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.

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