Day 7 (Thursday, April 30)
(We left you with a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the last post. Here’s a brief recap before we continue…
Gratitude is hove-to, moving at about 1 knot of speed, between the Bahamas and Cuba. After a glorious FOUR hours of sleep, I awaken to the alarm at 1:55 a.m. Only to find ANOTHER SHIP IN OUR PATH. It’s about an hour and a half away; if I take no action, there’s a strong chance of colliding. It is the only ship we have seen, or will see, all night long.)
Arrrrgh! So much for napping between helm checks! I will now stay awake and at the helm until 4 a.m. Oh, well. I did get that nice four-hour nap, the longest I have had since our first night at anchor in Fajardo. I fire up the port engine and begin to consider my options. The engine wakes Andy and he bounds up to join me at the helm. Poor guy. He just went to sleep an hour ago, and now he’s back in action. I show him the situation and tell him what I’m thinking; we agree that we should just resume our old course and hope that we used up enough time to exit the Old Bahamas Channel when all the storms have passed.
We needn’t have worried. Once we enter the OBC, our wind dies. We rev up our one working engine as high as we dare, and even then we only make about 4 knots. Our only burst of speed all day happens when we hit a squall around 2:30. The wind gusts up to 30 knots but it is short-lived. Our mainsail is still reefed because of that broken clew line, and there is less sail area to catch wind. The normal use of reefing is to depower the sail in high winds, so we are glad to be reefed when the rain starts sheeting around us.
Part of the joy of sailing is the unpredictability, right?
(Andy) At 2:45 pm, I notice the squall and spring up to the helm, but Karen sends me packing, saying “You handled the squalls we hit in Puerto Rico, on our way down; it’s my turn to handle this one.” So I go back inside. It is her watch, after all. Inside, I’m super-proud of her.
At 5:00 p.m., we’re past the squalls, but the wind is hitting us square on the nose again, and the seas are choppy. We’re running our port engine at even higher RPMs now, which is positively guzzling fuel.
(Karen) Dinner is pan-seared mahi and tangerine carrots with ricotta. I cook just because I’m hoping a pretty and tasty meal will raise our spirits. We Just. Wanna. Be. Done. We are physically and mentally really, really tired, grinding along with one engine, and even though our mainsail is up, it’s not doing much good right now. The wind and seas are making us work hard for every mile of progress. Andy says to me, with great fervor, “This SUCKS!” To which I reply – “Nope. Not going there. Too slippery a slope.” Translation: “Yeah, it really does, but I’m maintaining a certain level of denial that I NEED right now.”
Day 8 (Friday May 1)
At 1:00 a.m. I return to the helm and prepare a position report. We only checked email once yesterday because we knew we were over our data limits with our satellite plan. Each email was now costing us about $2 per message sent or received. It adds up quickly! By waiting till May 1 to log in again, we could start using the 500 Mb available for May.
When I download my emails, I find a series of four from the Salty Dawgs coordinator on watch, with increasingly urgent subject lines, something like this:
- Email 1: Congratulations! You are cleared to enter the Santaren Channel (Bahamian waters near Florida). We’re keeping an eye on you!
- Email 2: Hey, we just checked your position report and it looks like you’re moving at 1.2 knots towards Cuba? LOL surely not. Please advise.
- Email 3: GUYS PLEASE STATE YOUR INTENTIONS! YOU CAN’T GO TO CUBA! REPORT YOUR CURRENT POSITION!
- Email 4: Oops. Sorry for the previous emails, I forgot you guys told us you were heaving-to. Carry on.
Of course I fire off an apology and explain about our satellite data usage dilemma. When I check email again during my 7 a.m. shift, I see that the SDSA volunteer replied to me at about 2 in the morning, shortly after receiving my explanation. She laughed about the misunderstanding and then signed off, “Eyes In The Skies, going back to bed.” Which let me know that she was either up in the middle of the night doing SDSA work, or had set an alert to read all SDSA emails upon receipt, no matter the time of day. I was impressed, and touched. This organization is serious about our safety, to the point of sacrificing sleep for total strangers. What an impressive group. We’ll be joining and supporting them.
Back to an important fact I skipped over from that email exchange: WE GOT OUR BAHAMAS EXCEPTION! This means that when we get to the end of the OBC, we can take the shortest, most direct route home. A brief explanation: The boundary around all these Caribbean islands is 12 miles offshore. In normal cruising seasons, it is perfectly acceptable to sail much closer to land than this, even if you don’t plan to stop and check in.
But the pandemic has changed that completely. Every country we’ve sailed past has CLOSED their borders and are patrolling their inshore waters. If you are intercepted inside the boundaries, the consequences could be really bad: official charges, stiff fines, even an impounded boat! The Salty Dawgs sent out multiple reminders: Stay out of the 12-mile zone.
The one exception to the 12-mile zone is the Old Bahamas Channel. This is a narrow strip of water between Cuba and the Bahamas where a treaty designates a sort of “highway,” if you will. The OBC is considered international waters and ships may pass freely through it. (And they do – we have seen more traffic here than anywhere else on this journey so far. A few photos to illustrate this point:)
Once you exit the OBC, you turn north and must pass either left or right of a giant, shallow, underwater bank called Cay Sal Bank. Cay Sal is owned by the Bahamas, so if you choose to take the right-hand (starboard) passage north, you will enter Bahamian waters – and risk incurring Bahamian wrath.
Unless, that is, you get written permission – the aforementioned Exception. One of the benefits of joining the SDSA was that they took on that administrative task for us. And all their other members. That was a huge service and benefit to individual cruisers, as well as (in my opinion) to the Bahamian government. Much more efficient for them to deal with one cruiser representative, rather than scores of individuals, seeking permission to transit their waters.
