We have arrived in the Bahamas just like Columbus did – only it’s 520 years later. We’ve come from the Turks and Caicos – Columbus came from Spain. We are at Mayaguana Island for now.
Abraham’s Bay is our first anchorage in this North Atlantic nation of 700 small islands and cays laying in a roughly north-west line more than 500 miles long. I’ll bet you don’t know the difference between a cay (Key in US English) and an island? I didn’t either. It’s not the size, but how it was formed: cays are made from loose sediment carried by ocean currents onto coral. A cay is still considered an island but not all islands are cays. Clear? We’ve anchored here to check into the country and find shelter from the winds created by a cold front way up in New England. The cycle of storms/fronts in the eastern US and Canada creates a somewhat predictable cycle of winds that repeats over a period of a week or two for much of the winter. The winds clock from north for a time, then from east then from south or sometimes west. North winds can get very strong 30+knots, the east winds (trades) are usually 15-20knots and I haven’t figured the others yet. Where we anchor is based on the wind strength and direction. It’s not a new concept to us, but the differences makes it feels new. We rely heavily on the people, websites and SSB nets that have accurate weather predictions.
In Abraham’s Bay we are securely anchored, with two anchors down, in this largish bay as the wind howls through the rigging. The ocean waves don’t touch us because of the barrier reef that defines the outside edges of the bay. But, twice a day the tide rises over the tops of the reef and the ocean swell gets us and it becomes rolly for a few hours. Otherwise, in spite of the winds the water is relatively flat. I suspect we will be here three days because of weather.
There are only two “cuts” in the reef to get in, the east cut and the west cut. The east cut is maze like to navigate. Heart thumping navigation as the water depths go from over 6000 feet to under 10 feet in ¼ mile. We rely on our charts to be accurate but are also becoming expert at telling depths by judging different shades of blue , green and brown for rocks or coral.
The small village of Abraham Bay sits at the east end of Abraham Bay. The whole 26 mile long island has a population of 250 so the town is not large. The town is a handful of buildings. We briefly visited town by dinghy shortly after we arrived. At that time, the sky was blue, winds calm and water so clear it looked fake.
Looks like fake water at Abraham Bay before the winds
On the ride in, we also learned the hard way about Bahamian tides. We left the boat anchored in 10 feet of water, for the 1.5 mile trip to the town pier by dinghy. We ended up walking the last 100 yards, towing the dinghy ourselves as we plodded through the sand in about six inches of water toward the pier. There was not a person in sight. From the pier, a modest dirt road hinted at a direction toward town. It was about ½ mile into town.
Town , as we saw it consisted of five buildings a cell tower and a tower from a small plane airport. All the buildings we saw were single story, each with few or no windows. An exception, the first building we saw, was a modern air-conditioned store front selling cell phones, SIM chips and cell time (all cell service in the Bahamas is via BTC). It was open and a woman, Marissa was inside. I guess when you live on an isolated island, communications is important.
Marissa sold us the appropriate SIM chip for our unlocked phone along with data and talk time. If we were going to be on an anchored boat for three days , cell data and the internet would come in handy. Marissa also introduced us to her mother who lives next door. Marissa’s mom uses her home to serve food and run a small grocery. Marissa’s mom was having a small patio added to her home so people could sit after they ordered food. We got a wonderful fried chicken wings and french fries lunch with orange juice and a coke to drink.
Abraham’s Bay has the look and feel of a lost place. Apparently, the US had a missile detection site here a few decade ago but not much of it remains. Supplies arrive every two weeks by mail boat. Can’t just drive down to the local Home depot if you forgot to pick up nails for your next project.
On the other side of the road (from the BTC office) was the government immigration and customs office and we needed to check in to the country. The Bahamas, formally the Commonwealth of the Bahamas became independent of England in 1973. They drive on the left. On entering – the small room looked like a hundred other customs offices. A few square feet to stand and a thick, dark colored glass window separating us from the agent. The only method of communications was through a small slot cut into the window and counter. I could scarcely make out the young woman gesturing wildly with one hand while the other held her cell phone pressed to one ear. After a few minutes , she told the person on the other end to wait a minute and she turned to us.
I told her we wanted to check into the country and pay the $300 for a cruising permit ; we had all the appropriate paperwork and passports with us. She (with some impatience ) told us only fisherman were being processed and we’d have to go to another port to check in. The next port is hundreds of miles away. Now, legally, a visiting sailor is not supposed to step off the boat onto land without legal clearance into the country, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen. In Jamaica and Cuba for example we needed to be verbally checked by a doctor then a immigration officer before leaving the boat and touching ground. The Bahamas were apparently going to be different.
Although cultures and languages change with every country – it seems to be an almost universal truism that bureaucrats are the same worldwide. I guess our check-in will have to wait but it doesn’t make the attitude any easier to take.
After lunch and the immigration office Marissa drove us back to our dinghy and pointed to a dredged out channel to follow to avoid walking through the shallows before entering the deeper water. Day 3
We are finally going to sail the 36 miles to two small uninhabited cays with good snorkeling. There really isn’t any wind protection at the cays but the winds and swell are predicted to be light.
Update: The open roadstead at the Cays was a bit too open for a comfortable night’s sleep and we spotted a person sitting and watching us from the brush at the edge of the beach so it was a quick stay. Apparently the cays are sometimes home to migrant/seasonal groups that collect the bark of one of the indigenous bushes to make the aperitif Campari.
Further north, like in Georgetown, the Bahamas will be filled with people on jet skies, people pouring off cruise ships and small anchorages with of hundred sailboats along with organized domino and poker evenings. It might be fun for a few weeks but it’s not the kind of environment either of us like for a steady diet. So we’ll enjoy these outer islands (if there is a weather break) while we get through the northern Bahamas reasonably quickly.
