Welcome to Our Blog

Thank you for sharing in our journey of building a Fusion Catamaran! We are so excited to be able to chronicle our adventure for our family, friends, and supporters, from our initial decision to (hopefully) a successful launch and beyond. Please post your comments, questions, and cautionary tales-we love to hear from you!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

What We Did on Our Summer Vacation

It has been a long, hot summer here in Florida, and XYZZY is slowly coming together, taking shape furtively under a big, blue tarp.  The summer rains and winds have hampered the work, and blew apart our gantry crane.  In the last few weeks, we've been able to note some steady progress, and finally, recognizable parts are starting to emerge.  We hope to have the coach roof in place this week, or next, and when it is, we will go visit to take more pictures and have our first umbrella drinks in our cockpit!

But in the meantime, I thought I would regal our readers with a (true) tale of "What We Did on Our Summer Vacation".  After all, school has started, and isn't that every student's first assignment?  So read our true tale, and after you're through, you will understand why we've been kind of lying low since then.

What We Did on Our Summer Vacation
by Dennis & Debi Jansma
We dream about cruising, we’ve been planning for it, and we’re building the boat to do it in.  But one can only learn so much from webinars, books, and seminars about offshore passage making, so when the opportunity came along this past June to participate in a trip from Bermuda to Newport Rhode Island, we jumped at the chance!  Ron, from our sailing club, would be racing a 41-foot C&C sloop in the Newport-Bermuda race, and was looking for a crew to help bring the boat back to its home port. 
We were hesitant; Ron and his wife Dottie, as well as the other couple, Marc and Cathy, had all had quite a bit of offshore experience, and I felt we might not have much to contribute.  But Ron assured us the route was well-travelled with a lot of boats returning to the US east coast, and that we would be a welcome addition.  So, we put our hats in the ring and accepted!

During the weeks leading up to the June 15 start of the race, the six of exchanged numerous emails, and plans began to emerge.  The five of us (as part of the race, Ron would already be in Bermuda) would fly to Bermuda arriving mid-week before our planned weekend departure.  This would give us a couple of days to sight see, provision for the return passage, and get acquainted with the boat. 
I held a pre-race dinner to review our plans and settle details; we went over emergency equipment, sail plans, packing lists, timetables, and watch schedules.  Weather monitoring was discussed; we received daily emails from Jenifer Clark regarding the Gulfstream activity, and Ron explained how we would chart our route to take advantage of the eddies and meanders in such a way that they would aid rather than impede our progress.  Weather reporting would be available each day, with updates throughout the day, via Commander’s Weather on the computer, as well as speaking with Jenifer’s husband Dane via sat phone for further interpretation; services that the boat’s owner had contracted for the race, and that would continue through the return passage.  In addition, our boat, Avenir, would be outfitted with Yellow Brick, a tracking aid that would show the boat’s location and progress via a website in real time.  Additionally, we would have VHF, AIS and radar-all the toys to keep us safe and on the grid.

Ron anticipated leaving Bermuda on Sunday June 24, and making it back to Newport in a four-five day run.  As the usual wind pattern is from the southwest at that time of year, it looked to be a straightforward push without a lot of tacking or course-changing.  I was a bit nervous because we’d already had two named storms, even though it was early in the hurricane season, and asked how this would impact the return.  “Well, we won’t be racing, so if we have to take our time and wait for a weather window, then we will, even though tropical systems at this time of year are fairly rare,” Ron assured us.  I thought of the many times I had heard the axiom “never sail on a schedule” during the classes and talks, and agreed wholeheartedly.
During our dinner meeting, we had a chance to “meet” Avenir’s owner, Joe, on a Skype call.  He was very enthusiastic about the upcoming race, and went into details on the brand-new carbon fiber rudder he had installed just recently.  The crew had taken Avenir and her new rudder on a test run, and in light winds the rudder performed admirably, and the boat was very responsive to steering.  The previous race they’d placed third in their class, and conditions looked right for a first or second place trophy this time around. 

