Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Straight Shot

Sorry for the silence on the blog lately. Since leaving the Bahamas for Turks & Caicos we have had absolutely no internet and next to no cell connection. Because we're aiming to meet Cassandra's parents in the Dominican Republic (DR) soon we decided not to go into the Turks & Caicos but only to pass through, island hoping with our yellow quarantine flag up but never setting foot ashore. Weather and sailing have been going very well and we made excellent progress.

Being ahead of schedule we stayed longer at Big Sand Cay, the last staging point before the big jump to the DR. The water in the Turks & Caicos is the clearest we've seen; in 25ft of crystal water you can make out the bottom perfectly. Our anchorage there was nothing but sand bottom, no growth whatsoever. Swimming, the only occasion to leave the boat, was surreal; you could see so far into the underwater distance that colours at that focus range made for such a panorama as is hard to put into words. This neck of the woods lies on humpback whales annual migration route. We heard several reports of whale sightings from other boats on the VHF radio. We saw whales breathing as we left our anchorage at Six Hills Cay and, enjoying sundowners in our cockpit at Big Sand Cay we saw whales breaching, jumping for joy, on the horizon in the setting sun. National Geographic in our backyard. Remarkable.

Our weather forecasts from days prior in Bahamas were becoming stale and we are still unable to pick up long distance Single Side Band (SSB) radio weather broadcasts. However, if the boat was turned just so and we were outside we got one bar of cell reception and were able to send & receive text messages. Our great land support team (thanks Dad and Alison) was able to send us the Marine Weather Offshore Report 160 characters at a time.

For this 90nm passage we decided there was a weather window. At 4am we weighed anchor and set off into the great blue beyond. Based on previous experience of sailing only 3.5knots to windward we made a very conservative estimate that it would take us 25 hours to complete this leg, arriving at Puerto Plata after sunrise (always good to arrive in daylight). Things went better than planned though, much better. We had great weather and wind. Also I think we trimmed the sails pretty well, reefing and unreefing (we've been working on this). We flew! Averaging 5knots, sometimes as high as sustaining 6.5knots. We sailed the same tack the whole time! Straight rhumb line! We ultimately arrived at 1:30am. Approaching the DR is very different from the Bahamas, we saw the sparkle of city lights from far off, we made out the silhouette of high mountain tops and we could actually smell the earth within 10nm. We made the decision to enter the Ocean World Marina in darkness. What were we going to do? Go in circles outside for four and half hours until sunrise? Weather was good and the entrance actually appeared well marked with lighted channel markers! They did not respond on VHF radio. As I've said before my most stressful moments usually occur in close quarters... and now in an unfamiliar marina in the dark. A few zigs & zags and 360's with Cassandra shinning the spotlight from the bow but the entry actually went quite well and we soon had ourselves securely tied to a dock. A weird thing happened upon entering the marina though: I thought I saw something glowing in the water in the ten feet between the boat and the breakwater pile of rocks, upon further inspection it turned out to be a guy snorkeling with a flashlight... at 1am?! What the heck?! Glad I didn't run him over or chop him up with the propeller.
As always we fell exhausted into the v-berth.

The next morning bright & early a golf cart pulled up to our slip and we had marina staff, navy intelligence, customs and someone else (wasn't too clear to me) on board to sort through the requisite paperwork. This is one of the big benefits of checking in at Ocean World Marina, they really facilitate & streamline all this entry administration, avoiding having to go to separate offices and the typical “tips”. Regardless I still had to go to an office at the marina's main building for immigrations and to pay our entry fee. Still relatively easy. Once this was done we dropped our yellow quarantine flag and proudly raised our Dominican courtesy flag.

Check out this little video compilation of Topanga Under Sail. Make sure to watch to the end to see a whale jumping in the distance!

At the helm

Use your illusion


See the whale back breathing

Jumping in the distance

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sailing to Windward

“I'm so done sailing to windward” - Trevor Turl, Skipper Knotty Buoys

We couldn't agree more.

Well we got our weather window from Rum Cay to Acklins Island. Then another to Mayaguana, then another to the Turks & Caicos. Now when I say weather window I again mean wind direction and strength, wave height, period and direction. When one talks of sailing “south”, from tropical paradise island to island, one actually means south east because this is how the islands lie. The prevailing wind conditions (i.e. vast majority of the time) are from the east, south east and north east (in that order) meaning that if you want to make any progress you have to sail into the wind, to windward. (Ed note. experienced sailors can skip the rest of this paragraph). While a sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind (someone please invent one!) it can sail “close” to into the wind (about 40° off the wind). So if you want to go Southeast (135°T) you can sail either East (95°T) or South (175°T). This means a lot of tacking back & forth and covering more distance than a direct line. Furthermore, for reasons I won't go into here, when sailing close to the wind the boat heels over a lot (up to 35° - rail in the water) which makes for an uncomfortable sail (and stuff falling all over the place). Over the last few days we've lost a winch handle (dropped right out of the mast winch) and mainsail batten. Furtherfurthermore, the waves typically come from the same direction as the wind so the boat is bashing into the waves, bouncing up & down and slowing progress. Hey, you'd pay a lot of money for this at an amusement park! Sailing upwind is super fun in a racing context but not so much in a cruising context (i.e. moving your home over long distances.)

