Beaufort, NC - Tortola, BVI - November 1987

by Bill C. Biega

My 36 foot Endeavor sloop "Syrena" was ready for its first long voyage - from the United States to the British Virgin Islands. This voyage consists of two basic segments -
Georgetown, MD down Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk - approx 175NM, then the Intracostal Waterway to Beaufort, NC - a distance of 205 statute miles.
Across the ocean from Beaufort, NC, to Road Town, BVI - a distance of approx. 1300NM.
My crew was Bruce, a retired chemical engineer. He had come down the Intercoastal Waterway from Georgetown, Maryland, to Beaufort, North Carolina, with me and my wife, Lili. Lili returned home and another crew member was to join us there, a friend from California. While we were waiting for him in vain, Bruce and I completed the installation of the flotation equipment, imported from Great Britain, which made "Syrena" virtually unsinkable. We secured stainless steel cables running the length of the boat, to which we could attach our harnesses when working on deck. Then our replacement third crew member joined us. Annette, a statuesque blonde, was a teacher of marine biology at one of North Carolina's smaller universities, taking a sabbatical. She made up for her lack of sailing experience with enormous enthusiasm. She was a last minute fill-in, but that's another story.

Track of During this week a large fleet of yachts was anchored in the creek awaiting a good forecast from the weather bureau before taking off to the south. That night there was a very strong wind, some roofs were blown off houses in Moorehead City, just across the river. Then on Thursday, November 12, the weather cleared and the fleet moved out. We picked up our final provisioning, recharged the propane gas tank, filled up fuel and water, and in the early afternoon moved down the river on the ebbing tide and as the sun was sinking in a clear sky.

The aftermath of the storm caused a disturbed sea and an uncomfortable night. Annette succumbed for the first and the last time. The next day the wind was light and for a while we had to run the engine, the swell died and Annette bounced back to her normal cheerful self. That afternoon the deep indigo blue of the water told us that we were already in the Gulf Stream. The temperature increased and by Saturday it was already in the 70's. On Sunday the wind started increasing but out of an unwelcome direction, a little south of east. Normally at this time of the year the Trade Winds are more north-easterly and I had planned to steer a course of 125° to 65°W longitude, about 360NM north of the Virgin Islands, then turn south on a reach directly toward Tortola. Instead we were barely able to hold a course of 150°.

At noon, both I and Bruce took readings with the sextant and established our position at 31°30'N, 73°10'W. The wind was steadily increasing and by evening we had put in the second reef in the main, the jenny had long been changed down to the standard jib. The wind was averaging 23 knots, gusting to 35, and the waves were up to 12 feet. We were moving along rapidly but on a course of 160° instead of the desired 125°. All that week we beat along into the waves, but making good progress southwards. On Friday morning, the wind finally veered and we were able to get back on our desired course. At noon we were at 25° 40'N, 70° 10'W.

Then we ran into a series of squalls, each one heralded by a line of angry looking black clouds. I would watch each of them and steer to avoid the blackest center. This worked all right in the day time, but at night it was no longer possible. That night one squall caught me by surprise, and it took a great effort to get the flogging sails down on deck with the wind screaming in the rigging and the boat gyrating madly under the onslaught. The front had apparently passed on Saturday about midday, with some wild changes in wind direction. I started the engine to regain control after twice stalling in the sudden wind shifts. Suddenly the engine stopped, I looked over the transom, behind us a green commercial fishing net was trailing, caught in the propeller. The sea was too rough to attempt to cut it away. All we could do was cut the trailing net loose, but what was left was tightly entwined in the propeller. For the next week we could only use our engine to recharge our batteries, not for propulsion.

But now the wind had switched around to the north and we were racing southwards directly towards our goal. The date was November 22 and we had only 400 miles to go to Tortola. We were congratulating ourselves that we would be in the Virgins for Thanksgiving. That was a mistake! At sea one should never count one's chickens before they are hatched! That night the wind was blowing 40 knots, at times the needle of the wind speed indicator hit its stop at 50 knots, and the waves were mountainous and beginning to break on the crests. At sunset we struck and tied down all the sails and hove to, to get some rest. But later that evening I got concerned, several waves had broken right over us, the motion in the cabin was horrendous. Bruce and Annette were exhausted and fast asleep. I put on my yellow storm suit, secured my safety harness to the rail, and for about three hours ran off southwards under bare poles, surfing down the waves, whose foaming crests were clearly visible in the darkness.

