Sunday, June 24, 2012

Onward Through Thick and Thin. Especially Thin.

Our timing was off. Oh,  it was good for crossing the Gulf Stream. That was a snap because we paid attention and followed directions (as unnatural as that felt) but we were a day late logistically. We unknowingly arrived in the Bahamas at the start of a three day holiday weekend. We cleared in late Thursday and made plans to take a taxi into Freeport on Friday morning. We had a couple of things to do in town on Friday, and then we planned to leave that afternoon or Saturday morning for a short 25 mile hop to the southern edge of Grand Bahama Island. Leaving there Sunday morning would have put us in the Berry Islands Sunday night. That didn't happen. Everything was closed on Friday, and we had no real reason to uproot ourselves from our comfy slip at the OBB. We spent most of the weekend working on the boat, relaxing, and gorging ourselves on very delicious fish. I think I had cracked conch three meals in a row, interrupted briefly by conch salad. I must have been running a deficit after a month in Florida.

And we liked OBB marina. We were some happy campers there, all snugged up tight and safe  from that big old scary ocean. Making the daily decision not to cast the lines off and leave a safe harbor is habit forming.  There are always justifications for a little more lethargy and procrastination if one looks hard enough.  We need to wait until this is finished.  I still need to fix that.  Perhaps we should go to town and look for one of these. It's too late to leave today, lets try for tomorrow morning.  And one of the main excuses to stay comfortable is of course We're waiting for a better weather window.

Lets face it, this is not a bad place to hang out congratulating oneself and making sailing plans:

And we were bored after  the first night. We looked around a bit to pass some time.  We noticed that the local lizards are bigger than the same animal in the TCI.  And fearless.   Dooley would have to pinch himself if he saw a lizard that would just stand there and stare at you.

We've heard stories of the curved tails of certain lizards being used in revengeful potions in the TCI.  I was wondering if the curved tail of this one was part of the reason behind his bravado.

We saw a lot of really, really nice boats.  Some of them were obviously over from Florida for the holiday weekend. There were some late night party goers, of course, but they didn't bother us.  When we're plugged into shore power we  close our hatches and crank up our boat air conditioner.   This effectively blocks out the noise of whatever was in those bottles. And an air conditioner turns out to be a good idea if you spend time in a marina.  Your boat always seems to be blocked from any breeze in a marina, and turned away from the wind.  You're surrounded by close neighbors, and boats make noise even without their occupants.  So being able to tune it all out with a noisy air conditioner pumping out cold white noise is very welcome.

We grew accustomed to the view from the Straw Bar, where some patrons apparently don't move much between tidal changes:

We were never there late enough in the evening to find out just who sits out in the water.  I'm sure it would have been interesting,  but we retire early  Actually, the weekend we were there it was pretty quiet. I suspect that mid winter would be a whole different clientele.

Here's our 'yacht' floating at our very temporary home at Old Bahama Bay.

And here are some of our new and very temporary neighbors' yachts.  Notice the lack of other boats with  masts, booms and sails?  This is not exactly a "blowboat" hangout.  Don't get me wrong, two other sailboats did come through briefly while we were there, and everyone at the marina was as nice as could be.   But I got the distinct impression that there is an attitude gap between those who are willing to spend an entire day crossing the Gulf Stream and those who speak in 'thousands' when they fuel up for the two hour trip home.

But it became past time to move on. Especially when we saw the size of the marina, restaurant, and bar bills that S/V Twisted Sheets had accrued.  I do have to admit that it felt good to sign the tabs with the boat name. "Another round, my good man, and charge it to the yacht..." 

So Sunday morning we left the West End and motored about 25 miles down to the Sunrise Marina on the south side of Grand Bahama in the main community of Freeport.  This put us close to the business end of town, to take care of what we had hoped to already have finished the week before.

 I didn't take many photographs of Sunrise Marina, and I should have.  It's a nice place.  It was a   challenging little entrance  through a partially collapsed and narrow canal to get in, but once inside the marina it's very protected and calm.  We spent Sunday afternoon getting the dinghy into the water for the first time, and getting the old Mercury two stroke outboard started.  When I say "old" outboard, I mean it.  This motor  is legally old enough to vote.  I managed to get it running on one cylinder with random help from the other.  We took off in a cloud of blue smoke and noise and took it around the marina.   It actually showed some promise between coughing fits.  Then we put it back away.  And made a note to buy new spark plugs, spark plug wires, and magneto/coils or whatever the right term is for those little things that make the sparks.   Guess I better read up on Mercury outboards.  But a bit of good news:  There is a Mercury dealer in Providenciales.  I should be able to get parts, at least.

I had a moment of nostalgia as we sailed past the port of Freeport on our way south.  I looked out and saw the BORCO (Bahamas Oil Refining Company) tanker loading terminal.   The reason this is nostalgic to me is that my very first trip to the Bahamas was back around 1972 or 73, when I came over to do the bottom site survey  right here, for this very terminal.  I ran a side scan sonar, sub bottom profiler, and microwave navigation system and mapped every square meter of the seafloor from where these boats are sitting to the surf zone.  The BORCO engineers designing the terminal needed to know where there were rocks, coral, and patches of sand and how deep the sand patches were.  There was nothing here, then.  It looked way different back in the 70's.   But didn't we all.

