Tuesday, April 28, 2009

There and Back Again

We spent a couple of days doing the kind of sailing that we had only ever heard fantastical stories about- island hopping. Up until that point we had only ever done 50-70 mile days, the length and arduousness of which tend to diminish the pleasurability of sailing. For the first time we were able to wake up casually around 8am, have breakfast and haul anchor by 9 then sail for 5 hours and arrive at another island by mid-afternoon. We had perfect wind and the protected waters of the Abacos' banks made for calm, stress free conditions. Patrick fished diligently and succeeded in catching two baby Barracuda which we released, and one giant something or rather that he lost before he could reel in. Luckily our friends Pat and Jen were catching some delicacy almost daily and supplied us with fish to our hearts' content.  

The furthest we made it into the Abacos was Grand Cay. We all intended to go as far as Green Turtle Cay but our plans changed suddenly when we discovered that one of those highly sought after "weather windows" was approaching in a few days, and if we didn't take it it would be more than a week before we could attempt crossing back to Florida. Our friends Paul and Piper of Delphine were on schedule to meet Piper's brother in Marsh Harbor, but Pat, Jen and ourselves needed to get back, so after a couple of days of snorkeling, and family dinners we parted ways with Delphine and started making plans for our return trip. 

Now, the night we met Pat and Jen on Madeline, we had just had our butts collectively kicked by the gulf stream. None of us were looking forward to crossing again, although we had gained confidence solely from the fact that we had survived once already. That being said we had initially planned on making the trip as short, utilizing as much upward thrust of the gulf stream, and doing as little of it at night as possible. So naturally we decided to leave from Grand Cay and sail straight through to Cape Canaveral, a total of 160 nautical miles (that's 240 statutory miles). 

Why are we so irrational? I'll tell you, we were bullied. A few nights before we left Grand Cay, ten sailboats arrived all staging to return to the states. One boat 'Kokomo' was going to do the trip to Cape Canaveral, a couple of others were heading straight to Annapolis-a three day passage, and three others were sailing straight to Jacksonville which is a two day haul. With all of this talk about passage-making we started to feel like pansies. We were planning on sailing three days out of the way back to West End, just so we could make a 10 hour crossing, all in daylight. After a rousing dinner with all the sailors before they all parted ways for their respective voyages we were convinced. Cape Canaveral is where Pat and Jen store Madeline for the summer, and it would shave off a lot of time in the Florida ICW for us so, with much trepidation, we began making plans for our biggest passage yet. 

Before leaving, we encountered another squall. I awoke early one morning to what I thought was thunder, but since squalls are so unusual in the morning I told myself I was just being paranoid having not yet recovered from the last experience. I looked out the window and saw thickening clouds on the horizon but they didn't seem to be threatening or advancing so I went back to sleep. Exactly five minutes later we were hit by a thirty knot gust of wind followed by torrential rain. Patrick was on deck checking anchors while I closed all the hatches and made the boat storm ready. There was a 40 foot island packet that had anchored next to us the night before and as the wind shifted we found ourselves suddenly close enough to hit. He was in his cockpit yelling at Patrick because we had two anchors out instead of one. Whether or not it is an inferior method of anchoring (which he was convinced that it was) it didn't change the fact that we were there first, with two anchors out first, and he was too close. Patrick adjusted scope, and dropped the second anchor entirely and we turned on the engine expecting the worst, but it didn't happen. Ten minutes later the squall had already blown itself out and was winding down to light but persistent rain. It ended up being one of those rainy sleepy days when you stay inside, drink tea and read. 

Like anywhere worth going, the Grand Cay inlet is shoaly, lined with rocks, narrow and winding so we needed to leave our anchorage with plenty of sunlight. We decided to haul anchor at 5pm, and be safely past the major shoals and submerged rock piles that dot the banks before sunset. The weather window wasn't ideal. Essentially it was a lingering high pressure system, trapping dangerously strong winds, and most inclement weather to the south. Unfortunately, the winds were forecasted to be due East for 5 straight days, gradually increasing in speed. East winds aren't the best because we were heading west, and neither the Cape Dory or Madeline do well on a run, and sometimes even broad reaches can be sketchy if the seas are rough. So we decided to err on the side of caution by leaving on the lightest winds forecasted--10 knots, even though we knew it might force us to motor. 

The night we left was so calm that the waters of the banks were entirely undisturbed. The only motion of the water was our own wake (which was unfortunately made by our engine), and for the first time in our sailing experience the evening sky was cloudless. We journeyed westward into the red sunset (red sky at night sailor's delight) while gazing into the pristine water catching glimpses of fish and stingray. 

