catching small baracuda

Ooooo Barracuda!

Tuesday April 15, 2014

catching baracuda

This morning finally signaled our departure from Bimini.  With east winds keeping us put for just about a full week now, I can’t say that we were disappointed to be sitting here while we were waiting.  This is a really great island and I’m sad we passed right by it last year.  But now it’s time to get a move on, and quickly too.  We have lots of friends already in the Bahamas a lot further south than we are, and we’d really like to be able to catch up with them.  It seems as if a lot of people are congregating in Georgetown Exumas right now, but we’d like to try to make to to Long Island once more for Easter if the winds will carry us down there fast enough.  It’s a long way to go in about five days, but should the winds be on our side, we should be able to put in a lot of miles each day.

The winds when we left were supposed to start of SE but then clock all the way south in the early afternoon, which we needed because with a goal of getting to the Berry Islands via the NW Channel, we needed to go in a southeast direction and did not want to motor into the winds all day.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to make the full 70 miles to Frazier’s Hog Cay, but hopes were that we could get within about 5-10 miles of the channel and anchor in the banks for the night.  The whole area that we’re passing through doesn’t have depths over 25 feet, and if the weather is settled, there’s no issue just dropping anchor right in the middle of it.  You probably don’t want to be right next to the channel and have your anchor light be mistaken for a buoy, or sit right on the path of the magenta line in case anyone is traveling through the night, but winds didn’t look like they were going to get over 15 knots and we weren’t worried about having a bumpy night.

Kim and Jereme on Laho left with us this morning to buddy up for the day and night, and as we exited north Bimini there were a parade of sails all going the same direction, every other boat waiting for the same window that we had.  The sail north out of the lee of Bimini was great, but just as predicted, rounding the North Rock and pointing ourselves at the Northwest channel, winds were almost on the nose.  The headsail had to come in and the engine went on.  Not quite how we wanted the day to go, but we’re just looking to put on miles at this point.  It feels like we spend all of our time now waiting around instead of actually going anywhere.

Laho sailing

Georgie resting under dodgerThe morning was absolutely beautiful, and it was another one of those days that we had to sit back and thinkabout how lucky we are for being able to live this lifestyle.  Our friends back home had just gotten to the office, snow might even still be on the ground (FYI, I could not have survived this past winter if I was back home), and here we were, sunshine and warm tropic waters in front of us.  A quick cup of coffee made from my AeroPress, and I was in absolute heaven.

Just as I was about to pop my head out of the companionway and tell Matt we might as well trail a line while we were moving to since this seemed like the perfect area to catch fish, I found out that he’d already rigged it up while I was below.  We each pulled out our e-readers and settled in for a long day of catching fish, since that’s usually what happens.  Never before have we had a bite on one of our lines while we’ve been trolling.

Imagine our surprise when not even an hour later we felt a tug on the line.  Assuming it was probably seaweed, since that seems to be the only thing our hooks normally grab on to, we pulled in the line to find out there was actually a fish on there!  Not quite sure what it was when we first reeled it in, I went to fetch our Cruisers Guide to Fishing where we quickly identified that it was a barracuda.  Handing Matt a set of gloves and needle nose pliers, he worked the hook out of the fish’s mouth and tossed it back in the water.  It wasn’t until we’d already let it go that I asked “Hey, aren’t those actually edible?”  Apparently they are, but Matt was worried about the possibility of ciguatera.  And with some friends having recently been affected by it and reading about their horror stories, we did not want to take any kind of chance with it.  The line was set once again, and we patiently waited for a large snapper to clamp on.

We did get two more catches during the day, but they were both barracuda.  WTH?  Did we suddenly become experts at catching them?  The second one that came along was huge and, as soon as Matt set about getting the hook out of it’s mouth, this thing began squirting blood like it was a prop on a movie set.  Within moments the whole back area of the cockpit looked like it belonged in a horror movie.  I wish I could have gotten a photo of what it looked like, but I’m not sure all of you would have wanted to see the blood.  I personally love that kind of stuff.  Everyone else?  I’ve heard not so much.

catching small baracuda

Laho sailing

big baracuda

 

Since most of the other boats that had left in the morning with us didn’t mind burning their fuel at a faster rate as they pushed on at 6-7 knots, our boats fell behind since we didn’t want to put too much pressure on the engine and have anything else go wrong.  Having talked about it earlier in the day, the plan was to make it as far as we could by 7 pm and drop anchor, starting again at day break.  We didn’t even come close to making the miles that we thought, still sitting back 20 miles from the Northwest Channel by the time 7 pm rolled around.  Not only that, but those winds that were supposed to clock around to the south decided to stay on our nose all day and then gust up in the evening.  What was supposed to be a calm night under clear skies and stars turned into the worst anchorage we’ve ever been in.

With nothing to block them from us, the waves built up to a nice chop and were tossing our boats back and forth, back and forth.  It was tolerable while making dinner and even while watching a movie, I’d put on a scopolamine patch to prepare for any kind of seasickness, but trying to sleep was almost impossible.  We both took sides of the salon, neither of us wanting to take the bucking bronco ride that was the v-berth.  Even then I feel like I should have had a lee cloth up on my side to keep me from falling out of bed.  Some of the waves weren’t too bad, it was kind of like being on a not too bad passage, but every couple of minutes one rogue wave would come and toss us on our side.  They always seemed to hit the port side where I was sleeping, so it only rolled Matt further into the nook of his bed while I was left bracing myself so I wouldn’t slide out.  Poor Kim and Jereme are probably completely deterred from sailing now, expecting every anchorage to be like this.

Laho anchored in banks

Having only collected about four hours of sleep by the time the sun came up, although we did purposefully wake ourselves up at 3 am to catch the lunar eclipse, the anchors were raised for more miles to be covered.  Deciding that they didn’t want to spend a second day sailing right into the wind, Laho vetoed going to Fraziers Hog Cay and opted for Great Harbor Cay to the north instead.  I don’t blame them.  If we didn’t have a schedule to keep, we probably would have followed them there.

Laho anchored at sunrise

dinghy dock in Bimini

The Bimini Road

Monday April 7, 2014

sunrise on the Gulf Stream

As with any late timed departure that we need to make for a passage, we can never seem to wait long enough for the alarm to actually go off before we get to anxious and want to get underway. Usually there is a forced after dinner nap which never actually happens, and instead of waiting for the clock to tick by extra minutes as we lie there awake, we figure it’s better just to get the show on the road. Luckily this has never afforded us a before sunrise approach yet.

Looking at the clock as it dragged to only ten o’clock, three hours before our intended departure time, we figured it was better to get in too early than too late. Even if we could manage the 48 miles from Ft. Lauderdale to Bimini in ten hours, it would still be light enough for us to make our way in the harbor. Raising the anchor as all the boats in the lake were silent and still around us, we navigated out the tricky entrance and into the ICW. Hailing our friendly bridge operator at the 17th St. Causeway, we slid under and were quickly on our way out the Port Everglades inlet with our bow pointed a few degrees south of Bimini to make up for the push of the Gulf Stream. After verifying our course of 120 degrees and sitting with Matt until we were out of range for the late night shipping traffic that was exiting with us, I took my leave to get a few hours of sleep.

17th St. Causeway at night

ICW at night

Since we had both basically been up all night my sleep was cut short after only an hour and a half when Matt’s head starting nodding off too many times and he needed to seek refuge in the comfort of the sette. Harnessing in and taking my spot in the cockpit, I was pointed out the numerous cruise ships that were transporting their hoards of tourist between the Bahamas and the States, but told that everything else looked fine. It wasn’t until Matt was (quickly) snoring below that I noticed that one thing wasn’t quite as I had hoped. We had obviously entered the Gulf Stream, and that 120 degrees we had been holding so perfectly was now faltering to a mere sixty degrees.

We had expected to be pushed a few miles north of where we actually wanted to be, and anticipating this, left ourselves plenty of time to make it there once day broke. This is why we had felt so comfortable leaving at such an early time in the night. Trying to send all the good vibes I could from myself and into the boat, I tried to mentally convince it to point further south. When this didn’t seem to work I took to reasoning with the stream itself, begging for it to end as soon as possible. Once we didn’t have the force against us we could head directly south if we needed to, I just hoped it would be sooner than later. By the time my three hour shift was up, none of my reasoning had done any good against the stubborn boat and the stubborn Gulf Stream. Having the opposite effect that I’d hoped, I actually seemed to infuriate both of them and they conspired to work against me, pushing us off course even more into the fifty degree range. I gave up and hoped the master of sail trim coming up to replace me could work his magic on the situation.

