Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Motor-sailing and the Thorny Path

What is motor-sailing?  Using the engine and sails together. It can be one or both sails up, with one or both engines running (full or partial power). A majority of the time, our configuration is full genoa and one engine at 50% power. (This changes based on current, pounding into the waves slowing our forward speed, and desired ETA). Leaving the main up helps with stability but it's more difficult to raise and lower--requiring someone to go out on deck. The genoa can be unfurled and furled quickly from the cockpit and gives us the most speed.  Our boat is built to be a SAILBOAT and the stability and directional control suffers when we are forced to motor with the sails down (too windy or headed straight into the wind).

Why motor-sail?  We first heard about motor sailing when we went to our live-aboard cruising course in St Pete. Our instructor told us we would be doing it a lot?!  At the time, we used it to move from one anchorage to the next to keep to the classes' timetable, despite the wind speed & direction. We did more pure sailing in our early days on our boat, but as the days have gotten shorter, the daylight dictates whether we can clear a cut or anchor at our next destination before dark.  On Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, there was 11 hours of daylight (vs 14+ mid-summer). The difference between 5 kts & 6 kts on a 55 mile trip (ie. crossing Northern Channel to Eleuthera) is 11 hrs vs 9 hrs!  The downside, of course, is the noise, vibration, drag (most PDQ owners agree that we gain 0.5 kt with engines retracted) and expense. Even with all the motor-sailing, our average fuel burn from Lake Worth to Marsh Harbour was 3/4 gal/hr. 

Our current route from Florida down the Caribbean chain is called "the thorny path", which means sailing to windward (into the prevailing southeast trade winds), our worst point of sail (we can only point to 60 degrees off the wind where most monohulls can do 45). It is also our slowest and most uncomfortable point of sail--and requires a lot of attention from the helmsman.  Jimmy Cornell, author of World Cruising Routes describes our intended path southbound as the "...inter-island route (AN113E) that threads its way through the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and the northern coast of the Dominican Republic to reach the Caribbean Sea through the Mona Passage."  "The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South" by Bruce Van Sant ( breaks it down even further into short stages and is summarized by Cornell:  "..take one's time and watch the weather carefully.  Even in winter, when strong easterlies are the norm, the frequent fronts provide a respite of calms and light winds.  The recommended tactic is to sail ahead of such fronts and then run for shelter as the front approaches."  We have a lot of motor-sailing and waiting-for-weather-windows in our future. Now we are waiting for the Christmas Winds to blow through (strong winter trades). Chris Parker further defines benign crossing weather as "less than 15 kts and less than 4 ft waves"

Many fellow cruisers advised us to "take our time and enjoy" the Bahamas.  However, much of our schedule is dictated by weather--as each front comes, we either have to stay put for 3-5 days (if it's a protected) or make a run towards our next intended stop. Great Guana was my favorite spot so far--I would have loved to stay and snorkel, explore and visit with sv Willful, but it wasn't protected from the north and a blow was coming. Although the decision, the jump to Eleuthera was ours, Chris Parker predicted it would be "after Christmas" before cruisers could move farther south--10 days!  Some of the best advice was from our new friends Harriett & Skip. They sat us down in Vero, and went through the chart books with us page by page. Our takeaway was--be ready to move when and where Mother Nature says!

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