Sail Somewhere

Irene & Gary afloat


Milk Run

The slate grey clouds hang dense and low over the Gulf of Mexico.  I’d forgotten just how green these waters are.  In the distance, I can just make out the silhouette of Florida pines dotting the beach dunes.  The south wind picked up just after dawn and the sails are at full hoist and drawing nicely.  We have just begun our ninth consecutive day at sea.  What seems like a very long time ago, we weighed anchor in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.  We stocked the fridge, buttoned up the boat, and sailed off without fanfare.  What had become the very familiar landscape of the harbor slipped from view as we turned homeward.  The plotter calculates that was 1170 nautical miles ago. Fifty miles to go.

This most recent hop was our longest sail ever, and neither of us feels like we’re likely to ever top it.  In my more cynical moments, I ask why I would ever want to.  After all, it’s a long damn trip from the eastern Caribbean to the Gulf Coast of Florida when you’re travelling slower than you would on a leisurely bike ride.

The Virgin Islands gave way to the Spanish Virgins and the sight of the sun setting over the towering green hills of Puerto Rico.  Traversing this bank, the seas were tame and the winds brisk – a perfect day for a few hours’ sail.  As every voyager knows, the ocean makes false promises.  The docile bank sailing soon gave way to the open Atlantic and the deep water delivered a long, rolling swell that made me grateful for seasick pills.  We had left the friendly confines behind for a while.  The wind built behind us and the seas stacked up high against the rugged Puerto Rican coast.  We gave each other a look that said, “how many more days of this?”

As we transited north of the Mona Passage, the haze allowed the briefest glimpse of the Dominican Republic to our south.  The wind built some more, sails were reefed, harnesses clipped in.  We settled into our watch schedule.  By day we napped when we could in anticipation of nights interrupted by sail changes and higher winds.  A natural phenomenon in these waters is the diurnal pattern of higher wind and seas at night than during the day.  A waning moon guaranteed that we wouldn’t  be able to see the giant seas bearing down upon our stern.  Fantastic.

By now, whenever the wind dropped below 25 knots, it felt like a vacation.  It didn’t happen often.  Every now and again, the waves and swell would conspire to send a couple of dozen gallons of water leaping into the cockpit.  The weatherman said tonight would be even worse.  By sunset, the seas approached ten feet and we surfed the waves under a tiny scrap of sail – a triple-reefed mainsail with the boom lashed down tight.  A dark, overcast night of 30 knots sustained winds with gusts in the high 30s.  Relaxing.

The next morning as we approached the southern Bahamas, I radioed the weather guru in Florida to inquire if stopping for 12 or 24 hours to hide behind an island would improve our lot.  I paraphrase: “St. Somewhere, as you head west things will get better, but for the next two days things are a bit salty.  You’ll have wind of 20-25 knots if you like that kind of thing.  Based on where you’ve been sailing for the last two days though, I don’t see a problem.”  Splendid.

The Great Bahama Bank finally welcomed us with a white sand bottom and depths measured in tens of feet instead of thousands.  The shallow water behaved as the laws of physics demand and gave us some peace. We spied the island of Great Inagua low on the horizon and exhaled.  A couple of days of turquoise sea and sunshine with perfect sailing conditions reminded us why we did this instead of flying coach in the first place.  Nights were filled with a canopy of stars uncountable and bioluminescence in our wake.  Unforgettable.

We emerged into the deep water once again, and I slept through most of the Gulf Stream crossing.  After a week at sea, we had stared giving each other longer stretches of sleep, and I must have needed some.  I now define “deep sleep” as the ability to not notice that the boat is rolling 30 degrees to each side while a diesel engine is started 30 inches from my ear.

We’ve been racing a cold front to central Florida.  Thanks to spot-on forecasting, we’ve been aware of it since Saturday evening and have kept our speed up.  The leading edge of that front looks to be filled with heavy squalls and strong thunderstorms, so it’s not really a fair fight for us if we meet head on.  But the winds have been fair and it looks like we will win the race to St. Pete Beach by several hours.  I have seen the future, and this evening it looks like a couch and Thai take-out.