Gulf Stream Sunrise

Serendipity on the Gulf Stream

The next time I was up on deck I had not been greeted with the results I was hoping for. We weren’t doing quite as bad as when I had left, but we still weren’t able to point ourselves toward Bimini. This is the day the stream decided to take up the whole expanse between Florida and the Bahamas. When we had finally reached a point that we were at least in the same longitude of Bimini, we pointed the bow due South, and right into the wind, and motored on with the most pathetic progress I’d ever seen. I’ve become quite used to our downwind travels of at least five to six knots, and the fact that we weren’t even doing close to that was complete torture. And it seemed like no matter how far east we were, we could not escape the clutches of the stream. Even though our heading was pointing us toward the safe haven and peaceful night of slumber that is Bimini harbor, our course was slowly but surely sneaking in a southwest direction. Eventually I had enough and tacked the boat so that we were pointing, both with heading and course, directly into the middle of the island. I’d run us up on the beach if that’s what it took to escape the forces working against us.

This plan seemed to actually do the trick. We crashed through the building wind and waves, but we were finally heading in a direction we actually wanted to go. Normally the last two to three hours of a passage will drive me insane, seeing your destination right in front of you but knowing you’re still a few hours away from actually getting there, but this time I could do nothing but smile that we would actually make it there before dark. Coasting in from thousands of feet to only 40, I waited until we were just a few minutes from the channel entrance before waking Matt from his afternoon nap to have him help me navigate in.

Matching up the multiple sets of charts we have to make sure the buoys were correct and marked what they claimed to, I figured this last bit would be a piece of cake. I was just about to cross in front of the first green buoy and round into the channel when out of nowhere the engine cut out on us. By this point we weren’t actually in the channel yet, but depths had gotten down to fifteen feet and a very swift current was about to send me directly into green buoy number 1. While Matt was having a quick panic attack and a cuss storm a few feet ahead of me, I calculated my options. Try to start the engine again? Roll out the headsail? No, not enough time. Steer into the current to avoid the buoy but then put myself in the channel and possibly the shoals without total control?

Within ten seconds, of which felt like an eternity, the engine was purring again and I was able to narrowly avoid the buoy as I gunned us into the channel under full throttle, afraid to douse it any for fear it might shut off again. Shooting into the channel at seven knots, I was not able to regain my breath until we had gotten through the worst parts and were now passing by the marinas lining the entrance to the harbor. Confident that we could drop the anchor in this part of the channel if absolutely necessary I let myself pull back on the throttle while Matt brought down the main and we continued to cruise in at just over four knots now.

Still trying to avoid marinas since we like to be at anchor whenever possible, we noticed the first marked anchorage just past Bimini Big Game Club was a little too crowded. Resigning ourselves to the only other anchorage, a mile down the channel, I tried not to let myself get upset about the long dinghy ride in my near future to get us checked in, but only focused on the fact that in just a few minutes the anchor would be down and I could spend the rest of my day night fighting the elements. I don’t know if it was just bad luck that we received or if I should have heeded the warnings that it’s better to cross from Miami than Ft. Lauderdale, but I will give this one tip. Don’t ever cross from Ft. Lauderdale. Spend the extra day and get yourself down to No Name Harbor first. You’re likely to have a much better crossing than we did.

dinghy dock in Bimini

2.27.14

24 Hours to Coconut Grove

Thursday February 27, 2014

2.27.14

Monday June 10, 2013, Grand Cayman Island. That’s the last good snorkeling Matt and I have had on this trip. We’ve been to many other so called diver’s havens: the Bay Islands, Belize, Mexico; but each time we dropped ourselves below the surface we saw murky water and little or no coral. We’re going through a little bit of snorkler’s withdrawal at the moment. So when it was mentioned to us by a few people that there is a great place for snorkeling and diving in the Keys called John Pennecamp State Park, I was just a little excited to go. I’d been researching the area since Key West, but had yet to come up with an anchorage in or near the area, or even find out exactly where this good diving was if not buying tickets on a tour boat for them to take you there. I was all set with plans to have Matt just drop the hook anywhere in that area while we spent all day searching for this coral if necessary, but then I started to read a few accounts on how only boats with drafts of just 4’6” and under are allowed in there. We’re a little over that, and taking chances of bottoming out on coral is not on my list of things to do, so it looks like we won’t get our diving in until we’re back in the Bahamas. I am really starting to look forward to those gin clear waters again.

Since we now no longer had any reason to stop midway, we set our sights on heading straight from Marathon to Miami, about a 118 mile trip. Getting the anchor up with the sun at 7:00 we motored out into glass calm seas. Finally a passage where I can actually do things! Clean the galley, do work on my computer, read a book. But first, I had to get out of all these crab pots and out to deep water. Matt was quickly back to bed since there was nothing for him to do in the cockpit, and I guided us out of the banks and angled us toward the Gulf Stream. There were quite a few fishing boats to look out for, an obstacle that we’re not used to encountering, so my attention unfortunately had to be focused on the water instead of any other projects.

I took to watching the water and all the garbage that would gather in the seaweed patches we’d pass through. I’m beginning to realize there are way too many plastic bottles floating out at sea. One thing that was much more abundant than discarded oil jugs though, were man-o-war jellyfish. Although we’d been seeing them constantly since Belize, my new goal was to get a good shot of one on my camera. Sliding open the wooden panel in the salon as quietly as possible as not to wake Matt, I lifted my camera bag out and tiptoed back up the steps into the companionway. The game was now on. Time after time I’d watch one pass by our hull only to realize too late that I didn’t have enough time to grab my camera and capture it. Preparing myself the next time with camera in my hand I was like a Planet Earth videographer in the jungles of the Amazon, statue still with camera at my eye, waiting for any kind of movement.

When Matt roused himself out of bed just before noon he found me scampering from one side of the cockpit to the other, full of excitement each time I saw something that looked like a plastic water bottle floating out in the water. Finally I saw my shot coming. There was quite a large one just up ahead of us, and it looked like it would pass within only a few feet of our hull. Running up on deck I positioned myself with my camera and waited for it to come on our starboard side. This was going to be a close one. Too close in fact. Just as it was coming in view for me to get a good photo it disappeared under our hull. We ran the damn thing over. Sigh. Giving up on this little project for the moment I grabbed my last can of Monster out of the fridge, a gift I actually received from a friend back in the Cayman Islands, and resigned myself to the shade with a good book. Since I’ve been reading nothing but trash lately Matt suggested I try 1984. We’ll see how it turns out.

It wasn’t hard to tell when we’d found the Gulf Stream, our speed jumped up to 7 knots, and since I had been monitoring water temperature as well, the rise of 2 degrees was also a dead giveaway. With the sails now up and trimmed, we sat back as the waves rose to 2-3 feet, but still comfortable enough for me to enjoy the book. The rest of the afternoon flew by as we kept these positions, only momentarily moving to grab food or use the head.  As night fell and Matt was down taking a nap before his first watch began (how much can that boy sleep in a day?) I was busy dodging all the large ship traffic out in the Gulf Stream.  I swear, none of them decided to come out until it was night.  Trying to keep a position between three different ships passing up and down, I eventually passed only 1/3rd of a mile from one of them, something Matt woke up just in time to see and scold me for.  It was that or lose my sail trim.  I still say I chose wisely.

We pulled in to the Government Cut of Miami just as the sun was coming up, but with still a long way to go before reaching our destination at Dinner Key Marina.  Or more accurately, the channel outside of it.  We like to anchor, what can I say.  After having just come off a 9 hour watch to get there, I was exhausted by the time we finally dropped anchor.  Letting Matt put the boat back together since I told him to sleep while I had stayed on longer (he had NO idea where we were going, I didn’t trust him alone up there), I passed out in bed, not to get out of it for the rest of the day.

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 First jellyfish spotted!

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The jellyfish that was soon under our hull.

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This ship was 1 mile away, imagine it 2/3rds closer, at night!

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2.14.14

Speed, Squalls, Officers & Oculars: Our Crossing From Mexico to Florida

Friday February 14, 2014

2.14.14

If you asked us about this passage within the first 22 hours of leaving, and if it was a good idea to have gone with the forecast we did, I would have patted myself on the back while saying in a singsong voice “I am so smart. This is the best passage, Matt is silly for thinking we could have waited for a better one”. Because really, the first 20 or so hours truly were bliss. After eeking out of the harbor in Isla Mujeres at 4:30 in the afternoon, we rounded a few shoals and rocks on the north side before hoisting the sails and killing the engine. Straight away we were pushing forward at 6.5 knots on a close reach without much rocking under the hull. Matt took his spot under the dodger and I settled in to the leeward side behind the wheel, eyes fixed to the north where all the sport fishing boats were returning with their day’s catch. So far we had been able to start out the passage with neither of us feeling sick immediately upon departure, which I attribute to a well timed scopolamine patch on my neck earlier in the day, and suffering through many weeks in a less than calm harbor which made these small waves feel kind of like being at anchor.

