Monday, October 13, 2008

Halifax to Rockland Maine - Blue Water, Black Night

It was about 6:30 on Saturday evening of the Thanksgiving weekend and I was lost in thought as I wedged myself against the dodger frame of Threepenny Opera. We had been underway since 7:05 that morning so it had already been a very long day and despite the serenity of the golden glow of the setting sun, which illuminated Seal Island, I was more than a little bit apprehensive about the night to come.

Seal Island Nova Scotia is a little bit of rock that is approximately 15 miles WNW of Cape Sable which is the southern extremity of Nova Scotia. It has very little to offer, other than to serve as a pedestal for the light house that serves as a warning beacon for the super tankers and other commercial shipping traffic that plies the Bay of Fundy. For Pat and me, the added significance of Seal Island was that it was the last bit of land we would see until about 9:00AM the next day.

We have both made significant advances as sailors, but the coming night was to be our first blue water over night passage. It was not just any overnight passage, it was an October crossing of the Bay of Fundy/Gulf of Maine during the time of the highest tides. No matter what the weather forecast, there would be a couple of periods of significant wind against 20 foot tides that we would have to deal with. Seal Island represented the last opportunity to save ourselves and change course for Yarmouth or even to return to Shelburne, which we had left earlier in the day.

When we arrived in Shelburne from Liverpool on Wednesday afternoon, we met up with several other cruising boats that were also headed in the same direction as Pat and me. We had met the crew of Active Assets (Richard and Connie), a beautiful DeFever 49 Trawler in Taddoussac more than a month earlier. There was also the crew of Valissa (Bob and Debbie -friends of Dave F) and a single hander on Adena ( the City) Since we all had a common objective of getting away from winter, we immediately bonded into a tight cohort. Like the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Cantebury tales, we were each unique in our own way, with our own stories to tell and reasons for doing it, but in the end, we found comfort in just having kindred spirits nearby.

The original plan was to leave on Friday AM, so Thursday gave us a whole day to re-provision and to finish a couple of small boat projects that I started during our week off in Halifax. Plan “A” was to leave very early on Friday AM to catch the tide for Yarmouth, and then to continue on to Grand Manan Island New Brunswick on Saturday AM and finally to Bar Harbor Maine on Sunday. Each leg would have been ~65 miles so taking the timing of the tides into consideration no more than 2-3 hours of any portion would be traveled in darkness.

By late Thursday afternoon, it was becoming obvious that the weather was not materializing as forecast. Well perhaps for a land lubber it would have been pretty close, but we sailors watch for winds and waves more than temperature and UV index. Give me an overcast day with a flat sea and a steady wind any day over the brilliant clear blue skies and gale force winds, accompanied by the confused 1-2 meter waves that are so common in South Western Nova Scotia this time of year! Debbie from Valissa was one of the most experienced sailors in our group and she kindly offered to re-check the forecasts when Environment Canada and NOAA reissued them at 3:30AM to confirm our weather window. If the weather was good enough to go, she would be the “she rooster” and wake us all up with rapping on the hulls. When I awoke at my usual 6:30AM the next day, all of the boats were still on their finger docks, and “Camp Shelburne” would not be struck for at least another 24 hours.

Friday turned out to be a beautiful sunny day but with winds that were gusting up to the mid 20’s within the well protected confines of Shelburne Harbour. There was a certain smugness amongst our little group that our finely honed “sailor instincts” had made the correct call. That same “sailor instinct” however was looking at Saturday as an “even better” weather window that should not be squandered on a mere coastal hop to Yarmouth. With 2 days of good weather in the forecast, winds NW 15-20, diminishing to NW-N 10-15 and seas in the 1 meter diminishing to 1 meter or less by Sunday, we were convinced that a Fundy/Gulf of Maine passage was a very real possibility.

