Mother Nature spanked us on the way to the Caribbean

Departure Day, Sunday November 4, promised to be a beautiful, crisp autumn day. Glenn, the captain, and crew, Pam, Jason and Karen, stumbled around in the darkness, donning warm, winter gear and grabbing hot coffee to start their journey.  We’d been preparing Mira and ourselves for this journey for months and were feeling ready – though, with the usual anxieties that precede a multi-day passage at sea. Lines were tossed and fenders stored and by 6 am we were off! Since Mira was the only boat of 21 boats participating in the Caribbean 1500 Rally headed for Antigua (the rest headed to Tortola), we chose not to join the official start line at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay later that morning. As soon as we took the turn out of the Bay heading south, the winds freshened to 20 knots slightly forward of our beam, and Mira was off!

The ensuing 1745 nautical mile passage was a true ocean sailing adventure. During the next 12 days at sea Mother Nature seriously had her way with us.  The first 24 hours of the trip were spent sailing south along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts and around Cape Hatteras as we encountered a nasty warm front. The front threw 40 knot winds, choppy Gulf Stream waves, and a 5 knot current in our face.  The crew doused the head sail, centered a scrap of main and turned on both engines – trying to stabilize the boat as we doggedly pressed southward. Continuous rain and squalls added insult to injury, as we turned east at the designated coordinates for our Gulf Stream crossing.  Another 24 hours later the Gulf Stream was behind us and we were exhausted but, as the air and sea temperatures noticeably rose, the crew began to sense a glimmer of the Caribbean waiting for us.

The middle part of the passage had Mira continuing east into the open sea of the North Atlantic. From the US east coast, the Caribbean islands are not only south but quite a bit further east than most people realize.  Traditionally, sailboats head eastward almost to Bermuda before turning south to catch the prevailing trade winds. In contrast, we encountered a stalled high pressure system which sucked away all of the wind we needed to sail east! We were forced to motor for 6 days – seriously depleting our diesel stores. But …. we were wearing shorts and swimming in the 4 mile deep ocean and catching Mahi-mahi!!  Skies were clear, fish were biting, stars were shooting, captain and crew were happy!

Unfortunately, about this time, Mira received weather updates via our IridiumGO satellite system that alerted us to a tropical depression forming in the Leeward Islands and heading northwest directly into Mira’s path. Game-day decision time! Our best option was to head a bit farther east than planned (all the way past Bermuda to the 61st longitude line) and then sail south to Antigua, hoping to come in behind the eastern edge of the tropical depression.

These last five days of our journey were spent sailing straight south – skirting the tropical depression…almost. Collectively, the captain and crew of Mira sailed faster and saw higher winds, waves, and more squalls than in all of Mira’s experiences. 25 knot sustained winds and 3 meter swells directly on the beam catapulted Mira southward. Waves crashed over the cockpit roof. Constant squalls and confused waves took a toll on the crew. Top wind gusts recorded reached over 40 knots, and Mira’s top speed was 15.9 knots – a first for Mira.  She was lurching and bucking like a bronco. Meals were limited to those eaten with a spoon from a bowl.  Water usage was rationed because of low diesel stores and a stressed water maker.

Mira, an Antares catamaran, is one of the best blue water sailboats in the world, but all boats have their limits. As the stormy days wore slowly on, Mira began to show symptoms of the strenuous and difficult passage.  Limping into Falmouth Harbour, Antigua, with reluctant engines, we dropped anchor under sail at 10:39 am on November 16th.  The next 14 days were spent washing, rinsing, scrubbing, repairing, adjusting, and testing all systems on the boat.  The crew also took a few days of well deserved R & R before our kids were scheduled to arrive for Thanksgiving. Happily, Mira is now returned to her former glory while her crew keeps a watchful eye for another sneak attack from Mother Nature.

This is the Carib 1500 Rally map that shows the track of each of the participating boats. Mira is the pale yellow track line that shoots straight east to maneuver around the storm.
This is a screenshot of our instruments showing total nautical miles of the trip – 1745 – and top speed during the trip of 15.9 knots. Considering our average and cruising speed is 6 knots, this speed was way out of Mira’s comfort zone. It was achieved during one of our last 3 days – and for those sailors out there – we were NOT surfing down a wave! Our wind and waves were flat on the beam. ;(
The first day of our passage – bundled up from the cold of November in Virginia.
Jason giving Glenn lessons on the fine art of catamaran sail trimming.
Beautiful sunset at sea.
Pam at the SSB radio (single side band) taking her turn (along with 3 other boats) leading the morning and evening Carib 1500 Rally nets. It was a great way for all of the Rally boats to connect each day and discuss safety and weather information, but also – fun things like Mahi catchings and shooting star sightings.

