Mike Laughlin

A helicopter pilot from Ottawa, Canada, I’ve been  sailing since I was a teenager on small boats.  For the past few years I’ve been racing locally and chartering bare-boats in the Caribbean. It is the hope of my wife and I to go cruising in the coming years and this trip presented the ideal opportunity to gain some practical cruising skills and, more importantly, to experience a trans Atlantic passage. I first came to know about Chris and Jackie Lambertsen through their ad placed in Cruising World which directed me to their web site.  I was immediately impressed with the professional approach they have to sailing and with their credentials. We corresponded via e-mail and phone over the following weeks and in the end I was fortunate to be offered a crew position to help them bring SHIBUMI back from the Med to charter in the Caribbean.

Impressions of the trip.  A trans Atlantic passage provides many opportunities for new experiences, while under way, that a charter / day sailor like me doesn’t get to experience such as:

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night watches (see below)

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taking showers under way – a luxury, but a challenge

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sail changes at night using life vest / harnesses and jack lines.  Your whole world exists under the spreader lights on a sometimes pitching, rolling deck. Expert guidance from Chris made this safe and efficient.

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days and days on the same tack

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galley work, like carving a turkey

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doing routine engine maintenance

Favourite Things 

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 Jackie’s exceptional cooking

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night watches – there are more stars visible than you would think possible

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watching the dawn

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the wide variety of sea life such as porpoises and whales

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glorious sunsets

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learning new seamanship skills

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learning new fishing skills

Less Favourite Things

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night watches – when the weather is cloudy and rainy the lack of outside references can be disorienting

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scupper monsters – occasional deep gurgling sounds from some of the deck scuppers

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cleaning flying fish from the deck in the morning

Expectations:   I came aboard hoping to learn a as much as I could about the cruising lifestyle and what it takes to make a Trans Atlantic passage. The trip has met these expectations and more.  Both Chris and Jackie have been tireless and patient mentors along the way. We spent about a week in Tenerife before departure completing preparations and waiting for a weather window. Both of these things were a real eye opener for me as for the level of detail that went into this level of planning.

Days were spent going over maintenance items like standing and running rigging, engine and generator maintenance. Lots of new skills learned here. Weather planning for a trip like this comes from as many sources as possible including internet based info and communication with other cruisers. While under way, we regularly monitored Herb Hilgenberg’s Southbound II weather net on the single sideband radio. I can’t say enough about the exceptional service that Herb provides to the cruising community. On our trip he was monitoring and tracking boats from the Canary Islands all the way to the Caribbean.

When we were about 6 days out of Antigua, the Coast Guard contacted Herb to see if he could make contact with a sailboat that had lost its mast and was proceeding on motor alone. During the evening net, Herb identified several boats that were in the vicinity, including ourselves, that were available to render whatever assistance may have been necessary. I know that the knowledge that there is this scope of communication available over such a large area is a comfort to all.

Social Events:

What’s life at sea without a party? My crewmate during this trip was Chip (Holt) Farley, a great guy, and I found that we shared many similar interests. During the trip it was Chip’s anniversary and his wife had pre-arranged with Jackie for a little celebration. It was a great time and the Hummingbird Cake was excellent!

Dispatches:   I was asked by my friends and family to send occasional updates of my experiences en route and I thought I’d include them to try and provide some sense of my experience  as we progressed along the way.

December 03

Day 3 on the water. Day one was good sailing to the west and then we gibed south but shortly thereafter the wind died and we motored all evening and all night in rolling seas. Didn’t get much sleep. Next day the wind built a bit and we sailed all day and into the night. My night watch starts at midnight till 2 am and about 130, the wind shifted and we doused sails on deck in the dark, another new experience. We all wore life vest /harnesses attached to jack lines and it worked great. This morning we set sail again and are currently reaching at 6 kts with 15 kts on the starboard quarter. We’ll keep this up as long as this wind holds. Herb the weather guy, says the Trades are building earlier than expected and we are experiencing that now. By tonight we should be about 400 miles downrange toward a spot west of the Cape Verdes. Looking good.

December 04

It was another wild night last night. I came on watch at 0000 and about the same time as last night we were overtaken by a large squall. Very hard to see them coming in the dark and they don’t always paint that well on radar. This one caused the wind to shift back and forth and then clock almost 360 degrees in a matter of moments. The main was back winded along with the poled out Genoa and at that point the shackle on the preventer failed and we crash gibed. All hands on deck, head up into wind and back out on deck in harnesses on jack lines to drop all sails except the mizzen and motor for the rest of the night. I was pretty wound up at this point so I didn’t get much sleep. My watch schedule  is: 0000 to 0200, 0600 to 0900 and 1500 to 1800.

