Saturday, January 27, 2018

Stop & Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Home for the Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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