800 Miles open ocean, 30-foot seas. Yah, you got this.
My overseas voyage from Maine to Bermuda on the Spirit of Bermuda
At the very top of my Bucket List has been a strong desire to sail from New England to Bermuda; in a real sailboat (not a luxury cruise ship with all its wonderfully comfortable amenities), experiencing the open ocean, up close and personally, much like our forefathers.
Last week, I learned that the tall ship, Spirit of Bermuda was looking for crew sailing from Belfast Maine to Hamilton Bermuda. She has been there undergoing routine maintenance and inspection.
Knowing that this would be a longshot, I decided to apply, nonetheless.
A few days ago, I learned that I just made the cut and was accepted as a crew member.
Sailing has long been a passion, and exploring the coast feels quite comfortable. This will be a new experience and a dream come true.
The voyage began with a chilly departure from the shipyard in Belfast, Maine on Saturday, September 24th, 2016. The trip had been delayed due to two tropical storms passing through the area. This is hurricane season, after all.
Our crew of 19, traveled through Penobscot Bay; spotted at least one shark and watched dolphins frolic off our bow as we passed Cape Cod. Then we set course across the ocean blue. We traversed the Gulf Stream, encountered a gale and heavy seas, all the while marveling at the beauty and the fury of Mother Nature.
Dockside at Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, Maine. It’s been a busy morning. We have been loading food supplies, inventorying medical kits, testing our rescue boat, securing everything that’s loose on deck, fixing the bow thruster. We also filled the fresh water tanks and added 410 gallons of diesel fuel to the 500 already on board.
Based on the latest weather conditions, we should be departing at 6:00 am tomorrow morning.
We have a crew of 19 guys and gals. Most folks are from Bermuda and are enjoying the beauty of the harborside town.
Saturday, September 24th, 2016
Voyage Day 1 – 6:40 am – 770 miles northwest of Bermuda
“Cast Away Lines” says Captain Mike. We are off on our way.
Our rescue motor boat helps maneuver our 115 foot ship out of Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, Maine. It is a tight fit as we exit the marina, where she has been undergoing routine maintenance these last few weeks. All hands are on deck. There are 19 of us from all walks of life; young, old, guys, gals, some from New England, most though call Bermuda their home. Our adventure is just beginning, as we make our way out into the waters of Penobscot Bay.
9:00 am Penobscot Bay.
We are motoring down the bay as we practice our safety drills; Man Overboard, Fire on board, Abandon Ship. During this voyage we actually have two Captains; Mike and Paul who will share the duties as we sail 770 miles from Belfast, Maine to St Georges, Bermuda. At the moment, the Captains and Engineer, David are not happy with the fire hose and bow thruster systems. It’s an issue with the Hydraulics System. We make a detour and sail into Rockland harbor, where we are greeted by two motor boats, with mechanics and engineers aboard. Repairs are made.
We are off again. In the distance, I can make out the silhouettes of three other Tall Ships. I imagine that there would have been dozens, if not a hundred or more tall ships plying these waters in their heyday.
The Port Watch is on duty. Now under sail, we are heading towards Cape Cod and take in a magnificent sunset.
Sunday, September 25th, 2016
Voyage – Day 2
The winds and waves have picked up since last night.
We are pitching and rolling which is why we wear safety harnesses at all times while we are on deck. In the event someone falls overboard, the vests inflate immediately. Waves are running between 5 to 10 feet.
Upon waking up down below deck, the motion of the ship is felt but cannot be seen. Some of us are feeling a little nauseous and quickly don our foul weather gear and head up on deck. The fresh air and being able to see the motion of the ship help almost instantly. I still decide to hold off on breakfast though.
A curious thing; sea sickness or motion sickness. Symptoms are: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sweating, and a sense of feeling unwell. These symptoms arise when there is a disagreement between the inner ear (labyrinth) and visually perceived movement. It is not fun.
Currently, we are positioned about 20 miles east of Chatham on Cape Cod. We can’t see land, but we know it’s there. We have seen seagulls, a shark and a pod of dolphins this morning. I realize that our Pilgrim forefathers were probably close to this position some 400 years ago as they made their way to the New World.
6:30 pm. As the sun grows low in the west, a large Boston-bound cruise ship crosses our bow about 4 miles away. We picked her up on radar about 30 minutes before we saw her.
I took the helm for the first time today, feeling the ship respond to subtle turns of the wheel. We are presently over George’s Bank with a depth of about 400 feet. The Bank forms part of the Continental Shelf. After passing over it, we will turn slightly east to a heading of 130 degrees (Southeast). At this point, the depth will drop to 3,000 feet and more.
