THE FIRST OCEAN CROSSING
Of the World’s Largest Sailing Catamaran
I was originally slated to write this article, but after interviewing Jamie about the crossing, it became clear that he should tell the story in his own words. I could not hope to match his sailing knowledge or his memory. As told by Jamie Spence, here is the story of the Canvasback's first crossing.
As the medical ship, Canvasback, slipped through the Golden Gate the people left behind stood waving, fearing for our safety. Ahead lay the blue Pacific, bright and beckoning. Behind lay Oakland, dark and threatening. Who should fear for whom?
It was the year 1987 late in September. After numerous coastal cruises the crew was confident. She was big, 71 feet long, 27 feet abeam with a shallow draft and documentation of 69 tons. She was no racer but a sturdy aluminum ship built to American Bureau of Ships scantlings with Coast Guard inspection.
Equipped with cutting edge marine electronics that sponsoring marine manufacturers donated, she was an electronic rival for a Russian spy ship. Her navigation radar and collision avoidance radars took the fear out of the night. Her thick aluminum bottom took the fear out of collision with floating ocean containers lost from storm tossed ships. And her ten watertight compartments took the fear out of sudden loss of altitude. Her Sat-Nav electronic navigation, was a wonder that freed us, the last generation of star navigators, from the tyranny of sextant shots three times every day.
She was built carefully and lovingly by skilled volunteers over a period of four and a half years. Her twin 150 HP Isuzu diesels and her rugged two mast ketch rig designed by a space engineering company combined with sails built in the finest loft in San Francisco gave her a redundancy of propulsion to get her across the 5000 nautical Pacific miles to the atoll of Majuro in the Marshall Islands. The crew was confident. Why wouldn’t they be? They steered the queen of the ocean. But she was feeling the deep ocean swell for the first time. Were they overconfident?
After a bumpy ride over the Potato Patch outside of the Golden Gate we set her sails for a broad reach on a southerly course down the boisterous coastal monsoon, the seasonal winds that blow down the California coast. We were blessed with those peaceful days of reaching down the wind and rocked by a quartering sea. It was time for becoming more familiar with the ship’s systems and her sails. It was those early days that melded ship and crew into the well-oiled machine that would be needed in days ahead. We gradually fell into a routine of four hours off and four hours on watch navigating, sail trimming, logging, fighting the constant chafe in the rigging and being the eyes of the ship. The off watch slept or kept busy with minor maintenance and marlinspike seamanship.
Every day we cut silently through blue ocean with the 750 square foot full mainsail, full mizzen and the giant genoa. Every night before the evening thunderstorms we lowered the genoa tying it securely to the nets between the foredecks and raising the heavy mule in its place. As soon as dawn made its first gray crack the big genoa was hoisted again. Schools of flying fish flew like moths to the ship’s navigation lights and in the mornings we gathered a crispy breakfast treat from the decks. The trailing hand lines occasionally brought a dinner of fresh dorado or tuna. Curious dolphins inspected the twin canoes sliding swiftly through their domain and as if expressing their approval, leapt at the bows. It was a peaceful place to live in our little space ship surrounded by sea and sky. But loving the ocean is like Samson loving Delilah. Whether by stealth or by violence she is trying to kill you.
As we crossed the tropic of Cancer with Cabo San Lucas well to the east, we began to ease the sheets and slip out of the coastal monsoon and into the reliable North Pacific trade winds. Soon we were in that special slot in the ocean that sailing ships were created for. Sailing wing and wing with the mizzen furled, the main vanged out to starboard and the genoa poled out to port. Everything about our sea lives had gone from good to best. We sailed gently downwind at 11 knots and surfed down the great trade wind swells at speeds to 18 knots. Gone were the industrial smells of California and gone with them were the stresses of city life. Fresh ocean air filled our lungs with vigor.
A sailing ship is slave to the wind and difficult to operate on schedule, but we were on time, on a great circle course for Majuro, so we weren’t worried about meeting our eight physicians and dentists on time. But arriving on time was just not our destiny. The constant pressure of the trade winds and the evening’s gusting thunder squalls was exceeding the working load of the sail’s stress areas where the jib hanks snap into the headstay. The genoa and the mule were slowly tearing at the hanks and would soon split right down the luff.
A stitch in time saves nine-thousand nine-hundred and ninety-nine. Without those two critical sails we could not do the work that we were determined to do. Against the strenuous objections of the doctors, voiced by single sideband radio, I made a difficult decision to divert to Honolulu where we could make repairs. Unfortunately a sailing plan designed to follow the earth’s wind routes on a great circle course to Majuro had brought us to the south and more importantly downwind of Honolulu. Going to windward meant putting much greater stress on our severely compromised headsails. Without sails we were not entirely derelict like windjammers of another century but we were limited to the range of those 300 Isuzu horses and 500 gallons of diesel. Our strategy was to beat against the 15 to 20 knot southeasterly trades with the boomed sails only, the main and mizzen. Our speed and ability to point to windward would be greatly reduced but we could hoist those Isuzu iron spinnakers for a little diesel assist when needed.
