Archive Journal: 2002 - 2003
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27 December 2003
Chapter 23 – South to Florida
The day we left Maine was my birthday, my 60th birthday, to be precise. We had spent the night on a mooring in the Isles of Shoals and were keen to get south, to Martha’s Vineyard and New York. The day dawned bright, chilly and with a good breeze, so we looked forward to a good sail south. It was not to be.
The routine pump-out of the bilge revealed we were half full of water (again).. Checking the engine compartment, I soon discovered a broken union taking hot water from the engine to the calorifier, which must have failed the previous day. Luckily the engine had not over-heated and we had the necessary spare part aboard, so it only took three hours to fix things up and off we went.
By then the wind had died down somewhat but we sailed most of the way to Gloucester (of “Perfect Storm” fame) before needing to motor against the flooding tide for the last hour. Soon an ugly vibration signaled that the propellor had fouled something, a lobster pot maybe, or perhaps just a huge strand of kelp. We ran the engine in reverse a few moments and the vibration lessened and we limped into port. I then stripped off in the evening chill, and stuck my masked head and shoulders in the 62 F degree water to see what the problem might be. Luckily, there was nothing but a thin strand of weed, and I was spared a dive I didn’t fancy.
Some birthday! Still, Pam had prepared a special dinner, we opened a bottle of wine and life was good again.
Next day we reached Plymouth, and went over the replica of the Mayflower, the ship which had carried the Pilgrim Fathers from England back in the early 1600’s. We could dimly remember the replica being built and sailed over (back in 1956) and were fascinated by the tour and by the guides. Dressed in period costume, they spoke in the language of the early 17th Century, which made conversation a little unusual, at least at first.
Onwards, through the Cape Cod Canal again and south down Buzzards Bay, through Woods Hole and across to Vineyard Haven , one of the ports on Martha’s Vineyard. This island is home to the very rich and famous and mooring prices are set accordingly. After the first night we moved into the sheltered lagoon, through a small lifting bridge, and there met up with David and Judith and their children Robin and Ivy from KHEIRA and with Tony and Susan, fellow Brits from ESCAPADE.
We joined a bus tour of the island next morning. The driver was a character called Howie, whose first trick was to run over a skunk. We had never smelled skunk, and we hope you never do either! It is appalling. Howie had a great line of patter and kept the whole company amused as we circled the island, seeing many fine homes but, alas, no celebrities.
High spot of the tour were the gingerbread houses at Oak Bluffs. Originally built around 1870 as accommodation for Methodists attending a summer gathering on the island, they have become larger and more highly decorated with the passing years.
Hurricane Isabel was brewing in the Caribbean. We asked about the frequency of hurricanes in the islands and were warned that this one might well come our way. Our lagoon anchorage would make a pretty safe haven, we imagined, but we decided to seek better shelter in Narragansett Bay , about 60 miles to the west. But first, we would visit Nantucket, once the whaling capital of the world. We had both read “In the Heart of the Sea”, a fascinating and true tale of the voyage of the whaling ship Essex back in the 1830’s. The ship was rammed and sunk by a huge whale in the middle of the Pacific and the crew took to the boats. In their terrible journey towards Chile they resorted to cannibalism to survive.
To save time, we went by ferry with the crew of ESCAPADE. It is a two hour journey, and soon we were ashore in this most touristic of destinations. High spot of that visit was the whaling museum, where we heard a riveting lecture on whaling, 19th century style, and shuddered to think of the privations these mariners endured to bring home their precious cargoes.
Isabel was still heading our way, so, next morning we joined Escapade for the 0730 opening of the bridge out of the lagoon. It wouldn’t budge. “Sorry, folks” said the bridge tender “ I’ve no power and the utility company are on their way”. “I bet it’s a fuse”, said Pam, and she was absolutely right, that was the problem and it was soon mended, so we were on our way buy 0900. We had selected the town of East Greenwich, some 15 miles up Narragansett Bay for our refuge as it offered good shelter from the winds and from any storm surge which might arrive.
In the event, the hurricane came ashore 500 miles further south and tracked well to the west of us, losing intensity as it went. We experienced 25 knots of wind and some heavy rain for a couple of hours and that was all, for which we were truly thankful. We did get our faulty heat exchanger in the engine replaced, at huge cost, and enjoyed a day exploring Newport, Rhode Island, one of the main yachting centres in the USA and home to years of America’s Cup races as well as the finish port for the Single Handed Transatlantic races.
Next stop was Mystic Seaport Museum, Connecticut. This is a lovely spot, well up a pretty river, and houses a unique collection of old craft and equally old buildings, gathered from around the east coast and re-erected in a realistic replica of a 19th century small port. We went over the whaling ship they have on display, dating from 1840, visited the shipyard, where old vessels are rebuilt using traditional craftsmanship and materials and even spent an evening in the small planetarium, which we had to ourselves, as we were the only members of the audience. To our delight, the lecturer abandoned his prepared talk and allowed us to ask whatever questions we had about the heavenly bodies.
Even better, I was able to get a broken fuel pipe repaired in the shipyard’s workshops, the price being a year’s membership of the Museum Association. Given the excellent quality of the repair, it was a bargain. Pity was they didn’t do heat exchangers!
From Mystic we made our way back down Long Island Sound to New York, taking a mooring off the West 79th Street Boat Basin in the Hudson River. This put us 7 minutes walk from the subway, and about half way down Central Park, so we were well-placed to do some sightseeing. And sightsee we did, walking all the way down to Wall Street via Broadway, Time Square, Greenwich Village (where we found a delightful Italian restaurant for lunch), the Ground Zero site, which we found very moving, and so to the heart of the financial district. There really is a buzz about Manhattan.
A subway ride later, we boarded the dinghy to rejoin ALIESHA out in the Hudson. Getting back aboard was another adventure. The tide was ebbing at about four knots, ALIESHA was bucking and swinging around in the current and climbing aboard was a hazardous operation, but we made it.
We did enjoy Manhattan, visiting the Metropolitan, walking in Central Park, doing a little shopping and taking in a Show on Broadway, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” which, although not our first choice, turned out to be lively, amusing and great entertainment. We met our friends Chico and Elenor from CHI, and were entertained to dinner by Mark Scott and Liz Hammick (OCC Port Officers for Manhattan). We felt very much at home in the city, completely safe, despite stories to the contrary, and will certainly return one day if we possibly can. And all for $25.00 per night, surely a bargain.
By now it was October and we had to get south before flying home on the 23rd. So, one bitterly cold morning, we rose before dawn, made ready and set off down the Hudson with the first of the light. Watching the sun rise over the Manhattan skyline is something we shall always remember.
Back in the Chesapeake
From New York to the Chesapeake is about 200 miles, a trip we had done in one leg coming north. But the cold nights (there were frost warnings for the coastal districts every night that week) and the winds (either non-existent or from the south and right on the nose) compelled us to work our way down the New Jersey coast in three hops. At least we glimpsed Atlantic City, which from the anchorage seemed like a gaudier version of Blackpool without the tower but with a life-sized replica of the Taj Mahal to compensate.
We visited Baltimore and were shown around and given dinner by our friend Linda from SISTERWIND. Hurricane Isabel had been less considerate here; all the waterfront properties had been flooded to a depth of four or five feet by the storm surge, although wind damage had been minimal. Worse, some of the marina pontoons had floated off their restraining piles and drifted away, along with such boats as remained attached. Three weeks after the event, some were still missing.
Then back to Annapolis, surely our favourite city. It was Boat Show time and the place was packed but we found a mooring up Spa Creek and visited the show, buying all sorts of useful things for ALIESHA. Dick and Erica Lowery (OCC) invited us to join their party to watch the breakdown of the sailboat show, a competitive event which is enjoyed by watchers and participants alike. In two hours the massed sailboats had all departed and their places were already being filled by power boats (who have their own show in the same location). By 0900 the next morning the transformation had been completed and the new show was gearing up to receive its visitors – amazing co-ordination.
We toyed with leaving ALIESHA in Annapolis for our trip home, but decided to try for Norfolk, some four days to the south. This would enable us to join the Ocean Cruising Club’s Rally, held traditionally in a creek of the Piankatank River, a day’s sail north of Norfolk. It was great fun, some 14 boats and about 50 people, united by a common love of cruising and of sailing. The first night everyone climbed onto a raft of three boats for a pot-luck supper. The second night we all joined Bill and Alice Caldwell for a buffet at their beautiful creek-side home. The food was excellent, the booze plentiful and the company was superb. Some members had a background in theatre and after supper they played the piano and sang quite beautifully for our entertainment.
Our plans to complete a circumnavigation had been under review but our enthusiasm was rekindled by talking with the members who had done this. Thank you, OCC and especially John and Inga from CALIDRIS ALBA. and Skip and Ilsa from SCOOT, for steering us back on course.
One brisk day’s sailing later, we had docked ALIESHA outside Gary and Greta Naigle’s apartment in Norfolk and started preparations for laying her up while we returned to England. Gary took the liferaft to be serviced and the genoa to be repaired. He organised us a berth in the Waterside Marina at a special rate and took us to collect a hire car.
