Port Tack to Tortola
by Jim Smith
At a sailing club meeting we had a program featuring Jennifer Stuart, author of Born to Sail (On Other People’s Boats). The idea that she had managed to sail all over the world as a crew member and do it for free struck a vibrant chord in my Scots-Irish soul. After all, I loved to sail and see exotic areas of the world. If her, why not me? Instead of looking for an answer to that question, I bought a copy of her book and invited her to dinner to further pick her brain.
Among other things, I learned that there were delivery companies that would take you on as a crewmember and even cover most of your expenses. With the Scots blood a-boiling, I turned to the ads for delivery companies in Cruising World. I sent off a few letters and resumes. Eventually, I heard from a company that had some openings. After several false starts when I couldn’t match my schedule with theirs, I finally made a connection. My first job was on a new Moorings 352, built by Beneteau, from South Carolina to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. I’d never been to the BVI, but it was near the top of my list of places to see so I booked a flight to Myrtle Beach.
I was met at the airport by the Captain and the other crew member, Chuck. The Captain was a crusty Englishman named Tony. Now, if you have a mental image of an old sea captain as having long white hair, a bushy beard, and a gold ring in one ear, you must know Tony. He was so salty that he was almost a caricature of a sailor. If nothing else, the photos would be priceless.
Chuck, on the other hand, was a typical American. In his 30’s and athletic looking, he was actually a postal employee from New Jersey. He’d been sailing a twenty-something boat on the Chesapeake bay for a few years and wanted something more exciting under his sailing cap.
We spent the first several days completing commissioning the boat, purchasing supplies and equipment. Because this was a new boat going into charter service, there was no cooking or eating utensils aboard. We also wanted to carry some spare fuel, so we were off to that famous marine center, Wal-Mart. I purchased some camping stuff, mostly in stainless steel, and we bought all of the five-gallon gas cans they had, five in all. Some toilet paper, paper towels, aluminum foil, and cleaning supplies rounded out our hard goods.
The day before we were to leave, we planned our food provisioning over lunch and several beers. Tony, being English, felt that, "a little beer would do no harm on board." We decided on three cases. One for Chuck and myself, as we weren’t big drinkers. Tony didn’t expect to consume two cases himself, but pointed out that an arrival party might include more than the three of us and it was cheaper here than on Tortola. This turned out to be a lucky decision. Chuck and I went to the grocery and spent a little over $200.00 to feed three of us for two weeks, the maximum we expected to be out.
I’ve never been sea sick but have seen enough people who are to know that it isn’t something to try as a hobby. With this in mind, I always take an over-the-counter product named Meclizine for the first three days at sea. It’s cheap, hasn’t had any side effects, and best of all it works. No one I’d ever given it to had become really sick. We were at the fuel dock about to depart and I offered Chuck a couple of my Meckies.
"Nah, don’t need that stuff. I never get sick."
"It looks a little bouncy. I always take some."
"I’ll be fine. Never gotten sea sick in my life."
"OK, but once you start, it’s too late." Tony gave me a shrug and lifted a shaggy white eyebrow.
We crossed the bar from the Little River into the Atlantic at five PM and were immediately tossed around by steep swells and choppy waves. The sky was gray with steel-wool clouds and the wind off the port bow forced us into the seas.
Cap’n Tony steered us into the darkening sea as I went below to start the first of many pots of coffee. I stood at the galley sink, running water into the pot, when Chuck pushed me aside as he fumbled with the cabinet door under the sink. "What the?" I thought as a hot fluid erupted over my right hand and arm. Chuck, who "Never got sick," had just changed his name to Upchuck with me as his first victim. Instead of heaving over the side, he’d come from the cockpit to try the trash bin under the sink. When your skin is busy turning green, your brain doesn’t have time to think things through. This really isn’t a good way to start a crewing relationship.
"Get back in the cockpit. Staying below makes it worse." For him and me, too. He lurched up the companionway. I cleaned the galley, changed my shirt, and rinsed the anointed one.
I finally made the coffee and took a mug up to Tony. It was almost six PM and he asked who’d take the first three-hour watch. I looked at Upchuck, hanging on a lifeline, busily polluting the ocean. Should I trust this boat and my life to someone that sick? "I’ll do this one, Tony." He grinned in reply with a short glance at our crew.
Tony went below to take a nap and Upchuck huddled in the corner of the cockpit, looking more miserable than a living person should. He finally fell asleep with his head on a halyard winch and a pasty green color on his face.
The night got a little rougher. The roller furler drum was about a foot off the deck. Every few minutes a curl of white foam would bury it as the bow dipped into a wave. Upchuck continued to doze and, when the time for his watch arrived, I decided to let him go a little longer. I knew I’d never sleep yet anyway, so he might as well benefit. He woke up about an hour into his watch, scrambled to the lee rail and puked again. "Is it my watch yet?" he muttered.
"Yeah, you up to it? He stumbled aft to the wheel and I took his spot in the corner as he hooked his safety tether to the backstay chainplate. He had two hours to go on his shift and I wanted to be sure he’d make it before I went below. We traded war stories for an hour when I decided that he’d live even if he’d rather jump overboard. Going down the companionway, I heard him gagging once more. "Never get sick," Upchuck suffered for two more days before his stomach and inner ears agreed to co-exist at sea.
