Leaving Antigua, W. I.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Living What I Write, Part III

“I’m excited about taking the Old Bahama Channel route,” Leslie said, after I raised the anchor.
“Because we haven’t done it before?” I asked.
“That, plus we can sail straight through to Florida.  I wasn’t looking forward to island hopping through the Bahamas.  Been there, done that.”
"Well, once we're past Great Inagua, we're committed.  There's nowhere to stop for 600 miles," I said.
"Nothing to it," she said.  "Five or six days -- we're already in the rhythm of standing watches."
We left West Caicos on Tuesday morning with a light easterly wind. It was blowing less than ten knots. That's enough wind to move the boat, but not enough to make good speed, since it was directly behind us. Our expectation was that it was the precursor to the return of the easterly trade winds. Motorsailing in the light air, we set a course to Great Inagua, the southernmost of the Bahama Islands. It’s an isolated island roughly midway between the Caicos Bank and Cuba.

We thought we could wait there for more wind unless the wind built while we were en route. We needed to hoard our diesel fuel this early in such a long trip; there are no fuel docks at sea and we only carry enough to cover about 500 miles at best. After two hours, the wind had filled in to around twelve knots, and we shut down the engine. We weren’t going very fast, but we were making progress toward our destination. By sunset, Great Inagua was off our port beam, and we decided not to stop.

We sailed through the evening at three to four knots, enjoying being under way and at sea again. We had a peaceful night, and by morning, there was enough wind so that we dropped the Yankee jib, the larger of our two headsails. We were making a comfortable five knots, congratulating ourselves on our decision to take this route instead of going north through the Bahamas. We knew from the offshore weather broadcasts that a cold front had come off the Florida coast and was making things rough and unpleasant in the central Bahamas.

By noon, the wind died. Using our high frequency radio system, I downloaded weather fax charts from NOAA. We could see that there was wind in the Old Bahama Channel, not too far ahead of us. We decided to burn some of our precious diesel fuel. By the time we reached Diamond Point, the southern tip of the Great Bahama Bank, we realized that the cold front had moved much farther south than expected. When we reached the Old Bahama Channel, we were into the weather pattern that’s typical of a frontal passage.

It was cold; the sky was gray and cloudy. There were thunderstorms, and the wind was blowing hard from the northwest. This kind of weather is not normal this far south, even in mid-winter, but it’s almost unheard of in May. Climate change? Maybe so; it’s having a personal impact on us, anyway. Not only did we have 20 plus knots of wind in our faces, but it enhanced the normal foul current in the 10 mile wide channel between Cuba and the Bahama Bank. We had a three knot current opposing us.

Our nominal speed under typical conditions is 5 or 6 knots; we were unable to make progress in the direction we wanted to go. Even with the engine running, we could only make two or three knots along our course. We would have run out of diesel fuel long before we made it to Florida. Under sail alone, we were losing ground. We decided to heave to, which gave us an easy ride in the sloppy conditions, but we were making three to four knots in the wrong direction.

We reduced sail by taking a second reef in the main to cope with the gusts in the thunderstorms and started sailing again. We were beating back and forth across the channel, dodging freighters which were likewise trying to wait out this odd weather. This tactic worked well enough. On one tack, we gained a few miles along our course. On the other, we lost a few more than we gained. Throughout the afternoon and the night, we kept up the monotonous routine.

After 20 hours, the wind clocked to the north. We had lost about 20 miles, but now we could sail. We were close hauled, sailing hard on the wind, but we were making progress again, and we knew the wind would eventually clock to the northeast.
In the midst of the stormy weather, we had several bedraggled little birds land on the boat.  They were blown offshore from Cuba.  They would pause for an hour or two, watching us carefully, and then fly off.

