Friday, April 13, 2012

"...Three Days on a Boat...

...looking for some peace and quiet, maybe keep her dreams afloat." - Jimmy Buffett, Fins reality, we sailed back from Antigua, and it took us more than three days, as you know. But this very last passage, well, it was indeed three days! With another nice weather window beginning to open, we decided to keep moving. While it would have been nice to relax a little and enjoy revisiting old haunts here on Provo, when a weather opportunity beckons, you don't ignore it. The best cruising is when it's gorgeous out! After heartfelt goodbyes to all in South Side Marina, we cleared out and headed west from the Turks & Caicos. Starting out, we had the northeast winds pushing against our starboard quarter, with seas slightly abeam, so enjoyed rather nice conditions. With the winds forecast to clock around behind us, it promised to become even better, so we kept to the course as we plotted it and simply enjoyed being out there! 

Our chart plotter, showing our progress from the Turks and Caicos
as we headed south below the Bahamas. 
Another gorgeous sunset at sea 
Our course was basically due west and then south through the Old Bahama Channel between Cuba and the Bahamas; we wanted to ride the weather window as far as we could without stopping. Equinox was in her stride as we ambled along, and after passing the elusive Hogsty Reef during a magnificent night watch, Wednesday morning arrived with gorgeous conditions as well. This IS what cruising is all about: blue skies, calm blue seas, aboard a well-found boat! Glorious!

All shades of blue ahead!
Our course, as we made our way north in the Santaren Channel
between Cuba and the Bahamas
We took turns at the helm as usual, trailed some fishing lines and feasted on the good weather. We were well settled in by then, familiar with the rhythms found during passage: the movement of the boat on the seas, the faint rumble of the engines moving you along, the turns at the helm on watch, the turns in the galley, the time spent enjoying the view and the seas. We did encounter some current against us as the tide moved off the Bahamas Bank, along with the resulting snappish waves that came from current opposing the wind, but seas were so quiet overall that it was merely an annoyance. It soon passed.

I find passages allow time for reflection, introspection, and time to simply be. I appreciate being in the now: the sheer joy of being there, in that sliver of space at that specific moment in time. A moment that will never come again, and yet one that seems to last as it is savored. There is no intrusion of the land-based life, there's just the sky and the sea, the vivid cobalt color of the water, the salty white foam against Equinox's hull as she surges forward through the seas. So I soak it in, a moment alone, or perhaps shared by a seagull or cormorant sailing the skies as we push through the water. 

And so it continued, three days in a boat! Ron had a magical evening in the Gulf Stream during his night watch, when it was so preternaturally calm that the seas reflected the stars above, in water clear as a mirror. He very nearly woke me up to see it, it was just so spectacular....he'd never seen anything like it in the Gulf Stream before! (I admit, I probably wouldn't have appreciated being woken up either, but I'm sorry to have missed it nonetheless!) 

My watch was a bit more exciting, as the wee hours brought us to passing Port Everglades and the many ships coming and going from that busy port. The AIS was lit up like a Christmas tree, with all the signatures from the shipping containers, tugs and ships moving about. Vigilance is key, and I sure was grateful to have both the AIS and the radars helping me ident the lights of different vessels outside! 

Grand Central Station at sea
By mid-day on the third day, we were coming in through the St. Lucie Inlet and officially back in local waters. Landfall at Outrigger Harbour was shortly thereafter....and as always, a passage ended well is a cause for celebration! But this time, though.... our home-coming was a bittersweet moment. There was gratitude for the incredible journey, and sadness as well, knowing it was the end of our last passage aboard, and our last landfall. Our hearts are full.

Ron at the helm station starboard, me at the stern rail
ready with the lines as we backed into our slip.
Last landfall...there are no words.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Turks & Caicos: Old Home Week

Well, it wasn't really a week, as we only stayed in the T&C a couple of days, but it was delightful to revisit this lovely island archipelago. After our magical passage, we arrived at Grand Turk bright and early on Sunday morning, and called on the VHF to inquire about clearing Customs. We had a very nice fellow on the radio who assisted in finding out if Customs was open, but he was extremely doubtful anyone could help us. We thought this quite strange...why wouldn't anyone be around to help us? True, it was Sunday and we knew we'd probably have to pay an overtime charge to clear in, but what was the big deal? Well...up popped an unexpected wrinkle in time, shall we say? A true peril of living aboard is that one forgets what day it is -- hence, the reason we have a "day clock" aboard which notes no time, just the days of the week. So while yes, we knew it was Sunday, we totally were ignorant of the fact that it was EASTER. Yep, a major holiday, and thus no matter what, we found that there would be NO customs clearance at Grand Turk! We were told that we might find a Customs officer available at Providenciales, if we were lucky....but no exploration of Grand Turk for us!   

