Saturday, March 10, 2018

We Love the DR!

Surprise, surprise - I'm writing this from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, having just crossed the Mona Passage over the last two days. We had a really good weather window and decided to take it, even though it meant we spent only three weeks in the Dominican Republic instead of the month we originally intended. Nevertheless we took full advantage of our time there, I felt like we saw quite a bit, and ended up really enjoying the country. We'll definitely be back. In my last post I wrote about some of the things we did during our eleven days in Luperon; here are some of the things we did after leaving there on March 1st:

 --Motorsailing the North Coast. We got our despacho on the afternoon of the 1st, a fairly painless process that took about an hour including visits to inmigración, Aduanas, & Port Authority. No charge for the despacho, just $20 for the Port Authority (7-30 days in the anchorage). We left at 4pm to clear the channel in daylight & avoid the fishing net bouys, which meant our first few hours were a bit rough until the night lee established itself about 9pm. Otherwise it was a gorgeous motorsail. We passed Rio San Juan around daybreak and kept going past Scottish Bay with a nice counter-current on our tail; there was no east gradient wind and only a little seabreeze to buck. Rounding the Samaná Peninsula in the late afternoon and early evening was absolutely stunning. We got into the Samaná town anchorage at 9pm Friday, and pulled up anchor early the next morning to move to the Puerto Bahia Marina.

--Staying at Puerto Bahia Marina / The Bannister Hotel. This place was kinda nuts, in a good way. Imagine a nice marina with gorgeous views across Samaná Bay, next to a 4-star hotel and a ton of vacation homes and condominiums strewn up the hillside, all inside a secure gate that keeps the usual pandemonium of the DR at bay. There are 2 pools, 3 restaurants, 3 bars, a gym, hot showers, a spa - all of which are open to marina guests. Everything is well staffed and immaculately maintained - and there is nobody around. Like seriously, other than the marina guests, employees and armed guards, the place is deserted. It's quite eerie. Maybe I've been watching too much Ozark lately, but my personal theory is that it's a money laundering scheme. Anyways it's a fantastic deal at $1/ft/night. The check-in and despacho process is significantly easier here than Luperon or especially (so I hear) the Samaná town anchorage. The commandante is particularly friendly and speaks good English. That said, this is definitely not the "real DR" - it's a vacation from it.

--Catching up with S/V Vela and S/V O'ceananigans and meeting the friendly crews of S/Vs La Mischief and Follow Me and S/V Mercator. After having significantly trailed us all season, our friends Erin and Kara on Vela abruptly caught up to us with a giant 500nm leap from Georgetown to Samaná, using the same giant weather window we used to move east. Catamarans La Mischief and Follow Me made the same passage in about the same time. We had met David and Joanna on O'ceananigans in Luperon, they had gone to Samaná a few days before us, and came into the marina the day after us. We tried to rent a car for a few days but the car rental agency only had a 12-passenger Hyundai van, so we ended up playing tour guide for several days of exploring in company with the other cruisers.

--Daytrip to Las Galeras. We had seven people from Windbird, Vela, and La Mischief for this one. We drove east along the Samaná Peninsula, checked out the town of Las Galenas, played on the beach a bit, moved over to La Playita for lunch, and then did a bit of bushwhacking out to the Boca de Diablo blowhole on our return. It was a really nice day to a gorgeous area.

--Daytrip to El Limón and Las Terrenas. We had nine people from Windbird, Vela, La Mischief, Follow Me, and O'ceananigans for this one. We procured horses and guides for the trek to the spectacular El Limón waterfall, then drove to Las Terrenas for a fantastic lunch, walking on the beach, and drinking and shooting pool in a beach bar. On the way back we hit up a produce truck in Samaná.

--Overnight trip to Boca Chica / Santo Domingo. On Monday night Judy Handley emailed me that Delta had notified her there was another possible Nor'easter inbound to Boston on her planned travel date of Wednesday, Mar 7 and offered to move her travel forward a day, which she decided to do. So that changed our plans slightly. We left Samaná an hour or two earlier than planned and drove directly to Santo Domingo Airport to pick Judy up around 5:30pm, then drove to Boca Chica where she had reserved a room at a beachfront hotel. We found a cheap option only a few blocks away in a place over a Spanish restaurant. We walked the beach and had a nice dinner, then retired fairly early in preparation for our early start the next day. On Wednesday we drove to Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone, got breakfast at a cafe, and did a self-guided walking tour for the next 5 hours or so. Santo Domingo was considerably cleaner and more orderly than I was expecting, even the driving wasn't that bad compared to the nuttiness of the rest of the DR. The colonial zone was pretty fascinating, oozing history from every street corner. We had a late lunch in a convenient cafeteria, did some provisioning at the nearby Supermercado Nacional, and drove back to Samaná before nightfall. One major surprise from the drive: finding Rogue Brewing's Dead Guy Ale, in cans, at a gas station along the way! We got a sixer for the boat's beer stores.

I'll cover our Mona crossing in another post, but for now suffice it to say it was about as smooth of a Mona crossing as one can hope for. After getting stuck in Turks and Caicos for 3 weeks, we've been lucking out on weather ever since. Here's hoping that trend continues as we explore Puerto Rico's south coast and head onward to the Virgin Islands!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Lazing in Luperon

Luperon is a small rural village well off the beaten tourist track, and would likely hold little interest to cruisers if it wasn't for its beautiful protected harbor, a hurricane hole and just about the only all-weather anchorage that exists on the DR's north coast. In recent years Luperon's popularity with cruisers has waned, partly due a somewhat undeserved reputation for dirtiness and minor corruption among officials but also because a large, modern and fairly cheap marina (Ocean World) was built only 7nm east. Overall, we've come to rather like Luperon. The town is authentically DR, which is to say fairly poor, somewhat dirty, loud, down to party, and always exceedingly friendly. We haven't seen any hint of crime; few cruisers here bother to lock their dinghy. Though it's a small town, you can get a lot done here. It has some amenities that cater to cruisers and there are several people who make their full-time living helping boaters. Though kinda out in the sticks, Luperon is only 60 minutes by road from Puerto Plata and 90 from Santiago, making it a decent base from which to explore the western DR. And like much of the DR, things are really, really cheap here. We've eaten out far more than we ever did in the Bahamas or TCI simply because it's almost as cheap as eating on the boat. Overall we're glad we came to Luperon and recommend it to other cruisers with one caveat. Here are some of the things we've done & businesses we've patronized in our first ten days in Luperon:

-- Papo. He is the cruisers' main go-to guy in the harbor, along with Handy Andy who offers similar services. We've used Papo to buy bottled water and dinghy gas and rent motorcycles and a Jeep. Along with his son Francis, he stands by on Channel 68 in the mornings and sporadically throughout the rest of the day. They both speak good English, and we've found them fairly reliable. However, a big warning: Papo owns and "maintains" most of the moorings in the harbor. They're a good deal at $2/day, which lets you avoid fouling your ground tackle in the rich water and thick goopy mangrove mud here. We took one of Papo's moorings for this reason. On Monday afternoon, we came back to the boat after a 4-hour absence to find that the mooring had dragged roughly 150 feet in 25-30 knot winds, putting Windbird very close to another boat (whose owner was fortunately aboard to fend our boat off). We moved to another mooring, which seemed to hold fine in the strong afternoon winds. However, two nights later we woke at 5am to the sound of Windbird gently bouncing off another boat in the night calm. Imagine our surprise to find ourselves in an entirely different area of the bay than we had moored! Our docklines were still in perfect shape, hanging limply from the bow. After inspection, it appears that the mooring's pendant parted under load during one of the squalls in the night, none of which were particularly strong. We are rather lucky Windbird didn't sustain any damage or run aground in our nighttime drift through an anchorage filled with cruising boats, a fishing fleet, shoals and mangroves. It turns out another boat about our size also came loose on the same night ours did, also due to a parted pendant. We're now anchored and feel much more secure using our own ground tackle, even though we'll have to clean it up when we go. Papo was very apologetic and refunded our money. If you use one of his moorings, take a good hard look at its condition and perhaps back down on it.

