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!)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Deja Vu on Anchor Watch

It's Saturday at 11:30pm, we're at anchor near Staniel Cay "between the Majors," and it's deja vu all over again. We're here to ride out a norther (i.e. a cold front), which is the only real reason to anchor between Big and Little Major when you have a delightful anchorage in prevailing conditions, with great holding, right on the other side of Big Major. Last time we anchored here was in March, when we came down from the Exuma Park to Staniel Cay to ride out a norther while waiting for my parents to fly in. Today we came down from the Exuma Park to Staniel Cay to ride out a norther while waiting for my brothers to fly in. Last time I spent a sleepless night on anchor watch thanks to the strong current-against-wind making Windbird sail back and forth across her anchor, trying to rip it from the scoured bottom with sea grass (e.g. not great holding). We made our riding sail (which we love) for this exact reason, and it did calm down Windbird's sailing-at-anchor tendencies, but the current is so strong in this anchorage that we still have some funky things going on. We're almost to high tide, though, at which point wind and current will be aligned and Windbird should settle right down and let me grab a little sleep.

Not everything is quite the same. On that last sleepless night here we shared this anchorage with 20-some boats all dancing around in close proximity to each other. Tonight the only other boat in the anchorage is over a half-mile away; the three other cruising boats at Staniel are on moorings near Thunderball Grotto. It's been quite odd to see the Exumas so empty compared to last spring. Back then we assumed we were late in the season, as we didn't cross until mid-February, but there were a ton of other boats crossing at the same time and later. I guess I figured everyone hopped over here as soon as hurricane season is over, the better to enjoy the whole winter in the islands. That's definitely not the case. The weather hasn't been nearly as nice as in the spring, with a lot of wind, cloudiness and squalls; I assume that has something to do with it.

So, we've been cruising without an alternator for our house bank, making due with wind, solar (which I still don't have quite up to snuff, with some big changes planned), and a Honda 2000 generator we borrowed for two days from our new friends Ken and Tracy on S/V Makana. We ordered a new Balmar AT-SF-165 alternator from Cruising Outfitters; it's been delivered to my brothers Jon & Steve and they'll be carrying it down here Monday (arriving Staniel Cay Tuesday morning, unless they get into Nassau early and can stand by on the last flight Monday). Once consequence of our limited electrical power has been no blogging (this MacBook is a real power pig), though now at Staniel Cay I can plug in at SCYC. Another is no water making, and we're starting to get kinda low - just before having two guests on board. This cold front is giving us a nice shot of wind generator power so we'll probably do some water making tomorrow, and once the alternator is installed (and further solar renovations made) we'll be making water more or less nonstop until our tanks are topped off.

After arriving in Highbourne Cay last Sunday, we moved to Shroud Cay on Monday, then Warderick Wells north mooring field on Wednesday, and Staniel today. We were hoping to do one or two nights at Cambridge Cay but strong southeasterlies before this front had us sitting tight in Warderick. That's ok, it's one of our favorite anchorages, and we have high hopes of visiting Cambridge with Jon and Steve. At Shroud we did our usual dinghy exploration up the mangrove creek and walking up to Camp Driftwood; in Warderick we snorkeled all our favorite spots and ventured up to Brad's Reef just off of Long Cay, which is a new favorite. We also hiked a few trails we hadn't been on before. Other than that we've putzed away on boatwork and hosted a few happy hours on Windbird, getting to know Ken and Tracy as well as Larry and Cindy on S/V Boundless Adventure II. Our last night in Warderick we did happy hour on Makana. They're headed the same direction as us this season, and we hope to run into Ken & Tracy more on our way south.

As for our other cruising friends, most have just crossed to the Bahamas this last week. Erin and Kara on S/V Vela crossed on Wednesday and sailed all the way to Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos, arriving Thursday. John and Trina on S/V Next Place crossed to West End last Sunday and then hopped through the western Abacos, arriving in Green Turtle Cay on Thursday as well. They met Erin and Kara through us at Annapolis, so the two boats are hanging out together in White Sound during this blow. A cruising family we met in Georgetown SC, Heywood and Ainsley and their two kids (boat name escapes me at the moment) also crossed to West End on Thursday. Our friends Ernie and Betty of S/V Iemanja are currently skiing in Colorado but will be returning soon to Little River to get Iemanja headed south.

I'm really excited for Jon and Steve to sail with us. Steve has been onboard before; he sailed from Lauderdale to the Berries to Nassau last season, along with a number of sailing adventures we did before buying Windbird. But Jon is the only sibling who's never sailed with me on any boat, owned or rented, and he's a hardworking guy who doesn't take many vacations, so I'm really looking forward to spending some time with him and sharing our cruising life with him. Our itinerary isn't set yet and will be completely dependent on weather; we just have to be to Georgetown by Dec 20th for the boys' return flight to Minnesota (Dawn and I will stash the boat and follow on Dec 22, partake in Christmas festivities, and fly one 3-day trip). Ideally we'd get back up to the Exuma Park for a few days and then sail overnight to Georgetown, but we'll only venture back that way if we're assured of a good weather window for going SE.

Well, it's almost high tide, the current has died down, and Windbird has settled nicely. I should have seven hours of sleep before she resumes her dance, at which point it'll be light. We'll likely move on over to Big Majors Spot in the morning. The wind has already gone NNE so it should be quite comfortable in there.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

On The Road Again - Abaco to Exumas

Our alternator was indeed delivered as promised on Wednesday afternoon, though just a bit too late to get over to Hope Town as we were hoping. It's just as well, as it was a windy, squally night with a lot of rain. The next day was much nicer, with a brisk ENE wind, and we decided to bypass Hope Town this time and head down to Tilloo Cay. This involved basically a big S turn east around the peninsula that Marsh Harbor sits on and then west around Lubber's Cay Bar. We motored into the wind initially, then put out the sails and enjoyed everything from a beam reach, to gybing our way west, back to a beam reach, to a close reach and beating into the anchorage. Lots of fun. We deployed the dinghy and took Piper to Tahiti Beach, which he greatly enjoyed. We tried visiting Cracker P's on Lubber's Cay but it was closed.

