21 October 2016

Preparing to Sail Offshore to Bermuda

A true sailor knows that the ocean is not the enemy, it's all the damn hard stuff that surrounds it.

Coastal sailors get nervous when they lose sight of land. Ocean sailors get nervous when they approach land. I am striving to appreciate, embrace, and respect both coastal and open ocean sailing.

Captain Linda Perry Riera

Upcoming Open Ocean Passage: Hampton, Virginia to St. George, Bermuda

This simple little yellow line represents 650nm from Virginia to St. George Bermuda at approximately 115 degrees True. If we average 5.5kts we will arrive in about 120 hours / 5 days. After 2 or 3 weeks in Bermuda we will head southward for another long (~850nm) passage to the Caribbean.

Five days of constant sailing... out of sight of land and other boats; out of range of the VHF radio, WiFi, cellular service; unable to tuck in to a protected cove or drop an anchor; beyond BoatUS towing or US Coast Guard help. This will be our most significant transit on Argon to date. We will enable our satellite communications for important weather updates but will otherwise be disconnected from the buzz and hum of information, news, communication, and normal daily activities. We will focus on harmonizing Argon with the changing sea and wind conditions, employing our practiced skills, staying physically nimble and emotionally resilient. Although this is only five days (which is not extensive for open ocean), it is huge for us and a key voyage we have been preparing for these past few years. Our goals for these five days are simple:
  • arrive safely
  • embrace the experience

Transiting the Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream is a powerful current in the Atlantic Ocean that originates in the Gulf of Mexico, flows in to the Atlantic at the southern tip of Florida, turns northward and accelerates along the eastern coast of the US up to Newfoundland. It is a large system of currents up to 4kts, sometimes forming circular eddies and creating powerful winds.

The powerful, warm and swift current of the Gulf Stream follows the eastern coast of the US. It is akin to an enormous river roaring through the ocean. When the wind opposes the Gulf Stream current, the seas morph in to steep, cliff-like walls of water making crossing dangerous. Therefore, sailors seeks to find a weather window with winds generally in the same direction as the current.
The Gulf Stream has a nasty reputation with sailors and mariners generally. Captains of small and large vessels respect her dominance, carefully consider how to use her power and avoid trying to fight her strength. As with all waters with current, it's best to avoid when the wind is opposing the current direction. For the Gulf Stream, this is especially true as an opposing wind here can cause very dangerous high and steep waves.

Picking a Weather Window: 

"... the sailing will be rather rigorous through the entire trip..." 

This statement in the forecast from our weather router, Locus Weather, triggered careful examination, consideration, and much discussion. Hhhmmm... well, the good news on the upcoming window:
  • favorable wind direction for the entire trip; wind will be mostly out of the west and then northwest behind the beam with some veering to the north and potentially the northeast at the end of the journey
  • robust winds pushing Argon swiftly and likely well above the 5.5kts average speed initially estimated, perhaps often surfing down waves faster than hull speed as 20-30kts push us along; no lulls that would require motoring
  • winds and seas will settle a bit around day three but still be 15+kts
 The aspects of the forecast that give us pause include:
  • conditions in the Gulf Stream a bit more rigorous than ideal (uncomfortable and tiring but not dangerous)
  • 6 -10 foot seas... for several days continuously around the clock; no reprieve from the rockin' and rollin' until we reach our destination

With the help of our weather router, we will monitor both the wind and Gulf Stream forecasts to time our transit. In addition to wind and waves, there are various swirls and eddies in the Gulf Stream that need to be accounted for and may result in course adjustments. The part of the Gulf Stream where we will be crossing is about 75nm wide.

After much examination of the weather information, discussion with our weather router, and talking through, we decided to depart the morning of Sunday 23 October estimating that we will average a robust 7kts and arrive in Bermuda midday Thursday 27 October. Winds are expected to be in the 15-30kt range during this time and the seas 4-10 feet. For nearly five days. I can do this.

