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Posted on March 25, 2020 | 11 comments

Shelter-in-Place at Sea

Shelter-in-Place at Sea

A virus, not weather, drove the decision—certain that this simple, solitary lifestyle was the best place to be; uncertain of how long the government would allow us to stay. Our friends sailed for home in the US, certain that being closer to family and healthcare was the best place to be; uncertain of what home would look like. We bid farewell to Exodus, our sailing buddies for more than a year, as we each decided to navigate this global crisis differently.

We’re in The Bahamas, surrounded by beautiful turquoise water. Sunsets are breathtaking and we find joy and peace under the sea. We rarely go ashore because everything we need is on our boat. We’re fully provisioned, as usual, in case weather dictates a delay or if there are no markets in this remote area. Our water maker converts salt water to fresh so we have drinking water.

Solar panels are charging our batteries. We even have a washing machine. Our plumbing is fragile so we know never to throw Lysol wipes down the toilet. When something breaks, we fix it ourselves…usually:) We forego haircuts and pedicures, movie dates and gyms. This is our normal day-to-day life as live-aboards on a sailboat and essentially it has prepared us for a pandemic.

Outside our 44-foot corner of the world, we know the coronavirus is taking on humanity. Newsfeeds, phone calls from the US, and social media fill us with updates. We wake each morning to heartbreaking reports in China and Italy, and a list of new cases and restrictions being implemented each day. We know lives are being lost and we are deeply saddened. We read about the fear and panic and desperate measures being taken in communities everywhere. We hear about toilet paper hoarding and runs on hand sanitizers. And while in many ways and on many days, we feel completely insulated from the turmoil exploding across the globe, we understand the magnitude of this event. We’re worried too—about our families and friends who are far away and simply how this planet is going to survive. And if this lovely tropical scene has provided any sense of insulation, it all disappeared the day we learned a family member tested positive for Covid-19.

In early March, coronavirus was just trickling into our lives and our sailing community. The biggest decision for us at that time was whether we should cancel two upcoming family trips to visit us. We live for the moments to play host and I was crushed to give up the chance to see my daughter. But the unpredictability of travel and health risks to everyone (including us) were too great. We put selfishness aside and cancelled. Two days later, the US announced travel restrictions, triggering a cascade of change that immediately shrunk our world. Countries started closing their borders to private vessels. Fellow cruisers were no longer allowed into ports and marinas. In some cases, foreign-flagged vessels were asked to leave the country entirely. Where does a US boat go when they’re required to leave the country of Guadaloupe 2,000 miles away? We heard stories of cruisers who just completed a 2-week offshore voyage, only to be denied entry into a country. For many of our friends, their boat is their home—there is no house on land. Even if they could fly to friends or family, there are no available marinas in which to leave their boats. And in three months, hurricane season will be upon us and options will become even more limited. Many of our Canadian and US friends decided to sail back to their respective countries, uncertain of how to provision and fuel en route as each day brings more restrictions. Other friends stayed put—some by choice, some by government lockdown. Our own itinerary landed us in a country with open borders and only a 2-day sail to the US in the event that changed. We decided to stay put.

Then Nassau reported its first case of Covid-19 and the world came tumbling down. We were pulling into a marina to refuel and buy some groceries just as panic began spreading across the islands. The marina staff, all wearing bandanas across their faces, were flustered and trying feverishly to establish a protocol based on the bits of information the Government was releasing. We were allowed off our boat only after our temperatures were taken. We purchased fuel. Groceries, however, were not available to us. It wasn’t clear when the mail boat, which delivers food and provisions each week from Nassau to outlying islands, would come as scheduled. It wasn’t clear, in fact, if the boat would come at all. The Bahamian system of supplying food to its islands is fragile—food was now being rationed for residents and resort guests until further notice.

This morning, less than a week later, we woke to news that the Bahamian government had closed its airports and issued a 24-hour curfew, i.e., a very strict shelter-in-place to reduce viral transmission and to thwart any potential violence in these difficult times. Although this mama would have loved to have had her daughter stuck with her indefinitely, clearly it had been a good decision to cancel the family trips. All non-essential business closed. Jobs came to a screeching halt. Ports and marinas closed. Visitors are no longer allowed in. There’s not, however, a mandate to leave the country so we’re still staying put…anchored offshore in isolation.

