Twenty Tacks to St. Thomas

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This article first appeared in Blue Water Sailing Magazine

Twenty Tacks to St. Thomas

Relearning some inescapable truths while sailing a Liberty 49 
cutter on a 1,300-mile nonstop bash to windward

 By James Baldwin

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The 49-foot Liberty cutter, Windstar,during her complete refit in Brunswick, GA.

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Windstar shows off her newly painted Awlgrip topsides before departure for the Caribbean.

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We removed her worn-out teak deck, repaired deck core damage and sealed the entire deck with a layer of fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin.

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The deck was faired and painted with Awlgrip nonskid.

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The refinished salon settee and table.

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Navigation station with newly installed Icom M802 SSB with Pactor modem and Raymarine E-series multi-function display chartplotter. A second repeater display is at the helm binnacle.

I push standby on the autopilot control and swing the wheel hard over. With slight hesitation, forty thousand pounds of fiberglass, lead ballast, teak, bronze and all the hardware and gear that comprise a Liberty 49 cutter, turns into the southeast wind. The main, yankee and staysail shudder as they pass through the eye of the wind. The owners of Windstar, Kathi and Ed Ray of Atlanta, release the backed portside sheets and crank in on starboard. The boat picks up speed, the sails stiffen in the wind like iron wings that force grinding winches to slow to a stop. On course with fluttering luffs mean we’re not tight enough. I fall off to gain speed then swiftly and briefly bring her up to a luff. A final few inches of sheet are winched in then I let her fall back onto course.

On this tack, number 20-something during our passage from Brunswick, Georgia to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, all went smoothly. Earlier tacks, during midnight squalls, sometimes caught us out of synch, with sails suddenly aback and Windstar stubbornly hove-to. We then turned downwind to jibe onto the other tack – which is risky in strong winds - or release sheets and complete two more tacks. Either way, after a couple missed tacks you learn to give full concentration to the maneuver.

Windstar is a heavy, comfortable passagemaker capable of sustaining an effortless eight knots plus with a good wind on the beam. She was one of about twelve boats of this design built in Taiwan in 1986 at the same yard I worked at building the Hans Christian 48, when craftsmen skilled in teak and bronze work were abundant and affordable. She had just been relaunched after my wife, Mei, and I assisted on her extensive top to bottom renovation. Even so, there is little comfort on any boat making a long windward passage. I’m reminded of my failed first attempt to reach the islands twenty-five years earlier on my 28’ Pearson Triton, Atom. The adverse winds and currents proved too much punishment and I turned back to Florida after beating to the southern Bahamas. A year later, and a touch wiser, I completed my passage from the east coast to Trinidad by heading first to Bermuda to catch a better angle on those persistent winter trade winds. 

I smile now when I recall the planning stages of Windstar’s voyage. Ed and Kathi asked me to recommend the best route to the Virgin Islands from the coast of Georgia in December. “Of the three choices the best route might be the longer one via Bermuda”, I replied. “There’ll be variable winds and a cold front or two to deal with before fetching Bermuda. From there catch a fair weather window you’ll likely finish up with a nice beam reach to the Virgins. Each leg will be six to seven days plus the layover in Bermuda. A more popular route if you have two months to spare is to island hop from the Bahamas along the Thorny path, motorsailing to windward much of the way.” 

“And the third option?” Ed asked after explaining he did not have that much time available. 

“Cross the Gulf Stream, make some easting and then head direct to the islands as the wind allows.” As I continued the explanation, here’s the part that now really makes me smile: “Though it’s commonly a long beat to windward, a few lucky boats have reported favorable winds, close reaching all the way to the islands on one tack in seven to eight days.” This last scenario now seems as preposterous to me as a Bigfoot sighting in Central Park. Still, we all like to think the miracles will happen to us. So off we went on the direct route, clutching our list of proposed waypoints like a lottery ticket. 

Due to delays in last minute fitting out projects, our mid-December departure made it uncertain if we could make it back home within two weeks to keep our previous commitments. We were in such a rush to make final equipment checks and stow supplies and clear the inlet before dark, we got halfway out the marina slip before someone noticed Kathi was not aboard! We found her in the parking lot, got underway and waved goodbye to friends and family from the Jekyll Island fishing pier as we motored out the inlet into a light easterly. 

That night, heeled over twenty degrees sailing east close-hauled into a force 4 northeaster, Ed came out of the master stateroom with wet feet and called urgently up to the center cockpit, “James, we got water coming in.” 

It sounded ominous. Seconds later I stared with stunned disbelief at seawater sloshing out of lockers around the head and running in streams into the master stateroom over our newly varnished teak sole. With flashlight I traced it to a stream of water flowing in between the hull and the toilet outlet seacock. Normally it was a few inches above the waterline. Apparently the painters who awlgripped the hull had pulled out a bead of sealant around the outside thru-hull flange. 

If we had the time to make more test sails before our departure we could have found and corrected this and other issues that developed over the next several days. With the problem identified we rolled up the yankee and spun the helm over to heave-to on the other tack. With the seacock now above the waterline I dried the area with a hair dryer and smothered the inside of the flanges with fast cure polyurethane sealant. Turning the hair dryer on the sealant for a half hour cured it even faster and within an hour we were back on course and leak-free. 

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Windstar on her long slog to windward under new main, staysail and yankee from Mack Sails.

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Enjoying the downwind run back home to Brunswick, GA.

