Bermuda to Newport One Last Time

This post and the ones to follow, are from my journal chronicling my last off shore sail, from Bermuda to Newport. My good friend Jay got me into the sport of short-handed (a crew of one or two) off-shore sailing. After my first race I was hooked! I raced in the New England Solo/Twin, a single-handed race from Newport, around Block Island, around Maratha’s Vineyard, and back to Newport; and the Bermuda 1-2 which is single-handed from Newport to Bermuda and two-handed from Bermuda back to Newport.

There are few activities that put you in the moment like open ocean sailing alone.

It had been four or five years since a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease turned my life sideways.  My symptoms were now for all to see. My “off” states were on the rise. Let me explain…

Parkinson’s Disease Off States

The initial symptoms of Parkinson’s disease—resting tremor, muscle stiffness, slowness of movement—are quite effectively treated with a drug called levodopa, which the brain coverts to dopamine,  and a class of drugs called dopamine agonists, which activate dopamine receptors in the absence of dopamine. They are usually the first line of defense against PD, and are very good at improving and controlling these symptoms for several years.

Over time, however, patients start to develop motor fluctuations, the result of variations in the individual’s response to levodopa. Motor fluctuations oscillate between “off” times, a state of decreased mobility, and “on” times, or periods when the medication is working and symptoms are controlled. It is estimated that 40 percent of Parkinson’s patients will experience motor fluctuations within 4-6 years of onset increasing by 10 percent per year after that.

These fluctuations are not limited to the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s. Also affected are the non-motor symptoms, such as sensory symptoms (e.g. pain, fatigue, and motor restlessness); autonomic symptoms (e.g. urinary incontinence and profuse sweats); and psychiatric disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety and psychosis). These symptoms are more disabling than motor changes in as many as one third of fluctuating patients.

So, my “off” states were on the rise and I was  flat out. I had just launched BrainBug (v2.0), a full service digital marketing consultancy and I was balls-to-the-wall (such an odd phrase). I had consulting engagements in place with IBM, MetLife, Priceline and WebMD. On top of that I had just begun work on the technical and UE (user experience) design for Yahoo!’s paid search program. I was swamped.

So why, my wife Josa wondered, why the heck would I jeopardize these relationships—relationships that in some cases took years to cultivate? Why? Why risk it? These were great companies.  Big companies with deep pockets! And they were not small engagements.  There were deadlines looming and it was just me in our spare bedroom (Shhh. Don’t tell anyone! I may have over stated the size of BrainBug just a bit 😉   Why,  in the middle of my most successful (IE: lucrative) year, would I drop everything l to go sailing?

The simple  answer:  I’m an idiot!

I’ve never been one given to consequence. My wife is a saint to have put up with me all these years.  Looking back, I can see clearly now how much worry and stress I routinely  placed on her plate every time I’d open my mouth and  announce some new venture or adventure. Admittedly, some of my decisions have been questionable. I may be an idiot but, I am an idiot who realizes that sailing is second to none…uh, well second only to music, and maybe mountain climbing… No, sailing is it! Music is it too…

What I’m trying to say is I’m addicted to feeling alive! It was four or five years since my diagnosis and I was really slowing down. Parkinson’s disease was winning and my sailing days where numbered. Especially the blue water, off-shore, shorthanded, shake you by the lapels, driving rain and howling wind type of I’m alive sailing!

So, when my good friend Jay called and asked if I had one more passage in me, I jumped at the opportunity.

I now had to inform my clients. If you’ve ever worked with large companies you know that they can get lost in a world where what they do or make, is the most important thing ever. Each deadline is taken very seriously, as if they were surgeons and it was life-or-death. I understand the power of this delusion, so I have two simple rules when it comes to account management:

  1. Communicate often and honestly, even if there is nothing to report. Email doesn’t count. Let them here your voice.
  2. Under promise and over deliver. It’s far easier to take your lumps up front. When the client says I need it if four weeks and you say it will take five, they might kick a bit. But when you deliver in three and a half weeks you’re golden.

Do this and you’ll be in their good graces.

I called each client and despite some concern the overall reaction was “Go for it!”
And I did.

So, on June 3, 2003 I flew to Bermuda. We were to set sail the following day. Jay and I on his Doug Peterson Metal Mast 36′. I will never forget this passage.

Journal: Bermuda to Newport: June 4, 2003

The Story of Herb Hilgenberg

Herb Hilgenberg is, among other things, a sailor. From 1967 to 1982, he raced in and won various North American championships.  In 1982, he had an experience that would change is life.

The sailing vessel South Bound II set sail Nov. 6, 1982 from Beaufort, N.C.On board were Canadian sailing enthusiast Herb Hilgenberg, his wife, Brigitte, and their 6-year-old and 14-year-old daughters.

