Would You Continue an Ocean Voyage Without an Engine?

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?

November, 2019:

“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.

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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

or

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Take a Virtual Trip With Us! To Our Favorite Island in the Bahamas: Spanish Wells!

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.

BV21: To Harbour Island via the Devil’s Backbone

High times at Harbour Island High!  These high-flying kite-surfers were also there on a boat at Harbour Island when Phillip and I were there, back in March of this year, only their boat was just a smidge bigger.  Owned by a billionaire.   Yes, with a B.  It’s amazing the potluck of people you meet while cruising.  But, they were super humble and a lot of fun to “hang” with … get it? : )  From Spanish Wells, Phillip and I decided to hire a captain to help us navigate through the treacherous coral-ridden path, known as the “Devil’s Backbone,” into Harbour Island, and we spent a fabulous three days exploring ashore, kiting our a$$es off (with the billionaires!), and hiking the south side with Brett and Kristen from Life in the Key of Sea.  As we share work from our time in the shipyard this summer, it’s also fun to remind ourselves what all of that hard work is for.  Flash back to one of our last stops in the Bahamas this past March with a fun video and photos for you below from our time in Harbour Island.  Enjoy!

There was no end to the surprises the Bahamas kept revealing were in store for us.  At Spanish Wells, we were honestly expecting a more industrial fishing town, not many stunning sights.  But, then we got this:

It won the award on Plaintiff’s Rest for most beautiful beach in the Bahamas.  For us, anyway, our first year there having only made it through the Abacos, Eleuthera, and the Berries.  We’re often told the beaches and shorelines in the Exumas are just incomparable, but we haven’t seen them in person yet.  So, until then, this neon-breathtaking-blue beach on the north shore of Spanish Wells will have to do.  C’est la vie.

But, Harbour Island turned out to be a great surprise, too.  Initially, when Phillip and I were planning our route through the Bahamas in 2017/2018, Harbour Island was not one of our intended destinations.  Our (very vague, back in 2017) plan was to tinker through the Abacos, then make our way down through the ragged islands and the Exumas—to the extent we could—before we needed to get the boat back to Pensacola for hurricane season.  When we got to Spanish Wells, our cruising timeline was starting to close for the year.  Currently, Phillip and I are more “commuter cruisers,” who spend roughly half of the year aboard our boat cruising and the other half (broken up here and there) back home in Pensacola working.  Somehow you gotta pay for all this fun, right?

So, we knew our window was closing and we still had on our list: the Berries, the voyage back across the Gulf Stream to Florida, and all of the wonderful cruising we wanted to along the west coast of Florida.  With that in mind, Mother Nature decided to throw us a curve ball.  Around the time we were planning to leave Spanish Wells one of those very common north fronts came through and it looked like it was going to blow for days.

This meant we had one of two options: 1) Run down to the Exumas and try to find a place to hide there for the four-or-so days we expected weather.  (And, many of you who have been to the Exumas likely know—hiding is not a great thing to try and do in the Exumas.  The islands are just so small and sparse, they don’t offer great protection.)  So, we could either race down to the Exumas, try to hide for a bit, hope for a few clear days, then race back to the Berries and onward to home or … Option Two.  Tuck into Harbour Island, which was just a short half-day jaunt over in Eleuthera.  Here is where we were in the Bahamas:

We could then drop the hook there for a few days to escape the coming winds, explore Eleuthera and the Berries slowly, then pick our way home.  As you can imagine, any option with the word “slow” in it is likely the one that’s going to appeal to us.  You just cannot do the Exumas in five days.  I think it’s blasphemy.  Birds would start flying backwards.  Ducks would bark.  Strange things would happen.  I’m sure.

With the Harbour Island decision made, Phillip and I then had to decide whether we were feeling brave enough to navigate the very rocky and coral-ridden inlet to Harbour Island—known locally as the “Devil’s Backbone”—on our own or hire a captain to take us safely through.  You can see here the many, many coral heads that litter the path from Spanish Wells into Harbour Island!  Makes me want to tuck my keel and run.  Yipes!