-- Puerto Blanco Marina & Las Velas Restaurant. Right near the outer mooring field, very convenient. A single dock with fairly cheap dockage rates, has been fully occupied our entire time here, looks like long-term tenants. Also offers a dinghy dock with showers and laundry facilities for $1/day for cruisers. Super nice restaurant, slightly higher-than-local prices but still reasonable. Daily specials announced on Channel 68. Manager Anna is very helpful to cruisers, a good resource (she arranged Brad's taxi to Santiago Airport for late Sunday). Somewhat spotty wifi, may be able to receive if you're fairly close in the outer mooring field.

-- Putulas Restaurant and Bar. Walk out of the Puerto Blanco gates, Putulas is ahead on the left. They also have a dinghy dock on the "Love Canal." Operated by Cathy and her husband Putula, basically a scenic balcony at the back of their house. Super inviting to cruisers. Good food, great happy hour 2-4pm daily with 50 peso ($1) mixed drinks. Had a birthday party for our friend Mak here, Cathy and Putula went out of their way to make it special. Fairly fast wifi.

--Wendy's Bar. On the left just after you walk into town from the government dock. Cheap cold beer, 100 pesos ($2) for a large Bohemia or 125 pesos ($2.50) for a large Presidente. Fast free wifi. Primary in-town cruiser and gringo expat hangout, now that both Lazy Ass Bistro and Upper Deck have closed. Super friendly, great advice to be had. Movie nights on Monday & Tuesday, Karaoke on Friday night.

--Chicken Shack. Unmarked lime green building on left just before Upper Deck. One of several "Pico Pollos" in town offering good food for cheap. Delicious large lunch (fried chicken, beans, rice, salad) for 150 pesos ($3).

--Pizzeria Frances. On southwest corner of main crossroads in town. Huge excellent pizzas for 300-350 pesos ($6-7). Also known for having good steaks and French food (owner/chef is French). Upstairs patio has nice view of townie action.

--Supermarket. Down main road about 6 blocks from government dock, on right side near Western Union. Both of the ATMs in town are right here as well. Pretty small, somewhat limited selection, but good prices and can certainly get the essentials here. They also have liquor with a good rum selection, as do several mini-markets around town.

--Claro. One of two cell phone companies in town, along with Altice. On main crossroads in town, kitty corner to Pizzeria Frances. We got a SIM card for 100 pesos ($2), month prepaid data package is 1200 pesos ($24) for 3GB. No English spoken but friendly & helpful. Once I ran through the 3GB package I discovered that Claro offers 5 days of unlimited data and voice for only 148 pesos, which is a much better deal (880 pesos / $17 for a month). Their LTE is pretty slow in the anchorage at night, I hear Altice is better.

--Ferreteria, or hardware store. Pretty big selection. Left at Claro, go two blocks east past the main park, turn left (north) - can't miss it.

--Marine Second-Hand Shop. On right just past Wendy's, quite a lot of second-hand gear. A bit expensive for used stuff but I don't see a West Marine anywhere near here! Picked up a snap shackle in good condition for 900 pesos ($18). 

--Laundry. The only place to do it yourself is Puerto Blanco marina. However Papo can pick it up at your boat and reportedly has reasonable charges. We used Gladys, the Agriculture department official; she charged $18 for a large duffel bag that was probably 3 or 4 loads, and 400 pesos ($8) to do another large bag with 2 loads worth.

--Cruisers Net. Sunday and Wednesday at 8am on Channel 72.

--27 Charcos (27 Waterfalls). We rented motorbikes from Papo (600 pesos / $12 each), this is just past Imbert on the highway to Santiago. You can do 7, 12, or all 27 waterfalls. We did all 27 for 700 pesos ($14) each. Wear watersocks or old sneakers. They provide life jacket, helmet, and English-speaking guides. It starts with a long hike with a fair amount of vertical, which makes the water feel all the more refreshing when you get in. You jump and slide down various waterfalls and then tromp through the creekbed to the next ones. Very pretty, and so much fun. We really enjoyed this. It's a pretty 1-hour ride/drive each way, the roads are a bit potholed but better than I expected. Just remember the first rule of driving in the DR: there are no rules!

--Playa Grande. A nice beach outside Luperon though the water is quite rough in afternoon sea breeze conditions. Saw humpback whales just offshore here. Has a cool beach bar in a converted shipping container. Creepy abandoned resort and associated workers apartments looks like it was pretty nice 10 years ago - it closed shortly after the financial crash of 2008 and has changed hands several times since. The quiet roads between here and Puerto Blanco are great for dog-walking.

--Carnival in La Vega. All the major cities in the DR have Carnival celebrations every Sunday in February as well as Independence Day (Feb 27), but La Vega is considered the best one in the country. Starts at 3pm Sundays, parade lasts until about 6pm but the craziness goes much later. We and Sea Otter rented a 4WD through Papo for $35USD/day. Lots of fun, music, drinking and dancing. Be careful about turning your bum to the masked "limping devils" and other merrymakers, you're likely to receive a solid whack from a vejiga, which is an air-filled leather bladder on a tether! La Vega is just over a 2-hour drive from Luperon, parking just off the Carnival route is 200 pesos / $4.

--Reprovisioning in Santiago. We stayed on the north side of town after our return from La Vega and went to a nearby supermercado to reprovision the next day. They had just about as good of a selection as the supurb supermarket in the Turks and Caicos, just less familiar brands at far better prices. We replenished the ship's stores of rum, wine, meat, deli cheese, juices, mixers, dry and canned goods and more for just under $400 for a heaping cartful. Figured it would have been twice that in the Bahamas. There are also reportedly good supermarkets in Puerto Plata, which is a little closer than Santiago (1 hr vs. 90 minutes from Luperon).

It's looking like we'll be moving east from Luperon to Samaná in a couple days, as a massive low pressure system to our north will push the mid-Atlantic High south into the Caribbean and utterly kill the eastern trade winds (and even reverse them for a few days). We'll be doing it nonstop since a bit of north swell will likely render the north coast anchorages uncomfortable or even untenable; unfortunately, Dawn won't be available to crew for Sea Otter this time and they're not willing to do a 24-hour nonstop with just Dane and Mak and Isla, so we'll be losing our buddy boat for at least a little while. On the positive side, it looks like our friends Kara and Erin on S/V Vela are about to catch up to us, and should arrive in Samaná shortly after we do! Additionally, Windbird's longtime admiral Judy Handley is planning on flying into Santo Domingo on March 7th, and will cross the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico with us. We're super excited to have her back on board as we move into the Caribbean Sea!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Made It To the Caribbean!

OK, the title is a little overstated; we won't actually arrive in the Caribbean Sea until we cross the Mona Passage, likely in mid-March. But we've arrived in the Dominican Republic, which is definitely a Caribbean nation. It feels like a major milestone. Getting here over the last three months in this unsettled weather year has certainly been an effort. And the DR is completely unlike anywhere we've been on Windbird yet.

A week before we crossed to the DR, I flew from Provo, Turks and Caicos to Atlanta, GA for a 4-day work trip to Santiago, Chile. Normally when I fly during the cruising season (ideally only every 6-8 weeks), I bid or pick up a domestic trip so that I can get three landings to reestablish landing currency. In this case, though, I was going to training immediately afterwards so I treated myself to a nice easy South America trip with an enjoyable 36 hour layover while I refamiliarized myself with the Boeing 767 cockpit in preparation for my checkride. After I got back from Santiago I had an extra day off to hang out with Atlanta friends Kevin & Jeannie, renew my FAA medical certificate, and study for training. Then it was two intense days in the simulator, followed by a frantic rush to the Atlanta airport to barely make the only flight of the day back to Provo. Also on that flight: my close friend and frequent partner in crime, Brad Phillips, who agreed to crew aboard Windbird for this passage so that Dawn could crew for our new friends Dane and Makayla on S/V Sea Otter.

While I was gone, Dawn and Piper stayed on the hook in Sapodilla Bay, a first for them as we've always taken a dock or mooring ball when I'm gone. For this week, though, the winds were constant out of the east and the anchor was well buried; we were confident Windbird would stay put and Dane and Mak were close if Dawn needed help. We had made friends with a vacationing Canadian couple and their children who were renting a villa on shore. Piper had fun playing with the kids on the beach several times a day, and Dawn had the whole family out to the boat.