I have to admit we found places in Mexico with lots of sailboats and organized activities we enjoyed. In fact it was bit addicting. La Cruz in Baja California where you could join a music group or gather with people interested in writing or take birding walks or … A mini community with daily weather and chit chat over the VHF every morning . The “net” was the place for newcomers to talk about themselves or arrange with people that were flying back to the States to deliver mail or pick up a part. Very home like, very comfortable. It’s fun for a while. But we’ve met people that stay in La Cruz, Mexico or Shelter Bay, Panama for years.
I like places that I find different. Places like Georgetown on Great Exuma Island has fancy grocery stores , organized activities , a daily VHF net and a large comfortable anchorage. There are people to meet and things to do, but one reason to travel is to experience cultures other than our own and places like Georgetown sounds a lot like Portland or Miami.
The last few countries we’ve visited contrasted more than they were similar. It’s true, they’ve all been Island Nations but the similarities stop there. The Turks and Caicos is quite a contrast to Cuba and Jamaica before it. Turks and Caicos had many excellent restaurants, ATM machines everywhere, international banks and the Caribbean equivalent of Home Depot and Whole Foods. Very expensive homes are built along the pristine waters almost eliminating access except at a very few points. Land Rovers are as common as Toyota.
Contrast the opulence of Turks and Caicos to culturally rich but economically poor Jamaica or for a really wild comparison to Cuba with the odd mix of dictatorship and communism with some very poor people but no (or few) rich people. We had a great time at all these places, especially meeting people (note: taxi drivers are some of the easiest people to meet and a great way to get introduced to other locals). The emotional reward comes from the places that are different. Day 5,6,7
The weather again. We’ve had to move two more times because the anchorages were not comfortable for the winds forecast. Little Harbor on Long Island, Bahamas looks like a place to rest for a few days.
Stuck on boat in Little Harbor because of winds but met Greg who was a well-spring of information about cruising the Bahamas. He also had an extra ten pounds of fresh Mahi Mahi that he shared. When it’s really windy it’s hard to get the dinghy to shore.
Walk from Little Harbor before the wall starts
Wonderful walk at little Harbor. A dirt road leads from the beach back to a village called Rose (Rose’s Settlement) . It was a two mile walk each way but interesting. Much of the walk had a rock wall lining both sides of the road. Long Island was one of the places Loyalists from the US revolutionary war fled after England lost; with their slaves to make plantations of cotton, livestock and salt.
Loyalist plantation wall built by slaves about 1790
The wall we were walking next to had been built by slaves more than 225 years before, a sad reminder of another era. Slavery was abolished in the Bahamas in 1834. But you can still feel the sweat from the people as they built these two mile long walls out of the local rock in the heat of the day. Rose’s Settlement along with some of the other small communities on this island are still populated with the decedents of those slaves.
We talked with one lady in Roses Settlement. She and here friend were passing the time on their front porch as we walked by. Her home , new to her, was given to her by the government after hurricane Joaquin destroyed her old home in 2015. These Islands are full of history some of it embedded in the landscape but a lot of it embedded in the people that live here. Hopefully we’ll try to learn more of the human part and publish it here.
Every once in a while you get a great walk and a good photograph all in one
This lake-bed was just a short distance from the plantation wall but the stories it could tell…
Dry lake bed on grounds of what was a Loyalist plantation ~1790
In the next day or two we will move the 10 miles to the harbor at Clarancetown, maybe treat ourselves to the marina there. After that: who knows?
But I think there is a law that states all good blog entries must end with a sunset picture. So we close with was a pretty spectacular sunset.
-Comments invited (for some browsers press “READ MORE” at the end of the blog
And so, we bid adieu to Port Antonio, Jamaica… Goodbye to the goat studying us with amusement as we sweated our way up Naylor Hill just to see what we could see. Goodbye to the Musgrave Market ladies and their Siren song: “What can I show you today, girlfriend?” Goodbye to the man I fantasized was Errol Flynn’s ghost. He sat outside the EF Marina bathhouse, his cigarette’s noiresque smoke glowed, lit by the moon. Did he really say (with that iconic, clipped suggestiveness) “Thank you. As a matter of fact, I’m afraid it is me. Nobody seems to pay much attention to me anymore.”?* Goodbye to the lovely teenaged schoolgirl who, with sincere curiosity, grabbed my arm and asked “Who are you and where do you come from?” as we walked together along the waterfront promenade.
Afternoon N-bound trek to Santiago de Cuba.**
Ah, Port Antonio…you fascinated us, but it was time to move on.
Our next port? Santiago de Cuba! One overnight. One hundred and twenty-four nautical miles. Straight shot. Our weather forecaster recommended this day as a good-weather window. But, I think that “good-weather window” label is pretty subjective. And so, when seas started building and it really began to blow during my watch, I hunkered into the corner of the cockpit and focused on the book Françoise (of S/V Helios) passed along. I was surprised that she read this book. It was a soap opera. Françoise is a no-nonsense kind of woman. But then, I understood. The main character’s travails, her romantic angst..that stuff distracted me. My transit angst was swept away by the story’s foolishness. The weather window became a good one after all.
Passing Castillo del Morro at entry to Bahia Santiago.
Visiting Cuba on your own boatis complicated. Although some of the U.S. requirements have eased a bit, we are still limited to a 14-day visit, a reason to be there and submission of a special form to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Money is especially problematic. There is no infrastructure to handle U.S. credit or debit cards. You need to bring enough money, but how much? Cruiser blogs are full of recommendations for what national currency (U.S., Canadian, Euros, Mexican Pesos, etc.) to bring. There’s also Cuba’s currency conversion requirements to deal with. I worried about all this stuff…a lot.
