An elegant, swift and rugged Donzi 65 conquers the open ocean
in an attempt to set a record from Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan...
Story and Photos by John Clemans
Wednesday, 12 noon.
"The boat's running hot," announced John Huard with a grin- He didn't mean hot as in 200 degrees, but "hot" as in fast and flawless. Despite the three-day growth and the manic look, Huard inspired confidence. He had, after all, just brought the boat down from New York to Ft. Lauderdale in 77 hours, an impressive dress rehearsal for what lay ahead. Huard gestured to a chart on the wall behind him.
"We leave tonight at eight and arrive tomorrow in San Salvador. We fuel up and leave San Salvador immediately so that we can make South Caicos by dark. We take more fuel there and run through the night to San Juan- a total of 38 hours from Florida to Puerto Rico."
My mind leapt to the lack of sleep I'd had the night before. I'd caught an early flight from New York to attend this meeting in the offices of Roscioli Yachting Center, a full service yard on State Road 84 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. The roomful of people included several who planned to make the remarkable run that Huard had just compressed into three sentences. Dubbed "The Donzi Dash" it was the brainchild of Bob Roscioli, builder of the Donzi z-65 convertible. (Roscioli brought production of the boat from Donzi Marine last winter when the firm decided to concentrate on its smaller models.) The idea was to set a record to Puerto Rico thus proving the merits of Donzi 65. The boat was Libra II, six month's old, owned by Richie Koch of Babylon, New York, who wanted to fish the prestigious 35th Annual Club Nautico International Billfish Tournament in San Juan.
Present at the meeting were Eddie Ferret, Libra II's full-time captain, and Steve Jones, warranty manager for Roscioli, both of whom had come down from New York with John Huard, a professional captain who frequently works for Roscioli. Also in attendance were agents in Puerto Rico who was interested in representing Roscioli in the Caribbean (so interested that he was lending his personal Cessna jet for the effort), and Pedro Panzcardi, a legendary Puerto Rican captain for whom The Donzi Dash would be the two-hundredth Florida-to-Puerto Rico voyage of his career.
"Captain Pedro is our key man," explained Huard. "This is his baby -we'll be in his backyard."
Three captains. Not only that- we were also to have three Stewart & Stevenson technicians aboard to watch over the Donzi's 1,440 horsepower 16 cylinder diesel engines. The pit stops had been scouted in the Cessna Citation II the previous week. Fuel trucks and Customs agents were standing by. Roscioli himself had taken care of the food shopping - a dozen buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Huard sounded the only cautionary note just as the meeting was about to break up:
"One last question [looking directly at me] does anyone get sea sick?" When no one spoke up he added, "Because I'll tell you this right now: I'm not stopping."
Wednesday, 10:30 p.m.
Huard had planned to leave the yard by 6:00 and be down the New River and to the dock of 17th Street Marriott, where I was to meet the boat, by 7:30. Departure was set for 8:00. After the meeting I drove to Bluewater Books and Charts and picked up a chart that had South Florida at the top left hand Corner and Western Puerto Rico at the bottom right. It gave an overview of the entire route -1,100 statue miles, most of it in the open Atlantic. It was August and next to the cash register was a pile of hurricane tracking charts. Outside the sky was slate gray and rain drove in sheets against the windshield. Bolts of lightning stood along the eastern horizon like fence posts.
For whatever reason, Huard and Libra II were late. We finally left the Marriott at 9:45 and cleared the Ft. Lauderdale area sea buoy at 10:10. The scene at dock was surreal: The rain had let up, but the lightning prevailed. It was echoed by the flash of strobes, and the beams of video lights as the media recorded our departure. There was a crowd of people on the dock and a crowd of people on the boat, and when we abruptly cast off, who was where seemed purely a matter of chance. Boarding the boat was unexpectedly tricky- you had to leap from a gunwale to the salon steps, as the cockpit was completely taken up with gear, foremost among which were two huge, shiny black rubber bladder tanks holding 400 gallons of fuel each. They lay there like beached whales bloated to the bursting point, stretching from port to starboard, one fore and one aft of the fighting chair.
The lights of Ft. Lauderdale quickly flattened into a narrow strip of luminescence between the dark sky above us and the dark water behind us as the Donzi headed east toward the Gulf Stream and the lingering light 30 knots. The number of people was still a mystery to me. There was much moving about from the bridge to the salon- which was littered with luggage to the forward stateroom to the engine room. I joined Huard at the helm and climbed into one of three-pedestal chairs- a perch that would become all too familiar over the next three days.
