21 May 2017

Passage to America: Debriefing our Longest Double-Handed Passage

Neither Linda or I love the offshore passages. We both get more than a little nervous and anxious as the time of one is approaching. That said, we've both got more than 2400 Nautical Miles offshore on Argon (and I actually have one more Bermuda passage on another boat on top of that).

Bob Damiano

This post is about preparing for and sailing our longest offshore double-handed passage from Grand Bahama to Beaufort, North Carolina. The distance is about 550 nautical miles and we did it in about 70 hours. A video about the experience is at the bottom of this post, or you can just jump to it here (but please read the blog too so you can say "I liked the book more than the movie").

I used to think that sailing offshore is sort of like looking both ways to cross a street, covering your eyes, counting to thirty and then running across as fast as you can. Now that I've done it a few times, I think it's more like counting to fifteen. It's still a really dumb idea.

Building Up To This Passage

We did our first practice offshore passage in 2016 crossing from Boston to Nova Scotia. This passage allowed us to go through all the steps and processes (on a relatively short 52 hour/300nm trip) including hiring a professional weather router, lashing the dingy to the foredeck, communicating using our satellite data system, preparing meals in advance and generally getting Argon into offshore mode. This was also the shakedown cruise for all the upgrades we had done to make Argon an offshore-capable boat.

Bundled up (in July) off of Nova Scotia with a nice wave behind us.

We did most things right.  But we learned a lot and made it safely. We broke some stuff and fixed things so they were better than they came from the factory.  It was the first time we used Ken McKinley from Locus Weather, and we've used him ever since.

Once the one-year journey started, we did the first two long offshore passages with a third crew member.  We had our friend and experienced sailor/racer Lance Ryley along for the Hampton-Bermuda leg and local Bermudian Andrew "Smitty" Smith along for Bermuda to Antigua.

All passages since then have been double-handed.

A quick crew selfie of the three of us on the way to Bermuda

Posing for the camera just an hour before taking off from Bermuda for 850 nautical miles. Our third crew, Smitty in the middle.
That whole thing about "Teach a man to fish..."  Well, Capt. Smitty taught us to fish during the Bermuda to Antigua passage. Wahoo for dinner!. We believed it was the bright yellow spinnaker that attracted him.

Having additional crew vs double-handing

There are definitely advantages to having additional crew for a long passage. For one thing, it's much easier to get insurance if you have more crew for offshore. The real benefit of course is the extra set of hands and experience (we've learned so much from our crews each time) and the theoretical additional rest time. I say "theoretical" since we all were having so much fun, there were many times when all three of us would be awake and yapping away in the cockpit. Linda and I definitely had much more peace of mind when we had that third experienced person along with us.

The big plus about going double-handed is flexibility. If Ken McKinley says You can go Monday, but Wednesday is better, we will just go Wednesday. There are no flights to change or cancel and no one is running up against a time constraint or work conflicts. In other words, there is zero incentive to go at any other time but the best time based on conditions.

Until this passage, the longest double-handed offshore passage we had done was San Juan, PR to Grand Turk. This was 365 nautical miles and about 55 hours. It was a moderately tough passage - especially the last 35 miles and we were both surprised at how exhausted we were towards the end.

Putting the dinghy on the foredeck in San Juan for the passage to Grand Turc 365 nautical miles to the northwest.
Day 2 sailing from San Juan to Turks and Caicos.


Another factor in our deciding to go double-handed is that Argon finally has a high performance Autopilot. We noticed during the earlier offshore passages that Argon's A/P just simply was not cutting it in big seas. As a result, these passages were 90% hand-steered!  We didn't mind hand-steering that much, but if anything went wrong, it was impossible for whoever was at the helm to let go and help.

While in Turks and Caicos, I decided to try doing a software update for the Autopilot. What I found was that every device aboard Argon was way behind in software updates. On modern Raymarine equipment you just download the update file, put it on an SD card and pop it in your chartplotter. The installer does everything automatically including discovering and installing new firmware into every device it finds. Besides the autopilot, we actually got some fancy new features in our chartplotter and i70 displays.

And just like that, we have a new autopilot!

On our passage from Turks to Long Island, Bahamas, although the conditions were not extremely severe, we noticed right away that the autopilot was doing better - much better!  In subsequent passages in all types of conditions, it has proven itself to be ready to really handle the boat in just about anything. You would think a tech geek like me would have done this before we left on the journey, right? Now, I can say that the autopilot steers just about as well as we do. The upside is that we got many, many hours of practice hand steering in some pretty big water.



