Into the Storm


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In determining our route from Ireland to Charleston this May, we had a number of choices. The naive option was to proceed directly from Ireland to Charleston, taking roughly the opposite route to our 2017 passage from Newport, RI to Kinsale, Ireland almost four years earlier to the day. But a near-steady procession of intense low pressure systems flows from the US east coast towards Ireland and Scotland, and we’d be directly in their path, against the winds and waves. So this would be a bad choice. A second option was to proceed more southerly to Horta, and then head west to Bermuda en route to Charleston. But these Atlantic weather systems are big enough that many would still heavily impact that course. So we added hundreds of miles to our track to sail south through the Azores High on a direct route from Horta to Charleston.

Little did we know at the time of setting off from Horta, that even with all of the course adjustments we’d made to ensure that we were minimizing our weather risk, we were actually heading directly into the first named tropical storm of the year. The conditions that we sailed into when departing Horta were exactly what we expected, and initially very good, with that named storm still nearly two weeks away, and well outside the weather report visibility. North of us, a steady stream of low pressure systems headed east across the Atlantic from the US east coast to Ireland and Scotland. We were well south, but even protected by that substantial distance and the high pressure area that we were operating in, one of the bigger storms did impact us.

As we passed through the southern tip of that northeast-proceeding, larger weather system, the winds were steady in the high 30s with a peak of 43 knots. They weren’t the roughest conditions we’ve seen, but they were are up there, probably in the top five. Seas were 12-14-ft high, with some as high as 20 ft, on a ridiculously short 7 seconds. This wasn’t dangerous, but was uncomfortable, and we had to be careful moving around the boat. But had we been on one of the more northerly courses, the waves would have been at least 20 feet, which is exactly the conditions we were working to avoid with our southerly course. So while it didn’t feel like success at the time, it actually was :-).

And shortly after passing through this system, we found ourselves heading towards what would become tropical storm Ana, the first named storm of the season. We made even further course adjustments south to avoid this system, and largely were successful, with only minor wave development to contend with. This underlines the importance of having lots of fuel on board, because this unusually extreme diversion added about 500 miles to the trip.

We tracked and routed around the weather system for much of our second week en route from Horta to Charleston. The actual rough weather only lasted for a day, although it felt like longer. During that week, we also drained and stowed our cockpit fuel bladders, bringing all the fuel below deck into our main tanks. It felt great to have full fuel tanks when we were over 1,000 miles out of Horta, and having lots of available fuel allowed us to make some fairly substantial weather-routing changes that kept us in safe conditions.

Below are highlights from May 15th to 22nd, 2021. Click any image for a larger view, or click the position to view the location on a map. And a live map of our current route and most recent log entries always is available at mvdirona.com/maps.

