Recently we completed our biggest sailing adventure yet: A 1200-mile, 9-day-long ocean passage from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Miami., FL. I posted a few brief updates on Facebook as we went, but we also both kept notes about the trip. We’d done overnight sails before, but nothing on this scale. We hadn’t planned on doing this, but our circumstances changed, and it was gradually, then all at once, our best option.
Since we each have a unique perspective on the journey, this will be a joint post!
(Andy) We were in a pretty idyllic place, moored in Caneel Bay, St. John. It is a beautiful national park, and there were sea turtles feeding around the boat and even a pair of dolphins that made a daily appearance.
But we can’t stay here forever. For one reason, hurricane season is approaching. Last year, we made our way down to Grenada to get below the hurricane belt, but that didn’t seem to be an option this year; Grenada was on strict lockdown with no signs of reopening soon. So, instead of heading south, we plan to sail north to the Chesapeake Bay.
First, however, we have to sail 1,200 miles northwest to Florida, and every island and country between us and Miami (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Bahamas) has closed their beaches, ports, and borders and declared a national emergency. This was going to be a non-stop voyage.
We start making preparations for the passage – getting the boat ready, inspecting the rigging, doing engine maintenance and oil changes, provisioning, and seeing that everything is generally ship shape. Karen spends a couple of days provisioning, cooking, and freezing meals so we’ll have food at hand when we’re underway.
Day 1 (Friday April 24)
(Karen) We wake at 6 am. Andy is the morning person in this partnership, so I’m surprised to find that I am relatively alert and ready to roll. After a quick breakfast we release the lines on our mooring ball and point Gratitude out of Caneel Bay, St. John. Andy’s at the helm (where he loves to be) and I’m inside, washing dishes, when he tells me to come up and see the rainbow.
We take that as a sign that we picked a good morning to depart.
We both stay on our computers/iPads for much of this day. We still have internet connectivity, and we need to do as much communicating as we can before that disappears. The most urgent emails are from the Salty Dawg Sailing Association (SDSA). A couple of days before departure we signed up with their Homeward Bound flotilla. Friends had been encouraging us to do so, and wow, we wished we’d done it a lot sooner!
The SDSA puts on annual flotillas (organized groups of traveling boats) to the Caribbean. When the pandemic hit, they created the Homeward Bound flotilla to support boats who needed to get back to the U.S. as we do – in one long passage, since island hopping is not an option. Once you sign up you get daily advisories on legal and practical issues, weather reports, route planning, and other invaluable information. Because we were late to sign up before leaving, we had a lot of setup emails to answer. This took up a lot of Day 1. But it was worth the effort, because now they are officially tracking our journey. If something goes wrong, we have someone else to call for help, besides the Coast Guard. This gives both of us a bit more peace of mind.
Midafternoon, we drop an anchor in Fajardo Bay – we wanted to take a free mooring ball at Los Palaminos, but all the nature reserve areas are off-limits in Puerto Rico right now, so this our best choice. We’re a little nervous as we anchor; getting fuel tomorrow depends on a successful check-in and clearance with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using the CBP Roam app on our phones. After we submit our request and have a video call with a CBP officer, we breathe a sigh of relief. One hurdle cleared! I celebrate by cooking dinner and opening a bottle of wine, since this will be our last relaxed/anchored meal for a while. (Also I want to save our made-ahead food for later in the journey.) We also set up the convertible bed in the main cabin; Andy wants to sleep close to the helm once we start our 24/7 sailing tomorrow morning.
Day 2 (Saturday April 25)
We wake at 5 a.m. and make ready to depart. It’s dark, but we spend the minutes before sunrise putting things away, checking emails, and submitting a position report to SDSA. I start a batch of baked oatmeal in my Ninja Foodi. When there’s just enough light outside, we weigh anchor and sail west toward San Juan. The baked oatmeal is delicious – just the right change from our normal breakfast to start our day with a treat.
The hours are calm until we approach the harbour and try and contact the marina on our VHF radio. We get anxious when we can’t reach the dock master at Club Nautico by radio or phone, but we still have internet so I go to the website and find some alternate numbers to try. At the first number we try, a security guard tells us not to come in, they’re closed.
“¡No puedo ayudarte, Caballero!”
We try and explain (all in Español) that we have permission and official papers. We’ve made arrangements, but he curtly hangs up on us. WHAT?!? We really need fuel! We’ve jumped through hoops and gotten the paperwork!
We’re getting closer and more nervous, but I keep searching the website and find another number to try. This, fortunately, gets us directly to the dock master who sounds like he is at home, playing with his children. He’s the one who knows we have official permission to be here. He guides us in and has his dock hand meet us at the fuel dock. The dock hand is polite but guarded, wearing his mask and gloves. We fill our diesel tanks and never step off of Gratitude.
