Downwind through the Windward Passage

Monday April 29, 2013

4.29.13

Leaving Great Inagua just after 8 pm on Saturday we set out to cross through the Windward Passage and finally towards a new country. Once again, I was starting my sleep shift just after leaving and quite weary about the prospect of navigating the narrow area between Cuba and Hati alone when I was to wake up a few hours later for my night watch. Matt must have felt the same way about putting me up there alone at that time, or was just dying to try out a new sleep schedule, because when I was finally stirred for my shift we had already gone through it. I don’t know what superhuman strength he had in him to give me almost a full night’s sleep while stayed awake, but that’s what happened. I woke up shortly before the sun was to rise, and while we ran comfortably near downwind between 6 and 7 knots I watched it come up and slowly illuminate the mountains of Cuba off in the distance. For everything I’d heard about this passage, the high winds and steep waves that tend to build up where these giant bodies of water were funneled through a much smaller area, I felt like we were actually having a pretty good sail. Winds were holding steady at 20-25 knots and the 1-2 meter seas did nothing more than push from behind us and carry us along as we flew toward our destination.

There was only one nerve wrecking moment in the day and it was while Matt was down below sleeping. I was on watch in the mid-morning, keeping an eye on the tankers that passed by and praying that the wind didn’t shift enough for a dramatic sail change. I kept steady watches 360 degrees around the boat until at one glance when I noticed breaking waves ahead of me. I looked around to the side and to the back but no other areas had the same frothy white tops. A quick panic set in as I realized the only reason the waves ahead of me would be doing this is if they were building up due to shallow water. Zooming in on the chart I didn’t see any noted reefs, just depths listed at over ten thousand feet. Searching the horizon in front of me for any way around it I could see that these whitecaps spread as far as I could gaze and my only two options were to either turn around or go through them.

I wasn’t sure yet if I should wake Matt and make him aware of the situation when I noticed one of the tankers I had been keeping an eye on was passing me a couple miles off my port. They were headed into the same breakers I was and with a draft 20 feet deeper. If they were ready to charge through these things, then surely I could make it. Keeping my eyes lasered at the depth sounder as we came up to the breakers I watched it jump from unreadable to 16 feet. Oh shit. But before I could even move a muscle it ascended to 24 and then 42. I had just passed over something, I have no idea what, but I seemed to be in the clear. In under a minute the depths went back to unreadable even though the breakers stayed for a bit longer. My heart slowly slid back to a normal rate and the rest of the day luckily passed by uneventfully. The winds even died out in the afternoon, calming the seas and giving me a chance to bake cookies, but their sweetness did not make up for the fact that if we continued at this half speed we were now on, arrival in Port Antonio wouldn’t happen until Tuesday. Fatefully the winds did fill back in throughout the night due to us being on the edge of a passing storm, during Matt’s shift thankfully, we even made up the miles we had lost earlier in the day. It looked as if we may still coast into Jamaica the next day before sunset after all.

I’d like to take a quick moment here to talk about nautical superstitions. If you’ve ever owned a sailboat, if you’ve ever even set foot on one, you may have realize that it comes with a hefty amount of superstitions dating back hundreds of years. Superstitions such as whistle if you want wind. Don’t rename your boat, it’s back luck. Don’t ever leave for a passage on a Friday, it’s bad luck. Don’t ever bring bananas on board, they’re bad luck. (What is up with all this bad luck on the high seas?) Don’t bring a woman on board it’s back luck. However, you can counteract this last one if the woman is nude. That in fact, is supposed to be good luck. But I would like to dispel this superstition. We were having a great sail toward Jamaica on our second day. The sun was shining and we were surrounded by happy, puffy white clouds. The winds started to decrease a little, and ever determined to make it in to port that day, we decided to put up the spinnaker. There was a little extra work getting it on deck since the dinghy was covering the hatch to the v-berth where it gets stored under my bunk, so instead of easily raising it through the hatch we had to bring it up the companionway and then around to the foredeck before it could be tied and lifted. All lines to the spinny were soon secured on and it raised without issue. It was the first time we’ve used it since Lake Michigan, some 2,500 miles ago, and it was enough to bump our speed up to a swift 6.5 knots, now ensuring we’d make port with plenty of time to clear in that afternoon.