That night on the Bahama Banks was spiritual. I had never been so excited to go on watch. The rich darkness of the waveless sea brilliantly offset the stars. Every meteor was glaringly bright, and even the abrasive rattling of the diesel engine was unable to detract from the serene stillness of the night. It was much more like being in outer space on Voyager, than being on the ocean in a sailboat. 

Despite being unable to sail we were making great time, and by 3 am we were nearing the shelf that cradles the Bahamas before dropping off to form the depths of the Atlantic. The shelf is usually the roughest part of the ocean, large swells squeeze up over the shelf becoming large and unstable. In anticipation of unruly waves, I closed up all the portholes and secured everything below. Two hours later however the Cape Dory hadn't so much as rocked meaningfully. I asked Patrick if we were off the shelf yet, and it turned out we were already well into the Atlantic. There were no waves. The Atlantic ocean looked like a lake. There was still no wind, and we had been motoring for ten hours already. Pat and Jen, who were right behind us, monitoring 68 on the VHF radio were as nervous as we were about running out of fuel, or engine failure in what was essentially a doldrum. It was so calm that the only distinguishing feature of the gulf stream was our sudden unaccountable speed- 7 knots--a speed neither of our boats can accomplish under power. 

Patrick and I continued our watches, and I had been asleep for an hour when I heard him screaming at me to turn the radio to 16. I ran on deck, terror stricken (no one likes it when someone yells frantically on a boat in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean) where I noticed a high beam spot light flashing on us in the cockpit from a quarter of a mile away. We switched to 16 and heard this: "Sailing Vessel, this is the United States Coast Guard, acknowledge and switch to channel 17." Patrick was still snapping out of his night watch stupor, when he responded. The coast guard immediately began interrogations. Who are we, where are we going, where did we come from, our vessel registration, are we smuggling illegal immigrants, do we have fruit on board, are you the owner of the vessel, what is the meaning of life? By the time we had answered all these questions it was nearly dawn, and the morning glow allowed us to decipher a great hulking shadow to our port side. The coast guard vessel was the size of a tanker and it ran with no lights at all, sneaking around US waters catching unwary boaters off guard and scarring them to death. 

We only saw one other boat before morning. It was a huge freighter and it was obviously going to cross paths with us so I hailed it to announce our presence. As usual it didn't respond, but I was nervous of it hitting us so I diligently hailed it every minute until finally the coast guard came on saying, "Swift Ranger, the vessel off your bow is called Port Prince, try hailing with that name." Apparently you are not as alone on the big wide ocean as you might think.  

It was a comfort when the sun came up and the calm conditions were unchanged. Unfortunately the wind continued to take a holiday and amble about at 4 knots from entirely the wrong direction. We were able to raise sails occasionally while motoring, but they would always start to luff after an hour or so. 

The hours ticked by monotonously. It was obvious we wouldn't make port until just after sunset at 8 pm, so we continued napping, reading and eating in shifts, occasionally hailing Madeline to commiserate. I was rewarded in the afternoon by a pod of dolphins hunting a school of fish underneath the Cape Dory. They swam and leapt around our boat for more than half an hour. I know it's lame, but I still get excited every time I see a dolphin. Manatees on the other hand are the let down of a century. Not only are they indolent potato-reminiscent monstrosities, they  surface wherever whenever they want like a lummox with no sense of courtesy and smash into our rudder, or nearly tip over the dinghy while I'm in it. For some unaccountable reason, Florida pours so much revenue into a save the manatee fund. They are imbeciles.    

Finally, 26 hours from when we commenced, landfall. As we neared the Port Canaveral inlet, Jen hailed us on the radio, "We seem to be having engine trouble." Promptly, we both slowed  down. Then they stopped altogether and began drifting slowly towards the jetties which were quite a distance off but still unpleasantly in the vicinity. Patrick motored in circles around them while we brain stormed as to what might be the problem. After a few guesses, the problem was discovered and it happened to be fixable-- but not before we all envisioned a number of dangerous scenarios that involved a coast guard helicopter rescue. We carried on, but warily, and a few more engine stalls later we were literally crashing into slips at the nearest marina. We cared for nothing aside from getting off the boat. Pat and Jen, being angels of mercy, took us back to their home nearby in Titusville where we could sleep in a real bed and shower--things we hadn't done since we bought the boat. 

I'm still not sure how we did it, but we can officially check "sail yourself to tropical island and back in one piece" off of our mutual life to do list.  

