An audio and video podcast of my trip hitchhiking around the world by sea.
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Posts from — January 2008

Pressing On

After you’ve experienced true sailing as I explained in my previous entry, a lot of your fear fades. Those sudden gusts. The random side-swell. The wave crashing over the side of the bow. You begin to trust your vessel more. It’s a good feeling and allowed for some solid rest. In fact, when I woke 5 hours later, I could almost taste the Dominican Republic.

I think I was tasting something else because when I crawled back into the cockpit I found we were sailing the wrong direction. While I slept the wind continued to change and Dan had to change course. Another cross roads. The forecast now called for a solid Easterly wind of 15 knots and growing into the afternoon. We were OK on gas but not great and we needed to go East in order to position ourselves for the Dominican Republic.

Our new dilemma: We had to get to the other side of the Turks and Caicos. Either we go back up to Providence, refuel and wait another 3-4 days for wind. Or we go South around the tip of the bank and then tack Northeast to our launch point. OR we motor into the wind across the bank dodging coral and hoping our gas held up. Dan steered the boat to a small island where we would decide.

As we approached we saw another sail boat. It was Diva- a couple from Alaska who had already taken Dan and Morning Glory “spider hunting” in December while in the Bahamas. They had anchored there overnight and were headed across the bank. It was just the inspiration we needed, so Dan got the way points (the latitude/longitude points to cross) to hopefully avoid most of the coral. Without even anchoring we were back in position.

Can I just tell you that when two days earlier you lead the boat into about five coral heads, the idea of 25 miles of coral head, sailing into the wind simply sucks? Because it does, but if we didn’t get across the bank we’d be stuck-again. I perched on the bow as my anxious blood flowed through my tense body. Left to right we tried to avoid coral and stick on coarse as much as possible. We motored through adapting our sails to the wind. But we moved slow. As in 2-3 knots slow which poised another problem: daylight. The race was on. The sun was falling, the wind rising, we were burning through our gas and now to cap it off our motor instruments had stopped working.

At last we saw the island in the setting sun. Diva, whose motors at least twice as fast as us radioed to check up. Already anchored they told us of a couple nasty heads to keep an eye our for as we approached. Somehow we made it. Our anchor dropped 15 minutes after the sun did. We were low on gas, and low on functioning instruments. Diva invited us over for the tastiest dish of spaghetti and conch salad and sold us 10 more gallons of gas to get us to the DR.

The next day, Dan noticed the sink was leaking slightly and had corroded the wires to the instruments. So after fixing that we once again set out for the DR. 80 plus miles to go, the wind had picked up, the swells accompanied. The biggest I’d seen. We sailed five hours before deciding we needed to go back. Our timing was off we were going to arrive too late to navigate into port. So we tacked and headed north again.

Dropped anchor on a sand bar. Slept a few hours. Had breakfast and left again-76 miles to go. This time bigger seas and more wind. But after 17 hours of sailing in 30 mile an hour winds, 15 foot swells, and the boat on tilt the entire way, we arrived. Lush mountains. The smell of vegetation. Smiles bright as the morning sun! We made it!

I’m not sure how to look at. On the one hand we were having terrible luck-running into reef, knocking out our rudder, running out of gas, beating into the wind no matter which direction we went. On the other hand everything was working out. The rudder we were able to fix. Twice the only boats we saw in need were both boats we knew and were willing to help us out. We were anchored in a peaceful harbor. Tired but happy.

We walked the town. Dominicans blaring music, playing dominoes, watching the gringos. Then we returned hours later to the boat. We would visit the orphanage tomorrow, but tonight… tonight we would sleep!

January 29, 2008   No Comments

Back On Track But Out Of Gas

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When you’ve just had your rudder knocked out from crashing into the reef, then decide to go spearfishing where you’ve just seen a shark (nursing or not!), then have a race from the sharks you imagine chasing you to the shelter of your boat, all you can do is chuckle as you sit breathing and dripping heavily in the Bahamian sun. Dan sliced the fillets off his fresh catch. I watched the sharks below, circling, searching for the source of blood they so quickly picked up.

It’s amazing how quickly a shark will show up when there’s blood in the water. And it’s amazing how quickly your boyish mind starts swimming with ideas when you’re standing on the bow watching. There were sharks in the water, fish carcass in the boat, and fishing line still tied to the back of the boat: A + B = C.

With our tiller working again we trolled this time OFF the bank rather than over it. The fish carcass swam casually 50 feet behind the boat. Meanwhile I sat armed with my camcorder and dreams of dorsal fins. We trolled for a while, stopped to slap the top of the water like ringing a dinner bell for our toothy friends, then continued trolling. With in moments we hear splashing and see a school of tuna jumping out of the water. Moments later…the fin.

