Lifetime achievement award
29 July 2016
I am not dead.
That isn’t enough information though, for the department of work and pensions back in the UK, the government office that has been paying my state pension since February 2012 when I reached the ripe old age of 65. Every four weeks, as regular as clockwork for three years, my bank account would show a credit from the DWP, as they like to be known as nowadays.
This meager amount of money kept appearing in my account whilst we sailed Picaroon around the Caribbean and, although it was never enough to keep pace with our expenses, it was always there. That was until May 2016, when the DWP credit was mysteriously absent from my account. We waited until the June payment was expected but by the due date, like a phantom pregnancy, that also failed to materialize.
To cut a long story short we had sold our house in the UK and not informed the DWP of our new address. I wasn’t aware that I was obliged to do this when we had left England in 2013 and bought Picaroon to go cruising the islands of the Caribbean. Anyway we no longer had a permanent address anywhere in the world, we weren’t homeless, we were now live-aboard cruisers, of no fixed abode.
Had we looked at the DWP.gov website before we left England and set sail for distant horizons, we may have noticed that if we were going to be abroad for more than six months we should inform them of our change of circumstances, but we didn’t. In fact, it would have been the last thing on our minds to look at the DWP.gov website and specially to take note of article NJP 751/LA4 section 9b.
We were too wrapped up in shutting down our lives in England, with a hundred and one other things to take care of, to have thought. “Darling, do remember to look at the DWP.gov website, there’s an important article, NJP751/LA4 section 9b that I heard Mrs. Wilson discussing the other day in the butchers”, but we didn’t; but we did remember to turn off the gas.
Through the miracle of Skype we called the DWP from Puerto Rico, which was where Picaroon was anchored, and they had good Wi-Fi at the nearby marina snack bar. A recorded voice presented us with various options, but none seemed to relate to live-aboard vagabonds in the Caribbean, so we pressed option 4, which was for all other enquiries.
They played us some tinny version of a Bach cantata, why is it always Bach, for five minutes until Roger, who had a strong Welsh accent answered. After a protracted inquisition of security questions, Roger told us that we had come through to the wrong department. We would have to speak to the international pensions office, and so we were transferred to the DWP IP section, but not before having to endure more obscure Bach Cantatas.
Grizelda, she sounded like a Grizelda, may have been Linda, eventually came on the line and we went through the same inquisition as with Roger until eventually we were able to get to the nub of our question which was,” why have you stopped paying my pension”. Grizelda was a little scathing about the fact that we had been swaning about the Caribbean on a yacht since 2013 and hadn’t informed her department. She seemed to imply that we had been very naughty, especially as she had been subjected to the cold grey skies and torrential rains of England all that time. “I’ll have to submit this case to our specialist international investigative team” she said, with, I thought, a decided smirk in her voice. “You’ll have to call back in seven days’ time”, is there anything else I can help you with today, no, we said, goodbye she sang, and the familiar plop of Skype dropping the call issued from our PC.
So we waited for seven days.
Johnathon answered our call seven days later, after the obligatory Bach interlude, and took us deftly through the security questions. National insurance number, name, date of birth, bank that we pay your pension into, usual amount we pay you and how often. I got these all right until he asked us, we were both listening, what was the date you were married, er……… oh, erm, March 13th 2005 I said, No, 2006 said Jackie, and we both giggled as we honestly didn’t remember. Happily, Johnathon thought this mildly amusing and let it pass, so we could get to the meat of the problem. He wasn’t part of the special investigative team that was dealing with our enquiry, and according to his information on the screen in front of him there was no mention of our call the previous week to Grizelda
He listened to our pleas and our plight and said that what we would have to do was to fill out a proof of life certificate, so that the DWP would know that I wasn’t dead. “I’ll put a form in the post to you today” he said. Hang on though, we said, we’re in Puerto Rico, can’t you send it to us via email. Luckily he was able to do that, although we would have to return it by normal post as the DWP, with its natty modern acronym, is not set up to receive electronic mail. “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”, and with that Johnathon plopped off.
The form arrived soon after the call was over with a note to say we should return it via normal post to an address in Wolverhampton. I needed to have it signed by a worthy person who would verify that I was me and I wasn’t dead.
Since all this started we had visited the DWP.gov website to clue ourselves up on where we went wrong and hopefully how we could put it right. One of the things we discovered was that if there was an increase in the UK pension whilst we had been travelling then there could be an issue as to whether I had been overpaid. You see there are rules as to whether you’re entitled to the increase, and it all depends on which country you are in.
Even though my pension was being paid into my UK bank account there could still be an issue. If I was in the USA I would be entitled to the increase, but if I was in Canada I would not be entitled to the increase, and there’s a list of countries on the DWP.gov website that tells you where you’ll get it and where you won’t. It’s a very obtuse and highly confusing and nonsensical list that confronts live-aboard cruisers who are traveling to countries where you’re eligible and then to countries where you’re not.
