The long port tack to Antigua
Practical Boat Owner|March 2021
Hermione Pattison’s family endures a tough passage when they leave the US on a tumultuous 1,600-mile beat to windward

The phrase ‘never trust the brochure’ seems incredibly appropriate for our crewmember Mike, who has just stepped off Alisara, our Moody 47, after a 1,600-mile passage from Virginia to Antigua.

I had back surgery a few months ago so my husband, Douglas, and I decided to recruit an additional crewmember for the voyage with our children Alice (7) and Arthur (9). This proved to be a wonderful decision.

Participating in the Salty Dawg rally was another good idea. To get back to the Caribbean this year has required a great deal of planning and paperwork. This volunteer-run organisation compiled the ever-changing information and offered us support to ensure smooth entry into Antigua. Looking at their crew list was overwhelming, but Mike Draper caught our eye and after one FaceTime call from the other side of the US we decided that he’d be a good fit. The main challenge was to find someone who was able to live in close quarters with two young children, be physically fit, and have the time to do the necessary quarantines. The up-side (I said in my sales pitch) was that he’d have his own double cabin, own heads/ bathroom and be well fed!

After a three week haul-out in Virginia and a huge amount of boat work, Alisara was in great shape. Spotless inside and out, she was ready for this trip. Provisioning done, we waited for the weather and finally our very chilly and itchy feet left the dock in Hampton at 7pm on Monday 2 November.

The strategy

It would not be a simple case of ‘point and shoot’ to get to Antigua. Crossing the Gulf Stream had to be negotiated and the many weather systems meant we needed to pick our route and departure time carefully. Although a rally by name, actually skippers choose their own departure dates. Weather router Chris Parker was advising us ‘Salty Dawgs’ so each day we had a weather update, plus captains’ calls to ensure everyone had the best information. Daily weather emails continued throughout the passage via our Iridium Go, plus the Predict Wind app which included the fleet tracker.

There were three suggested routes based on the speed of your vessel and the destination (Florida, Bahamas or Antigua). We chose a route that meant heading east out of the Chesapeake, then north-east to cross the Gulf Stream, taking advantage of an eddy before heading south. For this route, we were advised to leave on 3 November when heavy westerly winds would have moderated and boats could motor eastwards before the wind veered to the north-east. We decided to leave before this and take this westerly breeze to give us a good push east. The weather models showed that the wind would move from the north-east and veer south-east and probably back to an easterly as we progressed south. With that in mind, any easting ‘in the bag’ would make the second half of the passage a more comfortable reach/ close reach down the rhumb line to Antigua.

The endless beat

The first 24 hours was particularly pleasant with 15-20 knots from the west and clear skies. Douglas’s favoured sail plan for these conditions is main and poled-out genoa which is fast and stable. This offered us the opportunity to do some school and even try fishing. Little did we know this would be the last time we’d attempt either of these things as the wind clocked north-east then east turning this into a straight beat for 12 hours. Watching our VMG drop to ‘negative’ was pretty hard to take, but we stuck to our plan of getting east, using the engine to reduce leeway for several hours during this time.

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