Bermuda to Tortola, British Virgin Islands

At the RHADC

Stern-to at the RHADC in Hamilton, Bermuda

Sunday, 11/10/96
A day  of  rest at last!!  Though this was already our fifth day here we had hardly had any time to enjoy ourselves so far. The journey from Newport to Bermuda was the “shakedown” run and had taught us that we still had a lot to learn about bluewater sailing and long distance cruising.  Bill was right when he said that the learning curve would be steep in the beginning. Aside from heavy weather sailing, probably the greatest lesson was the importance of proper stowage during passage. When you’re on a boat, EVERYTHING must have a home.  Not only that, but it must also be secure.  We found out in a hurry that things tend to bang around.  Our second night out of Newport, during the little “blow”, as Sergei likes to put it, we all experienced the frustration of trying to sleep with numerous noises emanating from every part of the boat.  

Needless to say, Wednesday through Saturday involved getting the boat cleaned up and reassessing the importance and location of just about every item on the boat. Not a lot of fun, but we had to do it.  No one could have accused us of being under prepared.  The fact is that we were over prepared and we probably had more “stuff” than we needed. Once we figured out what we really didn’t need, how were we going to get it home? My mother, Mrs. Ercklentz, could take a few small things back but we had filled several boxes and a large duffel bag. Our only option at the time would be to ship it back by DHL or UPS; expensive, but it would work.  However, being a holiday weekend, we would have to wait until Tuesday anyway.  Today we would do nothing and enjoy it.

Monday, 11/11/96
After having a late breakfast we decided to explore the island on our mopeds. The first stop would be the town of  St. George to see a  friend of Sergei’s, Carl and boat called Whitehawk. We would then find Tuckerstown where my mother’s family had owned a house for many years.  After that, a quick stop at The Swizzle Inn for a few Dark & Stormies and then on to watch the Americans beat the South Africans at rugby.  So off to St. George. Though our first days of R&R were fun, they were no match for the story that unfolded.

During the last several days an interesting story had been developing surrounding a beautiful wooden sailboat called Whitehawk. Apparently, while anchored in St. George harbor the engine room had caught fire, damaging the boat significantly, but not destroying her. Because the boat was from Newport, her owners decided to bring her back for the necessary repairs. She could still sail but had no motor and limited electrical and navigation systems still functioning. In order to make it back to Newport safely she needed an escort.  Enter Carl.  Carl is a fisherman by trade but also works for a marine rescue and salvage operation called Ocean Response. Whitehawk’s owners hired him to bring her back to Newport with his boat, Osprey, an 85’ steel fishing trawler.  

When we arrived at the pier in St. George, we were greeted by a shocking sight. Here was this absolutely gorgeous white and blue 110’ ketch (Whitehawk) next to this “well seasoned” fishing boat (Osprey).  As we walked up to Whitehawk, the only visible signs that there was a fire was the charred base of the mizzen mast (which had been removed and was lying on the pier). A closer look revealed a large jagged black hole that had been cut into the deck to put the fire out.  Had the boat not been in the harbor, she would probably have sunk.  When the halon fire extinguishing system aboard failed she was towed to the pier, whereupon  the Bermuda fire brigade cut the hole and filled her engine room with foam.  As for Osprey…..we kept our distance.

Nintendo 64

All work and no play... Sergei takes a shot at Nintendo

Over the course of the next several hours we watched as Carl and the crew of Osprey prepared to load the mizzen mast onto the fishing vessel.  Not an easy task, as Osprey had an enormous rig which they use to haul in their nets. To accomplish this they had to weld a series of steel beams in place in order to support the weight of the heavy wooden mast.  Next, an enormous crane rolled up, lifting the mast horizontally into the air. It was amazingly well orchestrated the way that they literally threaded the mast through the rigging. The crews of Osprey and Whitehawk made it look easy, as though it were rehearsed.  Carl had the whole situation under his control and it went like clockwork.  All the activity on the pier had attracted quite a crowd, all fascinated by the operation going on.  We got tired just watching the whole thing. Time to visit the Swizzle Inn for our favorite drink.  The rest of our day was uneventful compared to what happened in St. George. 

Tuesday, 11/12/96
We were a little slow to rise, but not at all surprised why. Last night we had found the only sushi restaurant on the island.  Our two Filipino sushi chefs made sure we left with smiles on our faces. The fish was good, but you can’t beat the sushi at home.  We then decided to leave the next day for Tortola.  Once again it was time to start making preparations.   First we would have to provision in Hamilton and then we would have to move the boat to St. George to clear customs. We had been watching the weather so we were confident that as long as this high stayed with us we would be good to go.  There was only a slight twist, Sergei had a mission to complete.

