Offshore Log: Return to the Tropics

A grossly out-of-season hurricane, Olga, lurked northeast of the Bahamas as Calypso left the Canaries and sailed tentatively westward and southward toward the West Indies in late November.


Surely by the time we reached the tropics, Olga would be history… But as we worked southwest, then turned almost due west a few hundred miles north of the Cape Verde Islands, Olga still hung in there, her effects reaching far to the east and south of her barely changing location. We carried on gingerly. 

Offshore Log: Return to the Tropics

Finally, grudgingly, Olga turned south and west, a mere tropical storm.

High pressure roared in to fill the void she left behind, and when the true northeast trades came to us in latitude 22 north, they blew a fitful 20 to 30 knots, rather than a benign 15 to 20 knots. Not only that, the so-called northeast trades blew more easterly than anything else, making the course to Antigua an impossible dead run.

These tradewinds are far from steady in either direction or velocity. For all practical purposes, our course at this time was due west. The trades may have averaged easterly, but they blew 15 degrees either side of that direction on an irregular and unpredictable basis.

It was exasperating sailing. We left the Canaries with two reefs in the mainsail. A few days later, we shook out one reef when the wind went light for a while. Just a few hours later, we were back down to the second reef, which stayed in for the rest of the trip.

Downwind tradewind sailing may sound idyllic, but it ain’t necessarily so. Our downwind rig consists of the main out to one side, with vang and preventer on hard, and the headsail out on the spinnaker pole on the other side. We respond to changes in wind velocity by rolling the headsail in and out.

Even in light air, we sail downwind with at least one reef in the main. Pitching in a big swell, the full-batten main tends to invert with a slam, then return to normal with an equal slam on the next wave. It’s hard on the main, but even harder on the crew.

We correct for small changes in wind direction by altering course slightly to maintain the wind angle. For big changes that favor the other jibe, we wait for at least a half-hour before initiating a jibe, since that is a tedious maneuver on any cruising boat with a fixed inner forestay.

As often as not, the wind tends to return to its original direction just as you complete the jibe. After several sail-handling fiascoes, we no longer jibe at night unless absolutely necessary.

Now that we’ve finally sorted out the leads for the foreguy, we can trim the pole angle from the cockpit. Three cockpit winches are in constant use. When the wind increases, the pole is eased forward on what would be the spinnaker afterguy. With the afterguy eased, we grind on the starboard secondary to roll up some headsail. With the desired amount of headsail out, the pole is trimmed back on the afterguy—attached to the clew of the headsail like a sheet—and the foreguy is trimmed in to stabilize the pole and the sail. Generally, we leave the pole topping lift where it is.

In the variable tradewinds, I play with this rig constantly to help the time pass. When Maryann comes on watch, I leave her with the setup that I believe will suit for the strongest winds on her watch, even if that leaves the boat underpowered for a certain amount of the time. Not too surprisingly, she logs almost exactly the same mileage on her watches that I do on mine, despite all my extra work.

No rig really allows you to sail dead downwind with impunity, except perhaps two headsails out on two poles. Even then, chances are that the angle of the seas will make such a course uncomfortable at least, dangerous at worst.

Just how deep an angle you can sail is determined by wind velocity and sea state. In flat calm seas and light winds, we can sail virtually dead downwind, although that course is likely to be slower than heating the boat up a bit. In the conditions we experienced on this trip—variable wind direction and velocity, with seas of about 10 feet—an average apparent wind angle of about 155 degrees was all we felt comfortable with.

Even at that angle, the occasional larger seas from a slightly different angle can catch the boat wrong, slewing her around in a near-broach. We are constantly amazed at how resistant Calypso is to such broaches, although your heart is definitely in your throat when a big wave throws her sideways down its face, with the boom dragging in the water. She has always ended up pointing in the right direction, shaking off the water and hurrying on.

At such times, we are grateful for our deep, strong boom, the Hall Quickvang, and the massive Lewmar preventer tackle. We have seen a lot of broken booms and goosenecks from sailing in these conditions. After bending several Ronstan RF699 track slides with our preventer, I recently switched to Schaefer 72-49 slides, which have a slightly higher working load than their Ronstan counterparts. As extra insurance, I also added a pair of Schaefer 74-51 track stops, which have a screw-down locking pin rather than the spring-loaded pin of almost all track slides. In our experience, spring-loaded pins can sometimes slip under extreme loads. The track stops back up the plunger pin stops of the slides, making sure that the slide can’t slip.

On our trip across the Atlantic, this new hardware setup got a real test, and it worked perfectly. There’s little doubt that we significantly exceed the working load limit on these Schaefer slides when the boom is dipped, but they still proved up to the task.