The detour strategy was going as planned. The only stress we encountered was strenuous objections on the single sideband. That is until the Hawaii Coast Guard issued a gale warning for 34 to 47 knot winds and 20 foot seas in the notorious wind slot between Oahu and Molokai Islands – dead ahead. We weren’t big anymore. Ten days in the vastness of ocean and sky had made us very small. We weren’t so confident anymore. The gale warning had put rubber into our sea legs. That night the engineer poured out his heart in prayer, “Please God, maybe 35 knots but Pleeeease not 47 knots!”
The predicted force of the gale didn’t frighten me as much as the fact that we had to sail right into the teeth in an untried ship. I knew that I had built her to excel in just these conditions but I also knew of man’s fallibility, his inability to know everything.
We did what we could. We battened down every hatch and porthole, secured all loose gear and put the crew in personal flotation devices and harnesses. We reduced sail to the smallest available - a deep reefed mizzen aft and a tiny bulletproof storm jib on the headstay. We knew that sail would be needed because we couldn’t know if the 300 horses in the engine rooms could hold her head up to such steep waves and high winds. The drogue, a truck tire and chain known as despair tire, was made ready in case we had to do the unthinkable and turn and run with the gale giving away every hard fought mile against the wind. My wife Jacque is a skilled foredeck seaman who loves to handle the sails but even harnessed up and snapped in I didn’t want to send her or any crew to the danger of a pitching foredeck with waves crashing through the nets, where the ocean says with every blow of every wave, “I will have you, I will take you.” We readied everything in advance and I prayed that the gear would hold fast and not force us out in full foul weather gear to wrestle with broken rigging.
That night the wind began to blow and to rapidly increase. The longer the wind blew and the nearer to the channel we progressed the higher and steeper the waves became. Even the tiny storm sails were too much. The catamaran raced into the gale at 11 knots with her bows punching through the oncoming waves. Her speed exacerbated the danger. I had hoped to keep her down to 4 or 5 knots – enough to give her big rudders a deep bite and to maintain steerage. I considered ways to slow her but as she continued to muscle into the storm I became more convinced that the risk of working the deck exceed the need. There was no seeing through the darkness as solid water came crashing over the top of the wheelhouse obliterating vision and every wave sledge hammered on the windows. Even the radars were obscured by the driving rain. We were sailing blind. As we rose to every wave crest, the mast shook, the shrouds vibrated like eighty foot violin strings, and the gale shrieked in the rigging. The cockpit filled with every crashing wave but just as quickly emptied through oversize scuppers.
When it became imperative to tack from starboard to port tack, the little storm jib flogged like thunder and shook the forestay as it came into the wind and then it filled on port tack with a boom that sent a jolt through the ship. The big self-tailing Barient electric winches strained to bring the little jib under control. They pulled enough force on the weather jib sheet to lift a Cadillac. The deep reefed mizzen however, because she was full battened, behaved like a lamb on a leash. The boom hardly thrashed as it swung across the poop deck and filled again on port tack. As the force of wind increased exponentially with the increasing wind velocity far more thrust was developed by those small sails than the Isuzus could produce.
The crew members were white knuckled at their posts and I saw my own tight fists clutching the wheel. But the catamaran had a bone in her teeth and she laughed as she put her shoulder to the steep waves and crashed through. She was doing what she was made to do – challenging the violence of the ocean with the courage that was designed into her from hundreds of years of empirical knowledge.
The gray of morning loosened our grips a little and the black water crashing over the cabin making us feel like we were underwater in a submarine began to turn green with white froth following it over the decks. The Canvasback frolicked in the morning light, shouldered through breaking waves and laughed into the teeth of the gale. Soon the crew was laughing with her. Letting go and laughing. I was exhausted but exhilarated in the rising morning light by the crashing, roaring display of the power of nature. I too raised my head and laughed in relief. I had no more fear for the safety of the crew. A man cannot survive upon the ocean without his ship and we knew that our ship had our backs.
Before nightfall the gale began to subside and we began to feel shelter in the lee of Oahu Island where, on the quiet ocean outside the reef, we took down the stormsails. Canvasback purred as her engines took us through the reef and her fathometers began to see the bottom again. We slipped into the Honolulu yacht basin a confident ship, a confident crew, a well-oiled machine. She knew, we all knew, she had earned her title Queen of the Ocean.
After redesign and repair of her sails Canvasback did what she loved best. She surfed down the trade wind swells 2,500 miles to Majuro where she arrived late but still in time to pick up her doctors. She showed off a little with a few tacks in front of the Nitijela building and as Senators came out to wave, she set her course for the East Pass and on to remote Maloelap Atoll. God had answered the engineer’s prayer with winds to 55 knots and 22 foot seas. Not the answer we asked for but the best answer. He put fear behind us.