Saturday, 28 March 2015

Salt Pond, Long Island to Georgetown, Exuma

We sailed on up the west coast of Long Island, and dropped anchor where we found a wifi signal. A shallow draft boat and an wifi antenna is handy :) Bahamian people don't seem to bother with passwords any more than they do with locks.

Has someone stolen the lock?

Long Island is 80 miles long, and no more than 4 miles across. There's a road from one end to the other - well, actually, it goes both directions. We anchored at Salt Pond, which the guide book described as having all we were needing - gas, fresh food, and all I'd be needing to stock the boat ready for crossing the Atlantic again. We needed water too. The stuff we got from the spring on Crooked Island was pretty dirty. I'd siphoned it through a makeshift filter (cotton wool, funnel) and added some bleach but it didn't taste nice and our guts weren't happy about it. However, there wasn't much of anything in Salt Pond - nice new buildings, a bar and a club house with verandahs and all, but boarded up, and a supermarket that was closed down. There was just a garage really, where we paid $20 for enough water to fill the tanks. I was told there was a bank 8 miles or so down the road, and set off walking. I was confident someone would stop to give me a ride, so I didn't try to hitch for a lift. I wanted to walk for a while. Little things catch my eye.

Why say it in a few words when there's room for so many more?

Elfin safety gone.

400 yards from the sea.

I made it for a couple of miles before a pickup screeched to a halt and took me to the bank. I was a minute at the ATM, walked back to the road, and immediately got a ride back to the boat. I was lucky to have managed the couple of miles walking.

Sorry, you weren't expecting quirky silly pictures? Not what you expect of a Caribbean trip. OK, here you go then...
Another sunset, Salt Pond

With the wifi, I emailed a weather server, and received a forecast I can display on my chart in the navigation program (OpenCpn). That showed a norther heading our way, and we were currently only sheltered from the east, so we decided to sail on the Georgetown, Exuma. Good shelter there, from every direction, if we can use the shallow draft of the boat to get in nice and close, somewhere too shallow for other boats to use. The charts on my laptop weren't as detailed as the charts on my phone, so I found a spot with the phone, and then used the app on the phone to plan a route though the coral reefs and sand banks and cays and rocks, and then transferred the waypoints to my laptop, and we set off on a nice reach. A steady 7 knots across flat water.

I'm still not used to the colour of the water here.

Did you hear what I did there? I logged onto the internet on the boat to check the weather and... To me, it's fabulous stuff. Look, here's a display from my laptop:

That's us, the red boat bottom right. The dashed line at the front of the boat is a vector showing where we'd be in half an hour's time on the current heading. The blue line with diamond shapes on is the route I have plotted. I saw a boat following the same route, and set the program to record his track, to see what I could learn from where he went. That's the purple/pink slightly wobbly line. He went very close to where I am aiming for, Kidd's Cove, so it's handy to follow him. What else - those green triangle things - they are other boats who are transmitting an AIS signal. I do the same, so the other boats can see me on their screens. From their triangles and any vectors in front of them, I can see at a glance who's going where. An alarm goes off if a crash is immanent. I can click on any of the boats and get lots of information about them, including their names, so that I can call them on the radio if I want.

All this technical stuff is available relatively cheaply. Any old laptop will do. I chose one that is doesn't use much power, to conserve electricity. It's worked fine for 3 years. The wifi antenna was £25 or so. The AIS box was a lot - nearly £450, but I bought a box that transmits as well as receives. Because I sail single-handed, it's best to be able to announce my position to other boats.

Here's where we arrived, from a screenshot on my phone (any phone with gps would do, and the navigation app, with all the charts of the Caribbean included, was £10):

Screenshot from my phone

The red triangle is where we are anchored, close enough to walk ashore if you don't mind wet shorts, and sheltered from all directions.

I don't take this stuff for granted. I've been sailing a long time now. Navigation equipment was limited to a sextant and a radio direction finder, and paper charts. You need the sun, stars or the moon and a clear view of the horizon to use the sextant. Then a pile of books with tables in them, and a few minutes to do calculations. You might get a position from that (a fix) if you can shoot several stars, or just a position line if you shoot the sun or the moon. The radio direction finder depended on signals from lighthouses which were stronger or weaker according to the weather and the time of day, and the signals could be bent by fog(!). You'd ascertain the direction of a lighthouse from the radio signal, then remember to adjust the bearing by the deviation (the amount the compass is deviated by the boat) and adjust it for variation (to allow for the difference between magnetic north and true north) remembering that the variation itself varied according to where you were. And the weather forecasts? Well, in my early days, from what I'd read, I'd understood that a seaworthy boat should be able to cope, so I figured I should be able to cope, and so didn't bother with the weather too much. I was stupid, misinformed, naive, ridiculously optimistic and lucky. Make your own cocktail out of that.

