Notre Vie Delivery Cruise
Texas to Key West to St Thomas….
La Voyage a la Vie Nouveau sur s/v Notre Vie… (a draft)
By Captain David Appleton
John Abercrombie first contacted me when he bought his Amel 2000 Super Maramu 2000 in 2005. He needed a skipper to help him move the boat to Texas from Fort Lauderdale. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts prevented our participation on this voyage. He called again in July 2010, again seeking a skipper/instructor for a voyage from Texas to St. Thomas. He and his wife, Susan (aka “Sunny”), were retiring and heading for the Islands. This time I was able to clear my schedule.
I eagerly looked forward to sailing this Super Maramu, Notre Vie, from Clear Lake near Kemah, Texas to St. Thomas, USVI. I’d been aboard several Amel designs before but never sailed one on a significant passage. So this would be a great learning opportunity for me.
But I was slightly apprehensive as well since I would making this trip with four folks I’d never sailed with before. On long ocean deliveries I usually sign on a paid 1st mate, one I’ve sailed with before, often one I’ve trained, and know I can rely on in emergencies.
For this voyage, I’d interviewed John several times on the phone, and scrutinized his resume and he seemed a worthy first mat: a life long sailor with racing experience in the wild waters of his native England, and 4 years experience on this Amel. He’d spent considerable time thoroughly preparing the boat and himself. Plus he speaks with a pleasing British accent which always inspires confidence! And he seemed to have a good sense of humor, a most important trait in a mate on a long passage.
The rest of the crew was made up of Sunny, John’s wife, Helmuth Strobel and Cheryl Teasdale, a Canadian couple who are considering buying an Amel for themselves. Helmuth & Cheryl had placed an ad in Cruising World seeking to Charter a Super Maramu like Notre Vie. I saw the ad, contacted them telling them of the AMI plan for this voyage, and soon signed them on to join John & Sunny as student crew on this training delivery. They both have good sailing experience, and Helmuth had made the Norfolk to Virgin Gorda voyage as crew with the Caribbean 1500 a few years back.
That was July. During the next couple of months we made plans settling on a December 1st through 20th time frame, three weeks on the boat for this 2500nm voyage. We also settled on a route: basically rhumb line from Galveston Bay to Key West, a brief respite there, getting fuel, provisions and other needs; then on across the Gulf Stream, through the Straits of Florida to the Bahamas’ Bank and across Andros flats to the channel just south of Berry Islands. From there proceed ENE to just north of Eleuthra, then out into the Southwest North Atlantic to a waypoint I’ve used for 18 years; I call it ”East” at N 25 00.00’ by N 64 40.00. From there we head due South to the spot I usually like to enter the Caribbean, between Jost Von Dyke and Tortola. From there we could head to a port of our choosing.
By Thanksgiving weekend the crew was very eager to get going. That Sunday Cherl and Helmuth flew into Houston from Toronto, and I flew in from Philadlephia. We all arrived at Bush International within an hour of each other and Sunny picked us up, drove us to the boat at Clear Lake Marina where we met John. We got acquainted, John gave us a quick orientation to the boat and then it was time for dinner at the nearby Outrigger Restaurant.
After dinner we returned to the boat and I went over the general plan for the voyage and how we would run the boat. All this is outlined in the AMI-SOP, our standard operating procedure manual which I had sent the crew several weeks before. All had read and understood it so we all quickly grasped the major aspects of crew duties and responsibilities, safety procedures, watchkeeping duties and routine, standing orders, etc. We also outlined the route plan and schedule so all understood the hows and whys of our choices.
Next day, Monday, we set to work finishing final preparation work on Notre Vie. Major jobs were getting the headsail from the sail maker and mounting it on the headstay foil, installing 12 new batteries in Notre Vie’s 24 volt house bank, and provisioning. The sail had a new UV cover installed. It’s a large 135 genoa and reeving it on was heavy work on a windy morning. The batteries replaced a three year old set that still functioned well, but were on the down side of their expected life. John wisely choose to install new ones for the lengthy Caribbean cruise. Good idea since the Amel line of sailing vessels are heavily dependent on electricity in the 24 volt house system to run most of the equipment on the boat. More on that later.
And of course provisioning is always a major chore when preparing for a lengthy voyage. This one was scheduled for almost 3 weeks, with only one opportunity to resupply in Key West during the first week. Fortunately Sunny and Cheryl took care of provisioning while John, Helmuth and I handled the battery installation. Schlepping aboard and installing 12 of those 12 volt lead acid batteries was hard work. Our backs let us know! But provisioning was no easy task either. And the ladies did a wonderful job with no complaints. They then prepared a marvelous barbeque dinner in a little lean-to with stove and sink the marina residents had built dockside. What a treat.
