Operation Homeward Bound (Part 1)

As always, it was hard to break free from the gravitational pull of the Palm Cay Marina, with its hot showers, friendly staff, and beautiful beach club. And each time we downloaded a new weather grib file, the forecast wasn’t clear and obvious. We were either doing the right thing; grabbing a four-day window of settled weather that would take us safely back to Florida. OR… We were sailing straight west into the first named tropical storm of the 2018 season. One thing was clear. We weren’t going to get any closer to home by remaining tied to the dock.

And since all good things must come to an end, after thirteen weeks in The Bahamas, we turned Sanitas’ bow toward home.

Day #1: 45 miles, 9 hours

We started out knowing full well that our safe weather window was pretty small. While our friends Orion and SE of Disorder had sailed straight from Highbourne Cay to Miami in 34 hours, Capt. Mike and I acknowledged our weaknesses and our lack of experience in making long overnight passages. And we decided to make the trip from Nassau to Key Largo in a series of four long days instead. That meant we’d be leaving before the high winds had completely laid down. And we needed to arrive before the next storm hit. Plan B, in case the storm forecast changed dramatically, would be to only make it as far as Bimini and wait out the weather there. But you know how once you get it in your mind that vacation is over, you just wanted it to be done? Yep. We were there.

Leaving the narrow channel from Palm Cay Marina, we were immediately headed straight into the wind with higher winds and higher seas than predicted. It was rough enough initially that I asked Capt. Mike, “Is this one of those times we should reconsider our plans and return to the harbor if it’s not safe?” It always seems so obvious when you read the disaster stories and scoff at the stupid people who made bad choices. It’s not as obvious in real life. But we knew we’d be making several heading changes to round the east side of New Providence Island, and each change would put us on a more comfortable point of sail than the crashing into waves, so we put off making a final decision and just kept going. Sure enough, once we were on a beam reach, the effects were less drastic. After much navigating around coral, course changes, and hand steering, we finally made it to the busy Nassau Harbor. This is where all of the other marinas are located, as well as the cruise ship docks and the working docks, and it is as busy and crowded as the streets of downtown. After only brief rubbernecking at the fancy resorts on Paradise Island, we negotiated a super narrow pass of just enough deep water, and we were free!

The navigating from here on out was much easier, with plenty of opportunity to set the autopilot and go. But the seas stayed large and from the starboard quarter all day, making things uncomfortably rolly and pitchy. Blech. The two boats that were at the anchorage when we arrived left at sunset to continue west overnight.

Day #2: 75 miles, 13.5 hours

We settled into our daily routine. Alarm set for an hour before sunrise. Get up, brush teeth, make coffee, put on sunblock. Make sure the course is plotted and waypoints entered. Secure items in the cabin and galley. Dress in boat shoes, safety gear, sun hat. Be in the cockpit before first light, and raise anchor and sail off at sunrise.

Once again the seas were larger than predicted. I now understand a bit better the mixed blessing of “Fair winds and following seas.” After an entire season of fighting against the prevailing easterlies, we are finally sailing west. That means, in theory, the wind is pushing us in the direction we want to go and we won’t be crashing into the waves. However, the waves build in the direction of the wind (and had been building through the big blow we waited out in Nassau) so these were some of the largest waves we’d experienced. And when they hit at a slight angle, the ride is very rolly.

I tried to capture a few pictures of the swells rising up behind Sanitas, but I don’t think I did them justice!

This little nondescript pole is the only thing marking the Northwest Channel; the place where the “tongue of the ocean” (at pretty much infinite depth) meets the Grand Bahama Banks (of 12 to 14 feet in depth). At any time of day, the tide is either pulling vast amounts of water from the banks into the ocean, or pushing vast amounts back onto the banks causing some pretty chaotic currents and swells. Belatedly, we realized we should have treated this final cut with a bit more respect and perhaps planned our timing of the channel accordingly. But it’s better to be lucky than good, and our timing worked out well enough. We dealt with about 3 knots of current pushing us through the channel and onto the banks, and kept a sharp eye out for all the other vessels traveling that small channel at the same time.

We don’t sail well directly down wind, preferring winds at a 90deg to 120 deg angle. So for the remainder of the day we tried every trick in our repertoire to harness the power of a downwind sail. For a while we attempted wing-on-wing (with the mainsail on one side of the boat and the jib on the opposite side) wrestling with the whisker pole to hold the job in place and keep it full. When winds faded to less than 10 knots, we abandoned that approach, and raised the asymmetrical spinnaker. This involves both Capt. Mike and I clipping in to our harnesses and moving forward to the bow to rig the sail and we haven’t exactly got the process down pat. By the time we got the asym in place today, the wind shifted and we had to do the whole thing in reverse to take it back down. Sigh.

