Sail Somewhere

Irene & Gary afloat

Vicarious Living

A few days ago, a couple of loyal blog readers sent a message wondering why I had not posted in quite some time.  They graciously said that they live vicariously through our adventures and the lack of updates had led to increased alcohol consumption on their part.  I will not attempt to address the irony in that sentiment.  Instead, I will simply express my gratitude to them for thinking of us, dust off the mildewing computer and take a stab at jotting down a few thoughts.

I am reminded of the final scene of an old movie called The Candidate. The entire plot of the movie consists of Robert Redford’s character campaigning for the Senate.  In that final scene after finally winning the election, he turns to his manager and asks “now what?”  After years of scheming and months of travel, we are finally here in the Caribbean.  So now what?  It doesn’t get much more paradise-ey than this.  (Yes, I know that’s not really a word).  I guess it just seemed strange to write about what for all intents and purposes is now just a long, open-ended vacation.

With that in mind, here’s what we’ve been up to.  After arriving in Puerto Rico, we had the pleasure of hosting our great friend Silvia for several days.  I mention this not only because having a guest aboard with whom to share the fun is one of our favorite things.  It takes a special kind of person to spend their precious vacation time in the spartan accommodations offered on St. Somewhere.  We sailed from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands (not Spanish at all, actually part of Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth) and back and then spent a couple of days exploring Old San Juan.  Much fun was had.

Speaking of friends, we have made quite a few – not always an easy task for us back in the real world.  The generosity and kindness of many we have encountered along way astounds me.  You’re stuck in a marina without a car?  I’ll pick you up at six and we’ll paint the town.  You guys are new in town?  Meet up with us later, we’re having a barbeque.  You’re living on a boat?  Stop by for a drink, I’d love to hear your stories.  You’re headed down island?  Don’t miss this favorite spot.  We have been on the receiving end of some astonishing hospitality.

After the Spanish Virgins, we hoisted sail and made the short beat to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.  For the first time, St. Somewhere crossed paths with the ghosts of charter vacations past, and we anchored in waters that had become familiar to us over the years.  After only a couple of days, I got on an airplane for the first time in a long time and headed back to Colorado for what was supposed to be painful and expensive dental surgery.  The good news was that the surgery wasn’t necessary after all.  The bad news is that I had to fly 3000 miles to find that out.  The trip was not a wasted one though as I had an opportunity to catch up with old friends and do something radical and dangerous.  For the first time in many years, I was all alone in an airplane.  During this time, Irene was both captain and crew.  She survived Carnival in St. Thomas anchored just a little too close to the party.

For the past couple of weeks, we have taken the opportunity to cruise at a leisurely pace what many sailors consider the greatest cruising grounds in the world.  We have only scratched the surface.  As a result our plan is to stay within just a few miles of here for the next six weeks, before hauling the boat out of the water for the worst of hurricane season.

We sailed to Peter Island, in the British Virgins and anchored a short swim from the steep white sand of a fabulous beach.  As the afternoon turned to evening, the charter catamarans and the gaggles of snorkelers departed, leaving us alone with the gulls.  The sun had mostly stayed away so looking across the Drake channel at Tortola a few miles distant reminded me of the clouds and haze of the Pacific Northwest.  Looking to the east, my vista was filled with the towering cliff of Dead Chest Island.  If not for the ocean surrounding it, the rock face would look at home high in the Colorado Rockies.  In the foreground, the ocean swell from the south wrapped around the point at the entrance to the bay, breaking on the rocks and gently rocking the boat.  If you’ve ever fallen asleep to a recording of wave sounds, it could have been recorded right here.





St. Somewhere lies at anchor in Ensenada Honda, Culebra, in the Spanish Virgin Islands.  We are well protected against the relentless ocean swell and the trade winds are mitigated by the lush hills rising green around us.  This safe harbor plays host to a few dozen sailboats as the wind continues to howl at over 20 knots.  Once this morning’s squalls pass, we will see what the island has to offer.  Breakfast is in the air and we are in no particular hurry.

When we posted last, we had just arrived in Puerto Rico sporting a dead engine and a fuel tank full of salt water.  Which brings to mind a conversation I had some time ago back in Florida with my friend Daniel, a marine mechanic.  I was about to tackle the thankless task of removing some stubborn fuel injectors that appeared hopelessly seized in place.  I asked if there was any special trick I might employ to my advantage.  He grinned mischievously with a cigarillo between his teeth.  “Tenacity” he said.  “Don’t let the machine win.”  Daniel is wise, but I think he secretly takes pleasure in watching boat owners suffer.

