Growltiger Cruise Newsletter # 1 14 Sep 05
for those who may be wondering what became of the Conover's since we disappeared from our normal Virginia haunts, the following is an effort to share some of our experiences to date. It's fairly comprehensive, so read as little or as much as you might find interesting. Off shore voyaging requires lots of prep--for a short or long trip, and the Gulf Stream and Altantic Ocean are not forgiving.
For our boating friends, in addition to all the normal prep actions (changing oil, checking rigging, changing zincs, etc.), we installed several major systems and completed a number of projects tied uniquely to blue-water cruising. I'll save you the details, but the major efforts included installing a Spectra 700 gal/day watermaker; a combination clothes washer/dryer; converting our Ideal windlass to all-chain operation; installing a Windpilot Pacific Plus II mechanical autopilot; replacing all the running rigging; and completing an 18-month comprehensive electrical overhaul of the boat to include a new 12.5kw generator, new house batteries, a 2.5kw inverter to back up the generator, new heavy duty alternator, and new DC circuit cabling and switches throughout. Joan added two new sails (a storm trisail and a mizzen staysail). Unexpected tasks along the way included replacing our freezer compressor and replacing our liferaft with a new Switlik MK-II. To say we used every available minute is an understatement. We were actually in the dingy behind the boat adjusting the final windvane alignment at the fuel dock as we topped off the tanks and prepared to depart for the start line of the Bermuda Rally on the morning of 21 June.
On the land side, our kids, Joshua and Christina, got through all of the tasks associated with completing high school and graduated on 18 June - we're very proud of both of them. They also succeeded in gaining their college acceptance at Old Dominion University. Many thanks to our friends, Bill and Sharon Faircloth, for agreeing to house-sit and cat sit during our absence - it greatly simplified the "what do you do with the cat" task. And, of course, to Steve and Gina Godfrey for lots of moral support. Steve is Commander, November Mike November, US Coast Guard, and we would find the transmissions from NMN invaluable in the course of the cruise.
21 June arrived in a rush and we found ourselves with a crew of six (our family of four plus good friends Bill (father) and Alex Nash (son) ) crossing the start line off Thimble Shoal to begin this year's West Marine Bermuda Rally. We were one of 19 boats that Steve Black had assembled for this year's trip. The Rally is a "for fun" race that had divisions for racing that handicapped the boats and kept track of their time, for cruising as an untimed passage, and for the first time, trawlers, who completed the trip under power. Once the boats spread out at the start, you rarely saw each other, but we did conduct morning and evening radio "chats" to track progress and give everyone a sense that they weren't completely alone out on the Atlantic.
We had a good run to Bermuda, completing the 650-mile passage in four and a half days. With the wind initially on our nose, we did more motor-sailing then we would have wished. Saw our first big school of dolphins just after we crossed the Capes into the Atlantic. By early evening the motor was off and we were sailing and be 0300 the wind was up and we were putting reefs in the main for the first time. Had a nice sail during the night and entered the Gulf Stream around 0600, but got a surprise shortly after dawn when the generator would not start. It had been working fine for over a year, but was now locked up with a pool of water underneath. Switched AC generation to the inverter for the remainder of the Bermuda leg and was thankful that we had worked through all the hassles associated with its installation - it allowed us to take the generator break-down in stride with no significant impact.
Each day of the voyage, Christina had the lead for taking plankton samples as part of a research effort for Old Dominion University. As we worked through the process of getting acceptance and deferrals in place, the kids ran into a Dr Alex Bochdansky on the ODU faculty who became very interested in our trip. Since Christina wants to major in oceanography, it became a mutual opportunity to introduce her to the field and obtain baseline samples on plankton populations as part of a major research effort on the state of marine life in the deep ocean. We loaded enough equipment on board to create a small lab and ended up taking nearly 170 samples that we froze until they could be handed off for analysis when we arrived in Europe. Technically, it made us the research vessel "Growltiger" and kept Christina busy for about three hours a day.
The Gulf Stream had a somewhat unusual west to east orientation, which worked to give us a very fast ride. Had our first thunderstorms the night of Day Two, which started our joust with an east-west oriented cold front that would last for the next two days. Had some excitement around noon on the 23rd when two waterspouts descended quite close to us out of a squall line. No great danger, but a very impressive sight courtesy of Mother Nature. By midnight on Saturday we were getting our first glimpse of lights on the horizon. We followed our GPS waypoints in to make a night approach into St George's harbor in Bermuda, anchoring for the first time with just chain in 40' of water off Ordinance Island at 0138 hrs on Sunday morning.
