Crew member on USA14571 Isbjorn
Clint and I bid farewell to the last of the Leg 2 Isbjorn crew on Thursday
and have been hanging out in Falmouth Harbour ever since. It’s my first
time here, and I must say, quite the place. But before I get to that, we’ve
got to describe how we got here.
My last report came from St. Barth’s, where we’d just had a very strange
journey across the Sombrero Passage, first reaching on a northerly, then
becalmed, then sailing into Ile Fourche on a southwesterly. What a relief
from the head-banging to windward we had for 200 miles on the ill-fated Leg
But it wouldn’t last of course, couldn't last in the Trade Winds of the
Caribbean, and our departure from St. Barth’s was upwind yet again, almost
a dead beat to weather into a moderate southeasterly.
The crew was slightly hungover from a big night at Cheeseburger in
Paradise, but we didn’t plan to leave until late afternoon, so they had
time to sleep it off. We changed down to the small headsail while still on
anchor, then hoisted the mainsail and sailed off the anchor and around Gros
Islet to the west. The new furler is longer than the old one by five
inches, so the swivel doesn’t hoist as high as it should (the sail’s luff
is too short). This causes the halyard to wrap around the headstay,
basically the worst thing that can happen to a furler (and the most common
cause of failure), so Clint went aloft almost before we were out of the
harbor to clear the wrap, and just in time before darkness fell. Boat
We hauled him up on the port spin halyard, with the spare jib halyard
clipped to his harness. Greg skillfully kept Isbjorn on a close-reach to
keep the boat at a stable heel (it’s much easier to go aloft upwind than
downwind, believe it or not), while Ryan & I handled the halyard and Andy
Staus took up slack on the spare jib halyard. Once at the masthead, Clint
attached the spare halyard to the swivel so we could take the tension off
the wrapped jib halyard, unwrap it, and re-attach it. By attaching a
10-inch dyneema pennant to the tack of the sail we were able to hoist the
swivel high enough to prevent future halyard wraps, a critical job to
complete before next week’s Caribbean 600 race.
Clint loves going aloft - it was the second time he’d been up offshore (the
first just for fun) - so it was exciting times for him. My dad came up with
a good line today about sails and boat sizes - “If you can’t handle the
sails without complicated technology like hydraulics and electric winches,
get a smaller boat or get better crew!” Clint’s the latter.
As an aside, when I worked at Southbound as a rigger, I learned an easier
way to go aloft. The rigger ‘climbs’ the shrouds and halyards, using his
feet on the mast and doing a series of pull-ups on the halyards and shrouds
while one or two people simultaneously take up the slack at the mast, with
two wraps around the winch. This is much faster than winching a person
aloft, and leaves the climber in control, which is a critical safety
mechanism. To lower the rigger down, two wraps on the winch is plenty - any
more and it gets very jerky. Two wraps allows a nice and smooth, controlled
descent. Of course the person aloft should always be hanging on to
something on the way down just in case, and the crew on deck should NEVER
un-belay the halyard or start lowering until the rigger aloft gives the
okay. As in all things sailing, communication is absolutely key to a safe
landing back on deck (Mia always lowers me just to the point where my toes
touch the deck but I can’t get stand up. She holds me there for 30 seconds
too long and gets a good laugh. Apparently it never gets old, even after
the 100th time).
In Antigua we met the crew from Scarlet Oyster, a very competitive Oyster
48 that will surely win it’s class in the 600 next week (I know them from
the ARC rally).
“We go aloft at least every other day on a long offshore passage,”
co-skipper Mark says. “It’s preventative. Chafe happens fast, and we go up
to make sure it’s taken care of before it’s a problem.” There’s a reason
Anyway. Once the halyard was cleared Greg brought Isbjorn back up to
close-hauled (we got good at that!) and we pointed the bow south, about the
best course we could make in the 15-knot southeasterly. With one reef in
the mainsail plus the small jib and we easily made 7.5 knots through the
water in relative comfort compared to Leg 1.
