Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Turks....

We’re here. Here, though, being San Juan, Puerto Rico, not the Turks & Caicos. I know what you’re thinking. No, our navigation skills do not leave a little to be desired. Our goal setting out from Beaufort was indeed to push on for San Juan, based on thepromising weather forecast we received. The Turks became our fallback destination in case we were getting beat up or the weather fell apart or what have you. We figured we wouldn’t tell you, then we could save face if we bailed on San Juan. Seven and a half days and 1200 miles, it was quite a trip.

Saturday morning we awoke to balmy 30 degree temperatures in Beaufort. Cold temperatures and rubber inflatable boats don’t get along, and it was 10:45am by the time we deflated the dinghy and wrestled the beast into something resembling a size and shape that might, with a little luck, be lashed to the cabin top. Out Beaufort inlet we went, determined to get across the Gulf Stream before our light WSW winds turned into 15-20 knot northerlies forecast for about 30 hours out*. About 30 miles offshore, we were watching weather move in on the horizon when down from a cloud snakes a large, perfectly formed funnel. Scared me shitless – I’d never seen such a large water-spout in person before. It didn’t quite touch the water’s surface, it was never closer than about 3 miles, and it dissipated pretty quickly. We were so busy getting ready to drop all canvas and prepare for the mother of all blows that we missed getting a picture of it.
The forecast 15-20 knots became more like 20-25 as night fell. Lizz relieved me after my first watch, and shortly after I finally fell asleep in the washing machine-like motion I awoke on the back of the settee, rather than the bottom, and saw nothing but white foamy water up against the porthole above my head. A 31 knot gust had put us on our ear, decks completely awash. I rushed topside in my skivvies to find Lizz hanging like a monkey from the lifelines at the high side of the cockpit. She was clipped in of course, but better to find her there than being trolled behind the boat by her tether. We nearly lost all our jerry jugs of extra diesel fuel that were lashed along the deck.

By daybreak the second day we were mostly across the Gulf Stream. We knew we were in the Stream when the water temperature jumped from the 50’s to the 70’s in less than an hour. Early morning a school of about 30 porpoises joined us for what apparently they thought was playtime. They surrounded us, breaking the water’s surface everywhere, and often leaping completely clear. There were at least half a dozen calves. It was beautiful, you couldn’t help but smile.

We had heavy, dark cloud cover but not much wind. We motor sailed most of the second day, as we were in between weather systems and were waiting for the northerlies to fill in. Our forecast called for us to be sandwiched between a strong low pressure NE of Bermuda and a high pressure sitting over the Carolinas. The net result was anticipated to be reasonably strong winds at our backs for five days or so, coupled with big seas. For now though, we had pretty much nothing. We motored through the night, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because it meant we both slept well. The motion while motoring is predictable, the seas were calm, and the constant rumble of the engine helps put you to sleep. The fish weren’t asleep though. We lost our entire fishing rig sometime during the night, god only knows to what. A flying fish committed Hari Kari on the foredeck during the wee hours. Not that I can fault him for not seeing the boat – it was darker than the inside of a cow out there. I have never in my life seen (or not seen) anything so dark as my 2am-5am watch that night. The moon had set, the heavy cloud cover completely blocked any starlight, and it was so dark I couldn’t even discern the horizon. It was the most bizarre and disorienting thing. I’m sure you’ve been somewhere you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It was probably inside a closet or something. Imagine that feeling, only you’re in the middle of an ocean, trucking along at 7 knots in 30,000 lbs of boat. You can hear everything, you can feel that you’re moving, but you can’t see shat. It’s more than a little unnerving.
Hang on Dorothy, it’s gonna get a little windy…..
Day three saw us still motoring, approaching 24 hours straight at this point. We were willing to burn fuel because we wanted to reach the point where we turned more to the south before the low pressure system had time to strengthen. Finally we started to get some wind from the north in the late morning, it seemed the front had passed and our wind was here. We were wing-and-wing*** in 15 knots of wind with fore- and after-guys on the genoa and a preventer on the mainsail (read: not an easily modified sail plan), Lizz and I are sitting in the cockpit reading something (probably our fishing handbook) when suddenly we feel a gust. We were almost transfixed as the wind speed indicator read 18, 22, 25, 28, 30, 35, and then 38 knots. With the sail plan we had up I was at a momentary loss for what to do. Without getting into the details, basically we couldn’t easily turn into the wind, and there was far too much wind to drop either sail. We managed to ease the headsail, let it go forward of the boat, and then struggle to get it furled. In the process the sail flogged itself silly in all the wind, and shredded the canvas UV cover that protects the sail when it is furled. Apparently the wind we had earlier was a teaser…NOW the front had passed. Twenty-five to thirty knots of wind all night and large seas meant we were doing 7.5 knots under a reefed main and staysail and not getting much in the way of good sleep.
“Okay, rinse.”
Day four, the wind just keeps on keeping on – steady 25-30 knots with higher gusts. By now the seas are getting bigger than anything I’d personally experienced – 10 to 12 feet. The distance from one wave to the next was almost double the length of our boat. At dusk Lizz let out a yelp while I was in the shower, sending me scurrying topside naked and soapy to learn that we, mighty anglers that we are, had finally caught a fish. A 24” barracuda (edit: we later learned it was a mackerel, barracuda aren't pelagic) ! All 5 pounds of him. It looked like we had caught Stretch Armstrong with sharp buck teeth in silver spandex. We would have thrown him back but apparently we had caught him hours before and he was stone dead. We cut him up for bait instead. I wanted to eat a bit of him but Lizz overruled me on that one. Probably for the better. She had just read that barracuda can be loaded with a neurotoxin called Ciguaterra. At low levels it causes your lips to go numb. Probably would not have thrilled Lizz to have me running around out there like Bill Cosby at the dentist, my mouth all numb and speech impaired with drool leaking from my lower lip. (Edit:  We later learned that it wasn't a barracuda.  Barracuda are only found near reefs, not in open water.)
Pinball Wizard
And speaking of being in the shower – if you’ve ever been on a boat and gone to the bathroom, you’ve probably wondered why there is a seat in there. No, it’s not in case you get winded from pumping the toilet. It’s so you can shower while under way. If you find yourself needing to shower while on one of those seats, here’s a word to the wise: never, never soap your butt cheeks. That probably should’ve occurred to me, but no. I’m all the way in the forward part of the boat in 10-12 foot seas, the bow flying up the crest of one wave and plunging into the trough of another, all the while bouncing left and right, forwards and backwards. I was having a glorious shower, I lathered everything up, even the bottoms of my feet. All I had to do was wash my butt cheeks and I was done. A little soap on my posterior and the next thing I know I’m bouncing around like the back end of a rodeo bull. One second I’m on the ceiling the next I’m splayed against the wall the next I’m on the floor in the fetal position. Somewhere amidst the agony of racking my gonads on the edge of the shower seat I finally managed to get the nozzle on, rinse the suds off my backside, and regain a little traction back there.
By day five the vast majority of the wind had left us, but the seas remained. Not only remained, they were getting bigger. The storm north of us was continuing to churn out waves that were making our lives miserable. At some point during the night I lost it. Unable to stand the sails slapping back and forth as we wallowed about I fired up the engine and started running around on deck, yanking down every stitch of canvas we had up and cussing any and every inanimate object that dared lay itself in my line of sight. Fortunately Day 6 marked a turning point. The tradewinds filled in early – we had beautiful skies and 20 knot winds from the NE and the temps climbed to 80 degrees. The next three days would be the most perfect sailing I’ve ever encountered. The same day played itself out over and over again. The sun up in the east as the moon set in the west, 12 hours later the reverse, then 12 hours later do it all over again. During my 2am-5am watch on the sixth night I saw a rainbow created by moonlight - a moonbow, they do exist – absolutely phenomenal. You couldn’t even distinguish the colors, it was just a faint white arc across the horizon. There was a consistent stream of shooting stars throughout each night.