Here's Twisted Sheets tied up in the Sunrise Marina in Freeport, GBI.   This was one of our rare low stress dockings.  I actually felt like I was getting the hang of getting close enough to a dock for La Gringa to lasso a cleat and make me look good.  Having a first mate with a good throwing arm and an accurate eye...... priceless to a bumbling captain.

After roaring around the marina and stinking up the air with clouds of blue smoke from the old Merc, we woke up Monday morning ready to go to town, pick up La Gringa's prescriptions at Fed Ex, and buy a SIM card from BTC.   We figured we could get some exercise and bike into town on the bicycles the marina had for the use of us visiting yachtspeople types. 

This was my trusty steed for one of the most painful mornings of cycling I have ever experienced.

What you experienced cyclists and bike mechanics can't tell from the photo is that the bike is sixty three feet too short for someone with legs as long as mine.  It felt like my knees were coming up close to my ears on the upstroke.  Normally, I would have been able to hear them popping in those situations but the bike was making too much noise for me to hear anything else.  The rear fender is riding directly on top of the rear tire, making an effective  brake. The headset could be tightened by hand at every opportunity, and there was so much loose play in the bottom bracket that if it had still had any bearings in it, they would have fallen out..  I am serious when I say I barely made it back to the marina.   I've never had to stop and walk a bicycle on level ground before.  You might notice from the photo, I didn't bother to use the cable to lock it.  I figured anyone who would actually steal a bicycle like this would be too mentally unstable for me to want to mess around with.

  I did learn a few things about me and borrowed marina bicycles though.   Never again.

Oh, and while Fed Ex came through with the prescriptions sent from Provo, BTC didn't have any BTC SIM cards to sell.   They suggested we try an electronics shop down the road. We biked down the road..  That shop didn't have any either. We went back to  BTC and asked how long we would have to wait to be able to purchase one of these cards   They told us they might have some SIM cards in the afternoon.   We biked back to the boat and one of us collapsed.   In the afternoon, we hire a cab because one of us has sworn off borrowed marina bicycles forever.   But it was of no use.  BTC was still out of SIM cards.  They told us they might have some, tomorrow.  By now we had learned to listen for that little rising inflection of their voices when they say the phrase "might"  have some at some future date or time.  I began to suspect that they were really not all that hopeful, but were just trying real hard not to disappoint us visiting expats with our credit cards and loose spending habits.  What that phrase "we might have some tomorrow" really means is just "Stay awhile.  Relax.  Don't worry.  Be Happy."   This  siren song of  islands is pervasive and runs deep.

We would have liked to stay a day or so just to look around every where we stopped on this trip, but our situation was that we were already about two weeks behind our intended schedule.    We were still at our first Bahamian island, four days after arriving there.   We had a long way to go, and we figured we would just get started on the next leg.  So Tuesday morning we  gave up on trusting BTC best guess at when they would be resupplied with SIM cards.  We saddled up, left Sunrise Marina and sailed across the next substantial body of water in our path on our way to the Berry Islands.

This next leg, crossing the Northwest Providence Channel, is as long as crossing the Gulf Stream.  It's not flowing as fast, but it's still a serious piece of water.  66 miles from Freeport to the Berrys.

A couple of hours out of Freeport, La Gringa saw this little yellow bird flying frantically to catch up with the boat.   It finally landed on the lifelines, looking flustered, and she very carefully slipped up close enough to the bird to get a photograph.  Very slowly.  She didn't want to spook it.....

Ha ha ha haaaaaa. Spook it? Man, we couldn't have gotten rid of this bird waving both arms and banging on a drum. He glommed onto us like he was part of the family. First off, he landed on my shoulder like he was interviewing for the Ship's Parrot position.

We had several long discussions about life at sea, why this bird was so far from land, and what kind of bread crumbs we stocked.   He even did a little River Dance on me.

We stopped worrying about him, he had absolutely no fear of humans.   We cranked up some Lyle Lovett on the stereo and within minutes  I swear he was two-stepping his way  up and down my arm like he owned the place.   That's right, you're not from Texas....

I think he was getting entirely too familiar with the crew, myself.  I am not going to dignify La Gringa's comments concerning 'birds of a feather', birdbrains ' or 'fellow airheads'  by repeating them verbatim in this post.  But the little booger was certainly comfortable and audacious.  He rode all the way to our next landfall with us.

And speaking of our next landfall, this is probably as good a time as any to mention how interesting it is coming into a new harbor (or I guess harbour, to be correct) for the first time.   Nigel, of the S/V Kari Bela, had told us of the Great Harbour Marina, near Bullocks Harbour, in the Berry Islands.  He told us it was a great place to hole up in a hurricane, and since we were now in Hurricane Season, we were planning our route to go from one "Hurricane Hole" to another whenever possible.  Our thinking was that with this approach we would never be further than a day's sail from a protected harbour.

But it's really a white knuckled experience for an old worry wart like myself to come into these places having never seen them before.  This one, for example, completely hides the narrow entrance into the harbour when you are on the approach.   Please just take a look at this photo and imagine you are coming toward this landscape in your 'new' boat that has a tendency to stop working on you from time to time. The chart says this is the entrance to the harbour.  Just to the right of the BTC tower.

But you gotta have faith in your charts, compass, GPS (don't get me started!) and keep going.  I mean, what else you gonna do?

Closer yet, and okay....where's the entrance???

