Our longest passage yet

At long last, the big day arrived! We registered for an arrival date in St George’s Grenada during the week of June 15th. We completed all of our preparations: repaired our wind instruments, AIS, and autopilot, planned a course that would provide us with the best wind angles, checked the weather several times a day to plan our safest passage dates, and cooked LOTS of passage food. On Saturday, June 13th, we raised anchor and headed out of English Harbour around 11:00pm. Friends remaining in the anchorage flashed lights and blew horns to give us and our two buddy boats an energetic send off. I could feel the adrenaline rush – we were setting out to cover approximately 310 nautical miles, and we’d estimated it would take us 60 hours without any stops.

Our buddy boat, Virtual Reality

It’s a bit disconcerting to set the sails and start navigating out into the blackness of a night without a moon. You haul on a halyard, but you can’t see its effect on the sail. When you do break out the super bright spotlight, it destroys your night vision, and then you’re blind for a few minutes while you adjust. Plus, being so close to land, you really hope the charts are correct and you aren’t going to run into an errant coral head or a bit of sandbar. But we left at night on purpose – we only planned to sail close to one island over the entire trip, the island of Guadeloupe. And we’d been told that we’d have sketchy wind conditions and lots of floats for fish traps in Guadeloupe waters. We decided it would be safer to navigate that coast during daylight, which meant leaving Antigua at night. We actually experienced very good conditions for the first night. Winds about 12-17 knots, sailing on a close reach. We even had fairly calm seas. We were able to purely sail, with no need for the motor, averaging 5.7 knots for the entire night. I took over the helm from Capt. Mike at 3:00 am. At 4:30, the eastern sky was already getting light – there’s definitely something to be said for making a passage on one of the longest days of the year! The absolute best part of an overnight passage is when the sky gradually fills with light. And no matter how tired or wet or seasick you might be, your soul lifts because the light means everything is going to be ok!

Capt Mike is going to chime in with some technical sailing mumbo jumbo. If this isn’t your thing, feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph…. Our first night couldn’t have been better. We had the engine off within 20 minutes of raising anchor, the weather forecast was accurate so far, and we were flying along on Sanitas’ favorite point of sail: 60 degrees apparent. If you visualize straight ahead being 0 degrees, follow the compass around to port (left) and the wind is hitting Sanitas at about 10 o’clock. For night time safety we had agreed to keep a double reef in the main, which means we’re only using about half the sail. In addition we had a reefed jib and full staysail. That combination of sails balances very easily at this point of sail and it’s possible to disengage the autopilot and lust let go of the helm. “Look Ma, no hands!” We don’t actually do that but it does mean the autopilot barely does any work in keeping the course. This sail configuration also puts all three of our sails at the same height for maximum visual beauty which scores some sailing bonus points. 😉

Off the coast of Guadalupe

Well, maybe not everything. Eddie on Music hailed us on the radio soon after sunrise as we approached the northwest coast of Guadeloupe to inform us that their engine had cut out. Sanitas and Virtual reality dropped sails and slowed way down and waited for a couple hours while Music caught up under sail while troubleshooting the issue. The good part about making a passage with other boats is even if we are several miles apart, we can usually stay in contact via the VHF radio. In this case, we shared ideas of what might be causing the engine problem, and suggested things that Music’s captain could check while underway. We also started thinking of bail-out options: they could stop in Guadeloupe, but they’d be required to complete a 14-day quarantine for Covid-19 before a mechanic could come to the boat; or they could turn around and sail north to return to Antigua with no quarantine required, and still try to make Grenada during this week’s window; or they could commit to continuing south for 2 more days completely under sail, and address the engine problem in Grenada. Eventually, Eddie changed out the Racor diesel fuel filter which was clogged with some yucky black goopy stuff, and decided that was the root cause of the problem. With a clean filter and at least two backups in case he needed to change it again, Music decided to continue south with us. Good news!

Capt. Mike again… did you know that algae can grow in diesel? It’s one of the many things we’ve learned since we’ve started cruising and was the cause of Music’s clogged filter. It happens when water gets into the fuel tank; think condensation, leaky deck caps, bad fuel or even water on the deck as you’re filling the tank. This water becomes the breeding ground for the algae and the issue is made worse in fuels low in sulfur. The unfortunate thing is that the algae usually sits quietly in the tank away from the pick up hose that feeds the engine. You don’t know you have an impending problem until you go sailing in bouncy seas and the fuel gets all mixed up. People will sometime “polish” their fuel by running the contents of the tank through filters. On Sanitas we have been meticulous about putting our fuel through a filter before it goes into the tank and we also add a biocide to keep anything from growing.