I never take the first watch on offshore legs, instead making sure the boat
is on course and clear of danger, then letting the crew take over so I can
get some rest (a good sleep always cures any lingering seasickness I might
be feeling). Ryan and Mike took over as the sun went down, with Greg and I
on again at 2100. Our ‘playing field,’ so to speak, was dictated by the
wind direction and the position of St. Kitts & Nevis to our south, and
Barbuda to the east. I marked a boundary on the chart, a simple dotted line
about 7 miles off the coast of St. Kitts, and told the guys to plot us on
the passage chart every hour and tack once they crossed that line. It would
give us plenty of room off the lee shore of St. Kitts and allow me to sleep
soundly knowing they understood their instructions.
By 2030 I was woken up by the tack, which came right on cue. Mike & Ryan
had made good time on their watch, covering over 21 miles in 3 hours, or
better than 7 knots average speed (though unfortunately on a course of
about 190º true, not exactly great but all the wind would give us. Our
rhumb line was 130º true).
Greg and I took the first fully dark watch on starboard tack this time, and
rode it out uneventfully until midnight. Greg, as I’m finding with most of
the crew members I share a watch with on Isbjorn, would not let me near the
wheel! I was relegated to ‘gopher’ status, making coffee and sandwiches and
hanging out under the dodger and protected from the spray. There is nothing
I like more than watching crew new to ocean sailing grinning at the helm
and losing focus of their compass course because there are so damn many
stars to look at! I get to re-live the magic of that first offshore passage
through every new crew’s eyes. It’s the greatest job in the world.
Clint and Andy Staus took over from 1200-0300 after Greg and I tacked back
onto Port. I drew another dotted line a bit further south now on St. Kitts,
and by dawn we were aiming again for Barbuda on starboard. Greg and I held
on to that tack until we were almost in sight of the island, some 5-7 miles
off, the depths dropping below 70-feet at times as it shoaled up far
offshore of the sandy outpost. One more tack sent us barreling on port
right for Jolly Harbour, our destination in Antigua.
By the time we closed the island and came within sight of Antigua the wind
had built to a steady 18-20. We took a second reef in the main, and really
needed to roll the jib in a bit in the gusts. We carried on this way right
into Jolly Harbour, dropping the hook right behind the aforementioned
Scarlet Oyster, who’d only arrived some ten minutes before us,
close-reaching down from Barbuda.
It was Ryan’s last night, which was a shame, because the meal we enjoyed
together ashore was overpriced and understaffed, and unfortunately, that’s
all Ryan is going to remember from Antigua, for he flew out the next
After Ryan left, the rest of the boys readied Isbjorn for the 15-20 mile
beat around the island and into Falmouth Harbour. I assigned Greg the
captain’s role, with Mike navigating. Mike was looking to get more
navigation experience, and Greg is returning to the BVI in a few weeks to
skipper his own boat with his family for the first time in a Sunsail
flotilla. There is not better way to learn than to assume the actual roles,
with real stakes involved, so I took a backseat and let the guys have at it.
Mike plotted us a conservative course around the outlying reefs off Jolly
Harbour and consulted with Greg on the plan, and off we went. Once around
the southwestern point of Antigua the wind and seas built considerably. I’d
gently encouraged Greg to hoist the main with two reefs instead of one,
wanting him to take a ‘wait and see’ approach, as Jolly Harbour was pretty
protected and not a good indication of what the wind was really doing
offshore. He was thankful!
In open water we saw the biggest seas of either leg so far. The wind was
20-25, with 6-8 foot seas and the occasional ten-footer crashing over the
foredeck. Isbjorn excels in those conditions upwind, though she’s wet! Mike
was suffering at the chart table trying to plot us on paper as we closed
the southern coast on one tack, then headed offshore on the next, working
our way east to Falmouth.
“You can’t use the iPad until you can do it on paper,” emphasized Clint,
who learned the hard way himself taking Arcturus across the Atlantic with
us in 2011. To his credit, Mike never quit, jumping down below and counting
off the latitude and longitude until his face was literally green. But he
never barfed, and five hours later we were anchored safely in Falmouth
Harbour, with Greg and Mike basically navigating Isbjorn there unassisted
and sailing past the cliffs and into the harbor. Kudos to both of them.
It was the last time they’d sail the boat. Once the sails we’re furled we
took a quick harbor tour before dropping the hook. What a place! I’ve seen
a lot of super yachts during my travels, but never this many in the same
place. Ranger, the J Class we saw in St. Barth’s is here. So is Comanche,
the 100’ maxi that just won the Sydney-Hobart Race. Phaedo3, the
fluorescent green and mirror-silver MOD 70 trimaran that set the 600 course
record last year in 33 hours (!) is moored alongside the yacht club’s cafe.
