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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Night into Day
02/16/2007, Provo

My Nike wrist watch began beeping at 01:15. This is not a civilized hour. Fortunately both Hideko and I had hit the sack at about 8PM the night before. We were amped up with plenty of adrenaline and had no problem waking up. It would be our first night sail without an instructor aboard and certainly the first out in the middle of no where on our own boat. As luck would have it the moon was new (for you land lubbers, that means there was no moon) and it was pitch black out.

We had prepared the night before for our O'Dark Thirty exit with several means to navigate clear of the two entrance reefs. First we had soundings along our track that would guide us out once in the exit channel, tide adjusted of course. The channel runs 10 feet inside the harbor and quickly goes to 30 as you exit. Any shallower and you are going into the anchorage or, less preferably, getting cozy with the reef. Sailing at night by the depth sounder is a tactic highlighted by Bruce Van Sant in his Passages South book and I really see its merits. It is hard to go aground if you're watching the depth, possible, but hard.

Second we had a magnetic heading that would take us all the way out into deep water from our anchor. I used this to line up some stars with our exit heading when the anchor came onto the bow. Neither the compass nor the stars do you any good if you don't start from the expected point. When we brought the anchor up we knew the boat would be pretty much where it was when we dropped it. Any wandering around the anchorage though and the bearing would be useless or even dangerous.

Thirdly we had our chart plotter, and we recorded our entrance track just for kicks. The plotter makes navigating a cake walk of course, unless it is wrong... A bad or slow GPS fix, mismatched datum and several other things that come to mind make me leery of using a plotter for close quarters maneuvers.

It was dark. Really dark. Hideko was taking care of some things below while I brought up the anchor. Then we crept out of the harbor using all three of our tools to ensure everything agreed. Did I mention that it was really dark? Hideko was up on the bow anyway and she could see around us a little. The masthead light made close things easier to see and far things invisible. Even with maximum dimming on the instruments I could not see a thing from the helm.

After a few nail biting minutes the depth, the stars and log, as well as the chart plotter said we were clear. We left the quietly lapping waters of Atwood harbor behind us as we headed out into the greater darkness. A chop had built up during the night and we began to get into a bumpy routine as we moved up to 9 knots under power. It is very strange to have a force, like a moderate chop, working on your boat without having any ability to see it whatsoever.

The radar didn't help much in the harbor but once we were out in the open water the coastline of Acklins came to life on the screen. We had never used our radar before and it was nice to know it worked. It is a Raymarine system and is rated at 24 nautical miles but I found it most effective at 16 nm or less.

We were running without any sails partly because we were nervous about having too many things to cope with on our first night sail, partly because it was too dark to try to get anything flying and largely because it was going to be on the nose as soon as we rounded Acklins and headed down to West Plan Cay. As we came around the tip of Acklins the wind and the chop really built up. The wind was blowing near southeast straight up the channel between Acklins and Plana.

It was a little after 2AM and we were well underway, perhaps making up some for our prior tardiness. We both were really enjoying the new and bizarre nature of sailing, motoring really, without seeing where you are going. For the first hour or two I was checking the instruments every 2.63 seconds. The ocean currents run up to a knot and bend around a lot between the islands. I was glad to have the Radar, Chart Plotter and GPS. The ability to cope with our changing course over ground was important given the substantial currents. Traveling in this kind of dark with just a compass and changing currents would be a very serious challenge.

We always plan our route on paper and then enter it into the ships computer, which then gets downloaded to the E120 chart plotter, giving us triple redundancy. We make passage log entries every half hour with a large set of data. Hideko and I find this far from a hassle. In fact it is a great way to stay up on your plan and keep busy while traveling large distances. We took most of our log ideas from John Rousmaniere's Boater Log. I particularly like his way of plotting the barometric pressure graphically.

As we made our way down toward Plana Cays we picked up a target moving our way on the radar. Shortly thereafter we began to make out a complicated cluster of lights on the horizon. A lot of lights usually means a fishing boat or a tug and barge. It was too far out to make out but we hailed the skipper just to make sure that we stayed clear. It was an ocean tug with a barge in tow. After a short chat with the skipper we agreed to stay on our perspective sides of the channel. He also alerted us to two other targets he had picked up. We never saw the other boats on our screen but we heard one of them on the radio. This is another vote for always having your VHF on 16 when underway, especially at night. You learn a lot about what's around you by just listening to the radio traffic.

