Thursday, December 22, 2011

Year Four – Tread softly and enjoy the voyage

Threepenny Opera is tugging gently on her lines as the wake from a passing fishing boat reaches into her slip at Marina Darsena in Varadero Cuba. It is early December and it has been 3 weeks since we left Vero Beach and the land based life of rental cars, air conditioning and shoes. Pat and I are loath to dwell on it, lest we jinx the good vibes that we feel, but the both of us has silently noted first to ourselves and then more vocally to each other that we seem to be unusually prepared and organized as we set off on what will be our fourth year of cruising.

Our lazarettes actually seem to have space in them, unlike the jack in the box stuffed entities that we have lived with in the past. Everything has a place and so long as we remember where that place is, we can actually open hatches and locker lids without having flying objects landing on or pinching, crushing, stabbing etc. various unsuspecting body parts. Even though Double jointed maneuvers worthy of Harry Houdini and chess grand master like forward planning of our stores consumption 2-3 months ahead are still required in order to make best use of our finite space aboard, the phenomenon of crawling over the corn flakes to retrieve the Allen wrenches seems to be much less common these days.

Pat has been cooking even more gourmet meals than she has in the past. We have always eaten well onboard but the major milestone this year has been her forays into the baking realm. Now we can have an endless supply of wonderful multi-grain loaves so long as our flour and energy supplies hold out. While we might miss being caromed around in the subway rush hour like crowds that crush the counter at the local bakery when the racks of bread come from their ovens, we know that this year the experience will be by choice and not necessity.

Even the sailing itself has gotten better and seems much less frantic these days. While respect for the weather is still and will always be paramount, our minimum weather limits are broader and our ability to react to changing conditions has improved significantly. For example we broke our main sail furling line on our trip from Lake Worth to Fort Lauderdale a couple of weeks back. Instead of triggering a panic attack at the thought of an uncontrollable flapping piece Dacron, Pat and I tied off the clew as best we could, found an acceptable anchorage and made the requisite repairs. I shudder to think how we might have handled the same situation in the past, but this time, it was a non-event.

Our trip across from Marathon to Varadero saw us leaving Boot Key Harbour with a forecast of moderate winds and 3-4 foot seas north of the gulf stream with a freshening breeze and 3-5 foot seas on arrival the next morning. Our planned route was about 30 miles longer than the 92 mile rhumb line course so that we could keep the ride as smooth as possible by transiting the gulf stream perpendicular to the current. Our strategy worked as the gentle seas allowed Pat to go below and whip up one of our favorite cruising meals of Italian Sausage and Penne before sunset. The trip itself was pretty benign as a nearly full moon lit our way across the Straits of Florida towards our destination.

Things were progressing so well that by 3:00AM we were starting to slow the boat down so that we would not arrive at the harbour entrance before day break. As luck would have it the freshening breeze that was forecast arrived on schedule but with a little more intensity than expected. Once the moon disappeared behind the clouds of the approaching cold front, we found ourselves down to a postage stamp main and no head sail as we ran downwind in 25 knots of wind. Somehow Pat still managed to make coffee, although drinking it without spilling scalding hot liquid all over our chins was more difficult. By the time we arrived at the harbour entrance the seas were somewhat higher than forecast and the 4 meter high channel markers were disappearing under the breaking waves.

Conditions were not forecast to improve and there was no real alternate so our challenge was to time the breaking waves so that we could transit the outer markers and enter the relatively calm waters between the breakwaters before getting pooped or broached by a following wave. The rhythm was 2-3 8 foot waves, followed by 5-6 smaller 4-5 foot waves, so I maneuvered in idle as close as possible to the outer markers with the seas on the beam until we were rolled by the big waves. As Threepenny Opera regained her footing, I swung the wheel sharply, hit the throttle and put the bow between the markers. We were almost between the breakwaters when the next set of large waves hit our stern and pushed us around to a heading of 70 degrees off the centerline of the channel. I was cranking the wheel from stop to stop trying to maintain our position in the channel and given the amount of control I had, the experience was more like white water rafting than sailing, but in 30 more seconds we were through the entrance and into the calm water of the canal.

