I awoke, sweating in my foul-weather gear, the pungent odor of cat urine filling my head. Through watery eyes, I glanced out into the gray light of a stormy morning and saw fifteen-foot waves break behind the boat. The anemometer was consistently reading thirty to forty knots, with gusts even higher, and our boat was surfing into the high teens. The only sail we were carrying was a tiny bit of unfurled jib. One would think that we were getting slammed in the North Atlantic, but we were only about 250 miles north of the Virgin Islands. We were fortunate enough to end our trip in one of the few (locals say they get one to two a year) cold fronts to hit the Caribbean each year.
When we left Hampton, VA some ten days before, we were in good spirits. We had a fair-to-good weather forecast for the delivery to the British Virgin Islands. A specialist had routed us through the Gulf Stream, and this knowledge would keep us in favorable current for much of the trip by plotting a course through cold water eddies. During the two weeks we spent in Hampton, the local sail loft made repairs to our main, jib, and Screecher. The Screecher-furling line, the sprit-support lines, and the lazy-jacks were all replaced. We changed the belts in both engines, and purchased new batteries for the entire boat in order to fix our charging woes from the previous trip. We crossed several other items off of the unfinished to-do list from Newport, which had been abridged in order to leave the freezing temperatures. We felt much better about the condition of the boat for the upcoming voyage: we thought we had learned a good deal during the initial shakedown.
As when we left Rhode Island, we motored the first night through a calm sea: we left in the dying phase of a Northwesterly-clearing breeze. Also like our first trip, we found strong southerly winds the following day, and put in a second reef quickly. This time we were better prepared with our reefing system and procedure; we stayed on a close-hauled course toward our waypoint. Two advantages of catamarans are that they sail flat, and have much more space than mono-hulls. These benefits come with a price: when sailing to weather, in any kind of waves and wind, the bridge-decks (the area below the saloon between the hulls) take a pounding. It is quite unnerving for someone with little catamaran experience: the acoustics inside sound as though the vessel is about to break-up. During this initial frontal system, the cat peed on the sofa the first time. The subsequent day the conditions were calm and beautiful. The Natural Mystic had finally reached warm water, and we could shed the long underwear and fleeces. We tried to fish, but our lewers kept getting full of Sargasso seaweed, so we didn’t have any success. We went through several sequences of calm conditions, followed by strong southerly winds, but nothing unique from what we expected.
While in Virginia we replaced all of the mainsail battens: it is equipped with six full battens, which help keep shape in the sail, and make reefing easier. The downside is that when luffing, they are more likely to break than partial battens. When it was time to insert the new battens, I wanted the batten tension to barely deflect. This is what I was taught during the years that I worked for both Quantum Sails in San Diego, and Ullman Sails in Newport. The time I spent 49er sailing also had shown me that this tension proved best. I voiced these opinions, but the sail-maker in Hampton gave our captain the impression that he wanted them very tight, and thus we began our trip with several of our battens compressing to windward in the middle of the sail. Inevitably, one of these broke while I was trying to reef the main at about two in the morning (I had Ben assisting me, but I should have woken Kyber for this as well). The three of us spent the next hour and a half replacing the broken piece, and easing tension off of the other five. When we finished, the sail looked much improved.
The following afternoon, we noticed that the tack of the jib was tearing out. Too much halyard tension for the amount of webbing in the sail design caused this failure. We have a good hand-sewing kit on the boat, and so we turned downwind to fix the problem. When we tried to douse the sail, it stopped halfway down. There are setscrews in the forestay, and one had loosened to the point of keeping the sail from dropping all of the way. Three hundred miles from Bermuda, and a much greater distance from the mainland, I got to go up the rig to fix the problem. Once this was accomplished, I spent the remainder of daylight sewing the strap back onto the sail. The repair held out the rest of the way, despite the weather we later encountered.
The very next morning we were sailing close-hauled (as we did for the majority of the trip), when I heard the loud bang of a mainsheet block pulling out of the boom. When I first began sailing 49ers, my teammate, Marc, had taught me a trick, used by many Laser sailors, of tying spectra around the boom and through the blocks, so that if the rivets broke out of the boom, one would be able to continue racing. The entire time I sailed those boats, I used this technique and never once needed it. I put a thicker diameter of spectra and spliced loops onto the mainsheet blocks for the Natural Mystic. When the metal strap that held the block broke, the spectra took the load perfectly. Thanks Marc! Kyber later took a larger diameter of spectra, wrapped it around the boom several times and then through the block to bulletproof the system for the remainder of the voyage. In three consecutive days, we had dealt with three different breakdowns, and managed to continue with only a little time lost.
