Monday, July 23, 2018

Season 2.0 in Review

I'm not actually even sure this was season 2.0. Last season we spent three months in the Bahamas, our shakedown cruise, which was something like a season 0.8 Beta. But it also included a couple months of cruising up and down the east coast, with some pretty significant sea miles, so I guess we should count it as a season. This definitely felt like Season 2.0, so I may as well stick to that naming convention.

That said, this year almost felt like two separate seasons. There was the season of Bashing Down The Thorny Path, and then there was a season of Cruising The Islands. Let's review our stately progress down the Thorny Path:

November '17: We crossed directly from Little River, SC to Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas - 478nm, 90 hours. Hung out in Green Turtle, Nunjack Cay, Man-O-War Cay, Great Guana Cay, and Marsh Harbour while we had a local alternator shop replace the diodes in our malfunctioning Balmar alternator. Good weather first few days, then stormy, cloudy, windy.

December '17: Down to Lubbers Cay and Little Harbour for a couple days before a rougher-than-forecast overnight crossing to Spanish Wells, Eleuthera (55nm). Uneventful daysail across the reef-strewn Middle Ground to Highborne Cay in the Exumas, where we discovered our alternator had failed again. We visited Shroud Cay, Warderick Wells and Hog Cay before running to Staniel Cay to hide from the season's first good norther. In the middle of that we were joined by my brothers Jon and Steve, and once things calmed down a bit we headed up to Cambridge Cay, then down to Pipe Creek, Black Point, Little Farmer's Cay, and Georgetown. The weather was decidedly mixed in December: lights winds and sunny skies one day, rainy and squally the next. We made do without the big alternator thanks to the help of new friends Ken and Tracy on S/V Makana and their Honda 2000 generator until Jon and Steve arrived with our new alternator. We flew out of Georgetown shortly after Jon and Steve to join our families for Christmas, and for me to fly a three-day trip.

January '18: We flew back to Georgetown in time to celebrate New Years with friends on S/V Makana and Adventure Bound II; around that time we were also joined by S/V Pura Vida, a family of four we had met in Georgetown SC in May '17, and S/V Rondo, another family of four we met in December in Staniel Cay. Due to the holiday we weren't able to get Piper's health certificate in the Bahamas until January 19th; in the meantime we went to Conception Island and Joe's Sound with our friends Dave and Leslie on S/V Texas Two Step. The weather was pretty dreadful during this time, with a lot of high winds, rain, and several bouts of severe thunderstorms including one that put us on a pretty hairy lee shore in Conception for a couple hours. After the delays for Piper's paperwork, we got a perfect weather window to make a 213 nm / 40 hr run all the way down to Mayaguana. We got stuck there waiting out the blow of the season, with gusts to 44 knots, during which we met our great new Canadian friends Dane and Mak and their infant daughter Isla on S/V Sea Otter. After the blow we crossed to Provo, Turks and Caicos (60nm) together along with a third boat, S/V Safara. Safara bugged out out Provo the very next day but we elected to stick around for the next weather window.

February '18: The weather in the Turks and Caicos was frustratingly steady for the first two and a half weeks of February: sunny and clear, but with high winds that would have made for a rough passage to the Dominican Republic (170nm). We and Sea Otter hung out a lot, and Dawn got to know them much better when I left for six days to do a four day trip and two days of training in Atlanta. My friend Brad came back to Provo with me in order to do the passage to Luperon aboard Windbird, so that Dawn could crew on Sea Otter, freeing up Mak to take care of Isla. It was a fairly quick and nice passage, a little bumpy southbound out of Big Sand Cay but wonderfully smooth in the night lee of Hispaniola. The verdant hills of Luperon on arrival were like a technicolor dream. We loved Luperon and enjoyed our 10 days based there, during which we rented motorbikes, did the 27 Waterfalls, and shared a rented 4x4 with Sea Otter to go experience Carnival in La Vega and reprovision in Santiago. The only downer was poorly maintained mooring balls, one of which cast us adrift in the anchorage in the middle of the night. At the end of the month we took advantage of a short window to motorsail 120nm / 24 hours east to Samaná, while Sea Otter stayed in Luperon to wait for another crewmember to arrive and help them make the next passage.