You know though, there’s a lot of fussing with details that end up being just that…details. Our Cuba check-in was actually kind of fun. The Guarda Frontera (border guys) brought two sweet cocker spaniels (definitely not hounds of the Baskervilles) aboard to smell for drugs. Somewhat dismayed by our companionway ladder, the Spaniels had to be carried below. When they smelled something, these fluffy, sad pups simply sat down. The rest of the check-in process (Health Department, Customs, Immigration, Dockmaster) was handled with sensitivity and respect. Perfecto y tranquilo. ¡No problemas!
Parque Cespedes musicians play Cubano Tradicional. Click photo for video; hit URL left arrow for blog.
We came to Cuba to learn, and then assemble that learning into a journalistic presentation. And you know what the first big learning was? The Cuban people and their history, cultural mix, music, sense of humor and genuine warmth…all that…it is Completely, Totally Irresistible!
I have to learn how to Rumba!
From our first forays into Santiago’s Parque Céspedes to looking for tallers de coches (repair shops for cars), the pieces came together and we found answers to questions we’d originally had; solutions to problems we had not expected.
We wanted to know how those cars, you know, those really old American and Russian cars, were kept alive, running…just like you’d expect of new cars. Despite the U.S. embargo, despite the end of the Soviet Union, despite Cuba’s financial and political calamities…how did the Cubans keep those old Chevys, Fords, Plymouths, Willys, etc., AND the slightly younger Moskvitches and Ladas, running?
We engaged the best resources for finding answers when you know nothing about a new place–taxi drivers–to help us locate tallers whose mechanics fixed these aging vehicles. How did Cubans get the parts to make the repairs? The answers we found were surprising. And, until we have all the facts together, this blog entry ends with a short photo essay …
Somehow, the old cars go from this or other, more dire, states of needing rehab…
to this near-original glamour…
…with help from these dudes and others like them…**
…some creative, innovative brilliance from guys like this dude.
…along with deliveries and muscle from these guys…maybe…
…a whole lot of humor and optimism!**
Thank you…¡Gracias! Santiago de Cuba for welcoming us, and sharing your special courage and grace with us during our way-too-short time in your country. We hope so very much to return some day.
“I can’t really live outside Jamaica. I can be away, but only for a while.”
– by rono
Jamaica doesn’t have the allure of the east Caribbean. The British Virgins, Antigua, St. Kitts, among others come with bragging rights that Jamaica and the west portion of the Caribbean don’t have. Jamaica was a pleasant four day sail from Colombia – carried by the Trade Winds that carried Columbus and others and has been part of history for a long time. So carried by history – Jamaica: here we come.
Jamaica was something of an unknown. We’d done some homework ; like where we could keep the boat and some of the sights tourists might see. But we were unprepared for the rich and complicated and sometimes difficult culture we have come to know.
We knew when we left the boat back in July there were repairs to do, some of them major. The Tayana 37 sailboats are great boats but they are known for a few systemic problems like chainplates and their mountings. The chainplates are the anchor points for the guy wires (stays or also called shrouds) that hold up the mast, so the chainplates are important and a must fix if they break or weaken. On Cetacean we found one chainplate mounting had weakened to the point that it needed to be completely rebuilt. Unfortunately replacing the mounting is like, on a house where plumbing is embedded in concrete; a lot of destruction has to happen before the construction phase can go forward.
For a more complete description of the chainplate rebuild – please see the article under “projects” under projects on the website or click this link.
Besides the chainplate there were sail repairs to make. Since there is no sail loft in Port Antonio there is only one person to do the job:
All the tasks were supposed to take 3-4 weeks. But nothing goes according to plan on a boat or with love or…. So we were/are in Jamaica a lot longer than anticipated.
View from Naylor Hill – looking north.Port Antonio’s downtown is off picture right
Errol Flynn marina is pleasant enough; facilities/bathrooms are clean and close by the boats, security is good, and there is a wonderful view toward the bay. WiFi is so-so, or sometimes I call it so-slow. There is a work yard if the boat needs to be hauled or stored.
Unfortunately, marine supplies cannot be found anywhere nearby. Limited marine supplies are available in Kingston, a three hour drive or bus ride.
On a more positive note, boats arrive (and depart) the marina every few days and from all over the world: places like France, Germany, Holland, England, Israel, Mexico, East Caribbean, Canada and the USA, so there are always interesting people, lots of stories and camaraderie among sailors, and lots of different languages. It’s not boring. There is room in the marina for about 20 “small” sailboats and a long pier that will accommodate boats of about 200 feet. A few 100 footers have arrived but usually leave after a week or two.
Like other marinas on this trip, too often marina help think their job is to please their boss, not the customer. The marina has been ok but not great. There have been a handful of great marinas, but it’s not the norm. George, the guy that runs the yard does whatever is great and deserves a separate mention. Highly recommend George. Also deserving a mention, John (hulk) and Rudy – are available for hire to watch your boat or clean or do whatever is needed and are very good and reasonable. I would recommend them too.
There is a beautiful city park adjacent to the marina. It’s a wonderful stroll.
The marina was named after the actor Errol Flynn because he lived in Port Antonio but there was no marina at the time. He had a yacht anchored that he kept off a nearby island in the bay. The story goes he won the island in a poker game. Today it stands uninhabited and overgrown. This beautiful island with a long history of owners and attempted business is just one of the many curious and mysterious aspects of Jamaica.
Although the boat has us working our tails off, we are here in Port Antonio long enough to need to go grocery shopping, get to know the checkers, go to the hardware store, listen to local music and gather for town celebrations. We’ve also gotten to know a few locals and some of the culture. Port Antonio is a small town, there are no traffic lights in the entire town but the place seems constantly in motion with lots of cars and frenetic activity.
Yet there are quiet spaces to be found among the twisty back streets. One local was telling me his neighborhood used to be doctors and other middle class individuals that have since moved elsewhere but still left a nice quiet place.
There is even one American type fast food place in town: a KFC, that is packed every day, all day. The food at KFC (yes we did go there two times) is not great (is any fast food great?) and seems expensive, so I don’t recommend it, but it’s popular with some locals.
