A Crossing – from Commodore Aquilino

Aquilino trip

This was my Swan Song. No doubt, considering age, my last long offshore cruise/race. We participated in the ARC 2015 Atlantic. It is a friendly competition, if there is such a thing, designed more to facilitate a comfortable group Atlantic crossing than to cross the finish line first.

I found myself onboard due to time and circumstance. I had the time, semi retired, and my retired friend was/is committed to a circumnavigation, the ARC crossing was the first leg. He asked if I would join him. I couldn’t resist.

Oyster 49′, cutter rigged, six guys

Left St George’s Bermuda at 11:00am 20th May 2015

Glorious weather. Set spinnaker and headed North looking for favorable west wind.The kind of sailing one dreams of their whole life. Caught a Pompano!! Hook to plate in half an hour. Fried in butter with lemon. Wow!!

Thursday 21st May

Had the graveyard watch last night, midnight to 4:00am. I did not sleep the previous 48 hours, having tried to sleep on a curved settee the first two nights till Sara, the owners wife, left. My watch mate, a great 22 year old, had a serious job keeping me awake. As I nodded he would ask me questions. I was answering him inside my dreams. Complete babble. I was speaking in tongues.

He must have been terrified to think he would spend five weeks with me aboard.

Fantastic sailing. Again, Spinnaker flying. In the afternoon it started to make up. Wind picked up to twenty knots true and waves building to 5′. Edgy for the kite. It was my watch from 4:00am to 8:00am

Friday 22nd

We decided to have a controlled jibe. We executed it with me at wheel, 8′ rollers, 25 knot winds. Sea conditions made it difficult for all. Although tethered, I was sure one would go over. I had a vision of some poor guy dangling over the side and the rest trying to drag him on deck in impossible circumstances. None did.

Later that morning we ran up the asymmetrical again. Bad idea. Seas and winds building. Wind a steady 25 gusting to 30. Waves an easy and angry 10′. Took spinnaker down in difficult conditions. Our fault. We put two full reefs in the main and pulled out the staysail instead of Yankee to get through the night. It was Gothic. Guys going airborne when boat pitched. I was seeing walls of water come up our stern. Rollers were breaking at the top like at the beach. Boat is solid and sea kindly. We clocked an astounding 200 mile day. Everyone is exhausted. We have just begun.

Saturday 23rd

Seas high, we are doing 8kts. Rough ride. We are preparing for the night. I have graveyard watch again. Weather report for Sunday is not good. Northeast winds and likely rain.

We are pressing the boat hard. Things starting to break we cannot afford to lose. Mainsail shackle exploded. Jury rigged another. Other hardware over stressed and broken. I have advised against adding any further pressure to be first over the line in Horta. I am black and blue from one end to the other. Moving around deck and cabin extremely difficult. Wheel pedestal has broken, a serious design defect. All functional, but can no longer be used as a mid cockpit handhold for fear of breaking more and compromising all pedestal electronics. Very awkward as we grab it for stability.
Dolphins surrounded us at dusk. At least 50 of them.

Sunday 24th

Graveyard watch again. Wind picked up around 12:30am. Could be the front everyone is concerned about. It is on us. Tried to reef the Yankee. Roller furling line snapped in half like it was cut with a knife. 8k lb rated line.Three men forward trying to rig another. They were successful.
We are breaking something every day. Running out of replaceable items, snatch blocks, lines etc. I am hoping this will convince crew to slow down. We don’t need to beat the fleet. I am on watch from 4am to 8am tomorrow. I will again advise them not to push boat any harder. Hopefully lessons learned.
Now I’m counting miles and days
Sea state 10′ and confused. Wind 25 to 30 knots steady
GPS says 600 nautical miles from Bermuda under our belt, 1200 more to Horta.

