Thoughts from the mid-Atlantic
30 December 2011 | Bridgetown Barbados
About midway from Africa to the CaribbeanThis Atlantic passage is the last big ocean passage before I am officially a circumnavigator. After this the Caribbean Sea and a mere 1800 miles west of the Panama Canal when Mary Ann II, myself and Ruby (at least her ashes) will have crossed our previous longitude. Mary Ann has been as far east as Texas but alas made her first trip back to California, where she was built, by truck which doesn't really count. Time and miles fly when you're having fun. Julia has already got about 8,000 sea miles and Murphy isn't far behind that. He's now become very interested in taking regular strolls on deck to check for flying fish. He, like Ruby before him, now goes nuts when he hears the sounds of a big fish brought into the cockpit. He knows that very fresh shushumi is soon to be on the menu.
About 1000 miles from either the Caribbean or Africa, Julia and I were on deck chatting when we passed a pod of five sperm whales. These are the largest of all toothed whales, they all looked to be adults none less than 30 feet long, probably females. We could see their heads to their dorsal fin. These guys dive thousands of feet deep and eat the giant squids which live on the bottom -- you know like the one that Captain Nemo battled with in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Sperm whale is also the species that Melville wrote about in Moby Dick. We were less than 100 feet from the nearest. What a thrill. I couldn't think of a species that I would have rather seen on this passage, well maybe a mermaid. Of course just when we thought this was a sighting of a lifetime, well a few days later we sailed up next to a 45 foot bull Sperm Whale (females don't get that big) who was swimming south. He was about 40 feet from our midships when he clearly turns, raises his head to get a better look and then passes a boat length (32 feet) from our stern. Wow!
Yesterday was the midway across celebration. That came about 10 days after leaving but would have come about 6-7 days into the trip if we had not spent 4 days shadowing a boat with a disabled rudder. The occasion was celebrated with a can of beer each, our first alcohol on passage. We have a bottle of cava for Christmas, which will most likely come whilst at sea. We had anticipated a sixteen day passage which was reasonably accurate thus far if we had not detoured on a rescue mission. A well known marine writer, Lynn Pardey, once lamented her long ocean passage being half over but with our spate of variable winds and somewhat nasty cross-swell, I don't think she would have likely lamented this present North Atlantic westerly passage.
It is my impression that most people define the cruising life by ocean passages, coral reef and beautiful sunsets, etc. These are indeed some of the very special aspects of the boatie life. Another feature of cruising which is very different is the rather deep and enduring camaraderie with other cruisers. We would consider ourselves reasonably social, a couple who enjoy a night out or getting together with friends. We currently spend a vastly greater proportion of our time socializing than we ever did in York. You might say well, John, you are retired of course you do, but I suspect that most retired people aren't regularly making new friends and socializing three or four nights a week with them. No, it most probably is the intensity of the life style - sure its relaxing but there are the squalls, the adverse swell, the gauntlet of regulations and procedures for each country, the shared language in a land of tongues, etc. Virtually all of us did other things and have segued our hobby, passion, pastime into a lifestyle. None of us have all the skills that are required, really - navigator, radio operator, engine mechanic, carpenter, fiberglass technician, medic, fireman, electrician, cook, refrigeration technician, plumber, I wouldn't go on. Sharing skills and knowledge is a big part of the pleasure out here. It's not really like other ways to retire. Common passions, common headaches and constant flow of local knowledge between the early arrivers and late arrivers to an anchorage make for a sense of camaraderie which quickly cements social bonds.
A particular facilitator of that quick building of friendships is something called the net (not the internet). We have been participating in a radio net called the Magellan Net. Since the spring, it has been aimed at boats heading west from the eastern Med. When boats are on passage there is a check-in time each day and boats share their position, the weather, fishing report and general information. If a boat is in trouble then boats nearby can divert and assist. Even though I will possibly never meet half the boats on the net, when we do there is a sense of belonging. In a few more weeks when most boats have arrived in the Caribbean, the Magellan Net will have to reinvent itself for boats continuing west to the Pacific or wait for some later resurrection. But for now there are about 40 boats, that if we sail into an anchorage and see them, we would certainly dink over and say you must be so and so; we're John and Julia from Mary Ann II. Maybe these friendships aren't so enduring but they are intense, meaningful, fun and last until we are scattered to the wind.
This paragraph I am writing shortly after 0000 Greenwich time on the winter solstice. The festivities at Stonehenge are no doubt proceeding as a zany, wacky, hippie'ish, very non-British spectacle about now. Here on Mary Ann II our improbably large genniker (looks a little bit like a parachute in light blue and violet) is tugging us through some currently wimpy trade winds and the stars, oh gosh, the stars. With the GPS dimmed to night vision then the only other light is a very small LED from the compass, so your night vision is at its peak. In the burbs I used to go weeks and months without ever really using my scotopic visual system when fully dark adapted (it takes about twenty minutes). Oh, and talk about no light pollution, it's now been a week since we even saw another boat and that one we intentionally rendezvoused with. As is always the case (at least for tens of thousands of years) on the solstice at about 0000 GMT Taurus is straight over head. This is my birth / sun sign, now I am not into astrology but from an astronomy point of view, I may have the easiest sun sign there is to find. The most recognizable star constellation in the sky, Orion's belt, points right at it. Taurus is essentially a large V and this V right now is pointing straight at Barbados, our destination. Now that's what I'd call my own personal star to steer by! As for this being the first day of winter lets just say that we're sailing in a climate where sometimes your swimming costume (suit) makes you feel a bit over dressed. It would be miserably hot without the trade winds. Oh, by the way being winter in the northern hemisphere and being only 700 n miles from the equator we can see both the Southern Cross and the North Star in the same sky.
Our plan is to spend the non-hurricane season until June in the southern Antilles, known as the Windward Islands. We're starting at the most easterly, Barbados and then hope to work our way around the 250 mile stretch between Martinique and Trinidad. We're scheduled to be back in jolly old England in late June but till then we hope to see a lot of coral reef, tropical sunsets, umbrella drinks and green flash.
As a sort of p.s. to the mid-Atlantic theme: we arrived in Bridgetown Barbados on the afternoon of Christmas. At dawn that morning when we were approaching the island, we were greeted by a pod of dolphins from the "Hello Mon, Welcome to the Caribbean" committee. We got ourselves checked into immigration, customs and health. Murphy's a species non-gratis and is not impressed with their antiquated quarantine rules. We're hoping to do some land based tourism--see George Washington's house (yes, he did sleep here -- go figure); botanical gardens and maybe even a rum distillery. We're then off to the Grenadines. We'll post some shots on face book, sorry no whale shots - you just don't go rummaging around looking for your camera when a 40 plus ton whale comes by for a brief visit.
Wishing you all fair winds,
john, Julia and Murphy