If you had told me in advance that I could make it from Clear Lake to Grand Cayman in 7 days I would not have believed, but that is what I did last December aboard an Island Packet 44 that I and my two friends David and Karen were taking there for the owners. One Pacific front had gone through when we left and the winds were back out of the Southeast which was exactly the direction I wanted to go, but another front was on its way so we had hopes of a better wind direction when it arrived. And on our second day that is what happened. First we had a few showers and then the wind went into the Northwest and then later, at night, it veered to the North and we were on our way, beam reaching at 8 or 9 knots towards the Yucatan Channel. The passage was far faster than I had imagined possible and when we dropped anchor in West Bay, Grand Cayman on Monday night we were all delighted with our fine achievement.
But as always on an ocean passage not everything went exactly according to plan. On the Monday night that we left the Galveston jetties we motored for a while to get clear of the safety fairways then set sail, turned on the tricolor navigation light at the mast top and turned off our bow and steaming lights only to find that when they went off so did the compass light. Before leaving I had checked all of the navigation lights to ensure that they all worked but it never occurred to me that the compass light was wired in with the bow and stern lights. The next morning we had to open up the breaker panel and do a little rewiring! On Tuesday night, our second night at sea, the winds strengthened and veered suddenly to the North and we had to tack. But in the process of doing so, the genoa sheets tangled together and quickly formed a Gordian knot-ball at the bow necessitating an extended stay by me sitting on the foredeck, flashlight in my mouth trying to untangle the mess. Eventually I managed to get everything sorted out but the motion had taken its toll and after I finally got back to the cockpit and tied the final figure eight knot in the port genoa sheet I had to quickly lean over the side as my supper reappeared; it was only my second time of being seasick in over 10 years of Ocean sailing.
After only four days we were approaching the Yucatan Channel. Because of the continuing wind which was now out of the Northeast I chose to reach across towards the West end of Cuba before heading South so as to stay out of the strong North setting currents which with the Northeast wind would create steep seas. On the Cuba side of the channel we would be out of the strong currents and could expect slack water or even, if we were lucky, a small South setting counter current. Even reaching across the area still north of the Yucatan we experienced a night of lumpy disturbed seas and saw our speed over the ground drop to between 2 and 3 knots for a while but by the morning we were again sailing in fairly easy seas and making good progress towards our destination. But that night even though we were some 15 miles from the coast and could only see the loom of the light on Cabo San Antonio, we were kept busy by all the shipping and neither David nor I got much sleep until daylight when we found ourselves in the Caribbean and close hauled sailing towards our destination with the winds still out of the Northeast. Our luck was holding and we had only a couple of hundred miles to go to our destination! We began to anticipate our early arrival, planning our celebration meal for the next evening, anticipating a full nights sleep at anchor with a gentle Caribbean breeze blowing through the boat, and then, next morning, jumping over the side and swimming amongst the coral heads water before breakfast
And of course that was when it happened. It was late in the afternoon and I was below when I heard a loud bang on the starboard side of the boat. Looking out of one of the ports I saw water rushing down the side deck and the propane locker lid wide open, and as I quickly went up on deck I heard a second bang and witnessed the second of our propane tanks disappear over the side. What had occurred was that the a large sea running down the side deck had opened the latch to the locker, water had poured in and the buoyant bottles had popped out and over the side like champagne corks leaving us with a broken fitting on the end of the hose. It shocked us all how quickly it had happened and too late did we shorten sail some more. And then I reflected on my pre departure inspection of the boat and her equipment. I had found some items that did not work and we had those repaired. We had added spares that were necessary and we had stowed everything securely. But I had done nothing about the catch on the propane locker even though I had examined it before we left and I had told myself that it was not secure enough for an offshore passage. Perhaps if it had been easier to modify we may have done so but we did not. The same catches are used on the lids to the foredeck locker and these too should have been modified though fortunately we had no problem with them. Had this occurred earlier we would have been faced with a lack of propane for cooking for a substantial part of the trip but we were fortunate that it occurred with only a day to go, and we still could use the microwave!
Back in Clear Lake I spoke with marine surveyor, Mike Firestone, who I knew had also sailed extensively aboard another Island packet 44 and I learned from him that the very same thing had happened on his passage to Vera Cruz the year before, though on that occasion they had only lost one of the two bottles. I think it made us both feel better in a way to know it had happened to the other.
Planning for an ocean passage takes a lot of preparation and as I learned yet again, small items can become major ones offshore. Yes, we should have done something about it before we left and yes, Island Packet should use a better, positive-locking, catch on the deck lockers.
But what of other items on deck. The emergency liferaft was in its custom cradle and as secure as reasonable possible. The Avon dinghy was tied down securely on deck and did not move throughout the passage though in a real storm we could have lost it. We did make sure that there were no Jerry cans tied to the stanchions and no windsurfer along the side deck. As a general rule I try and keep the decks clear of all gear during a passage as when it starts to get rough is not the time to be moving Jerry cans of diesel down below. Any large or heavy items on deck need to be so secure that they cannot move at all because, once they gain some motion, the momentum will almost always result in damage. Even dinghy oars or boat hooks tied to a stanchion can create sufficient resistance against a big sea to result in bending and anything larger will be worse.
When preparing for passage try and imagine what will happen to every piece of equipment (including the crew) when the boat falls off a wave and comes to a sudden stop or a breaking sea lands solid water on the deck. Then make plans to secure everything appropriately. Heavy items in the cockpit lockers need to be secured and the lids of the lockers need to have positive locks. Anchors need to be secured so that they cannot come loose. Spinnaker or whisker poles stowed on deck should be held more securely than with shock cord. Look out especially for bimini and dodger fittings. Typically these use end fittings that are secured by the friction of a grub screw. These are fine when in compression but when a sea hits the dodger or bimini and it attempts to stretch the end fittings will often come away from the support poles. And donít ignore the propane locker catches as I did!