Friday, December 11, 2009

This Isn't The End

It hadn't really occurred to me that my dad might require some tips on steering the boat. As soon as we cleared Government Cut and I was relatively comfortable that we were far enough off Miami Beach, I went below to make breakfast. The only instruction I left dad was, after that next red buoy, hang a left and run parallel to the beach.

We were motoring, as there was little wind on this hot sunny summer day. When the engine is running and you are down below, it's difficult to hear anything that might be going on above deck. I was too preoccupied with bagels and eggs to realize that dad was trying to inform me that both the steering and compass had spontaneously busted as soon as I handed him the wheel. "The compass keeps spinning in circles, and I keep turning the wheel further and we keep going the wrong way!". We had circumnavigated the red buoy, and were once again inbound towards Miami. This trip was going to be a learning experience for both of us.

We had roughly set our sights on Beaufort, North Carolina as our next port. The first 48hrs in the Gulf Stream were very encouraging. Making 9kts over the ground at the time it seemed like it might be a very short trip. That first night was our last sight of Florida, as the distant lights of West Palm Beach faded with the morning light. From here, we'd be going out of our way if we were to follow the coast. Every few hours, distant threatening thunderclouds would form, and the gut-wrenching alarmist warnings on the VHF would only make matters worse, instilling panic. The electronic voice seemed to suggest that it was unreasonable to be making such a passage this time of year offshore, when frequent storms are inevitable, and impending doom seemed almost certain.

The storms stayed at bay, and cheerfully, we sailed onward.

Our first sight to make the empty sea seem less lonely was a NASA commissioned ship, out to recover the booster rockets from a launch at Cape Canaveral two nights earlier. I called them on the VHF for an update on the tropical cyclone probability, as we were now out of range of the regular shore-based broadcasts, and last I'd heard there was a high probability of tropical storm development with a particular area of low pressure in the eastern Caribbean. If development had continued, I was considering ducking back towards the mainland, and possibly pulling in to Charleston to hide from the weather if necessary. The ship informed me that the low had dissipated, and so we continued to aim for the waypoint at Beaufort.

As night number two fell upon us, the skies were crystal clear and the wind was steady, pushing us along at a comfortable 6 knots, as we continued to get a bit of help from the Gulf Stream. The wind continued to build as midnight approached, and though I'm sure it never exceeded 25kts, I became increasingly on edge. The seas were confused and I still have no idea why; the current was from behind, the wind was from behind. It was still hot, so Dad and I both stayed on deck as the autopilot did the work. As I laid down snuggling into my flannel pillow case and a super-cozy blanket Phil had sent along for the trip, I thought about how great it was that my little boat was such a 'dry' boat (no matter what the sea conditions, the cockpit generally stays dry). So, before I knew it, I was drenched and choking on a load of warm seawater. My new favorite blanket and only physical reminder of Phil would now be slimy and salty for the next 4 days and would not be there for my comfort.

Aside from being soaked, the incident left me with the feeling that something worse was on the way. The wind was already 15 kts higher than forecast, and I had a million things running through my head. After the 'rogue' wave, dad had retreated below to avoid a soaking in the case of a repeat performance. He popped his head up for a second and asked something along the lines of 'Is this normal?', to which I said, 'Yeah! This is nothing...'. He believed me, and it was in fact a true statement, though I really didn't feel that way at the time. I tend to lose the nerve required to be at sea in a small boat when I spend too much time living the easy life ashore, as I'd done for close to 6 weeks in Miami. Well most of it was the easy life, except for the part when I got hit by lightning.

Aside from the NASA ship, the sea was completely devoid of traffic until 4AM on the 4th day, when both Dad and I had inadvertently fallen asleep on deck, and he woke first to see a city of lights just off our starboard quarter. He jumped up and quite innocently asked, "What is that?". It took me a few seconds to process what was happening. Every single deck light was brightly lit, it looked like a city skyline. I couldn't find a red or green light amongst the sea of lights to indicate the direction in which the ship was traveling. I figured one of the hundred white lights I could see was a stern light, and the ship was moving away. But as my eyes came into better focus I could see the ship's green light, indicating they were moving across our stern, meaning we had just cut on front of them. We had just completed a game of chicken with a very large ship that was probably never aware we existed. This was exactly why I hadn't wanted to do this trip alone, so someone could always be awake and be on the lookout for 200-ft ships bound for Charleston. It happened anyway, but we were lucky.

And to nicely round-out the first leg of our journey, a pod of dolphins came to visit and play on our last afternoon at sea. I was glad to see how much Dad was enjoying the experience, as I myself had begun to take such incidences in stride. It's a bit sad to realize that you can come to view such an event as ordinary.

The toughest challenge of this part of the trip was actually the entry into the harbour at Beaufort, North Carolina. True to my cruising style, I had scribbled down a waypoint from online charts that would get me to the outer approaches of the channel, then I had a 'sketch' from a cruising guide that made the entrance look fairly straight-forward; red, green, red green, hang a left, hang a right, drop the hook, pop the cork in that last bottle of wine.

My first regret was that we would be arriving after dark. My second regret was the 4 kt tidal current running at its peak. My third regret was the two outbound tugboats coming around the corner towing an unlit barge, in an are where shoaling requires frequent dredging and the danger of running aground is ever-present. My final regret was not having the proper detailed chart. All the flashing red and green lights marking a winding path were all flashing different patterns that were clues as to which ones to aim for first (if I had the chart to break the code). All I could think of as I was made dizzy by the flashing lights was Phil's pinball machine, perpetually flashing !!100,000PTS!! !!100,000PTS!! It's a less exciting game when your boat is the ball, and large steel buoys and barges and tugboats and sandbars are the pins, and a strong current is trying its best to force you into a collision with at least one of them.

