1997 August Halifax to Bermuda aboard Bandit
Ocean currents for 1997 Aug 13 with our noon fixes and approx route
Wanna go to Bermuda? In mid-August?
“Yes to the first question, WELL maybe to the second.” was the answer in my mind when I was asked to crew on Bandit for the return trip to Bermuda.
I had been part of the crew for the trip up from Bermuda to Halifax in the summer of 1996. It was my first time on a small boat for a real offshore passage. That trip started out with a night of severe thunderstorms with very high winds and steep seas. Three days into that trip, Hurricane Bertha formed. And then we started getting warnings about a major storm ripping through the Northumberland Strait and hitting Cape Breton, where we were supposed to land. That was early July before hurricane season. Mid August was getting too close to hurricane season. Did I really want to? Bandit is a Steadfast 36, I knew she was a heavy boat and in pretty good condition. Like almost all of our boats she could take more than we could. We would have more crew than last time and a more experienced crew as well. We would wait for a weather window and had expert weather advice from a friend of Ian’s and Herb Hildenburg of Cruising World fame (there is a really neat article on Herb in this month’s Canadian Geographic). I want to do this sometime soon on Slipstream(the name of Millennium Odyssey before we changed it), so what better opportunity would I have to get the experience. After clearing up a bunch of work stuff, I sent a note to Ian “OK, I’m in”.
Now that I’m back safe and sound what was the trip like? Lots of adjectives come to mind, fun, educational, interesting, and boring. The weather was mixed with nothing approaching the weather of the Flower’s cove race. We had two and a half days without enough wind to maintain speed so we ran the engine. We made the trip in six days two hours, very non-eventful, if you don’t count the Autohelm ST 4000 packing it in again, (they seem to last 5-6 days max), and an encounter with the Bermuda Circle (No it is not a triangle, we saw it and it was definitely a circle!!!)
The crew consisted of Ian Smith, Captain and university buddy. Bob Duffy, a friend of Ian’s with over 20 Marion and Newport races to his credit, not too mention several other LONG races. Me with a little FAR North Atlantic experience, the trip to NS, as well as 18 years of sailing mostly Lasers, Invitations and Mirror Dinghies before Slipstream. And Marc St’Pierre, who had been out on Bandit a couple of times in Bermuda.
Have you ever had an exam that you know if you took over you would do a lot better. The trip down was like that. After the trip up, I learned a lot and I definitely did a whole lot better on the trip down. There were a lot of contributing factors to the improvement, some were related to the crew, Bob was incredible. Watching and working with Bob Duffy on the trip was kind of like Norman Raine on diesels and the CPS Seamanship Sail Course, you won’t pick up 10% of their knowledge but you’ll learn an incredible amount and have fun at the same time. If you ever read this, Thanks Bob.
I arrived on the boat late Friday night and crashed on board rather than at the hotel. I like to get my sea legs as soon as possible, the longer onboard the better. Earlier in the week Bandit had blown the head gasket, cracked the head and filled the oil pan with water. Looking down into the engine box it looked VERY familiar, Bandit has a Volvo MD2B same as Slipstream. If your ever in the Halifax area and need diesel work done, Ian speaks highly of these guys (Bill LeBlanc, Seacoast Diesel & Gas Ltd. (902) 468-7626.) The engine box was in pieces and it smelled pretty strong of diesel. The next day while Ian and Marc were off to get the provisions Bob and I went over bandit with a fine tooth comb checking the seacocks, tanks, safety equipment, repairing the emergency tiller steering. Bob has a real passionate dislike for the smell and we were off to find a bottle of vanilla. I had been told by Fred Mosher that a little vanilla would get rid of the diesel smell. It works! Bandit improved a lot in the smell department.
Saturday was blowing 35+ knots at the mouth of the harbour and the forecast for Sunday was much better. We seemed to have a long weather window so we waited and prepared. We filled the extra jerry cans and the diesel tank and were all ready to go.
