The Virgin Islands, At Last!

Our trip from Puerto Rico to the east coast Saint Thomas took about seven hours. We had arrived in the Virgin Islands at long last, and since we were still in the in the USA, we didn’t have to jump through any hoops to go ashore.

The entire area of the US and British Virgin Islands was devastated by Hurricane Irma (Category 5!), which made landfall on September 6, 2017. Then Hurricane Maria (another Category 5 storm!) showed up two weeks later and mopped up what was left. The evidence is still apparent everywhere, with shipwrecks littering the shores and marinas. It’s a sobering and tangible reminder of why we are migrating south. Yes, hurricanes have hit Grenada, where we are headed, but they are very rare, and they have been much less powerful when they did hit.

Shipwrecks from the hurricanes of 2017 are everywhere

Our dear friends, Dan and Tracy joined us aboard Gratitude on July 3 for a week. It was particularly great to welcome friends from home, and we were all ready to celebrate our arrival/reunion in the beautiful Virgin Islands.

Dan brought me two grocery bags full of fishing lures, spools of line, hooks, beads, crimpers, sleeves, and other supplies, and one of the first orders of business was to replenish all that I had sacrificed to the barracuda. This was professional-grade stuff that the charter captains use. At least I will look like I know what I am doing now.

Learning a more cost-effective, DIY way of rigging lures

We provisioned early the next morning at Moe’s Fresh Market (a really cool, if expensive, grocery store), and headed out for our first short sail from Saint Thomas to Saint John.

Saint John is still in the USA, but it has a decidedly Caribbean flavor, including driving on the left side of the road. (This is where Karen and I chartered a boat and a captain two years ago and decided to learn to sail). Today, we sailed Gratitude into Little Lameshur Bay and snorkeled and then moved over to Coral Bay for the night. We went ashore, seeking dinner, but a lot of places were closed for the 4th of July. We lucked out when we happened upon Rhumb Lines. The food, drinks, and service were all outstanding (thanks Kiki)!

The next morning, we cruised over to the British Virgin Island of Jost Van Dyke, home of the Soggy Dollar Bar. This is the birthplace of the (in)famous BVI Painkiller, and it was quite the experience. We anchored our dinghy off shore and swam in for the sake of authenticity. The drinks and people watching were seriously not to be missed.

The Soggy Dollar – despite the apparent calm, it was a zoo that day

The next day we sailed southeast to Norman Island and caught a mooring ball. Mooring used to be a stressful activity for us early on, but after months of practice (not to mention having other able adults aboard to assist), it is no big deal. Anchoring is not allowed in this part of the world to help the nascent coral develop, so mooring is the only option in most places. Norman Island was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book, Treasure Island, and it has some spectacular snorkeling, including The Caves and The Indians

…and then there was Willie T’s.

This is a destination that honestly deserves its own category. It is a restaurant, contained on a ship, and it is the equivalent of one big floating frat party that is only reachable by boat. There is a platform about 15’ high (right next to a sign that says “no jumping or diving”).

When we were back aboard Gratitude, we turned on the underwater blue lights, and this attracted small baitfish. Those, in turn, attracted bigger tarpon, which came up and circled the boat, looking for an easy dinner! We didn’t have the right bait to interest tarpon, or that would have quickly become a regular activity.

After one more quick stop at Willie T’s, we sailed back to Cruz Bay in the USA, but we ran into difficulty checking in with Customs and Immigration with their ROAM app, and their local office had already closed for the day, so we had to delay the start of our planned fishing trip in order to report in person the next morning.

After that delay, Dan and I chartered a fishing boat to “The Northern Drop” to hunt for blue marlin. These are serious gamefish, and if you are lucky enough to hook one you will likely have a multi-hour fight on your hands. We trolled a spread of lures back and forth over key areas all day to no avail. We did land a beautiful black fin tuna for dinner, though! About 6:00 p.m., we told the captain we were ready to return to Gratitude with our catch. The ride was about 20 nautical miles back, and after one more stop, he told us to “buckle in” as he gunned the engines for home… but something felt wrong, and it was more than the feeling; you could smell it, and you could see it in the thick blueish smoke that billowed from the boat’s stern. The captain idled the boat and disappeared into the engine well for about 10 minutes. When he eventually surfaced, he looked defeated as he reported that we had blown some part of the transmission on the starboard side. He commented that “this is going to be a fun ride home”, and we realized that we were only going to be able to travel about ¼ of the speed we would have with two engines. Our return to shore had just mushroomed from a 40-minute trip to a three-hour+ trip.

I seem to have an undesirable effect on starboard engines.

The ride home was beautiful even if it was long

While we were fishing, the girls went shopping at Mongoose Junction (note: they were invited to fish). The silver lining is that they bought ingredients for a tuna tataki glaze, and once we finally made it back (after nine-o’clock), we cooked and enjoyed a delicious meal. The best-tasting fish is the one you just caught… right?

The next day, we sailed back to St. Thomas and bade our friends goodbye.

But as sad as that was, the very next day, we welcomed Kyle and his girlfriend, Rachael, aboard.

We repeated some of the same circuit with them. This is an amazingly beautiful part of the world. I could do it again and again.

Andy and Kyle jumping at Willie T’s

When we arrived back in the BVIs in Tortola, we had to clear back through customs and immigration. To our surprise, the welcome mat was abruptly rolled up. Just wow. I’ve never encountered anything quite like that. We were interrogated, sent from window to window, passed from clerk to clerk, assessed fee after fee, and handed lengthy form after form to fill out. About 45 minutes in, I decided this was a contest of wills that I intended to win. One clerk castigated us and said that the previous clerk (same office) had filled out one form incorrectly and that we needed to go back and tell her and have her correct this. Just imagine the fun.

To complicate things, you cannot just sail into a marina in order to visit customs in the BVIs like you can at most countries. No, no. You have to drop an anchor or grab a mooring ball and take your dinghy straight to the customs dock to clear in. If you deviate from this process, you can be subjected to a whopping $10,000 fine.

…and to further complicate things, , we didn’t know exactly where the customs office was, so we took our best guess, taking our dinghy to the nearby cruise ship dock. Then we figured out we might be at the wrong place since there was a locked gate, but we were feeling adventurous and climbed the fence and set out to locate the customs office.

After a 10-minute walk, we were there, and three stern, humorless faces seated behind thick glass “welcomed” us. Selected conversational highlights follow:

Customs Agent “Yes?”
Andy: “Hello. We are here to clear in.”
Agent (squinting suspiciously) “And where is your boat?”
Andy: “Right around the corner there.”
Agent: (half standing to look out the window) “Why can’t I see it?”
Andy: “Um… it’s just around the corner. I suppose it’s out of sight.”
Agent: “It is supposed to be right there where I can see it. Is it anchored?”
Karen: “It’s moored”
Agent: “What makes you think you’re tied to a mooring?”
Karen (politely): “Because I tied the bow of our ship to a mooring ball about 30 minutes ago.”
Agent: “Did you charter?”
Andy: “No, ma’am.”
Agent: “You didn’t charter?”
Andy: “No, ma’am.”
Agent: “So you aren’t on a charter boat?”
Andy: “No.”
A little later, another woman shouted at me from the back of the room…
Agent: “Are you clearing in or out?”
Andy: “We are clearing in.”
Agent: “You are clearing in?”
Andy: “Yes, ma’am. We are clearing in.”
Agent: “You are not clearing out?”
Andy “No ma’am. We are clearing in.”
Agent “Well – you are going to have to come back here to clear out!”
This, she repeated three times for emphasis, kinda like Dora la Exploradora, I suppose. (Side note: – there is no way I will ever set foot back in the Road Town customs office if I can help it. There are other places to clear into and out of the BVIs. This was beyond ridiculous.)