When Brad and I arrived back to Provo, Dawn and Dane picked us up and then we drove across the island to meet with roving customs agent LeRon so he could check us out of the TCI. After we got back we had happy hour aboard Sea Otter with several other boats in the anchorage, and then we went to Windbird to get a good night's rest before our early morning departure. The alarm went off at 5:30 am; we prepped Windbird for passage in the dark, took Piper to shore, and then dropped Dawn and her bags off at Sea Otter. Brad and I got the anchor up right at sunrise, 7:20am, and headed southeastward with Sea Otter close behind. The wind was quite light at first, and then came up to 12-14 knots; the 2 foot chop only slowed us to an average of 4.5 knots while motorsailing and short-tacking with mainsail up. There weren't many coral patches across the Caicos Bank, and we had good light to easily see and avoid the few that cropped up. By the time we approached the Six Hills Cays in mid-afternoon, Sea Otter had fallen about four miles behind so we stopped to let them catch up. Once they did, we had just enough light to sneak through the reef just south of Long Cay and exit into the Turks Passage. Just as the sun set, I caught a decent (10 lb) Mutton Snapper. Cleaning it on the pitching deck in fading light was a bit challenging but I got it done.

From Long Cay it was only 23nm to Big Sand Cay, but too close to the wind to sail direct. The 5-6 foot seas in the Turks Passage made motorsailing too slow, so we unfurled the yankee, shut off the motor, and settled down into a beat in 15 kt ENE winds. Our first leg was a long, 15nm port tack down to Big Sand's latitude, then we short-tacked between that line and the rhumb line. Sea Otter isn't quite as weatherly as Windbird and fell well off to weather, but as the seas settled down on the east side of the passage they resumed motorsailing straight to Big Sand and ended up catching us. We fired up the engine at 3nm out and made a beeline for the anchorage, where we arrived at 2am, anchored, and fell into bed.

I got up at 7:30am to talk to Chris Parker on the SSB. His forecast for the day's leg to Luperon wasn't nearly as rosy as it had been before, so after thinking through the options Brad and I launched the dink and went over to Sea Otter to discuss our strategy. I was concerned Sea Otter wouldn't be able to lay Luperon, especially if the wind and seas picked up. We decided Windbird would still go to Luperon and they would bear off for La Isabella or Punta Rucia if necessary, coming up to Luperon in the following night's lee. If neither of us could lay Luperon, we'd both sail down to Montecristi and check in there. Back on Windbird, Brad and I had breakfast and got the boat ready to go. Sea Otter hoisted anchor at 11am, and we followed suit at 11:30.

As it turned out, the wind was initially a bit lighter and more northerly than forecast, and though it turned more easterly during the day it never got as windy as Chris had said. Brad and I beat to weather for the first 30nm, gaining easting just in cast the winds shifted markedly. Sea Otter wasn't able to sail as high as us but was able to lay a line that would put them about 10nm east of Luperon. They were faster than us in that direction and soon disappeared over the horizon, but at sunset we bore off to a close (almost beam) reach and romped along at 6 to 7 knots, passing them in the early morning. At 40nm out we could see the lights of Puerto Plata; at 25nm the wind was already starting to fade. At 12nm the wind was down to 10 knots and shifted SE, and we could strongly smell land. It was ok since we were quite early and looking to waste time. Finally, at 6nm out, the wind was only 6 knots and too far SE to make headway so out we started the engine and motorsailed for Luperon, arriving there at 4:30am and heaving to for the next 3 hours. The stillness of the night calm, after what had been a relatively brisk sail in 6' seas, was a nice preview of the night coasting strategies one uses to make easting on the north shore of the DR.

At 7:30am there was enough light to head in through the entrance to Luperon harbor. The lushness of the scenery and the hills and mountains surrounding the bay were a beautiful shock to the senses after months in the Bahamas and TCI. We took a mooring ball just before the first of about a thousand little squalls this week came through the anchorage. After showering and straightening the boat a bit, I picked up Dane from Sea Otter and headed to shore to check in. This is a somewhat complicated procedure in the DR - made more complicated by the fact that not all officials speak English and my little knowledge of Spanish is quite rusty - but everyone was super friendly and pointed us in the right direction. I thought there might be a problem that Dawn had done the passage on Sea Otter and then was joining my boat, while Brad was on my boat but was subsequently flying out, but a simple explanation satisfied the officials. The order of check in was as follows:

--Immigration. Paid 3000 Dominican Pesos ($60) for the boat plus 500 Pesos ($10) for each crew, valid 30 days. American dollars accepted with going exchange rate. Filled out immigration cards, official scanned passports and entered ship and crew into his log. About 20 minutes.
--Customs ("Aduana"). Filled out paperwork, but no charge. About 10 minutes.
--Agriculture. Not much paperwork, just a $10USD charge. She was very happy with Piper's paperwork.
--Commandante, Navy, Anti-Drug official. All done up the hill at the Navy outpost, some paperwork but no charge. Very friendly, though it's obvious that these are the guys paid to be suspicious.
--Port Authority (next day, closed on weekends). $10USD charge for up to 7 days.
--Tourist Card (next day, closed on weekends). $27.50USD per crew/passenger.

All in all we paid $155 in fees. All fees were clearly posted and the officials made a point to explain them, and at no point was there any attempt to extort or even ask for bribes or tips (as has happened in the past in Luperon). The first four steps took roughly 2 hours, and the final two perhaps 15 minutes.

In our next post, I'll cover some of the things we've done our first week in Luperon.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Turks & Staycos

Well, we got quite lucky indeed on that Tuesday weather window I alluded to in my last post (Tues, Jan 30th). The high winds eased a little more and a little earlier than previously forecast, and the following cold front weakened and slowed more than previously forecast, giving us a nice little window to motorsail the 50nm from Mayaguana to Providenciales, Turks & Caicos ("Provo"). We had a beautiful full-moon night in decently big but wide-spaced rollers. We arrived at the Sandbore Channel onto Caicos Bank around midnight, Atlantic Standard Time - yep, we got to spring forward an hour on this passage. Normally you try to arrive at Sandbore Channel at daybreak, but because of the approaching front we decided to just go all the way to the Sapodilla Bay anchorage in the dark. The Sandbore Channel is not particularly shallow for most of its length and the few coral heads are said to be deep and accurately charted. I presume that was actually the case, or perhaps we just got lucky. In any event we were very happy to arrive safely and anchor by 2am.

Frontal passage the next morning brought high winds and some persistently rainy weather, which drenched us when we dinghied around the point to the South Dock customs house. Checking in was fairly painless, though we had to wait a few minutes for the official vet to show up. She was nice but businesslike, we were happy we had Piper's paperwork in order. As a newly minted expert in bringing a dog to the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos and Dominican Republic, I'll do a "how to" post on that subject soon. We visited Sea Otter to use their 3G internet to book a rental car, then I dinghied to shore and started walking down the nearby road in the vague direction of the airport - just as the skies opened up again, of course! I thumbed a ride and thankfully the fourth or fifth car stopped for me - I later learned that hitching is not nearly as prevalent on Provo as in the Bahamas. The tiny Daihatsu car was a pretty good deal, we booked a whole week for $127 plus taxes. This is a pretty big and populous island that really requires a car to get around - services are scattered and taxis are expensive. Everything's pretty expensive, for that matter, except apparently rental cars!

On Thursday morning we were called to rescue Sea Otter after their dinghy's outboard pull start cord snapped. That was my first time repairing one, it was pretty straightforward. Afterward Dane, Mack and Isla piled into the rental car with us and we drove six or seven miles east to the IGA Graceway grocery store. Wow, what a place! It's bigger and better than any grocery store we've seen in the Bahamas, even Maxwells in Marsh Harbor. Fantastic selection, super fresh produce. The prices are pretty similar to Maxwells, which is to say maybe 20-30% higher than the States but lower than the Bahamas' Out Islands. We did a shopping-cart load of reprovisioning as did Dane & Mack; we could have bought more but we'll be in the Dominican Republic soon, with far better prices. It was amazing we were able to stuff two shopping carts worth of groceries in our tiny clown car!