 

Here are the beginnings of the churned up and confused waves of our Gulf Stream crossing. The next 24 hours became even more difficult. The nasty warm front tossed more wind, waves, and rain in our face as we battled the strong Gulf Stream current.

Small, dark Atlantic dolphins greeted us after we ventured through the Gulf Stream and out into the open Atlantic Ocean.

Relaxing on our favorite perch – savoring the warm temperatures and sunshine that were starting to appear. The middle part of our passage was truly delightful.

Captain and all crew on Mira participated in meal preparation for this passage.  We took turns with cook duty every 4th day in our watch rotation. On our “cook” day we cooked and cleaned all day and didn’t take watch until the nighttime.
Pam enjoyed planning all of the meals, buying the ingredients and provisions, and most importantly, seeing the happy faces of the well-fed crew. Here’s One Pot Beef Stroganoff.

 

This is Barbacoa shredded beef with corn salsa on yellow rice – all prepared in the pressure cooker.
Here’s one of three beautiful and delicious Mahi-mahi we caught on the middle part of our passage. Definitely a highlight of the trip.

Rocking and rolling a bit, but Glenn still got the Mahi grilling done!
Freshly caught grilled Mahi served with lemon garlic butter sauce. Leftovers made yummy Mahi fish tacos the next day.
Captain threw out a line during one of our motoring days and we all dove in!! The middle of the Atlantic (latitude 26.45 longitude 62.23) that was 19,690 feet deep or 3.7 miles. Surreal experience!

A beautiful sunset from Pam and Glenn’s cabin. Seas were starting to build.

As Mira took her turn south on Monday, Nov 12, she was starting to skirt the edge of the tropical depression. The seas got increasingly confused and much larger, winds began to increase and squalls began appearing. The last 3 days were the most difficult of the trip.

A screenshot of the tropical depression smack dab in Mira’s path.

The crew of Mira practiced safe sailing precautions. All crew wore their own PFD when leaving the salon area at night and during rough seas. Each PFD had its own personal locator beacon that would alert Mira’s chart plotter with a GPS coordinate and Mira’s crew with a loud alarm sound – if the PFD went overboard and was deployed. Each PFD also had a light, a knife, a face spray shield, and a whistle. Each crew member also attached their blue tether immediately upon entering the cockpit and would tether onto jack lines along either side of the boat if leaving the cockpit.

Glenn performed a deck check late every afternoon – checking all the running and standing rigging (lines and metal supports) – even in the worst of the weather.

Glenn and Jason supporting each other during their difficult watches during the last few days.
Land Ho! Antigua on the horizon. A sigh of relief from all!
Mira’s engines needed some tender, loving care – thanks to the Antigua Yacht Club for towing us in from the outer anchorage area.
Glenn multi-tasking technology – coordinating a delicate docking operation with the tow boat and his crew.
Mira at rest – finally – in the Antigua Yacht Club – twelve days later!

 

The Carib 1500 Rally – preparing Mira & crew for the tropical migration

The Caribbean 1500 Rally is orchestrated by the World Cruising Club. For this November’s rally from Portsmouth, VA, to Tortola, BVI – 21 boats participated. Mira elected to join the rally – despite our ultimate goal to sail past the BVI to Antigua. The WCC offers a wide range of benefits when you join their rallies. They provide a superbly prepared Rally Handbook with a wide range of safety and sailing system checklists, off-shore seminars in the week prior, and last but not least, camaraderie with other sailors through happy hours and local events.

Contemplating another winter in the Caribbean with limited marine resources and summer 2019 in the Mediterranean, this fall seemed the perfect time to join a rally and complete some additional safety and comfort features on Mira. So, the Captain detailed a long list of projects to be completed and items to be purchased. Annapolis without wind seemed like the perfect spot to accomplish this list.  So …. during the months of August and September …. we added the following,

  • replaced our nearly new two Volvo diesel engines due to an emissions recall by Volvo,
  • new refrigerator handle & stainless kick plate,
  • European power battery charger,
  • 5 zone bilge dry out system
  • Exhaust system in galley over the stovetop
  • New mirror in master head,
  • Fixed freezer refrigerant pressure,
  • New Seagull water filtration system,
  • New life raft & stainless steel mount cage,
  • Mount on our arch for dinghy motor,
  • Newly configured arch davits for dinghy,
  • New outhaul line for mainsail,
  • Protective covers for hatches,
  • New stainless pedestals for cockpit table
  • New salon carpet & mat,
  • Stern anchor,
  • New jumbo ‘super yacht’ fenders & fender covers,
  • 4 inflatable life vests and personal locator beacons,
  • Wide variety of aerial, smoke daytime and night flares,
  • and we completed extensive offshore safety requirements for Carib 1500 including authoring our first official Mira Ships Operations & Procedures manual.

