A version of this article first appeared in Blue Water Sailing magazine

A Passage to the Islands

James Baldwin puts a Catalina 320 to the test on a 1,300 mile nonstop delivery to the Virgin Islands.


The hull shape of the Catalina 320 is radically different from the more traditional boats I'm most familiar with.


The author at the wheel after a 13 day passage to St. Thomas.

The owner of Alessandra, a 1996 Catalina 320 in Savannah, GA, contacted me early in 2008 to ask if my wife and I would deliver his boat to the Virgin Islands before the hurricane season began in June. Although most trips south happen towards the end of hurricane season in November/December to avoid the risk of summer tropical storms and take advantage of the winter sailing season in the islands, Alessandra's owner was beginning a new job in St. Thomas and wanted his boat there year round. The boat was brought to a dock next to St. Simons Island near where Ive worked the past several years fitting out customer's sailboats for offshore voyaging.

Although the Catalina 320 is not my ideal choice of boat for a 1,300-mile nonstop passage, I accepted the job with the understanding that after a thorough inspection I would make the improvements and upgrades I considered necessary. I also looked forward to an opportunity to see how well a popular coastal cruiser/racer with wing fin keel and spade rudder performs offshore.

By choice and circumstance, most of my sailing has been done on older, longer keeled boats. My only other extended passage on a design similar to this type was skippering a Beneteau 51 across the South China Sea from Manila to Hong Kong. During the race to Manila the mast above the upper spreaders folded over when a sectional upper shroud failed. I flew in to Manila to jury rig the mast and bring the boat back under reefed sails, with a non-functioning engine and a grumbling British racing crew not at all pleased at being yanked away from two weeks carousing in Manila's whorehouses. This Catalina passage was twice as long, but I certainly expected it to be easier and more pleasant all around.

My inspection of Alessandra revealed headstay and furler damage at the masthead, likely caused by someone winching in the furling line without noticing a halyard wrapped around the upper furler foil.

Inspection of the sail inventory showed the boat's original mainsail had only two reef points, as was to be expected. Also, the main and 135 percent genoa were well-worn and sun-damaged. Though the lack of a third reef is normal on coastal cruising boats, for security offshore, I won't make a long passage on a boat without a storm trysail or three reefs available in the mainsail. Along with a new genoa and main with three reefs and lazy jack system from Mack Sails, we added a whisker pole to support the jib when running downwind, replaced all running rigging and installed a new headstay and Profurl C350 furler.


We install a new Garmin radar primarily to track thunderstorms at night and assist watchkeeping for collision avoidance.


The custom fabricated Solar Tracker we installed before departure.

The boats existing light anchor without chain was perhaps suitable for the shallow muddy rivers of Georgia. To handle the deeper sand and coral anchorages of the Caribbean, we added a 35 lb. Delta and 22 lb. Danforth-type anchors. Following advice posted on the Catalina 320 owner's association website I converted the rope-only Maxwell VC500 windlass to include a chain gypsy with 200 feet of 1/4-inch high-test chain. Although that chain is on the light side, it is the only size that fits this small windlass. On a job like this there are compromises to make between economy and ultimate strength. You need to know the difference between what is desirable and what is essential. The best guide is the good judgment that only comes from experience, or at least learning from the experience of others.

These compromises are typified by the choices for offshore safety and navigation equipment. Im quite happy to sail this route with a stand-alone radar to assist short-handed crew in collision avoidance (or an AIS ship-tracking equipped radio in recent years), a couple paper charts including detailed harbor charts of the destination as well as backup destinations along the route, two handheld GPS units and a backup plastic sextant. Even without sight reduction tables or a calculator, a quick measurement of the altitude of Polaris will tell you when you are approaching the islands since your latitude is roughly equal to the number of degrees Polaris is above the horizon. Once you sight an island, a query on the VHF will identify it. On a recent job assisting an owner fitting out his Alberg 30 for a planned circumnavigation, I advised a similar low-cost approach to electronic equipment. However, most of todays sailors who can afford it will opt for the convenience of a multi-function unit with charts, position, radar, AIS ship tracking, depth, and wind in one display, even at the risk of putting all eggs in one basket.