There are strategies to deal with cruising to windward, most famously described in the renowned Gentlemen's Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward by Bruce Van Sant. His philosophy is to make each passage as “leisurely” as possible by waiting for weather, making relatively short hops, sailing at night and using the island lees. All to arrive in time for a Sundowner Gin & Tonic (SG&T). We have been reading & re-reading each section and following his instructions as closely as possible.

We have put a lot of miles under the keel in the last four days. All overnights. 18-24 hours. All exhausting. All went well though. Even though we are at times flying at 6 knots, overall by my calculations with all things described above we are essentially going at a speed of 3.5 knots from departure to destination. Slow boat to China.

Unfortunately many of our friends have turned back north to stay in the Bahamas. Brin de Folie, Oceane and Angelica who we cruised with for many moons have made that toughest of decisions. We really enjoyed cruising with all of them and hope that we will meet up again soon. Now we continue on with the Knotty Buoys. Our sadness at losing compadre's when leaving Rum Cay was tempered briefly by the joy of of having a family of four dolphins frolicking in our bow wave for fifteen minutes. While we have seen many dolphins before we've been waiting a long time for this quintessential cruising experience. Sweet.

We got confirmation that Cassandra's parents will meet us in the Dominican Republic in a few days so we are driving hard to get there ASAP. There are still some formidable passages to get there though, the Caicos bank (super shallow), the Turks passage (super deep with a strong north current) and the long 90nm leg from T&C to the Dominican Republic.

We only have a little bit of gin left.
Weather Picture

Proud Parent

Catch of the day

Always a scooter guy

Not my catch

Hello friends


Here grouper grouper

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stuck in Paradise

One of the cool things about living in Rum Cay is that your address has Rum Cay in it. Our fleet of four boats close reach sailed from the northern point of Long Island to Rum Cay. Topanga was, as usual the slowest and last to arrive. Upon our arrival though we found that the rumours of free dockage at an abandoned marina were true. We are now comfortably tied up to a dock, a rare occurrence since leaving the US. The Sumner Point marina is really abandoned. It appears that not too long ago there was a thriving business with a great restaurant and rental cabins. Now however everything is empty. Empty of people but not empty of stuff. Decorations, signs, equipment, files, are all still in place. It's as if there was a quick evacuation of the premises.

After much discussion and debate we decided to modify our original plan and instead of making the next leg to Clarence Town back (southwest) on Long Island we would wait for a weather window and make a big overnight jump to Acklin's Island (southeast). This strategy is in line with the the guiding southern sailing principle of “Stay north to go south”. We had heard great things about Rum Cay and we are really enjoying our stay. With the Marina out of business Rum Cay seems to be again “off the beaten track”, a stark contrast from George Town. There are some excellent beaches. Snorkelling and fishing are the best we've seen yet. I speared a little snapper that Cassandra cooked up. Delicious. Maxime on Angelica was the real hero though. He speared a monster grouper! I have never seen a fish this big speared before. It was an excellent shot to the brain killing the fish instantly, which is very good because a fish this size would put up a big fight. That night we had a potluck dinner on the dock and enjoyed the grouper as the main course. It just doesn't get better than this.

Unfortunately Wind Dance's 7.5ft draft didn't allow them to enter the shallow marina channel so they had to stay anchored out in the bay. The prevailing winds and swell made for a rolly night. Although the weather was a bit rough Wind Dance ultimately decided to sail on alone the 78nm to our next destination, Acklins Island. They departed around 4:00 the next morning. The following day we got a message from them saying that due to the rough seas and wind direction they diverted to Clarence Town back on Long Island (back to the original plan).

Bashing upwind in 20kts of wind and 6-9ft seas for 20 hours does not sound fun. Now we are waiting for a good weather window to make a big jump south. We need to head 135°T so because we can only sail as close as about 40° off the wind we need at least a due East wind. Any south component and we can't readily make headway. To ensure a comfortable ride ideally 10-15knots in wind speed with waves no more than 5ft every 9 seconds.

It looks like Thursday and Friday may offer the right conditions. Until then we'll continue to complete boat projects, fish and snorkel. Dismaying to be stuck by the weather but what a great place to be stuck.

Bahamas debate team

5a7 on Topanga

Hauling me up the mast...

Fixing the genoa

My first catch... a little snapper was tasty

Max's monster grouper

If I don't start catching big fish we may have to eat Dexter

Shark battle for the fish remains

Galley Girl

Potluck dinner on the dock

Forgot to close the toilet lid

Our boats

Karine getting coconuts

Statues dot the marina lands