A Cork on the Ocean

Tuesday, Feb 15, 2022
Currently Position:

Latitude 16o 13’ N
Longitude 42o 57’ W
1044 to St Lucia (Halfway!)

A Cork on the Ocean

Our first evening out of Cabo Verde we were treated to a frenetic display of dolphins dancing across the surface of the water as far as we could see. A few swam alongside, crisscrossing in the bow wake, but most of them played at a distance, leaping high in the air. Small and agile, they would twist in the air and stand on their tail fins before splashing back into the ocean. The show went on for at least 20 minutes before the sun set and then all was quiet.

Over the next three days the winds were light and variable, such that by Wednesday evening we’d only made a little over 150 miles towards our destination of St. Lucia. At that average speed of two knots, it would take us 42 days to cross. We could run the engine, but fuel is precious and reserved for running refrigeration, topping off the batteries, and motoring as needed when within striking distance of our destination. We had little choice but to wait for the trade winds to fill in as the boat wallowed in a light, confused seas.

For planning purposes, e.g., fuel, food and airline tickets, Lillian is assumed to be able to maintain an average speed of four knots, covering approximately 100 nm in 24 hours. That estimate has served well in the past. Four knots is also the average speed quoted to Christopher Columbus by the Portuguese King’s Committee of Mathematicians, concluding that sailing west to the orient was not practical. “Even assuming that you find favorable winds over that vast expanse of ocean (which we strongly doubt), and that you can sail an average of four knots, which is what our best caravels can do on long voyages, our passage would require hundred days. Over fourteen weeks beyond sight of land!” … p 69, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, A Life of Christopher Columbus by Samuel Eliot Morrison. Fortunately, the Portuguese King’s Committee of Mathematicians was not aware of the existence of St. Lucia and, as Christopher Columbus discovered in 1492, favorable trade winds are likely at this latitude. And, true to form, the trade winds started filling in for us late Wednesday night. With a steady breeze blowing 15 to 20 knots over our shoulder, we were making 6 knots. That translates into a very respectable 150 mile per day.

For those of you who might have a romantic image of us as helmsman sailing at six knots with a steady grip on the wheel, knowingly responding to the constant changes in wind and wave, while we keep Lillian on her true course throughout the night, I hate to take away that image. But the reality is somewhat different. During watch, the helmsman typically leans back in the teak Captain’s Chair (reportedly modeled after the one on Walter Cronkite’s yacht). To pass the time he reads a book or listens to music, and occasionally tweaks the angle of the wind vane on the MONITORTM self-steering gear to keep her headed to St. Lucia.

So we were all taking turns enjoying relaxed watches until around 6 am on Thursday morning the 10th when the retaining ring on the MONITOR’s vertical connecting rod sheared and the MONITOR was rendered useless. We could still sit in the chair, but now had to lean over to push the plus or minus button on the electric driven autopilot, Hal. Hal works fine but consumes significant quantities of battery power. Over the course of 24 hours, he consumes nearly 150 amp-hours. At that rate, we would have to run the engine three to four hours a day just to keep up. In an effort to conserve energy, the crew stopped using Hal. Instead, we hand-steered, responding to constant changes in wind and wave, while trying to keep on her true course throughout the night.

By the next morning we’d had enough of that romance and unanimously decided the MONITOR needed to be repaired. Thanks to battery-driven tool technology, Lillian has a set of Ryobi power tools on board, including a drill. After disassembling the rig over open ocean (it hangs over the stern of the boat) and only losing a few of the ball bearings, we successfully drilled holes in the connecting rod, added new cotter pins, and re-assembled it. It has been steering the boat ever since.

The repair could not have been timelier. That same day the winds increased to over thirty knots and ten-foot waves buffeted our stern. Hand steering would have been exhausting. Just the daily routine of sleeping and eating was difficult enough. The boat would roll and lurch in unexpected directions, upending people and objects down below. Sometimes there would be a pregnant pause to warn of an impending surge, but more often it would come without any warning. At one point Dwight was launched backwards across the galley, with no control over where he would land. Fortunately, the only casualty of his flight was the plastic water dispenser that cushioned his fall, shattering into small shards. Other than some bruises, disrupted sleep, and a shattered French press, we have all survived. After four days the winds and waves have finally subsided and the weather prediction for the next week looks good. And it has not all been bad. Standing watch under a nearly full moon looking out over the waves of a surging ocean is truly awe inspiring.

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