While that threw us off a bit, we decided that we may as well head to Provo since the weather was so lovely. It was already too late to make it in concert with the high tide needed to get into South Side Marina, so as we headed back south we paused to take a dive mooring off Salt Cay for an hour or so, where we indulged in a great wall dive before heading off across the Columbus Passage towards the Caicos Bank. Again, a big part of living aboard is the ability to improvise! Plus, it was too pretty a day and we simply couldn't resist!

After a fairly comfortable passage across the Columbus Passage, winds picked up from the west and made crossing the Caicos Bank a bit choppy. Short, sassy waves were slapping the bow, and we had to endure that annoyance until just after dusk. Fortunately, having spent so much time here last year, we were very familiar with that area of the Bank, but it didn't ease our vigilance as the light waned. We moved in towards Cooper Jack Bay just after darkness fell, and anchored in the lee of the small islets lying offshore.

The next day we revisited South Side Marina, happy to be back. We had contacted Bob prior to our arrival, so he knew to expect us, and was there on the docks as we pulled in. As usual, we were warmly welcomed by the marina dogs, Effie and Gemma once we were tucked into the slip! It's always a good feeling to revisit one's favorite ports, and SSM was our home for several months last year. A few things had changed in the months since our stay, one of which was the new Customs fees for entry. It used to be that a stay of 7 days was allowed before a cruising permit was needed; those who wished to stay longer purchased the 3-month cruising permit that was the norm. Now, costs $50 dollars just to clear in, and another $50 to clear out, regardless of length of stay. Coming in on the Monday after Easter? Still a holiday, so an additional $10 was needed. Ouch!

Nevertheless, we had a great stay. We did some provisioning at the IGA, and after tidying up the boat, chatted with the other folks currently in the marina. Later in the day, Ron brushed off the Caicos conch horn and announced the sunset gathering of folks under the marina cabana, where we relaxed with Bob and as well as enjoyed the camaraderie and company of other cruisers. Nice that some things DO stay the same! 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

DR to T&C: Magical Mystery Tour!

We awoke to our lovely environs here at the Puerto Bahia Samana marina at the Bannister, and were happy to be secure in our slip. It's always nice to wake up knowing the boat is tucked in safely when the weather is kicking up; the cabin is warm and the morning coffee is hot! With the winds piping along under overcast skies and in between intermittent rain showers, we used the blustery weather to our advantage for maintenance: main engine oil changes, scheduled Racor filter changes, water-maker filter changes and the like. We even changed out the holding tank vent filter (not a pleasant task to be sure, but a necessary one!). So, lots of work, but it was a day of tasks accomplished so we felt productive and happy!

We also had the pleasure of meeting another (Wisconsin!) cruising family off One World, Wes and Kim and their four kids. We enjoyed comparing hometown notes and getting acquainted -- they are just starting out on their sailing adventures, en route to destinations south. As is always the case, we had a good time! Later in the afternoon, we were happy to give them a tour of Equinox, and passed on a few tidbits of hopefully useful information regarding their road ahead. Oh, the places they'll go! We envy them -- knowing how fun it is to be heading out, with unknown adventures ahead! It makes it all the harder for us, since we are heading back. It's bittersweet when paths cross in the opposite directions.

But...back to Florida is where we are headed and where we will go. After our productive day in port, we were pleasantly surprised to awake the next morning to find the good weather forecast moving in ahead of schedule. After verification of the weather and some discussion of possible ports of arrival, we jumped on the opportunity to move on, so called customs to clear out and receive our despacho to leave the DR. 

Again, a much easier time of it than the last time! Everyone was pleasant and timely, there were no delays nor time wasted. It was a glorious day, and the cruise along the coast of the Dominican Republic en route to the Turks and Caicos was filled with sunshine and stunning coastal views. 
Puerto Bahia Marina behind us, with smooth seas ahead
The stunning Dominican Republic coastline captured our attention;
neither this photo above nor the one below do it justice.
Then started the Magical Mystery Passage! It was truly an amazingly lovely passage on a stretch of water that can be rough and treacherous; waters are wide open to the Atlantic to the north, with no real outs within easy range. When conditions are rough, you simply resign yourself to getting through it!  But Mother Nature was sweet that day, for we enjoyed glorious conditions!! Literally, 2' -3' seas with the wind slightly abaft, so we trailed fishing lines and reveled in the nice conditions. Not that the fish were impressed, for they ignored our lures entirely! But we still had our reward, for after enjoying the brilliant sunny skies and light winds, we were treated to a dramatic cloud-filled sunset that illuminated the horizon...I was glued to the views, as the changing colors were spectacular. 

