Monday, July 4, 2011

Hunting in Florida for an Endangered Species

We've just spent the past two days hunting through the Florida Everglades (and turnpikes and back lots and front lots and curb sides) for that elusive class C motor home that is in good condition, low miles and less than $10,000. This is indeed a very rare beast and nearly extinct in these parts due to over hunting and very high demand. Driving around we also saw lots of strange (to us Northerners) road kill. There was something that looked like a flattened snake (a big one) and we saw more than a few armadillos legs pointed skyward.

None of the dealers have anything that works for us, so the next step is to start calling the 30 or so matching craigslist ads for private sales. And we're considering doing the trip by tenting it (with a few motel stops I'm sure) in a mini-van or something cheaper/more available. But that's all going to have to wait until after the 4th of July celebrations!

After a bit of a cleanup, we're going to head out and join the crowds in Stuart and share in the fun. Forecast is calling for 20% chance of rain or thunder showers but the radar is clear for now, so we're keeping our fingers crossed for the big fireworks show tonight.

Need to run. Aidan just rescued a wayward fish from the head.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Big Day on our Transformer/Sailboat

We are no longer a sailboat. The boys at Cracker Boys yard made quick work of bringing the rig down with their crane. Now she's just a slow motor boat with a draft far too deep for her. She's so deep we've been using the keel to seek out the edges of the channels in the ICW. Yup, we made some new discoveries. Bump, quick reverse, scratch heads as this is *supposed* to be the deep part. Let's try over here ... looks like we made it ... bump. Nope. Hmmm. There were a couple places where we resorted to Carla and Austin going ahead in the dinghy with a weighted line to find the "deep" water (more than 6 feet minimum, 8 is OK, 10 is nice and 12 or more is bliss). After a while it clicked that we should be thinking of this like a river (it's narrow with a current, duh) and use river water signs that we learned paddling to give us hints as to where the deep water really is. For exanple, take this stretch of water. Don't go over on that side. See where the bank eases gently into the
water and it ripples, those are shoals ... better on the other side which is the far bank in a curve; more current on the far, steep bank which usually means deeper water. This worked quite well with only one more grounding in 3 hours. We've been following the ICW creed of "go slow!" so none of the groundings have been bad or ones that we couldn't just reverse off. And I'm sure we've left, on the ICW bottom, more than a bit of the St. Martin/BVI/Bahama reef that's been growing on that hard-to-reach bottom side of our keel.

All in all it was an amazing day for getting things done. We cleared in (amazingly short and painless - a surprise when arriving in the US). We unstepped the mast. Carla managed to blast off a couple critical work-related emails (who knows when we'll find available wifi again) and we made it more than halfway to our next destination (Stuart) when we were expecting to not start this part until tomorrow. And we lost - and - found our Olympus underwater camera. We were more upset about the photos we would have lost, than the camera - after all, the opportunities to take underwater photos are mostly behind us now. Fortunately, the good people at the Marina office, where we had distractedly set it down, kept it safe for us. Lucily, as we passed the marina after getting our mast stepped, Carla hopped into the dinghy and tracked it down while the boys and I carried on up the channel as slowly as we could.

Oh, and how could I forget. Not more than 5 minutes after we went by in our dinghy on our way to clearing in, a boat in the anchorage blew up. Boom. We looked over and there was a huge plume of smoke and flames leaping out of the cockpit. For a few heart stopping moments we couldn't tell if it was our boat or not. Finally we overheard on a nearby radio that there were two victims just being pulled from the water with very bad burns. Very scary. The fire boat arrived too late to really do anything other than chase down the fuel tank when it finally broke free, caught fire and threatened other boats. By the time we got back, there wasn't much more than a smoldering hulk in the water. We hope the two injured people manage to survive.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Final Passage

Today's arrival in Florida marks the end of our final passage at sea. We left Staniel Cay 2.5 days ago in the early morning. We needed to leave as early as we could as the tide was falling and we were at risk of hitting bottom in our attempt to cross the bank. However, we had to wait until the light was good too so that we could read the water depth. Turned out that 8am was the magic time and we managed to slip out of Staniel Cay without even a bump (though it was close in spots). The rest of the day was spent trying not too get too much sun as we followed wayponts along the old DECCA channel to the Tongue of the Ocean. It was definately a great experience travelling all day with no morn than 15 feet of water under our hull and often less than 8 feet.