We departed early the next morning for The Baths on Virgin Gorda Island. All of these islands were dubbed “The Virgins” by Columbus, and this one got the name “Virgin Gorda” (translated “Fat Virgin”) due to the shape of the island. It looks like a large woman reclining. The Baths are part of a national park on this island and are defined by enormous, granite boulders that are partially submerged. You can snorkel around them with the fish. It creates a labyrinth of pathways, and it is a really stunning effect. After that, we had a comfortable downwind sail (something Karen and I still aren’t used to) to Trellis Bay and visited the very cool Aragorn Art Studio. (Note from Karen – all this happened on my birthday! It was beyond awesome to have family visiting, and Kyle and Rachael bought me a pretty little ceramic starfish from Aragorn’s.)

The Baths at Virgin Gorda
The natural outcropping of granite boulders creates underwater pathways to explore
Karen with her raku starfish birthday present

Sunday morning we snorkeled at nearby Diamond Reef and then sailed along the scenic north shore of Tortola back to Jost Van Dyke. We hugged the coastline about a quarter mile off, and this leg of the trip was utterly blissful. It was a lovely morning with high, wispy white clouds and a nice breeze. We switched the engines off and operated completely under sail power. The wind and the seas were at our back, and the boat cut through the water beautifully. There is little I know as peaceful as sailing downwind. We visited both Foxy’s and Soggy Dollar this time. The food at Foxy’s was especially good.

The food at Foxy’s is “all dat”

With hurricane season here, I’ve been reading the excellent resource, Storm Tactics Handbook. This is all about the technique of “heaving to”, which is a way of parking the boat on the water without dropping an anchor, and it’s especially useful in storms. Most tropical storms move along at eight to nine knots, and being “hove to” allows you to basically stay in one place while a storm passes. You essentially stall the boat out by causing the water force on the keel and the wind force on the sails to counteract each other. We learned and practiced this technique in sailing school, but we haven’t done much with it since then. With all of the visible hurricane carnage here and Atlantic storm activity ramping up, it’s time for us to get this technique down pat. (Note – we have zero intentions of riding out a hurricane aboard Gratitude, but this is the season for storms of all kinds, so it’s best to be prepared for being caught out in bad weather).

The stories in this book are making a believer out of me

On Tuesday, we said goodbye to Kyle and Rachael and got them aboard the ferry back to St. Thomas for their flight. Then we prepared for our last big jump on the Thorny Path to Windward: the 100-mile trip east from Tortola to Sint Maarten. After Sint Maarten it should be nothing but pleasant day-hops down to Grenada.

On a closing note, I’m not quite ready to “spike the football” just yet, but I think I have run down the starboard engine/impeller problem that has been hectoring me for months. I believe it may have been caused by the raw water cooling system running dry overnight. That, in turn, introduced too much friction, and burned out the impeller. Well… I may have identified and solved the root cause of it going dry. I am monitoring that very carefully. So far it’s run perfectly for over a week. Stay tuned…

The Thorny Path, Part 4: The Mona Passage

As a refresher, the big picture of what we are doing is sailing from Florida to the Caribbean. There is more than one way to do this, but the one we’ve chosen is known as “The Thorny Path to Windward”. It’s essentially 1,200+ miles of beating directly into the wind, which is not fun to do in a sailboat. It requires lots of planning, lots of waiting, and some tenacity. We had finally arrived at the most notorious stretch of the Thorny Path: The Mona Passage.

The Mona Passage stretches between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and there has been a lot written about it. We were glued to the weather for several days. Bruce Van Sant, the author of the go-to book on this passage says that the weather patterns periodically switch back and forth like a cat’s tail. You wait for that slack moment where the wind is shifting and is below 15 knots. Then you make the crossing. It looked like our weather window was opening Sunday night and Monday, which was just what we needed to shoot across to Puerto Rico.

We notified the Puerto Bahia harbormaster that we would be leaving Sunday at 6:00 p.m. He assured us that this was ”no problema.” Customs and Immigration and the Commandante from the Dominican Navy would come to give us “un despacho” (a dispatch). You have to have one of these for every port in the DR that you enter and exit, and the DR is very serious about it. They also inspect your boat to make sure you don’t have any stowaways or contraband. I reminded him again early Sunday of our impending departure, and the harbormaster assured me they would all be there around 5:00 or 5:30 to check us out. For fun, I asked him “¿Que pasa si alguien no viene?” (What happens if someone is a no show?). His answer was immediate and serious – “Todos estaran aqui.” (Everyone will be here). Well, the lady from immigration did show up as promised and stamped our passports, but then we figured out that no one could get the Navy Commandante to answer his phone. I asked what we should do, and the universal answer was, “You’ll just have to wait.” So we did… until everyone agreed that the Commandante was not coming Sunday night. The harbormaster went home. The immigration official went home. It looked like we were stranded…

Negative, Star Command. We’ve been planning and waiting for over a week for this, and our weather window is here! We have absolutely no idea when the next window will be open. It’s time to be moving on. One person, whom I shall not identify, told me “Es muy ilegal, pero si el Comandante no está aquí después de las seis, ¡vayan con Dios!” (“It’s quite illegal, but if the Commandante isn’t here after six o’clock, Godspeed to you.”). At six-fifteen, we left.

Now, sneaking out of the country was not as trivial as one might think. For starters, the dock hands had secured our boat with a whopping nine dock lines when we arrived (four is a typical number). These spidered out in every conceivable direction, and no one was around to help release them, so we had to untie a line, keep the boat in position, untie another line, maneuver the boat just a bit to relieve the tension, etc for several minutes. We couldn’t reach some of them without a long boat hook. We high-fived each other when we were finally free.

We got underway and started the long trip to Puerto Rico, planning for 30 straight hours of sailing. The first ten hours or so you hug the north and west coast of the DR so that the night lees (cooling winds coming from shore) help you. The next 20 hours would be crossing open ocean. On long passages, we generally take three or four hour shifts where one takes the helm while one sleeps or rests. But about an hour into our trip, we were both at the helm when we saw a power boat speeding toward us on our port flank.

Then it changed its angle to intercept us.

Oh boy.

The pilot stepped out to the side and motioned for us to stop. It looked like it was time for a reckoning for our misdeeds. We were both very tense.

But it wasn’t the Navy! Two friends we had made in the marina, Nelson and Ramon, saw us leaving and wanted to wish us goodbye and a good trip. Ramon had taken to coming over in the mornings to have coffee with me. It was a good chance to practice Dominican Spanish, which can sometimes seem like its own language.

It took some time for my adrenaline level to come down. I was certain the Navy was after us for skipping town. (We’d heard stories – they will straight-up run you down for trying to leave without a dispatch and will make you turn back, earning you a hefty fine and the ringing of the shame bell).

We made it to Punta Macao, still on the coast of the DR, just before 5:00 a.m. That is where sailors traversing the Mona Passage traditionally make their “go/no go” decision for the crossing. If the weather or the seas are too rough, you simply hole up here or sail a bit further south to Punta Cana to hang out and wait for better conditions. We decided everything looked good (not great) to continue to Puerto Rico. Besides, we were eager to put some distance between us and the Dominican Navy, so we turned east-southeast and headed across 100 nautical miles of open water for the western edge of Puerto Rico.

The wind was blowing strong from the direction we were headed, but it gave us just enough of an angle to use the sails. We raised the main and unfurled the jib, and Gratitude sat up and took notice! She took off, making better than eight knots most of the trip. This put us comfortably ahead of our planned schedule. As first light broke, I ran fishing lines out port and starboard, and just after sunrise, we paralleled a long weed line and saw birds flying excitedly over the water. That is a good sign that there might be a big fish nearby, and just like that, I heard an excited lure strike on the port side, and line started spooling out… fast! I ran over and adjusted the drag to start tiring him out. I had a fight on my hands. Then the fish burst straight up out of the water and shook its tail. This was no barracuda; it was a big mahi mahi!

He was right there… .