We will hit the gulf stream about 16 hours in to our trip (assuming a 7kt average, given the wind forecast). The strongest part of the gulf stream will come about 6 hours later and we should be clear of her extra waves and current in another 4-6 hours. Winds during this time are forecasted to be 20-25kts out of the west. Thus the first 24-36 hours of this journey may be the most difficult (Sunday night and Monday). A cold front will move through and pass us Monday evening but we will be well out of the Gulf Stream by this time.

The latest update from our weather routed 18 hours prior to our planned departure included updated details on the conditions and the following summary:   
"Recommendation is to depart as planned tomorrow morning. The wind direction will be favorable the entire passage, and wind speeds and seas will be manageable, although above normal for the first couple of days leading to some rigorous sailing, including during the Gulf Stream crossing."


Offshore Ruminations

Many blue water sailors have said that the long ocean passages are not the most dangerous part of sailing - it is entering and exiting the harbors that present the most risk. Ships and land don’t really like each other, and in the open ocean, there is little land to give you trouble. However, the mindset and attitude that is required to go far from land is quite different from staying along the coast and the consequences of being near land do not seem to require as much planning as the lifelines feel closer and stronger. Offshore the weather is amplified and self reliance is not a choice, it is a necessity; one must deal with all conditions and any challenges that present. Being out of sight of all land can instill a somewhat primal fear but also a rare escape.

Busy harbors are fun, interesting, and usually protected but can be challenging to navigate, especially if unfamiliar.

Coastal cruising can present all sorts of navigational considerations that do not exist in the open ocean: rocks, shallows, lobster pots, etc.

One can feel much freedom on the open ocean.

The seemingly endless ocean can be relaxing, inspiring, and daunting (and exhausting).

"Sailing unties the knots in my mind" - Al Noble

Bob and I have done  numerous overnight sails within 25nm of the coast feeling enchanted and intimidated moving through the darkness with the moon on solo watches. The long, lightless nights in various conditions have helped us prepare for extended offshore trips but we are both relative novices when it comes to blue water sailing with only a few offshore passages in our log.

Sailing through a foggy night on a broad reach in rolling seas off the eastern coast of Nova Scotia.

Bob crewing on Acedia - a Freedom 38 - with Skipper/Owner Melissa and Mate Lance from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda November 2015. Bob has one passage to Bermuda under his belt which is one more than I have.

First light far from land.
In preparation for the our upcoming much longer open ocean journeys, Bob and I have done several shorter offshore passages this past summer including Boston to Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia to Maine, and Block Island to Cape May.

100nm offshore between Boston and Nova Scotia. The water really is blue out away from land. This recent trip to Nova Scotia was a practice offshore for me, Bob, and Argon.

Generous following waves made for a challenging long day of sailing off the coast of Nova Scotia back in July.


Demands of the conditions should be commensurate with our skills and the capabilities of our boat. We have been preparing ourselves and Argon for this upcoming and additional open ocean passages for a few years. Many projects were discussed in a blog post earlier this year - check out Converting Argon from a Coastal Cruiser to a Sailboat Prepared for OffShore and Extended Cruising.  This post outlines the following safety and comfort related projects such as:
  • Automatic Identification System (AIS)
  • Satellite Communications
  • Solar Panels
  • Storm Trisail
  • Safety at Sea Seminar and Workshop in Newport
  • Manual Bilge Pump
  • AIS Beacons for PFDs
  • Life Raft
  • Mast Tie Down, Jacklines, Lee Clothes, Expanded Library of Charts, Enhanced Medical Kit, LED Lighting, Dinghy & Davits, and more
We recently tested our storm trisail out on the water as part of episdoe #2 of our new video blog series:

Final Preparations and Provisioning

Even though we have had a prepared boat for a while, there is a flurry of activity needed in the immediate couple of days prior to departure. We learned yesterday (Thursday) that our likely departure will be early Sunday morning (just a day after posting this blog entry) and have been very busy with final activities.

Check and fine tuning of the standing rigging.

Former land neighbors, Ricky and Donna, from our neighborhood outside of Boston happen to be in the area preparing for their own sailing trip south. They were kind enough to cart me around with them on provisioning runs to Target, West Marine, propane refill, and the grocery store.