Tuesday, 11/31/10, the routine was similar. We took care of many last minute details and purchased items we nearly forgot. By Tuesday evening we were tired but eager to leave. A cold front had blown through and we had strong west to northwest winds through the day. I wished we’d been ready to take advantage of this, but we weren’t! I resisted the urge to get underway late that afternoon. We planned an early departure Wednesday as scheduled. John made arrangements for the fuel dock to open a little earlier than usual for us. We had another dinner at Outriggers, joined by their liveaboard neighbor in Clear Lake Marina, David. We then turned in for a good night’s sleep to be ready for sea in morning.
We had an inauspicious start Wednesday morning 12/1. The strong North wind of the cold front conspired with the new moon spring tide to create and extraordinary low tide in Galveston Bay. Notre Vie’s slip was just adequately deep in normal conditions… but these left her stuck in the mud. It took John a half an hour to extricate her and get her over to the fuel dock. But we did get there, and fueled, and by 0800 we were on our way under the high rise bridge and through the Kemah/Clear Lake channel and into the Houston Channel in Galveston Bay, bound for the Gulf of Mexico, and Key West and on to St. Thomas.
Galveston Bay and the Northern part of the Gulf of Mexico, affectionately known as “The Oil Patch” by the locals, presented perhaps the most challenges of the entire voyage. It wasn’t so much the winds or seas, which were disappointingly calm. It was the ships and the rigs that caused us some moderately anxious moments.
John and Sunny had been sailing in the Gulf quite a bit over the last four years, and were thus used to coping with the industrial clutter which characterizes this part of the US maritime environment. But it was new to Cheryl and Helmuth who were accustomed to waters more friendly toward recreational boaters. And even I was somewhat concerned with the sheer numbers of ships and obstructions south of Galveston. I sailed these waters several times before, but always with a healthy respect for the potential dangers posed by these hazards.
Daytime was one thing, but the night was something else again. Anxiety levels in Sunny and Cheryl were heightened considerably as dusk and daylight failed altogether. The new moon night was quite dark despite considerable ambient light provided by the brilliant stars in the dry high pressure sky. John, Helmuth and I had experience with night sailing, so we were less troubled by the dark and shipping. And I had arranged the watch schedule such that both Sunny and Cheryl had one of us backing them up as they stood their watch. As the first night progressed and during subsequent night watches, we were able to reduce the angst level. Soon our ladies seemed perfectly comfortable standing their night watches and even enjoyed the challenge of identifying the different types of ships, rigs, and navigation aids signified by the different light patterns.
Furthermore, John, in his wisdom, had equipped Notre Vie with an AIS system. He had the AIS receiver teamed up with a separate GPS and a Fugawi chart system in his Toshiba lap top. I was so impressed with this arrangement that I plan to put a similar configuration together for myself. It is a remarkable safety feature, taking much of the guess work out of identifying vessels nearing your position and determining where they are going and how close they will come to your vessel. All this information is detailed right on you r computer screen.
The whole crew became quite adept at using this equipment, and actually enjoyed seeing new contacts appear in our neighborhood! But I cautioned all to be careful not to be seduced by the video game aspects of this paraphernalia. Keeping a vigilant watch in the real world on deck remains the primary responsibility watch person on the con.
Our course through the oil patch from Galveston to the middle Gulf was dictated by the charted Houston Safety Fairway, a swath of ocean over a mile wide designated for shipping only, in which no oil rigs are permitted (see NOAA Chart 11340 MISSIPPI RIVER TO GALVESTON). One worry out of the anxiety bucket! But this fairway is one of the busiest seaways in US waters and it fairly bristles with shipping.
So we kept to the far right side of this fairway, hugging the edge to keep out of the way of the big guys. Nevertheless several came fairly close to us, within a quarter mile or so. Normally at sea, I like to keep at least a two mile buffer zone between my relatively small sailboat and large ships. But this mile wide fairway reminded me of many a narrow channel, like that of the Delaware River and Bay in my home waters, where large and small vessels must share a relatively narrow piece of water. Prudence dictates extraordinary vigilance in such waters. And we obeyed this dictum.
But one large fellow came exceedingly close to us as he proceeded to overtake us in this narrow channel. We moved as far to the right side, the southwest side, of the fairway as I dared venture. Most rigs are lighted brilliantly, some less so, and many dead heads not at all. So leaving this fairway at night is not an option. I continued to hug the edge very closely, aided by electronic Fugawi charts on John’s computer.
Yet this overtly belligerent fellow continued pressing us closer to the edge, overtaking us on our port quarter at what I considered a dangerous CPA (closest point of approach), less than 300 yards. Such a close CPA was entirely unnecessary. He had at least a half mile or more of fairway to his port in which to maneuver away from us with no other vessels in that area. And as the overtaking, “give way,” vessel (according to the International Rules) he had the responsibility to keep clear of us. For us it felt like riding a bicycle on a single lane highway with a hugh semi bearing down on us from the rear with it’s air horn blasting.
