We’re on the Thorny Path Now!

After two and a half weeks in Luperon, we finally had to drag ourselves away from the cruiser-friendly, super-fun community. After clearing out and getting our despacho paperwork from the naval commandant, we had an early night because we planned to leave the harbor before daybreak. This would become a theme for the rest of our sailing season. Why? Because we are far enough south now to be affected by the trade winds – the prevailing easterlies that blow 15-20 knots pretty much constantly, unless they are disrupted by a storm or other natural force. For the rest of this season we will always be trying to travel east, and sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind. We have the option to tack back and forth in a zig zag pattern to make progress eastward, at least doubling the distance we need to travel, or we wait for weather windows of light winds and calm seas and motor like heck as far as we can until that window closes. Also, we’ll start most of our travel days in the dark, because land creates a night lee of calm wind close to shore, disrupting the flow of the trade winds until the sun heats up the land and wind and waves return in the afternoon. If this sounds complicated, it is! Most of us sailboat cruisers have been poring over the same guide book, treating it like the bible for sailing in these waters; “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South– The Thornless Path to Windward” by Bruce Van Sant. We’re all, “Van Sant says this” and “Van Sant says that” as if we are members of the same cult. If you’ve read this far, you may have drunk the kool-aid 🤣

So anyway…. five boats left Luperon harbor around 5:00am, all heading east toward Samaná, more or less using the Van Sant method. The weather report predicted light winds, but we were seeing 15 knots directly from the east. We motored straight into it until the beautiful town of Sosua, where we picked up a mooring ball, ate lunch and took a good nap, planning to head out again after dark. Around 4:00, a dive boat pulled up and made us leave. (This sounds simple, but it actually required many hand gestures, the use of Google Translate, and futile attempts to negotiate to let us stay just a little bit longer) We picked up another ball nearby, only to have the same thing happen about 45 minutes later. Our buddy boats were getting kicked out as well, and several of them said “Forget it!” and just started out a few hours earlier than planned. However, as soon as they left the protection of Sosua harbor, we heard them on the VHF radio complaining of high winds and rough seas. One boat actually turned around and came back! Capt. Mike and I decided to slow roll our departure, so we hove-to and basically drifted very….slowly…. toward the mouth of the harbor then turned around and drifted very….slowly…..back. This got old, so at 9:00pm we headed out.

Outside the protection of the harbor, winds were still strong, and waves were big. Not dangerous, but because they were working against us they slowed our forward progress so much that we were only making 3 knots. Yep. We could have walked faster. We decided we couldn’t make it to Samaná at this rate, so we made a Plan B chose a closer anchorage instead and settled in for our night watches. On the positive side, after two years we finally figured out how to use our radar system! So we used the radar to stay about half a mile off-shore, or in 120 feet of water. Steering to those parameters kept us each busy and entertained during the night – almost like playing a video game.

Around 2:00am the seas finally laid down and Sanitas picked up speed. Hooray! On our next change of watch we came up with a Plan C to split the difference and travel to the harbor of El Valle. Decision made, I went below to try to sleep. When I woke up at sunrise, Capt. Mike was in a bit of a frenzy. He’d noticed a vibration in the steering wheel and a laboring noise from the motor and was attempting to troubleshoot. After checking the belts, the motor mounts, and the rudder shaft and finding nothing wrong, it was time to get serious. Capt. Mike was going into the water (in the middle of nowhere, in infinite depth) to check it out. We dropped all sails and turned off the motor, but we were still drifting at almost 1 knot. We pulled out a spare line to tie around his waist, dug out snorkel fins and mask, and put out the swim ladder. I told him I loved him, and he jumped in. After a deep breath and two exploratory dives, Capt. Mike surfaced yelling, “Hand me the knife on the steering pedestal!” I had it to him in a flash. Another couple of breaths and he grabbed the side of the boat and tossed a big mess of orange canvas and blue rope aboard. This pile of abandoned fishing junk had been wrapped around the prop, preventing it from turning and messing with our ability to steer. Scary as it was to get into the water while at sea, at least Capt. Mike had quickly found the smoking gun and fixed it. Ten minutes after we stopped, we were back underway.

Finally, around mid-afternoon we approached the harbor of El Valle. It had been a long couple of days, and we were ready for a rest. As we approached the anchorage I couldn’t help but exclaim over and over again, “This place is gorgeous. Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful!” The vibrant green mountains were steep as fjords, and we were headed straight for a sandy beach rimmed with palm trees. We had found a perfect tropical paradise for the night as the reward for all of our efforts!

From a distance, our paradise looked deserted. But as we got closer, I noticed a small thatched roof shack. And couldn’t help but hear the loud music. Although we’d been awake all night, I couldn’t just cook dinner and go to sleep without exploring! So I convinced Capt. Mike to swim ashore with me to avoid the trouble of putting the dinghy in the water. Great decision! It felt wonderful to stretch our legs on the sandy beach, and to climb and play on the rocks. And then! We rewarded ourselves for our successful long sail with fresh pina coladas. Served right in the pineapple! Yum, yum, yum! Did I mention how much I love the Dominican Republic? ♥️🇩🇴

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!

Crossing the Coral Garden

Leaving Spanish Wells Harbor was a little bit more exciting than we had expected.

