Bahamas to Caribbean via I-65, the brute force route
26 March 2016
Our Bahamas adventure was coming to a close. We had a great time as chronicled in the previous blog but it was time to head to the Caribbean. There is an exhaustively researched book titled, “Passages South.” The subtitle is, “Gentleman's Guide to the Thorny Path.” Sailing from the Bahamas to the Caribbean is no easy task. That's why many boats get to Georgetown, Exuma and spend the entire season there, never heading south. Uproar was ready to move on and so were we.
The Thorny Path is the route to the Virgin Islands with short and safe hops through the Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. This path is “thorny” because it is essentially moving upwind against the trade winds and accompanying rough seas. The Guide tells how to wait for a weather window to be sure each passage is in relatively benign weather. Land effects such as thermals, katabatic winds and cape effects can cause some of these legs to be quite treacherous. Waiting for a weather window on these legs can extend this trip to about a month. That's a month we didn't have or want to spend this way.
The other way to get to the Virgin Islands was I-65. Sail on starboard tack against the east winds NE until you get to 65 west latitude, then tack and head south to the VI. At 65 latitude the trade winds are so reliable it is an easy reach to the VI. We heard that some captains just sail to Bermuda then turn south! That's about 800 miles out of the way!
We asked Chris Parker, weather guru, for routing information to San Juan, PR. “That's a pretty ambitious sail” he said, “A less ambitious goal would be to sail for the Dominican Republic and use Turks and Caicos as a fall-back plan.” I mentioned that our boat went to weather well and he looked into his crystal ball. Rick Anderson had joined us in Mayaguana, Bahamas for the passage. Rick has a lot of experience offshore and is a great addition to our crew, especially for the tough stuff. Chris Parker suggested we leave a few days before Rick arrived as the conditions would be more mild but that wasn't an option.
Our last forecast before leaving was that the wind would be ESE, going SSE. After 3 days it would turn south and die. We could motor south until we were met by a strong east trade wind that would push us south to San Juan. CP said, “You will probably have to sail as far north as 24 degrees north. That would drive us 120 miles out of the way that we would have to recover back south. The south component in the forecast and the lull that would enable us to motor south made the trip seem feasible.
We left Mayaguana at 7:30 am, Saturday, March 19th. Two long tacks got us past the SE tip of Mayaguana and the east reef. There was a reassuring wreck at the far eastern edge of the reef. We called a fat layline to miss the reef by about ¼ mile. Uproar was clothed in the #3 jib we received from Ted Purtell's Olympian after he sold it for classic racing in the Med. The #3 is a smaller than normal sail but would be just perfect in the winds expected to be in the high teens. I told Rick, we were just like a big Tartan 10. It took until about 11:00 until we were clear of the reef, Mayaguana is a large island.
Our course settled down to about 80 degrees at just under 7 knots. A lawn tractor goes 5.5 knots. This was driving us mostly east with a little bit of north. Anything we had to sail north would take us further from our destination. We trimmed Uproar for the best beating and set the autopilot. We sure didn't want to hand steer. We knew we would be at this for at least 4 days. We sung the praises to Auto throughout the trip. Uproar was galloping along in seas that reminded us of Lake Michigan. There was no large ocean swell but certainly was wind driven chop. There was also a lot of heel, we were careful moving about the boat.
The routine set in of reading, sleeping, eating and sailing. We threw out the fishing lines and a few hours later heard the zing and snap of our line release. “Fish!” Rick slowed the boat down, Lisa rolled the jib up and brought in the other line. We saw the fish surface and it was the beautiful green and blue of a Mahi! Dinner! I played it hard until he was doing lazy circles at the surface. After losing three nice Mahis on the way to Mayaguana, I wasn't going to lose this one. I gaffed him successfully from the rear swim platform. He was filleted and in ziplock bags within minutes. We guessed he was about 12 pounds. We made three meals from those fillets. We then decided to stop fishing, it was pretty rolly and hanging out on the back of the boat was a risk.
It is hard to describe the routine that sets in while on a long passage. You find your rhythm with the motion of the boat and the sea. Watch schedule was Russ, 7pm to 10, Rick, 10 to 1AM, Lisa, 1AM to 4AM, Russ 4AM to 7AM. Day watches were left open, whoever was on deck had the boat and we were careful to give everyone rest. Cooking was a challenge. Uproar was heeling at 25 degrees and pitching in the waves too. Rick and Lisa were in the throws of bad colds so I was the cook. Rick even had a fever and was having trouble getting his sea legs. Working down below is the easiest way to get violently seasick. I think living on the boat gives me an immunity to this dreadful condition and cooking wasn't a problem.