The Hilgenbergs were looking forward to an enjoyable voyage to the Virgin Islands.

The weather forecast indicated a high pressure system would be moving toward the North Carolina coast and bring settled conditions near shore.

As they sailed toward Cape Lookout, N.C., the winds began to increase and thunderstorm clouds appeared from the east.  The winds were at 25 to 35 knots. The North Carolina weather forecast they were monitoring indicated no change to the earlier forecast. Assuming that it was a temporary pattern, the Hilgenbergs sailed on.

The winds steadily increased, and with them the seas. The 39-foot South Bound II was being tossed around in winds blowing 50 to 60 knots and seas reaching 45 feet.

Hilgenberg fractured his arm during the height of the storm, but fortunately he and his family survived, arriving in the Virgin Islands on the 10th day of their trip.

Herb  Hilgenberg

Herb Hilgenberg

From this turning point in his life, he began a part time hobby in Bermuda; using his single sideband radio to provide weather briefs to mariners crossing the Atlantic, providing weather data to the National Weather Service and passing on updated information to the boating community at large.

In 1994, Herb and his wife, Brigitte, also an advanced amateur radio operator, retired to Burlington, Ontario, their home town, and restarted the Southbound II net. When Southbound II’s daily net opens at 20:00 UTC, a cacophony of radio noise erupts as vessels call in from the Caribbean, along the eastern seaboard and throughout the Atlantic.

Herb provides his interpretation of weather data relevant to each boat, summarizing his opinions so mariners can make educated decisions. For long passages, “Always have a five-day plan” Herb says. If your plan changes, advise Herb as he often worries about those who don’t heed his warnings and waypoints. “If I give a warning and they choose not to go to the waypoint….tell me… then I can give a forecast for where ever you choose to go.”

Herb remembers advising a group of boats between Florida and Bermuda to stay put due to an incoming storm. All but one stopped. Later that night, Herb received a call from the Coast Guard advising that the on-going boat sank, with no survivors. Herb says that it was agonizing to talk to relatives who couldn’t contact the boat; it was a tragedy that needn’t have happened had the boat left its radio on.

Herb updates his powerful equipment at his own cost while providing this free service to all interested mariners, every day, 51 weeks a year. Updated equipment includes one X-B antenna, a horizontal dipole designed in the form of an ‘X’ that is directional for better reception and a vertical antenna, used for a lower frequency or transmitting to the north where he communicates with tugs in Hudson Bay and the Arctic. He can use both via a switch that goes to a second ssb radio and uses two computers; one for satellite through the internet and the other for collecting weather charts and downloads from the internet. But it isn’t just his equipment that gives his information importance – it’s also his 20+ years of experience interpreting that data.

Some of his most rewarding moments come when he receives a call at night from the Coast Guard who’ve received a mayday but can’t get the boat’s position. Herb searches for the mayday on his frequency, makes contact with the boat, co-ordinates transmissions and activities amongst the Coast Guard and commercial boats in the area, and helps to set up a successful rescue.

Herb says that at the end of the day, he and Brigitte, who takes care of all correspondence and occasionally monitors check-ins and responds if need be, are happy to have simply helped people and kept them safe through another day at sea.

Thanks for a good watch, Herb.


Bermuda to Groton: Day 8

The sun rose on schedule today – one week to the day we set sail. With 80 miles to go. We won’t dock until after dark this evening. Another day is paradise as Jay is fond of saying. Makes the crap we went through just a distant memory. Watching the sun rise this morn helps to remind: Oh yeah, this is why you go off shore sailing.

4:30 pm
Could not check in with Herb due to bad propagation caused by solar flairs.

We caught a good sized Blue Fish – It’s what’s for dinner.

So, after all the shit we went through we were really looking forward to seeing land, and having a couple of brews while we made our way to dock. No such luck. We don’t even get the pleasure of watching land slowly embrace us as a heavy fog set in. Can barley see the bow it’s so thick. We’re in heavy fog & light winds 1 hr from Montauk – 4.1 mile to Montauk point and 19 miles or so from shenny. No beer for us, not now, not in these conditions.

Fog can be very disconcerting. We’ve tuned the radio listen for radar reports from other boats. I will be spending the next several hours on the deck with eyes and ears peeled watching out for other boats as we enter the heavily trafficked Long Island Sound. We are targeting Race Point Light.

9:00 pm
We’re home! Docked! The boat is in tatters. The first land we saw was Race Point Light – dead ahead 2 boat lengths away. GPS doesn’t lie. We made a quick move to starboard and hugged the shore to the Club.

We’re drinking beer and Jay is cooking up the Bluefish. Crazy ride! Jay paid me a great complement. He thanked me for being outstanding crew in shitty conditions and said he admired how I handled stuff especially considering I have PD.