As the race began on June 15, we watched Avenir’s progress, and she stayed in the in the top third to half of the boats of various classes.  The wind direction for the race start was unexpectedly from the NE, and so the racers had a straight shot down the rhumb line to Bermuda.  This resulted in record-breaking finish times with the boat Rambler finishing in 39 hours, 39 minutes and 18 seconds; this shaved over 14 hours from the previous fastest time recorded! But mid-race, as we watched on Yellow Brick, we observed Avenir slowing her progress, as wind speeds increased.  This seemed very strange to us, but we pushed the questions to the back of our minds as we headed for the airport.
Arriving on the morning of June 20 at the RBYC (Royal Bermuda Yacht Club), we scanned the posting for Avenir’s finish time. They’d only placed 12 out of 15 vessels in their class?  Coming up the pier to meet us, Ron immediately said, “I have an excuse for the poor showing!  The new rudder doesn’t seem to hold its course well in winds over 20 knots; she kept rounding up and we couldn’t stay on course, so we ended up taking the main down entirely, and sailing on just the headsails for the entire second half of the race!”  I was immediately alarmed; besides feeling badly for the racers, I wondered what impact this would have on our return prospects.  I posed this question, and Ron replied that we would not be racing on the return, and could afford to reduce sail, or sail off-course for a time, to accommodate the problem.  Dennis voiced his opinion that the new rudder might be undersized for the boat under high wind pressure.  The shake-down race had been in light winds and hadn’t fully stressed the rudder-probably not a realistic test under a full range of elements for such a crucial component.

The next two days were busy with some sightseeing, dinner with the race crew, and meetings at the boat.  We went over the engine maintenance, the medical kit, the location of key emergency items, and provisioning.  By Thursday, June 21 we started hearing reports of a tropical storm forming in the Gulf of Mexico.  If it became organized this would become TS Debby.  We received the following weather update from Jenifer and Dane Clark’s weather routing service:
Newport Race Returns,
Weather models continue to show heavy weather along the rhumbline back to the states from late Monday to late Wednesday next week.  One US model (GFS) shows a strong tropical storm rapidly moving up the east coast Tuesday and Wednesday that might impact southeast New England Wednesday.
 The models maybe over-developing this system, but to play it safe we can't ignore the wind and wave intensity currently being forecast.  As a result of these forecasts, the last day for most boats to safely leave Bermuda is tomorrow (Thursday. An early Friday departure for the very fastest boats may still work.
The next window out of Bermuda looks to be the following Thursday (June 28)! 
 Most of the models seemed to show Debby moving to the west toward Texas; only two tracks showed the storm crossing Florida and heading up the US east coast.  The boat in the slip next to us rushed their preparations and pulled out late Thursday to be away in advance of the weather. But Marc and Cathy, our two other crew members, were just arriving late Thursday evening, so there was no way we would be ready to depart that day.

Friday, June 22: All six of us congregated at the boat; Dennis and I were really nervous.  Ron explained that in addition to Debby’s unclear path, there was now a cold front off the northeast US coast, which appeared to be moving southeast and would likely intercept our route somewhere along the return passage.  The maximum winds along the front looked to be 35 knots, for a 5-6 hour duration.  But Ron expressed confidence that Avenir could safely handle up to 50 knots with the appropriate sail plan, which he’d had previous experience with during an earlier return trip.  “But Ron,” I asked, “How is that scenario impacted by the compromised rudder?” He looked back at me and assured us it would be fine.  As a newbie, I didn’t feel I could continue to push the issue, but I did not feel satisfied with the answer.  After some additional back and forth, we decided to do the dry goods provisioning Friday, and meet again the following morning to make a final decision whether to leave Saturday, or to attend the awards ceremony at the governor’s palace Saturday evening, and leave Sunday morning as planned. 
Saturday June 23: Ron and Dottie came by our hotel at 8AM to use the Internet and review the latest weather and storm predictions. The cold front was still in place off the coast of New England travelling southeast, and Debby still appeared to be heading to Texas.  Two models, however, still showed that Debby would cross over Florida and head up through the Atlantic.  Going down to the boat, we found Marc and Cathy stowing the last of the perishables they had purchased that morning.  Ron announced that, although the departure for either Saturday or Sunday seemed to be equally good, he would like to attend the awards ceremony, and plan for an early departure Sunday morning the 24.  Debby, he indicated, did not appear to be a factor, and the cold front would present us with a short but predictable window of maximum 35-knot weather, which we’d be able to negotiate without issue.  With a feeling of unease, Dennis & I went off to finish up laundry, and make arrangements for the next day.

