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Well, we finally did it! After being deterred by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 followed by Florence and Michael in 2018, we tossed the lines to experience a passage that I could not have imagined.

Our poor MS. Happy Heart has yet to receive her face lift after the neighboring boat at the marina in Wilmington, NC laid up on her during Florence and Michael. She is the victim of gouges and scratches on her hull, destroyed rub rails, several loosened stanchions on her life lines, a broken furling for the genoa (therefore the genoa had to be housed in the crews’ shower), a tear in the mainsail (preventing us from completely deploying that sail as well) and a missing hard dodger that was to cover and shade the navigation station during our long passage.

The Caribbean 1500 departure date was upon us and we had run out of time to have the repairs performed. Accompanied by our son Austin, Steve and Jake our two crew members, and all of the hurricane damage, we set off on November 3rd from Portsmouth , VA.

Everyone in the rally had come to know us as “the boat that was forever being repaired and readied” for her adventure. Missing the Welcome Party and social events, we spent all of the pre-rally prep days detached from the rally boats and attached to the fuel docks where our furling and dodger were being repaired and replaced. After three attempts the crane made one final placement and the dodger was ready “sort of”. We were minus the weather protective Isinglass windshield but at 1800 hours things were looking up and we were able to meet our fellow rally participants and enjoy the fun Farwell Party. (Unfortunately, our genoa repair was never completed and we had to travel with only our staysail and a partial mainsail).

On the first night shift, one crew member would discover that freezing ocean water was washing over our bow (our free board is 6’), slapping him in the face and we would have to steer from the pilot house instead. This presented several problems. Everything under the sun had been piled and stuffed atop the inside pilot house and visibility was minimal. Undaunted, we pressed on and experienced a life-changing and challenging passage proving to all, but most especially ourselves, that we were going to make it happen.

Before leaving, Captain Robert briefed the crew explaining safety preparations, helm shifts, responsibilities and routines. I was in charge of the galley, which I had determined was going to be the easiest duty. Ha, was I wrong!

For several weeks in advance I had prepared meals for five crew members (planned endlessly, shopped endlessly, cooked endlessly and vacuumed sealed and labeled each meal endlessly). I thought that was the hard part. I was about the discover that meal prep on a boat, which is heading into 10+ foot waves and 35 kph winds for days continuously, was going to be my real challenge. Our galley, I also discovered, has no handrails to brace oneself during heavy seas and long passages. I have battle scars to prove this. Thrown to the floor several times yielded bruises from head to foot, and scraped and scabbed knees and elbows. Luckily, I missed hitting my chin and my teeth. I did lose my appetite at dinner daily after heating and serving the crew. It was not the bronco-style churning that threw my hunger off; it was simply the energy and physical stamina required to put out just four meals on the open sea while remaining upright.

As we sailed across the Gulf Stream’s endless ‘marine blue’ water we would enjoy watching Austin catch two mahi-mahis. It was exciting to see the fight of the large colorful green fish. I will add that we threw them back as the sea was so angry that we could neither clean nor cook them. Each evening, we would be thrilled by the sunsets, the dolphins racing alongside our boat, the moon, the shooting stars and the bioluminescent shimmer in the water.

As I laid back on the only calm night, we experienced in our ten days at sea was, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the ocean, its isolation and the realization that I had no idea what was around or under the boat. The AIS seemed to work intermittently and the boats that neared our radar range seemed to disappear mysteriously. I could only wonder if the Bermuda Triangle was at play. This hint of danger mixed with the intense desire to face the rally challenge is what makes this an insatiable experience. Just when you have had enough adventure tinged with a bit of fear, you profoundly realize that there is more and you want it.

Sleep came at odd times depending upon one’s shift. Austin could not sleep in the forward cabin because the waves slapping the hull were relentless and the anchor chain kept clanking; Steve could not sleep in the top bunk because he kept rolling out, risking injury in the huge swells; Jake managed to sleep a bit now and again in the cozy bottom bunk and Robert and I simply kept rolling over each other while trying not to meet the floor. Mostly, there was always someone so exhausted they collapsed on one of the two sofas in the saloon. Regardless what hour you earned your sleep, there was always some “thing” that had come loose somewhere aboard and gently rattled and rolled from side to side with the rhythm of the waves making sweet rest unattainable. We worked hard to stuff paper towels in the spaces and stabilize the moving objects without success as each day there would be a new contributor. On the worst days everything in the boat that wasn’t attached ended up on the floor; everything that was in the bow seemed to slide aft and everything port went to the starboard. Even our discarded life vests became a hazard when not in use.

