Peter Muilenburg and his wife Dorothy arrived on the Virgin Islands 40 years ago, and remained to raise a family while sailing through the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the African coastline and writing about his experiences. Here is the first of Peter's engaging tales, as recounted to Sail-World, as he was embarking on a project to build a boat suitable for cruising.
On the verge of committing to a boatbuilding project that would take all my money, at least three years of nonstop toil, and strain my marriage perhaps fatally, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even sailed once on a sister ship of the boat I proposed to build.
That was understandable, because in all the world there were only two of them finished and sailing. Venus, the prototype, was currently somewhere in the North Atlantic headed for England and Moon was anchored in Bermuda.
I had been on board Venus at anchor in Antigua. Designed by Caribbean sailing legend Paul Johnson, she was a 42 ft gaff-rigged ketch whose lines paid homage to Colin Archer. I had loved the look and feel of the vessel -- her heavy displacement, her cavernous interior, massive construction, and salty lines. These boats you couldn’t buy off the shelf. You had to build your own.
But when I expressed my enthusiasm to another sailor he snorted and said, “She’ll be a real dog in light airs, I’ll bet.” The guy was chronically negative but still his remark made me wonder. What if I put all that time and money and effort in – and she was a dog? It behooved me to at least sail on one before I put my money down.
John Frith, Moon’s owner, was a friend and when he brought her down to the Caribbean that winter he invited me to race on Moon with him at the upcoming St. Barts regatta. So the day before the race I flew from St. Thomas to St Barts, passing close enough to St John’s East End for me to recognize one of my shirts on the clothesline and my first boat at her mooring in the beautiful mystic blue of the cove.
The day of the race dawned clear and calm. “It’s beautiful…but not our preferred weather,” said Frith as we motored out in the dinghy. “These boats are wonderful sea boats but they do require some breeze!” My acquaintance’s remark about being “a dog in light airs” came to mind but I pushed it away. Give the boat a chance, I thought.
The breeze picked up in time for the start, which we aced. The first leg was downwind to Pain de Sucre, a large, conical rock topped by some hardy scrub about a mile or two out from the picturesque fishing village of Corrosol. Half way to Pain du Sucre, we were flying everything from jib tops’l to a striped mizzen staysail and we were still one of the first three boats, the other two being a Swan and a 50 ft French racing machine.
After sailing on the Moon, here is the result - Breath showing her full sail plan - .. .
“She’s no dog, at least not downwind,” I thought. But when we rounded the end of the island, the next mark, a prominent stone pillar universally known as Cock Rock, was dead against the wind.
Just about then the wind died away to scarcely 5 knots. We scanned the sea for signs of better air but the only possibility was up on the heights of St. Barts where dark clouds seemed to be gathering but they weren’t moving
One boat after another put up their light air jennies and passed us easily. We might as well have been dead in the water, we were moving so slow. Within twenty minutes we went from vanguard to dead last
“Well, the beer should be cold by now... we might as well accept that today just isn’t our day. Sorry you flew all the way over for such a lackluster performance, Peter. This isn’t fair to good old Moon... she can do better.”
I made the appropriate reply but the word “DOG!” kept coming to mind. It was a little depressing... did I really want to put out three years labor in order to have the slowest boat in the fleet? We all opened cervezas. Jill, John’s wife, served some food. We gazed at the long line of boats stretching single file ahead of us, not really paying any attention, when a low whistle came from Frith.
“Hang on! If this should reach us!” he said with suppressed excitement.
I looked at where he was pointing.
The dark cloud atop the island had started to move, rolling steadily down the slopes, picking up speed. We watched, fascinated as it spilled over everything in its way. The black belly of the nimbus morphed and writhed like vipers in a pit, an eerie sight as it approached, blocking out the sun, rasping up white caps off the sea surface. It knocked the lead boat down flat and thundered in its sails as the crew struggled to douse them.
Warned, the next boat luffed up into the wind and tried to drop its sails, but the roller furling jammed and the sail flogged with such violence it threatened to take the mast down, til it ripped in half, making a sound like a gigantic fingernail scraped down an enormous chalk board. On came the windstorm, down the procession of boats, like a bowling ball knocking off pins. Ahead of us booms were flogging, sails splitting, crews scrambling.
From aloft came a cold draft of air. “Let the mainsheet run!” said John as veils of spume lifted off the sea and raced at us. The wind struck like a drop hammer, the mainsheet smoked through its blocks, the head sails and mizzen caught the strain and groaned at their clews but held. With little way on, Moon heeled over until water flooded in the scuppers and up, up up the deck to the rim of the portholes. Then she began to move, to glide forward out from under the weight.
“Now sheet the main back in!” called John, and we jumped to do it. By the time it was sheeted in and drawing, Moon was hitting her stride, charging along at about 8 knots, pulling a toppling stern wave and leaving a wake that seethed in the scuppers and came boiling up past the rudder.
The boat was in her element, striding the sea under full working sail, passing catamarans and Beneteaus, even the Swan; boat after boat was heaved to, or staggering to windward with a big bubble in the main or just lying ahull waiting for the wind to moderate. It blew 40 knots for five minutes during which time Moon passed every boat in the fleet.
Adrift on a Sea of Blue Light. You can buy this book of Peter’s wonderful sea yarns - all true - by going to www.sailbreath.com
- .. .
It was exhilarating while it lasted. Gradually the wind dropped off until it was even calmer than before. We slowed, the ocean racer passed us again, closely followed by the Swan – by the time we switched on the motor we were dead last once again, but I didn’t care.
Moon had showed me the bottom line. I hoped to cruise the high seas with my family on any boat I built. Did I want a boat that was fast in light airs but overpowered in heavy weather? Or did I want a vessel that came into her own when the wind and seas rose?
As my friend John Costanzo says, is that a trick question?
So was she a dog in light airs? Maybe... I’d let the diesel deal with it if ever it became an issue.
Well satisfied, I said goodbye to the Friths and caught the Virgin Air flight back to St. Thomas.
To learn more about Peter Muilenburg and his boat Breath, go to his website by clicking HERE