I found the pressure a bit intense as I struggled to figure out where we were, and constantly fearing we were on the verge of hitting bottom. My brain managed to organize all the lights into two possible channels, but I was at a loss as to which one I should follow. I looked up, and, no joke, a shooting star streamed directly down one of the two perceived channels. Good thing I believe in signs.

Around 1AM we were finally in the crowded anchorage. After dropping the hook and letting out enough chain to feel comfortable that we weren't going to drag anchor that night, I realized we wouldn't have enough swinging room when the tide turned and the current changed direction, so wearily I hauled up the anchor and was more careful the second time I set it down.

For the next few days, we would have it relatively easy. We were heading up the intracoastal waterway (ICW) to Norfolk, Virginia, so we would be motoring from mark to mark, and we could anchor somewhere every night for a good nights sleep. The only fear I constantly harboured, which would have been the same had we been out on the open ocean, was the frequent thunderstorms. The only downside of being in the constricted waterways was if a storm struck, I had little choice but to stay on deck and steer through it, to ensure we wouldn't be blown aground. At sea, I could run below and we could drift as we waited for the storm to pass.

At the end of Day 3 on the ICW, we arrived at the Great Bridge Lock. Last time I was here, my good friend Ben lived down the street. He and his wife had since moved to Cape Cod, so while I was a bit sad not to have friends in Virginia anymore, I had a reunion to look forward to later, that would mark the three-quarters-of-the-way-home mark, before the final hop back to Nova Scotia.

From the Great Bridge Lock, we made our last ICW run up to Portsmouth, Virginia, to wait for a 3 to 4 day weather window to sail directly to Cape Cod. We had managed to make it from Beaufort to to the Chesapeake Bay unscathed (as far as thunderstorms go), but this wouldn't be true for the next leg of the trip.

Most of the next 4 days was miserable. The water, and therefore the air temperature, got progressively colder, and there were frequent squalls, whose winds always seemed to oppose the prevailing winds, which made for sloppy seas. We were getting slammed around in a very unsteady and unpredictable manner, which causes me great anxiety, for no matter what I've put the boat through in the past, and how many times she's proven herself, in the back of my mind I'm always thinking 'maybe today's the day she springs a plank'. Of course, that never happened, but I have always feared that if I stopped worrying about it, that would be the time it finally happened. Now, months later and having lived ashore since August, I notice this aspect of my character re-emerging in many other situations. My favorite words of reassurance have become those of Sir Winston Churchill, roughly along the lines of 'I've had many worries in my lifetime, most of which never happened'. How often do we abandon moments of peaceful happiness as we worry about things that will likely never come to pass.

Again, the sea had been empty since we were overtaken by a Navy destroyer in the approaches of the Chesapeake Bay. We were three days along and I calculated our arrival in Quissett Harbour to be the following afternoon. We were as far from shore as we would be for this part of the trip, about 130NM from Long Island, and another black squall line with wicked fork lightning was fast approaching, and there was no avoiding this one. I had resolved to run below as it hit, but as my luck would have it, a long-liner appeared out of the mist and was on a path to cross my bow. I sent Dad below (no point in both of us getting struck by lightning) and crouched in the cockpit (like that might somehow have dampened the impact of the strike) and steered around the fishing boat and its trailing gear as the storm passed. Once safe, I called down to reassure Dad that the worst was over. Apparently he wasn't all that concerned. He was sound asleep.

After that squall, the sky turned an unnerving shade of grey, and for awhile the winds increased to 30kts, and whitecaps were appearing on the larger swells. Just 18 more hours, and we'd be in the safety of Buzzards Bay, west of Cape Cod. So anxious to get there, I decided to haul the sails in tight and motorsail the rest of the way. In the rough seas, I realized it would only be a matter of time before the remaining crud in the bottom of the fuel tank would be stirred up and clog the filters. At least this time, I could just just replace the secondary Racor filter, and wouldn't have to go through the hell that is bleeding the air out of the fuel lines of a Perkins engine.

I believe it was around 2AM when that old familiar racing sound of the fuel-deprived engine began. My newly refurbished autopilot had stopped working (electric motor was the culprit this time) so I had to wake up Dad to come steer while I went to replace the filter. Unfortunately, replacing the Racor did not fix the problem. I once again faced bleeding the engine, which, if you've been paying close attention since I began this blog 2 1/2 years ago, I have never managed to do, without killing the starter batteries and eventually relying on outside help (shorepower, borrowed generators, one person to press the manual fuel pump on one side of the engine while I cracked the various fuel lines on the other side). This would be my first attempt of this at sea. If I was unsuccessful, it could mean a very slow slog the rest of the way to Cape Cod under sailpower alone, and in the current weather conditions, this could take days.

I was very careful to do every step correctly the first time. Take the old filter off, fill the new filter with fuel before putting it on the engine, and tapping it repeatedly to ensure every last air bubble was out. I had never had to do this in rough seas in the middle of the night before, and as sleep-deprived as I was, I didn't have much faith in myself. Once finished, I clenched my hands together as Dad turned the ignition key, and to my amazement, it started immediately. First time ever, with my own two hands and no outside help. I finally felt I had conquered the last demon residing in my engine. So, 4 hours later, when it happened again, I had a lot more more confidence. By the third time (give me a break!) I was getting competitive with myself, and now it was all about speed. I knew I could do it, I just wanted to break my previous record.

We got into the lee of Elizabeth Island, Cape Cod, just as things were getting really nasty. I don't know how much longer I could have gone on, watching the waves build higher and higher from behind us. As we drifted into smoother waters, a thick fog settled in. Aside from the possibility of other boat traffic, I wasn't terribly worried about the declining visibility because, at least this time, I had charts for these waters.