Sunday, April 26, 2009

John Travolta and me

Having other boats around us for “comfort,” we sat around dreaming of places other than West End. West End, Bahamas is a great place to lose your momentum. High dollar power boats, John Travolta mansions, fake sand, and angry locals working for even angrier Caucasian’s. 9:00am, I never thought I’d be able to see two men and a fake breasted – 44DD’s that faded into legs – wearing solid gold chains, hammering Coors’ Lights while yelling at a local about how bad “Yerz Inglish” is. The icing on the cake is 50 knot winds. 


            We sat watching clouds manufacture themselves over and over again. To this day,  I have never seen clouds move so fast and become so gloomy. Alaina and I became anxious and stowed everything away; all I could remember is our uncle C.J. talking about squalls and how you needed goggles otherwise the rain would tear through your eyes. I didn’t hesitate to grab my snorkel and mask - I am glad I remembered that little gem, thanks C.J.

            As soon as we situated everything on the boat a huge blast of rain came down cleaning everything off of our boat. The New Yorker I left in the dinghy was immediately maimed, castrated, then turned into a Star weekly. Absolute trash. We watched perched in front of our hatch, as the rain grew stronger and stronger. Out of nowhere, 50 knots of wind came without warning and tipped our boat over 30 degrees and threw us back dislodging one of our anchors. The wind held strong and I glanced out with my mask to see how close we were to our neighboring boats just to be met with rain cutting against my face. This was one of the most mesmerizing acts of nature I have ever seen. I was ready to run out and start the engine to motor away from the other boats in case our 2nd anchor slipped, but I didn’t know what good that would do; I literally could not see 10 feet in front of me. We sat white knuckled, ready to jump towards the helm for the next 15 minutes, and after that, blue skies. 


Squalls are entertaining; this is a terrible word choice. They last 10-20 minutes and make you and everyone around you pee their pants. They are sneak previews of hurricanes and slaps in the face. Luckily, for the rest of the night we didn’t see any other squalls, what we did see was a series of small thunderstorms all strong enough just to keep us up all night. When we awoke the next morning with baggy eyed headaches, we were pretty much done with West End. We packed up and headed out to the Abacos looking in every direction for our next squall.


It’s been almost 1 week since that experience and we are still anxiously pointing out every semi-dark cloud asking “is that going to destroy us?”


From West End we sojourned at Mangrove Key. As we approached the 15 knot westerly vanished into nothing. The surface of the sea was impeccably still. Not a ripple. You could make out the subtle features of the ocean floor up to fifteen feet below. After dropping anchors, all of us (Pat, Jen, their two dogs, Patrick and I) jumped into the water and swam until the sun tucked into the horizon. That evening we feasted on a freshly caught mackerel thanks to Pat and Jen, and sipped our cocktails while observing a spectacular lightning storm developing some twenty miles south of us. It was a rewarding night after the monotony of West End.


Currently, we are still in the Abacos awaiting our next weather window to pass back into the States. The people here seem to think Alaina and I are from Miami and have kiddy pools of money that we frequently swim in. It’s a lose lose situation. On a brighter note, the Abacos are beautiful and the snorkeling is amazing. Two other couples we met have been sailing around with us for the past week now; Pat and Jenn, and Paul and Piper. They are all amazing people and it has been a real treat getting to know all of them; their hospitality has been astonishing.


Right now we’re off to Grand Cay, Abacos.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bimini Magic

The Riley's and I had a fabulous time exploring Bimini together. For being so small an island, it offered a wide variety of things to do including a beautiful Atlantic beach and quaint little shops and restaurants, none of which escaped Karen's astute curiosity. 

The touristy side of Bimini was conveniently isolated to the point of being quarantined on the northernmost part of the island hemmed in by a large gate, presumably to keep the poor locals out--or the rich yachties in. The locals who are all Caribbean immigrants were very welcoming to us. A perfect example is our experience at the local laundromat. On our second visit, the woman who ran the place recognized us. She noticed that my favorite white dress had an appalling stain that I had been unable to remove, so she took the dress herself saying in all seriousness, "I love whites, and I hate seeing them done improperly." She promptly treated, washed and dried the thing for me in fifteen minutes. My dress is better than new. 

(Overwhelmed by the beach vacation stereotype, we took prom-esque pictures together.)

Karen, who could snorkel for days without tiring, gave us all the water bug and got me to do some introductory snorkeling, Patrick worked as my breathing coach. I kept forgetting that I could still breathe through the snorkeler when my head was submerged. Unfortunately every time I spotted something other than sand underwater, I would panic and climb back into the boat. It's about as fun to see underwater as it is in a scary movie when the camera finally pans and shows you who the killer is. Some things are better left unknown. 