Yes.. it was a very busy (and expensive few months).  As the leaves were starting to drop, Mira sailed down from her fall home in Annapolis and arrived at the Ocean Yacht Marina in Portsmouth, VA, on October 25. The next week was reserved for additional preparation before the official start of the Carib 1500 Rally on Sunday, November 4th. Pam and Glenn were happy to be joined by Karen and Jason Trautz, who had recently completed a ten year circumnavigation on their own Antares catamaran, YOLO. We were thrilled to have sailors with their incredible sailing experience aboard Mira for the offshore passage to Antigua.  Our week was filled with boat work, seminars, meetings, tours, provisioning, cooking and happy hours.

Mira’s interior was well protected during her engine swap out.

New life raft and stainless steel cradle.
Check in for the Caribbean 1500 at the Ocean Yacht Marina in Portsmouth, VA.
Glenn and Jason hard at work installing new pedestals.
Glenn installing a thru-hull cap amid provisioning stores.
Chafe gear – always a necessity!
Just a fraction of the provisions necessary for 4 people for a 12 day passage.
The view from above!  A trip up the mast is always required before a long passage.
Mira festively decked out in her dress flags for the Rally.
Mira passing the rigorous safety inspection.
Safety demonstrations included PFDs, life rafts, and flares.

Glenn, Karen and Jason at Happy Hour in historic Portsmouth, VA.
Mira’s crew decked out in their Halloween best.
Pam and Karen off to provision!
Glenn studied weather information for the passage.
Departure Day! Sunday, November 4th!

 

 

 

Bahamas Bound!

After enjoying several weeks hopping around the British Virgin Islands, it was time to move on. We really wanted to spend some time exploring the Bahamas and see the gatorade blue shades of water and white sugar sand beaches.

After talking to other cruisers about the current state of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic post-hurricanes, we decided to skip that traditional sailing path to the Bahamas. Most cruisers sail from the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico to Dominican Republic to the Turks and Caicos to the Bahamas. Hopping from country to country –  with just a few overnight sails – fairly easy to do with a crew of two.  But, we decided to sail straight from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in a single passage – skipping PR, DR and T&C in between. Since we would be sailing without stopping for 5 days (impossible to anchor in 3 miles of ocean 🙂 – we wanted an additional crew member to help keep watch. Thanks to Neil and Shawn’s introduction  – we met their cruising captain buddy, Jim. It was a perfect match!

Jim had many years of sailing experience that he was willing to share with us – as well as endless mechanical “MacGuvyer” problem-solving skills.

Mira, with her expanded crew, left the BVI mid-April and sailed for 5 days and 4 nights. Every day was different. Winds 25-30 knots from behind us with 10 foot waves and intermittent squalls greeted us for our first two days out. Winds and waves decreased by the third day – and, we motor sailed with our big screecher headsail out. The 4th day dawned bright and sunny and flat calm – motoring that day. And, the 5th day had fairly strong winds on our beam – a bit of a rambunctious and bouncy sailing day. We all agreed that this is the best and worst part about offshore sailing.

It’s always a good day when you catch dinner!

Our route took us from St. Thomas west across the top of the northern coast of Puerto Rico to northwest along the top end of Dominican Republic and then south of the Turks & Caicos and north of Acklins Island (one of the Out Islands of the Bahamas) to north around the top end of Long Island in the Bahamas.

Our route above in blue

Glenn on watch with Jim. Clear skies and following seas!
Thoroughly enjoying napping while they are helming.

As we rounded the top end of Long Island, we got our first glimpse of the crystal blue waters of the Bahamas. Our first anchorage in four nights, we were literally in shock. No need to dive on the anchor – you could see it from the bow! So very beautiful!

The next day, we docked Mira at Emerald Bay Marina on the island of Great Exuma – just north of George Town. We usually plan a short marina stay after a long passage – giving us time to rest, take advantage of endless water, and thoroughly clean Mira – inside and out.

Glenn and I enjoyed several relaxing days on Great Exuma. We visited George Town – some say the Mecca for cruisers in the Bahamas. Hundreds of sailboats spend the winter in the huge Elizabeth Harbour – enjoying social and athletic activities of all sorts – many marine facilities – as well as an international airport close by.

