Sunday, January 16, 2011

El Mogote

The next morning, the first day of the new year, to everyone's surprise (and chagrin) Mark was the first up.  It was our last full day in Jarabacoa and we had foolishly planned to climb a nearby mountain.  Mark held us to it.  With superhuman effort, he beat us all out of bed with a pillow at 11:00 in the morning.  We bought food for lunch, found a taxi and, at the timely hour of 1:20, had stepped out onto the side of the road at the trailhead, more or less ready attempt "El Mogote".  

Music from some of the clubs was still blaring in the town below, echoing up the valley.  Heavy, gray rain clouds crowded the sky.  The air hung still and muggy.  Heads throbbing, bodies shaking, we began our ascent up the muddy trail.  Mark and I brought up the rear.  Each step was agony.  Fifteen minutes in, dizzy and light headed, soaked in sweat, I wanted to turn back.  Shame kept me going.


The trail was made of hard packed, red clay, worn smooth.  In softer spots, the deep hoof prints of passing donkeys could still be seen, half filled with cloudy water.  As we went up, the trail became steeper and more deeply rutted by rain storms.  In some places the washouts were waist deep.  


An hour up, we passed a local man hiking down.  He had a sturdy walking stick with a metal spike in the end and a plastic sack of oranges.  Although he could see we didn't, he asked if we had walking sticks.  We told him, "no."  He peered into our pale, sweaty faces and laughed softly.

"Buena Suerte," he said, "good luck," and then continued on down the trail.
"Feliz Ano Nuevo," I called after him with a forced show of enthusiasm.  He waved back but did not turn around.  

As we got higher, the air grew cooler, the breeze picked up, Mark and I began to feel better.  We surged ahead of Nate and Becca.  The donkey prints in the trail disappeared.  Soon, the clay was scalloped and smooth, broken only by the occasional rocky knob poking through the clay.  

On one side of the trail, a barbwire fence.  On the other, a wall of thick jungle vegetation hiding a sharp drop down to the ravine below.  The clay was sticky and easy walking but, where the trail was still wet, the water had mixed to form a thin layer of mud, like axle grease, over the hard clay beneath.

"This will be fun if it rains," I observed to Mark, an eye on the dark clouds above.  He grinned at me, breathing heavily.  "Like a slip'n'slide."  An hour later, it was raining.  We kept hiking up.  The clay grew slick.  We moved slower.  

By four in the afternoon, we crested the summit.  A radio tower, a lone caretaker's shack, an observation tower, graced the large flat summit, mowed bare by a grazing donkey.  Chickens ran past.  The heavy clouds rolled silently by, covering the summit intermittently in fog.  We ate lunch.  Occasionally, breaks would appear in the fog and we caught glimpses of the views surrounding us.  It started to rain again.  We headed down.

The rain was light, not enough to create little streams or fill the washouts in the trail.  It was just enough water to wet the surface and cover the whole trail it in that axle grease, red mud we'd noticed on the way up.  With almost no switchbacks, and nowhere to leave the trail to get out of the mud, there was almost no way to stop ourselves once we'd picked up momentum.  Now, we understood why the local man had laughed at us and asked about walking sticks.

Faster and faster we moved down the trail, keeping our feet underneath us with varying degrees of success until, either with our feet or our butts, we discovered the sharp points of rock poking through the mud and were able to stick and stop.

Nate and Becca, in smooth soled sandals, had the worst of it.  With the slightly deeper tread on my sneakers, I had the easiest time.  Mark and I once again surged ahead but, with dusk approaching, we didn't wait for the others to catch up.  We pushed on, propelled by a deep desire to be off the trail before dark.

We'd sent the taxi driver home after it had dropped us off that afternoon.  Now, at night, at the end of an empty dirt road in the mountains, we began the long walk down through the valley and back into the city.  The rain had stopped again.  We were soaked to the skin, covered in mud, tired and hungover, but still, the walk through the little mountain pueblos was fun.  The little stores and bars along the way were open.  People were out drinking and dancing.  Music was blaring.  Mark and I picked up a roast chicken dinner along the way to our hotel, ate and took long, hot showers.  The rain started again.  It was much harder than before.  It pounded the sheet metal roof of the hotel with a low roar.  I fell fast asleep.   