This one stayed for a day and half, hidden in our rowing dinghy.  She came out to visit after the sun came out. The next afternoon, the wind at last clocked to the northeast, and we had 15 to 20 knots on our beam as we took up our course. That gave us perfect sailing conditions and we began to make up lost time. Next week: Storms at sea are part of offshore sailing.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Living What I Write, Part II

The US Virgin Islands
Cruz Bay, St. John
"Welcome back to the United States," the customs officer said. We were completing our clearance paperwork in St. John, a few hours after the storm I described in the last post. "Are we really back?" I asked. "Do we have to clear in again when we get back to the States?" "Only if you stop in a foreign country," he said. "You're home now." "Thanks!" We both said. I had no idea how good that would feel. I traveled a lot internationally before we ran away to sea, but that wasn't the same. It's been over ten years since Play Actor has been in U.S. waters, and she's our home. We've flown back to the States to visit several times during that period, but every time we knew that we were just visiting. When we were in the States, we felt the pull of home.  For us, that was wherever we left Play Actor. This time, we really felt like the U.S. was our home again. We decided we would not visit another foreign country before we got back to the U.S. mainland. We spent a couple of days in St. John, taking walks in the vicinity of Cruz Bay. We couldn't see much change from our last visit ten years ago. We felt the urge to move on.
Play Actor is the little, dark boat behind the cruise ship.
After a short sail in protected water, we dropped our anchor in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, a few hundred yards from the cruise ship dock. We found some marine supplies that we needed and bought a few more groceries, committed to the notion that we were going back to the States without clearing into another country. Puerto Rico
Business in Culebra gives new meaning to the phrase 'laid back.'
After a day of rest watching the cruise ships come and go in Charlotte Amalie, we took a 30-mile sail to Culebra, one of Puerto Rico's coastal islands. Puerto Rico was new territory for us. We spent a day anchored in Culebra's Ensenada Honda, and then sailed a few hours to the west coast of Vieques, the other large island off Puerto Rico's east coast. We anchored off a beautiful, deserted beach for the night, enjoying the solitude.
Our beach in Vieques
The next morning, we made the first of a series of short trips, each roughly thirty miles, hopping along Puerto Rico's south coast. After four overnight stops along the south coast, we rounded Cabo Rojo on the southeastern corner of Puerto Rico. We stopped for a night in Boqueron, on the west coast, and then sailed a few miles north to a charming little fishing harbor called Puerto Real.  We did some last minute grocery shopping there and filled our diesel and water tanks, expecting that we would be sailing straight through from there to Florida, a distance of around 700 miles.
Sunset in Boqueron
The Turks and Caicos - an unplanned stop and an encounter with the authorities We waited a few days for a favorable weather forecast and left Puerto Real, setting a course that would take us north of HispaƱola and south of the Turks and Caicos into the southern Bahamas. We didn't plan to stop until we reached Florida, but we could sail through the Bahamas, anchoring for a night if we got tired.
Clear water in West Caicos.  That's our anchor chain on the bottom, 25 feet under the surface.
The wind died along the south edge of the Caicos Bank, so we found a spot to anchor on the east side of West Caicos, a tiny, uninhabited island out of sight of the other islands that make up the country of the Turks and Caicos. We had come almost 400 miles from Puerto Real in three and a half days. We hoisted the yellow "Q," or quarantine, flag, signifying that we had not cleared into the country. The second day we were there, a police launch came alongside. The blast of their siren brought us on deck. "Good afternoon," I said, giving them a wave. "Good afternoon, captain," the senior of the three officers aboard said. “Our radar station saw you enter our waters yesterday and stop. What are you doing, and what are your intentions?" "We're becalmed, waiting for wind." "What was your last port of call?" "St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands," I said. “You have an outbound clearance from St. John?” he asked. “No. It’s not required for a U.S. flagged vessel leaving U.S. waters bound for a U.S. port." "Where are you bound?" "Florida, via the Old Bahama Channel." We had decided to skip the Bahamas, as the weather up there was nasty. The Old Bahama Channel runs between the north coast of Cuba and the south edge of the Bahama Bank.  It committed us to sail 700 miles non-stop, but it appeared to be well south of the disturbed weather. We just needed wind. "You are in our waters, and you have not cleared in," one of the other officers said. "Correct. We’re flying the quarantine flag; we have no intention of going ashore. Do you want us to move on out of your waters?" "We'd rather you clear in and visit our country," he replied, smiling. "Do we have to clear in to wait for wind?" I asked. "How long do you think you'll be?" the senior man asked. "The forecast is for the trades to start blowing again on Tuesday night," I said. It was Sunday afternoon. “Let me see your passports and the ship’s document, please." I passed him a plastic bag with the papers. He perused them and made some notes on his clipboard. Returning our papers, the senior man said, "You're okay, captain. Just stick to your mission." "So we don't need to leave or clear in?" "Just stick to your mission. If you wish to go ashore, come into Providenciales and clear in. Otherwise, you're okay." "But you would be safer in Provo," the younger man said. "There's a nice marina there." "Call us on channel 16 if you have any trouble," the senior man said, waving as they roared away toward Providenciales. Late Monday afternoon, they came back to visit and verify that our plans had not changed. By mid-morning on Tuesday, we had a ten-knot easterly wind. We raised the anchor and made sail, wondering if we were being observed by the radar station as we left the Turks and Caicos. Next week's post: Want wind?  Careful what you wish for.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Living What I Write, Part I