We experienced a significant wind shadow along the coast of Guadeloupe. The mountains of Basse-Terre create their own weather, and they interrupt the normal flow of trade winds from east to west. So for this section, we had to motor sail, first because winds were too light to fill the sails, and later to drive Sanitas through the growing waves. Without the motor, our forward speed dropped to less than 2 knots and with a long way to go still, we fired up the engine. Winds finally picked up to 22 knots between Guadeloupe, The Saints, and Dominica which would have made for great sailing, however funneling water between those islands created very confused seas. I pretty much just wedged myself into a corner and held on. Capt. Mike promised me that these were the worst conditions we should expect for the entire passage, and (spoiler alert) I’m so glad he was right! Finally, as we passed Dominica, about 13 miles off shore and we had enough wind to sail again. I was on watch, and when Capt. Mike woke up from his nap I bragged that Sanitas was FLYING along at 7 knots. He popped his head up into the cockpit, took one look around, and said “We’re over-powered!” Oops. So much for my sailing skills. I’m not supposed to tell you this, but …. as we were attempting to decrease the amount of sail we had out by furling the jib under high winds, Capt. Mike was straining and grunting and groaning…. It ends up he was hauling on the staysail furling line instead on the jib furling line. Oops again. Lack of sleep is starting to take its toll. (Remember Mike: Staysail = Starboard) Those confused seas drove lots of big waves over the bow, and even over the cabin into the cockpit. At one point, I was sitting on the port side of the cockpit and a big wave SMACKED into Sanitas’ rear quarter just exactly right and completely washed over me! Don’t worry, I was never in any danger, but wow! I was completely soaked, from my hat down to my underwear. That’s why we wear PFDs and tethers during offshore passages!

Our full 310 mile track.

Capt Mike again… a few things about this leg. First, the island of Guadeloupe manipulated the wind so much that for several miles on the southwestern coast we were sailing on a starboard tack. So instead of having 15 knots from 110 magnetic, we were seeing 10 knots from 285 magnetic. We took advantage of this by motor sailing (sails up, motor on) at a more easterly course. Second, the next wind effect was something we anticipated. The wind and waves between the islands gets amplied. A LOT. When we left the wind shadow of Guadeloupe we saw the winds increase to about 27 knots. We were ready and Sanitas handled it brilliantly under reefed main and staysail, while still flying along at 7ish knots. Lastly, in my defense about pulling on the wrong furler… I had just gotten my only 1 hour nap in the last 24 hours and clearly wasn’t fully awake yet. But Jenn will also say (and she’s not wrong) that the little word association we have (staysail=starboard) is for me because I get it wrong too often to admit.

Sunset at sea

The second night was no fun. Neither of us had gotten any sleep. I hadn’t managed to eat or drink very much in the rough conditions. We were both tired, and it was hard to stay awake and to focus. Mike turned the watch over to me around 11:30pm. Did I explain how our watches work? On shorter passages, we’ve been kind of casual about watch schedules. Sometimes Mike just sails until he’s too tired to go any further, and then I take over. But on a passage of this length, we decided we had to be more careful. I consider myself more or less competent crew, but I don’t have the physical strength to manage all of the sails under adverse conditions. So it’s important that we take turns getting as much rest (even if we can’t actually sleep) as possible so that we can still function if and when things turn pear-shaped. We decided on a schedule of 4-hour watches during the day when we tend to be more alert, and 3-hour watches at night….with a little bit of flexibility, so we can adjust based on how we’re feeling. While on my night watch, the winds died down fast and I eventually had to motor to make forward progress until until 3am. At one point, while I was in the middle of a call-of-nature-break, I smelled something rotten and heard a weird flapping and flipping noise. I looked across the cockpit at the opposite bench, and there was a foot-long flying fish! I told him that he’d have to wait until I was finished…but then I did grab his slimy little tail and released him back into the wild. Sanitas is a little boat and she sits very low in the water (she has a low freeboard) so we probably “caught” a dozen flying fish of various sizes on the passage. One went right down the cockpit drain! I’m pretty sure we’ll start smelling him in a couple of days.

Capt Mike here to confirm the small flying fish did not clog our deck drain. Thank goodness because those fish are stinky!

