Monday, March 30, 2015

Passage from Puerto Rico to Long Island, Bahamas

"I just saw something in the water - maybe a dolphin or something."
"Where?!", says Junie.
"Right off the port quarter - about 40 yards."

That first thing I spotted, I am pretty sure, was a whale calf. The smaller profile didn't scream 'whale'. The two spouts that came a few moments later were clearly not juvenile anything. They were big! We were traveling north somewhere above the Turks and Caicos. They were traveling south. I turned to scan in front of us for any more whales - partly hoping to see more, part hoping there were none any closer - when Junie laughed joyfully. I spun around just in time to see the huge splash left over from a 3/4 body breach by a humpback whale. The whales were making time south so they faded into the distance quickly. But the rest of our day was now to be defined by scanning the horizon endlessly, afraid we would miss a glimpse of these awesome creatures. Realistically, it was no great surprise to see whales. We are, basically, traveling their migration route in migration season. This was on Day Two of our passage from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to the Bahamas.

We left our slip at Sun Bay Marina in Fajardo on Saturday morning. The total trip would be 612 nautical miles.  We had a full load of groceries from our Costco and Walmart runs, full diesel tank, full water tanks (Sun Bay has some of the best water we have ever encountered) and our newly installed radar unit. We had resolved to sail as much as we could even though the weather forecast indicated that we would have a couple of really mild days. By mild, I mean that the forecast wind direction and speed indicators on the chart one day were actually just circles - like little zeros - instead of wind barb arrows. But, in general, it looked like a practically endless weather window so we didn't have to hurry. There were enough moderate wind days forecast to make some good sailing. This trip, we would be headed north and west with east winds behind us. What a novel concept.

Northeast corner of Puerto Rico

We untied ourselves from the dock, thankful for a mild morning to get out of the slip with just the two of us. No dockhands around early on Saturday morning. We motored out of the shallow entrance to the marina and headed north toward the corner of Puerto Rico. Even before we made the turn west, we had the mainsail and genny out and shut down the motor. We set the sails and and only had to make minor adjustments for the next 18 hours.

Sunset - Day One

Well into the first night, the wind began to shift a bit more to the southeast. Sailing directly downwind comes with its own set of challenges so we started altering course to accommodate the ride. Eventually, we had to make a decision whether we would pass south of Silver Bank or go north of it. You really have to pick. Because, though you are sailing along over the Puerto Rico Trench (deepest spot in the Atlantic Ocean - you could drop Mt Everest into it and it would be underwater), it isn't far until Silver Bank rises up in the middle of the ocean and has exposed rocks - and wrecks. So, we now angled to the right diverting north - away from the DR. No great desire to go back there anyway. That meant, however, that our next and only bailout option on this route was the Turks and Caicos - several hundred miles away. A little unnerving but, again, the weather forecast was mellow and the ride was too.

Sunset - Day Two. 
The next day, we worked to refine our downwind sailing techniques. We stuck out our whisker pole to hold out the headsail. We strapped the mainsail down with a 'preventer' to keep it in place. All the while, the wind dropped further and further until it just died entirely. When all the sails just go limp, it is time to start the motor and burn some of the precious diesel. Even with a full 67 gallon tank and 20 gallons of extra diesel in cans on the deck, we would not have enough fuel to motor the entire trip. And, as I said, we were committed to sailing as much as possible.

Easy sailing in light winds

soon as any wind came back, we killed the engine and threw out sails. Sometimes, it was fun sailing. Sometimes, it was pitifully slow. Extremely peaceful though. Somewhere along there, Junie finally caught her Mahi-mahi! Lucky for it that we had just scored some frozen mahi at Costco so it won the free pass and went back to the sea.

During one of the 'gliding along nicely' periods, between Mayaguana and the Caicos, we spotted some splashing off to the right so we turned to investigate. As we got closer, it looked like water washing over something floating. Then, the something spouted! It was, we believe, a Right Whale and it was sound asleep. Since we were sailing, we were making no noise so we slipped right up on him/her. It would just bob below the surface, then rise up, spout and then sink back down. So cool. He/she finally detected our presence and slid underwater without making a ripple and disappeared.