I hadn't seen Captain Pedro yet, but the boat was so big that it really didn't surprise me; besides, after 199 trips, departure was probably a hackneyed ritual he'd just as soon avoid. "Captain Pedro getting some shuteye so he can take over later?" I inquired, "Captain Pedro didn't come," replied Huard staring straight ahead. He didn't like the looks of the weather.
Thursday, 3:00 a.m.
I stayed on the bridge until the glow of the Florida coastline had vanished and the only points of light in the headlong blackness were the dials of the dash. Then I went below and slid into the lower bunk of the starboard guestroom. The Gulf Stream was surprisingly calm. The boat rose and fell over the gentle swells with a rhythmic roar. "Who needs Pedro?" I thought, as I drifted into a half sleep. Shortly after midnight, however, I was jolted awake by a dramatic change in our ride: We began pounding with a force that focused my attention on the relative thinness of the cored fiberglass wall that separated the stateroom from the sea. I considered climbing to the bridge, but the boats motion was so violent that getting up seemed the greater evil. Suddenly I was launched off the bunk and slammed into the bottom of the upper berth. I quickly abandoned the stateroom and headed aft.
We were crashing through the night. Great walls of water flew by on both sides. The boat seemed airborne most of the time, slamming back down with a loud, jarring crack and a shudder that made even Huard wince; but not only was he "not stopping"- he wasn't slowing down either. Our whole game plan - the waiting fuel trucks, the obliging Customs agents, The Friday victory bash at Club Nautico, the record itself was based on maintaining at least 30 knots, and Huard wasn't about to give up just three hours into the trip.
At 2:00 in the morning the salon was filled with the sickening crash of something shattering. Clinging to whatever piece of furniture was nearest, we discovered that a glass shelf in the fridge had crumbled into a zillion razor sharp pieces. Opening the door dumped them onto the galley's teak parquet sole along with much of the fried chicken and a few pounds of fruit salad. The Donzi Dash was fast turning into the Donzi Diet; but losing food was of little consequence, because eating in such circumstances was out of the question.
Advised of the pounding's toll in the salon, Huard pulled back from 2000to 1800 rpm (25 knots). Even at this speed the ride was too rough to make use of the staterooms (much less the heads). Every few waves the boat would veer skywards for an instant then would plummet into a pit that seemed lined with cement. "The SOB's have no backs to them", screamed Huard over the defeating chorus of wind, waves and whining turbochargers as he peered into the inky spray. "The problem with this is the old 'rouge wave,'" he yelled. "You have no idea it's coming. I had one hit me in the Bay of Fundy and it was the most ungodly feeling on the earth. The boat goes straight up and falls off into nothing -the wave has no back, just a wall of water. The other problem is the telephone poles." I strained to see what lay ahead, but there wasn't a clue and the salt stung my eyes.
The salon was an obstacle course of bodies, blankets and baggage. Wedged into a dinette seat, I gazed helplessly at the total anarchy of the interior. Everything (and everyone) that wasn't fastened down was bouncing; cabinet doors swung open and shut; drawers rolled in and out; appliances strained at their moorings; the grease trap on the microwave hinged down and sprang back with a clang: the blinds clanked against the windows. The furnishings had such a disgusting look- rich teak- etched glass- polished brass, expensive furniture- that the strangeness of the scene was compounded. On the bottom line it felt like your living room was being lifted ten feet off the ground and was dropped every five seconds. But we plowed through the darkness, hour after hour.
Thursday, 7:00 a.m.
The rough water had begun on the Eastern side of Great Issac just after we had altered the course slightly for the northern trip of Eleuthera. This was the Northwest providence channel, a passage south of the Grand Bahama that takes you north of Great Stirrup Light and south of Hole in the Wall and out to eastern Bahamas. It's notorious for turbulence, as the Atlantic funnels straight through when it's blowing out of the east. To make matters worse, we hit squalls at both ends. We were able to pick up speed at North of the Berry Islands, but much of the time we had to run at 1,600 rpm (only 21-22 knots). Huard always kept the boat right on the edge of unkindness -fast enough so that any faster would beat it up. For those aboard it was the edge of total immobility.
We developed a slight exhaust leak during the night at the joint with the blanketed risers. The extreme jarring let little puffs escape and they were immediately sucked right into the turbos. The result was lots of exhaust smoke behind the boat and the air filters loaded up every three hours. The solution was to run without filters. "Not a good idea," admitted Huard, because any loose object in the engine room could be sucked straight into the high-speed turbo-chargers. With the engine room door open so the bladder tanks could feed into the fuel system, and the filters off the turbos the cockpit boasted a decibel level akin to a jet runway's.