Since, I hate to admit it, we hadn’t bathed since our second day in Great Inagua, we thought a nice bucket bath was in order before customs and immigration decided to deny us entry just based on our stench alone. Getting all soaped and sudded up we ended with a fresh water rise and sat back in the cockpit to dry off. The funny thing is, as I sat there looking at the perfect afternoon and watching the water evaporate off my bare skin I actually thought to myself ‘Ha, a bit of good luck for this trip! I should do more passages without any clothes on.’. But I was..oh..so wrong. I hadn’t even had time to fully dry off when those puffy white clouds began turning black. Yes, I knew from the first time I saw them that they were cumulonimbus, I was just hoping they would pass behind us. Pointing it out to Matt since the last thing you want to happen with your spinnaker up is have a sudden storm blow past, we turned on the radar to check for rain. The whole screen was pink. We were about to get hit, and get hit hard. With fluid movements and great communication, the spinnaker was down within moments and reefs were put into the mainsail. We unfurled the headsail about half way just to keep speed and waited for the storm to come.

The sky all around us had turned a dark gray and you could see the haze of a downpour ricocheting off the water long before it ever reached us. Along with the storm came a wind shift, almost on our nose of course, so we conceded and went to turn the engine on. Seconds later Matt was shouting up to me to turn it off, there was an issue with the belt again. I quickly ran below to assist him while he once again began to take apart the engine and piece it back together. With thirty knot winds and rain now pelting us from above I listened to the autopilot beeping at me, advising that it could no longer keep it’s course into the wind and was turning itself onto standby. Now drifting into whatever direction the wind felt like pushing us I just hoped the winds didn’t gust any higher and give us a possible knockdown while we sorted out the belt issue. Luckily for us Matt is a master with the engine and not even five minutes later I was given the ok to start the engine back up. It roared to life and I let out a sigh as I punched up the throttle and pointed us back to Port Antonio. From a perfect and calm afternoon to a blinding and high wind storm in all under a half hour. If that is what comes of having a nude woman on board, I think I will make all future passages wearing every article of clothing I own.

It wasn’t until we were almost right on top of shore that the Blue Mountains came into view, and although I had originally been thinking that I could get a great shot of these mountains with our spinnaker flying high and possibly even a rainbow in the background (a girl can dream, right?), we were still just as elated to see them through the haze. 247 miles completed in 42 hours, we were finally there. Hailing Nila Girl on the radio, they gave us instructions on where to come in at the marina and let us know they’d be fetching customs and immigration so we’d get checked in as soon as possible. Clearing in was much easier this time when everyone came to you although I did get a few surprise glances, mostly from the women in Quarantine, that I was in fact the captain and not Matt. Before we even had clearance to get off the boat we were greeted by Ren and Ashley with big hugs and from Lance with a cold Red Stripe. Once everything was in order we moved the boat from the dock out to anchor in the bay, still paying a daily fee to be affiliated with the marina and use their facilities including the dinghy dock, laundry, and, oh yes, hot showers.

Though we were going on very little sleep we were way to excited to rest and were quickly back on shore to do a little exploring. Having made Matt promise we’d actually go out to eat our first night there instead of me fixing something on the boat, we were given ten different recommendation of places to try but couldn’t turn our backs on having jerk chicken our first night in Jamaica, and were directed to a little shack down the main street called Piggy’s. After the 1.5x American prices we had been paying in the Bahamas, our mouths watered as we saw they had whole meals for only 300 J, or $3 US. With hot jerked chicken in one hand and an iced cold Pepsi in another we sat on a bench overlooking the East Bay, watching the navigational buoys shine in the dark and relieved we were back on solid ground instead of out at sea. Arriving back at the marina we found that Ren had reserved the large projector kept in the outdoor pool/bar area and was setting it up to have a movie play. In the best outdoor theater I’ve ever been in, we watched The Big Year while sipping on Red Stripes and listening to tropical birds call out from hills and mountains in the distance. Let me be clear that we thoroughly enjoyed the Bahamas, but I think Matt summed it up best when he turned to me and said, “This is what I’ve been waiting for”.

4.29.13 (1)

4.29.13 (2)

Jamaica

 

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5 thoughts on “Downwind through the Windward Passage

  1. Oh, I hate the thought of getting caught in bad weather when we start cruising … glad it all ended well … with a Red Stripe!

    We visited Jamaica years ago and loved it!

  2. I don’t mind storm when we’re traveling as long as I can see them coming and we can get the sails situated. The ones that really worry me are the ones that come out of nowhere. And usually those are the ones that come in the middle of the night! 🙂 (There are noticeable changes in the air though, and that really helps to tell when something is coming)

  3. Pingback: Sailing Superstitions Part II | Matt & Jessica's Sailing Page

  4. Did you ever find out what caused the breaking waves? I spent about 30 minutes googling and could find no reference to any shoals in the Windward Passage.

  5. I still have no idea, and I’m not sure it could have been shoals since the tanker next to me with a 25 ft draft had no issues getting through it. One of life’s mysteries I guess.

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