Lessons Learned from Bermuda Passage

By Capt. René Jos. “RJ” Coté III

In late June, three young men left New York in a 30-year old, 30 foot-long sailboat, bound for Bermuda. I was the navigator on this cruise, along with the Owner, and his brother the engineer. I was excited about the opportunity to make a long distance trip on a sailboat, and was willing to overlook the fact that I couldn’t afford to go. As the day of departure arrived, we were all in a panic about last-minute items, repairs, reinforcements, and food. Once we were out past Rockaway Inlet, however, things became calm and we motored Southeast until we had crossed the Gulf Stream under power, all without incident. We felt the wind picking up and looked forward to sailing the rest of the way — we had used more than half the fuel on board to get about halfway to the islands.

Being so close to the icebox, the engine heat melted quite a bit of ice. It was decided to ration the running of the engine. On the fourth day, we had no new weather information, and the forecasts we did have were dated the day we left New York. The sailing went extremely well for the inexperienced crew, but we didn’t notice the building waves. By the time we reefed again, and finally taken down all sail, the wind indicator showed steady Southwesterly 25-knot winds with gusts to 30. Wave height could have been 10 feet or more, – it was all unusual – this weather lasted for 6 hours before I started calling PAN-PAN on VHF channel 16 for any vessel to give us a weather update.

A container ship responded with a report indicating a low pressure center over New York, moving Northeast at 20 knots. I gave our boat’s latitude and longitude and asked the ship’s radio operator to forward our coordinates to the US Coast Guard and Bermuda Harbor Radio with a message that the three aboard were doing well. Of course we could have been better. The irregular motion was making everyone green, and we skipped the deliciously prepared home-cooked meals that evening. Then, unexpectedly, the engine gave out.

The swells were immense, and I felt dread when a wave appeared to our beam, then the sick rolling motion and crashing roar of water just outside as the crest passed. The wind indicator at that moment showed gale force gusts of 40 knots. We have all heard the stories about boats rolling under a large, crashing wave because a vessel was abeam to the sea. Suggestions went around about what to do, and it was decided that the new spare anchor line consisting of 300 feet of nylon braid be used as a warp off the stern of the boat. It was tied to the stern cleats so that 150 feet was out on both the starboard and port sides of the transom.

The knots immediately drew against the cleats when all line was out. I think this technique was written about in Adlard Cole’s book with much success for full-keeled vessels like ours. The skipper had shown us a video of the guy who invented the wind vane on board, and he never used any other method when in a storm on our type of sailboat. I was impressed after the first huge breaking wave came and went under the stern without incident. The warps held the stern to the waves, and the slick they created calmed the cresting rollers as advertised. The boat and its crew got a break!

The engineer discovered that the flooded engine would work, so we tried restarting it with success after taking in the warps. The fuel would be gone in a matter of hours, and though not wanting to admit it, we could not come up with what we should do beyond that. Turning back was not an option; we had come more than halfway, but the wind was getting stronger; the waves steeper. When the gas was gone, would we be able to survive long enough in this weather without some power against these waves?

This question was answered when our cockpit filled with warm Gulf Stream seawater from a breaking sea. We called out MAY-DAY on the VHF radio many times, with no answer. The Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) was reluctantly turned on, and the storm boards locked in place, while we used the last of our fuel to stand still in the roaring and building waves. While we sat waiting and watching the strobe on the radio beacon, we talked about the passing of the weather, and how the Low Pressure center should be moving away, and a shift in wind could follow. This would calm the seas down in this Southbound current, and allow us to make some distance toward Bermuda.

The EPIRB was turned off after Midnight when the Southerly gale turned Westerly, and over the next 15 hours calmed to a steady 20-knot breeze — blowing us on a starboard reach right for the Islands. Great time was made through the next 2 days. As if we had not seen enough, we accidentally jibed 3 times, once ripping a 2-foot hole in the center of the Mainsail as it swung wildly back and forth over the boat. The result was a broad reach with a double-reefed main, and adding a ‘preventer’ line, from the boom forward to a deck fitting, thus ‘preventing’ another dangerous jibe.

On a clear moonless night, 25 miles out, we saw the light of the Islands. The next morning it took 8 quick tacks to enter Town Cut with the West wind blowing straight at us between two walls of volcanic rock about 200 feet apart. We anchored in St. George, Bermuda 10 days out of New York, with no fuel, no working VHF radio except for the handheld, a ripped Mainsail, a tattered jib, other canvas that was blown to bits, no ice for 5 days, and soaked in salt.

I later learned that the ‘low’ was named Tropical Storm Bill. At the end of the day, we were a happy, tired, thankful, more respectful, and more experienced crew.

Lessons Learned:
1) Have a checklist for your boat before departing.
2) Make sure to get weather enroute, like weather FAXes provided by NOAA.
3) Steer for calm water.
4) Don’t use the EPIRB unless absolutely necessary. Great expense can come of it.
5) Practice a heavy weather plan ahead of time.
6) Use a preventer on a broad reach and running downwind.
7) Carry enough fuel and even extra if possible.