My adrenaline was going once again. By now, Karen and I have a whole coordinated routine when we hook a fish:
• Put engines in neutral (to slow the boat and so the line doesn’t get tangled in the propellor)
• Adjust the drag on the reel to begin tiring the fish out
• Get the gaff hook and fish billy close by
• Get the pliers handy to dehook the fish
• Disconnect the lifelines that prevent you from falling in the water so you can properly do battle
• Get the fillet knife and cutting board ready
• Ice the cooler in anticipation
• Fight the fish

This mahi shot under the boat and did its best to remain there, but I stayed with it and tired it out and maneuvered it back where I could see it. I brought it up to the sugar scoop (the back step of the boat), and just when I reached to grab the leader, his fin nicked the line, and everything was over as suddenly as it started. This mahi escaped to fight another day and took a very good lure with it.

I should have used the gaff.

I will admit I was very unpleasant company for the next hour, but I licked my wounds, rigged both lines again, and ran them out. The only fish I caught the rest of the day was a small tuna a little bigger than my hand, which I promptly released.

Shortly after that, something got wrapped around the starboard propeller. I stopped the boat and dove in to see what was going on, but the waves were just too rough to do anything useful. It looked like fishing line, and I was able to cut some of it off, but I had to get back aboard before I could get most of it.

A couple of hours later, we were making great time into the wind when I heard a very loud “bang!” from somewhere above me. When I looked up, I saw that the main sail had gone noticeably slack, and we quickly worked to determine what had happened. As it turns out, one of the knots we had tied when we put the sailbag back on had come loose. This one is the outhaul line, which connects the back foot of the sail, known as the clew, to the boom. It keeps proper vertical tension on the sail, which is necessary for the sail to work, and when the sail is up, this line comes under a lot of strain. We both climbed on top of the cockpit and did our best to retie while we were underway (no small feat), and the boat picked up speed and was happy once again.

About 4:00 p.m., we were approaching the western edge of Puerto Rico, but there was one more challenge to face. The last big difficulty sailors deal with in the Mona Passage is the thunderstorms that roll off of the western coast and into the Mona Passage every afternoon and evening. They spit off in rapid succession, and some of them get quite nasty. This is a daily occurrence, and it presents a real hazard to mariners. In Van Sant’s aforementioned book, he says that the worst weather he has encountered anywhere in the world has been right there, including the Mediterranean and the notorious North Sea. We had read about this, but it’s really something to experience. It reminded me of the last level of a video game where everything gets super-intense. We powered up our radar (what a really cool piece of equipment, BTW), which located and displayed the dimensions of each of the storm cells, and we did our best to determine which way they were moving and to thread our way through and around them. We made it through the gauntlet with only a slight bit of rain.

Gratitude is the + in the center, and each ring is two nautical miles. All of the colored areas are active storm cells.

We anchored at Puerto Real around 8:00 p.m. It’s already dark at that hour at this latitude.

Ultimately, we made the Mona Passage in 26 hours, which is great time. The first 13 hours of the passage were pretty bouncy and rough, but the next 13 were more comfortable. (Thank you, weather window!) We anchored at Puerto Real and it was as calm and serene an anchorage as you could hope for. A quick call to US Customs Border Protection using their app, and we were properly back in the USA.

Sunrise at anchor at Puerto Real. The calm water was a welcome relief.
Back in the USA – no despacho required!

Although we were tired, and Puerto Rico is beautiful, on Tuesday and Wednesday, we continued east. Each day got up stinkin’ early and sailed/motored about ten hours. We had to tack (zig zag) with the wind to get the right angle to sail, but by Wednesday, we were almost to the east coast of Puerto Rico – about 80 miles. This was very good progress. Thursday, we turned and headed north along the coast to the marina at Puerto del Rey in Fajardo, getting caught in a series of storms (squalls) that lasted for hours and played havoc with the wind. It made this leg of the trip a real challenge. But now we have great positioning to make the short hop east to the US Virgin Islands, with a few days to spare for some provisioning (Costco!), boat maintenance, and rest, Puerto-Rico-style.

Costco! How we have missed you! While we like the little islands grocery stores, Karen is still a Costco girl. She did a little happy dance as we walked in. We won’t be back this way again for several months, so of course we stocked up.

And one final note, from Karen: WE DID IT! The Thorny Path is a tough route. Many sailors in the U.S. never go farther south than the Bahamas. We were intimidated by the distance and the stories we’d heard… but we decided it was worth a try, and now we’re so glad we did. Virgin Islands, here we come!

The Thorny Path Part 2: Turks & Caicos to the Dominican Republic

June 7 – Providenciales to French Cay

We left the dock at Turtle Cove Marina around 8:30 a.m. and were met with glassy seas and very light winds. Once again, we seemed to have the ocean to ourselves. We departed at low tide, and I was very happy to have a pilot boat guiding Gratitude out of the twisty channel. Many of the channel markers were missing, and dangerous reefs were abundant.

The pilot boat leading us out of Seller’s Cut – the captain kept radioing me to tell me to follow and not to deviate from the course even a little. No pressure.

Just after noon, a few dolphins came and paid Gratitude a visit. (Karen here: DOLPHINS! SWIMMING WITH US! My life might now be complete.) I saw them about a half-mile off to our starboard, and they made a beeline to intercept us. When they reached us, they turned 90 degrees and matched our speed at about seven knots, jumping and criss-crossing just in front of us, leading us along. It was thrilling to watch. (Karen again: THRILLING, I TELL YOU! They were every bit as graceful and beautiful and playful as I had heard.) {

Dolphins came to visit Gratitude on our sail to French Cay, Turks & Caicos
Dolphins swimming with our Leopard 48 in glassy seas in Turks and Caicos

Shortly after that, we passed the island of West Caicos on our port side. It’s a beautiful dive site off the western side, but on land there are the remnants of an elaborate real estate development that utterly imploded. The islands we’ve visited have no shortage of abandoned building projects, but our interest in this one was personal. A colleague had invited us to invest in this property sometime around 2001, and I seriously thought about it. It had the Lehman Brothers backing it and Ritz Carlton was the anchor, so it had all of the markings of a no-brainer. They even developed a private air strip and a marina to draw high-end clientele. But there was something about the structure of the deal I didn’t like, and it would have required us to put a lot of money at risk, so we opted not to buy in. A few years later, well into the project, the financial crisis of 2008 struck. That was the first big blow, but Hurricane Irma delivered the right hook that took them completely down. Now, this is a ghost town of empty husks on a practically deserted island, and the Lehman Brothers no longer exist (biggest bankruptcy in US history!). You can see all the way through these buildings when the light hits it right.

(Karen: We were in no way glad to see this development fail; we knew some people who likely lost a lot of money, and dreams, through no direct fault of their own. But I am sobered by the reality that taking a risk does not always pay off, and I remain grateful that Andy listened to his gut on this one.)

Passing the failed development at West Caicos

Once we turned south, the winds became more favorable for us to fly our Code Zero sail, so Karen went back and consulted the photos we had taken the one and only time it was deployed. It was described to me as being a “turbo charger” for the boat, but we had never used it on our own. Another couple we met much earlier on had something go wrong with their similar sail on a very similar boat, and the entire thing had blown away and was lost. We took this as a cautionary tale; this is not a sail to be trifled with. I was trained on ours once, for about 10 minutes back in January, immediately after crossing the Gulf Stream the first time, but I had forgotten most everything I was shown. Besides, it was at 5:00 a.m., and I had been up for a while. But we quickly realized that although this sail is different than the jib, it’s not entirely different. We took our time, studied the photos, worked through the kinks, and brought it out. I was really happy to see it unfurled, and we made very good speed the rest of the trip to French Cay with it.

The Code Zero is a truly massive foresail that stretches up over six-and-a-half stories high. It’s great for light winds

…and yes, of course I caught another barracuda. Of course. I’m just going to laugh about it. At least this one did not destroy my lure. He was safely released to go harass someone else. 

If there is ever a barracuda tournament, get me on your team.

We arrived at French Cay about 4:30 p.m. and anchored to the northwest of the island, and we went for a swim in the ocean to cool off and to inspect the anchor. Everything looked just the way we wanted it to. 

We celebrated a successful first day of this trip by mixing up some margaritas and some chips and guacamole, and Karen cooked some amazing beef short ribs in the Ninja Foodi. 

