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ON THE EDGE

A trawler fleet braves uncertain circumstances in an attempt to make a historic crossing

By JEANNE CRAIG

What happens when a fleet of trawlers attempts to make history by completing a 3,800-mile passage from Florida to Gibraltar, Spain? The answer is a true high-seas adventure. A group of 18 powerboats recently set out on an extraordinary passage when the first leg of the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally got under way. The fleet left Ft. Lauderdale last May en route to Bermuda, a distant 900 miles away.

Day 1: Which way did they go? There were waves, shouts and even a few tears from the people gathered at the Bahia Mar Marina to watch the fleet depart on Monday, each boat heavy with fuel, water and supplies. On board, crews were experiencing the adrenaline rush of a lifetime; they had been preparing months for this moment and were both elated and anxious to be under way. The exit plan had been well-rehearsed in the captain's meetings. As a lead boat, Sans Souci was to set the course for the other trawlers in the group. But even the best-laid plans can go awry.

Just as this 62-foot Nordhavn passed the breakwater, it was bombarded by eight-foot head seas and closely trailed by a swarm of helicopters carrying photographers. Those things, coupled with 20-knot winds, jangled some nerves among the crew, which explains why Sans Souci then steamed south. "The wrong way to Bermuda," says the boat's owner, Ken Williams. But this was an experienced crew--Williams and his wife, Roberta, have been boating in the States and abroad for years, although this was their first open-ocean passage--so the lead boat was soon back on course, guiding the fleet on a very bumpy ride.

That first night was rough, particularly for Ken, who was surprised by the effort required to do the simplest things on a constantly bucking boat. But his wife helped him keep it in perspective. "I like adventure, so I dragged him along on this trip moaning and groaning," she says. "But I know he'll look back on this and say it was the best thing we ever did."

Day 2: Nobody said it was going to be fun. The boats had departed Florida in two groups. The first one, dubbed the "slow" fleet, had cast off on Sunday, the day before the "fast" fleet with Sans Souci. If all went well, the fast boats would catch up to the slow ones on Friday and approach Bermuda together.

By Tuesday, conditions were still rough. The 20-knot easterlies had not subsided, and the seas were running five to seven feet.

The lumpy ocean kept Dr. Kevin Ware busy.He was aboard the 57-foot Nordhavn Atlantic Escort, and from its VHF, he dispatched professional advice to some of the seasick participants who were rolled up like charts on salon floors. As the escort boat for the rally fleet, Atlantic Escort was equipped and staffed to assist any person or any vessel in need. At this point, there had been just a few minor mechanical problems, including a glitch with a stabilizer. Fortunately, the boat's owner was able to pin the stabilizer down and run on just one.

As the slow fleet headed straight on for Bermuda, about 640 miles to the east, all of the boats did their best to stay close together. Atlantic Escort kept tabs on the fleet, acquiring the position of each boat on its radar and then locking it into the plotting computer. Positions were confirmed during "roll calls" conducted over the VHF twice a day. "We were in the middle of the ocean," says Scott Shane from Atlantic Escort. "It felt more like a Power Squadron regatta parading down a Long Island Sound."

Day 3: Getting their sea legs. The seas and wind had settled down. By this time, the crews were falling into a routine, although that's an odd word for the day-to-day activities these people were involved in. There were watches, for instance, which fatigue even the saltiest boaters. They were particularly challenging for the boats with smaller crews. On the 50-foot Four Across, Doug Seaver and his three companions had set up four-hour watches during the day and two-hour watches at night. Seaver and his brother-in-law Charles Metcalfe were cruising with two college students. "I was reluctant to have the kids at the helm on their own at night, but after a few days, they stood watch solo," Seaver says. "I'd sleep in the Pilothouse to be close by."

An experience boater, Seaver had logged many miles cruising the East Coast, but he'd never done a big-water passage like this. "In the beginning, I was anxious about the lack of sleep and whether I would be rested and alert. But my body eventually adjusted. I learned to be tolerant until things settle down."

With the rougher weather behind them, most people were busier on board. The were cleaning and doing maintenance, as they had been for days, but now they were fishing, too, and dragging chairs onto decks. The books Seaver had bought to pass the time were left untouched. "The boating activities absorbed us," he says. "No one wanted to escape by reading."

Day 4: The sweet spot. Dawn brought blue skies and oil-slick seas. The glassy surface of what some people called "Lake Atlantic" energized the crews. Some were swimming, others trolled; the youngest were "wave surfing" behind tenders. It was your typical summer-camp-type fun...in 16,000 feet of water. "We were in that wonderful sweet spot of a passage.There was no sense of when do we get there; in a sense, we were there," says Dan Streech, the president of Pacific Asian Enterprises (PAE), the builder of Nordhavn boats and the rally's organizer.

With 260 miles to go to Bermuda, the fast fleet was closing in on the slow. The crew on Sans Souci--which included Christian Fittipaldi, nephew of Emerson and a Formula 2 pro--joked about what they would do when the slow boats came into sight. The strategy was to put Fittipaldi at the wheel of the mighty trawler and blast by at 9.4 knots.

