I have to say, calamities—like the one our attempted voyage to the BVIs turned out to be—can sure give you a sense of humor. I am 100% convinced that one of the best qualities you can hope for in an offshore crew member is a sense of humor. No one should set off on an offshore voyage without one. (The sense of humor, that is. Single-handed voyagers have proven you can cross oceans without additional crew; but without a sense of humor, I think not!) I say that because what happened to me and Phillip—after being becalmed in the Atlantic for three days, then getting towed back into Spanish Wells in the Bahamas—can really only be called one thing. Funny.
When we first learned our fresh water pump on our Westerbeke had gone out, we had one cruising friend who really stepped up to help us in getting back safely. BaBaLu, if you’re out there reading, this one goes to you! Captain BaBaLu on the exquisite s/v Partager has been featured via a boat tour and given a shout-out before here at HaveWind as he’s a fellow sailor who, when he says “if you need a hand, let me know,” he means it. BaBaLu always likes to follow us on the Delorme when we travel offshore and send us weather data (as well as find out what fish we caught, what we’re cooking for dinner that night, and how many stars were out, so he can enjoy vicariously). And, when we told him what had happened with our pump, BaBaLu immediately began to shop online to help us find a replacement pump. He even contacted Yacht Haven Marina in Spanish Wells and lined up a tow ready to bring us back in safely to the dock when we returned to Spanish Wells. We couldn’t have been in more capable fellow-cruiser hands.
While our bobbing and flogging back to the Bahamas was frustrating (we fought over sleep, suffered a mutiny, and tangoed with a 820-foot carrier ship, catch up here if you missed those bewildering, becalmed moments), I can’t say the scenery wasn’t enjoyable. That passage, albeit an annoying one, was still beautiful.
But, pretty views and sunsets aside, there was nothing Phillip and I wanted more than to be docked safely and have that wreck-of-a-passage over. We were so grateful when we were finally able to hale the Yacht Haven Marina over the VHF to coordinate the tow BaBaLu had scheduled for us. Ironically, it was Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2019, and I can tell you there was nothing Phillip and I were more thankful for than the sight of shore. But, that was part of the problem. There it was. Shore. Imminently close, with us engine-less and unable to stop our slow, steady drift toward it if the winds didn’t pick up. The most wind we had seen since we’d turned around in the Atlantic was that heavenly little six-knot puff that allowed me to inch across the bow of the monster ship the night before. It was blowing 4-5 knots that morning as we made our way around the north side of Eleuthera. And, for those of you not familiar with that area, I can show you exactly what awaits you on the north shore of Eleuthera.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE
A reef-ridden channel is not something you want to SAIL into, particularly in light winds. We definitely wanted a tow! The gal at the Marina advised over the radio that the tow boat would come out and tow us in through Ridley Head Channel. Ridley Head Channel? Phillip and I both wondered. It was not an inlet we were familiar with. I grabbed the Explorer Charts to find it and gulped audibly when I saw it.
It was not an entry we have ever made by sailboat, nor have we seen it advised in the Explorer Charts. When we left Spanish Wells headed toward the BVIs, we had navigated a portion of the Devil’s Backbone, where we then exited safely where the reef parts briefly at Bridge Point.
That was my day to play Captain, I recall, and it was a bit scary motoring through the reef, following as close as I could to a track we had dropped when we had a pilot boat take us through the backbone the last time. Seeing these next to your boat is never a comforting sight.
While the thought of entering this time through an inlet in the reef we had never navigated—which looked a bit tight, particularly right at Ridley Head—was a bit scary, having spent a good bit of time in Spanish Wells on multiple occasions up to this point, and having hired local captains on two occasions to navigate us through the Backbone over to Harbour Island, Phillip and I were confident in the knowledge and capabilities of the local captains. Many of them have been navigating the waters of Spanish Wells for decades, generations even, and it seems most of them could make their way through the Backbone blindfolded. So, we felt comfortable allowing an experienced, local captain bring us through the narrow Ridley Head opening. But, when we arrived where we thought was a safe spot to catch the two we, at first, couldn’t find our boat.
The Marina had told us the boat would be coming out to get us around 8:30 a.m., but we saw no sight of a tow boat at that time. Phillip and I sailed back and forth, back and forth, inching closer to shore, biting our nails, drumming our fingers, but no boat came. 9:00 a.m. passed. No boat. We started creeping up on 10:00 a.m. and decided to hale the Marina again as we still did not see any boat coming for us.
“Dey be on their way now, Mon. Dey say you need come closer.”
Closer?! That was nerve-wracking. It was an odd feeling having just spent the last three days sailing (or, trying to sail, rather) a bobbing, flogging boat away from a rocky shore to now be advised we needed to come closer to the reef, under sail alone … [Insert Annie huff here.] The Marina gal told us our tow boat had gone out at 8:30 a.m., and they saw us waaaaayyy out there so they decided to go pick up another call while we made our way in closer. Phillip and I had no clue we were out too far. Any time you see reef heads poking up out of the water—when you don’t have an engine, only light winds pushing you towards them—is close enough for me, thank you. But, my huffing aside, we inched closer, and closer, and closer, until finally we saw a little white spec coming out for us. Whew. I hate to sound like a total non-purist, but I have to admit it was such a huge relief to see a roaring boat, shooting off a massive wake, powering its way out to save us. Power. Who knew I could crave it so immensely in certain moments.
After a few wayward throws, we finally got secured up behind the tow-boat and they began pulling us in.
But, this was when the “funny” thing happened. So, the boat brought us in safely through the Ridley Head Channel, which as I mentioned was a tight, crooked little path through some treacherous reefs so we were thrilled to have that portion of the tow safely behind us. We were now gliding along nicely behind the two boat in the big, deep channel that leads into Spanish Wells. There is a ferry lane there where a ferry brings folks back and forth from Eleuthera to Spanish Wells, so it’s a nice, wide (comforting) path.
Phillip and I felt like we were now on the home stretch. Whew. Our tow boat guys haled us on the radio asking what Marina we were heading to. “Yacht Haven Marina,” we replied.
We were right about here in the channel, when the tow captain came back over and said, “Okay, we’ll let you go here and you make your way on into Yacht Haven, den.”
Phillip and I shared a startled glance, thinking the same thing. “Here?!”
And, of course, Phillip was steering which meant I was on radio duty. I’ve mentioned before I get kind of stupid over the radio. Chalk it up to nerves, or feeling out of my element talking to other captains whom I feel are far more experienced than me. I worry I’ll say something dumb (because I often do). Radio Annie unsurprisingly fumbled.
“Wait, wuh …. What?” I asked him. “What? Here?” I continued on, stupidly.
“Ahh, yeah, Mon. Yacht Haven, be right up ahead. Just ‘round da bend,” he replied.
This is the bend:
There is a thick shoal right at the mouth that you have to navigate around to get to Yacht Haven.
I think the word “bend” snapped me into lucidity. Without an engine and no wind, we really couldn’t bend. Terrified I saw his first mate stepping to the back of the tow boat to untie our lines and I shrieked over the radio.
“No, NO! Don’t untie us here. Please, please, Sir, we don’t have an engine!” I watched helplessly as Guy No. 2 continued to untie one of our dock lines. He was just about to let it go, when the Captain hollered something at him. I saw him turn around, our line still mercifully in his hand, and he then nodded and started tying it back. Phillip and I simultaneously breathed out heaping sighs of relief.
“Ahhh, okay,” the tow captain said over the radio. “We didn’t know your engine was out.”
Although my mind shrieked it out, thankfully, I did not vocalize the very thought that paralyzed me over the radio:
WHY DO YOU THINK WE NEED A TOW?
Before I could say anything else … because honestly, other than that, I didn’t know what to say, he came back on.
“We taut you just wanted a cat’n’s guide trew Ridley Head. But, ‘ey, no problem, Mon. We’ll bring you right in your slip. Small ting.”
Whouuuhhhh … went the sound of my breath spilling out. That was close. And scary. And just a bit wild. But, looking back now, upon the whole spectrum of that voyage—from shove-off, to failure, to fights, fright, and mutiny—out of the entire experience, that moment was just … funny.
The beauty (and wisdom) of hindsight never ceases to amaze me. While Phillip and I were glad to be back at the dock, tied up safely, we did feel—at the time—a bit like failures because the voyage had gone so badly, and we didn’t even make it to our intended destination. But, looking back now on our failed voyage, with the value of hindsight, I can see two amazing blessings that were bestowed on us precisely because the engine went out when she did.
One: She (As She Often Does) Broke Down at the Right Time.