Other than the image on the radar screen we never saw the Plana Cays. By dawn we were approaching Mayaguana and I could just make out the thin line of the low lying island across the sun rise. The island disappeared as the sun rose higher in the sky.

As soon as there was decent light we raised the main and pulled out the jib. We have a two part main halyard (thank God) with a block attached to the head board of the main. Unfortunately the block has a swivel base and it seems to want to twist the halyard lines up over night. Raising 60 some feet of fully roached and battened main sail is a chore. I can use the electric windless but it is tricky to tail and hard to watch the tailing on the windless and the main battens, etceteras, at the same time. Hideko always wants me to use the winch to get a work out anyway. As I got the main up near the top I noticed the halyard was twisted again. Ug. You can't raise the sail all the way with more than one or two twists in the halyard and I had a good five. So, lower the main all the way and straighten out the halyard or take it up to the first reef and call it a day. One reef it was.

I brought the jib in as flat as possible moving the block all the way back on the track and I flattened out the main with the traveler a little to windward. The sails gave us another half knot or so but we were very close to the wind. We didn't have time to tack so we just hunkered down at about 10 knots and continued on toward the Sand Bore waypoint at the entrance to the Caicos Banks. I dropped our Bahamas flag for the first time in over two months and raised the quarantine flag.

Hideko and I traded off at the helm as we used up the last bit of the morning. West Caicos came into view first and then Providenciales shortly there after. We had an ETA of 13:30 at the Sand Bore, surprisingly, right on time. It is about eight miles east over the banks to the Sapoldilla Bay anchorage so you want plenty of light to get in with. If the trades are blowing this could take a while. We had the luxury of a southwest wind and good light with only a few clouds in the sky. We dropped the sails at the way point and headed for the light green water.

Entering a new bank is always nerve wracking to me. The charts show rocks and shoals everywhere and the deep water is 12 feet. We were both a little tired so we had to really focus to keep on top of things. Hideko went up to the bow to spot and I motored us into the cut. It was a beautiful day but very hot and Hideko cooking on the bow. We motored in at 5 knots and after a half hour of seeing eight to ten feet on the sounder we got used to the skinny water and moved up to 7 knots.

The islands looked beautiful as we approached. Unfortunately the south side of Provo is not quite the same as the north side. It is pretty from afar with low rocky headlands and there's a large rock on the way into the main anchorage known as turtle rock but as you approach Sapodilla Bay, the only real anchorage on the south side of Provo, the luster begins to dim.

All of the other cruising boats were anchored on the north east side of the anchorage in the area of the beach. We drove around the anchorage checking the depth and noticed a sunken sail boat in the middle of the bay with a red bouy on it. There were some dodgy vessels in the anchorage. A couple looked like they were barely floating. There were also some very nice sailboats and a custom schooner that was particularly pretty.

The entire area seemed to have six or seven feet of water as long as you didn't get too close to the shore. We decided to anchor by ourselves over in the north west part of the anchorage due to the 20 some knot winds expected from that direction. We were hoping the small bluff would afford us a little lee. We also wanted plenty of swinging room because we just put down one anchor.

The government dock is just around the point and it has container barges going in and out and forklifts running all day. The beach at Sapodilla has houses all across it, making you feel a little like a trespasser when you go ashore. Once ashore I discovered that the locals had also decided to use the beach as a dumping ground. There was trash everywhere and stray dogs wandering about. I was sad to see the odd plastic wrapper or piece of wire here and there in the Bahamas, but compared to this the Bahamas is pristine. I would not go ashore without shoes here. Provo is supposedly the Nassau of the TCI so perhaps the rest of the island is nicer.

I hailed the Dockmaster on 16 per the cruising guide to await instruction on entry. It was 15:30 on Friday. No answer. I tried again three more times and by 5PM gave up. We were quarantined until Monday morning! Hanging out on the boat was not exactly our plan for the weekend but with the in climate weather predicted it would be a nice break. A dingy with three kids aboard came by to say hi and see if we wanted to buy some necklaces they made with twine and shells. They were very impressive and Hideko bought a nice one for $5.