I have to stop for a second to put in a reminder about the context here. We - Junie and I - are the only crew on this sailing adventure. One of us has to be awake and driving the boat 24-7. Through the night, we take 4 hour watches. You are all alone out there. On the other hand, the night sky is incredible. The shooting stars are entertaining. The funny glowing things in the water make you smile. You wonder whether there are more whales 40 yards away that you just can't see.

Whale Chasing

The next three days delivered a very pleasant run. We were able to sleep when off watch and catch naps during the day. We were nearly becalmed for a full day south of Mayaguana but we had enough breeze to keep moving. So, we watched for whales. Several times we veered off to the left or right to check out the spouts and splashes in the distance.

We finally got some 'saltier' breezes as we approached the Plana Cays. We were moving along nicely with some swells following us all through the night and into the next day. We did some calculations and found that we would not arrive at our intended stop, Clarencetown, until after dark at the rate we were going. We decided to head for the Landrail Point anchorage on the west side of Crooked Island to anchor for the night and then finish up the last 35 miles of the trip to Clarencetown the next day. The waves got bigger and bigger as the day progressed making the decision to stop look even more attractive.
Bird Rock Light.
Abandoned lighthouse off of Landrail Point.

It was an easy anchorage and we stopped fairly early in the afternoon. That gave us plenty of time to settle down so that, shortly after the sun set, Junie and I could sleep at the same time, together. And boy did we sleep.

We wanted to get an early start the next day and, since we were sacked out by 7:00 pm, getting up before daylight the next morning was not that hard. There were schools of Jacks (fish) feeding and splashing in the dark as we were raising the anchor the next morning. Once the anchor came up and we turned west, our depth dropped from 22 feet to unreadably deep within 100 yards. The trip across the Crooked Passage was uneventful and we were approaching Clarencetown just after noon.

Our stop at the Flying Fish Marina fuel dock revealed that we had only used 44 gallons of diesel on the trip. We had motored about 45 hours and run the generator for about 8 hours. We were pretty happy with that. We had sailed about two-thirds of the miles. Not bad for a 6 night trip in such calm weather. In retrospect, we probably could have shaved another 8 hours off of that motoring time.

The fuel dock also provided one last challenge. The wind had swung around to the south so it had been easy to drift up against the dock on arrival. But now, the wind had us pinned against the dock when it was time to leave. We got some welcome assistance from the dockhand and a fine lady named Louise that allowed a fairly graceful exit. Then, we went out to anchor in the harbor and settled in to wait for the Customs folks.

Well, actually, one more final challenge. In order to go back in to meet the Customs agent, we needed the dinghy which was still strapped to the foredeck. Lifting a dinghy using a halyard and dropping it over the side in 25 knots of wind is - well - dangerous. Were it not for the extended Caribbean Cruising Physical Conditioning Program - i.e. constant work on sailing, boating and maintenance for months - I think I would have hurt myself. Fortunately not. To top it all off, the Customs people didn't even show up until the next day.

No worries. We have made it back to the Bahamas. We knocked out a big travel chunk and are nearly halfway home already. Not that we are in too big of a hurry. But, we do have a date to meet - April 16th we meet son and daughter-in-law, Dusty and Holly, and grand-daughter Reagan at Atlantis! Can't wait.

Happy dinghy back in the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas.

Friday, March 20, 2015

NorthWestward Ho!

After leaving St John, we spent one night in Culebra tucked in behind the reef on a ball in the Dakity anchorage. Early the next morning we were on our way again. We arrived at Sun Bay Marina in Fajardo just around lunch time. We had already reserved a slip for a few days in order to provision and prepare for the long trip home. Also, as you may recall, our radar unit died on us a couple of months ago just before we arrived in the Dominican Republic. We got a replacement unit as soon as we reached Puerto Rico back in January and have been carting it around ever since. We really haven't needed it because the entire trip across PR, Vieques, Culebra and the US and British Virgin Islands is all daysailing. Now, we can't put it off any longer. We can't set out for 3 - 5 night passages with no radar.