April 3, 2015

My wife was crouched at the base of Play Actor's mast during a violent squall. She was flattening our mainsail to de-power it for the high winds when there was a crack like a rifle shot and she fell backward to the wildly pitching deck. Her harness and tether kept her from going overboard, and before I could lash the helm and go to her aid, she recovered. A piece of hardware in the boom vang, the block and tackle she was using, had parted. The stainless steel had grown brittle with age. She collected the pieces and brought them back to show me.

"Now what?" she asked over the howl of the wind in the rigging.

"We either need to reef the main or drop it," I said.

It was dawn when the squall struck. We had been trading off during the night, changing watch every four hours, and after a clear, moonlit night, we were taken by surprise. With the full mainsail flying, we were overpowered as the wind piped up into the mid-30-knot range. It wasn't dangerous, at least not yet, but it was a long way from the benign sail that we'd enjoyed through the night, and we still had several hours to go before our planned landfall in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

We left St. Martin late the previous afternoon and experienced one of those aesthetic treats reserved for offshore sailors. We were out of sight of land when the sun set. There was a green flash, a rare enough phenomenon, but this one occurred as the disc of the sun sunk below the top of the clouds on the horizon. In our years sailing the tropics, we've seen our share of green flashes, but never one that happened when clouds obscured the horizon. For a moment, the clouds were glowing green, but I've never managed to get a photograph of a green flash.

As the sun's golden glow faded from the indigo water, the moon rose off our stern. It was a waxing moon, a day or two before full, and the sky behind us to the east was clear. As the reddish-gold highlights of sunset faded, our world turned black and white and silver. Except for two whales that breached nearby just before sunset and two cruise ships that passed us just after, we had no other company.

We spent the night sailing, in awe of our surroundings. Sailing itself is magic; harnessing the power of a steady, gentle breeze to move a boat that weighs tens of tons through such an ethereal setting is transcendent. For that night, we were the only two people in the world, and what a world it was.

The sea at night, far from land, has always been our special place, but that night will stay in our memory as one of our best. It ended as dramatically as it had begun; as the moon set off our bow, the sun rose behind us, turning shades of gray with silver highlights to dazzling flashes of gold.

Although it had been a clear night, we had a few brief, misty rain showers. They barely wet the deck, the eerie diffusion of light through the moisture-laden air adding to the sense of otherworldliness. And then, as the golden sunrise became daylight, the light northeasterly wind bought the squall. At first, we thought it was another shower, until the wind piped up.

Thirty plus knots of wind isn't rare offshore. We've sailed in that kind of wind for days at a time. This morning, though, we were tired. We had set out on a single overnight passage to begin a journey that will span the next couple of months. We had not yet settled into the rhythm of watch-keeping, so neither of us had slept during our off watches.  We were tired, ready to drop the anchor and get some rest.

We could see St. John looming on the horizon through the breaks in the rain. We looked at each other, deciding whether to reduce the size of the mainsail with a reef, or just take it down. Reefing was more work, but we could keep sailing. Taking it down meant running the auxiliary engine. Looking at Leslie and raising my eyebrows, I reached for the ignition key. She nodded her agreement.

Leslie took the helm and pointed the bow into the wind, revving up the diesel, while I went forward and dropped the mainsail, wrestling the hundreds of square feet of wet, slippery sailcloth into submission and lashing it to the boom. Working one-handed, I held on to keep from being knocked down by the gyrations of Play Actor as she smashed into the waves, wind-driven spray flying, soaking me.