Sunday, on the way out of the Arm we called Customs to check out by phone. It kind of reminded me of a Bob and Doug Mckenzie skit “Like take off eh!!!” Halifax harbour looks a lot smaller when you can see it. We didn’t see much of it on the way in and those freighters must have been close last year. The wind was down to 20 knots at noon (we left the arm at 11:40, what we called our official jump off time ). The forecast had the wind falling during the day to 10-15 overnight. The seas had picked up quite a bit during the 35+ the previous day and were just starting to fall. We all had started with a motion sickness medication called Sturgeron, (later to become known as Ian’s favourite food).
We had a rhumb line course set for Bermuda 741 nautical miles 203 degrees.(44 38.1N 63 36.9W) Herb had told us to make as much west as we could, when we got to the mouth of the harbour, winds gave us a choice of Yarmouth or Bermuda rhumb line.
Watches were basically simple during the day. Someone was always on deck, If you were on deck by yourself you wore a harness clipped to the jack lines or the binnacle, especially at night and almost always during the day. During the day things were pretty informal whoever was on deck was on watch. Ian took the watch from after bedtime for the rest of us until midnight. Bob and Marc came on at midnight and stayed until 3 am. I came on and for the first night Bob stayed up with me until six. I would wake Ian at 0600. Bob was very uncomfortable with people on watch at night alone. Sunday night was a cold night on watch. Bob, who doesn’t own long pants, used my spare set of joggers. Boots, joggers, wet gear, hats and the rain gear hood up and we were still cold. (Monday 06:02 43 00.7N 63 22.6W)
Our Noon fix Monday was 42 27.4N 63 20.1W 135 Miles in the first 24 hours. Almost all in the right direction! (Better than our first day on the way up 73 miles, 36 in the right direction.) Food consumption was definitely light the first day. No-one seemed really keen on galley duty. Marc seemed least affected by Mal-de-mer and was often happy to do galley and clean-up duty. (Gee none of the rest of us argued too much either). Monday was a big day for sea life. We saw fin back whales in the distance. There were a few dolphins around as well and everybody was up to see them. Later in the afternoon we could see what we thought were two ships on the horizon. A sail and a black blob. Even after we had the binoculars out it took a couple of minutes to figure out that it was really one ship. The “Sail” was a white crane on the foredeck and the “black blob” was the smoke stack all of the rest of the hull and superstructure was below the horizon. Sunday night was cold but Monday was miserable cold, Bob lasted until we started to see the sky start to get the glow of sunrise (0430). We motored all night which didn’t make for a great sleep for anyone.
We lucked into clear skies for most of the rest of the trip. This was nice for a few reasons, no storms, only a few minor showers, and the trip was the same time as the August meteor shower. The meteor showers were fantastic. I didn’t realize we were near the full moon until almost the last day of the trip. The moon had set by the time I was on watch. Bob and I had some spectacular meteors appear during the trip. One was a brilliant flash that left a 40 degree arc of light which lasted about 3 seconds after the head had burned away.
We spent most of Tuesday beating against the edge of what we thought was the Gulf stream. On the trip up there seemed to be a sharp mark where in the matter of a few hours we went from 29C water to 9C water. But I didn’t see that much of a sharp difference when entering the Gulf stream this time. I don’t know if it was the time of year or the angle of attack. (Looking back at the chart was probably a convergence between shelf water and the beginnings of a warm eddy) We ran through a school of fish, dark blue in colour and the size of a small salmon. It was at this point we discovered the complete lack of fishing gear aboard. The Tuesday noon fix was 40 45.7N 64 11.8W and the log showed 256 miles for the 48 hours.
We did see the temperature rise from joggers and rain slickers on Monday night to shorts and t-shirts for the watch on Tuesday night. Bob stayed up with me until 0400 and he was getting very tired. Especially since he was doing extra long watches and the engine running didn’t help either. We talked about different shifts and other possibilities. The Wednesday noon fix was 38 45.0N 64 25.4W, the log showed 395 miles. Wednesday night Ian twiddled the shifts and didn’t tell Bob. Ian and Marc lasted until 0300 and I sailed alone until 0600, and Bob slept through the night.
One of the things that we did for the people on watch was bring up treats when we came on deck. We had a large supply of granola bars, sour jelly candies, and apples. When I came on deck at night I always brought a couple of treats for me and Bob. I would have loved a chocolate bar!!! Marc had seen a vessel a couple of miles astern that night. A white light at either end and a green light at the back. We saw another freighter later that day it seemed to be heading due west. We were near New York’s latitude at the time.