Last night as we were leaving for dinner Sergei received a phone call from a friend.  He said he had some business to take care of and told us to go on without him.  Later that night he explained to us what was going on. As it turns out, Osprey’s trip down from Newport was more interesting than we were led to believe.  When they were approximately 200 miles Northwest of Bermuda they received a mayday from another sailboat out of Newport. This one was an 80’ Baltic Trader named LENA MARIE.  By the time Osprey got to Lena Marie’s location a freighter had already picked up her crew. She had sprung a leak and was taking on water faster than her pumps could keep up with.  After the decision was made to abandon ship she was left drifting in 15’ seas and 45 knot winds.  The conditions prohibited any real attempt to save her, it was just too dangerous.   Having been unsuccessful Osprey proceeded on her original course to Bermuda.

Sergei’s mission, should he choose to accept it, would be to organize a search for Lena Marie.  He had done some salvage work before, so it only made sense to give it a try. Carl and Osprey would just be too busy to devote any time to the task.  The owner was contacted and  a plan was initiated. The only problem was that since the US Navy pulled their base out of Bermuda there were no easy means of chartering a flight. Because of range limitations, helicopters and small prop planes were out of the question.  The only other options were private jets and cargo planes.

Because we were still planning to leave tomorrow, we let Sergei continue with his quest while we made Out of Bounds ready for our next passage.  After provisioning and stowing everything we said good-bye to my Aunt Whitney and her husband Scott. We then dragged in our lines, pulled away from the dock and bid adieu to the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club.

As we were maneuvering our way through Town Cut into St. George Harbor, Sergei hails us on channel 16 and tells us to raft up next to a 65’motor sailer called MAKE IT SO.  We made the lines fast and powered down the engine.  Sergei hops on board and all we wanted to know is what happened with the search mission.  The look of dejection on his face told the story.

He had been able to find a twin prop cargo plane which he chartered for the afternoon. Having limited flight time and a large area to cover, he set out with high hopes. They did have Lena Marie’s last reported position according to the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and with the estimated drift and wind direction they covered a search area of approximately 10 square miles.  The only way to cover an area like that is to fly a grid pattern, which they did. However, after several hours of looking at deep blue water as far as the eye can see, they spotted a dark patch on the surface. After a closer look, it appeared to be an oil slick. Although it was in the projected area, there was no debris field. Having nothing else to go on and running out of time the decision was made to call off the search. The Lena Marie would not be found today.

Wednesday, 11/13/96
The weather was perfect for our next passage.  The skies were clear with a Northeasterly breeze blowing at 15 knots. We needed to make preparations in the morning and early afternoon. All things being equal and if the weather held we would leave before sunset. Off to Tortola!!  

 Our second journey, from Bermuda to Tortola, began very differently than the first.  Everything from preparing the boat to settling in for passage was just that much easier.  There was a feeling of confidence that we didn’t have when we left Newport. We had undoubtedly experienced rather severe conditions from the getgo. Consequently, it set our perception of “normal” conditions high, while at the same time giving us a new found respect for the ocean. As Sergei put it, it’s truly amazing how easy it is sailing in 30+ knot winds when you’re used to 40-50 knots. Of course, it’s a hell of a lot easier going down wind with a following sea than it is going the other way.

On this trip, there were not quite as many moments of surprise and amazement with what was happening around us. You certainly don’t become used to rapidly changing conditions and the lack of sleep, but as with just about anything, the impact is not as great the second time around. It’s difficult to explain, but seeing and feeling the boat handle those conditions really gave us an appreciation for her abilities as well as ours.  The gain in knowledge was tremendous. We began to sense what to do rather than be told. Recognizing different things became easier and executing them second nature.  We had almost 20 years and 100,000 miles of experience to draw on from Sergei. He loves to talk and never hesitates to tell us when to try something differently.  The business of learning to sail with confidence was happening on its own. Things just seemed to be slowly falling into place.

