Summer Studies

Ron Dwelle

The following two short chapters are taken from Ron Dwelle’s book, Summer Studies, published by Xlibris Press, 2001. Copies of the book can be ordered directly from the publisher at Xlibris or from online booksellers such as and barnes&

Ron Dwelle is a long-time singlehander, having competed in the Port-Huron to Mackinac Solo in 1982 and 1983. He also was one of the founders of the Lake Michigan Singlehanded Society and has won both the Lake Michigan Solo and the Lake Michigan Doublehanded races. The following excerpt from his book gives some of his thoughts on singlehanding during his participation in the Newport-Bermuda Singlehanded/Doublehanded race in 1987.

Butterflies In The Bilge . . .
   There is a certain nervousness-anticipation-in preparing for any passage, with the degree of discomfit directly related to the expenditure of imagination. In the case of going to Bermuda, I hadn’t a clue.
   True, I had read accounts of ocean passages-almost all hair-raising, many ending in disaster of some sort: shipwreck, sinking, days and weeks afloat on a liferaft. Presumably, these disasters were the successful ones; the unsuccessful were different: boats broken up, sailors dead, bodies devoured by sharks.
   I spent the whole winter before in working on Prudence P. Fishpaws. Every single weekend, 8 am to 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday. Every holiday, except Christmas. I took off time only for my son’s birth in February, to deliver him in the Alternative Birthing Center of Women’s & Children’s Hospital in Providence.
   On the boat, I refurbished all seacocks, re-finished the bottom, overhauled every accessory component of the engine, replaced the wiring system, repaired all hatches, dorades, and vents, totally renewed the rig, paid to have the sails all redone, had the liferaft inspected, refitted the head, upgraded the galley, got all new electronics, laid in spares for virtually everything. I expected the boat to be ready.
   Myself, I exercised as I hadn’t since college days. My intention was to be able to shinny the mast in rough conditions, if necessary going hand-over-hand up a halyard. I didn’t quite accomplish that, but I was in good shape. I re-learned celestial navigation, practiced sun shots and star sights until I was comfortable doing them. I studied the charts, went to school with Nick Nicholson, my colleague who had twice won the “navigator’s” trophy in the crewed Bermuda races.
   When the time came, I was prepared, as was the boat. The biggest problem was placing Jo and the kids, since the boat was our home during the summer months, and summer rentals in Newport were generally in the range of my annual salary. We finally worked out a complicated multiple apartment swap among a number of people racing, with Jo staying in the apartment of the double-handed partner of Steve Pettengill, he moving to a bunk bed in the home of Bertie Reed’s doublehanded partner, until all flew to Bermuda in a week or ten-days time.
   The race itself was anti-climax. We started in a strong south-southwest wind, tacking out of Newport harbor and Narragansett Bay, and we had a strong south-southwest wind for the next four days.
   Within four hours of the start, I was seasick, for the first time in my life. I had always thought I was immune to seasickness-I had certainly been in much worse conditions than I experienced here, and had never once even felt an inclination to queasiness-but I was seasick, for about eight hours until I had upchucked everything in my stomach, plus a little bit more.
   For the next four days, I was hard on the wind, sailing as close as possible to southwest without pointing directly into the wind and stalling the boat. Unfortunately, this was not Prudence’s forte. If the wind was coming from abeam or aft of that, she would move well, but her design was not known for its closewindedness, and she proved it now.
   Later, I was to learn from the old hands that these were much rougher conditions than usual, but I had no idea then. My wind speed meter had a scale of 0-60, with 30 at the top of the circle. When the meter was turned off, the needle rested right at the top, at 30. For two days, the needle was at dead top-30 knots of wind-and I kept tapping the meter to see if it was working or turned off, broken down somehow. But, no, if I studied the needle, I could see it move, dropping down slightly when the mast pitched aft, moving up slightly when the mast pitched forward in the waves. The meter was working-the wind was stuck at 30 knots.
   As I expected, the boat did well. A broken jib furler and a non-functioning autopilot were the only repairs I had to make in Bermuda-quite mild considering the conditions.
   I did not do so well. I thought it was a miserable trip, constantly being thrown about, constantly wet. I could not sleep in a berth, even though Prudence’s berths were thought to be well designed-the way sea berths should be made. I tried, but was thrown out by the boat’s motion, and I finally tossed the cushions on the floor, with the spinnaker and storm jib, and slept there, where the motion was least violent.
   I had a terrible time getting sun sights for navigation because of the incessant motion, and a star sight was out of the question. Heating food was a challenge; I didn’t even try for the first two days until my stomach recovered and demanded to be served.
   One thing that surprised me was the heat. As soon as I entered the Gulf Stream, with its 70-degree water, the air temperature climbed. Past the Stream, daytime temperature was in the 80s and it only dropped to around 70 at night. Any work and I was sweating. Soon I was naked, except for my safety harness, and I stayed that way until I saw Bermuda. I hadn’t expected this at all. This was June, and all my June experiences were for cool or cold nights. I can recall frost on the decks during an overnight passage across Lake Michigan in June. I had brought all sorts of cold-weather gear-polypropylene long johns in light, medium, and expedition weights, wool trousers and sweaters, long-sleeve cotton shirts and fleece jackets, as well as a whole complement of heavy foul-weather gear. I had brought only one short-sleeve shirt and only one pair of (of course) Bermuda shorts.
   Finally, approaching Bermuda, the wind and waves changed, as a storm front moved through, with squalls and rain. Then the wind went totally calm, with a confusion of waves from different directions, finally settling down to small rollers after six hours or so. The last 15 miles to David’s Head were actually a good sail, west winds and the waves broken by the shoal water and the Bermuda islands themselves.
   At the St. George’s Dinghy Club I called Jo in Newport. Amazing to talk over the distance, her voice as clear and loud as though I were calling from next door rather than five-days away.
   “I’m not sure you should come down,” I said. “Especially with the kids. It was miserable, rough.”
   “But I’ve got the plane tickets already,” she said. “They’re non-refundable.”
   We spent most of our conversation talking over the wisdom of taking the children on a 640 mile ocean crossing and finally decided to do it. There was no concern about the boat’s capabilities, or ours. It was merely a question of comfort. So she came.
   Following a long passage, especially singlehanded, there’s always a shot of adrenaline, a sense of euphoria out of all proportion to the accomplishment. Among racers, it shows up in the form of incessant talking, for maybe 12 hours, in spite of the fact that you’ve just been awake an additional 30 hours while making your landfall and safe entrance to the harbor. The progress of the conversation moves from “wasn’t it awful . . .” to “there was this squall came through and I thought I was gonna lose the mainsail” to “Jesus, those waves were magnificent.” By sleep time, most sailors have convinced themselves that it was a great experience.
   Bermuda was a wonderful place, and I could almost understand the vagabonding spirit that would encourage someone to make the difficult passage in order to spend six months wandering through the little string of islands, exploring the country, meeting the people. Unfortunately, I had only a week there.
   When Jo, Anna, and Chase arrived, we did the briefest of island tours, then prepped the boat for the passage home.