Looking back, it’s super humbling to realize our Westerbeke didn’t fail us in the middle of the reef when we were motoring out here to Bridge Point:
No, she didn’t do that to us. She chugged us safely through all of those gnarly reef heads and took us all the way out into the deep, no-obstacles-around Atlantic before she failed. Imagine if the fresh water pump had gone out when we were motoring Devil’s Backbone and we didn’t have sufficient wind to sail. *gulp*
Like I said … a blessing.
Two:Our Breakdown May Have Saved the Boat From a Hurricane
It was precisely because we had to turn out of the Atlantic and sail back to the Bahamas and leave our boat there for a bit (as opposed to leaving her in the BVIs) while we came back to Florida to work for a couple of months that we were able to sail her back from the Bahamas in 2020 so we could have her here with us at home to look after her during hurricane season. In hindsight, Phillip and I now know—with the pandemic that no one could have predicted that paralyzed international travel and cruising—that it would have been a nightmare trying to get our boat back in March/April had it been in the BVIs, as opposed to the much-closer Bahamas. With all of the travel restrictions, closed ports, time limitations, and other obstacles in our way during that time, it’s very likely we would not have been able to get her back safely in our fold like we did. That might have left our baby girl sitting right now, docked at an unsecured island with potential hurricanes headed toward her and us unable to travel there to do anything further to protect her. That thought makes my stomach drop and is such a valuable reminder that:
Sometimes when you think everything is going wrong, it may turn out it’s all going absolutely right. You just don’t know it yet.
This will probably come as no surprise to you all: Phillip and I turned back. After our fresh water pump failed, forcing upon us an irreversibly waning battery bank, we decided to turn back to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas rather than continue on our I65 route to the BVIs. While we thought the expected two-day passage would be merely a disappointment, it turned out to be the most enduring passage we’ve ever been on, even counting our ocean crossings. Why? Never before had Phillip and I been so mind-numbingly, infuriatingly …
B E C A L M E D
There were things that happened that have never happened on our boat before: shouting, fighting, mutiny! Yet, it was an experience so eye-opening, so psychologically poignant, I turned it into a featured article that will be in SAIL Magazine this fall. : ) Be on the lookout! For now, here are three moments from that horrid passage that I didn’t share in quite as vivid detail: 1) the fight; 2) the fear; and 3) the mutiny.
“You will see no more than three to eight knots of wind the next three days,” Weather Routing, Inc. texted us via our Delorme after we told them of our decision to turn around. Never had I wanted so badly for a weather prediction to be wrong. But, never have I seen one more dead-on. For three days, we saw no more than six. We went no faster than three. It was fine at first, simply moving along slowly, our spirits not yet pricked, our minds still amicable and calm.
This is our Garmin track showing a much more wayward sail back from whence we came:
It wasn’t a few hours, though, before the up and downs began. The sails went up, the sails went down. So did tempers, moods, voices. I can still hear the flogging of the sails when I close my eyes, that metallic flong, flong, flong of the standing rigging being beaten to an early death. I haaaaate flogging sails. I feel like it’s a little metal pick just chipping away at the integrity of our rigging (probably because it is). It was chipping away at my brain, too. While going slow and rotting our minds out there was one thing, damaging the boat in the process was another. We rigged the pole, we tied preventers, we tied inventers (ones I made up to try to stop the flogging). But with such little boat speed in funky winds and even funkier swell, there was no way to stop it. After a day of flonging, that’s when it happened.
I will preface this with one impermeable fact: Phillip and I rarely fight. I’m not boasting, or bragging, we’re just not the type to raise our voices or foster hostility. We’ve had disagreements and uncomfortable arguments on the boat, sure. This was one. But, I can count those on one hand, and none of them involved no holds-barred shouting. Until now.
Over the course of the first 30’ish hours after we turned back, we bobbed and flonged and battled one another over the sails flogging. I consistently wanted to drop the sails and bob; Phillip wanted to keep us heading generally in the right direction (albeit at a speed of 2.1 SOG). Into our second night of this horrendous routine, I finally pushed hard enough to get my way and on the start of my night shift I dropped the sails. Was it any better? No. The pitching and yawing of the boat was equally loud and equally annoying. I could hear Phillip rolling around in his lee cloth below trying to get some sleep. Soon our boat speed was 0.2 headed back out into the Atlantic, and I knew then I had been wrong. If there was one thing I wanted out there more than to stop the flogging, it was to stop the passage. To get the heck back to shore. So, I raised the sails back up (waking Phillip in the process of course) and we continued to flong on at a snail’s pace.
Just as Phillip was—I’m sure—finally drifting off to sweet sleep, a cacophony of beeps rang out. It was our auto-pilot. Turns out he doesn’t like to hold when we’re only going 0.4. Can’t say that I blame him. I don’t either. So, I set him back on. Another cacophony of beeps. Then I hear what sounded like the beginning of a lion’s roar below, this guttural rumble that started to form into voice, as Phillip screamed, louder than I’ve ever heard him scream before:
I J U S T W A N T T O * * * * I N G S L E E P !
M E * * * * I N G T O O !
I thundered back at him. Then it was silence, as if everything around us—the boat, the swell, the stupid flogging sails, all took a collective breath in response to our terse words. I guess you could say it wasn’t really a fight, per se, but it was the most intense exchange Phillip and I have ever had on passage. It was on me, though. That was my shift, and auto had tapped out. I took the sheet to the head sail in one hand and the helm in the other and sailed the snot out of those three knots of wind, trying simply to stay on a general west heading back to the Bahamas while keeping the flogging and sounds of the boat, as best I could, to a minimum. Phillip fell asleep so hard I could hear him snoring from the cockpit. I let him sleep an extra hour, before I dropped dead myself after that exhausting three-hour shift. “I want to sleep, too,” I told him as we traded out. “You have to hand-steer her.” He must have because I sank into the starboard settee and my mind melted into a slew of crazy, turbulent dreams. For the rest of the passage, neither of us spoke of that moment when I think we both snapped.
Our second day on passage, we got a new crew member! As we were obviously sailing (bobbing) slowly enough for any living creature to board, this cute little green and yellow bird found his way onto our boat.
We welcomed him at first, letting him flit around the cockpit and get comfortable with us. It was amazing to wonder how far he had flown to get there, with us being over 100 miles out to sea. I even made him a little bird bath out of the cut-off base of a milk jug. He started to perch on our hands, even on Phillip’s head.
He was our buddy. We named him Sprite and called him our first mate (as Phillip and I are both the Captains : ).
He was cute.
He was friendly.
At first …
After a morning spent being hospitable to the little guy it wasn’t long before he started darting and zipping around in the cockpit seemingly trying to strike at our heads. He became aggressive. I don’t know if his intentions were to truly throw us overboard so he could commandeer the boat and sail himself back to Spanish Wells or if he was just getting territorial. Either way, he was becoming dangerous, darting at our eyes, sneaking up from behind. It was like Sprite had already declared this boat his, and no other bird or human was allowed aboard. I’m telling you it was weird. That or we were losing it. Maybe there was no bird at all. Either way, Phillip and I decided we had to take up armor. Fly swatters can be very intimidating when used properly. It was us against him out there! Sprite had crossed a line. This was mutiny! And, who was Captain of the ship?
That’s right. Phillip and I had to send that bird packing. After a few wallops with a fly swatter, Sprite finally learned who was in charge and decided to fly away. I will never know if he made it those 100 miles back to shore, but I’m not sorry for what I did. This was nature. That bird picked his war. What is it the Sergeant said in G.I. Jane?
You’re darn right Viggo.
The thing was over 820 feet long. Eight. Hundred. And twenty. And I couldn’t see it. This was my last night shift as Phillip and I were finally making our way back toward the Bahamas and coming into the major shipping channel where many carrier ships exit out of Eleuthera to make their way into the Atlantic. And, this is what I found on the AIS.
A monster. While I could see what I thought were its nav lights up ahead off of my port bow, it was really hard to make out. And, it looked like we were headed right for one another. On the AIS, our closest point of approach (“CPA”) was bouncing between 1.07 and 23 feet, then 0.3 and 84 feet. Too close for comfort was the bottom line. I’d haled the guy many times on the radio, of course. “Hey. Hey you. Big ass boat that’s about to hit us. Do you see little old sailboat me?” But I, of course, got no response. What I hate about CPA is it does not tell you whether the “P”—that all important point—is going to be his stern crossing your bow, or your stern crossing his. Thankfully—and I don’t know if it was Neptune or my USCG training that kicked in—but something told me I had—I simply HAD—to get downwind of him. That might seem like a simple thought to many experienced sailors out there, but in moments like that where it’s all on me and I’m terrified, I can be a terrible decision-maker, so I still give Captain Annie a little pat on the back for that instinct.
