Downwind through the Windward Passage

Monday April 29, 2013


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”.

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Picturesque Lighthouse, Great Inagua

Saturday April 27, 2013

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Today was such a busy day for us that I decided to break it up into two posts. Alright, so maybe it’s not much that we were entirely busy as much as it’s the fact I’d be putting up over 20 photos in one post, but I don’t know what your attention span is, even just for photos. After our exhausting morning of being driven around in a truck and looking at pretty birds, Matt and I retired to the boat for a little rest before we could squeeze in any more fun activities for the day. Once we were well rested and fed (finally) we met back up with Brian and Stephanie to walk up to the lighthouse on the outskirts of town and take a tour of it. The roads were mostly deserted on our walk up, most of the town attending a funeral for a highly esteemed member of the community, and we were almost afraid the lighthouse would be locked up because of it too. We caught the keeper just as she was headed out to join everyone else, she just quickly mentioned that the door was open and please sign the guest book, as she breezed her way out of compound. Opening the door we explored every inch of the lighthouse. It was magnificently beautiful and afforded amazing views of the island.

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That’s a Bird of Different Color

Saturday April 27, 2013

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If you were to research Great Inagua online you’d probably find out that it’s known for two things. The first is that it houses a Morton’s Salt factory, supplying 1/3rd of the salt that gets shipped to North America. The second, is that the island has a very large bird sanctuary. And in this sanctuary was something that all four of us were very excited to see, flamingos. I had seen them in zoos before, as had Matt, but Stephanie had never seen one in her life. This, along with the lack of a preferable weather window, is what caused us to stop on the island in the first place. Without the promise of these bright pink birds, we may have passed it by altogether. The previous day we had secured a trip with the park master, Henry, and he was to pick us up in town at 8 am. Having forgot my coffee and somehow sleeping in enough that I only had time to shove a Pop Tart in my backpack for breakfast on the road, I silently wished this island had a McDonald’s that I could breeze through to get some hot food on the go. (And before all of you start to tell me how bad their food is for me, just know that I will always love it an no matter how many diagrams or statistic you show me, I will never stop eating it. Besides, I just spent two weeks eating fish and rice every day, I think I deserve an egg McMuffin.)

Walking up to our meeting spot of the grocery store on the main street we found Brian and Stephanie already inside the large Ford pickup that was going to take us around the park. I climbed up the step to the front seat while Matt slid his way in back. We took off right away down the paved main road which soon turned to dirt as soon as we were out of town and the landscape returning to what we were used to seeing in the Bahamas, lots of dirt and sand with low lying shrubs. It didn’t take long for the mountains of salt from the Morton’s factory to come into view and for salt ponds to begin replacing the shrubs on the side of the road. Henry was a bit of a quiet man, although maybe he’s just not a morning person either, and would give little tidbits of information here or there, but for the most part remained quiet. When the road made a wide turn leading into the salt factory, the truck instead took a small dirt path off to the other side, just wide and elevated enough to keep us out of the expanses of water we were now driving through. The water here only looked like multiple miniature lakes, and we were told it was the first stage of the salt process. Once in awhile we’d see foamy bubbles on top of the water and random birds that were not flamingos fly over our heads.

While driving along the radio was playing quietly in the background, tuned to a local station and, at this hour, DJ’d by a man named George that Brian and Stephanie happened to meet the previous night on their way back from Bo’s. Becoming engrossed with the locals, as they usually tend to do, they spent quite a bit of time talking to him and once again, telling the story of how they arrived here. So back to present time, we all had an ear on the radio in the quietness of the truck when we heard a shout out from George dedicated to all of us. “Lots to do on this beautiful Saturday, such as taking a tour of the Great Inagua National Park. We have some visitors in town this weekend and we’d like to welcome you. We know you didn’t have to stop here, but we’re sure glad you did.” See what I mean? Nicest people ever! It was also right after this little high that we started to make out, eeek!, flamingos in the distance! If our ride had been calm and sedated up to this point, it all changed. Windows were instantly down with heads craning outside, the three members in the back seat trying to cram to the one side with the view. They were still fairly far away and the rumble of the large engine seemed to frighten them off before we could get too close, but that didn’t stop us from pulling out our cameras and snapping what we could. Luckily for Brian and Stephanie, they have a large zoom lens for their camera, and I’m quite sure I’ll be stealing some of their photos later.

This sequence continued multiple times, us spotting flamingos in the distance and then scaring them off just as soon as we were getting close enough to really make them out. In one spot where the road had widened a little bit, we asked Henry to stop the truck for a few minutes while we wandered on foot, trying to get as close to them as we could before they became skiddish. Being on food definitely yielded better results than the truck, but man these birds do not trust anything coming up to them. I have no idea what they need to be afraid of either, they’re in a National Reserve. When we felt like we got the best photos we could for the day we retreated back to the truck and continued to watch them fly past us through our windows. Those were soon shut any way as well since this area was heavily populated in kamikaze dragonflies. For the longest time during the drive I couldn’t understand what was blowing through the window and hitting me in the face before bouncing back and out the rear passenger window. It wasn’t until we had slowed down to a stop one time that I realized I was being dive bombed by a bunch of dragonflies, torpedoing through my window to a bulls-eye apparently right on my face. After that it was window up and problem solved.

