Sunday, November 28, 2010

Voyages of the Strolla: Part II

I am spending another Winter in the Caribbean Sailing Strolla. This time, instead of Pete Hinman, I'll have three other friends aboard. I'm continuing to write about our adventures so please join us at our new blog site:

Friday, November 19, 2010

The End

Once it became apparent that the U.S. Virgin Islands were out of our reach Pete and I needed a revised plan. Keenly feeling the bite of homesickness by this point, the thought of living on the boat for the summer was not appealing. Pete wanted to be back in NH for the Summer and I was committed to a seasonal job river guiding in Jackson Hole. We needed a place to leave the boat. Enter our friend Laila. She had an empty dock at her house and generously agreed to let us park Strolla there for the Summer.

After a joyful reunion with her and our first night's rest on land in many weeks, we awoke the next morning ready prepare Strolla for a season of disuse. Over the next several days, anything that could mildew in Florida's muggy summer air was stripped out and stowed away in the dry heat of Laila's attic. The boat was emptied, the water tank bleached, the engine oil changed. Then, we cleaned. We scrubbed Strolla's ample interior from bow to stern. Ant poison was laid and cockroach traps set and, when there was nothing more we could do for her, we said goodbye to Strolla and Laila and boarded a plane for New Hampshire.

Our flight had a layover in Baltimore. The first leg of the trip from Florida was out over the ocean and I slept most of the way. The final hop home from Maryland, however, took us through clear Spring skies and right up along the coast.

Having spent so many hours studying our coastal charts on the passage South, I found I could readily identify the landmarks slipping by beneath me as I headed back North. I could even make out the individual harbors where we had spent the night, breakwaters we had groped by in the dark, lighthouse we had scanned for on the horizon. Like turning back the clock, I could count backwards through the days of our trip as we covered in minutes the distances that had taken days to travel in the other direction. A reminder of all we had done, all the places we'd been, all the things we had seen.

A very special thank you to everyone from Cape Cod to Cuba that helped us and housed us and advised us and fed us along the way. Without you this trip would certainly not have been possible.

Day 112 Last Day on the Water

Pete and I woke up at a very reasonable hour, weighed anchor, and motored out of Biscayne Bay and back to sea for our last day on the water.

The conditions were perfect for a speedy run up to Ft. Lauderdale. The Gulfstream was pushing us at maximum power and, with the waves and the wind, helped us achieve our fastest speeds of the entire trip, topping out at just under 12 knots!

We arrived at the inlet to Ft. Lauderdale happily and uneventfully, motored up the New River and were tied up at our friend Laila's house in time for dinner. It was a spectacular final day underway.

Day 110-111

Sometime in the night we began to veer north, sticking to the outside edge of the shipping lanes and riding the Gulfstream back to Florida. The more we turned north, the more we turned our starboard quarter to the steadily freshening breeze and the faster we went. Like horses to the barn, we could smell that the end was near. We pushed harder and harder. There was no question of stopping. We spent our fourth consecutive night underway.

The next day, the wind was blowing harder still and, with the waves and the current pushing from behind, we very nearly flew North. A fantastic day of sailing! Strolla charged forward, seesawing in the following seas, white froth from her wake dissipating in a long line astern.

We arrived back in Biscayne Bay and Miami late on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The weekend boaters were out in force. While looking for an acceptable anchorage for the night, we stumbled upon a huge floating armada of party boats, anchored, music blaring. Everywhere we looked, boats, babes, and booze. For eyes that had seen no one but each other for nearly a week, this was nirvana. It sure was good to be back in south Florida.

We enjoyed the sights and sounds of the afternoon crowd. As they slowly drifted away with the coming of night, we drifted down to our bunks for our last night aboard Strolla. We would be with Laila in Ft. Lauderdale the next day.

Day 109

Our second night at sea passed much the same as the first, an exhaustingly rapid rotation of shifts, three hours on, three off, throughout the night.