With little puffs of four knots I turned our tiny spec-of-a-boat as hard as I could in a 90-degree angle to cross before his bow so I could get out of his path and on the safe, downwind side of that beast. I’ll admit, it was terrifying. My heart was thumping in my chest. I was ready to wake Phillip at any moment, but I knew there was nothing different he could do. It’s not like we had oars we could bust out to paddle away. Our fifteen-thousand pound, engine-less boat was at the complete mercy of the wind. And the monster. This moment was horrible, and I was hoping to spare him of it.
This time I’m sure it was Neptune, hearing the thunderous beat of my heart, when he sent a little six-knot puff of wind my way. It was the most we had seen the entire passage back, and it came as a God-send. Our boat picked up three knots of speed and bobbed her way just out of that carrier’s path. When I got on the other side of him, that ship blocked out my entire horizon. He was massive, and dark, and deadly. I saw the CPA blank out as his bow passed my stern and a dreadful gratitude came over when I realized what would have happened had I stayed upwind of him … all eight. Hundred. And twenty feet of him. Aside from injuries and near-falls overboard, that encounter is still one of the most terrifying moments I have ever had on our boat. It was an eerie altered paradigm from my usual fear of merciless winds and seas capable of chucking and breaking our beautiful boat to a chilling fear of a lack of wind that could cause her to just bob idly into a monster boat or devastating shore. A slow creep to destruction? What an awful way to go.
When Phillip and I arrived back in Spanish Wells, we soon met another couple who sailed in with a wildly-different experience from us. While we had been becalmed out in the Atlantic on the east side of the Bahamas, this couple had been battered with gusty winds in the Gulf Stream coming into the Bahamas on the west side. Oddly, however, I almost envied them their experience. At least in heavy winds and rough seas, you are left with no choice but to respond. You’re just reacting to the gnarly conditions being thrown at you. Being becalmed, however, fosters a far greater agony where your mind wages war with yourself. You start picking at your weaknesses, reliving regrets, analyzing bad decisions you’ve made. Strangely, I found I can be nastier to myself than any storm can. It was definitely a psychological struggle. I can tell you, now that Phillip and I have had this experience, if we ever have the choice to be becalmed at sea engine-less for days on end, versus undertaking a bit of a rough passage … it will be a much tougher call.
How about you all followers? How do you feel about being becalmed?
It’s funny, seeing it now—in black and white in hindsight—I’ll admit the answer seems so clear and easy, but it sure wasn’t then. I guess when it’s you out there, only two days into what was supposed to be an incredibly exciting adventure, an awesome offshore accomplishment, and you have sails and promising winds, it’s quite tempting to want to continue. Conquistadors and explorers have been crossing the ocean for centuries without engines, right? They also did it without satellite navigation, AIS, sat phones and texting devices, a whole host of equipment Phillip and I use extensively when we sail offshore. Bottom line is, after we lost the ability to use our engine when the fresh water pump blew, it was a tough call for Phillip and I deciding whether to continue our trek east, then south down to the BVIs, or tuck our tails, turn around, and sail back to Spanish Wells, Bahamas. Many factors played into our decision, and it was a great exercise in balancing risk versus reward. Read on to see what you would have considered had you been in our shoes and let us know: WWYD?
“So, that’s it? No engine?” I asked Phillip, although I already knew the answer.
“That’s it,” he said matter-of-factly.
Then we bobbed for a few quiet minutes. The wind was blowing maybe 4, the sails were flogging gently, somewhere a halyard banged. The quiet was deafening. I didn’t realize before how much sound-space the engine had filled now that he was dead. R.I.P. Westie. Phillip and I were only two days out on an expected 7-9 day passage from the Bahamas down to the BVIs when Westie (our 27A Westerbeke’s) fresh water pump bit the dust.
While we were still floating safely, not taking on water, with sails and rigging still in perfect condition to carry us, Phillip and I had a tough decision to make:
CARRY ON UNDER STRICTLY SAIL 6-7 MORE DAYS TO THE BVIS
TURN AND SAIL 1-2 DAYS BACK TO THE BAHAMAS?
While we do prefer (always) to sail in the right conditions, rather than motor, Phillip and I are not 100% purists. We don’t sail into and out of the marina or our slip just for the heck of it (like we often saw many heartier sailors (kids even!) do in France and the Azores). We don’t sail narrow cuts or channels if we’re afraid the wind may shut down or push us onto a shoal. Simply put, we prefer to sail when sailing is safe. And, I’m not in any way ashamed to say we rely on our engine for many things: propulsion when sailing isn’t productive or safe, a charge to our batteries, maneuvering in marinas and in and out of slips, even as an extra bilge pump if we were taking on immense amounts of water (a trick I have, thankfully, only read about, never experienced myself, but that I will always keep in my back pocket). At the end of the day, the truth is we put a lot of work, time, and money into our engine because we value it.
Phillip and I are also very risk-averse. When your first offshore passage (ever!) is one where you have to lean over the stern rail in rough seas and 30-knots of wind to cut your own flailing dinghy off with a hacksaw, you tend to give the open ocean its well-deserved respect and due.
But, that said, Phillip and I really wanted to make it to the BVIs. We have yet to sail their on our boat. It is the first step of another BIG goal we have: to do a Caribbean Circle. We had a work and weather window in November that had lined up beautifully (when does that ever happen)? And, we were expecting good, solid east winds over the next 4-5 days that could have possibly enabled us to finish the voyage under sail alone quite safely. And, there’s no reason to shy away from it. We simply didn’t want to give up. We didn’t want to quit. We probably debated this decision a laughable hour longer than was necessary just because we were so frustrated by it. But, after extensive discussion about the pros and cons of either choice, Phillip and I eventually decided to turn back and sail back to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas. Here are the top reasons for our decision:
1. Loss of Power
Battery power—or, more accurately, the inevitable loss of it—was easily our number one concern. While we have 200 watts of solar on our boat, they are not able, by themselves, to keep our bank completely charged 5-7 days underway, particularly with the auto-pilot working twenty-four hours a day, as well as the navigation instruments, AIS, and nav lights at night.
While we can (and have) foregone refrigeration while underway to save on power, cold drinks and food were the least of our power worries. Phillip and I knew we would want auto steering the boat as much as possible. We would want AIS, particularly at night, to avoid ships. We wanted our nav lights shining like bright beacons at night to ward off other boats. We wanted our bilge pumps to be strong and vigorous if in the very unfortunate occurrence we started taking on water. All of those things require power. The thought of gradually losing power over the course of 6-7 days, losing the ability to see other ships, and be seen by them at night, as well as a potential inability to access our digital charts for navigating, all while the wind (particularly light ones) pushed us whatever direction it felt like was just, hands down, a scary thought. An unacceptable thought.
2. The Navidad and Mouchoir Banks
My good friend, Pam Wall, had warned us about these reefs on the north side of the Dominican Republic when we first told her of our plans to take the I65 Route from the Bahamas to the BVIs, and she urged (quite strongly, in pure, energetic-Pam fashion) that we sail a hard-and-fast route dead east (“Not south!” she shrieked) for the first 3-5 days of our voyage before turning south to avoid these reefs. “They eat yachts,” Pam said, quite bluntly, which put the fear of Mouchoir in us.
Being out there with no means of propulsion other than sail, and potential winds that could push us up onto those yacht-eating rocks was easily our second reason for turning back, but there were others as well.
3. Navigating a New Inlet and Port Under Sail Alone
While Phillip and I knew we were going to be coming in—whether we decided to sail to the BVIs or back to the Bahamas—under sail alone, having navigated the entrance to and from Spanish Wells several times now (during this trip in 2019 and previously when we sailed the Abacos, Eleuthera, and a sliver of the Exumas in 2018) we felt we had become somewhat familiar with its channels, depths, and shoaling. Navigating a brand-new inlet always stands the hairs on our necks and gets our hearts pumping. The thought of doing that under sail alone with no contacts there in the BVIs was a mark against continuing the voyage without an engine.
4. We Thought the Sail Back Would Be Short and Easy
Aside from not carrying a spare fresh water pump, this was our one whopping mistake in this whole ordeal. Having just poked out into the Atlantic a day and a half, we thought the sail back would be a quick 1-2 days zip back. Super easy. No problem. We figured it would be a bit of a bummer, with beat-down morales, retreating back from whence we came. But, all we thought we would be was a little bummed. We had no idea we would be psychologically battered. As wild as it sounds—even with the two ocean crossings Phillip and I have done and some of our more horrendous bashes in the Gulf—that three and a half day sail back to Spanish Wells in little to zip wind was BY FAR the absolute worst passage Phillip and I have ever been on. The. Worst. Have any of you ever been mind-numblingly, infuriatingly becalmed? Just wait … We have stories to share my friends. And a casualty. There was mutiny out there. Stay tuned!
