Our Journey to Bermuda

Exactly one month ago today, Sam Cox and I did this thing.  We sailed a 21-foot--a Mini Transat 6.50--from Newport, RI to Bermuda.  After 5 1/2 days in the North Atlantic Ocean, we completed the passage, arriving in St. George's on June 24 at 0230.  By far, the toughest part about this passage was making the decision to untie our lines from the dock at Newport Yacht Club, point the boat towards Bermuda, and leave behind the protections of land.     

Swirling about Newport in the days leading up to the official start of the 2016 Newport-Bermuda Race (June 17, 2016) were talks of 40+ knots of breeze in the Gulf Stream, wind against current, with higher gusts (potentially 60 knots) in squalls.  Top meteorologists and tacticians were telling well-prepared crews that June 17 was a bad day to sail to Bermuda.  The entire Gibbs Hill fleet withdrew.  Skilled sailors were dropping off boats otherwise intending to race.  We overheard one professional weather briefing where the pros basically told those on the conference call, "We don't know what the f**k is going to happen out there."

We had a tough decision to make.  Sail to Bermuda.  Or go home.  Like all sailors did in the days leading up to June 17, we analyzed all available information, and talked with sailors much more skilled than we in order to make the most prudent decision.  Through our interactions with folks like Chad Corning and Rich du Moulin, we learned some interesting differences between the most readily used weather models--GFS (Global Forecast System),  ECMWF (European Center for Medium range Weather Forecasting), and OPC (Ocean Prediction Center).  For example, we learned from Rich about how GFS does not accurately predict wind speeds above 30 knots, and that one should expect 120% of the forecasted wind speeds according to GFS.  We learned from Chad about how, compared to the other models, the OPC model includes the most human input.  None of these models were consistent with the information we were receiving from the proprietary models put out by PredictWind, who has been supporting us from the beginning.  PredictWind showed the low pressure cell off the coast of South Carolina, but forecasted no more than 30-35 knots in the Gulf Stream when we were expecting to cross it.  

I also considered the tear-inducing words of friends, who suggested--based on nothing more than concern for our well-being--that we abandon our venture.  Lawrence Cutler shared with me his experience sailing in 60 knots during the 2010 delivery back from Bermuda.  Others asked me to think of my kids.  Coupled with the uncertainty in the forecast, these words led to a debilitating physical stress that nearly brought me to the mat in submission.    

Luckily, we had Rob Windsor across from the dock from us at Newport Yacht Club, and I had a chance to talk with Clay Burkhalter following the NBR Skippers' Meeting.  For anybody reading this post, these two names should be very familiar.  Rob is an experienced racer, and active sailor on the Class 40 circuit.  Clay Burkhalter, also an experienced racer, participated in the Classe Mini circuit and finished 12th out of 84 sailors in the 2007 Mini Transat.  Both Rob and Clay gave us the most objectively reasonable advice we could hope to receive.  They said, just head down to the Stream and, if it's gnarly, bail out, and head home.  Although obvious in hindsight, this alternative was nowhere on my radar.  Rob and Clay's advice was the sledgehammer I needed to break through the concrete wall of physical stress that separated me from the ocean, and from this journey. 

We passed Castle Hill on June 18 at 1400 with our bow pointed towards Bermuda, having delayed 24 hours following the official start of the Newport-Bermuda Race.

Once on the ocean, my physical stress gave way to psychological bliss as I was able to free myself from the pains of the past and burdens of the future as I focused on the present--that is, until the hallucinations set in.

We went for it.  We f***in' went for it.  And we accomplished something; we accomplished our goal.  But rather than tell you more about our journey, let me show it to you.

And P.S., PredictWind was spot on.  We topped out at 28 knots of breeze.

Happy Birthday, Wife.

Some time ago, on this very day, you, Sara Heather, were born.  I remember it like it was yesterday--the summer had just begun, and I had a poopy diaper.  21 years (and few more poopy diapers) later, the magic that you brought into the world did what the Heavens designed it to do--it allowed me to find you.  You are, have always been, and forever will be, my beacon; my lighthouse in the dark.  

I love you, and thank you for supporting me with everything I do, especially this adventure.  Speaking of which, we've been kicking ass, so I decided to divert course for a bit and create for you a special ocean message!  Check out that boat speed!

See you soon.

Standing by...

It's June 17, 2016, at around 0800.  Today is supposed to be the start of the biennial Newport-Bermuda Race.  However, no later than 1100, the OA is scheduled to make a decision whether to delay the official start on account of some gnarly weather that is expected to hit the fleet while in the Gulf Stream.  Gnarly being sustained winds of 35 knots with puffs into the 40s, and potentially into the 50s and 60s in squalls.  A low is expected to park right over rhumb.  