Sometime in the night, Nate and Becca arrived.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jarabacoa and New Year's Eve


The Dominican Republic boasts several impressive mountain ranges, filled beautiful mountain rivers and the canyons and waterfalls and white water rapids they create.  A little asking around in Luperon made it clear that the place to head to and stage from was the little mountain city of Jarabacoa, located in the largest of the island's mountain ranges and on the edge of the huge Jose Del Carmen Ramirez National Park.

It took half a day of travel in the guaguas to get there.  Every guagua was a little Toyota ten passenger van, converted to a thirteen passenger van by the addition of folding seats in the aisles.  The guaguas won't leave the station, usually just a designated street corner, until they are at least half full.  Once underway, they stop for every person who waves them down along the road.  At one point I counted twenty people in our guagua.  No seatbelt laws or max carrying capacity here.  In fact, all the seatbelts had been removed to save space and facilitate passenger movement.

Jarabacoa turned out to be a not very picturesque city in a very picturesque setting.  We found a hotel room cheap enough to not come with blankets on the beds, enjoyed a fancy dinner out, and then headed back to turn in early.  The room had two double beds and there was some argument about who would sleep with who.  Nate had assumed he and Becca would share one bed and Mark and I the other.  Mark and I had not assumed this.  We all wanted Becca as a bedmate, she being the smallest and least stinky of the group.  Nate eventually bought us off with a bottle of wine.

The next day we hired a local guide named Armado to take us around in his truck to see the nearby waterfalls.  He ran out of gas and while he hiked back for more, we wandered off to explore.  We met another local, a former river rafting guide, who told us about the class IV rapids in the area.  We decided we'd do that the next day.

The waterfalls were spectacular.  Swimming, rock climbing, picnic on the beach, natural water slides.  Aided by the use of some docklines we'd brought with us from the boat, I think we were able to get the full experience.


As planned, the next day we went white water rafting.  It was a half day trip, including breakfast and lunch.  The river ran though a narrow gorge, very rough and rocky.  Lots of fun but not particularly challenging to run in a raft.  The guides simply pointed the boat down river and let it ricochet and pivot off of every rock along the way.

We were back at our hotel by early afternoon, in time to grab a quick siesta.  We needed to rest up.  It was New Year's Eve.  Since arriving in Jarabacoa we had been hearing about the huge, all-night party that would fill the town.  We wanted to be prepared.  The lunch included with rafting had been an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Planning ahead, we really tucked in so that we didn't have to buy dinner.  


At about eight, still full from lunch, we went out and bought big bottles of the local beer, rum, and wine.  With a deck of cards, a table, and plenty of time, we started teaching each other drinking games.  Between the four of us we knew quite a few.  Some were better than others.  


Mark and Becca had picked up guava juice to use as a mixer with the cheap Dominican rum.  With the first swig, however, I discovered they'd gotten guava juice concentrate instead.  Our one quart was capable of making four gallons of juice.  We used it anyway.  Even cut with increasing quantities of rum, it was syrupy and sickly sweet.  




By ten-thirty we'd run through our booze and were ready to hit the town.  We crashed boisterously out into the quiet, empty street and headed for the bars.  They were quiet too. In there park, the food vendors were still setting up their stands.  Confused and dispirited, we chanced upon a big tent in an empty lot.  A party was being prepared.  The waiters in their black vests and bowties were sitting on the curb smoking.  The bouncer was on his cell phone.  Inside we found the DJ stacking cases of CDs.  He explained that everyone spends New Year's Eve at home with their families.  Only after midnight do the people emerge into the streets to party the rest of the night away.

He assured us that no, we hadn't missed the party.  We were just too early.  He was finished setting up by now and, wishing us a happy new year, hopped on his motorcycle and raced off through the city to spend midnight with his family.  Disappointed, we stumbled dejectedly back to our hotel, picking up more beer along the way, to wait out the remaining couple hours until the bars filled up.

