Whale of A Trip


This was quite a solo offshore trip by Bob Johnstone. 235 miles from Northeast Harbor ME through the Cape Cod Canal to Newport RI in 10 hours. Some interesting observations are made regarding the 40z’s features and behaviour at 25 knot speeds in 4-6 foot seas and an incredible encounter with a large whale on the Stellwagen Bank.

MJM Yachts owner, Bob Johnstone, describes his solo 235 mile, 10 hour offshore passage from Northeast Harbor ME to Newport RI aboard the 40z (hull #6) GRACE on September 9, 2009

Little did I know when waving good-bye to Mary at 0620 hrs on Wednesday morning that I would have a very close encounter with a large whale. It was September 9, Mary stood on Clifton Dock and reminded me to wear a life jacket on deck. I was departing Northeast Harbor ME on the 40z GRACE, headed for Newport RI, 235 miles away. It was a spectacular morning, clear and cool with no clouds, sun rising and full moon setting with a light easterly breeze.

I was refreshed and energized by the moment, but under no illusions. This was not going to be a perfect power boating day where one could make port by noon cruising at 31 knots on calm seas… arriving before the afternoon sea breeze kicked in. First of all, Newport was too far away. Secondly, the forecast was for anything but c40zalm seas… a building northeasterly of 15-22 knots with 3-5 foot seas. True enough except the tide was flooding east in the Gulf of Maine, which would add at least a foot to the wave height estimate. Could be a sleighride. Let’s see how a 40z handles these offshore conditions for most of a day without wearing out its sole occupant. It would have been a joy to share this trip with my 17 year old grandson, Nick. But, a flu bug interrupted this plan and he made the trip home to Newport by car.

First order of the day was the course to steer. Zoom out the cursor on the plotter and center it over the Cape Cod Canal. Says 230 degrees passing Provincetown close aboard. Other than a few lobster pots and rock shoals, the autopilot could take over at Clifton Dock… pretty much a straight shot out of Northeast Harbor, through the Western Way, out between Swans and Long Islands. It was a bit early to drop in for the world’s best lobster rolls at Lunt’s in Frenchboro… half the town is out here with me hauling up the ingredients.

Clearing the Western Way, the wind was a moderate 12 knots from the NE, waves were 2-3 feet, boatspeed was 30.5 knots at 3450 rpm with trim tabs deployed down against a short chop in a flood tide and an easterly roll. The twin Cummins 350 engines are high rpm engines, so this was an acceptable 90% of max. Hull #6 GRACE has the AXIUS system with Merc Bravo III sterndrives and duoprops. Passed two sailboats departing Burnt Coat and Frenchboro on a similar course. Guess they were planning an overnight. It would take them about a full day longer to the canal. Lobster pots were everywhere.

By 0720 hours conditions had changed. Waves had built to 4-6 feet and were quite steep due to a building flood current. I throttled back to 27 knots. Fuel rate was showing 24.2 gph. At the higher speed of 30 knots, half the boat would become airborne occasionally, launching off a cliff of a wave. With ½ trim tabs to keep the bow up a bit, she would still push into the back of a wave about every 3 minutes, creating a cloud of spray that would splash the windshield. Windshield washer and wipers worked flawlessly. Wipers were off 80% of the time. The stemhead and anchor roller never went under a wave once on the entire trip. Doug Zurn nailed that bow shape perfectly with just the right amount of reserve buoyancy, as he did on the 29z and 34z. The boat was running steady and true in these conditions under autopilot, no yaw or bowsteer tendencies at all. The last pots seen were in 160 feet of water, so I could be less attentive to the helm and take a moment to look around. The fathometer was now showing 324 feet. No boats in sight. No cell phone signal. The Camden Hills were low on the horizon abeam. We, GRACE and I, were definitely alone asea (as Will Shortz would use in the NYT Crossword) together. At 0729 passed a rather desolate Seal Island with Matinicus in sight. No worries though. We had Kevlar topsides and I don’t think any of the trigger-happy lobstermen there could’ve caught GRACE, even if she had chewed up a couple of pots.
0745 hrs doing 25-26 knots at 3100 rpm, fuel rate at 20.9 gph, wind pushing 20 knots.

The highest peak north of Brazil on the east coast of the Americas, Cadillac Mountain (1530 ft) on Mt. Desert Island disappears below the horizon about 50 miles astern*. Hard to believe that any of the ancients who’d even been just 20 miles offshore (a 300 foot tall object goes below the horizon at 20 miles) could think the world was flat. *The formula according to Ocean Voyager is 1.17*square root of the combined height of viewer and object (1540′) or 46 miles.

0845 hrs – Small water birds darting over the surface keeping me company. Portland Buoy reports NE 17-23 knot winds and 4’ seas. In these conditions, I wonder how any boat with a cruising speed (in normal conditions) of less than 25 knots could possibly have the power to average more than 14 knots in a following sea. Waves seem to go about 15 knots. To cruise faster than 14 knots and escape the inevitable trawler-like wallowing and yawing as large seas overtake the boat, the boat must be able to cruise at 25 knots. I say that because every now and then even GRACE, running at an average 25-knots, is slowed climbing over the top of a particularly steep wave. I watch the GPS (over the ground speed) drop momentarily to 16-17 knots. She’s gaining on the wave but it becomes more of a struggle as the reverse-flowing water molecules on the back of the wave slow the boat. Once over the top she’s surfing down at 27 knots, then usually has no issue with the next 10 waves or so, until reaching another doozy. Interesting.