Our old-ish Raymarine electronics have us caught in upgrade limbo. We can't just replace the radar unit due to compatibility issues. A whole new array of electronics would run north of $20,000 - not going to happen this year and certainly not when everything else works fine. So, we opted to buy a new Furuno radar that can wirelessly connect to an iPad. We are hoping this is the wave of the future. We tested the unit a couple of weeks ago and it seems to work great. This week, we had to permanently mount and connect the unit. No small feat.

I think this Bosun's Chair makes my butt look big.
It is halfway up the mast. I have gotten pretty good at going up there. I have tried, futilely, to somehow coerce the old Raymarine radome to work - cleaned connections, re-wired, re-seated, tapped with a screwdriver, hit rather hard with a screwdriver, wiggled the magnetron. I have probably gone up the mast 6 - 8 times already trying to salvage this unit. This time, it was coming down.

And, the new unit was going up. Of course, the mounting hole patterns are different. Of course the holes for the new unit line up with the stainless steel bars for the mount. Of course I had to drill new holes while hanging 25 feet above the deck. No surprise that the old cable was nearly impossible to get out of the mast. Big surprise - it all works! It is all neatly wired, mounted and happy. We are really glad to get this knocked out. I have to admit that I am a little stiff and sore. Junie collected several boat bites and a blister from tugging on the cable. And, probably, a stiff neck from looking up at me while she managed the halyard I was hanging from. At least we do have the fold-down mast steps so I can climb. I am not sure how we could have accomplished this otherwise.

Mofungo - just one of the many things
we like about Puerto Rico.

Tomorrow morning we are planning to leave Fajardo. We like it here. I think that if we stay too much longer we might start finding a way to live here. So, we leave in the morning. The weather for the trip may be almost too mild but we need to sail when we can. We will go, at least, as far as the Turks and Caicos. Further if the wind helps and things go well. We are ready to move on. Still so much to see and do.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

SeaClearly Guests!

The prospect of being a guest on a cruiser's sailboat for a week must be intimidating. Especially if you have never done it before. And, especially if it is your parents/in-laws. You may already think that these parents/sailboat people are half crazy anyway and now you have agreed to fly thousands of miles to be crammed into a boat with them for days. No escape.

From the cruiser's perspective, we were a little nervous too. We might actually be a little crazy. We have been traveling for 6 months with just the 2 of us aboard. We have had guests for drinks, dinner and even a day sail. Never for an overnight stay. Our habits are rigidly fixed and, perhaps, a bit quirky. Some of that is a result of the cruising thing - water conservation, electricity awareness. Some of it is safety and logistics - standard procedures yield standard results. Always putting stuff away in the same place, in the same way, means it is right there next time you need it.

Also, we have been slowly conditioned to the sailing life. Waves and seas that used to scare the bejesus out of us are now classified as 'a nice day on the ocean'. Loading up critical electronics into dry bags to ride in a dinghy and splashing through the waves - sometimes for over a mile, sometimes in the dark - is fairly normal. Arriving at a restaurant soaking wet and windblown is typical. None of these situations are remotely equivalent to a regular land life.

Fortunately, our daughter Emily and son-in-law Tyler, as a nurse and sheriff's deputy, are accustomed to strange behavior, senseless rules and chaos.

It was all arranged for them to fly into St Thomas and, then, catch the Speedy's ferry all the way up the Sir Francis Drake Channel to Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, BVI. We, in SeaClearly, had worked our way up to North Sound on Virgin Gorda, picked up a mooring ball and a rental car, and were anxiously awaiting their arrival. We had a pleasant conversation with a BVI Customs officer while we waited. Despite his skepticism, Speedy's was right on time this day and we were soon gathering up Emily, Tyler and their luggage.

In the BVIs, they drive on the left side of the road. The cars, however, are set up with the steering on the left - the same as cars in the US. It is somewhat of a challenge to stay on the correct side of the road. Especially through traffic circles. Fortunately, my passengers constantly reminded me, 'Stay to the left!' as we twisted our way back up over the top of Virgin Gorda towards Leverick Bay. When Junie and I drove down to Spanish Town, it was still daylight and we got some magnificent views.

