On June 7, 2008 I had the pleasure of helping sail the new Atlantic 57, LEOPARD, built by Aquidneck Custom Composites, to Bermuda from her birthplace in Bristol, Rhode Island.
Onboard was Leopard's owner, his wife and 14 year old son. Also onboard was the owner of Aquidneck Custom, Bill Koffler, and boatbuilder Tim Chisolm. This was definitely a shakedown cruise. Until just hours before departure the electricians were finishing up, ongoing tasks in various places had floorboards up and tools scattered. However, the owners managed to get some of their personal belongings onboard along with provisions for the trip and everything pretty well stowed away in near record time.
With unusually high June temperatures forecast for New England and broad high pressure moving in to the mid Atlantic we were pretty certain to have good weather and fair winds for most if not all of the trip.
The morning fog was thick but lifting by the time we cast off the Herreshoff Marine Museum dock in Bristol, Rhode Island a bit before 9 a.m. With light headwinds and foul tide we motored down Naragansett Bay while turning on various boat systems to make sure they worked and stowing gear away.
Passing Brenton Reef at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, the fog rolled in thick. But the wind hauled around to the SW and while light, was at least steady. We trimmed the main, unrolled the genoa and set the autopilot. Leopard picked up to a steady comfortable pace of 8 to 10 knots and we all started to relax a little. Launching a boat is stressful all around. The builders, of course, have been working long hours and weekends for weeks if not months trying to get the project wrapped up. The owners are often, in addition to the excitement of a new boat, going thru major life changes as they pack up job and house in order to embark on some long term cruising. Such was the case here. So much to do and the season doesn't wait. Despite all that, smiles and good humor were the order of the day and I think many worldly cares happily receded with the coastline. Life always seems so much simpler with a fair breeze and the swoosh of 10 knots past the hull.
By late afternoon we were well off the coast, still in thick fog, watching the radar for traffic. A very loud bang from the starboard aft hull shook everyone to their feet. With all eyes directed aft to see what we had hit, a fin - waving lazily in the air and attached to a large shape beneath - let us all know we had clocked an ocean sunfish with the rudder. These bony fish can get very large (average size reported to be 2000 lbs.) and they have a habit of just lazing on the surface, mostly hidden except for the small pectoral fin that flops slowly from one side to the other. Sorry about that mister fish, we didn't mean to hurt you. Despite the loud bang I had no concerns for the rudder. These are very stoutly constructed with titanium shafts and well supported inside the boat. The fish could easily have been a log or something else hard and it is important that the rudders can take that kind of hit without damage. Unfortunately for the fish, it took the worst of that encounter.
Earlier in the afternoon we deployed a water generator. This was something of an experiment and consisted of a commercially available hydroelectric generator (made to use in small streams) that was mounted on a streamlined vertically retracting leg from the aft deck. Other boats have used this and similar devices before but the problems of mounting, deployment, drag and other factors have limited their widespread acceptance. This particular unit had a streamlined fairing constructed for it and behaved very well up to 11 knots, which was our best speed at the time. It was interesting to watch it go thru the water from the escape hatch in the galley and I was quite satisfied that the drag was reasonably low, the deployment and retraction was easy and the power output very welcome.
Then, two hours after the first, another great loud BANG!! Oh, no- what now?
The deck watch saw yet again another large object astern- probably another sunfish, although it could have been something else. This time, the bang unfortunately was the hydogenerator leg fracturing. Looking out the galley escape hatch window revealed our experiment tethered only by its electrical cable- yikes! Okay, stop the boat, lets figure out what to do about this. There really was no choice but to drop the sails and launch the dinghy in order to get under the wingdeck to salvage the generator before the cable broke and it was lost to Neptune. Fortunately, there wasn't much wind and the waves were small. Tim handed me some clippers after getting in the dinghy and I was able to cut the wire and pull the generator and 4 feet of supporting leg into the dinghy. One of the generator prop blades was sheared off - confirming that it had hit something pretty hard. The dinghy was quick to hoist back aboard, sails re-hoisted and we were back on our way. Mission Accomplished- with probably less than 30 minutes disruption.
Was our experiment a flop? Probably not. Certainly, I think we were unlucky to hit two big things in two hours- one being a direct hit on the generator. But also it points to the need to expect that you will eventually hit something. So I will go back to the drawing board on this one and will modify the mount to allow for retraction on impact without major damage.
The rest of the evening and night was free of bumps although the fog was so thick the masthead windex was hard to see! The wind hung in the SW all night and varied only a little in velocity. Next morning we still hadn't reached the Gulf Stream but were expecting it any time. Around 9 a.m. the water temp indicator started to rise a little, then a little more, then in about 20 boat lengths the temperature shot up 15 degrees. Wow, here is the wall of the stream! The warmer water melted some of the fog but strangely not all of it. A persistent thick haze still hung on.