With only a couple hundred miles left, a south groundswell built, and south winds grew into the mid-twenties. This is where I learned of a major downside of catamarans. Since our heading was due south, our progress in these conditions seemed as though we were trying to beat to windward on the Mayflower. Because the boat is light and wide, it loses momentum quickly when it takes a bad wave (it has much more resistance than a mono-hull when taking waves big enough to hit the bridgedeck or forward cross-beam). In our case, the waves would crash over the entire front of the boat and the bridgedeck effectively stopping the boat. In order to make any ground at all, we had to sail angles that I would consider somewhere between a beam and close-reach. I felt as though I have made better ground upwind in my Naples Sabot. The sea state made for very rough conditions in the boat, and this was the second time the cat pissed all over the saloon area. Cat piss is not something to be messed with, it gets in your sinuses, throat and gives you a headache. I thought I was suffering from allergies or getting sick, and it was only after we arrived that I realized this was a big part of why I felt lousy at the end of the trip.
Kyber called (via satellite phone) the meteorologist who was helping us with routing for an update. He was given the news that there was a high-pressure system building over Bermuda. The forecast said we would see the wind shift from south to the right until it blew from the east at 25-35 knots. I felt sure that the weather would be worse than forecast, and the time spent anticipating this was as hard on my mind as going through the gale. Knowing how inexperienced in this boat and condition we were made me lose it a couple of times. Using commonsense, we prepared the boat as best we could to face the weather. Ben and I were able to convince Kyber to move much of the weight stored forward to the back of the boat; this certainly helped how the boat handled in the storm.
The day we expected to get the brunt of the storm was not what we had anticipated. The wind shifted so that we were finally running, but then we encountered rainsqualls and light wind. After the rain, we spent the remainder of the daylight in very weak winds and used our motors. When Kyber was on watch, he put his fishing pole out with a flying fish baited on it. He got a strike, and although we were hoping for a type of fish we could eat, he pulled in a baby marlin. When it got to the boat, he wanted me to gaff it and grab the sword to hold up the beautiful creature for the camera. After hearing the stories that my brother (who worked many years on sport-fishing boats) has the told me about bill fish, I politely refused: I informed him that he would need to grab it himself if he wanted the picture, and also reminded him that the medical attention he would need afterward could be days away, due to our location at sea. The decision was made to release the fish without bringing it on board.
That night, the seas built and the wind increased. The decision was that since it was dark, we should continue motoring and use a bit of jib to assist the motor. Up to this point, I felt sailing at night is more intimidating than during the day, but since it was so black we didn’t realize the size of the waves until the sun rose. There was a northwest swell caused by high winds in the Bahamas, there was also a building northeast swell from the local easterly gusts and a bit of the remaining south swell in the water. I have never been in such an angry and confused sea. Surely many have been through much worse, but there are also those who have lost boats in better conditions than what we faced. When encountering this type of situation any small equipment failure or mistake can result in ultimate disaster. With so much time to think about aspects of the boat that are not as strong as they could be, it is easy to push oneself to the edge of sanity. After three days of very little sleep or food, we approached the islands. The Outremer design did an excellent job of delivering us safely through the conditions we faced. The Virgin Islands seem to have as many catamarans, per capita, as anywhere. After seeing many of the other designs, all of which appear much less sea-worthy, the three of us agree that we would want no other cruising multi-hull to face the open ocean (with the exception of maybe a Outremer 64).
Upon arrival at Virgin Gorda, (Columbus actually did name this island the “Fat Virgin”) we needed to clear customs. The harbor-mouth had a wave that was the best surf I had seen in many months. It is probably similar to the sandbar in that it doesn’t break very often, but when it does it is terrific (it is a completely different type of wave than sandbar). This seemed too good to be true . . . and it was: our boat would soon drag anchor and hit another boat. Fortunately, it did very little damage to the other larger aluminum boat, and the harm that it caused the Natural Mystic was mostly cosmetic. Immediately, we were crestfallen and dejected, but this taught us that the anchoring system on our boat is not up to snuff. We are in the process of making it a strong point of the boat. We sit on blocks in the Nanny Cay boatyard in Tortola with another solid week of work in front of us. I hope to dedicate more of my writing to surfing and kiteboarding, yet, I feel we still have a lot to learn before life will be so simple.
P.S. Thanks to Colby, Adrian, and everyone else at the Hampton Yacht Club who made us feel welcome during the Holidays.