You know we love the BVI but we also love sailing and chartering so we made the tough decision to leave our families, home and friends and head south for the summer where the borders are open (but with strict health protocols) and this is the story of our trip on our classic sailboat "Gwendolyn".
We departed the BVI on a beautiful afternoon tacking up the St.Francis Drake channel, music playing with great excitement for the adventure ahead, we knew this first 24 hrs would be the toughest leg of our journey south, the direct route to St.Vincent would be around 370 miles offshore with a wind angle of about 60 degrees also fighting a west-ward setting current of between 1 and 2 knots, as the performance of the boat was really an unknown to us we decided to take the conservative option of keeping close to land and Island hopping down to give us a chance if anything went wrong with the ship!, what we really did not know was how fast we could sail to windward, 1-2 knots against you is ok if you can sail at 9 knots in a catamaran but if you could only make 3 knots forward and 2 knots sideways that could be a problem!
As the sun set that night we were treated to a huge full moon rising from the east lighting up the sea with a magical platinum hue, in fact we had good light most of the night and light winds from the south-east giving us a fairly easy but slow motor-sail east against wind and current towards St.Martin, its always a tough slog eastwards getting out of the Virgin Islands, I never look forward to the trip, the fastest I have done it is around 9 hours on our old charter boat " Adastra" motoring in very light winds, this leg took us a long 26 hrs of motoring with one reef in the main and the stay-sail sheeted hard in, in the end it was uneventful apart from a small diesel leak from the engine but nothing that was going to stop our trip, a quick vacuum with the wet-vac every 12 hours was enough to keep us moving, what was to become a problem was our fuel tank site and fuel consumption, I had vastly underestimated the consumption on our tiny 29hp Yanmar diesel, it was supposedly 1/3 gall an hour but it turns out we were using more like 3/4 gall per hour, probably caused by the engine working so hard to push our 18 tons of ferro-cement hull through the water.
The land that time forgot
After a reasonable nights rest in the lee of French St, Matin we turned South-South-East and headed for the Windwards, so called as they are generally a windward slog from the Northern Caribbean Islands, we had a good forecast of 12-15 knots from the NE giving us our first sail just off the wind in open ocean on Gwendolyn, she did not disappoint us a beautiful sail down to St.Kitts and Nevis under a clear blue sky with near perfect weather conditions, I realized that to sail in the Ocean on Gwendolyn we would need more wind as we only made 5 knots over the ground fighting 1 knot of Westward setting current but I was happy that we had virtually no water over the deck a completely dry and comfortable ride on our 40 year old concrete sail-boat, we settled into life at 40 degrees angle and managed to cook some of our pre-prepared meals on our ancient "Clarke" paraffin stove.
We were making good progress at around 6 pm I did consider briefly finding a safe anchorage and sleeping close to land for the night but St.Kitts and Nevis Wass closed to recreational traffic and I did not want to get into trouble with the coast-guard so we carried on, motored down the coast of the big Island of St.Kitts and headed out to open sea again due south towards Montserrat.
Montserrat and me have history, I had one of my most frightening experiences at sea when passing the big green Isle many years ago, the volcano had a mini eruption and my boat was covered in volcanic ash, there was very scary lightening all around and I lost all my instrumentation including the ships compass due to the massive upwelling of molten iron and swirling ash around the boat, there was zero visual reference and toxic sulphuric gas for hours on end, it seemed like a never ending nightmare that I could not wake up from similar to sleep paralysis where you are awake but can't move and still dreaming, give me wind, huge seas and any other bad weather than volcanoes and lightening and I am happy but Montserrat and me just don't mix.
There are very strong and strange currents around this Island I am sure Arthur Conan Doyle could have drawn inspiration from the place for "The Lost World" it seems to be impossible to sail past, it just sits there and draws you in, hours go by and you are still looking at the same spot on the Island while the weather deteriorates and the clouds build, " is that lightening" is a question you really don't want to consider or reply to, and right on queue it did not disappoint! it was about 5 am in the morning when the squall hit us, just getting light and just enough time to get the staysail down onto the deck, I felt the tell-tale rush of cold air in-front of the miniature storm, I had my tactics already planned, long keeled heavy displacement boats do well hoved too in a storm, basically you sheet in the main and push the tiller to leeward to stall the boat in a fore-reaching position, this tactic calms the sea and gives the crew a reasonable ride in heavy weather, I just had time to hove-too when the wind hit. Its easy to exaggerate wind speeds in these situations and I have been in hurricanes and the noise is the the key indicator of the strength, I am estimating 50 knots but it could well of been more and the noise was incredible, shaking the rigging down through the deck, for about 2 mins the wind was from the port side then instantly changing to starboard shifting the force from one side to the other, I was amazed how well Gwendolyn coped, she hardly heeled, just sat there and took the full force of the wind and rain, it was our first test of our old boat and she took it well, I knew her design was seaworthy and this episode convinced me all the hard work getting her ready for this trip was worth it!
Finally the sun came up the skies cleared and we started to pull away from the dreaded Island, I surveyed the damage and we sustained a big rip in the mainsail, that would need to be fixed before we got wind again so we put in an extra reef and headed for Guadeloupe, 24 hours with no sleep it was time for Andrea to take over and for me to have a nap!
To be continued.......