While crossing the bank we took a little time for Austin and I to jump into the dinghy (we were towing it at this point) and zip around the boat getting some nice shots in the lime great water and bright blue skies. There was just enough wind to get the boat really sailing but not so much that the seas were too rough. Other than that our crossing of the DECCA channel was uneventful. We could see however, that you really needed fairly benign conditions to try this crossing. The wind was 10 - 12 knots out of the SE and we were traveling W. I doubt that it would have been as much fun if the wind was out of the NW and it seems like it would get really nasty out there if a strong front passed through. In short, if you need a quick way to get from the Exumas to Florida, the Abecos, or Nassau and don't mind an overnight sail and, most importantly, the weather is in your favor then by all means, this is a great route to take.

After a pleasant yet a bit rolly night sail up the Tongue we crossed back onto the western part of the Great Bahama Bank. This we used as a shortcut to the western end of New Providance Channel (between the Great Bahama Bank and Grand Bahama Island) which would take us west to the Florida Strait and then the Gulf Stream. Nothing really out of the ordinary happened in all of this. We're getting quite comfortable with multi-day passages though for some reason we weren't sleeping as well on this one. In the end we made all our wayponts, out speed was just about right (could have been a touch faster) and we had a calm crossing of the Stream and made it to the Florida coast before 5pm.

Once inside the inlet to Lake Worth things weren't so easy. We like big open spaces (like ocean sailing) and in this crowded harbor there are numerous channels - few of them deep enough for our boat. So of course we picked the wrong one and drove up onto a sand bar. Luckily it was muddy sand and we were able to easily back our selves off. We did eventually find the right channel and anchored easily in 12ft of water. Flordia welcomed us with a major thunderstorm, which thankfully waited until were all settled to arrive.

We're all glad to have this portion of the trip behind us. The past month or so has been hard to really enjoy with all the travel and not much play and relaxation time. Everyone is now looking forward to our big road trip home and visiting friends and family along the way. It will be a bit of a whirlwind tour but keep posted to discover what adventures we get up to in-land.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Wet in G-Town

Austin and I made a quick trip into town yesterday to replenish some of our fresh provisions, get some water and top up our fuel so that we can make a mad, long dash to Florida once we've finished our short sight seeing in the Exumas. The wind has been blowing 12 - 15 knots so the harbour was a bit choppy but made for fun surfing the dinghy on the way in. On the way back I think that we should have brought our snorkels and masks! We were loaded down with 20 gallons of water, 24 gallons of fuel, two people and about 25 pounds of food. In other words, we were riding low and going slow right into the waves across the mile wide harbour. Now those waves that we were surfing on the way in were crashing over the sides soaking us through in seconds. About every 15 seconds we'd hit a large one and the air would go white and liquid so we had to hold our breath until it passed. I think Austin said something about looking forward to grocery shopping when we get home where the worst wet w
e have to worry about is the rain! When we got back to the boat, Austin just slipped over the side and went for a swim and I had to wash salt out of my beard.

Later in the afternoon we put up the rain catcher just in time for a massive downpour. Between the water we got from shore and all the rain, we were able to nearly fill our water tanks and do a load of laundry in the water that the dinghy collected. All of us had nice refreshing deck showers from the pelting rain. The flying rain stung a bit but deck showers always feel great! It's still a novel concept to be comfortably warm in the pouring rain.

Today we slipped away from the anchorage early and were treated to a fleeting farewell from a couple small dolphins in about 10 feet of water. We first mistook them for turtles, speculating if they might be leatherbacks - we were surprised to find dolphins in the shallows. We threaded our way past the sand banks and coral heads and are now back in Exuma Sound trying to get as far north up the island chain that we can in one day. We'd really like to snorkel Thunderball Grotto and see Warderik Wells before we have to leave these islands in a couple days. After that, we're looking at various routes to get us to FL as quickly as possible. Taking the offshore route around Eleuthera Island and through Providence Channel is tempting as it gets us far enough away from the islands that we can sail through the nights and make more miles per day but the seas are bigger now (6 - 7 feet) so it won't be all that comfortable.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

But I thought he was with you ...

We arrived at Stocking Island yesterday evening around 5:15 - the wrong time of day to be sailing westward through a field of coral heads in a tropical paradise. To put it mildly, there were a few tense moments as we sought ranges, frantically did some dead reckoning, retraced our path twice, second-guessed our assessment of the dark patches (were they deeper water, or coral heads?). Several times, I thought of our friends on Jaru who think dead reckoning is something for the history books, and I wished we were equipped with a chart plotter to take some of the guessing work out of navigating the tricky shallows and reefs.

After 7 days and nights at sea, we were all exhausted and so grateful for the boat's motion to settle and to sleep at anchor again. Skye and I marvelled at being able to be asleep at the same time as each other for the first time in a week! Admittedly, there are some nice benefits to nighttime watches, particularly under a full moon. The views can be beautiful, I was able to read my page-turning novel, Rain of Gold (thanks, Compass Rose!), I have beaten a few records in Sudoku, and I'm becoming a Catan champion. As long as we don't have rain, I can have the iPad or iPhone in the cockpit, so I can play games, do puzzles and read e-books to my heart's content, while playing my favourite iTunes without disturbing slumbering crew.