After several glorious days of feasting on conch fritters and drinking gin and tonics, the four of us parted ways. With Ed and Karen gone, along with our ticket to civilized living, we find ourselves dining primarily on baked beans out of a can and pancakes. Patrick only barely managed to lure me into a Bahamas crossing with promises of bountiful tropical fruits, something our pecuniary limitations have long deprived me of. Unfortunately no one told the Bahamian vegetation that an underfed, uninformed couple from the states were about to arrive with coconut dreams. There is never a coconut that hasn't already been mostly eaten, or a little gnawed on, or spoilt all together. Don't even get me started on the subject of fresh fish that we were supposed to be catching and eating in abundance. As it turns out even paradise isn't so paradisical.

We spent more than a week in Bimini. Patrick is neither used to or content with being stationary for so long, meaning we had overstayed our visit and it was time to head for another island. Of the plethora of islands and cays that comprise the Bahamas, we chose the least appealing and most touristy Grand Bahama. We decided to suck it up and make the sixty mile trip north because it would set us up at a great approach angle for our eventual return to the states. Also, Grand Bahama is a good staging point for the Abacos which is a chain of uninhabited islands tucked into the protected Bahama banks, surrounded by twenty feet or less of water with pristine beaches and coral reefs. In so many words, they are archetypal of the tropics.  
Before leaving Bimini, which I had really grown fond of, we visited the local library. There is no attendant. The way it works is you bring a book of your own and trade it in for a book of your choice. We traded one of our books it for a sweet 'choose your own adventure' book. It's perfect for reading out loud to entertain whomever is taking his or her shift at the helm since its only about a 5th grade reading level and its interactive. 

The day before we planned on leaving I came down with the usual case of nerves that precede any new voyage. We had just met a young couple in our anchorage who were planing to make the same trip as ourselves. Paul and Piper, on their 29 foot Columbia Delphine. We rarely meet sailors who are under 50, so we were pretty excited when they pulled up next to us. Paul and Piper had been living on Delphine for two years, and had several liveaboard insights to share with us. They called us to let us know that they had made it safely to Grand Bahama by leaving before sunrise and arriving half an hour before sunset. That is cutting it close. As I've said before, it is dangerous to enter any of these exposed ocean inlets at night. However, their boat is around the same speed as ours and they had light winds the day they left so we were pretty sure we could make it. Plus we were tempted by the possibility of keeping good company in the Abacos.  

At this point I had grown so accustomed to lounging on the beach that 12 to 13 hours of being tossed around in the Atlantic seemed even less attractive than usual. So I did something that I rarely do. I made Patrick feel bad for whisking me all around the seas until he decided we would just stay in Bimini. Patrick even tried to alleviate my fears by distracting me with a dress I had been admiring in town as an early birthday present. I had my way, but that night going to bed I felt guilty. I didn't want to be responsible for holding us back from new experiences, or the Cape Dory from doing what she does best out on the water. I had a plagued nights' sleep and woke around 5am to a tranquil predawn stillness. I knew the inlet would be easy to exit in such conditions, even in low light. I knew what needed to be done. We were going to have to get back out on the Atlantic sooner or later in order to return home, so I had better gather my courage and face me fears. I woke up Patrick rather sheepishly saying, "It's 5am and we can make it to Grand Bahama if we leave now." Patrick responded by laughing out loud and saying that I was crazy. We ran around the boat prepping her to leave filled with excitement over our own spontaneity. 

As usual, the forecast was wrong about everything except for the wind direction. It was southeast alright, but 5 knots instead of 15. We had to motor all morning and afternoon. Though modest for the ocean, the swells felt enormous and the Cape Dory didn't ride them as well as she could because we couldn't put the sails up. It was twelve grueling hours of surfing four to six footers coupled with the deafening grind of the diesel engine. We only averaged the minimum speed that would get us to the inlet before sundown, and that put a considerable strain on us. If anything went wrong or if slowed at all we wouldn't make it in time. By the time we could see land the sun was low in the sky and we were feeling pretty nervous. As we drew nearer to the shelf that gradually inclines to form the island the waves had doubled in size. Everywhere white foamy caps had formed on the crests and countercurrent caused rogue waves at regular intervals that would knock us over on our side. Patrick was lashed to the boat, and down below I was crashing from one wall to the other trying to read the chart. Patrick felt seasick when he went below so it was up to me to navigate into the inlet, something I had never done before. The depths diminished so dramatically as we drew nearer to land that the seas became tumultuous. We had our first exposure to ten and twelve foot waves. From the top of the wave you look down into a steep valley and feel as though you might topple off right into it. The Cape Dory performed marvelously for having to motor, but we were scared out of our wits. By the time we made it to the inlet, even the usual concern of running aground had diminished in light of the huge merciless seas. 