Jamaica-good, Cuba-bad, Barbados-good, Haiti-bad, Dominican Republic-bad, Puerto Rico, maybe good as part of the USA, but maybe bad as not a fully-fledged state, so question mark on that one.
We decided that this could be a problem as we should have informed the DWP.gov office each time we checked into a new country then they could decide whether they liked that country or didn’t and whether any increase could be paid, or not, as the case may be.
Now comes the tricky part. If I’m paid every four weeks they would have to work out when I was in a good country, so I get the increase, and when I was in a bad country so they could deduct the increase. If the good country and the bad country overlapped by a week or two I suppose the sums would become a tad esoteric, and whether their number crunching computers, that can’t accept email, would be up to it heaven only knows. I suspect not, and what’s more it could delay any payments they may, or may not think I was due.
Anyway to be on the safe side, and not to fall foul of benefit fraud (they now call your pension a benefit), we enclosed a letter explaining where we had been, with approximate dates of arrival and departure in the hope that they would think we were honest upstanding members of the British Empire, and reinstate my pension. We also hoped that trying to unravel three years of a pension that had barely increased more than five pounds a month since 2013 would not be put into the ‘too difficult’ pile and lost behind some dusty filing cabinet in the basement of DWP.gov.uk.
Anyway I digress.
We were calling the pensions office every week to see if my life certificate had materialized in the UK, getting more and more desperate each time we called as we were seriously short of money by now. Somehow we must have touched a sympathetic nerve in the particular DWP officer who answered our call on the third week since we had posted the ‘not dead’ form. We must have sounded desperate because he said that he could authorize, what he called a safe payment. He said it would take about five days to reach my bank account, and would not be the full amount I was owed but perhaps it would relieve our situation.
Five days later, well seven actually, as the weekend doesn’t count for the DWP, we checked my account and sure enough there was a payment from the DWP which, when we did the sums, turned out to be the amount I would have received back in 2013. So they were withholding any increase until they had my swimming certificate logged on their system, but at least we were getting something, and my bank account was back in the black.
We called back a week later to ask if my undead form had reached them yet, but still the answer was no. It must have got lost in the post we decided, as all important documents not sent by recorded delivery do. I know, I should have sent it with Fedex but hindsight is a fine thing.
Four weeks later we’re in the Dominican Republic, and we called the DWP to report our change of address and enquire on the rogue form that had gone Awol. As it still hadn’t been delivered we decided to send a duplicate form back to the UK with relatives who were here on holiday. The DWP officer we spoke to thought this would be expedient, though I think she just said “good idea”. So we filled in another form, had it verified and it was posted the day after our relatives landed in the UK. This time it went by recorded delivery.
The same day that the second LC was delivered I had an email from my brother in the UK who had had a letter from the DWP asking for more information about a life certificate they had received. They hadn’t a clue who this ‘not dead’ certificate was for as it had no reference number and no National insurance number on it. This letter had arrived at my brothers address because this was the contact address that I had put on the original form. So obviously the first form had now arrived, but it had only got as far as the mail opening room at the DWP.
Now comes the stupid part.
The only information that I was asked for on the form they emailed to me was (a) a contact address, so I gave them my brothers, in the UK (b) what my present address was, which at the time of posting was in Puerto Rico and (c) the name and address of the attorney who witnessed my signature and verified my passport. Can you see what’s missing?
The one vital bit of information that would enable DWP to identify this Colin Williams was my National insurance number, and a reference number. Nowhere on the form did it ask for this, although there was a box that said please quote this reference number in any correspondence with the DWP. Foolishly I thought that the five letters in this particular box must be my reference which would identify me with this form. The letters were IPD/LC. I suppose I thought it strange at the time that it said reference number when there were only letters, but who was I to question the odd way that the DWP made up references.
Of course IPD/LC was not my reference, it stood for International Pensions Department/Life certificate, and a unique number for my case was missing, the box had been left blank. Also at the head of the form, in a ‘for office use only’ section were three boxes. Officers identity number, room number, and clients National Insurance number, all of these were blank.
All of these blank boxes should have been completed by the DWP officer prior to emailing me the form, but he didn’t and I hadn’t spotted this omission, why would I, so when my ‘not dead’ certificate arrived in the DWP mail room they had no way to confirm who I was, or who was dealing with my case. Some bright cookie must have thought, I’ll write to the contact address and enclose a supplementary form asking for more information.
Another call to the DWP confirmed that my brother could email the more information form, which I printed out, filled in, scanned, and emailed back to him. This I was told would be quite acceptable to the DWP but the scanned copy would have to be printed out by my brother, put in an envelope and posted to their mail department. They will then collate this supplementary form with the original Life certificate and be able to confirm that I’m not dead.
Will this be the end of this saga, who knows?
There was talk back in the 70s, something about the paperless office of the future, but I suppose I’ll be long gone before the DWP discover new technology, and a simpler way of proving a person is undead.
