If you are closely acquainted with 86 year olds, you will know how "gung ho" certain types can be. Well John Kellam, my ex and our good friend, is that type. He came aboard on April 8 with great curiosity and enthusiasm ready to go on an ocean voyage from the Virgin Islands towards Newport, Rhode Island with the idea that we would stop whenever weather or crew needs required, but we might even make the entire trip offshore. It is a truly significant passage. John helped us with a lot of sanding and financial advice during the years of boat building and this was a way we could show our appreciation. He had been at the launch and was keen to come out now and "give her a push".
We did a final shop and went over our offshore check list for fuel, water, medical preparations, engines, sails and rig, checked all the lashings that hold this slightly flexible boat together, checked the stowage, deflated the dinghy partially and removed the drain plug, put away the tools and unfinished projects, did a book swap, and left after clearing out.
John had recovered from the plane travel and reacquainted himself with the boat by the 12th and we had a goodish weather forecast. The GPS waypoint was set for the southern Bahamian island of Mayaguana which has a lovely lagoon we have anchored in before in my old boat but we did not really intend to stop there on this trip. We had no charts of Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, so we could not stop there and I just wanted somewhere we could be prepared to tuck into if the need arose and Mayaguana was the first place we could safely do so. Our charts of the Bahamas were NEW (!) and were the complete Maptech kit of charts for that area because this boat will be perfect for those waters and sailing conditions and we intend to go back each winter for a while.
The first day was sunny but a bit bumpy with seas left over from earlier stormy weather nearby. It was hazy and we were watching John's movements to be sure he was safe. It took us a long time to accept the fact that he did know how to use all the hand holds properly and move with enough care to compensate for his slower reaction time and his unfamiliarity with this boat's motion at sea. Offshore we insist on everybody always being in harness now and a leash is always clipped into a secure point nearby for safety. With only a few cautions, John was soon up and running and enjoyed his trip to the max.
The seas smoothed out so we could enjoy a gentle afternoon sail and we began napping in turns so we could take turns with the night watch. I am not good at sleeping if there is any land nearby or shipping, so I kept one eye open due to the lee shore of Puerto Rico and the slowly "waltzing" cruise ships in the area that were killing time and avoiding overnight dock fees by just noodling about near us. They are lit up like a Saturday night saloon so it is easy to see them, but amid all the various lights, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the particular navigation lights which indicate which direction they are going. At night it was cold enough to break out our fleeces which had been stowed in lockers since the Canary Islands.
In the morning I set out the fishing line and a short while later something had taken the whole lot at the end of the line. Jagged mono filament indicated our missed lunch had been a big one.
The wind moderated and we talked often about raising more sail, but indolence won the day and we glided across the Mona Passage under small sail and enjoyed the relaxing afternoon. Other than shipping to watch out for, it was a quiet night.
With John aboard and the SSB radio not fully functional, we had decided in the Virgins to install a Nav Text gizmo that gives printed weather forecasts and other info of use to mariners more than 60 miles offshore. It had not been completely installed yet and the antenna was just laying on a shelf, but it was helpful on this trip and gave us warning of an approaching mild weather front. It looked like being safe enough to continue and I put in a bunch if waypoints where we could anchor safely if the need arose later in the trip. We intended a conservative course just east of the Bahamas well clear of any hazards and shipping lanes.
The front arrived on the 14th and John recorded in the chart the water spout ahead of us about 5 miles and going parallel to our course. Later we jibed to avoid a tug and tow that threatened. A brief sighting of an unidentified whale caused some excitement and then the wind kept us busy for a while.
Peace Four was flying under jib and main doing nearly 10 knots. The waves gave us a sleigh ride swooshing in the clear tropical waters. For safety we reluctantly dropped the main due to the wind being so gusty. Continuing at a more sedate 7 knots under jib alone, we enjoyed the sparkling heavy spray on the fore deck and I remembered to adjust the GPS again for compass variation due to the differences in the earth's magnetism in various locations. We had to do this often during the trip as we covered so much ground. More whales were seen and as the front passed, the wind lowered and we settled back to our books, napping, and day dreams.