It had been a long but fun day and our first at over 100 miles.

Turks and Caicos
Hideko and the Mahi Mahi
02/15/2007, Atwood Harbor

We left Flying Fish late (see a trend here?) and with a long day ahead. The problem is that I listen to weather on the SSB at 06:30 and it lasts for an hour. If we try to leave earlier, say 6AM, so that I can listen underway we have to leave in the dark. The sun is rising at about 6:30 these days. If we leave after the weather it is 8AM before we get going, and that's if everything is already ship shape. I know, excuses, excuses...

Our goal was to get to West Plana Cay for a short anchor so that we could get a nap and make Provo by 1PM the next day. Getting to the Sand Bore entrance to the Caicos Banks by 1PM was important because the bank is a 2 hour transit marked with language such as, "numerous shallow coral heads", on the charts. As we got under way I started to do some ETAs. Plana was looking like a pretty serious stretch. If we could get a bit of lift from the wind we would be able to average close to 11 knots and then it would work out. Otherwise, Plan B. We always have a plan B and often a plan C, D and E. You have to have ditch anchorages for various eventualities when cruising (weather not as forecast, lazy crew, etceteras).

We were clanging along, motor sailing, at marginally better than 9 knots and the wind was not doing much of the work. I love just sailing. It's nice to be able to motor fast and get there when you need to but there's nothing like shutting off the racket and just sailing. The racket continued and as the day drew on we began to consider Atwood harbor more seriously. Atwood is a great little harbor on the north east end of Acklins Island with perfect protection from everywhere but North and North West. We wanted coverage from the South to South East but in reality the wind was so light we could have hove to in the middle of the Atlantic and slept like logs. The problem with Atwood is that it left us with a 112 mile day on Friday, and that with an arrival target of 1PM.

As we were discussing whether to shoot for Plana or not, Hideko caught her first fish! While getting ready earlier that morning Hideko ran across a sport fisher skipper. As always she grilled the poor guy for fishing tips. He basically said, "put something in the water and the fish will bite it out here". Florida and the near Bahamas are hammered by fishermen year round. The fish there are gone or have evolved in such a way as to not bite lures much. In the far Bahamas there's no one much fishing. He said 9 knots was about perfect for trawling, we were doing 9 knots. The guy she cornered in Bimini said to use a steel leader so that the Barracuda and Wahoo don't take your lure, check. The guy she drilled in Great Harbor said to try areas between 60 and 100 feet, we were in just such a place off of the north coast of Acklins. We had 150 feet of line out to keep the lure well back of the clanking coming from the engine rooms. Everything came together.

We put the boat in neutral so as not to tear the hook out of the fish and Hideko reeled him in. When I saw it jump I knew it was a Mahi Mahi, one of our favorite fish. As Hideko got it near the boat it looked like a giant blue and green flash in the water with polarized sunglasses. I grabbed the gaff and after a couple 7 attempts finally got the fish on board. We popped him in the dinghy and got back underway. Atwood Harbor was the only sensible choice at this point.

What an amazing place. There's an outer reef that you can't see and an inner reef that breaks the surface around the opening into a perfect white sand crescent bay. We anchored smack in the middle of Atwood Harbor and had the entire place to ourselves. I took a snorkel to ensure the anchor was well set while Hideko got ready to cook dinner. Our Rocna was well buried in 10 feet of sand. When I got back aboard I cleaned Hideko's prize and threw the scraps overboard and watched a barracuda eat the big pieces while a nurse shark snarfed the little bits up off of the sand.

We watched the sunset in a flat calm with our wonderful fresh caught meal out in the cockpit. It was a magical night.

The Bahamas
02/21/2007 | Pablo Ramos
"...caught her fist fish!" Ummmm fist fish? I thought you said Mahi-Mahi?
02/24/2007 | Randy
Now that's embarrassing, you spell checking for me!
Clarence Town
02/14/2007, Long Island

We have finally left Emerald Bay! I realized that it was time to go when I started knowing the first names of all of the employees. It was a great stay at the nicest and cheapest ($0.75 a foot, even for cats!) marina we have yet been to.