On 22nd October we drove to Washington, where OCC Members Sid and Becky Shaw had invited us to stay. After dinner they drove us into the capital and showed us many of the sights, all beautifully floodlit. Next morning we drove in ourselves, did some more of the sights and then drove out to the airport and took the evening plane home.
This phase of our visit to America was at an end. We have been so impressed by the warmth of the people we have met, by their kindness and friendliness and their interest in Britain. We have been thrilled by the scenery and impressed by the great cities we have visited. Pam summed it up: “I could live here” she said. So could I.
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20 September 2003
Chapter 22 – A Slice of Blueberry Pie
Maine in August
Contrary to our initial view of Maine as either wet or foggy and riddled with lobster pot markers, we enjoyed almost 4 weeks of unbroken sunshine. And the lobster pot markers? Well they got worse if anything the further east we went but you learn to live with them as a necessary evil. No pots – no lobsters; you can’t argue with that!
We viewed this period of our cruise up the Eastern Seaboard as very much a holiday. In our last chapter we described the pressures to come this far north and east from Charleston to arrive in Maine in August. Thirty-four days later we arrived on Jewell Island in Casco Bay and sat back with a sigh of relief. The date was 11th August and we had four weeks to enjoy ourselves before heading south again. We didn’t reckon on a severe thunderstorm that evening and then to wake up to pouring rain followed by thick fog in the afternoon. But that was the end of it and for the next four weeks we enjoyed almost perfect weather.
To give you an idea of the geography of Maine, the coast is split by long rocky capes into the following cruising areas:
The Southern Coast
Apart from the first area all the bays run (roughly) from north to south along an east/west coast line. With 5,000 miles of coastline and islands squeezed into a 250-mile length as the crow flies you have to be selective. We chose Mid Coast, Penobscot Bay and Mount Desert. Each was different from the other; each held us equally enthralled and we hope you will catch something of their flavour in the next few paragraphs.
Two long inlets, the Sheepscot River and Boothbay Harbour dominate this area. The shores are lined with beautiful holiday homes against a backdrop of pines and conifers. Boothbay, a busy fishing port and boating centre is typical of Maine seaports with its lobster boats, fishing boats, windjammers packed with slightly nervous looking tourists, motor cruisers and yachts of all sizes. Ashore we enjoyed delicious lobster rolls at the Fishermen’s Co-operative and watched a fellow diner tuck into a 3lb lobster at a cost of $35!
Whilst in Boothbay we were delighted to meet up with our friends Dean and Deandra off New Moon. You may remember they restored our sanity the night we limped into Charleston after the lightning strike with some incredibly strong gin and tonics and a meal.
The Sheepscot is a very beautiful and wide and tree-lined river with its pretty anchorages tucked behind little islands along its shores. You could spend a whole week just cruising this river alone and still have places to see. Here we met up again with our friends Jon and Marianne off Respite and their two boys, Ben and Nathaniel, whom we’d first met in Venezuela almost a year ago. They have a lovely house which they built themselves on Westport Island overlooking the Sheepscot River and we enjoyed a relaxing evening with them catching up on each other’s news. I think they were quite envious of our continued voyaging as they grappled with getting back to reality again after their two year voyage.
August 16th and time to be moving on to Penobscot Bay. The longest and widest of the Maine bays, it contains hundreds of little islands and rocky outcrops as well as shoals and reefs which make for some interesting navigation. Here we saw our first seals, their heads just above the surface for all the world like a lobster pot marker. We also saw guillemots, dainty little seabirds which dive from the surface with a loud plop as they swim to the bottom searching for food. It is wilder than Mid Bay with a hint of mountains the further north you go. Even the houses lining the shore seem to want to merge in with their background of trees instead of shouting ‘Hey, look at me! I’m bigger and better than my neighbours!
There are plenty of seaports to choose from up the western side of the bay and we particularly liked Rockport which reminded us of Dartmouth, and Camden. The Camden Yacht Club will always live on in our memories as ‘the club with no beer’. Please excuse the pun! Imagine if you will a nice lunch of crab sandwich washed down with lemon squash! Oh well, it was a nice idea.
Castine on the eastern side of Penobscot is another lovely old seaport with bags of history and was the last place to be held by the British before finally leaving this great continent. We took time out to visit Marji Bancroft in Smith’s Cove. At eighty and in poor health, she still flies a welcome flag for all visiting Ocean Cruising Club members and entertained our friends, Chris & Heather, when they visited last year. And this is where we discovered the delights of freshly-picked blueberry pie when Marji gave us a large bag of blueberries picked by herself and two friends that afternoon. We sat with them amongst the pine trees enjoying a glass of sherry and the sunset until the mosquitoes finally drove Dick and I back to Aliesha.
Before leaving Smith’s Cove, Dick scrambled over the rocky foreshore at low tide and filled a net bag with enormous mussels. Steamed over white wine and herbs they were truly delicious and with 100% of them opening, you know they had to be good!
We new had a good trip ahead of us down the Eggemoggin Reach and up into Blue Hills Bay on the west side of Mount Desert Island. The scenery was stunning and, with a good breeze over our starboard quarter and a completely unexplainable absence of those darned lobster pot markers, we were able to relax and enjoy the sailing. Ideal sailing conditions rarely last for long and by the time we arrived in Blue Hills Bay we were threading our way through pot markers again with up to 31 knots of wind over the deck and two reefs in the main and genoa. When we finally came to anchor in Pretty Marsh Island we were joined in the deserted anchorage by a small schooner, the Bonnie Lyn. Now we had seen the Bonnie Lyn down in the Caribbean and not only that; her skipper had rescued our dinghy for me when it decided to AWOL in Bequia. How small can this world get?
Mount Desert Island
And so finally to Mount Desert Island (pronounced as in pudding but really named after the French for deserted!). And this for us was truly the icing on the Maine cake to continue the confectionery metaphor. Here is the famous Acadia National Park, the most visited national park in America after the Niagra Falls. Mr L. L. Bean runs an excellent bus service all around the park for the princely sum of $10 for a week for the two of us. When you consider that we have paid up to $40 a night for a mooring, that’s pretty good value. We changed our deck shoes for trainers and climbed the 1,258 feet up the north-east slope of Mount Cadillac, the highest headland on the Atlantic seaboard north of Rio de Janeiro. That was relatively easy and took an hour and a half to cover 2.5 miles. Coming down the west slope which was near vertical was a totally different matter and took us nearly 3 hours to cover .9 of a mile. I have never felt so relieved in all my life to reach the bottom of anything! And there was Mr Bean’s bus at the bottom to take us back to civilisation again!
There is so much I could write about this island and I’ll be amazed if any of you have stuck with me this far but it is now 3rd September and the temperature in the cabin this morning has only reached 11 degrees C so it’s time to be heading south. But just before I close, the most beautiful anchorage in the whole of our Maine trip was still waiting in store for us at Seal Bay on Vinalhaven Island in the mouth of Penobscot Bay. Sadly the fog came down after heavy overnight rain and so we ended our exploration of Maine in the way we began but in between we have the most fantastic memories of this beautiful beautiful place. We will never forget Maine.
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Chapter 21 - Palm Trees to Pine Trees
Charleston to Maine
Getting Aliesha fixed after the lightning strike was a slow and often frustrating process, but if we had to be stuck anywhere for five weeks, we can’t think of a nicer place to be than Charleston, South Carolina. It is a lovely old city, with beautiful houses, lovely parks, water on three sides and everywhere the Palmetto palm trees. We also have nothing but praise for the staff of the City Marina, who looked after us very well, providing lifts into town on the hour, pick-ups on demand and free internet access from the dockmaster’s office, as well as the usual loos and showers and stuff.
On July 8th we were almost back to normal and so we sailed, choosing to take the offshore route to Beaufort NC, a distance of about 185 miles. This took us two days and a night, with following winds of between 15 and 20 knots. It was good to be at sea again and, to our delight, we neither of us felt nervous about what we might encounter.
We spent a pleasant day in Beaufort, which reminded us of some of the East Coast towns at home, particularly Malden. Then it was off to Norfolk, Virginia, about 200 miles away along the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW).
The ICW runs along most of the East and indeed South coats of the USA and, for much of its length is navigable by sailing boats with 53 foot masts! It is a mixture of rivers, lakes, enormous open sounds and the occasional canal. Our favourite was the quaintly-named “Dismal Swamp” canal, 20 miles of tree-lined water with only two slight bends to alter the line. See the pictures for some typical views. You can’t really navigate at night so each evening we would choose a pleasant spot to anchor, mostly in a deserted creek as there were very few other boaters sharing the waterway at that time of the year.
The contrast with industrial Norfolk was sharp, and the change occurred in about a mile; one minute we were among trees and geese, the next it was wharves and shipyards and oil tanks and warships. We shopped and cleaned the brown stain from the hull, trademark of the ICW, then moved to meet Gary and Greta, Port Officers for the Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) and whom we had met down in the islands earlier in the year. They generously found us a slip (berth) outside their apartment overlooking the harbour, fed us and gave us much helpful advice about the miles ahead. Putting on our tourist hats we visited the Nauticus Centre, a naval history museum and climbed over the battleship USS Wisconsin, the biggest battleship ever built. She last saw action in the first Gulf war as a cruise-missile launch pad.
