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!

Well that was exciting…

This one’s for the folks that are bored of beautiful beach and sunsets.

Our second day at the O’Briens Cay anchorage was a perfect Exuma day; a hike on Cambridge Cay, a swim at Rachel’s Bubble Bath, snorkeling a submerged plane wreck and the Sea Aquarium. After dinner we shared drinks and conversation on SV Orion. We watched flashes of lightning on the horizon and as the first raindrops fell, rushed back to Sanitas to batten down the hatches.

As we settled into our dry and cozy salon to watch a movie, Capt. Mike suddenly sat up straight, cocked his head, and said, “Something’s changed; the wind direction or current, and we’re starting to lean at the wrong angle.” At that moment the instrument panel started flashing and alarming, “Shallow Water! Shallow Water!” As Capt. Mike bounded up the companionway stairs, I asked what I should do and he said, “Grab the key for the motor. Turn on the windless. And get up here and help me figure out what the heck is going on.”

As we stepped out into the rain, we saw by flashes of lightning that sure enough – land looked much closer than it had before sunset. Mike started the motor without any of the usual safety checks and threw it into forward, aiming into the dark void in the opposite direction from shore. We couldn’t travel too far in that direction in the blind, because this portion of the Exuma chain is known for drifting sand bores, coral heads, and rocky washes. Also, we still had at least 100 feet of anchor chain out. We couldn’t immediately tell if our anchor had dragged, or if the change in wind direction that accompanied the squall simply caused it to reset in a new direction, bringing us into the shallows in the process. Perhaps a little of both? I hurried below to put on non-skid shoes, rain coat, and PFD, and to convince Mike to wear his foulie.

We decided that it was safer to keep the anchor set for the moment, rather than drifting in the darkness between flashes of lightning, and so Capt. Mike stood at the helm making small adjustment to throttle and wheel, basically attempting to keep Sanitas treading water. We’d watch the depth display go from 10 feet to 9 feet to 8 to 7, and then rev the engine and inch forward and to starboard back to deeper water. We we coming uncomfortably close to SE of Disorder, who had also swung in a different direction on her anchor in the squall. All four boats in the anchorage were now lit up as much as possible, with spreader lights and running lights as well as masthead lights, the better for Mike to see the boats and to avoid them.

After 15 minutes, the storm had not moved on but we had better bearings on the situation. We decided we needed to raise anchor and reset it further from shore and from the other anchored boats. Capt. Mike headed forward to handle the anchor and bridle, leaving me at the helm. Wait a minute! I didn’t really understand what kind of magic he’d been using to keep us firmly in place. A few hurried instructions later, and I accepted control of the helm.

We have worked to develop hand signals for raising the anchor, so that we can execute calmly and in conditions where wind makes it difficult to hear each other. But, we couldn’t see hand signals in the dark, so we had to resort to screaming our heads off at each other. The VHF kept squeaking as our friends asked how we were doing and how they could help. At one point Stan on SE of Disorder transmitted, “Are you ok Sanitas? I can hear you hollering.” Yep. That’s our new nighttime anchoring communication strategy. Note to self…. Buy the wireless headsets that are nicknamed “the marriage savers” before next season.

The rain continued to pour down, but we successfully dropped anchor, backed down on it hard to set it, and confirmed using GPS that we were now swinging in a new safe arc. We stripped off our soaking wet clothes down to the underwater (why on earth was I wearing cotton?) and went below. After telling our friends that Sanitas was secure, we sat down and stared at each other and tried to slow our racing hearts.

By now it was past midnight, and tough to calm down enough to sleep. Three more times during the night squalls hit us, complete with driving rain, gusts above 35knots, and currents fighting wind to bounce Sanitas at strange angles. Not much sleep to be had! But the anchor held, and we were safe the rest of the night, even if we were uncomfortable and hyper-alert.

Capt. Mike dove the boat in the morning and confirmed that the lowest 6-8 inches of the keel were scoured clean. We had definitely come to a rest in sand or soft mud when we felt Sanitas tip. But thank goodness, we did not hit rock or coral, and did not get stuck in the sand. Also the rudder hadn’t touched, which certainly could have been damaged with Sanitas going aground in reverse. I’m very impressed that Mike was so attuned to the feel of the boat that he noticed as soon as something felt wrong. Our cockpit was a disaster the next morning, with wet clothes and shoes and safety equipment everywhere (and permeated with the smell of mildew) but no permanent damage.

Pics of cockpit

An adventure is never fun while you are having it. And apparently, I never capture photos during an adventure. But here’s a screen shot from the chart plotter from that night. See the yellow squiggle on the right side of the screen that looks waaaayyyy too close to land. That’s were Sanitas was never supposed to be.

Worse Things Can Happen Than Running Aground

Or so Captain Bill said in our sailing classes five years ago. I think he was trying to teach us the difference between “Mayday” and “Pan Pan” in radio etiquette. Our friends from St Pete had similar advice. “You’re going to run aground in The Bahamas. Don’t let it devastate you.” Still, there’s an element of “It will never happen to me” about running aground.

Well, now we’ve gotten that out of the way!

We left Great Sale harbor in marginal wind conditions, because we thought we might go crazy if we stayed one more day. Winds 13 to 17 on the nose, and seas that built gradually over the day. We got a nice early start, so even with beating into the wind, we arrived at the entrance to the Foxtown Harbor on Little Abaco Island before 2:00 pm. Theoretically, that allowed for great mid-day light to allow us to see the changing water colors indicating rocks or coral heads while standing on the bow looking at the world through polarized sunglasses. Unfortunately, what really happened, was I stood at the bow in a driving rain squall with rain washing sunblock into my eyes, wiping my sunglasses on the hem of my t shirt, and the sun completely hidden by clouds, so the water looked a uniform shade of grey across the whole harbor.