A massive white tip raises out of the water, then disappears as smoothly as it appeared. We stop the boat and keep the cameras rolling. Dan grabs the baited fishing line and pulls it in close to the boat. I pan the crystal waters for shadows. Bit by bit the shark circles closer to our fish, deciding just how interested it is. This is the shark that swims in my imagination. Probably 10 feet long and according to our Atlantic Sport Fish book ranging up to 350 lbs. It circles and circles and on occasion bites but eventually decides it’s not interested. I can only assume it was maybe expecting something a little bit longer, whiter and skinnier. Still we were pretty stoked.

After eating our reward we motored into the sunset. A warm cup of tea and a fresh packed pipe (totally legal of course) Dan and I both agreed- today the real adventure began. This was “The World by Sea”. Running on reef. Losing your rudder. Trolling sharks. It felt like the beginning. And it was, as we would soon find out over the next 4 days of sailing to the Dominican Republic.

According to the weather forecast we only had so many hours of trolling weather before the impossible Easterly winds returned. We needed to get to the other side of the Turks and Caicos Islands if we didn’t we faced the possibility of being stranded again on the wrong side of a passage. By morning we faced a new problem-gas or lack there of. It’s true a 25 horsepower, two-stroke engine is fairly fuel efficient, but when you only have a 20 gallon tank “efficient” can only get you so far. We were fast approaching our limit and would have to make a decision soon…

We could motor to the closest town which reportedly has gas “sometimes” and hope to refuel. The problem: we lose 10 or more hours and probably our window. OR we keep sailing south, get to a position to cross another bank. The problem: you need gas to cross a bank filled with coral heads. OR we head north and hope to get far enough to use the Easterly through the passage we needed. The problem: if we didn’t and with the amount of gas we had (we wouldn’t) we would be trapped with no place to anchor and have to back track. Enter the solution: Prudence.

We spotted another sailboat shortly behind us and radioed back. Turns out it was a couple of cruisers on sailing vessel Prudence who left Georgetown the same day we did. They sold us 5 gallons of gas and even through in some homemade ginger snaps to keep us going. I also inform our readers that on this day I became a man! Don’t be perverted, I just speared a fish. Yep, after going on two months “spearfishing” with no fish, I got one on my final day, at our final anchor in the Bahamas. Thank you-you can email your fan letters by clicking the “Contact Me” button on the left hand side.

We kept sailing. Dan’s adrenaline finally wore off from the reef hit shark troll and at 5:00 pm he cashed in, leaving me with just the tiller and my thoughts. Already a breeze was picking up and I watched the final hours of calm disappear with the daylight. The next 8 hours were magic. For the first time I found the true love of sailing. I’ve never really played an instrument, and never been much of an painter but in these euphoric moments, I understood what it meant.

There comes a moment after years of practice, strumming your guitar, stroking your canvass, when you finally know your art. And for the first time with instrument in hand you create. You compose the music in your soul. You paint the image in your dream. And when you step back that emotion translates perfectly through your art. I can’t say that happened to me and sailing, but I can say I understand what it means.

Everything seemed to happen at once. It’s hard to explain but as I sat there in the cool air, with the tiller in hand and the moon painting scenes in the clouds, I connected with the boat. I was able to lighten my grip and rather than fight the waves, I glided with them. I knew as the wind clocked I needed to ease the main, so the mast could cup the breeze just so. I knew the jib was too trim and the traveler was to leeward. And I knew how to fix it. This was the dream every person has when we speak of sailing. It was the first time I had it and it was beautiful.

I sailed until 2 in the morning when Dan finally peeked his head out. The moon had set an hour before and I was using the stars to navigate. I’ve never been so content on the boat, so I handed over the tiller and nestled in the bosom of my new friend. (Not Dan, you sickos… I’m talking about the boat.) The rest was good and just what I needed because the next 3 days would be the hardest sailing to date.

 

January 26, 2008   No Comments

Reefs and Rudders

One major downside to being at sea is you can neither blog nor journal very well. Blog because of the obvious lack of internet availability. Journal because while yes, you do have a LOT of time on your hands, the time you do have is spent concentrating on the simple things in life. Such as not breaking things, falling overboard or tossing cookies. Suffice to say I have some catching up to do.

Before I do, allow me to comfort our faithful readers and concerned followers who sent plenty of emails over the past week and a half wondering if we were still alive. We are. We made it to the Dominican Republic and after kissing… nay spooning the precious ground for a few awkward moments, we pulled everything out of the boat to begin the drying process. Already I’ve had the chance to tour the orphanage village and it is amazing. But that’s still a few stories away…we first need to get you out of Georgetown!