5/15/2021
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Turning South
The latest weather route indicates that the upcoming weather system has shifted south, so we will as well. The red boat icon is where we are now and the blue icon is where we, and the system, will be two days from now on Monday.
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Leading Edge
We’re passing through the leading edge of that weather system. The winds are light at 10 knots, but the waves are about 6ft (1.4m) on 7.5 seconds on the bow, and our average pitching motion over the past five minutes (lower left) has increased to 11.4°. But we’re still making good speed at 7.4 knots with a fuel economy of 1.08nm/gallon.
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Heading West
The weather models are back to having us head west again. The blue line is our previous route and the red our new course. It appears that this time of year the weather systems are unstable and difficult to predict with accuracy, even only a couple of days out.
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Looking Ahead
Looking ahead, a major storm will cover much of the Atlantic as we are arriving into Charleston in a week or so. The red boat icon is where we are now and the blue icon is where we will be in 8-9 days.
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Gral. San Martin
The vehicle carrier Gral. San Martin was en route to Cotonou, Benin in West Africa when it suddenly made a 90-degree turn towards us, slowed, and eventually was just drifting. We’re guessing they had a mechanical problem and 15-20 minutes later they were back underway on the same course as previously.
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Exhaust Leak
We noticed some soot on the floor of the engine room and appear to have a minor exhaust failure. It’s not bad but there is a small amount of soot being forced into the ER past the exhaust cladding at the flexible wrinkle belly segment area. We suspect the gaskets on either side of the wrinkle belly are leaking or perhaps the wrinkle belly itself cracked. It’s making a minor mess on the floor but is not a problem for now. Unless it gets worse, we’ll just service it on arrival.
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Conditions
Conditions are worsening as we pass through the leading edge of the weather system. The winds have picked up to 20kts on the bow, we’re now pitching and rolling (lower left) 12.2° and 11.8° respectively, and our speed has fallen to 4.8kts at a fuel economy of 1.08nm/gallon. It’s rare that our fuel economy and speed are both that bad as the same time.
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ER Temp
Our engine room temperature measured on the forward bulkhead is 104°, much hotter than we’ve seen for a while, but the ER temp probe that we use to display data on our Maretron N2kView screen was reading several degrees higher than this. We checked the calibration on the ER temp probe and it’s reading 3F high. It might just be the temp sensor is just slightly biased, but the rails around the engine are much hotter than usual and wI suspect that is due to the exhaust leak. One final factor that will raise the ER temperature a bit higher than we have seen for years is we are running the most of the house air conditioners right now and the two alternators are putting out fairly high power levels with one running a case temp of 202F and the other at 184F. These alternators will contribute enough heat to raise the temps by 3 or 4F as well.
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Liberty Grace
The cargo ship Liberty Grace en route to Port Said, Egypt.
5/16/2021
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Course Change
We’re routing to the south to avoid the building weather system north of us, that will have influence quite a distance south. The red boat icon is our current position and the blue icon is where we would be in a day or so on our previous westerly course (blue). Seas at that point would be 13ft on 8 seconds. This isn’t dangerous, but would be uncomfortable, so we’ve altered course south on a new route.
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Conditions
We’ve passed through the leading edge of the weather system into relatively calm conditions behind. The winds are less than 5 knots and pitch and roll are 7.0° and 6.6° respectively. We’re not making great speed though, at only 5.9 knots to achieve 1.18 nm/gallon.
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Overall Route
A view to our current overall route to Charleston, making a big southerly detour around the weather system to our north. This adds about 100 miles to the total distance, but is worth it for better weather conditions.
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Traiano Knutsen
The tanker Traiano Knutsen passing about 12 miles to our north en route to Corpus Christi, Texas. The ship is on a direct Great Circle route, so is on a more northerly course heading for a more southerly port. It takes worse than these conditions to get the big boats off the direct path.
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Aft Bladders
We have consumed enough fuel that there is enough space in the tanks below to pump the aft deck fueal into the main tanks. We prefer to have all the fuel below decks if we’re heading into rougher water.
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Squall on Radar
The radar shows a major squall system up ahead.
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Squall on Dirona
Heavy rains as we pass through the squall.
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Searching for Satellite
Our KVH V7-HTS mini-VSAT has been rock solid throughout the trip from Dublin, with only brief outages as it switches satellites. We lost connectivity as we passed through the squall, but it reconnected quickly. We really depend on the system, and few faults on the boat capture our attention more than seeing our V7-HTS searching for a satellite.
5/17/2021
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2.8 knots
We’re into the trailing edge of that storm system now. Four hours ago, the winds shot up to steady 30 knots (wind graph at middle right) and the seas are are about 13 feet on 7 seconds. We’re seeing a lot of boat motion, with pitch and roll 14.3° and 20.5° over the past five minutes (lower left). And worst of all, at 1400 RPM we’re currently making almost no headway into the heavy seas running at 2.8 knots and sometimes below 2 knots. At this pace, we’ll be arriving in late July to early August :-) Our boat is good and strong, but fuel economy and speed made good is poor when heading directly into tight head seas.

We also are well below our fuel economy goal of 1.16nm/gallon at only 0.655nm/gallon. For this trip, we have lots of fuel, so we only need to maintain 1.2 nm/gallon. In the past, it’s always been the case that if we just slowed down a bit more we can hit the needed mileage. This is the first time where we’ve seen it where the boat can’t hit achieve the needed fuel economy at any speed. It won’t be a problem, because these conditions will be relatively brief, but it did catch our attention that we can’t get up over 3/4 nm/gallon.

