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Sailor suggests proper prep before voyage

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor:In March, I visited the most southern yacht club in the world at Port William, Chile, on the Beagle Channel. After I returned, I learned of a voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to St. John's, Newfoundland. It was to be my dream sailing trip.

I've been sailing for more than 30 years around the Chesapeake Bay, and recently I have mostly solo-sailed on my 34-foot C&C. In 1966, I was a member of the crew of a 57-foot yawl from Bermuda to New York. I've captained boats, sail and power, from Miami north in the ICW and around the Chesapeake Bay. Lately, I've been dreaming of solo-sailing around the world. But first, it was time to get more blue-water experience.

On June 19 I left Baltimore with enough clothes for 10 days, my life harness, and my GPS and arrived in Halifax at the 40-foot boat that was to be my home for the next few days. I had been checking the weather on the Internet and expected 70° on shore and water temperature of 50° and little wind.

I met George, the captain and boat owner (all names have been changed). He has solo-sailed to Europe and up and down the East Coast. Then I met Sam, a crewman who had been on the boat from New York, and John, who had just arrived before me and was to stay with the boat for four weeks, returning with it back to Boston.

I was hoping that the 600-mile trip to Newfoundland would be a leisurely sail for about seven to eight days. The following morning, we were briefed by the Canadian Maritime authorities about what to expect in the way of icebergs, fog, and storms. At 1200 on the 20th, we untied and motored past the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower at anchor. As you might expect, there was no wind. The day was sunny, skies clear, and, with suntan lotion on, my dream began. Once past the channel marker and in the ocean, the winds were at five to 10 mph at best.

The wind started to build as the afternoon turned to evening, and the fog started to roll in. As I expected, the roll of the ocean made John and me seasick. During the next two days the fog stayed with us, at times very dense. By the third day, the wind continued to build from the west (270°) with seas at about six feet. Our course was 110°. The magnetic deviation was in excess of 22° west.

Over the next 24 hours, the seas built to between 10 and 15 feet on our starboard stern quarter with dense fog. By 2300 the seas, wind, and sailing conditions were very trying. John had been seasick since we untied. By this time, he was totally incapacitated. Sam was so scared that he refused to come on deck to stand watch.

George and I took turns standing watch. A part of the windvane unit broke off and was lost overboard, and the boat rolled to such an extent that preparing food was almost impossible. We navigated by radar and GPS as we entered iceberg country. I was wearing seven layers of clothes because the 50° ocean temperature with wind made for a low wind chill. The captain was wearing a dry suit. During the night, George and I took turns at the wheel.

During my watch, I wrote and rewrote (in my mind) my obituary many times. My concern was being washed overboard into the 50° water where I figured I had 10 minutes to survive at most, even though I was tethered to the boat. But, during these times, I also thought of many things that I would check out before I ever went aboard somebody else's boat again.

We rounded Cape Race at 0500 the fourth day. The winds died down as we came into the lee of Newfoundland. The sun came out for awhile and spectacular icebergs appeared. The winds dropped to between five and 10 mph and we powered north toward St. John's. After a little breakfast, John was finally able to stand watch for a few hours. Sam was still down below. As you would expect, the winds started to build from the north. By 1100, the northerly wind was so strong that we slowed at times to two knots while under power.

We finally tied up in St. John's at 1400 Tuesday, four days and two hours after leaving Halifax. The entrance to the harbor of St. John's is quite spectacular, going between high rocks on each side. It had been an exhilarating experience.

The following is some of the information I would ask about, expecting satisfactory answers, before I would go aboard another person's boat in the ocean again:

1. The captain's credentials and sailing experience. 2. Any storms that he/she has encountered? 3. Complete written description of the boat and all equipment on board, including safety equipment. 4. List of any equipment not in good working order. 5. Copy of the current to-do list (items needing attention, but not completeall boat owners have one). 6. Date of last complete survey. 7. Description of deficiencies found on this survey and the date on which each of the deficiencies was repaired. 8. Date of the last time the rig was taken down, a list of deficiencies found, and the date each of these rig deficiencies were repaired. 10. How the food is planned and stored. The following are items I would expect the captain to review upon first boarding the boat: 1. Describe and review all safety equipment on board (e.g., man-overboard instructions, location of the first-aid kit, etc.) 2. Describe and review the general operation of the boat (e.g., the location of the bilge pump and its operation). 3. Review the planned course and all navigational equipment. 4. Review the watch schedule. 5. Have each member of the crew explain his/her sailing experience and first-aid experience.