Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bahamian Blue

As we sailed through and visited some of the Caribbean Windward and Leeward Islands, our attention was turned to the land.  While the sailing was rich with ocean rhythms and wondrous skies, we spent more time on land enjoying waterfalls, markets, and rotis.  As we sailed into a deserted bay at the south tip of Long Island in the Exumas Bahamas, our gaze returned to the water.  The crystal layers of cobalts, teals and turquoise swept around us as far as we could see and welcomed us with new luminescence at every turn.

Our new crew had arrived from a chilling (-30) in Calgary and their initiation to sailing was an immediate overnight passage from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos past the southern Bahama Islands to Long Island.  I am the oldest of three and my siblings, David and Colleen, along with David's wife Lee, joined us for the last leg of our sail to Florida, a three week journey through the Exumas and across the Gulf Stream.  To watch their awe at our first anchorage at South Point was worth everything it had taken to get there.  The cool water, white sands, and gentle ripples in the bay slowed everyone down after the heightened energies of the overnight-sail experience.

This was a significant destination for us.  We had heard for years about the beauty of sailing the Bahamas and were greeted by silence and sunset.  The Bahamas had us as captives at this first stop and we could not have known that this was just the appetizer to a banquet of enchantment.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mr. Antares

I remember my anxiety as my brother, David, and my sister, Colleen, dropped us off at the Calgary airport with our five overloaded bins and two bicycles in October, 2010.  They helped us push our way through the crowded ticket counter and I felt as though we were moving to another planet as we set out on this odyssey.  By the time David and his wife, Lee,joined us on Alberta Crewed for the first time sixteen months later, he almost knew more about our boat than we did.  With a passion for and knowledge of anything electronic and mechanical, David has followed us vicariously over the past few years as we trekked through boat shows, went on boat deliveries, chose our Antares, and visited the yard as she was constructed.  David was our armchair expert as he poured through any piece of literature he could get and conducted extensive research on components and specs.  He knows the Antares website backwards and forwards and was an excellent sounding board for Craig in figuring out the systems on our boat as we went along.  We sent him the latest two hundred page Antares University boat manual as a Christmas present and I imagined a tear of joy out of the corner of his eye as he opened it.  He appreciates the art and science of the 44i.  When David finally stepped onto Alberta Crewed in Turks and Caicos on January 18, he was speechless.  It may have been the overnight flight from -30 degree Calgary winter that contributed to his delirium but I'm quite sure he was pinching himself as his dream to sail our magnificent machine was becoming a reality. 

Knowing how much this trip meant to him, we gave him the best welcome gift possible; a trip up the mast.  Our tri-light had quit working a few weeks earlier and David had taken delivery of a new unit from Denmark and brought it down for us.  Boat components are perpetually under repair and new boats are not immune.  The integrity of the multitude of companies involved in the make up of a boat is found in their response when something goes wrong.  Our tri light which is a beacon to other boats at night that we are under sail, is an expensive and critical piece of safety component.  The company, Lopolight, couriered a whole new unit to David from Europe, no questions asked.  After making do with solar garden lights (a handy multi-purpose backup), we are now back up and shining white, red, and green, and we have one happy crew member.  Mr. David is hereby christened 'Mr. Antares'. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

South Caicos

Papa waved his arms and shouted like an evangelical preacher. “Ike! He done two hundred and sixty miles an hour!” As he slid off of the bar stool, his voice dropped to a whisper and he leaned towards us, widening his eyes. “There was demons in that one. I could hear people talking in the wind.” We put down our breakfast cutlery and listened as Papa continued his account of the category 5 hurricane that devastated South Caicos just three years ago. “My gramma, she remember the hurricane in ’45. It was bad, bad, but she say it didn’t have the wind like Ike. There was planes flying at the airport, lifting off the ground and no one flying them. The coast guard came after Ike with 1600 body bags and left with them empty. Not one person died.” He spoke with pride about how his community had survived the monster storm. The population of South Caicos is 1600.

We changed our plan to sail to Providenciales (Provo) the capital city of Turks and Caicos and stayed an extra day in South Caicos. This wind swept, arid island in the southern end of the Caicos Bank archipelago seems to be in-waiting and Papa is one of its characters who clings to the hope that things are going to improve. The town has perfectly paved and painted roads but the sparse homes are in desperate need of repair, and blocks of lots lined with concrete block walls are empty and overgrown. Stop signs stand waiting for traffic that doesn’t come. When we arrived yesterday, intending only an overnight respite after our four day passage from the Virgin Islands, we at first thought it was deserted. We could see a couple of guys at the dock but the streets were empty. With the help of one of the guys, we found Customs in an unmarked building that was indistinguishable from the other houses. Faded and torn photos of Prince Charles, the Queen and Prince Philip, must have been hung in the 60’s in the tiny office.

