Hampton to Bermuda -- November 2000

We made our passage from Hampton to Bermuda with fellow Hampton Yacht Club members Tina Lotts and Lou Williams.

We left late morning the 18th of November, not in much of a hurry because Herb Hilgenberg had told us the weather was not conducive to a Gulf Stream crossing. Herb is an amateur meteorologist in Canada, who runs a net on the SSB radio every day (as far as we can tell, he works 7 days a week, and takes no vacation). He plots the positions of every boat on his net, and makes up detailed weather forecasts for each boat. At about 2:30 p.m., EST, all the participants call in, and at 3:00 Herb comes on, calling each boat in turn, finding out their lat/lon and how things are going aboard, and then gives them the weather forecast, usually going 3 or 4 days out along their routes. The number of boats on the net at any given time can be upwards of a hundred, and this whole process takes until 6:00 or later. Of course, you only have to stay on long enough for Herb to get to you, and because he follows the same sequence daily (Bermuda, then Eastern Atlantic, north to Nova Scotia, then Western Atlantic, thence south to the Islands, over to get the boats crossing from the Canaries, then the Caribbean and Bahamas) one can tell approximately when he'll call, so it's not necessary to stay on the whole time. But sometimes he pauses to chat and other times just streaks through, so you have to start listening 15 minutes or so before you expect to get called. Anyway, Herb may or may not be an accurate forecaster, but lots of cruisers swear by him, and he's the best source of data on big things like tropical depressions, fronts, lows, etc., relative to your own boat's position.

Herb was saying a big low (developing gale) was about to come up from the Gulf of Mexico and across our path, so we should either wait in harbor or head south down the coast to about the latitude of Beaufort, then enter the Gulf Stream behind the low. We chose the latter option, planning to take advantage of the lower winds on the western side of the moving storm and also of the west winds expected right behind the gale (recall that winds go counterclockwise around lows). So we sailed south, along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, making good progress in northerly winds, but not heading toward Bermuda.

By midday the 19th, we were past Hatteras and continuing south. We entered the Gulf Stream in an easterly meander, but kept more or less to our southbound course. Imagine our surprise when Herb told us that we had almost crossed the Stream and were directly in the path of the oncoming low! The gale sounded really bad, so we turned around and sailed back west, out of the Stream and into the bight south of Hatteras. About midnight the wind went from northeast to north, and then northwest, and we decided this was our passing low. We jibed and headed back into the Stream.

By this time, the northerly winds had been blowing for a day or more, and the seas were pretty big -- 10 to 15 feet; but we were broad reaching, and Akka's also pretty big, so it wasn't too bad. Worse than the seas was the rain, which was light but unrelenting.

We got through the main body of the Stream by first light. The low did pass through to the west of us, according to the weather fax we got, but we never saw it -- the barometer stayed rock-steady at 1016 mb, which is about average pressure, and the wind didn't go west of northwest until days later.

The wind was northwest to west ever after. We had a couple of opportunities to fly the chute, but the first time, darkness was coming on and everybody (but Rob) felt it prudent to take it down for nighttime sailing. The second time, the wind immediately built to over 30 and the pole toppinglift broke, so again we had to dowse the chute. From then on, the wind stayed above 25 knots -- too heavy for the chute. The sun was shining, but we were still in foul weather gear. For all of Tuesday and half of Wednesday, we ran downwind under increasing winds and seas, until we were down to our main only, double-reefed. We were running before the wind, and got some prety exhilerating rides. Andi managed to hit 16 knots running down the face of one wave, and then on the next watch Rob caught a monster for a 17 knot moment! Tina struggled more with the steering, expressing her frustration with colorful language at the top of her lungs when she felt out of control.

As the wind started blowing the tops off waves and spume covered the sea around us, more and more waves broke into the cockpit. One went through our elderly dodger, blowing out its windows at the seams. Finally, it became impossible to hold the bow down, and we broached twice, jibing and breaking the preventer line on the second broach. By this time, the waves were uniformly over 20 feet high, and breaking. So we set the staysail, tacked under power, and sat hove-to for 24 hours.

Heaving-to gave us a chance to get a good night's sleep and even to make some needed repairs (though any reference to "heaving", to or otherwise, was discouraged during those repairs). When we squared away late Thursday (Thanskgiving) morning, we found good following winds continuing, but the seas had moderated to about 15 feet and they were no longer curling over at the top. They still made an impressive sight in the sparkling sunshine as they broke over a northbound tanker.

So we didn't get to do any more "pipeline" surfing, but generally everybody was a bit happier with the conditions, even enjoying a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Eventually, the wind died to the point where we were motoring, for the first time since we left Hampton a week earlier.

The Bermuda Harbour Radio operator was extremely helpful and courteous, as was Adam, the customs agent, who turned out to be a friend of Eddie Williams, our old Hampton friend and fellow J/24 competitor! Adam told us that he and Eddie crew for John Kenerson in his Etchells when they compete in Bermuda, and Adam had just returned from a visit to Hampton, where he had dinner at the Hampton Yacht Club. The food must have been satisfactory, as Adam gave us a warm reception.

We crossed the harbor to St. George's Dinghy Club, which was closed until 4:00 p.m., but a member who was there offered to drive us into town. As we were leaving, a guy drove up on a scooter, and explained that he had all the yacht club forms for us to fill out, and tokens for the showers, etc., in case we didn't want to wait until 4:00. He had been waiting for us, because he had monitored our reports to Herb on the SSB radio and so knew when to expect us! I'm not sure the term "friendly reception" even covers our arrival in Bermuda.