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Posted on February 1, 2020 | 0 comments

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus

The noise got louder and the pounding intensified. I tried to remain calm as breathing became more difficult and I realized I couldn’t keep my snorkel clear of water. I kicked harder, fighting to escape the deafening sound that seemed to be chasing me. I knew I had swum too close to the craggy shoreline and I was certain the next wave would hurl me into rocks. Nervously, I shifted my downward gaze and raised my head slightly to take one final look. It wasn’t crashing waves I heard. I wasn’t on the brink of slamming into the cliff. I was caught in a rainstorm.

The sensation was startling as large raindrops pelted my head. An angry sky darkened and gray sheets of rain melded with the sea, erasing any sense of horizon and clouding my visibility. But the sea state was fine—I wasn’t in any danger and I was already wet—I might as well stay. I returned my gaze to the sea and as my head submerged, I noticed something interesting. It was silent below. Serene. Peaceful. Fish swam effortlessly, oblivious to the chaos above. Sea Plume swayed gently. I lifted my head and pandemonium returned instantly. Head down, tranquility. Well how about that? I think I’ll spend more time out here.

Sailing in the Caribbean has given me the good fortune of snorkeling nearly every day, sometimes several times a day. There’s no place I’d rather be. I do my best writing when I’m snorkeling. My mind quiets and I have fabulous ideas—it’s just really hard to write them down:) No matter how often I seen the same yellow and black-striped Sargent Majors or the schools of Blue Tangs, the sea is always a delight to explore. And often, I do find something new and race back to my books to learn its name and how it lives.

Did you know that Angelfish are monogamous? If one of them wanders off for a period of time, the pair will swim around each other in close circles when they reunite, strengthening their bond. It reminds me of our beloved golden retriever, Mia, who always gave me an exuberant greeting after I stepped out for only 2 minutes to get the mail. Mia always made me smile, as do the French Angelfish today.

The turtles started it. Spotting a turtle automatically raises the snorkeling grade to an A+. At the Tobago Cays in The Grenadines, there’s a turtle sanctuary where you can observe dozens of these reptiles so closely you can see their jaws move as they rip grass from the sea bottom and chew endlessly like cows of the underworld. In that very spot amidst grazing turtles, I noticed a beautiful sea star (not a starfish since it’s not a fish), perfectly displayed on the white sand below…and then there were two, three, and soon an entire field of red and yellow legs scattered like easter eggs and a few curled in balls around rocks.

As I dove down for a closer look at how a sea star clings to a rock, I discovered a lobster hiding under a ledge, wagging his long antennae forbidding me to come any closer. My peripheral vision caught movement and I turned to see a Caribbean Whiptail Stingray stirring up a meal of small fish in the sand, while bigger fish hovered, scavenging the crumbs. Sometimes, it’s only the eyes I see on these amazing creatures while the rest of their 6-foot body hides in sand waiting to ambush its prey.

The magnificent grace of a Spotted Eagle Ray always takes my breath away. Its large spotted body with a tail nearly 10 feet long glides by flapping its wings. I’m close enough to make eye contact and my heart sings. In Turks and Caicos, we had the pleasure of snorkeling in the midst of eight! of these rays, as though we were part of their synchronized swimming team. Those are the times when you forget to breathe and your heart fills with gratitude to be a witness to nature.

I finally decided to refresh my scuba skills. We were sailing the Western Caribbean and the diving was first-rate in Bonaire and the Honduran Bay Islands, with their steep walls and protected status. Many divers like the wrecks but watching Poseidon Adventure too many times has left a deep-rooted fear of something (or someone!) popping out of a dark cavernous hole. I stick to the corals and fish found only in deep water. Sixty feet below the surface on a reef wall that plunges to infinity, corals are healthy and vibrant and the fish, well, they’re bigger.

I gasped the first time an 8-foot reef shark swam by, but then calmed, remembering that I’m not really one of their food groups; they’re just curious like I am about them. The more dives I made, the more I overcame my fear of deep water. My confidence grew about equipment and monitoring my depth and ascent. I began to relax and enjoy the ultimate serenity of our planet, far below the mayhem humankind has created on the surface. I will forever treasure hearing humpback whales sing to one another as they migrated past Salt Cay.

Shallow water snorkeling remains my favorite. It doesn’t cost anything, I never run out of air, there’s often more to see, and life begins right in our backyard. The first critter I often see just below the boat is a remora or sharksucker, who actually looks like a shark. It races over like the Welcome Wagon when we anchor and promptly begins cleaning the bottom of our boat. Better than coupons, don’t you think? He’s like having a pet and we like seeing him hang around into the night when our underwater lights come on. We had these lights installed when we first purchased Gémeaux so we could enjoy nighttime swims. The irony, however, is that now we can actually see the 5-feet Tarpon that are attracted to the lights and nobody wants to get in the water. I can never resist a party of Stingrays, however, and I often put on a mask and snorkel to watch the bunch of them busily stir up dinner just below me. I don’t stray far from the stern of the boat, however, and I’ve never tried night diving because, well…I’m still afraid of the dark.

In full daylight, patient and still as a floating log, I uncover entire miniature civilizations. I can see eyelashes on Redlip Blennies and the brilliant architecture of a juvenile Queenfish. Social Feather Dusters and Christmas Tree Worms pop in and out of Brain Coral. I’m close enough to touch them, though I never do. Instead, I watch them open up their fan-like arms once they’ve established I’m not an enemy. Occasionally, my vision is obscured by too many fish. Blizzards of tiny Silversides form fish balls according to size and disperse only to clear a path for me or when a pelican dives in for a meal.

Determined to find more critters in this little paradise, I notice a Chain Moray eel poke only its head out, opening and closing its jaws like it might bite, but in fact is only bringing water down to its gills. Conventions of small Bluestriped Grunts cluster together until they’re big enough to join their older friends in the deeper reefs.