There were some good sized swells remaining, but we decided to set in the next waypoint beyond Mayaguana and selected the familiar Abacos Islands just in case we needed them. We always keep an hourly log of our position as indicated by the GPS, our course and speed over the ground, wind speed and direction, what sails we have up, the barometric reading, and any weather forecast we might have. There is room for any comments or observations and this is always the most interesting line. Comments about special cakes I might bake, porpoises seen, birds sighted and identified, or things breaking and getting fixed. I noted that Nev had been a hero and emptied the porta potty again. Some of the most important jobs are the least glamorous.
We had a good moon to help us most of the time but that night there were clouds and flashes of lightning late. It did not develop beyond light rain though so we continued.
The next day a Bermuda Long Tail visited us and flew all around the boat with her elegant tail streaming way out behind her. We were able to open all the hatches and air out the boat.
Well this pocketmail gizmo has just told me that I can continue writing you all about it in my next letter. It can only cope with short messages of 6000 characters. It reminds me of the old radio programs... "tune in next time".
On the 17th we had some electric gremlins and the navigation light at the top of our mast stopped working. This helps other boats know which direction we are going and it is pretty important at night to avoid collision. So we had to switch on three lower level lights which are less visible but take more electricity. Night watch was even sharper after that. Then the GPS went off and it took my tired brain a while before I could get it going again. Lucky I was successful because the back up hand held GPS let us down too and has since had to be replaced. A big tug with a huge tow passed us and I radioed to ask for a position to verify that I had our GPS going properly. Yup, we had exact confirmation.
The good captain then said he had just gotten word of an approaching storm and suggested we go in at the Abacos Islands. We were all feeling a little tired by this point, so we studied the details of our chart and decided on Marsh Harbour using the Man o War passage which is so familiar to me from past cruising there.
At this point we had all the sails up and Peace Four was sailing well with hull speeds around 7 knots more or less in winds gusting 10 to 12 knots close reaching in some lumpy seas. The weather was lovely and we did enjoy it while it lasted.
Next day the winds reduced persistently and we had to motorsail to get in to the anchorage while the sun was at our backs. The charting in the Bahamas is always a little "informal" and one notices that none of the guides agree nor do all the various charts agree about what is where under the water. It is a tad un-nerving, to say the least. Rocks, coral heads, and shoal areas are not accurately marked in their correct positions so mariners must use what we call "eyeball navigation" and it is a skill to develop. Because the water is so clear, you learn to see the colour which indicates the depth and you need the sun at your back to do this properly. If the sun were ahead of you, it would shine off the water right into your eyes and make it impossible to see things under the glaring surface. So we had to get in before noon to be safe and we just barely won that race with the clock.
While I am quite familiar with that passage, I don't like it, especially when there are large seas running as there still were on this occasion. The islands are low and flat with few land marks. Not having complete trust in our GPS, I went back through our log and checked that the dead reckoning of speed and course agreed with the GPS position from the tug boat. Then we edged carefully closer and watched for familiar landmarks. Finally the Hope Town light house came out of the haze and we were surer of ourselves. The place looked quite familiar then. With all eyes on the water, we got through the passage and entered what is called the Sea of Abaco which is a 90 mile strip of shallow and protected water between low islands and some of the best sailing winds in the world. This area is just perfect for catamarans and it is a socially relaxed piece of heaven that got lost down here. The colour of the water looks like it fell out of a jeweller's store window. Opal, Jade, sapphire, lapis, emerald, and sparkles like gold and diamonds. Then come the fish all dressed for Saturday night in bright colours that seem to glow like neon signs.
We anchored, off Great Guana Cay and took our rest. John had come 860 nautical miles offshore which is something to be proud of at any age and we all, plus the boat, deserved that rest. In the morning we got out the work lists, but that evening we relaxed.
I will continue in my next letter.
© Anne and Neville Clement, 2003