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.