A Triune trimaran, 30' long, 18' wide.

Here's a picture. I'm not sure if it was my first boat (there were only 6 of these built), but if it's not, it was very similar. Look, they hadn't even invented colour in those days!

And here, though it hardly belongs with this blog is an excerpt from something I wrote from those olden times, describing a storm I encountered that taught me the limitations of that boat. Just a sextant and a broken radio direction finder and a foolish attitude to the weather.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Uncharted waters

We drifted the 30 miles across the channel between Crooked Island and Long Island under spinnaker, turned right and dropped anchor for the night. On turning north, we're homeward bound at last. We've travelled west for hundreds and thousands of miles in the tropics, and now, we're following the wind and current as it turns northward, and soon we'll be out of the tropics. We're already at the limits of the trade wind belt. It'll stay warm for a while. It'll be the sub-tropics after all, but still, the northward journey has begun with the turn around the appropriately named South Point of Long Island.

The turn north marks a new phase. It's on the outward journey that noses are pressed to windows, and scenery absorbed and wonders romanticised. But the homeward journey is inevitably a time of reflection on what the journey has brought, and where we stand now, and of what that home is we are returning to - how it looks after all the water under the bridgedeck and from this furthest distance. Even though the scenery here is as fabulous as any, with turquoise clear water and coral, flat seas and gentle warm winds, the essence of a journey is the romance, and the romance of going home has a different flavour to the romance of leaving for foreign tropical parts. This part of the journey seems to be a job that needs doing, though it would be very remiss of me to wish myself ahead of myself, and to reduce these cays and bays and coral islands to stepping stones to somewhere more familiar.

As we are on the limits of the trade wind belt, I guess I can't complain that as soon as we'd gone to bed the wind turned to the south. The shelter from the easterly swell we'd taken round Southern Point was no shelter from the south, and we had a noisy and bouncy night. The anchor would hold, and it made no sense to sail amongst the coral in the dark looking for more sheltered water so we had to put up with it.

We were still keen to buy some fresh food, and Dick had told us about the farmer's market at Clarence Town, 15 miles north. Clarence Town is on the opposite side of the island, but most of it is only 2 miles wide, so it wouldn't be too far to walk. We sailed up and anchored as close as we dared to the shore. But the wind had increased, and it was clear that we wouldn't be able to land the dinghy on the beach without risking damage. Jack pulled the long straw and paddled ashore in the kayak. It turns out it that the source of food isn't a farmer's market, but a government warehouse, that gets filled with produce and shipped on to the smaller islands round about. The ship leaves on a Wednesday. The farmers bring their produce on a Tuesday. This being Monday, all there was in the warehouse was one box of peppers and one box of onions. And the supermarket described in the cruising guide had closed down. Jack did a little better, with the generous assistance of a local, who drove him the 8 miles to the nearest shop, and then drove him back to the beach (the Bahamas is like that!).

It was too late to move on - we always need to arrive places in good light, so that we can pick our way amongst the reefs - so we stayed where we were for the night, determined anyway to sail to Sandy Cay and cut north through there towards Georgetown (where all manner of food is available, so we're told). Dick had pointed out Sandy Cay as an island full of peculiar trees and many iguanas. That's what made it a reasonable destination.

Half way, we came across shoals of fish feeding,

making the water boil around the boat. We dropped sails and motored about amongst the fish. It was clear that the fish were eating tiny fish, no more than an inch long. I didn't have a lure that I thought could work, but there were so many fish, I hoped to drop a lure directly onto one and snag it.

After half an hour of that, it became obvious the fish - though massed in a feeding frenzy with hardly any water between them - were still too agile to allow my hook anywhere near them. We sailed away, and straight away, we caught a fish.

Another bloody barracuda,

 which we released.

We'd started later than I'd hoped, and the fishing diversion delayed us further, so it was already past high tide when we arrived at the cut by Sandy Cay.

