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Channel Swimming Relay Aborted Four Miles from France

It was the oldest group to ever attempt to complete a relay swim across the 23 mile-wide, rough and cold English Channel between England and France. All five in our team members were over the age of seventy, with the average age being 74. I was the oldest on the team, at age 77.  A better qualified team of septuagenarians could not have been found. Our team captain was Michael Reid, MBE, who is president of the Channel Swimming Association and holds the record for the most solo swims – 33! The other three swimmers were all British Long Distance Swimming Association champions, two of whom had just returned from Montreal, Canada, having competed in the World’s Masters, where they each won an event. These are truly dedicated swimmers. I have also attempted five solos on the English Channel, and have succeeded twice, as well as two previously successful relay swims, and coached a third from the University of St. Augustine. I am also currently serving as Vice President of the Channel Swimming Association.

We started out the swim in fair weather, which promised to be moderate. It was not to happen. As Michael exited the pilot boat and swam to the beach to begin the swim, he raised his arms to signal his re-entry into the water and the start, we were all very optimistic.  At the end of each hour, the next swimmer would drop into the water and pass by the current swimmer who would then exit. No passing a baton in this relay. I was the final swimmer in the set of five, anchoring the group, and then we would cycle through again. We each swam well, and while two of us experienced cramps, they were managed in the water by the swimmer without assistance, as the rules dictate. By mid Channel, the winds were at twenty knots (22 miles per hour) and the waves were building, especially when the tide went against the westerly wind. With three hours to go, the winds had reached a steady 25 knots and were gusting to 30 knots as night was falling, but still we were all swimming well. And then the weather took a turn. I completed my second one-hour swim and Michael followed. On board we were hanging on for life – seriously – the boat was being thrown all over the place. Two decks chairs, where we rested, broke completely. It began to rain and there was no shelter for us swimmers, as the temperature dropped to 45 degrees – we could not stay dry.  I crouched on my hands and knees, bracing myself against the dingy and hanging on. I actually felt better in the water than on deck.

France was only three to four miles off, with a landing on the Cape Gris Nez. The nearest point was out of the question, as it was far too dangerous for a swimmer to attempt a landing on the rocks in such a storm. The distance to the nearest beach was some hours away and the weather still was building. The decision was made, and agreed to by all, that it was unsafe in these conditions to complete the relay. Had it been a solo, and if that swimmer had been in mid-life, then he/she may have pushed on. But discretion became the best part of valor, and we headed for home disappointed at the failure, but enriched by the adventure.

I went to Dover beach Sunday morning to meet with those training for their upcoming swims, surrounded by family and supporters. I found myself greeted by applause for our effort. Small, yes, but significant compensation – the approval of one’s peers.

Now I prepare to come home, hike a little with Catherine on the Appalachian Trail, and be at the boat yard as Kiwi Spirit is re-launched for the upcoming solo – circa November 8th.

 

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Kiwi Spirit Sails ahead of Hurricane Arthur

We had an uneventful four and half day sail from St. Augustine, Florida to Newport, Rhode Island. There we met with North Sails, Harken and others to help plan repairs, upgrades and alterations to Kiwi. That accomplished, and with an eye of hurricane Arthur moving toward us, we made a fast trip to the Lyman Morse yards in Thomaston, Maine. There the boat was soundly secured for the approaching winds, which she weathered well. Now the work begins.

The sails will all be removed and inspected. I fully expect to acquire a new mainsail as it already has 26,000 miles on it in just the year and half since launching, and that’s more than most boats will do in their lifetime. Should a head sail fail, I have five others but only one mainsail. No risks to be take here. Two spinnaker poles are being added, which will enable easier handling for downwind sailing on genoa and staysail. Adjustable genoa cars, two more winches, more snatch blocks and viewing windows to see if the rudders or keel get fouled with weed or nets are all being added. Most of the work will be accomplished in a month with a few loose ends after that. But once the electronics are sorted out (many failures here), and sails are returned, we will head south to St. Augustine for solo circumnavigation departure on November 8th or soon after – weather dependent.

The date of departure for the solo circumnavigation will this time be according to a ten day weather projection. Last time for family, friends and spectators, the departure was as close to the advertised date as possible. But that left me arriving in Bermuda with little wind. Five days after rounding Bermuda, I was already two days behind the record pace set by Dodge Morgan on American Promise. This time I shall wait for a favorable “weather window.”