Sunday June 24: The day dawned clear and fair, as we cleared customs at the yacht club, stowed our bags and prepared to get underway.  As we motored out the through the channels leading around Bermuda to the Spit Buoy, we all took turns at the wheel, and learned the sail configurations.  The water was a deep, indescribable shade of brilliant blue, the wind was 7-8 knots from the south and it was truly the “Happy Valley” weather Ron promised us.  That night, Dennis and I had the 6PM-9PM watch, and the water was bright with bioluminescence as we watched fellow passage makers on the AIS screen. It was a great first day!
Monday June 25: Six hours later, at 3AM, we stood our second watch, and as everyone else awakened, Ron and Marc called in for a weather update.  TS Debby had surprised almost everyone and turned to the east, coming over Florida.  The new prediction was that the storm would weaken over land, but then strengthen as it headed up through the Atlantic.  It appeared that it would be heading our way, but Ron felt it would be after we had made it into Bristol.  But even more disturbingly, the cold front we had expected to encounter during the day Tuesday had sped up and increased in intensity.  It was now expected to hit maximum winds of 45 knots with sustained gusts, and would be meeting up with us later Monday night into early Tuesday.  Dane Clark, the weather guru, was advising all boats to turn back, but so far none had done so.  I glanced at Dennis, who muttered, “Lemmings” under his breath.  Ron explained that, if we did turn back, the front would still catch us, probably just at the time we’d be trying to make it into the harbor, and we’d then have to wait another week until the effects of Debby cleared out.  The best plan, he felt, was to reef down during the latter part of the day, and by dark we would be sailing under just the storm jib and trysail.  That sail plan could hold us securely up to 50 knots, and the front would pass quickly. 

Later Monday afternoon, the wind began building, clocking around to the SSW, and Ron decided it would be best to move to the storm configuration right away, especially since we weren’t overly familiar with the sail setup.  Best to have everything ready and prepared, even if it would cost us some time.  By 6PM that evening, the winds had increased to between 14 and 18 knots, and on our current course, we were running crosswise to the seas.  Dennis & I stood the 9PM-midnight watch, and as everyone else tried to rest, the winds and seas kept building.  By the last hour of watch, the winds were steadily in the 22-25 knot range, with some higher gusts, and I could not hold the wheel to the course.  Just before watch change, the rain began driving in earnest as we approached the front.
Tuesday June 26  Midnight-6AM: Marc and Cathy took the midnight to 3AM watch; Ron joined them on deck about 2AM.  The hatches were all closed up, but the companionway door was clear Lexan, so I could watch the three of them in the cockpit battle the ever-rising wind and seas.  The evening meal the night before had been a spicy jambalaya, which wasn’t sitting well with Dennis, and despite the Dramamine, he was vomiting fairly regularly.  Conditions below were far too rolly to do anything other than stay put in the berth; there was no question that I should have listened to myself and prepared some easy-to-grab food and drink the previous night.  Around 4AM Cathy came below, and I could see Marc and Ron in full storm regalia, trying to keep the boat on course.  Cathy and I discussed that we might need to have Dennis picked up if we couldn’t get the vomiting under control, and he decided to try some of the Zofran medication left on the ship. Somehow I dozed off as we listened to the boat creak and shudder, valiantly trying to stay its course while being pushed aside by the winds.  At 6AM I awoke just in time to see Cathy at the companionway door, saying “That’s it, we’ve lost it!”  “What did we lose?” I asked groggily.  “The rudder”, she said in a despairing, ragged voice, “the rudder just snapped off and floated away!”

I turned to Dennis, who was awake in his bunk, still dry heaving intermittently.  “Now what?” I asked.  “Now?  Now we’re screwed,” he replied in a quiet voice. 
Cathy began to call on the VHF, trying to hail any other ship in the area, but was getting no acknowledgement that anyone even heard her.  Finally, she used the sat phone to call the boat’s owner, who immediately called the Coast Guard.  We determined that Avenir did not seem to be taking on water, and Marc and Ron deployed the drogue to try and maintain the boat’s stability. They also tried to position the sails in a “heave-to” configuration, although without a rudder, it didn’t seem to help much.  Despite their efforts, we were being tossed about mercilessly in the cabin below, as we tried to figure out what should happen next.  Rescue efforts were being discussed, but Ron and Marc wanted to deploy a makeshift rudder fashioned from the cabin floorboards, and the spinnaker pole.  “That is only going to work in 5-10 knots of wind, at most,” Dennis called out weakly from his bunk.  “But, we have to try,” said Ron. “If we can get that working, we can sail back to Bermuda with the boat under limited sail.”   I just shook my head; in all my wildest dreams I had not thought I’d signed up for this: afloat in a rudderless vessel 220 miles offshore from Bermuda, with over 400 miles to go before reaching our destination.