While I was typing my last depressing entry, Dan was hard at work with a new piece of steel he found, applying support for our endangered mast. Somewhere between the internet and the dock, everything changed. I radio’d Dan, “I’m all done here.” Dan radio’d back, “Me too. The mast is ready. Tomorrow we sail!”

I could write an entire blog on the next 48 hours: Beating into the wind (except for the occasional squall which stole our wind and spun us around a time or two). The 40-degree angle we functioned at as the boat sailed heeled through the waves. The 60 miles progress we made sailing nonstop for 48 hours. But I’d just assume forget it. Instead I’ll jump to Day 3: the day we ran into reef.

On day 3 we learned the southerly wind we were expecting was not coming after all. Instead there would be no wind. Which means when sailing you can either sit and float, waiting for an occasional breeze or you can drop sails and power up your 20 horsepower beast of an engine. We opted for the later.

When you are a sailor (and no I’m not making any bold claims right now) there is a sense of defeat when you have to motor so we decided would fish in attempts to salvage a bit of our manhood We tied two lines to the back of the boat, trolled a third on a rod and veered toward a small island right on the cut of the ocean. Small. Remote. Perfect for huge fish.
Also perfect for huge uncharted coral heads. As Dan guided the boat closer to the island we thought we were going over a large sand bar until we noticed the coral. Titanic towers of razor sharp coral ascending just below the surface. At first we admired, but within moments it dawned on us that coral doesn’t just grow on the side of the boat.

“Derek, I need you on the bow.” I ran to the front of the boat. Tippy-toed, I spanned the calico water. Interesting how fine a line there is between beauty and horror. There were coral heads everywhere! “Right!… Now left, LEFT!” I would yell to Dan. “Now right!” We were actually doing it. Turn after turn we timidly zagged between the sleeping giants. Then the worst case scenario.

Like a good chess game, you try to think at least three moves ahead. But when you are out numbered eventually your opponent surrounds you: Check. I guided the boat, best I could through the heads, barking out orders to Dan. Until I realized we had entered a room with no exit.

My heart beat through every vein.  “Dan, we’re surrounded!” I shout. “There might be a small passage to your left, but it’s REALLY narrow and turns to the right.” There weren’t many alternatives so we tried. CLUNK! The whole boat shuttered in the water. CLUNK! CLUNK! CLUNK! We were hitting coral on every side.

Between my futile yells, I whisper, “God, get us out of here…” as I can only imagine the water that’s poring through into the hull beneath my feet. CLUNK! This time the swell rolled us back. Dan lost control of his rudder. “We’ll have to walk it out,” Dan called out. “I have not control of the rudder.” And then somehow we were through. Maybe another swell, who knows, but by the time I had gotten to the back of the boat we had floated through the coral.

I dropped the anchor and Dan walked through the cabin to check for water. Good news-we weren’t taking on water. (PHEW!) Now, for the rudder. We still had no control of the rudder (and I still have no idea what I’m doing) so Dan got on his snorkel to take a look underneath. After a quick shark check (only one small nursing shark) Dan goes down.

“The rudder is knocked out of place… I’m going to try to hold it into place and you pound on the back of the tiller (the stick used for steering the boat).” Ok. A very long story short we finally get it. Who knows how good, but the tiller was moving the rudder. Very good news!

Now just one more thing. In Dan’s dive, perhaps while looking over his shoulder for sharks, he noticed there were some nice sized fish down there. Our pride now suffering more than ever, Dan asks if I want to do a little spear fishing before we get going. “With the sharks you just saw?” I felt a fair question. “Yes.” “No, not especially,” I reply as I grab my fins and snorkel.

Dan’s in first. I’m right behind him and just as I am pulling away from the boat I see him dive down. I take a breath and right when I dip my head in, Dan is speeding to the surface. That’s all I needed to know.  10 seconds later, I’m trying to figure out how to climb a ladder with flippers, Dan has already figured out how to jump out of the water onto the boat with a speared fish.

Success! Alas a small ounce of pride restored. We gaze over the side to the location of spearing and that leads me to my next post… the sharks! Yes… another shark story (and video!).

January 23, 2008   5 Comments

Stranded in Georgetown

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Hello friends.

You might have sensed the frustration building among Dan and I from that last post.  We  continue to wait for that right wind to blow so we can get on our way to the Dominican Republic to help out with the orphanage. We’ve been in Georgetown, Bahamas since January 1…waiting.
Georgetown is filled with cruisers almost entirely over 55 years. There are very few “young” sailors like Dan and I. I used to think it was because they were simply boaters were who had careers, worked, retired and then bought a boat. But after 11 days waiting for wind, it dawned on me that might not be the case. I’ve started wondering if these sailors were once young just like us, headed around the world, but then got to Georgetown and have been waiting ever since.