Leaving Norfolk, we entered the Chesapeake, a huge inland sea, some 200 miles long and up to 20 miles across in places. In gentle winds we meandered north, taking a detour each evening into one or other of the many rivers that run into the Chesapeake and finding a delightful anchorage for the night. We hope the pictures we selected will give you the flavour. Virginia is quite different from the Carolinas, at least from the water, being softer, with more deciduous trees and lots of fertile farmland, as well as beautiful houses along most of the banks.
Four days of this brought us to Annapolis, Maryland, perhaps even more delightful than Charleston (we feel we could live in either city). At first we anchored off the Naval Academy but after being rudely awoken at 0600 by the strident voices of the PT Instructors drilling the new intake of cadets, (and amplified voices at that) we moved up the harbour and took a buoy. There we met Erica and Dick Lowery (OCC), who had agreed to be a mail drop for us and who also looked after us very well indeed. We spent three days here, and it could have been longer, but we were determined to make Maine and the summer was passing by.
So, off again, past Baltimore (which we plan to visit on the way south) and into the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a 20 mile man-made link to the Delaware River. It was a bit of a surprise to meet a big ship part way through, but other wise the transit was without incident. The next leg was a non-stop passage down the Delaware and along the coast of New Jersey to Sandy Hook, just outside New York Harbour, which took two days and a night. The Delaware is not a pretty river, has many shoals and sandbars and many huge ships use it en route to Philadelphia, so we had to concentrate quite hard as we carried the strong tide down to Cape May. Another, shorter canal cuts the Cape and shortens the distance but the two road bridges that cross it only have 55 feet of clearance at high water. Well, we only need 53 feet, and it was pretty rough outside, so we decided to trust our calculations. Passing under the first bridge was pretty nerve-wracking but pass it we did and after that there were no problems.
We paused in Sandy Hook to rendezvous with Roger and Helen Bohl, on ARIADNE II, friends we first met in Antigua last year. They had been sending us regular emails with helpful advice on where to go along the way, where to anchor and where to eat well and not too expensively when we felt like a run ashore, so it was nice to meet to thank them before they resumed their journey south and we, our quest to reach Maine before winter.
Next day was a big day. We did New York! Well, actually, it was only half a day, owing to the tides, but what a thrill. Neither of us have ever been to New York but, like everyone, we have seen so many pictures of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and so on that we felt we knew it already. At 2.00 pm we sailed under the Verrazano Narrows bridge, then up New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, up to the Battery and then up the East River and, with 4 knots of current to help us, out into Long Island Sound. Our only sadness was that we could not identify most of the buildings that we saw.
(Of course we plan to visit the city properly on our way south. However, it was a thrilling foretaste of what we can expect.)
Long Island Sound is another huge expanse of water, lined with expensive looking mansions which are the “cottages” of wealthy New Yorkers. We made our way up the Long Island shore, stopping each evening and picking a real mixture of places to anchor, some very popular, one (Mattituck) quite remote. Everywhere we went we met charming, hospitable people, and were amazed at how few other boats there were actually being used. (Plenty lay to their moorings)
Needing to collect more replacement electronic bits, we had arranged to visit the OCC Port Officer on Shelter Island, on the NE tip of Long Island. Charlie and Lynn Wiener were as hospitable as their fellow Port Officers further south, taking us around the island and entertaining us at their beautiful summer cottage, as well as giving us the use of their mooring off the Shelter Island Yacht Club. Here things are done properly and I was shamed into taking down my ensign each evening by the signal gun fired by the club at sundown!
Onwards, relentlessly, even though we would have liked to stay. Maine beckoned. We sailed to Block Island which reminded us of Alderney without the German gun emplacements. We hired bicycles and toured the island, which caused us some merriment, and probably some passers by as well.
Ahead lay Cape Cod, and we sailed up Buzzards Bay in warm sunshine, only to find grey skies and sea mist waiting for us as we transited the Cape Cod Canal. It’s only 10 miles long but a whole new climate awaited us on the northern side. We readily agreed to take the remaining 200 miles in easy stages, so visited Providence, on the tip of the hook of Cape Cod, and then Salem (see the picture of the power station chimneys half-hidden by fog.) Salem has some fine old buildings and a remarkable museum, as well as all the witches tat (which we ignored) and it was good to take a break for a couple of days. But then the sun shone and we were off once more, past Gloucester (of Perfect Storm fame) and on to the Isles of Shoals, about 5 miles offshore of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For the Brittany sailors amongst you, think Glenans and you will get some idea of what it is like.
The next morning, we were in Maine waters .It was 8th August, exactly a month after leaving Charleston. The sun shone, the wind was light and from astern and we flew the spinnaker, gently weaving a path between the pot floats. We had arrived! Late that afternoon we anchored at Jewel Island, walked ashore and smelt the resiny tang of the pines. It was beautiful. The rush had been worth while.
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25 June 2003
Chapter 20 – Our Perfect Storm!
I was awoken by Dick gently shaking my shoulder to tell me it was time for my watch. It was 03:30 and I was immediately consumed by a feeling of impending disaster and felt quite sick. There was nothing immediately alarming; the cabin was lit up by regular flickers of lightning but nothing more than we’d experienced over the last two nights. Unusually for me I fetched my foulies from the wet locker and placed them in the cockpit. I say unusually because I hate struggling into those cumbersome waterproofs in this heat and would rather get wet. I checked the radar and apart from the large storm that had been out to the east of us for much of the night, there was nothing untoward. Having checked that the sails were still setting correctly and the Autohelm was doing its stuff, I settled down in the cockpit to while away the next three hours……….
We had left Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos three days before on Sunday, 1st June with the promise of a weather window which would allow us to reach Beaufort, N. Carolina in the four to five days required to make this 500 mile passage. Perhaps we should have taken more notice of the small storm that accompanied our departure as an omen of things to come. But all the weather gurus agreed that the storm activity would die down over the next 24 hours and the weather should set fair for the rest of our trip.
We motored out through the reef pass from the Sea of Abaco into the Atlantic ocean and it was with some relief that we saw our depth gauge register out of soundings which made a comforting change from the 9 – 15 feet below sea level which we had been seeing on a regular basis for some weeks now. The wind was fitful and, with an adverse current, we continued motoring through the ocean swell. As darkness fell the light show was simply awesome as several thunderstorms competed for the most dramatic performance. With the help of the radar we thankfully managed to stay out of harms way and continued motoring through the night heading for the Gulf Stream.
The following day, Monday, dawned clear with a gentle sailing breeze. Because of the 1.5 to 2 knots of adverse current we decided to head west to pick up the Gulf Stream sooner. This would give us up to 4 knots of favourable current so it was worth going out of our way for! We sailed until early evening when the breeze died on us and we had to motor again. By nightfall we could see the dreaded light show well astern of us now but nothing on the radar to worry us. However by midnight we were keeping a storm watch on the radar again as various small storm cells crossed the Gulf Stream.
Tuesday morning at 06:00 found us in the Gulf Stream and boy were we moving over the land! Not that we could see land, being some 90 miles off shore, but our GPS showed we were making 9 knots as against 5 knots of boat speed. All very encouraging. We spinnakered for much of the day in light airs but around 18:00 the wind was picking up and we decided to have the spinnaker down before we had supper. That as it turned out was a very wise decision. We had hardly cleared the dirty dishes into the sink before the sky astern of us turned from blue to black and then varying shades of chocolate brown. We had never seen a sky like it before. It seemed in no time that 50+-knots of wind were screaming over the deck accompanied by horizontal rain. Dick struggled to furl the genoa and then tried to run off before the wind. With Aliesha now doing 12 knots over the land, it was becoming rather frightening. Dick then decided it would be kinder to the mast and rigging to heave to and Aliesha rode out the rest of the storm unscathed apart from a slight bend in our wind-generator pole caused by the wind velocity.
Eventually the storm passed and we continued under sail with the genny poled out and one reef in the main. A large thunder storm rumbled away out to seaward of us but we were all clear astern so I took the first watch while Dick slept until my next watch at 03:30. What I wondered had gone wrong with the weather forecasting? No mention had been made of any storms for that night.
As I sat and mused in the cockpit, the sound of thunder broke my reverie; surely this wasn’t from the storm we had been watching all night out to seaward of us. I checked the radar again but couldn’t see anything likely to bother us. Feeling apprehensive again, I decided to put any piece of electronics that would fit into the stove. This forms a Faraday cage and we shall for ever be indebted to Nigel Calder for his articles on precautions to take against lightning strikes. I wondered if push came to shove whether I could get in there too – not a chance!
Back on deck, that thunder and lightning was definitely getting closer. I checked the radar again and this time I saw it: a storm cell was racing up the side of the large one to the west of it heading our way. I raced up on deck again, furled the genny, pinned in the main and struggled into my Mustos and life-jacket. By now I had switched on the engine and, with a marked alteration in course, gave it everything we’d got to get out of the path of the oncoming storm. But it was hopeless; we were swept up in it before you could say knife.
