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.

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