A speck of sand moves and I discover a Peacock Flounder or a Lizardfish, showing off their camouflaging skills. Not everyone protects themselves with camouflage. The small shell-like Flamingo Tongue, usually attached to the purple Common Sea Fan, has bright orange spots outlined in black to warn predators that they are toxic.  

At Sandy Isle in The Grenadines, I stumbled upon a pair of Flying Gunards, the larger male, exquisitely decorated with blue tips on its back fins. It was fascinating watching them eat—crawling on the bottom, using their front fins like hands to flip over rocks, quickly seizing the startled mollusk or snail as its home is turned upside down. Yellowhead Jawfish with light blue flowy tails are only 4-5 inches long so they’re hard to spot, but so interesting to watch catch a meal. They hover vertically above their sand dwellings snatching bits of floating plankton and then plunging tail first back in their hole at the first threat of danger.

The iconic Parrotfish in all their variations deserves the community service award for maintaining health reef ecosystems by scraping away meals of algae. Then, they create our beaches by expelling what becomes fine sand…did you know that’s what you’re sitting on?! If you listen closely, you can actually hear the crunch crunch sound of these fish biting into the coral with their front teeth. Harems of these colorful fish (yes, most are female) are dominated by a single dominant male (boo). If the male dies, the strongest female can become a male (wow!) and takes over the harem. Now there’s food for thought.

Every creature has a personality. The red Squirrel Fish with its giant, black eyes, is shy. I keep my distance, knowing my presence makes them nervous.

Scrawled Filefish almost always travel in pairs so if I see one, I search for the other and find it eating Fire Coral, toxic to the human touch. I discover that many fish remain in the same area. If I return the next day, I find the same Porcupinefish hiding under the ledge where I saw it yesterday. And yes, there’s nap time in the underworld. Schools of fish sitting, er…standing, er…swimming what’s the word?…in place. One fish was completely vertical with its mouth agape as if it was snoring and lost in some faraway dream.

And then there’s the Octopus, who has the largest brain of all invertebrates; has the uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and texture; and, with three hearts, simply must have the biggest personality. Octopuses (you can’t put a Latin ending on a Greek word so never octopi) are hard to find until you find one. I searched endlessly for this fascinating creature, until one day I noticed a pile of freshly-cleaned empty shells standing out against a landscape of brown rocks. I knew instantly a well-fed octopus lived just behind its decorated front door. Now, I see octopuses nearly every time I snorkel—I just look for the collection of polished shells and quietly peek in every nook and cranny until I find two big sleepy eyes or a huge beak sucking in yet another meal.

Sometimes, when a small fish swims by, an arm flails out of the hole as if swatting away an annoying fly. By far, the most memorable experience was in Sand Hole near Grand Turk, where a Caribbean Reef Octopus, dressed in green that day, allowed us to watch it eat an enormous Conch lunch. If you’re still ordering Octopus in a restaurant, I invite you to read Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, an illuminating and compassionate tale of these enchanting creatures that will give you pause next time you find it on the menu.

There are things we find that we don’t want to find in the sea. Jellyfish. Not really, the turtles would be unhappy if their food source disappeared. The Lionfish, stunning as it is, are an invasive species, not native to the Caribbean. They have no natural predators and satisfy their voracious appetites by eating their way through entire ecosystems.

No matter how faraway the place, we always seem to find trash. The winds and the currents bring in pounds of junk each day from distant places like Africa. Environmental education hasn’t reached some of these destinations. Even in the pristine water of the San Blas Islands of Panama, trash collects at the shoreline because a better disposal system is simply out-of-reach.

Just this week in The Bahamas’ remote Jumento Cays, I kept finding small plastic bags while snorkeling, some of them seemingly unopened but now filled with sand and shells. What could these be? I then learned that they are emergency water, provided in disaster-relief situations. Sadly, they end up in the sea creating a new disaster. There must be a better way.

Nature calls…time to discover some more amazing critters. Join me in spreading the word about the magical life underwater. I know you’ll do your part in picking up any evil plastic you find on your own snorkeling adventures.

 

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Posted on January 25, 2020 | 6 comments

Dinghy Walkabout

Dinghy Walkabout

It was game night on Gémeaux and fun as usual except the girls lost…as usual it seems these days. Tomorrow would be an early start for a long day of sailing so we decided against another chance to reclaim victory. We bid farewell to our friends and escorted the four of them to the swim step where we gingerly place them in their dark dinghy, careful not to land them in the drink. But wait—where’s the dinghy!? A sinking feeling settles in our gut as though we’ve returned to our car only to find an empty space on the street. Did the car roll away? Was it stolen? Did I actually drive tonight? As high winds continued whipping through the bay, we knew instantly what had happened. The knot had come loose and the wind stole the dinghy.

There was no handy curb or cul-de-sac to stop the runaway vehicle—only an endless body of water that faded into a dark, moonless night. We immediately dispatched a search party in our dinghy and remained optimistic that Allen and Mike would return shortly with the runaway. The rest of us waited onboard certain that each dim chaos of flashlight beams meant a discovery. But as minutes ticked by, hope turned to concern for our captains blindly motoring through shallow waters of the surrounding reef. They returned drenched from wind-blown waves and sadly, empty-handed.

It was a sleepless night–Allen’s mind busily sorting through all the possibilities for retrieving the dinghy. At daybreak the next day, he launched our dinghy and floated quietly while his mathematical wit calculated that the missing dinghy would drift about 1 knot in a southwest direction. With gps coordinates in hand, he phoned a local air charter company. After much coercing, Allen secured a pilot to do an aerial search. Brilliant! We notified the police and the coast guard and called the local store owner who seemed to know everyone on South Caicos island. Surely, someone would find the dinghy. We pulled up our anchors and for the next several hours, sat with binoculars affixed to our faces. Scanning the horizon for a 10-foot grey craft amidst 2-3 foot wind chop in 20 knot winds was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but while riding a bucking bronco. Still, optimism remained high and we excitedly held our breath each time we saw a glimpse of grey, only to discover it was yet another white cap on the busy surf.