There were two mechanical issues to deal with. First, Four Across had lost its water maker, and its tanks were almost dry. A refill was necessary. To make it happen, Atlantic Escort took the boat in tow, sent back 300 feet of garden hose and pumped 200 gallons. And on Que Linda, the playful crew reported a failed expresso machine. Fortunately, Phil Strable, the professional chef aboard Sans Souci, made up an order of lattes that was delivered by inflatable to the owners, who were roughing it in their hot tub.

It was the perfect day, and it ended with the perfect night. The balmy air and shooting stars were so beautiful that even those who weren't scheduled for the 2 a.m. watch stayed up so as not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Day 5: You're all gonna make it after all. With Bermuda just 150 miles away, on board activities turned to preparations for the fleet's arrival the next morning. The talk on the radio was of the repairs that some of the crews would attend to once in port, where spare parts and service technicians were waiting. Fortunately, all of the repairs would be minor.

There was also a sense of relief among the rally's organizers. Of all three legs, this one--the shakedown--had concerned them most. No one had ever cooridinated a passage like this before; there was the chance that the boats would get separated and that the radar wouldn't be effective. But to date, those concerns were unfounded. The one real surprise was the defection of Emeritus. The trawler had split off from the fleet early on to follow its own course.

In the end, the long hours that the PAE staff had spent planning and worrying about the first leg of the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally were validated when the the whole fleet, along with Emeritus, came together. On Friday night, the fast boats picked up the slow boats on radar. Then, one by one, stern lights began to appear. The final roll call of the day was for all 18 boats. At midnight, there was an indistict glow on the horizon, the lights of Bermuda.

Leg 2

The longest leg of the crossing brought more drama than some of the participants had bargained for.

By JOHN WOOLDRIDGE

Standing on the dock at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, the sense of excitement was distinct. The first leg of the rally had gone better than many of the participants had anticipated, and now the fleet was ready to begin the next leg, which was also the longest: 1,865 miles from Bermuda to the Azores. I was along for this stretch of the crossing aboard Atlantic Escort. This 57-foot Nordhavn was my home for the 12 days.

At the pre-departure meeting, rally manager, Milt Baker emphasized a new track for both the slow and fast boats that would take them south of the rhumb line. The weather systemss rolling across the Atlantic from North America were stronger and more active than average, and the new course was designed to make the ride more comfortable for the crews and to conserve fuel, which was a crucial consideration, particularly for the smaller boats in the fleet.

This leg had its difficulties, and the bad weather didn't make things easier. Early on, Dr. Ware was transferred by a small inflatable in six-foot seas from his post on Atlantic Escort to Four Across, where a crewmember was in serious pain. Dr Ware diagnosed a kidney stone. Luckily, the patient's condition improved quickly. There were mechanical problems in the fleet, too. Satchmo, a 46-footer, briefly lost its main engine, but with tech support from the crew on Atlantic Escort, the owner was able to get the diesel started again.

The most unnerving and dramatic situation occurred with just 14 hours to go to the Azores. In eight- to ten-foot seas, Uno Mas lost use of its active hydraulic stabilizers. The 40-footer, which was the smallest boat in the rally, was on the verge of a rock-and-roll disaster. Autumn Wind, the 62-foot escort vessle for the slow fleet, stayed close by to provide support, as did Atlantic Escort. We all watched with worry as the crew of this tough little cruiser worked feverishly in tremendous seas to restore stability. But in the end, it took a heroic swim and a dangerous open-ocean boarding by PAE staffer Justin Zumwalt to put Uno Mas back on an even keel.

The heroics didn't end there. With Uno Mas up and running, Autumn Wind headed back on course, only to catch a line in her prop. Atlantic Escort recieved here distress call and turned back, traveling 28 miles in rolling seas to reach the other boat. By that time, the crew had switched on the auxilary engine, and the boat was making 4.5 knots. Zumwalt and 19-year-old James Leishman, son of PAE Vice President and rally leader Jim Leishman, donned wetsuits and dove into the cold Atlantic. Zumwalt climbed aboard the boat to evaluate the situation from abovedecks. Leishman remained in the water. In a demonstration of judgementand moxie under pressure, this young man--who as a lifeguard and surfer is comfortable in chaotic seas--dove under the boat with a serrated knife in hand to clear the fishing line. He was able to time his dive perfectly as the multi-ton yacht pitched up and down. He cleared the line from the prop, and Autumn Wind was able to proceed again on its main engine.

There were nerve-racking moments on leg two, but fortunately, there were many enjoyable times. It was great to stand watch on moonlit nights, keeping tabs on the radar and gazing out the pilothouse windows at the lights of the fleet scattered a mile apart in all directions. There were days when the crew pitched in to cook omelets for breakfast and coq au vin (OK, it was beer, not wine) for dinner in a well-designed galley on a very active boat. And there was the afternoon that Atlantic Escort maneuvered carefully around a half dozen boats drifting about in the ocean at the halfway point of our leg. From the deck, I watched the crews swimming in the deep and celebrating their achievement.

Blasting horns and energetic crowds greeted the arrival of the fleet into the marin at Horta on the island of Faial, boating capital of the Azores. The Nordhavn Atlantic Rally had arrived, and we were ready to party. Next stop: Gibraltar.

Reprinted Motorboating Magazine August 2004

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