Skippers Summary of Events

When I started this adventure, I promised that I’d write a blog post every single day.  And that if for some reason I didn’t, that someone else – probably in my immediate family – would post for me.

But damn: I’m so busy!  You’d never know I wasn’t working.  I’m going to keep trying to post every day.  But for now, here’s a summary of what’s been happening over the past couple of weeks:

At work, I’m usually responsible for funding, running, growing, nuturing, leading, a company.  I’m the “man at the helm”.  (If you don’t know what I do when I’m working, click here).

And somehow, it seems to be EXACTLY THE SAME now, but with less money, fewer resources, and crew who don’t like me to tell them what to do.  Not that I’ve had a mutiny by any means, I think everyone’s settling in and having a good time – especially the kids, but you try giving your wife a “command”.  I’d hazard a guess that no men who are married and have not had divorces go telling their wives what to do.  Besides, at work, I’ve got a finance DEPARTMENT and they are EXPERTS at what they do, and the same for sales, legal, technology, you name it.   On board, I am basically a department of one.  Ronan, Paloma and Emma-Kate are all troopers, but they have learned more about sailing in the past two or three weeks than in their entire lives.  And I love what they’ve learned.  It moves me to see the family raise the main sail.  We’ve finally got it down to an art where everyone knows exactly what they have to do.  Even Ronan (aged 7) has his part to play and it’s great to see him yell “stop” and put up his hand when he sees something not going as planned and then he goes and corrects it.  But that doesn’t make them the engineering department, or the rigging experts, or the electronics gurus.

But I digress.  I have tales to tell.

Ondine has now sailed about 1,500 miles south – maybe a wee bit more.  First from New York to Bermuda and then from Bermuda to Antigua.  And now we will slowly work our way down the windward islands to Venezuela.  Slipping slowing into our sailing lives.  We could paint picture perfect stories about what’s happening to us.  But where is the fun in that!

On our way down, I completely freaked out our guest David Uprichard (see his post here).  I have this habit, when things start to go wrong of imagining just what the worst situation could possibly be and then going through what that is, accepting it, and working out how to do better.  So of course the worst situation on a boat is that it sinks, or capsizes, so when the wind picked up more than forecast, and Ondine was doing 12 knots in about 25-30 knots of wind with all her canvas up, I started to analyze her movements out loud, looking for tell-tale signs of stress that might indicate we needed to reef or that we were pushing her too hard.  It was pitch black (night) and I really didn’t want to have to modify our sail plan unless I had to.

James: If the leeward hull starts exhibiting more spray than the windward hull, please let me know.

David: OK

James: From what I’ve heard, the only reason Catamarans’ turn over in this kind of weather is because someone isn’t paying attention.   For example, there was a Chris White Catamaran that when belly up (link here) because.  Well of course because there was too much wind.  But also because they had too much sail, had the auto pilot on, and didn’t adjust course.  So if you think that the wind is picking up, hit this button (the off button on the auto pilot) and move the helm to starboard to remove the pressure from the sails.

David: [no words, just blank worried expression]

David’s not a sailor.  And he just didn’t enjoy being told that there was real risk in the voyage.  He was just along for the ride.  But a 950 nautical mile ride in the Atlantic ocean always has risks.  And as I’ve discovered, it is my job to minimize these risks, and not demoralize the crew as I do it.  The crew has no interest in knowing that a boat might have something terrible happen to it.  Any more than employees want to know that a company might run out of cash.  They just want to know that the man at the helm is in control and will steer them through whatever troubles manifest themselves.

Oh boy.  So much for leaving work stress behind.

The situation got worse the next day when David took over from me at 6am.   He got up and my first words to him were: “take your log readings, and let me tell you what’s been going wrong”.  As you get more and more tired, which is inevitable when you are on 3 hours and then off six for six days in a row (we were on day 4 when this happened), your ability to control your vocabulary diminishes (understatement).

When I had gone on watch at 3am, there was very little wind (unlike 24 hours earlier) and we had turned on the engines.   I looked at the fuel guages and decided that it was time to give the starboard engine a turn.  (We don’t bother using both engines simultaneously as it is a waste of gas and only adds about 15-20% to the speed of Ondine.)   Once I did that, we promptly went around in a circle.  Yep: 400 naticle miles from the nearest land and I’m going round and round in circles while the crew sleeps.  I’m not the most experienced sailor in the world, so I’m certain that it’s all my fault.  I’ve done something wrong.  So I switch back on the port engine and think for a while.

About 7 hours earlier, I had just made a big mistake.  We had all sat down to dinner, and there was still enough wind to sail by.  I had the main out, and a “preventer” that kept it tied down as the wind was coming from about 150 degrees or off our port stern.  Anyway, as dinner finished, I looked over at the preventer and I noticed that it was under an ENORMOUS amount of pressure.  I looked at the sail, and somehow, without anyone noticing, the wind had moved from the port to the starboard and the preventer was the only thing stopping us from jibing (having the boom and 2,500 sq ft of canvas move from one side of the boat to the other).  The pressure was big enough that it was ripping the toe rail right off the boat.  This is a rail that runs down the side of Ondine and is bolted through her hull.  It takes A LOT of force to do that.  I quickly adjusted course, corrected the problem, took of the preventer and started worrying about how many $s that would cost to fix.

And now here I was 7 hours later (my watch again) and I couldn’t steer my boat straight?

I tried turning on the starboard engine again and sure enough I went round in a circle.  Again.

And again.

And again.

I’ve got to laugh about it now: the image of me at the helm going round in circles in the middle of the Atlantic ocean while everyone sleeps.  But it sure didn’t seem funny at the time.

No matter how hard I kept the helm over, I couldn’t stop Ondine from going around in circles.

So back to the port engine we went.

Over the course of the next three hours I figured out that the only way I could go straight was to put on the port engine, and even then I couldn’t have the helm pointed straight forward.  It had to be hard over just to go in a straight line.  And it was getting worse.  I began to really worry about having to get someone to rescue us from the boat.  I was determined to understand and fix the problem but I had to wait until David work up to have (a) daylight, and (b) a helping hand.   (You don’t want to go doing anything crazy all alone at night in the Atlantic.)

I cannot tell you how WONDERFUL, SUBLIME, and just generally AWESOME it felt when we figured out what was wrong and fixed it.  (The rudders were not in sync and so when one pointed stright, the other pointed in the other direction).  Of course you have the joy of knowing that you’re out of danger.  But the joy of being the captain, knowing what’s going on on your boat, figuring out all the technical issues, and keeping your crew safe, is almost indescribable.  I’m not sure I remember being as happy as I felt when we got that figured out.

Since then, we’ve arrived (safely) in Antigua.

We’ve sailed to Barbuda to see the Frigate Birds (see Paloma’s posts, here and here).

I saw a far more experienced captain lose his live-aboard boat because he drifted onto the rocks while at anchor.  Here’s a pic:


We’ve sailed back to Antigua and explored some nooks and crannies.

I’ve played my first game of squash since leaving New York (thank you Paloma).

And I’ve had the windlass (doohicky that raises the anchor) fail on me which means (a) that I’ve been doing some weight lifting, and (b) that I’ve had to take it apart, figure out what’s wrong and fix it.  Which I’m still doing sitting on a dock in Falmouth Harbour at the moment.

I think there wi’ll be a lot more of that in my future.

We’re off to Guadalope on Sunday and I promise, promise, promise to have shorter and more frequent communiques in the future.

And I hope, hope, hope that as our trip goes on, the systems that fail will be more and more minor and less and less time consuming.  Even if that means losing the indescribable joy of saving your family from disaster.


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