“The airforce is here!” Allen radioed Mike, as a low-flying aircraft buzzed us. Allen and the pilot exchanged text messages while we remained within cell service and later by satellite phone as we motored further and further away from land. “If the dinghy is here, I’ll find it,” the pilot said with a determination that said we had the right guy for the job. We watched the plane circle around and around the targeted area and we jumped to attention each time a message came in, waiting for the good news. “I can see sharks and rays but no dinghy. I’m really sorry—I was sure I would spot it.” Even the pilot was disappointed. Damn.

By this time, we figured the little dinghy was well on its way to Cuba and we hoped it would change the life of some poor fisherman making a living in a rowboat. As we continued to mourn its loss, our friends began making plans to procure a new craft. After all, unless you want to swim to shore each time you anchor, a dinghy in this life is essential. Another sleepless night as Allen’s brain turned a different direction—how to get a dinghy in the remote Turks and Caicos Islands where there are no marine stores? We could buy one from a Florida dealer and have it shipped. How many weeks would that take? Maybe we should just look locally for a used dinghy to get by until we reach Florida in April? Insomnia extended across the marina where Mike and Ronna contemplated the various options and complexities. By morning, phones were abuzz with calls to the insurance company and different freight carriers. A new dinghy was available in Florida! And there’s a freighter leaving tomorrow! But wait—how do we get a 150-pound piece of freight delivered to the ship? And how do we get it off the ship through Customs once it’s here? And, we’ve only got the dinghy—we still need a motor. How we wished for a local West Marine on the island.

While Mike and Allen continued to work out the details of wiring money and hiring Customs agents, Ronna and I decided this underwater mecca of Turks and Caicos required some exploration. We set out with a local dive company, making two dives along the reef wall that drops thousands of feet just off the coast. I know I’m supposed to tell you that we lamented leaving the boys behind and had no fun at all on our dives. Well, let’s just say we gave Provo Turtle Divers a 5-star rating and ticked off a bunch of critters from our must-see list.

We returned to the marina just after noon to find Mike flush with anger and Allen on a heated phone call. An hour earlier, while we were swimming alongside reef sharks, Allen received a phone call from his pilot buddy asking to verify the details of the dinghy. Turns out the dinghy was just listed As Found on a Facebook page. Minutes earlier, Mike had completed the wire transfer for the new dinghy. Ruh roh Scooby. The pilot relayed the contact information to Allen and wished us luck in negotiating the dinghy’s return. His  expertise, apparently, was only in the air .

Invigorated with new optimism, Allen dialed the phone while Mike stood by. Allen’s first mistake was trying to inquire if THEIR dinghy had been found. Immediately, Allen was told, “This is MY dinghy and you will not talk to me like that!” Allen quickly avoided any further use of personal pronouns and patiently tried to return the conversation to a normal rate of speed. They could have the dinghy for $3,000 but only if they came immediately—there’s another buyer in the wings. Allen asked if they could come at 4pm. An exasperated no.“I have to pick up my daughter from school.” Oh good, now children are involved. “You can have the dinghy back for $2,700,” the guy negotiated with himself, “but you have to come now.” Allen remained on the phone, clarifying directions to a backyard or maybe an abandoned gas station, stalling for time to think through the next step in the unfolding crime.

Speaking of which, this does feel like a crime—shouldn’t we call the police? Upon learning that indeed selling someone’s own property back to them or to someone else is against the law, an official sting operation was launched. Now under the direction of the Turks and Caicos police force, Mike and Allen set off for the agreed-upon drop point at the gas station. Once contact is established with the potential criminal, they were to phone the police and leave the phone turned on until the swat team entered the scene from the back alley. And we’re afraid of pirates at sea?!

Our captains approached the gas station. Have I mentioned, by the way, that they drive on the left side of the road in Turks and Caicos, as though there wasn’t enough stress completing the mission. Four people are sitting on a wall drinking beer. Awesome—it’s a Corona commercial! But wait, there are four of them and only two of us. There was no mention of bringing along muscle. Just at that moment…trumpets blared and the police appeared. I like to think it was a scene from The Dukes of Hazard where the police car screeched in on two wheels.

Now why’d you have to go get the police involved? Tempers flared, backup was called, Mike and Allen watched from the sidelines while a confrontation ensued about salvage law. Two of the muscle drinking beer on the wall chimed in, professing expertise in the law and demanding that the dinghy in question did indeed belong to its new owner. Actually no. Just because you find something doesn’t mean it’s yours. Ask Judge Judy. It gives you the right to ask for salvage fees, but not title to the item in question. Salvage fees are determined and awarded by the court. Mike’s legal ears perked up when banter started about going down to the station and getting lawyers involved. Think I’ll represent myself, thank you very much. In the end and because there was a daughter who still needed to be picked up from school, the group decided that $1,000 would be a reasonable finder’s fee. On second thought, let’s make it $500. No need to get lawyers involved.

The criminal caravan pulled out of the gas station and drove down dirt roads and through backyards until the little dinghy came into sight. Mike’s heart sang with joy—just momentarily, however, as he noticed his precious dinghy was inches away from two barking dogs eager to rip from their chains and gnaw on some good hyperlon rubber. Wouldn’t that just make the perfect fairy tale ending? Instead, Mike found a little love in his heart and bought everyone sodas when he went to the ATM to secure the cash. Allen stayed behind to work on the evolving friendship. Really I think he was dumbfounded that his drift calculations didn’t lead us first to the dinghy and he wanted to know precisely where it ultimately landed. Turns out Allen’s mental acuity is in tact and we just missed spotting it by a ½ mile. As the story unfolded, Allen learned that the dinghy had been discovered on a local fishing expedition…fishing for fish that is, not for dinghys. The fisherman tied the dinghy to his boat and continued his expedition for fish. The crowning moment was learning that while he continued to fish, the painter knot slipped AGAIN and the dinghy drifted away AGAIN! Not to be outwitted, the fisherman recovered the dinghy for a second time, tied a different knot, and towed it back to the island, where he transported it to his backyard on a boat trailer.