Next on the tour was a drive through the salt factory, seeing the last stages of the salt in the ponds, and finally the large mounds of it before it is prepared to be loaded on tankers and shipped off. Ok, so we may have been going through this part backwards and saw first the loading docks, then the giant mounds of salt, and finally the salt ponds just before they’re scraped. We actually did drive by one pond that was being harvested (is that the correct term?), with a large bulldozer driving along it collecting salt, looking like a zamboni clearing the ice. We were told that each pond has a marked stick in the middle and as soon as a certain line was hit it meant that pond was ready to be cleared and it’s salt collected. It was a pretty amazing sight, all the white sparkling flecks looking like snow under a Caribbean blue sky. We never entered the plant for a tour, I think that’s a different package entirely, but it was still fun being able to see all the different stages (ok, most of the different stages) of how it ends up from floating in the ocean to sitting in my pantry. I have a feeling that at the moment I could get almost the same results by just wiping it off our solar panels, the side of the boat, basically anything on our boat because it’s all covered in salt, but I think I’ll continue to give the people at Morton’s and the good people of Great Inagua my business for now.

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(above three photos courtesy of Rode Trip)

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You thought you could run…

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For another great post on Great Inagua, check out our friend Jane on More Joy Everywhere.                                         Plus, one more tour of the salt mines and flamingo viewings from Bumfuzzle.  Just scroll down to April 7th.

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Bo’s Birthday Blowout

Friday April 26, 2013

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If I’m learning one thing about Great Inagua so far, it’s that it’s the best island in the Bahamas that we’ve visited so far, with the absolute worst anchorage. What it has going for it with the friendliest people ever (No, I’m not kidding. They really are the friendliest people ever.), a large enough town to make you think you’re on more than just a small island, and even a Morton Salt factory with a US address that, should you be here long enough, they’ll even send anything you need to you even though you’re just a traveler and not a resident. But the anchorage. Oh my god, the anchorage. As I said, there is no harbor here. Just a shallow enough area to drop hook in, right next to the hundred foot depths you just came in from. And what this means for us is no protection from the huge swells that wrap around the side of the island. I thought we had it bad in the Jumentos, but this is much much worse. So bad that we will avoid being off the boat for a good part of the day just so we don’t have to suffer the constant rocking. It feels just like we’re on passage, except more maddening because being at anchor is supposed to be your safe haven from being at sea. If we planned on being here an extended period of time we’d probably move up to the much calmer Man of War Bay, but that would include a couple mile walk into town each day and for right now we’ll just suffer the rocking at night and get our butts into town for the good part of the day.

This evening when we retired back to the boat and were working on any solution to keep it still, Matt actually was able to fix it a little bit by swinging our boom to one side and dropping our drogue into the water to cease a little bit of the swinging, we got a call on the radio from Stephanie who was in town and wanted to know if we’d like to come out to a lemonade stand they had visited the day before and made friends with a few of the locals. I had been laying on the settee while starting a movie, the low sun blazing through the port and blinding me every few seconds as we still rocked back and forth, so yes, I was eager to get back off the boat and visit a lemonade stand. She mentioned we might want to pack our own little cooler, so I threw a few single serve wines plus a beer and a dark & stormy into my purse sized Coleman. Getting a little lost on the way to the street corner we were given (I’m telling you, this place is huge compared to our last few stops), we finally came upon a white tent with golf carts parked in front and Brian and Stephanie seated next to them in plastic chairs. Right away we were introduced to Bo, a native of the island who moved to California and would come back to the island for her summers. She looked like a California girl though and through, bright blonde highlights and an electric white smile to match. She had a vivacious personality that was instantly infectious, and even though we were just meeting her she felt like the old friend you could lose touch with for years and pick back up right where you left off.

Working the lemonade stand with her was her sister Shay, who spent her time off the island living in Charleston, but was working her way to starting her own restaurant on the island. Quickly we were offered a seat on the back of one of the golf carts while stainless steel lids on the stand began to open and we were asked what we’d like to eat. We both chose hot dogs which came with all the fixings and tasted just as good as they looked after Shay had presented them in a four star manner with turning the toppings into a beautiful design on the top. It wasn’t long before more and more people started arriving at the stand, all family of Bo’s, and all out to celebrate her birthday. We were introduced to cousin after cousin after cousin, and every one of them welcomed us into the group as if we were one of their own. Each new group listened intently as we told our stories of how we got there and what our grand plans were.