And so begins our fourth year on the water. It seems like yesterday that we waved farewell to our friends, family and regular pay cheques. One of our challenges this year will be to remain humble about our abilities and respectful of the sea as we continue our adventures. As the saying goes there are old sailors and there are bold sailors, but there are no old bold sailors.

I am writing this post from my sister's kitchen in Toronto. We are home for the holidays but in the New Year we are flying back to rejoin Threepenny Opera in Varadero Cuba. Our cruising plans are pretty open at the moment but generally we will attempt to circumnavigate Cuba and move towards the Exumas and Abacos as the weather warms up. Apparently there are man sized lobsters on the south coast of Cuba, so my spears are sharpened in anticipation. All in all we hope it will be an interesting year and hopefully we will find enough internet out in the boonies to share our experiences with you.

Have a great holiday season with your friends and families and of course have a good week. I know I will.


P.S. The pictures that accompany this post are of our summer road trip. We started in Vero Beach and drove to Toronto and Montreal via Atlanta, Lexington KY and Cleveland. On our way back we stopped in Dayton, Memphis, Mississippi, New Orleans, Pensacola and the Forgotten Coast of Florida. It was 6500 miles of land touring that while lots of fun, really gave us an appreciation of how fortunate we are to be visiting new places from the comfort of our own boat. Hotels, no matter how nice and restaurants of the highest caliber are no substitute for home sweet home. The pictures are largely captioned so I hope you enjoy them.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Cuba to The Abacos - Two different worlds only a few miles apart!

Huevos, huevos, uh huevos? Pat and I ran around the stalls at the Sunday market in Santa Marta like demented chickens whispering the Spanish word for eggs in hushed conspiratorial tones. We were greeted by the merchants with reactions ranging from shoulder shrugging indifference to amused curiosity to total confusion.  After all why would a fruit seller have eggs? But we asked anyway because in Cuba one finds that goods are not always sold by the expected merchants. In other provisioning forays we found very good quality Chinese soy sauce at the service station, cheese at the bakery and eventually eggs at the local snack bar.

We were unsuccessful in our quest for eggs that morning, as the last tray was being sold by the time we had figured out where they were being sold that day. Obviously eggs were in scarce supply, not necessarily because they were not being produced, but because the egg sellers had chosen to go elsewhere that morning. On the other hand foods such as pineapples, mangos and beets were plentiful and cheap. The concept of the 100 mile diet is gaining some traction in North America and elsewhere as a way of healthy eating; with limited storage facilities and less than ideal distribution systems in Cuba the 100 mile diet is probably more like the 20 mile diet. Eating local is not a fad, it is a way of life and the Cubans have learned to make do with what is at hand that day.

For Pat and me learning to shop for food in Cuba was sort of like learning to sail our boat in the early days. We knew basically what needed to be done, and we knew technically how to do it, but the execution left a lot to be desired. We are amazed however at how much meaningful communication can take place with a vocabulary that is limited to a handful of words, most of which were nouns or verb infinitives. It probably speaks volumes for the Cubans and their desire to accommodate, than it did for our critically inadequate language skills, but in the end we were able to re-fill our fridge and freezer with all sorts of goodies as we prepared for our exit from Cuba.

Pat found herself being led into a secret warehouse where she was offered 10lb bags of black market potatoes for $1, when other cruisers were shut out of the highly sought after tuber. Potatoes are a rarity because the local production is reserved for the resort hotels that cater to the “all inclusive” crowd. Perhaps it was her smile, her natural charm or perhaps it was the confidently uttered “pappas” that ruled the day, but she proved that where there is a will there is a way to get the job done! We even found our coveted eggs a few days later at, of all places an egg stall where they were being sold for $1.80 per 30 egg tray.

