Thursday, 26 March 2009

Thorny Path Part I - If You Want to Smell the Roses, Beware of Thorns...Following the Thorny Path

For Dorothy, Mermaid by artist Boblo, Rum Cay

As relative novices to sailing, we have to wonder whether we are ready to take the next big plunge from the Bahamas to the Caribbean. It will mean some tough sailing south and east for hundreds of miles into the Trade Winds; a cruising challenge known as The Thorny Path. See Bruce Van Sant's "A Gentleman's Guide to Passages South. The Thornless Path to Windward." Bruce, has made this path his own with the only guide available for wannabe Caribbean cruisers.
Robert and Daisie discuss the Pavlidis guide to Turks and Caicos

Weather guru, Chris Parker talks to the George Town crowd.
There are those who prefer to study the theory and follow the path of others who’ve been there before. And, there are those who prefer to jump in and just do it, experiencing for themselves and learning as they go. Perhaps the combination of these preferences makes the most sense to us. Our knowledge base and confidence both continue to grow with each new experience. We study each step, listen to the weather experts, pore over guide books, consider our options, and make carefully calculated decisions to settle on sail dates and sailing routes. Watching the weather becomes the most important daily activity besides eating and sleeping.

Betsy with Daisie's pal, Buffy

Adjusting to full time sailing as live-aboards has required some adjustment in lifestyle and most importantly, a willingness to step out of a comfort zone and into unknown territory day after day. There are bound to be thorns along the way. When we slipped through snow flurries and out of the Magothy River on the Chesapeake Bay, back on that cold mid-November day, we weren’t sure exactly how far we’d go nor how well we would manage along the way. Prior to taking the big plunge, our combined sailing experiences mostly centered around the Chesapeake Bay, from lessons in Baltimore to day sails, weekend fun, and a treasured two-week cruise in 2005 from Rock Creek to Crisfield and back, criss-crossing the bay all the way in our first sailboat, Sandpiper. All very manageable. Robert especially enjoyed the delivery cruise of Bristol Rose from Deal to Pasadena, Maryland with the help of Owen, Elliot, Ashley and Alyssa. Those memories of times shared with our children, family and friends remain most precious in our minds.

We sure have come a long way in 5 months! It would be a stretch to say we “sailed” the 1,000 miles of Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) that runs north to south along the US East Coast. Affectionately known as “the ditch”, the ICW is narrow and often shallow, with hazards to navigation such as floating logs here and there. To really get any sailing, it is necessary to go offshore. Taking advantage of good weather windows in November and December we went offshore for runs up to 200 miles. Each jump gave us an additional 24 to 30 hours of ocean sailing in mostly good conditions.

Land Ho! Turks & Caicos
Leaving the US, making the jump across the Gulf Stream in January to Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas was a big milestone for us. Now it felt like we were truly on our way with Australia as our ultimate destination. Even so, we still felt the ties binding us to the States, our home for the past 12 years, and not only because Owen and Elliot currently reside in Maryland. To us the Bahamas feels more like an extension of the US than an independent country and despite continually looking for a distinct cultural change, we could not find nor identify one. These beautiful islands with waters that must be seen to be believed could be described as North America's playground. The vast majority of tourists and cruisers we met along the road are escaping the northern winter chills for the warmer climes of the Bahamas, culminating in the George Town, Exuma experience before returning to Canada or the States for the northern summer. And why not! The islands of the Bahamas are safe, the waters spectacular and the sailing is relatively easy from the USA.

Exuma Park Headquarters at Warderick Wells, a great place to meet cruisers.
Betsy and Jim, our raft buddies at Vero, kick back aboard Pete's luxurious cat Down Time
Dinghy dock at the Exuma Markets, George Town
The entrance to the bay behind Exuma Markets - see that gap behind the sailboat?