It is with that spirit of tenacity that I spent our first two days in Puerto Rico.  After rigging up a spare fuel pump with every random mismatched piece of plumbing on board, we drained the boat’s main fuel tank of the contaminated fuel.  After much fiddling with a foam paint brush taped to a long stick, I had a relatively clean fuel tank.  Note to all boat owners installing a new fuel tank: have the fabricator install a damn inspection port.  A two-inch hole for the gas gauge is not sufficient.  After flushing the fuel lines with clean diesel, and changing the filers again, it was time for the moment of truth.

Of course the motor didn’t start.  I called it a day and slept like the dead.

Morning comes too early and Irene and I resume our efforts.  What else are we going to do?  I bled and re-bled the system to no avail.  I had little in my bag of tricks remaining.  Except tenacity.  I removed and replaced the electric lift pump in the hopes that might help.  After all, who knows what kind of damage the salt water might have done?  Another fuel system bleed later, I pushed the start button with high hopes.  Rurhr-ruhr-ruhr… Nothing.

A couple of minutes of failed attempts later the engine’s electric starter finally died.

I tenaciously began the process of replacing the starter, keenly aware that things were now more broken than when I started this repair project.  For those who have never had the pleasure of working on a sailboat engine, I should take a moment to explain the general principles involved.  What would take about 15 minutes to do on a car engine can take all damn day.  The simplest tasks are thwarted by corroded bolts, poor design, too-small equipment spaces and the fact that the one bolt you need to loosen is impossible to reach without special tools and tiny Trump-sized hands.  I have learned to hate boat engineers.

Armed with a few new cuts and bruises, I put the newly installed starter to the test.  The engine fired and Irene actually shed a tear of joy.  Mostly I just felt tired.

Now if I could just get that jib furler fixed.


And now, in no particular order, are some photos.



686 Miles

No, that’s not a typo.  Irene and I actually sailed 686 nautical miles over the past few days from Provodinciales, Turks and Caicos to Isla Palomino, Puerto Rico.  These are sea miles, not the way a crow might fly.  For non-nautical types, 686nm equals 789 statute (normal) miles.  Our average speed was a little faster than a brisk walk.  Perhaps this is not the most efficient way to see the world.

Conventional wisdom dictates that when sailing to the Caribbean, a yacht should make its eastward progress during a period of mild weather conditions.  An engine is useful for this purpose, allowing motoring in relatively flat seas without excessive headwinds.  Then once the vessel has reached the longitude of its destination, a turn to the south may be made, the sails set for a close reach and the prevailing trade winds can be used to sail south into the building winds and seas.

We got the first part right, mostly.  We were only about one degree of longitude short of our goal when the seas began to build.  It was a mild and sunny afternoon and we were performing the routine chore of pouring fuel from five gallon “jerry jugs” into St. Somewhere’s fuel tank.  The tank only holds enough diesel to motor for about 200 miles and we had already topped it off once this trip.  With two gallons left to go, a surprise wave crashed over the bow, and a mini tidal wave rolled toward the deck-level fuel fill. In a panicked rush, I removed the jerry jug, got the funnel out of the way, covered the opening and replaced the cap. Irene slapped water over the side furiously but the damage was done.  At least a gallon of engine-killing saltiness was now in the fuel tank.  In a matter of seconds, our engine was out of commission.

For several hours, I made a valiant effort to fix it.  I repeatedly drained the fuel/water separator.  I changed (all three) fuel filters.  I bled the fuel system.  All I accomplished was proving that a hot engine compartment, diesel fumes, and building seas will make me lose my lunch in spectacular fashion.  Further troubleshooting would have to wait until we weren’t getting pummeled by waves the size of delivery trucks.  Puerto Rico had just gotten a lot farther away.

For non-sailors, the idea of turning to the northeast in order to make progress to the south sounds counterproductive.  The fact that it was the right thing to do under the circumstances didn’t make it any more palatable.  That one maneuver would cost us the better part of a day, but the lack of an engine left us with no better alternative.  Also, delaying our progress by that day would mean that the wind would be more southerly (not good) and the seas would have an extra day to develop (also not good).  All in all, this was proving to be a less than awesome development.