In return they each shared stories of growing up on the island and all the activities this close knit family participated in such as a cowboy themed party ‘out in the bush’ complete with a cowboy hat and and a set of cowboy boots for each person that joined. We were all included into the group so quickly that we were invited to a camping festival with the family starting the next day and ending three days later. We did not read Yapq.com or plan too many things. It was to be an extreme ‘you only eat what you catch’ kind of gathering, but we were regaled with stories of the men catching goats and hogs on previous trips and it sounded as if no one ever went hungry. Previous gatherings like this, we were told, included bonfires that lasted until dawn and was something that we could not miss out on. Unfortunately for us, we live by the weather, and right in the middle of that camping trip was a window for us to make it through the Windward Passage. It was a sad thing to turn down because if we were already having this much fun at a lemonade stand on the side of the road, I can only imagine the kind of stories a three day outing in the bush would produce.

As with all birthdays, there was a big cake presented to Bo and we tried, after three attempts, to get everyone on cue for a couple verses of ‘Happy Birthday’. The cake was two layers and covered in blue frosting. We were told by Bo and one of her cousins that they had a tradition in the family of giving the girls blue cakes, and giving pink cakes to the men. This was a long lived joke because they said in their family it was always the women who went out and made a living while the men stayed home with the children. Everyone was cut a slice and we sat around enjoying the concoction made by Bo’s beau. Long after the sun went down and the street lights came on, we sat out telling and listening to stories until the bugs were making it too unbearable to continue. We also had an early morning planned, a trip into the national park to see flamingos, and none of us wanted to be asleep through any of it. We went through and gave hugs to our new foster family members before setting off in the dark back to the dinghy. I can’t tell you how well this island and it’s people have been treating us so far. If we didn’t have such a strong craving to see lush green mountains, I could see us staying here for much much longer. Well, after moving the boat up to Man of War Bay.


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Great Inagua

Thursday April 25, 2013


Although our rally had now been cut in half, we still remained in contact through the VHF as long as there was still range to do so, giving coordinates for a race that just lost two of it’s members. It turns out the radio on Serendipity is the only one that could hear everyone and be heard back by everyone, so for a good portion of the night we were played telephone, relaying messages from one boat to another. There was still a lot of easting to do before us and Rode Trip could get to Great Inagua which seemed very difficult when we took off from the Mira Por Vos cays. I imagined us adding on dozens of extra miles for tacking and not arriving until the next night, even though we only had 75 miles left as the crow flies. When winds started to gust into the upper 20’s though, we hove to momentarily to put a couple of reefs in the main before getting going again. I don’t know what changed, but somehow we were now able to go so close hauled that we were able to almost head directly east, making all those extra miles fall off and giving hope that we might be there just after sunrise.

With the new course set we were also able to catch up to Rode Trip who had been much more close hauled than us to start with. The scary part was, even in the dark we made them out by eye much earlier than we ever detected them on radar. In fact, they never showed up on our radar at all. We must have passed within a few hundred feet of each other, I could make out their silhouetts in the moonlight, yet they were never even a blip on the radar. We used to tease them about the fact that they were invisible in the water to other boats (they are well aware they don’t show up on any radars), but this made me seriously worried for them. They always make sure to keep diligent watches so they can spot any other boats first, but I might have to make them a couple of tin foil hats to wear on passages from now on just to bump up their visibility. Anytime something popped up on our AIS we’d give them a call, forewarning that something might be coming their way. Other than that it was just an overnight passage as usual. Georgie has now taken to sitting as tight as she can get in our lap while passaging at night, which I found very cute until it began to interfere with my quarter-hour scans. Having to climb over to the other side of the cockpit to scan the horizon under the headsail meant constantly having to put her down, which she did not like. Finally I shoved her into her little nook under the combing and blocked it with my chair so she couldn’t get out. I’m such a good mother.

As I predicted once I knew we’d be able to get our easting in, we arrived in front of Matthew Town on Great Inagua at 8 am. Although this anchorage was nice because it was directly in front of town, there was no protective harbor to pull in to, just the island in front of you and the open ocean behind you. Since we were on the west side of the island and winds were predicted to still be constantly out of the east, we didn’t see this as an issue as long as the winds did not shift or a storm did not roll through. Getting everything tidied up and put away as we always do just after anchoring, we let ourselves go back to bed for a few more hours while we waited for Rode Trip to arrive behind us. We were bright eyed and bushy tailed by the time they got in, ready to go in and explore. Since they did not get the rest that we just had, they opted on meeting us in town a few hours later after they had their own chance to clean up and fix a meal. Jumping in the dinghy we rode it up to the government dock which happened to be blocked all the way across by large boats that couldn’t fit themselves all the way in the basin. Seeing us come up, members from two of the boats took poles and pushed away from each other, leaving a five foot gap in the middle for us to squeak through.