See that little sign on the bare piece of rock that finally makes itself seen?  That marks the actual entrance, and at that point you make a hard left turn.  

If you've done it right, and kept the course, and faith,  you find yourself entering one of the nicest little Hurricane Hole marinas in the islands.  And there you are.

We got tied up and plugged in and settled down.  I remember distinctly asking the dock guy how much tide we should allow for when we set our lines up, and he told me that due to the full moon they were having strong tides, and to figure about 3 and a half feet.  A foot more than normal.  This means a higher high tide, and a lower low tide. If you remember this little tidbit, it might make some sense and relevance later in the blog.  I wish I had thought about it a little more, myself.  But anyhow, at this point we closed up the boat and walked down to the one and only bar/restaurant in the place to grab a bite to eat.   We knew what we were going to order way before we even got to the restaurant, when we spotted a floating cage full of live conch right there in the marina.  Doesn't get much fresher than this:

Down a tree shaded dirt path, up a couple flights of  stairs and we found ourselves in a great spot for the evening meal.   The name of the place is the Rocky Hill restaurant.

Something a little out of the ordinary happened to us here.  We were sitting at the bar waiting for our cracked conch dinners, when a young couple came in and sat to my immediate right. By immediate, I mean that I had to scooch my bar stool over to make room for them.  (And yes, 'scooch' is too a real word.  I think.)

Over the next few minutes the regulars and visiting people all sitting around the bar started talking to each other, in general.  The young lady just arrived mentioned that they were from Montana.    Their questioner said something like "wow, I once went up to Montana to go fly fishing".  Well, at this point I perked up because my long time best friend from high school and college runs the Blue Damsel Lodge in Montana.   He's visited us in the TCI.  So I piped up and said to the fly fisherman " Do you know Keith at the Blue Damsel?"  And while no, he didn't know Keith or the Blue Damsel, the guy sitting next to me said "Hell yeah we know Keith!  I play banjo in a bluegrass band and we've played the Blue Damsel lots of times."  They almost took jobs there.  They knew all about my buddy, and his own band at the lodge, and the whole story.   They were here to get married.

I don't think this has much to do with our trip, but I wanted to mention how incredibly strange I found it to be sitting in a little out of the way bar on a small island most people have never heard of, and literally bumping elbows with someone who knows a best friend of mine for over 40 years.  Come on, that has GOT to strike you as somewhat strange, doesn't it?   I mean, I believe in coincidences, to a point.  This seemed somehow beyond that.

Okay, that was the fun part of this post.  Seriously.  Things got a little more intense after we pulled out of  Great Harbour the next morning.   

It started when we were looking at the chart on how to get to our next planned stop at Chub Cay.  The Explorer Charts had us going about 18 miles west, then turning back and doing another 15 or so miles to the east, taking us out and around the shallow leeside banks of the Berry Islands.   We were looking at a 45 mile run, which would take us most of the day and a lot of it in a non-productive direction.  We liked South, and East. Not West.

Then we walked into the marina office to check out and pay our bill, and saw another chart pinned to their wall.  It looks exactly like this:

I know you can't tell much from that photo (which will get bigger if you click on it)  but La Gringa and I immediately recognized it as a short cut to Chub Cay.   This route goes straight south, and does not have the 18 mile leg to the west that we were dreading.  So we asked the local marina guy about it.   He told us "No problem, mon! You just clear out of here, put the big white house on your stern, and drive sout'.  No problem, we locals do it all the time..."

We copied down a list of GPS Waypoints for the places on the chart where you make your turns.  And for you die hard cartographers out there, here are the waypoints themselves;

This is all ya need.  Just connect these dots, and eventually, you will be in a nice marina in Chub Cay.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, so I snapped these photos so we would have the waypoints, and we were good to go.  Excuse me while I hyperventilate at the memory for  few minutes.  

You can almost predict this one, can't you?  I mean, if you were 12 years old and this was a horror movie you would be screaming "DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR!!" at this point.    Well, we asked him about draft, which is 3.5 ft. for us, and we were assured that there was plenty of water for a 3.5 ft. draft. Does that number "3.5 foot" ring any bells? More on this later.

Well, let me get on with it.  We decided to go for it.  Of course we did.  You already knew that, too, didn't you.  You have this incredibly better perspective on all this from reading this blog than we had from back before writing it.

The trip down was white knuckled, as so many of them have seemed to be lately.  We had to constantly read the depth, and stay in an unmarked channel.  This is not as bad as it could be, when it's sunny out the different colors of turquoise tell you where the deeper water is.  For mile after mile, La Gringa called out the depths as I steered the boat.     This is what the water to the side looked like when we had about five feet of water:

Please keep in mind that five feet of water with a 3.5 ft. draft means there was about 18 inches of water between the bottom of the boat and the sand.  Just enough for me to squeeze under if I were that stupid.  I can't believe I gave you a straight line like that.

As far as we could see, the little non-marked channel we were in was the only place a boat this size could be and still be floating.

As we got closer to Chub Cay the water got progressively shallower and shallower.  We were now motoring gently along in 4 feet of water.   This is what that looks like behind Twisted Sheets.

In case you missed it, those light colored areas directly behind our rudders are swirls of sand kicked up by our propellers, which were now just six inches from the sand.   After four hours of  steering the boat through mile after mile of this, my puckering string was so tight that I was afraid to sneeze.

