Friday, December 16, 2011

Passage to Fajardo, Puerto Rico

The ocean was kind of rough with high swells, so we decided to keep motoring. I was not up to dealing with the sails anyway. We came all the way to Isla Palominas, which was very close to the marina, without much difficulty. Then it started to rain, the sea got dark, and I had a hard time locating the green marker, where we were to point up to the next green, and turn around the island before getting to the entrance on the southern side. Anyway, we did it after some apprehension and safely entered the bay, where many deserted sail boats were moored or anchored. The marina looked like a prehistoric sea village, surrounded by pillars in the water, marking the two sides of the boats tied on the slips. There were pillars on the docks as well.

Al chose a spot close to the docks, and gave the order to drop the anchor, so I did. I was dead tired and a bit queasy, since the wind was blowing the engine exhaust from behind onto us all the way. In the meantime, Al phoned the marina administration, and learned about the dock to tie for water. So we pulled anchor and maneuvered in a narrow area to turn to tie. Of course the wind was on the wrong side, pushing us away from the dock. I was scared watching Al, and made him a bit nervous too. At last we got tied up, looping the line around a pillar on the dock; and filled our tanks. I’m telling you, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, so could not help crying a bit to shake the feeling.

The first night on anchor was not bad I thought, but early in the morning I heard the wind blowing really hard. I sat at the cockpit and looked up, but the sight startled me. We were almost next to another moored sailboat! Of course I hollered and urged Al to come up. He said he had checked about two hours before, and everything was fine. When I insisted, he came up, and immediately started the engine. The anchor had dragged about 50 feet in the two hours. So we tried to get to our previous place and tried several times, but the wind was too hard, and the bottom seemed to be just mud. I had spotted a mooring ball earlier, and suggested taking it. I got hold of it with some difficulty, and both of us worked in tying one of the lines, but pulling the mooring line close enough to tie the other one seemed next to impossible, so Al got into the dinghy, and went to the hoop to push the line through. I tied the line, and felt a bit secure, but we saw that the mooring line was flimsy next to our lines. Al was quite uneasy that it was going to give way, since we measured the wind as 29 knots.

Later in the day the wind subsided a bit, so we got the dinghy down and went into the marina. At the shore we stroke a friendship with an ex-marine, who called himself Ranger, who was a very nice Puerto Rican, about our age and enjoying a similar lifestyle. He was retired and started living on a 50 foot motor boat, tied at the marina. He offered (insisted) to drive us to a shopping centre and marine store, and back. It is uncanny how friendly people are here.

During the night, the wind was relentless, and we could not sleep. Early in the morning, Al decided to dock at the marina. He tried to get close enough to the dock several times, to get the line around the pillar, but no can do. Wind was very strong and constantly pushing us away. At a crucial moment, a young man came along to help, and was able to tie the back line with a lot of difficulty, while getting soaked from the rain. But he persevered and tied us securely from both ends, and Al got two more lines from all the cleats available. At last we were fine! Last year I had read somewhere that any fool could move the boat with the help of the wind, real skill was to keep it in one place. It shows that we need a lot to learn. I think we will be tied up for a while, until our friends Deniz and Zeynep arrive in San Juan in about two weeks. We will explore the land for a while.

The other day we met a very nice man, Ricardo, who offered to drive us to a marine shop. After shopping we invited him for lunch, so he took us to a fish restaurant at the beach. While we were going through the door, the French couple from Culebra, Ananda and Yvonne walked in. I asked if they were following us, and we all sat at a table together. I think Ricardo was a bit surprised, knowing that we arrived at Fajardo very recently, so I explained. We had such a blast that day. We learned that Ananda was composing and performing folk music. Al had so much to talk about, being a guitar player himself in his youth. Life is so interesting, if one has time to explore it!

The Culebra Experience

We did some last minute shopping in Charlotte Amalie and repaired our dinghy, which had a small hole, and resumed our voyage towards Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands. When we had checked the charts and read the book about it, it became obvious that entering Culebra would be tricky. So we made an exact sail plan, as well as marked way points on the two GPS devices that we had. The hand held one is a bit small and confusing with too much information, so I was occasionally checking the big one inside, and Al was checking the small one.

Going into the well protected harbour, called Ensenada Honda, was easy, since we knew where to look and turn. Al went all the way and gave me the order to drop the anchor. After that was done, we looked around and saw a sailboat with a Canadian flag right next to us. Would you believe it, it turned out to be Tony, whom we knew from our Yacht Club in Ottawa. Al called him on his cellular, and we had a nice visit afterwards, during which we learned about what to do to get our US cruising permit. The permit is good for a year, and allows cruisers to run around all the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Getting it in Culebra was a good idea, since the place to go (the Airport) is a five minute walk from the dingy dinghy dock in front of El Batey restaurant. In the book about Puerto Rico, that restaurant is classified as a good place to eat, but its general appearance is not very inviting, so we did not stop by.