(Pat was at the helm all day. He is wearing his safety harness and REI hat Ed left behind for him. Notice how he looks like one of those Zoo volunteers.)
All day long we had looked forward to a night at a marina in West End, Grand Bahama only to arrive and discover that their slips are 130$ a night, and there were none available anyway. The only alternative was to anchor. Now, there is only one possible anchorage at West End, and its pretty horrible. There is no considerable land mass that divorces it from the Atlantic, but so many shoals and sandbars that cut the swells down enough to give you a decent night's sleep if the weather's calm. 

We came careening into the anchorage just as the sun was setting. As our luck would have it several enormous power yachts had arrived first and messed everything up by dropping one hook. As a rule, you have to anchor in the same fashion as everyone else so that you all swing the same way. Unfortunately, in this anchorage the tidal currents surge in and out so dramatically that no two boats lay on their anchor in the same way. Thus defeating the one-hook method of anchoring. Just before sunset two other small sailboats tucked in close to us, and one belonged to the couple we met earlier in Bimini. We were all a little wary of our anchoring situation and by midnight all of our fears were confirmed. The wind kicked up to about 20 knots with higher gusts and each boat was swiveling madly in incongruous directions. Everyone was on deck with flashlights calling to each other in an attempt to decipher whether or not we were going to drag anchor, collide, or both. Patrick and I were swinging so close to another sailboat, Madeline that we were able to chat without shouting to her Captain and Skipper, Pat and Jen. We needed to do a Bahamian moor to hold against the changing current. Patrick rowed out in the pitch blackness to drop a second anchor. I was terrified that he wouldn't be able to row against the current and each time he put down the oars so that he might drop the anchor he was immediately whisked away and lost the spot where he needed to drop it. A neighboring boat flashed a high beam light on him at intervals to make sure he wasn't being washed out to sea. He ended up throwing the anchor over in a less than ideal location, leaving me to pull in the rode at the bow. Before he could take up his oars again the current had already taken him as far as Pat and Jen's boat. He grabbed onto the side of their boat where they discussed at length what was the best option to keep them from swinging into us. Their inflatable dinghy wasn't inflated so they didn't have a good way to lay a second anchor, and they hadn't done a bahamian moor before anyway, so Patrick rowed out their anchor as well. We all felt more secure than before and the wind was beginning to settle. Patrick managed to row back, but not before inviting Pat and Jen over for coffee in the morning. 

Let me just say that if you have not had to have a dinghy powwow with strangers in the middle of the night in order to keep yourself and your neighbors safe from the elements, you haven't lived. 

By the next day we were all fast friends and we are making tentative plans to make our trip to the Abacos as a small, friendly flotilla.

The last few days of extreme adventure and more than a little danger have left me with a lot of material for reflection. My most profound insight however has been this. Sailing has rendered us unto a lifestyle that can only be described as soft barbarism. Over our dinner of tuna casserole, made exclusively out of canned goods, we realized that neither of us have had a proper shower in over a week. Saltwater seems to mask most smells but I think it does more to dilute our memories. We didn't remember that we hadn't been bathing until just yesterday. I haven't looked in a mirror in days. I haven't brushed my hair. We don't know what we look like and I think we have stopped seeing each other altogether. Our situation is entirely reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. Our can opener broke so we have to smash into our cans to get anything out. We eat meals straight out of the pot, wash our dishes in the ocean and wear bathing suits everyday so as not to dirty our laundry. Patrick quit shaving and I might have head lice. A piece of my tooth chipped off the other day so why not? These days we look suspiciously more like poor farm hands, or survivors of the apocalypse than anything else. And yet we are deliciously happy. I've been devouring books (Patrick is still stuck on Gravity's Rainbow, I don't know what he sees in Thomas Pynchon) naming fish, braiding my hair, and experimenting with new recipes based on four ingredients: rice, canned green beans, corn starch, peanut butter. 

Here are some sample recipes:

"Crazy Corn Cloggers"
Prep time: 30 seconds
Cook time: 10 minutes

Jiffy cornbread mix sans all other cornbread-like ingredients
Canned Corn
Corn Starch  

Mix together in pot, heat up.