But for today, I am off to the “Y” for an hour’s swim, as at the end of next month I, and five others over the age of seventy, will swim the English Channel in a relay.

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Kiwi Spirit June 2014 Update

The blogs will start again in September. For now we can all take a break. Know that much work is being done on the boat, and that both she and I will be in great shape come departure day on November 8, 2014. Note that this blog contains an invitation.

 

Much was learned on the first attempt. It was an adventure. An exciting, challenging adventure to be all alone at sea for an intended 150 days. But this time its “unfinished business.” I have taken a break from it these past three months, but starting last week, I was back on the boat to haul and clean its bottom for tomorrow we are sailing some 1,300 miles from Florida to Maine, where it’s back to the builders for some big changes.

 

“So, what is going to be different this time?” Some have asked this question and I shall briefly answer. First, I am different. Yes, I had 60,000 sea miles under my belt prior to attempting to solo circumnavigate. And, yes, I won two of the three ocean races that I had entered in – so I felt ready. But those fifty days alone, and with the experiences of handling the yacht in all conditions, as well as the managing of things that went wrong that should never have gone wrong – well – I learned a great deal and I am anxious to try again. I will be better prepared and so will the boat.

 

As to the boat, we are making a number of changes as to how the boat will be sailed. Using poles for downwind sailing, changing the sail inventory, making the boat bullet proof in so many ways will all add to my confidence that the boat and I will not only survive, but that we will do well in all conditions. Details will follow in later blogs. I am even considering publishing an article like report in this blog complete with photos showing all of the changes.

 

Now, here is where you can help. What would you like me to write about in future blogs both before I depart and once underway? I can try writing for my non-sailing friends as well as the sailing community. Just email me at the following address with the subject line stating “QUESTION” to kkuecker@usa.edu.

 

PS… you will be able to follow our progress to Maine via Yellowbrick, and while you are doing that give some thought as to why the missing Malaysian airliner did not have a similar and very inexpensive technology.

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Air National Guard Rescues One-Year-Old at Sea

I am hesitant to weigh in on the current news item of a one-year-old needing to be “rescued” off a sail boat hundreds of miles at sea when she took ill. “What were the parent thinking of” and “Totally irresponsible” are some of the many comments. One person wrote: “I saw this coming — I saw the potential for every bit of it, I don’t understand what they were thinking to begin with. I’m sorry, I don’t even like to take my kids in a car ride that would be too dangerous, and it’s like taking them out into the big ocean?”

No surprise I have a different take. I grew up with no cycling helmets…it was okay to ride in the back of a pickup truck, and somewhat related, there was no such thing as a Breathalyzer. I have written that “life is not without risk…it’s just a matter of how much are you willing to take and what will you do to prepare for it.”  Are we to become a nation of wimps and those that are faint of heart?  Will we lose our spirit of adventure or challenge, so that no one climbs mountains or even hikes a trail for fear of falling to one’s death or being mauled by a bear?  Certainly I am in favor of using technology to enhance safety, but we have so much of it we have to draw the line somewhere – I am in favor of Breathalyzers. But in my sailing of more than 100,000 miles, I have met many young families with children of all ages being home schooled on yachts. My experience is that they grow up independent, self-reliant, well-educated, very polite and respectful, extremely capable and unafraid of risk – just what I like to see in my children.

However, there are limits, and I support that there should be limits to how old you must be to take part in certain activities, such as flying a plane solo across the country or attempting to swim the English Channel. But let us have as few limits as possible and encourage real life, not “reality TV” adventurism. I say “good luck” to those parents and “don’t give up.” They will have learned and they will prepare even better next time – I know for that’s what I am doing with Kiwi Spirit. And yes, thanks to all the rescue services that were involved – a great piece of training for them.

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Kiwi Spirit Reached Home Port in St. Augustine, FL on Saturday

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe made great time from Antigua in the Caribbean to St. Augustine, some 1,320 miles. The winds were 14-22 knots and around 100 degrees true most of the time, so boat speed was some 9 and often 12 knots. No squalls-clear sky and fine sunsets.

