Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Memorable Ocean Crossing to Paradise

As planned, we left Lynyard Cay in the Abacos at 6:30 AM, along with Makani and Smiles, and passed through the Little Harbour cut headed to Royal Island, a small piece of land just north of Eleuthera. This is a 50-mile jump in the Atlantic Ocean from the northern Bahamas to the central Bahamas. Once again the water is very deep (10,000 feet) and it is important to choose the window carefully to avoid nasty conditions that make the trip uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the sea state was not calm (as was predicted), at least for the second half of the day.

Until about noon, we flew our reefed genoa (big headsail) in about 20-knot wind. We were plowing through the water with a very comfortable wave height and direction. About an hour off shore we spotted a group of about 10 dolphins. Is that called a pod? If I had Internet access I would google it for accuracy. Anyway, they were joyously (at least it looked joyous) leaping clear out of the water in unison. They did that about 10 times headed straight for our boat. Definitely the most spectacular sighting to date…I loved it! If I happen to be a sea creature in my next life I definitely want to be a dolphin. I sat back in the cockpit feeling exhilarated and thought, this is perfect…fantastic…then the wind changed direction.

As the wind shifted to the north (NW or NE, I don’t remember) the water began to build, until we had short, choppy 5-foot waves hitting us almost broadside. Yuck. This causes the boat to pitch and sway very uncomfortably. Every so often, when the wave direction was just right, the boat would rock violently sideways (OK, violent is a little harsh, but I can’t think of a better word.) I happened to be below decks for one such surge at the moment when our upright fridge door flung open and all the contents flew out onto the floor. On top of the chaotic heap of food was a broken bottle of garlic that scattered finely minced bits of the malodorous bud over everything. I admit that witnessing this caused a few four-letter words starting with “F” to involuntarily leave my mouth. I set about cleaning up the mess, which under the conditions was wiping off the garlic as best I could and throwing the fridge contents into any available container. Garlic may smell good when cooking, but it definitely smells very bad on the floor of a boat that is pitching and rocking in the sea. A half hour later I emerged from the galley to get some fresh air and decided that if that didn’t make me sea sick, nothing will.

Meanwhile, Lynn had resorted to hand steering because the autopilot was struggling too much with the wave conditions. This made the going smoother since Lynn is better able to anticipate the wave movement and correct accordingly. We spent the next three hours in this way till we reached the cut through the Egg Reef that would lead us to shallow, calmer water close to the Eleuthera coast. This is a very narrow cut so we were a little tense as we traversed it for the first time. About 30 minutes later we were comfortably anchored in Royal Island Harbour. We were beat but very happy to have arrived. After an hour of scouring the floor and wiping all traces of garlic from the fridge contents, I was finally able to relax in the first of many little private paradises.

We spent a day just chilling out in Royal Island. There was once an attempt to grow pineapples on the island and the remains of the plantation still stand. We wandered around the stone ruins and then across the island to the windward side. There is an incredible, pristine reef there that is apparently fantastic snorkeling, but unfortunately the wind conditions were not conducive to that activity.

The next day we set out on a short 10-mile hop to the next small islands to the east, Russel Island and St. Georges Cay. We moored inside the small channel just off the picturesque little town of Spanish Wells (actually a large town by Bahamian standards), which turned out to be a new favorite. The waterfront is lined with pastel-colored houses and all sorts of boats docked along the bulkhead. This is the fishing center of the Bahamas so it is quite a bustling place. We rented a golf cart with Kathi and John and toured from one end of the island to the other. As with most places in the Bahamas, the locals are incredibly friendly and everyone waves when you pass by. We stopped at beautiful Russel Beach that lines the entire windward side with soft, pink coral sand. We also had lunch at The Generation Gap, feasting on the delicious homemade potato salad.

One of our primary concerns was to find a spot to watch the football games on Sunday. Since Spanish Wells is a so-called dry town, there are no bars where you can normally tune in to sporting events. The boys were especially anxious since both the Ravens and 49ers were playing in their respective semi-final games. We were finally told that the local kids would be setting up a TV at “Members Only” down by the park. At first I thought that meant you had to be a member to attend, but it is really just a tongue-in-cheek name for what turned out to be a makeshift camp in the woods.

On game day we loaded our football-watching paraphernalia (beer, snacks, chairs, blankets) in the dingies and went in search of Members Only for some tail-gating, which I guess is more aptly called transom-gating in this case. We found the spot and were quite impressed and somewhat amused! The island kids had set up several wooden buildings fully equipped with stove, sink, ratty old chairs, a stage with drums, and a variety of decorations strewn about (not to mention old bottles of booze and such.) It would have been a great place to watch the game, but alas, nobody actually showed up with a TV. So, we went to Norma’s Takeaway instead, the only other place showing the game. It was actually quite comfortable there with a picnic table and now old-fashioned tube TV set up behind the little restaurant. Unfortunately, one of the other patrons was getting progressively more inebriated and louder as the night wore on. We finally left part way through the second game when we couldn’t take it anymore (now you know why I say “so-called” dry town.) As it turned out, neither team won so that takes the pressure off trying to find a place for Superbowl!

