May 2002 Bermuda to Azores


Our passage from Bermuda to the Azores was fast (11 days 5 hours for 1900 nautical miles, or better than 7 knots average speed), easy, and fun. We had the good fortune to have an experienced J/24 helmsman, Ken Signorello, on board, so we were able to stand single-handed watches throughout. Our watches were nominally 3 hours on and 6 off, but if we felt good about serving longer, the other watches simply slipped by the extra time (Ken almost always served more than 3 hours, sometimes going 4½ or even 5 hours at a time). This gave everybody at least 6 hours of sleep at a stretch, barring emergencies, radio watches (for Rob), and cooking (Andi). The key to success in this system is to not pay attention to the time when you're off-watch, but to sleep and wait for the standing watchkeeper to wake you up.

A big key to our successful trip was Herb Hilgenberg (whom we introduced in a previous travelogue; see "Hampton to Bermuda" on our web page, http://aboard-akka.tripod.com). Herb gives weather routing advice daily on his SSB radio net, and his advice contributed significantly to our decisions on what course to steer. We started out heading east northeast, well south of the normal route, which goes north of the more-or-less permanent Azores High (an area of high pressure and low winds around the Azores); but as soon as we logged onto Herb's weather net he told us to go southeast until we were actually south of Bermuda's latitude. The reason, Herb explained, was that a series of low pressure systems (lows) and fronts were spinning off the US East Coast, spawning gales along the usual Bermuda-Azores route. The wind goes counter-clockwise around lows, so if we wanted west and southwest winds (which we did), we had to stay on the south and southeast sides of these lows. Our course felt particularly weird because the magnetic variation for compasses in this area is more than 17° and we have a compass deviation of about 6°, so even when we were following a meridian we were steering a compass course of 113°. When we were going southeast it felt as if we were sailing back to the Caribbean!

Every day, we thought we'd turn northeast at last, to head directly for the Azores, and every day Herb told us to stay south. We followed his advice reluctantly, but are very glad we did. A couple of boats went north of us and got pummeled. 'Yellow Drama', a Swan 65, encountered squalls north and west of our position, with 50-60 knot winds and, despite her superior speed (normally averaging 9-10 knots), limped into Horta two whole days behind us. All this time we were sailing in south, southwest, and west winds from 15 to 25 knots strength, setting the spinnaker when we could and cruising along, averaging over 8 knots for hours at a stretch.

We used our Cetrek autopilot, which we thought we had finally fixed, generously for the first two days -- then it failed again and we were back to hand steering. It turned out that our expensive new hydraulic unit was leaking hydraulic fluid all over our cockpit lazarette, so we tightened a few screws and were able to reduce the leaking to a few drops a minute. That was good enough to use the autopilot for short spells, enabling the driver to go to the head, eat meals with the others, and wake the next watch-stander, but not good enough for long-term steering. So we continued to hand-steer all the way to the Azores. This probably helped to account for our fast passage, both because we could sail to target speeds and because an active helmsman tends to pay more attention to sail trim and boatspeed.

Here are some log entries from the trip:

1 May 2002
2030 Left fuel dock [St. Georges]. Cleared departure with Bermuda Harbour Radio.

2 May 2002 [end of day 2]
2240 Bore off [to flatten the boat] for an excellent Cornish Gam hen dinner...switched to staysail; still doing about 7 kts. Clear with star-filled sky.

4 May 2002 [day 3]
0100 Ship passed headed west.
1000 Dropped [i.e., furled] genoa and set chute.
1305 Starboard spinnaker sheet (guy) broke at shackle. Tried to stuff chute, but top was twisted inside the sock and wouldn't run through the block at top. Brought spinnaker down to deck, ran the tapes, untwisted it, repacked ad stowed below. (1 1/2 hours)
1700 Caught small (2 lb) crevalle jack. Stuffed and baked for dinner.

5 May 2002 [day 4]
0930 1,216 Nautical Miles from Azores.
1020 Wind dropping to under 15 kts.
1215 Wind continued to drop.
1305 Furled jib and started engine.
1600 Engine off to conserve fuel. Main and genoa in 5-8 kts.
1930 Chilly, wet and miserable out. Wind SW 15 kts. Ship 'Mishda' passed about 200 yds away. She looked ghost-like in the mist and rain. Talked to her on VHF; she appeared not to have seen us until we called, at which time we were looking up at her lights! Separate dinners tonight as no autopilot and nobody wants to sit outside. Chili for Cinco de Mayo!