Excited to have internet connectivity again, we spent this morning catching up with fb and gmail, doing a few google searches for those pressing questions that inevitably came up during the passage, and enjoying our friend's blog about their trip to Europe. Skye is pining after Italy (he spent 4 days in Italy last summer and fell in love with Cinque Terre and is determined to take us there as a family someday). We finally got cleaned up, dressed in our "customs" outfits (no Bob Marley t-shirts for Austin, cotton button shirts for the rest of us), bailed the dinghy (lots of rain-filled thunder storms last night), climbed aboard and set off on the 15-minute wet ride to Georgetown.

Thankfully, Skye had studied the charts and the "Need-to-know" section of Victoria Lake before we left, so he was prepared to go to the end of the Georgetown harbour, drive under a bridge where only our dinghy would fit, and tie up at the huge (comparatively, in our experience) dinghy dock alongside Exuma Market.

Around 1:00, we all hopped out of the dinghy, hungry for lunch, but accepting that clearing in would be our first priority. We were greeted by a familiar Scotiabank logo on a large building across the street, so I stopped to use the ATM to withdraw the $300 USD we would need for clearing in to the Bahamas. This is a 12-month permit, but we’ll only use it for 3-4 days (so they’d better be good!). We proceeded to the Post Office (which is advertised to house both Customs and Immigration), but before reaching it, noticed a sign reading, “Bahamas Customs” on a non-descript boxy building. Skye glanced back at me, raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders and decided to check it out. It was the right place, he’d need about 15 minutes, then the rest of us would have to join him. I bought the boys some cold drinks while we waited and A1 & A2 got their first Bahamian quarters. The clerk assured me that Bahamian money would be worth nothing anywhere else in the world, so I promised him I’d spend it while we’re here.

Skye finished up at Customs around 2:00 and was directed to Immigration, in a business complex about 3 blocks away. I stopped in at the Tourism office in the same complex while Skye filled out 5 detailed forms at Immigration. Today, we learned, was a local government election, so many establishments (particularly most restaurants and bars) were closed for business. Lunch just wasn’t in the cards, though the information officer at the Tourism Bureau recommended we go to the hotel across the street from Customs, and adjacent to a small park.

This hotel was conveniently located across the street from a shop that sells courtesy flags, so we needed to go back in that direction, anyway, and by 3:00 we all really needed something to eat and drink. The boys were getting antsy and I just wanted to stick to our plan - that’s one thing I’m not sure I ever fully adjusted to, on this Caribbean adventure - plans change ... expect the unexpected ... don’t expect businesses to be open in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week ... and don’t expect stores to carry the merchandise you’re seeking. When we reached the hotel, we were told that the restaurant was closed for the election and would open again at 6:30pm.

On to Plan B, with a side trip to the playground, as promised to A3. Skye looked up at the clouds and said we had weather coming, so we’d better just go to the grocery store to pick up enough food for dinner, then hurry back to the boat. I lobbied for 5 minutes at the park, then he suggested that he and A1 go ahead and start shopping - we could all meet up at the store later. And just at that moment, A3 announced he had to go pee, and it was imminent - he was dancing around holding his shorts and we knew we had to act fast. Skye and Austin left while I took A3 to find a tree. A2 was with us, but when A3 finished, the park was empty except for a sweet 7-year-old girl who had introduced herself to us as Looney Larsden. I said goodbye to Looney, explaining that we had to hurry back to our boat because of the weather, and she asked me if I like to read books. I said, “Yes,” and asked her what books she likes to read, and she said, “Junie B.” I responded, “Junie B. Jones? Those are great books.” I was pleased to be able to connect with this beautiful local girl, and she was obviously impressed that I knew what she was talking about.

I carried a very upset and disappointed A3 away from the park and briskly walked to the supermarket where we spotted Skye right away. Austin was wandering the aisles with the shopping cart, and I never once wondered where Aidan was. He must have been somewhere in the crowded store, browsing the merchandise.