I have never been more grateful for the decision years ago to resort to gross overkill on all the deck hardware on the boat. Hardware rarely gives much warning before failure. It is a huge comfort, when everything is bar-taut and loaded to seemingly impossible levels, to know that the bit of hardware carrying the loads on our 40-footer was designed for a 50-footer.

Rig Tension
Cyclic loading and unloading of the rig is accentuated in downwind sailing, when rhythmic rolling constantly changes the loads on the shrouds and stays. Many rigging failures on cruising boats are caused by shock loading and unloading of the rigging in moderate downwind sailing, rather than the high static loads of upwind sailing.

We greatly increased our rig tension before crossing the Indian Ocean in early 2001, and I have not regretted that decision. Even sailing upwind in 30 knots, our leeward shrouds are tight. This has given us a rig that is much more stable in all conditions.

I decided on this course after watching Phil Garland of Hall Rigging—one of the world’s experts on rig tuning—adjust the shrouds on the Swan 51 Temptress. With the boat hard on the wind in a breeze, Phil wound up the leeward shrouds as tight as possible with massive wrenches. He then put the boat about and repeated the process on the other side.

Obviously, every component of the standing rigging system—chainplates, toggles, turnbuckles, terminals, wire, and mast tangs—must be designed to carry this kind of load. Boats with wider shroud bases and longer spreaders, which means most cruising boats, can get away with less tension than that required on a racer/cruiser. In general, however, more tension is better than less.

For our Atlantic crossing, we were very happy to see our rigging bar-taut and the mast not moving around.

A Mysterious Failure
We didn’t get across the Atlantic totally without incident—the shackle on our “motherguy” failed…

Normally we tie on our jib sheets with bowlines, but for downwind sailing, we remove one headsail sheet and replace it with a spinnaker guy. The spinnaker guy has a large-diameter plastic “donut” seized to the line behind the shackle. The donut can fetch up against the jaws of the spinnaker pole when trimming the sail, preventing the shackle from being sucked into the jaws. If we ran a normal jib sheet through the pole end, the bowline could easily jam in the spinnaker pole jaws—and surely at the worst possible time. Thus we rig a proper spinnaker guy when using the pole, even with a headsail.

Our primary spinnaker guy is another bit of overkill. It is 90′ of 1/2″ Spectra double braid, with a hard polyester cover. With a breaking strength of about 13,000 pounds, we don’t have a lot to worry about. At the outboard end, a big Nicro RF 6310 snap shackle, with a working load limit of about 7,000 lbs, secures the guy to the sail. We call it the “motherguy” because it would serve as a true spinnaker guy on a 50-footer. Our “normal” spinnaker guy, of 1/2″ Sta-Set X polyester, is referred to as the “otherguy.”

You can imagine our surprise when, sailing downwind in about 25 knots, the motherguy let go with a bit of noise. Actually, we couldn’t hear the guy let go, because it was followed immediately by a very loud flogging sound from the headsail.

My first thought was that the snap shackle on the guy had come open, since the guy was still in place in the pole jaws. We trimmed on the lazy sheet and rolled up the headsail, the pole still locked firmly in position between topping lift, foreguy, and afterguy. (This, by the way, is the reason we rig for downwind with the headsail on the pole exactly the same way we would if we were using a spinnaker: foreguy, afterguy, and topping lift.)

I was astonished to see that the snap shackle, less its bail, was still firmly attached to the clew of the sail. The shackle had failed. We quickly substituted the otherguy for the motherguy, and were on our way again.

A post-mortem answered some questions about the shackle failure, but raised others. The post that attaches the swivelling bail to the shackle threads into the bottom of the shackle forging. The post is then cross-pinned in position so that it cannot possibly unscrew.

Except, somehow, it did. The cross pin, which indents about 1.5 mm into the post, is still in place, albeit a little loose. The post, which shows some damage to the threads, is still intact. They just happen to no longer be connected to each other. When we get back to the US, we will send the shackle to Nicro for analysis.

Fortunately, this all happened in daylight, and was quickly remedied. All in all, it was very small on the drama scale.

Offshore Symphony
Downwind sailing in big seas and strong winds is neither relaxing nor silent. Calypso’s interior joinerwork is made up of thousands of individual pieces of wood, some glued together, some screwed together. We carry hundreds of books and CDs, lockers full of dishes and glassware. All of Calypso’s bits and pieces have something to say as we roll along.

The sounds of downwind are a caricature of a symphony. The waves and water tearing past the hull provide the rhythm, sometimes regular, sometimes syncopated, even random. The slosh of water in the tanks answers the roar of the big salty brother beyond the hull. A hundred books move an eighth of an inch in unison—Joe Morello’s brushes on the cymbals. With a quiet plastic squeal, a hundred CD cases move a millimeter in response. A single wine glass tinks against its fiddle, echoed by the pepper mill in the galley tapping a sliding door. A floorboard squeaks, a loose halyard shackle clatters. Our bungee-jumping stuffed sheep from New Zealand, tied to an overhead grabrail, stretches his elastic tether, slamming into a bulkhead with a loud bleat.