Saturday, June 8 – French Cay to Big Sand Cay

Saturday, we sailed about 60 miles to Big Sand Cay in the Turks and Caicos islands. The winds were favorable for sailing and the seas were mild. We weighed anchor at 6:00 a.m. and headed east-southeast. 

Our water tanks were just about dry, so one of the first orders of business was to desalinate and store enough fresh water to last us until the Dominican Republic for laundry, fresh-water showers, washing down the boat, and cooking. 

But before making for the D.R., we needed to cross the Caicos Bank. 

The Caicos Bank is a shallow stretch of ocean with depths of only five to seven feet below our keel, and it took us the entire morning to traverse it. Occasionally there were charted obstacles to dodge, but generally, it was a straight shot. I couldn’t really relax in such shallow water, so I stayed planted at the helm, monitoring the depth finder and the map, while scanning the water for anything dangerous. At least the path through the Caicos bank, formally known as the “Sir Cloudesley Shovell Passage”, is well charted, so it’s not all white-knuckles.

Also, I outdid myself today. While I was reeling in one barracuda on the port side, a second one took the lure I had rigged on the starboard side. I had two of these fish on my hands at once! The second was big and put up a long and impressive fight on much lighter tackle. In all fairness, I knew this was a risk when I started trolling in such shallow water. Later, I caught one in water that was over a mile deep. I can’t figure this out. 

Three barracuda today. The middle one put up a real fight

(Karen: Really? Three barracuda in one day? I am over this fishing thing. Bah, humbug.)

After the Caicos Bank, the ocean floor plunges down suddenly to depths of over a mile. You transition from about 20 feet deep to 6,000+ ft deep over a short distance. Welcome back to the Atlantic Ocean. Later in the trip, the water drops to over two miles deep. We turned from heading east to following a southeast route known as the Columbus Passage to get to our destination. 

Almost ten hours after we started, we anchored off of the beautiful, uninhabited Big Sand Cay. It is the closest approach to the Dominican Republic from the Turks and Caicos Islands, and I am hopeful that it will give us a friendly wind angle to sail south. We both went for a swim, and I took a look at the anchor. It had dug in perfectly, so I slept a bit more soundly. 

Later on, two dolphins swam by the boat at sunset, and that made the evening just about perfect. 

We stayed here Saturday night and Sunday during the day.  

Big Salt Cay – these dolphins, at sunset, are harder to see

Sunday, June 9 – Big Sand Cay to the Dominican Republic

We took the dinghy (now named “Patience”) to shore to explore Big Sand Cay Sunday morning. Then we both tried to nap as much as possible during the day, and just before 7:00 p.m., we weighed anchor and started heading south for the overnight run to Hispaniola, the island that is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

Maybe our trip had been a bit too ideal up to this point, but it was finally time to pay the piper.

I pushed the power button to the KVH (satellite phone and internet) to check weather before we left, and I was immediately greeted with a loud “POP!” that sounded like a small firecracker. Whatever the root cause (still investigating), we were going to be incommunicado for this stretch of sailing (note, we still had our VHF radio, which is our medium-range means of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication).

Next, as soon as we had the anchor up and were underway, I could tell from the sound the starboard engine was making that it was not circulating water. I suspected we had blown another impeller. Bad news. Really bad news. I verified that it was not working properly and promptly shut it down to avoid a more serious development.

There may be a bigger problem that needs solving here

We had a strong headwind of about 22 knots (25+ mph), and progress with one engine was punishingly slow, so we raised the mainsail and unfurled the jib and diverted due south to improve our angle to the wind. That cheered Gratitude right up, and she started making great time. The waves were high, however, so this was not to be a smooth ride. When things cooled down enough, I climbed into the engine compartment and replaced the impeller while we were underway. I think this should have earned me some kind of sailing merit badge if only such things existed. 

Now we had two working engines (whew!), but we didn’t need engines at this point. We were flying south and would simply tack more easterly as we got closer to our destination. 

Around midnight, I was having my watch at the helm while Karen tried to catch some sleep, when the winds shifted. I turned on the engines to motorsail and give us a boost, when I felt the starboard engine shudder violently before stopping altogether. My brain ran through all of the possibilities, and none of them were good. We were down to one engine again with unfavorable winds. This was destined to be a long trip after all.

Then, about 3:00 a.m., Gratitude’s touch-bashed navigation screen stopped responding to touch. Fortunately, it still showed our position, but we couldn’t change the view, alter our course, or zoom in or out. This was a most unwelcome development, but I remembered that I could use my iPad to connect to it wirelessly, and that workaround returned full functionality. 

The challenges kept coming, though. Just before 4:30 a.m., three images appeared on the ship’s radar. It was raining softly, and visibility was really low. I thought they might be storm cells, but as I watched them draw closer, I realized they were much larger ships headed directly into our path from west to east. I tried (repeatedly) to hail them on the VHF as they approached, but there was only radio silence in return. When we got close, I could make out the illuminated outline of the nearest one, looming directly in front of us. I diverted hard to the southwest to avoid the possibility of a collision – so fun to do in the rain – in the dark. The winds were ideal for sailing at that new angle, but staying on that heading would have deposited us in Haiti in a few hours, which was not the plan.

The three radar blips on the right were three ships. The nearest one came far too close for comfort.

At 4:55 a.m., after a long night, the sky started lightening a bit in the east. I knew it would not be long before the sun came up, making the rest of our trip easier. The winds shifted again, this time to a more favorable direction, and as the sun rose, we could see The Dominican Republic. Land Ho!

The Dominican Republic is a truly beautiful country

We were able to sail again without needing any engine, and as we approached the northern shore, the winds bent around the island, allowing us to turn and keep sailing southeast to our destination. When we got close to the marina where we were planning to dock, we found a spot away from shore where the depth was only about 20 feet and deployed the anchor. The seas were quite rough, and the winds were 18 knots. I jumped in the water to see what was going on with the starboard side engine below the boat. There was no way I wanted to try to dock this boat with only one engine. 

It really could have been much worse

As expected, we had caught a line that had wrapped tightly around the starboard propellor. I was actually very relieved. It’s not unusual for boats to catch a net, fishing line, or a stray rope (although it was a first for us), and sometimes these can be very tough to disentangle or cut free. This one didn’t look so bad, so I swam down, held my breath, and unwound the line with one hand while using my other hand to make sure the hull didn’t conk me in the head as it bucked up and down in the surf. Now we could use both engines again! 

(Karen: And I sat nervously on the edge of the boat, silently praying that Andy did not hit his head and the boat did not drag too far back into the reef behind us. It was a relief when he found and disentangled the line around the prop, but a much bigger relief when he was finally back aboard Gratitude.)

Time to get back underway, except… not so fast. The starboard engine acted most unhappy from this experience, and it stubbornly refused to restart. We tried for several tense minutes to get it going. It did not sound like it was even considering starting. I was coming to grips with the fact that we would still only have our port engine to use, when finally, the starboard engine coughed and sputtered to life, and we were back in business. I cannot adequately convey the relief I felt.

Amazingly, all of these challenges only added one more hour to our trip. We made the entire run in 16 hours rather than the expected 15, and we only used our engines for a couple of those hours. We docked cleanly, had the drug enforcement police inspect our boat and cleared immigration and customs smoothly. 

(Karen: One final note that clearing customs and immigration in the DR is reported by many to be difficult and unpredictable… but we followed some good advice and did so at our marina. We encountered no difficulties whatsoever, making our welcome to this beautiful country very warm, indeed.)

The Thorny Path Part 1: Bahamas to Turks and Caicos

(Andy wrote the bulk of this post, but Karen couldn’t help interjecting a few notes along the way. It’s interesting to both of us to see what each of us remembers about this journey.)

Monday, May 27: Great Exuma, Bahamas to Calabash Bay, Bahamas

We were home for a couple of weeks in May, and we left the boat tied up to a dock in Emerald Bay Marina and paid a fellow named John a few dollars each day to check on her. He texted and sent me photos each time he came, so I knew someone was looking after the boat in our absence. 