George Town, Exuma! Love it or hate it you have to experience it, as words and pictures fail us in capturing this unique place; a community transported from North America. Of the 30 or so cruising vessels we met on our 3 month trek to George Town, only 3 planned to cruise further on to the Caribbean via the thorny path. The other 27 we affectionately call Snowbirds, the name given to retired folks who fly to Sedona or Florida each winter. As categories go, there are those who winter on the ICW never crossing the Gulf Stream, more adventurous cruisers who jump across to the Bahamas with preferences for the Abacos, the Exumas, the Jumentos, etc. etc. Then there are those who've been there, done that and are on an extended cruise with thoughts of experiencing world cultures beyond their comfort zone. We met all kinds in the Bahamas including some wonderful cruisers we spent very memorable times with and it saddens us to realize the chances of seeing most of them again are slim, unless of course they make it across the Pacific to Australia.

A fun night at South Side Marina, Provo, Turks & Caicos

Good times aboard Shawna and Jon's Formosa Beausoleil
Sunny, Trish, Blake, Robert and John

Thanks to the George Town Cruisers Net we were able to connect with other adventurous souls heading south. As word traveled more people contacted us, brought together by the common bond of taking on the Thorny Path according to Bruce Van Sant (the "all mighty one"), sharing thoughts about routes, Chris Parker weather reports, and strategies. We get together on volleyball beach, quoting from the all mighty one’s “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South” like a bible study group. We plan our escape from George Town.

Volleyball Beach, George Town

Conch Salad Bar. Mound of conch shells at water's edge.
It is now March, winter cold fronts are becoming less frequent and not moving as far south as George town. This winter seems to be particularly windy, colder than usual, and we find ourselves pinned down at anchor off Volleyball Beach with 20 to 25 knot Easterly winds. We have no choice but to wait for the winds to moderate and seas to decline.

At last we feel ready and the forecast gives us a weather window to leave. We stage at Fowl Cay, as recommended by Bruce Van Sant. The anchorage proves to be very rolly, and we become both anxious and excited to get underway at first light on our day sail to Conception Island.

Sargasso weed floats freely all over Bahamian waters

So far we have been surrounded by islands that offer many protected anchorages, but now we are heading out into the Atlantic in search of a single island with an anchorage exposed to the North West and a rising swell. We appreciate why George Town has earned the title "Chicken Harbor"; leaving takes some confidence in ability as well as the weather reports. We find ourselves second guessing our decision to go to Conception as we enter the Atlantic and are hit by a small squall. It's not a big problem however, when the anchorage at Conception Island comes into view in the afternoon light we are elated to see miles of white sand beaches sheltered from the prevailing easterly winds.

Daisie loves her dinghy - something like a magic carpet ride gliding across the crystal water in these conditions. Spectra sits at anchor, far right.

We wait out the seas and wind at Conception, meet more people heading south, Solveig and Spectra and enjoy beautiful days exploring and enjoying the perfect weather and good company. From our sheltered lee anchorage vantage point it looks very calm and so we decide to take a short 25 nm journey to Rum Cay. Bristol Rose looks a picture on a beam reach as the winds fill her sails, sun shining, sailing in the lee of Conception Island. As we clear the island, we beat into an 8 ft swell and 20 knot winds from the ESE. We are feeling the thorns as Bristol Rose is beaten by the waves although we are confident she can handle it as long as we can. We wonder is our departure a little premature. Solveig follows us the next day in slightly better conditions.

Blake and Sunny, Slow Mocean

Solveig of Lorn, Rum Cay

Lesson learned, we stay at Rum Cay to wait for more favorable weather before continuing east. Studying weather forecasts and GRIB files we plot an overnight path that will take us to Mayguanna. We prepare to leave. Morning light sees glassy conditions, and falling seas. Now is the time. Sunny and Blake on Slow Mocean join us as we leave Rum Cay. Voyager calls us on the radio to say they too are on their way.
The shallow banks of theTurks and Caicos, reflected in the clouds. A photograph can't do any justice to the spectacular sight, no matter the weather. Words cannot describe the experience.