We had planned to leave very early but as often happens, we didn't. We need to get better at leaving with the sun rise. Spending time with friends is one of the most important things to us. So when the opportunity presents itself we typically trade good conversation with interesting people for a bit of sleep. A Pizza party with Shazza got us into the sack a little late last night.

After checking up on the weather we scrambled to get the boat fully ready to go. The boat was tied up 6 ways to Sunday due to the 30 knot winds that had come through several days back. It was blowing a little bit but lots of folks came out to see us off and help out, so we had all of the dock hands we needed. It was an easy exit into the Exuma Sound.

We had a three day weather window to get to Providenciales (Provo) in the Turks and Caicos. A big front was predicted for Friday night to Saturday and full protection harbors are hard to come by in the far Bahamas. We broke the trip up into three 80 nautical mile legs: Exuma to Long Island, Long Island to West Plana Cay and West Plana Cay to Provo.

We motor sailed at 9 to 11 knots in fairly calm seas through the Exuma Sound. They call it the Exuma Sound but it is basically the Atlantic Ocean as far as sea state is concerned and it can get quite nasty, and even nastier than the prevailing seas in the funnels between islands. While the flat water was nice there just wasn't enough wind to sail without the engines if we were going to arrive by nightfall. We ran both diesels at 2,500 RPMs which kept the speed mostly over 10 knots.

Hideko put out the hand line and the trolling line but other than losing a lure to something with a good set of teeth we got no action. Next leg we decided to go with all stainless leaders rather than the mono filament we were using today. The Barracuda and Wahoo go right through the mono filament. The hand line doesn't seem to really work while motoring because we only have about 70 feet of line. The engines are too noisy for anything to bite unless you get the lure back close to a couple hundred feet, or so it seems. We have also been advised to fish right around the 60 to 100 foot zone. We were in a few thousand feet most of the day.

We arrived in Clarence Town about an hour before dusk kinda tired. Rather than anchor in the harbor, get down the dinghy, put on the outboard, go ashore, put away the outboard, put the dinghy away, etceteras, we just made for the marina. The Flying Fish Marina can only handle about 12 boats but it is quaint and better equipped than some places we'd been. They don't allow you to run your generator (which I found out while I ran our generator trying to get email over the SSB) and so the place is really quiet at night.

Clarence Town is a sleepy town on a sleepy island. It is amazing how distant you feel from civilization just one island down from Georgetown. There are only a handful of cruising boats south of Georgetown and they are all serious cruisers bound for the Caribbean and points beyond. We had a nice valentine's dinner there at the marina restaurant.

Roquefort had a nice walk and then joined us for dinner. The marina owners have a couple of dogs that wander around the area and one of them is a little scrappy. Their fine with people and the golden mix is great with other dogs, but keep you pooch away from the brown Sheppard mix, she's got a bad attitude.

We chatted with a guy on a nice Ketch named something I can't pronounce. We told him that we were thinking of going to Little Harbor, a beautiful but deserted harbor a ways south on Long Island instead of Clarence Town. He then told us that he and a friend were on their way there three days before. His friend in a newly setup Beneteau 473 turned into what they thought was the cut and ran hard aground. The swell quickly pushed them up onto the reef. After futile efforts to get the boat off over the next day a front came and destroyed the boat. Scary stuff. If you're headed for Little Harbor on Long Island in the Bahamas, make sure you go in the third (southern most) cut, which is the only navigable cut into the harbor. Probably would pay to make a complete pass of the place prior to making a go of it. The sailor we talked to reported that the Explorer chart waypoint was off. Another good argument for visual navigation when the depth gauge isn't reading no bottom.

We talked to another fun couple on Fram, a Valiant 42, during dinner. They had been sailing the south Caribbean over the last few years and were just bringing their boat back up to Florida. They were a wealth of knowledge and had been all of the places we want to go this season. Their top recommendations were the anchorage between the twin peaks on Saint Lucia, Bequia and Saint Martin. All three are on our itinerary.