Memorial Day 25th

As I expected, too much sail up. Seas 10′, wind gusting to 35knts, 20 to 25 degree heel. Rolled up Yankee, ran out staysail, reefed main. Doing 6 to 7 knots and much more comfortable.
Damn near knocked myself out getting up for my watch. Wave came through and tossed me from weather side to the lee and into the head. Crashed my skull against the bulkhead and ended up sitting on the toilet. I was dazed. Shook it off. Started laughing. I almost died on the the Throne. Major lump on noggin. Damn!!
We are in no man’s land. That part of the North Atlantic no helicopter can reach unless it can aerial refuel.
Only option if in trouble would be merchant or military shipping.
After being only 10 hours out of St. George’s we have not seen another vessel, private or commercial or any aircraft in five days. 1085 miles to go. We are about smack in the middle the Atlantic. Frigate birds are only sign of life. Hard to believe they can make a living out here. It was a rough night. We tacked North to pick up more favorable wind and course. Cost us time and  position in the race. Again the roller furling line snapped in the middle of the night. This is now a major problem. If we cannot isolate the cause, we will soon be out of useable line. Crew exhausted themselves in the wind rain and dark to rig another line. It is impossible to describe how difficult it is to move around the boat and deck. Every step needs to be course planned, footholds measured, handholds timed, leaps of faith. Similar to free mountain climbing.

Tuesday 26th

Back on course. My watch. Gorgeous morning. All crew in recovery mode. Been a rough five days. 980 more miles to Horta.

Wow!!! Saw a sail…uh no… It was a pod of whales in the distance. What we thought was a sail was the whale, or whales spouting water. Very cool!!
Lat 37.50 Long 49.00

Just watched one our young sailors knock out 50 push-ups on the aft deck. He is working on his post doctorate in cancer research. A little too earnest for my taste, but one fine sailor, so easily forgiven.

Dolphin!!!! All around us!!!  Beautiful!!!
We have finally pushed through to the Azorian high. Should be good weather rest of way. Thank God!! We were pretty thin on energy and sleep. Hoping no more gear failures. Dolphins constantly tracking us. Hitching rides in our bow wave.
944 miles to Horta. Likely five or six days till a well earned Martini

OMG!!! It was just before dusk, I was on watch. My watch mate below making coffee. I was watching the sun set and wham!!! A Pilot whale surfaced 10′ off our port side and spouted. I was shocked. Hollered for the guys. Another one surfaced on our starboard side. Then they were all around us. Stunning. A full pod of whales. They were behaving like dolphin, playing with the boat. They are one of the smallest of the whale species, but looked damn big to me. I’m guessing 30′ foot or so. They said goodbye with one of them cutting across and swooping under our bow. He could not have missed us by more than two or three feet.
Seas one to two feet. Should be calm night for sleeping. Badly needed by all.

Wednesday June 27th

Dead calm. Hard to believe what the sea looks like now compared to a couple of days ago. Little breeze starting to fill in. As much as we want wind, nobody is complaining about the needed recovery time. The “Earnest” one is doing push-ups again. He wants to go swimming. I advised him not to, considering  the abundance of life we have seen with considerably large teeth. He just shimmied 10′ up the mast to retrieve a lost line. Annoying. Maybe he should swim. Limping along at one or two knots. Telling sea stories. Typical.

Sighted first vessel. We have AIS, (automatic identity system). Private 170′ yacht Sealyon out of Miami bound for the Med. Any Gray Poupon?

Boys about to go swimming. Trailing line aft. Will take video.
They had a blast!!! Took great video. They will pay good money for copies. Lat 38.32 Long 46.58, 862 miles to Horta.

Wind picking up. Sailing again. Nice fresh breeze. Breeze died fast. Drifting.
The whole fleet has been drifting all day. We have SSB communication. Most put engines on. We did not, in order to escape penalty time. Despite being in what looks like third place, we think we are ahead on corrected time. It’s 8:00pm dolphins come out on cue.
I have graveyard watch tonight, so will start napping now.

Thursday 28th 2:00am

BTW, I am missing family and friends. This is pretty remote. Makes me realize how much I love you all.