So Baby boomers beware before you up sticks and go spending the kids inheritance on some wild adventure, remember that as well as turning off the gas, you’ll need to read that DWP directive, it’s on the DWP.gov.uk website somewhere.
19 July 2016
In September 2013 we stepped aboard Picaroon in Salinas bay in Puerto Rico and decided that she was the vessel that would carry us away on our long planned adventure. We had spent over five years dreaming and scheming to get to that momentous day when we could sail off into the sunset and leave the troubles of the world behind us. The troubles of the world faded, but the vagaries of boat ownership were lurking, waiting in the wings to take the edge off living the dream.
Almost three years later, and with mixed emotions, we boarded our new found cruising friends, Hank and Susys, dingy at 5.30am in that selfsame Salinas bay and looked back, as Picaroon shrank into the distance, her reflection mirrored in the calm of the dawn. On the one hand we were looking forward to some landlubber time ashore with the prospect of flushing toilets, electricity at the flick of a switch and an endless supply of water coming out of the taps. On the other hand we were sad that we may have come to the end of our adventures aboard Picaroon, that is, if she finds buyer whilst we're in the DR.
The last couple of months, anchored here in Salinas bay, have stretched our resolve to breaking point with the catastrophic costs and upheaval of having to remove the engine and have it lying in bits all around the decks as well as having the guts of it gracing the salon floor for a few weeks. Our home had been defiled, our bank balances plunged seriously into the red and our deadline for meeting Jackies' daughter and grandson, in the Dominican Republic, getting too close for comfort.
The day before our departure we set a second anchor, which was a bit of a fiasco, as the weight of the chain I was paying out from the dingy played havoc with my ability to steer in the direction I wanted to go. After wrestling with the tiller for ten minutes I managed to get to the planned drop zone and heaved 45lbs of CQR anchor out of the dingy and into the glutinous mud as some added insurance against Picaroon dragging. From June to October is the hurricane season in the Caribbean and Salinas bay is not the safest place to be should a hurricane blow that way. Our two anchors should hold in a storm but should a big blow threaten to come ashore on the South coast of Puerto Rico Picaroon would be very vulnerable.
There's a hurricane hole about five miles away where all the locals head for when a named storm approaches, and according to our friend Steve who's keeping an eye on Picaroon whilst we're gone it can get pretty chaotic as people race to get to a safe haven, tied up to the mangroves near Jobos. We'll have to keep an eye on the weather whilst we're here in the DR because if there's a threat of a hurricane hitting Puerto Rico we'll have to get a wiggle on and fly back to shift Picaroon as Steves' got other boats to take care of and won't be able to move ours. At best we'll get about four days warning which is going to make for a very tight deadline to run Picaroon to safety, so of course we're just hoping that Puerto Rico, and Picaroon, will dodge anything horrible.
So the adventures of Picaroon seem to hang in the balance, awaiting a buyer, but it has to be said these salts are reluctant sellers.
We've spent a long time sitting at anchor over the last eight months, In Puerto Rico, St Thomas and the BVI waiting for that illusive buyer to turn up but being on anchor for any length of time means the constant drudgery of provisioning the boat.
Fresh water has to be hauled aboard in heavy five gallon jerry cans from some source ashore and as we only have three jerry cans aboard this can mean up to four trips to get 60 gallons. We use about 10 gallons a day even though we're very frugal with showers and washing up but it's a chore that is heavy work and becomes tedious. If we had our time over again we would have definitely invested in a water maker.
Keeping enough power in the batteries to run the lights, fridge, computers, pumps, vacuum cleaner etc. means having to run the engine every day which eats diesel and also has to be shipped by dingy to Picaroon. Not as often as water but sometimes, as it's not always available at the dingy dock, we may have to go searching for a nearby garage which means finding a friendly face with some transport to fill our three containers which are also a weight and have to be shipped back to the boat in the dingy. If we had our time over again we would have invested in 1000w or more of solar panels which lots of cruisers have. They hardly ever run their engines as the sun shines every day and is free.
A large freezer would be next on our list so we could stock up on fresh food that could last us a month or more instead of having to shop maybe two or three times a week often at stores that are often a long way from where we're anchored. Another reason for having those large solar panels, as freezers eat a lot of power. All of these things and more we now know would go a long way to making life as live aboard sailors much less of a hassle.
So now we're landlubbers, for a while at least, back in our apartment in Cabarete in the Dominican Republic where we'll stay at least until September. If Picaroon hasn't been sold we will have to return to renew her cruising permit for being in US waters and probably sail her back to the US Virgin islands and hope to find a buyer when the season kicks off in November.
Between now and then we're going to luxuriate in the conveniences of life ashore and enjoy our beautiful gardens, the swimming pool and our Robinson Crusoe beach.
I painted our beach on this piece of driftwood
A bolt from the blue
21 June 2016
You might call it a bolt from the blue, well that’s how it all began maybe three or four weeks ago. Ever since the crankshaft bolt snapped sending the main pulley flying from the end of the crankshaft we seemed to have been dogged by one disaster after another. At first it looked like a simple, well in theory it was simple, just remove the broken bolt from the end of the shaft and screw in a new one.
