“I want to go sailing!”
It was a gray, cold and misty day in New Mexico in October of 2001. We were lazing around on a Sunday afternoon reading books and wondering if it was cold enough to light a log fire in the fireplace. “What?” I spluttered.
My bride had just made the most amazing statement. This is a woman who got seasick on a $300,000 powerboat, that at the time was on display on the floor of the George R. Brown convention center in Houston, Texas. People were climbing on and off the boat and it was rocking slightly on its chocks. She gets car sick within 400 yards of our Santa Fe home, as the road twists around a couple of hair-pins. “You want to do what?”
This is how it began. We had sold our seismic imaging software company that summer, to a giant multi-national energy company and I had agreed to a 6 year “non-compete”. Annette had just decided that she didn’t want me to get bored laying around doing nothing. I had owned a small sailing dinghy some 30 years earlier and had enjoyed puttering about sailing amongst the reefs off the coast of Libya - but Annette had despised this other mistress and I had sold it for the sake of marital bliss. Annette had never sailed in any other vessel and her parting words to my former craft were not suitable for children’s ears.
I had never sailed a large cruising boat and before Annette could change her mind, I logged onto the Internet and searched for “sailing schools”. I found the American Sailing Association (ASA) and located a school in the Grenadine Islands that are located in the East Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. I sent the school an e-mail and asked if they would do a course over Christmas. They responded in the affirmative and we spent an enjoyable week aboard a 43-foot GibSea sloop, learning the ins and outs of sailing.
In May of 2002, we returned to the Grenadines and “bare boat” chartered a 43 -foot Hunter sloop for a week. We chose the same company who had trained us, as we felt they would be in a weaker position to deny our charter request, based upon our lack of experience. We shared the week with Ed’s sister Rosemary and her husband Chris. Chris has sailed extensively and was a welcome addition to the crew. At the end of the week we had doubled our sailing experience and had also recovered our $1,000 cash damage deposit from the charter company. What a feeling of accomplishment!
By now we were haunting boat shows, dealerships and reading every scrap of information on sailing. It was becoming apparent that although we could certainly buy a boat, we were going to face serious difficulties in buying insurance for same. Because of this, we signed up for another week of advanced training at a sailing school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in November of 2002. This course included a night crossing of the Gulf Stream to Bimini in the Bahamas and coastal navigation exercises, before returning to the USA. The return daylight trip across the Gulf Stream had 20 knots of wind against the current, producing steep 10-foot waves. We beam reached back to Fort Lauderdale with the leeward rail in the water and having a lot of fun. When we arrived at the sailing school marina, we discovered that we had somehow lost the “Man Overboard” pole with its automatic beacon. We also discovered that the ceiling lamps had popped out of their sockets in the main cabin, the toilet door had fallen off and one of the two fresh water tanks had leaked its contents into the bilge. This was all caused by the hull flexing on the two year old GibSea we were sailing, during it’s 30 mile passage. Between the Hunter we had chartered in the Grenadines and the GibSea, we were beginning to realize what a “Blue Water” boat meant and neither of these vessels fell in that category.
In Fort Lauderdale is the Amel dealer and we had earlier e-mailed him requesting a showing of his Amel Super Maramu 2000. We inspected the boat and over the next few weeks, decided to buy this demonstrator vessel from the dealer. The dealer said he needed the boat for a show in early March and that we could conclude the deal after this. We arranged to sign the paperwork in Fort Lauderdale at 10:30 a.m. on Monday 17th. March, 2003 – Saint Patrick’s Day. We signed away our lives and then rushed over to the boat to unload our rented van, that contained 6 huge bags of sailing equipment. We then rocketed over to West Marine to retrieve a pallet load of dinghy, anchor, pumps, lines etc. that we had ordered via the internet. At 3:00 p.m. we were back at the boat beginning to unload the van in the midst of a heavy downpour. At 3:30 p.m., Annette and I were in the main cabin inventorying the first box of small purchased items, when there was a tremendous crash of lightning. “That was close”, I said. Then the debris began to hit the deck. Exactly five hours after we had purchased DoodleBug and before we even left the dealer’s dock, she had been struck by lightning. The subsequent insurance claim covered $60,000 in damage to the electrical systems with a $10,000 insurance deductible. Our first cruise was over and we hadn’t even sailed an inch.
