Sunday, April 29, 2018

Carolina to Cape Cod

May 2017

It’s really difficult for me to describe how much FUN we had cruising the east coast of the USA.  Up to this point we had done very little traveling on the east coast even by land, much less by water.  Each region of the U.S. is so distinct and the eastern U.S. has so much history that I feel I really have just learned my U.S. history and geography for the first time.  There is no better way to learn geography than by traveling (remember how hard it was to remember where all of those tiny New England states were?) and if you travel by boat you get to sleep in your own bed every night!  Sailing the North Atlantic and eastern bays, rivers and sounds presented new challenges for Rutea with shoals, ledges, canals, tidal ranges and currents.   As usual in our cruising life, we learned something new every day.

The other delightful part of sailing on the east coast is the number of actual sail boats out sailing!  There are thousands of sailboats on moorings in coves, bays and rivers - cruising boats, schooners, sloops, and many, many beautiful classic wooden boats!  It almost felt reverential to be among classic Alden- or Sparkman-Stephens-designed wooden boats kept in pristine condition much less the magnificent Hinkley’s and Morris’s.  Beautiful craftsmanship and seaworthiness exude from these ships.

After spending a month doing much needed boat projects, exploring the civil war sites and beaches around Southport, N.C. and eating plenty of shrimp and crab cakes we were ready to head north around Cape Hatteras to Chesapeake Bay.  Cape Hatteras is similar in reputation to Point Conception in California, a point of land to be respected, notorious for storms and ships lost at sea and a demarcation point for weather patterns on the coast.  Needless to say, we chose our weather window carefully and sailed north with the current of the Gulf  Stream although from time to time strange little Gulf Stream eddys would be against us!  It felt like another landmark milestone to anchor off of Fort Monroe at Comfort Point in Chesapeake Bay where we spent an old fashioned, USA fourth of July.

One could spend a lifetime just exploring the Chesapeake!  In 1607 Captain John Smith charted over 3,000 miles in the bay alone mapping all of the nooks, crannies, coves and rivers.  We followed much of this waterway trail as we day hopped from Norfolk to Annapolis and Annapolis to the northern end of the bay where we transited the C&D Canal over to Delaware Bay.  Summer homes and small villages dot the shoreline. Old screw-top lighthouses mark shoals and shallows.  Ospreys give us the eagle eye as we pass their nests and circle in the sky waiting to swoop and grab an unsuspecting perch.

This is not to say, however, that all sailing in the Chesapeake is smooth!  The Bay is full of crab pots to dodge and freighters to avoid.  Summer squalls with lightning and thunder can crop up in the afternoons and strike with sudden intensity. The wind can drop to nothing for days or of course, be on the nose. And then there are those man-eating-black-flies.  As always, one must be prepared and it is particularly important to prepare with fly swatters on board in this part of the world!

The Delaware Bay is a whole ‘nother story!  Very shallow, except for the shipping channel, it has a constant parade of huge freighters and tugs towing barges throwing off surfable wakes towards the shallows.  The current races with the tides and if your transit is mistimed with the tide (as part of it will be because the transit is longer than six hours) the going can be very, very slow.  The banks are lined with industry like nuclear power plants and oil refineries and the only protected anchorage is up a winding, narrow, shallow river- the Salem River- where once you arrive you are greeting by more barges, loading docks and a very teeny turning basin!

If you have a shallow draft boat- like 4ft.- and a short mast, say under 35 feet, you can take the inland waterway up the New Jersey coast all of the way to Sandy Hook.  If you don’t, then you must sail up the Atlantic off shore of the New Jersey coast.  Now this is interesting because even if you are five miles off of the coast, you are still only in 65 feet of water!  We were surprised at the amount of traffic on our overnight passage from Cape May, New Jersey up to Sandy Hook.  We passed freighters, barges and tugs, a large fleet of small sloops from the Naval Academy returning from a regatta, fishing boats and several fish farms.  The lights of Atlantic City were bright for miles and there were miles and miles of white sand beaches.  It never really seemed to get dark.  Sandy Hook is a big, wide bay, known for several tragedies, but it does afford some protection for anchoring, a haven for clamming and a staging point for New York City!