We called in an expert with the tools to do this, but part way through trying to remove the broken bit of bolt there was a sharp intake of breath, like experts do, and an “Oh dear.” Turned out the keyway in the crankshaft had been damaged as the pulley flew away.
Bolt from the blue No 2. Only way to fix this is to take out the engine, remove the crankshaft and take it to a machine shop to be fixed. It took three days to get the engine out and apart.
The machine shop said they couldn’t fix the damage to the pulley which had also suffered in the breakdown. This was a special double pulley designed to make the engine work in a boat. We searched high and low for a replacement hours, days, a week. It was looking hopeless, and we were getting demoralized. Finally we found one, in Japan!
We managed to borrow the $2000 that this repair was going to cost, as we had long since run out of our savings, and were simply surviving on my small UK pension. Picaroon was up for sale and had two or three prospective buyers waiting in the wings when the catastrophe with the engine bolt occurred. We put them all on hold pending the repair being carried out and the engine put back in the boat.
And then we had bolt from the blue No3. One day we checked my bank account to see if my pension for May had been paid into my account. There was a credit that looked about the right amount but with a curious code next to it but we assumed it was my pension. We became a little suspicious but decided to wait and see what happened when it came around to the June payment.
When the date came around for Junes’ payment nothing appeared in my account, it became time to panic. We asked our old next door neighbour to ask the new owner of our old house if there had been any mail for us from the UK pensions office. Sure enough there was a letter that had just arrived which said my pension had been suspended and it gave me a number to call in the UK.
Had we still some savings to live on then this would have been an inconvenience, but as we rely on my pension coming in each month to survive this was a disaster. Of course we didn’t get our neighbours message on a weekday when we could call the pension offices, we received it on a Saturday, which meant we had to endure the anguish and worry of a whole weekend before we could call them.
The letter had said that my pension had been suspended because they didn’t know where I lived.
We had sold the only house we owned in the UK to fund the buying of Picaroon which we bought at the end of 2013 in Puerto Rico. Ever since then Picaroon has been our home, we’re what they call liveaboard sailors, and for the last three years we’ve been sailing around the islands, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Virgin islands ending up back in Puerto Rico, which is where we are now.
So first thing on Monday morning we took the dinghy over to the Marina snack bar where the wi-fi is usually pretty reliable called the UK number using Skype. A pleasant sounding lady took my call and asked a few security questions and took my national insurance number. At first I thought they would be just checking to see that I hadn’t died and that this was me, alive. When she asked for my UK address I told her that I don’t have one at the moment as I am living on a sailboat in Puerto Rico. I’m sorry she said, I’ll have to pass you over to my college in the international section.
After five minutes of “hold” music a friendly chap took my call. I explained my situation, with a little difficulty as I’m deaf and my hearing devices I use don’t work that well with telephone calls. But luckily Jackie was sat with me and between us we thought we had jumped all the hurdles. That was until he asked how long we had been out of the UK and we said, since 2013. Oh, now that makes things more complicated, he said, I’ll need to pass this on to our specialist international team. We gave him an email address and our Puerto Rican telephone number and he said we would have to wait to be contacted by them.
How long we’ll have to wait for that call, or email we don’t know.
From our research on their website it seems that we have maybe fallen foul of the rules governing payments made to pensioners living abroad. It would appear that if you live in certain countries then any increases in the state pension will not be paid. It’s a curious list of countries where the increase is paid and not paid. For instance if you’re in the USA you get the increase, but if you live in Canada you don’t. If you live in Jamaica you would get the increase but not if you lived in Cuba. Barbados is good, the Dominican Republic is not good.
As we’ve been travelling around quite a few of these islands there are places where we would be eligible for the increase and others where we would not. However, we have never stayed anywhere longer than six months and sometimes we have only stayed a month. If we have to give details of where and how long we stayed at various islands/countries it could get very complicated for the pensions department to work out if I’ve been overpaid or not, which equates to a very long and drawn out investigation.
The thing that is ridiculous here is that whatever increase I’ve had in my monthly amount has been very small indeed, I would hazard a guess that my pension has only increased by about five pounds since I left the UK in 2013.
The big mistake that I have made, if any, is that I never informed the pensions dept. that I was selling my house in the UK and moving onto a boat in the Caribbean. I suppose I stupidly thought that as long as I don’t become a resident of another country, but simply passing through, then I was still a UK citizen, with a UK bank account, it’s just that I was between properties. OK three years is a long time to be between properties, but whilst I was living on my boat I didn’t need a house in England, but I still considered myself to be English, and have the rights to receive my pension.
So right now we’re eating into our respective overdrafts, which are minute and getting smaller by the week. We can’t survive much longer without my pension being reinstated.
We’re not allowed to work here, in what is in effect the USA, and we can’t sell Picaroon without an engine. Oh what a to-do, what a pickle.