Last year I installed a complete Raymarine E-series MFD on a 49-foot sailboat, using it on a delivery to, and later back from, the Caribbean. For this Catalina, after some discussion with the owner, we chose a smaller, less expensive Garmin GPSMAP 4208 display mounted on the binnacle with digital charting, GPS and radar inputs only. A separate original equipment depth sounder completed the navigational instrumentation.

Other options I presented Alessandras owner were a choice between purchasing a lifraft and EPIRB rescue beacon for $4,000 or a new dinghy kept inflated on deck with a grab bad of emergency equipment and an Iridium satellite phone totaling about $3,000. He chose the dinghy/satphone combination as more versatile while providing reasonable safety for cruising among the islands later. Since communications were covered by the satphone, for economy we chose not to install an SSB transceiver. To receive weather reports I brought along my portable Sony SSB receiver with wire dipole antenna I temporarily hoisted on a spare halyard.


Under the starboard settee we found space in the corner to epoxy in a support for a third battery.


An initial inspection aloft revealed a dangerously bent forestay toggle and swage that we replaced before departure.

The stepped transom with central swim ladder on the Catalina, as well as the cruising style of most owners of these type boats, does not easily suit installation of windvane self-steering. After looking into the cost and space limitations for installing a heavy-duty below deck autopilot, we reluctantly chose a Raymarine ST6002 Smartpilot wheel pilot. I knew it was borderline undersized for offshore duty so we bought a complete spare unit for backup. That turned out to be wise when the first one expired after only 200 miles.

I advise those new to cruising to set up their boats, and adjust their attitude, as if they will never tie up at a marina. You'll be beyond reach of marinas for weeks at a time anyway and a boat that can stay out a month can stay out indefinitely. Maybe you'll keep your boat on a mooring after each cruise. You will dinghy in for water and food, but will not need to tie up your boat just to plug in the shore power cable. My advice is to make choices that conserve electricity, coupled with enlarged battery bank storage capacity and at least two independent sources of charging systems. My own preference is for silent, dependable solar panels.

To conserve electricity and ease worries of a pressure freshwater system breakdown, I installed a galley hand pump. A foot-pump is preferable - another compromise to cost and ease of installation. In case the engine or alternator went down I fit a 55-watt solar panel on a custom swivel tracking mount above and aft the cockpit bimini. By rotating the panel a few times a day I equaled the output of a larger panel without the big footprint of a large panel. We also installed a third battery solely for the engine, added cabin fans and halogen and LED lighting upgrades. To run power tools and other appliances while the owner is at anchor, I installed a 1,200-watt DC to AC inverter close to the batteries behind a curtain outboard of the starboard settee.

Since my wife and I are used to cruising without refrigeration, on this trip we never turned on the boats built-in power-hungry refrigerator. For other small boat customers Ive recommended the Engel or Coolfreeze portable freezer/refrigerators that draw only 2.5 - 3 amps. Assuming a 50 percent duty cycle means that unless you get a week of cloudy weather, you could run it indefinitely on 110 watts of solar panels with a 400 AH battery bank.

A week before our departure, my wife Mei and I moved the boat upriver to a yard for bottom painting and insurance survey. On the 18 mile river trip back to her slip, the engines rubber impellor for the saltwater cooling pump disintegrated, which reminded me to order a spare for our trip.

Down below, we helped alleviate a shortage of above bunk level storage lockers by adding retaining curtains with straps over the full-length salon bookshelves. We also replaced a faulty toilet and added leecloths to the salon settees. The settees became our sea bunks because the forward and aft cabins were needed for storage space. Besides, the motion in the V-berth when beating and the lack of ventilation and noise of the autopilot and engine in the aft cabin made them uninhabitable at sea.

We departed St. Simons Inlet on the ebb tide, passing the outer sea buoy at sunset. All night we sailed by autopilot under double-reefed main and partly furled jib, heading east into the Gulf Stream with a 20 knot southeast wind that became southerly at dawn. Some 180 miles out we cleared the Gulf Stream and winds crept up to 30 knots and a bit more from the south-southwest. We close reached at 6-7 knots with three reefs in the main and two-thirds of the jib rolled up. Waves pounded the side of the hull and the motion was bad enough for Mei to ask for the seasick bucket, something she rarely needs in similar conditions on heavier full-keeled boats. Even so, it was exciting sailing and I felt the boat was handling the conditions easily.

