Off to Bermuda!

Earlier in the winter when I hashed out a plan to race my Mini Transat next year in the Bermuda 1-2 Yacht Race, my wife said, "If you're gonna sail to Bermuda solo, you might as well do it once more crewed."  Smart. So I signed up as part of the crew of the Swan 56, King Daddy.  Later this morning, we'll drop the dock lines at the slip in Jamestown, RI, and head out to the start of the biennial classic--the Newport Bermuda Race, which is fondly known as as the Thrash to the Onion Patch.  Fun fact:  Settlers from England first introduced onions to Bermuda in 1616. 

The racetrack for Newport Bermuda is virtually the same as the Bermuda 1-2:  635 miles at approximately 162 degrees magnetic.  However, because the Gulf Stream current--the major obstacle between Newport and Dark 'n Stormies at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club--is constantly changing, each crossing can be vastly different. This year, the current is shaping up to deliver three significant eddies according to our intel from Jennifer Clark:  one warm eddy (clockwise current) straddling the rhumb line north of the stream; and two cold eddies (counter-clockwise current) south and to the west of the Stream--one large and one small.  These eddies will serve as conveyor belts.  Get on the correct side, and you'll get a bump to Bermuda at around two to four knots.  Get on the wrong side, and, well, suffer the consequences.  

The goal on King Daddy is to push through what is forecast to be relatively light breeze for the first two days to get to the first eddy and then break right, cross the Stream, and get to the western side of the next eddy, which is estimated to deliver a four-knot current.  Staying west is essential not simply because of the favorable eddies that exist on that side of the rhumb line, but because of the low pressure weather system that is forecast to pass over the racetrack on Sunday.  This system is expected to bring a fresh SW breeze of between 15 and 25 knots. If we can get out in front of that system and far enough west of the rhumb line, we'll be able to catch a nice reach to Bermuda.

Punching through the first bout of light air is going to be tough as King Daddy is very heavy, is carrying a crew of 16 (and necessary food and water for three days at sea), and generally hates light-air downwind sailing.  That said, the boat has been optimized to prevail in the St. David's Lighthouse (amateur) division of the race. I like to joke that race-optimized means we don't run the AC when the racing sails are up!  But, in point of fact, the owner and boat captain have made tremendous efforts to make the boat competitive, including by stripping all unnecessary weight, replacing the aluminum spars with carbon, and of course decking the crew out in a full kit of Helly Hansen performance sailing gear.

On top of dedicating substantial resources to getting the boat itself ready for the race, the owner and boat captain have also pulled together a crack team of amateur and professional sailors with substantial racing experience, both offshore and around the buoys.  Rounding out the 13 amateur (Cat 1) sailors, including myself, are three pros:  Gregg Griffin, Jack Slattery, and Pat O'Connor.  Gregg previously sailed with Privateer, a Cookson 50, and is cutting his teeth as boat captain aboard King Daddy.  Jack is a sales manager at North Sails in Salem, MA, and has over 20 Newport Bermudas under his belt.  Jack has coached the NYYC entry in the 2013 and 2011 NYYC Invitational Cup regattas.  Lastly, Pat came aboard from previously sailing with SpookieCatapult, and a host of other high-performance race programs to serve as our second bowman. 

King Daddy and her crew have been up in Newport, RI since Tuesday staging the boat for the race.  We've tested all the sails, practiced safety procedures like man-overboard and the mechanics of setting the storm jib and storm trysail, checked the rig (and checked it again), and packed the massive kites into launching socks.  As we come down to the wire, we'll calibrate our instruments with the assistance of Jeff Udell at Custom Offshore and say goodbye to Newport as we hit the start line with 162 other boats spread across 14 classes under what looks like to be a perfectly azure sky.

Wish us luck and track us here.  Official race documents, including the scratch sheet, can be found here.

Finding Time On The Water

Time. As normal guys with day jobs and families, we seem to have so little of it, let alone time to dedicate to our sailing goals.  

These days, my time is consumed by work and family.  However, with the benefit of a boat that can be sailed with a crew of one, and with the benefit of an amazing wife who understands my sailing goals, I can get time on the water at any hour, including at night after my kids have gone to sleep. 