We spent the next week enjoying Bermuda with our Rally friends, hosted by the St George's Dinghy Club, while preparing to continue our voyage to the Azores. Bill Nash departed as planned, but we also had the unexpected departure of his son Alex, who had originally planned to sail with us for the whole year. A strong bout of seasickness combined with the discovery of his first love won out over crossing an ocean and served to reduce our core crew to four. Fortunately, Zick Zickefoose, a retired electrical engineer from Maryland, who loves to sail, joined us. Zick would prove to be a great shipmate and a real asset on the trip across the Atlantic. We had an additional surprise during the Rally Awards Dinner when we were awarded the Seipt's Trophy (going to the crew that best personifies the cruising spirit) for the second time (we also received the award during our first cruise to Bermuda in 1998).
While in Bermuda, we troubleshot the generator and found that while the design of its exhaust system was to specs for the static waterline environment of the Chesapeake, it was too close to the dynamic waterline of ocean sailing and had allowed water to backfill into the generator engine. Fortunately we were able to clear and restart the engine and a day of relaying the exhaust run moved it sufficiently above the waterline to eliminate the problem. We've put over a hundred and fifty hours on it since, so I think we dodged a bullet.
Sunday, 3 July dawned and while the rest of the Bermuda Rally boats cast off and headed west to return to the US, we headed east into the Atlantic. I won't go through a day-by-day of the crossing, but we had another good run and made it to Horta in the Azores in 14 and a half days. The first three days we had near perfect sailing conditions - 15 to 20 knots of wind off our starboard quarter allowed us to balance the sails and set the windvane and basically not touch either for three days. Wilbur, the windvane, really started to earn his pay and started to provide a return on all the effort it took to get him mounted and aligned. We initially averaged 150 miles a day, which is pretty good for a 29-year old ketch.
By Day Four, weather started to change and we ended up with a low pressure system forming over us, which really excited our weather guru, Herb Hilgenberg on Southbound II. I had always associated low pressure systems with gray, overcast and squally weather, but this one had brilliant sunny skies, 35 knot winds and 15 foot seas with water so clear and blue that it hurt your eyes to look at it. The bouncy ride was tough on Joan's back/arthritis and even tougher on the boat's hull. I came out one morning and noticed odd chips lying on the deck. Further investigation showed that our year and half-old paint job was peeling off! Not good - not supposed to happen. Nothing we could do about it, so we just plowed on. As of today, about 70% of the hull paint has flaked off - apparently a bonding failure between the two primer coats. We'll deal with it when we get back to the States.
Eventually we moved into a high pressure system with bright clear skies, beautiful sunsets, and not much wind. Nights were crystal clear and the stars were unbelievable. Biggest excitement in the last three days is that we had to do a "pot overboard drill". Zick was on galley duty and managed to drop one of Joan's prized pots overboard. Fortunately, it landed upright and floated in the seas. In order to save Zick's good standing with Joan, we had to douse sails and come about in a pot rescue operation. It took two approaches, but we managed to snag the pot and get it back aboard, saving morale, life and limb for all concerned.
Around 1700 on 17 July, we had our first peek of land - the tip of a volcano sticking out of clouds on the distant horizon. We closed on the island of Faial over the night and entered the harbor at Horta at 0500 on Monday, 18 July. Horta is a town that loves sailors and we came to love it. You could not ask for friendlier, more accommodating people living on a beautiful landscape of green fields rising to awesome volcanic peaks that disappear into the clouds. Faial has suffered through multiple volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and one reason that have a soft place in their hearts for Americans is the support that we've given them during those trying times. We ended up spending over two weeks there, with many a night at Peter's Café Sport and days exploring Faial and the surrounding islands. We found membership in a ready-made community of fellow international yachties ranging from high-end French racers (including Pen Druick III) to a wonderful crew of Serbs making a documentary on what they claim is the first Croatian boat, Basjako, to make a Trans-Atlantic crossing.
