Saturday, March 29, 2014

Gee, It's Good To Be Home

In keeping with my latest theme, "It Ain't Over Til It's Over," we arrived in the Washington area with a splash and a mud bath. No easy return for us! Why lessen our record now??!!

As previously reported, we left Ft. Pierce, Florida, in a rush: in a frantic 24-hour period, made decisions, turned the boat over to a broker, crammed half our stuff into a rented van, and carted the rest to a rented storage locker. Spiffed up the boat and hired a cleaning lady. Enjoyed a last supper with the crew of sailboat Pearl, who are living at the Ft. Pierce marina for a while.

Spent the first night on the road visiting friends Bobby and Joanna and cousin Laura in St. Augustine. The second night, we naively charged up a red dirt road in southern Virginia in our fully loaded, giant rental car--apparently with bald tires. Stayed up late jawing with old friend and fellow sailor Sally at her family farm. By morning, a light rain had turned the infamous Virginia clay to gooey orange mud. We rocked the car back and forth, piled rocks and tree bark under the tires, and dug huge holes in Sally's lawn. Oops. Left her to clean up the mess.

So much for an early start. We got the car back to the freeway, sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Fredericksburg to DC, arrived too late to return the car, and spent several hours in pouring rain lugging giant garbage bags of stuff from the nearest parking space, two blocks away, to our house. Ah well, better than snow and ice.

Returned to a sadly neglected house--quarter inch of dust, sticky kitchen floor, ring-around-the-toilet, and smell of dead mouse in the wall. What! No one cleaned while we were away?!

Finally, the payoff: making cream of broccoli soup and strawberry salad in our own kitchen. Loading the dishes into the dishwasher. The heat is on, the house is dry, and we've got a soft, warm bed on solid ground.

Boy, is it good to be home, even if it's only temporary!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Post-Cruise Progress: It Ain't Over Til It's Over

Dear readers: sorry I have neglected to bring you up to date on our progress. I got distracted by all the hard work of winding down a cruise and getting home. (No, we're not there yet.)

I last left you in West End, an expensive, half-finished hellhole of a resort with a rocky, weedy beach, strong winds, no shade, and a hundred no-see-ums vying for a choice capillary on my left ankle. Even Pope got bit!! (Grin. Now he can be more sympathetic.)

We crossed the Atlantic Gulf Stream on Sunday. After the first two hours of agitation on the whites/cottons cycle, the waters calmed down to perma press.

We were able to sail for a while, and by the time we neared Florida, switched entirely to the gentle cycle. Entering Palm Beach inlet and anchorage, we passed a dozen or so boats who had left Wesr End  with us and passed us by, leaving us in  their wake. Only one 32-foot, whose crew we met in Green Turtle, arrived at the same time.

I settled down for a relaxing return to the USA and leisurely journey home.

Alas, twas not to be. We were tentatively headed for a storage facility in North Florida, a week away, near Jacksonville. Instead, our second night out, at a marina in Ft. Pierce, we realized that lots of boat sales were taking place right there! Revelation! Not ones to be left behind, we got with the program quickly and begged a boat broker: Me, too! Sell ours!

The drill: in a mere 24 hours, we made decisions, rented a van and a storage locker, negotiated a broker contract, cleaned out 7 holds, 9 shelves, 1 closet, and the whole quarter-berth, cramming our 4,700 pounds of stuff--or so it seemed; the boat lifted 4 inches out of the water!!--either into the storage locker or in the van to take home; visited with our old friends on Pearl (remember them?) who are living here; and still managed to gobble down a meal or two. Whew. A marathon.

More work is in store tomorrow: cleaning the boat, pumping out the holding  tank, moving to a new slip for the long term, and then, if we have any energy left at all, starting for home with the van--due back to Budget in DC on Sunday at 2:00 pm. A long drive with a full car and tired limbs; one we are not exactly looking forward to!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saturday Update: Another Vacation Day

We are going to attempt a crossing to Florida tomorrow, Sunday, March 23. The wind will be against us, but it will be light, whereas today and all next week the wave forecasts are too formidable. Six boats left this morning, all before sunrise. One of the largest sailboats turned around after an hour and returned to the marina, reporting that the ocean was "lumpy" and they were getting beat up--enough to convince us to wait another day.