For navigation we had a program called openCPN on a laptop computer,with the serial output of our GPS receiver putting our real time position on the chart.  At this point, this is what we were seeing on the navigation display:

The red boat symbol is the position of Twisted Sheets.   The numbers are what the water depth are at low tide.' Dry at LW' means the sand is about to be exposed to dry air and sunlight.  1 meter is just over 3 feet.  Remember what I wrote about the tide running a foot lower than normal at this time?   Yep, we were up the proverbial tributary without the proper means of locomotion.  We should have timed our trip so that we got to this shallow part at high tide which would have been 3.5 feet plus these numbers.  But no.  We didn't do that.   We were in such a rush to get going that we didn't think it through.  As captain, it's my responsibility to think of these things.  I didn't in this case.  I should probably make me walk the plank, but I know that I would enjoy it so I don't bother.

Eventually, just as we got about a mile from the north side of Chub Cay, we felt one or the other of our two keels gently kissing the soft sand of the Bahamas.  We were about to run aground if we kept going, and we knew we still had some tide left to run out.   We made a decision to stop, let the boat sit on the soft bottom during the low tide, and then when the tide rose again in a few hours we would refloat and continue onward  Sounds like a plan, doesn't it?  Actually, it's not a bad plan under normal conditions.  These old Catalac boats are built to be able to beach, and you can find plenty of photos of them sitting on dry shorelines, gravel, even hard rock without damage.    We didn't see any reason to scrape our new bottom paint on the sand, so just shut her down and decided to take a break, wait for the tide, and have a late lunch.

This is what a starfish looks like from the boat, in 3.2 feet of water.  Knee deep, as it were.

Things would have been okay at this point except for one very large complication that nobody could plan for.   While we were sitting there nice and cozy, waiting for the tide, a line of severe thunderstorms formed, and then noticed us sitting there helplessly. La Gringa and I retreated to the salon to get out of the sudden torrential rains and were just finishing up our sandwiches when there was an ungodly loud CRACK instantaneous with an unbelievably bright flash, and we both instantly had no doubt whatsoever that we had just been struck by lightning.   The entire boat felt like it had been slapped hard, there was a physical shock wave that traveled right through the whole boat.  We were sitting at our galley table, which is supported by  compression strut, which is directly beneath the mast, which got hit by the lightning.  La Gringa's hand got a mild shock, and my foot did as well.  She had a severe ringing in her left ear that continued for 24 hours.  We smelled the strong odor of ozone, and burning wires.

We surveyed the damages, and found out that the lightning bolt had completely blown the VHF antenna off the mast.  It fried the VHF, the radar, the wind indicator, the GPS we had tied to the navigation program, and the laptop computer.   We found out later it also stopped the battery charger, but that was fuses I found the next day.  The port engine wouldn't start, and there was something electrical burning in that engine space.  The navigation lights were not all working.  This was not our best picnic.

We worked on the boat, looking for burnt fuses and tripped circuit breakers.  Our immediate concern was that it was looking like we would have to try to get into Chub Cay Marina without any navigation program, GPS or lights.  And it was getting dark by the time we floated enough to very gently pick our way out of the sand dunes and into deeper water.  The GPS chart that we had followed looks like this at that end:

We were hit by the lightning just to the right of waypoint 16 there in the middle.  We now had to somehow hit 17, 18, and 19 without our integrated GPS system.  We had to come up with a Plan B.  Fortunately, we had just enough stuff on board to make it work.

  We have an old GPS spare  on board,  22 years old.   No mapping, no output.  Can you believe we actually felt like we were roughing it with a hand held GPS?   Boy, how things have changed.  Anyhow we booted that up and plotted pencil marks on a hard paper chart.  When the tide returned as it always does, the boat floated and we started for Chub Cay.  I managed to get the port engine started by isolating it electrically from the rest of the boat.  We knew we had an alternator issue, but the starter still worked.  I won't bore you with the two hours it took to work this out.    Chub Cay marina closed at 8 pm, and La Gringa was able to call them and at least we found out that they did have empty slips.     We got in at 9:30 pm, in the dark, and could not find our way into the entrance.    We were in about 4 ft. of water and up the wrong channel when La Gringa noticed it ran all the way through.   There was a construction barge tied to the end of the jetty that projects out away from the marina.  We could see the boat, it was lit up so brilliantly that it blinded us.     Finally we figured out that the entrance to the marina was on the other side of the freighter.   Our actual trip in would look something close to the dotted yellow line on this:

X is about where we got hit.  And the plotted GPS approach stopped working when we got inside the harbor.  And did I mention it was dark and we had no lights on the boat?    This was starting to get intense, by tropical vacation standards.

We spent the entire next day in Chub Cay, and when we stopped shaking, we evaluated our position and decided we had enough to be able to navigate to New Providence Island.  That's where Nassau is located, and we figured we would be able to buy replacement electronics in such a big boating center as Nassau.  So, after patching up what we could, and unplugging and disconnecting what we couldn't, we pressed on.

This is a little island at the extreme west end of New Providence Island.  If you look at that Google Earth image up near the top of this blog post, you can see yellow pins for both Chub Cay and Nassau.
I wanted to post this photo, because this single tree somehow struck me as funny. 
We never thought that we would see the single tree on Goulding Cay....