Huge cart full of groceries and staples to stock up on both near and long term needs. Bermuda and our future destination in the Caribbean can have scarce availability of some items and high prices so we stocked up on various non-perishables and stored them creatively on the boat.

Food storage and organization.
Bob attaching mounting straps to the ceiling of the aft cabin to secure our fishing rods out of the way. The aft cabin will store Bob's instruments and music gear as well as spare groceries, dinghy bench/oars, stand up paddle board, and the storm sail.

Repacked the storm sail for easier access (but we hope to not need it!); see video above.

Front loading the food preparations: Offshore menu will include stuffed peppers, lentil pasta, risotto, roasted veggies with wild rice, and broccoli with wheat pasta (all with less spice than I would normally use to go easy on our bellies). Also on hand will be bland crackers, seltzer water, ginger ale. nuts, steel cut oatmeal, and energy bars. Bob gets his last bit of Atlas work done as he will be completely off line all next week.

Outboard motor gets mounted on the stern rail and the dinghy gets hoisted and partially deflated then secured to the fore deck. (When coastal the dinghy hangs off davits mounted to the stern, but the large waves and constant tossing of the boat in the waves necessitates a more secure mounting for offshore.)

Programming course waypoints in to the GPS to help us track our actual course against our expected course.

Plotting waypoints manually on a paper chart. The watch captain will update the chart with our actual latitude and longitude at the end of each shift.

In addition, we ran and checked the engine, secured the extra diesel tank, organized the aft cabin, performed a thorough safety check of the deck and all rigging, and secured all items down below in the cabin.  Bob will also get a last surge of work for Atlas in as we will be off line all next week.


We welcome a good friend and top notch sailor, Lance Ryley. Lance owns several boats including a sweet and very fast Columbia 32, Rocket 2.0. Lance has quite a reputation in the New England racing community as an astute racer and we are thrilled that he is going to step away from his full life in Boston to crew on Argon with us to Bermuda!  Bob and Lance co-crewed on Acedia - a Freedom 38 in November 2015 on a delivery from Newport to Bermuda.  They still like each other.

We are thrilled to have Lance join us en route to Bermuda.

Watch Schedule


Given that we are fortunate to have an additional crew person (thank you again, Lance!!) our normal 3 on 3 off watch schedule can be modified to 3 on 6 off... so much better. The on times mean constant helming, trimming and making sail changes as needed, staying alert for changing conditions, traffic or debris, signs of issues with the boat, and manually plotting our position at the end of each shift. The off times should be spent resting and sleeping so one has stamina for the often tiring and intense on times. But off times also may include downloading and examining most recent weather forecast, cooking, showering, and helping the on helmsman if conditions warrant another set of hands especially when winds are high and/or seas are rough. In addition, given the conditions expected on the front end of the trip, the watch schedule may be modified to have two of us in the cockpit the first 24 to 36 hours which would mean potentially a 6 on 3 off schedule for the first day and a half.

Updating our course during an off time en route to Nova Scotia

Night watch  en route to Nova Scotia in July (temperatures at night normally drop quite a bit). We expect the first couple of nights en route to Bermuda to be quite cold.


During our initial shakedown offshore in Nova Scotia back in July, we established several rules specific to open ocean sailing that we will continue to employ:
  • Life vest at all times; tether to jacklines when venturing out of the cockpit (regardless of how calm the seas may seem); tether in the cockpit when alone on watch or seas/wind at least moderate (in reality, we are almost always tethered even in the cockpit - it just becomes a good habit)   Note: given the conditions for this trip, we will always be tethered, even in the cockpit
  • If alone on watch and there is a need to go on deck, awake one of the off crew to inform / help (this rule can be very reassuring to those resting below)
  • Careful foredeck and general inspection end of each day when still daylight searching for anything amiss
  • Adhere to watch schedule; rest as much as possible when off watch to mitigate exhaustion
  • Prophylactic sea sickness medicine; stay hydrated with plenty of water; eat light, healthy, carefully chosen food to keep up energy but easy on our bellies
  • No alcohol  
  • Take it all in, experience the journey, be in the moment

Tethered in at the helm

Pre-Trip Jitters

Yes, I am excited. And, yes, I am nervous. It is daunting. So much preparation, planning, and practicing. Now it is game time.

