Atlantic Anxiety

Author:
Publish date:

Crossing the north atlantic, even in the best of times, represented a risky undertaking that could result in serious problems, including the loss of our boat or even our lives. Sometimes we would lie awake at night and wonder: Are we really up to this risk? Can we cope with our fears? Can we eliminate all possible sources of trouble? Can we ever be truly prepared?

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean is like crisscrossing the United States from San Francisco to New York, then up to Minneapolis, and making only two stops, traveling at less than 7 knots!

In other words, the involved distances and required endurance were simply awesome for us, a couple used to short passages and hopping from one harbor to another.

Teka III, our 52-foot passagemaker, built by Knight & Carver in California, had been to the Mediterranean twice before-her log told us so. We knew she'd take us, too, when we deemed ourselves ready. But besides preparing ourselves for such a voyage, we knew we also had to keep in mind that our vessel was already 20 years old. What had been relatively easy for her in 1981 might be more challenging in 2001.

Anxieties And Realities/Denis

My major anxieties about crossing the Atlantic concerned weather, mechanical reliability and crew issues, although there were other important issues relating to making the crossing, such as navigation and resources.

Weather At Sea: The Perfect Storm?

Although we have many thousands of miles of bluewater experience, most of it has been within a day or two from a sheltered harbor of some kind. The Atlantic is very broad, with nowhere to go if a freak cyclonic storm or an extra strong gale induced by a front bears down on you. Also, when you are cruising around 7 knots, you don't have the speed to get out of the way.

I had just finished reading Fatal Storm, The Inside Story of the Tragic Sydney-Hobart Race, plus Surviving the Storm, by Steve and Linda Dashew. Thus, weather was my chief source of anxiety and the least controllable variable for the trip.

In May 2000, a year before our expected departure for Europe, we were safely at the dock in Virginia when a major storm developed off Cape Hatteras. Its fury caused numerous marine maydays to be issued by boats at sea, with gale-force winds and waves. What if we were caught offshore in such a storm?

Obviously, good weather forecasting might help prevent us from being involved in such a maelstrom. We considered using Herb Hilgenburg, a famous weather-router based in Canada who volunteers his time, but rejected this option because the long-range voice capability of our SGC SSB radio was not very good, making it difficult to communicate with a Canadian station. The other option was contracting with a professional weather router. We chose Walt Hack of Ocean Marine Nav based in Scotch Plains, New Jersey (908.322.1215). We elected to have Walt email his forecasts to us via Pinoak Digital, our SSB Internet connection. We also used our weatherfax equipment to augment the professional help with our own forecasting skills. (Using a professional forecaster gave us the advantage of more detailed sea conditions for the waters ahead of us, taking advantage of their many forecast prediction models.)

Actual Encountered Weather

We left Florida on May 11, 2001. It turned out our weather was both better and worse than we expected. It was better in the sense that we experienced no storms or gales. But it was worse due to a southerly track of low pressure across the Atlantic, resulting in unsettled weather with consistently rough seas of 6 to 8 feet, and up to 12 feet passing through the fronts. The seas did not cause us any undue difficulty for they were mostly from the west or northwest, coming on our stern or stern quarter-much better than abeam or taking them on the nose. Numerous cold fronts either passed close by or over us during the trip. Visions of warm, calm days in the Azores High were simply nonexistent. Days were mostly cloudy, often with showers and cool temperatures in the 60s.

Weather information we received was generally good, although predictions longer than a couple of days in advance proved dubious. But there was little we could have done to avoid the weather except wait to leave later in the summer when the Bermuda-Azores High was fully developed. But that would have put us more at risk for a hurricane, which we wanted to avoid at all cost.

During the 11-day crossing from Bermuda to the Azores, we tried to stay in daily contact with two sailing vessels being routed by Herb. Two or three times we also followed Herb's advice to them and followed a course more to the south of approaching lows, to be sure of finding the westerly winds below these systems.

Mechanical Concerns: A Major Failure?

Next on my list of anxieties was any mechanical breakdown. While this is always a concern, it becomes more critical when you are 900 miles from the nearest landfall. A fatal mechanical failure, such as a propeller coming off or a broken shaft, could cost us the boat and endanger our lives.

The engine itself did not worry me too much. We had just completed more than 10,000 miles from Alaska to Maine via the Panama Canal, experiencing flawless engine performance from our 20-year-old Gardner diesel engine. However, we also have a 58hp Westerbeke diesel attached to a hydraulic get-home motor that attaches by chain to the main shaft. In the right conditions, it allows a comfortable 5.5 knots of speed.