We slunk back to Santa Fe with our tail between our legs, so to speak. Amel promised that the boat would be repaired and as good as new within sixty days. Almost exactly eighty days later, while at the repair yard, we received a call that DoodleBug had been struck again by lightning. This time the damage was “only” $30,000 with another $10,000 insurance deductible. The damage was less because only half of the repair work had been accomplished. We were now beginning to feel desperate that we would never leave Fort Lauderdale and felt particularly helpless that we were living in New Mexico, thousands of miles away from our “new” boat and having to trust unseen repair technicians to make good the damage.
Finally in June of 2003, we ran out of patience and descended on DoodleBug. We moved aboard and spent the next several weeks cleaning and reorganizing the incredible mess generated by the repair crew as the repair work continued. We were terrified that we would be hit by lightning again during the Florida summer thunderstorms and decided that what was not safety related and not fixed, would simply be repaired later. We decided to sail to Key West and from there to Corpus Christi on the Texas coast – a direct 900 mile passage across the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. In Corpus Christi we hoped to complete repairs and begin to prepare the vessel for a circumnavigation beginning in 2004. Thus ended a miserable four months “purchase experience”.
7/3/2003 Brother-in-law Chris flew out from England to join us (Ed and Annette) for the first major passage, so we would then have a crew of three for watch-keeping. DoodleBug left the dock at Summerfield Boat Works in Ft. Lauderdale at 0917 hours under power and headed down river, with Annette calling on the VHF radio for the various bridges to open for us. We made the 17th. Street Causeway in time for the 1000 hours scheduled opening and shortly passed the end of the breakwaters and into the North Atlantic. The wind was close to "on the nose" so we motor-sailed south towards Key West.
At 1130 hours we had lunch in the cockpit and Annette spotted a 4 foot sea turtle off Miami Beach. Exciting!! Shortly thereafter we noticed a freighter approaching from our stern but as it was accompanied by a pilot boat, we expected it to turn into the port of Miami that we were passing. Some 20 minutes or so later, the freighter was much, much closer. Our speed indicator indicated 7.5 knots through the water. A quick look at the GPS showed a speed over ground of only 2.8 knots. We had almost 5 knots of current against us. We were hardly moving!
This necessitated a rapid adjustment of our course to pass much closer to the reefs that protect the east coast of Florida where the current is not as fierce. The problem is of course, that you can't see the reefs, so you have to put your faith in the wizardry of a GPS (satellite) controlled navigation system directing the auto-pilot. This "close shave" navigation exercise that was to be controlling our lives throughout the coming night meant that we had not paid too much attention to the vessel's radar system. At 0205 hours in the morning, while I (Ed) was on watch, I was amazed to see a wooden sailing boat pass down the starboard side and crossed the stern about 100-200 yards away. The stranger had no mast light, no visible starboard light and his stern light was invisible within a few hundred yards. The faded name painted on the stern looked like it read "Flying Dutchman" and the ragged and the gaunt helmsman just raised an admonishing bony finger and howled "Bewaaare Yeee...." before fading into the distance. At least that is the way I remember it. Needless to say, within 20 minutes the radar was on, adjusted and automatic "guard" zones set to produce an alarm if anything came within 6 miles of us.
We were still motor sailing throughout that night and were being passed by slow moving thunderstorm / rain cells that we tried to dodge with mixed success. 1115 hours found us off Oceanside Marina at Key West were we put in. We had sailed about 165 miles in 26 hours and it was now July 4th. 2003 in Key West!
7/4/2003 July 4th. in Key West. We grabbed a cab and headed for the action! That is we headed "downtown" for lunch. There were supposed to be several cruise ships in port and the streets were crowded with tourists causing very slow traffic. Annette had been warned not to wear her propeller cap, since the wearing of such a garment is alleged to be a means of recognizing "working girls" in Key West. Chris and I looked really hard but didn't spot any. We then headed back to DoodleBug for our afternoon nap, so we could be vertical again in time to watch the fireworks display over the main harbor that evening. We found a perch on the balcony of a restaurant that was under construction at Oceanside Marina, where we supped our beers and oohed and aahed for the big ones.