Getting up to the main road we walked into town, which was actually quite large compared to most of the Bahamian islands we’d been visiting. Much bigger than Duncan Town of course, and surprisingly even bigger than Thompson Bay, although maybe everything was just more spread out there. The morning was already quite warm and when we walked through the doors of the grocery store we were greeted with ice cold air conditioning and Faygo soda to the tune of only $0.60. Quenching our thirst as we walked the streets, we were now in search of internet since I figured that three weeks was now quite a long time to be away from it. Walking up to a BTC building, a woman outside pointed us to a little shack on the street telling us that we could connect to the office that it sat in front of. Our guide book made it sound like you had to pay a hefty fee for internet on the island and I almost jumped for joy as I found that not only were we actually able to connect here, but that it wouldn’t cost us anything. First letting know our families that we were still alive and that Serendipity was still floating, I began to connect with all the friends we had now been out of touch with for so long, and starting clicking through the 96 emails in my inbox. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the paved roads and actually getting lost because there were so many of them. This town may not be as big as I’m used to back home, but for the moment, it’s exactly what I needed.

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Lookout for Us

Wednesday April 24, 2013

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I hadn’t even been able to pull out all the ingredients for dinner once we got back to Serendipity after visiting Nila Girl last night before Ren was calling out to us on the VHF. Instead of leaving for our 180 mile journey at dawn as planned, ‘Let’s go right now’ he suggested. The sun had just gone down, we were all a little buzzed on rum, and sitting between us and the Exuma Sound was a very narrow and shallow channel. ‘Sure, why not? Sounds like a good plan to me’, we replied. In the moonlight we all hoisted our sails and started our engines, ready to follow our paths drawn on our chartplotters to get back out. Serendipity took the lead with Rode Trip right behind and Nila Girl and EZ following in back. I sent Matt up to the foredeck to ‘keep watch’, like he could see much of anything anyway, while I had my eyes glued to the chartplotter which was zoomed in as far as it could go. All I had to do was trace another black line exactly on top of the one by following it from where we came in. Doesn’t sound too hard, right? Turn the wheel a little to the right, I’m way off course. Correct it by turning a little to the left, now way off course on the other side. My eyes kept darting to the depth sounder that would hastily fluctuate from 10 feet down to 5 and then back up. All I could think about between short and sharp breaths was if we had another St. Augustine size grounding out in the middle of nowhere and in the dark no less.

We came out of it just fine, but I couldn’t let myself relax until the depth was reading a constant 17 feet or more. (Why that odd number? I have no idea, it just sounded safe at the time) As soon as we were clear I called out on the radio that we had passed the waypoint. One by one, the rest of our rally called that they had also made it out safely. Later talking to Stephanie I found out that Brian had been surprisingly calm behind the wheel on their way out which he attributes to rum drinks aboard Nila Girl just before we left, they helped settle his nerves. I guess I just didn’t have enough to drink before driving because that was literally the most nervous I’ve ever been behind the wheel. It wasn’t enough to keep me from promptly falling asleep though since we were now on passage schedule and I needed to get a few hours in before coming back on shift at midnight. It was our first overnight with other boats around us and we seized the opportunity to keep constant tabs on the VHF. There was some general talk and jokes as we first took off, but after that we pledged to radio in every two hours with our coordinates. Not just so we could make sure everyone was still afloat, we were in a race! A few hours earlier, Brian had mentioned he had a large paper chart of the area and since we had a large(ish) group going, it would be fun to mark our positions on the chart as we went.

I’ll never claim that Serendipity is a ‘fast’ boat, but she was kicking some butt that night. Every two hours we’d call in and find out that we were in the lead. Sometimes a little chatter would follow the call-in and Matt and I soon found out that we were the only ones on a three hour sleep schedule, with all of our friends doing longer 4-6 shifts. It left us talking to different people almost every time we checked in and kept it refreshing since there was always a new combination of people talking. Once the sun came up the topic de jour became what side of the Mira Por Vos Cays everyone was passing on. These are a group of small uninhabited islands just west of the Acklins that caused a lot of anguish to the original Spanish explorers of the Caribbean. Their name literally translates to ‘Lookout for us’, and were meant as a warning for other exploring boats to steer very clear of the area. According to our guidebook, the town of St. Augustine was actually founded so that ships coming up from the Caribbean could ride the Old Bahama Channel up to the Gulf Stream to stay as far away from these little islands as possible. That seems a little excessive to me, but guidebooks never lie, right?

Sometime in the late morning while all members of all boats were finally awake, we were just coming up on the islands when Ren started joking about cabin fever and that he was ready to do a little diving, sure that he could catch some lobster in the 40 foot depths inside the cays. Sure that he was actually joking, I chimed in that he should definitely go diving for lobster and that we’d all enjoy a nice dinner aboard Nila Girl. It turns out, he was not joking. He wanted to go diving, and now all those little islands that the Spanish conquistadors tried so feverishly to avoid, we were now heading right into. Deciding on an anchorage listed in our charts, we all altered course for our new heading. Serendipity was the first one in, watching the depths quickly jump from thousands of feet to 400 feet to 40. Catching up to us under engine power was EZ and we both dropped anchor as close as we could get to shore, finally entering waters under 30 feet.