After a few hours, you can isolate virtually every player in Calypso’s orchestra, blocking out the competing sound of its neighbor. It’s much the same exercise as plucking the line of the individual instrument out of the smoothness of the orchestra. The difference is that the noise of sailing is cacophony, not symphony. All I can think of is a concert—if that is the word—of John Cage music 35 years ago in college, when one of his “prepared pianos” uttered some of the most appalling sounds I have ever heard from a stringed instrument. I want my piano to sound like Bill Evans, not like a squirrel caught between hammer and string. I wish my boat would be quiet.

Every long ocean passage has its high points and low points, no matter what the weather. It’s always exciting to get underway, but on a passage of almost 3,000 miles, the finish looks impossibly far away.

For the first few days, the miles seem to crawl by as you get your sea legs. Even at 150 miles per day, you know you have almost three weeks to go.

At the first milestone, the distance to go drops below 2,000 miles. By this time, you’re pretty much into the rhythm of things, for you’re almost a week out.Halfway there marks another big milestone, as the destination is finally closer than the point of departure. The middle part of the voyage slips by quickly.The last milestone is when the distance to go changes from four digits to three. The GPS starts recording tenths of a mile, rather than whole miles.

The last few hundred miles, like the first miles, can drag on forever, particularly when the weather deteriorates. In our case, a huge, atypical trough of low pressure—probably the remnants of some offshoot of Olga—blocked our path to Antigua. Instead of fluffy tradewind clouds, we had a solid black horizon day and night. With no moon or stars, the nights were almost frighteningly dark.

We ran our radar all night long for the entire passage. We could see the big rainsqualls descending on us in the blackness on the luminous green screen, so they didn’t catch us completely by surprise.

No matter how prepared you are, however, your heart is still in your throat as the wind increases from 20 to 25 to 30 to 35 knots and more, sometimes in a matter of seconds. With the main already double-reefed, it’s just a matter of rolling in more headsail. Even with a ridiculously small amount of sail up, Calypso accelerated quickly from six to eight knots or more.

Full Circle
No matter how you trust your boat, your anxiety level rises with the increasing wind, particularly on a night with zero visibility. Painted with green phosphorescence, the wake streams astern over the moving hills, sometimes far above you, sometimes below. The light of your wake and the foam of the rollers passing beneath you are the only breaks in the absolute blackness of night. The glowing instruments are your connection to reality. It’s not a time to ponder the relative insignificance of human life, nor the frailty of existence.

The strong winds push us quickly towards Antigua. Eighteen days out of the Canaries, the loom of Guadeloupe gleams brightly to port under the clouds, the fainter glow of Antigua dead ahead.

In the early morning hours, we pick up the familiar flash of Shirley Heights light. By this time, Guadeloupe has vanished behind a solid black wall of squalls, but in the pre-dawn gray, we see the low bulk of Antigua in our path.

We slide past the entrance to English Harbour as the eastern horizon turns from gray to orange. The tropical day comes crashing awake with the rising sun. We turn past the mark on Bishop Shoal, dropping the sails in the entrance to Falmouth Harbour.

A sudden windshift reminds us that the black clouds just to leeward will soon engulf us in another tropical downpour. The clouds march upwind in defiance of apparent logic.

At this point, we don’t really care. Almost four years ago to the day, Calypso, Maryann, and I left Bishop Shoal to port as we pulled out of Falmouth, westbound around the world. Still traveling west, we leave the shoal to starboard this time.

If this were a different age, and Calypso were a ship rather than a small sailboat, I might expect to see an Antiguan fisherman in his skiff eyeing us up and down as we enter the harbor. “What ship is that, skip, and where from?” he would ask. “Calypso,” I would respond. “Inbound from Antigua to Antigua, via Panama, Suez, and the far side of the world.”

Four years and almost 28,000 miles later, we have made it around the planet.


Also With This Article
Click here to view “For Sale: Turnkey Circumnavigator.”

Nick Nicholson
Nick Nicholson is a boatbuilder, racing sailor, and circumnavigator. He began his career at Practical Sailor as an Associate Editor in 1979, and has been Editor-at-Large since he left full-time work in the early 1990s to finish building a 40’ cutter in his backyard, and subsequently sail it more than 40,000 bluewater miles. The voyages of Calypso were chronicled in the Offshore Log section of Practical Sailor during that circumnavigation. He has also raced from the US east coast to Bermuda more than 20 times, winning numerous navigator’s trophies in the process. In recent years, he has primarily worked as a race official and technical rules advisor in the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup. He also chairs the Technical Committee for the Newport Bermuda Race.