Manhattan Island
We are probably the only boat that has ever sailed through New York City and not stopped for a sandwich!  The thing was, it was already July 20th and my Dad was turning 88 on August 1st.  We had promised him that we would would sail into Penobscot Bay to Castine, Maine, for his birthday and that only gave us another ten days to go another 350 (or so) miles!  We also had to time the current at Hell Gate in the East River so we would pass there right at slack tide as the current can rage where the Harlem River enters the East River.  We upped anchor in Sandy Hook in time to sail into New York Harbor and anchor for lunch just off of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  It was a thrill (and very emotional) to sail by Lady Liberty and in spite of everything, she still looks proud and determined!  We took a thousand photos as we tried to imagine Neal’s mother arriving in New York Harbor in 1936, sailing the same route as did we but ending her journey at Ellis Island where her name would be changed and she would emerge from the immigrant inspection station to learn a new language and begin a new life under the guiding light of Lady Liberty.
We celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary by attending a Mets game at Citi Field
The East River is not really a river at all but a 14 mile long tidal strait that begins in New York Harbor and ends just past Throg’s Neck at Long Island Sound.  Beginning at the Island of Manhattan there are eight bridges, numerous islands and many, many fascinating landmarks.  Traffic on the river is intense with ferries and helicopters crisscrossing commuters back and forth to the unending office space in Manhattan.  The shore is lined with marinas and maritime museums, private yachts and small live aboard boats.  The United Nations Headquarters fronts the river and whenever it is in session, all traffic on the river is suspended!  We could see the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Tower, Citi Field, La Guardia Airport and the Billie Jean Tennis complex where the U.S. Open is held!  It was hard not to stop but the East River spit us out into Long Island Sound where we carried on, knowing we would be back in September when we could spend some time.

Long Island Sound introduced us to a whole new world.  Referred to by some as the Gold Coast we passed mansion after mansion, huge estate after estate (including the Gugenheim Estate complete with three castles) with opulent homes and manicured grounds.  I don’t think I have ever seen such a concentration of money, old money- money from early American industry like steel and railroads and cars and mining and oil spread out over such a huge area.  It was really astounding and a bit overwhelming.  Of course we had learned about it in school but I had never SEEN it.

At the east end of Long Island Sound it narrows and is dotted with islands.  To get into Block Island Sound you need to time the tide and current, once again, as on the ebb tide all of Long Island Sound is trying to get out to sea through these passes and on the flood tide, the entire Atlantic Ocean is trying to enter!  Our last anchorage in L.I. Sound was off of Fisher’s Island so we could time our departure through ‘the race’ for the fair tide in the morning.  We exited the Sound through the Watch Hill Pass (the foggiest place in L.I. Sound) and headed through Block Island Sound towards Cape Cod.  I think we’re in Connecticut now . . .

Surrounding Cape Cod is another huge shoal and sailors used to have to sail about a hundred extra miles out to sea, in the Northern Atlantic, to get around it.  After many ships were lost in nasty winter storms the idea of a canal was conceived but it took almost 300 years to complete it!  Fortunately for us, the canal is now 17 miles long, 480 feet wide and 30 feet deep.  It cuts off many sea miles and provides a protected place to transit from Buzzard’s Bay into Cape Cod Bay.  We knew of course, that we would again have to time the current but what we didn’t anticipate having to dodge were the fishing lures cast off from the banks by shoulder to shoulder fishermen competing in some kind of fishing tournament!  Across Cape Cod Bay, past Boston we sailed in to Gloucester.  It’s now July 24 and we only have 150 miles to go to Castine but the weather is calling for northerlies.

