After an extensive five year refit, including altering the complete rig from a ketch to a brigantine schooner, and many other changes, we were finally ready for our maiden shake-down cruise—which turned out to be more like a shake-up cruise for everyone on board!
We were in a marina in Titusville, near Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and planed to travel down the intracoastal waterway, (ICW) which meanders nearly 2000 miles (3,200km) along the whole eastern coast of America. The ICW is ideal for a trial cruise because it is sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean almost all the way, by a protective wall of outer banks. From the sea outlet at Fort Worth we would then cross the famous Gulf Stream, to the beautiful Bahama islands.
“We” consisted of myself, my wife Kati, and my brother Paul, who lives in Australia and had never sailed on Britannia before, and very little else for that matter.
The adventure started early for Paul. At our home near Orlando, Florida, he decided to grill some steak on our “barbie,” but when he lifted the lid a three foot snake lay asleep on the grill. I really don't know why he was so taken aback, don't they have snakes on their barbecues in Australia?
A few days later we slipped out of our marina berth on what I thought was a perfect day, and motored out into the intracoastal—smack into a shear wall of pea-soup fog! It was so dense I could hardly see the bowsprit, and decided to hook the first mooring-field buoy we bumped into, until it cleared.
Picking up a buoy was new to Paul, who hooked the ring instead of the floating rope. As the boat moved the boat-hook was wrenched from his grasp, gashing his finger. Luckily it floated—the pole that is—and his finger remained attached to his hand. We retrieved the boat-hook, patched up Paul, and put the kettle on.
A quarter of a mile passage is not a very auspicious start in anyones log. Was it a portent of things to come?
As any seasoned sailor would expect, the breeze which eventually cleared the fog came from the south, dead on our nose, so we motored 32 miles (52km) south to our first anchorage at the end of Merritt Island, just north of Melbourne. The ability to anchor overnight more or less anywhere in this protected waterway is a great advantage, when testing a boats systems.
We decided to dinghy ashore for dinner, so I attached our new Tohatsu four-stroke outboard to the dinghy. This had sat in my garage for eight months where it was evidently not happy. Now it obstinately refused to start, even after I changed the fuel. We had a barbecue on the boat, and no snake this time.
We set off early the next day, with the wind obstinately on the nose again, but now blowing fifteen knots. The Intracoastal waterway is marked with numbered posts, intermittently spaced depending upon the narrowness of the dredged channel. In places the water is half a mile wide, between the outer banks and the mainland, but the actual dredged channel might be only sixty feet wide, (18.22m).
I missed a marker on a narrow curve and ran aground for the first time, but not the last. The ground is predominantly soft mud, so after some heavy revs on our good old ‘Perky’ Perkins, 4-236 diesel Britannia slid slowly off the bank and we motored on.
There are certainly some fancy houses on sections of these waterways, some with their own sandy beach and deck chairs. Paul spotted one flying an Aussie flag and wanted to stop and say, “g’day mate”...until he noticed two big black rottweiler’s patrolling the beach and eyeing us hungrily.
There are of course many bridges spanning the waterway, leading to world famous towns on the outer banks with pristine Atlantic beaches: Daytona Beach: West Palm Beach: Miami Beach, to name but a few. The fixed bridges have clearances not less than 63 feet, (19m). Britannia’s main mast is 58 feet (17.68m) above waterline. The older bridges, called bascule bridges open vertically, sometimes at fixed intervals, or when you radio the bridge attendant as you approach and they will stop the traffic and open it for you. It’s quite a superior feeling seeing all the traffic halted, and having a great big bridge open to your request.