Dick, who had been sound asleep after the earlier traumas of the previous evening, only just had time to get his foul-weather gear on and grab the wheel before the wind and the rain struck us. All of a sudden we were enveloped in sheets of horizontal rain and the sound of wind screaming in fury. The lightning flashes were so brilliant we were momentarily blinded by them. We just knew we were going to be hit; we were right in the centre caught up in all the terrifying power that the elements can unleash and there was nothing we could do except pray. The first strike took out all our cabin and navigation lights including the instrument lights. Two minutes later there was a deafening crack as our VHF aerial took the next strike and exploded in a shower of glowing fibreglass which fell into the sea and around the deck. And with that we lost all our navigation instruments, radios and radar. It was like being suddenly blinded. Dick got a shock through the wheel despite its elk hide cover but apart from that we were both OK. All we could hear was the GPS alarm piercing the blackness.
In the Aftermath of the Storm
Once the storm had done its worst with us it seemed to discard us like a small child with a toy and quickly rushed on leaving us stunned but counting our blessings that we were still alive. Our first thought was to restore some lighting and we soon found we had all our navigation lights apart from the anchor light but that several bulbs in the cabin had shattered and small shards of glass were lying all over the bunks.
The next imperative check was to ensure that the hull hadn’t been damaged as the lightning tried to earth. We pumped the bilge and came up with our now statutory 10 pumps worth of water (subsequently attributed to a leaking gasket on the water tank). That was an enormous relief for us both. I then tried each instrument in turn but I didn’t get one flicker, only the GPS alarm. This was very bad news but not unexpected in view of what we’d just been through.
We were still nervous about meeting any more storms since we were sailing ‘blind’, so it was with some relief that we watched a grey and miserable dawn come up about 06:00 but with nothing more ominous than the odd rain squall. By this time we had decided to abandon all thoughts of arriving in Beaufort and head for Charleston, S. Carolina. Being ‘old’ sailors Dick was soon putting his dead-reckoning skills into action and from previously recorded positions in the log book we were able to set a new course for Charleston. We were later able to check this against the handheld GPS once we’d extricated it from the oven and remembered how to use it! We were absolutely spot on course.
We sailed when we could and turned the engine on in the lighter patches. My mastery of the wind vane steering gear which had always been a bit hit and miss for me improved no end as it was either that or sit out there in the rain and steer! My already tattered nerves were frayed again when Concorde decided to go supersonic somewhere in the cloud layer above us and I all but shot out of my skin as the sonic booms reverberated around us.
As the day wore on the fridge and stereo system were added to the casualty list. We tried to catch some sleep during the day but both found it quite impossible as we kept reliving the events of the night before.
To our great delight we were joined by a large pod of dolphins during the afternoon which lifted our gloomy spirits enormously. They played and frolicked for some time in Aliesha’s bow wave and one youngster even turned on his back in mid air!
And so gradually we closed the coast and by late afternoon had picked up the first of the sea buoys marking the 16 mile long channel into Charleston Harbour. As we entered Charleston Harbour with approximately 5 miles still to go till we reached the City Marina at the mouth of the Ashley River, a weak and watery sun broke through the gloom and all around us pelicans were diving for their evening meal. Further up the harbour the Wednesday evening race round the buoys was in full swing and dolphins all around us completed the evening scene. We were happy to be back to normality.
We arrived at the City Marina with the last of the flood tide and were pleased to find a) a free space on the transient dock and b) a couple of guys waiting to take our lines. Better still we then recognised one of them from our time down in Provo in the Caicos Islands. It didn’t take long to tell of our sorry plight and thanks to Dean and his wife Deandra we were swept up on board their luxury catamaran, New Moon, given the most enormous gins and tonic and then treated to a delicious supper along with Alain and his wife, Brigitte, who had helped tie us up. It was the best therapy we could have had and Dick and I fell into bed that night and slept solidly till the following morning. Once again, our very very grateful thanks to them and their wonderful hospitality without which I think we would still have been struggling to come to terms with our ordeal.
In the next chapter we’ll describe the incredible process of checking through the boat and the gear, getting our claim into the insurance company and dealing with local suppliers and tradesmen; it makes interesting reading!
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23 June 2003
Chapter 19 - North through the Bahamas
Farewell to the Virgins
We left Charlotte Amalie, capital of St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, on 18th March. We both felt very mixed emotions – sad to be leaving so many friends and places we had come to know and love, yet excited at the thought of new horizons. Ahead of us lay Puerto Rico, which we had briefly touched the year before, then the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands and finally the Bahamas. By the time we came to take our departure for the USA, we would have sailed well over a thousand miles. We would have left the Tropics behind us, said good-bye to the tradewinds, re-discovered tides and currents, and also low pressure systems and weather fronts. All in all, though, we agreed we were ready for a change.
Philip and Sheila on Whitesands had given us a wonderful farewell dinner and we sailed away in a gentle easterly, which suited our slightly over-hung condition. Mid afternoon saw us anchored in Culebra and ashore to visit US Customs, determined to avoid the difficulties we had encountered the year before, with threats of $5000 fines and official warnings for unwittingly violating US customs regulations. This time things couldn’t have been more pleasant, the official thanking us and all of Britain for siding with the US in the forth-coming war with Iraq.
Next day we pressed on along the south coast of Puerto Rico to Salinas, a small inlet with a marina, restaurants and holiday homes and a few little shops selling the basic necessities – bread, rum and fish. As we approached we were hit with a torrential rain squall which lasted an hour and blotted out all visibility, reminding us that we were indeed entering an area with quite different weather patterns. We also went aground in the entrance, on soft mud and with a rising tide, what there was of it, so we were soon afloat again, but it was a taste of things to come.
A day in Salinas exhausted its attractions and we sailed gently on to Bocaron, on the SW tip of PR. This is a wide bay, sheltered from the prevailing NE-SE winds and a favourite week-end haunt of the students from Mayaguez, the big city 20km to the north. We stayed a few days and met up again with Dena and Linda from Sisterwind, whom we had met in Grenada last summer.
Promised gentle winds, we soon sailed for Luperon on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, a distance of some 250 miles. This trip involves crossing the Mona Passage, famous for its rough seas, but we had flat water and little wind for the first night, then a 15 knot wind which blew us all the way to Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos, a distance of nearly 400 miles which took us 72 hours.. We skipped Luperon, the wind was too good to waste and the $100 entry fee was a bit off-putting as our schedule would only allow a 2 day stop.
Provo lies to the north of the Caicos Bank, and we had our first experience of sailing in 7-8 feet of clear, green water. Yes, feet!. We changed the depth sounder from metres to feet because it was more comforting to see the larger number displayed! There are the odd coral heads but in sunlight they show up clearly and you sail around them. No time for dozing off at the helm, though.
We anchored on the south coast at Sapodilla Bay, a pretty barren place but with Customs and Immigration on hand. When the weather forecast warned of an approaching cold front we sailed the 30 or so miles around to the north of the island and entered Turtle Bay Marina, a charming and quite modern facility, where we met a number of compatible souls, especially Danny and Susan on honeymoon in their tiny 32 footer, bought for $12000, and Dean and Deandra on New Moon, a Catana 47 catamaran which redefines luxury cruising. We were all pinned down by the weather and resulting high seas for 5 days, hired a jeep, toured the island, walked and talked and had fun.
Finally the seas dropped enough for us all to clear the reef cut and we were off for the Bahamas. Now, theses islands straggle over 700 miles of sea and the southernmost ones are among the wildest and least developed. We had hopes of visiting Mayaguna, Plana Cays, Rum Cay and Conception Island, but the way the winds were, it was dark as we came to each one. Navigation lights out here are unreliable and so we pressed on with a good breeze behind us, finally making landfall in a pretty bay on the NW tip of Long Island. There is, unusually, no coral reef and so we felt our way in with GPS and Radar, finally dropping the hook at about 0300. Another 222 miles, in 38 hours, quite slow but easy sailing.
Then it was on to Georgetown, Great Exuma, where we would have two sets of visitors, first Phil and Marg Thew from Sydney and then Kate and Steve.
For Phil and Marg’s stay we had a perfect week of sunshine and little wind. Highlights of the week included:
and we laughed a lot together. All too soon it was good-bye Thews (who stayed on at Staniel Cay for a few days) and rushing south back to Georgetown to meet Kate and Steve.
- Snorkeling the Thunderball Grotto (of James Bond film fame)
- Seeing our first (tame?) sharks and a tame barracuda at Wardrick Wells
- Feeding the wild pigs at Big Majors Spot
- Catching a fair sized dorado
- Dinner at Staniel Cay Yacht Club
Sadly, their outward journey was a nightmare, taking 24 hours longer than scheduled due to weather in Florida. Then the same grim weather followed them and for most of their week the skies were grey and the rain lashed down. We took them to the same places and showed them the same sights, but without the sunshine, something was definitely missing. For all that, it was wonderful to be with them again after so long and we all enjoyed ourselves despite the weather, in the best British tradition. Luckily, their last day was perfect, so they went home with a bit of a tan and some happy memories of the Bahamas.