The current was beginning to flow out of the channel, and I didn't fancy spending much time anchoring there. We threw the anchor down anyway, and quickly rowed over to Sandy Cay. There were no signs of any iguanas and the trees looked pretty normal too. I guess there is more than one Sandy Cay in the Bahamas. This wasn't the one we were looking for.

The waters north of Sandy Cay are uncharted, a blue blank, in the navigation package I have on my laptop, and there's little more detail on my Navionics chart on my phone. 'Shallow sandy area' about covers it. I'd figured that even if it was marked as wet sand, at high tide (3 feet) we'd be able to sail across it.

The best detail I had of the area was from google Earth. Though the tide was falling, and the current in the channel against us and increasing in speed, I decided we'd go ahead anyway.

We made it to the end of the channel with a little assistance from the outboard to help in the dying wind and increasing current. I was half way up the mast to spy a route beyond the end of the channel when the rudders caught the bottom and we came to a halt.

The rudders were designed to swing up when they hit the bottom, but the builder of this boat did a half-hearted job of following that design, and they'd only swing up a couple of inches before the tiller hit the deck and prevented the required amount of swinging. I'd sliced the rudder shafts and had articulating joints built into the system, and made some cassettes to fill the slots. But I was in too much of a hurry to leave the boat yard back in the UK and this is the job that still didn't get done properly. The rudders can lift, but only by removing a couple of bolts first, then lifting the rudders a little, then pulling them hard. The one thing I'd wanted to be sure of in my hurry was that the rudders would never swing up as we were surfing down a wave. I thought that if I didn't have time to perfect the system, I'd err on the side of keeping the rudders down, rather than have them swing up easily. That was all very good surfing across the Atlantic. Now we were sitting on the rudders and the tide was falling.

We dropped sail and got out the toolbox and undid the bolts holding the rudders. We jumped overboard and with a little heaving and grunting and the odd curse from the port side (the side that was most awkward, and the one I was dealing with). At last, we got the rudders raised, and with no damage.

The boat was now free of the bottom, and I waded out to set the anchor, and we sat on deck to consider the options. We could dry out here on the sand quite safely, but the next high tide would be between 2-3 in the morning, and the following on, the next afternoon. That's a long time to mostly sit on wet sand. And the tide being a spring tide, the following high tides wouldn't be as high as this one. Jack suggested that since the water was so shallow, we could simply drag that boat. I laughed. To where? How far? And then I waded out to retrieve the anchor.

Towing the boat was easier than it sounds - the wind, such as it was, was behind us. If we could get the rudders far enough down to provide some steerage, but able to swing up it we hit the ground again, maybe we could sail after all? A little more work:

Now we had it easy again, sailing downwind, but it was hot in the afternoon sun sailing with downwind with the little breeze.

It's not safe, usually, to be towed behind a yacht. But in these circumstances it seemed an excellent idea. If Sif happened to let go of the rope, there was no danger of sailing off without her. All we would have to do is drop the sail - and she could walk back to the boat!

As we approached the anchorage I remembered Hans, who I'd met in the Algarve. I was sitting on the deck when he sailed into the lagoon on one of the most extraordinary boats I've ever seen. He was sailing a 70 foot polynesian asymmetric catamaran he'd built in the Gambia in 3 months. He sailed onto the sand bank ahead of me, and jumped off the bow with an anchor. He walked up the bank, stuck the anchor in the ground, climbed back aboard and continued his cup of coffee.

I got to know Hans over the next few weeks, and he would sail that huge boat about perfectly easily single-handed as if it was a dinghy, and would sometimes tack around where I was anchored (often in a crowded anchorage) to inform me of where we might meet again or to swap opnions on the weather, sailing about like that with a cup of coffee in his hand as if he was born to it. (He was in fact born into it.)

Anyway, we sailed into the anchorage north of Lower Channel Cay. It must have been a surprise to the other yacht, for us to appear from the south side of that island.

Nobody sails about here with so little wind, and we'd just sailed across a large expanse of uncharted wet sand. As we approached the anchorage, Sif steered the boat into the wind, I dropped the sail, Jack lowered the anchor, I picked up my cup of tea, and remembered Hans.