I'm writing this as we sit in a calm anchorage a few yards off a pristine beach south of Caneel Bay, St. John. We've already forgotten the bruises and the sore muscles. They're a small price to pay for what we had last night.
We’re taking Play Actor back to the States for the first time since 2004. It’s good to be making an extended trip for a change as opposed to the short hops between islands that we’ve done for the last ten years.

There will be more posts like this one as we refresh our acquaintance with voyaging under sail, and I expect they’ll form the basis of a third non-fiction book to complement my sailing thrillers.

Monday, April 14, 2014

It's been a Samuel Johnson Year

An Omar Khayaam day in the Bahamas a few years ago
Samuel Johnson said, “A man who would go to sea for pleasure would go to Hell for a pastime.” Then there's Omar Khayaam: “The Good Lord does not subtract from a man's allotted time those hours spent sailing.”

Being a lifelong boater, I've heard variations of those ideas for as long as I can remember. For some reason, I had never juxtaposed them before. I've enjoyed them both, depending on my mood of the moment, but I just stumbled across the irony in pairing them. If both are correct, then considering the percentage of my life spent afloat, I'll be living in hell long after my contemporaries have moved on.

I don't always find Samuel Johnson's sentiment to be accurate. Obviously, unless I were a masochist, I wouldn't chose to live as I do if I found going to sea as bad as he thought it was. Neither do I cling to the hope that Omar Khayaam was right. On the good days, I find his idea attractive, but there are those days when I think Samuel Johnson might not be wrong. Fortunately, those days are few, although sometimes they come in bunches, like bananas in the tropics.

Lately, we've been forced to spend more of our time working on the boat than we would like. Boats, like most things, are a complex web of compromises. Small boats provide cramped living space, but they're relatively easy to handle and maintain. Big boats are roomier, but they're more demanding to handle and geometrically more expensive to keep.

Being traditionalists, we find older boats more appealing aesthetically than newer ones, and in general more comfortable and seaworthy in rough weather. Their design and construction have stood the tests of time and use. Older boats are also more maintenance intensive, and they don't offer as much open living space as newer designs. There are many more dimensions for comparison, and traditional versus modern is a popular topic for debate among sailors everywhere. The 'best' boat is the one that makes your heart race; there's no right answer to the question of which boat is best.

Living with your choice for an extended period does make you conscious of the trade offs, though. Our boat is 35 years old this year, and we've owned her for 26 if those years. We're intimately acquainted with her good points and her shortcomings, and there aren't many things about her that we'd change. She's been a dependable and mostly trouble-free vessel, but every so often, a lot of things seem to wear out at once.

This season has been one of those times when Play Actor has been a demanding mistress instead of an uplifting, exciting paramour. We knew we were going to have to buy her a new mainsail this year, but we had not expected to have to build her a new bowsprit. We had planned on reupholstering her interior, but we hadn't reckoned on spending days getting rid of an infestation of termites. We knew it was time to preemptively re-caulk a lot of the hardware mounted on deck, but we had not expected that some of it had already leaked over a long enough period to rot parts of the deck.

For most of this winter, we've been in a Samuel Johnson frame of mind, so we're grateful for Omar Khayaam's encouraging view. Thanks to him, we know that we're going to have plenty of time in the future to enjoy the fruits of this year's labor.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Sailing Vacation

February 20, 2014

Work in progress?  Or not...
Today we did something that we haven't done in years. We went sailing for the pure joy of feeling the warm salt spray tickle our cheeks as we sliced through the clear indigo water of the Caribbean. Sailing just for the fun of it, as opposed to sailing to get somewhere, has become a novelty for us after having made our home aboard a sailing vessel for the last 14 years. When we lived ashore and had jobs, sailing was our recreation. We looked forward to the weekends during the warm part of the year so that we could get out on the water and escape the routines of our lives.

When we began cruising full time, the magic of escaping to our private world afloat became commonplace. The early days were grand, but some time during the last 14 years, we lost sight of that magic. Today, we found it again.

