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Off course to Bermuda

Jan 1, 2003

It was my first offshore passage as skipper, driving a large schooner from Annapolis, Md., with 30 souls aboard, bound for Bermuda and thence to St. Martin. It was the fall of the year, and I knew from previous experience that we would get hammered.

Past Cape Henry, the wind built from the northeast, and the big schooner, sheeted home, beat to windward as we made our offing. It was a slog as the boat crashed through the waves, and the deck was littered with the recumbent bodies of landlubbers trying to find their sea legs. I wasn't concerned. I had great confidence in the ship and the crew. Having made this passage more than a dozen times before, I had an idea of what to expect.

What I didn't anticipate was that, by day two, the wind would increase further, and one by one, we dropped the lowers and finally hung on the storm trysail and set it on the foremast. At this time, the only sails up were the forestaysail and trysail. The boat was balanced well, but against the waves that built in the long fetch, it was hardly making any progress. We dropped the headsail, put down the wheel and hove her to. She rode like a duck, and down below, the motion was easy, the cabins warm and everybody was excited by the adventure. We were a happy ship.

That night, the wind kept coming, and we found ourselves in the midst of a deep low. Visibility dropped, and the rain was cold, but there was no traffic around and we were far enough offshore so that running up on land wasn't a concern.

We hove to for the next 20 hours, waiting for the front to pass, and when it finally did, the sky cleared and the wind came from the northwest. Perfect for Bermuda. We lowered the trysail, raised the four lowers, eased the sheets and set a course for Bermuda. The schooner took off and soon hit her stride.

Crossing the stream wasn't all that bad — the usual square waves, but the boat was moving well, and with the long waterline, the motion wasn't too rough. Before long, we had crossed to the other side and the promise of warmer weather.

I was navigating by celestial only. We had aboard an RDF, a loran and an SSB. The loran — this was in days before we could get coordinates and had to plot the loran lines from the chart — stopped giving us good signals after the third day, so out came the sextant and the tables, and we began getting fixes. I didn't have a celestial calculator, so all sights were reduced longhand from the tables. It was no big deal. I enjoyed doing the work and had become pretty competent at it.

On the fourth day, I took my morning star sights as usual, and my fix put me way off the DR. Now, usually my morning sights stink. It has to do with not having enough caffeine. I knew all this, so when my fix was off the DR by 30 miles, I let it be. I figured I would get it right at the 0900 sun line.

Well I took that sight, usually a no-brainer, and lo and behold, I wasn't any closer to the DR. Now I was beginning to get a buzz that something wasn't right. Could I be reading my sextant wrong? Was I using the wrong pages of the Nautical Almanac? Was my watch screwy? I didn't know, so for the noon shot I asked the navigation instructor we had aboard to do a shot independent of mine so we could compare latitude. The good news was that both our sights were the same. The bad news was that they were both significantly off from where the DR said we should be.

Okay, I thought, let's figure this out. We used a Walker log, and it was possible that the spinner had gotten full of weed, or perhaps that a fish had mistaken it for bait and chomped it off. So we pulled the log and found everything was in order. I thought about it for a long time and decided that evening we would take an azimuth of the sun to check the compass. We had the cooperation of the weather and got a beautiful sight as the sun was sinking below the horizon. We calculated the compass heading and found that we were 30° to the east of what we thought we should be steering. At least we had found the source of our celestial anomalies. Now what?

Fortunately, we had a box compass aboard that was to be used for emergencies. We brought it on deck and set it up on the companionway hatch. We changed course, steering the rest of the way to Bermuda using that compass.

It was all very instructive and, in retrospect, quite a learning experience. We arrived safely in Bermuda, spent too much money in the White Horse tavern, got the compass corrected and navigated the rest of the way to St. Martin without a hitch. Since that passage, I've made sure to check the compass at sea daily and to check the lazarette to be certain there's another one for emergencies.

David Berson, also known in New York bars as Capt. Bluefish, holds a 500-ton ocean master's license. He lives in Greenport, N.Y.


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