Once inside Quissett Harbour, the sun broke through and the fog evaporated. We picked up a mooring, and a wireless signal, and were able to make contact with Ben's wife to let them know we had arrived.

When I had last seen Ben and Brigid on my journey south, they had a new addition to their family, a very excitable, energetic Chesapeake Bay retriever named l'il Bud. His personality hadn't changed at all, but l'il Bud wasn't so little anymore. For one of the most friendly dogs I've ever met, he has a most vicious 'smile'.

Once again Ben and Brigid opened up their new home to us, and we had a great time catching up on each others lives. We played on Ben's homemade parcheesie board and enjoyed great BBQ dinners over bottles of wine. Ben helped with various boat issues, arranging a mooring for us close to the dingy dock, fuel, fresh water, and he determined the most recent problem with the autopilot. Before leaving, I thought it would we prudent to change the fuel filter one more time, while in a calm harbour, still sitting on the mooring. I did, and do you think i could get that engine started afterwards?? After a frustrating couple of hours, it was Ben to the rescue.

I had looked forward to our reunion for so long, I was very sad to leave. Ben came aboard for a little tour as we motored out of the harbour, before jumping into his dingy and casting off. I wonder when we'll meet again.

I timed the tides correctly this time for heading north through the Cape Cod Canal. Once at the end of the canal, we had a beautiful sail across Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown. From here, it would be only 3 more days to the anchorage in Lunenburg Harbour. We were almost home.

Looks like there will have to be one more blog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It's Been Fun

This, my final blog, has been the most difficult of all blogs to write. So much time has passed, and so much Life has been squeezed into the last 3 months, it’s hard to know what to leave in, and what to leave out. It’s difficult to think about the sweet memories of my recent past, the longing to be there again is painful.

I guess I could begin from where I left off. Yes, the boat was struck by lightning. It was an awful storm. Lightning was reaching the surface throughout the anchorage. I heard later that 2 other boats in the anchorage were struck during the same storm. Once the storm hit, I felt it was inevitable, that I’d be struck (I’ve never seen so much chain lightning, happening all at once), and I just hoped that my lightning-rod ‘system’ would do it’s job properly. The tops of my masts are metal, the stays supporting my masts are metal, and are attached to the wooden hull by metal plates. My keel bolts are big rods of stainless, so with a thick copper wire bridging the gap from the metal plates to the keel bolts, the boat should be grounded to the surrounding ocean. When the lightning hit, I can’t explain the feeling. It wasn’t electric shock, but it was definitely some sort of ‘awareness’ attached to the event, I don’t know what other word to use to describe it. It lasted for 2 or 3 seconds, to the best of my memory. There was a ‘pop’, which was soon followed by the smell of burning. It smelled metallic, not wooden, but on instinct, I ran on deck in the midst of the storm to double-check that I didn’t have an impending disaster on my hands. Convinced all was well for the moment, I went below, grabbed my softest blanket and curled up helpless on the bunk below, waiting for the remainder of the storm to pass.

The calm sunset that followed seemed like nature’s defiance, pretending nothing had happened at all. As I wandered around the deck, it didnt take long to discover where the boat had been struck. A melted VHF antennae was the most obvious of the clues. The lack of response when turning on various electronics confirmed what I feared. My newly working autopilot and depthsounder were fried. That little boat is traditional through and through, rejecting any new technology that might make navigating and journeying easier or more pleasureable. Much like her owner, she seems prone to doing things the hard way.

So that was around the 6th of June, and what drew me to Miami in the first place kept me there for 6 weeks. Of all the temporary friends I made while in the Bahamas, at least one has become permanent. As he had promised when we met in the Exumas, Phil showed me some of the finer things Miami had to offer. I had been through Miami twice before, probably at anchor in the area for a few weeks combined, but had never been ashore. I'm sometimes a quick judge of character, and I decided the city was full of rouges and thieves. And guns, lots of guns. While that probably remains true to a certain point, there's certainly a lot more to the place, which I'm sure I've still only had a glimpse of.

Phil took me to the botanical gardens, full of hundreds of tropical trees, plants and flowers, and world headquarters of mosquito production. He demonstrated how to drive in Miami without getting yourself killed, and how much fun it is to ride a motorcycle! (note to self: sell boat, buy Harley) We toured around the neighbourhood where he grew up, on the fringes of the city, surrounded by tropical tree farms, fruit stands, and feilds of strawberries and mango trees. We explored the extremely contrived South Beach area by bicycle. I could probably sit along one of the pedestrian streets and people watch until the end of time.

As you could expect, making the decision to leave Miami was one I struggled with for weeks, before finally accepting a job offer back in Canada. It was time to get Annie out of the hot southern waters, and I knew I had to get her back to Lunenburg sooner rather than later. I had about 2000 miles of ocean to traverse between Miami and home. Now I felt in a rush to get there, and knew very well that if I had to hop my way slowly up the coast (as I would have to do without crew or autopilot), that it would take me months, rather than weeks. I had a lot of feedback when I put out the call for crew, but in the end, only one person came through. My dad flew to Miami one evening, and we left the

following morning from the Miami River, winding our way past the construction and skyscrapers and dockyards, bound for the Atlantic.

I remember looking back one last time before we rounded the bend in the river, to see Phil standing on the stern of Retriever, wondering when we'd see each other again. At this point I had no other choice but to

look ahead and face the task at hand. About 750 miles of open ocean to North Carolina, with my dad, who'd never been to sea before.

Maybe I'll save the rest of this story for one more blog.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sailing Home aboard Annie Laurie

I will take the opportunity now to take back what I said about my engine. She is a great little engine. A bit temperamental, but ultimately, there when I need her the most. I'm so thankful I took the time to struggle with the filter change, because things may have turned out very differently in the following days if I had not...