Most cruisers stage to cross from the Bahamas to Florida at Bimini. However, our goal was to end up as far south as possible on the other side of the Gulf Stream, so we decided to improve our odds of success a bit by doing some southing on the Bahamas side. So we spent the night anchored in about 23 feet of water (deep!) in the middle of nowhere off the aptly named South Riding Rocks. Theoretically a good idea, but this spot is effected by a great deal of current and fetch. So while our super anchor kept us safe, we spent a terribly uncomfortable night bouncing and rolling in a very noisy boat. We slept only fitfully, and both of us were awake before the alarm went off ready to get the heck out of dodge.


Stay tuned for Operation Homeward Bound (Part 2)… Crossing the Gulf Stream!

The best travel clothes!

You may have noticed by now that I love my Skirt Sports brand clothing for travel (as well as for workouts). They fit great, have lots of pockets, hold up great in the wash, and come in lots of pretty patterns. They are also a women-owned company based in my home town of Boulder, CO.

Skirt Sports has given me a discount code to share with family and friends, so if you’d like to try them, this is a great time! My current favorite items are the Wonder Girl dress (in ALL the patterns), the hover skort (shown in the photo below) and the poketopia capris (with pockets large enough for a cell phone!). But I’m also going to have to try the new Cool It collection of SPF sun protection clothing with built-in cooling technology!

9am water aerobics, 2pm volleyball, 7pm dancing, Repeat

If you’ve read or heard anything about cruising in the Bahamas, you’ve probably heard about Georgetown on Great Exuma Island. It’s the capital of the expat community during the winter, with a plethora of daily activities on offer, such as: water aerobics, yoga, volleyball, dominos, music lessons, and Texas Hold’em. Not to mentions infinite opportunities for hiking, snorkeling, and exploring. Of course, Georgetown also provides all the basic services that cruisers need, such as groceries, laundry, fuel, and trash. Georgetown earned the nickname of Chicken Harbor because so many cruisers with plans to continue south get caught in the gravitational pull of Georgetown fun, and eventually discover that the entire season has passed by, driving the decision to chicken out and head back to Florida this summer, and try again for the southern Caribbean next year.

It was an easy couple of hours sail from Emerald Bay to Elizabeth harbor, once the northerly winds and swells had finally calmed. Sanitas rejoined her buddy boats at an anchorage just off Sand Dollar Beach, and we quickly got dragged ashore to the Chat ‘n’ Chill on Stocking Island for our introduction to the festivities.

Chat ‘n’ Chill, aka Volleyball Beach is the social hub of the area; a beach bar that also doubles as the church, book exchange, volleyball league, and domino club. We spent A LOT of time here over the next few days, meeting other cruisers, and getting my kitty cat fix by hanging out with the very laid back ginger tabbys.

On our first night in the harbor, we attended a bonfire on Sand Dollar beach where we met the crew of SAVA, who are home-schooling their two children aboard, and watched the captain of Maitre ‘d twirl Polynesian fire balls. The evening was marred a bit when Z-Raye’s dinghy went for a walkabout without her captain well after dark. We put out an APB on the VHF to get everyone in the harbor on the lookout. And somehow, Stan and Chris of Disorder were able to find her, drifting in the middle of Elizabeth harbor, in a 2 knot current, making a break for Miami. I have no idea how they were lucky enough to spot her, tie her up, and tow her in using only flashlights! Note to self…. apply reflective tape to our dinghy, Bug.

After celebrating Sharon’s birthday with burgers at Splash Beach Bar, we climbed to the top on Monument Hill and surveyed the view of the harbor and of all the boat names memorialized in stone on the beach. We accepted the challenge and made our own stone tribute to Dock 4, the home base in St Petersburg of our whole group.

In Georgetown, I got my hair cut for the first time since Miami. I walked into Trainee’s hair salon (and fish market) and got a pretty darn good cut for $20. Unfortunately, Trainee was sold out of fresh fish for the day, lol.

I spent one fun afternoon on my Isle inflatable standup paddle board. It took a while to build up my courage to go farther and farther from the boat. I tend to get lulled into a false sense of security, when the water and wind are still, and I am moving at a brisk pace in a comfortable direction. Then the breeze picks up or a wake comes through the anchorage (Or I simply realize I need to turn around to get back to where I started) and it all falls apart. Today, I made it all the way around Sand Dollar anchorage, getting up close and personal with several green sea turtles, and then as I approached Sanitas, I realized I had no idea how to stop. Lacking any other plan, I pretty much ran right into her. When the paddle board stopped so suddenly, I fell off and had to collect my hat, sunglasses, water bottle, and paddle before trying to board the boat with some level of dignity intact.

Capt. Mike’s sport of choice is volleyball. Back in Colorado, he used to play on several different leagues, at various levels of competitiveness. As 2:00 approached each afternoon, I could sense him getting more antsy and ready to head over to volleyball beach. If I wasn’t ready, I’d have to follow later on the SUP, or catch a ride with another boat. He had a blast burning up the court every afternoon …. and still has the raw marks on his knees healing slowly to show for all those dives into the sand, sacrificing his body for the ball.