The Bahamas
The only Pizza Place on Great Exuma
02/13/2007, North Great Exuma

There are two kinds of restaurants in most of the Bahamas (outside of Nassau). The first kind is the typical Marina/Beach Bar and Grill. Some local fish with burgers and sandwiches. The second is the typical family run outfit with fish, lobster, conch and other Bahamian style fair.

A family out of Nassau has moved to Exuma with the goal of bringing some cosmopolitan influence to the South East Bahamas. They have staked their claim in the shopping center just outside of Emerald Bay with a Pizza/Ice Cream shop.

I love local food, and burgers, but a nice pizza pie and some mint chip ice cream is never bad. We joined the Shazza crew for a night out and had a great time. The family running the shop will rent cars for a good price and deliver pizza to the marina as well. Nice to see the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well in the Exumas!

The Bahamas
02/12/2007, Emerald Bay

So we didn't leave.

It would have been an ok day to go but the front that came over night brought some rain that didn't wrap up until the morning. Hideko and I went to get some breakfast and then, well we just didn't want to leave. Did I mention how nice it was here at Emerald Bay?

We were also looking forward to getting to know the Shazza crew better. We played bridge with Bob and Sharon on Volley Ball beach a few weeks ago. Bob was the guy who gave the tour of the Stromatalites (rare bacteria that have recently been discovered in the Bahamas that formed some of the more ancient reefs of the world). Shazza is a Hylas 46. These are beautiful boats and one of the mono hulls that we considered before we switch to the multi hull dark side. We joined Bob and Sharon for a sun downer on Shazza and had a great evening.

The Bahamas
Leaving Emerald Bay
02/11/2007, Emerald Bay

We have had a great stay at Emerald Bay. It has been pretty deserted with no more than 10 occupied boats (many folks leave boats here to travel home). We are often outnumbered by the staff when we visit the pool or one of the restaurants. It is time to move on however and tomorrow we head south.

The Bahamas
Wind Generators
02/10/2007, Emerald Bay

If you are in a beautifully quiet anchorage and you see one of these (see photo) pull in next to you, move. No "these" is not the mono hull. No "these" is not a Canadian flaged vessel. "these" is the old AirX Wind generator. They are famously loud.

Wind generators are not all bad though, and to be fair the new Air X units have gotten quieter. Many wind generators are unpleasantly noisy however. One of the great things about sailing is the peace and quiet while under sail and while at anchor. A loud wind generator can really shatter the serenity. Wind generators can also be dangerous (consider a tall person standing up on the coming just underneath the blades in a strong breeze...). Many are failure prone because they provide poor control for over charging in high winds, some are susceptible to corrosion, some use brushes (which can generate radio interference) and other parts that wear out. Some don't get going until the wind is 15 knots and then they shut down as soon as it blows over 25.

After inquiring after many cruising wind generators in various anchorages I have come to believe that modern wind generators do not need to be noisy to produce great power. Amp Air and a few other brands actually pride themselves on their low decibel output. Getting high current, quiet and reliable power is not easy to do but there are some products offering a fair set of trade offs.

Our solar panels are great for generating clean quiet power. We have 7 x 75 Watt panels and we can run our fridge and freezer 24x7 without starting the motor indefinitely, as long as we don't get a lot of overcast weather. Our fridge and freezer run about 5 amps (rounding up) and have about a 50% duty cycle. So we typically burn 5 amp hours per hour, or about 80 per night. The 525 Watt solar array peaks at a little over 20 amps mid day and tapers off on both sides which easily makes up for the daytime load and overnight draw. Run a cloud or low flying plane overhead though and the current vanishes.

While the fridge is great, we like to use other electrical things as well and, contrary to popular belief, it is not always sunny down here (almost always though). When it is overcast it is often windy. When it is dark it is windy sometimes. When the sails are up and shading the panels it is definitely windy. A good wind generator seems like the perfect complement to a solar array for a lot of reasons.

Amp Air and Fourwinds II are well liked by their owners and have some of the more desirable features, including quiet operation. KISS wind generators also have a good reputation and they are in Trinidad. I think we'll stop in to discuss matters with them when we get down there.

The Bahamas

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