The cost to hire a captain was roughly $120 (and we added a $20 tip).  While we are in no way made of money, our keel and hull are not made of material that is good to slam into a coral head.  It just seemed worth it to us—our first time coming into Harbour Island—to hire a captain to ensure a safe entry, no damage to the boat, and avoid the immense stress it would put on us trying to do that ourselves.  Now that we’ve been in and out and laid a track, I feel confident Phillip and I could now do it on our own, but we didn’t feel the need was great enough to chance it the first time, in light of the fairly low cost to ensure safe entry with a captain.

There were several captains available to take you most days, either at 9:00 a.m. or around lunch.  The run through the Devil’s Backbone took about 3.5 to 4 hours, traveling as we do at roughly 4-5 knots under motor.  The captain that took us in was very knowledgeable and nice and told us to follow him “very closely.”  He did not tie up to our boat or board, but he puttered slowly in front of us, making sure we were on a safe path, communicating with us often via radio, and he got us in safely.

And, while it was a beautiful day, gorgeous waters, and a successful navigation, there was one thing about the trip that bothered me and Phillip.  When we were envisioning doing the Devil’s Backbone ourselves, both of us had a mental image of one of us standing at the bow, sun directly overhead, pointing out coral heads left and right, giving cues to the helmsman at the wheel.  To be frank, we kind of wanted to gain that experience while following a captain so we knew we would be safe.  Like a test run with training wheels on.  But, here’s the thing: we couldn’t really see the coral heads.  Neither Phillip nor myself could make them out.  Sometimes I would feel like I saw one up ahead and it turned out to be a big patch of black sand or grass.  Then sometimes I didn’t feel like I’d seen one at all, but there it was breaching the surface where I thought there was no coral.

I can’t explain why we couldn’t see the coral heads.  Perhaps it was too early in the day, although it was a very clear, bright day, and we navigated the corally (that’s a word today) section from about 10-12:00 p.m.  Perhaps we just don’t have good coral eyes (another linguistic gem for you.)  Whatever the cause, that part about the trip made us very glad we had hired a captain because he obviously could either see them where we couldn’t, or he just knew the route between them by heart.  (We later learned it is both but mostly the latter).  Either way, it was a beautiful day and a very enjoyable journey.

Once in Harbour Island, the captain rafted up with us briefly to get his fee then sent us on our way.  Phillip and I navigated the shoals (which would later become our kiting ground when the tide was out) to drop the hook behind Harbour Island on the south side.  We took the dinghy over to Man’s Island and snorkeled around, which was really fun.  I saw my first lionfish underwater.  Oh, and sea cucumbers, too!  Those lovable lazy slugs.  Phillip and I were also very surprised to find such a diverse, budding little town ashore with plenty of shops, eateries, nice restaurants, conch salad shacks, clothing boutiques, etc.  There was a laundry mat where we washed all of our clothes and linens for $4/load and wifi in certain places.  I certainly had one of the nicest, most beautiful “offices” I’ve had in a while.  No complaints from this little remote worker!

The north side of the island also promised pretty pink beaches!  While I imagined an entire beach shoreline the color of conch shell pink, that’s not really what we got.  But the sand did have a nice rosy hue to it and—pink or not—it was gorgeous!  One of my favorite parts was seeing the horses walking along the beach.  The locals apparently give horse rides on the beach often to attract tourists (and it works!) but it was still cool to see my favorite animal in now one of my favorite places: the Bahamas.

We also inadvertently ended up dropping our hook next to another cruising couple we had previously connected with on social media: Brett and Kristen aboard Life in the Key of Sea.  We met up with them one of our last days in Harbour Island, hiked the south side, and ate at the famous Sip Sip with a stunning view of the Atlantic shore.  Brett and Kristen were very like-minded and easy-going (as most cruisers are) and we connected instantly.  It was fun to hear the places they had been, their plans going forward, and a lot of the wacky, unfounded questions we all get from people who aren’t cruisers.  Like “How do you feed the dogs?” Kristen told me someone had asked her, as they have two very lovable rescues aboard.  It’s like the ability to buy dog food in advance and store it on the boat while cruising cannot be fathomed.