On our last night if Elizabeth Harbor, we dinghied over to Georgetown to attend the rake ‘n scrape at the Peace and Plenty hotel. A Rake ‘n scrape is traditional Bahamian live music, usually played with a base, accordion, and saw – maybe even a washboard. This one was a bit more polished than most, with electric guitars provide most of the melody, and one lonely quiet saw soloist way in the back. It was a great evening though, dancing to the band at the lovely outdoor patio, and hanging out with locals and other cruisers on Archipelago, Mariposa, and Wavelength. Mike noticed that the bartender was getting overwhelmed with customers early in the evening, so he offered to carry in a few cases of beer and to reload the beer fridge. She allowed him to help out until a second bartender arrived, earning a few free beers for his efforts!

Did I mention how large Elizabeth Harbor is? In my imagination, I had always envisioned a small, manageable harbor, ringed by pristine white sand beaches, where every business and amenity is right within reach. In reality, Elizabeth Harbor is huge, and there are many available anchorages to choose from depending on the weather and winds, and if you’d rather be close to Stocking Island socializing, or close to errands and shopping in town. So when we committed to dinner, drinks, and dancing at Peace and Plenty, we knew we were in for a long dark dinghy ride home across the harbor in Bug. We made it, and somehow Capt Mike was able to pick out the exact anchor light belonging to Sanitas from the constellation of artificial stars ringing the bay, and aimed us straight at her. Our first stay in a Georgetown for the season had come to a close, and any lingering crustiness we would feel the next morning on our sail east was worth it for the fun of dancing outdoors on a beautiful evening.

A Stay in Emerald Bay

If there’s a theme to the 2018 cruising season in the Bahamas, it must be “Waiting out the Nor’easters.” In the same way that a New Englander can tell you about every school closure and flight cancelation due to snow this past March, a cruiser can tell you where she got stuck, usually someplace unplanned or undesirable, waiting out those northerly blows. That’s how we initially ended up at The Marina at Emerald Bay. We needed to stop playing in the Exumas, and dive for cover yet again. Our buddy boats pressed on to Elizabeth Harbor a couple of hours south on Great Exuma Island. But Sanitas and her crew craved a few days of marina amenities.

The Marina at Emerald Bay was just the ticket; providing a nice contrast to the past couple of weeks of living on the hook. It provides a large, protected harbor with floating docks, hot showers, free laundry, access to beautiful running trails, and beaches. Oh, and best of all, they provide an unadvertised special rate for cruisers. If you don’t need to be connected to shore power, you can tie up for $1.00 per foot – an unheard of rate in The Exumas. Plus, as an added bonus, our friends Pat and Melana on Tapati were here! The last time we’d seen these St Petersburg friends, we were sadly watching them sail east from Rodriguez Key to Bimini without us, as we instead headed north to Miami to perform some boat repairs. We eagerly anticipated catching up and hearing about each other’s cruising adventures.

For once, our timing was impeccable, and Sanitas was safely docked just in time for the weekly manager’s happy hour event. Since there’s little that cruisers enjoy more than free food and free drink, the club was full by the 5:30 start time. We enjoyed meeting a new crowd, and matching faces to the boat names we’d heard on the radio, such as Archipelago, Full Circle, and Polaris. And it was great to hear of Tapati’s journey across the central and southern Bahamas, while we had taken a very different route to the North.

We grew to appreciate our good timing and safe harbor even more the next day, when we watched a large fishing boat get washed up on the rocks guarding the mouth of the harbor. Everyone aboard escaped safely, but the vessel itself was lost; good only for salvage. After that, our daily routine included a walk to the bluffs overlooking the harbor mouth to view the white capped waves, and to trade guesses with the other cruisers on when it might be safe to leave again. And somehow, our plan to stay in the marina for a couple of days turned into EIGHT nights. That’s one good thing about living on a small boat – $1 per foot doesn’t add up very fast when you’re only 37 feet long!

We put the time to good use, continuing to perform boat repairs in exotic places. Capt. Mike gave Sanitas an oil change, and I washed the deck and all the port lights (sort of like a spa day for boats). It took two days to do all the laundry, fill the diesel and water tanks, top up the propane, and reprovision. Mike fixed the strike plate on the cabin door, refilled all our spice canisters, and defrosted the fridge. Most importantly, we continued our quest to FIX ALL THE LEAKS by scraping, cleaning, and re-caulking the port side toe rail, all the way back to the chain plates. That’s a continuation of the work we started in Miami and Marsh Harbor to keep sea water out of our forward cabin. Hopefully, this last attempt does the trick, and any additional repairs can wait until the next time we have Sanitas hauled out in a boatyard. A huge sense of accomplishment here!