When we returned to the hotel room Becca went straight to the bathroom and stayed there.  She said it was food poisoning and I'm sure it was, the kind of food poisoning you get when you eat nothing but two dollar wine and guava rum punches.  


With Becca guarding the toilet, a motion was made to include her current episode on the trip's seasickness tally.  By a vote of three to zero (Becca abstained) the motion passed.  She is now in last place, tying Nate.

At midnight we held a half hearted New Year's celebration in the room.  Then, Nate went to bed.  Finished with the toilet, Becca soon joined him.  Mark lay down to "rest his eyes," issuing strict orders to wake him when it was time to go out.  I stayed awake reading.

At 1:30 a.m., more due to a sense of obligation to Mark than from any actual enthusiasm on my part, I woke everyone up to go out.  Becca got up and went to the toilet.  Nate opened his eyes only long enough to tell me, "No."  Mark hopped out of bed rested and ready.  With a sigh, I followed him out the door.

The bars were bumping.  Speakers loud enough to be used by riot police for crowd control made sure of that.  The girls dressed up for the New Year were all achingly beautiful to two grungy sailors just off the boat.  From bar to bar we tramped, slinging back beers and chatting up ladies, or as much as we could in our broken Spanish, screaming over the pulse of the club music.  We didn't stand a chance.  As the night wore on, we were soon too drunk to care.  From what I can remember, Mark outdid himself, winning some of the most spectacularly cold rejections I've ever been privileged to witnessed.  It wasn't always clear what they were saying, but it was always clear what they meant.  Fortunately, Mark is a resilient fellow and he immediately bounced on to the next girl undeterred.

By 5 a.m. I was done in.  I dragged Mark back to the hotel.  The proprietor had been kind enough to leave the gate unlocked for us.  We both fell asleep fully clothed, on top of the covers.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Great Bilge Leak

After a lazy Christmas in Luperon, we made plans to leave Strolla and strike off into the Dominican countryside for a little exploring.  First, however, in order to leave Strolla we had to repair her to the point where she was able to be left.  Strolla had been struggling under a steadily worsening leak from her propeller shaft since leaving Florida.  By the time we limped into Luperon, we had water streaming into the boat at a rate of just under two gallons an hour, about 45 gallons a day, 360 pumps of the bilge pump.

The drawback wasn't that we had to be continually pumping out the bilge.  There were four of us to share that work load.  The drawback was that if we forgot to do it or weren't around to do it, the boat would sink.  This was why we'd put up with it for so long.  We'd always been on the boat.  Now, we wanted to leave the boat and couldn't.  The time had come to fix the leak.

The propeller shaft the the leak was coming from leaves the back side of the engine and runs aft, under the floor of the cockpit, to the stern, where it exits the hull to the propeller.  This space under the cockpit, between the engine and the stern hull, is a cramped cavity of wasted space over the spinning propeller shaft and the deep crevice of the bilge beneath.  Its dark and dirty and totally inaccessible.  In the middle of this no man's land, the shaft passes through a vertical stabilizing board fiberglassed into the hull.  The water was coming from somewhere on the back side of that board, impossible to see from the cabin by looking through the gap over the engine, impossible to reach from above through the small circular access hole in the cockpit floor.

The only way to physically touch the problem area was to wriggle over the engine.  The gap there was just big enough to fit through, provided arms, head and shoulders were forced through in the proper sequence.  I stripped down to my shorts and put on an old coat left aboard from last Winter's voyage in colder climates.  With pipe clamps and screw heads tearing at the coat as I slithered by, I made my way in.  Very quickly, I got stuck.  I exhaled, planted my feet, pushed, gained a few inches, got stuck again.  I retreated back out into the cabin to recalculate.

It took several attempts before I finally figured out a winning sequence.  I had to enter left arm outstretched in front of me, head cocked to the side, then shoulder shimmy a few more inches, then raise my legs so that I was balanced on my stomach on top of the engine like a teeter toter and belly role forward from there pulling myself along with my arms.  

Once fully in, my thighs rested on the engine, my hands on the sloped sides of the hull, body suspended over the bilge in kind of a push-up position, horribly taxing, impossible to sustain for long.  Mark stood by picking his cuticles, offering the occasional word of encouragement, ready to help.