We've been anchored on the Dutch side of St. Martin for the last three months. For the first two months of our stay, we were busy with long-delayed maintenance projects on the boat. We also measured for and ordered a new mainsail – something that we had put off for too long. Most sailors replace their sails every few years, but ours was 35 years old. It was never convenient to replace it, so we kept having it patched, and it continued to move us from place to place. Finally, at the end of last winter, we were caught in a storm off Antigua and the sail blew out. We could probably have repaired it one more time, but we decided to treat ourselves to a new one to celebrate the success of my Bluewater Thrillers. I let Dani and Liz buy a million dollar yacht in Bluewater Vengeance – surely they could pay for a new sail for the man who made them up out of thin air.

We ordered the new sail, and it arrived in the midst of our major refit, somewhere between the new bowsprit and the new interior cushions and upholstery. We gave the old sail to a friend and bent the new one on to get it out of our way, almost forgetting about it. After spending all that money on the boat, I owed Dani and Liz and my faithful readers a new Bluewater Thriller, so we settled back into our favorite winter anchorage in the lagoon in St. Martin and I started writing.

Headed for the suburbs, Road Bay, Anguilla
One morning a few weeks ago, the Dutch coastguard came calling to check our ship's papers. They reminded us that our visas were only good through February 23, and that we couldn't renew them without leaving the island and checking into another country. In St. Martin, we could move the boat a few hundred yards and check in on the French side. We could even anchor for free on the French side of the lagoon, and we've spent many pleasant months there over the years. Lately, though, we've come to like the anchorage on the Dutch side. It's more convenient for most of the places we go, and because it costs a few dollars a week to anchor on the Dutch side, it's much less crowded than the French anchorage.

We asked the Dutch authorities if we could move to the French side for a day and then come back to the Dutch side for another three months. The response was a masterful piece of bureaucratic nonsense. In theory, we could, since the French side is indeed part of France, which the Dutch recognize as a separate country. As a practical matter, though, the way the Dutch immigration people check these things is by looking for an entrance stamp in your passport. They told us, “The French, they are too disorganized to stamp the passports. You can go there, but you can't clear back into the Dutch side until you go somewhere that stamps passports.”

“How about St. Barths?” I asked, thinking that it was only 15 miles, and we could try out the new mainsail.

“They're French,” the lady said, shaking her head in pity for them. “You could go to Anguilla. Anguilla will stamp your passport; they're British. The British are proper in these things.”

Downtown Road Bay, Anguilla, on a busy afternoon.
I immediately flashed on a scene from the movie A Fish Called Wanda, where a family returns to their apartment unexpectedly and finds John Cleese stark naked in their living room. As they all make small talk, pretending that he's not naked and has every right to be in their living room even though they don't know him, he says in an aside to the camera, “It's very hard being British, always saying and doing the proper thing.”

We considered just moving over to the French side, where they're too disorganized to even care how long we stay, but then we started thinking that it might be fun to go for a short sail, even though we didn't have to. We'd never been to Anguilla, and we always thought we would go someday. It's a very short sail from St. Martin – just right for checking out the new mainsail and taking a break from my writing regimen. So tonight we're at anchor in Road Bay, Anguilla, where they've already done the proper thing and stamped our passports to show we were here, unlike those French people just a few miles away who couldn't care less about propriety.

The Sail to Anguilla

We had a higher than normal level of pre-departure anxiety as we prepared to leave St. Martin this morning. We hadn't been sailing since November, and we had a new, untried mainsail and a new bowsprit, as well. We've learned over the years that this angst is normal, and that once we're under way, we'll settle down. We sat in the cockpit drinking a last cup of coffee and watching the clock, waiting until 8:10 a.m to start the engine and raise the anchor. The drawbridge through which we would have to pass to get to sea didn't open until 8:30.

When we finished the coffee, we started the engine and I began retrieving the anchor chain. When about half of the chain was aboard, the windlass began to labor. After a few seconds, it ground to a stop, the safety clutch slipping. The momentum of the 30,000 pound boat carried us forward, and the chain began slipping back out. Our anchor chain was fouled, wrapped around a submerged rock or a wreck of some sort. This happens, but not usually St. Martin's lagoon, where the bottom is relatively clear. Worried that we would miss the scheduled opening of the drawbridge, I let out a bit of chain and jockeyed the boat around in several different directions until the chain came clear of the obstruction. I went forward to the windlass and finished retrieving the anchor. We made it through the bridge with a minute or two to spare, our anxiety forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Out in Simpson Bay, we raised the new sail and admired it for a moment. We had not been able to examine it fully deployed since we bent it on back in January. We made a few minor adjustments, shut down the diesel, trimmed the main, and set out on the first leg of our 16-mile course.