On Friday we sailed down to Lynyard Cay and anchored, then took the dinghy down to Little Harbour. Along the way we checked out the Little Harbour Cut, which was rough but not breaking. In Little Harbour we looked through Pete Johnstone's sculpture gallery, which was really neat, and had lunch at Pete's Pub. Back at the boat we took naps, got the boat ready for sea, took Piper for one last potty break/beach run, and put the dinghy on the foredeck. We were anchor up at 4:15pm and motorsailing out of the cut by 4:45pm. It was pretty rough out on the ocean, a bit more than expected given the wind (NE at 15G20), at least until we got past the 100-ft dropoff. It was mostly 5-ft seas with the occasional 7-footer as the sun set.

Our route to Spanish Wells covered about 60nm but the last 10nm was over fairly shallow water that I didn't know well, so I wanted decent light before venturing across it, meaning we had only 50nm to cover in 14.5 hours. We started out with single-reefed main and double-reefed jib, and were still doing well over six knots. We decided to stay fast for the first bit in case the wind died, which it didn't though it eased a bit. So at 10pm we double-reefed the main and ended up sailing on that alone for the balance of the night, which slowed us enough that we didn't arrive off Egg Island until 4pm. At that point I deployed the staysail and hove to for the next 3 hours, which worked quite well (I alternated tacks every hour, so we just slowly forereached back and forth). At 7:30 the sun was high enough for me to see well to the NE, and the route into Spanish Wells turned out to be pretty easy and reef-free the whole way. The last bit is a bit shallow but we arrived at mid-tide so it was no problem. We were moored just east of downtown by 9:30am.

We put the boat back together, launched the dinghy and ran Piper to shore, then rested for a bit. After lunch we went into town and did a little provisioning at the store and filled both of our jerry cans with gas for the dinghy, then walked all around town with Piper. Spanish Wells is a fairly non-touristy, busy working fishing village that looked a little gruff at first but really grew on us. Something like 75% of the Bahamian spiny lobster harvest is caught by the Spanish Wells fishing fleet. The boats were all busy getting ready to go back out, loading lumber to rebuild their "lobster hotels" destroyed by the hurricanes that went through the southern Bahamas. We later learned that the boats - which were all clearly very well maintained - are all co-owned by their crews, who vote who their captain will be...just like the pirate ships of the 17th-18th centuries!

We were back at the boat for only a few minutes before an older couple dinghied up and introduced themselves. Tom and Jean are self-described CLODs ("Cruisers Who Live on Dirt!"); they used to have a Tayana 37 and then a Grand Banks 34 trawler, but now live in Spanish Wells for much of the year and sail a beautiful classic-styled catboat named Done Reach, which Dawn and I had been admiring on our walk around town. Tom and Jean invited us to happy hour at their house, which we duly accepted. Tom's brother Bob, who lives in Spanish Wells full-time, joined us, and we all had a really nice time talking about cruising, boats, Spanish Wells history, and the cool old house that Tom and Jean bought and restored. When they purchased the house in 1999, it was 101 years old and still had no electrical wiring (kerosene lamps), running water (cistern), or toilets (outhouse)!


We were originally planning to spend two days in Spanish Wells, as we were making up for this spring when a weather window to the Abacos prompted us to skip it, but weather once again intervened. Tomorrow (Monday Dec 4th) was forecast to be quite windy with a high overcast, and I was nervous about crossing the notoriously reefy Middle Ground in poor light. So we decided to leave today, which we did just before sunrise. It was 55nm from Spanish Wells to Highborne Cay in the northern Exumas, which we covered in under 10 hours. The Middle Ground was indeed reefy, but with Dawn on the bow directing me we were able to stay at pretty close to normal speed while making deviations of no more than 10 degrees. We motorsailed with mainsail alone during that portion in case we needed to maneuver quickly, but the rest of the afternoon was a beautiful beam-to-broad reach under sail alone.

I was super excited to get to the Exumas, but the day ended on a bit of a down note. After we started the engine to anchor at Highborne Cay, I noticed that the alternator wasn't charging the house batteries - again! I opened up the engine room, and the alternator is arcing again, worse than before. So we spent $350 to have it repaired in Marsh Harbour, apparently for nothing. Really, really disappointing, and we're in a much worse place now to get it repaired than in Marsh Harbour or Spanish Wells. But that said, we have wind and solar that almost keeps up with our demands, and I have a few things I can do to improve the solar's efficiency. And we do have a second alternator, which is currently keeping the engine battery topped off but which I can rewire to charge the house batteries. In a pinch there are a few marinas scattered up and down the Exumas which we can stop at to get a topoff from shore power. And finally we can retreat back to Nassau if required, though I was really hoping to avoid Nassau this year. Here at Highborne Cay we have good data and cell connections, so tomorrow I'll do some calling around to figure out our options for repair or replacement. I think we can make due to Georgetown, but I'd really like to have a functioning high-output alternator before leaving there for points south.

Ah well, it's always something. This is a beautiful sand anchorage to hang out at for a few nights, and we have a gorgeous full moon rising overhead tonight. We're really glad to be here after a couple of long sails south from the Abacos.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Abaco Photos

Our alternator is reportedly "almost" fixed and should be delivered sometime today (we hope), and yesterday I found the leak that was filling our bilge with precious fresh water (was deep under the galley sink). Other than that it was a quiet day due to the the gloom, wind, and nearly constant squalls with pelting rainfall thanks to a deep trough that settled over the northern Bahamas a couple days ago and is currently becoming a surface low. It sounds like we'll be hanging around the Abacos until Friday night at the earliest, possibly Saturday, before heading down to Spanish Wells and then onward to the Exumas. If we get the alternator early enough today we'll head to Hope Town; if not we'll spent another night in Marsh Harbour, albeit on the hook instead of on the dock like the last two nights.