Planning The Passage To America

Most sailors who return from the Bahamas, jump straight across to Florida. If we wanted, we could have gone due west and landed in Palm Beach in about 7 to 9 hours. We didn't want to do that for a few reasons:
  • From there, it's a long way up the east coast. 
  • We would miss out on that nice gulf stream boost
  • We are too tall and too deep for the ICW (and I wouldn't want to do all that motoring even if we did fit), so instead of looking for one weather window, we'd be looking for many as we hopped up the east coast "outside"
It's actually just a day sail back to the US if you want. But then you have to worry about the next 1000 miles

We considered several options for an entry port including (in order of distance) Charleston, SC, Cape Fear, NC, Beaufort, NC, Hampton, VA or even all the way to New York City.  Ultimately we chose the 550 nautical mile route from Grand Bahama to Beaufort, NC. Having some friends and family there made the decision even easier. This would get us a long way up the east coast and it should be a pretty fast ride as more than half of it would be riding the stream.

A note about the photos.  Our awesome Panasonic FZ200 after years of abuse on a sailboat has finally bit the dust.  All of the offshore photos and videos have been taken with the GoPro.  Once in Beaufort and with access to Amazon (ain't America great?), we upgraded to an FZ300.



We started looking for a weather window while we were still in Port Lucaya, Grand Bahama (near Freeport). We wanted to jump off from West End, Grand Bahama about 36 miles to the north-west.  When Ken came back with a window starting just three days later, we got ourselves up to West End as quickly as we could and then had just one day to do all offshore preparations.

Without a lot of time, we dove into the usual offshore prep routine.
  • Mount the dinghy outboard to the stern rail and secure it
  • Hoist the dingy to the foredeck and lash it down securely
  • Lash down dinghy gas tank and extra diesel jug
  • Fill diesel and water tanks
  • Stow everything securely below
  • Prepare the passage bunk
  • Test the Satellite system
  • Review weather data
  • Provision and cook several healthy, easy on the stomach meals
  • Install the jackline in the cockpit so we can always be tethered in (deck jacklines are always rigged)
  • Inspect, inspect and inspect some more
  • Get some rest
After that was all done, we had a lovely dinner at the marina and tried to have a relaxing night. Departure was to be noon the next day with a planned arrival mid day in Beaufort, NC about 70 hours later.

Our first and last night in West End, Grand Bahama. Giant Fishing Tournament starting the next day.

Celebratory final toast to our fantastic Caribbean winter and our last night in the islands.

A few hours before leaving with Argon fully prepped, Linda poses for a girl-power shot.

Final WX  Forecast from Ken at Locus Weather

With conditions generally favorable for riding the Gulf Stream, and an eddy southeast of Cape Fear producing adverse current for an approach to the southwestern North Carolina coast, the following waypoints are suggested:

West End

Boat speed estimates have been increased to 9 knots for the run north to the east of Florida with gulf stream current speeds of nearly 2 knots in that area, then 8 knots has been used  from there northeastward along the route where the current speeds are not as consistently strong. With a desire to arrive near midday at Beaufort, a departure time from West End in the early afternoon tomorrow should accomplish this.

The forecast is presented for departure from West End early tomorrow afternoon, and assumes a route defined by the waypoints above.
Time: Thursday early afternoon 4/27/2017 (1400 EDT, 1800 GMT)
Expected approximate position: departing West End, Bahamas
Forecast Winds: SSE 11-15 kts
Forecast Sea State: 1-3 ft.
Comments: Fair weather. Winds a bit stronger and seas a bit higher once into the Gulf Stream, but not unusually short or steep.

Time: Thursday evening 4/27/2017 (2000 EDT, 0000 GMT Friday)
Expected approximate position: 27.0N/79.5W
Forecast Winds: SSE 13-17 kts. 
Forecast Sea State: 2-4 ft.
Comments: Partly cloudy.  Seas a bit higher farther north through the night. Winds veering to S overnight.

Time: Friday morning 4/28/2017 (0800 EDT, 1200 GMT)
Expected approximate position: 28.7N/79.5W
Forecast Winds: S 13-17 kts
Forecast Sea State: 3-5 ft.
Comments: Partly cloudy, an isolated shower or two possible.

Time: Friday evening 4/28/2017 (2000 EDT, 0000 GMT Saturday)
Expected approximate position:30.4N/79.3W
Forecast Winds: S 13-17 kts.
Forecast Sea State: 3-5 ft
Comments: Partly cloudy, a brief passing shower possible.