Along with me was Steve Pettengill, a fellow St. Augustine resident and extremely experienced solo, off-shore racer. His presence and knowledge will contribute greatly to changes planned on the boat and to my ability to sail faster. Steve has done some 315,000 miles at sea, which has included 15 solos across the North Atlantic, one circumnavigation with crew, and three times around Cape Horn.  I am fortunate to have his assistance.

Having two on-board meant that someone was always awake and on watch. Through the night (12 hours) we took three-hour watches, so we could each get an hour or two of sleep. Then, during the day, we each took a 6-hour watch, and thus the other had another chance to nap. It’s when fatigued that jobs are put off and accidents occur.

While in St. Augustine, Kiwi Spirit will be docked at my home, just opposite the City Marina and will be clearly visible from the Bridge of Lions.

The boat will remain in St. Augustine for a month to six weeks, then will have some work done on her at Lyman Morse before heading north to Maine for some of the bigger jobs that need doing. Then to Newport, Rhode Island for sail work and testing, and finally back to St. Augustine in August for a planned circumnavigation departure circa November 8th. Incidentally, had the first attempt not been abandoned, my arrival Saturday was the intended date of arrival and celebration – ah well

(Photo Credit: Jaye Lunsford)

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Kiwi Spirit arrives in Antigua

Fred delivered Kiwi Spirit to Antigua for handover on Sunday at 2:00 pm, just as I was touching down in Antigua on a flight from Miami… great timing.  The debriefing was extremely helpful for here were three experienced sailors, led by Fred, who has previously soloed the North Atlantic. Getting to Antigua they spent 30 days at sea thinking about how best to sail this boat well. Their ideas for improvements to strengthen and for safety were much appreciated, and will be part of the planning going forward. The list of breakages, failures and about-to-fail grows.

 

Chief amongst the failures was that of the primary autopilot, which despite the three on-board and shore-based communications, they were unable to fix. Another breakage was that of the snuffing gear that snuffs the spinnaker before it is brought down into the deck. It really takes three to manage it well, and you might recall my snuffer broke upon raising it and then it blew out the sail. My efforts at getting it down resulted in a fall that cracked two of my ribs. Well, the second snuffing hoop broke on Fred’s voyage, so that points more to a failure of the gears than of its handling – makes me feel a little better. One hydro-generator also failed, as did all the blades on one of hydro propellers, which again got stripped bare – it was plastic, so we shall revert back to aluminum.

 

I speak of these breakages for they were only the principal ones on a trip of 30 days, with modest weather and three crew. I will have some 150 days with just myself as crew, and thus can expect continued breakages. The need for spare parts is obvious. Redundancy is essential. Shore-based assistance crucial and still it will be a tough challenge, even in fair weather.

 

Steve, a well-established off shore sailor, and I are to head the 1,400 miles to St. Augustine. The boat will rest a little in St. Augustine before going up to Lyman Morse in Maine to begin making some very significant changes. More in a future blog.

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Failure – It’s Being Talked About

There has been a lot of talk of failure as of late. Failure of equipment, of efforts to find a downed plane and to solve issues in Crimea. It seems that failure is just a fact of life, and we must recognize that and learn to live with it. Those that experience the most failure are those that take on the challenges of life, be it in business or in recreation. The fear of failure causes all too many to stay on the couch rather than to take on a challenge. Winning is not important. Taking part is. Being involved is success enough and if we should fail, then at least we tried, not letting the fear of failure stop us from really living.

With the above in mind, I shall be trying again to circumnavigate solo – that is a surprise to no one who knows me. I know, however, it will be my last attempt as time and, yes, expense limit me from a third effort. So it’s really “unfinished business.” No room for romanticism – just spending time on all issues leading up to the departure, and then planning to sail as fast and as safety I can. Staying focused will be important. That said, I do have one side bar-this August, when I shall be in a cross English Channel relay swim. But training for that will be of benefit for the circumnavigation. Physically I have set April 1st as the beginning of my physical training regime.

Incidentally, had I not abandoned the circumnavigation – I would have been arriving in St. Augustine about now!