The “drive to lights” at middle right are both orange. The “drive to lights” system is what we use to maintain the boat within the fuel economy we need to arrive at a destination with the configured amount of reserve fuel. The system is very simple. If we are within our fuel economy range, both lights are green. If we’re above our range, the left light goes orange to indicate we should speed up and if we’re below our goal, the right light shows orange to indicate we should slow down. And if we’re going much to fast, they’re both orange to call attention to it. We also can use the system to meet a time-based deadline.

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Seaweed
We’re taking a lot of green water over the bow, so much so that seaweed has gotten caught in the wipers.
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43 knots
We’re at about the worse point in the storm with winds steady in the high 30s and a peak of 43 knots. These are not the roughest conditions we’ve seen, but are up there. Probably in the top 5. We’re in 12-14-ft seas, with some as high as 20 ft, on a ridiculously short 7 seconds. Just moving around in the boat takes care and planning. Some waves tower above the pilot house. Fuel economy and speed continue to be stubbornly poor.

Over the last 12,000 miles we’ve seen the boat’s fuel economy go up and down as conditions change. Like many boats, winds and heavy seas on the bow are inefficient. But we’ve always found in the past that we can get the fuel economy we want just by slowing down. The conditions we’re in today are directly on the bow, and slowing doesn’t seem to make much difference on the fuel economy. We decided to study it in more detail and run 5-minute periods at different RPMs and look at speed and fuel economy achieved. Slowing does improve fuel economy, but we can’t get more than 2/3 nm/gallon at any speed in these conditions. The following shows resulting speed and fuel economy at RPMs ranging from 1000 to 1900:

  • 1000: 1.1, 0.61
  • 1200: 1.6, 0.57
  • 1500: 2.7, 0.57
  • 1600: 2.9, 0.55
  • 1600: 3.0, 0.64
  • 1700: 3.2, 0.50
  • 1700: 3.2, 0.50
  • 1800: 3.8, 0.52
  • 1800: 3.8, 0.53
  • 1900: 3.9, 0.49
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Alessandro D P
The tanker Alessandro D P en route to Antwerp.
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Conditions
Conditions have improved markedly. We’re back within our fuel economy range and are making 6.8 knots. The seas are still up, although the period between waves is lengthening, and were pitching and rolling at 10.4° and 20.1°. respectively. That’s not great, but is much more comfortable than the 14.3° pitch we were seeing earlier, probably becasue the wave frequency now is longer so the boat motion is less rapid.
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Routes
The maze of different PredictWind recommended routes over time behind us as we picked our way through the storm.
5/18/2021
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Ship
Westbound ship doing 11.0 knots overtaking us about 8 miles to the north.
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24-Hour Conditions
We’re still feeling the effects of the storm that passed, with pitch and roll at 10.2° and 17° (lower left). The 24-hour pitch, roll and wind speed graphs (near center) show that conditions have improved, and the winds are settling down.
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Storm Behind
The storm system still packs a punch, but is passing away to the northeast behind us.
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Sleeping
When conditions are at all rough, we’ve learned that if we sleep wedged in the narrow floor space beside the bed, the motion is a lot less annoying and we sleep far better (for James’ sleep shift, he sleeps on the other side where there is a little more space). Using that trick, we find it takes quite rough conditions before we start having sleep problems. This also avoids the risk that befell James 8 years ago where a bigger wave tossed him out of the berth and into the head doorway frame. Sleeping on the floor looks a bit odd, but it ends up being a remarkably comfortable way of dealing with rough conditions.
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Emptying Bladders
We’d emptied the bulk of the fuel out of the cockpit bladders prior to the weather system hitting. Now that things have settled down a bit, we can complete the job by tipping them up to drain out the last few gallons before stowing them.
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Cleaning Bladders
Giving the cockpit bladders a quick freshwater spray and a scrub prior to stowing them in the flybridge brow.
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Drying Carpet
Despite having the door latched at the bottom, the water pressure from waves hitting the pilot house door during the storm forced enough water inside to soak the carpet. We’re using a floor fan to dry it.
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Next System
Another large storm system is forming to our north, predicted to have 25-ft seas. This system is a little unusual in that is is moving from east to west and will absorb a smaller system off the Florida coast before heading in a more common northeasterly direction. We’re heading a long way to the south to avoid the worse impact of the storm. The green paddle shows the current boat location and the white boat icon is where we’ll be in about 2.5 days following a more southerly course.
5/19/2021
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Conditions
Conditions have improved greatly, with pitch and roll down to 3.3° and 8.5° and the winds less than 15 knots. The only downside is we’re not making great progress at 5.7 knots with a fuel economy of 1.09 nm/gallon.
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CMA CGM Ohio
The container ship CMA CGM Ohio en route to Rotterdam.
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Testing Wing and Gen
Whenever we’ve been thrown around a lot by rough weather, we run the wing and the gen, just to make sure no water has been forced down the exhaust and that they are clean, warm and dry. The red light at bottom left indicates that the gen is running when not needed (we use the main engine rather the gen for underway power) and the orange light at bottom right indicates the wing is running (wing tach is below main engine tach).

