Our summer home has been delivered! Seb is safe and sound on her Jamestown mooring, and we’ve come away from the passage with plenty of learning.
Last Thursday evening we departed just before 8 as soaking all-day rains were drying up. We motored through the night into very light northerlies and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise Friday morning as we made our way down the Delaware river.
By late morning enough breeze had filled in that we were able to set the main and jib on starboard jibe and motor sail down the Delaware Bay. We took advantage of the ripping Delaware Bay currents and frequently topped 10 knots over the bottom with the aid of engine, sails, and Mother Nature.
By the time we reached the bottom of the Bay we had made such good time that we “called an audible” and decided to press on to Atlantic City rather than make our planned overnight stop at Cape May. Strong north easterlies were expected for Friday night, and we much preferred to take an extra night on a slip rather than pound into tough conditions on limited sleep.
The leg from Cape May to Alantic City rewarded us with the best sailing of the passage by far: broad reaching on port jibe in 20-25 knots of wind with great surfing. A through-the-water speed record for the trip was set by Paula, with a surf up to 9.8 knots. The winds were howling when we docked in Atlantic City and we enjoyed well-earned cocktails and a tremendous sense of accomplishment after a successful first leg of the trip. We slept like stones after a terrific casino-restaurant dinner.
Saturday morning we enjoyed another one of Paula’s terrific breakfasts at the slip before motoring off into very light breezes.
As it had the day before, the breeze gradually built from the Southwest until we were able to (first) motor sail and (later) shut down the motor and sail dead downwind under full main and poled-out jib in around 20 knots of wind. It was during the late evening as the sun rays began to grow long that we encountered the first problem of the trip: Lisa mentioned that she had just heard the bilge pump run.
Initially I was unconcerned. Bilge pumps run. That’s what they do. When she mentioned that it ran again only some minutes later it sounded like much more water in the bilge than is normal. Still it was possible that she’d mistaken another pump noise (like the electric aft head) for the bilge pump, so I wasn’t too worried about the issue. To be on the safe side, however, when I went below I decided to look under the floor boards before laying down for a nap and discovered she was right to take note of all the pumping: there was a sea water leak coming from somewhere aft in the boat. It wasn’t large enough to be a danger, but I certainly wanted to confirm the source and verify that the leak didn’t represent a problem that might turn worse.
I was 90% sure the leak was coming from the rudder stuffing box. After motoring the boat back from the marina to it’s Maryland mooring after launch earlier in the spring, I had noticed a small stream of water had formed around the rudder stuffing box while I was back in the lazarette inspecting the scupper seacocks. I had contacted Sabre directly and sent them photos of the rudder post, and they’d concluded that the rope packing was worn out and needed to be replaced. I called and we talked further and we’d collectively decided that while we could expect water to leak in while under way (but not when stationary; the lower rudder bearing is above the water line) the amounts should not be a problem. Now, just to be on the safe side, I checked every through-hull on the boat and found every one completely dry, so I delivered the bad news to the crew that we would need to form a human chain and get all of the tools and related items out of the lazarette so I could gain access to the rudder post for an inspection. One by one plastic boxes of tools and spares made their way out of the stern and found new temporary homes elsewhere in the boat. Once I had the protective cover off I was able to confirm the leak’s source was indeed the stuffing box, and was able to rule out potentially more serious problems like a crack in the rudder bearings, failing rudder post, etc.
Still, although I had confirmed the source of the leak and understood the cause, I wanted to be comfortable that the leak would not progress and become a danger to the boat. From this standpoint the automatic electric bilge pump was a problem, since we would have no way of tracking the inflow of water to look for changes in the trend. To solve the problem, I disabled the automatic bilge pump – a practice I intend to follow from now on full time on any passage – and asked that the crew visually inspect the bilge every half hour, then manually pump the bilge and log the number of pumps needed to void the sump. This made sense to everyone, and in addition we decided that with the winds in the low 20s and a big quartering sea we would douse the jib and start the motor for the overnight hours to simplify the boat handling. It was right before this decision was made that I set the overall hull speed record for the trip: 10.2 knots on an incredible surf down a big wave with the aid of a simultaneous puff. Despite the unease brought about the the rudder leak (in my case, at least), the big surf brought about whoops and hollers from the whole team.
The overnight hours Saturday were stressful for me. I tried to rest during my 12-4am off-watch but sleep proved impossible – especially because I couldn’t help but listen intently from the forward cabin each half hour when the engine revs would drop so Brian and Lisa could hear each other during the scheduled pump out.
