STRONG WINDS, SNAPPER AND A CLOSE ENCOUNTER of the RACING KIND
POSITION: N 18:01.944 W 63:05.900
ANTIGUA TO SINT MAARTEN 19-20 Feb 2013
A final check on the forecast weather revealed an increase in wind strength to 20-25kts for the whole period. But this of course is an average, so add at least 5 knots to the forecast. I’ve never found less wind than forecast except in the lee of a tall island. But importantly there was only a little north in the wind, being 080deg, and this would give us a good broad reach all the way to Sint Maarten, and the swell would be similar. At least we wouldn’t be smashing into waves but receiving just a little help from them, and what a difference that makes. If we had had to sail hard on the wind I would have cancelled.
Whilst K and I were ashore that morning, R stayed on board and prepared food for us all, having been given a huge chunk of Snapper by the German guys the day before, who had followed us up from Guadeloupe. The resulting omelette, snapper and salad were not only fabulous, but lasted the full 24 hours too. French chefs you see! Well done Rebecca..
We set off at midday and made good speed under a reefed genoa and just the mizzen, leaving the mainsail furled and under cover. The most important thing to a cruiser is to have a boat that is balanced under sail - ie not needing a lot of rudder to keep the course. This is to allow the windvane self steering to do its job and the Skipper to loaf about drinking tea. If the boat is out of balance, the self steering will be overpowered and the boat will luff up into wind. No good! Tea gets spilt.
This worked well for a few hours, but as the wind picked up between the islands, the mizzen had to come down to keep it balanced, and even then a fair bit of wheel was needed. But the self steering coped, although the weak link I’d fitted after the self steering rudder broke in Bequia, snapped once - proving that forces get quite high at times. But the rolling was relentless in the 2-3m swell. Lee cloths (which keep you in your bunk when rolling) were needed to sleep. But we were flying along at over 6 knots under just a reefed genoa. At this rate we would be arriving too early, ie in the dark.
The moon is the sailors friend, and tonight we had 59% waxing running overhead until 0230. Just after dark we sailed through what was clearly a race of sixty footers careering along under full sail at up to 15 knots - three times our speed. Using the AIS (Automatic Identification System) on the chartplotter helped enormously find our way through them.
Then there were the booze cruisers. Huge great cruise ships moving to the next island overnight whilst their passengers ate and drank and occasionally looked outside. There were dozens of them, following eachother along the routes out to our west and thankfully well clear, each a blaze of thousands of lights visible for 20 miles.
Night watches started at 2100, which R and K took. I came on at midnight, receiving a good bucketful of the green stuff down the back of the neck at 0100. Thankyou. It was surprisingly chilly and we all put a jacket on under the lifejackets, and in fact on each island as we’d headed north the drop in temperature of the air and sea was quite noticeable, which I found surprising.
The wind increased to 30kts. We reefed the genoa some more, and PW bounded along. Soon the lights of St Barts showed up - surprisingly developed looking and industrialised it felt from the lights, but maybe this is false. Along the coast of St Barts the winds accelerated further giving us 40kts for a while, which was too much for the self steering and we hand steered.
At 0400 I was called by K who was concerned about what turned out to be the same race coming back at us. There were red and green lights all over the place coming at us from the port beam and crossing our path. Trying to work out a safe track is very difficult in these circumstances, especially as the moon had long set. K was rightly concerned about one boat heading straight at us giving a line of constant bearing, but very much faster than us of course. This 60’ racing yacht crewed by at least ten only turned away into wind with just 100m to go to impact us, literally getting fully airborne over a wave. My love of the racing fraternity dwindled even more. But it has finally persuaded me to get an AIS transmitter on PW, as I only have a receiver at the moment. This would paint a picture on their chartplotters of our postion, speed, heading, name, size, speed, callsign, destination, closest point of approach (CPA), and time to CPA.
SINT MARTEN AHOI! (AND GETTING COOLER)
Approaching Sint Maarten - the Dutch side of the island of St Marten shared with the French on the northern half - the winds picked up again to 40 kts and seas too as it was all quite shallow now, and so the first glow of a dawn was a welcome sight as we came in downwind with a following sea, dropping anchor in Simpsons Bay at 0815 Ships Time (+1hr). K had stayed up after her watch had finished at 0600 - during which she and R had dealt most competently with 40kts themselves without seeking my help - to steer us in, finally going below after a hard night.
For the very first time for a very long time, the foredeck hatch remained closed overnight, as it felt too chilly!