There is a Reason Why They Call it Beating to Windward

Before we departed Rockland, I agonized over the weather models, charts and predictions. The pattern showed a strong southerly wind strengthening to 30 knots as a low-pressure system moved up the coast. I watched on the predictive models the wind and seas build, then ultimately weakening. The sea state remained ugly, and the conditions in the gulf would not improve for a few more days delaying our departure from Rockland. By the weekend, high pressure would move over the region killing the wind or making it light and variable. If we wanted to jump south, we would have to do it soon, before the low-pressure system strengthened.

With the wind out of the South, Caprica could point (aim close to the wind) far enough to reach Cape Cod, and we could duck into Provincetown and rent a mooring, giving us 20 to 30 hours before the low-pressure system reached our region.

I laid out the scenario to the women of Caprica, we looked at the models, and I explained what we were in for. Caprica would be beating to windward, through the Gulf of Maine through the day and night. It would be raucous and uncomfortable, but it was a small weather window that we could take advantage of. The vote was unanimous.

The Rockland city docks were wide open, a smooth trip through the mooring field. We could tie up adjacent to a replica Viking ship, offload trash and pay a small fee to take on fresh water. Ultimately, I decided against filling our forward water tank to capacity even though we were about to make a passage. Caprica carries 90 gallons of water forward, just aft of the chain locker where 300 pounds of ground tackle sits. I estimated at our current rate of water consumption that we had approximately 7 days of fresh water remaining. By choosing not to fill our forward water tank, we would eliminate just over 500 pounds of weight forward and ease our pounding as we beat to windward. Only 10 hours later, Caprica’s bow heaved over 8 to 10-foot waves, dropping into the swells before riding over the next. Inside is like a drum, magnifying sounds and intensifying the violence of our surrounding nature. On deck, I took in a reef as white water broke over the bow dousing the dodger (spray hood that protects the cockpit) and was thankful to be 500 pounds light.

In Rockland before departure, we watched heavy fog hang across the harbor. Visibility was just under a mile with the occasional encroachment to a few hundred feet. We hauled in 160 feet of chain and our number 1 anchor, hoisted sail and cruised out of the harbor. The fog enveloped us, and we watched pensively as a large cursing catamaran a few boat lengths off of our bow then the land to starboard vanished. Alison sat below at the navigation station examining the radar screen and the chart plotter, calling up target positions, trajectories, and my course corrections. “Red target ¼ of a mile at 1 o’clock,” she would call up to the cockpit. Then, “The target moved to 3 o’clock and is now at a ½ mile.” A minute later, “Yellow target 3, o’clock.”

Red on the radar represents a strong return where yellow, blue or green are small returns and could be birds in the water or lobster pots.

The fog thickened and visibility sank to 100 feet as we moved under sail into the main shipping channel, where logically there would not be lobster pots. Lobster pots are a nemesis to the mariner. The strong line sometimes connecting 2 heavy duty floats that mark the metal pot below, in as much as 300 feet of water are in essence mines to your keel, propeller, and shaft. With no rhyme, reason or pattern to how the pots are positioned, emerging from the fog into an impassable field of pots is a real fear. Often, pots emerged from the fog just in my field of vision, giving me enough time to make a hard course correction only to encounter another pot, another mine that wants to disable us in the water.

Even in the main shipping channels, lobster pots littered the lanes. Maggie sat on the deck as a drenching mist enveloped us calling out pots as Alison called out radar targets. It was all hands on deck. The fog lifted slightly, and dozens of pots floated around us in the shipping channels. “This is crazy!” Maggie said. “They’re everywhere.” We vectored starboard to the edge of the shipping lanes knowing there were a few hours of this ahead before the water was too deep for pots.

Alison continued to call out radar targets as I monitored the radio and regularly checked our position on the chart, cross-referenced with buoys that we passed. Again and again, she called out targets, recommending course corrections. Maggie and I sat in the cockpit watching lobster boats pass our bow, to port or to stern; hard men working in hard conditions.

We continued through the fog and the soaking mist passing Metinic Island to our south. Originally we planned a southerly course from Rockland, passing near Little Green and Large Green Islands. A course that we’ve followed 3 times before where we admired the rugged islands and water breaking over the enormous boulders littering the shoreline, but in the fog, it was a foolhardy decision. We continued to vector west until we were south of Tenants Harbor. For a moment we flirted with the idea of heading north into Tenants whose approaches were natural even in the fog. But with a narrow weather window and entering an unknown harbor in poor visibility, we realized the folly in the idea.