We’d spent three nights on one of Bandit’s mooring balls, but we had only paid for one night. It seemed bad karma, not to mention impolite to leaving without paying the rest. So we spoke to Mrs Bandit on the radio the night before leaving, and made a plan for him to pick up the money at 7:00 am – just before we headed out for the day’s sail. Apparently Mrs Bandit never told Mr Bandit the plan, because by the time we hailed him on the radio at 7:30, he was already two islands away. We tossed around some ideas of how to get him the money without too badly inconveniencing ourselves, and finally settled on giving the money to one of his friends at the fuel dock. So, we cruised ever so slowly past the dock and I shouted “Does anyone know Bandit?” When someone answered “Yes. I’ll make sure this gets to him” I leaned over and handed him an envelope filled with cash as we drifted by. Bandit, if you’re reading this, I hope you got your money. I handed it to the old fisherman with the beard. You guys know each other, right?

Then all of our comm systems suddenly blew up. I heard “Sanitas… Sanitas … Sanitas” on channel 71. Then a DSC direct call, which makes our VHF ring like an old-school telephone. Then my new-school cell phone started ringing (which happens so seldom, I don’t even recognize the ring tone). Our friends on Orion and Disorder were trying to alert us that a massive UFO-sized cargo ship had just entered the narrow Spanish Wells channel.

We were already trying to leave the harbor, and were pretty sure this channel wasn’t big enough for the both of us. So we did a little donut turn to slow down, and moved as far to starboard as we could while still staying in deep water. And I walked along the starboard deck of Sanitas fending off dock pilings with my bare hands. A crewman on the cargo ship waved at me. Now this all happened in fairly slow motion, so it might not have appeared at all dramatic to a bystander, but it was hair-curlingly nerve wracking to me and to Capt. Mike! Especially since I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet!

This was our easiest passage so far: smooth seas, light winds, no dramatic equipment failures. Crossing Fleeming Cut was a piece of cake. (Remember my goal for crossing cuts? No stories!) The trickiest part of this day was crossing the coral garden east of Nassau. The charts for this area are covered with plus symbols and warnings such as “Numerous Shallow Coral Heads”, “Unsurveyed Area”, and “Visual Piloting Rules apply”. We had downloaded a set of eight GPS waypoints from Drew on Z-Raye, and we used these points to guide us from Fleeming Cut down to the northern end of the Exuma Chain near Ship Channel. These waypoints helped immensely, but didn’t substitute for scanning the seas ahead, and adjusting course when needed.

From about 1:30 in the afternoon to 4:30, Capt. Mike and I took turns standing on the bow of Sanitas, wearing polarized sunglasses, scanning the waters around us. We kept the autopilot navigating to the next waypoint, but when we’d spot a round, black coral head, the spotter on the bow would provide guidance to the person at the helm on how to avoid it. Things like, “Twenty degrees to starboard”, or ” hard to port”.

The coral was easier to spot than I had expected, and we usually saw them about a football field away. Still, it kept me on edge for the afternoon, especially when we were in the thick of it and there were coral heads to both sides and directly ahead of us. Once the sun got lower in the sky, it was harder to spot the contrast between the turquoise blue of the water and the black of the coral. I’m glad that by that point in the afternoon, we were through the thickest patch, and the need to frequently adjust course to avoid hitting the coral had diminished.

We pulled into the anchorage at Highborn Cay around 6:30 after about eleven hours of travel. Exactly one month after entering The Bahamas, we’d finally made it to the Exuma Islands! In addition to that milestone, we also celebrated six months since we left our jobs, AND Mike’s birthday. Fresh lime margaritas in the cockpit at sunset, using the last of our rapidly melting ice; homemade pad thai with ingredients from the tiny Asian market in Marsh Harbour, and gluten free brownies standing in for a birthday cake.

Now this is more like it!

Are we allowed to have fun? St Pete Boat Show

We’ve never been boat owners while attending a boat show before! So we were thrilled to be able to attend the St Pete boat show right in our own town. This show combined sail boats and motor boats, so there was something for everyone. And plenty of opportunities to spend money! We sat in on several seminars and picked up tips on cruising in The Bahamas and Cuba, and learned that we need to order The Explorer Chartbooks by Monty and Sara Lewis to really be confident cruising in the Bahamas and to finding our way around on shore.

Speaking of spending money, we bought our dinghy, Bug, at the boat show. We got a pretty good deal on a 2017 model Achilles HB-240AL. In plain English, that’s a 2.4 meter inflatable dinghy with an rigid aluminum floor. It’s a compromise between big enough to get us from boat to shore, and small enough to fit on the foredeck (with the staysail rigging in place) and light enough for two normal-sized people to load and unload. It’s going to be a slow ride though with our measly 5hp outboard!

The other big attraction of the boat show is the annual cruiser party hosted by Cruising Outpost magazine. Bob and Jody Bitchin (don’t you wish your name was “Bitchin”) bring in live music, kegs of beer, and lots and lots of pizzas and keep the party going after the boat show gates close on Saturday night. Our heads spinning, our wallets lighter, and our spirits encouraged by contact with the cruising community, we returned to the yard and to boat projects.