We ate separate dinners of sticky buns and stale Oreos, and the only moment of panic for the day was when I literally jumped out of my seat yelling “Oh my god!!”, which made Matt assume that the boat must be falling apart, but in reality, was only due to the fact that I’d just seen two dolphins surface not more than ten feet off our aft quarter, seemingly out of nowhere. Unfortunately they did not make a repeat appearance. Georgie had taken up a spot on Matt’s lap, the only time now that she’ll willingly try and force herself as close to us as possible. During passage she’s like velcro on one of the two of us, not daring to get out of the protection of our arms, but as soon as that anchor is down, you can be assured that she can’t even remember who we are.

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 Protect me!!

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 Goodbye Isla!

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As night came upon us we fell into the Gulf Stream and began riding that baby to average speeds of 8 knots, all the while feeling the calmness as if we were motoring through a glass calm bay. I’m sure I’m overexagerating a little, but I don’t remember it feeling much worse than our slightly rocky harbor we’d just left.

To add to the smoothness in this first 22 hours, it didn’t even take me 5 minutes to fall asleep when I went below the first time, a feat that normally only takes place 20 minutes before Matt comes to wake me for my turn to go back out on watch. This time I was able to get up somewhat rested and happily occupied my time on shift by flipping through various albums we had finally set up to play through our stereo, and counting all the miles already ticking away behind us. Throughout my whole shift we kept that comfortable 8-8.5 knots, along with just the slightest rocking motion under our hull. Calculating that if we kept this pace up we’d actually get in by Thursday evening, which is a dangerous thing to do, getting one’s hopes up early in a passage that their time will be cut down, since it rarely ever works out that way.

At the time though, it seemed almost foolproof. It was 350 miles through the rhumb line, which due to wind direction, we wouldn’t be able to follow exactly but I assumed we’d only add an extra 20 miles max. 370 miles at 8 knots would put us there in 46.5 hours, add in the extra speed since we were really going closer to 9 knots now, add add a little cushion for when we probably slowed down to 7 at some point. But it sounds completely feasable, right? I mean, we’re riding the Gulf Stream, one of the most powerful currents in the world! Getting up for my second watch at 6 am I did the numbers again and found out that we’d already covered just under 100 miles in 13 hours. We were well on our way there.

I woke up to a light drizzle that went away just as quickly as it came, and left the sky with puffy clouds that lit up in bright pinks and oranges and even a partial rainbow between two of the clouds. What I didn’t quite catch on to at the time is that this was a red sky in morning; sailors take warning. And I should have. But the sky soon cleared into a brilliant blue and all I had to do was sit back and relax while enjoying my breakfast of 16 oz of Mexican Danone yogurt (best $1 purchase ever, by the way).

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Even though we were starting out with a passage that was much more comfortable than 80% of the ones that we’re normally on, we quickly fell back into the routine of sleep or waiting for sleep. I always think that on a calm passage I might start doing something like scrubbing the floors out of boredom, but apparently I was not quite that bored yet. Sneaking in one quick nap when Matt got up for breakfast, I settled into the cockpit with a book to read, something I hadn’t been able to do on many previous passages so I still consider that progress, while Matt went back to bed. Which at this time in the afternoon could probably be considered a nap. I wasn’t kidding when I said all we do is sleep or wait for the next opportunity to sleep.

This is where the pleasurable 20 hours of our passage ends. While getting into my book once more I noticed the skies were growing dark but didn’t pay it too much mind since we’d had the light drizzle in the morning and I expected more of the same this afternoon. Off in the distance there were some very dark clouds, and out of the distance a few rumbles of thunder were reaching me, but since all of this was downwind of us I still continued not to pay it much mind. At least it wasn’t heading at us. Or so I thought. The further I got into my book the closer the rumbles came, and as I scanned the horizon I only saw clear skies ahead, all of the nasty stuff supposedly passing behind us according to the current wind direction. I burried my nose back in my book, not ready to wake Matt just yet since that would mean a reef in the headsail and a reduction in speed. I still had my sights set on a Thursday evening arrival in Key West.

As the thunder, and now lightning, started closing in on us, I knew it was time to finally take action. I woke Matt up to let him know we were surrounded by thunderstorms while similtaniously taking our small electronics and sticking them inside the microwave and oven to protect them against a lightning strike should one happen. Our handheld GPS, sat phone, and e-readers were placed in the microwave; computers, wrapped in padding, were slid into the oven. Watching the wind speed jump up from the high teens to the mid to high 20’s, we kept going back and forth on if we should roll in the headsail. These speeds it could definitely handle, but should they get worse… Finally when we saw rain on the horizon we decided to roll it in ‘Just until this blows over’. Throwing the bow into the wind I tried with all my might to pull in the line while Matt controlled the jib line from smacking around. My arms were no match for this wind and we ended up switching places and getting it rolled in just before the blinding sheets of rain hit us.

Taking cover under the dodger we watched the rain pelt us from what seemed like every direction, and then out of nowhere, a huge gust of wind came along and almost knocked us on our side but did not seem to be letting up. Scrambling into the companionway with Matt, we watched the wind speed jump into the 40’s and keep rising. 48..53..62. Yes, we topped out at winds of over 60 knots, by far the highest we’ve ever seen on a passage. We were getting pounded by a squall, but the funny part was, there was no sense of urgency for our safety. We’d had a double reefed main up ever since we left Isla, we usually do if we’re ever on an overnight passage, and the waves were only 1-3 feet, so we were by no means getting tossed around in high seas. If fact, the wind was so strong that it was basically blowing the caps of the waves into their troughs, almost smoothing out the seas. Serendipity was handling this like a champ, and the only issue we had was when the wind caught the piece of fabric that connects our dodger to our bimini and began ripping it apart at the zipper. We were able to catch one end and hang on to it before it could completely come apart and blow away.

The 50-60 knot winds only lasted about 30 seconds before subsiding back down into the 30’s. During this ‘lull’ I jumped back into the cockpit to secure lines that hadn’t been properly tied off, and finished unzipping the fabric connector so we could quickly stow it away. We had to wait out a few more somewhat strong blows into the 40’s along with driving sheets of rain….and then it was gone. Just like in the movies, the clouds disappeared, the sun came out, and all wind seemed to have left with the storm. We were literally left there scratching our heads as we watched the windex spin in circles, clueless of which direction to now point our bow. It was a good 20 minutes before we had any semblance of wind come our way again, in which time we watched the boom slide from one side of the boat to the other, trying to catch the wind each time it clocked around the boat.

Our speed had regrettably cut down to just over five knots and I had to set my sights for a Friday morning arrival now. Tracking our progress, I marked our position at 24 hours from our departure and found that we’d still managed to make about180 miles in one day. Had we kept the same speed we were getting before the storm there would have been no question on if we’d hit the 200 mile mark, something Matt’s been aiming for ever since we started cruising and will keep striving for until the day he dies. That may require a different boat… We’d still put ourselves in a good position for one day out though, and I have a feeling that Serendipity will be hard pressed to get to those numbers again. The remaining hours of the day and into the wee morning hours of the next were spent dodging the thunderstorms that still had us boxed in, never coming closer, but always visible on the horizon.

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Marking our progress once more at the 48 hour mark I’d found out that we’d done just about 120 miles, having kept true to the 5 knots, and sometimes under, that we had slowed down to the previous afternoon. When the sun had gone down and the full moon lit a trail behind us, it was quite visible that not only had we fallen out of the Gulf Stream, but we were probably now trying to fight it’s counter current. 3.5 knots was a struggle to keep, and when even three knots wasn’t happening any more, I begged and pleaded with Matt to let us put the engine on and motor until we were out of the counter current…if that ever happened. Remember those numbers I kept running through my head? Anything under 3-3.5 knots would mean certain nighttime arrival, which neither of us wanted, and I’ll be damned if I was about to spend another night out at sea if we could avoid it with a solution as simple as turning on the engine. Matt decided to go with the ‘wait and see’ option, but an hour later while I was snuggling into bed, I heard the engine roar to life and smiled as I fell asleep.