For the next couple of days, the Atlantic did it’s indifferent best to provide us with an opportunity to prove that we actually knew what we were doing.  I’m not going to oversell the story; it was not dangerous, but it was a little unnerving.  Seas built to over eight feet, and the wind steadily increased.  We reefed the sails down to a manageable size and strapped in.  As usual, St. Somewhere galloped like a thoroughbred.  Once you get her sails balanced and find the slot the boat just doesn’t want to stop.  I, on the other hand, would have been happy to spend the day in a recliner watching Netflix.

Sailing close to the wind in open water can be an exhilarating experience.  For a couple of hours, that is.  After that, the novelty of having to constantly brace yourself against the jarring and rocking while the boat heels at a 30-degree angle wears thin.  In these conditions, our confortable, stable boat becomes a violent mechanical bull.  As we encounter each wave, the boat shudders, it’s momentum momentarily slowed.  It groans and rolls over and through the wave and seems for an instant to glide effortlessly.  A split second later we are accelerating and falling off the wave with a crash and a part of my mind still wonders if the thin fiberglass hull might just crack in half.  I know better, but it sure makes a sound like it might.  This happens every couple of seconds.  For days.

A nearly full moon sets bright red, dawn still a couple of hours away.  We make our approach into the harbor under starlight.  We are greeted with the unmistakable scent of lush, damp earth as the lights of Puerto Rico fill the horizon.  On cue, the seas begin to subside and we trim the sails without speaking.  In time, we slow to a crawl seeking shelter behind the hills of a small island.  At sunrise we snag a mooring ball just off the beach.  We feel neither exhilaration nor relief.  We are far too tired to feel much of anything just yet.



Southwest of the middle of nowhere

More than once I have casually mentioned that I had the technical wherewithal to post to the blog from the middle of the ocean. While I will save the journey to the literal middle of nowhere for sailors far heartier than me, I am actually kind of out there today. St. Somewhere is currently located at 20 degrees North latitude and 67 degrees west longitude. The closest piece of dry dirt is about 150 miles away, and our path to the east coast of Puerto Rico will cover over 200 more miles of open ocean. We are about 50 miles north of the Puerto Rico trench, a stretch of ocean about as deep as Mt. Everest is tall. Our progress is slowed as we sail against the Antigua current sweeping through the Atlantic basin towards North America.

Miraculously, the wind just filled in enough to start sailing in earnest. For what seems like an eternity, I’ve been sitting in the rumble seat as the overwhelming percentage of our power came from our diesel engine. Finally, we are heeled and slicing into the building seas, hearing only the rush of water and the familiar and reassuring creaks of the boat as she lands after each wave. The goal is to make another degree of longitude to the east before we can begin our southerly tack.

We are not alone out here. Three days ago, a pair of dolphins stopped by to say hello. I used to think that they only did the synchronized swimming trick at Sea World, but it turns out they are willing to perform for smaller audiences as well. They matched the boat’s speed and direction and leapt out of the water a couple of feet in perfect unison. Just to make sure we saw, they repeated the feat a couple of times. The camera was out of reach, but what a marvelous sight.

Two nights ago I saw something straight out of a Bob Marley song: three little birds upon my doorstep. Late in the evening, a trio of hopelessly lost black gulls spent the night perched on our railing. One of them was kind of as asshole and tried to claim the boat for himself, squawking when the others tried to land. A truce was reached for the night and all departed at dawn to points unknown. Last night while I slept away the dog watch, fireflies of cool yellow bioluminescence glowed bright in the boat’s wake as the moon set around three a.m. Not something you see in Breese, Illinois.

We have spied a couple of sailboats on the horizon traveling the opposite direction. Since I’m not a big fan of unsolicited phone calls, I chose not to bother them on the VHF radio. Cruise ships have cluttered the view occasionally as well. I said hi to one on the radio as she passed to the south carrying her cargo of sunburned revelers and generous buffet items. They break up the horizon in the distance, the size of skyscrapers laid on their sides.

To someone who has never sailed a passage, how we fill our days and nights is a little hard to explain. On one hand, there’s not much to do — the autopilot minds the helm and it’s possible to doze in the shade as the miles roll by. At the same time, there’s always something that needs doing — trimming the sails, analyzing the weather, cooking the food. Systems to monitor include engine, electric and watermaker. It seems like there’s always something to check. Our navigation strategy evolves as weather forecasts do. I try to be good about updating our position using the high frequency radio; I know that Mom tends to worry. The constant motion of the boat takes some getting used to. Unlike a local sail, there’s no respite waiting at day’s end. There’s a rolling, pitching, yawing, never-endingness to it all.