March '18: Shortly after arrival at the beautiful and cheap Puerto Bahia Marina in Samaná our friends Erin and Kara on S/V Vela caught up to us for the first time this season, along with new friend (and experienced Aussie cruiser) Steve on S/V La Mischief and lively young couple David and Joanna on S/V Oceananigans. We did two days of touring the Samaná peninsula with a 12-passenger van packed with cruisers, and then Dawn and I went to Santo Domingo to pick up Windbird's former admiral Judy Handley and tour old town Santo Domingo, which we loved. A day after we returned, we had a nice calm window for a motorsail across the Mona Passage, about 170nm / 30 hours to anchor down in Magaguez. We met Judy's son and daughter-in-law and their kids, and spent some time with them as they sailed with us to Boquerón and then showed us their home in Rincón and the surrounding countryside of western Puerto Rico. Then, a series of early-morning motorsails moved us further east along Puerto Rico's south shore using the nightly lee: Boquerón to La Parguera to Gilligan's Island to Ponce. We spent two nights there and repositioned to Coffin Island in preparation for a 70nm hop to Fajardo.

Season of Cruising the Islands

I think of Ponce as marking the end of the bash, because we had an almost completely calm overnight motor to Fajardo and from that moment on it felt like we'd arrived at our destination, even though we'd been sailing through and visiting many fantastic destinations in their own right. But now the weather was better, the wind steadier, the waves calmer, the distances shorter, the schedule more free and easy...and we sailed everywhere! And did so in considerable company. We visited La Mischief in Fajardo, Sea Otter caught up with us in Culebra, we
met friends Duncan and Katie and fam on their new charter cat, S/V Yo Dawg, in the BVI, and a whole flotilla converged upon Jost van Dyke for my birthday in mid-April: Vela, Sea Otter, Rondo, Pura Vida, Savannah, Carpe Ventum, and our "cruising godparents" Andy & Lance chartering Jada. Later we also met Britican and Be As You Are, which made the core group of 10 boats with which we spent a great deal of time over the last two and a half months of the season. We loved the social aspect of this season, making some likely lifelong friendships and helping to cement others.

Much of the territory was familiar to us, and yet we enjoyed our slow-cruising schedule to poke through the lesser-used anchorages of the BVI. And there was plenty of time to thoroughly explore St. John (*****), St. Thomas (**), Culebra (*****), St. Croix (****) and Vieques (***&1/2). The whole area was heavily impacted and to varying degrees changed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year, and it was interesting to see the various reactions and how each island is going about rebuilding. We originally planned to do some volunteering, but by the time we showed up cleanup was essentially complete and the rebuilding effort was being mostly handled by professionals. Asked what they needed, the locals frequently replied: we need the tourists to come back. We did make a conscious effort to spend more at the restaurants, bars and shops of the BVI and USVI than we normally would have. Nobody should mistake our profligacy for charity, but it does seem to be the sort of thing the USVI and BVI needs to get back to normalcy.

After our early alternator troubles, the boat ran exceptionally well. After a little tweaking, our solar improvements are meeting all our energy needs. We had some ongoing issues with the watermaker, the cause of which I discovered at the end of the season; it should be in good working order for next season. The dinghy engine also ran rough for part of the season but it never left us stranded and I eventually tracked down the culprit, becoming much more familiar with outboard engine repair along the way. Boat maintenance and repairs came more naturally to us this season, as did everyday boat life with its associated chores. Dawn absolutely killed it on provisioning, meal-planning and cooking. We did a lot better fishing and lobstering this year. I felt we did a pretty good job of passage planning and picking weather windows, though we had a somewhat rougher than hoped for Gulf Stream crossing at the very beginning of the season when we cut a cold front a little too fine. The couple hours that a severe thunderstorm turned our placid anchorage into a raging froth against a lee shore on Conception Island was likely the most dangerous occurrence of the season, but our trusty ground tackle held firm. We didn't make any dumb mistakes like our predawn exit of Little Farmer's Cut (sans jacklines) last year. With all the maneuvering and hand-steering we did around the Virgin Islands, our boathandling skills got pretty good. If our insurance allowed us to race the house, I'd be fairly comfortable doing so double-handed.