And with little change in conditions, other than a degree less of pitch, our speed has increased to 8 knots with a fuel economy of 1.23 nm/gallon compared to 5.7 knots at 1.09 nm/gallon earlier today. Some of this could be due to ocean current, and also slightly calmer seas. The boat is very sensitive to head seas, and climbing waves has a really negative impact on fuel economy.

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Course
An overview of our more southerly course. We’re about 10 days out of Charleston now, continuing to work south to avoid the impact of the storm system building north of Bermuda.
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7 knots
Conditions remain good as the seas continue to settle down after the storm system. But we’re down a knot of speed since earlier today, and are making 7 knots at 1.2 nm/gallon.
5/20/2021
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Flying Fish
If the weather’s not bad, we do a full walkaround outside the boat twice a day. We often find flying fish on deck in tropical waters. In the South Pacific, Spitfire would “fish” by sitting in the cockpit and waiting for one to land in front of him.
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Dawn
Dawn looking behind us in calm conditions.
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Two Systems
We’re currently headed towards the junction of two weather systems, a large and rather intense one northeast of Bermuda and a less powerful one near Florida. The larger system is subtropical storm Ana, the first named storm of the season. The smaller system to the south is being absorbed by Ana directly along our path, but conditions should settle down by the time we reach that point.
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Salad
Fresh salad for lunch. We can’t bring any fresh fruit or vegetables into the US, so we need to consume it all before we arrive.
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Conditions
We’re humming along at 6.5 knots (middle left) with a fuel economy of 1.23 nm/gallon (middle right). Pitch and roll are both down to a very comfortable 3.3° and 5.6°. respectively, so we can sleep back on the berth instead of the floor.
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Maersk Belfast
The tanker Maersk Belfast en route to Veracruz, Mexico.
5/20/2021
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Flying Fish
If the weather’s not bad, we do a full walkaround outside the boat twice a day. We often find flying fish on deck in tropical waters. In the South Pacific, Spitfire would “fish” by sitting in the cockpit and waiting for one to land in front of him.
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Dawn
Dawn looking behind us in calm conditions.
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Two Systems
We’re currently headed towards the junction of two weather systems, a large and rather intense one northeast of Bermuda and a less powerful one near Florida. The larger system is subtropical storm Ana, the first named storm of the season. The smaller system to the south is being absorbed by Ana directly along our path, but conditions should settle down by the time we reach that point.
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Salad
Fresh salad for lunch. We can’t bring any fresh fruit or vegetables into the US, so we need to consume it all before we arrive.
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Conditions
We’re humming along at 6.5 knots (middle left) with a fuel economy of 1.23 nm/gallon (middle right). Pitch and roll are both down to a very comfortable 3.3° and 5.6°. respectively, so we can sleep back on the berth instead of the floor.
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Maersk Belfast
The tanker Maersk Belfast en route to Veracruz, Mexico.
5/21/2021
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Slow
The seas are up a bit, and really slowing us down. We’re only making 4.5 knots at a fuel economy of 1.11 nm/g. When running longer distances, and especially when crossing oceans, we drive to the required fuel economy and decrease or increase speed as necessary to make the distance we need. It’s surprising what a difference small variations in conditions make to our speed.
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Shangdong Fu Hui
The bulk carrier Shangdong Fu Hui en route from Gibraltar to Myrtle Grove, Louisiana.
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1,000 Left
We’re down to 1,000 miles and less than a week left to reach Charleston.
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Mi Goreng