Allans Cay was a fine place to end my Bahamian tour. The memories and impressions are book-worthy, and it left me wanting more. When I return to the Bahamas it will likely be my first stop after customs. Corstiaan and Wanda loved to snorkel, and invited me along numerous times. We'd wait for near-slack tide and go to one of the cuts, then drift in the gentle current, as if viewing the corals, lobster, shells, and myriad of fish on a slide show.

With the engine now working, and feeling content that I had seen everything at Allans Cay worth seeing, I decided it was time to leave. With my new autopilot, I made this next segment of my journey an overnighter. I decided I would head south of New Providence (home of Nassau Harbour) and up the Tongue of the Ocean, which would hopefully result in an early morning arrival at Northwest Channel, which was relatively narrow and I had no desire to face it in the dark.

I departed Allans at 0800 and arrived at the southwestern tip of New Providence amidst a thunderstorm at dusk. There were storms all around, from this point on, at any given moment, for the next 3 days. You could waste a lot of time and effort trying to steer around these storms, in the hopes of avoiding that one bolt of lightening that would take out all your electronics, or the high winds that could do other damage in many different ways. I decided to stay on my course, and for the first 24 hrs this worked very well for me. The distant (and not so distant) storms were essentially stationary, and just happened to not fall on my course line.

That first night, I probably managed 2 hours of sleep, motorsailing in light and variable winds. I had a little eggtimer that I set in 15 minute increments. It worked well. I awoke from my last catnap an hour before sunrise, and felt unexpectedly refreshed. By 0930, I was a couple of miles from the waypoint for the Northwest Channel, and watched as the harshest, blackest, most violent-looking squall line I had ever witnessed approach from dead ahead.

The Northwest Channel is essentially the end of the Tongue of the Ocean. The Tongue is wide and extremely deep, for the most part, but as you approach the Channel, it gets narrower, and eventually shoals up from its average 6000ft deep, to less than 20ft in the last 1/4 mile of the approaches.

There were a few sportsfishing boats in the vicinity, and one large catamaran under full sail going straight for the channel. He (or she) looked like they knew what they were doing, and I thought to myself, "You get scared too easily. It's probably not as bad as it looks", and I made a decision to follow the catamaran. I thought the worst case scenario would be lots of wind and lightning and rain, but I could drop my sails, motor through it, and let the autopilot do the work.

I had been thinking a lot lately, reflecting on my experiences thus far, the decisions I had made, what they had led to, and how many gut-wrenching situations I had found myself in, all with at least one other person aboard. I had been contemplating the inevitability of the day when I would find myself in a horrible situation, and only have myself to rely upon.

Today was to be that day.

I began to have serious second thoughts as I approached the waypoint and a wall of white suddenly enveloped the tall tower that marks the edge of the reef. The catamaran disappeared too. I felt sick to my stomach, and with no further ado, put the boat on the reciprocal course to what I had been running. Too far to the right of that reciprocal course, and I might hit the southern edge of the reef, too far to the left, and I might hit the north. I really hadn't left myself very much searoom... how irresponsible. I had the feeling things were about to get bad, and I turned around to see what was coming, and not 20 feet off my stern, there were 2 waterspouts. I had seen plenty of waterspouts, fairly close when I was crewing on tallships, and from afar on my own boat. But never this close, and never alone. My knees started to shake, and Effie looked frazzled as the sound of the spout hissed and salt water was being flung in our faces. I grabbed her and threw her below, but she has always hated being below with the sound of the engine running, so she promptly ran back on deck. I screamed at her, (more out of fear for the general situation than for her not staying put), grabbed her by the neck once again, and put her below again, and then I jumped in behind her. I closed the hatch and doors, and looked out my window at the one waterspout that was still visible, and just prayed it would stay where it was and not intensify. Then, the wind and lightning came.

The boat heeled over, and I felt her turn, despite the autopilot being set for a course of 130 degrees. I did not want to go on deck. The lightning and thunder were simultaneous, and I was sure I'd be struck if I went up there. Looking at one of my many magnetic compasses I had down below, I could see I was pointed due north now. I felt trapped in a nightmare, you know the one, where someone is chasing you, and your body is made of solid lead, and you're trying to crawl away but you can't move at all. I could not compute what I was seeing, my brain was like cold molasses. Where exactly am I? What are these sounds? Waterspouts, or just a solid wall of wind now? Can it really get this rough that quickly? North, north, what does that mean? I'm pointing north, why aren't I pointed southeast?

Then it hit me. North. Reef! To the north is reef!

I was already wearing my harness, the lanyard was on deck, wrapped around the mast, ready to be clipped into once I slid back the hatch. I crawled out, clipped in, jumped on the helm, and gave the engine a bit of throttle to keep ahead of the waves that she had already begun to surf. I heard Effie once, assumed she was below, though I couldn't understand how I could possibly hear her if she was locked below and the sound of the wind was as loud as it was. I quickly forgot about her, and concentrated on my compass course, as it was very difficult to keep the boat going where I wanted her to go. With every lightening strike, I winced, expected to be hit, or the boat to be hit, and I kept looking up to the top of the masts to search for damage after each strike, but the force of the rain pelting my eyeballs would have made any real attempt to see damage impossible. I don't want to exaggerate, so I'm going to estimate the winds at 50kts, though I believe they were closer to 60.

When things settled a bit (I felt I had regained control of the boat) I took stock of the situation. I had dropped my GPS as I stumbled to grab it, and I couldn't leave the helm to go below to get it. Visibility was no more than 50 feet. I was surfing down closely spaced 5 to 6 foot waves, the rain was torrential, and the wind was no less persistent. The lightning seemed to be getting ahead of me, and I was breathing a tentative and silent sigh of relief in that regard. Other than not being able to determine my location, nothing else seemed of immediate danger.