We will update our position every several hours with a quick satellite upload. You can check out our position right here in the blog as always. Please send us good thoughts! 

I am looking forward to experiencing this offshore journey, tackling the challenges, and feeling a sense of accomplishment on the other side. And... two of our three boys will be visiting us in Bermuda - yeah!! After a couple week hiatus in Bermuda, it will be on to the Caribbean!

Until next time, from Bermuda... We AReGONe!!

16 October 2016

Missing Mathew and Sailing the Southern Chesapeake to Virginia

After some time in Baltimore and Annapolis, we explored some serene anchorages and the lovely little town of St. Michaels.  We hunkered down in Solomons, Maryland while Hurricane Matthew passed far offshore.  Now, after a couple of long legs we're in Hampton, Virginia awaiting a weather window to jump off to Bermuda!

Bob Damiano

Annapolis - Drinking Town with a Sailing Problem[tm].  

We spent a few days in Annapolis on the public dock right downtown.  This was about a week before they would begin staging boats for the immensely popular Annapolis Sailboat Show. We had a bit of weather while we were there with some sustained wind in the 20s and gusts to 30 and absolute torrential rain at times.  We pulled bow-in to these little finger piers between pylons because otherwise, we would have had all that blasting into the cockpit.

Argon tied to a tiny fixed finger pier at the public dock in Annapolis bracing for the wind
The harbormaster had offered us a chance to move further in and tie up against the sea wall.  We had such a complicated tie-up on the pylons that we didn't want to bother undoing all that to move.  That ended up being a bad decision.  The next day, we were blown so hard off of the fixed finger pier, that we could not get off the boat for most of the day.  Tide was well above normal high tide all day.  The downtown parking lots were flooded. It was nasty.

Extra high tide and pouring rain

The two BMWs on the right were stranded in this deep water.  The tow truck got a two-for one special that night

But Annapolis is awesome.  We went on several long walks exploring and even hiked the 2 miles to the grocery store and back. There are endless restaurants and bars in Annapolis. There are thousands of sailboats in marinas all around the city. Two or three power boats too.

One of the many, many restaurants, pubs and music venues in Annapolis

After things calmed down a bit, we took a mooring ball from the harbormaster over in Back Creek. What an amazing place! Marina after marina after marina absolutely packed with sailboats.

Back Creek in Annapolis

Why the Wye?

After Annapolis, we were looking forward to a free night or two at anchor.  Linda found a great spot up in one of the nooks off the Wye River on the Eastern Shore. This is birder's heaven.  Herons and Eagles all over the place.  Quiet, peaceful and beautiful. 

That's Joe Walsh in the middle there

A few neighbors in this Anchorage

On the wing

Blue Heron

If you lived here, you'd be home by now

The only slight issue is that we had very little connectivity over there and I really needed to get some work done.

Always monitoring the 4G signal strength (or lack thereof). Here we just barely have a weak LTE (4g) signal.

For that reason alone, we decided to get back to civilization and St. Michael's, MD was not only on everyone's list of suggested destinations, it was also very close by.

That Windlass Project (take II)

A few episodes ago, I was ranting about the cheesy switches that Quick used for windlass switches. I replaced them with some more robust ones I found on Amazon. Well... one of those failed too!  While in Baltimore, we went to the West Marine and I got some really heavy duty blue sea brand switches ($30/ea).  These had a narrower shaft so once again, we had to fill the holes with epoxy and re-drill them.  While I was at it, I also over-drilled all the mounting holes for the covers and filled them with epoxy too.

New switch mounted in fresh new hard epoxy. Mounting holes ready to be drilled into new epoxy as well.

New switches mounted and wired up.  So far, so good.

Again, the switch failure mode was stuck ON.  This time the UP button stuck.  So, we are very much now in the habit of turning off the windlass breaker when not in use - especially while the anchor is down.