In Cuba there are two parallel economies. One is the convertible peso or hard currency economy, and the other is the Cuban peso or monada  nacional economy. As foreigners we are almost always charged for goods and services in hard currency and usually we are expected to shop at hard currency establishments, the one exception being the procurement of food. While there are ample opportunities to buy imported food stuffs in hard currency, there is no prohibition for a foreigner to shop in local markets and pay for their purchases in national pesos. Indeed it is important to ask specifically in what currency items are priced,  as a few unscrupulous merchants will try and trick a foreigner into paying 1 CUC (convertible peso) when the actual price is only 1 MN (monada national peso) 25MN = 1CUC

Most agricultural food items in Cuba are priced in Cuban Pesos with a few notable exceptions such as cooking oil, coffee and butter. Items that are priced in national pesos are by Canadian standards amazingly cheap. We were able to score bargains such as 5 pounds of onions for $1.00 and a gallon container of organic cherry tomatoes for $.30.  We weren’t able to determine if the prices actually reflected the cost of production, but I doubt that even a socialist would sell goods at a loss.

We were able to fill our larder with the essential meats, eggs, fresh veggies and bread for 2 weeks of cruising for less than $20. On the other hand we also bought some beer, rum, soft drinks, potato chips and coffee at a hard currency shop and managed to spend an additional $90 for the frills. In short if you are prepared to go Cuban, you can eat very inexpensively, but the moment you try to be “first world”, the dollar signs start to spin pretty quickly, although not as quickly as they might back home. For example top quality coffee is $ 7 per pound, Rum is between $3 and $8 per quart and honey is $3 for 500 gms.

The month flew by as our departure date, timed to coincide with the full moon approached. Our objective on this trip was to scout out the country and to see if it was worthy of further exploration. And the answer is a resounding yes. Plans are already hatching to spend an even longer period of time in Cuba next season with the objective of refining our language skills and discovering other parts of the country.

Our route back to the Bahamas will be a non traditional one, as our plan is to depart Varadero in the morning and make a land fall on the Cay Sal bank the same evening. While the 65 mile trip will technically put us back in the Bahamas, the Cay Sal Bank is a patch of shallow water fringed by small cays near the very center of the triangle formed by Cuba, Florida and Andros Island. It is definitely the path less taken, but Pat and I are beginning to stretch our explorer reflexes and we are anxious to apply our newly found multi-day voyage skills. The pics that accompany this posting are a visual treat for an area that very few people see.

Enjoy and have a great week. I know that I will


Addendum: We arrived back in the Bahamas after a 36 hour cruise up the Gulf Stream from the Cay Sal Banks. The winds were coming from ENE instead of the forecast E, so we ended up pinching as high as possible along the Florida coast for most of the night. It is truly a growth experience to sail past the mouth of Miami Harbour at 4:00AM surrounded by multiple inbound cruise ships, and dodging departing tankers and container ships. Our Class B AIS system earned its keep that night as we were both able to hail, and be hailed by ships to sort out the various collision avoidance maneuvers. I would definitely not leave home without it!

Once we were back in the Abacos, we were in familiar territory and the heightened senses of passage making, rapidly dulled to the laconic pace of the live aboard warm climate cruiser. The days ran together, and the anchorages, although each different, blended into a composite of sun, sea and fishing. The notable events of the summer were as always about the people. We reunited with our long time cruising friends Bob and Mary Ann from Queen Angel, and we met and spent some quality time with the crews of Eagle, Aroha and Kennel Up.

A broken tooth forced us to cut our stay in the Abaco short. Even though the nurse in Grand Cay provided me with pain killers and anti-biotics which controlled the symptoms, the thought of more eye watering pain was enough motivation to force a reluctant retreat. Despite the pain however, I managed to keep diving and practicing my new found swimming skills. It was a personal milestone this year, that I can actually jump into the water with a a snorkel and spear and go hunting fish. The water wings and supplementary flotation devices of the past, are now gone! The training wheels are off and next season will be even better.

I am writing the addendum from our kitchen in Vero Beach. The stock market has crashed yet again, London is burning and the world appears to be going collectively mad. Even though I won’t buy a newspaper, and we don’t watch the news, the hew and cry is loud enough to penetrate our sensory defenses. I am longing for the solitude and the truly “ignorance is bliss” life aboard.

We have been back in the USA for about 2 weeks and it is a little odd to be wandering around 3 floors and driving everywhere, but when in Rome….. Threepenny Opera will be hauled out at the end of August for a bottom painting and since it is hurricane season in Florida, we may well leave her on the hard until November. In the meantime, we will be looking for land projects and activities to keep us busy…..maybe a road trip….hmmmmmm?

