The Road to Bermuda: Strange Weather, Elusive Time

Chris Museler writes: We have nearly 200 miles to the finish.  Even though I have complained about the slow speed of our boat, the Swan 44 Aura, this “Berth to Bermuda” (John Rousmaniere’s tantalizing title for his history of the race) is producing a much bigger and broader array of experiences than my previous short, fast runs, all of which ended by lunch on Monday.

Andrew Parish. and Gray Benson in the westerlies.

Andrew Parish and Gray Benson in the westerlies.

I think there  are two concepts that many land-based observers of ocean racing don’t understand. First, weather forecasts often don’t materialize as presented. Second, sailors never have enough time, even on a boat that averages just over human jogging speeds.

On the weather, Frank Bohlen’s fastest Gulf Stream course has taken us in Aura 70 or so miles west of the Newport-Bermuda rhumb line. Despite a no-wind transition last night from northeast reaching winds to westerlies, Aura has enjoyed spinnaker or blast reaching conditions for the past 20 hours, averaging well over 7 knots (which is faster than a human can generally run).  Despite the forecasts, we have successfully avoided a low pressure system that attacked Newport with nastiness. Knock on wood, this reach will carry us to St. David’s Head.

There are two concerns. Much of the fleet has done a slightly shorter course by sailing closer to the rhumb line. And then there’s the challenge of steering Aura, a beamy 1973 IOR design. Even though this design was touched by one of the greatest of all yacht designers, Olin Stephens, the roundness of her form and the undulations of the ocean swell have combined to torque Aura around like a corkscrew.  We all must pull, yank, push, and leverage a 4-foot diameter stainless wheel. As the boat heels and as the rail goes down, the bow wants to shoot to windward, and the helmsperson must spin the wheel down, pressing against various contortions. Add a wave, and the loads increase exponentially. Do this for an hour or two at a time every four hours or so. . . you get the picture. This wrestling match has wreaked havoc on the crew’s shoulders.

Frank and the skipper working on the engine.

Frank and the skipper working on the engine.

As for the frustration of never having enough time, owner-skipper Bill Kardash has a lot of work on his hands, both cooking and navigating—and also making repairs. Yesterday’s engine stall-out required all the floorboards to be lifted before a problem with the fuel feed was identified.  Then the engine alternator refused to charge batteries. As we sailed with just a few lights on, a close study of the engine manuals and electrical schematics eventually led to a solution.

Another energetic crew effort went into secretly signing a birthday card for Frank Bohlen, who today turned 78.  Because in most ways he is a lot younger than any of us, the card showed four zebras in various states of laughter. As navigator, he spent half of yesterday analyzing GRIB files in an effort to find a new course to catch better winds.

Exhausted, Frank finally gave up and went to bed without telling us to change course. All night we sailed a perfect beam reach to Bermuda, just as he wanted.

I am glad to be sailing with such a seasoned crew. My watchmate Andrew Parish is a Delaware Bay pilot with plenty of stories to tell. His nickname is MacGiver, and he is brilliant as marrying our cutting-edge modern sails to this old boat in creative ways, often with homemade Dyneema shackles. More to come, because, of course, we have a few more days to go. . . arrgh.

The eve of Frank Bohlen's birthday.

The eve of Frank Bohlen’s birthday. (Museler photos)




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