Recovery Mode

After the crazy weather and scary sail into Warderick Wells, it was a wonderful feeling to be safely tied to a mooring ball in the north mooring field for the next few days.

Our first order of business was to assess the damage to our lazy jack system and solar panels. By covering one panel at a time, we figured out that the cracked solar panels still partially functioned. Great news! Because if the flexible panels weren’t functioning at all, we wouldn’t have the capacity to generate enough power to run our instruments and to keep the fridge cold. We’d have to run the generator or the motor every day to keep our house batteries topped up – loud, smelly, and requiring a lot of fuel. However, they were definitely compromised, and a google search informed us that they could catch on fire because of the damage. So we pretty much knew we needed to replace them, but where the heck would we find solar panels in the Bahamas? And exactly how many arms and how many legs would they charge if we found them? So I had a brilliant idea……

Drew and Sharon of SV ZRaye, our friends from St Petersburg, planned to leave Florida for the Bahamas as soon as they got a good weather window. Maybe they’d be kind enough to hand deliver two new solar panels to wherever we happened to be? Before I could reach out to ZRaye to propose our plan, or to start shopping on line for new solar panels, I had to figure out how to get cell coverage and data from within the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Last year, we figured out that if we took a 20 minute hike to the top of Boo Boo Hill, and stood behind and bench, and held my cell phone up in the air, I could usually get signal. This year, this old dog learned a new trick. We put my Google Fi phone in a waterproof bag and raised it up the flag halyard (which will henceforth be known as the “phone halyard”) We used my phone as a WiFi hot spot, and could sit comfortably in the cockpit surfing the interwebs on Mike’s phone and my iPad. Thanks to Elixir for the tip! An hour later, two new solar panels were ordered, shipping to Key West arranged, and ZRaye agreed to don her superhero cape and swoop in to rescue us with an international delivery. I love it when a plan comes together.

Next order of business, repairing the lazy jacks. Jeff from Elixir came by to help me hoist Capt. Mike up the mast. Safety third! It’s always good to have a backup line attached in case the main halyard fails when he’s 50 feet up in the air! Together, we hauled him up, where he was able to knot and repair the lazy jacks, instead of having to order a whole new system. Check one more repair off the list!

Finally, Capt. Mike used spare nuts and bolts and washers to replace the hardware that had broken on our dodger and Bimini. Not pretty, but it worked! Its amazing what a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday we were wet, tired, and scared with lots of expensive repairs to make. Today we were dry, well-fed, and basking in the sun, with all our problems solved for about $300. Not bad! We celebrated with a hike up Boo Boo Hill to stretch our legs and enjoy the views from this little slice of paradise.

Well That Was a Shit Show (Pardon my French)

If you’re reading this … and you’re my mom … you might want to skip to the next blog post. I’ll post about beautiful beaches and sunsets again soon, I promise.

Quote from the Explorer Chart Books: “Warderick Cut is wide and deep. This is probably the best cut between Highbourne and Conch Cuts unless you encounter a north wind against an ebb current. The current can be particularly strong here.”

The cuts in the Exumas are gaps in the island chain that divide the deep, rough Exuma Sound from the shallow, protected Bank. When the tides change, massive amounts of water funnel through the cuts driving extremely strong currents. On a good day, you aim right down the middle and let the current carry you through. On a bad day…. you don’t go through at all.

I have a rule, or maybe more of a goal, that I never want to have a good story about passing through a cut in the Bahamas. I always want us to have reviewed the weather reports in advance, researched the tides, planned the time of day, and then simply glide through each cut like we’re floating on a lazy river. Unfortunately, this time I got myself a story.

We left Rock Sound on Eleuthera in a veritable parade of boats. Everyone had weathered the most recent cold front, and decided to use this good weather window to move on before the next one hit. Six boats were traveling the same route as Sanitas; a straight shot of 46.5 nautical miles to Warderick Wells, halfway down the Exuma chain. Weather forecast was for 10 knots, increasing to 15 knots over the course of the day. Totally benign sailing conditions. Until they weren’t.

At about 12:30, we were seeing 20-30 knots directly on the stern, with at least 3 meter swells. Tricky sailing, because the swells really bounced Sanitas around, changing her direction relative to the wind just enough to trigger some accidental jibes – a fast powerful swing of the boom from one side of the boat to the other, ending in a powerful crash. We use a break system to control how far the boom can swing, but the force was still significant.