Have a great week, I know I will.


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Monday, May 09, 2011

La Vita to Varadero - Downhill sailing at its very best!

I could feel the sides of my reel getting almost too hot to touch as I struggled to slow the furious peeling of the braided line off of my heavy duty salt water fishing gear. About 75 yards off the transom of Threepenny Opera was a man sized mahi mahi, or dorado as they are known in Cuba. It was the biggest fish I had ever seen that was not mounted on a wall over a bar.

Normally when one hooks a fish there is some give and take in the amount of line played out as the fish begins to tire with the fisherman gaining a few yards by cranking hard as the fish regains its breath. In this case however there was only take, as the very angry fish on the other end of my line conducted an aerial dance of cirque de soleil proportions. The best I could mange was to momentarily stop the screaming outflow of line by pinching the line between my gloved hand and the rubber of the fishing rods grip.  I was alternately fascinated and horrified as I watched the show before me, all the while wondering if I was going to lose my grip on the rod and have the whole works disappear into the sea.

As suddenly as the fight began, it stopped. The giant fish gave one more flip of its tail and disappeared beneath the rolling waves. My hands were trembling as I began to breath again alternately feeling relieved and disappointed at my loss. The warm light of the setting sun highlighted the column of the Cayo Confites light house about a mile astern of Threepenny Opera as I slowly reeled in my line to see if the giant had left me any of my lure and leader.  Our one sided fight had only lasted 20 minutes but echoes from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea  resonated in my head as my surprisingly intact tackle came back over the side.

Pat and I had left the mouth of Bahia Neuvitas earlier that morning, with the intention of making a 250 nm nonstop run to Varadero. Originally we had planned to day hop along the Cayos of Northern Cuba, but the tedium of checking in and checking out at every stop gave us the impetus to stretch our sea legs and make the downwind run without any further interim stops. The clearing process was not complicated, and the authorities attempted to accommodate our schedules as best they could, but it required us to be much more organized than we preferred. Perhaps our next trip we will make the coastal cruise our objective, and spend more time exploring the cays.

The Cuban military maintain a very watchful eye on the sea traffic along the north shore so while stopping is permitted, one needs to inform the Garda Frontera very specifically about ones intentions. There was no doubt in my mind that they would know we had deviated from our intentions because on several occasions we had been contacted via VHF the moment we deviated from our course. It seems that they were monitoring our AIS transponder so we made it easy to track our movements, although off the coast of Cayo Coco in the middle of the night we were hailed by Maritime Traffic Control as the vessel at a specific set of coordinates.

It was comforting to know that our progress was being monitored although the unidentified radar blips patrolling parallel and just outside the 12 mile limit, were a little eerie. For Pat and me this trip was our longest sail to date. Previously our longest trip was the 30 hour motor sailing run across the Gulf of Maine on our journey south, so the approximately 60 hour journey to Varadero represented a pretty significant increase in trip length. As an initiation to blue water passage making the sail down the coast was perfect. We experienced winds up into the mid 20’s and seas of 6 feet, but Threepenny Opera rose to the challenge and gave us an exhilarating ride of over 9 knots as we surfed down the face of some waves. Apart from some minor course changes to accommodate oncoming traffic and a flotilla of oil seeking hydrologic survey vessels, the trip was uneventful. 

The arrival in Varadero seemed that it would never come because we sighted the tip of the Hicacos Peninsula, which forms the west side of Cardenas Bay just after daybreak on our third day out. Likely we were still 15 miles out as our land fall was more precisely the sighting of the upper floors of one of the larger hotels in the area and the entrance to the marina was another 13 miles beyond the tip of the peninsula. It was closer to 2:30 in the afternoon before we finally slipped in between the breakwaters of the channel leading up to the Marina Darsena which was to be our home base for the next 2 weeks or so. After a very perfunctory visit from the local Garda Frontera and Customs officers to stamp our cruising permit, we moved into a slip and went on to the docks to join our fellow cruisers for what was to become the nightly ritual of sun downers and conversation. We have been in Cuba for almost 2 weeks at this point and the vibes are great. We can’t wait to explore this part of Cuba and compare it to our travels in the eastern portion of the country.