More impactful than the breeze is the sea-state.  The expected TWD (true wind direction) for this breeze is E-NE, which means wind against current in the Stream.  The result is monstrous, steep, square, breaking waves--problematic yet doable for a heavy displacement boat; problematic and downright insane for a 2,500 lb. Mini Transat (to the say the least).  Yes, these boats are designed and built to cross oceans.  But even official Classe Mini events are delayed in big breeze--most notably the 2013 Mini Transat, when the OA delayed the race because of 50 knots and 4 meter waves off Cape Finisterre.  

We have no intention of putting our lives at risk by sailing into the Gulf Stream with the potential for 40-60 knots wind against current.  My 6-year-old daughter says to me yesterday, "Daddy...I hear some bad weather is coming.  Maybe you should just drive home."  I'm not ruling that out.  But right now, we are standing by.  Gear is offloaded from the Jeep and into the boat, food and water is organized and stowed, precious cargo has been loaded, and we have enjoyed Gosling's rum at Newport Shipyard in 100% approved, top choice swag designed by dear ol' dad.

The decision to stand-by is obvious.  Over the past few days, I have talked weather with sailors who, collectively, have hundreds of years of experience sailing offshore, and interpreting weather models--folks like Rob Windsor, Rich du Moulin, Clay Burkhalter, Chad Corning, and Lawrence Cutler.  Here are some choice quotes:

Lawrence:  "Josh.  With all due respect.  If you leave on Friday, you're a f***in' idiot."
Clay:  "Josh.  50 knots in the Gulf Stream will be...challenging.  Maybe head down there.  Dip your toe in, and bail out if need be."
Rob:  "I'd go...but I'm an idiot."  [Note:  Rob is not an idiot, but any stretch of the imagination.]
Rich:  [stares me down with an expression that I took to mean what Lawrence told me to my face].

The camaraderie up here in Newport, like the sunsets, is inspiring.  


Newport to Bermuda to NYC: Prepping for Safety

As some of you know, my co-skipper, Sam Cox, and I are planning on sailing (well, racing) from Newport, RI, to Bermuda on June 17, 2016.  Coincidentally, some other folks will be racing to Bermuda at the same time--something called the Newport-Bermuda Race ("Bermuda Race").  You might have heard of it.

Unfortunately, the 21-foot Abilyn, a Mini Transat 6.50, whose design has been tried and tested across oceans, is ineligible under the Bermuda Race Notice of Race ("NOR") and Safety Requirements ("NBRSR").  Like any regatta, the Bermuda Race has eligibility requirements.  For example, the minimum length for participating boats is "at least 27.5 feet."   NOR at Para. 4.1(a)(ii).  Given that Abilyn has a length of only 21 feet (6.5 meters), the NOR, on its face, declares Abilyn ineligible.  Although the Bermuda Race Organizing Authority ("OA") may waive the eligibility requirements at its discretion, see id. at Para. 4.1(b), we've been told that the OA will not do so for Mini Transat 6.50s.  However, even if the OA did waive the eligibility requirements for Abilyn under the NOR, Abilyn would still be rendered ineligible by the NBRSR, which requires a minimum stability index of 115 under the Offshore Rating Rule ("ORR").  NBRSR at Section 2.2.1.   Abilyn's sister-ship, USA 831, has been rated under the ORR as having a stability index of 85.2.  So we're screwed all around. 

The ORR stability requirements are what they are, and reflect only one of a number of methods used to assess whether a boat is "seaworthy."  But, notably, the rules for Minis competing in the Classe Mini circuit in Europe, and the biennial Mini Transat Race, which takes solo skippers across the Atlantic Ocean, require only that the boat have "positive stability with a 45 kg weight . . . at the maximum air draft point [top of mast]" when the "maximum air draft point [is] at sea level."  2015 Classe Mini Rules at Section J-15-b.  This test measures the angle of vanishing stability, and is often referred to as the 90-degree test as the boat is tipped around 90 degrees with the top of the mast attached to a weight and measuring device.

Source:  http://dominiklenk.com/mini-transat-leg-1 (the 90° test the week before the start of the 2015 Mini Transat).

Class 40s, which are eligible to race in the Bermuda Race, rely on the 90-degree test to gain entry to many regattas around the world, including the RORC Caribbean 600.  The ORR, from my understanding, takes into account other values beyond angle of vanishing stability, including a "capsize increment," which can be negative for beamy boats.  But I am no expert on the ORR.  Thankfully, the ORR does not contemplate a 180 degree rollover test as required by the IMOCA 60 class rules.  See below.