(Andy) At this point, I did the engine checks on both engines. The port engine checked out just fine, but starboard… (it’s always starboard for us), was most definitely not fine. When I opened the engine hatch, there was oil everywhere. Seriously… it looked like the Exxon Valdez. I was dismayed. I got our spare oil and poured all of it into the engine, but even that only brought the level to the bottom of the dipstick fill line. This is bad. Looks like we are officially down to one engine for the next 1,100 miles.
The enormous port and channel at Old San Juan is deserted. It’s eerie. Normally we would be threading our way around barges, cruise ships, fishing boats, other sailing vessels – lots of traffic. Back under way, we are making 6.5 knots on sail power only, with each sail in an opposite angle (wing on wing) and the wind behind us.
(Karen) Sailing away from San Juan, we know it’s really getting real. There will be no more stopping this boat until we get to Florida. It’s time to start trading shifts at the helm. We decide to go with 3 hours on, 3 hours off, day and night.
My first shift is uneventful. When Andy relieves me, I head down to the aft cockpit and put in headphones; Andy asks me to come up and adjust the sails with him. I do so, and then I happen to look up and I see something leap out of the water on the other side of the boat.
Dolphins love to swim beside and ahead of moving boats, so I run down, grab my phone and make for the bow. Sure enough, it’s not just one dolphin – it’s probably 8 or 10, including one juvenile who is SO CUTE when he jumps into the air! I am breathless with delight. These creatures are mesmerizing – graceful and lithe, quick and acrobatic. They seem so happy to have found someone to race! (They win, of course.) It occurs to me that I would never have seen this if we’d not decided to undertake this long journey. I resolve to spend more time staring out at the water. There is joy to be had here.
At the end of Andy’s watch, I fix us dinner of coconut chicken curry over rice. (a made-ahead meal.) Then I take the helm for the 7-10 pm shift.
It’s getting darker, and there’s less to see, so I break out the podcasts I downloaded like a madwoman a few days ago. First up is Season 1 of Serial. Episode 1 is good. I decide to ration my listening and not blow through them all at once. So after the first hour I read, periodically checking for lights on the horizon or blips on the radar. There are none. And when Andy comes up to relieve me at 10, I set my alarm for 1 a.m. and quickly fall asleep down below.
(Andy) We have not seen a single boat since we left San Juan. It feels like we have the ocean to ourselves. No planes are flying overhead either. The big excitement of the night was when I tipped over an entire pot of coffee at the helm.
Day 3 (Sunday April 26)
(Karen) Day 3 begins for me very early (1:00 am shift). I slept the entire three hours before, so I feel okay once I drink a little tea and eat a snack. I listen to my next Serial podcast, then take a break to walk around the deck. The chart plotter/radar has a backlit screen, so even at its dim night setting you have to leave the helm to see the ocean and sky. I put on my life jacket (ALWAYS LIFE JACKET UP if you leave the helm station at night! No exceptions!) and step down.
The stars are magnificent. I can’t show you a photo because there’s no way to set up night photography on a moving boat. Just trust me – the stars you can see at sea are endless. There are SO MANY.
And then I encounter my next surprise. When I walk aft (towards the back), to look at the ocean swell behind us, I see little twinkling lights in the water. Bioluminescence! I had wanted to stop in Vieques (part of Puerto Rico) and visit the Bioluminescent Bay there. The pandemic shut down that possibility… but it turned out that the bioluminescence came to me. Or rather, God gave me my own personal and up-close experience of it. Because He loves like that. I take a moment to thank Him.
When Andy comes back to the helm a little before 4:00 a.m., I am tired but not exhausted. I go back to bed and sleep until 6:45. I awaken grateful, and hopeful. This passage, while in its early stages, has already been a can’t-miss event. I can’t wait to see what other surprises are in store for us.
(Andy) Sunday at 10:00 a.m. we make our first significant course change in 24 hours, turning 60 degrees to the north. We are required to stay 12 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic due to their state of national emergency. This is a headache, but there’s no way to avoid it. I continue watching our fuel like a hawk. So far, so good.
(Karen) I make it through the rest of the day with no naps. I even work out! Andy didn’t sleep well during the night, but he gets an EPIC nap when he’s off between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. This rejuvenates him, so he’s willing to light up the grill for our dinner of burgers, slaw, and potato chips. I’ve got grilling on the menu for about 3 nights of this trip, so I’m trying to choose calm waters and positive spirits for grill nights, in case it turns out to be more challenging than expected. Happily, there are no issues. The burgers are delicious.
To be continued…
2 thoughts on “Big Passage Home: Part 1”
I feel like a series ended and I’m waiting for the next season to begin…..
I just love living vicariously through y’all! Godspeed!