It has been nearly two years since we began this voyage and at this moment I am unable to put the emotions I feel at its conclusion into words.  I’m also not at all certain that I have any interest in sharing those thoughts or whether anyone would care to listen to them.  Wordsworth once said that poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.  While I am certainly no poet, I’m counting on the tranquility of home to sort that out.

Until then, I wish you fair winds from the crew of St. Somewhere.

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Boom Boom Pow

Long time, no blog post. A good friend recently reminded me of this fact via email and I took the comment to heart. Truth is, I really haven’t felt like writing of late mostly because nothing much of note has been happening. I am quite self-conscious about the fact that when I scribble about something we’ve been up to, there should actually be a something. “Today we went to the beach and sunned ourselves like iguanas” doesn’t really cut it. The French Islands that have been our home for the last month might be worthy of a few words, but those words would mostly be in French, so instead of doing some sort of cultural observational piece – a Francophile “Lost In Translation” – I just didn’t write anything. Maybe later.

Like I said, I did take the comment to heart. So instead of just phoning in a blog post about the mundane, I waited for fate to intervene. It’s life on a sailboat after all, and experience has taught me that something interesting was bound to happen eventually.

Before I begin, I should mention that the crew are safe and uninjured. It kind of reminds me of the kind of phone call you make after crashing a small airplane. “Hi honey, first things first, I’m OK, but…”

We broke the boom.

The boom on St. Somewhere is a seventeen foot long strut made of aluminum. It is six inches high and four inches wide with 3/16 inch thick walls. It attaches to the mast and is allows for control of the mainsail. It’s kind of important for sailing and it snapped like a twig.

Saying “it snapped” is bit of a cop-out, similar to a politician saying “mistakes were made.” Truth is, I was sailing the boat so I broke it.

We were a few hours southeast of St. Bart’s bound for Antigua. The weather forecast was unusual to say the least and we had a 24-hour window of opportunity to sail in favorable winds that rarely occur this far south. Instead of having to wait for a lull in the relentless easterly trade winds to motor southeast, we would take advantage of a rare southwest clocking wind and actually sail! Armed with a forecast of 15 knots of wind with scattered squalls promising wind up to 25 knots, we set out just after midnight.

St. Somewhere was slicing along under full sail at seven knots on a beam reach. The wind speed indicator showed 15 knots – perfect. A quarter moon rose a few degrees above the horizon and the radar was all clear. In a span of 30 seconds the wind climbed to 30 knots and I was scrambling to reduce sail and slow the boat down. We heeled and our speed continued to climb. As the headsail flogged and I hauled on the reefing line, another 30 seconds had passed and the wind hit 45 knots. Our valiant autopilot threw in the towel as the wind shifted behind us and we were officially out of control.

The maneuver that followed is what sailors call a “crash gybe”. Basically the wind is coming from the wrong side of the mainsail and it violently swings to the opposite side of the boat.  If a sailor is unfortunate enough to be standing in the path of the swinging boom, he could easily be killed with a violent blow to the head. I’ve screwed up and crash gybed before. But never in this much wind.

Bang. Zero to shit in 60 seconds.  No rain. No warning.  This was not what was advertised in the brochure.

What followed was a mad scramble to get things under control and avoid doing any further damage to the boat. Needless to say, Irene was awakened by the earlier ruckus of the climbing winds, waiting to jump in. As she now grabbed the helm, I clipped my harness to the jackline and inched forward to the foredeck to sort out the mess. About this time we figured out that the wind indicator was making no sense at all. Swinging wildly in circles, it would appear that the wind was coming from all directions. In the dark, we have learned to rely on our instruments, but now one of them was feeding us nonsense. Why? Because the crash gybe managed to break the sensor off of the top of the mast and it was dangling by its wires. Extra bad news because that same sensor is used to tell the autopilot what direction we are facing. So in addition to structural damage to the rig, our most loyal electronic crewmember was now out of commission.  Whatever happened next, we would be hand-steering through building seas, and now, upwind.