(Karen: Let me say a word about Emerald Bay Marina. It is not convenient to town, but it is a GREAT marina. We had stellar service and friendly interactions with everyone we met there, from the marina staff to the taxi drivers to the bartenders across the street at the Grand Isle Resort. Also, some reviews of this marina on Active Captain note that there’s lots of surge – but we found that extra dock lines made our boat very stable there.)

When we arrived back aboard, everything was just the way we had left it, which was very welcome news for me. Then we had to wait out a week of unfavorable winds, so we were delighted to pull away from the dock about 6:30 a.m. on Monday, May 27 (Memorial Day). With winds averaging 15 knots from the east or southeast predicted for the next week, we motored and sailed east until we arrived at Calabash Bay, also know as Columbus Cove. This was the location where Columbus first made landfall after his journey across The Atlantic. We spent the night there, and it’s crazy to think that your boat is in the same location as such an historic maritime event. 

Tuesday, May 28: Calabash Bay to Clarence Town, Long Island

The next morning, we got up early and passed the Columbus monument on our starboard side as we steered to a more southeasterly route. We sailed a good bit of the way before the winds shifted and began hitting us “on the nose.” This is undesirable if you are a sailor since no sailboat can actually sail directly into the wind. You can get reasonably close since the sail acts a lot like a sideways airplane wing, but the physics simply don’t allow you to attack the wind straight on. When the wind blows like that, you are basically reduced to two choices: you can zig-zag across the wind, known as “tacking”, or you can turn on the engines. We actually did a combination of the two, tacking for the first part of the trip, and then giving in to more modern technology. 

On the way, a barracuda took my favorite fishing lure. He surfaced with it in his mouth, as if to mock me before biting cleanly through my leader with those enormous, jagged teeth and swimming away. Enjoy your plastic and metal breakfast, loser. A little while later in the morning, we caught a nice blue runner, but we weren’t hungry enough to try and eat that. 

A blue runner – technically edible, but not anyone’s first choice

We arrived at Clarence Town on Long Island and pulled into the Flying Fish Marina. It’s a small marina that caters to fishing boats, but it has a couple of docks big enough to fit Gratitude. There was a strong crosswind, and I was nervous about docking. Crosswinds are difficult for a lot of boats, but they can really be challenging for a catamaran since there is so much surface area for the wind to catch and blow your boat around. You don’t have a bow thruster, so keeping the front where you want it can be a real challenge. I hailed the marina ahead of time on the VHF radio and told them the crosswind made me nervous, but they assured me this would be a walk in the park. Suffice it to say that it was not, but we got through it just fine.

Gratitude at dock in the Flying Fish Marina, Long Island, Bahamas

(Karen: If we weren’t in a hurry to take advantage of the good weather, I would have enjoyed staying one more night in Clarence Town. I dubbed it “Uncle Clarence Town” after a beloved and now-departed uncle. There were some interesting sites to see, but we would have needed a car, and more time. Sigh. We can’t do it all.)

While we were at the Flying Fish Marina, I decided to tackle a needed repair to our beloved dinghy. The last time we used it, the engine died at an inconvenient point, and it refused to stay running for more than a few seconds after that. Later that afternoon, we followed our noses and discovered there was a good quantity of gasoline in the hull of the dinghy. Aha! A clue! The engine and the fuel tank looked fine, so I decided the likely culprit was the fuel line, and when I worked the fuel line out from its conduit under the deck, that suspicion was confirmed. It had disintegrated in the middle between the deck and the hull. That explained why the engine acted like it was running out of gas even though our tank had been full. It also made sense why we had gasoline sloshing around in the bottom of the dinghy. I spent the evening cleaning/cutting/splicing/clamping/repairing it with the tools and supplies I had on board. After that, Karen suggested we name the dinghy “Patience”: an inspired choice!

Wednesday, May 30: Clarence Town, Long Island to Pitts Town Point

The next morning, we pulled out of the Flying Fish Marina at about 7:30 a.m. and the wind and waves really picked up as soon as we turned in to the Atlantic Ocean. About two hours into our trip east, we got an email from the meteorologist we use, saying it would probably be too rough to make this leg of the trip. At this point, however, we felt committed. We were motorsailing along, but the front of the boat was plowing hard into the waves, so I dumped about 120 gallons of fresh water. That lightened the front of the boat by about 1,000 lbs, and the rest of the ride was much better. We were headed to Attwood Harbor, but around 1:00 p.m., the computer projected that we would arrive some time after 8:00 p.m., and as our intended anchorage sat between two dangerous reefs and we wanted plenty of light to navigate that, we decided to divert to another anchorage a little south of Pitts Town Point. 

Pitts Town Point is absolutely beautiful. We pulled in around 3:00 p.m., and we were completely alone. For that matter, we saw almost no other boats the entire day. Everyone else on the Thorny Path seems to have a solid head start on us. 

That night, sharks showed up at the boat and swam in slow circles around Gratitude for a couple of hours. I was fishing at the time, using mullet for bait and hoping to catch something tasty, when one of the sharks grabbed my bait and took off. For the next three minutes or so, it felt like I was trying to slow a moving car. Finally, the shark broke the line, which I considered a merciful outcome. At that point, I collected my toys and retired inside. 

One of the many sharks that came to pay us a visit that night

Pitts Town proved to be a perfect anchorage on a clear, moonless night. There were innumerable stars, and the bright band of the Milky Way was clearly visible later in the night. It was complete solitude, and we drifted off to sleep to the gentle sound of rain falling outside.

Thursday, May 30: Pitts Town Point to Plana Cays, Bahamas

We got off to an early start and enjoyed the sun rising by Bird Rock Lighthouse as we departed Pitts Town. The first few hours were spent beating directly into the wind. I half joked that we don’t need GPS – all we have to do is navigate directly into the wind each day and we’ll get to our desired destination. 

Sunrise at Bird Rock Lighthouse

Around lunchtime we raised the sails, turned south, and turned off the engines. This was bliss. When the boat is “happy”, it makes all the difference in the world. She sliced through the water, and the solar cells captured the sunshine and topped off our battery bank. Then the fishing line went spooling out. 

Another barracuda.

Seriously. This is getting ridiculous. If I were willing to eat these things, and a lot of people around here are, we’d be set for life. I haven’t crossed that line yet, but if I ever do, it will be out of pure spite. 

(Karen: Just to be clear, Andy and I are agreed that there will be no eating of barracuda on this boat until their reputation for Ciguatera poisoning is cleared. No matter how annoyed we get with them.)

We have not seen anyone on the ocean today – no cargo ships, no other sailers, and no fishing boats. It seems that we have this part of the world to ourselves. It is strange to sail for hours on end and see no signs of human life. 

When we arrived at Plana Cays, we were both amazed at the beauty. Stretching out in front of us was an uninhabited island with crystal clear water, a couple of miles of white sandy beach, swaying palm trees, and not another boat or person in sight. 

Playa Cays: pristine, clear water, miles of sandy beach, and no one in sight

I truly did not know places like Plana Cays existed, or if they did, I expected them to have hundreds of boats in the area playing loud music with dudes in cut-off jeans and mirrored sunglasses yelling and doing cannonballs into the water. As it is, we had this deserted-island-of-a-paradise entirely to ourselves, and I had to pinch myself a little. Karen made homemade guacamole, and we got out some chips and poured cocktails in the front cockpit. We both went for a swim, and among the many fish and coral we saw, Karen spotted a large manta ray, and I saw a Caribbean reef shark about 50 yards away from me. Karen cooked shrimp and grits for dinner (delicious!), and I fed the shrimp tails to a ravenous group of jacks and barracudas that had congregated beneath Gratitude at dusk.