Nevertheless, the season wasn't always easy. The weather in the Bahamas was really pretty shitty from November through January, and the incessant wind of February got old. The weather was better in late Feb and early March, allowing us to make steady eastward progress, but the nearly uninterrupted motorsailing from Luperon all the way to Fajardo got monotonous. Towards the end of April Dawn and I seemed to be grating on each other, the boat getting smaller by the day. A six day work trip and a change of pace when I got back seemed to help that, and we were getting along pretty well again in May. Seven months of nearly uninterrupted cruising can be a long time; and in reality we'd been living on Windbird full-time for 17 months by then. Dawn and even I were ready to get off the boat for a bit by hurricane season. And now that we've been off the boat for over a month, we're super excited to get back on her in November and head downisland to unexplored territory!

There's one aspect I haven't mentioned, cruising with Piper. I'm
going to write a separate post about it because it's a subject of such interest to potential/future cruisers, but suffice it to say he adds a lot of joy to our life afloat. We really enjoyed having him aboard this year and watching him run his little heart out on beaches from Abaco to Anegada. But there are definitely some paperwork challenges to having a medium-to-large dog on board, and they will likely get more burdensome (if not impossible at times) as we move down-island. As with all things cruising, we'll stay flexible.

Did I say we've been off the boat for a month? Strike that, make it six weeks...we have been BUSY! It's not all work, we've been having a ton of fun with land-based adventures, even visiting some of our new cruiser friends. I'll try to get a post up about that before the summer is totally gone!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Season’s End

The end of the season sort of snuck up on us; it seemed a little surreal that we would be moving off of our home of the last 17 months and putting her on the hard in a boatyard for the summer. There was a pretty substantial list of tasks to be accomplished before doing so, and I suppose my natural inclination for procrastination kept the season’s end at bay as I putzed around with some of the less time-critical items during our stay at St. Croix and our cruise of Vieques. But the list kept growing and it was clear that soon we would need to devote all our time and energy to preparing the boat for her haul out. I didn’t have any great desire to spend any more time in the marina than required, so for our first three days of work we sailed from Vieques to beautiful Isla Palominos and took a mooring on its protected lee side. Of course, these three days happened to be a weekend so we had lots of company from the mainland, mostly rafted up speedboaters partying just off the beach and playing their stereos over each other at top volume! We actually didn’t mind it; the party atmosphere seemed to give us energy to keep going from dawn till well after dark, with a few fun breaks to take Piper to the beach for potty time, ball chasing, and swimming-for-treats (and admiring pats from bikini-clad Puertoriqueñas).

During those three days, we took everything with any windage down from the deck and lifelines, except the dodger and bimini which we left for the marina (and actually should have left up until the boat was out of the water - it was miserable working when the boat was sweltering inside and the sun was beating visciously outside). This included all fenders, docklines, fishing pole and kit, davit lines and hardware, Wirie router, man overboard module, life sling and canister, downwind pole, and wind generator blades. We removed the staysail and its halyard, sheets and furling line, but left the other sails in place until we got to the marina. We removed the foredeck dinghy lift / block & tackle, the spinnaker halyard, and the downwind pole topping lift, which we had jury-rigged after it chafed through on our first passage of the season; we’ll replace it before next season. I removed the flexible solar panels from the bimini and tidied up its wires, as well as reworking the wires to the rear solar arch to make them more wind-resistant (those panels are staying in place). I spent a long afternoon giving the bottom a very thorough scrubbing, so we wouldn’t have to powerwash it after haulout. I did a final water maker pickling and removed the heavy pump and drive from its place below the galley sink; the reason it had been regularly cavitating became immediately apparent. What looked like a hairline crack with the pump in place was actually a major crack plus one missing bolt on the pump-drive coupling housing. Once we got to Puerto del Rey I called the local Katadyn dealer; he’s replacing that housing plus doing major servicing to both the pump and drive during our off-season. The parts and labor will come to about $1300 - a good bit of change but considerably less than the cost of a new pump/drive unit ($2500) or a whole new watermaker system ($5000). It’ll be awesome to have a reliable watermaker again, especially since we have more than enough solar output these days.