7/5/2003 Topped off the diesel tank and set sail at 1140 hours. An hour later we were off Key West harbor and had turned into the North West passage from the Atlantic into the Gulf of Mexico. This was the first time since we left that we were under sail with the engine off. We had 8 knots of apparent wind from the east. At 1640 hours we were in the Gulf of Mexico under poled genoa, winged main and mizzen at 6.1 knots. The next waypoint is Aransas Pass, Texas - almost 900 miles away.
7/6/2003 At 0115 during Annette's watch she had slipped below to fix tea. The alarm went off on the chart plotter saying we had lost the GPS fix and while we were trying to figure that one out, a squall came up. There was total chaos it seemed, for a few minutes as the GPS refused to be turned off and the sails were flapping about noisily. When it was sorted out, we had had to power the navigation system off by tripping the breaker and then turn everything back on. Fortunately, all the instruments came back up and we trimmed the sails again. It took us about another 10 minutes to figure out that we were now sailing the wrong direction, since the auto-pilot had gone off the air when all this hit. I then had to convince Annette that she hadn't made the GPS do this and she could go back to fixing her tea. At 0800 the wind died completely and we were back on engine. The hot afternoon was brightened considerably by the visit of a school of a score or so of dolphins. They played in our bow wave and entertained us for 20 minutes or so before disappearing off into the vastness of the sea. A truly great show. At 1530 hours the captain ordered the crew to assemble in the cockpit for their daily ice-cream ration.
7/7/2003 0500 Under sail with 7.5 knots of boat speed with 11 knots apparent wind. I then noticed that the boat speed had dropped to 2.8 knots over ground according to the GPS. I was expecting a contrary current according to the pilot chart so changed course 30 degrees to the North to try to cross the current at a sharper angle. By 1000 we came back 10 degrees to the South to try to catch the following seas at a better angle. The weather forecast we received via satellite phone / e-mail predicted a possible cyclone forming in the Grenadines within 24 hours. This will become "Claudette."
By noon the wind had picked up to 15 knots apparent and we were sailing at 8 knots. 1800 found us still fighting a head current but I hoped another 6 hours or so would find us out of it.
7/8/2003 0210 hours the only radar target we have seen this night, passed at 6 nautical miles distance. It was a clear night with visibility out to 15 miles or so. The radar target was doing approx. 32 knots and carried no lights! Special delivery to Miami? 0635 hours we are under sail, we appear to be clear of the contrary current. It is 459 miles to Aransas Pass, Texas.
1200 hours and it is hot! We have 10 knots of wind from behind and we are on genoa and ballooner. This is when I took the picture that is the background to the web-site home page. 1310 hours, the wind dies completely. Claudette is still a-comin' so we are back on engine.
7/9/2003 We have 110 gallons of fuel in the main diesel tank (it holds 150 gallons) with another 60 gallons in jerry jugs. The cyclone in the Grenadines has formed and is heading our way.
We decided that if we had to alter course to try and dodge the approaching hurricane, we should top up the main diesel tank while it is relatively calm. Chris and I spent a happy hour or so siphoning 60 gallons of diesel from jugs to tank. The tank is now full! We were again visited by a pod of dolphins who performed another fascinating display of motion through the denser fluid than the one we inhabit.
7/10/2003 Altered course to miss a Geco seismic shooting boat. The guy on the radio sounded "Eastern Block." I bet the word "DoodleBug" meant nothing to him. Tried to run the water-maker. It popped it's breaker after 15 minutes so I gave up. Played with Annette's 9mm. Glock pistol and slaughtered Chris's pop-can as it floated by.
7/11/2003 Early this morning found us sailing in at 7 knots or so through a line of oil rigs. Texas must be close! 0715 hours found us approaching the breakwater at Aransas Pass. 1530 hours tied up at Corpus Christi city marina. Jerry and Caroline Warren met us at the dock with champagne! Claudette now a category 1 hurricane and still a couple of days behind us.