When the whole crew was together we all suited up and got in the water. For an uninhabited island without many fishers, there sure wasn’t much going on under the surface. There were very few fish and you’d have to be able to dive to about forty feet to get to them. What started out as a hunt for Matt quickly turned into just a swim as it would have been a lot of work for him to catch anything and then a lot of work for me to prepare it. Neither of us felt like going through that and were fine to just throw the pork fried rice in the microwave as planned. It was a nice halfway point break for everyone though, and we enjoyed the sun and water and even got showers in. Too soon evening was back upon us and we were back in our boats, ready to start the race up again. It was here we found out that the herd was splitting and that Nila Girl and EZ could not take the deserts of the Bahamas anymore and wanted to make a straight run to Jamaica. We were just as eager to get out of the Bahamas but didn’t want to chance those heavy conditions in the Windward Passage and also couldn’t leave our buddy boat behind. On we carried to Great Inagua, our rally now cut in half.

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All photos courtesy of Rode Trip.


From Cooking to Coconuts to Sailing

Tuesday April 23, 2013


Yesterday was a great project day on Serendipity, trying to finish little things that hadn’t been done yet. I once more worked on sewing and Matt took on the big projects of running all lines back to the cockpit. This means that he no longer has to go up on deck when we need to reef the sail, all three of our reefs can now be put in from the cockpit. This makes me feel much better since anytime a reef has to go in, conditions are usually deteriorating and up on deck is the last place I want Matt to be. Our cockpit may now look like it’s growing red, green, and white vines, but that’s fine by me. We took a break in the afternoon for a fishing excursion with Brian and Stephanie, although my only intention was sitting in the dinghy with Stephanie and soaking up some sun. From what Brian had mentioned anyway, visibility wasn’t great in this water and I’d probably only end up shooting at rocks if I were to try fishing (my assumption, not his). Matt was still able to spear a grouper that I turned into delicious fish cakes that night.

This morning we were reunited with our friends on Nila Girl. Ashley just got back from a quick trip to the states, and now her and Ren are slowly making their way to Honduras for a dive competition in late May. They’re planning to make a stop in Jamaica on their way and so we all decided to rally up and make the trip together. Along for the ride was their friend Lance on his catamaran EZ, and friend and fellow diver, Nick. He’s also competing in Honduras and will be helping out in getting Nila Girl there. After some excited chatter on the radio with Ren when we got in Sunday, it was great seeing their boat pull in and anchor by us. It wasn’t long before Matt was kidnapped for a day of fishing and I was left working on pink jobs on the boat. Something I was absolutely fine with since all people and no time alone makes Jessica go a little crazy, remember? I spent the afternoon preparing enough food for a three day journey from Long Island to Great Inagua, which is situated just on the east side of the Windward Passage. According to the most recent weather updates, winds in the passage at the time we’d get there would be in the 25-30 knot range, and when you couple that with the high seas that are notorious for that area, well, we’d rather wait them out.

Blasting music out of the speakers since there was no one in the bay to hear it but us, I got to work making things like hummus, pancakes, and pork fried rice. I’m pretty sure the dishes actually took longer to work on than the cooking itself so I was very happy when Ren radioed that he was going to come kidnap me as well for a hang out on Nila Girl. Grabbing a shirt for Matt to put on and a couple of drinks for us to enjoy over there I climbed into the large skiff belonging to Lance that the boys had been using to fish. It was a full house aboard Nila Girl with three couples and two lonely boys. Luckily their cockpit was plenty of room to sprawl out and talk about our last few weeks of travel. We got to see how Ashley’s baby bump had grown in just the two weeks that we’d seen her, and according to her doctor’s visit back in the states, everything was going perfectly. Then while telling them about our time in the Raggeds and Jumentos we sipped water from coconuts and then added it to coconut flavored rum for a really delicious treat.

It was getting close to dinner time and since Nila Girl didn’t have enough raccoon stew to go around (I’m not kidding), Ashley instead put out a nice little spread of crackers, cheese, and fish salad (think chicken salad but with fish instead of chicken). On the perfectly laid out cutting board were also sun dried tomatoes, grapes, and goat cheese. She claims that it was ‘nothing at all’, but I’m still amazed at the bistro style meals and snacks she whips up seemingly out of nothing. If I could order an Ashley to keep on our boat, I would. A great time was had by all as we sat out in the warm breeze and watched the sun disappear behind the clouds. And for those of us that were paying attention, we just just a hint of a green flash as it slipped below the horizon.

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‘Showers’ off the back of the boat.

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Finally a little down time to relax.

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Matt & Nick on Nila Girl.  (photo courtesy of Ren Chapman)

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 Enjoying the sunset.  (Photo either courtesy of Ren Chapman, or me with Ren’s camera, I can’t remember)


Dollars Harbor

Sunday April 21, 2013


The spot we had picked back in Long Island to anchor in for a night while we waited for our weather window wasn’t Thompson Bay that we were in before, too bad because I think I could really have gone for some wifi and a beer at Long Island Breeze, but instead was Dollar Harbor, an anchorage about 7 miles south of there. It was another long day ahead of us so once more we were up and moving with the sun. Trying to avoid the Commer Channel and go south of it this time we were going to hug all the northerly islands of the Jumentos. Rode Trip had come in that way last week while we had gone out and around, so Matt gave us strict instructions to stay on their tail in case our charts didn’t list everything and we accidentally ended up on top of some shallow coral heads. We gave them a 10 minute head start, but even with our best efforts it didn’t take more than an hour until we couldn’t (or didn’t want to) slow ourselves down from our 7 knot speeds and we went flying past them and into the lead. I trust our Explorer charts so I wasn’t worried, instead I tried to figure our ETA at the new anchorage, happy that it might be in the early afternoon. With all of the traveling we’d been doing so far in the island chain with nothing under 6 knots it seemed as if it was a guarantee.