After three miles running downwind under just the new mainsail, we cleared the west corner of St. Martin and turned north, putting the wind on our beam. We studied how the main behaved on this point of sail. Satisfied after a moment, we raised the staysail and crossed the Anguilla Channel at better than six knots. We considered raising the Yankee jib just to see how fast we could go, but we decided to concentrate on the behavior of the new mainsail. Although it was essentially identical to the old one it replaced, the old one had long since lost its shape and therefore was quite inefficient. Had we been using it under these conditions, we would have had to take a reef to keep the boat from putting her rail under, and we would have probably lost about a knot of boat speed. We realized that we would need to learn a new regimen for sailing our old boat.

Soon, we rounded the western end of Anguilla and turned onto the next leg of our course. We would be following the shoreline for about seven miles, straight into the wind, to Road Bay, where we would anchor and check in with the authorities.

We sheeted in the main and the staysail as tightly as we could, expecting to have to reduce sail by reefing the main to beat into the wind, but we were pleasantly surprised. We were able to sail at a 45 degree angle to the true wind in 20 knots without a reef in the main, something that Play Actor had never done in the 25 years we've owned her. Of course, that old mainsail was 10 years old when we bought the boat. We're so excited and surprised that we're planning to replace the Yankee and the staysail next year.

An hour and a half and a few tacks later, we dropped the anchor in Road
Bay at the back of the pack of anchored boats. There's really not much here but clear water and a beautiful white sand beach. We put the outboard on the dinghy and went ashore to check in.

February 21, 2014

Limin'. That's what they call it in the islands. We idled away our day in Anguilla, jus' limin', mon. We had no internet access, so the time that I would normally have spent keeping up with my book business was spent over coffee and breakfast with Leslie. I spent the rest of the morning making a few notes, and we read for a couple of hours after lunch.

We went ashore mid-afternoon to go to customs to clear out and to walk around a bit. Thursday, when we arrived, we spent ten minutes walking up and down the one road in Sandy Ground village. We spotted a couple of traditional island houses that I wanted to photograph, as well as a particularly attractive goat, so we had an agenda.

We took care of our outbound clearance first, because the office is right at the foot of the dinghy dock. The officials were a pleasure to deal with, both inbound and outbound. They were welcoming and helpful, even offering to provide concierge-type service. “If you want an island tour or a taxi, or to rent a car, just let us know. We want you to enjoy your stay; we'll help you any way we can,” was the comment from the customs officer when we checked in yesterday. Today, she said, “I hope that you enjoyed your visit and that you'll come back to see us soon.”

One of the houses that we had admired
Home of the former Chief Minister
 when we first stepped ashore yesterday was right behind the Customs and Immigration office, so that was our next stop. As I was snapping pictures, a man came up to tell us that the house was the home of Sir Emile Gumbs, who was the first Chief Minister of Anguilla, which is a British Overseas Territory. He said that Sir Emile, long retired, was a charming man, 83 years old and still active. The man wanted to know where we we from. He wasn't the least bit surprised to hear that we were seaborne wanderers, at home wherever we dropped our anchor.

A short walk up the road we found the goat that we saw yesterday. It was tethered to a gatepost, and someone had tied a bundle of leafy green branches to the post at about head-height for the goat. It had been snacking away when we saw it the first time, but today, it was resting.

A hundred yards or so in the other direction, near the other edge of the village, were the Methodist Church and another house that we thought worth a photograph.
And that's the village of Sandy Ground.

