J/130: Passes True Offshore Test

By Peter Metcalf-

I had the opportunity to sail on the new J-130, not on an afternoon demo-sail on Chesapeake Bay, but a 2000 mile delivery to her new home in Puerto Del Rey, Puerto Rico. As much as my crew and I were looking forward to the trip, a winter departure from Annapolis is not the sort of thing a delivery crew would wish for. A gale ridden delivery from New York to Tortola still fresh in our minds, and the recent misfortunes of several boats and crew, served to remind us that sailing in these latitudes at this time of year is not something to be taken lightly.

Two friends with extensive offshore experience signed on for the trip. I have sailed over 10,000 miles with each of them and together this was our fifth trip as a crew. When something needs doing there's little discussion necessary and we all sleep well when another is on watch.

Clyde Muller sailed throughout the seventies as mate on large schooners, motorsailers, and even a few motoryachts. During this period he found time for deliveries as well as sailing his own 26' wooden sloop from New England to the Virgin Islands via Bermuda, and back. He has for the past twelve years been managing his own business and raising two daughters with his wife, Jamie, who sailed with him on many of these previous adventures.

Brian Wood, now a builder in Ludlow, Vermont, grew-up on the coast racing dinghies, including 505's, racing in the local handicap fleet, and cruising New England waters. Moving inland to go to college and getting into motorcycle racing kept him away from boats for awhile, but he soon began cruising again as well as sailing an occasional offshore passage.

Since 1974, I've logged over 90,000 miles offshore, many on boats going to the bareboat trade in the Caribbean, some on vintage wooden vessels and contemporary one-offs, and the rest on moderate racer/cruiser types. My experience with powerful lightweight boats was limited to inshore and buoy racing, so sailing the J-130 offshore was to be a unique experience for all of us.

Fast passages are always a joy and we were told the 130 was going to provide some fast sailing. The speed factor played well for us as we were able to avoid the worst of one weather system and take the best advantage of another.

Early January saw a sub-tropical jet stream entrenched across the southern third of the country. Low pressure formed in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico traveled along this path off the Carolina coasts and past Cape Hatteras. It seemed there was always an area of low pressure lurking around the coast and though some were less well developed, others were moderate gales, and each had that uncanny potential to quickly become a full blown Hatteras Storm". We had no desire to be in the area on such an occasion, and hoped to get a 48 hour window in which to cover the 240 miles to Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, and get west towards Beaufort, our first safe inlet south of the Chesapeake.

During the days prior to our Friday arrival in Annapolis, Jerry O'Neill, the new owner, and I, talked, made lists, and shopped, long distance, for everything from anchors to zincs. By midday Sunday the boat was fully fitted out with safety gear, spares and provisions. We'd been over her from stem to stern and masthead, to keel bolts, checking every nut, bolt, hose clamp, and wire we could get at. With everything stowed and pages of lists checked off, the only thing keeping us tied to the dock was a weather forecast; and, over coffee at a local pub where we turned up the weather channel, it became apparent we'd gotten our first break. The light southerlies of that day would veer SW and build ahead of an advancing cold front, continuing to clock through the NW and finally to the NE as high pressure built to the north of us. It appeared our window had opened and we decided it was time to head.

Getting underway at 1800, we hoped to be around Hatteras by midnight Monday. As the wind came around to the NW at 20-25 kts it appeared this would be an easy matter with our SOG climbing to nine knots; with two reefs in the main and half the 135% jib rolled out! By 0930 Monday we were over the Bridge-Tunnel and with the wind now east of north we had a fine angle to sail down the coast to Diamond Shoals. Though the seas began to build in the open fetch the Autohelm 3000 continued to drive effortlessly . We'd gained our sea legs over night and found ourselves kicked back and really enjoying the sail. The ability to cruise at nine knots with so little sail was a joy. Nothing seemed loaded up: no creaking or groaning blocks and sheets, and the deep heavy bulb made for pleasant, easy motion.

Through the remainder of the day the breeze built slightly and went further to the NE. The forecast for Tuesday called for NE 30-35 kts in the area of Cape Hatteras and we were thankful for the opportunity to turn the corner and get west before things kicked up. And then, with the sun going down, the Coast Guard reported an EPIRB signal in the area of Diamond Shoals. Though this turned out to be a false alarm, it had the effect of a good ghost story around the campfire.

As we approached the shoals, the breeze freshened some more and the seas began to get a bit churned up. Since we would have to jibe soon, we dropped the main to make the job that much easier and added jib to keep our speed up. This made life easier on the auto-pilot as well. Finally, at midnight, we jibed just south of the shoals and with the apparent wind around 160 and the seas very confused, we decided to shutdown the auto-pilot and drive, the first time we'd done so since leaving Annapolis Harbor. We'd sailed off into some current and our SOG dropped to below 8 kts. 