I know, it’s a loaded question. And, I’m asking over 100 boaters, so I’m likely to get 200+ opinions, right? While we all carry plenty of fuel filters, zincs, gaskets, and the like, do you carry any spare parts that bolt onto the engine block? A spare alternator, perhaps? Or a starter? Well, this part was one we really could have used and did not have. Considering how small it is, and what a game-changer it can be, Phillip and I will definitely carry one in the future.
After we had made the decision to take the “I-65” route from the Bahamas down to the BVIs and found our weather window, Phillip and I fully stocked the boat, stowed the dinghy, ran the jacklines, and prepared to shove off. Knowing, from our fantastic WRI weather routing, we would likely have to motor for a couple of days after our expected south-clocking-west winds turned light and on the nose, Phillip and I decided to do something a bit different for this offshore passage.
We bought three extra jerry cans of fuel and strapped them on our whisker pole on starboard (giving us 6 5-gallon jugs of diesel total) to ensure we would have plenty of fuel to motor as much as we needed during our expected 8-9 day passage.
Because, you know packing extra diesel is like paying homage to the Wind Gods, daring them to make you not need it. Well, it turned out we did not need it, but not for the reason we’d hoped. The first day and a half of our passage was phenomenal! Beautiful south winds on the beam, then quartering on our starboard stern, then clocking around behind from the west. We were flying, making consistent 5-6 knots heading due east, which is the exact direction we needed to go. It was too good to be true!
Phillip and I had high hopes that we would continue making great time and make our first passage over five days an enjoyable and successful one. Everything was trending in that direction. When the winds laid down a bit and turned more north, north-east (too light to sail easterly in them), we cranked up the engine and began to motor, just as we had expected to per our weather routing. Westie (our 27A Westerbeke engine) purred along perfectly throughout the afternoon. Late into the evening, when I was at the helm, the engine ripped out this squealing sound. I immediately throttled back more out of instinct than anything (like stepping on the brakes) and that stopped the sound. Phillip came up to investigate. We throttled back up gingerly and everything seemed fine. No sound. Westie then ran all night long, no problem.
The following day (our third of the voyage), November 25th, we were motoring along around noon when that same piercing wail rang out from the engine. Wrrrreeeeeeee! Phillip throttled back and the sound stopped. The temp and oil pressure all looked good. It was a mystery. Now a twice-occurring one so we decided this time to investigate. Phillip stayed up in the cockpit while I went below and started to empty our aft berth of its contents so I could access the engine. Just about the time I had got the berth emptied, I heard Phillip scramble around topside and suddenly the engine died. I popped my head up in the companionway to see it had not died, Phillip had cut it.
“It was overheating,” he said worried. Thankfully, he had been carefully watching it because no high-temp alarm rang out. Add that to our list of things to inspect.
When I opened the little door that allows us to access the engine from our starboard aft berth, a nice waft of smoke poofed out and smelled of burnt oil. I looked at the back of the engine and could visibly see antifreeze pouring out from under the fresh water pump on the back of our engine.
Not a good sign. We then pulled the floorboards up to see how much had drained into the bilge. It was disheartening. The entire bilge was Ghostbuster green. But, for the moment, Phillip and I were not deterred. We had all of the tools necessary to remove the pump, and we were hopeful it was just a seal inside that we could replace. We have plenty of spare seals. We also had plenty of antifreeze to refill it. I spent a hot, greasy hour crammed up behind the engine (only Annie fits here).
With some serious cheater bar action and hammering on the end of our biggest deep socket wrench, I was finally able to remove the pump.
While Phillip and I are certainly no diesel engine experts, we could tell even from our untrained fresh water pump eyes, that the thing was shot. I could see there were several ball bearings missing and the shaft had a wonky movement to it. But, we have bearings aboard. Phillip and I still thought we could turn things around.
We texted out to a few friends who are knowledgeable about boats and engines (Brandon with Perdido Sailor, always being one), letting them know what had happened and welcoming their thoughts/advice. Then, Phillip and I both spent another hotter, greasier hour, tapping and banging on the pump trying to get it to come apart so we could see if it was fixable aboard. We were still banging and cursing when our Delorme chirped out. It was Brandon.
“You can’t rebuild those,” he said. “It will have to be replaced.”
I can still remember that moment. Phillip and I just kind of sat there, our greased-up hands on the table, staring at our forlorn pump. The whole scene makes me think of Eeyore.
As we were not carrying a fresh water pump spare, Phillip and I had to face the sad reality that, for this passage at least, our engine was completely useless. So much for all that extra diesel we brought …
But, our next moves were some of the hardest. Phillip and I had a very BIG decision to make. And, although we did not know it at the time, we had our hardest sail to date ahead of us. This includes both of our Atlantic Ocean crossings, and still wins out. Plaintiff’s Rest’s crew was a day and a half out into the Atlantic Ocean on our first 8-9 passage, trying for our first time to sail to the BVIs. I will have to admit the sheer excitement of that goal and the desire to achieve it weighed heavily on us. We still had sails! We were expecting wind in the next day or so. People have been sailing the world for centuries without an engine. They’ve been shipwrecking too …
Next up, I will share the difficult, but well-reasoned decision we had to make on whether to slump our shoulders and turn around to sail back to Spanish Wells or carry on toward our destination without a working engine and what an awful adventure it embarked us on. Stay tuned!
“K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, Sailor,” Author Annie says in this article in the June/July 2020 issue of SAIL Magazine. Because that’s exactly what our swap to a composting head has done for Phillip and me—made life aboard our boat so much simpler, safer, sweeter-smelling even! We will never regret the decision. While I’m excited to continue sharing our BVIs voyage next time, I can never help sharing when I see my name (and face!) in print. Look at Author Annie, go! Many thanks to the hardworking team at SAIL for putting this fantastic piece together. Be sure to grab a copy and check out the article! If you’ve ever pondered swapping your standard marine head to a composting head, you’ll find this piece helpful. I have also written at length about our reasoning, research, and decision to swap to a composting head as well as put together a video showing the install. This is some seriously interesting shit! Sorry, had too. ; )
“It took us three months just to get from the Bahamas to St. Maarten.”
These are just a few of the not-so-encouraging things we heard from cruises who had chosen to take what is known as the “Thorny Path” from the Bahamas down to the BVIs.
November, 2019 – Spanish Wells, Bahamas:
Phillip and I had been poking at this debate for years: taking the offshore “I65” route from the Bahamas down to the BVIs versus the “Thorny Path.” While many of you are likely familiar with these two routes, to put it very curtly, the I65 route is essentially an 8-9 day offshore run (on our boat) heading directly east the first few days out into the Atlantic, and then turning around the I65 longitude to ride the trade winds down to the BVIs, whereas the Thorny Path is a series of day hops along the coasts of Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the USVIs on the way to the BVIs.
While Bruce Van Sant (and his infamous G&Ts!) might claim a gentleman can sail a thornless path to windward along the Thorny Path, the many reports we received from cruisers who had actually done it did not agree, calling it “brutal,” “awful,” “a bad idea” even. There were several reasons, in addition to what we had heard from fellow trusted cruisers, the Thorny Path did not appeal to Phillip and me:
We like to sail offshore. It’s not foreign or frightening to us. With the right weather window and good working systems, offshore passages have by far been some of our more memorable and rewarding voyages. However, we can completely understand for couples or cruisers who have not done much offshore or overnight sailing, the thought of their first 8-9 day passage completely offshore could be frightening. We could see how the Thorny Path could have more appeal for cruisers who fit that bracket; that’s just not us.
We do NOT like to sail to windward. Period. Even if it is just a day hop. Beating to weather is just not fun. It’s not good for the boat or crew, and it always increases the risk of gear failure or breakage. I’ve written before about sails I have just wanted to end, even though it was just a short day-hop to weather. Phillip and I would take a downwind—or simply any wind more favorable than a head-wind—offshore any day over beating to windward.
Entering new ports and trying to make dicey daytime arrivals stresses us out. I’ll take days on end in comfortable conditions in the Atlantic any day over continually navigating new inlets, anchorages, or marinas, potentially in a headwind. For us, passage-making is like flying—the hardest part is usually the takeoff and the landing. Once you’re up in the air (or out in the ocean), you just cruise.
For this reason, Phillip and I set our sights on the trusted “I65 route” offshore. In preparation for the passage, we contacted Nanny Cay Marina to reserve a slip when we expected to arrive in the BVIs in early December.