Plana Cay to Crooked Island

The voyage from Plana Cay to Crooked island was uneventful. We caught no fish, found no interesting flotsam, and sailed into Attwood harbour in the late afternoon. We dropped anchor in 8 metres of water. Look there it is, on the left, not dug in yet:

There we met Dick, who was living on a trimaran along the beach from us - the only other boat in the bay. (The word harbour is loosely used here, in this case describing a bay with no other amenities than a beach. Similarly, a town might be a couple of houses, though in the case of French Wells, Crooked Island, no houses at all!). I had to go and meet the fellow - I've always had an interest in trimarans. He'd designed and made his. He had a mould for making small catamarans. He'd made his outriggers from two of these hulls, and then made some more hulls and chopped them up and glassed them together in new ways to make the main hull. He'd sailed it down from New England somewhere years ago, and had been sailing round the southern islands of the Bahamas for years. His boat was well used, and I wasn't surprised to find it a little smelly. Was it my imagination, or was that musky smell actually fresh bread? It was! Dick had been baking it in an oven on top of a beach fire, and he'd just brought it back to the boat. Dick informed us that the only place we could buy some much needed vegetables was at Landrail, at the other end of the island. We'd hoped we'd find a shop at Attwood Harbour.

As we were beginning to hoist anchor next morning, Dick came by with some advice about getting out past the reef

 and managed to get it across before he hit the beach.

Afterwards he tacked around outside the bay to make sure we got through the reef in the right place.

The trip along the coast of Crooked Island was uneventful too, so I made a new lure, determined to catch some dinner on the way.

 We caught nothing but weed until we approached Landrail Point, then looking back at the lure to ensure we hadn't snagged more weed (there's a lot of it about, drifted down from the Sargasso sea) we saw a pair of humpback whales breaching and swimming with each other at great speed. That was when the rod bent, and I had a fish at last. Something quite big, with teeth.

Got him, a barracuda.

But we threw him back - they can give you a dose of ciguatera, so that's the only species we definitely don't want to try eating.

We sailed round the end of the reef at Landrail Point

 and had a peaceful night.


Had that barracuda followed us? No, this one is perhaps 4 feet long, and hanging around the back of the boat in the morning.

He was a little camera shy but when I swirled my fingers in the water, he was more interested.

 That pink colour at the top of the image is my fingers. I still have the same number as before I took that photograph.

He didn't stick around all morning and we had a swim

 but for some reason, we didn't swim far from the boat.

We went to the shops - there were three! But all were shut. This was a Saturday. We'd already figured out Sunday wasn't the day to be here because everyone would be in church. But Saturday? Well, everyone was in church, and they wouldn't come out till sunset, and then the shops would briefly open. Outside the church was a sign saying it belonged to the Seventh Day Adventists. Can't these people count? Isn't Saturday the sixth day?

At sunset, we bought all the vegetables available - potatoes (70c each!), onions, and a few tomatoes. There were no eggs. The mailboat comes 3 times a month here, and we'd arrived in a week when the mailboat doesn't come, so there were no eggs. That's what we were told. These people have their eggs mailed to them I guess.

We were almost out of water, and I read through the Bahamas guide looking for where we might fill up again, but I couldn't see any chance in the near future. I've decided a watermaker might be a good investment if we were to spend much time here. The seawater is extremely clear and clean, and there is almost constant sunshine so we have quite a bit of electricity to spare from just our two panels. Anyway, that's for another time maybe. I set off to look for the nearest water to the dock in Landrail, and was directed to the man with a shop and a well. Water could be bought for $8/gallon, but US gallons, which is only 3.5 pints or so. Or we could help ourselves at the well out the back.

I'd just filled one container when the handle went slack. The pump was broken. I'm afraid my first impulse was to run away, but in a moment, I remembered how old I was, and I went to look for the shopkeeper to break the news of his broken pump. The shop was now shut. Round the back, I found a well worn path to the house next door and tracked the man down to his breakfast table. The fellow was familiar with the problem, and lent me a wrench to have a go at fixing the pump. The wrench wasn't enough though. This called for a complete dismantling, and Jack went back to the boat for some WD40 and the socket set. This called for some serious plumbing.

The shopkeeper returned when the hard work was over.

We chatted as we filled the containers and then he gave us a ride back to the dock in his pickup. The fellow showed us the house he'd been born in, the house next door. It's a real pleasure to chat with these people. They actually listen to what you're saying, and then respond, thoughtfully, and kindly, if they can fit that in too. There's no talking over you, or saying one thing and implying another. Just friendly curiosity and a warm openness. I don't know if it's the church life that does it, the isolation, the lack of noise and distractions. What? I don't know, but I know I like it a lot.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Plana Cay

Soon after dawn, we set off from Abraham's Bay, Mayaguana to Plana Cay, a desert island 30 or so miles away. As usual, we sailed out of the anchorage, though the wind was very light. I mentioned using twin headsails, looked around, and realised my crew had now qualified as competent crew:

Sailing gently down the lagoon, feeling quite pleased with ourselves, we were passed by a catamaran motoring the same way:

Overtaken by Destiny!!