Unfortunately, Zick had to get back to the States to meet family obligations, so we had to bid him a fond farewell. Meanwhile, Christina was making fast friends with the locals, to include the daughter of the owner of Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services, who then became our unofficial guide to the islands. We rented a car one day and she guided us to all of the off-the-beaten path spots, which I cannot begin to even describe without turning this into a multi-chapter document. One episode of note is that we had a visit by the King of Spain to our marina. I was up at he top of the mainmast working on a rigging problem for his whole visit, so I'm just thankful that his security team didn't take exception to my vantage point and start taking potshots at me.
After painting our mark on the Horta breakwater (a time honored tradition that protects departing ships from bad luck), we sailed to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, one of the most eastern islands in the Azores. In addition to savoring another island, it also served to shorten our next leg to the European mainland by about 155 nautical miles. We also had a chance to take care of critical maintenance - yes - our first encounter with clearing a blocked head. That task behind us, we cast off on 6 Aug for a 6 day, 800 mile run to Cascais, a resort town just west of Lisbon in Portugal. With just our four family members as crew, we had five great days of sailing, not turning the engine on a single time until 2245 on Day Five. Closing on the European coast was interesting in that we had to cross heavy shipping traffic during the last night and then encountered the thickest fog I've seen as dawn came up the last morning, 12 Aug. We didn't actually see Europe until we broke out of the fog into a bright warm day right in front of the Cascais breakwater. It was with a significant sense of achievement that we stepped ashore in Portugal. We had basically accomplished one of our major goals and had crossed the Atlantic in about 25 days of sailing.
Cascais was a pleasant spot to regain our land-legs. We spent 10 days there and used it as a base to explore near-by Lisbon. While in Horta, we had become acquainted with a vacationing German, Bernd Juergens, who was both interested in sailing and one of the managers of TAP (the national Portuguese airline) stationed in Lisbon. He became our unofficial host and helped guide us around the city, giving the kids their first real exposure to European history and culture. They tolerated an intense dose of castles, palaces, and museums with considerable good humor. Joan and I celebrated our 21st Anniversary with a wonderful dinner at a little place called "D Viriato", where they served great food and even gave us a round of complementary Port. While in Cascais, we ran into a young Dane named Krestin Buch, who was crewing on another vessel. One thing led to another, and Krestin will probably join us as crew to help man the ship on our return trip across the Atlantic later this year.
We departed Cascais on 22 Aug and made an overnight run down the Portuguese coast to round Cabo de Sao Vicente and anchored off a beautiful beach under the towering cliffs of Sagres. Sagres is where Henry the Navigator founded a school for navigation that launched the era of discovery that opened up much of the New World and the lucrative trade routes to the Far East. It is still a relatively barren and isolated stretch of coast. Our first day was relatively calm and we went ashore to explore by dinghy, making a classic beach landing through the surf that I think even my Marine friends would applaud. The wind piped up that night and didn't blow less then 30 knots for the next two days. We upped anchor on 26 Aug and moved down the coast to Porta de Portimao seeking more protected waters. We continued to move east with day sails down the Portuguese coast, making stops along the way at Vilamoura and Tavira before crossing over into Spain at Mazagon. At times we stayed in marinas, at other times we just anchored off of a nice beach or protected cove.
We eventually ended up at our current location of Rota in Spain. As many of our Navy friends know, Rota is a classic Spanish town of tiny winding streets, open air markets, and old castles. The US Naval Station is a couple of miles away and has given us our first contact with a bit of Americana since departing Virginia. We love Rota and decided to make it our base for awhile to explore into the mainland. The hospital staff at the Naval Base has sort of adopted us and we joined them for a great day tour last weekend to a bullfighting ranch about 40 kms northwest of Seville. In the meantime, we've managed to do some restocking of supplies, I've gotten a crown glued back on at the dental clinic, got Joan's shoulder and back checked, and we've gotten prescriptions renewed at the hospital. Right now there is a fest going on in town featuring competition for the best "tapas" - basically appetizers at 20 paces. We'll probably stay here until early next week, then it's on to Gibraltar and the Med.
So far the boat has held up extremely well and the crew is still on speaking terms with each other. Not bad for having teens locked within 50 feet of their parents for three months. Joan has good days mixed with not so good days as she deals with her medical issues, but she's a real trooper and is hanging in there, with a combination of US and European medical support. We know that this is where we need to be right now. Will keep you posted on our further adventures.
Greg, Joan, Joshua, and Christina