With the inconvenience of storing the genoa in the crew shower, we all had to share the captain’s stateroom shower. Payback came when the captain’s head stopped working, requiring all five of us to share the crews’ head. (We did not have the needed solenoid aboard for the repair). This arrangement was a bit too personal but better one head than no head. No complaints!

The captain and crew worked a three-hour rotation schedule with every fourth night off. This was great for getting a few zzzz’s. However, Captain Robert would find out that on his first night shift off, the sea would have swells of 12’ and he would be unable to brace himself sufficiently to fall sleep. On his second night shift off, the demons would seize the auto pilot. So much for a few zzz’s. Shifts would become two-hour rotations and steering without the autopilot for the last tiring 36 miles at night in very rough seas would prove exhausting for all.

The passage was a daily learning experience as we overcame many obstacles in the boat mechanicals and the weather. We listened intently twice a day as the rally boats checked in on the SSB and gave their location. We became aware that some boats never made it out across the Gulf Stream and because of mechanical problems others had to turn back to Beaufort. One boat had sick crew and had to turn back for replacement crew, and others had major mechanical problems, such as lost steering, taking on water, a hole in the hull, forgotten closure of seacocks, torn sails, etc.

Happy Heart looked in need of her facelift, but she was sea worthy and sailed on. Our crew, I am proud to boast, did not experience any seasickness. We were all model sailors, even me, though I could not eat the dinners.

We arrived exactly 10 days from our departure which was the predicted timeline. We did not enter as a racing boat in this rally. For without our full set of sails, we had to motor the entire way to Nanny Cay, BVI (1456 miles). Points are deducted for hours spent motoring so we figured it was a no-brainer not to enter the competition. However, Captain Robert is a fine sailor and knew exactly what to do. When the bad weather was upon us, we did not turn toward Bermuda or Turks and Caicos as was a suggested consideration by the rally coordinator. Therefore, after much consultation of the charts and weather predictions, as well as discussion with the entire crew, we headed into the storm and arrived on time in the best of mood. The rally crew met us at the dock with glasses of rum punch at 6:30 in the morning! Those drinks were delicious and appreciated. Well, let me just say that we ended up getting third place in the rally. We were absolutely thrilled and very proud.

As the days came and went, we sailed with our deserving rested crew to the Indians and the Caves to snorkel, to Peter Island and Coopers Island and Manchioneel Bay where we moored and took the dinghy in for dinner at a delightful waterside restaurant. Next, we sailed to Virgin Gorda and snorkeled at the Baths. Wow those rocks are awesome and magnificent! We hiked upwards on the top of the rocks to enjoy the view, swim in the pool, eat a delicious lunch and stay on a mooring ball for the night, returning to Nanny Cay for a farewell toast and dinner to prepare for the crews' departure the following morning.

Life is good and so the next day we sailed off, cleared out of customs for the BVI and into customs on St. John, rented a jeep and watched Austin drive on the left side up and down the very winding roads avoiding the wild donkeys. What a perfect day which ended with a drink at "Living the Dream" while looking out at the pretty Cure Bay. Yes, we have been blessed. After staying at St. John on a mooring ball for two nights, we returned once again to our pretty marina.

Planning a day of rest, we were surprised to discover that the water pump for our refrigeration systems had failed. (Thank goodness it was not during the passage). Fortunately, we carry spare parts and luck be with us, we had that pump. We did not rest as we watched the men work feverishly to save our food. The next day filled with wonderful memories and almost well-rested, we said goodbye to Austin.

Today we welcomed the arrival of another rally boat, S/V Smile and wished her happy days in this paradise. Two more boats are nearing Tortola and should arrive in the next day or so. It is joyful to celebrate each arrival.

Now, we sit in our Happy Heart and make a list of her needs, which every boater knows is endless. We will continue to sooth her and make her clean and pretty for our return after the holidays. I think she has not told us yet, but has plans to take us south, visiting each island along the way and perhaps ending in the Grenadine Islands.

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