(oh now  just wait a minute. Go back and read that last sentence again, but this time  please mentally pronounce the last word as 'Key".   There.  See what I was trying to do?  It rhymes like Joyce Kilmer if you talk English.)
We had originally planned to just anchor in a large cove here for a night before pressing on toward the Exumas.  But after the lightning strike experience, we figured we were deserving of a little comfort at this point, so we justified checking into the posh new Albany Marina and Resort on New Providence.  This place is really, really nice.  It's also at the opposite end of the island from the city of Nassau. We liked this.

This is the dockmaster's office at Albany Marina.  Everything in this place is absolutely first rate.  Well, except for the WiFi.  It was horrible.  But hey, you can't have it all.

We sashayed across the grounds of the resort looking for cheeseburgers, and passed by the spa section of the resort.  Can you imagine how different this felt to two people who had just spent an afternoon aground after a lightning strike just a day's sail NW of here?  We weren't sure which part was the dream, the lightning or the resort. But of course, they were both very real.

And did we find the cheeseburgers, you might ask?  Yes.  I thought I might have to either take up a collection or fill out a loan application, but yes, we did.  It was a meal to be savored.

After a nice dinner, in a nice place, snugged up to a safe dock, things started to look better.  Oh, we could still see the thunderclouds way off in the distance, but they were nowhere near us.   Not at the moment, anyhow.    We had a peaceful night in a safe place.

Oh, it wasn't all posh.  Yours truly got to spend the usual amount of time in the engine rooms keeping fluids topped up, alternator belts and water pumps tight, and trying to find out why the port engine kept letting us down at crucial times.    Did you know if you wrap the end of a small LED flashlight with electrical tape, it's easier to hold it in your teeth?

And I learned early in the trip that if I was going to walk around the deck of the boat with tools and things at night, I needed to be able to tie them to me lest I watch another expensive splash.  That's the black cord.   And yes, Mom, I know my hands are dirty.   But my heart remains pure.....

I tried hard to find a way to make the backup GPS work with one of our other laptops, but I ran into problem after problem.  I began to realize that I really couldn't count on any of the wiring being right, and when two machines are not talking to each other, is it the GPS, or is it the serial port on the laptop?   I cut into the serial connector for the spare, and was not overjoyed to see the level of craftsmanship, and was downright dismayed to see that the connector was wired for the wrong pins.   If any of my old collegues are reading this, this is NOT my work.

After realizing that we might have two separate issues complicating things, we decided to go into Nassau and see if we could just buy a new GPS receiver with an NMEA output, and get new serial connectors and hook it up to a known good laptop. The folks at the marina arranged for us to rent an automobile.

With me navigating and La Gringa driving (cleverly utilizing our relative strengths in these circumstances) we headed into Nassau.  Oh my. I thought the traffic zipping along on this narrow road was worth a photo in itself.  Notice the approaching cloud to the right?  Notice the dry pavement.

Now notice what the pavement looked like about fifteen minutes later.   We went through another series of incredible electrical storms.  Traffic came to a standstill in a dozen places.   I would taken more photos, but I was using the camera strap as a rosary.  And I'm not even Catholic.

We managed to just make it to the islands largest marine supply store as they were about to close for the day.  We bought a backup VHF radio and some other bits and pieces, but no GPS.  They don't bother stocking them in Nassau any more.  People who want electronics go to Florida to escape the import duties in the Bahamas.  Familiar story to us.   Raise the prices and people shop elsewhere.   And ten percent of something would have been a lot better than 40 percent of nothing. (Turks and Caicos, are you listening?)

We did see some interesting sights during that week we spent in Nassau one afternoon.   And got some sage advice in the bargain.

It took us an hour to make the fifteen minute trip back to the marina.   We still didn't have what we needed, so we made another trip into Nassau the next day.  It was Saturday, and not raining.  An entirely different experience and we managed to hit two more marine supply stores, and three computer outlets.  We did manage to find some serial connectors and a serial to USB converter, but we were really grasping at straws at this point.  We could not find a GPS anywhere.

We did like our marina mates back at Albany.  They politely refrained from referring to us in any kind of comparison to the Beverly Hillbillies.  At least, in our presence.

We decided that the best course of action was to press on.   We had a boat, sails, two working engines, usually, and a GPS that might work if it was wired correctly.  And paper charts.  And away we went.    We followed the well marked channel out of Albany Marina and headed across what's called the White Banks.  Next stop, Highborne Cay in the Exumas!  Finally, we were moving from Book One of the Explorer Charts, to Book Two.   We were looking for any reason to celebrate at this point.

And away across the White Banks we went.   We read in the guide book section of the book that this was a pleasant day sail if the winds were down.  The book also said that if the winds got up to 20 kts from the northeast, it was best to turn around and schedule the crossing for another day.

As you can tell from the photo above, it was dead calm and the forecast was for light winds from the southwest, coming around to the northeast much later in the day.  Oh, our hearts were light as we glided across miles of ocean.  I even had time to make up some Breaker Blowing, Fuel Line Sucking  blues..

The winds turned on us, about half way across.  We had 22 knots from the northeast, and the boat slammed up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down.    We held on, smiled grimly at each other, and asked ourselves for the three hundred thousandth time......"are we having fun yet?"   The answer will eventually be yes, if you can but survive long enough to keep asking the question.

This post has gone on long enough.  I'll let y'all chew on all this for a while, and then finish up with how things on board the Twisted Sheets went after we left Nassau and made the Exumas. 