As a look back on our brief couple of weeks in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), the highlight has to be diving the wall at West Caicos. I dove with Tim, our first stateside visitor of the journey. The dive boat moored in 50 feet of water over scattered coral heads. We swam west until the bottom dropped from beneath us, revealing a wall that doesn’t hit bottom until a depth of 7000 feet. As the divemaster deadpanned, “don’t forget to check your buoyancy.” We shared the sea with shark, barracuda and moray eel, and I came within a couple of feet of catching a magnificent hawk’s bill turtle. The TCI feature some gorgeous beaches, delicious conch, and friendly hosts.

It was also there that we parted ways with two boatloads of newfound friends. As they motored south to the Dominican Republic, we promised to reconnect as our travels south permit. I’m trying to make a point of staying in touch with other sailors we meet despite the vast distances this kind of journey involves. Yesterday, we spoke to some sailing friends on the high frequency radio who are anchored in The Caymans about 800 miles to the east. Someday we will sail together again.

If the wind holds, we will make our turn south around midnight. From there, it’s only another 24 hours to Puerto Rico. The secluded anchorages of the Spanish Virgin Islands beckon. But, before I close I must take a moment to acknowledge one of my most loyal readers. By the time she reads this she will be 96 years old. Happy Birthday, Grandma.


Bring on the night

Embarrassingly, I wrote this over two weeks ago and forgot to post it.  We’re on the move again so more to come soon.


The sun is rising over a pale sea.  The waters are settled and the wind that we had been craving all night has failed to make an appearance.  Sometime you win, sometimes you lose.  Sometimes you fire up the faithful old diesel and start driving.  Last night was one of those nights.  Not all bad since we made good time and the seas were never more than about four feet.  Good sleeping conditions.  The engine drones on and the only thing that keeps us from trusting the autopilot unattended is the occasional freighter.  I set the alarm clock for a few minutes at a time to force myself to stand and scan the featureless horizon.  The radar alarm sounds as soon as a ship gets close.  Easy night watch.  We decide that five hour shifts are better than shorter ones.


Not at all like the previous night.  Then we had no wind, but also the bonus of seven foot seas breaking over the bow.  Apparently the forward hatch wasn’t secured as tight as it could have been.  The expensive new guitar got a free, salt-water bath.  A freighter couldn’t tell which way we headed and countered our evasive turns by trying to steam right over us.  A bright spotlight.  Misunderstood words on the radio.  Fitful sleep and dreams confused by the violent motion.  No rhythm to the random movement of the boat.  I rename the shoal near Acklins Island “the cocktail shaker.”  A scheduled radio check-in with a vessel a few miles ahead told us that we could expect more of the same.


We started this small jump by leaving Long Island, Bahamas right after sunrise.  The wind built as we rounded the cliffs of Cape Santa Maria; we hoisted sail and sliced into the oncoming seas but the party did not last.  Within hours, the wind died out and the crisp report of full sails was replaced by the growl of internal combustion.  I console myself that this is a great test-run for the newly repaired diesel.  Soon we realize that we are in for a long slog.  Sloppy seas slap us about like a child’s toy in a bathtub.


Dawn brings us close to an uninhabited Cay.  We hide from the wind and seas behind her beaches.  I sleep soundly as the sun bakes overhead.  By dusk, all is calm and we press on.  Another glorious night kept company by the stars rolling by.


As we close on the islands of the Turks and Caicos, I realize how lucky I am.  A willingness to slow down to the ocean’s rhythms means a life lived without schedule.   I have a partner always willing to take the dog watch.  I look forward to the next sunset.  Darkness holds no mystery.  Bring on the night.


The Air That I Breathe

Yesterday, I strapped on a diving mask, slipped my head into the ocean, and held my breath for just under three minutes.  Physiologically, it turns out that humans are much better at this then I could have imagined; I hadn’t even really begun to turn blue.  Psychologically, it was two minutes and forty-five seconds of Zen.  I floated motionless in the gently rolling waves and was as relaxed as I’ve ever been in my life — right up until the moment when my brain got in the way and screamed “I DON’T LIKE THIS!”  Instead of pondering the situation further, I bolted out of the sea like a leaping manta ray and scared the hell out of my instructor.