Here are some photos from the last two weeks which I should have included in my last two posts but hadn't uploaded them to my computer yet.

The forecast for the morning of Thursday Nov 16th which gave us an opening to cross the Gulf Stream where it turns ENE, just east of Charleston. The wind ended up filling back in and turning NNE earlier than predicted, leading to somewhat rough conditions in the 2nd half of the stream (but still sailing fairly downwind, at least).

The cold front that filled in brisk winds from the NNE over the night of the 16th-17th, giving us a great downwind ride that lasted until Saturday the 18th.

Leaving Little River Inlet at sunset with Dawn at the helm.

On the 4pm-7pm watch late on Friday the 17th, enjoying a great downwind sail under clear skies.

Beautiful warm day on Saturday the 18th had me running around the boat in my undies, and a nice Mahi hit the reel around 4pm. 

On the mooring in White Sound, Green Turtle Cay, shortly after arrival on the morning of Sunday, Nov 19th.

Dawn raises the Bahamian courtesy flag after clearing in with customs & immigration. 

Taking the pooch for a walk around White Sound on a squally, rainy Monday Nov 20th.

Exploring the beautiful mangrove creeks with sea turtles galore and some enormous eagle rays (that we swam with!) at Manjack Cay on Weds Nov 22nd.

We tried to get Piper to go swimming with the turtles too but he wasn't having it.

Enjoying a quiet beach on the northeast side of Manjack Cay, Nov 22nd. 

Piper is so happy to be a beach dog again!

Look at all that solar capacity! Went to top of the mast to run new spinnaker pole topping lift which had parted on the passage, anchorage between Manjack & Crab Cays, Nov 22nd.

Manjack/Crab Cays Anchorage from top of the mast, Nov 22nd. 


So happy to be back in the Bahamas. 

Walking through New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay on Thanksgiving Day. 

Fischer's Bay, Great Guana Cay, Saturday Nov 25th. 

Dawn and Piper enjoy a hammock at Grabber's Bar & Grill, Fischer's Bay.

Sunday Funday Pig Roast at Nippers, Great Guana Cay, Nov 26th.

Windbird at Sunset, Fischer's Bay, Nov 26th.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Alternator Blues

I was hoping to avoid Marsh Harbour altogether in this swing through Abaco, other than a quick stop-in for reprovisioning. Alas, here we are in Marsh Harbor for at least one night, probably two or more, and on a dock at that! The problem is that our Balmar alternator went on the fritz a few days ago, it's been partly cloudy most days so our solar isn't quite keeping up, and we needed some shore power to top up our house batteries while we get the alternator fixed here in town. I hope it can be fixed anyways, because something fairly major is broken: it was actually arcing internally, and by the time I realized it and disconnected the alternator, it had burned a small hole in the aluminum case. Large-case, high-output Balmars are seriously not cheap - ours costs about $1300 - so I'm definitely hoping the alternator shop in town can fix this one. The dockmaster at the marina says Basil is good and does a lot of marine work.

Other than that it's been a nice first eight days in the Bahamas. As mentioned in my last post we spent two days at beautiful Manjack & Crab Cays, then returned to Green Turtle Cay for Thanksgiving. We spent the day shopping and doing miscellaneous chores in New Plymouth, then came back to the boat and watched the Vikings defeat the Lions on Dawn's iPad, and finally we had a scrumptious Thanksgiving feast - grilled chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, and homemade pumpkin pie. Friday was cloudy and windy, and we enjoyed a long (20nm) and boisterous beam reach sail around Whale Cay and through the Loggerhead Channel, past Great Guana and Scotland Cays to Man-O-War Cay. The reason for the long sail is that with brisk southwesterlies none of the usual lee anchorages were tenable, while Man-O-War's lagoon was calm as a lake. We really liked the quiet village but only stayed one night. On Saturday we stopped off for snorkeling at Fowl Cay en route to Great Guana, where we were the first boat to anchor in Fischer's Bay after the wind went north. The next morning we loaded up the dinghy for a snorkel expedition all the way around to the northwest side of Great Guana. It was pretty spectacular, the best snorkeling I've done in a long time, though the water was a bit rough. After our return we headed to Nippers for their Sunday pig roast, and mostly vegged when we got back.

This morning I tore out the alternator (having diagnosed and disabled it on Saturday) and then we had a nice close reach sail to Marsh Harbour, where we docked at the Marsh Harbour Marina. Quite a bargain at $1.05/ft, only $.85/ft if 2 days or more, with nice docks & facilities and a cruiser-friendly staff. So if we're to be stuck on a dock, this is a good option. After getting in today we took the dinghy across the harbor to the cruisers dinghy dock and used that as a base of operations for provisioning food and booze and tracking down some hardware. Dawn did a load of laundry and made her amazing Indian Butter Nut chicken, while I did my quarterly online airline training. Tomorrow will be a boatwork day, trying to improve the efficiency of the solar panels on our bimini and tracking down whatever leak has been filling our bilge the last two days. It's always something.

The easterly trades are going to howl the next couple days but supposedly there will be a good break for sailing to Eleuthera on Thursday night. Hopefully the boat is ready to go; in an ideal world, I'd also like to spend a night in Hope Town and an afternoon snorkeling at Sandy Cay. We'll see how this alternator repair goes first.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Offshore to Abaco

(Written 11/21)

You won’t believe this, but we’ve actually already been in the Bahamas for five days, having arrived in the Abacos last Sunday after a 478nm, 90-hour passage direct from Little River. The timing really couldn’t have worked better. I got back from my last trip on Monday Nov 13th, and we had just enough time on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to complete our last pre-passage chores. The plan was to take off on our first good weather window after November 15th, assuming there was one in sight, and if not just head down the coast and hop across when & where we could – departing from South Florida, if no opportunities to cross the Gulf Stream presented themselves before then.