Time: Saturday morning 4/29/2017 (0800 EDT, 1200 GMT)
Expected approximate position: 31.8N/78.6W
Forecast Winds: S 14-18 kts
Forecast Sea State: 3-5 ft.
Comments: Fair weather.

Time: Saturday evening 4/29/2017 (2000 EDT, 0000 GMT Sunday)
Expected approximate position: 32.9N/77.4W
Forecast Winds: S 13-17 kts. 
Forecast Sea State: 3-5 ft.
Comments: Fair weather. Winds veering to SSW overnight

Time: Sunday morning 4/30/2017 (0800 EDT, 1200 GMT)
Expected approximate position: 34.3N/76.7W
Forecast Winds: SSW 13-17 kts
Forecast Sea State: 3-5 ft.
Comments: Partly cloudy. Winds backing to S late in the day

Time: Sunday evening 4/30/2017 (2000 EDT, 0000 GMT Monday)
Expected approximate position:arrived Beaufort, NC
Forecast Winds: S 13-17 kts.
Forecast Sea State: 3-5 ft
Comments: Partly cloudy. Winds increasing and seas building overnight.

The Route

Basically, the plan was to head pretty much west from West End, Grand Bahama as far as 79:30.0W and then turn due north riding the stream. From there, we had a few way points to follow to maximize the stream and head toward Beaufort.

The general waypoints for our route.

The Passage

The conditions for the passage were overall quite moderate. We actually had port lights open for ventilation at times - a big no-no generally, but it was very hot and extremely settled at the time.  The overnights were actually when conditions got the most robust. The first two overnights had winds into the high teens and low twenties with Argon screaming along in the stream at over 10 knots!  Seas got up into the 1.5 to 2 meter range overnight but then seemed to settle down during the days.

There was not too much traffic to contend with either. Linda did radio a Japanese tanker on one of her overnight watches as the AIS indicated we would pass less than a mile apart. The tanker confirmed Argon was to hold course and the tanker altered her heading slightly to pass safely.

A shot of me at the helm from the passage bunk. Why isn't she sleeping during her off time? (notice the open port lights offshore)

Beautiful sunrises and sunsets every day. We were very conscious that these were our final miles before being back in the US.

Reading, not sleeping.
Sailing downwind at 8kts on flat seas in the gulf stream. Why would anyone do the ICW?

Linda takes a selfie on one of her night watches.

Arm shot selfie on our last sunset offshore.

Sunrise approaching Beaufort!

Fish On!

Conditions were so benign the first day, that we decided to put out a fishing line. I recently had put together a hand line setup with a "yoyo" and this is what we used. Before long, it caught some sea grass. I reeled it in, cleaned and put it back out. Before I even took the line off the yoyo, it got hit hard! The hand line setup has a bungee cord that leaves a loop in the heavy line. Once that loop pulls tight, it sets the hook automatically. From then on, there is no elasticity in the system. You reel the dyneema and heavy fishing line up on the yoyo.  We managed to keep this nice Mahi Mahi on and get it into the cockpit where we gave it the Guadeloupe Rum in the Gills Treatment (this rum is too disgusting to drink and is only used for killing fish or cleaning engine parts).

First catch with the Hand Line and probably our last fish for a long, long time. The yoyo is on the floor behind me.


It's all well and good to say "go due north until point x,y", but when the wind is directly behind the boat as it was, it was very difficult to maintain this direction. The winds were mostly in the low to mid teens for much of the passage and when you factor in that the stream is pushing us at 2kts, it's hard to keep the sails full. We ended up gybing back and forth in the stream and here is where we made a bit of a tactical error. We centered the gybes on 79:30W which upon further analysis of the stream data was just on the eastern edge of the fastest current.  So each time we gybed east, we actually fell out of the stream and lost some speed. Once we figured out this was happening, we kept more west in the fastest part of the stream. The good news is that with 2kts of current behind you, a gybe that would normally change your direction 30 degrees changes it by more like 20 over ground. This made it possible to point the boat a little higher and get some speed while still going quite north-ish.  I'm sure our racing friends are saying "well... why didn't you fly the chute?".

A few of our zig-zags from our track. Go west, young man!