There are tons of pics that have no captions, particularly those of the caves near Matanzas. I apologies for not being able to remember all of the details of the scenes, but Cuba is visually so exciting that I was on over load most of the time!

Have a great week. I know that I will.


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Saturday, April 30, 2011

On to Cuba - The forbidden fruit

The digital time display on my chart plotter showed 2:58AM as I walked forward by the light of the waning gibbous moon to pull the hook from our Raccoon Cay anchorage. The wind was a steady 17 knots out of the north east so Pat really had to goose some power to drive Threepenny Opera up on her chain. Although it was the first time we had pulled the anchor in the dark, it was really a non-starter as the moon was bright enough to cast shadows. Nevertheless I took a deep breath as Pat headed our bow towards open water because the winds were slightly higher than forecast and we were venturing out on unfamiliar waters heading for an unfamiliar country. The date was April 20 and it was our 32nd wedding anniversary!

Our plan was to have the hook off the bottom by 3:00AM so that we could make the 79nm hop across the Old Bahama Channel and arrive in Puerto La Vita Cuba during daylight. By 5:30 the sky was starting to brighten and the winds were steady at 17 knots as we approached the southern edge of the Great Bahamas Bank. In the next 30-45 minutes we would pass from the relatively sheltered waters of the banks into the deep ocean, where the depths would plunge to over 6000 feet. Practically we were floating on the surface, but psychologically the thought of being more than a mile off the bottom out of sight of any land was a little intimidating.

Although Threepenny Opera felt surefooted and stable in the quartering winds, there was a fair amount of green water splashing across our decks as periodic waves slapped on our sides. In the increasing daylight we could see that the waves were about 6 feet high but the sea appeared to be running from multiple directions resulting in triangular shaped waves, a few of which crested over our decks. Fortunately we were able to keep warm and dry under the protection of the dodger as we wedged ourselves against the coamings to prevent our coffee from spilling too much. Cuba which had seemed just a word until now, was about to become a reality.

Our point of no return was 10:30AM and as the hour approached the boat was locked onto the rhumb line to La Vita like a freight train on rails. The seas had become less confused as we moved away from the turbulence caused by the deep ocean meeting the shallow banks and the knot meter was holding steadily above 7 knots. There were still waves splashing the decks, but overall the ride was bearable, however Pat who normally has an iron stomach started to feel the effects of the sloshing, likely falling victim to a short night and an empty stomach.

Most of the morning was spent hanging on as the boat pretty much sailed herself and by early afternoon the faint smudge of Cuba appeared on the horizon. At first it looked like a series of islands, but as we drew closer it became apparent that what we had seen initially were the tops of some fairly substantial hills. Shortly after 2:00PM we entered Cuban waters and made our first radio call to the Cuban Guarda Frontera to announce our arrival.

Our guide book had suggested we contact Guarda Frontera, or failing that the harbour master or El Capitania. As I tried to wrap my tongue around the foreign syllables it was hard to not giggle. Although I knew that the business of contacting the border authorities in a communist state was not a trivial matter, the image of a couple of cigar smoking guys in military uniforms huddled around a radio trying to decipher the babble of an obviously confused gringo was too much to take! Fortunately our calls were met with silence, so either the guys with the cigars didn’t hear me, or they too were rolling on the floor laughing.

After several attempts at calling we were eventually rewarded with a response from a heavily accented voice that identified itself in English as Marina Vita, followed by a series of phrases in lightening fast Spanish. Pat and I looked at each other and shrugged. Having no idea of what was being asked of us; I announced our boat name, our destination and the fact that we were Canadians. We must have been close to the mark in our responses because the next question was “How many people in boat” I answered that we were only two on board but I was met with silence. In the absence of any further communications or instructions, we continued our drive towards the coast.

The channel leading into the harbour at Puerto La Vita is well buoyed and impossible to miss, as it is marked by a 130 foot high light house. As we entered the channel a different English voice came over the VHF instructing us to turn right at the bifurcation buoy and follow the channel past the last red marker to drop my anchor in the open area away from the channel. When I radioed back for clarification I received the same instructions verbatim, after moment it dawned on me that I was being presented with a written script.