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“Unfinished Business” and “Spirit Undaunted”

“Unfinished Business” and “Spirit Undaunted” were the titles to articles in the April issues of Sailing Magazine and Cruising World respectively.  Their contents captured the essence of why the attempt was abandoned, when the attachments of the rigging which hold up the mast proved to not be up to the task, and when the repairs I made to the end of the boom that holds the mainsail were questionable (I think I did good job)!

 

So, I left Sunday for Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean, where Kiwi Spirit should arrive from South Africa along with three French sailors who have been the delivery crew. All of them are well experienced and I shall look forward to debriefing with them. I will listen to their experiences, and seek their ideas on how to further improve the yacht and its performance. They did have a breakdown of the main autopilot and one of the hydro generators (makes power for instruments and navigation) also failed. They used the engine a great deal and stopped off briefly in St. Helena (in the mid-south Atlantic where Napoleon spent his last days in Brutish captivity) before completing the voyage to Antigua.

 

I am estimating five days in Antigua before I, along with Steve Pettengill, sail to St. Augustine, where she will rest at my dock before heading to Maine for repairs in June.

 

I am fortunate to have Steve on board as he is a tremendously experienced sailor, having sailed extensively including racing a sixty foot trimaran to break the record from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn. We will have fun and I shall no doubt learn from him.

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Future Blogs – Help Wanted

From now until the departure in early November, there will be just a few blogs. I leave on the 23rd of this month to go to Antigua to greet the boat and the three members of the delivery crew who are bringing the boat from South Africa. A week later I will sail the boat to St. Augustine. Then in June, I will sail it again to Lyman Morse in Maine where the work will begin. Then to Newport, Rhode Island for additional work.  I will report briefly on each of these activities.

 

I will also be vacationing with family in New Zealand and France this spring and summer. Additionally, I am once again in a swimming relay team to swim across the English Channel in August. This will be my third relay and we are all over 70 years, a first, and of course at age 77,  I will be the oldest not just in the team, but to have ever been in across in a Channel relay.  Both my previous relays were successful, as were two of my five solo swims. I will briefly blog on these travels and events.

 

I have been very surprised at how well received my blogs became. While some of my sailing friends said there was too little sailing information, I felt that such material is in abundance elsewhere and that I was best to write for my family, friends and non-sailors in general. But I would like some help.

 

When recently speaking to a group that had English as a second language, I asked what you would like to read more of next time. The first answer was “storms.” “OK,” I responded. “How many do you want?”

 

So here I am asking for ideas. If you have any topics that you would like me to address either before I start out again or during the voyage itself, please send them to Kelly Kuecker at kkuecker@usa.edu. Kelly is the lady who manages my blogs. Understand that once “under way” I do not read Blogs or Facebook as I have enough to do, and wish to avoid distractions. However, key comments and requests are forwarded to me by email and I can respond to them.

 

Thank you for your understanding.

 

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What will be different this November?

In one sense not much will be different, but in another we have learned a great deal. First and foremost, we will address the structural failures that occurred at the end on the boom and the rigging attachments to the boat.   In South Africa we re-engineered the end of the boom to better support the sheaves (pulleys) that were ripped out during the accidental jibe.  This shall be carefully checked again and the boom, as well as the mast, will be scanned with ultrasound looking for any possible structural weaknesses.  Next, we will totally replace the fittings of the rigging, which hold up the mast and sails to their attachment points on the boat.  We will look seriously at the sail inventory, and will replace and modify to the conditions experienced.

Then there are many trivial items that have more to do with personal comforts, such as a greater variety of food, spices, and a wider selection of music and reading material. I will also be able to get some weight off of the boat as I was carrying some gear that I now know that I will not need.

Also, I am now a more experienced solo sailor. Prior to the challenge I had only sixteen days solo, but now I have some 65 solo days and those are in a variety of conditions. My experience, along with a stronger boat, gives me a greater level of confidence than I had before, and thus, I expect to sail more aggressively and faster.

Finally, I did not know how I would manage to be alone for those 150 or so days. Well, I survived 50 days solo, and while I found it hard going at times, it will be training for the next time so I will be better able to manage than otherwise would have been the case. Some sailors have gone bonkers after just a few days at sea and I have had a crew member approach me in the middle of the ocean saying he “wanted off.” It’s true we don’t know how we will react when out of sight of land with or without crew. But I have been tested and these are now major concerns. I am therefore better prepared and very excited to restart.

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