I wanted a challenge. I got it in spades. The first 1100 miles were in mostly 8′ to 10′ seas with 25 to 30 knot winds and far too many gear failures. It was brutal. The three younger guys were as wiped out as the three older. Not a surprise since they have done all or most of the deck work. After four days of it I was not sure I could physically be of anymore use and think everyone else was in pretty much the same mode. I was about to slide into a lee corner and have them toss food every now and then.

We chose to be here, dug deep, sucked it up, kept quiet, kept moving.
We still have 800 miles to make the Azores and then another 1000 to mainland Portugal. We shall see said the blind man.

No wind!!! Motoring again. Beautiful out. Spotted a sail on the horizon!! We converged within a half a mile. Beautiful ketch from Switzerland named Valella. We chatted on the radio for a bit. Some adventurous Swiss girls. The older and wiser heads on board kept the young ones on a steady course. They are headed to Flores, one of the closer Azorian Islands and then on to Valencia. We may do the same thing re Flores and do some west to east island hopping from Flores to Horta.
Just came up on giant sea turtle!!!!

I am happily surprised at how pristine the ocean is. I have not seen one plastic bottle in 1200 miles. Not another unnatural object accept ourselves and the two boats we came across. I would never have thought that possible.
618 Miles to Horta

The dolphins are ubiquitous. We just glance at them now. Only Whales are getting our attention. I keep trying to get good video, but by the time I grab my camera or phone they are gone. 599 miles to Horta. Shorter landfall if we make for Flores. Looks like that’s what we will do. Everyone in race is motoring at this point so what the hell.

Friday May 29th

4:00am – Have decided to make for Corvo, smallest and most north and west island in the Azorian archipelago. About 10 miles from Flores. Only 400 inhabitants. Still motoring. Beautiful first light. Large swells, glassy. Must be some weather somewhere close. Foul weather is not over by a long shot. Greeted this morning by our usual friends the Dolphins. 528 miles to go.

Just spotted huge gray whale!!

Just passed through no man’s land boundary. If necessary, rescue helicopters could reach us from the NATO base on Terciera. Some small comfort. 495 miles to go.

Trying to sail. Light and variable wind. Motoring again. Saw another whale. The ocean is teaming with mammalian, amphibian and avian life!!! Birds, turtles, whales, Dolphins!! Totally amazing.
9:30 close to sunset. Shearwater birds fishing. Great fliers. 424 miles to Corvo.

My body clock is so screwed up. The crazy revolving watch schedule and UTC time progression has me totally, as they say in Yiddish, “Famisched”.

11:18pm my watch ending at midnight. Stars are beyond amazing. Venus is so bright it looks like a light bulb. Three quarter moon rising. I am alone in the cockpit. The beauty is making me tear.

Saturday 30th

Partly cloudy. Seas getting sloppy. Light wind from the west. Cool out. Feels like something wants to happen. In the shipping lanes now. Passed ship last night and passing one now. 347 miles to go.

The crew, six guys, have gotten along remarkably well. An odd group, but seem determined to make it work. That said, I decided there is nobody I want to spend a month with at sea on a small boat, much less six people.

Sailing wing on wing. Slow but pretty out and peaceful. Hoping to make landfall on Monday afternoon.

Ship coming up our stern. AIS is great. I tap on the radar blip on the screen and it tells me the name, owner, home port, destination, speed, distance and closest approach. Also tells us cargo. We are definitely in shipping lanes. I have midnight to 4:00am watch. Will need to be on my toes.

Just spotted a big whale. Not close, did got some video.

4:30pm got some decent wind. Spinnaker up. Sailing nice. Gorgeous out. 283 miles to go

Sunday 31st May

Beautiful day, little wind, gentle swell. Motoring. Only 173 miles to Corvo and about same to Flores. Fishing trawler about a mile away. No doubt from Azores. Barring any bad weather, we should make Corvo sometime tomorrow afternoon. Corvo Island is so small it is not even an official Portuguese entry point. Will wait till we get to Flores. I’m just looking for a little outdoor Cafe’!!!

I have lost at least 10 to 15 pounds in twelve days.