The last day of our crossing today, we were struggling to keep those 3.5 knots under power. During the last hour of my morning sleep shift I could hear Matt on the radio, and then shortly later, rustling through cabinets for paperwork. I tried to ignore him the best I could until 10 minutes later he came shaking my shoulder, telling me to get up because the Coast Guard had just radioed him and they were sending a launch to come board us. The boat was a mess and we probably stunk to high hell, but at this point we were so tired and worn out that we didn’t even care. They wanted to board us during a passage, this is what they were going to get. Another 15 minutes later, after we had both found clean clothes to put on along with a healthy dose of deodorant, we were watching the well outfitted tender pull alongside our boat while depositing two officers on it.

Having already been through this procedure while traveling down the ICW we already knew everything they were going to ask for and better yet, this time I actually knew where all of it was. While Matt kept one of the officers busy while filling out paperwork, I took the other one below where I produced life vests, flares, access to the bilge (no Cubans hiding in there, I promise!), and even the sticker about trash that we had been written up for the last time. There was only a slight snafu when Matt refused to give out his SSN, not finding necessary after showing both a drivers license and a passport and was about to ‘take it up with the captain’ when the second officer told the paperwork guy to let it go. The only thing we did have an issue with was that our boat documentation was now two weeks expired, it’s replacement supposedly waiting for us in Key West along with all of our other goodies. Getting let off with a written warning, I think they wanted us to show the new one when we did arrive at our destination (to whom, I have no idea), and then they were gone just as quickly as they had come.

A few hours after they left we realized we probably should try and clean ourselves up a little, lest any new officials in Key West have to put up with our stench. The only problem was, it was freezing out! I’m not kidding, somewhere along the way we picked up some cold water under our hull, and the breeze running across it was enough to have kept us in our foulies for half the trip just to stay warm. So taking a cockpit shower in that? I wanted to search for alternative methods. Matt braved the cold and forced himself under the hose for 90 seconds while he quickly lathered and rinsed. I was not so brave. Or maybe I was just smarter. I decided for a sink shower instead. Sticking my head under the faucet I was able to give my hair the three washes it now needed after not having cleaned it since Isla, all without soaking my body or having chilly winds blow over me. The rest of the body was done with a washcloth and soon I was back under my layers, feeling warm and clean and glad that I didn’t have to suffer through the brutal cold outside. That was until my left eye started getting a little blurry.

It’s not uncommon to get a Georgie hair stuck in there or have one of my contacts be placed inside out and irritate my eye. But wait a second…I wasn’t wearing my contacts. After 15 minutes of not being able to figure out what was in my eye, I finally went down to a mirror to inspect. If you had looked at me at this point it must have appeared that I was licking toads or on some other kind of drug because my pupil was dialated to full size. And immediately I knew exactly what had happened. While sticking my head under the faucet, the water had run over my scopolamine patch and brought the medication right into my eye. Having experienced a case similar to this once before in Manhattan where I had touched the patch and then touched my eye, I knew I was in for 24 hours of blindness in that eye and an adversity to bright lights. Oh joy, they perfect way to end what started out as the best passage ever. I will now be singing to myself “I am not so smart, this passage kind of sucks, I’m glad it’s almost over”.

scopolamine in eye

Ice cold winds continued to blow across the water as we slowly puttered in to the southernmost point in the United States, and back in to the land of plenty with only two hours of daylight left. The ride was a little rougher on us than we expected, but if I had to look back on it I’d say it’s not even necessarily due to boxed in thunderstorms or squalls along the way, but the snails pace we had to suffer through after they were all finished. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that nothing kills a sailor’s mood more than cutting his pace in half. From envisioned Thursday evening arrivals, pushed back to a Friday morning arrival, now coming in late Friday afternoon, this 72 hours was a very necessary passage for us, but I’m so happy to be back in the land of day hopping.

Key West Harbor

cruise ship in Key West

lats 2

 

2.11.14 (1)

Let’s Get this Show on the Road

Tuesday February 11, 2014

2.11.14 (1)

Every single morning, one of the first things we do over a hot cup of coffee, is bring up Passage Weather to see if there are any opportunities coming up for us to make our escape. Usually once or twice a week we’ll get excited by the beginning day or two of a window projected for the next week, but as soon as the full forecast loads, we’ll find out that our window is only 24-36 hours instead of the 72-84 that we need. In a 7 day period, we can never seem to find more than 48 hours, usually not even grouped together, where the wind isn’t blowing from the north or the east, and usually pretty damn hard at some point.

While checking the weather this past Wednesday or Thursday we had seen a window come up for today, Tuesday, but given a few more days that opportunity was gone by the weekend. Strong east winds had filled in for what would be the last day of the trip, right at the point where we would have rounded Cuba and been heading through the Florida Straights toward Key West. We’d actually been hopeful that we’d come across a really good forecast with four days of good wind that would bring us all the way up to Miami, but that was absolutely in no way going to happen. So while I was boiling the water for coffee this morning and letting the week’s forecast upload, I was really surprised to see that our window was back. We had 3-4 days of wind on our side…if we left today.

Seeing this forecast pop back up we had two big questions to ask ourselves. The first and biggest one being: Do we trust this forecast? Normally we’d like to monitor something like this for a few days to make sure it’s stable and that it won’t change on us mid passage. This would now be the third time we’d seen this forecast change, going from favorable, to unfavoarable, and back again. Would it stay this way? Or would we bit hit with a nasty surprise in the Gulf of Mexico. One place you definitely do not want surprises. The other question was: Do we still have enough time to get ourselves out of here, hopefully no later than 3:00 today? Knowing that we might try to jump on a window as soon as it came up, we tried to prepare ourselves in the previous days so that if we did only have a day to get ourselves ready to leave, we could do it. There really isn’t much to do to get ourselves ready for a passage anyway. The normal things of getting everything stowed away so it doesn’t bash about the cabin while underway, run the jacklines so we’re not trying to do it underway, and getting the dinghy safely stowed and tied down on deck. In addition to that, for this passage we also needed to fill up our diesel jugs, make a quick run to the grocery store, and oh yeah, check out of the country.

With it being just past ten in the morning, it would give us five hours (if stretching it) to complete all the things above. For the first question, I turned to Matt. He turned right back to me and said “You’re the captain, you decide”. Well that wasn’t very helpful at all. I asked him what his thoughts on the weather window were. He replied that we could do it, but it would be easier if we had a better window. The one we were looking at had north winds on our fourth day, in case we didn’t make in in the three we were hoping, and there were also possible thunderstorms for some of the areas we were passing through. I decided to start checking more sources to see what they said. Wind finder looked about the same, but I wanted at least one more reputible source. And while wading through the many links and forecasts on NOAA, I found it. Winds were to be fairly low (we never travel with anything forecast over 20), waves were to be low, the only thing we had to watch out for were those possible thunderstorms. Although after sitting here now for almost five weeks while waiting for any kind of window that would carry us to Florida, I figured it was worth the risk. We were more than behind on our original schedule, and I didn’t want to still be sitting in this harbor come March.

Finally deciding on this course of action at 12:30, we really needed to get our butts moving to check everything off our list. First stop would be the port captain to begin check out procedures. Making a few copies of necessary documents, we rode the dinghy into town and walked into the office. Letting the man behind the counter know that we were bound for the States and needed a zarpe, he gave me a few pieces of paper to fill out and then let me know that I needed to get copies of them made. Getting directions to the nearest ‘Kinkos’, we searched through the back streets and found it on our second try. Bringing all these papers back to the Port Captain, he indicated he would need a little time to work on them and we should have a seat. Glancing at the clock that was now reading two, we started to worry that we wouldn’t get out of the harbor before nightfall. Even worse, while sitting there waiting we watched black clouds roll in from the south, threatening some nasty storms and making us second guess our decision to leave. Except, now that we were 90% checked out, we couldn’t really hang around for the next few days, or weeks, while waiting for another window to come up. Before we had time to even think about it more, the Port Captain called us back up and told us to bring the three sets of forms he had been working on to the Immigration office to get stamped, where one would stay there, one would be for us, and the last would need to be brought back to him. We rushed out of there hoping it wouldn’t take very long.

Luck was not on our side. What should have been a five minute process at Immigration turned into 45 minutes because it turns out that we didn’t have the receipt for the money paid to Immigration when initially checking in to Cozumel. I always keep all my papers together, and bring more than what’s needed each time I visit officials, so I knew that I hadn’t left it back on the boat. But I also remembered receiving this receipt back when we checked in. Which means one thing. Back when I handed all the papers to the Port Captain back in Cozumel to show him that I had gone through all the steps of checking in, he kept it along with all the other papers. The next forty minutes consisted of us trying to tell the current Immigration officer that we had paid while checking in, and the officer at the Port Captain took it along with everything else. She wasn’t convinced and was ready to have us pay the 560 peso fee all over again. After a little sweet talking on the part of Matt, she agreed to call the Immigration office in Cozumel to see if they had record of us checking in and paying the fee. We watched the clock as the minutes ticked by.