So this past Wednesday night, I headed north out of NYC for a little solo quality time aboard Abilyn.  My goal was to test new settings on the autopilot and practice some basic boat handling skills, including throwing up the big kite. With steady breeze out of the east at 9-12 knots, conditions were optimal. 

I got out to the boat around 1930.  After our last race experience getting caught unprepared in a 40-knot squall, I now rig the boat each time with my genoa reefing line, and at least two reefing points ready to go on the main, which requires a little more time on the mooring ball--I like to be ready before I cast off.  Too often have my co-skipper and I been handling setup on the way out of the harbor or out to the start line.  This works for some, but not me.  I cast off around 2015 and started beating SE past the Larchmont YC breakwater, and past the RC picking up marks following a night of Ideal 18 fleet racing. 

Shortly after setting the sails to balance the boat, I hooked up the Raymarine autopilot, which has been nothing but wonky since I got her "working" again last season.  As the AP struggled to hold a compass course, I set up the iPad to display my instrument and GPS data, which is accomplished by the DMK box that I recently installed (below).  This device--manufactured by DMK Yacht Instruments in Seattle--takes our NMEA 0183, NMEA 2000, GPS, and AIS data, and transmits those data to our iPad an iPhone via a local WiFi network.  It's glorious in that it opens up our data in ways found mainly on bigger race boats--like the Swan 56 on which I'm hitching a ride in the upcoming Newport-Bermuda race.

DMK Box mounted to instrument panel.

DMK Box mounted to instrument panel.

After some time playing around with the AP, she managed to hold an upwind course fairly well, although I kept my eye on her with the expectation she'd go wayward at any second. 

Night mission:  AP testing & boat handling

Dusk turned to nightfall as I made my way east past the bright lights of Rye Playland in steady breeze and a bit of chop.  I worked on optimizing main and jib trim and keep the boat up to speed through waves.  After throwing in a couple of tacks--one good and one not so good (see the linked video)--I contemplated my downwind sail back to Larchmont with hopes of setting the big kite and getting a quick sleigh ride home.

Two thoughts made me to hesitate on setting the big kite.  First, I didn't know how long my AP would give me on the bow to hook up the kite before she decided to do her own thing.  Second, there was very little ambient light and I forgot I had lost my Petzl headlamp overboard in Around Block a couple of weeks ago aboard the Swan 56, King Daddy.  But whatever, conditions were mild and this was practice.

So I set the AP while sailing 160 TWA, grabbed the kite, and went forward to hook it up.  Just as I hooked up the corners with our Equip-Lite shackles supplied by West Marine Rigging, the AP went wonky again and nearly gybed me over.  I quickly recalibrated and reset the AP, then went for the hoist. All went up cleanly despite poor visibility at deck level.  But, by now, I was approaching the Connecticut coast--R42 was half a mile away and I was doing 7 knots in 9 knots of breeze.  I needed to gybe.

So I started down the 30-step protocol that I outlined in an earlier post.  After setting up the position of the articulating pole, it was time to trim the new working spin sheet and bring the clew patch around.  Snag. Let's try one more time.  Snag.  

Damn, I didn't clear the lazy spin sheet after I dropped the jib.  Given my proximity to land, I decided to douse the kite, which turned out to be an interesting task without having the AP engaged.  Other than getting the tack and clew a little wet, all went smoothly and I turned towards home. By this time, it was 2230, and I had one final challenge--de-rigging and calling for a launch by midnight, lest I wanted to spend the chilly night on the boat until 0700 when launch service resumed.  Long story short, I had one of the most epic, solo, de-rigging experiences ever--on par with the bishops's epic golf game in Caddyshack.  

This practice re-emphasized for me how critical time is to the success of our sailing program.  Being on the water practicing basic sailing maneuvers is essential to locking into muscle memory routine tasks like being CLEAR to do anything.  In my case last Wednesday, this meant being clear to gybe.  I can't simply call up to the phantom bowman to clear the line.  Also, I need to put in more time building my relationship with my autopilot.  I'll never be able settle in for a quick nap offshore if I can't trust my AP to hold a course for more than a couple minutes.  It's just not possible.  The idea of going solo offshore without a trustworthy AP frankly seems ludicrous to me.  

Alright, I'm headed to couples therapy with my AP.  

See you out on the water.