Monday, January 21, 2019

Crossing The Caribbean






When we set out to cruise on our boat some 1940 days ago, we never intended to do any "real" long passages.  Crossing oceans just did not appeal to us.  We don't enjoy long days on end offshore and really DO enjoy the many short hops with a new destination at each end.  But... when we decided to be done with full-time cruising, that was it!  We were DONE!  And the shortest distance between two points is straight across!  So that's what we did!



We haven't sailed in over a year! We almost forgot how!
But it wasn't a done deal from the start... far from it.  There was no way we would consider crossing a large body of water without a perfect weather window.  And when does THAT ever happen when you need it?

For starters, Bruce has injured his right shoulder and can not lift that arm higher than about his waist.  This makes trimming sails and - just about anything on a boat - an extreme challenge.  Lucky for us, we have a friend from Texas who was interested in adding some Caribbean miles to his sailing resume, and the fact that it would be WARM, instead of the chilly temps back in the States sealed the deal!

We flirted with a rain ball just off the Grenadian coast
Robert purchased his flight and the weather watch began...

We could not believe our luck when it seemed that the weather gods were about to present us with a gift.  I ran the weather routing function on Predict Wind over and over.  It is highly recommended by Behan and Jaime on Totem, and I was lucky enough to score a free trial week exactly one week before we left!!! (I know!!! Go buy a lottery ticket!)



Jezabelle didn't get a vote.
The passage planning and weather routing functions kept coming back time after time with a forecast that was made for us!  Dare we to believe it?  We vacillated between crossing the Caribbean Sea, and making the distance in shorter hops up the island chain.  In the end, it was Chris Parker who provided the most important piece of information.  A cold front would be pushing big north swells into our area and he advised that we be settled somewhere safe from north exposure before dawn on Wednesday.  The anchorages in the Caribbean with protection from the north swell are few and far between.  If we got pinned in one of those, there was no telling when the next weather window would come, and Robert had 2 weeks.

Goodbye to Grenada!
When Robert arrived on Wednesday and we sat down and had a pow-wow. We were going for it! We would leave on Friday to give ourselves ample time to be in Puerto Rico before the north swells began to affect our area.  The seas were predicted to be 5 ft or less the whole way and the winds weren't expected to be any higher than 21 knots with some higher gusts.  There could be some very light wind hours that would slow our speed, but we have 87 gallons of diesel onboard and we could pretty much motor the entire distance.  We did some last-minute preventative maintenance ~ an oil change, installed a new impeller, and a new pump for our water maker ~ with Robert's help pretty much DONE by Robert with OUR help!

So let's just get down to it.  The passage passed like a dream.  We fell into a 2 hour watch pattern, mainly at night beginning at 6pm. Two hours passes very quickly offshore and it's relatively easy to remain alert for that time. For some reason, the AquaMap track function broke our trip into sections AND we had issues with our InReach tracker consistency as well, but we were able to patch it all together to get our totals.

Start time:  10:34 January 18, 2019
End time:   09:30 January 21, 2019
Time travelled:  71 hours  (one hour shy of three days)
Distance travelled: 445 nautical miles under the keel
Distance between start and finish: 443 nautical miles as the Boobie flies
Tacks: 0

Robert poised at the main sheet in preparation of the next wind shift!
Narrative:
Getting away from the island was a challenge.  The mountainous landscape causes inconsistent and fluky winds that range from almost nothing, to gusts in the low 30s.  At one point we saw a brief period of north wind!  Our initial thoughts were dire.  If this is how it's going to be the entire time, we'll lose our minds!

We dodged a small rain cloud and headed northwest!  Next stop, Puerto Patillas, Puerto Rico!  Probably about 5 miles out, we began to get more consistent winds.  We had escaped the influence of Grenada and truly broken free! It felt really good as we increased speed and our ETA began to read something less than 100 hours!  Waves were in the 3-4 ft range with the occasional big roller that kept us from being complacent.

Our AIS is a huge comfort.  We haven't used it much in the Caribbean, but this trip it would give us an added layer of protection with the ability to see, and BE SEEN by the big boys.  The value of this became suddenly apparent when we were hailed by a ship and given a security message.

Our path diverted
The Discoverer II was in the area and we were going to cross paths!  They were dragging a tow 7 miles in length while performing seismic studies of the ocean floor, and we were about to be in trouble!  They requested that we remain a distance away,  so we had to divert to port and go off course for about an hour and a half.  Falling off the wind increased our speed and the motion of the waves was pretty easy, so other than thinking that our turn was more dramatic than it really was, it was no real problem.

