[Kyle] Day 1
We left Morehead City at just after 1am. Our weather window had opened up the previous day at around noon with a cold frontal passage, but I needed to submit my vacation bid to work, and their system wouldn’t let me place my bid until midnight central time, so we had to wait for that.
Well, as you can imagine, we had the place to ourselves as we headed out to sea. The distance from the dock at Morehead City Yacht Basin (who, by the way were petty enough to insist on prorating our partial day, even though we were told repeatedly that our dockage was peanuts compared to the daily fuel purchases of the fishing charters.) was only about 1.5 miles so we quickly found ourselves in ocean swell. We had a nice (light) west wind but the chop getting out the channel was pretty miserable. The winds hadn’t been strong for days so I imagine it was just left over ocean swell interacting with the shallows near shore.
Once clear of the entrance channel, we hoisted sails, shut down the engine and were able to head due east pretty fast. The coastal part of North Carolina is so low that by the time Maryanne came on watch at 6am (still dark), only the tops of the radio towers and the lighthouse at nearby Lookout Point were still visible. By the time the sun came up an hour later, those were gone too.
The winds picked up during the day and we were able to put in good miles to the east in conditions that were nice, if a little cold from the passage of the front. Even though our initial course was to the southeast, the trade winds, which go from East to West were well established only about 60 or so miles to the south of us, so we had to take advantage of the west wind by heading initially due east for 600-700 miles before turning south and following the winds.
[Maryanne] We deliberately set out after a front had passed, this ensured we had good winds from the West to help push us as far East as possible before we would finally turn South. Forecast winds were all good for us (in direction and strength for several days, passing behind several fronts - perfect
As the front passed, the wind continued to build and the seas increased. We actually went in stages from full sails to 2 reefs in each, which is about 40% of our total sail area. The seas grew and grew and eventually became so mountainous that I could see how blue the water was by looking up at the sun shining through the crests above us.
Conditions on the boat remained livable, although we were both becoming, necessarily, more queasy in the worsening conditions. Near the end of Maryanne’s watch at 11pm she woke me up and said she needed help. I was kind of awake anyway, as the conditions had become so bad that neither of us was able to sleep for more than a couple of seconds at a time before the next BANG as a wave hit us. We did this 100s of times a night, which meant we were both exhausted. This combined with not being able to keep any food down made anything ten times as hard.
I threw on my life jacket and came on deck, not wearing anything else, into the cold, stinging rain. Maryanne said the winds were gusting up to 40 knots and she needed me to steer downwind while she furled the jib. It jammed, so she went forward to find out what the problem was, crawling along the jack line she was tethered to as the waves threw the boat around and occasionally broke on top of Maryanne.
When she got back, the prognosis was not good; the Jib had become unshackled at the bottom, and had become wrapped around our screacher line so that the sail could not be furled on the stay, nor unfurled and dropped to the deck. She tied the bottom of the jib to the hook normally holding our anchor chain on in order to keep it within reach. The boat was careening wildly with all the sail up, so I told her to go back and pull the main sail down. When she got back, we still had most of the jib out and I was worried about losing control of the boat. I was shivering from the rain and spray; Maryanne said she would take over from the steering until I could dry off and get some foul weather gear on. When I came back out she reported the winds were over 40 at times. I hooked onto a jack line (the jack line is a webbing strap running along the length of the boat - we can hook on to these as we move about the boat to prevent us from falling overboard) and went forward.
The foredeck was gyrating wildly and every few seconds a wave would hit and put it under a foot or two of water. Once I got up there, I started working on the problem; the jib sheets needed to be unthreaded, and unwound from the head stay in order to free the tangled screacher lines. After that the only way to get the jib unwound from the stay would be to turn the boat in slow circles. I crawled back close enough to Maryanne to shout my plan: She would have to get the engine running and steer in circles through the huge waves, I would pull down the jib. After a couple of minutes she got the engine started and was able to get the boat turning. I lay on deck, face up, while the jib flogged wildly over me sounding like machine gun fire. The jib sheets (the lines that control the jib) had tangled into a flailing ball, trying to smash everything in its path. After two turns of the boat I was able to get the jib down on the deck. I laid on top of it to keep it from blowing away, and lashed it down as securely as I could with some spare anchor line.
When I got back to the cockpit we were both wet and exhausted, we could not point into the wind to get our main sail up and there was no way I wanted to figure out what was wrong with the jib at night in those conditions. This left us with the choice of steering downwind under bare poles, or lying ahull - leaving the boat to handle herself. The boat had seemed relatively stable through the turns and we decided to lie ahull, holding the rudder full to one side. We both went inside and stripped off our wet clothes, dried off and fell into a fitful sleep. Each of us took turns to watch out for shipping from inside the dry boat. Occasionally both of us would jolt when a wave would break on us broadside and roll us 30 degrees or so - frightening in a catamaran.
