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ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE
A fleet of 28 Nordhavns and other trawlers prepares for an Atlantic crossing, relying on the experience of the original power voyager.
By Jay Coyle

Yachting - June 2004

There is something magical about crossing oceans in small craft. I was reminded of this as I plied the pages of Captain Robert P. Beebe's 1974 work Voyaging Under Power. Beebe's words convey a passion for passagemaking I believe all who love boats share but few act out. In this light, Nordhavn's Atlantic Rally will truly be a milestone in yachting history.

In May, about 30 power yachts from 40 to 90 feet will set out across the Atlantic. Two groups, based on size (waterline length determines displacement-hull speed), will leave Ft. Lauderdale 24 hours apart. The vessels in each group will be separated by about 1 mile. They will coast with the Gulf Stream north while powering toward Bermuda. With luck, they then will traverse the calm waters within a Bermuda high to the Azores. Finally, they will power through the eastern edge of the high to Gibraltar.

While the rally is open to other brands, most of the boats making the crossing are Nordhavns. (At this writing, a Krogen, Northern Marine, McQueen and Hatteras LRC are scheduled to participate.) This is not surprising, considering the marque was designed for such service. Since Beebe passed away in 1988, Jim Leishman, one of three Nordhavn partners, has been a prominent torchbearer for long-distance voyaging under power.

Inspired by Beebe's achievement, Leishman revised and updated Voyaging Under Power. He and his partners, Joe Meglen and Dan Streech, along with Jim's brother Jeff Leishman, then created a boat (the Nordhavn 46) and a boat company based on Beebe's vision.

"I believe, as Beebe did, that properly designed small power yachts are well suited for making ocean passages," Leishman said. A veteran bluewater cruiser, he has driven this point home time and again, most recently by completing a circumnavigation aboard a Nordhavn 40.

This year's rally is Nordhavn's most ambitious effort to date. Aboard Atlantic Escort, a Nordhavn 57, Leishman will shepherd a mixed bag of experienced cruisers and novices 3,854 (give or take) miles across the Atlantic. Two additional Nordhavns will serve as escorts, and the rally team will include five mechanics, three doctors and an assortment of offshore-cruising experts. A film crew managed by well-known circumnavigator Bruce Kessler will document the passage.

Beebe, a Naval Academy graduate, served as navigator of the USS Saratoga in World War II and devoted much of his life to the subject of voyaging under power. He cruised three-quarters of the way around the world aboard the 50 foot Passagemaker, built to his design and launched in 1963.

"We knew we had something in Passagernaker," Beebe wrote after completing her 6,000-mile shakedown cruise from Singapore to Greece at an average of 7.5 knots.

That was an understatement, according to Leishman.

"Until Beebe proved his powered design successful," he said, "serious voyaging offshore was a young man's sport. Sailing required strength and stamina. Beebe achieved his goal with relative ease and comfort."

Beebe penned a stout, round-bilge, full-displacement design. She was heavily built of wood and powered with a six cylinder Ford diesel. Nordhavn's fiberglass scantlings are hearty, as well, and the hull designs by naval architect Jeff Leishman follow the basic principles Beebe believed in. The round-bilge, full-displacement forms have full keels to protect the running gear and enough reserve buoyancy in the forward sections to keep the decks relatively dry. A roll period of 6 to 8 seconds was targeted; the Leishmans feel it is the best balance of safety and comfort at sea.

The original Passagemaker was Spartan by today's standards. She had no auxiliary power and thus no air-conditioning or refrigeration-cooking was done on a kerosene stove. Those participating in the Nordhavn rally, on the other hand, will travel in much greater comfort. While Beebe carried a ration of warm beer, one Nordhavn I inspected was fitted with temperature-controlled wine stowage.

Beebe had a radio receiver, a direction finder, a sounder and an autopilot. Navigation was accomplished longhand, and daily position and course information was posted on the helm console, which served as a chalkboard. Vessels participating in the rally must be equipped with a long list of electronics, including two VHF radios, a GPS and an SSB or a satcom. Also required is radar, of particular importance in a closely packed fleet such as this. (Radar reflectors will be fitted.) A radar refresher course will be offered prior to departure.

Keeping things simple and reliable was Beebe's mantra, and though the boats participating in the rally are far more complicated than Passagemaker, Leishman feels Beebe would approve.

"He understood and appreciated technology and used it to his advantage," Leishman said, pointing out that without the modern marine diesel, Beebe's achievement would not have been possible.

Beebe knew stabilization was critical to his success, as the unchecked motion of a powerboat at sea could cause unacceptable crew discomfort and fatigue. He was probably the first to use passive paravanes on a yacht, a system Leishman still recommends for today's smaller boats (under 47 feet LOAD. "While they can be challenging to deploy and retrieve," he said, "they are reliable and almost as effective as active stabilizers." All boats participating in the rally are equipped with at least one of these systems.

Mechanical failure 1,500 miles from shore can be life threatening if the skipper and crew do not have the proper spare parts and the ability to utilize them. Rally participants must qualify in this regard. In addition, rally rules require each vessel to have an auxiliary propulsion system capable of maintaining steerage and 4.5 knots headway in calm water. Wing engines with folding props have long been a popular option on Nordhavns. Beebe carried only canvas and, fortunately, he never relied on it-he suggested that choosing a course under sail was not an option aboard Passagemaker.

Leishman hopes for the best and has planned for the worst. Atlantic Escort is fitted with a properly positioned tow bit (ahead of the rudder post), and each vessel in the rally will be fitted with a towing eye at the stem. He will also be capable of transferring a limited amount of fuel given reasonable seas. Participants are required to carry a full list of offshore safety gear, including a liferaft and a 406 MHz epirb. Beebe carried only a wooden tender and life jackets.

"While we cannot eliminate the risk, we feel confident that we have effectively managed it," Leishman said, and emphasized each skipper is responsible for the safety of his vessel and crew. In addition to proper equipment, each skipper and vessel must have made an offshore passage of at least 600 miles in the past 12 months, a primer of sorts for what will certainly be the adventure of a lifetime for many participants.

As those taking part in this historic yachting event cast off, I am certain each will share the emotion Beebe once described so eloquently: "The weeks and months of planning have come to an end. Everything ... has been done to make the ship 'fully found and ready for sea.' ... Abandoning the land to sail thousands of miles on the open sea has always been a significant occasion. No matter how many times I've done it myself, it has never lost its sense of mystery, of anticipation; there's even a little dread."

Leishman understands that and feels the fleet is prepared. "This is the sort of thing we like to do," he said. "It's what we're all about."

TRACK US on the web

Who could pass up the opportunity to get out of the office and spend some quality time on the ocean? YACHTING's editors sure couldn't, and have signed up to participate in this year's Nordhavn Atlantic Rally. We will be aboard the Nordhavn 57 Atlantic Escort for each leg alongside staff from our sister publication, Motor Boating. Starting May 16, log on to the magazines' Web sites for daily reports from our editors as they travel across the Atlantic in search of adventure. Dates and information are below.

LEG I YACHTING'S Scott Shane and Motor Boating's executive editor, Jeanne Craig, will make the crossing from Ft. Lauderdale to Bermuda. They plan to depart May 16.

LEG 2 George Sass Jr. and Motor Boating's John Wooldridge depart Bermuda for the Azores on June 1. At roughly 1,800 miles, this leg is the longest.

LEG 3 YACHTING's editorial director, Peter A. Janssen, and Brad Kovach from Motor Boating will make the last leg, which may be the roughest. The departure date is June 19.

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