Friday, May 31: Plana Cays to Mayaguana (pronounced “my guana”)

I did not want to leave this spot, but we needed to push on east, and I have a sense we are lagging behind everyone else. Finally we saw another boat, even though we didn’t actually spot any humans aboard! We motored directly into the wind much of the way, unfurling the jib for the last couple of hours when our angle to the wind improved. This made our speed shoot up, and we made really good time. When we reached the entrance Abraham’s Bay around 2:30 p.m., we decided to press on about three more hours east to anchor in Southeast Point. This put us about 15 miles closer to Turks and Caicos, gave us a friendlier departure in the morning (i.e. no reefs or coral heads to dodge as there would have been in Abraham’s Bay). We ended up anchoring in 18 feet of water, in an unusually rocky and rolly location. After last night’s serene stay in one of the most beautiful places I have ever dreamed of, this was an somewhat unwelcome change. I tried to “swim the anchor” to have a look at it, but the current was strong, and the anchor was 20’ deep. Fortunately, I could easily see to the bottom in this crystal-clear water, and everything looked perfect. 

When I awoke around midnight and arose to check on the boat, I noticed two things. The first was bioluminescent protozoa in this bay, which is super cool! Swirl your hand, and the water comes alive, twinkling with innumerable, tiny green lights. The second was that I could see a faint glow on the horizon from the Turks & Caicos islands 45 miles to the east-southeast, where we would be heading in the morning. Both made me smile. 

Saturday, June 1: Mayaguana, Bahamas to Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. 

…And good morning hurricane season. June 1 – November 30 is the official hurricane season, and it has a lot to do with the path we are on right now. One of the driving forces in our passage south is our safety; the other is insurance. Both of these are heavily influenced by  the weather. Most insurance policies mandate that you have to be below 12°40’ north parallel, which basically means “Grenada” if you’re anywhere near the Caribbean. We are generally headed there now, but the pressure is partially off since we just coughed up a bunch of money to have our boat covered by insurance anywhere in the Caribbean through the entire hurricane season. We are still in the hurricane belt right now, but historically, the bad storms hit in the months of September and October, and we plan to be much further along and in a safer location by then. 

This was another day of solitude. We did not see another boat on the passage. For that matter, we didn’t see another human from Wednesday morning until we got very close to Providenciales on Saturday afternoon. 

We had been underway on this leg of the trip for about 10 minutes, when my fishing rod made the excited “Biiiizzzzzzz” sound that sends adrenaline pumping into your bloodstream. Before I picked up the rod, I could tell that something living was on the other end. There is something primal that happens in you when you experience a big fish on the other end of the line. I tightened the drag a few clicks to help tire him out and pulled the rod out of its holder, making sure that what was on the other end would not likewise take the rod out of my hands and out to sea. I used the rod to pull the fish in and then reeled down the slack that created. The fish would come close to the boat and then tear away and spool off line, but finally, the rod and I prevailed and tired it out. 

You guessed it. Another barracuda. This one thanked me by shredding another good lure. Catch. Release. Process all five stages of grief. Tie a new lure. Start again. 

The Caicos passage, as this leg of the trip is called, was the roughest we’ve encountered since crossing the Gulf Stream back in February. The boat did quite a lot of plowing into big waves the first hour or so of our trip before things settled down some. In general, there were about six hours where the boat surged up and down with the waves and things slid off shelves and smacked down onto the floor. Once again, we found ourselves beating directly into the wind, which reduced our speed to about five knots (almost six mph). The last couple of hours, as we got closer to Turks and Caicos, the land sheltered us from the wind and the waves, and things could not have been smoother.

The approach into Providenciales, Turks and Caicos bristles with coral reefs that would seriously ruin your day if your boat were to encounter any one of them. There is an arcane channel that wends and bends its way around the unsafe areas, occasionally putting your boat alarmingly close to the coral. The channel, known as Seller’s Cut, is marked (kinda sorta) with scattered green and red channel markers, but the marina offers a free piloting service where someone will come out a smaller boat and guide you through the channel. This turned out to be pretty important. We had started navigating the cut without any pilot in sight, with Karen at the bow of the boat on the lookout for the next set of channel markers and any hazards, and me at the helm, going as slowly as I could while maintaining helm control and staying in the middle of the channel. When the pilot finally arrived (he had engine trouble), I breathed a sigh of relief. He instructed us to follow him, and then he cut outside of some channel markers, and occasionally twisted and turned for no apparent reason. I followed close behind and kept my mouth shut. Before long, we were docked at Turtle Cove Marina, and all was well with the world. 

Our first leg of the Thorny Path is now complete. We’ll enjoy Turks and Caicos for a week or so before sailing south to the Dominican Republic. We have both honed our sailing skills considerably since we left Florida, and we have taken our problem solving to new levels. And we sailed a boat from Fort Lauderdale to the Turks and Caicos Islands! It feels really good, but it also feels obvious that we’re just getting started. 

Ready, Set, …Wait

We’ve been cooling our heels in Emerald Bay Marina, which is adjacent to the site of the ill-fated Fyre Festival. I went for a run this morning to go view the festival site, which is now the beginnings of a neighborhood development. As someone who has deep interest in both project management and events, the Netflix and Hulu documentaries about Fyre gave me cold shivers.

We are ready to sail Gratitude to Turks and Caicos, which should take five or six days, but there has been this little problem of the wind. It’s blowing strong and from an undesirable direction. While we are waiting to set sail, I wanted to write about the process we go through before we undertaking a passage.

Step 1 – Passage Planning. There are whole books written about the passage from Florida to Grenada, which is the big picture of what we are undertaking. It’s commonly known as the Thorny Path. It’s a more technical and complicated route for us, and we have both put a lot of research into this. My general approach is to research what others have done and to review routes, depth charts, and wind conditions and then pick our intended anchorages. I pay particular attention to the next leg or two of the trip and pore over charts and depths and sometimes factor in tides.

The screen shot below is from Active Captain, which is a great tool for us when we have internet access. It’s sort of a Google Maps and Yelp mashup for reviewing routes, anchorages, marinas, and more. We use this for high-level planning and then our on-board chart plotter for the more detailed navigation.

One of the charting tools we use for passage planning

Step 2 – Meal Planning. We are anticipating 18 meals (3/day) at sea, snacks, with some contingency rations in case we are delayed. Obviously, I hope we catch a fish or three along the way. Coming up with that many meal plans in advance takes a bit of work. Of course, this is small compared to what some people do when they are on a major crossing.

Karen, doing meal planning for the trip

Step 3 – Provisioning. We used the weather delay to rent a car and go into George Town. The only real complicating factor here is that they drive on the left side of the road in the Bahamas, with the steering wheel on the right. It takes some time to adjust. We bought groceries, went to several marine hardware stores, and filled our propane tank. In the process of this, we discovered there was a diesel shortage in this part of the Bahamas, and to make matters worse, some guy just took 4,000 gallons of diesel for his mega yacht, so we were left with a decision as to whether to proceed with our tanks half full or wait five days for more fuel to arrive. They had a little bit left that they were carefully rationing out, but Karen saved the day by sweet-talking the dock master out of 100 gallons, which was enough to top off our tanks.

Step 4 – Making Ready. This involves last-minute checks, securing everything that could get knocked over or fall over, moving things from outside to inside as needed, tightly securing the dinghy, and closing all hatches and vents. With each pass you make, you tend to find “one more thing” that needs doing.

Step 5 – Not So Fast There! Weather really matters when you’re on the sea. I still tend to think about weather the way an airplane pilot would, but being on a sailboat is an altogether different undertaking. In a plane, oftentimes you can change altitude if things get rough. That is not a desirable option for a sailboat. And even relatively slow planes can probably make about 60 mph over the ground, so you can outrun or dodge a lot of bad weather. Sailboats like Gratitude are happy to make nine mph, so you could easily get caught in some nasty stuff if you weren’t careful.

While we were planning our departure and trying to get fuel, our weather window collapsed. The winds shifted direction and increased, and the seas got very stirred up. We had to stay put. The winds have been blowing hard for days now, and the next possible weather window looks like Monday (Memorial Day) or maybe Tuesday. One thing we have learned to embrace, however, is that waiting is part of the journey when you’re sailing.