November is a tough time to do the passage we just did. Big low pressure systems regularly go charging offshore from the Carolinas dragging strong, ugly cold fronts behind them. If you have a stout boat and don’t mind doing a little surfing these can provide for quick progress southward – but you absolutely, positively don’t want to be anywhere near the Gulf Stream during one. Strong N/NE wind against strong S/SW current makes for hellish conditions. So to get from SC to the Bahamas we needed about 24 hours of little to no north wind to get across the Gulf Stream, followed by 3 days of no strong south wind. A tall order, and an unlikely window to crop up exactly when we wanted it.

In fact it was a bit earlier than we wanted it – like I said, I was looking for the first window after the 15th. For nearly a week before that, the winds had been howling incessantly out of the N and NE, and it didn’t look like there’d be much respite. When I spoke to Chris Parker on the morning of the 14th, he seemed to think we’d have a break to cross the Gulf Stream on the 16th, followed by a number of mild weather days to get into Abaco before the next cold front hit on the morning of the 20th. I didn’t think our window across the Gulf Stream looked like it would last past sunset on the 16th. On the morning of the 15th, Chris agreed and suggested we depart that night to reach the Gulf Stream in the morning and be out of it by sunset. That set off a mad dash to get all our last-minute items complete. We were off the dock at 4pm, fueled up at nearby Cricket Cove Marina, and steamed out of Little River inlet in the dusk at 5:45pm.

The first night we motorsailed almost straight south on a broad reach in light northwesterlies, which made for a rather rolly ride. By daybreak the wind was 340 at 15; shortly thereafter we eached the edge of the Stream and turned to a 160 heading to directly bisect it using the “S-curve” method (average track was about 143°). You’ll notice this is quite a southerly heading for a Gulf Stream crossing; we intentionally crossed immediately north of the “Charleston Bump,” where the stream turns ENE and diffuses. This way the NNW wind would be across rather than against it. And at first it worked like a dream. However the wind picked up quite a bit earlier than forecast – not totally a surprise in the Gulf Stream, where warm water seems to add energy to any system – and also turned NE by early afternoon. Thus we were halfway through the Stream when the waves started piling up in a big way, with curling tops. I’d estimate they got to 10’, bigger than we’ve been in anyways. Windbird handled them well, but Dawn – who was already queasy from the rolly ride the previous night – became seasick. Not debilitatingly so – she was still able to stand her watches – but she couldn’t keep anything down for over a day.

By sunset we were out of the main part of the stream, although a 1.5-knot average diffuse rivulet persisted until early morning. That night the wind strengthened considerably as a weak cold front hit; the direction actually backed a bit to 340, then slowly veered to 020. We’d been intending to turn south at W77° but I wanted to stay at a broad reach under double-reefed main and single-reefed Yankee, where the boat was at least riding comfortably, instead of rolling dead downwind wing-on-wing. So we kept going SSE until the morning, when the wind finally veered enough for us to start turning more southward. We ended up riding W76°45’ down, which was far enough east that we hit an adverse-current cold-water eddy around N30° just as the NOAA charts predicted, but at that point I wasn’t worried about making good time – I knew we’d have to slow down to enter Nunjack Cut after sunrise on the morning of the 19th.

Friday afternoon was a glorious sail, clear and warm and fast on a strong broad reach with big rollers sweeping past us. I had my pole and handline out ever since the Gulf Stream – where I caught a small bonito I threw back – and just before noon the pole got hit, hard. The fish fought incredibly hard for about 15 minutes, making me earn every foot of line I got on the reel (I had about 100 yards out at the time) – then suddenly gave up out of pure exhaustion, and I was able to drag him up to the boat where Dawn gaffed him. It was a 20-pound tuna, the biggest fish we’ve caught so far on Windbird…he provided several excellent meals, and we still have half of him in our freezer! The wind veered and eased during the night, and we had several excellent hours of beam-reach sailing on Saturday morning. Chris had predicted the wind would die shortly after sunrise but it persisted until about 10am, died for a few hours during which we motorsailed, then came back for about three hours in the afternoon. We’d just started the engine again at 4pm when the pole got hit again, this time a ~8-lb Mahi. He made an awesome meal of fish tacos with homemade corn tortillas our first night in at Green Turtle Cay.

By sunset we’d slowed a bit knowing we had only 60 miles to go in about 15 hours (I didn’t want to arrive at the cut until 9am for good light). Just before I went off watch at 7pm I noticed that our Racor vacuum gauge was showing a bit high, which wasn’t a huge surprise as we’d polished all our fuel through that filter before leaving. So when I woke from my nap I had Dawn stop the engine and I went below to change the filter and bleed the fuel system, a 5-minute job (my new fuel system is a thing of beauty, btw, I’ll write about it in another post). I should mention that we’d been noticing a bit of unusual engine vibration on this passage at 2200-2400 RPM, but didn’t see anything abnormal in the engine room and anyways hadn’t experienced it that much because all of our motorsailing had been at reduced RPM.

Well, Dawn went to start the engine again and as soon as she put it in gear it was obvious something was majorly wrong. The was a ton of vibration even in idle forward, which decreased around 1500 RPM but got far worse above 2000 RPM. I had her shut down and inspected all the engine mounts closely, where I found that the aft port lower bolt had vibrated down about 3/4”. I raised that corner of the engine to its original position but the vibration was just as bad. On closer inspection I found that the prop shaft-transmission coupling was rather loose. Ah-hah! It was actually the flexible coupler whose bolts had backed out partway since installing it in Cape May in September; they’re prevented from backing out all the way by the flange of the propshaft coupling, which also prevented me from easily tightening them. I weighed my options. If I fixed it now, it’d be a 1-2 hour job that only involved 12 bolts – but I’d be leaning deep into the engine room with the boat in a seaway, moving the propshaft & driveshaft out of place, and if I screwed up or was wrong about what was wrong with the shaft, we’d be engineless in a near-calm 50 miles from land, with a norther on the way. There’s no TowBoatUS in the Bahamas. So I decided to keep going with the engine at 1600-1800 RPM, which seemed to be minimum vibration. This put us at the cut a little earlier than planned, at 7:45am, but it was overcast with rainy squalls so the light wouldn’t have been any better at 9am and in any case Nunjack Cut is wide and deep and we transited it at just before high tide with little wind or swell. We arrived at Green Turtle Cay at 10am and took a mooring in White Sound, not wanting to run the engine up to back down on the anchor.