It was bad enough having the bolt from the blue breaking, but then to have my pension withdrawn at such a crucial time, well, it’s just not cricket, insult to injury is what it is.
It’s been a horrible four weeks, the worst month ever.
If you want to help us out whilst we’re in this hole you could buy my album of songs that I recorded before I became deaf.
You can pay what you can afford.
Thank you in advance.
Visit https://eaglei.bandcamp.com/album/turquoise-blues to get your copy
Worse things happen at sea
20 May 2016
Every day we have to run the engine for an hour or two to top up the batteries and there's a couple of things we have to check each time we hit the start button. We always check to see that we have cooling water coming out of the exhaust, we check the oil pressure gauge and we check to see that the rev counter, or tacho, is functioning. The tacho tells us that the alternator will be charging.
The tacho sometimes will fail to register and it's often because a small wire has jumped off its terminal on the alternator. It's a ten second job to pop this back on, it's no big deal. This happened on Tuesday morning so I went below to investigate. Then Jackie, who was in the cockpit, suddenly noticed that the water had stopped coming from the exhaust, so I immediately shut down the engine.
The first thought was that it would be a broken fan belt as this drives the water pump and the tacho, so I opened up the doors to the engine to have a look. The tacho wire was still attached to its tab and the fan belts hadn't snapped but something looked weird. The belts seem to have twisted and the main pulley wheel looked to be at a new and curious angle.
It wasn't until I loosened all the fittings and slackened the belts that we could see the problem. The drive pulley that should be bolted onto the crankshaft, wasn't. The massive bolt that holds it in place had broken and the pulley had parted from the engine. I removed the pulley and shone the torch at the end of the crankshaft and had one of those, 'oh shit!!!!' moments.
I held the large head of the bolt in my hand and peered at the other half that was still inside the hole at the end of the crankshaft. OK, we need a new bolt, and we need to get that broken bit out, but how? I needed a second opinion, so I called our friend Steve, who's a wiz at all things mechanical, and asked him to come and give me some advice.
English Steve is an ex-pat who did quite a bit of work for us when we first bought Picaroon here back in 2013. "This bolt hasn't just broken today it's been broken for some time" he said. "The only thing that has been holding this pulley on has been friction. Just thank your lucky stars that it broke here, whilst you were on anchor and not whilst you were out at sea". That sent a chill of relief through both of us, because although Picaroon is a sailboat we've always needed the engine to get us in and out of harbours as well as being available at sea when sailing isn't an option, opposing seas, lee shores or whatever other reason, it's essential.
"You could try to get the old bolt out with a centre punch and a small hammer but it may take while, I'll bring one over in the morning", Steve suggested.
Meanwhile we're now low on power, the batteries will need to be charged, and we don't have an engine. What we need is to borrow a generator until we can get this fixed so I head off to speak to Jeanso another friend of ours. He decides we need to have his friend Mike to have a look at the problem, he's seemingly got all the tools and the expertise to fix our broken pulley. "I'll call him"
Half an hour later Mike, who lives on his ketch a few hundred yards from us arrives on board Picaroon. He's retired but tops up his pension doing jobs like this, and has worked on engines all his life. "No problem, he says, I've got the very tools to get that bolt out. Then I also have a spare bolt that's the same as this broken one. I'll be over at 8 in the morning and we'll get it done. See if you can find the key that will be under the engine somewhere. If you can't find it I can make a new one, no problem"
Mike arrives next day with his can do attitude, tools and a generator. For an hour or so he works away, still confident that the bolt is going to come out. He's done this sort of job countless times but as time goes on it becomes clear that this may be a bolt too far, and now he's spotted another problem, which is more serious than the broken bolt. The keyway on the crankshaft has been damaged due to the loss of the retaining bolt, and the broken bits of the key will have gone into the engine. "This, says Mike, is not good"
For those who don't know about keys and keyways, it's just an oblong or half-moon shaped bit of metal that sits in a slot on the crankshaft, and a corresponding slot on the pulley. Its function is to stop the pulley rotating on the crankshaft. The slot, about a quarter of an inch deep has straight sides, but the one on our engine now has one straight side and one that's worn to an angle that won't hold the key tightly enough.
"It can be repaired" Mike tells us, it just needs a new slot milling into the shaft. Unfortunately to do this will mean taking the engine out, dismantling it, taking the crankshaft to a workshop, bringing it back to the boat, rebuilding the engine and popping it back in place. Suddenly a job that was going to cost a few hundred dollars has turned into a job that will cost over $2000.
Gloom descends on Team Williams and Picaroon.
We ran out of money for repairs three or four months ago and have been barely surviving on my pension since then. Picaroon has been for sale since we were in Jamaica and just recently, since we reduced the price, we've had two or three people who may be interested in buying her. One of them may even be coming to view her this week. That's Sods law for you.