Speaking of weather, we use a couple of sources for weather forecasts and information. We subscribe to Windy (below) to show predictions for wind, seas, tides, and more, and we also subscribe to a weather forecasting service where a meteorologist, Chris Parker, emails us a marine-specific forecast for our area each day. He focuses on the Caribbean, Bahamas, and the East Coast of the US, and most sailers we meet are very familiar with his forecast for the day.

Windy shows wind and current data and more

Speaking of other sailers, when you talk about making a trip like this, something funny happens. We spent a few weeks in Chicken Harbor (AKA George Town) a few miles south of here, and there you will find no shortage of opinions about this passage. Most of those opinions are negative. In fact, we were advised early on by one seasoned sailor to avoid George Town altogether, since hundreds of boats wind up there each year and decide to go no further (hence the nickname Chicken Harbor). The reason is that they talk each other out of going anywhere. The concern is that once you leave the harbor, the seas are rougher, the winds are stronger, and you have to venture from the protection of the Exuma Sound into the more open Atlantic Ocean. There is no question that it is a more demanding journey. Hopefully, we will soon have this leg of the passage behind us.

Concerning Iguanas

We are making our way south through the Exumas at a leisurely pace. This is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, and the weather has been ideal.

Yesterday, we dropped anchor at Bitter Guana Cay en route to our overnight anchorage so we could spend some time mingling with the wild iguanas that inhabit the island.

When you arrive, several of the prehistoric-looking creatures take careful notice of your landing. Some amble up to you, and a few fake an outright bum’s rush. Some of these lizards are over four feet long, so it commands your attention.

Some of the locals on Bitter Guana Cay

But these reptiles are content with eating vegetation, saving hisses and aggressive snaps for each other when one gets too close to another’s “street corner.” We took Romaine lettuce and some bits of apple for them, and they were not at all shy about getting it.

Here, kitty kitty kitty…

There are also some very scenic cliffs that might not match the White Cliffs of Dover, but they don’t seem like such a bad substitute when you’re this side of the Atlantic.

Bitter Guana Cay

Staniel Cay, Bahamas

On Monday, we made our way down to Staniel Cay and dropped anchor. The natural bay is large with impossibly beautiful water and a sandy bottom that provides excellent holding. Every now and then a nurse shark or a stingray glides under the boat.

We took the dinghy over toward the airport and waited for Anne’s tiny plane to arrive from Nassau. The airport concourse at Staniel Cay (TYM) consists of an open wooden pavilion with benches, and security is a chain link fence.

Since we’ve been here, there have been no shortage of sights and attractions. Our first outing was to see the famous “Swimming Pigs of the Exumas.” This is a group of wild pigs that live on…. wait for it… “Pig Beach” on nearby Big Majors Cay. The cool thing about these pigs is that they will swim out in the ocean to meet you on the good faith assumption that you are bringing them food. We came with bread and chopped-up apples, and that did not disappoint. It’s safe, but these are large, wild animals, so there’s always a concern in your mind. Some stories say these pigs are descendants of ones left behind by Christopher Columbus, while others trace a less noble and more recent lineage. After that, we dined at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

This little piggy was not overly thrilled at being picked up.
He could swim better than I could

Our next outing was to Thunderball Grotto, literally around the corner from Pig Beach. It’s a cave you swim into that was made famous by the James Bond movie, Thunderball, where Sean Connery romances Claudia Auger underwater before dispatching several bad guys.

Thunderball Grotto is a natural wonder. At low tide, you swim in and out through a small gap, but at certain high tides the entrance can submerge completely, so timing matters. Once inside, you enter a natural cavern with amazing light and an organic kaleidoscope of fish and coral. Our underwater camera could not adequately capture the hues and grandeur of this place.

Anne in the Thunderball Grotto. That’s one entrance behind her.
Sergeant major damselfish in Thunderball Grotto
Brain coral.

Finally, we motored over to Staniel Cay to eat and shop, and I decided to wade in and experience the nurse sharks for myself. A couple of them made lazy approaches and then veered away once they got within a foot or so. It was certainly an adrenaline rush. 

Easy does it…

Tomorrow’s forecast calls for favorable winds to sail back north for a few hours and explore Cambridge Cay some more. We want to introduce Anne to the art and beauty of sailing. For me, it only took once to fall in love.

Another Gremlin?

Today, Karen flew home to go to a concert, so I have no real adventures to share. I am, however, at Palm Cay Marina in the Bahamas. It’s wonderful. It has an infinity pool, a lap pool, a hot tub, a bar, a private beach, a coffeeshop, a gym, and a restaurant, so I’m good for a few days… really, really good, as a matter of fact. 

As there is nothing particularly exciting to share, I am afraid you’ll have to suffer through another repair blog. This boat is simply too large for me to take it anywhere by myself. (I am aware that I just lost a majority of readers right there. It’s OK – you’re all super-excused).

Here goes… About a month ago, Gratitude’s galley lights suddenly stopped coming on when we flicked the switch. This was unexpected and unwelcome, since the galley is an important shared living space as well as the place we cook. Karen got out the electrical schematics book, and we traced it down to a particular 8-amp fuse (fuse #15). After taking various detachable panels off of walls, we found the fuse box in the starboard cabin. I pulled #15 and tested continuity with my multimeter and confirmed that the fuse had, indeed, blown clean through. Then the search began for a replacement fuse of this size and amperage, and believe me – we went everywhere. Four stores later, we were empty-handed. No one in Nassau had it. When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, we tried West Marine and McDonald’s Hardware, and neither of them had one either (to our great surprise). 

Amazon to the rescue. This entire box of assorted fuses, delivered to the marina in one day, cost less than $7.00 It’s hard for me to wrap my head around those economics.

Fuses galore

Then, there was the nagging problem that even if I replaced the fuse, I would not have determined what caused it to blow in the first place, so I arose sometime around 2:30 a.m. and grabbed my trusty multimeter to go investigate.

An electrical short is often as simple as two wires touching that should not be connecting. This can happen for a number of reasons – particularly in a moving environment like a ship. If there is no fuse to burn up, this could heat up the wires and start an electrical fire, so it can potentially be a big deal.

In this case, I traced the problem down to the blue, 12-volt LED accent lights on the port side stern steps. These lights were on the same circuit as the galley lights but operated off of a different switch. There was a short somewhere in the system, and the worst part was going to be wriggling into the very tight space to change out the wiring and lights once I had new lights to use as replacements. 

A day later, when I was back in Fort Lauderdale, someone working on the boat who was about half my size volunteered that he could fit in there “like… no problem”, and I decided that was pretty much an offer I could not refuse. Soon thereafter, the short was resolved, and everything worked. 

Well, that was the port side of the boat, but yesterday, back in The Bahamas, the starboard (opposite side) lights started doing the same thing and blowing the same fuse all over again. #DejaVu. There always seems to be some maintenance needed on the boat, and in this case it reminded me of the classic Twilight Zone episode where William Shatner was on a flight and saw a gremlin on the wing destroying things, but he was the only one who could see it. Technically I never saw a gremlin, but it could explain a lot.

Don’t be afraid to look, William

Anyway, I got the joy of repeating most of the aforementioned steps to track this down. And the culprit is…

A (charred) 12-volt Lumitec Andros Accent Light

These 12 volt Lumitec Andros LED Accent LED lights seem to fail closed and short out the entire circuit when they go bad, rather than just quit working like a good old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb. Go figure? The net result is that the surrounding wiring heats up very quickly, and the fuse is (mercifully) the first thing to sacrifice itself for the greater good.

I cut out the bad bulb, replaced the fuse, and seven of the eight accent lights now work perfectly, so that is a partial victory. Karen is bringing a few replacement/spare lights back with her on Thursday, and I have the wires all stripped and ready to attach so that I will be able to check this one off the list and resolve my symmetry issues for the time being.

Gratitude safely docked with galley lights and ⅞ step lights working perfectly

As a last word here, I have one tool that has become indispensable aboard Gratitude. It is a Vise Grip wire stripping tool. If you or someone you love enjoys working on electrical things, buy them this for a birthday gift or stocking stuffer. It’s very well-designed and super-functional. I’ve probably owned a half-dozen or more wire-stripping tools in my life, and this one is the best, by a long shot.