6 May 2002 [day 5]
0500 Very difficult steering, with wind strength and direction variable and no helm pressure -- course will change 30° while you check the speedo or horizon.
0515 Squall, gusts to 25 knots and rain. Passed quickly and wind back to 11-13 kts.
0700 Doused jib and set spinnaker.
0954 ... had a 3 hour spinnaker run averaging 60° [off stern] in 20 kts wind top [boat]speed 9.35 kts. Next watch decided to take it down and we did so withut incident. As the watch was handed over, a whale showed its flukes.

7 May 2002 [day 6]
1030 From 11 UCT [Universal Time, aka Greenwich Mean Time] yesterday to 1100 UCT today, we logged 200.1 nautical miles! We celebrated with fresh-baked bread.
1300 Overcast lifting, partly sunny. Saw several stormy petrels. We're crossing the shipping channel from south England to Panama Canal so keeping sharp lookout. Seen trash but no traffic.
1400 Celebrated halfway point (it's further as the crow flies to Bermuda than to the Azores) with party hats, banner, and crackers and cheese from the Azores.

8 May 2002 [day 7]
1925 Wind dropped throughout watch but continued to show gusts over 20. At change of watch, wind built back to high teens. Decided to sail with staysail for nighttime. Making about 7 kts.

9 May 2002 [day 8]
0230 Wind freshening from 15 to 20+. Making 7.2-7.5 kts. under main and staysail. Bright stars, with Milky Way quite clear.
0600 Wind built during this watch to mid 20's & occasionally 30. Difficult steering. Ran off in gusts. Made just under 8 kts - think sails were overtrimmed. Eased traveller and main. Seems easier. Pretty pink pastel sunrise and sunny skies.
1925 Winds lightened to about 12 kts. Changed to genoa at end of watch. Crs. 090, waves diminished slightly. Sunny sky, smooth sailing.

10 May 2002 [day 9]
0030 Beam reaching at 7.5-8 kts. under all plain sail [main and genoa]. Stars, but not as clear as last night. No moon. Getting chillier but not cold.
0723 Changed to spinnaker. Now able to make 7-8 kts. Winds are down to 12-14 kts.
1420 Beautiful spinnaker reach. Bright sunshine, wearing T-shirts.

11 May 2002 [day 10]
0100 Starry night with a bit of overcast. Flying spinnaker using steaming light to illuminate it. Requires concentration but not bad. A ship passed on the horizon.
0945 Jibed to port jibe. Feels weird [after days on starboard jibe]! We had figured a 50-60° jibe angle based on our Bahamas-Bermuda experience, but that was in lighter air. We can jibe in 30° in 15-18 kts., so we've overstood. Now beam reaching under spinnaker. 300 NM to the Azores. Over 24 hours under spinnaker!
1100 Overpowered with chute @ 115° apparent wind in 15-22 kts. Doused spinnaker.
1500 Saw large pod of [bottle-nosed] dolphins -- cavorted around the boat, jumping and doing sharp u-turns. Brown on top, white underneath, with white pectoral fins, about 5' long.
1850 Took in fishing gear for fear that we'd catch a sea bird. They're Cory Shearwaters. Over 20 were swooping on the lure, fighting each other but getting closer and better at it. As I [Andi] took in line, they continued to chase it! I was scared I'd catch one as I tried to reel it in. Per the log in Capn [charting software], we've come 1666 NM.

12 May 2002 [day 11]
0100 forward head not working properly -- flap valve is not holding. Do not use until further notice.
0900 Breeze increased to 20+ kts. Waves long and large. Having to steer 10-20° above course [in order to keep genoa full]. Furled genoa at watch change.
1520 What a watch! Sparkling sunshine and dolphins by the score escorting us. To top it off, we caught an albacore tuna! At least 10 lbs. - sushi tonight! Continuing on broad reach under main alone at 6-7 kts. [We are within 100 miles of Horta and do not want to arrive at night, so are slowing down.]

13 May 2002 [day 12]
0020 Wind dropped during watch, to 10-15 kts. with small weather systems bringing 20-25 kts. for 15 minutes or so, sometimes with rain or mist. Set staysail on broad reach, got 1 kt. of speed additional, to about 6.5 kts.
0200 Land sighted dead ahead. Furled staysail and started engine. Wind light.

As he turns 59, Rob's at sea
With Andi and Ken for ship's company
Winds fair, skies clear, oceans blue,
Akka is well-found and true,
It's the best that his birthday can be!

0330 Motor sailing with main at 5-5.5 kts. LIghts on Faial and Pico clearly visible, 28 miles away. Wind 6-8 kts, almost dead ahead.
0530 No wind. Took down mainsail. Continue motoring to Horta as the sun rises over the Azores.
0845 Moored [at pier] to clear customs.