Back in St. Martin 
Saturday, February 22, 2014

We found Road Bay an attractive spot to escape the hustle and bustle of St. Martin. There is an abundance of restaurants along the clean, uncrowded white sand beach, and there's a convenience store in the village. Based on the map we found in the Customs and Immigration office, there are two grocery stores, each a little over a mile from Sandy Ground. Anguilla has a population of around 13,000 people and an economy based on tourism and international banking. Taxes are almost nonexistent, but the island has the reputation among the yachting community of being an expensive place to visit. We didn't find it to be so; our stay cost us exactly nothing. There are no fees for vessels under 20 tons to anchor in Road Bay. A cruising permit to visit the other bays along the coast is relatively expensive, at $100 E.C. per day, but we were content to stay in Road Bay.

We had a quick sail back to St. Martin, and tomorrow we'll settle back into our routine. I have to finish that next book so that Dani and Liz can fund two more new sails.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Damp, Drizzly November in My Soul

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." From Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

It was a damp, drizzly November in California's central valley as well as in my soul by the time we boarded the first of several flights that would eventually take us to Antigua, where our boat was waiting. We had been landlocked for almost six months, and while I had not knocked any people's hats off, I knew how Ishmael felt. It was high time to get to sea, where the air is fresh and the water is clear and deep blue.

After traveling for 15 hours, we arrived in Antigua at about 3 p.m. local time. We claimed our duffel bags, realizing as we did that we had less luggage than the people who were arriving for a week's holiday. We had been traveling for six months and had almost all the clothes we own in two small bags. Living on a small boat helps to reduce your wardrobe to the essentials.

In just a few minutes, we cleared customs and immigration. We stepped out into the clean, fresh air. I took a deep breath, savoring it. After months in the foul air of California's central valley, I could breathe again.

We hailed a taxi to take us to the guest house where we had a reservation. We arranged for the driver to pick us up the next morning to take us to the marina where Play Actor would be launched.

When we got to the guest house, we had to wait a few minutes for the manager to return from the airport, where she had gone to meet our flight and give us a ride.

''I'm so sorry," Leslie said. "We didn't know."

"No problem. It's only a few minutes. I always meet the guests to save them the taxi fare."

''But how did you know our flight?"

"Only one flight from the States in the afternoon."

Life is simpler in the islands.

We had noticed that a restaurant was part of the complex and we had not eaten for 12 hours.

"What time does the restaurant open for dinner?" I asked.

''We don't have opening hours just now, but if you are hungry, we can cook for you. When would you like to eat?"

"5:30," Leslie said.

''Okay. You can eat in your room. We only have fish and some vegetables. Will that be all right?"

"That would be perfect," Leslie said.

And it was. Life is much simpler in the islands, and it's good to be back.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Season's End

“The wind howled in the rigging like a chorus from hell until her head went underwater.  There was a hollow silence as Dani held her breath and braced her feet against the bulwark; she maintained a death-like grip on the handrail as she waited for the wave to recede.  When it did, she snatched another breath and resumed her crablike progress along the windward side deck toward the bow, taking care not to tangle her feet in the tether to her harness.  She timed her movements to the rhythmic rise and fall of Vengeance as the overpowered yacht crashed through the storm-tossed seas.