Hang on…one critical component remains in this tale of tales—how to transport the 250lb dinghy and its motor from a backyard to the sea? No hide nor hair of a towing vehicle or trailer in the backyard and frankly, Allen’s new bff was done with this operation and wanted only his finder’s fee. So, while Mike was away emptying his bank account, the police officer rung up everyone she knew who owns a truck. Allen, meanwhile, stood on the side of the road flagging down innocent souls who just happen to drive by in a pickup truck. The police officer won the prize by connecting with a landscape contractor who of course owns a pickup and agreed to swing by at precisely the same moment that Mike was returning from the ATM. Mike later told us that he couldn’t navigate the narrow lane back to the infamous backyard because there was a truck transporting an entire forest blocking the road. The landscaper completed his day job delivering six full-size palm trees and eventually returned with an empty truck bed to become a dinghy transporter.

Ronna and I finally got involved in the sting operation when Allen called us for help securing the marina crane. Oddly enough, we had just been wondering what that big blue rectangular thingee was. We hunted down the dockhand and asked if he would please be ever so kind as to engage the crane to lift our poor little dinghy, did you hear by the way that we found it??!!, back in the water. “Uh yeah, I can do that,” he responded slowly, glancing at his watch, certain that his workday was ending in 42 minutes when the clock struck 5. “I can do it tomorrow.” Ummm…we really need it to happen today. Our menfolk will be here any minute. It will be quick. It will be easy. We’ll help. Well maybe that last comment didn’t help our cause.

Minutes before the workday ended, the little dinghy hung from the air ready to return to the sea. Oh please don’t drop it now after everything we’ve been through. It splashed happily and safely back into the water and the crowd cheered.

Reunited, and it feels so good
Reunited ‘cause we understood
There’s one perfect fit…

and Exodus and their dinghy rejoiced in the reunion and lived happily ever after. Now…how to cancel that wire transfer for a new dinghy?

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Posted on January 18, 2020 | 0 comments

Earthquake at Sea

Earthquake at Sea

The third earthquake struck at sunrise shutting down all power to the island and foiling our plans to fuel before leaving on an offshore passage. Do we have enough fuel to make it? What happens when we’re at sea if another quake hits? We study weather every day, but hadn’t yet considered the possibility of an earthquake. Immediately, we reflected on how friends onboard Suzy Too, miraculously surfed the huge incoming wave while anchoring in Thailand, narrowly escaping the fate of so many who lost their lives in the 2004 tsunami.

Puerto Rico was not originally on our itinerary—we had planned to make only a few quick stops to break up our journey from the Virgin Islands to Turks and Caicos. Rounding the corner to Tortuga Bay of the northeastern Isla de Culebrita in the Spanish Virgin Islands, however, we knew instantly we would want to stay longer.

On this New Year’s Day, the mood was festive—pleasure boats from mainland Puerto Rico rafted together and filled the bay with laughter. We joined locals in The Jacuzzis, where the ocean surf surges suddenly through large rocks forming natural pools with foaming water. We battled mosquitos and dodged hermit crabs for an easy climb to a lighthouse, red brick and marble floors still impressive from its 1880 construction.

Underwater, our hearts sang as we discovered healthy clumps of staghorn, a coral that seems to be disappearing from our planet. We paddle boarded through dense mangroves and explored town, slowly drifting in our dinghy through canals as though we were Venetian gondolas. We scampered for days and hours to squeeze in all the sights of this unplanned stop.

The Walled City of Old San Juan was a must-see—clean and quaint and touted as what you might imagine Havana, Cuba to be. We walked the iconic blue cobblestone streets, taking in the sights of Ponce de Leon’s tomb at the San Juan Bautista Cathedral and the beautiful yellow Spanish architecture of Hotel El Convento, once a 17th-century convent. Parque de las Palomas and its billion pigeon residents provided respite and entertainment as birds landed on the shoulders of unsuspecting passersby.

At long last, our feet gave out and we collapsed at a table in Sanse 152, where the waitress/cook/owner brought us tapas until we rolled out the door. We wandered the secret rooms of La Factoria and sat at one of its many bars as waiters delighted us in their creative mixology. Sadly, we couldn’t fit in anymore and hailed an uber to return us to the Puerto del Rey marina.

Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony to die on an island named Caja de Muertos or Coffin Island? Little did we know that in a few hours after anchoring, we would be less than 10 miles away from an earthquake epicenter. Focused on a different disaster, we went ashore this small island and wandered the old pier and dilapidated buildings devastated by Hurricane Maria. Two caretakers oversee the property, protected by a natural reserve because of its native turtle traffic. Mosquitos, not imminent darkness, deterred us from making the 2-hour roundtrip walk to the 1887 lighthouse so instead, we stood on the beach and watched a brilliant sun set behind our boat in the bay.

A number of curious tales claim this island’s namesake—several 16th century greedy explorers were all killed trying to secure a treasure; from the air, the island looks like a coffin. Personally, I like the story of a romantic who embalmed his murdered wife and left treasures at her glass casket each time he visited her. In any case, today’s treasure was having a beautiful anchorage all to ourselves and seeing, for the first time, teeny baby turtles swimming at the back of our boat. You’ll be pleased to hear that I used extraordinary restraint and did not bring any of them onboard.

At 6:30am the following morning, a 5.8 earthquake struck in the water near the town of Ponce on the southwest side Puerto Rico. Our phones began buzzing with text messages from family and friends —did you know there was an earthquake near you? Did you feel it? Are you okay? We we were cozy in our coffins and didn’t feel a thing.