It was a very interesting linear programming problem. We had the constraints of weather window, viable ports and distance, balanced against the resources of vessels, crews, winds, tides and fuel. In the end, through science, instinct and prayer we all reached the conclusion that Rockland Me, a town on the Maine Coast ~ 185 miles from our current docks, was the perfect next stopping point for the wannabe-soon sun worshippers of Camp Shelburne. The route was to leave Shelburne before high tide at 7:00AM on Saturday -Cape Sable-Seal Island NS-Seal Island ME-Rockland ME by mid-Sunday afternoon with the most challenging leg to be the crossing of the Gulf of Maine between the two Seal Islands during the night of Saturday to Sunday morning. The total travel time was estimated to be in the order of 30 hours at 6.5 knots.

The Sirens were singing the next AM as the brightening pre-dawn sky revealed flat water with just the slightest ripple of a breeze from a favourable direction. Their songs rose to a crescendo as we sailed out of the harbour beam reaching at 7 knots under full sail in brilliant sunshine and calm seas. When we turned the corner at Cape Sable however, the Sirens stopped singing and began giggling and pointing Gotcha! The winds did not clock to the NW direction and stayed more westerly, so the motor came on and we created our own NW apparent wind! – please see my definition for apparent wind in the Bienvenue a L’Acadie post. Adena decided wisely that as a single hander, 30 hours of open water would be a bit much and left our group to follow the original plan A towards Yarmouth.

As the day progressed the wind stubbornly refused to clock as forecast, but all of the other variables remained constant so we pressed on by motor sailing, and tacking back and forth across the rhumb line. Since route planning was done collectively and sailing was done individually, it was a relief and confidence booster to see that everybody else was also adopting a similar technique….but then misery loves company. So by 6:30 PM after a full day of close hauled motor sailing, my thoughts revolved around what I would do if something on boat broke in the dark, that the forecast would fall apart completely and that I would be sea sick!!

Pat is a miracle worker on the boat. In the fading light of day and bouncing around in 3-4 foot waves, she prepared a hot meal of beef and broccoli accompanied by steamed jasmine rice. The rest of the convoy were discussing various ways to do ship to ship transfers via VHF when Bob on Valissa suggested we just throw some over the side so dinner would drift back to them. Poor Valissa was having some engine overheating problems and the crew was nursing her along at 4.5 knots instead of our 6-7.

With the contented feeling that comes from a full belly and a nearly full moon, night fall seemed to be palatable even though I was fighting the incipient nausea that comes with a less than distinct horizon. The seas, although a little rougher than forecast were bearable and as long as I stayed at the helm I was fine, but in the back of my mind I was having the no win pee or puke debate.

The details of the next 12 hours could fill volumes, so rather than bore all with a wave by retching wave description; suffice it to say that the wind was higher than forecast, and from the wrong direction, the waves were higher than forecast, from all directions and that incipient sea sickness became a full blown (bad pun) case of heaves. What was good however is that we survived the night, snug in our heated enclosure, comforted by the steaming lights of our companions and the knowledge of that which does not actually kill us makes us stronger… so the theory goes.

In the end we took 33 hours to cover the distance from Shelburne to Rockland ME. We buried the bow into 6 foot waves in pitch darkness, ran a gauntlet of lobster traps and discovered that regurgitated beef and broccoli is not runny in the palm of your hand. We are now in a foreign country and have an official cruising license in hand, delivered to the boat personally through the courtesy of USCBP officer Stan S.

Today is Thanksgiving and Pat and I are doing just that as we have a lot to be thankful for. Tomorrow is another day, and our destination is not particularly clear. All we know is that we are proceeding in a southerly direction and that we will end up somewhere interesting.... after all we are now Blue water cruisers!

Have a great week

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Richard said...

Happy Thanksgiving! We love you

Anonymous said...

Hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving. We had 21 boats at National. The weather was great with temps in the mid 20's. No fried turkey this year but we had approx. 50 people for dinner on sunday in their dinningroom. Season is nearly over here. I hope it warms up soon for you.

R & M

Anonymous said...

You keep me biting my nails. John and I are so amazed and thrilled with you and your adventures. You are in our thoughts always.

Pat & Addison said...

Thanks Guys. Its nice to know you are out there.... Pat and Addison