Mike had done his homework, comparing the paper charts in the Explorer Chartbooks and the electronic charts in our chart plotter and using Navionics, and plotted a detailed series of waypoints through the shallow areas and rocks to a preferred anchorage. But it is one thing to see a series of lines and dots on the chart plotter, and another to orient them to the real world landmarks and features around you in less than perfect conditions. Our friends on SV Orion radioed that they had just crossed an extremely shallow spot, that wasn’t captured on any of the charts, and they got us slightly spooked. SV Disorder took a different line into the harbor than Mike had plotted, and they were calling out depths in the 6 foot range. So we continued to follow our plan to head south and get closer to land, and then to turn east toward the closest anchorage. I was on the bow (remember that rain?) and Mike was at the helm and we had to shout to hear each other over the wind. Mike called, ” is that dark water shallow? Or it is a shadow? Which way do I turn?” But there was no good direction to turn. We were essentially aiming straight at a horizontal band of rocks that, according to the charts, we had already safely passed. Mike went from calling out safe depths of 11’4″ and 10’8″ to a dead stop in less than a minute. We jammed Sanitas into reverse, we were well and truly stuck for about 15 seconds, and then the prop walk started a turn that allowed us to spin all the way around and head back the way we came. With no clear idea of how to enter the harbor, but without needing to radio for a tow boat.

After finding a safe anchorage, Mike dove the hull and found only a few scratches – nothing too heavily damaged. There may have been a few frayed nerves and short fuses on Sanitas that night as her crew recovered from the scare!

Recovering with cracked conch and rum at Da Valley restaurant in Foxtown.

Bahamas or Bust

On Friday, 16 February, almost a month after setting off from St Petersburg, we finally made our crossing from Florida to the Bahamas.

We left No Name harbor in Biscayne Bay with two other boats: Chris and Stan on SE of Disorder, and Bob and Laura on Orion, and headed east. Our goal was to benefit from the fast river of water known as the Gulf Stream to give us a little boost of speed and assist us in covering the 92 Miles to West End on Grand Bahama Island. Why cross at night? Good question! I suffered from FOMO all day on Friday, because the rest of the boats that had been anchored near us weighed anchor at 4:00 am and headed for Bimini, leaving just the three of us to wait for an evening crossing!

Two reasons:

  • Winds and seas tend to be calmer over night, as a land breeze creates winds flowing from the Florida land mass out to seas, and
  • We wanted to arrive at West End in daylight, allowing us to see the clear customs as soon as they opened, and to continue on across Little Bahama Bank when we could see the color of the water, and watch for unexpectedly shallow areas or coral heads.

Not much in the way of photos documenting this momentous occasion, because of the night crossing, but our wait for a weather window paid off, because the trip was relatively uneventful. The down side of waiting for light winds was that we could only sail about half the way, and had to motor the rest of the way to make forward progress.

We managed to stay within a couple of nautical miles of our two buddy boats all night, which was rather comforting. On watch by myself in the middle of the night, I could see a dim red light to my starboard that was Orion’s port navigation light, and a dim green to my port that was Disorder’s tri-color mast light. It also allowed Mike and me, on Sanitas, to serve as air traffic controllers for our tiny flotilla, since we were the only vessel with a functioning AIS system.

Thank goodness for AIS! Literally the last boat project we completed before leaving St Pete was to pay a technician a large sum of money to program our VHF radio, chart plotter, and short wave radio with our MMSI identification number to allow us to broadcast our information over the AIS network. As we crossed the busy shipping lanes outside the port of Miami, one of us would notice a light on the horizon and start to worry that the cruise ship or cargo ship bearing that light might be on an intersection course with our slow, teeny, sailing ships. Cruise ships, by the way, are lit up like a Christmas tree and can be seen for miles and miles (plenty of time for me to fantasize about what they were serving for dinner, and how cold the champagne must be) while cargo ships are dimly lit with only the required identification and navigation lights. Zoomed to the correct resolution, our Simrad chart plotter showed a triangle for each ship transmitting AIS, and with a click I could request the ship’s name, size, course, speed, and an estimate of when it would make its closest approach to Sanitas and how far away it would be at that closest point. Pretty cool technology, and invaluable when the horizon was filled with lights at 3:00 in the morning! Once, the City of Bismarck, listed in AIS as a military vessel, hailed us by name on the VHF radio to let us know that they saw us, and were changing course to avoid our path. None of the cruise ships or cargo ships lowered themselves to speak to us, but we did correct course several times to ensure a safer distance.

The Gulf Stream is no joke! Sanitas usually putters along at about 5 knots. With perfect sailing conditions, she gets up to 6 knots, and her hull speed is 7.2 knots. Crossing the Gulf Stream, we saw our speed over ground exceed 8 knots! (Of course that is only impressive if you don’t think too hard about the fact that I can still run faster than that for short distances.)

We haven’t quite got out overnight watch routine down yet, so we just sort of winged it. Mike slept under a blanket in the cockpit from 10:00 until midnight, when he wind changed and there were cargo ships everywhere so I woke him for reassurance. Then I “slept” until 4:00 am (if you can call it sleeping when every noise or change in motion of the boat causes me to bolt upright and yell, “Hey Mike! Are we ok?” Then Mike slept below through the rolliest part of the night until about 7:00 am when we could see Grand Bahama Island approaching.