Gloucester is one of the few remaining real fishing ports in Massachusetts.  Gorton’s of Gloucester (now Japanese owned) has  processed seafood since 1849 and fishing boats offload at its docks both day and night.  The harbor bustles with commercial traffic as well as pleasure craft.  Craft breweries line the streets and there are many artists and galleries.  We are captivated by the charm and energy of the town.  Quaint houses with beautiful gardens hang on the hillsides, people are friendly and casual but also serious in their understanding of  how difficult it is to make a living from the Sea.  The Man At The Wheel Memorial honors fishermen everywhere and The Fisherman’s Wives Memorial honors the wives of fishermen everywhere.  The north wind blows for three more days.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Pirates of the Caribbean

Scarlet Ibis

It was April 10, 2017 that we left Trinidad and I know this because it was the day after Haley’s (our niece) birthday.  For her birthday I had taken her to Caroni Swamp to witness the sunset roosting of the Trinidad Scarlet Ibis.  It was magnificent and she loved it!  Really!  No, really! Nothing like a swamp trip on your birthday!  Ahhh, the cruising life! Haley was its’ newest convert.

We departed Boca del Dragon in very rough seas with the wind on the nose under power and a main sail and immediately began taking on water.  Hmmm…how am I going to explain this to my sister….I took her one and only daughter out to sea in a boat taking on water…….so we turned around (in very rough seas) and the bilge pump stopped cycling.  Maybe the problem fixed itself!  We turned around again (in very rough seas) and headed out once again.  The bilge pumped kicked back on and once again we were taking on water.  We turned around again (in very rough seas) and headed back thru the Boca into Scotland Bay where we dropped the anchor, let the engine cool down, made dinner and while Haley and I had a pretty good sleep, Neal worked on the packing gland.  Next morning we tried it again (in moderate seas) and with no leaks, carried on northerly through the Windward Islands of the Caribbean. 

Local knowledge says that you either sail at night without lights from Trini to Grenada or sail way east (into the wind) around the Venezuelan/Trinidadian oil fields because there are “pirates” from Venezuela that hang out around the oil platforms and rob cruising boats transiting in this area.  Now, there are documented accounts of this, and any act of aggression from one boat to another is considered piracy, but truth be told these guys are desperate and very poor as Venezuela is in a state of dire crisis and they are just trying to feed families and make a little money.  No one gets hurt….as long as you don’t pull out a gun…..

Tyrell Bay, Carriacou Island
We decided to skip Grenada and head to Carriacou as we had heard that Tyrell Bay was beautiful and there was a good reef to snorkel.  Skirting Kick’em Jenny, an active underwater volcano area just north of Grenada we reached Carriacou and anchored in turquoise water and explored our first real Caribbean Island- you know- palm tree lined, white sand beaches, steel pan music and conche in spicy sauce for dinner!

Rather than belaboring each Windward and Leeward Island that we visited up the Caribbean chain, let it suffice to say that each was beautiful, we met wonderful people, shopped in fresh fruit and veggie markets, took tours from local tour guides (with American prices….piracy?.....) and snorkeled beautiful reefs in clean, clear water.  Haley decided to design hikes for us wherever possible and presented the difficulty level to us in very clever ways, such as ‘this will be an easy hike’ which then turned out to be straight up (bushwacking) and straight down (rockslides).  I do admit we had some spectacular views of the ocean.  One of her more rewarding hikes was to the Depaz Rum Distillery in Martinique, which was supposed to be two miles (uphill) but turned out to be about SIX miles…uphill.  We did finally arrive and toured the beautiful grounds of the oldest steam powered distillery in the Caribbean, slave quarters and all and after which sampled rum in the tasting room.  While talking with the staff, we learned that if we bought ENOUGH rum, they would provide a taxi for us back to the harbor…….hmmm…..pirates?........

Rum Distillery
Used on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean
We were greeted in Dominica by Lawrence of Arabia, in a small skiff, who introduced himself as being an ambassador of Portsmith Town and promised to take care of all of our local needs.  He arranged a rain forest river tour for us then passed us off to one of his assistants who loaded us in a wooden, flat bottomed skiff and poled us  way up a jungle river, past the house of The Witch in Pirates of the Caribbean (yes, it was filmed here) all the while pontificating about American Politics and espousing amazement at how such an incredible country such as the USA could elect such a person as….well…. Donald Trump (his words exactly) to be President.  We were in awe.  The rainforest, a tour guide with a sixth grade education who knew more about American politics than most Americans, and he got to hang out with Johnny Depp (the REAL Pirate of the Caribbean).