We left the next day and made a short hop to anchor on the western-most tip of Eleuthera. The 15-20 knot wind was perfect for sailing with a nice beam reach all the way. This took about twice as long as motoring, but we would sail at 5 knots instead of motoring at 7 knots any day. We were accompanied by another group of 5 dolphins on the way who swam alongside the boat for a bit before heading off…I even heard one calling “eee…eee…eee” when he crested the surface.

Current Cut is another very narrow cut that has quite an extreme current running though it…hence the name. We chose to anchor on the east side and wait for the next day to pass through this area with a more favorable current direction. For the remainder of the day we walked across the island to check out Current Settlement, consisting of a few houses, a general store, a library, a post office and a playground. On the way we were stopped by some local residents who offered us directions and invited us for cocktails! Lynn also chatted with the women in the general store (well, he was flirting really…does that surprise anyone?) Back at the boat we topped the day off with a little skinny dipping and an al fresco shower…another private paradise. I so often feel very privileged that we have access to these stunning places all on our own, like long gorgeous beaches with nobody on them but us and spectacular sunsets with only a boat or two to add to the beauty.

Passing through Current Cut the next morning we registered a maximum of 11.3 knots travelling with the current. This is only a little more than 13 mph, but feels really fast in a sailboat. Just after you get through the cut you need to make a 90 degree turn while still in the current and pass within about 100 feet of the rocks to stay in the channel. Needless to say, this was an exciting way to start the day! We then motored 40 miles to Rock Sound with the wind right on the nose. After we dropped the anchor we reconnected with Smiles who welcomed us with a happy hour on their boat.

Rock Sound is the Eleuthera equivalent of Marsh Harbour, much more industrial than other places on the island. We have been spending most of the past few days dealing with what seems like endless boat repairs. I would like to report that our boat woes have ceased since fixing the battery bank in Beaufort, but sadly that is not the case. I don’t mean to start whining again, but I think it appropriate to impart a true picture of all aspects of the cruising experience. As I have said before, it is definitely not all pina coladas on the beach.

Our latest issues are a furling headsail that will not unfurl due to an as-yet undiagnosed problem with the controller, and a stopped up head. Lynn has successfully cleared up the latter…I know that most of you landlubbers would consider the head problem to be a bigger crisis, but we would actually be happier if we could fix the furler since without it we have no mainsail. And no sooner had Lynn fixed the head than our freezer, holding about 500 dollars’ worth of meat provisions decided to conk out. We had lined up a local refrigerator repair guy to look at it “first thing” this morning, but in true island fashion, he has not shown up and it is going on 12 PM. We are starting to lose hope that we will get the freezer fixed, so our back up plan is to divvy up the frozen goods into our other small freezer and Makani’s freezer and to eat a lot over the next week or so!

At the moment we are trying to track down a pesky leak under our galley sink. Oh well, these are just small glitches in the daily activities aboard Coyote. But they are frustrating and I feel badly for Lynn because he works so hard to keep our boat ship shape. On the upside we worked on installing the water maker throughout some of our more lengthy delays and it is now chugging along producing 30 gallons of fresh drinking water each hour it runs. I complained about the hefty price tag when Lynn wanted to buy it, but I am now forced to admit that it is truly a very nice luxury that I am quickly realizing I would not want to do without (kind of like a freezer on board that I am soon going to have to do without)! We have even been supplying Makani with fresh water 10 gallons at a time, which is a fair trade for the air they will be supplying us for diving.

So, that brings you all pretty much up to date. So far the weather has been fairly good for travelling, usually in the mid-70s but somewhat windy. At least we have had no significant cold fronts, which is unusual for Bahamas in the winter. We are now waiting for a good weather window to cross Exuma Sound to Highborne Cay. Then we will island hop for about a month checking out the Exumas. It is much more secluded there and we plan to spend our time snorkeling, diving, exploring the islands and just enjoying the experience. We are still traveling with Makani, which means our evenings usually start with a delicious dinner followed by a grueling euchre match. More on the Exumas in the next blog!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Beginning

I am going to flash back for a while in this blog to give you an idea of the trials and tribulations we encountered to get where we are now...