We motored monotonously south, into the constant wind, intending to stay the night in the City of Vero Beach Municipal Marina, a distance of only 40 miles (62 km), where I planned to take on fuel. The narrow marina entrance is down the side of a highway bridge crossing the waterway and quite tricky when the wind is hard on the beam. I turned on the entrance marker into the channel and we promptly bottomed, whereupon the wind laid us hard on an unmarked submerged bank. This time no amount of engine power would move Britannia, because she actually needed to go sideways, against the wind. I hailed a passing tiny pontoon boat and asked if they might “Take my kedge out?” I knew there was no chance of that when the reply came back, “What’s a kedge?” I had no alternative but to lower our dinghy from the davits and hand walk it to the bow, where our smaller anchor, a 35 Lbs (16 kg) CQR was lowered into the dinghy with a good coil of line. After a strenuous row into the wind, muttering unprintables at the outboard motor sitting serenely on its perch on the stern, I heaved the anchor over the side and drifted back, exhausted.
I had little doubt our new Maxwell windlass would haul the bow against the wind, but only if the anchor held. As the winch ground away and the line drew bar tight the bow slowly started to come off the shoal. Then something remarkable happened: the anchor suddenly reared out of the water like a leaping Dolphin, and the bow fell back on the shoal. “That’s the end of that” I thought, (well, not exactly those words), but somehow the anchor re-bedded itself and we finally hauled the head off sufficiently, to be able to motor into the deeper channel.
By this time it was pitch dark and I had no idea of the Marina layout. I headed for the first wharf we came to, which luckily happened to be the fuel quay. It would have been helpful if there had been a lighted sign on it. As we closed on the wharf Paul heaved the bow line to a willing person on the dock, who promptly pulled it all through the fairlead. Paul had not tied it to the boat properly and only swift action by Kati with another line prevented us making a complete pigs-ear of it.
I must remember to add a bow thruster on my “things to buy” list...
We were then informed, “Oh sure! everybody hits that bank!” which makes you wonder why they don't nail a warning on the entrance post. I will write to the mayor..
In the morning we took on 200 gallons of diesel, then changed to one of the marina moorings. The difference being ₤85 on a dock berth and ₤15 on a buoy. My crew hooked the buoy correctly this time, we were all learning fast.
During the day replicas of Columbus’ ships Nina and Pinta arrived to great fanfare, These were large ships, drawing much more than my 6’ feet 6”inches, (2m) so they must have had a pilot to warn of the entrance shoal.
The following day we motored another 31 miles (50 km) south into strong head winds, to the town of Stuart, where I prepared to anchor clear of the channel.
I snubbed in our big 60 Lb (27.5 kg) CQR bower with about 60’ feet (18.2m) of 3/8”inch (10mm) chain, and the next operation was to shackle the smaller 35 Lbs pounder (16 kg) to the same chain to act as a kellett (weight), which I always do for any night anchorage. As I was about to shackle the bridle to the chain a passing motorboat caused a big wake—don’t they always? The anchor tipped in its roller and vanished into the black water, bridle and all.
As Kati heard the “plop” and the accompanying bad language, she had the foresight to immediately take a compass bearing. I then quickly dropped our smaller Danforth, this time attached to a rope, on the same bearing, hopefully to mark where the CQR had disappeared.
After a few telephone calls we managed to locate a diver, who promised to come to our aid at 7 am the next morning. To prepare for ferrying him back and forth I had another go at the intransigent outboard. I cleaned sediment out of the carburetor and jets and after a lot of yanking, it spluttered into life.
Promptly at seven the next day we spotted our diver on the shore and I climbed into the dinghy to bring him over. The outboard must have been sulking all night, because it adamantly refused to start again, but it did start to rain with a vengeance. I struggled to row to the shore and upon meeting the diver, who was half my age, I hoped he might offer to row us back, but he didn't. Eventually I tied the dinghy to the bobstay and over he went with a great splash, covering me with water, but which didn't make me any wetter than I already was.
We were only in 12’ feet (3.7m) of water and amazingly he found the Danforth lying right on top of the CQR! The operation only took a few minutes, but had I not marked the spot I think he would never have found the anchor, which would have cost a pretty penny to replace. The diver asked for ₤40 but I gave him ₤50. I was quite proud of this little bit of smart seamanship, especially Kati’s foresight, even if it did start with my error. I still gave that anchor a jolly good talking to, I can tell you!