I’m not sure how to finish this writing. I’ve updated, rewritten and updated it again trying to keep pace with this fast-changing pandemic. We’re sheltering-in-place like many of you—we don’t go ashore, we interact with few people and only from afar. We have everything we need on our floating home—fuel and propane, enough food for a month. And since laughter is good for all of us—we’re used to spending 24/7 with one another in a small space so I’m pretty sure we won’t kill each other. If we run out of tp, we have a very big bidet off the stern of our boat:) But we worry—what if our water maker breaks and we can’t fix it? Will our warming planet send some erratic weather our way? Will The Bahamas force all nonresidents to leave? Will our families be okay? Thankfully, we are healthy. All considered, we think the best place for us right now is to stay put on Gémeaux. That’s our plan today anyway. Hoping you stay safe and find peace as our planet heals.

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Posted on February 25, 2020 | 3 comments

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

We could have turned right with everyone else but the other direction just 60 miles from Cuba was described as wild and rugged beauty. No fuel, no hotels, no groceries, and only a handful of residents. There was little protection in shifting weather and the main gateway was a very shallow sandbar impassable by many boats. Perfect—we turned left.

The Jumentos Cays is a 100-mile chain of small undeveloped islands in The Bahamas south of the more popular Great Exuma Island. Salt ponds placed these islands on a map in the 19th century when the population boomed to nearly 500 residents on the southernmost Ragged Island. Since the decline of the salt industry in the 1930s, the census has dropped to around 70 people today. These remote Backwaters of The Bahamas are often forgotten and made only a brief media appearance when Hurricane Irma ravaged the island in 2017.

We began our journey at the southern tip of this crescent-shaped archipelago and immediately faced incoming weather. Southside Bay provided protection from strong north winds, while entertaining us with a couple of nesting osprey. Just above low-lying scrappy brush, we could make out a small plane that an enterprising restauranteur had once placed atop his establishment to increase seating and I guess offer a unique dining experience. Today, the entire island sat in stillness below a huge gray cloud that stretched across the horizon. The stormy weather drove our quiet mood as we sipped hot tea on what felt like the edge of the earth.

Three other boats in the bay was…a little crowded for us so when the winds subsided, we motored around the corner to our own private Coco Bay where a sandy ocean bottom brightened the water color and white limestone formed the perfect perimeter. I swam the 100 yards to shore for some snorkeling and discovered that while the water was that beautiful Caribbean blue, winds had stirred up the bottom masking visibility. My heart raced and I was out of breath—just from that unrelenting fear of not being able to see the bottom. I kept reminding myself—it’s only 10 feet of water…there’s nothing there but sand! As underwater rocks came into view, my breath quieted and I relaxed into my pretend I’m a floating log so the fish aren’t afraid snorkeling mode. I stumbled upon a reef alive with healthy coral and came face-to-face with a gorgeous Queen Triggerfish. It was the first time getting a clear view of this creature’s perfectly-detailed rainbow design, including two blue stripes across its face and around its mouth as if its playful creator hadn’t quite mastered makeup application. I returned to the boat with a much calmer stroke, got into a hot shower, and then dressed in fleece, jeans, and SOCKS. Are we really in The Bahamas? Allen grilled Cornish game hens (such a treat) and we streamed the Super Bowl game—so surreal sitting on Gémeaux all by ourselves in the middle of nowhere watching the most famous football game filled with millions of viewers, crazy ads, and oh so many luxuries. One ad or maybe the cost of one ticket would change the state of this island. The dose of civilization made me grouchy. And the 49ers lost.

Trying to embrace civilization, we made our next stop at Hog Cay—a popular anchorage for the few other cruisers we would meet in this hinterland. A palapa stood on the beach, constructed from palm trees and decorated with colorful floats and buoys. Wooden beams inside were autographed with boat names and the years the boat had visited. A few of the regular cruisers had already made their debut this year, having inscribed 2020 to a string of at least 10 years that followed their boat name. Our guidebook said the palapa was the daily meeting place for a 4pm happy hour. Sure enough, at 3:55 dinghys sprang to life, beers popped open and laughter rang from the palapa. We worked up some social courage and headed to shore, equipped with a can of nuts we hoped would buy our way into the club. “Y’all didn’t read the rules,” proclaimed a bearded man with a thick southern drawl. “You’re not supposed to bring food to the sundowners.” And with that, we introduced ourselves and watched an entire can of cashews disappear in 15 minutes.