We chose this marina in Tortola because we had heard great things about it from fellow cruisers, particularly Brittany with Windtraveler, an inspiring mother, sailor, and writer whose blog Phillip and I have been following for years. If you’re on Instagram, check out Brittany’s frequent posts from Nanny Cay, which are just stunning!
With our destination and reservation secured, our next task was to prep the boat and start looking for a weather window.
As this was the longest offshore passage Phillip and I were about to undertake—just the two of us on our boat—one thing we decided to do differently was to increase our diesel provisions by adding three more five-gallon jerry cans on starboard, in addition to our standard three on port. We moved the whisker pole (which usually rides on the stanchions on starboard near the bow) back near the cockpit (to move the weight of the diesel aft to offset our chain on the bow) and strapped the diesels to it.
Also, our ability to purchase and add these last-minute jerry cans was attributable to one of the many great aspects of Spanish Wells, which I touched on last time during the virtual tour: numerous marine vendors on the island who offer a wealth of supplies, tools, even repair services.
It is a common rule on our boat, that if you pack the spare, that just ensures you won’t need it. Our hope was, if we packed extra diesel that would just ensure we’d be doing more sailing than motoring.
As lawyers, we should have read the fine print of that bargain. The promise wasn’t sailing over motoring; it was diesel you wouldn’t end up needing. That is, in fact, what we got. Just wait …
The extra diesel was also just one item on our list of offshore prep. For those of you curious, this is a rough bullet-point of what Phillip and I usually do to convert our boat from comfy floating-home to offshore-thoroughbred:
Break-down the dinghy and stow it below
Install the jack lines and pull out the harnesses and tethers
Change the oil on “Westie” (our 27A Westerbeke) if necessary, and top all fluids
Fill the diesel and water tanks, water bags, gallon jugs, solar shower, and all Jerries
Tie and secure the Jerry cans on deck
Swap the genoa for the working jib (if applicable)
Install the inner forestay for the storm sail (if it’s not already installed)
Set up the lee cloths
Unpack the foulies
Wash the boat
Washing the boat is almost always followed by a beer!
Oh, and then we throw a little below-decks party (complete with disco ball)! It’s good for the offshore mojo.
Once all of that is accomplished, we are ready to go! All we have to do is watch the weather and pick a window. For the I65 route, Phillip and I were hoping for good winds on the beam or following to let us sail several days directly east, with an anticipated few days of motoring in the middle as we made our way toward longitude 65, with the hope the traditional trade winds would then kick in and allow us a nice beam reach south all the way down to Tortola. Here is what we were seeing on the GRIBS at the time.
In addition to our own weather routing, Phillip and I also decided to experiment with another new tactic for this voyage. We had heard good things about Weather Routing, Inc. We also had the opportunity to speak with them at the Annapolis Boat Show back in 2019 and were impressed with what they could offer. (They also offered a discount at the show, so … lots of benefits to purchasing marine items at a boat show, I’ll tell you!)
When we learned about the scope and quality of their services at the show, we decided we wanted to give them a try when we began routing our I65 trip in November, 2019. Guys, the data they sent us is still the most impressive weather routing I have ever seen. I am a very visual person, so I found the Meteogram they put together for us—showing the exact amount of wind and how it would quarter or beam on the boat for each day of the anticipated passage—was a stellar product in my opinion. I mean, check this out!
While Phillip and I have stared at many GRIBs, this visual just instantly “clicked” for me. It’s like I could then see the passage playing out in my mind. (And it looked like a mighty fine passage!) We were definitely pleased with the WRI service. Not to mention they were pretty near spot-on with the wind speed and direction. WRI even advised we push our departure date back one day for a better window, advice we followed and which served us well. But, that was a bit of a tough decision, just because we were SOOOooooo excited to go!
I always start singing a certain John Denver tune right about now. “Our Jerries are packed, we’re ready to go. Standing here, by the galley stove … “ Phillip loves traveling with me! : ) Next up, we’ll take you along with us on our I65 voyage followers, out into the big blue! Please leave a comment below if you’ve ever had to make the decision between the I65 route or the Thorny Passage, which one you chose and why, and how the voyage turned out for you. In the meantime, we’ll be …
“Leeeea-vin’ on a small boat. Don’t know quite where we’ll up and float. Leeeea-vin’ … ”
Since we are all pinned down at home unable to travel, I thought you might enjoy a virtual tour of what has now become mine and Phillip’s favorite island in the Bahamas: Spanish Wells! While this island definitely impressed us the first time we came to Eleuthera in 2017, earning our “favorite beach in the Bahamas” award, Phillip and I now know we didn’t stay quite long enough to truly let the spirit of Spanish Wells sink in. This time, however, in November of last year, soon after my scariest moment underwater in the Berries, we were able to spend a solid week in Spanish Wells while preparing to make our run offshore to the BVIs, which allowed us to uncover more of its hidden gems. Spanish Wells has both the non-touristy, untouched “local feel” of the Bahamas—where you can (and usually do) walk the entire island every day and interact with the locals—while still offering several diverse and delicious little bars and restaurants (even an ice cream stand!) where you can indulge on their island-inspired treats as well as plentiful groceries and marine supplies. This balance of authenticity, bounty, and beauty has made Spanish Wells our favorite stop in the Bahamas so far. Here, let me show you. Take a virtual trip with us and tell me:
Where else in the Bahamas can you …
Make a beautiful overnight run from the Berries (probably our second favorite stop in the Bahamas) to be greeted by “Buddha” himself at Buddha’s Snack Shack along with infinite words of wisdom on the walls? If I wore pants instead of a bikini, I’d tuck a leg, too.
Watch two stunning African grey parrots give each other “big love?”
Stumble upon a craft gallery right on Main Street filled with incredible pieces all made by the local children?
Hold a setting Spanish sun? I mean …
See such a dizzying array of island colors while walking to Mimi’s Beach Hangout to lounge in a Lazyboy on the beach?
Venture out at night for a cold sweet treat from Papa’s Scoops, a walk-up ice cream shop (and take photos you won’t remember the next day)?
Make Phillip reconsider his law firm hours? : D
Challenge one another to a cannonball contest by jumping off the famous Russell Island bridge (a rite of passage for all local kids in Spanish Wells)? Tell me … who cannonballed best? : )
Then, post-jump, get surprised by and treated to fresh, hand-made ceviche at this local’s little pop-up stand on the Russell side?
Enjoy Christmas decorations (at our favorite restaurant, Wreckers) for months, instead of only weeks, as the locals in Spanish Wells put them up the day after Halloween? Gotta love their Christmas spirit!
Have flaming cheese brought to your table? I mean …
Cook up fresh-caught strawberry grouper and massive lobster tails bought from a local fisherman at the docks who loves to share all kinds of stories from his forty years of fishing around Spanish Wells?
Get to walk past this awesome store-front painting every day? (I actually started to miss it after we left, and it gives me a great feeling of nostalgia every time I see it again).
Stroll a shore this beautiful?
KITE a shore this beautiful? Annnnddd almost get “kilt” (Annie term) by Phillip – watch till the end! : )
I’ll tell you, it was really tough for Phillip and I to leave Spanish Wells, but we were excited to venture out on what we expected to be our longest passage yet on Plaintiff’s Rest on an 8-10 day run offshore on the “I65” route from Eleuthera down to the BVIs. Boy, do we have some doozies to share from that trip. There was more than one casualty. And many lessons learned. Next time! We hope you enjoyed this virtual island trip! Stay safe followers.
Ahoy followers! We’ve got some exciting news! Captain Yannick, whom we crossed the Atlantic Ocean with in 2016 on his 46’ Soubise Freydis s/v Andanza, just launched his own YouTube channel, sharing he and his family’s adventures aboard Andanza. I made a movie from our crossing in 2016 that has garnered quite a viewing. 1.7 million … still blows my mind just a bit. If you haven’t seen that movie (and since many of us are home now with time on our hands – you have no excuse not to!), go watch that first!
Then, you’ll have a lot of fun context for the launch of Yannick and his family’s adventure. “Life + Kids + Gear = Breaking and Fixing Stuff” Yannick has cleverly coined it! The Piart crew has sailed in northern Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and explored the Caribbean islands on their way to the States. Warning: the kids are beyond cute! Pop up some popcorn, go check it out, subscribe, and enjoy the show!
It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to take the privileges and good fortune we have for granted. While the fact that travel, dining out, attending concerts, plays, or other fun events, even meeting up with friends, old and new, for happy hour are no longer options for the foreseeable future, never have I craved and cherished so deeply simply my health and home while Phillip and I were on our wild impromptu passage from the Bahamas to Pensacola.