However, there was a lot of good news.  The motor started right up and we had plenty of fuel to return to St. Bart’s.  Other than a minor cut I suffered, courtesy of the jagged edge of the broken aluminum, no one was hurt.  Finally and most miraculously, our sails were undamaged.  It was a long night, but we motored back to St. Bart’s and dropped the anchor to get some rest and regroup.  After a few hours as the winds and seas continued to build, we abandoned the exposed anchorage and continued on to St. Martin where repairs might be possible.

Later that day, we received an email from our weather forecasting service admitting that they got the forecast wrong.  We were not the only boat caught out in more wind than expected in the eastern Caribbean that night.  You win some, you lose some.

Post Script:  The boom is fixed, maybe better than new.  The expert fabricator explained his repair by asserting that “it won’t break at that spot again.  It’ll break somewhere else next time.”  The boat is put back together and we have moved on to yet another island with the unrealistic expectation that soon this might stop being exciting.

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We Wish You A Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from St. Somewhere!  We are tucked behind a reef near Scrub Island in the BVIs as the seasonally high winds (aptly named the Christmas Winds) howl through the rigging.  Far from home with the mercury hovering around 80, getting into the holiday spirit has been a challenge.  But we’ve sailed a couple of thousand miles with a boat stocked for every eventuality – including the need for some holiday cheer.  Who knew that a few bucks worth of Christmas lights stashed beneath the lifetime supply of sunscreen could bring so much joy?  We are the most festive sailboat in the anchorage!

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While not up to our usual photographic standards, here’s a shot of our “tree” this Christmas Eve.  The brightly lit “star” at the top is an anchor light mandated by the Coast Guard.

We spent the day battling upwind in strong winds and building seas, but were rewarded with a beautiful spot for the afternoon.

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A view of our anchorage from the hilltop of Marina Cay

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In our most festive attire

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It has been quite the windswept holiday

As our thoughts turn to family and friends scattered all over the world this holiday season, the crew of St. Somewhere wishes you all a very Merry Christmas and looks forward to many a happy rendezvous in the new year.


Time

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As the coffee brews, I have seven minutes of time to kill.  Truth be told, I have so much more time than seven minutes.  Other than a plan to meet up with a couple of friends sometime today (tonight? – sailors are often very non-specific when it comes to plans), I literally have nothing on my calendar until April.  And I could get out of that commitment if I wanted to.  The utter openness of it all is starting to get to me a little.

In my former life, everything was governed by the clock.  Airlines like to make a big show of safety and comfort, but what really pays the bills is getting people to places on time.  My “show time” for work was specific to the point of silliness.  Departure is scheduled for 6:42 a.m., show time is 5:57.  No, not six.  Those three minutes matter.  It’s a 15 minute ride in the hotel van, but it only leaves every half hour, at 15 and 45 past the hour, of course.  Because that seems like a totally normal thing.  I think I’ll risk it and arrive at the airport three minutes late instead of 27 minutes early because I still possess some small nugget of common sense left from before I became I pilot.  What happens if the van is delayed by traffic?  I’ll find a way to make it work even if those three minutes of tardiness stretch to seven.  Isn’t that cutting it a little close?  I assure the nervous co-pilot that things will be alright, but she doesn’t seem convinced.  That command decision made, the 5:45 van time means I have to wake up at 5:05.  Not 5:00.  I’m not an idiot; those extra five minutes of sleep are a matter of life and death.  Did I mention that my body thinks that 5:00 a.m. is really 3:00 a.m.?  Time zones can be a killer.

After seven minutes in the percolator, the freshly ground Columbian is cooling in my cup.  I am back on the job and the hotel elevator doors open with one minute to spare before the van is scheduled to depart.  One minute to drop a room key at the desk, fill a paper cup with complementary hotel grade coffee (lack of cream and sugar saves precious seconds), snag a copy of the world’s most anodyne newspaper and wheel my bags to the curb.  I hear mumbled good mornings as I fasten the seat belt.  The dashboard clock ticks over to 5:45 while I’m glancing at it – it’s bad form to force others to wait on a dawdling captain, after all.  Flight attendants?  Check.  First officer?  Damn, where’s the co-pilot?  I spend six minutes figuring out that she took the van 30 minutes ago.  Now we’re actually going to be late.