Well two days ago we decided we had waited long enough. Wind or no wind we were going to sail! We pulled anchor and set off into the wind. Just having the sails up again was invigorating.  We were moving again. Not very fast, but moving. To sail into the wind you have to tack- basically zig-zag back and forth at steep angles into the wind. Well after a good 15-20 miles of sailing it was clear we were not making any ground. So… back to Georgetown.

But everything happens for a reason, right? When we got back to our little colony of boats, Dan had to replace a light at the top of the mast. He got suited up and shimmied his way up. Fixed the light and came back down. “We’ve got a problem,” he said. “Look at this…”

Dan handed me the camera he carried to the top of the mast. I looked at a couple strips of metal. “Now zoom in…” The picture he took was of the metal strips that hold the “stays” or support lines for the mast. As I zoomed in, the crack became clear. It was split all the way through. If that piece gave, the support lines would have come down and if the sail was up the mast would have too.

Count your blessings I guess. Yes we’re stuck here in Georgetown… but better here than in the middle of the ocean. At least here we have a community of retirees to do yoga, play volley ball or Texas hold ‘em with. Now the hard part: finding a piece of metal, reinforcing the support and getting all of that done in time for the winds that are predicted to clock around over the next couple of days.

Keep your fingers crossed would ya? For the parts, for Dan and I… for the children. :-)

I’ll keep you posted.

January 11, 2008   4 Comments

Sea Welts

The adventures of sailing continue. When we dream of sailing, we imagine standing at the helm, wind at our backs, sails full, gently rocking to and fro as salted sea mist glistens our brow. It’s beautiful picture, and it’s true! I’ve seen it… a couple times. But to be honest there are a few things they don’t tell you. That’s why you need a guy who will be totally honest with you. A guy who is completely unbiased, untainted with extensive sailing background. A guy like me.

The first thing “they never tell”, I’ve already shared. That whole 6 mile-an-hour top speed thing. The second is a little more obvious but not one I that had fully sunk in until recently. When sailing you are wind dependent. Makes sense. But when you are in an area with 700 islands and even more coral reef, you are severely limited. I never realized just how much waiting was involved!  And that is why with grand dreams of changing the world Dan and I are STILL in the Bahamas. With any luck our winds will change and we will be on our way. We are anxious to get moving, but at least we continue to have adventures.

One came after days and days of relentless wind and rain. Dan, Morning Glory (Dan’s visiting girlfriend) and I climbed into the dinghy ready to take full advantage of the sun by doing a little spear fishing. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before or not, so I will now: sharks love murky water. This fact according to one legendary sailor Bernard Moitessier who himself declared, “ Personally, I won’t swim unless the water is clear…” However, I’m not sure Moitessier has ever been rained in for three days on a 33 foot boat with the Capitan and his girlfriend. When you have, you somehow feel more inspired.

We trolled toward the “cut”, where the ocean cuts through the islands. Stop the dinghy and gear up. That’s when my inspiration drops a bit. “Has anyone seen the clip to my flipper?”  “Did you check the bag?”  “Yeah, nothing…”  “Hmm…” Yeah, hmmm we think to ourselves, as Derek suits up with one fin and a snorkel that makes you earn the air you receive. Into the water we go. Dan and I swim along the reef, Morning Glory staying close to the dinghy to make sure it doesn’t get sucked out to sea.

It could be that we were snorkeling in split pea soup and just couldn’t see. It could be that fish are also aware that sharks like low visibility. Or maybe there was something about Derek’s one finned dolphin swim that scared them off. Whatever the case, there were NO fish. So we keep swimming, and I keep an eye out for fish, Dan and sharks. I’m cruising along the reef starting to settle with Dan at my 9:00, when suddenly I hear him yell: “Meeripphniick! Rahhhbxsnnerrrr!” Simultaneously, I feel a sharp pain in my quad.

My finned leg starts kicking. I thrash my way to the surface, looking for Dan and trying to figure out just what the frick was going on. Upon locating the surface and the air that accompanied, I my eyes begin to dart. First to the leg-no blood-good. Then to the threatening surroundings-no sharks-good. Still no fish and no idea just what had inflicted the throbbing pain in my leg. Finally I turn my focus back to Dan, who surfaces and yells again more coherently, “Lobster!”

I never did see the lobster, despite the next 20 minutes digging around the coral reef. Dan says he saw it and tried to spear it, but there was no good way to pull it out of the hole it was hunkered down in. Eventually we return to the dinghy, some more gracefully than others. Others more gratefully than some. The rain started by the time we climbed back in the ding. We returned to the boat empty handed. But there’s nothing like a cold wet dinghy ride and a throbbing welt on your leg to make you appreciate your cozy vessel. And really isn’t that what life’s all about… appreciating what you have? Even the unidentified sea welts.

January 8, 2008   1 Comment