As we followed the main shipping channel south, towards the Gulf, I sat alone in the cockpit. I was clad in my foul weather gear but still felt the chill of the mist reaching through my protection and clenched against a spasm of shivering. I’d have to get Alison to take a shift so I could warm up before the night watch. The shiver returned.

“Westbound vessel south of Mosquito Island, this is the Tug ….” The voice called over the radio. His tone was calm, soft and relaxed. The call repeated, and I checked the chart. My cold, wet fingers couldn’t manipulate the screen.

“Is he calling us?” Alison popped into the cockpit. “Wow!” She exclaimed and looked around. Visibility sunk to just about a boat length. “Are you warm enough?” Alison saw water dripping out of my beard and that everything on deck was soaking.

“No idea,” I said, knowing that in the next radio call he would again give our position fix and I could look at the two given points. As we vectored south of Burt Island and on cue, the radio call came with the same easy voice. The Tugboat captain was clearly in a highly cushioned seat feeling the warmth of a space heater on his feet. “Vessel south of Burt Island, this is the tug…”

“This is Sailing vessel Caprica I responded,” looking into zero visibility. “We are on a heading of … at 1.1 miles south of Burt Island and 1.6 miles East of Old Man ledge.”

“Yeah, I’m heading through the channel, towing…,” he explained some type of barge.

“No problem. We see you on radar and will stay clear. I will maintain heading and speed.”

“Okay. That’s good. Just don’t cut behind me. I’m towing a barge.”

I rechecked the radar screen. Two large red blobs were moving through the channel.

“Stay on course, and I won’t run over you.” He said nonchalantly.

“Roger. Sailing vessel Caprica standing by 16.”

We watched the radar and maintained course until the blobs were parallel with our track. On deck, in the all-encompassing fog, we could hear and feel the powerful tug engines as it thundered by us completely unseen. He sounded two horn blasts, then was gone.

Alison continued to call out targets, positions and course changes as we passed Monhegan Island to port, leaving the shipping channels and entered the gulf.

The swells grew larger, deeper and the wind gained intensity as the fog held steady. As we moved offshore, away from the islands and setting a course for Cape Cod, the fog intensified; something that I didn’t think was possible. Are we in a storm cloud, I wondered. Alison called out a target, and I changed course 5 degrees port. Minutes later, a lobster boat passed us to starboard nearly invisible but close enough to understand what those 5 degrees meant. That’s when I realized that even at sea, with thousands of open miles around you, boats are magnets.

We continued on course, confident as the wind continued to build and happy to leave lobster pots and lobstermen behind.

I was cold, shivering and wet. A dangerous combination at sea, on deck in conditions that were clearly worsening. Alison dawned fleeces, sweaters, boots, foul weather gear and a winter hat; emerging into the cockpit to stand watch.

Down below, Caprica heaved in the growing seas. Cups clanked, and an unsecured locker door swung, hitting an adjacent wall.

I stripped off my gear, boots, socks and wet sweatshirt, changing into fleece and alpaca wool clothes, I climbed into my berth and passed out.

“Daddy?” Eleanor called from her nest of pillows in the salon.

I came to and staggered out of my berth, in a semi-sleep just in time to see her projectile vomit onto her favorite pillow.

The flow of noodles and multi-colored chunks continued onto a comforter and quilt before Eleanor casually wiped her face with the back of a hand.

Maggie climbed out of her berth as I gathered the pillows and blankets. She sat on the floor, bracing against the couch holding Eleanor as the smell, that smell, filled Caprica.

Alison emerged from the cockpit, dripping from the heavy mist. “What’s wrong?” She asked looking around just as Maggie climbed across the pitching floor towards the aft head. She was next.

Seasickness is like food poisoning and the most maddening hangover combined into a vortex of hate. When it strikes, it is an experience that leaves a mark. Both Eleanor and Maggie had taken preventative seasickness drugs, but there is a reason why they call it beating to windward.

I added layers of fleece and wool under my foul weather gear and traded spots with Alison for the night. In the pitching, heaving madness down below, she changed the bed and curled up with Eleanor. Maggie crawled into her aft berth and disappeared for the next 8 hours.

Emerging on deck, I was amazed that the fog had lifted and the moon shone brightly across the gulf. It was a beautiful night, a blessing. I could easily trim the sails against the backdrop of the moonlight and see the breaking waves as they approached Caprica. I stood at the helm and admired the Atlantic and what it chose to share with us.