Wed have been fine as it was, until the unnoticed strain of tugging the wheel back and forth proved too much for the autopilot. With a final groan its little motor stopped. I grabbed the helm and stayed there uninterrupted for the next nine hours. The boat slammed and jerked too much to attempt a repair and I was not inclined to waste a fair wind, even if it was a bit more than needed. I did notice the helm was hard to turn as she slammed her way through the larger waves, making my arms ache by the end of the day. It was no wonder the autopilot failed in these conditions. Sitting at the wheel being drenched by sheets of seawater washing over the deck and under the bimini, I couldnt help think this would never happen on a tiller-steered boat with a robust windvane. Id be laughing at the waves from the comfort of the companionway sheltering under the dodger.

Mei handed up a toasted sandwich for lunch and then another for dinner. The wind snatched away pieces of lettuce and the spray soaked the bread before I could get it down. As if to compensate for the stolen lettuce a wave dumped a clump of Sargasso weed on my lap. Hours of hand steering on that spade rudder was made worse by trying to focus on the binnacle compass which had lost all its oil! Without the slightest damping, it jerked and swung up to ninety degrees with each slamming wave strike.

By sunset I was worn out and chilled through. I decided to heave-to, letting her drift where she will as I got some rest to prepare for another day at the wheel. I rolled up the genoa to the size of a storm jib, sheeted it to windward, and locked the wheel a few degrees to leeward. I didnt expect this skittish wing-keeler to heave-to in the manner of a more traditional hull shape, which would fore-reach at 1-2 knots or drift to leeward leaving a protective slick of calmer water to windward. Still, I was unprepared for the surprising result of this experiment. With backed jib in 30 knot southwest winds she sailed off at 5 knots to the southeast. Without a hand on the wheel she held steady all night, galloping away with ease on the same course I hand steered all day with such drudgery. From despair to ecstasy in one sail maneuver! I dropped into my bunk for a few hours of blissful sleep as Mei kept a weary watch from the companionway.

Next morning the winds dropped to 15-20 knots shifting briefly northwest indicating a cold front passing us. Still hove-to, I had a chance to replace the autopilot with the spare. It was a delicate operation with the boat tripping like a cork over the leftover rough seas, screws and plastic parts rolling around the cockpit as I hurried to fit the new unit to the steering wheel. In an hour it was finished and tested to work fine. Having decided to save our last autopilot for light air duty to protect its delicate gears, I shut it down and hand-steered the rest of the day. From here on, before engaging the autopilot, I slowed the boat to five knots. Then I watched over it like a doctor with a heart attack patient, checking the motors pulse with cupped hand, encouraging it to hang in there another day.

Unusual for these latitudes of variables, the wind backed and hung in the southwest for four more days. I had not yet hoisted our SSB antenna so when an approaching ship sounded our radar guard zone alarm on day seven, I hailed him on VHF and requested a weather forecast.

Gale warning. Southwest force 4, said the radio operator with an unmistakable Filipino accent. He would not specify if it was a gale for yesterday and the lesser force four today or another gale approaching tomorrow. Time settled the matter as a pleasant southwest force 3-5 continued a few more days. Smaller seas continued to climb aboard finding new spots to drip onto our bunks from weeping ports and chain plates. We kept a frequent watch on the shallow bilge. It held little more than one bucket of water before it required pumping, otherwise the rolling of the boat sent bilge water into the lower lockers through wiring and plumbing holes in the hull liner.

Next I discovered the holding tank macerator pump would not operate, meaning one bucket was now designated the toilet bucket. As I wondered what would go wrong next, the radar display went blank in reply. Even the Radar Select button on the chartplotter display disappeared as if were never there. A few hours later I rebooted the system and it reappeared just like my temperamental PC at home.

As my relationship with Alessandra grew strained, at least Mei and I got along well. Shes been with me for eight years and together we have sailed across the North and South Atlantic several times. Surprisingly, in recent years she became more and more averse to being touched by saltwater. She uses plenty of salt in cooking, but one drop of saltwater makes her skin crawl. For a couple years Ive promised to take her on a summer cruise of the Great lakes with nothing but freshwater to drip on our bunks.