The day before this disaster occurred we had formulated a plan regarding selling Picaroon. We would leave her here in the safe harbor of Salinas and return to our apartment in the Dominican Republic. The chances of finding a buyer in Puerto Rico was much more likely than if we took her to Luperon in the DR, although doing this was going to mean borrowing a lot of money from friends or relatives to tide us over until the boat was sold, it seemed like a good plan, and then the s**t hit the fan, or is that the fan belt pulley.
There's only one way out of this, we have to repair the engine on the good ship Picaroon, or we'll never find a buyer so we sent out some SOS emails. Thankfully my brother has offered to lend us the money to get the engine fixed, and Mike will start work on it in a couple of days. It will probably take two to three weeks until it's repaired and back in the boat.
Meanwhile plan A is on the backburner, the money to carry it out now swallowed by this disaster with the engine. Anyway worse things happen at sea, at least we're safely in port, and somehow, someway we'll muddle through.
It looks like the adventures of Picaroon still have a few chapters left until we experience the second of those two happiest days in a sailors life.
The day you buy the boat,.................................................................................... and the day you sell it.
The Bucking Bronco
13 March 2016
When we used to hold a fete on Ford Park fields one of the attractions was a bucking bronco that heaved and spun in all directions. Most of the punters that were attracted to try and ride this fairground ride managed to stay in the saddle for about fifteen seconds before being hurled unceremoniously to the ground.
I was reminded of this the night before last when Picaroon and her indomitable crew of two were about to hit the sack. Actually I’d turned in at about 9pm, Jackie had stayed up later watching a film, and woke me at about eleven with the unwelcome news that she thought we were dragging our anchor. A large ostentatious catamaran, which had parked itself over our anchor had just up sticks and headed out into the night. Jackie reckoned that they had probably hooked our anchor chain when they left and dislodged it in the process.
We had been securely anchored in Cane Garden Bay, Tortola, BVI, for the last three days, an idyllic and picturesque bay on the northwest coast that had been a very peaceful and pleasant place to wend away a few days. That was until this particular weekend, when there was a music festival was due to take place on the beach. Cane Garden Bay is surrounded by lush hillsides that rise steeply, dotted with houses, villas, and small hotels, and a picture perfect beach speckled with bars and restaurants. When we first arrived it was a sleepy little bay but it becomes crowded with holiday makers on certain days when the mega cruise ships decant their hordes of sun-seekers in Road Town and bus them ‘on mass’ to Cane Garden Bay for a dip in the turquoise sea and a cheese burger in paradise.
Although Picaroon is at least 200 yards from the shore the sound man had been thoughtful enough to bring in a sound system that would allow us to “enjoy” the music without leaving the boat. Now if you’ve been keeping up with this blog you may remember a long while back a blog entitled, wittily I thought, “A spray for rap music” when we were witness to a similar music festival in Boqueron, in Puerto Rico. This music festival in Cane Garden Bay was a similar animal which had attracted the large Catamaran, I spoke of earlier, along with a number of high powered speed boats as well as the crowds on the beach. It didn’t really get going until about 9pm, which these days is just about our bed time. Now the fact that I’m almost deaf, I can switch off my hearing aid and sleep OK, Jackie was watching a film using ear phones she was also able to block most of it out. To us oldies brought up on melodies and sweet harmony this festival was just a lot of very loud noise.
Cane Garden Bay is a popular overnight stop for many of the charter sailboats that flit from island to island, beach bar to beach bar and has lots of mooring buoys that you can pick up for $30 a night. Of course being seasoned old salts, and almost broke we chose instead to drop the hook and save ourselves the cash. Being on a mooring gives you much more peace of mind, when you turn in for the night but usually after three days in the same spot we assumed that we’d found some good holding. That was unless some berk with a big cat dislodges your anchor at almost midnight, and the show offs in the large speed boats are careering about making huge wakes which exacerbates the situation
“COLIN” Jackie has to project much louder these days to stir me from my slumber, “COLIN, I THINK WE HAVE A PROBLEM”.
I stumble bleary eyed on deck with my hearing aid, which is my iphone 4 and a pair of earbuds, to be met by a distraught skipper and a cacophony of noise coming from the music festival, now in full swing. Picaroon is swaying and pitching as the backwash from the speed boats catch us broadsides and we’re definitely moving. The only sensible thing to do at this point is to try and re-anchor, although we hate to do this maneuver in the dark there’s no other choice as we’re surrounded by other sailboats that are too close for comfort.
Most are on moorings, but it’s too dark for us to find an unoccupied one so we go about hauling in the anchor with the hope that we can reset it away from any boats that we could bump into should we drag again and as we’re not insured against bumping into stuff we need to take these prudent precautions.