We got back to the marina and decided to grab a bite to eat at the resort restaurant before the dinghy ride out to SeaClearly. It was beautifully, deceptively, calm as we ate overlooking the bay. Junie and I already knew it would be a bumpy, wet ride in the dinghy once we cleared the marina and headed across the mooring field. With four of us and the luggage loaded into the dink, we set out in the dark to find SeaClearly. As I previously posted, it had been an unusually windy week. We had, in fact, abandoned a slip in the marina in favor of a mooring ball because it was just too rough tied up at the dock.

The weather had not improved. The wind was blowing at 25 knots. We were on the west side of North Sound so there was enough fetch for the wind to kick up steep 3 foot waves. As we approached SeaClearly, her stern was rising up several feet and slapping the water on her way down. I am sure that our guests were a little unnerved by all of this but we managed to get everybody and everything aboard with only a few additional bruises and boat-bites.

One of our favorite things about SeaClearly's personality is her ability to shut out the weather. Once you get inside, it is cozy. The wind, the waves and the noise stay outside. That really helped calm things down as we all settled in for our first evening and night.

Boulders at The Baths
Next morning, we headed off to The Baths.This is a world famous snorkeling destination at the south end of Virgin Gorda. We drove the same scenic route over the island ('Stay to the left!'), parked at the Top of the Baths, hiked the path down to the beach and then through the boulders to Devil's Bay - a unique trail and experience. The snorkeling is amazing as you swim along, and between, huge boulders and over drop-offs. The waves are rolling and crashing over the rocks a few feet from you as you watch the fish, and schools of fish, riding the currents and eddys.

Schools of blue tropical fish

But, no dallying this week. We have to cover some ground and see some sights. So, back to SeaClearly. We dropped the mooring ball and crossed the North Sound to the area near Bitter End and picked up a different mooring ball so we could go ashore and check it out. We had drinks at the beach bar which fulfilled one of Emily's images of a Caribbean vacation. It is a beautiful location looking out across Saba Rock, Necker Island, North Sound and the surrounding reefs.
The Bitter End

Our original plan was to make Guana Island for the night but, given the time of day, we set our next destination as Marina Cay. That would set us up for a short trip to Guana the next morning. It was getting late and nearing dark as we arrived at Marina Cay. I got in a hurry and impatient as we came into the mooring field. As a result, our guests got to see how to screw up picking up a mooring ball. We got sideways, hooked the ball with the dinghy towing bridle, I called it names. It was ugly. As they say, 'Sometimes you watch the show, sometimes you are the show.' Eventually, Junie persuaded me to stop trying to fix a bad situation and start over. Second time,we did it correctly.

The next morning, we left fairly early for the short trip past Monkey Point around to Guana Island. This place is just beautiful. We had stopped here on a whim the week before and were amazed at the scenery, the water and the beach. This time, however, we had the opportunity to check out  the snorkeling. A short dinghy ride back to Monkey Point found us some of the best snorkeling we have ever seen. Lots of fish, lots of coral, a variety of underwater terrains. Just wonderful.
Too pretty

It was decided that this place was worthy of an overnight. And it was a very peaceful afternoon and night. However, that meant that the next day we would need to head across the north side of Tortola to make it to Soper's Hole. We needed to check out of the BVIs in order to check into the USVIs if we wanted to squeeze in some stops on St John.

Two pretty

One pretty

Sailing the north shore of Tortola.
Jost Van Dyke in the distance.

As an added bonus, we got some very nice downwind sailing as we passed Cane Garden Bay. Emily was very sad that this stop got cut from our agenda but time is the enemy when you are a full time nurse and graduate student on Spring Break.

Crowded day at Soper's Hole

We cruised into Soper's Hole and almost got into a fight over a mooring ball with a Moorings charter catamaran. We blew off that aggravation and dinghied in for lunch and a souvenir stop. Junie scored some Bluebell ice cream. The BVI check-out process went smoothly. Cost me 75 cents.

We dropped our BVI courtesy flag and hoisted our yellow quarantine flag then we took off for St John. We picked up a mooring ball just off of Caneel Bay (yes, again) and piled into the dinghy once more for the ride to Cruz Bay to check back in to the United States. There is nothing we like better than hearing, 'Welcome home!'