As my anchor went down I had my fingers crossed hoping I had interpreted the directions correctly. After a couple of minutes a small runabout with two men aboard approached our swim platform. The passenger asked for permission to come aboard in perfect English. He introduced himself as the doctor for the port and informed us that it was his duty to inspect our vessel and its crew for health and sanitary condition so that we could land on Cuban soil. Pat and I were asked a series of perfunctory questions regarding our general health and when he was satisfied that we were not carriers of tuberculosis or cholera he asked to inspect our refrigerator and freezer. After a quick sniff of our refrigerated stores, he went back to our salon table and filled out a rather impressive looking form granting us a certificate to release us from quarantine. We were welcomed to Cuba with a handshake and as he got back into his boat he told us to take our “Q” flag down and head into the marina.

While we were going through our quarantine inspection the wind had piped up into the mid 20’s with gusts approaching 30 knots so needless to say I approached the marina with more than a little trepidation. To make matters worse I could tell from a distance that I was expected to turn the boat and back into a stern tie Mediterranean mooring. As I entered the marina channel, I almost turned around fearing that attempting a stern tie in gusty winds would over tax my boat handling skills, when suddenly the wind dropped to below 10 knots. Apparently the marina was set into a cove that was sheltered from the wind by a high embankment, and although the wind was still howling as it did every afternoon at that time, the area by the docks was in the lee of the embankment and almost dead calm. I am still patting myself on the back as I slid Threepenny Opera between the mooring buoys and secured the lines as if it were an everyday occurrence, even though it was my very first time.

Within minutes of shutting down the engine a team of uniformed officials trooped down the dock towards our boat. The unofficial leader of the group was the Guarda Frontera officer who spoke the best English and on behalf of the other officials asked for permission to board our boat. As they climbed down from the seawall to board Threepenny Opera, each official took the time to remove their shoes and boots in a comic gymnastic dance and shook hands with Pat and me before going below and seating themselves around our salon table. To Pat and me, it felt more like we were inviting guests into our home than submitting to a border inspection.

In the vein of entertaining company Pat offered cold drinks which were gratefully accepted and for the next 30 minutes or so I provided answers to questions on the forms proffered by each government department. Unlike other countries however, the officials filled the forms out on our behalf and presented them to us for signature at the end of the interview. I signed documents for immigration, customs, veterinary inspection, pest control and a cruising license. The entire process was conducted with the utmost in professionalism and courtesy. Once the forms were completed each official gathered up his work and welcomed us to Cuba with another handshake, and reversed the dance of putting on shoes and climbing back up the seawall onto the dock. In all the formalities took about 1 hour, but it was a completely painless procedure that left a very positive impression of the country. Perhaps the US Homeland Security dept could take note, but that might be too much to dream for!

We are safe and we are legal! Next we need to go into town to get some Cuban money, so we can pay our various fees totaling $100 to the different departments, but that will take place manana….now it’s time for a cold beer! We have arrived!

Have a great week, I know I will!


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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Jumentos - Fishing and flashing that is!

I felt my sphincters constricting as I silently repeated the mantra of I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…..unlike the Little Red Engine that could however, Pat and I were on the verge of becoming the Catalina Sailboat that couldn’t. Up to this point everything was going perfectly, we had timed our departure from Georgetown to coincide with the tides, the weather was benign and apart from a finicky chart plotter everything on the boat was working. Now exactly 3 hours after leaving the safety of Georgetown Harbour, I found myself staring down the twisting swirling, almost dry maw of Hog Cay Cut.

Hog Cay is a non descript chunk of rock that marks the southern extremity of Little Exuma Island. The cut which bears its name is the gateway to the west side of Little Exuma and must be traversed by any vessel wishing to explore the wilds of the curving chain of Cays known as the Jumentos and Raggeds. It is a narrow 100 foot wide S shaped pass that hosts a roaring current at all times except for a few minutes at slack water. At the western end of the pass is a coral bar that carries just enough water for our 5 foot keel to pass over it if we didn’t find the odd rock or two that were sticking up. Once over the bar, there is another 3 miles or so of absolutely featureless and uncharted shallow water. The alternative to going through the cut was to take an extra day going to Long Island and then back tracking through a less threatening pass known as the Comer Channel.