The mystery aspect only applied in that you start to get very philosophical during the late-night watch,  looking out and marveling at the mysteries of the universe around you! My watch was simply serene as we passed the Mouchoir Bank and across the Mouchoir passage, with Equinox rocking atop a silver-glittered sea in the moonlight...lots of time to reflect and appreciate. Each moment when I thought one  particular beauty of clouds, water and moonlight unsurpassed, the next would arrive and leave me awed anew. The sea is a most magical place! And then the most gentle, pastel-colored dawn arrived....take a look for yourselves, from dusk until dawn:  
Just before sunset
The colors only deepened and became more vibrant:

The moon rise was just as beautiful, mysterious in black and white:
(Not bad for a little point & shoot camera!)
And then, just before the new dawn, came the moonset!  I didn't know which window to look out of from the pilothouse, as each view was so breath-taking! But what a moment: out on the gentle Atlantic, the only vessel there, seeing both views at once....priceless.
The setting moon, still  glittering on the water to the west
Dawn colors blazing in from the east
Like I said, a Magical Mystery Passage! 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dominican Republic Take II

Land Ho! The Dominican Republc on the horizon
Wow, what a difference a year makes. Usually there are many small differences, but for us, arriving in the DR this year was a 180ยบ turnabout from last year. We had an interesting time then....of course, the fact that the Samana, DR authorities were focused on stripping down a drug-laden boat at the public dock may have made the difference....just a guess!   Let's just say that last year, it was a rough, rather third-world introduction to how things are handled there. Every procedure from clearing in, to anchoring out was a bit of a hassle.

Thus...this year, a total, welcome change! We had it all in our favor: the weather, the location, the facilities, and timing! After last year, we had much debate on even going back to the DR, but we decided we would give Puerto Bahia Samana Marina at try. We had gorgeous conditions coming it, and it was a very welcome respite after 36 hours at sea, when we finally cleared the breakwater for the marina. Located about a mile past the harbor of Samana itself, the resort is quite new and has a spectacular setting, nestled in  beneath the jungle green hillside above. The marina channel is clearly marked with buoys and day-marks; an easy entry with a convenient fuel dock to starboard as you enter. We arrived mid-day, took on a bit of fuel, and were tucked into a slip before we knew it! From being met by gracious dockhands, to having Customs & Immigration aboard in no time, we were cleared in to the DR easily, without fuss or confusion, without dubious docking fees or demands -- er --"requests" for tips. What a treat!! 

In the main lobby of the Bannister Hotel
Puerto Bahia Samana is actually part of The Bannister Hotel, and it's truly first class. They have very attentive, welcoming staff, with a wide array of amenities from three different restaurants (casual and fine dining), two infinity pools, full-service marina amenities, tennis courts, and a fun playground for the younger ones. After clearing in, we happily explored the waterfront and ended up having a leisurely lunch outside on the long verandah overlooking the marina. Ron was quick to explore the other parts of the resort and before I knew it, he had scheduled us for an hour-long couples massage at the Spa at the resort in the late afternoon. (Told you it was a totally different experience than last year, now didn't I?) Precisely what the doctor ordered!! Yes --- I heartily  recommend it to anyone after making a long passage, even after an easy cruise as such as we had! After restoring vertical function to my body, I was able to wobble back to the boat quite happily, where we did nothing for a couple of hours before succumbing to sleep --- which I did for the next 12 hours. Bliss!

So yes....quite a welcome to the Dominican Republic!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Magical Mona

Looking back at Culebrita as we departed our mooring at dawn
The weather gods are smiling!! We had a comfortable weather window of following seas and light winds for the passage from Antigua to Culebra, Puerto Rico as you know....and the good weather just continues! While we wanted to stay and play in the sunshine -- talk about being torn --- we also wanted to keep moving, because such weather is also the absolute best time to be cruising!! (Our motto: Never cruise when the weather is marginal -- or, why be uncomfortable when you don't have to be?) SO ... having enjoyed our time diving at Culebrita, when we were gifted such phenomenal weather, we opted to move on!