Photo Source: UPRM Meteorological Lab

We got underway for a full-day sail west to our next destination of Boquerón, piecing together scant details of the tremor from various news sources. The quake had caused an iconic natural rock arch in Ponte Ventana to collapse, but not much else was reported. Today was Epiphany, or Dios de los Rios, a holiday more popular than Christmas in this Catholic country, and that’s what occupied the minds of the Puerto Ricans.

We dropped anchor mid-afternoon off the expansive Seashell Beach in Bahia de Boquerón. We made a decision to enjoy today’s festive atmosphere ashore and delay fueling for our upcoming passage until tomorrow—a decision that we would later regret. All the shops were open on this holiday and it seemed the entire town was wandering the streets feasting on fresh conch from food trucks and drinking in Boquerón’s many bars. If I had stayed a little longer I would have neutered a few cats that appeared in every alley.

We picked up some groceries at a local convenience store, where the owner insisted we sample the pork belly that he was grilling at the front door. Nighttime fell amidst rainstorms as our heads hit the pillow for a final night of solid rest. Tomorrow, we would wake early, get fuel as soon as the dock opened, and set off quickly while the weather gods were in our favor.

At 4:30am, a bump on the boat woke Allen—like someone shaking the boat, he would later say. This California man knew immediately it was an earthquake. He poked around the boat, not finding anything out of the ordinary except car alarms ringing from the nearby shore. Within an hour, the New York Times, his online morning newspaper, confirmed that a second earthquake with a magnitude of 6.4 did indeed strike near the first epicenter at 4:30 this morning.Together with our buddy boat, Exodus, we pulled up the anchors just before sunrise and began motoring in about 20 feet of water around the corner to the fuel dock. At the very moment we were on the phone with the fuel attendant to confirm they were open following the two tremors, we all felt another bump—a third quake struck. The main power plant went into a precautionary automatic shutdown, cutting off power to most of the island. There would be no fuel today. We discussed briefly the possibility of staying in Puerto Rico until fuel was available again. But who knew if that would be tomorrow or next month? Would there be a fourth earthquake? And then what would happen? We had a very small window to cross the Mona Passage and reach Turks and Caicos before high winds and swell would make the passage rough and uncomfortable. We quickly calculated if the two boats had enough fuel to make the passage. With a 124 gallon capacity, we had 80 gallons in the tank and 20 more stowed. We decided to press on.

Three days later, we reached Grand Turk just as the winds shrieked to 45 knots. We turned on our cell phones and details of the Puerto Rico quakes trickled in. Four people had lost their lives, 8000 homes destroyed, schools were closed, and ¼ million people were without power and water. It could take a year to complete repairs to the power plant. A country who was still recovering from extensive damage left by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, now faced havoc from the most destructive earthquake in more than a century.

After all the kindness that this country showed us, it’s disheartening to see it crushed by Mother Nature. We loved Puerto Rico. We can’t wait to return and we hope you’ll put it on your list of places to visit. And remember, it’s part of the United States—please support aid as they rebuild their lives.

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Posted on January 1, 2020 | 3 comments

The Virgins–Or Are They?

The Virgins–Or Are They?

I admit I wasn’t that excited to sail through the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. We were there on a bareboat charter many years ago and it seemed still today to be a mecca for charters. Now that we are snobby live-aboards, we didn’t want to share our precious sea with a bunch of tourists and certainly we would never find any solitude. Wouldn’t you know—the first place we stopped we had all to ourselves.

The 24-mile long U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix came into view just after 8am following a night passage. It was a perk to clear customs by an app on our phone (because we’re US citizens) and we immediately made our way to Buck Island, protected since 1948 to preserve one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean. Day tours and party boats motored to the white sand beach all day long. By sunset, they all disappeared and giant hawksbill turtles returned to share their home with us. Anxious to explore coastal waters safeguarded by a National Park, we set out by dinghy with high hopes. Sadly, we discovered the underwater snorkeling trail was in disrepair and the corals were suffering. How could this be? This is a U.S. National Park!

Growing up in places like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, I took for granted that these natural resources would be well protected for the enjoyment and education of future generations. Allen dove down amidst fields of bleached elkhorn coral and wiped a thick layer of algae from large concrete plaques that once provided marine descriptions, but now are cracked and crumbling. I quietly contemplated the state of our planet—so much devastation below the ocean surface so humankind can enjoy life above. Warming climates, hurricanes, trash, apathy—we see it firsthand everywhere in our travels…and today, even in a National Park.

What’s the upside of how humankind has impacted these islands? In the nearby town of Frederiksted stands a 1500-foot long commercial pier. At the surface, it hosts cruise ships, but underwater, a vibrant marine ecosystem glums to its 25-foot concrete pilings that sink well into the ocean floor. It is a magnificent collection of brilliantly-colored soft corals and sponges that attract anemones, fish…and the elusive seahorse. I haven’t yet seen these miniature marvels so this stop was top of the list. With mask and snorkel on, I instantly discovered that this manmade structure also was a hotbed for comb and larger moon jellyfish. No stinkin’ jellies were gonna interfere with my seahorse search so I looked past the underwater galaxy of jellies and ignored them when they brushed against my face. I never did see a seahorse but I did love discovering that red-lipped blennies do indeed have red lips…and eyelashes! And, I guess I’m a tiny bit more comfortable swimming with jellies.

Charter catamarans began filling the landscape as we headed to the British island of Virgin Gorda to clear customs. (That process took 2 hours since we’re not UK citizens and we arrived during lunchtime). We reluctantly skipped The Baths, a natural maze of granite boulders and caves, but also a snarl of humankind, and headed north. Homes and resorts dotted the lush, green hillsides of the island and it wasn’t until we peered through binoculars that we realized dozens of  buildings stood empty without windows or roofs. Both the US and BVI were hit hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Many repairs stand unfinished and one can only imagine the number of residents who lost their homes and livelihoods in the disaster. One exception to this status quo of disrepair was on Mosquito Island, privately-owned by Richard Branson. Say what you will about millionaires owning islands and you know how I feel about preserving our natural world, but the island is crawling with construction equipment and employing local island workers to rebuild its resort. I give one point to humankind.