With variable easterly winds we continued southeast across the north-flowing Gulf Stream, later tacking east when winds shifted more against us and then motorsailing when winds fell under ten knots. For the next thousand miles we stemmed an adverse current of about one knot, meaning we could ill-afford to ease off the wind or allow the speed to drop. Winds remained on the nose anywhere from 5 to 25 knots. When we finally made enough progress east and turned southeast toward the islands, the malevolent wind turned southeast as well. 

We had several weather sources including SSB radio and Sirius satellite text and graphics on the two 12-inch Raymarine multi-function displays. We spoke via SSB to weather routing expert Herb Hilgenberg who advised us on the first day to “head east”. After that first contact he mistakenly dropped us from his list and apparently was too busy with other boats to hear our calls. While the satellite forecasts with animated wind arrows were entertaining and fairly accurate in broadly defining the cold fronts approaching behind us and the tropical disturbance to the south, they did less well predicting the winds in our location. We were, however, kept constantly aware of unusual December tornado warnings for Kansas that popped up repeatedly in alert boxes on the MFD screen. We found no way of blocking them through menu options so spent a lot of time on each watch pressing the Cancel button. 

We used a two couple, four hour on four off watch system. This gave each couple the option to split their watch to two hours each, allowing up to six hours off for each person. The second person of the watch team was called up for tacks or sail changes. While the spray flew over the boat, most watches were spent in comfort within the full cockpit enclosure. Mei and Kathi worked wonders in the galley, offering up great hot dishes regardless the weather. It helped that Mei brought along several of her specialties cooked at home and kept in the fridge or freezer ready to reheat. The luxuries of Windstar also included hot showers whenever we wanted thanks to two 100 gallon water tanks and a new watermaker that supplied a powerful stream of 33 gallons an hour. Ed kept his business running back home with several daily calls to the office on the sat phone. I had never sailed with such luxuries and wondered if I would miss them after returning to my own simple boat. 

Despite the numerous comforts, the harsh realities of a long beat to windward included discovering the owner's stateroom with its glorious king size bed did not make a good berth when heeled over 25 degrees accompanied by  a noisy hydraulic autopilot directly under the cushion. In rough weather the owners bunked on the leeward main saloon settee or on cushions on the cabin sole. Up forward in the crew quarters we got tossed around some, but remained secure in our lee cloths. 

The vibrations shook loose the bolts on the new furling drums. Doors and floorboards groaned and jammed in their frames in protest to the strains of prolonged heavy beating. As is common on a newly refurbished boat on its first voyage there were maintenance and repair issues. We discovered the bilge and sump pumps vented outlet loops were a few inches too low for extreme heel angles, at times allowing seawater to siphon back into the bilge. Then it became clear the starboard-side engine and diesel generator cooling water inlets were too high to safely motor sail when heeled more than 15 degrees to port. Another surprise came while hand steering through a tack when the wheel suddenly went limp and we had no steering. The hydraulic actuator in the binnacle had stuck open for a few moments then fortunately freed itself before we needed to assemble the emergency tiller. 

All these systems were hungry for power, an average of some 25 amp hours continuous, supplied by a one thousand AH battery bank charged by the engine alternator and diesel generator. Our job list for next refit included adding more batteries and solar panels to provide some backup redundancy and extend the time between the existing regimen of running the generator four hours a day.   

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The author reluctantly embraces the new 110 HP diesel while sorting out plumbing issues underway.

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The crew relaxes within the center cockpit enclosure on a light air day a week out of Brunswick.

By the second week, several days motorsailing into light winds and frequent generator use found us staring with growing concern at the near empty diesel tank gauges. We shut down the engine, determined to save the little remaining fuel for the generator that keeps all our equipment running. We all make phone calls to warn those waiting for us that we may arrive a few days later than expected. We sit nearly dead in the water trying to coax the sails to hold a fitful breeze that stays under five knots. 

The Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship steams past and a female British radio officer offers us a forecast from their sources stating we should be having 10-15 knot east winds today. I find myself transfixed at the binnacle mounted MFD:  375 miles to go, VMG waypoint 0.1, time to go 3,780 hours 36 minutes 20 seconds. That’s way more than I want to know so I throw a towel over the display and look for cats paws on the water. After ten hours of near calm a steady 7 knots brushes the masthead wind instrument. Under a half moon hanging low on its back we revel in the magic of cleaving the smooth dark waters at 3 knots. For the moment it’s blissful. I’m satisfied to be making some progress on a boat weighted down with the elegance of solid teak paneling and marble countertops over an inch thick. 

On day ten a cloudbank aft slowly sweeps over us and after sunset the long awaited weather front comes through with a worn out whimper. The easterly trades build through the night. We had earned our easting the hard way during the previous days tacking. Now we took a final tack to the southeast, arriving in St. Thomas on day twelve, cracking along at seven knots, for once with sheets eased and close-reaching at sixty degrees off the wind. 

At the marina slip Mei and I had three hours to clean the boat, eat lunch and catch our flight back home. Ed and Kathi spent much of the winter sailing among the islands as far as St. Barts. 

The following spring another yacht delivery brought us to St. Thomas where we rejoined Windstar for the nonstop voyage back to their homeport in Brunswick, Georgia. That nine-day passage was without any of the discomforts and little problems of the outward passage. We carried the spinnaker over half the way, hitting 8-9 knots boat speed regularly on the GPS, without a drop of saltwater seen landing on deck. As unbelievable as it sounds, we rode high and dry as if lumbering over the Sahara on a camel. In contrast to a desert crossing, on this passage we sipped iced drinks, grilled fresh caught mahi mahi on the afterdeck and enjoyed daily hot showers before crawling into bunks for a gentle roll to sleep. To top it off there were no equipment failures to tend to, which is a blessed rare event on a boat with so many systems to maintain.