My First Offshore Passage with the 59 North Sailing Crew
In this blog I’ll share my first passage experience as offshore crew with 59 North on their Swan 59 names ICEBEAR, and what I learned on my first blue water passage.
In a moment I felt it. A moment of clarity somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle bobbing on a boat in an ocean miles deep. It came with the lightning that was approaching us in the distance. It’s a saying you hear all the time, but in that moment I understood it for what it was...the ocean is always trying to kill you.
You can also view a brief video of my trip on our Sailing AWEN YouTube Channel. But this blog summary is the juicy narrative, so stick around.
My husband is a recovering racer. I held an intervention and put him in recovery, he didn’t ask for it. Mind you, the kind of racing speeds we are talking about I could easily beat on a bicycle, and I don’t peddle that fast. But over an ocean in an Traspac or PacCup race surfing downwind, it’s enough to get anyone hooked on the drug I like to call ‘Bluewater Speed.’
While doing these races, he’s had a chance to do many offshore passages so when he and I talk about doing long passages he talks about it like its no big deal, when I’m still trying to imagine being confined to a 50 foot space for 3-4 weeks - although in all honesty, it’s bigger than my office which is where I spend most of my days on conference calls and video conferences.
Offshore passages were one of these things that was sort of something people talked about but since I had never experienced it, I couldn’t relate. The sailing I had done up to that point was daysails or along coasts or from caye to caye. The concept of going days and weeks across an ocean wasn’t something I could picture for myself in my head. I’ve seen a lot of videos and heard people talk about it but I had no way to know how my body would respond to it. It was just this black box that might be terrifying or might be the magical romanticised experience where people find themselves. I just didn’t know.
Obviously the primary reason was to make me a better sailor. It never ceases to amaze me, all you need to do to race or crew on a boat across an ocean is basically get someone to let you jump on a boat and help. Well, assuming the skipper is cool with having a girl on board. What I’ve grown to appreciate is that it could take multiple lifetimes to be a competent sailor which is why it’s so strange to me that with boating in general, you don’t need any training at all to buy a boat and operate it.
To me what that means is there are a lot of people on boats, more every day, that you may not want to be near out there on the water. I might be one of them! I’m not a complete bone head, nor am I thoroughly incompetent, I did put in the time to take classes and do have four fancy certifications with shiney stickers and everything in my personal log book. I’m just not at the point where everything comes second nature yet. And this is why I decided it was time for me to take on a passage.
So why did I think I needed to do a passage to get deeper experience? My natural tendency is ‘go big or go home baby’ which is great slogan on a t-shirt, but can sorta fall apart when you try to apply it to our everyday sailing lives. My husband and I organize weekend day sails when the weather is good (which in California is a decent amount of time), we bring friends on the boat and next thing you know I’m in the galley laying out a fruit plate while my DH is on deck being a boss teaching people tacking maneuvers. It’s not his fault, he’s charming and people love him. But being the cruise director, chef, fender jockey and even sometimes the Ship’s Medical doesn’t further my goals in getting more actual sailing experience. So back to go big or go home, I wanted to be pushed outside my comfort zone in a situation where my role wasn’t also being responsible for everything else on the boat.
The final reason Is related to that. I wanted to take on as many of my fears at once as possible - desensitization I guess you could say. As I mentioned in my blog on Fear, I went through a six month bing where I read every non-fiction sea survival stories I could; Endurance, 438 Days, Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea (the book not the movie version), Red Sky in the Mourning (the original book that inspired the Adrift movie), and a handful of sea survival books and manuals, and even a couple Navy Seal and Military training manuals. I couldn’t help myself, and my husband kept asking me why I was reading all of it - I think he was worried I would get scared and not want to execute on our plan. I think I did it because I wanted to take the mystery out of the worst case scenario. Ya, I could drink turtles blood if I really had to, and note to self, sucking on candy helps you recover from hypothermia. That kind of stuff just makes me feel more empowered.
It was about this time I also started binging on blogs from Andy Schell from 59 North called How I think about Sailing. My husband and I both started listening at about the same time. Andy and his wife Mia run an operation that takes crew on bluewater passages and one day I looked up their schedule and decided I wanted to do one. I only had two weeks of vacation so it had to fit in that window and I wasn’t ready for arctic sailing so that narrowed down the options. I found a passage to Bermuda easy enough to make work with my work schedule so I booked it online.