Local fast food takes the form of shacks seemingly randomly located around town like Piggies for example.
Piggies sells “jerk” chicken for $4 and is pretty good if you don’t mind the bone fragments. None of this between the joints stuff. Go up to the window order your chicken with festival (a fried bread) or save $0.50 and order without the bread. A good cheap meal if you don’t want to cook, and the jerk is not too hot or spicy.
Higher end restaurants are very few. There is an Italian restaurant that is good and another place called Soldiers Camp, run by a Jamaican and ex-US Army soldier, also very good.
We buy our fresh local foods at Musgrave open air market. In season the Mangos and papaya are excellent, oranges are good, as is a verity of sweet potatoes . Some local foods are totally unfamiliar like ackee, sweet sop, sour sop, white and yellow yam. They look nothing like anything I buy at Whole foods or Safeway. The ackee is poisonous unless prepared properly, and tastes to me a little like scrambled eggs. The sweet sop is like a custard pudding after peeling the skin; the sour sop tastes like a kiwi with big ugly seeds.
But everything is not perfect in Port Antonio. About 99.9% of the people here are black. So occasional we hear “hey white lady” or morning “pretty boy” or some other racist remark. We kind of stick out in a crowd. But we are literally walking among hundreds of people on the streets and to find one racist every few days is probably to be expected anywhere. One the other hand , even one is too many and puts a damper on my attitude here. The smell of marijuana (ganja) is everywhere.
But we’ve met some wonderful people, hardworking , really good people and a few turds. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of people in this world. The cabinet makers and other craft people have been super , well, except for the welder.
We met a goat herder that works as a drywall “mudder” as a 2nd job that looked after us (like he looks after his goats) as we got lost wondering around the “naylor hill” neighborhood.
A few days before Christmas, the town elders held a large party for the children. The party was in the park near us, so we wondered over. Every child lined up to receive a gift. A very warm feeling was the buzz and the children had a great time, even if it was tough on the people giving the party.
It’s mostly the homeless and hustlers that get old quickly. Most, if not all are harmless but annoying. The hustlers are all similar in their approach. Engage us in a conversation: “football” or “where are you from?” or some other random conversation. They take the lead and just start talking. As soon as we appear not interested anymore they ask for money. We never give them money. A few of the street people just ask for money and a few, like the guy with one leg, we donate to. But the guy in the wheel chair we don’t. One local person, an ex US Army soldier and restaurant owner warned us he has three girlfriends and is well off, so we don’t give him money.
It’s not real cheap to live here. The taxes are very high. Both food and merchandise come with high tariffs. I’m sure the idea is to have the people buy local but we and many Jamaicans have grown to like some things from off the island so the the high tariff hurts (the people) more than helps.
The culture is rich in music and the people seem happy . But I can’t help the feeling that the government , even with all of it’s programs for the poor, isn’t helping the country or the people with the high taxes and tariffs. This a country really looking for a way out of it’s economic doldrums but not finding one.
I’ve created a picture galley of images different than the images shown in the blog, a bit more “arty”. They can be found here.
Port Antonio like a few other places, helps make us think about what is important and the relative degree of importance. Thoughts like those keep us from just going with the current of life and just letting the current steer. It’s better to be the one to steer. To determine what is really important and what can be discarded. Especially these days, with the many distractions that technologies like social media provide it’s important to be the steering for ourselves.
Places like Jamaica help us perceive were to spend our time and where not to.
Climbing Ocean Crest Guesthouse’s Escheresque stairway to our room
We arrived at Port Antonio’s Ocean Crest Guesthouse on Queen’s Street a little over a week ago. (The guesthouse, nestled atop Titchfield Hill, views Navy Island, East Bay, the Blue Mountains and the lower neighborhoods.) Our room was simple…comfortable. The guesthouse offered a communal kitchen. We’d everything we needed (short-term) to survive while getting our 200 pounds of stuff from Portland, OR back onto Cetacean and problem solving–maybe all–the things to be done before getting back to living on board.
Ocean Crest Guesthouse is a steep mile walk downhill to Errol Flynn Marina’s dry dock. Cetacean had been waiting for us there since last July.
It’s also a steep mile uphill on the return. Scenic though.
We expect to be in Port Antonio for a while. Lots of things to check and fix. That’s always the way it is returning to a (dry or wet) docked cruising boat. Last year’s cruising season was especially taxing for our 33-year-old sailboat. Her rear-stay chainplate loosened during our June 2016 Cartegena-to-Kingston Caribbean crossing. Cetacean’s keel took it on the chin–actually, keels don’t have chins–in Kingston Bay. Ah, the cruising life and its exotic repairs.
A view from the guesthouse balcony towards the Blue Mountains
We arrived under enormous, dark-grey clouds. The air dripped. Squalls coming. We’re told the 2016 hurricane season has chosen to delay its departure from this part of the world. Could be rough ’til December.
Looking from our balcony over Titchfield Hill, we can see the rain, heat, humidity, sun, and wind working hard to reclaim this island. All the buildings, some quite elegant, are in an ongoing state of decay. And yet, the decay is oddly complementary.
I say to someone we encounter, “I thought this was the beginning of the dry season.”
“Yeah mon, but it’s raining all the time.”
Yeah mon, but I really thought…
Some Port Antonio moments…After checking in at Ocean Crest, we shop at Kamal’s Market in downtown. A little girl in line behind me strokes my arm. She is so astounded and pleased, I can’t help enjoying this moment with her too, for it is precious.
A ganja-stoned man outside Kamal’s compares his arm’s skin color to mine and announces to me and the bemused breadfruit and banana vendors sitting nearby, “You’re white!”
People gathering in Port Antonio’s town center to watch the Veteran’s Day parade.
Port Antonians are curious about us. Drivers pull over and ask where we’re from. And when we answer, they ask more questions…about our here and now. It almost feels as though they are concerned about, or perhaps sorry for, us, like we USofA folks are tragic.