Jeff, on Elixir, radioed and asked us to double check the tides. When we expected to arrive at 3:00, it was supposed to be mid-tide, when the current is the strongest and fastest. We agreed to monitor conditions, and radio ahead to other boats to ask about the conditions. If it looked too rough, we’d wait.

Then, chaos erupted. While Capt. Mike was trying put a second reef in the mainsail, the starboard lazy jack lines snapped, and suddenly about 75 feet of thin line was whipping around crazily in the wind. On the next accidental jib, the unbalanced sail put pressure on the remaining port lazy jack lines, causing them to snap too. Double the amount of lines whipping in the wind. One failure cascaded into the next. While Capt. Mike went forward to grab handfuls of line and wrap it in duct tape to get it under control, one piece of line snagged on the corner of our dodger canvas and ripped the hardware right off, folding the canvas and our flexible solar panels in half. We used the knife mounted on the steering pedestal to cut that line to relieve the pressure. So much for saving the lazy jacks! Now I had control of the helm while Capt. Mike had to finish corralling the lazy jacks, and also had to dig spare lines out of the cockpit locker to lash our solar panels on before they could sustain more damage. So now, with our mainsail double-reefed and falling out of the destroyed sail bag, and our view from the helm partially blocked by the sail, we arrived at the Cut.

We hailed The Colonel’s Lady on 16 and asked what the conditions were like when they passed through the cut just before us. Their Captain responded, “Are you familiar with the term ‘a rage’? When northeast winds are blowing against the easterly flowing ebb tide right at the strongest mid-tide levels, forming big standing waves? Well it’s raging right now.” Capt. Mike asked, “But it’s doable?” And the Captain answered, “Well …. how heavy is your boat?”

At this point, we didn’t have a lot of options. Winds were over 30 knots, gusting higher. Swells were 3 meters with a very short period between waves. Our buddy boat Elixir reported “falling” down the waves at over 11 knots. You’re not in control of the boat or able to steer at those speeds. When the boat ahead of us entered a wave trough, it disappeared from view until it climbed up the next one. We couldn’t simply do circles out on the Sound and wait for better conditions. And our mainsail was a mess (we were afraid to turn into the wind and finish dropping it without our lazy jacks and sail bag in these conditions), the dodger and solar panels were barely tied on using a spare line, and stuff was thrown all over the cabin. So we went for it.

Capt. Mike was standing at the helm, tethered in and hand steering; trying to simultaneously keep us from going broadsides to the waves, and to keep us off the rocks and shoals. I was sitting close to the companionway, tethered in, holding up the iPad with Navionics so he could see the best route to take between the hazards. He said, “Don’t be surprised if a wave washes over the cockpit.” Yes. Really. He’d spin the wheel all the way to one side, then spin it quickly all the way back, trying to hit the waves head on so that we wouldn’t be knocked down by a sideways wave. He tried to stay on his feet, but Sanitas was bucking so hard, he got knocked back onto his butt on the cockpit bench. When he’d look back over his left shoulder to try to time the next wave, all he saw was frothy white water higher than our heads. The rock bars on either side of the cut looked awfully close, and Warderick Cut didn’t seem so wide anymore. But good steering and running the engine at maximum rpms got us through it. Capt. Mike would have a sore back and shoulders the next day.

Once we had enough sea room, we turned back into the wind and dropped the sail, manually flaking it and lashing it in place with dock lines. We had already passed the entrance to the mooring field, so we pointed Sanitas’ bow back into that wind and aimed for the narrow entrance. A fellow cruiser jumped into his dinghy and zoomed over to help us pick up the mooring ball. Thank goodness. It was still blowing 22+ knots in the protected mooring field when we got there, and we had to make a very tight turn to head upwind to the mooring ball inside a channel only two boat-lengths wide. Once secured, we took a deep breath, gave each other a hug, and radioed the park office that we’d not be coming ashore to check in that night. Did a quick survey of the damage and decided to put that off until tomorrow too. We confirmed that Elixir made it through ok (although they’d actually been spun around 360 degrees in the cut!), and we poured ourselves a whisky and watched the sunset, grateful to have made it to a safe harbor.