She says that she had never seen anything quite like it.  And she’s a record-breaking freediver who has been training and teaching for years.  One second, I’m floating in a relaxed position, doing well, responding correctly when prompted.  The next second I was out of the water and had a look on my face that made her glad that I wasn’t armed.  She insightfully observed that I don’t really know how to turn off my brain.

At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, you’ve really got to try this sometime.  Until yesterday, I had never really been able to hold my breath well enough to even swim down a few feet and under the keel of the boat.  Thus, learning to control my breathing and make a proper freedive entry might prove to be life-changing.  I’ve been breathing air on this planet for over forty-five years.  Apparently, I’ve been doing it all wrong.

We are anchored in Thompson Bay, Long Island for just a few hours more.  Our stay here was brief, but much fun was had.  New friends Ren, Ashley and Ani will be missed.  But they are headed south to Grand Cayman and on to Honduras in the speedy trimaran Jade that is their home.  They continue to pursue a life comfortably lived underwater and another freediving world record.  As so often happens in this life, our paths must diverge.  Our destination lies to the southeast, to Turks and Caicos and on to the Caribbean.

Today we will stage to an anchorage near Cape Santa Maria, the northernmost point of Long Island.  Tomorrow, we will press on to Rum Cay and wait for a weather front to pass, giving us the wind we need to make our way a couple of hundred miles east and south.  If all goes to plan, we will say farewell to The Bahamas and enjoy a sunset in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos on Friday.

We will sail in good company.  Moorahme, a Stephens 47 ably helmed by Beth and Randy, is taking advantage of the same weather window.  They’re bigger and faster than St. Somewhere, so I expect them to save us a good spot in the anchorage in Provo.  We will keep in touch on the long-range radio as we make our passage.


DSCN2261Spa St. Somewhere offers sea-salt infused foot baths at 7 knots


DSCN2277View from the top.  Of course I bring along a camera when I have to (unsuccessfully) fix stuff at the top of the mast


DSCN2278Thompson Bay, Long Island


DSCN2254Using coconuts and primitive tools to survive like the natives



Jade gets underway with Gary as a stowaway


The Tale of the Silly Sailors

Once upon a time, there was a sailboat.  This sailboat liked to romp and play in the wind and the open sea was her playground.  When her sailors got tired, she would drop a sturdy anchor on a strong chain near an island and the sailors would rest.  At anchor, the sailboat lived in a magical world of blue water and fish and beautiful sand beaches.  She was a happy sailboat.


Then one day, the sailboat needed to stop at a dock for a day or two so that her sailors could repair her.  The repairs were a success and all was well, but for no good reason, she didn’t leave the dock and two days turned into three.  And then the silly sailors on the sailboat wanted to stay for the Super Bowl party on day five.   Next, the wind blew hard on day six, so why not stay a little longer?  And by then the partying had started and friends were made and seven days turned into eight.  Other boats came and went.



Some other boats at the dock learned that one of the silly sailors knew a little about how boats work.  So the silly sailor spent time fixing the other boats.  This got the silly sailor lots of free drinks.  But this also made the sailboat jealous.  One special boat with three hulls brought a giant tasty fish that was shared by all.  More windy days.  Nine days became ten and the silly sailors started to forget how to sail.

After ten days at the dock, the sailboat started to get sad, so the sailors gave her some new blue cabin top stripes to cheer her up.  But the sailboat was still unhappy.  She had become the saddest of all boats; she was now a “dock queen.”  But the wind still blew hard so the silly sailors drank rum and played with their new friends.


On day thirteen, the sailboat joyfully woke to the sound of her dock lines being untied.  Her engine rumbled to life and she motored away from the dock.  Her sails were hoisted and she leapt over the waves and bounded through the channel.  But her sailors were still silly (and a little hung over) and they sailed like they had forgotten everything about sailing her.  And then the wind got strong.  Because the silly sailors had just foolishly broken some of the sailboat’s very important rigging parts, they couldn’t reef her sails.  This made the sailors very wet and the silly sailors said some very bad words really loud.

Tired from this very short sail, the sailors dropped the anchor in a big harbor filled with lots of sailboats.  They dutifully fixed the broken rigging parts and they felt silly for staying too long at the dock.  They told the sailboat that they were sorry.


The next day they sailed to a new island they had never before seen.  The sailboat, being a very good boat, gave them a wonderful sail.  They played with the wind and sailed very fast and they anchored near some of their new friends.

The silly sailors learned a very important lesson.  A sailed boat is a happy boat.

The end.