I was a little bit concerned my husband might think it was a bit impulsive but actually he was really supportive of the idea when I brought it up. I know there are a hundred free ways to be crew on a passage, but I only had two weeks of vacation time for a certain time window and I needed to be able to feel like I could trust the skipper and the boat. These guys seemed to know what they are doing and a Swan is pretty hardcore when it comes to offshore sailing. Plus, the registration information was pretty buttoned up and comprehensive, which is always a good sign.
Okay, so here’s all the things I was tackling on my ‘go big or go home’ trip. The Bermuda Triangle, the cusp of hurricane season, upwind sailing, deep water where there’s sharks, a passage longer than 7 days, and on a boat filled with mostly men. Mia was on the boat and not to read too much into anything but I did get a sense she was happy to see another woman onboard.
The requirement for packing is that everything had to fit in a 70L bag. This includes layers, foulies, boots and gear, clothes for two weeks which included tourist time at both ends of the trip, toiletries and a sleeping bag-ish type of thing. Although it would be hot in both Florida and Bermuda, I hate being cold and knew it was possible offshore. Don’t laugh, it got good use and other people on the boat were jealous...especially the guys over six feet tall with size 13 boots that took up all the room in their bag. After using super-stealth techniques to try to hide the size of my bag at the United Airlines gate, I was relieved that I got through. I always get called out on stuff like this because I’m like 5’2” and carry on bags I have always look bigger than the Big and Tall guy next to me with the exact same size bag. The secret is to carry your jacket over it so they just think it’s the coat that’s bulky. Why didn’t I check my bag, because my bags tend to wander off if they are seperated from me at the airport so I’ve learned to pack like a girl scout and always carry on.
I may have caused long term nerve damage in my neck dragging that bag around but when I finally got to the dock and met Andy and Mia it was all worth it. The rest of the crew was made up of five other men, two were a tad bit older, one was about my same age from Canada and then two twenty something brothers a bit older than my son is now. I’ll leave their names out more to protect my own identity as much as theirs in the rest of this story. But first off, what I’ve found is that people who earnestly like to learn about sailing are some of the highest quality people on the planet. Open-minded, optimistic, supportive and high EQ. These people were no different.
I got an upper bunk on one of the side cabins that I shared with the Canadian, let’s call him Goose (since that sorta matches the theme). Really nice guy, who shares the same goals with his family as I did with mine about living abroad someday. Competent, knowledgeable with a bright and shiny personality and we are both in tech so there you go.
We spent two days waiting for a weather window to cross. The long and short of it was that it was going to be an upwind sail anyway so any additional weather would not be good and we were right on the cusp of the start of the hurricane season. Andy went through a safety briefing that was a couple hours long and the net takeaway was ‘don’t fall off the boat.’ Don’t get me wrong, he covered way more stuff but this was his fundamental point.
We threw off the lines about 8 am the next morning and our watch schedule started at noon. I’ll be a bit honest here and say the first couple days were a bit of a blur. We were asked to all use the Scopolamine transdermal patch since bad seasickness can lead to bigger problems offshore, and I know that these patches make my head foggy the first day or so. But the weather was gorgeous, we saw a lot of dolphins and turtles with light winds between 8-10 knots the first couple days. The wind picked up a bit and we got a lot of rain, rain, rain. There’s no shelter on this boat in the rain so we were all soaked on watch. It was also during this time the new autopilot Andy had put in was proven to be faulty, so we shifted to hand steering. About this time my buddy Goose started getting sea sickness so the watch schedules got switched up to account for both that and the autopilot issue. Originally on watch was me, Goose and the Professor, a 60-something man who lived in London who was a college professor. We had 4 hour watches but those got moved around as Goose rested from seasickness in deep introspection on whether or not sailing was in his future. I felt so bad for him but we were all sure it would pass in a day or two.
Somewhere in between day 3-4 (since one side-effect of being on the boat is you lose track of what day it is), there were huge storms on the horizon with thunder and lightning and a shelf cloud that it’s hard to even describe. What’s a shelf cloud….Here’s the official description of a shelf cloud that pretty much sums it up. “A shelf cloud is a low, horizontal wedge-shaped cloud, associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or occasionally with a cold front, even in the absence of thunderstorms). A rising cloud motion often can be seen in the leading part of the shelf cloud, while the underside often appears turbulent, boiling, and wind-torn. Which is pretty much what it looked like. If anyone watches ‘stranger things’ on Netflix when the shadow monster appears out of the clouds, that’s what it looks like.
