we tied up some nasty squalls came through and the seas increased. Thank you to the sea gods for granting us a safe passage!
|We made it just in time...here comes another squall!|