Without even really vocalizing if there was or was not record of us, she called us back to the desk where our papers from the Port Captain were handed back to us. I was about to begin asking questions, but Matt noticed the stamp on them and scopped them up before I could utter a word. Thanking the woman, we ran out the door before they could change their minds. Back at the Port Captain, we handed his copy to him and once again ran out the door. It was now just before 3:00 and we still had errands to do before we go.

Tearing through the aisles of the local market like contestants on Supermarket Sweep, we filled out basket up with junk food, muffins, cookies, and a few bottled yogurts. All things that did not need to be prepared and could quickly be grabbed from the chill box or pantry when we were ready to eat. As far as prepping meals for the passage, that was out the window. We just had to focus on having any kind of food aboard that would see us through the next three to four days. Back in the dinghy we took the long ride across the harbor and part way through the channel that leads to the lagoon to fill up two of our jerrycans with diesel. We had just filled up the tank in the morning with what had been in the jerrycans, so at least we knew we’d be leaving fully loaded.

It was four o’clock when we finally got back to Serendipity, but on the bright side, it literally had gotten brighter. The dark clouds that were hanging over us for a few hours were now gone, only having left a light sprinkle behind. Knowing that our family had no indication that we were leaving I quickly got a few messages out that a window had just come up, and they could expect to hear from us in a few days. It was also a chance to let my mom know that she could finally send that care package containing our new debit card to Key West, and it wouldn’t be shipped back to her because we weren’t there in time to receive it (good thing I didn’t tell her to send it back when we first started looking for a window). When I had completed that and Matt and the jacklines run, we worked together to get the dinghy up, and with engine running, could finally get the anchor up and start the 375 mile journey to Florida. I have a feeling though, as desperate as we were to get out of this place, we’re kind of going to miss it.

2.11.14 (2)

Cozumel port

Disney’s Gonna Run me Down

Monday December 23, 2012

Cozumel port

Our plan for sleep before departure failed miserably.  I don’t even know why we tried.  I should have just said eff it and stuck with the Pepsi Jolt I bought at the grocery store since at least that way I would have had a few more hours to play around on my computer while we had internet, and a sugary treat to boot.  Since we both happened to be up when the alarm would have gone off at 11:00, we decided not to postpone until midnight before leaving, originally giving us time to fully wake up and become alert, which we unfortunately still were at this point.  I was a little worried that if we left too early we might get to Isla before the sun rose, but as far as we knew, we’d have to be traveling at average speeds of almost eight knots to make that happen.  Not very likely.

Since we were still in the lee of the island for a few miles before rounding the north tip of Cozumel, we started with a double reefed main and decided to wait to see what conditions were really like before unfurling the headsail.  As we motored out to the depths separating the island from the mainland and dodging any late night ferries, there was an obvious and sudden change in the air temperature.  Rain was definitely on it’s way.  We brought the radar up to see what was in store for us, only to see massive pink blobs headed our way.  They were coming at us fast, but it also meant that they’d be passing by fast as well.  This time I heeded Matt’s advice and took shelter under the dodger through the storms so I didn’t soak, but probably only because I was going to bed shortly and didn’t want to sleep in wet underwear.  If it was daylight out though, I’m sure I would have kept my spot behind the wheel, eyes glued to the chart plotter, which rotates, getting soaked and telling myself “This is my place”.  What’s wrong with me?

Once we had finally ditched our shelter of the island, the winds picked up from 10 to 25, although we had been expecting this.  Turning off the engine we still cruised along at a swift 6.5 knots, and when I realized Matt was fine on his own up there, I retreated to get a few hours of sleep, my eyelids finally drooping.  While going below to strip out of my harness, sweats, and foul weather coat, a realization occurred to me.  I didn’t feel sick at all.  Normally this routine has to be done with the utmost precision to make it as quick as possible and keep me from running to the sink to get sick.  I usually throw myself on the bunk just before sickness hits, eventually sleeping it off until it’s time to wake for my next shift.  This time, we rocked back and forth and I slowly stripped off my gear, used the head, and calmly walked toward my inviting bed.  During my sleep I could hear Matt unfurl the headsail, which was nice because it felt like we had slowed down to about 3-4 knots.  I was confused when I heard it rolled back in a short while later, but since I know what he’s doing up there I never question anything unless I hear a loud bang.

Since Matt had gotten no sleep in the night and I didn’t go down until 1 am, he was only able to keep his eyes open until 3 before coming to wake me for a shift.  I asked him about the headsail and why he rolled it in, it felt like we were moving so slow.  Then he pointed to the chart plotter, which only under a double reefed main, showed us currently going 7 knots.  He said that with the headsail out we were doing over 9, and while it was quite comfortable, we would have arrived in Isla way too early.  Everything was looking great on the course we were on, all I had to do was fall off the wind a little once we got to a certain point and then bring in the main sheet to compensate.  He went down below, and I sunk into my sport-a-seat, my normal immobile position after just having gotten queasy again from now putting on my gear.  Except, I felt fine.  Maybe a little tired, sure, but not sick.  I didn’t get it, I hadn’t used any patch, taken a pill, used a pressure band, or put in an ear plug.  I didn’t know why I was feeling so fine, but decided to just enjoy the ride.

Throughout my shift I snacked on Cheetos that we picked up in Cozumel, sipped on Pepsi, and just generally enjoyed being on passage without feeling the least bit sick for once.  When the turn came I subtracted the ten degrees and took a spin on the winch to get the main in.  There was only one issue during my shift, where one of the Disney cruise ship seemed to make it their business to want to run me down.  I didn’t get it, we were basically hugging the shore, yet the AIS was saying they were going to come within less than a mile of me. Of the five cruise ships headed down to Cozumel, they were the only ones that didn’t have a distance of at least five miles from us.  I’d subtract a few more degrees, gain some distance, and then lose it because they changed course as well.  I should have just called them up on VHF to see who on board had gone off their meds, but I finally got us more than a mile apart and took the red light of my headlamp to illuminate our sail in the dark.  It seemed to do the trick of finally keeping them away, but the light shinning through our deadlights woke Matt up a little bit earlier than I was going to let him sleep.

Since he was regrettably awake now I tried to sneak down the stairs to sleep again, but was quickly called back up.  We were getting close enough to Isla now that he wanted a second constant pair of eyes deciphering the million white buoys that lay out before us.  We couldn’t match them all up with what was showing on our chart plotter, and only two whites were showing on our paper charts.  Eventually we got ourselves sorted out, and with the sun starting to now rise, we could make out the island with it’s jagged cliffs to the south end, and the visual markers on our paper charts.  As we crossed the space of water between Isla Mujeres and Cancun, Matt fell back into a slumber out in the cockpit while I made sure to keep all red buoys on our starboard side.  Startling him awake as I turned on the engine to enter the harbor, we passed by the beaches and the few people on them who were either very early risers, or very late partiers.

Back when we were still in Guatemala and our friends on Skebenga had already made it up to Isla to pick up family members before bringing them down to Belize, we’d received an email from Elmari, detailing a good anchorage in the lagoon here, as well as the passwords to a marina’s wifi network in there.  The two of us were ready to head directly into the lagoon this morning, instead of sitting with the fifteen or so other boats in the main harbor.  Just as we were debating which spot between the two we should settle in, we saw a familiar dingy racing our way.  It was Luki and Elmari!  They were just on their way back to Skebenga after an early morning run and gave us a quick low down on the place.  They were currently in the harbor, and told us we should anchor just behind them.  While they shuttled off to their boat we quickly put our anchor down where they told us, and put Serendipity back in her regular at-anchor state.

Even though we were each running on two hours of sleep at this point, we couldn’t let the opportunity go by to do some proper catching up with our friends.  Getting the dinghy in the water, we ferried over the short distance to see what they had been up to the past few weeks since leaving us behind at Tortugal.  Climbing on board in a sleepless stupor, we gave big hugs and rehashed our last few weeks, glad to finally be among friends again.

dinghy landing in Cozumel

bay in Cozumel

anchorage in Cozumel

*All photos above are of Cozumel

sunset in Mexico

Racing Almost Skebenga

Friday December 20, 2013

beans, Cay Caulker, Belize

This photo has nothing to do with anything, I’m just running out of photos.