During the sat phone conversations with the owner, it was determined that there was a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship within about 50 miles of us (they had actually passed us by during the night, on their way to Bermuda.) As the Zofran Dennis had been taking didn’t seem to be having much effect, and since he could not keep any food or water down, we thought it would be best if at least Dennis was taken off the ship, and I was determined to go with him.  The previous night’s dinner had not been sitting well with me either, and I couldn’t really see myself staying on as a fifth wheel (literally) while we slowly made our way under temporary rudder back to Bermuda. 
Tuesday June 26 8AM: The NCL ship Norwegian Star had been detoured to come back to us, and would be arriving about noon, but at this point they were only expecting to be taking Dennis & me off the ship.  I dozed off again, not paying any attention to the temporary rudder effort underway:  Ron and Marc pried up the floorboards of the cabin and laid them out.  With a drill, they bored holes to attach U-bolts that had been purchased as a last minute thought, just before we’d left Bermuda. 

I woke again, and looked dazedly at the upset faces around me.  “What happened?” I asked Dennis.  “The rudder didn’t hold,” he said.  “It didn’t last 10 seconds.”
 “That’s it!” Cathy shouted, “I’m calling them to tell them all six of us are coming on board!  We have no choice!”  Marc mumbled something about staying on board with Ron until a salvage boat could tow them back, and Cathy gave him an ultimatum: “I’m going, and if you don’t come, you are on your own!”  After some further discussion, they communicated that all six of us would be leaving the ship.

Cathy, Ron and Marc began getting things ready above.  The drogue line was shortened, sails were put away.  Cushions were stowed.  Our ship’s call sign was mounted along the lifelines, so the identification numbers of the boat would be easily visible with binoculars.  The Yellow Brick tracker was lashed more firmly to the stern railing outside; this would be the only way a salvage boat would be able to find the ship with certainty, after we had departed.  Inside the cabin, we began finding our most important items to bring with us: cellphones, passports, cash, credit cards.  The instructions from the captain of the Norwegian Star were that we would have to don “Gumby” suits-watertight, head-to-toe, one-piece rescue suits-and we could only bring what would fit inside our pockets.  I looked at Dennis: we’d have to leave behind all of our clothes, laptop computer, the dive bag we’d used in Bermuda with our dive gear, toiletries.  The enormity of what was happening began to sink in; I would most likely never see any of this “stuff” again.  But the alternative of floating indefinitely on the boat seemed a far worse consequence.
I began to dig through our bags and found a couple extra pair of underwear, a jacket, and extra pairs of shorts.  Both Dennis and I put on extra layers of clothing, and I made Dennis stuff my iPad (in a waterproof case) down the front of his shirt.  At least I would have a way to stay in touch and work!

When the NCL Star arrived, we all made our way to the cockpit, and watched as they launched a rescue RIB.  They radioed that they would first drop off the suits, and then take three of us off at a time.  As we watched, both Cathy and I began to cry-tears of relief at that point, rather than fear.  Then we looked up at the balconies of the massive cruise ship.  The decks were crowded to overflowing with hundreds-probably thousands-of passengers watching!  “Look!” I said to Cathy, “we are going to be today’s leading story!”  “Oh, my God”, she moaned, “We’ll probably end up on YouTube!”
Dennis was to be the first off the ship, and as he fell/stumbled into the RIB, overheated in his suit and many layers of clothes, I heard a massive cheer go up from the crowd!  Dennis pumped his hand into the air as he landed, to the delight of the picture takers.  Next off was Dottie, and the RIB approached as she sat on the gunwale, waiting for them to be close enough.  The RIB couldn’t quite get the right angle, and ended up turning for another try.  The crowd groaned and booed.  As they got it right the second time, they cheered again.