Measuring our 24 hour run from the time we started sailing at Brenton Reef we had done 235 miles. Pretty good for a light wind day. Afternoon brought some clear skies and more summer-like weather, a pleasant change after the cold spring New England fog, and the crew enjoyed some fast sailing from the cockpit.
On the second night out I was sleeping happily in the windward aft cabin when my time for watch came up. It was clear from the water noise that we had gained some speed but I lay there for a few minutes trying to get fully awake then stumbled up to the pilothouse. The owner was hand steering from the inside station, plumes of spray occasionally shooting upward from the bows and boat speed ramping up into the low and mid teens. The wind had piped up and come forward a little. He had rolled up some of the staysail, and we had put a single reef in the main earlier, but it was now time to reduce further.
Rather than point up into the wind to reef the main we bore off a little to stall the sails and reduce our speed. Then by pulling out the second reef clew as the main halyard was slowly lowered the mainsail was reduced without chafing against the shrouds and without the need to head up into the wind. Easy. This 2 a.m. drill is made so much safer by being able to do it all from the security of the center cockpit. This is one of the great advantages of the Atlantic Cat design.
With the reins drawn back, Leopard settled to a more comfortable 8 to 10 knots. Light, fast boats can leap around and in the wee hours it always seems louder and rougher. The motto, at least my motto, is: slow down enough to stay relaxed and comfy. Roll jibs, reef the main, reef it again, strip off enough sail till it feels right. You are still sailing fast enough.
By morning the wind had abated some, the mainsail back to a single reef and the staysail unfurled all the way. Still loping along at good speed our 24 hour run was a little over 240 miles. Two days and we were pretty close to Bermuda. Not bad at all.
As the third day progressed the wind went more westerly and increased a little. With the true wind of 14 to 18 knots finally aft of the beam Leopard hit her stride. A full genoa sheeted outboard and a single reef in the main (too lazy to shake it out) yielded very steady 11's, 12's and occasionally 13's on the knotmeter. Now and then Leopard would catch a wave and surf a few knots faster. However, in marginal surfing conditions the autopilot can often be out steered by a helmsman. We had lots of fun catching the smallish waves and sometimes surfing ahead to get the next wave and prolonging the ride. The steering in Leopard is superb. I am happy to take some credit but most of that belongs to the builder who used roller bearings everywhere and got every component precisely aligned. Her steering is crisper and more responsive than any cat I have ever sailed.
The technique for catching waves in these conditions was to head up slightly to build some boat speed and apparent wind then when a trough appeared to leeward of the lee bow drive off toward it. Just point the boat down hill! There is a fine balance between just enough and too much rudder. The rudders create drag and this is not the moment you want the boat to slow. I find it easiest when I grip the wheel lightly with two fingers and play the natural turbulence against the turning forces. It is hard to explain- you just have to practice doing it. The waves were small and consequently not easy to catch but plugging into one was always fun and often had our speed up to 17 and 18 knots. The best surf had 20.3 knots on the fun meter.
Sailing at a 300 mile per day pace was lots of fun. And for a brief moment we thought we could make the last call at the White Horse Tavern (all sailors are optimists). But as we neared the island the wind backed off a little and we had to fall off a little to clear the reef- the result being a slower final 10 miles. It was midnight by the time we rounded Kitchen Shoals and set a fast close reach for the channel.
Total time of 61 hours Brenton Reef to Bermuda and Leopard hardly broke a sweat.
Putting Leopard's elapsed time into perspective I examined the results of recent Newport Bermuda Races (same course, with a race date typically two weeks later in June) and found only a couple of better times.
In 1996 the 80' Maxi Boomerang (with a crew of about 20) set a course record of 57 hours 31 min, a record that may still stand. Another maxed out monohull Morning Glory took line honors in 2004 with a time of 63 hours. Among the multihull Newport to Bermuda (now discontinued) races the fastest time I could find was the trimaran Moxie in 1987 with 64 hrs. 49 min.
Undoubtedly, Steve Fossett set a much faster record with the 120' cat Playstation and the current maxi multihulls have the ability to sail that distance in 24 hours in the right conditions. But these are all pretty extreme examples.
For Leopard's passage the weather was favorable to be sure. But we were in cruising mode and except for me, it was the first catamaran passage for everyone onboard. Had we been racing we would have had a more race experienced crew and been pushing much harder. Under these conditions to essentially match the best passage times of 80' racing maxis over a 635 mile passage while sailing comfortably on autopilot, never flying a spinnaker, with enough fuel to motor all the way if we had to, and having elaborate sit down meals (with wine) is, in my opinion, pretty amazing stuff.