09 April 2012

The Art of Slow Sailing

As we made our way from Great Harbour Cay to Bimini, and from Bimini to Key West, we had some Light Winds.  Also, some No Wind.  Ean has been playing a new game.  Let's call it How Long, and here's what one round looks like.  First he looks on the chartplotter to find out our SOG, or speed over ground, and then he uses the "ruler" function to measure distance.  Next, some quick mental calculations.   He says, "At our current speed, it will take us 122 hours to get to Key West."  Then he starts wondering how long our water will hold out.  Will we run out of food?  "You know, this isn't even normal walking speed," he reminds me.  "This is wandering-through-an-art-museum speed."   Gazing toward land, he asks if I will dinghy him ashore, so he can walk down Key Largo.   "Then," he explains, "you can pick me up at the end of the key, and oh by the way I'll have plenty of time to stop for lunch.  I'll bring you something!"

We have been practicing the Art of Slow Sailing.

We left Great Harbour in the early afternoon, knowing that the wind was light and Bimini was 70 miles off.  Too far to make it during daylight hours, so we planned for an overnight passage.  Even super slow sailing, we thought we could make it to Bimini the next day - but we didn't.  As Ean has already recounted in Drifting to Bimini, we simply couldn't maintain steerageway.  On the Grand Bahama Bank that afternoon, the water didn't even ripple.  Flat calm.  So instead of motoring all night, we decided to toss out our anchor about six nautical miles from Great Harbour.  I thought it not an auspicious start to the trip.  Were we "giving up"?  Or were we being disciplined because we decided not to motor?  I couldn't decide.  We got up at dawn, resolved to sail (not motor) as long as we could maintain steerageway.  It took us about 30 hours to travel less than 70 miles.

From Bimini, the winds were again predicted to be light.  We had decided that Key West would be our first US port of call - love the Conch Republic, we do - so we left Bimini in the afternoon, planning for another overnight trip.  We tried to make some way south, but we were into the swift north current before we knew it, and Joy spent the rest of the night TRYING to traverse the Gulf Stream.  We were pushed further and further north.  At one point, we were steering due west (270) and our COG (course over ground, aka course made good) was due north (000).  What this means, of course, is that we were not making ANY progress getting across the Gulf Stream and would therefore be IN the Gulf Stream for all eternity.  This is the second time, now, that the Gulf Stream has totally kicked our butts.   We are 0 for 2.  We turned to the port engine to save us from Gulf Stream Hell.  (Remember, starboard engine puts too much energy into our water heater, which "unfixes" Ean's "fix.").  When we finally got to the Florida coast, at sunrise, we were north of Miami.  

Undaunted, we hung a left at Miami, and the wind, although still light, backed to the southeast.   We were sailing again.  Yay!  But even though we were officially west of Gulf Stream Hell, a wicked north current was still impeding our progress.  Boo!  Although we were sailing at almost 3 knots, our speed made good was about .6 knots.   And then it was .6 knots in the WRONG DIRECTION.  Double boo!  We were getting mighty tired of seeing all the same big buildings on Miami Beach.   We really wanted to move on, to see other buildings, maybe on South Beach?  The light winds couldn't compete with the strong current.  So the port engine was pressed in to service again.  We went inside the reefs, into the Biscayne National Park, where there was less current but also less wind.  We motored down Hawk Channel, spent the rest of the day looking at Elliott Key, and after we listened to the National Weather Service predict "light and variable" winds overnight, we found an anchorage and dropped the hook just before sunset.   Sigh.

Up and out at dawn, we headed for the open ocean - but not too far out, because of that nasty Gulf Stream.  We hugged the reefs in less than 200 feet of water and told ourselves, firmly, that we would make full use of the predicted 5-10 knot SE winds.  Ean spent most of the day playing the How Long game.  We ran the engines for a few hours when we couldn't maintain steerageway, then tried to sail again: 1.4 knots, 1.1 knots....  From my favorite perch (helm chair), I would occasionally make a positive report, along the lines of, "Hey we're up to 1.9 now! Hold on to your hat!"  Ean remained unimpressed, until late in the afternoon, when the slight breeze actually started showing some promise.  Phew!  We were past ready, and that night we flew down the coast under an almost-full moon, making up to eight knots, averaging over six.  I felt more than adequately rewarded for toughing it out.  And we got this fabulous sunrise, to boot.

Yes, slow sailing is tough, we're learning.  We have been grappling with the decision that all sailing vessels face.  At what point, we must ask ourselves, shall we turn ourselves into a "motor boat"?   Now?   Or now?  What about NOW? The factors that contribute to the decision-making process are different for every boat, for every passage, for every moment.  Are we trying to outrun weather, or are we in a hurry for some other reason (like taking someone to the airport, getting into a port before sunset, or craving ice cream after a long passage)?  Then we might decide to use our engines, if the wind fails to cooperate.  On a long passage and worried about fuel consumption?  We sail or drift, and wait for the wind.  Sailors on a two-week vacation might choose to motor more often, allowing them to visit more ports before they return to their non-vacation modes of living.   Some of us, on the other hand, have the luxury of time and no shore-based life to return to.

Ean and I agree that we want to sail as often as we can, and motor as little as possible.  Life is what happens both between and at points A and B.  No reason to feel like we're rushing through life.    Sometimes our progress will be S-L-O-W.  But - seriously - with a top speed of about 11 or 12 mph, Joy is obviously not meant to hurry!  Another reason to sail instead of motor: we are lovers of the planet Earth, and we like the idea of minimizing our use of fossil fuels.  From a more pragmatic standpoint, diesel is expensive, dammit.  And our tank is just a bit more than 60 gallons; on big water crossings, if we motor too often, we'll run out.  On long passages, it's prudent to save the fuel in case we need to maneuver to avoid bad weather.

So the general rule is: sailing = good, and motoring = bad.  Gulf Stream Hell proved to be an exception to the rule.   Also, when we lost the ability to steer a course, we lacked patience.   Overall, though, I'm quite proud of our slow sailing.   This kind of sailing takes discipline and a be-here-now attitude that has often escaped me.  We remind ourselves: there's no hurry.  Don't worry.  Be happy.

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