Operation Homeward Bound (Part2) – The Gulf Stream

Here’s a link to Part 1: Starting our sail from Nassau in The Bahamas back to Florida.

Two days into our journey from Nassau back to the States, we were once again prepping to cross the Gulf Stream. I complained to Capt. Mike that I couldn’t find any information on the internet about crossing the Gulf Stream in this East to West direction. He said “That’s because you’ve already crossed it once, so you know how!” I guess that’s true. But I’m a planner, and I want details, charts, pictures, more details! We were complicating things a bit by attempting to make it to Boot Key Harbor in Marathon in the Florida Keys before Subtropical Storm Alberto hit. So we’d be fighting against the northward flow of the Gulf Stream rather than benefitting from its power and speed. So when in doubt, I turn to my favorite blog The Boat Galley, and learned from Carolyn’s approach of researching all of the cuts through the Florida reef, aiming for the southernmost cut until the Stream pushed us north of that destination, then adjusting for the next cut north, etc. Our realistic goal was to enter the reef at the northern end of Key Largo right at sunset.

The Boat Galley

Day #3: 68.9 miles, 12.5 hours

After a horrible night’s sleep at South Riding Rock, we raised anchor at first light. The uncomfortable anchorage would hopefully be worth it, because it allowed us to start our westbound crossing 30 miles south of Bimini. Our motto for the day was “Get our southing in early” before the power of the Gulf Stream pushed us north. Winds were extremely light all day so we motored to ensure we’d reach the coast before dark. Good thing the days are getting longer!

We started off heading southwest at a COG (course over ground) of 260 degrees in less than 10 knots of wind. Capt. Mike created a table to track our course, distance covered, and speed each hour so that we could see our progress. We compared to our GPS data on the chart plotter for a visual indicator of when the Gulf Stream current started pushing us sideways and slowing our southbound progress. Each time that our COG varied significantly from the heading we had set in the auto pilot, we knew that the Gulf Stream was having more effect on Sanitas’ forward progress than our Yanmar engine was, and we needed to point ourselves a few degrees further north. The bonus benefit of the table was that it kept Capt. Mike entertained with data gathering and math on an otherwise long and uneventful day.

Our navigation and course planning was spot on! But it was still a ridiculously long day, especially on top of the previous two, and we were completely spent by the time we spotted the coast of Key Largo. We slipped inside the Florida Reef (the third largest barrier reef in the world!) right at sunset, and dropped the hook about a half a mile off an uninhabited shore – basically as close to the middle of nowhere as you can be in the Florida Keys. A couple of cans of soup and a small celebratory glass of wine, and we were asleep before 9:00 pm.

Back in the United States after three and a half months in The Bahamas!

Looking at our course on the chart plotter, we really did manage to cross the Gulf Stream using the classic S-Curve pattern. I guess we knew what we were doing all along!

Day #4: 66 miles, 11.5 hours – Boot Key Harbor, Marathon

The last day of our journey home was supposed to be uneventful, if a little bit annoying. Something along the lines of, “I haven’t touched land for 4 days, and Florida is right over there, but we have to wait another 12 hours to touch it” kind of annoying. But it ended up being the most challenging day of our crossing.

Our goal was to make it safely to a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor where we could wait out the high winds of Sub Tropical Storm Alberto. But the leading edge of the storm brought band after band of squalls with it. So even though we were traveling inside the Florida Reef and within sight of the Keys, we spent another sunrise to sunset day reacting to storms and going from motoring along with no wind to suddenly dealing with 30+ knots of wind. On the positive side, we got lots of practice reefing the main!

By the fourth mini storm of the day, Capt. Mike had the helm, and he sent me below to stay out of the cold driving rain. I sat at the bottom of the companionway, watching him like a hawk to make sure he wasn’t swept overboard. And shouting up every few minutes, “Are you ok? Do you need anything?”

We finally made it to Boot Key Harbor in Marathon just about half an hour after the marina closed for the night. Since we couldn’t reach anyone in the office to ask for a mooring ball, we took matters into our own hands! The last time we’d stayed in Boot Key before The Bahamas, we had moored on ball Romeo 5. We knew the way there, and knew the water was deep enough, so we just helped ourselves to the same ball four months later and settled in.

After four days we were finally home!

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.