 

Yesterday finally gave us the opportunity to leave Cay Caulker and make our move to Mexico. Conditions out the window still looked slightly rough, but I was tired of sitting in one spot. It had finally gotten to the point that I would have taken an uncomfortable passage (read: not dangerous, just uncomfortable), over sitting still any longer. Plus we had finally gotten an email communication from Skebenga that they were leaving that day as well to head up to Cozumel. There was a little bit of security in knowing that we’d have a buddy boat out there with us. Now our only task was getting Serendipity out of the San Pedro cut at Ambergris Cay, a tricky little thing that we’d heard cautionary tales of from people who’d entered it coming down from Mexico. It has low lying reefs on both sides, a fun little turn in the middle, and apparently is a bitch to try and navigate in anything but calm seas.

Coming up on San Pedro I scanned the anchorage with my binoculars, searching for any sign of Skebenga. I didn’t see their steel hulled boat sitting with all the others, but I did see a few other boats traveling out on the water. One looked like it was headed toward the cut we were about to enter, so once more, I whipped out the binoculars in that direction. From what I could see, this boat had a white hull, dark blue sail covers, and double headsails, just like Skebenga. Handing over the binoculars to Matt, he took a look as well, but didn’t think it was them. We let the debate continue for the next 30 minutes as we watched this other boat, Almost Skebenga, we finally decided on, as they traversed the cut. All morning we had been debating if we should try it ourselves or not, how the weather would affect it, possibly make it harder. Once it was clear that Almost Skebenga was going for it, we watched with desperate intent.

Passing through the boundary of relatively calm water behind the reef, we stared on as they bobbed up and down like a teeter totter through the rough waves coming in, me becoming more panicked each minute. Should we save this for another day? Possibly when the waters were dead calm? But who knew when that day would be. Even though it was a bumpy ride, Almost Skebenga had made it out. If they could do it, so could we. Gathering our wits and triple checking the waypoints we plugged in to the chart plotter, we were ready to attempt this hair raising cut. It was decided that I should be put at the bow to try and guide us through any coral that we might accidentally get acquainted with, so strapping on a harness I clipped on the lifelines and made my way up front.

Before I had gotten up there, when we were back in the cockpit deciding on which person should take what role, I asked Matt, “So, say we should crash…who’s fault would it be? The helmsman or the bowman?” I was trying to save my skin of any burden placed on my shoulders. I did not get the answer I was hoping for. “If any accident happens, it’s the captain’s fault”. “I know maritime law, but I’m saying, in this boat, who would be to blame, you or me?” “The captain.” “So you’re trying to tell me that no matter what, if we crash this boat today, whether I’m at the helm or the bow, it’s going to be all my fault?” “Yup”. And with those words of encouragement I moved myself up front, satisfied by the fact that at least I wouldn’t have the guilt of miscalculating any turns should our hull puncture something hard that day.

It turns out my position at the bow was hardly doing anything for us, the water was choppy enough that I couldn’t clearly see through it, plus anything more than five feet out from the boat was basically just one large mirror, reflecting the clouds on it’s surface. I hoped the waypoints we picked up online were trustworthy. Matt seemed to be doing a good job navigating with them though, and soon we were in line with a large yellow buoy that marks the turn out of the cut. By this point we were also starting to turn into a teeter totter, our protection from the reef gone, and 5-6 foot waves rolling in at us. Normally I’d think this kind of thing would scare the crap out of me, but being right up where the action was turned out to be like a thrilling amusement park ride. Remember these waves from Stocking Island? Picture me standing at the bow going through them. We would shoot up into the air, and then the floor would come out from under us and we’d come crashing back down, a spray of warm sea water crashing over the deck.

As I held on to the head sail with both hands, I had to contain myself from whooping with joy at the sheer exhilaration of it, for fear of scaring Matt into thinking something was wrong. It was a short lived adventure though as, even without screams of delight, he thought I was a risk to myself being up there in those conditions. “JESSICA!!”, I heard a scream from the cockpit, “Get back here now!!!”. Prying myself away and crouching down to lower my center of gravity, I made my way back to the cockpit, my ride getting cut short before it was even finished.

Cay Caulker, Belize

restaurant, Cay Caulker, Belize

 We’d made it safely through the cut, and before we knew it, depths were dropping back into the hundreds of feet before our sounder couldn’t even read them anymore. Sails were raised and the engine was cut, ready to start our 200 miles to Isla Mujeres. If we averaged 4-5 knots, we’d be there just about 48 hours. Our start wasn’t great though, the winds coming directly out of the NE direction we needed to head. Tacking to the SE just to get some distance from shore, we kept an eye on Almost Skebenga, whom was headed the same direction, just a few miles ahead of us. Just like racing nameless boat on Lago Izabal, we followed all the same tacks until we realized one really long tack to the SE was needed to put us on a decent course to keeping us from having to do any tacks in the dark if we could help it. Almost Skebenga shot north and out of our sight as we made our way further out to sea.

I wouldn’t call conditions rough, but they were definitely uncomfortable enough that for the first time, both of us were feeling sick. I had put on a scopalmine patch before leaving, and was even attempting the ‘ear plug in one ear’ trick that was supposed to stave off seasickness, but the only thing it did was make me deaf to the sounds Matt was constantly trying to point out. We had a late lunch of cheesy onion bread and a dinner of Pop Tarts. It was enough effort just for one of us to make it down the companionway to grab something edible from the cupboards, and I was thankful I took 20 minutes that morning to stockpile snacks and canned foods in an easy access area. As the sun was setting we caught sight of Almost Skebenga again in the distance, and it looked like they were going to have to make another tack, while us now on a comfortable course, would totally catch them and kick their ass if they had to take time and run away from the shore.

Even though we were working with a double reefed main plus the headsail, and winds were steady around 20-25 knots, we must have had a pretty hefty current on our side since we were keeping a steady pace of 6.5-7 knots. When darkness grew, Matt decided to catch up on sleep with a short nap, and I kept watch, where an unexpected moon rise made me think that we were about to have a run in with a tanker, a sudden orange light on our port side that hadn’t been there moments before. I also watched us catch up to and pass Almost Skebenga as, just as predicted, they had to tack further away from shore.  When it was my turn to go down I had a surprisingly calm slumber, falling asleep almost immediately and staying that way.  This usually doesn’t happen until my second sleep shift where I pass out from sheer exhaustion.  Matt had somehow found a way to keep the boat from rocking violently back and forth as she normally does, and I was able to nestle into the crook of the boat.  Until I felt water dribbling down my back, but I was too tired to care at that point.

Today was met with the same kind of attitude from both of us as yesterday.  Neither of us was feeling great, and we wanted this passage to be over as quick as possible.  We tried to distract ourselves with talk about how a previous cruising couple just traded in their boat for a RV, and how that seemed to be the right way to go.  The two of us are constantly talking about the countries we’d like to visit and all the things we’d like to see inland, but how limiting it is trying to get there.  Putting the boat in a marina, finding transportation, getting lodging.  Yes, a RV is not a bad idea at all.  But we made a commitment to Serendipity, so we will stick with her.  Plus, you have to sometimes disregard the things you say about your contempt for your boat while on passage.  You’re not thinking clearly.

As the afternoon wore on and we were very sick of traveling and could think of nothing better than a anchorage to stop in, get a good night’s sleep, and regroup ourselves, we talked about our previous plans to go to Cozumel.  Yes, this would mean getting there in the dark, sometime between 7 and 9, but just like Great Inagua and Grand Cayman, there are no channels leading into a harbor.  Just a certain spot on the west side of the island used as a designated anchorage.  All we had to do was sail or motor up and drop anchor.  We also rationalized that 1.  As a cruise ship port, it would probably be much easier to check into the country there since usually they keep all the officials in one place.  As was the case in Nassau and Grand Cayman.  2.  Did we really only want to have one stop in Mexico?  Why not see at least two places, even if one of them might be extremely touristy.

Changing our course to come up on the west side of Cozumel instead of passing by it’s eastern side, moods instantly lifted.  Sure, if we just sucked it up we’d have been in Isla first thing in the morning, but again, this never sounds as intriguing when you’re on passage.  Sailing into the lee of the island just after 7, we lost all wind and our speed diminished to barely 5 knots.  Normally something we’d be quite happy to take, but after keeping a steady 7-8 knots all day (yup, that current just kept getting stronger), it felt like we were crawling along.  It was just past 9 when we made it into the anchorage, the bright lights from shore blinding our virgin eyes.  There were a few tense minutes while coming in where Matt was picking up three images on radar, but we couldn’t see them in the water.  It turns out they were boats at anchor, it’s just that none of them decided to have any kind of anchor light on.  Even though we were only a few hundred feet from a brightly lit shore, we couldn’t make them out until we were right upon them.  I know it’s not illegal to keep themselves from being lit in a marked anchorage, but this is seriously one of my biggest pet peeves.  It just seems like you’d want to make sure that you can be seen by any traveling vessels out there.