We are on our way to the open ocean.
Monday, September 26, 2016
Voyage Day 3.
6:15 am. Position 450 miles north of Bermuda, 250 miles east of Point Pleasant, New Jersey.
Thankfully, Hurricane Karl has shifted to the east of Bermuda, leaving us with fair weather, but unfortunately, little wind. So we are motor sailing towards Bermuda at 7 knots, heading 170 degrees (south), following close to the Plumb Line. This is a straight line drawn between our departure point of Belfast, Maine and our final destination, St. George’s Bermuda.
It’s evident that we are nearing the Gulf Stream. The air and water temperatures are steadily warming. The sea temperature is now 74 degrees and climbing. Waves are 2-4 feet. Our foul weather gear has been put away, at least for the moment, and replaced with t-shirts and shorts.
The sun is just rising; painting a beautiful palette in the morning sky.
9:00 am on Bow Watch. My job is to scan the scene; report any other ships, look out for floating debris, buoys which may be a sign of nets in the area. This has become my favorite position, especially in the evening.
The crew of 19 has been divided into two groups; Port watch and Starboard watch. We are working 12-hour days; 6 on, then 6 off. While underway, the Port watch assumes duties during 06:00 to 12:00 (Morning) and 18:00 to 24:00 (evening). Starboard watch handles 12:00 to 18:00 (Evening) and 24:00 to 06:00 (early morning). Among our assignments are bow watch, boat check, helmsman, sail handling and other duties as assigned. When we are not on duty, we can stay on deck, eat, read or catch up on sleep.
7:15 pm. Enjoyed another spectacular sunset. The sky is clear and there are millions of stars above. Venus is the evening star, shining brightly in the western sky. Another shooting star flies by overhead, the third tonight. Another Wish.
A little bird with a colorful tufted crown, lands on the ship’s deck, looking exhausted. He hops around the deck. We put out some water and crackers and make a tiny shelter for him in the cockpit by the engine’s throttle handle.
We name him Terrance.
For fun, we are counting the constellations; Sagittarius, Scorpio, Cassiopeia, Big & Little Dipper, Orion and more appear as the night goes on.
Talk about feeling small and in Awe of it All.
Here we are, on a 115 foot boat (large by many standards), sailing 770 miles between two ocean ports, in the North Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic is the second largest ocean covering about 16% of the Earth’s surface. Earth, the water planet is the fifth largest planet in our solar system. The sun which has set a few hours ago is one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way which can be seen so clearly overhead, stretching from northeast to southwest, is just one of approximately, 100 billion galaxies that we know about.
At 10:00 pm, a large cargo ship, the Anastasia passes across our bow about three miles out. Our AIS (Automated Identification System) tells us that she is heading to Rotterdam, Holland. She is 680 feet long and 120 in beam. She is large enough to hold 240 ships the size of the Spirit of Bermuda.
Midnight shift change: We are now at the halfway point, 380 miles from Bermuda, Today our work was lighter than usual due to the lack of steady wind. We powered for a majority of the day. However, it sounds as if this is the calm before the storm. The forecast is calling for strengthening winds from the south. We’ll have to start tacking into 25 knot winds and foul weather.
Port watch off duty.
Tuesday, September 27th, 2016
Voyage – Day 4
6:00 am Morning Watch, 280 miles North of Bermuda
Watch begins with a beautiful sunrise and a hint of building clouds.
Sadly, our little birdie friend Terrance did not wake up from his slumber. We gave him a simple, but proper burial at sea (thank you, Lamar).
Our crew of 19 has begun to really bond, in simple, yet meaningful ways. Most of us were complete strangers until last Friday when we all met in Belfast, Maine. Now we journey to Bermuda across this vast body of water, separated from our families, friends and familiar daily routines. It’s very strange to be so isolated and not in touch with those we care about so much.
We sail together, bunk together, eat together, teach each other, care for each other’s well being. We share in the marvel of the voyage; we have seen birds, dolphins, sunrises, sharks, sunsets, flying fish, constellations. Every day we have seen maybe a boat, or two if we are fortunate. However, we are here for the most part all alone on a relatively small vessel hundreds of miles from civilization. We do not have a sense of what is going on in the news in our homeport, our state or province, our country, even the world at large. At dinner, I remember that the “big Presidential debate” is on tonight, but it doesn’t even come up in conversation.
It is actually quite nice to be removed from the media frenzy.
8:30 pm Evening Watch
For me the separation and isolation are very grounding; perhaps just a little frightening, but it does remind me of what is most important in life; family and friends.