Thursday, we spent motoring it was EXTREMELY quiet water as far as the eye could see. We were motoring along at 5.5 knots and the porpoises had something to play with. We could see them coming for miles. One school would play in our bow wake for a while and get bored and then another school would arrive. Without exaggeration I would say there was 130-150 porpoises that visited us that day. Our Thursday noon fix was 36 46.3N 64 16.2W with 532 on the log.
We were sailing along in blue skies with patchy clouds and noticed a large group of heavy clouds
like a collection of thunder heads. There was a black line in the water under the clouds and it looked really strange. As we got closer, it got even stranger. The band of cloud was about 300 yards thick and formed a near perfect circle, with blue sky in the middle!!! No-one said anything about the Bermuda triangle, until we got to the other side. Besides at this point we knew there wasn’t a Bermuda triangle, it was really a circle.
We were picked up by a pair of Bermuda Long Tails, white birds with two long feathers that extended out behind them 6-8 inches. The nest in Bermuda and will fly north up to 200 miles when fishing. We would see them every couple of hours for the rest of the trip. We were also well into the Gulf Stream at this point so we often awoke to find a flying fish or two that bumped into us during the night. We were also bothered by the depth sounder going off it would read 4-6 feet for hours at a stretch, then go off scale. We were travelling in water several thousand feet deep.
Ian has a metal sextant manufactured in the USSR. Ian, Bob, and I all tried a shot and got about the same results, considering the lumpy seas at the time I was surprised they were as good as they were, all three were about 20 miles. After taking as long as I did to get the shot I am not sure I wouldn’t prefer a plastic sextant.
We started picking up weather reports from Herb about a storm north of us. We were far enough south that it would not be a problem but it did generate some wind 15-20 knots and the next day it was stronger. We were often in 20-23 apparent through the night. Our Friday noon fix was 34 26.7N 64 20.8W 671 miles on the log. Shortly after, Marc noticed that the Autohelm was not turning, it was making constant adjustments of 3-5 degrees then stopped. After a quick release of the clutch I was hand steering while they tried to figure out what went wrong. On the way up the Autohelm ST4000 (just in case your were wondering) motor sheered all of the pins in the drive motor and we ended up 150 miles out of Halifax hand steering home. It was repaired by an authorized dealer in Halifax. Here we were about 130 miles out and this time there was no power to the motor. The diagnosis was the head end was shot. Finish fever was starting to kick in real strong.
We kept two people on deck at all times. One steering and one gopher, when the person hand steering would get tired you switched. Hand steering with no reference points in the day time was not as easy as at night. During the day the only reference you had outside the boat was clouds. And they only stayed in position for a minute maybe two. At night we were fortunate enough to have lots of stars. Lots and LOTS of stars. (After a while they all looked the same). Constellations look different at sea, with no light, there are a many more stars and the big dipper isn’t as easy to spot with a couple hundred extra stars cluttering things up.
On the way up we were sailing into Halifax in the fog, hand steering with no visual reference other than the compass, seas were 6-7 feet and the adjective oily was never more true. The last night was a beautiful star lit night with a moderate swell, warm winds, the phosphorescence from the bow wake would shoot dozens of fireflies of light as Bandit plowed it’s way south. I steered almost the full four hour watch and loved every minute of it. It was wonderful. I’m kind of sorry I didn’t hand steer more.
About 9 a.m. the last day we sighted the Club Med on Bermuda’s east coast. We were now sailing along approaching well to the east of any hazard. Another couple of hours and we could see another point. “Miss that one and the next stop is Antigua” Ian called to me on the wheel. I was confused. We had lots of fuel and food on board. Bob picked up Ian’s cell phone and called Janice. “We’ve been kidnapped by a Cuban senorita and we’re off to Antigua.”
Ian was such a spoilsport.
We cleared customs and immigration. The guys and gals were good and friendly and very subtlety kept us in the air conditioned lobby awaiting clearance while the drug dogs covered the boat. We were free and clear in about a half hour and tied to the sea wall on the other side of the cut when the girls came on onboard and popped the Champagne.