Just saw another large sea turtle. Boats in race starting to converge on Azores. Been close enough to chat on VHF radio with three of them. We see one sail a few miles off. I have the 4:00am to 8:00am watch tomorrow morning. I hope to see land. That would be our thirteenth day at sea.

Oops!!! The Passarelle (gangplank that goes from stern to wharf) is missing. Apparently the guys did not lash it down properly. It was in the dinghy on davits. Must have bounced out in rough seas last week. Skipper is very cranky. Expensive item.

Tuesday June 1st

58 miles to Corvo. Still not first light. Heard first seagull. See several blips on radar.
Dawn. Chilly, 41 miles to go. Sailed all night with Spinnaker up.

LAND!!!! 8:05am
We see Corvo and Flores.
Should make the Corvo harbor around 3:00pm
My Kingdom for a bed that is not at a 20 degree angle.

Approaching the small volcanic cone, caldera peak shrouded in mist, is magical. I expect Dinosaurs and Pterodactyls.  One village, 400 people no other boats in sight. 5 miles to the tiny man made harbor.

June 2nd

Difficult to describe how remote and beautiful Corvo is. Islanders are lovely. Every visitor an event. Almost nobody comes here by boat because there is only a small stone and cement wharf with a bad surge. We could not use standard spring and bow lines. Locals made us use forty foot spring lines weighted in middle with tires. Damed if it didn’t work. We were one of only two visiting yachts. All local fishing boats are hoisted after use. Strangely there is a nice little airfield. Plane comes in twice a week and many locals come out to watch. Field is 10 degrees off level with ocean at each end. Like landing on an pitching aircraft carrier. Vicious crosswind.
It was so difficult to get off the boat we had to bosun chair guys onto and off the wharf. I have pix. There is one B&B.
Went to top of the volcano to the lake caldera. Nine small islands in the lake. Supposedly a representation of the nine Azorian Islands. It was other worldly, Jurassic Park.

8:30- Off the wharf and off to Flores.  Supposedly the prettiest of the Islands. A day or two there and then to Horta on Faial.

Arrived midday in Flores. Another tiny man made harbor. Still, better than Corvo. Hired a local guy to give a couple of us a tour of the island. I thought Corvo was beautiful. Flores is paradise. Staggeringly beautiful scenery. Went up 3,000 feet to six different volcanic caldera lakes. The entire island is a variety of volcanic rock, lush stone walled pastures and the very occasional quaint village. The beaches, few there are, are black. The only other place that looks similar is Hawaii. If I told you were on the Big Island, you would be sure you were. Mountainous rugged verdant peaks right down to the ocean. Multiple thousand foot waterfalls cascading down precipitous volcanic facia.

The island is empty of tourists and the local population is shrinking. Twenty years ago there were 10,000 inhabitants. Today under 4,000. Local guy said they all left for a better life. They had heaven on earth and didn’t know it. Most went to New Bedford, Fall River or Glouster Massachusetts for the fishing trades.

Great dinner, local wine and fish in small taverna.

Back on boat and happy to be sleeping on a level bunk.

Leaving tomorrow on overnight sail to Horta, 139 miles away. It will be back to semi civilization. Bummer.

Eventful night. One of the boys fell on wharf. Fell on glass. Woke me up  at 1:00am hollering. He was in the head. Looked like chain saw massacre. Dr(Carl)was not on boat. I took one look and told Tom(owner) “get me some line”. I grabbed grandma’s wooden spoon and applied tourniquet. Carl came back and we stitched him up in four different places on his arm. I held flashlight and scissors. I cut sutures as Carl stitched. He is fine but will be very sore. Sutures not even. My handiwork. Nancy not so good nurse.
It was the young guy who has been too “Earnest”. Now I feel guilty about poking fun at him. Anyway, made my penance. I was covered in his blood.

 June 3rd

Took in lines at 1:30pm. Headed for Horta, 139 mile overnighter. Great Northeast breeze. Close hauled with Asymmetrical up. 8.5 knots. Heavenly
Couple of squalls came through. Saw them coming and were prepared. 8′ swells all day and evenings. Far apart and on our stern. Comfortable. Will spend night with full main and Yankee up.