Bragging Rights . . .
   The passage back was better than the one down, because it was more variable. From the time we left Bermuda, the wind gradually increased for about 24 hours, until we had rollicking conditions-20 knot winds on our quarter and big seas-for another full day. Though the motion was quite violent, we were making rapid progress. But then, the passage was punctuated with a terrific gale-16 hours of winds over 40 knots.
   It was awesome. Breaking waves cascaded over the boat, engulfing it entirely. The scend of the boat-with the wind coming from slightly behind the beam-was chaotic, with a sort of general corkscrew pattern interrupted by wild leaps and drops. We had locked ourselves inside the boat, with just a scrap of sail up to keep the boat moving and under some control. Staying on deck was impossible, cooking was impossible, sleep was difficult, talk was impossible, navigation was difficult, sex was impossible. We worried a bit about the boat and for the first time realized that a “small” boat like our 40-footer could actually be overwhelmed at sea.
   In the event, nothing terrible happened-except for the cabin becoming a shambles-and the wind eventually began to fall until we were becalmed. By this time, we were within 100 miles of Newport and-not racing-we turned on the engine and motored until the wind sprang up to carry us in. Turning on the engine was, for me, the best sign that the passage was not pleasant-a declaration, “We want to get away from this incessant motion!”
   In the motoring and then the light wind that carried us into Newport, Jo and I talked over our experience. For my part, I had already decided that I would not cross the Atlantic. The Bermuda race had been a “qualifier” for the singlehanded transAtlantic race, held every four years, but I knew that I was losing interest.
   There was now no doubt in my mind that I could make the passage. The Bermuda passage was no different from a Lake Michigan passage, except that it was longer and more uncomfortable, and I felt that transAtlantic would be no different from Bermuda, except that it would be longer and more uncomfortable. Making it across no longer seemed a challenge to myself-more like a chore. (I suppose the odds of dying are a bit higher transAtlantic than on Lake Michigan, but that’s mostly because of the greater distance and inability to hide from storms.)
   I would undoubtedly love the competition of a race, but I knew Prudence P. Fishpaws was not really competitive. The transAtlantic boats are divided by length, so I would be racing against other boats 36 to 40 feet long. The more modern boats in the Bermuda race, like Steve Pettengill’s Freedom and Al Fournier’s El Torero, had beaten me in by nearly two days in a 600 mile race, and I knew I could expect no better in a 3000 mile race that was dead upwind, Prudence’s worst point of sail. The only boats that I had beaten to Bermuda were older style, long-keel boats like my Cheoy Lee. I was pretty certain that I had little chance of winning against my sized monohulls, and of course in the Atlantic race there were also speedy multi-hulls to contend with. To do the race just to say that I had done it-for the bragging rights-didn’t seem all that worthwhile.
   To my surprise, and relief, Jo brought up the same thoughts as we were slowly approaching Newport.
   “Why don’t we go back to the Great Lakes?” she said. “I don’t know if I really want to ‘take off.'”
   I couldn’t have agreed more with her.
   “The porpoises were nice,” she said-we had been visited several times by troupes of porpois who would caper around us for a while and then disappear. “And the blue of the water. And the phosphorescence at night.”
   I agreed again.
   “But everything else is better on the Lakes. The water. The ports. The weather.”
   I reminded her of the holding-tank laws for boat sewage.
   “Well,” she said, “I didn’t say it was perfect.”
   We decided before we tied up at our mooring in Newport that we were soon to be history for this eastern port. And for long-distance passage making. I haven’t regretted it yet-except for the bragging rights….

Summer Studies: Copyright 2001, Ron Dwelle. May not be re-printed in any form without the copyright holder’s permission.