At the end of the day, although Minis have been racing across the Atlantic since the 1970s with crews of one, and at least one Mini has circumnavigated the globe, which is reflective not only of the seaworthiness of the boat but also the dedication to seamanship exhibited by those who sail them, we're certainly not upset with the OA's decision.  Indeed, there are other long distance regattas in the U.S. that allow Minis to participate, most notably the Bermuda 1-2 Yacht Race, the Annapolis-Bermuda Race, and the Singlehanded Transpac.  But the Bermuda Race holds a special place in our hearts.  It's where we cut our teeth offshore on other boats, and learned to love and respect the challenges that sailors face offshore that they do not face sailing around the buoys.  So it's time to return to the course aboard Abilyn and take her farther than we've ever taken her.  

Although we'll be flying a Jolly Roger when we sail out of Narragansett Bay at the start of the official race (potentially the flag flown by The Rhode Island Pirate, Thomas Tew, or a hybrid of our own creation (see left)), our goal is by no means to disrespect the race, its heritage, or the OA.  Indeed, the upcoming Bermuda Race provides us with an opportunity for live practice:  Practice for next year's B1-2; practice for future, bluewater racing and passagemaking; in short, practice for whatever sailing adventures come next.  Our secondary, but equally important, goal will be to provide the Bermuda Race OA with an additional point of reference on which to rely when considering whether to allow Mini Transat 6.50s in the 2018 race.  If we can beat some official entrants, that would be icing on the cake.

With those goals in mind, we will use June 17 as our departure date, Castle Hill as our starting line, and St. David's Lighthouse as our finish line.  More importantly, as any sailor entering the Bermuda Race must do, we will undertake rigorous and comprehensive safety preparations to address the foreseeable risks along the race track from Newport to Bermuda and then from Bermuda to New York Harbor, where we hope the new Brooklyn Bridge Marina will give us complimentary dockage for a night or two before we head up the East River and back to Larchmont.  

Newport to Bermuda and back to New York Harbor.

So what does this prep look like for us?  Well, for starters, we'll be following the NBRSR's Safety Equipment requirements as closely as possible.  Section 3.0 lists all required portable and affixed safety gear, including:

  • Lifejackets
  • Safety harness
  • Jack lines
  • Companionway clipping points
  • Navigation lights
  • Spare navigation lights
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Horn
  • Flares
  • Lifesling (or equivalent MOB rescue device)
  • MOB pole
  • Heaving line
  • Installed VHR radio and antenna
  • Handheld VHF radio
  • Emergency VHF antenna
  • AIS
  • Satellite phone
  • GPS
  • Distance measuring device other than GPS
  • Depth sounder
  • Steering compass
  • Second compass
  • Charts
  • Sail numbers
  • Tapered soft plugs
  • Ground tackle (anchor plus rode)
  • Searchlight
  • Flashlights (watertight, 1 per crew member)
  • First aid gear
  • Radar reflector (11.5" diameter or greater octahedral reflector)
  • Buckets (2, stout)
  • Safety gear and through hull diagram
  • Emergency tiller
  • Tools and spare parts (effective means of quickly disconnecting or severing the standing rigging)
  • Marking of safety gear (retro-reflective material required)
  • Knife (readily accessible from deck and/or cockpit)
  • Reefing ability
  • Storm trysail
  • Heavy weather jib
  • Storm jib
  • Boom preventer
  • Boom support (means to prevent boom from dropping if halyard fails)
  • Emergency drinking water (1 gallon per crew member of emergency water in sealed containers)
  • Inflatable life raft (ISO-certified raft apparently not required)
  • Grab bag


Reviewing this list, the 21-foot Abilyn is already well-appointed.  Most notably, we carry a Winslow 4-man ultralight liferaft (weighing in at only 32 lbs.) and an offshore flare kit, both of which we obtained from Landfall Navigation in Stamford, CT.  

Abilyn is also equipped with a MOM8 MOB module (also obtained from Landfall); a VHF with integrated AIS, two EPIRBs (an ACR GlobalFix iPRO 406 MHz GPS EPIRB for the boat, and an ACR ResQLink 406 MHz GPS personal locator beacon for my PFD); and four separate GPS modules including the Mini class standard Garmin GPS 152, a handheld Garmin 78sc, and two BadElf GPS Pro modules.  