So we are paying to stay another expensive day at the dock in the Old Bahama Bay marina and resort at West End, the western tip of Grand Bahama Island, 47 miles from the Florida coast. I am determined to squeeze every penny's worth of enjoyment out of this resort. Yesterday, lap swimming in the lagoon-shaped pool, a half hour on the treadmill in the fitness center, and hot shower.

This morning, a long walk on the beach, followed by delicious coconut french toast at the beach bar overlooking the Little Bahama Bank

Now, borrowing a marina bike to ride to a nearby village. Also available for later: kayaks, paddleboards.

Just like Green Turtle Cay, this is not a bad place to be "stuck".

Friday, March 21, 2014

What I Did On My Winter Vacation: My Personal Bests of the Bahamas

Now that we are only ONE DAY from leaving the Bahamas—and excited about it!—I can let go of the anxiety, set aside the hard work, and reflect on the highlights of our visit to approximately 21 islands (it’s hard to keep track) since December. As the breakdowns, injuries, and no-see-ums fade in memory, the pleasiant memories--of interesting people, special activities, and beautiful places--will undoubtedly grow. Below are some of my favorites.
Nature as art: the water colors at Warderick Wells.

White sand, warm water, and the lively social scene at Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island, made more vivid by the company of Pope, Henry, John, and Carole and her friends.

Highbourne Cay: gorgeous swimming beach, graceful ray under the dock, and friendly motor-cruisers at the marina.

Swimming in beautiful, calm, sandy Gillam Bay on Green Turtle Cay; at secluded Pirates Beach on Staniel Cay; and in the gloriously clear and warm mangrove river on Shroud Cay, shown below (“swimming in place” against the powerful current there).

The tiny pink market on Staniel Cay—my favorite grocery. Run by friendly Eleanor and featuring her delicious coconut bread. (No photo; however, Eleanor may visit us in DC this summer when she attends her god-daughter's graduation from GWU.)

Conch stew at Taste and Sea on Staniel Cay. Cracked conch at Ruth’s shack on Potters Cay, shown below, shared with Henry and John. Deviations from my vegetarian diet that were worth every tender, savory bite. 
Pomegranate, sopadilla, and guava fruits picked fresh off the trees and given to me by Ren and his daughter, residents of Little Farmers Cay.

Fresh lettuce salad at restaurants in Marsh Harbor and Highbourne Cay. (Not grown in the Bahamas,  probably; a very welcome treat!) Kale and cilantro freshly picked by Leslie, resident of Manjack Cay, in her garden.

Dancing to energetic Abaco musicians at Green Turtle Club and Pineapples tiki bar (Kevin, shown below), and being introduced to the Bahamas-centric ballads of Barefoot Man.

Having my folding bike on board for touring Harbour Island, Staniel Cay, Green Turtle Cay, and others, and for running errands. Shown below on Pinder's Ferry to Eleuthera.

Cruisers met at marinas, on docks, in bars, or at anchorages because they pulled up to our boat in their dinghies just to say hello. Bruce and Gayleen (below), Judy and Dave (below), David and Sherl, Gabe and Gail, Vic and Gigi, Connie, Steve, George, Hans and Shirley, Pierre and Liza, Bill and Carmen, Bill and Alicia, and many more. (Some of whom can be credited with convincing me to keep going instead of flying home…)

Spending five months in close quarters with Pope, nearly 24 hours a day, sometimes enjoying life and sometimes coping with disasters. Despite a few disagreements, overall a positive start to my retirement.

The glorious joy of reaching West End, 53 miles from Florida, and knowing only one day of travel separates us from the USA!



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nature's Bounty: Flora and Fauna of the Bahamas

Spotted eagle ray gliding gracefully under the dock in search of prey, at Highbourne Cay in the Exumas
Banyan tree on Eagle Cay in the Abacos
Curly tailed lizard hiding in tbe grass on Manjack Cay in the Abacos
Orchids growing on trees, Manjack Cay in the Abacos
Nurse sharks hanging around fish-cleaning tables at Highbourne Cay and Staniel Cay in the Exumas and in Nassau Harbor
Soursop fruit tree, Manjack Cay in the Abacos
Hermit crabs hiding in their shells on a path to the ocean, Little Harbour Cay in the Abacos
Bougainvillea on porches and fences everywhere
Starfish in the water, Marsh Harbor in the Abacos

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Things We Do For Love...Or From Ignorance!