By sunrise we had crossed the Atlantic entrance to the Northeast Providence Channel, where we got hit harder than ever -eight-to-ten-footers- right in the nose, and we'd turn the corner and were bucking our way down the eastern side of Eleuthera. As usual, we were headed straight into the sea. During this stretch we were able to run at 1800 rpm, but we were two hours behind our anticipated running time and four hours behind schedule.
Thursday, 1:30 p.m.
The plan was to reach San Salvador at 8:00: we made it we made it at 1:30. The sea really kicked up about 50 miles out, off Cat Island: ten footers and better. We pulled into San Salvador's tiny, desolate Riding Rock Marina thoroughly exhausted. We'd made 350 nautical miles in 15 hours and 20 minutes. Just as predicted, the fuel truck and Bahamian officials were waiting, but it was too late for S. Caicos because we couldn't make it by nightfall and the reefs were to scary to risk after dark. The record run concept was obviously in jeopardy, although we still had a good shot at two-and-a-half days and Huard was more determined than ever. But the prospect of a hot shower and soft bed at the Riding Rock Inn was not entirely unwelcome, especially to the Stewart & Stevenson contingent, a significant percentage of whom had not yet found their sea legs.
The Riding Rock Inn (24 rooms) and Marina (eight slips) is at the end of the road in the Bahamas. The next stop is Africa. Reopened in 1986 (it closed in 1983) by Carter Williams, a native of San Salvador, it's home to an excellent diving school (specializing in underwater photography) and to the Bahamian leg of the one-day world cup World Cup Marlin Championship every July 4th. Dallas Cowboys' General Mgr. Tex Scharamm (founder of the tournament) always fishes the event at San Salvador. Among the serious billfishermen who visit the islands, Roy Tuggle, owner of ROYS TOY spends several weeks a year there because, although there's literally nothing to do but fish and dive, the fishing is excellent- some people consider it the best the Bahamas has to offer. But San Salvador's main claim to frame is that many experts believe it's the spot where Columbus first landed.
Friday, 5:00 a.m.
We left before daybreak so we'd be sure to reach S. Caicos before dark. As this middle leg of the trip was only 250 miles, we only filled one bladder tank. Libra II's usable fuel capacity is 1400 gal. (Koch replaced a center tank with a large freezer), and the bladder holds another 800, which adds about 2,000 usable gallons. At 30 knots this gives her about 450 nautical mile range (130 gph for 15 hours). Surprisingly this is the most efficient speed with the engines (16V-92Tis). At 17 knots, for example with the turbos off the 32 cylinders still eat 100 gph, which adds up only to 340 nautical miles.
Huard gave a sober appraisal of our prospects in the pre-drawn stillness: "We have a 250-mile run. I'd like to maintain 24 knots, which should put us into S. Caicos by 3:00 p.m., and we can be out and our way to San Juan by 5:00." Unfortunately we picked a week that there are three low-pressure systems in the Caribbean, one interfacing with another. And the seas right now are not conducive to open ocean travel.
From the start, The Donzi Dash was a gamble. The date was set and the weather was counted to cooperate. The route was the most direct one possible: straight across the Bahamas and then straight down to Puerto Rico. This is not how it's usually done, however.
The traditional route is from Florida to Bimini, then down to the Northwest Providence Channel to Nassau, where you spend the night. Next day you cross the banks to Ship Channel Cay and follow the Exuma Chain for your second overnight then you backtrack around Long Island, pass Crooked Island in the lee, and cross to Providenciales and the Caicos Bank approaching S. Caicos from the protected side. The last day's run is down to the Dominican Republic and along the coast, where you refuel if you need to (and dare to). Our course was outside the Bahamas and Caicos in the Atlantic; we were now faced with 700 miles of Open Ocean, and it didn't take long to see why it wasn't the usual route.
Friday, 10:00 a.m.
As soon as we turned southeast around the tip of San Salvador the ocean smacked us right in the face. We had six-to-eights by 6:30 and eight-to-ten by 9:00 and the seas continue to build. We ran at 1500 (18-19 knots) but the big rollers had small waves in between, and we fall off the back of every third one. When we stopped to switch from the bladder tanks to the main tanks the horizon tilted back and forth like seesaw as waves washed by, level with bridge. The odds of our reaching S. Caicos by dark were getting longer by the minute, which presented the first serious threat of the trip. We continued to slog it out as squalls rushed at us out of the east.
Off to the starboard were Acklins Islands and Samana Cay, which could offer some relief from the relentless head seas, and after mulling it over Huard announced a switch to "plan B"- we'd duck behind the islands and cross the Caicos Bank.