First Aid - Our West Marine Medical Kit 3.5 is still functional, but likely will need to be supplemented with more robust first aid measures designed for offshore sailing where potential evacuation may take more than 24 hours.

Tools and Spare Parts - We will also conduct a review of our tools and spare parts inventory when boatwork begins in full next month, with a plan to supplement our inventory of nuts, bolts, cotter rings, wrap pins, and Harken low friction rings.  In terms of tools, we have the standard suite of vice grips and screw drivers, and also a hacksaw with spare blades in case we need to cut away the standing rigging.  But we may consider a cable cutter.  

Storm Trysail - Instead of a storm trysail, we're opting to rely on our Dacron mainsail, which has a third reef point allowing us to sail with little canvas up.  We understand the limitations of this option, but, for the Minis, a triple-reefed main and reefed storm jib (or just the storm jib) has been reported to work well in storm conditions.

Detecteur de Radar

Detecteur de Radar

Radar Reflector - We have a Davis Instruments passive radar reflector that passes muster under the safety requirements.  However, with this device mounted in the standing rigging, we've found that the edges of the reflector, which are quite sharp, chafe against the main when the sail is eased against the spreaders downwind.  So we will opt to use two Plastimo tubular radar reflectors mounted on the shrouds, although the tubular reflectors have been reported to be far less effective than the octahedral devices.  That said, our primary means of avoiding close calls with other ships is our Detecteur de Radar, which emits a loud, biting, unbearable sound whenever we get pinged with radar and also lets us know from which direction the ping originates.

Boom Support - We're considering installing Dyneema lazy jacks.

Charts - We have Maptech paper charts for Narragansett Bay, and surrounding bodies of water. We will add to our charts inventory a Bermuda plotting sheet, and British Admiralty charts for the Bermuda islands.   

Satellite Phone - Our plan is to obtain an Iridium GO! module for use offshore.  This satellite device allows for the same race tracking and two-way text messaging as our Delorme InReach device. However, the Iridium GO! module also will allow for phone communication, and will also allow us to download weather and routing data through PredictWind's offshore app.  The device is attractive because of it's low monthly price for unlimited voice and data usage.  Yes, we understand this goes against purist Mini sailing principles.  In considering that point of view, we are looking at using an SSB receiver to obtain weather information.  Our Mini-sailing friend, Nikki Curwen, who raced in the 2015 Mini Transat, recommends the Sangean ATS-909X.  

Emergency hull repair - The NBRSR requires soft, tapered plugs for all through-hulls, which we have aboard Abilyn for her one through-hull.  Surprisingly, the NBRSR does not mandate sailors to carry items to address punctures or other damage to the hull.  Onboard Abilyn, we already carry emergency epoxy capable of hardening under water, but might pick up a couple of Rupture Seals.

Remaining Items -  Procuring spare navigational lights (bow and stern), a heaving line, a replacement searchlight, and an emergency VHF antenna shouldn't be an issue.

In addition to the required list of safety items in Section 3.0, the NBRSR contemplates that crew members have certain training, including man overboard training, CPR and first aid training, and general onboard training.  Sam and I certainly intend to tune up prior to the June 17 start.  Part of that tune up will include man overboard training, and optimizing through sailing in the Larchmont YC Edlu regatta and the Storm Trysail Club Block Island Race.  And at least I intend to take a Red Cross CPR and First Aid training course prior to the start.

But I consider myself a prudent sailor and somewhat of a perennial student when it comes to safety.  So relying solely on the NBRSR to dictate our safety preparations isn't enough.  Our safety prep will also include an onshore network of experienced sailors and at least one doctor who will be "on call" to field emergency communications.  Joe Harris, who is racing around the world on his Class 40 Gryphon Solo 2, recently described on his blog an incident where he had to activate his onshore network when his EPIRB inadvertently began transmitting a distress signal.  Through this network, which was established to handle "emergency communications," Joe's team was able to advise U.S. and Australian sea-air rescue teams to stand down.  Rich Wilson, who finished the 2008-2009 Vendee Globe in ninth place, set up a similar kind of network, which included doctors and professional yachtsmen, as he describes in his book, Race France to France:  Leave Antarctica to Starboard.  Although our voyage amounts to a fraction of the mileage of a global circumnavigation, having an "on call" onshore network seems prudent, if only to ease the stress on my wife and ensure that rescue services aren't implemented unnecessarily.  

June 17 is not far off, and we hope to lock down all safety essentials well before then.  Stay tuned for more coverage of our prep, including posts on our Helly Hansen gear, food, Gulf Stream and weather analysis, and other musings.  

See you out on the water.