Conditions could not be better and we're making excellent time so we decide to go straight to Providenciales ("Just say Provo mon, don' hurt your tongue." -Pavlidis) in the Turks and Caicos, rather than stop at Mayguanna. We make the 160 nautical miles in 24 hrs. Slow Mocean accompanied us all the way, sure is nice to have another boat traveling with us during an overnight passage. We even got lucky landing a 4ft Mahi Mahi. This makes up for the big one that got away on route to Rum Cay.

Buddy taking a short rest at French Cay

For many Turks and Caicos is a short stay on their passage south. We'd like to do some exploring. After checking in with Customs and Immigration we study the weather. If we don’t leave within 2 days we could be here for 2 weeks with a building north swell and strong winds. We decide our stay will be very short. The conditions enable us to take a less conventional route south from Sapodilla Bay to French Cay then south east directly to Luperon in the Dominican Republic, with 10 to 15 kt winds on a run. Normally the trade winds blow due east and unrelenting making this route impossible. We are joined by Buddy, Slow Mocean, Water Music, and Anthem for what turns out to be a very comfortable passage to the Dominican Republic with the bonus of good company by radio contact during the night's passage.

Above pictures are of our entrance into Luperon Harbour and some of the fishing boats.
At sunrise we are treated to the glorious, misty mountains of Dominican Republic. Daisie’s nose twitches with the earthy smells of the rainforests drifting over us with the offshore breeze. A 6 ft swell crashes on the shore. The entrance to Luperon Harbour welcomes us with water shooting into the sky from the blow holes off our port side. A glassy, well shaped wave peels off a reef at the entrance to the harbour. Fishermen in wooden row boats tend fish traps at the entrance just inside the breaking water. John, from Buddy, is very familiar with Luperon and offers to lead us into the harbour, providing way points as a guide. We cannot help but see the irony; John has poor eyesight and is legally blind. Talk about the blind leading the blind. Perhaps he has a sixth sense about it.

On turning into the anchorage we are welcomed by the sight of 200 cruising boats inside this mangrove lined hurricane hole. The small village of Luperon is at the head of the anchorage.We are told the bottom is "gluey" mud that can break away in chunks with pressure on an anchor during a blow, sending boats dragging through the anchorage. Tom on Essential Part gives us some helpful advice on anchoring Bristol Rose and kindly takes Daisie on a much needed shore break as we settle in and wait for the Commandancia to check us in. We feel at home immediately and think we are going to like being in the Dominican Republic.
Joe and Mel, Spectra

Contrary to popular belief among cruisers and to our relief, the immigration officials who boarded were pleasant and business like. Raphael came aboard to help with translations. Local business people dropped by to advertise their services and businesses.

Following a visit by the Comandancia we entered the township of Luperon to complete clearance into the Dominican Republic. Dogs sleep on the road side, children play stick ball in the streets, chickens and ducks roam free, goats graze in the trash bin outside the green grocer, Latin music blasts from the bars, bikes and cars blow their horns as they dart around, men and women play Dominos, laundry hangs on barbed-wire fences, “Hola” beams from smiling friendly faces.

We have come a long way from the Chesapeake Bay. People in Luperon have very little in worldly goods yet they seem happy and confident. One thing remains the same; people everywhere appreciate a friendly smile and respect shown by "intruders" or visitors to their land. So far, we have been fortunate to avoid any painful thorns!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Where in the World is Bristol Rose?

Robert has winlink working which allows us to get weather information and send emails as well as post position reports from his computer onboard.  Go to our Float Plan page (right hand column of this page) or follow this link.

Conception Island, Bahamas

Trish, Robert, Daisie Dog, Diana and Robin (Solveig of Lorn)

The mangrove creeks, Conception Is.

Conception Island is one of our favourite places in the Bahamas; crystal clear water and amazing marine life. Plus, we enjoyed the company of friends Diana and Robin who are among our little cadre of Cruisers South from George Town. We dinked around the mangrove creeks and saw turtles, a stingray and a shark as well as large conch and many fish. The island is protected as a park.

These guys hung around our boat during our glorious days at Conception. They are about 18" long.