7/14/2003 Claudette is hurtling towards Corpus Christi – the first hurricane to hit that part of the Texas coast in over 30 years. The Corpus Christi marina is a joke as far as protection goes. There were hundreds of yachts moored there, with rotting string for lines and looking like they hadn’t moved in decades. To add to the fun, there were no floating docks, so a storm surge would lift the lines off the pilings to which they were attached and the whole mess would then be pounded to powder on the jumble of concrete blocks protecting the Corpus Christi sea frontage, just yards away. DoodleBug was moored at right angles to the prevailing wind and was already straining hard against the two lines holding her in position. Telephone calls to nearby marinas confirmed that all were full. We decided we were NOT staying here and Chris and I sailed DoodleBug back across Corpus Christi bay and anchored her at N 27 deg 45.5’ W 97 deg 10.7’ in the lee of Mustang Island. Mustang Island is a low-lying barrier island protecting the bay from the Gulf of Mexico. There were no other vessels of any kind around and we laid out three anchors with 15 to 1 scope. We stripped everything moveable off the deck, closed the watertight doors and turned the anchor light on. We then dinghied ashore where Annette met us with a rental car she had driven around “the long way”. The dinghy was deflated and stuffed into the trunk of the vehicle along with the outboard motor. Aren’t rental cars perfect for such treatment?
Chris was flying back to England and we drove him to the airport in Houston, Texas. While we were dropping him off, the hurricane came ashore near Corpus Christi with reports of widespread damage. The yacht club in Corpus reported winds of 80 knots. The drive back to Corpus Christi was along a highway with areas of devastation as we approached the town. We drove around the bay until we reached the spot where we had landed, re-inflated the dinghy and prepared to launch it. A family in a power cruiser were surprised that we were going to dinghy out in the still rough waters and offered us a ride with them, while towing our dinghy. We were delighted to see DoodleBug serenely bobbing at anchor in the distance and after boarding, confirmed that she had suffered no damage.
We returned to the Corpus Christi marina on 7/17/2003 and remained there for the balance of the month. By now we were thoroughly rattled by multiple lightning strikes and hurricanes and decided that we needed to move someplace offering more protection. We arranged for a berth at Seabrook marina near Kemah, Texas and sailed there on August 9th. 2003, after an overnight passage of 140 miles. This was the first time that we had sailed with a crew of just Annette and I and also the first time we had sailed with Attila on board. Attila had already proved her seadog skills by pottying on an on-deck astro-turf mat while still at the Corpus Christi dock and the log notes that she repeated this performance while on passage.
The approach to the Seabrook marina required us to pass under a bridge with 73-foot clearance. We have an “air draft” of around 70 feet including the antennae. I could not see this event from the helm but Annette assured me it was exciting to watch. We stayed at Seabrook for a few days before moving to a slip on a floating dock at nearby Portofino Marina. This marina seemed about as safe as one could get during hurricane season in Texas. DoodleBug lay in the shadow of the bridge we had passed under and also a huge nearby power transmission line. We hoped this combination would afford us some lightning protection!
For the next three months we worked at completing repairs of the original lightning damage, while also adding a Single Side Band (SSB) radio and provisioning the boat for passage. Kemah is about as good as it gets for this purpose, with multiple hardware stores and three marine supply stores nearby. While Annette stocked groceries, cleaning supplies, paper goods etc. I went through every equipment manual and every boat system, to try and identify the appropriate spare parts to carry. By early December we believed we were finally ready to go! Our target completion date was set for December 12th. as our daughter Helen was to get married in nearby Houston on the 14th. of the month. Children are so thoughtless with their plans! We spent the remainder of December entertaining wedding guests and returned to DoodleBug on 27th. December 2003 with the newly weds safely on their honeymoon and the house in Santa Fe locked up and closed down. The next stage of the adventure was about to begin. I had read in various journals by other circumnavigators, how they soul searched and pondered the philosophy of the task they were about to undertake. I just remember a feeling of total exhaustion and a desire to get “off the dock”.
I had written the following note in my personal diary:
3:00 a.m. New Years Day. The first time I have “slowed down”. Even this isn’t true. I prepared a cup of cocoa and a slice of Xmas cake (throw away the icing and marzipan) and brought both to the cockpit. Next thing we have a radar target on collision course, the cocoa has partway spilled – all down the companionway and over the console. Also Attila wants to come on deck. 30 minutes later, the dog as been on deck; not interested in potty; stuffed back below. The cocoa spill is cleaned up – well sort of – and the tanker safely by. I return to my cocoa. It was too hot anyway. I write this note in a brief moment of calm. Another tanker approaches.