Anchoring at St. Michaels and watching Mathew

We did manage to keep to our goal of "free anchorage" in St. Michaels.  There is room for a handful of boats just off the north and south sides of the main channel.  This is not a very protected anchorage from east wind (and that's what we had), but it was just fine.

It was here that we started to really worry about Hurricane Mathew. At that time, the projected track was not looking good for the Chesapeake Bay. We talked to the very nice folks at Higgins Yacht Yard and they told us that they were planning on hauling all of their customers and they could probably haul us too, or put us in the Travel Lift Dock.  We decided to leave the final decision until the next morning.

The next morning, Mathew's projected track began to curve it around to the east (offshore) before it got as far north as us so we were a little less worried.  As the day went on, the track looked better and better for the Chesapeake. We told the folks at Higgins that we for sure did not want to be hauled and in fact by that time, they had decided not to haul anyone anyway.

Hurricane Mathew's projected track heading offshore and curling around south. We were relieved to see this. We are at the yellow dot upper right section of the storm.

Since we had a couple days before whatever Mathew would bring, we decided to make some southerly progress (you know, closer to the hurricane) and make it to Solomons Island (still in Maryland) off the Patuxent River.

Patuxent River - Our Hurricane Hole

Zanhiser's Yacht Center in Solomons, MD is a great facility. We anchored just outside of their mooring field and went ashore.  The dinghy dock welcomes anchoring guests but they do ask for a $3 landing fee.  We went to the office and they managed to up-sell us to a $40 mooring.  This gave us access to very nice showers, laundry, free bikes, and a courtesy shuttle for grocery shopping.  Great deal!  It also allowed us to be on a mooring when the outer winds of Mathew hit us the following night. I asked the dockmaster about the ground tackle on these moorings and he said they were 500 pound mushrooms with 3/4" chain.  Sounded good.  I didn't ask when they were last inspected. Maybe I didn't want to know.

Sleepless Night

The effects of Mathew were going to be felt over most of the weekend. Saturday Night was forecast to have the highest winds slowly tapering off through Monday Morning. We decided to do watches overnight Saturday and keep an eye on things, so we both set our alarms. This was unnecessary as neither of us could sleep a wink anyway.

Linda trying to sleep on the settee where it is less bouncy and a bit quieter compared to the V berth

Adding to the insomnia a bit, Mathew had stopped following his clear instructions and started heading more North and less East. I was beginning to wonder if leaving St Michaels was really so smart.

Mathew taunting us with a couple Northerly turns. A day earlier, Mathew was supposed to be way south of this track.(We're the green dot on that cold front)
Overnight Saturday, winds were sustained in the 20s with gusts well into the 30s. You try not to think about the integrity of the mooring, but you do anyway.  It was very noisy inside the boat with wind howling and that mooring line straining while stretched like a guitar string. I had tied an additional mooring line with a blake hitch to the main mooring line to make something of a bridle. I went up on deck a couple times overnight and we were dragging the mooring ball completely under water. We were very happy to see daylight the next day. The wind was still blowing hard, but it always feels less scary when the sun is shining!

Date night going to the restaurant Saturday Night - we were in for a long night that night.

 Short clip from the go-pro of the winds at our mooring

Lets' Go!   Nope - too soon!

On Monday, we decided to head out into the bay and make our way more south toward Virginia. We motored out into the Patuxent and the winds and waves built. We started sailing with a reefed main and jib and the closer we got to the open bay, the heavier things got. We poked out into the bay a little bit and things were just nasty.  Remnants of the impact of Matthew were still very strong and would make for an uncomfortable and adventurous sail. So - we turned around and beat our way back into the Patuxent and some relative shelter.

Our track for that day - out... and back!

We motored back up into Solomons but this time decided to try an anchorage up one of the other creeks in the area.  Here, we had a very humbling anchoring experience.

Drag Race

The mud in the creek beds around the lower Chesapeake is very, very soft.  It's like dust! It's so fine, that your anchor comes up clean - but dark colored. The chain looks almost anodized after it sits in this stuff.  Anyway, we set the hook deep in a cove that had some houses around it where the wind was very light. We started getting some food out and Linda noticed that we had dragged almost 100 yards!