Eventually all six of us were hoisted to the deck of the NCL Star, and herded into wheelchairs, on our way to the infirmary.  Well-wishers and curious passengers pressed up to the caution tape, snapping pictures left and right.  In the sick bay, Dennis was hooked up to an IV as a precaution against dehydration.  We were given two rooms: a boys’ room and a girls’ room, with bunk beds, and a toiletry package.  It seemed like a luxury hotel to us; the toilet didn’t move away every time you tried to sit, and we had a real shower and bed with a mattress.  Although we could sense the slight movement of the massive ship, it was rock-steady compared to Avenir, and we marveled that some of the passengers were actually seasick from the relatively gentle sway of the cruise liner. 
Leaving Dennis in the infirmary with happy juice to sleep off his nausea, we hit the cafeteria, and began piling food on our plates like mad people. We were wearing shorts, a complimentary T-shirt from NCL and paper slippers (none of us had thought to bring shoes, which wouldn’t fit inside the rescue suit).  As I was standing in line for ice cream, the woman behind me whispered to her companion, “Do you think those poor people are here on the ship NOW?”  “Of course they are, dear.  Where else would they go?” her companion whispered back.  I just smiled and said nothing; anonymity was a blessed feeling.

Wed, June 27, 8 AM: The ship docked back in Bermuda, where we had just left from less than three days earlier.  It felt like an eternity had passed, yet the Star had retraced our path in only 18 hours.  The NCL crew was wonderful to us, and there was no charge for either our accommodations or any of the food aboard. They helped us clear BACK through customs, and it took a LOT of explaining before the officials understood how we came to be entering the country again so soon.  Luckily, the same customs official that we’d cleared out with at the RBYC was magically on board the NCL, and she remembered us.  Once back in Bermuda, we tried to get same day flights to New York, where we were supposed to be helping my son and daughter-in-law move into a new apartment.  All the flights were leaving too early for us to catch, so we booked a hotel room near the airport, and settled in to catch up on emails, call family members, repurchase basic clothing, toiletries, and gifts for people back in the US, and have a few drinks at the Swizzle Inn (the Swizzle is the national drink of Bermuda)!
All the while we just kept looking at each other, shaking our heads, and reliving the whole experience.  How had things gotten to the point where abandoning the ship was our only safe option?  What if we hadn’t had the sat phone?  We might have drifted until someone decided we hadn’t been in touch and came looking!  In the end, we concluded we should just have waited for a better weather window, even if that had meant staying in Bermuda for an extra week.  Since we’d been the newbies in the group, we hadn’t felt comfortable pushing that opinion, but we resolved, in the future, to listen to ourselves, and err more on the side of caution with our decisions.  Our mantra has always been: three bad decisions can create a disaster, and that certainly held true for this near miss! One thing was for sure: we’d certainly learned a lot about what to do and not to do on a passage, and that saying, “Don’t sail on a schedule”? Absolutely spot on!

Epilogue: We flew back to New York on Thursday, June 28, and helped our kids move into their new apartment.  Ron attempted to coordinate a salvage mission from Bermuda, which was unsuccessful, and eventually flew back to Bristol, where a salvage tug was hired.  The CO left on July 5 to tow Avenir back to Rhode Island. When the tug caught up to her, he reported, “She’s floating on her (water) lines, and looks to be fine!”  Three weeks after our rescue, Avenir finally returned to Bristol, and Dennis flew up to clean up and bring back our stuff.  The contents of the cabin were just as we’d left them; only a couple of items had started growing a fuzzy, grey mold.  Even the leftover jambalaya in the pressure cooker on the gimbaled stove was intact, although Cathy gave strict orders to toss it out unopened.  Amazingly, we recovered almost all of our items.  We left Avenir to the owner, to be cleaned up, repaired, and investigate what had gone wrong with the brand new rudder.

Most people we tell our story to have asked whether I'm ever going on another boat, or whether we're abandoning our boat build.  To be honest, that never really crossed my mind during that very long night...but I definitely think I will stick to catamarans from here on out!  Many thanks to Ron, Dottie, Cathy, and Marc, for being wonderful crewmates and for weathering the storms with us.


No comments:

Post a Comment