Quite content with our club of two, we left the anchorage the following day to resume our quest for wild, rugged…and deserted. We settled into a routine of traveling only a few miles each day, discovering one secluded anchorage after another. The pace was perfect as the environment really settled into our bones. We slept late and spent our days snorkeling, reading, and writing. I even baked! Occasionally, we went ashore to walk the beach where sand fell from our feet like flour, or we scrambled through thick shrubs to the other side for that really rugged, windward view of crashing waves.

Once we had sundowners on the beach. There was no cell service or any sign of civilization. Just the two of us and a few hermit crabs who crawled around our feet as we sat looking at our boat and watching the sun set.

By this time I was in a full wetsuit so I could spend long visits with my undersea friends. I was so disenchanted to learn that fellow cruisers regularly hunt conch, lobster, and even the gorgeous Queen Triggerfish. I understood conceptually that it allowed them to spend months in an area without grocery services, but my heart always ached when I heard the stories.

I rejoiced when I found live conch and mature Triggerfish and Angelfish and hoped they continued to thrive in these bays that shall remain unnamed to protect the innocent. Sharks became increasingly more common in my snorkeling arena. While I knew in my head that I was not their target food group, their 8-foot size gave me pause. Suddenly, I wasn’t the biggest creature out here. I found myself frequently looking over my shoulder as I snorkeled, certain that I was being followed. Surprisingly in these healthy reefs, we still found trash. Small in-tact plastic bags littered the bottom of the sea. We collected as many as we could carry and later learned that the bags were emergency water sachets—a low-cost way to deliver fresh water to disaster victims but ultimately landing in the sea. There must be a better way.

Stories of a man who survived Hurricane Irma by tying himself naked to a tree drew us to Buena Vista Cay. Edward Lockhart lived here alone and off the grid for most of his life. He left only recently when poor health forced him to relocate to Nassau.

We wandered his former homestead where animal pens, a rusty drill press, and a water cistern gave us a glimpse into how one very resourceful man could survive for decades on a remote island. Rumor has it that chickens, goats, and even peacocks still run free on the island.

One morning, as I had my head stuck in my writing, Allen slowed the engine down. Normally that means we’re coming into anchor, but I knew we were far from shore and we had a long day of sailing as we neared the end of our Jumentos journey. “Here’s the next attraction on our scenic tour,” the Captain announced with a grin, and I ran to the bow of the boat just as any curious tourist would do. I watched coral heads in 20 feet of clear emerald-green water pass below us and then just like that, the water changed abruptly to a deep blue oblivion. There we were—once again, in the middle of a Blue Hole. This unnamed heart-shaped Hole was reportedly 155 feet deep with a tunnel that ran miles to the deep ocean. See Stuck in a Hole for a close-up on Blue Holes.

We could have stayed in the Jumentos forever but it might have required that we start murdering our underwater friends. I felt a pang of sadness as we pulled out of the lovely, quiet Flamingo Bay and headed back to civilization. The water was so clear we could spot not just fish, but the type of fish swimming alongside—Triggerfish, a Nurse Shark, and many many sea stars. Mask and snorkel not required.

About a mile from the famous Hog Cut, the gateway out of this paradise, we cautiously crept forward and watched our depth gauge drop to 3.5 feet—the same as our draft. It was like driving down the freeway with the gas gauge flashing, wondering if Empty really means empty or could there be just a few fumes left. Would we hit the bottom? Or, was there a little wiggle room in our depth gauge or actual draft? We anchored Gémeaux to make a dinghy recce and confirm the depth through the cut. I jumped in (no diving allowed) and stood in the water at the back of the boat. With the palm of my hand on the sand underwater, my elbow just reached the bottom of the keel. Yikes!

We motored around the cut in the dinghy sticking an oar into the sand like a yardstick—we measured a low point of 3 feet. Hmmm, that’s pretty shallow, but the tide was coming in and the Captain decided it was safe to give it a go. We bumped our way through, getting one hull momentarily stuck, and making a lot of ocean lattes by stirring up the sand on the bottom. But, we made it through to the other side. We resumed our northbound journey—now on the road more traveled. Messages pinged as cell service brought us back in touch with family and friends. By evening, we dropped the anchor in a beautiful bay with a white sand beach…and 150 other boats.

Wild and rugged now just memories.