Anyway, new rig today, jib poled out, staysail opposite and mizzen set with the jib. in moderate air this gives us about 6 knots. and we should be able to carry this all night. we’ll see…

December 08

I’ll back up a bit. About the last time I e-mailed, we were starting a run of “unruly” weather. 4 days of pitching, rolling and yawing that lasted all day and all night. During the days it was manageable but unconformable but at night, Daytime heating created squalls that would motor past most of the night. The sky was overcast so you couldn’t see the horizon and the winds during the squalls would shift through 270 degrees sometimes. We almost always had to douse sails during the night which meant out on deck in harnesses in a pitching etc.. sea. The boat has great spreader lights and we would always run the motor during these changes but your world stops at the deck edge. Night watches during these conditions was a bit like trying to keep one of those bar room bucking bulls going straight, but in the dark with no outside references! Very fatiguing. By the end of it we were all pretty wiped out. However, better weather now, we’ve made the turn to the west and are making good time in much nicer trade wind conditions. We’ve been sailing almost down wind with the mizzen, the staysail on the inner forestay, and a partial Genoa polled out to starboard. Mostly this rig is stable and gives us 6 to 7.5 kts under current winds. Old maritime folklore has it that to take the trade routes to the Caribbean, sail south ’till the butter melts and turn right!

On one of my midnight watches, I started hearing a strange rhythmic thumping sound that seemed to be in time with the
rolling of the boat. Very unsettling. Thought it could be all sorts of bad things like loose steering gear, loose keel bolts, chain plates – the mind at 0100 can be very active. Turned out to be the pump for the water maker, which is just below the pilot house floor…

I’ve seen porpoises, tons of flying fish, and almost every night watch, bio luminescence. Anyway, as I said, we have good sailing conditions now and are making good time with a combination of sailing, motor sailing, and motoring.

December 10

It was another wild night last night with squalls and shifty wind. My 0000 to 0200 watch was uneventful but Chip’s watch wasn’t. He had a big squall overtake him causing a large wind shift which back winded and gibed the mizzen twice in quick succession. This caused the mizzen halyard to snap and partially dump the sail. All hands on deck again to douse sails – 0330 – and the we were motoring again. During my 0600 watch, I was watching a group of large squalls on RADAR when one of the smaller squalls detached itself from the rest and turned into a huge tanker. Quite a sight. It passed to within a little under 4 miles but still looked huge. Sleep is an important commodity,  The secret is to grab a nap whenever you can in case it hits the fan while you’re supposed to be off watch. It’s a bit better this AM but still unsettled and we’re motor sailing until we find a way to repair the mizzen halyard. Unfortunately it disappeared into the mast..

December 12

We’re now a little over 1/2 way and moving well. The poor weather that was forecast doesn’t seem to be persisting as long as was originally thought which is good. Still, not much sunshine for the last little while. Today was boat maintenance day. I was up to my elbows in engine and prop work. The propeller is variable pitch and there are greasers that must be adjusted from the engine room every 4 hours while the engine is running! Add that to the list of new experiences while underway.

In this wobbly weather system we have chosen to sail during the day and to motor sail at night in order to deal with the inevitable squall activity that occurs at night. This makes it easier to reduce sail and maintain decent boat speed during the dark without having to go on deck. Works for me. Anyway, just another day on the ocean.

December 13:

We’ve passed through the area of unstable weather and sea conditions and are finally enjoying beautiful trade wind conditions of scattered clouds and winds of 12 to 18 knots. Each morning it seemed like we had to throw another flying fish or 2 off the deck that had crashed into the boat during he night. They sure are stinky for some reason. Yesterday we had a school of 15 or 20 porpoises around the boat playing and as we were watching, there were 2 porpoises swimming with a very small whale!. Mom must have been close because shortly after that they were all gone.

Life at sea revolves around watch keeping and it’s good practice to nap whenever you can, in case you’re called on deck at 0300. I spent most of yesterday doing deck chores,
looking for chafe points, re-routing lines, cutting and re-whipping line ends, the inevitable sail changes, and some more domestic chores like cleaning the forward head…

The sea is more organized now but the wind speed is down a bit. The sea is constantly changing in size, character, and direction. Sometimes it seems like you’re sailing on a wide plateau and then you’re surrounded by rolling countryside. There will often be a solitary hill of water moving past all by itself. Quite a show.

Last night it was quite c
lear and made for a great night watch. I watched a meteor shower for the better part of an hour. Interesting that I haven’t seen a single airplane pass overhead on this trip.  That’s all for now, we’re expecting generally good sailing conditions from here with perhaps light winds that will necessitate some motoring to stay on schedule.

December 14::

The weather is generally good with lots of sun but we are back into the washing machine sea state with moderate rain squalls during the night Makes for some interesting radar patterns and you have to be diligent to ensure that there are not any ships hiding in amongst the returns.

The plan is to move south to 17 deg north latitude and run that into Antigua.

Sailing, sailing over the bounding main…

The beer is going to taste great in Antigua.

December 18:

Less than 300 miles out now. The weather has moderated nicely. Days are spent doing routine chores, enjoying the tropical weather  and maintaining our routine. It is important to remain vigilant as we get closer to landfall and stay rested. To illustrate this point, we had a small leak in one of the lines running to a through hull last night. Chris noticed irregular activity from the engine bilge pump, went below and found the problem. It was repaired easily but it emphasized that you have to stay alert at all times, especially near the end of a trip.

One of my favorite times at watch is 0600 to 0900 when I get to watch the dawn break over the stern.

Summary:   It has been a great trip. There have been challenges to be sure, balanced with many high points. They are all part of the cruising lifestyle and learning to be self sufficient at sea. I’ve developed a new appreciation for team work. Not only has everyone done their part, but each of us tries to take extra time to make sure the rest of the crew can do theirs as well.

Has the experience changed me? Yes it has.

I want to thank Chris and Jackie for sharing their knowledge and allowing me to be a part of this passage.