At the very north end of this archipelago lies Anegada, the Drowned Island—a flat, low-lying desert-like island famous for its local lobster and often too far a reach for the charters. We learned a lot from wandering and meeting some of the island’s 300 humans. The only ice cream are frozen Snickers bars sold in a gift shop freezer next to bags of squid. Everyone serves Pain Killer rum cocktails, but only Simone makes them with the secret ingredient… ❤️Four bodies and a bunch of snorkeling gear can all fit in a Moke—don’t forget to drive on the left side! Fish traps and a little ingenuity makes the perfect Christmas tree. You must make your reservation and dinner selection by 4pm so the restaurant knows how many lobster to catch. Shoes are not required on the beach or at the dinner table and you may remain in your swimwear to share a bottle of chilled wine after snorkeling! Flamingos, goats, and cows live simbiatically with humankind and the surrounding waters are rich with sea life. And as one of our waiters said—Any day above ground is a good day!

Sometimes you just need to embrace civilization. On the island of Jost Van Dyke, we secured Gémeaux’s anchor in White Bay—just 200 feet from the Soggy Dollar Bar, home of the original Pain Killer. We were a group of six by that time–our guests, Doug and Marie, visiting from California and our buddy boat partners in crime, Mike and Ronna. Our group swam to shore (no shoes required) and quickly coalesced into a lively beach scene. Enthusiastic bartenders taught us that in addition to the secret ingredient of love, freshly-grated nutmeg is required to make the perfect Pain Killers. A heavy dose of rum doesn’t hurt either. We ate yummy fish and chips, played beach games, walked on the beach, drank a few more Pain Killers, and even frolicked with those charter catamaran guests. We ended a quintessential day of civilization at the island’s other claim to fame—Foxy’s calypso bar, freshly restored from Irma and home to a sweet black cat who exchanged snuggles for bites of fish.

Nature beckoned and our livers needed respite so we headed to what would end up as one of our favorite stops—Norman Island. Moored close to shore, we snorkeled straight off the back of Gémeaux and discovered a red-spotted octopus cleverly hidden in the rocks but with a collection of freshly-discarded shells that advertised his front door.  Around the corner from our little paradise was a gaggle of tour boats and charters. We realized instantly when we jumped into the water from our dinghy that the the hullabaloo of activity on the surface was unparalleled by the Atlantis marine mecca below. The Caves present a perfect science lesson on the circle of life. Millions of silverside fish swim in schools thick as blizzards of snow, leaving voids of clear water around them only when 4-6 foot tarpon casually swim by with their characteristic jutted lower jaw. Pelicans plunge continuously, scooping up pouchfuls of  silversides, while tarpon race below to seize any free meal that doesn’t quite make the pouch. I know this because I hovered with snorkel and mask right in the middle of this remarkable mayhem and loved every minute!

When at last I had my fill of this spectacle I drifted quietly along the ledge, discovering more red-lipped blennies and feather duster fan worms who flaunted their tentacles until I got too close and they retracted into their tube for safety. As other humankind left, our group finally investigated the allure of The Caves. With flashlights in hand, we swam into the dark waters and discovered a rainbow of pastel colors from different corals one typically would see only on a night dive. What a place!

One of our greatest fears of sailing in this populated world is a collision. In anchorages, we often witness boats entering at high speed, jockeying for position before another boat takes their parking place. Or, anchors aren’t properly set and in the middle of the night, a boat drifts through the anchorage while its occupants sleep. We are diligent about safety and Allen practices great patience and courtesy to steer clear of collisions. And remember…he sleeps with one eye open. Even with that one eye open, all four of us onboard heard the crash just before midnight. The cleat on the bow of a nearby boat broke and the vessel detached from the mooring ball, quickly drifting into Gémeaux. We made sure everyone was safe (they were) and the next morning at light, we discovered the major damage had been to the pulpit on our bow. The pulpit not only provides a premier sitting spot but also secures our life lines, which help to prevent people from falling overboard. The pulpit was bent, which now created slack in the lifelines. Several months later, we would still find parts of Gémeaux that were damaged by the incident 😢One demerit for humankind.

Before leaving the Virgin Islands, we made one final stop at Francis Bay on St John, where more than half of the island is part of the US Virgin Islands National Park. Having paid my share of camping and entrance fees at the little brown kiosks denoting a National Park boundary, I delighted in how collections were made in this bay of water.

The process was much like every other park campsite I’ve paid—$26/night, place the cash in a little envelope and mark your campsite #…er mooring ball, and drop it in the slot of the brown box. Instead of a kiosk, however, fees were collected on a 10×10-foot floating dock anchored in the middle of the bay. Snorkeling in the shallow waters was fabulous! Finally, one big point to humankind for maintaining a healthy ecosystem and making this area accessible to visitors. May it remain preserved for the education and enjoyment of future generations!

Now you have all the best places to visit when you charter your catamaran in the Virgin Islands. It’s a treat to have these beautiful Caribbean islands as part of the United States. Enjoy them, but please don’t feed the bears…er, fish; drive carefully;  and pick up any evil plastic you find on the beach or in the sea. By the way,  you aren’t still drinking from single-use plastic water bottles…are you? Happy New Year–may 2020 bring peace on the planet!

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Posted on November 30, 2019 | 4 comments

Passage to St Martin

Passage to St Martin

I’m afraid of the dark. When I was little I’d take a flying leap into my bed so the boogey monster under my mattress couldn’t drag me into his lair. Fast forward 50 years and I’m forced to face my fear on a boat in the middle of an ocean during an offshore passage—sailing about 12 days straight through the night without stopping. That’s a lot of nights. That’s a lot of boogey monsters.