The rest of our time at Isla Palominos was spent giving the boat a very deep cleaning, inside and out. Dawn washed every surface in all the cabins plus every cabinet, drawer and locker with a soap-vinegar-water mixture to help keep mold at bay. Meanwhile I cleaned out the propane and dinghy lockers and vacuumed and scrubbed every bilge and tank (using a wire brush to remove all surface rust). We gave the cockpit cushions and dodger and bimini a good scrubbing, and polished all the issenglass. Dawn went through a good portion of our gear and clothing onboard and set aside anything we hadn’t used in the last two years, and we sorted them into three piles: keep, bring home, or donate. We threw out all opened food containers plus anything not in a can, glass jar, or lockable Tupperware container; once at the dock we put these items in large lockable Tupperware bins, and then thoroughly cleaned the freezer and refrigerator. I know a lot of cruisers take all food off the boat but we were loathe to throw everything away, and we think our precautions (plus lots of rat, roach and ant poison) should be sufficient for keeping critters off the boat.

On Monday June 4th we sailed the final five miles to Puerto del Rey and were assigned a slip near the end of 12 dock. One of the guys that turned up to catch lines turned out to be just the guy I wanted to talk to: Quino Sanchez. Quino came highly recommended by fellow cruisers both as a rigger and for his hurricane tie down and boat watching service (the boat watching part is run by his daughter and son-in-law Bianca & Johnny). They came over to talk the next day and Dawn and I decided to use their services this off-season; the cost is pretty reasonable for the services provided and the peace of mind of having someone watch the boat. We’re also having several projects done to the boat while we’re away (bottom painting, replace a couple throughhulls/seacocks, minor carpentry in rear cabin) and needed somebody competent to manage the projects in our absence. Our initial impression of Quino based on his assistance during the haul out and Johnny & Bianca’s reports since has been favorable.

After arrival at PdR, we rented a car from the Avis down the street in Ceiba, and then ran a number of errands in Fajardo. We dropped off several bags of donations at Salvation Army, bought bins and other storage and cleaning stuff at Walmart, and picked up a shipping crate for Piper at Petco. Once we got back to the boat Dawn began the Herculean task of laundering every piece of clothing, bedding, cushions, etc on the boat - basically, everything cloth. Once laundered, she sealed everything in a giant ziplock bags and pumped out the air with the shop vac. Meanwhile I took advantage of our first unlimited fresh water in over three months to give the deck and cabin top a very thorough cleaning.

Early the next morning we took advantage of the lingering night lee calm to take down the Yankee and mainsail. This went amazingly quickly and smoothly compared to previous times, even though I had to go up the mast and slide down the forestay to tighten a couple of set screws on the rolling furler foils (they were backed out enough to prevent the halyard car from sliding down past them). We removed and stowed the yankee sheets, halyard and furling line, the mainsail reef lines and outhaul, the boom vang/preventer, the Gybe-EZ, the mainsheet, the traveler lines, the lazy jacks, and the stack pack. Amazing how many lines there are on this boat! Any piece of running rigging that went through the mast or boom we replaced with a messenger line to make rerigging in the fall easier. While up the mast, I removed the wind stick and masthead fly. We took the battens out of the main and folded and bagged all sails, and took them to Fajardo Sails and Canvas for inspection and repair. In the middle of all this we somehow got Piper to the vet to get his health certificate, which the airline requires to ship him. When we got back from that, Dawn had more laundry to do! And I polished the stainless.

By now we knew we were going to get everything done by haulout and could breathe a little easier. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we did a lot of this after haulout, but a hot boat on the hard in a tropical boatyard is a truly miserable place to work. We had motivation to finish everything before Thursday at 2pm. On Wednesday Dawn finished putting all the food away and cleaning the fridge and freezer, and we vacuum sealed the last of the freshly laundered clothes and bedding that were staying on the boat and finished packing everything that was coming home with us. I assembled Piper’s crate (he loved it, though it’s been nearly two years since he’s used a kennel) and we took down the dodger and bimini and secured the stainless framework. I launched Dawn’s paddleboard and scrubbed our disgusting waterline and the sooty exhaust area with On-Off hull cleaner, then washed & waxed the topsides with Awlwash & Awlcare.