Our Gardner is a big, slow-turning diesel (we ran at 1100 rpm during most of the crossing) that only develops 127hp, but the engine has proven to be pretty much bulletproof, with absolutely nothing electrical on the engine except the alternator. We do have a wet exhaust system, so there is always a possibility of pump failure or a clogged heat exchanger, but I rigged spares for both just in case.

Checking oil levels while under way was cause for some concern, as our old Gardner can use up to a quart or two of oil per day. I tried checking fluids at full cruising speed but had some trouble getting an accurate reading. I finally decided to bring the engine to idle once a day and take an oil level reading at that time. It turns out this was much easier said than done. With the slowed boat rolling and pitching in 8-foot seas, the oil level in the Gardner would go from full to empty with each roll. My solution was to watch the inclinometer that I had installed in the engine room to balance fuel. When the inclinometer's bubble came to zero degrees roll, I quickly jabbed the dipstick into the engine and checked the reading. Several attempts were necessary to ensure consistency. I found the oil level reading, with the engine running, was consistently 3 quarts lower than when checking the oil with the engine shut down.

Other engine measurements and adjustments were easier. We have a Murphy gauge on the outside of the engine that accurately shows coolant level. We also have a cooling water bypass valve that allows some cooling water to exit out from the side of the boat where it can easily be seen. In addition, as part of our routine bihourly engine check, I felt the intake and exhaust water from the heat exchanger to make sure it remained cool.

Inspections of the engine room every two hours included instrument readings, which we recorded on our passage log. This way, I could examine the log over time and observe any trends or differences that might foretell a developing problem. Our main engine instruments also include redundancies: two coolant temperature gauges and three oil pressure gauges. This allows a quick resolution to finding any readings caused by faulty instrumentation. The pyrometer is another useful instrument, as an increase in exhaust temperature can indicate an increased load from something caught on the prop, rudder or bulbous bow.

Luckily, we encountered none of this on our crossing, although we saw quite a few fishing floats that could have been attached to nets.

Another concern was the alternator. We rely very heavily on electrical power to run our two radars, autopilot, SSB radio, computer and inverter. Our 160-amp Balmar unit has worked flawlessly, and we keep a spares package as well as the original 55-amp alternator kept as a replacement. Before the trip, I decided this was unsatisfactory for the open ocean, so I purchased a new Balmar alternator, installed it and kept the replaced one for a spare. That way we could change alternators in a matter of minutes and be back to 100-percent capacity.

Luckily, we had no electrical problems during the long passage.

Back to the issue of a prop or shaft failure: It is an area I could not do much about. We do carry a spare prop aboard, but there's no question that it would be a real bear to change at sea, perhaps even impossible. This is where a wing engine with feathering prop might have given us peace of mind. Unfortunately, that was not an option. I thought about rigging sails to our two 25-foot stabilizer poles, in a sort of downwind sailing rig. I think this option has merit, but I did not have the expertise or time to design and install such a sail plan. Perhaps before our next crossing I will explore this option further.

The rudder is certainly another major threat to an oceangoing motorboat's survivability. Our rudder is a Beebe design that is described in his book, Voyaging Under Power. The rudder is mounted outboard of the transom, and there is a large, heavy swim platform to protect it from pilings and docks. The steering gear was designed to be used with an emergency tiller mounted to the rudder and controlled from the stern of the boat. As long as our rudder remained intact, we could rig some form of steering in the event the arm broke or if we experienced complete hydraulic failure. In the unfortunate event of the skeg breaking off, a more serious problem would exist, taking considerable ingenuity on our part to rig a new rudder.

The only rudder problem we had was a slight water leak where the rudder arm enters the transom, approximately 12 inches above the waterline. Even though this area is completely covered, some water somehow siphoned in and dribbled into the aft cabin, wetting the carpet. Paper towels and a plastic pan took care of this problem.

Safety At Sea: What About Collisions?

Being out of contact with the U.S. Coast Guard and other rescue services makes one much more concerned about the risk of collision with unseen objects, or fire at sea. These two events have claimed numerous yachts. Although the ocean appears immense, floating objects such as logs, barrels and lost containers, have a way of crossing the paths of voyagers. Hit one of these, and the boat may face serious problems.

The only floating object we saw was a full 55- gallon steel barrel that passed very near our starboard side. Other vessels later reported seeing a large (6-foot diameter) log, and a Floridaregistered speedboat awash, not quite sunk. Its bow pointed straight up out of the water, evidently due to trapped air inside the hull.