We finally set off on our Bahamian cruise on November 5th after being at home in Maryland for a year and a half. This being our third trip there was a little less fanfare than in the past. I guess people are getting tired of saying goodbye! That said, Lynn’s family was again totally enthusiastic about the journey and had a special pre-Christmas gathering before we left (including really nice gifts). Then most of them showed up on the morning of our departure to see us off, with only a few tears shed. Our friends Chuck, Dave and Darlene were also there to wave goodbye.

It felt great to finally be underway again. It was a beautiful, sunny day as we travelled down the Chesapeake Bay…no wind for sailing, but that meant calm seas. We arrived at our first stop on the West River (just south of Annapolis) where we joined Kathi and John on Makani. We were invited to dinner with their friends Bryan and Hannah, and Mike and Roycelin. It was a lovely evening. The only mar in an otherwise perfect day was that the generator refused to start, despite the best efforts of Mike who kindly came over to Coyote to lend a hand. We thought it was probably a battery problem, but opted to stick around Galesville for an extra day to check it out…but more on that later…

While on shore the next day, Lynn’s nephew KC called. He was on his boat and happened to pass Coyote at anchor. What a coincidence! I had been feeling bummed that we had already been delayed just one day into the trip…but, decided that we were meant to be there to see KC. Later that day we worked on the generator some more and managed to get it started, so we concluded there must be a battery issue and that it was OK to set off again the next day.

We had an early, pre-dawn start followed by another beautiful day on the bay. That night we stopped at a peaceful anchorage on Mill Creek, just south of Reedville. We retired early after dinner on Makani. It was on the third day that we first noticed the engine acting strangely. It was fine at low RPMs, but seemed to be struggling at higher RPMs. We limped into Norfolk late in the day and anchored at Hospital Point.

The next morning we had a mobile mechanic come on board to check the engine (yes, there are mobile mechanics!) I probably should have recognized the omen when we woke to fog as thick as pea soup and the outboard rip cord broke in Lynn’s hand. Anyway, just like going to the doctor about a pain that disappears in his office, the engine seemed to work perfectly well when Bryan was on board. We chalked the problem up to crud in the fuel that must have worked itself out. As an afterthought, we mentioned our generator issue. He took a look and discovered that we had water in the engine that appeared to have backed up from the exhaust. I now understand that this is a VERY BAD THING. Apparently diesel engines do not like water. Bryan gave it a valiant effort, but was not able to fix it. In the end we had to replace the generator.

Then, on our way back from getting the generator installed, our engine started acting up again. After a second sea trial we determined that the transmission was not behaving. This required a very laborious removal of the transmission (definitely not an easy task in the confines of a boat), a rebuild, and a re-installation. Happily, our engine was purring when the task was done.

As you can imagine, all of this took some time to resolve and we were stuck in Norfolk for four long weeks (a place where 4 hours is probably too long). There were a few silver linings to the delay, like meeting some very nice people at the marina we were using as our temporary home, particularly Mark and Nadine from Belgium. They were on a custom catamaran and had crossed the Atlantic Ocean five times! They were worried about getting their 63-foot mast under one of the ICW bridges. When I asked what they would do if the mast was too tall, they responded in their French accent, “well, den we will just go to Bermuda!” Now that’s being flexible. We also really enjoyed meeting Bill and Amy and their 3 year old son, Finn, who stole my heart. I think he liked me too because he wanted me to take him to the head, which his parents said is an honor he usually bestows only on his grandparents.

Other nice memories included wandering around the historic part of Portsmouth (the rest of the city is not very nice), designing a mermaid ring that Lynn bought for me (to cheer me up I think), a day trip to Williamsburg, a nice Thanksgiving Day dinner hosted by the marina, and a quick visit back home to take care of a few things. But, I have to say we were very glad to say goodbye to Norfolk when we were finally on our way again…we were starting to wonder if we should just call it quits.

The remainder of the trip down the ICW was much like the previous five trips...this part of the coyote adventures is definitely getting old. There are some things I still like though. I can never get enough of the dolphins swimming alongside the boat and love to watch the pelicans skim just a few inches above the water. One highlight was accidentally bumping into KC (again!) as we were anchoring in Adams Creek. He just happened to be at his property in NC and looked across the water to see us coming around the bend from the Neuse River. This second coincidence was pretty unbelievable…I am still wondering when we will see him next!

There are a few ICW stops I always enjoy. We stayed over in Wrightsville Beach to visit with Lynn’s grandson, Ryan, who showed us around town and his college campus. We also stayed at David (Lynn’s brother) and Gini’s beautiful home in Beaufort SC, where we had a very nice Christmas. We spent some of that time working on the boat…specifically replacing our entire battery bank…problem #3, I hope that means we are done!!