I realize that there are family members who I haven’t really connected with in recent months and friends who I’ve known for the better part of my life that I haven’t talked to. I make a promise to myself that I will try to do better once I return to Terra Firma.
No stars tonight. Winds have picked up. Seas are 12-15 feet. As we turn the ship over to the Starboard Watch, we have trimmed the sails in, preparing for heavy weather. There is a front directly in front of us to our South East. We can see the lightning on the horizon.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Voyage Day 5 – Early Morning – 2:15 am
180 miles NNW of Bermuda
It’s the middle of the night, and the Starboard Watch is on duty.
All of us on Port Watch retired at 12:00 midnight and have been trying to sleep. It’s not easy as we knew heavy weather was approaching; lightening on the horizon and seas of 15-20 feet. The weather radar was showing broad swaths of green, yellow and some isolated red spots.
WHooosshhh, SHooosh, BAMMMmmmm, SPLaaassSHH…
I’ve been dreaming. Feeling weightless; flying; rising up on circular currents of air. My arms act as wings, allowing me to soar higher and higher, then glide down close to the ground. It’s a strange dream, but yet it’s somehow familiar and comfortable. I’m in that thin veil between sleep and consciousness.
WHooosshhh, SHooosh, BAMMMmmmm, SPLaaassSHH…
The sounds and vibrations continue…
As I become a little more alert, it takes me a few moments to remember where I am.
It’s totally dark, save for the dim glow of the nightlights in the starboard head (bathroom). I am in my lower bunk in the forward sleeping berths of the Spirit of Bermuda, a tall ship sailing from Belfast, Maine to St. George’s, Bermuda.
The sounds are from the ship’s bow slicing through the crest of a large ocean wave.
The vibrations are from the hull slamming down into the trough between the rollers.
Sitting up quickly, I forget to slide forward and hit my head on the bunk above me. Disorientation sets in, not from the bump on my head but from the ship’s leaping over the next wave’s crest. For a second of time, maybe two seconds, the whole ship is weightless, suspended in air as we pass through and over the peak of another wave.
I make note of the fact that the hull sounds quite solid, no shaking or shimmering. That is a comfort.
WHooosshhh, SHooosh, BAMMMmmmm, SPLaaassSHH…
Settling back into my bed, stretching the full length of my berth; I need to make a conscious effort to calm my racing mind and rest. Wake-up call is in a few hours.
Closing my eyes, I begin to focus on the rhythm of the ship and its movement through the rough seas. Holding on to the bunk with my left arm, so as not to be catapulted to the floor,
Whooossshh; the acceleration of racing up the face of the sea mound.
Shooosh; the feeling of weightlessness, as the ship leaps from the wave’s crest and descends down the backside.
Baaammm; as the hull impacts the bottom of the wave’s valley.
Splaasshh; as the water is parted, knife-like, allowing for a cushioned landing in the trough.
Then the process repeats itself
As I drift back off to sleep, I am feeling grateful for experienced Captains (Mike & Paul), an experienced crew, modern weather and navigation equipment and a rock solid, well-built ship.
5:15 am Wake-Up Call
“Good Morning, you’ll need your foul weather gear”
We are absolutely soaked. It’s been a rough night. We passed through three squalls. It’s continuing to getting warmer ever since we passed through the Gulf Stream, but the waves are still large.
It is still dark in the forward bunkroom. The ship is still leaping from wave to wave. When I stand up, the ship’s floor drops from under my feet. I go flying about three feet, landing on boots, “ripe-smelling” clothing and duffle bags which litter the floor after an evening of heavy weather. I can feel a bit of motion sickness set in as the ship is still in motion. It’s time to get out of the bunk area; head up on deck and breathe in fresh ocean air.
I attempt to put on my outer gear, which consists of black lightweight waterproof pants which extend from my ankles all the way up to my chest; a nearly fluorescent red over-size rain jacket which allows one to layer-up in the event of cold weather and rubber boots. Then of course, there is all-important safety harness, which will inflate automatically should one fall overboard. It’s far from being fashion forward, but it is very practical in this kind of weather.
The process takes longer than usual as I find myself airborne part of the time. (Try to imagine getting dressed for work or school, while riding on a roller coaster).
Finally dressed and moving aft; I open and then close the watertight door from the forward compartment into the Galley. The well-designed ship has five water-tight compartments. Should the ship’s hull be compromised; we will remain afloat so long as two of these five compartments remain water-tight. We also have survival suits, life rafts, and a rescue boat.
The Galley encompasses the kitchen, dining area and additional sleeping bunks. It is situated in the middle of the ship, close to the center of gravity and hence the smoothest and most stable part of the ship. Usually, it’s a great spot to eat, socialize, learn, write and just relax between watches.