Since friends whom we respect as sailors and navigators had traversed the cut recently and provided us with a series of GPS waypoints which we could use to navigate the bends, we decided to time the tides and make the attempt to get through. Of course the GPS chartplotter which had been acting up, but still functioning following a software upgrade, decided to quit working the moment we crossed the threshold into the cut. Suddenly instead of following GPS way points we were now committed to eyeball navigation with Pat standing on the bow pulpit as the lookout scanning for toothy rocks. The depth sounder numbers decreased steadily and rapidly until it showed a mere 2 feet under the bottom of the keel as we came out of the last turn and approached the coral bar. Pat was calling back steering instructions as the depth sounder dropped under 1 foot of clearance. As I held my breath, I kept telling myself that many others had made the passage without mishap, otherwise the banks of the channel would be littered with the hulks of broken boats.

Reason however has little place when your home is suddenly less than the height of a beer can off of a rocky ledge and the current is sweeping you along at several knots despite the engine being in idle. And then we were over the bar. The bottom turned back to sand, but the depth sounder stopped changing at about .9 feet and now there were only miles of smooth white sand in front of us. At least if you hit sand, you won’t break anything so I breathed a little more slowly. Fortunately I had noted a heading to steer during the planning stages of our trip and now I reverted to blind faith and pilotage as I followed a dead reckoning course towards deeper water. After what seemed like an eternity the depths slowly rose and we found ourselves on the banks heading towards our first landfall in the Jumentos.

Unlike the Abacos and the Exumas, the Jumentos are unpopulated with the exception of the small fishing community of Duncan Town at its southern extremity about 100 miles from our current position. Annually not many more than 100 cruising boats pass through the Cays in search of the clearest water in the Bahamas and the absolute solitude afforded by very few other locations on the planet.

For Pat and me the trip into the Jumentos was a logical stretching of our skills. The Florida Keys was the beginner class, the Abacos were the intermediate and the Exumas were the advanced class. By traversing the cut we were off the grid literally and figuratively as we were going to be completely untethered from any land based support for the duration. In fact the only outside contact we had during our time in the Jumentos was via SSB and HF radio back to Canada each morning.

Since few make the trip, the islands are completely deserted and the beaches are largely untouched. Most importantly however the water is crystal clear and the fish and conch are teeming in the waters. On Flamingo Cay, which is our favorite spot to-date, it was possible for Pat to pick conch in knee deep water and for me to hunt fish by walking off of the beach with my spear. We have also discovered the delicacy that our fish books call Queen Trigger fish but the Bahamians call Turbot, a fish that is as tasty as it is pretty.

As our supplies started to run down, we were slowly making our way towards Duncan Town where we had hoped to replenish our onions and eggs. The plan was to pick up a few supplies and return to the solitude of the islands for another several weeks, but serendipity marks the life of the cruising sailor. One evening I was dialing a frequency on my SSB to call a friend who was heading north. Instead of making my intended contact, another familiar voice popped on line and inquired what our plans were for the summer.

I explained that our cruising license for the boat and our tourist Visas for the Bahamas would need to be renewed by early in May, so our intention was to stay in the Jumentos until then and then either head back to the US for a day, or cross over to the Turks and Caicos and then return to the Bahamas to restart the clock on our documents. The voice on the other end of the radio said “why don’t you consider Cuba, it’s actually closer than any of the alternatives and you’ll be amazed by the warmth and hospitality if the people. And yes you can replenish your eggs and onions for a fraction of what you would pay in the Bahamas.

The light bulb in my head illuminated with loud click as my brain began to evaluate the logistics of making the 75 mile hop across to Cuba. In the end I’m not sure if it was my stomach or my sense of adventure that clinched the deal, but suddenly we found ourselves securing the boat and staging for an over night trip across to Cuba. The surprising thing was that the decision was made, the plans were finalized and the departure date was set in a matter of a few hours. It seems that the confidence Pat and I have gained from living off the grid in the Jumentos has kicked our cruising reflexes into high gear. I guess we have made the grade so Cuba here we come!!