We spent two days, swimming in the bays long the west coast, but our water supply was getting low. Al was angry with me, for not having the water tank filled in St Thomas, because he suggested to pull anchor and go to the dock of Yacht Haven for the water the day before leaving, and drop anchor again for the night. Al always likes to start early, so he would not do it in the morning of leaving. Anyway, I thought that it would be easier to do it in Culebra, but I was wrong. We asked around, and saw one place which had a hose on a small dock in front of a small hotel. Al went inside, and asked a young man, who turned out to be the only guest of the hotel. The young man (Ananda) got our telephone number, and later reported that the owner/manager rarely came there, and the cleaning lady did not know what to do. Later on we saw the young man and his girl-friend (Yvonne) while swimming, and learned that they had come from Lyon, France, vacationing in the area, and Yvonne was a doctor.

Is it the Caribbean, people at leisure or the general sailing community; everybody that we come into contact with seems to be very friendly and sociable lately?

Anyway, Al checked the weather report for the week, and decried that we should be on our way to Fajardo, Puerto Rico the next morning. It was about 20 miles away, and he wished to get there early in the afternoon, so we decided to pull anchor not later than 08:00 hours in the morning. I looked at the chart and read the book, and we decided to come directly to Isleta Marina (Cayo Obisco), on a very small island just outside of the series of marinas on the coast of Fajardo. The passage was easy until you get really close, and the way into the marina was reportedly well marked.

Early in the morning we got ready, pulled the anchor, and turned around to motor out of the harbour. Oh my God! The sun was glowing right into our eyes, and the whole sea was burning. It was hard to make out the channel markers, and when I looked at the hand-held GPS, I could not see a thing. I urged Al to slow down, and we started towards the markers. I thought Al was pointing too low, but he said he was afraid of the rocks to the port side. I went down to check the other GPS, and saw that our aim was too low. As soon as I climbed next to him, we hit something. Al immediately reversed, and took us out of there. We turned around, headed into the bay in our starboard, and dropped anchor. While Al was getting ready to dive and check the damage, a nice man rushed to our side in his dinghy, and asked if we were alright. He said that he heard us going over the reef, and thought we might have hurt ourselves tripping over because of the impact. He thought we had extensive damage, but said that it could only be repaired in Fajardo, since there was no facility in Culebra.

Al dived after he was gone, but did not see or feel any damage save some scratches on the paint. Well, it remains to be seen with naked eye when we pull the boat out of water soon! For the time being, there was no leakage in the hull, so we pressed on. The sun was still glowing, but we were able to check the small GPS, and saw the blue line that showed our route coming into the harbour. It was obvious that we were way out of it, getting close to the reefs at our starboard. I took the GPS in my hand, and directed Al towards our original route. Then we saw another green marker just before the red and green ahead. Al was trying to steer towards its port, and I was seeing some hazards there, so telling him to go starboard. He asked if he should hit the marker, so we almost brushed it while passing. When we turned around we saw that it was a red! Apparently the authorities ran out of conical buoys and painted a green one red. I think I started shaking after that, but did not think much, we had to concentrate on the trip.

USVI, Here We Come

As it happened, we decided to clear out a day earlier and start the crossing from the “Bight” at Norman Island the next morning. I wrote my extensive plan on a notebook, which my dear friend Jose had given as a parting gift. I will remember her every time I use it. She and I connected at the lowest points in our respective lives some time earlier, although we are two completely different individuals, with no apparent common ties. She claims that I had some influence on her rebound, and I know she had on mine. We both are now at much better places thank God, so hail to you Jose!