As we walked around town, we discovered that many people were trying to eke out a living by converting part of their homes into a Variety store. We were surprised at how well stocked the shelves were, thinking we could have provisioned our entire boat from any of them. Wilson, a store owner, had recommended Dwayne’s restaurant to us and we soon discovered it was the only one in town. Our encounter with Papa was our second time there. We had savoured Dwayne’s conch burgers the night before and when I ordered coffee with breakfast, Dwayne sent his teenaged assistant to the one of the variety stores for milk and coffee creamer in case I wanted it. The town once thrived on fishing for conch and lobster but the cost of fuel has decimated the industry. Looming on the two small hills north and east of the town are half finished resort hotel projects that to us looked like Club Meds as we rounded the tip of Grand Turks at the end of our passage. They are deserted but everyone we talked to believed they were going to open soon. Wilson explained. “Right now we have no crime and people help each other but we just want bettering. We don’t want big change, just a way to make a living.” We walked over to one and discovered a priceless property on a pristine beach. Expectations are high and one wonders if these projects will ever deliver. In the meantime, Alberta Crewed is the only boat here (the benefit of a catamaran in 6 feet of water) and we will savour the peace, quiet, and hospitality of South Caicos.

From 26,000 to 6
Our sail from the Virgin Islands took us over the Puerto Rican Trench, the second deepest ocean hole in the world and the deepest in the Atlantic Ocean. It is the boundary between the Caribbean and the North American plates, with the Caribbean subducting the North American. This explains the numerous volcanic islands we have sailed by these past weeks. Our electronic chart showed over 26,000 feet of ocean underneath us and Craig wondered how long it would take for a penny to reach the bottom if we dropped it from the boat. We also wondered if there was anyplace else on earth where we could throw something and have it come to rest five miles away from us.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Virgin Gorda

Our overnight sail January 1st from St. Maarten to Virgin Gorda, the first of the British Virgin Island (BVI) chain, was a gorgeous sail all the way with the wind behind us. Seas were 2 to 3 metres but since they were behind us more than they were on our beam, we could ride waves and get a bit more momentum. In busy harbours we often hear radio calls asking for pilots, locally trained captains who are familiar with conditions and hazards, to take the helms of commercial ships and steer them in. Although we didn’t call for one, a pilot showed up for us at dawn about 15 miles east of Virgin Gorda, just as we came up on the reef shelf from a depth of 5000 ft to 100 ft. Since we had apparently forgotten to specify, our pilot was the non-human kind, a lone Pilot Whale about 25 feet in length. He surfaced several times off of our stern and sent a spray of sea water through his blow hole as we ran back and forth trying to spot him. He would disappear for several minutes and then swim right beside us upside down and under the boat so we could see the white patch on his belly. He stayed with us for over half an hour and when it seemed we were going in the right direction towards Necker Passage, he swam away. 
I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of Virgin Gorda because it meets all of our criteria for tropical paradise: scarcity of other humans, great snorkelling, clear green water, white beaches, warm days and cool evenings, and a secure anchorage. We have been tucked away for five nights, thanks to our beautiful Ultra anchor, in St. Thomas Bay just off of the village of Spanish Town. There is a quiet marina, a bar with a few tables mixed with sailors and locals, and a small grocery store along side a few souvenir shops. We walked 2 miles along the road up a thickly forested hill to The Baths to do some snorkelling and came upon the geological wonder that lines the south west tip of the island. It looks like a giant took a truck full of boulders and dumped them along the white sandy beach, creating caves and crevices as the 50 foot rocks came to rest in random piles. We wound our way down to the beaches through the narrow paths of geometric spaces between the boulders and with snorkel gear, explored the warm pools and coral-rich shoreline.

Another Virgin Gorda adventure took us by cab up and down steep fourteen hundred vertical feet of thickly treed hills with picturesque ocean vistas to the north end and the famous Bitter End Yacht Club and resort. It is written up regularly in sailing magazines and a ten minute ferry ride dropped us off at the base of a boardwalk-lined hill with thatched-roofed luxurious cottages creeping up the incline. We could see Richard Branson’s Necker Island with its 
65000 Euros per night price tag and settled for fish and chips at the pub. 