"Tuna Surprise"
Prep time: 1 minute
Cook time: 5 minutes

Canned Tuna

Monday, April 6, 2009

To the Bahamas

After two nonconsecutive weeks at Jewfish creek, Patrick came down with a severe case of wanderlust. Comments like “we never go anywhere anymore, we do the same thing everyday,” and “I am so tired of waking up to the same view” were a good clue for me. So, although it was entirely unnecessary, as they could have easily taken a bus or a cab from Miami to Key Largo, Patrick and I made the day-long sail to Miami once more in order to pick up Ed and Karen in the Cape Dory ourselves.

More foul weather was predicted so we wasted no time getting to Miami. The morning we left Jewfish Creek, the wind was 25 knots. We started with a reef in the main but as we kept being knocked over by gusts, we dropped the sails entirely and Patrick put in the second reef for the first time. This made things much more comfortable and we found ourselves on a pleasant broad reach at 6 knots for most of the day until the winds died later in the afternoon. However by the time we were approaching Dinner Key, where we planned on anchoring for the next few nights, we had achieved a new state of grumpiness. The afternoon heat featuring 97% humidity was oppressive. All we wanted was to drop that anchor and get out of the sun. Naturally we were disappointed when we turned out of the channel towards the anchorage only to find ourselves in a near collision with a sunken ship. Patrick noticed the plummeting depths and had thrown the Cape Dory into reverse before we beached ourselves on top of a derelict vessel. Aside from a little bottom paint, nothing was lost.

We scooted back into the channel with no idea of what to do next. We had been sailing for close to eight hours at that point and really needed a rest. We stopped at the fuel dock simply for the sake of stopping and weighed our options. Slip prices at the marina were outrageous, and no one seemed to be able to tell us what the depths were for the local anchorages. We had no choice but to sail back out into Biscayne Bay where there was a good anchorage about an hour away. I was close to furious, but as it was no one’s fault I found no relief in expressing my anger at inanimate objects. As we pulled out of the fuel dock, we decided on a desperate hunch to try motoring behind a spoil island that protected the marina to see if there was access to the anchorage that way. A small sailboat had just entered the channel so we slowed down and I yelled to them that we needed to get into the anchorage without running aground first. The captain responded by pointing us towards a small creek through the spoil islands that led into a small stretch of deep water where we could anchor. We were so relieved. Within thirty minutes we had dropped two anchors and secured ourselves with a nice “Bahamian moor” which protects you from shifting winds and currents.

The anchorage was extremely sketch. It looked like everyone had either stolen their boats, or were waiting for their boats to sink out from under them. Occasionally, when I was in the cockpit adjusting lines or what have you, I would spot a pair of glowing, beady eyes staring from within the dark recesses of a barnacle-ridden boat. It was a little unnerving, so Patrick and I kept a careful watch over our boat and dinghy.

We had a day to kill at Dinner Key waiting for Ed and Karen’s plane to arrive. Unfortunately the weather was squally featuring perpetual rain and a late night display of lightening. The anchorage wasn’t very sheltered, and I was a little nervous as we bounced around in the building chop but we were snug all day and we squeezed in more reading than any other day up until that point. Patrick is nearly through with Gravity’s Rainbow and that is saying something.

(Relaxing just after a rain squall passed over us.)

The following morning, we scoured the boat (first impressions!) in preparation for Ed and Karen’s arrival. Patrick even “staged” the v-berth by arranging pillows and blankets in a Martha Stewart like fashion. The Cape Dory was fit for a very petite king.

We (and by that I mean Patrick, I tried to row once and we got caught in a rip-tide, but I thought I just had bad form, so I started beating the oar angrily on the side of the dingy…since then, I’ve been exempt from dinghy duty) rowed approximately 1.2 miles to the dinghy dock at Coconut Grove and wandered around the town in search of the local library. As it turns out, libraries are obscenely archaic. No one had the faintest notion of where it was. There were little signs everywhere of a stick figured man reading a book with an arrow, but when we would follow it we would end up at a dead end. At each dead end we would ask someone where the library was to no avail. We ended up at an American Apparel. For fun, I asked Patrick to go in with me and we could ask about the library there. After making my request to the two hip cashiers, one girl responded by staring at the flurescent lights repeating the word ‘library,’ slowly emphasizing each syllable as if she were trying it out for the very first time. The guy responded by showing off his colored “Tribe Called Quest” tattoo on his forearm. I thanked them and we continued on our quest alone. As it turned out, the library was on the same block as American Apparel, directly behind their building. If they had ever walked out the back door, they would have found themselves next to the entrance of the library.