Breakfast is in the works and smells good. Marcia, with Laurie’s guidance, manages to cook these fabulous culinary delights. How they do this while the ship is in a constant state of motion; pitching and rolling is a magnificent mystery to me. This morning, however, I take a pass on breakfast and keep heading to the rear to fresh air up on deck. Maybe later.
Suddenly, the ship surges to the left and my shoulder slams into the door’s bulkhead. Then moments later my hip impacts the dining table sending utensils, bowls, cups and their contents flying. After cleaning up the mess, I stop and try to be more mindful.
How strange; the simple act of simply walking a straight path from the front of the “Spirit” to the stern is proving to be a challenge. Rather than just traveling from point A to point B, I make a simple connection, thinking back to last night’s thoughts about the ship’s rhythm.
It seems that moving is easier when the ship isn’t leaping from the crest of a wave or slamming into the wave’s trough. It’s all about gravity, isn’t it? Walking when G (gravity) forces are extremely positive or negative, makes it difficult if not impossible to maneuver. Waiting for the in between periods, I can move safely, though not swiftly from the Galley through the rear bunk area, past the engine room and navigation station and eventually to the aft ladder to the cockpit.
Climbing the steps, I greet the Port watch with a big heartfelt “Good Morning”.
Taking in a deep breath of fresh ocean air; feeling the salt spray cleanse my face, I gaze out at the horizon in the distance. Almost instantaneously, I am restored.
The seas are still angry, with large rolling 25-35 foot waves, approaching the height of a three story building. The winds are sustained at near gale force and we are fortunate that the waves, while fairly tall are not too steep. We have some breaking waves and lots of wind spray. Our helmsman, Richard, does a masterful task of threading the rollers. He is holding fast to the ship’s wheel, adjusting the rudder to find the smoothest path through the crests and valleys, all while still maintaining a true compass course, which will bring us to Bermuda. I watch him for a while and recognize that he has found and knows the ocean’s rhythm.
The sun rises but is invisible behind thick gray overcast. Our weather radar detects a line of yellow and red splotches about 15 miles out. More rough riding ahead. We alter our course to hopefully miss the heart of the approaching squall.
The challenge with squalls is that one doesn’t know exactly what is hiding inside.
While we experience heavy rain and wind, we are fortunate to just brush the cell.
Onward to St. George’s, Bermuda.
We are about 140 miles north of our destination, St. George’s, Bermuda.
Ocean depth 17,500 feet
After experiencing our heavy weather of the last 24 hours, I decided to take a pass on sleep and savor the last full day of the journey on deck.
The winds and waves have been subsiding during the afternoon. We leave our foul weather gear down below and enjoy the sun and open ocean.
The pace today is more relaxed knowing that we are drawing ever closer to the island.
Dkembe, our watch leader, has put out a fishing rod and has been trolling for a good part of the journey.
We are sharing jokes, life adventures, and misadventures. Talk turns to Bermuda’s rich maritime history and the story of the wreck the Sea Venture and the founding of Bermuda.
6:00 pm – Port Watch
As we draw ever closer to the isle of Bermuda, weather conditions continue to improve; with sunshine, steady winds and moderate rolling waves. This is such a contrast from the storm just 24 hours ago.
We all take turns at the Helm. The modern technology available to us is impressive; we have electronic depth and water temperature gauges, VHF radios, satellite phones, the Global Positioning System (GPS), surface radar, weather radar, weather satellites and more.
We have it so much easier than what early mariners might have had; a compass, an hourglass, a cross-staff for locating position (which provided latitude, not longitude), crude maps and the ability to predict weather by reading the clouds on the horizon. No wonder there are more than 300 known shipwrecks in the waters surrounding Bermuda.
The sun seems to grow larger as it settles lower into the western horizon. Suddenly, there is a loud snap and a whirring sound coming from the stern. The fishing rod bends strenuously as the line plays out. We slow the boat speed by turning closer into the wind. Captain Paul and Dkembe, jump to the rear; quickly grab the rod and carefully reel the line in. Using a large net, they land their catch. It’s a dolphin fish (NOT to be confused with the Atlantic Bottle-Nosed Dolphin – i.e. Flipper).
A little later, I am standing Bow Watch; fulling realizing that this is our last evening at sea. We are now about 100 miles north of Bermuda. The ocean and skies are dark, so dark that it’s difficult to find the horizon.
Looking up, there is a bright, moving object tracking from west to east, moving slowly against the backdrop of the star-speckled sky. As it turns out, it’s the International Space Station orbiting overhead.