Our new course (200 degrees) was almost 90 degrees off our original one, but running in the trough gained us 300 rpm. We approached Samana Cay from the northeast, and our glimpse of the low deserted island may well have been identical to Columbus's first sighting of the "New World." (National Geographic has named Samana, rather than San Salvador, as the explorer's first landfall.) Our strategy was to get in all the way behind Crooked Island and pick up the traditional route over to S. Caicos, but fuel considerations kept us on a straighter course: behind the Plana Cays and Mayaguana Island.
Friday, 4:00 p.m.
The Plana Cays and Mayaguana Island offered scant protection. When we were right behind them we could inch up to 1850 but most of the way we slammed along the back squalls at 1600 rpm into eight-foot head seas - "the old killers," as Huard called them. As we approached Providenciales at the north end of Caicos Bank, relief seemed in sight. The bank would be flat calm compared to what we were experiencing, and we could scoot across behind the Caicos Islands and be in S. Caicos by 6:00. But this turned out to be wishful thinking, because the chart we needed to plot a safe course across the flats was nowhere to be found. We had to hook a left and head back into the Atlantic.
Friday, 7:00 p.m.
No matter which way we turned, it seemed, we were fated to encounter head seas. From one end of the Caicos Island to the other, about 80 nautical miles, we turned through almost 150 degrees, yet the sea stayed right on our nose. We had white water all the way but every knot of speed was crucial to making port by dark. Huard pushed the throttles up a notch whenever the ride became somewhat bearable, a sadistic tactic that seemed to be paying off: We were off S. Caicos and the harbor was almost in sight. If the fuel truck could be found, we'd fuel up and leave as soon as possible for San Juan, still 450 miles farther on. After 14 straight hours of pounding, another 18 lay ahead.
Friday, 7:13 p.m.
We hit bottom. The chart showed deep water outside the reef, which was a couple of hundred yards to starboard - you could see the water breaking along the line coral heads. Suddenly the depthsounder showed seven, then six feet, and as quickly as the readings registered on the screen, a patch of light green water washed under the boat from port to starboard and, BANG! We hit. Libra II shuddered violently as Huard leapt for the throttles. We were able to keep going, but only at idle speed. Suddenly it was dark.
We inched into S. Caicos harbor entrance, guided by the lights. A stiff breeze blew straight in, which made docking a crippled boat a touch-and-go exercise. A group of people stood along the sea wall where we tied up, there being no marina on S. Caicos. Behind them was a fuel truck. Huard was crushed. To have come this far under such adverse conditions in so short a time was remarkable achievement, and we had been able to push on we might well have set a time that would be hard to beat even in calm seas. Now, however, we found ourselves in contention for a far different sort of record: longest stay on S. Caicos.
Saturday, 12:00 noon.
When the Bahama Islands became independent, the Turks and Caicos opted to retain their ties to Great Britain. It took only about five minutes of morning light to see this had been a mistake, at least for S. Caicos. On the horizon stood the skeleton of a huge hotel complex that had been started and abandoned - a reminder of what might have been. What was there were wide, dusty streets, shacks and sheds, goats, donkeys and wild boars, more bars than stores, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness- as if whatever prosperity had ever dwelled there had abandoned the place and wasn't coming back. Lobster season and conch season were the measures of time.
As far as the facilities to deal with Libra II's problems, we might as well have been in Galapagos, although on that front we had apparently escaped with our vital components intact: An early morning dive by Steve Jones had revealed nothing more serious than a mangled prop-on the starboard side. The shafts, struts and rudders looked OK. Instead of the challenge of ten-foot head seas, we were now faced with replacing a custom-made 500-pound bronze prop in ten feet of water. I was reconciled to flying home- there was a flight back to Florida in three days. But I underestimated the resources and resourcefulness of the Roscioli yard.
In fact, we had three things going for us: Roscioli, the Cessna jet, and instantaneous telecommunications. For all it's Third World inertia, S. Caicos had the fastest phone service this side of the Hot Line. The proprietor of The Admiral's Arms Hotel, an establishment in a world of it's own, was able to raise Ft. Lauderdale as fast as we could give him phone numbers. Rui Konde, Roscioli's prop man Worked through the night at the yard banging out a new set of wheels (not realizing until morning that we'd just be needing one); Alvin, the Cessna pilot, took off for Ft. Lauderdale at dawn and took the rear seats out so that the prop, prop puller, wrenches and diving gear could fit in. By noon he was ready to take off to S. Caicos, where trained dogs chase the donkeys off the runway.
Saturday, 9:00 p.m.