I've never felt so alone in my entire life. I thought if someone was there with me, none of it would have seemed half as unnerving. As it was, the sound of the wind, the sight of the still-building seas and the occasional bolt of lightning seeped into my veins to produce a trauma that I can't yet say I've managed to shrug off.

The storm lasted approximately an hour, and when it finally passed, I found myself nearly 7 miles away from the channel. A storm petrel had landed on the foredeck and similarly appeared to be trying to shake itself of the experience, and its soaked feathers. This was my first chance to go look for Effie, who I was certain had been somehow vacuumed overboard by one of the waterspouts. She was in the chain locker in the bow, where she stayed for the next 5 or 6 hours. I brought offerings of tuna juice, in an attempt to apologize for what was out of my control. Another small bird plopped right on top of my chart as I was plotting a position late in the afternoon, obviously blown far from home (I think I was at least 10 miles from the nearest shoreline). Effie tried to eat her, so I put her under a box on the deck until she gained a bit of strength. She didn't make it.

That night I had no option but to anchor on the banks. No land in sight, no protection, and the wind kept up at a steady 20kts which caused the boat to pitch and heave the entire night. I had rigged a new bow roller in Allans Cay, to make it easier to haul the anchor up, as well as to keep the anchor away from the hull as I hauled it up the final few feet (it had been badly dinging the hull for months). It was ripped off my bowsprit by sunrise.

Two more days and I'll be safely in Miami.

The next evening I was at Cat Cay, and a couple from a catamaran came over to offer me a lift ashore, since they had a high-speed dingy. It was good to feel solid ground for a few hours. A small gap just north of the cay was the gateway to the final 50 or so miles to Miami.

I crossed the reef at sunrise, setting my course for 20 miles south of Miami, anticipating the distance the Gulf Stream would set me out of my way. It worked out perfectly. I arrive just east of Fowey Rocks outside of Miami at sunset. I only wished I could have arrived an hour or 2 earlier, so I wouldn't have had to cross the reef on this end in the dark. By mid-afternoon, I knew this was going to be the case, and I just hoped the cloud cover would dissipate so the moon would at least make certain landmarks easier to see and navigate by. Having been in the sparsely inhabited Bahamas for 4 months, I had forgotten about the notion of light pollution, and so I need not have worried about having sufficient light around a city as large as Miami.

At 10pm, I was safely at anchor in No Name Harbour, a comfortable anchorage I have visited a couple of times before. What a tremendous relief. My ordeal of recent weeks had finally come to an end.

Now, the chance of a boat being struck by lightning in the United States is 1.2 in 1000. In Florida, that statistic becomes 4 in 1000.

These are odds I would have preferred not to beat.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Westering Home

To pick up where I left off, My Life had to weigh anchor and head into Spanish Wells to find internet access, as they had a friend flying in from Canada, whom they’d been unable to communicate with for a couple of weeks.

Not being able to bear the thoughts of a third night out in these unruly seas, especially alone, it occurred to me I might make more of an effort to find the trouble-shooting manual for my Perkins diesel. After tearing every leaf of paper from bookshelves, drawers, cupboards and cubbies, I finally found the book. It was only a matter of bleeding 2 valves I had missed on my fuel pump, and within an hour, the engine was running like a champ. I somehow managed to haul up the 2 anchors simultaneously while the engine was in slow ahead, and I called Road to the Isles to say I was on my way. Three hours later I dropped my anchor beside them, in much calmer waters.

I’m still not sure why exactly Annie began to take on so much water during those few days. As is typical of boats, the actual source of the leak is in a space that is too small to crawl to, so while I could see the water pouring down the inside of the hull, the precise origin of the leak remains a mystery.

With more strong southerly winds in the forecast, most boats within a 20 mile radius moved to one of the few protected anchorages in the area from southerly winds, Royal Island. There, I spent some time in the water attempting to caulk the area around the shaft that holds the rudder in place. I couldn’t think of any other explanation of how the water was getting in. Don from Road to the Isles offered to help, so I accepted. He donned his wetsuit, and once we were both in the water I handed him strands of oakum (a traditional caulking item, like a lightly-tarred cotton, which is hammered into seams with a mallet and a wedge of some sort, in this case, a flathead screwdriver). After perhaps an hour in the water, the leak didn’t appear to slow significantly. What else could we do.

Over the next day or two, I thought long and hard about packing it in. It wasn’t just the leak… there were a multitude of troubles that been systematically arising, all seeming to indicate that a decision to begin heading north now would be wise. I had become overwhelmed with the amount of maintenance on the boat that I had not yet found the time to attend to, my cookstove was preparing to throw in the towel for good, no longer tolerating the low-grade kerosene I’d been feeding it, and kerosene is not available in this part of the Bahamas. With most things aboard either canned or dried, and the fresh produce available being extortionate, I knew my days would be numbered once the stove drew its final breath.

After much pep-talking to myself, I decided I would soldier on. The bilge-pump was maintaining the leak, the stove wasn’t completely useless just yet, and I had no one to blame but myself on the maintenance issue. All of it still needs to be tackled, no matter where I go.

I headed down to Current Cut for a couple of days, where I saw again what a small ocean it can be. On my second evening there, a large turquoise schooner anchored beside me, with my friend Jay from Key West aboard. We had shared an evening of music (his fiddle, my smallpipes) at a campfire gathering of sailors on the deserted Christmas Tree Island just off the shores of Key West. It was good to be reminded of some of the fonder memories I have of my months in Key West last year.