Okay, I don’t really think the boogey monster has followed me to the big, blue ocean. And frankly, sailing at night is beautiful—dark skies illuminate constellations, moon rises are breathtaking, and the solitude of being out here on our own is paradise. When it’s dark, however, you can’t see the container ship that might run into you or know how big that approaching squall is. You have only radar to assess if that Rorschach weather blob is orange, reddish orange, or full on RED—wake the Captain, there’s a serious squall approaching! 

You have to figure out how close is too close for the Carnival Cruise Ship to pass. And what if he’s not paying attention to our little 44-foot radar blob? These gigantic ships have become the boogey monster.

We’re preparing for the 2019 Salty Dawg Rally in Hampton, Virginia, where our first Caribbean adventure began two years ago when we sailed with the rally to Antigua. (Read Destination: Antigua). It’s a delight shopping at Costco and Trader Joe’s and buying all our US favorite treats, as this might be the last time we’re in the US for the foreseeable future.

Our friends, David and Barbara Thomas, are crewing with us to make night watches less sleepless and to keep the boogey monster at bay. We attend safety lectures, meet fellow cruisers, and prepare freezer foods for our passage. We steal the show on Halloween when we dress as the musical group Kiss—complete with wigs and face paint, tossing chocolate kisses to the crowd.

At last, our famed weather router, Chris Parker, gives a tentative go-ahead for our passage—tentative because there’s an offshore cold front headed our direction but the next weather window is at least a week out and nobody really wants that much of a delay. On November 2nd just after 6pm, we join a parade of boats and head into the Chesapeake shipping channel, passing lines of destroyers and aircraft carriers as darkness sets in. Oh goody…darkness. Nearly 2,000 miles away is our destination—the island of St. Martin, the very place we met Gémeaux in November 2016.

I lie in bed at 8pm on this first night, trying to convince my body it’s bedtime so I can rest before my watch begins at 4am. We’re all taking 4-hour watches at the helm—David is on 8pm to midnight, Allen takes over until 4am, and then Barbara and I share a watch until 8am.  Despite the early hour, I like our watch because half of it will be in the light when all boogey monsters sleep. During the day, we alternate who’s at the helm, giving each other a break to sleep or read or prepare food. I’m restless and wide-eyed. The boat pitches and rolls through the open sea, waves pound against the hulls, and the helm is just above my bed so I hear all the sail adjustments. Somehow I must have dozed off because my 3:45am alarm jars me from sleep. I put on my life jacket and adjust my eyes to the surrounding darkness—interior lights are off to improve our night vision. Barbara and I make cocoa and take over watch from Allen, who gives us a quick debrief of our current course, weather, and any nearby traffic. At this early stage in our passage, there are a few rally boats nearby. Soon, we will all disperse and find our own path on this marine highway to the Caribbean. We’re instructed to wake the captain if vessels get within three miles of us, a squall approaches, or if the wind increases, decreases, or shifts. Gee, what are the odds of none of that happening during the next four hours? Nevertheless, we want the captain to get his rest so we keep our fingers crossed for an uneventful watch and constantly second guess our decisions before waking him. We’re a ¼ mile off course—is that enough to wake the captain? Should we wait until it becomes ½ mile? ¾ of a mile? It doesn’t really matter—Allen wakes at the slightest shift in wind and sleeps with one eye closed and the other on his iPhone, which has remote access to the chart plotter. He always knows what we’re doing and sometimes I think he just lies down there testing us to see when we’ll wake him. Tonight…er this morning, after motoring since we left the marina, Allen pops up from bed with a big grin and announces The wind is up—raise the sails and turn off the engines! There is nothing that makes the captain happier.

My eyelids are heavy and I watch the clock slowly tick to 8am when David will take over. This is the other problem I have with passages—I just can’t stay awake. The constant motion of the boat puts me immediately to sleep and, unlike my partner,  I do need sleep…lots of it. It helps having a second person to share the watch—Barbara and I swap tales of motherhood, share our different adventures around the planet, review books, discuss how to adjust passage meals for both hungry and sick tummies, and solve the problems of the world. We study the chart plotter and quiz each other on all its features, becoming experts on the difference between apparent and true wind speed and how to trim the sails. I make stovetop popcorn, a food my friend, Courtney, introduced as the perfect passage treat. We perk up at the first glimpse of daybreak and celebrate each sunrise.

Both Barbara and I love the natural world and enjoy being quiet witnesses to the details of how a day begins. Free of noise and distractions, we realize the complete sunrise takes nearly 45 minutes. With our panoramic view of the sky, we watch the moon set and the sun rise and are tickled when they happen simultaneously. We notice how colors evolve from black to purple to fiery reds and oranges. And when at long last, the sun rises, we break the silence and declare the dawn of a new day…and nearly the end of our watch. David greets us with a big smile and coffee in hand. We pass the baton and I immediately return to bed. My body ignores the boat din and sleep comes easily.

By 2pm the following day, we reach the Gulf Stream where the water temperature jumps from the low 60s to a balmy 75 degrees. We’re anxious to shed our jackets and layers of warm clothing. Before long, the rain flaps that create our protective cocoon at the helm won’t be necessary. We’ll stow the down comforters from our beds and open the hatches. We’ll start complaining of hot, sweaty nights and long for that cool sleeping weather we had just days ago. Still, I love this gradual transition to the Caribbean climate.

I have a long list of what I plan to accomplish during our offshore passage. Nearly two weeks when the world stops and I can catch up on writing and various boat projects. Immediately, however, as we bounce through a boisterous (as our British friends would say) Gulf Stream with 8-10 foot waves, I realize none of it will be done. Instead, my days will consist of two activities—1) a 4-8am watch and 2) sleep. I hadn’t planned on being sea sick. Yup, an occupational hazard.

Allen never gets sea sick and David and Barbara both are wearing Scopolamine patches that appear to be working well from them. I’ve tried several different medications over the years and the sleepiness and other side effects are almost worse than the sea sickness itself. I choose to just grin and bear it and hope I get my sea legs soon. That strategy sounded good until I ended up hanging my head over the back of the boat. Finally on day five, I break down and become a patcher. I’m sleepy and feel jittery like I’m going through some type of detox. My mouth is full of cotton that no drink can cure. But…I’m not nauseous.