Hey, even in the worst of it, we DID have some nice sunsets to store in memory.  This one, alas, is from another day entirely.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Back to the Islands

The experiences  of the S/V Twisted Sheets and a totally green Crew as
they travel through the Bahamas on their  way Home from Florida to the Turks and Caicos Islands.

(and please note that this is not normally a sailing blog.  It just temporarily looks that way to the untrained eye, while we move this boat home. If you'd like to look at TCI photos instead please go to any of the previous 270-something posts.)

 In our  blog post  last week we moaned about still hanging around various marinas in south Florida while waiting for a good weather forecast.  Things were a little complicated weather-wise with Tropical Storm Beryl just north of us.   We were getting calm periods and then one of those bands of intense squalls would rip by and we'd have lightning and gale force winds for an hour or so.  Fun stuff when you're on a boat in a marina.  Not so fun if you're on a boat out in a big empty stretch of water.   For one of those few rare times in my life when I followed advice, we kept in port until we had a good forecast for more than a single day.    I know this is going to shock the mothers of weather forecasters everywhere, but the truth is that they don't always get it right.

 We  had spent the entire month of May buying a sail boat, moving aboard, and then traveling southward to a point from which to sail across the Gulf Stream and enter the Bahamas.  It took us a lot longer than we had thought it would take.   Even after we rounded up to the nearest whole number.  And added in a fudge factor.  And some slack.  It still took longer than we thought.  By far.  Oh well. 

At last we have some good news for those who would like to see us stop whining and move on.  We wanted to be able to start this next post with a tropical photo, right?    Well, will this one suffice?

This is the view of a protective stone jetty on the north side of the beach bar here at the Old Bahama Bay Marina and Resort on the West End of Grand Bahama Island.   We arrived here yesterday afternoon, after a 9 hour crossing from the Lake Worth Inlet in Florida.   We came into the marina  with one engine misbehaving and quitting on us every few minutes.   La Gringa was standing by the inside helm at the restart button while I tried to look professional and nonchalant as I sweated internally and chewed the inside of my cheeks off.   We could only get both engines running for a few minutes at a time, so we had to time those brief periods of semi-control of the boat for when we really needed them. As opposed to those times when it would just be  nice to be able to  to do things like make sharp turns.  Stop.  Go.   Little procedural things that people in marinas and insurance companies like to see happening.  And  this was not  a straight shot in, like we've lucked out with a few times.  We somehow managed to make the turns, slow the boat down,  squeeze our little boat between some really expensive big boy fiberglass (John Travolta owns a home here) and get it tied up to a dock in a nice secure slip inside this protected marina.  It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that we are really glad to finally be here.  In the several weeks that we've been doing this, I think we've made maybe two or three of what I would call controlled landings. And another two dozen of the "Oh we're all gonna die, run for your lives,  protect yourselves!" variety.

I tried to find a good aerial photo of this place to show you where we are, and could only come up with this low-resolution one from a real estate site.   Sure looks different from the ICW, doesn't it?.   I also wanted to show you the path we had to take to dock the boat.  I know it doesn't sound like a big deal now that we're sitting here timing the next pina colada, but for a new boat owner to get into this slip in a catamaran that only wants to turn in one direction is kinda tricky.    I've discovered a technique that helps, though.  If I build up enough momentum to carry me through a turn, and then put the single working engine in neutral, it helps by removing the asymmetrical thrust issues that just so complicate things.  The rudders will make the turn if they don't have to work against the single engine torquing the boat over.  It also helps with that panicky feeling that makes it hard to concentrate when all that screaming is going on during these difficult dockings.  I just have to learn to control my screaming.  It's scaring the other boat owners.  And the crew.

I also have simply GOT to get to the bottom of this latest engine issue.  I think I have all the fuel problems sorted out, and now I'm looking at overheating as a possible problem.  I guess I should look at the bright side of all of this. By the time we get this boat down to the Turks and Caicos Islands, I bet I'll  know a lot more about the engines than I did when we started out in Jacksonville about sixteen heart attacks ago.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself, in my desire to get the blog back to tropical scenes.  We have a few more photos of the trip down through Florida that we wanted to show you before we move on.  We take so many photos that never get published because they're obsolete by the time we get around to writing another post. We spent a lot of time in marinas on the ICW coming down.  We used the time to get caught up on a lot of small chores that are hardly worth mentioning, and some not so small chores like engine repairs that I have already mentioned.  Repeatedly.

As for the 'small' ones, some of them were simple DIY stuff, like buying an old flag stanchion and sanding it down and varnishing it.  We are a US documented vessel, and by golly we wanted to be able to fly Old Glory properly.  Now, we can.  I got this old mahogany stanchion for ten bucks at the Sailor's Exchange in St. Augustine.