Vice Grip wire strippers: an indispensable addition to my tool bag

Replacing an Impeller

(Andy’s note: Most of this entry may be of interest only to boat nerds and people troubleshooting engines.)

Early Saturday morning, we struck out from Bimini to explore Gun Cay and North Cat Cay. All of that was lovely until our starboard engine (a Yanmar 57) signaled an overheat alarm about 10 minutes into our trip. It had been chugging along at a very modest 1600 RPMs, which should be fine, but I still had the port engine, and that had plenty of power to take us the 10 nautical miles or so to where we were going.

No big deal, right?

Wrong! I was trained as a private pilot, and losing an engine made me highly nervous, and it made Karen even more nervous. When an engine overheats, this is serious business.

We made it to a beautiful, calm anchorage outside of Cat Cay and took the dinghy over to Bu’s Bar at the Cat Cay Yacht Club to have some lunch and to take stock of our situation.

Taking a moment…

After talking it through, Karen and I came to the conclusion that we were probably in a tight spot due to the following facts:

  1. Really bad weather was bearing down on us (less than 72 hours out), and we had been planning every leg of our trip around finding good shelter.
  2. Our preferred shelter spot (Chub Cay Marina) was about 12 hours away via Gratitude.
  3. We were suddenly and unexpectedly down to one engine.
  4. In order to get our starboard engine working, we (thought we) needed a part we could not locally source. More on this further down.
  5. The marine store where we could source the part was 18 hours away (on one engine) in Nassau (we could return to Florida in less time, but that would be sailing into the bad weather).
  6. If we went to get the part, we would likely end up with two good engines but no good place to take shelter from days of heavy rain and very high winds.
  7. If we made the trip to our originally preferred shelter spot, we would have to limp there on one engine. If the port engine failed, we could end up in a more serious situation.
  8. If we reached our preferred shelter, I might not be able to safely dock this boat using only one engine, as I use the port and starboard (left and right) engines to maneuver into a slip. Only having the port engine functioning would not allow me to do what I was trained to do. I may get to the point where I could dock the boat in a slip with one engine, but I’m not there yet. We would have to source help from someone who could do this (assuming it’s even doable).

So while we sat and discussed our dilemma, we decided the most likely culprit for the engine overheating was the water impeller.

Now, if you are still awake (or maybe you found this in a web search, and this is why you started reading), one of the ways many marine diesel engines keep cool is this:

  1. Raw seawater is drawn in through an intake pipe
  2. The raw water is strained through a plastic, raw water intake filter to keep out plastic, seaweed, and ocean critters
  3. The filtered seawater is drawn through the system by a rotating impeller (similar to a propeller, except that it sits in front of the hose to move the water along)
  4. The water is circulated back and forth around engine components, so that the water heats up while the engines maintains an optimal temperature
  5. The now-heated sea water is expelled through the exhaust back into the ocean, and fresh, cool seawater is drawn in to continue the cycle

Once I disassembled the impeller housing, I confirmed that we guessed correctly. We definitely had a bad impeller.

Now, I will not inflict upon you the entire story of how we located the spare impeller. Suffice it to say that this took the entire day. After trips ashore and an excursion to another island, we located a spare on our own boat late in the day. Spare impellers are like spare tires. You should always have one, and we did, thanks to the previous owner.

The impeller is a moving part that is subject to wear

Once we located a spare, this turned out to be a straightforward repair. Here were the steps involved:

  1. Folding myself into the engine compartment
  2. Closing the thru-hull seacock to seal off the raw water intake system
  3. Removing the four bolts and cover that house the impeller
  4. Gently prying out the old impeller (I used two sets of pliers to extract the old one)
  5. Lubricating the new impeller with grease and installing it
  6. Replacing the cover and the four bolts that house the impeller
  7. Priming (filling) the raw water strainer with water (an essential step that I missed the first time)
  8. Starting the engine
  9. Immediately opening the thru-hull seacock to allow the system to function
  10. Rejoicing as water spilled out of the side of the boat, indicating that the engine was circulating and cooling

More on step 7 above (priming the raw water intake). When I first fired up the engine, no water circulated. This was a very unwelcome development, as I wondered if the whole problem might be more serious, but once I primed the system and tried again, everything worked as designed.

Voila! Now we are back up and running with two engines and plenty of time to get to shelter ahead of the approaching storm.

Family Time

My dad, and our son, Kyle, joined us for eight days aboard Gratitude. We had to remain at the marina for the first few days while modifications and repairs were being made, but we were able to get in several solid days of sailing too. It gave them a taste for boat life. We made some provisioning runs, sailed, motored, and took the dinghy around. Dad and I made some of our own repairs, and the two of them experienced some basics about how boats operate. Kyle keenly observed, “If sailing were a TV show, it would have pacing issues.”

He is right. Cruising life contrasts being immersed in tranquility, beauty, and fun, punctuated by periods of intense action and stress. The stress may be situational (e.g. something intense is happening, and you have to deal with it immediately) or it may be self-induced. Most often, the locus of my stress involves safely stopping the boat. Hovering in place on a river in front of a drawbridge, maneuvering into a dock slip, or trying to get the anchor to grab and hold can get my heart racing. The reason is that there are usually currents, winds, and other boats or structures to contend with.

As an example, on Wednesday night we were asleep at anchor with the hatches open when it started to sprinkle, around 2:30 a.m. Karen secured the hatches, and I decided that while I was awake, I would check to see how our anchor was holding. When I stepped outside, I noticed the winds and tides had shifted considerably, and the monohull sailboat closest to us was now swinging frenetically on his anchor. After about ten minutes of watching him dart and undulate wildly, his stern came all the way over toward ours. His was a lighter boat than Gratitude, so I was, with some effort, able to physically shove him away when he was close enough to hit us, but he swung back again and again. So, I woke Karen, and we spent hours watching him make Spirograph-like patterns before unpredictably careening right back into us. We used our fenders (basically giant, inflated rubber balls) to keep his boat from crunching ours.

Karen took this whole event quite calmly, but I was full of adrenaline. It felt like being in a fight where your opponent kept getting up and coming back, over and over. (Terminator 2 would be too dramatic a comparison, but you get the idea). We debated trying to wake the owner of the other yacht, but ultimately we just accepted our fate and kept watch to prevent any damage. The next morning, we left that anchorage, bright and early, with his yacht still channeling Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

In order to get back out to sea, we needed to pass under the Las Olas drawbridge. Gratitude is too tall to do that without having the bridge up, so you get the pleasure of being “that guy” and stopping all traffic on Las Olas Boulevard and making everyone wait while the bridge raises for you to pass through. This time, however, the bridge only opened one of its two spans. I radioed him to ask if there was a malfunction, and he informed me that he was only opening halfway for me, and I would need to squeeze through. Again – you transition abruptly from a leisurely journey to a quick jolt of stress. And all of this happened pre-coffee!

The Las Olas Bridge when the operator isn’t trying to play chicken with me

But yesterday, we sailed south to Key Biscayne, and we have never coaxed such great performance out of the boat. We regularly made over 9 kts on that trip with only our sails in about 18 kts of wind. The boat was happy, and so was I. We had a great sail and an easy time anchoring. We dinghied over to a restaurant a mile or so away and enjoyed a wonderful, relaxing meal and some sangria.

Gratitude making great time sailing southward

Today, as I write this, we have made it back to the Bahamas. We spent the day “beating” (traveling into the wind), and crossing the rolling Gulf Stream. Once we were at tonight’s destination, we deployed our anchor and went through all the right steps, but when I dove off the boat to have a look, it was laying sideways on the ocean floor instead of digging in. We had to start over to get it to set, but all’s well now.

Not the way an anchor should look.

Tomorrow looks calm for us. We’re sailing south to explore Gun Cay and North Cat Cay. Then we will start making our way to shelter to ride out some approaching bad weather predicted for next week.