Back onboard, the almost “super moon” set a couple of hours ago and the sun is finally above the tall hill to the southeast. St. Somewhere is moored in the lee of St. John with enough cover from the north to quell the rolling seas just around the corner.   The clouds spell rain again today, but that’s not big news this time of year in the Tropics.  I’ve made a command decision not to take advantage of the potential break in the weather to sail on.  The weather forecast describes the next 48 hours as the “least bad” weather for sailing east for the next couple of weeks – not a ringing endorsement.  I remind myself that no one bought a ticket for this flight.  Folks, we apologize for short delay, but your safety is our top priority.  We will be underway shortly and try our very best to make the ride as smooth as possible.  Welcome aboard.


At the End of the Line

There are those who believe that Florida’s high per-capita ratio of assorted nut jobs and anti-social lunatics is just an accident of geography.  The line of reasoning goes something like this: as most communities are not big fans of eccentrics, over time the solid citizens stay put and the crazy folks move on to a new place.  This place is usually south – no one knows why south – and the pattern repeats itself until the traveling misfit finds a suitable home.  The true whack-jobs usually wind up in Florida not as a result of any grand plan, but simply because they run out of real estate.  Statistics involving bizarre crimes and Darwin Award-worthy antics bear this out.  Taken to its logical extreme, Key West, Florida is the ultimate expression of this phenomenon.  To make it all the way to the end of Highway 1 without finding finding a suitable environment means you’re really a deviant.  Duvall Street is metaphorically and literally the end of the line.

Unless of course, you have a boat.

Welcome to the US Virgin Islands.  Absent the possibility that another country is willing to take you, here marks the spot of southernmost progress.  On the east end of St. Thomas, temporary home of St. Somewhere, you will find the delightful hamlet of Red Hook.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

I’m kidding.  Sort of.

Best I can tell, the local economy is based entirely on providing sailors with booze, food, illegal drugs, and overpriced boat stuff.  Imagine a small town where everybody knows everybody filled with drunken sailors stumbling out of the numerous watering holes.  Live music abounds and cheap happy hour food is plentiful.  Logistics demand that we take full advantage of this place and the only slightly overpriced supplies before we sail south.

Standing by the corner is a mismatched cast of characters.  Tired locals just off of a work shift, giggling kids in school uniforms, and weathered boat bums in desperate need of a haircut mill about with no apparent reason for standing in the sun.  An obligatory crazy person shouts loudly about Jesus and the government to nobody in particular.  For the third time today, a skinny dude with long dreads asks if I need any herb.  Unmarked by any sign but known to all but the tourists, this is where one catches a ride on what is known as “the safari.”  For a dollar (or two for very long rides), you can hop aboard the back of a 3/4 ton truck outfitted with bench seats and an awning. It’s about as confortable as it sounds.  The truck revs to life and lurches its way up a hill.  Oblivious to potholes and the laws of physics, the driver accelerates constantly until he brakes hard for the next rider to jump on or off.  It’s a bargain, given that it costs about 1/40th the price of a taxi to take the narrow, winding carnival jostle that is a ride across St. Thomas.

We anchor just outside the narrow inlet, the harbor filled with million-dollar charter catamarans and squatter-worthy floating heaps of maritime hopelessness.  The ferries to Tortola and St. John apply full throttle just as they clear the channel, sending every one of us rolling.  For these frequent man-caused tidal waves we have secured everything aboard as if we were on passage.

Soon we will be.  The larder is stocked and the tanks are full.  We wait only for a break in the weather before we once again venture out to sea.

And now, in no particular order, some photos.DSCN3327Red Hook anchorage

 

DSCN3011We were dining at an outdoor bar when the little beggars approached.  How do you say no to such a cute face?