Elizabeth Harbour – George Town, Great Exuma

The Grand Isle Resort – adjacent to the Emerald Bay Marina – offers day passes to marina guests. We were able to experience the beautiful blue waters and white sand beaches up close and personal – just as gorgeous as advertised!

Dinner on the beach at the Shoreline Beach Club.

Our time on Great Exuma Island was brief as were were eager to explore the long Exuma island chain to the north.

 

British Virgin Islands – snorkeling, sailing, & relaxing – always beautiful!

Since January, Glenn and I have mostly puddle-jumped our way north up the Caribbean chain of islands from Grenada. Our sails have ranged from 4 to 10 hours during daylight only.  The sail from Saint Martin to Tortola in the BVI was 92 nautical miles and took us about 14 hours. Glenn and I did it alone – alternating sleeping and taking watch at the helm. I was nervous, but Glenn was excited. He spent a lot of time analyzing the weather and winds, and felt good about our travel window.  In addition, our good sailing friend, Glen, who is single-handing his Privilege 49, Sirenitie, was going to buddy-boat with us.

Sirenitie – our buddy boat for the passage

We raised anchor at 1:30 am on March 20 from Marigot Bay in Saint Martin. I am not yet comfortable being alone at the helm during the night – so, Glenn took the helm to start, and I went back to bed.  I relieved him at sunrise, so he could get some sleep.  It was a beautiful motor sail – the winds were light, but that was fine with us for our first long sail alone! We arrived in Soper’s Hole, Tortola, around 3:00 pm, exhausted but happy.

The British Virgin Islands consist of the main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke, along with over 50 other smaller islands and cays. The islands have a population of about 28,000 with approximately 23,500 living on Tortola. The islanders are British citizens as of 2002.  These islands are well known for their delightful sailing opportunities. The islands are close together providing line of sight navigation and usually, fairly consistent trade winds. There are beautiful, serene anchorages and snorkeling opportunities around every corner.

Over the past years, we have chartered sailboats many times in the BVI.  Our family has wonderful memories of sailing, snorkeling, swimming and exploring almost every one of these islands. Special memories for the kids include learning to sail Hobie cats at the Bitter End Yacht Club and climbing the boulders at the Baths.

Sadly, our first look at the BVI post-Hurricane Irma was distressing.

 

A shout-out to my children for my delightful Mother’s Day present – a donation to the post-hurricane BVI relief fund! I can’t think of a better present – thank you all SO much!!!

But, during our two weeks in the BVI, we discovered that the waters are still just as blue and the sand is still blinding white, and the islands will recover from this latest tragedy. There are many signs of progress – lots of building and activity going on – on every island. Especially on Tortola and in the capital of Road Town, the streets and surrounding areas are clear of debris, but lots and lots of buildings are still heavily damaged. It will take time.

Meanwhile, we loved every minute of our time in the BVI.  It was a special treat for us to sail our own boat to all of our familiar anchorages – where we had only taken charter boats previously.

Mira and Sirenitie in the marina at Oil Nut Bay.

We jumped from island to island – sailing alongside Sirenitie with Glen and Marilyn. And later on in our visit, my sister Cathy and brother-in-law Sam came to sail on Mira with us.

One of our first BVI stops is always The Baths on Virgin Gorda. The Baths are an unusual formation of large granite boulders. The sea washes in between the huge rocks, and pools have been created where shafts of light play on the water for a dramatic effect. A path weaves through the boulders – climbing and winding up and around – for a fun adventure. The beaches on either side of the boulders are beautiful with crashing waves and powdery white sand.

View of the Baths and the anchorage from the Top of the Baths resort.

Cathy and Sam enjoying the ride.

 

Our anchorage at the Bight on Norman Island. Sadly the iconic Willie T was destroyed in Hurricane Irma.
Lounging on Pirate’s Beach with Glen and Marilyn – a fun alternative to the Willie T on Norman.

 

Magnificent snorkeling at the Indians – just off Norman Island.

 

 

There’s always time for a rum punch after a long snorkeling trip!

We got a treat at anchor late one afternoon – mama and baby dolphins swimming right next to Mira.

 

We were “lucky” enough to find ourselves right in the middle of the one of the races in the BVI Spring Regatta. It was the offshore multihull class which includes Gunboats and catamarans over 60 ft. – they passed us like we were standing still!