After straightening up the boat we launched the dinghy and I took the boat documents and customs paperwork into the quaint village of New Plymouth, where I checked in with a very nice customs lady. Totally painless, just like last year, and took maybe 10 minutes. When I got back I took Piper to shore, landing at the Bluff House Marina dinghy dock. He did great on the passage, going potty on the foredeck every evening, but was obviously overjoyed to be back on land. I took him over the hill to the beach by the Tranquil Turtle bar, and he obviously enjoyed his first beach run of the season. It was a sandy, salty, soggy and panting dog I brought back to the boat! We did some boatwork in the afternoon and then Dawn and I went back to the Tranquil Turtle for a happy hour tipple and to watch the sunset.

Yesterday morning started quite windy as the norther hit. I fixed our shower pump that had failed on the passage (was actually a broken hose fitting downstream of the check valve, allowing seawater to backflow into the boat – I had to close the seacock) and then launched into the coupling issue. As expected it was just over an hourlong job involving 12 bolts and 4 nuts. I did some thinking about why the flexible coupler's bolts backed out. We had torqued them down to spec, I’m sure of it. But Dave Laux had recommended greasing the bolts to ensure easy removal down the line. In retrospect I guess the removal was a little too easy. This time I coated them with threadlocker before torquing them down. The tough thing here is that because those bolts are hidden, it’s impossible to check them for tightness (as I’ve done with the rest of the transmission installation several times since September). So the first sign that they’re coming loose is play in the driveshaft – but at least I’ll know where to look at the first sign of vibration next time.

After boatwork we took the dinghy to New Plymouth and explored the quaint historical town, took Piper to a beachfront park, cruised through Black Sound, did a little more boatwork on return, and then reprised happy hour at the Tranquil Turtle before returning to the boat to grill up some tuna steaks. Today started extremely windy and squally and we delayed our departure to Manjack Cay until 2pm. In the meantime we did projects from 8am to 10am, took Piper on a walk and got drenched in a downpour, came back and lathered up for rainwater showers on deck, did a major reorganization and reinventory of several drawers and cabinets of boat maintenance stores, and finally slipped the mooring in a slick calm at 2pm. It was a quick 45-minute steam up to Manjack Cay, where we anchored between Manjack and Crab just before yet another squall hit. I dove on the anchor and found a large (dead) conch shell with a huge (live) rock crab living inside, then took Piper to a nearby beach and got eaten alive by noseeums while he enjoyed his daily beach run. Tomorrow we’ll be taking the dinghy out to explore the mangrove creek through the center of the island – reportedly lots of turtles – and snorkel the outer reef, as it’s supposed to be nice and calm. Should be a fun day. On Thursday we’ll return to Green Turtle Cay for Thanksgiving, then try to run outside Whale Cay to Great Guana Cay on Friday. We’re planning to cross to Spanish Wells (Eleuthera) around Dec 1st so we have a little over a week left to enjoy our third visit to the Abacos.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Countdown to Freedom

I'm flying my last trip before we start our cruising season, a 4-day to Santiago, Chile. I won't get any landings on this trip (two legs, three pilots) but it's not a big deal as I reestablished landing currency on my domestic trip earlier this week. Airline pilots have to make three landings every 90 days; if this lapses, I have to make a trip to Atlanta to reestablish currency in the flight simulator. Last winter I pretty well flew under the radar by making sure I stayed current, and I plan to do that again this year by flying a trip every six to eight weeks. I'll likely fly in late December (commuting from Georgetown, Exuma) and then again in early February (commuting from Luperon, DR) and late March (USVI/BVI). I'm fortunate to be flying the Boeing 757/767 as it is a relatively simple, intuitive airliner to fly after an extended absence.

I only had one full day off after my last trip (plus two partial days) and it was a cold, rainy day at that, but we've made good progress on our project list. In my absence Dawn reprovisioned the boat, sewed the cockpit cushions and handrail covers, started the dorade covers, bottom-painted the dinghy, UV-proofed all the canvas, cleaned the Issenglass, refilled the propane cylinders, and several other big projects. Together we removed, inspected, cleaned, and bent on the headsails, inspected the rig, serviced the outboard, inspected and remarked the anchor chain, disassembled and cleaned the grill, etc. A diver came and cleaned Windbird's bottom and running gear and changed the zinc. A fuel polisher is coming this weekend to help us clean out our diesel tanks. In the engine room, I rebuilt the fuel system using some really nifty fuel feed and return manifolds I created - it's a really clean install that replaced a rather ramshackle one. I replaced our VHF whip antenna only to find it didn't fix our antenna problems, and then spent a rather frustrating rainy day troubleshooting the three sections of old coaxial and replacing PL259s before finally concluding I should just replace the whole thing. The new RG213 coax should arrive tomorrow, and running it down the mast and through the boat will be the first order of business when I get back on Monday. On the other hand, my plan to troubleshoot the SSB tuner was resolved in very quick fashion when I raised Chris Parker on 8137 KHz yesterday and he reported our signal loud and clear. I'm pretty sure the last try or two I simply wasn't giving the tuner enough time to tune up on a nearby frequency. It takes a good 5-10 seconds of whistling/humming before the SWR settles down to less than 1.5:1. This is a huge relief, the first time I've been able to raise anybody at long distance on our SSB (the old tuner was fried by last year's lightning strike). I still have a couple other projects left, but they should take a couple days at most.

