12 April -- In Blunder Bay, BVI
After crossing the gap between Martinique and Dominica, we decided to anchor for the night in a little cove at the north end of Dominica. Since we were only spending the night — not going ashore — we didn’t check in with Immigration. Just hoisted the yellow quarantine flag, laid out the anchor, tidied up, and sank thankfully into our bunks.
The next morning, we headed north again. Again the seas in the gap between islands was rough, but as the day progressed, Helena and I both felt better than the day before, but were still off our food. John and Gill were sympathetic, but seemingly unaffected by the motion.
As the day progressed, islands slid by in succession: first the several islands of the Iles des Saintes, then Guadeloupe, and then when we were half-way to Montserrat, the setting sun lit the trade wind clouds in shades of gold. Absolutely gorgeous, and best of all, I was hungry. Famished, in fact, but I thought it wise to eat moderately.
Once past Montserrat, our course turned further to the west towards the BVIs. This put the wind right behind us. Wanda the wind vane steering system managed quite well, but as we passed into Montserrat’s wind shadow, the wind fell below 10 knots, which wasn’t enough to keep Wanda working. We then switched to George the electronic autopilot, and that is when the trouble began.
The problem was that with the fairly high waves and light wind, George could not hold a completely steady course. The best he could do was to steer within 10 degrees to either side our our intended course. Since we were on starboard tack, it didn’t matter when he wandered off 10 degrees to starboard, but when he steered 10 degrees to port, the main tried to gybe. We had a preventer rigged, of course, but no one on board liked the main to be back-winded, least of all poor George who struggled to put the boat back on course.
We tried adjusting George to make him react faster and more vigorously, tried balancing the sails better, but of course, nothing helped. George just wasn’t sophisticated or powerful enough to steer the boat perfectly straight. On average, he did great, but asking him to steer without every going 10 degrees or so off to port occasionally was too much to ask. The only solution was to tack downwind — first steer say 10 degrees off our course to starboard, and then 10 degrees off our course to port. This would have kept demands made on George within his capabilities, would have kept the boat moving fast, and probably resulted in less rolling. However, this is the one trick we didn’t try.
Instead, we tried hand steering, which worked because humans can steer accurately enough to sail down wind without accidentally gybing, but only for so long. I found I could handle about a half-hour before getting very tired of the job. We traded off every half-hour as we cruised past St. Kitts.
Off the coast of Saba Island, night fell again and the wind died away almost completely. After trying a few adjustments, and talking about breaking out the light wind sails, we gave up and started the engine. With the sails down, George was again able to steer the boat downwind without gybing — because there were no sails to gybe.
We motored the rest of the night, with no wind and the seas gradually moderating. What had happened to the infallible Trade Winds? They were gone, but luckily Petronella’s hearty Mercedes truck diesel engine was up to the task of running for 24 hours straight, and this morning, we reached Virgin Gorda, checked in at immigration, and picked up a mooring in Blunder Bay.
We’d covered 350 miles in three days in not-perfect conditions. We both had our sea legs, and a challenging passage behind us.
The GRIB forecast is for very light winds for the next few days. Time to get some rest, do some blogging, and work on the list of 43 chores that John has drawn up, including checking the engine for a faint ticking noise that developed during the night.
Ah, the cruising life…
Next Up: Boat Handling Experiments