In keeping with our enthusiastic schedule, we immediately returned to SeaClearly and headed for Waterlemon Cay. We still needed to fulfill Tyler's desire for fly-fishing St John. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there were only a few boats here and we had our choice of spots. We cruised all the way in near the beach to a calm, peaceful location. It only took Tyler a few minutes to find fish. His persistence is impressive. We, actually, moved from one location to another before it got dark because the bugs could reach us far too easily in close to the beach. Next morning, Tyler took an extended tour with the dinghy and caught more fish. And saw a shark. Didn't mention it until much later.

We made our final move back to Caneel Bay in order to get Emily and Tyler back to the ferry on Sunday. That gave us a chance to go snorkel one of our favorite spots across the channel at Henley Cay. It was spectacular again. After we finished snorkeling, Tyler revealed his shark experience from earlier in the day.

We also took the opportunity to go into Cruz Bay for dinner at Morgan's Mango to celebrate Emily's
birthday (which we missed in February by being irresponsible parents sailing around the Caribbean). The Voodoo Snapper and the dark chocolate blueberry caramel bread pudding were definite winners.

Sunday morning we had enough time to go visit the resort at Caneel Bay for a few minutes (and get gelato, of course) before packing luggage into the dinghy one last time and making the sad ride to the ferry dock in Cruz Bay. We had an absolutely wonderful time with Emily and Tyler. They were perfect boat guests and, I hope, we were good hosts.

Now, we are back on our own. The next morning was very sentimental for us. We headed away from St John with tears in our eyes. The trip has been amazing. We have a long way to go but are very happy with where we have come. As we sailed west towards Culebra, rain showers caught up to us and obscured our view of the Virgin Islands. Probably just as well.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

BVI Tour

There is a golden glow over St Thomas at sunset that I have never seen anywhere else. Something about the light, the angle of the sun between the islands, the lights from the houses and streets. Whatever it is, it is beautiful.

We are sitting here, back in the Caneel Bay moorings, ready to start the long trip west and north towards home. The dinghy is back on the foredeck. I got sentimental putting away the towing bridle that we have used to drag the poor dinghy all around the Virgin Islands. It feels like we are moving on. And, we are. Tomorrow morning, we are heading back to Culebra -the first time we have gone west in quite a while.

But, we wrapped up our stay in the Virgin Islands in style. Our daughter, Emily and son-in-law Tyler just left this morning after a 5 day BVI and St John tour with us. I will do a separate post with that story. First, I have some catching up to do.

We left the US Virgin Islands and checked into the British Virgin Islands way back on February 17th. We have had limited/no internet since shortly after that. Sometimes we would pick up just enough of a signal with our wifi extender to load emails and, maybe, update Junie's Facebook stuff. Seldom could we actually load web pages. So, I didn't get much blogging done for the last several weeks. Here is the quick summary of that time.

Our path around the BVI up to March 10

Norman Island - Privateer Bay
Privateer Bay
One of our personal favorites. Fairly isolated even though there are several very popular snorkeling sites and night-life scenes right around the corner. Nice snorkeling right off of the boat. Fish, fish, fish.

Sunset over St John

Marina Cay
We actually started the day headed for Trellis Bay which has been hyped as an artsy community and fun place to be. Before we even picked up a mooring ball, both Junie and I had a bad feeling about this place. As far as we are concerned, it is a s#!^hole. We went ashore, walked around for 15 minutes, went back to the boat, dropped the mooring and ran to Marina Cay. We really just needed a place for the night.

This has been on our list for a long time. We knew that we were going to go here and get a lobster dinner. The sail out was fabulous. Entry to the harbor was well marked but getting awfully shallow. We ran aground in the middle of the mooring field. In the middle of the mooring field! Big minus points for Anegada. We got off without incident but annoyed. The dinner was average and expensive. We left the next morning and the sail back to Virgin Gorda was fabulous. We are pretty sure that we did not give Anegada a fair shake but are not anxious to go back. Except for the sailing.

Anegada as we were leaving. As you can see, it is more like the Bahamas
than any of the Virgin Islands - flat, shallow.

Captain Junie under full sail - and smiling!

Oh yeah!