Right inside the entrance to Graceway is a Flow Wireless store, where I purchased a SIM card for our Wirie router. Only $5 for the SIM but $50 for 1 month/5 gigs of data - ouch! Suffice it to say we aren't downloading any movies on it.

Thursday night the five of us went to the weekly Fish Fry at the Bight Childrens Park on Grace Bay. Fantastic street food, flowing beer and cocktails, live music and dancing - it was a fun scene that had Isla staying up wayyy past her usual 5:30pm bed time. Of course, it rained briefly but heavily, chasing all under the shelter of the food tents.

Friday was a laundry, liquor reprovisioning, island exploring and boat cleaning day. It was really beautiful weather; Safara and several other boats in the anchorage took off for Luperon and I rather wished we could follow them. Chris Parker was warning it would be the last few days of good weather off the north coast of the DR for a long time - potentially the whole month of February! But our good cruiser friends Dan & Isabelle had already bought tickets to fly in the next day to spend Dawn's birthday with us, and it would have been a real jerk move to ditch them and head off to the DR. On Friday afternoon we had lunch at Da Conch Shack, in Blue Hills on the NW corner of the island. Good food and a really cool place. In the evening we worked on cleaning Windbird and giving our empty center diesel tank a really good scrubbing. We now have one completely guaranteed sludge-free tank and will be working on cleaning the other two soon.

Saturday morning was more boatwork, then picking up Dan & Isabelle from the airport in the afternoon. We got there a little early and stopped at Da Snack Spot on Old Airport Road for some amazingly good ribs, a full order with sides (enough food for two people) for only $14. Highly recommended, we just took Dane and Mack there today and they loved it. After we got Dan & Isabelle back to the boat, Sea Otter came over for happy hour. Somehow it was the first time in over a week of hanging out with them that they were on board Windbird, mainly due to the stormy weather and the difficulties of packing up a 9-month old with assorted accoutrements and ferrying all to a neighboring boat. Dane and Mack got on well with fellow Canadians Dan & Isabelle. Dawn made a fantastic dinner of Indian Butter Chicken and we talked and drank and laughed pretty late into the night. We sure enjoy being around Dan & Isabelle, and are quickly becoming friends with Dane, Mack & Isla as well.

Sunday, Feb 4th was Dawn's 40th birthday! We began the day with Mimosas and Mexican Breakfast, then packed up the car and headed up to Grace Beach. We found a nice little spot to snorkel off the beach at Coral Gardens, hung out on the beach for a bit, then convinced Dawn to go parasailing for her first time - a birthday present from me. Isabelle went with her (it was one that can handle up to 3 people at a time) and they both really loved it despite initial nerves. Afterward we had a light lunch at "Somewhere...", a beach bar and restaurant with really tasty food. Later in the afternoon we hung out for a bit on Sapodilla Beach and then on board Windbird, and piled all seven of us (!!!) into our tiny car for a short and uproarious ride to Bugaloo Restaurant in the nearby settlement of Five Cays. It's a really cool place on the water with a pretty and atmospheric patio with live trees growing right through the tables! There was a rake and scrape band playing, and Dawn thought it was a perfect evening to cap a pretty special birthday.

Monday and Tuesday were originally forecast to be pretty calm days (and a potential window to the DR if we left Dan & Isabelle early). Monday actually would have been doable but Tuesday was fairly windy and would have been even moreso along the north coast of the DR, a trend that will continue and intensify for the remainder of the week and next weekend. It was becoming apparent we wouldn't make it to the DR before I had to fly to Atlanta for training on Feb 13-15. So I ended up picking up a 4-day Santiago Chile trip on the 9th-12th to make a little extra money and get some currency before heading to the simulator for training. Chris Parker thinks there's a pretty promising window developing for the Feb 16-17 timeframe; hopefully we can make that. We really didn't want to stay in the Turks and Caicos for three weeks - Luperon is where we wanted to idle the boat a while and travel by land. Essentially we got "behind schedule" and eventually weather-bound thanks to our two-week delay leaving the Bahamas to get Piper's paperwork in order.

Monday we took Windbird into South Side Marina which required going in just before high tide. It's a skinny route but the water was easily readable and the shallowest bit we saw was 6.9' (we touch at exactly 6.0' on our depth sounder). We used our one night stay at the marina (only $50) to give the batteries a really good charge, top off on good RO water, put 65 gallons of diesel in our now-sparkling-clean center fuel tank, download a bunch of movies on their fast wifi, and play a few rousing rounds of Bocce at Bob's Bar. After exiting at high tide on Tuesday we stopped at the Five Cays area for snorkeling, but the water vis turned out to be absolutely horrible - like less than six feet. Apparently visibility improves markedly around the world-famous dive sites where the Caicos Bank falls away into the depths of the Atlantic. Oh well - up anchor and back to Sapodilla Bay, which has really grown on us. It's not a terribly protected anchorage unless you have a shoal-draft boat, but it's comfortable enough in prevailing NE-E and rolly but safe in southeasterlies. The beach is a really nice one with lots of room for Piper to run and play; it's public but not terribly crowded, with really friendly people  (most of it is lined by private vacation villas rented out by the week). We've made friends with a couple of the local vendors, especially an older lady named Anna, and Piper has been playing with two remarkably good-natured stray dogs that local residents look after. I suggested that we put the boat back in South Side Marina during my absence, but Dawn has decided she'd rather stay on the hook in Sapodilla Bay, close to the Sea Otter crew. The winds are supposed to be steady and NE through ESE the entire time.

Today Dan & Isabelle flew out to Fort Lauderdale, where they'll be test-sailing the new Leopard 45 and 50 catamarans that they are considering buying in the near future. The rest of the day was an exercise in bureaucratic shuffling to get immigration extentions for Dawn, Dane, Mack and Isla (I don't need one since I'm flying out before my stay expires). When we originally checked in, we were only given 10 days. To secure an extension we went to one office to get the forms, another office a mile away to get approval, back to the original office to get an invoice for the $50/person fee, then to the Treasury Department to pay, and finally back to the second office to get the actual extension. In the middle of all that we had lunch at The Snack Spot with a roving customs official to get cruising permits ($300) to replace our original 7-day Temporary Import. Staying in Provo was stacking up to be pretty expensive! But in a really happy turn of events, the customs official was really cool and understood our situation completely; he apparently has leeway to not require a cruising permit in cases where boaters aren't actually cruising but are just waiting for weather or repairs to leave. So that saved Dane and I $300 each.

After all that bureaucracy we were all quite thirsty, so we headed over to Turks Head Brewery for a brewery tour and to sample some of their tasty beers - highly recommended. After that I dropped everyone off at Sapodilla Bay, returned the rental car to Dollar, and got a ride back. Dawn and I had a quiet evening alone on Windbird, and tomorrow I'll be preparing to leave. My flight out is on Friday afternoon; my flight to Santiago leaves that evening. I haven't been at work since Dec 28th, and as always it'll be a little strange going from my shaggy carefree sailor role to my well-groomed airline pilot role. After this, though, I hopefully won't have to go back to work until sometime in April.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Stop & Go

It's been a frustrating couple of weeks, kinda going nowhere, and I haven't been particularly in the mood for blogging. The weather here in the Bahamas has continued to be incredibly unsettled since the New Year, with day after day of clouds, high winds, clocking fronts, and rain squalls. We've even had severe thunderstorms, which are extremely rare down here in the winter. We've had only a couple very nice days and a few more marginal ones, most of which have been used to move the boat. I haven't been able to fish nearly as much as I'd like, and it hasn't been dry enough to catch up on our brightwork. In addition, we've been pretty constrained in what we can do because we had to sail back to Georgetown by Jan 19th so Piper could get his health certificate to go to the Turks & Caicos, and that turned out to be way more involved than we knew.