Living on a boat is not quite the cosy, romantic fantasy I envisioned when I agreed to cruising in the Bahamas for the winter.  We set off from Chesapeake Bay last October (in 30-degree weather, by the way).  Since then, there are many things I've had to get used to:

1. Money flying out of our wallets into the deep blue bottomless boat cavity.

2. Being wet: salt spray, humidity, rain, sweat, leaky boat. After a swim or shower, throw the clothes back on, who cares how uncomfortably wet.

3. No-see-um (sand fly) bites: small red bumps on arms and legs, itch itch itch. My least favorite feature of the Bahamas.

4. Salt and sand on/in everything: corroded metal, itchy scalp, gritty bed sheets and boat deck and floor.

5. Shower only every 4 or 5 days when we check into a marina. In between, sponge bath with a jug of water.

6. Hard work every day: navigating shallow waters and strong currents, dropping or lifting anchor, securing dock lines, adjusting lines as tide and current change, securing everything against strong wind, fixing electrical connections, cleaning up corroded parts, washing clothes and towels, cooking and cleaning up, sweeping the floor and deck, cleaning the nasty bilge, pumping out the stinky toilet, mending sails or other fabric, improvising solutions to broken parts, buying groceries or other provisions, etc etc etc. Endless. Not as much time for fun as one would think.

7. Seeing sunrise and sunset every single day and the stars most nights.
Sunset at Spanish Wells, St. George Cay, Eleuthera
Sunrise at Black Sound, Green Turtle Cay, Abacos
8. Being “stuck” waiting for weather windows that allow cruisers to continue on to another destination. Schedule and itinerary subject to weather, always; can't just go where you want when you want.

9. Always holding on with one hand. Everywhere, no matter what: boat, dinghy, or dock.

10. Tripping over things on a crowded boat. Crawling up and down ladders inside the boat and on/off the docks, especially at low tide.

11. Sore arms and legs, multiple cuts, massive bruises, crushed fingers and toes, bleeding, pain, from hitting things on the boat or dock, moving around on a rocking and rolling boat, climbing on and off docks to/from boat or dinghy in variable tides and currents. We are both due for some x-rays when we reach Florida.

12. Sleeping two to a bunk that's only 11" wide at the foot. (Measure the width of your foot, multiply by 4.)

13. Swimming alone at the periphery of a big scary ocean. Pope is not terribly interested in beaches or swimming, so if I want to swim, I just hop on the bike or dinghy and go. I usually have the beaches to myself, since we go to places outside the tourist itineraries, reachable only by boat.

14. Sharks hanging around all the docks and many of the beaches. "They don't bite very often," the locals say.
15. Being unprepared for the unexpected. (*sigh*)  The epitome of the cruising life, apparently. Everyone on every boat has stories.
16. Enjoying beauty wherever you find it: a beach, a shell, a marine critter, a flower or plant. One of the rewards for all the hard work.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Green Turtle Cay

Ten years ago, on our first rental sailboat in the Bahamas, Green Turtle Cay was a desirable yet elusive destination. Everyone talked about it. It seemed like the ultimate tropical island vacation spot--why, even the name evoked romantic images: clear blue water, colorful coral reefs ripe for snorkeling, sea turtles nesting on the beach, pastel homes and porches bursting with fuschia and purple bougainvillea.

However, we had chartered the boat in Hopetown on Eagle Cay, in the Abaco islands. To reach Green Turtle, farther north in the Abacos, required going "around" the Whale (see previous blog post). We didn't have a long enough stretch of good weather to get around the Whale to Green Turtle and back before the end of our rental.

The Whale, upper right; mainland of Great Abaco, lower left; dark blue, shallow sandbar stretches between them.

This year, after leaving the Exuma islands, we decided to go home through the Abacos and try again.