It was an unintended passage. Certainly not one we had planned to undertake on such short notice. But, with the world seemingly shutting down port after port, door after door, in our wake, it felt like we were running on a bridge that was crumbling behind us. Phillip and I simply wanted to get back to Pensacola, secure the boat, and go home. That’s it. Each day of the passage, however, definitely offered up its own set of challenges that put the possibility of that happening in question. While there are dozens of smaller stories to share from this passage—some frightening, some fun—to give you all a broad strokes update on what just turned mine and Phillip’s world upside down, I believe a timeline will be the most telling. Looking back on this, it frightens me a little still to see how lucky we were to have made it. But, the point is, we made it! Phillip and I are healthy and home now, with our baby girl safely in our fold for hurricane season. But, that was nowhere near the case three weeks ago when we were over 700 miles away on an island in the Atlantic.
US: In light of growing coronavirus fears, the NCAA cancels “March Madness.” New York issues a statewide ban on gatherings of 500+ people. In the weeks prior, Trump has issued a ban on incoming travel from certain countries in Europe to the U.S. We learn after we land in Eleuthera in the Bahamas that Trump had declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, freeing up nearly $50 billion in disaster aid.
Bahamas (BH): The Bahamas records their first case of COVID-19, a 61-year-old Bahamian woman with no recent travel history.
Plaintiff’s Rest (PR): With the status of travel changing day by day it was a tough decision for us whether to go at all. The purpose of this two-week trip to the Bahamas—when we booked it back in Pensacola in January—had been to put our boat back together by replacing the fresh water pump on our Westerbeke that failed when we attempted to sail to the BVIs back in November. (We are now incredibly grateful for that failure as it kept our boat within safe sailing distance from home so she could rescue us from this pandemic.) Once operational, we planned to sail the boat from Spanish Wells where she was secured at a nice, but highly-exposed dock back to Great Harbour Cay in the Berry Islands, Bahamas, where she safely rode out Hurricane Dorian in 2019, button her up there for the season, then fly home from Great Harbour Cay to Pensacola on March 26th. With increasing travel restrictions, we saw two options:
1) cancel the trip, stay home, and try to fly over sometime in May or early June to secure the boat (an option we all know now was never going to happen), or not secure her at all and risk losing Plaintiff’s Rest if a hurricane swept over Spanish Wells; or
2) risk the trip in hopes we would be able to move and secure the boat and fly home just fine on the 26th (that also was not going to happen but we didn’t know it at the time) or—this was considered only in jest in the beginning—if all travel restrictions continued to mount, sail the darn boat home.
With those options, we chose to go. Despite the frightening news we received upon landing, we were happy to find the boat was floating happily waiting for us, ready to be put back together.
US: The Trump administration bans travel from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
BH: A Braemar cruise ship carrying five persons who tested positive for COVID-19 arrives in Bahamians waters but is not allowed to dock.
PR: Phillip and I set to work on the engine and spend a sweaty day holed up in the engine room putting the new fresh water pump on. Unfortunately, even with the new pump, the engine continued to overheat every time we let her rise up to 180 degrees. We turned in that night feeling defeated and worried about our prospects for moving the boat at all.
US: The CDC advises no events of 50+ people for the next eight weeks. New York, which is seen as the epicenter for the coronavirus at the time with near 1,000 cases announces it will close schools the following day and all bars and restaurants in New York must close by 8 p.m. the following night. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hold theirfirst one-on-one debate in the Democratic primary to a crowd of zero.
BH: Prince George Dock closes as cruise lines world-wide suspended their operations amid the pandemic. The US Embassy cancels immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments indefinitely. Officials also announce the closure of all schools. The Office of the Prime Minister announces as of Thursday, March 19, all foreign, non-Bahamian nationals who have traveled in the United Kingdom, Ireland or Europe in the last 20 days will be prohibited entry to the Bahamas at any point of entry.
PR: After successfully figuring out how to effectively prime the fresh water pump (a story for another day) we finally got the engine running to temp. After scrubbing the boat thoroughly, and replacing a transducer that was giving us trouble back in November, Phillip and I shower up and watch the debate at Wreckers, a fantastic little restaurant and bar in Spanish Wells that was, thankfully, still open and serving.
US: The White House issues guidelines for social distancing, urging Americans to avoid restaurants and bars, limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and work and engage in schooling from home when possible. Airlines say they will need a $50 billion bailout as signs of how serious an economic crisis is resulting from the coronavirus become more apparent.
BH: The Bahamas Department of Corrections suspends visitations, commissary and all public activities. The Braemar cruise ship, with over 600 passengers who have been stranded at sea for weeks with infected passengers aboard, is redirected to Cuba where passengers will be flown home through a Cuban airport.
PR: Phillip and I start to seriously consider sailing as the most reliable option for us to get home without being quarantined or otherwise locked down or exposed to great numbers of potentially infected people at the airport. Ironically, as soon as we start to truly embrace the idea and start testing all systems for an offshore passage, we find the batteries are showing their age (seven years) and not holding a sufficient voltage (12.3 or lower) soon after being removed from shore power. We set our goal the following day on determining whether we can acquire new batteries and replace the battery bank ourselves in Spanish Wells in time to take advantage of a favorable window the day after.
US: With thousands in the hospitality and food industry filing for unemployment, the White House begins discussing direct payments to Americans to lessen the economic impact of the virus and tells GOP senators in a private meeting that unemployment could reach 20 percent without serious steps taken. The number of cases reported in Florida is 166, and the U.S. death toll from the virus hits 100. Florida’s Governor orders all bars and nightclubs be shut down state-wide.
BH: Governor General CA Smith signs a proclamation declaring a public state of emergency.
PR: I receive a text from my niece, who is in her first year of college at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, telling me she and her fellow students will not return to class until at least mid-April. The Plaintiff’s Rest crew is now fully committed to sailing home in light of the rapidly-changing pandemic situation. Thankfully, we find a marine service center in Spanish Wells that promises to be able to have four new 6-volt golf-cart batteries sent over by boat the following morning (March 18th) so we can install them on the boat and leave the next day (March 19th) under a good weather window of light east winds. With the shut-down of all bars back home, we hit up Wreckers again and again, knowing it may be the last restaurant we eat at for months.
US: The Trump administration closes the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential traffic. Trump invokes the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of medical equipment in a worst-case scenario. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and Federal Housing Finance Agency suspend foreclosures and evictions. By mid-afternoon the Dow has erased all of the gains since Trump took office.
BH: Governor General C.A. Smith declares a state of public emergency in the Bahamas due to the presence of COVID-19 in the country. Two more cases are confirmed in the Bahamas.
PR: Phillip and I squeal when we see a golf cart pull up to our slip that morning to drop off four new batteries for the boat. We tackle the install and squeal, again, to see the new batteries holding better than the old bank already with their off-the-shelf only charge. We make one last provision run to the store. In Spanish Wells, people (tourists mostly) are starting to buy and hoard toilet paper and paper towels. We buy one extra pack of each just to be safe, along with a slew of non-perishable provisions for our passage.
US: The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. Cases in the U.S. top 10,000 as the virus quickly spreads. Trump says the FDA is accelerating testing of treatments for the coronavirus. The State Department urges American citizens to avoid traveling internationally. California directs residents to stay in their homes. Weekly jobless claims jump by 70,000 in the wake of thousands of restaurant, bar, gym and other business closings.
BH: U.S. citizens who are abroad are advised to arrange for immediate return to the U.S., unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period. Many airlines cancel international flights. Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announces emergency orders activating partial nationwide shutdown and nightly curfew.
PR: Plaintiff’s Rest gets the heck out of dodge! Our first day under sail from Spanish Wells to the Great Bahamas Bank is, thankfully, a fantastic, easy downwind run.
US: The Trump administration closes the U.S.-Mexico border to nonessential travel. Governors in New York and Illinois urge residents to stay home. The Treasury Department pushes back the tax deadline from April 15 to July 15. There are now 563 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Florida. Florida’s Governor orders all restaurants to switch to take-out and delivery only.
BH: The Prime Minister announces a 9pm to 5am curfew, restrictions on private gatherings, and closure of most in-person businesses, with limited hours for food stores and farmers’ markets, pharmacies, gas stations, laundromats, banks, construction, and restaurants (limited to take-out only).
PR: Phillip and I sail beautifully across the Bahamas Bank and enter the Gulf Stream around sunset with plans to cross the Stream overnight and drop the hook somewhere in/near the Keys the following day.