Ron and I were up early and off at sun-up the next day, and we reveled in the incredible weather. It was a magical morning of barely any wind with the early dawn pastel colors breaking into blazing gold at daybreak, reflecting off the calm seas horizon to horizon.  Nature's beauty so brilliant and glorious --- it was everywhere at once, yet it felt like it was ours alone, being the solitary boat there, at that moment, at that instant of time. Truly breath-taking, and as I tried to soak it all in, I was so thankful to be out there, seeing it and experiencing it! 

And so the day continued in fine fashion. It's not often you can cruise the entire length of the north shore of Puerto Rico in such conditions!! It was splendid indeed!! our speed and distance would have it, we crossed the Mona Passage in the the wee hours of the next morning on our approach to the Dominican Republic. Ah, yes, that infamous "thorny path"...!! The Mona is known for its strong, shifting currents and unpredictable waves. Why? The currents and waves are there, as the US Geological Survey office noted in a 2007 survey of the area, "because the Mona Passage is an area of shallow banks over which a vigorous exchange of waters takes place between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea". A scientific way of saying it's nature's washing machine, for the fickle piece of water often has waves that churn, punch and pummel vessels attempting to cross the area. Crossing the Mona is a rite of passage! We've done it four times now, every which way, with different conditions each time. But our caution and vigilance regarding the area never changed, I can tell you that!  

Our first time crossing the Mona was the roughest, with seas lumpy and seemingly from all directions as we went. It wasn't treacherous, just mostly uncomfortable, as we headed east along the north coasts of the Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico. The second time, we were headed back north, and cruised along the south side of Puerto Rico and north up through the Mona itself enroute to the northeastern part of DR -- a much easier time of it, but the waves again had no rhyme or rhythm. The third time was when we were heading south this past October, and cruised along the the north coast of DR and south down through the Mona to follow the south coast of PR  and the Mona was actually not bad at all. (It was the seas along the south coast of PR that were ugly.)  Finally, this last time of crossing the Mona, was a simple reverse course  from Puerto Rico west to DR. And the conditions? The crossing was on the calmest seas we've ever experienced there, with moonlight providing a twinkling, silver path. Definitely magical!!

Yes, every time crossing the Mona was different, and every time held its own challenges --- which is where the lure of cruising lies! Being able to meet those challenges, knowing that you and your spouse (or crew) can do it together by handling your boat well, charting a safe course through waters that are well known for its challenges -- priceless! Thus, it was deeply appreciated that this last time crossing the Mona was so enchanting. It felt as if it was a "thank you" from the sea, for simply being out there. For that, we are thankful, too.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Adios Antigua

As always, we've found departure bittersweet after the months spent in one place. Antigua was no different, but the happy anticipation of making a passage made up for it. And for once, all our departure preparations weren't in vain! Usually, the weather gods chuckle and delay your weather window or good weather arrives before you are ready. But, in this case, we timed things well. Saturday morning we cast off the mooring lines and headed out, happy to be moving on again. Equinox seemed just as happy to be underway again, enjoying the comfortable seas and great conditions!
Our last view of Antigua as we moved west
Weather was to our advantage, and we had a lovely ride, wih beamy, somewhat quartering/following seas that the stabilizers handled easily. We fished as we went, and simply enjoyed being out on the waters again in brilliant sunshine! We cruised past Nevis, St. Kitt's, Statia and Saba, and onward through the night and weather conditions improved as we went.
Nevis wearing her usual cloud hat
Coming up on Statia, also covered in clouds
Saba in the dusk, looking like Santa in his sleigh with his
cloud hat flying out behind him. Wrong time of year, I realize.
We cruised through the night with Karyn taking the first 6 hour watch 7-1am, and Ron taking the wee hours. It was a gorgeous smooth and easy night passage, skies studded with ghostly clouds and the seas around us reflecting the silver glitter of a waxing moon. As the moon rose, its reflection lit our path as we sliced through the seas....the epitome of peaceful and serene.  I reveled in it; the magic of a quiet night passage is profound, a time when you really feel at home, at one with on the sea. I so appreciated being able to enjoy it!

The day arrived bright and sunny, and soon we arrived in Culebra, Puerto Rico about 11:30am. We cleared in by phone, having a current CBP decal and our Local boater numbers (such a nice option!) but since we were coming in from another country, we still had to present ourselves to Customs/Homeland Security at the local airport. We tied up to the somewhat decrepit dinghy dock across the street from the El Batey restaurant, and followed the road about 10 minutes to the aeropuerto, where Customs is located. The sloping runway and surrounding steep hillsides make for some exciting landings and take-offs! Apparently, they call the incoming landing approach over the mountain "the slide"! We could see why; you wouldn't want to overshoot that runway!