Not only did we get around the Whale to Green Turtle; we have been here more than a week, tied up to a mooring ball (a float attached securely to the sea bottom), and looks like a second week here is on its way. As always, we are waiting for a weather window to move on--across the Little Bahamas Bank to the western Bahamas (a 2- to 3-day trip, depending on how ambitious you are) then across the Gulf Stream to Florida (another long, full day or night and day). The wind has raged for days; tomorrow, we are expecting 35-mph gusts.

I set about to find all the fun activities and gorgeous scenery that Green Turtle has to offer. I swam in Gillam Bay, a cove protected from ocean swells. Biked to the ocean beach. Ate at Two Shorty's, a carry-out. Scoured the town of New Plymouth for eggplant (no dice), fresh milk (occasionally), and cheap groceries (ha ha, everything costs more here than in the Exumas, even though it is less remote!). Visited the tiny local library and cleaned it out of detective novels to read while we're here.

Did three jigsaw puzzles. Read several books. Watched a live webcast of a lesson from my spiritual teacher (guru) who is currently visiting my yoga center in Alexandria, Virginia.

We have gotten to know other cruisers at mooring balls and docks here, many of whom are also waiting to cross the Bank and the Gulf Strean to Florida. The daily discussions of weather are endless!
Steve (left) is the only other cruiser here with a sailboat as small (and slow) as ours! He is also waiting for weather to cross the Gulf Sstream.

We rented a golf cart and tooled over to the northern end of the island to fill our fuel cans and, one evening, danced to live Bahamian music at Pineapples, an outdoor tiki bar.

Hitched a ride in another sailboat to Manjack Cay, a couple of islands to the north, for mangoves, beaches, and stimulating discussion with residents.

Hmm.  We seem to be exhausting the possibilities of Green Turtle! Time to turn our attention to fixing the dinghy oarlock, sewing up the ripped dodger (awning over the companionway--entrance to lower cabin), cleaning the stinky bilge (phew!), and otherwise preparing to leave again. We are homesick and wishing we could get back home; Pope to spring planting in the garden and me to yoga, Toastmasters, French language lessons, windows with mosquito screens (though it's no-see-ums that plague us here, not mosquitos), and--best of all--a soft, dry bed.

Meanwhile, we are content to enjoy 70-degree-warm breezes while friends and neighbors in Washington, DC, are shoveling and thawing. We are all experiencing the same weird extremes of weather. We have internet, so send us your tales of joy and woe to keep us company and keep us in touch with folks back home!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dodging the Whale: A No-Drama Ocean Adventure

We spent the weekend at Nipper's, a well-known Bahamas landmark on Great Guana Cay, known for pig roasts, concerts, sunsets, or just drinks on the deck.
The waves crashing on the ocean beach were at least 5-6 feet. Very impressive. Photos, of course, don't show the size very well.


We were waiting to tackle the Whale. The Whale is infamous in Bahamas cruising lore. It is a small island fully exposed to the ocean (unlike other Abaco islands, protected by an offshore reef). Up and down the Abaco island chain, boats like ours can travel between the mainland (Great Abaco Island) and out-islands over shallow waters called the Little Bahama Bank, inside the out-islands and their  reefs. Except at the Whale.

Because of a very shallow sandbank between the Whale and the mainland, all boats have to go out into the ocean to go past the Whale. We did it last year on someone's 27-foot boat in 4-foot rolling swells (having waited a day or two for the 8-foot swells to calm down).

Pope has a history with the Whale, having come close to swamping and sinking a sailboat there 30 years ago in breaking waves of a dozen or so feet in height. (Yes, this was a separate incident and with different people from his shipwreck off the coast of Florida.)

Lat year, the 4 foot rolling waves (instead of monster breakers) turned the roaring, formidable, hungry whale into a medium-sized fish.

This morning, we tuned in early to the weather report on the VHF. The forecast was for 1-2 foot rollers! Nevertheless, Pope was sweating buckets, given his history with the Whale..

We headed out at 9 am. The 1-2 foot rollers were insterpersed with an occasional 4 footer. Still not bad, though.

The Whale came closer and closer.

Out and around the island. To our left, saw waves breaking on the westernmost point.

Passed the end of the Whale and through the second inlet, out of the ocean and back onto the Bank.

Sorry there isn't more drama in our Whale tale! At this point, we are VERY happy to have days with no drama!

