First Ocean Passage: Newport to Bermuda

On the fuel dock in Newport

0700, November 1, 1996: Topping off the fuel before heading to Bermuda

We all jumped on deck as we heard the line run out from the fishing rod we had set off the stern just about an hour prior. Alex grabbed the rod and started playing the line as Sergei took the helm and steered us directly up into the wind to stop us.  Alex slowly reeled in the line and in the distance, we saw a shimmer of blue and silver flash against the surface of the dark blue water.  Bill ran below to fetch some cheap vodka to pour down the throat of our hopefully soon to be lunch. We had heard that by pouring a little vodka down the fishís throat, the fish would instantly react to the alcohol running across itís gills. It seemed a great idea to us.  Besides, clubbing the fish into submission would yield very messy results.

As Alex brought the fish close to the side of the boat, Bill poured about a cup of vodka in the general direction of the fish, and missed entirely. The last thing we wanted was a pissed-off, half-drunk fish in the cockpit, so we tried again. After about ĺ of a bottle of vodka, most ending up on Bill and Alex, we thought we had suitably dealt our fish the death knoll, and if not, at least marinated him pretty well. Alex swung the fish, a medium sized Mahi-Mahi, into the cockpit and smiles were exchanged all around.  We deserved it after the last three days.

We had left Newport at around 11:00 a.m. on Friday, November 1, 1996. The day was gray and overcast. The five of us, Bill Van Wyck, Alex Ercklentz, Nick Ercklentz, Sergei Sikorsky, and I, were wearing at least three layers of clothing. The temperature was in the high 30ís.  The radio the night before had warned that there might be snow overnight. We pushed off the dock and headed out past Fort Adams and into Newport harbor.  To check our sails and rigging, we sailed up under the Newport bridge and then turned around and headed out to sea.

We passed Castle Hill, a point of land that marks the entrance to Newport, on our port side.  It was just beginning to get windy and rain was starting to fall.  About 300 yards off our port rail, we could see that another Swan, Temptress, was also making a run to Bermuda.

Alex suited up in foul weather gear

We had just started to settle in when the wind really started to pick up. We looked over at the wind indicator.  The wind was coming out of the Northwest at about 25 knots and building rapidly. Within 20 minutes, we were in a force 8 gale with wind speeds between 35 - 45 knots.  Rain pelted us as we steered course to Bermuda. The boat was jumping around in the waves like a five-year-old that had eaten all her Halloween candy in one sitting.  I went below to try and put something in my stomach. Bad idea. About 15 minutes later, I was power spewing over the leeward rail. Hot chocolate and Raman noodles were quickly scratched off my Bermuda passage diet.

The waves and wind by this time had turned our auto helm to mush. The auto helm just was not responding quick enough in the confused and choppy 6 - 8 foot seas.  Bill took the wheel and hand steered for about two hours.

Rough seas

 Sergei put in a second reef so the boat would not heel over so much. The 51 foot Swan, Temptress, quickly vanished into the hazy distance, leaving us behind.  So there we were, four hours into our first passage on our circumnavigation, and smack dab in the middle of a force 8 gale. Welcome to blue water sailing 101.

That night, as we prepared the watch schedule, we paid attention to Sergei as he explained what to do on watch. No one except Sergei had any blue water experience. Alex and I would take 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Bill and Nick would have 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., Sergei would take 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. The schedule would then repeat in 4 hour shifts for the night watches.

Alex and I tethered onto the jack lines and bumbled back to the cockpit at 8 p.m. to begin our four hour watch.  Sergei pointed out all the fishing boats in the vicinity and ran through sea state, wind direction and speed, and other observations from his watch. I watched as Sergei vanished below and felt a sense of excitement tinged with nervousness. I looked at Alex to see his expression on our first watch.  One problem, night vision.  I hadnít acquired mine yet and could hardly see Alex and he was only three feet away. This was going to take some getting used to.

Alex and I passed our watch by looking for the dull white glow from fishing boats with their working flood lights on. You can tell they are there by the white glow on the horizon.  Wind speed had decreased noticeably but the seas were still quite lumpy. As the next watch came on to relieve us, Alex and I breathed a sigh of relief. We were worn out from our first day and just wanted to crawl into our berths.  Down below, wet foul weather gear, extra gear, and just plain junk, were everywhere.  We definitely needed to restow most of what we had spent the last three days stowing. Sleep overtook me before I could even pull the blanket over me.