With the wind out of the east and southeast, we stayed trimmed on the port tack, taking in and shaking out reefs when needed. The starboard cabin ports below the deck level stayed mostly submerged for the first three days. This kept the rail just out of the water and Captain Tony in a good mood. Captains get paid by the delivery so the sooner we got there, the better he’d like it.
About the fourth night out, I was on the midnight to 3 AM watch. Chuck came up a little early to relive me and we were happily exchanging lies. Because we were still heeled about 20 degrees to starboard, I had my right foot on the cockpit locker to brace myself. Suddenly, I felt a hard blow to my right knee. Startled, I lost my footing and grabbed the wheel for support. Bad choice, the wheel spun easily, turning the boat hard to starboard. Chuck tried to help by also grabbing the wheel and was thrown on top of me in the cockpit for his trouble. The Beneteau spun wildly out of control. The boom slammed across in an uncontrolled jibe as the backwinded jib tried to bring us into a heave-to position. Tony was out of his cabin and on deck as though he’d been on a bungee cord. "What the bloody hell is going on!" he roared as Chuck and I lay in a menage a deaux in the bottom of the cockpit.
"Something hit me in the leg," I mumbled as I scrambled from under Chuck and tried to bring the heaving Beneteau under control.
Once we had the boat back on course and Chuck at the wheel, Tony helped me search for my assailant. Finally, we found it, a flying fish about six inches long, lying near the cockpit scupper. He’d gotten the worst of the encounter. I was only embarrassed, he was dead. Tony stumbled below to his bunk muttering how, "Only a bloody yank could get hit by a lone fish in thousands of miles of ocean."
Our happy mood began to fail a little for two reasons. One, the wind began to drop and two, the fiberglass tanks were still outgassing and the water began to taste increasingly foul. The only thing we could do about the wind was to motor-sail. We’d noticed the first day out that the fuel gauge only indicated half-full. Because we’d put about 18 gallons of fuel in at the dock, this couldn’t be right. Luckily, the translucent tank permitted visual inspection. This tank was under Tony’s bunk so it had to be disassembled any time we wanted to check the fuel level. We did this once to remove the fuel gauge sending unit in an attempt to fix it. By the time Tony re-assembled his cabin, he’d decided that he’d estimate the fuel level by tracking the running hours against the published consumption for the Perkins diesel. We poured the contents of one of the four extra cans of fuel as soon as the main tank would accept it. Then we knew the tank was full, and could check consumption very closely.
The water situation was worse. It was drinkable only if made into very bad coffee or Kool-aid. We’d soon consumed all the Kool-aid and were now reduced to the beer. I’d discovered that, if I kept a small water container next to the holding plate in the freezer, it got so cold that I couldn’t taste it. It also made my fillings ache, but it was a small price to pay for water.
We’d been out for about a week, when Tony noticed that the standing rigging was a little loose. Further inspection also showed that the mast wasn’t really in column. It seems that, on a new boat, things settle during the first few hundred miles and what was good at the dock was not good at sea. We were of the opinion that the Moorings would not be happy if we came in with the mast gone on a brand new boat, so the standing rigging would have to be re-tuned. This also meant that someone would have to go up the mast to do the uppers. Chuck, still looking for adventure, volunteered.
Luckily, we had a very calm day with almost no swell running. Tony kept the Beneteau moving under power at about a knot or less. I helped Chuck into a boson’s chair and prepared to grind the winch to get him up the mast. First he had to go up to remove the cotter pins in the turnbuckles and slacken all the upper shrouds. Then, we adjusted the lowers with Chuck on deck and his weight off the assembly. With the lowers adjusted, I cranked him up again to do the uppers. Because his weight distorted the rig, he had to come down before we could determine that we had the mast in column. Finally, he had to go up again to re-install the cotter pins. It was on this trip that I realized that I, as the smallest person on the boat, was winching up the largest person. Maybe I should have volunteered for the boson’s chair. Tony had made me the mate and perhaps it should have been my job. I glanced his way through sweat-filled eyes and the amused gleam on his face told me that this was a lesson he thought I needed.
The next morning the wind had picked up and the boat was moving to a long, gentle swell from the south. Tony had the watch and was playing a tape of Beethoven’s Pastorale on the stereo. Everyone was up and eating breakfast so he cranked up the volume. We sat in the warm sun, sipping a second cup of coffee. The Pastorale boomed out over the water and the Beneteau seemed to move over the swells in rhythm to the music. It was one of the golden moments in sailing that make the stormy nights worthwhile.
Tony did all our navigation by sextant. He predicted our first sight of the Virgins to be at 0630 on a Tuesday. He was a little off. I personally didn’t see them until 0645. After forty years, he had the celestial thing pretty well in the bag.
We were required to deliver the boat, and us, in pristine condition. Just as we entered Islands, we encountered a rain shower. Tony held the boat under the cloud while Chuck and I quickly scrubbed the deck and topsides while getting our own showers as we did. A quick shave and a change into my dock party clothes and I was ready. Tony gave me the wheel and I guided the 352 around the west end of Tortola while he changed. As we turned the boat to the east, we went onto the starboard tack for the first time since Little River, ten days and 1150 miles away.