From this improved vantage point, I was able to gain a slightly deeper understanding of how hard the leak would be to fix, and not much more.  Satisfied that I seen everything I could, I began the laborious process of wriggling my way back out.  Sweat poured out of me.  My hands were slippery.  The first few inches came easy.  My bare, sweaty thighs slid smoothly over the engine.   

After that initial success, things took a turn for the worse.  I got stuck.  Braced awkwardly, arms trembling, sweat running in my eyes, I took time to think.  Sweat dripped steadily off the tip of my nose to mix its salt with the rising water in the bilge.  I tried to remember the entrance sequence so I could reverse it.  My strength was failing.  I tried to back out again, and then again after that with the same results.  I was getting desperate.  I exhaled and pushed.  I could hear the fabric of my coat tearing.  Something sharp was pressing hard into my ribs, just below the breast.  I couldn't move.  Forcing down a rising panic, I called for Mark to help.  Taking firm hold of my ankles, he braced his feet on the base of the engine, arched his back, and pulled.  I continued to push with my arms and wiggle.  Slowly, I began to move again.  

Finally, I was free, breathing huge gulps of air, soaked in sweat.  Mark was sitting beside me.  I drew him a diagram of what I'd seen and where I thought the leak was coming from.  We discussed what to do.  It was obvious.  We'd have to borrow a saw from someone and cut a larger access hatch.

We took the rest of the day off with the resolution that we'd start looking for a saw tomorrow.  The next morning, however, Mark suggested an alternative.  He would try crawling in to the leak.  He was smaller and slighter than I was, not much, but it might be enough.  I rubbed the bruise on my ribs thoughtfully.

"Have at it," I smiled.  "I'll even stand by to pull you out when you get stuck."  Mark stripped down to his bathing suit and I handed him my coat, now black with accumulated grease and diesel and grit.  We reviewed the entrance sequence again, and in he went.

It was easier for him, but only a little.  After I'd helped pull him out, he had the same painful bruise on his ribs and in the same place as mine.  We figured out it was a pipe clamp causing the bruise and rotated it out of the way.  

The leak, it seemed, was coming from a pipe fitting on the forward side of the stabilizing board.  The water was then backing up through the board to leak out the hole on the other side.  After much lengthy discussion we settled on two alternative plans:

The right way - Cut the access hatch as planned.  Detach the propeller shaft from the back side of the engine. Detach the rudder from the back of the boat.  Slide the whole propeller shaft backward to create enough room to rework or replace the pipe fitting.  Reassemble everything.

The wrong way:  Send Mark back in over the engine with a small screw driver and some strips of plastic grocery bag.  Jam as much plastic bag as possible into the hole on the backside of the stabilizing board to plug up the leak.  Fashion a stopper out of some strips of rubber and a pipe clamp.  Snug the stopper up against board to keep plastic bag from working its way out.

Mark had the leak stopped an hour later.  We let the boat sit the rest of the day and then checked the bilge.  No water.  We ran the engine in idle for an hour and let the boat sit overnight.  No water.  We put the engine in gear and ran it in reverse, pulling against our anchor for half an hour and then let the boat sit the rest of the day.  Still no water.

The next morning, we walked into town to catch the first of a series little vans called "guaguas" (gwa-gwas) that would take us away from the coast and up into the mountains for New Year's Eve.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Luperon

As captain, it was my privilege to spend our first morning in Luperon clearing the boat and its crew through customs.  It was Christmas Eve and Friday.  Everyone would be going home early to their families.  If I didn't get us cleared right away, it was very likely I wouldn't be able to until Monday.  While I waited in one office after another (port authority, customs and immigration, office of agriculture, office of the commandant at the naval station) struggling to understand the slurred Dominican accents of bored government officials, the rest of the crew were confined to the boat, yellow quarantine flag flying.  They weren't legally allowed to go ashore until I'd gotten them cleared in.  They spent the morning hanging out, napping and snacking.  When I finally returned, angry and exhausted, they were rested and ready.  