DSCN3291The flats between Jost Van Dyke and Little Jost

DSCN3292Out for a hike

DSCN3293The famous “Bubbly Pool”

DSCN3299Irene admires the view on the north shore of Jost Van Dyke

DSCN3307High tide means the trail is often  underwater

DSCN3331The island of Little St. James – famously frequented by a certain ex-president

DSCN3332O On a sunrise sail south of St. Thomas

DSCN2994This is how we roll


Back In The Saddle Again

Good morning from Little Jost Van Dyk, British Virgin Islands.  St. Somewhere is afloat once again and I awoke today in one of my favorite spots on the globe.  We are anchored a short swim from the beach, the sounds of surf breaking on the wall of boulders just a few yards astern.  The bow is pointed into the rising sun cresting the lush hills of Tortola.  The anchorage comes to life as the early risers haul anchor and hoist sail.  Just a mile to the north, at the end of a trail through the rocky hills lies a cliff rising a hundred feet or so above the Atlantic.  Exposed to the north, the swell pounding and bubbling ashore, the wind unblocked for a couple thousand miles of sea, the sight always gives me pause.  On this day, I have much to be thankful for.

One week ago, we stepped off the tiny plane in Virgin Gorda.  The BN Islander seemed sturdy enough and the pilot just old enough to shave.  Despite the fact that its landing gear did not retract and the engines ran on gasoline instead of jet fuel, I was soon catnapping inches from the spinning propeller outside my window.  It was a flight filled with postcard views as we surveyed the western reaches of the Lesser Antilles from 3500 feet.  In the one room hut claiming to be an airport terminal, we got a chuckle from our fellow travellers and the Customs Agent as we opened our bags to reveal a supply of bacon calculated to last several months.  We waddled to the boat yard encumbered with 150 pounds of spare boat parts and protein.

Our mission was to knock out about three and a half days worth of boat chores during the 24 hours available before we could splash the boat.  Failure was not an option.  If we weren’t ready for the lift crew on schedule Friday afternoon, it would require us to postpone our launch until Monday.  One night sleeping aboard in a filthy boatyard is a pain.  Four nights would have been unthinkable.  With about five minutes to spare, we were ready enough and we waved goodbye to the fine folks at Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor.

I say they are fine folks without a trace of sarcasm, but I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to comment on the nature of the relationship between sailor and boat yard.  Sailors are cheap.  We foolishly believe that we are entitled to top-notch and timely service for an economical sum.  We hate the idea of paying someone to do a task we could have accomplished on our own in half the time and with better results.  We plan our lives and purchase airline tickets with the silly notion that the bottom paint job will be done no later than one week later than you promised.  I understand the concept of “island time” all too well and thought I had fooled the yard into finishing on time by telling them I was flying in one week earlier than I actually planned.  Obviously, this was not enough cushion and we had to change our tickets and arrive ten days later than that.

Boat yards have you by the short hairs.  There are only so many places on the planet equipped to lift a few thousand pounds of fiberglass or steel out of the water and park it gingerly on its stands.  Furthermore, once the boat is hauled out, they won’t put your floating home back in the water until you’ve paid whatever bill they hand you.  I bit my tongue and didn’t mention that they delayed us by a couple of weeks.  I didn’t even complain when they didn’t paint the inside of the bow thruster tube; I simply asked for some paint and a brush and added the task to the day’s oversized to-do list.  However, I did wait until the last possible moment when the boat was hanging a few feet above the water and the credit card was in my hand to inquire how much of a discount I might receive since they painted it the wrong color.  Let’s just say that the negotiating class I took 20 years ago at the U of I finally paid for itself.

Safely afloat, we motored north to Gorda Sound and spent the next few days getting St. Somewhere shipshape.  The Sound is surrounded by lush hills and expensive resorts.  We used the frequent downpours to wash away five months of boatyard grime and amused ourselves trying to look inconspicuous amongst the well-heeled ashore.  After a couple of days to get used to floating again, we finally unfurled the genoa sail for yesterday’s 20 mile downwind romp which has us feeling like sailors again.