By the seventh morning we knew we were looking at making landfall at around 11pm AST and had to make a decision: enter an unknown harbor at night or heave-to offshore and wait for daylight. With the wide entrance channel well-marked and supposedly well-lit and well-maintained by the US Coast Guard, along with a full moon, we were confident we could safely make the entrance. Our guide book cautioned that the harbor was a busy one and that there could be significant traffic – we figured, “How much traffic could there be at 11pm at night?” We started to see the glow of the lights from 60 miles away. About 3 miles from the harbor inlet, the unknown large radar target and the strange symmetrical pattern of house lights on the hillside ahead suddenly made sense as a 600 foot long cruise ship finally distinguished itself from the island and flew by at 20 knots. We thought to ourselves, at least that didn’t happen as we were trying to come into the channel. Naturally, just as we were entering the entrance channel, large breakers rolling onto reef 100 yards on either side of us, gigantic cruise ship number two emerged from around the blind corner in the channel. I don’t know what it is with us and pairs of large ships, but it really has got to stop. If my butthole had puckered any harder I think I would have sprained it. There was no radio contact, and just as I was about to radio the cruise ship and let them know we would be out of their way shortly, the harbor pilot boat, lights ablaze, came alongside and marked us for the cruise ship to easily see. We surfed on in the channel, about 150 feet away from this monster ship.
All in all it was a great passage. We fairly flew along, averaging 6.67 knots and covering the 1200 miles in 7.5 days. No major damage, good weather, and quite an experience.
Old San Juan
With the anchor down and some much needed rest on the way, we plan to spend the next 2 to 2.5 weeks here in San Juan. Old San Juan is absolutely beautiful, the weather is fantastic, and the anchorage is calm and protected. From here we’ll head to Fajardo on the eastern tip of the island, then on to the Spanish Virgin Islands of Culebra and Vieques before heading on to St. Thomas just before Christmas. We hope you all had a great Thanksgiving!

* The Gulf Stream flows from south to north at up to 4 knots. When the wind blows from any northerly direction it is blowing against the current, and it gets VERY nasty out there. From Beaufort, it takes about 24 hours to get to the far side of the Gulf Stream, and you want to get that done while you’ve got good weather.
** Heading to the eastern Caribbean from the mid-Atlantic coast of the US you head ESE/SE until you get to about 67 degrees W longitude, then you turn south toward your destination, essentially making an arc out and then to the right. If you were to sail a straight line you would start to encounter strong headwinds and rough sailing as the trade winds set in somewhere in the low 20’s N latitude.
***The wind was directly at our backs, and we had the headsail poled out to one side and the mainsail on the opposite side.


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