We motored back in to the dinghy dock and set forth to explore the town.  It was the first time setting foot on land since Clarence Town a full week prior.  Initial impressions were favorable.  After the emptiness of the sea and the largely uninhabited cays of the Bahamas, Luperon was a shock to the senses, vibrant and raw and pulsing with energy and color.  

One story buildings lined both side of the main road, rusty corrugated metal roofs, sides made of concrete and rough cut clapboards, brightly painted in greens and blues and yellows and pinks.  The spaces in between were filled with lush palm and banana trees.  Bachata music blared from storefront speakers.  Motorcycles roared down the dirt streets kicking up clouds of yellow dust that swirled in the glaring afternoon sun.

We wandered the town in a dazed little group, soaking in the sights and sounds.  As we passed the front of one restaurant, the proprietor, a native of Key West, called us in.  "Capt'n Steve's" offered free WiFi, a full BBQ chicken dinner for 100 pesos (conversion rate of 37:1), and an owner who spoke English and had eleven years of knowledge in the country to share with us.  We'd found our base of operations.

Advised by a fellow sailor, we took our dinghy over to the Puerto Blanco Marina for an evening of caroling.  Aided by the first cheap beer we'd found since leaving Ft. Lauderdale, we became a powerful addition to a rather pathetic choir.

Christmas morning got off to a late start.  We shambled in to town and spent the day online and on the phone, conversing with family and sipping fruit smoothies.  The town was quiet.  We had nothing to do.  By spending a week aboard ship, no one had been able to get each other presents.  We bought each other breakfast and toasted our success in reaching Luperon.

Hispanola for Christmas!

Still navigating by paper charts and hand compass, we exited the Caicos Bank just north of the Fish Cays, crossed the Turks Passage to Big Sandy Cay, and set our sights on Hispanola and the Port of Luperon in the Dominican Republic, across some eighty miles of open ocean.

The night was cool, the wind steady and gentle out of the northwest, the deck of Strolla rolling sweetly.  Long before we could see land, we could smell it in through the darkness, the sharp scent of charcoal cooking fires, the faint odor of dirt and cow dung and stagnant mangrove swamps.

With the break of day, the mountainous headlands of the Dominican Republic could be seen, pale and jagged in the morning light.  We were thrilled.  Here, at last, were real mountains, the tallest in all of the Caribbean, some more than 10,000ft.  From Florida's flat swamps through the low rounded cays of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, none of us been much higher than the top of our own mast since the trip began.  

We picked our way slowly into Luperon and took up an anchorage amongst our fellow cruisers on the south side of the well protected harbor, too excited to sleep despite our long night underway.  It was Christmas Eve day.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hunting Lobster

From French Cay to the Ambergris Cays was a pleasant sail across the shallow waters of the Caicos Bank.  With our chartplotter so inaccurate, we had to rely on navigating the old fashioned way.  No, not Mark's sextant skills.  Every half hour I'd triangulate our position using small islands dotting the horizon to take bearings from.  Then I'd plot our calculated position and GPS positions on the paper chart.  The GPS seemed to be working fine.  It was all good practice for rusty skills.

Most importantly, we kept a continuous bow watch all day to look out for the ominous, black outlines of coral heads spotting the ocean bottom.  Mark fashioned a seat at the bow by running ropes back and forth between the bars of the bow pulpit.  It was surprisingly comfortable, an excellent place to read or nap or take in the sun.  We took our turns at the bow, but soon the actual responsibility of keeping a lookout fell to the helmsman.

We spent the night in the protected waters between the Ambergris Cays.  I was the first in the water.  Fifteen feet deep.  White, sandy bottom.  To my right I could see the low mound covered in dark coral, brightly colored little reef fish flitting about.  In front of me the bright white of the sand and the pale turquoise of the water stretching away into a hazy blue.  There was something moving out there.  

I stayed close to the boat, staring intently into the gloom.  I saw it again, a shadow, too erratic in movement to be anything but alive.  It was coming closer, slowly shimmering into a soft outline.  Now I was sure.  Shark! 