We were delayed in Georgetown a further week awaiting a part for the watermaker, then motored rapidly up the Exumas to Allan Cay, to see the giant iguanas, about 18inches to two feet long and so like miniature dinosaurs. From there we motored the 55 miles to Spanish Wells on the tip of Eleuthera, and found a settlement dedicated to deep-sea fishing, all of whose inhabitants were white and descended from the Loyalists who supported the King in the American War of Independence. A sort of a time warp, quite charming, but also a bit incongruous.
Still no wind, so another 55 miles of motoring brought us to the Abacos, the most northerly group of the Bahamas. This is the playground for Florida cruisers, sail and power, and the Cays and settlements reflect the frequent contact with wealthy Americans. We stopped at some pretty locations, notably Hope Town on Elbow Cay, and White Sound on Green Turtle Cay, and met some pleasant folks, but very few blue-water cruisers, except for Micky and Joan off Rose. New Yorkers both, they had had close shaves on the day of 911 and decided it was time to go cruising. We enjoyed their company enormously and shared information about places to visit, north and south.
From Green Turtle Cay we planned a 500 mile passage to Beaufort, North Carolina, to get us well on the way up the East Coast. This should take about 4 days, and we were careful to pick a period without weather fronts coming off the coast of the US. We had been warned that, when a cold front meets the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, nasty thunderstorms spring up without warning and so we waited a whole week for the right weather “window” before setting off. Finally, on 1st June, that window came and we sailed north, bound for another continent, our third on this trip so far.
As most of you will know, the voyage was to prove both exciting and dangerous. Chapter 20 will have the full story.
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20 March 2003
Chapter 18 – Up Islands, again
After the excitement of the Angel Falls trip, we planned to move on but things didn't quite work out like that.
Our friends Simon and Niki arrived with their children on Alice Ambler, along with their friends John and Marianne on Respite. There were other Ocean Cruising boats in port. By now we knew and were on good terms with many of the semi-permanent residents of Bahia Redonda marina. The rest of October seemed to be one huge party, culminating in Halloween. Now, we have never really been into Halloween, but to the Americans it is a major event and much energy goes into planning and making costumes. Naively, we thought it was all about witches and magic, and so we went appropriately dressed, we thought, Pam as a truly hideous witch and me as Harry Potter, a subtlety quite lost on the other guests. For Americans, there is a bawdier side to Halloween. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. Sadly, our pictures are not digital!
Finally, on 11th November, we tore ourselves away and sailed north to Porlamar on the offshore island of Margarita. Cruising gently along the Venezuelan coast through the beautiful islands which surround Puerto La Cruz, we thought again how sad it was that the security situation had prevented us from exploring more of this beautiful coastline.
Margarita was a three week mixture of visiting the dentist (for Dick) and provisioning the boat for the journey north. Dick had four molars crowned, which involved two and a half hour sessions most days, and will be happy if he never has to repeat the experience. Shopping took nearly as long but was much more fun. We filled the bilges and every spare inch of locker space with booze, for with wines at about £2.50 a bottle and spirits at even less, we could avoid the much higher prices we knew we would find up island.
On 30th November we departed, sailing with our friends Tania and Marcel on their Halberg Rassy 42 Allegria. After an overnight stop at Juan Griego, a pretty fishing port on Margarita's north coast, we sailed the 60 miles to Blanquilla in daylight, even using our spinnaker in the unusually light breezes. I won't say we were racing, but Aliesha did arrive first!
Blanquilla has some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean and we were lucky to find it almost deserted by other yachties. We swam in the azure waters, explored up the coast by dinghy and walked miles through the scrubby hills to stretch our legs. Best of all, we had a barbecue, a real barbecue, using driftwood for the fire and cooking steaks as the sun went down. Surprisingly, it was our first such barbecue in the Caribbean. Many boats have a grill on the stern of their boats but we don't have room, and suitably deserted beaches are comparatively rare.
Farewell to Venezuela
After a week of this pleasant existence, we said farewell to Allegria; they were headed west, while we turned Aliesha east, for Grenada, 190 miles dead upwind. To make matters worse, we would have the current on the nose as well, pushing us back by as much as 25-30 miles a day. Luckily the Islas Testigos lay about half way to our destination and we planned to break the journey there.
Cruising folk dislike going upwind, especially if the current is unfavourable. Our boats are heavily laden and don't sail like racing machines. Some motor straight into it, some set a mainsail only and motor sail, making an angle of maybe 30 degrees to the wind. A few, a very few, opt to sail.
We tried the sailing, but soon rolled the jib and turned on the diesel. We rumbled along at about five knots, comfortably enough, and figured we'd be into Los Testigos soon after daybreak. Our newly installed wind generator on its newly fitted pole span merrily in the stiff breeze, adding its amps to those produced by our powerful alternator. After about eight hours we noticed the distinctive smell of Hydrogen Sulphide coming from our ageing batteries, which proved to be too hot to touch. We had a serious problem, for an old battery can develop faulty cells and, if these are continuously charged, they can overheat, even explode.
Off went the engine and up went the sails. Dick climbed up the wind generator pole and managed to stop the blades from spinning. . We spent the rest of that day and the whole of the night tacking towards Los Testigos, with the current reaching as much as 2 knots against us. Progress was painfully slow but we were in no danger as long as we didn't run the engine for long periods. We used our brief stay in the islands to recuperate, refilling the nearly dry batteries and running tests which revealed that about half the cells in each of our two service batteries had failed.
Off again the following day with another 90-odd miles to go. We tried using the engine in short bursts, then shutting it down and turning on lots of devices to use up electricity, then charging the batteries again in another burst of motoring. Soon, however, we got that unmistakable smell and went back to sailing. Getting to Grenada took 36 hours and we made Prickly Bay with the last of the light.
Grenada was a delight, so lush and green after the dry scrub of Venezuela. We met several old friends, namely Michael and Hillair on Indigo who had been working hard on their boat for most of the time we were in Venezuela, and also Brian and Pam Saffery-Cooper on Lucky Dragon and Peter and Veronica on Island Moon. Best of all, after our long stay earlier in the year, we knew the ropes, felt thoroughly at home and knew where to go to get whatever we needed. We were pressed to stay for Christmas, but we had agreed to meet Sheila and Philip from White Sands in Martinique and so declined and prepared to start our long voyage north, Nova Scotia having become our destination for 2003. Before that, though, we had Aliesha slipped overnight so we could fit a new shaft seal, to replace the old one which had started to leak. And we replaced the worn out batteries with a temporary new one, since the size we required was not to be had.
The sail up to Martinique was such a contrast to our slog to Grenada. The winds were light, the sun always shone (I know it is supposed to out here, but there are many cloudy days) and the current was mostly in our favour. We stopped overnight in Carriacou, spinnakered up to Bequia, where Dick went diving with people who taught him to dive nearly a year earlier, then made a long passage up to Rodney Bay, St Lucia, before tackling the final, 25 mile leg across to Le Marin ,Martinique. Waiting for us were Sheila and Philip from White Sands and Marc and Esther from Beyond. It was 22nd December, not a card written, nor a present bought, let alone fare for the Christmas table.
Xmas and New Year
But we had a lovely time, an evening of mince pies and mulled wine on Aliesha on Christmas Eve, Christmas Dinner on White Sands, a long, long walk with Beyond on Boxing Day. We borrowed Philip's mobile phone, which worked in Martinique, and were able to have long chats with the immediate family from the comfort of our own boat. Christmas is a time when we especially miss family and friends but the calls helped and, after shedding a few tears, we managed to regain the festive spirit.
Le Marin is one of the premier yachting centres in the Caribbean, and has all the chandleries, sailmakers and mechanical services one would expect. A couple of miles to the west lies the anchorage of St Anne's, pretty, quiet and sociable. We spent two weeks shuttling between the two as we ran through our latest list of jobs, spending a fortune in the process. Keeping Aliesha in commission is not only a full-time job, it costs a lot more than we had expected when we made our budget so many months ago. When we were not in the chandleries, we swam, walked and socialised, and started to plan the coming year.
Our new friends Clive and Margot from Revid had cruised the east coast of the US in 2002 and spent a day with us, taking us over their route and giving us many invaluable tips on where to go and what to see. We also acquired some of the charts and pilot books we will need for this trip.
Up Island again
At last we felt we had to move on. On 15th January we raised the anchor, said farewell to St Anne and headed north to the Saintes, where we caught up with Beyond. After a short stay it was north again to Guadeloupe, where we paused in the attractive anchorage of Deshaies. With Marc and Esther we hired a car and spent a day touring the northern part of the oddly named Basse Terre, which actually encompasses the mountainous half of Guadeloupe. We saw some beautiful sights, rainforests, waterfalls and a spectacular plantation house with an amazing tropical garden.