Inukshuk is here, the schooner Gloria, the plumb-bow pilot ketch Hetairos
which I last saw in Horta in 2012 are all here. Rebecca, arguably the
world’s most beautiful ketch is here. The list goes on, and they’re all in
the same marina at Antigua Yacht Club.
This is going to sound arrogant, but I feel like I really belong here. Not
the boat (though I’ll admit Isbjorn does stand out in the anchorage as a
true classic, albeit a small one in this company!). But walking the docks
and seeing the crews of like-minded people out here living the dream is
strangely comforting. I could never work on a super yacht, but everybody
here is of the same mindset. Owners and charter guests aren’t around (as
opposed to St. Barth’s), so everyone is relaxed and underdressed and the
atmosphere is mellow. The bars and restaurants ashore are not pretentious,
but have a laid-back Caribbean style, still more up-market than the local
villages in St. Lucia or Dominica, but still shorts and flip-flops
friendly. You can eat breakfast at the Seabreeze Cafe on the dock and be
rubbing elbows with Volvo and AC sailors here for the race, and everyone is
just a normal person.
It’s a different atmosphere from your standard cruisers hangout. Here,
everyone is a professional, and acts the part. There’s debauchery to be
fair, but it all just seems a little classier, and I don’t mean that in a
fancy-pants pretentious way. The crews I’ve met here know their jobs, do
them well (this is the best of the best here after all), and have fun doing
it. And there’s a ton of young people (Lee Cumberland, this is where all
the young folks are!). I feel much more at home here amongst this crowd
than I do in the more cruiser-friendly, and always older, Caribbean haunts.
I was almost one of the crew I write about. In Ireland after crossing the
Atlantic on Arcturus, Mia and I were out on a hike and stopped on a cliff
overlooking the Irish Sea to reflect on our passage and discuss the future.
We’d take the boat to Sweden and start looking for work on a big sailing
yacht, we decided then, high-fiving to seal the deal. Ideally a boat small
enough where we could run it as a couple with no other crew. Save some
money and see the world.
But I’m partially colorblind. I can see color well enough to be a captain
in the US merchant marine, or even a fighter pilot in the Air Force. But
the MCA in England, which administers the commercial part of the
Yachtmaster qualification (of which I’m in the highest, ‘Ocean’, category)
has different standards for their testing requirements. I can’t pass it.
Something like 80% of super yachts around the world require the
commercially endorsed Yachtmaster license, which in turn requires that
dammed color test.
This was a huge blow. I went so far as to fly to England in 2009 to take
the only re-test that the MCA allows, hoping I’d make it past the second
screening (which is a different test). I didn’t (I stayed with Clint on
But in hindsight, it was a blessing. I wouldn’t own by dream boat right
now, sitting here in Antigua and writing about this if I had perfect color
vision. I might well be one of the crew on Ranger and dreaming about that
beautiful Swan 48 out in the harbor with such a cool crew onboard, sailing
where we damn well please when we damn well please, and dammit, the
stainless steel is shiny enough! Everything happens for a reason, baby.
Alas, we won’t be here for long. I was hoping for a good ten day rest to
put the boat back together and hang out with Clint, do some meditation,
some running, explore ashore, cook food. We’ve had a few days of that to be
sure, and it’s been awesome. But it will come to and end tomorrow when
we’ll raise the anchor after dinner and point the bow downwind (for once!)
and towards Sint Maarten. Isbjorn’s new mainsail will be waiting for us (I
hope) on Tuesday, courtesy of Chuck at Chesapeake Sailmaker’s who expedited
the sail’s production in South Africa after our misfortune on Leg 1. Now
we’ve just got to go and get it.
My dad flew down on Friday to do the 100-mile passage there and 150-mile
beat to get back, so it’s been fun having him here, and will be nice to
have a third watch-stander at sea. With luck, we’ll have the new mainsail
fitted and be back in Falmouth by Thursday, just a day before the new crew
turns up for the Caribbean 600.
Follow our progress on the way to Sint Maarten and during the race on
59-north.com/tracking. You can also follow the race itself on