Then …… THEN,…. the bastard has the audacity to shine a 3,000,000,000 candlepower spotlight at us in a very impolite…… nay I must say, downright RUDE manner.. Blinding us in the bargain. The light was actually painful! He did his not once, not twice but 4 or 5 times. I was thoroughly pissed off. Sunny, whose watch it was and who sports a disposition worthy of her nick name, was livid and began shouting colorful expressions and offering equally articulate gestures towards this rogue freighter. I tried calling him on the VHF radio 16 and 13, channels all are required to guard in such restricted waters, but he did not reply.
He finally passed on, giving us an ample wake to rock in for a bit. So much for the brotherhood of mariners. This captain deserves an unpleasant fate I shall not name. May it consume him thoroughly!
Once through the Houston Fairway our voyage continued to be a motorboat ride, not my favorite thing. But the cold front that had passed us in Clear Lake on Tuesday continued on south and left behind a fairly large high pressure system with typical clear skies and light & variable winds. We otorsailed on, running the engine at 2300 rpms. I wanted to make it to Key West on schedule, Monday, Dec. 7, 5 days out of Clear Lake.
We had what I call “the most dangerous item on a boat,” a schedule!!!... since we planned to arrive in Key West on Monday. There we would fuel, provision, enjoy a little shore time and attend to other needs while docked, then leave early Tuesday for the next, the most challenging leg of the voyage. So we motorsailed at 2300 rpm consuming what we later determined to be 1.6 gallons of diesel per hour.
Normally when motoring or motorsailing I reduce rpm’s to conserve fuel, but I was willing to spend extra fuel on this leg so as to keep the buffer days (extra days beyond what I expected the voyage to take) for the next leg, from Key West to the Caribbean. We planned to top off fuel and water in Key West.
As fate would have it we were able to keep to our schedule with little difficulty. After 3 days of motorsailing the winds picked up and we were able to sail into KW with some good speed under canvas. The crew was most pleased to finally get a chance to sail this fine craft and see what she’d do.
She did quite well and we made port in Key West at about 0600, fueled and berthed her at Conch Marina at 0800, then set out to explore the town, acquire gear, provision and enjoy a nice dinner ashore at the Hog’s Breath Bar and Grill. Key West is mostly the definition of expensive. But it is a very interesting and fun town. We enjoyed our brief visit.
But Tuesday morning found us up early and eager to put to sea which we did by 0700. After dodging a cruise ship docking on the west side of Key West we headed out into the Straits of Florida, making a course for Sliding Rock on the Bahamas Bank. We crossed the straits going with a 2knot + Gulf Stream part of the way, reaching this waypoint by about 0300. The next 50 miles or so took us across what I call the “Andros Flats” on the West side of Andros Island.
I’d crossed these flats several times in the last 10 years or so. It’s a great shortcut when headed east, saving several hours and the many miles out of your way it would take to go and round Great Isaac before heading East through the North Providence Passage. The water on a course between Sliding Rock and the Northeast Passage just South of the Berry Islands, is mostly 9.5 to 14 feet deep. So Notre Vie with her 7’ draft easily fit through this passage. Besides, the tide was rising and we had daylight and light winds. We could admire the bottom visually during this whole segment of the trip.
But crossing these waters in strong winds would be dangerous. Shallow water can quickly kick up into a vicious chop and can even produce large waves, the trough of which could significantly reduce charted depth clearance. And strong currents in that narrow passage south of the Berry Islands can really kick up a fuss. Had such conditions prevailed I would have taken the long way round up by Great Isaac.
Once passed this narrow choke point at the northwest channel, we were now into deep clear water. We headed for our next waypoint just North of Eleuthra. I was pleased, on my watch, to be able to coax 5.5 knots of boatspeed on just 10 knots of northerly winds. And the tidal current was giving us a little boost to the East as well. All this made for a pleasantly peaceful ride during which the rest of the crew could get some rest as night fell that Wednesday night.
More to be added here
On Sunday, we weighed anchor at 0700 and bid fond ado to Coral Bay and headed west to make port at the Sub Base, Crown Bay Marina.
Monday, December 20th and time to head home. Cherl, Helmuth and I finished gathering and packing our gear, helped John & Sunny with a few chores before grabbing a cab for the airport, a short distance from the Crown Bay Marina at about 1100. Coincidence had us book the same flight to Newark on Continnental.
John and Sunny planned to sail Notre Vie over to the West side of Water Island across from the marina and anchor in Honeymoon Bay for a few days and “chill out.” I only hope they planned to see the lunar eclipse scheduled for this evening. When our plane took off at about 1300 and banked right toward the South as it climbed and passed over the Sub Base and Crown Bay Marina, I, sitting near the rear in a starboard side window seat, was able to see Notre Vie (French for “Our Life”) nestled nicely in the shelter of Honeymoon Bay. John and Sunny had begun their retirement dream life in earnest.