Though we may have done better to dig for the beach and jibe back out to Lookout Shoals, we held forth to our rhumb line and soon enough got out of the current. As dawn broke, with the wind now steady at 30kts, our speed was back up to nearly 10kts with just two-thirds of the jib out.  Then the puffs started, and with these puffs came the first of some wildly exhilarating rides. With the sail area we had out, 32kts of wind provided the horsepower necessary to make her break loose. Clyde was driving when what began as a surge down the face of a wave, became a thunderous plane. As motion and sound below became distinctly different, l looked up from the chart table to see an expression on his face that said "what the hell is happening" He started reading off boat speed as it climbed to 15kts and stayed there. The puff finally passed and she dropped off the plane. Brian rolled over in his bunk, mumbled something about being on a subway, and fell back to sleep.

Throughout the day we had gusts to 35+kts, each providing another carnival ride as we planed up the back sides of 15 foot waves, always wary of what we would find on the other side. We came to know this as the "runaway train mode", which we felt to be appropriate because she handled like she was on rails. By sunset the breeze had moderated to a steady 25kts and we went back to the auto-pilot. We were able to cook and eat a very civilized dinner at 8+kts and still sailing with only part of the jib, we completed a 24 hour run of 228 miles.

Early Wednesday morning, we jibed off Charleston to head south for Cape Canaveral. The wind went through the east during the day and by midnight, off St. Augustine, it was squally at 35kts from the southeast. We chose to heave-to until the squalls moderated at sunrise, when with the main close-hauled, we motor-sailed past Canaveral into very light winds and on to Riviera Beach where we arrived 4 days and 21 hours after leaving Annapolis. Considering our easy manner of sailing, and having been hove-to for five hours, we felt this was respectable time for the 900 mile route.

It was quite a weekend, with the owner, the designer, the broker, and the sailmaker, plus various friends, all flying in to meet the boat. On the schedule was a haul out and final inspection of the vessel, test sailing for the new suit of racing sails, and official closing of the deal. We checked-off a couple more lists of "Things to Do" and "Things to Get" and by Sunday night, having stowed another mini-van load of gear on board, and said goodbye to everyone, found ourselves, once again, watching and waiting on the weather.

Strong SE winds kept us from leaving Monday, but by Tuesday morning, the wind was SW at 20-25 kts with a very strong cold front moving slowly across northern Florida. Again we had been dealt the best possible weather for a departure and the faster-we-went, the longer-we-could ride the front east.

With our trademark double reef tied in and a minimal amount of jib, we set out across the Gulf Stream, tracking squarely across the max current and then hardening up for the south side of the NW Providence Channel. With the apparent wind at 110 to 130, we hit 12 and 13 kts with the wind speed around 25. Stemming some current all the while kept our SOG at around 9. The sail past Great Sturrip and Abaco became an unexciting downwind run with a couple jibes, yet we covered 200 miles in the first 24 hours, most of it against some current.

The best sustained average speed came over a four hour period the second night out. The front had caught up to us and the wind went NW gusting to 40. The runaway train hit 17 kts that night, maybe more; on the wildest rides the spray was so thick you couldn't see the compass let alone the instruments. We put 46 miles behind us in 4 hours. After the initial push, the breeze slowly moderated and veered, allowing us to make our easting and bear away as it finally came east. As it moderated, we added jib and shook reefs as necessary, to keep our speed at 8 kts, yet making it easy on the auto-pilot. The unstated goal had been to arrive in home for the Super Bowl and it looked as though we were going to make it! Close reaching in 8 kts of breeze, finally with full sail and still going 8 kts, we rounded Cabo de San Juan just before sunset on Sunday and were at the dock five days and nine hours after leaving Riviera Beach.

All three of us came away impressed with the J/130's capabilities. Had we been willing to work harder, she could have sailed a lot faster. Had the breeze been lighter, there was plenty of horsepower in reserve. She easily sailed up to maximum displacement speed without being loaded up, and with her ease of handling and tracking ability, a quadrant mounted auto-pilot would have had an easy time of driving, even under planing conditions.

But most impressive are the final numbers themselves. We had sailed a total of approximately 2000 miles in 10 days and 5 hours, (5 hours hove-to). That's about as simple as math gets, and I certainly look forward to the next time I average 10 consecutive 200 mile days in a 42 foot boat.

And finally, two appropriately understated quotes from the crew: "You know, l've never sailed on anything like this before..." CM and "This is quite some boat." BW. I never really tried to put it in words.

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