We tried to keep a lookout for these types of obstacles, but at night that is almost impossible, especially if there is any kind of sea running. We kept one of our radars on 3-mile range, looking for weak radar returns that might indicate a vessel or floating obstacle. However, we found sea clutter from 8-foot waves pretty much negated seeing any low, in-the-water objects, such as floating containers.

Another safety concern was the possibility of running into other vessels. After our experiences on the West Coast and Caribbean, I decided to add an autoplotter to our Furuno radar. This entailed installing a board in the radar, as well as connecting an electronic compass and GPS. The plotter provides course, speed and closest point of approach in both time and distance for any selected target.

In the old days we used a plotting sheet and clock to manually figure the CPA (closest point of approach) of the target vessel. Now the radar screen shows this and more in just a couple of minutes tracking. I found this particularly helpful because the crew on watch could easily determine what the approaching ship was doing, and not everyone is adept at computing radar targets manually.

As we closed on the Portugal coast, we found we were tracking numerous targets at once, and we had to alter course twice to avoid possible collision with ships. Computer tracking was definitely worth the trouble and cost.

We updated our position information with our children at home and our weather router daily. That way, if the unthinkable were to happen, our position would never be less than 24 hours old. Our 406 EPIRB would confirm and update that position for rescuers.

Other projects toward a safe crossing included liferaft and fire extinguisher inspections before leaving. In addition, we installed a remote switch in the pilothouse that could instantly set off the fire suppression system in the engine room. Lexan storm shutters were also aboard and some even fitted prior to departure. A 24- foot Paratech sea anchor, complete with bridle, lines and chain, lay ready in the forward compartment, just in case.

We spent time with all crew members to review standards for emergencies, should any occur. Teka III even got to pull her nose around in search of an MOB while we reviewed the drill. It's critical to know all details of an emergency response in order to respond quickly.

Navigation: Could We Lose Our Way?

Having already traveled a long way on Teka III, I had confidence in my navigation skills, although such a long passage would present some new issues. The first concerned a potential GPS failure. A partial answer to this possibility is that we carry four GPS units on the boat. (One kept in the oven in case of lightning.) I also bought a sextant and tables, just to be on the safe side. Luckily, our GPS units performed perfectly with absolutely no loss of signal anytime during the 3,691-nautical-mile Atlantic crossing.

We used the GPS interface with the autopilot to drive the boat at all times, so we were always able to track our course on the large screen of the Garmin 230 GPS. For the first few days, I used plotting paper to keep track of our course, but we later decided that manual course plotting on the large-scale chart could be done twice a day at 0600 and 1800. The North Atlantic chart on our chart table was also useful for plotting approaching storms and fronts, although it gave us a disconcerted feeling of isolation when the nearest land was Newfoundland, far to the north.

Our CETREK autopilot performed perfectly, although I was constantly worried about the autopilot drive motor, a 20-year-old Wesmar unit no longer available or supported. I wanted to buy a new drive, but it would have required considerable installation redesign and cost over $2,000.

At some point in the future, I will either have to find a new drive or locate a working Wesmar spare. Hand steering at sea is never a good option, especially in quartering seas that necessitate constant correction.

Crew Harmony: Will We Get Along?

I was also somewhat concerned about finding people to help us complete the voyage. Would we all get along in such close quarters for a long time? Even best friends tend to get on each other's nerves during ocean voyages. Personally, I would have been happy to do the crossing with a crew of two, just Mary and me. However, Mary preferred having four people as crew. We sent out queries to people who had crewed with us before. But most were not interested in this passage. It was too big and long.

We did find two crew members, one for the entire voyage and the other from Bermuda to Azores, so we had four for the longest leg of 11 days. Having a crew of four allowed Mary to spend most of the time with cooking responsibility, with three guys doing the watch chores. With only three people, Mary would have had to stand watches as well, putting more stress on her.

Did we keep harmony on the voyage? Well, mostly. There were a few flare-ups, probably due to my autocratic decisions. However, we've managed to stay friends. Other boats were not so lucky, with crew departing as soon as they reached the Azores, leaving only two persons to complete the voyage.

Resources: Will We Have Enough To Last?

Fuel, water and oil were much lower on my concern list since we normally carry plenty of each. We fueled up before we left the States using a bunkering service to get the best fuel price. We then topped off in Bermuda at U.S.$2 per gallon because I didn't want to run short, and fuel was rumored to be even more expensive in the Azores.