CBP officer Gonzales was very nice and helpful, and cleared us in efficiently, before a cheerful warning about the impending masses of humanity that would soon be descending on the island with the upcoming Easter spring break. Masses of humanity? Er....not what we wanted to experience, so the info was welcome and we made a mental note to find a quieter anchorage before then! Back en route to Equinox, we made a well-deserved lunch stop at the Dinghy Dock, where Steven, the bartender, made us “welcome to Puerto Rico”. The tasty chicken and black bean burritos were even more welcome!

We’d dropped anchor amidst a plethora of sailboats anchored off Cayo Pirata in Ensenada Honda, knowing it was close to Customs in Dewey/Culebra. It’s a noisy anchorage though; between the barking dogs, crowing roosters and the planes taking off just overhead, you can’t get a moment’s peace! We did spend the night there, but weighed anchor by 0800 and were soon snug on a mooring by the smaller nature preserve island of Culebrita. The mooring was one put in by their Department of Natural Resouces – marked MC with a stripe -- but it was a hefty mooring and well-anchored with fairly new shackles and line. There was reef scattered about everywhere, and the waters delightfully clear. After snorkeling and swimming to the beach briefly, we made two dives there, exploring the deeper edges of the reef.

While we encountered no lobster, nor any large fish whatsoever, we did enjoy the sight of a squadron of 5 eagle rays that soared past, feeding, and encountered a couple of solitary turtles. Culebrita is a nature preserve, a nesting site for giant sea turtles and colonies of sea birds (terns, red-billed tropicbirds and boobies), and boasts the oldest lighthouse in the Caribbean, built in 1886. The reefs around it are numerous; during our dives, I noted a juvenile queen angelfish, many parrot fish, a scrawled filefish, a sharp-nose pufferfish, a few trumpet fish, a few peppermint crabs (one quite large), yellow grunts, blue tangs, damselfish, wrasses, and blennies. Juveniles aplenty hid among the many purple and green sea fans that adorned the coral, along with the largest flamingo tongue I’ve ever seen! 

The coral itself looked a bit stressed and hurricane damage is noticeable in spots; the eye of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 passed right over the eastern end of Puerto Rico with devastating force and ravaged Vieques, Culebra, and their reefs. In fact, more than 80 % of Culebra's structures were destroyed, and of the 300 boats that used Ensenada Honda as a "hurricane hole", 100 were totally destroyed. According to an in-depth survey by the US Geological Survey, the onshore environment of Culebrita and other nearby islands has totally recovered, and the reefs are showing signs of healthy regrowth as well. The study even suggested that "high-energy storms may be necessary for healthy growth of coral reef complexes in the same way fire is necessary for healthy forest growth". While the reefs may have been more spectacular in the past, it's still enjoyable and heartwarming to dive there, watching the eagle rays soar past!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Back to the Island!

Yes, we're back in Antigua, the land of the singing frogs, iridescent blue green-throated hummingbirds, and whispering palm trees fringing white beaches. And also ...the land of tropical downpours, which is currently what we're experiencing! The weather has been gray and overcast, definitely a bit unsettled, with gusty squalls sweeping through periodically. Some rains, like this one, are torrential white-outs but usuallly short-lived and often pass in just a few minutes. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the cool breeze on the aft deck, sheltered from the rains by the sunshade screens enclosing the cockpit. 

Ron and I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and as always, it was nice to be back aboard!! Equinox is looking good and we've spent the past couple of days getting some necessary  things done in between dodging the raindrops. We timed things right at The Epicurean,  stopping in when they had just re-stocked the fresh vegetables, so provisioning was a delight. We're making a concerted effort to use what we already have aboard, so with the fresh veggies, we'll be having some delicious gourmet meals in the next few weeks! We've also enjoyed reuniting with cruising friends here at the dock in Jolly Harbour; seeing familiar faces is always welcome!

And so it goes: we've been checking boat systems, water levels, fuel levels and such, inventorying supplies, stowing items and prepping for departure. A big treat this morning was having a diver come clean the hull right here in the slip; usually we do it ourselves when we're out on anchor. We're pretty meticulous about it, so the hull wasn't in bad shape, but having it done now not only saves us several hours of (disgusting) work, it will  allow us to time our departure better, so we can use the good weather to cruise rather than clean! 

Amid watching the weather and checking various marine forecasts for the Leewards, Caribbean sea and points north, we've been debating different return routes. We both would like to visit different ports and places we didn't have the chance to see previously...and there are still so many places to see! It's the usual struggle: the lure of the unknown versus the pleasure of seeing favorite to decide? Always hard to choose, but either way, we'll enjoy it!