This time around it was also easier developing a daily routine. Aside from the watch schedule, each one of us had our own habits and customs.  When you’re on a small boat at sea, there is no privacy and everybody knows your every move.   During  a passage we convert the forward cabin to storage space, leaving even less room.  This is actually very practical because it is extremely uncomfortable sleeping forward when the bow is crashing through the waves.  In the v-berth we put the mountain bikes and extra sails, while the forward head is reserved for the developing station and wet foul weather gear. This leaves the center cabin as our primary living space.  Staying in such close quarters with several other guys is a very unusual experience, but not that difficult. This time there are a few things that stand out. The first is Sergei’s unusual eating habits. I’ll never forget the morning I found him spreading guacamole and mango chutney on a raisin english muffin.  As for Bill,  the only thing he is absolutely adamant about is taking a shower each day. It appears to be quite difficult leaving the hair dryer out of the equation.  I guess some habits die hard.  Nick, he’s my brother so nothing surprises me, except for the fact that he seems to have cured his snoring problem. Thank God for us all!

Because conditions are never constant, nor predictable on the high seas, we always approached our next move with caution knowing full well that something could happen at a moments notice.  There were several instances when we were sailing along comfortably with 15 knot winds and all of a sudden we were in the middle of a squall.  The winds would shift, increase to 30, 35 or sometimes 40+ knots and it would feel and sound like all hell broke loose. No time to think, you just had to react. Reef the main, pull in the jib, raise the staysail and just hang on. There is an incredible rush of adrenaline that pulsates through your body when you feel the power of the wind and waves tossing the boat around like a birdie in a badminton game.  Now that’s excitement!

Just as the ocean demonstrates its propensity for being ferocious, it can also be incredibly docile at times. On day three we experienced what it’s like to run out of wind.  You feel incredible frustration when you’re making good time and all of a sudden you’re going nowhere. It makes you appreciate having another form of propulsion, an engine.  It also causes one to wonder what it was like for the great explorers with wooden ships, canvas sails and no engine on windless days.

After having spent time at sea, I now understand what draws people to the water. It’s an endless expanse of blue that stretches as far as the eye can see. When you’re on solo watch, it’s just you and the boat, alone.  Whether it’s the brilliance of a clear sky and the stars or the emerald blue waves rolling under the boat, it becomes almost hypnotic after a while.   Sergei’s salty wisdom once again shows itself. He said that there is something different about a passage longer than 4 days. Aside from just being longer, it allows you to clear your head. He explained it this way.  When you’re at sea for 4 days it normally takes about 2 days to adjust and forget about your last port.  Conversely, when you’re about 2 days from the next port, the excitement of arriving begins to kick in and you are already looking forward to that time.  What’s missing is that time in between. A 6 day passage gives you two extra days in the middle where you’re thoughts are drawn away from far off places.  All of a sudden you’re confronted with immense amounts of time to think about things.  Your mind wanders in every direction, from contemplating the meaning of life to thinking about old friends and relationships.

With all that time to think you find yourself having just about every emotion possible.  One moment your happy, the next sad. Our second night out, during my watch I decided to listen to some music. I put on a disc by Enya and stood on the deck staring at the stars completely overwhelmed as the song “Sail Away” played in my headphones. It’s a feeling I will never forget.  I have a feeling that this odyssey will be filled with many more unforgettable things. 

Monday, 11/18/96
Finally, after almost 6 days we caught sight of Tortola! There is something about arriving at a new port after a long passage.  You have both feelings of excitement and melancholy. It’s kind of like meeting a new friend and loosing an old one at the same time. When you first see land it appears like a mirage on the horizon. As you approach, it seems to grow out of the water. I guess it’s because Tortola is much more mountainous than Bermuda.  In any case, we can now get back to regular sleeping and eating habits. 

Because our “easting” had proved useless, our approach to Tortola was from the East-North-East.  Easting is a term used to describe our route as compared to the rhumb-line. Normally, the Trade Winds will begin to blow from the East at about the 20th Latitude. The trick is to get a little further East so that they will help carry you in. However, Hurricane Marco was brewing in the West by the Cayman Islands, thereby altering the normal wind patterns.  So, we actually went by Anegada on our approach to Tortola.

As we rounded the Northwestern end of the island, we passed by a small Island called Jost Van Dyke.  Sergei told us about a cool place on the beach called Foxy’s. Apparently, it’s rated the # 2 place to spend New Years Eve.  We’re gonna HAVE to check it out!  But first we had to get to Soper’s Hole to clear customs and reacclimatize to dry land. As soon as we hit the harbor, we grabbed a mooring ball, shut down the engine and breathed a deep sigh of relief.  Our second passage was over!

Alex Ercklentz 1996


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