After the Whale, headed for Green Turtle Cay, a pleasant tourist destination en route to Florida and home. I like this island: small village, markets, beaches, marinas with other cruisers (though we are unlikely to meet them, as we are not at a marina--on a cheap $10 mooring instead). We are currently sitting in Pineapples outdoor tiki bar, a shack on the beach with delicious rum punches.  Yvonne is in charge of the bar. We were here last year and loved it.

All smiles again.  For now, at least. We are currently looking for a mechanic to check an oil leak and fix the VHF antenna. Then go for a swim and check out the rum cake at the local bakery.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How High Are the Mountains? How About 'Dem Ocean Swells???

How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?

These are eons-old questions, immortalized in literature and song. Well, here’s a new profound, probing question to addle your gray matter: how tall were the huge, mountainous waves we endured in the Northeast Providence Channel on Monday?

Just like the Alps and Rockies, oceans, too, have peaks and valleys, not just on the seabed, but also on the surface! Heavy boats—cruise ships or container ships, for example--plow through most ocean waves with nary a lean, let alone a tumble. Echo II, in contrast, is a tiny baby rocking in a cradle with loose hinges.

On Monday we accomplished an amazing feat: crossing 52 miles of the Atlantic in a single day, starting well before sunrise.

Fifty-two miles might not sound far to the average automobile driver, or cruise ship captain, but for sailors rolling up and down swells at the mercy of the sea gods, the day seemed endless and the distance twice that far.

The waves were on our beam. “Roly-poly” is how cruisers describe the phenomenon of tipping and slipping sideways, or “beam to beam.” (I heard it on the radio.) Occasionally, we also rocked front to back. I don’t know what that’s called.

So, just how far did we travel? Despite the 52 miles clearly marked in magenta on our nautical chart, the actual distance traversed, factoring in the distance we climbed up every peak (or should I say borne up by a relentless ocean with little discretion on our part) and slid down into each valley, is a matter of dispute. Having experienced my first major blue-water sailing in the Pacific last summer, off Vancouver Island, I feel I have some experience at this sort of thing. I swore that the waves on Monday were 10 feet tall, from crest to trough.  

Pope had a different perspective. Those measly waves were only 3-4 feet, he scoffed. He has much more ocean sailing experience, of course.  However, my eyes don’t lie. When we slid to the bottom, I could have sworn the top of the next swell was up to my eyebrows.

We wrestled with the data, and tossed invectives back and forth, both swearing on the seaman’s Bible that our version was the most accurate. Or at least the most interesting to share with other cruisers at happy hour.

Time to call in a mediator to settle the dispute and get our stories on the same page. At our anchorage west of Lynyard Cay, in the southern Abacos, Carmen and Bill of the neighboring sailboat Jela obliged. We had met them earlier, in Spanish Wells. A happy couple.

They motored over in their dinghy, wisely dragging along some cold beers to help cool things down. (Jela has refrigeration.)

How high were those swells that added so cruelly to our total distance?

“Six to eight feet,” Carmen insisted, with supreme technical precision and a smug, all-knowing air.

“Huh,” I replied, not quite willing to give up my story of giant rogue waves tossing us in the air and plunging us toward the 4,700-meter depths (almost 15,000 feet!).

“Hmm,“ Pope pondered with a frown, clearly not sure if his manhood was being threatened or if this woman had some genuine expertise in marine measurement science.

What was her source? Why was she so sure? We badgered her to tell all.

“I listened to today’s marine weather report on the radio.”

Oh, well. Whatever the size of the rollers, with the wind filling both sails, we were able to run at more than 6 knots all day. Above-average speed for Echo II, especially in roly-poly conditions. The faster pace allowed us to keep several bigger sailboats, including Jela, within sight on the horizon all day, making a huge difference in my comfort level.  (See previous blog about the time I cried when the last boat disappeared over the horizon.)

On Monday, I could see sails every time we crested a wave, and I knew the crews would come to our rescue if the sea gods won the battle for our stomachs and our souls. For once on this Bahamas cruise, we weren’t battling those humongously high peaks all alone!

The silver flying fish take it all in stride. They sail above the waves for long distances, occasionally dropping down to flick the water with their little tail fin to give them more momentum--kind of like Oracle riding on its foil in the America Cup.