Close Reaching to San Salvador Island

Photo: Seamester

By Michael Carr – He pondered the sailing chart, visualizing the route they would take tomorrow. He was still comparing options and resolving in his head the effects of set and drift, sailing angles, ocean currents, and arrival requirements.

A warm tropical breeze blew in through the pilothouse’s portholes, and he could hear the familiar sounds of a marina; halyards slapping, sailors talking, drills and tools being used for repairs.

He was captain of this 90-foot schooner, now moored in Red Hook US Virgin Islands. They were departing tomorrow for San Salvador Island, 722 nm miles to the NW. As he pondered the chart the Chief Mate came down the companionway steps bearing two cups of fresh coffee.

“Wow, nice, let me help you,” he said. “Thanks, this is just what I need”.

“I know”, she said. “So what’s our plan?”

“Well, we need to point as high as we can for as long as we can. Easterly trade winds and easterly current will set us onto the Bahamas Bank, so we need to keep pointed up as high as possible.”

“So you’re thinking a close reach?” she said.

“Yea, let’s point as high as we can for the first day, and see how the track made good ends up comparing with our course,” he offered, as he took a big gulp of coffee.

“Damn this is good stuff, black as diesel fuel! Real Schooner Coffee!”

He and the Chief Mate poured over the Mercator chart and the pilot chart. Strategy is everything in sailing. You must know your vessel’s capabilities, and think through all possible scenarios. Consider all the “what ifs”. You must not depend on your engine to get you out of trouble or compensate for bad planning.

This schooner had a powerful Caterpillar diesel and high-efficiency propeller, which in flat water could move her along at hull speed of 11 knots, but in rough seas, and against strong winds the engine, was not equipped to push the schooner out of harm’s way.

“I want to build as much sea room as possible away from the Bahamas Bank,” he said. “We can fall off and run downwind on our last day, but I don’t want to be clawing to windward, hard on wind, on day 3 or 4 because we let ourselves get set to the west.”

“Yea, I get it,” she said. “No problem, we will point her high and hold her to it”.

They worked well together, having sailed many sea miles as Captain and Chief Mate. They were focused on being competent sailors, and masters of their art. There was no B.S. with them. Some sailors are laid back and have a Margaretville approach to sailing, but for them, it was their serious profession.

They departed early the next morning, at first light. Motoring NE out of Red Hook harbor and continuing NE, leaving Lovango Cay and Carval Rock to port, and then Jost Van Dyke to starboard. Upon clearing Jost Van Dyke they were exposed to the full force of the easterly trade winds. Large rolling seas were accompanied by 18-20 knots of steady east and northeast winds.

They fell off to port, raising the marconi main, gaff foresail, and three headsails. Easing out the booms and sheets the schooner quickly picked up speed. Within minutes they were making over 8 knots.

“OK, let’s secure the engine,” he said. “Change over to one battery bank, and set the sea watch”. They were off soundings, done with piloting, and now sailing on the high seas. He stood at the wheel, requesting small adjustments to the halyards, sheets, and preventers to remove any weather or lee helm, and perfect each sail’s shape.

“Feels good to me, you try a trick at the wheel and tell me what you think,” he said to the Bos’n.

Now he was down to business; the direct route to San Salvador was 305 degrees True. However, following that course, they would never make it to San Salvador Island. Set and drift, and current would push them far to the west. They needed to make good a course at least 10 degrees to the right of 305.

“What’s your heading?” he asked the Bos’n.

“Standby….308, maybe 310, but I can steer higher if we haul in the sheets and booms.”

“Ok, let’s do that, see if you can get us up to 315 or 320, but I don’t want to stall out, or get too hard on the wind, that won’t help. I would like to find a sweet spot, keeping up 8 knots or better, and nothing to the left of 310.”

For the next few hours, they tweaked, adjusted and refined their DR plot. As evening came they took celestial sites and plotted their fix. They DR’d through the night, and at morning nautical twilight he and the Chief Mate shot morning stars. They compared their fixes, always within a few miles of each other.

“So, what do you think?” he said to the Chief Mate as they sucked down morning coffee.

“We are nailing this,” she said. “We are 10 to 15 miles east of our track, which is just where we want to be, and our average speed since last evening looks to be over 10 knots. We are cooking!”

“Yea, I agree, I am really pleased, this is feeling good,” he said.

For the next 5 days, they flew along, close reaching in the trade winds. Adjusting sails on each watch, observing their set, taking celestial sights and plotting fixes, running fixes, and Local Apparent Noon.

By the evening of the fifth day, their DR showed arrival at San Salvador Island the following morning.

“How are we going to make landfall?” the Chief Mate asked. “This island is only 50 feet high, at its highest point. We will never see it until we are too close, and we are flying along in these trade winds, there is no slowing down.

“I have a plan,” he said. “We will take morning sights, and then use the radar to detect that highest point. We are aiming for the south end of the Island, so we can concentrate on looking off to starboard. We can also send the Bos’n up to the crows nest to scan the horizon.”

“Yea, I don’t want to run up on the damn beach,” said the Chief Mate with a chuckle.

The following morning everyone was up early. Making landfall at a new destination was always exhilarating. Coffee was chugged down, sextants were brought on deck, and morning sights taken. Quiet enveloped the pilothouse as he and Chief Mate reduced and plotted their sights on a universal plotting sheet and then transferred the lat/long of their fix to the Mercator chart.

They compared fixes.

“Damn, we are on top of each other. Sweet,” she said.

“OK, San Salvador is 15 miles ahead, fine off our starboard bow, let’s start looking,” she said.

They grabbed their coffee and binoculars and climbed to the helm. The Bos’n scanned the radar, ranging out and then ranging in.”

“I got a blip,” he said. “Yup, a definite blip off the starboard bow.”

Nothing through the binoculars yet, and then as they came up on the top of a swell, there was San Salvador Island. Right where their DR said it should be.

A smile came to his sunburned face, as it did to the Chief Mate’s face.

“We nailed it,” he said, I love these landfalls, we got here on celestial, DRs and navigation skill.”

They plowed onward, leaving San Salvador Island to starboard, and swinging around to her leeward side. Ocean swells rapidly diminished, and winds abated. Soon they were ghostly along in light airs.

Ahead they could see another schooner anchored in the island’s lee.

“Who is that?” he asked the Chief Mate.

“Spirit of Massachusetts,” she replied. She knew and could recognize every schooner.

They came up near the other schooner, about a ¼ mile away, and dropped all sails. Once the sails were lashed to their booms, the large fisherman anchor was made ready to fall, and the schooner maneuvered into the wind.

“Standby to let fall,” he said with a commanding voice. “Let Fall.”

“Anchor away, anchor on the bottom” the Bos’sn replied.

A short time later the Bos’n announced “Anchor holding!”

All was quiet now; the schooner was sitting quietly and safely at anchor. Their voyage was complete, and the immense satisfaction of having executed an ocean transit, under sail and navigated by celestial sites, brought a deep sense of inner peace and connection with the world.

He gathered the crew in the cockpit and they toasted their safe arrival.

“Well done,” he said. He felt tremendous inner satisfaction and calm. This is what it feels like to sail the deep blue oceans, sailing by the sun, stars, and wind. He felt this way after every voyage, and it would never change. This is what makes sailors keep going to sea.