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Posted on February 21, 2020 | 10 comments

Stuck in a Hole

Stuck in a Hole

Giant marine sinkholes—what are they? What’s inside of them? How did we get Gémeaux in the middle? And, how the heck did we get that picture? So many of you have asked, so here you go…

Blue Holes are named for the dramatic contrast between the deep dark blue water and the shallow lighter blue coral reef around their perimeter. The maze of underwater tunnels and caves with stalactites is evidence the Holes were formed above sea level when oceans were far lower. Over several glacial periods, rising water levels filled these limestone caverns, eventually causing them to collapse in on themselves, becoming the vertical crevasses they are today.

Everything from fossils to dead bodies! have been found inside Blue Holes. Grouper and Caribbean reef sharks live in the Holes, as well as unusual marine species like the Midnight Parrotfish. Water circulation, however, is poor and in the very deepest Blue Holes, oxygen disappears altogether and only a toxic layer of hydrogen sulfide exists. Except some kinds of bacteria, most sea life cannot survive in these anoxic conditions. The lack of oxygen, ironically, also acts as a preservative, leaving its graveyard in tact. Of course, evil plastic requires no oxygen for its eternal life and sadly, has polluted these natural wonders.

The Great Blue Hole of Belize is located 40 miles from the eastern coast of Central America. It forms a perfect circle in the middle of Lighthouse Reef and is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the world’s second largest coral reef system after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It measures more than 1,000 feet across and 400 feet deep, making it the world’s largest blue hole (based on combined depth and width). The famed Jacques Cousteau proclaimed The Great Blue Hole as one of the top dive sites in the world and it remains on the bucket list for many divers. By now, you know that I have a fear of deep water so I wasn’t the least bit interested in diving down this abyss. And frankly, is there really that much to see in this colorless void? Still, both Allen and I wanted to see this amazing phenomenon and determine if we could get Gémeaux into its center.

Most people visiting The Great Blue Hole fly first to Cancun, then take a flight to Belize City, followed by another short flight to Ambergris Caye, where they spend the night at a small resort. They finally reach their ultimate destination by speedboat the following morning, where they share the experience with dive boats, day tours, and a couple of helicopters and small planes. With the exception of a small plane that circled above for a few minutes, on the day we visited The Great Blue Hole, we had the place to ourselves.

We had just completed the Suzie Too Western Caribbean Rally (see Rally Reflections) and were making our way north through the Belize archipalego, headed to the U.S. East Coast. Anchored at nearby Long Cay, it was about 10 miles to The Great Blue Hole. Because the Holes are surrounded by a shallow coral reef, the biggest obstacle was navigating through coral heads without scraping the bottom of our keels. Using charts that display ocean depths, the Captain carefully motored for the next 3 hours with a constant eye on our depth finder to make sure we cleared our 3.5 foot draft. Our friend, Ronna, and I sat on the bow as spotters, pointing out coral heads to avoid.

We picked one of the two 12-foot deep entrances from the charts and slowly motored into The Great Blue Hole. We held our breath, not for fear of hitting the bottom but from sheer wonderment as the crystal clear water changed immediately to a majestic sapphire. We were inside The Great Blue Hole…and it was awesome. We maintained our position perfectly in the center of the Hole while I climbed to the top of our 70-foot mast to take some photos. Haha—not really…those amazing photos were taken by drone, Allen’s favorite toy. We completed the photo session and then attached Gémeaux to one of the mooring balls still inside the hole but fixed to a concrete block in shallow water. While diving wasn’t on my bucket list, snorkeling the full perimeter of The Great Blue Hole definitely was. Ronna and I jumped in the water and eagerly set out to explore our backyard. The contrast was remarkable—over our right shoulder, a sea of plain sand sloped into an eerie, colorless void; on the other side, a dense underwater garden boasted vibrant corals and sealife. It was a day I’ll never forget.

A year later in The Bahamas, we found a lesser-known heart-shaped Blue Hole near Water Cay in the western chain of the Jumentos. There are several Blue Holes in The Bahamas, including Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island, recorded as the world’s 2nd deepest Hole at 600 feet. Situated on the island (not in the sea), Dean’s Blue Hole was popular among free divers, until Dean ate one of the divers. The 155-foot deep Blue Hole we explored in the Jumentos Cays has no name, nor has it claimed any divers. It reportedly has a tunnel that runs miles to the deep ocean—too far for a diver to fact-check.

As we continue to wander the planet, I suppose we’ll continue our search for Blue Holes. The cool factor is just too great. And now you know…the rest of the story.

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Posted on February 1, 2020 | 2 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 | 2 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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