Many of you will know that both of us have a racing background. Emboldened by a large gin, Dick challenged the crew of Moonsong, a Hallberg Rassy 42, to a race from Deshaies to Englsih Harbour, Antigua, a distance of some 42 miles. It is true that Aliesha has beaten a number of HR42's on other occasions, but this time it was not to be and we were a full 17 minutes behind them when we reached English Harbour. Ruefully we handed over the prize (yes, a bottle of Gordons) but the victors were kind enough to say they had expected their margin to be somewhat larger, and we all drank the prize, so it turned out all right.
Pam turned 60 while we were in Antigua. On local advice, we booked lunch at Harmony Hall, a splendid plantation-style restaurant on Antigua's east coast, set on a cliff overlooking a wide bay. Marc and Esther came with us and we hired a car to see more of the island en route. We have seldom , if ever, enjoyed a meal more - the food was superb, Italian in style, the setting was fabulous, and the service was immaculate. Later, we drove to Shirley Heights, overlooking English and Falmouth Harbours, and listened to a steel pan band. Dick was even allowed to have a go! It was an excellent celebration, only marred by the fact that so many of our friends could not be there.
From Antigua we sailed overnight to St Barths, stayed a few days in Gustavia, the capital, and in a beautiful bay, the Anse des Columbiers. Then a short passage brought us to Sind Maarten, or St Martin, the island that is part Dutch, part French, and one of the few islands we had not visited last year.
We entered the Simpsons Bay Lagoon, a huge natural harbour, sheltered from the seas but blasted by heavy gusts from the nearby mountains. St Martin is home to 60 or 70 super yachts, both powered and sail. It is slightly awesome to view such an accumulation of wealth in one location. The owners of such vessels have so little in common with ordinary sailors like us, but their numbers are growing and Dutch St Martin has built the docking facilities they need. Sadly, this is putting pressure on the "ordinary" yachties and, as an example, there is now a proposal to start to charge quite high entry fees to the Lagoon to pay for the recent widening of the bridge over the access canal, a widening done to accommodate larger super yachts.
St Martin has the biggest and the best stocked chandleries in the entire Caribbean and we had something of a field day, replacing our dinghy and outboard, and selling the old ones very quickly to other cruisers. Now, if Aliesha has become our home, the dinghy and its outboard motor is like our car. The dinghy/motor we bought in Bequia last year when the original floated away would not have been our first choice, but was the only choice available. It was slow and wet. Every time we went ashore, we got soaked, which doesn't matter so much out here but still, there are times you don't want to spend your time with a wet bottom.
We bought a Carib dinghy, a RIB, with large diameter tubes and a GRP bottom, then a 10 HP Mercury to power it. With one or two persons aboard, we can plane at 12-15 knots, which means we rise above the slop and STAY DRY. It is also great fun, rather like graduating from a Cinquecento to a BMW.
We also changed our on-board email from the German-based KielRadio (which rarely was useable out here) to the US-based SailMail, which is fabulous in terms of availability and (relative) speed of transmission. We are limited to 10K characters a day, so messages have to be brief and attachments and graphics are definitely not allowed. We will keep the AOL account for such things, but will slowly widen the number of friends who have the new on-board address (family members have it already) as we come to understand how many typical emails 10K characters represents.
We also bought a digital camera, the better to be able to share pictures with you all. Getting APS film developed in the Caribbean is almost impossible and so we go long stretches with no new pictures, then we can't easily send them home…, Now all that has changed and, as we master the technology, we will use more pictures and fewer words (Loud cheers)
During our stay Michael and Hillair on Indigo arrived and we enjoyed their company again, not least because their son was taking part in the Survivors TV show, set in a remote part of the Amazon. Although not normally our scene, having an interest in one of the participants made it fun and we watched 2 episodes in a sports bar on the quayside.
Back to the Virgins
23rd February saw us leaving Simpsons Bay and sailing overnight the 100 or so miles to Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. We had a date with Beyond, a farewell, in fact. Marc and Esther are returning to Houston to work for a while and had decided to have Beyond shipped to the Pacific North West coast, wanting new cruising grounds. We have been travelling with them since September, they have become our dear and close friends and we are already missing them enormously. We also met up with White Sands again, who are involved in skippered charter sailing while in the Virgins.
No sooner had we seen Beyond safely docked on the transporter ship than we were at the airport to meet Dick Campin, our first visitor of 2003. With him we visited many of the best anchorages in the Virgins, both US and British, snorkelling daily and, as before, marvelling at the abundance, the variety and the colours of the undersea life we explore. Racing raised its head again, this time Pam was emboldened to challenge Thursday's Childto a 20 mile race from Peter Island to Gorda Sound. Thursday's Childis also 36 feet in length,and this time Aliesha won, handsomely though I say it myself. Graham and Tania were gracious in defeat, awarding us both a prize and a silver trophy they had manufactured for the occasion.
Next stop, PR, the DR and the Bahamas
After another week or so, having the watermaker and the genoa repaired and doing a few more jobs, we'll start to break new ground again. We'll cruise the south coast of Peurto Rico, touch briefly on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, and then sail through the Turks and Caicos Islands into the Bahamas, where we will have two groups of visitors, Phil and Marg Thew, from Sydney, and Kate and Steve. How we get on will be the subject of the next instalment.
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29 November 2002
Chapter 17 – Cruising Venezuela Part II
This is by way of a little light relief from all our sailing adventures so far although a boat still features quite strongly as you might have guessed! Swap ALIESHA for an Indian dugout canoe, and the Caribbean Sea for the Rivers Carrao and Churun and you get the picture. Well perhaps not quite all the picture so here we go with some details………………
We arrived in Puerto La Cruz on mainland Venezuela on 16th October having decided to take a trip up to the Angel Falls. We consulted the local travel agents within the marina complex and found we could get a pretty good deal on a 4-day/3-night trip to include half a day and night in Ciudad Bolivar on the banks of the Orinoco, one day in the base camp at Canaima, one day getting to the Angel Falls and the last day returning back to Canaima and then back to Puerto La Cruz. A few of our neighbours in the marina were all keen to show us videos of their trip, but we politely declined as it seemed to us such a big adventure, we didn’t want a sneaky preview. And I think we were right because it was the greatest adventure we’ve ever had and the most remarkable scenery we’ve ever seen.
Our journey started with a taxi ride to the bus station through some of the poorer districts of Puerto La Cruz. Venezuela is very much a land of contrast: real poverty living alongside the ostentatious wealth of the rich minority. Having found our bus we settled down to wait for our driver and nearly froze to death from an over-enthusiastic air-conditioner. The 4-hour ride to Ciudad Bolivar was unremarkable save for the travelling vendors who boarded the bus at each stop and rode with their captive audience until the next stop. A crude oil pipeline adorned with graffiti was the only thing to break the monotony of the rolling countryside; no cultivation, no livestock farming. So it was quite exciting when we eventually reached the Orinoco, a wide wide river and drove over the modern suspension bridge somewhat akin to the Severn Bridge in size but not in style!
We were met by Bladimir (a good Spanish name if every there was one!) , a charming Venezuelan who originally haled from Colombia, with brown twinkling eyes and bags of enthusiastic energy. He soon persuaded us of the benefits of paying for an extra flight over the Angel Falls when we arrived at Canaima the following morning. Oh well, we thought, it would all help towards shoring up the ailing Venezuelan economy as we parted with 112,000 Bolivars which is not as bad as it sounds, being a mere £54! Meanwhile, Bladimir saw us settled into our hotel before leaving us to our own devices until 8 o’clock the following morning. We enjoyed some sight-seeing, a meal in an Italian restaurant and an early episode of Morse on the TV when we got back to our room!
By 10 o’clock the following morning we were airborne in a twin-engined 18-seater turbo prop for the 30-minute flight to Canaima. As we approached the landing strip we got our first views of the falls around the camp. The Angel Falls, like all major attractions, are kept well hidden until last. On landing, we were met by our guide, Manuel, a charming Venezuelan of Spanish descent and very passionate about the Canaima National Park and the Kamerakotas Indians who live and work in the park. We were whisked off in an open truck to our ‘camp’, a single-storey building with stone and concrete walls and a corrugated iron roof . The building was L-shaped with the dining table in one arm and about 12 hammocks strung from the ceiling in the other. Deep joy! The building also rejoiced in a kitchen which turned out quite acceptable fare and two modern showers and loos.
Then back almost immediately to the airstrip for our sneaky preview of the Angel Falls. As our single-prop, 6-seater plane took to the skies, all around us was this wonderful panoramic view of rivers, rapids, waterfalls, savannah and tepuys. Tepuys, you may remember from geography lessons, are table-top mountains which rise almost sheer from the plains below. They are quite breath-taking in their awesome splendour whether viewed from above or below. It is from the top of one of the highest tepuys that the Angel Falls cascade some 1000m to the ground below. Sadly we never really got to see it from the top as the cloud cover was over that particular tepuy, wouldn’t you just know it! But it was still worth the flight just to see the extraordinary terrain through which we would be travelling by canoe the next day.