However, for Neal and me, most islands felt like tourist destinations and we could feel the local pressure for tourists, people like us, to shop and spend money and help support the local economy where there was very little else to support it.  It was a far cry from visiting a foreign country where people were interested in more than your American dollar.  That being said, Haley kept our perspective fresh as this was her first island experience and she loved the tours, the snorkeling, the rainforests, the towns and we were happy to view our destinations through her eyes.  What was particularly cool for me was to learn where all of these islands were- exotic names of places that I had heard for years but had no idea of their locations!  Union Island, Mayreau, Tobago Cays, Bequia, Martinique, Dominica, Isle de Saints, St. Kitts, St. Maartin, Virgin Islands.  And now that Hurricane Maria and Jose followed the same path that we did, it means even more, particularly since we met people on these islands, know where they lived and shopped and worked and we shared a bit of their lives.

Haley jumped ship in St. Maartens as Rutea had a major repair to undergo that was going to take some time. This was the second time we had taken someone to the airport via dinghy but an absolute first for Haley! She jumped out of the dinghy, walked across the highway and voila!  Bon Voyage!

 A chainplate had separated on the way up and there are major ship refitting outfits on the Dutch side of the island. St. Maartens lagoon is entered via a bascule bridge that opens several times a day.  Once you are inside, you are captive until the bridge opens again for your departure.  The lagoon is huge and divided into the Dutch side and the French side.  Local wisdom says to go to the French side for dining and the Dutch side for boat repairs.  The craftsmanship of the repair work was excellent and the price was fair but the prices in the chandleries were outrageous!  We always expect anything designated for marine use to be more than regular use, but these prices for oil, wax, cleaners, nuts, bolts, were off the charts!  Pirates!

At least we were now in the Leeward Islands and could sail the rest of the way through St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, through Turks and Caicos, Bahamas and make our way back towards the U.S.  After spending one night in Cat Island in the Bahamas, we were heading to Hope Town in Great Abaco, Bahamas, when Chris Parker, the Caribbean weather guru told us we had a weather window to get to the Chesapeake Bay and we needed to leave Right Now!  Who else do you know who sails through the Bahamas and only spends one night?  Well that’s what we did and five days later, after a night of incredible lightning, we pulled into Southport, North Carolina.  This was Rutea’s first time back in the USA in seven years!  Wonder what kind of pirates we will find here!


 We know that we haven't kept our blog up to date.  Sorry.   This post is about what took place almost two years ago.  We'll try to do better going forward.

Approaching the Anchorage at Fernando de Noronha

March 2016

After leaving Ascension we really wanted a taste of Brazil! The northeast Brazilian coast is not considered a safe place to transit so we decided to visit the Brazilian island paradise of Fernando de Noronha, an easy 1,100 mile passage from Ascension, about 350 miles due east of Fortaleza (on the mainland) and 3° south of the equator.  This tropical paradise is really a string of very large rocks out in the middle of the S. Atlantic with no protected anchorage for mooring. We anchored in 30 feet of water about a half of a mile off shore and along with our amigos (Helga and Rene) on S/V Amigo we set out to look for some good Brazilian food and music! 

The island reeked of happiness!   We took local buses from one end of the island to the other just to tour the island and all local passengers were smiling, chatting, swaying to their ipods and giving us suggestions on where to eat!  If this is Brazil, bring it on!  The air smelled sweet, the sun shone bright, birds were singing, the food melted in your mouth, the energy was vibrant and we were very happy.

Nothing lasts forever, even paradise, and a huge Atlantic swell moved in on our unprotected side of the island.  After spending a morning watching Amigo completely disappear from our sight in between the swells (we could not even see the top of their mast and they reported that Rutea disappeared just as completely) we decided we better head out and continue along our equatorial route towards Tobago. Ciao Brazil!