Some of the DIY stuff was not so simple.  I wish I had taken more photos, but it was non-stop for quite a while. Wiring, plumbing, carpentry, repairs, modifications.  I'll just pick out one that was particularly vexing, and limit it to that. We had been annoyed for weeks with the fuel filler fitting for the starboard side fuel tank. This sucker was stuck.  And stuck solid. This was a problem.  We have some serious stretches of open ocean to cross and it would be really nice to be able to start out with full fuel tanks. We had tried dribbling various lubricants and magical un-stick chemical concoctions into this thing. WD-40, PB Blaster, 3-in-1 oil... we tried a bunch of it.  We bought a propane torch and tried heating it.  We completely deformed a steel tool trying to force it. Please remember, each of these attempts consumed hours of time.  I'm not going to document them all.  You'd get bored and hang up on me.  I hit every West Marine store in eastern Florida, but nobody seemed to stock new ones in the 2" size.  Every body  offered to order them.   But then it was  wait for delivery or just trust it would meet us somewhere eventually.  We wanted to be able to grab the first decent weather window. In frustration and running out of time, I came up with one last idea. We picked up a set of taps and dies at a Sears store somewhere near West Palm, and I drilled out and threaded two holes in the cap.   I drilled two corresponding holes in the end of a piece of aluminum I found on board the boat. We bolted the aluminum bar across the top of the troublesome, frozen fuel cap.  And by golly we fabricated a tool that I could get some serious torque on.  After two weeks of gentle attempts at coercion and trying commercial solutions, in the end brute force finally did the job.

How's that for for a prime example of  'necessity being the mother of invention'? 

In addition to the DIY and other chores, the long trip down the ICW also gave us the chance to hone our boat handing skills and practice blood pressure elevation. The drawbridges were the biggest challenge, and the further south we got the more numerous and nerve wracking they became.  Some of them only open on pre-set schedules.  This one, for example, only opened on the half hour.  If you get there just past the last closure, you have to hold position in a moving current among a lot of other boats until the bridge opens again  a half an hour later.   For a few minutes, with the bridge operator on the radio telling you all to hurry it up.  They have two lines of important cars waiting.  Good thing for us that they have to open.  If it were left up to the operators, I got the feeling that some of them would just as soon sit there watching soap operas on television or reading and leave the bridge closed. .  In a narrow channel full of boaters of various types, this jockying for position really gets interesting.  Counting Twisted Sheets, there are a total of  ten boats in this photo, trying to get through the narrow bridge opening.  We were the third sailboat in the group, and of course the masts have to go right through the middle of the bridge opening.  You can see what would happen if you got swept off to one side or the other.  

We had about a three knot current coming at  us, and I don't even know how many power boats there were behind us all trying to crowd through at the same time.   Oh, and the best part is that we had to make a hard right turn just past the bridge to get into the marina where we were headed.  Fun, fun, fun. 

Back to the subject of marinas we have known, and getting back on track with this narrative section of the blog, this is the view from under the dinghy at the last marina we were staying at over in Florida.  This is the Lake Park Marina.  As you can tell from this photo, we pretty much had a straight shot into that one from Lake Worth.  We were extremely happy to know that at this point we had no more drawbridges to deal with, if we decided to head east from this point to the Bahamas.  We could also have continued south to Fort Lauderdale and Port Everglades.  This would set us up for a shorter trip over to Bimini.  But we elected to make the longer crossing to Grand Bahama.  We'd pretty much had enough of Florida's ICW by this time.   We wanted elbow room, open ocean, and tropical islands. After several hundred miles of navigating these channels I was seeing square green and triangle red channel markers in my sleep. mile after mile of them.   Enough.  We decided to take a hard left and head for the Bahamas at the next opportunity.

That's a decent marina, although it's right at the very edge of some fairly exciting neighborhoods over in Riviera Beach.  I am using the word 'exciting' to describe them because I don't quite know what other words to use.  We met some really nice people in that area, and we also heard gunfire two of the three nights we were there.  What's the word for it when you're living in a fiberglass boat and hear guns being fired nearby in the late evening hours?  I'm going to stick with "exciting" for now. We also caught the distinctive smells of what I would bet was an automobile burning on the morning we left. 

On the positive note, we had a couple of absolutely outstanding meals at a place called the Reef Grill, and a great burger at a pub called the Brass Ring.  And there was no gunfire in either establishment while we were there.

The first day we pulled into that marina we were quite surprised to be tied up just ahead of the S/V Kari Bela.   This is a boat we had seen and admired back on Provo a year ago.  There are some photos of it at a South Side Marina 2011 post.  We got to meet the owner this time.  Nigel was very gracious, and came on board Twisted Sheets and went over our Bahamas charts with us.  He showed me a lot of 'hurricane holes' he knows, in case we need to duck into some place to wait out a storm.   A bit of a reminder that we are getting pretty late into the season for sailing in these waters. 

Shortly after showing me some good spots on the charts, he went back to his boat for a nap. Seems they had just made the trip over from the Bahamas and had a horrible crossing in rough seas and high winds.  Great.  Just what we wanted to hear.  He also strongly advised us to wait for a better weather window.  I was starting to see a pattern here.

We spotted this unusual mast configuration while at Lake Park.  Do any of you other sailors out there know what this is for?  I'm sure it will make perfect sense when it's explained to us, but I couldn't figure out what was going on with the bent section at the top.

Was this guy too slow getting through a draw bridge or something?

Finally, yesterday morning we had a forecast for the Gulf Stream that we liked.  Calm winds for an entire day, and seas of two feet.  We'd been warned by Nigel on Kari Bela not to believe the forecasts, especially with Tropical Storm Beryl just north of us, but it was the best one we'd seen in days.  So with a mixture of excitement, fear, and desperation, we decided to go for it.

Dawn at the marina, with calm winds and a nice sky.  Good omens for a crossing, albeit not much light for photography from a moving boat  Oh well, you get the idea.