I'm normally happy to cruise along at whatever speed will get us there, and which allows us to lie about reading or fishing or whatever, but after being overtaken by a catamaran being used as a motorboat, I felt an inclination to catch up or overtake if possible. Out with the spinnaker, for the first time on this side of the Atlantic:

That was great for a while, hitting top speeds of 8 knots and the only waves to be seen were the ones we were making. But then the wind dropped, and our Destiny disappeared over the horizon.

But what's this?

Down with the sails to motor over and take a look.
It's a girl! No, wait a minute, it's a buoy.
A thing floating on the sea is a natural fish attractor. There's even an acronym for it in the fishing industry - FAD - fish attracting device. This one was working beautifully, and we tied the buoy to the back of the boat, and the fish drifted along with us. I threw a lure in, and right away, caught this:

I think it might be what's called a trigger fish, on account of the lethal looking spine that popped out of its back. I'm just guessing. It seemed impossible to fillet, it's skin like armour plating, and spines here and there to avoid, so it went in the oven as it was and came out surprisingly well, steamed in its own armour plating. Though one of our crew is more used to fish from a can, or hidden in batter, and was rather repulsed. I offered to mash a bit up and serve it in a can, but that was turned down, and all happily ate seconds.

After the trigger fish, I spotted 3 dorado cruising about just below the surface, and threw the lure in front of one of them. It went straight for it, and swam gently away with it. At some point, I guess it realised it had metal and plastic in its mouth, not fish, and it took off at a tremendous speed. I was afraid my new reel might not be up to coping with it, and I put my hand on the line to slow it down, and burned my fingers. That was when the line went slack, and we saw no more of the dorado. Oh well.

The buoy was a shipping hazard, so:


I found a buoy belonging to your institute, at 22 26.8923 N, 073 23.7215 W

I towed it to Plana Cay, and took a closer look there. There was only the lantern left attached. It looked like other hardware had been bolted to the top of the buoy, and since removed. I'd hoped to take it somewhere where you could either collect or or it could be disposed of. But I'm on a 9m catamaran, and I couldn't tow the thing back to anywhere civilised, so I removed the lantern and let the buoy drift away from Plana Cay. It's probably a small hazard to shipping, but as the light wasn't working, I left it as no worse a hazard than when I found it I guess.

I opened the lantern, and figured out the pass code, and got it working sort of. I'd be happy to send it back to you if you like. Otherwise, I'd like to know how the thing works, so that I could use it as an anchor light! However I set it up, it flashes for a while then stops, though there seems plenty of power (battery reading 4.5 v)

If you want it back, let me know. If you don't want it, maybe the program that it links to via USB might be handy for me?


The joys of the internet. :)

The water was so clear where we anchored, that I just stuck my camera over the side, and snapped this barracuda near the bottom:

Plana Cay is a desert island, and we set off to explore the next morning, taking my newly acquired machete so we could open some coconuts ashore.

Not coconut trees. Oh well, pandanus I think, which made up most of the trees on the island. I imagined I had the place to myself, but looking around:


At the south west corner of the island, a natural wall of rock forms this beautiful harbour. I name this harbour, Scrumpy Harbour!

Round the corner, on the windward side of the island, flotsam:

Even somewhere so remote, so shortage of plastic.

There used to be trees here. Maybe a hurricane brought them down, but there are no signs of young ones reappearing.

I managed one snap of one goat. I guess the goats affect the trees somewhat. I scared a flock(?) of about 30 that were resting in some shade. The billies were amazingly big and well muscled with big horns, but fortunately, they were very afraid of me.


I name this lake, Scumpy Lake!

And this one is Red Lake, surely.

Before we left, we swam on the reef. I couldn't find any lobsters, and missed every fish I tried for.

I bet I could have speared this one, but, well, no.... is looking so pretty some kind of Darwinian survival ploy, or is my hunting handicapped by modern warped aesthetics? Sure it's edible, but it just doesn't look like dinner to me.