Anyway. Ed and Karen arrived with full fanfare. We were very happy to see them and we had a fine time of dinghying back all four of us in our two person rowing dinghy without swamping or capsizing every time a powerboat passed. Since their arrival, Ed and Karen have been walking a mile in our shoes, literally. This includes rowing a mile, plunging a mile, and sleeping in three square feet in our shoes.

(Ed checking out the Cape Dory for the first time. Karen didn't let me take pictures of her.)

The four of us had an incredible sail from Dinner Key to Jewfish Creek where we planned on provisioning and waiting for the right weather to make our Bahamas crossing. We spent some time with our newest acquaintances Kim and Georgette, a cruising couple living on an enormous trimaran named “Calypso Poet” that Kim salvaged and had been rebuilding over the past several years. They had done a lot of sailing on Calypso including portions of Central America, the Caribbean and the Keys. They shared wonderful stories and kindly offered us much needed assistance.

Let’s turn our attention to the Gulf Stream crossing. The actual distance to Bimini from Florida is less than sixty miles. Theoretically is should only take our boat ten to eleven hours. However it is imperative that we make landfall in the afternoon while the sun is high overhead in order to navigate our way in from sea. Bimini doesn’t maintain its channel markers (nor does anywhere in the Bahamas) and they were washed away years ago. This means our piloting will be limited to our ability to read the water. Based on track record, this remains a poorly developed skill.

Thus we set our departure for early Thursday morning, between one and two. We would leave from the inlet Patrick and I had taken in from Hawk Channel several weeks ago. It was only an hour’s sail away from Jewfish Creek so after stocking up the boat, refueling and topping off water tanks, we made our way to the Angelfish inlet and ran the stretch carefully in daylight. This was going to be the first time we had attempted any trip that required careful navigation in darkness and I was filled with the sort of dread that arises from a mixture of acute pessimism and unchecked imagination.

We ran the inlet at low tide and took careful note of depths and terrain before anchoring inside one of the small tributary streams. The stream was fully enveloped by mangroves and boasted an array of sea life including stingrays, sharks and fish. The tidal current surged from the ocean through the little creek, sharply opposing the southerly wind. The two forces canceled each other out and we were held stationary in this isolated pseudo-vortex. This made it hard to maneuver the boat, and we were nervous about excessive shoaling. After noticing a curious whirlpool gurgling just off the bow we dropped anchor as a precautionary measure.

Patrick made fast use of his new crewmen by sending Ed out in the dinghy with the boathook to check out the depths. It turned out there was a two-foot deep bank lying in wait to welcome our keel into its grassy bottom. We needed to re-anchor in order to keep from swinging into it after the tide went out. Just as I was beginning to feel nervous, the swift current popped out our anchor before it had been given a proper opportunity to set. I held station by slowly throttling forward against the current. Meanwhile all hands were in a flustered panic. Pat and Ed rowed in vain against the raging current in an attempt to drop the second anchor in safe water. It was a fiasco. The oar was lost twice over and we had to scramble to retrieve it before it washed out to sea. We nearly lost the anchor overboard and at one point Patrick was convinced that we had in fact lost the anchor overboard. Overwhelmed by his theatrics, the rest of us were convinced that the anchor was lost, when in fact I had secured it only moments ago and knew otherwise. Karen was mutinous and I was feeling skeptical as to our ability to handle the Atlantic after being defeated by a saltwater stream. After a forty-minute struggle we had secured the cape Dory and settled down to conciliatory cocktails, dinner and a rest before embarking a few hours later.

Anchors were up by 1:30 am. We readied the boat for departure sans lights in order to develop our night vision. Unfortunately we were in remote enough of an area that I couldn’t even see from one side of the bank to the other, aside from shadowy amorphousness that I knew were mangroves. My confidence was quickly dissipating and even Captain Patrick seemed uneasy. As we exited the creek and entered Angelfish proper, nothing was intelligible. After studying the terrain in daylight I no longer had any perspective as to where we actually were. Kim and Georgette had given us a spotlight with which to pick out the few channel markers, but the majority of the run was unmarked and pitch black.

Slowly we picked our way through the milky blackness, winding carefully along the banks using the depthsounder to find the deep water. After fifteen agonizing minutes we rounded the final bend into the widening mouth of the creek opening up to the Atlantic. There is a very narrow channel that cuts sharply to the south east that was difficult to pick out in the darkness. I flashed the spotlight at intervals in order to preserve our night vision and while allowing us to angle into the channel. Ten minutes later we were clear and in the first gentle swells of the ocean.