Our very official watch schedule

Monday was much better. (Are you keeping track? We’ve been underway now since Saturday night) South of Guadeloupe and Dominica, we pretty much set a straight course for Grenada. That meant we sailed further away from land, which could be risky if we had mechanical problems, but also meant that the wind and waves were much more consistent without the funneling effect of bending around mountainous islands. Once we were 25-30 miles offshore, the winds were consistently on a beam reach (my favorite point of sail). The only thing ruining an otherwise perfect sail was the Equatorial Current. It showed up on all the charts as a vague force, somewhere in the vicinity. In reality, we experienced currents of 1kt to 2kts against us for the entire trip. If it wasn’t for that pesky current we would have made amazing time! Also, winds were higher than expected, consistently 20-25kts. (We really need to start adding 5kts to every weather forecast)

What a good sail looks like, from the cockpit

Capt Mike here with more technical blabber. I had anticipated the equatorial current and even did some calculations to determine the minimum magnetic wind direction that we could sail in for each leg. It took me awhile to shake the cobwebs out of my brain where trigonometry lessons were stored. I’m pretty sure that knowledge was about to be overwritten by something less useful like how many chocolate bars are left and where did I stash them. Anyway, armed with the wind direction info it was easy to assess the weather forecasts and find a suitable time to make our trip. For anyone learning trig in school and wondering when you’ll use it, this is it!

Capt. Mike’s wind angle calculations

Sanitas sailed all day Monday at around 6 kts. (You should really be excited 🤩this is really fast for us!) Of our buddy boats, Virtual Reality is a gorgeous fast catamaran who can travel much faster than little old Sanitas. So she quickly got 10-12 miles ahead of us, and we only saw her on AIS on the chart plotter for the rest of the trip. Music is a 40-foot monohull, so they also can travel a bit faster than we do. (I think I slept through the sailing lesson where they taught us that longer boats can travel faster than shorter boats because …. physics! I had this crazy idea that smaller boats would be agile and nimble and fast, like Mario cart) At one point, Music slowed down to put more diesel in the fuel tank, but due to the rough seas, they lost a full jerry can of diesel overboard. I consider it an offering to Neptune, what do you think? Music decided they had enough fuel to make it to Grenada, as long as they sailed with the motor off as much as possible. So Capt. Mike helped them improve their sailing efficiency by reading out the wind speed and current conditions from our new and improved instruments, and walking them through advice on trimming the sails to get the best speed under the current wind conditions. It worked out great! Music sailed all afternoon without the engine and made great progress.

On our third full day of sailing, we experienced really good conditions. I’m so glad we left Antigua when we did! But we still were traveling through 1.5 meter swells on the beam that often splashed through the cockpit. (Note to self: we need to invest in a better cockpit enclosure) We we’re out of sight of land for this entire day. Mike fixed the super loud creak in galley that was keeping us awake all of the time. He had a flash of inspiration and applied winch lube oil to the joint where the wood cabinet meets the fiberglass hull. What a relief! I returned to the cockpit around 6:30 am on Tuesday after a nap to find we could actually see Grenada. Hooray! We made it! It took a couple more hours to sail to St George’s in the southwest corner of the island, but that gave us time to clean up a bit and to prepare Sanitas for docking.

Early morning light over Grenada

There are strict protocols in place to allow yachts to enter grenada for hurricane season while protecting Grenada’s citizens from Covid-19. We paid 20£ to register for an arrival date in Grenada. I believe they have limited new boats to 50 per week. When we arrived, we were required to dock at Port Louis Marina where health officials checked our temperatures and gave us permission to anchor in a special quarantine anchorage just outside. For 14 days, we are not allowed to go ashore or to interact with any other boats or sailors in the anchorage. At the end of the quarantine period, we will pay for a rapid antigen test. If our test results are negative, we can proceed to customs and immigration and finally officially enter Grenada. Some of our sailing friends traveled from Antigua to Grenada two weeks ahead of us, and that long line of people on the dock is the line waiting to get their Covid tests.

Sanitas at the Q Dock
Ministry of Health Officials
Waiting to take the COVID-19 test

So you won’t hear much from me for the next 14 days as I simply hunker down and wait for quarantine to be over. Then, at long last, we look forward to exploring this beautiful island!

Hoisting Grenada’s flag above the Quarantine flag

2 thoughts on “Our longest passage yet

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