A woman ahead of me in the Kamal’s checkout line insists that I go ahead of her–for she has two carts piled with groceries. I walk the central park sidewalk to Errol Flynn marina, and a young man seated on a bench by the water motions for me to come over. He says, “I have to ask: What is your name? What are you doing here? Do you come from Florida? Do you love it here?” The questions are honest, genuine, and startling.
At home, we might view questions like these as odd or perhaps intrusive, wouldn’t we? Somehow though, I am charmed and we share a good conversation.
Port Antonio’s Veteran’s Day observance in the town center
Time to get back in the water, good old boat…On Sunday, November 13, we were headed for the dry dock and Cetacean with plans to organize our (at this point on-board) 200 pounds of stuff. On the way, we walked by the town center and found ourselves immersed in Jamaica’s Veteran’s Day observance. It was a solemn affair except for the elementary school girls gaily skipping behind the various other uniformed groups (boy scouts, high school age military training groups, adult military servicemen/women and a drum-and-bugle corps band).
Eventually, we reached the dry dock, put away the 200 pounds of stuff and prepared the boat for her return to the water. George, the yard manager, motored the Errol Flynn marina lift over to Cetacean, fastened the straps around her and commented, “It’s a bit squally today.”
Cetacean about to be splashed…with rain too.
The exact moment our boat was lowered into the water, the sky opened up and torrential rain–like we’ve never experienced, even in Portland OR; biblical proportions we’re talking about here–drenched us for over four hours.
I realized that everything I believed about squalls was a fantasy. A squall may last longer than 20 minutes and then, it may not magically go away (like some cruiser wrote and I believed). This squall, really this continuous line of squalls, was gonna do what it was gonna do, however long it took.
Well folks, we finally got Cetacean into her marina slip that day after some anxiety over the depths and that the storm might reboot, which it did. The normally clear blue-green water hosting the marina was brown with silt. But we made it. And we celebrated with an absolutely super seafood dinner that night at AnnaBananas on the other side of East Bay.
We are in Portland for part of the summer and fall. But that’s not a good reason for missing blog entries. So I thought I’d present a slightly different view for this entry. Boats from different parts of the Pacific coast and Caribbean.
We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.
—-Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve selected a few pictures – roughly north to south – of people and boats starting in Washington State and ending in Jamaica – the limits of the trip so far.
Hood Canal, Washington
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness, But life without meaning is the torture Of restlessness and vague desire-It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.
—-Edgar Lee Masters
Isla La Colorada, Bahia Del Sol, El Salvador
I really enjoy writing novels. It’s like the ocean. You can just build a boat and take off.
Puerto Mutis, Panama
The person who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.
Isla Pinos, San Blas (Guna Yala) Islands, Panama
Slow travel now rivals the fly-to-Barcelona-for-lunch culture. Advocates savoir the journey, traveling by train or boat or bicycle, or even on foot, rather than crammed into an airplane. They take time to plug into the local culture instead of racing through a list of tourist traps.
Port Royal, Jamaica
“If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble.”
― E.B White
Golifito, Costa Rica
Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.
— Werner Herzog
Isla Pinos, San Blas (Guna Yala) Islands, Panama
“To reach a port we must set sail –
Sail, not tie at anchor
Sail, not drift.”
― Franklin Roosevelt
Cetacean was supposed to stay at the Royal Jamaica Yacht Club (Kingston, Jamaica) for the 2016 hurricane season. But, upon our arrival at the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club there, we were told no longterm berth or land storage were available for our boat. While we were disappointed, we didn’t have much time to stress about this unexpected state of affairs. The RJYC manager Pat suggested we go to Port Antonio–located east of Kingston–and stay at the Errol Flynn (yes THAT Errol Flynn) marina there. Pat generously made arrangements for us with the Errol Flynn dock master: a slip for while we prep’d Cetacean and then dry dockage for the hurricane season.
Port Antonio is a little over 80 nautical miles from Kingston. Someone mentioned we’d be going around Morant Point, and the foul currents there could be “interesting.” But hey! We’d just survived those 400 miles crossing from Cartagena to Kingston just a few days before.
This transit would be a piece of cake.
So, it’s June 17th, about 6 a.m. We pull carefully out of RJYC into Kingston Bay. No more boat-driven existential crises for us! But, the weather, our equipment and our choices have been challenging us every watery step of the way this season. And this trip wasn’t going to be any different. So, here we go: We’re out of the bay and the engine, which had been making unusual noises since we’d moved outside Kingston Bay, appeared to be overheating. And, Otto (our powered autohelm), despite a brand new linear drive installation to fix it after it broke during our Kingston transit a week earlier, wasn’t steering Cetacean properly. The wind was blowing like stink on Cetacean’s nose. The seas were huge.
We were getting the whole Enchilada…no…the total Jerk Chicken.
Hand steering all night under sail while making less than a knot per hour (which was our current speed over water) would not be very productive. We headed back to Kingston Bay, anchored at Port Royal and waited until evening to decide whether to try again.
On the way back, the engine decided to fix itself. The temperature guide said all was good.
Our weather forecaster, Chris Parker, insisted (over email) that the wind speeds would moderate as evening came on; the GRIBs chimed in. Excuse me everyone, the winds were howling and showed no signs of ‘moderating’. We waited. Took naps. Ron adjusted Otto and steering was no longer going to require an exhausting vigil.
At 7 p.m. we ventured out of the Port Royal anchorage and headed again for Port Antonio. Conditions outside were still tough, but in spite of the head-on winds, we were making 5 knots using a bit of headsail to help the engine.
Please note: Cetacean does not like to sail close to the wind. She just doesn’t, so the engine had to do most of the work.
Things slowed down over time unfortunately. We were getting from one to three knots. Lots of howling and big seas again. But, we soldiered on.