The weather this far south is nice and warm, the conditions calm, but still we continue the three hour shifts at the helm. Why? Because with no autohelm, trial and error has taught us that three hours is the maximum amount of time we can sit in the dark staring at a dimly lit, lazily bobbing compass dial.

The shifts continue well into the next morning, until lunch actually, as we each try to catch up from the broken night before. Finally the heat of the noon sun beating down on the boat turns below decks into a sauna and sleep is no longer possible. The crew is reunited in the cockpit to douse the floorboards and slather on the sunscreen.

This morning was oppressively hot and still. The ocean, hazy and glass-like to the horizon. We motored, slicing through the placid waters like a lake. The mainsail was set and luffed against the mast in our self-generated headwind. I was fixing myself some lunch when Pete gave a shout from the cockpit. Dolphins! I climbed up on deck somewhat unenthusiastically. We'd been seeing dolphins since the carolinas. What I saw left me giddy with excitement, my lunch forgotten in the galley.

Strolla was chugging her way straight through the middle of a huge pod. There were at least thirty dolphins on all sides of us, cavorting through our wake and lapping the boat, playing and racing and launching themselves to amazing heights out of the water. We shouted and cheered and called out scores to the acrobatic competitors. Then, as suddenly as we'd entered, we passed out of the pod and were once again alone on the wide, wide sea.

Mid afternoon, a spur on the northern coast of Cuba shimmered into view off our port bow. It was a series of islands and peninsulas among which we were hoping to find an anchorage for the night. As we drew closer, a large pink building became visible. A hotel, I speculated. Closer still and we could see the dark specks of people milling around it. We continued straight towards until, about two hundred yards out, we were able to make out the olive drab uniformity of the their clothes and the unmistakable silhouettes of their guns. On one of the outbuildings painted in white letters over the pink facade was scrawled, "Vive Fidel!" Despite the unusual color scheme, this was a military base. No anchorage here.

Just as we'd changed course to leave the post behind us, we got a bite on the lure we'd been trolling. Fish on! Pete reeled it in. It was another Cero, a member of the Mackerel family like the one before. This second one was fully half again as big as the first and would prove to be just as delicious.

The breeze freshened and we picked up speed. Some men patrolling the beach waved to us as we glided by. Our chosen anchorage having been too close to the unmapped military post, we traveled on, scanning the charts and the coast for another likely place to spend the night. The sun dropped and dusk descended. We settled in for another night underway.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Day 108

Our second day out of Clarence Town dawned still and hot. Pete came up on deck for the sunrise and I gratefully turned the boat over to him, stumbled below to my bunk and fell fast asleep to the rhythmic rumble of the diesel motor. Two hours later I was up again. The sun had turned the cabin into an oven and it was too hot to bear, even after only three hours of sleep the night before.

Unalleviated by sea breeze, the heat of the southern sun beat down with physical force. I felt its weight pinning me to the bench. The dark deck boards became so hot they burned the bottoms of my feet and Pete and I had to dump buckets of sea water over the cockpit in order to stay at the helm.

The heat and monotony was broken at eleven thirty when Pete spotted a faint speck broad on our port bow. "Land Ho!" The northeast coast of Cuba now created a tiny break in the straight line horizon. This was as excellent an excuse as any and Pete declared a swim break. We shut down the core, lashed down the tiller, trailed a safety line, and plopped over the rail into the slightly less hot water beside the boat. The sea was a spectacular, mesmerizing blue, crystal clear and incredibly deep. Rays of sun sparkled through the smooth surface, golden beams reaching down and down, fainter and slimmer until they were disappeared completely.

According to the charts, the ocean here was more than 1,400 fathoms deep, more than 8,400 feet, more than a mile and a half of water straight down. It was an eerie feeling knowing there was that much water, that much space beneath me. I swam with my snorkel mask on, glowing white hands and feet flashing briefly on the periphery of my vision, suspended at that intersection of sea and sky, a mile and a half above the earth. As I moved slowly away from the boat, my mind wandered. I wondered what leviathans, what monsters of the deep might be down there, lurking just out of sight in the depths below my toes. I peered fixedly through the water, staring at nothing, watching as the sun beams were swallowed up, and waiting for some smokey form to suddenly solidify out of the dark and come rushing up, mouth gaping, swift and silent.