0953 hrs – Cape Elizabeth (Portland ME) on the beam. Current is running about 1.5 knots on the nose. After hitting the “up” button on the windlass too many times to keep the chain tight, I decided to double-check the safety tether on the chain and secure it tighter, rather than depending on the windlass system to do so. Definitely don’t want to have the anchor deploy when doing 25+ knots! Not relishing the idea of going on deck, I discovered a wonderfully easy and safe method of “virtually” going on a 40z foredeck… this method could also work to check the anchor in the middle of the night when moored. In fact one could do it without getting out of bed. No need to literally go on deck, having to don life jacket and brace oneself in rough seas. With the autopilot on at idle speed to hold the stern into the waves and make things reasonably quiet, I crawled onto the island berth in the forward cabin and opened the deck hatch which is about 33” over the berth. It was like creating a forward cockpit just behind the windlass. I was able to stand on the berth with my upper body above deck. It’s a good thing I checked. The nylon tether was untethered! I lashed the anchor chain to a bow cleat, closed the hatch, walked aft to the helm and resumed cruising speed.

1018 hrs – I pass a trawler severely plunging up and down in the waves, traveling in the opposite direction with sheets of spray flying over it. Where do people get the idea that trawlers are good at sea? Must have been like riding bucking bronco. Kennebunkport and the Bush compound were abeam according to the chart. Don’t think 41 and 43 will be bombing around in their Cigarette today. Couldn’t see land that was about 28 miles away.

1140 hrs Coast Guard VHF repeatedly reports a 20-foot sailboat out of gas and in distress. Wait a minute! A sailboat out of gas is an emergency in a nice sailing breeze? What’s the world coming to?

1148 hrs. Lat 42:06 Lon 70:06 For the fun of driving, I announced to the autopilot that it was my turn to drive for a while. Fortunately, the timing was good. Several minutes later, the crest of the 2nd wave ahead developed a funny-looking shape… it was spuming straight up and flaring out in a mist rather than curling with the wave. WHALE!! my brain registered. Hard right rudder for avoidance, then just about where the spume was, hard left rudder to heel the boat to port, swing the props out and throttle back to minimize injury to the whale and brace myself for the collision. Thank God, we missed! In the middle of the bank to port, I had what must have been a harpooners view, looking down onto the back of the whale extending out to port for seemingly 40-50 feet. It was a big one. All 3 of us, GRACE, me and the whale could have been seriously hurt. And, I could only thank the 40z’s fantastic response to the helm that enabled such instantaneous avoidance. That would not have been possible on a typical deep-V hull. The directional stability in a following sea, caused by too much “V” and small rudders, results in a delayed response to any movement of the wheel. This was a 1-2 second life or death affair. 4-5 seconds would not have worked. WHEW! That was scary. But, what a thrill to be that close to one of these magnificent creatures. Kept the boat in idle forward, put on the autopilot, grabbed the camera and got a photo of the whale astern. Saw another, tale in the air.

1200 hrs. noon Pass another trawler heading NE. Cape Ann abeam and in sight.

1304 hrs. Encounter a large USCG cutter which seemed to be patrolling the Boston ship channel just prior to passing Provincetown. They let me pass without incident. I did slow down a bit. Natural response I suppose when you know the radar has you in its sights.

1415 hrs. Enter the Cape Cod Canal. Have the 2nd half of my egg salad sandwich. Back to civilization. Time to relax. Talked to Mary on the cellphone and tell her of safe arrival thus far. Having left NE Harbor at 0800 by car, she was at the Kennebunkport Service Station on Rte 95.

1430 hrs. Wait a minute! That looks like another MJM approaching in the canal going east. It is. Turns out to be CORSAIR, 29z #1 with good friend Henry & Callie Brauer aboard. The Brauers and CORSAIR spend the summer with us in Northeast Harbor He also sails a J/100 and J/105 and was returning from a short vacation with family in the islands, picnicking on the beach in Tarpaulin Cove in the Elizabeth Islands, etc. and now headed back home to Marblehead. We circle around in the canal talking a bit, enjoying the encounter. I tell him its a bit nasty in Cape Cod Bay. Later I learn they ran at about 18 knots into it before opening up to 22-25 knots when turning the corner more to the North, making it to Marblehead in a respectable 2 hours. Two thoughts. Of the 10 or so boats seen that day, two were MJMs. Not a bad share of the active boating market. And, good things seem to happen on an MJM, making the world smaller for one. What are the chances of meeting one of your best friends boating on a Wednesday in September, starting 250 miles apart? It’s doubtful we could have actually planned it so successfully.

1445 hrs. Buzzards Bay is just mildly choppy. The current and a good 15-20 knot NE wind going in the same direction. With tabs down, the 40z sustains 25 knot+ cruising speed out past Cuttyhunk into Rhode Island Sound.

1540 hrs. See beautiful large sailboat flying an all-blue asymmetric spinnaker off the Sakonnet River. Turns out to be the J/65 BRAND NEW DAY with owner Jim Madden and friends aboard cruising along at about 12 knots. Circle the boat, give them a couple of toots on the horn then get some good photos. Another example of good things happening?

1620 hrs. After exactly 10 hours, we arrive at the New York YC Harbour Court to pick up GRACE’s mooring. 235 miles, including slowing down to 12-15 knots for 40 minutes traversing the 9 miles of the Cape Cod Canal. Total fuel consumed was just under 200 gallons for an average of 1.2 NMPG.

Greeted with good news on the cell phone. (Good things happening in “3’s”?) Mary changed her plans. Rather than staying in Boston that night, she joins me for a drink to watch the sun go down from the Adirondack chairs on the hill in front of the NYYC, followed by dinner. The perfect end of an extraordinary trip. In fact “a whale of a trip”..

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