All our cruising friends are on the move already. John and Trina on S/V Next Place leapfrogged us to Charleston and then Fernandina Beach FL; they'll spend some time in St. Augustine before heading to Abaco about the same time as us. Erin & Kara on S/V Vela hopped offshore from Beaufort five minutes before us, stopped for a couple days in Georgetown SC, and are now already in Fort Lauderdale; they'll cross after spending Thanksgiving with family back in Texas. Dan & Isabelle sold S/V Epiic in Annapolis and are back in Canada already working hard on their next venture to pay for their dream catamaran so they can get back out there with us ASAP. Ernie & Bette on S/V Iemanga just arrived back at Lightkeepers Marina and will be heading south a couple weeks after us. And various other cruising acquaintances are on the move, all generally moving south and east.

Our plan once I get back on Monday is to continue working on projects until (if) we get a good weather window anytime after the 15th, and then hop offshore to Marsh Harbour - about 430 miles, say 3-4 days. This involves crossing the Gulf Stream on the first night out, requiring no strong N or E wind, followed by a run almost straight S during which we'd like to see as little southerly component as possible. This is a bit of a tall order and it's very possible no weather window will be forthcoming, in which case we'll head south along the coast until a good window for crossing the stream presents itself or we get to Ft. Pierce, whichever happens first. We'd love to celebrate Thanksgiving in Abaco, but as always the weather dictates all. We're just happy to be almost ready to cast off the docklines and go cruising again.

Monday, November 6, 2017

After the Storms - What Now?

Our plan for this cruising season, like all sailing plans, has evolved over time. At one point were were thinking we'd go offshore to the Leeward Islands, but then our three wonderful months in the Bahamas last winter convinced us to return there and do the "Thorny Path" island-hopping through the Southern Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Each of these are legitimate cruising destinations in their own right, though slightly more "off the beaten path" than the Lesser Antilles. We planned to finish the year with a few months of cruising the northern Leewards (Spanish Virgins, USVI, BVI) before putting Windbird on the hard in Fajardo, PR for Summer 2018.

That was before this hurricane season, which changed so much throughout the Caribbean but especially the BVI, USVI, and Puerto Rico. First came Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest hurricanes on record that scored an absolute bullseye hit on the BVI and caused extensive damage on Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. John, St. Thomas, Culebra, Providenciales (Turks & Caicos), numerous islands in the southern Bahamas, Cuba, & the Florida Keys. Puerto Rico was spared the worst of Irma's wrath, but only two weeks later was dealt a devastating punch by Hurricane Maria. The island's infrastructure is thoroughly wrecked and it will take years to rebuild. Many residents have fled, and those who've stayed behind (including Judy Handley's son Justin & his family) are living in rather primitive conditions.

This has understandably changed quite a few cruisers plans for the coming season. Quite a few of those we've talked to are skipping straight down to the Lesser Antilles from Antigua southward. Others are spending more time in the northern and central Bahamas. Some are just staying home this year. And others are pressing on to their original destinations, but understanding that it'll be a more primitive, self-sufficient cruising experience, and perhaps with a different focus than before.

We considered skipping ahead or concentrating on the Bahamas, but ultimately decided to visit the T&C, DR, PR, USVI and BVI as planned. Part of our reasoning is that Windbird is already well-equipped for self-sufficiency, & we weren't really planning to take many docks along the way. The good anchorages before are still good anchorages today (and a lot less crowded, with the charter fleet in ruins). These islands' economies are largely tied to tourism, and by going and spending our dollars there we can help them get on their feet. And there will doubtless be opportunities to volunteer in a more hands-on fashion, helping with cleanup and rebuilding. So we're going to go, keep open minds & hearts, stay flexible, and experience what will undoubtedly be one of the more unique cruising seasons in the northern Caribbean in recent memory.

We are changing our timeline a bit. We're planning to cross to the Bahamas a little later than planned, the first weather window after November 16th. We'll spend a little time in the Abacos and Eleuthera before heading down the Exumas, hoping to arrive in Georgetown around December 20th. We plan to leave the boat there and fly back north for family Christmases (and for me to fly a trip to reestablish landing currency) before returning to Georgetown for NYE. In January we'll hop through the southern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, and we'll spend most of February in the Dominican Republic. We were originally planning to spend March exploring Puerto Rico, but I think our cruising there is going to be more limited & transitory unless we find a well-protected port where we can stick around and be useful. We'll spend some time on Culebra and Vieques, and will probably stick around St. John for a week or two. The balance of the season, though, will likely be spent in the British Virgin Islands.

This is a bit of a change from our original plan, which didn't call for a lot of time in the BVIs. Partially this is because we've done it multiple times, partly because it was crowded with charter boats and expensive mooring balls. The beach bar scene there was fun for a week-long charter, but not something we (or our livers!) can afford to do long-term. So our BVI plan was to hit up our favorite party spots (Jost van Dyke, North Sound, Norman's Island) for a night or two at most, hang out in Cane Garden Bay & Anegada for a few nights each, and otherwise seek out the few quiet coves that the charter boats don't make it to.

The BVI we knew, though, is essentially gone - at least for now. All our favorite beach hangouts - Soggy Dollar, Bitter End YC, Saba Rock, Willy T, Bomba Shack, de Loose Mongoose, Last Resort, Anegada Beach Club - are all destroyed or severely damaged (as are many of their owners' and employees' homes). Most of the charter boat fleet sunk or was written off, including my friend Duncan Roberts' beautiful new Jeanneau 51 "Portlandia." So this is a chance to cruise the BVI as it was years ago, before it became a charter mecca, and help the people rebuild what was lost. Because we feel a connection with the BVI from our prior time spent there, this feels like a worthy use of the last two or so months of the cruising season.