Unfortunately, the marina is a bit isolated with nothing in walking distance but a liquor store. So we had to resort to piracy, inviting ourselves to a nearby resort for pool time, sushi and surf ‘n turf, and evening entertainment. The resort had a very diverse clientele – all kinds of middle aged white folk – so after showering and donning our best athlesiure wear, we fit in just fine!

To celebrate the successful completion of our leak project, we hosted a little party our last night in Emerald Bay. The bad thing about living on a very small sailboat, is there’s not much space for entertaining. But we squeezed the crews of Archipelago and Wavelength into the cockpit; broke out every one of our plates, bowls, and cups; and enjoyed a lovely spread of charcuterie and cocktails during another amazing sunset.

Everybody Poops

Remember that composting toilet? I’ve gotten a few questions about how our toilet works, and if we are still happy with our decision to replace the traditional marine head with a composting toilet. So far, I think we are happy with it, although that may be easy for me to say, because Capt. Mike is in charge of emptying the compost. If this post is TMI, I won’t be offended if you skip on to the next one……

Our Nature’s Head toilet functions by separating the liquid and solid waste, therefore keeping the odor down. It works by desiccating, or drying, the solid waste, killing bacteria and resulting in material that is the color and consistency of potting soil. A small fan circulates air through the head at all times, requiring very little battery power. We do need to remember to close the toilet vent each time we are under sail, to avoid getting ocean water in the vent, and we also unplug the fan so that it doesn’t overheat. These steps; unplugging the fan and closing the vent; and opening the vent and plugging in the fan are now part of our regular sailing checklist.

Number One:

We empty the urine bottle every one to two days. This is the only part of the process that does have an odor. Not in the bathroom itself (the Nature’s Head design works really well to contain the liquid waste and accompanying odors) but when we remove the bottle and it isn’t capped. In a marina, we empty the bottle into a toilet. When we are three nautical miles out to sea, we empty it overboard. In a crowded anchorage, we wait for a better opportunity to empty it. We have a second, spare bottle to let us go longer between emptying in those situations. We rinse out the bottle each time, and put a few drops of dish detergent in the empty bottle.

Oh, and then there’s the “pee tack”. Based on the direction that the toilet is installed, Sanitas must be flat or heeled over to port for the toilet to function correctly to separate liquid and solid waste. That means that if I need to use the head while we are underway and on the wrong tack, I need to raise my hand like a school girl to ask permission. Then Capt. Mike steers into the wind briefly to flatten Sanitas out so that I can go in comfort. It’s my least favorite thing about the composting head, honestly. What does Capt. Mike do if he needs to go while we are underway? I’ll leave it up to your imagination. It’s so much easier being a man!

Number Two:

We know that it is time to change the compost, when the handle used to stir the mixture becomes difficult to turn. That indicates that the coconut coir composting medium has done its job, and has absorbed all the moisture that it can hold. No sense pushing it past that point! We tend to have another bag of coconut rehydrated, crumbled, ready, and waiting. So far, we have used three bricks of coconut since we left St Pete in January. We have five blocks left in our stores which should be sufficient to last until we return to the states to wait out hurricane season. If we were continuing south through the Caribbean, we might have to get creative and use a different composting medium, such as peat moss, sawdust, or wood pellets. We prefer coconut because it stores in a very small space, is an extremely renewable resource, and is less likely to contain dormant insects or eggs than other forms of compost.

We simply take the lid off the toilet, and dump the solid waste into a garbage bag. I’ve included a few closeups. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I swear it does not stink! It smells like good garden dirt, but nothing worse than that. This part of the process would be a lot easier if we had more room to maneuver. We barely had the space to install the composting toilet in Sanitas’ head (and in fact, we had to remove some of the teak trim to make space) and there isn’t enough room to gracefully tilt the cover back like they show in the manual. Welcome to life on a small, narrow-beamed sailboat. Everything is just a little bit trickier than planned! We stored the used compost in a cockpit locker until the next opportunity to throw it away ashore.

We use this opportunity to give the head a thorough cleaning, using bleach water to disinfect the toilet base, floor, and sink. But we don’t bleach or even wash the compost compartment of the toilet. Nature’s Head says that good bacteria develop and remain in the residue in the corners of the container, helping the coconut compost medium work better next time, and helping to break down waste more quickly.

We’ve been lucky so far, and have had no issues with flies or gnats in the compost. We do add septic tank additives and a bacteria marketed to remove gnats. Whether they really do any good, I can’t tell, but why mess with success? The best part about this head, is that we can pretty much plan to do the regular maintenance when it is convenient for us, and don’t have to deal with unexpected failures or really messy leaks and breaks. And we never have to search for or pay for a pump out. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but along with our solar power, and water maker, the composting head helps keep us independent and off the grid.