[Maryanne] In hindsight here is what I think happened. I was sailing under double reefed main and jib, in winds appropriate for that, when I suddenly found I was having difficulty steering. I checked the rudders (the usual culprit, sometimes they pop up) and they were good. The winds were getting stronger, towards the top of my reefing range, so I decided to wind in the jib completely - I could not budge it. The winds continued to gust stronger and stronger and this is when I called Kyle for help. It seems that the steering difficulty was due the fact the jib had unwound itself after becoming unclipped at the base. I don’t know what caused that - but we did also discover over the following days, that the black cone shaped cover on the roller furling had become unscrewed, and was floating freely on the stay - this may have been the cause (?). The furler works without this screwed down, but is certainly stiffer to manage. It took us at least an hour to bring down the sails, secure them, and decide we were better off not trying to sail until daylight when we could fully inspect the rigging, at that time, we still didn’t really know what had happened, nor how badly damaged the sail might be.
NOW - leaving a boat without a watch while out in the middle of the ocean is definitely not a good idea. I am not proud of myself for that. One of us should have remained on watch. There is no excuse for that. We WERE both tired, and definitely pleased to be inside and in shelter, and have some time to calm down. I have a TON of new admiration for solo sailors, but I never want to be one on a journey of any length.
Finally, from the master berth, the sea conditions appear highly exaggerated any pounding is at its worst, and the noises and roll (when laying down) all seem to increase the effects of the seas. I’m not sure if Kyle’s 30° is anything like correct, but it was certainly an interesting ride!
[Kyle] Day 3
At daybreak the wind was 35 knots, gusting to 40 or so, Our wind indicator recorded a maximum of 44.5 (just over 51mph) during the night. I went forward again to have a look at the jib. I was sure that it must have been partially shredded during the half hour of flogging it went through the night before. It appeared to be intact. There was some stitching gone from the sun cover, but no damage to the sail itself. The wind was still way too strong to hoist the full sail and roll it up, so we decided to leave it lashed to the deck. The flogging of the previous night had jerked the mast around enough that it appeared to have shaken our tri-color masthead navigation light either apart of out of its mount, although the anchor light still worked. Our flag halyard was pulled off the spreader and our radar reflector was bent about 40° on its mount. The car attaching the main sail headboard to the slot in the mast was shattered, but we could live without that (would have to for now!).
We put up the main sail with two reefs in it, and headed downwind, which was fortunately due east. The boat flew along in the howling wind, surfing fast down the huge waves. I saw 17.3 kt over ground - more than twice our usual sailing speed. A big wave would approach and as we crested it, we could see that it was really just a small wave on the face of an even bigger wave in the background. Every now and then, a steep one would break from the side, sending water clear over the boat. Just before I went off watch, just before sunset, one of them hit us, breaking right into the cockpit. I only had enough time to turn halfway and take one step away from the helm when it completely submerged me, slewing Footprint around dangerously side on to the weaves. Damn, I was almost dry too!
Maryanne and I pretty much had the same miserable experience steering Footprint downwind in 35 kt of wind and in 20-25 foot seas. Occasionally, a squall would come through drenching us in rain and pushing the wind up another 10 knots. Sleeping off-watch was nearly impossible for either of us. Because of the noise, the banging and the occasional scary roll, neither of us slept for more than a few seconds at a time. This weather was getting really OLD. Both the boat and us were holding up surprisingly well though. Throughout the storm the weather had made us miserable but not terrified. Footprint seemed completely in control the whole time (apart from when way too much sail was up) and held up really well when we lay ahull all night in 40kt winds.
The wind eased a bit but the rain increased. We were still sailing east fast on double reefed main only down seas that were setting steeper and starting to break more. Our bodies got used to the motion and we finally stopped being seasick even though the wind was still howling and we were getting thrown around just as much. Maryanne even managed to start cooking in the gyrating galley so we could get our strength back up; she is amazing, I can’t even stand up in there.
Well, the storm finally broke and high pressure moved in, we got the jib on its furler and left a scrap out to help pull us east. Eventually we gradually increased sail until by evening we had the full mainsail up and the screacher pulling. Last night as we passed 125 miles north of it, we could hear marine broadcast from Bermuda, the first thing we’d heard on the radio for days.
By just before sunset the seas had flattened and the wind had died to the point that there was no point in even having the sails up, other than to listen to them slap back and forth - a noise that will drive a person completely insane in 30 minutes - guaranteed! So I put them down and we had a nice meal together at the table, neither of us at the wheel. It was a strange sensation, not as if we were sailing anywhere specific, but rather we had sailed through a five day storm just so we could have a nice dinner to our own private sunset on a flat calm sea 500 miles from the nearest continent.
With no wind to move the boat, Maryanne spent most of her 6pm - midnight watch reading a book and looking out for ships (none). She woke me at a quarter to midnight for my six hours of pretty much the same. I did a few odd jobs and tidied up a bit, then spent most of it being amazed at the night sky; with no moon or city lights to wash it out, the sky is really an amazing place. We think of moonless nights as being very dark, but I could see well enough to walk around on deck and trace the outlines of the clouds in the starlight. I looked out at the flat sea and was amazed that this was the same sea that had seemed determined to crush us in a mad rage just a few days before. Except for a long swell that was only perceptible as an occasional creak on a silent boat we had no indication of how far out we were; we could have been anchored in a pond.
The wind finally started brushing the back of my ears around 5am and seemed to persist. I put up the mainsail and the screacher and we very slowly began to creep away from our little spot in the North Atlantic. We had a beautiful clear sunrise and started bending our course South-East to avoid more of the calm to our North. As the day wore on we were able to gradually accelerate to normal boat speed and our GPS finally said we’d make it to Antigua by the end of the year!