People are funny!  But we always get a kick out of some of the questions we get, too.  For instance: “What do you dooo all day on passage?” is another one of my favorites.  You don’t have time to think about it, you’re usually so busy fixing things, checking the weather, holding your shift, cleaning, napping, fixing more things, researching, cooking, more cleaning, fixing something else, then it’s all of sudden the next day and you don’t know how it happened.  We definitely had a good time laughing with Brett and Kristen about these shared bewilderments from our followers!

Phillip and I also did some of our best kiting from our entire Bahamas trip in Harbour Island.  Mainly because the folks we kited with made it so memorable.  It’s always the people, am I right?!  Phillip, from our table at a little vegan restaurant, saw someone pumping up a kite on a tiny spit of sand in the harbour.  He couldn’t help it.  That man smells wind, I tell you.  Instantly, he was up, “Check please,” and we were on our way out there.  We met the folks and got to talking to them.  Obviously—when you’re all on a tiny island with no airport—the question of “How did you get here?” often comes up.  The gal with them said offhand “Oh, we’re staying here on a boat.”

“Oh, cool.  Us, too.  Ours is that sailboat over in the distance,” as I pointed.

“Oh nice,” she said (I now know) graciously.

“Where’s your boat?” I asked looking around for perhaps another monohull or cruising catamaran.

The gal got a little quiet and responded, “We’re on the biggest one here.  It’s the Trending Yacht over there.”  And by “over there,” she meant a vessel big enough to block out the sun.  The thing is 165-feet of mega-money.  It is a badass boat.  Fun video for you here:

I mean.  Whoa.  We later learned her dad, who owns the boat, is not just a millionaire.  But a billionaire.  With a B.  Say it again.  Whoa.  Check out more photos, video, and info about the boat and crew and the charters they do at Trending Yacht.

But, the crew (the two guys in the video above and photos below) and the daughter, “Biz” (short for Elizabeth), were super cool and a ton of fun to hang out with.  The crew also told us the owner of Trending is—much unlike most other mega-yacht owners who are total douchebags—very low-key.  He just wants everyone to have a good time, and wants to keep the boat in good working order so folks can appreciate it.  It felt pretty freaking cool to meet my first billionaire!  We had a great time kiting with them several days in the harbour.  The two guys helping Biz learn to kite and crewing on the boat were total adrenaline junkies, trying to loop their kite (which usually ended in monster crashes into the water), hoisting each other up into the air, launching wicked jumps on the kite, etc.  The “Trending Show” was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.

In all, Harbour Island was an unexpected treat.  Phillip and I had never really envisioned ourselves heading this deep into Eleuthera during this trip to the Bahamas.  (We had envisioned ourselves in the Exumas instead.)  But it was just further proof that when we go where the wind takes us (and not try to fight the universe’s obvious coaxing) we usually are rewarded to an unexpected but surprisingly unique and memorable new place.  Harbour Island definitely fit that bill.

Hope you all enjoy the video, write-up, and photos below.  We only have one more destination in the Bahamas to share before we scoot back across the Gulf Stream and start trickling up the west coast of Florida back to Pensacola, in blog time that is.  As I mentioned in the video, in real time, we just splashed back after 4.5 weeks in the Pensacola Shipyard with Perdido Sailor, having accomplished some very awesome and necessary projects on our boat, and we’re now working to prepare our workloads and stock the boat for this season’s cruising.  I will announce our plans soon.  We’ve got something very, very cool in store for you followers.  Stay tuned!

For now, let that Harbour Island footage roll!  Enjoy!

Following the captain through the Devil’s Backbone:

Off on a dinghy adventure to snorkel around Man’s Island:

  

Our favorite time on the boat: Captain’s Hour

Exploring the awesome little town on Harbour Island:

 

The pink beach on the north shore!

Time to get our kite on!

 

The fun billionaire-ess and her cRaZy crew!

Enjoying the little eateries and shops in town:

Hiking and dining with Brett and Kristen from Life in the Key of Sea!

I was completely sober when I took that picture … promise ; )