Anyway, I made my plan for our first target, Cruz By, St John, and we let the mooring buoy go at about 07:00 hours. The US Virgin Islands, here we come. It was a smooth ride with no winds, so we motored there for about two hours. Al used a trick we had learned from our dear friend Balamber a month earlier, who owns a much bigger an newer version of our catamaran in Turkey; we turned only one of the engines on the way, which reduced our speed a mile an hour, but cut our diesel consumption to one half. I think it makes sense in calm waters, when one is not in a hurry to reach somewhere. It was a short ride anyway; “smooth sailing” so to speak, until it was time to anchor. I think I gained some more gray hairs on my head, looking at the close proximity of the sail boats around us, while dropping the anchor according to the skipper’s instructions. I could feel the sweat running down my back, not because of the intense heat, I assure you. We looked at our position for half an hour, after which, Al decried that we were just clearing the new and old boats around us, while swinging wildly after each passage of the small ferries blasting their ways through the narrow canal just in front of us. We lowered our weathered dinghy down, and rushed to the US Immigration at the end of the canal. We did the paperwork, learned about the places to approach for detailed information, and found ourselves in a small mall to buy the most important commodity in our lives; a US SIM card for the cellular, Al’s life line to the world. If you ask me, I think I can live without it, but I know it is a necessity, albeit a very expensive one, mind you. We called our daughter and send text messages to our son and friends, to give our new number for US and maybe Puerto Rico, and returned to our boat. On our way back, I saw a sailboat anchoring at the area reserved for hourly anchoring. You know, it was clearly marked in the chart I had looked at, but who can trust it, if all the boats are huddled at the other side? It would have been much easier to anchor there, but we like living dangerously. I spent no time pulling the anchor, and we found a very nice bay (Caneel Bay) where moorings bounded. We stayed there two nights, took the dinghy to a resort at the beach for drinks the first day, and breakfast the next morning.

It is interesting to note that, after my first impression of the Caribbean people as being unresponsive and aloof towards strangers, I think I started to understand them a little better in time. They only need a point to connect with others for opening up. We observed this in many occasions, first at the AT&T store, where the clerk was from St. Vincent, and of course Al stroke a conversation about the area, where we had sailed before. The poor young man tried his best to find the cheapest deal for the telephone chip and the data plan Al bought. Same thing happened at the resort. The head waiter, who came to serve us, was from Road Town, BVI. We almost exchanged imaginary cards, convinced that we would see each other in the future. At the end, he causally pointed out that we only had the cold breakfast (only true for me), and charged half the price, which was considerable. By the time we realized what he said, it was all over, so Al could not correct him. I think for what we had, it was a fair price!

St John has nice beaches, and the moorings are cheap, but not very exciting for us, so we headed to Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas after two days. It was a very smooth motoring / sailing trip of about two hours, after which we dropped anchor close to the Yacht Haven Grande. I think when they made the huge investment in that marina, they were having grand dreams. It does not seem feasible for a “very” mega yacht and a smaller one to shoulder the expenses of running that monstrosity. The free anchorage at the bay was full of sail boats, but the rows after rows of concrete docks, with full service, were completely empty, except the two megas. Of course, the dinghy dock was overflowing.

Getting My Hands Dirty in BVI

I had spent a week on Ruyam II in Road Town, BVI at the end of May, 2011 to celebrate my 60th birthday, when we took it out of charter, but had not tried much sailing before. The day after I arrived, we left the marina, to explore the islands around BVI, and get me started on getting my hands dirty with using the helm. It was a great few days of mild weather, which allowed me to get the hang of directing the beast while moving along slowly. I wonder if anyone had tried to tack while the helm was under auto pilot. Well, I did, and panicked that I could not turn it. I hope it was not Alzheimer’s, but just the excitement of a new thing. We shall see in the future. That happened on the first day, and I congratulated myself on the next for not doing anything stupid, but time will tell what I am capable of.

After almost a week, we are now anchored in Road Town harbour, waiting to clear out of BVI, and set sail to the island of St. John, USVI, on December 1st, 2011. This is a real adventure, because Al had not done it either, so we poured over the guides and the map, and made a rough plan about the approach. Tomorrow, I will write down the navigation plan, and see what happens.

The Admiral of Ruyam II Finally Arrives

Nel arrived in November and in addition to her position on the boat as the Admiral (which was assigned to her by my friends as you can see in the picture of the retirement gift I received), she took over the responsibility of keeping the blog up to date. So you will hear her side of the story most of the time from now on. Because we had some difficulty finding WiFi connections, the first update is a bit late but it is comprehensive. There you go, you can follow our Caribbean Odyssey as the Admiral sees it:

At last the long awaited day arrived; I found myself on the plane flying to St. Maarten. I was not excited in the least, since I had been holding my breath until that moment, and was probably convinced that it was not going to happen, so the truth had not sunk in.

Anyway, when the plane landed in St. Maarten, I had a brief conversation with a fellow passenger, who suggested that I took the earlier flight to Beef Island, BVI, where Al was waiting for me. Of course, he was going to be at the airport five hours later, but I thought it would be easier to contact him in Tortola, after I landed. I called him at the airport with the help of the porter, and took a taxi to the marina, rather than waiting for him. He was both excited and disappointed that he could not be there (it is our family tradition to take leave and meet at the airport), but hey, all in all, I was at the end of my journey five hours earlier, but equally tired.