Leverick Bay - North Sound - Virgin Gorda
Love this place. North Sound is home to the Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock but Leverick Bay is smaller, homier and friendlier. We went to visit all those other places but hung out at Leverick. We could hear the pirate show from the boat.A little hokie but fun.
Left to Right - Bitter End, Saba Rock, Necker Island (Richard Branson)

Guana Island
Lovely Guana Island baeaches
Our neighbor for the evening. Note the helicopter on deck.
We set out the next day from North Sound to go to Cane Garden Bay. Halfway there, we detoured here to Guana Island. This place is amazing. It is a private island but has some mooring balls. Beautiful beach (which you can dinghy to - even on private islands the beach is accessible up to the tree line), isolated, clear water (see the bottom in 30 feet). We met some great folks from Louisiana on the catamaran 'Mardi Gras' and had a wonderful time talking to them. Chalk up another 'small world' experience - one of the guys aboard 'Mardi Gras' worked with Junie at the St Francisville paper mill 25 years ago. Crazy.

Mardi Gras!

Cane Garden Bay
Known for its sunsets, this place is the quintessential Caribbean beach scene. We loved it before and we love it more now. Unfortunately, the cruise ships have discovered it and they are bringing in people by the busload over the hill from Road Town. Nonetheless, it is cool. When another Cabo Rico cruised into the harbor, we went to investigate and met Guy and Susan on 'Footloose', a CR 45.
Guy has been cruising the Virgin Islands for years and set up a great evening ashore including live music at Quito's - Quito Rhymer himself performing. What a fun time and nice people.

Privateer Bay
Again - because we like it. 

Road Town, Tortola
Provisioning time! Groceries, propane, boat parts. We anchored right inside the harbor but outside the Moorings Base - one of the largest chartering operations in the world.  Not a quiet night exactly but we accomplished all of the tasks. We were planning on staying a second night but we came back from our errands to find that a chartered boat was anchored right on top of us. I called over and asked if they planned to stay there and they said yes. So, I said, 'Well, we are uncomfortable with you being this close so we are leaving. But you will have to move your boat because you are right on top of our anchor.' One might think that this would prompt the offending boat to move. It did not. We pulled our anchor in the pouring rain (he did, indeed, have to motor out of our way so we could retrieve our hook from underneath his boat), and left the harbor at 4:00 pm to cross the Sir Francis Drake channel and find a better home for the night at...

Peter Island, Great Harbour
Second time here but we picked up a mooring ball this time. We thought we would be lucky if we could find one this late in the day. We motored deep into the bay and thought we saw one. Then, we saw a guy motioning and pointing to a free ball all the way inside and up against the shore. A beautiful spot. The last mooring ball in the bay. Nice. Spent 2 nights there.

Cooper Island
The turtles were much more attractive than the
'upscale' resort.

Saba Rock
Rolex Swan Cup race
Now, we were getting near the time when Emily and Tyler were scheduled to meet us in Virgin Gorda so we beat our way up to North Sound again. We rounded the north point only to be met by 2 dozen boats with spinnakers and full sails flying. We had, inadvertently, come across the Rolex  Swan Cup race. What a pretty sight.  
We went on to grab a mooring ball at Saba Rock for the night, got a big burger at the restaurant. During our dinghy ride around the harbor, we were admiring two Ted Hood-designed Little Harbor sailboats. Anthony, the yacht manager, noted our interest and gave us a tour. What gorgeous boats.

Leverick Bay Marina/Moorings
We planned on getting a slip here at the marina in order to meet our guest more easily. The marina staff was great. Loved Leroy. But, as it turned out, the marina was very exposed, the winds were gusting over 30 knots and it was uncomfortable. SeaClearly was not happy. After one night, we moved out to a mooring ball where she could ride on her own terms and we were all happier.

And, that brings us up to the arrival of Emily and Tyler. They flew in to St Thomas and took the ferry to Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda. We rented a car and met them there and took them back to Leverick Bay. Of course, as I said, the wind was gusting over 30 knots, the waves were 3 feet in the harbor and we had to dinghy them and their luggage out to SeaClearly in the dark. Welcome to cruising! More later.