We took the sails down and quickly turned out of the direction of the storm front which probably added a day to our trip overall, but no one was complaining about it. Looking back on the logbook now it just said ‘squalls’ but that’s not at all what I remember. I remember the thunder and lightening having everyone on edge, the skipper included. He gave us a pep talk about lightning striking more in marinas versus on water because the boats’ motion helps release electricity build up or some but I wasn’t buying his science. Lightning strikes tall things, and on water we were the tall thing.
We sailed off course a bit and wiggled around waiting for the front to pass and as we settled into Day 5, things got rough. I don’t think there was that much wind, maybe 25 knots, but we were sailing into the wind and maybe some current so it was very bumpy with whitecaps. The professor woke me up for our watch which started in the middle of the night. I was in such deep sleep and there was so much crashing that I couldn’t hear my alarm. Upwind sailing was in full force.
After battling with the bulkhead trying to get my foulies on without bashing my brains in, we made the trek from the saloon up to the helm, which felt like it took an hour because you are fighting gravity and clipping and unclipping your tethers all the time. The port side of the foot rail was completely in the water and the boat was crashing against the waves. Andy poked his head out and asked us how we felt, he would wake up for every shift change and save his watches for when things went wrong or where there were big sail changes. The professor said, ‘I’m on the margin’ and I was like ‘I’m way over the margin...I won’t lie, this is scary.’ He made a decision to heave to for the night and the second we did that everything calmed down. What a difference. It was at that moment it dawned on me that what we were doing was pretty dangerous actually.
I have to take a minute to talk about upwind sailing here. Spoiler alert, it’s not fun. It takes four times longer to do anything and I had bruises all over my forearms and shins trying to avoid moving objects or trying to counterbalance my weight in anticipation of a wave. At one point one of the brother’s I’ll call them the Bros, his leeclothes broke, which didn’t give me any confidence sleeping when we were on a tack at a 20 degree lean opposite my bunk wall. From that point on I rolled up my sleeping bag and used it as a wedge so I wouldn’t be constantly leaning on it. The tricky part was getting up to use the head or for watch when Goose was fully leaned into his cloth below me and I had to get out of my bunk. I didn’t want to step on the poor guy so I started to spider monkey my way down scaling walls but you get close after a few days and he just ended up getting stepped on anyway.
The absolute worst part of the leaning and the bashing was when I went into the bathroom at some point, maybe day 4 or 5 after a watch and Goose had gotten sick. I understand... when you are sick, the last thing you can muster the will to do is clean up vomit so in I went. I pulled out the head faucet which was rusted down below. They don’t normally do showers on passages, they do it on the deck of the boat, and this was a new vessel for them so I’m sure they hadn’t gone through it to refit old parts. So there I am in this tiny space, like an airplane bathroom, walls covered with sick, holding a rusty faucet trying my best to hose everything down and push the bilge pump simultaneously. All the while avoiding getting thrown into the pukey walls due to the constant hurling and flinging the boat is doing with my body in that space. At some point I gave up, opened the door, stripped off my clothes and just washed it down like you would spray down your car...and I got a shower out of it...which was awesome since I hadn’t bathed in 4 days by that time. The byproduct of all that was because we were leaning so far over, the bilge wouldn’t fully drain the floor so there was just a gross sludge that could hide the evidence of the mess. Feeling a little guilty for indulging in the shower, even though I did clean up everything (you’re welcome). I went up to tell Andy about the bilge.
Night watches were really cool. Besides the bioluminescence the sky is incredible. What I loved about watches with the Professor is there wasn’t any weird pressure to talk. He and I are both natural introverts so stargazing was just fine by us after the pleasantries settled. Plus, there’s no Party-Rock version of me in the middle of the night anyway so silence was bliss. Nightwatches were beautiful, the stars are incredibly bright and something you don’t see a whole lot of living where we are. I mean there are always some of course, but in the ocean, far away from any other form of light, the stars and the moon put on a beautiful show.
Things settled for the next couple days as we descended slowly on Bermuda. At one point we decided to heave to and take a swim...over a mile of water under the keel! Enter my irrational fear of sharks, selachophobia, so I took an extra long time putting my bathing suit on to be sure everyone else was in the water before I jumped in. Up to that point we were seeing portuguese man of wars everywhere too, the ocean was littered with them...their floating little sails flapping in the wind looked so lonely and demure. But those dudes will kill you and they had been all around us so we were all on the lookout for those too.