Steadily I watched the gray shape grow, the edges harden.  Methodically, in unvaried cadence, it swam towards me, head and tail sweeping slowly from side to side.   Now, its beedy, black eyes were clearly visible.  Its black shadow slid smoothly over the rippled white sand.  I gripped my little fishing spear tightly in my hands.

When a mere fifteen feet away it turned, smooth and silent, never changing its speed or rhythm, and slipped gracefully back into the dark blue gloom.   I immediately evacuated my bowels and climbed back aboard.

No, not really.  I remained in the water which remained clean and clear around me.  The great fish was a nurse shark.  Harmless.  The telltale catfish whiskers on either side of its mouth made that much obvious. Big, at least twelve feet long, it had swum straight for me until it was close enough for its weak little eyes to tell what I was.  I excitedly called Nate into the water.  The shark returned several more times over the course of the afternoon we we spent enthusiastically hunting rock lobster in the little caves of the coral head.  We caught four, two each for Nate and I.  I also got a large crab and Mark a jumbo conch.  

(It should be noted that Mark's only contribution to dinner was an animal with a top speed of four feet an hour and a survival strategy, when threatened, of remaining motionless)



I parboiled and then sauteed the lobsters in garlic and butter.  Mark smashed his conch with a hammer to tenderize it and then breaded and fried it.  All were delicious.

Crossing the Caicos Bank

Rather than clear customs in the Turks and Caicos, we headed immediately south from Providenciales the next morning.  The wind was still in our favor, no reason to dally.  Because we woke up late after our night at sea, we chose a short day and headed just twenty miles south to French Cay to lay up for the night.

It was on our approach to French Cay that we discovered a disturbing discrepancy between where the island actually was and where it appeared on our chartplotter.  Looking forward of the bow, we were three hundred yards off the northern tip of the island.  Looking at the chartplotter, we were two and a half miles west in the middle of a reef.  We tried turning the chartplotter off and then on again.  Nope.  We dug out the users manual and figured out how to recalibrate it.  Still wrong.  Apparently, the preloaded charts were just wildly inaccurate.  I said a little prayer of thanks that I'd decided against making straight for French Cay from Mayaguana the night before.  It was one of the options I'd considered.  If we had, we would certainly have been lost on a reef in the night.

We selected a rocking, poorly protected anchorage in the lee of the little cay late afternoon and spent the remaining daylight hours snorkeling and fishing.  Becca stayed aboard.  Mark, Nate, and I hurried off in the dinghy, fins and masks already on, eager to explore the shallow reefs that surrounded us.  By the time we returned, the sun was down and darkness descending.  The temperature was dropping and the wind still blowing.  After hours in the water we were shaking and shivering so badly we could barely operate the dinghy motor.

I had managed to catch three little fish which I slung aboard when we got back.  I thought they were Red Snapper.  They turned out to be Squirrel Fish.  Our fish book identified them as "technically edible" and so I set to work filleting them while Nate began dinner.  After dinner, I breaded them and fried them.  They weren't good.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Running to the Caicos

We spent a couple nights in Clarence Town, not counting the night we arrived.  One anchored in the harbor and then we moved into the protection of the marina for the second while we waited for a cold front to pass over.  

Our first day there, the crew made the long dinghy ride in to the docks to spend the day exploring town on foot.  I opted to remain aboard and passed the hours in glorious silence and solitude, reading, napping, eating, precious time alone with my thoughts.  They returned just before sunset.  They'd met a local chef who gave them some chili peppers and specific instructions on how to cook the Mahi Mahi fillets still residing in our refrigerator.

It was my night to cook dinner.  The instructions were repeated to the best of everyone's memory and I set to work.  Brown rice cooked in chicken stock, green beans with carmelized onions and green peppers.  The fish, I pan seared with olive oil, salt and pepper, lime juice, and minced chili peppers.  As soon as the peppers hit the hot fry pan, the spiciness vaporized and we were all doubled over in the little cabin coughing, eyes streaming.  It served to heighten our appetites.

I used every pan and pot we had.  It was Nate's turn to do the dishes.  We piled them up in a greasy heap out in the cockpit.  He put it off until the morning.