On Tues Jan 9th we sailed over to Conception Island with our friends Dave and Leslie on Texas Two Step. It was a gloomy squally day with SE winds that let us sail the whole way on a close to beam reach; I caught a small but tasty yellowfin tuna along the way and the four of us tried our hand at making sushi rolls that night. Delish! Dave and I went out dinghy exploring and snorkeling the next day and were disappointed to find a lot of dead, bleached coral (albeit in fantastic formations) and not a lot of fish life. I'm sure Conception was absolutely spectacular when the coral was healthy. In any case we were soon chased back to the boats by some nasty squalls that subsequently set the anchorage rolling fairly violently; we cancelled Happy Hour at Windbird as Leslie got rather seasick on T2S. Dave and Leslie decided to head back over to Long Island's Joe Sound early Thursday morning, just as another ugly squall hit the anchorage. They sailed clear and in late morning the skies cleared considerably; though squalls continued to threaten, the weather remained quite nice and we took advantage to explore the gorgeous, absolutely deserted island. We also took the dink up the mangrove creek in the interior with Doug from S/V Viento, the only other boat there; lots of really cool turtles and rays. That night we had a nice happy hour on Viento with Doug and his admiral, Carolyn.

No sooner did we get back from Viento to Windbird than the skies opened up and all hell broke loose. It poured and lightning and thundered from 10pm Thursday to 8am Friday. For three hours, from 5am to 8am, we had 20 knots of SW wind (gradient wind was NE) that swung Windbird 180 degrees and poured steep breaking waves onto the beach only a couple boatlengths from our stern. It was very touch-and-go. Thank God the anchor swung in the deep sand and held perfectly. Once it was over Viento cried uncle, hoisted anchor, and sailed back to Georgetown in what they reported (via VHF) were "very salty" conditions. The rest of the morning it rained but the late afternoon actually turned really nice, and we again headed to shore to tromp the beaches with Piper. It was pretty amazing to have a 100% deserted island, virtually untouched since Columbus landed there in 1492, completely to ourselves. It was so serene, lonely, and starkly beautiful that it brought to mind a film noir version of heaven, or better yet purgatory.

Saturday had passable conditions for a quick close reach back to Long Island, albeit while skirting the edges of a few squalls. We anchored outside of Joe's Sound until just before the late afternoon high tide, when we snuck in and set up our Bahamian moor. We had dinner aboard Texas Two Step, and a pretty strong cold front set up a NE blow Saturday night and Sunday. Dave and I still ventured out to go hunting in the chop on Sunday morning. I didn't get anything - and was getting beat up enough in the waves that my bottom time was crap - but Dave got a good-sized grouper and a huge lionfish, which he gifted to us (really good!). Dave and Leslie came over to Windbird to watch the Vikings-Saints playoff game with its amazing "Minneapolis Miracle" ending. Dave had gotten called to go to work in northern Canada (he's a long-line helicopter pilot), leaving Georgetown late Monday, so they took off to sail back first thing. We stuck around Joe's Sound for another day - again windy, gloomy and squally, but we did get visited by a young manatee that drank the rainwater from our slotted toerail for over an hour! On Tuesday we sailed back to Georgetown in a pretty sizable NE swell wrapping around Cape Santa Maria. As soon as we got back we anchored at Monument Beach to hang out with our friends Ken & Tracy on Makana and Larry and Cindie on Adventure Bound II, both of whom were heading to Thompson Bay, Long Island in the morning.

Wednesday was a really nice day in Georgetown, so we took the big boat over to town and did a bunch of chores (shopping, laundry, water runs, dinghy gas, 10 gals of diesel). On Tuesday I had visited Minns Water Sports and arranged for their mechanic to take a look at our dinghy outboard which had suddenly started acting up the week prior. I'd changed and gapped spark plugs, inspected the plug wires and the entire fuel system, cleaned out the carburetor and jets twice, all to no effect.  Woody agreed to look at the engine the next morning, but on Wednesday I showed up to find that he had called in sick. This continued for the next several days so we never did get it looked at. It's started running better on its own, though it's still not 100%. It starts every time, but sometimes it runs rough at idle - the bottom cylinder isn't firing - and is sluggish to accelerate until the RPMs get high enough, the bottom cylinder fully kicks in, and it turns back into its usually zippy self. But occasionally it runs perfectly. Having gone through the fuel system, I'm suspecting the ignition system...though when I checked the plugs, they both seemed to have good spark. But again it's sporadic, so maybe I just checked the spark while it was in a good mood. Very puzzling. The timing is completely computerized and cannot be adjusted; anyways I don't have a timing light to check it. Like I said, it's mostly working better now, so maybe we had some bad gas.

On Thursday we cleaned the sludge out of our now-empty center fuel tank and then hung out on Sand Dollar Beach for several hours, enjoying the shelter from the wind and letting Piper run and play with a bunch of kids from friends' boats (Rondo, Pura Vida, Aqua Bob, MarVyn). On Friday we had Piper's vet appointment at the Bahamas Humane Society, which involved a rather long, wet dinghy ride to Augustana Bay in mid-20s ENE. We were shocked to find out that the health certificates for both Turks & Caicos and the DR required an official stamp from the Dept of Agriculture in Nassau - we had assumed it could be done by an agriculture inspector at Georgetown customs, but nope. So the traveling vet took them back to Nassau with him on Sunday, the Dept of Agriculture eventually stamped the forms after protracted communications and negotiations, and finally yesterday the vet put the forms on a BahamasAir flight down to us. The Bahamas Humane Society, Ellen Sykes, and Dr. Hanson were all tremendously helpful, but the entire process was completely ridiculous. I know there are a lot of cruisers with dogs that go from the Bahamas to TCI/DR, and there's no way they all go through such a hassle. The feeling I got from the Exuma BHS was that we were the first ones they'd handled in quite a while. So what does everyone else do? Get their certificate in Nassau and tear down through the islands like mad to make the TCI in 2 weeks? Just don't declare the dog in TCI & DR and hope that customs officials don't notice or turn a blind eye? That was kinda my preferred tactic when it became apparent what a logistical nightmare this was going to be, but Dawn's a stickler for following rules and insisted we complete the process. Dire warnings about the Turks and Caicos euthanizing non-permitted animals certainly made that seem like a wise decision. I'm not too worried about the DR, but there's no guarantee we'll be able to skip the TCI, especially with the weather as volatile as it's been. So far we've spent $145 for the vet visit and another $120 for the Dept of Agriculture stamps and flying the paperwork back down to us. More importantly, we've bypassed several windows to move southeastward; without the delay we'd have visited more islands in the SE Bahamas and be in the Turks & Caicos preparing to go to the DR right now. As it is we'll be lucky to get to Luperon before mid-February, when I have to fly to Atlanta for work training. All in all this has been quite frustrating, but I guess it's the price we pay for the fun of cruising with our furry friend.

On Saturday we built a bonfire on the beach attended by several cruiser families, and on Sunday night we went to St. Francis resort to watch the Vikings choke in Philadelphia in heartbreakingly familiar fashion. One game away from playing their first Super Bowl of my life in our home stadium! On Monday we had one last beer at the Chat N Chill and dinghied around the anchorage (still quite rough for the fifth straight day) saying goodbye to our various cruiser friends & acquaintances.


Tuesday started with brisk southeasterlies that eased through the day; we exited the south cut at 10:30am and actually had a really nice beat/close reach until sunset, when the wind faded and backed as we turned east just north of Conception Island. For the next 19 hours we motorsailed against light 10-12 knot easterlies, passing just south of San Salvador and continuing east for another 40 miles. At 1pm Wednesday the wind backed further NE and strengthened to 13-15 knots, and we turned SSE, enjoying a spectacular beam reach all the way past Samana Cay and into the Mayaguana Passage. We arrived off the cut into Abraham's Bay before sunrise on Thursday and hove to until 9:30am, when we had sufficient light to head through the cut in the massive fringing reef and dodge scattered coral heads throughout the shallow bay. The 213nm passage took us 44 hours to cover; it's pretty rare to have a weather window to make that kind of progress against the prevailing trades, particularly in such comfortable conditions as we had. So for the first time in a while, the weather gods were smiling on us.