On December 29th we were underway again, leaving the ICW from the Port Royal Inlet just south of Beaufort for a 48-hour off-shore cruise to the Fort Pierce inlet. The conditions were great and we made excellent time, arriving at our destination in Stuart Florida on New Year’s Eve, just in time to celebrate with Kathi and John and their friends Dean and Nancy. Of course we were so beat from the ocean hop we barely made it to 8:00 PM and snored through the ball dropping at midnight. We stayed in Stuart for a few more days waiting for the window to cross to the Bahamas. During that time Dean and Nancy very kindly drove us around town to get re-provisioned.

So, that brings us back to the last blog and finally reaching the Bahamas…and it is the end of my whining. Tomorrow we pull anchor at first light to head out of the cut from Little Harbor destined for the island of Eleuthra…this will be all new territory for us, so exciting and a little scary. Time for bed now to be ready for tomorrow’s adventures!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Here at Last

Every cruise is different and you never know just what is in store for you when setting out. Although Lynn and I have encountered unexpected obstacles, we are here at last, moored in the lovely Hope Town Harbour. Like downhill skiing or SCUBA diving, it sometimes seems like the effort of getting there to enjoy the activity is not really worth it. But, when we finally arrived on the Little Bahama Bank and once again glimpsed the calm, clear, blue water, I thought…oh yes, it was all worth it.

Believe me; subsequent blogs will describe the problems we overcame to reach our destination. But I wanted to start off with a blog of how good it feels to be back in this beautiful place. We set out from Lake Worth inlet along with Makani at 4 AM on January 7th. The crossing was a little bit rocky, with about 2 ft waves, but overall quite perfect…actually, probably the best yet. We didn’t see much on the way over. The most interesting thing was passing through a…hmmm…”flock” of Portuguese Man-o-War. They look like little blue balloons and there were thousands floating on the surface of the water all around the boat. We have never seen that before.

At about noon we crossed onto the bank. It’s still a strange feeling to go from 6000 feet of water in the ocean to less than ten feet in about a 1 mile span. Then on the bank the water calms down completely and you can see down to the bottom of the incredibly clear water. As the sun moves lower in the sky, the water begins to look like a big pool of mercury. It is a beautiful site. We watched for the green flash in a perfect sunset, but it didn’t happen. We anchored in Great Sale Cay a short time later. This is the stopping over point for many boats crossing over from the US. There were a whole 4 boats in the anchorage.

We pulled anchor early the next morning and headed for Spanish Cay where we checked in to customs. It was a lovely day on the water and later we enjoyed a hot tub and al fresco dinner at sunset. What a perfect way to enter the Bahamas!

Next up was Manjack Cay (strangely pronounced Nunjack). There we anchored alongside Makani and headed out to the reef to hunt for lobster. It was low tide so we had to walk the dingy across a few sandbars, but we were determined. When we finally arrived on the ocean side, we realized we had forgotten to bring our dingy anchor in our haste. So, Lynn stayed in the dingy drifting around while I snorkeled about looking for dinner.

Lobsters are actually quite easy to find hiding under rocky ledges. I managed to spot four different hideouts, with one sheltering at least five of the spiny creatures. Although I proved to be good at finding them, I was not as good at catching them. I tried to tickle them out, I tried to spear them, but they all managed to retreat further into the cave out of reach or to find an escape hatch. Lynn said it was quite hysterical watching my bottom on the topside as it bobbed around while I tried to snare a bug. In the end John caught two and Kathi caught two, so we all had grilled lobster for dinner.

The next day we pulled anchor and transited the Whale Cay Channel. This is a sometimes treacherous inlet if the conditions are not good, but this time it was perfectly calm. We anchored at Guana Cay later that day. Kathi and John once again headed out to the reef to catch some fish for dinner while Lynn and I stayed on our boat to work on the installation of our new water maker. That night we dined on Yellow Snapper and Chub…both delicious. I can see now that we will be eating well with such good hunters travelling with us!

After a quick stop at Marsh Harbour, Lynn and I came to Hope Town. It was great to pull into the harbour and spot many of our friends from previous trips…it felt a little like coming home. Once settled on our mooring, we hopped in the dingy to tour around and chat with friends we haven’t seen in two years.

Yesterday we wandered a bit around town and made most of the obligatory stops, like a munchies burger for lunch, Vernon’s grocery and of course the beach. Later we had Chuck and Dale over for dinner. Tonight we hosted a happy hour with our old friends Betsy and Jim from Smiles and our new friends Dan and Marcia from Cutting Class. This is still my favorite part of cruising, meeting wonderful people and developing lasting friendships.

Tomorrow we plan to head back to Marsh Harbour and meet up with Makani again. There we will do some chores and watch some football. Then we hope to start the trek south with a stop at Lynyard Cay to stage for our 50 mile transit from the Abacos to the island of Eleuthra. Of course, all is dependent on the weather as always.

Oh yes, it is all worth it :)))