Hard to believe but we had no port clearance or dockage charges whatsoever in Corvo or Flores. Under 20.00 a Euro dinners including wine and one Euro a bottle beer. Carl says less expensive than Costa Rica. He has a house there. Still not had my passport stamped, despite having entered two ports. I must get entry stamp before I try to depart Lisbon. Will try in Horta.
There were about ten boats in Flores. We chatted with many.

The Azores are not a destination, they are a waypoint. Everyone here sailed at least a thousand or more miles to get here. In our case two thousand. Boats are from France, Germany, Spain, Britain and many other countries. All crossing the Atlantic, most east, some south and oddly some west. Many for the fourth, fifth or more times. A couple of them circumnavigating. Unusual community of kindred souls. Some families, most with crews of four or five guys. German couple we met on Corvo on 32′ boat with their three young kids. Headed for the BVI. All crews pulling for each other. All putting their lives at risk.

June 4th

Wow!!! Wind picked up to 25kts true last night. We left Flores at 2:00pm yesterday. It is 8:00am and we clocked 120 miles. Should make port in Horta on Faiel in two hours.
Since we did so well overall passage wise, we made decision to visit more islands before the jump to Lagos on the mainland. Terciera for the running of the Bulls, then Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel. We will end up visiting five and sailing by seven of the nine Islands.
Just made port in Horta on Faiel. Pretty little town and harbor. Pico Island, highest Volcano in chain, is visible about five miles away. 7,000′ summit. Actually and ironically the highest peak in all Portugal. Two of our guys are going to hike up. I took a cab tour of Faiel and Horta. Lovely island and old world town. Late lunch in great Cafe’ overlooking harbor. Quiet night with Wine and music while the youngins are out partying. Lay days tomorrow and Saturday. Will catch up on sleep and laundry.

June 5th

Quiet lay day. The two young guys made Pico’s summit.

My retired Navy Submarine Captain crew mate Walt and I were sipping coffee. I had just bought wine for the boat and he Brandy. We opened Brandy and spiked the coffee. Good for the aches and pains. An odd looking man has been hanging around the marina ever since we arrived. He came over and asked, “Is that Brandy?”. We answered yes and responded with the sought after invite. Poured him a shot. He said, “I’m a healer. I saw you limping. Let me help you.”. I said by all means. He then massaged my knee. When he was done we poured him another jigger. We chatted. He is retired. Comes to Horta on vacation for three months. Spends rest of year on Pico, a few miles away. I looked at his knee. It had several scars. I asked what they were about. He said, “Torn Meniscus”. Said he had operation five years ago. HELLO!!!!!! Should have told me before the second jigger!!!!

Laundry, cafe’s and then dinner in 16th century fort overlooking harbor. Not bad.

June 6th

Another quiet day. Tom’s wife Sarah arriving from New York at 3:00. Life as we know it will now change. She texted me from Ponta Delgada a little while ago. Asked what boat looked lIke. I said,”Six guys three weeks, you figure it out”. Told her she should burn all linens. Windy and gray. Good day to not be at sea.
Taking in lines at 7:00am tomorrow morning. 70 mile sail to Terciera. Running of the Bulls. Wind supposed to be light.

June 7th

Took in lines at 5:00am. Off for Terciera.
Fun dinner last night. I found a bar/tavern that looks for all the world like the Oar on Block Island, right down to burgees and other nautical memorabilia. Only difference was a cacophony of foreign languages, including Russian and Hebrew. It was packed with sailors, male and female. There was a palpable aura of respect in the room. We knew everyone there made an extraordinary passage. Not just physical, spiritual. We told stories, laughed, sang, and with no little amount of success managed to understand all. It was moving.
Just set the spinnaker. Gray day. Should make port by 5:00pm.