It was also during the wee hours of Sunday morning that we encountered the first emergency with the dinghy we were towing. We’d planned to tow the dinghy using the “Dinghy Tow” davits that came with the boat (these are partial davits that trail only the bow of the dinghy in the water while hoisting the stern above the transom) but I’d run out of time to make minor repairs and install them. I was also leery of using them for the first time during and offshore passage because I wanted to avoid a dinghy crisis at sea in the middle of the night. Unfortunately this was precisely the situation we now faced.
We’re still not sure what happened, but Brian and Lisa were startled by a loud bang coming from the dinghy. They slowed the engine to idle and struggled to pull the dinghy to the transom to check it. They found lots of water aboard, which they labored to empty by lifting the bow as high as they could, but found no other damage. Unsure of what else to do, they let the dinghy back out on its painter and we continued on.
During the night the rate of water coming in from the rudder had remained fairly constant, but just as I was beginning the 4am-8am shift the rate increased suddenly (from an average of 9 pumps over several half-hour measurements to 13, then 16 at the 4am pump out), so I began my shift by climbing back into the lazarette and making another inspection of the rudder. The rate most certainly had increased. I noticed ingress of water at particular rudder angles and concluded that the rough night of quartering seas on the starboard quarter had beaten to death much of what must have remained of the packing rope. Still, seeing no cracks or other signs of a dangerous progression of the problem, I decided to re install the rudder post cover and continue to keep a good close eye on the rate of ingress. Also, since we were south of the rhumb line to Block Island, I suggested we jibe onto port to relieve the load on that particular section of stuffing box.
This change worked, and the amount of water coming in plunged. The sunrise brought great relief as we once again set the jib (poled out, wing on wing) and sailed with the engine off. The morning was shaping up beautifully, and no sooner had I dared to think ‘now all is right with the world,’ than the dinghy surfed down a wave and dug its nose into the back of the next one, slamming to the end of the painter with a sickening crunch and flooding itself almost completely with water.
Now we had a big problem, as the dinghy would tear itself to shreds (or rip out the stern cleat) if we tried towing it at these speeds under full sail while it was full of water. I needed to get the boat slowed immediately and to get the jib doused. I headed up enough to keep the jib from drawing and shouted an “all-hands” to the off-watch crew (Lisa and Brian) below.
The team did a terrific job of working together to solve the crisis. We got the boat speed down to around 3 knots by dousing the jib, heading up beam to the seas (which instantly triggered the need to lower the centerboard to quell violent rolling) and gently luffing the main while running the engine slowly in forward. Next the dinghy was drawn up to the transom and the bow lifted to spill as much water out the back as we could – all while 15-20 knot winds and huge ocean swells lashed us. Next we drew the dinghy along the starboard side and Lisa showed some serious guts in climbing down into the dingy (still harnessed to Seb) to bail out the remainder of what she could. Of course a guy is biased when it’s his own wife, but I couldn’t help but think ‘man, these bow chicks have some real grit’ while watching her tackle this task.
With as much of the water removed as possible, we eased the dinghy back but left it on a much shorter painter, hoping to keep the surfing under control. Watching its behavior we found ourselves satisfied that we’d found a solution, and no sooner had we exhaled and turned our attentions elsewhere did the dinghy do the exact same thing again: it buried its nose in the back of a swell and flooded again. Incredulous, we again pulled it to the transom and lifted the bow up to empty what we could, then concluded that our only option was to leave it on a very short painter that effectively held the bow up above the water slightly. The approach felt to me like it introduced a lot more drag from the dinghy but it worked: despite the dinghy’s best efforts it did not again bury its nose and flood and it presented no further crises for the balance of the trip.
The rest of Sunday passed smoothly. The breezes built from the upper teens into the low 20s, and we sailed the remainder of the day on port jibe with the jib poled out wing-on-wing. Steering remained very physical but the sail was extremely enjoyable and we made landfall in Jamestown just around 4PM.
On the whole we’re very pleased and consider the trip to have been a smooth and enjoyable passage. Some key lessons are easy to see from the narrative, and while some items may seem obvious to seasoned passage makers, we knew then and we know now that we’re doing this to learn and learning means making mistakes. As long as there is no injury or damage, those mistakes are tuition expenses we expect to continue paying as we take on longer and more complex passages.
But for now Seb is at her new home and after completing some additional projects we plan to begin cruising the Northeast!