At this point I pulled my head out of the water. Time to think about something else. I had now swum a fair distance from the boat and looked back. Pete was up on deck coiling a length of rope. The mainsail, which we'd left up, hung limply from the mast. Strolla bobbed softly in the low waves. From my vantage point in the water, the Cuban coastline was no longer in view. Water in every direction. I looked again at the boat and felt a sudden swell of affection for her, our little floating home, the only thing between me and a slow, lonely death. I swam back.

The only swim ladder we have is one Pete salvaged off a wreck on Block Island back in January and it doesn't seem to make climbing aboard any easier so we don't use it. Instead, we head for the chain plates, amidships, kicking up out of the water to grasp the shrouds, hooking a heal over the gunwale, and levering ourselves up and out and on deck from there. It takes a little practice.

Back in the sweltering sun we started up the motor and set off once more for Cuba dousing the deck periodically for the sake of our burning feet. Consulting the charts we realized that we would once again not be able to make port by dark and so decided to spend a second night at sea, turning west heading up the coast.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Day 107

Pete and I rowed over to the "E-Z" again this morning to catch the 6:30 weather report. The ocean beyond the little barrier reef that protected our anchorage was dead calm. From the radio we learned that it would remain so. Winds for the coming week were expected to be light, variable, and out of the west.

The last time we'd experienced winds like this was leaving Florida nearly a month before. Two days later, the easterly Trade Winds that prevail in these latitudes had kicked up again, ground our progress to a halt and forced us to divert south to Andros Island. Now that we were making our round-about way back to the states, we'd counted on those east winds to fling us along effortlessly. Apparently, fair winds and calm seas is asking a bit much. After our last few days of sailing, I'm happy with just the calm seas.

With the weather broadcast finished, we helped Lance take in his secondary anchor, made our goodbyes and paddled off to our Strolla to make ready. Three nights and two days of swinging around with the tides and our anchor chain was a tangled web in the rocks. We could see it clearly through the blue-green water, zigzagging back and forth crazily beneath the boat. With a sigh, I took up position on the foredeck. Pete hopped back to the tiller and, with a touch of forward throttle, began to weave the boat around the anchorage as I shouted directions and pulled in the slack chain. Despite our best efforts, we couldn't fully untangle ourselves until after Pete had snapped on his fins and mask and dropped overboard for a little underwater work. Anchors up and we slipped through the harbor entrance a few minutes ahead of Lance's trimaran.

The light west winds were good enough for a casual cruise south to the cape. We were trolling a fishing lure absentmindedly, the pole wedged against our propane tank. This was not the first time we'd tossed a lure out. There had been a few minor misadventures previously that had now left us low on lures and line. I won't recount the details of those events here. Its too painful but, suffice it to say that our inability to catch fish was not the fault of the fish.

Today's fishing episode began like all the others, with the rattle of the fishing pole and the whir of line running off the reel. I let out a yelp to Pete, released the tiller, and lunged for the pole, reaching it just before the line ran out. As I struggled to reel in the monster, Pete struggled to get the boat back on course and the sails reset. When all as back in order, I proudly hoisted my prize onto the deck. Neither of us knew what it was but it was a fish, the largest I'd ever caught, and we were going to eat it. Pete filleted it. I baked it in olive oil with salt and pepper and a side or canned beans and brown rice. It was the perfect size for a meal for two and we were both stuffed.

After sunset the wind died down and we began motoring. The next safe port was Duncan Town in the Ragged Islands. With the light winds we'd had all day, we wouldn't arrive until after midnight. Rather than risk the shallow approach channel in the dark, we decided to press on for Cuba through the dark. Although the wind picked up again after dusk, it remained light and unreliable and we were forced to motor intermittently all night.

By two in the morning we were passing Duncan Town, fifteen miles to the west, a faint yellow glow on the blacked out horizon. That was the only thing we saw all night. The star gazing was incredible.