Thursday morning was a whirl of small last minute jobs, like removing the dorade scoops. After our last lunch aboard, fellow cruiser Harriet came by to offer her assistance handling lines as I maneuvered Windbird into the slipway. Very kind, and as it turned out very helpful. The yard wanted us stern-in, meaning I had to back Windbird in with a strong quartering headwind to catch her bow. Windbird doesn’t back well under the best of circumstances, and in that situation it’s damn near impossible. Indeed, I aborted our first two tries before getting the timing down just so on my third circling approach. The yard workers caught all of our thrown docklines and then pulled us to one side; Dawn, Piper and I stepped ashore for the last time this season and watched as the 70-ton Travellift plucked Windbird out of the water. Dawn had tears in her eyes as our home of 17 months dangled precariously in the air, swinging slightly from side to side.

It turned out to be a bit of a long process bringing Windbird all the way to hurricane storage, clearing our spot and dropping plastic for our eventual bottom job, transferring the boat from the Travellift to a crazy spider-looking machine that maneuvered the boat to her spot, and finally blocking the boat, arranging the jackstands, and strapping the boat down to the ground anchors. These tie into PdR’s impressive underground lattice system, which is what makes
this boatyard such a good option for hurricane season storage. By the time it was all done the boatyard was about to close, so we headed out for dinner at a waterside bar in Fajardo and then a good nights sleep in a strangely large and non-rocking bed at the Fajardo Inn & Resort.

We had little to do the next morning: winterize the engine, close the seacocks, a few last minute projects, give instructions to Johnny and Bianca, and lock up. One last look at Windbird, a silent prayer for an uneventful hurricane season, and we were off to start the long trek north to our home for the summer. Most of our cruising friends continued south to Grenada or Trinidad, where most have recently hauled out; a few are keeping their boats afloat and staying aboard for storm season. Seeing the Facebook and Instagram photos of their trips down island has us really excited for next season. We’ll discuss those plans in a future post, after a season-in-review recap and “what we’re doing this summer” show-and-tell.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Last Port of Call

As you may have guessed by the recent lack of blogging, Dawn and Piper and I are off the boat for hurricane season; Windbird is high and dry in the Puerto del Rey boatyard in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. But we’ll get to that. In the meantime, backtracking to late May....

Our downwind sail to Vieques was just as pleasant as hoped, six knots speed over ground in 15-17 kts E wind. The day was marred only by losing a very large bull Mahi just as we were lifting him into the boat! Our only other catches were a big barracuda and a smaller female Mahi we released. Our first anchorage was on the east side of Ensenada Honda. It was beautiful, peaceful (had the place to ourselves) and perfectly protected though the breeze came through uninterrupted via a low spot in the mangroves. There is a nice mangrove river we explored by dinghy; it would make an excellent hurricane hole, and there was one relatively undamaged but still apparently abandoned sailboat yet tied into the mangroves from Maria. Unfortunately there was no place to land Piper, we had to take the dinghy 2-3 miles west to the nearest beach (somewhat unprotected from swell wrapping in), so we left after one night.

We went just around the corner to Bahia de la Chiva, which looks unprotected from the south but actually has good protection for two or three boats if you scootch up in behind a small key and reef on the SE corner. Again, we had the place to ourselves. We only saw one other cruising boat our entire time on Vieques, which I attributed to the lateness of the season - all the Thorny Path folks had scooted down island on their way to Grenada or Trinidad by now. We really liked La Chiva and spent two nights there. There’s a gorgeous mile-long crescent white beach that Piper loved running on, beach shelters for picnics (currently storm damaged), semi-wild horses (Vieques is known for them), and some short hiking paths though your options are limited as much of the surrounding land is closed due to unexplored ordinance. The US Navy used the east end of Vieques as a bombing range for 60 years, which ironically kept it nicely undeveloped - but cleanup will take a long time. The second afternoon, we were approached by a park ranger and informed that La Chiva beach is actually still closed for hurricane cleanup. The road is blocked off, but we didn’t know since we came by boat from the east. No wonder such a nice beach was so deserted!

Next we repositioned over to Puerto Ferro, which has a narrow and shallow entrance that makes the inside quite placid. The pretty bay is surrounded by mangroves, but also has several small beaches on which we were able to land Piper. Our original plan was to take the dinghy over to nearby Puerto Mosquito, Vieques’ famed bioluminescent bay, just after dark but before the nearly-full moon rose. However an afternoon test run in big SE swell showed this to be a bad idea. Anyways, we later found out from the locals that there’s been very little bioluminescence since Maria. We certainly didn’t see any in Puerto Ferro, which previously had it.