The big question is where we put Windbird for hurricane season. Our original plan was to put her on the hard at Puerto del Rey in Fajardo, PR. They have a good hurricane-hardened yard that did very well during Maria. That said, Nanny Cay in the BVI was considered a safe yard and nearly every boat there was a loss to Irma. You can argue that a Cat 5+ direct hit is a once-every-500-years occurrence, but I suspect the insurance companies are going to be very, very leery of insuring anything left in "the box" for the next few hurricane seasons, no matter how well-secured. So that's a conversation we'll be having with our insurance the next few months, and we may end up changing our plans and taking Windbird down to Grenada or Trinidad for hurricane season.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Cruising Season 2.0 Has Begun!

Hooray - at last, we've started moving south again! Dawn, Piper and I kicked the new season off with a six day, 452 NM trip from Deale, MD down to Little River, SC. The weather made it more challenging than the reverse trip, which we did nonstop offshore around Hatteras in light weather in late June. This time we did a large portion of the trip, Norfolk to Beaufort NC, via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), which is a similar distance but considerably slower than going offshore since you don't continue moving 24/7. I'm continuing to fly through mid-November and had a 6-day trip reporting yesterday (10/28), and for a while it looked like we wouldn't make it to Little River in time - plan B was to dock in Beaufort and commute out of New Bern. But thanks to a couple of early morning starts we were able to put in serious miles and get it done. Our itenerary was as follows:

Sat, Oct 21. I landed at DCA at 5pm following a 7-day international trip, during which I had a 48-hour layover in Paris on which Dawn accompanied me (thanks John & Trina for dogsitting Piper!). We rented a car and spent most of our time in Normandy touring the D-Day beaches, landing zones and battle sites. I had been considering getting off the dock immediately after getting in, but that only made sense if we were exiting the Chesapeake and going offshore. A big low pressure system and associated cold front forecast for Tuesday made that inadvisable, and there was no sense leaving early if we were going via the ICW because it's roughly 24 hours from Deale to Norfolk meaning we'd arrive there around sunset. So instead we went to Happy Harbour dockside restaurant for a farewell dinner with John & Trina and dockmates Gus and Michelle.

Sun, Oct 22. Up at 4am and off the dock by 5. It was, of course, pitch dark, but we're quite familiar with Shipwright's Harbor and Herring Bay by now so navigation was quite easy. The main danger is crab traps; to keep from fouling one, Dawn stood on the bow with the spotlight until we were out of Herring Bay. This providing an exciting moment when the spotlight's lanyard somehow came loose and Dawn accidentally dropped it in the water! It was good MOB (man overboard) practice anyways, since our spotlight floats. I just dropped a waypoint immediately, slowed the boat, turned around, and inched back towards where we dropped the light. Dawn found it using a headlamp, I stopped the boat alongside and used a boat hook to shepherd it towards the lifeline gate, Dawn leaned wayyy down (with me holding tightly to her legs!) and fished it out of the water. Sweet - those things are like $75!

The rest of the day down the Bay was uneventful, with light air motoring and later motorsailing in light southeasterlies. After sunset the wind picked up a bit and backed, and we got in a couple hours of actual sailing on a close reach during the night.

Mon, Oct 23. We entered the always-busy Hampton Roads inlet just after 3am; it took several hours to navigate the huge Norfolk naval base & dockyards, downtown wharf, and lower Elizabeth River to the start of the ICW. There's a bascule bridge near mile marker 6 (MM6; all distances on the ICW are in Statute Miles, not NM) that doesn't open between 6:30am and 8:30am, we were trying to beat that. We were a few minutes late but the bridge tender let us and another boat through anyways after a 20-minute delay, since the adjacent railroad bridge was down and preventing transit since several minutes before 6:30. While we waited for the bridge we enjoyed the sunrise & admired the other boat (S/V Arun). Our delay at the bridge had a bit of a cascade effect: we missed the 8am lockthrough at Great Bridge Lock (MM12), which delayed us an hour till the 9am lockthrough, which meant a greater portion of the day was spent fighting against increasing southerly winds, which meant we didn't make it to our preferred anchorage at MM65 (Broad Creek), instead tucking in behind Buck Island near MM60. It turned out to be a good choice because we had perfect protection from the south while the winds howled all night. I saw a high of 30 knots when I got up at 2am to make sure we hadn't dragged at all. Later we heard that south of Albemarle Sound boats reported over 50 knots of wind in some wild prefrontal storms.

Tues, Oct 24: The wind had abated considerably in our anchorage by sunrise, and PredictWind's PWG model showed much less wind for the morning than previously predicted (though the GFS remained elevated). I was originally planning to just reposition to Broad Creek but in light of the possible easing I decided to check out conditions on Albemarle Sound and cross if it looked ok. Oof, I needn't have bothered. Once we were on the sound itself, wind was right on the nose at 20 knots gusting 23. We were pounding into big short, square waves and making less than 2 knots headway, and turned around after a mile to flee for the protection of the calm anchorage. The rest of the day quite a few boats joined us there, looking to position themselves to cross the next day.

Wed, Oct 25. We had anchored just outside Broad Creek itself in preparation for a nighttime escape, which we made good at 2:45am. The ICW offers few open-water opportunities for safe nighttime movement, but this is one of them. The front had passed during the night and the wind was now 270 at 12-15, making for a beautiful, reasonably comfortable upwind leg across the Albemarle. I'd been expecting to motorsail but was able to sail much of the way across, handsteering by the stars while Dawn slept below. The only slightly tricky part was going around Long Shoal to enter the Alligator River, but most of the buoys for this area are lit. Our goal was to arrive at the Alligator River Swing Bridge at dawn, which worked perfectly. It was a nice motorsail down the Alligator River until the wind died completely, then we motored into the long, straight Alligator-Pungo Canal. We emerged into the Pungo River shortly before 3pm, making a record-fast stop at Dowry Creek Marina to top off our port & starboard fuel tanks. By now the wind had kicked up again out of the NW, and after the river turned south at Belhaven we had a spectacular broad reach for the last hour down to our anchorage at MM140. We had covered 75 statute miles and put ourselves in a great position to make Beaufort by Thursday night, and still had a good hour to enjoy sundowners before sunset.

