So, what the hell happened!? I’m writing from the nav station on Isbjorn, docked at Nanny Cay Marina in the BVI. We’re supposed to be 450 miles south of here in Grenada.
After we departed Soper’s Hole on the morning of the 25th (my and DT’s birthdays!), the wind backed from SE to E and continued to build into the evening. At first we had brilliant sailing - full sail (full main and small genoa), making 7 knots upwind. The wind shifted E just in time for us to clear St. Croix to the south and lay our course for the Grenadines, where we’d planned to stop en route to St. George’s in Grenada. The nearly full moon came out shortly after dark, and the magic of nighttime ocean sailing began in earnest.
By the evening of the 26th, the wind had built to 25-28 knots true, though the weather was very nice. We continued sailing with two reefs in the main and a partially furled jib. After a series of rain squalls blew overhead - the biggest gust coming in at 34 knots - I made the call to tack over and head for Guadaloupe, some 80 miles upwind and the original destination when I first planned this trip. We needed a respite from the tough conditions and this was the best bet.
It was 2030 and dark. I wanted to roll the jib entirely before the tack to make it easier in the wind and darkness. It was as we were rolling the jib in - Cissi on the furling line, DT easing the sheet - that the furling unit seized up, and from no fault of Cissi or DT.
This had happened to me before on a Hylas that I was helping out back in 2009. They cranked on the furling line so hard that the headstay failed (their cranking on the furling line had actually jammed the extrusion up against the upper Sta-Lock fitting, which as they proceeded to crank away, unscrewed itself, thereby parting the headstay!), so I was nervous about this happening to us. Clint and I immediately went forward and rigged the inner forestay just-in-case the headstay did part, so we wouldn’t lose the mast to boot. Not knowing why the furler failed or if the headstay underneath it was compromised, it was an easy decision at that point to head back to the BVI. The course would be broad-reaching, easy on the headstay and back to a place where I had friends and resources to make a quick repair. I never wavered for a second in this decision, and looking back, it was that confidence in what the new plan was that actually inspired the crew.
On the morning of the 27th, the mainsail blew a seam. It was still double-reefed and there was a ton of tension on the leech, and a seam on one of the upper panels basically just ‘unzipped’ from the leech forward. I had already ordered a new mainsail that we were supposed to get in May when we returned to Annapolis, but Chuck at Chesapeake Sailmakers has now expedited it from the loft in South Africa and we should have it in time for the race next month.
We quickly lowered the damaged sail and set the storm trysail just to keep the boat moving. Ironically, with our tiny sail plan, we needed all 25 knots of that easterly wind that we were bucking and cursing only hours earlier. Later that day, after a rest from deckwork, we set the forestaysail. With this goofy jury rig of three tiny sails, the bright orange top of the trysail looking quite comical in the sunny conditions, we managed to make 7-8 knots through the water and on course back to the BVI. The crew was in high spirits having overcome this challenge. The comfort of broad-reaching and a few hot meals didn’t hurt either!
By the early hours of January 28th, cloaked in the pre-dawn darkness, Todd helmed us through Round Rock Passage and back into BVI waters, entirely under sail with our jury rig. We even managed to sail this rig upwind a bit and all the way to Spanish Town. We dropped anchor outside Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor in the dark and had a champagne toast while Ryan whipped up a huge breakfast of eggs and potatoes.
“I actually think more highly of you guys now,” said DT. “You never learn anything from fair weather sailing,” Ryan added. Despite the logistical nightmare of changing flights (for both this crew and the next crew who were supposed to join us in Grenada), it was actually a great learning experience.
By the way, when we got into Virgin Gorda, we still had the problem of a headsail that was partially unfurled and jammed. Clint and Ryan did an awesome job of rolling it up the rest of the way by hand, wrestling it around the headstay and wrapped some bungee cord around it. The next day, on the way down to Nanny Cay from Virgin Gorda, Clint came up with a very clever idea on how to unfurl the sail - we’d need to do this to drop it off the foil, of course - so by attaching two sheets with snap-shackles to the clew of the sail - one working sheet, the other to pull it around the front of the headstay - and by Todd cleverly driving the boat back and forth downwind and using the wind to sort of help us jibe the sail around, we managed to get it fully unfurled and actually had a great sail all the way down to Nanny Cay! The sail came down on deck with no problems and we motored into the marina.