We just kept sailing and clicking off the miles. The second night the wind dropped a bit and backed ESE. We were only able to sail about 5.5 knots at 65 degrees. That meant slower and more north. Not good! By morning the wind picked back up and started going SSE. Now Uproar had tipped back south, sailing 100 degrees at a steady 7+ knots. Our plot on the chart was a shallow arc, we were encouraged by this change.
Weather updates from CP confirmed what we were initially told. We watched our track go past the DR and toward PR. We were doing it. The forecast did change a bit, when the east trade winds hit us, they were going to be a bit stronger, up to 20 knots, higher in gusts and squalls.
The forth day, wind went lighter and more south. That's what we had been waiting for. We changed to our racing, #1 genoa for more speed in the light winds. We were tipping south to a heading of about 130 degrees. We had started going south of our initial position at Mayaguana which is slightly below the Tropic of Cancer, we were in the tropics! By afternoon we were motoring and changed to the #3 jib for anticipated stronger east winds.
The big surprise was that we had overshot San Juan and were now at 65 west longitude, straight north of the Virgin Islands. Well, let's just sail to the VI then. Uproar had made all of her difficult easting and then some. At dusk the trade winds from the east started to blow. We tacked and headed straight south.
I called in to CP for a final weather update at 6:00pm. Chris said the last squall in our area was probably past us off our port bow. I confirmed that it had and we were looking at the rainbow. He is the best! Chris also gave us a stronger east wind forecast and seas that would build. No problem, we were no longer beating into the seas, we were reaching. Uproar really got her legs and we were doing a steady 8+ knots. We were exhilarated! We did have 189 miles to go but were ticking them off quickly.
“Land ho!” About 25 miles out we saw the hazy mountains of Tortola and Jost Van Dyke. What a majestic sight. The Bahamas are flat, low islands with just a few hills. The Caribbean is made up of volcanic islands, just the opposite of the Bahamas. Then Uproar started to do a Crazy Ivan. She headed downwind, jibed and continued to circle. I grabbed the wheel, disengaged the autopilot but the wheel didn't budge. Rick ran down and tripped off the breaker for the autopilot. The wheel was still locked. Lisa grabbed a pair of pliers, I opened the steerage hatch and yanked the pin out of the autopilot ram. I lifted it off the pin and the steering was free again. We made three lazy circles before we got steering back. Auto had packed up after 20 years and 5 days of hard use. At least we could hand steer and we did, enjoying the last few hours of the journey. At the Annapolis sailboat show, Lisa and I had purchased a brand new autohelm, still in the box anticipating the failure of the old one. How lucky we were to have it wait until the end to die. I can't tell you how exhausting it would have been to hand steer the entire way. I will repair the old ram and keep it as a spare.
The beauty of this place is breathtaking. We were proud of our boat, crew and accomplishment. Uproar threaded her way around some small islands and entered Cruz Bay, St. John. The final insult was nudging the bottom just before we got to the customs dock. We easily backed off and went to a commercial dock. I arrived at customs with the ships papers 10 minutes late to check in. No worries, we went around the corner to Caneel Bay and took a national park mooring ball. We would celebrate with a nice dinner of the remaining Mahi filets and marveled at the scenery. The log showed that we had traveled 739 miles and averaged just under 7 knots for 5 days and 4 nights! We sailed only about 60 miles north of east with our ability to point well to weather.
After a lazy morning we cleared customs and fended off the culture shock of a busy, tourist town. Uproar was in US territory after four months in foreign waters.
Sorry about the exhaustive blow-by-blow. Here are some general impressions of the trip. Sophie did great. We didn't give her any sedatives and she adapted well to the life at sea. She had a difficult time walking around on the heeling cabin sole. We carried her around a lot and she always wanted to be next to someone. No problem. She did her potty work regularly on the cockpit grating or her astroturf mat below. She ate and drank regularly.
Uproar is the amazing boat we knew she was. Not many boats can sail that close to the wind and that fast with relative comfort. I say relative because it is called “beating” for a reason. When we were galloping over the waves, it was delightful. There were times when the chop was more like Lake Michigan chop and we pounded into them. This was only a few occasions but lasted for hours. It sucks! It feels like it will crack the hull but of course this boat is meant to take it.
Most importantly is the crew. We all had experience for this passage and had very few difficulties. I felt so sorry for Lisa and Rick who didn't feel well at the start. Both looked and felt better at the end. Rick narrowly avoided a burial at sea and Lisa still has a nasty cough. Having Rick join us was probably made the go/no go decision. Rick is an experienced, steady hand and a fun addition to the crew.
We had fun. We sailed far and fast. We saw dolphins, beautiful sunsets, and reveled in our brisk sailing. Uproar and her crew remain the cruising boat with a racing problem.