Next stop was Hatchett Bay, which eventually became known to us as Hotel Hatchett Bay (you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!). The relentless high winds kept us in lock-down in this small anchorage for a couple of weeks. It used to be a salt-water pond, being fed by blue holes (underwater caves) that lead out to the Atlantic ocean. A few sticks of dynamite later, the pond became a bay, accessible by a new opening on its western side. The holding (ability of an anchor to grab the bottom) is poor throughout the bay, so the local government, in an attempt to attract more boaters, had placed an array of free moorings to make things easier. With another front forecast, and trusting that the moorings we were tied to were strong, we decided to abandon the discomfort of small boats in storms, and to do some exploring ashore.

I had read about the Hatchett Bay Caves in an old Lonely Planet guide that had come with a bundle of charts and guidebooks in a trade for my Cuba charts and guides while I was in Mexico. The directions in the guide were vague, and as we asked around town, the first few locals had no idea what we were talking about. Even if they had never visited the site, you’d expect that they would have at least heard of its existence. It runs half a mile underground, inhabited by a flock (?) of leaf-nosed bats, and displays charcoal signatures from as far back as the early 1800’s. The earliest date I saw was 1832, and to put that in my own personal context, those names were scrawled the same year my ancestors set out from Greenock, Scotland, on a ship bound for Nova Scotia.

There was little more than an old weathered sign propped up against a small stone wall off the main road. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss it. I thought if a similar cave were in Canada or the States, there’d been a woman collecting an admission fee at the opening, and we’d be broken into groups of 8 and led through by a guide, and a proper concrete surface would have paved the bottom for concern of safety (more accurately, lawsuits) and all of our possible graffiti implements would have been confiscated. As it was, we tripped our way over limestone ledges and fallen stalactites and avoided leg-breaking holes with our one dim headlamp, and I was able to use burned sticks from the field around the cave to leave my mark, “Laura and Effie, Annie Laurie, 2009”.

After a hair-raising 140 km/hr hitched ride in the back of a truck to Hatchett Bay, we returned to our respective boats. Shortly thereafter, a boat named Fabled Past entered the cut, and sometimes the smallest gestures can be the beginning of the greatest friendships. All the moorings were occupied and the wind was howling (well, if it wasn’t at the moment, it would be soon!). My Life came and rafted up to me and my mooring, leaving one free mooring, which resulted in rum punches with Beth and Tom aboard Fabled Past that evening. The rest, as they say, is history.

We all stayed in Hatchett Bay for another week or so. The small opening to escape the bay looked neither inviting nor hospitable with constant breaking waves converging and compressing into a space no more than 50 feet across.

Tom, Beth, and I took an afternoon and hitched a ride to a saltwater pond where Beth had seen rock crabs the day before. This time she came prepared with a net and a cooler, and between the two of them, they rounded up nine or ten good size crab from knee-deep water. I tried spear-fishing, swimming out a ways into the foggy water, but naturally lost my nerve quickly, as I do in water lately. A local told Beth a story, that is probably little more than folklore, that Jacques Cousteau once explored the pond, and after descending into one of the blue holes within it, was horrified by some of the creatures he witnessed, to the point of being unable (or unwilling) to talk about them. I’d like to do some research on that claim. The tactic most suited to me would be from browsing the shelves of a local library, and not swimming around the blue hole itself.

Once liberated from Hotel Hatchett Bay, we all sailed 20 miles south to Governors Harbor. It seemed to be geared more towards tourists than our other stops in Eleuthera. The town was tiny and attractive, well kept and well provisioned (four liquor stores). I hit up the local bakery for some specialty coconut and cinnamon bread, and the grocery store had the sweetest tomatoes I’ve had since the ones from the vine of mom’s tomato plant at the cottage. The town had decent water from many available taps along the road, which was a rarity in Eleuthera. Most available water is salty well-water, and though many locals are brought up on it, I could not stomach it. It was well worth hanging around Governors Harbor a few extra hours to ferry jugs back and forth to top up my tanks while the opportunity was there (Tom helped with his motor-dingy and numerous jugs). Before Tom arrived with his assistance, I was leaning over to the tap suspended from a wall of tiles. The upward draft at this position was blowing my skirt skyward, Marylin Monroe-style. It was a quiet morning, and not seeing anyone around, I made little effort to do anything about it; I was busy, one hand on the tap, and the other holding the jug. When the jug was full, I turned to make my way to the beach, only to see a rolly-polly teenager leaning against a tree, holding up his camera-phone. He displayed a wide smile as he nodded his head approvingly, and although he didn’t say a word, I could hear the voice of Austin Powers uttering ‘Yeah, baby. Yeah!’.

Fast-forward another couple of weeks, and My Life, Fabled Past, and Annie Laurie are now in Rock Sound, near the southern end of Eleuthera. The liquor store was perfectly placed for grabbing a beer on your way to the grocery store, which they gladly opened for you at the counter, and placed it in a small brown paper bag. Anywhere else, we may have looked like alcoholics, but not in the Bahamas. In Rock Sound, we would have felt conspicuous walking around with our hands empty.

One of Rock Sound’s attractions is Ocean Hole Park, a landlocked blue hole. It’s a big round crater with some shear cliffs for diving, with a depth that rises and falls with the tide. Fish flipped and snapped at bread crumbs we tossed on the surface, as Bahamian laughing-gulls tried their best to intercept the tosses.

As you’ve surly heard me say before though, the best parts of this journey is never the guidebook attractions. Tom and Beth made us feel right at home in their company. They were fairly well-equipped cruisers compared to myself (and even moreso when compared to My Life), and we had great times aboard Fabled Past. Pizza night, burger and chips night, movies and frozen blended drinks. I didn’t want it to end, but with an upcoming weather window, they would be heading north, and I would be heading south. I take comfort in knowing it is not true in sailing that all good things come to an end. The good times are just postponed until you meet again. I now have a great incentive to make a stop in Baltimore on my way home.

