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.