Leaving Antigua, W. I.

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.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

No Zombie needed; the new swing bridge will open tomorrow.

Delivery of the swing span for the
 new bridge in our neighborhood

We were surprised to realize just the other day that the end of May is approaching; it’s time for us to leave St. Martin and sail to Antigua, where we’ll store Play Actor for the hurricane season once again.  For several years, we had a routine of spending summer in Grenada and winter in St. Martin.   During March through May and October through November, we would visit the other islands of the eastern Caribbean as we made our way north or south.

For the last two summers, we have made  visits to the states during hurricane season, spending time with Leslie’s family on the west coast and visiting our children and grandchildren.   The issue of a safe and affordable place to store the boat during those visits, and the ease of airline connections, has changed our migratory pattern.   This past winter, my book business had a serious impact on our sailing, as well.  I published three new titles during our stay in St. Martin, and I have felt constrained to stay here where I can get good high speed internet access on the boat.  That’s not an easy thing to find in the islands if you want to do more than check your email and do a little browsing on the web from time to time.

We dropped the anchor here in the lagoon in St. Martin last November, and we haven’t lifted it since.  All of our cruising friends and acquaintances have come and gone, but we have provided a stable base for marine growth below the waterline.  Other than a few necessary repairs and periodic dives to keep the propeller clear of barnacles in case we had to move in an emergency, we might as well have been working somewhere.

I’m not complaining; writing is fun, and it’s nice to be selling some books.  Besides, the commute is short for this job, and the location is great.  While not as naturally beautiful as some of the other islands, St. Martin has a charm of its own, and it’s nice because it’s so cosmopolitan, at least by Caribbean standards.  We can find most of the things we need without difficulty here, and because it’s a true free port, with no customs duties, prices are attractive.  We do miss the local produce that we find on the other islands.  Most of the fresh food here comes in from the states.

For all of that, St Martin is still a Caribbean island, with the warm, friendly people who make us feel at home.  It’s unusual because the northern half is a department of France.  The people are French citizens, they speak French, and they vote in French elections.  Their currency is the euro, and the people have French passports that give them easy access to most of the world.  They are free to live and work anywhere in the European Union.   The southern half is still a Dutch colony.  The people are Dutch colonial subjects; they only vote in local elections, and they have restricted, colonial passports that make travel outside the region difficult.  Their opportunities for employment outside the Netherlands Antilles are restricted accordingly.

There is no visible border between the French and the Dutch side, and the people pass freely back and forth.  This has been so since the 1600s, when the two European powers decided to share the island.  Mostly, there is little friction, although there are some inequities that must be particularly painful to people who have family on both sides of the border.  The Dutch side has a dollar based economy, although the legal currency is the Netherlands Antilles Florin, commonly called the N.A.F. or the guilder, and the cost of living is lower on the Dutch side.  The French merchants struggle; their goods come mostly from Europe and are priced in euros, while the merchants on the Dutch side take advantage of the buying power of the dollar to bring in goods from all over the world.  Most of the shopping happens on the Dutch side, where prices are lower and the selection broader.

St. Martin’s economy is driven by tourism, and there’s a tremendous traffic problem.  Visitors rent cars and add confusion to the already crowded roads.  In an effort to improve the flow of traffic, particularly in and out of the Dutch airport where most of the international flights land and take off, the Dutch decided to build a bridge across the lagoon to provide easier access from the French side to the airport and alleviate some of the crowding on the roads on the Dutch side.

 We’ve watched the construction this winter as the 700 foot bridge extended across the lagoon.  The most excitement so far was the arrival about ten days ago of the swing span from the Netherlands.  It was delivered on a small freighter, and bringing the freighter into the lagoon was a major event, as it scraped the sides of the draw bridge leading into the lagoon from the Caribbean on the Dutch side.  The authorities dredged the channel across the Dutch part of the lagoon to accommodate the ship, and we watched from our boat as the span was set in place a few hundred yards from us.

Sketch chart showing our dilemma
We didn’t think much more about it until we began to get ready to leave.  We’re anchored on the French side of the lagoon; there’s more room there.  We use the draw bridge on the Dutch side to enter and leave, as it is much larger and has a deeper channel than the drawbridge on the French side.  We realized that the new Causeway Bridge, as it’s called, was closed and that we could no longer get to the Dutch draw bridge to begin our voyage to Antigua.

The channel to the French bridge is mostly unmarked, and it’s quite shallow.  Our 6-foot draft is at the upper limit, and that requires knowing exactly where the shallow spots are.  We spent a couple of hours in the dinghy yesterday with a GPS and a lead-line, sounding our way to the French bridge.  We now have a route, but it will be nerve-wracking, especially the first time.  Besides, it makes the trip to Antigua longer by several miles, so we were less than thrilled.

There has been all sorts of speculation about the new bridge and when it would begin operation, but there isn’t much solid information, and no one seemed to know when it would open again.  We were hoping that it would open before we needed to leave, so that we could anchor on the Dutch side of the lagoon, giving us ready access to the Dutch bridge that we normally use for exit and entry.

On-line searches for information proved fruitless, although we did turn up some interesting snippets from local news over the last few months.  It seems that the question of tolls for the use of the Causeway Bridge has been hotly debated.  There are numerous factions, each with their own agenda.  In general, the French don’t want a toll, and the Dutch, at least the authorities, do want to levy a charge.   To remind us that we are still in the Caribbean, there was a threat that if the Dutch charged a toll, the French would put a Zombie on the bridge to stop the toll collectors from doing their duty.

This morning we learned from the manager at the yacht club that the bridge will open tomorrow, and stay open at least for a few days, so we’ll be able to move to the Dutch side of the lagoon for an unimpeded departure.  When we go to check out with the French authorities tomorrow, I’ll stop in the local Voodoo hounfort and cancel my request for an emergency Zombie to open the bridge.  Life is good.