After anchoring at a 10' spot in A-Bay we launched the dink, took Piper to shore, and explored the small town and met a number of the friendly locals (a total of 266 souls on the entire 25nm x 6nm island). We had a couple of Kaliks in the local bar and ate conch burgers at the informal cafe, arranged for somebody to pick up Piper's paperwork at the airport the next day, met the island constables, and got lots of attention from local potcakes (though they looked kinda threatening, a single bark from Piper sent them scattering! And he was a lot smaller than them).  Back on the water, Windbird was joined by a steel sloop (S/V Safara) and a Morgan ketch (S/V Sea Otter), both of whom had left Georgetown during the weather window prior to ours. We visited briefly with Safara and had a post-dinner happy hour aboard Sea Otter. The latter is crewed by Dane and Mack, a young Canadian couple from Winnipeg, their 9-month old (!) daughter Isla, and guests/fellow cruisers Roger and Monica from Vancouver BC. All super nice folks.

We got back to Windbird just as the ENE winds started kicking up markedly, beginning what will likely be the blow of the season. Yesterday it was "only" low 20s gusting to around 30, and I was able to get to shore once in rough conditions to walk Piper and retrieve his paperwork which had been flown in that morning. After I got back the winds kicked up to 28 gusting 33, and we had to cancel happy hour aboard Windbird as conditions in the bay got too rough for both Safara and Sea Otter to dinghy over. On Thursday I had set our primary 66-lb Spade anchor very well in the firm sand bottom and put out 140 feet of chain, and then deployed our big secondary Fortress as a backup along with 150 feet of rode protected by chafe gear. Winds continued to kick up and the bay got increasingly nasty last night and this morning; we didn't get much sleep with all the noise and boat movement, but we haven't budged an inch...I've come to really respect what good ground tackle Mark and Judy equipped this boat with. This morning we saw a gust of 43 knots, and there have been numerous squalls. Right now it's "only" gusting to 38 kts. There's a backgammon tournament scheduled for this afternoon on Sea Otter; Safara already passed on it, but we just might test our tolerance for punishing dinghy rides in the steep 3' chop. I'm not taking Piper the near-mile to shore, though; he'll just have to go potty on deck like he does on passage. Sorry buddy!

Conditions are expected to abate just a smidgen tomorrow, and then get considerably better on Monday (only 20 gusting 25!). All three boats here are trying to get to Provo, Turks and Caicos and then onward to the DR. We've formed a VHF net every morning at 9am on Channel 68, and weather is of course the primary topic of discussion. There's a possible window shaping up on Tuesday, just after this blow dies and before a strong cold front comes through Wednesday. The timing of the frontal passage vs having good light in the Sandbore Channel to Provo is a concern as is the leftover sea state (currently seas are running at 14', so it'll take a while to settle down!). If Tuesday doesn't work there's a slight possibility of getting out next weekend, or more likely something around Tuesday, Feb 6th! So we may be staying in sleepy little Mayaguana a very long time, and hoping the TCI doesn't give us too much grief about an expired vet certificate!

I just reread this post and realize I'm griping a fair amount, and nobody who's been in the States suffering through what's been a fairly harsh winter is going to empathize with me one bit. Fair 'nuff. I'm still mostly enjoying life out here, we've made some good memories and great new friends, I think we've made the best of what some truly crappy weather and maddening bureaucracy have dealt us, and I'm really excited to finally be exploring new territory. But man, absolutely nothing has been easy this year. I'm really glad that we had the three months of cruising the Bahamas last season as a base of experience to build upon.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Home for the Holidays

When we first arrived at Georgetown it seemed utterly devoid of cruising boats compared to last spring, but they started filtering in soon after, and now a few of the anchorages are even starting to look a little crowded. Our new friends on Makana, Adventure Bound II, Rondo, Pura Vida and others caught up to us, as just recently did good friends Dave and Leslie on Texas Two Step. With the Georgetown social scene picking up I was a little bummed to leave for Christmas, but ended up being really glad we did. Windbird did just fine in Hole 2 - thanks Makana for checking on her on the 26th! - and Piper and Suky on S/V Shambala got on famously during their week together. Meanwhile I got a medical appointment taken care of at Emory University in Atlanta before Dawn joined me to fly back to the frozen tundra of Minnesota. It was a balmy 15 degrees F when we landed on the 22nd, but the mercury dropped steadily to -13F when I flew out on the 26th. In the meantime we spent several wonderful days with Dawn's family and mine. It'll likely be our only chance to see many of them until late spring or early summer, and the nieces and nephews are growing up so fast. I also got to watch the Vikings game (on TV) with my brother-in-law's wife Holly, a fellow diehard fan / lifelong sufferer, and we thoroughly enjoyed their historic 16-0 shutout against the Packers in brutally cold conditions at Lambeau Field.

I commuted down to Atlanta early on the 26th and signed in for my three day trip. Imagine my surprise to find that the original captain had been bought off and now I was flying with one of the most senior management pilots at my airline, the one in charge of all check airman and many of the flight standards programs! He flies a trip roughly once a month, and I hadn't flown in six weeks. We both paid close attention and did just fine, and I really enjoyed flying with him (though I generally try to stay "under the radar" with management!). The 33-hour layover at an all-inclusive resort in Liberia, Costa Rica didn't suck either! I logged three landings (and a Cat III approach), making me current for another 90 days.

And then it was back to our other home - the one that really feels like home after a year aboard full-time. We found Windbird perfectly snug in protected, airless Hole 2 and immediately took her over to a breezier spot off Monument Beach (with our draft, we can only get out of Hole 2 near high tide). Within an hour Suky anchored near us, and Piper was delirious with joy as soon as I whistled over to him (he subsequently seemed to miss Suky, though, as the next day he jumped into her dinghy when she came alongside and licked her in the face!). We were anchored near Makana and Adventure Bound II, as well as Pura Vida (a family we'd met in Georgetown SC in May, where we shared the dock for two weeks, but hadn't seen since), so we spent the first few days catching up with friends along with boat chores. It turned out we had missed on one major happening in Georgetown, a really major tragedy for this small, tightknit, seafaring community. In the midst of preparations for the annual New Years Day BulReg Regatta, which attracts Bahamian sloops from all around the islands, the 16-year old skipper of one of the local entries, Lady Sonia, was killed in an accident. Cameron Williams was (rather inexplicably) sitting in the boat as it was being launched from Government Dock by a truck-mounted crane when the crane boom snapped, sending him and the boat plunging into the water and then pinning him below the water's surface. He drowned before the other crewmembers could free him; another man sustained injuries and was airlifted to Nassau, but will be ok. The regatta was cancelled; we and many other cruisers had been looking forward to seeing it, but of course nobody, local or cruiser, was in the mood for it after such a needless loss of a promising young sailor.

On December 31st it was nice and calm, so Dawn and I went hunting outside Elizabeth Island cut, and I speared a really nice hogfish! I'd been futilely stalking three large and wily black groupers when the hapless hoggy appeared out of nowhere and I quickly took advantage of the target of opportunity. We enjoyed grilled hogfish that night, Hogfish Parmesan the next night, and still have a fair amount in the freezer along with some leftover yellow jack and mahi. Eating seafood fresh out of the ocean is definitely one of our favorite parts of this life. Fishing last season was mostly an exercise in frustration but between upgrading our gear and gaining more knowledge & experience, we've done much better this year. With the exception of my first spearfishing expedition with Jon & Steve (when I missed a large lobster staring me in the face THREE times!), we've landed something every time we've hunted or trolled since leaving South Carolina.

On New Years Eve we attended a cruiser party on Hamburger Beach, which turned into a chilled out beach bonfire shortly after sundown. Most of the other cruisers went home shortly thereafter - and were doubtless asleep by cruiser's midnight, dreaming sailor dreams when the clock struck 2018 - leaving us, our friends Ken & Tracy on Makana and Larry and Cindie on Adventure Bound II as well as the crew of S/V Dragonfly and S/V Enjoy. After a while we let the fire die and dinghied to Adventure Bound for a (UTC-2!) countdown and New Year's toast, and after ferrying Dawn back to Windbird I toughed it out to real midnight & beyond on Makana with Ken & Tracy. I can't remember the last time I've stayed up past 1am, though I was a hardcore night owl in land life.