I was too tired to be any more upset than a scoff at them though, and we hurriedly put the boat back together so we could rest.  I forced myself awake long enough to make sandwiches for dinner before passing out in a wet bet with wet sheets.  Apparently we have a few leaks that this last passage has now brought to our attention, and everything on the port side of the boat is soaked.  Including our bed and every bit of clean laundry.  That doesn’t happen on RVs, right?  Can anyone tell me where I can sign up for one of those?

sunset in Mexico

Private island in Belize

Schizophrenic Winds

Saturday December 7, 2013

Private island in Belize

It took two days of waiting around at Middle Long Cay in Belize, waiting for that perfect opportunity to bring the anchor up and motor the three miles out to Rendezvous Cay for that crowning Mesoamerican Barrier Reef snorkeling, but the day still never came. Winds have been kind of nasty around here, and while we sit protected behind our little shelter of mangroves, it’s not hard to see that just around the corner are small white caps and disturbed water. We reasoned that even if we did bring the boat around, the visibility would probably be poor anyway and our day of snorkeling would not be so grand after all. Which is ok. It’s not like we’re leaving Belize tomorrow, and we’re only headed further north where the water can only get cleaner and crisper. We will not leave this country without a successful snorkeling trip!

The goal set in front of us today was to make the 20 or so miles north to St. George’s Cay, via the Eastern Channel and out to open waters where we would re-enter the cays though a cut in the reef. Instead of taking our 1996’s paper chart’s version of the magenta line, we reasoned that we should have no problem getting through the Twelve Foot Banks where we could cut right in the middle of the channel, instead of adding 10 miles taking the roundabout way. Plus going that route might mean extra maneuvering, and Matt’s still on engine shut down mode (as much as possible anyway) until we can get to Mexico where we know if the thing really breaks down on us we should be closer to finding spares. Plus we’re not sure where we’d be able to purchase extra fuel since we’re trying to stay at as many isolated islands as possible. Let’s just say that we don’t want any officials knocking on our hull checking for cruising permits.

Getting across the Twelve Foot Banks on sail power alone was harder said than done since the wind seemed to be just a few degrees close enough to our nose in the direction we wanted to head, which left us tacking all over the banks and probably adding just a few miles. When we finally had the option to turn east and point ourselves toward the channel and the exit, a large tanker was in there following the swirly path out, and Matt wanted to make sure we had no chance of intersecting with it. Holding our course a little longer than what was necessary we finally made the turn, found the red and green markers, and entered the 120 foot depths of the channel.

The same NE winds we were trying to avoid in the Twelve Foot Banks were also dictacting our travel pattern out in the Caribbean Sea. Instead of just clearing the picturesque private island filled with palm trees and pointing our bow in the direction we wanted to head, we had to motorsail a mile out from shore before we could head up. Once we got on this path, the sails were trimmed, the engine was cut, and we were flying along at 6.5 five knots in clear Kool-aid blue waters. Sitting on the combing and resting my back on the lifelines, I smiled blissfully, sun resting on my shoulders, thinking that we might be able to make it to our destination in just a little over two hours. This feeling lasted about 30 minutes.

Directly to the NE were some mounting storm clouds. I don’t pretend that I’m an expert on weather, but it’s my job on board to try and read it as best as possible, and when Matt made the remark that those clouds were going to come nowhere near us, I corrected him that, no, they’re actually headed directly for us. For a little while we stayed as we were, the sky growing darker and winds building to the upper 20’s. I told Matt I still felt comfortable as we were, as long as things didn’t get worse. But unfortunately, wishing for something does not mean it is going to happen. Prepping for the unavoidable, we put two reefs in the main and began the job of putting up the smaller headsail. There were only a few minor f#ck ups with quick remedies while changing out the sails, and I’m still so happy we tried it for the first time on Lago Izabal.

Since the original headsail needed to be rolled in while we prepped the new one, we had lost almost all forward drive and were now drifting west back towards shore and that pesky barrier reef. Once more we had to get ourselves east, with a lot of south thrown in there as well, almost losing all the ground that we had covered in the last hour. When we were finally able to adjust back to our original course, the sheets of rain started in on us. Because I’m stubborn, and for other reasons still unbeknownst even to myself, I held my position at the stern instead of hiding under the protection of the dodger. The showers passed quickly enough, and wind gusts only hiked up to the mid 30’s. Speeds were incredibly diminished though, winds becoming schizophrenic and dropping down to 15 before jumping up to 25, and we weren’t even sure we’d make it in before sunset anymore.  We wanted to change out the headsail once again, but another set of dark clouds in the distance told us we should just bear with the slow going for the moment.

With a few more rain showers and gusts, we eventually made it to the St. George cut around 3:30 in the afternoon. Still plenty of daylight to get ourselves inside and anchored. The entrance was incredibly easy and we couldn’t even make out where any of the barrier reef was where we passed through, which is part of the reason we chose this anchorage. Wide cuts are always favorable in our opinion, the last thing I want our hull bashing into is hard coral.  Plus, with the wind once more building to 30 knots, we were now getting some pretty big swells pushing us from behind, which could have made a smaller cut very tricky. Once again deviating from the magenta line, on our actual chart plotter this time, we spent the next 30 minute watching the sun slowly make it’s way out if it’s shell of clouds, and the swell that had been directly behind us fade with every few hundred feet in.

Dropping the hook in 7 feet of cloudy water, we went through the steps of after-passage clean up, somehow tired to the bone.  When the last line was coiled, and winch cover placed on, I had just enough energy to drag up one of our sport-a-seats from the depths of our storage before immediately falling asleep on it in the cockpit, ready for a late afternoon nap.

sunset in Belize 1

sunset in Belize 2

Entering fishing camp

Outer Cays of Belize

Thursday December 5, 2013

*So, I kind of forgot to take photos here and had to borrow some from other cruisers.

Entering fishing camp

Approach to Colson Cays
(Photo courtesy of Sailing Bailando)

 

To my surprise, Serendipity picked up some speed as I was sleeping, and now we were gliding through the inner channel at a steady 5.5 knots. During my slumber I had heard Matt try and open the headsail, hoping that the engine would not be needed, but the wind was still too close on our nose and we had to continue motorsailing with the main. My spirits instantly lifted when I heard the engine come back to life since I am not a fan of sailing through channels at night. Alone. On my first day back to sailing in 5 months. There were a few times in my sleep shift that I was also called up to lend an eye with my navigation skills.

Throughout the channel were markers of the channel as well as various buoys marking shoals and cays. As I rubbed my blurry eyes and looked at the chartplotter while Matt tried to place a green buoy that he could not see on there, I turned to look for the source of light. “Do you see that green one between the two reds?”, Matt asked me. “No, I see two reds with a white in the middle though.” “I don’t know how you can’t see it, they’re right there about a mile away from us!” I looked at it again. And again and again to make sure I was seeing it right. Then I turned to Matt and shouted “It’s not green, it’s white! Like really, really white!”. Poor guy. His somewhat colorblindness was cute back in our home when he thought our living room was painted light green, and not the oatmeal it actually was, but out on the water it’s a little scary. I matched the white buoy with the one it was representing on the chartplotter and went back to sleep. Luckily he saw a real green buoy shortly after and is now able to tell the difference again.

My next shift up was full of nothing, and that’s just the way I like it. Calm seas, starry skies, and good music playing through our cockpit speakers. By the time my shift was ending at 4:30 am, we were already passing the Tabacco Cays which meant we would not be stopping there unless we wanted to circle that area for the next two hours. Which I did not. I found something else about 15 miles further up and told Matt of our new destination as I went back to bed. Where I heard that Matt figured out our course had taken us off the wind enough that he now actually could let out all the sails and cut the engine. Oh well, at least I wouldn’t have to touch them. My next sleep shift would take us all the way to anchor.

The next time I was woken up we were just about to make our entry into the Colson Cays. It was a pretty straightforward entry with only a few coral heads near the entrance, so I was put at the bow with my polarized sunglasses to keep a lookout for them. Which of course did nothing for us since the sun was so low in the sky and I couldn’t make out anything more than three feet past our bow. There were no issues though, and moments later we were dropping our hook in 12 feet of clear green water. After we went through the steps of putting the boat back together we happily passed out in the v-berth for the next three hours.