We continued on, sometimes talking, other times in companionable silence.  I was mentally processing the transition from our lives in Grenada to the new life we anticipated in Puerto Rico.  How is it that we could just leave?  One minute we were living in Grenada, and the next minute we were not. That is the beauty of cruising on a boat... and we were giving it up. Lots to think about there, and many hours ahead in which to think...

I went down to try sleeping at 6pm when watch rotation began, so I missed the sunset.  But the moon rose big and beautiful and it was fully bright by 10pm when my watch started.  I settled in with an audiobook and my time passed uneventfully.

The winds had increased to the upper teens and the boat was flying along.  It felt wonderful.  My watch ended at midnight and I turned it over to Bruce and went back down to the aft cabin to join Jezabelle.

She wasn't really having a good time.  She looked ill and had, unfortunately been a little seasick on our bed. This made the low side impossible to use as we couldn't do much about it with the boat lurching, so we put a pillow over it and avoided it.  It didn't matter anyway, because with the boat tossing us to port every few seconds, we pretty much had to sleep crosswise in the bed.  I didn't sleep much on my first off-watch, but by the second, I was able to get some sleep.

Sometime just before my 4am watch began, the guys called me up to help with a manoeuvre.  There was a buoy on the AIS and we were closing on it fast!  They had turned the boat up to try passing it to port, but we were sliding down.  I took the helm and turned us down to go below the buoy.  It is so difficult to gain perspective at night.  I couldn't tell how close we really were to the flashing light, but it looked like we would hit it if we didn't fall off and pass it to starboard.  The guys trimmed sails and we got the situation under control, passing the buoy easily and resuming course.

After things settled down, Robert told me about having seen another target on AIS.  It must have been a buoy as many of them are marked with AIS, but Robert didn't know that he could tap the target and get more information.  It was my fault for not making sure that he knew how to work the AIS and it caused him some frantic moments as the thing came closer and closer, and then melted away behind us.  Looking back, we could see a flashing light! This was a wakeup call!



Aaaahhh that coffee!
One more minor diversion for a tanker, and suddenly the night was over!  We had made it through unscathed and the light of dawn brought renewed energy.  One down, two to go!



The second day we had perfect conditions.  The seas were benign and the winds steady.  We made speeds in the 7 knot range mostly and the ride was comfortable except for those danged big waves that would come up every few minutes to give us a toss.

Dolphin appeared off to our left!  They came rushing at us like lightning bolts and took their place at the bow.  They sped and raced and we watched in delight! There's nothing like it!



Jezabelle came out during the day for a while.  Still not feeling very well... but she's a trouper!
Moonrise.  One more night until the full moon!
The time passed in a blur.  We made sandwiches for lunch and with the big waves tossing us, decided not to cook a big dinner, so sandwiches again.  Our plan had been to reduce sail at night, but we grew complacent after the wonderful conditions we had seen all day, so we left the jib full out.

Conditions were so nice that Jezabelle even felt like eating! This was her only meal during the three days.
I was on deck for the second sunset!
We were flying under a single reefed main, and even considered shaking it out full, but decided to put it off until morning.  This was a good idea!  The winds came up in the night and when I did my watch from 10 to midnight, we were seeing some 8 and 9 knot speeds.  It was the roughest part of our passage with seas probably 6 ft with winds 18-21 with higher gusts.

It didn't feel bad though as I sat comfortably on the low side in the cockpit enjoying my audiobook.  Down below it was another story.  The guys were being tossed around and the noise of the water rushing along the hull was so loud that Robert came up to see if things were OK.  He asked if we should reduce sail, but I told him we were fine, so he went back to bed.

When my watch was over and his began, he called for a sail reduction.  He suited up in his harness and tether and went out onto the side deck to roll in some of the jib.  Luckily it was a simple manoeuvre and I have to admit that the boat did seem to be a little more relaxed and the speed was more manageable.  I went down to bed, sure to fall fast asleep.  Unfortunately it short lived!

We needed all hands on deck once again, this time to dodge a tanker.  It was crossing from our starboard to port and Robert had fallen off, thinking the boat would slow sufficiently for the faster-moving tanker to clear.  Not so.  The boat speed increased as we ran with the wind and our AIS collision alarm went nuts!  Now keep in mind that all of this is happening with the ship still over two miles away, but at night with the alarm screaming, it seems very dire!

I took the helm so the guys could roll in the jib completely.  With only the reefed main we were still closing fast.  I called out my intention to bring the boat around head-to-wind just as I started the engine.  We needed the aid of the iron genny to push us up into the waves while I held the boat just enough off the wind to keep the main from flapping too loudly.  That slowed us down to about 2.5 knots and we held position and watched as the tanker slipped away into the night. Tanker Tango ended.  Disaster averted. I had about 20 minutes left on my off-watch.