The next day started cold, gray, and rainy. The outlook for sunny skies seemed bleak.  Just 48 hours prior, we had studied the weather maps and forecasts. They all said we should have clear sailing for at least the first 72 hours after leaving Newport. We had purposely delayed our leaving by 5 days for a break in the weather.

Alex sacked out after a watch
Bill and Sergei

Boy, were the maps and forecasts wrong.  All day, the rain stayed steady as the wind was out of the Northeast at around 20 - 25 knots. The day proceeded with minor maintenance, cleaning, and an alarming discovery. Our water maker had ceased working.  It had also contaminated all four of our freshwater holding tanks.  The only water we would have for the remainder of the passage would be two 2 Ĺ gallon water jugs.  Our first lesson; never leave more than one freshwater tank open at one time. Our second lesson was to follow; we would be quite stinky for the remainder of the passage to Bermuda with no showering.

Watches came and went until around 7:30 p.m. on Sergeiís watch. My impromptu wake up alarm was being flung violently out of the port berth into the salon table while I was sound asleep.  Something seemed amiss. The boat was getting tossed more violently than we had grown accustomed to over the last 24 hours. Alex and I got into our foul weather gear and struggled to get on deck.  The wind howled through the rigging making a host of different, high-pitched, urgent wails.

The wind had picked up to around 40 knots. The seas were rapidly building and spraying foam all along the deck. Sergei was steering with large turns as the huge waves ran underneath and the auto helm couldnít respond quick enough.  Finally, we were all on deck in the driving rain.  We had to get the mainsail down as the wind was now averaging speeds of 50 - 60 knots.  Sergei had Bill and Alex move forward on the wildly bucking deck to bring down the main. Bill started to pull down the mainsail while Alex secured the wildly flapping sail to the boom.  We were now experiencing gusts of wind up to 65 - 70 knots. With no sails up and running with the wind and with the direction of the waves, we were still making about 6.5 knots. The motion of the boat was very quirky with no sails,  and Sergei was very busy steering. A storm jib would have to be set to even the balance of the boat.

Bill and I grabbed the storm jib and crawled forward on our hands and knees to the inner fore stay . We removed the storm jib from the bag and I covered the length of the sail with my body to keep the wind from opening the sail too early. Bill quickly hanked on the storm jib and attached the sheets to control the sail. We unsnapped the halyard and attached it to the sail.  We hoisted the  storm jib and, with a bang, it filled and caught the wind. Bill and I inched our way back to mid ship and hung on for the ride. Mountains of wind driven waves 15 - 20 feet high surged at the boat from behind.  The wind caught the top edge of the waves and blew cold, white spray into the stern cockpit of the boat.

The storm jib had the desired effect and steadied the boat going downwind. Sergei was no longer struggling with the wheel and the boat was responding to the helm with more control. We just had to wait out this storm and see what would come of it.  If conditions worsened and became severe, we were prepared, carrying a sea anchor as well as a drogue. The drogue would be streamed from the stern of the boat to slow our speed down the face of the waves if our boat speed became too much. The sea anchor would be our last line of defense and would be laid from the bow to keep us facing into the oncoming waves.  If the wind kept at the 50+ knot pace overnight, the waves would also build. After about 2 hours, the wind started to recede.  It was now at a reasonable 40 knots. Alex and I took over the watch as Sergei, Bill, and Nick went below.  The auto helm was responding again and we kept a close eye on wind speed and wave patterns. We resumed the standard watch schedule with Sergei at close call.

The next morning saw dawn come bleak and cold for the third day in a row.  When we looked over the stern, all we saw was wall after wall of ocean approaching.  The boat had stabilized and was moving rhythmically along each wave crest. The size of each wave set awed us.  We had to tilt our heads far back to see the top of each wave as it came towards us.  We reached for our cameras as Sergei told us that no picture can ever capture the true size of a wave.