US: The FDA approves the first “point of care” test for the coronavirus that can generate results in about 45 minutes. The news tells us 706 cases have been confirmed in Florida, with twelve deaths reported statewide.
BH: I hear from a fellow cruiser via Facebook Messenger that they are in the Exuma islands staying distant from other cruisers but they are grateful to be able to go ashore on the uninhabited islands just to be able to walk around and get some exercise.
PR: As soon as we gain signal after the Gulf Stream, Phillip receives an email from Delta advising our flights from Nassau to Atlanta and home have been cancelled. A friend texts us and tells us the Florida Keys have banned all incoming travel and that the marinas are shut down to transients. I find I’ve never felt more grateful to have a capable boat and ground tackle that enabled us to continue moving safely toward home, even while distancing.
We text a friend (shout-out to Russell and Lynn!) who sends us directions for a little anchorage just after the Channel 5 Bridge near Marathon called “Jew Fish Hole.” After a two and a half-day voyage from the Bahamas, Phillip and I are thrilled to be stopped and secure for the night. So thrilled it doesn’t bother us, too much, that the auto-pilot gave us trouble all day, frequently letting go and crying out “rudder response failure.” With no visible issues or bad connections, we feared the computer was simply going out and faced the reality that we would likely have to hand-steer the boat home. Knowing that, our plans then changed from a five or three-day passage mostly offshore, we decided to do day-hops as much as possible to avoid exhaustion from hand-steering. Phillip set his alarm to rise early the following day so we could motor our way up to Shark River.
US: Trump mobilizes the National Guard and says makeshift medical facilities will be built in New York, California and Washington, the three states hit hardest at the time by the outbreak. We learn all state parks in Florida, including many beaches, have been closed.
BH: Health officials announce they have tested 117 people in the Bahamas for the virus.
PR: Phillip and I set a schedule for hand-steering shifts and spend the day dodging crab pods and making our way through Yacht Channel and up the ICW. Shark River was another new anchorage we had heard good things about but had never tried, although we had also been warned the bugs there come in alien-like swarms. “They are huge, angry, and hunt in packs. You will not survive without screens,” one friend told us. While we do have screens, when the bugs started to mount in the cockpit as we simply approachedthe mouth of the river, Phillip and I decided to stay further out, to avoid the swarms and to keep us closer to our track the following morning. Thankfully, no bugs or cruisers were harmed during our visit.
US: Total confirmed cases in the U.S. reach 82,404—the highest in the world—surpassing China’s 81,782 and Italy’s 80,589. Trump announces FEMA was providing aid to the states, saying 73 pallets of personal protective equipment had been shipped to New York City.
BH: Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced a 24-hour curfew and border shutdown among additional measures that expand the emergency powers regulations.
PR: Phillip and I weigh anchor at dawn and motor-sail our way up to Naples. We say several times during this trip how grateful we have been for calm, sunny weather. Although we are having to motor a good bit, it at least allows us to make way everyday and inch closer to home without being pinned up anywhere (that would likely be shut down for isolation) waiting on the weather. Phillip and I also love this little anchorage nook in Naples because it is a very easy in-and-out via a well-marked channel. It is also nice to nestle in among the rich and wealthy, without having to be one! The height and scale of some of the yachts here, as well as their pool statues never ceases to surprise me.
US: Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the International Olympic Committee agree to postpone the Olympics until 2021 in light of the outbreak. Worldwide cases of COVID-19 surpass 400,000. Confirmed cases in the U.S. rise to 25,665. Miami-Dade, Alachua, and Orange Counties in Florida issue stay-at-home orders.
BH: All ports of entry are closed to pleasure yachts. A fifth COVID-19 case is confirmed on Grand Bahama. The patient has no relevant travel history.
US: We weigh anchor under a dazzling pink sunrise in Naples. Captain Annie has the brilliant idea to leave early (4:00 a.m.) to ensure we make it all the way to Cayo Costa before sunset, but I forgot about the damn crab pods in south Florida. It was a horrendous shift for me 4:00 to 6:00 a.m. hand-steering in the dark while trying to spot those stupid floating bombs in the water. I have never been happier for sunlight and my shift to be over that morning. I hate crab pods!
US: The White House and Senate leaders reach an agreement on a $2 trillion stimulus deal to offset the economic damage of coronavirus, one of the most expensive and far-reaching measures in the history of Congress. The UN launches a $2 billion global humanitarian response plan to assist vulnerable countries in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The first case of COVID-19 is reported in the British Virgin Islands.
BH: Traveler health questionnaires and a screening protocol is implemented at ports, hotels, and rental properties to identify guests who may require surveillance or treatment.
PR: The sun is a blazing pink ball rising as we lift the anchor and begin our leg from Cayo Costa up to Venice, Florida. We are grateful to speak to the harbor master on the phone and learn they are open for business and accepting transients. While we definitely could have continued hopping along toward home, without sufficient wind to sail, we would not have had enough gas to motor the rest of the way, and we wanted to change the engine oil. “Westie,” what we call our Westerbeke engine, was running up on 60 hours at that point, and we did not want to set off on another potential 30-40 hours of motoring home without giving him fresh oil. So, knowing Venice would afford us safe dockage, hot showers, laundry, and a complete top-off of all supplies was very comforting.
We were also able to successfully check back into the U.S. via the Small Vessel Reporting App while underway, which was a huge comfort getting that last step behind us without having to set foot in an airport or a crowd. The trip that day was also a nice run up the ICW. The occasional ill-timed bridge opening was the only annoyance, but on the bright side, it allowed me some exceptional opportunities to work on my boat maneuvering skills in tight places. We (I!) docked in the early afternoon, allowing us time to wash the boat before calling in some Carrabba’s via Uber Eats for dinner!
US: Italy reports the highest single-day death toll for any country of 919. Confirmed cases in New York rise to 37,258. Cases in the U.S. surpass those in China and Italy—making it the new epicenter of the pandemic. Anguilla reports its first cases of COVID-19.
BH: Four additional cases are confirmed on New Providence, bringing the total number of cases to nine. Health officials say country experiencing a “surge.”
PR: It is a full day for us in Venice, changing Westie’s oil, dumping the fuel jerries into the tank and walking them to the dock for a re-fill, washing everything possible on the boat, and getting an Uber around town to provision up on food, oil, and antifreeze. The grocery store is a bit haunting seeing folks in masks and gloves, wiping down all of the carts before handing them to you, and so much white empty space on the shelves, particularly the you-know-what aisle. We crash back at the boat as the sun sets and order up another Uber Eats from Papa John’s.
US: The news tells us more than one-third of humanity is under some form of lockdown. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) announces that the first patients will shortly be enrolled in Norway and Spain in a trial called the Solidarity Trial, comparing the effectiveness of four different drugs or drug combinations against COVID-19. Across Florida, we learn 3,198 people have contracted the virus, 46 of whom died.
BH: The Bahamas go into “lockdown.” Any cruiser on a boat in the Bahamas is allowed to stay until their visa expires, however, they are only permitted to go ashore for essentials like fuel, medical, or food. Any cruiser ashore after 9:00 p.m. can be arrested by the Bahamian Police. Bars, liquor stores, some marinas and restaurants are closed; cruisers must call ahead. There are now nine cases in New Providence and one in Grand Bahama.
PR: We’re off the dock early headed up the ICW to DeSoto Point, an anchorage we had never been to before but had always wanted to try. Phillip and I find ourselves uncovering many little silver linings like this along the way. Hand-steering is tiring, but it proves very do-able for short day hops. After navigating some frighteningly intense fog in the morning while trying to time the bridges, we make it to DeSoto in the early afternoon and drop the hook. Phillip and I give our baby girl a quick bottom job to speed us up for our anticipated 30-hour passage offshore to Apalachicola.
US: The Zaandamn cruise ship, which had over 130 passengers with flu-like symptoms aboard and two reported COVID-19 deaths, had been out to sea for two weeks and denied access to various ports is permitted to cross the Panama Canal and proceed to Florida for dockage and quarantine. We learn New York is now being considered the epicenter of the pandemic with over 700 cases and 12% of the workforce sick. Trump recommends a strong travel ban on New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
BH: A 35-year-old woman with no recent travel history tested positive for COVID-19 on Grand Bahama.