The weather gods must have been laughing at us, because as soon as we snuck away from the cays and into the sound, the wind instantly dropped 10 knots with our speed diminishing about a knot and a half along with it. 4.5-5 knots now. Ok, I could handle that. We may not be dropping anchor at 2:00 anymore, but 4:00 would still be ok. Just as long as we didn’t get there near sunset. Our charts were very specific to stay on waypoints while entering since on either side of the mere 8 ft channel were shallow sandbars with crashing surf. It sounded too much like how our entrance into St. Augustine started and there was no way anyone wanted a repeat of that. Doing a few more calculations in my head I figured out that we had to maintain a minimum of 3.5 which is almost impossible for us not to keep that speed. The winds would have to be almost non-existent for us not to be able to make that. But non-existent they became. Dropping down to between 5-10 knots we spent all of our time trying to trim the sails to get everything out of them we could while barely carrying on at 2 knots. Even though Rode Trip was so far out of sight that I could no longer see their sails on the horizon, I gave them a call on the VHF to see if they were running into the same issue we were.

It turns out they were about 10 miles behind us and also struggling to keep their speed up. Stephanie mentioned that (gasp) they might turn their engine on soon just to make sure that they also made the channel entrance before dark. That sounded like a good idea to me, but Matt said we needed to wait, that we’d only turn on the engine if we absolutely had to. I think he was assuming or hoping the winds would fill in, but they never did. Finally with three hours before sunset and 12 miles separating us from Dollars Harbor I convinced him to turn it on. We pointed right into those east winds and plugged along, fighting the wind that decided to fill in as soon as the engine came on. There were storms now coming up on each side of us that we always narrowly missed as we watched shore now grow closer. The storms were now building up 30 knot winds on our nose though and kept slowing us down more and more. Even with the engine roaring at 3000 rpms we were only going three knots. 30 minutes before the sun was to set we made the waypoints to the channel and it looked like we would actually make it through in the fading and overcast sky.

Using three types of navigation, our paper charts, chartplotter, and touchpad, we slowly made our way through the channel and into the anchorage. Coming within 15 feet of the rocky shore to avoid a sandbar in the middle of the entrance, we could see that Brian and Stephanie had already beat us in and were sitting calmly, waiting for us to arrive. We dropped hook next to them in the most electric blue water I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it was lighting from the storm, but this water seemed to glow from below. Looking back at the entrance to the channel you could make out the sandbars, glowing almost white against the blue background. I don’t know how many times I say it, but it was honestly the most beautiful anchorage we’ve been to yet.

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Once More, With Feeling

Friday April 19, 2013


Dare I say it, I think Matt and I are becoming burnt out on deserted tropical islands. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the white sand beaches and crystal clear waters that I couldn’t stop yammering about getting to while back in St. Augustine, but we’re just ready for something…different. Like the lush mountains of Jamaica, our next intended country on this trip. Although being at the southern end of the Ragged Islands puts us much closer to Jamaica than many other spots in the Bahamas, we do have to get past that little country called Cuba before we can turn into the Windward Passage (the strip of water between Cuba and Haiti) and make it to those lush green mountains. I thought my geography was getting better and that we only needed to head south for a bit before turning west, and those easterly trades we’ve been getting every day would be the best possible winds for us (ok, besides a north wind), but it turns out I’m not quite as well educated as I thought it was. Because the south end of Cuba comes out in a southwest direction, meaning we have to actually head east for a bit before we can round it. Not easily done unless you want to spend a few extra days tacking just to make that ground.

Thanks to Stephanie for faithfully listening to Chris Parker at 6:30 every morning we’d get the weather update for the next five days and try to plan our escape from there. That escape did not look like it was going to happen from the Raggeds, or even slightly further north in the Jumentos. Oh no. According to our weather guri/tactician specialist Brian, the easiest way to start making tracks to Jamaica was to actually go back to exactly where we started from in Long Island. We’d have to go a little north and a little east getting back there, but once we were, a nice day or day and a half of NE winds should be enough to carry us down to the Windward Passage where we could turn west and not ever have to think about those east winds again. Stephanie must have been itching to get on her way as much as we were, because when Brian suggested that we break up the trip to Long Island into 4-5 separate days of traveling, basically stopping almost everywhere we had on the way down and possibly taking us a week to get back up to Long Island , we were both quick to jump on him and explain that Flamingo Cay was only 40 miles away and completely in reach to travel to in one day. After all those 10 mile trips from island to island that had only been keeping us out on the water for 2-3 hours, I think we were beginning to forget how many miles you could actually put on in one day.