Have a great week, I know I will!


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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Georgetown - Summer Camp in Winter

I knew we were in for a different kind of an experience when one morning The of Riders of the Storm by the Doors started coming out of my VHF speaker. As the music faded, it was replaced by a smooth FM easy rock type of DJ voice exclaiming “Gooood Morning Georgetown” in a cadence and volume that would do Robin Williams proud. And so began the morning VHF cruisers net, which was the electronic village square for the 300+ boats anchored in Elizabeth Harbour. All the gossip and all the news packaged up in a consistent format to help cruising veterans and newbies alike to plan their day.

Pat and I were beginning our third year of full time cruising and this year we chose Georgetown as our venue. In the previous two years we had spent most of the winter in Marathon down in the Florida Keys, so this year we decided to go a little farther afield to “see what it was all about”. Our plan was a simple one, deliver the boat to Georgetown, fly home for Christmas and then rejoin the boat in February after we had finished with our condo reno’s in Vero Beach. With the exception of a missed flight due to a closure of I95 between Vero Beach and FLL, the plan went off without a hitch and we found ourselves back aboard Threepenny Opera on February 8, 2011.

During our two previous winter seasons in Marathon we met several cruisers who had braved the transit of the Gulf Stream during the cold front season. We were regaled with tales of organized volley ball tournaments, dinghy races, food shortages in the local supermarket, long line ups for fresh water and of course good weather and crystal clear water. What became apparent was that everybody had an opinion about Georgetown, some were very positive and others were of the dead rotten fish variety, but nobody was indifferent. Of course Pat and I had to see for ourselves.

What became apparent after arriving in Georgetown at the height of the season was that many people had been coming to the same harbour for years. We heard people announcing their arrivals for their 10th, 20th and even 30th seasons of boating in Georgetown. It was a little intimidating at first to be surrounded by folks that had been cruising when we were just finishing school. In fact it felt a little like my freshman year in university when I arrived on campus unsure of what to expect and getting swept up by the waves of upper classmen hell bent on making their presence known through bluster and bravado.

In Georgetown however the the upper classmen were the committees and chair persons who volunteered to ensure that activities were well organized. Unlike school however, the bravado and bluster was replaced by mature enthusiasm so that nobody was left behind. The volunteers went out of their way to welcome the newbies and made a point of trying to include everyone that wanted to participate. The rumours we had heard about cliques and closed societies were greatly exaggerated and anybody that stayed out did so largely by choice. In fact the real challenge was to pace yourself so that you don’t get so over extended that a Black Berry is needed to run your schedule.

After spending two years in Marathon, where the biggest activity of the day was either going to Home Depot or to Publix and the highlight of the week was the arrival of the Winn Dixie flyer, the list of activities in Georgetown was overwhelming at first. Gradually however it came to pass that Pat and I found ourselves drawn into the fabric of the Georgetown cruising community. Partly by volunteering to help, I repaired a lot of faulty SSB installations, and partly by following our friends Chris and Divya aboard the Maggie M, who made our time in Georgetown so memorable. Thanks to them, Pat played the part of Zeus’ daughter Persephone in a play and I helped design and build a sailing inflatable dinghy.

For many Georgetown is as far as the cruising experience goes. For some it represents an opportunity to continue being young by acting young as they relive their youth and for others it represents the physical extent of their cruising range when faced with constraints of time and budget. Pat and I are fortunate in that despite approaching birthday’s we do not have to make an effort at staying young, and we have the luxury of time so that we can continue to explore over the horizon. Georgetown is a great place to spend the winter. The weather is good and the water, despite the swelling of boats during the season remains clear enough to swim in. After 2 months however it is time to see what is beyond the next Cay. We are off to the Jumentos and Ragged Islands next where only the hardiest and most self sufficient cruisers dare to venture. We hope we are up to the task.

Have a great week, I know I will


P.S. Let us know you are out there by subscribing to the blog. Click on the “follow this blog” link, just below our profile photo.
Double click on the picture for the captions, run the slideshow to view the pics full screen. if you do not see any pictures below, make sure you have Adobe flash player installed. To install flash copy this link into your browser