PR: Phillip and I rise early and head off at sunset to make our way up to Clearwater to stage up for our offshore crossing. Motor-sailing into Clearwater proves anything but boring as scores of boaters of all shapes and sizes zip and whizz around us in the channel, while thirteen knots of breeze tries to push us out of it. It was very telling, though, that many people were using boating as an escape from being cooped up in their houses. There were scores of people out! But, the traffic finally settled out around sunset and the rolling ceased, allowing Phillip and I to fall fast asleep on the hook, eager to get our longest, likely most arduous offshore passage started and behind us. While the trip definitely offered us a fair amount of fun and enjoyable moments, it also felt like a marathon as we pushed each day to go as far as we safely could. Typically when we are cruising we stay longer at certain places. We rest, and explore, and don’t wear ourselves out as much, but this trip was definitely different in that we had to, every day possible, keep going, keep working, keep the boat moving toward home.
US: Trump extends the federal guidelines on social distancing for another 30 days after a top public health expert warned deaths from the coronavirus could reach as many as 200,000 in the U.S. We learn the virus count in Florida is 4,950, with a current death toll of 60. Friends from home send us reports of continued closures of restaurants and businesses. They gripe about having the kids home 24/7 and tell us downtown Pensacola looks eerily desolate, but that the anchorages are full and cheery.
BH: Three more cases are confirmed in New Providence. We hear from fellow cruisers in Eleuthera that they made it safely to Cape Eleuthera Marina and have been able to get provisions, but they advise us Great Harbour Cay is not permitting any cruisers to leave their vessels.
PR: Phillip and I weigh anchor around 6:00 a.m. and start our first offshore leg of this voyage without an auto-pilot. With very little wind, we are reliant primarily upon our engine, which makes me nervous as I always fear something can easily go wrong there, just as it did when we were trying to make it to the BVIs. Any slight beep or knock or odd sound makes me jump in fear that the engine is breaking. But, Westie holds strong and motors an impressive 34 hours all the way across. Other than navigating a few Behemoth ships during our night shifts, we have a nice run but find ourselves sore throughout our backs, arms, and shoulders from the steering.
US: Florida’s Governor asks retired first responders and health-care workers to return to the workforce as hospitals are anticipating becoming overwhelmed with virus victims. The Department of Education announces that in-person classes will not resume in Florida schools until at least May 1st.
BH: Returning Bahamian residents must undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon re-entry if they have traveled to other countries. The islands are closed to all tourists.
PR: We watch the sun rise over Dog Island as we make the East Pass the following morning and listen to a bit on NPR about how many thousands of people are watching the movie Contagion right now and spend the day motoring from the East Pass into Apalachicola, thankful that Westie is still running so strong and steady, and tie up at the City Dock around 5:00 p.m. We look for signs to see if dockage is prohibited but see none and we receive friendly greetings from residents, further than six feet away, who are walking about. Feeling as though we will be able to stay, Phillip and I further secure the lines knowing a hard north wind will be coming through in the following days. We’re grateful, however, that it will be blowing us off the dock, rather than onto it. However, our good luck proves short-lived when we get a knock on the hull later that evening telling us we have to leave the dock due to isolation orders. While we completely understood the reason, being banished to the river with storm-winds of potentially 40+ coming the next day was not a happy moment for this crew. We dropped 175 feet of chain with our Mantus snubber and hoped for the best.
US: We learn there has been another jump in Florida cases, which now total 6,741 with 85 deaths. Sumter County issues a stay-at-home advisory. We hear hospitals are running out of sedation drugs needed to intubate COVID-19 patients. Over 80% of the U.S., more than 262 million citizens, are under stay-at-home orders.
BH: A new case of COVID-19 brings the total number of cases on Grand Bahama to three.
PR: A different kind of storm is brewing over our heads where we wait on anchor in the Apalachicola River for the winds to build. I spend the afternoon in the cockpit watching the wind gage, the anchor, and the snubber, as the boat heels, groans, and careens on anchor. It is not a pleasant afternoon on the boat. However, the highest wind speed we see is 36 knots, and our ground tackle proves up to the task. We are still very pleased with our decision to purchase the Sarca Excelanchor. The storm finally passes around 5:00 p.m. and we immediately begin happy hour celebrations. We spend a cozy evening on the hook and set the alarm for an early rise and motor up “the ditch” the following day over to Port St. Joe. We are surprised to find a tiny little marina, Captain’s Cove Marina in the ditch, is still open for business, so we set our sights there. Sadly, we heard Port St. Joe Marina, which used to be one of our favorites, was wiped out by Hurricane Michael and has not yet been rebuilt.
US: Florida’s Governor, although reluctant to do so, issues a statewide stay-at-home order that is set to go into effect on midnight of the evening of April 2nd, the night we expect to arrive in Pensacola.
BH: Six new cases are confirmed in New Providence. A report from Staniel Cay advises no travel is permitted between the islands except for emergencies.
PR: I think Sleepy River would be a better name than “the ditch” for this part of the river. It makes you feel like you’re floating along like Huckleberry Finn would have done on his little raft. It really is a beautiful river. Unfortunately, the winds are still blowing 18-25 most of the morning and sometimes, working against both the current and the wind, our boat can only make 2-2.5 knots, a slightly scary speed when you’re motoring a tight channel. But, the current finally loosened its grip when we turned a bend in the river, and we were able to then make good speed of 4-5 knots. We tied up at Captain’s Cove Marina around 4:00 p.m. and were happy to find fuel, simple but operational hot showers, even ice. It’s the little things, you know? We set our alarms for another early rise anticipating an 18-24 hour offshore run from St. Joseph Bay home.
US: Ironically, the U.S. is now getting large shipments of masks and other personal protective equipment from China as the Chinese were thankfully able to beat the curve and are beginning to recover. Total COVID-19 cases in the world surpasses one million. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is telling us on NPR how to sanitize our groceries, which only tells us just how really weird things are going to be back home.
BH: All boaters are to remain on board their vessels. If provisions are required, they are instructed to contact local grocery stores for delivery to the nearest dock. We hear reports locals in Spanish Wells have been instructed to watch for cruisers leaving their boats and going ashore and to report them to the Bahamian Police. No domestic travel by plane or boat is permitted within the Bahamas. Three more cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in the Bahamas, the youngest is nine years old.
PR: Phillip and have a very real fear we could be stopped in Pensacola Bay while coming in and sent away or sent to a quarantine, or forced to endure some other outcome we couldn’t even predict at that point. We are hopeful, however, that the “worst” thing that could happen is they tell us to dock and go straight home to quarantine. That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do for weeks, so we considered that to be a potentially great outcome.
We shove off the teensy dock at Captain’s Cove Marina around 6:00 a.m. and begin motoring out into the St. Joseph Bay. Thankfully, the wind allows us to motor-sail and make 6.5 knots average throughout the morning. It dies off in the afternoon and into the evening as we hand-steer and continue under motor. Phillip whips up a chorizo jumbalaya dinner that we eat under red head lamps and settle into hour-long steering shifts expecting to get to the Pensacola Pass around midnight or 2:00 a.m. Although the news reports continue to make home seem like a new frontier, Phillip and I cannot wait to get there after a long day offshore with still a long night ahead.
US: We learn Florida’s case-rate is 10,268 total cases with 170 deaths. The global economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is now estimated to be between $2 and $4 trillion, that is if the pandemic is contained by the end of September. The United States now has the highest number of cases in the world, over 245,000.
BH: The Prime Minister’s Order is interpreted by cruisers to mean once your visa expires, you are to leave Bahamian waters. There will be no extensions. In the coming days we hear cruisers trying to go ashore for provisions are being stopped by un-uniformed “Bahamian Police” and sent back to their vessels. We also learn that of the few grocery stores that remain open, many have implemented a schedule where you can only enter during certain hours according to your last name and ID must be shown and checked at the door.
PR: Phillip and I see the masts of our friends who are anchored up at Ft. McRee as we come in and, while it feels good to be in familiar waters, we both know we are actually in probably the most unfamiliar waters we’ve ever been in before with the current state of things. However, we are thrilled to see our marina on the horizon and find no other boats, no Coast Guard vessels, no Fish and Wildlife, no one out there to stop us. We motor in and dock in our designated slip under the black of night. Phillip and I walk home in our foul weather gear probably looking like we’ve donned haz-mat suits in light of the epidemic, which may not be a bad idea. We see no one, and we’re grateful for it. With that arduous journey behind us, we sleep the sleep of Gods even as the sun rises over a new day. While we have no idea what lies in store for the remainder of this year, particularly with respect to travel, I have never felt more grateful to simply have the boat safely in our fold, with the two of us healthy and back home.
We hope you all are staying safe and well out there.
No, that wasn’t it. Let’s see … coming up on a sunken airplane and fearing I might find the dead pilot, all bloated and rotting still in the pilot seat?
That was a close second. I always imagine the dead bodies of those who may have been lost in the crash when I come up on a sunken vessel or plane. Viewing footage from the sunken Titanic really freaks me out.