The trip back up was more or less the same as it was on the way down, just continuous and with Matt biting his nails, waiting to see if the work we had just done to the port side would keep water from leaking in as the boat pounded through the waves on that side. It was once again a day without any engine power, that is, until we were tacking back into Two Palm Bay and trying to get ourselves in much closer this time to minimize any swell, and I did not follow through on a tack while the anchor was being dropped which left us in 6 ft of water and quickly drifting towards those jagged coral rocks that we had been climbing the previous week. The engine was quickly on and in reverse, saving us from disaster. By the time we were settled in, we were all a little tired, a little worn out, and there was no want for fishing or bonfires. A couple episodes of Law & Order SVU and I was ready for bed.

I was happy to be back in Flamingo Cay, I had enjoyed it so much the first time that it was now on my list of top 5 places in the world (can you believe that a certain spot in Michigan still holds my #1?), so I thought it would be as magical as the first time around. Not so much. I was in a funk that I just could not pull myself out of. It may have just been a sequence of not great events. Matt dropped our 3.3 hp engine in the water while trying to get in on the dinghy, and while he was able to dive the 10 ft down to tie a line to it and bring it back up, the next hour was spent drowning in fumes while we washed it in the cockpit and put enough grease on it to make sure that thing would never seize up in it’s life. Then it was off to Rode Trip go over that morning’s weather and work on more passage planning. If I thought we were bobbing around in the swells that had still managed to find us, Serendipity had nothing on Rode Trip, who’s mast swinging back and forth could make you sick just looking at it from land. The tall Tervis of Merlot that I had armed myself with to try and improve my mood didn’t do a whole lot to help as we moved violently back and forth while listening to reports that the winds were not only staying east, but right when we thought we’d make our jump down to the Windward Passage, were going to change course to SE, exactly where we needed to go. Which meant having to wait them out. Inside my mind, I was losing it. I needed civilization. Something to remind me that I was not a castaway, only left with the means to sail from one deserted island to the next. I needed people, and stores, and dare I say it, wifi. (Yes, that zen part of me left sometime while we were bashing into the waves on our way back up to Flamingo Cay) On the right day Duncan Town might have been enough to satisfy me, but I’m quickly learning that I’m a city girl who needs something big and loud and crowded to satisfy me at least every couple of weeks. Or at least the resemblance of something like that. (Sorry, rant now over)

To blow off some energy (or steam), we all went into shore once more. There was a quick bonfire on the beach, although when it’s in the middle of the day and scorchingly hot they become significantly less fun. As soon as the last tin can crumbling to ash the fire was out. Still wanting to get in one or two more good day of fishing since it’s not allowed in Jamaica, the guys went off with their gear while Stephanie and I hiked to a horseshoe bay on the other side of the island. It really was one of the most breathtaking beaches I had ever seen, the kind where any photo could instantly become a postcard, but it was only enough to lift me out of my funk for five minutes. We walked back to the other side of the island where the guys were to see if we could spot them and walked along the jagged coral shores between beaches before I admitted that I wanted to get back before the guys so that I could have a little ‘me’ time. Maybe that’s what’s making me crazy. I’m guessing two weeks without a moment to yourself would drive almost any person insane. Throwing on some Florence and the Machine and singing my lungs out, I felt instantly better. Phew. The chance of me setting the boat on fire in the night just went down dramatically.

Later on after we’d eaten dinner, we invited Brian and Stephanie over for a movie night. While I was waiting for them to come over and tossing some leftover scraps overboard for the remoras, I noticed another fish with a bright yellow tail also coming up for his piece. The winds were still high enough that they were causing ripples on the surface and we couldn’t make out exactly what it was, but I yelled for Matt to grab his pole all the same. By this time, Brian and Stephanie had dinghied over and were giving us tips as what to use for bait on the hook. After trying lobster, we put some lunch meat on and then heard the satisfying bzzzzzzz of the line, meaning something was on the hook. With a little bit of fight Matt was able to pull up what Brian told us was a jack, and what looked to be a mini-tuna to me. After quickly grabbing our Cruiser’s Handbook to Fishing to find out how to clean a big fish, we bled it and cleaned it, throwing our filets into a Ziploc bag after eating a few pieces of the raw meat just to see what it tasted like. A little tough, but not too bad. When that was done we got onto the important stuff, like watching Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels with dark & stormies in hand. A bad start to the day with a good ending, which always has to be better than the other way around.