Whoops! - ok we hauled the anchor, motored back up and dropped it again.  This time, we really did a good tug to set it and I put even more scope out.  Back to lunch and.... we're dragging again!  Amazing - we have never dragged before and this wind was so light in the protected cove.  We decided to head back to the anchorage by Zanhisers.  We anchored there without any problem and were able to take off early the next morning for another attempt at heading down the bay.

Lets Go (again)

The next day, we set off early and conditions were beautiful.  This was one of those sailing days that non-sailors probably imagine every day on a sailboat is like.  Great wind behind the beam, flat water and warm, clear skies.  The only downside is that I had to work some while underway.

Yeah, it's always like this
Along this leg, we were in the company of many other boats taking advantage of the good weather and heading south.  There was an AIS target up ahead called "Ancestrial Salute" that was always just 0.1kt faster or slower than us. Eventually, the wind softened up and we got a little advantage over her and overtook her (briefly). We snapped some photos of this lovely 56' ketch and next thing we knew, her skipper Stephen was hailing us.  "Hey Argon - I've got some great pictures of you".  So we emailed our photos back and forth.
Playing tag with this beautiful Ketch from Canada "Ancestrial Salute".

Argon - as viewed from Ancestrial Salute

About to tick off another State

A lot of company migrating south

Let's go all the way

South of Solomons, there are lots of places to tuck in and anchor, but not a lot near any sort of civilization. I was craving data connectivity a bit and our ships stores were craving a trip to a grocery store pretty soon.  We decided to just head all the way to Hampton, Virginia and anchor in the Back River near Langley AFB.

Linda started spreading rumors of a BBQ place near this anchorage.  I was all over the idea of finding this.  We did - and what a gem!  The Bull Island BBQ is this funky little place in a corrugated steel building run by a very enthusiastic woman who cooks everything right there. You sit at a bar surrounding the kitchen which is full of crock pots loaded with her delicious offerings.  We're sort of kind of vegetarian but we definitely were not that night.

Bull Island BBQ - 5 stars

After a very lovely quiet evening at anchor, we motored through some very heavy fog into Hampton Harbor.  We had a slip reserved at Blue Water Marina.  Ah - electricity, free wifi, a real shower, endless water, washing machines, nice docks! Life is good.  The rates here are an amazing $2.00/foot/night. We met some people from Virginia Beach who were complaining about the high rates. I told her what she would be paying in Boston and she was shocked.

Settled into Bluewater Marina. We're on "D" Dock - just like home in Boston. Hello to our D Dock friends at Constitution Marina, Boston!

The Company You Keep

One of the coolest things about this experience so far has been the number of people we have met who are doing something similar to what we are doing.  There are so many great stories to hear and share and we all benefit from them.  Everyone has different ways of solving just about everything from how to rig a sailboat to how to break from a career to actually do this.

Our growing collection of cruisers' boat cards

Exploring Hampton and waiting to go

So, here we are in Hampton, Virgina.  We're going to sit tight until we make the big off shore jump to Bermuda in a week or so.  Ken McKinley from Locus Weather will begin to look for weather windows next week.  We have our good friend and extremely skilled sailor, Lance, flying down from Boston to crew with us for the Bermuda Leg.  Linda intends to write much more about preparing for that adventure.

A short dinghy ride up the river gets us to the main town. There is a lovely short restaurant strip on Queen's Way and so far, we have not found a bad choice.

Sushi and Yaki Soba
Besides restaurants, there is also a pretty nice Air and Space museum. We played tourist for a day and went all through that.  Pretty nice!

The public town docks are also here and we will be moving to them for the remainder of our time here. The public docks have a great deal for us cruisers.  If you give them $75, you get a $0.75/foot/night rate for a year. Not only that, but every four nights gets you a fifth night free. It's a great place for people like us to wait for crew and weather - and it's in an awesome location!

Getting ready for Bermuda... We AReGONe!!