There is a special sense of comradery; we are two small ships travelling thru a great vast ocean. While we have a crew of 19, the ISS has a crew of 6. We are cruising at sea level, with average speed about 10 mph; they are in flying 240 miles above us, traveling at 17,000 mph. For a moment, I wonder if they can see us; probably not, as our lights are comparatively dim, but I flash my headlamp towards them anyhow. Watching the ISS fly by was a special gift for the last night.
Port Watch Off.
Thursday, September 29th, 2016
Voyage Day 6 – 6:00 am
30 miles NNW of Bermuda
Marcia and Laurie prepare a delicious final breakfast for us; including some dolphin fish; from our catch last night.
In the early hours of this morning, the Starboard Watch reported seeing a faint light far off in the distance, probably Gibb’s Hill light. The lighthouse was built in 1844 and it’s beacon shines from 354 feet above sea level; allowing mariners to see it from 30-50 miles away. We are getting close.
While watching the sun rise off the Port side; a Flying Fish jumps out of the water, flies just above the surface for maybe 35 feet, before plunging back into the ocean. I have never seen one before. What an amazing creature; while it is considered a fish, it has rigid wing-like fins that act as wings giving it the ability to actually fly for short distances. We start to see more and more of them.
Land Ho; we can now see the contours of the 21 mile island more clearly now; hills, Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, valleys, inlets and bays. We are on schedule for a 12 noon arrival.
As we approach the island from the North, one can see the water color change as we enter shallower water; the turquoise patches, below, reveal the sandy bottom and we can see the darker outlines of the reefs surrounding the island. We want to keep away from these, so we are following a well-marked channel towards St. George’s harbor.
Pair of birds, Bermuda Longtail, fly by, circle the ship twice, as if they were greeting us, and then fly back towards the island.
Meanwhile, we’ve been bringing the sails in and dressing them; packing gear, and cleaning in preparation for Arrival. We pass by the location of the Sea Venture wreck, pause for a short memorial service honoring one of the ship’s crew and continue on to the narrow passage which marks the entrance to St. George Harbor. There are dozens of folks waving and cheering to see the Spirit of Bermuda return home.
Pulling up to Town Wharf we step off the ship onto firm land, yet the ground still seems to be moving beneath our feet. We have arrived – it feels surreal. Customs and Immigration process our vessel and crew within a half hour. Then we head back out the channel to the Spirit’s home berth at the Dockyards at the Western end of the island.
Saturday, October 1st – 4:00 pm – Hamilton Harbor, Bermuda
Two days after our arrival, on Saturday afternoon, we enjoy a huge island-wide Welcome Home Celebration. This also happens to coincide with the 10th Anniversary of the arrival of the Spirit of Bermuda to the island. The event takes place at Albuoy’s Point in Hamilton, Bermuda’s Capitol. Fireboats are shooting their water cannons high into the sky as a welcoming tribute. There is great music, wonderful food, kid’s activities. All the local media services are on hand. The welcome event is attended by hundreds of islanders and visitors alike. It is clear that the Spirit of Bermuda is appreciated and well-loved.
For me, the voyage was the experience of a lifetime.
It was just a week ago that 19 strangers met at the dockyard in Belfast, Maine. Since then we have travelled more than 800 miles across the ocean blue. By the journey’s end, we have become good friends, and many of us still keep in touch. How wonderful to be a witness to Mother Nature; at her best and worst; from Terrance, the little bird who somehow found us 300 miles out to sea, Flying Fish and Dolphin, ships on the distant horizon, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, passing through the Gulf Stream, holding the helm of a 115-foot Tall Ship, riding waves over 3 stories tall, surviving rough stormy weather, viewing the stars and constellations, and watching the International Space Station fly overhead. When one is so far away from home, family, friends, and work, there is this wonderful opportunity for reflection and introspection.
The magic of this voyage is realizing that it is the Journey which is more important than arriving at our destination in Bermuda.
I would do this again in a heartbeat.
Interview with Bill Knowles on his voyage to Bermuda on the Spirit of Bermuda.
from Bermuda Broadcasting Company
More information: The Spirit of Bermuda is owned and operated by the Bermuda Sloop Foundation, a non-profit educational organization. The ship serves as a floating classroom providing hands-on experiential learning through sail training, as well as character and educational development for Bermuda’s youth. Its Mission is “To change lives, one voyage at a time, over time.”
While many of the trips and voyages are designed for school children, every season, there are a number of opportunities for adults and families If anyone is interested in learning more, here is a link; www.bermudasloop.org.