After Jan 1st we had several lovely, still days and then several active weather days. On the 2nd we anchored off Kidd's Cove, near "downtown" Georgetown, to get some town chores completed and to get positioned for the SW winds that kicked up midday on the 3rd. That morning Texas Two Step appeared in the anchorage mere days after crossing from Ft. Pierce - Dave and Leslie know how to scoot! Dawn and I hung out with them for dinner on Wednesday night; Leslie made a scrumptious Brazilian fish stew and Dawn baked a Rum Cake for Dave's belated birthday celebration. The cold front rolled in a bit earlier than forecast with gusts over 30 but Windbird's anchor was well buried and we didn't have any concerns about her holding, just about dinghying back to the boat without getting soaked! Unfortunately, that night at low tide we were bumping the sand bottom from around 2am to 3:30am, which definitely interrupted our sleep though it wasn't particularly violent. This, plus the fact that we weren't very well sheltered by Regatta Point, prompted us to move a mile northwest Thursday morning to join the fleet anchored in the lee of Goat Cay. Makana was there and we joined them for pizza and drinks at Splash, a cool beach bar at the very chill Exuma Hideaway Resort. We'd never anchored near Goat Cay, and between the local Fish Fry shacks and the several resorts it's a really nice spot (if you're not being beat up by prevailing eastierlies!).

Yesterday as the wind went north we joined the Georgetown Shuffle over to Sand Dollar Beach, which is a rather crowded anchorage right now. I haven't counted the masts but I'd guess we have about 50 boats over here, including friends on Texas Two-Step, Rondo, Pura Vida, Dragonfly, and a few others. It's really blowing stink from the NE tonight with leaden skies and rainy squalls, will continue tomorrow, and finally slack off Monday. Tuesday we're hoping to make our escape to Conception Island.

Now here's the bad news: we have to come back to Georgetown on Jan 19th. The visiting veterinarian at the Bahamas Humane Society missed his last visit due to the holiday, so we can't get Piper's International Health Certificate for the Turks & Caicos (or DR, if we get a weather window to bypass the TCI) until then. We'd been hoping to be in the DR for Dawn's birthday on Feb 4th but now are hoping we can just get to the Turks & Caicos by then. The Super Bowl is that day in Minneapolis, and it's our fervent hope the Vikings will be playing it in their home stadium! We're going to try to do an early visit to Conception Island because it's one you really don't want to miss - just in case later we have the weather window that allows us to bypass it and make tracks further SE. There's a chance friends will join us in Provo TCI, and other friends in the DR, but it's all fairly fluid and up in the air right now. As ever in sailing, the weather has the final say.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Brothers Weigel Visit Windbird

Windbird is secure in Georgetown's Hole 2, Piper is settled in at his new home-boat-for-a-week, I flew out to Atlanta yesterday, and Dawn is flying out in a few hours. All the stars aligned and allowed us to come home for Christmas! To tell the truth I was a little bummed to fly out, a lot of our friends are just arriving in Georgetown and I think it's going to be a fun Christmas there... but I'm also really happy that Dawn and I get to spend time with our families, otherwise it would likely be next summer before we'd see most of them. And in any case, we'll be back in Georgetown in time for New Years.

We had a really, really good week with my brothers Jon and Steve on board. The weather finally cooperated for most of the time they were here, allowing us to do some nice cruising and sightseeing and plenty of water activities while still arriving to Georgetown in time and in relative comfort.

On the Sunday before they arrived we moved over to Big Majors Spot in the middle of a big post-frontal NE blow, it was nice and comfortable over there and I slept much better than Between the Majors. That Sunday was squally and gloomy, we didn't do a lot other than get Piper to shore a couple times. The following day was still windy but otherwise quite nice and we visited the pigs, which are doing quite well since the Great Staniel Cay Swine Massacre this spring. There is now a permanent shelter pavilion with pig photos and names, an official beach host/pig protector, a rainwater catchment system with water troughs, official signs regarding feeding the pigs, etc. I fully expect a landing charge to be put in place by this time next year. The surviving older pigs are still swimming for their food but the newer youngsters don't seem to have picked it up yet, as there is a steady parade of tour boats delivering tourists to the beach to hand-feed them.

Jon and Steve arrived at NAS a bit ahead of schedule on Monday but Flamingo wouldn't let them stand by for the last flight to Staniel Cay, so they had an extra night in Nassau before making their scheduled flight on Tuesday morning. It was still fairly windy out of the NE so I went and picked them up alone in the dinghy, and the ride back to Big Majors wasn't too wet. They brought an entire bag of deliveries for us: our new Balmar AT-SF-165 alternator and a whole amazon order of boat stuff and miscellaneous goodies. After unpacking we made the requisite visits to Pig Beach and Thunderball Grotto, and then tried heading out to Sandy Cay. An approaching stalling cold front had backed the winds NW a bit earlier than forecast, and it was just too rough of a ride with 4 of us plus dog in our dinghy (it'll plane with 3, but not 4) so we turned around and went to Pirate Beach instead. Our friends Ken and Tracy on SV Makana arrived in the anchorage but we decided to hold separate happy hours because the anchorage had got so rough. We had reanchored earlier in the day to tuck ourselves further in but the offlying cays let the NW swell straight through into the entire anchorage, and it was a rocky, rolly night and subsequent morning.

On Wednesday morning I replaced the alternator with Jon and Steve's help. Because this one is physically smaller (as well as less capacity) than our old one, the existing bracket required some reworking and we had to raid the stainless hardware bin and retap a hole for a different size bolt. The resulting configuration will work for now but it'll be a pain every time we need to retension the belt, so I'll have a new bracket machined when we get to the DR. In any event, the new alternator charges great. Jon and I also worked on our solar array, replacing MC4 connectors and attempting to find the weak link that's resulting in less PV wattage than expected. The bimini-top flexible panels are now about where they should be but the new big 320W array on the davit arch still isn't up to snuff. My next move, when we get back to Georgetown, is snaking new 10AWG boat cable through the davit arch and remounting those panels' charge controller much closer to the batteries to cut the wire run by about 70%.

On Wednesday afternoon Jon and Steve and I loaded up the dinghy and mounted a snorkeling/spearfishing expedition to the area just SE of Simpson Cay. Because we've been in the Land & Sea Park, it was my first time breaking out the Hawaiian Sling & spear this season. Wouldn't you know it, the very first hole I looked in had a HUGE lobster...and in my excitement I missed him! Not once but THREE times before he retreated deep inside his coral head. I felt like such a dunce, and I didn't find a single other lobster or fish worth spearing over the next 2 hours. We did find a really great wall snorkel site though, until increasing current prompted us to head back to Windbird. We made a quick trip to town and then joined S/V Makana for happy hour with Dawn's awesome italian pinwheel appetizers and an Amarula toast to a spectacular sunset that went and went until swarming noseeums finally chased us back to the boat.

Thursday dawned really, really still. We were anchor up at sunrise and motored over to Staniel Cay and out of Big Rock Cut, then northward the 9 miles to Cambridge Cay. We had the fishing line out until we crossed the Land & Sea Park line, but only caught two sharp-toothed Barracuda I released. It was an absolutely stunning day, the nicest we've had so far this season. The mooring field at Cambridge was like glass. After mooring we launched the dinghy and scooted over to the Rocky Dundas for some great snorkeling at low tide. Eventually the incoming current picked up too much for that and we dinghied just outside the park so I could do some spearfishing. Wouldn't you know all those big fish and lobster we saw snorkeling were smart enough to stay inside the park boundary! We came back to the boat for lunch, then all headed up to the Sea Aquarium and Airplane Reef for Round 2 of snorkeling. Once we got back the boys and Piper and I went hiking on Cambridge Cay while Dawn paddleboarded around the anchorage. Another spectacular and neverending sunset, ho-hum, closed out the day, plus additional excitement provided by a big bull shark swimming through the anchorage. That got Piper excited.