We often make Mi Goreng noodles for a quick lunch, with some leftover chicken added if we have some. We’ve generally been able to obtain the noodles easily in Europe the past few years. But we couldn’t find them in Bergen, which led us to try Buldak Ramen, our new favourite.
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Bermuda
We’re passing 226 miles south of Bermuda right now. Our decision to run a southerly route instead of a Great Circle route to avoid the Atlantic storms has worked out well. While we did pass through one weather system, conditions weren’t nearly as bad is if we’d been on a more northerly route through the system. We’d prefer to drive straight through to Charleston at this point, but are giving subtropical storm Ana the necessary wide berth that storm requires.
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Routes
Three of the PredictWind-recommended routes, including the one corresponding to the ECMWF model, indicate we continue on a more southerly course for a bit before turning north. This will put is into back into a high pressure system and keep us safely away from subtropical storm Ana north of Bermuda.
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Traffic
Several ARPA targets, likely fishing vessels. Traffic is starting to pick up slightly as we near the US east coast.
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Gasoline Spill
On James’ evening check around the outside of the boat, he found the boat deck coated in a film of gasoline, so got to spend the first part of his watch scrubbing down the decks.
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Gas Can
One of the gas cans that we have secured on the boat deck cracked in the hot sun and leaked onto the deck. The can is over a decade old so it’s lasted well.
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No Internet
Our KVH V7-HTS mini-VSAT has been rock solid without an outage impacting us for years. We’re very dependent upon that system, and so those short transitions when it switches satellites bring us stress, even though they are only a minute or two. This evening, the system stopped moving data. James rebooted the antenna and modem, but the system remained down. He plugged a laptop directly into the KVH system to see if there was some on-board routing problem, but it still didn’t work. That’s bad news for us, because we’re a thousand miles from shore without our trusted communications system.

We have backup connectivity available through Inmarsat BGAN, but it is startlingly expensive at 10x the data cost of the KVH system. James called in the fault just before he went off-shift. A couple of hours later, it returned to life. It’s so nice having it back, and it was hard to believe it was only a couple of hours.

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Ship
This ship passing 14 miles to our south never got close enough for us to get AIS details.
5/22/2021
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Pacific Sky
The tanker Pacific Sky en route to the Netherlands Antilles.
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Tropical Storm Ana
That storm system we have been skirting south of is now showing up on the NOAA surface analysis as a possible tropical cyclone. This morning it became the first named storm of the season, subtropical storm Ana. Being on passage with a cyclone in our path wasn’t the goal when we left :). We diverted more than 250 miles to the south, which adds a lot of distance to the trip, but allowed us to only see some rough water rather than the dangerous conditions in the center of the storm. This underlines the importance of having lots of fuel on board, because this unusually extreme diversion added about 500 miles to the trip.
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Flying Fish
It looks like we “caught” another fish.
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Eastern Time
We just set the clocks back another two hours and now are on US Eastern time.
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Boat
A vessel heading east about 7 miles to our south.
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Sunset
Beautiful orange sunset to end our 15th day out of Horta.
Show locations on map Click the travel log icon on the left to see these locations on a map, with the complete log of our cruise.

On the map page, clicking on a camera or text icon will display a picture and/or log entry for that location, and clicking on the smaller icons along the route will display latitude, longitude and other navigation data for that location. And a live map of our current route and most recent log entries always is available at mvdirona.com/maps.

