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.  

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