After about 30 minutes, we finished at the checkout and left the store. Austin asked me, “Do you know where Aidan is?” and I responded unconcernedly, “No.” A1 shrieked, “What?!?” and it finally hit me. Where was Aidan? Had I left him at the park? Skye took A1, A3 and the groceries back to the dinghy and I raced to the park. I found Looney still there and asked her if she had seen Aidan, then she said, “No.” My heart was in my throat. Tears were forming in my eyes. I was haunted by my best friend’s only concern for us on this journey, “I’d worry about losing one of my children.” I had flashes of my handsome, photogenic, friendly, smart son and how desirable he could be to someone bent on kidnapping a child. Then Looney called out to me that Aidan had gone, “over there,” as she pointed to the harbour dock. I followed where her arm was pointing, and oh, mercy of mercies, Aidan appeared in a full grin beside Looney, walking alongside the Customs office.

I was so relieved to see him in such good shape. I had half expected to find him reduced to tears in a huddle in the park, but he was smiling, laughing, and walking confidently toward me. I said, “Goodbye,” again to Looney and asked Aidan what had happened. I’d thought he must have gone to the store with Skye and Austin, but Aidan explained he had met a boy in a Lego shirt and was talking with him while I was helping A3 behind the tree. We held hands and laughed about everything. Aidan had been waiting for us at the dinghy, and I praised him for how he handled being separated from us. He did all the right things. He joked that he figured, even if we had forgotten about him, at least we couldn’t go back to the boat without him, if he were already in the dinghy!!

Phew! I’m glad that turned out as well as it did! Actually, the people in Georgetown have all been friendly and we feel very safe here - didn’t even lock up the dinghy today.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Position Update Day 7 - Land Ho!

Date/Time: 2011-06-22 0700
Lat/Long: 23 37.886N/75 06.847W
Distance (24hrs): 101nm
Distance (total): 694nm

The light on Rum Cay was first spotted at 2250 last night. This morning we awoke to see Long Island to port and we are now only a few miles from Cape Santa Maria and making our turn south west on the final leg to Georgetown.

The wind has settled into a rather irritating pattern. The wind dies around 0700 so we turn on the motor. Around midday it picks up again just enough to turn the motor off and make about 3 knots but it's not quite enough wind to keep the sails filled in this swell. We get sick of the rolling after a few hours and motor again. Then around 2000 - 2100 the thunder storms have fully developed and we pick up the new breeze on the edge of one of these then coast along at 5 knots all night with enough wind to stabilize the boat (mostly). At least this is our last day and we know for sure now that we have enough fuel to motor the rest of the way if needed (though it would be much nicer to sail).

Aaron is missing his boat friends. Yesterday he says with a sad face, "Can we go to Ouma? I miss Miles and Grace." Sweet kid. We sure hope that we see them again some day, somehow. We're going to miss so many of our great cruising friends.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Position Update Day 6

Date/Time: 2011-06-21 0700
Lat/Long: 23 27.471N/73 18.921W
Distance (24hrs): 120nm
Distance (total): 593nm

If all goes well today should be our last full day on this passage. We have moved onto the Bahamas charts and are less than 50 nm from Samana Cay and other desirable destinations. If our schedule allowed for it we'd love to divert for a few days and explore these out islands as they are usually difficult to get to and are nearly deserted and unspoiled (our favorite kind). However, we need to keep moving onwards and restrict our visiting to places directly along the way.

Yesterday I mentioned that the days were so similar that they were blending into each other. Well, last night created some much desired variation to keep us entertained. Most of the day there was so little wind that we had the motor on almost from sunrise to sunset. The batteries got a good charge and we kept our velocity up. The weather was very hot so everyone had a quiet day doing slow things like napping or reading in the cockpit - except for Carla who decided to do laundry that refused to dry in the humid heat and no wind. It was flat and calm enough that you almost felt that we were at anchor. This all changed around midnight. A thunder storm emerged in the east and slowly advanced on us. By 1:30am it was directly north of us, brushing us with its windy shoulders. We had the engine off coasting along at a comfortable 5-6 knots over the quicksilver seas lit by the waning moon. It was a spectacular 2 hours of sailing, one of the best night sails this whole season.

I think there is some proverb that says, "good things never last" which is what I was thinking last night as by 3am a new thunder storm had advanced from the south east. This time we were directly in its path and the moon slowly disappeared behind the black on dark gray ominous clouds. We reefed both sails at the watch change as the wind picked up to over 15 knots with occasional gusts to 20. The seas built and the rain came. It was nice to get some variation in our passage diet of calm, moon filed nights but by 4:30am the sea and wind were no longer in agreement, the wind was fading and we were wet and rolling around quite uncomfortably. The engine came back on to smooth out the rolls and we hid below.

There is a little festive atmosphere on board this morning as we start getting ready for tomorrow's arrival. Aidan exclaimed that the fresh smell after the rain reminded him of Christmas in Vancouver and Carla has cooked up a nice pot of hot cereal for breakfast. New charts and guide books are out on the navigation station and our next way point is nearly due west of us. We're almost there!