This next passage was a 1900 mile run through the inter-tropical convergence zone from south of the equator to ten degrees north.  Our twelve foot swell accompanied us for days as did squalls, lightning and one water spout.  It was not an easy or particularly enjoyable passage, but it was interesting knowing we were sailing off of the northern coast of Brazil past the Amazon River and basin.  We made good time with wind and current in our favor and knew that the reward  at the end of the passage  would be to anchor in the turquoise waters of Tobago where we could lime to our hearts content, snorkel the Buccoo Reef, attend Sunday School (a weekly food and music beach party beginning about 11:00 p.m.) and rest up before heading to Trinidad where we would end our season.  Total days at sea-12.

Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot

Unless you are an avid bird watcher you probably would not go to Trinidad to vacation.  There are fifteen different species of hummingbirds on the island and the Asa Wright Nature Center is world renown for Hummers as well as Honeycreepers, Tanagers, Mot Mots, Toucans, Woodpeckers and a host of other species.  If you spend the night you might share your room with an agouti or a well known specie of tarantula!  But that is about all that lures the tourist.  There are no beautiful beaches, reefs to snorkel or charming coves to in which to anchor.  Trini is twelve miles off of the coast of Venezuela in some places and is surrounded by oil platforms.  Oil tankers abound in the main port, Port of Spain and kids swim in the bay next to the Alcoa Aluminum plant.

Trinidad does have, however, a reputation for being a very good boat repair and haul-out destination as it is south of the hurricane belt and although it has a VERY wet season, it has not been hit by a hurricane in many years.  Thus, every year hundreds of cruisers head to Trinidad, haul their boats out of the water into the boat yard and skedaddle! That being said, local knowledge and instructions to the infiltrating cruiser are that during the day you are free to wander the area around Charguaramas, between marinas and chandleries- even go in to Port of Spain to the public market.  But by dark, you had best be inside the marina gates and off of the street and if you go any where around the bay, go by dinghy- do not walk on the highway. 

Trinidad seems to be one of those slow-to-change countries that is not particularly egalitarian in its integration.  There is a mix of white people- descendants of the colonialists, black people- descendants of the slaves and East Indian people- descendants of indentured servants also brought in to work in the plantation fields. After WWI the oil industry boomed and people of all races were hired to work the oil fields.  Oil jobs were preferred and better paying than plantation work, so much of the agriculture went by the wayside.  When the oil marked collapsed in the 80s many people were out of work with no agricultural industry to fall back on. Even though the country’s economy has stabilized there are still people living in board shacks without running water or electricity next to fancy shopping malls.  The murder rate in Trinidad is high, it is a major corridor for cocaine from South America and government corruption is deep.

Nevertheless, Neal and I found Trinidad HOT and fascinating.  We jumped into our boat projects, bought our lunches from the curry stand on the highway right outside of the marina gates, attended the ex-pat  Sunday Mexican Train marathons, went to Shark and Bake at the Wheelhouse Pub (by dinghy), attended the Tuesday cruiser’s pot luck and went to Wednesday BBQ night also at the Wheelhouse, where they would haul a six foot swordfish fresh off a boat, down the dock in a dock cart, and cut it up right in front of us throwing huge steaks on the grill for all who ordered it.

David Underwood 1963-2016
We had just signed up with Jesse James to go on a Taste of Trini Tour  with a stop by the Asa Wright Nature Center when we received the phone call that no one ever wants to receive.  Our nephew was missing in a diving accident off of the Turks and Caicos and it was not looking good for his recovery.  We dropped everything and 48 hours later we were home in San Diego making the most difficult passage our collective family has ever made.  No one ever expects to lose a family member.  But in the natural order of things we know that grandparents and parents pass before kids.  The loss of a child (no matter what age and David was 50) is just about as rough, dark and stormy of a passage as there can be.  Life as we knew it ended today.  Everything, all plans, were put on hold until enough healing time could pass so that we could return to life and begin the next passage anew.