Getting up in the late morning we tackled a few chores like trying to get the bottom of the dinghy from a nice espresso color to a lightly coffee stained color. Then came the most important part of the day, trying to find a good snorkeling patch. All of our guides showed a spot for excellent snorkeling just out from the northernmost Colson Cay. Searching through the depths of our lazarette for items that we hadn’t used in almost six months, such as our snorkel gear and the dinghy anchor, we packed everything up and set off for clear waters full of fish. Who knows where those were hiding, because we did not find them here. Dropping in the anchor that looked like it might have coral around in, we fell into the water only to find nothing but eel grass.

Swimming for a few hundred feet, that’s all we continued to find. Pulling ourselves back into the dinghy we continued further up the little island made of mangroves. No coral patches popped up, but we did cross over the blue hole that was marked on our charts. As many times as I tell myself that taking a dinghy or swimming over the top of one means it’s going to suck you into it’s depths, they always give me an uneasy feeling in my stomach when we pass over one. Just for something to do, we anchored the dinghy outside of the hole and decided to swim around it’s outskirts. I was hoping for the same kind of clarity and fish that we came across when we encountered blue holes in the Bahamas, but this one was a little bit of a let down. Visibility was slightly murky and again, all we could see was eel grass and one or two chameleon fish that blended in with their surroundings. Dejected, we got back in the dinghy and puttered back to Serendipity.

Still determined to find good snorkeling, we powered up the chartplotter so we could grab the coordinates of the so called excellent coral in the area. Entering them into a little handheld GPS, we set off once more. Tracking down the exact spot we had marked for ourselves we once again lowered the anchor and slipped into the water. And once again there was nothing. Visibility was even worse out here and the only thing we seemed to find was a ton of those little jellyfish without the tendrils. Circling the whole parimiter we saw nothing, but I think I did get a few small stings from those little jellyfish. Nothing very painful, just a little prickling that stayed with me for the next 30 minutes.

Back at Serendipity we went about the rest of our chores, Matt tightening our stays and me trying to make bread, hamburger buns actually, with only a lingering memory of the recipe in my head. As the afternoon wore on we relaxed in the cockpit, and good book in one hand and a Red Stripe in the other. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset while watching that big orange ball fade behind the mountainous backdrop of mainland Belize.

Today we moved ourselves 10 miles up the coast in hopes to find good snorkeling at a little place called Rendevoux Cay. It sits right next to the barrier reef, and our charts show it as a good day anchorage while you’re exploring the water, but shelter overnight should take place at another cay three miles away. We hauled anchor mid morning, falling back into the routine of the Bahamas where we were doing everything under sail power as to keep ourselves from using the engine more than necessary. It came up with ease, and the help of our windless, soon we were sailing back out into the channel. Winds were strong and steady, holding at 20 knots with gusts to 25. We pressed forward at 5 knots with only a double reefed main, and watched as Georgie gave us the death glare while trying to squeeze herself into her little hiding spot under the combing.

Watching the wind steadily build around us as the very tips of waves frothed into white, we both knew that snorkeling was now a no-go for the day. Conditions didn’t appear calm enough to make the tricky pass with Serendipity through the coral heads that circled Rendevous Cay, and neither of us were too keen on taking the dinghy for a 6 mile round trip in this weather. Falling into our back up plan we set course directly for the overnight anchorage again, hoping that tomorrow will bring us good enough weather to finally check out the Mesoamerican Reef.

 

Colson blue hole

Blue hole at Colson Cays
(Photo courtesy of Sail Winterlude)

Reef at Colson Cay

We saw one starfish like this. It was the highlight of our snorkeling.
(Photo courtesy of Wand’rin Star)

boat at Colson Cay

The cays here are all made up of mangroves. No beaches to stroll.
(Photo courtesy of MokaKat Sailing)

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Goodbye Guatemala

Tuesday December 3, 2013

12.3.13 (1)

This morning we were up with the sun, only to find out that most of the other boats in the bay had already gotten out before us. I swear, I didn’t even think I was sleeping that hard, but I heard no engines running or anchors being weighed. Our only hope is they don’t get to the agent’s office in Livingston before us and clog up his day with paperwork, forcing our departure back until late afternoon. It didn’t matter to me though. Once again, we were moving. And the best part of the Rio was yet to come. The rocky cliffs, the immobilizing thick jungle, and being deposited into the Amatique Bay, leading out the the Gulf of Honduras and Caribbean Sea. We were about to be set free once more.

Reaching the town of Livingston about half past eight in the morning, we dropped the anchor off to the side from the flow of traffic and put the dinghy down to get ourselves to shore. None of the other boats from last nights anchorage were resting in the same place, which means they must had checked out previously, going back up the river for the night and heading back down to catch this mornings high tide. We had contemplated that as well, but since we want to arrive at our destination tomorrow morning, a mid afternoon low tide departure will suit us just fine. We tentatively powered the dinghy up toward shore, scanning the horizon between all the shouting children that were pointing for a spot to go, until we saw the older Rastafarian man that had kept an eye on our dink when we first arrived here, and mentally reminded ourselves to save at least $5 before we spent the rest of our Guatemalan cash so we could tip him when we left.

Rounding the somewhat familiar streets, we walked up the steps to the agent’s office and found out that even though it wasn’t quite 9 am yet, the door was open. Raul, the agent we were used to working with, wasn’t there, but in his seat was a younger man of around 15-20. Maybe his son or a nephew? Just as friendly and outgoing as Raul though, this new guy mentioned Raul would be in shortly and that he could get our paperwork started in the meantime. Going over the fees, he told us what we could expect to pay to check out, and that we should be back in an hour to collect our zarpe. Other than that, we were free to roam the town.

I had been able to sneak my laptop in my bag with me, along with all the necessary boat papers that had to make their way in, and after walking through a few of the backstreets and realizing we didn’t have a need (or want really) for any of the goodies in the thrift shops on the main street, we decided to stop for breakfast at a brightly blue colored restaurant, taking seats in the shade on a covered patio. Proud of myself for speaking only in Spanish, I was able to order a coffee along with some delicious sounding coconut bread and jam I keep hearing about, and procure the password to their wifi signal. While I was doing last minute Facebook updates and assuring both our parents that they we may be out of internet range for the next week and they should not alert the authorities about us if we’re not heard from in the next two days, Matt did some last checks on his email and the weather.

Before we knew it, our hour was up and we were back in Raul’s office, shaking his hand and getting our zarpe, the whole process already completed for us. Man I love dealing with an agent. One stop shopping. What we did realize after checking out though, is that it cost us a good deal less than we thought it would, and we were still left with 300 Q, or about $40, in our pockets. I looked at the pretty sundresses billowing in the wind while resting on mannequins, but Matt just shook his head no. I already have too many dresses, and they never get worn. True. So instead we hiked up the hill to the bank and exchanged our Guatemalan cash for US and began our descent back to the dinghy.

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Getting to Serendipity once more it was still about three hours before our slack tide, but the waters looked so calm that we didn’t think going out against a small opposing current would be a big deal.  The dinghy was quickly hauled up on deck and secured and before we knew it we were motoring out through the bar, following our previous tracks from our entrance back in June, and my heart in my throat until we hit steady depths of 12 feet again, although we only saw under 7 ft once or twice.  The winds were on our nose just enough that we were able to motorsail with the mainsail up, sacrificing just a little speed so that we could point high enough that we didn’t run ashore on the point of land in Guatemala that hooks out at the end of Amatique Bay.

For hours we cruised on like this until just an hour before the sunset when we were able to point more north, prepping ourselves to sneak into the inner channel between mainland Belize and it’s outlying cays.  We found a coordinate that allowed us to take open waters for a great portion of the southern point, and then duck in with ample safety once we reach it in the dark.  Matt took a nap to prepare himself for the first night shift, and when he woke up I heated the chili I had prepared the night before.  Seas were mostly calm and I didn’t even get sick below deck which I was very thankful for.

I have to say, our first day back out, and everything was perfect.  Oh right, except for that one issue.  The issue of a bolt shearing off on the engine, one of three that holds in the new alternator bracket we just had fabricated.  And what’s that?  Oh yeah, we’re in the middle of a channel.  In the dark.  With the wind still on our nose.  Having a running engine is kind of an important thing.  Matt shut the whole thing off for a few moments as we bobbed around, losing all forward momentum, making sure the issue didn’t look like it was going to get worse.  We could survive with 2 out of three bolts, but if either of the others went, we would be fu@%ed.  Thinking quick, he took some wire and wound the bracket on tighter, but now the rest of the passage will consist of 30 minute engine checks to make sure it’s all still running smoothly.  Dear god, do not let anything happen until after my night shift.  I don’t think I could handle sailing through this channel while left to my own devices right now.

Gulf of Honduras at sunset

mountains of Belize at sunset