As impossible as such a scenario seemed last night over cracked conch at The Admiral's Arms, we left S. Caicos in our wake before dark. The prop was on the Island by 3:30, and by 5:00 Steve Jones and Eddie Feret had just managed to get it on the shaft (by tying fenders to the prop to make it lighter in the water) before their air ran out. A mile out of the harbor the seas were as rough as ever, although the skies were clear.
At 7:05 we smelled smoke. The diagnosis was a short caused by the pounding- a wire was probably loose somewhere. We turned off electrical power except to the salon lights and air conditioner and to the helm and cockpit lights, which we needed to keep our eyes on the bulging bladders (they were both full for this leg- the longest yet). A slab of plywood was wedged between the aft bladder and the damaged prop. After every joint-jarring jolt Huard and I would swing around to make sure the prop blades weren't cutting into the bladder skin and releasing 400 gallons of diesel into the cockpit.
Our course was a compromise- it wasn't the original straight-line east of the Mouchoir and Silver Banks but it edged its way out towards Puerto Rico as we headed south toward the coastline of the Dominican Republic. We planned to get only close enough to find conditions we could run efficiently in. We wanted to make San Juan without refueling ("We'll be down to fumes and good looks," Laughed Huard), but if we had to we could stop at Aricibo, 60 miles west San Juan.
Saturday, 12:00 midnight.
We kept track of our progress through the coal-like blackness on a Furuno commercial grade 72-mile radar. Loran had deserted us back around San Salvador. The Robertson autopilot took care of the steering chores, although the electronics weren't interfaced. Ideally, a trip such as this would rely on a sat nav, but for Richie Koch's purpose- fishing the Hudson Canyon- the state-of-the-art radar was more useful on the Libra II.
The sea was unrelenting, keeping us down around 1750 rpm. We lost power several times because of clogged fuel filters and air leak in the cockpit tank. Closing off the bladder valves seemed to improve things, but Don Gollot, John Murray, and Todd Layman were kept busy in the engine room changing Racors. As little as they felt like moving during most of the trip, whenever one of the S&S engines so much as hiccoughed, one of the trio was up like a jack-in-the-box. Whenever something robbed us of rpms, they were able to recover them.
Sunday, 6:00 a.m.
With the sunrise less than an hour away, we were still 75 miles from the western tip of Puerto Rico, about to enter the Mona Passage- always considered the roughest section of the entire route. By now, however, blasting along through the darkness on a bucking 100,000-pound boat seemed an eminently reasonable thing to be doing. Throughout the odyssey the mood swings had been extreme- from "What am I doing here?" to "This is what life is all about." But in the home stretch, the second of the two ran far in the lead. After 40 hours of lurching through life, the prospect of level ground had all the appeal of stale beer. Indeed, despite the groans, the bruises and the "never agains," the grueling rhythm of the run had become a way of life, an almost sensual experience.
Sunday, 12 noon.
A trio of escort vessels welcomed us to San Juan. Helicopters circled overhead. We felt like heroes home from war. We passed EL Moro at the entrance to the San Juan Harbor exactly 47 running hours after leaving Ft. Lauderdale. We had hoped to do it in 36 hours, and had the seas been calm we could have.
Having failed to post a "record" time (although Club Nautico records shows the fastest trip have been 3-1/2 days) what was the Donzi Dash in the end- just a long rough run in a big sportfisherman? Actually it was the ultimate sea trial- a far greater test of the magnificent Donzi than any calm water marathon could ever be. The only thing on the boat that broke was the shelf in the fridge. No mirrors cracked; not a drop of water leaked in, the engines didn't budge on their beds: 6,000 pounds of bagged fuel heaved around the cockpit, pushing against the transom from the inside, yet the fish door remained in perfect alignment.
Donzi 65s are "overbuilt" for just such offshore mayhem as we encountered. The stringers run all the way aft without cutout or tapering; weight (78,000 pounds dry) is kept in the boat rather than taken out; the rudder shafts are three inch and the prop shafts are four-inch; all thru-hulls are surrounded with 3/4-inch pure glass. I doubt that any other production sportfisherman of any size could have equaled the Donzi's performance. The boat's combination of speed and strength was remarkable.
John Huard had left New York on a Saturday night and had pulled into Puerto Rico, 2,250 miles away, just over a week later. That's a challenge that should stand if Bob Roscioli wants to issue it. For his part, John Huard moaned, "No more boat trips," at dinner in Old San Juan; but last I heard he was taking Roscioli's brand new Z-65 From Ft. Lauderdale to the Atlantic City Boat show. I envy him. If he'd said, "C'mon, let's keep going to Venezuela," when we were crossing the Mona Passage, I'd have said "Turn right."