Raising the anchor on Picaroon is of course not exactly a piece of cake, as there’s an issue, I think they say these days’, with the hauling up arrangement of the ‘windy uppy’ thing that brings in the chain. It’s not exactly quite right and the chain always snatches and jumps back a foot or two before I have to manually heave the reluctant blob of cast iron, which weighs 50lbs at least, the last 20 feet to the deck. Couple this with the fact that its pitch black so impossible to signal to Jackie which way she should steer the boat as the chain is being brought in. It’s never just straight ahead and always snakes about a bit so I’m on the bow pointing our fading torch in the direction I want her to go. The torch feebly points the way, as we unfortunately forgot to keep it recharged just in case we have this kind of an emergency at night. Actually, we had depleted it’s battery that same day, ratching about in the black hole where our engine lies trying to discover why the engine kept constantly cutting out after about three or four minutes. Luckily we found a workaround fix for this late on that same afternoon otherwise this tale could have been one of truly disastrous proportions, but that’s another story, on with this one.
The backwash from the speed boats is not all that’s going on here though, there’s a swell that’s sweeping into the bay which comes in spurts. One minute it’s fairly calm, and then there’s a decided minute or two of rather less that comfortable humps and bumps that push Piccars this way and that, making us grab for something to stop us falling about. In one of the lulls we manage to move and reset the anchor, which after ten to fifteen minutes we agree seems to be holding. The swell now seems to have become quite constant and as prudent sailors we decide to stand two hour watches through the night just to be on the safe side. Jackie goes to bed.
As my watch wears on I’m surprised at how big this swell is becoming, and although I can’t see much when I peer into the inky black I can sense the rise and fall of Picaroon as she slaps her stern into the hollow of each trough, and watch her bow raise to face the heavens. As she swings about we’re often broadside on to the swell that sways her so much I’m surprised that Jackie hasn’t tumbled out of her berth. There’s another boat very close to us at times that I’m keeping a close eye on, and then at about an hour into my watch it starts to move away. At first I think they must be dragging, but then I hear an anchor being raised and realise they’ve decided to move closer to the far shore where the swell maybe a little less furious. Then another boat moves, we’re all suffering the same problems, but at least we’re still OK and seem to stay that way until I wake Jackie at about 3am for her next watch.
This has become the worst case of swell at anchor than we have ever had, it’s more than horrible, it’s huge, as if there’s been an earthquake somewhere and this is the Tsunami. About a couple of hours later I’m awoken from a dream I’m having about flooding and dingy races along the coast road near my home town, when a veritable waterfall cascades over my face and I’m suddenly awake to find it’s raining cats and dogs and the hatch above my bed is still open. The floor is a swimming pool and I can see Jackie on deck in her foulies. I hurriedly close the hatches, from below, finding Jackie’s bed soaking wet as well, and putting on my waterproofs join her in the cockpit. Picaroon is still pitching and rolling about like a bucking bronco. We’ve started to drag again, and are now much too close to the shore. It’s just after 5am and we start the engine to at least hold our position or try to move off shore a few hundred yards, dragging our unsecured anchor with us.
For the next hour and a half we continue in the same vane, rocking and rolling, pitching up and down, thrown about as if we were no more than a cork, counting the minutes until dawn. We had decided that as soon as we had enough light to see, we would pick up a mooring buoy to at least stop the fear of dragging, and give ourselves a break, and perhaps a cup of comforting tea.
It was without doubt the worst night we’ve ever spent at anchor, but we found a free mooring ball at about half past six, and although we were still being tossed about, at least we were safe. Jackie went below for a couple of hours’ sleep, whilst I kept an eye on the mooring line, and made more tea. Getting ashore later was a tad tricky as the swell continued throughout the day making a landing at the jetty a very touch and go affair, where timing your exit from the dingy was crucial.
We had a pizza for lunch and a beer in the Paradise Bar and checked the internet for the next few days’ weather, which looked awful. Today though, the wind was almost non-existent, although the swell was still with us, giving much joy to the throngs on the beaches, but not for us. Just five miles away lay a much more sheltered bay, called Sopers Hole, so we decided to leave there and then and motor for an hour and a half to take a mooring there.
Just as we were about to pay for lunch I looked across to where our dingy was moored on the jetty to find it had slipped its line and was being washed towards the rocky shore. I left Jackie to pay for lunch and raced to try and retrieve the dingy before it hit something hard and nasty. I managed to hail a young guy on a paddle board who kindly rescued the situation, and within an hour we were leaving Cane Garden Bay for Sopers Hole.
Sopers Hole, which is one of the safest places to be in bad weather was packed, and is too deep to anchor in. It’s packed with hundreds of boats on mooring balls. We wove between all these boats and found the very last one available.
So it’s not all plain sailing this cruising lark, in fact at times like these you just want to say OK, let me up, I’m a celebrity get me out of here. But you can’t, and that’s boating.
Grounded in the BVI
27 February 2016
The BVI is the mecca destination for sailors looking for some winter sunshine and easy day sails between numerous small islands, and so as this is high season most anchorages may become a tad crowded. The ariel photo of Trellis bay that we had seen in our Virgin island chart book looked (a) quite large and (b) quite quiet, so it came as an unpleasant surprise to find it was neither of the above.