Somewhere around the beginning of May, we departed Eleuthera and by sunset were anchored north of Highbourne Cay in the Exumas. En route, My Life caught a huge dolphin, which they repeatedly broadcast their excitement over on the VHF. They didn’t have a boathook to get the approximately 35-lb fish aboard, so I offered to do a quick sail-by and pass them my hook. Bad idea in 3 to 4 foot seas, and a minor collision resulted, but they got the fish aboard (turns out without the help of my hook) and it was the sushi I have long been waiting for.

The Exumas are all they’re cracked up to be. Unlike Eleuthera, the cays are sparsely inhabited, and the water is crystal clear (you can see the sharks coming). While anchored west of Highbourne, I watched as a 9 foot bull shark skirted the edge of my underwater visibility, the same type of shark that took the arm (along with the spear and the fish it was holding) of a Venezuelan tourist a hundred miles south of here 2 weeks ago. Without a speared fish and its associated blood trail, these sharks are considered to be of little threat to humans.

Highbourne Cay caters primarily to yachts and sportsfishing boats (read people with money) so anything of interest to us was really below the surface. We found an excellent shallow reef (a couple of feet at low tide) for snorkeling. On some charts, it was known as the Octopus’ Garden. On other charts, it didn’t exist; the same area was apparently more than 12 feet deep and nothing but sand. A good example of why it’s inadvisable to travel after dark. Such misprints are easily read in the daylight by keeping a sharp lookout from behind a good pair of polarized lenses.

I had heard much of the lore of Normans Cay, where the drug lord Carlos Lehder ran his operation and subsequently earned a life sentence without parol plus 132 years in a U.S. prison. Stories abound of cruising sailboats during the 70’s and 80’s being chased by machinegun-wielding guards when they ventured too close to the island. I went ashore to find villas pocked with bullet holes (like my guidebook recommended) and went for what would become an epic row around the south of the island (it didn’t seem so far when I glanced at the chart) to find the airplane destined to pick up a load of cocaine from Lehder that missed the runway in the 80’s. It sits in about 10 feet of water, and sinks a little lower with every passing year. Just a few years ago, the wreck was still in decent enough shape that you could sit in the cockpit as fish swam around your feet. Most of the fuselage is underwater now, and I was able to snorkel through its coral-encrusted casing.

I met a wonderful couple and their young son aboard a catamaran while anchored at Normans Cay. Along with great conversation and much-needed stimulation for some positive introspection on where it is this journey is taking me, Hyde offered his expertise with any problems I had aboard. I mentioned my autopilot, and how my friend Banff had determined the motor was the weak link. Hyde spent the better part of the following day disassembling the motor, soldering broken connections, calibrating the compass, and going for test runs. By the end of the day, Annie Laurie had an autopilot! Three years and thousands of miles, and always a hand at the helm. I’m looking forwards to my first overnight trip (though somewhat anxiously) where I can take catnaps while the autopilot keeps the course. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities of just how far I can travel on my own. Perhaps all the way back to Nova Scotia on my own (right mom!?)

The next couple of weeks were memorable for me, as I spent much time in the Exumas Land and Sea Park. It’s a relatively small area (about 180 square miles) where all fishing is prohibited. Wardwick Wells is home of the park headquarters. Moorings were available in various locations around the cay, either for a nightly fee, or in exchange for a few hours of volunteer work. I’m not sure why, but Brendon from My Life seemed to jump at the chance to mix (by hand and shovel) and pour concrete, which the three of us did on our first day, creating another slab of the cellar floor of the headquarters. My back has been in such pain ever since, I couldn’t have done the same work the next day had I wanted to. I believe Brendon and Trevor spent the next 2 days on the same chore. I can’t say I envied them.

The following day, the warden, Andrew, allowed me to go on the high-speed Contender as he patrolled the north and south extents of the park with 2 members of the Royal Bahamian Defense Force, in an attempt to enforce the no-fishing regulations and collect mooring fees. He pointed out all the good snorkel spots and moorings and sights to see, which was a great orientation for the following week when I headed further south with my own boat.

The highlight of my stay in the park though was meeting Phil and Zach who run a small and beautiful steel cargo boat called the Retriever between Miami and the Exumas. For two days, Effie and I joined them as we traveled around offloading cargo to various private cays in the park. We delivered everything from food, to generators, to cedar shingles. I spent much of those 2 days laughing more than I have for quite some time, and meeting the local caretakers of the islands, and just being in some generally unique situations. I’d like to have those days back again.

When the time came to leave the Park, I set my destination to Staniel Cay, home of the Thunderball grotto (where part of the James Bond movie was filmed), which I was told was not to be missed. After close to 6 hours of motorsailing, the wind increased to 25kts from directly ahead. I gave up when I realized I was making less than one mile an hour towards my destination. I turned off the engine, swung the boat around and sheeted out the main. I headed for a nearby anchorage I had spotted when traveling on Retriever, next to Bell Island. Here, I met Laurel and Mike, who invited me over for dinner just moments after I dropped the anchor.