1:50pm She blows!!!!! Big Sperm Whale just surfaced and spouted fifteen feet from boat. Everyone scrambling for video, but she only surfaced once!! Damn!!!!
Will be entering Angra Do Heroismo harbor in an hour. Another Island another watering hole.

June 8th

Every building, every street a postcard. Took quick cab tour of the obligatory Caldera peak overlooking the city. As they say, “seen one Caldera you’ve seen them all” Driver took me inside active  Portuguese military base inside the 15th century fortress at the top of the Caldera. Magnificent view and awesome that fort is in use for 500 years. It was built to protect Galleons from pirates while bringing Inca gold to Spain.
Sipping coffee in lovely little outdoor Cafe’. Running of the Bulls at 6:00pm.

7:00pm. Awesome!!!!  Have great pix. Not to worry. Only animals in danger were human. Bulls were pissed. I was rooting for them.
Off to Porta Delgado on Sao Miguel tomorrow afternoon. Overnight sail.

June 9th 

Left 5:00pm for overnight sail to Sao Miguel. Wind 18kts true, 7.5 knot boat speed.
Spotted whale
Saw something I will never see again. It was a moonless night around 10:00pm. Venus was so bright in the sky it cast its own shine on the ocean. Very emotional.

June 10th 

Arrived Ponta Delgado on Sao Miguel at 7:00am. Fantastic nights sail. Nice 15th century town with some unfortunate modern buildings right on the harbor. Too bad. Managed to hunt down great tavern in the old city and had lovely dinner.

Because we elected to visit a few more of the Azorian Islands than planned, I will say goodbye to the crew here in Sao Miguel instead of Lagos. Will take quick flight to Lisbon and connect to NYC.

June 11th

I thought this adventure was about crossing the Atlantic. It was actually a discovery of the Atlantic with all its beauty, majesty and spectacular surprises.
The Azores are the Hawaiian Islands, a brief five hour flight from Boston. Who knew?

Said goodbye to a great bunch of guys. On my way home. Tired beyond words. On plane. Hard to wipe a smile off my face.
Cross off item at top of bucket list.

A toast to

Tom Hughes , 68, retired GE engineer

Carl D’Amatto, 58, Trauma surgeon (great sailor and cook).

Walt Nebula, 73, retired U.S. Navy Captain, nautical engineer and historian

Nick Farina, 28, Medical research scientist and 420 competitor

Evan Gregory, 23, Professional sailor and 420 competitor

Brook Aquilino, Semi retired businessman, of a certain age.

And finally, the Sailing Yacht “Unconditional”

Some thoughts for those thinking about a long haul.

I was never in doubt about the integrity of the Oyster. Not once did I think or see her stressed. She is a great strong vessel built to take offshore punishment.That said, there were issues.

  1. Her layout is that of an modern weekend cruiser. Centerline queen/king berth aft, centerline queen berth forward and upper/lower bunk bed cabin midship starboard. That does not work with a six person offshore crew. It is virtually impossible to create a watch schedule for six people that doesn’t put two crew members in the same bunk at the same time. Accepting the uncomfortable social issue, presuming no couples, it is impossible when the boat is heeled. Your bunk mate is rolling over you. Also, without lee shrouds you are on the cabin sole. When heeled and alone in the fore or aft centerline berths, you must lie at a right angle to the berth and brace your feet against the lee cabinetry. You cannot sleep that way. The only comfortable offshore berths were the mid ship bunk beds with shrouds.The luxury cabins look great, but are not practical offshore. Yes, you can reduce crew to four or five and that is actually a better crew mix. But, you still have the centerline berth issue.
  2. Her cutter rig offered some variety in sail plan, at a cost. With the jib out we could not come about at will. We had to roll in the jib first to avoid backing on the Staysail. A very cumbersome process. Best to have a simpler rig.
  3. The deck was a warren of foot traps and toe crushers. Offshore sailing decks need to offer unobstructed pathways.
  4. She did not have enough hand holds on deck or below. There were times we literally had to take “A leap of faith”. No matter where you are on the vessel you should have a strong weather handhold within arms reach.