We were still outside of the shipping channels leading into Portland and at the helm I could see that the wind was changing its attitude and we were easting. After a quick analysis, it became clear that if we continued to point (aim close to the wind), the ride was going to become like a rodeo show and progress would have slowed tremendously. We could turn towards Portland and have a fast downwind ride back north. But then again we were still working against our weather window, and as I realized the other day, Portland should be visited going north and not south because of the predominantly southern wind. Going to Portland would have us there waiting for a rare northerly breeze. Portland is a big city with plenty of places to visit and a group of like-minded people we want to meet, but the smart money for this trip was to fall off the wind and shape a course for the Isle of Shoals.

The Isle of Shoals is a cluster of small islands in the southern sector of the gulf. I knew there was an anchorage protected from the dominant wind and it would be an excellent place to rest; giving us time to formulate our next plan. If the Isle of Shoals didn’t work out, Portsmouth was a few miles to the west with an accessible entrance and a good anchorage. I turned the wheel starboard and within moments felt the attitude of the boat change.

I shook out a reef forward but maintained the deeply reduced main, aiming south of the Isle of Shoals accounting for drift. Once there we could decide where to go next.

Moving back to the helm and away from the salt-encrusted spray dodger, it was evident that the fog was returning and the sea state was still growing. The anemometer was now showing sustained winds in the mid to upper 20’s with gust peaking in the mid 30’s. Caprica was handling the conditions well. With the course change and the reduced mainsail, the ride was almost comfortable.

With Maggie down, we decided that I would stand watch through the night. From time to time, I’d peak down from my position behind the spray dodger to glance at the radar or check the battery status. With all instruments running, radar, refrigeration, lights, and autopilot, maintaining a close watch on battery status was a must. Depleting the battery bank under those conditions would be easy.

On deck the fog and soaking mist returned with a vengeance, reducing visibility to zero. Just the glowing red compass showed the course. Waves lifted and dropped Caprica as the wind intensified and the rig moaned in the wind. I reread the anemometer, 33 knots (37 mph) and took in another reef forward.

For the next few hours, the wind alternated between 22 and 28 knots, occasionally gusting to the low 30’s.

I was on hyper alter as we crossed the major Portland shipping channels, deciding that on our next foray north, we will have AIS. AIS is a tracking system that all commercial ships and some pleasure yachts carry to identify each other, course, speed, location and so on. It is immensely helpful when you want to be seen, and we wanted to be seen.

Ducking below periodically, I adjusted the radar in 2 miles and out 10 occasionally checking the interference setting that allowed me to see other radar scanners. All appeared to be clear, but I still jumped on the radio a few time to identify myself, heading and speed.

And into the night we went.

Around one in the morning, the wind calmed just under 20 knots, and I shook out the two reefs forward. Caprica leaned into the waves and surged with every lift. She liked the conditions and didn’t care about the fog.

I curled into a cockpit combing, adjusting my safety harness and found a place that I could stay dry and see the radar. The night progressed with marching waves, an eye on the compass, constant attention to the radar and an occasional glance at the dark ocean.

Around 0300, Caprica lifted up the face of an enormous wave and slid into the trough. Whitewater rushed across the deck and over the spray dodger. I looked up from where I braced my legs to see cascading green light sparkling across the deck and onto the side decks. We stumbled into a patch of phosphorescent algae, like billions of fireflies our deck and wake burned a brilliant green. I watched the waves around me crest and break, the sea illuminating chain reaction miniature supernovas. Seemingly from nowhere to everywhere, the light followed us and lit our path forward through the fog.

At some point early in the morning, Alison arrived on deck clad in her battle gear. I slumped into a cockpit combing falling asleep confident in my first mate. A few hours passed and a gaggle of seabirds yelling at us from a seaweed patch brought me back to reality. The fog had lifted, and to port, the Isle of Shoals grew out of the horizon.

Alison presented me with a cup of coffee as we rounded the first set of islands, spying a few tall ships anchored in the harbor we were immediately amazed at the geography and beauty of this place. Secretly I was thankful that the weather didn’t cooperate or the wind didn’t follow the forecast. If everything had gone as planned, we never would have ended up in the Isle of Shoals. One of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Sometimes you just have to embrace the suck.

Isle of Shoals on the Horizon

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