The next day, with the wind howling, so it was time to motor in to the marina.  We pulled in smoothly, looking like pros in front of the dockmaster, but then spent a full hour adjusting dock line tension and placing chaff gear.  Strolla jerked and bucked at her tethers.  It wasn't much calmer at the marina docks than it had been out at anchor.  The wind continued to increase.  With seven dock lines out and rags and hand towels and pads placed on all the wear points, I finally felt secure that we wouldn't break free in the night.  

Showers, internet, loafing about, an evening in the bar next door getting drunk with the crews of the two twin mega yachts tied up across from us.  We compared weather information, discussed sailing routes.  They informed us repeatedly that the British Virgin Islands are the only place to spend New Year's.  We informed them repeatedly that we averaged five miles per hour, strictly dependent on the weather.  Pockets empty, we all stumbled back to our boats.

The next morning was relaxed.  We took on water, topped off our fuel, and waited for the winds to weaken.  Early afternoon we cast off and motored out.  The bikini clad crew of the nearest motor yacht waved farewell from their sunbathing beds on the foredeck.  We waved back sadly.


The swells exiting the harbor were steep, the winds still howling.  I wondered if perhaps I'd been a bit impatient on our departure.  Returning to our spot at the dock was briefly considered.  However, as soon as we'd gained enough sea room, we turned off the wind, putting it directly astern and setting the compass for Crooked Island.  The wind seemed to lessen, the boat seemed to stabilize.  In a second it became quite pleasant.  Only careful attention to the size of the waves steaming by reminded us of the conditions we were actually out in.  


We ran along under our genoa alone, coasting down the faces of the waves at speeds up to 10 knots.  I cautioned everyone that conditions had not in fact moderated as they appeared.  It was hard to take me seriously.  Out in the sun, all alone on the rolling sea, we joked and snacked.  I showed everyone how to set the jib boom.  We set up the spinnaker for the first time, or what passes for the spinnaker aboard Strolla.  We were making great time, rested and ready.



The sun set, the stars came out, the wind never weakened.  We passed the safe anchorages on Crooked Island early in the night, and those in the Plana Cays closer towards dawn.  By morning we could see the shores of Mayaguana.  Still, the wind howled and hurtled us forward.  We turned south and then east again, riding our west wind along the coast of the long, wooded island.


As we crossed the shallower waters near the coastal reefs, we caught two large Barracuda in close succession.  Becca's cookbook warned about the high risk of food poisoning from eating Barracuda.  We reeled them in and I took it upon myself to unhook each one and throw it back.  A tricky proposition.  I knelt on it's head.  Mark knelt on it's tail.   The tri-pointed hooks of the lure flashed violently in the sun.  Working quickly with gloves and pliers, staying well clear of the inch long teeth, I soon had the great fish free and returned to its home.


As our second night at sea settled in, we had a decision to make.  The entrance onto the Caicos Bank and the anchorage at Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos was strewn with shifting sand bars and shoals.  Infrequently and incompletely mapped, the experts in our cruising guides agreed, "don't attempt to enter unless you can navigate visually."  The problem was, sailing straight from Mayaguana, we would arrive around 3 a.m.  Even when the sun did rise, it would be directly in our eyes.  With the easterly swell, there was no protected anchorage on Mayaguana.  

We sailed on, carried along by the irresistible momentum of the elements.  Five miles from the channel, with Mark and I on watch, we hove to, or at least tried to heave to.  I'd never done it before and with time to kill, decided to give it a try.  It didn't work, not without a sea anchor, which seemed like more work than it was worth at the time.  Faced with the proposition of sailing back and forth along the coast until the lighting was right, we decided to go for it.  The moon was full, its silvery light bright enough to read comfortably by.  Going slow, with a double bow watch, we would be fine.  

As we entered the narrowest part of the channel, the moonlight suddenly failed.  One of the small cumulus clouds dotting the sky had probably passed over the moon for a second, I assumed.  The moonlight didn't return.  I looked up.  Only the tiniest sliver of white still showed.  The rest of the moon was a deep blood red.  We were witnessing a full lunar eclipse.  Impeccable timing.  We arrived at our anchorage safely, nonetheless, and slipped gratefully to sleep.