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Duncan Town

Wednesday April 17, 2013


A week and a half after leaving Long Island, we finally made it to an island with civilization. Not counting our new French friends we encountered on Flamingo and Double Breasted Cays, but an actual town where people live and there are markets and restaurants, and can I even hope, a bar? Having gotten used to the calm anchorages at Double Breasted, we picked the only spot in the area that we thought would give them to us near Duncan Town. Ragged Island, on which the town is located, didn’t have anything for us but Hog Cay just north of it did. We were back to our old tricks of no engine use, and with four tacks just through the bay alone we tucked ourselves into a spot just before we got in shallow enough to run aground. Since we gave ourselves a chance to sleep in and didn’t leave early in the morning, even though we only had ten miles to travel, we got to Hog Cay late enough in the afternoon that we didn’t want to go rushing into town and decided to save it for the next day. That left us the rest of the afternoon for….projects.

Mine was, ugh I hate to even think about it, sewing. Matt’s was to go about trying to fix all the leaks that we’ve been getting on the boat lately. They never happen when it rains, only when we’re bashing into waves and only on the side that’s underwater. We’ve (he) determined that it’s the plugs on the toerail where the screws are, so now he has to drill them all out and re-bed the screws with more butile tape. Since the project I was forced into causes lots of frustration I decided to pull out a can of Lo Carb Monster I’d been saving since St. Augustine to help ease the pain. (Ever want to become my best friend? Buy me a can (or a case) of that stuff) Back in Long Island I had gotten the piece of fabric connecting our bimini and dodger done enough that it could zip on to each part, but then I was left with extra fabric flapping on the sides. It did it’s job giving full shade to the cockpit, but it looked terrible. So I spent the rest of my afternoon, pinning and unpinning fabric, marking it, and then taking it all down again just trying to get it so that it wasn’t too tight and wasn’t too lose. Have I mentioned that I despise sewing?

Those are the nights I actually pray for the sun to go down quickly so my work will be done for the day. I was rewarded though with an extremely calm anchorage on a nice balmy night for a chance to sit in the cockpit with a glass of wine in my hand and earbuds in my ear while getting some work done on the computer. In the morning we packed a cooler with lunch, and since we’re still really low on supplies and were hoping this place would help us stock up a little, today’s lunch was ham with shredded cheese wrapped into a flour tortilla. The crazy meals you come up with when you’re left with nothing else.. The ride into Duncan Town was going to be a little over a mile by dinghy, racing from one island to the other and then finding a channel that would bring us the rest of the way in. Brian led the way alone in his dinghy so he could get on plane, and then the rest of us went in our dinghy with the 9.9 hp, hoping to get on plane to. After mistaking the channel entrance and bottoming out in a very shallow (dry at low tide) bay, we found the government dinghy dock and walked up a hill to the main road in town. The streets looked mostly deserted even though it was late morning, and the only sound we could hear was a lost goat calf, looking for it’s mother.

Walking one block up we found the local grocery store, but also found that it was closed up. That was fine though since we didn’t want to be hauling groceries around with us all day and we decided to force ourselves to get to the other side of the island while it was still early so we could see the Eagle’s Nest. We’d all read about it as a restaurant that was built some years back, but there was something a little odd about it. The owner had taken a crashed plane and built it into the top of the restaurant. It was a long walk, but we set off under the hot sun on the freshly paved asphalt roads. Half way along our walk we were picked up by a few locals asking where we were going and if we needed a ride. That is what I love about this place, people are so friendly and willing to go out of their way to help you out. The four of us piled our way into the back of the air conditioned Yaris and where whisked off to the Eagle’s Nest where we got out to look around. Sure enough there was a plane situated right on top of a building. It would have been fun to grab a burger and a beer there, but the restaurant had closed down a few years earlier. We instead decided to wander around the grounds, and while doing so, found the owner and builder, Percy. He was a very interesting man and we spent close to an hour talking to him about his long list of accomplishments in life. Starting from almost nothing, he’s spent his whole life working day and night and is now a big player in the real estate game, owning property in Nassau, an island in the Exumas, and one in the Raggeds. He mentioned that he’s working to get the Eagle’s Nest back open in the next few years, turning the area into a mini-resort, and we all told him we’d definitely be back to check it out once it was up and running.

Taking the long walk back into town we did find the owner of the grocery store once again and stopped in to do a little stocking up. I didn’t know what to expect from a town with 100 residents, but it looked like this was not going to be a big provisioning place for us. In the end we only left with a dozen eggs, a few apples, and a can of mixed veggies. I hope the fishing is still good until we can get back to a real grocery store, since that with rice is about all we can live on right now. (Ok, maybe if I wanted to get really creative I could riffle through our cans and fix something else) The next big thing on our list for the day was to find internet service. Besides just the little bit I had been intermittently getting on the phone, I had no way to get posts up and couldn’t even get into my email account. We were all psyched when we heard there was a nice little gazebo with service from the government building next door. I was all ready to go with a bunch of posts I had been working on at night, only to find that we couldn’t get service there. We asked someone else who told us to go to the school house, so we trekked over there and had the same issue. ‘Try the police station’, they said, so we did. No internet there, and we found out that due to a bad storm a few weeks ago, all internet services were down. As much as I love my internet and staying in contact with people, I was actually very zen about it. ‘Oh well, guess everyone will have to wait just a little longer before they hear from me’.

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walking in Duncan Town


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