We’re back in Nanny Cay now, familiar territory, and the repairs are already under way. The mainsail is at the Quantum loft here in the yard getting re-stitched. I took the small genoa there too for some preventative maintenance (no sense in tearing another old sail!). I just got off the phone with Sailing Services in Miami, who are FedEx-ing us a new Harken Mark IV furling unit, which should arrive in a day or two. Isbjorn looks sadly naked here at the dock with no sails, but we should be all back together by early next week. It’ll be a fun learning experience for Clint and Ryan, who is staying aboard for the next leg, to help build and hang the new furling unit. Todd and DT took off today and are making there way to Grenada by seaplane and ferry to catch their original flights home and enjoy Grenada for a day or two. DT has already signed on for our west to east Trans-Atlantic in 2017, and I have a feeling we’ll see Todd back again one day too. The entire crew was offered a discount on a future passage with us for the hassle of having to change flights around.
Amazingly, all of the crew who are signed on for Leg 2 - which was meant to be from Grenada back to the BVI - have been super supportive and have already changed their flights to join the boat here in the BVI instead. Clint and I have created a new route for Leg 2 - we’ve got to get the boat to Antigua for the Caribbean 600 at the end of February, so we’re making Antigua the new destination for Leg 2, some 200 miles upwind. We’ll leave the BVI around February 4, when the new crew arrives, sail over to St. Martin first, pop down to St. Barth’s and then head for Antigua, perhaps by way of St. Kitts & Nevis. It’ll be a different sort of trip - shorter ocean passages combined with some island exploration - but the fun will come with the new experiences. And it’ll be great for me to get back to my old Broadreach stomping grounds around St. Martin and St. Barth’s!
So, all things considered, we’re not too bad off. The boat will be in much better condition after building the new furler and getting the new mainsail once we get to Antigua, so not all is lost. I never did discover why the furler failed in the first place. Ryan, Todd & I disassembled the drum unit and it appears that the underlying bearings are simply seized up, so something must be broken on the inside. The headstay was never compromised at all, so our worst-case scenario should the new furling unit not arrive on time is to use the extrusion like a racing foil and not even use the furling drum. It’ll be more foredeck work to raise and lower the genoa, but it’ll work. So at this stage we’re waiting to disassemble the current setup until we’re sure the new one will arrive on time. We may even sail to Antigua this way anyhow. Clint and I have 10 days after Leg 2 completes on February 10 before the race prep starts, so we could just load the furler onto the boat in it’s box and build it on arrival in Antigua. We shall see, but at least we’ve got a fallback plan. Kevin at Quantum has promised to have the mainsail back to me by Monday, which is still 3 days before the new crew arrives. While we wait, we’re going to motorsail up to Trellis Bay tomorrow with the forestaysail (the only sail we have left!) and grab a mooring ball by my friend Brian Duff’s ‘Island Last Resort’ and enjoy some ‘limin’ time up there. I also hope to catch up with Paul Exner, who’s had trials and tribulations of his own trying to deliver a new Hanse from Annapolis to Miami right after that blizzard (he canceled it - smart man). Paul’s boat Solstice is in Trellis Bay on a mooring, so will be good to get Isbjorn and Solstice together!
This whole thing is just another lesson for me in offshore sailing that you can never be 100% positive of your plans, an appropriate reminder about our idea of sailing towards a place rather than to it. After all, the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is simply one’s attitude.
Big thanks to DT, Todd, Ryan & Cissi, the crew for Leg 1, in having that right kind of attitude to enjoy this trip despite the problems. And big thanks to the crew for the next leg for changing your plans! Thanks also to my friends Mike Meer, Brian Duff & Ted Reshetiloff for helping me make decisions on the furling unit, thanks to Chuck for helping setup the mainsail repair here with Kevin at Quantum, thanks to Dad & Mia for trying to get the ball rolling while we were still offshore on the way back, and huge thanks to Clint for being such an awesome first mate and working his ass off to get the boat back here safely with a happy crew!