As I was about to row the diver back I decided to give the outboard one more yank, and behold, it fired, and propelled me to the shore and back quickly, but that didn't stop the torrential downpour.
We again chugged southward another 42 miles (67 km) through a dull drizzle and head wind, reaching Lake Worth without further incident. As we emerged from the protected cut into the large lake proper, we were nearly knocked over by 35 knot gusts and three foot (1m) waves from the South East. I had intending to find an anchorage near the outlet to the Atlantic Ocean, but I knew anywhere would be very roly-poly in these conditions. So I turned straight round and laid Britannia on the dock of The North Palm Beach Marina, which we had just passed. After completing paperwork we then moved to a sheltered birth in the marina.
I quickly learned that many others were waiting to cross The Gulf Steam. One Beneteau owner had been there a week, but the forecast was “no-change” for the following week—south east, 20 to 25 knots, seas in the stream, six to eight feet running at up to 3 knots. Kati and I had crossed a few times before and we knew it would be very rough in this wind, with short steep swells which would toss us about unmercifully, and fighting a 3 knot current at right angles was an added nuisance.
At a visitor rate of ₤100 per night we couldn't stay long, so after a second night we decided to return 28 miles (45 km) north to Hobe Sound anchorage, which we had passed on the way down. This was a tight passage in urban surroundings, so even with the wind in our backs we couldn't sail with safety.
The south easterly was still blowing strong and the anchorage was full of boats. But all were protected by the barrier island and sat quite comfortably, except for passing moronic power-boaters, who have little respect for speed limits and caused so much swell we once bottomed in nine feet.
With our now amiable outboard we dinghied to the outer bank and looked at the wild Atlantic. It was littered with whitecaps and surfing waves rolling into the shore. With my untried boat and rooky crew member I didn't feel confident enough to brave that lot for the 70 mile (113 km) crossing to the Bahamas. After three days and still no change in the wind the Bahamas were becoming untenable, and we reluctantly decided to head back north, which would at least be down wind.
I was determined to test my new-square sail, called the fore-course, in the following breeze. The first time we entered a section of waterway with relatively deep water either side of the channel I squared the yard to the wind, set up the braces and sheets, then unrolled the 350 sq foot sail (40 sq m) from inside it's yard, then mercifully switched off the engine.
This was the first time we had actually flown the new sail above a gentle breeze, but after tinkering with the lines we had it pushing hard. There are a few terms which are different when you fly a square sail, for example, the sail doesn't “pull” like Bermudian sail terminology, it pushes.
There is no better sail for going down-wind. The boat is very stable with no roll, and no messing with poles and preventers, or worrying about gybing. I soon became confident enough to continue through some of the narrower passages and under fixed bridges.
A conventional squares’l billowing out on a 22 foot (7 m) long yard would normally need a crew of at least four to scramble up the ratlines and along the yard to reef or furl the sail. I had no such crew, and therefore devised a system of rolling the sail inside a hollow yard, much like in-mast furling, but horizontal.
I did became a bit anxious when the wind increased to 25 knots, which, adding our forward speed gave a true speed over thirty, which is force seven. I didn't want to push my luck with this new sail, so I decided it was time to reef. The sheets were eased, spilling wind, as I wound the self-tailing cockpit winch with our “Winchrite’ electric winder, and half the sail quickly disappeared inside the yard. It was effortless and worked a dream. I’m sure Lord Nelson would have given his other arm to have had this system on Victory.
We had a magnificent sail north, but three days later our marina was surprised to see us coming back so soon. I told them we would be gone about a month, not two weeks.
In total we covered the vast distance of 298 miles (480 km), half of it against a strong head wind, so there was definitely one thing I learned, there isn’t much wrong with the engine!
Other things I learned were:
Looking at this list, you wouldn’t think I had been sailing for half a century would you?
We were disappointed at not being able to make the Bahamas, but I was equally sure I made the right decision not to attempt the crossing. Maybe next year.
The adventurous maiden voyage of BRITANNIA and her crew.