We ran the boat at 1200 rpm (at 6.9 knots) on the leg to Bermuda, using 2.89 gph (or about 75 gallons per day). On the leg from Bermuda to the Azores we ran at 1100 rpm (at 6.5 knots), using 2.44 gph (or about 60 gallons per day), or 2.66 miles per gallon.

With a capacity of 2,000 gallons, we still had plenty of fuel to reach Portugal. In fact, our next fueling would be at Gibraltar, where cheap, duty-free fuel is readily available.

We also have a 40-gallon oil tank, and 40- and 35-gallon hydraulic tanks. This means we have little concern of running out of these vital fluids. I also found that several gallons of distilled water were good to bring along for batteries that get thirsty when running 24 hours a day.

We elected not to run our watermaker since our 600-gallon water tanks were adequate for the voyage. Our large HRO system takes prodigious amounts of 220 VAC electrical power while only making 12/14 gallons per hour. We consider the watermaker as insurance, but our tanks held more than enough for the voyage.

By running the boat's AC generator a couple of hours a day and using a hydraulic pump off the main engine, everything kept cool in our cold-plate, 110 VAC refrigerator-freezer. If the hydraulic AC had failed, it also would have been possible to run the refrigerator-freezer from the inverter.

Preparation for the crossing consumed tremendous amounts of time and energy over the year preceding the voyage. The effort probably helped us to experience a relatively pleasant and uneventful trip.

While Mary and I shared many concerns, she has a different perspective on the crossing.

Anxieties And Realities/Mary

My fears included being alone out there for days with no instant support, dodging potential weather systems, avoiding illness and accidents, sidestepping mechanical breakdowns and, of course, missing the family back home.

Being Alone

Early in our ownership of this boat I announced, "I don't do nights and I don't do oceans." That has changed over the past four years of cruising on Teka III. Our longest passage to date had been between Puerto Madero, Mexico, and Bahia de Cocos, Costa Rica, a trip of some 60 hours. We traveled quite a distance offshore on that trip, so far, in fact, that I couldn't find land on the radar. Yet I always knew on that trip that if we made a turn to port, land lay out there somewhere.

Looking at the prospect of crossing the Atlantic Ocean, even in segments, posed one big coping situation for me. Completing such a trip would be the ultimate step up. We figured it would be six days to reach Bermuda, 11 days to the Azores, and six more to Lisbon, Portugal, with enough time in between to explore each of them. I told Denis that I'd wait to see how I handled the first leg. If I chose not to make the longer 11-day crossing, I would fly across to meet the boat.

A merchant mariner I'd met put a seed in my mind back in 1997 about life on the ocean. He told me, "The sea has a rhythm. Go with it." I now repeat this to myself quietly every time we embark on a journey, small or large. I also remind myself to trust Teka. This has a tendency to calm me.

I am happy to report that I didn't fly ahead to Portugal. Actually, by the time we arrived in Bermuda, I was caught up in the adventure. The leg to the Azores would take twice as long, but I found we'd settled into a routine at sea and seemed to stay busy all the time. Unless I chose to worry, I didn't.

And I teased the guys. If I deserted them, they'd miss my "galley magic." Each boat out there works out its own system for meals, but that role felt very comfortable to me.

Weather: Will The Seas Be Too Scary?

Although I trusted my ship and Denis completely, I worried about things I could not control. The weather bothered me, for one. Reading The Perfect Storm and seeing the movie last year made dramas at sea real for me. But we weren't going swordfish fishing in the far North Atlantic during the wrong month. Storms can and do sometimes occur out of season in the open ocean, and we purposely planned the crossing to avoid hurricane season, but there's more to weather than hurricanes. Fronts take different tracks at times, like marching soldiers glaring at you from the printed weatherfax. Could we be so lucky that none occurred in our path? Could our budget afford the services of a weather guru to guide us? There would be no place to run and nowhere to hide should things go haywire in a hurry.

As much as I worried about the potential weather, we were spared any major storms. There were lots of lumpy, bumpy seas to deal with, but no waves over the bow. In fact, the West Coast of the U.S. had thrown much larger waves to us than what we found crossing the Atlantic, but the seas we crossed were still uncomfortable. In our earlier trips, I retreated to the center of the boat and played solitaire, not wanting to look at the waves around the boat. I can watch now.