We left early the next morning to ensure we had high enough tide to get out of the mooring field's south exit to Conch Cut, where we headed kitty-corner to Compass Cay. We motored down its east side, turned the corner down the channel to Compass Cay Marina, and then swung into Pipe Creek where we anchored in a sandy patch at the edge of its deep, natural northwest channel.  Friday was windier and cloudier than Thursday, with a little mist in the morning, though it got much nicer in the afternoon. This was our first time in Pipe Creek, and we really liked the area. It's a lot like the Land & Sea Park, but fewer boats and no prohibition on fishing or spearfishing. The boys and I went hunting before lunch and we brought back two good-size lobster which Dawn turned into an awesome dinner that night (all of Dawn's meals during the boys' stay were pretty memorable, actually). In the afternoon we attempted to visit the sharks at Compass Cay Marina but they tried to extort $10/person to swim with them, so we said phooey to that and went exploring around Pipe Creek. The current was running pretty good but we found one really spectacular snorkeling site out of the current not too far from the boat. Only weakness, no lobster as every promising-looking hole was occupied by big, black spiky sea urchins. We went gunkholing further down the creek and it was nearly dark by the time we got back to the boat for our lobster feast.

Saturday finally had enough wind to sail, and we enjoyed a really nice broad-to-beam reach down the banks to Black Point. Passing Big Majors, four sailboats including Makana came out to join us and it turned into a bit of a race. We led the pack past Harvey Cay and on a close reach that turned into a beat all the way into the Black Point anchorage. The four boats under sail on our tail was really a cool sight. On arrival into Black Point we discovered that Larry and Cindy on Adventure Bound II were already in the anchorage. Makana invited them plus the four of us to Happy Hour on Makana, whose cockpit is surprisingly large for a 36' Morgan. In the meantime we went over to Bitter Guana Cay to visit the Iguanas and then snorkeled for nearly two hours on the expansive heads on the northwest side of Great Guana Cay. I only speared one lobster, which was barely legal size (it at least made a good appetizer to bring for happy hour), and spared another of roughly the same size. I also got a decent-sized Yellow Jack. There were a bunch of eating-sized Margates but they all gave me a very wide berth. There were a ton of big Barracudas around but they didn't harass us at all - I was quick to get my prizes in the dinghy! Snorkeling around Black Point, Steve and I also saw five or six good-size nurse sharks. So cool! By the time we got back to the boat it was time to head to Makana for happy hour, which was really fun. Another great dinner aboard Windbird, and early to bed after yet another busy day.

Sunday's sail down to Farmer's Cay was a short but sporty beat down the banks. We had intended to do another hunting expedition once we got in but we were kinda snorkelled out and a bit exhausted after so many busy days, so we mostly vegged on the boat for the afternoon. We had good LTE internet so I streamed the Vikings' 34-7 beatdown over the Bengals (11-3, clinching the NFC North!). I've been able to see a surprising number of games this year. We made reservations with Terry at Ocean Cabin for 6pm, and went to town a little early a little early to walk around. Dawn and I really like Little Farmers, it's such a friendly little town, it only takes 5 minutes to walk through but everybody you meet welcomes you and wants to talk. Dinner at Ocean Cabin was as delicious as we remembered and even more reasonably priced than we thought - $103 bill for four people including two beers and two cocktails. It was basically our one splurge of the boys' visit, we haven't been eating off the boat nearly as much as we did last season. It was really a nice night.

We were up very early the next morning to get the boat ready for anchor-up at sunrise, the better to get out Little Farmers Cut an hour before high tide to avoid any wind-against-current situations. This cut has a bit of a reputation, and it gave us trouble last season during an ill-advised pre-dawn exit. This time the sun was up before we went out, and it was much smoother, though Exuma Sound still had a pretty stiff chop in 15 knot winds. A boat we'd seen several times but hadn't met yet, S/V Adaggio, called us on VHF to get our estimate of conditions in the cut and sound. The wind direction was initially 055-065 which made for a doable close-reach to beat, but it eventually veered to 070-080 as forecast which made the 2nd half of our day to Georgetown a pounding slog of a motorsail. The water was probably a little rougher than it needed to be because I planned our route right along the dropoff for better fishing! I had the line out almost as soon as we were out of the cut. For my effort I initially got only two sizable Barracuda, ugh. They're way more trouble than they're worth, they don't even put up much of a fight and then you have to land them and brave their sizable teeth to get your lure back, and try not to get bitten while throwing them back overboard. I subsequently got something big on the line that managed to spit the lure about halfway back to the boat - but thanks to the wire leaders I started using late last season, we didn't lose the lure. And then finally our patience was rewarded with about an 8 pound Mahi...and then another! So we enjoyed Mahi steaks on Monday night and fish tacos on Tuesday night, and still have some left in our freezer.

Once we entered Conch Cay Cut we were able to kill the engine, and by pinching a bit at the end, beat all the way to Chat-N-Chill Beach where we anchored. We celebrated our arrival in Georgetown by dinghying to the beach and getting the best conch salad in the Bahamas at Ronaldo's Conch Salad stand. It felt a little surreal to already be back in Georgetown having only left in late April and having sailed several thousand miles since. There were far fewer boats in Elizabeth Harbour than when we arrived last March, though there were quite a few new arrivals in subsequent days. On Tuesday morning the boys and I went on an abortive hunting expedition just outside Elizabeth Island Cut - it was still really rough outside, so taking the dinghy through the narrow, breaking cut was a bit sporty and once over the reef, visibility was almost nil with strong surge making hunting all but impossible. Dawn, Jon and I went to town and ran some errands before lunch, and afterwards Dawn and I visited Suki, Piper's prospective master-for-a-week. Suki is a single-hander on S/V Shambala, an older Morgan Out-Island, and is a super nice lady that reminded us a lot of Judy Handley. She and Piper hit it off right away, and Piper immediately got comfy on her boat (jumping from the dinghy to her high topsides and negotiating the companionway ladder up and down).

On our way back we saw that S/V Desiderata, a couple from Falmouth MA who knew Mark and Judy, had anchored right next to us. We first met them in Spanish Wells, though we'd seen them in the Abacos. We dinghied over to chat and while we were there the friendly Georgetown dolphins appeared and started cavorting near us, which sent Piper into nearly apoplectic joy. I thought he was going to leap from the dinghy to swim with them, and we actually encouraged him to, but he tenaciously clung to the very edge of the tube while yelping at the dolphins! Steve grabbed a snorkel, mask & fins and jumped in. The dolphins hung around him quite a while but never let him get close enough to touch. Pretty cool way to end the trip. Sure was fun having the guys on board, and they seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. With Steve there was never a doubt, but it was Jon's first time on a sailboat or cruising boat of any sort. He took to it immediately and was helping out quite a bit by the end.

Wednesday morning I ferried the boys over to Georgetown quite early to meet their taxi to the airport at the Exuma Market, and when I got back we raised the anchor and snuck into Hole 2 on the high tide. "Little Toot," otherwise known as Wendel, brought his skiff over to show us which ball to moor on. The cold fronts that were suppose to arrive during our absence seem to be fizzling out, but if there are high winds then Windbird should be snug as a bug in a rug in the completely enclosed hole. After mooring we loaded up the dinghy for a late morning of chores and headed across the harbor to town. Unfortunately Clarence the propane guy was a no-show (we have one empty cylinder, the other is fairly full) but we were able to purchase dinghy gas and do our laundry. I got lunch at the jerk chicken and pork stand across from the liquor store...and WOW, I can't believe we never ate their before, it's soooo good, with a TON of food for $10-12 a plate, it actually made lunch *and* dinner for us. Highly recommended.

Yesterday morning I packed and did some last-minute boatwork, then Dawn took me across to town to catch my own airport taxi. I got First Class to Atlanta and then again to Myrtle Beach, but with a six hour layover in between. At MYR I took Uber to Lightkeepers Marina, fetched our truck which has been parked there since our departure for the Bahamas, and overnight drove it to Atlanta. In a little bit I have a doctor's appointment, and later Dawn will fly in and we'll both (hopefully) fly up to Minneapolis together. I'll by flying back down to Atlanta on the morning of the 26th, flying a work trip the 26th-28th, and then Dawn and I will return to Windbird together on the 29th.

(Photos to follow separately because this monster post is long enough!)