We had about two miles to go from the marina, around Peanut Island, and then we were finally at the Lake Worth inlet with direct access to the marine world outside the control of south Florida drawbridge operators.

Here we go passing through the inlet and saying goodbye to the Intracoastal Waterway and hello to the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond.

And almost immediately we were made aware of what we had traded  for the congestion of the drawbridges. The tip of our mast wouldn't reach the shuffleboard court on this baby.  I decided this was probably as good a time as ever to turn the radar on and make plans to someday read the manual.

We had about 60 nautical miles to go.  I had calculated our course the day before, and rechecked my calculations about sixteen hundred times in the intervening hours when normally I would have been asleep.  Instead of vibrating like a tuning fork.  The true bearing to Grand Bahamas West End is about 94 degrees, if I recall correctly.  But we have to take into account that we are going to be getting swept north by the Gulf Stream at an average speed of about two knots.  So at our projected speed of a blistering six knots in this little sailboat, we would be spending ten hours in the Gulf Stream current.  So I set a course to a point about 20 miles south of where we actually wanted to hit the Bahamas.  It's similar to swimming across a fast moving river to hit a specific place on the opposite bank.  If you miss it, you'll be in a world of hurt trying to swim against the current to get back to it.  Another analogy would be kind of like an ant planning to cross the moving walkway in an airport to get to a candy wrapper on the other side.  He either has to start way upstream of the wrapper or figure out an angle to cross with.  If he misses it, he's got to overcome the speed of the treadmill just to stay in one spot.  These kinds of endeavors take some planning, if you're slow.   Like a swimmer, or an ant, or a sailboat.

So I figured out our true heading taking into account the effects of the current on us over ten hours, and then added in the magnetic variation to come up with the magnetic heading to an imaginary point that would be moving as we approached it.   Am I making this better or worse?   But you can see why I lay awake all night thinking about it, right?  I would have been SO embarrassed to have to tell La Gringa that we were  headed for Bermuda because her dummy of a husband totally missed the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.

The west wall of the Gulf Stream is about 18 miles out from the Lake Worth Inlet.  We could tell we were approaching it when we saw the line of low clouds that form over the warmer water of this fast, north running river in the ocean.

And then after weeks of worrying and planning, we were in it.   And it was a piece of cake.  We had lucked out and picked an almost perfect day.  We had mixed clouds, and the largest waves we saw were maybe six feet at most.  And there were only a few of those out in the middle.  Most of the seas were probably more like 2 to 4 feet.  A lot more than the two foot seas predicted, but it was great to see how easily Twisted Sheets rode over them.

We would have liked to put the sails up, but  we had very light winds from directly astern.  Putting up the sails would have slowed us down, and we didn't want to slow down.   We were averaging seven knots with the engines, which is a pretty good clip for a sailboat under power.   I set my calculated heading of 121 degrees magnetic into the autopilot, and we just spent the next nine hours watching the ocean.  Well, some of the crew napped through parts of it.  I think she was wondering what I had been so concerned about.  With the motion of the boat and the drone of the engines, it was like a double shot of NyQuil.

But not for me. I didn't nap.  I did yawn a lot.

And that was pretty much it.  Anticlimactic after staying awake the night before in anticipation. My heading brought us to within a mile of our target at West End on Grand Bahama Island.  The first thing I spotted from about fifteen miles out was this water tower.  I didn't think to take a photo of it as we approached, mostly because I was worrying myself silly over whether or not the engines would still both be running when we got into the marina.  I shouldn't have worried.   Of course they weren't both running.  Worrying about it didn't change a thing.   We just handled it.  Again.

But later, from the beach bar at the Old Bahama Bay, I did remember to take this photo of the water tank that was our first view of the islands after our first Gulf Stream crossing in our first time in the open ocean, aboard our first liveaboard sailboat, right before my first customs and immigration clearance as the master of a sailing ship and us as cruisers.  That's a lot of firsts in one go.  But don't you find that you actually like the 'firsts' in life? Firsts are good.  Keep the blood flowing.  The trick is to keep it flowing where it's supposed to flow.  Recirculating it is good.

And that brings you all up to date with where we are at the moment.  We're in this marina using their WiFi for a day or two while we take care of some things like getting set up for mobile broadband as we continue south down through the less populated parts of the Bahamas, and trying to figure out what's up  with our unhappy diesel.   We met a fellow boater at the marina last night who gave me some ideas on that.  We are also in the middle of some unsettled weather that we'd just as soon wait out. 

We had dinner last night at a  beach restaurant here that was highly recommended by our friends the Shafers (of Windmills Plantations on Salt Cay fame) and I have to tell you, it was the best cracked conch we have ever tasted.  And we've eaten a lot of cracked conch. La Gringa also had some fish that was so good that we asked the chef what it was.  It was Queen Snapper.

So, I guess there are worst places to wait out a couple days of bad weather while making plans for better.   It's a huge relief to have that crossing behind us.  And after the canals and bridges of the Florida ICW, the open blue ocean was a welcome change

Can you see the little stingray cruising along the clear water just off the beach here?    It would never have occurred to me that seeing a stingray at a swimming beach on a cloudy day would be a familiar and comforting experience.

We should be able to start taking some more tropical photos from this point on. I'll try to keep the blog up to date for the rest of the trip, even if it's only a few photos at a time. We still have 500 miles of islands between us and home, and today is the first day of Hurricane Season. Stay tuned.