James, theres another drip from the port over my bunk, she tells me. I watched a solitary drop hang from the port frame for a full minute before it dropped. The leak was so slow I thought each drop might evaporate from the cushion cover before the next fell. It wasnt quite that slow so I first tried sealing the port gasket with silicone. Didnt work. Next I duct taped the outside of the port. Still no good. Finally I taped a folded towel under the inside of the port.

Honey, now the chain plate over my bunk is leaking. I taped another towel around it as if diapering a baby. More permanent repairs had to wait until after arrival. Funny how these leaks did not appear during pre-departure water tests...


Mei trims the jib on a light air day in mid-passage. Note the Solar Tracker positioned for maximum solar panel output.


The annoying drips over the bunks get a temporary diaper fix. Note the leecloth we added over the book shelf to keep items from rolling out.

Back on deck, after a few more hours observing and experimenting, I learned the precise combination of sails and heading that allowed me to lock the helm and the boat to steer herself. This worked only with the wind forward of the beam. She wanted a bit less jib area up than mainsail with the mainsheet eased so it was luffing slightly when on course. With some adjustments from time to time this simple system steered day and night for several days.

Each second day we reported our position and updated ETA - if not all the drama - to the boats owner by satellite phone. After twenty-some years of sailing in relative isolation I find it strange and amazing to pick up the phone in mid-ocean to speak with anyone in the world at any time. For about two dollars a minute we can even afford a quick Hi to Mom once a week. We were never bothered by incoming calls since we chose the no voice mail option and turned the phone off after each call.

Our course carried us between 200-300 miles east of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The owners insurance policy specified we must stay within 150 mile of the islands. I consider it unwise to let corporate pinheads dictate the safest course. We stayed well east of the islands to insure that when the easterly trade winds did show up, they wont catch us with a hard beat to windward. I know nothing about insurance risk tables, but I have no doubt far more boats are lost or damaged near the islands than those a good distance off. On this passage it turned out we neednt have worried about staying far to the east of the islands. Aside from a brief fickle westerly, the wind stayed between south and southwest for nine days. Thats nine days heeled to port on the starboard tack enough time to give me an odd tilted stance my first day ashore instead of my customary downwind rolling gait.

Three hundred miles from our destination the wind swung southeast, dead on the nose. We carried a long tack to the east until driven north of east by the light winds. Since the boats owner pays us by the day there was no time to wander far off course. We had extra diesel jugs aboard, so we motorsailed back on course. With brief stops to check oil and replace a clogged fuel filter, we ran the three-cylinder Yanmar for 36 hours, each hour expecting a fair easterly wind shift as forecast. The engine noise and vibration below kept us on deck most of this time. By the second day, either the motor racket was growing less or I was going deaf.

The light late-spring trades did finally settle into the east as we close-reached the last hundred miles into Cruz bay, St. Johns. After finding we did not need to clear customs since we sailed nonstop from a US port, we spent a day cleaning the boat then moved to a mooring at the St. Thomas Yacht Club.


Arrival at the Virgins.


Alessandra upon arrival at St. Thomas.

A boat of this type design has some obvious weak points that make her unsuitable for sustained heavy weather offshore. The companionway entrance is low and the cockpit lazarette lockers are both low and unsealed, potentially leading breaking seas easily into the shallow bilge. Instead of heaving-to in a boat of this type, it may be necessary to forereach under deeply reefed sails at slow speed in order to maintain control. In worse conditions, a sea anchor may be preferable. The tall rig with narrow shroud base that makes for a fast passage also makes for a nervous skipper who'd better know when to reef his sails.

Although the spade rudder and narrow attachment point of the fin keel made me continually anxious, I dont know of any specific cases where they failed so the construction quality is good. A boat of this type can certainly make offshore passages in reasonable comfort and safety provided you fit her out for the task and choose your latitude, route and season carefully to avoid areas of high storm frequency. On the plus side, I was impressed with the handling and comfort during fair weather. With its spacious interior, large shaded cockpit and huge cockpit locker storage, it will certainly be a good boat for weekends sailing around the islands. That is, after all, her owner's reason for choosing her.