Acting on a tip from a fellow cruiser, we discovered that Oil Nut Bay – an exclusive private resort that is normally off-limits to visitors – was allowing marina and day guests to use their amenities! Mira and Sirenitie flew over to take their spot in the lovely marina and Glenn, Pam, Glen and Marilyn spent some luxurious days – by the pool and beach and enjoying some pampering time!

Oil Nut Bay Resort

Beautiful end to our time in the BVI

St. Martin – boat work and staging for the BVI sail!

Mira next sailed to St. Martin from Saba – a short 4 hour sail, but a beautiful beam reach flying 9-10 knots the whole way – in late March.

We have sailed around St. Martin/St Maarten and St. Barts before, but we headed this way again for two reasons. One, Glenn needed a quiet anchorage to figure out why our generator wasn’t working, and two, it was the perfect spot to prepare for our first long overnight passage to Tortola in the BVI’s. We needed to check all of the boat systems and provision for the trip. St. Martin has wonderful grocery stores with delicious French products. I couldn’t wait to stock up!

We were unprepared for the devastation that still remained in French St. Martin from the massive hurricanes in September. We were speechless.

Luckily, the sunsets were still beautiful and the people were still French and the grocery stores were still stocked!
We anchored in Marigot Bay for a few nights until the lingering north swell prevented Glenn from working below decks – then, we retreated to Marigot Bay Marina – which is still recovering from hurricane damage, but served our needs well.
After replacing the generator boost pump, Glenn climbed the mast for the first time to inspect the rigging.
Thank goodness our friend, Glen, was there to man the winch!

 

Dinner the night before our overnight crossing to the BVI!

Saba – Island kingdom in the Clouds

Mira sailed next from Nevis to island of Saba – about 44 nm or a 7 hour sail to the north, around the middle of March.

Saba is a magnificent volcanic island that rises straight up from the sea floor with very deep water on all sides and appears to extend straight up into the clouds. Only 5 square miles, it reaches 3084 feet.

As you sail past Saba, the ruggedness of the island strikes you. Huge jagged brown mountains litter the island. Saba sits isolated and unprotected from the swells and wind of the Atlantic Ocean, which creates this stark topography.  Despite the forbidding perimeter of the island, we discovered that the interior of Saba is a hidden paradise, a Caribbean Shangri-la.

Like all good hidden kingdoms, Saba doesn’t come easily to visitors.  Saba only has one harbor for entry of all boats and people. Many sailors have been known to sail by this harbor and just keep going. It can have wild waves crashing against the concrete piers – making it very difficult to land a dinghy or small boat.  Glenn studied the weather and felt that the swells from the previous week should have diminished, since the winds had been lessening for days. When we sailed up to Fort Bay – the only anchorage on the island – we were met with huge waves crashing against the rocks surrounding the harbor and no discernible dinghy dock or place for us to tie up to clear customs. By VHF radio the harbormaster informed us that we should pick up a mooring in Ladder Bay about 2 miles away and dinghy in! As we motored around the west side of Saba, the winds miraculously dropped, and we were secure in a beautifully calm, picturesque anchorage. But, we still needed to dinghy around to customs. We steeled ourselves for the rambunctious ride – donned foul weather gear and PFD’s – and proceeded through the waves to Fort Bay. The ride was indeed a wild one, and all of our subsequent trips to the island were by larger tenders owned by Saba. 😦  Once ashore, we arranged an island tour for the next day, and also planned to do some hiking on our own.

Saba’s history is fascinating. Until the 1940’s the island was almost completely inaccessible. Some 800 steps up a sheer cliff in Ladder Bay was the only way for people and goods to come onto Saba. You can see the original steps if you look closely in the photo above – just beyond where we were anchored.

The 2000 full-time residents of Saba are descendants of hardy Dutch, Scottish and English settlers. The original settlers fought hard in the 1950s to hand-build a series of winding roads throughout the island – after being repeatedly told that it was impossible. Today the island is a wonder – beautiful white houses trimmed in green with red roofs, clean roads, happy and helpful Sabans welcome all visitors with open arms. We were charmed by both the people and the island of Saba.

 

Fascinated by the lush interior of Saba, we were anxious to hike up into the mountains and explore. We hiked a very steep, windy trail for several hours into the mountains of Saba.

The trail started out very lush but rugged.

The trail wound its way up into the mountains – for some startling views of the coastline below.

Even got a glimpse of Mira far, far below.
Exhausted by our long day of exploration, we were treated to another beautiful sunset to end the day.  We would have loved to spend more time on Saba, but it was time to press North to our next island.  Saba, we’ll be back for sure!