We had set sail from Coral bay, on St Johns with no weather information as our phone had no signal there, but being old salts we just sort of sniffed the morning air and decided that it was going to be a fine day to make the short 12 mile trip to Trellis bay on Tortola. We raised the anchor about 9am and crept out of Coral bay at about two knots due to some heavy swell sweeping into the bay in exactly the opposite direction to Picaroon. For the first hour we slogged our way towards the open sea and turned east into the Caribbean sea with Tortola visible in the distance.
We were expecting a nice south easterly breeze on our forward quarter which would have given us a sporty sail towards Tortola, but for the best part of the morning it refused to move from an easterly or worse north easterly. We put out a bit of Jib and raised the mizzen but left the main sail flaked on it’s boom whilst Mr Engine, sir purred away below.
We finally managed to cut the engine for the last couple of hours and had a sporty sail around the cape of Beef island and headed to Trellis bay.
At about half past two we finally made the entrance to Trellis bay which looked much smaller than we had imagined and was crammed tight with so many boats that finding a spot to drop the hook was going to be a challenge to say the least. Just weaving our way between boats wasn’t easy, and as most of the boats seemed to be tethered to mooring buoys finding a suitable place to anchor was going to be very tricky. Anchored boats and moored boats swing on the wind very differently and unless we got just the right spot we were going to have to cough up $30 for a mooring and we weren’t about to do that.
Eventually we found a spot where the boats thinned out a bit and headed for that. There was a strip of very turquoise water just up ahead which means that it’s quite shallow. That’s when we came to a full stop because it was too shallow for Picaroon, we had run aground.
We now became the entertainment for the next hour. Within a few minutes another cruiser arrived in his dingy and suggested we put out our kedge anchor. This is a small anchor that lives on the aft end of Picaroon, that we’ve never used, and is supposed to be used to stop the boat swinging about. I unhooked it from its anchor tidy and lowered it to our rescuer. The idea is that he’ll drop it behind Picaroon, then with a rope attached to the chain I’ll try and winch us backwards.
By the time we’ve got this organized another couple of cruisers have arrived to join in the rescue efforts. They have other ideas, and as I heave on the winch handle and nothing happens we’re going to need another plan. One of them suggests we give them one of our main halyards from the main mast.
I remember this method of un-grounding from when we ran aground on Raymondos’ boat in Luperon when we were still learning how to sail. The idea is that the guy in the Rib takes the line from the top of the mast, motors away from the boat which will pull the mast over, tilting Picaroon just enough to free her. So we leave the heaving on the winch and find a suitable halyard.
By now there’s another couple of RIBs have arrived to join in the fun. One of them says he lives here and this happens often, and he’s got another plan, which he says always works, but first we need to haul in the kedge anchor, but it’s well and truly stuck. With the help of one of the rescue RIBs we eventually get it back on board with it’s rusty chain littering the cockpit.
The four rescue RIBs line up against Picaroons bow, like piglets suckling a sow, and in unison crank their outboards whilst Jackie puts Piccars into hard reverse. At last we start to move and within a couple of minutes of coordinated pushing and shoving we’re able to move under our own engine. There’s lots of clapping and congratulations, and we’ve suddenly made an instant bunch of new friends.
Next we look for a new position, away from the shallow bits, still hemmed in on all sides by moored boats. Plop! The anchor drops away in about 8ft of water, we need at least 7ft, so this will have to do. Anchoring is always a fraught and tense experience, but in so close a proximity as this it’s crucial to get it right. It’s a bit of a boisterous breeze and as we wait for the boat to settle we decide that we’re just a bit too close to other boats. We’re going to have to raise the anchor and find another place.
As the chain often jumps off the windlass when the anchor comes off the bottom I’ve found that it’s easier to haul the last 15ft by hand. Our anchor weighs about 60lbs but with a bit of effort it’s not that difficult. But today it seems much heavier. I peer over the bow to catch a glimpse of our anchor which has brought to the surface a stout old mooring line with it. SHIT! No amount of wiggling will shake it loose, and I can’t quite catch it with the boat hook. Enter rescue RIB number six, a cruising lady with a boat hook arrives, says this happens all the time here and manages to slip the offending line off the anchor and back to the deep.
“Let’s just swallow the cost of $30 shall we”, good idea, and anyway it’s my birthday and I need a drink. We head for the nearest buoy, scoop up the line and set it into the fairlead which immediately breaks away from the gunnel rail swinging perilously on the mooring line and about to drop into the sea. I manage to rescue it before it’s lost, and get the mooring line around the Samson post, but as I try to position the mooring line, now coming under tension as Picaroon swings to settle I find my hand is between the mooring line and the gunnel.
Oh great, just what I need for my 68th birthday a crushed hand. Luckily the line eases just enough for me to extract my hand unharmed.
All in all, an eventful birthday, not the one I would have chosen, but that’s boating, as they say, and if you haven’t run aground, then you haven’t been sailing, as Dick once said to us.
Time for a couple of very stiff G&Ts me thinks. Now that’s better, where are we? The BVI, oh well it’s not too bad then.