Thurs, Oct 26. Another predawn start from a protected but easy-exit anchorage, this time at 5am. The Pamlico River isn't quite as wide as the Albemarle Sound, and I wanted to arrive at the other side and start up Goose Creek at dawn. The cold front had stalled and it was considerably windier than forecast (NW @ 24 kts) making for a wet and wild nighttime motorsail across the Pamlico. Once in protected Goose Creek, it immediately eased to near-calm. We reemerged into Bay River at 8:30am and turned into the Neuse River near Maw Point Shoal at 9:30am. It was windy as hell out there and we started our first leg, a beam-to-close reach on a starboard tack, under double-reefed main and staysail. I was expecting a hell of a beat because the Neuse turns progressively to the right but the wind veered and eased, and we were able to lay our course the whole way 'round. It ended up being a fast and enormously enjoyable 3-hour upwind sail, though at times Dawn and Piper weren't quite so enthused.

So the anticipated slow part of the day ended up being fast, but the expected fast part of the day (Adams Creek & the Core Creek Canal) was excruciatingly slow thanks to a 1.3 knot foul current. Had I done my homework better, I would have read that westerly winds set up lowered water levels in the Neuse and northerly current in Core Creek Canal. Nevertheless we arrived at the Beaufort-Morehead City Highway Bridge (MM204) at exactly our planned time of 4pm, with a welcoming committee of dolphins! Piper, as always, went wild & looked like he was going to jump in to swim with them. From there it was only a short jaunt out of Beaufort Inlet to begin our offshore overnight to Little River. Unfortunately the wind eased rather rapidly & we didn't get to sail-sail any of it. But there was still enough wind to make the first 50 or 60 miles a fast, enjoyable main-and-Yankee motorsail under reduced power. The sunset was gorgeous; it felt great to be on the open ocean again. Our friends Erin and Kara on S/V Vela were just ahead of us, as they had been since Adams Creek. We talked on the VHF sporadically, but found that we lost contact after only 5 or 6 miles separation (our handheld could still receive at this range). This confirmed our suspicions about our VHF reception, which has been an ongoing issue since leaving Charleston in January - we originally suspected our radio and then a particular PL259 connector, which I had replaced. I hooked up our SWR meter in line with the antenna and the high reading confirmed we still have an antenna problem. Once in Little River, I climbed our mast and took off the VHF whip. It appears to be in very poor condition, with one partially-melted wire that looks like it may have been a product of last year's lightning strike (so maybe a direct strike after all?). A new one has been ordered, hopefully this finally solves that issue. Now if only I can figure out why our new HF autotuner still won't tune.

Fri, Oct 27. An uneventful night with little traffic and little wind, followed by an incredible sunrise over glassy seas. Considering the light conditions we took a little bit of a shortcut across 25-foot soundings at the tip of the Frying Pan Shoals south of Cape Fear. The light breeze continued clocking NE and then E, keeping our mainsail full as we turned ENE for Little River Inlet. The fair current we'd experienced all night continued to favor us and we got to the Inlet at 2:30pm, and on the dock in Little River before 4pm. During the day we'd made a lengthy and rather daunting list of everything we need to do before taking off for the Bahamas in mid-November, and we launched into it immediately after docking and early the next morning before I headed to the airport.

I'll be working trips until Nov 13, meaning every second of my free time has to be spent getting us and the boat ready to go. That's ok, it's a price worth paying for what promises to be an incredible cruising season. In my next post I'll give a preview of where we'll be going and what we'll be doing, and how Hurricanes Irma and Maria have affected those places and our plans.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Solar Project is DONE!

Dawn and I did end up missing the SSCA gam due to a couple of unforseen events. First, our local welder wunderkind Caleb had the long-awaited solar panel frames all ready to install on our solar/davit arch, needed my help to do so, and wanted to get it done this weekend. Secondly, Dawn's childhood friend Cindie decided to make a last-minute trip to the boat. So sadly, we missed the gam. Erin & Kara on Vela say it was a good time. Hopefully we'll still make a couple days of the Annapolis Boat Show.

I did some work on our teak decks over the weekend (replacing/rebedding screws & bungs, epoxying splits) and I should finish that up in the morning, but completing the solar panel project was the main objective. And as of tonight, it's 100% done. We now have 520 watts of solar power: 200 watts in 4 PV panels on the Bimini top and two 160-watt panels in the gleaming new frames on the arch. Together with our wind gen this should meet our daily electrical needs a good 90%+ of the time.

We did manage to get Windbird off the dock yesterday for a nice easy, slow upwind sail across the bay. I had no idea Windbird would go upwind in 5-6 knots of true wind, but she does albeit at a stately 2.5-3.5 knots. We didn't even care, it was beautiful out and the apparent breeze was just enough to cool down a hot day. We anchored at Lowes Wharf just after 5:30pm and took the dogs to land (we're dogsitting Leo for our friends John & Trina on S/V Next Place). Turned out the popular beach bar there is closed on Mondays but they were ok with us walking the dogs there. We had a beautiful, quiet night on the hook, and were anchor up early today to get Cindie to DCA to fly back to Minnesota. We sailed for a bit and motorsailed at reduced power for the rest, wing-on-wing dead downwind to Deale. Once again backing into the slip went very smoothly. We're finally getting the hang of that (he said just before trying it in real wind & current!).

We spent a lot of time today doing planning for our next season. Obviously many of the places we planned on visiting have been devastated by hurricanes Irma and Marie, including the Turks & Caicos, Puerto Rico, Spanish Virgin Islands, USVI, BVI, and St. Maarten. We're still planning on going but our focus will be much different as we're going to try to volunteer as much as we can in the rebuilding effort (particularly in the BVI, which got absolutely destroyed by a direct hit from Cat 5, 185-mph Irma). I'll post more about that later. Tomorrow I'm heading out on a seven-day international trip that will take me to both London and Paris, among other places.