I’m proud of the accomplishment. I’m stronger for the experience. I don’t ever want people to look at me and say “poor guy has Parkinson’s”. No, that won’t do. I want to be the guy people look at and say “he’s done all that, and can you believe he has Parkinson’s?” I have my work cut out for me. I’m ready for the challenge. I am not afraid.

Bermuda to Groton: Day 7

5:50 am
Beautiful day! Sunny and clear do 6.2 knots on flat (Yeah!) seas on a beat north. The electronic Autopilot held through the night allowing Jay and I to catch up on some much needed sleep. I was out!

We have 2 types of autopilots on board – an electronic “autohelm” that can sail to the wind or to a course and a mechanical wind-vane the sails the wind. The wind-vane is an ingenious piece of engineering developed by a Frenchman.

12:45 pm
Clear, not a cloud in the sky. What a beautiful day beating N at 7 knots this morn, – doing 6 know. Spent most of the morning chatting with Jay – a real pleasant sail. Listened to Steve Ray Vaugh, Duke & Louie.

3:00 pm
Wind shifted to the west – doing 6 knots. Snapped a few pictures. Not much to photograph out here. I thought of taking photos of the foul weather but you need two hands and why risk splitting your head open for a photo of foamy water.
We jury rigged the wind vane with a hose clamp and jury rigged the auto helm with a bottle of turtle wax wedged between the helm post I guessed you . .. ? call it and the autohelm to keep it engaged.

165 miles home – probably get in tomorrow evening 10-12 or so – Yes!

Herb says our wind will crap out tonight – screw it, we’ll motor.

4:30 pm
Eating well today – our appetites are back with the clear skies and flat seas. Noodle and chicken for breakfast a burger for lunch and Jay’s cookin us pork tenderloin with corn & potatoes. At noon today we split the Sam Smith winter Welcome I gave Jay back in Nov. to see him off. Delicious. North of the Gofl celebration. We’ve hardly eaten the past few days. Had a snickers and ½ can of Dinty More Stew yesterday, a cliff bar & apple the day before.

Everything is drying out below. The moon is up and getting full. Should be a beautiful night to keep watch.

Listening to Duke & Satchmo, sound of the water; just beautiful.

Offshore sailing is about the weather. If it weren’t, and it were always sunny, blowing 15 knots with flat seas the ocean would be full of boats.

Jay is a good skipper. Though off-shore sailing has a never ending learning curve he certainly knows what he is doing. He can jury-rig anything, A must for offshore sailing. He is prepared for what ever might be in store.

8:00 pm
I have 1st watch. 2 hr watches tonight. The sun is setting into a cloud in the sky. Doing 5.2 knots. The sounds this evening are not like the cacophony of the past few. They are sweet swooshes and gentle creaks. The movement of the boat is smooth unlike the jarring jerks and bounces of the past couple of days. Jay is asleep. I am peaceful. The phrase so close and yet so far comes to mind this evening. This time tomorrow we ought to be seeing the light off Montauk. The brown boobies are still with us running on the water looking at the lure we set out.

I am starting to stress again about the real world that lay ahead. Why? I have everything – I do look forward to kissing Josa.

When I wake up
I want to wake up next to you
When I am walking
I want to be walking next to you
When I am laughing
I want to laugh next to you
When I am crying
I want to be crying next to you
When I lay down
I want to lay down next to you.

Bermuda to Groton: Day 6


1:15 pm
18 hrs. of sailing in 30 knots, gusting higher – 20 ft. seas. From 5:00 yesterday to 11:30 today. Finally got out of that low. We had to head west for 18 hours before turning north to the Gulf Stream – 40 miles away. We didn’t sleep at all. . . too rough. Shifts were just one hour. The heavy weather is taking a toll on the boat. Shit is everywhere. Busted a running back stay. Had one of the solar panels come loose, broke a stanchion on port side, auto helm is broken and the wind vane is broken. Took many waves – the cabin is wet. Everything is wet. Barometer at 1010 – lowest Jay’s seen it. Nasty weather. Last night we thought the low was well above, but not the case. The edge of the low, which took 4-5 hours to clear was the worst. I never thought we would get through it. We would set the egg timer one hour up and one hour down. In the cockpit the hour took forever to pass. Nerve racking sail – noisy, bumpy, wet, dark. The hour in the bunk was intense – a dream laden heavy deep sleep that passed in an instant.

Jury rigging the wounded boat was intense. Jay did most of the deck work – I managed the tools and helm.
Almost time to check with Herb – see what our Gulf Stream crossing and next couple of days look like.


Herb says we have a good couple of days ahead. We’re just about to the GS.