Laurel has been coming to the Bahamas for years, and had taken on Mike as crew. Mike was much younger and very eager to check out all the snorkeling sites, whereas Laurel seemed to posses the ‘been there, done that’ attitude. So with Laurel’s fast dingy, Mike and I were able to check out some cool spots over a 2 mile radius of the anchorage. Rocky Dundas was our first stop; a small cave, which at low tide you can swim into, but at high tide, you would have to dive under the wall to come up into the round cave with 2 storey walls and a hole in the top, where beams of sunshine descend to illuminate the stalactite and stalagmite formations. It was rough that day, a strong surge trying to take our feet out from beneath us as we struggled to stand on the shallow rocks with our flippers on. Next, we wanted to check out a reef at the south end of Cambridge Cay, which was supposed to have some impressive elkhorn coral. This area, as it turned out, was very exposed to the strong southeasterly winds, and 4 to 5 foot swells, some of them breaking, were barreling in from Exuma Sound. Concerned of swamping Laurel’s dingy, we decided to forego the elkhorn coral, and head into protected waters. A small airplane that crashed while allegedly running drugs was in 15 feet of water just west of O’Briens Cay. It was tiny, and after a quick look, Mike and I ascended at the same time, and simulatenously exclaimed, “That’s it?!”. We quickly moved on to a tiny rocky outcrop known at the Sea Aquarium, where hundreds of tame fish quickly congregate on any snorkler, expecting to be fed, I guess. It was a popular spot. Many dingys came and went as we took our time taking in all the details of the fish, coral, and even one rather large turtle.

It took me some time to realize that the moment I had decided to turn Annie Laurie north the previous day, that was to be the southernmost position of my journey. As long as I had been heading south, I was avoiding thoughts of the return journey, the accumulating responsibilities of what life back home is going to bring. As I left the anchorage at Bell Island, I watched Mike and Laurel make the turn south for Georgetown, as I made my turn back to Wardwick Wells. I felt I had reached a milestone; no more new ground to cover, as far as navigatable waters go at least. It was, and still is, depressing. I spent 2 more days at Wardwick Wells, thinking too much, and finding it a great effort to be social. How much I miss out on when my thoughts overcome my ability to see what joy can still exist at any given moment, especially with so many new (though perhaps only temporary) friends around.

I awoke early and got underway at 0700 on the day of my departure from Wardwick Wells, with an absence of farewells. Once I decide it’s time to go, there’s no waiting for anyone. I sailed for Highbourne Cay once again, through hours of thunder and lightning storms. It seemed to be just one storm, settling over the boat early in the day and relentlessly following me all the way to my next anchorage. I couldn’t have been less concerned about the lightning strikes, even as one bolt struck the water less than half a mile off my stern. It seemed like childs play after sailing the coastal waters of Florida last July.

I stopped at Highbourne Cay again, hoping to get to the store before it closed for the afternoon. It was a long row from the anchorage, against a strong incoming tide, and I began to doubt I was going to make it. A couple from a boat called Independence were taking their dog Blue ashore, and offered me a tow. I gladly accepted. In the course of conversation, they asked where I was headed, and I said the Abacos, though I was recently considering Miami, but I didn’t have good charts between the Exumas and southern Florida. They said it just so happened they had an extra set of Explorer Charts for the area, including Nassau, Andros, and Bimini, and I was welcome to have them. I made my final decision at that very moment, I was going to Miami.

Before leaving the northern Exumas, there was one more anchorage to check out. Just a stones throw from Highbourne lays Allan Cays, a bit of an attraction for its resident iguana population. Besides that, it’s reasonably protected from all wind directions. It would be my last adventure with Brendon and Trevor, going ashore to feed the iguanas. They were aggressive and intimidating (the iguanas) and would come barreling towards us in an awkward fashion, threatening to chew on our toes it seemed, if we weren’t careful. I had watched high-speed tourboats from Nassau take people ashore throughout the day before I ventured in, and I was quietly scoffing at all the girls in bikinis who would squeal whenever the prehistoric creatures approached. I was embarrassed when I learned it too was my natural reaction, to scream like a girl, when a big one came running towards me.

I made the executive decision to change my fuel filter before it got too clogged up (I usually just wait until it’s so clogged that it shuts the engine down, but I was trying to be proactive this time). I didn’t want to face changing the filter while alone in a rolling sea. I was so sure I had it figured out this time… ‘don’t forget the 2 valves on the fuel pump, and everything will be just fine!’. I was thinking too far ahead. I forgot to fill the new filter with fuel before putting it on, and I subsequently ended up with so much air in the fuel lines, it was next to impossible to bleed all the air out. I was frustrated to tears, literally. I started thinking that the ruins on the adjacent island would make a nice little fixer-upper, and I tried to convince myself Allans Cay would be an alright place to live out the rest of my days.

To bleed the air, it really is a 2 person job to begin with, as the manually lever to pump the fuel is on one side, and the valves are on the other. I tried reaching over the top, while I cracked the valves with my wrench on the other side, and eventually realized I had lost all feeling in my reaching forearm. I worry I let too much fuel get on my arm, and the biocide additive in the fuel has done permanent damage. I hope it’s a result of the awkward pressure I was putting on my arm, and it’s only temporary.

So as could be expected, I eventually killed my batteries trying to start the engine. Friends from a trawler in the anchorage did their best to help, but once the batteries were dead, there was little more they could do. That’s when fellow Canadians Wanda and Corstiaan came on the scene, saying they had a little portable generator, and not to worry, they would be over in the morning and we would get my engine going.

It didn’t take long the next morning, and we didn’t do anything different than I’d been doing the last few days. It was just a matter of getting every last microscopic air bubble out of the lines, and it cranked right up. So many people, when I say I have a Perkins 4-108, say, ‘Ah, right on. Great little engine!’. I no longer think it’s a great little engine if I can never get it going after each filter change.

More to come. To be continued very shortly.


Effie evaded almost certain death at Wardwick Wells. She came along as a group of us went over to hang out on a houseboat named Owl for the evening. Someone spooked her with a life-size and very realistic toy turtle, after which she disappeared into the night. At 0500 the following morning, it was obvious she had disappeared into the water. She was in the park wardens skiff, living up to her nickname Muskrat Willie, floating a few feet off the stern of the houseboat. The little trooper sure can swim. And, ahem... I guess to protect the innocent, I should admit now that someone was actually me.