Today after my watch, I sleep until 11am. I feel almost normal when I wake, except these 24-hour days leave my stomach confused. I’m not sure if I should prepare breakfast or lunch. Pringles and Top Ramen are my favorite sea sickness menu items. There is no food shaming here. I fix Allen his typical breakfast of pineapple and peanut butter toast, knowing his fresh pineapple days are numbered.

I notice the fishing lines are out. David wants to fish and he really wants to eat fresh mahi mahi. I’m conflicted. I like fish dinners too but right now I’m sure the smell of fish would put my head right back over the stern. Plus, I love the sea and I’m finding it increasingly more difficult to kill its lovely inhabitants. For now, it’s catch and release.

I listen to my Audible book since I can’t read without getting nauseous. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind gives me a lot to contemplate on these long days with only three other sapiens. I decide on chicken enchiladas for dinner and chips and guacamole before the avocados rot. Fresh vegetables are so precious and I hate the thought of letting any of them go bad. People come and go between sleep, a shower, reading, and eating some kind of meal that can’t be defined. Allen and I take down the main sail and roll up the jib admitting defeat from lack of wind. My novice sailing opinion is there’s never the right amount wind—too little or gale force, never just right for Goldilocks. David offers to prep dinner and I’m relieved to just sit and have someone else be the galley slave.

Allen cheerfully pours cocktails—club soda over 2 ice cubes per person (another precious commodity) and a splash of tonic with lime that we’ve dubbed and tonics. We’re always a dry boat on passages so gin won’t return to our and tonics until we reach land. We enjoy dinner together around the cockpit table now that’s it’s warm enough to once again eat outside. An overcast day presents a lovely sunset with clouds all around. Allen joins a 6:30pm radio broadcast on weather while David cleans up and Barbara and I manage the helm. We are falling into roles and intuitively prepare for another round of night watches. Navigation lights come on, screens and gauges are turned to dark mode, and I find my headlamp and wool hat—the night wind is still cool on my head. We all remark how much we love when the sails are up and we’re going fast and bouncing around…while it’s light. The minute we’re engulfed in darkness, the mood becomes somber, things are scary. What’s that light on the horizon? How far away is the lightening? Is the wind too much for the sails? The boogey monster returns.

Since our departure, we’ve been chased by a strong cold front that now stretches from Bermuda to the Bahamas, just as our weather router predicted. We’ve been able to stay ahead of the front but even 100 miles behind us we can feel its effects—bands of fierce squalls with intense downpours, usually escorted by high winds. After several years in the Caribbean we’ve seen our share of squalls. Most pass pretty quickly except for that one in the Bahamas when nearly 50 knot winds ripped our main sail from the mast. (Read Squall!) That squall has always been unique until now. Today we’ve had three! squalls with extended winds above 40 knots accompanied with a deluge of rain. Sitting at the helm is like being sprayed with a fire hose. Unlike the Bahamas squall; however, we’re prepared and Gémeaux stays in tact.

After dinner, I prepare for bed while Allen and David battle weather, taking down sails and altering course to avoid squalls and lightening. I take a quick shower wiping away days that have run together and it feels good. At 9:30, I fall into bed where the air is hot but I’m desperate to find sleep before another passage day begins. Minutes after my head hits the pillow, Allen wakes me. Every instrument on the boat is dead. The chart plotter that holds all our data, maps, route, weather, radar, EVERYTHING has crashed. The auto pilot that steers the boat is not functioning. All gauges are black. Of course it’s night and pitch black outside…when all disasters occur. And, it’s raining. Our first thought is that we’ve been struck by lightning. But while lightning is visible, no strikes are close to us. We are basically blind—no sight and no radar—and we’re chained to the helm hand steering to a compass.

The upside? We expect failures like this and carry a million spare parts. We have the right part to get the boat’s electronic network functional, but first we have to determine the source of the problem. Our captain brilliantly identifies the issue in the first place he looks. The fuse for the network has blown. No problem—just replace it. Then, the replacement fuse blows as well. Seems we have only a few spare fuses—not a million:( so we’re careful not to waste them. We track the problem down to the helm station—the deluge of rain appears to have shorted the instruments inside bringing down the entire network. The captain jury-rigs a spare autopilot controller into the system, which allows us to use the autopilot through the night. Tomorrow, when daylight arrives and the boogey monster sleeps, we’ll research further. I can hardly wait until my watch begins in a few hours!

When morning arrives, the captain works his magic and gauges, electronics, and autopilot continue working for the final few days as we close in on our destination. Now less than 400 miles away, it’s exciting to see land appear on the chart plotter and we eagerly await that first glimpse of dirt on the horizon. Winds again are light and our fuel capacity even lighter. We’ve been waiting for the trade winds to give us a swift sail the remaining distance but they seem just out of grasp. We pass the mark on the chart plotter where two years ago our underwater escape hatch failed and we drifted during the night while our adhesive repair set. Even though this passage has delivered continuous lines of squalls each night, I’m relieved we’re not dealing with a failing hatch. Confident as I am in Allen’s hatch repair, though, I still can’t help checking it each time I pass by it. Damn hatch. (Read Escape Hatches-Recipe for Disaster.)

The pineapple is gone. Books have been read. We miss the Internet…sort of. We just want to be there. And just like that…that trade winds arrive. Warm and strong boosting our speed to 7-8 knots. The captain is very happy. Barbara and I take our final watch together.The next waypoint on the chart plotter is LAND! Our eta for the island of Tintemarre off St. Martin is 5am the following day. The skies present a celebratory sunrise that paints the entire eastern horizon orange. A school of 10 dolphins playfully weave between our hulls, completing the festive spirit. A bird flies overhead. Time to chill the champagne.

1896 miles

12 days

0 boogey monsters

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