Around noon of the next day, the skies started to clear.  We were able to move around deck without our foul weather gear for the first time during the passage.  We soaked up the sun and spoke of the prior nightís storm.  Sergei explained that we must have caught a small low pressure system with wind moving against the Gulf Stream. This whipped the waters up and made for a very short, high effect storm.  Three days out and one force 8 gale and a force 11 storm (12 is the most severe storm). Thankfully, these storms only lasted six to eight hours each.

Storms having abated, we were now able to survey our surroundings. The Gulf Stream flowed under our hull and the color of the water was amazing. Deep, rich, cobalt blue as far as the horizon reached. The water temperature leaving Newport was 54 degrees.  We looked at our instruments and the water temperature now read 81 degrees. The air was warmer and the sky seemed bluer than we were used to. We all soaked in the first light of a beautiful day. Waves would pause, meet, and cascade skyward as the sun caught the spray in a turquoise blue explosion.

Offshore calm at last

Our fourth day out, especially with our first caught fish safely in the oven, was exactly what we had envisioned. A gentle, rolling seascape with warm sunny weather. We saw a small, brown, sparrow that had been blown off shore.  The poor little guy tried twice to land on our deck. We were all collectively trying to will him onto the ship.  It was not to be. The wind was simply too much for him. He slowly faded away, beating his tiny wings as hard as he could.  We were all very silent for the next couple of minutes.  We were about 300 miles off the coast of South Carolina.  Everyone knew what would become of the little bird. It was a very quiet moment as we set about preparing the ship for our last night on passage.  We finished the day with 500 miles under our hull.

Ninety hours after leaving Newport, we saw Bermuda rise from what had been a thin, white horizon. Cigars were handed out and smiles appeared on salt laced faces. Bermuda Harbor Radio hailed us on VHF channel 16 when we were about 12 miles out. We relayed our position, number of crew, and other formalities. Bermuda Radio then hailed a second vessel, three miles behind us. They were hailing Temptress, the 51 foot Swan that had left us in their wake on the way out of Newport! We all looked at each other and exploded in a group yell.  One very experienced sailor and four neophyte ocean sailors had come in ahead of a professional crew on a bigger boat! We were grinning ear to ear when Bermuda Harbor Radio told Temptress that Out of Bounds was three miles ahead of them.

We made our way through Town Cut into St. Georgeís Harbor and headed towards Her Majestyís Yacht Clearance Center.  We tied up alongside the dock and Bill gathered everyoneís passports.  About thirty minutes later, Temptress came alongside and threw us her lines.  We meet Bob, the skipper, and the three delivery crew. We good-naturedly kidded him about beating Temptress.  He took it all in fine style and was quite a nice guy.  Temptress had gone a little more East and did not experience the amount of wind that we did. Our average speed was 7.9 knots for the passage and the longest mileage in a day was 185.

Preparing docklines entering St Georges

Formalities accomplished,  we were met by Alex and Nickís mom, Kathy.  Kathyís sister, Whitney, lives on Bermuda with her husband, Scott.  Scott and Whitney had arranged for us to moor at the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club in Hamilton Harbor.  Scott is the Rear Commodore at RHADC. We had one problem, we didnít have a chart showing Hamilton Harbor. Bermuda is surrounded by reefs and we needed to make very sure of  our course. Bob, the Skipper of Temptress, was going that way and offered to lead the way and we could follow.  We accepted the offer and followed him out of St. Georgeís Harbor and around the island to Hamilton

We bid farewell to Temptress and her crew as we entered Hamilton Harbor.  We were heading up towards the end of the Harbor and Temptress was picking up a mooring buoy mid harbor.  We told Bob we would meet for beers sometime later in the week with his crew.  Alex slowly brought Out of Bounds stern-to the dock at the RHADC. The dock lines were made fast and our first passage was over. A plank was laid to our stern, and for the first time in 100 hours, we set foot on land.  We looked down below in the cabin.  Bill said it looked like someone had picked our boat up and shaken very hard. Clothes, equipment, provisions, and things we couldnít describe lay everywhere.  There would be time to clean up tomorrow.

A little later, we made our way up to the deck at the RHADC. We sat on the terrace and watched the sunset.  We looked at each other and back at the sunset.  No words seemed necessary. It was the just the beginning.

Jeff Johnson 1996

Passport Entry Stamp
Bermuda Customs Dock

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