The coastline of Key Largo is separated from the vastness of the Atlantic by a large barrier reef. We needed to head for a small channel marker a few miles south that would allow us to pass safely through the shallowest parts of the reef.

It just so happened that this course was dead into the wind so we were unable to raise the sails. Although the seas were predicted to be a mild two to four feet, the swells were growing larger and more unruly as we approached the shallower depths of the reef. The closer we were to the cut through the reef, the worse the seas became. The moon was completely obscured by clouds and it was difficult to see the waves until they were already breaking over the bow. The channel marker we were headed for was supposed to be a lighted beacon, but no one was able to spot its flashing green light. This was a frightening prospect. If the light was out, we wouldn’t be able to see the marker until we were right on top of it. In the rough waves it would be difficult to make any sharp evasive maneuvers. I stayed below plotting our course constantly with the utmost precision and we all held our breath as I plotted us passing directly between the supposed location of the marker and a submerged reef just to the north of it.

The waves had become violent. The Cape Dory was being tossed around unlike anything we had experienced before. We only had two harnesses so I stayed below while Patrick and Ed wrestled with the tiller in the cockpit. We were seriously considering turning back although none of us were thrilled with the idea of navigating back through the reef and into an inlet for the second time at night. Patrick believed that once we made it out past the continental shelf the waves would be friendlier. I wasn’t convinced that going from thirty foot depths to thousand foot depths would make the ride more comfortable, but I am not a quitter and Patrick’s the captain, so we continued on.

Within an hour we had entered the Gulf Stream. The waves unquestionably took on a different pattern. The current was so strong that while we were heading due east, we were making exactly as much progress northward as eastward. I have never been seasick since we moved onto the Cape Dory, however sitting below and trying to draw straight lines and exact points on a chart with the boat rolling and leaping in the sea challenged my stomach in new ways. It put carsickness to shame. At one point I had to give up my post and lay down for a while. With each wave I rolled off of the settee and I was considering strapping myself into bed when Patrick called me. We were passing through shipping lanes and he saw several large ships glowing in the distance. They move so quickly, and our boat is too small to show up on radar so we can’t waste anytime in announcing our presence or, if necessary, change course.
I got on the VHF and hailed the nearest ship. “Vessel over 50 meters, vessel over 50 meters, this is sailing vessel Swift Ranger over.” Nothing. I repeat my call. So I started doing a radio check. Ten minutes later someone responded that I was coming in loud in clear, but it wasn’t the vessel I hailed. Apparently they weren’t monitoring their radios. Ten minutes later it was clear we were on a collision course, so Patrick changed course entirely until we were well clear. After the mystery vessel vanished over the horizon we had one cruise ship after another to contend with. I would hail them, “Cruise Ship Cruise Ship” and give our lat and long. Nothing. So I started getting sassy. “Giant Pleasure Cruise, Giant Pleasure Cruise, this sailing vessel Swift Ranger. We won’t show up on your radar (I gave him our GPS coordinates and our compass course). We are going to alter course behind you so don’t make any sudden movements because we are slow and you will run us over.” No one ever said anything to that.

We continued being hammered by the Gulf Stream until dawn. Patrick and Ed still hadn’t put up the sails because is was so dark and rough. No one wanted to send Patrick forward where he might fall overboard while hoisting the mainsail. At dawn they gave it a shot. Patrick put one reef in the main and was doing his share of bouncing as the bow collided with waves. Finally the sails were set, the Cape Dory heeled over and then took off like a shot. We went from five to seven knots within moments. She cut through the waves like a champ under sail. Patrick regretted all those hours of discomfort just because we had been nervous to raise the sails at night. The Cape Dory is not meant to be motored. She needs the wind.

The morning was calm and bright. A pod of dolphins surfaced to say “good morning” to Patrick and Ed. The ocean was settled enough for Karen and I to clamor up from below and get some fresh air. We were only a few hours away from the Bahamas.

By eleven in the morning we spotted land. It was an exhilarating feeling. I imagined what it must have been like for early explorers to go days without seeing land, while facing the real possibility of never seeing it again. The deep ocean was a profound blue, unlike any water I had seen before. It was so clean and dark. It was hard to imagine it went down so many thousands of feet when it felt so close, immanent.

As we drew nearer to land into shallower water the color changed to a bright turquoise. The water was so clear and vibrant I could see the sand at the bottom. We all had a little apprehension about the unmarked inlet to Bimini. Fortunately, the sea was mild and we could easily spot the shoals that lined the entrance. Twenty minutes later we were docked and clearing in customs.

Our first international passage. We will stay in the Bahamas for the month of April. It’s too beautiful to leave quickly behind.