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.