With the sea state so calm and wind direction so consistent, we were able to do quite a bit of wing on wing sailing


On the last evening, it all started to sink in. After seven months in the Caribbean and Bahamas, we were about to see our very last sunset over the ocean. We were also seeing some of our last deep blue water which unless you've seen it, no description of the color and texture can do justice. Photos and videos never capture it. We've also seen the last of the wonderful people of the Caribbean and Bahamas. We've met so many people who have so much less than us and yet are more welcoming and friendly and open than anyone from the first world. It makes you realize that they have life figured out right. It took me months to stop wondering "what does he want?" when someone would be friendly to us. Do I have to re-learn that now?  Anyway, on to 'merca.

Taking a moment to think about how lucky we've been to do this and all the things we'll miss going forward.


This was a surprise, but we ended up motoring much of the last twelve hours. This was a disappointment, of course, but on the other hand, I would rather have these conditions than the other end of the scale. Although there was some motoring, we had mostly very fast sailing on this passage. Argon was consistently doing 10 knots over ground the first and second nights!

A blurry shot of the i70s showing us doing only 9.7kts over ground.

On-Time Arrival

On the morning after our third overnight, Beaufort Inlet was just over the horizon. Soon, we saw Cape Lookout Light flashing every 15 seconds (just like the chart says it should). Navigating Beaufort Inlet is relatively easy and we were arriving just after low slack tide. We found our way to the Beaufort Town Docks which would be our home for the next seven days while we waited to proceed around Cape Hatteras to Hampton, VA. We were tied up by 10AM making the passage just 70 hours as planned.

We arrived on a Sunday and so the local Customs and Border Patrol office was not open. We kept our Quarantine flag up and didn't cause any international incidents. At 9AM Monday, we were visited by two officers who cleared us in quickly with no issues (except our eggs.  we had to cook our eggs).  Did we leave the boat before we cleared in? Next question, please.

Motoring the final leg in to Beaufort inlet.

Tied up in Beaufort. Time to get some sleep

The lovely boardwalk in Beaufort

Being Townies

Linda's relative Vic Fasolino and his wife Lora live in Beaufort these days after previously living in Rhode Island and New Jersey. They have managed to become local fixtures in the town (everyone we met knew them). Vic is a passionate wooden boat builder and has quite a nice shop set up in Beaufort. His boat building website is here.

Dinner at Vic and Lora's lovely and inviting home.

The house that Vic and Lora built (yes, they really did).

Vic Showing me one of his current in-progress boats,

I was very impressed with Vic's shop and tooling that he had set up.

One of Vic's Toys. This is a working fully autonomous wooden boat. There is a gps-driven auto pilot under the seat which Vic can program waypoints into. Vic and Lora will paddle to town for breakfast and have the skeleton boat follow them. Big hit with the locals and tourists!

This skeleton rides his trike in the local parades.

One of the street puppets Vic built for local parades.

I Work Too Much

While I slaved away at my day Job, Linda got to go sailing on one of Vic's sailboats (one that happens to be for sale by the way). The day they went out was a small craft advisory day with pretty brisk winds.

The lovely gaff rigged sloop that Linda and Vic sailed. This was built in Vic's shop.

So much wind that day, they tried sailing for a while with no main sail. Didn't work so well.

We picked a good week to be in Beaufort as the wooden boat show was happening. Other activities included the boat building challenge where teams are given identical materials and a design and have four hours to build a boat. That is followed by a race of course.

One of the events at the boat building museum we got invited to (or crashed).

One of the boats on display in the museum workshop.

One of the teams (the winner) in the Boat Building Challenge. These guys were way ahead of all the other competition.

Nearly Finished.

Another one of Vic's creations.  A viking boat.

Yes, of course it breathes fire.

Linda, Vic and Lora after a long day working the show.

Leaving Beaufort

There was quite a stretch of weather after we arrived in Beaufort.  We contacted Ken about a window to get around Cape Hatteras and there were not a lot of good choices. Eventually it came down to Leave Monday or you may be stuck for at least another ten days. So we left Monday. The window wasn't ideal but it was the best we were going to get for some time. We figured there would be some motoring involved but when rounding the notorious Cape Hatteras, it's better to err on the too calm side.

We decided to spend our last night anchored inside of Lookout Bight near the light. What a beautiful spot this is and it shaved about 15 miles off our passage up to Hampton, Virginia.

Argon anchored in the calm Bight with Cape Lookout Light behind us.

Beautiful dunes and scenery.

Could be a windows desktop picture, no?

This is a Bird Watchers paradise.

The Movie

Linda captured lots of footage of the preparation and the passage which have made it into another one of our videos.

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