 
 


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6 comments on “Into the Storm
  1. Rick Gutierrez says:

    Hey James and Jennifer – enjoying the read. Quick question – if I read it right you’ll probably land with around 200 gallons of fuel – not that it’s an issue now but at what point or threshold do you decide a direct route vs comfort to plan your direction?

    Just curious what you goal is for fuel to have left over when you arrive. Cheers and really enjoying the read. Good luck on the final leg.

    • We arrived in this morning. The way we run is we set the fuel reserve we would like to end the trip with and just adjust our speed to deliver that result. We usually start with 300 or more in reserve to allow large diversions if needed without having to give up speed. On this trip we started with 300 gallons of reserve and then released 50 gallons on the first storm and then a second 50 gallons on the big diversion. Because the big diversion to avoid tropical storm Ana, we had a decrease speed a bit after that. In this case, we release another 50 gallons that last evening because the Gulf Stream with only 20 kts of wind really slowed us down. We didn’t use all of it and ended with 176 gallons left.

      Generally, we have good data on fuel on board and burn rate so we generally will end a trip at the target fuel reserve unless we chose to run faster towards the end. You asked when would we stop diverting. I suppose there is some point where no diversions are possible but we so far have always had the fuel and range for anything we want to do.

  2. Dirk Dupré says:

    Hi James and Jennifer,
    great story and adventure! Really enjoying it online.
    – I was wandering, the conditions you recently experienced with the 2Oft seas. You mention is was not dangerous. How would it be in these conditions with the Bayliner 4087? Would he be able to survive in that sea state?
    – I have a deep respect for your (J&J) seamanship, technical knowledge and behaviour. Otherwise I’m concerned in a way about the not wearing lifejackets while working on deck (scrubbing and cleaning bladders).
    An unexpected roll and a moment of diversion for the captain could end dramatic.
    Good luck from Belgium, and good arrival in Charleston!
    Dirk&Heleen (Swift Trawler34)

    • The Bayliner would likely have survived the conditions we recently saw but, for that boat, it would be a survival storm and neither of us would want to be on it in those conditions. For Dirona, these conditions are rough and require care in moving around but the boat is fine and we’re still sleeping fine and living life more or less as usual. Perhaps slowed a little bit by a touch of sea sickness in those conditions but, overall, not bad and not close to a safety issue.

      You are correct that wearing lifejackets when on deck is the safest choice. The way we operate is we don’t go on deck if it’s rough unless it’s an safety issue that must be attended to and, in those conditions, we do wear life jackets. In calm conditions, we don’t wear life jackets on deck. An active stabilized boat in calm conditions is a fairly stable platform.

  3. Doug Bakker says:

    I love reading your updates. This is sure a long run you are doing without a stopover. How do you manage your on and off duty with only two onboard? Is someone always on watch?

    • Yes, our chosen operating mode is to always have someone at the helm. And since human error is the mostly likely problem on a long passage we have a watch alarm where the helmsman has to touch a switch that is no reachable from the helm seat every 12 min. The system shows a countdown to alarm, shows a yellow light at 10 min, a red light at 11 min, a single small beep at 11:30, sends email to all crew at 11:40, sets a continuous alarm that would be difficult to for the watch stander to miss at 12:00 min and at 13:00 set off a continuous wake-the-dead that would wake up the watch stander on any boats in the area and would be absolutely impossible to sleep through under any circumstances.

      We used to run a conventional 4 hours on, 4 hours off sleep schedule but hated how tired it made us both, I found it hard to get my day job done (I continue working on passage), and we arrived exhausted. After a couple of years of 4 on/4 off, we moved to a weird schedule that we just love. Jennifer has the helm from 10pm to 5am and I have it from 5am to 10pm. Jen sleeps in two segments on either side of her watch which is harder and she does the night watch which is much harder. But we can do that schedule forever, we’re well slept, we arrive ready to explore, and I’m super fresh to tackle problems if we have a mechanical problem and have plenty of time to get my full time job done.

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