That second transit attempt did get us away from Kingston, but we didn’t make it all the way to Port Antonio. Morant Point, with its special current and winds lay ahead of us. It was 7 a.m., June 18th. Time for a break. We pulled into Bowden Bay and anchored at Port Morant.
The Bowden anchorage was lovely, restful. I sincerely wish we could have stayed longer. We spent our time there sleeping and regrouping. The plan was to leave Bowden at first light for Port Antonio.
Moon over Port Morant anchorage
Upon arrival, we had a visit from the Port Morant Coast Guard. The two young men checking on us were friendly and curious about our plans. They wished us good luck, suggesting that leaving early in the morning was the best way to deal with Point Morant.
Chris Parker’s email reported conditions were calmer after midnight, so we pulled up anchor around 3 a.m. and turned left for Port Antonio. Mr. Parker also said the winds would be behind us (broad reach!) some of the way. We just had to get around that point.
The trip around Point Morant was not as bad as expected, just semi-tough. We arrived at Port Antonio in the afternoon and within an hour of arrival we were checked in by Customs and the marina dock captain Paul.
Bright yellow butterflies, red flowered bushes and multi-genre music accented our walk to town. Moving through and along the crowded streets after getting settled, was fascinating. Port Antonio is a busy place filled with shoppers, cars, bicycles, vendors, worn storefronts, crumbling sidewalks, gangs of school-uniformed children, couples holding hands, women chasing wild, giggling toddlers.
Banana Mango Man aka Clive
There are also the aggressive hustlers, the dreadlocked wanderers and the continuous redolence of ganja. Like I said, it’s fascinating.
On our second or third day in the Errol Flynn marina, Clive, aka ‘Banana Man’ paddled over aboard his handmade bamboo raft to introduce himself and ask if we wanted bananas. I said, “No, thank you. I’m not very fond of bananas.”
He said, “Well, I have mangos. I’m Mango Man!”
He went on to talk about his life and his family. Some of what he said was hard to believe but he had our attention. Good storyteller.
Jamaica can be a disorienting place where one is challenged to communicate even though everyone speaks English. There is a special cultural environment here. But it’s complicated. There’s lots to learn, but not enough time right now, because we have already left Cetacean and Port Antonio.
It is 11 p.m. on Monday, June 27. We are now in the city of Montego Bay after a long day that began at 5 a.m. We motored to the dry dock lift dock, Errol Flynn’s lift operator pulled her out of the water and put her on dry dock. When all the last things were checked and put away or turned off, we boarded a bus for a 6-hour bus ride to “MoBay.”
We fly for Portland tomorrow morning.
Cetacean’s in good hands with the Errol Flynn team. See you soon Mon.
As we closed on the island of Jamaica Port of Kingston gantry cranes emerged from the mist in the distance. This is the 7th largest port in the world, so we expected heavy ship traffic and would need to be on the lookout for these monsters. From the chart, we could see a few hazardous places to avoid : “Wreck reef”, “Drunkenmanns Cay” and “Biddlecombe Shoal”. The first sets of buoys marked on the chart were missing from the water.
Still about a mile offshore and heading north toward land, we could not distinguish an entrance- it looked like solid land; background hills and foreground beach melded together. It’s happened a few times over the years, once in British Columbia, and once off the California coast entering Fort Bragg , or was it Crescent city. In those cases the charts and GPS verified our correct position, but no entrances could be seen, you had to take a leap of faith, head toward shore anyway, waves crashing, water getting shallow, then the entrance makes it self known just in time. There were no crashing waves this time, but heading for land without a harbor entrance is uncomfortable
Cetacean draws 6 feet. So when the depth went to 10 feet, I got the first hint something was wrong. Quickly the depths went down, 9..8..7.. the engine was already on, throw the transmission in reverse , throttle up full, Cetacean slowed and almost imperceptibly the depth gauge went up, 7..8..9..
Back on track to enter the bay, I scolded myself and determined that almost grounding would not happen again. I didn’t know it at the time, but history was about to repeat.
Finally we spotted a 2nd set of buoys in the distance and headed that way and about the same time the foreground separated itself from the background and the outline of a bay entrance started to resolve.
The bay is huge, the city of Kingston was straight ahead 3 miles on the north side of the bay. A coast guard station maybe ½ mile away , is on a spit of land that forms the southern side of the bay.
Almost adjacent to the coast guard station is a marina with about a dozen shabby power boats and beyond that we can see the airport. The marina we want, the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club is beyond the airport at the very east end of the spit, about 10 miles and 2 hours away.
Off to our left are many more bays, sub-bays? Portland Bay catches my attention. I have a six pack of very cold Colombian beer – “Colombian-Roja”, my favorite in the fridge. We are a dry ship during passages, so I’ve been looking forward to a very cold beer for four days.
It starts to rain as a 25knot squall passes through us. The sky is very gray. I think I can make out a shortcut to the marina – along the right side of the bay.
Suddenly a military skiff approaches from behind. They motion for us to stop. Jamaica is very protocol oriented, so all entering vessels must enter showing a yellow “Q” – quarantine flag flown just below the starboard spreader. I know Judy has put it up, but a second look confirms it is still there.
We stop. The boat has four soldiers in it , the middle solder, standing, has an assault rifle folded under his arm. They just want to know where we came from and where we are going. I say Colombia and the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club and they seem to be satisfied. They leave.
The depths are going down again. I have faith in our charts; they have been accurate for Colombia and except for the missing buoy in Jamaica. That hasn’t always been the case, Panama being the worst. Navigating by the charts we purchased may well have been more dangerous than using common sense; using eyes to find deep water by color and find shoals by breaking waves was far safer. But still it doesn’t pay to take too much for granted. I ask Judy to bring up my tablet with another good charting program called Navionics. I like to use it as a backup. I open the “app” only to be told by an error message, the program has to close, now. I try again after a reboot with the same result. It doesn’t work; it did; but not when we needed it.