The afternoon was spent in getting to know our fellow campers: a European mix of three Germans, two Belgian lads and 2 Norwegian girls and to exploring the local falls around Canaima with our guide Manuel. These falls were spectacular in their own right, being not particularly high but wide and powerful. On our way over to the Sapo Salto (falls) we all swam in the Rio Carrao which was just like swimming in a cup of cold black tea! The run-off from the surrounding rain forests causes the water to turn a tannin colour and it seemed very strange to us, being used to turquoise and eau-de-nil coloured water. Even more strange was actually walking behind the Sapo Salto and feeling the sheer raw power of the water as it thundered down to the rocks below. Needless to say we still remained in our swimsuits for this exercise and got absolutely drenched!
Back at our base camp that night it was a tired but happy party that gathered around the table for supper. We had discovered that the Canaima General Stores sold rum and, at vast expense, procured a bottle to see us through the evening and hopefully knock us out before taking to our hammocks. In the event, the rum slipped down so nicely between the eleven of us, we had to send out for more! Dick and I were spared the rigours of hammocks on our first night as Manuel offered us an en-suite bedroom which we were only too glad to accept. You’ve got to have some compensations for your age!
A very noisy overhead fan made us glad to be able to get up at daybreak and prepare ourselves for the big day. The rest of our party emerged somewhat shell-shocked from their hammocks and, after a rather subdued breakfast during which more cigarettes were consumed than food, we gathered up our gear and set off for Puerto Ucaima where we would embark on our 40-foot dugout canoe and head up river.
I could write so much about that trip up river: the wonderful skill of our Indian driver and the lad who conned our unstable craft through the rapids from the bow, the beauty of the river with all its twists and turns, sandy coves, pebble beaches, the birds, butterflies and flowering trees. But the most stunning feature of all has to be the tepuys which form a majestic backdrop to the forest looking for all the world like a collection of giants' tables.
Some 5 hours and 4 outboard propellers later we arrived at our new camp which would be home for the coming evening and night. Meanwhile we had to get ourselves from the camp to the base of the Angel Falls and back before darkness fell in 3 hours time. So after a quick turnaround we set off again for a short trip in the canoe and then a rugged hike of one and a half hours through fairly dense forest. At first the going wasn’t too bad, the narrow path being a mixture of tree roots and rocks. As the incline became steeper, the rocks predominated and got larger and more higgledy-piggledy. Thunder was rumbling ominously in the background and all the while the light seemed to be fading. Being the ‘oldies’ in the party we were soon left behind by the youngsters but Manuel was always there gently encouraging us upwards and onwards. We had to use our hands to fend off insects who were delighting in the feast that had come their way despite insect repellent and we were soon soaked in sweat just like real explorers!
Just as I thought I really couldn’t go another step further, I heard the voices of the rest of our party up ahead and suddenly there it was – the highest waterfall in the world! We sank on a flat-topped rock and drank in the sheer grandeur of it all. Well not quite all because guess what – the cloud was covering the top! However, after a while, the clouds rolled away enough for us to see the falls in their entirety – wow! We dared not stay too long as we both felt like rigor mortis was setting in so reluctantly we started the downward drag ahead of the rest of the party, anxious that we should make it back before dark. It was indeed a close-run thing, but we did it and felt enormously proud of ourselves.
So what do you want after a long hot sweaty day in the jungle? Well, a hot shower for starters, closely followed by a gin and tonic, a good meal and a comfortable bed. Forget it! Dick had a swim in the dark in the ice-cold river and I funked it and just had a towel-down instead. Very difficult to do this modestly with so many people around! The Belgian lads had thoughtfully brought several bottles of rum and the camp provided Coke. The meal, as provided by the Indians was adequate but there was no escaping the hammock tonight!
Well sleeping in a hammock was certainly an experience but not one that either of us is anxious to repeat in a hurry. During the night we had heavy rain which made an incredible racket on the iron roof of the camp. When the rain had passed over we were then subjected to the Chinese water torture of rain drops from the trees dripping one by one on the roof. The following morning I could barely move I was so stiff and we all looked at least 10 years older than our normal age. Anyway, no time to hang around as we had a plane to catch 5 hours later so after a quick breakfast we were all back in the canoe. The ride downstream was even more exciting than the outbound journey as it’s important to keep way on the canoe as it goes through the rapids. There is much bumping of rocks and propellers and, now and again, we all had to vacate the canoe and make our way to the downside of some rapids, leaving Manuel and the two Indians to navigate the canoe as best they could. The river had dropped quite a bit since our trip up yesterday despite the overnight rain. As we progressed down the river, we enjoyed the soft beauty of the tepuys bathed in the early morning sunlight. The return trip took no more than two and a half hours and it seemed that in no time we were saying goodbye to our friends and on our flight back to Ciudad Bolivar and Bladimir.
The bus ride back to Puerto La Cruz was hot and uneventful. I say hot, because the loo compartment was hot enough to go up in smoke and we were sitting right by it! So it was with some relief that we rolled into the bus station without being incinerated some five hours later, very tired but very elated.
What a trip! What an adventure!
We hope this has allowed you to share with us some of the magic of this wonderful place they call Canaima.
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08 November 2002
Chapter 16 – Cruising Venezuela
“Last night a yacht anchored off Coche was boarded by 5 armed men. They tied up the husband and wife crew, ransacked the boat and stripped it of everything of value. As they left they shot the man in the knee. He is in hospital receiving treatment…”
The 0815 Safety and Security Net on the SSB (short wave radio) is a must, an instant update on the security situation in the Caribbean. This item, broadcast the day before we left to sail, past Coche, to the main offshore islands of Venezuela, reminded us how violent this lovely country has become. We vowed to stay vigilant, avoid anchoring on our own, and off we set, bound for Tortuga, roughly 50 miles west of Margarita, but more like 90 miles from our starting point at Porlamar.
Yachties on this passage often break the journey at Robladal, a pretty fishing port on the western end of Margarita. We thought this made sense and arrived about 1700, to find the only other yacht there preparing to move off. We were tired and really didn’t want a night at sea. However, we would be the only yacht…. Would we be safe? Well, tiredness won, we anchored, laid a kedge to haul the bow round into the swell and turned in for an excellent night’s sleep. Robladal, at least, was still safe.
Tortuga is about ten miles long and very low, so you have to get to within 5 miles or so before you can see it. We were starting to doubt our GPS when finally land was sighted but soon we were anchored in a nearly circular bay, formed by a coral reef and a sand bar. We shared this paradise with a few fishermen and about 20 yachts, mostly French. As the sun went down the stars came out in their thousands, and so did the mosquitoes, driving us below decks and causing Pam to swear a solemn oath ( and several rather coarser ones) that she really would finish the mosquito nets the very next day.
Seeking two sets of friends, we moved on the next day to the small island of Herradura, just off Tortuga’s north coast. This is a jewel of a place, a crescent of sand with a few, stunted bushes, a salt lagoon and a lighthouse (but few mozzies). It is the summer base for a number of fishermen, who have built huts ashore from whatever materials came to hand, then filled in the cracks and painted them in bright colours, reds, blues and yellows, vibrant under the tropical sun. Throw in the colours of the sea, from a deep azure through turquoise to a pale eau-de-nil, top the mixture off with dazzlingly white sand, and suddenly everybody wants to paint, to capture the colours, the stillness and the tranquility.
We met our Swiss friends Pierre-Philippe and Catherine from Olle, last seen in Guadeloupe, and also Americans Mark and Esther from Beyond, first met in Prickly Bay, Grenada. We also met a number of other cruisers, mostly American or Canadian, some of whom had been there for 8 weeks or more. It was that kind of a place. We swam, ate, chatted, snorkelled, drank and slept, even did a few quite big jobs on the boat, and the days just flew by.
Soon, however, our usual restlessness caused us to head off just before sunset for the 85 miles to Los Roques. Los Roques is an island group about 100 miles from the mainland and consists of a series of small, mostly uninhabited islands with coral reefs; one quite high island, El Grand Roque, and amazing channels and lagoons in between. We arrived at Boca de Sebastopol, the entrance to the inner channels on the SE side, about 0800, having sailed overnight. The sun was already high enough to show up the shallow, coral areas we must avoid and soon we were inside and sailing in a flat sea, fringed by a reef with breaking surf on the one side, and by low-lying mangrove covered islands on the other. There was no sign of human life anywhere.
We soon dropped anchor in the lee of a small island and fell asleep until lunchtime. That afternoon we launched the dinghy and went to explore the reef. We came across two graves, both with crosses and with their boundaries lined with conch shells and pastel pebbles. A faded inscription told us that these had been fishermen who perished in 1985. As resting places go, they could have had none finer.
Less acceptable was the huge quantity of plastic debris, scattered all over the reef. Venezuelans are notorious for throwing all their garbage into the sea and we could see the result, lying there in ranks as successive storms had thrown it clear of the water to lie, inert, for hundreds of years until sunlight breaks it down.