I’m not going to jinx us by talking too much about how well everything on the boat is working right now. Suffice it to say, I’ve managed to fix all the leaky hatches, the new prop works like a dream, and we didn’t have to bomb for cockroaches.  All is well in the universe.

Today we plan to take a hike to the aforementioned cliff, take a swim, and probably stop by the B-Line Beach Bar.  No blenders here; it’s open air and sand floors.  A local entrepreneur named Bunky built the place just a few steps from the water.  On this otherwise uninhabited island, the bar runs on a generator and he doesn’t even lock up the booze bottles at closing time.  My kind of place.

 

DSCN3281Gorda Sound between rainstorms

 

DSCN3248Blue paint, black paint.  What difference, at this point, does it make?

 

DSCN3274One of the world’s largest sailing yachts, The Maltese Falcon anchored next door

 

DSCN3279Some objects are larger than they appear.  St. Somewhere foreground on the left, is 42 feet.  The Maltese Falcon is somewhat bigger.

 

DSCN3241Perhaps the greatest Craigslist find ever.  Our newly refurbished Autoprop with a fresh coat of PropSpeed paint


Anegada de vida

This morning, we awoke to the sounds of a rolly anchorage.  If you’ve ever gone to sleep anchored in calm winds and awakened with 20 knots, you know what I’m talking about.  Slap.  Thunk.  Clang.  Yeah, maybe we should have dropped the hook where all the other boats are.  Maybe they know something I don’t.  Maybe that’s why I’m bouncing out of my bunk every five seconds in ocean swell to start the day.  No worries, it’s a sailing day and it looks like we’ve got wind!  (From the wrong direction, of course.)  Overnight the winds increased and clocked further to the south – the direction we’re headed today.  Luckily, we’re really used to this.

We spent a lovely couple of days on the island of Anegada.  It’s famous for lobster as well as… um, well the lobster is really really good.  Also, unlike the rest of the Virgin Islands, it’s as flat as an Illinois parking lot.  Approaching from the sea, you first see the tops of trees.  As you sail closer, you then see tree trunks.  Land?  It’s visible when you actually set foot on it.  Seriously, the whole island is about 15 inches above sea level.

Boats anchor in the only place deep enough on the south side of Anegada.  Beautiful beaches abound – conveniently on the north side of Anegada.  Fortunately, capitalism prevails and there is a place just a short walk from the dock where you can exchange $30 for a 125cc dirt bike in reasonably good condition for the day.  Not only did they not ask if I possessed a motorcycle license; they didn’t bother to ask if I knew how to ride.  For the record, I have and I do.  Drop off is easy: leave the keys in it, no one’s going to steal a motorcycle on a tiny island.

As I was saying, the lobster is really good.  The Anegada Reef Hotel has been serving it up for 40 years.  Tables are arranged on the sand, torches are lit as the sun goes down, and grills sizzle with crustacean delicacies.  Speaking with the owner Vivian, who’s been there for the whole 40 years going back to when the island was nothing but a shipwreck magnet, we heard the story of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Virgin Islands in the 1960s.  Much of the appeal of the Caribbean lobster can be traced to the Queen’s request for the dish during her trip here.  Prior to that, lobsters weren’t even worth the trouble of harvesting.  Fisherman who found them usually cut them up for bait.  These days, that would be some expensive bait.

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*** Programming note:  This was actually written a few days ago.  I’ve discovered that I am hesitant to post stale copy and often discard it or wind up editing it to reflect the fact that “today” really meant “back when I wrote this.”  No more.  Henceforth, things will just get posted as I wrote them.  Maybe then I won’t have an excuse for not posting anything for weeks at a time. If I don’t finish writing something or find internet access to get it online in a timely fashion, who cares?  Just pretend you’re reading a Chuck Palahniuk novel, and the whole story is probably out of order.  Today, we’re actually in Virgin Gorda, and you can read about that some other time.  ***

 

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Bridge over shallow water

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Born to be mild.

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Sunset at the Anagada Reef Hotel

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Before

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After.  Mmmmm.