The next day another wind shift occurred. After the wild night the barometer had dropped to 1005 mbars, the waves were at least 20 feet high. As soon as it was light I crawled forward to raise the jib. That was exciting, one minute I was looking almost straight down in to a deep valley between two waves, then the bow plowed into the next wave and for a moment I was completely under water. "Thank God," I said to myself "that we are not in the North Atlantic. At least the water is warm." I had just got the jib halyard attached and signaled to Bruce to winch the sail up, when I spotted another yacht, under Italian flag, less than 300 yards away. We exchanged messages, they were heading to St. Maarten.

We continued slogging along in the direction of the Virgins. We sighted another yacht and tried to establish radio contact, but they too were struggling with their sails and did not respond. We got a couple of sun sights and established our noon position at 23°15'N, 66°38'W. Because of the waves and fierce movement an error of 20 miles is likely. That afternoon another squall line struck us, with thunder and lightning. We furled the main and were working under jib alone. Then a severe turbulence ripped the jib. We now had no headsail and could not raise the main without any power. Now the wind and huge waves from the south-east were pushing us backwards. Later we put up the storm jib and got the boat under control, but could not make any progress to windward. All through this struggle Annette managed to provide us with three hot meals every day, simple - just soup or stew or porridge - but ample. Whoever worked at the galley was secured with a harness stretching from a bar to the left of the stove to a hook attached to a post by the companionway. During one violent lurch of the boat, this hook broke off and Annette was flung backwards, over the table, on to her bunk. Fortunately she sustained only a bad bruise. It could have been much worse. Our Thanksgiving dinner was corned beef with pineapple and Waldorf salad. We were exhausted and let "Syrena" take care of herself, jogging along under storm jib with the helm lashed down. She managed quite well on her own!

The next day, Friday, November 27, we sighted a tanker "Stella Pacifica" and contacted them on the VHF and relayed a message back home. They gave us a position fix which was 60 miles west of where we had been on Monday, and 45 miles NW of where my dead reckoning had placed us. We finally struggled to pull the mainsail out of the mast track and hoisted the tiny trisail. Now we were able to make slow progress eastwards and away from the storm center. All day Annette and Bruce had been working with our sewing kit and getting the jib back to usable condition. The job was finally completed. We replaced the tiny storm jib and this immediately gave us enough power to make better progress. The fury of the wind and waves died down sufficiently so that we were able to get the main sail, with a double reef, back up again. By Monday we were finally out of the storm., the swell dropped to a more comfortable 6 to 10 feet and the wind was 15 knots out of the west, and the sun reappeared. After 7 days the storm was over and we were once more back on our course. That day we overheard conversations from a Coastguard plane to several disabled yachts, one that was dismasted, another with a loose keel and a third that was taking on water. So we were much luckier than others. I took advantage of the westerly wind and gained room to the east, about 40 miles more than necessary, but after the bad experience I wanted to be sure that I would be in a good position for a comfortable approach with favorable wind and current.

On Tuesday the sea had quietened sufficiently for me to go over the side and cut the fishnet away from the propeller. We were also able to get a good sun fix and establish that we were 250 miles north of the eastern tip of the Virgin Islands. We were not much closer to our goal than we had been one week before! Now we had a new problem, the wind died down to almost nothing and we were making very slow progress. We were ghosting along so slowly that there was hardly any wake behind us. The swell had died down to a barely perceptible rise and fall, the surface of the water smooth with just tiny ripples. A few dolphins played around us for a while.

My Syrena Suddenly, about a quarter of a mile away, the water spurted upwards, then a large grey body rolled to the surface to disappear again, flipping the flukes of its tail in the air. It was a whale, the first we had seen. A few minutes later it surfaced again, much closer this time. In a few minutes it was less than a hundred yards away, clearly visible in the transparent blue water. It looked to be almost as long as "Syrena", at least 25 feet. Now I was getting concerned, I didn't relish the idea of the creature getting any closer. I started the engine. The noise and vibration of the water from the propeller was enough to convince the whale to move away. We saw it move behind us crossing our wake, then it surfaced again on the opposite side of the boat. To our relief it kept on going. In a few minutes we saw another fountain of water, almost a quarter mile away, then it disappeared.