We weren’t counting on getting this Exception. We applied at the last minute, as part of our sign-up paperwork on Day 1, and the process was taking about a week. So we made our peace with staying out of the Santaren Channel and taking the port (left-hand) route around the Cay Sal Bank. This would add probably 12 hours to our trip, depending on wind conditions.
So! Now you know why I shouted, “WE GOT OUR BAHAMAS EXCEPTION!” We are stoked about this. We’ll get home quicker, which at this point is just the morale boost we desperately need.
(Later in the afternoon)
Did I say our morale was boosted?? Strike that. I. AM. MISERABLE. The wind has died, and the sea swell is hard on our nose. Right now it feels like we are inside a washing machine on the spin cycle. I just wanna be home. There is no land in sight and we are only making about 3.5 knots with our port engine on pretty high RPMs. If we can’t make better time we’ll be out here at least two more days – maybe longer. Not gonna cry – but if I did, I might feel better.
(Andy) Overnight, I pick up a boat about 12 miles behind us on our AIS & radar. I hail her on the VHF radio and have a nice conversation with John aboard the Dawn Rae – a very similar Leopard catamaran on the same route. They have two good engines, but they are very low on fuel. We have two-thirds of the fuel we departed with, so we’re feeling good about that. I spend the night brainstorming as to how we might be able to share fuel with our neighbors in need if it comes to that.
Around 11:00 a.m., I catch a nice mahi mahi. I’m finally getting the hang of filleting these efficiently. This will feed us very well the rest of the way.
By 5:00 p.m., we’re getting seriously pounded by the sea. Gratitude‘s nose lurches up on one wave and then plows hard into the next, sending water and sometimes small fish skittering across the deck. The weather forecast calls for friendlier winds in about 12 hours.
(Karen) This is also the day that we discover our Cuban stowaway:
Day 9 (Saturday, May 2)
(Karen) The 1 a.m. shift comes all too quickly. It is hard to make myself get out of bed and go above to relieve Andy. He has nothing to report at the end of his watch. I notice that the waves are much, much calmer. We’re still making only about 4 knots – but at least the bashing has stopped. I want us out of this channel as quickly as possible. It won’t happen by daylight – we’re just moving too slowly – but maybe by tomorrow afternoon. Maybe.
Our little stowaway is not looking so good. When I come above for my 7 a.m. shift, I see that Andy has set up a feeding/watering station for him. Poor little guy – he never meant to stray so far.
At the end of my shift, I go below for a nap. When I come back to make lunch and ask about our little friend, Andy gives me a look and then says, with a too-cheerful smile, “Oh! He finally got close enough to land and flew away!” I choose to believe him, as I prefer happy endings. Hopefully Mr. Bird is building a new life for himself in Miami.
(Andy) As the day goes on, the winds start to slowly rotate clockwise until they are at a favorable angle, coming from our starboard side and allowing us to go to a port tack and use both sails again. Gratitude perks up to a brisk 7-8 knots. We cut the engine and proceed on wind and solar power alone.
Let me say that the Gulf Stream is an amazing thing. It’s a current of strong, warm water that flows like a river through the Atlantic from where we are now all the way to Newfoundland, and when you get into it, there is no doubt. Picture how it feels when you step onto a moving sidewalk at the airport. This time, we are traveling with the Gulf Stream, and our speed increases to 10 knots (about 11.5 MPH). We are moving! This is more like it, and I radio the Dawn Rae to let them know conditions are rapidly improving for us. They are still about 12 miles behind us, but they are seeing their speed pick up as well with winds shifting favorably. In the afternoon, we finally catch our first sight of the beautiful U.S. of A.
(Karen) At 7:00 p.m. we finally pull in to Biscayne Bay. We drop anchor And lower the main sail for the first time in nine days, grill a steak dinner, and open a celebratory bottle of wine. An anchorage has never been so beautiful. Before we go below to sleep, FINALLY SLEEP, we get a few shots of the sunset.
Day 10 (Sunday, May 3)
(Karen) I sleep for 12 hours straight, from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. When I wake up I still feel tired, but my brain no longer feels so fuzzy. (I won’t feel back to normal, physically, until Friday, after a week of daily 2-hour afternoon naps and 10-hour overnight comas.)
We pull up the anchor and head out of the bay for the five-hour sail to Harbour Towne Marina in Ft. Lauderdale. We’ve got boat work scheduled to begin on Monday (yay for an appointment with a Diesel engine mechanic!!), and I am looking forward to renting a car and going to Costco. 🤩 Although everything I’ve read online tells me that I need to adjust my shopping expectations, since the pandemic has not disappeared while we were at sea. Because we have USA cell service again, we can get online without the (ridiculously) expensive satellite data. It’s nice to check back in with friends and family and let everyone know we made it!
(Andy) At the end of this trip, we had to dock with one engine. Let me simply say that catamarans in general, and Gratitude, specifically, are not designed to be docked with one engine. You need both. Around 2:30 p.m., I looked at Karen and said “one way or another, we’ll be done with this by 4:00 today.” When we got close to the marina, we hailed the staff on the VHF radio and told them we were limping in on one engine. They advised that they would dispatch all available dock hands to assist us which was a huge relief. The idea was that we would come in very slow and under control, Karen would toss stern lines to the dock hands, and three or four burly guys could assist on the starboard side where our failed engine could not.
But when we approached the ‘E’ dock of Harbour Towne, alas, no dock hands had come. We were all alone… except for John and Stacie of the Dawn Rae who were tied up next to where we were going! They came out to assist, and the whole maneuver was completed smoothly and without incident. I was seriously thankful for their help.