Chris Parker has advised us that Monday is the best time to leave on the 450 nautical mile trip to the island chain of Turks and Caicos where we will be picking up our “crew”, the Bowers Clan, for the rest of the journey to Miami. The VI-Turks passage could take up to four days so we are heading to the US Virgin Island of St. Thomas tomorrow for the farthest take off point from the Virgin Island Chain. Our 35 nm sail to the city of Charlotte Amalie takes us down the middle of the Virgin Island chain, passing Tortola (we squeezed in a day trip there via ferry to Road Harbour, the busy BVI capital). Virgin Gorda is marked in bold as a place we will return to. 
The Other Side of Sailing

On previous tropical vacations, I loved leaving my hotel windows open to hear the surf crash on shore because it was a relaxing and soothing sound. I even bought DVD’s of the rhythmic rush of water to play for its meditative quality. On the boat, the changes in surf crashing cause us to leap to alert out of bed. It means either the wind or sea swell have picked up, potentially breaking a mooring hold or dragging the anchor and us to shore, or dragging some other boat into us. Last night, we were awakened by yelling and clanking and watched a 100 metre barge about 200 metres away from us as its crew worked to turn it around. Although at a safe distance, the swells and wind could have complicated the situation at anytime and Alberta Crewed was wide open in its path. In an emergency, would we pull up the anchor or just cut it loose? We decided it would be quicker to pull it in. Although I would of course take the safest route, I was relieved that severing our beautiful anchor was not likely the fastest response. Thankfully, we didn’t come close to this drastic move and watched until the barge headed in the opposite direction before checking our land marks again to make sure we weren’t moving. It’s always something.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Stupid Perfect Wind

We left St. Lucia early Monday, December 26th hoping to reach the French chain of islands, Les Saintes that are just south of Guataloupe, by Tuesday morning. I could smell the cappuccino as we roared right past, two hours ahead of schedule. For the first time in a very long while we had perfect east winds on our beam at between 15 and 20 knots and Alberta Crewed was flying. Since we have a few miles to cover in the next few weeks, we decided to keep going. I was rewarded for my coffee and croissant sacrifice with a meteor shower over Guadaloupe during my shift on night watch. One fire ball was so bright it left its tail dripping for a few seconds. We learned that the currents were with us, adding one or two knots of speed on the south parts of the islands, and taking away those gains for a mile or two on the northern ends. We slowed down substantially in the lee of Martinique’s Mt. Pelee volcano as its shadow blocked out the stars. Napoleon’s Josephine was born on Martinique and it is the last of the Windward Islands, the southern Caribbean island chain running north-south and perfect for island hopping with the east trade winds. 
The Leeward Islands start to arc to the west, beginning with Dominica and splitting to either Antigua and Barbuda in the northeast or Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts on a northwest path. We took the shortest route past Montserrat where for the first time we had to do a volcanic activity check as part of our sail plan. The island’s active Soufriere volcano last erupted in 2008 and there are sea areas that are out of bounds to boats. The island is a contrast of stark volcanic ash deltas in the south and lush green fields in the north. The residents should receive medals for fortitude and stamina as the volcano looms menacingly in the south over homes that are precariously hanging on the northern rocky cliffs, completely exposed to heavy east winds. It doesn’t look like there is any protection from hurricanes. 
We expected to reach our final destination, St. Maarten, by early Wednesday morning but the stupid perfect winds got even better. We lowered the main and furled in the genoa a few wraps to slow ourselves down but 6 knots was as low as we could go. Another catamaran with full main and genoa passed us but had to work to do so. We are sometimes asked with skepticism about how well Alberta Crewed sails. Some sailors think that catamarans don’t sail as well as monohulls believing that because cats are much wider without a deep keel, they don’t bite into the water enough to point into the wind. This particular evening I think we could have made 6 knots with our courtesy flag alone which meant we again arrived hours ahead of schedule, in the middle of the night. It was a glorious sail. 
St. Maarten is a busy mega-yacht and cruise ship harbour so we bobbed around just outside the bay until dawn waiting to anchor permanently. What at night looked like dozens of tall communications towers turned out by day to be 5-spreader (we have 2 of these structural supports for the mast) high luxurious sailboats with masts reaching over 100 feet into the air. Usually sailboats have a white light at the top of the mast but these are so tall they need red as beacons for the nearby airport. As the sun rose, we found ourselves with half a dozen 200+ foot yachts on one side of us and St. Maarten’s famous airport on the other. Check out youtube for some harrowing video of planes landing almost on spectators’ heads while touching down on the short airstrip. We’ve spent the last few days watching commercial jets and private Gulf Streams scream up into a steep bank as they take off to avoid the mountains at the other end.
Our mega yacht neighbours that have dinghies bigger than Alberta Crewed are often anchored waiting for the Simpson Bay drawbridge to raise, allowing them into the mega-yacht dock in the protected lagoon. The Yacht Club bar overlooks the drawbridge passage and the oversized yachts squeezing through the narrow abutments make for great entertainment as patrons line the bar rails to watch and gawk. There is a big chunk of the concrete structure torn out by one poor captain whose boat didn’t make it. Rumour has it he was fired on the spot. 
The southern Dutch side of St. Maarten’s commerce is built for mega yachts and cruise ships with expensive hotels, casinos, and dozens of duty free jewelry and liquor stores. The northern side is a walk through France with cafes, patisseries, and boutiques.  It is quiet and has the chic french air of sophistication and Parisian tastes of imported wine and good cheese.  I finally savoured my long awaited espresso and pastry.  It was worth the wait.