Now I see a red and green buoy on the far side of the bay, near the cranes. Another squall comes through with more 25k winds and a thick rain. The squalls don’t last long, 5-10 minutes but they make a lot of noise as the wind passes through our rigging. However, this wind is lingering.
I look down at the depth gauge and it reads 7 feet. The wind is pushing as we watch and depth goes to six feet and we are softly, suddenly almost imperceptibly stuck and not moving. I try our own engine to get un-stuck with no joy. Two fisherman in a small boat are nearby. Their wooden boat with fishing net piled high, row over and offer to call the coast guard, we say great!
He pulls the phone out of a zip lock bag and calls on his phone. But a minute later puts the phone down and says he has run out of minutes, sorry. We call on our VHF using channel 16 – the international hailing frequency for emergencies or assistance. We can still see the coast guard station about two miles away. But there is no answer.
The next 20 minutes were spent trying to hail help – alternating between the coast guard, the marina, passing freighters, anyone that can hear but there is no response from anyone. I try our backup VHF just in case there is a technical fault in the radio with the same eerie quiet.
All this time 20+ knot winds are continuously pushing against us, even if we could float the wind would push us toward even shallower water.
I put out an anchor to stop further pushes by the wind.
There are lots of ways to un-stick a boat without outside help, kedging for example. That is a technique where one uses a dinghy to row an anchor out a couple of hundred feet toward the deeper water. When the anchor is set, use the boats windless to pull the boat toward the anchor. Then repeat if necessary. It’s an option, but I have no energy to inflate the dinghy, row with the anchor and chain, and pull; maybe repeat.
The tidal change is not large in Jamaica, less than one foot. It was low tide and due to start rising in about 30 minutes. But if the wind continued, each time the water was to rise we would be just blown back into shallows.
We weren’t in any immediate danger, the bottom is soft mud and the bottom of our boat is very thick fiberglass; big ships can hit us here – it’s too shallow for them. We are in the geometric center of the bay’s width – visible for miles around – half way between the Coast Guard station and the Port of Kingston Cranes, maybe a mile or two to either shore in either direction, somebody will eventually come. There is water and plenty of food aboard so we could wait, days if necessary. On the other hand we are tired and want to complete the trip. I could just start to imagine the conversation with officials as to why we didn’t check-in sooner.
It occurs to me that all cell phones are supposed call 911 even if minutes are gone. My cell phone didn’t have any Jamaican minutes but maybe….
I call 911. A recorded message asks if I want police, fire or ambulance? Of the three, number 1, the police seemed like the best fit. It rings for a long time, with no answer. Welcome to Jamaica. Next call I try 2 for fire, a woman answers and I explain our situation and ask her if she can call the coast guard? She replies that she can’t call and that I need to call 911 information. I explain I can’t call, but the call is dropped.
Did I really need to come here? Colombia was very nice, maybe we should have stayed.
Cetacean also carries a licensed Single Side Band Radio (SSB), and I have a Amateur Radio license to use the Ham bands. Under the right conditions the SSB can transmit and receive 1000’s of miles. I reach volunteers on 4.125MHz the Mobile Marine Net. I’m soon talking with a station in Florida and explain the situation. He says he will try to get hold of the Jamaican Coast Guard. After about 30 minutes he gets back on and says he made contact so maybe we should try hailing the Jamaican Coast Guard again. We get on VHF channel 16 and they answer immediately.
About an hour later a very sturdy looking inflatable and steel vessel arrives with six guardsmen with three huge 300 HP outboards mounted on the stern. We fix a bridle and a long tow rope – I fire up our 50HP diesel and together, all 950 hp, start to pull the boat free of the mud. After a few excruciatingly long minutes we are in deep water again.
They won’t take money for the service but, wait would they be interested in a six pack of very cold very good Colombian beer – sure comes the reply.
But it is now 6PM and past the time when the yacht club is supposed to be open. We can still anchor outside the club. With no further problems we arrive and anchor out front of the club. Judy gets mad at me because its only 12 feet deep where I anchor.
It seemed like just a moment later a skiff comes alongside – the driver, a RJYC worker says he’s been looking for us all afternoon and we need to pull up anchor and follow him to the fuel dock – all the Jamaican officials have been notified and are coming tonight.
How did that happen? About the last thing I wanted to do then was fill out a bunch of paper work.
At the dock a Chinese woman comes to the boat holding a plastic bag. She introduces herself as the club manager – Pat and welcomes us to Jamaica and here in the plastic bag are two very cold red stripe beers for you. Maybe there is a god. Pat is very nice but indicates there may not be any room for our boat in the marina, but we’ll talk in the morning.
We are tied to land for the first time in 4 ½ days – however, until the quarantine people come it’s not legal for us to step off the boat, not even onto the pier.
Jamaica requires three governmental agencies to issue permits to visiting yachts.
Medical/Quarintine has to be 1st . If they haven’t arrived then the others can’t talk to us.
But, over a period of the next 12 hours they all finish with us and we have declared on two different forms that we have not brought any stow-a-ways with us and been lectured about mosquitoes. Yellow fever vaccinations are a must to enter Jamaica.
Marinas are unlike any other organization in the whole world. If you email to reserve space, 9 time out of 10 you will receive no answer. If you just come, 9 times out of 10 there is space available. It’s the transient nature of boating, boaters and the weather that makes it impossible to make plans with any certainty. If you must have certainty, this is not the life.
The next day, I walk up to Pat’s office and have a lively conversation. She confirms we not only have a slip for a week or two at RJYC but we have phone assurance from a marina on the north side of the island for permanent storage while we head back to the US for a few months. Not only that, but she finds out the day is our 43rd anniversary and it’s her 13th anniversary working at the club.
So in addition to all things she has done she offers to drive us to Port Royal for our celebration dinner and secures a ride for our return. Remarkable.
