Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Baptism by Caribbean Fire

Crossing the Caribbean Sea

Jamaica was lovely, but unless you budget for all the out of town tourist stuff, it gets old quick; instead we headed out to sea, and what a ride it was. We were following the weather closely, and decided on a decent window. Huricane season was fast approaching and we wanted to be south and safe. So on tuesday afternoon we left.

When we went to check out of the marina, they charged us for 7 days instead of 6. We asked them why, they told us check out was 11. We called bullshit. How can you have a checkout time for an anchorage, and we had to wait for customs and immigration who run on their own schedule. So they were good and changed the bill.

We motored into the prevailing trades to get around Jamaica. The seas we fairly decent sized, short period, and coming from two directions. It had a disturbed washing machine effect on the seas. Once we were partially around the point about 10 miles, we turned south east and were close hauled. It was dark, we were close to shore and it felt rough. To be easy on the autopilot we hand steered untill we turned to our south west tack.We would take 1 hr shifts as it was exausting. Eventually we turned south west to Panama and could set the sail, turn the motor off and the autopilot on. It was not a restful start.

The next day the wind was brisk, and the sailing decent. All of a sudden the winds began to pick up. The next three days and nights we got into a rhythm, but the winds were strong. We learned to take a reef in before dark, even if we were already reefed. The seas were probably 15 to 20 feet and breaking. We had to be on a beam reach, so every once in a while the rail would dig six inches in, uggg. Eventually we got more comfortable with the large seas and strong winds, but we tried to keep the boat below 6 knots so that we wouldn't broach while surfing down the face of the big swells. I think at one point I saw 8.5 knots... too fast for our boat. At night Jennie felt more comfortable around 4.5 knots, but it is always a balance between sail pressure and speed. We once hove too, to rest for an hour, our nerves were getting a little fried. There are a lot of strange currents in caribbean, that can kick up a swell, or slow you down. Our passage provided a quick learning curve to blue water sailing.  We would listen to Chris Parker's forecasts in the morning, and think maybe we should have left at a different time, in retrospect we left probably at the best time. However, no one else was sailing around.

My goal was to ride the trades, though a bit brisk, down until they quit near Panama and we would have to motor for a day or two. There was the potential for a tropical depression forming in the north west Caribbean, and we wanted out of the hurricane zone. We found out on Monday morning there is a named storm near the Bahams, Alfonso, and the potential for one south west of Cuba. We have experienced some strange weather this year.

So we had a bit of a ride south, all the way up to early friday morning when we got schooled by the ocean. Jennie and I try to rest as much as possible, because sometimes you can't rest. Jennie was an hour and a half into her 3 am to 6 am shift, and I was asleep when it all happened. It was a rough night, winds in the high twenties with gusts in the low thirties. We had a two different swell directions, and every once in a while they would double up to make a formidable breaking wave. In fact for the past 3 days we had been watching waves break nicely on our canoe stern. I was lying in bed, when I heard a wooshing sound of a breaker, but very close. It was dark, the time just before sunrise when night is the darkest, and Jennie heard it to, but didn't see it. All of a sudden gallons of water came rushing through the portholes (both sides) and butterfly hatch, dousing me, waking me from a uneasy sleep. Jennie took it into the cockpit, where she instinctively grabbed the steering wheel and held the tablet up in the air to avoid its demise. I was ankle deep in water in the Cabin, and came rushing up. Jennie says to me, "I think we lost steering". The steering wheel was definitely not working. We were still on coarse, so I was a little confused. Ironically I had mentioned a few days before how stupidly placed the captains seat was  as it obstructed the access for the emergency tiller. So I found the screw driver and access port removal wrench. I looked at the autopilot to see that it was still attached and working, a noted benefit of a linear drive model. I unscrewed and removed the seat, then attaching the tiller. On closer inspection it looks like a wear and tear issue on the steering cables, note to self "grease everyting". Jennie in the mean time was in the cabin sopping up the water and making sure the bilge pump was working. We had to decide whether to head a bit more west and go to Providenciales, or keep our tack and go a further 200 miles. We decided to stay on course and see how the weather turned. Jennie and I had experienced our first knock down, they suck. Our boat rocks, she's built like a tank.

 The flying fish that hit Jennie in the middle of the night and made her scream like a little girl!
 Captain Dexter
The high seas once they started to calm down

The weather started to get better, at least during the day. During the day we had 10 to 17 on the stern quarter and we were plugging along nicely. At night we had to deal with squalls and lightning. About 120 miles from Bocas, we encountered a real doozy. By now we had lost the wind, as expected and had to motor, but the going was slow as there is a least a 1 knot current against us. This time I was on shift, it was night about 2:30 am. I started to see lightning, but it was condensed to an area directly in front of us and wasn't moving. I couldn't alter our course as it was almost a front of squalls headed our way. Something felt different in the air, maybe it felt a lot drier, but I had a gut instinct to reef. Jennie had pulled in the jib as the winds had changed around midnight, and were not strong enough to move us, so we motored with staysail and main. I yelled at Jennie to get up as I was going to reef, she groggily started to get up, then I got real nervous, yelled again and told her I was going forward. I went up and started to reef just as the winds picked up. She was up now and we decided to double reef. Good thing too, as we got slammed by a down draft. All of a sudden, once I was safely in the cockpit still teathered in, we went from 5 knots of wind to 35 knots. We turned on the radar to find a safe path through the wall of low dark clouds and lightning, we ended up heading due east off our south west tack for a couple hrs just to miss the worst. Lightning blots were coming down withing a mile of the boat, stretching across the black night sky. Our nerves were going raw, as a large metal mast makes a great lightning rod, and we didn't want to see if our serge protector worked or not. After a couple hrs we weaved our way through downpours and gusts, at one point we got a down draft that was ice cold and chilled us. We saw a freighter that wasn't even going to go through it, probably a good choice. We had little options as the squall was coming towards us. Jennie and I had another fitful night. Plus we made little ground as there seems to be a current against us and we don't like to push the motor too hard.

The next morning there was no wind, an opposing current, a tired crew and a messy boat. But less
than 100 miles to go.

As I was watching a show in the cockpit, I was looking at this mean squal. As I was pondering the unfortunate personality of the horizon, I saw a pod of dolphins. Hoping they would swim our way I called Jennie to see. To our luck they came right by playing and jumping and swimming along with Cypraea. I have mentioned before dolphins are our good omen, and we try to heed their advice. So we steered away from the squall. This was good as lightning started to come down. We really feel like we are in the doldrums.






We spent the last day and a half after the dolphin encounter motoring along in dead flat seas. The skies opened up and the stars were magnificent. WE arrived a Bocas a few hours after dawn and set the hook. Seven days and just over 700 miles, a few broken bits and much confidence gained. We now are pretty confident in what we need to do before we cross the Pacific, and have lots of time to do it. Now to explore Panama!

Sunrise on our final day at sea.





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