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.