For Memorial Day weekend we sailed on over to Ensenada Sun Bay, a gorgeous half moon bay with a beautiful white sand beach that is a popular municipal park. It was pleasantly busy the whole weekend, but not crowded. Six or seven powerboats came over from Puerto Rico and rafted up for several days, along with one sailboat out of Palmas Del Mar on PR’s southeast corner. We tucked up into the easternmost corner of the bay but a little swell was still wrapping in; we set up a swell bridle and it made the anchorage perfectly comfortable. We took the dinghy over to the small town of Esperanza twice, and the boats anchored there appeared to be having a much rougher ride. The short, somewhat wet dinghy ride was worth the good sleep, in my book. I wish we’d tried the swell bridle in St. Croix, although there was enough chop there that we would have still been hobby-horsing.

The reef on the SE corner of Sun Bay yielded the last lobster of the season, a medium-sized tasty dude. The only other real event of our time there was that we coaxed Piper into swimming, with no small help from ample treats. He’s a really good swimmer but has hated the water ever since we started cruising, at least anything deeper than splashing depth.

After two nights in Sun Bay we sailed to Green Beach on the west side of Vieques, which is beautiful and deserted, at least once the last Memorial Day boaters headed back across the five-mile channel to the “mainland.” We got out to the beach and had Piper swimming a few more times, but I didn’t get in any snorkeling which I later heard is quite good there. The next morning we took off fairly early for Isabel Segunda on the north side of the island, which involved a couple hours of upwind bashing for the first time in several weeks. The anchorage at Isabel Segunda was deserted except for some fishing boats moored close to the dinghy dock and one local sailboat further out in the mooring field. There was enough room among the unoccupied private moorings for us to anchor quite close to the beach, completely out of the swell coming around the point to the north. The anchorage here is notoriously rolly but we found it perfectly comfortable with ESE to E wind of around 20 kts.

Isabel Segunda has a bit of a reputation for dinghy theft and petty crime but we didn’t see any sign of it. Of course we locked up the dinghy at the public dock and put it on the davits at night, our usual practice in any populated area with a history of dinghy theft (e.g. almost everywhere we’ll be going next season). But overall we ended up liking Isabel Segunda quite a bit more than Esperanza, though the latter is known as more of a cruiser hangout. We have a friend - or rather a friend of a friend - with a rental property two miles east of Isabel Segunda, and he had invited us to use his Jeep Wrangler during our stay. So the second morning we walked to his place, picked up the Jeep, and set off exploring the island. Actually it turns out that a large portion of the island is closed to the public, and even theoretically public tracks were chained off due to storm damage. It was too bad because there were some really interesting looking trails I would have loved to take the Jeep on. Still, we had a nice day exploring, and particularly enjoyed the beautiful little trail that follows a small stream and canyon to Playa Negra, a black sand beach a couple miles west of Esperanza.

Our third day in Isabel Segunda, I did a two tank dive / scuba refresher with Black Beard Watersports. It had been three years since my last dive but I hit the books beforehand and everything came back almost immediately. It was a nice dive around a WW2-era causeway and pier now mostly used for fishing. There was quite a bit of sea life including a lot of large sea turtles, but I think the highlight was discovering the large tentacles of what must have been a huge octopus snaking out of a crevice. I wasn’t tempted to reach in and rouse the beast (they’ve been known to attach themselves to divers’s heads and even rip out their reg). It felt great to get back underwater blowing bubbles, and I’m tempted to get my own gear before next season despite my lack of a diving partner on board. I’d continue to dive with dive shops, but it’s just easier having your own kit.

The next day we left Isabel Segunda and motored a mile southwest to a great little snorkel spot my dive instructor told me about, Cayo Blanco. The sizable reef there was somewhat damaged by debris from Maria but was still pretty spectacular, with a ton of fish. I’d put it in the top three or four snorkels of the year. After we got out of the water we had lunch and then set out on what had to be one of the nicest daysails of the year, a 12 mile beam reach in steady 15 kt trades to Isla Palominos. Only a couple miles away from Puerto del Rey, Palominos would make a nice spot to begin the long and exhausting process of getting Windbird ready to come out of the water for hurricane season.