As she paused again to wait for the deck to shed the knee-deep water from the next breaking wave, she spared a glance back at the cockpit to check on Liz.  Satisfied that her partner had the helm under control, she inched her way forward again.  It was a rule of nature that sail changes always happened at the worst times, usually in the wee hours of the morning, but this predicament was the result of her own impatience.  She knew better than to trust a weather forecast this time of year, particularly when heading north from the tropics, and she had known there was a problem with the headsail furling system before they set out.”
These are the first two paragraphs of my latest novel.  Most of us who have sailed much in open water have had the experience of reducing sail in stormy weather.  That’s also when we discover weaknesses in our equipment and our technique.  I just wrote those paragraphs a few months ago, sitting aboard Play Actor as she rode placidly at anchor in the calm water of Simpson Bay Lagoon in St. Martin.
We left St. Martin on May 25, prepared to beat into a 15 knot east wind to St. Barths, 15 miles away.  It took us four hours to reach Anse Columbier in St. Barths, thanks to the usual foul current, but the trip was uneventful.  We spent a relaxing afternoon and evening, resting for the long day from St. Barths to Antigua.  It’s a little over 70 nautical miles, and we have made the trip in as little as 12 hours when conditions were just right.  More typically, we take about 14 hours, given that there’s often a foul current holding us back for about half of the trip.  If we leave at dawn, we usually arrive at Jolly Harbour, Antigua, a little after dark.  The wind was forecast to back to the northeast over night, which would make for almost ideal conditions.  Optimistic about tomorrow’s sail, we went to bed early, noting that the wind was already backing around as we dropped off to sleep.
When we got clear of the wind shadow of the island of St. Barths on the morning of the 26th, we discovered that the wind had indeed backed to slightly north of east, but it had also weakened to the point where we would have a slow trip.  Eager to get to Antigua and begin the process of laying Play Actor up for the hurricane season, we decided to motor-sail with the main and staysail.  There was enough wind to help counteract the effects of the westerly setting current, and the sails contributed stability in the somewhat confused seas.  We were having a pleasant trip, passing through occasional rain showers that lasted for a few minutes but had no effect on the wind.
Late in the afternoon, we passed into another shower which did have some 40 to 50 knot winds.  We had the first reef in the main already, as that’s our normal motor-sailing configuration.  Based on the previous showers, we decided to ride the wind shift for a few minutes in the hope that the wind would abate.  If it didn’t, then we would reduce sail.  We were both tired at that point, so taking another reef in the main for what we expected to be a few minutes of squally wind wasn’t attractive.  The wind continued to build in gusts, blowing the tops from the already confused waves.  Play Actor is what’s called a ‘wet’ boat in heavy seas.  She sits low in the water and provides a smooth, stable ride, but under conditions like these, windblown seas wash over the deck.  We decided to take that second reef.  Leslie was wearing a foul weather coat from the last shower, but I had been below decks since then and left my coat there.  Since I was already soaked, I opted to go forward to the mast and reduce sail.
I clipped a tether to my harness and started forward along the windward deck.  Once I reached the mast, I locked my legs around it, holding myself in position against the wild motion of the boat as the wind drove her leeward rail under.  We had released the main sheet, so the sail was fluttering in the wind, making a deafening racket as the waves washed over me periodically.  I thought about Dani taking down her big Yankee jib as I tied in the reef with the speed and skill born of long practice.
Wet and cold by now, I made my way back to the cockpit and sheeted in our now much smaller main.  As Leslie began to come up on our course line, I first saw and then heard the rip of canvas as the main tore near the reef cringle at the juncture of the mast and boom.  I eased the sheet and Leslie fell off the wind, reducing the load on the main as I went forward to drop it before it was damaged beyond repair.   I repeated my crablike scramble up to the mast and dropped the sail.  The wind continued to howl and fight my efforts to get the unruly, wet sail bundled up along the boom.  Without the wind resistance of the main, the motion of the boat became ever more erratic.  My focus narrowed accordingly.  Hands, feet, arms, legs, the boom, and the next handful of slippery, wet canvas.  Those things became my entire world for what seemed like hours.  I finally had the sail roughly folded along the boom, and the boom centered and lashed down in its gallows.
I crawled back to the cockpit and got in position to trim the staysail as Leslie revved up the diesel and brought us back to a course hard on the wind.  The wind had subsided to about 20 knots, but it had also clocked.  It was blowing directly from our destination.  We were 20 miles from Antigua; we resigned ourselves to several more hours of beating directly into the wind with the engine and the staysail – something we’ve done before, but not one of our favorite points of sail.
“How long did that take?” I asked.
“About three minutes,” Leslie said.
“It seemed longer…”  I was experiencing mild hypothermia by now, clumsy and disoriented.  Leslie sent me below to dry off and warm up.
I recovered in 30 minutes or so and put on my foul weather coat, returning to the cockpit to discuss our situation with Leslie.  Our main is old – 34 years old – which to most sailors is ancient beyond belief.   We would need to fix it to get us to a good place to buy a replacement when we came back to the boat after hurricane season.  It’s been patched many times.  It started as the very highest quality sail that money could buy, but it’s finally reaching the end of its life.  We had already decided to replace it the next time it gave us a problem.  That would be now.
We’re safely in Antigua, beginning to ready Play Actor for her summer vacation.  We patched the main one more time yesterday; we’ll use it next fall to get us back to St. Martin, where we’ll  take advantage of the duty free port to order a new main from Lee Sails in Hong Kong , the makers of our current, battle-scarred but still functional sails.