So I dove in and swam my ass off to get to the line attached to the back of the boat and hauled it up the stairs as fast as I could. I felt like a chicken, but so it is. About an hour of that and we started off on our trip again gleefully giggling from the revelry. Only about 10 minutes later did we spot a huge, dark swimming thing, with a big fin sticking out of the water. It was not a dolphin! I was at least half as long as the boat for sure, so what’s that 30 feet on a 59 foot boat? Okay so say my perception was off and it magnified how big things looked underwater, say it was 15 feet, but still. That shut our mouths, we all just sat there in silence for the next half hour. So there was that.
Because the weather was nice the Professor busted out his sextant. I was like, okay dude, you win. I got to help him take sights and do all the calculations but I’ve gotta say, what was most impressive isn’t that he knew how to use it...it’s that he had the courage to lug that thing in it’s wooden case all the way from Heathrow...that’s serious commitment. I didn’t get to spend too much time with his bunkmate after we set sail, I’ll call him the Mayor...I don’t know why, he’s friendly and it’s the first thing I thought of to describe him. The Mayor was sort of this elusive figure on the boat, that’s what happens when you're on opposite watch schedules. Nice guy all the same, super-friendly and interesting.
As for the Bermuda triangle itself...the depth gauge stops working at 999 meters or feet depending on the setting. So for most of the trip it just stayed there. Until it didn’t. The professor and I noticed it a few times on our watch where it would be 999, then shoot to 400, then 200 something, then 59,58,57...up to 14 feet and we were like...what’s gonna happen. Then it would vanish. I’m sure it was fish or something but still.
We arrived at Bermuda while I was finishing my early morning watch at the helm at sunrise. It was absolutely stunning and the smell of land was quite powerful. Goose suddenly found the energy to emerge...no kidding, he was down the entire trip. So much for the idea that it takes a few days to get your sea-legs...or transdermal patches for that matter, though he was 6’2” so I kept trying to urge him to put two on, but nothing worked.
We motored into Saint George’s harbor and I was relieved and also a little bit sad. We got there on Mother’s Day, which I described in my blog called ‘Earning the View’, so check that out if you haven’t heard it yet. We proceeded to the immigration office and I got the first stamp ever in my passport that read ‘arrived by sea.’ How cool is that!
So, let’s see. Bermuda Triangle, check. Sharks, check. Storm and lightning, check and check. Upwind sailing, triple check. Boats with boys, definitely check.
I definitely left the boat with more confidence than I had walking onto it. Andy knew what he was doing matching me up with the Professor. He had done a number of passages and gave super helpful advice in the most humble, productive way possible. I could not have had a better boat buddy for sure and I learned mostly from him on this trip. Andy was knowledgeable for sure and he’s a natural born chatterbox, always talking and explaining stuff so you can’t help but pick things up when you are on his boat. But in terms of applied knowledge, I think the experience you get is dependent on who you get as a watch partner - and that makes all the difference.
I also learned I could sleep. I love my bed at home, ask my family. One of my favorite things to do is to get into my bed at night with all my pillows and earplugs. I’m also a light sleeper and was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep when I needed to with the watch schedule. I can turn into a crazy person if I’ve not gotten my sleep and it's worse when my monkey brain keeps me up worrying about everything. This was not an issue at all. The bunk was kind of like crawling back into the womb and I was out like a light within minutes and slept through everything, even my alarm.
Everyone was awesome, very high quality people, respectful and great to be around. I would do a month long passage with any of these people if I had a chance in the future. Andy and Mia were amazing hosts and any passage with them is not to be missed if you get a chance to take the time to do it.
The big takeaway on this trip was probably reinforcing the fact that who is on the boat and how people work together on a passage makes all the difference in the world. Trust and looking out for each other is critical, everyone was doing their part to be helpful and it’s important because if things go sideways, your life might very well depend on the person standing next to you. It made me grateful to have such a wonderful sailing buddy back home, patient, calm and never one to deliver a biting comment on the boat. Passages can be intense, more so than this one for sure, but I can see how with lack of sleep, some seasickness, grumpy bumpies from being thrown around a boat and maybe some kind of system failure, group dynamics could escalate quickly.
What about you? Have you ever done a passage and what was your big takeaway from the experience?
Special thanks to 59 North Sailing for the trip and for the photos!