On our way back to the boat we went right up to the mangroves, hoping to find some oysters or maybe a starfish or two, as we had on our guided tour of the lagoons of Margarita. Mistake!! As we peered into the murky water around the mangrove roots we were suddenly overwhelmed by a swarm of man- (and woman-) eating mosquitoes, which almost devoured us both. Frenzied slapping and even a quick douse in the sea finally drove them away and we retired to treat our bites. I counted over 50 on Pam’s back alone. The mosquito nets were deployed, and to our great relief, once we had sprayed and killed those already below, we had a trouble-free night.
Next day we moved the 12 miles to El Gran Roque, motoring close past the inner reef and marvelling at the surf on the outer reef and at the huge numbers of seabirds, mostly Pelicans, Boobies and Noddys. We were relying on electronic charts, and were somewhat disconcerted to find the computer screen showed us as sailing over the reef one hundred yards off our port side. We later corrected the software and then managed well with this modern navigational aid.
At El Gran Roque you have to check in. The process involves anchoring, getting the dinghy over the side and getting ashore, landing on the sandy beach beside the Coast Guard station. There one acquires a form plus two impressive stamps. Armed with this, one then visits the InParques people, the Guardia Nationale and a fourth body, whose identity we never did learn. Each office has its own policy on whether or not to stop for lunch, and so the whole process consumed the best part of the day. We too enjoyed a pleasant lunch in El Gran Roques’ bar, watching the pelicans fishing and the terns perching on the pelicans’ heads in search of scraps. Finally we were free to return to ALIESHA, some £62.00 poorer for permission to stay and explore for 14 days.
However, the money was well worth it. We visited 6 more islands, threading our way amongst the coral reefs and the sand bars, anchoring in perfect safety with perhaps 3 or 4 other boats, mostly French. We snorkelled, swam and read. Each evening we would go fishing for the mackerel which leapt out of the waters all around us as they hunted for their supper. Not one bite did we get! Frustrating, but still great fun, and one day I’ll find out what I have to do to catch fish on a regular basis.
One morning we sailed into a delightful anchorage called Sarqui, which we shared with one other cruiser and a large day-charter catamaran, carrying perhaps 20 people. Faint cries alerted us to a young couple in distress; they’d waded and swam out of their depth, encountered a bit of current and feared they were being swept out to sea. I jumped into the dinghy and motored over to help.
“You ‘ave saved my life”, breathed the girl, after I had helped her aboard (not an easy process, as the dinghy is quite hard to climb into from the water and her bikini offered very little on which to safely get a purchase!). After that, rescuing her boyfriend seemed quite tame and they were soon back with their friends, a little shaken and very relieved. Me, I kept wondering (and I kept watching through the binoculars! - Pam)…….
All too soon our time was up and so we checked out for Puerto La Cruz, a single visit to the GuardaCosta being all that was needed for once and no money! The distance was 170 miles, dead upwind but we had perfect conditions and ALIESHA sailed beautifully until we lost the wind after dark. On went the motor and on it stayed until we entered Herradura, Tortuga, at 0700 the following morning. A quick breakfast, a sleep and on again, to spend the night at Caldera once again, then off early in the morning for the 55 miles remaining to Puerto La Cruz. We ran out of wind and motored in about 1630.
Puerto La Cruz is a favourite among yachties in Venezuela and we have come to understand why.
About 2 miles west of the town proper, developers have created the El Morro complex, a series of very attractive town houses built on a network of canals. If you have visited Port Grimaud in the south of France, you will have the picture. Those with boats, sail or power, park them outside the front door. Little bridges offer walking and some vehicle access, and the whole area is about 3 miles by 1 mile. The lot is surrounded by a barbed wire fence and the entrances are patrolled by guards with guns on their hips. Typical of Venezuela it certainly is not, but as a safe refuge it takes some beating.
We have been here for over 2 weeks in a marina called Bahia Redonda. It has a pool, a restaurant and a shop, also a travel agent who fixes up tours. The sailors here are very friendly and there are all kinds of services available at keen prices. So far we have had the anchor and chain re-galvanised as they had gone very rusty, and we are to have a pole made up for the stern to support our wind generator. When this is done we will head back to the islands via Margarita, but meanwhile we enjoy days of 31-34 degrees Celsius, nights about 27 degrees and, most of the time, a cooling breeze. It has been a pleasant refuge from life at anchor, with unlimited fresh water definitely being the best amenity of those on offer.
However, we do recognise that we live in an artificial world. So we took a 4 day trip to Canaima, to see something of the real Venezuela and the Angel Falls. How we got on is in Chapter 17.
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19 September 2002
Chapter 15 – South America Here We Come!
We flew back to Grenada on 30th July after six very busy weeks catching up with all our family and friends. The high spot was of course the wedding of our daughter, Kate, to Steve Chapman, which was a simply wonderful day. Our whole trip was extremely enjoyable and our many grateful thanks again to all of you who afforded us such marvellous hospitality. We hope that at least some of you will join us somewhere along the route in the coming year.
We spent five busy weeks in Grenada after our return of which 10 days were spent up in the boat yard and the rest of the time in the anchorage at Prickly Bay. We had a long list of things to do, repairs to make and gear to buy and we were well placed to do all of these things with two well-stocked boat chandlers within easy reach (almost too easy some would say!) and two very good engineering outfits on hand who helped us get our fridge repaired following an accident in the boatyard and also the self-steering gear which was broken.
The shopping trips into town were one of the high spots of the week when we would pick up Darius’s bus at the top of the road which would then go over the hill to Secret Harbour where it picked up yet more of us yotties and then, for the princely sum of $7EC (£1.75) return, we would all ride into town having a lovely gossip along the way. Imagine our delight when we discovered a supermarket that had just had a consignment of Waitrose goods in! We filled our cart (oops, I mean,. trolley) with lots of lovely English biscuits, marmalade and several jars of mincemeat – what a treat!
Despite all the hard work we still managed to find time to relax and made many wonderful new friends during our stay in Prickly Bay, in particular Renee and Kevin a delightful South African couple who are currently working in Grenada and live on their boat and who gave us lots of help. Also Hillair and Michael who are busy doing up their recently acquired boat and whom we hope will catch up with us somewhere along the way.
Now I believe we said in the last chapter that our intended route having left Grenada was going to be down to Margarita via Trinidad and Tobago. Well it didn’t quite happen like that! Tobago would have been difficult to get to as it was dead up wind of us and we were put off Trinidad because of the terrible humidity there, the daily rainfall and the urbanisation. We hope to call in there on the way back when the weather is better. Instead, we came via Los Testigos, the Witnesses, which are a small group of islands about 84 miles to the south west of Grenada and which are owned by Venezuela.
After a good overnight sail (how good it was to be at sea again!) we arrived early on 9th September, Dick’s birthday. Well these Testigans are a clever lot and must have cottoned onto the fact that it was Dick’s birthday because before we had even dropped the anchor, the band was playing and bombshells were exploding all around us. What a wonderful welcome! It transpired that they were celebrating a week-long festival in honour of the ‘Virgin of the Valley’ but Dick didn’t mind sharing his special day!
After we’d checked in and ‘purchased’ (with the aid of a bottle of wine and a few cigarettes) a few extra days stay in the islands, two days being the normal permitted length of stay, we then set about exploring the anchorages and soon found a delightful spot with a superb sandy beach and a good snorkelling area just yards off the beach. The fiesta continued apace and boat loads of Testigans plied between the various islands and partied in the beach bar which had presumably been set up for the occasion. We were somewhat horrified when a large revolting object floating on the seashore turned out to be a goat’s stomach. Obviously something they’d prepared earlier!!!
We really loved our four days here and found ourselves relaxing at long last. What could be nicer than playing Scrabble in the middle of the afternoon under the awning with a gentle sea breeze wafting through and watching the pelicans and booby birds fishing or just bobbing about on the water! We swam and snorkelled, fished and read and generally watched the world go by.
On Friday we upped anchor early and headed south west again for Margarita – just a nice little day’s sail of about ten hours. It was a very gentle sail and along the way we caught a kingfish of about 7-8lbs. This is a really good fish for eating - not so rich as tuna but a good flavour and keeps well. Over the past few days we’ve had grilled king fish, curried king fish, fish cakes and tonight the remainder is probably going over the side having lunched on a very good paella in town today!
Porlamar, the main city of Margarita, is unlike anything we’ve seen since leaving the Canaries. Margarita is the Venezuelan playground and a tax haven. Added to this the exchange rate against the pound which is approx. 2000 bolivars and you get some idea of how cheap it is here for us. Gin works out at about £1.50 per bottle. We did a huge shop yesterday provisioning the boat for a month’s cruising in the Venezuelan islands and it came to the equivalent of £68!!!! However, beautiful, Porlamar is not with lots of high-rises and tracts of waste ground in between. We are doing a tour of the island on Thursday with four friends so we shall be able to tell you more in our next chapter. In the meantime, thanks for your interest and we look forward to getting in touch with everyone again towards the middle of October.
Today we explored the shopping centre, although we made no purchases! We were struck by how like Europe things are here. It reminds us or our time in Spain last summer. There is a shared culture, so different from the West Indies. If this is South America, we want more…….
Pam and Dick
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