On Wednesday we motored for a few hours until I had to stop to conserve fuel for some emergency and for battery charging. We were making slow progress, but we had sufficient food supplies and water so that was not a matter of concern. In fact we were enjoying the sun and warmth and peace, after our tumultuous experience of the previous week. That evening a west bound German freighter "Barquodavela" relayed messages back home and passed on to us Lili's reply. That same night the real Trade-Wind returned, blowing a steady 15 knots from the east. Once more we started making rapid progress under full main and jenny, early Friday morning we would be approaching Tortola. The immediate problem was to avoid the low lying island Anegada and the coral reefs that surround it.
Thursday evening we were able to get an accurate position fix from 3 stars and set a safe course. Unfortunately, during the night while I was asleep, my crew deviated somewhat from this course. As a result at dawn we found ourselves 40 miles north of were we planned to be, in fact we had been going faster than estimated and had almost passed the Virgins and were already slightly to the west of Tortola! Fortunately they are mountainous islands, so at daybreak we saw them on the horizon to the south of us. This error caused us to beat again to windward for several hours.

Finally at 2.30 in the afternoon of December 4th. we dropped our anchor in Coral Bay at the eastern end of the U.S. Virgins island St. John. A planned voyage of 14 days had actually taken 21 days. Fortunately I had planned supplies with a 50% safety margin. Also I had instituted a fresh water saving rule from the very first day - 1 gallon per person per day. All washing up and most cooking was done with sea water. Sponge baths, after a sea water wash down, took the place of fresh water showers. We arrived at our destination with water to spare.

Our first steps ashore were very unsteady. It is difficult to walk on terra-firma when one's body is used to the unstable platform of a 36 foot yacht in rough seas! We found a telephone, and one after the other, we called our families. Then we went to a bar to drink Piña Coladas. It was refreshing to talk to strangers, we met many of the residents of this tiny community at a barbecue that night.

We discovered that Coral Harbour is no longer a U.S. Virgin Islands port of entry, therefore we could not get a U.S. Customs departure clearance, which is required as a condition of entry into many countries. Our sail over from Coral Bay to Tortola the next morning was fast. We tied up to the Roadtown custom's dock already at 11 o'clock. Fortunately Her Majesty's Customs officers were quite unperturbed by our lack of proper clearance papers.

After clearing customs and immigrations we went on to Village Cay Marina, which was recommended to us by a Canadian couple we had met at the custom's office. The slips were modern with complete facilities. Bruce decided to go in for full luxury and rented a room in the Village Cay hotel. I was shocked to find that the showers at the marina are operated by tokens, each costing a dollar. Fortunately I purchased two of them, meaning to give one to Annette. I was completely lathered up when the water suddenly stopped. I had to leave the shower and go out into the corridor, covered with soap and holding a small towel in a strategic position, to put another token into the machine.

The slip fee was 75c. per foot per night and water 10c. a gallon. Annette, after taking a luxurious bath in Bruce's room, scouted around and discovered that the neighboring marina - Inner Harbor Marina - which had opened recently, was much less expensive and provided free showers. So next morning, after bidding farewell to Bruce, who flew back home, Annette and I moved "Syrena", and then spent the next few days relaxing and enjoying the pleasure of a boat that was lying peacefully in a slip. We also sampled the food at each of Tortola's restaurants, Annette was happy to be relieved of the chore of cooking on a wildly gyrating stove. To my surprise, during one of our dinners, Annette said "Bill, I am enjoying this so much. Would you mind if I stayed on?" And so she sailed with me all the way down to Grenada and back, happily cooking for the many guests that joined us for various segments of the cruise, and becoming a very proficient sailor and navigator at the same time.

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For a description of a much gentler cruise, with many pictures, go to N.W. Caribbean Sleighride.

Copyright © 2000 B. C. Biega. All rights reserved.
Illustration adapted from DMA Pilot Chart for November 1986. Photo by B. C. Biega

Last Updated:   June 21, 2001