All the low pressure systems tracked low this year, so the Azores High couldn't materialize and be "large and in charge." We heeded our weather forecaster and stayed well below the systems. Our flopperstoppers worked their hearts out to keep us steady. But now and again waves would really tip us over. They were either in a series, quite close together or just plain steep, catching us wrong.

I can report that at times we couldn't walk around without holding on, which had an impact on my cooking. To confess, I have not mastered the "one pot meal."

I felt the need to create more than the minimum to just feed the hungry crew and captain. It became very rough every night about 6 p.m. I am positive the largest waves rolled against us as I worked in the galley. When a big one would toss things about, I'd yell, "Keep the wheels out of the ditch!"

Up in the pilothouse someone would always shout back, "We can't tell which ones are the big ones!"

Sisterships: Someone Out There Cares

The prospect of being alone, outside of Coast Guard range, and potentially needing help made me think hard about wanting to go with other vessels. This seemed extremely important on the Bermuda-to-Azores leg-safety in numbers and all that. But who would be interested and available?

We met the sailboats Robin Leigh (homeport: Destin, Florida) and Zelda (homeport: New York) on the U.S. East Coast during the summer of 2000, and they agreed to join us in Bermuda for the long leg across the Atlantic. We kept in touch via email to establish rendezvous timing there. Although we did not travel exactly together to the Azores, that is, within sight or VHF radio contact, we knew they were behind us and able to come to our aid should it be needed. It means a lot to hear a friendly voice over the SSB, even if you have to shout to be heard or have to keep changing channels to find a better one.

We later joined up again in the Azores and celebrated in grand fashion.

Crew For Comfort And Backup

Our boat holds four comfortably, so I wanted two friends to join us as crew. They could concentrate on sharing night watches, eliminating that as a requirement for me. Again, who might be interested and have the available time and flexible schedule? We hoped people who had been on Teka III before and knew the drill, so to speak, would sign up. But where they would join and leave the ship created an entirely new hassle.

Luckily, we found two friends who moved their gear aboard to help out. Alex Gray, a professional marine mechanic from British Columbia, joined us in Florida. Bob Hermann, an experienced cruiser now living in Delaware, came to meet us in Bermuda.

I took care of them, nourishing and nurturing, while they entertained me with stories and jokes. Their presence gave me peace of mind, although some tension did develop about the toilet seat up versus down, with three guys and one gal.

Rough water soon dictated that the best position was down.

Health And Well-Being Of Everyone

What if someone got sick or injured along the way? Did we have the right knowledge and medical supplies to deal with it on even a limited, temporary basis? Perhaps we should have made "Doctor at Sea" email arrangements. If we had not found crew, how would I run the boat if something happened to Denis? That one really bothered me. I cannot fix mechanical problems, plus I'd be too stressed to think very well.

Fortunately, no one came down with illness or had an accident while we were at sea. Denis did have an accident that resulted in three broken ribs and an injured leg and ankle. But the injury happened at the dock in the Azores, where plenty of help materialized almost instantly.

Family: Will They Object?

I also had some level of stress about telling our family of our upcoming voyage. What would they think? How would we communicate during the trip? What if something happened to us?

I wanted to wait for face-to-face contact to give our grown children the word. Dawn responded with "What?!?" Then, after a moment of thought, she added, "I want to visit in Greece!"

David said he knew we would be going, even though he had not been sure when. Denis' parents are in their 90s and were not overly excited but wished us well. One of my sisters said quite seriously, "This is the craziest thing you ever thought up to do! What about icebergs?" (She didn't even think to ask about the more likely encounter with large containers that fall off ships in storms.)

My other sister came to say goodbye bearing her new video camera. I could hear her talking to the camera while she filmed Teka III bow to stern, "This is my sister's boat. We can use this tape for the evening news if she doesn't return." Glad I stayed safe.

We used Pinoak Digital's email to communicate daily as the trip unfolded. Once back on land, we bought a phone card and hit the pay phones. But that required us to keep track of time differences and schedules on the other end, versus sending printed messages.

Anything to communicate felt fine by me.

Mary's Final Thoughts

My days at sea were full, keeping the crew happy and fed, retrieving and studying weather reports; planning, preparing and cleaning up after meals; studying books about the destinations coming up; and standing day watches.

On land, we were kept busy, and my time was filled with laundry, groceries, sightseeing and socializing with sisterships.

Even though I think I stayed subconsciously fearful, manifested by fitful sleeping and frequent checking of things, I am glad I did not fly across. Now I can proudly say I have joined an elite group of cruisers who have crossed the Atlantic on their own boat.

We are true passagemakers.

Related