In the period of one day; from the grounding to the walk out of Pat’s office, I’ve gone from hating this place – to feeling honest love for some of it’s people. My emotions have gone from the dungeon when the coast guard didn’t answer and when told there may not be room for us then to absolute joy at getting a confirmed space.
I still don’t understand why the Jamaican Coast Guard answered after we called the Mobile Maritime Net in Florida, but thank god for organizations and people like that.
I don’t think I have ever come to a place with such dichotomy maybe call it schizophrenia, where there is such a large group of people, more than the US, more than Latin America or Mexico, more than Colombia, that truly enjoys helping a stranger. And on the other hand another significant group that can’t be bothered.
Since that day, we have met more of both categories – from all walks of life, and my original comments still stand. Some people here are marvelous, quick to laugh, quick to help, quick to be a friend. We’ve met the other side too. Very odd.
Sunday, 6/5/16…We left Cartagena’s Club Nautico marina around noon. Spent a long night with strong winds hitting 22 knots, but not into the 30s Chris Parker, our forecaster, had suggested. We lucked out with that because the higher the winds, the rougher the seas. Today the winds clocked south. Wind from behind was always more comfortable on Cetacean.
Monday, 6/6/16…The water at 9 a.m. continued to bounce us around even though the wind had clocked a bit to the south. Ron decided we should try a new watch strategy to see if we’d be more comfortable. We tried moving below into the cabin berths to read or write, but going up to the cockpit for 360 degree observations every 15 minutes. Cetacean was being steered by ‘Otto,’ our electric autohelm. Cetacean didn’t need us to be there for more than a few minutes every hour.
Tuesday, 6/7/16…Last night the big seas made moving around the cabin literally bruising. I decided to return to doing my watches in the cockpit, wedged into a corner under the dodger instead of going up and down the cabin companionway every 15 minutes. It seemed to work a bit better for me to do my watches this way today.
There were all these noises—the howling winds; the crashing, roiling seas; the riggings’ creaks and groans; that mysterious Irish whistle noise coming from the bimini frame. That sounded to me like a Chieftains tune.
At around 2 p.m., things became calmer. The windspeed decreased. The seas, no longer being teased by the wind, calmed a bit. It was still difficult to be in the cabin, do ordinary things—like walking to use the head, but the boat motion’s shoving was less violent.
We are approximately in the center of the Caribbean Sea. The sky is clear blue with some clouds. I’ve no idea what they’ll become. We have been warned that a wave of squalls could come through tomorrow. Never have experienced those things. Squall wind speeds are what I worry about most. We’ll need to deal with sails quickly if we get caught up in a squall. The squalls can also have lightning. We’ll see what happens. All we can do.
It’s evening and we’re getting ready for another set of watches. Midday, the winds dropped quite a bit and we’d only gone 45 miles over the last 12 hours.The engine had to be turned on; the transmission engaged, the throttle pushed forward to add a couple of knots. Ron said the batteries were low so it was an opportunity to recharge while speeding things up. We were 219 miles away from the entry to Kingston Bay. The trip would be completed sometime on Thursday if the winds returned. Dang. We should probably have turned the engine on earlier.
Tomorrow there’s supposed to be squalls out there. Thursday, the Trades return to Jamaica which means? I’m looking forward to arriving in Kingston and sleeping on clean sheets.
Wednesday, 6/8/16…Looking at our mileage overnight, things were going well. We’d completed a little over half the remaining transit distance by this morning; hoped to eat up another 100 nautical miles by early morning tomorrow.
So, what happened? Ah yes. The bilge pump had been going off every 30 minutes or so. Something was wrong with it. A bilge pump may seem innocuous, boring even. But bilge pumps are steadfast (until they break) protection against water inundating the boat.
Anyway, Ron took the bilge pump apart to see what was happening.
Finding what was broken, Ron scrounged through his spare parts collection and found a replacement part to repair the pump. “I’m calling this thing ‘Frankinpump.’ It’s been repaired with spare parts so many times,” he declared after everything was reassembled and reinstalled.
For the moment, all seemed good. The water was this gorgeous royal blue. A set of dolphins appeared and for a while, chased us. Seeing dolphins always makes me feel good, happy, at peace.
Later, I was watching for squalls, worried about the storied high winds and lightening associated with these weather events. Ahead and skyward floated what I decided was a squall. At the same time, While considering what to do about it, and looked down at the Chart Plotter. Cetacean was going off somewhere on her own.
Otto was broken meaning we’d be hand steering for at least 30+ hours through the rolling, building seas and freshening winds. It would be dark soon too. Not fun at all.
Ron tried setting up ‘Monica,’ a servo-pendulum passive steering monitor we’d had aboard for years. We’d never been able to get Monica to work in past. But,serendipitously, Ron had found out what was wrong with Monica when we were in Shelter Bay (Panama) a few months ago and repaired her before we left. We hadn’t chosen to use Monica though. Using Otto was something we always did. A habit that now had to be dropped.
Long-distance sailors swear by the servo-pendulum monitors. They work without electricity,except during downwind sailing. Then a ‘baby Otto’ electric autohelm has to be attached to the monitor.
Monica ended up saving the day for us. We didn’t have to hand steer for those 30+ hours afterall.The sail experience was actually more comfortable than it had been with Otto too. Monica’s engineering ‘anticipates’ waves and somewhat mitigates the associated jerking and sliding sensations from the waves hitting the boat. Otto just plows Cetacean through the waves, increasing the discomfort in the cabin. Monica is a bit more graceful.
“Do you see land?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said. “I think I see some hills on the horizon.”
“Nah. You’re imagining things. This whole transit is contrived by mean people. You might as well say you see Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory.”
We continued to where the chart plotter professed, joking that maybe we were never going to find land. Honestly, I was thinking we might just be on a trip aboard the ‘Flying Dutchman.’