Sunday morning I was awake for the sunrise.  Winds were still up in the 16-20 knot range and the seas had become very bouncy from all the wind.  They never got huge, just very busy.  We bobbed and jounced as the boat sailed along in the 5.5 to 6.5 knot range.  We considered increasing sail again, but decided to wait to see if the winds came down again first. They didn't.
Sunrise...

A strange thing happens to me on a passage like this.  It's like my mind slows down, allowing the time to speed up.  We didn't do much, just chatted, snacked and napped... and the day flowed over us like the waves, disappearing into the distance.  A short rain shower found us and graced us with a rainbow to break the monotony.  And then it was sunset again.  Just like that.

Moonrise
Sunset...
Once again, we began our watch rotation.  This would be the last.  It might be the last overnight sail we do for a long time!  We anticipated a busy night as we approached the coast of Puerto Rico.  We assumed there would be a lot more ship traffic and maybe some cruise ships.  We did see a couple, but only far off in the distance.

Moonset
I slept while the guys had their watches, no interruptions.  Then my 10 to midnight watch came and went uneventfully.  The moon was full and my only regret is that I can't adequately record it in photos.  I watched for phosphorescence in the waves, but because the moonlight was so bright, I saw none.  The clouds were outlined with silver and there were shadows as sharp as daylight.  The word "brilliant" comes to mind as a descriptor.




My watch ended and Robert took the helm.  I retired below and was just feeling that shifting consciousness that lets you know that you're going to be able to fall right to sleep... then Robert exclaimed "The eclipse is happening!" We expected it the next night, but it was actually last night after midnight, making it the 21st... duh!



I briefly considered snuggling down and disappearing into oblivion, then reason returned and I decided that if I didn't even get up long enough to get a picture ~ even if it wouldn't be a good one ~ I would regret it for the rest of my life.  So I got up.  I didn't regret it.  The cloud over the moon I had assumed was causing the dimming of the brilliant light was actually the beginning of this marvellous natural wonder.

Beginning of the eclipse!
Robert hit the jackpot!  His watch allowed him to see the entire eclipse while Bruce and I went back to bed.  The next morning when he told us about it, he sounded like a little kid at Christmas!  I think this was the highlight of his trip and will give him an awesome story to share with the sailing crowd back in Texas!  I would say that his sailing-cred has received a boost with this trip across the Caribbean!

Last sunrise
My last watch~four to six in the morning~ was not as traffic fraught as we expected.  Bruce and I avoided one at the end of his watch, and then I didn't see another thing until near the end.  Then it looked like I was seeing more buoys.  There were several of them, blinking.  I searched the chart for them but found nothing! I altered course to give them plenty of room.  I kept an eye on them, and it was strange... I never saw them.  Robert came up to check on me and suggested that they might be lights from shore.  We were that close. That ended up to be true.

As the sun came up, we could see the outline of the island that would soon be our home.  And those blinking lights that seemed to be at sea level, were in fact, towers at various heights in the mountains and hills.  It's easy to get disoriented in the dark...

We were all feeling the effects of our accomplishment as we sailed closer and closer.  Details became more distinct and we relived the events of the past three days.  All of the discomforts we had experienced suddenly melted away.  We rationalized it all and in reality, there had been nothing truly unpleasant about our trip.  Our luck held throughout and with the exception of a few bruises and a surly cat, we were good.

I don't know about Robert, but Bruce and I were jubilant  This is it!  We have arrived.  Our new life was finally here and we couldn't stop marvelling that this stunning vision before us was OUR ISLAND!

One more unfortunate passenger
Our property through the rigging

We've passed through this anchorage a couple of times before!
End of the line! (click to see the track)
Suddenly our cell phones had bars!  We closed in on the little bay where our property lies to the west, and felt the seas calm to a flat surface as we approached the home of our friends who had been so instrumental in the implementation of this grand scheme!







Ahhh blessed calm.  We hadn't felt waters this still in ages.  It was so nice after the bouncing of these past three days and nights.  It's the little things that mean so much!  The beauty of this place surprised us again.

The next days will be full of all the thousands of things we need to do to get moved in and settled here in our new island home.  We are pinching ourselves continually at our good fortune.  We will miss our full-time cruising days but the memories we have made will last a lifetime on the blog and in our hearts.  And besides, they never have to end entirely if we're still in the islands!  Welcome to Isla del Encanto!

The patio terrace over our clubhouse gives us a nice view of the Caribbean Sea!

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